It’s About More Than One Change!

Last night, I read and commented on a blog post by one of my favourite bloggers, Kristi Keery-Bishop (she also used to be my vice principal). The discussion that evolved on this  post quickly made its way to Twitter, and it wasn’t long before I was even dreaming about our talk.

2014-08-30_14-41-02 2014-08-30_14-41-17 2014-08-30_14-41-34 2014-08-30_14-41-49While Kristi’s blog post was about homework, the conversation definitely became a lot more than that.

With the release of our new Social Studies Curriculum Document last year, I decided to make it my professional goal to use inquiry in the classroom. This goal was often a struggle for me.

  • I made a lot of mistakes.
  • I tried again many times.
  • I needed a lot of support.
  • I relied heavily on “critical friends” — Kristi, my principal Paul, my good friend and colleague JoAnn, and my amazing Twitter PLN were four of the best — to help me assess what I tried and figure out where to go next.

And I think that it took me until last night’s conversation to truly figure out that inquiry is not about a single tweak in content delivery methods — it’s about a whole new way of teaching, thinking, and learning. I’m not saying this to scare people. I understand that many of us need to start small and grow from there, but here are the numerous questions I’m contemplating when it comes to inquiry:

  • 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?
  • 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)?

I definitely have far more questions here than I do answers. That being said, I can’t help but think back to a conversation that I had with my Grade 5’s last year. During one of our Social Studies Inquiry Circles, I admitted to the class that I didn’t know the answers to their questions. A couple of my students were surprised that a “teacher didn’t know all of the answers.” That’s when one boy chimed in with these wise words: “That’s okay, Miss Dunsiger. Teachers don’t need to know all of the answers. They just need to be willing to learn.” I’m willing to learn. Who else is with me? How do we start addressing these tough questions? I will definitely be jumping in and embracing even more inquiry in the classroom, but also doing some thinking as I do.




That Voice In My Head

This is my fourteenth year teaching and my fourth year teaching Grade 1. I’ve spent many last weeks of August setting up classrooms, but I’ve never spent as much time deliberating over decisions as I did this year. Our Board’s Calm, Alert, and Learning Book Club really changed things for me. Around mid-way through the year last year, I read Stuart Shanker‘s book, and I had a completely different understanding of self-regulation.

When I thought of the ideas in his book and all of the wonderful ideas shared by the Reggio-inspired Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers on Twitter, I envisioned something very different for Grade 1. Our classroom is currently like a self-regulation/inquiry zone that I’m sure will only further develop as the students add their own touch. Here is what I saw and thought thanks to my many online inspirations.

  • I saw the value in keeping the plain cork — the neutral tones — on the bulletin boards.
  • I saw the value in trying to keep as many neutral colours as possible in the classroom. Some of the furniture that I found was only available in certain colours, but I tried to have those colours “pop” against the more neutral shades.
  • I saw the value in blank boards — soon to be areas for showcasing student work and documentation of student learning.
  • I saw the value in creating zones in the classroom, with lots of space for movement and quiet areas for students that need it.
  • I saw the value in wicker and clear bins, and while most of the bins I could find were coloured buckets, I tried to carefully consider colour choices. As the year goes on, I hope to replace the plastic with the wicker and clear bin options.
  • I saw the value of bringing nature into the classroom to inspire wonder. While I’m worried about the life expectancy of my plants (I’m an even worse gardener than a parker), I’m going to try hard to keep them alive. One of the Grade 1 Science units is on living things, and I think that these plants could provide a full-year provocation for this unit.
  • I saw the value in loose parts. From rocks to buttons to gems, I tried to add clear containers of loose parts to the math and art areas to inspire creation, counting, sorting, patterning, and measurement. 
  • I saw the value in real-world math, even in Grade 1 — thanks to my previous vice principal, Kristi, for this — and these bins of books provide the first provocation for some sorting. 
  • I saw the value in adding books and writing materials all over the room to hopefully inspire reading and writing even when doing Math, Science, and The Arts. 
  • I saw the value in play. We have lots of open-ended blocks of time for students to explore literacy and math, and I’m hoping for lots of hands-on, small group learning that will have even our youngest learners thinking and sharing lots.

Yes, my provocations are and will continue to be largely connected to curriculum areas. Yes, I plan on having a word wall. Yes, I plan on doing guided reading. Yes, I plan on doing shared reading texts, and directly teaching decoding strategies that I know all of my students need. And while I have these plans, I’ve thought about what educators have shared on Twitter, and I’ve thought about how I may address these “plans” in a play/inquiry-based environment.

  • Some of these plans may just be for small groups of students and some may be for the whole class.
  • Sometimes the areas where I plan to work may change depending on student needs and classroom activities.
  • Sometimes the best laid plans are worth changing as my own learning evolves, and I have no doubt that this will happen this year.

This year’s classroom set-up though has shown me the value in life-long learning, and that sometimes, even when people aren’t there, they can still remain as voices in our head. What “voices” are in your head as you set-up your classroom? What impact have these voices had on your classroom design? Here’s to all of the wonderful “voices” that continue to make me better at what I do!


I-Think We Can Move Beyond The “But …”

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be involved in the one day HWDSB I-Think Workshop. Heidi Siwak, an amazing teacher in our Board has been working with the Rotman School of Management for a couple of years now, and looked at ways to bring integrative thinking into the classroom. Thanks to Board support, more and more classes in the system are learning about integrative thinking and moving the ideas into their rooms. I’ve always been intrigued with the ideas that Heidi shares with me, and as I explored inquiry last year — and intend on using it more in the classroom this year — integrative thinking just seems to fit so well. The one-day workshop gave me a lot to think about, and I’ll admit, that I’m continuing to reflect on what integrative thinking may look like in the Grade 1 classroom. I have no doubt that I’ll share many future blog posts on this very topic, but this post is about another reflection from yesterday: how, and why, could integrative thinking be used with staff?

Much of our time yesterday was looking at using pro/pro charts to see overlapping ideas between extreme models: ultimately looking at how we can use the best ideas in both models to build new models. As our superintendent, Mag Gardner, said in her introduction,  “Integrative thinking is about embracing the ‘muckyness’ of learning”: playing and getting creative to solve problems in new ways. It was as I was sitting and thinking about Mag’s words and participating in a pro/pro chart activity that this question came to mind:


Here is something you need to know about me: I don’t do well with the “but …”. Often in teaching, educators will sit around and discuss new ideas. They’ll learn about new approaches. And without a doubt, there is often a but

  • But my students aren’t strong enough.
  • But my students can’t all read/write/do math calculations (you decide).
  • But there isn’t enough time.
  • But we don’t always get home support.
  • But I tried that approach earlier in the year, and it didn’t work.
  • But I don’t have enough support to make this effective.
  • But the needs are different here.
  • But my students are too young.
  • But, but, but …

I’ll admit that at different times in my teaching career, I’ve offered my own “buts …”. It’s always with student intentions in mind. We want students to meet with success. We know our learners. We know our own comfort level, and we know what seems to work well. Why change?

The problem with this “but” is that it stops growth. We could be doing a “good job,” but with a change, it could be “better.” When the “buts” enter the conversation though, the new ideas are rarely tried because there is so much reluctance. Yesterday though, we learned about the pro/pro chart, and that changed things for me.

Imagine at a Staff Meeting or PD session, you were given two opposing ideas:

  • Letting students always choose their way to show their learning in all subject areas.
  • Having the teacher always decide on how students show their learning in all subject areas.

After defining what both ideas look like (as a group), you decide on the stakeholders that would be impacted by these decisions (e.g., the students, the teachers, the parents). Then you create a chart where you list the “pros” for each of these stakeholders for both ideas. You only focus on the positives. After completing the chart, you look at the overlapping ideas from both extremes. You try to sum up both sides with one or two main words. From there, you can start looking at how you can use the things you deem are important from both models to build a new one: providing the best of everything.

This is a simple explanation, and probably doesn’t take into consideration all of the nuances of integrative thinking. As someone that’s just learning about integrative thinking, I don’t know if you can really pick and choose what you do and how you do it, but assuming that you can, I think there’s benefits for staff in even doing the first part of this activity: looking at the opposing sides, listing the positives for the different stakeholders, looking for similarities, and summing up the viewpoints in one or two main words. As you do this, you start to see value in something that you never thought you would. Even if the group never decides on a perfect “new model,” maybe by analyzing the positives of both, everyone will come to appreciate something new and move from a “but” to a “when.”

  • When the right supports are in place.
  • When students can share orally as well as in writing.
  • When students can choose to work alone or together.
  • When I can run a guided group to assist those students that need it.
  • When this is done in small groups instead of as a full class.
  • When I’ve shared the information with parents, so that they can support the concept(s) at home.
  • When there is a gradual release of responsibility.
  • When I have established some key classroom routines first.
  • When, when, when …

I kind of like the sound of the “when,” and I think that integrative thinking can help us move in this direction. Now I realize that Staff Meeting times are limited and there are usually pre-established plans for PA Days, but maybe integrative thinking could make its way into SEF (School Effectiveness Framework) Planning Meetings. I think of what my principal from last year, Paul, used to say about focusing on the positives, and this pro/pro chart definitely allows positivity to have an impact on teacher choices and attitudes (or at least, I know that it did for me). What do you think? How can you see using integrative thinking for staff professional development? What benefits or drawbacks do you see? I’d love to hear your thoughts!



Are You “Prepared?”

The other day, I was speaking to a friend of mine about preparing for the new school year. I’m usually very organized.

  • My long-range plans are done.
  • I’ve prepared activities for the first week of school.
  • I’ve laminated and cut-out materials for the classroom.
  • My daybook plan for the first week is complete.
  • I’ve written my September Newsletter, and it’s ready to be photocopied.
  • All of the materials that I have at home that need to go back to school are prepared and ready to load into my car.

This year, I haven’t done any of these things. When I was talking to my friend I said, “I’m not prepared to go back!” But I’ve been thinking about that conversation for the past couple of days, and maybe that’s not true.

I haven’t done the things on this list yet because …

  • I’m moving schools. I’ve only seen the new classroom once, and I can’t remember everything that’s in it — especially everything that’s in the teacher cabinet. I have to have another look before I decide what to bring in.
  • I don’t have my schedule yet. I’m not sure what the day looks like, what subjects I’m teaching, and what subjects are being taught through my preps. This information will impact on my daily plan. When it comes, I can then start finalizing the look of the day.
  • I’ve only met once with the new Grade 1 team, and we’re planning on meeting next week to finalize our plans. Daily activities, newsletters, and daybook plans have to come after these planning sessions.
  • I haven’t met the students yet — this could be the most important reason of all! For the past nine years, I taught at the same school. I taught many students multiple times — some as many as four years — and I knew almost everyone in the building. Planning was easier because I could truly plan with the students in mind. With my school change, I’ve had to rely on reading OSR’s, speaking to previous teachers, and reading general overviews on each child. Over the years, I’ve learned that students are rarely exactly as they appear on paper, and meeting students, making connections with them, learning about their strengths and needs, and then moving forward is important.

This doesn’t mean that I plan on going into the new year blindly. In fact, since I took this photograph of the new classroom during the first week in July, my mind continues to be on school.

A Look At My New Grade 1 Classroom

A Look At My New Grade 1 Classroom

My preparation though is different than it’s been in the past.

  • I’ve been talking online — through Twitter — with mainly Reggio-inspired Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers. My Grade 1’s will be coming out of a Full-Day Kindergarten Program that embraces many of the Reggio philosophies. I want to look at how to bring this programming up to Grade 1. I’ve been thinking and chatting about classroom design, program design, scheduling, inquiry approaches, and balancing curriculum and student interests.
  • I’ve been reading educational books on inquiry and technology that I think would be beneficial for classroom use. A Place For Wonder, Teaching the iStudentand Why Are All School Buses Always Yellow? have given me lots to consider. Now I have new ideas for provocations, questioning activities, and technology resources that could be beneficial in Grade 1.
  • I’ve been re-reading all of the curriculum documents. I’ve been thinking about how the expectations align. I’ve been considering what might interest Grade 1 students, and how their interests can parallel with the overall expectations. I’ve been looking at the student needs — at least the ones outlined on paper — and considering various entry points (to hopefully lead to increased success).
  • I’ve been learning more about the Pals and K-Pals Programones that the Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers have used in the past. I’ve been thinking about ways that I could use this program while still maintaining a large block of time for inquiry/comprehensive literacy. I struggle with scripted programs, but talking to my teaching partners, I hear that there are lots of benefits to this program for students. I’m hoping that I can have an inquiry/comprehensive literacy block, a math block, and a period for Pals and K-Pals. Science, Social Studies, and The Arts can be integrated with literacy and math. Depending on the schedule, this could work (fingers crossed). 
  • I’ve been talking in-person with various educators. Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to meet with the new Grade 1 team, and we discussed ways to link inquiry and oral language and start moving into some reading and writing possibilities. I also spoke to a Grade 2 teacher in Peel, Jonathan So, about The Daily 5. We talked about how to get started, the need for sustained reading and writing time, but also how to possibly use the format with some Wonder Centres: still allowing for the elements of choice, but also linking Language with Science and Social Studies.

Maybe I’m a little more prepared than I thought. Maybe preparation doesn’t need to mean long written plans and yearly schedules. Maybe we can prepare the most by reading, thinking, questioning, talking, and listening (in a continual loop). I guess that I’ll see how prepared I feel when I walk into the classroom to begin setting up on Monday morning. How do you prepare for a new school year? How do you balance scheduling restrictions, school desires, team thoughts, and student needs as you plan ahead? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


“Good” Is Not “Good Enough!”

The other day, I met with a teacher friend of mine to do some planning. We’re both teaching different grades this year, but she wanted to make changes to her program and was looking to brainstorm ideas together in order to do so. As we were working, she made the comment, “I don’t think that I’m a bad teacher, but I want to improve.” That got me thinking.

  • We may see ourselves as okay teachers.
  • We may see ourselves as good teachers.
  • We may see ourselves as great teachers.
  • We may see ourselves as excellent teachers.
  • We may see ourselves as outstanding teachers.
  • But should we not always be looking for ways to bump up our teaching practices to the next level?

As these thoughts were going through my head, I couldn’t help but think about my school experiences last year. I remember the months leading up to my TPA (Teacher Performance Appraisal) and my tremendous fear with being evaluated. I remember how terrified I was of the regular principal and vice principal walkthroughs. I remember my huge fear of feedback.

It wasn’t that I thought that I was going to fail my evaluation. It wasn’t that I thought that I was going to hear that I was a horrible teacher. But months later, I know what it was: it was my fear of hearing negative comments. What if my principal and vice principal didn’t like what I did? What if they thought that I could improve? And you know what? They did ask me questions. At different points during the year, they respectfully challenged some of my ideas, and they got me considering new ones. Both my principal, Paul, and vice principal, Kristi, provided me with many next steps all year long. And now, as the summertime quickly comes to an end, I can say to them what I probably never said enough of last year: thank you!

  • Thank you for showing me what I did well, but also showing me where to go next.
  • Thank you for letting me “fail,” but also giving me the confidence to consider a new approach.
  • Thank you for supporting me as I continued to try, and try again, all year long.
  • Thank you for probably making last year one of my biggest years of personal and professional growth!
  • Thank you for making me excited about the changes, and growth, that I can experience this year.

As educators, I think it’s great that we can believe in ourselves and our abilities. I think it’s great that we can recognize our strengths and know when we’re doing a “good job.” But I also think it’s great when we can recognize our weaknesses and look at ways to improve. I may always feel nervous about walkthroughs and evaluations, but I also know that good questions, great challenges, and thoughtful next steps will make me a better teacher — and I want that: for me and for my students! How do you handle feedback? How do you encourage it? How do you continually look at ways to improve your practices? I’d love to hear your thoughts!