The Power of Groups

It has been a full two years without student desk groupings and I had completely forgotten about all the benefits it brings to the classroom. Not only does it brighten student morale, but it provides so many rich learning opportunities. I wanted to dedicate this post to the celebration of being back in groups!

Last year as we all know, (even though we did group work) students had to sit on their own due to COVID regulations. Since I taught online last year, I did not get to witness many group work settings as my students who worked in breakout rooms chose to keep their microphones and cameras off. I was able to witness group chats but nothing is better than in-person group work.

As restrictions are lifting, students are able to get back to some of the simple things they could enjoy pre-COVID, one of them physically sitting beside their peers. ** I created groups in my classroom last week and I cannot express how much of a change it has brought into the classroom. Just having a peer nearby has brought so many students to life, some who have been putting their head down and not participating this year. Now that they are sitting directly beside a group of people, they have no other choice but to become involved in the conversations and the learning around them. They do not seem frustrated at this, rather they are thankful for this new opportunity. This peer support has really helped a lot of my students. I was starting to think that some of my students would never regain the ability to socialize with others but the proximity of their peers has really helped them grow out of that discomfort. About six students decided they wanted to continue sitting on their own, but after a few days of seeing how exciting the prospect of sitting in a group was, they merged groups with nearby friends. These group settings have created new friendships that couldn’t have started without the new group settings.

Having students working nearby each other has also allowed for many group work activities. Some of the ones we have enjoyed in the past two weeks have been:

  • Solving complex math problems, drawing off the ideas of their peers to contribute to their answer
  • Brainstorming about topics such as the forms of bullying, landforms and types of mixtures
  • Solving hands on tasks that involve building structures or mechanisms
  • Students getting help from a friend with spelling (before they had to travel out of their seat to ask for this assistance which wasn’t allowed)
  • Confidence when solving independent problems by comparing end solutions
  • Sharing devices to research as we only have two iPads in our classroom
  • Being involved in conversations which otherwise would have had to take place across the room
  • Continuing to improve collaboration skills which have been on pause
  • Allowing for differentiated instruction opportunities that have been on pause since 2020

I know that groups can pose a classroom management issue such as breaking up group conversations. I am actually thankful for these conversations as before, it was challenging to get anyone to speak to each other. Attempting to chat with someone across the room was actually more disruptive than it is with the group settings. I continue to work on classroom management techniques as I have not had the practice with managing physical groupings since 2020.

I look forward to continuing to look at new and exciting group work activities as we are able to provide these for our students again. We are currently learning about hydraulics in our grade eight science unit so I am looking forward to students creating their own hydraulic machines together. I am also extremely thankful for the new friendships that have formed, especially with it being so close to the end of the year.

I know these successes are small and it may seem silly, but the power of physically grouping students has really changed things in my classroom and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

If you have any exciting new group work activities you have tried, I would love to hear them as it has been a while since I have done some fun team building activities. 

**Note: All of my students that sit in groups wear masks (their personal and preferred choice).**

ETFO’s recent media release related to masking can be found here.



Educational Perfection

As we end another school year and look forward to summer vacation, I think back to my first years in education and what summer “vacation” looked like for me. July was spent taking additional qualification courses and most of August was spent prepping and planning. It wasn’t really much of a vacation.  So why did I do it? Two reasons. I am passionate about learning and I am a (now recovering) perfectionist-especially as an educator.

I must have thought there was some kind of a prize for having the tidiest, prettiest and well organized classroom. I wanted my classroom to look like something out of the Scholar’s Choice catalogue. The custodians would be annoyed at having me in the school and I would wait anxiously for them to be finished waxing our hallway so that I could get in and set up my classroom. I needed everything to match. If I had baskets for items in the classroom they had to all be the same colour. It isn’t always easy to find 24 of the same basket at the Dollar Store.  Before the students started in September I felt the need to have labels on all of their notebooks, duo tangs and I even labelled their pencils. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to control the environment for my students. My classroom looked like a showroom on the first day of school and I would spend the next 194 days trying to maintain that standard. Our first printing practice lesson (because we still did that back then) was to practice writing “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When I think back now to all of the time and energy that I wasted not allowing learning to get messy I shake my head. It was exhausting.

After twenty plus years in education I’ve learned a few things about educational perfectionism and letting go of control in order to empower the learners in the classroom. When I was given a portable for a classroom that I wasn’t able to get into much before school started I panicked at first.  I didn’t have space or time to create a showroom. I decided to give the design over to the grade 4-5 students.  I still had labelled duo tangs and a place for each of them to put their things that was their space ready on the first day but the rest, we did together. It built community, it gave the students ownership and it gave me some of my summer back. If you’ve ever taught in a portable that has the coat racks inside, winter is a bit of a nightmare for an organizational freak but eventually I let it go. We still had a tidy classroom because their wasn’t enough space to be too messy but the organization of things didn’t stifle the learning. We learned how to paint in a portable without water using buckets and trips into the school. We brought lawn chairs to school at sat outside at reading time. I loved our little cabin in the woods.

As educators we have a lot of people that we are accountable to in our jobs. Students, families, administrators, our board and our communities are all stakeholders in what we do. The pressure to be perfect in our roles can be overwhelming and paralyzing. What educators do each day is literally driven by “overall and specific EXPECTATIONS”. It took time for me to realize that the expectations that I was putting on myself were much higher than those of anyone else. It took reflection to realize that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honour that I thought it once was and that it was making my life more difficult. I came to understand that it isn’t the room or the resources that make me a good educator.  It is about the connections and relationships with my students and their families that matter. It is about embracing the Ms. Frizzle moments and rolling with it.  If I’ve learned anything from COVID-19 it is that being flexible and letting go of what I cannot control are the keys to staying out of perfectionism. I plan on guarding my summer vacation as I would a medical specialist’s appointment but I’ll likely take a few professional resource books along to read in the waiting room.


What is the purpose of a bulletin board?

When you walk into a classroom what is the first thing you see? Decorated bulletin boards?

Looking at bulletin boards often reflect what is happening in a classroom. Bulletin boards often show teachers’ focus on particular curriculum and what students are doing in the classroom. But what do bulletin boards say about teachers’ practices or schools’ efficacy?

Bulletin boards as a reflection of a school or classroom

A New York Times article by Abby Goodnough, Judging a School by Its Posters; Bulletin Boards Are Scrutinized, and Fretted Over, discusses how schools’ and/or teachers’ are judged through how hallways and classrooms are decorated instead of actually examining the pedagogy that is in place.
The article goes on to state bulletin boards “have a far weightier role … as the educational standards movement has required students to master ever-longer lists of skills — and required teachers to explain exactly how they are teaching them — bulletin boards have become an intensely monitored showplace for progress. They are especially important in low-performing schools, which are constantly scrutinized by city and state education officials and under heavy pressure to show improvement.”
Teachers … “complain that administrators dwell too much on how the boards look.” “Sometimes, teachers say, principals make them redo boards that are judged too quirky or dull. Some principals also demand new displays if ” they are damaged.

Bulletin Boards to Make Learning Visible

In a Making Learning Visible Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it states that bulletin boards make learning visible by communicating and creating “values about teaching and learning” by making “individual thinking available to the group and support collective knowledge-building” and helping “learners to make connections across units and subject matter.” Further, bulletin boards “provide opportunities to connect learning experiences across classrooms or time.” Here, the role of bulletin boards is to make students’ learning visible.

Teacher Based vs Students’ Work

Another issue with bulletin boards is not just about the audience but about the content. Some teachers put up inspirational posters and/or curriculum content which is teacher based. Other teachers put up only student work. And some teachers have a combination of both.

Student Driven Bulletin Boards

When I first started teaching, my bulletin boards centered on what we were studying in the classroom with some space dedicated to students’ work. But I have developed an approach of only student centred bulletin boards where students create them with the teacher using students’ work. This means that the space becomes the students, not driven by the teacher. I even have my students decide on the bulletin board boarders.

The Learning Environment as The Third Teacher

An important issue to consider when putting anything up in a classroom is students’ over-stimulation. Given that students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can experience over stimulation due to “too much stuff on the classroom walls”, teachers should take this into account when they choose what should go on bulletin boards and how it impacts students’ concentration and focus. Sometimes the classroom environment can just be too stimulating!

The Ontario Capacity Building Series notes how the learning environment, The Third Teacher, “can either enhance the kind of learning that optimizes our students’ potential to respond creatively and meaningfully to future challenges or detract from it.”

Finally, when considering classroom decorating, please be mindful of Health and Safety regulations about too much paper on the walls (i.e. usually less than 20%).

Here are some ideas to promote student focused, learner centred bulletin boards:

  • The Fridge – a bulletin board where each student has their own space to display their work
  • To Do List s– where students list work that needs to be done for the day/week (my students love this as they create it themselves)
  • Student developed Word Walls for curriculum topics
  • Student developed Math Walls – listing vocabulary, formulas, graphics that students find important
  • Height Wall – showing how much students have grown in the year (it’s fun to track how fast students are growing and it’s also a great visual to understand linear metric measurement)
  • Data Wall – graphs displaying classroom surveys such as “What is your favourite pizza topping?”
  • Student made calendar – tracking upcoming events for the week and month
  • Class goals for the week or month

For me, in the end what matters is that the students feel like the classroom belongs to them as they have designed it – like an extension of their home space.

I dedicate this blog to my son’s (favourite ever) grade 5 teacher, Ms. G, who recently shared with me the following:

“I can vividly remember TS –  he was such a nice boy, full of life, and so smart. It was also at the beginning of my teaching career, and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. Being a new teacher, I wanted my boards to look beautiful for my students. I went and bought all the boarders and colourful art work to decorate them. One day, TS told me he couldn’t concentrate – that the bulletin boards were too distracting. I had never even thought about how the beautifully decorated boards could have been a distraction.

From then on, I thought about my classroom set up, and how I could make it a calming place.  I stripped the boards, made them one colour and became much more thoughtful on trying to create a calming place for my students. I also  created different spaces to cater to my students’ needs. Thank you to TS who opened my eyes. The student teaches the teacher.”

Even after 20 years, I too get “taught” by my students every day. My son, TS, turns 26 years old this month!

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston

Triggers and Habits in Teaching Part One

Dreaded Seating Arrangements

Almost every teacher I talk to says, “I have a really difficult class this year.”  The difficulties identified are most often tied to “behaviour” issues.  In my experience effective classroom “management” can be connected to dynamic programming and developing solid relationships with students. Many of us go to things like Class Dojo or incentive programs to “manage” behaviour and some have their merits.  However, they might “manage” behaviour, but does it help student to learn to self-regulate?  I understand that there are students who have behaviour safety plans that can provide challenges and I do not mean to downplay the effect that even one student’s behaviour can have on an entire class.  However, there are ways in which we can have small tweaks in our triggers and habits in teaching that will have a positive outcome on developing a community of learners.

So what is a trigger?  A trigger in psychological terms can  used to describe sensations, images or experiences that re-visit a traumatic memory.  It can also mean to make something happen very quickly; a reaction.  It is also referred to as an event that kicks off the automatic urge to complete a habit.*  Habits are seen as something that people do often or regularly.  Habits can even be unconscious behaviours and sometimes difficult to stop.  What do triggers and habits have to do with teaching?

Over the years I think I have become more self aware in the classroom about my own triggers and habits.  It is easy to continue to do a routine in a classroom simply because it is something that we have always done. Even when we have sound pedagological reasoning, it can be difficult to change or cease a habit. For example, for many years I put names on the desks of students before they entered the classroom on the first day of school.  I don’t really know why I began this habit.  Besides a wedding, some kind of gala or a reservation at a restaurant, I get to choose where I sit every day.  It is a fairly important life skill.  I’m not going to find my name on a seat on the city bus.  Once I recognized that this routine was purely out of habit and was “triggered” by the first day of school, I decided to change it up.  On the first day of school with a grade 4-5 class, the students came into the room and sat wherever they wanted. I admit that this made the perfectionist in me who loves order, routine and habit rather uncomfortable.  I had some students sit in groups, some in pairs and some on their own.  Then we had a class meeting about how they had felt when they entered the room and had to make their seating choice.  There was talk of anxiousness, sweaty palms, heart rate increase, fear of missing out and for some it was no big deal.  I decided to create a google form to survey the students about where to sit in the classroom, how often we would change it up and who would decide.  The results of the survey were fascinating.  Some students wanted me to choose where they sat and wanted to have that same spot every day for 194 days.  Some never wanted to “sit” in a group but wanted to be a part of it during group work time.  We came up with a plan that each Monday the students would choose where to sit for the week and the students who wanted a regular spot would be able to keep it and the other students would respect their choices without question.  We also had some extra choices for seating that students could go to if their choices for that week weren’t working out.  The students gained incredible insight into self-regulation.  I heard things like, “I sat with Gracie all week and we’re such good friends, I didn’t get my work done so I’m not going to sit with her next week.”  or  “I don’t hang out with Olivia but I know she is a serious student so I’d like to sit with her in a group.”

It isn’t easy to be self aware while we are trying to keep our head above water, collect permission forms, listen to announcements, adjust our day plan for the assembly that was announced, deal with a parent that wants to chat in the hallway AND teach curriculum.  I GET that…however, being aware of triggers and habits and making small tweaks to our teaching behaviour can make a big difference in our classroom community.

*106:Triggers-The Key to Building and Breaking Habits, Chris Sparks, 2018


Create Success in Intermediate Math through Play….

“What are you doing in Math today?” the VP inquires of my grade 5,6,7 and 8 students.

“We’re playing games.”

“You’re playing games?”

“Yes, we always play in math.”

The assessments gathered from these classes provide me insight of where everyone is in their learning. My experience with assessments are that individual conversations to understand the thinking process provides the most valuable information. The range of each of my classes is from a low elementary level to a low secondary level.  This is quite a span. As a school we have been, “Landscaping” these students using; Fosnots– Landscape of Learning. This provides an great snapshot of where your learners are on a continuum. Our board has developed some very specific assessment questions for all grade levels which include strategic numbers to help determine the strategies individuals use.

How do I managed this?

It took me a while with the continuous disruptions to the daily routine. The way, I have adopted my assessment sessions this year is similar to how a reading group would be managed.  Provide the lesson, give the class expectations, then work with a small group on a rotating basis. The entire class already understands the rules and class expectations which have been familiar routines followed to date.

Now what?

I find creating a growth mindset is most important. This is developed through creating a comfort zone for all, including the teacher. Each year I am challenged to ensure my learners grow and develop forward on the continuum. I use a variety of resources such as Sherry Parrish’s-Number Talks This is a great beginning to each class.

I resource Dr. Small’s-Big Ideas for different activities to compliment the concept of study.

Presently I am using, From Patterns to Algebra, by Dr. Beatty and Dr. Bruce

Play, yes these resources include play which I implement on a regular basis.  The students enjoy learning with and from each other while I guide them. During my classes, Play creates a class dynamic for success.

The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning Resource

I’m super excited about this being my 10th year of teaching. Although this year, I’m not teaching in the traditional sense of having my own classroom, I feel really lucky to work with educators as they design exceptional learning experiences for students. Over the last month I’ve been taking some time to reflect on my 10-year journey and all of the opportunities that have lead me down my current path.

One such reflection was about my experiences with blogging and thinking about the reasons why it all began. In 2016, I was looking for an easy way to connect with parents around the work that we were doing in the classroom. I wanted to parents who weren’t always able t  o visit the school to know what was happening and to feel a part of the school experience and learning of their child. Even if only 1 parent took the time to read the blog, I found value in writing it. My weekly writings also offered me the chance to reflect and think about what we were doing in the classroom and the reasons why. I truly enjoyed blogging weekly and for the most part, kept it going for the last 3 years.

In September 2017, I started blogging for the Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning and it’s truly been an honour. Every month is an opportunity to reflect on my practice and write in the hopes of inspiring even 1 new teacher to perhaps try something new in their classroom or possibly consider an idea from a different perspective. When put that way, the task now seems a little daunting. For this post, I wanted to get back to the heart of what inspired me most about this online community and the resource that is its namesake.

Over the summer of 2017, I was sent the Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning resource. I have to say that the subtitle is a little misleading. It reads: Practical ideas and resource for beginning teachers. Perhaps it should read: Practical ideas and resources for ALL teachers. Even though this is my 10th year teaching and perhaps I’m not still a beginning teacher, there are so many amazing ideas inside. This past month, I pulled it off the shelf and dug back into it again and found a few ideas that I would love to share. I really hope that you take some time to dig in and find some amazing gems that you might be able to use in your classroom.


In chapter 2, there is a section on the importance of Mentorship. Throughout my career – not only as a beginning teacher – mentorship – whether formal or informal – has been an important part of my growth. In my first year, from Linda, I learned how to easily plan a Math unit that allowed for flexibility based on student learning and interest. In my second year, I learned from Toba how to truly engage students in the French language while making it relevant. In my third year, Alyson taught me the importance of connecting with students and genuinely caring for them not only academically but socially. I can honestly say that the list can continue and as the years progressed, there were often times more than one “mentor” from whom I was learning. I’ve always believed that there is something to learn from every experience and I think that I’ve been able to learn as much as I have because of the people around me. Pages 17 and 18 of the resource share models of mentorship. Take a look and see if you can find one that works for you. You never know where it might take you!

Classroom Set-up

Screenshot 2016-10-23 at 08.23.27Chapter 2 ends with classroom set-up. As many of you know, I was a passionate advocate of flexible seating in the classroom. Years ago, my students worked on a Math project where they re-designed our classroom while taking into consideration their learning needs. They measured the classroom and petitioned our Principal for some money for items they thought would better meet their learning needs. Some wanted standing tables while other wanted opportunities to sit on the floor. We created a learning environment that worked best for us and the autonomy and increased levels of ownership in the classroom were an indication that students felt as thought the classroom was their space. Now I know that we were lucky in that we were given some money to redesign but since leaving that school, I learned 2 important lessons: where possible, let students design the space so they feel that sense of ownership in the space and be intentional about what you chose to include in your classroom space. This picture of our space looks quite full and I would have to say that every item spoke to who we were as a group. On pages 25 to 30, I love that each of the classroom learning spaces are different and yet the amazing educators can speak to the differences that they have included in their classrooms with intentionality. I just started feeling a little nostalgic about designing learning spaces!


Screenshot 2019-01-29 at 1.50.16 PMIdeas

This resource has a variety of ideas meant to allow teachers and students get to know each other in the first hours/days/weeks of school. One idea that tempts me to ask around to borrow a classroom is found on page 52. I love the prompts and think they’re great for getting students – and frankly even teachers – to get to know each other on a deeper level. Beyond the first weeks of school, I think activities like these really help to promote a sense of belonging and inclusion in classroom spaces.


It’s report card time and I know that once again the crunch is on. Throughout my career there were many times that tips from others on best practices came in handy. This resource is FULL of great tips – and questions – that help to guide educators through some of the different aspects of our jobs. For report cards specifically, I really liked the Big Picture Questions on page 87. When reflecting on them, I think they would have been great questions for me to have asked myself during writing.

Screenshot 2019-01-29 at 2.04.13 PM

If you haven’t already, please take a look at this resource. It’s fantastic! Not only for the beginning teacher but I strongly believe that every teacher could gain something from taking a read. Once again, I’m grateful for the Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning for the chance to reflect and hopefully I’ve inspired you to take a look for yourself!

The test

IMG_4870I am sitting in a room that silently waits for its students.

Merely by the way the desks are arranged, the world knows that it’s not going to be another normal day. Today is test day. Yup, that TEST.

With some trepidation, students will enter the classroom which has now been transformed overnight from a collaborative learning space into a scene from the ’50s. Today, the desks are in columns and rows that border on military precision with a healthy dose of compliance.

It’s go time, show what you know time because it’s standardized test time. So what’s all of the fuss about this time?

For months now something or someone somewhere has been planting seeds of anxiety in the hearts and minds of our learners. It has not come from inside of my classroom, but students are certainly arriving with it to school. As a result, it has led to some powerful conversations around mental health in education, problem solving strategies, and a debate over the logic(if any) of standardized testing. Nothing to fuss about here right?

The test has occupied the minds of some of our students it should be paying rent. Tim Urban might describe this state as a visit from the Panic Monster as he shared in his TED Talk from 2016. If we as educators didn’t put this monster into the minds of our students, then who did? Are there trolls handing out fliers off of school property? Is there a shadowy cadre of edu-data collectors directly marketing test score panic to families?

For the record, of course not. Yet, at the umpteenth time in a day I hear; “I’m nervous about EQAO”, “What if I do bad?” or ” AAAH! Evil questions attacking Ontario”, I know “the test” is having its affect on students and teachers too.

So how do we deal with the reality that this anxiety they’re feeling is real and students need our help/support to overcome it?

To combat these fears in our classroom, we have taken to increasing the physical activity level while differentiating tasks to maintain and broaden engagement. We move more. We laugh more. We work together more. Food helps too. I wrote a post about Test Crackers if you want to know more. For “the test” Samosas are on the menu in my class-veggie of course.

Instead of worrying, we have been developing our collaboration and critical thinking skills to work through challenges.  We’ve intentionally disrupted routines, not only to distract, but to shake things up. My grade 6s have been working hard for nearly 9 months. There is a lot going on at this age socially, emotionally, and  physically. They do not need to be burdened by external pressures or worry.

Since September, assurances and reassurances have been given to students so they know the marks from tests like these will not be seen by admissions committees at Harvard* or even good universities like Waterloo, MIT, and Stanford (lol). Students know that they have all of the tools necessary to succeed without obsessing over practice work booklets or past tests. I can only hope that our safe, and encouraging environment will help them if doubts start to creep in.

And so it begins, students file in, find their places, and standardized testing gets its butt kicked by samosa fueled class of critical thinking grade 6s.

* I’m sure Harvard is good too. I used it here purely for the absurd comedic value. Go Harvard!

Desks on the move

Christopher Sessums UF McCarty Desks
The only time my seats are arranged like this is for EQAO.

I did it. I rearranged the classroom. Strike up the band!

And I promise to do it again in the future. Even sooner if it suits the needs of our class. Admittedly, as a bonus, I enjoy seeing the reactions of students as they discover their new, albeit temporary, learning spots.

Our classroom is on its 4th layout since September*, and the response from students remains positive. In fact, for the past 5 years, I have intentionally reorganized every  -learning space. And what’s resulted has helped my class room management, provided necessary/preferential seating opportunities for some learners, and contributed to a greater overall sense of community in class.

I like the way that August (Sandy) Merz III explains strategic seating in her post. In it Merz writes about “power seats and safe zones” for students that are intended to “magnify a student’s presence or…downplay a student’s actions on class dynamics.” I find changing the physical space provides a not so subtle, yet effective way to allow students to bloom where they’re planted. All the while maintaining a mindful eye on the specific needs of learners.

I’ve observed that each time the desks get rearranged, there is potential for new conversations, collaborations, fresh perspectives, and even friendships. It can also be a strategic, and crucial component of effective classroom management. Changing the classroom layout also allows students an opportunity to develop problem solving and inter-personal skills. Although infrequent, whenever students are unable to work within an iteration of the seating plan it becomes a teachable moment.

Allowing students a voice in the process leads to advocacy skills too. If students are not taking to their new spots, or ask to move, they must be able to provide a good reason why. This includes some evidence of how they tried to resolve/overcome the issues before a request is considered.

After 3 months and 4 seating plans, with more to come, our class continues to evolve its own zones of power and safety where students are empowered to share, safe to collaborate, and grow as modern learners.


*To start the year students are allowed to choose their own seats from a pre-set arrangement of desks. This way I am allowed a glimpse at existing friendships, and the way the layout allows for sight lines to the various teaching spots(tech cart, whiteboard, middle of the class). This is especially important this year to provide a completely accessible space for a student using a motorized wheel chair. This means function must mesh with form like no other year. With 30 students in a class designed for 25, layout must be intentional, fluid and serve the needs of all students.

Seven Reasons I Like to Gather My Students at the Carpet

I’m a little late getting this one posted. There was recently a death in my family, and my head just hasn’t been in the teaching game. I’ve been off work for almost a year, too, and man I can’t wait to get back. Staying home with a baby is cool, but I miss the madness of a busy Junior classroom! On that note, let’s just jump right in…

I rarely use my chalkboard. Sometimes a whole week will pass with the notes from Monday’s lesson still there, untouched but for spots where my students ran their fingers through the chalk on their way by. One section of my chalkboard is dedicated to reminders to be written in the agenda – but since I don’t assign homework (an issue for another post), even that is rarely used.

There is no “front” to my classroom, either. There isn’t one place where I stand while teaching, one spot where my students know to look for me if it’s lesson time. My desk and my computer are on opposite sides of the room. My students sit in groups/pods, not rows.

I am, I guess, what you would call a fairly non-traditional teacher.

When it comes time for whole class discussions, more often than not, I gather my students on the large carpet. (Okay, up until last year, my “carpet” was actually two giant rugs I bought from IKEA with my own money… but last year, RIGHT before I went on maternity leave, my principal let me know that I was getting my very own large rug provided by the board. Awesome! I’ve seen it. It’s great. I can’t wait to use it!)

Gathering students is awesome. It was something that was never really talked about during my teacher training, nor did I see a lot of my colleagues doing it. I started doing it in my Grade 5 class because I had set up a really lovely little reading corner and found that my students really enjoyed the space. We used it for read alouds at first, but since I saw the benefits of having them there, I expanded it to most lessons. Now, four years later, I pretty much only teach that way. Why is it so awesome? Let me tell you!

1) No desks, no random things to play with. We’ve all had students who just can’t keep their hands out of their desks or their chair on the floor during lessons. I got tired of telling my students to keep all four feet of the chair on the floor every few seconds. I got tired of trying to keep their hands out of their desks. When the class is gathered on the carpet, there are no desks to hold tempting trinkets and no chairs to lean back in.

2) Kids can move. I find it much easier to accommodate students who need to move around when we are gathered at the carpet. Kids who benefit from being able to walk around during lessons can sit on the edge of the carpet, giving them freedom to get up and move without disrupting their peers. When you want to give the whole class a body break, you don’t have to hear thirty chairs all screeching at the same time.

3) You can set up centres before class. Sometimes I set things up on my desk pods while my students aren’t in class. When they come in and see things on the desks – group work supplies, science experiments, etc. – they know to go straight to the carpet instead. From there, I can give all instructions and send students off to the desk pods without worrying about them touching things or having to set things up while they wait.

4) It’s easier to hear everyone. Students can hear me better, I can hear them better, and they can hear each other better when we’re all in a group on the carpet. It’s a smaller space, so even the quieter students can speak their minds without too much difficulty. I don’t have to project as much, which makes me seem “softer,” if that makes sense. Redirection doesn’t seem so harsh, reassurance seems even kinder.

5) Turn and talk is more varied. I find my students never sit in the same place every time, so when you ask your students to “turn and talk” during a lesson, suddenly they’re speaking with a wider variety of peers when they’re gathered on the carpet. In pods, they are always stuck talking to the same peers, and that gets a little stale.

6) Students need fewer reminders to pay attention. When you have students sitting in pods, the temptation to look across the desks to the person sitting in front of you is huge. You can make faces, pass notes, generally just not pay attention… and it’s pretty easy to get away with, too. Sitting on the carpet, everyone is facing one direction: the speaker. It becomes glaringly obvious when you turn to speak to the person next to you. When you aren’t paying attention, you get called on it immediately. Very quickly, students learn that during carpet time, they’re just better off paying attention from the get go.

7) It feels like a community. There’s something really nice about everyone sitting together as a group on the carpet. Instead of sitting in pods or rows, you’re sitting with all of your peers together. It feels different.

There are many, many more reasons why I like having my students gather on the carpet, but hopefully those gave you at least a few things to consider. If you never gather your students together (and you can do this even if you don’t have a carpet – the bare floor works, but you can always do it outside, too!) maybe think about trying it out for a read aloud one day. You might be surprised by how much your students enjoy it, even at the Junior level!

Experienced teacher tackles Kindergarten for the first time

With the generous help of colleagues, I made it through 2 whole days of Senior Kindergarten this week. It is all so new to me! As it was, I still felt as if I bumbled my way through a lot – still not sure how much to slow my speech down for the wee ones and or how quickly I need to be ready to switch gears when fidgeting and yawning starts during circle time.

As per a space ready for Inquiry-based Learning, my classroom has almost nothing in it – empty bulletin boards waiting for student work, shelves still holding materials for work areas which will slowly be opened during the next week, and no class calendar, alphabet or number line posters on the walls. Only one small bamboo plant in a bottle of water sits on the window ledge waiting for other plants to join it. I admit I feel a bit relieved that I don’t have to spend a bunch of money at the teacher’s store or resurrect dog-eared posters to put up on my walls, however, I wouldn’t quite know how to involve the students in the making of anchor charts without the experienced help of my colleagues and a Pinterest account. They lead me, I follow.

My learning curve is looping over itself as I discover so many wonderful ways we will be guiding the students in their learning – Mindfulness, Environmental Inquiry, Zones of Regulation, Writer’s Workshop for Kinders – to say nothing of the amazing experience of spending each day with 4 and 5 year olds…I am definitely not in Grade 3 anymore! These first two days were a trial run for me, and they went quite smoothly, all things considered. My first full week this week will be my next big challenge – and I anticipate there will be a whole lot of learning going on for everyone.