Teaching World Population Growth Trends

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I’ve found in my teaching of geography that one of the best ways to begin a new topic that requires some level of background knowledge is to use minimal lecturing and instead use an activity to get students thinking. In particular, an activity that has students use data to draw simple conclusions about a condition or situation is useful in achieving this goal.

Here is how I tackled introducing a unit on population issues with my Level 3 World Geography students.

The purpose of the outcome is stated clearly at the top of the page and, while this is something students will learn to do over the course of a few classes and they may not yet “be there” in terms of knowledge, the activity sets them in the right direction.

Understanding data and using it to draw conclusions, fuel future learning, and scaffold inquiry is an important part of social studies education. Here students use historical population data to plot a line graph illustrating trends over the last 2,000 years.

The second side of the page is dedicated to early analysis of the data that allows students to determine for themselves two primary population trends:

  1. a population explosion occurred globally after 1600, and
  2. since 1980, global population growth has begun to slow down.

These inferences from the data then allow students the opportunity to brainstorm reasons why population might increase or decrease, and how these changes can influence quality of life. These factors are the meat of the early part of the unit and will eventually lead into an exploration of possible responses to issues resulting from population change.

Classroom Routine: Finding A Balance

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I recently read an article by Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) that discusses regular and consistent classroom procedures. He outlines, in a neat table format, what was agreed upon among the staff of a school where he had worked previously, and I must admit that it looks well put together with some good ideas (e.g., orderly lines of students, behaviour expectations posted on the board, targeted questioning for specific students, etc.). It should be noted that Tom’s article does clearly state in the title that the classroom procedures outlined are indeed suggestions and should not be taken to “straight-jacket” the teacher. I wonder, however, whether this kind of thing can be too regimented or rigid, creating an environment that fails to maximize learning.

Teachers vary widely in how they approach their own classrooms and how they structure their lessons. In my own school, you will find those who are highly regimented with students sitting in rows of desks, their lessons broken up into 5, 10, or 15 minute sections, lecturing and seat work. You will also find those with a more organic, or less rigid structure, including desks in pods, or no desks at all, group work and collaboration being the most common student activity, the teacher functioning as a facilitator rather than lecturer, and something different happening in every class. I should point out that I do not consider one method of organizing a classroom to be better or worse than the other, realizing that all teachers fall somewhere different on the structure / routine / organization spectrum.

I’ve found my own approach to classroom procedure and planning has changed a fair bit over the ten years I’ve been teaching. I began not really knowing what I was doing, or at least it felt that way due to my level of inexperience and relative isolation from others in the school (as much my fault as anyone else’s). I tried to do things in a highly structured way: 5 minutes for hellos and to take attendance, 15 or 20 minutes for lecture, 20 minutes for students to work on questions, and 15 minutes to go over said questions. This wasn’t a particularly bad plan, but I wasn’t really thinking about the students and how they experienced the lesson, as I was more concerned with what I was doing.

After a while, as I became more involved in the school and felt more a part of the staff, I began to look more at what other teachers were doing and trying to find a balance of some sort to help me guide my planning. I had recently been exposed to inquiry-based learning through curriculum development in social studies I had been involved with and loved the student-centred focus of such an approach. I found IBL made a rigid structure to class (at least how I envisioned it) difficult, as students work at different ability levels, tasks, and paces concurrently. I had to reduce how rigid I wanted class procedure to be if I wanted to allow for more time for student inquiry. This also meant my classroom would switch from teacher-centred to student-centred.

Today, I try to find a balance between routine, structure, and providing an environment that is conducive to learning. I see all these teachers on twitter who have the most unconventional classrooms that look exciting and fully supportive of inquiry or project-based learning models and I wonder “Why can’t it be like this in my own classroom?”. The answer is that it can be like this, but to an extent. Teaching high school with standardized exams and considerable amounts of course content places stress on teachers to deliver curriculum rather than have students explore it. Therefore, a large part of what I do now is trying to meld these two approaches together, by having a hybrid classroom of sorts: one that prepares students for standardized exams, while providing daily opportunities to challenge students with inquiry and process skills.

Does this affect the procedures and routines that occur within my classroom? Undoubtedly, yes. More and more I see students grasp the idea of the task we are working on during the week and come into class, collect their folders of work from the file box at the side of the room, textbook from a class set or other material required for their activity and start in on their own without me having to do an introductory talk, mini-lecture, or establishing procedures for the day. I spend more time checking with individual students about their progress with an activity and helping them work their way through it. This, in its own way, is a kind of procedure, but it does require students clearly understand what we are trying to do and to be motivated, at least a little, to do so.

Have I figured out the best way to go about organizing my classroom and establishing expectations for students? Probably not, but I have tried to do things differently than in the past for the purpose of improving my own practice and the experiences that students have with history and geography while they are with me for 60 minutes a day. There’s a balance to be found in how this kind of thing works and part of teaching, I think, is continually trying to find it.

Trevor Mackenzie on Inquiry-Based Learning

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If you’ve poked around my website, you’ve probably noticed a section dedicated to Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) that was linked to a major paper I wrote while completing my M. Ed. in education. The details of IBL are presented there, but in short this approach to teaching is about formulating driving or “essential” questions and building research and analytical skills through student investigation of knowledge. This is very different from the teacher at the front of the room lecturing all class long while students take notes. IBL has students actively engaged in uncovering or discovering information and using it for a specified purpose. The key point here is that students are not passive, but very much present and participate in the learning they do.

Trevor Mackenzie has been a recent lead teacher in this area, promoting greater use of IBL in classrooms. I recently read an article of his posted on the Edutopia website (the link is here if you want to check it out). A common issue that he tries to address is that students and teachers, especially from more traditional education backgrounds, are not used to this switch in teaching and learning. Teachers who attempt to jump in head first and give their students full freedom to conduct their own inquiries from start to finish are likely to be met with a lot of uncertainty and stress. Trevor advocates for scaffolding (starting at an entry level and building IBL gradually gradually to eventually gain greater independence), which he believes is necessary for the teacher and the student if IBL is to work. This is the same approach I suggest in the paper mentioned above.

Trevor has written a book about just this topic, called Dive into Inquiry: amplify learning and empower student voice, which I’ve picked up and and working my way through at present. It’s definitely worth a read if you think this kind of instructional approach could be for you. Inquiry is becoming a central part of the Social Studies curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador, so it’s something I’ve already been bringing into my classroom, a little bit at a time.

Inquiry is most successful when strongly scaffolded. The Types of Student Inquiry act as a scope and sequence to support learners in their journey toward Free Inquiry. In my classroom, we begin in a Structured Inquiry model, transition to a Controlled Inquiry unit, move on to Guided Inquiry, and if all goes well, conclude in Free Inquiry. These four types of inquiry make up our time together in the course.

This structure allows us to successfully address the curriculum and the “must know” content and skills of each discipline, grade level, and course. In the Structured, Controlled, and Guided units, I plan to achieve specific learning objectives and unpack particular resources in order to best prepare my learners for whatever summative assessment they will see at the end of our time together. Whether it’s a provincial, state, or governing body exam or the SAT, I ensure that this material is learned during the types of student inquiry I have more control over.

Students should feel connected to their learning, certain about how to plan their inquiry, and comfortable with its responsibility. The Types of Student Inquiry structure our coursework and learning in a gradual release of control model, one where students learn essential inquiry skills throughout the year rather than being thrown into the deep end of the inquiry pool right away.

Here’s a quick video from Trevor’s website that introduces some of these concepts.

 

Recommended Teaching Tech: Remind

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1200x630In my last post, I discussed a teacher planning app that I enjoy called Planboard (which I highly recommend). In this post I will briefly introduce another app I use regularly called Remind.

Remind is an easy to use messaging app that teachers can employ to contact students, parents, or colleagues individually or in groups and makes use of one piece of technology that most people are more than familiar with: text messaging.

The basic idea is this: the teacher creates a group (called a “class”) and students sign up to become a part of it. Anyone who is a part of the class can be contacted directly or receive group announcements from the teacher, making it a wonderful resource for reminding students of upcoming events or deadlines (hence the name of the app). Now, before you get worried about the issue of having students know your cell phone number, the app works based on a proxy number set up by Remind that students text, meaning that they never know your number and you never know theirs. The app merely provides students a proxy number, which they can add to their contacts under a name such as “Mr. Rowe” or “Geography Class”. By responding through text to a couple of quick commands from this number (such as whether they are a student or parent, and entering a classcode provided by the teacher), students sign up with their name, which is all the teacher will see. Without this feature of Remind, I would be very unlikely to use it, as otherwise it could create significant privacy issues.

For those who do not use texting or would be more comfortable using email, the same setup procedure can accommodate this. The difference is that rather than texting a number to sign up for a class, an email is sent. This is probably more useful when contacting parents. But whether using email or text messaging, the teacher can operate Remind from the app on iphone or android devices, or from a website adding to its usefulness.

Besides class announcements, a student can privately send a message to the teacher (e.g., a question about an assignment or homework) and the teacher can respond without the whole class seeing, which is great for students who may be self-conscious about asking questions in a larger group.

remind-2-1024x538A feature that I really enjoy is the ability to send photos, files, or audio clips as part of a message. I’ve used this to send out additional resources to students that help with review or relevant images that supplement discussion that had occurred during class.

Any announcements sent are instant and are a wonderful way to keep students or parents up to date on what is going on in class or with the school as a whole. A number of my colleagues use Remind at Gander Collegiate and, as such, students have become quite aware of how it works, which makes setup and use so much easier. Setting up a class can be done in a few minutes: a few easy instructions can be put on a whiteboard or printed, which students and parents can follow.

Like any app, there are other features one can discover when exploring how functional the software may be (e.g., there are options for organizing events among group members, like field trips), but I will leave these for you to try, if you feel Remind is something that may be useful in your classroom.

Recommended Teaching Tech: Planboard

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Teachers all have their own education apps or tech they use to help make learning more effective and enjoyable, but sometimes it’s useful to have something that makes life easier for themselves. One such application I’ve used over the last school year is Chalk.com’s Planboard.

As teachers, most of us make daily use of our planbooks – whether it be for planning lessons, recording marks and assessments, noting when the next staff meeting will take place, or reminding ourselves of what needs to be done after school. They are useful and many administrations expect that their teachers use them, both for encouraging good practice and showing accountability. I used to find it annoying having to carry a planbook back and forth to different places and found I could need access to it at the most inconvenient times when I didn’t have it with me. Enter Planboard.

Planboard is a web and mobile based application that allows teachers to input their class schedule and access it anywhere, which makes quick reference easy at any time. You don’t have to fill out page after page with your schedule, as must be done in paper planbooks, rather you create your timetable during setup, insert any holidays in the school year, and the app does the rest for you. You can see what your schedule will be months ahead of time.

planboardschedule

Above is my schedule from last school year. As you can see, you can colour code classes to make quick reference easier. Another helpful feature is being able to convert nearly everything in Planboard into a PDF file for emailing, recordkeeping, or printing.

This alone is nothing overly special, as one can easily print a blank timetable and fill it in, but what is really useful is that planboard allows you to write lesson plans for each class, just as you would in a planbook. I find this is actually more useful than a physical book, because I’m a faster typer than writer and there’s the option for inserting images, video, hypertext, attach files, and pretty much anything else you need. The fact that it quick saves constantly is super useful as well. The lesson space looks like this:

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This is part of a lesson plan I left for a substitute teacher one day. You can see the course name and section, unit being covered, name of lesson or outcome being addressed, and details of the lesson. There’s also a useful sticky note, which can be used for reminders or other general information. Lessons can be viewed by day, as shown above, or by week, month, or unit. If I need to print a day’s lessons, I just click the PDF button in the top right of the page and Planboard creates a printable PDF that can be saved. The mobile version of the above looks something like this:

I like that I can plan lessons quickly from anywhere in a matter of moments. As teachers, we all know that often ideas come to mind at odd times, or when we aren’t in school, so having a quick and easy way to incorporate these things into what we do is useful. There are a lot of other interesting and useful details in the application that you’ll find if you take a little time to explore and make yourself familiar with them.

To this point, I’ve mostly used Planboard for daily lessons and recordkeeping, but there are options for creating unit plans and assigning lessons to each unit. You can also insert standards or outcomes that can be attached to units, or specific lessons, which is great when showing someone else what is being covered in the lesson, or for keeping yourself on track when it comes to covering those important outcomes.

Chalk.com has also added sections to Planboard like Markboard for recording assessments, attendance, and another for resources. Another great feature that Chalk.com has worked into this application is the ease with which sharing can occur, either through email, or among other users on the platform. I hope to try some of these in the future.

Planboard is a convenient way to do and combine some of the things that teachers do anyway, but anything that makes these parts of my job quicker or easier, so I can focus on teaching and the learning happening in my classroom is worth a little time to try out.