Sunday, 30 August 2015

Testing a new Test

I have always been a proponent of weekly tests. For over ten years, I have had my students write a weekly quiz that I’ve dubbed Friday Flashbacks. The outline for a Flashback looked like this, with space for questions from our studies that week. For the most part, it has been well received by students and parents. I have, if anyone asked, defended it from three perspectives.

From the Student’s Perspective

Elementary students can often be described as “learners in the moment”. They can be wonderfully engaged in activities during a lesson. However, new information, concepts and mathematical formulas do not always stick. As soon as the recess bell rings, many dump this fresh knowledge from their short-term memories and move their focus to the more compelling world of the playground. I don’t blame them - I did the same thing. However, it is my responsibility to teach them to keep important information so that their understanding can deepen and that we can move forward with new concepts and ideas. A weekly test, and supporting lessons on studying habits and mnemonics, is a great way to build this capacity.

Additionally, the weekly check-in is also intended to be a way in which they can celebrate and reinforce their own learning. The first request I have always posed is as follows:

In the space below, share something interesting or important that you learned during our lessons this week.  Please write in sentences but, don’t worry about spelling mistakes. (TRY TO WRITE 2 OR MORE SENTENCES)  

From a Teacher’s Perspective

A weekly test keeps me focused on subject matter. I need to be moving through the curriculum in order to have new questions for the Flashback. On Thursday, when I prepare the test, I become immediately accountable for what I have covered. Did we spend too much time on an art activity or writing task? Did we tackle the math concept that I had planned for the week? Are the students ready to be tested on the science terms I hoped to cover by month’s end? The weekly test is, in many respects, an overview of my curriculum organization. I think it serves as a better snapshot of what I am accomplishing than scribbles and jot-notes in my day-book.

From a Parent’s Perspective

I send the Flashback home on Monday for a parental signature. This provides parents with a quick look at the things we are learning in class and a chance to gauge their child’s understanding. I remind parents regularly that this is not a final grade, but rather a snapshot of their current competency in a particular area of study. As with all teachers, I provide multiple opportunities for a students to demonstrate their understanding and hopefully mastery of a concept. The flashback exists as a predictable, static opportunity for which students and parents can prepare. Thursday night homework is often left open to provide time for this preparation.

Testing Out a new Test

I am considering revising my weekly Flashbacks. I find that I am rethinking a lot this summer, certainly a byproduct of my Professional Learning Network through Twitter and Edmodo. I will still dedicate one side of the weekly quiz to review concepts from the week. However, I have redesigned the first side to focus more on the student’s perspective of the week. I have included my first draft here but, I will not know how effective it is until I get a few chances to try it out. Here are the key changes.

  1. Many questions begin with the word please. This is a simple but essential change. I am certainly cognisant of the use of good manners with my students in the classroom setting. However, when writing test questions I often think more clinically. The questions on the first page are of a personal nature. Consequently, I think it is important to make my request politely.
  2. Each student will receive a small sticker and will be asked to place it in one of the six Learning Skill boxes available. This choice allows the student to celebrate success in one of these areas and a chance to explain the reason for that accomplishment. A brief description of the Ontario Learning Skills can be found here. I also plan to use this data to provide feedback through ClassDojo and, eventually, Edmettle.
  3. I am encouraging the students to share “something that they learned” with “something that they enjoyed” as two distinct questions. Although, I will let them know that the answer can be the same.
  4. I have included space for ongoing goal-setting. This encourages the student to reflect on the things that they need to improve without highlighting them as a failure. A student who struggled to work independently is not being asked to identify this a weakness. Rather, she is given the opportunity to contemplate ways in which this can be improved. It is a tangible reminder that every new week is another chance to improve. It will also reinforce the long-term goal-setting skills we investigate in January.
  5. I have included the “Emotion Tribbles” from the Tribes Learning Community. These five Tribbles each represent a range of emotions. The student is asked to colour the Tribble that represents her emotional state for the week. She is then asked to share the reason for this decision. It is my hope that this will help me make more meaningful connections with my students but, I remain tentative on its efficacy and may revisit this section.
  6. Finally, I ask for them to share a new word. I am sure this will be easy, as we cover new vocabulary daily. I think it will be fun to encourage them to build their own Padlet wall with these new words. At year’s end, each student will have a virtual record of their language development. Again, I’ll have to see how this plays out.
  7. As a side note, I have removed the "Marks" box from the first page. I continue to move toward a Grade-Free classroom. My focus, is to encourage students to meet (or exceed) clear expectations and my job is to provide meaningful feedback. Letter grades, while still required on report cards, are slowly vanishing from my classroom and any test or assignment.

I will provide feedback on the paper copy of this Flashback for the parents to see and through Edmodo. Students will be asked to keep these printed Flashbacks in their portfolio. I am still struggling a bit with making these entirely digital. Perhaps that is something I can also experiment with during the year. This first page could certainly be completed as a Google Doc through Google Classroom and then stored in a personal Google drive folder. However, that is a thought for another day.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Make A Dot...Day!

For the third year, I will be participating in Dot Day in my classroom. I will also be promoting it with my colleagues and organizing class-to-class celebrations.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dot Day, it began in 2009 when teacher Terry Shay introduced his classroom to the Peter H. Reynolds’ book "The Dot".  It is now celebrated annually on September 15th-(ish) in classes around the world. According to the Dot Day Website it was celebrated in over 100 countries by nearly 3 million people in the last year.

The Story

The story involves a patient teacher who encourages a reserved student to trust in her own abilities and “make her mark”. The student defiantly plunks a small dot on a piece of paper. Her teacher’s caring and supportive reaction ignites her confidence and gives her the courage to create and share. As the author puts it, this is a book that seeks to “Celebrate Creativity, Courage and Collaboration” or, more simply, challenges the reader to “Make your mark and see where it takes you”!


The book can be purchased here but many libraries have a copy. An interactive whiteboard version of the story can be accessed through through this link. There is also a YouTube version here and Primary/Junior classes enjoy the song "The Bouncing Dot" which is available with printable lyrics here.

Things to do

I'll admit, there is not a lot of time to get things rolling in classrooms that begin in September. This is certainly the case in Ontario classrooms which, this year, begin on September 8th. However, fear not, a Dot Day can be a simple and fun affair. Here is a list of ideas that I have considered or explored.

  • Just share the story and let the class know that it’s International Dot Day around the world.
  • Talk about 3 million people and predict how many will participate this year or in ten years.
  • Read the book and sing “The Bouncing Dot”.
  • Get out a variety of markers, pencil crayons, paints, pastels and chalk and make some dots.
  • Use Ipads to find and take a digital picture of dots around the classroom and the school.
  • Pass a fabric dot around the class. Each student imagines and pantomimes it as something else.
  • Have them go home and find 3 important dots in their home. Write about them in Edmodo.
  • Register for Dot Day and get the free educator’s handbook for more ideas.
My "go-to" activity has always been to create T-shirts with permanent markers (Sharpies) and eye-droppers of isopropyl alcohol. Send a note home to request white T-shirts - they do not need to be new, but should be design/logo free. Have students create designs and patterns with multi-coloured sharpies and then use eye-droppers to diffuse the ink through the fabric for a tie-dyed effect. Be sure to set up your eye-dropper stations outside to reduce the impact of fumes from the alcohol.

Be sure to share your creativity at your school or in the global community through social media.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Football Fever

Every year, I run a football pool with my students. I have since 2004 for classes ranging from Grade 4 up to Grade 8. The simple breakdown is as follows.

  • Each Thursday, for the 17 weeks of the NFL regular season, students look at the current standings, ESPN charts and their own data to predict the winner of each game taking place that weekend. When ready, they circle their prediction for the winners of each game on a sheet.
  • Picture used with permission
    Each Tuesday, the results are checked, tallied and charted (Example). Initially, this is done as a class; the responsibility is eventually released to small groups of students. By the end of the year, each student should have had at least two opportunities to deal with the data.
  • Other statistical data, including mean, median and mode are determined through a variety of methods - See below.
  • A small prize is awarded to the weekly winner (raffle ticket, pencil, small candy, Edmodo Badge).
  • The final leader (leading after 17 weeks) wins a small pizza party (including friends) and his or her name is engraved onto a trophy that can be taken home until the end of the school year in June. 

Raised Eyebrows of Concern

I’ll admit this approach to the curriculum sometimes raises eyebrows from administrators, parents and even students. Here are my answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions.

Do the kids have to watch football?  In class?
No and No, except for the Turkey Bowl (Thursday afternoon of the American Thanksgiving - when we watch briefly - for fun.) We look at the standings and predictions on Thursdays (as a class and in small groups to create a genuine mathematical conversation) and we look at results on Tuesday (reflecting on our predictions and informing our future choices).

Are you teaching gambling?  
No. There is no money involved and I provide all the prizes (including the pizza party). Later in the year, we have a discussion about gambling. We talk about a friendly pool (where all the participants play at a low cost and divide the money entirely at the end) compared with a profit-based pool (which offers high payouts for the few, most successful participants and skims a portion from each week’s collection). To emphasize my point, I offer $20 to any student who can achieve a perfect week of picks. In over a decade - hundreds of students times hundreds of weeks of football - I have never had to pay that money out. We discuss the statistical reasons why this is a safe bet for me (or a profit-based organization) to make.

You’re Canadian - Why NFL Football...not hockey or the CFL?
There is great practicality to the NFL schedule. It is predictable. It starts the first week of school and ends near the winter break. It follows a regular schedule that fits perfectly with my week. It lends itself to many conversations that go beyond the field of play. Depending on grade and school community, I have considered many of these topics - Sportsmanship & Fair Play (Deflategate) , Domestic Violence, Football and Concussions, Media & the Superbowl, or even this wonderfully funny (and discussion worthy) comparison of baseball and football by the late, George Carlin.

Do the Curriculum Connections justify this use of class time?
In a recent post, I weighed the Pros and Cons of a teacher bringing his or her interests  or “passions” into the classroom. I have put my use of the Football Pool to the test and, each year, I am convinced of its utility. There are benefits that extend beyond the basic math expectations that are covered (Data Management, Probability, Number Sense). I address them below.

Other features

  • Staff Involvement: Students also keep the statistics for a separate pool involving staff members (we play for bragging rights and occasional side bets for beverages after school on Fridays). Students take great delight when they are more successful in a week than a teacher or - better still - are leading a teacher in the pool. Staff often tell me about lengthy conversations with eager students during recess. Good-natured “trash talk” can often lead to a sincere discussion about the veracity of their pool choices in a statistically close game. 
  • Second Chances: Midway through the season, students who are eliminated (statistically) can vie for the "Toilet Bowl" by picking the losing teams. The Toilet Bowl leaders and winners receive similar prizes (sans trophy). Every year, an important (and ultimately humorous) math discussion is created with the guiding question “Is it easier to pick the losing teams?” We also begin a Survivor Pool to stoke interest from those unfortunate participants who are stuck in the middle of the pack.    
  • New Canadians: Each year, I welcome new Canadians into my classroom. The world of professional sports (warts and all) is an important part of embracing a new culture. If I moved to India or Japan I would relish the opportunity to learn more about their sports (cricket or sumo wrestling). 
  • The Mapping Activity: During the first week, we learn to use the index at the back of an atlas to locate each team’s stadium. They are then plotted using Google Maps and some obvious patterns appear. This leads to a discussion of the United States and sets me up nicely for numerous Social Studies topics or Mystery Skype involving Canada’s neighbour and key trading partner.
  • Median Line: One of my student’s favourite activities is the Median line. Once weekly results have been tallied and checked we head outside to form a line. Students are arranged sequentially from those with the lowest correct picks to those with the highest. We then eliminate students from both ends until the median is found. The result is also used for any student who missed picking (so that they do not receive a zero result). This kinesthetic-learning activity resonates with all students and an immediate improvement in their understanding of measurements of central tendency is seen.
  • Logos Scavenger hunt: Prior to the first set of picks, I conduct a logo scavenger hunt (Editable Doc Here) (NFL Logo Helmets Here). This leads into a discussion about the names of teams - including the Washington Redskins' name and logo controversy. I have, on occasion, created a writing assignment that provides choice, such as research the name of any team or write a creative story about how a team got its name. These are then presented in the classroom.

This year I am excited to involve my teaching partner’s class. This will expand our data and stimulate friendly competition and fun.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Litmus Test

In my last post Sharing our Passions with Students I weighed the Pros and Cons of a teacher bringing his or her interests or “passions” into the classroom - be it a Maple Leafs poster on the wall, a viewing of The Princess Bride or an integrated lesson using the music of The Beatles. After some musing, I settled on the following list of guidelines.

1. There must be clear curriculum connections.
2. It can’t be self-indulgent or, worse still, lazy.
3. It can not alienate a group of students (seen or unseen) in your classroom.
4. Is must be appropriate to share - given the sensitivities of the greater school community.
5. Older passions can be misremembered. They should always be revisited and reevaluated.
6. It should be fun.

So, do they work? Let me put them to the test by evaluating a few of the lessons from my passions that I have started to line up for this year.  

Thinking One Step Ahead - Like a carpenter building stairs.

Like many colleagues, my planning for a new school term always seems to begin during the previous year. As each unit ends, I can’t help but reflect on it and consider new ways to approach each lesson. This school year was no exception. However, my planning began in earnest last spring when I decided to move to a different grade. (I was teaching Grade 4 and was offered the opportunity to move to Grade 5/6). A new grade meant a new curriculum. I was sad to retire many wonderful units (Ancient Civilizations, Rocks & Minerals, Light & Sound) but; I was excited to explore new subject matter (Canadian Government, First Nations & Space to name a few).

As I thought about the work I was doing to prepare for the upcoming year. I realized that I am already peppering my lessons with flavours drawn from my interests and passions? Let’s look at a few to see how they would be graded my self-imposed list of guidelines.

Rush - “The Trees”

I am considering the use of the song “The Trees” by Rush to help introduce the ideas of Socialism and Capitalism to my Grade 5’s for our Social Studies unit on “People and Environments: The Role of Government and Responsible Citizenship”. By extension, this connects to literacy, the environment and even the Grade 6 unit on Canada’s interaction with the global community. 

I grew up loving this Canadian Rock Trio and was engaged and challenged by their thoughtful and intelligent lyrics. I recently saw them play live and revisiting them reignited my memories of the sense of wonder and imagination that they inspired in me when I was in elementary school. They were, far more than some of my teachers at the time, the impetus for my desire to learn and think. Using a song or two from them this year is a little indulgent (but I think it is easily outweighed by the clear curriculum connections I can make.) Additionally, a metaphorical song about overbearing oaks and union-minded maples is timely, appropriate, engaging and fun.

Grade B+     

A Baseball Unit

The current success of the Blue Jays (fingers crossed - no jinx - no jinx) is making me consider adjusting my Phys. Ed. units. Soccer could be shifted to the spring with the kickball / slo-pitch unit in October to coincide with the playoffs. I might also do a quick lesson to introduce the sport of baseball to my class. Baseball scoring lends itself well to data management and other statistics, like averages, are easily demonstrated in a real life context.

“Ahmed and Sarah play baseball for the school’s co-ed team. Ahmed goes to the plate 100 times and hits to get on base safely 35 times. Sarah goes to the plate 75 times and hits to get on base safely 25 times. Ahmed thinks Sarah is a better hitter. Is he right? If you were the coach, who would you bat first - Why?”

Cross curricular extensions could be made by showing the Who’s on First routine (Grammar and Drama), reading Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat (Literacy, Shared Reading, Reader's Theatre) or even Canadian,Wilson MacDonald’s De Stop-Heem-Short. The latter poem, which highlights the challenges a new Canadian faces when trying to understand Baseball, naturally lends itself to my many ESL students. This, in turn, can launch a candid discussion about “learning new things” and “differences in culture”. I have many students whose families are new Canadians. I think it is important that we welcome them to our country by sharing and celebrating as many cultural touchstones as possible. If, fingers crossed, the Jays make the playoffs, we could even watch part of an afternoon game on television and discuss the use of advertising or score a few of the innings.

Abbot and Costello - "Who's on First"

"Casey at the Bat" - read by James Earl Jones

Casey at the Bat is a perfect example of the importance of why #5 is important.  Check out this version of the poem as a cartoon clearly informed by the time.    

Grade A-

The Time Travelling Marty McFly

This is the 30th Anniversary of Back to the Future and October 21st of this year is the date that Marty traveled to from 1985. My teaching partner and I are debating a way to incorporate that into our classes. This one is a tougher one and is going to require some serious consideration. Curriculum connections can be made and it can be wonderfully engaging. I often have my students write letters to their future selves on the week of their graduation from Grade 8. I keep the letters and deliver them each June. The graduating students are always delighted to receive these long-forgotten messages from their past. However, I don’t need to show BTTF in order to provide this opportunity. I haven’t screened it since leaving Grade 6 many years ago. Additionally, there is some "spicy" language that needs to be addressed. I have always maintained that a discussion of inappropriate language and its utility, or lack of utility, is something that students as young as 9 are prepared to engage. I think it is empowering for students to engage in a deeper understanding of the fluidity of language. However, that is a discussion for another post.

If we do investigate it - these are some resources to guide us further.

This great activity requires that only clips from the film be shown - that could be a solution that raises the grade of this lesson.

Grade C-

Use The Force Luke

A few colleagues and I are investigating a private screening of the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens on December 18 (The Friday it is released coincides with the last day of school - so it will be a tough hustle). We also need to get more information about the film to see if it is age appropriate. We remain confident that the curriculum connections will be easy to make. A colleague uses Star Wars references in his classroom gamification. Students that meet expectations can earn “The Force” which provides them extra lives in classroom games and Phys. Ed. activities. Each year, as the number of “new” Canadian students in his classroom increase, he finds that fewer and fewer are familiar with the Star Wars canon. This does not, necessarily, justify a screening of the original film. However, it has been his experience that it can be used to inspire a new generation of fans and ignite their imaginations. They are keen to read books, create art and explore the science behind everything from X-Wing fighters to Landspeeders to Lightsabers.

There is also this wonderful resource waiting for educators too.

Grade B-

And then there is my annual Football Pool...but, that is my topic for the next post.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Sharing our Passions with students - Engaging or Indulgent?

The problem with Ben and Jerry

Some time ago, a fellow educator, let’s call him Ben, was discussing another colleague, Jerry. Now, Jerry is an excellent teacher on all fronts. He does his job effectively while regularly volunteering to coach several teams & coordinate multiple events at the school. He is, in all ways, a committed and involved member of the school community. He also has a preoccupation with the Montreal Canadiens.  

I would like to suggest that it is an unhealthy preoccupation, but I suspect that would be a product of my forty-plus year allegiance to the Buffalo Sabres. This is a passion for him and he regularly incorporates it into his lessons. 

This does not apply to the reading or viewing of the Roch Carrier short story "The Sweater". I affect my best Quebecois accent every year to share that engaging and chat-worthy piece of Canadiana.

Jerry goes a little further - (or a lot further, according to Ben). He will incorporate the Montreal squad into math problems or as examples of statistical analysis daily. He will use stories from the current team or team history as his teaching or writing prompts. Canadian history in his social studies lessons are inexorably tied to Les Habitants and his walls are covered with logos, team pictures and other assorted paraphernalia. Some would even argue that his mood is dictated by the team’s success.  

Over lunch, Ben lamented to me,  “I really feel for those kids. That wouldn’t have interested me in the slightest. I would have been bored and miserable being bombarded by that everyday.  It would make me detest the sport of hockey, not love it.  I’ve certainly developed a knee-jerk repulsion to that logo.”

Granted, Ben is not a sports guy. He is, however, also an excellent, giving educator who helps kids succeed in other areas - particularly in, music, art and literature. He has his own passions and, on occasion, shares them with students. However, he is far more reserved and only introduces them when they fit specifically with an area of curriculum he and his young charges are exploring. Consequently, there is no evidence of his appreciation of Van Gogh or Brahms in his classroom and the student have never been asked to write an essay on Miles Davis or Monet.

But, there’s something to be said about a teacher that brings his own life experiences and interests into the classroom.  It makes the teacher real and genuine. I loved my Grade 6 teacher, Mr. MacDonald, when he would tell us about hiking the Bruce Trail or camping in Algonquin Park. My Grade 9 math teacher, Mr. Lee, was also a martial arts instructor and practitioner who would tell us about his tournaments - the wins and the losses. We are supposed to be passionate and sharing our lives and interests is essential - correct?

When is it enough and when is it too much?

Ben’s criticism immediately made me look inward and consider my own practice. Do I incorporate too many of my passions into my curriculum? Have I been alienating former students? Were those expansive cross-curricular units hinged by a television series too much? Did they really connect to the curriculum? Were they really worth the time?  

I took the time to consider this and thought I needed a list. These precepts have always guided me - I’ve just never organized them formally. I guess this will become my litmus test for incorporating passions.

1./ Is there a clear curriculum connection or are you forcing it?

I’ve found that it is better to look at the curriculum and then consider what it connects to it rather than the other way around. Granted, many educators know their curriculum well and are immediately enthused when they see something that fits. In 2013, a colleague who teaches grade 6 saw the film “Gravity” and quickly made field trip plans for his class before it left the theaters.

2./ Is it self-indulgent or lazy?

Are you doing the unit because it pleases you or because you think the students will truly benefit from it?  Worse still, are you “treading trodden trails” because it’s easy and you’ve always done that unit. Clearly, Jerry is being self-indulgent. Also, despite great enthusiasm, there are units that simply go stale. I've there always more passion in the fresh and new - I know it, and my kids can certainly feel it.

3./ Does it, in any way, alienate a group of students (seen or unseen) in your classroom?

Is a sports-themed unit unsettling for the student who has no interest in sports? Does a scene from a lavish musical-theatre production make a student from a machismo home feel uncomfortable. I think it is imperative that students should get exposure to a wide range of experiences - so focus on that. Make the experiences broad and avoid dwelling in one area for too long.  

4./ Is it appropriate to share?

Your own sensibilities have to be put aside and you need to think about it against the backdrop of your school community. Sometimes, you can push the limits. Sometimes, you need to accept that the sensitivities of your community do not match your own and you have to let it go. This is a tough one. I still struggle with this when I feel that something of extraordinary value is being silenced by unnecessary or misguided conservatism.

5./ Are your mis-remembering it and applying your own experience to it?

Sometimes, great movies or television series from our past carry with them stereotypes and sensibilities that would make us cringe today. I grew up loving the Tintin graphic novels. However, the original releases are alarmingly racist - despite the fact that the protagonist is noble, kind and honourable.  Sometimes, they are just tired and worn out. Be sure you revisit before you share.

6. Is this often harmless fun (and am I overthinking this a bit)?

I have a Sabres logo and a few small bits of sports paraphernalia (all given to me by students) placed near my desk. I I often use stories from the world of sports to highlight aspects of perseverance, commitment, teamwork and sportsmanship. That’s harmless stuff. Relax.

Next time, on the 50/20 blog 

I will apply these rules to the lessons I am planning for the upcoming year.  Will they pass the litmus test I have set out for myself?


Ben and Jerry are fictional amalgams of several colleagues and many conversations. If you've worked with me - and are a Montreal Canadiens fan - it isn't you.