Loving The Split

I’m very excited to share that I’m going to be teaching a 5/6 split next year. I love splits! While I usually hear about concerns regarding split grades, here are the reasons why I think a split is fantastic:

  • Built-in differentiated instruction. When you’re teaching two different grades, you’re also responsible for two different sets of curriculum expectations. You can’t have everyone doing the same thing all the time. As a teacher, I need to differentiate, and ensure that all of my students are taught the content that they need to be successful, in the way that they need it.
  • A continuum of learning. To help with teaching different sets of expectations to different students, I find that teachers of splits have to look at how the expectations intersect. They need to create a continuum of learning. Often this continuum is based on “big ideas,” which also coincides with our current school focus on learning goals and success criteria. 
  • Lots of small group instruction. Since students in a split class are learning different content, they don’t need to all sit and listen to the same lesson. Lots of small group instruction really helps address the varying needs of the varying students. Not only does this small group approach let me look at what each individual student needs to do well, but it also helps me build independence and collaboration in my other students, as they support each other while I’m working with small groups.
  • Two times the team! As a teacher, I learn a lot from my peers. This year, I was very fortunate to work with a fantastic partner, Gina, and we collaborated a lot — as you can even hear in our Planning Minutes. Next year, I’m not just working with one team of teachers, but two. Now I get the opportunity to learn from and with even more people. The more that we can share and learn together, the more students benefit.
  • Addressing EQAO even earlier. I have always believed that EQAO is not a Grade 3 or a Grade 6 test, but as a Grade 3 or a Grade 6 teacher, you really feel the onus on you to do well. It seems as though much of the preparation for this standardized test comes in these two grades. As a 5/6 teacher, I’ll be able to show that EQAO is not just a single-grade test. I can help my students learn skills for answering multiple choice and short answer questions, find ways to communicate more in math, and build a foundation for the knowledge that they’re going to need as they move up the grades. (Debates around EQAO are for another post entirely, but I thought that this one point was worth addressing here.)

While this is my first time teaching a split in the Junior grades, I have taught splits for years. I taught JK/SK blends and Grade 1/2 splits before, and I loved both experiences. I’m thrilled that the principal and vice principal, Paul and Tammy, gave me this opportunity to teach another split. It’s going to be a great year, and I can’t wait for September to begin!

What are your thoughts on split grades? What questions or concerns do you have about them? I’d love to hear your thinking!


Why The Radio?

This year, the Grade 6’s had the privilege of recording regular radio shows on 105 the Hive. It all started with a discussion at ECOO (an educational computing conference) and took off from there. This week, I was planning with some teachers for next year, and we started talking about this online radio show. The question became, if our school data shows us that students’ oral language skills are some of their strongest skills, then why is this radio show beneficial? 

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • There’s always value in using areas of strength to develop weaker skills. If students are stronger orally, then let them discuss their thinking out loud, and use what they discussed for their writing. We did this a lot with our Multiple Choice Mondays Reading Comprehension Radio Shows. Students would even discuss ideas for short answer questions, and then after the radio show was done, they’d use the ideas they brainstormed together to write a short answer response. For me, this is teaching with success in mind.
  • Differentiated instruction is so important. There are students that cannot get their thinking down in writing, but they can discuss it orally. While the goal is to develop written language skills, and this happened for most students, is this a reasonable goal for everyone to be at the same level in writing? If students can access and work with grade level material if it’s available and used in a different format, then I think they should be able to do so. A student actually reminded me of this not that long ago.
  • Oral language is not just about talking, it’s also about listening. While many of the students at our school seem to have stronger oral skills than written ones, this does not necessarily transfer to their listening skills. Over the years, data has shown us that students have difficulty following instructions: these are both oral ones and written ones. The radio show helps students develop these listening skills, as they need to be “active listeners” to respond either online (in our Today’sMeet Room or on Twitter) or in person (during the radio broadcast). Throughout the year, I’ve noticed that my students have become much better listeners as a result: they are replying directly to what other students are saying and contributing different information than their peers. 
  • It allows for parent engagement. Many of my parents are listening to our weekly radio broadcasts, and even communicating with our classes about them through emails or through Twitter. By listening along, the parents are also reviewing this curriculum content at home with their children. Regular review of classroom material helps the students understand it better, which benefits them academically.

I thank this teacher for asking an important question and really making me reflect on my teaching practices. Looking at what I’ve shared here and thinking about the positive differences I’ve noticed in my students, I will definitely use 105 the Hive next year in my classroom program.

What are some of the benefits you see the broadcasting learning on an Internet radio station? What might be some of the drawbacks? I would love to hear your thinking!


Staying Positive

For me, June brings a lot of mixed emotions. There’s the excitement of summer holidays and a much needed break for everyone, and there’s also the sadness of a great year coming to an end. The school environment can be a stressful one now. As we finalize class lists, look at room movements, and embrace grade changes (for some people), it’s easy for positive people to become negative … and I’m no exception to that.

One thing that I truly admire about our principal, Paul Clemens, is his ability to always stay positive. He’s reminded me about the importance of optimism, and for this, I’m thankful. So after spending most of my day in planning meetings, and feeling some extreme highs and some extreme lows, I decided to spend tonight reminding myself of some of this year’s successes and why I truly love this job!

  1. I made the change from primary to junior, and I couldn’t be happier! I was really nervous before the year began, but I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to teach Grade 6. It’s amazing to see what the students can do at this older age, and I know that if I were to go back to primary now, I would teach a lot differently than I did before. As teachers, I think we all need the opportunity to teach different grade levels, as this gives us a better understanding of students, how they learn, and how the learning connects from year to year.
  2. I got to work as part of an incredible team. Gina, my teaching partner, is absolutely amazing, and I think that we complement each other very well. It was great planning with her this year, and learning so much from her too. I also got to learn with fantastic educators online (through Twitter), and Gina and I used much of what my PLN shared in our classrooms.
  3. I got to teach absolutely incredible students! I loved my class this year. I have such an eclectic mix of students — with various strengths, needs, and interests — and I enjoyed working with every one of them. I’m thrilled when I see what they can do now: be it the academic gains they made, the social gains they made, and/or the changes they made in their work habits. Having taught many of these students before in JK and SK, it’s great to see how far they’ve come. Teaching makes me happy, and teaching these students makes me thrilled!
  4. I got to work with fantastic parents! The parents have been so supportive this year, and conversations with them helped me re-examine what I do and how I do it. It’s amazing what we can do when we work together, and this year showed me that. A special “thank you” to all of my terrific parents that helped teach me so much about your terrific children and how to teach them.
  5. I got to work with amazing administrators! Paul Clemens (our principal) and Tammy McLaughlin (our vice principal) truly care about students and will do all they can to support them. They’ve also been so supportive of me and so willing to answer my many questions throughout the year. Thank you for helping me problem solve (numerous times) as well as being the “listening ear” when I’ve needed one. I love working with both of you!

Thinking these happy thoughts makes me feel a lot better tonight! How do you remain positive at this stressful time of the year? What are some of your happy memories of this year?


Why Only FDK?

I started my career teaching Kindergarten, and I loved it! I taught JK/SK for 8 years before moving onto Grade 1, Grade 1/2, and now Grade 6. I never left Kindergarten because I didn’t enjoy teaching it. I left it because of the new Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) program. When I taught Kindergarten, I ran a very academic program. Playtime was limited. I was never a worksheet teacher (I’m still not a fan of worksheets), and students interacted, collaborated, and explored together during literacy and math centres. It was free choice “playdemonium,” as I liked to call it, that I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t see the point of it. How were students learning as they pushed cars along the floor or built giant towers with blocks until they fell down? I had Kindergarten students that were reading and writing, and I didn’t think that this could happen in the midst of all of this play. So since I did not agree with the FDK philosophy, I was not going to stay in Kindergarten. Strangely enough, I think it took me moving to Grade 6 to fully understand Full Day Kindergarten. This week especially, I had a change of heart.

We only have a couple of weeks left of school (and I am so opposed to a countdown that I don’t know the exact number of days, so as my students figured out this week, there’s no point in asking 🙂), and with EQAO over, the weather improving, and field trips and special events starting up, it’s hard to keep students excited about learning. The one subject that the Grade 6’s are definitely less interested in now is math. The problem is that we’re still in school, and I have a very difficult time shutting down my program just because the year is coming to an end. The solution instead: get creative and engage the students. Since my teaching partner and I have taught all of the curriculum expectations now, this is a perfect time to review, and what better way to do this than with a project?

  • This project had to include choice.
  • It had to meet curriculum expectations across the math strands, as putting all of the concepts together is the hard part.
  • It had to be open-ended enough to meet the diverse needs of our learners.
  • It had to include group work because collaboration is so important.
  • It had to be meaningful. Students like to know that their work matters.
  • It had to have an assessment and evaluation component. Students need to realize the purpose of this project. They also need a chance to improve their math skills, and having a chance to conference, self-reflect, and “bump up” work is so important.

This is when I remembered that the Grade 1 students were finishing their Social Studies unit on communities, and all of a sudden, a project idea started to evolve. With the amazing feedback from my teaching partner and Twitter PLN, I finalized this Creating Communities Project. The students LOVED it!

Never have I seen my students so excited about math! They were designing, building, creating, painting, problem solving, making a mess, having fun, and discussing math. The math talk was actually more purposeful than any other math talk that I’ve heard all year. I don’t even think that the students realized they were talking about math. They had some real problems to solve though, and in order to solve them, they had to discuss them and work together. Everyone was involved. Students were making mistakes, reflecting, and starting again. The classroom had the energy and appearance of a Kindergarten class, but these were Grade 6’s.

In the midst of “play,” students were learning. And in the midst of play, I was able to talk to them more, engage in some meaningful discussions, and facilitate this learning. Thanks to photographs, videos, and tweets (my own mini-learning stories), I could document this learning for others to see too. Then on Thursday, with the communities complete and off to the Grade 1 classes, students participated in a radio show where they discussed what they created and why. As the discussions evolved, so did the math talk. Students explained how they used the survey results to make their decisions. They spoke about surface area, and how they made their buildings. They even spoke about the grid and the 80% restriction imposed. They talked like mathematicians, but if you were to ask them, they were having fun.

This math playtime extended even more into the afternoon thanks to our Geometro visitor. Students got to build with shapes as they created many amazing structures. As you can hear in the Storify Story below, they were thinking and talking about math even when they didn’t realize it.

Maybe this is the key to the Full Day Kindergarten program: give students a chance to take ownership of their learning and then guide them through the journey. I remember talking to some Grade 1 teachers once about the Full Day Kindergarten Program, and I will never forget what one of them said: “How will they ever learn to sit in their desks and do what they’re told in Grade 1 if they don’t have to in Kindergarten?” Here’s my question now in response: “Why do Grade 1’s need to sit in their desks all day and all do the same things?”

I’m starting to think that the problem with the Full Day Kindergarten Program is that the only people being inserviced on how it works and encouraged to share this philosophy are the Kindergarten teachers. Would the program have a bigger impact if the philosophy was shared through the grades? How can teachers of all grades move to an FDK model? Knowing what I know now, I’ll be rethinking how I teach next year, and how I can build more inquiry, choice, and play into my program. Due to the success of this last math project, my teaching partner and I even created a new one to review different skills. We’re hoping for a fun and educational way to end the school year! It really is amazing how much the Kindergarten program taught me about Grade 6! Thank you!


Is student engagement enough?

Often as we talk about using technology in the classroom, the discussion comes up about student engagement. The argument is that students are more engaged when they’re using technology. As teachers, we want our students to get excited about learning, and nothing is more disheartening than to see a student that does not want to be at school and does not enjoy learning. Will using technology, increase engagement? Maybe. (This could almost be a topic for another post.) But is engagement enough? In my opinion, no.

Just last weekend, I read and commented (numerous times) on this fantastic post by Jared Bennett (@mrjarbenne) about Minecraft in Education. For the first time ever, I started using Minecraft in the classroom this year. I’ve used it for very specific purposes, be it demonstrating knowledge of surface area and volume, applying what students have learned through research in different subject areas, or creating various media texts. I don’t do gaming, so this has been a huge learning curve for me, but I teach some reluctant readers and writers, and they love Minecraft. This game inspires them. It’s engaging. So I stepped outside of my comfort zone and learned how I could use Minecraft in the classroom. That being said, I don’t just use Minecraft because it’s engaging. It helps me teach specific skills and concepts that are outlined in the curriculum documents. If Minecraft works with the expectations, some students use it, and if it doesn’t work, they don’t.

Technology is not the only way to help engage students. This week, the Grade 6’s started working on a Math Community Project that has them creating a three-dimensional community on a two-dimensional grid. Some students are creating their communities on devices, some are using boxes and paint, and others are using plasticine. Some students are combining many different tools. All of the students are engaged in the project, but just as importantly, all of the students are learning. The recent posts on our Daily Shoot blog are great proof of this!

So while I want my students to be engaged, I will never just make my classroom program about the engagement. My thought is that if students are collaborating, conversing, problem solving, and “playing,” they will be engaged, but they will also be learning. What do you think? How do you balance engagement and learning?