Ditching (some of) the desks…

So the idea of rethinking the classroom map hits me every summer. And just today I started following the thread by @AliceKeller And @mraspinall on ditching desks and losing the ‘solitary front’ of the room.

And I’m doing the same — sort of. I typically have classes of 30 in a 7/8 split. Like many home room teachers I typically have between 10 and 15 IEPs, and 5-10 other kids who aren’t yet identified but need specialized programs. For many years I was focussed on my smart board as the focus of my teaching. 

But in the past few years, thanks to some amazing FDK people in my building I have become more focussed on kid-led spaces. I even wrote an ebook on how to set up a 7/8 classroom because I see so many new teachers to the transition years struggling. 

So here’s my take: zones to fit mood and zones to fit need. 

I build an instructional wall: minimal decor, lots of flat black paper, minimal anchor charts, and my projection screen/smart board. Projection-based teaching happens here. It’s uncluttered so that kids who get overwhelmed will instinctively look at this wall because it is the most restful wall in the room, which brings them back to task. It supports my vision-needs kids in the lack of clutter and the high contrast with the screen-against-black.  It trains a routine of ‘look here for instructions,’ and it gives the room an anchor. 

I have one organizational wall: all the timetables, routines, and calendars a class needs get posted for reference. Again the focus is on simple uncluttered info. When kids, or supply teachers, or I need need to know where someone should be we all know where to look.  Again I keep the palette simple: black and lime green this year. 

One Pop-culture wall: posters from their movies and games, covers from current books, and things that reflect the class’ interests. I put this on my wall of windows so that when they want to take a day-dream break, all of the stimulus for those dreams is on the same wall. 

My final wall is the coat rack. Not much happens there except the smell of wet sheep and feet. Sorry. 

Within the room this year are table groups: some in 4s, a few in 6s, a big 8-desk group and a pair of desks facing a conference table. We have a seating plan for ‘attendance,’ another for math groups, yet another for mixed-abilty groups, et.  Kids float to different tables based on task and need. 

I also have a library zone: bean bag chairs and books on a carpet. Great for collaborative tasks or for reading. Also a great place for two writers to sit and conference. 

New for this year is a cafe zone: two desks and a snack station by my back counter. I have many students who munch throughout the day, so I figured setting aside a place to chat casually, or bounce ideas around while refuelling might be useful. I also have a few students whose families struggle from time to time, and when it comes to hunger I firmly believe in levelling the playing field within my four walls.  I have a kettle, some mugs and a drain board, some caffeine-free tea and granola bars, etc. I plan on asking the parent community to donate a few things here and there if possible to keep it going. I have a feeling it will be a popular feature of the room. 

My big table: in lieu of a traditional teacher-desk it’s where I perch, park, and occasionally work, but mostly its a landing spot for things I need for the day.  I try to move as much as I can, but this gives me a place to retreat to, letting the class roll without my constant irritating presence. 

And finally, my mat stash. Kids can grab my carpet mats and claim a piece of hallway, as long at the door stays open and they stay focussed. 

So yes, I still have a room ‘front’ per se, but I also have a host of alternatives. The goal is to get kids moving to best/choice collaborative partners, or a space that has what they need, independently. Stand up if you want, or make a nest on the floor. As long as everyone’s safe, what does it matter if you keep your stuff in one desk or truck it around in a backpack all day? Learning, and teaching, are fluid and living entities. So we go with the flow – and see where it leads. 



On critical consumption

I’ll admit it. I occasionally repost on Facebook without thinking hard about it. I occasionally fly off the handle when I half-read a comment. 
But I have found my ultimate pet peeve: the only geniuses can answer this question being answered incorrectly on teacher groups. 


And I know the whole point of this click-bait is to get people commenting so you can shame then when they’re wrong…. And I know that not everyone teaches math everyday and might not love linear equations…. But seriously….BEDMAS? Teachers who don’t know order of operations?

And then I go red when I see the grammar errors on teacher posts – even though I have often posted without proofreading and had my own slip through. It just irks me to see the wrong there or which in writing – no matter how casual – ascribed to a teacher. 

I’ll spare you my vehement rant on those teachers posting incorrect math answers to those genius questions. That’s is a whole othe issue. What concerns me more is the lack of thought. 

It has always been understood that teachers live in a bit of a terrarium. If you’re out on a Saturday night and see your students, you’re still a teacher. If you’re at a bachelorette or grocery shopping without you hair nicely combed, you’re still a teacher. You can’t shed the title. But for some reason many teachers haven’t considered how they come across on social media with the same scrutiny. And I will admit, until my husband pointed it out, neither had I. 

So it makes for a teachable moment. While most of us currently teaching did most of our truly embarrassing stuff before the Internet, some of us are making up for lost time now. 

So I beg, I plead, and I urge all the teachers out there. Think before you click. Think before you post. Think before you forward something that makes you appear to be a click-shamer and consider the value of what that click will attribute to you. And while you’re scrubbing your wall and tidying your timeline, think about reading narratives online that make you think in good ways, instead of the uh-oh ways. 
‘Cuz you’re always a teacher, even once you’ve logged off. 


ICT Equipment for every classroom – a response

@TeacherToolkit is one of my favourite Twitter handles to follow – so many great ideas and resources are posted.  Just today I found a post about the top 10 pieces of tech a classroom needs to get rolling. Readers are prompted to consider:

If money was no option, what 10 ICT tools would you use in your classroom? 

Most of this list matches my own. But, since I love to play devil’s advocate, I’d like to use this list as a prompt for where change needs to happen first: the infrastructure. 

A computer for you; and preferably one for every child! 

100% agree. If money were no object I would want a chrome book for every student. Currently I have 2 Classroom pcs, both shared with students (one connected to the Smart Board). I have 5 chrome books for student use.  

Here’s where the infrastructure come in. I only have 3 power outlets in my room: one under the smart board, one on an adjacent wall, and one by the sink which would require running power bars in front of open windows (which must be open from May to October as we have no air conditioning). We can’t go against safety codes, so no extension cords are allowed. And we can’t daisy-chain power bars. So the simple lack of outlets makes this impractical. When I do manage to plug in 6 power bars and move kids to where the power is, the lights flicker and then dim. The fan even spins more slowly. It’s ominous to say the least. So the rooms need to be retrofitted to be able to power the technology we do have. 

USB or wifi access for document sharing and device connectivity. 

We have Wi-Fi, but because of cinder block walls and lots of pipes running through our halls (the 6-8s are in the basement) we have limited connectivity. Many students bring their own devices with them but can’t log on to the network unless they physically walk down the hall. And while it’s amazing that our whole board got wifi rolled out as quickly as it did, and we totally understand the massive undertaking it has been, the sheer bandwidth needed with 150+ students trying to log in at once and stay connected as they move is beyond what our original school network can really handle. As the CST, touching the wifi router is verboten so even the need for a simple reset requires calling in a TSA, which can take a few days. This is where the constant quest for bandwidth pops up. How much speed and space does a school really need? In my opinion, if you build it, students will max it. So we ask them not to stream video and steer them away from resource-intensive apps, but it’s still a frustration many days. So yes, wifi that can handle your needs is essential. 

A projector with interactive whiteboard functionality or television screen connectivity.

Got one. And it’s great. I also got an Apple TV box for my projector so my personally-purchased apps on my own device can show on the screen. The interactive part is limited since my front-of-the-room outlets are right beneath it, so there’s a lot plugged in close by. It’s tight quarters, but we do try. 

A presentation clicker for classroom mobility.

Lovely idea. Though in a class of 30 grade 7/8s there’s not much space in which to mobilize. 😉 I will occasionally swap chairs with a student if I want to join a group, and bring my wireless mouse and keyboard with me. This allows me to turn over classroom “lead” to students as well. If you have the money, the wireless keyboard and wireless air mouse combination gives you more flexibility (just make sure to splurge on one with a decent wireless range – mine has 110 ft).

A visualiser or document camera for displaying student work, or presenting live feedback.

I have one. But the board updated our OS and now it can’t be recognized.  Same with my Zoomy digital microscope. I’m sure by the fall it will be recognized again. So yes, they are great, but only if the work. My current work around is to use the Apple TV and my iPad to snap a shot of kid work and display it up on the board. 

Tablet devices for teacher and student e.g. iPad and not necessarily 1:1.

We have one class iPad mini in almost all of our rooms.  I use it for documenting student learning, and students use it for creation tasks. One or two iPads per group of students would be ideal to make creation, video, narration etc easier. Since we do a lot of collaboration I don’t *need* tech in everyone’s hands. But 10 or 12 tablets would make group work so much more engaging. 

Recording hardware/software for pod-casting etc

We have one microphone in my room. In lieu of speakers I plug the main pc’s sound into a guitar amp. But for the past year we’ve done most of our recording straight through the iPad. Ideally, when interactive white boards were installed the speakers should have been installed too, so that every room had sound. We would also love to have space where classroom sounds could be dampened a bit to allow for better recording. But between space limitations and supervision needs, that’s just not possible yet. 

A digital camera for showcasing work and evidence trails.

We use the iPad mini for this. We have learned a lot from our FDK staff in how to document learning using picCollage.  We do wish the two printers/copiers in our school would let us print from the iPads and chrome books. Right now our workflow is: document, uploads to app, add commentary, download to camera roll, export to pc, save as pdf, print, run upstairs to get it, hope it worked, potentially do it all again. 

Posting documentation in the room would be great too, but there simply isn’t room between teaching space, coat racks, windows and one available wall (which, having an outlet smack dab in the middle of it, is already prime tech real estate).

A few show-off gizmos; e.g. data-logging; remote control vehicles/robots/buzzers and lights!

Could I get a pencil sharpener first? Seriously though, while every school has one or two people who would love to get into the fun side of tech, we’re still trying to get essential tech into all classrooms. Maybe once we get that accomplished we’ll be able to move on to more exploratory applications. 

A social media output channel to connect with students, parents and fellow classrooms outside your 4 walls …

I love social media. But crossing that line from professional media to social media can be very difficult. Our union is quite clear that they would rather we not communicate via social media, email etc. but gives us supportive guidelines if it absolutely can’t be avoided. Apps such as Remind help me securely send one-way messages to parents. And I do email frequently (usually cc-ing my administration). I also run my webpage as a virtual classroom, so what I do each day is pretty transparent. Though keeping all this going does take a fair bit of time. 

Connecting with others is tough. Twitter has provided my best PD in years. Finding a willing offline audience who value what I find online is more challenging. Perhaps if we rebuilt the staff room…
So here’s my perfect list:

1. Teacher pc that doesn’t have to be accessible to students. 

2. 2 power outlets on each of the 4 walls, not near water or windows.

3. 8 8-socket power bars with 15-ft cords, so I could have some flexibility in how I assemble my room. 

4. Wifi router mounted in the room, to avoid connection issues (along with massive amounts of bandwidth…. Sigh)

5. 10 tablets for collaborative tasks, with secure storage and charging options for overnight. 

6. 30 chrome books, with printing privledges 

7. Tables to accommodate sharing tech easily

8. Extra chargers for common devices set up in a charging station, so BYOD tech can recharge over recess, lunch, etc

9. A recording area, set apart so that students could record what they need to and still be supervised. 

10. A little extra time in each day, to keep it all organized, running, and accounted for. An extra minute to update the website. An extra 10 minutes to read through tweets. Oh, how bout an extra hour to play with new apps? Or an extra 5 minutes to fix a broken charger? Or 6 minutes to untangle a cord? Or two minutes…


What knots my knickers…

“She’ll grow out of it.”

“They gave him too much sugar.”

“He just needs a firmer hand. ”

“It’s because they didn’t breastfeed.”

“That kid is just rude and stubborn.”

“She’s been babied too long.”

“It’s because of the vaccinations.”

“It’s the video games.”

“It’s all the preservatives and hormones and Franken-food GMOs…”

As teachers, we are often in a unique position.  In loco parentis states that we have a duty of care to our students. We are to act in their best interests as a parent would. When it comes to breaking up fights and consoling sad kiddies, it’s easy.

But there are times where we – as teachers – want to parent – and can’t. We see a student struggling in school. We see him not completing tasks, even though he’s bright. We see the lost papers, the messy desk, and the frustration when he works so hard and still has difficulty. We see the girl falling asleep during silent reading, and question if she had enough breakfast or is feeling ill. We see the child whose pants are too short and wonder if his mom can’t afford a new pair right now. We see the girl with significant anxiety, who cries all the time. We see a lot – but our hands are tied.

We see children who struggle in ways that set them apart from their peers, and sometimes we question if there might be a learning issue. We do this not because it would make our lives easier to have a child identified, or on medication, or in therapy, but because knowing what demon he is facing will help us do our job better and help him learn more easily. 

Yet we can’t suggest anything.  

We are not allowed, nor trained, to diagnose, identify, or suggest what might be going on. Yet, we know from training and first-hand experience when a child is giving his all and something just isn’t working right for him.  And in our guts, because of what we see everyday, we often have an inking as to whether a child is struggling with language issues, or processing issues, or attentional difficulties. 

Because I teach teens, I am lucky. Quick metabolisms, growth spurts, and crazy sleep schedules can sometimes be responsible for a lot of classroom difficulties. And with high school just around the corner, many parents become very concerned in grade 7 & 8.  So when I see a child hitting the wall academically, I will step out on that limb and ask “has she has a full yearly check up recently?  Anemia is really common in teens, and even a low level of vitamin B12 can mess with thinking…” I plant the seed that something very minor, and very fixable, may be the cause. 

No, it’s probably not totally honest. But it doesn’t really cross the line, and it’s good old plain advice: when something doesn’t look right or feel right, go see your doctor. 

As a teacher, my goal of course is to get the child seen by a medical professional. Whether that doctor diagnoses an iron deficiency or refers the parent to an educational psychologist is immaterial to me – since either way the child will get the help they need. As a parent though, I see and understand the need for a child to be ‘perfect’ in a parents’ eyes. It’s far easier for a mom or dad to accept that a teen isn’t eating right than to face a learning disability, for example. 

If a learning issue is identified, especially ADHD, often parents come in asking how to fix it. And then I have the difficult job of explaining to them that the issue can’t be fixed. We can help a student learn to use their strengths to mitigate their challenges, but the challenges are there for good – hard-wired, if you will.  Eventually, those differences may even prove beneficial (read about how history’s great minds had learning disabilities galore). 

I can’t answer the question “should I put my child on ADHD medication?”  I’m not allowed to even suggest it.  But I can tell you my experience. I have seen 12 year olds who were failing and constantly in the principal’s office start a trial of meds, and evolve into straight-A students who never saw the office again. I have seen the previously innattentve, chatty,  ‘air-head,’ teenage girl start medication, and one week later turn to her classmate and say “gosh, why don’t you listen better! Here’s what we do…”  And I have watched that same girl realize what she just said, and seen the pride and confidence she got from knowing that she was fully present in my room, and ready to take on the world.

I have seen the 14 yr old boy who had barely moved for 2 years, start medication and return to my room alert. And in the middle of that first math class say out loud “why didn’t anyone ever tell me it could be this easy?”  Because he was so very smart, but had never been able to focus on anything, even the things he liked to do. 

And I have seen children, exhausted from a full/blown meltdown, start meds and have the ability to say “I’m frustrated. Can you help me?” a week later. 

Sadly, I have also seen parents angry, and frustrated, because they refuse to acknowledge that their child really is doing their best. I have worried for children who go home to face ridicule and anger.

So I do my best every day to teach strategies that will help every student, but especially those who struggle with focus, attention, organization and anxiety. We try very hard to keep our classroom collaborative and positive. I keep the concept of in loco parentis at the forefront, and borrow from the hypocratic oath, do no harm.  I try to educate parents without alienating them. And I try very hard to remember that every one of my kids at school could have been my kid at home. They deserve someone to fight for them, and work with them, and celebrate the smallest of victories. 

And I try very hard to not get angry at igonorant people – and I mean that in its truest definition only – those without specific knowledge. A lay parent may not know about brain chemistry, and diagnostic tests, and positive and negative symptoms. They don’t know about conclusive studies and empiric testing and all of the scientific fact that has been developed over the last 50 years on learning needs and learning disabilities. 

They only know their kid, in their home, as a product of them. And a kid who struggles is – they perceive – a reflection of them as parents.
I hate to quote that overused movie line, but “it’s not your fault” — it just is. I will work with your child, and you, to bring them as far as I can. And I will continue to read, and learn, and research in the hopes that I can find something that will make their learning easier. 

As their teacher. 

Because that’s what I want for my own child as she moves through the system – someone to recognize that duty to care

And I will continue to advocate – often loudly – for acceptance and understanding from the public towards these unique children. 

In loco parentis


That teacher-brain-weevil

He’s a pesky lil’ bugger. Just when you think you’ve turned him off and focussed on something relaxing pouf! He burrows into your brain again. 

So I try to cope as best I can by letting him trigger a flash of planning-it is, document it for later, and go back to life. 

Yes, life. 

Because as my teacher-husband has tried to teach me over the years, I don’t get paid to work in the summer. And while my natural tendency is to spend July and August planning and organizing and readjusting plans from last year, this time is for family. It’s the biggest benefit of being a teacher: two months to be with my own kids. 

But if I try to ignore the brain-weevil, my anxiety goes through the roof, I get more distracted, and I feel less able to enjoy anything. So I have found the perfect way to deal with my weevil – without committing pesticide completely. 

I made a file in Google Docs called ‘planning for 2015.’ Every time my weevil shows his face I jot down the idea in the document, preserving it for later. Sometimes I’ll go back to add to the idea during down time, like at 2 am when I can’t sleep, but for the most part I’m just recording the idea for August. 

Getting the idea ‘down’ relieves my anxiety because I feel like I’ve done something with it and I won’t forget. At the same time, a quick 2 minute not doesn’t drag me away from the family. It’s win win. 😉

Once we hit August, I’ll find more snipets of time to work through the idea list. And in the last weeks before school opens in September it will be like a checklists as I get ready. But for now, keeping the weevil in check only takes a few minutes of time on my phone. 
Those ideas will wait for me.  But summer won’t. 


July 3rd…. Time to…

…plan 😉 well, not really plan, but capture those random thoughts about teaching that wander through my brain so that when August hits and its reasonable to plan I have everything ready to go 😉
I’ve been reading more about gamification and using leaderboards to help kids challenge each other. I was originally looking for an app to run this for me but I think I’ll go paper for a year and see if it works. Here’s my (rough) plan. 

On the first day of school I’ll explain that, like a video game, we all start with zero Experience Points (XP). But every time we complete a task we gain XP. Some tasks are easy (lower xp) and others are more challenging (higher XP).  But all are winnable. 
After a longer chat about how learning is like playing a game, each student will get an avatar card. I’m thinking 8.5 x 5.5, with room for their character traits on one side and lots of boxes for their loot and badges in the other. 
Then I’ll talk about quests. Some will be small, like having your planner filled out completely for a full week (to earn the Epic backpack of Holding).  Others will be longer, such as the Math Quest to focus on keeping your interactive notebook up to date, complete, and organized for 2 weeks, in order to earn the Mantle of mathematical Mesmer). These stickers will go on your profile, to show the world your progress. 
I figure a level 1 student will have 3 or four quests to complete to become a level 2. So if I put chalk board labels on each character card I can easily adjust the level as students progress. And if each quest is worth a certain amount of XP, I can track that in another label to show them how close they are to levelling. 
And we will have Raidng party quests, where a group of characters work together to earn xp and their quest sticker. And stronger characters can work with lower characters to help them get their own quests completed. Those stronger players can earn their Helm of Helping or their Cloak of Mentoring at the same time. 
Now to design all the different characters…. I should have a Mage, and an elf, and a tank of some kind, and a hunter, and an archer with a pet of course, ooh and……
But first I’ll go play some Warcraft. Don’t judge me. It’s research. 


Getting organized for next year…

…. And it’s still June. 😉
The last week of classes for us was June 22/26.  On the night of June 22 our city experienced a brutal storm, with crazy winds, intense rain, and the longest lightning storm I have ever witnessed. 
And our school flooded. 
Specifically, the roof flooded, which overwhelmed the downspouts and weeping tiles, backing up roof-water through our sinks and into our rooms – 4 others and mine which are in the basement. The custodians did a great job of a quick clean up, and we were back inbound rooms by the afternoon if the 23rd, but it left us all nervous while packing up on the 26th. 
I used the flood as an excuse to purge — hard. I tossed, recycled, and gave away anything I hadn’t used in one calendar year. Then I made a second pass and purged anything I hadn’t really enjoyed using in the past year. If it was a chore to use or store, it got tossed in the pile. 
Everything that might not survive another flood well was also tossed. I decided it just wasn’t worth it to go to the effort of sorting and storing if I’d just be tossing a moldy mess later. 
The result? Permission to reevaluate my room. And discovery of Reggio. 
Now since I adore the ECEs at my school (Jeanette, Jenise, and Callie are amazing!), and share a lot I excitement for what they do in FDK (even though I live in 7/8 land), it wasn’t the first time I thought of Reggio. But it may have been the most impactful. I realized prepping my room was stressful, and it was really just a container for ‘stuff.’  I figured out that my room should be a living thing, and it should bring a sense of peace and confort, not stress about whether or not to build and ark. 

Or put water wings on the supply list for September. 
Ahem. 😉

I have borrowed from the Reggio teaching model when planning inquiry tasks, in terms of favouring student choice and voice. And I have switched away from a lot of bright colours to more natural elements punctuated with lots of black (teen friendly), and some white (to soften the ‘goth’).  But I never throughly about digging deeper. The idea was… Snerk…. Provocative
I apologize for the inside joke, but provocation is a key Reggio concept. Provide a collection of supplies and tools to provoke a natural exploration of learning. Hmmm. Sounds like that could work in 7-8 land….
So to Pinterest I went – fueled by the belief that 7/8s still like to play, and definitely want to be more in control  of their learning. What I’ve come up with so far is this:

1. Collaboration Cafe: convert the back area by my sink into a cafe of sorts, with comfy seating and an emphasis on natural interaction and authentic communication between teens. It can be a social place, where they can refuel, chat, and regroup. 

2. More lamps, less fluorescent lights. Add to the 4 table lamps I got last year and maybe, over the cafe, to mimic pendant lights in a naturally bright area I’ll hang up some lanterns

3.  More room for kids’ work in progress and finished pieces they’re proud of. I’ll get every kid a clip board on the wall where they can share what they’re most proud of — right now — and they can be in charge of maintaining it.  I’ll get a few large art clip boards for them to use during collaborative tasks to keep everything together. Instead of my putting up the whole class’s work at once (which invites comparison and stress) I’ll let the kids celebrate what’s going well for them.  

4. More plants! But easy care ones the kids can help with.  With a few of my Pitcher plants and carnivorous terrariums thrown in for fun 😉

5. Seating: classroom chairs are awful. I have a few stability cushions for wiggly kids, but would really like a few bean bag chairs or poufs for casual groupings. Time to yank out the sewing machine 😉
6. Make one of the SOLE stations a media provocation centre. Use the black board behind it for kids to post media stories on topics of interest, and focus that SOLE station on exploring those issues. Push ideas such as social justice and diversity etc. provoke thought and dissension and discussion. 

And maybe…. Just maybe…. 

Something living. A critter. We had a goldfish this past year who spent 2 months in a sealed ecosystem for science, and was rewarded with a big open bowl of his own when ecosystems were over. But I arrived on that last day to find WhiteCheddar floating in existential bliss. (Seriously? He couldn’t have waited one day?). Maybe a proper aquarium, or a vivarium with a few frogs. Maybe a hedgehog! Oh! I know, we could adopt an African snail…. Or raise mantises again… Or…
Well, so much for relaxing this summer. It looks as if I have a LOT to plan 😉