Birds of a Feather….

….FLOCK Together!!

In preparation for the Spring Equinox, which is usually held in the Rainbow Garden, I started to think creatively about how we could gather as a whole school community and respect COVID health and safety protocols. I wanted to incorporate dance, and then I remembered about flocking.

WTF?
Flocking is a type of movement improvisation, where the whole group mirrors each other’s movement. Students can be organized in a straight line or in the shape of a diamond. In flocking, there is one student who leads a movement, which is followed by the other students.

Different students can become the leader, just like birds do when they are flying together, by changing their position. In a diamond formation, the student at the top of the diamond is the leader. When everyone rotates a quarter turn, there is a new leader at the top of the diamond. Flocking can be inspired by music that is played, but I wanted to integrate text and embody the Land Acknowledgment.

Thanksgiving Address:
We are learning that many Indigenous and First Nations communities offer greetings and gratitude at the beginning of every gathering. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which includes the nations of Cayuga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Seneca, Mohawk and Oneida, share The Thanksgiving Address. Here is a video that describes the importance of this text.

In the Thanksgiving Address, all parts of creation are recognized with honour and respect. Here is a link to the text we used. We have been deepening our understanding of this important protocol by speaking and listening to the words, drawing, writing and reflecting. This was our first time exploring the text through choral movement and mindfulness. It was very powerful.

Bear Song:
As educators, it is important to build relationships with First Nations and Indigenous families, which includes consultation and collaboration, and invitations to share knowledge with the community. At our school, we are fortunate to have several parents who have shared songs, drumming and dancing at different events. After gathering in the field, Archer and Ansley sang the Anishinaabe Bear Song to welcome Spring. Here is the song performed by Turning Point Women’s drum group from Skownan, Manitoba.

Medicine Wheel Teachings:
In the article, “Teaching by the Medicine Wheel: An Anishinaabe framework for Indigenous education,” Dr. Nicole Bell (2014) describes how schools might integrate Indigenous knowledge, and create a process of education that is respectful and culturally relevant for Indigenous families. Bell explains that while there are some variations of teachings and representations of the Medicine Wheel, there are common threads of understanding, including the importance of appreciating and respecting the interconnectedness and interrelationships of all things.

I wanted to incorporate Medicine Wheel teachings into our Spring Equinox gathering. The Medicine Wheel is a circle that is divided into four parts, which represent the four directions (East, South, West, North) using four different colours. Each of the directions include teachings that are interdependent, including the four seasons, stages of life, times of day, medicines, life givers, and learning process.

We organized the students into four sections, from youngest to oldest, starting in the East. Everyone was standing in the field, facing the same direction. As the Junior students read the Thanksgiving Address, everyone followed the movements of the Junior leader at the top of the diamond. The refrain, “And Now Our Minds Are One”, was repeated in chorus, and was the signal for everyone to rotate a quarter turn to the right together. Then, we started to follow the movements of a new leader. The rotations and the movements continued until the Thanksgiving Address was finished.

It was flocking amazing to welcome the new season with movement, gratitude and respect. Happy Spring!!





“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind….”

This term, I had the honour of working with a Master of Arts student in Child Studies and Education, in his first teaching placement. Working in collaboration as a co-learner and co-teacher is a humbling experience. It is always a lot of work, but I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on my own practice, and remember what it feels like to be a new educator.

Ishai Buchbinder and I had a lot of fun creating an integrated unit about Wind for the Grade 2 students. This inquiry connects to “Air and Water in the Environment” as students “investigate, through experimentation, the characteristics of air and its uses.” (The Ontario curriculum, Grades 1-8. Toronto: Ontario, Ministry of Education, 2005.) This blog post is a documentation of our learning together.

Where Do I Begin?
Ishai asked me to describe the planning process for developing a series of lesson plans and activities that culminate in a summative assessment task. This year, I am trying to integrate Indigenous perspectives through land education and environmental inquiry. I am also trying to center stories of Black excellence and innovation throughout my pedagogy.

First, I look at the expectations in the Ontario curriculum, think about the “big ideas”, and generate a few guiding questions to support our inquiry. Then, I brainstorm several activities that might help us to explore and investigate our learning goals. Next, I gather resources, including: picture books, songs, videos, real-world examples of innovation and creativity. Then, I think about a summative task that would allow students to have choice and demonstrate their understanding in different ways. Finally, I sequence the learning activities in a way that builds on prior knowledge and connects to new learning, while also being responsive and open to following the interests, needs and questions of the students.

Who Has Seen The Wind?
We started our inquiry with an active game called “When The Big Wind Blows…” and a poem by Christina Rosetti called, “Who Has Seen the Wind?” This poem has been re-imagined as a song, which I learned from an Orff Music workshop. There is a simple ostinato that is layered underneath, and patsched on the lap: “Wind, Wind, Passing By.” We chanted and sang this song outside during our Welcoming Circle, and acknowledged the wind with gratitude.

Knowledge Building:
Ishai shared a riddle with the students: “What takes up the most space but is something that you cannot see?” After solving the riddle, the students shared what they already know about air and wind. Then, we asked the students to generate questions about what they wanted to know, using “I wonder…” inquiry cards.  These activities help to honour student voice and position all of us as co-learners,



During MSI (Math-Science Investigations), I ask students to design and build a structure that is moved by the wind. Desmond made a dragon. Ezra made an airplane. Florence made a forest. Elliot made a structure that is powered by the wind. All of these activities provided diagnostic assessment and helped to guide the next steps in our inquiry journey.



The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
We learned about the true story of William Kamkwamba, who used innovation and creativity to build a windmill out of recycled materials for his community in Wimbe, central Malawi. You can listen to “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” read aloud. You can find William telling his own story by searching his name. His brilliance has also inspired a movie. After reading the book, we made our own paper pinwheels and took them outside. Everyone loved running with the wind and making the blades spin! 

Paper Airplanes!
Ishai told us about the “Super Secret Mysteries of Flight”. We learned about thrust, lift, drag, and gravity, and their relationship to air. Then, he showed us how to make a ten-fold paper airplane. Here are the step-by-step instructions. It was challenging to listen and follow each instruction carefully. After folding our paper airplanes, we tested their flight in the school yard. We experimented by changing the thrust, and adapting the wings to make it fly straight and long. This was another active and fun activity!

Mr. W
After watching this short video, we had an interesting discussion about the main character. I asked: What do we know about this character? How does this character feel at the beginning and the end of the video? What kind of things do we see the character do? Why would they do these things? Who is this character? Why was this video made? This discussion encouraged students to think critically about media texts as part of our learning about Media Literacy.

This video also inspired us to begin writing our own Wind Stories. We used a graphic organizer to organize our ideas using time-order words, (First, Next, Then, Finally). Some students wrote from the perspective of Wind, and others described the movement and impact of wind. We used a collaborative editing and revision process to share our stories and improve our writing.

Testing our Theories:
This year, we are fortunate to be working with Doug Anderson, who is the co-author of Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Environmental Inquiry. After learning with Doug in the Rainbow Garden, several students wanted to know more about the relationship between the sun and the wind. Svea asked, “I wonder how the sun makes the wind?” 

We talked about how we might find the answers to our questions. We could: read books, look on the internet, ask someone. After reading a book called “Air”, which explained some facts, Ishai asked how we might test what we learned from the book. The students had different ideas about how we could prove that warm air rises and cold air is heavy. We went outside to find out. The students worked in small groups and used movement to demonstrate how the sun makes the wind. It was a great opportunity to use our bodies to express our understanding.



Learning Through the Arts
As we explored the movement of wind, we read the book, “When I Get Older: The story behind ‘Wavin’ Flag’” by K’naan. We learned that the song was inspired by his grandfather’s poem. K’naan’s family journey story supported many thoughtful discussions about civil war and refugees, settlement and anti-Black racism, how schools might be more welcoming to new families, and the impact of poetry and music to create community.  We listened to the song many times and went outside with fabric “flags” to wave in the wind. We are hoping to choreograph a dance and embody the lyrics, “Love is the answer”.

We also learned about two artists who have created complex wind sculptures that are moved in the wind. We watched a few videos about the work of Theo Jansen and Anthony Howe. The students were mesmerized and inspired by the movement of these beautiful sculptures.

Another song that we learned was “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan. This is a song that we sing every year during Peace Week and on Remembrance Day. It is an opportunity to reflect on the “big ideas” of conflict and justice. In the past, we have written messages of hope and peace on leaves that are released from the third floor window.

This year, our Visual Arts teacher, Shannon Greene, made powerful connections to Treaty Recognition Week. After learning “A Treaty Poem” by Melissa MacLennon and students, Shannon encouraged the students to write promises of peace on paper leaves to keep in the classroom. Copy of Land Acknowledgement and Dish With One Spoon Resource

Squirrel Nests:
As the leaves continued to fall, the students began to notice piles of leaves in the branches. We learned that they were nests made by squirrels, and we started to think about how animals might protect themselves from the wind. We went on a walking excursion to a local park, and Ishai challenged the students to build their own squirrel nests with leaves, sticks and air.

After building with natural materials, we did a “Gallery Walk” and visited all of the squirrel nests. Students were asked to describe one thing that they were proud of and one thing that they might do to improve their nest next time. These “GLOW” and “GROW” comments allowed us to practice self-evaluation, and provided valuable formative assessment.

Finally, it was time to test our squirrel nests. Each student was given fluffy goldenrod seeds to represent the squirrel, which was placed inside the nest. We used straws to simulate the wind, and to test the strength of each structure. Everyone had an amazing experience learning outdoors together!



Wind Machines!
As our final summative task, the students were invited to plan, build and test a structure that can be moved by the wind. Before building, students were encouraged to think about what they had learned about wind and apply their knowledge to their structure. Everyone drew a plan and labelled the materials that they would need. We spent several days in the classroom building and revising our structures, based on descriptive feedback.



On the day that we tested our wind machines, each student had an opportunity to share their structure and make predictions about how it might move. After testing, Ishai conferenced with each student to document their thoughts and ideas about how successful their wind machine had been, and how they might improve their design next time. It requires more time to connect 1:1 with students, but conferencing provides strong summative assessment data, and supports every student to feel successful about their learning.

Journey through Inquiry
Working with a Teacher Candidate was refreshing and reminded me about the importance of play, storytelling and movement in our lesson planning. Throughout our inquiry about Wind, the students were very engaged, and they had multiple opportunities to explore and demonstrate their understanding.  As an experienced educator, I am still learning about how to integrate and make connections across the curriculum in creative ways.  I am also learning that when we trust our students and follow their natural curiosity, the journey through inquiry will be deep, meaningful and fun!

Brutalist worksheets

Have you ever seen something that made you wonder whether it’s sole purpose was to make you feel small or insignificant? I don’t mean this in feelgood sort of humbling way like you might ponder a mountain’s majesty or an ocean’s depth. I mean, the way you feel uneasy when looking at a decades old worksheet from a resource 20 to 25 years past its pedogogical prime – where thought and creativity were never part of its iterations. I’m talking about copy after copy of soul sucking work pages given to students only to be regurgitated upon with rote facts and little, if any, critical thought. Let’s call them Brutalist worksheets because, like the architecture, they make the learner to feel small, and powerless, and the learning devoid of inspiration.

Over the years, I have found a number of Brutalist offerings left behind in the photo-copiers, and they make me shudder a bit to think that they were destined for students’ desks and to inevitable irrelevance shortly thereafter. I’d like to say this is a long distant memory, but it is still happening in 2020.

20 years into 21st Century learning and brutalist worksheets are still being shared. But first a bit about Brutalism.

Minds On

In the creative world of architecture there are several styles that have pervaded through history. We have remnants of the Victorian, Mid-Century Modern, Art Deco, and Modernist eras that occupy much of the past century and its edifices. There is another that cannot be overlooked because of it’s austere, raw, and imposing nature, Brutalism.

Brutalism, but this is a blog for teachers? Why are we having an architecture lesson? Why not? After all, design is design and the way that we construct, craft, curate, and create content for our students matters. It is inconceivable to think it can be done without consideration of the learners we are teaching or without differentiation.

Imagine a stark and unwelcoming piece of paper that seems as if it’s sole intention is to crush your spirit. Next, think of a page full of Math calculation questions that you have been handed, and are now expected to complete before the 2 or 3 minute timer goes off. Think of a different, but equally oppressive Math sheet with instructions, but no guiding example or room to show your thinking? Think of a double-sided sheet of French -er, ir, and -re verbs to conjugate. Brutal and absolutely intended as rote busy work to keep students from being their best.

I was visting a school a few years back and came across a teacher with a stack of photocopies at least 1500 pages or more in total. I asked if this was for a whole school letter to which they replied that it was for their classroom followed by, “You have to keep ’em busy somehow.” I walked away very sad at that moment and have tried to hang on to that interaction as a reminder of what not to do.

Brutalism in our profession has no business in any of our classroom resources. In fact, we need to seriously consider the function and purpose of everything we are printing for students. It starts by cleaning out the cabinets and binders that contain outdated worksheets. I know it means having to start fresh for some, but imagine the potential for deeper learning rather than a time filler destined for the recycle bin? Perhaps doing this over the course of the year will make it less daunting. With so many digital tools at our fingertips now, creating and updating content is easier than those Xerox days of yore.

Our shift to digital learning has allowed many of us to curate constructive content with links that are informative and interactive. There are also environmental and financial benefits from avoiding copy after copy too. With a suite of apps and productivity tools. Teachers can create these spaces from a trove of templates and fellow educators who are willing to share. No need for TPT here.*

Start with the incredible digital resources being shared from your school board and from a cohort of amazing educators via Twitter. I know that PeelDSB, TDSB, DurhamDSB, and YRDSB have provided many excellent resources to their staff, and am sure there are more boards out there doing the same for theirs. If you want to start your own, you can always check out Ditch that Textbook, MathigonShukes and Giff, TV Ontario, and TED Ed for ideas. If you have a favourite, please share in the comments below.

All that I ask is that you resist the urge to hit the copy button without considering the content you intend to share with students. Will it make them feel insignificant and under-inspired? Then you might have a brutalist worksheet in your hands and it might be time to go back to the drawing board to design something inviting and engaging to students as modern learners.

* I always think of toilet paper when I see TPT. Sorry, not sorry.

Progressing With Difficulty

As the deadline for completing Progress Reports approaches, I am reflecting on the word “evaluation” and thinking critically about the ways educators and schools “value” knowledge and measure “success”.   

Despite the challenges and loss created by COVID-19, my young students continue to demonstrate compassion and resiliency.  They are actively engaged in learning and happy to be together at school.  They are working hard, and with support, they are rising to meet my high expectations.  I believe they are progressing very well.

The problem is that when educators measure student “success” against a standardized level of achievement, some students are constructed as “failures”.  This can be very discouraging.  We know that how students feel about themselves impacts how they learn.

We also know that report cards and standardized assessments, like EQAO, reflect a colonial and Eurocentric approach to education that often excludes or disadvantages many students.  Educators need to think critically about how assessment and evaluation practices reinforce racial inequity, and privilege student “success” and belonging.

How might we transform assessment and evaluation so that all students are empowered to achieve excellence, and feel successful?

For the last twelve years, I have been exploring collaborative assessment as an alternative to traditional forms of assessment.  I am inspired by the possibilities of self-assessment and goal setting to engage our students and families in the teaching and learning process in meaningful ways.

What is collaborative assessment?

Collaborative assessment involves students, families and educators as co-learners in the process of gathering and sharing formative assessment.  It helps to build trusting relationships and strengthen the home-school connection.  Collaboration assessment may include any of the following strategies: an introduction letter about a child written by a parent, inventories or surveys, individual goal setting, self-and peer-assessment, checklists, rubrics, portfolios, journals, and Student-Led Conferences.

What are the benefits of collaborative assessment for students, families and educators? 

The Ontario Ministry of Education has published several resources to support collaborative assessment because there are many benefits for students, families and educators.  Collaborative assessment invites students, families and educators to actively engage in the teaching and learning process, and creates a reciprocal relationship where students, families and educators share responsibility for learning.

Research has shown that the use of goal setting and self-assessment in the classroom engages student voice and supports critical thinking and meta-cognition skills:

“Self-assessment has been shown to impact both increased student achievement and improved student behaviour.  Involvement in the classroom assessment processes can increase student engagement and motivation.”

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. “Student Self-Assessment”. Capacity Building Series K-12.  (December 2007)

When educators empower students to make choices about how they will demonstrate their learning, and evaluate how well they have met the learning expectations, it helps to create an inclusive environment that honours and celebrates the multiple and diverse ways that students learn and share knowledge.  Additional benefits of collaborative assessment include:

*accountability by students for their own learning

*pride in achievement among students

*confidence by students to take on leadership roles

*learning independence in students

*parent participation in school life

*improved communication with parents resulting in deeper understanding and confidence in what happens at school

*more positive student-teacher relationships

*valuable feedback for teachers and families

*common understanding of the language of assessment

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Webcast Professional Learning Series. (2010) Viewer’s Guide: Student-Led Conferences.

What does collaborative assessment look like in the classroom?

In our Grade 2 classroom, we will focus on goal-setting, portfolios, and Student-Led Conferences.

Throughout the year, students will be supported to set individual short-term academic and social goals.  These goals will be achievable and meaningful.  Students will have many opportunities to reflect on their goals, develop and evaluate their own success criteria, and celebrate their achievements.  I will send home these goals as we create them together, so that families can support their child to work towards achieving these goals.  When students set individual goals that are “just right” for them, they will feel successful.

All students will have a portfolio in-class and on-line.  A portfolio is a collection of work samples chosen by the student and/or by the teacher.  Students will be encouraged to select several pieces and reflect on their own work and process throughout the year.  Portfolios offer an opportunity to explore growth and learning in concrete ways.  Students will share their portfolios with their families in February, and at the end of the year in a Student-Led Conference.  Families will also have an opportunity to explore their child’s portfolio at Parent-Teacher conferences.

Student-Led Conferences are powerful opportunities for students to identify their strengths and share evidence of how well they are meeting their learning goals.  Usually, there are 4-5 conferences happening in the classroom at one time, and I will rotate between them to listen and add to the discussion.  Last year, we used technology to facilitate Student-Led Conferences virtually.  I will write more about how to support Student-Led Conferences in another blog post.

How can families support collaborative assessment?

Family involvement is a crucial part of collaborative assessment.  Families are encouraged to be involved in the assessment process in any of the following ways:

*writing a letter of introduction, which includes their own goals/hopes for the school year

*helping their child to develop appropriate goals

*supporting their child to achieve these goals at home

*sharing observations, asking questions during Parent-Teacher conferences

*participating in Student-Led Conferences

*providing feedback after interviews and conferences

*understanding the curriculum expectations

*reading the report card

Self-reflection:

I believe that one of the most important skills that students and educators can learn is self-reflection.  As an educator, I am always actively reflecting on the choices that I make inside and outside of the classroom.  I know that I am not the only one who struggles with assessment and evaluation.  It is a critical part of our work, and an opportunity to think about how we share power with students.

Learning is an emergent and collaborative process, and I believe assessment and evaluation should reflect this.  I want to create brave spaces that acknowledge and celebrate different ways of knowing and learning, provide students with authentic and multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding, and use collaborative forms of assessment and evaluation so that all students can feel successful.

 

 

Looking on the bright-side during this dark time.

During this time at home, we are all probably having positive and negative learning moments. From seeing students thrive for the first time to having zero assignments turned in, the highs and lows have been a rollercoaster over the past few months. However, during this time for my sanity, I need to focus on the positive ones. I would love to share a few from my experience teaching grade eight online.

  1. Removing student anxiety: Many of my students have had a hard time in the classroom this year due to certain factors that make them extremely anxious. Attendance issues have made it hard for some of them to learn this year and that has always been something I have struggled with, how to reach the students who do not attend. Even the students who do attend have anxiety issues related to noise in the room, other students bothering them or starting the day in a terrible mood. My class is super respectful so I always had a hard time understanding what the exact factors were, but I came to realize it was just a feeling they carried with them and could not be easily fixed. With online learning, these students have submitted work daily and have been involved on our online teams meetings. They have been thriving in this environment and for the first time, I am learning so much about how intelligent they are and how much they have to share. The online platform has given them a voice and a chance to accomplish things.
  2. Reaching all learners: Now that the school day exists at all times, I can answer all questions at once without there being a physical line up or a limit on the amount of students I can help. When someone online needs help, I can help them right away as the odds that another student needs help at that exact moment is slim. Although my students are working at all hours of the day, I had informed them that I would be available (virtually) from 9-3 everyday. They keep their questions for the most part within these hours and I love that I can respond to them right away. Also, I am able to help students via platforms that work for them and I am so thankful that my students have downloaded all of the new apps that have been made available to us.
  3. Continued differentiation in a new and unique way: With the help of google classroom, I can assign specific work to every student at the click of a button. I can modify every assignment and make special ones for my students that go directly to their google drive. When creating an assignment or learning material, I can tailor the assignment to how they want to learn, what they want to learn and give it directly to them. I was already doing this in the classroom but I am happy I can continue to do it online. I was nervous about assigning work online and how I could make it specific to students so with google classroom I was happy to see it was an easy process. Then, once my students finish an assignment, I can assign them more work at their own pace. Right now I have students completing work at 25 different rates and I need to be able to keep track of what they have/have not done. Google classroom allows me to look at what they have handed in and then direct them to the next assignment.
  4. Small groups style learning: My favourite thing about teaching online is creating small groups live meetings. We have been using the apps “Teams” by Microsoft and it was has been an amazing way to teach in small and medium sized groups. Every Tuesday, I have a live math/literacy class with my students. I invite all of them but usually I only get half the class. From there, I create smaller groups to teach them the topics that they still need help with or to move them ahead in the unit. I also have a meeting on Wednesdays with my ESL students where we read a book and answer questions together. We also work on math topics and play simple word games. On Thursdays, all of the other grade eights meet together to play games and reminisce about the year. This Thursday, they will be sharing their favourite writing piece from the year and will be sharing to their classmates their strengths as a writer. Small groups is something I had done in the classroom but online now more than ever I have implemented small groups in a way that really reaches all learners. I really hope to bring that into the classroom at a new level more successful than ever before. That is my favourite success from the online learning environment.

Although there are days when I feel like I may be posting to no one, I know that there must be students who are benefiting from it. The online meetings have been such a blessing during this time as hearing their voices always remind me of how special this profession is and how lucky we are to have technology to help us through this time. I am desperately looking forward to the day where we can teach in the classroom again but for now, I am happy to have these successes to think on and to reflect about how they will make me a better educator. I hope everyone else has some moments that they can look at and reflect positively on.

Overwhelming Resources

As we engage in distance/remote/online/emergency learning Educators are being inundated with resources and tools to use in their virtual classrooms.  It isn’t easy to decide which would be most effective and which ones are safe for teachers and students to use.  There is no one size fits all answer to this but there are a few things that I do in order to narrow down my choices of whether or not to use a particular digital tool or resource:

  1.  I search for tools that are designed by Canadian or better yet, Ontario Educators and where possible, data is housed in Canada.
  2. I look at whether or not the tool will still be free after the COVID crisis is over or whether it has always been a free tool.  I honestly don’t mind paying for a tool from the outset but I don’t really like the whole free trial thing.  I also don’t want to pay some kind of a monthly fee.  One time price, please!  I don’t want to love a tool so much while it is free and then have to pay for it when I go back into the classroom.
  3. I look at whether or not it is a one time fee or negative billing.  I won’t give anyone my credit card to start a free trial for a tool.
  4. I search for tools that I know will be supported by my ICT department.  Anything that wants access to email contacts in my school board is a non-starter.
  5. I search for tools that inspire collaboration and creativity.  I’m not one to sign up students for a gaming platform that is really just an engaging math drill.
  6. I look at bang for my buck (even if it is free).  Is it a versatile tool?  Does it allow for different forms of communication?  Can I embed audio and video?  Is there an opportunity for a variety of feedback methods?
  7. I look at the Privacy statement.  Although I am no expert in this, I can generally tell when something has red flags.  Anything that is attached to third party social media platforms like Facebook is a non starter for me.
  8. Right now while there are so many sign ups and passwords for students, I stay away from platforms that want to create student accounts and want information apart from an email.
  9. I look to see if it is a Microsoft or Apple Education certified product?  I know that for the most part, those tools are trustworthy.
  10. I look at user reviews and YouTube tutorials.  I want to know what the pitfalls are of something before I invest time and/or money.

At the end of the day no tool is perfect and few tools are unlikely to meet the specific needs of each and every student in your classroom.  However, I hope that what I do when choosing a tool might guide you to the most effective tools in the over abundance of resources that are floating around out there.

Keeping it fresh.

As of the end of February, it is apparent to no one in Ontario that Spring is just around the corner. Judging by the blankets of snow and recent school bus cancellations, winter continues to disrupt and annoy us with the same creative sadism as a government hell-bent on destroying public education. Despite the stark reality of a manufactured education crisis and a real climate crisis, I know that Spring is coming soon. I saw a spider. Photograph by Will Gourley

Isn’t it wonderful? Putting ONGov’s systemic affronteries aside, my heart lept at the sight of a spider. On a normal day seeing one is something exciting to behold, but this opportunity came after nearly 3 days of snow, several white-knuckled commutes, and bone chilling winds. It was a sign of hope that most of winter’s worst weather would be over, well at least statistically.

It signified that Spring was on almost here because, in my own amateur scientific way, I have observed, over several years, that spiders usually emerge around my house again when winter is almost over. Usually. My returning guest got me energized and thinking about how to channel that into the classroom?

2020 has blessed me with a number of ups and downs in my professional life as an educator. It has brought me immense joy on a daily basis in the classroom, but also sadness and grief in light of tragic events that have happened to our learning community. You see, not all lessons and outcomes are going to be good. The opportunity to share the struggles and successes with students helps create a deeper appreciation of the learning process. By admitting when things got tough meant more to them and my colleagues than any veneer of perfection I could ever hope to put on.

My January post was meant to share my personal struggles in hopes of encouraging dialog among educators and to show the benefits of releasing some of the emotional weight that many of us carry inside. I wondered whether I could use my catharsis as a catalyst for our learning spaces? How could I make it fresh and keep it fresh for my students and self?

Never one to shy away from doing something differently, I quickly began working through new ways for students to interact with their learning, for demonstrating their understandings, to collaborate with each other, and to dig deeper into opportunities rarely afforded by traditional transmission and texts teaching.

Here’s what we worked on;

In Math, I remain committed to “no text book math lessons” as much as possible. Using YouCubedPeterLiljedahlMath RecessWaterloo POTWCEMC, and Khan Academy. My students love working on problems together, they argue, iterate, communicate, and solve problems. We make Math a social activity instead of a game of one upping each another.

Another change this year is having Wipebooks for students to use. They have added another dimension to our learning by enabling vertical approaches to Math problems. This has students out of their seats, standing, thinking, and  solving. They can also wander from group to group to see the different approaches being used to answer questions. This has led to some excellent discussions and growth.

Recently, I also started adding Quizizz tasks to our Google Classroom. These fun quizzes allow you to make memes for correct and incorrect responses. I find this format a great way to have students continue to work on concepts taught in prior months.

Becoming a strong group facilitator using Character Lab Playbooks and a co-constructed success criteria. Genius Hour – personal inquiry projects where every student becomes the class expert in their subject. I have shared this one before, but it was for a different class at the time. Besides, it’s a perrenial favourite and my students have asked to do it again already.

In Language, we remain very fond of TED Talks. I now find myself creating reading response tasks with posts from the TED Blog. Another tool that it is being brought back discussion and digital citizenship is Padlet. Our recent work focused around an assignment inspirted by my friend and colleague Tim Bradford  that read;

“In the past and present, people have always treated each other fairly.” Agree or disagree

Students had to create a 30 + word response to the statement and then respond to each other. The depth of understanding from them was very encouraging. It was also nice to see how they kept each other in check when it came to appropriate responses and use of technology. Here are 2 of their responses of the entire class who thoughtfully disagreed;

To add a lot of fun to my instructional week, is my grade 3 FI Music class where my students recently wrapped up creating their own identity raps in French, complete with backbeats from Groove Pizza. Once their shyness subsided, they were excited to present their hard work. It was also fun to see how they incorporated the lessons we had about how to beatbox from Nicole Paris and about the notes and rhythms we covered in Term 1.

In all of this, the focus was on hands on and collaborative experiences intended to engage and deliver the learning. Although much can go wrong, there is so much that can go right when you commit to keeping it fresh. I know that the next 4 months will bring more of the same and I am excited to try new things with my students. Looking forward to introducing Flipgrid, podcasting, and sketchnoting already to keep it fresh. Bring on Spring!

Have you tried something new that you would like to share? Mention it in the comment section and include a link if you can. Thanks for reading.

Class Size Matters: Then and Now

As I look back on my 1973/1974 grade 5 classroom of 29 students, there are significant differences in how we were taught.

Teacher Qualifications:

Our teacher did not have a university degree and only one year of teachers’ training. (I looked her up).

Today’s teachers must complete a 4 year university degree and two years of teachers’ training before they can become professional teachers.

Seating:

I recently returned to my former grade 5 classroom and knew exactly were I sat as we were in rows in alphabetical order. There was little or no collaboration with classmates and we were expected to sit quietly and work with little or no support from our teacher. In the 1970s, I did a lot of rote learning and paperwork – it was pretty boring. I sat and worked in the same spot for my entire grade 5 year.

Today, classrooms are dynamic with flexible seating and continual student collaboration. Now learning is more active through student inquiry and the use of technology. Collaboration within groups is a key learning skill on report cards.

Class Composition:

In 1973, we did not have any students with significant special education needs as those students were placed in contained classrooms. This was before the inclusion model was implemented. Any students who struggled were likely held back by failing a grade. (I was almost held back due to my undiagnosed learning disability). We also had students who were younger as they had “skipped” a grade.

Today, there is a wide range of student abilities in classrooms. I’ve taught classes with gifted students and students with significant learning deficits. This meant that I had to modify my teaching instruction to several grade levels higher or lower to meet these students’ needs. I once had a student functioning at a grade one level in a grade 7 classroom and was fortunate to have an educational assistant and special education teacher to support this student.

Educational Assistants:

In the 1970s, classrooms with students with significant special education needs had educational assistants/teaching assistants. I can only remember ever seeing teaching assistants in the special needs’ classrooms.  I recently spoke to a retired teacher who informed me that when the inclusion model was implemented into Ontario schools, the government promised teachers significant  support with an Educational Assistant in every classroom. That was not implemented as promised.

With today’s classroom composition, teachers need significant additional supports. A full time Educational Assistant (EA) would give teachers time to work with all students. In addition, when I’ve worked with Educational Assistants, my students have been much better behaved as there are two adults watching them work. Even when students are allocated funding for Educational Assistant support, schools often place EAs with other students who have no funding – as the EA is “assigned to the school, not the student”. This means the student with EA funding never gets their allocated support and the teacher must support this student instead. Teaching in classrooms with a few students with special education needs and little EA support is doable but currently many classrooms have up to a third or more of students with special education needs. This is unmanageable and disheartening when teachers cannot provide enough support to help all students. In this case, students who are capable but need a small amount of support never get the help they need.

Discipline:

When I went to school, students were expected to behave themselves in class. I personally was terrified to get into trouble at school as I would have received significant consequences. I remember a few students receiving “the belt” by the principal. In order the get this consequence, the principal had to document and justify the consequence.

Today, discipline varies by administrator, school, and school board. Students who misbehave can go to a behaviour teaching assistants’ room (if this is available) or to the office. The challenge is that students with behaviour needs really require intervention supports to improve their overall behaviour and academic outcome at school. I personally know of a situation where a student, who struggled academically and with behaviour needs, got the mental health and behaviour support programs they needed and is now thriving academically and with behaviour under control. (This support happened as the teacher did a work refusal due to extreme student behaviour concerns which precipitated extra support for this student).

So why can’t we implement programs like this for all students who need behaviour supports? Funding – recent government cutbacks have meant that these safeguards of mental health and behaviour supports have disappeared leaving only the most challenging students getting this critical intervention.

The Bottom Line:

Class size matters more today than it ever has as classroom compositions are highly differentiated with students with many needs. Further, with fluid and dynamic instruction, students do not sit in orderly rows not leaving their seats. As a teacher, I prefer teaching this way as it is more organic and helps students develop critical collaborative skills they will one day use in the world of work.

The bottom line is that teachers need more support in their classroom with not more, but less students. Schools need more Educational Assistants and Special Education Teachers to support students with significant academic and behaviour needs. Boards of education need more programs and qualified adults to address mental health and behaviour needs with students. Without these supports and interventions, students’ behaviour and mental health needs will only be compounded and student outcomes will flounder.

With this blog, I advocate for all students with special education and behaviour needs to get the support they require to be successful in their education … because without these student outcomes will be grim.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD

Checklists and Independent Fridays

When I first started teaching grade eight, by Fridays I often found that only a few of my students were handing things in. It was frustrating as many students by the end of the week couldn’t remember what was due or what they had or hadn’t completed. Some actually forgot and some just pretended…it was often hard to differentiate between the two. This year, I came up with a solution that is allowing all of my students to complete most, if not all of the assigned tasks for the week.

During the weekend I plan the lessons and assessments for the week ahead. It is often a continuation from the week before for subjects such as math, science, history, geography and literacy. When planning, I come up with the tasks that will be due by the end of the week. An example of the tasks for the week of January 20th to 24th were: a map for geography, five reading response questions for literacy, a rough copy of an essay, a science experiment outline and a math task. By Friday, all of these items were due. On Monday and Tuesdays, I teach the lessons and Wednesday and Thursday are used for further instructions and independent work/group work.  At the beginning of the week, I write out on the board the four to six things that would be due by Friday. Students write these things out in a table like format on a large yellow sticky note with the subject on the left and the task on the right. Throughout the week, they check off each item that is due.

On Friday, I do not put any subjects on the schedule, I write the letters I.W. meaning independent work. Students work at their own pace to complete their checklists. Each task has been explained prior to Friday except for the math task. The math task is an extension of the math lessons from the week and they can ask for this math task at any time on the Friday. Throughout the day, they work on checking off items and completing their to do list for the week. This keeps students on top of their work and I often find students are excited when they get to check off an item. Then, by dismissal on Friday, all students hand in their sticky notes in a large blue organizer I have hanging on the chalkboard.

On the weekend, I mark their work as well as I view their sticky notes. Then I record their independent work mark for the week:

0 tasks complete- N
1-2 tasks complete- S
3-4 tasks complete- G
5+ tasks completed- E

Students that finish before the deadline of the end of the day Friday are given an extra tasks that will further their learning in one or more of the topics we covered during the week.

My students are very excited on Fridays because they follow their own set schedule. At first, I wondered if some students would just sit around and do nothing but that hasn’t ever been the case. My students that were slow to start tasks in September/October are often first to hand in their sticky notes. Fridays are my students favourite days because of the way they move at their own pace and they like the feeling of getting tasks completed and getting to checkmark something off their list.

I encourage teachers to try this handy sticky note idea as it helps students stay organized and hopefully, this organizational skill will help them set timelines in high school, college and/or university.

**For the week of January 20th to 24th, 16 out of my 25 students received an E for their sticky note checklists, completing all or more of their set tasks for the week.**

 

 

Collaborative Inquiry Celebration

The other day, many teachers from across my school board gathered together to share with other educators how their year long inquiry project went. As I have mentioned in previous posts, mine was about starting our own business as a class and inspiring my students through leadership. I shared with the other educators these successful stories from our project “8A TREATS”:

  • how many of my less successful students with traditional subjects have been excelling during this project
  • the success my students had with gathering data from classes around the school
  • collecting permission forms from the entire school
  • advertising by making imovies, posters and using a dinosaur mascot to travel around with a fake smoothie
  • tallying the smoothie results for flavours and sizes with spreadsheets
  • counting and tracking the money with spreadsheets
  • find and then order paper straws from Amazon to be environmentally friendly
  • working with a budget that was donated from the student success foundation
  • designing logos as a class, voting on the best one and then collaborating with a clothing design company to recreate this on their products
  • painting and creating a wall in our classroom that will be the location behind our brand
  • creating a video to explain the project as well as talk about our favourite parts

Image-21    (<<<our student create wall)

 

Our next steps with our project:

  • doing the math to find out how much of each ingredient we will now (plus extra) to make the smoothies
  • ordering the cups
  • setting up our classroom as a pop-up smoothie store
  • making 340+ smoothies on June 6th with our 22 students

It was very exciting sharing this project with my fellow educators. My students were very excited knowing that this project was shared with other teachers. They were proud when I told them how excited other teachers were to find out about this student centered initiative.

There were other educators who shared exciting inquiry projects:

  1. My colleague Lydia shared about her “Community Helpers” project where her grade one students inquired in various ways about the many community helpers in our neighbourhood. She had a guest police officer come by as well as had the students use their hands to explore various jobs. They were able to build, play with food as well as research all of the jobs available to them. The final touch was when my grade eight class came to help them put their thoughts together in an inquiry package. It was great to see her students so passionate about their future. To find out about her project, you can visit her twitter account @AppolonialydiaL. You can also view her project on this link <iframe class=”wp-block-mexp-vimeo hwdsb-tv” src=”//hwdsb.tv/media/grade-one-collaborative-inquiry-2019/?embed=true” width=”560″ height=”315″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
  2. Teachers used a choice board to give students options when creating or completing tasks. These boards are made in collaboration with the teacher at the beginning of the year to go over all of the ways that presenting or completing every day tasks can be done that year. Apps are explored and used in new and innovative ways. I cannot wait to create a choice board in my literacy class next year. There was also a SAMR model student choice matrix that was introduced to us. It’s not the app that makes the project/task, it is how it’s used.
  3. I also heard about makerspaces from one of my other colleagues Cara. She introduces these daily in her library and students are able to create very interesting projects from her instruction cards set up at the tables. They are always able to be creative, explore and build in her library. They also explore media literacy during these creative library sessions.

There were many other projects I could not get to since we only had a half hour to explore and the other half hour was to share about our own projects. Some other apps worth checking out are: seesaw, read&write, book creator, keynote, canva, geogebra, TC studio and pear deck.