Ants and hot coffee

It’s October’s end and everything is happening at an accelerated pace in education and in nature. As the trees offer their final gifts of colour to cherish before winter, I have been as busy as one of Aesop’s ants in my classrooms (real and digital). This is because I am doing much more work this year even though my assignment is basically the same as last year. Last year nearly broke me and I chalk it up to many decisions which were made on my behalf and all educators by people in places that resemble boardrooms more than classrooms. 

If you reread this cautionary fable, you might get the idea that many of our leaders did a lot of fiddling and fussing over the summer because it certainly doesn’t appear that they prepared for the season we are now experiencing in education. To make it even worse, not a single grasshopper asked whether any of the hard working ants wanted to hear the song they were playing over and over again at full volume. 

For all teachers, regardless of years of experience, the start of school this year might be best described as chaotic and work filled; much like an ant colony preparing to survive a cold winter ahead. Now, a bit of chaos is fine and can be expected each September. It is such an exciting time for students and staff. This year was no different. I actually prepared myself for a little more leeway in my planning to help students transition back to classes in the hopes of creating a safe space for them to land from the year and half before. This meant a lot of reviewing and scaffolding rather than brewing up fresh batches of new learning. 

This approach made a lot of sense for me especially as we are now entering our 3rd year of learning in a global pandemic. In any ‘normal’ school year, routines and rhythms are usually set in place by the first 20 days. Reviews are done and it’s grade level lessons until June the following year.  However, it’s been 2 months and although some normalcy exists, I feel that more time is needed to get students back to pre-pandemic learning. That extra work I mentioned at the start is a direct result. With students online and in-class prepping materials for both groups is adding an extra hour to each day to ensure continuity. Organizing assessments also comes with its share of work. Add in the difficulties students have with tech, WiFi, and their own burnout and you quickly arrive at the conclusion that that all of this is tiring and trying. It is also a bit traumatizing. Kind of like having hot coffee spilled on your hand the moment you pick up a cup.  

Imagine going to your favourite coffee shop and when your order arrives it is filled to the brim so fully that any movement spills that precious elixir over the sides and burns your hands. As a reflective practitioner, I wonder what I did wrong? How come after hundreds of cups of coffee they filled mine to the point where there was no room to move without being burnt? Upon further reflection though, comes the realization that this is not my fault and that I was given a situation which was nearly impossible to handle without a mess or suffering. Each time this has happened to me though, I have never let go or dropped the cup. I see this same commitment, determination, and strength mirrored in educators who choose to persist and hold on despite being handed impossible circumstances. 

Next Monday, me and all the other ants are lined up at that coffee shop hoping that today we don’t get burned, and that there will be enough room left for a little sugar and cream to stir in to suit our taste. It’s November, Spring is around the corner and there’s work to do before the leaves wither and the snow flies. 

This is not my first blog about the currently dissonant state of learning right now, nor is it my first blog about ants. In 2014 I shared this one after Deborah Gordon’s inspiring 2014 TED Talk.

And in case you missed it in my post last month.
Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

Being Open to Teaching New Subjects

As we know well, elementary teachers can be called upon to teach most subjects or grades at any point in our careers.  In my 18 years teaching, I have amassed a mental list of what I like and “would prefer to avoid as it isn’t my strength” and if you’re lucky, enough of your colleagues have varied choices so ideally everyone isn’t fighting over the same options when it comes to covering planning time, etc.  No-where and at no time has this been more tested in the past 18 months with teachers accustomed to paper and pencil most of their careers navigating virtual classrooms and teachers online covering subjects like Phys. Ed and Music that have traditionally been taught by rotary educators.  So what does one do, when like myself the previous year, you are called into the admin office at re-organization time and told “sooooooo due to the decrease in person class enrollment I am needing you to teach a few Maker classes a.k.a. Coding” and laughing hysterically would be considered unprofessional to a new principal?

  1.  Do not panic. Most admin should know the strengths and favourites of their teachers and while this is sometimes unavoidable, addressing possible alternatives may be an option.  Failing that, facing the music (by sometimes literally facing teaching music) and doing a year of something that isn’t your cup of tea may be an opportunity to show that you were willing, but it didn’t work out.  I myself am glad one of my teachers’ college placements was in kindergarten to know that it definitely was a place where I wouldn’t do well full time and as such, have never requested it.
  2. Continue not panicking.  Any subject you teach at the kindergarten to grade 8 level will not be in enough advanced detail that a student will be discouraged that the teacher they have one year may not be teaching their ideal subject.  In my case, I was able to look over some very ‘user friendly’ resources to have the students complete some simple programming projects.
  3. Try to keep a positive attitude.  Even though I struggle with integrating a lot of technology, I went into my planning with an excited albeit nervous attitude and by the end of the year, learned a lot of powerful modern learning skills that I integrated into my French and Music lessons.  I even felt confident enough to do Coding as one of my subjects in the summer for an educational camp that I pitched and thankfully, got some assistance from students in teaching new techniques.
  4. Put your own spin of things.  A lot of my lessons used the history of computers with non-traditional role models (who knew female Ada Lovelace was considered the first ‘coder’?) as well as integrating comic strips about digital safety featuring a certain orange lasagna-loving feline?  We all may sometimes ‘hate Mondays’, but demonstrating that as an adult you are willing to take risks and go outside of your comfort zone can be a powerful messages for young scholars.

Survival tips

I am not talkative. I will share my voice in writing though. Perhaps it is more a function of selective participation rather than voluntary silence. Writing provides me with some permanence, albeit only in pixels, as much as it does a chance to reflect on the words I do choose to share. Instead of my mouth going off like a cannon. I can chew on my words a bit more before spilling my thoughts on a page. In short, it has been quite a month and if I am going to survive the next 9, I will need to get some things off my mind.

Most of this September felt like driving in the dark of night and every oncoming car had its highbeams on. I found it hard to see where I’m going and it hurts. With so much time staring at a screen now, the additional online professional learning is blurring my vision and I am starting to develop an aversion to screen time. It has me thinking twice about how much I want to integrate tech in my classroom right now too. 

I see your high beams are on, but do you have to drive in my lane?

I have been trying to make sense of the way the government ghosted education, the rising COVID case numbers in schools, and the unconscionable decisions being made by many school boards regarding hybrid learning

This is also what hurts:

Of course it has been completely safe to go back to school this year even though cases are nearly 5 times higher than September 2020.
We have HEPA filters in every classroom. Mine must be hidden somewhere.

Of course the hybrid model will work for families instead of dedicated Elementary Virtual Schools. “Teachers will figure it out.”
We have figured it out by the way. It sucks.

Of course the glaring gaps in equity and decisions made “for all” only benefit the privileged who have the wherewithall and choice as to whether their child stays home or not.
Here’s a terrible camera and headset so you can syncronously miss being present in your physical and digital classrooms. 

It is very clear that the “brain trust” tasked with these decisions declared, “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.” I can’t shake these questions: When was the last time any system leaders taught an online class on a daily basis? Where is their compassion, consideration, or consultation with current classroom educators? Why in good conscience would anyone with mental health as a pillar in their foundation allow this to happen? How did they lose their way so completely at the expense of their most valuable resources? It is dizzying. 

How about the feeling of knowing you are going to pass out just before passing out? That’s how it felt when the news of having to teach the hybrid model came down from the folx above. This decisive disconnect was dropped on us without a single consideration of the trauma it would cause in and out of classrooms. It was at that moment when I went into survival mode. I needed to “guard my heart and mind” from diving into dark spaces as it was very clear that no one else was going to do it for me. 

This realization got me thinking about what I needed to do to keep a grasp on my sanity and professionalism in order to do my job in these conditions. Here is what I have come up with so far:
1. Guard your heart and mind. Don’t get caught up in actions and activities that will only stretch you thinner. It’s okay to let someone else lead a meeting or division, run a club (when permitted), or welcome a student teacher. You are allowed to focus on you first. 

2. Resist through rest. I saw this in a tweet from @MsDhillon6A and it really resonated with me. Educators are notorious for taking on too much. We are doers and getters of things done, but we also need to pace ourselves. Teaching is a marathon not a sprint. It takes stamina and determination to maintain a steady pace. The 2021-22 school year is a great time to learn to say no and to let go of extra activities that drain the life out of your practice, body, and spirit.

3. Set boundaries with colleagues, students, admin, and families. There is nothing wrong with having office hours from 8 until 5 pm Monday to Friday. That email reply from the weekend will wait until Monday. You deserve work-life balance not work-work-life imbalance. 

4. Do something for yourself. Take a personal mental health day. Practice good sleep hygiene. Walk, yoga, play pickle ball, or call an old friend who you used to work with to touch base. I like to read, cook, and work on my not so secret goal to be a stand up comedian. As a primary teacher on occasion, I am used to tough crowds so I am half way there. 
And finally, 

5. Don’t silo yourself away. You do not have to go through any of this alone. Share your frustrations, joys, ups, and downs. It is another year unlike any other. Teachers need to know that there are tens of thousands cheering for each other to make it through the day in the service of our students. Tag me anytime via Twitter  if you are having a rough day and need to share. Watch how the #onted family is there to rally and offer kind words of support. 

I’m going to listen to Gloria Gaynor now? Feel free to join me.

 

Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

3 things

It’s  the start of week 3 in most public schools, and it feels like we are in for some long months ahead. I have 3 things to share to start the year:
1. Hybrid teaching sucks
2. Your students have something to tell you
3. Did I mention that hybrid still sucks?

1. Despite the social, emotional, and physical toll of teaching and learning during a pandemic, I can’t shake the optimism I have when spending time with my students. Bar none, they are the only source of inspiration strong enough to power me past some medieval level system decisions made by our current government and local school boards.

The hybrid learning option is a stunted and thoughtless response to the educational needs of students and their families. It is an institutional cop out that is replete with a debilitating amount of sadism to demean the well-being of educators charged with making magic with little more than cheap tech, a perfunctory kudo, and a “Your wellness matters” memo. Countless educators have shared how this method of education does little to serve student or teacher yet it was still chosen as the “viable option”. #hybridhurtskids #hybridharmseducators

2. Have you checked in with students to see how they’re doing yet? I know it has been a hella couple of weeks already, but have you asked this year’s class how they feel, how they like to learn or what challenges they are facing being back in the classroom? If you did, were there any surprises? If you didn’t, no worries, it’s never too late.

My experiences with dedicating class time to conversations, Google forms, or free writing tasks to asking these questions are very insightful. Students have voices. They are honest and opinionated. Best of all, students will speak their truths as long as they have a safe, judgement free place to do so.

I have found this beginning of the year check-in to be a powerful way to build relationships of caring and understanding from the start. This comes by establishing the conditions from which they are safe to do so. That usually happens by listening first, holding back the urge to solve or fix or give unsolicited advice or admonishment. Trust me. It’s worth it in order to build trust with learners from the earliest days. This year, more than ever before, students whether in class, EVS or in syncronous hybrid pergatory need to know their teachers are there listening to them, seeing them, and willing to support them.

Here are a few things shared over the past couple of weeks

“I am stressed about getting good marks by my family.”

“I feel anxious when we do math and I get called on.”

“I do not like presenting in front of others.”

“I am bad at; math, art, french, english, science” etc.

“I don’t have any friends who understand the way I feel.”

“My parents are fighting at home and it bothers me and my sister.”

“Someone close to me or my family died, and I am sad.”

“My pronouns are he/him, she/her, they/them,”

Hearing and reading such honesty from students can evoke strong emotions. Their words speak truth into the role we all have in the lives of not only the academic learner, but the whole child. In short, relationship, mental health, trust, and wellbeing need to happen first before any lessons are shared.

Thankfully, these beginning of year conversations and questionnaires also yield a lot of optimism and hope from students too. They are thrilled to be back with their peers, in their school, and with their teachers. Student voice is often the only fuel I need to fuel my emotional fire to teach somedays. We all need something to get us through tough times when the system is designed counter-intuitively to the needs of the community it is tasked to serve.

3. As you read through the 2nd thing, I hope you did not forget that #hybridhurtskids and #harmseducators. As I start my 3rd week with a mic on my head, a mask over my face, and webcam on, I fear for the disconnect that is happening with my OGs(online guys). Now instead of devoting both ears to 26 students in class, I have one ear for 24 and the other for 2 hybrid learners. As age continues to take away my ability to hear, this concerns me. It’s exhausting and many times I am only able to hear a fraction of what I could when not divided and encumbered by tech.

First, how is this fair to any one child when I can only devote half of my auditory function to a room filled with students? How can students be expected to hear me clearly when I articulate a particular pronunciation to practice in reading or vocabulary when I can barely hear myself with a headset on? And then there are the visual content issues?

Not everyone has a document camera to share texts or show how to share thinking spontaneously or good lighting for hybrid kids to see what is being shared on the board. How are students expected to see what I am sharing when the camera does not focus or adjust? Anything projected to the whole class becomes washed in the worst possible lighting fluorescent bulbs can provide.

Then there is the whole OT and prep teacher transition piece. Connecting is not easy, especially when the tech does not always come with the proper cords from class to class. I now have an HDMI, USB-C, and VGA adapter, but know many educators do not. There are significant gaps starting to happen already and coupled with the emotionally taxing work that is happening, something is going to give. Does this seem familiar?

And yet, this is what is going to happen next…

I am going to teach like I am on a reality show tomorrow. I am going to give the performance of the day. I am going to go home defeated, drained, and desperate to believe that the next time back in class will go without a hitch. I will continue to listen to my students first, honour their voices and fight against the derogation of education by people who have not been in a classroom in decades.

 

 

 

First Days of School Through a Wellness Lens

The long awaited return to the classroom has finally come! After being outside of the classroom since March 2020, I was able to go back to the physical classroom this September 8th. I was so happy to be able to set up my room and await the arrival of students. Teaching online was challenging and did not allow me to have the face-to-face connections that are much needed in a classroom. I am so happy that schools are open and that my position is no longer online. This year, I am teaching grades 7 & 8. I hope to still be teaching the same class come October, but with re-organization, things could change. 

Preparing for the first day was challenging as it had been 14 months since I had taught in person. Luckily, our school board prepared activities for us entitled “Reimagining Wellness”, where teachers are asked to teach 90 minutes a day from the wellness activity choice boards. The choice boards have a variety of activities within one of these three categories: Community and Team Building, Physical Activation and Social Emotional Skill Development. Teachers select one activity from each of these categories to introduce each day (thirty minutes per activity). My students seem to enjoy the activities and have enjoyed getting to know each other without feeling pressured to jump into all the curriculum activities. I am thankful for these resources as it has always been important to start a class off with these types of activities, especially after many students have been away for 14 months as well.

Additionally, it has been great to get to know students such as finding out their preferred pronouns and to try to get back into the swing of things. Our school board is looking to start voluntary extracurriculars soon and my class has already begun planning for the Terry Fox Assembly. Myself and my students are looking forward to these leadership opportunities as we have been without them for much longer than the COVID shutdown. As long as we can stay safe and get back to doing the things at school that we love, the extra things make the day that much better. 

As October draws closer, teachers in our board find out if any students are leaving to go online/returning from online. Our school could undergo a massive re-organization and we are all hoping things will stay the same as many students have now had the chance to bond due to these wellness activities. However, after teaching online last year, I have gotten better at dealing with change and learning how to overcome challenges. So if my assignment changes, I will be able to accept that with a positive attitude. 

I hope all teachers and students had a great first two weeks and that everyone is happy to be back. I know that all students are definitely glad to be back in the physical classroom where they can continue to make connections and learn in the way we were always meant to learn. 

How I Approach the First Days and Weeks of School

It’s the end of July and I think I’m ready to start thinking about next year now. I haven’t fully shaken off last year yet – I’m not sure I ever will, to be honest – but it’s time, now, to start looking forward and thinking about the 2021-22 school year.

Ten years into my career, I’ve developed a few things I like to do to kick off the year and get to know my students.

Some context, before I share some of my start-up routines: I teach Middle French Immersion, which starts in grade 4. The students in this program come from many different schools (and occasionally from out-of-province/country). Some have been at my school since kindergarten, others come in as the only one from their previous school. Some of my routines are about getting to know a new school, feeling comfortable with new classmates, and settling some nerves at the beginning of an immersion program.

So. Here we go. A small taste of how I like to start off the year. I’m not going to take you minute-for-minute through my first day because I’m not that consistent, but I’ll share the things I find really helpful and important in the early days.

 

Before School Starts

Typically, my board doesn’t give information to families about their new teachers or classes before the first day of school. That said, if I were able to reach out to families ahead of time, as I know some boards do this, I would want to record a short video introducing myself and giving a quick look at the classroom.

The morning of the first day of school, I print off a final class list along with student photos so that I can easily recognize them on the yard when they arrive.

With respect to class decor, I absolutely do not overdecorate my classroom before school starts. In fact, if you look at this photo, you’ll note that my classroom is actually pretty bare bones on day 1:

That’s because our walls are typically full of student work and co-created anchor charts. No point in putting up decorations for the first day only to replace them a few days later! I also find that too much on the walls is very distracting and overwhelming for students, especially when they’re just starting out in a second language program.

 

First Day of School

I put small nameplates on student desks so they can find a spot and sit down. These are not permanent nametags. I usually just use cardstock or bristol board to make a folded stand-up card. On students’ desks are all of the supplies they’ll be getting – notebooks, duotangs, etc. (My board provides these to students rather than asking families to purchase them.)

Our very first activity as a class is to go around and introduce ourselves. I never read names from the class list on the first day. It’s important that everyone learn how to say everyone else’s name properly and the best way to do that is to have students say their names themselves.

Two things to note on student intros: I invite students to share their pronouns if they’re comfortable but make it clear that they are not required to. I also make sure to tell them that they can pass on the intro if they are very uncomfortable speaking in front of everyone first thing. It is very rare that anyone is unwilling to share their name, though.

 

Boîte de moi

Early in the day on the first day of school, I like to do this activity to give students a little idea of who I am. Many of my students come from feeder schools and haven’t met me before, and the others have likely only seen me as a duty teacher or maybe their Core French teacher in the past.

The idea behind this activity is simple: I fill a shoebox with items that represent me, then share what I brought with the class and tell them a little about what those items mean to me. For example, I’m an avid reader, so I often include a favourite book. I play a lot of board games, so I may include dice. I love coffee, so I’ll often stick a favourite coffee mug into the box, too. A photo of my family, of course.

Over the first two weeks, students then bring in their own shoeboxes of personal items (or photos/drawings of them) to share. Students are usually really engaged in this task. Very occasionally, I have a student or two who may be uncomfortable with this task, so I make sure to tell everyone at the outset that they can let me know (with a note on my desk, an e-mail from a parent, a private convo during recess, etc.) if they would prefer an alternative.

Some alternative options I provide:

  • Recording a video from home with Flipgrid that will only be visible to me.
  • Presenting at recess in front of just me or one or two peers they’re comfortable with.
  • Creating a different kind of presentation, e.g. Slides, that accomplishes the same thing.

Note for fellow FSL teachers: We spend the first week learning and practicing the language they’ll need to be able to share their boxes in French. It’s a great way to get a quick sense of what their rehearsed language level is.

 

Student Info Forms

I try not to overload students or their families with paperwork in the first week, but there is one set of forms that I always make sure to do: a set of questions for students to complete at school on the first day and a general info questionnaire for parents/guardians.

The questions on the student form change slightly from year to year, but here are some things that I always ask:

  • Name they’d like me to call them in class
  • Pronouns they’d like me to use in class
  • Something they feel really good about at school
  • Something they find challenging at school
  • Something they’re looking forward to or want to do this year

For parents/guardians, it’s a bit more standard from year to year:

  • Contact info and preferences (yes, even if the office has this info, because there is ALWAYS someone whose number/e-mail has changed and they’ve forgotten to inform the office)
  • Access to technology/internet at home (useful to know during COVID, mainly)
  • If the student has an updated hearing/eyesight test (this is always question #1 when bringing a student to team, so I like to just ask everyone right at the start of the year)
  • Whether the family has any particularly busy or late nights with extracurriculars (I then try to avoid planning big assessments or events on the day after these late nights, if possible)
  • What they’d like to see as part of their child’s education for the year

 

Nametags and Labels

In the first few days of school, I ask students to create their own nametag that will be their permanent nametag throughout the year. This gives them an opportunity to have some agency with what name is on it, what it looks like, etc. It’s also a really interesting insight into who they are, as I typically see a range of styles from plain printing in black marker to elaborate designs in full colour.

In years where I’ve had assigned seating, like last year, the nametags get attached to the visible side/front of the desk so that they’re visible to educators in the room. In years where I’ve used flexible seating (which is honestly every non-COVID year at this point in my career!), we make them stand-up nametags on cardstock. They’re used, then, to denote where students have chosen to sit for the period and can be moved around as needed.

Because I teach FSL, I also like to have students label key parts of the classroom in French to facilitate oral communication – la porte, le tableau, l’horloge, les fenêtres, etc. It sounds like nothing, but it honestly makes SUCH a difference for them to have the word right there on the object in front of them – and at the junior level, they seem way more likely to pay attention if they’re the ones who made it, not me.

 

Unstructured Outdoor Play Time

I always, always make a point of scheduling a little bit of unstructured time outside on the first two days of school. I try to keep it short – going out 10-15 minutes early for recess, for example, or heading out early at the end of the day and playing in the yard.

It’s important that this time is unstructured because I want to see what students do with the time. I provide some equipment for them, but otherwise they have free choice of activity. While they’re playing, I make notes.

  • Who already has a social group?
  • Who doesn’t seem to have many connections in the class?
  • What kinds of activities do they choose?
  • Who prefers to hang out with me and chat?
  • Who ignores all of the equipment and opts to sit down and read, walk and talk, etc. instead?

It’s an incredibly useful exercise and informs many of my early decisions on groupings for class activities. The reason why I say to keep it short is because in my program, there are always students who don’t have any connections in the class, so I don’t want to put them through half an hour of not knowing what to do with themselves and feeling uncomfortable.

 

Hopefully that gives you all a little idea of some things you could do in the first few days with your class to get to know them and gather some key info for your early planning. If you have any questions or are looking to bounce ideas off of someone, you’re always welcome to contact me! I can be reached on Twitter @rollforlearning or by e-mail at srothgeb@gmail.com – and I’m always open to chatting about teaching.

Write On!

I love to write, and I hope that my enthusiasm for the writing process inspires and encourages my Grade 2 students to write on!

VIP:

At the beginning of the year, we are working together to create a brave and inclusive community where everyone is recognized as a “very important person”.  The VIP program celebrates one student each day.  Everybody has a story, and we learn about the VIP by listening and asking questions.  Together, we talk about what good writers do as we write several sentences about the VIP.  We notice the letters in their name and practice printing them correctly.  Then, everyone draws a picture and writes about the VIP.  These pages are collected and sent home as a book for the VIP to share with their family.

On the first day of school, I was the VIP to model the process.  Yes, I was wearing a cape at the time, to demonstrate our superhero arms-distance protocol, and to reinforce that we all have superpowers.

The Peace Book:

Every year on September 21, we recognize the International Day of Peace as part of Peace Week.  Peace Week is an excellent opportunity to introduce and/or review the Zones of Regulation and practice mindfulness strategies.  We share ideas about when we feel peaceful, and brainstorm agreements for how we might resolve conflicts and solve problems in our community.  We sing songs and read stories about peace and justice.  After reading “The Peace Book,” by Todd Parr, we created our own classroom book inspired by his book.

Poetry:

In the early primary years, students are growing as readers and writers.  We all require support to become more independent and confident in our new learning.  Writing prompts and predictable structures can help emergent writers to get started and complete their work.

On the first day of fall, we wrote short poems called “Good-Bye Summer!  Hello Fall!”  We generated ideas for our writing by sharing what we love about summer and fall in a Knowledge Building Circle.  We also used Drama to play out our favourite activities and connect our bodies to our learning.  We sang songs about the signs of fall, drew pictures, and wrote about what we noticed in our Nature Journals.

MSI:

In my first year of teaching, I started as a Long-Term Occasional from October-June.  The teacher who left was exemplary, and she had established a program called MSI: Math-Science Investigation, which I continue to this day.  Before STEAM, there was MSI.  It involves solving problems through building.

During MSI, I invite students to build a structure connected to our current inquiry (e.g., build a structure that includes a repeating pattern, build a habitat for an animal, etc.)  After building with different materials (e.g., pattern blocks, straws and connectors, corks, Lego, etc.) students will write and draw about their structures in their Math Journals.

 

When I asked students to build a structure connected to water, they made: a hydroelectric dam, salmon, a lake, pipes, a boat, and a machine that turns saltwater into freshwater.

Toy Day:

Every 6-8 weeks, I organize a Toy Day in our classroom.  On this day, everyone is invited to bring a toy to share.  We use these toys as provocations for many learning activities in the classroom, including Drama, Math, Writing, Media Literacy, Art, etc.

At the beginning of Grade 2, I am collecting diagnostic assessment data about my students, and I always use the Grade 1 Ministry of Education writing exemplar, which is descriptive writing about My Toy.  After sharing and playing with our toys, students are motivated to write and draw about their toy.

Goal-Setting:

COVID-19 has impacted student learning in different ways.  There might be gaps in achievement, which need to be identified before we can build new skills.  I will use the assessment data to develop individual short-term writing goals with each student, and support everyone to work towards meeting their goals.  When students work towards individual goals that are “just right” for them, they can always feel successful.  These writing goals will also be shared with families, to strengthen the home-school connection and encourage a relationship of collaborative assessment.

Community Immunity!

COVID-19 has turned everyone into a first-year teacher.  It doesn’t matter how many years of experience you might have, because this year is unlike any other that we have ever experienced.  All of us are re-imagining new ways to connect with students, whether you are learning together on-line or in-person.  It is a very humbling experience to be starting from scratch.

I have chosen to teach in-person because I crave community and collaboration.  The weeks leading up the first day of school were frustrating and stressful.  Everyone was scared and nervous as we struggled to create new routines and protocols.  As soon as the students arrived, I began to relax.  There is still so much that is unknown and unpredictable, but I know how to play and learn with children.

Here are some of my insights from the first few weeks of teaching Grade 2.

Sign Language:

Wearing masks makes it very difficult to communicate clearly.  We cannot read each other’s lips or facial expressions, and it is hard to hear each other.  For those of us who are teaching outside, our voices are struggling to project.  I grew up with a father who was deaf-blind.  As a child, I learned about barriers, disability justice, and how to communicate with my hands.

I worked with my students to develop simple signs that we can use to help us communicate.  We have symbols for: turning up the volume, sharing the same idea, making connections, asking to use the washroom or get a drink of water, and letting someone know we are smiling underneath.  I made a short video, which I shared with my families after the first day of school.  Send me an email if you would like me to share it with you.

I also bought myself a voice amplifier, which helps everyone to listen, and makes me feel like a rock star!

Drama and Play:

Drama is a powerful way to teach and create community.  I have been using role-playing and charades to practice and reinforce new routines, and problem-solve different scenarios.  I believe in the possibilities of play, and I am holding space for us to play together.  After months of isolation and loss, we all need to connect and have fun!

Every morning, after pre-screening and sharing our connection to land, we play a few cooperative games.  We have been learning each other’s names by clapping out syllables, using gestures or wordplay, such as “Very Velvet”.  We ask questions and “Step into the Circle”.  We change places with someone else “When the Big Wind Blows….” and we try to guess who is leading the action in “Follow the Leader”.

My teacher friend, Peyton Leung, shared this link of Socially Distant Outdoor Games for Kindergarten-Grade 8.  Check it out!  Also, here are some Drama Games that will work on-line and in-person.

Outdoor Learning:

All the educators at our school are trying to spend as much time outside as possible.  We know that learning outdoors is safer, and we are transforming our pedagogy by teaching and learning outdoors.  There are many challenges to overcome, including city traffic and construction noise, carrying the materials you need everywhere you go, the lack of shelter and easy access to washrooms, etc.  We are embracing the “big ideas” of change and adaptation and using our imagination to co-create new possibilities for education.

Kindergarten-Grade 6 students have been exploring measurement and mapping, as we connect with the different areas of our school yard.  Inside our “portable desks” are materials we can use for documenting our learning.  We are all learning how to keep our knapsacks organized and take responsibility for the extra masks and layers, hand sanitizer, “sit-upons” and school supplies.

This year, we will be deepening our understanding of land education and collaborating with Doug Anderson, who is one of the co-authors of Natural Curiosity 2nd edition: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Children’s Environmental Inquiry.  We will explore a pedagogy of relationships, and honour land as first teacher.

There are extensive resources that connect Outdoor Learning to the Ontario Curriculum.  These Kindergarten-Grade 8 activities were created by the Peel District School Board Field Centre Instructors.  Please share other resources that are supporting you to do this work.

We’re back and it feels…

  • …like a weird batch of emotions being mixed up in my head everyday. 

I use the word “weird” here as an amalgam of thoughts in order to come to grips with a whole whack of feelings. For now, let’s discuss 4 of the unique states of mind which I have been experiencing. They can be captured by the acronym C.A.G.E – confusion, anger, grief, elation. 

Confusion 

When we said our goodbyes in late June, we went home not knowing what was to come. How could we, no one did? It was a true test of the resilience of our profession as we transitioned from our physical spaces and into the virtual ones. It was emergency distance learning 101 for us all. Nobody knew how long it would go on, or how the students would respond. I recall the incredible stress of having to convert an old table and chair into a workstation at my house, the physiotherapy that came afterwards from my less than ergonomic set-up, and the (a)synchronous instructional awkwardness.

SO, after completing the balance of the academic year online and 3+ weeks of virtual summer school, I was really ready to be back in a classroom. In fact, I was elated at the possibility because things were proceeding as normally as they could as numbers declined and even though everything was up in the air when it came to education. 

At least, our tentative assignments and schedules had been shared, there was more than an air of uncertainty that things were bound to change. Daily news reports, and social media posts had us all still holding our breath. What was school going to look like after “emergency distance learning”? What was the government’s plan? What were are school boards doing to be prepared for September?

Anger

There was no shortage of sound bites and stories to fill in the gaps, and for a fleeting moment in late July, it almost looked like the numbers were dropping enough as if the winds of possibility filled the air. Things began looking positive, yet it was still relatively quiet when it came to direction from our current government when it came to education except that they had experts working on it. Come mid-August, my bubble of hope burst with news of increasing numbers of cases. Any residual confusion had given way to anger and disappointment in this educator. 

When school board emails began coming again in mid-August, the uncertainty around COVID 19 in our schools left us scratching our heads, as we did back in March. Little did we know what was about to drop on us all when school boards began surveying families about their choices for virtual or in class learning? But, that’s a topic for another post. 

It was pretty easy to get angry although it didn’t help. Yelling at the TV, like Grampa Simpson, everytime a new daily increase of cases was announced or at how someone somewhere decided that a large social gathering was a good idea without taking precautions. Seeing newsers with the Minister of Education spinning government yarns about funding increases, which they had stripped, and safety of the students raised my ire too. No wonder I spent so many hours muttering to myself while cleaning the garage in August. “Good grief!”

Grief

I’d like this to be at the Charlie Brown level when he says, “Good Grief,” but it isn’t. One of the single most powerful emotions I have been battling with since March has been grieving the way that education is now divided into B.C. (before COVID-19) and C.E. (COVID-19 Era). I am sad for my students who missed out on perennial rights of passage such as grads, sports, extra-curriculars, and trips. I feel grief for the students who had to stay at home without contact with their friends other than through blue screens. I feel for the adults who struggled to support their children’s learning while juggling their own work. Acknowledging this feeling is my way of trying to move forward in a healthy way. I know there are many teachers who are feeling something similar.

Elation

After great reflection, I chose the classroom option to start this school year. Admittedly, this is a selfish choice, as I thrive in the classroom. My wife mentioned on several occasions that I needed to be back at school too. Although, I am not sure if that was for her sake or mine? Regardless of who benefited most by my return to the classroom, the fact is I was elated to be back, but it also came with a cost. 

I now go for weekly COVID 19 Tests now that my bubble has expanded. With a 96 year old and a spouse with asthma in our home, we are proceeding with great caution. I am wearing a mask and frequently sanitizing my home, trips anywhere are only out of necessity, we are co-ordinating our schedules to reduce interactions so my father in-law does not become at greater risk, and any semblance of a social life or gatherings with extended family outside our residence bubble are now only on the camera roll of my smartphone. Yet, I think it is worth it. 

A stronger feeling of unity amongst colleagues is happening. This turmoil has given rise to a new sense of telepresent professionalism(virtual staff/team meetings). Conversations are fewer, but more meaningful. Smiles are now made more expressive as they are shared behind our masks. All of these little things have made the return to school possible despite the heavy and shifting workload.

Prepping to teach this September has matched the level of confusion and effort of my very first years. It’s tough sledding right now and more changes are ahead as we have only been through a few weeks, but even though my return to the classroom this month has me staggering, I am encouraged and challenged, in a good way, to innovate and adapt.

My head is spinning most days as I grapple to sanitize, mask up, shield up, and emotionally ramp up to teach. Yet, I cannot help, but still find some happiness in all of this each day. And although you can’t see it through my mask, seeing students and staff in real life has become the biggest reason for the smile on my face each day at school despite the CAGE. 

Stay strong. Thanks for reading. 
Will

Note: 

I had the bulk of this post ready to share our first week back, but could not do it. Something was telling me to bank my initial thoughts for a couple of weeks. Maybe I wanted to take some time for the dust to settle in order to make sense of it all. Sadly, it’s still pretty dusty around here, and based on the daily streams of educators sharing their ups and downs via social media, our collective ability to sift through the mess to make sense out of it, and let the dust settle has not occured. Yet. 

Teachers Are Still Rocking It-

In March we were “Emergency Learning”.  Now we are either teaching “virtually” or “socially distanced” in classrooms.  We never thought we’d be teaching from behind a screen, learning all kinds of new technology tools, wearing masks and shields in front of students or removing all of the manipulatives from classrooms. We don’t know how long this will last.  We don’t know if COVID will worsen.  Educators aren’t used to not knowing things.  Most teachers I know like schedules, routines, knowledge and thrive on consistency.

However, in the midst of the new rules, changes and all of the things that we “can’t” do-teachers are still rocking it.  Throughout the summer I worked with a team of teachers providing virtual professional learning for KPRETFO.  Hundreds of teachers used their summer holidays to learn about technology tools before they even knew whether they were going to be teaching virtually or not. They logged in at 10 am some days in order to learn and some teachers even came to all twenty sessions that were provided. Educators were dedicated to their professional learning all summer long.

At the end of August, I had the privilege of working with another fabulous team of educators who dedicated their time to providing a three day virtual conference for over 500 Ontario Educators with ECOO.  These educators gave up their time to organize all kinds of schedules, sponsorship, presenters, keynotes and much more.  In addition, over a hundred educators created and presented webinars for their colleagues.  It truly FELT like a face-to-face educational technology conference took place in my living room!
There was a feeling of sharing, helping and collegiality.  It was exhausting but my bucket was over flowing.

As our school year is now well under way teachers are reaching out to me for assistance at all times of the day and night through email because they are dedicated to their students and want to do their best.  They are attending our evening “PD in your PJs” webinar sessions through our local union office to learn new tech tools at 7 pm on the week nights. The educators that I work with continually astound me with their dedication to professional learning.

I recently binge watched a Netflix series called “Away”.  It is a futuristic fictional narrative about the first manned mission to Mars.  The astronauts were in uncharted territory.  They encountered problems along the way for which they had not trained.  They endured mental and physical fatigue beyond anything they had ever felt before.  They were innovative and creative in order to solve problems and reach their goal.  While watching, I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels between this movie and the present state of education. We’ve heard that as we design these new learning structures and environments it is like we are building an airplane while flying. If I am going to stay true to the analogy here it is really more of a rocket ship! Educators are facing situations that they hadn’t even thought about in Faculty of Education Programs.  They are encountering issues of teaching without many of the tools they normally use such as manipulatives, group work or technology. They are suffering mentally and physically. They are being innovative  problem solvers around tools, equipment and technology.  They are building the rocket ship while they are flying it and it is full of students.

Are educators stressed?  For sure.  Are their nerves frayed?  You bet.  Are they innovative, creative, dedicated and passionate about learning and teaching? Absolutely, without a doubt.  Every educator is a front line worker,  doing their best, making a difference, being brave beyond imagination and truly an inspiration.