Interpreting the OCT Professional Advisory on Social Media

It is clear that social media will continue to have a profound impact on our society, and the lives of our students.  More and more, teachers are turning to social media to foster learning opportunities both in the class and beyond the walls of the classroom.

Recently, the Ontario College of Teachers released their Professional Advisory for the Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media.   If you have not read it already, you can find it on the web here.

In the advisory, the College address the importance of maintaining a professional relationship with students in all forms of electronic communication.  It also provides a list of guidelines that all teachers are expected to follow.  At first glace, it would seem that the OCT is prohibiting the use of social media because of the tone of the document, however this is not the case.  In fact, the OCT is a stong proponent of the appropriate use of social media in the classroom.   The OCT produced a video as a companion to the professional advisory.  It is about 6 minutes and well worth watching.

I was pleased when the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario released their own response to the OCT professional advisory.  ECOO exists to share and disseminate information and to advocate and promote the effective use of computers and associated technologies in the education process.  Their press release is also worth reading.

As a final word, I would encourage all teachers to think about the possible benefits of leveraging more social media in your classes.  There is no question in my mind that it has had a tremendous impact on my classroom.  More than anything, we need to be discussing the pros and cons of social media, and finding ways to maximize the benefits and minimize (or eliminate the risks).  After all, we need to meet our students where they are!

Finally, We Can Access YouTube

For years now it has felt that my school board has been filtering more and more of the internet for students.  It seemed that any site that even had the word “game,” “social,” or “share” was automatically blocked by the board firewall.  As a teacher who likes to experiment with technology and Web 2.0 tools, this has been increasingly frustrating.  There have been many times where I discover a really amazing service from home and develop a lesson around it, only to find that the service has already been blocked at school.

For the longest time, YouTube has been blocked by the firewall.  As a Science teacher, YouTube is an absolutely amazing resource.  There are so many great videos that are useful for demonstrating the applications of science and making the curriculum content more engaging.  A few of my favourite “content related” videos are:

Waves and Sound – Backin’ Up (from schmoyoho, using AutoTune)

Relative Motion – Here It Goes Again (from Ok Go)

Collisions – Exercise Ball Mayhem (from Bensoin)

I have often been told that the school board cannot grant open access to YouTube because of the potentially offensive material that is posted there.  I never really understood this reasoning because students have full access to this content from home and the internet is filled with offensive content that is not filtered from school.  Besides, teachers should be properly supervising students when in a computer lab so that they are not able to view and share offensive video content.

I have also heard that the school board does not have sufficient internet infrastructure to allow all students access to streaming video sites, which I think is a fair reason (although it reveals a different issue for the longterm vision for technology access in schools.)

Last year, the school board started providing teachers with an override code to the filter.  It wasn’t a full solution, but it gave us some additional access to sites like YouTube.  However, in the last 2 weeks there has been what I would regard as a major shift – Students and teachers have been granted full access to both YouTube and Twitter!

What impresses me about this recent development is that after many years of tighter and tighter constraints on internet access, I believe that my school board is starting to realize the untapped potential of bringing Web 2.0 into the classroom.  It signals a changing mindset among “the higher ups” that instructional technology is not only an asset in 21st century learning, but a necessity for creating engaging learning environments for our students.  I hope this trend continues.

Personally, I struggle with filtering the internet in secondary schools.  I think there are some things that we can all agree have no obvious use in an academic school setting, like pornography.  But, I really don’t think that gaming sites, and social networking sites are that big of a problem.  If anything, the issue is one of adequate supervision.

What are your thoughts?  Should we be filtering the internet in schools?

Image Credit:  VancityAllie

A Photo Each Day

I was thinking today about how popular it is for people to be doing various “365 projects,” like taking a photo each day for a year and sharing them. I think there is tremendous benefit in capturing a photo each day for two main reasons: 1. It creates a tangible history of your life and it’s fun to look back on the little and big moments; 2. I think it might change how you go through your day because you are aware that the photo will one day be a reminder of who you were/where you were/what you were feeling.

It occurred to me that it would be great for students to participate in a “365 project” for my class (although it would only be 80-100 days for a semester-long course.) A lot happens in my class each day. Wouldn’t it be great if you had one or two students whose job it was to capture the essence of each day?   They would have to make decisions about what to take a photo of: If the students did a lab, they might take a picture of the lab apparatus; if the teacher talked the entire period, they might take a picture of the board note; if students were doing presentations, or there was an in class debate, or a video was shown, or the class went to an assembly, or there was a supply teacher, or researching in the computer lab – whatever it was, it would be captured!

The way I see it, the point of this exercise would not be as a “lesson recap,” rather it would be to inspire students to be more aware of their lives and the events that happen to them (especially events that encourage learning, personal growth and excitement).  Moreover, I would want students to feel they had the creative control over what the image would be given what class was like for them.  If they had a great class, not because of the lesson, but because a really great joke was shared between friends, then I would want to see the picture attempt to capture that.

I also think that the photo-per-day project would be a good way for teachers to reflect on their classroom teaching.  Looking back over a semester of photos that have been captured by students would be a very good way of getting a sense of what students experience in your classroom.  If almost every picture is a photo of the blackboard … I think that says a lot more than a thousand words about your teaching style!

I know that we are already a month into the new semester, but I think that I am going to try this idea out with my students.  For each of my courses, I already have a Ning social network where students blog and share videos/pictures regularly.  One of the great features of Ning is the ability to upload blogs/images/videos directly from a mobile smartphone by emailing the file to the social network.  This feature will make it really easy for my students to start a photo-per-day project and share their images with the rest of the class.

I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of this!

All images are from my cousin Kim, who did a 365 Project last year.  I think that she’s a fabulous photographer!  Check out her 365 here.

Video Supply Lessons

A few years ago, I came across this blog from Mr. Robbo called “How I Teach When I’m Away From Class,” and I thought it was a brilliant idea.  Basically, rather than leaving long and detailed written lesson plans for the supply teacher to read to the class, he records a short video of himself explaining what the students are expected to do.

I have used the technique a few times, and it is wonderfully successful.  My students have always responded well to it.  I think that seeing my face at the beginning of class helps students to remember that, even though I am not present today, I still very much want them to have a productive learning day.

The example video below is a “lesson plan” I left for my grade 10 Applied level Science class two weeks ago.  It was really important to me that I do the video lesson plan for this group of students because they generally do not respond well to change.  It was also still very early in the new semester and I wanted to reinforce the expectations we had been discussing at the beginning of the year.  (Have you ever noticed that even good students try to take advantage of supply teachers?  It seems they lose all sense of behavioural expectations.)  I also think that it’s great when you can show the students what they are going to be working on in class while you are away so there is no misunderstanding.

If I am organized ahead of time, I like to record my lesson videos at school and put them on the school network drive so it is easy for the supply teacher to show.  I have also put the video on a USB stick or, worst case scenario, uploaded the video to my website to be shown from there.

At the time when I recorded this video I could not find my digital camera, so I had to use my cell phone instead (which is why the quality is poor and the recording is so shaky).

As a precaution, I still type up basic instructions for the supply teacher so that they know what the video instructions are going to be about ahead of time.  This is also a good backup in case there is a tech issue and the video cannot be shown.

What Does Watson Mean To You?

Perhaps I am being too bold, but doesn’t Watson, the IBM supercomputer and “Jeopardy! champion,” demonstrate clearly that there is very little value in the memorization and regurgitation of information?

For those who may not already know, Watson is an artificial intelligence program developed by IBM to answer questions posed in natural language.  What makes Watson so remarkable is its ability to interpret some of the nuances of human language (puns, jokes, cultural references).  Recently, Watson competed in a special Jeopardy! series of “Man vs. Machine” and won by a significant margin.

It has been clear to me for some time that we live in a world of information abundance, which has changed our lives in profound ways.  At our fingertips we have access to an unmeasurable amount of information – providing answers to virtually any question.  But until Watson came along, we still needed a real human’s critical thinking skills to process the information.  After every Google search, humans naturally ask questions like, “is this the information I was looking for?”, “does this information seem accurate?”, “is there a bias in the results?”, etc.  Now, I know that there is still a LOT of thinking that a computer can’t do, but it seems to me that the gap is getting narrower.

As teachers in the 21st century, we need to help students refine their skills, not fill their heads with content.  In this day and age, information is cheap and readily accessible.  Our energy is much better spent instilling within students a curiosity for life and love of learning.  We need to help students think critically and develop problem solving skills.  We need to provide them opportunities to communicate and collaborate.  We need to empower them to be independent and self-directed people.  We need to give them a place to discover their talents and appreciate the talents of others.  We need to nurture their creativity and innovation.  And we need to help them care for one another.

I think that every teacher should ask the question of themselves:  At the end of my course, what skills will my students have developed?  I don’t think that Watson will be able to answer that question any time soon.

Hidden Curriculum

This past Thursday was the start of a new semester – a new group of students and a new opportunity make some changes to my teaching.  It’s always refreshing!  I have often said that one of the best parts of being a teacher in a semestered school is the chance to “reboot” twice a year.  You can build on all of the successes from the previous semester, and let all of your mistakes dissolve away.

Over the past few years, I have worked hard to refine my “Intro Day Presentation”  (although, it actually spans multiple days.)  I have written about this presentation in greater detail here.  The most recent addition to my presentation is a focus on the aspects of my classroom that I deem the “hidden curriculum.”

A hidden curriculum is often thought of as the “lessons” learned in an educational environment that were not openly intended.  According to Wikipedia, the concept of the hidden curriculum “expresses the idea that schools do more than simply transmit knowledge, as laid down in the official curricula.”  My hope is that by exposing the hidden curriculum of my classroom to my students, then they will have a better sense of what is truly important for their learning.

So far, I have identified 6 items in my hidden curriculum:  Collaboration, Self-Directed Learning, Problem Solving, Making Connections, Creativity, and Character Education.  I say my hidden curriculum because I think that a hidden curriculum is very much a by-product of the type of learning environment a teacher creates (often unconsciously).  By definition, a hidden curriculum is not overt.  It has been through a process of reflection I have realized these items are embedded skills that my students are required to develop in order to be most successful because my teaching strategies and my assessments rely on the skills of my hidden curriculum.

Below, I have given a brief summary of the language I use when explaining these items to my students.

1. Collaboration

“To learn Physics, you will need to rely on others for support.  You will also benefit greatly from being an active contributing member of our learning community.  The more you are able to give (using your own talents), the more you will get from this course.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to refine your skills of collaboration.”

2. Self-Directed Learning

“Learning Physics cannot only happen for one hour each day.  You will need to look for opportunities to learn about Physics outside the walls of the classroom.  You will need to reflect on your strengths and your weaknesses, and seek out opportunities to improve your skills.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to refine your skills for self-directed learning.”

3. Problem Solving

“Physics is about understanding the natural world.  In order to build your understanding of Physics you will be asked to solve challenging problems.  Some problem solving will occur by applying concepts of Physics to difficult questions.  However, you will also be using your skills for problem solving when working with others, designing and building projects, and performing inquiry investigations.”

4. Making Connections

“Physics connects to our lives in a multitude of ways.  I will do my best to bring those connections into our classroom so that you can learn about the cross-curricular nature of Physics.  As you learn about Physics, begin to look for those connections on your own.  You are encouraged to share your insights with the rest of our class in order to help others see the connections to their life also.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to refine your skills for making connections.”

5. Creativity

“Learning of any kind is a personal journey.  You are encouraged to be creative in the ways that you choose to learn Physics, and the ways that you communicate your understanding to your teacher and your peers.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to develop your creativity in how you express yourself, how you solve problems and how you contribute to our classroom community.”

6. Character Education

“We cannot learn in a space that does not feel safe.  This year, you will be encouraged to reflect on your personal character and the ways in which you contribute to the inclusiveness of our learning community.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to develop your personal character.  Remember, it’s nice to be nice!”

In recent years, I have really de-emphasized the actual curriculum content of my courses in the first few days of school.  I believe the emphasis should be on establishing a positive classroom community first and foremost.  This semester, I have tried hard to communicate the idea to my students that our Physics/Science course is only the context for learning much bigger skills – skills that extend far beyond our course, or even our school.  I tell them, “If you want to learn the Physics curriculum in a deep and meaningful way, focus primarily on learning the hidden curriculum.  These skills will not only service you well in our course, but throughout your process of life-long learning.”

If you’re a teacher, consider what is your hidden curriculum?  What skills do you expect students to develop that are not part of the overt curriculum?  I would love to hear about it in the comments!

Image Credit:  olaerik

Tracking Student Achievement

Assessment policies and “best practices” are a big deal in education.  It seems to me that every year the discussion around assessment, evaluation, and reporting becomes richer and more multi-layered.

To a new teacher (or a very traditional one), the policies around assessment, evaluation, and reporting, can be overwhelming and complex.  Because assessment policies and best practices can seem daunting at first, I think that some teachers have a tendency to lean too heavily on mark reporting software to “crunch” a student’s overall mark.  Obviously, the simplest – and most ineffective – way to track a student’s achievement is to evaluate everything the student hands in and put the marks into some tracking software, which then averages all of the assignments together and spits out an overall grade.  I don’t even want to begin to list off all that is wrong with this approach.

Now, I’m not bashing mark tracking software.  In fact, I use a program myself, and I think that it is a really important component of my overall assessment of a student’s achievement in my courses.  However, I am very cautious with how I use the software, and I never let a program tell me what a student’s mark should be.  Calculating the overall average of a few major tasks is only one piece of information I use to generate a student’s overall grade – after all, the tracking software has never once had a conversation with my students, or observed them while they worked!

Over the last few years, I have been on a quest to find a mark tracking program that I like and that aligns with the assessment policies set by the Ontario government.

As with many teachers in Ontario, I first started tracking marks using Markbook.  It is a powerful program for doing detailed calculations and “number-crunching,” but I really feel that Markbook has some very big limitations in our current climate of assessment and evaluation.  Within a few years of using Markbook, I felt it was very stifling to me when trying to exercise my professional judgement.

I have experimented with a large number of online mark tracking programs, like MyGradeBook, Engrade, and Thinkwave.  In general, I have been disappointed with their customizability and functionality, as they are only designed to be used in one specific way.  Maybe it’s the techie in me, but I want a program that I can tweak to work just how I like it.

A few years ago, I switched to Easy Grade Pro.  It is a robust program that gives me a lot of control over how marks are entered, processed and output.  The main advantage of this program is that students can access their marks from the web using a secure login and password.  I also feel that the interface and reports generated by Easy Grade Pro allow me to better “eye ball” a student’s overall level of achievement on submitted work.  Of course, it still has some issues, but it has served me well for the past 2 years and I do recommend it.

Today, I learned about a new mark tracking program that I think has a lot of potential.  It’s called Markscan and has been specifically designed for standards-based assessment in Ontario.  The key difference between Markscan and other software applications is that the program does not generate a student’s mark at all – it only creates an assessment graph to facilitate the teacher’s professional judgement.  The program is actually designed only for “eyeballing!”  As you can see in the image below, the program is not at all flashy, but I was impressed by the concept.  If you’re also intrigued, check out the 5-minute Busy Teacher Demonstration from the Markscan website.  I have only just begun to start playing with the program, but I think that I am going to try it out this semester alongside my regular mark tracking software.  I will let you know in June if I’m going to dump Easy Grade Pro and start recommending Markscan instead.  Stay tuned …

Image Credit:  Dave Dugdale (

Using an Avatar

The Teacher Challenge for this week is to write a post about Avatars.  The challenge asks:

Do you use an avatar on your blog – why/why not?  Do you prefer your real photo or a representation?  Explain.

I have not traditionally been a fan of using a comic representations of myself for my digital avatar.  I read a lot of blogs and follow a fair number of people on Twitter.  With a large influx of content and ideas, it is often difficult for me to keep track of who is sharing it.  I always prefer when people choose to use a photo of themselves rather than a cartoon representation because it is easier for me to feel like I have a relationship with that person (see my post on “The New Knowing“).  For me, a name and a personal photograph is an anchor that can use to link online content with the people who have shared it.  I think that digital avatars obscure that relationship, especially when people change their avatars regularly.

One site that I have used before for creating avatars is  Although this site is not specifically for creating avatars, it is possible to use their simple photo editing tools to create some neat effects on a picture of yourself.  One of the great advantages of the service is that it is free and you do not need to create an account to start editing photos.  Here are some of mine:



Should Tests Have Time Limits?

I am not opposed to traditional tests as a means to assess student learning.  In fact, I think that tests play an important role as an assessment tool in my Science classes.  There are many times when I need to know for certain that a student has grasped a concept, and that they can communicate their understanding in their own words.  I also find tests are useful to see how well my students’ problem solving skills are developing.  For these reasons, I think it is valid to have students sit quietly, reflect independently, and communicate their understanding on paper.  Of course, if testing is a teacher’s only major approach for gathering information about their students, then they are not likely to get a complete picture of what a student knows and can do.

At school today I was administering the Grade 9 Mathematics EQAO test.  This is a standardized test for all grade 9 students in the province of Ontario.  The students were given 50 minutes to complete the first booklet of questions, a 10 minute break, and then 50 minutes to complete a second booklet.  It was clear that many of the students in my room were frustrated by the timelines and wished they could have been given more time.  Alas, a standardized test obviously requires that all students receive the same test, and are provided the same amount of time.

This post is not about standardized testing (although, for the record, I am not a fan of them.)  Instead, I wanted to question the importance of having time limits on tests at all.

Most of the tests that we give our students have time constraints.  Generally, this is the model that we all experienced when we were in school, so it seems like the natural thing to do.  Besides, we are still subject to external limitations – Each class period has a set length, so you cannot very well deliver tests that have an unlimited amount of time.

Yet, a test with a time limit is not really a test of what a student knows or what they can do, but how quickly they can do it.  This is especially challenging in my senior Physics courses because a good part of what I teach is problem solving.  Seventy percent of any test that I give to my students will ask students to solve problems.  Although there is usually one or maybe two ways to solve a given problem, it is not immediately clear to students how to determine the answer just by looking at the question.

How can I reasonably assess a student’s ability to problem solve when there is a time limit?  How can I know that the student was not 5 minutes away from “getting it” when the bell rang?  To me, it is critically important that a teacher can discern whether a student ran out of time, ran out of motivation, or ran out of knowledge/skill.

For a while now, I have been letting my students use as much time as they need to complete a test.  If possible, I try to plan tests for the period before lunch or for the last period of the day so that students may take extra time if they need it.  By eliminating the possibility that a student ran out of time, I can be certain that the student’s overall achievement on the test will more closely reflect their actual level of knowledge/skill.

I often hear other teachers say that we need to develop our students’ “test taking skills,” and I’m not really sure what they mean by that.  Does it mean helping students deal with the anxiety of tests?  Does it mean helping students to budget their time on a test?  Does it mean helping students complete multiple choice questions by a process of educated guesses?  The fact is that outside of the education system, no one is required to write formal sit-down exams!  Real life “tests” are so much more complex than the ones we give in school because they deal with dynamic problems, they involve diverse people, and they make use of every accessible resource.

Let’s try to replace phrases like,”you have 5 minutes left,” with ones like, “keep trying until you feel you have done all you can do!”

Image Credit:  rileyroxx

Blogging – Year 2

It was just over one year ago that I started this blog as a new year’s resolution to myself.  I am proud that I have kept up with it.  In 2010, I was able to produce 35 blog posts, which is an average of almost 3 each month.  Of course, I was not able to write as much as I would have liked, but I am glad that I didn’t give up.

As of yet, I do not have a new year’s resolution for 2011, but I am mulling things over right now.  I may not be able to clearly outline an official resolution – instead it may be a general conscientiousness.  I recognize that I need to get better at scheduling my time, being more productive, and trying to find a better work-life balance (you may notice that I am writing this blog at 1AM on a Wednesday).  For me, these three things are very closely connected.

This year Edublogs has created the Teacher Challenge, which is intended to give new edubloggers a kickstand to support them, or give more experienced bloggers a kick start to get them writing more in 2011.  I think it’s a great idea and I am going to try and participate as much as I can.  For the first challenge, I will address the topic 10 things you should know about blogging.

My 4 Things (because 10 was too many for me)

  1. Blogging is supposed to be fun and enjoyable. This is something I have had to remind myself many times over the past year.  It is easy to put expectations on yourself (e.g. how often you will write), and then feel disappointed when you fail to live up to your own expectations.  Whenever I start feeling bad about my blog, I remind myself why I started blogging in the first place.  Needless to say, “to make me feel bad about myself” was not on the list.
  2. Blogging builds connections. One of the highlights of my first year of blogging was the first time I was quoted on someone else’s blog!  It is really great to feel like my posts are a valued contribution to the edublogosphere.  Writing a blog helps you create an online identity and opens opportunities to connect with other outstanding educators.
  3. Blogging is a bit of an ego balancing act. On the one hand, you should be writing for personal reasons, not for public attention.  Your blog will be interesting to read because it comes from you, and your thoughts have value!  However, it is difficult not to get preoccupied with “readership.”  After all, you could just use a journal if you didn’t want people to read your blog!  I have a number of widgets on my blog to track the readership because I like statistics, but I really try not to focus on that – The motivation to blog should be intrinsic.
  4. Ideas are easy – coherent thought is more difficult. I currently have about 25 draft blogs waiting to be written.  The reality is that coming up with ideas to share is actually pretty easy.  About once a day I think, “that would make a good blog post.”  But, when the fingers hit the keyboard, the story changes.  All of a sudden, the idea is not as fleshed out as you originally thought, or you begin anticipating the criticism, or you’re not sure how to communicate the ideas concisely, or you just don’t have the time to give your ideas the one-on-one attention they need.  In the end, I still think it’s better to catch the post in a draft, then have it slip away forever.  One day, it will get its chance.

If you are thinking of starting a blog, I highly recommend it.  If you already do blog, how much does my list ring true for you?

I wish everyone a happy new year.  I hope 2011 will be filled with tremendous growth and accomplishment.

Photo Credit:

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