This past week allowed me an amazing opportunity to work with a very committed and compassionate group of Early Childhood Educators. They are part of ETFO and as such are able to partake in a variety of services that are offered including workshops. The topic of this session was on poverty (Why Poverty? is the official name for the provincial workshop). So on a Monday evening in the month of June, twenty ECE staff showed up after a full day of work to talk and discuss the topic of poverty.

At first I was quite nervous, as I had never facilitated a workshop for anyone but teachers. Over the two hours that we worked together the titles faded away and we just became a group of like-minded people who were seeking ways to help level the playing field for the children in our care.

Then it happened, that aha moment where the idea of partners and partnerships became very real for me. So on my drive home from Hamilton I began to ask myself where else could I find partnerships? Who could also partner with me to enhance the educational experience of my students? The answer was astonishingly simple. I need to look no further then the staff room in my school. I just needed to look with a different lens in order to see the amazing wealth of talent that exists within each school (Child and Youth Workers, Educational Assistants, Early Childhood Educators, volunteers).

Yes, right before my eyes existed a wealth of ideas, passions, skill sets and people who chose a career that focussed on helping young people be successful. The task is to work on bringing them all together, to create an environment that values each person, their profession and not their title. This approach is alive and well in our Kindergarten programs. How do we transfer that to our entire school? How do we bring support staff and teachers together in workshops to learn side-by-side?

I highly encourage the readers to please share their ideas or current practices on how to best create, maintain and foster growth in these types of partnerships. In closing, I would like to thank the Early Childhood Educators from Hamilton who helped me experience the power of a partnership.

Positive vs Negative Student Balances

When you look at your bank account you work extremely hard to ensure you always have a positive balance. By having a positive balance you are able to pursue so many options in how you may use that surplus. When you are not able to keep a positive balance, you become very limited in the options you have and may in the worst circumstance go bankrupt.

I look at each and every child and each and every family in that way. I start in September with a zero balance as I am just opening up that account. From the first minute I interact with each child as well as their family, I am either making deposits or withdrawals. Each and every positive statement I make, word of encouragement I offer, inflating vs deflating statement said, either builds that account or reduces that account balance.

When a conflict occurs (and it will) you are now having to look at the account you have created and will make a withdrawal as you help that child understand the choice they made and how to learn from it. If you have a built up a strong, positive balance with that child you are able to make that withdrawal without having any ill effects on the relationship that exists between the both of you. If it is a call home in regards to a negative scenario that occurred at school, the family’s reaction will be either supportive or defensive depending on the balance you have established at home with the parent(s).

I use a variety of tools to help foster a positive balance. The two most effective for me are ‘Sunshine Calls’ and rephrasing my comments when I react to the day-to-day events that unravel in my room. In a sunshine call I am truly just trying to send a positive message to each family about their child. It can be as simple as a comment about a great writing effort that occurred today, how their child read aloud for the first time in front of his/her peers or what a positive decision they made not make a small problem bigger. Over time I can actually hear the change in how the parent reacts to me once they recognize their child’s teacher is calling. Within a few months, the calls home are very sociable and appreciated by the family.

The second strategy took me a while to develop. I had to literally think about how and what I would say when events occurred. First I had to examine my approach and found that my initial comments were deflating or withdrawing from that account balance. For example if a student made a mess, I would say, “ You need to be more careful and not make a mess”. This type of statement always puts a student on the defensive. I am learning to rephrase my comments to be able to send a message but not put a student on the defensive. I now say “ Are you okay, accidents happen to everyone. How can we clean it up?”

A very unintentional but amazing benefit of this approach was that I was modelling for my students each day how to be respectful to each other in the way they communicate. Soon, this type of positive communication becomes the norm of the class. There are less and less conflicts between students simply due to the way they learn to communicate with each other and the people around them.


Harvesting Our Apples

It is that time of year when I am able to enjoy the labours of my endless hours of worrying, endless hours of commitment and endless hours of planning for my students. We call it our harvest time.

At the beginning of every school year a new group of students come into our program with a variety of dysfunctional behaviours accompanied by a lack of success in school and we always start with the same story. I bring out a group of apples in various conditions and ask them which one would they choose. Of course all of their decisions are based on what they see on the outside. Is it bruised? Is it ripe enough? Does it have the right shape as compared to all the other apples? But yet the best part of the apple is the part that nobody can see, the inside. That is who my students are. They are completely judged by what people see on the outside and from what they have experienced from the outside. Often, past teachers have no opportunity to experience what a wonderful, young person they truly are due to the violent, aggressive behaviour they exhibit. My first question to the students is how do we show people what an amazing person you really are on the inside. How do we show them your best part?

That is the question that was first asked over 10 months ago and after a year of academic and behavioural programming we have arrived at harvest time. They are now being judged for who they truly are and not what they previously looked like. Both the adults and students in Room 16 take great pride and enjoyment during harvest time. In our daily circles we are preparing them for that transition back to the regular world. That begins by revisiting awkward or negative scenarios that took place in our room, except at this time of the year we are able to laugh about it. The students shake their heads in disbelief as they have come so far and changed for the good so much, those past behaviours seem incomprehensible to them (self evaluation at its best).

They then begin to identify which strategies or skills have worked best for them over the year. They make a list of their most effective strategies, expressions or visuals and we put that together into a laminated bookmark. That is taken with them as they transition back to their next academic setting and becomes the foundation for their next year’s success.

I hope you are taking the time to enjoy your harvest time!

Sunshine Calls

When my students arrive into my alternative behaviour classroom in September, so do their parents and families. The family’s beliefs and attitudes about school have been shaping ever since their child became a part of the formal school system. For the  family of my students, that means that most communication from the school has almost certainly been a negative scenario that had unfolded. So when I complete my first call home in September what do you think the response is from the parent who answers the phone? You are right, “Okay what did my child do now?”

Just as it takes time to build relationships with your students, so does it take time and effort to connect with families. This is especially true for families of students who have struggled in school or have had difficulty adjusting to school and classroom expectations. For me this starts with an onslaught of ‘Sunshine Calls’. A Sunshine Call is a strategy that I use to gain the confidence of my families by showing that I care about their child, I believe in their child and will balance the type of information that comes home and not dwell on the negative (attribute based approach).

The best analogy I can use to explain the benefits of this strategy is to compare it to banking. The more positive deposits that I put into my account (compliments, sunshine calls) the stronger that balance will be. When I do have to make a withdrawal (call home about a negative scenario) my positive balance will hold me over and the relationship will remain stable and the family will be more likely to support me knowing that it must be concerning for Mr. B. to be calling home about it.

What is exciting for me, is when my students start to understand and realize that their best efforts and positive changes will be shared often and ongoing with their family. I start by asking them if they would like me to cimagesall home and tell their parents about some positive scenario that took place that day. They 100% of the time say an astounding yes. As they come to realize this is a regular part of our classroom, they begin to ask me to call their family and let them know about their math work or reading. That is the time that I know why I will always look to see the glass as half full.

Weekly News

I want to share with you an experiment gone really right. Over 2o years ago, a very good friend of mine and I started working with high-risk youth (Grade 6 -8) in our board in the summers. We had developed a program based around adventure-based learning. Our focus was to use the outdoors and physical challenges to assist them in developing social and self-regulation skills that would increase the probability of their success in school. One of the tools we developed was a Daily Newsletter (as we called it at that time) to inform families of their child’s progress as well as provide a summary of the days successes and occasional not so good outcomes. That one teaching tool has evolved over the last twenty years into what is now my Weekly Parent Book.

At the end of each week, at my classroom computer station I sit, look around my room and ask myself the following questions:

  1. How well did I meet the needs of each of my students?
  2. Did I make time to talk with each student on a one-to-one basis to find out how their life is going?
  3. Did I push too hard or not hard enough in moving them along their academic journey?
  4. What did I accomplish this week in literacy, numeracy etc.?
  5. What went well in Room 16 this week?
  6. What did not go well in Room 16 this week?
  7. How will I use that information to make the next week more successful for everyone?

That weekly routine has turned into one of the most rewarding and successful self-reflection tools I have ever had. Its initial, sole intent was to inform parents of what was going on in their child’s classroom. What it has become is a tool that I use to inform families, publish good news stories, share advice on how parents can help their child, updates on school-wide initiatives and most importantly, a tool to reflect on my week’s teaching.

It is a time that I actually use to decompress from the week’s events, look back in order to plan ahead for my next week and set goals of what I need to accomplish the following week (from a curriculum standpoint or what is needed to help specific students move forward). As the year progresses, the content of the weekly news becomes a shared work whereby students start to contribute to its production. That is when this tool becomes a very powerful learning tool for all of us.

Of course being the old school type, every Monday our morning circle starts with the sharing of the past week, goal setting using the feedback on that two-sided sheet of paper and then the ritual of adding it to their Parent Book to go home and be read and signed by an adult in their home. It goes home on Monday and is not due back until the following Monday to accommodate a wide variety of family scenarios and work schedules. The back of the page usually has some photograph that was taken during the week, an advice column, new goals for the class, a funny parent story or some other kind of important read for my families. At the end of the year it turns into a yearbook that can serve as a memory of their year. I still have all of my copies and when I need a little nostalgia fix all I have to do is go back and look through my career, year-by-year.

Weekly News

Tortoise Brained Learning and Students

In my last post I focussed on the philosophical belief that quality vs quantity of professional learning is a more effective way of enhancing pedagogical practice. What does that mean for my classroom instruction? As I grow to understand the presence of different learning styles in my class, the presence of multiple intelligences and the wide variety of learning rates it forces me to re-examine both the long term and short term planning that I set up.

In the earlier part of my career my long-range plans were reflective of an efficient way to ensure that all of the curricula was covered. This I now refer to as curriculum planning and not student centred planning. As my understanding of differentiated learning and assessment grew, so did the need to adjust the way my planning unfolded. What I had experienced was a short-term understanding of content and when that topic was revisited months later there seemed to be a regression in the level of understanding of my students. That forced me to ask myself as to how well they had really learned the content in the first place.

Through years of experimenting with both my long range planning and unit design there arose two aha moments for me. The first was the need to revisit big ideas (overall expectations) through a spiralling curriculum. This means that I would chunk the content into more manageable pieces and revisit the content several times over the course of the year (quality vs quantity).

The second profound understanding was in time management and how do I accomplish the ability to revisit overall expectations with so many demands on the school day. Thus came the desire to increase my skill set in integrating learning across a variety of curricula. The following is a direct reference from the 2006 Ontario Language Curriculum:

In cross-curricular learning, students are provided with opportunities to learn and use related content and/or skills in two or more subjects. For example, teachers can use social studies reading material in their language lessons, and incorporate instruction in how to read non-fiction materials into their social studies lessons. In mathematics, students learn to identify the relevant information in a word problem in order to clarify what is being asked. In science and technology, they build subject-specific vocabulary, interpret diagrams and charts, and read instructions relating to investigations and procedures. All subjects require that students communicate what they have learned, orally and in writing. Their studies in the different subject areas help students develop their language skills, providing them with authentic purposes for reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and representing.

Needless to say, this is a spiralling learning experience for me as I continue to help my students consolidate the learning that they are a part of each and every day.

Experienced teacher tackles Kindergarten for the first time

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

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

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

Photo of Samantha Perrin

Keeping it calm during the last week of school…

To be honest, it isn’t really possible to keep calm and carry on during the last week of school. There is so much anticipation for the summer holidays that everyone is feeling a little giddy with excitement. However, it is possible to keep your students occupied and happy, and not push yourself too far towards further exhaustion by involving your students in an all-ages/all abilities project that takes little preparation and that can evolve over an afternoon or a few days.

Although workbooks and school materials may have begun to make their way home, usually you can find the bare minimum of materials the students will need to complete this project. What they need, they often make themselves or find in the school yard if you don’t have it in the classroom. The project involves students making a board game that employs elements of math, arts, and language. As an added challenge, perhaps they can include an aspect from a strand in science or social studies topic that will truly be a culmination of their learning over the year. Sometimes, however, the games are modeled on games they already know well, such as Pokemon or Mindcraft. Regardless of the genesis of ideas, students seem to have plenty of enthusiasm for creating a game and for fine-tuning it so that is will be successful.
Materials needed;
• Scrap paper for rough copies
• 1 sheet of legal-sized paper, car stock or poster board per person/group for final copy
• Pencils, erasers, markers
• Rulers

For the criteria for creating the board game, I ask students what elements make a game fun to play.
Criteria for Creating a Board Game;
• How many people can play?
• Will you need dice, spinners, or numbered cards, etc. for probability?
• What will you use to move across the board? (ex/ stones, coloured blocks, lumps of plasticine)
• What is the goal of the game?
• How can you win the game?
• What are some challenges that may prevent you from winning the game right away?
• Are there colourful graphics?
• Are the rules easy to understand?

Students seem to be happier to do this in partners, although some students prefer to work alone. Whether they work alone or in pairs, students plan to have a game day on the last day of school where they invite other students from other classes to play their game with them (your colleagues will love you for this!) When the weather is nice, students can play out doors in the school yard. Every year, I love to see everyone busy creating and playing and trouble-shooting their games, and then proudly sharing their creations with their peers. And, a fun, student-led activity is definitely a great way to end the school year.
Let the games begin!

Photo of Mike Beetham

Service Learning Projects

Service learning projects are a form of project-based learning in which learning outcomes are accomplished through community service. It is a powerful approach to teaching that provides students with authentic learning experiences in real-life contexts. The outcomes of a quality service-learning project are endless (citizenship, responsibility, character, teamwork). Service learning projects are timeless and can be used at any time of the year.

I have used a service-learning component in my yearly plan for over two decades. In that time, my Junior students have worked with seniors, redesigned local parks, multiple environmental projects with the municipality, projects within our own school community, work at local outdoor education facilities, assisting local charities or community organizations and international projects with Sierra Leone. No matter what the project, the outcomes have been very consistent. First and foremost my students are able to start to look beyond their personal needs and develop a global awareness.

The goodness of all children just shines through like beacons when they know they are helping others. For my current teaching assignment I work with students who have reputations as aggressive, ego-centered individuals who do not care about the people around them. They rapidly lose that bravado when they know that they are making a difference for other people. Throughout this year we worked with our local education centre stacking wood for the upcoming maple syrup program, replanted trees and helped keep their site litter free. The experience of knowing they were making a difference for others created an outcome that was palpable. I am sure that I could see their self-esteem grow in front of my eyes.

My most memorable service-learning project occurred several years ago where my Grade 4 class worked with a group of seniors in a program called ‘Walk A Day In My Shoes’. The end result of our year-long work together was two fold. My students developed both respect and understanding for seniors and for many of the seniors, they found a new purpose in their life. As for me, I was reminded how much I love my profession and the difference teachers can make.




Challenging the “Impossible”

“I was shocked when I saw what he had done in class. The psychologist said that’s the kind of thing he wouldn’t be able to do.”

“You’re going to try and teach your class to use sewing machines? Do you think they’ll even be able to?”

“You don’t really think beginner immersion students can memorize an entire play’s worth of lines, do you?”

At least once a year (and usually much more often than that), I have a conversation with someone – parent, colleague, administrator, student – who tells me that something I’m doing in class is “impossible” for one reason or another. Sometimes, like the first comment above, it’s an incredulous parent who is impressed (albeit confused) that their child was able to do something that shouldn’t have been possible. Other times, it’s well-meaning fellow educators who, I think, are trying to keep my lofty newbie expectations in check.

It’s okay, guys. I have this. My students can do it.

I’m not saying that I’ve never tried something that failed horribly (student-created team games in Grade 4 Phys Ed, I’m looking at you) but for the most part, my wackier ideas actually do pan out. Sometimes it takes some creative intervention from me, other times it takes a lot of patience and dedication, other times still I have to admit that we didn’t end up where I had planned but that the activity still taught what I was hoping it would – but we get there!

I credit my dedication to trying new, challenging, ambitious class projects to two people.

The first was my Grade 7 and 8 French Immersion teacher, Mme Crystle Mazurek. I have to admit that I don’t remember a lot about those two years except the really awesome art activities we did, but MAN, did we do some cool things! We made quilts, 3D art out of foam and cardboard, batik designs on fabric using melted wax, linoleum printing… I loved being in her art class (even if her dog literally ate my homework one time). It was in her class (though I can’t recall if it was while I was in Grade 7 or 8, or if it was when she was my teacher again later in high school) that we started a coin collection to help a village in India, where she had spent time in her childhood with her parents, to purchase a buffalo. From those humble origins began an ongoing collection to alleviate some of the effects of poverty in India by buying tools which can be used for trades (such as sewing machines) or by sponsoring students to attend school outside the village. I check in on the fund regularly and have a hard time believing it’s come as far as it has – from old soup cans in classrooms collecting a few coins here and there to a charity raising several thousand dollars a year.

Mme Mazurek, in hindsight, also dedicated a lot of time to helping her students succeed. Some of us were not particularly great students – I may or may not have had a few detentions in my time, despite being an active participant in class – and yet she still managed to get us excited about learning. I never did my homework, but I actually remember one of the novels we read as a class (it was about teenagers in Lebanon), details of Canadian history I know I learned in that class (the Rebellion of Upper Canada comes to mind), and how gracious and funny she was when we played an April Fool’s joke on her by switching her desk with our English teacher’s identical desk across the hall. I think a lot of my interest in becoming a teacher came from her. She probably doesn’t know that. Maybe one day she’ll google her name and find this. None of this paragraph has anything to do with challenging the impossible, she was just a really cool teacher with a bright red pixie cut, leather pants, an awesome attitude, and a wealth of personal anecdotes to keep us interested.

The second was my first Associate Teacher while I was in teacher’s college. I had the extreme privilege of working with a phenomenal teacher, Mr. Bill Morton, in an incredible Grade 3/4 Gifted class. My time in the class was too short, as all practicum placements are, but even in my five weeks there he bestowed upon me a lifetime’s worth of wisdom about education. I’m not sure the word “impossible” is in his vocabulary, unless we’re talking about retiring. His Grade 3/4 students were already engaged in learning and rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I started in his class. As I took groups out to work through scenes and break them down, I was amazed by how well they understood the material with very little prompting from me. Nine and ten year olds! Reading Shakespeare! Not just reading it, but actually understanding it. Given what I could remember of reading Shakespeare in high school (and those were plays which I would argue were easier to follow than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, read by teenagers who were given very explicit instruction on what the words meant, who STILL didn’t seem to understand that “wherefore” doesn’t mean “where”), that shouldn’t have been possible.

The point of all of this is that you’re going to hear and read about a lot of things that your students “shouldn’t be able to do”. Students with NVLD “shouldn’t be able to” illustrate a graphic novel with consistency and detail from one page to the next. Second year French Immersion students “shouldn’t be able to” write short stories. Ten year olds “shouldn’t be able to” design and sew quilts. Students with a long history of behavioral problems “shouldn’t be able to” have a year where they fully engage in class and take responsibility for their actions.

You won’t always succeed with the wacky, outlandish ideas you have, and sometimes no matter how hard you and your students try, it won’t work. That’s part of life. But you will almost certainly have more successes than failures, and even the failures teach you something.

Be that teacher who does something “impossible”.

Fair warning, though: it gets pretty addicting to overhear your students bragging about the cool things they did in class as they walk to the bus.