The Music of Math

I secretly want to be a conductor of a large musical ensemble. My visits to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra always reignites my passion for music and I will always catch myself using my hands and body to dance with the beautiful arrangements of the melodious notes. However, one small obstacle has barred me from realizing this dream: I have not yet been able to master any instruments much less lead a body of musicians. Sigh! Nonetheless, being a teacher gives me the opportunity to integrate many of my passions into my classroom practice. As such, my love of teaching and my dream of conducting an orchestra have a place to collide. My class call signal – teacher: “Bah dah bump bah dah dah…” students: “Hey!” – can seem to go on for hours as I engage my students in various melodious versions of the common tune. Needless to say, I can totally get lost in the call and response clap patterns that allow me to use my hands as if they were conducting an orchestra, pulling out the very beat of each note value as students respond with the exact arrangement of claps. Each time I am left invigorated and excited and my students love it. These sessions often end up with smiles and laughter in our classroom, opposite to the quiet tone I originally was trying to achieve.

This year I teach math to Primary, Junior and Intermediate students. Math and music have long enjoyed a harmonious marriage with the plethora of interconnected concepts that can be explored simultaneously. This year in my Grade 3/4 math class, we had the opportunity to embrace this fusion. We have been exploring geometry concepts by naming, sorting and identifying characteristics of polygons. This aspect of geometry is extremely language-rich and I needed a way to solidify the students’ conceptual understanding of the principles of geometry while not losing my students in the barrage of its discourse. So we decided to accent our learning by capturing it in a song.

I invited my class to decide on a familiar tune that we could arrange our lyrics to fit. Hot Line Bling and Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae) were among the tunes that were suggested, but didn’t make the cut. We opted to use the infamous Mary Had A Little Lamb as our melody base since it offered a simple structure for the type of song that we wanted to construct. We then brainstormed all of the ideas we had learned up to that point in our polygon journey. These were written on the board and were the ‘meat and potatoes’ of our song. Then the creative juices began to flow. Each aspect of our learning was written as a verse in our song. We had to be creative with our word choices and syncopation, as we had more to say than the structure of our tune would allow. So once the lyrics were written, the music teacher and I collaborated to hash out the note values of our song. Ta-dah! Music literally met math. Coupled with this, Mary Had A Little Lamb just happened to be the song that my students just finished learning to play on their recorders. Bazinga! Music met math again. And guess who got to direct this beautiful masterpiece?… ME!

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So what’s my point? Learning is awesome! No really – when a passion for teaching meets willingness to embrace creativity, amazingness happens. Children learn and teachers have fun. Being authentically excited about what you do is an important ingredient to any meaningful experience and the polygon song is such an experience which I hope my students will never forget. Because of this, neither will the concepts be lost. As for me, my dream will continue to grow. Who knows what else I might try? I’ve secretly wanted to be an opera singer…

Product or Process: Reflections on Assessing Thinking

What’s the difference between thinking and understanding? More specifically, how might one distinguish between the activity of thinking and having understanding. Is there even a difference? This got me thinking… How I might invite educators to a conversation about assessment practices using a common understanding of assessment through the lens of Ontario’s standardized assessment rubric, The Achievement Chart. Most of the assessment resources that I usually refer to spoke more about the assessment process and the importance of assessment as, for and of learning, but seldom did I find any descriptions that were specific to using the Achievement Chart as the standard lens for engaging in the assessment of student learning itself. My investigation then lead me to the most basic of resources for determining distinction – the dictionary. Well to be honest, I simply Googled it, but these days, that’s pretty much the same thing. So what did I find out? The word think is a verb. It speaks to the process of using one’s mind to reason about something. On the other hand, understanding is a noun. Is speaks to what one comprehends or the insight one has acquired.

To be fair, simply reading the introduction of any Ontario Curriculum document would immediately highlight this distinction. What I wanted was to first get an unbiased definition that would then be solidified once I referred to the definitions used in the documents. According to the curriculum, language around understanding speaks of having comprehension in subject specific content. Thinking, however, speaks of the uses of planning skills and thinking processes. Eureka! So assessing thinking is actually assessing the process – the series of actions or steps taken. This was the pivotal distinction: The achievement chart calls for teachers to assess the process of thinking and not merely the thought or understanding one arrives at itself.

This revelation may not be new, but surely one that we should be reminded about. We are constantly engaging in the assessment process, however, this conversation (or me at least) highlighted the importance of being more intentional and slowing down the thinking process by scaffolding metacognition. By doing so, students can be more aware of their own thinking when it is happening and demonstrate the process they’ve engaged with when they arrive at their own understanding. This also reminded me of the importance to focus on process as well as product when assessing student learning and as such, the importance of actually teaching students a variety of thinking processes (i.e. creative thinking, critical thinking, design thinking, integrative thinking, etc.). What might this actually look like in terms of assessing student thinking? Perhaps it would be focusing on the process students engage with for writing an essay (ie. the writing process) along with the finished process. It might also mean assessing students strategies for problem solving, in addition to the accuracy of their answers. The most important thing to be mindful of is to value the distinction between engaging in thinking and having an understanding. They are not diametrically opposed, but rather are complementary and in knowing so, students can then be invited to see the distinction which will affirm the importance that is placed on both the process and the product.

Resolutions for the Year to Come

As elementary school teachers, we have the opportunity to celebrate the new year at least twice a year. The first happens in September with the start of a new school year and the second, in January, with the mark of the beginning of a new solar calendar year. As we approach the latter event, I take this moment to reflect on some of the things that I wish to continue to embrace as I move forward – some renewed new year’s resolutions of sorts.

1. Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Teaching is the best job on earth. Enjoy the opportunity to the fullest.

2. Make time to connect with your colleagues. Whether it be in the staff room at lunch or in the hall as you pass by, invests in professional relationships with your colleagues. You are on the same team and teamwork doesn’t simply happen by working in the same building.

3. Be okay with not knowing. In the spirit of inquiry, be willing to embrace the learning in the process as well as the learning at the end of it.

4. Focus on 1-2 professional learning goals at a time. There will always be new initiatives and ideas to grapple with. Be sure to feel comfortable with one new thing a year and you will not feel overwhelmed by trying to grapple with them all.

5. Enjoy recess duty. While ensuring the safety of your scholars, it is also a great opportunity to connect with them as well.

6. Know that things will get done. Every school night doesn’t have to be a late one.

7. Work smarter (not harder). You do not have to reinvent the wheel. Make effective use of the resources around you in order to accomplish what you are set out to do.

8. Be good to you. Find the time to engage in the things that (re)energize you.

9. Give yourself permission to not be the perfect teacher. The perfect teacher doesn’t exist. And if he/she did, who would want to walk around with all that pressure? Be the best version of yourself where you are at, while embracing opportunities to grow.

10. Be. Just be. Be grateful, loving, respectful, courageous…

Number Lines: A Game Changer in Math Class

This year, as in times past, planning my math program was filled with the usual excitement of clustering expectations and imagining ways in which I could creatively address the curriculum. Teaching a grade 3/4 combined grade for the first time, I was eager to be on top of my planning and ensure that I was creating parallel learning experiences by simultaneously addressing the curriculum expectations for both grades.

When planning the learning experiences, I colour code the strands, cut out each expectation and cluster them according to big ideas. This results in cross-strand learning experiences.

For my first series of learning experiences, I really wanted to invite my scholars to engage with number lines as a model that would help to make their thinking visible, but also as a tool for exploring many math concepts such as quantity and measurement. A number line is a line segment that can either be vertical or horizontal that represent a series of numbers that are marked at intervals. Re(introducing) number lines to my scholars early on in the year was important for me because I view number lines as an invaluable math model. Every day numbers lines are used to measure time – a clock; distance – a ruler; capacity – a measuring cup; temperature – a thermometer and mass – a scale. Number lines also allow students to model the strategies they use when adding and subtracting, as well as composing and decomposing numbers. Starting with the exploration of number lines proved to be an important first learning for my grade 3/4 math class.

Students were able to identify a variety of tools that have number lines embedded in their function.

Beginning the year this way was exciting but it was even more invigorating when I realized how many authentic, cross-strand connections that actually took place by centring the learning around investigating the use of a simple tool. The following are a few reflections from the journey:

1. Once the orientation of a number line was solidified, scholars were able to make connections between the number line drawn on the board with the number lines embedded in everyday objects.
The most prominent feature in my class at the start of the school year were the quantity number lines hanging from my classroom ceiling. These were made by cutting pool noodles into two-inch disk and placing them on rope. One was counting by twos (two-coloured pool noodles) and grouped by twenties to hang on the ceiling. The other was counting by fives with alternating colours and grouped by 25s. Students were invited to inquire about the quantity of pool noodles, the groupings, the skip counting, etc. and this became the introduction to number lines for the year. Using the quantity number line along with an actual number line that marked the perimeter of the front of my class, we explored the nuances of number lines by describing their directionality of increasing and decreasing quantity. We also explore the ways in which intervals could be marked on an open number line so that users didn’t necessarily have to always count by ones, but skip counting was made possible by using appropriate quantity intervals. We then named all the number lines that were present in the classroom. They noticed the clock on the wall to be a circular number line and the “How Much are Your Growing” height chart as a vertical number line. Excitement bubbled as scholars scrutinized the number lines we named by the elements of number lines that we had previously defined. They were set and ready to continue their investigation of how number lines could truly enhance their learning experiences as young mathematicians.

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Quantity number lines hanging from the ceiling of my classroom.

2. Counting on a number line allowed number patterns and relationships to jump out at scholars.
Once scholars were comfortable describing the orientation and use of number lines, we began exploring quantity by representing skip counting on an open number line. We counted forward by tens by modeling jumps of +10 on an open number line and then later by nines. Scholars were able to name the relationships between counting by tens and nines by creating expressions that named the pattern (i.e. 10-1). We then explored counting forward by 100s, 50s, 20, and 11 to explore the other number patterns and relationships. Once scholars we comfortable counting forwards, we then counted backwards. They noticed relationships around place value, odd, and even numbers, what happens when counting by numbers with specific digits, and the nuances of increasing and decreasing values. The grade 4 scholars were then invited to apply their understanding of skip counting by whole numbers and moved deeper into counting by fractional amounts and decimal numbers up to tenths. Students were taught to use the number line to keep track of their thinking by using it as a thinking tool and not a picture. Hence, numbers and jumps were added in sequence as the counting progressed and not merely by drawing the elements of the number line and labelling them afterwards.

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Counting forward by 9 using a quantity number line. Student notice and described patterns.

3. Using number lines as a tool for measurement invited scholars to apply their understanding of number concepts.
Measuring mass using a triple balance scale, capacity with graduated cylinders and time with a clock were all the more meaningful when scholars were able to apply their understandings of using number lines as a tool for mathematical thinking. This is how our Number Sense learning experiences married Measurement. When scholars measured mass using the triple balance scales, they applied their understanding of decomposing numbers into place value (including tenths for grade 4s) in order to calculate the mass of the item they were measuring. Similarly, when measuring capacity using a graduated cylinder, scholars needed to apply their understanding of skip counting in order to accurately represent the capacity using a variety of differently shaped and sized graduated cylinders that each increased by differently valued intervals. Given their prior knowledge of skip counting, and composing and decomposing numbers using number line, measurement became a context to continue to expand their understanding of quantity.

4. Counting on a number line open up the way to modelling mental math strategies for addition and subtraction.
Once scholars were comfortable skip counting, composing numbers and measuring different units of measure using number lines, adding and subtracting was a natural next step and application of their previous understanding. Using addition and subtraction strings (intentionally crafted equations to be solved using mental math strategies), I modelled scholars’ mental math strategies visibly on a number line. Scholars articulated strategies such as adding on, counting, back, compensation and even decomposing numbers in order to add and subtract. The application went through the roof when grade 4 scholars were able to demonstrate their understanding of elapsed time using these same strategies. This was especially helpful because scholars could be fluid with the units of time they were adding or subtracting (i.e. hours and minutes) and could avoid the complexities of the base-60 system of time (i.e. 60 seconds in 1 minute, 60 minutes in 1 hour) when it came to calculating time that involved “regrouping” which uses a base-10 number system.

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Students articulated mental strategies while I modelled them on an open number line.

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Student calculating elapsed time using strategies for addition and subtraction.  

During these first months of school,not only was I able to introduce scholars to an invaluable learning tool, the number line, but I was also able to seamlessly integrate two strands of math and a multiplicity of essential number concepts. The number line has truly been a game changer in my class. I am already seeing the connections for moving forward with experiences that explore data management (scales on a graph) and geometry (side length attributes of polygons). …the journey continues…

The Heart of Teaching – Teaching with Your Heart

I have always known that I wanted to be a teacher. I’m not exactly sure when to pinpoint the start of my journey, but from as young as five years old, I knew that teaching was my calling. Throughout my educational career I had some amazing teachers who provided me with invigorating learning experiences that were creative, challenging and fun. I also encountered “the other guys”. Needless to say, I’m sure my experiences aren’t unique to those who have encountered a public education in Ontario over the past thirty years. Although I can bashfully say that I don’t remember most of what I learned from my ten years of elementary school, even as an enthusiastic and engaged learner, the two resounding life lessons that I continue to embrace are: to never settle for mediocrity and to always go beyond the call of duty. Thanks to my grade 7 and 8 teachers, I continue to strive to apply these key learnings in my life.

As I reflect on my key learnings, I wonder what key learnings I might share with my students. The experience of school in the 21st century is so much different than being a student in the 80s and 90s. The over emphasis on consumerism, the pervasiveness of social inequities and the advancements of technology which birthed the unvaulted access to information definitely add layers to make the schooling experience even more dynamic than when I was a child. How did my teachers prepare me for my future? How might I prepare students for theirs? These are essential questions I continue to grapple with and is the essence of what the heart of teaching is for me.

I believe that at the heart of teaching is the desire to help students be the best version of themselves so that they can be contributing members of society. This may seem like a long-term goal but really, at its core is my desire to prepare students to be their best self now, in order to continue to be their best self in the future. Teaching the curriculum definitely addresses many of the content that students need to know in order to achieve success in their future academic and social experiences. But what might be absent from the curriculum that proves to be essential life lessons that students might benefit from having guidance over? Throughout the past 7 years I have come to realize that more than the curriculum, there are essential life lessons students need to be exposed to. Supporting students as people first and learners second is how we can help them navigate some of the challenges they face in their day to day experiences of schooling. It is not just about the curriculum. We need to reach both the student’s heart and their mind.

Everyday I am constantly wondering about how my students are navigating the world while I address curriculum expectations. These are the reflective questions that arise from my interactions with them:

  • How might we support my students in seeing themselves as capable?
  • How might we support my students to be motivated from within themselves and not based on grades or the need for validation?
  • How might we encourage my students to take risks and try new things when realistically when we evaluate their understanding of curriculum and the consequences of risk taking may not garnish the reward they desired?
  • How might we teach the value of perseverance and that dedication to a task may cause improvement and denounce the rhetoric that practice make perfect.
  • How might we support my students in navigating the social hierarchies in school knowing that creating a respectful learning environment does not guarantee the kind of friend relationships that students are looking for from their peers?
  • How might we support my students in navigating a competitive world while yet embracing the benchmark of their own personal best?
  • How might we support my students in navigating the reality that particular aspects of their social identities (race, accents, culture, etc.) will grant them access into some opportunities but also bar them from others simply because of the ways societal systems are structured and not necessarily based on personal attacks?
  • How might we nurture confidence in our students?
  • How might we make students accountable for their choices?
  • How might we support students in embracing self-love in a society that values constant validation from others?
  • How might we support to identify their emotions beyond happy, mad and sad and how to effectively navigate them?

Like many of the questions that I pose, I don’t always have the answers. As I continue to reflect deeply, I can only hope that my pedagogical choices can address some of these concerns. As I teach to the minds of my students, what I hope for is to reach their hearts. Teaching from my heart, I pull back the curtains of curriculum and instruction and see the person and not just the learner. This unveils the weight of the task set before me.

Suggestions for Making Your Classroom ELL Friendly

This year I have the opportunity to serve my school as an English as Second Language (ESL) teacher for the first time. This privilege allows me to support students in Primary, Junior and Intermediate grades as they navigate the landscape of school and English language acquisition. But to be honest, I have alway been an ESL teacher. Since my very first year of teaching, my classes have always had students for whom English was not their first language. In this way, we are all ESL teachers regardless of if we have the designation or not. Similarly, if we take the notion of learning English literally, all of our students are English Language learners because they are constantly being introduced to new vocabulary and are learning the nuances of academic language for oral communication, reading and writing. In Ontario, however, the term English Language Learner or ELL, is defined as a student “born in Canada or newcomers whose first language is other than English or is a variety of English significantly different from that used for instruction in Ontario schools” (Many Roots, p. 51). Knowing this, how might classroom teachers tweak their practice to make their classrooms ELL friendly? I offer 4 easy teacher practices that will support ELLs in any classroom.

1. Keep expectations developmentally appropriate.
The ways we view our students determines the kind of learning we invite them to. This sentiment is particularly important to understand when designing programs that address the learning needs of students for whom English is a new language. Learning a new language, by any account, is a task of both perseverance and determination. As such, we need to be mindful that our English language learners have a multitasked learning situation. Focusing on the skills they bring from their native language as opposed to the limitations they have as they acquire English nurtures an asset based approach to engaging students as capable learners. When we embrace this mindset towards teaching English language learners, we can maintain high expectations for all students. Valuing the prior learning of all students, including ELLs in imperative in building upward to new understandings. Inviting students to share what they already know about a topic is always a great starting point for learning. Students who are English language learners have prior knowledge and this knowledge may or may not exist in their native Language. Regardless, valuing students’ prior knowledge solidifies the difference between cognition and language acquisition as two separate and distinct processes. For the most part, English language learners are developmentally ready for the learning that their peers are engaged in – they simply need to acquire the English skills to make the thinking that is already taking place in their minds visible in English.

2. Value students’ first language.
Nurturing an inclusive classroom community lets students know that they are both valued and respected as learners. Inviting students to continue to use and develop their native language is another way not only to accommodate ELLs but also to keep the learning expectations high. When students are able to use their native language to demonstrate their understanding and thinking in tasks that invite cognitive demand, the transition to English does not lower the expectation but rather accommodate the student’s opportunity for engaging deeply with ideas. The English language is further acquired when students translate their thoughts into English rather than the other way around. Valuing students’ first language can also be demonstrated by creating dual language or multilingual learning resources. With the partnership of students who are also native speakers of additional languages, parent volunteers, colleges and community partnerships, teachers can prepare translated learning resources for all students to use.


Students are invited to participate in collaborative learning experiences by expressing their  ideas using their first language

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Dual Language posters translated in traditional Chinese to support English Language learners in my class.

3. Develop new vocabulary in context with the help of online resources.
When students are invited to continue to use and development their fluency of their native languages, teachers can employ many new technologies that can support English acquisition while yet maintaining native language fluency. Using tools such as Google Translate can serve as a bridge between a student’s first language and English. Similarly, introducing new vocabulary in context makes both social academic learning more meaningful in English. An idea or word may not be unfamiliar to a student learning English in that they may already have an understanding of the concept in their native language. When this happens, using tools such as Google Images and YouTube can serve as a bridge to comprehension of and acquiring English words. Word walls are also useful resources for students in all grade levels and for all subject areas. It is a tool to support students as they acquire new vocabulary in the context of their learning. In this way, all students can be viewed as English language learners as they engage in expanding their academic vocabulary. The inclusion of students’ native language on word walls is a simple accommodation that goes a long way to supporting student learning. The gesture speaks to the value for the student’s native language and a respect for the process of learning English. Native English speakers can also benefit from the dual language approach in that they can be exposed to the languages of the world and additional ways of knowing.

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I asked my students to add Chinese translations to our Math word wall. This highlighted the relationships between numbers, as the ideas of addition and multiplication are embedded in the ways Chinese numerals are written.

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This is a screenshot of what a Grade 2 student, a stage 1 ELL, wrote as she was communicating an idea with me. I used Google Translate to take a picture of her writing and was able to translate and further communicate with her.

4. Embrace inclusive practices when communicating with parents.
When a student is an English language learner, it is important to also be aware of their parent or guardian’s experience with English as well. Whenever possible, supporting parents in the journey of their child’s language acquisition should be considered. Using resources mentioned above in addition to school-board translators and parent volunteers when communicating with parents is also crucial when English is also being acquired by parents. Ensuring that partnerships between students, teachers and parents is essential for the success of all children. We should be mindful to support parents who are English language learners in the context of the kind of communication that goes home, the necessary accommodations in place for parent-teacher meetings and the information needed for navigating the Ontario school system are essential in order to leverage the playing field for success.

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The first page of a presentation to the parents of my students during Curriculum Night.

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An assessment report sent home as communication to parents about student achievement.

Teachers in Ontario school are all ESL teachers and our students all, English language learners. Designing classroom spaces and learning opportunities with the principles of universal design will support English language learners but also enhance the learning experience of native English speakers. Keeping learning expectations high for all students, valuing students native languages and inviting parents as partners are essential ingredients to providing an enriched learning experience for English language learners. For more information check out the ministry document Many Roots Many Voices:Supporting English Language Learners in Every Classroom A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators

LOL – Learn Out Loud

Would you buy a new car from a salesperson who is driving the competitor’s vehicle? Could you eat from a chef who refuses to taste his own food? Might you trust your life with a lifeguard who questions their own ability to swim? Would you follow a leader who delivers the message of do as I say and not as I do? In the same ways we would like those who are selling us a particular product or idea to be consumers of their own assurance, teachers can promote the joy of learning by the ways they model their commitment to lifelong learning to their students. Learning out loud as an educator has the ability to ignite a fire for learning in the students we teach.

Learning out loud is a teacher’s permission to practice what they preach. As teachers our vital role is to be a provoker of learning: inviting students to deep levels of thought by problematizing the ordinary and investigating the mundane. With information accessible to the masses, teachers need to model the essential skills that students need essential skills students need to navigate a world of information overload. Students are watching; so by being critical consumers of information, perseverant problem solvers, collaborative colleagues and future-ready risk takers, we are modelling for them the importance of learning and growing every day.

What might learning out loud look like? Opportunities for teachers to learn are never limited to taking a course, or attending workshops, but rather, teachers can learn out loud by being transparent in the risks they take in their own practice, the open reflection they model and the invitation for feedback they present to their students. In short, teachers can model their willingness to learn simply by openly trying something new.

One of my fondest memories of intentionally learning out loud was in 2010 during my first experience teaching grade 6 math. The previous summer I had taken my first Math AQ and I was conscious about staying accountable to the new learning I had encountered in an effort to continue to grow in my practice. At the start of the year I made my learning process transparent before my students by letting them know that I was learning how to be a more effective math teacher. I labeled a wall space above my desk as Ms. Nelson’s Learning Wall where I place prompts for the teaching/learning strategies that I wanted to be mindful of including in my practice. I told my students that I would be referencing my learning wall for help in the same ways they reference anchor charts when they are learning. When trying something new, I would start by telling my students that this was a risk I was taking then I would invite them to reflect on the process with me by giving me feedback from a participant’s perspective. When mistakes happened, I acknowledged them and would redo lessons. I would let my students know that my mistakes were evidence that I was trying and that mistakes were always welcomed in my class. When I experienced struggle in my practice, I highlighted it, and would celebrate the aha moments when a breakthrough came. My transparency as a learner leveraged the playing field in my class where my students saw me learning alongside them and I engaged them as resources.

Professional Learning Wall

Learning out loud continues to fuel my teaching practice. When I am confused, I confess it. When I am unsure, I model resourcefulness. When I am excited about a new Idea, I take risks. When I learn something new, especially when that learning comes from my students, I celebrate it. The more enthusiastic I am about my own learning,the more enthusiastic students are about their own. I once encountered a quote about teaching that read, “Teaching is my passion, getting better at it is my job.” This philosophy speaks to a teacher’s commitment to lifelong learning. Essentially, we need to ensure that we buy the product that we are in effect selling – an education.

Yikes! I’m Teaching A “Split” Grade Class

Meet Linda. The start of the school year has come and gone and she has finally been successful at landing her first Long Term Occasional teaching assignment in October. It’s an FDK/Grade 1 class, and given the dynamics of the FDK program, she struggles to even make sense of what that might actually look like.

Meet Lester. After finally feeling settled with his Grade 5 class, he learns that as a result of a school wide reorganization, his neatly packaged single-grade class has now become a “split-grade” class.

Do either of these situations sound familiar? Do these narratives hold true for your current experience? Before you pull out your hair or scream, here are some practical strategies that will help you navigate this new experience. Consider the following 3Cs, Context, Community and Curriculum, for teaching in a multigrade classroom.

Context: Although a multigrade classroom is not the ideal setting for an optimum teaching and learning experience, it is worth re-imagining the situation as a combined class rather than a “split grade.” The idea of a “split” gives the impression of a type of separateness that does not accurately describe the context of learning in a class of students who generally are within the same developmental stages. The great news is that combined grade class have of two consecutive grades in one class as opposed to grades that are years apart. In this way, a combined grade class maintains a similar diversity of students, range of learning styles, social skills and academic needs as in a single grade classroom.

Community: Rethinking the notion of a “split” grade can do wonders for the type of classroom environment you nurture. As in any class dynamic, students learn best in an environment that is inclusive and fosters a of sense community and belonging. As such, the ways in which the class environment is setup should work to unite students rather than separate them based on grade. Students should have opportunities to work in flexible groupings using a range of collaborative learning structures as often as possible to invite positive peer interactions through both collaborative and independent learning situations. A combined grades should never be thought of as housing two classes in one room. Rather, students should know that they are one class engaging in similar learning opportunities. Students should be taught how to navigate their unique learning situation by explicitly teaching the importance of cooperation, and how to engage in learning that takes on a variety of groupings; such as whole class, small group, partners or even independent learning. Inviting leadership opportunities and encourage students to view their peers as resources will help to establish a community based on cooperative interdependence.

Curriculum: The idea of covering a combination of two curricula is one of the primary concerns for teachers who have been assigned combined grades. In Ontario, thankfully, many of the content areas align in ways that make tackling both grades more manageable. These content areas include Mathematics, Language, Health and Physical Education and The Arts. In these curricular areas, differentiating instruction is an essential tool for ensuring that the overall expectations of each grade is addressed and assessed. Differentiating content, process and product will allow for a seamless flow between the different grade expectations. At the same time, using the gradual release of responsibility will set the tone for independence that is often essential in a combined grade classroom. For content areas that are less similar such as Social Studies and Science, teaching through an inquiry framework allows teachers to focus on essential skills and invite students to apply those skills in different contexts. By focusing whole-class instruction on big ideas, thinking processes and strategies, teachers are able to engage students in parallel learning experiences while differentiating content.

Teaching a combined grade is never easy. But with the heart for learning and the art of teaching with finesse, even the least of ideal situations can be one that is done successfully.

For more information about teaching in a combined grade class, check out the resource Learning Together: A Teacher’s Guide to Combined Grades at Shop ETFO.

On Being the “Best Teacher Ever”

Many times my students write me notes or draw pictures that I often post on my wall  saying that I was their “Best Teacher Ever!” Although flattering as it may sound, some students are at a loss for words to describe the ways in which they feel valued in my class and this sentiment, “best teacher ever” may be the most articulate way to describe their content. But might we delve deeper into what students are thinking and help them to articulate precisely what it means to be their best teacher ever?

When I speak about being the “Best Teacher Ever”  what I am really getting at are those specific things that we can do as educators that allow children to feel safe in an environment where they can learn and grow. As teachers, we can ask students to describe how our role might best support them in their learning.

Each year I invite my students to share with me the specific things they need me to do in order to support their learning. Although many are tempted to suggest unrealistic and simply untenable demands, once the sillies are out, students can and will articulate precisely what they feel would support them as a learner. After all, they are experts on themselves.

Best Teacher Ever

Pictured is the posted success criteria that I worked towards achieving every day in order to serve my students. This was developed by my Grade 5/6 combined class at the beginning of the school year. I asked my students what they needed in order to be a successful student in my class. They articulated that I could best serve them by honouring their need for movement and providing opportunities to collaborate in groups while at the same time valuing independent work experiences. Students articulated the need for music that would help them focus and to have access to technology that would complement their learning. Most importantly, students articulated that they didn’t want me to take life too seriously and noted that telling jokes was an integral part of their experience.

Throughout the year when the “Best Teacher Ever” sentiments came along, students were able to describe was working. “Ms. Nelson, It really helped when you used the examples.” “Ms. Nelson we really need that power-walk during this long work period.” “Ms. Nelson singing that song about similes and metaphors really helped me understand the difference.” When students said, “Ms. Nelson you are the best teacher ever!” I know what they meant. I knew the standard to which they were holding me accountable. I knew because I asked.

The First 20 Days of School – Connecting with Students is a Great Place to Start

Teaching is always new! With a new group of students, fresh reflections on practice and the opportunity to start from scratch, as it were, the start of the school year provides teachers and students alike the opportunity to create new beginnings every year. Knowing this, what might some important considerations be to make it a great start? Chapter One of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning: Practical Ideas and Resources for Beginning Teachers highlights four important themes for success: connecting with students, passion for teaching, attributes-based approach and importance of school culture. I would like to focus this reflection on the importance of connecting with students within the first 20 days of school as a means to establish an authentic relationship with students that fosters trust and inspires a willingness to take risks within a safe learning environment.

Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This profound sentiment holds true for teachers and their relationship with students in that when students feel respected, safe and cared for, the experience of learning is enriched. The following are five practical ways for teachers to build authentic connections with their students at the start of the school year:

1. Be authentic. When teachers model what it means to be an authentic learner – mistakes and all, students are then encouraged to take risks without fear of reprisal. Let your model of authentic learning influence students to do the same. This form of transparency sets the tone for fostering meaningful connections between teachers and students.

2. Ask students about their needs and listen. Validate student voice by positioning them as the experts on themselves. Invite students to share their learning needs and the things that you could do as their teachers that would support their success and commit to doing them. Conducting multiple intelligence and attitudes and dispositions surveys are great ways to begin the dialogue for students to articulate how you can support their learning and their level of self-efficacy.

3. Explore student interests. As teachers we all need to cover the curriculum but viewing the curriculum as a launching pad as opposed to a landing pad can invite student’s interests to take centre stage in the teaching and learning process. Ask students about their interests and find creative ways to invite further inquiry into them while exploring the curriculum at the same time.

4. Learn the students. In addition to the information that can be found in student records (i.e. OSRs), commit to learning more about your students in meaningful ways. Pronouncing student names correctly is important way to let students know that they are valued. Challenge yourself to learn at least five non-school related facts about each of your students. This can help to build a positive relationship and validate their experiences outside of the domain of the classroom. Finally, being aware of students personalities (i.e. introverts, extroverts, etc.) will inform how to relate to them as well as setting the conditions of the classroom experience.

5. Invite to student voice by fostering a reciprocal relationship with your students. Nurturing a collaborative learning environment for students does not merely mean giving students the opportunity to collaborate with each other, but it also means positioning students as collaborators with you. Partner with your students to design the learning space and learning opportunities. This fosters student ownership in the teaching and learning experience and empowers students to be meaningful contributors to the class. When you invite their voice in classroom decisions, ensure that it is validated by action on your part. Leveraging positional power in the classroom creates space for a more meaningful connection between students and teacher.

As teachers we are in the business of supporting students success. Fostering meaningful connections with students goes along way in promoting both student achievement and well-being. When students know that their teachers authentically care about them, their willingness to learn will support their ability to do well. Starting the school year with students in mind will set you on a solid foundation for building upward. Make it a great start.