What’s Your Thing?

The beginning of the school year always feels so hopeful and the thought of getting to know a whole new group of children is very exciting!

This year, I decided to take on a new angle to my usual “Identity” theme by helping my Grade 4 students to identify what their “thing” could be.

It all began with explaining “Identity” as puzzle pieces that make us who we are…

Each student had a chance to make an image of their identity, broken down into pieces. This led to questions such as, “How does knowing who you are help you?” and “What are the pieces that you are most proud of?”

Before I could introduce the idea that everyone has a “thing”, I decided to read, “Woolbur”, a wonderful story written by Leslie Helakoski. It highlights the unique qualities we all possess and how we can celebrate these qualities.

Afterwards, I asked students to think about Woolbur and what “his thing” might be…whether it was something he liked to do or a talent he possessed.                                               


Then, I asked them to try it out on me: “What is Mrs. McAuley’s Thing?” As they wrote on small white boards, I wrote my own thoughts on a hidden chart and then we compared them. It was pretty eye-opening and led to conversations about assumptions we can make about people.

Next, my students are taking photos of their “things” on iPads and putting together a collage. They are writing about one of their “things” and making an audio recording as they describe how they can use their “thing” to change the world.

If nothing else, this teaching experience has taught me that students are never too young to reflect on what makes them special. And when asked to take on a role in a team setting, they will be equipped, knowing what unique qualities they can share.

What’s Working

There is nothing like the gift of time. I so look forward to long weekends, not just because I can spend extra time with my family, or catch up on sleep, but also because it gives me time to reflect. I made a few changes in my classroom after March Break and it seemed like the right time to consider what’s working and perhaps not working, and how to make it work. That’s the beauty of teaching…change can happen at any time!

1) The desk arrangement in my classroom seemed to offer less space for movement, so I moved groups of desks together on an angle.

It still somehow feels like too many students at one table grouping…and sometimes group work can be challenging. This one I will have to re-think, perhaps making smaller groups and varying the sizes based on my students.

2) The table basket materials at each grouping often seemed disorganized, and I realized I had assumed that because my last set of Grade 4 students had been relatively organized and independent, this year would be similar. An unfair assumption on my part, given how unique each group can be! Therefore, I tried to add a list to these baskets so students could put materials back in the appropriate spot, thereby allowing them to access what they need.

This idea seems to work when the student assigned to table monitor checks the baskets throughout the day. I’m noticing my students are spending less time getting prepared and more time on actual tasks.

3) Many years ago, I noticed that the amount of unfinished work in different places made it difficult for me to know when my class needed “finish up” time. So, I hung hoops over each table grouping and when students were not finished, they would hang it on the hoop and return to it when they had time. It also helped me to see who might be struggling to complete work and when accommodations might be helpful.

This year, I’ve asked students to put their work on one particular hoop, so that they do not need to search several locations for their unfinished work. I find this method also more helpful for me, so I can support students who have unfinished work at each table grouping.

4) Many of my students seem to have self-esteem issues and it’s hard for them to reflect on what they are doing well. I’ve tried a variety of ideas over the year and most recently, we’ve added this “go-to people” list so that they can feel they have expertise and the ability to help others.

This idea is one I have to followup on and possibly add to, given that some students will not be able to share their expertise in a classroom setting (e.g., swimming)!

5) The last idea I wanted to revisit was reducing anchor charts to frames that can be used at the tables as a reference. This idea has been helpful for some of my students and I hope to continue using it for art activities as well.


The best part is, I have to spend less time trying to find places to hang chart paper! Next, I want to take the papers out of these frames and put them in a book that students can continue to refer to later, if they wish.

Now that I have completed my long weekend reflections, it’s time to head back to eating chocolates…



Kings of Writing

Last year, when it was time to sign up for extracurricular activities, I chose to run a junior Boys’ Writing club.

Sometimes I find writing such a challenge for students. They struggle with how to make it “look right” and when I explain that spelling and neatness do not have to be the main foci, they can find it hard to believe. How is it possible that writing can be effective when there are misspelled words or words crossed out on the page?

So, my mission was born. I wanted the Boys’ Writing club to take writing in a different direction and helps students to see that it can be such a powerful tool for communication.

I began with some research. Namely, what were issues at our school that our club could address through writing? How could I use these issues to give writing a purpose?

Here’s what I came up with:

-775 students in our school

-families that are new to Canada

-lunch recess is 55 minutes

-some areas of our playground are closed during winter

-daily problems happen outside that students talk about when they come in after lunch recess

When our club met for the first time, the vision was clear: we could do an advice column to help the students who have problems outside at recess. We made an action plan, the boys committed to attending weekly meetings and I asked them to come up with a name: “Kings of Writing”, they told me.

We discussed how the advice column could work: we would make mailboxes, students from around the school could write letters to the club and we would write responses to these letters. I decided to add one twist. Rather than writing a good copy of these letters, we would record the final responses on an iPad and play these responses over the announcements once a week.

The “Kings” were thrilled. Hearing their responses made them feel like they were doing something worthwhile and I think writing took on a whole other meaning for them.

Here’s a sampling:

kings of writing advice1

kings of writing advice2

kings of writing advice3

This year, I’m doing a version of Kings of Writing that is open to all my students. They collect issues from around the school and we respond to the letters during class time. In some small way, I feel like I’m preparing my class for their generation. Maybe next year, we can do video responses to be played in every classroom!



The Peace Tree

Recently, for Remembrance Day, I contemplated how to help my students understand the meaning of this solemn occasion.

My class is made up of students from India, Pakistan, Somalia, Czech Republic, Afghanistan and Slovakia to name a few. Through several discussions, I learned that their understanding of war from their homelands seemed different than what our Canadian soldiers went through, yet the common thread was the idea of peace.

Having seen the film, “The Peace Tree” by Mitra Sen, I thought this might be a good place to start. The film is about a young girl whose family is celebrating Eid. She shares her holidayand customs with her best friend and when Christmas draws nearer, she questions why her family can’t celebrate both occasions. This leads her to make a peace tree with symbols from different religions and cultures. After watching this film with my class, I could see them making connections to their own experiences with religion, exclusion and identity.

We became excited at the thought of making our own Peace Tree and I began the search for the right branches to hold our ideas. Together, we spent some time studying different signs of peace from around the world, such as the diya (India), the Inukshuk (North America), the Yin Yang (China), the Star of David (Israel) and more. My students took materials home in earnest to start making these signs and often came up with their own symbols: flags from different countries, chains of people, and hands.

At our school assembly, while each class was invited to bring a wreath, my class chose to bring their Peace Tree which had also been decorated with poppies. Two of my students spoke at the assembly about why we had created this tree and what it stood for. It has been an interesting experience for me to watch my students get so excited about the different symbols and how the meaning of peace is the same no matter where you live in the world.

We were asked to put our Peace Tree outside the school office for others to enjoy and my students often ask when we are getting it back…they want to add more to it!


Talking and Listening Chairs

As I look back on this past week, I realize that I spent very little time teaching curriculum and more time working on life skills. I have two choices at this point. I could think, “Oh wow, I’m really far behind!” or “I’ve made a huge investment that I hope will pay off in the future.” I choose the latter.

My students have been coming to with me problems that happen at recess: someone left them out of a game, two friends were whispering something not-so-nice about them or they saw someone being treated badly and didn’t know what to do.

When we talk through these problems, it’s obvious to me that they have the answers on how to solve their issues, but they need a tool to help them do so.

So, I introduce the talking and listening chairs. One chair is marked “T”, the other “L”.

We use one of the problems that happened to illustrate how to use the chairs. For example, “Bill” was upset that “Megan” was not listening to his ideas when they were trying to solve a math problem together. So, Bill sat in the “T” chair and Megan sat in the “L” chair and each had opportunities to talk about what was bothering them and listen to how the other person was feeling. It quickly became evident that they was room for compromise on both ends and they seemed relieved to be able to move on from this problem.

Like most tools, the talking and listening chairs also have boundaries, which I discuss with my students:

* If the person you want to take to the chairs is not ready, you may need to wait.

* If you go out to talk, you will need to attentively listen as well.

* If the problem takes longer than 10 minutes to solve, you may need some help.

* When classmates are using the chairs, we can show respect by giving them some privacy.

* If there are many students involved in the problem, we may need to discuss it as a whole class.

When students ask to use the chairs, I keep track of what time they step out in the hallway and occasionally walk by the door, so the talking and listening remains positive and focused.

As a tool, it can be very successful at helping students who lack confidence to speak up when something is bothering them. I especially enjoy watching, when some of my students who are still learning English approach a classmate to say, “I need to talk to you.”

I have yet to teach a curriculum subject that is more rewarding than that moment.

A Little Perspective

This past summer, my family and I spent 6 weeks in India. Apart from the wonderful moments we enjoyed with family and the extraordinary travels we embarked on, there was one experience that helped us all gain a little perspective.


Our son, Sunjay, turned 12 in June and decided that in lieu of gifts, he wanted to collect money to donate in India when we would be there. Once we arrived, we discovered that one of my cousins had volunteered in a school that needed help and it seemed like the right “cause” for Sunjay’s donation money.

The school was in Dharavi, one of the biggest slum areas in Mumbai. Families live in shacks one on top of the other, with an “outhouse” that drains into a creek. Due to the location and inadequate drainage systems, there are often floods during the monsoon season. It is estimated that anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million live in this one area of the city, so few children get the opportunity to attend school.

My cousin explained to us that the school she volunteered in was running solely on donations from charitable organizations and they offer free education until grade 7, but only for three kids per family. If you have a fourth child, you have to pay for their education.

When we discussed making a donation, it didn’t feel like enough. We wanted to visit the school ourselves and meet the children. Sunjay and our daughter, Maneesha, had also brought stuffed animals from home that they wanted to give the students. Communication between my cousin and the classroom teacher led us a small store in the local market, where Sunjay used his money to buy blank notebooks for the students so they could have something to write in.

That day at the school was one we shall never forget. The students were curious to see 4 foreigners walking in the hallways and while some were friendly, most were shy and hesitant. They were wearing school uniforms, yet some did not have shoes.

The classroom looked so different from what we are all used to…there were 3 kids to one desk, paint peeling off the walls, and no visible school supplies. The noise level when we entered was very high, and the teacher was trying to control the class by pulling some kids apart who were fighting. We learned that parents have very little time to supervise their children because they are often out working when the kids come home from school. It can then fall upon the teacher, to create a community of learners that not only trust her, but each other and the world around them.

Once we handed out the notebooks and the stuffed animals, the teacher asked if the students had any questions and one student said, “Why did you give us these things?” It was a hard question to answer, but we tried to explain how special the school was and how we just wanted to help. Really as I look back on the experience, they gave us so much more than we gave them.

Each day when I walk in my classroom this year, I am grateful. Grateful to have pencils, paper, chairs and an area where I can keep my own belongings. Grateful to have colleagues to talk to and learn from. Grateful that parents are able to send their children to school and they do so with hope, appreciation and respect for what we do every day. But most of all, I’m grateful for the 26 faces I see at the door in the mornings. They remind me why I’m a teacher.

Themes As the Driving Force

While there are some conflicting opinions about the use of themes in teaching, I have found that they are extremely powerful tools we can use to help our students connect their world to curriculum subjects.

I began my school year with the theme of Identity, so my Grade 4 students could know more about who they are as individuals. We examined factors like religion, gender, family, and media and how they play a role in shaping our identities. I was particularly excited to zero in on gender, in an attempt to work on one of the UN Millennium goals:

Goal #3 – Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/)  

This led us to discuss stereotypes that can exist for males and females and through drama, visual arts and writing, my students reflected on their experiences and how stereotypes can lead to exclusion. We read personal stories and viewed clips from the site, “Because I Am A Girl” (http://becauseiamagirl.ca/) and they mapped places in the world where these stories came from and looked for patterns. At the end, students wrote about themselves and their learning in a blown-up version of their individual fingerprints.

Over the course of working within this theme, I began to see the challenges my students had with the concept of Choice and realized I had found my next theme to explore with them.

Goal #1 – End Poverty and Hunger

Goal #2 – Achieve Universal Education

My students made puppet shows on iPads to illustrate a time when they had to make a difficult choice and we studied persuasive writing and how their voices can have an impact on the choices others make. Closer to the holiday season, we planned a fundraiser and I shared Unicef’s website and the survival gifts program (www.unicef.ca/). They convinced me that we should raise money to send a child to school because that would decrease the chances of this child living in poverty. So, we sold popcorn throughout our school, in the hopes of raising $75 to send a child to school. My students designed posters, they went to each class in the school and shared our idea, they counted and tracked the money that came in with the orders and to our surprise, we raised $300 and were able to send 4 children to school. Their one condition before I made the donation: can you please make sure that it is 2 boys and 2 girls?








Over the holidays, I contemplated how relatively quiet my mind was because I wasn’t hearing the daily concerns: he’s not sharing the soccer ball, I can’t find a teacher to help me outside, no one will play with me. In order to help my students with some of these issues, I needed to move to Power and its role in relationships and specifically on the playground. My students took post-its notes outside to record when they heard power being used and we studied about power in science through light and sound. They wrote articles for a class newspaper that outlined powerful people in our school and my personal favourite, we discussed imbalance in power, which led to yoga during our gym periods.

As I move into my last theme of the year, Agents of Change, Mission Impossible music plays in the background while my students are designing badges and creating surveys which will provide them with the data they need to make changes within our school.

Goal #7 – Ensure Environmental Sustainability

When my colleagues ask me how I find time to teach the curriculum, I say: The themes are my curriculum, they are what drive me to make connections for my students.

What’s the noise all about?

How much talk is acceptable in a classroom setting? Or more importantly, how much talk is acceptable in your classroom setting?

We all have different beliefs about teaching and learning and this is reflected in what our classrooms look like and sound like. Just by walking down the hall at your school, you may have noticed differences in:

-desk/table set up

-visuals hung up in the classroom

-students working in groups

-use of technology

or the noise level…

And that’s okay. Because not only do our classrooms reflect us, they reflect our students.

I have 18 boys and 9 girls in my Grade 4 class and yes, my classroom is constantly brimming with activity and talk, even during the lunch hour, when the students are supposed to be eating.

When I realized that this is how they prefer to communicate and share, I discovered so much about them, like: one of my student’s father died 11 days before he was born, another student is getting a new sibling and Bruno Mars is a favourite artist among many of my students.

So I say, bring on the ‘noise’.



Preparing students for their generation

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how much I count on technology on a daily basis. There’s a mental checklist running through my mind before the day even begins. Laptop for note- taking, check. iPhone with recorded message for students, check. SMART Board lesson set up, check.

Most recently, I’ve added the best one of all to this list: iPad to encourage higher-level thinking and problem-solving. CHECK!!! (no, I do not work for Apple on the side…).

I have used the iPad to teach my students a number of skills:

-how to make webs as a springboard to writing (using Popplet)

-how to use audio recordings to explain what they do when they choose the “right” books to read

-how to make puppet shows that re-enact some tough choices they have made in their lives (using Puppet Pals)

I’ve never been a huge fan of paper-pencil tasks because I see how they can sometimes limit students who have a lot to say and who are creative thinkers. By using technology to engage my students, not only am I getting a more accurate picture of what they can do, but I am also preparing them to be what we always talk about in teaching: critical thinkers.

Their generation will be asked to do more thinking, more analysis, more decision-making, so why not start now?





Are We Open?

Reading Samantha’s post about interviews and Tina’s post about co-teaching brings to mind a recurring theme I feel I’m living: teaching is about being open to partnerships.

There are many different ways we can show we are open and they may be as simple as:

-keeping our classroom door open to welcome others

-walking our students outside at the end of the day and talking with parents

-trying a new idea that someone shares with us

-taking time to listen to stories from our students, their family members, or our colleagues

-letting our students take the lead by sharing their ideas and insights

-asking questions when we are unsure

Through these examples and more, we can gain so much information about our students, our school community and most of all, ourselves.

It may be that my perspective is different, given that I haven’t had my own class for the last 6 years, but I like to think that being “new” allows me to see things in another light and I, for one, am glad to be in this position!