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!


We Don’t Need To Know It All!

Before school started this morning, a parent approached me on the playground. She asked, “Are you running a Coding Club? My son was telling me about it, and he really wants to join.” I explained that I was and that our first meeting is during second nutrition break on Friday. Not long afterwards, this mom’s son approached me. He was super excited about the Coding Club. His first question to me was, “What languages are we learning?” Hmmm … I explained that we were going to start with looking through some options on code.org, as well as a few different apps. “But what about languages? Were you thinking Python? What about Java?” This is where I had to admit that I’ve never actually tried coding with either of these languages, and about the only language I know well is English. :) At this point, he seemed a little bit skeptical about my ability to run a Coding Club, but I reassured him that I have a plan. I said to him, “Think about what you might want to learn. There are a lot of beginners in this group, but I have contact with someone that’s more advanced. You can learn together.” This made him happier.

The truth is that as teachers, we don’t need to know it all. I think that we do though need to be able to find out what we don’t know, and sometimes (or even, often) that means asking for help. In the case of the Coding Club, my contact is a Grade 8 student at my previous school. He’s the head of the school’s Geek Squad — eager to help support students and staff with technology problems or questions (he even has a Google Calendar and website for sign-up times) — and in Grade 6, he taught himself a number of different coding languages. I spoke to a friend of mine that still teaches at Ancaster Meadow (my previous school), and she approached this student that’s very interested in working with Dr. Davey’s Coding Club. My plan is to have him Skype in, and the small group of students that are more advanced in coding, can work together: from two different schools, but in real-time. They can pick a language that they want to learn and a project that they want to complete. It will be students teaching students, and an expert voice that is not the teacher!

Planning for this Coding Club group has made me think about the classroom environment and planning for diverse student interests and needs. How do we provide different learning opportunities for students that need or want them? How do we access “expert voices” for the times when we’re really not the best “expert?” I’d love to hear about what you do!


How Do You “Do” Holidays?

Yesterday was a wonderful day at school! It was as I was completing my Storify Story for the day that I realized that we actually didn’t do one Thanksgiving activity during the day. The only mention of the holiday before the end of the day — when I reminded students that there is no school on Monday – was when the class realized that one of our three snails is missing. We’ve been learning about making signs as part of Writer’s Workshop, and students wanted to make signs letting others know about our missing pet because “Miss Dunsiger, the snail can’t be alone in the school for Thanksgiving!” :)

Now please don’t get me wrong: I would have had no problem if students chose to write about Thanksgiving. Maybe students are interested in learning more about turkeys. I have some non-fiction books on this topic, and I had them available if students wanted to read them. They didn’t though. During math yesterday, we explored shapes and even created our own shape pictures in lead-up to a Math/Visual Arts/Music Project-Based Learning experience. Students made everything from houses to Mario and Luigi, and they could have made turkeys, pumpkins, or gourds (I even had some images available of these autumn objects), but no one did.

Maybe I didn’t entice the students enough. Maybe we needed to inquire more about these items. Maybe we could have linked this holiday celebration to the seasons, or even to living things, and maybe students would have been more interested. I know that they haven’t expressed much of an interest in Thanksgiving or the harvest, but I haven’t really inspired them with the use of provocations: be that pictures, websites, or reading materials. Maybe this is something to think about for another year.

I actually don’t mind exploring holidays if I can make this link to learning. I have no problem with delving deeper into topics of interest, and the holidays could be these topics. But how do people celebrate the holidays in their classrooms — is it about learning, about crafts, or about both? I’m a big believer if using The Arts as an instructional strategy, and I love to link The Arts to all subject areas when possible. How are The Arts being used when it comes to holiday times? How could they be used? Some students may like the paper hats, colourful turkeys, and other holiday crafts, but are they truly engaging activities and how do they help students learn? 

I’ll admit that after reading this blog post of Aaron Puley‘s, I can’t do the holiday crafts anymore that I did for many years as a primary teacher. Aaron made me re-think how The Arts can be used during these holiday times (and really any other time of the year). Maybe for an upcoming holiday, we will look at how to use the elements of design (Visual Arts), media literacy, reading, writing, and oral language to share and celebrate our holiday learning. What are your classroom holiday celebrations? Why do you and your students like these options? How do you make the link between the holidays, learning, and engagement? I’d love to hear your ideas!

May I wish all of you that celebrate it, a very happy Thanksgiving, that if up to me, is hopefully free of paper hats and cut-and-paste turkeys! :)


I Wonder What Would Happen …

I wonder what would happen if more students said,

  • No.” 
  • I can’t do this.
  • I’m bored.”
  • I want a change.”

I wonder what would happen if more students questioned approaches, challenged ideas, and suggested alternatives.

Please don’t get me wrong: I want students to love school. I want students to get excited about learning, and the thinking and problem solving that comes with this learning. I want students to experience the same passion and excitement that I experience teaching them. 

I don’t want problems, but it’s when issues arise, that I learn the most in an attempt to solve them. I don’t want students to struggle, but it’s when they do, that I learn the most in an attempt to help them work through these struggles. I don’t want students that are disengaged, but it’s when this happens, that I learn the most about how to engage them.

Maybe we all need students that challenge us. I’m not suggesting an upheaval of the classroom/school structure, but maybe it’s through a questioning/challenging student voice that we start stepping away from the Lite Brite pattern and trying something new. If more students went from “compliance” to “questioning,” what would we do? What impact would this have on our classrooms and our schools? Are we ready to listen to these student voices, and are we ready to change in response to them? 


How We Can Move Beyond The Lite Brite Pattern

Kristi Keery-Bishop was my previous vice principal. She’s also a wonderful educational blogger and tweeter, and somebody that never fails to challenge my thinking with her hard questions. Last night, she wrote a blog post that really made me stop and think. I was among some educators that commented on her post, and this morning, I read Kristi’s reply.

2014-10-07_17-39-38It’s this reply that had me considering today how we can move beyond the “Lite Brite pattern.” And that’s when I thought of my experiences this year. I started the year with a number of BIG changes:

  • a change in school and location.
  • a change in grade.
  • a change in student needs (with more ELL — English Language Learners — than I’ve ever taught before).

Despite these big changes, I thought that I could then just make some additional small ones because I knew in my head what I wanted my program to look like: bringing the FDK, play-based philosophy up to Grade 1. I really embraced this philosophy last year with my Grade 5 class, and while I knew that I was now teaching a different grade in a different school, inquiry/play-based learning is still inquiry/play-based learning, so how hard could it be? It was hard though. My students needed more structure and support. They needed more oral language activities. And they needed some very specific direct instruction to address reading and writing needs. I had to make changes. As Kristi mentions in her comment though, I wasn’t being forced by others to make these changes: I knew in my head that they had to happen.

My initial big change this year spiralled into a number of smaller ones, but ones that had me reflecting on what the students needed and how I could program better for them. We’ve only been in school for five weeks, but in that time, I’ve changed more than I probably ever have before. I have no doubt that I’ll make even more changes in the coming months, and if they benefit kids, I know that they’ll be worth it.

I realize that we can make changes without switching schools, locations, or grades, but I wonder if we can really take a chance at moving away from the “Lite Brite pattern” if we don’t struggle a bit. It’s through this struggle that we look inside ourselves and seek out others to do more and to do better. I want to achieve Dr. Malloy‘s goal to make students “thrive and learn.” Do you? How do you plan on doing so? Here’s to a year of many great changes and colourful, creative “Lite Brite pictures!”



Because It’s Never Just A “Program!”

This week, I chatted with some teachers at school and online about different “programs” I use in the classroom. Based on student needs, I made the choice this year to use Lucy Calkins’ Launching The Writing Workshop as well as Class Act (a phonological awareness program). As I was talking with others about both programs, the question came up about how I use them. Questions such as, What’s the order of your lessons?, Do you deliver the mini-lessons to everyone?, What lesson are you doing next?, Where should I begin?, were all discussed. These questions made me realize that I may use various programs, but I don’t just deliver a program.

  • Yes, I teach mini-lessons, but no, they are not always the ones mentioned in the book. They are based on student needs, identified through daily formative assessment.
  • Yes, I have lots of writing choices and provocations around the classroom, but no, I don’t force students to go to any of them. I gently guide students to explore different options by enticing some of them with sharing opportunities, challenges, and topics of interest. Once one or two students go somewhere, others tend to follow.
  • Yes, I incorporate content from other subjects in the curriculum (e.g., Science and Social Studies), but no, they are not always based on just one strand or one topic. I try to look at student interests. When opportunities present themselves, I go for them. So technically, we just finished our first Science unit on Daily and Seasonal Changes, and our next one will be on Energy In Our Lives, but when a fellow teacher caught a class pet for me (a wonderful bug that the students love learning about), I couldn’t help but make the connection to Living Things. I don’t have to teach the whole unit now, but I will start having students think about this topic because it matters to them.
  • A program does not encompass all curriculum expectations, so yes, I need to know the curriculum well. I think that the more we understand the curriculum, the easier it is to make connections between expectations, student interests, and logical next steps. For instance, when I lay out the provocations related to Changing Roles and Responsibilities (for Social Studies), I didn’t expect students to start grouping the items by areas in the house or school, but when they did, it made sense to me to move onto mapping. Why not show the students how these areas connect? I added in a map provocation then, and pretty soon, students were creating their own maps and linking the responsibilities that they have in the different parts of the house or school.
  • Yes, students need to learn to read and write, but no, these skills do not need to be taught in isolation. Class Act is a very prescribed phonological awareness program, but I link the skills and concepts to shared reading texts or independent reading books. Then the students are learning the skills in context, which is supposed to help with retention and understanding.
  • Yes, we can — and I do — address skills with the full class, but small group instruction seems to impact the most. I may play a rhyming game with the class, do a quick phonemic awareness activity during transition times (e.g., Say “watermelon.” Now say, “watermelon” without the “water.”), or even look at segmenting words during shared writing activities, but I do the most teaching in small groups. Then the teaching is targeted to the individual student needs.
  • Yes, structured programs do not always seem engaging, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change this. By giving students choice over writing topics, linking our provocations to student interests, and basing our follow-up lessons/activities on what we observe each day, we’re changing the structure of the program to make it engaging. And sharing student work can also increase engagement, as then students know that they have an audience for what they do. My students love to take photographs of their work or have me tweet it out. They want this work to be shared, and they’re proud of what they create.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a program is a starting point. It provides resources. It gives lesson ideas. It helps with delivery of content. But it’s up to us to tailor this program to our students: making the learning meaningful and engaging while addressing curriculum expectations. How do you use “programs” in your classroom environment? How do you tailor these programs to meet different student needs? How do the students respond to these programs? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!