My Little Game

Every day, I play a little game with myself. This is a game just for me. At regular intervals throughout the day, I look up at the door. If I see a teacher, EA, parent, or administrator walking by, I take note of what we’re doing at the time:

  • Am I teaching at the front of the room?
  • Are the students leading a lesson?
  • Are the students working in groups?
  • Am I working with guided groups?
  • Am I conferencing/working with an individual student?

Then at the nutrition breaks and again at the end of the day, I think about what these people walking by might have seen. I begin to reflect:

  • Do I spend too much time doing full class instruction?
  • Am I circulating enough during small group time?
  • Am I taking the time to really engage with the students during guided groups and conferences?
  • Am I giving the students enough time to really engage with each other during class time?

Based on the answers to these questions, I start to re-look at my teaching practices and make changes for the next day. I certainly haven’t achieved perfection, but this low-stress game helps me make positive changes for my students, and for this, I’m grateful!

Please don’t get me wrong: I think that there’s value to full class and small group instruction, but I wonder about the amount that we need of each. As I’ve looked more closely at inquiry this year, I’ve realized that not everyone needs to hear the same information at the same time. Mini-lessons are wonderful, and scaffolding is important, but does this always need to happen with the full class? I’m not convinced that it does.

My goal with this game is to see that I’m spending less of my day talking to the full class and more of my day working with small groups. I also want students spending more of their day working with and learning from each other. I’ve found that this is the best way to meet individual student needs and see the most student growth in academic success, independence, and thinking skills.  Have you ever played a game like this one? What would you hope for people to see as they walk by? I’d love to hear your thoughts of this!

Aviva – Trying To Look From The Outside, In :)

Does “Experiencing Difficulties” Help With “Experiencing Success?”

I’m thinking right now of a discussion that I had about a month ago with an educator that I really admire. (I didn’t ask for his permission to use his name in this post, so I won’t, but I do want to share the conversation.) We were talking about how to best meet various student needs in the classroom, and during our discussion, he made a very important point. He said, “I think that this can be hard for many teachers because they’ve only had success in school. They’ve always learned things easily. They don’t know what it’s like to struggle.” This comment was not meant in a negative way at all, but instead, as a very important point about why it can sometimes be hard to differentiate. We haven’t always felt for ourselves what some of our students feel: what it’s like not to be able to do something.

I’m reflecting on this conversation now because today, my student teacher is introducing a new topic in math: nets. I’ll admit that when we first sat down to plan these lessons together, I had to breathe deeply (numerous times) not to hyperventilate. I love math, and I love teaching math, but this part of geometry terrifies me! As I’ve blogged about before, I have a non-verbal learning disability in visual spatial skills, and geometry (particularly the topics of nets and transformations) is a struggle for me. But when it comes to teaching, struggling can be a good thing! When we were discussing this unit, my own difficulties helped both my student teacher and me identify the areas that may be problematic for students:

  • seeing how the nets form into prisms and pyramids.
  • knowing how to take a three-dimensional figure and make a two-dimensional net.

This allowed us to plan differently.

  • We looked at bringing in some boxes that can be unfolded and folded back up again to see the connection between the two-dimensional nets and the three-dimensional figures.
  • We looked at starting with cut-out nets that had some problems with them (e.g., incorrect measurements, flaps not included), and using these as a starting point for students creating their own.
  • We differentiated the lesson by providing additional opportunities for students to work in various ways with the two-dimensional nets (if they need the extra time) or for students to move onto creating their own nets from three-dimensional figures (if they don’t need this extra step).

As we were finalizing our plans yesterday, my student teacher said to me, “Aviva, I find it so helpful to hear from someone that does struggle with this, as it’s something that comes easily to me. I didn’t realize how others might find it hard. Now, I can plan for all of the students.” And it was my student teacher’s comment that took me back to the conversation I had about a month ago: it’s hard to remember about those that do struggle if you’ve never experienced this feeling before.

These struggling students can be incredibly successful though with the right accommodations in place. We just need to figure out these accommodations. How do we do so though when we can’t always relate to what the students are experiencing? What methods/approaches have you used? I’d love to hear, for while I might be able to understand the students that struggle in these visual spatial areas, I know that I don’t have this same connection to all areas of the curriculum. I wonder if this connection is really the important link to differentiated instruction and success for all!


When And How To Pay Attention!

This morning, I read a recent blog post by Sue Dunlop, one of our Board’s superintendents. The post spoke about multi-tasking, screen time, and the importance of truly “paying attention.” I’ve actually been thinking about this topic a lot lately.

The funny thing is that I often feel the need to multi-task, but I struggle with doing more than one thing at a time. So what do I do? Here’s my approach:

  • I have the Board email app on my iPad, so I’ll check it regularly, but mark as unread everything that I need to reply to. Then I can think about my response when I have a few minutes, but not reply to the emails until nutrition break or after school, when I can really focus on what I want to say.
  • When conferencing with students, I’ll usually take a photograph of the student work, but then put the iPad down and listen to the conversation. After that, I’ll annotate the photograph with information that the students shared and/or I’ll hand over the iPad, and let the students add the information.
  • I’ll use a podcasting app when conferencing with students. Then I can put my iPad on the table, sit back, and truly engage in the conversation, but still have documentation of what was shared.

These tricks allow me to multi-task without multi-tasking. But what about at inservices? This is where I struggle. I read Sue’s example of her time at the Math Inservice. I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of replying to emails during inservices before, and when I do that, I really have no idea what’s being shared. I lose out, and I know that!

But if I put away all of my devices and just listen to the conversation (especially during any full group talking time), I don’t remember anything either. I learn by listening and watching, but also, doing! This is where tweeting is beneficial for me. I listen to what the speaker says, I see what’s on the slides, and then I tweet out my thinking. This keeps me focused on the content, but also, engaged with what’s being shared. Then when it comes to small group sharing time, I put my device off to the side, engage in the conversation, and write down some ideas later that I want to remember.

What does all of this mean when it comes to teaching and learning?

  • People “pay attention” in different ways. I think we need to model these different ways for students, and let students choose the way that works best for them. Maybe some students need to “chalk talk” during full class lessons, others may need a digital backchannel, and still others may need to just listen and watch. How can we provide all of these choices?
  • We need to practice what we preach. If we want students to avoid personal interactions during class time, then I think we need to as well. Modelling for students how to use technology well to capture learning is important, but also modelling for them how to avoid texts and emails during instructional time is equally as important. How do you do this?
  • We need to admit when we make mistakes. I know that there have been times when I’ve tried to multi-task, and I shouldn’t. Maybe I replied to an email that I should have waited on answering until there was a better time. If I’m not 100% “there” for the students, then I try to own my mistake, and show them how I can make a better choice. How do you model “making mistakes?”

What does “paying attention” look like to you? What are your expectations for students in a classroom context? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!



To Photocopy Or Not To Photocopy: That Is The Question!

Yesterday after school we had a Staff Meeting, and to get us thinking, we started with some provocations. Around the room, there were various Easter blackline masters. I didn’t get to see everything, but these included photocopies like,

  • the ubiquitous Easter Bunny Hat (of which, I can’t help but think of this amazing blog post by Aaron Puley).
  • syllable counting Easter activities.
  • various math drill sheets.
  • punctuation photocopies.

We were asked to think about the expectations that these activities met, if they addressed students with all learning needs, and how we could modify them to make them better. The discussions around the room were great, and I loved hearing the ideas that colleagues shared afterwards.

I now need to admit to a couple of things:

  1. During my 13 years of teaching, I’ve done all of these photocopied activities (and more) at least once.
  2. I really dislike blackline masters — at least now!

It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve really felt so strongly about Point #2. And it wasn’t until this year that I made the commitment to only photocopy the same paper for every child in my class if it was an open-ended, differentiated assignment. Why the change?

  • My students all have different needs. Many of the blackline masters that I’ve found are not differentiated, and so, I’m not giving the opportunity for all students to be successful. This bothers me.
  • Many blackline masters do not seem to address all levels of the achievement chart. The majority of worksheets seem heavy on Knowledge and Understanding questions, but not Thinking, Application, or Communication. I want this variety.
  • Practising skills is important, but is the worksheet necessary? Just as I struggle with too much testing, I also struggle with too many photocopies. If I find that students need to practice a skill, often I can meet these needs with game, a small group mini-lesson, or embedded as part of an open-ended activity. Why use the worksheet?

I’m pleased with this change in my practice, as I think that it’s positively impacted on student achievement: with greater understanding from all students in various subject areas. The lack of worksheets means more individualized activities, more student voice and choice, and more engagement. Reading and thinking about inquiry over the summer really helped inspire me to make this change, and I know that it’s a change I’ll continue.

Yesterday’s Staff Meeting, allowed me to solidify my feelings, and I was feeling very happy today about how things were going in this regard, until last period. This is when I cover a Grade 3/4 class for Media Literacy. Due to a variety of different circumstances, I haven’t seen this class a lot lately for media. I was excited to have the students continue working on their commercials that they began planning a couple of weeks ago.

But as I got prepared for today, I realized something: I gave every group the same planner. I expected each group to complete it in the same way and give it to me before they started their script for their commercial. Why did I do this? I think that at the time, I figured that this blackline master would help students organize their ideas, but the format didn’t work for everyone. Here I am vocalizing my support of a reduction in photocopying, and I did just the opposite for this lesson.

Now what? Today, I decided to make a change. I showed students how they could use different devices and formats to finish their plan and create their script. It was incredible to see the difference in the students! All groups were eager to get to work, and they all wrote way more than they have in previous weeks. Many groups even conferenced with me, received feedback, made changes, and are now almost ready to record. It’s not that the organizer that I photocopied was a bad one to use, but it didn’t address the needs of ALL students (including students that have fine motor difficulties and struggle with writing). Even though I don’t photocopy much, yesterday’s Staff Meeting made me further reconsider what I do photocopy.



When do you choose to photocopy? When do you choose not to? How do you make this choice? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!



Play And Proportional Reasoning

Today we played in class – a lot! Yesterday, my student teacher, Ashley, introduced the class to our Tornado Challenge. Students learned about their countries and materials, and today they started planning. This morning, we looked closely at our Math Success Criteria, and tweaked it for this current challenge. Students also worked in groups to turn the Science expectations into Success Criteria to help guide their learning throughout the building process. After a couple of mini-lessons on detailed design plans and various ways to determine fractional amounts, students got to work.

Yes, the students had to create a plan (a labelled diagram) before they got to build. They also had to figure out 2/3 of the building materials (one of the project requirements) before building, but then the building began. And the building was a lot of “play” and “problem solving.”

  • Some students struggled with their building materials. They couldn’t attach the wood together using the string. One problem to work through and solve.
  • Some students struggled with their lack of fasteners. They didn’t have enough tape, elastics, or string for the amount of materials that they had. A second problem to work through and solve.
  • Some students struggled with using all of their materials. They were given a large amount, and they had to use at least 2/3 of that amount. How could they do this? A third problem to work through and solve.
  • Some students struggled with not thinking ahead. They gave away their extra materials, and then needed more and didn’t have enough to use. A fourth problem to work through and solve.
  • Some students struggled with bad trades. They traded their items for materials that they really didn’t need, and then had to figure out a way to use them or trade again. A final problem to work through and solve.

And it was through the trading that the students really began to understand proportional reasoning. In the assignment outline, my student teacher and I set-up a store that allowed for these deals:

2014-04-09_19-37-55As students started to trade items for masking tape, I realized that I had a ton of additional items. Then students realized that masking tape wouldn’t hold many of these items together. They wanted duct tape. They wanted elastics. They even wanted hockey tape. I had no prices for these additional items though. What should I do? I let the students use the established prices to figure out what the other items should cost – enter proportional reasoning.

  • Students decided that hockey tape and duct tape were stickier than masking tape, so they got 1/2 the amount of this tape for the same amount of materials.
  • Students realized that the branches of wood were of varying degrees of thickness, so they negotiated additional tape based on how their wood pieces compared to an average stick.
  • Students realized that they didn’t want to necessarily trade these amounts of materials, so they proportionally varied the amounts of tape by the amounts of materials traded. For example, if they only wanted to trade 1/2 the amount of materials, then they would only get 1/2 the amount of tape.
  • Students determined a set number of elastics to trade for one of the materials, and then they varied this elastic amount based on the type of materials that they traded. They used the set tape amounts as their proportional guide for elastic amounts.

What was amazing to watch is how naturally this math was happening. Students wanted these materials. They needed these materials. So the trades needed to happen, and the students needed to figure out what was fair – be it when trading with me in the store or with their peers. It was great to hear the thinking and see how the students were working out their calculations all while creating and playing together.

Play is engaging. Play is fun. But play is also learning … and this can be true for students (and adults) of all ages. How do you develop math skills through play? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks in doing so? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!



So Much #Gratitude That I Need More Than Just A Tweet

Today I feel lucky. Very, very fortunate. Why? Because I spent my day learning from teachers that absolutely amaze me.

In March, I got an email inviting me to visit the CEA Office in Toronto to meet with a Swedish Delegation — including politicians, senior bureaucrats, an education journalist (and her young daughter), and a representative from Microsoft Sweden – to discuss technology in education. Heidi Siwak, Stephen Hurley, Brenda Sherry, and I spent a couple of hours this afternoon talking about our use of technology in the classroom: successes, problems, and possible solutions.

We were asked hard questions. (I can’t help but think of our vice principal, Kristi, and her questions that always make me think.) These were questions about meeting curriculum expectations, inappropriate uses of technology, resistance in education, and the “standardized test” dilemma.

The meeting today reminded me that teaching and learning is about so much more than just technology.

  • We need to explore real world problems. 
  • We need to create a culture of inquiry. 
  • We need the teacher to be a learner too.
  • We need engagement — and not engaging with a screen, but engaging with meaningful issues.
  • We need solid pedagogy.
  • We need to be willing to share and to admit successes and failures.
  • We need to start somewhere, and then, we need to move past that.
  • We need to bring what’s happening in the individual classrooms out into the open: making the learning visible to others in our school, Board, and around the world.

About five years ago, I started using Twitter, and at first, I was skeptical about why anyone would want or need to use social media. Now I understand. Twitter gave me the support I needed to make changes in the classroom: ones that make me a better teacher, and my students, better off as a result.

Today, I sat in a room with people that inspire me. I listened to talks from incredible educators, and I watched a wonderful group of people from Sweden nod their heads, smile broadly, and really think about where they want to go next. For my 30 Days of Gratitude, I cannot think of something that I’m more grateful for than today: a day to remember that change in education takes time, effort, and support, but it’s totally worth it!

How has technology changed you as an educator, administrator, or parent? How do you help support change in others? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Soy, Lactose-Free, Extra Hot! The Coffee/Education Connection!

“And what can I get for you today?”

“I think I’ll have a grande mild in a venti cup with the white mocha syrup.”

“Or, maybe I’ll have a venti extra hot soy latte with the no sugar vanilla syrup.”

“On that note, today could be a venti non-fat mocha, light on the whip.”

“Decisions, decisions, decisions.”

“Um, ma’am, I think that I’ll just give you a coffee!”

“A coffee! What?! I don’t just want a coffee!”

The next time that you go out to your favourite coffee house, watch and listen carefully. As somebody that feels ultimate bliss with my first sip of coffee and my first step into the school, I can say with certainty that coffee and teaching have a lot in common.

  • Variety is the spice of life! There are so many different coffee combinations — and if you’re not into coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or flavoured cold drink options — that it’s rare to find two of the same orders. It’s also hard to find multiple students that work and learn in the same way in the classroom. The baristas meet our many coffee needs, and educators, meet the varied student needs.
  • Change is constant! Coffee menus are forever being updated. There are new flavour options, new drink varieties, and even new sizes. Education constantly changes too. Curriculum documents are updated, teaching assignments switch, and assessment/evaluation methods change, and we need to embrace these changes. Sometimes we’ll find a favourite new coffee flavour, and sometimes, we’ll find a better way to teach our students!
  • Savour the moment! Every morning when I get my coffee – before I even leave the parking lot – I take my first sip. It’s pure heaven! I actually sigh deeply. It’s just coffee, and it’s just a taste, but it’s a moment to enjoy … and I try to enjoy all of these same small moments in the classroom.  
  • Relationships matter! This is an important lesson that I’ve learned from the many baristas I interact with and observe. I love that I can walk into the coffee shop every morning, and the person already knows what I’m going to order. I love how all of the people there know that I’m a teacher, and ask me about my plans for the day. I love that they smile and laugh, and genuinely seem to want to get to know me. It’s these same kinds of relationships that I need to build with my students. I need to start the day with a smile. I need to find out about what’s new with them, what matters to them, and what they want to learn. I need to make the connections with them that the baristas try to make with the many customers each morning!
  • Team work is essential! The baristas are great at showing this. One person takes my order and money and one person makes my drink. Both people communicate with each other, and if it’s busy there, multiple people work together to quickly service everyone. The same is true in a school context as students, teachers, educational assistants, secretaries, caretakers, administrators, and parents all work together to make sure that the students are safe, happy, well cared for, and successful! 

What would you add to this list of coffee/education connections? Here’s to many more happy days in the classroom and enjoyable sips of coffee (or tea, hot chocolate, or water)! :)