Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Nov PD1: School

November 2013 was a good month for Professional Development. I attended four sessions, each with different audiences. Finally, I'm getting to blogging about them.


(This post was actually written back in December.)

Our school was one of four selected in the region to have John Antonetti come in as a speaker. The day was structured so that each department would spend a period with him; for the math, music and special education departments, this was the last period of the day.

John began by thanking everyone for being there, remarking how it's often easier to be dead in your classroom than to prepare to be absent. Truth. He's got my attention. He also said that he didn't consider himself to be an expert, but rather a learner.


"Don't ever confuse teaching with learning." Students may get the marks, but may not get the meaning behind what they're doing. How can we help the learning? Ideally we want to have both an engaging teacher and engaging work, but how do we even define "engagement"?

John provided the following two tasks, which were done in sequence:
Task A. This is a competition. In your groups, write as many states in the United Nations as possible, along with their capitals, in alphabetical order. You have three minutes.
Task B. Individually, come up with the 3 main criteria you would have, if you were forced to move to another country for three years. Then as a group, decide on the top 3 to share.

I dreaded Task A. As soon as it became apparent that this was a competition, I hated it, I zoned out, I thought why am I here and why do I even care about capitals, this 3 minutes can't end fast enough. Others in my group had smart phones for looking stuff up, which is good as I didn't, I mostly suggested courses of action. I'm not kidding when I say this was a form of torture.

Even when you win, you lose.

By the way, our group won Task A. John later said that it's often a less engaged group who wins such a timed competition, because they take the time to strategize and plan (we split the alphabet with two sheets of paper), rather than diving in, trying to do everything as fast as possible. I couldn't care less.

Task B I found more interesting. More opportunities for thinking and creativity. The third item was surprisingly difficult for me to pin down. In the group we categorized the individual choices (such as items that all fell under 'Quality of Life'), and saw how other peoples' life experiences had led them to certain selections. Also, something really important in retrospect may not have even occurred to a single individual.

Deconstruction: What made each task FUN? Which task was EASIER?

Conclusion: Engagement is a product of the learner. Some will be engaged by X, others by Y... you can see clearly where MY bias was.


The next question was exactly what a "rigorous" task was. Some thoughts were "When you don't know where to get the answer"; "When you don't know how to start doing it"; "When you have to decide HOW to think before you can attack the WHAT". It was said that if one person shouts out an answer, the rest of us stop thinking - somehow we need to get each person's ideas interacting together.

When I have an idea, and thanks to you, I change it: LEARNING
When I have no idea, and thanks to you, I gain one: ACCEPTANCE

I've also scribbled down "Cognition moves but engagement doesn't" here, which I think relates to rubric outcomes, but I'm not certain.

So, a rigorous task may be something involving deeper cognition. Perhaps akin to "Provincial standard", or "above level 2" on the rubrics. That said, something at "level 1" is not BAD, but ideally posing a question at "level 3" will require the student to LOOK for the information at those lower levels. In other words, by starting with a 3, the student will themselves be driven to fill in the prior information. Assuming they're engaged.

How to overcome paralysis? Make sure things make sense; try to make the task something they care about; start with a single truth and persevere from there. (I drew a link here to Max's "Noticing and Wondering" from Twitter Math Camp 2013. Everyone can notice something.) A math style example was: "A zoo has 41 heads, 128 legs, and contains 2 snakes. What are possible sets of animals?" Once individuals have a chance to think, they can even be grouped with others who are thinking along the same lines.

A "Rubric for Designing Student Work" was shown; "Doing Mathematics" was defined as "Doing something with multiple entry points and multiple valid answers" (as in the above example). Often "level 4" involving some social component. One also doesn't necessarily need a Big Activity; nine little ones may be equally worthwhile.


Earlier in the session, it was pointed out that watching better teachers doesn't make you any better if you don't know what they're doing. I'll further point out that some might consider me a good teacher, but I don't think I could even articulate what it is I'M doing - and would the act of someone observing me change things? Not sure. No answers here.

I guess what it comes down to is that we cannot problem solve until we problem notice... which applies just as much to our teaching practices as it does to student learning. For more from John Antonetti, check out this website: Colleagues on Call.

Oh, one more thing - we learned that in Arkensas you can lose your teachers license if you mispronounce the state name. Jinkies.

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