Teaching as narrative art; teacher as storyteller

Once upon a time there was a writer, turned teacher, turned writer… Turned teacher/writer. Good teachers at our hearts are essentially story tellers. We know story hooks children into the learning whether the topic be children in South Sudan or the quadratic equation, minds wander to why.

Failed teacher? Failed writer? Which came first: the chicken or the egg…

For me, I started as a teacher but in my head I was really a writer. I taught for six years, liked it well enough, worked hard, had success. Then there was a confluence of events as there often is: I had a hard year of teaching at the same time as my husband was offered an exciting position working in Montreal. “Be a writer?” He said to me. “Are you kidding?!” I said,”of course I will.” I told my friends the plan:

“I’m going to be a writer!”

“So how are you gonna make money?…” They would ask.

“I’m going to be a writer…” I’d repeat.

“So…” (long pause here…) “Your husband will take care of you?”

Okay then… I left the classroom and took up another life…

I got a degree in translation, I worked as a translator, a copy editor, a writer. I wrote scripts, pitch documents (so many pitch documents…), I wrote a novel (or two) and participated in a mentorship through Humber college with Joan Barfoot. Yann Martel read me. I met Robert McKee and loved his workshop. I was published in Scholastic instructor. Once upon a time I made it to top 20 in the CBC Canada writes blogging contest. I translated a science textbook…

Where does my work appear now? Mostly nowhere but here…

Finally, I found that the freelance life wasn’t working for our family. I couldn’t be up all day with kids and work at 10 o’clock at night to deliver a document at 6 o’clock in the morning. So I quit.


I’m back in the classroom where I seriously love to be. I am doing a masters degree and have a love for reading and writing about teaching and learning that allows me to marry my loves together into pretty much my dream job.

I think every teacher brings something amazing and different to the table. Part of what I love about teaching are the many varied talents of my colleagues. Not every teacher is a writer; I know plenty of teachers were or are something different in their lives outside of school (sales people, secretaries, personal trainers… the list is endless). But I do think blogging is accessible to every teacher. It’s cheap. It’s accessible. It opens our practice to discussion.

Blogging is a reflective practice; it is important because it makes visible that reflection that often occurs in our heads, on the way home after work, while cooking, while running, while waiting to fall asleep at night.

Does the “publish” button sometimes make me take a long pause? You bet. My admin reads my blog. Potential employers may see what I write. Potential PhD panels may see it in the future and decide I’m not the candidate they are looking for. At the least (or maybe at the most), though, I hope that I can demonstrate blogging is a place for reflection and interaction. It is a place to celebrate success but it is also a place to share what doesn’t work for me and to seek opinions.

Not every teacher brings “writer” baggage to the table, but every teacher can and should blog. It’s the opportunity to make visible the reflective practice that so often happens as teachers. It’s not only what happens in our classrooms that makes us professional educators but also the reflection on best practices, on assessment and evaluation, on feedback, on knowing our students that makes us true professionals.

Anybody can stick a shiny sticker on a spelling test with 100% written on the top. Not everyone knows how or why that might not be best classroom practice.

The truth is that teachers are one part craftsman, honing a skill that can be passed from one practitioner to the next, one part artist, storyteller, dramatic artist, engaging students in the magic of learning, for when it’s done well, any story is narrative art.

How can I use technology in my classroom: blogs

I have used edublogs for some time now with lots of success. I like that it meets the CBEs tools 2.0 guidelines (this is key!) as everything can be locked down and moderated by me with lots of freedom for students. There is an app, which makes it easy for students to access. There is a cost for the pro version ($39 for a single classroom with a max of 50 blogs or a bulk upgrade that works out to about $8 per classroom), but I consider one of the costs of doing business. I have always allowed myself a certain budget for classroom extras like smelly stickers, coloured sticky notes, etc… whatever makes it fun to be in my classroom, but have recently begun to allocate my personal budget to technology-based expenses, like blogs. Our Calgary Public students also have the option to blog using D2L, which I think could be fairly easy, but requires students to log in, adding a small layer of complication for young students, but also adding a layer of security.

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Students have quickly developed the habits of good bloggers. They visit often. I often use blogs as enrichment work, where students who are “done early” can go and write. In grade one, we use them often for sentence writing using dictée words. In grade four I used them for movie and book reviews, book reflections, and word work.

My students have developed the habit of taking pictures of work that cannot be recorded otherwise (for example, building with shapes) and posting to their blogs. This way students can mark up their work and tag it so that they can easily find it and reflect on it later.

Students have the ability to read and post on other students’ work, which requires some pre-teaching around good Internet citizenship, but even after all these years, I have never had a student post an inappropriate comment.

My tips:

1. use a common login name and password and make it as short as possible especially for young learners.

2. Set up the edublogs app on your ipad and plug in all student names so that when they go to login all they have to do is find their name and click on it.

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3. Name blogs with a common name and link all blogs from your class page. This way students can easily find each other’s blogs.

4. Don’t force it. If you have students who are reluctant to blog you can’t force them to share. My feeling is that we need to respect the feelings of students who feel self-concious about sharing. In the past, I have had these students keep a paper journal when their peers were blogging on the computer or to have them blog, but to lock their page with a different password that was only known to me and her parents.

5. Decide how you want to use the blogs. I have a class blog, which students are welcome to post on, and individual student blogs, which students tend to use most often.

6. Use the blogs OFTEN! I have found that by sharing the fact that I blog, blogging often with students, and frequently sharing their blogs in class, students have become excited about their blogs. It is a way to make their learning explicit and they enjoy sharing.

But aren’t I just making extra work for myself?

I think it’s true that what you do in your classroom must follow your own personal interests and students tend to adapt from year to year. There are teachers who love music and students spend a year learning through music, there are teachers who love art and students spend a year learning through art. Technology is no different. Students in my classroom tend to get an immersion in technology for a year but it’s no different that any other creative extension in our classrooms. It allows students to speak, to photograph, to make movies and to express their learning in ways other than pencil and paper. I find moderating blogs and providing feedback no different than when I sit down at my desk with a basket full of journals and a purple pen (I love my purple pen!) except that I know my students are more likely to read the feedback and questions written on their blog and making edits and revisions becomes simple.

Moderation generally takes me a few minutes per week for comments and the same amount of time I spend marking journals per week. I have everything tied to my own smart devices and tend to moderate “as I find the time”… a few minutes after school, recess time, a few minutes before school.

With blogs, students know they have an audience and I find the quality of their work tends to improve as they know they are being read.

I generally use the blogs for the year I am with students and leave them open to my students for the year following. Most students lose interest in their blogs after leaving my classroom, but there are always a couple who continue to publish without prompting.

I personally blog at the value of wonder to share ideas and keep a record of my “good” ideas. I don’t know about you, but the last time I changed classrooms I moved 10 large Rubbermaid totes. Which is ridiculous. Time to start keeping a digital record of what works and what doesn’t. I love that my posts can be tagged for easy finding later on. Looking for a quick idea to throw in a math centre? I just have to look at my tags.

Excellent examples of teachers using blogs in primary schools include Kathy Cassidy and Danielle Maley.

21st Century Classroom

I promised my admin that if an iPad 2 made an appearance in my classroom, I would dedicate my next blog post to all the cool stuff it could do, so here it is.

First, I want to note that the “cool factor” isn’t really a factor; yes, the iPads are cool, but I think that if they don’t enhance the learning in the classroom then they aren’t worth the investment.

In addition to what we have already been doing with the iPad1s, the iPad2 has pushed the creation of content light years from where it was. We know that students are already big consumers of content, but how do we make them content producers too?

Building a camera into the technology makes it really intuitive.

So far, I have used it for enrichment with a student who is already weeks ahead on his novel study. In addition to creating a traditional book report, he is in the middle of creating a book trailer with iMovie. The students are practically fighting each other for the next chance to film a book trailer, but my criteria is that their traditional book report be done first and that it be well done. I hesitate to include the movie right now, because it is a work in progress but I think it is valuable to see what is being done, and as I tell my students, creative work is hard to share because we are opening up our hearts to criticism, but criticism often makes our work better. I met with this student about his video and he sees where he will improve it. I look forward to sharing the finished version when it is done.

It has been used to support weaker students by creating oral/visual flash cards of French vocabulary.

To collaborate and brainstorm:

For organization. With 25 students in my regular room and 31 students in my math room, organization is key. I currently have one student (on a rotating basis) every last recess who gets to access the classroom website via the WordPress app and update the daily homework. Students who are absent check the website from home or upon their return and get caught back up.

It has been used to green the classroom by making worksheets digital. This being said, I don’t think digital worksheets are the best way to learn, but sometimes they are an easy way to reinforce a skill set.

It has been used to share as students work in small groups on their iPads and then share to the projector via air sharing.

It has been used to communicate as all of my contacts are loaded into it and I can easily create distribution lists for newsletters and quick communications with parents regarding child progress.

The technology cupboard has been an evolving project, but I seem to have found a solution that works:


The cupboard has three dish racks from the dollar store, the top rack being for 9 keyboards, the middle being for 10 iPads, and the bottom being for 10 iPods. The bottom rack also houses 2 small tackle boxes: 1 for earbuds and 1 for mics for the iPods.