Episode #134: How To Fall In Love With Teaching Again – An Interview with Alex Overwijk

Jun 21, 2021 | Podcast | 0 comments


Today we bring on our old friend Alex Overwijk from Ottawa Ontario who shares his teaching journey and transformation from a pretty typical high school math teacher to an engaging activity based thinking classroom advocate! 

In our discussion we learn the answers to how to engage your students with activity based learning, why finding a teaching partner who is willing to make change with you is so important, why you should be “all in” on a Thinking Classroom, how to draw senior students in to your lesson when the concepts are abstract, and why we should assess and evaluate with more than single unit tests.

You’ll Learn

  • How to engage your students with activity based learning. 
  • Why finding a teaching partner who is willing to make change with you is so important
  • Why you should be “all in” on a Thinking Classroom. 
  • How to draw senior students into your lesson when the concepts are abstract. 
  • Why we should assess and evaluate with more than single unit tests.
Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Alex Overwijk: ... but the number one thing you can do is teacher efficacy. It turns out, the best thing you can do is to find a partner and design together and think about how you're teaching and work on a course together and do it differently. The best thing you can do is to find someone who's willing to change and do it differently. crosstalk.

Jon Orr: Today, we bring on our old friend, Alex Overwijk, from Ottawa, Ontario who shares his teaching journey and a radical transformation from a pretty typical high school math teacher to an engaging, activity-based, thinking classroom advocate.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, Jon, it's great to bring on our friend, Alex, from... we'll say, the Great North of Ontario, which is kind of a crosstalk lie, it's just north of us, Northeast of us, we should say. But in this discussion, we explore some answers to questions like how to engage your students with activity-based learning? Why finding a teaching partner who is willing to make change with you is so important. Why you should be all in on a thinking classroom. How to draw senior students into your lesson when the concepts are abstract. Jon, we get that question all the time.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kyle Pearce: And why we should assess and evaluate with more than single unit tests.

Jon Orr: Yeah, I'm ready for this one. Let's dive into this, Kyle. Let's go.

Kyle Pearce: All right. Here it comes with our good friend, Alex.
Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr. We are from Make Math Moments and together...

Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of Math Moment Makers worldwide, who want to build problem-based math lessons that spark curiosity-

Jon Orr: ... and fuel sense-making-

Kyle Pearce: ... and finally ignite your teacher moves. Jon, are you ready to dive into our wonderful OAME friend from way back, Alex Overwijk?

Jon Orr: Yeah, I am definitely ready to share this one with you our listener mostly because we've chatted with Al for a number of years now. We've learned so much from the sessions that he's provided over at OAME and talking with him one-on-one about the thinking classroom and how he is using the ideas from Peter Liljedahl. And we are super excited to bring that to you.

Kyle Pearce: And you know what, Jon? There's something about Al too that I think we dig into here, something about circles. But I'm going to just, maybe, let you folks listen in crosstalk here. All right, here we go, our good friend, Al.

Jon Orr: Hey there, Al. Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. It's awesome to finally get a chance to have you on the show. I know we were knocking down your door early on and things were really busy and lately it seems like the timing has come where we get to sit down, have a chat and chat about you, your practice. And I'm wondering, with all this COVID, quarantining things that have been going on over the last six months, how has your freehand circle drawing been going?

Alex Overwijk: Well, it's interesting that you ask. It took a little bit of a beating. Of course, they canceled the World Championships last year. But I did dress up as the World Champion for Halloween. The kids got a good kick out of it.

Kyle Pearce: I wonder what does the world champion dress up as, Al? Just you crosstalk wearing your normal golf shirt and khaki pants?

Jon Orr: And you have to give people a little backstory. Those who know you know the story, but someone who doesn't know you yet, they're going like, "What the heck are these guys talking about?"

Alex Overwijk: So I'm the World Freehand Circle Drawing Champion. Right. And it's like winning the Masters. Right? So, at the Masters, you get a green jacket while at the World Championships, you get a black jacket. So I have a lovely black jacket with a circle on the back. And then of course I have my World Freehand Circle Drawing Championships rings that I wear. For Halloween, I came with my jacket on and my ring. It was great. Yeah.

Kyle Pearce: We'll definitely add the link of the aforementioned video that we are referring to. So this will be, hopefully, one of the show notes pages that people are just dying to jump to.

Jon Orr: Awesome. That's hilarious. Al, we've met quite a few times at OAME conferences and other events so we know you quite well from those things. We've chatted lots of times. I think we've even co-hosted a session together there. But could you do us a favor and just let our listeners know a little bit about yourself? Like what's your role? Like where are you from? What are you teaching right now? What levels are you teaching? And maybe after that, give us a little bit of backstory like how did you get into teaching?

Alex Overwijk: Sure. So, I'm living in Ottawa, teaching at Glebe Collegiate. This is my 30th year of teaching. I think my contract start date was January 15th, 1991, so I'm hitting the 30-year mark here shortly. I got two great kids, a beautiful wife. She's a principal in our board at the moment. During the pandemic or pandemic teaching, whatever you want to call it, I'm presently teaching. So we're quite mastered. I'm presently teaching two sections of advanced functions and we're hybrid model so it's about 15 kids a day, every other day. I have them for a week and then they go do their other course for a week and then they come back for a week. So yeah, there's challenges with that, but I've managed.
And then how did I get into teaching? So that's an interesting question, Jon. I grew up in Lindsay, Ontario, Northwest of Peterborough. So small town, Ontario. And my parents came to Canada after the war, then they were young. So they would have been 10 or 11. They didn't go back to school, they started working right away. So, totally working class family. My dad worked in a factory his whole life. And so, all my buddies played hockey, right, so we couldn't afford that. And I don't know, I'm going to say about grade five, I was like... And I'd played lots of hockey outdoors and played ball hockey with all my buddies, but I immediately decided I'd go shoot baskets outside all the time. I played basketball, played tons of basketball. Became a passion of mine. I would say that was about grade five, I started kind of playing by myself.
And then in terms of mathematics, my connection with mathematics, I can remember as a kid, my mom had this big jar of buttons and I would roll them out on the table and arrange them in a raise. And I would skip count. I would be like 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, and like put them in a four by eight or angle 4, 8, 12. I can remember doing that at a very young age. I just had this thing about counting and playing with numbers. And then I would say, I think it was in grade five...
And I'm the youngest of four. And all my brothers and sisters struggled in school. They all repeated a grade from K to six. And I was in grade five and hadn't repeated a grade yet. There was two classes in grade five and they put me in the, I'll say, the low group for mathematics. And I think they just pegged me because all my brothers and sisters had struggled in school.

Kyle Pearce: The legacy.

Alex Overwijk: Yeah, exactly. Like, "Oh, it's another Overwijk kid. And I did everything I could to convince that teacher that I should be in the other room. And within about a week, they put me in the other room and I really never looked back on school. For me, school went... I shouldn't say it went well all the way through, growing up in Lindsey, small town, Ontario, bit of a strange place to grow up. And because I was the youngest of four, my parents had basically stopped parenting. And when I got to grade nine, so it's October, I'm a pretty good basketball player by grade nine. And I'm not the worst student in the world. I'm okay. And it's October, so it's quarter way through the courses because it's a full year. Back then, you took all eight courses. And I'm failing everything except for gym and math. And I got fifties in those.
So then, basketball season starts. And my high school coach who coached me for my entire time there took a huge interest in me at that moment and got on my butt about school and about being a good person. And I just never looked back from that moment. And by the end of my high school career, I was playing provincial basketball and I was doing really well in my courses. And I was the first of my family to go to university and went to Carlton, played basketball there for five years, studied math. And then went to UFT from there for teacher's ed. And came out of teacher's ed in, I guess, would have been '89, '90. And then spent a semester supply teaching and started teaching in '91 and have not looked back.

Kyle Pearce: Cool story for a few different reasons. But the one thing that popped out at me, and I think it's going to lead us into our next piece here that we're really excited about, we always asking this question, but going back to your experience, and you had described it as the low group, right, and there's so much research and discussion around this... And here in Ontario, Alex being from Ontario alongside us, and once again, Ontario looking to get rid of the streaming process, so get rid of tracking for grade nine students, which we know is the right thing to do. I don't know if it's another discussion, whether we're prepared to do that yet.
But going back to this discussion, and you were in this group, you kind of, it sounds like, worked hard to say like, "No, I want to be in this other group." And I just wonder, and I don't know, maybe if you wonder this at all, Alex, but do you wonder if things may have turned out differently for you if you didn't move out of that group? Like if you stayed in that group, would that have potentially shut the door in your mind on like, "Well, I guess I'm not a math person." Right? Like so many people feel. And yet, you sort of got out of that situation. I always wonder about that. I don't know if that's crossed your mind or not.

Alex Overwijk: Well, hindsight, right, who knows? Who knows? But it definitely changed me because people looked at me differently moving forward. And I still had my bumps, right, like grade nine was a disaster for me, the start of grade nine. I was a bad person at that point in my life. And so, there was lots of things. But that definitely was a pivotal moment for me. And I remember it, right, so clearly it had an impact on me. I was pretty proud of myself to get out of that group of students and go to the other group of students. It meant something to me. But yeah, who knows what could have happened?

Kyle Pearce: I wasn't sure if you had thought about it, but it is something that I never would have thought about this five, 10 years ago. But when we think about the impact that those scenarios, those situations, can have on an individual, for some people, they push through it and maybe makes them stronger. But I'm glad here in Ontario, we're starting to kind of make moves to kind of get past that, at least in grade nine and hopefully beyond.

Alex Overwijk: In the early '90s, I was a fresh teacher and it was the transition years. Right? We did de-stream and I got thrown into that as a young teacher. And I did a full morning of math and science with a group of kids for the entire morning. And two or three years, and I think it was 92, so I'm one year into my career. Ill prepared as a young teacher, but of course they gave it to me. Right. Nobody wanted to do it. And we're smart enough now to know we're going to put our best teachers in there now. Right? Like let's put our best teachers in grade nine is... I think it's next year that we're de-streaming grade nine. Like let's find our best people in the building and have them teach that course and see what happens. Because I think we've learned a lot about how students learn and what works in a classroom. So I think we're in a much better place to do this.

Jon Orr: I was a student in that grade nine classroom when we de-streamed and-

Kyle Pearce: And Alex was his teacher.

Jon Orr: Yeah. I know. Me being from Kingston, you being in Ottawa, not too far away, but you're right. We, as a group of teachers, have learned so much since that time about learning and I think we are much better prepared to tackle it this time around. And I don't think teachers were ready for it to back then. But leading into this, Al, this is the question that we ask every guest, which is your memorable math moment from your past. So, usually we kick this off with, if you think back to your past a little bit and say, hey, what is a moment that clicked for you? You may have already described it, maybe you've already hit it for us. But maybe you want to think about another one, but what is a memorable math moment that sticks out for you soon as we say math class?

Alex Overwijk: Okay. So, I thought about this and I will comment that it was the grade 12 math exam that I was writing in my high school. And I'm writing this exam. It's probably a two-hour exam, would be my guess, in the gymnasium, where I've shot way too many baskets. And it's a tough exam. And this teacher has put... The last question on this test is tough. It ties a whole bunch of the concepts in the course altogether in one question. And I figured it out. I'm like, oh my goodness, I figured that out. As soon as I finished the exam, I was like, I set it down and was like, "Okay, I just did that. I know I got that question right." It felt like I knew what I was doing. It was like someone was telling me what to do. Right.
Because back then we had exemptions, right, if you had a high enough mark you didn't have to write the final. So this was the mid-year exam at Christmas, or whenever it would have been, January, I don't remember when we wrote them. But he had 110 marks on it and the results were so bad he said he would just give you whatever you got out of a hundred. And I got 108. crosstalk. I think at that moment, I was like, "Okay, I think I should explore math." My mind works mathematically, right, so for me, it was a big moment for me to realize that, "Hey, maybe I could go study this, maybe I could actually go and explore being a mathematician."

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it. And it's interesting. So the memories that stick with us, these moments that stick with us, it's interesting. There's so much detail there. You knew how many marks it was, all of these things. And then you're like, "Wait a second, I have no clue what time of year it was. Was it Christmas?" So, those are just nonessential pieces of information. Right. But you have that crystal clear memory of that and how that influenced your decision to start exploring mathematics.
So now, something we've been asking a lot lately is how do you feel like that experience influenced you as a teacher? And I wonder, did it influence you as a teacher maybe positively, maybe negatively? And did it influence you maybe differently early, like if we think about early Al versus current Al? And I'm wondering if you've thought about that or any sort of reflection comes to mind when you sort of think about that pivotal moment for you mathematically and then now being a math teacher, how does that sort of influence how you teach?

Alex Overwijk: Yeah. So, I was taught very traditionally, right, a teacher would get up, talk a little bit about theory, provide a nice sequence of examples, we'd take notes, they'd assign homework, and you might have a little bit of time in class and do it. So I taught that way for a long time. So I think my high school math teachers had a huge influence on how I taught when I started teaching. And then I would also comment that I think some of the people I started teaching with at my first school had a huge influence on how I taught. And they were great teachers, but that's how everybody taught. And I was good at it. I was a good lecturer. I was a good storyteller. I was a freehand circle drawing champion. Kids like my class.
But looking back on it, I was only teaching to the top two-thirds or three-quarters. There are lots of kids sitting there who, in Dr. Liljedahl's language, studenting. Right?

Kyle Pearce: Right.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alex Overwijk: So teaching is a journey, right, and I hope we're always all trying to improve. And I think that, for sure, there's a pivotal moment for me 17, 18 years in, I going to say late 2010, 2009, whenever it is, where I'm standing there doing a vector lesson. It's late in the year. It's a Friday afternoon, class full of grade 12 kids. They've already got their marks in for university. They've already accepted them. And I'm lecturing on this. It's a full 75-minute lecture and I've checked-

Kyle Pearce: Got to fit it in.

Alex Overwijk: And I've checked out, like I'm writing on the board, it's coming out of my mouth and I'm in my car going to my cottage. Like I'm not even there. I can't imagine what it was like for those kids. And I know at that moment... I was like, "Okay, so I'm at a crossroads here. It's one of two things, I either go find a different job in teaching or I do it differently." And I think that some things happened after that that just allowed me to start to try things differently.

Jon Orr: I immediately recognize that moment that you had as a moment that I had. And I'm surprised because I don't think I would have had that moment in an academic class like you were having an academic class. Whereas, my moment was the applied level class where I was leaving class going, "I don't want to teach these kids anymore. Just only give me academic classes." I was that kind of teacher for a long time. And then I-

Kyle Pearce: You were looking forward to lecturing and just crosstalk.

Jon Orr: I guess. I guess, at that time in my career... And I remember doing your step back, Al, being like, "What am I doing here? Those are the kids that need me and I'm the one that says I don't want to teach them." And I had the same realization, it was, I have to do something different or go get a different job. So I'm wondering, Al, I think there's teachers that listen to his podcasts that are on their journey and they've either made a decision like that a long time ago and there's middle their journey or maybe they're at the beginning of their journey. And I think a lot of people, no matter where they are on their journey, they want to know what you did next. Like once you realize that that moment changes, what did it look like for you right after that?

Alex Overwijk: So I'll tell you, kind of an interesting time for me because I had just resigned my headship around then because I had young kids. I had kids late in life, so my kids were born in '07 and '08, this is like '09, '10. My kids are young. So I resign my headship, new guy comes in, his name's Bruce McClaren. Great guy. He comes, watches for a year. So now it's like the end of 2010. And he comes up to me and says, "You know what? I think you should teach the grade 10 applieds because you are a huge personality. You're what those kids need." And I'm like, "Uh, really?" I like teaching academic kids, but I was bored. So, something different. "Sure. I'll do it, Bruce." I liked Bruce. He was a great department head.
So first three semesters, I teach the grade 10 applied kids and I tried everything you can imagine. And I failed 25% of them. It just didn't work. And I can remember this moment. So now we're talking like January of 2012 or 2011, I come into Bruce's office and I start venting about how bad it's gone again for the third semester in a row. And I call Bruce, the gentle giant. And he's standing there twiddling his thumbs, listening to me vent. I'm like, "Really, Bruce, I think it's someone else's turn. Right. I just did three semesters for you, like come on." And like he twiddles his thumb, he listen to me, listen to me, listen to me. And then all of a sudden, comes out of his mouth, he says, "Well, maybe you should change." I'm like, "Pardon? crosstalk."

Jon Orr: "What did you just say?"

Alex Overwijk: "I'm the problem?" And so, that was the start of something special because that semester we had two grade 10 applieds back-to-back in the afternoon. We both had our spare attached to it. They were both scheduled in the same room. And we decided that we were not going to worry about curriculum. We were just going to do activities to increase engagement. We were going to do puzzles. We were going to have fun. We were going to make it about learning, engaging in mathematics.
And so, I'll be honest with you, this is the start of it, "Oh, let's do an activity." And we started with a couple of little puzzles and then we had the 26 squares and we designed that just for Pythagorean's theorem. And then, of course, we got almost a whole course out of it. Right. And that just felt like, "Oh, we could do this with it. Oh, we could do this with it. Oh, let's try this tomorrow. Let's try this tomorrow inaudible. So, we're three weeks into the course and we've had six or seven big ideas. We just kept coming up with ideas for activities. And we called it activity-based teaching. I didn't use the word spiral. I didn't know what spiraling was then. This is us playing with this idea of like, we're just going to teach through activities and see how it goes. And I can remember at the end of the course, this was a jaw dropper for me because we had a board-wide exam back then, our kids had to write like a-

Kyle Pearce: ... write a standardized-

Alex Overwijk: ... standardized type test. And I can remember saying to my kids, "Okay. So, we have this exam thing that you all have to write, every student in the board's writing it in 10 days. So what are the big ideas in the course?" And my kids listed the nine big ideas in the course. And I was like, "Did that just happen? This is a grade 10 applied class that knows the big ideas in my course?" And I was like, "Okay, that worked, whatever we just did just worked." Right. And that was the start of us thinking about cycling, thinking about spiraling, teaching through activity.
And yeah, and I don't know when this happened, but I think Mary Barasa sent me an article. This is two years later, two and a half years later. We've played with it. We've started making these courses based on spiraling. And she sends me this article about blocked versus mass practice, interleaving, right, interleaving versus blocking. And I'm like, "There's research on this?" For me, it was so validating. And then I was like, "That's really cool that we played around with how we taught and we invented what we thought was inventing something that turns out to be really good practice that we didn't know about." And so, I just was like, "Oh, I'm never not doing this. I'm going to do this forever. I will spiral every course I ever teach from this moment forward." And that's like 2013, 2014, so I've been six years of spiraling everything.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it. And it's so interesting because I'm picturing your experience, which for me, I was doing some grade nine applied and I was working with some grade 11 workplace and was having some similar struggles, we'll call it. And it's almost like in a way, and I don't want to put words in your mouth here, but it's almost like you're like, "I'm willing to try anything to get students to engage because the reality is if what I'm doing, if students aren't engaging with it, then nothing's getting done anyway. So it's almost like when you get put against the ropes, I suppose, you're in a position where you're like, if I don't try something nothing's going to happen. If I do try something and let's say nothing happens, it's like, I'm still in the same boat. Right? So it's almost like you have nothing to lose to at least give it a shot. And without student engagement, how the heck are you actually going to teach them anything? So that's really interesting.
I'm wondering if we can kind of dive a little deeper here because Jon and I, obviously, folks who are listening to the podcast, we're big into that space first mass practice piece, which is really important. If there's someone listening, you know there's people out there that are nodding right now and they're like, "I have a class that I can't engage." And you were very clear to say, it's not like no one was learning anything, right, there's always someone in the class that's learning. But it's like, there's that group and you're just not happy with that group, that bottom fourth, or maybe it's a third or maybe it's even more of the class that just aren't engaging, aren't accessing the math. What would you say to them if they were at that place you were at in order to kind of take a step in that direction?

Alex Overwijk: Yeah. So, having been on quite a long journey... And it wasn't just doing that that changed me. There were a lot of things that happened. I did four years of lesson study, the board-wide exam and map project that we had. There was lots of other things that happened along the way. But if you're a fan of Hattie's research, anything over 0.4 is a positive effect on student learning. I don't have the numbers in front of me. But the number one thing you can do is teacher efficacy. It turns out, the best thing you can do is to find a partner and design together and think about how you're teaching and work on a course together and do it differently. The best thing you can do is to find someone who's willing to change and do it differently and work with that person and have a teaching partner. That turns out that that has the largest effect.

Jon Orr: Yeah. I have memories, you would remember to, Al, I think we called it SSSI or quad SI. This is where this kind of lesson study kind of evolved from here in Ontario, where all of a sudden there was funding to do this kind of thing. And we all kind of gathered at a hotel in Toronto and we all got tables and shared ideas back and forth. I remember meeting you there at one of those a number of years ago, this SSI, which is where this lesson study kind of I first learned about it.
But I totally agree, it was like after our conversations at some of these tables, going back to our classrooms and going in our team meetings at school, in our departments, it was like, "Let's build these groups where we design lessons together, we go and watch each other, we talk about what the kids are and how they're responding to that and then we fix it or we debrief. And then we design another inaudible." And all we did was just design lessons together and then deliver them. Some of those other were the best lessons that we ever did or came out of it because we all kind of co-created them and then also delivered them and watched it. It was like putting all of our brains together to design this great lesson. And we had time to do that. I don't know, you had some success out of that. What would it be like some of the memorable lessons, if you could just give a quick synopsis of some of those that you built with your department?

Alex Overwijk: Jon, I can't even start to describe how impactful those four years were for me. Lesson study for us was like a half day of design one week and then the next week, someone delivered it for half day, and then repeat. We would always be four or five teachers and I was the constant thread. We had different people come in and out of it, but for whatever reason, my principal was like, "You're staying in this because you're forceful, you're impactful so you're going to stay." And I can't describe how impactful it was. And we were cross-curricular, so it wasn't for math teachers, it was a math teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher and a history teacher. So we were designing history lessons and English lessons. And my principal never missed one of those, ever. She was there every half day for four years, so into it, and so wanting change in her building.
And so, I can remember doing cup stacking, which was a Dan Meyer that I saw it for the first time. And I brought it and says, "Oh, why don't we do something with this lesson?" And I can remember saying, "Oh, okay, we're going to stack them like this." And then I can remember one of the English teacher saying like, "Well, why are you going to tell them how to stack them?" And why am I going to tell him how to stack them? Why don't I let them... We'll call it open strategy cup stacking. And so, then you started getting like two-dimensional triangle that was a quadratic, a three-dimensional triangular pyramid which was a cubic. And I was like, "Yeah, sure, we'll just see what the 2P kids can do. And of course, they modeled it. They did the second differences and the third differences. I showed them the regression button for a quadratic or cubic and they were able to do it.
And it was amazing that it just opened things up and allowed us to do things. Of course, it was all done in pods. We were working in groups. We weren't on whiteboards yet, but we were working on white paper, like chart paper that they would then put up on the wall and share their ideas. So that, for me, Jon, I'll agree with you on that, that was something that happened. I don't know the years on that, I'm going to say like 2012 to 2016, somewhere in there, but all part of the journey.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think there's lots definitely learned when we work with our colleagues. And I think you were applying most of that learning to the 2Ps and the applied level classes. And I think we build a lot of curriculum resources around the applied level. Kyle and I spent years doing the same thing with 1P. Actually, we first did spiraling because you were sharing what you were doing in your class through activity-based learning and then kind of mixing it up with spiraling. That's how we got our start is seeing your success and hearing about it and then saying, "Hey, let's give this a shot in 1P instead." So we did that.
It seems easy to bring activities into those early classes, grade nine, grade 10, when it's so linear, so kind of applicable. And then, the questions we get now, Al, is questions from like teachers who are teaching senior level classes that are saying like, "I see what you guys are doing. Such great activity-based learning, you've got lots of engagement in grades nine and 10. But what do you do with senior classes to get that engagement? Because it's like, 'Oh, well, there's not so many activities out there that I can build with.'" What are your go-to moves, Al, for engaging and getting good thinking type lessons out of senior kids that wouldn't be away from the standard, say, lecture that we are used to?

Alex Overwijk: Yep. So, you know I'm a huge fan of the thinking classroom and Dr. Liljedahl's work. And so, that's my number one go-to for sure. I'm all in on thinking classroom. And I think marrying those two ideas together as a wonderful way to teach and that's really what I live. And so, for grade 12, I'm still trying to create activities, like if you go to my blog and you read the one about the bike rim, that's covering a lot of content. I also do the ever increasing dominoes. I get a ton on logarithmic and exponential functions out of those activities. But I would comment, on like the day-to-day stuff in those courses, I'm not telling them how to do anything. I'm going to try to turn it into a puzzle in the best way that I can.
So like, I think today, for example, we were dividing polynomials, so I'm going to tie it back to fractions. So I went and said, "Okay, what is it? I forget what they call those and I don't even know when you learn about them, the different types of fractions, like improper and proper. What are those?" And the kids are like, "Oh, improper is when it's more than one and proper's when it's less than one." I'm like, "Okay, so write down an improper fraction, will you?" And the kids, "Seven over three." And I'm like, "Okay, so now what do you do with that?" And they're like, "Oh, you can write it as like two and one-third." And I'm like, "What's that called?" And they're like, "It's a mixed fraction or a mixed number, sir." And I'm like, "Oh, right. Oh, that's interesting. So we can write it as two plus a third. And then, couldn't we get a common denominator and go backwards?" And they're like, "Yeah, you can do that." I'm like, "Hmm. I wonder if we can do that with like algebraic expressions. Why don't you guys try pick a random quadratic and expand it, I call it area form, in area form and divide it by a linear and see if you can turn it into an improper algebraic expression."

Kyle Pearce: And then they're like, "Whoa."

Alex Overwijk: Right? And so, of course, they're all standing around, you can see them looking at other whiteboards, looking for someone to do something. And so, I might wait five minutes to see if anybody comes up with anything or I might go to one board and start talking to them and write one thing on the board and walk away, right. And sure enough, they know the area model, right, so they know it's like we can do area divided by length, so we should be able to get the other dimension and there might be some stuff left over.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. I love it. I love it. And you know what? I think you kind of sharing that example is awesome because again, you had mentioned it earlier about, I think it was Bruce who said you're a storyteller. Right. And I think it's so important for us to, Jon and I always call it sparking curiosity. Right. There's so many different ways that we can do this and it doesn't always have to be with a visual, it doesn't always have to be with a video, it doesn't even always have to be with an activity, it can just be with taking what kids already know or people already know and kind of almost intriguing them a little bit. You almost like you hooked them a little without them maybe even realizing it. And now they're in. It's almost like now they're into deep and now you've thrown this challenge at them and they're like, "Huh, I'm going to think about that a little bit and nudge them along."
And it makes me wonder, with a scenario like that, where you're giving students this opportunity, and obviously students know you well by now, this far into the year, they know who you are, they know how you lead a lesson so they're probably kind of ready for it. I'm sure it's not as easy when you're starting at beginning of the school year. But how does the thinking classroom itself, and maybe talking about random grouping and vertical non-permanent surfaces, how do you feel that helps you lead a lesson in this fashion as opposed to say everybody just sitting in desks and trying to pose the same question?

Alex Overwijk: I think when you take, I'll call it the sledgehammer part of Peter's model, so use good tasks. They don't even need to be good tasks, they can be just like what I just talked about. Right. They can just be like, you don't tell them how to do it, you hook it somehow and get them working on it and do random groups and vertical non-permanent surfaces. That's like taking a sledgehammer to your classroom.

Kyle Pearce: In a good way.

Alex Overwijk: In a good way. But that's busting the walls down, that's changing the idea of school right away. And so, my kids know that that's like that every day in my class now. It's like once they get used to it, they're like, "Oh, okay, well, he's going to hand me a card within five minutes and I'm going to be up working on something." Right. But then it's the fine details, managing flow, like what questions we ask or what questions we answer, all those components, de-fronting your room, building autonomy. And the idea of managing flow and building autonomy... So, managing flow, that balance between ability and challenge, and having a plan to keep them busy. Right now, it's for four hours for me, we do thinking classroom for four hours with a 10 minute break. And their job is to go home afterwards and figure out what we did from all their pictures and make notes and put together a portfolio entry from the day. Right.

Kyle Pearce: I think you've alluded to some really key pieces there. And I guess, just in terms of how that vertical or non-permanent surface and the random grouping, I think Jon and I both feel pretty confident that we know what you'll say about this. But I've got a funny feeling that if all the students are sitting at their desks, they're not used to working collaboratively and you give them a problem like you just shared, that it's probably not going to go very far. Right?

Alex Overwijk: Oh, okay.

Kyle Pearce: Like he's working independently, they're not used to collaborating and working together to get to an end result. I'm just wondering about how you feel that influences being able to actually engage students in a senior class.

Alex Overwijk: Right. So, I think you have to build it, right? You have to start from day one. You have to be relentless with it. You have to start with what I'll call non-curricular tasks. In any of my courses, not during the pandemic, unfortunately, it was only one activity before I jumped in because the time was so short. But in a regular year, I would spend a week doing non-curricular tasks, teaching them that what's important and what I value in this classroom is the mathematical processes. "That's what I want to see you do. I want to see you connect. I want to see you communicate. I want to see you think. I want to see a justify. I want to see you problem-solve. Those are the things that I'm looking for." And so, we get them to do all that stuff first. And then, all of a sudden, we do a task and it's like, "Oh, this is curriculum oriented." They don't know it, but then all of a sudden, after week two, they're like, "Oh, we've actually been some math now." Right.
I'm getting into assessment here. This thing about grades and how they're so worried about grades, it's like, I have to beat that out of them. You talk about triangulation of data, my triangulation of data is three things, it's individual tests, it's group tests and observations and conversations as one. So, those are my three things. And during the pandemic, I'm not even doing tests, it's just a portfolio entry. So it's just based on their portfolio, which is the product and what I'm seeing every day for four hours when I'm with them.

Jon Orr: Yeah.

Alex Overwijk: You know?

Jon Orr: I would ask you that and I'm sure we could schedule another episode to bring you back on, Al, to talk about your grouping tests. What's that look like? And how do you put that together with individual tests? Because I know that there's been lots of questions and wonders about what a group test kind of looks like. So, wouldn't mind chatting with that about you in the future on that one.
But before we wrap up here, I'm wondering about how you're managing currently with vertical non-permanent surfaces and random grouping in this post-COVID time when we're all supposed to be social distancing. I know a lot of teachers have questions about that, like what's group work look like for you? Are you group working? Are you not? Are you having kids at the boards or you're not? What does it look like in your classroom right now?

Alex Overwijk: Yep. So, I'm still doing a thinking classroom. I presented a model that they accepted. Obviously, all kinds of limitations. Everybody has a marker. One kid has the rag and is responsible for wiping the board and that's their job. They're in a triangle, so one person writing, the other two are back two meters and separated two meters. In fact, I have tape marked on the floor. And if they want to change who's writing, they kind of have to rotate a spot. So, the kids are pretty good about keeping their distance. Of course, they need reminders, but on a whole, they're very respectful of it. And they're great about keeping their masks on and wearing their masks.
And for me, I try not to write on the boards anymore, so I'm just either listening or if I'm going to give them a hint or a tip or an extension, I'm doing it from like almost, not the middle of the room, but I'm closer to that group, but not right in there with them where I'd normally be. It's not quite as intimate as it has been, but it's still working fine. But we only see them 12 times face-to-face.

Jon Orr: Right. It's different than me. Whereas, I'm all day, every day for a full straight week. I'm not alternating like you are so I'll see my full class, not even split, so I'll have like 20 kids in a day.

Alex Overwijk: Oh, yeah, so it's almost impossible.

Jon Orr: Yeah. There's a lot of distancing. But for me, we're not, say, random grouping anymore. It's because we're not trying to have contact with all of those different individuals throughout the room. Even though we're all in the room together with our masks on, but I'll have kids work side-by-side for a week with another kid regularly, but not mix them up.

Alex Overwijk: So I am random grouping, it's every day, but I am tracking it.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's a good idea. That's a good idea.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, so-

Alex Overwijk: Right. So, I know what the group's for every single day. I have it written down in case-

Kyle Pearce: I think both of you sharing two different approaches is going to be helpful for those who are listening in, right. Maybe the model that someone's in might be closer to Alex's model, maybe that makes sense, or maybe someone's in a scenario more like Jon. So, that's really helpful, I think, for those who are listening. Alex, we're looking at the time here, we don't want to hold you up for the entire evening. So, before we start wrapping things up, I'm wondering, if there was only one big takeaway, hopefully there's tons of nuggets here that I'm sure people are going to take away, but if it's one big takeaway or final idea, if people could only walk away with one thing, what are you hoping that the Math Moment Maker community walks away with after listening to this episode here tonight?

Alex Overwijk: Find a partner, find someone who wants to be different, grab them, try it, pick one course, do it differently and give it a go. In the words of my former principal, if not now, then when? If not you, then who?

Jon Orr: Good. I like it. I like it. And I think that's a great takeaway for all of you. Kind of sums up a lot of what we chatted about here today. So, I want to thank you, Al, for joining us. I know that we've been trying to get you to chat with here on the podcast for a while and it's linked up, so that's awesome. And I'm going to hold you to getting you back on here a little later so we can continue this chat with some more questions on what you're doing and what we're doing and all that kind of stuff. So, thanks again for joining us and we hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.

Alex Overwijk: It has been my pleasure. Best to everyone out there during this difficult time.

Kyle Pearce: And good luck next year in the 2021 Circle Championships.

Alex Overwijk: Yes.

Kyle Pearce: We'll talk to you soon. Se you, Al. Thanks.

Alex Overwijk: Bye.

Kyle Pearce: Well, we can't thank Alex enough for coming onto the show and sharing some of his thinking with you. Something that I really love and have always respected about Alex is, first of all, he's got this energy. He's been at this game for quite a while. And I sort of feel like he had his epiphany of changing his classroom. Jon, you and I were teaching for quite some time in a way that we were taught and we sort of started making our transformation. I mean, imagine being in the game, maybe, a decade longer than you and I, and having done things a certain way for so long. There's a huge amount of respect I have for educators who have been doing it for quite a while and still see the value in making that transformation and doing that work when I think it could be really easy to maybe just sit back and sort of just keep going as you always have.

Jon Orr: Yeah, you definitely can sense that from Al that he is not a person to kind of sit back and keep doing that when he knows and has discovered this better way of teaching mathematics. I think it's a testament to all educators who are thinking about change and thinking about trying to try something new and then risking that change and, all of a sudden, succeeding, at a high level for him, for sure. As he's shared that learning with, almost, it seems like all of Ontario at this point, he's done such a great job. I admire his dedication to math education. And like you said, it's his education. I think this basketball coach energy kind of comes out when you speak to him and also when you hear him.

Kyle Pearce: Absolutely. Well, listen, my friends, if you want to hear more conversations like this one with Alex, make sure you hit that subscribe button on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcasting platform. And right now, to make sure that you take something and act on it, why don't you head over to our Facebook Group, Math Moment Makers K-12, and just toss out there a post to the community giving your biggest takeaway from this episode and let them know what resonated with you and what's your goal moving forward. Remember, keep that goal manageable, keep it reasonable and attainable and set yourself some sort of timeline to try to reach that goal. Let us know in the math community. So many people are there to support you and lift you up. And we can't wait to hear some of your reflections.

Jon Orr: Show notes and links to resources from this episode and full transcripts from all of our episodes can be found on our show notes page, but in particular, this episode, head on over to makemathmoments.com/episode134, again, that's makemathmoments.com/episode134.

Kyle Pearce: We can't wait to join you in your earbuds next Monday morning at 5:30 AM Eastern time. Keep an eye open for that next episode and we'll see you then. Well, until next time, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And a big high five for you.

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