Monday, December 17, 2018

Where's the Line?

Been thinking about video games during free-time at my school. My students and I had a lengthy chat about this on Friday. It's hard to know where to "draw the line" when it comes to games in school, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. However, I will always err on the side of giving students the opportunity to show that they can make responsible decisions. 

Here is the body of an email I sent to my grade 8 teaching partners and my principal in regards to this question.

I had a long chat with my grade 8s on Friday about choosing appropriate games to play on school computers. I asked for the titles of some of the games they are playing currently, so that I could check them out. They all agreed that there are definitely some games that are more inappropriate for school than others. That being said, most video games have some element of confrontation inherent in the genre. If you think of games in the past like Pacman or Mario, video games are often about "killing" in some way. 

The three titles that we talked about specifically on Friday were Krunker (what is called a "first person shooter"), Rooftop Sniper, and Tank Trouble (both of which are 2D games). The first is a definite NO, in my opinion (and in the opinion of my students) It is 3D, graphic, semi-realistic, and involves stalking other players in order to shoot them. The others, while they do involve shooting, are not at all realistic. Rooftop Sniper involves repeatedly pressing one or two buttons in order to force your opponent off a roof, while Tank Trouble is about aiming where your shot ricochets in order to hit your opponent within a 2D maze.

I worry that if we try to police any game where there is some element of confrontation, we would be better to simply ban the use of school computers for games of any sort (which is not something I recommend). My students were very quick to admit that Krunker was not the right choice for an in-school game, but were honestly not clear as to why the others caused a problem (and I tend to agree with them). I don't think we can legitimately claim that a game like Tank Trouble is in the same category as Fortnite or Krunker. Thinking about cultural responsiveness, and as a player of video games myself, I think it is important that we validate and affirm students' interests in gaming, and then build and bridge to help them make appropriate choices in school. Obviously, if the games they are playing are causing serious real-world conflicts between students, those games would be better not played in school, regardless of their themes.

I've asked my students to hold off on playing games that they have already been asked to avoid, or that they know others have been asked to avoid, until such time as the grade 8 teachers can chat about this. I also let them know that if they think a game might be inappropriate, the better choice would be not to play it at school. Additionally, we talked about the fact that it becomes more of a discipline issue if they have already been asked to stop playing a game but choose to continue playing anyway.

I'd love to have a chance to chat about this with you all; I think we have an opportunity to do some teaching around digital citizenship, and appropriate decision-making, rather than clamping down on video games altogether.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Not All of Them, Not All of the Time, but Enough

In 2011, Xara Choral Theatre was approached by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a piece of choral theatre for the Halifax event. I was fortunate to be part of Xara Choral Theatre's commissioned adaptation of the book Fatty Legs. The book tells the story of one Inuit girl's experiences at Residential School in Aklavik. For that first performance in front of 500 survivors, we were honoured to have Olemaun, the Inuit girl of the book, and her daughter-in-law Christy join us as our narrators.

I felt great shame and anger in 2011. It was the first I had ever heard of the Indian Residential Schools in Canada, and I felt that my education system had failed me epically. At the time, I had already been a middle school teacher for 7 years, and the feeling that I had been failing to educate my students about the realities of Indigenous experiences in Canada was upsetting. Every year since then, I have made it a priority to read Fatty Legs with my students, and to spend time discussing the legacy of residential schools beyond that one story.

We have remounted our choral theatre production of Fatty Legs three times since 2011, once for a tour of schools in the Maritimes, and twice for school shows in Ontario. My students have been overwhelmingly supportive of the time I need to take away from my classroom in order to bring this story to other children.

This year, following my two weeks away on tour, we were fortunate enough to be able to organize a Google Hangout with Olemaun and Christy. My grade 8 students took time in advance to prepare questions, and to organize the classroom in a way that would look and feel welcoming over a video chat (we went through several iterations of this, using the projector to gauge how we would look to a viewer - they wanted to avoid looking "intimidating, like we're ganging up on them.")

My students blew me away with their insightful questions, the intentness with which they listened, and their respect for Olemaun's lived experiences. They were kind, they prefaced their questions with some of the reasons why they were asking, they asked follow-up questions that showed they were really listening and reflecting during the conversation. Not all of them, not all of the time, but enough that the flow of the dialogue was natural and did not feel like an interrogation.

Forty-five minutes is barely enough time to scratch the surface of the legacy of residential schools, nor is it adequate for students who are speaking with an elder from a First Nations community (most of them for the first time). Afterwards, I asked students to reflect in writing on what had resonated the most with them in the conversation, and if they had any further questions that had come out of hearing the perspectives offered by Olemaun and Christy.

Below are some of the highlights. Some students chose not to respond to the writing prompt (this is always their right during our writing periods), but many did, and what they had to say revealed significant understanding and reflection.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Morning Circle & Affirmations

Related image

I am trying something new this year. That phrase, as my students would attest, is a common refrain from me! Most of them are happy to come along for the ride with me, although some remain resistant to anything that feels a little bit out of the ordinary. Hoping to encourage them to take those positive risks by the end of the year.

We start every morning in my class with a sharing circle. Students are encouraged, but not required, to share a "grimace" and a "sourire" (something that is bothering them, and something that is making them happy). Most students share at least a little bit each day, but there are those who have yet to take the risk. I am excited for the day that those few students feel safe enough to share something in the morning circle. This "frowns and smiles" approach was inspired by Monte Syrie's excellent blog, Project 180. If you are looking for another education blog to follow, that would be my top recommendation.

At the end of morning circle, we speak our affirmations :
Nous sommes des membres importants de cette communauté.
Nous sommes écrivains.
Nous sommes lecteurs.
Nous sommes mathématiciens.
Nous sommes formidables.

Many students join in on speaking these aloud together, while others choose to listen (and, I hope, speak them in their minds!) We have acknowledged that this might feel slightly "fromageux" (cheesy, in other words), and that positive self-talk takes practice.

I hope that some of those affirmations take hold in their brains. Just as they practice dribbling the basketball, adding fractions, and speaking French, I want positive self-talk to become habit for my students.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Voluntary Homework

This year, I've started a new weekly routine in my English Language Arts classes. I call it "Would You Rather Wednesday", and my students are very invested in it. It often comes up as something they're looking forward to in our morning circle on Wednesdays, and the conversation frequently extends past the end of our scheduled class time. It's quite a simple activity, but so far it has paid enormous dividends. 

I choose a "would you rather" statement, then we sit in a large circle and talk about it. It's that simple. So far this year we've discussed the merits of traveling in time to visit distant ancestors vs future descendants, having a pause or a rewind button on life, being bored contrasted with being too busy, and preferred position in sibling order (oldest or youngest). The last two have prompted the voluntary homework after which this post is titled.

During our conversation last week about boredom vs being over scheduled, one of my students said the magic words... "Well, research shows that being bored can actually increase your creativity." To which statement another student responded, "There's research that shows that there are benefits to being busy." Ding ding ding! Voluntary homework was born. I told both of them that they couldn't just throw statements about research around without following up with documentation to support their claims. Each of them was tasked with finding one article to support their argument. This was completely voluntary. There would be no effect on their grade in my class, and there would be no penalty for not completing the task. By 7pm that night, one of the students had already provided me with an excerpt and a link to a full article about the benefits of boredom. I shared it with the class the next day, and awarded the student 500 XP in our Classcraft game.

This week, our question seemed fairly mundane : "Would you rather be the oldest or the youngest sibling?" The conversation went as might be expected in a grade 8 classroom with some students expressing dissatisfaction with their place in the pecking order of their family and wishing for a change, while others were content to uphold the status quo as they felt the privilege of being oldest/youngest/middlest. And then, in an attempt to keep the conversation going, a student asked about being a twin. Or a triplet. Or a... dectuplet? A whole basketball team made up of identical "me"s! That's when the magic words were uttered. "Has a woman ever had ten babies at once?" "Voluntary homework!" I exclaimed. She reached into her pencil case, pulled out a Post-It note, and proceeded to write herself a reminder while everyone looked on. Six more hands flew into the air, and each question began with the words, "I'm pretty sure I'm going to get voluntary homework for asking this, but I really want to know..." In all, seven students were "assigned" voluntary research homework on a range of topics involving twins, birth weight, rates of conjoined births, births of boys vs girls. By evening, I had 5 emails with various documents attached, and I created a post on our Google Classroom to share the results of the voluntary homework done by those students who took the time to complete it. One of my students has even coined a phrase for this action : Searchez uup! (We are a French Immersion class, and we looooove franglais)

A few of the students who received voluntary homework haven't done it, but the percentage of those who are choosing to research something on their own time and then report back to the class is very gratifying. They are seeing a connection between the classroom and their interests, and taking ownership of their learning. I foresee some very strong Passion Projects later this year.

Next steps, I will do some explicit teaching on how to find scholarly articles to support claims, and how to effectively search using keywords. Creating a culture of excitement around research seems like a great way to encourage lifelong learning. Searchez uup, tout le monde!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Professional Goal Setting

Setting goals is something we ask our student to do all the time. In fact, right now my grade 7 students are working on crafting a short-term goal for themselves. We have talked about what an appropriate goal looks like: it has to be attainable through efforts by the goal-setter, it has to be personally important or motivating, it has to include a clear action plan, and there have to be ways of measuring progress towards the goal.

Something I have been saying to my students since Day 1 this year is, "I don't ask you to do anything I wouldn't do myself." Each year, I am asked by my administration to set a goal for professional growth. Each year, I do so. I write up a goal, an action plan, and make a list of possible supports. And then I hand it in to my principal. During class visits, my goal might come up. And I might revisit it on my own from time to time. But I haven't ever shared my professional goal with my students, the parents of my students, or the broader world of education.

I am working hard to embrace a culture of openness and personal accountability within my classroom, and it's time for me to more explicitly practice what I teach.

So. My two goals for professional growth this year are :

1. To use blogging as a self-reflective strategy, and to have my students do the same. I have always used this blog as a tool for reflecting on my own practice, but my action plan is to blog at a reasonable interval (to be determined), and to be more deliberate about seeking out feedback (both on my blog posts and on my teaching)

2. To improve on my record-keeping for conversations. I am required to report on students' speaking and listening skills, and I would like to base this reporting on informal conversations in addition to formal presentations. This will require me to develop some strategies for keeping track of my observations.

I am sure that these goals will grow and change as the year progresses. I am excited to share them publicly, and to hold myself accountable for keeping them at the forefront of my mind.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Open Classroom

As a new teacher, the most challenging thing was setting up for the beginning of the school year. How should the furniture be arranged? Was it important to have beautiful bulletin boards? And, most intimidating of all, what kind of routines needed to be established from Day 1? Ok, there were many other challenges, but starting the year off on the right foot is very important. This year, I was asked to share my thoughts on those questions in the form of an Open House for teachers. Here are the highlights of that presentation.

Physical Space

My "deconstructed" classroom 

First off, the physical space. This year, I am turning over the disposition of furniture to my students. Before school ended in June, they worked on a project detailing their ideal classroom, and in September they will have an opportunity to put their ideas into action. Therefore, my classroom is in a deconstructed state at the moment in order to give ownership of the physical space to my students from Day 1. In addition to that, I am exploring options for flexible seating. At the moment, we have some interlocking foam mats, a couple of exercise balls, a bench and a stationary bicycle, along with standard desks and chairs. My students have big plans for more options though! 

My self serve stations have all the things a student might need - paper, pencils, pens, rules, scissors, glue... For those of you wondering if this takes the onus off students to bring their supplies to class, I give you this poem that has been making the rounds :


Classroom routines
I always start the year by establishing certain routines that help things run smoothly. Over the years, these have evolved, but the driving force behind them remains the same : responsibility and autonomy. I am taking a proactive approach to incomplete work with my students this year. Rather than having them submit a page on the day something is due, these pages are meant to be used as a "heads up" from students that they may not have their work in on time. My hope is that this will help them to plan ahead, and to take responsibility for communicating with me prior to the due date. I have always encouraged students to do this, but I'd like to take a more formal approach this year. 

I have a hanging file at the back of my room where work is placed for students who are absent. It is their responsibility to check that file when they return. One of my classroom jobs is the Secretary, who is in charge of collecting any handouts and placing them in the folder with students' names on them.

My students engage in Sacred Writing Time at the beginning of each Language Arts period. They know to pick up their journal and begin writing immediately, no need for instructions. If you are a Language Arts teacher, I highly recommend you check out Corbett Harrison's resources!

I'm done! What do I do now?
Every day in my class, we start with a sharing circle. We pass around a small, smooth stone into which is etched the word Courage. Students talk about events going on in their lives, or how they are feeling, or simply share a "Good Morning" with one another. I find this practice centres us for the day, and gives me a quick check-in with every student. Sometimes, just their posture in the circle lets me know if they need some one-on-one attention.

When students complete work, there are many things they can do. I have a large selection of brain games to choose from (all of which can be played individually), as well as challenge cards. If students want to check in with me, they take a conference number and wait to be called (this allows them to continue working on something, rather than standing at my desk waiting their turn). I use a variety of physical brain breaks with students as well. 

Blogs, Twitter, and Tech Tools

I follow a lot of education blogs, as well as many Twitter users. Here is a small sampling of my current favourites :



Tech Tools

Sunday, August 5, 2018


I've been thinking a lot this summer about how much of teaching is relationship building. Knowing our students, understanding them as people, as learners, as individuals is so important. If they don't feel that we are interested in them, that we respect them, why would they believe they have anything to learn from us?

I'm working on some plans for classroom design, flexible seating, more inquiry based learning, passion projects... and what it keeps coming down to for me is having a relationship with my students that is built on trust and care.

Inspired by a tweet from Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd), I wrote my students a back to school letter that I will print and send to their homes the week before school starts. Although I taught most of the students who will be in my grade 8 class last year, we spent a very limited amount of time together. And after almost three months apart, I want to make sure they hear the message from me that they are important people, and that who they are matters.

Here is a copy of my letter, please feel free to copy/adapt any part of it if you plan on doing a similar thing. I used Bitmoji to create the image at the bottom (it looks more or less like me!), and the Magic Rainbow Unicorns add on for Google Docs to create the rainbow effect of the text.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Designing the Ideal Classroom

An idea that I have been toying with for a few years now is getting my students involved in designing the physical classroom space in which they spend so many of their daytime hours. It always seems like an insurmountable task during the beginning year, when we are working on developing routines, and then midway through the year has never felt like the "right" time to start something of this nature. The end of the year feels much more feasible, but then the students who are doing the design never get to benefit from the changes because they will have moved on to a new school the following September.

A sudden brainwave hit me this year though, and I have decided to embark on this project with my grade 7 ELA students. Being a French Immersion teacher in my school means that I teach a group of students in one subject during their grade 7 year, and then those same students become my homeroom class the following year. Sometimes I find that the grade 7 class is not quite ready for the organized chaos I employ with my homeroom class, but I decided to take the plunge this year and see what happens.

Inspired by the materials from this product by Rainbow City Learning on Teachers Pay Teachers, I created a workbook as well as an instructional website for my students. I introduced the project, and students have had just over two hours to work on their designs.

Their first reaction, when I told them I had been thinking of doing this and that they would be my guinea pigs was, "Wow! We're the first to do this? We're special!" Exactly what I was hoping!

Before the end of classes this year, I had each group or individual come and "pitch" one or two of what they considered to be their best ideas to me. These ranged from how to set up the desk (two lines down the middle, groups of 4 etc) to alternative seating options (bean bag chairs!) to a class pet (iguana, anyone?) to repainting the walls & installing a display case.

I've made it clear to the students that not all of their ideas will come to fruition right away (or maybe at all), but that we will work together as a class to make some of these changes. I am envisioning some work when we return in September on writing professional letters, writing grant proposals, and creating video pitches to submit to our administrator and the school board. So far, students have been highly engaged and I am hopeful that this will carry over into the start of the school year. I am also hopeful that they will have success in achieving some of their goals with this, so that it doesn't become discouraging for them. This will be an ongoing activity over the course of the year, and I want the momentum to continue!

Empowerment of students is so essential, if they are to learn to think creatively and critically, and if we want them to see themselves as agents of change in the world. For me, this is not a theoretical classroom design activity, the students and I will be actively designing the learning space for themselves next year. Student input needs to be valued and meaningful, rather than purely academic. I am excited for September!

Friday, April 27, 2018

Passion Projects 2018 - Year Two is Underway!

Last year, I introduced Passion Projects to my grade 8 students, and it was a huge success overall. Students were engaged in learning something they found personally motivating, organizing their time, reflecting on their progress, and problem solving throughout the whole process.

This year, I am excited to relaunch this project with a new group of students. We are on week 4, and there are some projects that I am really excited to follow. While there are some very strong plans in place, several students are definitely just "going through the motions" rather than really investing their time in something that they find personally rewarding. I am struggling with how to help them realize that their individual interests are valid and deserving of attention.

It's so sad to me that there are students who can't even identify something that makes them feel passionately - or if they have an idea, it is sad that they don't believe that it will be an acceptable one for this project. What is happening that students don't believe their interests and passions are valid? And how can we as teachers address this issue? It's not enough to give them artificial choices within the classroom, we have to help them to invest in learning in ways that will be sustainable outside of the school environment.

Every week, the day before we work on Passion Projects at school, students fill out a check-in page so that I have a sense of who will need support to move forward. Yesterday, four of these pages stood out to me.

This student got a "yellow light" last week because their peers did not think they had a solid enough plan. I'm glad to hear that he feels back on track this week! 

This student arrived this morning and told me they were unhappy with their previous choice of project (learning to play bass guitar) because it had become more of a chore rather than something they really enjoyed. They came prepared with a new plan, and seem very excited!

This student, in contrast to the one above, is stuck on choosing a new project. They have not come up with a new idea on their own, and they are one of the students I was referring to earlier who seems unable to articulate something they are passionate about.

This student received a "yellow light" from their peers last week and has really turned it around. They have come with an idea and a new sense of purpose after a conference with me last week.

I think I made a mistake this year during the roll-out of Passion Projects. Because I had already done a project last year, I had more materials to share with students than I did in Year 1. My project last year was to work at learning Spanish, and I shared that project with my students this year. I now have 4 students (out of 19) who are learning a language as their Passion Project. I'm not certain that it is because I presented them with my project from last year, but I am concerned that I may have inadvertently swayed them in a direction they might not otherwise have take. This is something that I need to consider for next year when I introduce the project again.

Random other thoughts :
We are currently undergoing a curriculum realignment for middle school that will be piloted next year in several schools in Nova Scotia. From what I'm hearing, one of the major components of the realignment is to integrate more project-based learning. Depending on the supports that are put in place, I think this could be a good direction for middle school education, and this model lines up well with what I have been doing in my classroom for years.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Modeling Mathematics With Flipgrid

One of the difficult parts of teaching the grade 8 math curriculum is the requirement for students to show their understanding of certain outcomes "concretely, pictorially, and symbolically." I am not arguing against the benefits of modeling mathematical concepts with concrete materials or manipulatives - however, trying to assess whether they can do so while simultaneously ensuring that the rest of the class is on track can be a challenge.

Today, my grade 8 students used Flipgrid to record a video showing that they could model their solution to an algebraic equation using manipulatives called Alge-Tiles. These are tiles that represent variables and whole numbers, and can be used to show why it is necessary to perform the same operation on both sides of an equation in order to arrive at the correct solution.

The Flipgrid website & app allow teachers to post a prompt, and for students to record a video response to the prompt. Students do not need an account - the teacher can either send them a link, or post a QR code that will take them directly to the prompt. It is extremely user-friendly, and free (with limited features - so far, these have been enough for my purposes) I created two video prompts (2x + 4 = 10 &  3x - 1 = 5) for students in which I modeled the use of Alge-Tiles. I wanted to make sure that students could review the steps, listen to the mathematical language, and access the example more than once. I have found this to be a valuable way of ensuring that all students hear the message as many times as they need to.

Students worked with a partner to practice modeling equations, and then when they were ready they chose one each to model in video form. Using iPads made it easy for students to scan the QR code and begin recording right away. And now that they have submitted their videos, I can assess them outside of class time - which means I can be more available to the class as a whole. I'm always excited when technology makes my teaching more manageable, and this particular app has a lot of potential to do just that.

Examples of student videos. This week, we worked on two-step equations with addition. Next week, I will have students create videos involving subtraction :

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Seussville in MinecraftEDU

Over the past few years, I have been using MinecraftEDU in my classroom (see Recreating a Painting in Minecraft). This is a discontinued mod of Minecraft 1.7.10, which has since been replaced with Microsoft's Minecraft Education Edition. As a subscription-based service is not currently viable for my school, I continue to use the version I purchased several years ago.

One of the projects that I have consistently done with my students is to have them work in small groups to create settings from a Dr Seuss book of their choice. This year, we took it a step further, and students recorded videos of their creations to share with their parents and peers.

We used Screencast-O-Matic to capture the video, and then iMovie to record the narration. This worked well for my students, as they were able to use iPads to record narration and edit it together with the visual component. Allowing students to find a quiet space to record their voices streamlined the process, as everyone was able to record on the same day without the scheduling nightmare of sending one group at a time to a computer lab. By design, I ensured that each group of students had a relatively tech-savvy member, and most technology-related challenges were solved by students without too much intervention from me. This freed me up to work with a couple of groups who had fallen behind in the recording process.

I love the effort students put into their Minecraft creations, and into planning and recording their videos. Some groups struggled with what to say, while others were trying to cram as much information into their videos as possible!

Enjoy the final products below :

Green Eggs and Ham

The Sneetches

Oh The Places You'll Go!

The Lorax

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The results of the students efforts have inspired me to develop a project for next year in which students will write stories, then create the visuals for their stories in MinecraftEDU and record videos to share. Until this year, I wasn't certain which programs would be best suited to this kind of endeavour, so I am pleased to have done a smaller scale version of what I hope will be a longer-term project next year!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Literary Projects

Students in my 8th grade French Immersion class know that they are expected to be reading at all times, in French, at a level that is appropriate to them. We call this their "toujours devoirs" (always homework). They do not fill out reading logs, they do not write book reports, they do not have to read a certain amount per day, per week, or per month.

However, every five or six weeks, they are given approximately 5 hours of class time (over five days) to create a project based on one of the books they have recently read. There are only two main requirements that I provide to students for these projects : their project must in some way encourage others to read the book, and they cannot choose the same project they have previously completed (e.g. if they have done a painting as a literary project already this year, they cannot do another painting) The learning curve on what constitutes five hours of quality work is generally steep, but I find that my students appreciate the fact that I allow them to budget their own time and encourage them to do their best possible work. Most of the time, students impress me (and each other!) with their projects.

This is our third literary project of the school year, which means that students have already done two projects. I find that the third and fourth projects are generally ones where students are thinking outside of the box. Earlier in the year, they tend to choose the project types with which they are the most comfortable. By February, they have grown accustomed to my requests that they think creatively, try new things, take risks, and persevere.

Here are some things that my students are creating for their literary project today :

Two paintings, one representing the personalities of the characters in the book, the other showing an important object from a different book. 

At the top : a menu for a theme restaurant inspired by Le Petit Prince
On the bottom : a crayon drawing

The beginnings of a board game
A watercolour background is shaping up for this student's project

This student is creating a riddle-based scavenger hunt for the class to complete.

Another board game is shaping up nicely. This student required some encouragement to create something a little more "professional" looking - sometimes grade 8 students suffer from "good-enough-itis" ;-)

A website in progress