Mike Beetham

But Why? Part 2

Why I have chosen a video? Why I have allowed them to work in groups? Why am I allowing my students to have choice in their learning?  Why have I assigned homework? This is the question I start with for every instructional unit (and in practice, every classroom decision that I make). Why am I doing what I am doing? What is my desired learning outcome? How will it move my student’s learning forward?

My change to using a backward planning model has been one of the most significant improvements to my teaching practice. I now start all of my instructional planning with the following question:

What do I want my students to know, be able to do and value at the end of this instructional unit?

 Of course my answer always starts with the Ontario Curriculum and the overall expectations of that subject area. The next phase on my planning is where I try to visualize what does that learning look like in the life of a 10 year old (or 15 year old or 7 year old etc…). I try to find the context for the learning so that it becomes real for my students. That context increases the level of engagement, which in turn bolsters the intake of learning.

A caution I always have to remind myself of is that I am viewing the learning tasks and content through an adult focussed brain. To be more effective I have to train myself to screen my teaching through the developmental age of my students. When you know why you are teaching something, the actual teaching becomes so much easier.

Themes of Success: Passion for Teaching

When I sat down to think about my very first post for this blog, it was suggested to me that I share some information about myself. So that is where I started. I would share that I have taught for 8 years in the Upper Grand DSB (Guelph and area), that I am currently released from the classroom as Chief Negotiator and Staff Officer at my Local ETFO Office, and that I am a crafter, musician, mother, wife, and animal lover. So many ideas came flooding through!

In reading through the first chapter of Heart and Art, I came across the Themes of Success: themes that emerged after over 2,500 teachers were asked to share their best teaching experience from that year. The heading Passion for Teaching (Page 8 ) really spoke to me.

Passion for Teaching highlights the importance of connecting your own personal experiences and passions with your teaching by drawing on your own personal “resources” for support. I decided this would be the perfect place to start, as I could share some ways that I have done this with my classes with great success, and in the process, you will get to know me a bit better!

Patterning with Quilts: As an avid quilter, I brought in fabric squares to my Grade 2 class and had students help me plan a quilt. They loved this activity because it was “real” to them. They got to lay out the squares, plan the repeating pattern of colours (in this case light pink, dark pink, yellow, orange) and then see it come together. I would take the squares home and sew a row or two and then come back and have them recall what came next. I would then sew a few vertical columns and see if they could figure out what the next column would look like as the pattern changes in that direction, but there is still a pattern. We did a problem solving based activity with this quilt for weeks!

When I worked with older grades, I brought in fabric measurements (i.e., 100cm x 75cm in blue, 125cm x 50cm in green, etc.) and had them plan out the entire quilt top from start to finish and then the class voted on their favourite quilt and that is the one I cut and made. It is amazing how many ways using quilts in math can be differentiated too! Giving some students a quilt plan and asking them to use colour tiles to plan the pattern, while others are being asked to measure the fabric that would be needed to make that same quilt, allows for extensions galore!


Animal Creative Writing: Living out in the country, we have lots of animals running around our property. One of my favourites is our chickens. We have 8 chickens that wonder the yard and every now and then, one of them disappears for a while. I often give my class an update on what the birds are up to and they write about them. They love using pictures of the chickens, that I take on the classroom iPad, to illustrate their stories using different apps.

I find bringing my own interests into the classroom really helps my students to connect with the activities we are working on and it makes them feel like what they are doing is relevant.


“Frozen” in June

I know that at this stage, the last thing anyone wants to think about is winter (unless of course we’re in the middle of a heat wave). My one grade 7 class has been Frozen (as in the Dinsney movie) obsessed! They’ve seen the movie together as a class, know all the songs, can quote any line (Swedish accents included) and even shed a few tears when Anna is temporarily turned int beo ice. We had been working on a unit loosely based on On y va Destinations d’hiver way back before March Break. For a multitude of reasons (namely soccer, track and field, baseball tournaments and the school play) it has taken us forever to wrap it up – hence the title. Once May hit,  we opened it up to just about anywhere for the final task where students had to write a postcard from a destination of their choice. Based on their research, they had to comment on the food, attitutude of the people, possible activites with a focus on using the futur proche (je vais visiter) and the verbs vouloir and pouvoir (je veux faire, je peux voir). For the project,  several students approached me and wanted to write a postcard using the premise of the Frozen movie. The submissions were fantastic and were highly creative (and down right hilarious). I thought it was worth blogging about because it was met with such enthusiasm that students did not even mind doing the assignment. It seemed like a good example of tailoring things to suit the interests of the students. Below is an example of one of the submissions.

Bonjour Rachel,

Je suis à Arendelle avec la fameuse Elsa. Ici, c’est vraiment fantastique! La nourriture est tellement délicieuse, surtout le magnifique gâteau au chocolat. Le paysage est accidenté et à couper le souffle. J’aime beaucoup le Montagne du Nord parce que le Palais de Glace exquise est au sommet.  Demain je vais faire une tournée dans le traîneau de Kristoff avec Sven et je vais faire une famille de bonhommes de neige pour Olaf. Avant de partir, je veux surtout visiter la Vallée des roches vivantes et donner un coup de visage à Hans. Je veux jamais quitter!

Ton amie,



Mike Beetham

Keep Them Learning

As June (and all it brings with it) unfolds, minds start to wander, summer day dreaming begins and as a result students start to lose their focus with all the activities that are competing for their attention. This usually results in increased classroom management concerns as well as a significant drop in productivity. My plan at this time of the year is to keep my students as engaged as possible to the very last minute. This is accomplished in two ways. The first is that they become decision makers in what we are going to learn about. This can be done either as a class or as individual learning modules. The students will compose a question to which they will seek to answer. How do words travel from a studio over the radio so that we can hear them is an inquiry chosen by one of my students this year. The questions they create have to be approved and meet the criteria we have pre-established.

The length of this unit is about 3 weeks and will culminate with a classroom open house whereby the other students in the school will be able to visit our work over two days. The student must be at their site in order to share information they have uncovered and answer any questions their audience may have. Needless to say, this unit generates some of the best work of the year. For me as a teacher, it allows me that opportunity to witness (and assess) the transfer of a year’s work of academic focus in  reading, writing and oral language.

The premise remains  the same as I have used drama presentations, storytelling and musical performances to keep my students school focused and engaged until the last minute of school.  I encourage you to share other ideas you have used or witnessed as end of the year units.

Mike Beetham

Classroom Advisors

Wow, things have certainly changed since I was in school. When I went to school we __________ (fill in the blank with a change you have observed). When I look at the behaviours of my students, the choices they make and day-to-day social interactions in my classroom I filter it through the 54 year old brain of mine. It usually doesn’t make sense or seems silly and a waste of time. There are many times when I can’t make heads or tails of some of the things that my students do. So, what I tried (and found very useful) is to try and understand it through the brain of the age group I am working with. I sit and talk with individual students, small groups or even at times the entire class and have them explain to me the why of what took place. I tell them that through my adult brain it does not make sense and why would anybody do that. This opens up a wealth of opportunities to delve into the world of my students.

It has evolved to the point where my class votes in key students who will represent their needs and interests and those students become the classroom advisers. When ever a decision that requires our entire group’s input is needed, I go to the classroom advisers who then go to their classmates and get their feedback. The advisers then must prepare a summary of the input they received and meet with me as we collectively make the best decision for our group. In other scenarios, they serve as a resource who can explain to me what a student was thinking or why this makes sense to them. The final role these students play is being a peer mediator/mentor as students work their way out of poor decisions they have made. Needless to say, this is a very empowering strategy for both my students and me.

Keeping them Engaged…

These last two months of school can be trying for both teachers and students. The students are ready to get outdoors and classroom management is necessary as their social volume seems to increase with each warmer day. People that are not working in education often suggest that I must enjoy these last weeks of school as I anticipate the summer. It is hard to explain how challenging the last two months can be. Teachers feel overwhelmed to complete marking, prepare themselves for the looming task of report writing, as well as make plans for their teaching placement in September! In addition to that, teachers want to feel that they are keeping their students engaged with learning into June, not just keeping them busy.

Here are some suggestions to try out in the last month of school that will actively engage your students, if you haven’t already:

  • Have students design an original book cover for a book they have read, with a new artistic representation (art, media) and a new summary (language) on the back. When completed, create a gallery walk or a contest for best original design. If completed with another class, you can swap covers to judge.
  • Allow students to work individually or in small groups to create a dance based on a specific theme, element, or cultural influence. Provide them time each day to work on it (they love this!), then use days in June for each group to present to the rest of the class (or even invite parents in for an Open House event).
  • Provide students with about 3 poems of different styles to read and reflect on. Allow time for group discussions and sharing of ideas. Create a poetry workshop for a few periods each week. Students can peer review or you can provide feedback. Students select their favourite original poem to read to the class. Or create a Poetry Cafe for parents or other students in the school to attend. Students will enjoy advertising, writing invitations, and preparing beverages for the Cafe!
  • Take your learning outside! Go on weekly walks in the community and look for connections to your current lessons/activities in Science, Social Studies, or Math. If students ask particular questions, use it a starting point for a mini-inquiry that you can support for the last month in the classroom. Document your walks with photos, written reflections, or drawings.
  • Find a purpose. Use the last two months to pursue something meaningful in the community that there may not have been time to do over the winter months. Adopt a school garden to care for, clean up in the community, or buddy up with younger/older students and work together.

Six Word Memoirs – How Much Can Be Said With So Little

     There’s not a whole lot of positive things to be said about French à la carte, but something I have learned to appreciate this year is going into the different classrooms and seeing what other teachers are doing. My colleague, who is the Homeroom teacher of one of my French classes, is phenomenal on many fronts. Most of all, her depth of analysis and critical thinking means that her assignments are always creative and engaging, so much so that I find I’m almost wanting to do them myself.

     The other week, she showed me the latest. As part of her memoir unit, she had her students communicate the essence of their lives and characters into six word memoirs. Some of the examples she provided them with were the following:

“Author of so many unwritten books.”

“Yes, I still have Superman sheets…”

“Was a painting, now a mural.”

“My rise to fame went unnoticed.”

“Smart girl wants love, gets dog.”

     It was fascinating to see what the students were able to come up with themselves. Submitting a draft of their top six, it was amazing actually to see how they were able to incorporate wit, perspective and feeling into their descriptions. Most intriguing was matching up the words with the student and the insight it provided into their character. Finally, it was really interesting to see how effective they were as writers. They were much better at it than me. The right six words are not easy to come by – try it yourself…


Mike Beetham

Context – That Makes Sense

Please turn to page 134 in your Mathematics text and complete questions 1 -5. Students comply with smiling faces, complete the work, take up the solutions and then move on. Next day when you revisit a topic, it almost seems like they had forgotten everything that had been done the previous day. This is not a rare occurrence in classrooms of all ages. Research clearly points out how important the role of emotion is in learning. One of the most critical tools for a  teacher is the strategy of context. I always ask myself prior to developing a unit of study what would this concept or skill look like in the everyday life of my students. That helps me frame the context for the learning task.

When I am able to make connections to the everyday lives of my students and the focus of instruction in the classroom I find that the learning is more likely to be consolidated and accessed by the student in future related tasks. Here is an example of how I used context in February. I took my class to camp for 3 days. Prior to going to camp we had to look at what the total costs would be per person as well as for the group. The level of engagement was extremely high as they explored a real life task that required them to access prior mathematical knowledge. While at camp they took photographs and filmed a specific activity they took part in. When we returned to school we did a recount of our experience that was to be shared with their families. It was some of the best writing they had done all year and it allowed me to see a transfer of the skills we had been working on since September. There was no reluctance, no hesitation as the task was real for them.

The Power of the Outdoors

A traditional classroom is seen as a room with four fixed walls, desks, books, manipulatives, educational supplies etc… Imagine the enthusiasm running through your students as they scoop, lift and observe the life in that small stream or the piece of art coming to life as they sit and sketch the wonderful scenery that surrounds them from nature’s canvass in the fall.  Nature and the natural wonders of the world opens up options to both the students and the teacher as they ask questions and experience the process of discovering how the world around them works.

Outdoor education is more than just visiting a local conservation area or board run program. Outdoor education is making use of the local parks, school yard playgrounds, school gardens or any natural area that is connected to the lives of your students. Developing an awareness of their environment and just how precious their day-to-day lifestyle habits are must be experienced and not just observed or researched. Over the many years of my career I have learned just how powerful the outdoors can be as witnessed in the level of engagement and the quality of the work produced by my students. You belong outdoors!

Mike Beetham

When Does A Classroom Agreement, Become A Classroom Agreement?

I have been using the concept of the group collectively coming up with the behaviour and work standards they would like to live with for their time together as a team for over a decade. But on one fateful day in the winter of 2013 I was able to be a part of an experience that was a profound learning opportunity for me. Students have always enjoyed and valued being asked about the type of classroom they want to create. They have generated ideas, held dialogue on their and other’s ideas, compromised and come to an agreement in which they sign and live by. At that point the class moves forward and the journey begins.

This year we went through the same process I had for many years and came up with a wonderful classroom agreement that everyone was proud of. As always, about a month into the year I purposely broke the classroom agreement and needed to be held accountable for my actions just like everyone else who signed the agreement. That usually means that I have to go through  the problem solving model we use, take ownership for my choices and deal with the appropriate consequences for my actions. Needless to say, there is never a shortage of students who are willing to give up their free time to monitor their teacher as he sits in a detention. Thus the lesson passed on is that this agreement is truly for everyone in the room and not just for students. What made this year different was how my students reacted to it. They were completely silent and unsure of what to say or do when I put myself in the solution zone. A follow-up debrief revealed that teachers have always said that they were part of the agreement, but usually just said sorry when they did something wrong and moved on. They had never been held accountable as the students are. This experience provided me with me a lot to think about!