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Project Idea: Research the Canadian Cabinet (SS9, Alberta POS)

Project Idea: Research the cabinet ministers of Canada
This project is meant as an introduction to Chapter 1 of the Grade 9 POS in Alberta and addresses multiple learning outcomes. AND it’s student-directed and fun to look at.

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I taught Social Studies for the first time last year, and I have to say, it was no piece of cake.

For starters, having no previous experience in any core subject except ELA before I came to this school, it never fully hit me just how content-heavy/content-driven the other three core subjects are. If I wasn’t convinced that curricula are broken before, teaching Social 7 and 8 and Science 7 last year made me a believer.

Now, I’m in my second year of teaching Social Studies (I currently teach two sections of Social 7, one section of Social 8, and one section of Social 9 — whew!) and while the sheer amount of material in the textbooks continues to make me nervous, I’m trying to remember that streamlining is possible and necessary if you teach in the style I do.

The fact is that collaborative, student-directed learning is always going to be more time-consuming than if I were to stand at the front of the classroom and blather on endlessly about history/government/politics. However, the bang you get the for the time you invest in letting your kids discover stuff on their own is practically immeasurable. When I looked at my kids’ Renaissance Facebook projects last year, wherein they made big posters representing a Facebook timeline of Galileo Galilei, Martin Luther, or Christine de Pizan, the last thing that came to mind was, “It would have been a more efficient use of my time just to have them take notes and write a test.”

(By the way, if you, like me, enjoy collaborative, student-directed learning and you live in the Edmonton area, you should come to EdCamp Edmonton on November 2! Want to know more about EdCamp? Go read about it in one of my previous posts. Or check out the Twitter account. Or keep up with the event via Facebook! Online registration is here!)

The fact is, student-directed learning can be messy, and yes, kids can take advantage of the time you give them, but in the end, they work together, they research, they discuss, they ask questions, we conference, they try stuff out and ask more questions.. and that’s a heck of a lot more interesting to both them and me than note-taking and test-writing.

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Sometimes you get a bit of cheek in your students’ work. 🙂

I came up with this project as an intro to discussing Canadian governmental systems, but the fact is that this project could be adapted easily for other topics. In Canada, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet comprises several men and women who have been appointed to specific leadership roles and who then oversee corresponding “portfolios”; some cabinet ministers are assigned to one portfolio while others handle two or three. In Alberta, the grade 9 curriculum opens with information about the three branches of our federal government, describes how bills become laws, and explains in accessible terms how the media and lobbyists play a role in the way our country runs. As we discussed the Executive Branch of Canada, I thought it might be interesting to have the kids investigate our current cabinet, especially following the changes Harper made to our cabinet in July.

What followed was simple: each kid gets a portfolio folder (you know, the card stock-type ones that are in abundance in any school photocopy/supplies room) with a cabinet minister’s name and assigned portfolios on it. Kids may trade portfolios with someone else if both parties are agreeable. My requirements were that the front flap be decorated with coloured, hand-drawn images representing the portfolio contents, the top inside flap had to include an image of the cabinet minister and the logo of his/her political party as well as a brief biography (personal and professional background included), and the bottom inside flap had to feature a brief description of the roles and responsibilities associated with the cabinet minister’s portfolio(s).

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The assignment page above is downloadable here for your edits and reuse! The preview in Google Drive looks wonky, but opened in MS Word, it should be fine.

Ideally, the kids write in their own words, though sometimes of course, that’s a challenge. We have a lot of ELLs in my school, so this assignment was definitely tricky for them here and there. The beauty of it all, though, is that because it’s student-directed, there’s time for me to float around and help those who require a bit of extra assistance. I also assigned portfolios to certain kids, depending on their skill sets. As I said earlier, they could then trade with each other if they wanted, but that was a judgment call they would have to make. For the record, no one in my class swapped portfolios. Kids who are strong readers were assigned cabinet minister portfolios that were more complex or that required extra reading/research. Kids who are a little more basic and who don’t understand concepts like foreign affairs were given the finance or transportation portfolios so that they had something more concrete to go on.

You’ll notice that the due date box is blank in the assignment sheet above. I discussed with my kids the parameters of the assignment and the kind of work they would be doing; together, we agreed on a reasonable time frame in which this could be accomplished—three classes, plus a few days’ grace. Three classes’ worth of research/work time is about 2.5 hours at my school, and coupled with the extra four days of at-home work time, most of the kids had their projects done and ready to go. I thought this was the perfect amount of time, and it worked out really well that the kids agreed.

Don’t discount the amount of time it will take your kids to find pertinent information and figure out what it all means — most governmental publications are not in the most accessible terms for young teens. Many of my kids utilized dictionaries and thesauri during this project, which again, is such a great problem-solving skill for them to practise. Finding images, doing the drawings, and of course, writing down their research in their own words will also take time. Let them work!

Two of my strong little bunnies produced some great stuff in their portfolios. You can see the outside of their portfolios in the top photo and the work inside in the bottom photo:

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Another perk of this project is the part when all the kids realize that every single cabinet minister belongs to the Conservative Party of Canada, falling in line with the principles of cabinet solidarity. It brings up amazing conversations about policy-making and conflicts.

Once all the folders are up on your wall or bulletin board, you’ll find it useful to keep each one closed with a small paperclip along the side. If you’re really ambitious, you could buy those little self-adhesive velcro circles and have each kid put one inside their folder, but I think the clips are just fine. Then the kids have a great time opening each portfolio to see what’s inside. I’m planning a post on making classroom bulletin boards more interactive, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

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In the meantime, how great do those folders look? (Note: As much as I wish my class only comprised twenty students, the folders that are on display are only indicative of the kids who handed in their projects. Another year, another endless chase for missing assignments, right?)

The last, inevitable piece: the grading. Essentially, I grade each flap on 10, making the project a total of 30 points. You can really style your rubric any way you like, but I was looking for detail and thought, students’ own words, organization/presentation of content, and of course fulfilling the main requirements of the assignment. I marked this project pretty easily because it was the first of the year and because this project is meant to be as much of a curricular bullseye as it is a way of whetting some of the skills and processes that I ask them to cultivate throughout the year (conducting and evaluating research for a specific purpose, synthesizing what they read, exercising visual and media literacy, and of course… following basic instructions).

Best wishes with this project, and have fun!

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Procrastination be damned. Also, Penny Kittle!

Whoops. Left the blog behind for a while, didn’t I?

One of Penny’s books. Want!

Penny Kittle came into town on a cold February day and I anticipate that it will be one of the most memorable PDs I will ever attend, mostly because of all the crying experienced by its attendees! Between reading heartrending texts and doing some of our own intimate, personal writing, there certainly were many tears shed. I think I cried a minimum of five separate times. You know you’re at a good PD when…!

Penny is a teacher and author who specializes in literacy development and English Language Arts. I first heard about her from my friend, Erin, and heard of her again from Kelly Gallagher, who is basically one of my educational heroes (and whose PDs also always make me cry). I looked so forward to spending a day inside Penny Kittle’s brain and was even more jazzed when I got there because I found myself sitting at a table of incredible educators and friends.

To be honest, I think the document of notes (completely disorganized notes, alas!) I took speaks much more to the awesomeness of the PD session than anything I might cobble together now, but these are four things that really stuck with me from Penny’s day with us.

1) The act of giving a kid a book can make them want to read it. I did this with one of my grade eight girls last year. I handed her The Book of Negroes, which some might feel is too advanced for a kid like her, but she fell in love with it.

2) The use of the classroom writing notebook as a catch-all scrapbook/journal/idea explosion. Penny’s got some amazing, creative ideas for quickwrites and activities.

3) Escalating texts. Using multiple texts surrounding the same topic/issue and reading them in sequence, increasing with “intensity” so that kids form first impressions and dive deeper. Seriously, when Penny did this with us in the session using three texts revolving around 9/11, there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire room. (Insert tangent: I don’t even know how she managed to read one of those texts aloud to us without crying herself. I don’t think I could do it. I know there’s got to be more teachers who end up teaching through their tears besides me, right? Right? Up! as a film study, anyone? That montage gets me every. single. time.)

4) Writing conferences. Penny’s got some great leading phrases and approaches in writers’ conferences that don’t have anything to do with grammar/spelling. She really latches on to the idea of teaching kids to write, as in creating ideas and shaping worlds and painting characters. She gets them to expand their ideas rather than quibbling over homophones when she meets with them. It is expected that they go back and check their conventions later, so the writing conference is spent more productively. After all, a flat story with insipid characters is not improved by perfect grammar. In the same way, a truly riveting tale with engaging and charismatic characters nonetheless draws readership even with the odd spelling error.

In case you missed the link a few paragraphs ago, I’ll redundantly stick it in here again. Sorry again about the here-and-there formatting of the doc, but I couldn’t bear to sit on it anymore! What’s nice is that where possible, I tried to include links to texts and resources Penny mentioned throughout the day, so hopefully they can lead you to peruse even more avenues of thought regarding your classes. Please enjoy and share alike!

Other great Penny stuff:
Penny’s online PDF notes that accompany her book, Write Beside Them are available here.
Her site, chock full of resources and things to think about.

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EdCamp: a PD oasis in a desert of duds

BAM, consonance on D and S!

More importantly, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the strange creature that is professional development. I distinctly remember being a student teacher and looking so forward to my first PD experience. I thought, “Oh WOW am I ever ready to be professionally developed! This is going to be so great and.. developing! And.. professional!”

Fast forward a handful of years and that naïve enthusiasm has pretty much vanished like a bag of potato chips during PMS week.

PD is perhaps one of the biggest enigmas in my field of work. It’s called professional development and yet, when you go, you often leave feeling irritable and tired. You feel kind of like you’ve wasted your time. Like the stuff the people were presenting about was exactly the same stuff you heard about last year. And the year before that. Catch words/phrases like “21st-Century Learning,” and “differentiation,” and “inquiry” sort of get tossed about like the daily weather report. Everyone’s already heard about it but we’re going to talk about it anyway. Turn around, see someone you haven’t mentioned it to yet. Discuss ad nauseum. Feel developed yet?

Don’t get me wrong. Much of PD is like this but once in a while, you go to a session that restores your faith in good PD. I HAVE had worthwhile, enlightening, brilliant PD sessions. I would be remiss to write any kind of post about PD without mentioning Kelly Gallagher at least once. You might have already read my post about my first-ever (and so far, only) Twitter #engchat experience, but I joined in that day solely because he was facilitating the discussion(s). His books are on my wishlists and his website is a gem of a resource. If you teach English Language Arts/literacy, you definitely want to peruse that site. Other than Kelly’s PDs, I’ve attended some other great sessions on adolescent writers, film studies, teen cognitive development, differentiation, and assessment.

That said, I’ve definitely found myself in more bad PD than good, and have occasionally been embarrassed by my own “Oops I fell asleep” head bob. I use the desert analogy in my post title not simply for the alliterative delightfulness, but also because when we think about deserts, we think about… well, I think about camels. But generally, we think about thirst. And I thirst for good PD. I thirst for PD that is meaningful, worthwhile, relevant. PD that is real. PD that does what I think PD is supposed to do.

What I think PD is supposed to do is present something new. We keep saying, “Oh, let’s talk about differentiation in a new, exciting way!” but then we default to “What is differentiation?” and “What are learning styles?” and the same stuff we did last year. I’m not interested in talking about theoretical stuff anymore. I want something concrete. I want teaching ideas. I want cues. I want what Kelly Gallagher calls “ways in.” I want fresh perspectives that are coming directly from the front lines — from educators who, like me, face the joys/fears/excitement/self-loathing that comes with being in the classroom every day with young people, hoping to make a difference.

And there is a lot of PD that is led by people who are no longer actively working in a school setting. I don’t know how to feel about those sessions. And what I’m about to say may be more ignorant than anything else… But the truth is that when push comes to shove, and I’m faced with a choice of “Hear from someone who is teaching/working in schools TODAY” and “Hear from someone who has worked in a downtown office for five years,” I’m going to pick the former. Not because I think the second person has nothing to offer, but because I think teaching is one of those professions that evolves on a daily basis (and that strangely/paradoxically/maddeningly/[insertadverbhere] also never changes.. hmm).

I also think it’s somewhere between hysterically funny and horribly tragic that we’ll actually go to PDs on inquiry- or discovery-based learning and have a person LECTURE us for two hours straight. What? Did I miss something?

I’m lucky to have made friends and worked with some pretty fantastic professionals in my first real teaching job. The ladies in my department were (and still are) just utterly fabulous human beings, and I really learned to be more vocal about my work and to share my ideas because of my friendships with them. One day, one of my English Department colleagues, Erin, started talking about something called EdCamp. It’s supposed to be an “unconference” and is essentially PD that is organized and facilitated and attended by teachers. EdCamp is for people who want to talk about what they want to talk about. There are some driving concepts behind EdCamp: 1) EdCamp is generally free or low-cost. 2) EdCamp topics are decided THAT day by the people in attendance so that they can discuss what matters to them. 3) EdCamp strives to provide opportunities for people to ditch the theoretical nonsense and get to the practical application of teaching principles/ideologies in their classrooms. 4) EdCamp is collaborative and it is centered around professional sharing. 5) EdCamp is awesome.

Erin and some others assembled an EdCamp Edmonton organization team and put on the first EdCamp Edmonton last November. It was everything I hoped it would be. My best friend (French Immersion, 1ère année) even came with me to soak everything up. I invited my friend Megan to join in, too. Megan, by the by, has the greatest teacher Tumblr ever, and is a forward-thinking, ingenious, incredibly-well-dressed woman who I admired even when we were Ed students together. I continue to be fascinated by her ideas and vision and frankness about everything she does.

We were joined by a bunch of other wonderful, inspiring people, who helped to make EdCamp 1.0 a success (Click that link to check out our Google Doc from the day!), so I was looking forward to this year’s EdCamp with great zeal. And rightfully so.

Some highlights of this year’s EdCamp for me included meeting new people and finding inspiring Tweeps to follow, as well as seeing some familiar faces from last year. I was also super stoked to contribute to a wickedly amazing Google Doc that became yet another invaluable piece of PD documentation. I loved eating a predictably delicious lunch made with love by Erin’s parents. I felt enriched and challenged and hopeful while talking about Project/Problem-Based Learning, Poetry, Reading Comprehension and all things ELA, awesome websites for educational use, and current events in the classroom. We did a particularly fun activity towards the end of lunch hour that was named, “Things that Suck,” wherein some contentious educational topics were presented and we physically moved to place ourselves on a continuum of “for” or “against” and debate back and forth. We debated grades, technology, homework, and… something else. It was so. much. fun.

And throughout all of this, perhaps the one thing that was the BEST part of EdCamp was this: I felt, as I did at the last EdCamp, that I’m not alone in the way I feel about my job. Here you had a passionate group of educators who got together on a Saturday to discuss their craft, to bemoan the obstacles and policies that hinder us from doing what we’d like to do, and to celebrate the things we have been able to do. We were a group of people who see that rigorous, standardized testing is killing our kids (and us); who see that assessment practices need to change; and who realize that in the most paradoxical way, the best way we can teach is by stepping aside (sometimes) and giving our students the space they need so they can actually learn. I can’t tell you how amazing that felt. It makes me laugh to think that schools spend hundreds of dollars per teacher annually to send us to PD and yet, some of the most meaningful PD I’ll get all year was for free.

EdCamp came at just the right time, especially while I’m nearing the first report card and really coming to terms with this whole new world of teaching challenges and with the room for growth in my professional practice. EdCamp and the fantastic, beautiful people who attended it reminded me to keep trying to do things differently, not to let myself be jaded, and to keep pushing myself to do what’s best for my students rather than what’s easiest for me.

Hope I’ll see you at the next one.

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