Dispelling the Myths of a Project

I love inquiry and projects, everyone who’s worked with me knows how much I love them. Here’s the problem. Not everyone loves them as much as I do because they have many misconceptions about what a project is and what one should look like. 

“Projects aren’t true assessment.”

Assessment is a well-rounded, multi-faceted practice that is based on many different tools. Quizzes, Tests, Exams, Projects, Performance Tasks, Worksheets, Standardized Assessments, and everything else we use to gather data about our students are a series of snapshots. True assessment requires many points of data to extrapolate what it is that we need to know and that is the level of understanding and performance in applying their knowledge.

“You aren’t assessing knowledge, only skills in a project”

You are the master of your craft. Your assessment tools is what you make of it. My various forms of rubrics and reflection are outcome-based and translate into the score type that I require from letter grades, levels of achievement, percentages and more. Evidence is everything. Feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to share my rubrics, help with editing yours or making suggestions for different tools to meet your needs. You can also check out my Ninja Plans uploads.

“I teach in an academic school. This doesn’t meet our mandate.”

I’m not sure where to begin with this one because I too teach in an academic school. I have taught in teacher-directed classrooms, student-centered classrooms, low-income, high-income, traditional and inquiry-based schools. A project is what you make of it. A dear friend of mine teaches in a Cogito program and we use many of the same projects with some adaptations to suit our contexts. A project is an application of the knowledge gained through instruction to demonstrated understanding. As the teacher, you are responsible for ensuring that implementation is meaningful and authentic to your setting.

 I’m sure there are many more myths, roadblocks or things preventing teachers from implementing more projects. I’d love to discuss this further with anyone that would like to do so. What “blocks” exist to implementing some of the projects you see or wish you could try?

Hosting a Student Teacher

One of the things I have missed when leaving my role as a Learning Coach was the ability to work with teachers in a symbiotic way. Some of the teachers I worked with would teach me more than they will ever realize while I was supporting them with their educational journey. I’ve worked with mentoring pre-service teachers previously in a variety of capacities but this time it was time for something new – a student teacher in their advanced placement. This was different in the sense that I hadn’t worked with the University of Alberta (only some of the other post-secondaries in the province) and this mentee would come with a foundational experience already.

The experience was a very interesting one for me because I have worked or volunteered in grade 5 in some capacity since graduating high school. The curriculum is the same one I tried to escape by teaching high school (except I still ended up teaching Grade 5 Language Arts that year). I was really looking forward to seeing someone else’s take on a curriculum that I know inside and out. I was fortunate to receive a very strong student teacher who understood the importance of relationship so we could focus on confidence and trying new things as well as fine-tuning certain things.

One of the hardest things for me was to give up some of the management control I worked to establish. This year has been one where I have had to adapt my management style to meet several different needs. To be honest, I’m not sure that I ever really did give up completely but I did try to remove myself from the situation unless I needed to step in for some reason.

One of the best things for me was watching how timely feedback can be implemented by a reflective practitioner. 9 weeks is not a lot of time for someone to make significant growth, so it amazes me when I see someone make a lot of growth and strive to implement feedback in a personally meaningful way. I found it personally encouraging as I don’t regularly receive a lot of feedback geared towards professional development. My goal is that hopefully through my own evaluation process, I can implement feedback that is given in a timely manner as well.

Last week I had a chance to speak with a friend who also hosted a student teacher. We talked about things we’d do differently, things we learned and things we’d like to try next time. I am looking forward to next year already as I look to take on another student teacher. I should say thank you to my student teacher for reminding me why I love teaching grade 5 and the importance in the relationships I build.

Why I stopped asking “How was your summer?” on the first day of school (and other great lessons I learned about choosing my words carefully)

Last year a teacher shared a touching blog post about not asking how your summer was as many of her students did not have those story worthy summers. It struck a cord but I never really thought as I wasn’t teaching in a classroom and didn’t have a homeroom. I smiled while my students worked on their independent modules in my office told me about their summers and the things they’ve done. The year before I didn’t even have independent workers in my office, and another year further back, I simply forgot because I was too excited to share all of my activities I had planned. The gravitas of the question never really hit me until this year when we started our year with a reminder about how unique the lives of each of our students might be.

This year I bought the book The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and I re-read that post from last year and I cried. I cried because I know that my students don’t have the kind of holidays that I had at their age. I cried because my students tell me how the school is their favourite place. I cried because for so long I asked: “How was your weekend/Christmas/break?” when I now know that wasn’t the question that needed to be asked.

This past year I stopped asking my kids “how was your [insert whatever time frame]?” and now ask “Is there something you’d like to share with the class?”. One of my kids shared a joke each week, another told me a useless fact (Did you know the difference between graveyards and cemeteries are that graveyards are attached to churches and cemeteries are standalone plots of land? I sure didn’t!) Some kids chose to share about their weekends, other told their classmates something new and some never did participate.

I talk about choosing my words carefully because this isn’t the only time I have had to look back on the words I chose to say to my kids.  A while back I wrote about how a student told me I had to stop making things personal.  Sometimes I forget the importance of how my words affect the classroom.

This year my goal is to remove the phrase “you guys” from my vocabulary. A friend of mine is writing their thesis about feminism and linguistics and send me an interesting article from The Atlantic about how American English needs “Y’all”. While I can’t say that “Y’all” is going to be my new term, I can say that I realized language affect every person differently.  Maybe this year I can be just slightly more cognizant of the words I choose with my students.


Radio Silence

For the past year, this blog lacked any updates. I have several posts in my drafts that I have started but never felt the need to complete. My twitter account stood barely used except for the occasional #weirdEd chat when I had the time and energy. I was exhausted, I was disheartened, I wanted to leave teaching altogether, and I was ready to quit.

My confidence as a teacher was in shambles. No reference letter, evaluation, letter from a parent or student, or anything else would convince me otherwise. This hurt my soul and made me miserable. It also affected my own personal confidence in my daily life. What I needed was to go back to the classroom and start from the beginning.  Go back to my roots and do the thing I loved doing – helping kids find the joy in school.

I am happy to say that the rest of my year was fantastic and the 6 months I spent as the “replacement” teacher was precisely what I needed. For the first time in a long time, I am excited about the first day of school. That’s a pretty big thing for someone who did not enjoy school, who learned how to play the game of school without really internalizing the learning that should have been happening, and who avoided the place as much as possible.

I can’t promise regular updates but it can’t be as bad as it was.

Taking the personal out of the equation

“My kids did…” “My students made me feel…” “My class has no…” So often we talk for our students and generalize a situation. As teachers, we conjecture an understanding of what happens in our class. We take our observations as empirical evidence. We assume, we justify, we impose our beliefs, we make it personal. We often live on the front lines and in the trenches and unfortunately our times. We are trained to understand development, and knowledge acquisition. We have theories drilled into us as to how kids act, learn. change. Sometimes, it just isn’t what needs to be done. This post I am about to share has been brewing on my mind for quite some time but I never had the courage to share my thoughts until now.

I witnessed an interesting vlog recently on social media. A parent had taken issue with broken toys. She was disappointed with her children’s lack of respect towards the things that have been bought for them. She felt hurt and disrespected as a parent. Her emotions took a hold and she expressed her thoughts and feelings about her discovery of boxes for new toys crushed by little feet and could not be sold for the higher prices she had hoped for, lost pieces of a game, and toys that were no longer functional as they had broken. In the heat of the moment, she felt hurt and she was going to make sure her kids learned a lesson on respect by taking away all these toys that were no longer being used as much as they were previously. No more toys until they could show respect.  It was personal and the hurt was deep inside her.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with her choice to take away the toys and have kids earn them back,  she was living in the moment while her kids were away at day camp. She may change her mind in a few hours, she may be more upset when she goes in their rooms and finds clothes shoved in closets and books under the bed. Her reaction is not the point.

How does this relate to teaching? Based on what I watched and listened to, she never looked at the whole picture. She did not consider the circumstances leading up to the situation. She was busy living in the moment and not looking at things from 30,000 feet. Often as teachers, we become entrenched in what is happening in our classes. We care and give so much of ourselves to our kids, we forget that despite being emotionally invested, we need to sometimes take ourselves out of the equation.

The kid who tells you they hate you because you insisted they use a pencil instead of a pen? It is frustrating and time-consuming. At 30,000ft, their last pencil (that was donated at the beginning of the year) was stolen off their desk and they are embarrassed can’t afford more and don’t want to be picked on for tattling that it was taken.

The kid who is struggling in class and made you a bad teacher because they say you’re not able to help them? It hurts, it makes you feel like a horrible teacher but from 30,000ft, we remember that they have a learning disability and have amazing ideas but struggle to develop them within the contexts of the requirements for the assignment.

The kid who fails your tests yet never asks for help? They moved from another country, are trying to learn a new language, work a job, make friends, and figure out social norms and expectations in school. They are scared because they don’t know what they don’t understand until it is too late and they are scared to ask because they see how busy you are each day.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned is that we cannot take things personally all the time. Kids are going to be kids. They are going to struggle to learn something, get frustrated, break things, lie about things, push boundaries. That is part of growing up. In the heat of the moment, we forget our training and understanding of child development and pedagogy. We focus on how we feel because we know that to be true when we can’t understand what else is going on around us. This is fine to feel that way, but it is how you react. Take the personal out of it. Focus on the facts.  Look at the whole picture.  I highly doubt those kids intentionally set out to break the toys, the students set out to lose the pencil, or not understand and become frustrated.

I thought about why I was writing this post. I realized that so often we take things personally because we care so much. We spend so much of ourselves to see success in our students, we don’t have the opportunity to press pause.  We need to allow ourselves the opportunity to acknowledge our feelings and the situation. We need to align ourselves with the goal and students in a delicate balance.  Most importantly we need to assure our students we care, and assure ourselves that sometimes it is okay to put aside the emotion to focus on the fact. Our emotions our perfectly valid but the best advice I ever received was from a student of mine who had the courage to tell me “I need you to put aside your own feelings about what is happening and focus on a solution that will help us get past this.”

It took away the ‘I’s and the ‘You’s and it because a ‘We’, What can we do together? The goal was simple. We wanted to figure out a solution for the lack of homework completion but I had to get over my own pride of feeling hurt I couldn’t teach my way out of the situation and instead we had to work as a team. We had to be on a level playing field. It was a humbling moment and a difficult pill to swallow as I learned that my fancy piece of paper meant nothing if I couldn’t bring myself down to their level. My pride was hurt, I was upset by the fact I’d find their homework in a crumpled ball at the end of the day instead of being take home. When I put that aside, I realized I cannot change circumstances. I had not considered they would be testing our relationship based on their own reality of no support at home after a 1-hour bus ride where they needed to make their own dinner before being yelled at for using up the last of the milk. When I was called names I wouldn’t dare repeat, it wasn’t personal, it was a defense mechanism to prevent getting hurt from another person giving up on them.

With a bit (okay a lot) of reflection and starting backwards, I’ve learned that once the emotion is out of the picture, a team that included the student can accomplish more than my experience and education ever could. Now that is a hard thing to internalize and put into action for anyone. Still, even with the intentional focus on taking my own feelings as a human being out of the equation, I’m not always successful.

How do you love the kids who make it the hardest to love them? How do you teach the kids who make it the hardest to teach them? How do you balance the emotional and personal investment?

Advice, reflection, and life as the perpetual new teacher.

Originally this was a reflection on my 3rd year of teaching but it turned into more of the to 5 lessons (okay 6) I’ve learned along the way. As I move into my new role (yet again!) and become a high school teacher, I decided to share my learning and realize that I can still be the new teacher, the mentor, and the creative teacher despite the changes and role I’m in (or going into).

  1. Play the new teacher card! Don’t be afraid to ask for help, make mistakes and try new things. Don’t wait to be the veteran teacher to try cool things because often those teachers learn just as much from the support you seek than what you learn from them. My team last year was a place where I could be creative, and they gave me permission to try new things but were there to help guide me how to develop my ideas in ways that would be successful. I thrived off my team’s collaborative moments. The best part was that we were all still able to tweak things the way we needed it to be because we were all different. Speaking of which, Be honest with yourself. Don’t focus on the things like making your classroom look like a Pinterest pin, trying to perfect your classroom management or stick with things that are tried and true because that’s where you’re comfortable and will help you fill your grade book. I honestly believe that classrooms should be a place to learn and experiment together.
  2. Building on that, stand out by taking risks with your students. You don’t need to wait to innovate! Things aren’t always going to work out, but you will help build your students’ growth mindset because they look to you to model what is acceptable in class. Accept the fact you’re not perfect, but you have the opportunity to grow from it. So do your students. Build your ideas around curriculum, have a solid assessment plan. Even if your ideas don’t work out, you did so with the best intentions and chances are, your students learned more than you. Be flexible and adapt on the fly. My biggest project “fail” turned into the coolest inquiry project because students asked “why?” or “how can I?” so I embraced it and went with it! Just take that risk. F is no longer for failure, it is for FLEXIBILITY. Keep experimenting! You might cry in your car one day because nothing went the way you thought it would, but you’re also going to have those moments where you want to take pictures, brag to your colleagues and principal about how amazing it went. Teaching is exhausting. It is kind of like rocking out in a garage band with a group of budding musicians who learn through doing, experimenting and trust it will work out.
  3. Ask your students! Get their input, embrace their opinions, voices, and feedback! What other job gives you a captive and responsive audience. My students loved to reflect on projects, tell me about their learning, their interests, how I could make something better for next year, or even just that they really wish they could have done this on the computer (that were booked for a week solid). I am a huge fan of conferencing throughout projects and giving feedback to students as they go but also love to share their ideas. Reflections, “writers” workshops, and conferencing support you and your students together. Carving out “me time” with them will build relationships that transcend curriculum and the walls of your classroom. To quote a cliche, “they’ll never remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
  4. Your students will make you laugh, they will make you cry, they will break your heart, you will worry about them, care about them and cheer them on but they will be better for it because you cared about them.  Your heat will hurt as much as you feet will hurt, you will rediscover the joy of things like smelly markers and the new rules to “the floor is made of lava” as you connect with your kids. Your students will love you, care about you and drive you up the wall. It is that relationship that will make everything worth it. That relationship also drives teaching. There will always be those kids that you don’t feel you’re connecting with, ones who throw their coat on the ground and refuse to complete their work. Still, they are a person. You aren’t just there to teach a curriculum. You’re their safe place, consistency, their attention they desire. Not every kid is going to be the kid who loves you to pieces, but that one kid who makes you count your blessings and pull your hair is usually the kid you get the most out of. I think of mine in my first 2 years and how much those kids taught me about teaching, myself and the world as a whole. I worry about where they are and what they are doing, even to this day. They taught me the classroom management stuff, and they taught compassion to their peers. Most importantly, they are people with their own story, not a number, letter or percentage.
  5. Find your tribe. Find the people that will build you up when you need it, who will give you a reality check when you need it, and will give you the inspiration you need even if you don’t think you need it. My first year I team taught for the first few months. I had a built-in mentor for teaching, but I needed people to surround me with the things I needed. I found my tribe on Twitter with the #WeirdEd chat on Wednesday nights. I found “master teachers” (I put this term in quotes because these are teachers who don’t claim to have the answers and be masters of their domain but share their advice and experiences to help others grow but also so they can grow) and I read their blogs and books. I participated in EdCamps on my Saturdays to share my ideas. I found the people who made me feel like I could build who I was as a teacher and have people who understood what I was doing and going through. They encouraged me, they validated me, they celebrated my successes. Most importantly, they were right there facing the same things I was. I felt safe. Side note: Students also need to feel safe. Make your classroom a safe space that allows your students to build their community of learners that share and learn together.
  6. Lastly, document everything! Reflect while looking back, celebrate your own successes and share your not so great moments where you learned something new. Blogging, journaling, classroom blogs or twitter, whatever works for you! My students wrote a weekly “This Week at School” letter to their parents, I wrote my own This Week at School (many shared on my blog), but I also tried to reflect and share my own learning on my blog as well. This was my medium of reflection. It also serves as a fantastic tool for interviews, for sharing ideas and connecting with others. Often you forget the little things and the opportunity to look back to your work and growth is invaluable. I am always proud of my kids but most importantly, I can be proud of my own work and ideas this way.


Just a few teacher blogs, books, and Twitter chats to inspire:

John Spencer – Not only did he write one of my favourite Read Alouds, he has an inspirational YouTube channel and even inspired some of the things in this post such as your renewed love of smelly markers. He also reminds me that education is a small and connected world. He’s written several books that are well worth the read.

Doug Robertson –  His antics inspired me to take risks, his Twitter chats (#weirdEd) built my confidence, and most importantly, being the weird teacher was now acceptable and cool.  I give his book “He’s the Weird Teacher” to teachers I see who require that bit of a boost and permission to try new things and be “the weird teacher”.

Shauna Pollock – A Disney inspired educator who is just fantastic. As a Canadian, she understands our educational context and is passionate about giving students the tools they need to succeed in the real world. Her book is well worth the read and is well read in my office. She’s even opening her own school!

There are many others and I’ll probably add to this list in a few hours or days – share those who inspire you and I’ll add it to the list!

Lessons from behind the scenes of ESL

ELL students are a unique challenge for many teachers. The older the student, the bigger the challenge it seems. Young students pick up a new language quickly the more they are immersed in the language. As many of their peers are also learning and experimenting with language and meaning, the have the opportunity to practice in a safe and differentiated environment.  When you reach high school, content is key and process is focused. There isn’t time for students to learn a language and curriculum.

The question then becomes how to best support those students. When I first started in my role this year, I searched for the magic solution to support my students and my colleagues. After many frustrations, I realized the answer isn’t so simple.

Key factors to student success seem to be:

  • Instructional organization
    • Not just small class sizes or pullout groups but a multi-faceted and flexible collaborative environment tailored to the different needs of the individuals.
  • Teacher Knowledge
    • Teachers don’t have all the answers but they need to be open to learning and trying new things. They also need to be open to being wrong. Solutions are rarely straight forward and I have yet to see the same strategies work for multiple students.
  • Patience
    • Research shows that students first need to develop the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills that lead to socialization before they can develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. It is also found that students take 5-7 years to develop these skills and can often appear to be “stuck” in different phases of their development.
  • Relationships
    • Students need to know that you care, that you understand, and they need to know they can trust you. This MUST come before they are willing to take the risk of learning a new language.

So what do we do? Well, there is no magic answer. This year I developed a pyramid of interventions and strategies for my colleagues to help support them with this journey. I offer my colleagues support and mini-workshops on using the benchmarks, and I read – A LOT! Still, I do not have all the answers. The ESL gurus (such as Larry Ferlazzo) are always learning and growing in their practice. In one of his latest posts, he writes “We’ll see for how long it’s effective, but it certainly can’t hurt….”

Patience, always learning, trying new things, and tenacity are my super secret tips I can share with you for now. Context is key and adaptability is a necessity.

How do you support ELL students in your classroom?