Category: Technology

Author study: William Joyce

This one got buried in my drafts folder and I’m pulling it out to share since it was such a happy bit of “this never happens” that happened for my students when I stuck my neck out and made a “the worst thing that can happen is he says no” request of a writer I have long admired. 
Our author visit with William Joyce came about quite by accident. I wish I could say I planned it.

As I often do with students, I watched a wordless short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, as a vocabulary building activity. We shook loose juicy vocabulary in a PWIM-type activity.

The following week I was at a dental appointment and had an extra minute after getting a gleaming smile but before I had to pick up the darling children, so I swung into Chapters where Ollie’s Odyssey jumped off the shelves and into my hands. I read it myself and adored it and decided to share some of it with students as a book sell.

That night I tweeted to William Joyce that I was  loving his book and would he be interested in Skyping with my class. To my enormous surprise, he said yes!

Prepping students for the meeting was a wonderful experience in pushing them to ask more open questions as we sought to ask questions that would make him talk more. “We don’t want him to just answer yes or no! That’s boring!”

Other books we read included:

The Mischevians

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore

Billy’s Booger

The Numberlys

The Guardians of Childhood

Thanks to my amazing team of teachers the Skype chat was an enormous success! Would you believe I had a tooth extracted days before the visit and my face swelled to the size of a pumpkin… so I missed it! But my students were incredibly excited to share when I got back.

This goes to show for me what a powerful experience digital tools can help create for our learners when we bust the “silos” of solo classrooms!

10 Ways to Get Reluctant Writers Writing

 I suspect every writer has had the urge to create something (or an assignment to create something) without really knowing what to create. Part of what we do as classroom teachers is establish safe spaces for students to create and take risks in writing. Here is some of what I tried this year:

Give them an audience

I think students write work of higher quality when they know the final product is not for the teacher’s eyes alone. It’s important to allow students to publish and when and how is an important conversation to have together. In my experience, publishing fewer pieces but working them until they are of higher quality results in work that students are proud of and are most reflective of their ability. Publish on a blog like WordPress or kidblog. For more privacy there is always Googlesites and D2L blogs.

Allow them to work without an audience

As exciting as it can be to publish, I think it’s important to have work that exists for the students alone or for students to share with the teacher alone. In my room this year, we had a system: any piece that was not to be shared got a small note in the corner so I knew it was not for public consumption.

Give choice

It has been a powerful tool to allow students freedom to choose what to write and how to publish. Because I know and students know we are constantly working towards personal goals and “Je peux” statements, there must be a framework for writing before beginning. I used one standard rubric this year to measure all writing so students always knew what the finish line looked like. Some choices, like write a poem, write a travel brochure, write a journal entry from the perspective of the book’s main character were sprinkled with “if you have another idea, please check in with me” and some did propose writing a play to be performed with puppets. I think it was important to point out to students that they hold some creative power in writing and not everyone took me up on the offer of creating their own assignment but enough did to tell me that it’s worth offering to students.

Give a starting point: prompts and model texts

Too much freedom can be overwhelming. Respect student desire to create something but the frustration at not knowing what to create. Provide prompts, sentence frames, model books. Use the class website to provide links like this.

Write every day

Writers write. Simple enough. I used the Daily 5 strategies to help my students become better writers and students were expected to build their writing endurance, starting from only a few minutes of uninterrupted writing and working up to 12-15 minutes of uninterrupted writing time, which is pretty impressive to watch when a group of eight and nine year olds fall into such engaged writing that they don’t want to be stopped. The expectation in my room is clear though… Once we have had time to brainstorm and to talk through ideas, writing time is just that; writers write they don’t visit.

Model writing behaviour: be a writer

Students are inspired by teachers and writers. Be a writer with them! Occasionally, use student writing time to also engage in writing! You won’t likely get that great American novel written but it’s a good excersise use to put ourselves in their shoes; oh, yeah… Where do ideas come from?

Blog? Let kids know! Tweet as a class. Share old notebooks…

Invite an author into the classroom

Share books and ask questions. What are the writer’s habits? Brainstorm a list: what jobs involve writing? Invite some of them to share. While most of us write a fair bit in our work lives most of it does not look like writing narrative fiction. A Skype author visit is an awesome, low-cost way to flatten the classroom. This year I was tremendously lucky to connect with some writers over Twitter who were generous with their time and spoke with my students.

A new notebook

I know teachers who buy hard cover journals for students to give that writing a sense of being special. I know teachers who staple a few sheets of paper together and call in a journal. The book Make Writing has been inspiring for me these days. Sometimes just changing the tools is enough to spark writing.

Conversation before writing is a powerful tool especially in immersion! You might also try online collaboration tools like Padlet or google apps for education.

An old notebook

Sometimes stacks of old notebooks can inspire. I have a habit of keeping old notebooks that get messy as I fill them, sometimes with fiction, sometimes with research and notes for a paper or presentation… Sometimes it takes many notebooks and binders filled to get a single piece to publishable quality. Students need to know that good writing doesn’t happen in the first draft. Or the second or the third sometimes… Good writing takes time and effort.

Plan it/ don’t plan it

Concept maps and story boards can be powerful tools for students to produce organized drafts. Also be willing to let go of planning and write just because it’s fun. Free writing, journals, lists are all ways to throw off the shackles of carefully planned writing.

Paper planners are great. I also like comic life and Inspiration for planning webs. Google draw also does well as a collaborative planning tool.

Generally, when we start a writing project in my classroom there is a rubric. I like to know what I’m expecting from students before they start and I think it’s useful for them to have a target before beginning. That being said, I think there are times when we should let go of the evaluation part of the writing and write to express an idea or an emotion. Sometimes I think the most creative work happens that way.

And a bonus: use technology when it makes sense

Be prepared to allow students who struggle with fine motor skills or non-standard spelling to voice type a first draft and then to heavily edit the second draft. Typing can also be an awesome tool but takes time to build up the fine motor skills to do it proficiently so I think there needs to be some type of typing “homework”.

Tell stories in other ways… Oral story telling is a a fine art, put on a puppet show, make a short film!

Whatever it takes to inspire students to put pencil on paper! I would love to hear your ideas for inspiring writers.

Learning Commons as Classroom

“Chance favours the connected mind.”

-Steven Johnson

I have been obsessed lately with the deskless classroom and environment as the Third Teacher, so much so that I will be co-moderating a discussion on using design thinking to help students remake their learning space at EdCampYYC 2016.

In this TED talk, Steven Johnson talks about where do good ideas come from and asks: What is the architecture of the space? What are the environments that lead to creativity? Adults, when given the chance to choose a work environment, often gravitate towards the coffee shop or social media. Ideas are cobbled together from what we hear and and we stitch them together. (Johnson, 2010)

Spaces lead to new ideas

We need to build spaces that look more like learning commons as classroom. “Ideas don’t happen alone at the lab bench, they happen at the conference table. The liquid network where ideas jostle together.” A good idea comes from a complex network of interactions. (Johnson) If ideas have long incubation periods, how do teachers create an environment that allows for that long incubation time? Allow hunches to connect with other hunches? Allow students to turn ideas into something greater than the sum of their parts?

Schedule vs Playlist

Every morning, my routine is to enter my classroom, drop off my bags and review my expectations for the day. Before students come in, I post the daily schedule. Some things I look forward to more than others but I always know which parts of the day I’m most excited about. When students come into the classroom they are in the habit of looking at the board. Usually there is a “yes!” and a little happy dance when something good like Genius Hour is on the schedule. I have been thinking lately, though, about motivation and why as the classroom teacher I get to be “the decider”.

Before leaving home in the morning, I what parts of the day I am most excited about. Why should that be different for children? What if our classrooms looked more like a conference and less like a prescribed schedule? What if students had more choice in their day? Some things need to be fixed on the schedule – when there are 600 students and only 1 gym or 20 classrooms and only 50 laptops there has to be some scheduling, but how can we build a more personalized experience? What if a classroom worked more like an education conference? I have been playing lately with the idea of the learning commons as a classroom or classroom as learning commons and using a playlist instead of a schedule.

“Hey, students, at 10:30 am there will be a session on place value’s role in subtraction of numbers to 1000. Attend if you like! These students must attend: x, y, z”

“The bloggers café: always open”

“Pop in to the collaboration corner if you want to consolidate your understanding!”

It would require students having a handle on what they know and what they need to develop. Teachers, too. The very idea of letting students just “go” and fall through the cracks is scary. Students who don’t already know how to advocate for their needs would need to learn that skill and teachers need to use professional judgement. It’s not a free-for-all when it’s carefully planned.

Personalized learning takes student autonomy, careful documentation and reflection on learning, co-planning, and careful goal setting. In my opinion, personalized learning is not adaptive learning environments. While I see the good in including some adaptive technologies like Lexia or Mathletics, this drill-and-practice learning is not understanding. When a child needs to learn multiplication tables adaptive learning can be a huge help but real learning is messy and I worry when we teach students that learning is just progression up a ladder.

I recently saw a picture of a school where there was a cubicle for each of 300 students, touted as being “innovative” because every student was participating in adaptive learning at the same time. “Look ‘ma! No teachers…!” Yikes! Is the “cubicalization” of education what we really want for students? We can be alone anywhere… We cannot be together everywhere. I think more than learning to be apart, students need to learn to come together and technology is one of the many intermediaries for collaboration. I have seen even very young learners collaborating to produce one coherent product that demonstrates learning and providing one another with feedback on content and mechanics of learning both face-to-face and online.

Accountability remains a concern for me. When it is poorly managed, I think it’s easy for students to slip through the cracks in a personalized approach. Students need to be accountable to themselves, to teachers, to parents and need to really reflect on what they know, how they can show it, and what they need to know. I do think this is possible even for very young learners.

When we weigh risks in education, I’m not convinced that a traditional approach in which every student is doing the same thing at the same time is less of a risk than a personalized approach. Is it easier to manage as a teacher? Yes… Is it worth turning kids off learning by telling them what to learn and how to show it? Goal setting and demonstration of understanding is important. In my experience, when students are given the power to choose what and how the engagement goes way up.

Alfie Khon wrote here about the overselling of ed tech and said “show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct — and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested.” Collaboration is key!

Where do ideas for teacher and for students come from? They come from the lightning that is what’s in your head meeting what’s in my head and transforming the sand in both into the glass of something greater than what existed before. Ideas come more from collaboration than they do from working alone. I think we need to provide students with the opportunities and spaces to interact, to learn from one another, and to demonstrate that learning in a way that makes sense to them.


Plickers (technology for formative assessment)

Today I had the opportunity to teach @allosamson how to use Plickers. This post has been sitting in my drafts folder since ISTE2015 so I thought it was a good chance to pull it out!

At first glance, Plickers doesn’t look like much; it’s an online quiz platform where students use printed Plickers to buzz in their responses. I was first introduced to the idea by @jmattmiller at ISTE2016 when he included them throughout the presentation. You bet I was more engaged when I knew there would be questions throughout! The concept is simple but the resulting information on classroom learning is invaluable!
The platform provides for rich formative assessment. Many teachers use exit cards at the end of a lesson to quickly assess students for their understanding and that’s how I used them in my classroom. The key to an exit ticket being that it can be filled out in a minute and can quickly be assessed for understanding.

The beauty of Plickers is that it is all of that without a pile of paper at the end of a lesson to go through. It’s anonymous to students as they answer. As the teacher scans, students can see themselves appear on screen as having responded but they don’t see how each student responded. The teacher only on the scanning device sees a quick flash of red (incorrect) or green (correct). Afterwards, the teacher may return to answers and see which students have responded correctly to each question and it allows targeted teaching in subsequent lessons.

In addition, I have used Plickers to have students write questions for one another. This takes some skill on their part to craft a good question and to predict some of the mistakes that might be made to find multiple choice answers.

The advantage of Plickers over other digital buzz in devices is price. Printed Plickers are free (while there is a paid option for more durable printed targets). Since my classroom uses relatively little in terms of photocopies, I consider a set of Plickers extremely reasonably priced.

Would love to hear how you’re using Plickers!

Engaging Every Reader Through Multiliteracies: audiobooks, talk-to-text, and video… Oh my…

When I meet a parent for the first time they want to know: can my kid read, write, do math, and get along with other kids? I outline for parents how we use Daily 5 literacy strategies in our class room and students interact with text I many ways every week. In order to be a reader a students needs to read A LOT! In order to be a writer a student needs to write A LOT!

One of my first goals is for every child to love reading, writing, and creating. If they’re not hooked on the amazingness inside text they’ll never see the value in working with it for work or play.

When I suggest multi-literaticies and adaptive technology I am often met with some resistance but here’s my personal experience: I blog on my phone 90% of the time. I dictate to notes while driving a 60 minute or longer commute. I listen to audio books. I read, highlight, annotate, collaborate, create for my masters class mostly on mobile devices. The future is already here. When I signed up for an online masters degree I committed to not printing any of the 100+ pages per week we were assigned to read. I do it all on my tablet and I’m going to argue that most of what readers consume is not actually printed.

Multi-literacies are for every learner not just struggling learners! Knowing how to engage with a story told orally is as important as reading a text. Reading a novel is as important as watching a documentary.

My classroom goal for every student is for them to experience success with text, but I think we need to be aware that text space is changing for kids. I used to pour over newspapers, to borrow stacks of books from the library and to fill piles of notebooks that were destined to be novels (don’t count me out on this one yet😉


But we need to be aware that students do not interact with text the way learners did 30 years ago. It is not static. It’s full of hyperlinks, it talks, it interacts. Multiliteracies allow an access point for every student; students who are struggling readers can access texts that would be too difficult to read but that they understand when spoken. They are capable of inferring, connecting, recounting, and otherwise interacting with this text. Students who struggle to read a long text often readily engage with audio books.

Short videos

Creating video responses is another important multiliteracy. It takes a great deal of patience and practice for students to create video representations they are happy with. Students repeat, provide and respond to feedback, revise, and perfect. Video has been a powerful tool in immersion as it allows students to hear themselves speak.

Long videos

Responding by creating is an important multi-literacy for children; when they know their creation will be consumed and enjoyed by others it gives them purpose. Create a book trailer, a puppet show, or an Explain Everything video.

Talk typing

Siri does a lot of my typing these days. I’m a commuter and spend roughly 90minutes per day in my car. This time is precious and I get frustrated when it’s lost but this blog post was composed while driving. Of course I came back later to edit, hyperlink and add photos but the brainstorming and first draft were spoken. For me this is still not a natural form of writing. I still compose quietly and then speak outloud, much like having a phone conversation with Siri, I guess.

Picture rich content

Ebooks arean accessible source of content and web reading takes up much of our time for text consumption. Readers need to know how to handle a text that is rich with images, titles, subtitles, and hyperlinks. What students interact with is no longer a static document and knowing how to interact with it is no less a literacy than knowing how to read a book. Don’t believe me? Head over to Reddit as see how long it takes you to figure out how to access the content you’re looking for.

Web forms

I recently filled out an application for something that I might fill you in on later (or I might not, ’cause that’s the way I roll and it’s my blog) and it required me to do some pretty deep thinking. I completed it on my mobile device. While adults might balk at completing work on such a small space, it’s not foreign to students and the ability to interact with online content is important. Have students create a plicker quiz, use google forms.
To borrow a phrase from Thomas King, an influential writer for me, “the truth about story is story is all we are.” Multiliteracies allow for mutiple entry points for every student to find a way to interact with story and to make their story known.

I would love your ideas on how you integrate multiliteracies in your classrooms!

Make the walls talk


This “little” project actually took a lot of time to put together and the end result is the culmination of a great deal of student effort.

The final project brings together a unit’s worth of study in science and art. We started building French vocabulary in September with a science PWIM. This really is one of my favourite ways, especially in immersion, to help students build subject-specific vocabulary. It gives them a purpose for learning new vocabulary and provides an entry point for every child.

Through out the unit we referred back to our board.

I chose Abby Diamond as an artist study simply because she is an artist whose work I admire and whose techniques work on many levels. Her work appears simple but is actually technically difficult.

The art portion of our work started with two-minute sketches where each student was invited to look for the shapes within an animal photograph and to spend only two minutes sketching it. This work was personal. I told students that they would not be required to share with anyone. While I believe that feedback makes work better, I also believe that it’s important to have time to create without the pressure of sharing that work. Sometimes we need the freedom to just create for ourselves. The work pictured below is shared with student permission. 


After two-minute sketches, we did a five minute sketch of one animal followed by a viewing of Austin’s Butterfly and a discussion about how to provide specific, actionable feedback in the form of two stars and a wish.

Students created two drafts of the same animal. We spent a great deal of time with CPAWS and at Bow Habitat station discussing animal needs, where our chosen animal might fall on the endangered list and how we might help improve the security of our chosen animal.

Students then engaged in further study of Abby Diamond’s use of colour and colour theory and and watercolour techniques and, after creating multiple drafts of their drawings, they painted. The paintings were finally inked.

 After inking, students reflected on their work and recorded a video in the studio. On a personal note, the studio is a work in progress in my classroom. I think this is an excellent way to get students talking and creating in a second language but there is always a balance between the need for teacher supervision and the need for students to record in a quiet place. We have a pop-up studio that is simply a trifold where students post the materials they need to record.


In as much as possible, this work is managed by students. They do the final recording, write the final script and help each other with negotiation of meaning in the second language. I have been enormously impressed with student willingness to create multiple drafts. They watch themselves on video and resize they have missed information or want to improve pronunciation or fluidity and they have another go.

For the purposes of this project, I took the video off the iPad and put video together with image using the desktop computer for the sake of time. The process took me about an hour to upload.

The final product is a bulletin board that is scannable. Using a school iPad, students can scan the art work in the hallway and start a video, extending the learning beyond our four walls.

My goal is to have students create individual tags that will be laid over the art to create feedback loops for learners who will be able to scan and hear the feedback from their peers.

Lessons from this project: students ended up filming one another with screen rotation locked so all of our videos ended up being upside down and had to be fixed in post production. The technical aspects of video production need to serve the learning outcomes and I’m certain this is an aspect students will now check before filming! Thanks to @boyerclay and @mrsmaley for coming to our rescue on Twitter when I couldn’t resolve it on my own😉 My PLN totally rocks!