Friday, 5 September 2014

Using Tech in the Classroom

This post is not so much a post about my thoughts but that of my colleague and close friend Keri Ewart (@KeriEwart).  Today she was on a Hamilton Radio station discussing technology in the classroom.

Have a good listen:

A couple of key points that I took from Keri's talk were:

1) Its not the iPad per-say but what the teacher does with it.  You cannot just plop a device into a child's hand and say learn. They may but most likely will not.

2) There is a lot of apps out there, what do you want to do with them is important. The program of the teacher not the actual program.  (You can find our program list on

3) Kids love it and therefore will stay more engaged with it.

However, I do I some questions still as I journey through the process with her:

1) Are the iPads meeting all kinds of minds? I am all about tech and use it quite easily but what if a child could care less?

2) How do we families and students who don't have exposure to tech while stimulating those who do?

3) What about those who cannot afford it?

4) What is needed for all teachers to critically think about implementing technology in the classroom?

5) How does everyone else use technology in the classroom? How do you seamlessly integrate it into your program? What programs do you use and why?

Love to hear your comments and thoughts.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Teaching through Inquiry: A reflection on a reflection Part 2

I recently came upon a post by my friend Aviva (@avivaloca). In her blog ( she was reflecting on teaching through inquiry. I started to respond in her comments but was thinking of so much more to write.  In fact it even made me split the blog post into two posts for sake of space and time for readers.  

This is the second part which in my opinion focuses more on the teaching parts of Inquiry.  The first focuses on the planing portions. Though to be fair they often blur together.

Here is Aviva's questions in regards to teaching: 

  • How does this impact on classroom design? What role will students play in this design?
  • How does this impact on scheduling and specialist teachers? If students are on rotary, I wonder how the teachers can work together to create longer blocks of learning time even when they don’t naturally exist.
  • How do we improve our questioning skills? How do we get comfortable with “wondering,” and not always having the answer in mind?
  • How do we get better at understanding curriculum expectations and seeing the links between expectations?
  • How do we balance “student interests” and “curriculum expectations?” What does this balance look like?
  • How are teachers supported in this shift towards inquiry?
  • How do we gain a shared understanding of what inquiry means (helping to ensure the success of the approach)
1) Classroom Design:

I am not the best at design but teaching through inquiry has really played into my hand. Because Inquiry is a lot about student learning so is classroom design.  My classroom is built around my students. My walls are their work, my tables are just that tables.  Students are free to work where ever they want. 

2) Schedules: 

This is so important.  I think that for Inquiry to really happen schedules have to be in place for it to happen.  This comes through admin and staff working together to really create something special for the students.  inquiry cannot happen in one period blocks of time.  Their needs to be a lot of creativity, planning and thinking on all to make it happen.

3, 4) Teachers:

I have clumped these altogether because I think they go hand in hand; however, the answer is a politically sensitive one.  In order to have better questioning and understanding of the curriculum teachers need to know their stuff.  Their has been numerous debates over the importance of inquiry and its failures.  Where it does fail is when as teachers we do not know enough to help our students learn.  We cannot let them just wonder the universe searching for answers.  Their needs to be a balance between skill and exploration.  I always use the idea of Wayne Gretzky (though I know that this may create debate in itself).  Gretzky became great because he had skill and he practise but he also had coaches along the way that shaped and modeled his abilities.  They told him when he was doing something wrong at the right times in his career.  These coaches had to know their stuff to help him improve.  I couldn't go into the rink and say fix your shot, your pulling to the right because I would have no idea what to do.  We also don't ask a brain surgeon to come and do a heart transplant. He may fully understand what to do but he doesn't have the right skill for the task.  Teachers are the same.  To improve our questions and our ability to learn we ourselves have to learn.  

I recently completed my Masters of Education in the effects of teachers Questions on students learning in Fractions.   I had to do a lot of reading, and a lot of learning.  It is because of this learning that I was able to hone my craft in asking questions.  I am in no way an expert (in my opinion) but through practise, more reading, watching others, learning, and reflecting I am always getting better. This is exactly what teachers need to do.

I understand that their is a time factor but it is time well spent.  Until we get our profession (all of us) willing to do this than Inquiry will not be fully implemented.

6 and 7) Teacher Support: 

I am skipping five for a moment.  Teachers need support, that is plain.  If the boards and the ministry want inquiry to happen than teacher training is a must.  How is this to be done.  I think that we really need to rethink our professional development days and staff meetings.  Give time for teachers to explore and learn inquiry through inquiry.  I always think it is funny when we teach that inquiry is the vest way yet we disseminate information in a lecture style.  It contradicts inquiry.  

Last year I was involved in a Teaching and Learning Project with the government.  I was given funding to run a school wide math focus on problem solving.  We are in no way fully school wide but we made huge strides.  How was this obtained: 

1) It made us as teachers talk
2) Instructional Rounds became best practice
3) Common Planning
4) Co-teaching, Co-planning, and Co-debriefing

With these four critical components our whole school understands what problem solving is, what resources to use, and some critical questions to be asking through the whole process.  On a whole our staff does two to three problems a unit for inquiry in math.  Our next steps are to continue this and to further implement it.

We can take a note of this small study for a bigger picture.  Implementation will always be slow the more people you have but through these four steps it can be done.  The more conversation the better it becomes. 

5) Student Voice versus Curriculum:

This is a nice way to end this conversation.  I believe that the best part of Inquiry is students get a voice.  Students feel a part of the classroom, even though you are for the most part deciding what is being taught, students are exploring at their pace, with their words and with their ideas.  With Inquiry they are the lesson. Its their questions, their answers and their opinions that drive the discussions and learning.  Sure you had the big idea in place, maybe the activity but it always comes down to their learning.  Be willing to give into this and amazing things will happen.

Once again, these are only my opinions and as Inquiry continues to evolve so will my thoughts.  I love hearing from people so if you have any ideas please share.  Love to hear them.

Teaching through inquiry: a reflection of a reflection Part 1

I recently came upon a post by my friend Aviva (@avivaloca). In her blog ( she was reflecting on teaching through inquiry. I started to respond in her comments but was thinking of so much more to write.  I believe a lot in Inquiry and I think that it has a lot of potential to really impact our students.  I also know that there is a lot of misconceptions around inquiry or a feeling that because of it students are falling behind.

I want to first start of by stating that for me Inquiry is probably the best way to teach.  If done right it can offer a perfect balance between students choice and teacher taught skills.  I know in other blog posts I have mentioned how I go about teaching through inquiry but will attempt a short intro here.  In my classroom students solve problems or sort through provocations that all them to explore as a individual, group or class.  As students are exploring, questions and observing I am conferencing with individual students.  Every now and then we stop and ask questions to the whole class.  This allows the learning to be shared and focused.  At the end of the exploration period (which can be longer then a period or day) we have a consolidation time where we bring our findings to the class. During this time I am focusing the talk to the big ideas that I saw transpire.

As I mentioned this blog post is in response to Aviva's questions. Now Aviva had a lot of questions and for the sake of the length of a blog post I have split the conversation into two groups.  The first centers on planning needs and part two will center on the teaching needs.  Though in all truth they go hand in hand.

In her blog Aviva asked these planning centered questions: 

  • How does this impact on long-range planning (i.e., we need to teach all of the overall expectations, but could student wonders impact on how and when this information is taught)?
  • How does this impact on the use of tests and culminating tasks? How “formal” do assessment tasks need to be for students to show us what they know?
  • How does this impact on the marking? Will a focus on inquiry also eventually lead to a provincial change in evaluation methods (i.e., moving from grades and percents to specific anecdotal comments, such as the ones used on the Full-Day Kindergarten Report Cards)?
  • How does this impact on homework? How do we inspire students to want to learn outside of school, and how do we show parents the value in learning that does not rely on a textbook or black line masters?
Let's get into answering Aviva's questions:

1) Long Range Plans: 

I believe that you still need to have a set of long range plans.  In Ontario we have a curriculum that must be followed.  Even though students are exploring and observing, their is still is guidance that a teacher must follow.  Not only this but having long range plans allows me to keep in mind what subjects, themes and big ideas I need to blend in.  I also post these long range plans for my parents to follow.  If they want to help at home (which I highly encourage) they know roughly what subject matter we will be focusing on. Now even though I have long range plans they often focus on curriculum big ideas, problems and often have questions that I will be asking the kids.  My plans are not focused on the specific expectations because I know that through problem solving and inquiry these will be covered.  I also find that my problems cover many various expectations not just the subject that I am teaching.  However, without my long range plans I wouldn't be able to make those connections or be able to comment/ communicate to parents what is happening in the classroom.

2) Tests and Culminating Tasks:

This for me has undergone the most transformation in my teaching career.  At first I was yeah we need tests or their has to be some sort of culminating task but to be honest as the years have progressed I have used less and less of these tasks for assessments.  As students are working on problems I am always tweeting, conferencing and recording notes.  I have found that I actually understand my students more than I ever did. So much so that one day I was giving a test and as I looked around I knew what their answers would be before I gave it to them.  I also new what their next steps would be, what errors they would be making or what questions to ask them.  This made me think first was this assessment necessary and why was I doing this.  Instead of wasting two periods on a test I now make it a learning experience and use the time to discuss the big ideas with my class.  Now all students benefit from the assessment not just the ones who got it right.  In addition, I know that most test or tasks were designed for parents to know what their child is doing in class.  I now assess pretty much everything (just in different ways).  My notes are sent to parents through duo-tangs, notebooks or rubrics.  With GAFE my students and parents can see comments in real time for writing.  It is this formative feedback that is the most rich and engaging.  In fact if my students or parents don't know what mark they are getting on their report card than I haven't really done my job right or communicated effectively.

3) Assessment: 

Marking is way different.  Before marks where from tests or assignments.  Now I find that everything to some degree is marked; definitely commented on. I now have a general assessment form that I use through GAFE, this allows me to have a record of my conferences and comments throughout the year.  I also believe that assessment belongs in the hand of the students.  Through constant conferencing and talking my students should know where they are on the landscapes and trajectories that we make together.  They should know their next steps and goals.  We also do a lot of goal setting and planning to help them learn how to grow.  This again helps with parents because the students are always thinking about their learning and talking about it.  I also have been using social media like twitter and storify to allow parents into our classroom.  By asking questions within the storify it helps parents connect with their child's understanding of the topics learned in class.

4) Homework: 

I have never been a fan of homework.  I don't know if this stems from my own experience with it or not but I find that this (in a traditional sense) does nothing for students learning.  Now don't get me wrong, practise is important.  You can never be great at anything without practise.  But doing mind numbing and senseless worksheets is not practise.  In addition, in elementary much of the research shows that it doesn't help the students in fact it often hinders their learning.  Successful students (in my teaching experience) are the ones that have had experiences to draw upon.  They are the ones that have been read to as a child, done things with their families, play outside or play games.  Their is a lot of learning in the family model.  Students also have their own passions and interests that they should be encouraged to pursue.  In my classroom, reading is the homework.  In fact its not really considered homework as this is a must for success.  I also give one math problem a week and encourage my students to play math games from our bin.  I also have Youtube videos for the students to watch and learn from.  This helps with the teaching when they come back to the classroom.

This has been a hard transition for many of my parents (for my whole career) but I often explain to them about what to they think is valued more in life: knowledge or use of knowledge?  AS they are in the work force who do they want to hire or work for them: Someone who has all the knowledge in the world but doesn't know how to use it or someone who can critically think through the work given to them and problem solve?  This often brings many interesting discussions.  They are also always impressed at the learning that is happening with their child.  I often get: they actually want to come to school! All they can do is talk about what happened today! They are so independent! When this happens I often don't get too many questions.  Now occasionally I have parents who want more, for them I offer this:

I cannot cover everything in the curriculum on my own, many things may be glanced over or skimmed because it is not where the class needs to be.  Please encourage you child to try and learn this on their own and bring it back for the class to learn.  I always give opportunities for students to present their learning and be the teachers in the classroom.  I also mention that as Parents they have every right to teach anything that they want to their students and I encourage it.  Its these experiences that will help them grow and learn together.  All I ask is that they have a growth mindset and not think that what they are learning is the only way.  This also goes for my teaching too.

As inquiry continues students start to learn how to critically think and evaluate the information given to them. This is such an important skill to have.

This brings me to the end of the first part of Aviva's questions.  This of course is only my thoughts and in no way is it a final answer.  That is the best part of inquiry learning, it takes a community of learners to bring about understanding.  I would love to know your thoughts, as I am always rethinking Inquiry in the classroom.  Please share them with your own blog or comment below love to hear them.  And stay tune for part 2, which will probably be posted shortly after this.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Parent divide: My fears of my daughter going to school and how they have made me a better teacher

My daughter starts Kindergarten for the first time this year and for the first time I understand what parents truly feel like as they drop their kids off to my classroom. Before I often wondered at the looks of anticipation and worry over who will teach their child, especially starting a new school but I too have that same apprehension. Don't get me wrong I have total faith in my whoever my daughters teacher will be but I still have fears about her starting school.

Here they are:

1) Will I know what they will be learning so I can help at home?

2) I still want to be a part of her life, even though she is now spending six hours of her day away from home? (Though I am at work, my wife still sent me regular updates)

3) How will she behave and will she continue the values that we have tried to teach her at school?

4) what will her teacher be like and will they have the same values, principals and believes about learning as I will?

5) Will that teaching style be what my daughter needs?

All of these fears I now realize my own students parents are probably feeling too and it really has made me think more about creating more of that positive connection with my parents.

Here is how I have been trying to address these issues:

1) For the last couple of years I have started to use twitter more in the classroom, not as a PD opportunities (though that is an excellent reason) but as a window into my classroom. I don't want my parents to ever feel like they don't know what is happening in my classroom. At the end of the day I collect my tweets using storify so that my parents who are not on twitter can read my recount of the day. Thanks to a great friend Aviva (@avivaloca) I have started to add guiding questions and further problems to work with at home.

2) Class communication: I have always felt that communication is the best defence.  I have multiple ways of communication and probably too much. At the present time, I have twitter, we use edmodo, our google accounts and the class site (though edmodo is slowly replacing this). On these platforms, students and parents can see videos, homework, daily posts and general comments.

3) now with edmodo and google, I can give instant feedback to students writing assignments, class assignments and homework. This feedback is sent directly to the students and parents (since they have their child's passwords)

What these ideas hopefully allow my parents is a window into their child's life at school. They can see what is happening and not feel left in the dark.

The last of my fears will be hard to solve as they are a personal feeling but I hope that because of this openness my parents feel that they can come to me whenever they want. If they don't agree with me I want them to let me know. Conversation is the key and when it's open the child is always succeeding.

I know this blog post is more of a ramble of ideas but before this moment I truly never really thought about the other point of view. I knew about it, I did my best but had nothing to relate the experience too. Our parents are giving us all they have, how are we treating that? How are we bring them into our world and making them feel apart of the learning? Or are we leaving a big partnership in the dark?

Love to here what others do to help bridge the parent divide.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Looking at everyday things in a new light: Great opening day project idea

Just thought I would share my experiences with a great book. I was walking in Indigo the other day when I came across this amazing book:

At first it caught my eye because I was like, "Wow this seems like a really cool book about being different. It would be great as an opening book."  Then I got reading it and I was thought to myself I think this book has many different purposes.  Here is what we did:

The book talks about all the different pebbles that you can find at the beach.  It pushes students to look beyond their surroundings and pay attention to everyday things and see them in new ways.  We had a discussion about this (which was hard for my twos).  We compared it to our own lives and how we are all unique and different and that is okay.

I then had them create their first writing samples about what makes them special and why.  Students then created rock people of themselves.

For grade two these things really turned out well.  The kids really liked the project but in the end it also taught them to reevaluate everyday things in a new light.  To be honest it was never my intention to get the kids to think this but was very surprised by the outcome.  

It is important that students learn to reevaluate their everyday life and take stock in what they have.  Its nice to see that everyday items can be very important for other uses (at least in my opinion).  It turned out to be a great not only for writing samples but art as well.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

End of the year: What have I Learned?

I started the year in a brand new grade and a brand new division. Before this I taught eight years of junior, going between grade four and five positions. This year I am teaching grade two.  My first impressions were, YIKES! I mean I didn't know if I could handle the younger grades. But here I still stand and it has been an amazing journey, with an amazing class.

Here are some things I have learned (I appologize if some may seem like duh moments):

1) primary students take longer to do work. I know this may not be shocking news but I don't think I was quite ready for this. I mean I prepared myself and I wrote plans to reflect this but it really didn't truly understand. Now this actually was a big blessing in disguise. It taught me the importance of going deeper and slower. Because of this my students and I worked through constructing sentences, writing paragraphs, indepth inquiry projects. Math concepts were developed at the students pace. This feeling is a lot different then junior or even intermediate where the need and rush to fit all the dense curriculum is a lot of pressure. 

2) teaching primary has allowed me to focus on inquiry and really developing a inquiry model in the classroom. As I mentions above students work at a slower pace but that doesn't mean they cannot do wonderful things. In fact it's a lot easie because they still have this curious engagement in all topics. Some how this is lost on their way to junior and I think we need to bring it back.  Inquiry has always been a big part of my teaching but this year I have really tried to allow the students to be a big part of the project design and questions.  I have been using provocations, students I wonder statements and trying to flip projects inside out so that we start with a question and develop our understanding through that question.  This is still a big work in progress so stay tuned.

3) even though they are young they are ready to be independent. One of the biggest pet peves of many junior teachers is that the students don't seem to be ready to be independant. They rely on the teacher for answers, not patient with problem solving or just are not ready for success.  I was also told by some that primary they cannot do certain things because they are young or small. Well I wanted something different and have tried to push these skills in grade two in hopes that they are ready for these junior years.  Guess what they can do it.  It took a lot of work and building with students but they are so capable of doing so much.

4) I think that all grades should have a primary mindset. Now I know that this gets harder as kids get older but the inquisitive spirit of a primary child is remarkable.  It's this spirit that we should be harnessing and using to teach our curriculum not the curriculum to teach our students. Now don't get me wrong, curriculum is still important and it's a great guide but that is all. We need to have more inquiry, where students are able to explore and develop understanding. By following this model I actually finished my curriculum ahead of the year and found that I had to give more challenges because the students needed it. If only all grades taught or allowed this to happen, think of the possibilities.

5) I actually like teaching primary, shhh!! I might ruin my image but it's been a lot of fun. The kids are great, they have come so far and it truly has been a lot of fun.

From this learning I have thought of three areas to work on next year:

1) more inquiry
2) more reflections and online portfolios
3) more parent connections and celebrations

What has been the best part of your year? What learning have you done? Love to hear it.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My Next Steps for Genius Hour

Let me start this post with I absolutely love Genius Hour. I think that it is one of the best things that I have started this year. I believe this because it has allowed my students to blossom both in independent work and in academic work.  My students have soared in reading, asking critical questions and in there academics.  

Before I get into wherei want to go let me tell you What it look likes.  Right now, genius hour happens once a week in my classroom. I spend about forty minutes where the students research, whatever they have a passion about.  Now it's not just a free for all, my students have one goal, it must teach the class something.  The students first submit a proposal, and then research, present and reflect. It's been a great process; however, there is some tweeting I think I would like to do.

Here are my thoughts:

1) Though I should have done this from the beginning I think I need a wonder wall. My vision for this wall is to post students I wonder statements. Students can ethier answer their own questions or pick a topic from another students thinking. Once they have answered this, they can present the information to the class and post their work on the Genius Hour board, with the question attached.

2) I want to tie Genius Hour to a term monthly sharing process with the parents.  The reason that I want to do is I have found that though my students have been come excellent researchers and explorers they have struggled to complete projects. Some have done a great job but others have really struggled to do even one.  Having a celebration tied to the project will allow students (at least I hope) to have some urgency or a sense of planning to show their parents what they have done. I am also hoping that it will promote slightly deeper thinking into their questions and choice of topic.

Just a few simple ideas but next year I hope they will support and improve this wonderful experiences that I have had with Genius Hour.  Would love to here your thoughts on this or any other suggestions.