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Reflect, Create, and Celebrate

These are the words that I chant as the end of the school year draws near in June. It is a challenging time, unlike the busy planning and organizing needed to set the pace in September. The days now feel longer and there seems less content to cover, as it was mostly completed in time for reporting. So, this may be a good time to review the concepts that your students struggled with throughout the year, or a time to introduce a topic related to the curriculum or their inquiry work that wasn’t in your long range plans. But filling in the days with worksheets and outdoor play is not the answer, it leads to issues of classroom managements and student discontent.

Here are some suggestions that can be adjusted for your age group or subject area:

  • create math teams that solve math problems from all strands. Then have teams present their answers and compare their strategies. One word problem a day.
  • provide time for student groups to create a summary of their literature circle book. They can present their summaries as a series of tableaux, a movie trailer on iMovie, or as a skit. These are presented to the whole class or another class to promote reading for the summer months.
  • list 3 or 4 issues on the board and have students sign up accordingly. Provide them with a structure to research and present in a debate that you monitor (debates can be informal or formal)
  • show students a youtube video on branding and logos. Then ask each student what their brand is. Have them design a logo (that doesn’t reveal their name). Display all logos with a number when completed and have students complete a numbered list, matching each logo to their classmates. Discuss the most effective logos and why.
  • provide groups of 4 students with a bag of mixed materials to encourage STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) learning. Provide them with an hour each day to design and create a product with the recycled or mixed materials. Display and share  in the last week of school for other classes.
  • Read aloud. Students of all ages love to be read to. Pick a recent and relevant chapter book and read to your students each day. Have them draw character sketches, write 3 predictions, or create alternative cover for the book.
  • Use large paper to ask about 5 reflective questions related to your year. Questions such as, What would you change in the past school year? How has your understanding about Mental Wellness changed? What projects did you find most meaningful to do? Then have students do a gallery walk and fill-in responses on the large paper. Display for the last week and highlight evidence of learning and understanding.

Enjoy the last weeks and keep the students engaged with the meaningful work they will value.

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Addressing Equity

The elementary school that I teach at is a K-8 school with approximately 540 students. It has grown over the century with new additions, since its original build in 1923. I have only known the school for the past three years that I have been teaching there. So I consider the school to be diverse with many new Canadians, mostly from Bangladesh. It is also higher needs in terms of the challenges students face for success, according to the Learning Opportunity Index. The family income has declined for families attending the school, as demonstrated by the data. Many of the parents work part-time, multiple jobs, and through the evenings, nights, or on weekends.

What I found interesting to note, is that teachers who have taught at the school for more than ten years, many for more than 15 years, have difficulty seeing the demographics of the school as they are. They continue with the same fund raising projects as they always have, yet lament that there is less participation or interest from the students. They continue to book trips that cost more that an hourly wage that most families would make, then are disappointed in the attendance. It is only in the past year that they have been questioned about the cost required for students to attend their own graduation celebration. The teacher response in regards to how they are accommodating a student population with a decrease in family income, is to encourage students to come forth if they don’t have the funds and the staff will address it or provide the funds, based on the individual situation.

Recently I was talking to a teacher from another school board about equity and teacher bias. She recommended the ETFO publication, Possibilities: Addressing Poverty in Elementary Schools to read.  It is an excellent resource. It not only encourages a change in mindset by educators about assumptions and biases in regards to poverty, but it provides strategies and literature connections to address the real needs of students for academic success and well-being. It also provided information on how to engage parents and the community of a lower income status.

According to TDSB, “Educational research has demonstrated that children from lower income families face more significant barriers in achieving high educational outcomes.” It is essential that we as educators are aware of these facts and barriers, as well as the strategies and supports necessary for the students that are in our schools right now.

Link to ETFO publication:

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Assessment for Inquiry Projects

Alison_BoardTeachers are encouraged to use inquiry in all subject areas. Using inquiry is not necessarily a set of steps to follow or instruct, but an approach to guide student learning. It usually results in greater engagement and can easily be differentiated to individuals and groups. What is often the biggest challenge for teachers is the assessment piece.

Here are a few ways to support your assessment:

  • determine check-ins with students as they complete specific stages of the process, such as planning, research/recording observations, interpreting and communicating (use rubrics for these stages as provided in curriculum document – Continuum for Scientific Inquiry)
  • use mini-lessons to teach skills and content to the whole class that support the Inquiry subject area
  • use whole-class discussions or small group discussions to make observations about student knowledge and understanding (this also builds knowledge among the larger group)
  • provide access to a computer for each group or a notebook to record their questions and plans and stay accountable. Communicate with them to further their thinking and provide next steps (Google Docs works well for this)
  • Keep observations sheets handy to make notes and take photos
  • Inquiry work provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the learning skills
  • Provide students with a checklist to ensure specific learning, such as “Show impact on environment” or “Determine best solution for power generation at our school” – when assessing effectiveness of final task/project that students may present in a variety of ways (poster, video, website, etc.)

There are some great project based learning guidelines and assessment tips/strategies on the website or follow edutopia on Twitter.

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Technology and Social Media for Communication

For years I have maintained a class website. I found as parents became more tech-savvy, they enjoyed seeing the photos of student learning and reading about what was happening in the classroom. This seemed more timely, environmental and cost-effective than a monthly newsletter (as I was in a community that all parents had access to a personal computer). It also allowed parents the option to log on to the site at any our to find information or revisit an earlier post. Websites allow for documentation of the learning and growth of students.

This year I wanted to try Twitter. It was a new learning curve for me, but I could see the benefits of its immediacy. So last fall I started a Twitter account for our grade 6/7 classroom and invited parents and students to follow. Students created a logo contest in the class and selected a piece of student art to represent our account. I have found many benefits to Twitter instead of a classroom website. They include:

  • Timeliness – I usually take a photo and send a message once a day from my classroom. It is so quick and simple from my smartphone that my posts are more frequent than logging into a website and writing a post for a class website.
  • Focused – I find that my tweets are focused and meaningful. For example, I select a specific moment during math or science and take a photo that makes the learning visible. When I would write posts for my website, I often felt overwhelmed in covering all the subjects and providing enough detail.
  • Connections/Information/Networking – Sending tweets and using hashtags from our classroom has created dialogue with other educators, students, and interest groups, that would not be possible through a website. For example, my class was excited to be retweeted by Bird Studies Canada when we shared a photo of one of our students feeding a chickadee from his hand. This introduced us to information about the Great Backyard Bird Count, an accessible activity that interested students could learn more about. It also initiated an environmental leaders project to make and maintain bird feeders at our school.
  •  Reflection/Assessment – As a daily activity, tweeting from the classroom provides me with a purpose to capture learning and document it. I am then able to review my tweets weekly and reflect on the highlights or areas of need as assessment for learning.
  • Social Media Etiquette – Tweeting with my students allows for authentic discussions about how to conduct ourselves with appropriate image use. We also review our messages and discuss what they can convey.
  • Accessibility – Although my school is recognized as higher needs due to lower family incomes, some students have access to smartphones that they can use in the classroom with our Bring Your Own Device program. Others can share the iPads and netbooks that are available to our class.
  • Engagement – Each month, more students get their own account or encourage their parents and become excited about our classroom tweets that are retweeted by the Principal or the board to an even wider audience. We have participated in tweet chats with other classes, using a visual display of the tweets so the whole class can be involved in the discussion.

I have found Twitter to be an effective tool for increasing engagement and communication. I can use it to feature student voice and reach a community larger than our classroom or school. It also informs my own practice as I follow educational posts to inspire me!

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Wellness in the Classroom

Wellness is an important focus for our grade 6/7 classroom and is also a hot topic school and board wide. It encompasses so much of what we do and who we are that it can be difficult to create a specific lesson for “wellness.” In The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning book, it states, “Getting to know your students is a big part of your success as a teacher” (p 34). This is an important message, as it encourages teachers to be responsive to the specific needs and interests of their current students and not apply generic strategies or lessons.

I recently read a suggestion that a leader should learn and know at least 10 things about a person. This would be a good tool for teachers to use if getting to know the individual needs and interests of their students is challenging for them. A simple notebook with a list under each student name can be filled in as a teacher gets to know new students. I know that for some students I would easily have a list of 20 facts, while there are a few that I would struggle to get 10 for! The Class Database activity (p 39) could be easily modified with questions that involve students’ needs and interests around wellness, to gather some initial data on your students. I have also used a Multiple Intelligence quiz to determine preferences for students and used them (music, nature) throughout the year to guide my plans and make my lessons or activities more inclusive, especially when some students are feeling less confident with content or skill development.

Leading up to Bell Let’s Talk day, we viewed the commercials on YouTube and worked in groups to discuss the effective use of language and its influence on attitude and acceptance. During a language activity with the book, The Man With the Violin, students recognized the sadness of the child and made similar connections from their own experiences of being rushed through their day. We went for a class walk to a nearby park with no activity planned, but to enjoy whatever we noticed. Students were excited to Tweet about their own understanding of wellness using the Bell Let’s Talk #, making suggestions that were accessible and real for them such as “write in a journal” or “talk to an adult”. They are currently making lists of what inspires them and what brightens their day. These activities and discussions continue to be integrated through subjects like language, health, art, music, and science.

Setting Goals



Last year at this time, I introduced my class to goal setting. Although this is often done in September, I feel it is more effective in January when students have had the opportunity to received feedback in all subject areas. During our Writing Workshop, we discussed and wrote goals that were particular to student success at school. Many of the goals were vague or too broad, so we used the SMART goal process (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely). This framework really helped students create better goals that suited their individual needs. Once the goals were created, students wrote them on foam discs and we hung them around the classroom to refer to and measure against.

This January, I plan to do the same goal setting work with my 6/7 class. I have found an article on edutopia that articulates the process effectively:


It shows how students are more engaged with their learning and goals when they know what they have to do and in what timeframe to achieve them. The article also provides information on goal setting for character traits, using peer review.

In The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning, an activity is provided to align students goals, strengths, and beliefs as they relate to their life in school. The activity is suggested as a first day of school activity, but it would also work well in January, when students are comfortable to share more in their established classroom community. You can find this activity on page 36.

Goal setting is a task that correlates with the idea of growth mindset. Students should be encouraged to set goals for themselves at any time in the year. By helping them create goals that are attainable, you will also help them feel success.

Starting Over



January can feel like September. It is an opportunity to initiate new routines and expectations or inject something new into your current program. For many teachers, the last weeks of school in December before the break is challenging. Students are excited about the anticipated break; programs are interrupted with practices for concerts and special assemblies; and teachers are hanging on as they maintain or try to maintain a normal environment.

With the much needed break, students and teachers return to school refreshed. Many will not admit it, but look forward to the return of a regular routine. Take this opportunity to get your students quickly involved in new learning that may have been hard to tackle in December. There are at least three weeks of school before the cut-off for term one reporting. Assigning projects the first week back will focus the students directly, and provide you with assessments needed at the end of January.

Over the holidays, I have prepared an outline for the Biodiversity Infographic that I will be assigning my Grade 6 students the first week back. It will provide assessment both in Science and Media Literacy. I have also been considering an autobiography or biography project for my class. I am still working on the outline but I am thinking about a booklet that will include entries in writing and art. To differentiate to all levels for both projects, I will provide graphic organizers, allow choice of topics, and encourage students to create their works in print or with technology.

Take something that has inspired you over the holidays, (travel, nature, art, movies) and find a way to bring that interest to the classroom. It is surprising the connections you will make to the curriculum and the enthusiasm that you will share with your students.

Teaching Math



I have always considered myself more of an “English Language” teacher. So, when I moved into the junior and intermediate classroom, I felt less confident in my abilities to teach math. When planning for the year, I surveyed some other junior/intermediate teachers for recommended resources. And when planning for the classroom environment, I made sure to have a corner dedicated to math, which includes a gallery wall, manipulatives, math dictionary and texts as well as tools like calculators.

Although I was given a set of textbooks, I don’t plan or teach from the textbooks. I print the curriculum expectations specific to the grade for each strand, and use them as my guide in planning the units. Then I refer to some other resources for ideas in activities that involve group work or problem solving. Some of favourites to support my math program are:

  • Introduction to Reasoning and Proof, Grades 6-8: The Math Process Standards Series, by Denisse R. Thompson and Karren Shultz-Ferrell
  • Nelson’s Ontario Numeracy Assessment Package
  • Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics, by Marian Small
By referring to these resources, I am able to understand the concepts that need to be taught and how to differentiate using broader questions for the range of math learners in my classroom. I enjoy providing mini-lessons on strategies to support the students as well as encouraging them to share their strategies with me and the rest of the class. Our math class has become engaging and interactive, not repetitive and boring as I had feared.
We use a gallery wall to display group answers to problems. This has become an invaluable way to quickly assess understanding. Students are given the opportunity to view the gallery, see how others have solved the problem, respond with their own ideas or suggestions and acquire new learning. A week of math classes includes a range of instructional strategies, independent work, paired and group work. One of our common “go to” questions is “Does this make sense?” We are aiming for understanding rather than rote learning of facts and steps (as I learned in elementary school). So, I am enjoying learning with my students as I discover new ways to approach and solve math problems.

From Teacher Directed to Student Directed Learning


As a new teacher or a teacher with many years experience, you hear about the importance of planning for student-directed learning in the classroom. Keeping this approach in mind as you plan in all subject areas benefits student learning and also benefits the teacher. Benefits include:

  • Engaged students – most students want the opportunity to talk as they learn, not just listen. When made to only listen, they look for distractions and classroom management issues often arise. If students are provided time to collaborate on a topic that interests them, they are engaged in the process and positive learning outcomes are the result.
  • Student interest – this leads to the content. Provide students with choice and select topics within the curriculum expectations that are of interest to your group of students. Students will demonstrate more initiative and take more responsibility for their own learning if they have choice of relevant topics. For example, in my grade 6/7 class, I modelled writing a monologue from the perspective of a character. Then, the students were all provided with a rubric to create their own dramatic monologue based on a character of their choice from a book from their choice.
  • Differentiated instruction – allowing choice of topic or type of presentation/project differentiates for the range of learners. Again, as an example from the monologue assignment, struggling readers selected books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, while others selected more challenging texts like Journey to Jo’burg. Similarly, students will select an option for a project on what they are comfortable with (creating a slideshow vs. a video). By allowing students choice, you are more inclusive, not lowering your expectations for those who can surpass them, or challenging your lower level students to frustration. And as a result, the students who select the more accessible choice, often learn from the students who are demonstrating success with a more challenging topic or type of presentation.
  • Assessment – student-directed learning allows time for ongoing assessment. I have spoken to teachers who plan detailed lessons and present to the class in a lecture style format with little time for collaboration or independent research. These teachers lament that student’s aren’t “listening” enough. They also wait until the end of unit to assess students with a paper/pencil task. By facilitating students in a more self-directed approach, teachers can support student where they are at with resources and mini-lessons for those who need it. Why provide the same lesson to the whole class if they do not all need it? When students are working in small groups or pairs, or even independently, the teacher is provided the time to interact with students, find out where they are in their understanding and provide the necessary support (assessment for learning).
Student-directed learning isn’t students learning on their own. It is more like students learning within a framework set up by the teacher, and supported by the teacher. It benefits all those involved!






Reporting Time


It is that time again, or maybe the first time for you – writing reports. It seems to loom over us as the due date for reports approaches. Yet, it isn’t always as insurmountable as it seems. Here are some tips for assessing, organizing, and preparing reports:

  • Create at-a-glance observation pages. These can be created in a grid or a list. Organize students in boxes or lists alphabetically by first name only. Print the observation sheets in a different colour than white, and put about 10 copies on 3 to 4 clipboards. Now they are handy to pick up and record what you notice, hear, see, throughout the day. If you prefer, you can title them to focus your observations, such as Learning Skills or Math skills. When writing reports it is easy to flip through a pile, looking at the same location on each page for anecdotal notes or examples to include in your reports.
  • Self-assessment. Provide time and guidance for student’s to self-assess particular work or their learning skills. It also beneficial to work on goal-setting and reflect on their goals prior to the end of each reporting period. These self-assessments can be useful when writing about their learning skill development.
  • Take photos. Using a smart phone or iPad to take many photos throughout the day can be valuable when writing reports (there are also apps for documenting student work, such as ThreeRing or Sesame). Often, you see students collaborating or participating in photos that you may not have realized during the activity. This happened for me when we had a guest dance instructor in the classroom. I took video and photos throughout the workshop. When I reviewed the video before writing reports I was surprised to see that the students I considered reluctant in dance, were actually dancing!
  • Record marks and brief comments. When I record marks in my assessment binder, I also add a brief comment. For example, after recording the students’ marks for a math test, I add a brief comment such as “doesn’t understand concept (knowledge)” or “needs work on communicating ideas” or “learning to apply…”. Then, when it comes time to write a comment for math in the reports, I have a quick reference that I can use to personalize the comment and the next steps for learning.
  • Maintain student portfolios. Use a crate or plastic bin for files. Make one folder for student and file all tests and work samples. Refer to the file when writing reports to have specific pieces as examples. Then return work to students and start anew for the next assessment period.
  • Build comments. Build subject specific or learning skill comments using brackets or *** to be filled in with comments and examples that are unique to each student. Cutting and pasting the same comment using only modifiers forces students to fit into a high, medium, or low category that may not best represent them.
  • Prepare for interviews. Before parent interviews, review the reports and jot down a few strengths and needs in a notebook (I organize one page per student) to guide your discussion. Then, make notes regarding any comments or concerns the parent offers, as well as any follow-up accommodations or communications you need to do. Then, you have these notes to refer to in any meetings that follow or for your next reporting period.
Finding your own routine of organizing and preparing for report, will help to ease the stress that report writing often brings.