“Blended Talking”: Building Relationships In Today’s Classroom

I had almost an entire blog post written on the Transforming Learning Everywhere Open House, and then I read this recent post by Bill Forrester: an instructional coach with our Board, a friend of mine, and our volunteer driver for the event. His post has me thinking, and while I commented on it, I also thought that I needed to expand on my thoughts in a post of my own.

The concern mentioned in Bill’s post is one that I’ve heard many times before. The issue (paraphrased) is that technology hinders relationships with people. I wonder about this though.

  • Why was this student staring at his iPad screen? Was it because he was immersed in a game or an activity, or was it because he was overwhelmed by the noise, excitement, and busyness of the sharing session? Did the iPad offer an opportunity to escape? I think about one of the students that I brought along today. This student was initially so eager to share, but I think that the crowds became a bit overwhelming for him. At that point, all he really wanted to do was write, like he would have been doing back at school in Writer’s Workshop. I’ll admit that at first I was tempted to have him stop, but then I thought of Stuart Shanker‘s book about self-regulation, and I let him be. He still answered questions. He still shared some of his learning, but he was more reserved, and often waited for people to engage him in the conversation. Maybe this is what worked best for him. 
  • How can we build relationships with people? Not all relationships are face-to-face. Dean Shareski, the keynote speaker at today’s event, was one of many people that I got to know online well before I met him in person. The connections that I’ve made online are fantastic ones! In fact, even this evening, I managed to plan some exciting non-standard measurement activities thanks to my Twitter PLN (Professional Learning Network). I say all of this because building relationships is important whether in person or online. Looking around today, I saw many people — both students and adults – staring at screens. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People were trying to capture the learning through their devices, and this meant that they were looking at the day through their screens. But, for the majority of people, they were still talking, sharing, and making connections. I wonder if we can still build relationships with people while also looking through a screen. How does this work?
  • What role do adults play in modelling for kids? As I mentioned above, lots of people today were looking at screens. If we want students to put down their devices, then as adults, do we need to do the same? I’m constantly looking at my iPad screen. I capture almost our entire day at school through a device: be it in pictures, in videos, or in audio recordings. I see the benefits of doing this, but I also know that students often see me with a device in my hand. As I’ve mentioned to some teachers before, I love recording podcasts because at least I can put down the iPad, be in the moment with the students, and still capture the learning. If, as adults though, we want our children to move away from the iPad, then when/how do we decide to also put down our devices?

Technology has changed learning in many ways for our students. As Dean said in his closing remarks today,


I might even extend this to say, how do relationships change?  Maybe today, socializing includes a blend of face-to-face and online interactions, sometimes even happening simultaneously thanks to the use of social media. I can’t help but think of how “listening” has changed with the growing trend of backchannels such a Twitter. People used to think that others were only listening if all devices were away, but now, “active listening” can include adding to the conversation with something as simple as a tweet. Does “speaking” today, now include texting, emailing, and instant messaging? 

Maybe there needs to be some new norms for socializing that address how this “blended talking” approach works. I think of our classroom this year and classrooms of mine from previous years: often screens were looked at throughout the day, but communication and collaboration happened often. Sometimes this happened through messages on the screen and sometimes this happened through combined talking and screen interactions. During large group discussions, I like when people look at me to talk, but during small group interactions, I understand why sometimes people talk and look at their devices. What they’re talking about is right there in front of them, and they’re merely addressing the content while also talking to the person. I understand why this screen time may concern some people, and at times I have my own reservations, but I think that the same problems could happen regardless of the number of devices in the room. If we want students to build relationships with people, we have to make learning social. In a classroom environment, students can stare at a screen, stare at a book, or stare at a piece of paper. If we want students to talk with each other, we need to give them opportunities to do so — both online and offline. How do you give students this opportunity? What are the norms of conversation that you think should he present in a 21st century classroom? How do you help build/create this classroom environment? What impact do you think that it will have on student interactions both inside and outside of the classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these many wonders of mine.


Thoughts From The Halloween Humbug!

I’ve blogged before on my reservations with celebrating holidays at school. In just a couple of days, it’s Halloween, and up until this point, I’ve really done very little in the classroom discussing the holiday.

  • One student brought in some Halloween word cards, and a few students decided to write sentences and stories using them during our Writer’s Workshop. 
  • On the weekend, I purchased and brought in 6 pumpkins — three orange ones and three white ones – for the students to explore in math tomorrow. We’re going to measure the perimeter of the pumpkins using different non-standard units, compare results, count seeds, compare sizes, and think about some of the similarities and differences between the pumpkins. This activity is as much about the harvest (and hopefully even how plants are living things) than it is about Halloween.
  • Students are solving a real world candy problem, and in the end, I’ll send home some bags of treats on the 31st.

We’re not carving our pumpkins. We’re not having a big class party. Some students may dress up, and others may not, and that’s fine with me. Our school doesn’t do a parade, and in many ways, Friday will be a regular day (or so I hope). I know: I really am the Halloween Humbug! :)

Here are my thoughts though:

  • Every day at school should be fun!
  • Not all students are passionate about Halloween, or even believe in the holiday. I want to be respectful of this as I plan ahead for Friday.
  • Students can still choose to write about Halloween or even link some math learning to Halloween, but do we all need to do so?
  • For some of our neediest students, these unstructured days cause increased stress and increased behavioural difficulties. Yes, we need to help all students gain strategies to succeed during unstructured times, but do bags of candy and loud parties help with this? How are we ensuring that all students have a successful day on the 31st?

I know that students from all grade levels will be incredibly excited to come to school on Halloween! I know that I’ll see joyful students and teachers around the playground and through the school. But I can’t help but think about Dean Shareski and his post on joyHow might we make every day “joyful” so that holiday times become just as exciting as other days in the year? This Halloween Humbug would love to hear your holiday thoughts! :)


Making Things “Better” With Technology

There are so many ways that students of all ages can use technology. Yes, I’ve blogged and tweeted with students as young as Grade 1, and I know that there are even Kindergarten teachers around the world that are doing the same thing. Every time, we start to talk about using technology with young learners, questions/concerns always arise.

  • How young is too young?
  • What impact will these tools have on socialization?
  • What about the value of students learning to print, or even, dare I say it, “cursive write?”
  • What’s lost if students stop experimenting with tools such as paint, paper, markers, crayons, and pencils? These are all tools that we grew up using. What impact will this have on students if they don’t use them?

The truth is, before this year, I never worried about the answers to any of these questions.

  • I’ve been very vocal before about the benefits of using digital tools with young students. It’s amazing the thinking that we can capture with the use of these tools, and how we can teach even very young students, the value in a positive digital footprint. Imagine the benefits for these students as they grow up!
  • As someone, that’s used iPads, iPods, Livescribe Pens, and computers in the classroom regardless of the grade that I’ve taught, I’d say that even when using these tools, students collaborate on them. They socialize all the time. I wonder if this comes from creating a classroom environment that emphasizes the importance of collaboration, whether that be face-to-face or online. Students don’t need to be staring at screens in isolation to be learning via them. They can still talk, challenge, collaborate, and problem-solve, whether using or not using a device. 
  • First of all, I’m a firm believer in the fact that printing (and even “cursive writing”) is not the definition of “writing” in the curriculum document. Writing is all about generating and sharing ideas. Students can publish their writing by printing or using cursive, but they can also do so online. That being said, there are articles that speak to the value of writing with a pen (and while I don’t have them listed here, I know that they are not hard to find through an online search). But even if students are blogging, why can’t they also be writing on paper? Blogging is just another form of writing, and I think students should be exposed to many forms.
  • Even in a “digital classroom,” there is value to non-digital tools. No matter how many devices I have in the room, I have even more pencils, pens, markers, stacks of paper, paint, and plasticine. I don’t think that these tools need to exist in isolation. There’s value to using both tools together, and always attempting to pick the best tool for the job!

I still believe in everything I’ve written about, but my teaching position has changed this year, and my student needs have changed. The truth is that before this year, most of my students came to me printing with success. I didn’t worry about how often I had students putting pencils to paper because I knew that they didn’t necessarily need this practice. Now many of them do. 

If students can print on paper or print on the iPad, what’s the value in choosing the iPad option? Is there one? I’m not sure if there is, but I do know that there’s value in sharing student work, and the iPad allows for that to happen. I saw this value first-hand today. Last night, I sent out a tweet to Carrie Gelson and Elise Gravel. Carrie is an amazing teacher from British Columbia, and last weekend, I read her blog post about Elise’s books. I went out and purchased a number of them because my students love all creatures. Yesterday, we read The Slug, and I shared some of these experiences with Carrie and Elise through Twitter. Both of them replied to my tweet, but Elise’s request resulted in a wonderful dialogue today between an incredible author and my Grade 1 class.


Students were thrilled that their work captured the attention of an author that they love, and they were so excited to get receive this special “gift” from Elise. And it’s an experience like this that helps me see the benefits of using technology and realizing how technology can “transform learning everywhere.”


Technology provides a meaningful audience for student work. With an iPad, students have easy access to a camera, video camera, podcasting tools, and screencasting apps that allow them to not just capture and share this “paper work” with others, but also annotate it and explain the thinking behind this work.

I can’t help but think about the argument that we managed to “learn well in the good old days,” but I wonder if we would have learned more and/or gained a deeper understanding of learning with the use of technology. I don’t want to give my students what I had growing up – I want to give them a better experience than what I hadHow could technology contribute to this “better experience?” I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


Lessons From My Drive Home

We had a Staff Meeting after school today, and I was heading home a little later than usual. My head was on my day at school, changed plans for tomorrow, and a blog post for tonight. As I was thinking, and maybe even humming along to some music, I realized that I forgot to turn onto Queen Street. I was in the wrong lane! Oh no!

For those that don’t know me, I’m very directionally-challenged. Just the other day, I went into one of the Kindergarten classrooms to throw out my yogurt cup before going outside to pick up the Grade 1’s. When I got out of the classroom, I turned the wrong way, and I actually got lost in the 20 steps it would have taken me to head outside. It’s actually quite a miracle that I make it to work everyday! :)

With this in mind, there was no way that I could miss this turn-off. If I did, I had no idea where I was going, and in the labyrinth of Hamilton’s one-way streets, I probably would never find my way home (no exaggeration). So I did the only thing that I knew how to do: I stopped the car and signalled that I wanted into the other lane. I made eye-contact with the person beside me in that lane, and he agreed to let me in. Yay!

The only problem was that this turning lane had a red light, and the other lane had no light. Now I had a long line-up of cars behind me honking their horns, shouting at me through the window, and making very angry faces at me behind the glass. As I sat there praying that the light would change quickly and I wouldn’t cause a major accident in the meantime,  I couldn’t help but think about my students in the classroom.

How often do I remain focused on the time? When the students ask to finish first before tidying up, what do I say? Today, all that I wanted was for the people behind me to slow down, wait a few extra minutes, and be understanding of my mistake. Will I always remember to do the same thing for my students? I wonder how the classroom and school environment would change if we didn’t always feel in such a rush.


I Did Get Better!

At the beginning of this year when I moved to my new school, I ran into a caretaker that was doing some summer shifts. She asked me if I used to work at Woodward Avenue School. I said that I did in my first year of teaching. It turns out that she was in my Grade 1 class. I totally remember teaching her. I remember connecting with her family. I remember that year at Woodward. I remember questioning if I made the right choice. Was teaching for me?

I always wanted to be a teacher. When I graduated from the Faculty of Education, I met my goal, and I thought, “I’m going to get to spend the rest of my life doing what I love.” I had many teaching experiences prior to this point. I was confident that it was going to be an amazing first year!

But instead …

  • It was overwhelming.
  • I never felt like I could get ahead.
  • I was teaching two different grades at two different schools, and travelling between them on my lunch hour. 
  • I was completely disorganized: I had piles of paper everywhere.
  • I was more concerned with teaching programs than teaching students.
  • I was sharing two classrooms, and never had things in either one ready to go.
  • Students could sense that I was feeling flustered. I always found myself managing behaviour and never actually teaching.
  • I thought that I would be a good teacher, but instead, I felt like a failure.

Thinking back now though, I learned a lot from that year. 

  • I learned that I’m calmer in an organized classroom, and my students are as well.
  • I learned that we need to connect with our students and learn about their needs.
  • I learned that one program does not meet all student needs.
  • I learned that all students deserve our best every single day.
  • I learned that we need to connect with staff. Teachers also need support systems.
  • I learned that a deep breath and a calm voice can make a big difference.
  • I learned that “teaching” is also about learning, and that I’m determined to keep on learning.
  • I learned the value in hard work and perseverance, and that it’s worth sticking with something you love.
  • I learned the value in change, and I learned a lot from the changes I made.
  • I learned that we all need to try, and fail, and try again. If we want our students to do this, we have to as well.

And to that student that I taught back in my first year, I apologize: you deserved a better “me.” I did get better though — and I continue to improve — because of what I started learning 14 years ago. I can only hope that you learned as much from that year as I did. What did you learn from your first year of teaching? What have you learned since then? I’d love to hear your stories!


What Makes It “Transformative?”

I’m very lucky. I’m working in a school that is part of the Transforming Learning Everywhere Project: giving 1:1 iPad technology to all Grades 4-8 students. While I don’t teach these grades, the school that I’m at has lots of access to technology available for students to use, and after last year, I also purchased iPads and Chrome Books to use in the classroom. The technology is there, but what’s made me stop and think a lot lately, is what makes my use of it “transformative?”

Here are the many ways that my students and I are using technology in the classroom:

  • To access eBooks. After catching a discussion between Karen Lirenman and Kathy Cassidy on Twitter, I downloaded the Epic app, and students love the “read aloud” option. This feature allows them to access information in non-fiction texts that not all of them are able to read yet.
  • To access various materials through our Board’s Virtual LibraryPebbleGo, BookFlix, and ImageQuest are all used to support our Science and Social Studies inquiries. Again, the fact that the texts can be read aloud to students, supports all learners: even those that cannot read the materials yet.
  • To access materials that connect with student interests. Many of the boys in my class love Mario and Luigi, and they are always inspired to write after looking at the Mario and Luigi images on Google Images. Many of the images are also labelled, which supports the students in their writing.
  • To take photographs and videos of student work. Sometimes the students take these photographs and videos, and sometimes I take them. While students are still learning to print and write, and do much of this on paper, they like to capture this work to share with others. They do so through photographs and videos. I often tweet out what we create, and then use these tweets in our daily Storify Stories to give parents a better look into our classroom environment. 
  • To record screencasts of students explaining their thinking. At our last PA Day, we learned about Explain Everything, and since then, we’ve been using this app a lot in the classroom. Students will take photographs of their work, and then explain the thinking behind their ideas, or expand on their ideas. This is useful in all subject areas. These screencasts are often also included in our daily Storify Stories, so that parents can see and hear this learning, and extend it at home.
  • To record podcasts and radio shows of students discussing their work, expanding on their ideas, and reflecting on what they did. While we’ll often use Voice Recorder for iPad to record these podcasts, lately we’ve also been discussing our observations, thoughts, and wonderings on 105 the Hive: an Internet Radio Station. With our radio show, people can tweet us their thoughts and questions, and hopefully help us learn more.
  • To support inquiry learning through the use of research. Last year, I used Pinterest a lot to bookmark relevant sites that my students could use to research inquiry questions. This year, I used Nkwiry for the first time, and I love how I don’t need an image to bookmark the site. Thanks to Brian Aspinall‘s quick response to my question about a public link option, now it’s available on Nkwiry. As time goes on, I’m hoping that my Grade 1’s and their families can add links to Nkwiry, and start curating their own resources.
  • To review math skills and concepts. I’m very torn on this one. Are math games the best way to help with skill development, and if so, should they be done on the iPad? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks to doing so? As I continue to think about these questions, what I’ve decided to do is to only pick math games that allow for differentiation, and then to pair these activities with video recordings, podcasts, screencasts, and/or conferences to ensure that students are explaining their thinking and not just mindlessly working through an app. The same is true for a few word work apps that I’ve used with small groups of students on the iPads — often as a follow-up to a guided reading or a guided writing activity, and in connection with our Class Act small group lesson.
  • To give parents and other educators a window into the classroom. I do this the most through our class blog. Along with offering some informational items, I also share my weekly planning minutes here and our daily class blog posts. These Daily Shoot posts, also provide follow-up activity suggestions for home extensions. I love that parents are starting to comment on these posts and share their thoughts about our day.

Looking back at what we do, I wonder what’s considered just “normal,” and what might be “transformative.” How could I bump the “normal” up to “transformative?” Does “transformative” become the new “normal” when it’s something that’s become such a regular part of the classroom environment? Maybe this is what high expectations is all about. As a Board, we talk regularly about creating a climate of high expectations for students, and I wonder if this Transforming Learning Everywhere Project further creates this type of environment for staff.

I’ve certainly spent a lot more time lately thinking about how I’m using technology and how I could use it differently. I also think about when I choose not to use technology, and why this choice may also be a good one at the time. And then I think what I’ve chosen not to use this year, whether with or without the use of technology: worksheets. Don’t get me wrong: we use a lot of paper in the classroom. We make charts together. Students write in notebooks, on large pieces of blank paper, and even on sticky notes. We write and share regularly in all subject areas. But we are doing so without worksheets. Why? Because I may not know what “transformative” looks like, but I know what I want it to mean: a learning environment where all voices are honoured, all students are eager to learn and share more, learning is meaningful and relevant, and all students have more control over the way in which they do this learning and sharing. I don’t think this can be done with a worksheet, and I do think that this is going to mean lots of deep thinking and reflection on how and why technology is used. What do you think? What does “transformative” mean to you? What might this look, sound, and feel like in a classroom environment? Whether a parent, student, educator, or administrator, I hope that you’ll share your thoughts on “transforming learning everywhere.”


What’s Keeping Me Up Tonight!

It’s almost 10:30, and I really should be getting ready for bed, but I can’t sleep. My mind’s focused on math. After working with the students in groups today and reflecting on our discussions, I know that we need to spend more time working on number recognition and counting skills.

  • Many students have the rote skills, but they’re not applying their knowledge when presented with various problems.
  • Most students can show me their completed work, but struggle with explaining their thinking.
  • Most students cannot use what they’ve done to help them with similar problems.
  • While students have some number recognition and counting skills, almost all of them do not have a strong understanding of “number sense.” 

Based on my assessment,

  • I know that students need lots of opportunities to talk about numbers.
  • I know that students need lots of opportunities to count groups of objects in various ways.
  • I know that students need to look and find different numbers, and we need to work on building this recognition of them.
  • I know that students need to discuss their thinking behind what they do, and apply their learning as they work through other math problems.

But this is where I’m stuck. I have a classroom full and pod full of math manipulatives. I have lots of math game options. I have binders full of worksheets that I could use. I know that students need to develop their skills, and I know that there’s value in many of the tools in the classroom, the cupboard, and the pod. All of this being said though, I can’t help but think back to the numerous conversations that I’ve had online and offline about meaningful math, real-world math, and the importance of building thinking skills in math. These tools and activities may build knowledge, but will they help students understand the meaning behind the math? 

I need students to see math as more than just something that they do in class each day. I need them to see the connection to their lives, and I need them to move beyond the rote skills to rational learning. With this in mind, I created three different problems connected to real-world examples (one on math in the environment, one on math and construction, and one on math and baking), which will hopefully allow students to practice counting, talk math, and think about the choices that they make. Some of these problems align with the ideas in Cathy Fosnot’s Contexts For Learning resources, which I’ve used. These activities will hopefully allow for us to extend this learning. I’m hopeful that after our math activities tomorrow, maybe I’ll get a better night’s sleep. :) How do you balance the need to practice skills and apply knowledge? How do you make math meaningful while also meeting diverse student needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!