CS Teachers Conference at UWaterloo

I had the pleasure of attending this 3 day conference where I was able to learn some older and new technologies that are available from the university as well as things that other educators are doing in their classrooms daily.  For me, it was an amazing opportunity to learn because I have been focused on my math teaching for the past 3 years.   There were come key themes that I took away and some questions I have for the next steps.

The first thing that I continuously thought about (as well as something that I heard from others) was the desire from our students on instantaneous feedback.  Students want to know how they did, if they need to improve, and how they need to improve as soon as they complete a task.  Although this may sound like exciting news, it is not always as great because some students do not want to think about how they can improve, but rather want you to tell them how to improve.

One way the University of Waterloo and other websites provide a way for instantaneous feedback in coding is through “tutorials” where students do not have to download the IDE.  Some examples we looked at in the conference were CSCircles, Codingbat, and Websheets (this is a newer one where you create your own code).  All of these provide some information on the program, the elements you will be tested on, and then a space to code the program required.  When students “ran” the code, the sites would compile and run test cases against the solution code.  It would give error messages and give results based on the test cases.  I found the test cases very helpful because it allowed to student to see that you need a number of test cases and need to make sure that you test a lot to find subtle problems.  They do not all track the students progress as they are to complement the student learning rather than be the classroom they are in.

The other concept that a lot of teachers were implementing was the idea of using cloud services to submit files and to promote collaboration on code.  One industry tool that is constantly being used for coding and other services is Git and Github.  This is a neat tool that creates online repositories and then allows you to share the code with anyone you allow (free Github makes all code public).  In order to collaborate together, you need to give special permission to the other users.  In our session we were all able to access the code presented in an easy way as we didn’t have to download the files and then locate the package to open.  The only downside was that you needed an account and some boards block the use of Git and Github.  Once I get the handle on this, I will hope to use it in my own classes so that students are able to work together and learn skills that the workplace already uses.

The last take away was not the newest concept, but was something that I would like to practice in my classes (even math) and that was the idea of Genius Hour.  The one teacher took it a step forward and talked about how they implement aspects of project management into the genius hour sessions.  In order to work through their personal project they are required to complete the basic components involved in project management.  Every session also included a basic exit card that had key ideas, such as what they learned, what they did, where they need help, and what their next steps were.

As always it was great to go to a conference that stretched my thinking and made me reflect on where I could go next with my learning.

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Dr. Ross Greene and Collaborative Problem Solving

I meant to blog this shortly after I saw him, but got delayed on writing this piece.  Dr. Greene has two books so far “The Explosive Child” and “Lost at School”. This post will focus on the latter of the two books which looks at why behavioural challenging students are failing in our system and how we are failing them.  I am only going to give some of the key takeaways from the talk because I think that reading his book and thinking about changing your own mindset on this area could be beneficial to the students we all teach.

I had the honour of seeing a presentation about a month ago from Dr. Greene.  It was insightful and was amazing to see the different ways that we could work with students to help them solve their problems.  The first part of his talk was something that I have come to realize, but was great to hear again, “Children do well if they can”.  All students want to do well and want to be successful, the students that have behaviour challenges just have other factors in the way and we (as teachers) need to help them out.

The main idea around the book and the talk was about how the students with challenging behaviours are challenging because they lack the skills to not be challenging.  It is a simple idea and thought but is very powerful and is a different lens to look through in the life of a student.  We used to think that it was the parent, or they were unmotivated, or attention seekers, or good manipulators, or even that they were testing limits…but these are wrong.  Some of the comical counterexamples are that if they were good manipulators they would be doing it without us knowing, we all test limits and can’t blame any student for doing the same thing, and that we as adults seek attention all the time to get our way; so why are we getting mad at children for  modelling what they see.  These were all old world ideas and if the strategies we had to fix them worked, we wouldn’t still be having these problems today.

He outlined some of the big ideas of his book which revolved around the skills that behavioural challenging students lacked.  They were executive skills (hindsight, forethought, impulse control), language processing and communication skills, emotional skills, cognitive skills (grey thinking), and social skills.  The amazing part of this discussion was that he did not place any of the blame on the parenting techniques a student was exposed to (something most of us do) and didn’t look at any of the psychiatric diagnoses that we are all expecting from a topic like this.  When he described some of the situations that displayed each one of the skills, it was easy to picture a student that I had taught or currently taught (in my short 3 year experience), which made talk that much more powerful.

I order to help these students he created a document to outline the different problems we see and strategies to help students and teacher collaboratively fix them.  It is all collaborative because in that model there are winners and winners (no losers if everyone agrees on the strategies).  You can find these resources at livesinthebalance.org and they are all free!

The strategy is the ALSUP (Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems).  It’s a simple idea that can have a lot of impact on the lives of the children we teach.  Teachers of the student meet and as soon as one person identifies a problem they see, all the teachers discuss where they may have seen a sign of this.  This process is continued until the sheet is complete.  The key things are that there are no theories here and they need to be specific to what has been seen.  Once this is complete then the teachers decide which problem they will help the student solve and then the meetings with the student take place.

The reason for the meetings with students is because it helps them take ownership of the problem and shows that you have empathy as well.  Its better than an adult imposed suggestion because the student may feel that the concern is not met and they are simply complying to make sure that they are fitting the rules of the class.  The other alternative is to leave it aside and not work through the problem, which only leads to further concerns as the problem grows when left unsolved.  There are some guidelines for the meetings but it can be overwhelming to see all the different parts of this model at once.

I know that it seems like some of the findings he presented are trivial and that it just creates another “job” to do, but I have been in a school where problems were brushed aside or solved from a unilateral perspective and it did not lead to anything but worse behaviour.  I believe in the statement that children do well if they can and are given the opportunity to succeed.  I have seen it in my applied level class this semester that if students are given the chance to be successful and feel the empathy from you, they will work their best to meet the expectations you set.

My question to you is, what do you think about this topic? How do we proactively deal with students who have behavioural concerns and how do we get them to fit back into our system effectively?

When do teachers stop teaching a class?

Yesterday morning I was listening to TSN 1050 sports talk radio and they were talking about how hockey coach Ken Hitchcock was talking about how by the playoff time he was not coaching his team anymore. He was merely there as motivation for his team and was simply saying the same things he did all season to the team.

This instantly made me think about how we as teachers are slowly walking away from continually teaching our students and how we are there to guide them in their learning. The only main difference I see is that we are always teaching our students, we just aren’t doing it in the way that revolves around us preaching to them.

This has been one of my major struggles this teaching block because my students are used to and most comfortable with having a note and then practicing similar questions. Today I even tried to have them lead the lesson with a warm up activity on correlations and linear models. This didn’t work as well as I had hoped but the one aspect that is starting to improve is that my class is willing to work through a question without any guidance to see how they fare with it.

My next challenge with this group is to get their excitement up about the upcoming units. The past unit was a major confidence boost because it was something they have been doing for a few years and they have no mastered it. I want to use that excitement and confidence to motivate them through this unit on graphical models and future units to the end of the semester.

How do you motivate your classes when you have students reluctant about a particular topic due to past experiences?