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.



School vs. Learning

Can I just take a moment to say how much I love my grade 7/8 students?  I only have them for ELA and social studies, but I’ve taught them in some capacity for three years now, and they really do feel close to being my own.

Something I admire about this group is that, for the most part, they do learning, not school.  Our discussions and activities tend to be all about making connections, and are definitely random and non-linear much of the time.  We can start out talking about immigration, and suddenly be checking the Statistics Canada website for a definition for a rural community, referencing a map to figure out the potential routes for new pipelines in Canada (how’d we get there from immigration??), and then be checking the etymology of a word that’s come up in discussion.  Their favourite learning style always involves something social, and they aren’t afraid to challenge each other or me.

Sometimes I panic and think, “Oh no!  What about the curriculum?!”  The beauty is, when I go back and check the outcomes and indicators, we’re hitting them all, and more.  Not all days are like this, but when they are, I have happy and engaged students, and a happy and engaged teacher.

Learning for the win!

Living in Beta


With it being the middle of report card and parent/student/teacher interview time at school, I find myself behind in my #IMMOOC reflections.  A couple of nights ago when I listened to the second YouTube episode, Sarah, George, and Katie all commented on “living in beta”, and I think it was Katie who said something to the effect that if we didn’t work in beta, nothing would ever get done.  So here I am, trying to keep up to the #IMMOOC because I’m living in beta!


The line about living in beta resonated with me because I have to keep myself in check from leaning too far into the perfectionist camp, the camp that says, “I’ll try this once I’ve finished reading the book”, or “I can’t start that until I have a full plan in place.”  My natural inclination is to have my ducks in a row before moving forward, and to be “ready”.  I should know after all these years, that no matter how much work you do in education, there’s still more to be done, and the only time you can have the illusion of being “done” is June 30.

And so this week was a good reminder to jump right in and start working on something new, whether those ducks are wandering all over the yard or not.  We’re all working in beta, and I need to give myself permission that it’s okay to do that.


My Ideal School

I find it interesting that the whole “relationships are the most important thing in education” line of thinking plays itself out when I think about my ideal school.  The first thing that jumps into my mind isn’t the actual structure, the resources, or the curriculum.  Rather, it’s the people I would fill it with.

I’ve been fortunate to teach in many different schools in my career (across three provinces).  I am confident in saying that kids and parents are basically the same everywhere.  There is never enough money for resources to do the things you’d really like to do in education, no matter the government involved.  There is always assessment and curriculum to be questioned for the value it provides to students.  But everywhere, there are great people who are making everything work, no matter what the odds, and inspiring the rest of us as they do it.

My ideal school could be a broken down barn with few resources, but the people I’d populate it with would make it exceptional.  They would make it exceptional because of their passion, their knowledge, their ability to collaborate, their talent at making learning opportunities, sometimes seemingly out of nothing, and their intense desire to make school interesting, safe, and relevant for students.  These people have inspired me in my career because of their curiosity and commitment to their own continued growth and learning, their beliefs in hands-on and experiential learning, and their acknowledgement that most times, we have to go where students lead us.

My ideal school would have many other aspects to it.  There would be lots of messy learning.  Process would be more important than products, and our assessments would reflect that.  Coming from the angle of someone who teaches in both kindergarten and middle years, exploration and inquiry would be key at all ages.  Technology would be employed to connect to others, and share our work.  But the key would always be the passionate people filling the building.

My ideal school would be all about the people in it.  Everything else would be gravy.

I originally started this post during my the writing warm-up time in my grade 7/8 class, on March 2.  I gave them the same prompt as I started with, to choose to do if they wanted (“What would your ideal school look like?”).  The ideas were fabulous!  They were so thoughtful, and it was surprising how many of their ideas aligned with mine.   I might have to share some of them here sometime.


Staying on My Toes

I tried to exercise my brain and body last night as I listened in on the first session of The Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC) while working out on the treadmill.   My main takeaway was that I have to stay on my toes.  As soon as I start to feel as though I might finally “get” this teaching gig (after 14 years), someone like John Spencer comes and blows me out of the water.  The one thing I should try is design thinking?  Ugh, I don’t think I know anything about it!  Where do I start?  But that’s the nature of curiosity and innovation – someone or something planting the seed, and me taking off with it.  Maybe not in the direction they anticipated, but in the direction I need to go to meet the needs of my students and myself.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is transformational change.  That’s the buzzword in my province for what our government wants to do in the health, education, and social service sectors.  Most people cynically think it just means taking money and resources out of the system to help eliminate our ballooning deficit.  I want to keep George Couros’ quote in mind as we go through this difficult process – “Change is the opportunity to do something amazing!”  As we head into uncertain times, when we feel that we are having the rug pulled out from under us and are potentially losing co-workers to the process, that it’s going to be increasingly important to look for opportunities in the change.  We owe the positive attitude to ourselves and our students.

* Originally written on February 28, but not published until March 12.

Pandora’s Box

Why does evil exist in the world?

The question has haunted humans from the beginning, and people in all cultures and in all parts of the world have struggled to answer it.  The story of Pandora’s Box is one of the timeless narratives our grade 7/8 class read in the past month, and the students wrestled with the idea of evil, and hopeful solutions, as they filled their own Pandora’s boxes.

And the ideas they came up with were riveting!  Students took this assignment and ran with it, coming up with clever ways of representing the evils of the world as they see them, and supporting their opinions with data and background information.  Each student stated what they believed was the world’s greatest evil, and provided a solution for correcting it.  Best of all, the 7/8s represented a hope for the world that they included in their boxes.  As I always am with this group of students, I was impressed to see the depth of their thinking,  their commitment to finding out more, and their search for solutions.

Enjoy some samples of the 2017 version of Pandora’s Box:


30 Million Words

Recently, I caught part of an interview Nora Young did with Dr. Jill Gillkerson, on the CBC radio program Spark.  The interview was about a vest that children up to the age of three can wear that records and measures the types of conversations parents and young children are having throughout the day.  The data is then given to parents to motivate them to increase interactive talk with their babies and toddlers.  As Dr. Gilkerson pointed out in the interview, “Research has shown that talk in early childhood, in the window from zero to three, is the single most important factor that drives both brain development and kindergarten readiness.”

The interview related much of the same information that Dr. Dana Suskind wrote in her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain.  It seems that research is repeatedly showing that the best thing parents can do for their child’s future success is talk to him or her.  Personal evidence from spending my days with kindergarten students supports the thesis, and proves that the unequal exposure to spoken words is often a deficit that’s difficult to overcome.

So, how do we get the word out to the young parents who need to hear it?  The people most in need of the message probably aren’t listening to documentaries on CBC, or reading a lot of nonfiction.

I’ve long thought that, in my province, it would be valuable for the education and health ministries to work together more closely.  Very few parents miss their child’s regular immunizations.  Is there a way to incorporate having a teacher on hand, working alongside the nurse, so that when parents have to wait the 15 minutes following the immunization, some parent education around talk and reading can be taking place?  Can parents go home with their updated immunization records, and two or three new songs and games to play with their toddler?  Could a new or gently used children’s book be a “treat” for each child who gets their needles?

Or, should parent education about talking with your child begin much sooner?  Eighteen years ago, my husband and I dutifully attended prenatal classes, as most people do.  We learned quite a lot about what to expect with labour and delivery, but had no idea how to bathe our daughter when we got home (I know, it’s embarrassing how ill equipped two professional people were to care for a baby!!).  Should a little more education, including information about the importance of talking to your baby, be given during these prenatal classes, so that parents are as well-equipped to deal with the nurturing of babies after they go home as they are for the actual birth?

I haven’t met any parents who don’t want what’s best for their child.  We all need guidance and encouragement when we’re raising children.  Having more parent education about the importance of interactive talk with babies and toddlers is an important area we need to focus on in order to maximize brain development, and maximizing human potential.

The Best PD

As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been taking an ed psych class for the past month.  One of the unexpected positive consequences of it has been the collaborative problem-solving time I’ve had to spend with colleagues in my school.  As I’ve worked on collecting data and developing a functional behaviour assessment and positive behaviour support plan to help a student who is not in my classroom, I’ve had the privilege of observing the teachers who work with her on a daily basis.  I love seeing how different people approach situations and topics, the cues they give, their mannerisms, hearing their comments and explanations, and watching how the whole package they bring to teaching works.  I can’t express how much these short observations during the past three weeks have tweaked my own practice.

And then, as serendipity would have it, two stories about the value and power of teacher collaboration landed in my Twitter feed and mailbox for my Sunday reading pleasure.  In “Tapping Teachers’ Intrinsic Motivation to Develop School Improvements” , Katrina Schwartz describes how team coaching among triads of teachers in a former school region in Melbourne, Australia was a large part of improving teaching and student achievement in that region.  In A. J. Juliani’s blog post for today, he comments that “we know teachers learn best from other teachers”, and offers a creative solution he has come up with to keep making that happen, in spite of how difficult it often seems to carve out teacher collaboration time.

Sharing and collaborating with colleagues is powerful professional development.  And so I have questions for myself:  How do I encourage it in my building?  Do I make my classroom open and welcoming for colleagues to drop in?  Am I able to accept coaching without taking it personally?  Am I willing to give coaching in a way that the other person will hear the spirit of it?  Can I be that leader, that change-maker?

I’ll try.