We Don’t Need To Use Them, Even If They’re There!

This morning, I saw a tweet from HJ DeWaard: a teacher that I love learning with and from on Twitter.


The moment I read the blog post, I knew what I would be writing about tonight. The truth is, in some regards, I think that the author, Beth K. Johnson, is right.

  • Worksheets do populate the web. 
  • They are used regularly: by many teachers, in many different classrooms, for many different reasons. 
  • I’ve worked in six schools before — most with large amounts of access to technology — and I still think, in many ways, worksheets have trumped technology use at most, if not all, of the schools. I know because I’ve been that teacher. I’ve probably killed a large forest with all of the worksheets that I’ve photocopied over the years … and all with the best of intentions. 
  • Often teachers do use technology for different purposes than worksheets: one is for reviewing facts, and one is for applying learning. This is seen as a balanced approach. 

What’s the problem then? I think my day today says it all. Our school is working on developing phonemic awareness skills in our youngest learners to help with their reading skills. There are lots of worksheet options for phonemic awareness. There are also lots of games/activities from wonderful programs that help with developing these skills. I haven’t used the worksheet options, but I have used the games/activities, and maybe they’re not much different. But then today happened

Some of my students are working on reading nonsense words. At a meeting the other day, one suggestion for developing this skill was to play with silly rhymes aloud in class. I decided to give this a try. As we were substituting sounds in some oral rhymes (e.g., Start with mat, now instead of an “m” say a “z.” What’s the word? Zat.), I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Seuss. His books are full of nonsense rhymes. A conversation after school with our LLI teacher had me putting out There’s A Wocket In My Pocket, as a provocation for creating silly rhymes … and hopefully, sentences and stories. Students loved this! They were making silly rhymes on the iPad, on the SMART Board, and on tons of different paper options. A few students were even writing and reading some rhyming stories (some of which contained and some of which did not contain nonsense words). 

Then one group of students that were playing with lots of silly rhymes (seen in the first video below), saw a few students working with the alphabet on the floor, and they decided that they were going to write The Alphabet Song. They started with a letter other than “A” though. That’s when I suggested that they write their own Alphabet Song. These students tried a couple of different options. The best part is hearing the corrections that they make to the song and why. These students understand rhyming, and while they’re not making silly rhymes at the time, they’re thinking about how rhyming works and making this learning meaningfulNext week, I can start my own Silly Rhyming Song, and see where this provocation takes this group. 

Now, let’s move forward a bit in our day until just after the nutrition break. It was time for a transition, so why not play a quick game to help with this? My students love Simon Says, so we played the game, but with different phonemic awareness skills built in. Listen to the students as they think through the different possible answers. 

In all of these cases, worksheets may have allowed for the practice of the same skills, BUT …

  • Would they have provided a meaningful context?
  • Would they have provided opportunities for extending learning?
  • Would they have been differentiated to meet different student needs?
  • Would they have moved beyond knowledge and understanding to thinking, communication, and application?
  • Would they have allowed for student voice and choice?
  • Would they have been as engaging?

Worksheets may always be readily available, be it online or in schools. But maybe if we begin to question their use and show other options, they’ll remain unused. I don’t think it matters if worksheets are replaced with technology, but I do think it matters that they begin to be replaced … with options that allow for more meaningful learning, critical thinking, and engagement. Maybe No Worksheet Week is the place to start. What do you think? What role do worksheets play in your classroom? Are they worth replacing? Why? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


What Teaching Means To Me: EVERYTHING!

Very early this morning when I probably should have been sleeping but couldn’t, I decided to read one of Jonathan So‘s recent blog posts. Jonathan is an amazing Grade 2 teacher in the Peel Board, and somebody that I’m lucky to learn from online — and even occasionally — in person. In this post, Jonathan tells about how he got into teaching, but he also asks some great questions, including, “What does teaching mean to you?” This is the question that got me thinking.

In some ways, the answer to this question is easy. Teaching for me means making a difference for kids.

  • It means helping all students succeed.
  • It means allowing them to pursue their passions, and supporting them along the way.
  • It means giving students ownership over their learning.
  • It means helping students wants to learn.
  • It means giving students a reason to want to come to school each day, and having them leave just excited as when they arrived.

Teaching is everything to me! Yes, I have a personal life. I have family. I have friends. I have my own interests outside of the classroom, and I pursue them. But, when I drive home from school and blast the radio in the car, I also think about my students. I think about our day.

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • What can I do better tomorrow? How will this make a difference?

My students are in my head at dinnertime. They’re often what wakes me up in the middle of the night (besides my barking dogs 🙂 ). They’re the ones that I think about as I read the paper at breakfast time, and talk through in my head my mini-lesson for Writer’s Workshop. They’re “there with me,” as I drive to school, and prepare for a new day. How can I make this day a success?

Because my 17 students are so very much the reason I teach, they’re also the reason that I constantly question myself.

  • They’re the reason that I reconsider my practices.
  • They’re the reason that I make some very uncomfortable choices (as I believe that these choices will make a difference for them).
  • They’re the reason that any low score (from Dibels to DRA) and any misunderstood concept, makes me wonder if I could be doing something better. Something different. Something more likely to help them succeed.

I know that I’m a good teacher. I know that what I do in the classroom matters. But I also know that nobody’s perfect, and when we improve, our students benefit. So this also means that to make a difference for kids, I need to remember that “good” can always be “better.” I need to be open to new ideas. I need to work with teams: both online and in-person. I need to plan, act, assess, reflect, and try again. I need to make each day matter for students because the students matter: they’re what teaching means to meWhat does teaching mean to you?


No Worksheet Week … Who’s In?

Today I saw a tweet from Tony Sinanis: the principal at Cantiague Elementary School in New York City. I’ve never met Tony before, but I just love learning from him online. He’s devoted. He’s passionate. He’s incredibly student-centred. He likes to inspire change, and he inspires me to want to change. He’s definitely someone in my PLN that I would love to meet in person one day, and I really hope that I do. And it’s because of everything that Tony does and embodies, that I not only want to do his challenge, but challenge others to do so as well!

2015-01-20_19-42-08Here’s the truth: for me, this year, this challenge has been my “every day.” This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, this is the first year that I could make this comment. I’m not sure what really inspired me to change.

  • Maybe it’s because it’s hard to align inquiry and worksheets, and we continue to passionately explore inquiry in the classroom.
  • Maybe it’s because I haven’t found a good way to really differentiate with the use of a worksheet.
  • Maybe it’s because I still haven’t quite figured out the “box of paper system” at my new school 🙂 (see this post for more information), and this has forced me to keep questioning first why I need to photocopy. After asking the question, I end up convincing myself it’s not necessary.

Now, I’m not saying that everything we photocopy is a worksheet. And I’m not saying that there aren’t good materials that are worth photocopying and distributing to kids. I’m just saying that in my opinion (and please know that you don’t have to agree with me), maybe the same activity for every child is rarely necessary. Maybe what could be accomplished by a worksheet, could also accomplished without one, but in this latter case, allowing for extensions, greater thinking opportunities, more hands-on learning, and multiple ways to show thinking and learning. (Another important point to consider: worksheets can also be just as easily shared and completed in digital formats, and I think we should reconsider these ones as well.)

I know that my feelings about worksheets and the fact that I don’t use them now will make this challenge a little less challenging for me. But I think that no matter where we stand on the worksheet continuum (from rare use to all-the-time use), we should support Tony’s challenge. Why?

  • Because it’s when we’re uncomfortable that we can really grow. Thanks for sharing these wise words, Sue!
  • Because even if we rarely use worksheets now, we can always learn new ways to improve our practices. Learning never stops!
  • Because this provides a great opportunity to try something different, and share these different approaches with a global community: through Twitter and through blogs. We’ll all be in this together!
  • Because we can learn so much from each other. As we reconsider worksheets, we can share, question, and revise our new approaches together. We’re not in this alone.
  • Because this provides the perfect opportunity for “voice” and “choice.” We can let the students help us come up with alternatives. We can give them a bigger role in the  planning and learning, and see what happens. I think it will be something wonderful!
  • Because it’s one week, and if it doesn’t work, we can always go back to our worksheets. But maybe we’ll find that we don’t need to, or at least don’t need to in the way that we used them before. Every journey begins with a single step. Let’s be brave and take this step.

Who’s in? Why do you plan on doing this challenge, or why do you plan not to? If you do plan on partaking, how do you plan on making it work? Hopefully we can learn a lot from each other before the challenge even begins on Monday! Thanks for the inspiration, Tony!



Starting To Be Uncomfortable

Inspired by Sue Dunlop‘s selection of #oneword for 2015, I also made my choice: being uncomfortable. This is the first time that I’ve ever done a New Year’s post. It’s the first time I’ve selected a word. And I am determined to make this word count. So since writing this post, I’ve been thinking about being uncomfortable a lot. More so, I’ve put myself in many situations that make me uncomfortable. 

  • I started conversations I didn’t think I would start.
  • I asked questions that I never would have asked before.
  • I tried different approaches … even though they were foreign to me and even though they made me feel unsettled.
  • I attempted to make new connections. Stronger connections. I tried to be brave.

I set a goal. A specific one. One that made me very uncomfortable, but one that I thought I had to meet to make me a better person. A better teacher. The details of the goal don’t matter here. The problem is that I really thought that being uncomfortable, putting myself out there, and making a new connection, would change things. But it hasn’t. And now I don’t know what to do. Do I give it time? Do I try again? Do I look for help? What might you do? It’s hard to be uncomfortable, but it’s even harder when that uncomfortable feeling doesn’t lead to a more comfortable outcome.


A Necessary Change

I love technology! I will always choose typing on a computer or writing on an iPad to writing with a pen or pencil. At any given time, I have at least one device with me, but no piece of paper. Technology, and more so Twitter and this blog, give me a voice in education. Yes, I’ll participate in face-to-face discussions with colleagues and friends, but during these conversations, I tend to spend more time listening than talking. I share, I question, I comment, and at times, I provoke, all with the use of technology.

When I taught Grade 1 for the first time five years ago, I was a huge advocate for using technology in the classroom. My students all had their own blog. We had a class Twitter account. We tweeted together every day. Often I had one or two students as “class tweeters” to share our learning with the world on a daily basis. We Skyped to connect with other classes. We used the Livescribe Pen to record our thinking. Flipcams and iPods helped us document our learning. But we also played Language and Math games with the use of various apps. In many ways, I think this is when I became known as the “technology teacher.”

Now, five years later, I’m starting to question the use of technology in the primary classroom. Please don’t get me wrong!

  • I love that we can document our learning with the use of technology. Tweeting our our day and then Storifying it later, lets the parents get a daily glimpse into our classroom learning and a way to extend this learning at home.
  • Recording apps let me hear the classroom discussions that I may have missed before. We’re beginning to use Explain Everything more to discuss different topics in Language, Math, Social Studies, and Science. This use of Explain Everything is not about a final product; it’s about the process of learning. I get to hear the different student contributions. I get to know what they understand and what questions they still have. I get a recording of Learning Skills. How do students collaborate with their peers? How do they problem solve? Can they wait their turn, respond to comments made by others, and share a single device for the purpose of speaking and learning?
  • I get to capture what was difficult to capture before. During our Math Congress, I’ll use a podcasting app to record the discussion. During our Writer’s Workshop Mini-Lesson, I’ll use a screencasting tool to capture the lesson, the student writing contributions, and the student conversations.
  • Independent reading has changed. We still read books in the classroom, but with Raz-Kids, all students can read and respond to texts at their independent reading levels, and I can hear what they read. I can offer them feedback, but I can also record my own anecdotal notes for use when planning guided reading groups, communicating with parents, and/or creating report card comments.

Sometimes I’ll use an iPad app to review phonemic awareness skills reinforced during guided reading. Occasionally, we’ll use different websites to assist with research connected to our current inquiries. And for students that need itthey’ll use an iPad or a computer for writing. If putting a pencil to paper is stopping students from generating ideas because of fine-motor difficulties, then technology gives a new option. But technology isn’t used all of the time, and it’s used varying amounts for varying students depending on their needs and interests.

Talking to students, they like that technology (and more so Twitter and our class blog) allows others to see their work. They like that technology allows others to comment on what they’re doing in the classroom, and ask them questions that make them think. Students don’t have their own blogs, and they may not this year, but they do contribute to our Daily Blog Post by showcasing their work and contributing to class discussions (that are audio or video recorded). My hope is that they’ll start to write some of their own tweets that accompany their work as the year goes on. Tweeting will let us further discuss how to stay safe online, and for students that will likely grow up to be “digital citizens,” I think there’s value in teaching digital citizenship.

I also think there’s value in giving students real learning experiences, as Heidi Echternacht and I discussed on Twitter last night. I teach many students with English as their second language, and they need these concrete learning experiences to help develop their oral language skills and understanding of concepts. As I learned yesterday, technology isn’t always want students want either. So I’ll …

  • continue to take the students outside to explore their environment.
  • bring in items from home (or my favourite store, Dollarama) to act as provocations for learning.
  • encourage the use of markers, crayons, pencils, and pens for writing.
  • provide lots of different paper choices for writing — to get the students excited about, and choosing, a choice that works for them.
  • put out lots of clay, playdough, paint, construction paper, and craft supplies for open-ended Art creation that links to Math, Language, Social Studies, and Science. 
  • continue to look for ways to make Art, Music, Drama, and Dance instructional strategies that make their way into all facets of our learning. 
  • really think carefully about how and when to use technology, and why it’s the best option at the time.

This doesn’t mean that I rely a lot on blackline masters. Choice and voice can be present even without the use of technology. Open-ended activities inspired by student interests are still an important part of our classroom. Inquiry is one of the main ways that we learn. But technology use in our classroom is different for me than it’s been in previous years, and I’m okay with that. I see the growth in my students, I hear what they’re saying, and I see what they’re doing: I know this change is right for them. How do you use technology in the classroom? Has your use of technology changed over the years? Why or why not? What’s the impact for students? I’d love to hear your stories!