What’s Wrong With Having Both?

Today, I had some big shopping to do. Tomorrow’s the day that my class is going to make the playdough for our Playdough Store. During the first week of school, I had some playdough out as a possible option for patterning, and I noticed that the students loved it. Many of them spoke about how they used it in Kindergarten, and even started mentioning how much they’d love to see their Kindergarten teachers again. This got me thinking! Why not make math meaningful with a little problem that aligns with student interest? The problem: The Kindergarten and Grade 1 classes want playdough to use for some different patterning activities. They’re asking for our help in making and selling them the playdough to use. When presented with the problem, the students figured out that we needed to first determine the colours that they would want to buy. They learned how to create their own surveys and collect their own data. Then students worked on adding up the totals (both individually, and then grouping them with the totals from the other students in the class). We then analyzed the data and determined the best five colours to make and why.



It’s now time to make the playdough, create some patterns with it to inspire the classes that purchase it, determine prices for the different sized balls, create an order form and collect orders, sort the play money (for change), and collect and count the money that we make (looking at number patterns and skip counting as we count by different amounts). Students are even creating posters to advertise our Playdough Store and a sign for our classroom, both of which involve writing the numerals and the number words in meaningful contextsThis play-based math project has allowed the students to explore different math tools in the classroom: from manipulatives to ten frames to the hundreds chart, as they count totals. They’re also gaining an understanding of addition, as they put groups together to determine a total amount. And they’re so excited about the project that the learning becomes equally exciting.


There is not a lot of technology involved in the project itself, but technology has played a crucial role in documenting the learningfrom podcasts to record the class discussions to tweets to share pictures of the students at work. One student even wrote her first tweet, showcasing a sign that she made for the store. While not the initial intent, students have started taking this project and letting it spill into our Language block, as they’ve taken to writing about our Playdough Store, creating media texts advertising our product, and using resources in the classroom to spell familiar words that connect to our store topic (e.g., colour words). Again, technology has allowed us to document this learning: showcasing what the students have shared and linking this work to curriculum expectations.


I say all of this because when I was at the grocery store this morning buying the flour for our playdough, the cashier asked me what I was doing. I explained that we were making playdough for our Playdough Store. He commented on how much he loved this, and said that it was so nice to see that teachers still do this with the focus being on technology nowadays. That made me stop and think. I’m a big believer in the value of using technology in the classroom. Even in just a couple of weeks, my students have used our iPads and ChromeBooks to find out more about topics that interest them, share their learning with others, record their discussions, and even start creating their own digital storybooks and screencasts. That being said, the students also use paper, pencils, markers, crayons, chalk, paint, and manipulatives every day in class, and there is equally as much value to doing so. I don’t want a classroom that doesn’t include paper, but I also don’t want one that doesn’t include an iPad. Can’t these tools co-exist, and how do we help people see the value in this coexistence? Should we really be striving for paperless classroom, or instead, for maximizing our tools for learning? What do you think? I’d welcome your thoughts! I never thought that a trip to the grocery store would give me so much to think about.



The Suggestions That Caused The Sparks …

In the last couple of days, general suggestions have inspired me to make changes. It all started yesterday during our first Staff Meeting for the year. For those that don’t know me, I love to take minutes during Staff Meetings. I do so for a couple of reasons:

  • I remember more when I write it down.
  • I stay focused on what’s being shared. (These minutes are kind of like differentiated instruction/a good management strategy for the teacher — that being me. :) )

There were lots of informational items shared during this first meeting, but one point that really stuck with me was when the principal, Gerry, was talking about “time on task.” I’m a really big believer in making the most out of the time in the classroom, and continuing to modify my program in order to do so. While overall, I’m happy with how things are going, there is one time that I wanted to change: the end-of-nutrition-break time.

Until yesterday, when the bell went (at each nutrition break), my students tidied up, lined up, put their lunch bags away in their lockers, and then went to the bathroom as a class. There are many things that I dislike about this routine.

  • Line-ups almost always cause problems (in my experience). Students that find it difficult to focus or may have behavioural needs, struggle with standing in line for too long. Before you know it, there’s a problem, and I believe that I created this problem because I had the students stand still and quietly for an extended period of time.
  • When we’re trying to put our lunch bags away, other students are coming upstairs from recess. We need to delay our exit into the hallway, or we end up causing problems for the group that’s trying to pass us.
  • There is always a delay in cleaning up. A student has spilled something. A student has additional garbage to throw out. A student needs to have just one more bite of food. With this lunch bag locker system, the whole class is delayed by one or two students. And since we need to go out into the hallway to put things away, the students aren’t actually doing anything during this delay — they are just standing there waiting to start moving. See Problem #1 for what happens when students are in line for too long. :)
  • Everyone walks down to the bathroom, but not everybody has to actually go to the bathroom. I really dislike full class bathroom breaks. Most of the time, the majority of students are just standing around in the hallway. Because we’re in the hallway and so close to other classrooms, we can’t talk either, so this time is wasted time. While I dislike a revolving door of bathroom breaks — as then students are always missing important instructions – I think that I dislike this full class option more.

And so, with Gerry’s mention of “time on task,” and my reflection on this system, I knew that I needed to make a change. Today I decided to try something different. I had my students put their lunch bags on the empty shelf in the classroom. During each nutrition break, I got a couple of students at a time to go to the bathroom. (The students quickly adjusted to this new routine and monitored the “bathroom parade.”) By the time the bell rang, everyone had gone to the bathroom, and the clean-up process only took a couple of minutes. Usually, we don’t start our lesson or activity until at least 15 minutes after the bell has gone. Today, it only took 3 minutes to tidy-up, and then we were right into learning. What a huge difference! This one change just gained us at least 24 minutes of additional instructional time a day!

I thought that the students would find it difficult to change routine, but they loved it. In fact, when I told them about the new routine, many of them mentioned that this was similar to what they did in Kindergarten. This helped them adjust right away. I know that this is a change that I’ll be continuing for sure. Thanks Gerry for the spark that inspired the switch!

Now my second change was inspired by my previous superintendent, Sue Dunlop. Over the years, I’ve had a chance to interact and learn with Sue both online and in person. While I love her tweets, I also love her blog posts. Last night, I noticed that she published a new oneI had to read it. Her post had me responding immediately.

While I know that she didn’t intend this, I actually felt very guilty after reading her post. I realized that while I’ve gone out of my way to connect with students, I haven’t connected quite as well with the new staff. As I’ve blogged about on a couple of occasions, I really struggle with unstructured social situations. I’m definitely an introvert, and while I can present to groups of adults and attend many workshops and conferences, small talk terrifies me. I also have a non-verbal learning disability, and as such, reading non-verbal cues and knowing how and when to begin discussions is incredibly hard.

I’ve learned strategies that work though — largely, pre-planning and talking myself into “taking a risk” — and Sue’s post inspired me to do just that. So today, even though I was tempted to stay up in the classroom and work during the second nutrition break, I switched my plans. I had a prep right before the break, so I decided to go down a little early and do some work in the staffroom. I thought that I might do better if there was a smaller group of people to begin with, and I’m so glad that I made this decision. Even as I was working, it wasn’t long before I started chatting with an educational assistant, a couple of DECEs, and a teacher. I even learned about some friends and colleagues that we share. The discussions were really nice, and I must admit, I was sad when I had to leave. School is all about the kids, but connecting with the staff is important, as we do support the kids together! Thanks to Sue’s spark, I started making more of these connections today.

What “suggestions” have sparked changes in your practices? What impact have these changes had? I’d love to hear about them! This week has definitely been another great week of learning, and I’m excited to see what next week brings.


Blending The “Old” And “New”

It didn’t work. I had a vision: a plan in my head of exactly what my new Grade 1 classroom would look and feel like. For a while now, I’ve been learning alongside amazing Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers that share their ideas and stories using the #ReggioPLC hashtag. I read about Full-Day Kindergarten classrooms that showed the very best of what play-based learning has to offer. I was inspired! I wanted this environment for my Grade 1’s. I thought about what I did last year with my Grade 5’s, and I knew what was possible. This was going to be great!

But then it wasn’t — or at least, not exactly! My Grade 1’s were not being inspired to read and write. They wouldn’t even look at the books. I tried finding out about their interests and looking for materials that would engage them, but I was getting no where. The students loved playing, but just playing. They were reluctant to engage in conversations. They didn’t see themselves as readers and writers, so they were hesitant to try. Many students are still learning the letters of the alphabet, learning to recognize their name, and in need of some pre-reading and pre-writing activities. I needed to be responsive to student needs.

As a teacher that truly believes in the value of play-based learning and inquiry, I couldn’t go back to a letter-of-the-week program and Jolly Phonics worksheets. There needed to be a middle-ground. That’s when I chose to ask for help. I emailed an educator that I really respect and admire that has a background in developing literacy skills, and I asked for her advice. She shared numerous ideas of how I could teach reading through writing, and how I could use a Writer’s Workshop format to still have students inquire, but with mini-lessons to teach different skills to the different students that need it. After reading her email response and thinking about her questions, I went and looked at Lucy Calkins’ book, and I made some changes.

We still have a Language Inquiry Block time, but the students are spending this time reading and writing (and listening and speaking). They’re choosing the topics. They’re exploring different forms. They’re working with me in guided writing and guided reading groups to help target different individual needs. They’re not necessarily playing — or not in the traditional sense — but they are excited about learning, and more students are now going home to read and write. Yay! At the end of the day yesterday, a student said to me, “I asked my mom if we can stay in tonight because I really want to write!” This makes my heart happy!

In just under two weeks, all of the “I can’t’s” — when it came to reading and writing – are being replaced with “I can’s” and “I will try’s.” This is big! So as I sit back and reflect on my couple of weeks of changes, I begin to question if I still have a “play-based program.” Maybe play-based needs to look different in Grade 1, or maybe it needs to look different depending on student needs. Maybe I can still have the open inquiry block that I wanted, but maybe that will need to come later in the year as the needs of the students change. What I do know is that inquiry does not need to be an all or nothing option. When things weren’t working, many people advised me to look at “direct teaching.” I do direct teaching. But this teaching doesn’t include worksheets. This teaching is not rote learning. This teaching is not always full-class. This teaching still encourages students to think, question, and explore their interests, but it also provides them with the foundational skills they need for academic success. Maybe this teaching is really a blend of the “old” and “new,” as I think that inquiry can include both. What do you think? How has your classroom changed now that you’ve met your students? How do you make inquiry work for you and your students? I’d love to know your thoughts on this!


Celebrate Good Times – Come On!

Today, I’m celebrating a lot!

I’m celebrating that all students could open a book the right way.

I’m celebrating that all students see themselves as readers.

I’m celebrating that students are writing more than they did before.

I’m celebrating that students are getting excited about reading and writing.

I’m celebrating that students are eager to talk and think about math.

I’m celebrating that students see the value in thinking, and are willing to take the time to think to answer hard questions.

I’m celebrating that, “I can’t’s” are being replaced with, “I can’s” and/or “I will try’s.”

I’m celebrating that students are seeing how much they can help each other and are starting to rely less on me.

I’m celebrating that students are supporting and encouraging each other.

I’m celebrating that school is a place that all students want to be, and they’re excited to come back again tomorrow.

It’s so easy to get caught up in what we still need to do and where we still need to go, that I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to celebrate the successes. What are you “celebrating” today? Whether in the comments below or on Twitter (#happyday), I hope all of us can take a moment to celebrate a wonderful start to a wonderful week. Here’s to many more!


The 7 Letter Word That Causes Extreme Reactions: INQUIRY!

Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people are just waiting until we get back to the “good old days” of spelling tests, worksheets, and math drills. Over this past week alone, both through online conversations, emails, and face-to-face discussions, I have heard it all when it comes to inquiry. This definitely seems to be one word that brings out the passion in people: be it positive or negative.

I used to think that I taught through inquiry, until two summers ago when I read Natural Curiosity and Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In Action. Then I realized what inquiry really was and what it could be, and I looked at how to embrace this philosophy as a Grade 5 teacher. It was a very interesting year, full of lots of new learning for me and for my students.

Now this year, I’ve moved schools, changed grades (going back to primary and teaching Grade 1), and am still believing in the benefits of inquiry. A couple of days ago, my previous vice principal, Kristi, tweeted me with this blog post request.


This is something that I’ve actually been thinking about this week, and so ask, and you shall receive. :) Here are my thoughts:

  • In primary, students largely haven’t become as accustomed to worksheets and textbooks as they may have in junior, so they are more easily open to new ways of finding out information and sharing learning. 
  • The Full-Day Kindergarten Program often provides students with lots of opportunities to question and wonder (on topics that interest them), so many primary students continue to share these natural wonders in the classroom. (They don’t seem to need much encouragement to do so.) In junior grades, students seem more accustomed to the teacher doing the questioning, and it can take a while to help them redevelop these skills. Continuing to develop deeper, richer questions is something that I think both primary and junior students need to work on. The Q-Chart is one resource that can be used in all grades to do so.
  • Overall, junior students are more independent readers and writers than primary students — often giving them easier access to a wide variety of content, and allowing them to easily record their new learning. In primary, I think the teacher has to do a little more work to help track down content at the students’ reading/comprehension levels and/or looking at audio or video options. (That being said, often junior teachers have a couple of students in the class that struggle in reading or writing. They may need to help access content for these students, and audio or video options and simpler texts are all good possibilities.) Showing primary students how to record their thinking using pictures, letter-sounds, and a few familiar words is important. With this modelling though, students can “write down” their learning in a way that’s developmentally appropriate for them.
  • Junior students usually have more background information about topics — especially curriculum-related ones. This often allows them to dig deeper with their questions and their thinking. In primary, it’s essential to provide students with lots of background information so that they can further revise their questions and wonders. Related objects, simple reading materials, audio recordings, and videos can all help students learn more so that they can inquire more. Junior students still need to read lots to dig deeper, but I found that normally their starting point is further ahead (this may be different for each class though).
  • The expectations, including the overall ones, often become more complex in junior grades. This makes it harder to connect all topics of interest. The primary expectations — especially those from Kindergarten and Grade 1 — are far more open-ended in all subject areas, so even students’ general interest questions can often connect to them. This gives more options for inquiry questions that relate to student interests, while also (importantly/essentially) connecting to curriculum expectations.
  • Primary and junior students often seem to share their learning in different ways. While many older students will write about what they learned (at least to some extent), many young primary students seem to struggle more with writing. They are just developing these skills. They often use The Arts, building and creating, and oral discussions to share their learning. I think that this may change throughout the year, as my young students learn to write more. They’re already getting more excited about writing, and I hope to see this impact on how they share their learning.
  • In both primary and junior, it’s important to document student learning and share it with others (parents being one of these key players). In junior, I found it easy from early on to have students involved in this documentation. They would often compose tweets sharing their learning or add captions to photographs that I took. In Grade 1, right now, this is more of a shared writing or interactive writing activity. I am definitely doing more of the documentation, but students are starting to orally discuss their learning (which is definitely a part of this documentation). Since so much is oral right now, I find myself recording more podcasts, as this is an easy way for students to play a bigger role in documentation: I press “record” and they talk. I showed them the other day how to record their own podcasts, so I’m hoping this will be the start of more student documentation. As I write this blog post, I wonder about the use of a screencasting app. Students could insert a photograph of their work, and discuss their learning using Educreations or ScreenChomp. I may need to try this next week.
  • The types of small group mini-lessons and direct teaching are often different in primary and junior grades. Right now, in Grade 1, my mini-lessons are often focused on writing skills: helping students segment words by letter-sounds and using familiar words in the classroom to assist them with the actual writing process. In the junior grades, my mini-lessons were often related to expanding on ideas and sharing more of their thinking based on what they read or heard. These mini-lessons are sure to change throughout the year and would obviously be different in different classrooms, based on student needs. It’s important to remember that inquiry does not mean no direct instruction. It’s how this instruction happens that matters. The more conversations I have with people, the more I think that this is a key misunderstanding that often makes people “hate inquiry.”

While there are definitely differences in inquiry teaching in primary versus junior, I certainly see benefits to inquiry in all grades. After reflecting on my first week back at school though, I believe that we really need to somehow develop a shared understanding of what inquiry is and what it is not. I’ve seen first-hand that inquiry results in the improvement of students’ collaboration skills, thinking skills, and overall independence, while also allowing for more small group instruction: leading to the development of greater reading, writing, and math skills. After last year in junior and even after just one week back in primary, I can tell you that inquiry has helped me improve in “assessment for learning”: meeting students where they’re at and planning ahead to lead to greater student success. How do you support inquiry in the classroom? What differences and/or similarities do you see between inquiry in the primary and junior grades? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!


My Non-Negotiables

This is my fourteenth year teaching. It’s my fourth year teaching Grade 1. I am not a new teacher, but I am at a new school. I’m working with a new group of students, educators, administrators, and parents, and trying to meet a new variety of needs. It’s only the third day of school, and I’ve already thought a lot and learned a lot.

  • I’ve had numerous conversations with people that challenge my thinking in the very best of ways.
  • I’ve asked for advice from a “critical friend,” and received many new things to think about.
  • I’ve made changes to my program, and I’ll probably continue to make many more. Every one of these changes has been based on student needs, and I know that any additional ones I make, will be based on student needs too.
  • I’ve thought about play-based and inquiry-based programs, and what these words mean and what they don’t mean. 
  • I’ve thought about the role of the school, and what I believe is possible, regardless of the amount or type of home support.
  • I’ve thought about when to use and when not to use direct instruction.
  • I’ve looked closely at the Grade 1 curriculum expectations and thought about the key academic skills that I believe the students need before they finish the year (knowing where they need to be in the coming years): the ability to read and comprehend what they’ve read, the ability to write, the ability to count, and the ability to add and subtract (and really understand what these concepts mean).

With all of these thoughts in my head, I’ve really started to do some thinking about my “non-negotiables”: those things in the classroom that I don’t see myself choosing to add and/or change.

  • the introduction of a formalized printing program (with black line masters and a workbook) - I realize that this program may teach students to form the letters, but will it help them see the link between letters, sounds, and words? What about teaching printing in context instead? I will still model how to make the letters, but the students will start to see the connections between printing, reading, and writing.
  • the start of a weekly spelling program and/or spelling tests - I am all for teaching the students the sight words, using the Word Wall, and exploring word families, but does memorized spelling help students with carryover into writing? How does it help them see the links between the given word and other words (the thinking component)? How can spelling link with meaningful writing activities?
  • the use of the same lesson or activity for the whole class if the whole class does not need the same lesson or activity Yes, many students can benefit from a similar lesson or activity, but not all students have the same strengths or the same needs. Why make students do something that they don’t need to do? I often ask myself, how does this lesson or activity benefit each student, and if I don’t see a benefit, then I don’t do it for everyone. 
  • the elimination of “student choice” - Student choice gives students control over their learning. This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be a choice for them. Yes, students need to read. Yes, students need to write. Yes, students need to do math. But how they show their learning, what tools they use, and where they work can help with differentiation, self-regulation, and ultimately, student success. My big question: why do they need to do the work in this one, given way? If I don’t have a good answer to this question, then maybe they don’t.
  • the elimination of inquiry – One of my big questions on a recent blog post was about a “shared understanding of inquiry.” I think that we need this shared understanding. Everything that I’ve read on this topic indicates that inquiry doesn’t mean that there is never any direct instruction. It doesn’t mean that there are no expectations. It does mean that students have more control over their learning as they generate questions, seek out answers, and explore solutions to problems. Inquiry helps students become better thinkers. It helps students become more independent workers. It helps students learn how to collaborate well with others — not just work in groups, but learn from each other. I know that not all educators feel the same way about the use of inquiry, but I wonder if students can develop the same thinking, independence, and collaboration skills without it.

I think that these non-negotiables will help the students succeed academically, while also addressing their social-emotional needs. What do you think? What are your “non-negotiables?” Why do you view them this way? I’d love to know your thoughts!


My First Day Of Learning

It’s 7:15 on the eve of the first full day of school, and I’m exhausted — happy, smiling, excited for tomorrow, but exhausted! :) After an active first day in Grade 1, here is what I learned:

  • Class size matters. With 31 students last year, and currently 12 this year, it’s amazing how much more time I have to spend one-to-one and in small groups with students.
  • Talking time needs to be short. Hands-on learning needs to be long. Grade 1 students, especially on the first day of school, struggle with listening for long. I saw that today. I needed to make my words count. I needed to know when to stop talking. I needed to give students lots of opportunities to explore, converse, share, and “do” — not just listen. 
  • Learning takes time. When students went off to work during both our Language and Math blocks today, some students got to work right away, and some students needed some time to get started. Giving the children choices of options, worked. Talking — and listening — to the students, helped. Asking questions and/or sharing wonders made a difference. Being patient and giving time helped give everyone a chance to learn.
  • Sneak in lots of opportunities for reading and writing. This is where inquiry is great! Encourage the children to document their learning. Get them to take a photograph of their work and then label their picture. Give them a “Wonder Book” and see if they can share what they did. Put out books and watch them access them for information. Get students to seek out the resources in the room that will help them out, and then sit down to look at them together. If students naturally go to draw what they see, then invite them to add some words. See what they do! I was pleasantly surprised every time.
  • The afternoon is long. Be aware of this, and respond to it. Grade 1 students are tired come the afternoon. They tell you this. So that’s when I knew that I needed even less sitting time. I knew that I needed to break apart my carpet time with movement activities that would help wake people up. My students loved our Animal Game, and are eager to move around the classroom again this week acting like different animals. 
  • Self-regulation is critical to classroom success. I can’t believe how often I thought of self-regulation today: if it was the quiet area in the room for students to work, the dimming of the lights during class time, the quiet voice I used when interacting with students (and I used when students were getting louder), the games of Simon Says and other listening activities, or the quiet songs and finger plays I used during carpet time. An even tone matters. A calm environment matters. A deep breath matters. And self-regulation really does matter — thank you, Stuart Shanker!
  • Find comfortable shoes — you never stop! This is my somewhat comical learning, but it’s true! I was always going today. Even when I was sitting and working with a group of students, I was still going: questioning, assessing, and figuring out the best next step. You are never “off” in primary. And who knows? Maybe I was never “off” in junior. Little things like walking up and down stairs (my classroom is on the second floor), finding names on the lockers, locating the bathroom, and heading down to the office with the attendance book needs modelling — maybe more than once! :) So I definitely spent lots of time going up and down the stairs, walking in the hallways, and circling the classroom — but I must admit I loved every minute of it! A quiet lunch and a teacher bathroom break might come one of these days :) , but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the hustle and bustle of primary.

Whether an educator, administrator, parent, or student, what did you learn on your first day of school? I can’t wait for my second day of learning tomorrow!