Changing Plans

I’m always cautious about doing too much specific planning during the summer.  A long time ago, a seasoned teacher told me that you can make fabulous plans during the holidays, but then the wrong kids show up on the first day of school, and you have to start planning again from the beginning.

Even so, the students who showed up in my classroom this week have me rethinking how I will approach the first month of school, and possibly the whole year.  More than two-thirds of the students came into kindergarten without some of the basic skills I would generally expect, including being able to print their names, draw a person, and listen to a story.  They have lower levels of stamina than I’ve experienced with past classes.  Some students haven’t really experienced an adult authority figure in their lives, and are surprised that they need to follow the routines and structures of school.

We’ll be spending much of September learning to hold our pencils, write our names, and practice whole body listening.  I’ll set aside my favourite beginning of the year books in favour of books with less text, so that we can build stamina, and experience that story time is one of the most exciting and magical times of the day.  We’ll have far more movement breaks, and go outside more often.  We’ll practice writing and drawing not only in the classroom, but on the sidewalks, rocks, and walls of the school, with chalk and water.  We’ll keep working on getting into the habit of following routines, and celebrate the successes along the way.

I don’t think anything we’ll do in the next month will be Pinterest or blog worthy, but I guarantee one thing:  at some point this year, I’ll be able to look back at the phenomenal growth I’ll have had the privilege of watching.  And that will make it all worth it.


Today marks the 75th anniversary of the raid on Dieppe – the bloodiest day of battle for Canada in the Second World War. Sitting in the Saskatchewan Archives a couple weeks ago (acting as my daughter’s research assistant as she prepared for a project), I was surprised by two things. First, news of the battle was reported in the evening edition of the Regina Leader-Post on August 19. I tend to think that news didn’t travel so quickly in the past, but I suppose with the time difference between Europe and Regina, the technology at the time would have allowed for important news to be available quickly. The second surprise was the glowing reports of the raid. From the vantage point of 2017, headlines such as “Allied Victory Was Decisive” made me gasp. There was such pride that the South Saskatchewan Regiment, based out of Estevan, had been involved. It was heartbreaking to read through the papers through the end of August, as the slow realization of what had really happened became apparent. Casualty list after casualty list was published, as well as photos of local men lost. There were frequent articles reminding readers to stay positive.

Dieppe by the numbers:
4963 Canadians left on the mission.
916 were killed in action.
1950 (approximately) became prisoners of war.
2200 (approximately) – many wounded – made it back to England
5 am – time raid began
10:50 am – time Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat

We paid so heavily to fight Nazism the first time. Let’s make sure we don’t have to do it again.

“Talk to them like they’re people”

My oldest daughter is spending her third summer at the local pool, life guarding and teaching swimming lessons.  She has become quite enamored with an almost-four year old in one of her classes, and has stories about him almost every day.  A couple comments she made yesterday were a-ha moments for her, and I think they are good reminders to many adults.

My daughter was somewhat surprised by how developed the little guy’s personality and opinions were as a three year old. After telling a story about how he had reacted to a situation, she commented, “It’s really important to talk to them [kids] like they’re people, because they have a lot going on.”

That particular comment made me think about how often we discount students and what they’re thinking and feeling, because “they’re just kids”.  Think of all the decisions we make for our students – where they sit, how they work, who they work with, what they learn – without ever asking their input. And then we wonder why they don’t develop independence and critical thinking skills.

As I prepare for a new group of kindergarten students, I’m spending much of my time thinking about how to give them voice in their learning and life at school.   Inquiry activities related to their interests will be a focus, as will choice making during centres, and the choices they will make about what to add to their digital portfolios.

I’m also committed to advocating for students in the school in general – in the kinds of recess and other policies we establish for our students. How can we include them in any problem-solving that needs to happen?

For so long, education has been “doing” something to students.  We need to change our thinking and recognize that student input is essential.  We need to treat them “like people, because they have a lot going on.”  In most cases, they know what they need better than we do.  We just need to get better at listening.

Mashable cute girl child spinning GIF

A girl who knows what she likes!

Doing Something that Scares You . . . *

*Title and post inspired by the amazing Aviva Dunsiger.

You know how it goes:  your stomach is twisting, your shoulders feel tense, and that little voice inside your head is saying, “What the heck are you thinking!  You can’t do this!”

Trying something new or out of my comfort zone often brings these physical and emotional responses.  It’s so much easier to stick with what I know and maintain the status quo.  I wouldn’t say that I’m a born risk taker – quite the opposite.  I lean towards perfection, which sometimes paralyzes me from taking chances. As I said in this post though, I’m getting better at living in beta.  I know how much I’ve gained by taking leaps and looking into the eyes of risk in the past.

The biggest, scariest thing I did in the past year was go back to university.  After a brief conversation with a colleague I admire, I decided to sign up for inclusive education classes at the University of Regina.  I was feeling a little stuck with where I was, and was mourning the transfer of an administrator with whom I loved working.  The colleague’s advice was basically, “Why don’t you just do it?  What’s stopping you?” (To which I thought:  my fear, my anxiety, lack of time . . .).  And, I took the leap, signing up for an intensive class to be completed in the first two weeks of July.

As that first day of class rolled around, I had so many worries.  What if I didn’t know how to learn in that way anymore?  What if I looked ridiculous to all the pre-service teachers working towards their degrees?  What if I didn’t like it?  What if it was just a big waste of time and money?  Was it fair to be taking the precious time away from my family?  And on and on and on, the questions and fears swirled in my head and in my heart.

And then I got there.  The two weeks flew by.  The learning was exhilarating!  There were things I read about and discussed with others that I knew would make me a better teacher immediately.  I met a person who has become a close friend and valued sounding board.  Surprisingly, I felt powerful.  I wanted more, and couldn’t believe that I’d ever been scared.  This fall, I’ll complete my fifth class in 17 months, and will obtain my Special Education Educator Qualification.  And, I’m already wondering what I can do next.

There is so much value in taking that step into the unknown.  It helps us to grow personally and professionally, and it helps us develop empathy for others who are trying something scary, including our students.  Acknowledge your pounding heart, quiet your doubting mind, and take a giant step toward that thing that scares you. You won’t regret it.

Reflections from the Deck

This is the first morning I can sit on my deck and feel as though I have no particular education-related tasks that have to get done . . . 19 days after the last day of school.  I took an intensive summer class at the University of Regina for the first two weeks of summer, and just completed it yesterday.

We haven’t had rain for so long – it’s so dry!

This post could go a couple of ways.  I could say, “Look at how dedicated I am as a teacher, pursuing professional development opportunities during my vacation time!”  Or, I could talk about how meaningful I find the classes I’ve taken in the past year, and how they’ve made me a better teacher and a role model for my students.  I’m going to go with the latter.

I only have one more class to take to obtain the Special Education Educator Qualification I’m seeking.  That makes me happy for the accomplishment, but sad that it’ll be over.  I’ve found the classes both exhilarating and nourishing.  They’ve challenged me to look at what I do through the lens of research and best practices, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with interesting people from other schools and school divisions, as well as pre-service teachers.  Each time I leave a class, I walk away with greater confidence in my ideas and abilities.  Each one of them has made me feel more powerful as a person and an educator.

How do I transfer those intense feelings about learning to my students?  One of the easiest ways I found this past year was simply talking about it.  The grade 7/8s in particular were always somewhat surprised, but also fascinated, that I was still learning (I know, shocking at my age!!).  They’d ask me how things were going, what kinds of questions I was asking and finding answers to, and we had many discussions about what success looks like.  I hope that I provided good modeling for them – that we learn all our lives, that we are always striving to be better than we were before.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Albert Bandura developed his Social Learning Theory.  At its heart, it states that human behaviour is primarily learned by observing and modelling others.  My students need to see me as a model of what learning looks like, whether it’s talking about the books I read, the classes I take, or looking for answers to questions that come up in class.  As always, it’s what I do and the way I react to situations that have a great influence on the young people I work with.

It reminds me of the poem by Mary Rita Schilke Korzan, called “When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking”:

Thinking We Know More Than We Do

The April 10 episode of The Current on CBC radio included an interview with cognitive scientist Steve Sloman, the co-author of The Knowledge Illusion.  I had to stop what I was doing (washing dishes in my kitchen) and furiously scribble down snippets of what he said that really struck me.

Some of the fragments on my scrap of paper include:  “we use other people to think”, “in order to accomplish things, we work together”, “to do our best work, we have to rely on our communities”.  These thoughts stuck out to me – some of my best learning and teaching experiences have come about through collaboration, and I am so grateful when I find a colleague with whom I can “bounce ideas off”, until we come up with a big, beautiful plan.

I also see this kind of collaboration happening everyday in my kindergarten classroom.  During centres, the students constantly build from each other’s ideas, and they really do rely on their classroom community to do their best work.  It leads me to wonder why we don’t see – or encourage –  as much of this collaboration, this using “other people to think”, as students get older.

Another thing Sloman emphasized was that we need to admit our lack of knowledge and make use of the people around us.  Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person.  This also struck a chord – how often do I want to be the person who “knows”, and feel a pang of anxiety if I don’t and have to ask someone else for help?

Interestingly, this may be a widespread issue among teachers, this lack of ability to admit that we don’t know everything.  Years ago, when my brother was in the banking industry, he was receiving training in customer service.  The instructor commented that the most difficult customers were generally teachers.  The rationale was that teachers are used to being the smartest person in the room, as well as authority figures.  Teachers, the instructor continued, carry this attitude into other areas of life, and are  difficult to advise because they are less likely to accept the knowledge of people around them.

Sloman’s interview was a great reminder to me that it’s okay not to know everything, that I need to use the people around me for their knowledge, and that together we can do far better work than we can do individually.

Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person. by Terelyne Vadeboncoeur

Vimy 100

5:30 came and a great light lit the place, a light made up of innumerable flickering tongues, which appeared from the void and extended as far to the south as the eye could see, a light which rippled and lit the clouds in that moment of silence before the crash and thunder of the battle smote the senses. Then the Ridge in front was wreathed in flame as the shells burst, confining the Germans to their dugouts while our men advanced to the assault.

– Private Lewis Duncan to his aunt Sarah, April 17, 1917 (as found in Vimy by Pierre Burton)

Beginning yesterday, Canadians are commemorating the historic Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge.  Being able to take this patch of land – the best defended German position on the Western Front, where British and French armies had failed – was a huge accomplishment for the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.  In April 1917, it had been not quite 50 years since Confederation,  and Canadians have always seen this victory as a “coming of age” for our country.

And an expensive coming of age it was – 3 598 perished in four days of fighting, while another 7 000 were wounded.  With the Canadian population sitting at about eight million at the time, the losses in the battle were overwhelming.

Land still scarred from battle.

In a gesture of gratitude after the First World War, the French government gifted land that included Hill 145 to Canada.  The Canadian government, with architect Walter Allward, set about building a national memorial for the 11 285 Canadian soldiers lost in France who have no known grave.  This magnificent memorial has captured the imaginations of Canadians for almost a century, and many citizens consider seeing the Vimy memorial a “bucket list” item, or a pilgrimage experience.

How does Vimy fit into the classroom?  History and geography are obvious.  In the lead up to Remembrance Day in the fall, my students chose soldiers from Saskatchewan who were lost in the war, used primary sources to get to know them, and then wrote tributes about the men to share with our school community.  Our “Bring the Boys Home” project made men who’d been dead for 100 years very real for my group of 12 and 13 year old students.

We were also fortunate to be able borrow a “Giant Floor Map” from Canadian Geographic.  Being able to “walk” the Western Front, get an idea of the location of the well-known battle sites, and visualize the topography, contributed to a better understanding of the First World War.

Other than the obvious history and geography content, talk of Vimy is also a good jumping off point for conversations on topics that range from the meaning of sacrifice to the importance of relationships between people and countries.  My students and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we behave in everyday life, and about the leaders we choose, and how those actions can make a difference so that a tragedy of the magnitude of a world war never happens again.

We will remember them.

We will remember them by keeping the peace they gave their lives for.

We will remember them when we work together for the greater good.

We will remember them when we treat others with respect and caring.

We will remember them.

The Power of Talk

I teach kindergarten half-time.  Working with the youngest students in the school is busy, especially during centres time.  Although they develop so much independence over the school year, there are often things they still need help with, whether it’s holding a craft while they tape or staple, solving a conflict with a peer, or helping to clean up a spill.  Then there’s the time that’s needed for various assessments, whether it’s writing observations, direct questioning and testing, or helping students add to their digital portfolios.  This is where my ideal centres world and my lived centres world don’t always match.

But one day last week, my ideal centres world got to come out for a few minutes.  I had time to sit on the floor with four students and build with Kinex.  The time to talk with them about their learning was valuable – I got to hear their thinking about the building process and do a mini-lesson with counting, as well as have them clarify some of their statements.  But equally valuable was the social talking we did – about grandparents, an upcoming trip to Hawaii, and Easter.

Task-driven talk drives much of my time in the classroom.  It’s important to make as much time as possible for social talk that builds and extends relationships with my students.

Would He Want to Be Here?

I’m going back to a prompt from a couple of weeks ago . . .

Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?

I’m doubtful this is the right question to ask.  Of course I’d want to be a student in my own classroom . . . I plan learning activities and have discussions around topics that I’m interested in and passionate about.  I’m totally engaged and learning, and so are all the students who are similar in learning styles and interests to me.

My yardstick for my classroom is usually my son, and whether he’d want to be in my classroom.  He’s 15, and school has never been his favourite place.  He’s also not one of those kids who will sit quietly and endure something he’s not enjoying, which means that there’s also been quite a bit of conflict in his school life. And when we talk about it and he tells me why he feels frustrated and unfulfilled at school, I know he has a point.  The one-size-fits-all, sit-down-and-shut-up,  do-what-I-tell-you model that so many classrooms follow doesn’t work for kids like him, if it works for anyone at all.

My son would thrive in a classroom where he had some choice – a choice of where he sits, what he learns, the way in which he completes assignments, the order in which he completes activities.  He’d also be successful with a teacher who he feels cares about him. Because he’s so often “that kid”, there haven’t been many teachers in his life who have made the effort to get to know him – his interests or his fears.  Those who have developed a relationship with him have seen him blossom.

And that’s my question, always –  “Would he want to be here?”  If I can reply that I’m working on relationships with my students, that I’m giving them choice,  that I’m helping them follow their passions, I think I’m doing okay.  And from okay, I can work towards great.

There are few things as enlightening, and humbling,  for a teacher than having your own child struggle in the school system.  My son has been a great catalyst for me to become more innovative so I can better meet the needs of students like him.  I am so thankful to him for making me a better teacher.

What Surprised You?

I’ve been enjoying reading Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.  I participated in a book study of their earlier Notice and Note a couple of years ago and was excited to see them add this book to their canon.

One of the high-yield strategies that has entered my classroom because of the book is the question “What surprised you?”  These three simple words have proven to be intensely powerful in getting my grade 7/8 students to talk about reading we’ve done in social studies, or current events we’re discussing.  The question is a strong invitation for students to think about the topic, and leads to deeper thinking.  As Beers and Probst state, students should “expect the text to offer something surprising.”

As I’ve been using the question after reading nonfiction texts, my students are beginning to naturally ask themselves the question before I do.  I hope that this one question will help lead them to think more deeply about their reading, and to become questioners rather than consumers of the nonfiction in their lives.