The Power Of A Story

Story is a magical tool that can bring to your students exactly what they need or want at any time in your day, week, month or year. When my students need to laugh I find a story that brings us to belly laughing. When my students need to understand empathy, a story helps them look beyond their own needs to the needs of others. When my students need to learn a lifelong lesson, I find a story where we learn from the positive or negative choices of the characters. Story, whether it is bound with a beautiful cover or comes from the mouth of an 8 year old captivates all of us.

I want to share with you how a young, heroic young girl named Maya has helped change my students and I. Several years ago I met Maya as she entered our school in Grade 1. Maya has had to deal with the effects of a brain tumour all of her life. She has encountered the ill effects of chemotherapy and made hundreds of hospital visits that each time involved some kind of painful treatment. She has lost some mobility, has limited vision and struggles with learning new concepts. Yet despite all of those barriers to living a regular life she is this magical, bundle of positive energy that lights up a room. When you are around Maya you can’t help but smile and enjoy life.

I teach some very challenging students who have learned how to use aggression and violence as a way to deal with the struggles they face. Our first unit in our class this year was looking at heroes, both fictional superheroes and nonfictional everyday heroes. We established some criteria as to what makes a hero and have been examining a variety of characters and real people to determine if they will make it to our hero board. I told my class that they were going to be able to meet one of my heroes. They were all excited and made multiple predictions as to who that hero might be and what made them a hero to me. So on one quiet Thursday morning the call from the office came that our guests had arrived. I went down with our class receptionist and welcomed them. As you would expect, the excitement was at a peak as to who would walk through our classroom door. As Maya carefully and slowly made her way in to our circle area there was an absolute look of shock. How could this young girl be Mr. B’s heroine?

Over the next hour, Maya with the help of her Mom shared her story. The group was captivated as they went through a spectrum of emotions listening to the courageous story of Maya. Despite my knowing and hearing this story many times, the students noticed the tears in my eyes. By the time Maya was ready to leave, the boys had embraced her and made her an official part of our classroom.

Needless to say, the letter writing we did that afternoon was some of the most powerful I had experienced with this group of students.There are so many stories out there that can and need to be shared to help all of us become better people.


What Elizabeth Taught Me About Spec Ed

(This is a story about a student I had several years ago. Her name wasn’t actually Elizabeth. Teaching her taught me a lot about Spec Ed – how to tackle problems in steps, how to work with students to find what works for them individually, and above all else, how incredible it feels to know you really helped someone learn how to be successful.)

I heard about Elizabeth before my job even started. She was one of those students. If you haven’t had one yet, you will: the kids whose reputations precede them. The “hard” kids.

Let’s backtrack, shall we?

Fresh out of my teacher education program, I had just accepted a position teaching a full-day kindergarten program at a private child care centre. At that time, the OT lists for my board (OCDSB) weren’t open, so in order to pay the bills and get some money for AQs in the hopes of one day getting into the board, I took this job.

Because this was a child care centre, my class was small: 10 students total, with 2 more transitioning in partway through the year. This was starting to seem like a pretty easy assignment… until we got to Elizabeth.

“Oh, she’s going to give you a run for your money.”

“She’s vicious.”

“Good luck with her, she’s a nasty one.”

Those were all things people actually said to me about this child. A five year old. I have something of a stubborn streak in me, so right then and there I decided I was going to make it my goal to change Elizabeth’s experience at school.

Elizabeth was a bright, articulate girl who loved story time more than anything, needed you to know her opinion on something, and readily shared facts about things like the moon because she was always reading books and learning new things. She loved art, and she really loved success.

In the classroom, however, Elizabeth seemed to act out. It didn’t take long for me to see what other teachers had warned me about: she hit, she threw things, she had a hard time working with her peers, she couldn’t sit through circle without making at least one other student miserable, and she would have meltdowns during seatwork time.

Other teachers had tried positive and negative reinforcement strategies with her, their success limited. Her parents seemed defeated and were obviously reticent to even ask how her day had gone when they picked her up at the end of the day. I couldn’t figure this kid out: she really enjoyed learning, she really enjoyed arriving at school every day, and she loved her peers, so where was her behaviour coming from?

So I asked her. No one had ever asked her why she did these things. After a particularly trying circle time, I took her aside and calmly asked her why she had trouble sitting through circle time without rolling on the floor, taking out books from the shelves, or touching everyone and everything around her.

And at the tender age of five, she said, “Sitting still hurts.” Her tone was serious. She was distressed. “When I sit still for too long it hurts so I move around, but then I hit people and they get mad.”

It was clear that she felt compelled to move, and that asking her to stop moving was having a detrimental effect on her ability to engage with the class. Together, we discussed some strategies to help her through circle time. As a starting point, we tried fidget toys; she was partial to two bits of LEGO which had been put together with a hinge, so she could move the pieces back and forth while she sat and listened. Most of the time, just having that small toy was enough to keep her physical body occupied while she focused mentally on circle time. Some days she needed more than that, and in those times, we had an arrangement where she could get up and walk around the classroom as long as she didn’t play with anything and was still participating.

So that’s what she did. I sat with the rest of the class, going through our daily calendar work, reading stories, singing songs… and she did everything we did, she was just walking around while she did it. When she had something to contribute, she came to the edge of the carpet and raised her hand just like her peers. She waited to be called on. And when she felt she needed to get up and move again, she would show me a peace sign with her hand, I would nod, and off she would go.

These two small strategies completely changed her experience at circle time. After a month of success, we decided together that we would start tackling seat work next. It turned out that seat work was just as simple to “fix”: she just needed breaks where she could get up and move. She would work on her printing/reading for five minutes, go to a centre for a few minutes, come back to her seat work for another five minutes, go back to centres, etc. Some days she was able to get her seat work done all in one shot, other days she needed to break it up repeatedly, but she always finished it. I used a small timer (which I taught her how to operate) so that she could manage this herself.

There were other things I did to help, of course; I tracked her behaviour relentlessly to see what was and wasn’t working, I tried other strategies like an exercise ball to sit on, I worked with her parents to maintain consistent language and discipline between school and home. But the circle time and seat work strategies were really the key.

As Elizabeth’s behaviour in class improved, her relationships with her peers also improved dramatically. Because she wasn’t upsetting them at circle time any more, they were more keen to play with her and call her to join them at centres. Their forgiveness of her past behaviour was total and almost immediate. Even though they had known her for years and had nearly all been hit, pushed, bit, or yelled at by her, they were willing to set that aside and give her another chance.

By our 100th Day Celebration, I wasn’t tracking her behaviour any more because there wasn’t any need. By the end of the school year, all of our strategies were so second nature that I wasn’t even aware of them any more.

I saw her once a few years later when I was working as a daily OT at her elementary school. I said hello, we shared a smile, and off she went with her friends. She seemed to be doing well!

So, what’s the point of all this? I mean, it’s a nice story, sure, and we probably all have a student or ten like this…

1) Identification isn’t everything. Because this was the private system, I didn’t have any specialists to call on and I couldn’t refer her for any assessments to determine whether or not she had an official diagnosis. I could have suggested that her parents get her tested privately, but I was too new to feel that it was my place to make any comments like that. The thing is, even without being “identified” as Spec Ed, I was able to implement several accommodations which ended up helping her immensely. I didn’t need a legal document telling me that she needed to break work into chunks; I just went for it.

Now, as a public school teacher, I do the same thing: from the first day, I put strategies into place based on my students’ needs, even if they don’t have an IEP. If I think it’s going to help, I do it. I still flag students of concern, don’t get me wrong – but I don’t sit around waiting for those flagged students to actually be assessed. There is a LOT you can do while waiting for your concerns to be addressed.


2) Class size is important. I was teaching a full day kindergarten class with ten students. I was managing several other challenges in that class, but because I only had ten students, I was able to give each of my students a significant portion of my time and energy. It was easy to track behaviour and implement strategies because I only had ten students. I can’t imagine trying to identify, address, and follow up on students of concern in a full day kindergarten classroom in our public boards because they have two or three times as many students as I had. This is part of why we are fighting for smaller class sizes in Ontario.


3) Your students can tell you a lot about their needs. We spend a lot of time drawing on our own past experiences, training, and psychology in order to come up with strategies to help our Spec Ed students, but sometimes we forget that sometimes the best source of inspiration is the student him- or herself. I have made it a point, ever since teaching Elizabeth, to work with all of my students (not just the ones with IEPs) and have them identify their strengths and needs. I make them advocate for themselves: if they need to sit closer to the board, or not near their friends, or have a seat totally away from their peers during lessons, then they tell me that and I make it happen. The results have been astonishing and have dramatically reduced the amount of behavioural problems I deal with on a day to day basis.


Make them take ownership of their learning needs. You won’t regret it, I promise. 🙂

Fine Weather for an Outdoor Library

Only recently have we been able to take advantage of some lovely warm, sunny days. Spring time has been rather elusive, bringing exceptionally cold weather and very muddy school yard conditions. So it was with great joy this week that we were able to take our class library outdoors, along with sunhats and sunglasses, to sit on the front lawn under the shade of an enormous maple tree. At the beginning of the week, we were in sparse shade, but the students noticed that by the end of the week, the leaves on the tree had filled out and there was plenty of shade for 20 of us to spread out in.

On the way out of the front doors of the school, I let the office know where we were going in case they needed to find us. Once outside and using the shade of the reading tree as our reading space, the students sat wherever they wanted and however they wanted. Some sat cross legged, alone with their books, while others lay on their backs, tummies or their sides to read. One student who tends towards anxiety, however, was really only able to take advantage of the fact that he could lie down in the grass with a book over his face. He was enjoying the relaxing more than the reading, and it was clearly what he needed to do at that moment. After his break, he came back into our discussion circle, relaxed and happy.

Our school is on a quiet street, but even with a few distractions such as vehicles going by or a person walking their dog on the sidewalk, the students were calm and very quiet. Considering I would usually describe my group of students as ‘high energy and talkative’ rather than ‘calm and quiet’, this was a pleasant transformation. I believe being outdoors had everything to do with this. Before reading a story to them , I asked the students if they found that they read less, the same or more when we brought our reading outside. They overwhelmingly claimed that it was not only more, but a LOT more reading that they were able to enjoy when we were outside. As a French Immersion teacher, I couldn’t have been happier to see and hear that my students were able to focus and read in French.

Our outdoor library, such as it is, consists of a few bins of books from our classroom library that we bring out to the front lawn. It is really not any different than when we have our reading time in the classroom – it just feels a whole lot more special because it’s outside. Now the students expect every reading block to take place under the reading tree. It is a delightful time in our day.

Water Day, Earth Day and Poetry

The ideology of an eight year old can be inspiring and heart warming. In the form of a poem, it is also honest.

For International Water Day (March 22), my students researched and experimented outdoors to see what they could find out about water. We turned this project into Water Week by creating a bulletin board in the main hall sharing water facts written on large paper raindrops. In preparation for Earth Day (April 22), students looked for signs of spring in and around the school yard. They found helicopter seeds, worm castings, clumps of moss growing in dirt and on bits of tree bark, early dandelion leaves, and trees and shrubs in bud. From the school yard, they also heard and learned to identify birds and their songs; Cardinal (easy to locate from his song and brilliant red plumage), Chickadee, Canada goose, Robin, and Mallard duck (we observed a couple, male and female, as they waddled around the schoolyard one rainy day across from our portable).

Sadly, Earth Day was no celebration at our school. Ironically, it was the day the city decided to cut down all the trees lining the sidewalk along the school fence as all of the trees had become victims of the Emerald Ash Borer. Seven trees were limbed, their branches tossed into the hopper for chipping, and the trunks sawed down to the ground in chunks, right beside our portable. Some of them were 45 years old. The fact that the city and the school board will be replanting 16 new trees in and around the school yard was a bit of a consolation to the students, however, they pined for a tree they named, “Hug Me” which grew outside the school yard gate a few metres from our classroom.

The students were brimming with questions and thoughts about what they had recently learned and witnessed.With April being Poetry Month, what better way to express yourself than in poetry? We had already explored many different forms of poetry, but to consolidate their thoughts without the constraints of a rhyming scheme (a thrill and challenge for some, a cause for deep anxiety for others), the students could share their ideas in a repetition poem that began, “Je veux vivre dans un monde où…” (I want to live in a world where…). This turned out to be a great form for a poem because everyone had something to say and by repeating the phrase, their poems took shape while their thoughts filled the page; I want to live in a world where trees don’t get sick and die; where you can hear bird songs instead of machines; where everyone has clean water to drink; where there are no iPads or iPhones; where people are nice to each other… Some students ended their poems with a rallying call, “Help me make this world!”

Their poems, written in colourful letters and decorated with drawings and images cut from magazines, will be proudly displayed for the school community at our Literacy Café in May. They are not all talk, either, for along with their proclamations for a better world, students have organized a school yard clean up and sprouted seeds for our school garden. Some have asked for help writing letters to the government to ask for protection of the Blue Whales in the St Lawrence Seaway and the Blanding’s Turtle in a wetland that was recently paved over and build up for a convention centre. In an effort to raise awareness, other students in the class have prepared messages for the morning announcements sharing what they have learned about water and about the Earth, and others still want to help out by having a class garage sale to raise money to protect the Great Lakes, “the last great supply of fresh drinking water on Earth” (quote from Waterlife, National Film Board of Canada, 2009). And so the inspiration continues and the stewardship begins.

A Year of Septembers

My colleague and I have had a challenging class since September. In fact, we are calling this year “The Year of Septembers” because although the students have come a long way, they are still very unsettled and we still spend a considerable amount of time re-establishing class rules and expectations. Thankfully, my colleague, who teaches English to my French Immersion students, is an amazing, funny, dedicated and sincere individual. What’s more, we are both on the same page when it comes to where we are with the students and where we’d like them to progress.

Our biggest challenge this year has been getting support for over 7 of our 19 students who came into grade 3 with a variety of issues and difficulties in learning. We have probably been a thorn in the side of the administration in our efforts to get additional in-class support for a few of the higher-needs students. However, it has been worth it as we have begun to see incremental improvements in learning skills and overall collaborative behaviour within our group. But it has taken great effort! We have often been exasperated with strategies that worked one week and then became ineffective the following. Our aim has been to express our collective expectations to the class so the students will understand that we are a team. This is especially important given that my colleague is only in the class for an hour at the beginning of the day, which has the added challenge of instructional time set aside for morning announcements and the national anthem. To help set the tone, I greet the students with my colleague as they come into the portable, allowing her the time to speak individually to certain students and to help them get settled into their morning routine.

During the week, we meet briefly to bring eachother up to date, to review goals and to cowrite email correspondence to parents. We support eachother with regard to behavioural goals as well as curriculum goals. This has been an absolute necessity as lessons and whole days have fallen apart due to extreme behavioural challenges and consequent interruptions in engagement in the class that have translated into a divergence from the lessons geared to meet curriuculum expectations. None the less, the students are learning and growing and progressing, and after many series of meetings with administration and parents, appropriate supports are being put in place to help us help the students with high needs, which in turn, has allowed us to also meet the various needs of all the other students. It has been an exhausting year thus far, but there has emmerged a sort of cohesion out of the often chaotic environment. Although every month has felt like September, my colleague and I are happy to see the pay-off in the successes of all the students.

Updating the IEP

With the end of Term 1, comes the IEP review and update process. While the intention is that the IEP is regularly reviewed and updated, many IEPs lay stagnant all term and are dusted off at reporting time to be updated. Teachers are excellent at setting goals, supporting goals, working with children to achieve goals, and even revising and modifying goals along the way. We often slip up in the record keeping portion of the process. How many times have we called the parent of a student on an IEP to talk about how they are doing, what they can be working on at home to support progress, etc., and not logged it in the IEP contact record? I often forgot to include that until it was IEP review time and then I would grab my communication binder and update. It is so important to keep the IEP up-to-date always. If you set a goal for a student to be able to count up to 50 and notice that they can count to 60, that goal needs to be changed on the IEP immediately! The whole point of the IEP is to have goals that are attainable, but not too easy. The hope is that we will push the student beyond their current ability level to extend their knowledge, hopefully closing the gap between where they are currently working, and the level their class is working at.

When recording communication, goals, assessments, accommodations, etc. on the IEP, I find it helpful to include as much detail as possible. Many IEP engines have drop-down menus, check boxes, etc. This might not always provide you with everything you need to paint an accurate picture of the student. Don’t be afraid to use the “other” box and explain. If you are doing something that is “outside of the box” for a student and it is working, document it!

We like to think that those students will be at our school forever and so will we, but that is not always the case. Unfortunately, families move, teachers move, people get ill, things happen. If you are suddenly not able to be at school, it is important that those records are up-to-date. Last year, I became ill and was quite abruptly sent home from work to await surgery. I was given next to no notice that I was not going to be at work, and the duration was undetermined. In the time that I was gone, two of my students moved. Had I not had their records up-to-date, I would have had to come in off of my sick leave (which might have jeopardized my leave) to collect up my data to update their records. Keeping things thorough and detailed also means your colleagues who have the student in the future know what things have been done for the student, what works, where the strengths are, etc., without having to track down previous teachers. With Lay-Offs, School Surplus, Transfers, etc., the staff in a school can change pretty rapidly. That document might be he only thing left in the school that really knows a student by the end of the staffing process in a given year.

There are lots of sites that will help with writing goals, scaffolding to ensure goals are progressing toward a larger goal, etc. It is often easy to get the IEP completed once you sit down and get to work. It is feeling the urgency and the importance that the document holds that really motivates a teacher to keep the IEP updated on paper, not just in their daily planning.

Setting Goals



Last year at this time, I introduced my class to goal setting. Although this is often done in September, I feel it is more effective in January when students have had the opportunity to received feedback in all subject areas. During our Writing Workshop, we discussed and wrote goals that were particular to student success at school. Many of the goals were vague or too broad, so we used the SMART goal process (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely). This framework really helped students create better goals that suited their individual needs. Once the goals were created, students wrote them on foam discs and we hung them around the classroom to refer to and measure against.

This January, I plan to do the same goal setting work with my 6/7 class. I have found an article on edutopia that articulates the process effectively:


It shows how students are more engaged with their learning and goals when they know what they have to do and in what timeframe to achieve them. The article also provides information on goal setting for character traits, using peer review.

In The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning, an activity is provided to align students goals, strengths, and beliefs as they relate to their life in school. The activity is suggested as a first day of school activity, but it would also work well in January, when students are comfortable to share more in their established classroom community. You can find this activity on page 36.

Goal setting is a task that correlates with the idea of growth mindset. Students should be encouraged to set goals for themselves at any time in the year. By helping them create goals that are attainable, you will also help them feel success.

Looking Forward to January

While I am enjoying a holiday from the classroom, from time to time, occasional reminders creep into my thoughts that we will shortly be back at work with only a few weeks before the end of the first term. To quiet these reminders, I think about a few of the activities which I am looking forward to and which I will be able to comment on in my reports.

One activity all my grade 3 students are excited about is producing a puppet show of Robert Munch’s “The Snowsuit”. Before the holidays, students brought in old socks so that they can create sock puppets to be used in the play. The first week back at school in January, my students will be busy at work creating their puppets and props while learning their lines for the puppet show. The holidays can be a stressful time and after 2 weeks of a disruption in routine, many students (and teachers) have a hard time switching back to school mode. With some management and support, a collaborative activity which is student centred, like a puppet show or a play, gives students independence and structure and can be a nice way to begin the New Year. It is also a good alternative to seatwork right after the holidays.

Something else I put in my plans for the first weeks back at school is to be outside everyday with my class. With a little preplanning, I make sure I take my students outside for math – building and measuring snowmen and monitoring temperature changes; social studies – snowshoeing around the school yard imagining we are visiting Wendat, Anishinaabe and settler communities; science – observing plants in winter; language arts – using the 5 senses to describe a winter day; and phys. ed. – playing in the snow after a fresh snowfall. A letter home to inform parents that we will be going outside on a regular basis helps to have students come to school prepared with proper gear or a change of clothing in case they get wet. To guarantee accessibility, however, the school always has a collection of extra gear students can use if they are missing something warm and dry to wear.

It’s not always easy to look forward to heading back to school after the holidays. Drama and outdoor activities are perfect for January because they help with getting back into the groove and break up the daily routine with a little something different.

Visual learners that are visually impaired?

Is there such thing as a visual learner that is visually impaired? If you came to visit my grade four music classroom you would meet her. She would tell you all about her favorite lip gloss, her new music she is learning and her favourite TV shows. Basically, you would be lucky to get a word in edgewise. But one of the greatest things about having this student this year is that she has taught me some very important skills for teaching music to students who are visually impaired.

First off, just because she is visually impaired doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to see the music or instruments just like everyone else. She has been a committed recorder player this year and I realized quickly that verbally explaining hand position or tonguing to her caused her confusion. Instead, she became very successful when I stood directly in front of her and showed her the technique.

She also tells me if there is not enough natural light in the class. She will ask me to open the blinds or ask me if she can go and stand beside the window. I try to never stand in front of the window myself because the bright light is then behind me, which makes it difficult for her to see.

Technology has also been our friend this year. I was busy preparing music that was enlarged for her to take home when she informed me that she has technology at home to enlarge everything. She also has taken pictures of items on her tablet and increase their size to see them more clearly.

This student also has incredibly strong sense of pitch. She is easily able to play pieces on the recorder that she has heard and can sing along to songs soon after learning them. I thought that the heightened sense of pitch for visually impaired people was a myth, but after reading a few articles on the topic it seems that that is the reality. People who are visually impaired often have perfect pitch or a strong sense of pitch. My student certainly fits in that category.

Teaching this student has taught me a lot as an educator. It has confirmed some previously held beliefs, and has brought to light some new discoveries about teaching someone who is visually impaired. This has made me a better teacher for all of my students.

Kids Love to Dance

I find dancing with students is usually one of the easiest ways to get them moving during DPA. With a good selection of tunes and a variety of ‘dance’ expectations, everybody can get down, whether preteens in grade 6 or really bouncy grade 1s. Not only is it great for DPA – especially during inclement weather – it is also a lot of fun, a nice break from sitting and thinking, and a chance to be creative without being assessed or evaluated.

The benefits of dance are many; it is a great cardio workout, it is an opportunity to physically express a range of emotions in a creative, socially acceptable way, it stimulates the brain and it releases mental and physical tension.  Although dancing in public can make a few students anxious, I have found that if you make dance a regular part of your routine and set a few ground rules, students who are not sure whether they want to participate tend to eventually warm up and feel more comfortable about joining in. It can also be an accessible activity for students with a limited range of motion.

According to the curriculum, “Dance is expressive movement with purpose and form. All dance communication is transmitted through movement – that is, through the body movements and gestures of the dancer” (p. 14 of The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8/The Arts). While I encourage free form and creative movement, I do not want a mosh pit in the classroom.  I rein in that potential chaos by encouraging students to think of dance as having a structure like a song or a poem, with a chorus or verse that is repeated as it tells a story or a message. For grade 3 students, this is easily understood when we dance like animals. I use a book some students made a few years ago called, “Danser comme…” In it are drawings of their favourite animals. When I use the book for DPA, I put on some music and hold up the book for all to see, turning the pages while I move around the classroom in time with the music. Often students begin by communicating an animal through sound, as in drama, rather than through movement, as in dance. It can get pretty noisy on the monkey page. When I remind students to show me that they are a monkey using a series of repeated movements and gestures, then some wonderful creative dance starts to happen. In a similar activity, OPHEA has dance movement cards as part of their Diabetes Awareness Program that are adaptable for any grade and work in the same manner. All you have to do is play some music and hold up the cards to show the dance moves to the students .

For music, I like to choose samples from around the world, rather than something from the pop music stations. The truth is, I can never keep up with what is hot and what is not, and at times, pop songs have lyrics which can be distracting. I want the students to be mindful of how their bodies are moving, so it seems to work better when they aren’t too familiar with the music. Lately, I’ve been playing Bangra from the Bend It like Beckham soundtrack; a collection of drum music from Japan and the Congo; Brazilian folk/techno from DJ Dolores; and First Nations electronic dance music from A Tribe Called Red. The students are really inspired by the terrific sounds and rhythms they hear and move freely to the beat.

For the older grades, line dances are easily brought into the classroom. If you can’t create your own line dance, there is a selection of line dances that can be found on YouTube if you need some inspiration. This way, the music and the moves are already done for you. The Cha Cha Slide was very popular a few years back. It is still handy to use and you don’t need a dance degree to teach it because the DJ calls out the moves, just like in a square dance. Sid the Sloth’s Continental Drift (from the film Ice Age) seems to be making the rounds at our school lately and Michael Jackson’s Thriller is always a challenge but a thrill for anyone who dances it.

Whatever resource you use, I encourage you to bring dance regularly into your classroom because it’s good for the brain and the body. And, it’s a lot of fun.