Closing the classroom door

It’s June 17th today and I am writing this blog post now because I know that in less than two weeks when the last day of school comes, I will be such a basket case that I won’t be able to write coherently.  There are a few things I would like to say to turn the page and close an amazing chapter of my life.

Because I need to be closer to home (to my young children), I have taken a new position in a wonderful little school.  I am looking forward to new challenges.  Sadly, it means that I will also have to say goodbye to my Bear Creek family.

It was a very difficult decision to move because I dearly love my school, the kids and their families.  There is another family at Bear Creek that I love too.  If the heart of the school is my students, the soul of the school is and always will be, my colleagues.  My time at the ‘Creek has been a coming of age for us…a golden decade if you will.  We got married together, had our babies together, nursed broken hearts, broken relationships and hopes for future, nurtured dreams, shared our darkest moments and our greatest triumphs.

We are kindred hearts, bound together as inner city school teachers-a place and a profession that can take so much from you if you let it, but it can give you so much if you take the time to understand. We are friends held together by moments of despair and moments of profound joy.  Moments when you wonder if there will ever be enough of you to go around, moments when you just want to run down the hall whooping for joy celebrating a student’s success.  Those moments are now cherished memories because they were shared with some of the most amazing, dedicated, hardworking, compassionate people I have had the honor to work with.

I will hold dear the deep friendships forged by sad stories of students who we couldn’t save, by stories of the students that we did, who come back and tell us how well they are doing…and I will miss those success moments most.  I wish I had started blogging earlier in my career to capture all of those memories.  I am very grateful to those who have encouraged me to blog and document what my amazing students do every day.

This last year for me has been a year of lessons for me.  I have enjoyed renewed energy for teaching, new ways of being a teacher and a learner, new connections and new friends.  I have grown so much professionally, had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  I’ve been inspired and challenged and also deeply hurt.  Had way more questions than I will ever find answers for.  And had the confidence in who I am shaken to the core.  I now know that there are times in life that you may lose your footing, but it is those who know you best who will bring you back to who you are, and will help put you back together when you can’t do it all on your own.

I will soon say farewell to cherished colleagues, to dear friends.  Farewell to the luxury of seeing them so regularly that I have taken it very much for granted.  We know each other so well that with one look we can read each other’s hearts and know just what to say.  I will miss that kinship.

So as I turn off the lights and close the door to my classroom one last time, know that I will hold all of these memories in my heart and will never forget the many ways Bear Creek has played a role in shaping who I am today.  Thank you for all the ways you have made me a better teacher by giving me the lessons of resilience shown by my students every day.  I have learned to savour and celebrate the small victories, the quiet moments of sitting at my desk on a Friday afternoon when all the kids have gone home, reflecting on another week and dreaming for the future.

I will walk down that hall with gratitude in my heart and memories to last a lifetime.  I know that one day when my own children are grown and don’t need me to be quite so close at hand, I will return to inner city teaching and try to give back in whatever way I can, some of the beauty it has given me.

And even though my heart is breaking, and the tears are running down my cheeks as I write, this blog post isn’t meant to be sad.  Because the thing about scar tissue that forms from a broken heart-vivid and raised as it may be-it’s strong.

So after the summer has passed and a new September comes again, I will begin again with a bigger, stronger heart than I had before, and I will be ready to take on the next chapter in my career.  But for now, it’s time to rest.  So with that, it’s time to say my favourite border collie sheep herding expression… “that’ll do.”

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer break.

Attendance Awards and Student Engagement


Well, we won the top attendance award again this month…which makes it every month this school year except January (we had a nasty case of the flu go around the class, so we came in second).  It’s getting so bad that at the assembly when the attendance awards are presented, my students look at me with raised hands to be chosen to accept the award before the winning class is even announced.  Every month I pray that another class would win…not just to keep my little learners’ egos in check, but because I genuinely want another class to win because their attendance is so great.

Most of you know how I feel about awards (as in I despise them) so I am going to look at this from more of a teaching practice point of view.  The why behind winning these awards is really what interests me-why are my students coming to school more this year?  Why are there fewer lates?  Why has this group of grade 3’s dramatically improved their attendance over their grade two rates last year?  And why has my class attendance improved over my class from last year?

We took the data from our “Attendance Matters” program.  Tia has been very helpful in collating and analyzing the attendance data.  (And she took great joy in telling me (and I quote) “wow, your attendance really sucked last year!” (In the nicest possible way…I just love that!)

This is my first full year back after several part years due to two high-risk pregnancies and maternity leaves, but looking back at my previous full years at our school from 2005-2009, I can honestly say my students’ attendance has never been this good.  Before, I blamed it on poverty, lack of parent involvement, it’s just the way these kids are…but never really looked at my teaching practice and what I was doing to make my students want to come to school.

I know there are many reasons why my students are at school more this year: we are doing way more project based learning, Genius Hour, The Daily 5 literacy program, individual spelling, my brillant teaching partner is doing fantastic hands-on math and science lessons…we have six iPads that live in our room this term…all of which is great and the students love.

Students are in charge of their learning, building their own learning plans, conferencing and getting more feedback than ever before…I love the quiet, somewhat organized chaos in my room and the kids seem to thrive in having the power to choose how they represent their learning and even how they explore what they are learning.

But I think the real reason is the way we start our day.  In previous years I have done a “Big 5” type start to the day, students at desks completing 5 questions off the board-review for math or language arts.  I have to confess, I’ve always hated it.  Hated coming up with five questions that had very little context or connection for kids, hated the way some students never finished, hated the way some students finished quickly and then were at loose ends, hated marking it and having no good reason to put that data in my mark book, other than under the “review” column.  Hated the way I had to close the door to parents who walk their children to school and who want nothing more than to chat about how their son/daughter is getting along in school.  I did “Big 5” because that is what I knew from teacher training and what so many other more experienced teachers did.

Frustrated, I chucked the big five and decided to do centers.  Yes, centers.  I know it’s grade three, but even as a former grade 7 teacher, now I would do centers at the beginning of the day, every day of the week, no matter the age group.

I used to do centers at the end of the day as a time where students who aren’t finished could finish work and those that worked quickly could have some free time.  Ouch.  Yeah, that sucks.  How terrible for those students who struggle?  They never got to play the fun games, to be social on their terms.  I never realized at the time how punitive it was.  And for those students who “got their work done” what incentive was it to do a thorough, high quality job? None.

So we start the day with no pressure-we play. The kids love it.  Nobody wants to miss center time so they are on time to school every morning.  The only responsibility the kids have is to get their chair ready and leave their planner open on their desk.  We ease into the day with kids choosing how they want to start.  Do they need to be social?  Do they need solitary time?  Do they need to be moving or still?  There are a variety of options of play for students to do and ways to be in the classroom. Their are a variety of places to work, options for sitting-floor, bean bags, “special” spots (rocking chairs, camp chairs, a child size recliner and club chair.)   One of my goals for next year is to expand my centers repertoire to give much more choice.

Because the students are engaged in their own choices, there is very little for me to teach and very few behaviours to mediate.  I get to visit with parents, check planners, deal with notes/permission slips/collect money or simply sit on the floor with different groups of kids and chat.  I get to play games or help with projects (many work on their Genius Hour projects).  Sometimes parents come into the classroom and hang out with the students and share what they know too.

At nine o’clock after a 5 minute warning, students clean up, return to their desks and put their planners away.  We chat about the shape of our day, share news and get on with our day.  Happy kids, happy teacher.  Life is good.

I’m so glad I get to come to school too. 🙂

The Kiva Ninja Movie

IMG_1252Whenever I see projects that other classes have put together I am always curious about the process that produced the product, so I thought I would share a little of how the Kiva Ninja video came together and a few things I have learned along the way.

The purpose…

Our purpose for making the video was to say “thank-you” to the Salem Middle School Kiva club and Mr. Ferriter for giving us a very generous gift card helping us get started with our Kiva project.

I was in the car listening to the radio when “Inner Ninja” came on.  (you can see the youTube video here)  It’s a catchy tune and I thought it might be fun to do something with our Kiva project.  I framed out a few ideas and a basic storyline and brought it to the class.

The process…

As a class we looked at the original lyrics and rewrote them to tell the story of our Kiva project. We then divided up the lyrics so that every student who wanted to have a singing part could.  (An aside: I don’t force students to participate.  There are lots of kids who need to sit back and watch before they are comfortable joining in.  The same goes for questions in class, students always have the option to “pass” on a question-I can always ask them individually if I need to know what they are thinking)

It was at this point in the process that we were offered the help of Mr. Shareski.  So we had a bit of a deadline to get everything together…. six classes.  No problem, kids can do anything!  We practiced our song and played around with our “ninja sticks” (dowels purchased at Home Depot).  I showed them a few basic moves, had the students self-select groups and then they worked in the hall and in the classroom to come up with choreography counting by groups of 8’s.   We shared with the class and gave feedback, “borrowed” moves from other groups and then the small groups/pairs refined/changed and had one more practice.

The big day…

Thursday came quickly!  The first order of the day was to get an audio track of the students singing.  Dean used the “Recorder Pro” app on his iPhone and then e-mailed me the file.  Next we imported the file into iTunes and from there we imported it into iMovie to use as the vocal track. (the link to Recorder Pro is here).  I’ve since used Recorder Pro a number of times, it’s a pretty good app that works well.


The next step in the process was the filming.  Dean brought a green screen for us to use.  We played around with it a little.  The green screen effect will only work if all of the background is green in the camera shot.  We found that we would have more room for the kids to move if we had a bigger screen.  We quickly made one with green bulletin board paper.    The paper worked fairly well, the trick is to have no lines or wrinkles so that when you do the “overlay” with iMovie you don’t have to adjust the colours.  If you have the money, definitely invest in a fabric green screen that can be pulled tight.

Because we didn’t finish filming all of the lip-sync and ninja choreography parts on  Thursday, we built an even bigger green screen on Friday morning before school.  This one reached the floor so that we could have the students’ feet in the shot for the ninja choreography.

Another tip when using green screen is to make sure the light is not too bright.  I have large windows in my classroom and the light ended up overexposing some of the students’ faces when they are doing the “rap” section, so iMovie overcompensated with brown/black.  They kinda look like they have paint on their faces, while unintentional, the kids thought it was cool 🙂

We filmed the scenes with Dean and the kids, some group shots and some choreography on Thursday and finished the filming on Friday.  Then we were off for two weeks.  Naievely, I figured I could put it all together over the two-week break and we would be able to show the video when we were back.   Yeah, no.  Didn’t happen.  As much as I love my work, sometimes you need to take a break.  Being rested and having a balance is really important when working with kids.

Once back from the break, I spent many evenings editing, it was a slow process at first because I was only able to work for small chunks of time.  I had a big break though at the YEG airport waiting for a flight.  I parked myself in a comfy leather chair by the window, put my earbuds in and edited for 5 hours straight.  Having a big chunk of time allowed me to repeat the same task with the editing more than once which developed fluency with the iMovie platform.  It was a good reminder that sometimes kids need to do the same task with different content several times to really become fluent.

With any new learning, having time to immerse yourself in your project can really lead to deeper understanding…which I why I have a very loose schedule in my classroom.  My students and I live in a responsive curriculum where we can dig into projects and don’t follow half hour blocks for subjects.  We get the PLO’s covered over the term-it seems to work for how I teach.

The “how to”…

When you begin your project, you need to go to preferences and select “advanced tools“ and then you have the option of green screen and many other neat effects.

We imported the audio track and chose background footage and then placed the kids singing on top.  From there you have to line up the lip sync by moving the clip of the kids singing forward or back to match the audio track.

Before you can drop in the clip in front of the green screen, you have to know roughly how long the “front” clip will be because the background clip goes in first and has to be slightly longer in duration than the clip with the kids.


For the background, I used Discovery Education video footage.  If you don’t already know about Discovery Education video streaming, you really should.  If you are a #sd36learn teacher, you have access with your Surreyschools e-mail and the password is streaming123.   Go to (not .com) and log in, then change your password.   If your district doesn’t have Discovery Education streaming services, it’s time to start bugging the powers at be!

The Discovery Education site is such a great resource for teachers.  Not only is it searchable by subject, grade level etc., you can also search by PLO for the BC curriculum.  Once you have found the video you want, you can download, edit, save to your content and easily find what you need.  It’s so versatile to use in the classroom and takes seconds to set up.  My favourite part of using DE footage is the fact that you can download what you need so you aren’t dependent on the wireless (although, our district has fast, reliable WIFI, so it isn’t usually a problem.)


Finding just the perfect clip was time consuming and I have to admit I did get distracted watching video when I would come across something interesting.  (like watching “The Heart of Darkness” in its entirety).  I searched by “editable” and downloaded the video to my desktop and then imported it into iMovie.  I then chose clips that matched what the kids were singing about and dropped them into the project.

After the background footage was in, I selected the clip of the kids singing and placed it on top.  The green screen menu pops up and it’s just that easy!  The most time consuming part of the editing process was matching the video of the students singing with the audio track.  Working to line up lip sync was pretty picky work.  I finally figured out that I could use the arrows on the keyboard instead of the mouse to move a video clip by a half second at a time, which made aligning the clips much faster and more accurate.

I am still not totally satisfied with how the sync looks…but given that I very little down time, coupled with the fact that some of my students are hearing impaired and found it a challenge to speak in sync to what they are hearing, I’m happy enough.  There comes a point at which it you have to decide if it’s good enough and stop, or you will drive yourself crazy trying!

After the audio track was filled with video, I “pinned” it and then did the scenes at the beginning and the end.  Without pinning it, it kept bumping all of my carefully synced footage completely out of alignment.  I ended up with three audio tracks, the first and third were “floating” and the middle track with the kids singing was “pinned”.

Dean and Tia were very kind to give me some constructive criticism-like slowing down how fast the words moved, using transitions to make the “dream” sequence work and including some important details like location and grade to the preamble at the beginning.

And just when I thought I was finished, I couldn’t upload the final version to youTube!  My computer was working at it’s max and kept crashing before the upload was complete…but after I spent 35 minutes waiting for it to upload.  Three times.  Thank goodness I have really smart friends!   My good buddy, Kevin Amboe (@amboe_k on twitter) came to my rescue.  His trick was to upload the video to the itunes account on my MacBook Pro and then from there, upload to youTube.

Another tip: google plus will automatically share your youTube video to your google+ community unless you unclick the box!

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 11.49.12 AM

I have lovely supportive friends who tweeted out the link…unfortunately it was the version that kept crashing with the edits out of sync.  A few deleted tweets later, some final edits on my part then the final version was uploaded a la Kevin’s method…and the video was done!

I think I have put 30 hours into the editing of this project.  The joke with my friends is this is my genius hour project…or genius30hours project!

At the time of this blog post we have had 488 views and many really supportive comments on youTube.  I want to say big thank you to everyone who has tweeted out and shared our video.  The class is so proud of the work they are doing and really understand the power of sharing their learning with others. Thanks everyone!

Here is the link to the Grade Three KIVA Ninjas we hope you enjoy!



Inspired (ok, and pushed a little) by my dear friends and colleagues Robyn Thiessen and Gallit Zvi, I have decided to write my own “this is what I am thinking today” post.  Short answer, I’m thinking about how much I want to be out on that boat I just photographed, sailing.  There, done.  Tag, you’re it Robyn!

Somehow I get the feeling that just won’t cut it with Robyn or Gallit, so I had better go deeper than that…

So, what am I thinking about today?…hmmm.

Too much

Not enough



Kind of big statements, huh?  There are always a million little things rolling around in my brain.  I get chastised by my friends from time to time not to over think things so I will attempt to narrow my focus to avoid writing a “War and Peace” style blog post.

(Oh, and I’m writing this in the car on a three-hour trip to my Aunt and Uncle’s house.  I can’t bear to sit and do nothing while my dad drives and reading makes me car sick.   Chances are, this will be rather disjointed, but then again, so are my thoughts most days.  Bear with me.)

“The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.”  -William James

I have been reading this book, “The International Bank of Bob” by Bob Harris and am really enjoying it.  Before I had kids, I would sit down and devour a book, cover-to-cover in about 4 hours.  This just isn’t possible with little ones, housework, school projects, laundry and trying to maintain reasonable sleep habits (which is usually what I sacrifice to get the previous list done) so I have been reading it a chapter or two at a time.  Savouring it, so to speak, like a bar of really good chocolate.

The unexpected outcome of this truncated reading time is that I get a chance to really think about what I have read in the time between chapters.  Not that I didn’t think about a book in the past when I sat down and devoured it, I just have more space in between to think about how what I have read applies to other things that I am learning and thinking.

The book is about the adventures of Bob as he travels the world visiting individuals and groups he has lent money to through the social lending platform “KIVA”.    My grade three class and I have been big into Kiva lately, we are up to over $200 in loans made and the class is working on fundraisers so that we can lend more.  The basic premise behind Kiva is that people use the Kiva website to make microloans via field partners to the working poor who can’t access credit to grow their business or acquire capital for a large expense, (like a cow for example) in order to improve their standard of living.  “Helping to fight poverty one $25 loan at a time.”

There are some amazing stories in this book, but I think the most touching story is that of Bob himself and the way he constructs meaning in his world.  One powerful quote that I have been thinking about a lot lately is “…life takes on meaning to the degree that our efforts and love are connected”-a theme that recurs throughout the book.

I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this one since reading the first chapter of the book.  There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter lately about helping students find their passion.  Yes, I totally support that, and does that mean that your passion must be your job too?  If you do a menial, yet necessary job but do it to fulfill your passion for helping others (namely for your children to have better lives than you had) isn’t that really finding your passion?

I’m wondering if the meaning in our lives is not finding our passion in our jobs, but the way our efforts and what we do each day reflects what we can provide to those we love.

Our efforts to work on the behalf of others?  Our efforts to give? Hmmm.

And then I stumbled upon this New York Times article when I was cruising through my twitter stream:

“Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?”  Susan Dominus’ review of “Give and Take” by Adam Grant, a 31 year-old tenured professor at Warton, was a fascinating read for me.   “Helpfulness is Grant’s credo.”  Yeah, that gets my attention.  I am a teacher, I help for a living.  I will give everything I can without a second thought, to help my students and my own children, family and friends.

She went on to state; “For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.”

Wham.  That one hit me like a ton of bricks.

I am so time starved these days.  There are a thousand things that I want to do, to read, to see, to learn…and no time.  The constant battle in my head is “how do I spend my time?”  I am trying to find the balance between time spent on others and time spent on me-which, until a couple of months ago was essentially zero.  Unhealthy, I know and I have changed that.  But with it comes a whole heap of guilt.  And I have to confess that sometimes I resent it when people ask (or even take without asking) for my time.  But is it that?  Or is it more like, I get frustrated when I am asked to use my time on things I don’t want to do, when there is so much I would rather be doing with my time?

Still working on that one.  So I read on…

“Givers motivate themselves to avoid complacency by focusing on the benefits to others if they succeed and worrying about disappointing them if they fail.”

Holy, another home truth.  Yup, there is the guilt factor.  That’s me.

Now I’m not saying that I am going to run out and join the Peace Corps (although working in a developing country has always been a dream that was just out of reach for me) But I do want to do something with my life that will benefit others.  More than what I am doing now.  Just like Bob was searching for the way he can make meaning in his life.  The struggle here is to figure out how to balance it all out and still keep my priorities straight: my family, my friends, my work and somewhere in there is me.

So can small acts of giving make a lifetime legacy?

And how do I figure out how to deal with that teacher who asks me questions that are so easy to google and figure out with just a little effort on their part?

The response?  “Unless the person at the other end is a proven taker, just do it-collaborate, offer up, grant the favor”

But how?  When I have an hour after school to get my work done, how can I justify sitting and listening to someone talk at me for a half hour, give them ideas and resources and then watch them do nothing on their own?  When do you say “no” or choose not to help when you know that your colleague’s students are just as important as your own?  I can’t simply stay at school longer because that means my own family suffers.

An observation that Susan makes in her review is, “there is precious little in Grant’s book about work and family balance.”  But he later goes on to state, “The way I see it, I have several different roles…teacher, scholar, advisor, friend, to name a few.  I’d be concerned if any of those roles took more of my time than my family.”

I need to develop my own style of efficient giving.


What does my own style of efficient giving look like?

How do I balance time spent helping others with my priorities?

Grant goes on to say: “Productivity is an imperfect way of indexing how much I’m contributing, how I’m using my limited time to make the most difference.”

I was chatting via DM with a friend of mine earlier this week about the sense of urgency we share, the fact that we do so much and sometimes it intimidates other people.  She cited that statistically, in her family the women do not live long lives and she said, “my chances for life past 65 aren’t great but we’ll see.  Part of why I live NOW!”

That “limited time” scenario still gets to me.  My cousin, who won (or lost, depending on how you look at it) the same genetic lottery as I did, lost his battle at 50.   There’s the urgency.

And back to that conversation with my colleague and Twitter friend. I said to my friend in that DM conversation, “what is my legacy?  That’s where I am at.”

So maybe small acts of giving can make a lifetime legacy?  Maybe it doesn’t have to be this grand life-changing event, rather a mindset where service to others becomes your legacy?  How will I use my limited time to make the most difference?

Which brings me full circle to the quote that started this whole thought, “…life takes on meaning to the degree that our efforts and love are connected”

How we define that love, and how we show it is up to us.

That’s what I am thinking about today.  How about you?

I can help you with that


A few weeks ago, my well-connected and fearless Vice Principal Tia stopped me in the hall and said something to the effect of…Dean Shareski is coming to Bear Creek and wants to spend some time in a classroom-how about yours?

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I stammered out an, “of course, do you think he would help me with our Kiva video?”

Tia smiled and said something (I don’t quite remember, I was too shocked to think) and continued on her way.   At that point it sunk in…Dean Shareski…THE Dean Shareski that was the featured speaker at our Digital Learner dinner series…Discovery Ed Dean who knows everybody…is coming to my class…oh no, what have I done???

No pressure.  Breathe.  Don’t freak out.  You’ll be ok…

So, trying to get organized, I sent a quick DM and asked Dean if I could send him some information on our project.   He was very gracious and said yes, so I e-mailed some links on the project and the general concept for our video.  Then I confessed that I really had very little experience with video and digital storytelling and asked about which tools to use so that I could prepare by watching tutorials and the like.  Having recently been very ill, and with life in general, my confidence was running low so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

His response was exactly what I needed to hear:

“iMovie works wonderfully and I can help you with that”

I can help you with that.  The most reassuring six words.  From that simple phrase I knew that this was going to be a great experience.  I relaxed and found myself getting energized and excited about what we could do with the class on this project.  I didn’t have to have all the answers, to know everything ahead of time.  I could do what I do best-which is work with my students.  Be creative, play, have fun, support the kids to be in charge and take ownership of their project.  The rest would work out along the way.  My self-confidence was restored.

You see, creativity comes when you are calm, relaxed and can think.  (My fantastic student teacher Sarah put it best when she taught the class “my amygdala is freaking out!” during one of her Mind-Up lessons.  An amygdala that is “freaking out” blocks the other brain functions.)

Self doubt is the biggest road block to creativity.

I can help you with that.  A phrase that I sure my grade 12 calculus teacher said to me on several occasions.  A phrase my AP biology and chemistry teacher embodied.  I can help you with that-the look my piano teacher gave me after a devastating concerto performance.   I think the phrase, “I can help you with that” is the key to helping a struggling student relax enough to open the thought channels so that they can ponder a question, understand a concept or bounce back from a bad performance.

“I can help you with that” means taking the time to understand where the student is coming from and what support they need to get to the finish line.  Isn’t it ironic that time is the most powerful gift we can give our students but as teachers we seem to have so very little of it?  Your time is your best gift.  Choose wisely.

When the big day finally arrived, Dean was that teacher who made you feel like you could do anything.  A level stare, a smile that was genuine and an unspoken expectation that you would do your best and that would be enough.

The students were their usual brilliant selves and they clearly adored “Mr. Shareski” who made them feel special and important.  Dean was so natural with the kids, it was clear that he loved to teach.  We worked through technical glitches, we made a big green screen, we sang, we danced and we stood back and let the kids fight with ninja sticks…we even had some stand up comedy from the peanut gallery of adults in the room…yes Austin you are hilarious.  It was a fantastic afternoon of fun and learning.

After the students went home, Dean spent some time working with me showing me how to use iMovie and the green screen, how to import and edit video footage from “editable” Discovery Education downloadable video and how to sync the recorded audio with the video clips.  Before we knew it, it was time to get stared with the “smackdown” event (see Tia’s blog post with more photos here and Dean’s post here) but as we were finishing up I turned to Dean and asked if I could e-mail him if I had questions.  I explained that I was planning to go to the Apple store at the mall because they ran iMovie workshops.  He turned to me and said, “of course you can” and added that he could even help with a google hangout if needed later in the week.

And there it is: once a teacher, always a teacher.  I can help you with that.

So Kiva Ninja Master Dean, thank you for everything you did for my students and I.  It was a wonderful learning experience that we will remember for years to come.  I promise to teach my students how to use iMovie (and anyone else who asks) because you gave me the  confidence to make digital storytelling part of how I teach.  Because…I am an iMovie ninja!





My Twitter Anniversary

IMG_2379My first year as @teacherdiana1 February 25, 2012-February 25, 2013

A year ago today I signed up for Twitter.  My VP and now good friend Tia Henriksen (@tiahenriksen) kept going on and on about this twitter thing, so in all honesty, I just opened and account to make her stop because we were going to be spending the next two days sitting at the same table working for eight hours each day.  Smile and nod, I thought to myself…  I had only known Tia a couple of months and was still trying to figure her out!

My first tweet was lame (I asked a really vague question about supporting literacy and I didn’t really understand hashtags, so it went out into the Twittersphere and never amounted to anything.  At that point I dismissed the idea of twitter and a PLN and went back on my merry way continuing to teach as I always had.

One of the many great things about Tia is that she doesn’t give up on things she believes in.  At every opportunity she had, she would come flying down the hall, ipad in hand and show me something else she had discovered on Twitter.  She would ask, “isn’t this great?”   So I would smile and nod, “follow” that person and carry on…

I watched her feed and would follow the odd person here and there, but it didn’t connect with me, so “twittering” was something I would do when I had a moment or two, which was essentially never.

Then my world turned upside down.  The tenacious Tia came to me one day and told me she was going to release my dear friend and colleague Tam (@tmanery) and I for the afternoon of April 11 to go and see Alec Couros (@courosa) speak.  At the end of his presentation I felt as if someone had taken me to the edge of a cliff and showed me a whole new world on the horizon and told me I can go there anytime I want.   The world of social media and how technology can bring people and ideas together was presented in a way that made me question,  “What on earth I am doing as a teacher not exploiting this world that is right at my fingertips?”

And then just as I was starting to try a few new things in my classroom (like Kidblog) Tia sent me an e-mail.  “You should google George Couros, (@gcouros) you are going to see him next week” which always makes me laugh a little at the thought of “googling” anyone!  So I found his blog and had a quick look.  “Hmmm, Principal stuff, not ready to do that…” so I carried on with my Kidblog projects and learning new ipad apps to use with my students. (I look back at that teaching and cringe, but everyone has to start somewhere!)

June 13th rolled around and if I thought my world was turned on end before, well, now I was looking at more than the horizon… I was staring into the abyss.

George’s funny, courageous, sad, trendy, and powerfully relevant presentation put the humanity into the technology.  That was the moment I really got it.  Connection made in my heart and my head.  I learned that it’s OK to be open and vulnerable.  I learned that the most important things you can do as an educator other than working with kids, is to share your learning.  Share yourself with others.  Be real.  Share your learning…blog and tweet it out…engage in conversations, build relationships.  It’s ok to feel scared and to take risks and to fail as long as you learn from that failure and get up and get on with it.   Find what is best for kids and chase that dream.  Make it happen.

So I try.  Many days I feel like a fraud.  Half the time I don’t have a clue what I am doing with the technology, but that’s OK, it’s not even about the technology any more.  I teach children, the technology is just another tool in my toolkit.  After George’s presentation I went home and started this blog. (It’s a work in progress…) I work so hard, I stay up way too late trying to figure things out (like how to get my Diigo bookmarks onto the side of my blog???  Anyone have the HTML for that???? Sigh.)  I am so tired all the time.  But then every once in a while there are these magical moments when everything falls into place and your students are engaged and learning and asking questions you never thought possible, and you just can’t wait to get up and do it all again.

The next development in my Twitter journey was when Tia invited me to go see Chris Wejr (@ChrisWejr) speak in the middle of the summer at SFU on August 14 (yeah, I caught flack for that one… pro-d? In the middle of the summer?  What’s wrong with you?) But I went anyway and boy I’m glad I did!  More inspiration!  I also met Karen Lirenman (@KLirenman) and Dave Truss (@datruss) in person and was in “edu celebrity” awe, so tongue-tied but all ears for what they had to share.

Fast forward to today and both Tia and I have a good giggle about those early days.  We pro-d 365 days a year at all hours of the day-via Twitter and those “edu celebrities” are just regular folks like you and I.

And then in late August, George came back to my school and worked with our staff for a whole day!  I could hardly string three words together at the end of that day because my mind was so blown.  There was so much to think about.  I really wish we had the foresight to videotape that day because I know there is so much that I have forgotten or didn’t even take in.  That professional development day has lead to the start of deep learning and a mind shift for our staff.   We have done a lot, but it is just the beginning.  One of the highlights from the ProD day was hearing about “Identity Day” which we actually did with our school in the fall. (And we collaborated with Chris Wejr!   Just another example of how Twitter is so big, yet so small!)

The Twitter year didn’t stop there.   I have been so very fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with many amazing twitter people through the Digital Learner Dinner Series that our district hosts throughout the year.

Our fearless Director of Instruction Elisa Carlson (@EMSCarlson) has brought amazing people like Alec Couros, who opened the digital vault for me, his brother George Couros who helped me to understand the relationship component of using innovation to teach and learn, the hilarious and unconventional Digital Storyteller Dean Shareski (@shareski), the profound and soft-spoken champion of  Project Based Learning, Shelly Wright (@wrightsroom), the witty and incredibly supportive Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) and most recently, the brilliant scientific mind of Chris Lehmann(@chrislehmann).

Pulling me along and keeping me from getting comfortable for even a moment, the Engaging the Digital Learner dinner series has been pivotal in my learning.  Not only have there been great speakers who are inspiring and incredibly knowledgeable, but our own district tweeps also present what they are learning and trying in their own learning journeys.  It is so tangible and attainable to see your own peers do something in your own district and you know that it is something you can do in your own classroom.  Because if they can…why can’t I?

This Digital Learner Series has had a deep impact on my learning this year.  The twitter relationships that I once thought so shallow have been brought to life through this dinner series.  Meeting a person and seeing them speak in person has pushed me to read blogs and has opened up a world of information, innovation and inspiration for me.  I can honestly say I would have never made the time it takes to read blogs such a priority without the connection to the person first.

In the past it has been my school peers who have pushed me to innovate and experiment. And now from the distant tweet to the real life via Pro-D Days, presentations, Discovery Ed and most recently Skyping with Bill Ferriter’s Kiva Club, the layers of a supportive network push me to work harder and to think harder about my teaching than any other time in my career, including teacher training.  The feedback and conversations that were once the informal conversations in the hall and the staffroom have expanded to DM’s, tweets and texts from so many great minds.  They given me the tools and the confidence to try new ways of teaching in my own classroom.  They help me wrestle with my ideas and see different angles, and they are all there to support when things don’t go exactly as planned.

There isn’t anything that can replace face-to-face conversations, but for me, twitter has become a compendium of valuable thoughts, ideas and examples from which to draw inspiration.  It is a source of help and a network of kindred spirits.  It has been so valuable to be able to go to this amazing resource for new ideas to bring back to my classroom.  Ultimately it is up to me what I do with them.

About a week ago I read and favourited  a tweet from Elisa Carlson quoting M.Fullan  “…peers become the main source of innovation if you are to go from greatness to excellence.”

Twitter has provided those peers for me.  Peers connecting on a daily basis through texts, tweeting with peers at three in the morning in Australia, talking with peers across the dinner table at the Digital Learner Series, peers Skyping into my classroom from a school down the road, peers reading and commenting on blogs, peers working together on projects.  I am so grateful for each and every one of you, thank you.

One major truth I have learned on this amazing year:  Twitter is a bottomless vault of experts and information, deep learning, powerful relationships, kindness and a whole lot of fun.  I can’t wait to see what this next year will bring.

Twitter is for me, the classroom I want to create for my students.

Our KIVA project

I have an amazing group of students this year.  They are compassionate, motivated and really want to make a difference in their world RIGHT NOW.   I am constantly looking for ways to develop this potential and to meet them where they are.  Last month I attended the Surrey School District’s Digital Learner Dinner Series with the inspiring and engaging Bill Ferriter (@plugusin on Twitter) as the main speaker.

He spoke of many profound ideas that have influenced me on my journey as an educator.  (You should really read his blog “The Tempered Radical” to see all of the ways he is changing the face of education.)  There were many important ideas that resonated with me that evening, but the one that I took to school the next day and started applying was the idea of KIVA.  Bill shared the work of his Kiva Club and I instantly knew that this was a project for my students.  I was hooked.  I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day and share KIVA with my class.  I have to say, they were hooked right away too.

(on a side note…One of my more socially challenged and gifted students immediately championed the idea.  It was so powerful to see this student take on a positive leadership role in the class and to see the reaction of the other students.  This project has not only helped fight poverty in developing countries, it has changed the way my students view their peer and it has changed how this student relates to others.  The “win at all cost” competitive streak had been harnessed into “lets do this together” and wow, has it changed the working climate in our groups.)

As part of our year long challenge-based learning essential question: “How can we make someone else’s life better?” we decided that making micro loans to groups and individuals in developing countries through KIVA would be the perfect way for our class to give back to the world.

First we developed our background knowledge and vocabulary in order to be able to read and understand the Kiva web page.  (Scaffolding stage)

Our first essential understanding was the difference between “needs” and “wants”.  We made lists, sorted, categorized and played with the language.  We discussed what community services were and made comparisons between what Surrey’s local government provides (and our provincial and federal governments) through the taxes that our parents pay and what community services are available in developing nations.

(And we made a slight detour to research the Annacis Island Waste Water Treatment Facility aka “Poop factory” to the kids, because it was really interesting to us and the class wanted to know more 🙂 We had a lot of fun with that for a few days!)

We built vocabulary through games like “vocab family feud” and “password”, we worked on jigsaw puzzles in teams to explore maps of Canada and the world. We struggled in groups of twos and threes to read and understand the descriptions of the loans.  There were moments of frustration and times when the teams didn’t work well together, but we struggled through because it was important to us and all the while learned valuable lessons in perseverance, teamwork, patience and trust.  We scrutinized maps to locate countries we had never heard of let alone could pronounce.    The students were so interested and motivated that they kept at it and are now almost experts at navigating the Kiva site.



The same themes kept coming up again and again with loans that were interesting to the students.  These ideas came from the students which we then consolidated into our lending rubric.  We developed this rubric to be able to evaluate loans in small groups.  If the loan got 5/5 points, the loan was recommended to the class to evaluate as a group and then vote in favor or against making a microloan to that entrepreneur.  I told the students that I will not decide for them, that this is their project and that they are the ones to choose who to lend to.


The priorities the students developed are:

1. Helps with basic needs, not wants (eg. loan is to a small business and  is used to support self and family, not a loan to buy things like furniture or wants)

2. Helps people (women or men) with children who are 18 and under (school age or younger)

3.  Not selling alcohol, cigarettes or dangerous things like fireworks or weapons

4.  Helps people in conflict (war, civil unrest, terrorism) zones

5. Helps with poverty and homelessness (we use the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index and (use the map icon at the top to see the map) to see where the country is ranked on the HDI scale)

lending rubric screen shot

You can download our lending rubric here


We took Bill up on his very generous offer to Skype with our class.  It was a  really big deal for my students (and me too!)  We had been working very hard at our KIVA project ( for the past few weeks and had made our first and second loans.  Our first loan was to “Hawa” in Sierra Leone and our second was to “Charlotte” in Rwanda.  They are both reselling grains and food staples to earn money for their children to attend school.  The students now had the hang of how to lend and were ready to move on to more challenges.

And today,our day to Skype with Bill Ferriter’s Salem Middle School Kiva Club in North Carolina had finally arrived!  I have to give a shout out to my friend, mentor and grade 3/4 partner in crime Robyn Thiessen and to my fantastic and brilliant preservice teacher Sarah Dalzell for their help with testing the set up for the Skype session.  Thanks ladies!  Not only did they help make sure that the set up worked and all the students could be seen on the screen, but they helped keep me grounded 🙂 (As Sarah would say, “my amygdala was freaking out!”  yup, that was me today!)

We spent the first part of the morning developing questions to ask Bill’s Kiva Club:






Boy, did they have a lot of questions!  We then narrowed down our list and chose speakers to ask each question.

Here is page one of our final list of questions:


The clock ticked slowly and the class was so patient waiting for the call to come through.  They jumped and were all smiles when the computer started chirping the Skype ring tone!  The Skype was brilliant because Bill was his usual chill, fun self and immediately put us at ease.  His students Ashley, Emma and Anthony were incredibly well spoken with their prepared presentation and answered our questions clearly and in language that grade three’s could understand.  Here are a few photos of the session:

Listening to the presentation:IMG_0956

Vincent asking his question:

Gurjot listening to the answer to his question:IMG_0977

Saying goodbye and doing our new dance “the wave” (gee, thanks Anthony!) 🙂


Through this Skype session we gained key understandings of why loan duration is important, lending to groups vs. individuals, understanding the star ratings of field partners and got some great ideas for fundraising (which is the next area of focus for us).  This Skype session provided us with the next piece of information that we needed to keep the project moving forward and to deepen our learning.

As a class, we were really taken by their idea to loan to as many different countries as possible.  We had a great discussion as a group and decided that we are going to work our way through countries with recent/current conflict or civil unrest first and then try to fund as many  loans to different countries that rank lowest on the UN HDI.

After we were finished Skyping, we went outside for a break (we missed lunch and playtime to Skype) and when we got back to class we noticed that Mr. Ferriter had left us a message on Skype.  His group had met after the Skype and had decided to send us a gift card to help us continue with Kiva.  When the e-mail came through later, we were shocked and thrilled with the generosity of his Kiva club and how we had made such a strong connection in such a short time.  What a transformative learning experience!  It’s amazing how a technology like Skype can bring two very different groups of students from opposite sides of the continent together for a common project.   We are so excited to continue lending through Kiva and are so grateful for the support and encouragement of Bill and his Kiva club.

We are planning to make a short video to show our appreciation to Bill and his Kiva Club, and have already accepted his invitation to join their Kiva group “Team Kids Care”.  We look forward to learning and sharing together in the future and staying connected through Twitter and the occasional Skype!

And in the lingo of Bill and his club…Thanks all y’all, that was a heapin’ cheeseload of fun!

The Balloon Bandit strikes again!

For the past 7 or 8 years we seem to have had a problem at our school with balloons and pranks in general…and it seems the balloon bandit has struck again.  This time the bandit found really big balloons!

Which were filled with little love notes written by an anonymous class…



And then filled with air…


IMG_0593And stored for a short while until the moment came…

IMG_0597To surprise our fantastic Principal, Carrie.  What a great sport she is!








It was so much fun for the students to see that she put the balloons up in the office:


The biggest balloons even made it to the assembly for a little crowd surfing:IMG_0607Now you must understand that I am just the reporter.  I know nothing 😉

What have you done lately to show you care and add some fun to your school?

ILD EdCamp


Today I was very fortunate to be able to attend the Innovative Learning Designs Phase 2 EdCamp at Johnson Heights Secondary.  My first EdCamp and definitely not my last!

For those of you new to EdCamp, the format was very different than traditional ProD.  We were all given a google doc ahead of time and submitted possible topics to be explored.  When we arrived we were given sticky notes and placed them on the topic of our 1,2 and 3rd priority.  While we were greeted and entertained by our fearless leaders, Elisa Carls0n (@emscarlson) and Jordan Tinney (@jordantinney) the Helping Teachers were busy populating this google doc to organize the whole event:

Then if you click on the underlined topic in the doc it takes you to a fillable form where we recorded who attended each session and people in the session “live edited” notes of the conversations.  What a valuable resource to find people and to share links and remember the conversations!  I know I will return to this GDoc many times and look at what the other groups talked about during their sessions.

The sessions were great.  Because only a handful of the group had attended an Edcamp before, there were a few quiet moments of “what do we do?” before someone jumped in and got the ball rolling.  We introduced ourselves, someone gave an example and the conversation evolved from there.   We did what teachers do well, we talked and shared.  It was so refreshing to be able to have conversations, give examples, debate, struggle and wonder in an environment where everyone was there to learn.

Some of my learning moments from EdCamp came to me later in the day.  There was so much to process that I am sure I will still be consolidating my thinking for days to come, but here are a few things I am pondering right now:

How am I changing the way I teach?  The main word in this project is INNOVATIVE learning designs. Innovation is meeting needs with new processes and ideas.  A new way to do things.

I look at the “old” way-the way I was taught and I think of the successes I experienced in school and the frustrations I had as a learner too.  I was very fortunate to attend one of the top ranked private schools in the country and as a result, had many diverse opportunities to develop my skills as a learner.  I had great teachers and a really good school experience, and yet I wonder if I had the opportunities to personalize my own learning when I was in school, where would that have taken me?  What would I have done differently given the opportunity to pursue my own learning more?

I want my students to learn about what interests them, using the tools and processes that I can offer them as a teacher.  I want to teach them how to explore, discover, process, sort, predict, evaluate, think critically, analyze, create… and go deeper into those higher order thinking skills that we never spend enough time on.  But most of all, I want my students to know themselves as learners and to be able to say what they need to be better learners.  To understand how they think and learn and to use that to their advantage.

I’ve always been a big fan of Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences and learning styles.  This EdCamp has shown me that I can take “tried and true” research and use innovative ways of teaching to help develop the whole child.

The two sessions I attended were “Passion Based Learning” and “Flattening the Classroom”.  I enjoyed both sessions and am feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the information that was shared.  Now I have to take some time to step back and reflect on what fits best for me and where to go from here.

Oh, and the best part of EdCamp?  I got to meet some of my twitter friends in person! 🙂



Individual Spelling Program, Daily 5 Word Work

I have been experimenting with spelling programs for as long as I have been teaching.  I have been unsatisfied with packaged spelling programs because I really feel that it meets the needs of the teacher to have all the students working on the same words instead of all the students working on their own words.

Because I have so many people ask me about my program I thought I would blog about it.  This is the latest version of my individual spelling program.  I originally got the idea from a friend and colleague, Jocelyn Brugger who was my grade three partner teacher and have “tweaked it” to make it mine over the years.  This is a prime example of how sharing resources ultimately benefits learners!  Thanks Jocelyn!

The basic premise it that you make up spelling lists for each student based on the mistakes they make in their writing.  Each student has 10 words each week and they do a list of spelling jobs for each word to practice.  I have a book of different exercises that they can choose from so there is the element of choice.   for example:

Monday, words into planner, write a sentence for each word

Tuesday, “pyramid words” “bubble letters”

Wednesday, definitions

Thursday, test and corrections, take test home to be signed

Friday, return signed spelling test from Thursday

Any words that are spelled incorrectly go onto their list for the following week.

Students have a notebook for exercises and a notebook for tests.  The upside is that you don’t have a bunch of photocopies that ultimately end up in recycling=less trees lost!

Because I wanted a bit more of a systematic approach I start with a HUGE discovery test to see what the students know.  (There is no point having a student work on spelling words they already know.) I break it into smaller tests (500 words is a huge undertaking!)  The word list I use is from:

Fountas and Pinnell’s Five Hundred Plus High Frequency Words (appendix from Guiding Readers and Writers)

I can very quickly generate lists based on the pretesting while leaving 5 words each week to take from their writing.  I use a clip board to keep track of the words students are having difficulty spelling in their writing:

Insert words into the template for each week’s individual spelling list:

If you want, there is a “pretty” version of the Individual spelling program template, which can be found here. (This is the TPT store, I use it as a fundraiser for BC Children’s Hospital.  If you don’t do TPT, e-mail me or leave a comment and I will e-mail it to you.)

Hand out each individual list for the week on Monday and follow the routine for the week.  It seems like a lot of work, but it isn’t and each student is growing at his or her own pace.  Insert as word work as part of the Daily 5 program and voila!

I also teach predictable spelling patterns…but that is another blog post!

Happy Spelling!