Back to School Playdough Activity: Building Teams and Collaboration

Wow….I’ve had requests numerous times for directions on how I run this activity and I can’t believe I’ve never blogged it.  I also can’t believe I can’t find pictures of it!  Ok, well here are the instructions and I promise to post pictures after I do it on the first day of school.

I always open with this activity somewhere in the first week of school because it helps me to illustrate how important collaboration is.

Step One:  Buy mini-playdough’s.  I get them from Costco in late August and for a pack of 80 it’s about $12 I think.  80 is all you’ll need.  I hope.

Step Two:  Distribute two play dough containers to each child.  There isn’t much in them and that’s the point.  Give them about 5 minutes to build something on their own with their materials.  You’ll get some lame little snow men or dog like creatures or some other simplistic creation.  Afterall, what are they going to do with such a small amount of playdough?  Don’t let them trade once you’ve given them the colours.  You’ll see why in the debrief sections.  Take pictures of their creations.  They’ll be eager to show off.

Step Three:  Have them now partner up with someone and they get to use all of their combined playdough to make a creation.  Sometimes they will build off of what they have already started and other times they will start all over again.  This takes more time, around 7 minutes.  Again, I take pictures as I go along.  The creations start to get more impressive.

Step Four:  Have this partner set (or possibly a trio if you had an odd number of kids) get together with another partner set.  They now have 8 containers of playdough to work with and the creations start to get pretty elaborate.  10 minutes this time or more if you think they’re on a roll.  Again…..take pictures…….

Step Five:  If you feel confident enough you can repeat this one more time to get groups of 8 but I usually find that 4-5 in a group is lots.  So here’s where I show them the pictures, starting with the first ones I took.


I end by asking the kids a series of questions:

1. What did you notice from the beginning to the end of the pictures?  (This kids will usually respond by saying that the creations got better and more elaborate.)

2.  How did you feel when you only had your own playdough to work with? (Some will say they had a hard time getting started.  Others will say they wanted more playdough or different colours to work with.  Some will say it was easier because they didn’t have to worry about what others were doing.)

3.  How did it feel to get a partner to share with? (Some will say they liked having another person to bounce ideas off of, or maybe they had better colours they were hoping for, or that the other person had a better idea so they used theirs and kept on going.)

4.  What about when there were lots of you in the group?  (Here you can really dig deep about working with group dynamics.  You can talk about the strengths as well as the frustrations and how people dealt with them.  Lots of materials but also lots of voices now.  Leaders emerge and some kids don’t handle that well, especially if there’s more than one leader.)

5.  Which stage of the activity did you prefer? (This will help you identify your “loner” worker kids to those who are ok in small groups and those who love lots of interaction.  Very revealing.)

6.  What do you think I’m trying to show you through this activity?  (Now this one is always cool because if they’ve been paying attention they will see that I’ve been trying to show them that when we work on our own we have limited ideas and limited resources.  When we work with others we have more ideas between us and more materials to work with.  And finally, what we can create together as a team is often far more powerful that what we would be able to accomplish on our own.”

So here it is!  The “Back to School Playdough” Activity!  I’ve done this with classes as low as Grade 3 and as high as Grade 10 but I suspect this is one of those things you could do K-12, depending on your students and how you think they will react.  Good luck and happy start of school!

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Confession: I Set Students Up For Failure

So yes, this is my opening blog post for the 2015/2016 school year.  Now before you get ready to write me nasty comments, you better read the whole thing through.

My story starts sitting around a lunch table at a conference I recently attended where the conversation inevitably turns to, “What do you do on the first day of school to set your students up for success?”  I casually wipe my mouth with a napkin, swallow my last mouthful and then with a completely straight face I say….”Oh I don’t.  I try to set my students up for failure and I try to do it within the first hour they spend with me.”

There’s awkward silence.  One person is kind of half laughing (thinking I must be joking, obviously….), one person is sitting there staring at me completely gobsmacked, and the other looks like she wants to punch me.  So I smile and say…..let me explain.

It’s my absolute belief that as an education system we have failed our students in two major ways:

  1.  Learning is held to a rigorous schedule and things must be learned on time.
  2. Any mistakes you make along the way will therefore delay this schedule and therefore must come with punishment.

As teachers we are slaves to deadlines.  The report card deadline, the semester deadline, the end of the year deadline, the exam schedule deadline……you name it and somewhere in our calendars are numerous days with big red circles around them that loom in the back of our mind all year long.  The problem is that we endure the stress of these deadlines and then transfer them down to kids.  We set course outlines with dates that have very limited flexibility.  They say things like, “Algebra: Sept 16 – Sept 28” and it implies that you have 12 days to learn everything I need you to know about Algebra.  Whether this is right or wrong, it has certainly been implied.

The other cruel thing we do to children is (perhaps) unintentionally we’ve taught them mistakes are to be punished and if you fall behind there will be consequences for that.  If you have a homework mark or quizzes are worth something in your class as part of a percentage of the grade, every time a kid makes a mistake they are penalized in the form of a grade.

The problem as I see it is two fold.  We have created a generation of students who think that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs and that if you don’t get it the first time (heaven forbid) or possibly the second time, you are screwed.  There might also be a third repercussion in that they also believe if they don’t learn something by a deadline, well too bad, so sad…..we are moving on.  And so things that should have been a priority are left on the wayside because, hey!  I’ve got new things to learn now!

So what do I mean when I say I set students up for failure?  Well it works it’s way into my classroom philosophy.  I find that kinds are no longer risk takers because the fear of being wrong has become so deeply ingrained within them that no one wants to go first (except those small percentage of students who KNOW they have the right answer).  I also find they give up quickly if their first attempt goes wrong.  So I try to establish a culture in my room where risk taking is expected and that making mistakes isn’t just acceptable, it’s preferred……because to me, just as dangerous as getting it wrong are the kids who have no idea what to do if they slip up and get something wrong…, for the first time ever!

I worked with Telus Spark in Calgary last year for a year long intensive project.  My Grade 6 class partnered with them in an incredible year.  It was so full and so intense that I couldn’t blog about it last year.  I had to take it all in an digest it, and yes that took a full year.  So that’s why you will see these blog posts this year, in relation to last year.  Telus Spark is ever focused on the encouragement of creative kids who want and can take risks, especially when it comes to learning.  We talked at length about the concept of “Failing Forward”.  This notion that failure is bad is so limiting when it comes to learning.  Failing is when we do our best learning.  We take a look at our mistakes and from them spring a whole host of questions.  We learn more by making mistakes than by “getting it” instantly.

I seek to teach my students that failure is not the end of their world.  In fact, failure is the key for springing us forward in a safe learning environment.

So here’s how I set my kids up for failure…..

First I open with this Google Slides :  First Day of School

Then we quickly move into a spaghetti/marshmallow challenge where I ask them to build the tallest tower possible using only these two materials.  There is TONS of failure.  The strands break, the tower tilts and falls over……it’s great.  They work in teams and as a team they will build, rebuild, and try new ideas all the time to get the tallest possible tower.  In the end we celebrate everyone’s successes and we share strategies that worked but more importantly…..the ones that were dismal failures.  And MOST importantly….we talk about what we learned from the strategies that failed.

I start off with low risk failures.  Things that don’t impact them emotionally quite so much because I need to build within them this idea that if they suffer a failure a) it’s not a catastrophic end of the world and b) you can always choose to move forward.

Failure is a crucial part of the learning journey.  And I don’t sugar coat it with prettier words such as “not yet” and “next time”.  We call it a failure, we accept it for what it is, and we deal with it.  In fact, we celebrate failure with a self high five.

Wore two different socks to school today! Self high five.

Over filled my water bottle and flooded the floor while I wasn’t paying attention! Self high five.

Totally didn’t see that Social Studies assignment was due today!  Self high five.

They key is to develop strategies that encourage perseverance and most importantly, risk taking… kids don’t learn to fear a failure but rather to embrace it.

So yes.  On the first day of school I set my students up for failure and I do it on purpose.  If you want more ideas on challenges that will encourage heaps of failure in your classroom I encourage you to join Pinterest and then search up STEM CHALLENGES, DESIGN CHALLENGES, OR STEAM CHALLENGES.  Taking the time to teach students how to fail forward is worth your time and effort.  I promise.

Starting my year off with a potentially controversial blog post! Self high five…….(oiy).

For more on failure while we learn and other cool stuff, feel free to follow my class blog which is

This year my blog will focus a great deal more on all my learnings from Telus Spark and how I integrated that into my classroom.  If you are at all interested in design learning, maker spaces, and failing forward then welcome to my crazy ride.  I’ve had a year to work out some kinks so hopefully it’s a bit smoother this year 🙂

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Taking a 5% Rollback…..

Wow, I haven’t blogged in so long that I no longer recognize my dashboard!  Where have I been?  Blogging mostly at my class blog ( but I’ve returned here because my Grade 6 blog is no place to express what I’m thinking about our current government……

And it ain’t pretty.

Prentice this week took a 5% chunk out of his own $200K+ salary, a gesture that was remarked on by many as firing the first shot in many battles to come.  But wait?  How can Prentice cutting his own salary be a bad thing?

Well for starters, you know he’s coming after public sector workers next.  He’s already said many things about how the public sector is paid nearly 12% more than the average across Canada – a figure I don’t dispute.  Of course many followed up by then stating that the PRIVATE sector in this province is paid a whopping 26% more than the average across Canada.  I’ve noticed that few people have remarked on how freaking expensive it is to live in this province!  I have a mortgage on an average sized house in a small rural community that my teaching counter parts in the Atlantic provinces would assume is a 7000 square foot monstrosity if they saw what I paid for it.  I have to take a $20 bill with me to buy a single loaf of bread, 2L of milk, and a package of cheese at the grocery store.  I’m not living a grand life here folks!  I’m living what most would consider to be a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

To be honest, even though both my husband and I are teachers, a 5% rollback would not be the end of our world.  We would still be able to make our monthly mortgage payments, I can still put food on the table, and I will not have to choose which bills get paid.  Yes, cuts will need to be made.  So where do we trim back?

Well now we get to the interesting part, the reason why many private businesses shouldn’t be so quick to throw public sector employees under the wage rollback bus. My 5% cut is coming out of your pockets because I will do what many other smart people will do and that’s cut out the luxuries I can do without.  The dinners at restaurants with my families.  The shopping trips for things that we want but don’t need.  Those of you in the direct sales/home business categories?  You should be the most terrified because I won’t be buying your tupperware, your leggings, or your fancy nails and smelly stuff.  I know how to trim a budget, and while those of you in the private sector breathe a sigh of relief over not seeing a wage cut yourself, your problem is going to be worse.  Layoffs.

There are over 300,000 public sector wage employees in this province.  5% out of their salaries is going to be felt in someone’s bottom line.

I’m concerned about other members of my family who work for government and aren’t pulling in the kind of money Prentice would have you believe they are earning.  I know people right now who are scraping by and trying to figure out how much they can save by making sure the lights stay off until the darkest possible moment.  Their kids aren’t in sports because they simply can’t afford it.  They are shopping at places like No Frills and going through the day old shelves for the deals on bread and buns.  They are buying products close to expiry dates because those are on sale for 30% off.  They ARE in trouble with a 5% rollback possibility.  And they WILL have to start making some tough decisions that I myself am not facing. Like which spouse gets to take on a night shift job in addition to their full time job.

But my biggest issue?  This government seems to feel entitled to a certain percentage of my pay check just because they are having “a little financial crisis”.  Where were the savings when oil was flowing freely at $110/barrel?  I’ll tell you where it wasn’t going, a savings account.  See this is what financial management will tell you in any situation.  When things are good, you put money aside for the times when they aren’t.  For a province so dependent on oil revenue and who has seen oil prices tank before, you think they would have learned that lesson.  But they didn’t and now they want me to balance the budget with a lofty little term that Prentice has used called, “Burden Sharing”.

The problem is that a 5% burden isn’t equally shared.  The people at the top barely feel a thing while the people at the bottom are left wondering what bills get paid this month.  It’s easy to sign up for a 5% pay cut when that 5% means you might only take three family holidays this year instead of four.  Or that you might, heaven forbid, have to travel in economy instead of business class.

5% to me means no more fancy dinners out, my kids might have to choose one extra curricular instead of 2, clothing will be purchased on sale and with a strict limit, and I’m likely going to have to scale down our family outings this summer.  Thank goodness we own a tent trailer, because I see lots of camping in our future.  Never mind…..we love the outdoors.  I know how to budget and live within my means.  I refuse to cut the money I’m putting aside for my children’s education or the amount we contribute each month into our emergency savings fund.  Hmmmm, maybe I should chat with the finance minister.

But in all seriousness, if Prentice thinks I’m going to just simply smile and nod when he asks for 5% of my paycheck, he’s delusional.  The PC’s have done so well with our province’s finances up until this point, why wouldn’t I just throw more money at them?  Sure.  Makes total sense to me.

He sounds like a bad stock broker.  “Geez, we know we lost it all.  But seriously…..if you just give us another $6 billion, we can turn this thing around!”

Let me go hide my checkbook.

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PAT Accountability

I’ve started getting my kids ready to write their PAT’s next week.  No, it doesn’t mean they’ve done tons of practice tests and no it doesn’t mean that I’m no longer teaching curriculum in order to test prep.  We’ve simply been practising good reading skills and becoming problem solver “detectives”.  We’ve talked about where to start when a problem seems too big or like it has too many pieces to solve.  We’ve discussed how to use our logic to determine what a “reasonable” answer looks like and why estimation is so important.

Why am I doing this?  Quite simply put, it has nothing to do with wanting them to “score well” on the PATs, it has to do with me wanting them to feel confident and alleviate the anxiety that they are placing on their own shoulder and that, yes it happens, their parents are placing there too.  Honestly, I can’t wait to see them hit the road.  Knowing I only have to do one more year of this makes me happy.

It was suggested to me VERY STRONGLY by a friend and parent that PATs should be staying as part of the examination process in 3, 6, and 9.  She went so far as to say that this was a way to “go slack” on teachers and not make them “accountable” for anything anymore.  This was letting them off the hook.

I let her rant for awhile while I quietly drank my coffee.  I listened to how she thought this was a good way to find out what kind of teacher her son had and what kind of quality of education he was receiving.  When she was done with her rather long speech, I paused and then said this:

What if I told you that I was going to take your son for an hour, say…..about the third week of August (right before we head back to school and parents nerves are wearing thin as school approaches).  I’ll take him for that hour, maybe with an extra half hour if I think I need it.  I’ll watch him play, interact with other children, ask him some questions and then based on that 60 – 90 minutes at that specific time I will judge/evaluate your worth as a parent.  I will make all my decisions about your quality of parenting and your ability to raise your son based on that 90 minutes with him.

Hey, sometimes this judgement doesn’t even take a quality 90 minutes assessment, right?  Ask anyone who’s ever had a child have a complete meltdown in Walmart and faced the disapproving frowns of other people who’ve just sized you up as a parent.

Snap judgements.  Gotta love ’em.  And that’s what a PAT is.  It’s a snapshot.

My kids have already written their PAT stories, they did so back in May.  And they will each get a score.  Excellent, Proficient, etc……

But it won’t tell the story.  It won’t let you know about that kid who struggled to write two complete sentences at the beginning of the year and how even dragging that much out of him caused tears.  It won’t let you know that kid now writes (types) nearly a full page with a story that doesn’t quite make sense but has a main character and the beginning of a plot. It will tell you that his spelling is atrocious but it won’t tell you that he’s now trying to spell words that are lengthy, descriptive, and better than basic vocabulary.  It won’t let you know that when he handed it in he told me with great pride in his voice, “This is the BEST story I’ve ever written…..”

And I smile because even though I know he’s going to receive a failing grade, he has come so far and made so much progress.  To hear him speak with pride and a smile on his face about writing far outweighs the tears he had at the beginning of the year.  There’s also the fact that he will willing put pen to paper again that says it all.  This frustrated writer in September with barely two sentences to his name, is now a willing writer in May.

But he’s going to fail….so I suck as a teacher, don’t I?

Clearly the quality of education going on in my classroom is sub-par.  That’s ok.  Go ahead and judge me that way.  Take all my hard work and my dedication and boil it down to a number.  Slot me on a scale based on my class average and look down at me when the child doesn’t achieve a passing grade.  Call me names, point fingers, and judge me all you want.

All I see is his smile when he walks out of my classroom.


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I Forgot My Phone

Not that long ago, I was sitting in the auditorium of my daughter’s school while they were hosting their year end band/music concert.  My daughter was the second group to perform and so fifteen minutes into the two hour long concert, she was done.  I could have left with my family but since we thought that would be rude, we forced ourselves to endure the performances of the kids we didn’t know but watched nonetheless.

However…..when I looked around the brightly lit space, I was horrified.  There were scores of people looking down at their screens.  One person, who sat five chairs down from me so I watched her in my peripheral vision, didn’t look up from her phone for a good twenty minutes.  Now the band kids are looking at sheet music but it was when the choir came up that I was truly embarrassed.  I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to look out over a crowd of people and realize half of them aren’t paying attention to you.

I deliberately had put my phone in my purse and only pulled it out three times to very quickly check the time before returning it to my purse.  I didn’t answer a text, an email, scan my Facebook/twitter feeds, or play my favourite game.  I felt like that would be rude.  Now I’m wondering if it would have been better if those people (who weren’t paying attention anyways) had just gotten up and left.

Which do you think would be less offensive?  To leave?  Or to be present in body but not in mind?

I saw this video last week, connected to what I think is a growing trend.  I wonder what my Digital Literacy class thinks this video means?

Have we become a world where if you forgot your phone you are now the odd one out?


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Confessions of an “Incompetent” Teacher……

I would like to make a confession.  In the past, I was an incompetent teacher.  And I doubt I’m the only one there has ever been.  But bare (bear?) with me, and read my post before you start hurling judgements at me.

I read a blog post today that really hit me the wrong way.  It was related to the Alberta Task Force recommendation that teacher competency should be reviewed every five years for certification purposes.  My thoughts on this are a whole other blog post, but it was the anecdote in this post I read that bothered me.

The blogger tells the story of how when he was in school he had this amazing math teacher that he looked up to.  Fully trained, fully competent and he was a successful math student as a result.  Then he had this biology teacher who left part way through the year and was replaced with another teacher (a gym teacher) whom he felt was clearly “not competent” to teach the Bio 20 class.  His class had marks that suffered accordingly.

I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a story like this.  I too had a teacher who knew nothing about teaching Math 30 and as a result my 85%+ marks that I had received all throughout my educational career tanked to a miserable 63%.  I was devastated.  I spent a good chunk of my university years hating him over the fact that I lost out on scholarships because of those marks.

But now I know a hard truth.  It wasn’t his fault.

In my third year I was given a Home Ec class.  Now anyone who knows me would laugh and laugh and laugh when I told them this.  I wasn’t a half bad cook.  But one of the major components was a sewing module.  Wow… Grade 8 Home Ec teacher watched me attempt to sew a really simple basic skirt and after a month of trying, she felt sorry for me and finished my project herself one day after school.  Should I have been teaching this class?  Not if you wanted it taught well!  Why was I teaching this class?  Because someone needed to and I was the only one with a hole in my timetable.  Fortunately this only lasted a year when it became clear that, seriously, anyone could do a better job then I could.  I’m just grateful that no one lost a finger in a sewing machine or suffered food poisoning because I likely would have lost my job.

I also remember being given a Science 8 class to teach in my fourth year.  I was terrified.  I did not do well at science in school.  I barely passed Physics, did passably well in Chemistry, and was ok in Biology but that was it.  I didn’t take science courses in university at all and was not thrilled about being given this class to teach.  I tried. Really super hard.  I spent hours preparing lessons, reading course material, looking things up online, and talking to other teachers.  I often wonder if my other classes suffered because I devoted so much time and energy into prepping this course that I felt so completely….well….incompetent…to teach.

I would find out days after I had taught a lesson that I had taught it wrong and would have to go back and reteach it.  I tried to use other teacher’s exams but I had no idea what some of the correct answers were so I couldn’t even make up an answer key if they hadn’t provided one.  Many nights I was in tears because it stressed me that much.  And I would love to apologize to those kids from that year because I did a really poor job of teaching that class.

I continued to teach Science 8, however, because it was assigned to me every year. There was nothing else.  Due to conflicting and overlapping schedules there simply wasn’t anyone to trade classes with and so I found myself tackling this issue every year.  And as the years went on I got better.  I attended more and more in services, I managed to get into a group of other Science 8 teachers and plan some common units and assessments.  My comfort level grew, my anxiety level dropped, and I grew as a Science teacher.  What I find truly hilarious is that now each year, after the first couple of months, I always ask my students which of the 4 core subjects they think I am trained in due to my university education.  They almost always say Science……(it’s actually Social Studies due to the number of history and sociology courses I took in university).

If a teacher is assigned a class he or she is not QUALIFIED to teach, who’s fault is that?  When I took on my very first teaching position it was a Math/LA position (of which I felt fully qualified and competent to teach).  Since then I’ve been assigned numerous classes of which I have had no formal training and would not be considered “qualified” to teach.  It’s easy to look at a teacher and point the finger and deem them “incompetent and not fit to teach!”  But many teachers are forced into situations where they are assigned classes to teach that they have no business teaching.  Often the choice is simple….teach the class or go compete with the other hundreds of people looking for teaching jobs.  Well it’s easy to be all high and ‘moralistic’ and say they should resign…..except they’ve got mortgages to pay, kids to feed, and debt payments to make.  What would you choose if forced into the situation?  If a teacher is forced into a situation where they find themselves teaching a subject they are not qualified and trained in teaching, does this make them incompetent? Perhaps, but whose fault is that?  The teacher’s?  The administrator who put them there?  Someone else?

I don’t know.

But I do know that my career has been full of ups and downs.  Some years I’m amazing (nominated for awards, parents love me) and other years the learning curve has been steep and it would have been very easy for someone to come along and label me as incompetent.

Albert Einstein once said……



Well…..I truly believe that the vast majority of graduated teachers are competent to teach……but if you judge a gym teacher by her ability to teach Bio 20, you may spend her entire career thinking she’s incompetent.


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Math Wars: iWest May 2014 Session

I’ve taken on the challenge of leading a discussion based session at iWest tomorrow…..

Here’s my google presentation

And here’s the google discussion doc – please feel free to add to it (I respectfully ask that you keep things relatively short and to the point though……yes I know there are those of you who could write entire essays on the questions in there but I think short points of a couple sentences will be much easier to read…….) 

Some of my resources are listed in both locations and I’m hoping others will add, particularly to the request for helpful network sites and bloggers.


Thanks everyone!  I know we’re going to have a great discussion tomorrow on what it means to teach Math for understanding!

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Breaking Up With The PCs in Alberta

Well……what can we say?

If the ATA and the PCs were truly married, it might be suggested at this point that some serious marriage counselling would be in order.  I don’t think we need counselling, I think this marriage needs a full frontal lobotomy.

You see Jeff Johnson, Minister of Education, can no longer be trusted.  450 delegates at the annual ARA Meeting told him so.  And if he acts surprised then realistically we can only point him to his actions of the past.  Let’s take a look at the progress of this relationship (in simplistic terms yes, because none of us have all day here).

The honeymoon phase of this marriage was sunshine and roses.  It started with a continuation on Inspiring Education, started by Dave Hancock and continued by Jeff Johnson….a document that inspired within teachers a belief that we were on the same path.  The curriculum needed some revamping with a focus on the future of Alberta students in a changing world.  It talked about a shift in mind sight to include some 21C skills and mindsets.

Then the honeymoon ended.

Johnson decided to talk about things like Merit Pay and the potential of a legislated 4 year contracts.  And we became wary.  We weren’t sure if we should change the locks or give it another try.

The Math Attack came and Johnson defended us.  He posted a great video that explained that the way we teach Math can’t look like it did 50 years ago.  That test results were not the be all and end all for judging our student performance.  And that our student population today is so much different then it was.  And we thought….he gets it!  He really gets it!  And we stopped packing our suitcases and put our items back in the drawers.

When Johnson talked about creating a Task Force for Teaching Excellence we once again went back to him with mixed feelings of hope and trepidation.  Some of us chose to be optimistic that this would lead further down the path that Inspiring Education had started.  We saw a future where we could all be happy.  Together.

And then the announcement came……and we realized that not only were we not on the same page, we weren’t even in the same library.

While we had been holding out hope for a reconciliation, it became apparent that one person in this relationship/partnership was really only interested in the control of the other.  Oh boy……I don’t feel the need to post about my feelings on the Task Farce (spelling mistake INTENDED) because it has been spelled out loud and clear by many others.  And it has occurred to many of us

….perhaps a divorce is a little much but at the very least we want to see other people.  And so all eyes turned back to Dave Hancock who is now the interim Premier of Alberta.  But he seems to waffle.

And now the question becomes……who gets the kids?  Apparently we are both fighting over them and Johnson claims that HE represents students while the ATA only represents itself.  Excuse me?  Did anyone else feel that slap directly to the face or was that just me?  To say that the ATA promotes teaching interests is fair.  But guess what….the interests of the teachers are directly related to the interests of the students.

And sorry Jeff, but when’s the last time you ever attended our kids soccer game?  Or school play?  Or helped them after school with their homework?  Or let them cry on YOUR shoulder when they felt like their world was coming to an end?  We only ever see you at a school when you need a nice photo op.  You represent the kids?  Sorry but I’m going to call you on this one.

The fact is that the ATA has been more than willing to be partners in this marriage, but when consideration came to how to improve the relationship we were left out of the conversation.  I’m not sure how you can improve a marriage while ignoring one of the spouses but hey, I’m no marriage counsellor.

But…..I do know one thing Mr. Johnson.  In the words of Taylor Swift…..we are never ever ever getting back together.

Oh and by the way…’s not us.  It’s you.

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Why Inquiry Based Learning is Not Discovery Learning

I’ve seen people using the terms “inquiry based learning” and “discovery based learning” as though they are interchangeable.  They’re not.  And here’s why….

Let’s forget about that fact that discovery learning doesn’t actually exist for a moment and pretend that it does, at least in the way that some people believe it does.

I think when people use “discovery based” learning they are thinking that we throw kids in front of a bunch of visuals and hands on materials and basically say, “Here.  Now go learn subtraction.  Come back to me when you’re done.”  I think people are assuming it’s a model where there is NO direct instruction and kids just simply learning things by figuring it out themselves.

And this is why inquiry based learning gets a bad rep when it’s not the same thing at all.  So what is it?

1.  A Shift In Thinking

The inquiry model begins by asking a question.  A meaningful question, not something as lame as…….If Johnny drinks 4 glasses of water and Sarah drinks 9/2 glasses of water, who drank more water?  (By the way, my Grade 6’s answer to this is…..”Who talks like that?  Who says they drank 9/2 glasses of water?  Seriously?”)

No, what I mean is that instead of doing mini lessons that lead up to a culminating project, we begin with the “project” and go from there.  For example, when I taught about Pythagorean Theorem I posed the question…..“So if a well built building is made of walls that make perfect 90 degree angles, is this school a well built building?”

2.  A Shift In Who Asks The Questions

Kids are more likely to pay attention to you if they ask the questions themselves.  This way they are invested in the answers.  In a standard math classroom I think a teacher stands up at the front of the room and says, “Ok, today we are going to learn how to calculate unit price.”  And then proceeds to teach.

However, when kids are faced with a project where they have to create a drink and sell it to maximize profit, suddenly THEY want to know…..well how do you figure out how much it costs per glass.  And now that I have their attention (because they honestly want to know the answer), I can engage them with some direct instruction as to how to do so.  Yes, notice I said DIRECT INSTRUCTION.  I do indeed use that in my classroom, although there will be some kids who will never ask the question because they do indeed figure out how to do it on their own.  Shocking, I know.

3.  A Shift In Evaluation

Inquiry based learning is not so much evaluated based upon correct vs incorrect but rather on how well did your process work.  And here’s where people freak out.  Yes, we do allow for the fact that there is more than one correct way to do something.

4.  The Development of Understanding

I am a product of the “old” math generation and I was an excellent math student.  I was in the top five percent of my class and while I hated my math classes, I was very good at them.  But here are a list of things I couldn’t have explained to you if you has asked me…..

a)  Why we invert the second fraction when we divide.

b)  Why the whole a² + b² = c² thing worked.

c)  Why when testing for equivalent fraction if you cross multiplied and got the same answer it proved the fractions were equivalent.

d)  Why when looking for a missing number within a pair of fractions the whole “cross multiply divide” thing worked…..

e)  Why when changing a mixed number to an improper fraction you multiple the denominator by the whole and then add the numerator.

And there’s more but too but I think I’ve made my point.  I was simply taught these methods and since they worked and I had the process memorized, I got the correct answer ever single time and that was good enough.

Do you know when I finally learned the “WHY” behind these things?  When I goat job as a math teacher and had to teach it to my students.  Now some people are ready to slam me in the comments (oh yes you are) and say that I obviously wasn’t a very good math student when I was a kid.  And here’s the part that might shock you…..I agree.  You’d be absolutely right, I was a horrible math student because I didn’t have a clue why I was doing the things that I was doing.

There’s a possibility that I asked why somewhere along the way and likely I may have even been told, but since I didn’t need to know the why to get the answer I likely forgot it.  But man I sure rocked those 30 math questions on that worksheet.  30/30.  Almost every single time……

Some people would argue that we now spend too much time explaining the “why” to kids and not enough of symbolic representation.  Well…..I took a University level math course (just one, the introductory course) and after battling with nothing but symbolic representation for an entire semester, I never took another. I got a B in that course, which I was pretty proud of.  However, the truth was clear.  Though I had been “good” at math throughout school, I was not a good math student and so I never took another math course again.  And to this day everything I did in that math course on derivatives and logs are completely lost on me.  I recognize it when someone puts it in front of me, but all it is to me are numbers and symbols that make no sense.  And I think that for many of our kids today…’s the same thing.

Because it has no meaning.

Inquiry base learning can often give kids that meaning.  Or at least the desire to understand the meaning and from there they internalize more of what it put in front of them.

Being an inquiry based teacher is hard.  You have to be good at it.  Damned good at it.  And I’m still working on it.  I do know that the inquiry system has resulted in a much higher level of engagement within my classroom and when kids ask the questions instead of the teacher, they learn so much more.

In an inquiry based classroom, the kids spend more time talking than the teacher.  And that’s the BIGGEST shift of all……….it has nothing to do with “discovering” how to multiply.  It is driven by the desire to know WHY when you combine these two numbers something magical happens and they become this whole other number.

Too often I think we suck the life out of the math classroom with lectures, worksheets with 30 problems to solve, and kids who do nothing but sit in desks and write on a pice of paper.  It’s time to breathe life back in and get our kids to buy back in as well.

Why did my 7 year old desperately want to learn how to do algebra and my Grade 7s act like it’s a death sentence?



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If Substitute Students Existed…..

I’ve been far too serious lately in my blog posts and I think it’s having an effect on my blood pressure.  I was inspired by my daughter earlier (along with a friend of mine from Facebook) to write this post.

My husband (also a teacher) was taking a day off to attend an appointment.  My daughter asked if she could stay home too. My husband firmly told her no.  She huffed that it wasn’t fair that he could just have a substitute teacher go in for him and that she wished a substitute student could go to school for her.

And I wondered what THOSE sub plans would look like…….

April 15, 2014 – Substitute Student for  Sara Chasm

Dear Sub Student:

Thanks so much for coming in for me today.  I’m so sick, I feel like I’m going to die.  I hope the day isn’t too rough on you.

To begin with, after signing it at the office, go to my classroom.  It’s #217.  Down the hall to your left, past the concession, a right at the janitor’s closet and down to the end of the hallway.  My locker is five away from the door.  My combination is 24-16-31.  If you don’t know how to work the lock, just ask a teacher.  They’re always helping kids with their lockers.

I’ve included a class seating chart with my desk outlined in bright orange.  The desks coloured in blue are my friends, the desks in red are people I don’t know much about, the desks with the Xs on them are the kids you should talk to in case you have questions about anything throughout the course of the day.  The black desk is that of my arch nemesis.  You are NOT to talk to him under any circumstances and if we have partner work avoid him at all costs.  Seriously.  The trouble maker kids and the kids who are usually sent to the office are also marked down.  I’m an “academic” student so I try to stay away from these people because sometimes when they get into trouble they can pull other kids down with them.

The yellow stars represent the people I play with at recess.  We meet under the flagpole every recess and decide what to do.  Today its my turn to pick.  Please pick “school” and assign roles accordingly.  I like to be the teacher.  Jenna will complain that she wants to be the teacher.  She will probably make a big deal if she doesn’t get her way.  If this happens, just tell her she can be whoever she wants to be when it’s her turn to pick.  If she continues to be a pain, roll your eye starting from left to right, sigh heavily, and say, “Fine Jenna.  You can be the teacher.”  Then you can pick Principal (which is a better role anyways because you’ll get to boss her around).

Ok, so the day!

After sitting down you will notice the schedule my teacher wrote on the board.  All my books are in my desk.  My green duo tang in for math.  My red is for Social. And my yellow is for Science.  I hope we don’t have LA because I brought that home and it’s with me.  Oops.  If we do have LA, just ask the teacher for help.  She’ll know what to do (usually).  Sometimes she forgets what we were doing the previous day and in that case, just roll with it.

My Social Project on Dinosaurs is not finished.  You will need a computer to do the research.  My log in name is schasm3695 and my password is: Sch00L!  Please note the upper case letters and those are zeros, not Os.  If you have trouble logging in, just talk to Jason (the one with the heart around his name on the seating plan).  He’s the “tech” kid in class who helps everyone. He’s super smart with computers! And he’s really really really cute.  But don’t tell him I said that.  

Here is a list of websites I have been researching:,,

and http://www.wikipedia/dinosaurs/facts/657/file/org/research/Htx90L/longinternetname.htm

Just type these in exactly and you will see what you need.

At recess you will be allowed to eat a snack.  You will only have time for a quick snack and if you don’t put your wrappers in the garbage, the garbage patrol monitors will get on your case so it’s just easier to throw your stuff in the garbage.

Ok, Math.  We’ve been studying fractions.  I’m very good at fractions so please make sure you do any work assigned correctly.  If you aren’t sure of the answers, just copy off of John.  He sits next to me on my left (note seating chart).  He always gets everything right.  It’s super annoying but also helpful when I have a substitute student.  

Now Art class……the smocks are in the closer (you won’t want to get your nice school clothes messy!) and we are working with paint today.  My preferred colours of yellow, green, and purple.  If those are all in use, feel free to use orange or red.  Please avoid blue and that pukey mustard coloured one.  It’s gross.  And it’s runny so it’ll just make a mess of everything.  Hopefully the teacher doesn’t put it out anyways.  Watch out for Jack and Jill, they’re clumsy and if you paint next to them they will probably get paint all over you.

Music class….I’m really tall so I’m in the back row.  You won’t know the words to any of the songs we’re singing but that’s ok.  The kids sing together as a chorus and I don’t have a solo so just operand close your mouth and pretend you are singing and it’s all good.  If the teacher calls on you for anything, just remind her that you are a sub student and don’t know what’s going on.  She’ll pick someone else.

Ok, clean up at the end of the day!  We stack our chairs.  I’m in row 4 so you have to stack your chair on the 4th pile.  Make sure all the garbage is off the floor from around your desk.  Also, you won’t be able to write down the agenda notes because I have my agenda at home with me, just use a piece of paper from the scrap paper pile on the back shelf and leave it on my desk.  I’ll see it in the morning when I get back (assuming this puking comes to an end and my fever goes away).  If your desk is neat and tidy and you are standing quietly, the teacher might pick you to go to your locker first!

I hope your day goes well!  Leave me notes on anything you feel is important.  Don’t forget to tell me about every little interaction and conversation you had with my classmates. It’s important I know EVERYTHING that went on during the school day.  Seriously….EVERYTHING.  In fact, when you get home tonight, it might be easier just to email me since I’m sure you will have lots to say.  My email is

I was reading this to my daughter who got a good laugh out of it, but at the end she said,  “Do you really have to write down every little thing when you get a sub?”

And I said, “Well yes, especially if it’s a sub I’ve never had in my classroom before.  They will need to know how the day works.”

My daughter rolls her eyes, gets up from the chair and says on her way out of the room, “It would be way easier to just go to school………”

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