Sunday, April 6, 2014

A moment of connected learning--and Teaching: the Camera Obscura Project

After a year of planning this lesson in my head, I finally got to put it into action.  Part of my subject area in technological studies includes teaching high school students about photography.  I teach both film and digital techniques, but with each area I teach, I alway start with a historical reference point of how technology has evolved and how it shapes the technology used today.

My student teacher, Matt Dailey and I didn't know if this lesson was going to blow up in our faces but I decided that regardless of the outcome, it was going to be a great teaching/learning moment for everyone involved and it didn't disappoint.  We booked a small room in our local library that is attached and shared by my school.  We needed a room that we could have access to for the entire day (although a few days would have been nice).  We began to paper the windows using roofing paper so as to create a light proof environment to create a camera obscura.  Originally I planned to do this in warmer weather, but winter hasn't retreated as in past years at this time.  The windows frames of the room are made out of aluminium and proved to be a bit tricky as the duct tape kept releasing due to the cold temperature.  Regardless, with almost a full roll of roofing paper and 3 rolls of duct tape, we managed to create a light proof environment.

The covering of the windows.

The addition of a disposable aluminum pizza tray was added to act as a lens.  Previously, a variety of holes were created in the plate and each hole was individually covered with a piece of electrical tape to allow us to discover the correct aperture for the room size.  The plate lens was mounted in a central position of the chosen window after cutting an opening in the roofing paper cover.

Plate lens before openings were covered.

View from lens

The window was chosen for both its view and location of a wall of cupboards on the opposite side.  In order to provide a smooth light surface to project the image on, a large white background was added in front of the wall of cupboards.  I'm lucky that I happen to use lighting stands and large rolls of paper as part of my classroom studio, but a bed sheet or tablecloth would definitely suffice.  The leftover roll of roofing paper was placed by the door to block out any light that would come under the door.  

Now that I've described the process for building a camera obscura--which between the two of us took approximately an hour to do, the real teaching/learning moments began.  

As my grade 11 students arrived for class, I explained to them that we didn't really know how today's lesson was going to go.  I knew that it was going to go either one of two ways:  it was going to be a moment of  awesomeness or it was going to blow up in our faces and I was okay with that.  I watch the expression on my students' faces change in that moment:  their teacher had just told them that she didn't know if something was going to work, but but was willing to lose face in front of a bunch of teenagers.    I went on to remind the students that throughout the course I have been repeating my classroom mantra, "through failure, you will learn."  I explained that there were so many things that could go wrong:  in actuality the weather wasn't cooperating as it had started to rain and the tape was having difficulty sticking to the cold aluminum window frames.  The opportunity was worth the risk as they were going to experience what Mo Ti had in 5000 BC as well as the countless scientists, explorers and and artists who had used this tool in their own projects.  Regardless, it would require cooperation and teamwork for it to work.  We quickly made our way down to the library and filed into the room.  The first activity that the students were asked to do was to assess the room and any issues that it may have.  Items were moved from the floor and a missed window in the door itself was quickly covered.  Students chatted and joked as they sat on the floor.  The door was closed, the roll of roofing paper was placed in front of the bottom of the door and the lights were turned off.  At first the students giggled a bit about sitting in a dark room with their teachers, but then I directed them to carefully watch the white backdrop as their pupils adjusted.  I have to admit that I was holding my breath at that moment.  I frantically began to think of possible contingencies plans to implement if the lesson failed, but then I began to notice the faint appearance of upside down tree branches...

30 second exposure with overcast skies

30 second exposure when the skies cleared

As I pointed out their location, students began to say that they couldn't see them, but then it was like a collective light switch was turn on and the gasps of surprise occurred across the room.  I began to cheer that we had created a camera obscura as the snow, road and other trees became more visible.  At this point the entire class began to cheer and applaud--all for an ancient form of technology that requires no batteries.  I reminded the students how this would relate to all of the science and physics lessons they had received on optics, how Joseph Petzval's  theory guides the diameter of the lens, how the explorers made the incredible first maps with extraordinary accuracy and how artists adopted this tool that gave birth to the realism period.  The conversation quickly grew and the students became more excited as they connected how this room related to so many of their other courses.  At one point, one of the students actually shouted, "I love science."  

In that moment, I wish the science department could have been there and the math department too as other students began to talk about how they had learned about Petzval in math class.  It truly was a moment of connected learning.  While everyone was busily chatting away about the experiment, the rain stopped and the sky became a little brighter.    Although the image was still rather dim, it did become brighter and more visible.  I picked up a piece of white bristol board to show the effect of  depth of field or how close the screen must be towards the lens to created a sharper image.  The students were amazed at how sharp the image became as I got closer.  One student volunteered to run outside of the window so that everyone to watch him appear.  We watched as he suddenly appeared to be dancing on the ceiling.  Nobody really wanted to leave the room but once we returned to the classroom, a class discussion about the evolution of technology continued.  We began to talk about the importance of understanding both new and old technology as technological studies students and how  this allows us to differentiate and evaluate technology in order to choose the best one at any given time.

A week later, students were still discussing the experience.

My grade 10s are currently in their darkroom unit and as they watched their pinhole negatives develop in the developing tray that same wonder occurred.  I also noticed that students had a better understanding why their images didn't work and what modification were required to the cameras they had created.  On a recent field trip, my grade 11s asked if I was planning on building another camera obscura.  When I asked if they thought it was a good idea and did they learn something from it, they enthusiastically said yes....and the conversation continued on the bus.  I said that next time I will be covering all of the walls so that they could experience the panoramic effect that occurs.

I should also note that other teachers and students came down to experience the room first hand.  Our acting principal actually sat with my grade 10s and other teachers and students came after school.  The room was busy for an hour after the final bell on a Friday.  Although it didn't work out for this semester, science students were going to utilize the room for their optics unit, art students were going to use tracings from it and other subjects were going to use it in their own related units.  

Such a simple, cheap idea with incredible results; I hope you build your own camera obscura room with your students.

Side Note

If you don't have access to a room with a window, try to find some old family size canvas tents that you can create an opening in.  You may need to build a tent in a tent and then place some dark tarps/cloths on top but it can have the same results.  The importance is using materials to create that light proof environment.  Your lens can still be attached with duct tape; I would also recommend using a drill to create your holes and sanding them with ultra fine sandpaper for better results.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A new chapter in my life.

Last night as I was casually trying to catch up on my email, I was scrolling through 500+ emails I hadn't had a chance to read during the week.  While I was trying to sort through which ones were notifications and emails that required my immediate attention, the word congratulations caught my eye.  As I was scrolling on my iPad, I began to frantically try and find that one word, that one word I've been hoping to see since my application was submitted to UofC.  And then I found it; my pulse quickened and I couldn't speak as tears welled up in my eyes.  I was thrilled that I got to share this incredible moment--good or bad with my family.   The smiles on my daughters' faces grew as my husband read that I have been accepted into the University of  Calgary's faculty of Education Ed.D. program.

Here I go again and I applied knowing that 50% of doctorate candidates never finish, but I'm lucky as I have 2 teenagers to remind me why I need to finish and not quit what I start.  I'm also lucky that my husband is committed to see me through this journey and my family is thrilled and full of encouragement too.

I have so much to do to prepare for this summer but I think first I will let this sink in and enjoy the moment.

Go Dinos!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

One of the most important lessons I have learned.

After a stressful two weeks of putting my application together to apply for University of Calgary's Ed.D program, I had one of my most important lessons from my eldest daughter.   I was frustrated with a case of writer's block due to illness and lack of sleep and I decided that taking a break from writing my statement of intent would clear my head.  I walked into my daughter's room and asked how her homework was going and we talked about how frustrating it can be when the words don't come easily.  We spoke for a few minutes about what she was working on and she then asked me what I was having trouble with.  The words that came out of her mouth next made me sit down and write.  When I told her that I had to write about why I would be a good Ed.D candidate,  she said "because you're a hard worker."

My children have always been and will always be when of my greatest sources of inspiration.  When I was exhausted and wanted to give up on my masters, the thought of facing them was enough to drive me forward.  When my belief waned of whether I could finish it, all I had to do was envision their faces as I walked across the commencement stage.

Learning to find sources of inspiration are an important skill for anyone to obtain--I believe that this skill should be incorporated in a student's education.  My sources of inspiration are often subject specific when I reflect on my education.   Some of these sources are moments in history, inventors, theorists, works of art, inspirational sayings.  I found them randomly, through research and from the people in my lives.  Recognizing their importance and role in my life and work has been a life long process.

My goal is now trying to formally add this learning skill into my classroom and the timing couldn't be better.  When I return from winter break, my students will be entering the last few weeks of the fall semester and the workload will be ramping up with final summative activities and exams.  For some students, this workload will seem overwhelming.  It is these students in particular who will need to find their sources of inspiration for not only attacking the overall workload, but to successfully complete each activity and exam.

I always start the new year by drawing a life timeline on the whiteboard that visualizes how short a student's school life  is, but how long it's impact will have on a student's quality of life.  This year I will add a twist as I will ask my students to change their desktop image to the most expensive item they hope to own one day.

I will then follow up with a sticky note exercise.  I will be placing a pile of sticky notes by each student's work station.  Each student will be asked to open the assignment that he or she is finding most frustrating to date and then the students will asked to walk around each other's work areas and leave 2 comments with the sticky notes.  One statement is to be a complement and the other a suggestion; students will then return to their desks and collect the sticky notes about their assignment and reflect on what their peers like about their assignment as well as suggestions for improvement.  Before I ask my students to log off and get ready for their next class, I will ask them to pause and look at their new desktop image and reflect what they're going to do now so that they will be able to buy it one day.

I'm curious to see how this goes......stay tune in the new year for the results.

Monday, November 25, 2013

What should come first learning to teach or the pedagogy of teaching?

I remember the first class and the first time that I heard of Bloom's Taxonomy.  There were three things that popped into my mind:

  1. Does this have anything to do with flowers?  I grow roses so I believe you can see how I came up with that idea.
  2. Does taxonomy have anything to do with taxidermy or taxes? Really it's about classification?
  3. How is this 1956 paper going to help me in today's classroom?  After all, what I was looking for in teacher's college was the magic formula that was going to make me into a super teacher. How was reading about a bunch of theories going to help me or any other new teacher?
The problem was that at the time I was so impatient and nervous of becoming a teacher--a good teacher that I forgot to be a good learner.  Even now, a year after finishing my masters, I am revisiting lectures and papers I read and realizing how they're applicable in today's classroom.  The more I think about this, I'm really not that different from many of my students.  With their G.P.A.'s being held over their heads to whether or not they'll continue on to post secondary, learning sometimes takes a back seat to performance--and one doesn't necessarily take place with the other.  

 It's a shame when learning to takes a back seat to the final mark.  Although my personal academic focus is on mobile learning and smartphones, my real goal is to further engage learners to develop independent learning skills and see value not only with acquiring knowledge but working beyond the basic scope.  The problem that I face with teaching this way is time.  It's much like how I learn.  On the surface I obtain the information, but the challenge is how deep do I comprehend it?  With this in mind, it's difficult to meet the needs of learners under time constraints.  

As an educator, I too feel the learners' frantic pace as I try to squeeze all of the required curriculum in the set period of time.  While attending teacher's college, I tried to identify how Bloom's taxonomy could be applied, but without experience the learning cycle of a student, I didn't really grasp the importance of it.  After teaching for 16 years, I can identify when students are only superficially scratching the surface of topic leaving them able to spew back shared information, but lack the ability to apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate the information/skill's purpose and role.  It's honestly taken me years to take these theories (and to have the time to revisit them) and evaluate them with purpose.  Montessori's approach is one of my favourites and to me is the basis of problem based learning (PBL).  While I re-examine PBL, I have to tip my hat to Seymour Papert for his work in constructivism theory.  As our society changes so does our need for educational approaches that are still deeply rooted in quickly pounding information into students' heads.  As I digress on this point, it leads me back to my original idea for this blog is that sometimes one of the best approaches or tools to increase the learner's synthesis of knowledge is to allow the time for the learning to take place.

Now that I have gotten off of my pedagogical soap box, I am left with the question "how do we allow more time for learning to take place?"  In essence I feel like the learner who is leaving the final examination room only to realize what the answer is to "that question."  Right now, I'm still stuck in that room, but I'll keep looking for answers.  In the mean time, I will seek opportunities to have these discussions with student teachers who are at my school on practicum.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Super Ninja Teaching Moment

Just to be up front, I have never trained or studied any martial arts—that would be my daughters.  I have watched a lot of kung fu films as a Bruce Lee fan, but I do not consider that training.  When I refer to my super ninja teaching moment, I am referring to an incredible moment in an educator’s life when all of your teaching ideas and lessons come together in a learning moment of awesomeness. 

Today was my day.  I wish I had recorded or bottled it so that I could revisit or share this perfect moment.  Just how athletes will rehash that amazing play of the day or a doctor will talk about how they found an impossible diagnosis, educators will share when the most disillusioned student suddenly becomes impassioned in the classroom.

For my new educators or anyone who hasn’t taught in a formal classroom. it is these moments that makes educators want to teach.  If you’re wondering what it looks or feels like, watch any of those great teacher movies—Mr. Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and my personal favourite To Sir With Love. ­When educators watch these movies, we image being Sydney Portier and all of the students are sitting in a classroom having incredible discussions about the curriculum of the day.  They’re not just finishing their classwork, they’re mastering it and teaching each other.  Anyone who has considered entering this profession has these kinds of fantasies.  When I’m having a bad day, I’ll secretly watch these films and think that I really do make difference and tomorrow will get better. 

However, today started as an ordinary day, but something quickly happened when I had my grade 9 students try out a new skill.  They had success and it create a drive for further success.  When my grade 11s arrived, they immediately went to there newly formed groups and started brainstorming.    They kept going right to the bell and beyond; the smiles were ear to ear as they came up with solutions and ideas.  There was no bickering or wasting of time—their goal was clear and they were going to ensure that it happened.   My grade 12s were no different, they were helping each other while solving their own problems and they were talking about the future. 

My description can’t justified what happened today in classroom but I can say that the energy and learning level was off of the charts—I got the best bonus as an educator and I hope for more.  I also recognize that not everyone shared in his or her own moment.  Some teachers had the opposite kind of day, but a good teacher knows to share in these moments, as they will help you get through the darkest days.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Reflections from attending ECOO13

A week ago I attended another fabulous ECOO conference that was organized under the leadership of co-chairs +Doug Peterson  and +Cyndie Jacobs.  All of the volunteers worked extremely hard to do the impossible--top last year's conference. Three years ago I decided to start saving my landyards and hanging them up in my office and I'm sorry I don't have my landyards from the earlier conferences that I attended.  I choose to display my landyards in my office to remind me to  reflect on the knowledge I have gained from these conferences as well to reflect on the importance of continuing to learn.  I have to also thank +Harry Niezen  who first introduced and encouraged me to attend this conference.  He is one of the volunteers that helps plan and run this conference.  His support as a WRDSB secondary consultant always has me exploring new resources and possibilities.  He continues to also provided me opportunities to expand and share my skills.

Leaving your classroom requires a lot of organizing and preparation, but what you gain to bring back to your students makes well worth it. There is no good time to attend a conference.  If you're not starting a new unit, you're getting ready for parent teacher night or report cards.  I missed my school's parent teacher night, but I was willing to do what was necessary to ensure I met those obligations upon my return.  This afternoon I will be contacting all of the parents who left their contact information.  Regardless of what's necessary, ECOO13 had a vast array of workshops, presentations, education suppliers,  and discussion panels.  There were also three keynote speakers that left me energized and inspired to return to the classroom.

+Amber Mac had me furiously bookmarking WBLT resource after resource.  In between book marking, I was trying to tweet them out as they were too good not to share.  As I look at my list of incredible new resources, it reminds the importance for educators to share their knowledge.  The creation of new ideas and resources as increased expeditiously with this digital age and there is no way that anyone person or group can keep up with it.  By sharing, we have the ability to improve all students' learning.

+Jaime Casap's stories of his childhood in Hell's Kitchen and how he see the role of technology in learning and teaching has left me reflecting on the importance of teaching students the importance of remaining in control of the role that technology should play in their lives.  The bigger picture is as important as the knowledge that technology allows you to gain.

+Kevin Honeycutt's address literally made me and others cry while he shared stories from his childhood and teaching various disadvantaged students who include ones that are serving sentences in the juvenile penal system.  He reminded all of us how sometimes we are the only positive role models and sources of support in our students' lives.  He shared the impact that his elementary teacher had on him when she hug him knowing that he probably had lice.  Not being shunned knowing his past helped him become the person and educator he is today.  Whether we as educators know it or not, we have the ability to do the same.  I have had similar experiences with some of my past students.   This year when I read a past student's application to teacher's college, I discovered that I was one of the first adults who made it okay  for him to be gay.  Tears streamed down my face when I read how during one particular class I had addressed some students and the class how homophobic slurs or behaviour were not socially acceptable and would not be tolerated in my class ever.  I didn't think twice about that day,  but it had a positive impact for at least one student in that class and changed the behaviour of some others.  Kevin's talk has me asking myself each day, if my actions with my students have helped or hindered with their growth as a person and as a learner.

On top of these incredible speakers, there was a whirlwind of talks to attend--lunch and breaks were sacrificed or eaten on the run so as not to miss anything.   If you haven't visited the ECOO13 landyard to view the various resources by the speakers, I highly encourage that you do.  It's great how speakers can share their information so that anyone who couldn't attend that particular talk or the conference itself could view these resource.  My own slides from my presentation are located here as well.  Throughout the talks, I was tweeting quotes and resources to both my educator and student followers.  After my talk on the Thursday, I read over the tweets of the attendees and saw the knowledge being shared.  I was both excited and flattered that I was worth those 140 characters.   It's amazing how the social media allows to share, teach and learn in real time.  I had colleagues and students engaged in exploring and discussing the various talks that I attended.

 This is why I spend the time to prepare my class, create a talk to share with my fellow educators and attend the annual ECOO conference.  I hope to see you there next November--I've already added to my calendar.