Distance Learning Ideas

During these different times, I’ve been planning for a new type of learning – distance learning – with little to no idea of how it might actually be implemented. As I plan, I thought there may be some who would find what I have done of value. I’m using this post to share some of the resources that I might use with students.


Writing and Oral Communication

Persuasion is an art! To be able to develop a persuasive argument, you have to make sure that you have enough information to support your position on a matter. When you find topics that are of personal interest, people tend to have an opinion right away and can start to justify their thoughts. For this type of activity, I’m thinking of giving students one of the following prompts and asking them to come up with a persuasive argument including at least 3 supporting details for their opinion. Students can upload their arguments either in video or writing in a platform like Google Classroom and then they can possibly respond to each other’s arguments with counter-arguments. To extend this idea further, students can be grouped into teams based on their opinions and participate in a debate for or against the specific topic presented. 

Possible prompts:

  • When we start school again, we should have a 4-day school week. Do you agree or disagree?
  • During the pandemic, people have been using masks and gloves to move around the city. There is a shortage in hospitals. Should people donate their masks and gloves to hospitals?
  • When the pandemic is over, life will go back to being the way it was before. Do you agree or disagree?

Reading and Media Literacy

In our class, we’ve been reading and investigating non-fiction texts. Students were also in the process of writing their own themed magazines based on their own research on a topic. To continue with non-fiction reading, I thought it would be great to take some time to continue to read online magazines or texts. While reading, students can take notes of what they are learning using a graphic organizer like this one from Scholastic. This is just an elementary example but depending on what you are focused on, you can create your own for your students. From there, I thought that students could use what they have learned to create an infographic on a specific topic of interest. Keeping in mind that infographics have a visual component, students can use a tool like Google Drawings to create their own layout for their infographics. One online magazine that is now making all of its content free is Brainspace. There are a variety of topics that might be of interest to students. 


I’ve found that hands-on activities have been the most well-received by my students and their families during this time. While there are a variety of Math games online – mPower, Math Playground, Prodigy, IXL – sometimes it’s nice to sit down and try an activity that allows you the opportunity to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. There are so many different activities online but one that I quite like is from The Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing. Their printable activities for students in Grades 4 to 12 are fun and educational ways to do mathematics and computer science while at home practicing social distancing. The resources include games, new problems to solve, applications, videos, pointers to existing materials on their website. Once they have finished solving the problems with their families, students can share their solutions and strategies with each other online in writing or in a video, using a platform like Google Classroom.

Design Thinking

Students can use our current pandemic – Covid-19 – to design something totally new! This is a project that can be done over time and students can share what they have been working on in an online platform such as Google Classroom. At each stage of the process, they can share their work with the teacher or each other. 

Have students start by identifying problems that they are hearing about on the news or from online sources. They could write these on sticky notes, paper or using a tech tool. Teachers could use Padlet to create an online problem board for all students to include their ideas.  From there, students could potentially design an app or a solution that could connect community members as they are socially distancing themselves or something else that they have identified as a problem. The sky’s the limit! 

After researching and understanding the problem, students can pick one specific problem, and focus on how it is affecting a specific person (user). Here are 2 recent articles (International Covid-19 and Coronavirus Affecting the Way We Do Things) that they can use along with other online sources. 

Students can use this template – created in partnership with Smarter Science and the TDSB – to document their learning throughout the process. Once finished, students can create their own pitch for their idea, creating a short video or slide presentation for their peers.

These are just some of the ideas that I’m thinking about as we venture into this new type of learning next week. I’m not sure how it will go or what might work but I’m open to learning and trying something new. 

Graphic Novels – Engaging Learning for All Readers

Meeting with families was a little different this year due to job action.  Last month, I met with a family to discuss their child’s progress. Although we weren’t meeting about concerns, this was a very insightful meeting, as we spoke about engaging students in reading for enjoyment. I was a little surprised because this child always raises their hand to participate in reading activities in the classroom and this definitely got me thinking about reading overall.

After some reflection, I realized that as an educator, I’m constantly asking students to read for a specific purpose: to gather or organize information for research; to check for comprehension; or to sometimes aid in writing. Sure, I’ve told students to read for enjoyment but I started to think about whether or not I’ve taught them how to find books that they enjoy. Have I given them time to just sit and read without asking them to do something after? How do we navigate the space of having students read for a purpose while also honouring them developing their own love of reading? How do we help them to maintain this balance as the demands of reading increase through the grades? This also got me thinking personally about my reading habits. When picking a book, I usually go for the trial and error method.  I try a book, like it and find similar books by the same author or genre to continue reading. Or I hate it and stop reading anything similar. How do we help students to learn what is out there?

During the weeks before the break, while on trips to the library for our book exchange, I started to have more open conversations with my students about what I like to read and why. I spent some time pulling out different books that I liked and it was so neat to see students wanting to take a look at what I liked to read and who trusted my recommendations. This had me thinking about book reviews and how powerful they are. I’ve read books based solely on the word of someone I trusted. How might we foster spaces where students could freely share their reviews of books, not because they had to write a book report but because they wanted to have the opportunity to share.  I also realized that my students need to see me reading – more specifically what I am reading – which opened up opportunities for conversations that are authentic. While in the library, I started reading some of the graphic novels and realized that many of them were so packed with amazing themes and could also be great for book clubs with students. 

My three latest graphic novel reads are New Kid by Jerry Craft, Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson, and Guts by Raina Telgemeir. While reading, I realized that each of the graphic novels could be used for deep conversations about the realities of navigating the very real difficulties of growing up. Conversations around race, fear, identity, and being valued could really be dug into by studying out these novels within the classroom setting. This got me thinking about this lovely section in our library that often gets so much use from students but not as much from the educators in our building. One question that popped into my head was, How might we use this section to engage all readers as they learn to identify what they enjoy reading?

Beyond these deep conversations, there’s a lot that could be learned from reading graphic novels. Similar to narratives, students can find the elements of a narrative within (characters, setting, plot, etc.). Beyond that here are a few ideas of how I think they might also be used.

Before reading:

  • Copy a few pages of the text and remove the dialogue. Have students infer what is happening in a section of the graphic novel and justify their thinking. 
  • Copy different parts of the text and have students piece together the sequence of events based on what they see. 
  • Copy an integral part of the text. Remove the dialogue and have students write what they believe is happening in that section of the text. Ask them to think of what led up to that part and perhaps what happens next.

During Reading:

  • Have students reflect on different features within the text. For example, how might the colours, shape, and style of the font and/or text bubbles influence your understanding of the text? 
  • Make predictions of what might come next. Have students draw the next few panels of the story. 
  • How does the imagery add to what is being “said” to the reader? Have students point out clear examples from the text.
  • Ask students to consider the inner or outer dialogue happening. How do you know which is which? How might this give readers an even deeper insight into the experiences of the character?
  • Panels in graphic organizers are oftentimes different sizes, why might that be? What can we gather about information within larger panels?

After Reading:

  • Extend the story. What might happen in a sequel? Draw the beginning 3 panels of the next part of the story.
  • Summarize the text in 5 panels. How might these 5 panels clearly show the plot within the graphic novel?
  • How did the art in the text contribute to your understanding of the characters or the overall story? What role did the colours play in evoking emotion?

These are just some of my ideas for using graphic novels with students. Since many students have graphic novels at home, I wonder if this might be something that we can use going forward in this new realm of continuing the learning at home as we perhaps use this time to help students identify what they enjoy reading.  Let me know your thoughts.

Halloween learning opportunity

During the past few weeks, my students have been writing short scary stories. They have been working in groups to create stories with creative characters, a strong plot and a problem that arises in their story. 

About a month ago, my students were thinking hard to plan for our first drama task of the year. Knowing Halloween was at the end of the month, they wanted to plan a Halloween task. They wanted to have some sort of haunted house that would involve all of the grade eight students. Unfortunately that wasn’t able to happen, but for the 30 students that did participate, they worked well to create an exciting final product. 

With my students help, what we ended up deciding on was that each scary short story would be performed in our class in the haunted house. We would present our scary short stories. Five stories ended up being brought to life. Each story had unique characters, a unique stage, audience setup and music soundtrack. For that reason, students who did not want to act helped in other ways such as stage crew, music creator or class collector. This short story project ended up turning into a show for six classes to view. 

Students decorated the room to their liking the day before towards the end of the day. They worked hard to set up a spooky setup that would work for everyone. A student in my colleagues class donated decorations for the entire project and the students had fun setting them up. A few days prior to decorating, two of my students went around to the grade five and six teachers and asked them to sign up for a viewing time. The classes would come on October 30th to view the five shows. 

The performances went very well! Students were evaluated on the writing of their stories for literacy as well as many drama expectations for their performances. They were marked on their ability to plan and shape the drama throughout their many performances and were also evaluated based on their ability to use the elements of drama. They did an amazing job telling each of their created stories to their peers. 

It was great to see such collaboration for this project as many students invited other actors into their group as they enjoyed writing a story that would include as many as up to ten actors. They let students audition for the part and then the show became their own as well. Teachers complimented the students on their amazing show creation and very well written stories. The kids had a great time and are excited to try something like this again during the winter holidays. I am so proud of my students for their collaboration skills during this project and their ability to take on such a large task. I am excited for their next opportunity to showcase their incredible leadership abilities and their group work skills. 

Breakout EDU

Breakout EDU is like an Escape Room in a box. The players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open a locked box. The first time I experienced Breakout EDU with my students I was not the designer of the game.  Another teacher had designed the Breakouts and we were using it as a provocation for an inquiry on the Olympics.  I was amazed at how much I wanted to help my students.  It was difficult to watch them struggle and yet, that is where the learning happens.  We want our students to BE “gritty” and we need to provide opportunities for students to develop that grit.  Breakout EDU is a great way in which to have the students experience “the struggle”.  The kit looks like this:

The kit itself is quite pricey and unless your school already has one, it is quite an investment.  However, you can make your own with a tool box and locks purchased from a variety of stores.  You can also create online digital Breakouts that create the same kind of collaborative, problem solving activity just without the cool locks.  Here is the link to some curated online “digital” breakouts.   I haven’t looked at all of these for curriculum alignment, but it will give you some ideas to use to create your own digital breakouts.

“Breakout” is sort of a misnomer.  You are actually “breaking in” to the box using a number of clues students solve puzzles in order to open the various word, number and key locks.  This can connect to the curriculum in a number of different ways and can be used effectively as an introduction, provocation or summary for learning.  You aren’t going to get too terribly deep into content when students are busy trying to solve for clues.  For me, Breakout EDU is far more about developing the 6 C’s; collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication, citizenship and character building.   It is fascinating to have students work in groups to solve problems with a common goal.  Breakout EDUs provide opportunities for students to practice developing their learning skills and gives the teacher the opportunity to collect data as the learning is self-directed.  The activities lead easily into self-reflection of learning skills. Below are some of the questions that I find valuable for the consolidation portion of a lesson after a Breakout EDU activity:

Questions for Reflection

1.  How did you determine roles in your group?

2.  What did you find most difficult?

3.  What did your group do really well together?

4.  What would you do differently next time?

5.  How did you contribute to the group?

6.  How did you work to include everyone in your group?

Once students are familiar with the Breakout EDU format (depending on the age/grade level) they can then create their own Breakouts for their classmates.  The students interact with the learning from a different perspective and have to find the most important information to highlight for the clues in the development of the Breakout.

So what are the drawbacks?  Breakout EDU is competitive.  The students are working against each other and/or against the clock.  You have to know which students can handle that type of pressure. Working in groups on a common task may be difficult for some students with self-regulation issues so you have to know your students well and plan accordingly, as you would for any group activity.

Finally, Breakout EDU is also a great tool to use with your staff.  If you have a lot of information to get through and you want the participants to get to some salient points and the Google Slide presentation just isn’t cutting it, using a Breakout EDU will make for an interactive, team building staff meeting!  It is also great to have the adults experience the struggle that we all want students to go through to develop grit and resilience.

Like with any tool, it takes time and research to ensure that it is right for your classroom.  The more I use Breakout EDU in my teaching,  the more I think of ways to use it!

Orange Shirt Day

Orange Shirt Day is tomorrow – September 30th! While I strongly believe conversations around reconciliation between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples need to happen on a daily basis, Orange Shirt Day provides an opportunity for action and awareness.  In this post, I’ll be sharing a couple activities we have done this year and how we will be continuing to learn about reconciliation. 

Based on the life of Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a powerful book that brings to light a part of Canada’s history and its treatment of Indigenous children and families. It’s a text that I have read with students over the past few years that has helped my students understand the impacts of residential schools not only on those who attended but also the impacts over subsequent generations. 

Every year, I think about how to use the text in different ways and this year our pre-reading activities were inspired by an educator in London, Graham Shular. For our activity, small groups of 3 or 4 students were given an image from the book that was glued to a piece of chart paper that was sectioned off into 4 parts. Students were asked to write down their answers to one of the following in each of the sections:

  1. What do you notice?
  2. What emotions does the image evoke?
  3. What do you think is happening?
  4. Why do you think that is happening?

 The groups were given 4 minutes to first take a look at the image and then they were given 4 minutes to discuss and jot down their ideas on the chart paper for each question. 


I was amazed at how engaged students were in the task, as was another colleague, Alison Fitzsimmons, who also did a similar activity with the students in her class. This activity was a great way for me to see what students already knew about residential schools and it was also helpful in understanding what messages students were getting in the imagery of the book.

Later, as we read, students were given large sticky notes and asked to jot down their wonders, questions and anything of impact as we read. Many were surprised at the treatment of Indigenous children and their families and that it was imposed and sanctioned by the Canadian Government. This prompted many to think about what we can currently do to ensure true reconciliation. While I want students to gain a great sense of empathy, I also want them to understand the resilience of those impacted and the rich history of Indigenous peoples over time. 

Tomorrow, we will be starting to look at our Land Acknowledgement. Said every morning during the announcements, students need to understand its significance and the people on whose land we have the privilege of learning. I am looking forward to us digging in to better understand treaties and the diverse communities of Indigenous peoples. 

Tomorrow is Orange Shirt Day. Will you be wearing orange? What activities have you done with students? What work might we continue to do to ensure true action around reconciliation? ETFO has incredible resources to get you started. Click here to find them!

Podcasts for Students

Excitedly, I am back in the classroom in September! Over the past few weeks, I’ve started thinking about new ways to engage my next cohort of students. As I’ve been thinking, a friend reached out to share that her son has been enjoying podcasts and that got me thinking about how they might be useful in the classroom.  I started listening to the few mentioned to me by my friend and through searching, realized just how many there are for children. For this post, I’ve included a little about the few that I’ve started listening to so far and how they might be useful in the classroom. By no means is this an exhaustive list, nor have I really had the time to dig into this idea but I’m starting here and will continue to take time over the summer listening and trying to find ways to move students from podcast consumers into perhaps podcast creators.

Six Minutes 

Description from Kids Listen: Eleven-year-old Holiday is pulled from the icy waters of Alaska with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Are her mom and dad really who they say they are? And when she begins to develop incredible abilities, she’ll soon discover she’s not alone in the world. Six Minutes is a new mystery adventure for the whole family. Starting on March 1st, new six minute episodes, twice a week, all year long…and beyond. 

In the first episode, the Anders family goes on a whale watching trip and finds something miraculous floating in the water. While listening to this episode, I immediately found myself using my imagination to think of what the setting and characters might look like. Because there were no visuals provided, I had to envision the space as the story started to unfold. I started to wonder about having students draw their visualizations as they listened. What would they include on a page and why? What elements might be most important for some and less for others? How might students justify their reasons for adding what they did to the page. I started to think of the creativity and critical thinking skills that could be developed through conversations about what their images may include. I like the fact that the episodes are short. Six minutes is just enough time to capture your attention while leaving you wanting more. I might also think about developing key questions to ask students for each of the episodes, getting them to piece together elements of the story as they unfold, while making predictions of what might come. I only listened to a few of the episodes and this is definitely a podcast that I would listen to myself.

Tumble Science Podcasts for Kids

Description from Kids Listen: Exploring stories of science discovery. Tumble is a science podcast created to be enjoyed by the entire family. Hosted & produced by Lindsay Patterson (science journalist) & Marshall Escamilla (teacher).

As a Science enthusiast, I was intrigued by this podcast and of course I decided to listen to one of the most gross episodes, The Tower of the Vomiting Robot with Anna Rothschild. While it took some time to get into the actual episode, the podcast told how a robot named Vomiting Larry, helped scientists discover how to stop the spread of Norovirus. I thought it was great that this episode sought to find out from grade 4 students what they thought was gross. I think this could be a great way to also include answers from your own students. This episode also got me thinking about the practical applications of technology to advance research about disease prevention and possibly a new design project for grade 5 students in relation to the human body. I also thought that it was neat that there was a blog post about the episode where students could investigate more, if they wanted to. A great way to bring in real-world science to the science we do in classrooms with students. 

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel 

Description from Kids Listen: The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is a high-quality serial mystery story for middle graders, performed by actual kids. Think Goonies, meets Spy Kids, meets Stranger Things for 8-12 year-olds. Listen along as eleven-year-old Mars Patel and his pals JP, Toothpick, and Caddie set out on an audacious adventure in search of two missing friends. The mysterious tech billionaire Oliver Pruitt might have a thing-or-two to say about their quest, because as he likes to say, To the stars! In fact, that’s just where they might be headed.

With three seasons to this podcast, I love the fact that it’s narrated by actual children. It’s in their voices and I see how it might be totally relatable and of great interest to them. A little longer in length – 30 minutes – it might be a little long for some to listen to in its entirety in the classroom but I’ve heard that it’s engaging for students and time seems to pass very quickly. I like how Oliver Pruitt in the first episode drops you into H. G. Wells Middle School. Again, I can see how students could visualize what is happening as well as make predictions on what might come in the next part. 

The following is a list of sites that I will be investigating over the summer to find podcasts that might be interesting to introduce to my students. That being said, I know that choice and voice are extremely important and I also look forward to having conversations with my students around what they may already be listening to. Again, while I’m new to this idea of podcasts in the classroom, these lists are simply ones that I have found online that may or may not include podcasts that are ideal for your students. I think it’s wise to take a listen first and determine that for yourself. In these lists, you’ll see that there is some overlap and perhaps that might be a place to start as you investigate. 

Kids Listen – An app that has podcasts sorted in categories based on age. I found it easy to listen to podcasts on my Chromebook which also got me thinking about the ease of use within the classroom depending on the technology available. 

We Are Teachers – Curated list of the 18 best podcasts for students in elementary, middle and high school and also gives a sample activity to try along with listening to the podcast.

Cult of Pedagogy – Offers a brief reason what podcasts are and how they can be listened to, along with 8 educational podcasts with a sample episode and brief descriptions of each. 

Scholastic – Gives you a list of 9 podcasts, telling you what they are best for, why it’s worth it and where to find them.

Common Sense Media – With fantastic tips for parents and children, this list of the 20 best podcasts has them organized by category based on genres or activities. 

Common Sense Media – Another list specifically for little kids, truly highlighting that podcasts can be for everyone.

Finding Cleo – Definitely for older students, this link is to a teacher’s guide developed by the Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board educators, for this podcast. Included are letters to parents, suggested assignments for the episodes and further resources. 

Have you used podcasts with students? If so, how? What worked and what didn’t work? I would love to hear your experiences and get some ideas from you.

However you spend your summer break, I hope that it’s filled with time to relax and rejuvenate for the upcoming year. Have a happy and safe summer!

An image of the cover of Alligator Pie.

Chime and Chant Language Learning

When I was in the Faculty of Education one of my Associate Professors was Jean Malloch, author of “Chime In” and other professional teaching resources.  I learned from her the importance of rhythm and rhyme in the early acquisition of language.  I also love to read and write poetry.   While growing up my sisters shared their own love of  the poetry of Ogden Nash and Dennis Lee.  These poets formed the beginning repertoire of poetry that I have shared with my students over the years with the addition of poets Shel Silverstein, Ken Nesbitt and Loris Lesyinski to name a few.

At the beginning of the school year when teaching in the primary grades, I would create a ‘Chime and Chant’ duo tang for students with two or three poems about September, fall, school and character. Each week during the school year we would add a new poem.  Sometimes it was just because they were fun to read and perform.  Other times they were connected to our topics of study.  We worked together reading these poems chorally in different ways: call and answer, parts attributed to groups of students, leaving out the last word of the line and having the students chime in as well as reading with actions, different types of voices and dramatic effects.  These short poems also provided opportunities for me to teach beginning reading strategies such as word prediction, reading word families and segmenting words.  We would practice our poetry daily and often the students would have the majority of the poetry memorized by the end of the week.  Sometimes while standing and waiting during a transition time we would chant a familiar poem together without even using our duo tangs.  We would take poems apart, mix them up, change the words and use the poems to identify word families, commonly used words and word endings.  Students would increase their fluency in reading and add to their vocabulary.  We stored our poetry books in the student’s book bags and which ensured that when students went to their independent reading time they always had something that they could read independently.  When students partner read they would often choose to read poems chorally.  When students read to their grade four buddies they would proudly show off their reading skills with their Chime and Chant books. As some students soared in their reading, they would choose some of the poems that they wanted added to their Chime and Chant books independently or I would provide some new more challenging poems during their guided reading time.  As the year progressed, the Chime and Chant books became more personalized. We would still chant some of our favourite poems together and I would still share a poem a week but students but less emphasis was placed on the whole class process as they gained their own reading strategies.

Beginning writing in the primary grades can be daunting for some students.  I used poetry writing to provide structures that were easily accessible for beginning writers.  Diamanté, list, free form and fill in the blank poetry structures were among some of the formats that we used.   When I taught students to write poetry we would create shared poems with the structure for a number of days and generate word charts to provide students with familiar vocabulary to reference in order to scaffold the learning and when they were ready, the students would put their own poems together.  After writing the poetry students would then practice reading their poetry, add actions and dramatic effects and then present their poems chorally in front of the class or create a video of their reading.  Some went further and created green screen effects to add to their poetry presentations.  Poetry generated student evidence of learning for reading, writing and oral communication.  It provided a routine and structure to a part of our day that was comfortable for the students and fostered their learning.  Poetry provides shared reading and writing opportunities in a format that is comfortable for children and doesn’t overwhelm them.

Loris Lesynski 

Shel Silverstein

Ogden Nash

Dennis Lee

Ken Nesbitt