Number Talks Work

In the last little while, I have had the pleasure of exploring “number talks” or “math talks” with a few Grade 4 & 5 teachers.  I’m using the book “Number Talks” by Sherry Parrish, which advertises that it will “help children build mental math and computation strategies”.  I can attest that it indeed does that.


So first, what is a number talk?  Here are some resources that explain it better than I can. I also understand that Jo Boaler has done significant work in this field.

A video (Grade 5 division)

An article:

I’m going to admit something terrible.  When I taught in Grade 5, I used to avoid the mental math components of my math textbook.  The kids found it hard.  And now I know they were probably a bit too prescriptive by telling kids how to think, instead of honouring the different ways students might tackle a math operation.

Earlier this year, a Student Work Study teacher lent me a book on “Number Talks” and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a group that is exploring them at one of my schools until recently.  Now I am exploring them with teachers at all 4 of my schools.  The more I do them, the more I learn.  Moreover, they are FUN!  I love seeing the different ways of thinking around the same math question and when this registers for the students in the class it’s a bonus too.

Most recently, I did a number talk in a Grade 5 class as part of a “CIL-M” day – where two of us co-taught a lesson that was designed by a group of teachers.  I was the lead teacher and for the “minds on” portion of our three part math lesson, I modelled a number talk.  The teacher really liked how her students responded in class.  We decided to explore them a little further together and set up a bunch of consecutive dates where I could come in and model.

We focused on multiplication with her class, and in just three number talks we could definitely say that the students moved forward strategy-wise.  They started using the strategy “partial products” for instance which we observed they were not using in our first talk.  Her students were engaged and eager to share how “they saw the math in their heads”.  It was neat to see them see the math different ways and trying out a “new” strategy.

On my last day, she threw me a bit of a curve ball, asking me to model a division math talk (which I had never done).  I studied and learned a couple of great (new) ways to do division mentally.

The division number talk I did in that class is probably my favourite to date.

At the end of it, the teacher and I had an excited talk about how we learned two new ways to divide – one was “partial quotients” and the other was the strategy named “proportional reasoning”.  I have had the pleasure of trying to teach Grade 5 students to do long division (it’s not easy), so I could understand her enthusiasm!  Now all of them could access division, it was not a matter of memorizing the long division rules.

“Number Talks” have trained me to listen to students to try and name the strategy they are using to arrive at their answer.  Sometimes, I have to admit, I might not know the name of the strategy and so I had to look it up afterwards (the kids and I come up with a temporary name).  I have also done a number talk using sample questions from a textbook or by using decimals and fractions instead of the whole numbers found in the book.  Once you are comfortable with the format, you can use anything (even EQAO multiple choice practice questions for instance).

Sometimes the student strategy can’t be found in the book – and how wonderful for that student to have the strategy named after them and to see them get creative in their thinking.

What number talks really do is help teachers identify what strategies their students are using so that perhaps they can encourage them to move to more efficient strategies.  I would likely have some guided math associated with this in small groups after some observation to help move them forward.

Perhaps too, I modelled taking a risk in front of the teacher by doing a last minute division talk for the first time.  I’m really excited because she is now trying the next talks on her own.  In fact, the classes where they are truly being implemented are in those classes where the teacher and I worked together over a few days.  I’m going to touch base, follow up and make sure they are still going well.  But I know that if I had my own class, I would be doing these talks.  I’ve seen what they can do after a week, but imagine what they could do after a year… it is truly transformative (and not just for the students).

Documenting Learning

Dictation has been a bit of a homework battle at our house until recently.  Despite the fact that writing, math and drawing are some of my 7 year old daughter’s favourite activities, homework is source of arguments at our house.  Each week, she has a French book to read, some math sheets to complete and dictation spelling words to memorize.  Her dictation words cause so many tears that I now leave them until Thursday – the night before the “test”, focusing on math and reading instead.  And despite my personal feelings about dictation and memorizing spelling words, we get them done.

I brought out my iPad a few weeks ago when it came time to practice.  I did hesitate to use it, fearing it might be launched during battle.  We used an app where she could draw the words and erase them easily called “Show Me”.  When it came to remembering the words she got wrong, I would try and have her focus on a pattern.  For example: “Look all the words that end in r do not have an e after them”.  That’s my way of doing it.  Turn it into a rule that you can remember.  This caused more anxiety and frustration.  Exasperated, she showed me how she sees the words and it blew me away.

She started turning each word into an image in front of my eyes.  She would explain to me what each word looked like to her and it was really quite amazing.  Each letter was part of the “drawing”.  For example, we just tried the word “learn” (her choice).  She turned the “l” into a clock, the “e” into her sitting at a desk, the “a” into a question mark and the “r” into a happy face when she understands something and the “n” into her brain with a thought bubble coming out of it because she is concentrating and thinking and “that’s how you learn”.

It’s not how I would have done it or remembered it best.  The whole time I just want to butt in and say “l” makes the sound “l” or you can remember the “n” because you hear it…  But sure enough, this is what helps the words “stick”.  Her dictation results have improved a lot since moving to this way.  It’s not my way, but her own way of seeing them that worked.  And most of all, we are not stressed and it’s an enjoyable way to spend time together.

It made me wonder, how many times when helping students out have I perhaps imposed my way of seeing the words, math problem, writing piece etc.?  It also made me think of articles on the dangers of “multiple intelligence tests” and student thinking they can only learn things one way (i.e. kinesthetically, musically, visually, etc.).  How does knowing this strategy help me move her towards more efficient strategies?

My thinking was then pushed a little bit further.

This week I had the pleasure of being a part of an FDK Network with ECE, Kindergarten teachers and Rose Walton, the Early Years Learning Coordinator with TVDSB.  Recently, Rose brought a new Ministry “Capacity Building Series K-2″ publication to Instructional Coach team’s attention. Not the one printed in October of 2012 “Pedagogical Documentation”, a new one titled “Pedagogical Documentation Revisited” from January 2015.

We had a rich discussion around the revised edition. Here are some of the quotes that resonated with me:

“…pedagogical documentation is intended to uncover the student’s thinking and learning processes, it has the potential to help us look at learning in new ways, to assess flexibly with particular needs in mind and to individualize and differentiate our response.”

“what makes their team’s documentation pedagogical is (sic) the inferences they are making from it and where they need to go next in the learning”

You can find the rest of the article here:

It’s about figuring out how that child learns best through actively listening to the student, recording what they say, reflecting upon what they say and then also including parent or other teachers that work with that child as well.  How will this information help inform your next step?  Why is capturing this learning artifact important?  It’s not always about communication with home.  It’s about recording what they are learning, but more importantly how they are learning.  And on the very front page of the article it states that it’s the assessment as and for learning, not a summative assessment of learning.  Perhaps “Pedagogical Documentation” captures some of the things in this sketchnote illustrated by Sylvia Duckworth:


It’s no mystery to teachers that kids don’t think alike.  Nor do they learn alike.  It’s a matter of really listening to that student express what they were thinking and letting them have a voice in telling you how they learn best.  I’ve figured out how my daughter best learns those tough dictation words.  I also know that knowing this might be a help in other areas of difficulty as they arise.  What next steps can I take?  How could making her aware of this help her as a learner?  How might her visual way of memorizing words be applied to other areas such as math for instance?  I know I want to have more conversations with her about how she learns best.  What do I need to learn to support her further?

And one last note on homework – I know that being a parent has completely changed my outlook on homework!  I know what I would like to be doing with my daughter each night.  But I can’t help but wondering … if we think differently and learn differently, should that not also be reflected in homework assignment too?  But that is a blog for another day…

We Are More

You may recognize the title above from Shane Koyczan’s passionate performance of his poem at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.  I had forgotten about it until recently.  Our Learning Coordinators presented his poem “To This Day” during a recent session that I attended.  “To This Day” is a powerful poem about bullying and moving beyond it.  This is a theme that has always resonated with me.  In fact, on my way home from the session, I actually stopped at the bookstore and bought a copy of the graphic novel of this poem for myself.  In reading it however, I knew that it was a bit mature for the Grade 5 class I was preparing to work with.  So, I got reacquainted with Koyczan’s poem We Are More.

When I did a first read of the poem “We Are More”, I quickly realized there were some elements in it that the students may or may not have background knowledge on.  Also, it’s a long poem, so what parts of it would I focus on?  Would they know who the “number 9 and 99″ were? Would they understand what he means by the line “we are young”?  How many of the students would understand the reference to “Little Italy”?

When we select texts, it’s important to be purposeful about it by anticipating what might trip up students, what connections they might make between this and other books they have read, themes, stereotypes, other subject matters etc.  In this case, the teacher was working on “Canadian Identity” in Social Studies.  But how could we help student build a little background knowledge prior to reading?

In order to develop some background knowledge, we cut up images of Maurice Richard, a hockey sweater with number 99, a map of the world with colours indicating approximate country ages, a book entitled “Magic Words”, a street sign of “Little Italy” etc. Students found other students with similar images and proceeded to glue them together and begin their research, jotting notes around the image using classroom computers.  This is an idea I borrowed from the same literacy session called “Tea Party”.  Using images and having students come up with ideas before even attacking the text is a great strategy.

When done, each group had about 5 minutes to present what they found out about their image. After each presentation, we asked questions about how these images might be related to each other. It was fascinating to gather what students already knew or had learned. In fact, they actually gave us chills at some points as we started to shape the idea of Canadian identity. Some of what they said was so insightful and went way beyond what we were expecting.  They were making connections to lessons the teacher had done in Social Studies, texts they had read in class and it was all generated by students.  And we had not even touched the poem yet.

Following this, we played two versions of Shane’s poem. The first time showing his passionate performance, the second time with lyrics. You could see the kids recognize “their part” in the poem.  Following this, the classroom teacher modeled “leaving tracks of her thinking” with the first part of the poem.  She noted connections, background knowledge and what thinking and reacting she was doing as she read.  Students returned to their groups and began leaving tracks of their thinking around the poem.  We collected the responses and used them the next day, highlighting some of the thinking (annonymously) that students did.  We also tracked which reading strategies they were using.  In our analysis, the teacher and I recognized that the students did not do a lot of “synthesizing”.  Perhaps the poem does not lend to this strategy?

Later, we asked the students to provide some feedback.  For example – what other images should we have included?  The CN tower and Canadian money were popular responses.

In the second day, we discussed that part of understanding “who we are” as Canadians is also about looking at our imperfections.  Day two involved an observe/infer/I wonder activity about food sustenance issues in Nunavut.  Students were definitely engaged in this piece.  I shared with them my experiences of helping out a family by sending some items in the mail they were requesting.  I won’t go into all the details, but the end of the lesson came back to Shane’s poem:  We Are More.  Part of our identity as Canadians is that we care for others.  Furthermore, it’s an issue that has many perspectives to consider:  the grocers, the Innuit people, the government, etc.  We are more than the “one story” that can be told about us or an issue affecting many.

We ended our social justice themed session positively, with a “Kid President” video about how to change the world.  Just a couple of hours ago, the “Kid President” posted the video below for Canadians.  And if you listen closely, you might just head a few of Shane’s words in his message.

Kid President’s Message for Canadians

And I’m also reflecting on what “more” I could do with all of this next time I teach it.  I only had two days, so I crammed a lot in.  What text features or poetry techniques could I focus on?  What more could I do in writing other than journal entries?  What slam poetry about Canadian Identity could students create imitating Shane’s style?

And, I’m not one who is afraid to put it all out there.  You can find a copy of the lesson we used here.  It’s a beginning really that needs to be developed further.

Canadian Identity File – Google Drive

Inspired by Mrs. G’s Grade 2’s

Today I was very lucky.  I got to introduce “coding” to Mrs. G’s grade 2 class!

We started in her classroom and on the Smartboard, I found the website  I showed the students where to find the “Angry Birds” tutorial.  We watched the video together and had a chat about computer language.  We then did steps 1-3 of 20 together on the SmartBoard.  The students were really excited to head to the lab and give it a try themselves.  To help them find it easily, we posted the link to this tutorial as a shortcut in the school’s handout folder.

Once the students got started, I took a few minutes just to jot down a few things I was hearing and seeing.

I heard:

  • “I did it!”
  • “Oh! I have to turn right not left.”
  • “That’s what’s wrong!”
  • “What does this do?”
  • “Yay!”
  • “Finally!”
  • “I knew I could do it!”

That last one was music to this teacher’s ears!

I saw:

  • head scratching
  • high fives
  • kids peeking at each other’s screens
  • kids asking for help from each other and problem solving together
  • kids asking the teacher for help
  • little chair dances when students were excited that their code worked
  • hands raised above their heads like they had just scored a soccer goal
  • kids taking a deep breath

Then, I got distracted by a student stuck on level 14 (of 20).  There was a particular “if/then” block causing his some confusion.  I have to admit, I have never been this far into the “Angry Birds” tutorial …  I am “Frozen” tutorial certified though!  And we figured it out together.

At this point, their very wise teacher suggested if they were past level 10 that they could buddy up because sometimes “two minds are better than one”.  Students started showing each other how to do this.  They were so patient and kind with each other.  The buzz in the room was incredible.  The teacher then told me that all of this reminded her of a computer programming class she took in University (YUP! – many of the concepts are the same!).

At the end of the period, we sat together.  I asked students what they enjoyed about coding.

Their replies (no prompting):

  • When you make a mistake because you learn.
  • The computer has no choice but to listen to you.

Huh. I’ve never heard a student say their favourite part of an activity was making a mistake before.  We also talked about what we did when we were frustrated or stuck.

  • Try again and keep trying until you get it.

This brought about a wonderful conversation about the word perseverance.  I also shared that I had learned something new on level 14…

On my way out the door, I passed Mrs. G who said that one of the kids had just told her it was “the best day of school ever”.

When I do coding with kids, I feel hopeful for them.  Imagine what they will be able to do one day.

I think coding teaches students so much.  Today, I saw evidence of learning skills everywhere (collaboration, perseverance, taking risks etc.).  I saw math skills (the work they did involved a grid, turns, counting how many “hops” they had to make, sequencing, logical thinking, visualizing).  Also, I saw students that were actively engaged in problem solving… for over 45 minutes!

I have plans to go back after March break to move into using the website “Scratch” with them.  I’m really looking forward to it!

And I wonder if adults would exhibit the same growth mindset when learning something new?

What’s my Impact?

A few weeks ago, one of the administrators that I work with asked me: “How do you measure the impact of your coaching?”.  He has a habit of asking me tough questions.  I often need some processing time before giving an answer.

Following this, my learning supervisors asked us to keep track of our coaching activities for a period of two weeks.  They provided us with a data sheet.  Let me be clear, I’m not tracking who I’m working with, but I am tracking my coaching activities and how much time I spend doing each activity (for example co-planning, teaching, networking, sending emails, working one on one with a teacher, providing professional development etc.).

Both of these things have been on my mind.  How do you measure the effectiveness of an Instructional Coach?

While I would not want to have to track my coaching activities all the time, I’ve actually enjoyed collecting this data. It’s made me reflect upon areas of my coaching that I need to develop further.  For example, I noticed that I only sometimes use data in my work with teachers.

It’s also helped me be aware of what the data tracking sheet is not measuring and perhaps some of those “anecdotal” instances in my interactions with students, teachers, support staff and administrators that give me important feedback (good and bad) about my effectiveness.

First, an example that was the answer I provided for the administrator. Last year, when working with a group of teachers in math, they infused one three part lesson into each of their textbook units. This year, the same group of teachers begins planning with the curriculum first and a common assessment they are working towards.  They use  many open ended questions (not in their textbook) to develop several three part lessons and then uses the textbook here and there.  They now recognize that their textbook does not actually align with the curriculum all the time too.  They did the work to get there, but I know that my work with them played a small part.

Last week, a grade 4 student came up to me and said: “Mme I came up with a new multiplication strategy, let me show it to you – it’s kind of like the one (so and so) used, but different”. This teacher and I co-taught a cycle of “Math Talks” in her classroom for a few consecutive days leading up to this. This week, I got an email from a parent of a student in the same class who was at home with her son who was sick. He was showing her all the different multiplication strategies they had come up with and she was amazed at all the different ways students multiply.

A teacher said to me: “I know you are trying to sell literature circles right now, but I’m not ready for it”.  Translation: back off lady!  And it also made me more mindful about how I am communicating things so that it does not come off as me trying to “sell” an instructional practice or a resource.

What about the goosebumps I got during a couple of SOLE (Self-Organized-Learning-Environment) activities? I was hoping after some investigating that students would discover certain big ideas.  As the teacher and I asked questions that prompted students to make connections between their areas of research, those ideas started emerging.  It felt magical and in fact they went further than what the teachers and I were anticipating.

How about my picture, included in a composite with the rest of the teachers, hanging on the wall of one of my schools? I very much feel a part of the team there, and that’s also reflected in the team meetings that I am included in.

What about the whispers of “yes!” I heard when I introduced literature circles in a 5/6 class? I had worked with a lot of the 5’s on literature circles the year before and they were really excited to give it another go.

Here’s another: I’ve been modelling 3 part lessons in math with a couple of teachers who are now ready to move to me co-planning and co-teaching instead.

The LST teacher who has found out about a great app I used with a grade 3 class and is going to use it to support students with special needs in older classes.

Supporting and lending an ear to coaches that are new to the role.

What about the relief an LTO expresses because they are feeling less overwhelmed after getting support?  Some of our newest teachers don’t qualify for new teacher support programming.

What about the many instances of work I’m doing with teachers using their “self-directed” PD?  They are using their half day funding and choosing to partner with me.

How do you measure co-authoring a blog with a teacher, who has become a friend really, and then giving her a little nudge to share her point of view on changing the library into a learning commons?  I imagine the impact she will then have on others or even the system and I feel proud to have been a small catalyst in that.

These are a few examples of victories coupled with a few setbacks over the past couple of weeks. Being a coach is a bit of a roller coaster ride. There are days when I wonder about my impact on student and teacher learning on my drive home.  And I make mistakes.  I had the same roller coaster feelings as a teacher.  However, you have other days when you know that you have made a difference and have made an impact.  Sometimes these positive changes are big, sometimes they are small.  Sometimes you can’t really measure them until almost a year later when you reflect about where that teacher or group of students started and has ended up.

How do you measure inspiration?

I think a summative assessment of my effectiveness would have to be balanced like how we assess our own students.  It’s that balance between observations, conversations and products.  I feel like our learning support supervisors do take this into account. We have conferences with them a couple of times per year and they gladly come out to our schools to see what we are doing when invited.  Each month when we gather as a coaching team, we bring a “product” – an artifact that demonstrates the effect of our coaching on student learning.  I think it’s that balanced “COP”s model or “triangulation of data” that really gives the whole picture of coaching effectiveness.  And I think that this data that we collected over the past two weeks is measuring the processes in coaching, which is an important snapshot to have too.  Perhaps it’s more of a formative assessment?

I welcome your comments below!

Thinking of Moderating a Twitter Chat?

This Blog has been co-authored by Dawn Telfer and myself:

We have been co-moderating #fslchat – a chat for Core French and French Immersion teachers for just under a year.  We have learned a lot about leadership and running a chat and we wanted to share some of what we have learned (often through mistakes).

1. Who is your audience?

We did a lot of talking and planning before beginning.  First, we asked around, contacting FSL leaders such as Sylvia Duckworth or Colleen Lee-Hayes (who moderates #langchat) to find out what chats already existed.  We participated in #langchat actually before creating anything of our own.  We had a lot of deep conversations about what need our chat might fill, who our audience would be and topics we would like to address.

2. Think About Your Timing…

We planned our first few chats poorly timing wise.  In our first few weeks, we were competing with the Superbowl, The Walking Dead premiere and Hollywood awards shows.  At first, it was just Dawn and I plus a couple of people.  We felt it was embarrassing at first, but we were determined to get it going.  We had a lot of anxiety, hoping week to week that people would show up.  We polled people to find out what night of the week best worked for them using Google Forms.  But the time had to work for us too.  We hold it on Sunday nights because it helps to energize us for the week ahead and our kids are in bed!

3. It’s not about you.

It’s about building community.  Although we created the #fslchat hashtag, we don’t really feel that it belongs to “us” anymore. We feel like it belongs to everyone who uses it.  People use it to share French ideas, resources and asking questions through the week – beyond our chat time.  We’re more proud of that than anything else.  People are not just there to connect with us- there are lots of great examples of leadership and expertise beyond ours!  We welcome guest moderators or even people that want to take over the chat entirely here and there.  Most of the topics we come up with are suggested by regular #fslchat participants.

4. You can’t be the smartest person in the room

We actually try responding to the ideas of others and encouraging others through the chat instead of just giving our opinion to our own questions.  We certainly feel as though we learn just as much as we teach.

5. Leave room to celebrate, end with energy

We always start with an idea that Jen copied from #educoach.  Question 1 is always sharing an “eduwin” – something great that you want to share and celebrate with others. This starts us off in a positive way and is often a sharing session where we gain ideas from each other. We usually try to end with a question related to how developing a “PLN” (Professional Learning Network) on Twitter or participating in #fslchat energizes us for the week.

6. Supporting Similar Chats

A few people have used #fslchat to advertise their own chats. We are really supportive of this, but appreciate a head’s up. Earlier this year, we saw a few chats begin and fail because the audience was too narrow.  We have discussed that having many chats on a similar topic does not strengthen us all.  It might be a good idea to join a chat that already exists to determine if a new branch is needed.  That being said, we have a very positive rapport with #langchat, a similar chat to ours, and often support each other.

7.  It’s a huge commitment.

You will be committed to doing this every week.  We take breaks here and there, because life gets busy.  We strongly recommend having a partner to work with.  It really is helpful in planning for the chat.  Well planned chats will have a series of questions prepared in advance along with a sense of how much time to allocate to each question.  Many chats use the Q1/A1, Q2/A2, … format.  A partner can help with the questions and direction of the discussion to keep things on topic, in a timely manner.  Until you run a chat by yourself, you can’t really appreciate the importance of that.

8. Disagree Agreeably

This week, Doug Peterson’s blog disagreeing made us think about how to disagree on, or offline. I think sometimes online we don’t model the advice we would give our students, when we teach them to disagree agreeably. Conflict will arise and you will resolve some publicly, but should resolve them respectfully and privately where possible.  You don’t have to respond to rude comments that are made to you.  Sometimes silence is the best reply.

9. Advertising

This is a tough area.  Especially in education, we have so many commercial products at our disposal.  It’s a fine line between being a supporter of a product and actively being a salesperson for it!  Teachers can be especially passionate about or against a particular product.  You’ll need to decide whether your chat is going to focus on pedagogy or the tools that someone might use.

10. Ownership

Part of the joy and the power of chatting is the openness and general willingness of folks to enter into discussions.  Technically, there is no ownership of a hashtag or a chat.  If you’re starting something new, it’s a good step to do a Twitter search to see if it’s been used by someone else.  You might want to consider entering into a partnership or to choose a different hashtag.

11. Using Students

We have yet to involve students in #fslchat but we recognize that sometimes chats will have students or student ambassadors involved in the discussion.  If you plan to do this, you’ll need to consider, in advance, how they’ll participate and how you’ll protect them should anything untoward happen.

12. Asking Questions

When running a structured chat, it is important to have the questions developed in advance. We often begin with a theme and then choose 5-7 questions for the chat. We post resource questions but also mix them with instructional questions. Posting the questions several days before the chat can help followers to ready themselves with examples or links.

13. Listeners

We are also aware that we have listeners that tune in each week, but that don’t post. We try and recognize them here and there too. Sometimes we are surprised to hear chatter about the chat from people we didn’t “see” online. It helps to reinforce that the chat is being actively followed, even if the live chatters seem low certain weeks.

We are sure this list will grow as we continue to grow with #fslchat!

Our thanks to Doug Peterson for his two cents!!


Paying Attention to Everything

I have to admit, my blog has gone by the wayside this month.  I’ve made excuses… I’m busy, stressed, tired… and on top of that we’ve all taken turns with a cough and stomach flu at my house.  I’ve even tried giving myself the advice I would give to a stuck student: “Write about something you love!”.  I thought about the hearts that I would have students keep in their journals – full of things they love.  These were supposed to help prompt some writing.  To be honest, I’m a bit scattered and not even sure what to write about next.


As an Instructional Coach at TVDSB, I’m not focused on one subject area.  For instance, We don’t have specific coaches for literacy, math or technology.  I’m partnering with teachers in Math, Language, French, Science, Social Studies, etc. from Kindergarten to Grade 8.  But I’m not complaining.  I really enjoy the diverse areas that I get to explore in any given week.  And it’s worth repeating that I am a co-learner.  I am building new knowledge as I collaborate and interact with other teachers, administrators, students, coaches, learning coordinators etc.  My day is full of rich conversations with other educators telling me about what is happening in their classrooms.  We problem solve together and try out new techniques and plan next steps.  Some even let me come in and experiment and try out something I’ve read or heard about in their classrooms.

You know that feeling of your head spinning after a great learning session?  I have that almost daily.  I’m paying attention to everything.  If there is one skill that I have gotten better at, it’s listening attentively.  My focus is sharp, but switches to so many different areas and tasks in a day.  In between, I’m making connections between so many different subject matters.  I’m synthesizing too.  What do I see and hear that are common threads in my daily work?  What themes and big ideas keep coming up?  Lately I find myself thinking about the following:

  • Helping students make their thinking visible (in all subjects!)
  • Moving from concrete examples, to models, to more abstract thinking…
  • Teaching students how to develop essential questions (it’s not easy)
  • Engagement & motivation
  • Emphasizing process over product (teaching kids to think!)
  • Meaningful technology integration (equity & coding is on my mind)
  • Different ways of documenting learning and what to do with this information (feedback & assessment driving learning)
  • The importance of teachers having choice in and driving their own learning opportunities
  • Reading and writing floats on a sea of talk… (in English and in French)
  • Leadership styles, creating vision and growth culture in our schools…
  • Etc!

And before I blog about any of these topics, I need to deepen my own understanding.  What do I need to learn?  Sometimes my blogs are inspired by the string of connected events will jump out at me in a given week – often prompted by a life experience or interaction that stands out.  I usually consult a book, blog, article that will push my thinking before writing.  Often, I find a quote that can express an idea more eloquently than I can.

Despite outward appearances, I’m a bit of an introvert.  I need a little quiet in my day to help me switch gears, absorb information and refocus.  Sometimes it’s in these quiet moments (like my drive between schools for instance) that it all comes together.  Often however, it’s during conversations with other teachers.  And sometimes a good blog will just hit me out of the blue and flow out of me easily.

blogpic1download (1)

But for today, perhaps making a list of topics that are in my thoughts is all that I can do.  I’m hoping to unblock once I get some rest during the upcoming holidays.  And while this post is a bit rambly, I did write about something I love.  Because I love being an Instructional Coach.

And I was also given good advice by the person who first helped me get this blog set up in the first place.  It’s important to comment on the blogs of others.  Perhaps that is something I can handle in the meantime.

Have a great holiday…

Blue-Green Algae in Lake Erie

This week I was given the opportunity to do some teaching in a Grade 4 classroom in Sparta, Ontario.  It’s a rural school that is not far from Port Stanley and Lake Erie, outside of St. Thomas.  I did a lesson in this classroom that I have shared with teachers and other coaches working with various grade levels in the past year.  It hits both Social Studies and Science expectations at a variety of different grade levels.  I even developed it into a shared reading lesson for some teachers I worked with last year.

I started with an “observe/infer/wonder” lesson on the following picture:

algae-blooms-in-lakes-may-be-new-normal-aerial-boat_66470_600x450Students made some great observations (focued on line, shape & colour) and made inferences based on what they can see.  For instance “waves” is an inference and then we would focus on what we see in the picture that make us infer that there are waves.  We talked about background knowledge and how it informs our inferences too.  The best inferences are based on great observations and what we know already.  They had a lot of knowledge about algae already too.  When it came time to ask questions about the picture, they were very focused on “the boat”.  Is it cleaning the algae?  Is the white part soap or foam?  How did they take this picture?  What kind of boat is this?  Then I gave them the caption of the picture – this is a boat going through an algae bloom on lake Erie, near Ohio. Now some questions beyond the picture were asked.  For example, are any animals being affected?  How big of an area does this algae bloom cover?

Following this, I gave them an article from “The Canadian Reader” (June 2013) entitled “Returm of the Blue-Green Ooze”.  A catchy title for a Grade 4 class!  This resource normally requires a paid subscription, but below, you will find the full free issue given out at the end of each school year.  In fact, if you go to their website, a May 2014 issue is available for free.  If you are interested, you can scroll through read the article yourself here, starting on page 11:


Essentially, it’s a short article that talks about the causes and the effects of the green-blue algae blooms in Lake Erie.  They peaked in 2011 and covered 5000 square kilometers of Lake Erie.  The blooms can be seen from space.  We then took a look at our questions and decided to put aside all of our questions about boats for the time being.  We could find answers about those, but the class was more focused on the algae now.  We took a look at the questions that had been answered by the article and checked them off.  And now that the students had more background knowledge, they had some new questions.

At this point, the teacher jumped in. I love when this happens.  She pointed out that many of the students in the classroom have farming parents, parents who fish in Lake Erie or are business owners relying on tourism in Port Stanley.  I knew the kids were already engaged with this issue, but now we really had their attention.  This is an authentic problem for them.

But what I also love about this topic is that it’s not all doom and gloom.

We watched this short video together (7min):

This is not a new issue for this lake – it has been battled before.  Lake Erie was a dead lake at one time and it’s comeback is pretty remarkable.  I love that farmers, fisherman, sewage treatment plants etc. in Canada and the United States are working together to find solutions.

If you are interested in perusing even more about this topic check out this “Nature of Things” video by David Suzuki, which focuses on green-blue algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg (45 min):

I have not shown the video above to the Grade 4 class (it’s a bit long), but based on what they learn next, we might find a relevant clip.  Imagine the connections that they could make between the two Lakes?  What conditions make this issue prevalent in both lakes?  In Mr. Suzuki’s video, for instance, they show that cattails actually absorb phosphorous which is the food feeding the algae and creating these enormous blooms.  In fact, they even talk about how they could then harvest the plants and recycle the phosphorous.  Lake Winnipeg’s problem has been made more prevalent by the loss of marshes and controlling water levels.  Is that happening around Lake Erie too?

Following my lesson, the teacher decided to delve into the perspective side of the topic – how might a farmer, fisherman or business owner perceive the problem in different ways?

These students are ready for some inquiry now.  Their curiosity has been provoked and they are interested in the issue.  As they learn more, they’ll continue to revise their questions.  The questions may get deeper too.  Maybe they will find a personal connection – someone in the area that is actually combating the problem that can come and speak to them or that they could interview?  Perhaps they could interview some of the class’ parents about it?  This is their first inquiry this year, and it will be guided by the teacher.  How are animal habitats being affected by this?  It invites questions about the rest of the watershed too.  How is the use of the land in areas around Lake Erie affecting the water?

Perhaps next they could look at recent St. Thomas Journal articles or compare satellite images taken at different points?

This is an environmental issue that I really care about and that I continue to inquire about.   As educators, sharing our own curiosities and actions based on what we learn is incredibly important.  It’s a small thing, but I watch what ingredients are in the shampoo, conditioners and the soaps that I use…

I’m sharing this inquiry with you in the hopes that a reader will want to explore it with their own classroom too. Or any other environmental issue an educator cares about.  The chances are that if it is something you are passionate about, that will translate to the students.  Perhaps there is a young mind out there that will be the one to come up with a permanent solution…


Discovery in Primary Math

I’m a busy Instructional Coach these days.  This is my second year as a coach. In the three schools I have returned to, we’ve been able to skip the whole “getting to know you” stage, for the most part, and jump right in to the teacher’s next steps as an educator.  At my new school, I’m fairly busy as well – their previous coach certainly paved the road for me.  It’s a model that teachers are taking advantage of.  I’m always honoured that these teachers trust me to come in to their classrooms and partner with me. Recently, I’ve been invited to model a lot of math in primary classrooms. And they are giving me some tough expectations to tackle!

For instance, how can you teach skip counting using a three part lesson in a Grade 1/2 split?  I was asked to come in and model a lesson.  I remembered the video a Kindergarten teacher had shown me called “28 Scoops of Ice Cream” by Brent Holmes. You can watch the video here if you would like:

Essentially, a cow is scooping ice cream and starts with 1,2,3,4,5,6, 7 scoops of ice cream.  Then counts by 2’s, 3′,s and 4’s until there are 28 scoops of ice cream.  Our “Minds On” section of the three part math lesson involved just watching the video, pausing it at certain places so they could react and make predictions.  Following this I asked them the question: “What would the next verse be?”.  You would expect that they would count by 5’s, however many groups counted by 10’s, 100’s etc!  Having the verse of the song in our heads helped us stay focused, and use a few numbers.  Their drawings were pretty spectacular too – groups of 2 students were given long pieces of paper to work with.  In the third part of the lesson, we used an interactive 100 chart on the Smartboard to tap and show the skip counting that they came up with in their verses.  They started noticing patterns in that chart as well.  We sang a few of the verses and helped each other make them work.  We decided skip counting was faster (more efficient) than counting by one’s.  In my debrief with this teacher, we discussed how using open ended problems or parallel problems can help her be efficient in managing her two grade levels.


A couple of days later, I was to teach subtraction in a Grade 3/4 classroom using numbers with three digits and two digits.  And to give me an extra challenge, the top number had to have zeros.  Yikes!  I went through all of my favourite Marion Small books, the student textbook and different problem solving books and… I could not find anything!   Out of desperation, I went to a “Base Ten” book that came with blocks I ordered from Scholastic a few years ago.  In it, I found a game that would be perfect!

The teacher and I modelled the game and then they played.  Pairs of students were given 4 hundreds, 10 tens and a whole bunch of ones.  They laid 4 hundreds on the “hundreds” house and were told it was moving day.  They were the movers and would have to move 400 objects out of the house.  Taking turns, the students would flip up a card and would have to exchange the hundreds for tens and the tens for ones in order to subtract the units and “move” them.


It went great and the kids had fun.  After playing, students gathered and we talked about all the different strategies they used to subtract – some used paper, others used calculators.  We came up with 4 different ways that you can do subtractions.  Students were then given the number 400 and asked to choose any number of their choice to subtract from it.  This gave us a pretty good snap shot of where they are at in subtraction and informed her next lesson.  We asked them to show their work two different ways.  In my debriefing with the teacher, we talked about how having some experience and being able to “muck around” with the math before teaching helped them understand her next lesson, where she was able to consolidate subtractions of this type.  We also talked about how we have to make sure the students know that using math tools does not mean that you are struggling with a concept.  It’s a great way to show your thinking in math.

I’m going to end with a lesson that I also had a lot of fun with in two Grade 3 classes.  Again, I was asked to model (addition this time).  Again, in a random book on math assessment I found this box of numbers:


For this lesson, we simply asked the students: “What makes this square interesting?”.  They started to work.  Some grabbed calculators, others started paper and pencil calculations.  We let them explore and as I surveyed the room I saw that two groups had discovered parts of what I was searching for in their work.  We gathered on the carpet and started by discussing the strategy they were using (guess and check mostly).  We talked about the fact that this is what mathematicians do.  Then we got into what was interesting.  The square consists of 16 boxes, the numbers -16, 8 even, 8 odd numbers etc.  It was a question that invites many different answers, not just one right one.  Then one group showed that two horizontal lines add up to 34.  Another group found that one of the vertical lines added up to 34 also.  “Hmmm… I wonder how many other ways we could make 34?” I asked.  They were chomping at the bit!  Off they went to discover more ways.  The teacher and I laughed as these startled “oh!” gasps kept going off in the room.  Pairs of students kept coming up to us and sharing the different ways you can make 34 in this box.

In conversation with the teacher afterwards, we talked about how it was not the math itself that was hard in this lesson, it was teaching kids to explore and play with numbers.  That math can be fun and that they can discover and solve problems by trying and checking their answers.

In all three of the follow up conversations with teachers (that I’ve only touched on for the sake of the length of this blog), my thinking in mathematics expanded.  I’m not a perfect math teacher.  I’m working on improving my “reflect and connect” piece.  I sometimes rush.  I share this with teachers too.  I know it’s not always possible to do “fun” lessons like this, but what if we did it more often?  We need to engage our students in mathematics.  We also need to be mindful of how they learn best: by playing, through song and in exploration and in discovering for themselves.  That’s where we come in.  We need to know what to do next, and it needs to be planned purposefully.

As always, thanks so much for reading and please leave me a comment or question below.

It’s Not a Quick Fix

In my 13 years of teaching, I think that I’ve picked up a few things when it comes to student behaviour.  That being said, when TVDSB’s Summer Institute sessions came out, I was attracted to two sessions.  Both were being offered by Special Education Learning Coordinators and TOSAs.  One session was on behaviour “Yo! No! Whoa!” and the other on “Behaviour and Safety Plans”.  I think I just wanted to hear if what I thought I knew about behaviour was right.  Don’t we all look for examples of that?  We like having our own beliefs confirmed don’t we?

But if I’m perfectly honest, it’s an area that I’m not always confident in giving advice on.  Currently, I’m working with a lot of teachers that are looking for support with different students exhibiting disruptive behaviour, explosive behaviour, inattention, anxiety, avoidance etc.  Often, I think teachers are looking for me to tell them something magical that will fix a child’s behaviour.

Here’s some of the advice I’ve been passing on from my teaching experience and from the sessions this summer:

1)  Routine and Rapport:  The first thing they mentioned was the importance of developing strong routines and rapports with students in the first 6 weeks.  Putting time into practising routines like transitions between classes, passing out papers, sitting on the carpet etc. will reap curriculum benefits later on.  Making connections with your students is also important.  Take an interest in their interests – especially the students that might be testing you.  It has to be genuine.  Students like to feel liked and their parents like to feel like you like their kid too.

2)  It’s not personal:  Behaviour is not a personal insult to you, the teacher.  Behaviour is communication.  You need to look past the behaviour to find out what is driving it.  The better you understand what is driving the unwanted behaviours, the better you can help prevent them.  Whether it be by training the student to recognize signs of agitation, avoiding certain situations or being aware of triggers etc. Go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – what is not being met that might be behind a behaviour?

3)  Don’t hold a grudge:  Deal with the behaviour immediately, but don’t hold the grudge all day.  Be firm if something happens and give a consequence if needed.  But later, have a conference with the child or pay attention to the work they are doing so that they know that you are not holding a grudge.  Forgive and forget.

4)  Build Trust and Inclusion:  Deal with bad behaviour privately – don’t shame someone in front of the class.  And if anything, help that child with the “bad reputation” build a more positive image for him or herself.  If kids feel safe and secure in class and you set a tone of respect, the best learning will happen.  Purposely build inclusiveness into your classroom.

5)  Be patient, give it time:  As I mentioned, there really is no quick fix.  A teacher may have to try different things before finding what works.  The important thing is not giving up and keep trying new things.  It takes time before saying that a strategy does not work.  I came away from this session with a fantastic flyer that describes ADD, oppositional students and anxious students and with a great bank of strategies that are and are not effective in helping these students.  But it takes a willingness by the teacher to keep trying things to figure out what works.  Trying too many strategies for too little time could be detrimental too.  It’s that delicate balance of knowing when to persevere with a strategy and when to abandon one.

6) Seek help:  A teacher does not have to deal with a child’s behaviour alone.  Seek the support of your Learning Support Teacher (LST), administration, other teachers, the child’s parents to help you come up with solutions.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  If needed, have a consultant come in to observe and offer suggestions.  Sometimes an objective opinion is really helpful.  Sometimes a subjective opinion helps – what did their previous teacher do?  What was effective?

7)  Practice what you preach:  I’ve been in situations where a student has had pretty good reason to think that adults are not great people.  What if you were able to slowly change their mind?  Be a positive role model.  Help that child understand that you can be an adult they can count on.  And most of all make sure your own actions are consistent with what you preach.

8)  The “X” Factor:  And while it’s important to be strict in the first few weeks, it’s equally important to have a little fun.  What are you going to do to “wow” them and make them want to come back the next day?  What can you do to provoke their curiosity and make them wonder?  Engage them.

9)  Track it:  Data can be a very powerful tool.  How often does that child interrupt?  Try a strategy with that child – what is the effect?  Share the data with that student, or his/her parents.  You want to have both quantitative and qualitative data.  It can also be helpful in PDT meetings.  Document and make sure to have your own paper trail.

10) Read about it.  There are some fantastic books and tools out there.  I know that a few Ross Greene books caught my eye.  As did his “ALSUP” tool.  These are resources I know that I want to know more about. Sometimes revisiting an old resource helps!

What advice would you give a new teacher about behaviour management?

Better yet – what have you learned about behaviour that challenged a belief that you held?

What great piece of advice did I forget to include in this blog?  What would you add to this list?

1 2