What Went Well…What Didn’t Go Well..

What went well today in our classroom:

  • Children sharing in jigsaw groups what they have been learning about one of the six regions of Canada.
  • Children writing headlines (a visible thinking routine) to highlight something interesting or important about a region of Canada that someone else shared.
  • Conversations around division: does the larger number always appear first in a division problem? When a smaller number is divided by a larger number is the answer a negative number?
  • Using the pictures from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick to spark writing during our 5 minutes of silent writing.
  • Starting to set norms around more effective conversations in class: wait a few seconds after someone has spoken; say something before having your say.
  • Dictation of a simple Spanish poem: what sounds/words are my students hearing when they listen to Spanish? How are they translating that into writing?
  • Weekly status of the class preceded by 3 minutes of writing to these two prompts: I am at the part where…I’m thinking…
  • I’m spending less time giving instructions so kids can work.

What didn’t go well today in our classroom:

  • I’m having a hard time sticking to my time limits.
  • Because I have too many tabs open, it takes me a long time to find what I need when I need it.
  • I still talk too much.
  • I’m not consistent with guidelines for group discussions.
  • I could make better use of my prep time.

Plans for improving tomorrow:

  • Set a timer for mini lessons.
  • Do even more turn and talk.
  • Enforce guidelines for group discussions.
  • Push all my open tabs to One Tab.
  • Stay positive.

Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.


Silent Writing Time – 5 minutes every day

Every day, at the beginning of writing workshop, we have a 5-minute silent writing time. Sometimes, I do a mini lesson first and sometimes, we just do 5 minutes of silent writing. Afterwards, the kids go off to work on their own writing projects.

Most days I’ve given my students free reign about what they are going to write during the silent writing time. But I’ve also provided a suggestion or two, such as a word of the day, for those kids who always seem to struggle with topic choice.

Some kids, who love to write and would write all day if I let them, have done fine with the freedom and the unstructured time.

Others have floundered.

Even though I know this is happening, I soldiered on. I figured that eventually they would write something. Most of the time, this approach has worked. However, I’ve ignored when it hasn’t worked more times that I would like to admit.

Then, I rediscovered Linda Rief’s quick writes book. I don’t own the original book or the new one that was published recently. I’ve wanted to purchase them, but wondered if the excerpts and suggestions would work with my grade 5 students; I know Linda teaches middle school. So I downloaded a sample chapter from the Heinemann website to give it a try.

The last couple of days have been quite a revelation.

My students have written more in the last two days during silent writing time and more of them have voluntarily shared their writing with the class than ever before. And, many more are engaged during the silent writing time; where they would groan, now they are engaged. Although some are still trying to figure out what the prompts are asking them to do, they are more likely to write something instead of leaving the page blank.

So, what changed? I think the biggest change is that previously students wrote alone during silent writing time. They did not have a partner to lean on or talk to about their writing.  So, they didn’t know where to start. Also, their writing during this time was not anchored to anything important to them. Now, the writing they do is anchored to  someone else’s writing. They now have a writing partner, just one they’ve never met.

Today, this led to storytelling and more writing. Today more and more kids not only read what they wrote, but also told stories related to the suggestions offered in the book. In fact, the energy in the room shifted. The children were starting to feel the power of their words: their writing was having a visible impact on their classmates who laughed and gasped during share time.

I can’t wait to do this again tomorrow.

Thank you Linda Rief!

Crossposted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.

Musings on a Tuesday Evening

I am caught between a rock and a hard place…of my own doing.

I have made it my mission to say, “Yes. Then, let’s talk about how it went,” when students ask me, “Can I…” or “Am I allowed to…”(This last one really grates on me, for some reason. But that’s a post for another time.)

Nevertheless, I find myself still saying, “No,” more often than “Yes”. I find myself waffling rather than assenting clearly and with confidence: “Yes. Try that out and then let’s chat about how it went for you.”

The classroom is a busy place. My students crave validation, permission, reassurance. They depend on me, as the adult in the room, to tell them I like their work. That they can use the iPad for writing and that what they’re doing, if not awesome already, is on its way to getting there. And, they are persistent.

But what am I after?

I look out at the sea of faces in my classroom and I am on a quest to identify learners who are independent, confident, and intentional problem solvers.

What I sometimes forget is that if my students are going to go from point a to point b, I need to create the situations to help them get there, one step at a time. And, it does take time.

When I explain the why of what we’re doing as clearly as possible without being wordy. (I’ve been told by some of my students that I talk a lot. I wasn’t surprised. I was hoping that they wouldn’t notice. LOL! You can be sure that I made a point of changing that the very next day.)

One way I’ve done this is to use the following sentence frame:

We are studying (topic/concept/skill) so that (how is this going to help us learn better/do something we want to do/improve in a particular area/skill, etc). 

This is not intended so that the teacher is the only one providing the why of a lesson or a unit. Ideally, we want our students to be thinking about this, too.

Today a student came up to me and told me about how she had discussed her reading goal with her parents last night and, as a result, had created a calendar of sorts to help keep her on track. This was not a requirement; she was motivated to do this on her own so that she could keep track of her goal. Tomorrow she’s going to share this with the class.

So, I have to ask myself: why was she self-motivated? Was she the only one or were other kids who were also motivated to follow up on their goals? When I talked to two students today, they were clear about their goals and how they were going to approach them. They have given this some thought.

The sentence frame I used for this was:

I will (goal) by (date or time frame) so that (how is this going to help us learn better/do something we want to do/improve in a particular area/skill, etc.

Maybe it was the so what part of the frame that helped kids connect to their goals. Maybe it was the intentionality: I will…Or maybe it was committing to a date that helped them take this, more or less common classroom exercise, seriously.

Only time will tell.

Stay tuned.

Cross posted to The Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.




A Philosophical Rumination

One day, as you’re getting on with your life and everything seems great, everything could change.

It happens on TV and it happens in real life.

I think about the families crossing the border. Hoping for asylum. Thinking they are getting a fresh start on life. Then…separation…cages…despair.

I think about the thousands of refugees who braved an entire ocean, or more, in search of a better life and…never made it.

I think about young, black boys and men. Walking while black. Playing while black. Running while black. Their lives gone. Their families changed forever.

I think about young indigenous girls and women. Dead. An epidemic. Families and entire communities impacted forever. We don’t yet know in how many ways.

These are all life-changing events. I’ve experienced life-changing moments in my life, both positive and negative, as I’m sure many of you have as well. No one can claim to be worse off than anyone else. It’s really all relative. Yet, there they are. Those larger than life moments that mark our lives forever.

I’m trying to accept that no matter how much we prepare for difficult moments, they can sneak up on us. Without warning. Catching us as we try to get on with our lives. So, instead of worrying or imagining the worst case scenario, it’s better to let go and live as if.

As if tomorrow will bring pleasant surprises.

As if time with family and friends is the only thing that matters.

As if everyone is doing their very best even with constraints and limitations.

As if what we do in our lives matters.

As if everyone we come in contact with will be enriched by whatever we have to offer.

As if there’s no tomorrow


as if tomorrow is all there is.

Cross posted to The Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.

A Compelled Tribe Post – October Reading

Even though I am an avid reader, whenever someone asks me to reflect on books that have influenced me in some way, I am not often ready with titles or takeaways. And I wonder why that is. Sometimes it might be because when I read I am in the moment. And then the moment passes. When I’m reading, nothing else matters. Then, when I’m done, I take a moment to savor the book before picking up a new one to read. And, then I am in the moment again with a new situation, a new set of characters, a new idea to consider or an old one to reimagine.

When I read books, I will sometimes write a brief review on @goodreads as part of my personal yearly book challenge. I rarely mark up novels unless I know I will be discussing them with a friend. But when I read professional books that belong to me I tend to mark up the pages with notes and commentary as I read. If I don’t own the book, then I take notes in a notebook, notepad or on sticky notes. And, while all of these ways of documenting my reading are helpful to me as a reader, they are often in-the-moment and later become context-less. I think what’s missing for me is documenting the takeaways, the lessons or the important ideas that a book brings to my life.

And, this reflection brings me to a new practice I’m going to engage in with my students and by myself. After finishing a book, I will write down the takeaways or applications to my life from the book. It could be the “so what?” and “now what” thoughts that are an important part of what it means to reflect on experiences, books and life, in general.

So, as part of the common blog post topic of #TheCompelledTribe for this month, I will mention some of the books I’ve been reading lately and why I consider them influential to my personal and professional growth. It will be my “so what” contribution to celebrating books and reading.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds – My takeaway: we all deserve second chances.

Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno – Home really is what you make of it. It’s not the place or the comforts, but the people that make a home a place we want to return to time and time again.

Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith – Canada started on the path to reconciliation in 2008 with an official apology by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the survivors of residential schools. My school board is heavily invested in education for all that includes recognizing and celebrating the contributions of indigenous and aboriginal peoples, as well as recognizing and educating students about the violation of the basic human rights of this segment of the Canadian population. This book offers an important contribution to the education of all students in the middle grades with respect to Indigenous peoples. I absolutely loved it. I will be referring to it all year with my grade 5 students.

Although I typically read a mix of professional books, middle grades and adult novels, this list reflects a small portion of the books I may be reading in any given month. Nevertheless, they are representative of the kinds of books I gravitate to as a reader.

I look forward to reading about your reading takeaways of the moment. Please leave a comment below.

Writing Workshop – A Collaborative Writing Experience

I’m doing something different in writing workshop this year.

I didn’t plan it. It just happened. Or maybe I had been planning it in my head without being aware that’s what I was doing. Or maybe, I seized the perfect moment to do this with a student, and it went so well that I ended up repeating similar moves with other students.

During the month of September, we worked on personal narrative writing. I know I could always do a better job teaching this genre of writing. I make the mistake of thinking that it’s an easy genre for students to write. After all, they’re writing about themselves. But I have discovered and rediscovered that it’s not my students’ go-to genre.(You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now!) In fact, it’s the genre they never use unless it’s to write a list story or a breakfast-to-bed piece of writing.

Yet I choose to start out the year with personal narrative because it seems a perfect way for students to introduce themselves at the beginning of the year. (Note to self: teach personal narrative later in the year and consider if it makes a difference in the quality of students’ stories.) But maybe it’s OK to start off with students’ least preferred genre. And, maybe it’s OK to make that the first unit of study for the year. Since my students don’t choose to write personal narratives on their own, then it might just be a good genre to expose them to.

Nevertheless, year after year, my students and I struggle with getting to the essence of personal narrative writing even though I teach strategies and read books that serve as mentor texts for teaching small moment writing. Even though we write entries in our writers’ notebooks about small moments. Even though we talk about some of the elements of personal narrative. Even after all that, we struggle.

So, this time around I decided to sit side by side with my students as they tell me their stories and I write them down. As I write, I ask questions. My students respond. I keep writing. I am hoping that my students will envision what their personal narrative story could look like and sound like. For example, after a student read a paragraph about a trip to his grandparents’ cabin listing all of the things that he did there (tubing, finding a turtle, swimming, etc), I said, “This is a great beginning, but you know what? You have several small moment stories here. Which one stands out for you? How can you stretch it out a bit more?” As he talked with me, I wrote down what he said, asked questions, wrote some more and offered the resulting (unfinished) piece of writing as a possibility. A possibility because students always decide whether or not and how to take the feedback they are given. It is always the students’ choice.

Since that first time, I have repeated a similar process with other students. I am discovering that, for some, their storytelling is so much more powerful than whatever they write down on paper. At first, this felt invasive and as if I was taking away student choice. But now I think this way of writing makes sense: a published piece of writing is rarely written by one person. Even though there’s no one here as I write this blog post, I have the voices of other writers in my head. They help me write better than I ever could write by myself. So, I’m hopeful that students will internalize this side-by-side collaborative writing experience in order to become more confident and effective writers.

If you’ve tried something like this, I’d love to hear how it went. If you have another suggestion for pushing students to do the writing on paper that’s in their heads, please share. If you would like to pushback, bring it on!

Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.

Inquiry Teaching and Learning

When you hear the word inquiry what comes to mind?

Do you envision kids studying abstract topics without teacher guidance? Do you imagine they are left “to figure it out” on their own? Do you picture a chaotic room where kids don’t know what to do? Or worse, do you think that the kids in an inquiry focused classroom are not getting the basic facts they need to address and solve higher order problems? In other words, are you a cart-before-the-horse kind of teacher? Do you think that before we can “let them loose” they need to have a bevy of facts under their belt?

Hmmm…Hopefully, I am preaching to the choir here, but if you’ve ever had a tinge of self-doubt about teaching from an inquiry stance, like I have because of external pressures and uninformed judgements, let’s make a pledge here and now to let go of those doubts in order to embrace inquiry in the classroom.

Letting go of doubt doesn’t mean that we will not critically examine our practice. On the contrary. We need to be hyper aware of what students are doing and how they are learning because teaching in this way means assessing will look different, as well: focused and intentional conversations with students that demonstrate respect for them as learners.

This takes a lot of courage. Sometimes we falter. Sometimes we revert to less than stellar versions of ourselves. Sometimes we rise above even our own expectations. But the point is that we are always striving to do better. To be better. Because once we know better, we must do better. It’s. That. Simple.

Every time I think that we have evolved to a higher level of thought as a profession, for example being able to juggle two seemingly opposite ideas at the same time, I am blind sided by the inability of some educators, that I respect, to juggle ambiguity. And, inquiry requires ambiguity. It demands faith. Faith in our students. Faith in the process. Faith in the future because we many not easily see the results of this kind of teaching and learning right away or ever.

So, I find it interesting that people still think that inquiry teaching and learning is about letting the class go unmoored. No captain at the helm. The kids without the necessary foundation required for higher order thinking.

An inquiry approach is the place where facts can be embedded in big ideas through the study of important topics.

Inquiry is a stance. It’s not a method or even a methodology.

Inquiry is a mindset carefully orchestrated by the teacher and students in a classroom. And although the teacher may have a global understanding of what students are expected to learn during the year, she or he is open to what students want to learn and figures out how to help them get there. Not because parents are demanding proof, or we have to tick off a district wide box that says we’ve done x, y and z, or because we don’t know how to support teachers to improve their practice. We’re open to what students want to learn, and act on this information, because it’s the right thing to do.


Cross posted Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday