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?

Follow Through

Well, each blog this summer seems to start with a bit of an anecdote. This entry will not be different!

A fellow Instructional Coach is a wonderful tennis coach. Early in the summer, she invited me to a tennis clinic and I clicked well with the group. At first, we worked on getting the “rust off” of my strokes. I had not picked up a tennis racquet in 7 years.  The next thing I knew, she put me in the “not ready for prime time” doubles league (for beginners).  I am now playing twice a week for an hour and a half. Sometimes I’m even squeezing in a singles game.  I love the social aspect and the exercise. I leave refreshed, happy and completely spent.

One main area of difficulty I have in tennis is following through after I hit the ball. I need my swing to extend so that my wrist is near my ear with my racquet over my shoulder. If you’re a golfer or a baseball player, perhaps you understand this.  Sometimes I don’t follow through at all or I will only follow through to the shoulder level. It’s something I am working on. It’s not easy because it involves muscle memory and changing a bad habit. But I’m working away at it all the time.


Most ideas for my blogs are inspired by my thinking while driving. I have a short 20-25 minute commute to work.  I enjoy it immensely.  I listen to music, drink coffee and generally wake my brain up.  My drive is pretty much a straight line and involves very little traffic.  I’m a morning person, my best ideas often occur on these drives and then roll around in my head before I spit them out in a blog.

Today I had just attended a fantastic summer session on “Developing Safety and Behaviour Plans”. We talked about the importance of debriefing following an incident. In teaching, there are debriefs everywhere. On my subsequent drive to St. Thomas, I started thinking about where in education we need to “follow through”.  The reflect and connect piece in a three part mathematics lesson was one idea that I had. Or the Consolidation piece for that matter.  The debriefing we do as coaches after having observed, modeled for or co-teached with a teacher was another. Talking about reading strategies or writing strategies students used after they have worked independently during a literacy block. Asking a French student what metacognitive strategies they used to understand a lesson…  There is so much value in these “follow throughs”. But sometimes, we cut them short. And often, this is the important and valuable stuff.


You could even extend it to new practices you intend to put in place this school year.  What goals have you set for yourself?  How are you going to keep yourself accountable and ensure that you follow through?

I know that this year, I’m going to be a bit more mindful of my follow through both on and off the tennis court.


As always thanks for reading – comments are most welcome!  What other “follow throughs” do we need to pay more attention to in education?

Let it go…

Are you wondering if the title above is based on the popular Frozen song? Well it is! I’m not afraid to admit I know more of the lyrics than I probably should. Being home with my kids this summer has been great. But with us home, the wear and tear on the house definitely increases. One activity I’ve been doing more often is picking up random toys that are strewn through the house.

A little while ago, one of my little ones got a new doll house for her birthday. It came with a bit of furniture, but she’s been inspired to use furniture and toys from other “kits” to supplement it. She plays imaginative little games that are wonderful to listen to and complex. She’s in French school, and I laugh as she flips between English and French. Although I am a little concerned about her well developed skill of saying sorry in French!  But the flip side of this wonderful creative play is… the mess! Yesterday, I felt so frustrated as I sorted through little bits. Tiny pieces are my nemisis – a tea cup and saucer in one kit, a tiny little flower the size of a ladybug in another. It’s enough to drive you absolutely mad.

But I then had a bit of an epiphany. My daughter does not really see them as separate kits. To her it’s all furniture. Expecting her to clean it all up in the separate kits? She’s just not there yet. She does not see if that way. So, why do I keep driving myself crazy sorting them into three bins? What I need to do is get past my own need for order, and just lump them all into one. Perhaps it’s a bit of naïveté on my part… but I’m secretly hoping one bin will mean she’ll help clean them up better (a person can dream!).

Earlier this week, I found myself relating some of the story above to a meeting I recently had with a teacher. We were discussing her 1/2 split and how she was going to manage her literacy block and the content areas of Social Studies and Science. We were talking about how she could integrate the content into her literacy block. She recapped our meeting by basically saying: “So, I need to go slow and double dip!”. Integrating different subjects is important. It’s a really effective way to cover lots of different expectations at once. Furthermore, we talked about slowly building the autonomy of her students in that literacy block and the importance of routines.  She’s going to add some art and drama too.

In a few weeks, teachers will be asked to hand in their classroom schedules and principals will be checking them to make sure they adhere to the amount of time the board recommends we spend on different subject areas. We’ll work on blocking out the year. We are often given some guidelines to show us the order in which to teach math strands for instance. But within this framework, there is room for flexibility. I know I’m grateful for the flexibility to integrate. It can lend to more engaging work. In fact, this year, a wise Mathematics Learning Coordinator told me that students often see math as – math. Not the separate strands that we chunk out for them. We actually train them to compartmentalize when in actuality, they would probably be better served having the flexibility of mind to think about a problem using measurement, number sense and numeration and some geometry.  We should be focused on helping our students discover what connects the units within a subject.

So, now I’m thinking about other areas of life/school where we organize things into nice neat units. I do have a nagging thought that there are instances where this is absolutely necessary (assessment of different subjects for instance). But I’ve learned that teaching is not straight forward. It’s complex and … it can be messy. And often what comes out of that is some wonderful creative stuff. We just have to have the courage to let go of some of our ingrained compartments and combine a few things (cue the music with “Let it go, let it go” softly in the background). Our curriculum are starting to reflect this as well (Strand B in Social Studies has strong ties with the Science curriculum for instance). As you look through your curriculum, what else could you put together in one larger bin?

It’s hard adapting our ways to how our students perceive things, but it’s so important.

So what can you let go of having control over? How can you blend a few things this school year? What does need to remain separate? How could you cooperate with a colleague that provides “prep” for you to blend the subjects a little more? Just a few things I’m thinking about at the moment!


Getting Below the Surface to Deeper Understanding

My summer reading continues. I’ve been reading during my children’s swimming lessons, soccer games & practices, bag piping events, car trips, beach trips or camping in our patched up 1981 Coleman tent trailer. And not only books related to work. I usually have a few books on the go at once. One that is a tough read that challenges me that I will read in small chunks (currently Stratosphere by Michael Fullan). Another that is usually work related – that inspires me (two at the moment that I will get to soon). And then I will have one on the go that is pure escapism and fun non-work related reading (currently The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan).

I’ve already blogged about “The Art of Coaching” by Elena Aguilar. It’s a great read that I am enjoying in chunks. Not because it’s a hard read but because I’m really trying to reflect after each part. The chapter I just finished is about listening skills and questioning. I’m a coach – this is supposed to be a strength for me!  And I think I’m a good listener (my husband would disagree). But I know there is room for improvement. In Chapter 11, Aguilar challenged me to think about the last time I truly felt listened to deeply by another. It reminded me about how good it feels. I am setting a goal for myself to listen more deeply and try tuning out next steps, connections, advice, etc. that we think about when listening to another. She explains: “If a coach listens only at a surface level, she can assist only in shifting smaller, surface-level things”. She also encourages coaches not to respond right away. Give some wait time when listening to another and you might be surprised what comes next. She advises that often a simple “tell me more” can be very effective. Active listening means clearing your mind and not listening to respond: “Active listing is a strategy for a speaker to convey that she’s listening, and also to ensure that she’s hearing precisely what the other person wants to share. We can repeat back or paraphrase what the other person says”. She goes on to share 5 great prompts:

-In other words…
-What I’m hearing then…
-It sounds like you are saying… Is that correct? Did I miss anything?
-I’m hearing many things…
-As I listen to you, I’m hearing…

This Chapter is filled with good advice. And I’m processing it (and playing with it) this week in my interactions with others. Active listening is a skill I want to further develop this year.

Earlier this year I was given another book “Talk About Understanding – Rethinking Classroom Talk to Enhance Comprehension” by Ellin Oliver Keene. It’s been on my reading list all year, but I didn’t manage to get to it. It’s really focusing on something I’ve been thinking about this year. She and some teachers noticed students are able to give you the formula response – they can talk about strategies they use in reading. But they were growing concerned. They could give an “APE” – answer, proof, extend answer in response to reading when asked an open questions. They can make text-to-text, text-to-self answers. But the teachers and Keene wanted students to dig deeper into their understanding. They did their own Collaborative Inquiry around 2 questions. The first “How can we help children understand more deeply?”. Secondly, “How do we know when they comprehend deeply?”. At this point in the book, I’m on the edge of my seat.  And an added bonus – so far it seems to echo what I learned in our board’s “Journey Into Literacy” series put on by our literacy team this year.

Keene observed a teacher named “Jen”. Students had a chance to jot down in their reader’s notebooks what happened in their minds as they read a short text. Then in pairs, students shared their entries. She divided a chart paper into two parts – “In My Mind” and “In My Life”. Next, a student named Tiffany shared a simple connection.  Following this:

Jen reiterated Tiffany’s point so that she could hear her own thoughts aloud and have more time to think. Jen continued, “How did this thinking about her help you understand this piece better?”.  This was the turning point – and a very important question if we’re interested in deeper understanding.  Tiffany must have known then that she was going to have to respond differently.  Jen wasn’t asking about the connection anymore, she was acknowledging Tiffany’s thinking, but pushing beyond it.

The student then expanded on her answer.  The teacher then prompted her with “What else?” and she was forthcoming with insightful character details and events in her own life that helped her empathize with the character and understand her point of view.  I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this book and discovering more stories like this one and discovering the answers to their 2 questions above!

I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the two books. “Tell me more” and “What else?” are similar. In both cases there is a prompt for deeper understanding to come to the surface. Whether it be listening to a student, a colleague or a friend, people feel valued when you listen actively and unselfishly. You really need to put yourself away and focus on the other. The questions and actions can come later. But without this first step, you might not be asking the right questions or taking the right actions.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this.  It certainly helps me clarify and tune into my own thinking and perhaps ask myself “what else” and go beyond the surface level.

And… I have a few Books on deck: “Making Thinking Visible – How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for All Learners” by Ron Ritchart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison and “Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn” by John Hattie and Gregory Yates. Just by the titles, I know that they will be good books to read close together. Oh yes, and also “The Last Train to Istanbul” Ayse Kulan!

Bribery Didn’t Work in my FSL Classroom

I’m having a great summer hanging out with my kids. They are active little girls that are busy playing soccer and doing some swimming lessons. My youngest daughter was in her third attempt in “Sea Otter”. Her big stumbling block? She needed to attempt to get her whole head under water. For the last year, she has been full out refusing. So what did I resort to? Bribery. Huh. I promised her an ice cream cone for the whole family if she gave it a try. And, well, it worked! She bobbed, wiped the water from her eyes, turned to me and screamed: “Mommy, do I get an ice cream?”. It was cringe-worthy. I sighed and gave her the thumbs up.

Another anecdote before I get to my point. Once a week, we head to the public library to take out some books. They have a reading program there. I asked my oldest daughter if she wanted to take part. You get rewards and prizes for reading, doing an occasional book chat with the librarian. She said: “No, that’s okay Mom… we do lots of reading at home”. She is intrinsically motivated to read, the rewards are not necessary.  For her, the joy of reading is its own reward.

At the end of the school year, a couple of teachers I know recommended a book called “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink. It’s actually written with a business or economist audience in mind. However, it’s not hard for an educator to make connections to what motivates us and our students. It goes into a topic we have a lot of first hand experience with but do not always fully understand.


You may or may not know that I was a French Immersion teacher.  Every year I started to same way. I began the school year with the expectation that my students speak French in the classroom. They had to address me in French. We had certain times during the day when they had to speak French – to me and to each other. They almost always did great at speaking in French with me. However, getting them to speak French with each other in the classroom was much more difficult. Complicated reward systems and, dare I say, punishment systems would be worked out by both students and the teacher. And they would work… for a while… until they didn’t. So I would switch the game up, tweak it as needed. And this system would work, but for an even shorter period of time.

In this book, I learned that extrinsic rewards only work for algorithmic task (routine work that follows a formula or set of instructions that can be done automatically). However, rewards and punishments do not work for heuristic tasks (non-routine tasks that require creativity and conceptualizing). According to Pink, when rewards and punishments are used in heuristic tasks, studies show that they can “extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, and crowd out good behaviour. They can also give us more of what we don’t want: They can encourage unethical behaviour, create addictions, and foster short-term thinking”.

My first daughter was not intrinsically motivated to do a bob in her swimming lessons. It was a routine type behaviour – so the reward works. But rewarding my other daughter to learn to read is not a good idea. She is already motivated to read. Her reward is the activity itself. Rewards could mess that up and even do long term damage.

Pink continues with the three elements that he feels are essential to motivation. He uses the acronym “AMP” – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. People like being autonomous (being in charge of our own actions). Mastery is a mindset – it requires you to see yourself as someone who can continue to learn and that your intelligence can grow and that it is not “finite”. As for purpose: we also want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We need to understand “why” we are doing what we are doing.

Is is just me or does the whole autonomy, mastery and purpose idea really fit well into inquiry based learning? Not to mention the links I made between a few business models in Pink’s book and “genius hours” and “self organized learning environments”. There is so much more to this book than I can get to in this blog.

So how could I have helped my students understand this in an FSL (or any classroom for that matter – be it Math, Science or any other of the subjects)? How could I have promoted autonomy in language learning? How could I have encouraged them to have a better growth mindset? How could I have better helped them understand the value and purpose in learning a second language?

When in comes to the “shifts” in the new curriculum and in the strategies FSL teachers are using with students, I think we’re on the right track. We help students become more autonomous by teaching them to think about the strategies that they use (metacognition). We encourage them to have a better mindset with “Can do” statements encouraged by the CEFR. We help them understand the purpose by setting them up with authentic, real-world, meaningful tasks in the FSL classroom. We use learning goals and success criteria.  Perhaps doing more of this would have helped motivate them to speak French.

Pink goes on to explain that “offering praise and feedback rather than things people can touch or spend” is a much better idea. This provides “useful information rather than an attempt to control”. Here’s a neat flow chart found on p.67 of the book that details when you should use rewards:

And so now that I have a better understanding of motivation, I want to delve into better understanding of how the brain learns language. I’m a bit preoccupied with right and left side of the brain. Routine tasks happen in the left side of the brain. Non-routine tasks happen in the right side. Language learning happens in the left – so what does this mean? Fortunately, a colleague has recommended this book which I am hoping with help me connect the dots in my own little inquiry.


And what’s motivating me to do all this? Well “AMP” of course. I’m being autonomous (but let’s not confuse this with independent – your comments, recommendation and clarification are welcome) in my exploration of this topic. I’m thinking and acting. I’m growth minded for sure – I do not think that my understanding of this topic is limited. I’m looking to build and deepen my understanding about why rewards didn’t work in my FSL classroom. Finally, my purpose is to share my own understanding with anyone who reads this blog and the other educators that I collaborate with that might be interested. And really, if I get down to it, my ultimate purpose is to help increase student learning.

Can You Change Someone Else’s Belief?

Warning this post uses the work “belief” way too much!

Late last week I found out that I am returning to all three of the schools that I am currently an instructional coach in.  Plus, I’ve got a new French Immersion school on my roster!  I felt so relieved because I’ve developed so many fantastic relationships with the teachers in my schools.  In some cases, I feel like I’m just getting to the deeper partnering work with these teachers.  Trust has been established and we’re going beyond them just asking me for a resource and into partnering and co-learning.  I’ve had the opportunity to team up with teachers and students on some amazing projects.  I’m fortunate to work with such an amazing group of educators and I’m so happy that our partnerships will continue!  I’m also really excited to meet new educators too.

At one point this year a teacher asked me where we learn “all this stuff”.  Well, to be frank, we get some PD from our learning supervisors and learning coordinators.  But to be perfectly honest, I’ve learned so much from the teachers that I work with.  In a lot of cases, teachers are trying out something for the first time (and so am I!).  I’m helping teachers with inquiry in Science and Social Studies…  but I’ve never actually had my own class to do this with!  I’m grateful to all the teachers who have taken a chance on me and have invited me along for the inquiry ride.  There’s a lot of change to deal with in education.  So much of the change in education these days seems to revolve around teachers “shifting” their mindset.  A shift towards inquiry based learning, a shift in how we teach grammar in French Second Language instruction, a shift in teaching math through problem solving, a shift towards technology integration.  I’ve always been an open-minded person who is not afraid of taking a risk and trying something new.  But can I really change someone’s beliefs in education?

Last Friday on the PD day, an administrator challenged me on this.  Does anyone really have the power to change someone else’s beliefs?

Currently, I’m reading “The Art of Coaching – Effective Strategies for School Transformation” by Elena Aguilar.  It’s a great book to read now that I have a year of coaching under my belt.  I’m doing a little self-reflection as I read it.


She speaks a lot about beliefs (around p. 34 … “The Basics About Beliefs”).  Here’s a few highlights:

1) We all have beliefs and they drive our actions.

2) We experience beliefs as truths, and we seek evidence to support them.  But they are actually just mental creations.  They are not facts (although they might appear to us to be).  They are strongly held opinions.

3) Some of our beliefs make us strong, some do not serve us.

4) The good news is beliefs can be updated or changed.

But as the administrator who challenged me said … I cannot actually change a teacher’s belief.  Only they have the power to change that themselves.  So what can I do?  Part of my role is asking a lot of questions.  Figuring out what that teacher believes about their class, learning and their practices.  I need to meet the teacher where they are at first.  Aguilar’s book recognizes that it’s all very complex really:

Coaches help people delineate the cognitive steps that led them to a belief system.  We work with them to change their actions.  The reflection tools we use when coaching clients allow them to slow down their thinking processes and hone their awareness of how they form beliefs.  It also allows clients to identify gaps between their actions and their core values.  

I like being challenged by others.  The nudge by the administrator the other day really clarified my thinking.  And in doing so, I changed my belief about beliefs.


And so I’m wondering… how is this new belief going to translate into action for me next year?  How will my coaching be a bit different based on this new knowledge?  What tools can I use with teachers to help them examine and be more aware of the beliefs driving their actions or their mindset?  What other beliefs of my own do I need to examine more closely?  What do I need to rethink?


And I’m only on Chapter 3!  There may be a few more blog posts related to this book and another by Jim Knight this summer!

And as usual, I’m interested in your thoughts!  Please share them below.


Why is this working?

One of my favourite writing “units” each year was teaching descriptive and narrative writing through the mysterious illustrations of “Harris Burdick”.  As the story goes, Harris Burdick was a man who brought some fantastic black and white illustrations to a meeting with a publisher named Peter Wenders.  Each detailed drawing contained a caption and a title (see below for an example).  Burdick left the pictures with the publisher and promised to return the next day with the stories that accompanied the drawings.  But he never returned.


The House on Maple Street:  It was a perfect lift-off.

Since then, children everywhere have been writing stories that go with the illustrations.  I have also come across the book “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” by Chris Van Allsburg, where famous authors such as Gregory Maguire, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar and Stephen King have written a story based on one of Burdick’s 14 images.  The book even contains an introduction by Lemony Snicket and his take on Burdick’s disapearance!  I’ve passed this on to many teachers I’ve worked with this year.  It’s a great way to connect reading and writing.  And is it ever engaging!


Last year, I had the pleasure of hearing Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a Pirate” speak at my school during a PD day.  It was an amazing session on increasing student engagement, teacher creativity and transforming yourself as an educator.  One of the questions he asked us was something along the lines of “What lesson do you have in your repertoire that people would pay tickets for?”.  For me, the Burdick one stuck out for sure.


I have been working on another engaging writing task recently.  It has been created collaboratively with a Grade 7 teacher for a tech project that we are involved in. Together, we crafted a very successful writing task.  One, I dare say, we could sell tickets for!

We began discussing how historical fiction is right in the middle of fiction and non-fiction.  It’s based on something that happened, but the gaps are filled with realistic details. One of my favourite discussions with this group was on the following quotes, taken from “Genre Connections” by Tanny McGregor (click on it to enlarge).  We asked them which quote resonated with them the most.


I modeled my own research process.  I showed them a few articles I had found and the details in the articles that inspired a story in me.  I shared some of my family history.  I shared my passion for this genre of literature.

We asked them to choose an event between 1750 and 1850 that they personally connected with this year.  They would then write their own historical fiction piece, demonstrating a person’s perspective on a significant historical event in this time period.  We gave them the task of writing their historical fiction piece in the style of “Choose Your Own Adventure”.  This is an idea that I learned about through Sylvia Duckworth on Twitter.  Students are using Google Forms for this.

We are only at the graphic organizer phase, but we have been blown away by a few things.  The first is the high level of student engagement.  This is a class that is normally very chatty.  But for this task, it has been silent and they are on task.  I know, I know, they are supposed to be learning from each other!  But I would also argue that “creativity requires solitude”.  Secondly, the level of historical detail they have provided in their stories is amazing.  Thirdly – they are researching and asking questions as they go.  They are not deep questions yet – most can be answered with Google.  While they are not collaboratively inquiring, they are using inquiry skills.  Lastly, they are being extremely creative.  To be honest,  I don’t know if I could be as creative as these students.  I hope to share a sample story here soon!

I have been reflecting about “SAMR” too.  It is a tool teachers can use to reflect on technology use.  Ideally, we should be aiming above the dotted line, creating tasks that are in the blue and green zone in the graphic below.


I feel like this project has helped us go above the dotted line.  We’re in the M/R region.  But the task is not just engaging because of the tech.

Next, I envision a grand conversation about perspective when looking at historical events.  Do we experience any of the same challenges people in Canada experienced in earlier times?  What types of developments permit us to respond to them in different ways than people did in the past? What connections can we make between their stories? What “truths” can we learn from this?

So what do these two lessons have in common that make them engaging?  In both cases, the quality of the writing is higher than usual, more work is handed in on time and students that are not normally engaged are much more productive.  Why do students connect with them?  Could it be that both tasks require creativity and that is what is engaging them?  Do both tasks provoke curiosity?  I’ve read that “curiosity and creativity are cousins” afterall…

What lesson do you have that students LOVE every year and that you could sell tickets for?  How can we ensure we do more of this?  What do you do to provoke curiosity and promote creativity?

I don’t think I’ve got it all figured out.  I’m rambling mostly.  Perhaps you can help me shed some light in the comment section below!

In case you are interested, Sylvia Duckworth’s instructions on how to do a “Choose Your Own Adventure” using Google forms can be found here:

Inclusion Elevates All

Recently, my mom and I traced back the French side of our family through “”.  It’s been fascinating.  We’ve almost got the family traced back to the first “Lamarre” that came over from Normandy France (near Rouen) in the 1660′s.  My mom is from Longueuil, Quebec, which is directly on the other side of the St. Lawrence from Montreal.  Louis Lamarre was a soldier who boarded a boat bound for New France and somehow or another, he became the baron of this area of Quebec. He actually lived to be 94 years old which is exceptional for that time period! Most of the records we found about the Lamarre family were from baptisms, weddings and funerals – in fact they attended the same church for about 300 years.  I’m proud of my French heritage.  But to be truthful, I’m actually more Scottish than French!

These discoveries are a bit bittersweet really.  Several years ago, our last relative in Longueuil passed away.  I miss having someone there to visit.  But the French line continues in our family.  My sister and I are both French teachers and completed most of our education in French. Despite moving to Ontario at the age of 12, my mom still speaks beautiful French. She has francophone friends that she plays “Bridge” with and travels with regularly. My daughters, niece and nephews attend French schools.  I’m very grateful for French education in this province.

flag2downloadThis year our Literacy Coordinators developed a wonderful diversity kit for all of our elementary students.  It contains wonderful books and lessons for teachers around race and ethnicity. One message that the Coordinators shared was how important it is that all of our students “see” themselves in the literature that we share in the classroom.  This practice builds inclusion in the classroom.

I learned the importance of this last year.  Approximately one third of my Grade 8 class had origins in South America, and most of these students spoke Spanish as well as English and French.  I’ll never forget how the dynamics in my classroom were flipped on their head one day when we read an article on the death of “Hugo Chavez”.  These were students whose parents had personal experience with his government.  Many students who were normally quiet began to participate.  Those who were my usual discussion leaders were quieted – listening to the stories that these students shared.  My only regret is that I didn’t do more of this.  It’s extremely engaging.

I find myself making a connection between these  experiences and some professional development opportunities this year.

Last fall, I was excited to see French Immersion schools participating in literacy workshops called “Journeys Into Literacy” offered by the same coordinator team.  While I was there participating with my two English schools, I did use what I learned there with teachers in my French Immersion school too. Much of what I learned there applied to the FSL classroom: highlighting text features and how they help us understand a text, interactive read alouds, making thinking visible and constructing new knowledge to name a few!


Today I was in a classroom where a teacher asked his students if Canada’s population was more like a salad or a soup?  The answer of course is salad.  Here in Canada, we are not a “melting pot”.  We can retain our own identity (carrot, tomato, lettuce for instance) while being part of the whole. Each individual and diverse part is needed to make the salad. The same is true in education.  Our classrooms, schools, board and education system need to reflect this salad.  Our country is bilingual.  Multilingual really!  We offer various French programming. It’s part of the salad. Perhaps the croutons… but ideally,  I would like it to be the dressing! The English and the French language programs compliment and strengthen each other.

And so I am wondering….

How might we ensure our French teachers “see” themselves in the PD offered at our school board?  We need to continue to ensure that those classroom benefits – inclusion and tolerance that these diversity kits offer also applies to learning opportunities offered to teachers. What can we do to ensure they see themselves in what is presented or organized?

After all….

“Inclusion elevates all” – Elaine Hall

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