Lots of Questions; No Answers

This weekend, I was engaged in a very passionate discussion on Twitter about the use of marks and feedback. Inquiry doesn’t really lend itself well to marks, but the report card program insists that we give them. The big question is how do we do so?

  • Do we focus on feedback based on co-constructed Success Criteria? How do we get these young learners to help construct this Success Criteria? Is it okay that it’s more teacher-directed at the beginning? Do we start small and build from there (e.g., maybe even one piece of Success Criteria at a time)? How do we make this Success Criteria accessible to all students (e.g., those students that can’t read and those students that have difficulty understanding the language)? How might visuals help, and how can we use these visuals?
  • When and how do we use marks? Do we use rubrics, even in Grade 1? How can we make these rubrics based on the process and not just the product (e.g., based on the sharing that is done during a recorded podcast)? If we don’t use marks until report cards, how do we help the students and parents understand these marks? Do we share these marks with them prior to report cards, and if so, how?
  • Does this approach change depending on the grade? How do we make the decision of which grades to introduce marks prior to report cards and which grades not to? Should this be a grade team decision? Who’s involved in this decision (e.g., teacher, parents, students, admin, support staff)? What roles do each of them play?

All of the big questions seem to have many little ones that stem from them, and I don’t have the answers here. I’ve tried different approaches — from Success Criteria to rubrics to a combination of the above — and I think that they all have value in different ways. Throughout the month of September, I’ve collected much documentation on my students (from photographs to video recordings to work samples to self-assessments), but as some of our units come to an end (e.g., the Daily and Seasonal Changes one in Science), I have to make a decision about assigning marks: if to do so and how to do soWhat would you do? How would you do it? Why do you think that this is the best approach? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the complex topic of marks and feedback.


Making The Abstract, Concrete!

This weekend, I am taking a long look at the Social Studies expectations for the unit on Our Changing Roles and Responsibilities. In Grade 1 at our school, we start the year with both a Science and a Social Studies unit, and up until this point, I’ve been focusing more on Science. Now it’s time to start thinking Social Studies. While this first unit will allow the students to look closely at their lives, it’s an abstract topic for many of my students that are just learning the English language and benefit from concrete examples. How do I make the abstract more concrete?

Here are my thoughts:

  • I’m going to collect items that might be associated with home and school responsibilities (e.g., I’ll bring in some clothes to help students think about getting dressed each morning, but then I’ll also bring in a jacket to help students think about getting dressed to go out for recess).
  • I’m going to put the items out for students to explore, talk about, and write about during our Language block. I’ll also include some books about roles and responsibilities. Lori St. Amand, another Grade 1 teacher in our Board, mentioned the Mercer Mayer books, so I’ll look for some of them to use. I think that students need some small group and individual thinking and exploring time before we discuss the items together.
  • Students can work together to label the items. Not only will this give them a real world printing opportunity (something that I think is important as the students develop their printing skills), but it will also provide the students with the vocabulary to use during our discussions. My thought is that this labelling can begin as a shared writing activity (with the students giving me the words to add to the items), move to an interactive writing activity (with the students working with me to use the letter-sounds to do some of the writing), and finish as an independent writing activity (where the students work on their own to label the items).
  • I’m going to work with the parents on this plan. Beginning in October, I’m inviting the parents into the classroom for 20 minutes once a week to work and learn together with the class. Exploring some of these concrete provocations during this time could be great, as then together, we can work on a shared vocabulary to use when discussing roles and responsibilities with the students. Having the opportunity to have these discussions at home and at school will hopefully help the students become more comfortable with the topic, leading to them sharing more information. (As an aside, for those parents that can’t come into the classroom, I’ll add information about this topic to my monthly newsletter and daily emails and blog posts, to still allow for these home/school discussions.)
  • I’m also going to try and make the learning meaningful. I can’t help but think about our school focus on inquiry. As I read the first overall expectation, the big ideas, and the guiding questions, I thought to myself: why do roles and responsibilities matter? How can Grade 1 students meaningfully share what they learned and show others the importance of these changing roles and responsibilities? And that’s when I started to think about Full-Day Kindergarten. At some point in the year, the Full-Day Kindergarten teachers introduce the program to the new group of Junior Kindergarten students and parents. Coming to school is often a big change for these young learners. Their home responsibilities may vary significantly from their school ones. How do we prepare students for this change, and could our next youngest learners play a role in this? What if they shared what they learned as a way to help these 3- and 4-year olds, and their parents, adjust to these changing roles and responsibilities? Students can decide how they share their learning. It could be something as simple as a podcast or even a drawing (that could be photographed). With apps like iMovie, all of the different ideas could be combined into one and easily shared with next year’s Full-Day Kindergarten classes. What do you think?
Our School Focus That Is Making Me Think About How I Can Make The Social Studies Learning Meaningful

Our School Focus That Is Making Me Think About How I Can Make The Social Studies Learning Meaningful

I’m hoping that this plan will help meet the varied needs of my learners: allowing them to see and discuss their current roles and responsibilities and look at how they change. What other suggestions do you have? What feedback to you have on this plan? I’d love to hear your thoughts! I have no doubt that this current plan will continue to change with the very important addition of “student voice.”



My Promise To You!

“Students learn at their own rate.”

“They’ll get there when they’re ready.”

I’ve heard both of these comments many times before, and I agree with them (to a point). I also believe that as teachers, we can make a difference. Our whole class won’t progress at the same rate, but if a student is not making gains, then how can we change our programming in response to this? You see: I do think that these changes we make, matter.

Every day, I make changes to my program.

  • I re-look at my guided groups to focus on different skills based on what I notice the students can do and what I notice the students can’t do.
  • I see that pictures and storybooks are not helping all of my students with vocabulary development, so I look at the use of concrete objects to help increase vocabulary and build schema.
  • I increase the amount of small group and partner “talk time” because the students need these oral language opportunities to support them in both their reading and their writing.
  • I reconsider my mini-lessons for Writer’s Workshop based on what I see the students doing and where I think they need to go next.
  • I pay attention to student interests (and their intersection with curriculum expectations), change my provocations to align with these interests, and hopefully help inspire reading and writing opportunities.
  • I think about my full class teaching times. How long are my lessons? How much talking time am I doing (compared to the students)? What’s necessary, and what’s maybe not necessary? How can I make these lessons shorter, more engaging, and/or more productive? (These questions often change based on what I see the students doing, what I hear them saying, and how involved they are in the lesson.)
  • I think about my use of technology. How will I use it? How will the students use it? When is technology the best option, and when is it maybe not the best option?
  • I look at problems that occurred during the day. What happened? Why did it happen? What could I do to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?
  • I watch video conversations and listen back to podcasts. What did I say? What did I not say? Did I give enough wait time? If not, how could I change this for the next time? Did I focus on the student and his/her contributions enough? How were my follow-up questions? How could I improve them? Did the students learn what I wanted them to learn, and if not, how will I change this for tomorrow?

I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. Sometimes I’m not as patient as I could be. Sometimes I forget about the importance of visuals, and don’t provide enough when they’re needed. Sometimes I need to scaffold the learning more. Sometimes I just need to take a few extra minutes to stop, wait, and let the child work through the problem on his/her own. But every day, I look back, I reflect, I make changes, and then I go back and try again the next day.

On this Wednesday night, as I take a few minutes to think, here is what I know:

  • My students will learn.
  • They will improve.
  • They will become stronger readers, writers, mathematicians, and thinkers.

I say this because that’s what assessment for learning is all about: observing, thinking, changing, and trying again to help ensure that all students meet with success. Will this “success” look the same for all students? Probably not. But there will be growth because I’ll keep making changes and working collaboratively with colleagues to help ensure this happens: this is my promise to you! Whether an educator, administrator, or parent, what’s your promise to your children? How will you fulfill it? Let’s share and celebrate our promises!


Thinking Aloud As I Reflect On Changes

On both Friday and Sunday, I blogged about some changes that I had planned for this week. Friday’s blog post discussed my plan for using Explain Everything with the students. At our recent PA Day staff meeting, we were encouraged to give this app a try, as our Grade 4-8 students will be using it as part of the Transforming Learning Everywhere initiative. Sunday’s blog post discussed another change. After a phone conversation with a parent, and my own reflections on math in the classroom, I decided to make some changes to my math program with the hope of giving students a deeper understanding of the concepts and skills.

Now that Monday’s come and gone, I’ve put both plans into place, and reflected some more. Here are my first thoughts:

Explain Everything Plan

  • While I thought that the screenshots would help the students navigate through Explain Everything, I wish that I introduced them in a different way. When observing the students in action and listening back to some recordings, I noticed that the students wanted to investigate the tools on their own. They pressed the different buttons: they wanted to see what everything did. They problem solved along the way (e.g., “The writing isn’t erasing this way. Let’s try this instead.”) They accidentally found things out (e.g., by holding down on a button, they saw the different options that appeared), and then they wanted to teach each other how to use these features. While this learning may not be academic learning per se, it is still learning, and this exploration, problem solving, and sharing should be encouraged. I wish that I just had the students open the app and investigate it. They’re not going to break it, so why not let them see what they can do with it? Students need this “play time.” It’s how they learn. Then I could give them a specific activity, and show them the screenshots to help out when needed. Some students may not even need them. I think that this was a time that I went for “direct instruction” and “play-based learning” may have been the way to go.
  • I had recording problems. When I tested out the app, I could pause the recording and record again to add to it. For some reason, when the students tried to do this, one recording kept on replacing the other one. Due to time, our last rotation was a short one, so very few groups had a detailed recording to share. All of the other work was also replaced, so students couldn’t go back and see what others shared. Does anyone know why this happens? How might I change this setting?
  • I’m so glad that I showed students the drawing and writing options. I was thrilled with the number of Grade 1’s that added ideas in writing in addition to sharing orally. To help develop our writing skills, I’m really encouraging students to write more, and this was one time that I didn’t need to encourage them, but still had my most reluctant writers sharing lots.
  • All students were very successful with the app. Since they had options for sharing orally, in writing, through drawings, or any combination of the above, everyone could find a way to participate. Having so many opportunities to share definitely helped the students out when we moved onto our Shared Writing activity about the seasons. I saw many more hands up than usual, and had many more ideas shared. Success!
  • As such, I will be using Explain Everything again, but maybe I’ll start from the beginning, and give students some investigation time. I’ll let them see what they can do. Maybe I’ll give them a list of requirements (e.g., you must have a picture, you must include writing, you need to record your thinking), and let them problem solve to meet them. This way, when I give them a more specific task to do, they’ll have learned more about the tools in the app, had a chance to discuss how they work, and can then focus on the talk related to the task. What do you think? Any other suggestions?

Math Plan

  • I liked how a Learning Goal helped focus our math discussion yesterday. Students also seemed to be talking more about math as they were investigating/exploring the different problems. I wonder if the Learning Goal helped with this as well.
  • I found that the Learning Goal was more teacher-directed at this point, but the responses from the students seemed to indicate that this was their first time creating a Learning Goal. Hopefully as we use Learning Goals more, and students become more comfortable with the language, they can take more ownership in the creation process.
  • I found that I needed to ask a lot of questions to get the students to focus on the math and explain more of their thinking. I wonder if this is because it’s the first time that they’ve done an activity like this. Maybe the need for these questions are normal, and as time goes on and students develop a better understanding of math, they’ll need less guidance. It’s almost like a gradual release of responsibility model.
  • Based on my observations, I’m going to continue emphasizing the Learning Goal, having rich discussions about math, and using Success Criteria to further narrow the math focus. I’m also going to use more books and songs to get students to see “math” in the everyday. I found a great book about real world math on BookFlix (through our Virtual Library). A wonderful friend also sent me some math song books on “math in our world.” The visuals and the singing should definitely help students as they continue to develop their understanding of math. What are your thoughts on this plan? What else would you suggest?

I’m sure that the coming weeks will bring many more reflections and changes, and I’m excited to see where we go next. I always enjoy hearing your thoughts and ideas, and certainly welcome any suggestions as I continue to work with my students now and plan ahead for the future.


My New Math Plan

I had an interesting conversation with a parent today that has left me wondering. This mom mentioned to me that after reading my blog post on math, she asked her children, “What is math?” While her older son said that, “Math is everywhere,” her younger daughter just mentioned, “patterns,” as math. Why is this so?

That’s when I started to think about the Early Learning Kindergarten Program and even my approach to math at the beginning of the year. Math is so embedded in all that we do that maybe we don’t explicitly label it as such. Even when students count, sort, pattern, work with shapes, recognize numbers, and the list goes on, when this learning is a part of other learning, how do we get students to explicitly reflect on math?

On Thursday, when our Playdough Store was closed, I had the students reflect on what they learned as part of this project. While some ideas came quickly to mind (e.g., patterning and sorting), others needed prompts (e.g., number recognition and counting). Maybe we didn’t spend enough time reflecting throughout the process. Maybe even in a play-based learning environment, there needs to be a clear “learning goal” to guide the students’ learning and their reflection on this learning. I know that I’ve reconsidered my math plan for this week.

  • I am going to start with a learning goal. We are going to look at what this goal means, and how we know that we’ve addressed this goal. This will also connect with our school’s focus on helping students take more control over their learning.
  • If things go according to plan (and please note that this doesn’t always happen :) ), we’re also going to co-create some math success criteria this week. I know that students will likely need more scaffolding during this first success criteria attempt, but by looking at some of the Process Expectations together and getting students to think more about what they will achieve, this should help them be more aware of their math learning.
  • I’m going to make sure that there’s always sufficient time left each day to have students self-reflect on their learning as connected to this math learning goal and/or success criteria.
  • I’m going to get students to explicitly label the math learning throughout the week, and we’re going to add to our, “What Is Math?” Chart as we uncover more “math skills and concepts.”
  • I‘m planning some real world provocations related to our big ideas in math (especially around understanding numbers), but also linking to other math skills or concepts (such as patterns, spatial sense, and sorting). I want students to see connections between math topics.
  • I’m going to provide lots of oral language opportunities around different math topics to give students a chance to discuss math, share questions, and answer questions as well. I want them to get used to using math vocabulary and engaging in purposeful math talk. Then even the “play time” will become “learning time.”

I don’t know how this will work, but I’ll never know unless I try. Based on my conferences with students throughout the week, I can always modify this plan. I hope though that this planned and purposeful focus on math will help my students see math differently and engage in richer conversations about their math learning. What do you think? How do you help students see “math” in what they do, and reflect on their learning throughout the process? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


How Do You Plan With An App In Mind?

On Friday, we had a PA Day. For the morning, we got a chance to address our school focus as identified by our Directions Team. I must say that I was thrilled when I saw this focus!


With this focus in mind and thinking about our Board’s Transforming Learning Everywhere initiative, all grade teams got a chance to learn about the Explain Everything app, and how we could possibly use it in the classroom. The Triple E’s (Explain Everything Experts) — I loved our vice principal‘s creative name — introduced the app to different grade teams, and together, we looked at how we might use this app in the classroom with our students. While we were exploring a specific app, the focus of the discussion was on good pedagogy, which I love.

It was actually because of this focus on pedagogy that I struggled at the time. I was trying to figure out a way to use Explain Everything in the classroom, but for every idea I had, I questioned why Explain Everything was the best choice. It always seemed easier and/or better to just take a photograph of the work or to record a video of the thinking. Why do this activity using Explain Everything? Why was this activity worth the time needed to teach the Grade 1’s how to use the app, when there always seemed to be a better option?

As the day continued, I continued thinking about my Explain Everything dilemma. That’s when I decided to think about our school focus instead of just thinking about the app. How could Explain Everything help me address this focus? Why would it be the best choice? It wasn’t long before I began thinking about our Science unit on Daily and Seasonal Changes. To help students see the impact of the seasons on living things (including humans), I need them to look closely at the seasons. I found four great, detailed posters: one on each season. I thought that the students could talk about what they see, what they think, and what they wonder, and begin generating some inquiry questions that connect to our big idea of how seasons impact on living things. Explain Everything could be the perfect app to get the students thinking and sharing more about this Science focus.

Here’s my thinking:

  • The visuals in the poster will help those students with limited English see and understand more about the seasons. 
  • The ability to orally record their thinking will help those students that struggle with writing.
  • The ability to draw and write on top of the image will help those students that may not want to share as much orally, still indicate what they see and what they think.
  • The use of a visual for this activity will help those students that struggle with reading.
  • The ability for each group to go to each of the four posters and add their ideas on top of the ones already shared will help all of the students see the range of ideas shared throughout the class and the similarities and differences between the ideas. (Just to clarify, what I’ve done is add one poster image to the Explain Everything app on four different iPads. Students will circulate around to all four, so that they can continue to build on the ideas shared by their peers.)
  • The ability to easily upload and share these screencasts will allow me to post them on our class blog so that the discussions can be continued at home and maybe even expanded on more.
  • The ideas that come out of these discussions will hopefully help us further develop our inquiry questions and lead to some meaningful sharing of student learning.

While I could probably do a similar activity with the use of sticky notes and/or an iPad (with a camera and/or video camera), Explain Everything will allow for more ways for students to share their thinking (built-in differentiated instruction) and make it easier for students to go back and see and hear the similarities and differences between all responses. I’m also hoping that these screenshots will help my Grade 1’s easily navigate through the app so that they can spend the majority of their time recording ideas and not problem solving glitches. What do you think of my Explain Everything plan? How do you keep focused on pedagogy when planning for the use of a specific app? I’d love to hear your thinking!


Starting With The Real World

At the end of the day today, I asked my students a question that Matthew Oldridge, a wonderful teacher in Peel, was asking his students not that long ago: “What is math?” I did this because I wanted students to see the connections between our Playdough Store that “closed” today and math learning. I think it’s important for students to reflect on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and I thought that this brainstorming would help with that.

While this brainstorming session did help with that, it was also very eye-opening to me for another reason. I quickly realized that even in Grade 1, students seem to have an almost “textbook” understanding of math. Not one student made a real world connection to math, and even when giving me examples of skills (e.g., patterning), they only used ones that would either involve manipulatives or previous worksheet experiences. Students see math as a subject at school, but they don’t have a good understanding of why math matters so much. I hope to change this!

After reading through the many tweets in this conversation and doing some thinking on my way home from school, I wonder if the way to change this is to start with the real world. Right now, I find myself beginning with introducing a skill (e.g., patterning) and allowing for exploration that tends to involve the use of manipulatives and loose parts. Then I try to make the link to the real world with our problem. I wonder though if the students are still focused on the familiar tools and not on the application of math. Maybe we need to give them a chance to really see and experience the math that happens in the every day.

Next week, we’re focusing on counting (forwards and backwards) and number recognition. I think that I need some real world provocations to begin. I’m already thinking about cookbooks, beats in a song, appointment slots for a business, deliveries of materials for construction, distribution of flyers in teachers’ mailboxes at school, and money for a store (particularly nickels and dimes to help with counting by 5’s and 10’s). Even as I’m writing this post, more ideas are coming to mind. I wonder if by exploring these provocations and giving a real purpose for the math learning if students would start to see math as more than just something we learn each day at school. If we could couple this real world math with Patricia Newman‘s bulletin board idea, I see the potential for a change in the appreciation and meaningfulness of math.

2014-09-18_19-59-56Don’t get me wrong: I think that it’s important that students learn skills, but when there is not a meaningful context, I question the potential for deeper understanding. What do you think? How do you help students see math as more than just a school subject? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!