Reading And Writing, Google Style

Based on student interests, our classroom has started to transform into a Drama Studio. I really wanted to help inspire the students for different play ideas with the use of various books. While I have many books on topics of interest, I knew that I didn’t have enough on all topics that students wanted to write about (e.g., Monster High and Pokemon). So when thinking about some upcoming plans the other night, I thought that I’d show the students how to do a Google search. I figured that the images might help inspire some play ideas. My plan was to have the students help me create a list of some different topics, and then they could type in the word/words that they wanted. And while we did do this, when setting up for school yesterday, I realized that most of the iPads and our two ChromeBooks have a microphone option. I showed the students how to use this option. My one minute lesson was all it took!

Students loved searching by voice. It didn’t take long for them to make some important observations.

  • The more specific, the better. If you give a general category, you might get images or information that you don’t want, but if you’re specific, you’ll get better information.
  • Look closely at the websites, the images, and the videos that appear. You can tell a lot just by the website name. Students quickly realized that if they recognized the name of the producer of the show in the website link or information, it was probably a better source than if they just saw some random names that they didn’t know.
  • Sometimes a website is better, and sometimes it’s not. For some students, they found it hard to find exactly the information and/or images that they wanted, and they decided to look through books or even cards (e.g., Pokemon cards) to quickly get this information instead. The web is not always the best choice.
  • When using the microphone feature, the words appear in the Google search bar. Students realized that if their search produced the correct images, then the word/words were correct. They then used the search terms to spell these words correctly in their play scripts and/or plans. 
  • Not everything online is for kids. Students searched safely, but they also changed search terms and asked an adult and/or another child for help if the search didn’t produce the results they wanted. 

What was amazing about this whole process is that even some of my weakest readers and writers became successful at reading and writing online. Assistive technology makes the Internet very accessible for even our youngest students. We looked at how to be safe online, and students demonstrated for me just how safe they could be.


If they don’t learn how to search, filter through information, and make informed choices online, will they always make these good choices when accessing the Internet? I’ve been somewhat reluctant this year to use too much technology in the classroom, as my students are still young, still learning how to read and write, and still benefitting the most from real world experiences. But watching my class yesterday and today made me realize that as I teach the students to read and write, I can’t forget about teaching them how to do so in an online world. Google provides many reading and writing opportunities for students today. If my six-year-old that is still learning all of the letter-sounds can independently access, discuss, and respond to images and texts online, then I think this Language learning needs to be part of my Language program. What do you think? What role does the Internet play in your Language program, and why do you make the choices that you do? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


The Unexpected Benefit Of Indoor Recess

It’s been one more day of indoor recesses due to our frigid cold February temperatures, and it’s clear that the kids need the outside time as much as the teachers do. :) When inside for recess though, I like when students move around and work together, and it’s fantastic when they have the opportunity to play. This is actually a great chance for kids to practice playing together in unstructured social situations. Usually before indoor recess time, we talk about some possible play options, and then the students figure out what they want to do. This morning, a few of the kids asked if we could bring in the large, heavy tub of Lego from the pod for building, and others said that they wanted to work on a “play.” Okay. I had some work to do in the classroom during the nutrition break, so I thought that I’d sit back and see what happened.

I couldn’t help tweeting out some of the photographs and comments that I heard from the play group. It almost made me chuckle to see students “dancing around the room” as part of their indoor recess activities, but at the same time it had me thinking.

2015-02-23_18-49-30 2015-02-23_18-49-18

It’s clear that I have a large group of students that love drama and dance. They are very creative! They were eager to tell a story through their dramatic performance, and they built off of the ideas that the other people shared. Everyone could participate, and many students chimed in at different points this morning and this afternoon. From math expectations (on measurement) to oral language expectations (on listening and speaking for a purpose), there was definitely a lot of overlap between The Arts and other curriculum areas. I can only imagine how much students would love to create a class play — or maybe even multiple class plays!

And for the students that are less eager to participate in the play itself, I know they would love to create the setting (especially if they could use Lego). As these students built together at lunchtime today, I heard them describe the intricate details. I see a great focus on word choice (especially the use of adjectives), and having them use the letter-sounds as they add labels to the setting. They could maybe even make signs for the different parts of the play. I’m sure that these students would have many of their own ideas as well.

So here I sit, at 7:30 at night, thinking about the indoor recess times from today, and how I can help capture this same excitement in the learning tomorrow. Maybe it’s time for the grand opening of Dunsiger’s Drama Studio: Where Dance And Drama Come To Life! I wonder what the students would do if greeted with:

  • a large bin of Lego.
  • a huge supply of sticky notes.
  • the costumes from today’s play.
  • a template for a storyboard.
  • strips of paper for the lines (dialogue).

I think it’s time to find out. Maybe there is a positive spin on indoor recess: without it, I may have missed a new interest with Language (reading, writing, and media literacy), Math (measurement), Science (structures), and Art (drama, music, dance, and visual arts) possibilities. What would you suggest as I think ahead to tomorrow? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


My Week Long Story Of Students Directing And Owning Their Learning

After school yesterday, I happened to catch a tweet sent by my principal from an EQAO event that he was at in Toronto.


I found this tweet very timely, as this was something that I was actually contemplating. Yesterday was a different day in our classroom, and it made me wonder how many more of these “differences” I can incorporate into our regular routine.

Things started to change for me on Valentine’s Day. I went to go and pick up some stuffed animals from a friend and fellow teacher, Shirley-Anne. She collected these stuffed animals with other teachers and students at Ancaster Meadow School. Originally, her class was going to collect stuffed animals to send to mine as part of a pen pal activity, but before long, students were making announcements and collecting stuffed animals from everyone in the school. I only expected to pick up one or two bags of toys, but I ended up coming home with almost 14. What was I going to do?


That’s when my Toy Store idea started to take shape. I decided to blog about some of my initial ideas, and before long, my previous vice principal chimed in with some thinking of her own.

2015-02-21_09-21-00Her comment helped me think differently, as you can see in this reply.

2015-02-21_09-23-52With these thoughts in mind, I went into school on Tuesday curious to see what the students might think, say, and do. They eagerly embraced the idea of an Adoption Centre, and quickly started developing plans for displaying animals. They explored different sorting options during our Math Block, and even started thinking about proportional reasoning and non-standard units of measurement when looking closely at different sized toys and what this might mean in a real world context.

Then on Wednesday, we looked at the signs that we would need for our different stuffed animal displays. There was a lot of good thinking and talking about when spelling is important or not as important and why. It was great to hear student thinking as the children began envisioning the displays at our Adoption Centre. During our Math/Science Block, we started to think more about how we could store and display all of these stuffed animals. Students worked together to create shelves and boxes to hold ten or more toys. While creating the structures aligned with our Science expectations, there was lots of good math thinking and talking as well, on topics such as non-standard units of measurement and geometry.

This led to Thursday, and our exploration of Adoption Certificate options. Students decided on categories for the certificate, and looked at how to use classroom resources, familiar words, and letter-sounds to complete their own certificates. They knew that we likely wouldn’t be able to create certificates for all of the animals -- there were just too many – but students thought that if the K-2 students saw some of our certificates, they may even be inspired to create their own. Interesting thinking! During our Math/Science Block, we looked back at many of the shelf and box creations from yesterday, and students started to think why these display options might not work for our store. They also looked at how to fix them. From there, they made some new structures, and began to create displays for the grand opening of our Adoption Centre the next day.

And then came Friday, and the opening of our Adoption Centre. Students set the agenda for the day. First thing in the morning, they made our To Do List, and quickly realized that we needed to count the total number of stuffed animals to determine the number of students that we could invite to the store. They chose to count by 10’s, and the created the piles of ten to count. They also realized that we needed to figure out the number of students in each K-2 class and compare this number to the number of stuffed animals that we had. So they chose tools — from clipboards to iPads — and they went off to collect the data. Then students realized that they could use their knowledge of counting by tens to figure out the total number of students in all of the classes, so that’s what they did. When we realized we had enough stuffed animals for everyone — with some also left over – the students worked together to arrange their displays, make the additional signs, and invite the other classes. Without a doubt, yesterday the students were “directing” and “owning” their learning. They were in-charge. They supported each other. They made the decisions, and so many students left the building happy yesterday because of them.

Were there things that I would do differently? Yes!

  • I wish that I got some of the students to write the To Do List. They gave me the ideas, but I did the writing. I think that they could have taken even more ownership if they did it.
  • I wish that I got the students to come up and do some more of the writing for the math calculations. Again, they gave me the ideas, and I recorded their thinking, but it would have been nice to share the pen more with them. I think this would have helped visually show more “ownership” of their learning, as well as show me the math thinking that’s happening in their heads.
  • I wish that I incorporated more reading options. Students read tags on the stuffed animals and some resources around the classroom to help them with their signs, but I felt as though there could have been more. Maybe this could have been a good time to bring out the poems that Shirley-Anne’s class wrote for the stuffed animals and see if the students could match the poems to the animals. The “adopters” could have brought home a poem and an animal. I’m thinking now of how to use these poems next week to help with inferring skills, and maybe even see if any of them align with the animals that we have left over.
  • I wish that I could have taken more guided reading groups. There was so much amazing thinking and learning happening in the classroom that I felt badly taking students from this to come and read with me. Since I only had 10 students at school yesterday, I decided to read and write with them in more of a 1:1 format instead of in guided reading groups. For most of my students though, I find that the intensity of the guided reading group helps more. I recently started using more poems as part of guided reading. Maybe I could look at different text formats (e.g., even a modified toy catalogue) that allow this guided reading time to align more with the learning that is happening elsewhere in the classroom.
  • I wish that I had a “reflection on learning” time at the end of the day. By the time that the last class visited our room, we needed to quickly go and get ready for home, so this reflection time was lost. I’d like to use the photographs and videos from the day to help with this reflection on Monday. When students are learning through “play,” I think that it’s especially important that they think about their learning, reflect on how they did, and look at areas to focus on next, as they may not necessarily realize all of the learning that took place.

While our classroom schedule normally allows for long blocks of learning time, the schedule was especially fluid on Friday. Would this type of schedule work for all of my learners? Maybe not. I think that some of them might struggle with a little less structure. Although I realize that it’s important for all students to learn how to handle unstructured time, I also realize the value in scaffolding this learning for students that need it. 

  • Maybe we could work together to help define specific tasks for the day.
  • Maybe we could determine specific jobs during the Adoption Centre Pick-Up Times. (My students yesterday decided to spread out and help people at each table area, but maybe we could have a greeter in the pod, or a person responsible for tally marks to keep track of the number of students that leave with stuffed animals.)

This week, and particularly yesterday, helped me see what play-based learning is all about and the value that it has in all classrooms … not just Full-Day Kindergarten. It made me further see the value in authentic tasks, and how much students can learn from each other and learn together in the classroom. It also made me think more about Learning Skills, and how students need multiple, meaningful opportunities to practice these skills. Sometimes, as the teacher, I need to sit back, watch the struggle, and wait for the students to figure out the problems on their own. When this happens, the learning is powerful. Yesterday’s learning was powerful, and I can’t thank Ancaster Meadow enough for being the spark that allowed this learning to happen!

How do you give students ownership over their learning? What impact, if any, have you seen on student achievement? I’d love to hear your stories!




More Engaging Than Snow

I’m very lucky: in our classroom, we have a beautiful double window that spans a large percentage of the back wall. I love it! Our blinds are almost always open, and the natural light is such a wonderful thing to see each day. At my old school, I also often had these beautiful, big windows (minus the one year that I didn’t have any windows, but that’s another story :) ), and the blinds were constantly open. In fact, the only time that I ever closed the blinds was when it snowed. Why? Because the minute that the snow started falling, that’s all the students could focus on. They had to go and see it. They had to watch it. They had to talk about it. It often became a huge distraction. And then there was today …

It was just after second nutrition break, and after introducing our Math/Science problem for the day, the students were working together to create their toy boxes or shelves.


2015-02-18_19-16-02As I was moving around the classroom to work with the different groups of students, I caught a glimpse of what was happening outside. It was snowing — lots and lots of snow. And I couldn’t stop looking at the snow. Every time I stood up, I had to glimpse outside. Every time I moved groups, I had to take one more look. I even commented to our visitor, a Science Technology Coordinator for the Peel District School Board, about the snow. We both noticed it, and we both thought about the drive home (with my parking skills alone, this should come as no big surprise :) ).

The amazing thing though is that none of the students noticed the snow. The didn’t stand up to see it falling down. They didn’t go and look over at the window. They didn’t comment on it. In fact, one child said to me at the end of the day, “Wow, Miss Dunsiger! When did it start snowing?” This boy’s comment really got me thinking. I know that the snow can be magical, and sometimes, this student interest may spark a new inquiry. That being said, I love when a classroom problem engages students enough that they’re not drawn to what’s happening outside the window. 

  • How do we create this type of engaging classroom environment (in all grades)?
  • Is it possible for adult learners — even snow scared drivers like me :) – to be just as engaged? How?
  • Is this the type of environment that we want to create? Why or why not?

Maybe for some of us, we’ll always have to close the blinds. Maybe sometimes it’s okay to multi-task. Maybe sometimes what’s happening outside can create our best questions and wonders of all. And maybe sometimes, with just a little extra work, our thinking and learning at the time can actually have our full attention. What do you think? 



Dissecting Dibels

This weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about the wonderful PA Day session that the K-2 teachers got to participate in on Friday. The speaker, Kathryn, is an instructional coach with our Board, and she talked about Dibels, phonemic awareness skills, comprehensive literacy, inquiry, and teaching skills in context. I found myself nodding along with much of what she shared, but I also found myself contemplating new ideas and considering questions.

Here are some of my new ideas:

  • Use poems during guided reading groups to provide a context for some phonemic awareness skills that have been orally reviewed. I thought that I would try putting these poems into Explain Everything on the iPads. Then students can annotate the text, but also record their reading of it. This will also give my students more experience using Explain Everything, which may help them when they want to use this screencasting app for other purposes (e.g., to explain thinking in Math, Language, Social Studies, or Science).
  • Do progress monitoring regularly (i.e., every couple of weeks). Since establishing the groupings, I’ve been trying to do some quick assessments through my small group time, by recording students as they demonstrate their knowledge of the specific target area in Dibels (e.g., Phoneme Segmentation Fluency). These assessments aren’t official ones though, and while I have the data, I haven’t graphed it to monitor growth. I will be using the Progress Monitoring Booklets this week, so that I can really start to see this student growth as compared to their Aim Line (target).
  • Make more use of transitional times for reviewing phonemic awareness skills. I remember Lori, another Grade 1 teacher, doing this regularly when she taught Kindergarten. While I’ve been doing this more recently during clean-up times and times when we first come to the carpet, Kathryn made me consider other options. Now I’m even thinking of some games that we can play when lining up and possibly even when moving through the halls. I think that this could be a good way to make the most of our time at school, while increasing phonemic awareness skills.

While I’m very excited about these new ideas, I’m also thinking a lot about many questions that have come to mind.

  • Are the benchmarks the same for our Stage 1 ELL learners? Knowing that for some of these students, it may take longer to meet these benchmarks, how do I know when I should keep on trying what I’m already doing versus attempting a new approach?
  • What are some of the suggested interventions for the students that are continually falling below the target? I know that this would be a good time to talk to our Learning Resource Teachers, Instructional Coach, and ESL teacher, but are there other places that we should be looking for suggested resources and activities?
  • I really want 100% of my students to reach the “minimal level of okayness,” but how reasonable is it for this to happen? What does the classroom program look like in the cases where this has happened? I’d love to know more about the program design and the interventions from teachers that have met with this high level of success.
  • Kathryn spoke regularly about “teaching skills in context,” but then there are so many websites and support materials that make these skills separate from comprehensive literacy and inquiry. How do you teach these skills in context? When doing so, do you still access these games and blackline masters, and how do you use them with your students?

I know that there are other schools both inside and outside of our Board that are using Dibels. I would welcome any feedback and/or insights from people that are familiar with this program, as I continue to contemplate how to best meet student needs. Thanks for your help!


Imagining Our Totally Terrific Toy Store

Yesterday, I went to Shirley-Anne Stretton’s house to pick up the stuffed animals that her students had collected for mine as part of a classroom buddy initiative. It wasn’t until I arrived that I realized how many stuffed animals her Grade 2 class had collected. Not only did each of her students bring in animals, but the Grade 2’s wrote announcements to collect animals from other students at Ancaster Meadow School. I don’t have the best estimation skills, but I’m guessing that I have around 200 stuffed animals to bring into the school this week.


While I knew that these toys were coming, and I intended to use them for some math activities before sending them home with the students, the volume of items now has me reconsidering my plan. I think that we might be able to open our own free Toy Store. I imagine students from JK-Grade 2 (or maybe even Grade 3) placing “orders” for toys. My students can explore …

  • sorting options.
  • storage options (and non-standard units of measurement as well as structures, as they look at creating shelving and/or bins for the stuffed animals).
  • counting, addition, and subtraction, as we look at totals, and how those totals change as the items are “sold.” 
  • data management, when surveying for preferred types, colours, and/or sizes of animals.
  • media literacy, as we create signs for the types of toys, as well as announcements to let people know that the toys are available for others to receive. 
  • writing using different forms, as students create order forms, stories, and/or poems to go with the toys.
  • writing songs to help advertise for the toys (adding in a music component to the writing).
  • name reading and writing, as students match toys to the people that selected them.
  • telling time to the hour and half-hour, as they create open and closed signs for our store.

And these are just my initial thoughts. I can’t wait to see what the students think and do. So even though I have plans for this upcoming week, and even though a few of these plans include using these stuffed animals, I think that these toys make end up taking a bigger role in our classroom learning. That’s okay.

I can’t help but think back to the amazing presentation that we listened to on Friday morning at our PA Day session, and the important reminder that phonemic awareness skills need to be taught in context — through comprehensive literacy and inquiry. I see this toy store as providing this potential: allowing students to take what they’ve learned orally about the sounds at the beginning and end of words, as well as segmenting and blending sounds, and using these skills for multiple reading and writing opportunities. The possibilities are endless! What would you do with these stuffed animals? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.


Know Thy Learners

Yesterday, I was able to partake in PA Day sessions at two different schools on two different topics. In the morning, I was at my school, Dr. Davey, and we listened to a fantastic speaker — an instructional coach with our Board — on the Dibels Assessment, phonemic awareness, and comprehensive literacy. Then in the afternoon, I presented two sessions at my previous school, Ancaster Meadow, on inquiry: the first one was a presentation to the JK-Grade 5 staff on “My Inquiry Story,” and the second one was one on provocations and what to do after them. For this second session, I got to work with Frances Nicolaides: a fantastic Grade 7/8 teacher from Dr. Davey School. It was great to hear about her experiences, share my own, and converse with different JK-Grade 3 teachers and DECEs on their experiences and where they want to go next.  There was a common theme that made its way through these morning and afternoon sessions: know thy students.

Now it may sound ridiculous to point out what should be the obvious theme — teaching is always about the kids, right? — but sometimes I think we can get hung up on programs, benchmarks, and what we’ve done before. I’ve done it, and continue to do it, even when I think that I don’t. At the beginning of this year, I was getting very hung up on levels: Grade 1’s need to be at a Level 16 DRA by the end of Grade 1, and how was I going to close the gap when some students were reading at a JK or SK level? I kept trying to start my teaching from where I thought that students “should be,” instead of looking at where “they are.” It was a friend of mine that reminded me of the need to really focus on the kids. Doing so, changed things.

It’s not that we lower expectations. We should always have high expectations of all of our students. And it’s not that we vary things for everyone. All of our students will be at different levels, and that’s okay. With a lot of small group options, we can change our programming to meet our student needs. We can also continue to make changes as students meet with success. I think that this is an important part, and a point that came through very clearly at yesterday’s morning inservice. We need to be constantly assessing our students so that we can see growth, and then make changes based on this growth. And we are professionals: we can analyze our data, look closely at strengths and needs, and determine where to go next. We can talk to our colleagues if we’re unsure. We don’t need to be alone. But now we’re changing based on what our kids need, and not based on what our schedule or a program dictate.

It’s not that we ignore benchmarks. In fact, they continue to help us with setting goals. I constantly look at how I can get students closer to them, and changes that I can make to meet with more student success. But benchmarks aren’t just about the numbers. They’re about the kids. They’re about the growth that kids have made, and the growth that kids continue to need to make. And they’re about the role that programming can play in this student growth. Again, these are key points from yesterday morning, and good reminders that we really need to know our students.

Inquiry also allows us to get to know our kids better, and plan based on their interests and needs. Expectations are still paramount. I look to the curriculum document often, and I probably always will. But I also observe my students. I get to know about their interests, their strengths, and their needs. And I start making connections between student interests and expectations. I think that these connections are important, and listening to some DECE and Kindergarten teachers talk yesterday, I think that this happens regularly in Full-Day Kindergarten classrooms. We can definitely all learn from FDK!

The big change that I noticed though was during the planning time yesterday afternoon. As I wandered around and talked to different grade teams, I saw curriculum documents open. I didn’t see worksheets. I didn’t see textbooks. I did hear lots of conversations about students, and I did observe a ton of student-centred planning. Many teachers talked about their changes in thinking, planning, and teaching, and it was incredible to be a part of this and see these changes happening. Again, it was all about the kids!

Change is hard. It can make many people uncomfortable. I know. I often feel this way too. But when we embrace this uncomfortable change — especially when taking into consideration our students and their needs — the benefits can be huge. I see this happening. Yesterday showed me that. I’m excited to see where we go from here, but I know that wherever we go, we’ll do so thinking about the students first. How do you get to know your students? How does your classroom program align with their needs? What changes have you made to your program to better meet these needs? I’d love to hear about your experiences!