Amazing Race to the End of the Year

This year, I am so excited to bring back a game I played with my French students years ago: The Amazing Race.  If you are looking for a fun activity to consolidate student learning, this is a great way to motivate your pupils in the last few days, easily adaptable to any subject or unit.

The challenge that I had the first year I tried it was determining how to make equitable ‘teams.’ I was concerned that by letting students choose a partner, the group project mentality of “don’t pick _____ so we aren’t last” would come out and two top students would dominate the standings each day. Sometimes putting kids into pairs based on “close or similar” levels can work (e.g., and A and B student, a B and C student) and eliminate the compulsion for extroverted students to dominate an activity or the frustration or a student with differential learning needs who can’t keep up with the partner. In the actual Amazing race seasons, there are tasks with various skills needed so the idea is for students to see that everyone has a strength that can be used at some point in the ‘competition.’

I also try to put in some elements of the show that give the students a chance to show good sportsmanship. One year, a particularly strong team finished in a round with an “express pass” that could be given to another team to get a head start the next day. Instead of choosing another friend pair, these students graciously gave the pass to a classmate that had found the last round challenging because “we know that he tried really hard.” I like to think that this small act of kindness showed him that like in the Olympics, there are moments for competitors to demonstrate that winning with the right attitude can be just as important.

Every year when there are Field Day or other end of the year events, I try to encourage students based on a story I heard a father tell at the memorial service for my friend, who passed away while we were still in high school. The father told a heartwarming anecdote of how his daughter, who had petit mal epilepsy, chose to compete in a foot race and came last due to a lack of physical coordination. Watching tearfully as the medals were handed out, one of the coaches took her aside and explained that instead of coming last, she had really come seventh: because there were many other students who had chosen not to participate. Whatever the reason for sitting out the race, even if they were ahead of her with physical skills, she had demonstrated that by showing up she was willing to do her best for herself intrinsically. Years later, this is the attitude I try to instill in students: if you just show up, sometimes that can be enough to prove that no matter what day you are having, you have done your best.  And yes, this is naturally something I think about in my teaching philosophy as well.


The Importance of Music Spaces for All Students

Think back to your elementary school days.  Did you have music in a designated classroom, or did the teacher come into yours with a variety of supplies?  Perhaps the music classroom was reserved for middle school band to store stands and cases, or maybe there wasn’t even a music program at your school.

I started elementary school music instruction either with my homeroom students or through a teaching assignment 10 years ago, and have come to reflect on the advantages of having a personal space for lessons.  Posters are readily able to be displayed, and learning centres are easily able to be set up for a variety of activities.  Also, for the few periods a day that I am not teaching, I usually invite our EAs to bring their assigned students into the room to be able to explore the instruments in a big, quiet space.  I have already met a kindergarten student who definitely has a ear for singing as through playing with the toned bells, was able to order the pitches from high to low.  And using some of my budgetary funds, I used bubble wrap on some of the materials that some of the more boisterous students may have had difficulty with handling so that we continued to have instruments available for all the classes.

Of course, given the layout and allocation in your board, a separate music room may not always be possible.  However, there are multiple ways to turn some spaces into inviting escapes for students.  For example:

*consider turning a small section of a sensory room into a ‘music corner’ where mindfulness can be practised using speakers through devices, with small chimes and other small soothing instruments.  You can even give students a ‘carry cart’ to take out into the hall so they be safely supervised while teaching your lessons to practise self-regulation.

*print out some info cards for various topics in music (e.g., composers, genres, note names, etc.) that can be used while teaching ‘on a cart’ for ready made group or partner activities.  These independent formative assessment areas can allow for leadership from students who have received training outside of school with lessons and help when there is a supply who may not have as much familiarity with the program.

*use open spaces in your building for practises with choir and other emsembles.  One teacher I saw would wheel a piano to the front of the school and have students sing outside the office.  The others coming by to pick up lunches and use the washroom would see the group and want to join in.

Most importantly, continue to advocate for music spaces in your school, especially if a room has been designed with that purpose.  There are many advantages to having a music room, such as the use of risers, sound proofed walls, and spaces for movement performance.  A common misconception is that the arts do not require a designated room like a gymnasium.  But given how often homerooms and libraries are being redesigned (e.g., flexible seating), it’s time we looked at how creativity can be limitless and prioritized when it comes to architecture.

Board and Virtual Games in a Language Classroom

Every so often at board game events, or simply by playing a new activity with my nieces, I think “Wow, this is fun…how can I integrate this into the classroom to promote exciting and relevant learning?”

One of the games I played at a cottage in the summer was “Spot It.” It’s a very simple premise: take a tin of cards with pictures and words on each card. There are a variety of matches to be made on all the cards using both pictures (visual) and words (lingual).

As a Core French teacher, it can often be a hard sell to find activities that appeal to students. I immediately sought out the game in its bilingual form (you can also find other examples of languages it has been produced in) and played it with my students. Here is what I observed:

*this was a great way to get English language learners (ELLs) to participate with all of the visuals
*there were a lot of entry points for students on IEPs who couldn’t remember some of the language rules, but could still participate, just by matching pictures
*one of the students with physical motor issues could easily ‘point’ to his selection and his EA was easily able to assist him with communication 
*each student was able to learn that there was a way to match each card if they kept looking

I like to use hands on games, but I am continuing to be more adept at seeing how students use technology in their learning. I have a class of split Gr. 4 and 5s, which means most students have over a year’s experience with the younger students with the FSL program.  However, due to mitigating circumstances (e.g., returning students from the Immersion program, students new to Canada), there are various reasons why some may be of a higher level of learning than others.  I try to pair students in mixed ability groups of three for cooperative learning and to have them critically evaluate the sites and games they use.  Are they fun?  User friendly?  Easy to use at home and at school for practising their skills?  

The end of the year can be challenging for motivating students; however, I do like students to participate actively in their learning so I encourage them to create their own puzzles.  They have created board games similar to Snakes and Ladders where students can choose the dimensions of the board (e.g., smaller or larger size) as well as the unit that they want to have students review (e.g., placing a colour square vs more detailed weather/season examples). For Bingo, the students enjoy figuring out how to use probability to maximize their ‘winning’ potential and can make the card at a chosen square level either on paper or using an online design.

Sometimes we need to examine that the social learning that happens with games can be just as important as the language skills given the various re-entry points of students into in-person learning, and it can be all the more rewarding if we can positively motivate them to have fun at the same time.

Virtual Presentations

On my bucket list of things to do as an educator, one of my wishes has been to have students attend a live concert.  However, given the ever-evolving nature of Co-Vid as well as emerging issues of equity, this has been something that has presented a challenge, in addition to not having the same opportunities as a homeroom teacher to organize a field trip.  Fortunately, given these unprecedented times, the accommodations given to still present these experiences to students have also been pivoted from various artistic organizations.  Here are some of the ways students have continued applying their knowledge in new formats:

*the Toronto Symphony Orchestra digitized two concerts that my students enjoyed, The Ultimate Guide to Eating Hallowe’en Candy and Zoophony: .One of the advantages of virtual concerts is that gives students an opportunity to pause the video and discuss what is happening, and given the nature of so many different types of student learners these days, may present an in-class version of a ‘relaxed performance.’  I even let students bring snacks and lie down in the class to listen to the music if needed.  Many virtual concerts have a fee for digital rights that accompany class resources.

*the BBoyzm dance company: recorded presentations and made them available to teachers along with a virtual Q and A with the artist.  Students were able to connect live despite not having the advantage of seeing a live performance with audience interaction, and were able to see a presentation from a group outside of the travel area that may not have been possible in person.  The funds for the presentation were provided by a cultural grant and therefore this free presentation was ideal for a community with various needs.

Naturally, we hope to return to in person presentations soon, however, if you are interested in checking low cost or free presentations for students, here are some other places to check out virtual resources:

-your local library or community/arts centre

-educational locations such as nature preserves, museums and science centres

For students and staff that have had a challenging few years, it is wonderful to see how people react to this technology integration of creativity and education.

Pop Culture in the Classroom

The first week of May has two important pop culture events: May the Fourth and Free Comic Book Day.  These fan celebrations are great ways to connect to student learning and camaraderie both in and out of the classroom.  More and more, students are interacting actively with media in terms of their interest in characters and immersive communities.

When I was growing up, the May 4th “Star Wars Day” existed only as a pun and has exploded over social media the past 10 years.  Most of my colleagues knew of my fondness for this space franchise and when the day began to be celebrated with fun tie-ins for kids both young and old, I naturally incorporated it into my classroom.  I was particularly excited for this year’s being the first in person occasion in three years and the first since arriving to my new school two years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised when colleagues showed up in some Star Wars hair and shirts with stuffies of various characters, and since our principal encouraged us to be inclusive and call it “Space Day”, there were many star and moon ensembles as well.

Students enthusiastically showed up at nutrition break to my room wearing various outfits, including some in costumes.  They participated in word searches, Mad Libs, and fun poses against a galactic backdrop.  What pleased me the most was that many years ago, mostly only boys would have these shirts and plushies on hand.  The fan culture has catered more and more to all genders with various characters and positive representation that appeals to a wider variety of fans.

Free Comic Book Day is a wonderful opportunity to check out the local comic book store and begin the journey to learning about superheroes and villains in graphic novel form.  Students enjoyed drawing using step by step videos of characters from their favourite cartoon shows and were encouraged to check out events at their local library.  Once again, more inclusivity in terms of characters’ backgrounds and ethnicities leads to more children seeing themselves represented on the big and small screen and in the pages of books that are a great resource for a variety of reading styles.

The terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ can be used to negatively stereotype both neuro-divergent and neural typical children with interests and personalities that don’t ‘fit’ into society norms.  It’s empowering to see students embrace ideas that being a fan, whether comics or sports, is something that can introduce lifelong friends and talents.

Music Monday and encouraging arts in the classroom

May 2 will be the first Music Monday I will be celebrating live in three years and the first in my new school. Music Monday is an initiative organized by the Coalition for Music Education to promote the importance of music education in schools. You can find information at, and schools are invited to sign up internationally as well.

At the same time on the first Monday in May, schools are encouraged to virtually sing along to a song commissioned by Canadian artists. This is Music Monday’s 30th anniversary, and during the past 10 years I have participated I have sang with the students I.S.S. (Is Someone Singing), co-written by astronaut Chris Hatfield, Music is Our Medicine, and other contributions by a variety of diverse artists. We always encourage students to play along if they are shy about performing using a variety of instruments.

A book that I like to read in connection to this topic is “The Man With the Violin”, by Kathy Stinson. The author based the story on a real experiment where master musician Joshua Bell disguised himself and played for one hour in a subway station to see if passersby would pay attention to classical pieces in a non-concert setting. The beautiful illustrations convey to spirit of the children who were the most moved by the music. My students quickly recognized the importance of not judging a book by its cover and how important it is to have music occurring in everyday life from a young age.

The past few years have taught us the importance of the arts in our entertainment as well as our mental health. This year, I am video recording some of our students of various physical and neurologically divergent needs for a special slideshow on how music can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter their background and age. There are many ways to integrate music education into a variety of subjects and I hope that the choirs convey the importance of music on students’ learning and emotional well-being.

Using Short Stories for Literature

When I was in junior high, my dad travelled to Australia and brought back a short story collection for me: “UnReal” by Paul Jennings.  He thought I would enjoy it because each ending was a twist and the stories were funny and unusual.  When I was getting ready for my first week of teaching I thought that the students may enjoy them too.  Every since then, we have gone through a few of the stories at the start of each year to get a lay of reading comprehension and writing activities. You can find listings here: The “Un” books:

Novels can be tricky to use in the classroom due to the increased needs of students: some fall out of favour over time due to re-examining content, they can be intimidating for students in early ESL stages or on IEPs, and it can be hard to take a novel adapted into a movie without the inevitable comparisons to the big screen version.  Short stories also allow for the reader to not have to worry about missing days and being confused by the story, or being bored and feeling stuck with finishing listening to an unmotivated tale.

In the “Unreal” short stories, I allow the students to be creative in doing activities that integrate other subjects.  We have done everything from drawing a scene, creating a drama sequel, and writing a diary entry from a character’s perspective.  Many students that are reluctant readers find they are more easily able to digest the content and get motivated to be involved in thinking up predictions to the endings.  Every year I enjoy seeing a new point of view from someone that I haven’t considered.

Another advantage for short stories is that with a variety of topics, you can also get students to vote on their choices, or perhaps find other pieces similar to the style of an author (think of the “we recommend” section of a book store).  I try to look at what has been selected in my book clubs, and the operative is that: not “novel” but “book.”  Gone are the days of long texts and only fiction; in fact, my book clubs look at memoirs which coincides with research that non-fiction that attract more reluctant readers.  In bringing this into the class, there are some great selections out there, like ‘YA friendly’ versions of adult books like Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”.  Students also enjoy the “Who Is/Was” books which is a great connection: if they liked “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, they might enjoy reading about the author Jeff Kinney.  Once again, the illustrations assist students with visualizing the biographies of celebrities from the past and present.

The other short stories I would recommend include “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” by Louis Sachar.  There are a wide variety of characters with different personalities that can be re-interpreted in a variety of races and backgrounds.  Many students nowadays consume media in ‘chunks’ like short Tik-Toks and quick Youtube clips.  It may be time to take a look at how we engage using 21st century learning in the classroom  as well.


Do you Read ‘Teacher Books’ in Your Spare Time?

Teaching is a career ripe for interesting stories from a variety of viewpoints. There is of course, the humour of working with children who sometimes say and do whatever comes to mind. There is the heartwarming nature of kids who have grown up to credit the influence their educators had on their careers and lives. And inevitably, there is the frustration of a career in a system that is plagued by various public opinion and continuing challenges such as lack of funding, etc. Here are 3 books I enjoy by current and former individuals who have dabbled in education and put their experiences to paper:

A Teacher in the Wild, by Devin Siebold:
Stand up comedian and former Florida teacher Devin Siebold financed a picture book on Kickstarter based on ideas he had about how students react to running into teachers outside of class in a ‘natural setting’ like the mall. His trademark humour from his stand up matches with hilarious illustrations from Izzy B that will make adults and kids smile imagining how the encounters look from each POV.

32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny, by Phillip Done:
This memoir combines vignettes on teaching that will have educators nodding and laughing in agreement. I picked up this book at a second hand store and have recommended it to many of my friends. Be prepared to be entertained by essays comparing entering school compared to an airplane, the hazards of using a laminator with ties, and trying to make the perfect Open House presentation.

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, by Tony Danza:
Yes, “Who’s the Boss” actor Tony Danza did a brief stint teaching high school English (he got a teaching credential before his career took off) as part of a show for A & E. Although one must be cautious of how ‘reality television’ is filmed, the book is an expansion of the reflection of an ‘outsider’ in a system based on Tony Danza’s memory of being a high school student years earlier. The thesis is simple: if more individuals were able to see education from the perspective of the staff, they would see that it is a lot more difficult and that often when we are young we don’t always appreciate what others do for us.

The common thread that all of these books have is that there is a fine line between laughing at experiences that are not easy and being relieved at relating that it may happen to everyone. Whether you read books from teachers for entertainment or reflection, there are many voices to relate to on a variety of school experiences.

Connecting Students with a Local Author

Sometimes teaching even after close to 20 years can yield new literary experiences. A few months ago, I attended a convention and came across the usual spread of artists selling their books. However, I was definitely ‘drawn’ to a short novel series by a teacher who lived about an hour away. Inspired by the popularity of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants in his class, he had written a set of books about two friends who loved pulling ‘mostly’ harmless pranks in their school and neighbours. You can learn more at

I purchased an autographed copy of the latest and as predicted, they connected with the humour and doodles. At the end we decided to contact the author Mark Gunning by email listed on his website after exploring it. Despite him not being as highly prolific as R.L. Stine or Dav Pilkey, I prepared the students for a reply being slow in coming, if at all. However, I was so pleased to find out that Mr. Gunning offered to answer our questions LIVE via a Google Meet before our spring break.

The students were kept surprised and their only negative comment was that they couldn’t do the meeting in person, but in this age, they are accustomed to adjusting their expectations with technology. Mr. Gunning was able to offer some valuable insight into how to become an author and how to put your own spin on popular ideas. In addition, he was pleased at the activities we were able to create using his series to integrate with other subjects such as Art, Music, and Science.

Local authors often rely on word of mouth to build an audience and in this case, young fans and educators are paramount in assisting with selling books. Here are some suggestions on how to choose someone from your local area:
*check your local library for lists of books and check if there are virtual school visits. Many librarians are still connecting virtually to reach broad audiences and you may be able to coordinate a Q and A with other schools simultaneously.
*connect with the author as a staff member via social media yourself to keep everything safe and control communication. Most authors include a few platforms to follow nowadays.
*check for the books on other formats for accessibility. Some school libraries may have rules on vendor purchasing, and the local library may not always have copies. However, you may be able to get copies of ebooks (in this case, the first book is free in Mark Gunning’s I Told You So series as a Kindle download, which only requires a parent to have an Amazon account).

Mark Gunning said he got the ball rolling on his writing career after another author visited his school. Perhaps a budding author will credit an interest with writing as a career after a meaningful connection to guide them on their literary journey.

The Power of a Card

Over many years, I have had students give cards over the various special events of the year. Like Hallmark, the busiest time I am opening things are the winter holidays and the end of the year, but sometimes they will produce cute decorated cards for Valentine’s Day and my birthday.

Sometimes the cards are store bought with a ready to go printed message and the student’s name hastily printed. Other times, I get a plethora of stickers and adorable personal messages on construction paper where the parent has sometimes helped with spelling. And occasionally I will get the card purchased from the store, but the student has made extra effort to find something I will like or pertains to my job, like superheroes or the Nutcracker ballet.

But every so often, you will get the special “comes out of nowhere” card where both parent and child combine talents. Last week, I was struggling with the planning of returning online students, continuing to be called out to cover classes short of supply teachers, and the ever evolving political news of the past two years. When I got to my first period French class, my mood significantly improved when one of the students who was transferring to another school surprised me a day before he was to leave with a small but powerful card.

His mother, who works at the local library, helped him make a printed design that said Merci. Although we have students leave during the middle of the year frequently, not having the students every day as a homeroom teacher usually means a quick goodbye passing in the hall.  I was touched that they worked together to make sure I received a beautiful card in person.

I am not sure how long it took, but the fact that the parent and child took the time to put something together meant so much to me personally on a gloomy day. While the rest of the day didn’t go perfect, I felt that I was able to cope with the challenges a lot better knowing this family understood the effort we made over the years to this young man.

Over the years many students have taken their time during nutrition break or asked to stay in for ‘work’ only to produce a ‘surprise’ card using colourful paper and supplies from the school.  Though not expected from all students, or in the same ways, it is the display of character traits that makes me so happy as an educator to see the development of the kindness these students will take with them throughout their many years after they leave the school.