Monday, July 28, 2014

Different Kids, Different Approach

I was originally going to title this blog post "Best Changes" but I realized that the alterations I made in my summer school program for 2014 may not necessarily be better or worse, but seemed better suited for the particular group of students I had this year.

This was my second year teaching Grade 3 for summer school in July at Lucy Maud Montgomery Public School and both experiences were absolutely wonderful. Although the units were different (Solar Power vs Minecraft) and the subjects were different (Literacy and Numeracy vs STEM), there were certain techniques, routines, or teaching practices that I used both times, and there were other approaches that I attempted for the first time this year. Before I forget, I wanted to reflect on some of the new tricks I tried that I really liked (such as the "early intervention letter" that I wrote about two weeks ago).

1) The Build Zone

I gave certain areas of my room "zone" designations and this was the most popular one. Huge credit has to go to Mythili Thedchanamoorthy for giving me the resources necessary to make this a thriving exploration station. She lent me tons of link cubes and, even more exciting, she gave me dozens and dozens of different sizes of cardboard cubes. I didn't tell the children what to make in the build zone - this was their chance to experiment. This was fantastic because my students made all sorts of interesting artifacts with these materials and I was able to use it as a springboard for discussions in science and in math. It was also the obvious place for students to assemble if they had completed all of the mandatory assignments for the day. I hesitate to use the word "free time", because technically this was still part of their curriculum expectations, but they were the architects in charge and I piggy-backed on their creations and ideas. The area really demonstrated how beneficial it was when I had to leave the classroom for an extended period one day to deal with an issue. The supervising teacher reported that when the students had technical difficulties (because I forgot to plug in the netbooks overnight) and/or finished their work ahead of schedule, they immediately knew what to do - they gravitated to the Build Zone.

2) Collaboration Matrix

I've used this in other classes I've taught in the past, but this chart seemed to be a useful tool for this recent batch of students, who had a tendency (as we all do) to work with the same partners every time we have the chance to work with someone else. It made my reporting process very clear, open, and accountable. I told the students that part of the way I would determine the collaboration section of their report card would be to look at the matrix to see how many different people they chose to work with, and then think about *how* they worked with that person. The students were mostly responsible for recording their partnerships, except for Friday, July 18, when I took some class time to double-check the documentation. Their restlessness showed to me how rarely I spent in whole-group situations in which I was the only one talking. This tweet referred to the 20 minutes it took me to confirm that the information recorded for each student was correct.

3) Student-Controlled Bulletin Boards

Last year and this year, I paid a lot of attention to the class and hall environment. I designated one of the boards to the students to decorate, and it became a much more fluid and vibrant space (the first photo is from the 4th day of summer school and the second is from the 12th day). It led us to talk about strong, stable structures (because we had to figure out how to display items that were particularly heavy and/or large). They also felt comfortable taking down and putting up items of their choice.

Next week, I'll share some more photos of the amazing summer school experience my students and I shared.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Spending Time in Summer School

I've been thinking about ratios recently, and not because that's one of my math units. During summer school, I teach for three hours a day, from 9-12. I asked my husband and mother-in-law for their estimates on how long I spend marking and planning in the afternoons and evenings, and I couldn't get a standard answer. (One person said 2 hours, another said 4.) It depends on whether or not I have a task ahead that needs a lot of preparation, but I think it's safe to say that, recently, especially with summer school report card time approaching, I've spent more time planning and assessing than I have actually in the classroom with the students.

Is that normal? I Googled the topic and I didn't find any definitive answers. This blog mentions a Chinese school in which the instructor teaches for 90 minutes and plans and marks for the rest of the 9 hour day. This news article from England suggests that staggering amounts of time is needed for evaluating and getting ready for the next set of lessons. In the 2013 article, their teachers' union recommended:
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) passed a motion on Tuesday demanding a new working week of 20 hours' teaching time, up to 10 hours of lesson preparation and marking, and five hours of other duties, including time spent inputting data and at parents' evenings.
I don't think that this kind of change will occur. In a Canadian study I found online, on page 12 the researchers determined that 25 hours a week was spent on instructional time and 18 hours were spent on work-related tasks like meetings, assessment, and planning outside of the instructional day.

During summer school, it feels less onerous to put in those hours to craft the best sequence for the day or the perfectly-worded math problem of the day. I think I get this impression because of the different format for summer school (smaller class, more autonomy in lesson development, no clubs or teams, less subjects). I also realize that I may be actually doing things that increase my time spent that isn't completely necessary or required. For instance, I spent several hours on the weekend making these reflection pages in the students' notebooks.

Now, I could have simply whipped up a professional-looking worksheet on my computer and distributed it. Instead of placing dots on my evaluation chart that I'll be pasting into the last page of each notebook, to designate which grades were for science, math, technology, or a combination of both, I could have created a spreadsheet in Google Drive and with a click of the mouse, I could have coloured them easily. Why am I making work harder for myself? At the risk of using the rest of this post to justify my Luddite behaviour, I want to offer a few reasons why I like taking this extra time and effort to write and draw and comment in notebooks.

  1. Notebooks don't get lost like loose-leaf sheets. I don't allow the students to take home their summer school notebooks until the last day. I collect the books daily and I find that it's easier to keep track of the work when it's all in one place. Students need help with organization and keeping things together in one place where the risk of things falling out are minimal helps a lot.
  2. Putting effort into their notebook shows I value what's in there. I love watching my students flip through their notebooks as soon as they enter the classroom, to see what comments I've made on their work, what grades they earned, and what new items have appeared between the pages. They pay attention more to something I've written by hand than typed and pasted in.
  3. There's something appealing about making it by hand. Each notebook feels like a mini-scrapbook, a tiny time capsule of what the student learned for that month we had together. In fact, my site coach hopes that at least one student will choose not to take home his/her notebook so that she can keep it for her files. I know I referred to one of the student notebooks from last year to see what worked, what didn't and how I could design pages better to help elicit deeper thinking and higher-quality work from the students. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Take Time to Learn at LMMSS3

I love summer school! I enjoy what we study. I enjoy the students. I enjoy improving my own teaching practice. I tried something out this past week that went really well and that I really need to remember to use during the regular school year.

My recent actions were inspired by a less-than-ideal note that my own son received from one of his teachers a few months ago. I won't re-post the letter, although it does make me wonder if the principal saw it or proofread it before the teacher sent it out. The overall tone of the communication was irritation, frustration, and anger. It seems like the class had fared quite poorly on a social studies test and the teacher went on at length about how thoroughly she had prepared them and the students had not done their part and that they better study for the re-test. Reading the note left a bad taste in my mouth, because it sounded more like a rant and a blame-fest than anything productive.

Fast-forward to July 2014. A couple of my students in my Grade 3 summer school class had blank pages where work was supposed to be, and I was stymied. Why wasn't their work done? What was going on? I had time to think about the situation a bit - one of the benefits of a half-day program - and I decided to write the students themselves a note. This is what it said:

July 10, 2014
I feel concerned. As you know, I check everyone’s work daily and I noticed that you did not do:
1.      The journal entry from July 3-4, 2014
2.      The journal entry from July 7-8, 2014
3.      The house-building plans that were due July 9, 2014
I like you and I want you to be successful. These are the strategies I have used to help keep you organized and responsible for completing your work.
·         “To Do” lists posted on the SMART Board and blackboard
·         A description of “what counts as finished” for design plans and journals
·         Extra time after recess once the required Minecraft time is done
·         Verbal reminders to stay on task (e.g. don’t go to the build zone until you are finished your other jobs)
Unfortunately, these strategies do not seem to be working. To change things for the better, I need your help. Please think of at least two new ideas that will help you complete your work on time. Write them below. Then, take this sheet to the office so that our summer school principal (Mr. YYY or Ms. ZZZ) will give their expert opinion on our revised plan.
Yours truly,

Mrs. Maliszewski (a.k.a. “Ms. Mali”)

The differences between this letter and the one my son received from his social studies teacher were intentional.

  • My tone was meant to be curious instead of angry, positive instead of negative
  • Both student and teacher can change and improve, not just the student
  • Involving the principal was not a punitive gesture but one for growth and assistance
I am so glad that I wrote the notes and spoke to the individuals privately. It turned out that one of the students has a special education designation that I was not aware of, and the student was struggling with the volume of work that I was requiring. The obvious solution was for me to reduce the amount of assignments she had to complete and the amount needed in each assignment, as well as provide some peer and teacher support while she completed her tasks. Here's the remarkable part. After this encouraging three-way conversation that included the principal, this student went on to finish three separate, previously-incomplete jobs in a single day! It was a delight to send her back down to the office to effusively praise her dedication. 

I read another education blog post about the hardest part of teaching being "not enough" time or resources, and even in summer school, it's still true. However, with shortened class time and less expectations for summer school, occasionally I can take the time to learn how to do things better, how to intervene a little quicker than usual, how to phrase things better so that positive changes can occur, how to make school pleasant and educational. I'm not where I want to be yet, but it's the irony that I may never reach there - just keep trying and taking time to learn. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Returning to Cookie Land and Summer School

This past week marked my return to two activities: teaching summer school at Lucy Maud Montgomery Public School and baking cookies. The cookie baking wasn't mandatory exactly, but I was scheduled to bring in treats for my summer school staff on the same day that a wonderful crew from TDSB Library Technical Services was due to arrive at my regular school to conduct inventory. I wanted to show my appreciation for both groups and their hard work, and so I decided to return to the kitchen. Unlike last time, when I created a new batch of cookies each day over March Break, I had one night to make two different kinds of cookies. I had hoped to try a new recipe - Sarah Oesch brought these amazingly tasty items with her to our last Ontario School Library Association council meeting and I was eager to make them - but I received the information slightly too late to include with the baking bonanza. (I made them the next day.)

Cookie #1 : Spritz Cookies

Cookie #2: Vanilla Drops with Cranberries

Cookie #3: Chocolate Toffee Bites

Once again, I learned some new things while baking, and reinforced old lessons, such as:

  1. Be prepared, and even if you think you are, check twice.
  2. Stay focused.
  3. Start early.
  4. Even if it looks like a disaster, some good can come of anything.
  5. If you've done something before, there's a better chance you'll improve. Still, try something new.
Because I was busy planning for summer school, I didn't start cooking until after 11:00 at night. It was around 11:30 p.m. (while I was on the phone with Sarah grabbing her yummy recipes and chatting about all sorts of things) that I realized that I had no more all-purpose flour, and by this time, I was already committed to making two different kinds of cookies. I substituted cake and pastry flour for the all-purpose flour the original recipe called for in the vanilla drops. I also didn't have enough honey because I couldn't find the new bottle I had bought previously (and it was hiding in the fridge, a fact I found out a few days too late). I barely had enough cranberries. I finished baking at 12:30 a.m. and fell into bed, exhausted. I was so nervous about the vanilla cranberry drops that I delayed a long time before trying them. They weren't perfect; they were a bit dry and crumbly, but they were edible and, in fact, they were consumed more than the other items I took in to the summer school staff! The Spritz cookies turned out exactly as they were supposed to do. None were burnt. I had to wake up early to buy the icing sugar needed for the lemon glaze, but it worked out without any hitches. The chocolate toffee bites were absolutely delicious, and because I learnt my lessons the previous evening, I double-checked to ensure I had everything I needed, including the mysterious-to-me parchment paper.

Those five lessons listed above can equally apply to my summer school class. I'm teaching the same grade but a new unit of study (STEM, with a focus on Minecraft). I was a bit concerned that my new students wouldn't be as eager or hard-working as my previous group, but they have their own unique talents and skills and I am having just as much fun teaching them. I'm sure you'll read more about them here on this blog or on the GamingEdus website ( 

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Most Popular Tweet

Last week, one of my tweets received a flurry of retweets and favourites. What topic could possibly elicit such interest? Food.

I chatted with my brother (who is on Twitter himself) and my sister (who isn't on Twitter but is visiting from Calgary for the Canada Day long weekend) about the potential reasons and he suggested that cute or attractive visuals often prompt people to share. Case in point: my brother gets quite a few reactions when he posts photos of the family dog, Moshi.

Are we flighty and superficial, ignoring pressing current events to "like" trivial things? I'd like to think that sometimes, we just need something (often a picture) to make us marvel or coo. Educators need to remember that, and share a cute picture with a parent of their child doing something sweet, or an awesome piece of artwork created by a talented student, so we can marvel or coo too.

(By the way, if you want the phone number or email of that amazing parent baker, send me a private message and I will share. She gave us a great deal and we were really pleased with the results.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Vicki Woods and the Little Things

The final week of the regular school year is thundering to a close, with huge events every day of the week. On Tuesday, we are holding an assembly to honour our school's French teacher, who after 37 years of service, is retiring.

Mme Woods at last week's Grade 8 graduation ceremony

Vicki Woods, otherwise known as just "Madame" to many of our students, is a great teacher. She had the skills that she could have just coasted through her last years on the payroll, but she didn't. Last year, she obtained an interactive white board for her classroom and spent a lot of time learning how to use it well to help teach language acquisition. As a specialist teacher, she has had to teach many subjects in addition to her main focus of FSL, and she devoted just as much energy to the assorted dance, drama, and music class as she did to her regular core French program. She will be missed.

Mme is fit! At the Jump Rope for Heart kickoff

What I think I will miss most about Vicki is "the little things"; all the tasks that she did on top of her teaching assignment that the staff will notice when she's gone. For instance, we have a rotating kitchen duty schedule for the teachers, and when certain forgetful individuals were in charge (*cough cough ME cough cough*), Vicki would always cover the slack by wiping the tables and emptying the dishwasher, all without complaint. To make the staff washroom more eco-friendly, she would hang towels and launder them weekly. For our LEWIS lunches (Lunch Every Wednesday Is Salad), she would organize the buffet chart, so we knew what we had to bring that week. Vicki ran the monthly assemblies, the Terry Fox Run, and the Christmas singalongs. She was a part of the social committee and Track and Field Committee and used to organize the annual ski and snowboarding trips as well as the intermediate division excursion to Ottawa. Vicki collected all the evidence for our Eco-Audits and her efforts resulted in Gold certification. It was her student clubs that emptied recycling bins and it was her car that took the staff room organics bags home (frozen to minimize the stench), long before organics collection was even considered as an option at school.

No one can be obligated to replicate Vicki and all her extra jobs. We have hired a new French teacher, but it will take the entire staff to realize all the "little things" she did and either volunteer to take up the mantle, or let them fall to the wayside. Hopefully, her legacy will be that teachers will continue to do the "little things" that make school a special place.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Vote for Philo

Last week, we had a provincial election. I was surprised by the results (a Liberal majority?) but now my attention is on a different election - and I need your help.

My students participate regularly in the Toronto East Heritage Fair and this year, one of my students attended the Provincials (June 14-15, 2014 in Toronto). He is also part of the Young Citizens Program. To quote the description,
The Young Citizens program focuses on citizenship and is a complementary component to Heritage Fairs, an annual event where students present the results of their research on Canadian heroes, legends and key events in Canadian history. Participants in the Young Citizens program make a short video about their heritage fair topic, much like an evening news report or short documentary. The student videos are posted online and reviewed by a panel of judges for a chance to win a trip to Ottawa to attend the Canada’s History Forum.
Part of the selection involves receiving online votes here at the Canada's History website. The link goes live on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 and voting ends on July 11, 2014.

Rob Mewhinney congratulates Philo

Philo's profile and video can be seen here. There are a lot of reasons why I believe Philo deserves this honour. He's a hard-working, thoughtful student and his video and research touched on an important issue. Selecting a winner is not going to be an easy choice. There are 139 entries from all over Canada. Helping Philo gain votes is going to involve mobilizing all my social media contacts and those of the students and staff at our school. I think this is definitely possible - we can encourage people to vote for our favourite candidate. After all, a group of our students won the 2014 Red Maple Marketing Campaign competition because of their wonderful work wielding digital media tools for promotion.

Individuals and groups are eager to capture the passion of large numbers of Internet users to help their cause. There is no denying that having a video go viral equals a lot of exposure. For instance, I was pleased to hear this talk show by John Oliver on HBO explaining Net Neutrality (in a comedic way but with methods that made the complicated issue understandable) actually crashed the website for the Federal Communications Commission of the United States when people responded in droves to give their opinions. The video is embedded below - but warning, some of the language is not appropriate for elementary school audiences.

So, like John Oliver, I'm appealing to those who pay attention to the media texts I produce online - if you can help me, and my wonderful student Philo, then please go to and cast a vote.