Friday, July 10, 2015


The first week of Teacher's Write has been a week of avoidance for me. After reading each of the prompts this week, I promptly went outside to garden, built some furniture, or watched some Netflix. Today I promised I would make time for writing, and so I am picking things up with Monday's Mini-Lesson and Jo's Warm-up.

Sidenote: If you don't know what Teacher's Write is, you should check it out on Kate Messner's blog

Wonderings - ideas worth exploring in writing

(I really enjoyed this activity and I'd like to do with my kids this year in the Writing Workshop I'll be running in my ELA classes each week. Doing this activity early in September would give kids an opportunity to get to know each other and share a wealth of 'writeable' topics worth exploring during the year through our Quickwrites or during Writing Workshop time.)

I wonder what my cats really think of me.

I wonder how punctuation was invented and how standard usage rules came to be.

I wonder what life was like near Cow Creek when the trailer park was a new 'upscale' community.

I wonder what it would have been like to be a rookie detective in the 1960s.

I wonder what music sounds like to someone taking Benzodiazapine.

I wonder what it was like to attend Westmount school when it first opened in 1913.

I wonder if cellular memory is possible, and what the consequences could be for organ recipients if it were possible to reconnect with those memories.

I wonder if the woman from the used postcard I bought ever found Mr. Right by searching through income tax reports at her job.

I wonder what happens to things we no longer remember - are they still stored in the brain somewhere, or do they cease to exist?

I wonder if twins see the world differently than each other, or if there would be some distinct similarities in their perceptions due to genetics.

I wonder how my relationships with people would change if we interacted with each other in our dreams.

I wonder what Rat Creek Nuisance Grounds looked like and who frequented it.

I wonder what it was like to live in the tent city that grew on the riverbank south of Downtown Edmonton in the early '20s as people moved to the city from the surrounding farmland.

I wonder what life was like as a homeless youth in Edmonton in the 1920s.


For me, this year has revolved around goal-setting. I set personal goals for myself: attend a self-defense class, rebuild a relationship with my parents, start spending time with my sister. I also set, and re-set, professional goals for myself: manage a reading workshop in my classroom, hold midterm and final interviews with my ELA students, run a workshop on interview-style assessments for teachers in my catchment area. I modeled setting these goals with my homeroom, showing them that I was a learner, a goal-setter, a person interested in bettering myself. They set goals, too, ones that stayed on display in my classroom from September until January. I also set goals with my ELA classes - reading goals, writing goals, goals based on criteria for particular assignments. So many goals.

The missing piece of my year has been reflection. Though over the year my students and I achieved many of our goals, personal, academic, and otherwise, we didn't pause to reflect on our progress. We didn't slow down to evaluate whether we had fully met our goals, or what our next steps should be. So, we set goals, but still remained stagnant, in a way. Or, at the very least, didn't take pause to leverage the success we had and capitalize on where it could take us next.

Now, my colleagues and my principal would tell you that I am, in fact, a very reflective teacher. I constantly evaluate how my lessons have gone, how my interactions with students and my peers have gone, and how I can improve my practice. This year I was nominated for and won a provincial award for my excellence in teaching. But for me, there was something missing in my practice this year and it has been the other half of my gung-ho goal-setting. Reflection is important, and I do reflect, but my mirror needs to focus on specific things in order to be most effective.

I think, in part, I have not turned the mirror back on my goals (and thus not encouraged my students to do the same) because I have been unsatisfied with the outcomes of some of my more challenging goals. I need to remind myself that part of the purpose of setting goals is evaluating them and re-setting them when they aren't working. Re-setting doesn't mean giving up - it's about focusing our efforts so that we can be effective and successful. It does not mean turning away, it's about working smarter.

This is something I aim to accomplish through blogging and journaling in the year to come. This summer, in particular, my goal (one of many) is to blog and reflect on writing with the Teacher's Write community. Hopefully, venturing into a safe, but public, space to reflect and write will keep me motivated to stay the course! Here's to a summer of growth!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Teachers Write

This year I am participating in an online "summer camp" of sorts called Teachers Write. To learn more about what that entails, check out Kate Messner's blog. On Mondays, Jo Knowles, author of Living with Jackie Chan and other novels, posts her Monday warm up, which you can find on her livejournal. I'll be responding to this Monday's prompt below.

First, though, I want to reflect on why participating in Teachers Write is important to me. As an English Language Arts teacher, I am constantly modelling writing for my students. There isn't an assignment I have given where I haven't created an exemplar myself to offer them. Especially during our unit on slam poetry, I push my students to write bravely and personally - to use writing as a way to connect deeply with others. To show my genuine interest in their brave personal writing, I share my poetry, hoping to demonstrate the power of being vulnerable on the page. Teachers Write is a way for me to practice that vulnerability and also a way to hone my own writing craft so as to better teach my students.

Monday's prompt

Our hearts open to things that we find beautiful. In so many works of fiction the conflict is messy and painful and wrenching - but there's beauty there as well. As a writer of poetry, primarily, I find I am often drawn to the messy, painful, and heart-wrenching moments in life. But, as Jo Knowles suggests, I also identify with the beauty of those messy moments.

One of the prominent themes in my poetry is mental illness. And while I write often about the disorienting feeling of swimming in a parka, I also write about the all encompassing beauty that comes with choosing survival. There is darkness in this world, but at once so much light, the light of choice and the glorious stark-naked beauty of silence in a thrumming world.

On Kate's blog today, she suggests ways to delve into place descriptions and invite readers to come, too. A recent poem of mine fits both the theme of finding beauty, and Kate's suggestion on hunting for interesting details that make a place memorable. Here's my revised poem, A Moment of Bravery.

A Moment of Bravery

an empty park bench
frozen tree-framed view of the river
my first day outside in months

iron fence posts offer stark black contrast to the bleached grasses
a plastic bag shivers and snaps against the fence
green paint peels thin off the cold wood seat

I wiggle my toes - tentative - sockless in my winter boots
below the song of traffic hum and dripping snowmelt
my heart beats legato

the sun like a gleaming penny reflects off snowbanks
filling my mouth with the taste of copper 
and blinding me

so I sit eyes closed
my lungs stretching open like butterfly wings
the cocoon of my ribs straining

I lean into Spring with my whole being
choosing in this moment
to live

Friday, July 4, 2014


It has been two long - very long - years since I have attempted blogging. As a teacher of English Language Arts, I am constantly writing - to model the process, to create exemplars, to show my students what it is like to put your voice on paper bravely. But, I have avoided blogging.

I'm not sure what it is about blogging. I write poetry regularly, I write in my journal, I write short stories and model descriptive paragraph writing, I write all variety of assignments and lesson plans and meeting notes and shopping lists and .... maybe I'm all out of words at the end of the day? 

Every year in September I start the year with blogging - with my students, I mean. Every Grade 7 and 8 student I teach gets a blog. They spend a week playing with their templates and creating welcome posts, and another few months writing public responses to things we've read in class and commenting on their peers' posts. 

And just like with my own blog, my student blogs fade. By January, we aren't blogging anymore. We're on to film studies and writing essays, and blogs are left on the shelf to gather dust. By June, the blogs are barely remembered. 

Except that, during my exit interviews with students, many of them bring up blogging as an exciting topic - a new skill they acquired this year, a form of writing they truly enjoyed. So, why is it so hard to keep up? Why do our blogs get lost and left behind every year? 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Are Awards Rewarding?

With the wind down of the school year comes a tradition that just won't quit: the award ceremony. Whether you call it an "Awards Night" or a "Celebration of Learning", your school is probably having some kind of year end ceremony in which students receive some variety of award. Now, don't get me wrong, I think that showing students that we value their individual achievements is important. It builds self-esteem, communicates genuine interest and concern for their well-being, and a desire to see them succeed. Quite simply, a little praise can show a student that they matter.

I have been pondering the relevance of student awards after a recent discussion with staff at my school about our yearly "Celebration of Learning". The length of events is always an issue at our school and so one concern that we discussed this year was having too many awards. Another concern brought up was the type of awards we were handing out - would we limit awards to academic achievement in core courses or offer awards to students with other areas of expertise? As we debated, I wondered, What do awards really communicate to students? Are awards rewarding?

As I mentioned, the volume of awards was a concern for many staff members at my school. Too many awards and people in the audience get bored. Students tire of sitting still, people clap more for the first few students than they do for students receiving awards later in the ceremony, and then, of course, you have to actually come up with an award for every student. I should add that we have only 77 students at our school this year. Clearly giving awards to every child is complicated. Teachers want awards to be individualized, to make their students feel special and honored. We also want the ceremony to be one families remember fondly, not a lengthy trial they have to suffer through. Suggestions of "Why not give awards to all the students?" were met with "Why give awards at all?" (Indeed, why not?). 

 It seems to some that if awards are given to each student that they somehow become less coveted, less special. If that is true, then the students who receive awards at our ceremony will truly feel special because they are being recognized out of all of their peers. At our school, it was decided that only 4 awards will be given to each class, with up to 2 children receiving each award. For our small school that means up to 32 children may receive an award at our "Celebration of Learning". This number does not include our dozen Grade 7 students who will be roasted and honored at the end of our celebration as a way to say good-bye as they set off on their High School careers. Nearly half of our students will receive awards at our celebration next week. Half will not.What, then, of the students who aren't receiving awards? How will they feel? Will they be jealous of their peers? Will they feel like they were not good enough to get selected? Will they feel robbed of an opportunity to shine? Will they simply feel not special? How will their parents feel when they watch other children get recognized and their own child sit as one of the crowd? Will they wish their child was being honored, too? Will they feel disappointed? With who?

Another concern addressed at our meeting was the issue of what kinds of awards to distribute. The initial list of award suggestions read, I believe:

  • Overall Academic
  • Most Improved
  • Best Effort
  • Citizenship 

One look at this list betrays our school's intentions. What are we truly celebrating? Learning? It seems to me that there is far more to learning than academic achievement and improved scores. What message does this send to students? Succeed in academics, and you will be awarded. That is what matters. 

After some debate, it was agreed that Most Improved and Best Effort could be amalgamated into one award, leaving teachers with an option to include an award for one of either Artistic Talent or Sportsmanship. I felt a jolt of excitement when this was granted - Yes! I can recognize my fabulous Art students! Well ... one of them, at least. Where does this modest award ceremony leave students who don't fit the mold? They get to sit and clap for the others. So, as I decide who will receive an award, I am also thinking about who will not. When deciding between students who both showed enormous effort this year I can't help but think, Which of these students needs to feel what it's like to be up on stage? Which one won't be hurt if his name isn't called? Will her parents wonder why she wasn't chosen? What do awards really do for students, and what are they doing to students?

 When it comes down to it, an award is just a label: dressed up and written on fancy letterhead, but a label nonetheless. Best Math Achievement, Most Improved Student, Outstanding Citizenship.  How can I slap a Sportsmanship label on a child that learned to read this year? On a child that learned to create amazing and powerful art this year? On a child that learned what it meant to truly be a big brother this year? Will he receive his award and think, My teacher thinks I am a good sport, or will he be thinking, My teacher thinks the thing I am best at is being a good sport, or worse, My teacher does not think I am a hard worker, a good citizen, or her best student. But, she thinks I am a good sport. My students deserve more than to be labelled as they celebrate the end of an amazing year of learning. They are inquisitive and inspiring. They are creative risk-takers who aren't afraid to ask questions and do things differently. They learned so much about so many things this year. How many learners do you know that can be summed up in a single line? I don't want "Best Effort" or "Overall Academic Achievement" or "Sportsmanship" to be the single story of my students. They are so much more than that. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Life without grades

I am new to de-grading. If you are, too, or if you're wondering why anyone would want to get rid of grades, I suggest checking out Alfie Kohn

I started my adventure in eliminating grades from my classroom somewhat 'accidentally' in September 2011.

In 2011, for the first time, I was teaching Primary. I was quite surprised in September when my students asked me when they would be getting their first Math test of the year. These are Grade 2 and 3 students we are talking about here. I gave them their first test near the end of that month, and they seemed concerned that it was not "test-like" enough. It was full of questions that were open-ended and required them to draw. One question even had them cutting out and sorting objects in a Venn Diagram! Apparently, that's not testing norm for Grade 2's. (What is a normal test for Grade 2's? Is there even such a thing??).

At any rate,  after the test they all began pestering me for their marks. And would you believe it, when they found out they had all passed they were really confused about the whole thing. Did I make the test too easy? Why give a test if they were all just going to pass it? Those adorable eight year olds wanted me to sort them and arrange them and tell them who was smarter than who! Needless to say, that was the last test I gave them. And, because of the power that grades clearly had to affirm or destroy their self-esteem and make them seem more or less intelligent compared to their classmates, I simply stopped offering them any grades.

Instead of grades, I focused on goal-setting with my students. For each activity we undertake, we set a goal for our learning. My students also have many ongoing goals for reading and writing that they adjust for specific tasks and reflect on frequently. My students never ask me if they got "everything right" or what their mark is. Instead, they ask me, "How did I do?", to which my response is usually, "Do you think you met your goals? What evidence can you find to show me that you met them?" This invariably leads to my students re-reading their work, telling me something that they did that met their goal, and then noticing something they want to change. At first they asked me if they had permission to change it. Now, they yank their work out of my hands and say - "Wait! I see something I want to change!"

To date, I have no markbook. I have not used a rubric all year. Instead, I use observations and formative assessments to help shape my teaching and make decisions about what their report card grades will be. (And, because I still feel residual guilt about not having a mark book, I keep all my anecdotal notes and formative assessments in a giant binder with tabs for each of my students). In Math, for example, a major component in my assessment is interviews. I meet with students for approximately 10 minutes to ask them questions about recent topics we have covered. Not only am I assessing the depth and breadth of their understanding of the topic, but also their mathematical communication skills. This not only helps me share information with parents and students about their progress, but also helps me plan for instruction that will help all students in my class succeed.

Getting rid of grading in my Primary class was so rewarding for my students, and me, that it happened very quickly. Faster than I imagined it could! It feels like I have travelled a long way from the teacher that I was last year, seemingly overnight. But make no mistake, without grades I still have a very clear picture of what my students are learning and what they are struggling with. Without grades, my students still have a clear idea of where their skills lie and what their biggest challenges are as learners. In fact, because I have shifted focus to goal-setting, students often talk about how they can meet their goals and when they need to re-set or stretch their goal.

Now, I can see how eliminating grading at a Primary level is "easier" than de-grading in Middle school and High school. Older students are "used to" grades. Grades seem to evoke a feeling of rigor, and isn't that what Middle school and High school are all about? (They're not.) Not to mention the fact that "everyone else is doing it", so if I don't, somehow I will be failing my students by not participating in the (broken) system. I could go on - I'm sure you could, too.

BUT - 

My PLN on twitter and the interwebs tell me that not everyone is in fact "doing it". Some people are getting rid of grades. In Middle school? Yes. Even in High school? Even in High school. Subtracting them from their classroom dynamic. Refusing to boil a complex and never-ending process down to a number. De-grading. I'm in good company.

AND - 

I'm optimistic that I will be able to de-grade my future classrooms, regardless of grade level because of something I discovered this year that is simple, but true. Kids love to learn, and the freer you allow that process to be, the more they love it. Engaged learners of any age participate because they want to learn, not because they are getting a grade.