Glebe Collegiate Institute, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB)

By Al Overwijk and Lynn Pacarynuk

Change. That’s really the subtext of this story. It’s the story of how we have seen our practice change over these past several years. And even more, it’s the story of how our school, Glebe Collegiate Institute (Glebe CI), has rethought its approach to teaching and assessment in order to engage secondary students, and build thinking classrooms. It’s a story that spans many years, involves countless people, and best of all, continues to be written across the province. 

Our story begins fairly typically. Although our contexts were somewhat different, both of us recognized that what we were doing wasn’t working. Our traditional ways of teaching students with textbooks, lectures, examples, and paper and pencil tasks, were leaving many students unengaged and unsuccessful, especially our students in Applied classes. And so we came to the realization that either our students had to change -- and that didn’t seem very likely! --  or we had to. 

At the same time we were personally experiencing a need for change, our school board was experiencing a journey of its own, a journey that centered on assessment. The board had already begun shifting its focus from teaching to learning, and the impact of instruction. It was moving from a norm-referenced approach to assessment, to descriptive feedback and assessment that was judged against success criteria. And instead of evaluation being based on weighted averages of single-point measures, it was looking to more qualitative and holistic approaches, where assessment was organized by levels and by categories of criteria. Resources like TIPS and TIPS4RM were influential in helping us all see what this might look like in the classroom. And when Growing Success was released, it felt like an affirmation of everything we wanted to do and gave us the permission to do it. 

A major turning point for us came in 2009, when our board reimagined the final district wide exams for grade 10 academic and applied math. The Math Evaluation Project (MEP), as it was called, completely overhauled the organization and structure of the exam. It removed all marks; it reduced the number of questions; it created questions based on categories, and was organized by strand and expectation; it featured rubrics for evaluating student responses; and it had multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding. 

It was against this context -- our own discontent with traditional ways of teaching and our board’s new approaches to assessment -- that we both decided to take the plunge and pursue new ways to enhance learning. But it certainly didn’t happen overnight. And we definitely weren’t alone. Through our work as coaches and leaders in implementing the Math Evaluation Project, a community arose from the board and in particular with our colleagues at Glebe Collegiate. At the same time, people like Dan Meyer (Three-Act Math), Carol Dweck (mindset), Robert Bjork (memory), and Peter Brown (interleaved practice), were inspiring us with concrete ideas for how to move our practice forward.  And with the arrival of the Math Twitter Blogosphere (#MTBoS), we were able to connect with educators from across North America to share ideas and collaborate. 

Our Glebe Collegiate principals -- France Thibault followed by Steve Massey -- were critical in fueling this momentum.  They prioritized professional learning and created an environment where we were free to explore and assess different approaches to teaching. In fact, if there was one overarching influence along our journey of change, it was this opportunity for teachers to come together to collaborate and learn. One particularly significant professional learning structure was lesson study where a cross-curricular group of Glebe colleagues set aside regular time to develop a lesson, analyze student learning, and reflect on the impact of the lesson together. The opening up and sharing of our classrooms for co-planning, co-teaching, and moderation were key components for our personal growth and for our growth as a school.  The opportunity to try new instructional practices, receive immediate feedback from our students, and reflect together helped build the toolbox of every educator involved. It was revolutionary. 

All these factors worked together to create the perfect incubator for change:

  • a recognition that too many students were disengaging from math;
  • our own personal desire to change and grow;
  • leadership, at both the school and district level, that supported and encouraged learning and collaboration;
  • multiple opportunities for professional learning;
  • a school community that worked together to try new ideas. 

We began by incorporating problem-solving tasks and activity-based learning with the singular goal of improving student engagement. But we also found that these activities typically addressed multiple expectations which inadvertently led to us into spiraling the curriculum.  By spiraling the curriculum, students encountered an expectation several times during a semester, something we found improved student learning. 

So engagement was increasing.  Learning was increasing.  And the use of activities also transformed our classroom environments.  Our students were engaged in collaborative problem-solving.  The activities we used had multiple entry points for different learners and were open-ended enough for students to extend their thinking as they were ready.  The approach was inherently differentiated to meet students where they were at, and encouraged students to cooperate and learn from others. 

The final piece of the puzzle came when Dr. Peter Liljedahl (Simon Fraser University) spoke to us about thinking classrooms.  Our classes were already doing rich tasks and working collaboratively, but his ideas took us to the next level.  Students went from solving problems on chart paper while sitting at desks, to solving problems in pairs while standing at vertical non-permanent surfaces (VNPS), like white boards, where their thinking was visible to everyone in the class.  And we incorporated flexible and visibly random groupings in order to enhance collaboration and encourage a “mobility of knowledge between students” since every day students would be working with a different colleague.  With these changes, the time on task improved, as did engagement.  The whiteboards gave students permission to make mistakes and try different strategies, without fear of messing up their paper. They grew more comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable.  And perhaps because students were already standing, or because everyone’s work was visible, or because there was now no place to hide, students began engaging in math conversations with other groups standing close by when they needed help.  They shared their ideas and helped each other get over hurdles. In a very real sense, the class was “de-fronted”. The learning and interactions were happening throughout the entire room.  The student’s work became the new front of the class.  

As students came to expect and accept the idea of random groups, as they learned to seek help from peers, as their engagement and confidence grew, and as they started taking greater ownership over their learning, our role as the teacher gradually became the manager of “flow”.   Flow is that sweet spot where both a student’s level of challenge and level of skill are “just right”.  Too much challenge for the level of skill and frustration sets in; too little challenge and a student is bored.  

Managing flow is the art of teaching.  It involves constantly monitoring how students are doing, interacting with them, asking them questions, giving hints and extensions to help them think more deeply about the connections between concepts.  It is assessment for learning, and is critical to creating a culture where students are in charge of their own learning: empowered to ask questions, willing to support classmates, and make choices to move their learning back into flow. 

The videos below provide more detail around what each of these practices look like, why we’ve found them helpful, and how we have incorporated them into our classrooms.  They have transformed the way we teach and changed how we think about our students, particularly those in applied and college classes.  It has been a good journey.  A journey of culture change.  

And it is a journey filled with travellers all throughout Ontario.  So as you, your department, your school, or board incorporate High-Impact Instructional Practices in Math with your students, know that you are not alone. 

About Al Overwijk

Al Overwijk is a secondary math teacher and formerly the math department head at Glebe Collegiate Institute in the Ottawa Carleton DSB. He has been teaching mathematics for 30 years and has always been a student of teaching. Al is a provincial pioneer in embracing spiraling and thinking classrooms, and is a popular speaker that conducts workshops throughout North America on a variety of topics in the teaching of mathematics. He has valued his collaboration time with colleagues around Ontario and thrives on learning from others. He is renowned for being the World Freehand Circle Drawing Champion. Al has also been active in the basketball community in Ottawa throughout his teaching career. Al lives in Ottawa with his wife and two teenage boys.

About Lynn Pacarynuk

Lynn is the math department head at Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa Carleton DSB. She has twenty years of experience as a secondary math educator and has been at the forefront of innovative thinking in mathematics education. Lynn has been a Ministry curriculum writer and an instructional coach at her school board. She led the Math Evaluation Project (MEP) and Senior English Evaluation Project (SEEP) in support of changing assessment and instructional practices at the OCDSB. Lynn has led numerous workshops at the board and provincial level, including topics of spiraling, changing assessment practices, observations and conversations, and test design. Lynn values collaboration and is grateful to be able to continually learn from others.