I’m confident that not a single person would argue with me when I say that this year has been a year unlike any other. While I began this school year with a lot of personal goals for myself and my teaching practice, I’ve found my focus and my mindset consistently shifting as I’ve had to adapt to new challenges. Dealing with the tragic and unexpected loss of our headmaster, a global pandemic, and remote learning has been challenging for me – and likely an unimaginable year for our students. Looking back, I don’t necessarily view this as a negative near, and feel I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way.
This year I wanted to focus on pedagogy in my own classes, and building a strong sense of community in the classroom despite having a disrupted year and students scattered across the globe. I also felt extremely compelled to do something to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at a school level, but I think that is something that a team of us are still working on so perhaps I’ll save it for a future post.
In terms of classroom pedagogy, one goal I had this year (which probably sounds counterintuitive) was to actually take a step back from the curriculum and focus on the bigger picture. As a math/science teacher it is so easy to just stick to a routine and strive to ensure that everything in the curriculum is covered. Sometimes I’m hit with a wave of inspiration and feel like branching out and innovating and trying something new…but then the “I don’t have enough time” idea creeps into my thoughts and I continue with my routine. But I figured, if there was ever a year to try new things, this is it!
What I hoped this would look like in practice, is more outdoor, experiential, project based learning. I want students to be immersed in their learning. Now obviously, the pandemic threw a bit of a wrench in my plans. However, I recognize how incredibly fortunate we are at my school, as we had far fewer days of strictly virtual learning than most. So while some of my elaborate outdoor hands-on dreams were squashed, I think if anything this compelled me to treat every day of in-person learning as more of a gift, and take advantage of the opportunity to interact with students and provide exciting experiences for them.
You know when you have those lessons that you at the end of the day that you just feel good about? You’re driving home and you think to yourself “I nailed that.” I had one of those this year! I facilitated an outdoor macromodel with my grade 10 students to learn about greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect. Honestly, as soon as I started setting up the activity, there was an obvious sense of intrigue…and perhaps excitement. With several climbing ropes, about 40 different pieces of coloured ribbon, a bucket of pennies, and a collection of ping pong, tennis, and golf balls – there was a lot going on for this lesson! We spent 2 hours outside, enacting the greenhouse effect in a few different games, and learning about specific greenhouse gases and their sources.
In physics, we did design challenges frequently to encourage collaboration, innovation, and friendly competition. We designed and built catapults, mouse-trap powered cars, egg drop protectors, and performed a variety of hands-on labs to learn new concepts. To culminate learning, I’ve given them the freedom to do whatever they want to help teach others about a concept or idea learned in class. I modelled this concept for my physics class by building a Ruben’s tube to help introduce our unit on waves and sound. Pro tip: as soon as you tell students there’s fire involved in a demonstration, they’re all for it!
Honestly teaching physics this year was the most fun I’ve ever had teaching a course, and I’m so glad I made a commitment to myself to try new things. Did we solve as many practice problems as I normally would when teaching this course? Absolutely not. I hope they learned more than that though. How to innovate; how to build something from scratch; how to design something to solve a problem; how to fail, and try again. I’m reminded of a line from Walter Lewin: “That is the way I’ve always tried to make physics come alive for my students. I believe it’s much more important for them to remember the beauty of discoveries than to focus on the complicated math—after all, most of them aren’t going to become physicists.”
The other main challenge I found this year was trying to make the classroom feel like a community when you have some students in person, and some online. Through trial and error, I’ve found some strategies that have helped my classes come together. I’ve also found that class discussions in a hybrid model can encourage every student to share their “voice” if facilitated in just the right way. Here are a few of the things I’ve found have worked well for me.
1) Zoom polls feature: Making use of the polls feature in Zoom allows an easy check in with students, and has also led to some great discussions in our classes. Using the mood meter, or other scales to gauge student well-being has proved super helpful to me – and has even resulted in me totally scrapping my plan for the day and pivoting to a fun activity instead to focus on student well-being.
2) Virtual challenges in breakout rooms: This year has been so challenging for our students, and some days they just need an opportunity to connect with their peers and have fun. So on a day when the energy of the group was noticeably low, I had them split out into breakout rooms and work collaboratively on recreating a dabbing unicorn on a conditionally formatted Google Spreadsheet (which I came across on Twitter..) It was a huge hit, and it made me so happy to pop into the different breakout rooms and hear students laughing and chatting. You can find the link here if you’re ever looking for a virtual icebreaker or an activity to shake things up in the remote learning world.
3) Google Jamboard: has also been a great tool for brainstorming in a safe way for students, and again has led to some excellent discussions. It’s also helped me open discussions about diversity and inclusion in my classes.
4) Virtual trivia has encouraged collaboration and lots of chatter among both the virtual and in-person students.
5) Digital Escape Rooms: These have been a huge success in my own classes, to give students an opportunity to collaborate with each other to practice their math skills and talk about what we have learned. It’s also so heartwarming to pop into the different breakout rooms and listen to students explaining strategies to each other. Giving students a common goal in smaller groups to collaborate towards seems to engage them quite well, and in their words, “makes math more fun!”
6) Choice in assessment: For all my classes, students have had flexibility in how they are assessed, based on what works for them in their current environment. They have been really receptive to this, and I think giving them that choice in a lot of cases has motivated them to put their best foot forward. I’ve had students make me instructional physics videos, cakes to show the parts of the cell, breakout games to help others learn about balancing chemical equations, posters to encourage others to combat climate change. I think this is something that I will definitely continue in the future.
I think my main takeaway this year has been mostly a lot of reminders. Sometimes when I’m looking for that inspiration from teaching I think to myself “be the teacher you wanted to be in teacher’s college” – back when I was full of excitement and eager to have a big impact in student’s lives. This year has reminded me that school should really be about a love of learning, and about exploring new things. It has reinforced my personal teaching philosophy that puts relationships at the forefront. It’s pushed me to try new things to enhance learning and build community. It’s reminded me to make the most of every lesson; every day; every opportunity. It’s reminded me of the power of gratitude and a positive mindset. So let’s do our best to make kids love learning. Let’s acknowledge the crap – there’s no denying this year hasn’t been easy. But let’s focus on the good. Most importantly, let’s show ourselves the same compassion and grace that we show our students, as we continue to learn and grow and face adversity. Cheers to lifelong learning.