To desk…or not to desk…

Alternative teaching spaces are all the rage. Teachers are swapping desks for tables and chairs for yoga balls. Tables are fabulous for collaboration, and having flexible open workspace with no seams is amazing, but…
…where do we put their stuff?
Pinterest and the net are full of handy organizing tips and fun solutions, but instead of putting the stuff in a different place, I’m thinking its time to toss the stuff.  I’ve already switched to using backpacks more like portable desks, but how can I retool the rest?
So this is what I’m pondering now.  Where to stick the stuff and what to ditch entirely.  How does that system work… if it doesn’t bring me joy…


My BOK, 2nd edition

It’s the night after the third day of  the new school year, and I’ve already had seven parent emails, phone calls, or conversations about helping kids study and keeping them organized from day one. And since I firmly believe in reassessing my own classroom practice constantly, I ripped apart my Book of Knowledge and reinvented it. Again. 
Here’s the premise: teens need to be led to organize their work, and supported in study habits, until it becomes routine. I have ex-students who are now ion university who still use the BOK as a tool to keep themselves on top of their work. I make the daily how-to mandatory, and lead them through every entry, graphic organizer, and not note until it all becomes second nature. And somewhere in the process they start to find it helping them study, review, and learn. 
The cover page:

It’s nothing special, but I try to add ideas about what ‘could’ go in the BOK: vocabulary, anchor charts, graphic organizers — etc. 

The E-sheet:

An Eisenhower grid is a fabulous tool to help students plan tasks and prioritize assignments. The four quadrants cover tasks to be completed today, tomorrow, this week, and within two weeks. Students add individual tasks to sticky-notes and move them around the grid to help get the most urgent work done first. 

The ‘placemat’:

These two double-sided anchor charts hold specific mini-notes for language, math, and an essay organizer. 

Math section:

I always begin with vocabulary. Each day in math class, I highlight new temeinology. Each night, as review, students rewrite vocabulary and definitions into their BOK. Next, I add anchor charts for each strand as we come across them. Everything from formulae sheets to matrix charts have their own spot. Everything is easily accessible when the students need to double check a process or find a better strategy. 
How to help them USE it?

Every night, check the website and add any new vocabulary to the BOK. Practice that vocab at home with your child until they know every word solidly! Review the anchor charts. Have them pick a blank graphic organizer sheet from the website that focuses on vocab and fill it out based on a new word. Add the completed organizer to the BOK for review later. Focus on the language and the math literacy will follow.  
Next time? 

How to use the language section. 


And then it hit me…

I was in the middle of supervising the hockey station at our outdoor Carnaval in honor of Franco-Ontarien culture. I was watching two multi-grade teams have an absolute blast, playing a game outside while blurting out French phrases here and there. 

And I actually said it out loud: I could do an activity day just with music. 

Before you jump to picturing a hockey-musical (for that, download ‘Score’ — it’s awesome), imagine this:

10 music activities planned, organized, and ready to be lead by senior students. 
A whole school split into multi-grade ‘sections’ or teams, rotating through the 10 activities.  By the end of the rotations, everyone in the school would have a common shared experience. 

Just take a moment and think about that not only from the team-building side, but more importantly from the music education ‘side’ — a whole school that has 10 musical activities in common. Everyone, in one single day, would get the same lesson on beat vs rhythm. Everyone would known the same ‘syncopa’ figure. Everyone would have the same experience of learning the school song. 

What could that do for music learning in a school? With common shared background knowledge, teaching new musical idioms could start from one point of commonality. ‘Remember when you all did ‘my paddle’ on the Music Sharing Day? What was that special rhythm called?’ Boom. Syncopa is locked in for an entire class and away you go. Imagine, as an intermediate instrumental teacher, the benefit of communicatng 10 essential, fundamental understandings or experiences in one day which you know will contribute to the forward motion of the senior program. 

What would you choose to teach?
And so I began thinking about 10 key experiences I would want all students to have from their PJ music programs before they hit a 7/8 program.  When I taught K-8 music, there were key ‘must haves’ for each grade in my own program. But what exactly does a  7/8 program need kids to own from their early years in order to be successful? 

1.Beat vs rhythm. Every year when I start up my bucket drumming program in my homeroom, this is where I start. We learn a simple song by rote and keep the beat with our feet while we sing. Then we beat the ‘rhythm’ of the words with our feet while we sing. It’s a kinaesthetic way to fix the difference in student brains. 

2. The physicality of rhythm. Getting kids to internalize the beat with their whole bodies, and layering subdivided movement on top of that.  Clapping songs and body percussion give students a chance to learn this unique kinaesthetic aspect of music making. Everything from Miss Mry Mack to the Lousianna Mudslap can convey these skills. 

3. Listen and respond. To hear what one person does musically and respond to it, and in turn have someone respond to you. This key sense of being ‘in the middle’ of a musical intent is vital. Call and response, improvisation, stagger breathing, etc. The aleatoric Rain activity is a perfect example of listening and responding that even the youngest kids can engage with. 

4. Deconstructing and reconstructing- composition. Using the musical futures approach, breaking a pop tune into its parts and having students build it up again.  Giving students that sense of ‘building something Musical’ is what makes composition seem possible in those later stages. 

5. Repeat after me and add to the end songs. Musical term Simon Says! These fun camp songs and action songs help build musical memory and support later skills in additive compositions. 

6. Partner songs and Polyphonic listening. Maintaining your melody when you hear another. Autonomy and collaboration simultaneously. 
7. Ostinati. Learning that by isolating a repeated figure, you can participate in music making. Having a group of students work together to link and layer ideas using simple Orff instruments encourages listening, retention of musical figures, following a conductor, etc. 

8. 2 and 3 prt rhythmic reading. Even using simple figures and language, I want kids to have played a different rhythm than their peers and still be able to hold their independent part steady. To hear the interplay between two parts over a fundamental beat, and feel that groove lock in is vital to supporting effecting ensemble listening later on. 
9. Valuing popular music. These activities could include Karaoke to current pop songs, or a March-madness-style tourney that pits pop songs against each other in an attempt to crown the school’s favourite song. You could also feature rotating staff performers in a ‘School’s Got Talent’ feature. 

10.Communal music making. The school song. Together as a whole school. The hair-on-the-arms-standing-up sensation of being in one voice with 400+ kids. 
So it’s official. We are going to start with workshops at 9:15, rotate through sessions until 2, and wrap up the day with a mass concert in the gym.  I’m training my choir and homeroom students as Session-leaders. Other students from grade 7 and 8 will lead teams, making sure everyone participates and has fun. I’m making demonstration videos so any leaders who want can follow along on the classroom smart board, which will allow me to float the day-of and trouble shoot where needed. 
And Music Monday will and event at our school. 😉 Cmon down! May 2, 2016, at Riverside Public School in London, Ontario. 



So our board is supporting  Learning Commons.  (Commonses?… Commonsi?) The libraries are being revamped to include research areas, collaborative spaces, creation spaces and maker spaces. As I have been collecting more information and going to more PD I have begun collection my reactions and ideas as honestly and truthfully as I can.

1. Collaborative Learning Environments

My librarian was always shushing me when I was in school. I wasn’t good at being silent — ever. But especially not in a creepily silent library. For some reason that was where I laughed, sneezed, exclaimed or fell down in an hysterical and noisy fashion.

Well, low and behold we get to talk in libraries now.  To each other! I know it sounds nuts, but kids get to talk to each other about stuff in the library. It’s amazing! Imagine five kids gathered around a big screen monitor, talking about what to find next and how to find it.  Just today I heard this exchange between my students:

Ann: so where do we start?

Brian: we need to look up geography tools to start, you know – things used by Geographers

Ann: ok so (typing) “what are some tools used by…”

Brian: (interrupting) not as a question. Just type key words. You’ll get better results.

Cathy: yup try ‘geography technology examples’

Ann: ok (types) hey look, there’s lots.

Brian: ok now let’s pick good ones. Find something with a site that ends in .edu

Cathy: why?

Brian: those are usually university or academic sites. Better chance the facts are right and current.

Ann: cool.

So they learn the ‘stuff’ that they are supposed to be studying, but by working with each other collaboratively they learn about so much more. It’s alive and exciting and real. Sign me up for SOLE stations and collaborative learning!
But it’s noisy. A good noisy, sure, but it will take some adjusting to.

2. Mess-Making Maker spaces

Think back to being a kid in kindergarten, and combine that with being a teenager in shop class. That’s what a maker space is all about. The general gist involves collecting a bunch of stuff that kids can use to build things and solve engineering and design problems. It includes everything from Lego to robotics kits to collections of cardboard and straws. You need a place to store projects in progress, finished builds, and all the bits and pieces that will inspire children to create and problem solve. It cries out for wall space and cupboards and bins and low maintenance flooring.

Again, not quiet. Kids don’t giggle quiet.

3. Creating, recording and production spaces:

Think claymation, video recording, green-screens and storyboards.  With the ease of iPads and the availability of apps for a fraction of the cost of video studios, children can film PSAs, book reviews, short films, documentaries, and a multitude of modern media.  Traditional art supplies find their place too, as does mobile media such as chrome books for research during the planning stages. I’m thrilled to see what they can come up with


4. Books?

Yup, the books are still in the library.  Fiction is especially needed in library spaces, since it inspires creativity and play and ideas and joy.  Non-fiction is trickier, because anything too out of date might not fit our new norms of content, perspective, and validity.  But those books still have a place in our hearts, and our LCs.


But how does it all go together?

And this is where we’re at right now.  How do we take a space that used to be for books, and make is a space for books & collaborative learning & makerspaces & video & claymation & construction…. It’s still the same space.


I’m currently thinking tables that move and flexible groupings are the way to go, and using those library shelves as dividing walls to partition some areas. We’re not sure what it will look like when it’s done, but we know it wont look like a traditional library anymore.  I personally can’t wait ’til the unveiling. 🙂




Whadaya mean you leave at 3:15?

…because I really do. Every day. The bell goes, I grab my purse, and I hit the parking lot. I often have to encourage parents who are parked in front of me to move so I can beat my daughter’s bus home. And some parents yell, saying I should still be at work and shouldn’t get to leave…

But here’s how I see it – and how I leave everyday with just my purse.

Morning workflow

8:00 am At the computer:
I arrive at work, and turn on my classroom computer. I open a series of tabs in this order:

1.My webpage

2.webpage management area

3. Google drive

4. Google classroom

5. My wordpress homework blog


A Side note about planning and teaching through my webpage:

Where a traditional teacher would find or make handouts and sort them into folders for the week, I find or scan information, assignments, rubrics and assessments and upload them to my website by subject & unit. Every day begins with a student going to the smart board, opening my website, selecting the web link for whatever subject is first, and pulling up the lesson for today. Everything we need is on my site – including text to respond to, a task to complete, or a link to a google doc they we can build collaboratively.

So on a typical day…
Once those tabs are loaded, I check my day planner. Every day begins with math, so I flip to my web site, scroll to ‘student stuff’ and then to ‘math.’ Then, because my daily work is taught through an interactive notebook, I click on the link for my interactive notebook to which students have viewing rights and I have editing rights. I scroll through to today’s lesson, add any clarifying notes that I need on the ‘right’ side page, and check that the student engagement task in the ‘left’ side is ready to go. I collect whatever manipulatives I need and pass them out.

With math prepped and ready to go, I take a few moments to make a cup of tea and interact with our class pet ‘Peaches,’ an 8-month old bearded dragon. With her fed, and my tea on board, I sort marked work from yesterday into the hand back mailboxes. By this point my students have started to trickle in for extra help so I busy myself with them, heading outside for yard duty at 8:45. At 9:00 my students arrive, and while I do attendance, one of my kids pulls up the math notebook on the smart board. Since I teach from the webpage, the kids see the same organization at home as I use in class, so finding content becomes intuitive. By the time I do attendance the announcements are on, then we stand for the anthem and get straight to math. I teach the quick mini lesson. We add examples to the notebook as needed, or as we invent them as a class. Once we work through examples, and identify the goals, I turn them loose to create their ‘left’ pages in their notebooks. This is where they write the lesson goals in their own words, explain the process we are working on, and try practice questions. Then while students work, I float between tables coaching, documenting evidence of learning with the iPad (using Confer), and encouraging kids as I go. I try to conference with at least 6 students each day for math. I make notes in my math planning binder as to what I need to move on to tomorrow, and document what strategies I used today. I make sure to add any math practice as homework to the WordPress blog. Before I know if the recess bell rings and I have duty.

After recess I am blessed with a prep period. During this time I check my school mailbox, and then plan for my period 4 & 6 science classes. Again, from my web site I pull up the next PDF copy of the pages in our science text book, make a quick note of any materials I need, and set up for class. I open a google doc named after the lesson on which to collaboratively record class notes, and save a link to it on my website. I add the questions and vocab to be mastered for homework to the WordPress blog.

When the bell rings and my class arrives, I hand the wireless keyboard and mouse to a student. It’s their job to record notes as we work through the text book page and debrief the content. By flipping back and forth between the text and the GoogleDoc I can model how to take notes, while creating a class resource at the same time. We finish class by completing the check your learning questions collaboratively. I ask them to read tomorrow lesson as homework, and dismiss.

The bell rings, and I have 20 minutes for lunch. At 12:05 most of the kids head outside but my grade 7/8 choir files into my room for rehearsal.

I park myself at my piano keyboard, and use my wireless mouse to pull up the choir warm-ups on my web page. I created these music notation files using, which imbeds music notation files (that are playable) into my webpage. We warm up, I bring up the first piece and rehearsal in earnest begins.

At 12:45 my choir kids leave and my homeroom returns, ready for their science class. I mirror the morning class exactly, working hard to keep both classes aligned throughout the year.

At 1:25 our science time ends and my kids transition to history/language or geography. Again I start at the web page, pull up the next set of history notes, and begin teaching, adding points from our discussion as I go. If I show videos or visuals I add links to the website as I go, so students can access the same content at home. Then students begin their independent and collaborative tasks to show their understanding, and submit them to me. As each task comes in I assess it quickly for language, and separately for history/geography content. I enter the marks into my Google sheet mark book as soon as I assess them. I add any history vocab or tasks to the WordPress blog.


Language and geography tasks are managed through Google Classroom, where I make different sections for levelled texts, so that students always have access to both collaborative peers and text appropriate to their abilities.  Collecting work through Google classroom keeps me paperless for language, and allows me to really foster inquiry skills for geography. I use mixed-ability collaborative inquiry groups for geography, and the students really enjoy the chance to work together on creating a polished demonstration of their learning.

When students complete their tasks for the day they dig into their independent novels and reading journals, while I assess history and language. At 3:00 we pull out planners and add the day’s homework and review needs to the WordPress blog. Some students copy this into paper planners, others snap a picture with their phones, but most simple follow a link to the blog once they’re home to make sure they get everything done in preparation for tomorrow.

(Every night kids are expected to add new vocabulary to their Book of Knowledge  under the correct subject sections. They are also expected to review the day’s notes and compare to the website to make sure they are complete. Posting both homework online, and an interactive Book of Knowledge makes this relatively easy, and excuse-proof.)

At 3:15 the bell rings, I set the timer for the lizard’s lights, and I leave. All I take is my lunch bag and purse.

At home, once the kids are in bed and the husband is watching tv or playing a video game, I surf Twitter and Pinterest for teaching ideas. I draft neat ideas into lesson plans in google docs, saving them for a rainy day. I try new apps to improve my tech skills. And I read teen lit — for fun.

The next day I drop my own kids at their schools and then open my room. It’s essentially the same routine. I get the computer booted up and load my tabs. I look at student emails from the night before and address any needs that arose in math and then build those into my math plan for the day. I pick an inquiry question based on yesterday’s practice that ties into today’s lesson, and search for quick reinforcing video or toss a few questions onto plickers as an exit slip for class.

My kids arrive early and I coach and conference with them. Duty calls and I parade around the Tarmac chatting with kids. Math class starts and attendance is taken. Recess gives way to prep, where I prep for science. To do a quick science check-up I make a short 10-question quiz in a Google form and post it to my website. I enable it to be graded and returned automatically using Flubaroo and Autocrat. (Kids who have tech at school can do it in class, while the others can do it at home. Either way the results automatically land in my google drive.). Lunch is quick as usual, and my guitar ensemble arrives. After rehearsal my homeroom returns for science, followed by a double language class. We break into geography groups to learn about settlement patterns, collaborate to identify factors that could help the spread of the zombie apocalypse, and construct an apocalypse preparedness plan (check out We document our learning using technology, using Confer, explain everything, and other apps we smash together.

And I don’t have to stay late.

So what’s the secret? There are a few key essentials to make this work:
Teach from a webpage
1. Use apps and add-ons in Google Drive to make life easier
2. Use prep time wisely, not socially
3. Work while your kids work. As they start practice questions in science, prep the next step for tomorrow. As they work on a collaborative geography task, create the application task that comes next. When they ask a question, that tells you something about their learning. That *is* assessment. Record it!
4. Set reasonable goals for assessment. 6 math conferences each day is reasonable. Likewise, 6 language conference is achievable too. And the data I get out of an 8-minute conference is more valuable than a marked quiz.


How do you make the switch? Try it for one subject. If you have a subject where the school owns digital copies of the text or student handouts, that’s the best place to start. Upload that digital content, and make a google doc for class notes that parallels each digital page. Then live-create your class notes as you would the old fashioned way. When it starts to feel natural, add another subject or strand. You’ll find it gets easier and easier to create on the fly, and you’ll feel more involved in your lessons because everything is fresh and based on what your students really need. The real joy happens next year, when you go to start these lessons with a new class of students, and find so much already there, just asking to be tweaked. It’s one of those teaching moments where you really see your life coming back to you. And you say out loud — “it will only get easier from here.”

Give it a shot! Just one unit in one strand. Tell your kids it’s an experiment, and that it might flop, but that you want to try it. They will help with the technical stuff. They will be excited to see you try something new. And they’ll be thrilled to be able to get their class materials at home too.

Need a resolution for 2016?

This is it.



The Divide over Splits…

They’re not because of cutbacks. They’re not because of politics.

Split classes happen due to class caps. In order to keep classes smaller, the kids ‘over the cap’ become part of a split. Sure, it would be lovely to have 15 students in a classroom, but thats not the norm in public schools. Once we have 25 or 26 students in a room, the additional students need a home, and a split is born.

Sometimes, we have the right numbers for a straight 4 and a straight 5, but we have personalities in each room that really need to be separated. With two 4/5 splits, we have two rooms to divide those kids between. Having more physical rooms available for kids in a particular grade is how we balance high needs kids, gifted kids, esl kids, tech dependant kids, and personalities between the rooms. It also gives a range of teachers to choose for each kid, since some teacher personalities suit certain kids better than others.

in a well-run split class, the students can’t all have the same ‘work’ because they have to do grade/level work. With IEPs many kids have individual programs anyway. (In my 7/8 split last year I ran 5 different math programs.) Regardless of ‘split’ or not you have 30 different kids with individual needs.

Split classes really are in the kids’ best interest. I have always asked for the split when given a choice, because they give me the freedom to be creative in how I release responsibility to my kids. They give the higher-grade kids a built in review, and built-in leadership opportunities, and benefit the younger-grade kids by showing context, and where processes will go next. I also appreciate how individual differences in modified programs are less visible in a split, and all kids feel more included.

So before you panic about having a child in a split-class, think about the benefits. And please remember: building a classlist for a split-grade room takes a great deal of work — which helps your child be in the best possible place for them.



A response to Mark Barnes…

In a very succinct article Barnes outlines 10 things NOT to do on the first day of class. Several of his points make good sense: but only with adjustments. Others seem counterintuitive. 

In Letterman fashion, here’s his list with my comments. 

10 – Do NOT Denigrate a colleague: 100% agree. Whether the past years’ teacher taught something or not, most kids forget. So when I hear the ‘we never did this last year’ I use my standard ‘yup, you did, because Mr X is a good teacher. You just don’t remember it yet.’ Anything else is asking to be written up by your Union for unprofessional conduct. And it’s unprofessional. 

9. Do NOT Use sarcasm. Again 100% agree. Anxious kids are especially sensitive to ‘how you say things’ in the first few days. And students may not be able yet to tell when you are ‘being funny’ and ‘being scary.’ Sarcasm has no place in an elementary classroom, unless you’re teaching about it in literature or writing. 

8 – Do NOT say you’ll need weeks to learn your students’ names: true. However, you will mess up. Not everyone can learn 130 names in a few classes. This is where a seating plan for the first week helps so much (more on this later). And when you make mistakes, it’s only because you are human.  So model for students how to help you politely when you make a perfectly acceptable mistake. Just as you will help them when they make inevitable errors. 

7 – Do NOT Talk about “The Test”: While it’s true that not too many of us are big fans of standardized tests, many kids (and parents) are morbidly anxious about them. It can be helpful to allay those fears on the first day by letting kids know that yes, this is a testing year, but that we’re just going to focus on learning what we can. 

6 – Do NOT hand out textbooks. I 100% disagree. Some kids are excited to learn new material, and those big thick books are exciting for them. And most teachers don’t have a textbook storage room, so we need to get them into desks and lockers to get them off our own desk. But that doesn’t mean you’re sending them home — just passing them out and recording which student has which text. 

5 – Do NOT Seat students in rows. 100% agree. I always prefer flexible groupings and collaborative opportunities. Rows always feel rigid and forced to me. 

4. Do not assign seats. 100% disagree. First, in many k-8 schools having a seating plan is required for the school safety binder, so you can identify medically fragile kids, students with behaviour plans, and students with specific needs. Second, assigned seats help with learning names. Third, planning mixed ability groups from the beginning is essential to building a supportive classroom.  I teach one of three 7/8 splits in my school, and each year we retain our sevens. This means that my incoming 8s know my routines and expectations.  As a logical consequence, I want my 8s scattered throughout my room to mentor the 7s.  And I want to know I have my strongest leaders beside my most anxious new kids. This ensures that everyone has a place, nobody is left out, and I control those first few days of interaction. 

3 – Do NOT Distribute a syllabus. True. But handing out a quick one page note with your contact info, expectations, and a term overview helps ease the stress for many students and parents. 

2 – Do NOT Discuss classroom rules. I respectfully 100% disagree.  I’m a firm believer in clearing up any confusion on day 1 by making my expectations clear. You will undoubtedly run your room differently than Mr. X, so it’s a benefit to your kids if you can quickly and succinctly explain how your room is different, and build in some flexibility to reflect student suggestions as well. It’s fine to have the ‘respect is supreme’ philosophy, but with most kids learning procedures is key to success. For example, can students relocate to a more casual learning space? Can they eat in class? So you want them to leave at the bell or leave when you dismiss them? True — it’s all about respect — but most kids need specifics to be successful. 

1 – Do NOT Read from the student handbook. Read verbatim? No. But explicitly go over expectations for entry and dismissal, dress code, your tech policy, etc.? Most definitely. We can’t  hold students to high expectations if we haven’t taken the opportunity to explicitly teach those expectations. So cover those key issues, discuss anything that comes up, and send it home to be seen by the family. Then students will have the information they need to explain those expectations to their parents. 

That’s just my $0.02 worth.