“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Daring Classrooms

I state the obvious when I say that teaching is a demanding job.  If you are reading this, you are most likely a teacher and this is not news to you.  I’d like to highlight a resource that feeds the soul of a teacher (and quite frankly a human being) while also providing some strategies for integrating that soul feeding into your classroom practice for your students.  Wait, what…that exists?  It is a website from Brene Brown called Daring Classrooms.  If you haven’t heard of her yet, you can find “The Call to Courage” on Netflix and/or her Ted Talk on Vulnerability.  She is inspirational in leadership, in life and in work.  Here is a snippet from her #DaringClassrooms website:

“Teachers are some of our most important leaders. We know that we can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection.

But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do as teachers, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.

Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.

And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.

Teachers: Everyday should be Teacher Appreciation Day. I am so grateful for you and your willingness to show up and create brave, safe spaces where our children can learn, grow, and be seen.”

Some of the short (8-12 minute) video resources from Daring Classrooms include:

How do we avoid the pressure to please?

How do teachers manage oversharing?

How do we help parents understand failing as part of the learning process?

Does the word “disappointed” shame students?

In addition to the video resources there are free downloads for resources, parenting the classroom and daily life.  There are pdfs that you can print out for working with students.  My favourite one is the list of core emotions.  Sometimes when students have triggers they can’t always name or explain the emotion that caused the trigger in behaviour.  Being able to learn about the names and the definitions of core emotions is helpful for students to self-regulate.

Every year in a classroom brings new challenges.  In fact, every day in a classroom will bring on a new challenge.  I hope that as you lead your own #DaringClassroom you will find this resource helpful and that it may feed your teacher soul.

The Gender Gap in Technology

Quote for blog

According to a recent report* by ICTC (the Information and Technology Information Council) Canadian women represent about 50% of the overall workforce but represent only 25% of the technology industry workforce.  Of the 100 major tech companies in Canada only 5 have female CEOs and 1 Co-CEO.   26% of the tech companies have no women in senior leadership at all.  There is a gender wage gap in the industry of $7,000-$20,00 per year.  When I read these statistics I wondered as educators, what can we do about the gender gap in technology?  This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a place to begin:

1.  Build her confidence in her abilities.

2. Cultivate a community of supportive peers.

3.  Provide a STEM/STEAM club for girls.

4. Ensure that access to technology and computer experiences is encouraged and inclusive.

5. Foster interest in computing careers.

6. Be a role model as a LEARNER.

May 11th is National Girls Learning Code Day.  If you are looking to encourage coders in your school, why not begin on May 11th?  Below you will find links to resources for beginning coding.  Many students code on their own at home and may appreciate the opportunity to mentor fellow students.  The resources attached will get you started.  There is no special equipment or robotics required.  Teachers do not have to be expert coders to encourage their students.  Teachers can be role models of resilience, risk taking and problem solving by learning alongside their students.  Teachers only need to open the door and expose their students to the opportunities.

Girls Who Code Canada

National Girls Learn Code Day

Canada Learning Code


Hour of Code



*Cutean, A., Ivus, M. (2017). The Digital Talent Dividend: Shifting Gears in a Changing Economy. Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). Ottawa, Canada.

Elaborated and written by Alexandra Cutean (Director, Digital Innovation Research and Policy). and Maryna Ivus (Senior Analyst, Research and Policy) with generous support from the ICTC Research and Policy Team.

Tools and Resources for Math Talks

One of the reasons that I spent so many years teaching the primary grades is that teaching math to older students terrified me.  Growing up I struggled with math.  I changed schools in the middle of my grade three year and missed a great deal of multiplication and division instruction which haunted me for the rest of my math learning.  I remember crying at the kitchen table over my homework and my father being distraught over not being able to help me.  I totally understand how a student feels when they shutdown and “can’t” get it.  That understanding along with having excellent tools and resources helped me immensely when I taught grade 4 and 5 mathematics.

Math Growth Mindset

Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University and the co-founder and faculty director of youcubed.  This fabulous website provides unique, research based instructional approaches to teaching math.  There are videos for students of different age ranges and the “Week of Inspirational Math” was what helped me to create a positive math learning environment with a growth mindset in my Junior grade classroom.  It doesn’t have to be the first week either-you can do it at any point.  Jo Boaler has also co-written a series of mathematics instructional resources called “Mindset Mathematics” for each of the junior grades.

Math Talks

Number Talks: Whole Number Computation, Gr K-5: A Multimedia Professional Learning Resource became my go-to resource when I began daily number talks with primary students and it made the transition to teaching math in the junior grades much easier.  The format of math discussion remains essentially the same no matter what grade level.  It is an expensive resource but well worth it.  If you want to give math talks a try there are some more affordable online resources that you can use as well.

Math for Love is a website that provides a number of online math talks for K-5.  EduGains gives a brief synopsis of how to develop your math learning community in your classroom.  Another great online resource for daily math talks is Which One Doesn’t Belong?  This website provides all sorts of pictures for math discussion. Eventually my students began creating pictures for other classes to use for their math talks after using the examples on the website. Math Talk Resources is a comprehensive spot for math talk information and connects you to many different math talk resource websites.

When students have the opportunity to discuss math and hear fellow student’s different perspectives, they begin to see their own entry point into every math problem.  They also begin to see the value of challenging each other’s ideas respectfully and adding to one another’s ideas. “What do you see and what do you wonder?” is a much friendlier way to open up math discussion than, “Who can give me the answer?” I am convinced that because my students engaged in respectful math talks they were able to transfer these skills into other discussion topics in our classroom.  For me, the anxious math teacher, math talks became the highlight of our daily math lessons and sometimes, the highlight of my day.


Do-over day


Have you ever wished that you could do something over again to make it better?
In education, this could be everyday, every week, every month, and every year in our classrooms. If we let it.

Have you ever taught a lesson more than once in order to ensure your students understood and could master the concept(s)? What, you’ve done this over and over!? You don’t say?

This happens more often than all of us think and that’s okay. I learnt very quickly in my career that last year’s grand slam lessons do not always guarantee success when used in the years to come. Hence the need for the do-over, or reinvention in order to revive or re-invigorate what we teach.

What about a retest? A few years ago, I completely misread my students’ progress on a Math strand and the results were glaringly obvious that I failed them. After an open discussion about the daunting unit, I had students take their tests, crumple them up, and throw them around the classroom. It was like a giant breath of fresh air had blown into the room as everyone exhaled.

We restarted the unit from ground zero and had a “do-over day” a couple of weeks later with much improved results. As a result, our class grew closer as a learning community. Students knew that I had their best interests at heart and that learning in our class did not come with an expiry date as laid out in dusty long range plans. After all the curriculum says, “by the end of each grade…” and not immediately after an assessment of learning.

Recently, my students were preparing to share a series of movie trailers they created about the book Loser by Jerry Spinelli. Each group, of 2 or 3, was asked to pull key elements from the text and to present them in the form of a live drama or digital version.

After much planning, production, and practice, the big day arrived for everyone to share their work. Not surprisingly, there were a number of interpretations of the text being shared and the trailers were being presented and screened. And then it happened.

Whether it was nerves or a case of over-preparation(I think it’s a thing), the majority of presentations shared were not the shiniest outputs from this group. Cue the do-overs. When I suggested this, the students seemed generally wary about it, but I was serious. With some descriptive class feedback, we started over again with much more positive results.

Now think about your classroom? Is there room for the do-over within your walls and halls? Imagine the opportunity to reinforce the idea that failure can still be a positive result when it is used as a stop along the way rather than the final destination to success. I believe that the more we build this into our pedagogy, the more our students will be willing to take chances, make mistakes, and move forward.

Thank you for reading. Please share your “do-over” stories in the comments section below.

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) (http://www.oame.on.ca/main/index1.phplang=en&code=home).

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.


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.



Construction Day

Something my ECE partner and I are developing is a more general structure to our week so that the students know what to expect on certain days. We have the usual special activities throughout the week such as Reading Buddies and going to the library, but we have begun to look at having a theme for certain days. So far, we all now look forward to Fridays – not only for the obvious reason, but also because it happens to be our weekly Construction Day (Jour de la construction). We got the idea from one of our colleagues who mentioned that she had heard about a kindergarten teacher who had a building day where the students exercised their burgeoning engineering skills. Given just the general idea of a day dedicated to building stuff, my partner and I jumped on the idea and are now constantly building on (no pun intended) ideas and activities for the kinders as designers, builders and artists.

All week long, boxes are delivered to my classroom from other teachers, from the breakfast program, from the office administrators, and even from the construction workers who were on-site for several weeks putting in a new accessible toilet in the school. In the classroom during the week, the creation station might not be set out, but is always an option if someone asks for it. We do hold on to some special boxes so that there is plenty of variety to be brought outside during the first block of outdoor learning on Friday morning, if the playground is dry. Typically, masking tape, scissors and markers are brought out as well to be used with the cardboard. From our shed, large building blocks, buckets, shovels and sometimes pylons, are also hauled out and presented as possible building materials.

Before we get building, however, we usually have a book and a discussion on the topic, just to stir up the creative energy and to garner ideas of things that are built – either by people or by creatures. Last Friday, we made a list of planes, trains and castles, until one JK student with a fascination for spiders, put up his hand and said that he wanted to build a giant spider web. Great idea! I thought for a moment, then told my ECE partner that I needed to get a few things from inside the classroom. I found 3 different small balls of yarn in various colours and textures for the giant spider web. I attached one end of the yarn to a spot on the chainlink fence, and gave the ball to the student. He easily picked up the idea of how to weave the yarn through the links, and the spider web started to grow. Other students became interested and soon I had fished out 5 more balls of yarn. One side of our school yard began to bustle with children who were pushing and pulling yarn through the fence, trying to attach pieces of cardboard or rocks, some of them even getting ‘caught’ in the giant web as they tried to pass over or under someone else who was weaving. It was a huge success. The web stayed up for about a week, until the arrival of heavy winds and rain, then it soon came unravelled and blew away.

Every Friday, when we come into the classroom, we continue construction activities with whatever we can gather up from our art supplies and toys; playdough; blocks; Duplo; popsicle sticks and white liquid glue; or, chairs, tables and table cloths. We ask the students to draw a diagram of what they plan on building before they get started. For the SKs this is an interesting challenge, while only a few JKs at this point are able to see the connection between what they are drawing and what they end up building. Nonetheless, they like to talk about their ideas, whether the final project looks anything like their ‘blueprint’. Midway through the day, we have a circle so that students can share their creations and hopefully inspire others to build different things than they usually build, like the spider web.

Construction Day offers great opportunities for inquiry and it touches on key aspects (the Four Frames) of the kindergarten curriculum, namely, demonstrating mathematics behaviours, problem solving and innovating. What we like most about it is that it is largely a student-lead day. We have to do preplanning to be ready with a variety of opportunities for building, but we are at our busiest in the midst of a variety of projects, as we try to produce materials that the builders ask for.

Starting The Year With Dance

Welcome to a new year! My name is Tammy Axt and I am a music/drama/dance teacher at a K-5 school in Brampton, Ontario. This is my fifth year teaching music and my first year teaching drama and dance. I am sure that with my new teaching package I will have a lot of learning to share in this blog. I love my job wholeheartedly and am proud to be part of the BEST profession in the WORLD! I should mention that I come from a maritime family where hyperbole is the norm when interacting in daily life.

In addition to teaching drama and dance for the first time, it has also been my first time teaching grade one in many years. Wow, they sure are a busy bunch. I’ve already learned a ton about having really simple, short instructions and built-in busy and quiet times. All of my grade one classes are also going to require a lot of community building and development of social skills.

This term, the grade ones will be making up a number of dances. However, this month I have noticed a few things about grade ones in my class. First, they cannot remember what dance moves they came up with three days ago. Second, they have no idea who their partner was three days ago. Third, they have difficultly putting papers on the floor in a row to make a sequence. Finally, without some structure put in place, they will have difficulty building on and revising their creations.

My colleague and I talked it through and came up with the very simple idea of housing their creations in a file folder. Each section of the folder would contain one creation that the students came up and at the end of the term the file folder with all of the dance plans will go home with the students.

Our first dance plan addresses the curriculum expectation ”students will use movements that are part of their daily experience in a variety of ways in dance phrases”. We asked the students to come up with movements that they like to do and draw a picture of the movement on two pieces of white paper. We glued the two pieces of paper into the folder and scribed the words that matched the picture.  The folders will be a valuable tool in helping the students to create their dances and assist them in remembering what they did in their previous dance period.