Harvesting Our Apples

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sharing Your Passions Early and Often

When you are passionate about something, whether it is spending time in the natural world, cooking, art or music your excitement is palpable. It is also contagious. I have used this belief for the last three decades in my teaching practice. Every September my initial plan for developing a learning community and establishing relationships with the new collection of young learners is designed around those areas that I am passionate about.

My personal passions that I bring into my classroom centre on movement, life outdoors and literacy. Through these three vehicles I engage my students from the moment they enter into my classroom. I teach them that you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy moving, to have fun through games and play. I spend as much time in the outdoors using the natural world as a springboard to the curricula we will journey through over the next 10 months. Finally, my love for reading is shared through a treasure of wonderful, engaging books that bring learning to life for my students. My favourite book to start off my year is ‘YO! YES!’ (written and illustrated by Chris Raschka) as it helps set the stage for the type of community our classroom will strive to become.

This is not a drill. We are live.

Dawn of new year.
Dawn of new year.

It’s the first day.
I’m alone in my classroom.
Wow! It’s so calm in here.
And why not? It is nearly 2 hours before the first bell of the new year.

Why do I feel so excited? Yet, at the same time like butterflies are barfing in my stomach? 

We’ve all thought about it, dreamt about it, and for many, myself included, stayed awake the night before thinking about it. Our first day. Albeit,  only for a moment, or as part of lifelong “professional reflection”, the first day of school evokes feelings of anticipation, excitement, fear, or fearcitement (my word).

Did I set my alarm? Am I dreaming? What will my students be like? What about the parents? Will admin be stopping by our class? Is everything organized? Did I pack a lunch? Where’s my coffee? What if they don’t like me?

If you’re experiencing anything from self-doubt to euphoria to start the year, take heart; you’re not alone. Whether this thought life is old hat or brand new for you; congratulations you’re a teacher. For many entering the classroom for the very first time, it is the culmination of many years of hard work and dedication to our profession.

In this new era, just landing a job is worthy of celebration in Ontario. So when you get a moment, set aside some time to take it all in.

It seems like only yesterday. I recall being there 2 hours before the first bell. I recall the faces of students and parents meeting the “new” teacher outside. I recall the first big breath taken before entering the classroom. I recall the sense of accomplishment knowing I survived. Moreover, I recall this where I began to thrive.

Thinking back on the excitement from my first days of school; I  appreciate how they have led to personal growth, professional friendships and constant learning.

So take some time and enjoy the moments that can only happen on a first day of school. Take time to watch the parents who are seeing their child off for the first time. Take time to notice the student who is standing off to the side trying not to make eye contact. Take time to be still and appreciate the world of difference you are about to make in the lives of your learners. Take time to get caught up in the excitement, and let it carry you through that first day.

Enjoy every moment. I know I will too.


Photo of Lisa Taylor

Is it worth “picking your battles” in the classroom?

“Choose your battles.” – It is something you have heard a thousand times, and have probably applied it in your classroom or on the playground. But is choosing your battles really worth it in the long run?

The short answer is NO! Absolutely not. But why?

When you set a boundary, like make sure you push your chair in whenever you get up from your desk to avoid tripping, etc., you have to stand by it. If you want it to ALWAYS happen, you have to ALWAYS enforce it. If you have a “no calling out on the carpet” rule, even if you have a child who has a behaviour plan and has an IEP goal to only call out 3 times per carpet time, you still have to address it when it happens. In my classroom, we spend all of September establishing these classroom rules, or boundaries, and we make sure they are solid.

One of my biggest pet peeves is lining up. I hate it when kids just slam their chairs in and run! So all of September we practice. We work on how to stand up all at once (I even have a palms up, pushing up towards the ceiling in front of my body signal for them) and push in our chairs. We try it once and if someone forgets to push in their chair, I address it, and we all sit down and try again. This works best if they are getting ready to go to something they LOVE like recess, gym, snack, etc. They are eager to get it right! Go over it a few times until they get it right. There is always a positive you can point out. “Addressing it” doesn’t necessarily mean saying, “Jimmy didn’t push in his chair and Amy was talking.” You can address the same problems by stating, “Erin pushed her chair in so nicely and Marc was so quiet as he did this!” Jimmy and Amy will (hopefully) recognize their mistakes and correct them the next time. Once they have successfully done that, let them line up. As you move through September, add in steps – silently push in chairs and stand behind them. Wait for the signal to go to the door and WALK quietly. Again, if there is a mistake, go right back to sitting and try again. It doesn’t take that long to perfect and they will love to show off their mad skills to other teachers, classes, principals, really anyone who will watch!

We practice walking down the hall quietly, getting our lunches out, how to leave the coat hook after recess, how to leave the chairs and desks at the end of the day – really anything!

But why do we not just pick our battles. If we are running late to start gym and someone didn’t get into line properly, why bother stopping to correct it? Why not just get to the gym so we can move on? I’ll tell you why. Routine, clear expectations, and boundaries. Children need these things. If most of they have to line up properly, but sometimes they don’t, they will never know when they have to do it properly, and when they can just do it however they wish. This will result in chaos. Children need clear expectations. They need to know that if they do X, the response will ALWAYS be Y. This way they know exactly what your expectations are and can behave accordingly.

If you want kids to put their hands up but then when they call out you accept their answers and don’t address the issue, they learn that it is okay to call out sometimes. They cannot necessarily establish a clear idea of when it is okay, but they know sometimes it will be okay so they sometimes do it. If it is NEVER okay, they don’t need to wonder what the expectations are.

But what if you want kids to be able to call out sometimes? You need a visual or verbal cue. I always had a special hat, or signal. I found a hat or prop was tricky because you don’t always have it. I would put an open palm up to my ear after I asked a question if it was okay to call it out. This is something we also practiced – kind of like Simon Says. You don’t have to make a negative statement when someone slips up, you can address it in a positive manner or joking manner, as long as you don’t belittle the expectation.

Children thrive when they know what is expected of them. If you mix it up and “choose your battles” with them, you will lose many of them. There will always be the students that amidst all of the chaos, will still wait quietly with their hand up because they know that is what you want, but if you don’t reward them by calling on them and pointing out to the others that you are calling on those students because of their positive behaviours, you will undoubtedly lose them all in the end.

Classroom management can be a struggle and it can take years to find something that works for you. But whatever your system, be consistent. If you only follow through sometimes, your students will be moving through your class blindly, never knowing when they will be “on” and when they won’t be. That feeling of uncertainty is overwhelming, especially for young ones. Set clear boundaries, teach them how to work within them, and uphold them. This is sure to set your class on a positive note!

And don’t forget, sometimes you need to modify! If your class can’t handle the stand up, push in your chair, wait quietly behind your desk until you get the signal, then modify it to suit your class. If they can only handle it without the pause at their desk, but do everything else flawlessly, cut that part out. And don’t hesitate to take some time to teach any other teachers that work with your class your classroom magic tricks. I will often even close my eyes and tell the other teacher that the “classroom fairy will move my class from their desks to the door without a peep – watch!” and do the signals and when I open my eyes, they are there. The young ones love this too!

Whatever you do, just be consistent and uphold the “law” all the time! It doesn’t help anyone when you are too lax with the rules.

Photo of Tammy Axt

Planning Time Coverage in an Autism Spectrum Disorder Class

Hi everyone! My name is Tammy Gallant and I am a music teacher for students in grade 1, 2 and 5 in the Peel District School Board. This is my fourth year as a music teacher and I hope to be able to assist those new to the planning time role in schools across Ontario. My school is a suburban school about 30 minutes outside of Toronto with a very high ELL population. In addition to music, I also have planning time coverage in the full day kindergarten and contained Autism Spectrum Disorder classes. I hope you enjoy my posts.

As mentioned above, I am very lucky to be doing coverage with the students in the contained Autism Spectrum Disorder class. A colleague of mine was also given the ASD class on a different day. So, the two of us decided to meet before the first day to discuss possible ideas for our 40 minute classes with them. The conversation went something like this:
“Tammy, what do you think we should do with these students during our first period with them?”
“Maybe we could try to do some songs or games, but I really don’t know these students as many of them are new to the school.”
“Which do you think would be better, a game or a song?”
“Well, possibly some songs. In the past, I have had great success with some action songs but I don’t really know this group of students that well. They may not like them.”
“What do you think about some kind of craft or art activity?”
“I haven’t done a lot of art activities in the past with the ASD class as they haven’t really enjoyed it. But, these new students might really like them.”
The conversation went back and forth like this for about five minutes until we both realized that we could plan all day long but it didn’t matter until we actually met and interacted with the students. We decided that our best course of action for the first four or five periods that we had this class was to try a variety of activities including: songs, bean bag games, puppetry, books, short videos, art activities, instrument building, costume play, French language exposure, etc… We also tried different structures within the class such as teacher-directed, small group, circle time, student-led, and exploration time.
We decided that we both would take some observational notes and meet after the first two weeks to discuss some longer term planning for this class. The aim will be to make it as enjoyable as possible for these students while supporting them to meet their own unique goals. I will keep you updated on our evolving program.

Overheard in an Ontario Classroom…
One kindergarten class was asked what kinds of things they could make up songs about. After answers like butterflies and school, one old soul in the front row raised his hand and told us that he would like to make up songs about being brokenhearted. One can only assume that his family are avid country music listeners.

New Beginnings


My name is Alison Board. I have taught for eight years. This is a second (or third) career for me, as I was previously a librarian and a technical writer.

Over the years I have developed specific interests within education. They include early years literacy, the learning environment, an inquiry approach, and inclusivity. This year I will be teaching a grade 6/7 class and will be in another new classroom (4th room in 4th year!).

September is a time of new beginnings for the students and for me. I look forward to the first few weeks of community building. This requires you to slow everything down, and not feel the pressure of jumping into content on the second day. I also look forward to trying new ways of teaching and learning. This year I will be using Google Docs to share documents with students, confer, and collect work. I will also be introducing a daily poetry cafe. My students will have French every day in the second last period. We will meet for the last 30 minutes (about 20 minutes really) – so I am hoping we can read, share, write, listen and love poetry in a collaborative and reflective way that ends our day on positive note.

I look forward to sharing more of my teaching and learning journey with you.

Photo of Mike Beetham

I Lost My Pencil

If I had a dollar for every time I heard ‘I lost my pencil. I don’t have an eraser.” I would, well I wouldn’t be blogging about it. This is just one of many ways that off task time takes away from instructional focus. Over the last several years I have experimented with a communal focus in terms of supplies and materials. My intent was to reduce the energy spent and ultimately time lost  looking for basic working tools. I started by having containers that held pencils and containers that held erasers and they were placed on work areas. The idea was the students just had to get their book out and the writing tools would be there right in front of them. The students would just return it to the container where they borrowed it from. This produced immediate results in that as a group we seemed to be organized and ready to go sooner. This routine had to be taught and consistently applied. Of course students were allowed to use their own tools, but quick access was just an arm’s reach away.

As this plan evolved I had to figure out how to keep the pencils sharpened, rotation of old pencils out and new pencils and erasers in. Well, that ended being a great job for  a team of students (student helpers). The current edition of this strategy is where I create complete tool kits (pencils, erasers, glue, scissors, rulers and highlighters) and each team is responsible for caring for their work materials. This shift in thinking from individual to communal supplies also assisted with students who have difficulty supplying their own tools, it eliminates the competition in having the most creative or expensive pencils or pens and puts the students on task earlier and for longer periods of time.

I am very interested in other suggestions around this topic. Please add your experiences.

Photo of Alison Board

Assessment and Planning for Reports

Whenever I complete reports, I seem to reflect on the practice of evaluation and how to improve my assessment practices. Here is what I have  noticed:

  • assessment begins when you first meet your students. This provides a starting point, so you can recognize growth or progress. Initial observations may seem too obvious to record, but are often useful at time of the Progress report or the first interview with parents.
  • observation charts made like a grid with the students first names in alphabetical order are my preferred format. I have tried observation notebooks (one for each student) and index cards. The grid observation chart is simple as I can copy a stack and keep on clipboards around the room for quick accessibility. It is also easy to see if a block is empty – ensuring that I am making observations equitably. I also find these observation charts useful when marking. There is enough space to provide a grade for an assignment as well as a quote or excerpt of the student’s work. I then add the sheet to my assessment binder. When writing reports, I can refer to the grade of an assignment as well as an excerpt, which I include as an example for the report – showing how the student demonstrated their understanding.
  • photos are an excellent way to capture student work and refer to during report writing. I have used my smart phone to capture pictures of the students in tableaux, their writing in their notebooks, artwork, collaborative pieces, brainstorming discussions, math activities, and music (video of the students experimenting with instruments). Referring back to the photos and videos provided evidence of student engagement and understanding that I may have missed with anecdotal notes.
In addition to my preferred practices, there is a section in The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning book (pp 84 -90) that provides practices more specific for Early Years, guidelines and considerations for report card comments, as well as information on IEPs and English Language Learners.

Preparing for the First Day

This year I will be moving classrooms and divisions. Teaching a grade 5/6 class at the other end of school from the Kindergarten section will be a big change for me and also for my students. I am sure they will be looking for glimpses of the “Kindergarten Teacher” that they saw in the halls last year. So I am planning to bring some of what I have learned as a Kindergarten teacher to my new students in grade 5/6. Statistics show that over 90% of children in Kindergarten enjoy school. This number dramatically decreases as children reach the junior and intermediate grades. I want the children in my class to be engaged in their learning and enjoy coming to school.

When starting the new school year I always look through the practical information provided in “The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning,” to find suggestions on setting up the classroom or planning for building inclusion. On page 22, in a section on Environment, it refers to the Reggio Emilia approach, which considers the children’s development and relationships with their environment. The chapter continues with, “Not only should the classroom represent your beliefs and values about teaching, it should also support them. In order to make the classroom engaging and inviting, consider what you want students to feel when they come in and how you might communicate this in a non-verbal way.”

I always find the environment a good place to start when planning for a new group of students. The layout, the materials, even the lighting can affect how the students interact with the resources and with each other. My goal this year is to have a classroom that is comfortable and aesthetically inviting, yet organized to foster responsibility and independence. I want to encourage collaboration and provide areas for movement within the classroom that focus on particular interests such as reading, art, science & technology, and math.