Do You Have A “Critical Friend?”

A friend and colleague of mine, Val Harth, used to talk to me about being a “critical friend.” I used to chuckle at the term. What kind of friend would criticize someone else? Val knew what she was talking about though. While it’s great to hear that we’re doing a “good job,” we also need people to question our approaches, make suggestions, and offer feedback, so that we can get better at what we do. I’m thrilled that I have wonderful “critical friends” both online and in person. This week reminded me of that.

Earlier this week, I tweeted about some activities I was doing in the classroom, and Chris Wejr, a fantastic K-6 principal in B.C., messaged me some questions about what I was doing. His motives were not to be critical, but to help me see things from a different perspective. His approach worked. Our discussion helped me see why I did what I did, and even make a few changes to my initial work to help clarify my intent. Thank you, Chris!

This online interaction, followed up shortly afterwards with a wonderful face-to-face interaction with our school principal, Paul Clemens. Paul and I were talking about our weekly homework routine, and during the discussion, he asked me if the Grade 6’s had a home reading program. I mentioned that students are expected to read nightly. Paul followed up this question with, do they have a chance to talk about what they’re reading in class? I thought about this. I do ask random students to talk to the class about what they’re reading, and yes this works, but Paul’s questions had me wondering if I should be doing more.

I left his office that day, and kept thinking about what he said. It was then that I thought of Talking Tuesdays and Thinking Thursdays. Here’s the email that I sent to Paul with my initial thoughts:

Paul followed up this discussion with this next email to me:

I loved his idea, so I spoke to my teaching partners, and we modified the plan. Here’s the latest information on Talking Tuesdays and Thinking ThursdaysIf Paul hadn’t started asking questions, I never would have thought of making changes.

We need people around us that are going to push our thinking. We need people that are going to question what we do, and support us as we make changes to what we do. We need these “critical friends.” Val, Chris, and Paul are three of many people that do this for me. I know that I continue to become a better teacher because of them. Who are your “critical friends?” How do they help you improve?



Being Interviewed By Doug Peterson

Doug Peterson (@dougpete) is one of the first educators that I started following on Twitter. He’s a prolific blogger and a leading voice on technology in education. Doug’s helped me see the true power in connecting with others. He constantly supports educators from all over Ontario with his Twitter lists, blog Livebinders, and regular #FollowFriday tweets.

Doug’s one of the people that I interacted with online for quite a while before I ever met him in person. I’ll never forget the first time that I met him. It was at ECOO last year: I almost felt “star struck” to finally meet someone that inspires me so much. Many thanks then to Doug for making me feel truly honoured this week when he asked to interview me for a post on his blog. Doug, your questions made me think deeply about what I do and why I do it. I can’t thank you enough for this amazing opportunity!


More Videos Mean More Questions

Recently, I mentioned that for my Annual Learning Plan, I’ll be focusing on increasing student communication in math. One tool that I’m using to help me with my professional goal is the flipcam: I’m videotaping math discussions with students, and then watching them afterwards, to guide my own growth as well as to help me guide the students.

Today in class, we started a new unit on addition and subtraction of whole numbers. As an introductory activity, the students had a math problem from the Math Makes Sense textbook on cell phone purchasing over various months. To help push their thinking further, I created a bonus question where students were given an increased yearly total of cell phone purchases, and they had to figure out different combinations of cell phones they would need to sell per month to reach this new total.

The interesting thing about math problem solving is that sometimes students approach a question completely differently than you expect. Your math discussion then evolves from these different approaches. Today, I saw this happening numerous times: from how the students added up the initial totals to their explanations of why they did what they did to how they checked their work to how they approached the bonus question. By not expecting the responses that I got, I really had to change my anticipated questions throughout the discussions.

While at the time, I found that my questions helped guide the discussion and helped the students make some good decisions about what to do next, now watching the videos have me wondering.

  • Did I guide too much? 
  • How do I get the students to see what to do next without directing them on what to do next? 
  • When I know that an error is going to occur, how do I get students to switch their approach? 
  • When should I let students make mistakes, and when should I help direct them before the mistakes happen? 
  • How do I get all students equally involved in math discussions? 
  • When should I give more “wait time,” and when I should let other group members help guide the discussion instead?
I would love to hear your thoughts. It’s amazing how more videos often lead to more questions.

Anyone Can Learn — My Aha Moment

A couple of years ago, Pernille Ripp, a fantastic Grade 5 teacher from Wisconsin, asked me to do a guest post on her blog about my aha moment. As I sit down this weekend to work on updating IEPs, I can’t help but think about this post. My own experiences have definitely influenced me as a teacher, and certainly do make me believe that all students can learn. So for those of you that never read my post on Pernille’s blog, here it is again:

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to teach. When I was in Kindergarten and Grade 1, I used to pretend to play school, and I even wrote my lessons on the wall. There’s a house somewhere in Thornhill, Ontario that still has my Process Writing Lesson on the wall underneath numerous coats of paint. 🙂

School never came easily for me though, and while I always worked hard, I never seemed to make the grade. In Grade 2, I had a Psych Assessment done, and I found out that I had a non-verbal learning disability. I will never forgot the feedback from that Psych Assessment: I was told that due to the severity of my learning disability, I would always struggle with school, and I would be lucky if I even made it to college. In other words, forget about university, and forget about my dreams of becoming a teacher. I was devastated!

Looking back now, I guess that I could have given up at that point. I never did though. Despite having a really significant learning disability, I also had some really significant strengths. I learned how to capitalize on those strengths. My mom and step-dad helped teach me strategies to be successful in the classroom and to advocate for myself so that I got the accommodations that I needed to be successful too. I always spent double the amount of time on the homework as my peers, and in certain subjects, like geography, the lessons would often lead to tears and frustration, but I never gave up. I wanted to teach!

Thanks to self-advocacy, amazing support from home, and strategies that really worked, I ended up graduating from high-school on the honour roll, and I even got a scholarship to university. It was when I got the phone call from the President of Nipissing University offering me a Presidential Scholarship and a place in the Bachelor of Arts and Introduction to Teaching Program, that I had my aha moment: anyone can learn! As teachers, we just need to find a way to ensure that all students do learn. I cannot thank my wonderful teachers enough: they didn’t give up on me, and as a result, I never gave up on myself.

This is my tenth year teaching, and every year, I get a new group of students and a new opportunity to make a difference. My own experience has taught me that we can never give up on our students, and that we need to find a way to ensure that all of them succeed. At the bottom of all of my e-mails, I have this signature: “If they don’t learn the way you teach, teach the way they learn.” I am thankful for the teachers that did just this for me, and I will always do this for my students!

I know that when I tweet the link to this post, there’s the potential for lots of educators, administrators, parents, and even students to read it. At one point in time, this would have worried me. What will people think about me? Will they question my ability to teach? Now I don’t think this way. I think it’s important for everyone to know that a label does not need to define you. Setting high expectations for yourself and others, and exploring strategies to meet these expectations, are things that matter more. We can all learn. I promise all of my students that I will make them believe this too!


Eager To Start Again

Last year for my Annual Learning Plan, I focused on using more math problem solving in my Grade 1/2 class. This professional focus really changed me as both a math teacher and a teacher in general. I recorded my lessons and interactions with students a lot, and I learned from these recordings, as I started to ask more questions, give more “wait time,” and stop responding with just, “good job.”

This year, I changed grades, and again I’m at a point of thinking about my Annual Learning Plan. Looking at the needs of my students and our previous EQAO results, I really want to focus again on communication in math, but this time at a Grade 6 level. I want to see the impact that Web 2.0 tools can have on developing communication in mathematics. As part of my Annual Learning Plan, I’ve spoken about using blogs, Twitter, and various recordings to help my students explain their thinking and learn about the importance of what to share.

Having now submitted my plan to the office, I’m carefully considering how I’m going to implement my new plan. This week, I began by podcasting various math discussions with my students. Below are my two podcasts:

My First Class Podcast on Common Multiples

My Second Class Podcast on Prime and Composite Numbers

It’s funny, for as I was recording the first podcast with my students, I thought, “Boy I talk too much!” Then I listened to the recording, and I learned that I was right. 🙂 I really need to work on giving more wait time. This may seem strange, but somehow “wait time” seemed easier with primary students. When you ask a question to younger students, there’s usually lots of hands that go up almost instantaneously. This doesn’t mean that all of the students have answers, but there are always people to choose from. When giving my Grade 1 and 2 students “thinking time,” I knew that I needed to ignore these hands for a few minutes, but I always knew that I’d have someone to pick at the end of the wait time. This made me feel better.

Teaching junior is different though. There’s not always these hands up, eager to answer. It has taken a lot of work in the past three weeks to get students willing to attempt an answer to a question, even if they’re not sure that they’re correct. Despite this, it’s still common for Grade 6 students to need encouragement to answer a question. A lack of hands, worries me. I compensate for this worry by talking. I fill the silence. I know I do, and I know that I need to stop.

In the second podcast, I really attempted to improve. You’ll hear the wait time more. Is it perfect? No. Did I still feel the need to clarify my first question with a follow-up one, without giving students a chance answer? Yes. But I know that I did this, so I know that I’ll be thinking about this the next time that we create a podcast in class. Thinking about this will make me more aware as I go to do something that I shouldn’t. Hopefully this awareness will help me stop myself from talking more. Will I still make mistakes? Absolutely! I do plan on learning from my mistakes though, and I hope that my students and I can learn together.

What advice can you offer me as I start again with my “math learning” in Grade 6? I would love to hear your thoughts!