Contemplating Changes

In just over a week, we’re heading back to school, and as I get ready to plan for January, I’m contemplating a small change and a big change. What better time to start fresh than in a new year! 

My small change is to our entry routine. When the students come into class, I always have the agenda up on the SMART Board, and they write it in their agenda books, take a photograph of it and text it to their parents, or email it to their parents. Then I usually have them read quietly for a few minutes until announcements are over. The truth is though that most students don’t want to read quietly for these few minutes: they want to talk. They need to talk! I’m wondering if giving them this “talking time” would help with self-regulation and make them more ready to learn later. Let them share the story they need to share, so that they’re not thinking about this story or trying to share this story during the lesson in a couple of minutes. And for those students that don’t want to talk, why not give them the chance to read, write, or draw quietly? They’ve told me that this is what they like to do, and now they’d have the opportunity to do this. It’s only for five minutes, but maybe it’s the five minutes that they need get ready for learning. What do you think?

My big change is to our schedule. I’m really struggling teaching period by period. As we embrace a more inquiry approach to learning, these 40 minute blocks do not give enough time for students to think, question, and explore. We need more integration. Ideally half of the day would be for Language and half would be for Math, and Science, Social Studies, Health, and The Arts would be fully integrated throughout. I did this when I taught Grades 1 and 2, so I know that it’s possible, but there are some big shifts to consider:

1) The Schedule On The Board – Right now, I have all of the periods listed on the blackboard, and beside each one, I have a card outlining what we’re doing that period (e.g., Period 1 – Modelled Reading). While all of the students look to this schedule to figure out what they need to bring to class and what the day will include, this schedule is especially beneficial for my students with autism. They set-up their own schedules based on these plans, and they definitely need this routine. So how do I meet all student needs if the schedule now just says, “Language” and “Math” (with prep subject periods included where they occur)? Here’s my thought: what if beside the words “Language” and “Math,” I break down the periods into smaller chunks? I can show the students when we’ll be doing Shared, Modelled, and Guided Reading and Writing. The timing may not be exact, but it could add more structure to the day for those students that need it. What do you think?

2) AWARD (Applied Writing and Reading Daily) Time – This is our guided reading and literacy centre time. Based on a blog post comment from our vice principal, Kristi, we started to integrate Social Studies into AWARD Time prior to the Break. Students enjoyed reading, writing, and creating in different ways based on our Social Studies topic. Many students were concerned though as they were reading and responding to novels that they wanted to finish, but that did not tie into our Social Studies topic. We looked at how they could spend a portion of their time on these integrated activities and a portion of their time on these non-integrated activities (assuming that both helped them meet their reading and writing goals). The students really liked the compromise, and seemed to balance their time well.

While I’d like to continue this integrated approach in January (on our Science topic now), I also plan on making a change. To start AWARD Time, we’re going to have some mini-literature circle groups. In January, these groups will read various articles related to our new Science topic on the human body. The articles will vary by group. Each group will focus on various reading comprehension strategies that we worked on from September-December. Sometimes these strategies will be the same for everyone, and sometimes they’ll be different. It all depends on student needs. While the groups are reading and discussing their articles, I’ll also be working with a guided group on a different article.

I’m making this change because I want students to read and respond to their reading more, and these quasi-literature circles will help do that. This also allows me to take a guided group when all of the other students are reading: ensuring that I do not pull students when they are in the middle of a project with their peers. As we integrate more, students are creating more of their own group projects, and I hate pulling them from these. This approach also helps with integration, as the reading that students do will correspond to our Science topic: giving them even more information that they can use for other reading and writing activities. What do you think?

3) Layout Of Materials – Before the Break, I was talking to some teachers about the Full-Day Kindergarten Program. Many teachers were concerned that students would not learn what they need to learn in this new model. I said that this learning can definitely occur, but as teachers, we may just need to be more creative. For example, if students are learning about patterns, maybe there needs to be a pattern provocation at the cars, at the paint centre, at the blocks, and in the creative play area. Let students go where they want, but when they get there, they’ll see this provocation, and in time, they’ll respond to it in what they say and what they do. Maybe this is my own wishful thinking, but it makes sense to me. So why aren’t I doing this more in our classroom? I need to start putting books and writing materials out in more places. Possibly even laying out some sentence starters will get students to write more as they reflect on what they’ve read and what they’ve done. I’m hoping that making more deliberate choices about what I put out where, will get students to read, write, and think more (regardless of the subject area). What do you think?

I’m excited about all of these changes, but I know that they’ll probably require some tweaking throughout the year. Hopefully the students can help me with this tweaking as they share their thoughts on these changes. What are your initial thoughts on these changes? What initial “tweaks” would you suggest? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


What I Learned — Just From Watching

As my students know, when it comes to holiday time, I’m like the Grinch. I even call myself that, or sometimes Scrooge: take your pick! 🙂 My problem is not with the holiday itself: I love Christmas time, and just like the students, I’m excited about a break and getting the opportunity to relax and rejuvenate. My issue is with the unstructured time that tends to come before a Break. All students — particularly those with special needs — thrive on routine, and when these routines change, there are usually problems. So I don’t have days of unstructured time with various holiday movies and crafts. This plan doesn’t work for me, but more so, it doesn’t work for my students.

Earlier this week though, I read a blog post written by one of my favourite bloggers who also happens to be my vice principal: Kristi. Here is one of the ideas that she mentions in this post:

2013-12-20_10-11-58I really took this idea to heart, and yesterday, I decided to set-up a couple of different play opportunities. (Since our school focus is on student choice, why not give students some options for “play time?”) I started by showing students this challenge:

holiday house_1Then there was the board game option. I told students that they could bring in their own board games for a special activity on the last day of school. (Note how I say, “activity,” and not “party.” Word choice matters, in my opinion. Say “party,” and the students go crazy. Say “activity,” and the students still envision some structure.) I also have a huge cupboard of various board games — from Scrabble to Jenga — and students enjoyed exploring all of them.

With a couple of choices in place, I sat back and watched what students did … and it was really quite amazing to see! Here’s what I observed.

1) Students included everyone in their games and activities. At one point when Mr. Steiner, our phys-ed teacher, was in the room, I had half the class playing Jenga. Everyone took turns! Students supported each other. They cheered for each other. And they all willingly took part in the fun consequences if they lost the game (from 10 push-ups to 10 burpees).

Playing Jenga With Mr. Steiner

Playing Jenga With Mr. Steiner

2) Students chose to collaborate … even when it wasn’t required. For the Holiday House Challenge, I figured that some students would choose to work together and others would choose to work alone, but I was wrong. Everyone teamed up! It wasn’t a matter of one student doing all of the work either: students split up the tasks. They brainstormed ideas orally, and then they made adjustments when needed. They respected all of the ideas shared by their peers, and they worked together to look at ways to improve each of the ideas. You can even hear some of this team work in the video below.

3) Students demonstrated independent problem solving. Many groups of students chose to build their houses in Minecraft, and one group ran into a problem: their house flooded. Instead of getting upset or coming to me to try and problem solve (and trust me, I wouldn’t have been of much help :)), they solved the problem on their own. Awesome!


4) Students decided to “work” first. I knew that it was the day before the Winter Break began, and as much as I may have wanted it to be a “normal day,” I also knew that it wasn’t one. With the holiday assembly in the middle block, I only saw my students for two periods, and I figured that it would be hard to expect much work from them. What impressed me was that even when I gave the students the fun alternatives, some groups that were not done their projects for school, asked me if they could finish them first. Yes — absolutely! One group of students even conferenced with me to help edit their iMovie so that I could publish it yesterday. When I asked them why they made this choice, they told me, “We really wanted this movie on the website, so that we could help make a difference over the holidays!” This is definitely an added value in making learning meaningful! Here’s their movie. (Please note that this group had difficulty getting answers to questions that would work for graphing purposes, so they made a media text on the topic, and found some statistics online for a separate graphing activity.)

5) Students made curriculum choices that I didn’t envision. With about 30 minutes left until the end of the school day, some students asked me if they could take out plasticine for an art activity. I figured, “why not,” so I let them get some. What really impressed me was not just what they created, but when they came to me and explained that they, “used the elements of design when making their unicorn.” Then they told me all about the different elements of design! Even on this last day of school, during “free choice” time, students made these curriculum connections. I was so excited about this that I asked them to tweet about what they did. Here’s what they wrote.


6) Students found the “best place” to work and learn. The great thing about having different areas in the classroom is that students can find a place that works for them. Yesterday, they really spread themselves out based on what they wanted to do, and the best area to do so. The louder board games took place at the longer tables, the quieter board games took place on the floor, the holiday house challenge took place in areas around the room, and the sofas were for some quieter discussions. I loved seeing all of the students enjoying their time with each other!

2013-12-20_11-04-23Yesterday was truly a positively perfect end to a wonderful four months in the classroom. Who knew that there could be so much learning in the midst of unstructured time? So I may still be the Grinch during the holidays, but maybe my heart is growing just a bit. 🙂 I think that I can now see more value in this “play time,” and I’m starting to wonder if there are other times during the year to just let students “play.” What do you think? How do you use “play” and “observations” to inform your teaching? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!



The Learning That You Don’t Anticipate

When I do my planning, I’m always trying to anticipate what students will learn, what questions they’ll have, and where we’ll go next. I’m a big believer in starting with the curriculum expectations, and I’m really reluctant to do anything in the classroom that doesn’t align. As such, the learning tends to be tied to the curriculum expectations, but this week, I was surprised when it became more than that …

About 1 1/2 weeks ago, I wrote this post on the collaborative Look Closely Blog about an upcoming math activity. Feedback from Jonathan So and Jason Wigmore on Twitter helped me revise the post, and even add an additional option to the activity: finding out about local food bank needs, and creating an advertisement to try and increase donations to the food bank. This was my first attempt at a Social Justice Math Activity, and I was really eager to see how it went.

This week, I was thrilled to see that a couple of groups chose option #3, and wanted to contact a food bank to find out more about their needs. One group researched and found an email contact at the food bank, and the partner group wrote this email message:


They haven’t received an email back yet, so they started making phone calls yesterday as well.

Another group initially used the phone directory on the Internet, and they found a phone number of a local food bank. They wrote a script of exactly what they wanted to say and the questions each group member would ask, and they phoned. Then came the big surprise: when they said that they were Grade 5 students from Ancaster Meadow School, and they asked if they could ask a couple of questions, they were told, “no,” and the person hung up on them. I couldn’t believe it! They couldn’t believe it either!


At this point, I figured that the group members would ask to switch topics or would search for their answers online, but I was thrilled with what they chose to do instead: they asked to call another food bank. And they ended up calling a lot of them (as did my students that first tried emailing a food bank). Both groups of students made their way through just about every food bank listed on Canada411, and then some. They met with success at a couple, answering machines at a couple more, and failure at a few more than that. The students never gave up though!


Thanks to Tina Zita, an educator from the Peel Board, I have some contact information for another food bank, and students will try calling this place today. We’ll see how it goes! Once again, my Twitter PLN came through to support me and my students, and I really appreciate that! More than that though, I’m thrilled with the learning that I didn’t expect from this activity: that perseverance matters. Students learned that people do not always do as we expect, but that there are great people in the world that want to help us out as well. We just need to put in the effort to find them. Students learned important lessons about character education and all in the midst of a math lesson. This is why we need to have these meaningful learning opportunities for our class!

What unexpected lessons have your students learned lately? How have these lessons helped you rethink what you do and why you do it? I’d love to know more!



Please See Me For More Than The Tools

There’s something that’s been bothering me lately. It’s actually bothered me for a while, but I’ve just heard the same thing mentioned so many times recently that I have to blog about it.

We have a lot of student teachers at our school right now, and as others introduce me to  them, the introduction usually goes something like this: “This is Aviva. She’s really good with technology.” or “This is Aviva. You’ll want to go and see her if you want to find out more about technology.” 

I know that I’ve blogged about this topic before, but some days, I just wish that I could be seen as more than a “technology teacher.” I actually don’t teach technology. I teach curriculum, and I pride myself on knowing the expectations well. Everything we do in the classroom has a purpose, and everything aligns with expectations. Even as I plan some fun “play challenges” for students for the last day of school before the break (thanks to our vice principal, Kristi, for the idea), there are still curriculum connections. Shhh … I just don’t tell the students! 🙂

Here’s another secret for you: I don’t expect students to use technology either. Many do, or they use a combination of paper, manipulatives, and devices, and I’m fine with any of these options, as it’s student choice that I want. My thought is that directing students to use a computer is no different than me directing them to use paper: do they need to be told what tool to use, and if so, why? How is this helping their learning? Should I be making this activity more open-ended instead?

One day, I’d like to be more often viewed for more than the tools that I use: I’d like to be seen as just a great teacherHow do others feel about this? What could I do to start to bring about this change? And if I’m being too sensitive here, please tell me that too — all advice is welcome!


Partaking In The Digital Chain Letter

I have a confession to make: when I was in high school, I received hundreds of chain letters (no exaggeration), and I didn’t reply to any of them. I’m still around to write about this today, so I take that as good news, but I don’t want to press my luck. 🙂 In the past couple of weeks, I received mentions on three blog posts to partake in what James Cowper best describes as a “digital chain letter.” This meme has made its way to me thanks to Brian Harrison (post here), Karen Lirenman (post here), and James Cowper (post here), so today I decided to reply to all of them with this one post. As a true teacher, I love making rules but not always following them, so here’s my modified version of this challenge!

All three posts ask me to acknowledge the nominating blogger. Check: I’ve done that! Next, I have to share 11 random facts about myself. Here we go:

1) I love coffee! That’s right. I honestly can’t get enough of it. Tim Horton’s, Second Cup, Starbucks, brew your own, and even the dreaded instant — I will drink it all! Well, I do draw the line at decaffeinated, but hey, that’s just wrong! 🙂

2) I love to read! I almost love books as much as I love coffee. And I will truly read anything: from a good mystery to a romance to a fiction story to real literature. There’s very few books that I don’t enjoy.

3) I’m a very fast reader too. (Okay, I’m cheating a bit here, as this point probably belongs under point #2, but it’s hard to think of 11 things about me. :)) Over the holidays, I’ll usually average 1 1/2 to 2 books a day, and we’re talking books of 300-500 pages. I just can’t get enough to read!

4) I’m obsessed with punctuation. One of my favourite books is Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and I think of the book often as I work with students on their punctuation. I think that I know every comma rule and apostrophe rule around — even though I don’t always follow them. As I said before, I’m a teacher … 🙂

5) I love to laugh, and I’m incredibly sarcastic. I have to be careful about this sometimes. I know what people say about sarcasm, but one of my closest friends and a roommate from university, was very sarcastic, and I needed to have my comeback lines ready. Old habits are hard to break!

6) I met many of my closest friends in university, and we’ve stayed friends ever since. We don’t live that close to each other, and we don’t see each other often, but email and phone calls make keeping in touch easy. I’m glad we’ve made these friendships work.

7) I have one sister, and she’s 13 months younger than me. She skipped Grade 1 though, so we went through school together. It was neat growing up with a “twin sister,” who wasn’t quite a twin.

8) I have two dogs, Toby and Zoe, and I love both of them very much. They’re kind of like my children. They bark a lot though … especially at Halloween! They also ruined my blinds by flinging themselves into them numerous times — like every time somebody walks by and/or the door bell rings. My house is a fun place! 🙂

9) I love country music! It’s not the slow, sorrowful songs that I like, but the fast-paced, toe-tapping songs that I enjoy. I blare the radio every day on my car ride to school, and you can probably catch me singing every once in a while. I’ll never admit to it though! 🙂

10) All I ever wanted to be in life was a teacher. I hate that question of, “What would you do if you couldn’t teach?” I can’t even imagine an answer to that. There’s even a wall somewhere in an old house in Thornhill that has an anchor chart on it thanks to a bleeding marker. I was seven at the time! 🙂

11) Despite my love of technology, I may own the oldest phone in existence. It’s a flip phone, pay-as-you-go model. Some students were using it yesterday to call a Food Bank for a Math/Media Activity, and they needed directions on how to turn it on. Yes, sometimes I’m like one big contradiction! 🙂

Here's The Phone!

Here’s The Phone!

Next, I have to answer the 11 questions posed by the nominating blogger. Instead of answering 33 questions, I’ve decided to pick and choose questions from all three bloggers to make up my 11. Here we go:

1) How did you get your name? In the Jewish religion, you’re supposed to be named after someone who’s passed away. My first name is “Aviva,” and it’s after my grandfather Alfie. My middle name is “Frima,” and it’s after my grandmother Flo. Aviva actually means Spring in Hebrew, and I was born in “almost the springtime,” so the name seems very fitting.

2) Name something you couldn’t live without. Assuming here that we’re talking an object and not a person, I’d say coffee. I say that because I tried to give it up once, and I got the most brutal headache. Coffee is here to stay! 

3) Where were you on 9/11/2001? I was driving on my way to Woodward Avenue School. At the time, I was only working part-time there as a Grade 1 teacher, and I was in my car heading to school for the afternoon. I heard the news on the radio just as I arrived, and then walked in to see students and staff congregating in the front hallway watching the news unfold. I will never forget this day!

4) What is a powerful lesson you learned from a parental figure? This lesson would definitely be from my mom, and it would be, “to work hard and never give up.” I’m so glad that she taught me the power of perseverance, or I would not be in teaching today.

5) What was your first part-time job? My first part-time job was working as a counsellor at my parents’ summer camp/summer school. I got this job over 20 years ago, and I’ve worked with them in the summer ever since. 

6) When do you usually write your blog posts? I tend to write them in the evening after reflecting about my day. Sometimes I write them very late at night. If I really feel the need to blog, I’m going to make it work, even if the timing is not ideal.

7) What was the topic of your first blog post? It was on reading and some of my favourite authors. At the time, I think that my plan was going to be to have my blog as a place to share what I read. That plan didn’t take long to change! 

8) Did you ever own an 8-track cassette? I wanted to answer this question just so that I could write, “What’s an 8-track cassette?” 🙂 Seriously, I’ve never seen one. I did own many records though. I think those came next. 

9) Have you ever broken any bones? If so, which ones? How? Yes, I broke my arm when I was in Grade 2. I fell off the monkey bars. I think that I’ve been scared of heights ever since.

10) What’s the furthest you’ve been away from home? I think that would have to be Arizona. I love going there: it’s really hot, and I can walk in the water and read all day long. Have I mentioned that I’m not much of a traveller and have almost no interest in sight seeing? I guess this could have gone under my 11 random facts about me. 🙂

11) What’s the biggest surprise of your life? This would be finding out that I won the Prime Minister’s Award For Teaching Excellence. I still can’t believe it. This is the kind of surprise, I’ll probably never forget!

Next comes listing 11 bloggers. I’m skipping this part. So many people that I would list have already done this challenge, and I don’t know how they would feel about doing it again. Instead I’m going to open this up to all interested bloggers. Feel free to answer my 11 questions and link your post in the comments below. I’d love to know more about you! (As I said before, I’m not much of one for rules … )

So here’s the last part of this challenge. Here are my 11 questions:

1) What do you like the most about teaching?

2) What makes you laugh? 

3) Sweet foods, salty foods, or both — why?

4) What’s your favourite book? Why do you like it so much?

5) If you could invite anyone in the world over for dinner, whom would you invite? What would you discuss?

6) How do you feel about snow?

7) What’s the song that makes you want to dance?

8) How do you have fun at school each day?

9) How do you inspire people to change?

10) Who’s someone from Twitter that you’ve never met and would love to meet? What would you discuss?

11) What’s your favourite coffee drink? (Tell me all about it! I love coffee! :))

Happy writing! 🙂