Big Things

When I accepted the job as a self-contained DD teacher three years ago, a dear friend of mine explained that this job was going to be about the “big things”.  I did not understand what she meant at first and I asked her to elaborate. She told me that I would be spending my time with the students focused on things that will have a direct impact on their ability to be happy, healthy and contributing members of society. Your impact will go beyond the walls of the school and even the walls of their homes. The lessons you teach them will be “bigger” than any math or social studies lessons you have ever taught in your career.

Three years have passed, and I can say with absolute certainty that my dear friend was right. These past three years have been all about the “big things”.  As I come to the end of my time with the best class a teacher could ever ask for, here are the “big” lessons that we have learned over the past three years.


  1. Sometimes things are not going to be about you. For many of my students, they have had a lot of attention as a child in school and at home because of their unique learning profile. It has been important for them to think about others in their class, family, and community and how they can contribute meaningfully to all three places.
  2. A healthy body contributes to a happy outlook on life. Having a healthy body provides so many opportunities to participate in activities with families and friends such as riding a bike, playing sports, and going on a hike. It also provides students with a lot of independence in their life as they have the coordination and strength to do things like walk up the stairs and get up from a chair. It opens so many positive doors.
  3. A positive tone in your communication builds relationships. Some of my students have speech impairments and when I first met them, they would speak very harshly to me and others in the class. We have learned to take our time and speak kindly to others and it has opened the door to many new friendships.
  4. Losing is a part of life. “Good game” is our catchphrase in class that we say at the end of every game. It reminds us that no matter whether you win or lose, you are thankful for the time that you had with your friend or family member today.
  5. Independence in daily living gives us pride and confidence. Being able to do many daily living tasks such as ordering in a restaurant independently or selecting items for cooking really develops a sense of confidence and pride.
  6. Take Two! This is my most common catch phrase in class. I probably say it about 5 times every day and my students use it just as often. We use this phrase as a reminder to let the small mistakes role off of our back and to give it another try.
  7. Exceeding our own expectations is the best feeling in the world!


My students have learned a lot of big lessons over their time at middle school, but I also learned one very “big lesson” as an educator.

The energy that you bring into your learning space sets the tone for all who enter your class.

Working with kids with exceptionalities means working with a whole community of people to provide the best learning opportunities for the students. This may include, Educational Assistants, SERTs, Occupational Therapists, outside agencies etc… It is imperative, as the leader in the space, that you set the tone for everyone who enters. You will be amazed at how quickly people adapt to the positive environment and your students will have a more positive experience at school as a result.

Triggers and Habits in Teaching Part One

Dreaded Seating Arrangements

Almost every teacher I talk to says, “I have a really difficult class this year.”  The difficulties identified are most often tied to “behaviour” issues.  In my experience effective classroom “management” can be connected to dynamic programming and developing solid relationships with students. Many of us go to things like Class Dojo or incentive programs to “manage” behaviour and some have their merits.  However, they might “manage” behaviour, but does it help student to learn to self-regulate?  I understand that there are students who have behaviour safety plans that can provide challenges and I do not mean to downplay the effect that even one student’s behaviour can have on an entire class.  However, there are ways in which we can have small tweaks in our triggers and habits in teaching that will have a positive outcome on developing a community of learners.

So what is a trigger?  A trigger in psychological terms can  used to describe sensations, images or experiences that re-visit a traumatic memory.  It can also mean to make something happen very quickly; a reaction.  It is also referred to as an event that kicks off the automatic urge to complete a habit.*  Habits are seen as something that people do often or regularly.  Habits can even be unconscious behaviours and sometimes difficult to stop.  What do triggers and habits have to do with teaching?

Over the years I think I have become more self aware in the classroom about my own triggers and habits.  It is easy to continue to do a routine in a classroom simply because it is something that we have always done. Even when we have sound pedagological reasoning, it can be difficult to change or cease a habit. For example, for many years I put names on the desks of students before they entered the classroom on the first day of school.  I don’t really know why I began this habit.  Besides a wedding, some kind of gala or a reservation at a restaurant, I get to choose where I sit every day.  It is a fairly important life skill.  I’m not going to find my name on a seat on the city bus.  Once I recognized that this routine was purely out of habit and was “triggered” by the first day of school, I decided to change it up.  On the first day of school with a grade 4-5 class, the students came into the room and sat wherever they wanted. I admit that this made the perfectionist in me who loves order, routine and habit rather uncomfortable.  I had some students sit in groups, some in pairs and some on their own.  Then we had a class meeting about how they had felt when they entered the room and had to make their seating choice.  There was talk of anxiousness, sweaty palms, heart rate increase, fear of missing out and for some it was no big deal.  I decided to create a google form to survey the students about where to sit in the classroom, how often we would change it up and who would decide.  The results of the survey were fascinating.  Some students wanted me to choose where they sat and wanted to have that same spot every day for 194 days.  Some never wanted to “sit” in a group but wanted to be a part of it during group work time.  We came up with a plan that each Monday the students would choose where to sit for the week and the students who wanted a regular spot would be able to keep it and the other students would respect their choices without question.  We also had some extra choices for seating that students could go to if their choices for that week weren’t working out.  The students gained incredible insight into self-regulation.  I heard things like, “I sat with Gracie all week and we’re such good friends, I didn’t get my work done so I’m not going to sit with her next week.”  or  “I don’t hang out with Olivia but I know she is a serious student so I’d like to sit with her in a group.”

It isn’t easy to be self aware while we are trying to keep our head above water, collect permission forms, listen to announcements, adjust our day plan for the assembly that was announced, deal with a parent that wants to chat in the hallway AND teach curriculum.  I GET that…however, being aware of triggers and habits and making small tweaks to our teaching behaviour can make a big difference in our classroom community.

*106:Triggers-The Key to Building and Breaking Habits, Chris Sparks, 2018


Setting Students with Special Needs Up For Success in Music

For the past eight years, in my role as a planning time teacher, I have had the privilege of working with over 50 students with a variety of special needs. Our school has been fortunate to have 4 different types of contained classes and students with a variety of special needs in the mainstream classes. It has been important to me to ensure that all of my students are successful regardless of their needs. I have set them up for success by implementing some consistent practices in my program.

Students have come with a variety of needs to my classroom. In addressing those needs, I have set goals for their alternative and modified IEPs, followed PBIPs and helped to create social stories. The contributions to these documents have ensured that students’ needs are addressed and that their best interests are taken into account.  Goals have been academic, social, and life skills oriented.  For example, skills such as taking turns, coping with a noisy environment, and transitioning between spaces have been areas that my students have worked on. If you are not sure how to write IEPs or contribute to behaviour plans I recommend the following resource from the ministry of education which will be helpful for writing your first IEP. IEP Resource Guide

ERFs have been important teammates in positively impacting student learning in my class. I don’t know what I would do without their talents.  It is important to be able communicate effectively your expectations for the students they are assisting. I know that I am responsible for planning for my students with special needs but I am open to the ideas and suggestions of our ERFs, as they know the students they work with very well.  ERFs are an integral part of my classroom and are included in the structure of our day to day activities and routines.

For students with special needs, a predictable environment is very important.  Knowing what will take place during their day helps them to feel safe and secure.  This feeling of security minimizes the chances of students having outbursts and other behavioural challenges.  I have used visual schedules, verbal, individualized prompts, and clear instructions and expectations to ensure that students know what to expect.

With my music and drama background, I provide an engaging and interactive environment for students.  Singing songs and movement are incorporated into many activities.  They are encouraged to show their creativity and their individuality.  Planning is done to include materials and activities that highlight students’ strengths.  Humour is an essential part of my classroom environment.

In making all of these elements a part of my practice, I know that I have set up my students with special needs, both past and present, for success.

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Don’t Give Up on a Tough Class

I have one class that is very tricky. It is a very large class with a lot of emotional, physical and academic needs. It is the two periods in the week that I wish I had a clone of myself so that I could meet everyone’s needs immediately all the time (with this class I might need an army of clones).

I would rate the autumn with this class as alright. We have had our ups and downs. Some periods have gone well. Some have not. The thing that has been most consistent with this class is that I refuse to give up on them and their ability to do well in Music.

I feel at this point in the year, I have tried so many strategies to get the classes running smoothly and find ways to support my weaker students. However, it wasn’t until this past week that I feel like I have made a breakthrough!

I have finally landed on a combination of whole group instruction, peer-supported creations and individual choice.

Getting to know the students has been an important factor in this positive change. I have had several conversations with many of the students about sports, animals, music and all of their interests. I have used that knowledge to help build a relationship with them and inform my decisions around content for upcoming classes. I know for one of my students who is having the most difficult time at school right now, he really loves sports. I am planning to do a basketball dance this term to incorporate his interests.

I also have some students in the class who are significantly below grade level. Many of these students are embarrassed to ask other students for help. They are weak in reading and writing and therefore, they are very reluctant to work with many of the students in the class. Last week, I went to each of them individually and asked if they felt comfortable with anyone in the class. I let them choose who their partner was and since they all had a say in who they were going to work with, they all had a level of comfort in working in the class.

I met with the classroom teachers about good accommodations that I could provide for their students with upcoming assignments. I have also conferred with the classroom teachers about medical needs and emotional needs.

I have built in the usage of many of my student’s strengths. Everyone has so many amazing skills and I have tried to highlight them. I have a student who can’t read but is great at tech. He is my technology advisor and the kid I send everyone to when we have problems. Another student can’t read either, but is an incredible singer and rapper. He can improvise at the drop of a hat and can generate ideas at a speed I cannot match. When we need lyric or rhythm ideas, we know who we can count on.

I have continuously worked on trying to improve the climate. Last week, before we started our partner activity, I had the students do the game Two Truths and a Lie with their partner to build a relationship with their new partner. Taking time away from curriculum to build climate has been worth the investment.

Using choice as a motivator has also worked exceptionally well. Students begged me to allow them to listen to music of their choice when they are finished their compositions. “For sure!” I said. We are developing a pre-approved list of music to listen to.

Ultimately, the most important thing is not to give up. Have a good cry, a particularly big piece of chocolate cake and a long phone call complaining to your friend about your difficulties. After that, analyze what is going on that is not working, and start a plan tomorrow. And if that doesn’t work, try something else on the next time. It might take time, but it is worth it!

Overcoming Math Phobia

A phobia is defined as an extreme fear or aversion to something. This can often be associated with mathematics both by students and teachers alike. Human nature is such that when we feel we are not good at something, we therefore can’t be successful at it and we tend to avoid that what we will fail at. This self-fulfilling prophecy is often alive and well in a teacher’s or student’s thoughts.

I will be the first to say that at an earlier stage of my career I was very uncomfortable and unsure of myself when teaching mathematics. Sure I knew how to do math, but did I know how to teach something I was not very comfortable with. I had to do something to ensure that my skills and pedagogy were improving. Thus began a voyage of self-learning or self-guided professional development. Now, twenty-five years later I am still on that journey of learning about how to best teach mathematics so that my students learn and are engaged in their world that is so filled with math.

As with anything else you must find the right tool or vehicle for learning. I attended as many workshops as I could on mathematics. The Waterloo Region District School Board offers a wealth of learning opportunities for their teachers as does ETFO and the Ontario Association for Mathematics Education (OAME) (

These are several key areas where you can start your journey of learning. I would like to share three key resources that have helped me become a more efficient and knowledgeable mathematics teachers. The first is the work of Dr. Catherine Twomey Fosnot. Her work and approach to the instruction of mathematics is the number one influence I attribute to my growth in mathematical instruction. I attended several of her sessions as well as visiting her site in Harlem. I would highly recommend her series ‘Young Mathematicians at Work’ as a classroom resource.

The second most useful tool I have come upon is the series entitled Super Source. There are many reasons why I like this resource. The first is the rich problem solving tasks that are in each book. There are a variety of tasks and each task is connected to an area of mathematics where it can be used like number sense or patterning. There is a book written for each type of manipulative (Base 10, Pattern Blocks, Tangrams etc…). The most valuable asset of this resource is that there is a section where the mathematics behind each task is explained to the educator (the big ideas) as well as suggestions on how to bring out the math in your students. As with any resource this provides a jumping on point where a teacher can then adapt the task to meet their needs.

The final resource I would like to share with you is one of the many works of Van de Walle. I used this resource as a teaching tool for myself. It helped me understand the concepts I was teaching and how to bring out both a level of engagement as well as a deeper understanding of mathematics in my students. I hope these resources prove to be as valuable a tool to you as they are for me in my teaching of mathematics.


Anchoring Learning

Anchor charts have long been identified as a high-yield learning tool. What exactly is an anchor chart? Why use them? How do you determine what should be on an anchor chart? These are common questions faced by teachers as they try to establish optimum learning environments for their students.

I have heard anchor charts best described as the ‘third teacher’. The following is a quote from Scholastic’s Literacy Place – For The Early Years, 2010. “ To promote literacy skills and encourage independence, you will want to make strategic and purposeful use of print resources such as posters, signs, lists, charts, and student/teacher writing samples in your classroom. One tool in particular, the anchor chart, is very effective in promoting student success. An anchor chart outlines or describes procedures, processes, and strategies on a particular theme or topic and is posted in the classroom for reference by students. Examples of anchor charts include: what to do in an interview, tips on using commas, what readers need to do when they infer, how to choose just right’ books, or how to write a literature response.

This of course aligns perfectly with the visual learner. Visual learners learn through seeing, observing and anchor charts allow them perpetual access to critical information and not just when instruction by a teacher is occurring. They can return to the key ideas or concepts when they need to and as often as they need to.

One lesson that I have learned is that not everything can be an anchor chart even though it is all so valuable. If the visual scene in your classroom becomes cluttered the benefits of this tool diminish as they just become part of the scenery and no longer a tool for the students. In my class we have a large variety of anchor charts positioned around the classroom with different colours, fonts, sizes, shapes and almost any other way I can make them unique and stick out. I did an experiment with my students one day where I gave them post it notes and asked them to go around and put them on the anchor charts they used most often and felt were most helpful to them. Prior to that I had made my prediction of what might occur. Needless to say, what I thought was most important did not align with their view. Sooooo from that point on, my anchor charts became a mutual task created by my students and myself. I still do all of the finish work, but the content and positioning in the room is a shared decision. One final change in my practice as a result of that data collection was that I am constantly changing the visual cues so that they stay fresh as learning tools and not just become a regular site in the room.

Another feature of this great tool is that I also have personal anchor charts around my desk that help me as I learn new pedagogy to add to my practice. I am able to return to them throughout the day to evaluate my growth and development progress. IMG_1799 IMG_1803 IMG_1804 IMG_1797 IMG_1806 IMG_1798 IMG_1800 IMG_1801

Who? What? Where?

One of the anchor charts in my classroom states that Reading is… Remembering and Understanding. This is what I use to help students understand that good reading is so much more than word decoding. In my classroom I am often faced with trying to help students who have difficulty in their reading comprehension. They lack the ability to recall what they have just read or their recall is very generic and lacks specific details. I have developed a game to help improve a student’s ability to recall the specifics around characters, main events and setting. This learning task is called Who? What?  Where?

IMG_1794This is a three phase unit. The first step is to model it using a read aloud novel. After each chapter we pause and take a minute to review the characters that were a part of that chapter, what were the main events that occurred in that chapter and finally where did that part of the story take place. I do this for about two or three chapters into the novel. From there we move to a graphic organizer where they now have to answer questions I have created about a chapter after it has been finished. The questions are designed to elicit one or two word answers and thus can fit easily in the boxes on the page. The other purpose for the short answer is to focus on comprehension and not spelling or sentence structure. After each chapter I ask three questions, one of each type. As the chapters progress, the questions become more and more specific and thus a deeper recall gradually begins to occur with my students. The students earn points based on their ability to recall accurate information. For most students this is a motivator by itself.

IMG_1795The final stage of this unit is to transfer the learning that has occurred to an independent reading task they complete. This is called their Book Project. They are able to select a book that meets the following two criteria:

  • It has to be at a level that is just right or challenging for them (teacher approved)
  • It has to be a narrative (thus focusing in on the three elements of a story characters, setting and main events)

From here they now have to read their novel, decide on a way to share their understanding of the story (that best fits their learning style) with their classmates and teacher. It is here during this summative task I find out what gains have been made by students in their reading comprehension as well as finding further gaps that need to be addressed in the upcoming reading lessons. A natural progression that occurs is also the move away from just basic recall and the move to more critical literacy questioning and answering. But as many students have taught me, they need to have well grounded foundation skills prior to moving into higher level thinking skills.



Modifications and Accommodations in the Music Room

Modifications and accommodations happen daily in every classroom in Ontario. Teachers strive hard to make sure that their students have the necessary tools and supports to help them achieve the expectations of the Ontario Curriculum or modified goals. The following are some of the accommodations and/or modifications that I have used this year with a focus on the most common tool used in music…instruments!

When you ask my students what their favorite part of music is, many of them would answer quickly that they like using the instruments. I agree, instruments are AWESOME, but they can also be very challenging for students with impairments in fine motor skills, breath control, impulse control or visual acuity. To help these students, try a few of the following tricks…

  1. Xylophones- Most xylophones have removable bars for students who are overwhelmed with all of the notes laid out before them. I take the bars off that the students don’t need to play a particular song. I also rearrange the bars to make sections of the music more playable for some students. For example, I will move the E and F bars away from the G and A bars so that the student can more easily see the space between the two and identify them as separate. Selecting only part of the melody or accompaniment can also give students with processing difficulties a chance to keep up with the pace of the music. For my students with impulse control challenges, I give them a heads up that while I am giving the instructions I will be holding their mallets and as soon as we start playing I will return them. Furthermore, improvisation can be your student’s best friend on the xylophone as it takes the pressure off of playing specific notes. Finally, metallophones have much better contrast for students with visual impairments than regular xylophones.
  2. Recorders- To help students match their fingers to the right holes on the recorder, I have used small pieces of coloured electrical tape. I put a small piece of blue on the first hole of the recorder and put a small piece of blue on their pointer finger of their left hand. I add one finger at a time and work towards removing the tape when the student is ready. I have also matched a colour coded system to the music that they are reading. For students who have large challenges in fine motor skills, I have also taped the back hole for the first section of the year to let them focus on the front holes.
  3. Drums and Percussion Instruments- When it comes to the percussion family, instrument choice becomes very important. Maracas, bells and guiros are some of the more difficult instruments to use to produce clear rhythms. Rhythm sticks and bucket drums are a much better choice as the sound is more easily produced and controlled. Another helpful tool is to use words to learn rhythms. Using words to help students learn rhythms is great for all students but is especially important for students who need extra support. From the tabla in India to the taiko drum in Japan, there are so many countries that use words to share rhythms. Simple or repetitive words are much more accessible than musical notation for many students.


When Your Best Is Not Enough

I work with some very challenging students, who at their core, are really nice people. As I get to know them as people first and learners second, what surfaces quite rapidly is that many of their needs are beyond my skill set. I am not a counsellor. I am not a psychologist. I am not a physician. Yet the needs they bring to my classroom are very diverse and more complex than just literacy and numeracy. I find myself often saying, what can I do to help this child succeed and feel good about themselves. As you know, there is no simple answer to this question.

This year I have been faced with a dilemma that I have never before in my career been in. I do not know what to do for a child in my class. All of my efforts, strategies, consultations and professional readings have left me in the same place I started with this child over 6 months ago. This individual’s lack of progress (and at times regression) have been a huge stressful burden on me as I struggle everyday trying to figure out what to do to help this child stabilize and grow as a student should. My initial reaction was that despite my absolute best effort, I have failed this child.

I have a very good friend and colleague to whom I shared this belief about myself with. He was very quick to point out that I had not failed him. The student’s lack of progress is a result of many needs not being met. He began to query me about my approach with the student. The conversation went something like this:

Do you differentiate the work for this student so that it reflects his current academic level? Yes

Do you provide accommodations in his program that meet his individual’s learning needs? Yes

Do you work hard to make that student feel welcome and cared for each and every day in your classroom? Yes

Do you seek out additional supports within your school and/or board to assist you in creating a program for this student? Yes

Do you communicate your concerns in an ongoing manner to your school support team, principal as well as the student’s family? Yes

Do you smile and tell that student what a nice person they are and thank them for coming in everyday and putting forth their best effort? Yes

At the end of that conversation I came to realize that I had not failed this child. I had to the best of my knowledge and skill set did everything humanly possible to help this individual succeed and that despite my best effort, that progress was not occurring. I had not failed him, because I had not given up on him.

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.