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In this installment of the TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of secondary teacher Kendra Spira and her colleagues at Erin District High School in the Upper Grand District School Board. Spira has created a learner-centred classroom that uses technology tools to help deepen student learning.


With only about 500 students, Erin District High School may be small in stature, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in caliber.


The school is one of the Upper Grand District School Board’s leading schools, ranked in the top 10% of Ontario secondary schools in the Fraser Institute School Rankings. This is due, in part, to the sheer scope of programs it offers, from a champion athletics program, to a renowned French Immersion program, to a thriving Drama department, to a plethora of clubs and activities for students to join.


students_using_cell_phones_to_learn.jpgIt also has a rich technology department, which has recently become even more robust due to the efforts of Science teacher Kendra Spira and her colleagues. Spira, a self-confessed techno-geek, is passionate about students, specifically the students in her Grade 10 Applied Science class, and how technology can deepen their learning.


About one quarter of the students at the school are in the applied stream and require a different approach to learning. Spira believes that a learner-centred approach and using technology will open the world of learning to these students and as a result, all students will benefit.


A few years ago, Spira started introducing the use of iPads to her Grade 10 students. “We started trying things and looking at them a bit differently,” she says. From there she ordered tablets for the classroom and that led to working with Google to try out different products with her students. Her aim was to capture and deepen student learning through using technology.


This past September, Spira joined forces with Geography and Phys.Ed. teacher Melanie Sammit and Science and Math teacher Megan Millen. “We've been looking at ways we can really engage kids using technology and then if they're engaged, helping them improve in their school work,” explains Spira.


Shifting to a Learner-Centred Classroom with Technology


Some students struggle with organization, focus, productivity and putting their thoughts into words. There are many apps and online resources that help address all of these issues and Spira has worked hard to get the students to begin using those apps as learning tools.


“Differentiated instruction and technology is a way to help some kids hook into what they're doing,” says Spira. “I feel that they're very strong kids, just not strong in academics in the traditional way.”


“Once I can get one or two of them trying it, and then they will show their buddy how this is working, and then it's not me saying they should use it, it's somebody else,” describes Spira.


students_accessing_assignments_in_hallway_on_tablets.jpgGrowth Mindset and Risk-Taking with Technology


When Spira began using technology with her students, she assumed they would be even more technologically advanced than she was. This was not the case. “They know how to use phones to play games but they don't know how to use phones for learning,” she laughs.


So she realized the teachers and students would be learning the technology together, which has proven to be a unique learning experience in and of itself. “Watching us falling on our faces at times has been really beneficial for the kids,” explains Spira. “To say ‘oh so Ms. Spira really doesn't know what she's doing, so maybe I can take a risk and try something too.’”


The teachers want to facilitate ways to help the students make their learning visible and explain their thinking. To do that, the teachers are using apps like Explain Everything and Adobe Voice with the students.


For instance, before shifting to a learner-centred approach, when Spira was teaching Balancing Chemical Equations, she would teach a lesson, have the students complete a worksheet and then there would be a test. Now, she teaches the lesson using Notability, where her notes are projected on a 70-inch TV screen in her classroom. The lesson is then posted to her Google Classroom where the students can access the lesson, not only written out, but narrated by Spira.


student_presentation_using_explain_everything.jpgInstead of a test, students are required to pick one of the equations that they had worked on in class, and using an app like Explain Everything, do the equation while explaining their thinking.


“So many of my kids when we started said they knew how to do it but they didn't know how to explain to someone else how to do it,” Spira recalls. “What we are finding is that their learning is really being pushed much deeper because they have to explain what they were doing and why they are doing it.”


Spira, Millen and Sammit all use Google Classroom, which is available to Google Apps For Education users, to send notes and assignments. All assignments are submitted through Classroom so assignments can be checked and then sent back to students for changes and re-submission. The students all have Classroom on their phones and they get notified every time something gets sent. “This helps increase student organization and accountability,” says Millen.


Students need a variety of supports depending on their learning needs. The use of Google Forms allows Spira to have quick access to student thinking and provides feedback on classroom activities, so both Spira and her students know what they need to do to improve.


Students who struggle with reading and writing use Read & Write for Google which can be used to hear assignments and documents read aloud with highlighted passages for easy following. The use of apps like Mindomo, helps students organize and draw connections between ideas and review prior to a test.


student_presentation_using_adobe_voice.jpgTo provide students with voice and choice, options like Adobe Voice, Explain Everything and iMovie allow students to present their learning orally rather than in written form. “What we're trying to do is get them to get their ideas out and then when they get their ideas out, then they have something they can write about,” explains Spira.


Lesson content and resources are now being presented in a different way. The daily use of Chromebooks and iPads gives students and teachers the added value of online resources and videos. “Access to these devices allows students to view videos on topics we are learning in class to solidify information that they have learned,” explains Millen.


Spira has also made her digital binder of lessons public, so that parents can have access to some of the activities the students are learning and other teachers can use the lessons themselves.


The Impact of Shifting to a Learner-Centred Classroom


grade_nine_students_explain_learning.jpgAs a result of focusing on student-centred learning with  technology, Spira, Millen and Sammit have all changed how they approach their courses-- and working collaboratively has heightened their enthusiasm.


“It's been a real journey,” says Spira. “Melanie and Megan are discovering things and bringing them to me and it's been amazing and really exciting. That confidence that we feel just spreads to our students.”


“I have had the opportunity to explore new apps, programs, and ways of integrating technology, which has allowed me to improve my teaching methods, and therefore has improved student engagement,” acknowledges Sammit.  “Students have had the chance to work more interactively with information, which improves their engagement and allows them to take ownership of their learning.”


Grade 10 student Moses Santos, agrees. “The way we have been using technology makes it way easier to access information,” he says. “It lets me get the ideas from my head onto the paper easier so that my teacher can understand how much I know.”


“When we used the technology I understood the stuff we were learning way better,” says student Johnny-Tranter Allan.  “I actually remembered the stuff we were learning.”


Liam McGill, echoes his classmates’ enthusiasm: “When we use the technology, like the iPads, it’s way easier to explain what I mean,” he says.


Shifting to a learner-centred approach and providing students with different ways to learn and celebrate their work has been game-changing for the students and teachers alike. The technology has been a valuable tool in their teaching toolbox and the teachers plan on extending its use throughout the whole school and beyond.


Some of the Apps Used by the Teachers:


Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this teacher in Share under:

TeachOntario Talks Discussions: Using a Learner-Centred Classroom to Inspire and Engage Struggling Students

Teacher-with-students.pngIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas from Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board’s Monsignor Castex School in Midland and their work on inquiry learning.


What is the recipe for an effective and vibrant student-led inquiry classroom?


That’s what teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas aimed to find out when they embarked on their Teacher Learning and Leadership Program project entitled Uncovering Content: Integrating Critical Thinking into Social Studies for the 21st Century Learners in 2013.


The teaching pair launched their investigation while teaching at Midland’s Monsignor Castex School, of the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, where Douglas taught in the junior division and Robitaille was the K to 8 Special Education Resource teacher. Confident in their students’ desire to be actively engaged in their learning, the pair believed the inquiry learning approach would inspire the children and ultimately improve learning outcomes.


teacher-team-photos.png“The hope was that we would create a classroom that had students engaged, motivated and excited about learning, and the bonus is that we developed a love and a passion for teaching like never before,” says Robitaille, who is now retired. “Now school is fun and exciting for both students and teacher. The inquiry-based approach changed how the class looks, feels and sounds. This approach changed our way of teaching and learning.”


According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, Inquiry-based learning is “an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the centre of the learning experience. Educators play an active role throughout the process by establishing a culture where ideas are respectfully challenged, tested, redefined and viewed as improvable, moving children from a position of wondering to a position of enacted understanding and further questioning.”


Step One: Getting to Know the Students


In order to put student questions and curiosities center-stage, Douglas and Robitaille recognized they had to really get to know their students. The pair used a variety of strategies to achieve this, including engaging the the kids in activities centered on the students’ lives and interests. The teachers also made maintaining this connection with the kids throughout the year a priority.inquiry-groups.png

“Every kid in your classroom has something to offer and has a set of strong interests,” says Douglas, who continues to teach at the school. “They all want to learn, even if it doesn’t seem so on particular days. Find out what these strong interests are, allow them to pursue them, and watch amazing collaboration happen in your room!”


This sort of connection helps students to feel safe and cared for in a classroom, Douglas explains, which studies have shown, leads to greater engagement and, often, higher academic achievement.


Step Two: Creating a Safe Learning Environment


The next step in helping the students feel free and safe to open up and explore the world was to rethink the set-up of the classroom, Douglas explains. Clearing away anything that was not directly connected to student learning, Douglas decluttered his room, making sure learning tools were easily accessible and clearly labeled. Key to this classroom refresh was reconfiguring the student desks into small group settings in an effort to foster collaborative work. Small group work transformed the classroom into supportive learning teams, keeping his student energized, motivated and supported, Douglas explains.



With the students clustered in working teams, Douglas moved from his standard position at the front of the room leading the discussion, to sitting alongside his students, guiding and coaching their learning and hoping to spark their curiosity, he says.


Step Three: Establishing Routines


Before students could successfully embark upon group work, however, the team discovered it was important to establish routines in the classroom and teach the students the skills they would need. Modeling expectations, establishing what the classroom ‘feels like’ and ensuring students can work independently were critical to this, the teachers explain. These routines were an important base upon which groups could work effectively.


Step Four: Introducing Social Skills


Every student needs to understand their role in group work situations, how to treat each other respectfully, how to deal with conflict and how to divide work within the group, Douglas says. “In our class, we built a collaborative culture by introducing a number of activities such as pair discussion (think-pair-share), and another lesson that works well with students is ‘Home Court Advantage: Showing Friendliness,’" he says. This ability to work and collaborate in small groups is a vital 21st Century competency, studies show.


Step Five: Launching Mini-Inquiries


To teach the students how to investigate questions, and then demonstrate their learning and understanding, the teachers learned it was best to begin by sharing their own questions and curiosities. From there, the students asked questions as they searched for their own answers. As a classroom, the students and teachers then started to brainstorm questions for mini-inquiries that the class could use to build their understanding of the inquiry process.


The teachers used the 2013 Ontario Revised Social Studies/History and Geography policy document to guide them with tools and strategies to work critical thinking into the inquiry process. The policy states, "It is crucial that students not simply learn various facts but that they acquire the ability to think and process content in ways best suited to each subject." By moving away from memorizing facts, teachers need to plan and promote students' inquiry to explore issues and deepen their understanding.


Examples of questions the class considered during the project included:


  • What exactly is the value of homework?
  • The 3D movies are fun, but is the movie going experience really better? students-working-in-a-group.png
  • How much sleep do we need?
  • Do kids really need cell phones?


Often, the students would discover one question would lead to others.


Inquiry in Action


Offering students a variety of learning opportunities while also maintaining focus on curriculum goals (for this project, Social Studies, History and Geography) was vital to successful inquiry learning in the classroom, the Robitaille and Douglas explain.


A class inquiry examined the question 'What might life be like in other parts of Canada?' This question offered a terrific opportunity to put inquiry into action in Douglas’ classroom. “This was just perfect: open-ended enough to allow true inquiry, but focused enough to provide a clear framework for the work ahead.”


The pair also reported they had a great level of student engagement by integrating technology into many of the activities used to support the inquiry. Some of these activities included:


  • Newscasts: iMovie, the students wrote, recorded, and presented a series of newscasts reporting on the events, climate and culture of different regions in Canada. Photo Booth allowed students to create endless backdrops and background videos.
  • Tellagami Weather Reports: Tellagami app offered students the chance to create personal avatars to report on the weather phenomena in their assigned region of Canada. “The reports were absolutely hilarious, highly creative, and the end product was so polished, it was perfect,” Douglas says.
  • Stop Motion Claymation: Stop Animator. “It was a blast to see how creative they were in depicting all kinds of regional quirks,” Douglas reports. “What an amazingly fun and truly creative task.”
  • Google Earth Tour Builder: Students used this app to add pictures and text and build a Google Earth-powered virtual tour of their assigned region of the country.




inquiry-video.pngThe children were a lot happier in the classroom because of this inquiry approach to teaching and learning, Robitaille adds. “They were active, asking questions, being creative, doing research and producing work that was often marveled by peers, adults and teachers,” she adds. The students presented their thinking to the class and have become teachers themselves. “They were curious and interested in learning from each other,” she says. “This classroom became a workshop where the students collaborated, shared ideas, supported each other and most importantly encouraged each other. It’s surprising how students learn to build on each others strengths, much the same way adults do, when they work in a positive environment.”


Being immersed in finding answers is a lot more fun than listening to lessons or studying a book, one of Douglas’ students stresses. “I really like it,” she says. “It’s just a lot of fun. You get to work with all of your classmates instead of just doing workbooks.” Another student says Douglas’ classes are fun because he and his classmates get to teach too. “We learn in different ways,” he explains, “like with presentations. So we get to show our work to the class and it’s not just Mr. Douglas teaching. The class gets to teach.”


The teachers also learned a great deal from the process, including the value of working as a team with other educators. "I learned that teaching is so much easier when you collaborate with a colleague," Robitaille explains. "It was important for us to take time out of the day to connect, to support each other, to share, and to engage in deep conversations about what we were learning and doing in the classroom."


Ultimately, both Robitaille and Douglas found the students were more motivated and engaged than ever before after learning in the inquiry setting. “Students say they love school and can’t wait to begin the day,” Douglas reports. In the end, the students’ work far exceeded the team’s expectations.


Principal Judith Gatt found the students in Douglas' classroom to be more engaged and excited by their learning than before. "You see these students doing things, reading for purpose and it's authentic and they're going to use what they're reading in their projects when they report back," she explains. "I also get a lot of comments from parents when they get the report cards back from Pete's class. They talk about how much they know that Pete knows their child. He knows the child's strengths and he knows the child's weaknesses and he's looking at next steps."


The Team's Apps



Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this teacher in Share under:

TeachOntario Talks Discussions: Curiosity and Teamwork Make the Perfect Recipe for Student-led Inquiry Learning.