Bridge Building – An Inquiry into Structural Engineering and Design

“If I didn’t have to go back to my work at the University, I would be working here in this school…it is amazing!”

This message was shared with me by a guest to Greystone, the Communications Director from the University of Alberta Engineering Department, who was writing a story about the partnership between University Students and Greystone Students for the University’s newsletter/website.

Sometimes I forget how amazing it is to work in a school where the energy is contagious, the commitment to student engagement and deep, meaningful learning is pervasive and the network of support and collaboration among colleagues is a priority. This was evident throughout a recent project undertaken by our Learning Community 7 team of teachers and students who came to the end of their Bridge Building Inquiry today. The work culminated with a final visit from University of Alberta Engineering Students, who served as experts to our students by providing them with ongoing feedback on the bridge structures they were designing as their “companies” developed proposals for the new Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton.

This inquiry process highlighted the critical components of a successful, student driven, inquiry based learning experience as it included the following:

-guiding question to create student engagement in the learning
-immersion in the topic through exposure to a real world context for the learning –>the new Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton
-opportunity to connect with experts in the field–>architect from the Walterdale Bridge Project met with our students and students asked powerful questions designed to deepen their understanding of the bridge being built in Edmonton; Structural Engineer came to speak with students about bridge construction and his company offered cash prizes to student “companies” that could meet the criteria for bridge design; University of Alberta Engineering Students who mentored our students through the project
-ongoing feedback loops embedded into the design of this project to ensure students were meeting the criteria for the various components of the project (blueprint design, budget, invoice, process reflections, planning and delivery of presentation, proposal, bridge construction)
-multiple check ins with students to ensure each member of the Bridge Project Team was fulfilling his/her responsibilities
-field trip to the site of the new Walterdale Bridge to gather more information using direct observations

The 125 students and 5 teachers celebrated the end of a challenging, collaborative effort to go deeper into their understanding of structures and bridge design that proved to be about much more than “covering” Science outcomes. Through this project, students developed skills in goal setting, organization and planning, budgeting, collaboration and teamwork, persuasive proposal writing, presentation development and public speaking, gathering research, reflection, time management and perseverance.The culminating activity was a final visit from the Engineering Student Mentors who assessed the top Bridge “companies” on their ability to deliver a bridge design that had excellent aesthetics, demonstrated strength and was cost efficient. Seeing the enthusiasm as students came to the end of a successful process AND final product was inspiring – congratulations to Learning Community 7 for raising the bar on the work we do to provide deep learning at Greystone.

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Innovation Week5 at Greystone


Greystone Begins the Best Year Ever

A Staff Retreat to focus on how students can take ownership of their learning through formative assessment practices, reviewing how to build a community of learners through developing class and learning community agreements, and welcoming over 660 students to our school community this year has been exciting – and it really could not have gone any better. We have had an amazing start-up. We have been tweeting some of our stories from the first few weeks of school – here they are:

 

 

 

Finding Inspiration in the Clouds

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This past year, I received a professional development award from Alberta Education which I was directed to use for my own, individual learning. I decided to google search creativity and innovation to see what conferences might be available. I felt this would help me support continued exploration for how to develop these cross-curricular competencies, which are included in Alberta Education’s work around curriculum re-design, among staff and students at Greystone.  I came across the Creativity Workshop – a learning opportunity designed to ignite the spark of creativity and to develop an understanding of the creative process among participants. The website for this workshop looked incredibly appealing for many reasons, including the fact that the sessions were offered in amazing destinations including Dubai, Dublin, Florence, New York City. I ended up coordinating my conference with a trip my husband and I had previously planned to Italy.The workshop, in Florence, served as a starting point for our six week Italian adventure.

 

The journey to explore my own creative side started this past May when I received an e-mail from one of the organizers of the Creativity Workshop, giving me a list of suggested items to photograph. One of the items on the list was to take a picture of an animal I could find in the clouds. Oh brother! I thought this was absolutely ridiculous and couldn’t imagine how a five day workshop that started out by having me stare at the clouds would possibly provide any worthwhile learning for me or my school community!  I ended up completing the first task of gathering pictures, including making time to stare at the clouds, while I was at our grade 6 camp with students. I did this bright and early one morning while the students were still asleep and the camp was quiet and peaceful, a pretty rare occurrence with over one hundred twelve year olds on the loose in cabins. It was glorious, actually, as the birds were chirping away, I was looking out over the calm waters of Lake Nakamun, and then, I found myself staring up at the clouds – looking for animals.

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This started the process of creative awakening for me – a process which continued in Florence three weeks later.  The workshop in Florence began, for me, with a little unease and skepticism as I still wasn’t convinced that the activities I had been doing in preparation for the course, including the cloud gazing, were anything more than a flaky waste of time; however, as the days unfolded, and as each experience built on the other, I became hooked by about day three. By day five, the last day, I didn’t want the workshop to end! What I loved about this experience, among other things, was the opportunity to get to know a diverse group of over 30 different people, of all ages and varying lines of work including several college professors, an interior designer, school district superintendents, an educational technologist, business managers, middle school and high school teachers, a dancer and novelist. They travelled here, to Florence, from all around the world, from places I had never been – Israel, Australia, Texas, South Carolina, and even a few fellow Canadians. Their stories are all as unique as they are; however, the one thing that united each of us is our belief in the importance of creativity in our personal and professional lives.

 

There were numerous activities that we engaged in, I mean REALLY engaged in. We were on the floor visualizing, sketching and writing. We were partnered up with others in whisper conversations, almost like we were creating secret conspiracies. We were wandering the streets of Florence with cameras in hand to capture evidence of our new found powers of observation. We were hanging out in cafes in search of “victims” to sketch and write about. It was five days filled with play, fun, exploration, reflection and self-discovery. We were reminded of the importance of taking risks, of making mistakes, of re-connecting with our child-like curiosity and we all had the opportunity to explore our own unique creative potential. Some key learnings for me include the following:

 

*EVERYONE has the capacity to be creative – you just have to make time for it – as little as 15 minutes a day

*brain research tells us that our brains are NOT wired for multi-tasking – we need to slow down and go deeper on one thing at a time – this is especially true when creating

*creativity and analysis go together – come up with creative ideas and then analyze, refine, develop into a plan for action…BUT…both do not happen at the same time – allow for creativity WITHOUT analyzing – the creative process needs time for exploration, play, discovery WITHOUT judgement or critiquing

*process is more vital than product

*collaboration, NOT competition, stimulates creativity and allows for ideas to build and grow

*the act of writing something down triggers better memory – there is still a place for paper and pencil in writing and/or sketching

*the brain is wired to look for connections and patterns – keep an idea book for random thoughts, ideas – later, the brain will find a way to connect these into something meaningful

*the word amateur comes from the word “ama” which means to love what you do – being an amateur is a good thing as it means being passionate in your work

So, as my workshop came to an end, I knew that my new found understanding around the creative process was not going to end – it is just beginning. I will continue to seek inspiration from the clouds and from many other sources as I develop my capacity and the capacity of others for creative exploration.

The Best Day of My Life

 

This song..I can’t get it out of my head! I can’t help but have the “best day of my life” whenever I hear it. It must have been playing before I headed to work on the last day of school with students this year. I really did have one of the “best days of my life”. My #1 highlight from the day:

 

The Greystone School Championship Challenge

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One of our most amazing students in grade 9 has been supported by both staff and an incredibly accepting and unique group of students since he began his time with us at Greystone five years ago. When he began grade 5, his mom was deeply concerned about his ability to be successful with so many students in such a large setting as her son faced many challenges and became overwhelmed very easily. Five years later, we celebrated his last day of school at Greystone by supporting this student to plan and carry out his dream of participating, with his classmates, in a race he designed himself – The Greystone School Championship Challenge.

This grade 9 student drew up the design for the challenge course and with the non-stop support of our amazing Educational Assistant who has worked alongside this student for the past two years, the event was set to take place. Posters for each station were made, prizes for the finishers were purchased, helium balloons for the starting line were dropped off by our Educational Assistant’s mom and the special trophy, which had been engraved with the name and date of the event, were all ready. The student’s teachers and classmates all took part, either supporting the big race from the sidelines or participating in the event themselves.

The biggest highlight…watching this student have “the best day of his life” as he crossed the finish line and received a trophy for the event. Those of us who had the privilege of watching the presentation of the trophy shared in the magic of something that brought sheer joy to this student and were able to be a part of the “best day of his life”.

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What is most impressive is how this student has not only been accepted, but he has been celebrated in our school community for the very special individual he is. His strong finish at Greystone, both in his big race and also in his learning during his time with us, is a tribute to not only this student, but to all of the members of our school community for their commitment to his success. Awesome!!!!

Other highlights from the day included water wars and time spent enjoying each other’s company outside of the school walls. My favourite comments from students and staff included how much they appreciated ending the year together in such a fun way and how this kind of finish to the school year made everyone feel such mixed emotions about leaving for the summer…happy for a holiday, but sad to see the end of this awesome school year together.

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Looking forward to experiencing many more “best days of my life” with our Greystone School Community when we are back together in September.

Happy Summer!

 

 

Our Retiring Teacher ~ A Lifelong Learner

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I have had the privilege of working with Dale Johnston for the past nine years at Greystone Centennial Middle School. Dale has set the bar high for what it means to be a collaborative, team player and lifelong learner. During the time I have known Dale, he has demonstrated enthusiasm for learning from his colleagues and has been highly reflective in his practice, continuing to grow and become stronger each year as he pursues powerful learning for his students. Dale has also contributed to the learning of his colleagues. He is someone who staff regularly seek out for advice. Students love Dale as he is always ready to coach a team or provide an opportunity for them to get together in his room and just hang out. We will miss Dale at Greystone but I am sure that no matter where he goes or what interests he pursues next, he will continue to be a keen learner along the way.

Professional Growth Plan Reflection

For Dale Johnston

June 2014

This year I had the benefit of working with the same team and students which limited the transition at the beginning of the year, and allowed me to quickly draw on the strengths of my team members. Our team time focus this year was more on collaborative planning on larger projects.  We tried to spend less time on discussing daily lessons which had its trade-offs. Due to the increased distance between learning spaces we did not congregate for short informal chats after school like we did in the first year of our loop. Those chats allowed us to share daily successes and challenges and clarify the various shared lessons we were using. Although we knew each other better due to our looping practices, I think we missed out on the intimate communication that should be done face to face to allow for clarification and confirmation of next steps. It was one of those informal practices that only gets noticed when the opportunity disappears.

My primary focus for growth this year was to continue in the use of inquiry and establish practices that would make student understanding more visible. My hope was to gain a better understanding of what student strengths were, demonstrated through daily shared learning in class and confirmed on assessments.  I could then revise my own teaching strategies, to support the areas that students demonstrated were in need of growth, in a timely manner.

During my previous PGP meeting I shared my concerns about multiple choice assessment questions that did not encourage my students to show their thought process. During the discussion that followed, it was emphasized how I needed to instil the motivation required, to encourage students to show their thought process.  I was provided with advice on how to ensure that students would make their thought process clear for these types of assessment tools. Since assessment drives instruction and learning, it was necessary for me to adjust the scoring of questions so that the answer was only one of many possible marks for each question. The result was students responded to the changes by drawing tables and charts or images to demonstrate their thought process. They also displayed equations that were used at various stages in the solution process. Since marks were available for demonstrating the problem solving strategies used from start to finish, students also got into the habit of highlighting or underlining the important information in the problem. So what was the result of all of this?

  • Students were given credit for understanding various decisions that went into the problem solving process. This motivated them to demonstrate even a partial process (rather than simply estimate an answer without any evidence). Overall scores improved and students engaged in conversations about how their results improved.
  • The demonstration of process allowed me to recognize where instruction had been successfully grasped and provided me clues on where my instruction needed improvement.
  • Follow-up after the initial assessment allowed students to respond to alternate strategies and methods, prior to writing a similar assessment.
  • Re-evaluating their ability to solve multi-step problems provided in a multiple choice format on re-writes afforded me the chance to compare instructional strategies to utilize in upcoming lessons.
  • Students were encouraged to show their own unique strategies derived from connections they had made with previous learning.  Sometimes these strategies were embraced by the class since they had all been exposed to the previous learning.
  • This example of interdependent learning was encouraged but credit must be given to the students who took the risk to expose their unique problem solving process.

Showing process was not a goal limited to Math only. During our Evidence and Investigation unit in Science, students were provided opportunities to carry out finger printing, hand writing analysis and chromatography experiments. Throughout the experiments it was reinforced that the process of testing each criteria was the critical piece and that the final answer was simply the conclusion of the process.  Students who demonstrated these steps, were reward on their performance based assessment. The performance based assessment that had been created earlier by our team and revised from previous use to focus on process and inference was carried out in a collaborative setting.  This allowed students to ask new questions based on their initial results (an important aspect of Science we refer to as focus). Students who bought into the process and demonstrated their step by step analysis were rewarded with exceptional marks. This effective assessment tool still needs more revisions though since some students did not recognize the need to show the necessary analysis of all measurable evidence to come up with their conclusions (and it showed in their marks). Prior exposure to the detailed score sheet I utilized would have encouraged more students to show their process (but unfortunately it was not ready to share until after the assessment was completed). This was an opportunity lost and is a tool available if others choose to use this effective assessment.

In addition to the focus on demonstrating process, our team continued the school-wide focus on Inquiry. Inquiry was evident in three of the core subjects as projects in Humanities and Science provided students the opportunity to create their own guiding questions and then create meaning from the resulting research. Current Events and Greek Week were used to promote inquiry in Humanities. Sky Science afforded two opportunities for our students to present research on constellations and a planet of their choosing. My use of additional structure in these projects this year (regular feedback, rubrics and exemplars) was evident, since most students responded to the concepts we were measuring. The Sky Science projects had been used in the past with success and were ideal platforms to utilize inquiry. Unfortunately I was absent for the final days of Greek Week and missed the showcase and the stories students shared about their projects. Earlier projects in Science (Forest Management Project, Planet 11 Project) utilized inquiry and were excellent opportunities to engage in inference.  The Forest Management Project offered us the opportunity to engage in collaborative assessment since students were shifted to various classrooms to interact with other student groups. Collaborating during evaluation on LC wide common assessments is a topic I would like to reflect on next.

I feel we missed out on some valuable opportunities including ongoing collaborative evaluation by our team. This would include follow-up revisions to assessment practices based on patterns demonstrated in student results. The rare times that we did collaborate for evaluation purposes (team time used to evaluate the Language Arts Part A test) the team was afforded the opportunities to reflect on common assessment standards and what constituted proficient verses approaching proficient. Even with the use of exemplars and rubrics, there was plenty of dialogue requesting second opinions to verify our decisions. This is a time consuming process but one I felt was valuable for my own assessment practices. I believe it is essential for us to use assessment and results to drive our instruction and any meaningful dialogue we can have on common assessments is time well spent.

Although our team had many successes, I think that many new challenges came to our attention and will be addressed in the near future. What I have really appreciated over the past few years is the mindset in our building that seeking help with teaching practices is an opportunity for shared growth. Our teaching staff has consistently demonstrated enthusiasm when we come to them for guidance or simply a second opinion on learning strategies. It helps me reflect on my own practices when people consult me and I continually find better ways to improve the learning environment in my classroom. It makes a difference since we are constantly challenged to guide our students through more meaningful learning experiences.

Seems like a strange time to retire with so many opportunities to grow as an educator, with the necessary support network in place to ensure success.

New Role ~ New Teams ~ New Learning

 

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Trish Spink joined our school Leadership Team this year as she took on the role of our Inclusive Education Lead Teacher. In addition, Trish demonstrated her incredible flexibility and collaborative spirit by team teaching in Learning Community 6. Trish and her teaching team re-designed our Media Centre to accommodate two classes of students. Working more closely with Trish this year and seeing her non-stop enthusiasm, proactive and supportive approach with students, families and colleagues has been a real highlight of my year!

Reflection – Trish Spink 2013/2014

 The Risks I Took:

Taking the Inclusive Education position was a risk for me.  I remember when I was approached with this opportunity my initial thought was that I could never do this alone and I now know that I was right. What I learned this year is that I didn’t have to do it alone, and with the support of an amazing team I loved this position.  The constant communication and collaboration made it so I always knew the direction to take and had confidence in my ability to do what was best.  I also appreciated and grew from the encouragement for ongoing professional development and learning.   A highlight has been working closely with Administration, our Learning Coach and outside services to provide students and families extra support.  I have seen the benefits of how wrap around services can improve learning and promote health and wellness.  By taking this risk and with the amazing support, I realize that I am thrilled to continue this career path.

What I Loved:

This year I had the chance to work with and on many different teams.  A highlight has been team teaching.  Not only did I share a classroom space but I also shared my students.  In the beginning I struggled a bit with giving up control but I soon saw the benefits and realized that we were a natural fit.  I believe that being able to utilize flexible groupings allowed us to better meet the needs of our students and support all types of learners.  We were able to build upon each other’s strengths and this was evident in our student’s growth and in the supportive learning environment within our classroom community.  My students have become more independent and their thinking skills have matured as a result of this environment.

What I am Proud of:

The past two years part of my professional growth has been having my students develop good questioning skills. This year my students continued to develop this skill and I am proud of the quality of their learning.  We have been very conscientious to start each learning task with questioning and there has been a natural progression to where our students are now more capable of coming up with good questions.  Collectively our team has created dynamic learning tasks where the students have interacted with various skills in order to reach their end learning product. I am also very proud of our progression with technology because we have made it meaningful for the students and it has enhanced their learning.

What I Learned Along the Way:

I have learned many important things and have once again been reminded not to take anything for granted and that my life and my work is a gift. I love to work hard, play hard and “not sweat the small stuff.”