Thursday, 16 March 2017

Inspiring Student Teachers: It Starts with the Mentors

Dear Minister of Education and Dean of Education,

I’m writing this letter in an effort to affect change and hopefully have some kind of impact on the profession of teaching secondary science in Alberta. I have been fortunate to teach in Alberta for twenty five years and every year is rewarding.  The students I teach are fantastic human beings; more considerate with their surroundings, more caring towards their peers, more committed to diversity and inclusion.  These young people are driven to become the best our planet has ever produced and will no doubt leave a legacy we can all be proud of.

However, these students are being taught and challenged in an educational system that doesn’t often promote the type of thinking necessary to reach the goals they have ahead of them. Our system seems to intentionally or unintentionally promote the stand and deliver mode of teaching. As we all know, good educators are constructivists and actively include students to develop understanding through conversation, experimentation, modeling, peer teaching, etc.  However, no matter how we promote this philosophy through curricular change and university classes in pedagogy, new teachers are entering this profession with limited skills or lack of appropriate mentorship.

As science consultant for Edmonton Public Schools, I had the rare opportunity to visit many secondary science classrooms.  At first I was excited to watch the innovative teaching practice in science classrooms. But I was disillusioned to find that the majority of classrooms were very quiet, students were taking notes, watching a PowerPoint presentation, with little obvious engagement. As I headed back to the classroom after four years as a consultant, I was eager to start with student teachers.  My first student teacher in five years provided me with a cover letter embracing the concept of constructivism.  Imagine my excitement.  Unfortunately, this student teacher clearly did not understand its nature or importance. Upon clarification, this student decided that true constructivism was too difficult and had no background information to draw from to create lessons.  I was able to model constructivism and gave the student teacher opportunities to demonstrate understanding and appreciate the impact it has on students.

My question for the University of Alberta and the Province of Alberta is how can  we provide students the best and most effective learning environment where students collaborate, question, examine, experiment and challenge current thoughts and theories if the most prevalent teaching method is to stand and deliver with a focus on achievement and high stakes exams? I understand the Alberta Government is re-inventing the curricula for all subjects, however, no matter what changes appear on paper, the pedagogy stops with the mentor teacher. How can the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education and the Government of Alberta work together to create a system to develop mentor teachers capable of producing student teachers that can inspire science creativity and wonder in future Albertans?

Thank you for reading my letter.  I would be happy to help with the process.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Increasing Student Achievement: Anyplace, Anytime, Anywhere...

Technology in the hands of students - ubiquitous.  Students would rather catch on fire than lose their phones.  It is awesome to leverage that technology in an effort to increase student achievement.

There are so many reasons students don't achieve their potential.  And with class size pushing 40 in Edmonton high schools, it becomes exhausting and near impossible to connect fully with each student in your class.

Some high schools in  Edmonton Public Schools are piloting "High School Redesign" where credits are not tied to the Carnegie unit and there is flexibility in teaching minutes. This has allowed schools to incorporate built in "tutorial" time during the day.  This is a fantastic opportunity for motivated students to benefit from one on one time with their teachers. However, for at risk students, or students who are not so motivated, there still needs to be opportunity.

Learning doesn't only have to happen in the classroom.  Students miss class for a variety of reasons and having only the textbook as a resource can be intimidating for students.  Students are told, "if you are away you  are responsible for the work missed".  That statement bothers me on so many levels.

Really?  A teenager is responsible?  Sometimes, yes. But, most of the time,  not really.

To increase student achievement, we need to provide meaningful support for students.  If students love their phones, then put the lessons on the phones.

I have created three YouTube playlists; one for each class I teach.  It takes me less than fifteen minutes to screencast the lesson and upload it to YouTube.  Time well spent - it will save me time when I can't connect with the student face to face, and save students time as they can learn anyplace, anytime or anywhere.

My YouTube channels (still being developed) are for the Alberta Program of studies:
Science 10:
Chemistry 20:
Chemistry 30:

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Power of Vodcasts

So far the blended model of the flipped classroom seems the best.

I create vodcasts of each lesson and then have the flexibility to use them as a stand alone lesson or a tool to manage absences, lates or otherwise. The vodcasts are simple, easy to make and periodically have some errors in them for the students to pick up on.  I only do one take as my workload this year is particularly large.  Furthermore, in Alberta, our class sizes have reached ridiculous sizes and are averaging close to 40 students.

Last week was our parent teacher interviews. I spoke to many parents who have watched the vodcasts alongside their child in an effort to support learning.  I hadn't considered that would happen.  The parents are happy to learn the science and help along the way.

I hope to continue building my library of vodcasts and try a true flipped class next year!

Check out my Chemistry vodcasts on my YouTube channel at
Chemistry Vodcasts Playlist

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Some Flipping Success!!

Students continue to impress me!

Because of the modified flipped structure of my lessons, I was able to spend a considerable amount of time coaching students in their understanding of the inner workings of the cell.

Students watched vodcasts on organelle structure and function, explored cell membranes, and investigated transport of materials across membranes.

The performance task given to students at the beginning of the unit was:

Science 10IB Cell Transport Assignment

Create a story that outlines the “life” of a newly created protein and its journey out of the cell.  You can use artistic license when showing the relationship the protein has with the cell components, however the story must clearly articulate the following scientific processes.

·         Graphic Novel 
·         Ransom Letter / Police Correspondence
·         Explanation without using the letter “e’
·         Song / Poem / Rap
·         Scientific Explanation with supporting electron micrographs.
·         Format of your choice

  1. DNA produces RNA which communicates with ribosomes. (2)
  2. Ribosomes on the rough ER create the protein. (1)
  3. Protein travels through the smooth ER, where lipids (fats) on the protein are synthesized.  (2)
  4. Protein moves to the Golgi Apparatus. (1)
  5. Golgi Apparatus modifies protein by adding some carbohydrates. (1)
  6. Protein leaves the Golgi in vesicles. (1)
  7. During the journey, oxygen diffuses through the semi-permeable plasma membrane into the cytoplasm. (2)
  8. Glucose enters the cell through facilitated diffusion. (1)
  9. Glucose and O2 combine in the mitochondrion to produce CO2 and water.        CO2 gas diffuses out of the membrane and water leaves by osmosis.(3)
  10. The protein encounters some evil ‘ions’ that have entered through active transport. (1)
  11. The evil ions force the protein to become evil. (1)
  12. Lysosomes bind with the vesicle containing the protein and digest it. (2)
  13. The lysosome binds with the plasma membrane and removes the now evil protein through the process of exocytosis. (2)

Marks:             /20

Take a look at some of the results.  You will be just as amazed as I am!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Flipping the Classroom - Reflection

Teaching is a crazy business. It's pace is frenetic, and the bar is set high.  We, as teachers, have many stakeholders to satisfy - obviously the most important are the students.

So, to hold on to every student and not let one slip through the cracks, I attempted a new strategy.  I flipped my classroom. My intentions were to provide quality instruction at home as a vodcast, and then to navigate through my classroom searching for any misconceptions in learning while students worked through well planned activities.

My experiment lasted three weeks.

I asked the students to watch the vodcasts in advance and then in class we would start with a discussion around the vodcast and the students would break into groups to work on the assigned activity.

The frenetic pace doubled.  Maybe tripled. I was happily involved with student conversation about learning instead of taking the class to deliver instruction.

Students who watched the vodcasts were successful in completing the activity and demonstrating what they knew to me.  It was interesting to listen to their discussion.  This was evidence to me that this strategy was working for them.

Students who didn't watch the vodcast were slowed down considerably.  I had some chromebooks available for students, and they attempted to watch the vodcasts during class time.  But, unfortunately, they began to fall through the cracks as they didn't have sufficient time to engage in the meaningful discussion.  Sigh.

The great idea of flipping requires students to have easy access to computers and free time to watch them before coming to class. The motivated students will watch and continue to excel but the students who lack motivation will experience the same results as before.

So I reverted to the classical method of instruction where I knew all students would receive the information first, and then I assign activities to reinforce learning.  This method limits the richness and quality that I imagined the flip classroom may provide.  Sigh.

As of September of 2014, the Alberta Government has relaxed the number of minutes of instruction that each credit demands.  So our school is experimenting with a 30 minute tutorial time in the morning where students can access help for whatever they need.

I may think of trying the flip again.  Students can use the tutorial time to access the vodcasts if they didn't have access or time to view it. If I can level the technological playing field for all students then I can work hard to co-construct learning through meaningful activities.

Here we go again.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Technology - The Rate Limiting Step

Edmonton Public Schools eliminated all curricular consultants during the spring of 2013. The Alberta Government was allocating less money to School Boards so consultant positions were deemed unnecessary.

I got to go back to the classroom.

To be honest, I was excited to try flipping my classroom and couldn't wait to start creating vodcasts.

When studying kinetics in chemistry, it is the slowest step of a series of chemical reactions that determines the overall rate of reaction- otherwise known as the rate limiting step.  This idea of rate limiting step will serve as an analogy to the success of my flipping journey.

I assumed that I would have a classroom with a SMART Board, easy access to Youtube, students with easy access to the internet, maybe a document camera and a webcam.


I have a blackboard, whiteboard, projector that projects onto the whiteboard, Youtube that must be downloaded as the bandwidth can't manage the giant population of the school and no webcam. I do have a wireless mouse, keyboard and really great tech support if I need it.  I also have access to two class sets of Chrome books, two sets of laptops and two sets of net books that I can book out in advance.

I  have 35 students in each of my classes with almost no room to get around to each student. And the students are in desks of which I can't pair as there is a bar one one side of the desk making it impossible to get in and out of. So the idea of group work - a necessary part of flipping -  is physically challenging.

So, how to flip?

I've started slowly with the creation of a student website that includes Google Doc notes particular to each class I teach. I used to have an overhead projector and Google Docs represent a 21st century version that allows students access even if they miss a class. However, this is not flipping at all. Students help generate the notes during classroom discussion, however I struggle with the notes as science doesn't translate easily on the keyboard.

At this time, my classes are teacher directed but I engage students with many hands on activities where they are showing me what they know. But I know I'm not getting to every student in every class every day and that is bugging me.

So, how to flip?  The reality is that students need to have equal access to the technology to watch the vodcasts.  If they don't have access then I need to find a method for them to access them.  Will they seek out the technology and watch the vodcasts on their own time?

Rate limiting step!

In the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try to flip some lessons. Is the access to technology going to limit my success?

Welcome the catalyst of change.


Monday, 4 February 2013

The Flipped Classroom - finally more time!

This is the story of a typical high school science teacher who seemed to never have time.


I began my career teaching the grade 10 science classes. These classes were perceived to be the best for new teachers as there were no high stakes exams partnered with them - in Alberta, the grade 12 exams are worth 50% of the mark. I was given the textbook and program of studies and naively believed that the textbook reflected the curriculum well.

Fortunately, I had a colleague who was extremely organized and talented who set me on the right path for planning and aligning my lessons to reflect the program of studies and not the textbook material. After two to three years of teaching, the textbook became a reference book for the students and not a teaching doctrine. I began to realize that the textbook was generally a great reference but included significant material not found in our program of studies.

My teaching assignment diversified to include the grade 11 courses of chemistry, biology, physics and soon the grade 12 chemistry course. Again, I used the textbook to guide my lessons as I knew where I could find activities that aligned with the curriculum and practice problems for the students.  But over time, I found new resources, activities, labs and required the textbook less and less. Even for the high stakes courses, I didn't require the textbook. My lessons were dependent on students taking notes and then, if we had time, engaging in an activity where students would demonstrate their understanding.  Sometimes I felt that I rushed the notes just so we could get on to the "fun" stuff. I began to create more engaging activities and had students singing, writing, role playing, building, cooperating, etc. Unfortunately, "getting through the material" seemed to consume most of the class time.

After a few years, the school I was at opened its doors to grades 7-9.  So Grade 8 Science was added to my assignment.  I loved teaching those students, their excitement just entering the door was contagious.   I started to rethink how I taught my day to day lessons. I decided that I would challenge the students to develop inquiry labs from scratch and not use the labs from the textbook.  If students knew the answers, what was the point of doing the lab?

As Bob McDonald from CBC's Quirks and Quarks says, "Ask any scientist and the only thing they like  discovering better than an answer is a really good question."

So I found the time to complete an inquiry lab with the students once to twice a unit.  The students couldn't wait to get their hands on the materials and challenge one another with possibilities of how to develop their investigation. I would see groups of students completely engaged, collaborating within and between their groups (which I encouraged) and at the end of the inquiry lab there would be four to six labs created - all unique and all developed by groups of students working together (authentic, eh?).

Back to the Grade 12 high stakes Chemistry 30 course.  After a few more years, the school opened its doors to the International Baccalaureate program and its additional high stakes exam. Now I had less time to reach into my collection of engaging activities as I had two masters to satisfy. Notes and lecture became the mainstay of  lesson delivery and I became more exhausted each day as I was doing the "show" all day - the provider of knowledge.

Thankfully, the IB Sciences curriculum requires students to design their own experiment so I was able to resurrect the inquiry model periodically.  But the demands of teaching two programs forced this to be very occasional and not collaborative in nature.

So, notes and lecture seem to be the method of information delivery that most science teachers use.  We were taught in that manner and feel that it is the only method that will get the job done.  That may have been true even ten years ago.

However, with the ubiquitous nature of digital technology, science teachers finally have a choice.


Science teachers across North America have begun to "flip" their classes so that the lecture is watched at home (or at hockey practice, the bus, the gym etc.) and once students arrive in class, the teacher can spend the time engaging with students however they see fit!

Read my previous posts to see how you can flip your class to afford yourself more time to engage students, develop inquiry labs, and teach students to the mastery level. You may notice that your high stakes exam marks also increase as real learning occurs and not just cramming for the test!