Using a Learner-Centred Classroom to Inspire and Engage Struggling Students

Blog Post created by teachontarioteam on Apr 18, 2016


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:


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