Monday, November 23, 2015

Current Events in the Elementary Social Studies Class

Twitter chats are all the rage. Some make a bigger impact than others. Recently (November 19), I participated in the #ontsshg (Ontario Social Studies History Geography) chat and the topic was on how to deal with current events in the classroom, especially considering the recent news in Paris.

It was a timely chat, because I'm doing some collaborative teaching with a Grade 2-3 teacher for social studies and for the time being, we've been splitting up the two groups for some temporarily separate instruction. The classroom teacher indicated to me that she really hoped to sensitively address issues surrounding the recent anti-Muslim actions occurring in Canada recently as an aftermath of the Paris attacks.

The most recent lesson actually linked perfectly to a sensitive, student-led, age-appropriate discussion about the issues. I described it in this (edited version) of the email I sent to the classroom teacher describing the lesson.

The children insisted on sharing their continents song [the classroom teacher] taught them, so I let them sing it. (Very catchy!)
To connect it to last week's Grade 2 social studies, I asked them what continents Canada and India were in. They knew Canada right away, but we had to go look at a big map to realize that India was part of Asia. 

We then took turns looking at the dot jot notes we had collected on Divali to see about what would be useful to add to our Venn diagram. We put stickers on the points we used. We did some Internet research to see what the temperature in Toronto and Mumbai was, so we could see how climate impacts the celebration (although we didn't discuss that part as much). We had to do some misconception routing because at first the students didn't believe that there were Hindu temples in Canada, only India. We connected it to mosques and churches. 

We divided into two teams to see how many different holidays we could brainstorm and record in 5 minutes.
[One group] listed 17. [The other] group listed 7. ... We didn't get time to go into creating a group definition of holiday, because as we were looking at our lists, K asked the other group "What's Eid?" T chimed up right away to say it was a holiday that she celebrates. I asked T if she'd like to explain a bit more and she agreed to "be the teacher". She talked about Eid, visiting family, getting money, and praying. Then she said "but a bad thing happened before ... some boys came to a Muslim girl and said mean things to her because she was Muslim". It was a perfect segue into current events. The questions and responses that were flowing were pretty amazing, especially between E and T. I can't remember everything that was said, but here's some of it. 
"How can you tell someone's a Muslim?" E asked. 
"Well, you can tell by their names - my name is a Muslim name"
"But if they don't know your name, how would they know if you are Muslim"
"Sometimes what we wear ..."
(This is where I clarified for the group about hijabs)
"We speak different languages too ... N speaks Arabic and I speak Farsi..."
Others chimed in about their beliefs. J said she's a Christian. K said he doesn't have a religion (I introduce the word "agnostic"). 
I asked the class if T was a Muslim (yes) and a Canadian (yes) and I said that a small number of people who said they were Muslim had done some bad things in another part of the world, but that did not mean all Muslims were bad. K said "is this like #myCanada?" [a writing prompt the class teacher had given her class prior based on the Twitter conversation #notmyCanada]  T said "we Muslims are supposed to do good things". 

We talked a bit more about how we might like to learn about holidays that we don't know much about. Someone said "like Eid". I said, "yes, but T already knows lots about Eid" and she said "I wouldn't mind doing more about it". 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Assessment can be Fun!

In the 2010 Ontario Ministry of Education document, Growing Success, seven fundamental principles of assessment and evaluation are outlined.

The Seven Fundamental Principles
To ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable, and that they lead to the improvement of learning for all students, teachers use practices and procedures that:
• are fair, transparent, and equitable for all students;
• support all students, including those with special education needs, those who are learning the language of instruction (English or French), and those who are First Nation, M├ętis, or Inuit;
• are carefully planned to relate to the curriculum expectations and learning goals and, as much as possible, to the interests, learning styles and preferences, needs, and experiences of all students;
• are communicated clearly to students and parents at the beginning of the school year or course and at other appropriate points throughout the school year or course;
• are ongoing, varied in nature, and administered over a period of time to provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate the full range of their learning;
• provide ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement;
• develop students’ self-assessment skills to enable them to assess their own learning, set specific goals, and plan next steps for their learning.
The purpose is to improve student learning, but what I didn't consider (and it's not listed in the document) is that assessment can be fun. Usually evaluation isn't fun for me. I agonize too much and second-guess myself. However, I had two recent assignments that I actually enjoyed marking - and the students did too.

Kindergarten Music - Singing Solo

This is my first year that I can recall teaching kindergarten music. I was very self-conscious about the prospect because I knew I was not as knowledgeable as our music/ESL teacher. (There were so many ELL students to service that there was no room in her schedule to see the three kindergarten classes for music, so they became my responsibility.) I met with the teacher and took pages of notes on what she typically does. What I realized is that I couldn't completely mimic her program. I have a different teaching style and it was okay for me not to replicate the music teacher's entire repertoire. One of the techniques I recently tried that she usually did not employ was to hear children sing individually. I thought this would backfire. I predicted that many students would refuse to sing. We had been playing a physical game for weeks based on the song "Pop Goes the Weasel" and the SKs had even rewritten the song with new lyrics (which wasn't my idea but theirs - inquiry learning takes us in unexpected directions). I borrowed the class iPad, pulled up a  recording app, and first asked the seniors to sing their new verses. They did a phenomenal job. I decided to take the plunge and try it with the juniors. To my surprise and delight, 95% were able and willing to do it! For some, I had never heard them speak in English alone before, and here they were, singing in English! If I can figure out how, I'll embed some of the MP3 files we recorded here in the blog so you can hear some of their sweet, tiny voices. 

Primary Drama - Face Acting Feedback

Long range planning has taken a bit of a back seat for drama and dance this year, as I try harder to integrate our drama/dance lessons with what's currently happening in the regular classroom and give students greater say in what and how we do things. (This happens to an extent - if it were up to them, we would play "Bop It" and "Toy Store" every single class!) We started with voice acting and have now moved to face acting. We had long discussions about emotions and how feelings are expressed with facial expressions. One of our final tasks will be a single photo with props that represents a specific emotion or situation, but to help prepare students to do this, our "mid-unit" evaluation consisted of selecting six emotions and showing them on our faces. We took photos and I printed them out. Growing Success describes assessment FOR learning and assessment AS learning (and notes that "terms such as diagnostic, formative, and summative, which are used to identify the nature of assessment, have recently been supplemented with the phrases assessment for learning, assessment as learning, and assessment of learning. ... the nature of the assessment is determined by what the information is to be used for" [page 30]). The activity we did last week was both FOR and AS. The class members examined the photos and selected the best facial expression each student made (designated by tally marks on sticky notes). We re-discussed what made certain expressions more effective than others and then wrote detailed feedback to each other using the "two stars and a wish" structure on a larger Post-It (c) note. I used the same format when providing my own feedback and evaluated both their facial expressions and their evaluations. This matched these drama expectations:
  • B1.4 communicate feelings and ideas to a familiar audience (e.g., classmates), using several simple visual or technological aids to support and enhance their drama work 
  • B2.3 identify and give examples of their strengths, interests, and areas for improvement as drama participants and audience members
I actually enjoyed looking at the photos and providing feedback. Often, my feedback mirrored that of the student evaluators, which made me feel like I was on the right track. I'll try and scan some of the examples, but unfortunately I'll have to blur the faces for privacy reasons. 

I know it's not a prerequisite to make marking fun, but it definitely made the task easier and made me eager to complete it in a timely manner. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Students Solve a Decade-Old Problem

Ever have a problem that seems nearly impossible to solve?

For me in the library, it was this: "How do I allow intermediate division students to use the library freely at recess without them abusing the privilege?"

Even before it was printed in Together for Learning, I always wanted to "alter 'hours of operation' and rethink assumptions about 'acceptable activities'" (T4L page 10). Unfortunately, every time I opened up the library for teen recess use, the same thing would happen: students would flock in just because it was cold outside; they would come in the library but then leave to wander the halls or congregate in the bathrooms; I became overwhelmed with policing the visitors instead of supervising or assisting those who truly wanted my help, and it became like another yard duty. The other teachers would become upset with the student conduct and every year, I'd have to tell the intermediate students that they could come after school but not at recess.

I didn't want this to happen again, so this school year, I turned to a group for help: the students. As Leading Learning suggests, "engage students in discussion and planning: what do they need, what are their ideas for transforming the school library?" (LL page 24). I explained to the Grade 6, 7, and 8s my dilemma. I described the pitfalls I encountered every year. I tried to model some of those Individual Growth ideas from Together for Learning, like considering divergent opinions and participating in the social exchange of ideas.

The students did not disappoint me. They came up with a plan, with some additional suggestions from their classroom teachers. Some aspects of their plan might not have fit with my own vision, but so far, it's been working well. Each junior and intermediate class has about eight Popsicle sticks marked as recess passes. The students take them when they want to go. This way, the class teacher has an approximate idea of how many students are in the library, a tool the teachers requested. Students write their name, date and circle their purpose in a library visit binder. Listing a goal means that students are accountable for their library time. The students themselves monitor how often they go to the library - the agreement is that they would only visit once per day, to allow other students the opportunity to go the library as well.

An unexpected benefit of the library visit binder is that I'm gathering data on what activities the students use the library for the most. When I get my MakerSpace up and running again, it will be another opportunity for library recess visits and it'll be interesting to see if that changes the reasons for the visits.

When the weather gets colder, it will also be fascinating to see if the self-regulation continues as well as it has been. I am so pleased with the students for helping me solve this problem. I wonder what else we can solve together?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Academic & Social Lessons Learned from Halloween

Believe it or not, despite my love for dressing up, I don't "do" Halloween much in my lessons at school. (I actually searched my blog history to see if I've ever written about Halloween in the past and I hadn't.) I supply classroom teachers with Halloween-themed read-alouds from the library, but I don't use them myself. I am the semi-official photographer at the Halloween parade (for archiving and yearbook purposes), but I began the health and safety spiel in the gym on Friday by reminding the students that not everyone celebrates Halloween and that's okay (which means both observing the signs of participating houses so you don't knock on doors that aren't giving out candy, and respecting the students who do not want to dress up for whatever their reasons). Yet, observing Halloween traditions led me to some recent learning of my own.

Halloween Academic Lesson Learned

= Math is everywhere (and I'm not as math-phobic as I thought!)

Ever since my husband told me it was easier to supervise our children as they trick-or-treated than it was to distribute candy at the door, I've been giving out candy, to prove him wrong. For some reason, I counted the visitors. In 2012, we had 135 trick-or-treaters. I lost my 2013 figures (which upset my sense of order) and in 2014 we had 98 trick-or-treaters. I liked counting because then my husband and I could estimate how much candy we would need without running out. This year, 2015, we had 121 visitors. I thought that was the limit of my mathematical leanings, but a Twitter conversation with Aviva Dunsiger made me realize that a lot more math was happening.

 I don't consider myself to be a math fan, either as a teacher or student; however, Aviva's observations opened my eyes to authentic numeracy tasks, that I was *willingly* doing.

Halloween Social Lesson Learned

= Watch for unspoken needs (and know when to push and when to wait)

After that incident a few weeks ago with a student experiencing an anxiety attack, I've been trying to be more observant with some of my quieter students. One of the Grade 1 students I work with has been talking a lot more to me now than she did while in kindergarten. This is good, even though what she often tells me is "I'm scared". She needs a lot of praise, encouragement, and wait time. She asked me last week whether or not I liked her, and when I effusively responded positively, she seemed genuinely surprised and happy. On this chaotic Friday, I noticed that "A" was holding back even more than usual. I asked her if she was okay and she said no. After some cautious and gentle questioning, it turns out she wanted to dress up but left her costume at home. Thankfully, as part of my Library Learning Commons Play Area, I have a bin filled with costumes. I offered her the chance to wear one of the costumes. It took her a long time to decide and express her desires, but after a while, she selected a sparkly cape and we pinned it into a dress. Unfortunately, her fear came back with a vengeance when she had to return to class and I was about to take a group photo. She didn't want to go in. I didn't force her. I took the photo without her in it and quietly let the supply teacher know she was safe but in the hall and feeling a bit ill-at-ease. What was going to happen when her class went into the gym for the Halloween parade? Would she choose to sit while the rest of her class walked? I watched and when it was her class' time, one of her friends held her hand and together they marched with the rest of the group. I saw "A" in the hall by herself a short time later and talked to her. She admitted that she was scared to get up but she did it. I applauded her bravery and asked if it was okay to take a photo of her now. She agreed. (I put the blue square on the photo here to protect her privacy.)

I discussed the incident with my husband afterwards and he commented that sometimes it depends on who asks the person with anxiety to do something (i.e. a fellow student invited her to get up to walk vs the teacher demanding it). I'm glad I was able to help her. It wasn't always easy waiting as long as I had to, but she overcame that challenge and hopefully it will make other challenges in the future less scary.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Undervalued Sense

I love to talk about and think about my students and the weird, wacky, and wonderful things that happen on a "typical" day at school. Spending time with the kindergarten classes often generates the most entertaining stories. For instance, there's one sweet little boy in junior kindergarten that has a habit of getting very close to my face, arms, and legs, and smelling me. As he sniffs around me, he announces, "I smell you. I smell you Ms. Molly." I'm pretty used to my personal space being invaded by little people, who touch, grab, and hug me constantly, but this scent examination unnerved me at first. Did I stink? Was I too sweaty? After this happened several times, even after I had made a special effort with my bathing that morning and a liberal application of perfume, I realized that this was just how this particular student interacts with me.

Smell. We spend a lot of time on sight and sound in school, but less on feel and definitely less on smell and taste. Why? The other senses tend to lend themselves to learning in a much more direct manner - such as looking at the words on a page and listening to someone read aloud to comprehend a written text. People also react strongly to smells - an American mother was banned from her child's elementary school due to her smell and workplaces have arranged scent-free policies to be sensitive to employees and visitors with issues, like a school in Barrie, or in Coquitlam. Some individuals, like the ones cited in this article, take matters into their own hands when odors become too much. Is it possible to completely block scents? This article I found from the Canadian Medical Association Journal states that the scientific evidence behind these scent-free policies are complex and blanket restrictions are not always helpful. Then there's the work currently being investigated by a friend of mine, Melanie McBride, who is an inter-sensory researcher at Ryerson University. A lot of Melanie's work is at a level beyond my comprehension, but she is passionate about scents, the cultural associations with some, and natural vs artificial ones. (Forgive me Melanie if I'm oversimplifying some of the aspects of your studies.) Using smell is part of the human experience. What are we missing when we try to delete the sense of smell from school and learning? Smell and memory are closely linked - what if we could help our students remember content more thoroughly through smell? This website claims that certain scents improve retention and this super-brief article mentions the attempt to link subjects to certain smells. Smelling things are one way we try to make sense of our world - students smell the liquid in my mug to see if I'm drinking tea or hot chocolate or hot water with lemon. Smelling is a natural sort of inquiry. One of the kindergarten teachers in my school has cups with holes in them for his students to explore certain scents at their own pace - coffee and chocolate were two examples he used. As long as we are careful with it and culturally respectful about it (e.g. curry may reek to some unexperienced noses but it is not a "foul stench"), we should consider scent - in our poetry, in our science and health units (e.g. natural gas alerts) and elsewhere. Smell should not be a bad word.

P.S. This photo was taken while my dear friend Denise Colby and I were in Newfoundland. While we toured the Newman Wine Vaults in St. John's, we took a sommelier scent test to see if we could categorize the bottled fragrances. Both of us fared quite poorly but the volunteers said that out of the ten bottles, most people can only identify two or three. Denise, do you recall our scores?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Making Mistakes & Mental Health

This incident happened a while ago, but despite the fact that the child involved does not seem to be irrevocably harmed by the experience, it bothered me enough that I have to write about it, to help me process what occurred and what steps I need to take to ensure it doesn't happen again.

The apologetics before the story: I'd like to think that my class environment is a safe and happy place to be. I believe I'm getting better, year by year, at modifying and accommodating my lessons so that students can find success. I also try to watch carefully to ensure that no students fall between the cracks, especially the quiet ones. This school year, I had noticed that a Grade 3 student in one of my classes was not participating during my library lessons. We were doing a task on the interactive white board (IWB) and when I invited her up to try, she shook her head and refused. I offered her the chance to go up with a friend, but she declined. I checked in with my school's ESL teacher to see if the activity was too advanced for this particular student and the ESL teacher said that the job was reasonable and possible for her to understand and do. Her refusal was not because of limited English. The ESL teacher said that if it occurred again, just send the student to the ESL room so that she could talk with the child in her first language to discover what was going on. The next class, the student again refused to try the task. I coaxed. I had another student do the precise action I wanted and then erased it for her to do. Again, she shook her head no. I told her to go see the ESL teacher. The student refused to move. This was getting frustrating and so I did something stupid. Instead of letting it go, I escalated it. I thought she was just being obstinate. I gave her a choice - to go to the ESL teacher, do the job, or go to the office. She didn't move from the carpet. What?! I sent another student to report the act of defiance to the principal. He came down and tried to escort the student out of the library but she wouldn't take his hand. Disobeying the principal? Something told me to stop the lesson and allow them time for book exchange, to end the drama. As the children spread out to search for books, my principal whispered to me something along the lines of "I'm not going to drag her physically to the office. Look at her - she's terrified". He was right. What I initially interpreted as stubbornness was actually an anxiety attack.

I felt horrible and guilty. I should have known better. I have family members who have anxiety disorders and I should have noticed the signs. I apologized to my principal for acting like a new teacher who had no clue about classroom management. He accepted the apology and said that the experience at least put this particular child on our radar. The ESL teacher spoke to the child later on that day and told me that the reason she did not want to go up to the IWB was because she was afraid that her classmates would laugh at her. It may not seem reasonable, but it stressed her out, and this article mentions that behavioral changes such as stubbornness may actually be a reaction to stress. My pushing added to that stress. I think I apologized to the child herself, after the ESL teacher had her apologize to me. I still feel bad and would gladly apologize again, but she's gotten over it - she still says hi to me with a big smile when I see her in the hallway. I think this blog post is another way for me to say sorry for my actions.

Here's the "call to action". Even though I have direct experience with dealing with loved ones who have anxiety, I still didn't recognize the signs in a student. Teachers need to learn more about mental health and wellness. There needs to be more support. Today is the Canadian federal election official voting day. Keeping in mind that all news outlets have their own biases, here is a list of where the four main political parties stand and their policies. Take a look at Social Issues. My voting patterns are all over the map - in the past, I've voted Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Reform, and even the Family Life Coalition. Without revealing whom I voted for, I'll tell you that this time, I voted for the party that has pledged money towards mental health innovation for children and youth and support to community mental health associations. Vote. Make your voice heard.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Treasure Mountain Canada 4 - Return to Small Scale Researching

If Carol Koechlin asks me to do something, I say yes.

Anita & Carol, TMC1, Edmonton 2010
Who is Carol Koechlin, you may ask? If you ask that question, chances are you are new to the teacher-librarian world. Carol is an influential author and workshop leader. As revealed on this virtual wall of honor for library mentors, Carol Koechlin was a big influence on my career. She loves to tell stories of what I was like as a brand-new teacher-librarian, a "little mouse", if you can believe it. (I do remember staying late creating book records on special index cards for the card catalogue - that's how long I've been involved with school libraries!)

I do things when Carol asks, not because she's bossy or demanding. Quite the contrary. When Carol makes a request, the end result benefits the participant and the school library community as a whole.

Recently, Carol asked me to consider writing a research paper for Treasure Mountain Canada 4, and to encourage other teacher-librarians in the province and country to do the same.

What is Treasure Mountain? To quote the history of the event from the TMC website,

Treasure Mountain Canada is visioned as an extension of a research retreat project called Treasure Mountain,in United States, developed  by Dr. David Loertscher and colleagues in 1989. A dozen retreats since then have established this 'meeting of the minds' in school library research as a valuable catalyst for improvement based on analysis of research in the field.
TMC1 print copy of papers, circa 2010

Me? Write a research paper? I'm not an academic! That's probably the first reaction teacher-librarians might have to such a proposition. I'd challenge you to undertake a lesson I used to often do with my elementary school students in the library - ask them (and ask yourself) to draw what a researcher looks like. What do you get? What gender or age do the drawings show? What clothes do the researchers wear? What tools do the researchers use? Why do the pictures look the way they do? What do we mean when we say research? Google the definition of research and you won't find a focus on the person but on the process. Research involves systematic investigation, inquiry with a purpose. Don't we research when we are purchasing a car, to discover which model would best suit our needs? Shouldn't we do a bit of research prior to an election, to learn about the candidates running for office in our region? Even the youngest children conduct research, be it to see how to conquer the last level of Super Mario Brothers, discover how to build a redstone-powered roller coaster on Minecraft, or select the coolest Halloween costume or Christmas gift for themselves. Teacher-librarians are conducting research frequently too, although they may not realize it. We are all researchers.

Treasure Mountain Canada research papers do have suggested themes, but they are not as onerous or intimidating as one might initially think. The topic for TMC4 is on implementing the National Standards for School Librarianship as outlined in Leading Learning. Too wide? TMC4 narrows it down even further, to three possible areas:

Theme: Growing Impact of Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Libraries in Canada
  • Co-teaching for Deeper Learning
  • Innovation for Learning
  • Building a Learning Community 
I find conducting research to share with a larger audience exciting. I prepare an Annual Report on my library program to give to my principal and examine my own successes and challenges, but this type of action research is invigorating. Selecting a particular unit or teaching practice or pathway and examining it deeper can lead to new insights, and with more people reading and thinking about the discoveries, the particulars can be honed and polished in the original location, and/or spread to new locations. How powerful is that?

The attendees of TMC1 in 2010
Treasure Mountain Canada is held every two years. The first was in Edmonton; the second in Ottawa; the third in Victoria and the fourth will be in Toronto. (I went to the Edmonton event but haven't been since.) The official call for papers is here on the website. Even if you cannot attend the symposium in Toronto, submitting a paper (or website or video) would help significantly to continue the conversation beyond the borders of our schools and boards. For 2016, I plan on writing two papers, on teacher-librarian mentorship and on using Games Based Learning in the library learning commons. I've got until January to write my papers. Join me. Join us.

P.S. Another benefit to TMC is being with TL friends (like June & Joanie)

P.P.S. Added plus? Touring the host city (e.g. me at West Edmonton Mall)