Safe and Accepting Schools in today’s Social/Political Climate

All teachers are familiar with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s initiative for teaching inclusion;

A safe, inclusive and accepting school environment is a necessary condition for student success. Students cannot be expected to reach their potential in an environment where they feel insecure and intimidated. We are committed to providing all students with the supports they need to learn, grow and achieve.
Building a positive and inclusive school climate requires a focused effort on developing healthy and respectful relationships throughout the whole school and surrounding community, among and between students and adults. “

We respect this philosophy and we would not deny our students the full application of this mandate. And yet, for all the anti-bullying lessons, resources, activities; for all the lessons and discussions on civics and character education within our schools, I cannot help but feel as if I am complicit in perpetuating a myth that grown-ups know how to behave properly – when in fact, outside of our schools, our society is anything but civil, respectful, and devoid of bullies. For examples of intolerance and disrespect, we need look no further than the relentless doses of hysteria, stereotyping and racism in our newspapers and in our laws. The media is rife with stories pitting Us against Them, creating fear about Others, and discrimination based on clothing, skin colour, or mother tongue. Meanwhile in stark contrast in our classrooms, we are reading books such as “Children like Me”, promoting diversity and trying our best to ensure that our students learn about community and how Social Justice applies to everyone in our society.

Feeling overwhelmed by the latest news stories, I have been thinking about young students who, on the way to school, or once within its confines, may be unexpected targets of the divisive environment where ignorance, scapegoating, blaming, shaming, guilt by virtue of association, and racial profiling may have trickled down. Our anti-bullying initiatives may be only a Bandaid solution to circumstances of inconceivable scope and which are completely out of our control. Children who are subjected to this intolerance have to navigate through the quagmire with little or no grasp on the realities and myths that may be associated with their lives, and as in many cases of intimidation, because it is insidious nature, teachers may have no clue what these children have to endure. As visible minorities, or as minorities suspected of an affiliation, no matter how remote, children risk being targets of ignorance and vitriol from other children or adults in the community. Sadly, we have so many brutal historical examples of just this type of situation. Therefore, it is essential that, we as teachers, remember to be aware and have empathy to help all of our students feel secure and free from intimidation so that they can learn, grow and achieve, even when we may not fully understand the greater issues that they may be dealing with – politically, religiously or culturally.

And, without a doubt, the world has always been so. Danger from bigotry and intolerance existed long before the implementation of the Safe and Accepting Schools Act in Ontario. We can only hope that the effort we put into promoting diversity and ensuring students are educated within a safe and accepting school environment will eventually make the myth of a society of respectful, civic-minded people a reality. In the meantime, it is worthwhile to make sure that our students know we are an ally they can depend on for help should they need it.

Mike Beetham

The Second September of Your Year

Have you ever wished for an opportunity to do something over? You know you would make different choices if only you had the chance! Well, as teachers we get that wonderful opportunity at this time of the year (new year).  As all teachers do, self reflection is just part of our DNA and as such gives us wonderful opportunities to create change in our classroom. Every year when my students return after their two-week holiday I start off the year just as if it was our first week in September. The distinct difference being that the activities I choose, the type of engagement I devise is solely based on what has or has not occurred in my room over the first four months of being together.

This year I have found that there are cliques within my room and as such they do not work well unless certain groupings or pairing are created. I will start off the year with a major focus on team building with a specific design that will see a constant mixing of students so that they get to have fun and get to know students they have not made the effort to do so.

A second change that will start off our year is to work from drama to written tasks as often as I can. For example, I am going to be reading a novel that will focus on social justice so I will make use of classroom debates, readers’ theatre and character improvisation prior to my students completing their reading response journals. This change has come about due to the level of engagement that my students demonstrate when drama is a part of our literacy program.

It is important for teachers to take advantage of this unique opportunity that our yearly schedule provides to us. Reflect, re-organize and reap the benefits of your second start to the school year.

Mike Beetham

But Why?

This is a term that has become a part of my teaching repertoire since spending the last four summers working with teachers in Sierra Leone, Africa. There are two ways that I make use of this valuable term in my classroom practice.

The first is when I am dealing with classroom management concerns in my classroom. There are always students who are not following the expectations, not fulfilling the work requirements, not complying to the adults etc… The fact is that most teachers are only able to deal with the behaviour piece (tip of the iceberg). The question ‘But Why?’ forces me to look beyond the behaviour, beyond the part that negatively affects the classroom routine and to seek out the roots of the behaviour. If I can make the time to figure out why something is occurring, I have a much better chance to support a change that will be permanent.

For example, student X  in my class last year had a reputation for refusing to do his work. It did not matter whether it was numeracy or literacy he usually behaved in such a way that the teacher had to finally intervene and remove the student for the good of the rest of the class. So, student X had developed a very effective strategy of avoiding areas that he did not want to take part in. The removal from the class was actually a reward for him even though in the eyes of everyone else it was a punishment.

I had to try and figure out the ‘Why?’ for his behaviour. This took time, patience and most importantly a good relationship. The end result was that he had significant gaps in his learning due to his behaviour choices and that future testing revealed that he had a learning disability in writing. As a result, he had learned that compared to everyone else he was dumb when it came to being able to express himself in written form. The removal from a class (adult punishment) was not as negative as the inadequate feeling he had everyday in school when required to write with his peers.

The solution became the need for differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment in order to allow student X the most effective way to demonstrate his learning. He still had to write, but only when writing was being assessed. In numeracy I only assessed his understanding of numerical concepts and not his writing skills. Scribing, models, oral explanations allowed him to both gain confidence in his actual abilities and not have to focus on his area of need.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of “But Why?”.

Mike Beetham

IEP Creation and Implementation

What Is an Individual Education Plan?

An IEP is a written plan describing the special education program and/or services required by a particular student. It identifies learning expectations that are modified from or alternative to the expectations given in the curriculum policy document for the appropriate grade and subject or course, and/or any accommodations and special education services needed to assist the student in achieving his or her learning expectations. For additional information on creating or understanding the IEP, use the following Ontario Ministry of Education link:

The IEP can have a variety of focuses from academics, accommodations to behaviour and/or social skills. It is essential for students who have been identified as exceptional through the IPRC process. They are also used for students to whom the board feels require special education programs or support to meet curriculum expectations. The IEP is developed within the first 5 weeks of school. It is critical for teachers to seek out as much data about a student as possible (report cards, previous IEP, formal and informal assessments, OSR and any other diagnostic assessments that you are able to complete with a student).

The IEP is drafted by the classroom teacher (usually with support of a school’s Special Education Resource Teacher) and then shared with the parent/guardian for their feedback and finally signed and becomes the legal document by which a student is assessed. It is a detailed document that requires a lot of time to create. It is revisited after each assessment period and adjusted according the progress or lack of progress a student has made toward the target expectations.

This is a critical component to helping each and every child be successful as it epitomizes the need to teach to each child’s needs and not just to a curriculum standard. I highly advise that teachers take the time to familiarize themself with the IEP process.

Adjustments in September


With all the plans we make for those first days and weeks in September, it is worth being open to making adjustments, for your benefit and the benefit of the students. Here are some examples of how I have adjusted the environment and the program in the first few weeks:

  • I have changed the layout twice. We were pleased to get 6 rectangular tables and 1 round table in the second week, but have rearranged them twice to suit the needs of the students. This means that there are two sets of tables put together seating groups of up to 12 students who like to work together, and one table seats only 4 students who require more personal space. I planned for an even distribution of students per table, but am responsive to their different requests regarding space and collaboration.
  • The area carpet was originally placed in one corner of the room for community discussions and knowledge building sessions. The students enjoyed these talks, but found it hard to get close when we are limited with only two accessible sides to the carpet for rows of chairs behind those who are seated on the carpet. So, I moved the carpet to the centre of the room and it connects to the small carpet area of our class library. Now there is less movement of chairs as students turn to the centre of the room for discussions and use the extended space of the class library to sit.
  • We took a Multiple Intelligence survey to get to know our own learning strengths and the strengths of all the students in the class. We continue to consider these and reflect on them by referring to graph compiled in the class to remind us.
  • I finally typed out my schedule last Thursday. It took me that long to juggle our literacy block and periods for Science and Social Studies with withdrawal for ESL and special education support. I have added 15 minutes of literacy to the end of our day when we review our agendas with a poetry cafe allowing dedicated time for the reading, sharing, and writing of poetry.
  • We introduced “Minutes for Mindfulness” each afternoon. After lunch and a transition for French class, some of the students had difficulty settling for a full-class discussion regarding our inquiry topic. I asked if they wanted to try some mindfulness techniques, and a new student shared a website/app called that his teacher used last year. This adjustment not only helps the students, but I benefit from the 2 minute relaxation exercises as well!
I am sure our class will continue to grow and change. Allowing for adjustments to your best made plans is necessary to be responsive in your teaching practice – and everyone will benefit.

Six Word Memoirs – How Much Can Be Said With So Little

     There’s not a whole lot of positive things to be said about French à la carte, but something I have learned to appreciate this year is going into the different classrooms and seeing what other teachers are doing. My colleague, who is the Homeroom teacher of one of my French classes, is phenomenal on many fronts. Most of all, her depth of analysis and critical thinking means that her assignments are always creative and engaging, so much so that I find I’m almost wanting to do them myself.

     The other week, she showed me the latest. As part of her memoir unit, she had her students communicate the essence of their lives and characters into six word memoirs. Some of the examples she provided them with were the following:

“Author of so many unwritten books.”

“Yes, I still have Superman sheets…”

“Was a painting, now a mural.”

“My rise to fame went unnoticed.”

“Smart girl wants love, gets dog.”

     It was fascinating to see what the students were able to come up with themselves. Submitting a draft of their top six, it was amazing actually to see how they were able to incorporate wit, perspective and feeling into their descriptions. Most intriguing was matching up the words with the student and the insight it provided into their character. Finally, it was really interesting to see how effective they were as writers. They were much better at it than me. The right six words are not easy to come by – try it yourself…


Mike Beetham

Context – That Makes Sense

Please turn to page 134 in your Mathematics text and complete questions 1 -5. Students comply with smiling faces, complete the work, take up the solutions and then move on. Next day when you revisit a topic, it almost seems like they had forgotten everything that had been done the previous day. This is not a rare occurrence in classrooms of all ages. Research clearly points out how important the role of emotion is in learning. One of the most critical tools for a  teacher is the strategy of context. I always ask myself prior to developing a unit of study what would this concept or skill look like in the everyday life of my students. That helps me frame the context for the learning task.

When I am able to make connections to the everyday lives of my students and the focus of instruction in the classroom I find that the learning is more likely to be consolidated and accessed by the student in future related tasks. Here is an example of how I used context in February. I took my class to camp for 3 days. Prior to going to camp we had to look at what the total costs would be per person as well as for the group. The level of engagement was extremely high as they explored a real life task that required them to access prior mathematical knowledge. While at camp they took photographs and filmed a specific activity they took part in. When we returned to school we did a recount of our experience that was to be shared with their families. It was some of the best writing they had done all year and it allowed me to see a transfer of the skills we had been working on since September. There was no reluctance, no hesitation as the task was real for them.

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.
Mike Beetham

A Great Classroom Is Created When…

I had to share this with someone, so I felt this blog was the best way. At a recent class meeting we all sat down and started to talk about what makes a classroom great. This topic generated a myriad of ideas, discussion and debate. I am sharing with you the final product that came from this amazing group of students.

– when everyone works as a team

– you celebrate when people do something right

– every student is a success

– tell the teacher how you care for them and they will tell you the same way

– teachers teach us how to share, cooperate and work as a team

– we have fitness in the morning

– we do different kinds of things like planting

– you don’t give too many chances

– you take the time to get to know each other

– don’t be too easy, don’t be too hard

– we set goals

– when students can be taught and entertained at the same time

– teachers discipline

– you take risks with each other

– students and teacher communicate to each other

– we give lots of smiles

– students are allowed to teach teachers

– students are allowed to learn from their mistakes

Needless to say, my students have once again taught me how valuable an asset to our classroom they are. Their collective voice has demonstrated the power of our class motto ‘Together Everyone Achieves More Success’. I hope you can read my happiness and pride!

The Freedom of Giving Up Control

When my non-teacher friends describe teachers, words like type A, perfectionist, and control freak tend to be at the top of the list and although they may say it’s all in jest, I know that’s exactly how they see most educators.  Truth be told that in conversation with colleagues and observing many classrooms, I have to admit that to some degree, giving up control presents a challenge that not everyone is willing to take on.  For some teachers, the thought of having students organize the classroom library or put up a bulletin board on their own makes them nervous, to say the least.

I’ve always thought of myself as an educator who shares in the learning with my students and I’ve worked to create an environment in my classroom that I feel is conducive to exploration, inquiry and self-expression.  Of course, this is how I believe things to be without taking into consideration if indeed, my students feel the same way.  I decided to speak with my class about how they felt with respect to the control they had over how things we run.  Interestingly, we came to the conclusion that although they felt they could question anything and could express themselves while feeling valued, they did wish they had more control over day-to-day routines such as organizing supplies, creating the class calendar, writing the homework, putting up bulletin boards, etc.

I realized that I hadn’t given them those opportunities because of my limited belief about how much eight and nine year-olds could handle without creating havoc in our classroom.  I had my doubts about giving up that control over the day-to-day tasks but was curious to find out how they would handle it.  Students began to put up and take down bulletin boards, organize the class schedule and calendar, write up the homework on the information board, organize the forms and notes mailboxes, track completed and unfinished work using class charts, create their own anchor charts, organize the classroom library and supplies cupboards, etc.

What began to happen was wonderful: the students quickly demonstrated how independent and capable they are to run the day-to-day classroom tasks and I had more time to myself that I used to plan, mark and prepare for activities.  Giving up control ended up giving us all the freedom we needed both to do our jobs better!