Dream Big … & Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help!

I love to dream big! I’d like to think that anything is possible with the right supports in place, and that the worst thing that can happen is that a project won’t work. If so, we reflect, make changes, and try again. And it is with this thought in mind, that I decided to dream REALLY big this morning!

Right now, my Grade 5’s are learning about the human body, and one of the expectations is that they need to create an organ system to show how the organ system works. This activity falls under the overall expectation of scientific inquiry, and I thought that it would be the perfect one to do for my Teacher Performance Appraisal (evaluation). Students have already researched and reflected on an organ system of their choice. They even wrote about this system in class yesterday (captured in the tweets here). Next week, they’re going to get into groups based on their organ systems of interest. As part of their groups, they’re going to need to decide how this organ system works, the key components that should be shared with others, and how they’re going to create this system. Then they’re going to build their organ system, and share it with the Grades 3-5 students in a gallery format. As a HUGE fan of The Magic School Bus, this is where the class’ tour inside of Ralphie’s body came to mind. All of a sudden, I had a vision!

Imagine if we could turn our classroom into a human body! All of the organ systems could be displayed in the middle, and the walls would be like the innards of the body: completely created by the students. Students could even share their learning about the individual organs and the human body in general in signs and diagrams around the room. All aboard The Magic School Bus: we’re now open for the totally terrific tour of the human body! This vision makes me giddy with excitement, and while this task seems like an incredible undertaking, I think that we could do it!

But if you’re dreaming big, you need to be willing to ask for help! That’s why I had these Twitter conversations this morning.

2014-01-31_19-55-16 2014-01-31_19-55-30


These Twitter conversations were then followed up by a discussion with our music teacher after school today. I wondered if we could create a music connection where students could work in their organ system groups to create a “sound” representing their system. Our music teacher is very interested, and offered a number of great ideas, connecting both recorder music and app options. Music may be taught on rotary, but with this kind of integration, the learning never stops! How awesome is that?!

Will this plan work? I really hope so! Is it worth pursuing, despite no guarantee? Absolutely! We can’t “try again,” if we don’t at least “try” once in the first place. So this weekend, I’m going to try and formulate a plan for the activity. I’m going to look at how this can work given fairly short timelines — of a couple of weeks at the most — and how the learning can overlap between the subject areas. I really want this experience to connect with our school focus of student voice and student choice as well as my focus on the meaningful use of technology (addressed through different creation app options). Then it’s time to connect with our Learning Resource Teacher (my art contact) and Music Teacher to help bring this plan together. I can’t wait to see what happens

What are your words of advice as we attempt this big learning opportunity together? And what are your stories of dreaming big, asking for help, and making the impossible work? I’d love to hear them!


Reframing The Situation

I think that there can always be a reason not to do something. And I can say this because I taught Kindergarten for 8 years, and I constantly chimed in at Staff Meetings with a long list of why the plan wouldn’t work for us. In my mind, these were all valid concerns. Maybe I would make the same arguments today, but I’ve changed a lot in the last five years, and here are my new wonderings.

Instead of saying, “But my students don’t have the skills to do this yet,” I wonder what would happen if we asked, “How could we help develop these skills?”

Instead of saying, “But I need to teach the background information before they can think,” I wonder what would happen if we asked, “How can the students acquire this knowledge? How can thinking and learning go together?”

Instead of saying, “But I have students that can’t read,” I wonder what would happen if we said, “What texts are available in different formats? How can I use assistive technology to help?”

Instead of saying, “But I have students that can’t write,” I wonder what would happen if we said, “How can students share their knowledge without writing? How could I use voice-to-text software to help?”

Instead of saying, “But that activity is too unstructured for my students,” I wonder what would happen if we said, “How could we provide structure for those students that need it?”

Instead of first looking at the impossibilities, I wonder what would happen if we instead started with the possibilities.

The truth is that over the years, I’ve had all of these concerns. Over the years, I’ve let the questions stop me from exploring new options. But I’m starting to think that I had it wrong. I can’t help but consider these words of advice from our superintendent, Sue Dunlop, on a previous blog post of mine:

2014-01-30_19-26-22Instead of letting the concerns stop us, what would happen if we used them as stepping stones to solutions? 

Like so many educators out there, I continue to look at ways to improve my practice. I’ve met with some success, and I’ve met with lots of failures. I’ve learned from these failures, and I’ve tried again. Do I still make mistakes? All the time! But do I remember these mistakes, reflect on them, and make changes? Absolutely! I feel very fortunate to work in such a supportive environment where I know that I can share these mistakes, discuss new options with others, and try again. To “try again” though, we need to “try” in the first place. What have you “tried?” How has it worked? How has it not? Where do you want to go next? I’m hoping that we can share and learning together!



Student Thinking Acts As A Provocation For Teacher Learning

I was out all day today at our Board’s Junior Empowerment Conference, and one of the activities that I left for my supply teacher was a diagnostic activity on multiplication. Our next big math unit is multiplication, and this skill overlaps with our current focus on measurement. I wanted to see what the students knew and where we needed to go next. Last year’s EQAO results in math indicated that our junior students need to continue to focus on explaining their thinking, and this is an area that I continue to focus on in the classroom. While I knew that many students knew their basic times tables, I wondered if they could explain their thinking and make connections to real world reasons to use this skill. I basically kept the questions very open-ended in an attempt to truly see what the students knew. And this is where a student challenged my thinking with her very interesting response.

Here’s a look at the tweet that I sent out today of this Grade 5 student’s work:

2014-01-29_19-05-27As a school, we’re really focusing on “student voice,” and this is a voice I couldn’t ignore. I have to admit that my initial thought was, “Well students need to explain their thinking because we assess thinking and communication.” And while this is true, I don’t want students to only do this because “they’re getting a mark.” Real learning needs to be about more than the mark!

Then I started to question why she thought this way. (Truly honouring “student voice,” I’m going to need to ask her more about her thinking tomorrow, but for now, I’m going to do some inferring.) I started to wonder what I could have done differently to have a different response. The truth is, I think that I made a mistake. My intentions were good. I wanted an open-ended, diagnostic assessment that could show me what students knew, what they didn’t know, and where I needed to go next. But I didn’t give the students a meaningful context.

The truth is, given the activity that I created, I don’t disagree with what this student said. Why should she have to explain her thinking? She knows that 12 X 2 = 24. This is a basic fact, and one that she’s committed to memory. Isn’t it enough for her to just say that she knows it? If I want her to explain her thinking, I need to give her a better question. I need her to see the value in multiplication, and I need to provide her with something to really explain. While not intentional in the least, I think that I ended up creating a make work project for her, and one that was really no different than a giant worksheet, but without the photocopying.

You see, the one thing that I learned looking through the student work today is that almost all students don’t know any real, meaningful reason to use multiplication. They know reasons that they’ve seen on worksheets or in math textbooks before. They gave me lots of examples of six students have four cookies. How many cookies to they have altogether? But then I start to wonder, why do the students have the cookies? Why do I care how many there are altogether? No student should be eating that many cookies!:-) Given this information, it’s no wonder that this child does not want to explain her thinking. She can tell you that there are 24 cookies … and so what?

How am I going to change this? I’m going to create the distinction between the need to memorize basic facts and the meaningful application of these facts. Strangely enough, this takes me back to a conversation I had about an hour before seeing this student’s work. Today, I was working with a Grade 4 teacher, Jennifer Beattie, and as we were cleaning up, we were talking about math. Jennifer mentioned that her students are working on multiplication right now, and she said, wouldn’t it be great to have our students FaceTime to practice their skills? From there, we looked at how we could have a small group of students FaceTime each other to first practice their facts (writing down questions for each other on whiteboards and then each showing their answers), followed by us presenting a problem to both groups of students, giving them the week to solve it, and then coming back together on Friday to share their thinking. Today showed me that this needs to be a rich problem. It needs to be one worth explaining. And maybe as the students talk about their solutions together, the need to “explain their thinking” will matter more. 

What do you think? What meaningful problems would you suggest that would work for both grade levels and would inspire students to want to “showing their thinking?” I’d love to know your thoughts.



Looking Closely At Talking By Not Talking

Last week, I blogged about participating in a No Talking Contest with my students. There were many reasons for this contest. We’re currently reading No Talking in class, and the students wanted to see what it was like to not talk for a day. We also just finished our read aloud of Out of my Mind, and experiencing the inability to talk would help students connect with the main character in the novel: Melody. I also wanted my students and I to gain a better appreciation for listening and greater consideration of word choice: what better way to do this than to restrict oral conversation?! Since I am personally also working on asking better questions (as part of our Board’s focus on proportional reasoning in math), I thought that this No Talking/Limited Talking Day would help me with this. I was going to have to choose my words wisely!

Surprisingly, my reflection on today happened before the day even started. I was mentally preparing myself for not talking (a real feat for me), and so, I started off my morning really thinking about what I needed to say/not say. And that’s when I heard all the talk. There is so much talking around EVERYWHERE. From home to school, I noticed that every moment of silence was filled with words — lots and lots and lots of words! I’m usually one of the people speaking those words. I’m the one that notices when it’s quiet, and I’m the one that then comes in with something to say (always).  I wonder what would happen if we all enjoyed the silent time a little bit more. How much more thinking would there be?

It was actually incredibly interesting to sit back and listen. I think that I heard a lot more. Usually when I go into the staffroom at lunch, I get involved in one conversation, and I miss the other ones. Today, I listened to all of the discussions, and it made me realize just how much I do miss. And I did chime in a bit, but with five words or less. That was also a good thing because I thought before I spoke. I planned out what I was going to say. My word choices were more deliberate, and I think that made them better. I even managed to have a discussion with two teachers, plan with one of my grade team colleagues, and answer two phone calls: all without breaking my word limit.

Now I was honest. There were the few times that I used six or seven words instead of five. This happened in the classroom when I got excited about what I saw, and I forgot about the contest: I just spoke. This also happened on my prep when I was trying to help a colleague solve a small problem, and no matter how I tried, five words wouldn’t do! Every mistake that I made cost me five points, and trust me, my students were looking closely, listening closely, and happy to count backwards by fives if it meant “Miss Dunsiger was going down!” 🙂

Come second nutrition break today, I had 75 points: not bad. I might have even won. Then things turned around. At the end of the break, I read an email from my principal about math, and I had to say something. I wasn’t going to lose though. I had my iPad, and so I wrote out exactly what I wanted to say, and I brought him the note. I knocked on the door, walked in, said, “read please,” and passed him the note. Then questions started. I tried to count the words in my head. I needed to keep below the five word limit. I even stared down at the iPad, considering typing out my reply. But I heard the warning bell. I knew that my time was almost up, and I had no choice: I talked and I talked and I talked and I talked! Nothing could stop me now! 🙂

That’s when I broke the seal, and everything went downhill from there. I went upstairs, and pulled my score down to 60 points. Couple in the few extra words here and there, and before I knew it, I was down to 5 points. Yes, just five! It wasn’t my fault: the math did me in! 🙂 (Sorry! This story is starting to sound so much like, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, that I just can’t help but continue with that theme. :)) At the time when it was clear that I lost, we reflected on our day. It was through this reflection, and a comment made my one of my students, that really made me stop and think. He spoke about what a challenge today was for him, and even though he ended up with 0 points in the end, around the 19 minute mark in this class reflection, he mentioned something important: the need for differentiated instruction. While he may have lost all of his points, he still spoke less today than usual. He met with success. Is it fair to judge everyone by the same standard? 

I may not have won the contest, but I still spoke WAY less than I usually do. I hope that what I learned from today may help me think more closely about what I say in the future. I wonder if today’s contest will impact my students in the same way. What impact would it have on you? Try the challenge and see how you do. It’s amazing how much we can learn from not talking!


Would you? Could you? What do you say?

I will never forget the day that my vice principal told me that I would be teaching Grade 6 for the next school year. At the time, I was teaching a Grade 1/2 class. I had been a K-2 teacher for 11 years. I loved teaching primary. I loved my students, and their parents, and the excitement of a primary classroom. I absolutely, positively loved my job! So why the change?

The truth is that I asked for it. Lisa Neale, a wonderful principal in our Board, gave me some good advice, and I took it. My plan to move grades was not about short-term decisions. It was about long-term options. I needed experience in the Junior grades, and I’m very glad that I asked for it. I’m also very glad that I had two terrific administrators that believed in me and gave me this opportunity. I would never have experienced the Junior grades without them.

I’ll admit that when I went to talk to them about the option of moving to Grade 6, and when I later heard that this was official, I felt like throwing up. I mean I really felt like throwing up!🙂 How was I ever going to teach Grade 6? I spent my days with students that enjoyed my finger plays, rhymes, and songs. I got excited over paint, glue, markers, and wonderful picture books. I beamed when students learned to “really read,” and I knew that I had played a part in that learning. I had the BEST snowsuit dressing competition around, and I actually looked forward to my timer game. And now what? How could I adjust to students that would hate my singing, already know how to read, and choose to wear shorts outside on the coldest day of the year? (Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not by much!:))

The truth is that this adjustment was hard. I learned a lot last year, and I’m continuing to learn even more this year in Grade 5. Do I have some favourite grades to teach? Yes! But am I happy that I’ve made every decision that I have over the years to change grades? An EVEN bigger yes! In my 13th year of teaching, I have now taught every grade from Kindergarten-Grade 6 in one way or another (either through prep coverage or as my homeroom class). Here are my biggest take-aways from all of these experiences:

1) Topics overlap between the grades: know what comes before and what comes after you. This will help you understand the students’  prior knowledge and their starting point for learning.

2) I’d teach primary differently now having taught junior. I’ve seen where the needs lie. I’ve seen what comes next. I know what I’d need to change.

3) Primary helped me teach junior. It helped me with the changes that I made to make my program better. It helped me see the value of integration, and how I can do this to best meet student needs.

I say all of this because when talking to a parent on the weekend, she asked me what I was teaching for next year. Next year seems so far away right now, and yet, it won’t be long until this topic comes up. When she asked, I said, “I honestly don’t know yet. Staffing hasn’t been discussed yet.” And it hasn’t. But as a teacher I’m always thinking, and what I think tonight is this: every teaching experience I’ve had has been a great one! Every teaching experience has made me a better teacher. Big changes or small, I’ve loved them all. I have no doubt that no matter what happens for next year, I’ll feel the same way!

If you had a chance, would you change grades? How do you feel about making big changes? What big changes have you made, and what have you learned from them? I’d love to hear your stories!