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.

This is who I am

Through the winter inquiry my senior kindergarten students and I are involved in at the moment, I have recently been reminded of the importance of seizing opportunities for students that can spark a sense of self and place within the school setting. 

In one of our classes, we have a five-year old Inuk girl who is from Pangnirtung (on Baffin Island), and who was adopted by a family from the south. When we began talking about how people stay warm in the winter, her mother spoke to me of an opportunity for her daughter to bring in and share some of the clothing she has received from her family in Pangnirtung; a spring amauti (anorak), sealskin slippers and mittens, and a pair of sealskin kamik (boots).

Elisapie (not her real name) is a quiet student who plays happily with her friends and who engages in a variety of activities and learning opportunities during her school day without making a big splash. However, since beginning this journey of exploring the wonders of the north with her classmates and her unique connection to it, Elisapie has become a bit of a superstar. She is definitely proud of her uniqueness and this inquiry seems to have offered her an opportunity to step up and claim a place which is her own within the school setting. We have all noticed how she has become more engaged in class – asking where her amauti is every morning and wanting to put it on to go visit other classrooms in the school to show and tell all about it. When one classmate came back to school after an absence, Elisapie said, “I have to show her my amauti and slippers. When can I do that?” I am finding I occasionally need to open a window to get some cool, fresh air in the classroom before her cheeks start to glow red (sealskin is very warm), because she likes to wear them during centre time now. According to her mother, Elisapie talks more about her school day when she goes home in the afternoon, and also mentioned that Elisapie is showing an interest in going to Inuktitut classes to begin learning her language again. In class the other day, Elisapie and two of her best friends took an Inuktitut early reader from the class library and used it to write a message in Inuktitut. It is a collection of words that no one can read at this point, but it is definitely an exercise in writing in Inuktitut.

Because of the nature of inquiry, you never know where it will take you and your students. While our winter inquiry is not quite finished, I am very inspired by the learning journey and where it has taken Elisapie in particular and the whole class in general.

We may all have taken workshops on diversity and inclusion which remind us how representation in a school of every child’s culture and people can have a positive impact on their sense of self and place. As teachers, we understand that learning in a school and seeing people and images that, for a change, are familiar rather than largely representative of the dominant white culture, is not only important but imperative for a child’s well-being. None the less, seeing the world from the unique perspective of all of your students may be hard to consider. Furthermore, if you find that each of your students seems relatively well-integrated and engaged in school life, you may not seize on opportunities that may make their school experience even more worthwhile and personal. That is why I feel that workshops, books, and discussions which encourage you to make diversity and inclusion regular aspects of your teaching day are invaluable to individual students as well as the broader school community.


Occasional Teachers As Partners

In my classroom an Occasional Teacher is referred to as a Guest Teacher for many reasons. The most important being that the person who arrives that day is first and foremost a teacher. That individual is a qualified teacher who is there to help students continue on their daily academic journey. They are not there to keep students busy nor are they there to just supervise for the day.

It is very important that in my plans I both value and allow that incoming expertise to be shared with my students. Of course I have developed plans that will be a continuation of what is going on in my classroom but have left instructions that are open ended and allow the guest teacher to be able to adjust them based on the needs of the students they are working with as well as the expertise and experience they bring into our classroom. In that way, my students are able to enjoy and share the uniqueness of each teacher they work with.

My experience has taught me that one of the worst things I can do is to set up the guest teacher for failure or classroom management problems by assigning work that is not relevant or connected to the day-to-day academics that are occurring in that room. My students need to know that each and every task they are working on is important to their overall growth and academic success.

I truly enjoy the day after a Guest Teacher has been in my room and the students remember their name, tell me something personal they learned about that individual and are eager to share the work they completed. That type of response provides very valuable feedback about how well my students are transferring the classroom agreement to all individuals they come into contact with.

 I want to tell Occasional Teachers how important your role is and how much I appreciate the time and effort you put into my students. Thank you for everything you do as partners to contract teachers.

Mental health in the hallowed halls.

Here’s a snippet from casual conversations playing out in school hallways everywhere.
Pick the lines you’ve heard or have used before.
Photo Credit:
WFIU Public Radio

“How are you? How’s it going? What’s up? How’s it?”

“Good. Great. All good here. Meh. No worries. Busy. So busy. Cool. Not too bad. OK. Could be worse.”

What would you do if someone answered honestly saying; “Not good. I’m being bullied by a group of students. I don’t like my body. My parents are divorcing. No one likes me. I feel alone and sad all of the time”? Would you pull out the motivational clichés and tell the person to toughen up? Would you walk away saying, “hope you’re OK?” and “things will be better with time” or would you inquire further? Would you feel comfortable finding out the truth? Do you have enough emotional energy in the tank to make a difference?

Regardless of years of experience, many new teachers feel uncomfortable, even under-equipped when facing mental health issues in the classroom After all, we’ve been taught pedagogy, not psychology, in teacher’s college. That’s not completely true. We did learn about Maszlow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but that was so long ago, it was only a small series of lessons/readings, and  besides we have lessons to deliver.

In this post I want to share a side of education that Maslowdoes not get enough attention. I’m talking about mental health in schools.

Understanding and supporting students with mental health issues is as important in our classrooms as the curriculum we are instructing.

What keeps educators awake at night are the the same daily problems being encountered in classrooms around the world. I am a witness to how mental health issues are scarring education. There is a recurring generational amnesia in the hallways of educational institutions and it’s time we do more about it.

That may not seem like a light and lively subject for conversation, but discussion in all of these areas is crucial as it pertains to making our classrooms safe and inclusive learning spaces. How are you dealing with issues like this in your classroom? Here are a few ideas that have helped in my learning space.

In my classroom we have worked hard to develop a safe space for all learners. This means that we all try to support each other when times get tough. We try to use the idea of Ohana (family) where no one is alone or forgotten. We have instituted Mindfulness Moments as brain breaks. Students need time to consolidate their learning, and to be still/quiet for a few minutes. This little break in the action calms the mind, reduces anxiety and teaches students a valuable de-stressing skill.

In my classroom, there is always a little something to eat. It is amazing how a granola bar, a juice box, and some crackers can help a student who has not had enough to eat to start the day. During tests, quizzes or quests, as we call them, we have “test crackers”.  They’re tasty, crunchy, and important to helping students relax during assessment tasks. I have found that when a student has something to eat, albeit very small, they are more relaxed and perform better.*

In a follow up post I share some thoughts about mental health issues as they relate directly to educators. You’d be surprised how similar they are to those our students face. Or maybe not?

I need a granola bar.

* Maybe I’ve found a thesis to test for my M Ed?

Photo of Tammy Axt

The Sound of the Recorder

This week in my class, my grade four students had their first lesson on the recorder. I know what you are thinking….musical bliss fills the room and everyone is transported to an elevated level of happiness. Unfortunately, day one of the recorder doesn’t quite bring up those feelings. As the students are still learning breath control and finger placement, day one sounds closer to possibly the worst sound that can be produced by 25 children simultaneously. Since I have been teaching recorder for a couple of years now, the day one sound no longer phases me and I know that after a couple of lessons the recorder will sound more like music and less like noise. However, this week I had an unusual experience on day one of the recorder with one of my grade four classes.

On Thursday afternoon, my last class was preparing for the very exciting first blow into the recorder. I reminded them about not blowing too hard, putting your left hand on top, covering the holes and away we went. One of my students, who is hearing impaired, quickly took the recorder out of his mouth and made a very pained facial expression. I went immediately to him and asked what was wrong. He told me that the noise was too loud. We spoke for a few minutes and we decided that he would move his chair across the classroom and try the lesson from there. We played for another 10 minutes or so and I checked in with him again. He told me that he was getting a headache from the noise so we put our recorders away for the day and switched over to playing a game about the staff.

After the class, I immediately spoke with the classroom teacher and asked for the contact information of the consultant who is familiar with this student’s case. We had a meeting the next day where we both brought up concerns around damaging the child’s hearing further and the ability to limit the noise but still continue to hear the teacher. During the meeting we came up with a few strategies that I could use to minimize the impact of the sound. I also had a meeting with my vice principal to ensure that he was allowed to go into the hall to work with a partner if he needs break from the sound (which is not common practice at my school).

Tomorrow, I will bring all of the strategies to my student to be discussed further. It is important that he have input into his learning and that he not feel like he is being excluded from the classroom. I will ensure that he has a lot of choice and that we can change things at any time if it is not working for him.

Finally, later this week, I will be calling home to discuss the plan of action and to inform the family of his reaction to the recorder which may be important in their next meeting with their audiologist.

The First 20 Days of School – Connecting with Students is a Great Place to Start

Teaching is always new! With a new group of students, fresh reflections on practice and the opportunity to start from scratch, as it were, the start of the school year provides teachers and students alike the opportunity to create new beginnings every year. Knowing this, what might some important considerations be to make it a great start? Chapter One of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning: Practical Ideas and Resources for Beginning Teachers highlights four important themes for success: connecting with students, passion for teaching, attributes-based approach and importance of school culture. I would like to focus this reflection on the importance of connecting with students within the first 20 days of school as a means to establish an authentic relationship with students that fosters trust and inspires a willingness to take risks within a safe learning environment.

Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This profound sentiment holds true for teachers and their relationship with students in that when students feel respected, safe and cared for, the experience of learning is enriched. The following are five practical ways for teachers to build authentic connections with their students at the start of the school year:

1. Be authentic. When teachers model what it means to be an authentic learner – mistakes and all, students are then encouraged to take risks without fear of reprisal. Let your model of authentic learning influence students to do the same. This form of transparency sets the tone for fostering meaningful connections between teachers and students.

2. Ask students about their needs and listen. Validate student voice by positioning them as the experts on themselves. Invite students to share their learning needs and the things that you could do as their teachers that would support their success and commit to doing them. Conducting multiple intelligence and attitudes and dispositions surveys are great ways to begin the dialogue for students to articulate how you can support their learning and their level of self-efficacy.

3. Explore student interests. As teachers we all need to cover the curriculum but viewing the curriculum as a launching pad as opposed to a landing pad can invite student’s interests to take centre stage in the teaching and learning process. Ask students about their interests and find creative ways to invite further inquiry into them while exploring the curriculum at the same time.

4. Learn the students. In addition to the information that can be found in student records (i.e. OSRs), commit to learning more about your students in meaningful ways. Pronouncing student names correctly is important way to let students know that they are valued. Challenge yourself to learn at least five non-school related facts about each of your students. This can help to build a positive relationship and validate their experiences outside of the domain of the classroom. Finally, being aware of students personalities (i.e. introverts, extroverts, etc.) will inform how to relate to them as well as setting the conditions of the classroom experience.

5. Invite to student voice by fostering a reciprocal relationship with your students. Nurturing a collaborative learning environment for students does not merely mean giving students the opportunity to collaborate with each other, but it also means positioning students as collaborators with you. Partner with your students to design the learning space and learning opportunities. This fosters student ownership in the teaching and learning experience and empowers students to be meaningful contributors to the class. When you invite their voice in classroom decisions, ensure that it is validated by action on your part. Leveraging positional power in the classroom creates space for a more meaningful connection between students and teacher.

As teachers we are in the business of supporting students success. Fostering meaningful connections with students goes along way in promoting both student achievement and well-being. When students know that their teachers authentically care about them, their willingness to learn will support their ability to do well. Starting the school year with students in mind will set you on a solid foundation for building upward. Make it a great start.

Photo of Alison Board

Addressing Equity

The elementary school that I teach at is a K-8 school with approximately 540 students. It has grown over the century with new additions, since its original build in 1923. I have only known the school for the past three years that I have been teaching there. So I consider the school to be diverse with many new Canadians, mostly from Bangladesh. It is also higher needs in terms of the challenges students face for success, according to the Learning Opportunity Index. The family income has declined for families attending the school, as demonstrated by the data. Many of the parents work part-time, multiple jobs, and through the evenings, nights, or on weekends.

What I found interesting to note, is that teachers who have taught at the school for more than ten years, many for more than 15 years, have difficulty seeing the demographics of the school as they are. They continue with the same fund raising projects as they always have, yet lament that there is less participation or interest from the students. They continue to book trips that cost more that an hourly wage that most families would make, then are disappointed in the attendance. It is only in the past year that they have been questioned about the cost required for students to attend their own graduation celebration. The teacher response in regards to how they are accommodating a student population with a decrease in family income, is to encourage students to come forth if they don’t have the funds and the staff will address it or provide the funds, based on the individual situation.

Recently I was talking to a teacher from another school board about equity and teacher bias. She recommended the ETFO publication, Possibilities: Addressing Poverty in Elementary Schools to read.  It is an excellent resource. It not only encourages a change in mindset by educators about assumptions and biases in regards to poverty, but it provides strategies and literature connections to address the real needs of students for academic success and well-being. It also provided information on how to engage parents and the community of a lower income status.

According to TDSB, “Educational research has demonstrated that children from lower income families face more significant barriers in achieving high educational outcomes.” It is essential that we as educators are aware of these facts and barriers, as well as the strategies and supports necessary for the students that are in our schools right now.

Link to ETFO publication:

possibilities.jpg (150×194)



Photo of Mike Beetham

You Never Know

This blog is based on a real life scenario that I was fortunate enough to be a part of both on a personal and professional basis. It truly reminded me just how important our teacher/student relationships are as you never know when your kind word, out of the ordinary effort or simply just being there will make a difference.

On a late Saturday afternoon there was a knock on our home door and to our surprise, there was our very distraught neighbour who just needed someone to talk to. Over the course of the next hour this young mother poured her heart out to both my wife and I. During that time she asked us to read a series of letters that obviously were very important to her.

As we scanned the pages it became clear to us that these letters were from a past teacher who took the time to write to this young women while she was in her classroom. The key message that surfaced on each and every page was that this young woman was an amazing person who had the potential to be herself and that alone would make her great. It was clear that she had experienced trauma in her adolescence and did not receive the necessary support that she should have had. Through teary eyes, this distraught woman just kept telling us how important this teacher had been in helping her get through some very dark times in her life. In fact, she owed her life to her.

Although these letters were almost 20 years old, we could tell by the wrinkled paper and tear stain marks, that she had went to these words of support many, many times over the past two decades. Once again, she was going to this teacher for support in these times of hardship.

As a teacher, we are merely a step or two on a child’s life journey. Yet that time we spend with each child is one of the most influential events they will ever experience. It is our responsibility to ensure that memory is as positive as can be.

Photo of Mike Beetham

The Power Of The Circle

The circle has many historical references probably none more meaningful as the significance to the traditions of our First Nations’ People. It is a very powerful formation as it represents the importance of each and every person in the group. There is no start or finish to a circle as well as representing the cycle of life for both nature and humans. I use the circle in my classroom for all classroom discussions, meetings and as a morning check in and day end check out.

During circle time the students are facing each other, taught how to demonstrate a good listener position and become more engaged in each and every discussion. The key message the circle sends is that each and every person in that circle is important and valued  for their ideas, who they are and the voice they will share with the rest of the group.

My first month of school is the time when the circle is introduced and the procedures that will be used during circle time. It is like any other beginning of the year activity, it requires a lot of work and consistency in the beginning. I use a variety of adventure based programming activities to further support the concept of how powerful the circle is in our physical education classes.

Over the course of first term there is a gradual release of responsibility to the point (at this time of the year) the circle is lead most often by the students. It becomes a tool for everyone in the room and not just the teacher. Last week a student asked to have circle time so that an issue that had taken place during the fitness break could be addressed and resolved.

Many times I am asked how do you use the circle in a classroom full of students, desks, support material and other classroom materials. My best answer to that important question is that if there is a will, there is always a way to make it work. Through both creative classroom design and the establishment of effective routines, the transition from regular classroom to circle formation can become seamless. I highly encourage you to research more about the traditional circle and how it may become a strategy in your classroom.

Photo of Samantha Perrin

The Power of Show and Tell

There is a table in my classroom that is called La table de découvertes (Discovery Table). On it you can find things that I have collected with my family, mostly when my own children were young; there are some seashells, plenty of rocks, 2 bird’s nests, a small log gnawed and shaped by beavers, snake skin molt, a stick covered in tracks made by an insect infestation under the bark, feathers, and pine cones. It is a corner of the classroom where students can visit and touch, marvel and wonder. And it is because of La table de découvertes that Show and Tell (La présentation) has made a comeback in my classroom this year. It wasn’t in my daily plans or my Long Range Plans, but because of its success, I will now be sure to include it every year.

In September, a student asked if she could bring in something for the Discovery Table. She was very excited because she had some shells she wanted to share with the class. The student presented the shells, broken and whole, which she had found on a beach while on holiday. Every student wanted to see and touch the shells as if they had never seen such things before. They asked her which was her favourite, and she told them why they were special to her. This was our first Présentation.
Initially, it was this one student who wanted to share her treasures with the class. Soon she was bringing in something every day until her mother began to be concerned that perhaps it was creating a problem.

After all, among the many items this student brought in, there was a small cupboard filled with origami stars; two small carved statues from a hot country (she wasn’t sure which one), and a zip lock bag of her cat’s orange fur. Everything was presented in detail, accurate or not, and everyone watched and listened and asked appropriate questions afterwards. I was able to tell the mother that everyone was always interested in what her daughter brought to school.

After a few weeks, eventually other students, even the quietest ones, started coming up to me, asking if they could present something to the class. Students would bring in special items from home or simply find cool rocks in the school yard and want to present them because they had a funny shape or a shiny spot on them (Rocks are a big deal in our classroom).

Now our presentations are a regular event at the end of most days, with a few flexible guidelines. This is what works for us:
1) 15 minutes for Show and Tell.
2) 3 students present within that time period. This allows time for each child to speak in as much detail as they like about what they are showing and to pass around their items. The audience also doesn’t have time to lose interest.
3) Some days we present while sitting in a circle on the floor; other days students sit at their desks while the presenter stands in front of a small table where they can display their items.
4) Limit the follow-up question period to 3 questions or comments.

What I love about Show and Tell is that it is a student lead activity that is easy to facilitate. It gives students a true sense of agency as they talk like an expert in front of their peers about something that may or may not be in our Grade 3 curriculum – like sharks or cat fur – and have an audience that is actively listening and genuinely interested in what a presenter is showing and talking about. It is also an opportunity for students to be seen in a leadership role by their peers and to get a boost to their self-esteem.

Since the primary focus in French Immersion education is oral communication, Show and Tell is a clear choice as an activity that allows for a student to “acquire a strong oral foundation in the French language and focus on communicating in French” (Ontario Curriculum, French as a Second Language). The value of developing public speaking skills can also not be overlooked, as it takes great courage at any age, to ‘hold the floor’ and talk in front of one’s peers. As stated in the Language curriculum, students are encouraged to, “communicate – that is, read, listen, view, speak, write, and represent – effectively and with confidence”. Although some students may not have the confidence to volunteer, I haven’t made a schedule indicating the days when everyone is obliged to bring something to talk about. Instead, I have quietly asked a few students if they would like to bring in something to share with the class. It may take a few days or weeks before they are ready, but, following the example of the students who have gone before, everyone who has brought something in does a fine job presenting and fielding questions.

Finally, the benefits of Show and Tell go beyond the presenter to include all students in the audience. These students learn to practice listening actively and respectfully during presentations as well as how to follow up with pertinent questions. Probably the best thing of all, however, is that there is no evaluation of Show and Tell. While I do evaluate Book Talk presentations or projects with outlines and rubrics, I feel that the dynamic, impromptu nature of Show and Tell would be ruined if there were grades placed on the students’ performance, and it would no longer be a wonderful, relaxed way to finish the school day where oral presentation skills are practiced, treasures are shared, and students lead the show.