An interesting observation on perspective

It appears that I will never truly be a regular, consistent blogger.

In any case, today’s post is brought to you by our good old friend, The Business Letter and our age-old nemesis, Marking!

In Alberta, the ELA 9 program requires students to learn about functional writing. Of course, this term is ridiculous because all writing serves a function, but essentially AB Ed uses that term to describe the business letter. Usually, on the standardized exam that occurs at the culmination of the course (the Provincial Achievement Test, or PAT), students are asked to write a business letter, but within the parameters of a scenario laid out within the exam. For example, perhaps you are Jenny Strong from Cochrane, Alberta and you are writing to Bryan Oak, the owner of a local company, to complain about a poor experience you had with his business. Usually the prompt will give students direction for expansion, asking them to outline ways that the company could better deal with the issue at hand as well as potential methods of avoiding that same problem in the future. You get the idea.

The prompt that I gave my grade 9 classes most recently is one that was used on an old PAT. It asked students to imagine that they were a student at an Alberta junior high, writing to the school principal to propose the implementation of an environmentally-focused student program/committee. The program is meant to be student-run, though it could be open to forming partnerships with local businesses and organizations; ultimately, it is meant to be beneficial to students, teachers, administration, and custodial staff. The prompt asked students to outline these benefits and to anticipate any potential problems that might arise, as well as suggest ways around those problems.

What has fascinated me as I have marked the letters that my kids wrote is how differently they responded to this prompt when compared to the kids I taught at my last school. The school where I currently teach hosts a predominately affluent student population. And affluent isn’t even really scratching the surface for some of the families who send their children here — some of them are straight-up riiiiiiiiiich. These are kids who roll up to school in cars nicer than many of the vehicles the staff drive. They wear brand name everything, have the latest gadgets and toys, go on multiple trips yearly, etc. In comparison, the school I taught at for two years prior to my move this past summer is located in an area of town that most would immediately associate with a lower socioeconomic status. It is not seedy or ramshackle for the most part, but its demographics skew high for immigrant families, lower-earning families, and so on.

When I marked this same business letter last year, at this less-privileged school, most of the kids responded to the letter prompt in similar ways. Many kids saw immediately that the program in question would be beneficial because it would remind all people in the school that energy and resources are precious and should not be wasted. Not only would this awareness help to save money in the long run, it would create wide-spread awareness and school spirit as the staff and students alike worked together to support the initiative. There would be more emphasis on recycling, especially in terms of separating different kinds of recycling. There could be bottle drives. The student committee could give presentations to the school during assemblies on ways that everyone could contribute to creating a more environmentally-friendly community. All people in the school would try to conserve energy by turning off lights, not running taps needlessly in the washrooms, bringing reusable water bottles instead of disposable ones, packing lunches in containers rather than baggies, etc.

Fast forward to this year. I can’t even tell you how many letters I read where my students had obviously forgotten (or neglected) one of the main aspects of the prompt, namely the part about the environmental program’s activities being student-led. So many of my students tossed aside the whole bit about asking the principal to support the implementation of a student-led initiative and instead, their letters became a request for funding! The kids suggested that the principal change out all the faucets and toilets in the school to be lower-efficiency, and that an electrician be brought in to change out the lighting in the building for the same reason. Suggestions also included changing lightswitches and incorporating motion-sensors for classroom lights, knocking out walls and bringing in higher-grade insulation, and installing solar panels on the roof of the school. Some kids at least had the idea to put recycling bins into each classroom, and I was loath to point out to them that most schools already have this revolutionary idea in place. It was so interesting to see how these two groups of students, from two very different slices of the city, approached the same problem. The solutions my current students came up with seemed to reflect the ways in which they see problems being solved in their everyday lives. It was astounding that the first ideas that seemed to come to mind for them was to spend more money, or to appeal to an authority for funding, rather than solving the issue with simple gestures and thoughtfulness that I’d presume they have access to independently. The cherry on top was when these same kids would finish off their letters by telling the principal, “I think this program will help us save money.” Ha!

Anyway, I was just sitting here, about to start my next batch of marking, and I was trying to figure out why this set of letters had gone so far off the tracks. That’s when I realised that the struggles I witnessed in my kids’ writing was a direct result of their life experiences peeking through in their work. So many of the letters I read from my last school were right on the mark in terms of content and detail, but that’s also because their life experiences of growing up in hardworking, less-privileged immigrant families taught them the value of these resources and of taking care of the environment. For them, this prompt would have been something accessible because it asked them to access a train of thought that is already relevant and real for them every day.

For my more privileged (and in many cases, sheltered) kids, some of whom probably don’t often worry about their water/energy consumption, or whose families can afford to get them new clothes and electronics on the regular, or who have never really thought twice about purchasing bottled water, this prompt was asking them to think outside of a very specific box in which they live. It never occurred to me until this year that this prompt could be difficult for some of them. Of course, I don’t mean to paint all the kids in my current school with one big brush; not all of them are affluent, and many of them do still come from hardworking families, immigrant or otherwise. But it is interesting to see how kids who are raised with financial access tackle a writing prompt that asks them to look at a problem and propose solutions that do not involve money, and that require personal initiative and volunteerism.

I share this because as a teacher, this was an important reminder about perspective and the ways in which the work I see coming out of my students will be directly impacted by their life experiences. When it comes to personal essays and narratives and reflections, we expect to see this diversity and individual quality emerge from assignment to assignment. But when it comes to a task like the business letter, where the prompt is so specific and the parameters are so exact, it was a surprising thing for me to find that students will still inject their own perspective and worldview into their writing.

Neat stuff!

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Filed under Reflection

Another year, another classroom.

And this one’s got a ton of bells and whistles, folks!

Boom. Airy and fresh.

Boom. Airy and fresh.

 

Sirius Black + Safe Space posters = winning view. I don’t know really what to do with that big clunky word art down by the filing cabinet on the floor. Doesn’t really go anywhere in this room. Hmm.

The thing about affluent schools is that the things are really shiny and nice. I am 4.7% magpie, so of course this stuff is appealing to me. My classroom in my new school is just… fabulous. There are so many things I am excited about, and yet, it’s the simpler things like having exterior windows for the first time EVER that really make it feel luxurious. Oh, and my school doesn’t block 8tracks. Life is good, man.

I have a bunch of fancy clickers and remotes, a barcode scanner for taking attendance, Apple TV, a shiny FM mic system, new furniture, and great keyboard (seriously, very important). It’s all very pretty.

The basic tenets of my classroom set-up remain the same: create collaboration-friendly, flexible learning spaces for my kids. Provide resources that stimulate and assist creativity and spontaneous moments of curiosity/discovery/whatever. Maintain a colourful and welcoming atmosphere full of stuff to read and things to provoke conversation. The belief system behind this new space is still the same, and yet, it manifests so differently when it has natural light and student tables (no desks, no desks!) behind it all.

(Note: If you want a more elaborate look inside my head when it comes to classroom physicality, you could hop over to my classroom tour from last year, at my old school!)

Student resource centre is still alive and well! Cabinets contain literacy-focused board games and my films. Hoping to grow that meagre collection of novels eventually! And yes, that is a District 12 salute foam finger immediately above a Hunger Games poster.

I flopped into my chair today and surveyed my two weeks’ worth of cleaning, arranging, organizing, and setting up, and lo and behold, I realised that in terms of the perfect classroom I always imagined in my head, I’m pretty much there. If there were anything I would add, it would be bookshelves full of books and a few more beanbags. But it’s close. Really close.

It will be interesting to see how thirty or more kids fit into the space, but I’m hopeful. While the tables don’t give as many configuration options as individual desks pushed together in whacky patterns, I think the size of the kids’ workspaces like this is pretty darn amazing. I’m interested in seeing about a fishbowl configuration down the line, too.

Amazingly, I think I finally have enough posters and prints up — the walls are well-covered! Last year, I had some sheets of cardstock-weight paper laminated and then they kind of got ignored, but this year I’m using them as posters and maybe also for other purposes as time goes on. For now, four of them have become book talk-like excerpt posters! I wrote, “An excerpt from ______________ by _______________” at the top of each one and included an excerpt that I think is thought-provoking and/or beautiful. My hope is to change the posters every couple weeks, but, you know. November happens. The four books I chose to open my year are The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Decoded by Jay-Z, and The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha.

Anyway, I gotta get back to my planning for tomorrow (First day of school, wooo!), but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy these little peeks into my new home away from home!

Zen Pencils’ offering of posters is on. point. Love the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by my door.

You can sort of see my excerpt DIY posters in this photo. More importantly, you can see my new favourite poster: The Thesaurus. Raaarrr!

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Ye olde workstation, complete with photos of my beloveds, a cheerful shelf, and some cute plants!

PLANTS! I CAN FINALLY HAVE PLANTS! YEAH, WINDOWS! 🙂

Catch you later!

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Filed under Classroom space, Learning spaces

A favourite way to read

In an ELA classroom, there is often so much on the plate, we don’t always give our kids enough time to read. I try to offer a mix of opportunities to read out loud, to be read to (by me), to read at home, and to read in class. I admit that in the past, I probably didn’t give my kids quite enough chances to read in class, but this year I’m trying to give them that time.

What I love about in-class reading blocks is that the kids get a chance to unwind a little and just be with a book. Some of my kids aren’t usually readers outside of the classroom and offering them this time is so important. And yeah, it’s not like reading blocks aren’t enjoyable for me, too. Having a reading block gives me a bit of time also to read my own book (Modeling! So important!), to do a bit of marking or answer emails, and so forth. But ultimately, the reading block is intended to serve the students.

Basically, my approach to reading blocks follows this basic premise: if we want our kids to learn that reading can be enjoyable, we should offer them opportunities (as well as tools and strategies) to enjoy their reading experience.

When I was in school, reading blocks were set up so that everyone was sitting in a desk, facing forward in rows, in complete silence. Because the way we were expected to read in school felt very regimented and forced, the act of reading—which I normally would freely choose to do for fun, even as a child—was now drudgery. Compare this reading experience to the kind I’d have when I was at home. When I was home, I would never sit in a chair at a table and read in silence. My favourite way to read involved grabbing a snack, putting my favourite cassette tape into my Walkman (!), and settling into one of my preferred reading positions.

My favourite reading position has always been laying down on my tummy — on a couch, bed, or even on the floor — with a cushion propped up under my chest. Second favourite: sitting with my right side body pressed against the arm of a chair or sofa, my right elbow propped up, and my right leg curled under me. Neither of these positions are easily offered by a regular student desk/chair. So, when I decided to start implementing reading blocks in my school schedule, I took all of this into account. Many of my kids — aged twelve through fourteen this time of year — are just being able to figure out how (and if) they like to read and how to be comfortable with a book. Some of them are like me: book lovers who seek out opportunities to read, but whose favourite way to read is not at a desk. For all of these reasons, I give my kids complete freedom within the classroom space during reading blocks and let them engage as organically as possible in their reading experience.

When I first moved into this classroom, I inherited a decrepit, wood-frame couch; while the frame eventually fell apart, I decided to keep the cushions. During reading blocks, some kids like to sit on them, others like to lay a cushion on the floor and sprawl out on their bellies or backs (exactly what I would do) or curl up in fetal position. Some kids like to stay upright in their usual seats. Some slouch in their chairs and put their feet up on a vacant chair next to them. I’ve seen students retreat to a pod of desks as a group just so they can read in the company of their friends. There are two girls in my grade nine class who curl up each in her own corner of the classroom to read in relative solitude. Others sit against the wall and some students even sit/lay under desks (and yes, I permit this). A few of my kids like to try out different locations/positions from block to block while others find their favourite space and predictably choose it time and time again.

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Three of my grade nine girls who grabbed cushions and got comfy. I kind of wanted to join them!

I allow my students to snack/drink and listen to music while they read, too, because like I said, I like to snack, drink, and listen to music when I read. I often will play soft music in the background while they read; my favourites include instrumental tracks from Disney films (“King of Pride Rock” from The Lion King, “Short Hair” from Mulan, and “Transformation” from Beauty and the Beast are fantastic), any softer tracks by Jesse Cook, John Williams, the Vitamin String Quartet, and other music that kind of “fits” this mold. I try to avoid upbeat songs or songs with lyrics during reading time because some kids have a hard time processing two streams of language simultaneously and my goal is for them to focus on their reading.

“You play music while they read? But what about kids who don’t want to listen to music?” you ask. Recently, I purchased a few cheap sets of ear plugs to give to students who prefer complete silence. They aren’t expensive, and I don’t mind giving them away (who wants to reuse someone else’s ear plugs anyway?). I provide these because I believe that kids who crave silence have just as much a right to read in an environment that is comfortable to them as the kids who crave music.

At literacy PDs, they’ll tell you that many young readers and non-readers come to dislike reading because they aren’t exposed to books that are relevant or interesting to them. While this is definitely true, I think that while we are on the hunt for great stuff for our kids to read, we should also be mindful of exposing them to reading experiences/contexts that are relevant, engaging, and comforting.

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Two boys sitting in the comfy chairs at my resource table.

Above all, my hope is that my students learn that a reading experience should be something they can choose for themselves, and that with a little freedom, they can discover their own favourite way to read, too. 🙂

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October 25, 2013 · 9:25 am

Project Idea: Research the Canadian Cabinet (SS9, Alberta POS)

Project Idea: Research the cabinet ministers of Canada
This project is meant as an introduction to Chapter 1 of the Grade 9 POS in Alberta and addresses multiple learning outcomes. AND it’s student-directed and fun to look at.

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I taught Social Studies for the first time last year, and I have to say, it was no piece of cake.

For starters, having no previous experience in any core subject except ELA before I came to this school, it never fully hit me just how content-heavy/content-driven the other three core subjects are. If I wasn’t convinced that curricula are broken before, teaching Social 7 and 8 and Science 7 last year made me a believer.

Now, I’m in my second year of teaching Social Studies (I currently teach two sections of Social 7, one section of Social 8, and one section of Social 9 — whew!) and while the sheer amount of material in the textbooks continues to make me nervous, I’m trying to remember that streamlining is possible and necessary if you teach in the style I do.

The fact is that collaborative, student-directed learning is always going to be more time-consuming than if I were to stand at the front of the classroom and blather on endlessly about history/government/politics. However, the bang you get the for the time you invest in letting your kids discover stuff on their own is practically immeasurable. When I looked at my kids’ Renaissance Facebook projects last year, wherein they made big posters representing a Facebook timeline of Galileo Galilei, Martin Luther, or Christine de Pizan, the last thing that came to mind was, “It would have been a more efficient use of my time just to have them take notes and write a test.”

(By the way, if you, like me, enjoy collaborative, student-directed learning and you live in the Edmonton area, you should come to EdCamp Edmonton on November 2! Want to know more about EdCamp? Go read about it in one of my previous posts. Or check out the Twitter account. Or keep up with the event via Facebook! Online registration is here!)

The fact is, student-directed learning can be messy, and yes, kids can take advantage of the time you give them, but in the end, they work together, they research, they discuss, they ask questions, we conference, they try stuff out and ask more questions.. and that’s a heck of a lot more interesting to both them and me than note-taking and test-writing.

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Sometimes you get a bit of cheek in your students’ work. 🙂

I came up with this project as an intro to discussing Canadian governmental systems, but the fact is that this project could be adapted easily for other topics. In Canada, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet comprises several men and women who have been appointed to specific leadership roles and who then oversee corresponding “portfolios”; some cabinet ministers are assigned to one portfolio while others handle two or three. In Alberta, the grade 9 curriculum opens with information about the three branches of our federal government, describes how bills become laws, and explains in accessible terms how the media and lobbyists play a role in the way our country runs. As we discussed the Executive Branch of Canada, I thought it might be interesting to have the kids investigate our current cabinet, especially following the changes Harper made to our cabinet in July.

What followed was simple: each kid gets a portfolio folder (you know, the card stock-type ones that are in abundance in any school photocopy/supplies room) with a cabinet minister’s name and assigned portfolios on it. Kids may trade portfolios with someone else if both parties are agreeable. My requirements were that the front flap be decorated with coloured, hand-drawn images representing the portfolio contents, the top inside flap had to include an image of the cabinet minister and the logo of his/her political party as well as a brief biography (personal and professional background included), and the bottom inside flap had to feature a brief description of the roles and responsibilities associated with the cabinet minister’s portfolio(s).

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The assignment page above is downloadable here for your edits and reuse! The preview in Google Drive looks wonky, but opened in MS Word, it should be fine.

Ideally, the kids write in their own words, though sometimes of course, that’s a challenge. We have a lot of ELLs in my school, so this assignment was definitely tricky for them here and there. The beauty of it all, though, is that because it’s student-directed, there’s time for me to float around and help those who require a bit of extra assistance. I also assigned portfolios to certain kids, depending on their skill sets. As I said earlier, they could then trade with each other if they wanted, but that was a judgment call they would have to make. For the record, no one in my class swapped portfolios. Kids who are strong readers were assigned cabinet minister portfolios that were more complex or that required extra reading/research. Kids who are a little more basic and who don’t understand concepts like foreign affairs were given the finance or transportation portfolios so that they had something more concrete to go on.

You’ll notice that the due date box is blank in the assignment sheet above. I discussed with my kids the parameters of the assignment and the kind of work they would be doing; together, we agreed on a reasonable time frame in which this could be accomplished—three classes, plus a few days’ grace. Three classes’ worth of research/work time is about 2.5 hours at my school, and coupled with the extra four days of at-home work time, most of the kids had their projects done and ready to go. I thought this was the perfect amount of time, and it worked out really well that the kids agreed.

Don’t discount the amount of time it will take your kids to find pertinent information and figure out what it all means — most governmental publications are not in the most accessible terms for young teens. Many of my kids utilized dictionaries and thesauri during this project, which again, is such a great problem-solving skill for them to practise. Finding images, doing the drawings, and of course, writing down their research in their own words will also take time. Let them work!

Two of my strong little bunnies produced some great stuff in their portfolios. You can see the outside of their portfolios in the top photo and the work inside in the bottom photo:

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Another perk of this project is the part when all the kids realize that every single cabinet minister belongs to the Conservative Party of Canada, falling in line with the principles of cabinet solidarity. It brings up amazing conversations about policy-making and conflicts.

Once all the folders are up on your wall or bulletin board, you’ll find it useful to keep each one closed with a small paperclip along the side. If you’re really ambitious, you could buy those little self-adhesive velcro circles and have each kid put one inside their folder, but I think the clips are just fine. Then the kids have a great time opening each portfolio to see what’s inside. I’m planning a post on making classroom bulletin boards more interactive, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

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In the meantime, how great do those folders look? (Note: As much as I wish my class only comprised twenty students, the folders that are on display are only indicative of the kids who handed in their projects. Another year, another endless chase for missing assignments, right?)

The last, inevitable piece: the grading. Essentially, I grade each flap on 10, making the project a total of 30 points. You can really style your rubric any way you like, but I was looking for detail and thought, students’ own words, organization/presentation of content, and of course fulfilling the main requirements of the assignment. I marked this project pretty easily because it was the first of the year and because this project is meant to be as much of a curricular bullseye as it is a way of whetting some of the skills and processes that I ask them to cultivate throughout the year (conducting and evaluating research for a specific purpose, synthesizing what they read, exercising visual and media literacy, and of course… following basic instructions).

Best wishes with this project, and have fun!

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Filed under Lesson ideas

Welcome to my classroom

My classroom is humble.

It is an all-beige, boxy space. It has holey ceiling tiles, horrid fluorescent lighting, and a SmartBoard that only cooperates 35% of the time. It’s the warmest room in the building (the temperature hovers between 23ºC and 27ºC on any given day), and it is not well-ventilated—not the greatest combination when you think about the way junior high kids smell. If I could open a window to let the air circulate, I would, but my classroom is an interior classroom: no outside windows = no circulation or natural light, which isn’t ideal. Be that as it may, this room is cozy and fun, and let’s face it: it’s my haven five days a week.

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When I first moved into my room, I was immediately struck by how much furniture it contained: teacher desks/chairs; student desks/chairs; five tables of varying sizes and shapes; three study carrels; some soft chairs; a crude, wood-frame couch; two filing cabinets full of empty food packages and random papers; and a medium-sized bookshelf. The entire back wall was a built-in shelving/cupboard unit, albeit a musty-smelling one, and most of the shelves were full of odds and ends, boxes, and plastic bins that resembled those magazine holder thingies that people like. Needless to say, I did a lot of cleaning up and cleaning out. In the last year since I moved in, I have gotten rid of a bunch of stuff, moved a lot of other stuff around, and tried to make the space more conducive to learning/productivity—as little “dead space” as possible.

If you liked the prints on my door, you’d like the rest of the prints and posters I have throughout my room! I have invested a lot of money into quality art prints for my classroom, which I admit might be considered a frivolous way to spend one’s paycheque, but there are benefits that I think are worthwhile. For starters, I have the coolest classroom posters. That’s not a subjective statement, it is a fact. Secondly, and more importantly, attractive posters are a fantastic way of tricking kids into reading. I know this sounds trite, but if you actually read every single poster in my classroom from top to bottom, it might take you an hour or more. There are various posters with fun/random facts, I’ve got charts and graphs, typography-based prints, visual prints (usually referencing literature, though some were purchased because they are just plain awesome), and of course, posters from the Oatmeal grammar pack.

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A view of my posters from my desk. To orient you, you can see that the door to my classroom is on the far side of the right wall.

Here’s a sampling of some of my popular posters. If you like any of the prints below, click on the image; I linked each one to its online ordering page!

This print is so much fun. One of my previous students in grade 10 actually adopted the phrase, “By the beard of Zeus!” after reading it in this print.

I spot kids tracing their fingers along this whimsical map several times a week. Good thing I laminate all my prints!

This print is a hit with the lads. They find the part about chewing rocks “until some teeth fall out” particularly amusing.

A super cute print. The worms’ books include Harry Wormer and The Little Wormaid.

My favourite place to shop is Society6 (an affiliate of another of my favourite companies, Threadless) because there are SO MANY punny/lit-nerdy/game-nerdy/regular-nerdy prints to look at! Where else are you going to find a Harry Potter herbology reference guide or an Alice in Wonderland print of the Mad Hatter’s tea party? I’ve also scored some gems from Level Up Studios and Alison Rowan. One of the most popular posters in my room is this one from the Sheldon Comic Strip. Little do they know it, but when my students are reading that poster, they are also learning how to read a flow chart. One of my favourite things to do when I see a handful of kids congregating around a poster (and literally, I see kids standing around reading my posters every. single. day.) is to sidle up next to them and triumphantly declare that I have caught them in the act of reading for fun, which always amuses/surprises them. I buy new prints every year, and whenever I announce that I have new posters coming, the kids actually get excited to see them.

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As you can see, I prefer for my kids to sit in pods. Depending on the class, a pod may hold as few as three or as many as six students. I love having desks/tables configured in different sizes, angles, and “shapes” because I think it challenges kids’ perceptions of what a classroom should look like. I even have a wooden dinette set in my room (and the kids love sitting there because it’s homey). Sometimes, when I open class, I drag my stool to a back corner and greet them from there just so that they understand that “the front” doesn’t always have to be where the SmartBoard is, and that learning can happen even if you’re facing the back of the room. Sure, when we’re using the SmartBoard or if I’m doing some random etymology lesson on the whiteboards, some kids end up having to turn their chairs or what have you. But I think that kind of situation offers an opportunity for kids to problem-solve and figure out how to negotiate their learning space, which is a worthy skill in and of itself.

And in case you were wondering, yes, seating plans are indeed harder to make when your classroom is as randomly configured as mine is—even harder if you’re anal retentive about making a printed copy. Case in point:

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I blurred out all the names in editing, obviously. FOIPP.

Another note about seating plans: if there is a kid who is assigned to an EA, I always include a spot for that EA to sit in my seating plans. I hate when EAs end up pulling up a chair and sitting awkwardly at the edge of a kid’s desk, like they are an afterthought rather than in integral member of the classroom community. I don’t always have a seating plan, by the way. My only rule for free seating is that the front fills first. During reading blocks, I let my kids sit wherever they want. Some of them even sit and/or sprawl out on the floor, which is a little gross, but hey, I love reading while laying on my stomach, too.

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The “Cause of Death” poster is another student favourite. Each scenario depicted has a caption describing a way that Mario can die in any of his namesake video games: being eaten by a Piranha Plant, drowning, falling, being “Chomp”ed, etc. The print on the right is of a little Darth Vader frolicking with a Death Star balloon.

One piece of furniture that I could not do without is my resource table.

My resource table is a space that is 100% devoted to student productivity. The document organizer, a gift from my best friend, is usually filled with handouts (though I don’t generate those as much as I used to), graphic organizers, resources, and blank looseleaf/white bond/graph paper just in case. On top of the organizer are yellow pencil cases filled with washable markers and felts, a clear box filled with pencil crayons, a grey bin containing staplers and three-hole punches, and of course, there is Kleenex. I keep 17″x22″ sheets of paper on the resource table in case kids are working on posters or need them for projects. The two soft chairs are there in case kids want to sit there during a reading block, or if another teacher has a kid who needs to write an exam in my room, or whatever.

Sometimes my EAs like to sit there so that they are near their assigned kid but not so close so as to be suffocating, especially if we are doing a task where the EA doesn’t need to be fully involved.

Underneath my resource table, I have some pretty bins that contain all the random shit that I like to keep close by but not visible: cleaning stuff, bulletin board borders/fabric, etc. I also have a rolling bin containing solar lamps that I picked up from Ikea. The lamps are great to bust out during a film study because you can put one at each pod and the kids can still see their work. They only hold a charge for about three hours of continuous use, so I occasionally have to roll the bin to the staff room and charge the lamps by the window over the weekend (Ah, if only I had outside windows!).

At the back of my room, I have a reference section containing thesauri, dictionaries, and ESL resources (picture dictionaries, handouts, and practice pages). Immediately next to this section are a set of shelves that I reserve for student portfolios, ongoing projects, etc. I moseyed down to the dollar store and picked up a bunch of bins, slapped together some labels, and the rest is history.

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Each green bin “belongs” to one of my core classes and is labelled accordingly; I have two classes of 7s on the left, two classes of 8s in the middle, and two classes of 9s on the right. Very convenient.  In the bins, each student (ideally) has a duotang that s/he will put assignments and projects into after I have returned them. The duotangs do not leave my classroom. Then, whenever kids want to reference their past work, they can, and it’s super handy when parents come to visit. I always like to “harvest” some of the outstanding portfolios at the end of the year to keep as student exemplars.

The blue bins are for assignment collection; there is one for each grade level. This prevents students from giving me the old standby excuse: “I gave my homework to the sub. S/he must have lost it! I swear I handed it in!” Instead, kids come to class and know immediately to put their homework into the blue bin and I empty the bins at the end of each day. I indicate this process to all of my subs in my day’s plans. And yes, I trust the kids not to filch or sabotage each other’s assignments.

The remaining cupboards mostly contain things like seasonal décor (my little Christmas tree, the Halloween garlands, etc.) and my old papers/exemplars from my old school. I don’t like to keep student stuff in the cupboards because the cupboards have an unappealing, vinegary/sour glue/old smell to them. 

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As for my work space, here it is, complete with that horrible TV/VCR get-up that was popular in the late 90s. Wish I could just rip that thing down. I strung up that lantern with the husband’s help this summer. I like it because it’s soothing and homey, but it also serves a practical purpose because I can see everything on my desk and do my work, even with the classroom lights off. It’s especially useful because during Film Studies, I often pause the film to discuss with the kids and I like for them to be able to see me. Also, towards the holidays, I like to give my kids a few days of free time to watch movies/relax a little bit, and then I can still do my marking while they enjoy a film.

You can also see that I’ve got a homework board behind my desk, and it’s seriously an act of God that I manage to keep it remotely up-to-date. I’m terrible at issuing reminders, but I’m really trying this year. I also have another WordPress site that is devoted to my classes and which includes a “Live Homework Board” page, and everyone at my school uses Remind101 (which is a great tool for people who, unlike me, are good at remembering to issue reminders). I mean, what ever happened to students paying attention when the teacher said, “Hey gang, this thing is due on Thursday,” and being accountable for that? I feel like just keeping on top of all the reminders I’m apparently “supposed” to give my kids is a fulltime job!

Behind my desk, I’ve got a nice little nook where I keep my classroom mascots, films, teaching resources, sub plans binder, staff handbook, tea, coffee, hairspray (you never know!), phone charger, candy, etc.  

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I also keep stuff like permanent markers, spare pencils, spare rulers, and my “annotation baskets” (which I put out on an as-needed basis with the kids; the baskets are filled with sticky notes, highlighters, index cards, etc.) behind my desk because while I’m more than happy to let students use them, I’d rather not just leave them all out on the resource table where they would assuredly go missing. By the way, my desk is never this tidy. I was prepping for a sub to come in the next morning. 🙂

Anyway… yeah! That’s my room! I was intending for this to be a brief tour, but it turned out to be far from it. In any case, if you stuck through this whole post, you deserve a medal.

Thanks for stopping by!

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October 3, 2013 · 7:28 pm

Procrastination be damned. Also, Penny Kittle!

Whoops. Left the blog behind for a while, didn’t I?

One of Penny’s books. Want!

Penny Kittle came into town on a cold February day and I anticipate that it will be one of the most memorable PDs I will ever attend, mostly because of all the crying experienced by its attendees! Between reading heartrending texts and doing some of our own intimate, personal writing, there certainly were many tears shed. I think I cried a minimum of five separate times. You know you’re at a good PD when…!

Penny is a teacher and author who specializes in literacy development and English Language Arts. I first heard about her from my friend, Erin, and heard of her again from Kelly Gallagher, who is basically one of my educational heroes (and whose PDs also always make me cry). I looked so forward to spending a day inside Penny Kittle’s brain and was even more jazzed when I got there because I found myself sitting at a table of incredible educators and friends.

To be honest, I think the document of notes (completely disorganized notes, alas!) I took speaks much more to the awesomeness of the PD session than anything I might cobble together now, but these are four things that really stuck with me from Penny’s day with us.

1) The act of giving a kid a book can make them want to read it. I did this with one of my grade eight girls last year. I handed her The Book of Negroes, which some might feel is too advanced for a kid like her, but she fell in love with it.

2) The use of the classroom writing notebook as a catch-all scrapbook/journal/idea explosion. Penny’s got some amazing, creative ideas for quickwrites and activities.

3) Escalating texts. Using multiple texts surrounding the same topic/issue and reading them in sequence, increasing with “intensity” so that kids form first impressions and dive deeper. Seriously, when Penny did this with us in the session using three texts revolving around 9/11, there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire room. (Insert tangent: I don’t even know how she managed to read one of those texts aloud to us without crying herself. I don’t think I could do it. I know there’s got to be more teachers who end up teaching through their tears besides me, right? Right? Up! as a film study, anyone? That montage gets me every. single. time.)

4) Writing conferences. Penny’s got some great leading phrases and approaches in writers’ conferences that don’t have anything to do with grammar/spelling. She really latches on to the idea of teaching kids to write, as in creating ideas and shaping worlds and painting characters. She gets them to expand their ideas rather than quibbling over homophones when she meets with them. It is expected that they go back and check their conventions later, so the writing conference is spent more productively. After all, a flat story with insipid characters is not improved by perfect grammar. In the same way, a truly riveting tale with engaging and charismatic characters nonetheless draws readership even with the odd spelling error.

In case you missed the link a few paragraphs ago, I’ll redundantly stick it in here again. Sorry again about the here-and-there formatting of the doc, but I couldn’t bear to sit on it anymore! What’s nice is that where possible, I tried to include links to texts and resources Penny mentioned throughout the day, so hopefully they can lead you to peruse even more avenues of thought regarding your classes. Please enjoy and share alike!

Other great Penny stuff:
Penny’s online PDF notes that accompany her book, Write Beside Them are available here.
Her site, chock full of resources and things to think about.

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What about English Language Learners?

*dusts cobwebs*

Jeez Louise. I swear, I didn’t forget about this blog. Things have just been incredibly hectic over here… which, I mean, for any fellow teachers reading this blog, you already know. I don’t have to tell you what January is like.

So I’ll begin with some good news: Since EdCamp, I’ve been to more good PD! Shocking, I know. I’ve also been to some lame PD. But you can’t win ’em all, and the fact that I’m going to a Writing PD with Penny Kittle (@pennykittle) next month pretty much means that my PD score for the 2012-2013 year is still chalking up to more good than bad. By the way, Edmonton folks, you really want to register for that PD! Then we can hang out and be nerdy together!

Yesterday, I attended a webinar with Dr. Deborah Short (one of the creators of the SIOP educational model) on how to support literacy with English Language Learners (ELLs), and although I found some things about the layout of the PD to be a little confusing or disjointed, I definitely enjoyed thinking about various strategies I could use in my own classroom. I have to say that although it is only January and although we still have half a year left in which I can start using these strategies, I’m already excited about beginning a new school year with these strategies and routines firmly in place from the get-go.

On a semi-related note, can we take a moment to talk about the fact that it is super lame when you end up going to really good PD in April or May? There’s hardly any time left! I guess it gives you a lot of extra prep time to get it ready for September.

Anyway, there were a lot of cool PD sessions available yesterday that I could have attended (like watercolour painting at one of our local botanical conservatories), but since literacy is my passion, I pretty much saw no other option but the one I went to. Besides, it certainly was a PD that would be immediately relevant in my teaching, because at my school, we have a lot of ELLs.

Working with ELLs is not something I’m unfamiliar with. In my first year of teaching, I ended up doing a short temporary contract at a junior high wherein I was actually teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to some grade nines. Then, at the high school where I taught for the following two years, I found myself teaching many ELLs as well. Being an “academically focused” school, the demographics of that particular student body skewed toward Asian. Despite being skilled mathematicians, some of my students there struggled to form coherent sentences. I have distinct memories of reading passages from some student work aloud just to try to make sense of it, then laughing at the hopelessness of the situation.

This year, I find myself in a junior high school whose student population comprises something like 80-85% ELLs and only 15-20% native English speakers. Although I’ve dealt with ELL support before, I never had to face the challenges I face at this new school. Trying to figure out ways to reach all the kids in an effective way while still providing adequate challenges for my Pre-AP kids has been extremely trying at times. When it works, things are really exciting, but when I find myself at the occasional crossroads where twenty-two of my kids are good to go and only one kid finds himself stuck and unable to continue with the task I’ve presented, I feel lost, anxious, and to be frank, rather weary. It is tiring trying to keep up with all the different levels of language learning happening in my classroom. I have ELLs who speak better English than some high school students I know. I have ELLs who read, write, and converse fluently, but sometimes get stumped on trickier, more nuanced words/concepts like “reluctant” or “controversy.” I have ELLs who are still in such a formative stage of their language acquisition that they cannot tell me why they are late to class. How do we plan for all these young people? And how can we support the ELLs who are newest to English, who arguably need us most (but who, let’s face it, are often ignored in favour of keeping the others “on schedule”)?

First of all, we need to think like an ELL. I watched a webinar a few months ago that opened with an exercise that I’ll not soon forget. The speaker told us that she was going to show us an image. We could think whatever we wanted about it. Then we’d have to describe it. Okay, simple enough. This is basically what came up on the screen:

Easy enough, right? “Where’s the challenge in this?” I wondered.

“Now, here’s the catch,” the speaker said, “When you describe this object, you cannot use any words that contain the letter N.”

Huh. Let’s think about that. You can’t say line. You can’t say point. You can’t say triangle. You can’t say intersect. You certainly can’t say polygon. Think about what you would say! Personally, I didn’t get much farther than “three-sided shape,” and even though I think that accurately describes a triangle, you can imagine that it would be a heck of a lot easier to visualize it if I could use words like line and point. This brain-crunching process that I experienced in this short exercise was meant to acquaint me with what it’s like to be an ELL. You know what that stupid thing is. You have words you want to use, but you can’t use those ones. You are limited to only a few other words that would never really be your first choice and you really have to ponder for a while before you can spit out your thoughts.

What I liked about the session with Deb yesterday is that she didn’t just theorize about teaching ELLs. She presented us with some concrete ideas and strategies that we could carry forward and implement immediately in our teaching, regardless of the subject being taught. There were definitely a bunch of strategies she discussed that are already in place in my classroom, but there were other ideas that, although being pretty simple and intuitive, I’d never really thought much about before! More importantly, perhaps, some of the things she talked about provoked further thought processes about pedagogy and best practices for me. When my brain gets all tickly like that during PD, it’s almost like I can feel the potential growth taking root. That might be really nerdy to say, but hey, I love my job. Nerding out over literacy is what I do.

I took pretty detailed notes during this session — probably much to the chagrin of my tablemates who had to endure the irritating sound of my nails clicking away incessantly on my keyboard — and now I’m very excited to share the document with you! In my typically-OCD manner, I got a little cray-cray over the formatting of this document; I’m hoping that you find it to be a reasonably well-structured resource that you can take and peruse for ideas and perhaps reshare with your teaching friends! You’ll notice, now and again, that there are italicized comments written in violet. Those are my own personal, random thoughts about teaching and pedagogy that I inserted along the way. 🙂 Enjoy!

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about my February PD session with Penny  Kittle (Squee!), my experiences using learning centers in a high school English class, and a general reflection about some of the emotional challenges I’ve faced in this profession.

Happy weekend!

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