What would you do with a day to improve your teaching?

Andrew Campbell asked tonight on Twitter:

I answered a couple of times.

Then I had a related thought:

If I want to improve my teaching, I can work on something myself or I can learn from others (or both).

What would I want to learn?

A full day… 8 hours… no restrictions, no prescriptions, no requirements, no accountability, no strings… just work to improve my teaching….

It was harder than I expected, until I had the defining thought:

What do my students need me to be better at?

So instantly I landed on Assessment. That’s my area for improvement, and that’s what I would spend my day on.

The Plan

  • Before that day, decide on a specific focus (for me, probably assessment as learning, including peer assessment and self-reflection) and gather some short articles from trusted, external sources.
  • Start the day reading those articles, and writing a short, reflective blog post. The post is to share my learning and hopefully get some helpful feedback from my PLN.
  • Apply my prior knowledge and my new learning to a specific task that I’m planning for my class. If there is time, plan multiple learning opportunities using different strategies.
  • Share those tasks with my PLN and solicit more feedback.
  • Reflect, modify, reshare, etc.

Let’s be realistic – I ran out of time already, and I’ll be finishing at night.

This would be good PD

It would be wonderful to spend a day like this, although I don’t want to miss my class or my family, so it would be a really expensive day in that sense. It might be worth it, though.

What would you do?

Check out Andrew’s response (clever fella):

Finding “unusual” content using Zite

When I open Twitter in the morning I usually see a bunch of education-related articles being shared by my professional learning network (PLN – which primarily consists of other teachers). This is very good; I’ve built my PLN in this way so that I can connect with colleagues and learn from them.

But it can be dangerous to live only in that space, reading and retweeting the same thinking that everyone else is reading and retweeting. We echo each other, and while that can help to encourage and support each other it can also insulate us from other thinking.

Some of the people I follow have edgier thoughts or share content that’s different from the rest of the pack, and I appreciate those posts. I like to branch out.

I use Zite to read “news”, usually on my phone. Zite is a content aggregator that collects based on topics you’re interested in.

I have included “Education” in my Quicklist in Zite, so I’m getting a lot of those same, often-tweeted articles. But the other topics are a bit different, and so I see things that my PLN doesn’t give me:


Some of the most interesting articles come from Woodworking, DRM, Publishing, and Writing. You can see that I’ve more recently added Java and Statistics.

Rather than just looking at the Home screen view (in which Zite gives me a sampling from each topic) I’ll dip into topics in depth and see what catches my eye. Sometimes it’s just interesting for me; sometimes I think it’s worth sharing:


Probably most people have other ways to gather content (like surfing, or reading news sites). This is working for me.

What works for you? And if you’re a Zite user, what topics do you find different and interesting?

It’s not a snow day here

I’m fine with that. I don’t really want to lose any time in the classroom, and there’s a rescheduled NOSSA football game in the snow today.

But if it had been a snow day, what would I be doing?

I’d probably do a bunch of school work, honestly, including work for my e-Learning course. There is always more work to do than hours to do it.

But then I’d head outside with my kids, dork around in the snow, probably strap on the XC skis and have a great time.

So maybe I wish it had snowed a little bit more last night.

What would you do with a snow day?

Two interesting research ideas

I was chatting with some students yesterday about their names (spelling of last name, origin of first name, etc.) and I thought it would be an interesting study to look at how people get their first names.

For example, one student said she was named after a song that her parents liked. Another’s first name was a family surname.

How do we decide names?

It would be interesting to survey a large number of people and ask about how their parents (or whoever) named them. There might be a correlation to gender, or a trend based on age. I bet it would be fascinating.

Maybe I’ll make a Google Form and ask on Twitter.

I had another thought, which came from a map I saw once showing the locations of tweeters across the globe in real time (I forget the site now). I wondered if certain topics were more likely to be blogged about or tweeted about at certain times of the day because of geographical popularity. For example, I wonder if ukuleles are blogged about more during Hawaii’s evening than other countries’ evenings. Hmm.

Replyin’ to Brian @mraspinall

I’m having trouble posting to Brian Aspinall’s blog, so here’s my quick response to http://brianaspinall.com/?page_id=488:

Not only do we need students to experience other manufacturers’ devices, we need them to struggle to perform tasks with different types of devices. Some types are better than others for certain purposes.

I’ve heard about some Ontario elementary schools which have removed all computers in favour of tablets. I bet the principal, secretary, and teachers still have computers to use, because they’re useful.

There is no one-size-fits-all device, app, manufacturer, or approach.

Good thinking – thanks for inviting comments!

Improving report card comments with a checklist

It’s report card season in Ontario, and I don’t know too many people who are happy about it.

I don’t love evaluating student performance in general, and the persistent and poisonous focus on MARKS by most stakeholders in student learning is infuriating. Marks are a huge loss of information about student performance, in my rarely-humble opinion. Along with those percentage marks we have a much-less-valued-but-more-valuable evaluation of Learning Skills. My students mostly ignored those, I think.

In truth, the hero of the report card is The Mighty Comment. It has the superpowers of Explanation and Recommendation. It’s here that I can talk about what’s going on, why, and how to improve.

After all, assessment is for improving learning. Reporting a mark of 68% doesn’t do that.

So The Mighty Comment is our hope for the future, the only power that can save our students and their parents from receiving an all-but-useless document.

Let’s do it right.

I’m teaching in a high school, and we have both a provided comment bank and the latitude to write our own comments. The only rules are that we need to follow the guidelines in Growing Success and we have to keep it under 458 characters.

I read an interesting article at rs.io called The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Checklists.

Fireworks blazed across my brain. I need a checklist to make sure I’m doing what I want to do with every comment.

So I made one

The Report Card Comment Checklist (catchy name, eh?) is now live. I also included The Verbose Report Card Comment Checklist immediately after it to help explain what I mean. Please leave comments here on the blog if you can help me to improve it.

I sat with each of my students this term to review their marks, learning skills, and comments before I submitted them to my school admin team. I wanted them to know that I tried to write what I thought and that I cared about their improvement. I articulated their strengths and what I need them to do next. I asked them each to reflect on their comment (most of them needed to be prompted) and to tell me whether they thought it was fair, accurate, etc. One student found a typo (yay!) and two asked me to clarify what I meant. About five students said their comments sounded exactly like them, which makes me proud.

I have to admit that I made the checklist this evening; I may have to edit my comments a bit next week before they’re published.

You should just click the link for the complete version, but here it is anyway:

The Report Card Comment Checklist

Check each student’s report card comment and ask yourself these questions:


  • does it include at least one strength?
  • are the strengths related to the course?
  • are the strengths worded positively?
  • do the strengths stand alone?

Next Steps

  • does it include at least one next step?
  • are the next steps related to improvement in the course?
  • if a student reads the next steps, will they know what to do to improve?
  • are the next steps worded positively?
  • do the next steps stand alone?

Language and Tone

  • did I check for spelling, grammar, etc.?
  • did I read it out loud?
  • did I listen for sarcasm and negative feeling in my voice?

The Point

  • will the student feel that I care about their success?
  • will the student “see themselves” in the comment?
  • will the student want to continue to improve?
  • will the parent understand how to help their child improve?


Screencasts for teaching Computer Science online

I’m teaching ICS3C/ICS3U online using the Java programming language to 24 students whom I never see, ever. ICS has a lot of technical components, and computer programming can be finicky. In a face-to-face class you can help a student debug (troubleshoot) their code while looking over their shoulder.

Online isn’t like this. It’s not exactly a disadvantage, though – students are solving their own problems more often because they don’t want to take the time to write an email or because I take too long to respond (i.e. more than 15 minutes – jokes!).

So, how do I teach students the mechanics of coding in Java without making them read a book?

I take a screencast of myself coding and talking about it. I use Screencast-O-Matic because it’s very, very reliable and awesome (on my own laptop I install the application so I’m not using Java in the browser).

an image showing a program being written in the NetBeans IDE

Are your videos excellent?

No, I don’t believe the videos are compelling in the way that a Hollywood film is, but they’re at least useful. Students can see the order in which I solve a problem, hear my thinking as I work, and see the mistakes I make.


Yup, I make mistakes when I code. I get error messages. Java throws Exceptions. Flashing red lights, irritating Microsoft “dings”, and all that.

They’re not on purpose (I’m not trying to make mistakes), but they’re beautiful opportunities for incidental learning. Students will make the same mistakes too, so I think this will help them to recognize these types of errors and be able to correct them.

What do you do with them?

I post the videos in two places:

First I post them into my e-Learning course in the Content area, mixed in with text explanations, assignments, discussions, and so on. I’ll usually also post the code that I write in these screencast sessions.

an image showing content items in an e-Learning course

Second I post them to YouTube and add them to a playlist I’ve been maintaining for this course. This is so that other people can use them if they want (including parents), and so that students can possibly download them more quickly or on different devices. I think it’s worth the extra time to cross-post.

An image showing a YouTube playing for ICS3C/ICS3UDo they use the videos?

They certainly do. I surveyed my students early in the course and most wanted the videos as well as PDF files with code examples and screenshots. Most students access the videos in the online learning environment, which probably makes sense since there’s more structure there. The number of views on YouTube isn’t very high, but it’s not zero :)

Hasn’t someone done this already? YouTube is FULL of stuff like this!

I know. There is a lot already out there, and a lot of that is “better” than what I’m making.

But there are some distinct advantages to doing this myself:

  • I run into the snags that students would run into, and I fix them
  • They can hear my voice and get to know me a bit, hopefully making other communication easier
  • I use the same IDE they do, so it’s up-to-date, not version 6.8 or whatever
  • I can focus my videos on the course concepts and not other stuff (like some tough math)

Are you going to keep doing this?

For this semester I will. In the future offerings of this course I hope to be able to reuse at least some of these videos, although I know they will become obsolete in some ways. And if I get a chance to teach ICS4C/4U I’ll get to work on a whole new round of concepts, which is kind of fun for a geek like me.

Unfortunately, teaching isn’t magic

I try hard to make the student experience in my classrooms (both F2F and online) interesting, varied, and useful. I don’t want to teach classes I wouldn’t want to learn in.

I try to make the classroom experience magical, but it’s not magic.

It’s a ridiculous, stressful, unsustainable amount of work. It’s evenings and weekends, it’s missing out on family, it’s constant worry about my students’ needs and whether my approach is right and whether it’s enough.

And it’s never enough.

The downside of having learned a lot about effective teaching is that I feel an obligation to teach effectively right now, even though I have never before implemented some of the strategies I’ve learned.

If I don’t do things well the students are confused, and their parents are upset, and I’m sick with disappointment in myself at having failed to be perfect, or even exemplary.

This isn’t magic. And we need permission from each other and from ourselves to do it wrong until we are able to do it right.

As Mary Schmich says in another context, “If you succeed in doing this tell me how.”