Inspired, Hopeful and Challenged

Sometimes the contrast between ideas makes you laugh, surprises or disturbs you, or makes you wonder how two ideas can exist in the same sphere. Two of the sessions I attended at the Greater Edmonton Teacher’s Convention (GETCA), did just that. One seemed like a throwback to the past and the other an open door to the future. Let me tell you about the second one.

The session that left me inspired, hopeful and challenged, was presented by Peter Liljedahl a professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

This session modeled the very practices that help to create thinking mathematics classrooms. I relay my experience in point form to help me identify some of the processes that made it work so well.

  •  Teachers from various grades levels participated.
  • The question was presented orally and a brief example was drawn on the wipe- off board.
  • The math question we were asked to solve was open-ended, perplexing, and at the same time accessible and challenging to the whole group.
  • At first, it felt risky and I was somewhat anxious.
  • We worked in small collaborative groups around whiteboards mounted on the wall. This enabled us to draw our ideas and easily share our thinking as we discussed the problem. It was easy to erase and change our work as we thought things through.
  • The camaraderie in the group was infectious as we tried different solutions and developed our understanding.
  • There was a lot of conversation from each participant.
  • The presenter challenged, redirected or gave ‘just in time’ support to keep us thinking.
  • The pace of our session felt right. There was time to work together and time look at the work of others.
  • When time was up, we looked at the work each group had done. Solutions were compared, discussed and revised, deepening understanding.
  • 55 minutes passed in the blink of an eye.
  • My brain hurt!

We reflected on the process.  What made this rich?   What were we doing as participants? How do we engage our students in the math classroom so that they are doing the talking, the thinking, and the math?

Want to learn more?  I know that I do. Check out Peter Liljedahl’s website.  There is so much to learn about making the process come alive in our classrooms.


Online Courses – What makes them work for you?

Will Richardson’s, thought-provoking questions at BlendEd 2018 Edmonton, Alberta @willrich45, @blendEDAB

If you were asked, “Identify ten ingredients for an effective and meaningful online course.”,what would you include as essential?

Have you taken an online course?  What worked for you?  What were the challenges?  Share your insights, thoughts, and wishes when it comes to online learning. I am curious to hear from students, teachers, parents, and others.

My thoughts are shared here. Some of my essentials have to do with course design, other ideas relate to effective pedagogy and how we learn best.  As a teacher and designer of online learning for a unique and mixed audience, young learners in grades 1 to 3, and their families, I think about this every day. My online courses continually evolve as I learn new things and respond to the needs of my students. This list is not definitive, it’s my free flow thoughts in early January as I think about the remainder of this school year and how to give my students the best I know.

Here you go:

1. Start with in-depth support for students as they begin working in an online learning program and provide ongoing guidance to participants.

2. Ensure clarity of language, ease of navigation and visually appealing design.

4. Provide accessible opportunities for easy interaction and connection with the instructor and with other students.

5. Develop a variety of activities and tasks for learners to meet learning goals.

6. Give students multiple ways to demonstrate learning.

7. Provide opportunities for self-assessment, peer feedback, and goal setting.

8. Give feedback that identifies growth and next steps for learning.

9. Create videos for instruction, demonstrations, and feedback.

10. Always model and teach digital citizenship in each aspect of online work and interaction.

What would you suggest or add to this list?

If there is one thing I have observed, it is that young learners are very capable of using digital tools for learning, and this has made my work more fun and creative. Not only have digital tools become more intuitive and friendly, young learners are also increasingly familiar and adept at using technology in their lives. This opens opportunities for new ways of doing things.  So exciting!

Summer Reading

It’s been a month of intense reading.

The Return by Hisham Matar –  A recommendation from Barack Obama’s reading list. Hisham Matar’s family was exiled from Libya and lived in Cairo where he attended an American school.  Later, both Hisham and his brother attended school in Europe under false identities because of threats to the family from the Gaddafi regime. This book is a memoir of loss, hope, and the importance of family in a land that has a history of tyranny. I was crushed by the cruelty of Libya’s prisons and the many losses. I was touched my Matar’s descriptions of hope and loss and how those we have lost remain with us in so many ways. He states, “ Hope is cunning and persistent.”, a helpful thought as I continued to read other books.

Kingdoms in the Air by Bob Shacocohis  – travel essays from afar. The Nepalese Kingdom of Lo Mustang is remote and high in the Himalayas. The author and his travelling companions return for a visit after 10 years and observe the changes and influences of westernization. The author describes navigating narrow, rocky, trails on high cliffs with no option of getting off your horse because either you or the horse would fall into the deep valley. In a sunny warm Alberta garden, fear and terror course through my brain as I imagine these heights. The author states that “until 1947 Nepal was the yet to be explored by Europeans.  In 1992 almost 95% of Nepal’s energy needs were being met by firewood.”  Democracy, tourism, economic reform, “ lifted the veil from the lost Kingdom of Lo.”  Who could deny these people education, healthcare and access to a wider world? Something is lost and other things are gained in this synthesis of old and new.

Another essay in this book, ‘Mount Ararat’, made me laugh.  He attempts to summit the 16,94 5 ft. snow-capped volcano but turns back because of altitude sickness. And did he see Noah’s Ark?  Ha, ha, no. He did, however, meet several women he humorously describes as Noah’s granddaughters.

At the end of the book he states, “… one of the most enduring lessons of travel are inaccessible until you are out there moving and then they are indelible upon the soul.”

Seven Fallen Feathers
. By Tanya Talaga, is deeply thought provoking.  A book that you cannot put down and forget, because it was not intended to be that kind of book.  This book is a call to action for all of us. Tanya Talaga tells us of the seven aboriginal youth who leave their communities in northern Ontario to attend high school in Thunder Bay, they lose their way and lose their lives in circumstances that show how alone and overwhelmed they were in a culture of racism. This is a hard-hitting book because of the truths it reveals. The VoiceEd Summer Book Club on Facebook and the weekly podcasts on Sound Cloud have been invaluable as I take in all that this book tells and think about the ways I can take action as an educator.

Tomorrow Will be Different, Love, Loss and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride. This memoir, tells Sarah’s story of coming out, her activism, her marriage, and the death of her husband a short time later.  Her honesty about her life and her willingness to fight for change inspires me.  She is currently the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign in the United States. Another challenging and hopeful read.

Whew! A lot of deep thoughts as I read these books.  Each one was eye-opening and I am grateful to the writers, an exile, a transgender woman, an indigenous journalist and a traveler who share their lives, their observations and the facts. For me, there is a common thread in these books. Each of us needs to be seen, and acknowledged, whether we are indigenous youth, an exile, a transgender individual, or a remote culture in the midst of change. Sarah McBride states,


A Community of Learners, Near and Far

This is a story about some of my favorite learners who live throughout Alberta.  They access their courses online, connect in Blackboard Collaborate sessions, and share in small groups via Google Meet. Once a week, those that can, meet for for a full day of learning and exploring together. These young students know that you can learn wherever you are. They are community of learners.

This particular day was ‘Pumpkin Research Day!’ Curiosity and excitement abounded, and everyone near and far participated.

Notice and Wonder

Look at all those beautiful orange pumpkins in a row.

What do you notice? What do you wonder?

“Will we make a pumpkin pie?”

“Will these seeds grow into more pumpkins?”

“Will the seeds from the small pumpkin grow other small pumpkins?”

“How many seeds are there inside that pumpkin?”

“Does a big pumpkin have more seeds than the small one?”

There was only one way to find out…

First some predictions about the possible number of seeds in our pumpkins.








How are we going to count all those seeds?   By ones, by twos, by fives, by tens? The serious counting begins.

Such a great day of exploration, as these scientists and mathematicians were at work.

Students Far and Near

Something more was going on behind the scenes something that made this experience complete. Earlier that day my teaching partner, Susan Sundlie, @128sue on twitter, met with students who live in other parts of the province, via Blackboard Collaborate. They too were engaged in the this inquiry process. Perplexed with some of the same questions and with equal curiosity they were conducting research in their homes across the province throughout the day. They knew that their classmates were work addressing these same questions. Everyone would share their discoveries at the end of the day.

Scientists Share Results and Data

All scientists share data and discuss results, and so did we.

Near the end of the day students gathered on the carpet and in a Google Meet to discuss and report results. Each group presented their challenges, methods and results. Students who worked at home listened and shared their results with those at school.

As students discussed their findings they discovered there were common challenges! Counting by 2’s to 190 was not easy! And then there were still more seeds to count!! One student was pleased to share that she had learn how to count by 10 beyond a hundred. “Now I get it!” she happily reported to her mom at the end of the day.

Meaningful learning, engagement, and a genuine learning community for each student no matter where they were.

As I reflected on the day, my students, and their learning, I realized that this is what normal looks like for them. They are living in a world where learning is not constrained by walls, or distance, textbooks or isolation. Today they were participants in learning sparked by curiosity and inquiry. They are learning about collaboration, sharing information, and connecting with others.







Making Meaning

Several years ago, Jo Boloar’s course ‘How to Learn Math’, included a video clip, of Sebastian Thrun speaking about his approach to problem solving and math. I felt a spark of recognition and a sighed with relief to hear him say that we should not move ahead with a problem until we understand it intuitively; that we need to take time to understand and internalize the meaning and context of the problem. Time to think and develop a meaningful context changes everything for learners. Problem solvers become more emotionally vested in a solution when they make connections and link concepts. Every teacher loves the ‘ah ha’ moment when a student thinks, ‘There is sense here!’ and learners who have time to explore, question, and play with the ideas, develop that intuition and agency over their own learning.

Peter Johnston in his excellent book: Choice Words, states:

“There are hidden costs in telling people things.  If a student can figure something out for him-or-herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence.” p.8

And this I love too: ” … most accomplished teachers do not spend a lot of time in telling mode.” p.8

And so, I work to cultivate courage and curiosity in my classroom. Courage to tackle something that is hard, knowing that it is OK to make a mistake, and the curiosity to question what we see and think as we work together. This means that I promote, model and identify those qualities for any challenge we face as learners in my classroom.

I highly recommend, Choice Words by Peter Johnson. I love this book! Can you tell? Perhaps it’s because these ideas fit with my own reflective personal style, but more than that, Peter Johnson excels at demonstrating the power of well chosen words.

There will be more posts to come on this engaging and thoughtful book.

Rainy Day Thoughts on Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe

One rainy Saturday in April, a day much like today, I read Fenway and Hattie by Victoria Coe in anticipation of the Global Read Aloud this fall. What a delightful, humorous tale told from a dog’s point of view.  Victoria Coe, you captured the mind of a puzzled dog in a way that made me chuckle!  I see and understand Fenway perfectly as he experiences the world.

As I read, I reflected on how to use this book in my program this fall. How could this book help students develop a deeper understanding of themselves, each other, and their world? What kinds of thinking skills could this book promote? What kinds of activities will deepen student’s growth as literate individuals?

Victoria Coe develops Fenway’s perspective delightfully and readers will respond with amusement. Children with pets, and especially those who have attempted to train a pet, will immediately make connections to familiar experiences. Owning a pet, training a pet, and understanding the behavior of beagles or terriers would enrich student’s understanding of the story. And so I am thinking of a visit to the SPCA, an animal care facility, or arranging a visit with dog trainer or a service dog. A Google Hangout with an animal expert would be perfect too. Listen to this quote from another book,  The Best Man by Richard Peck about Argus, a pet dog: “Argus was practically a four footed lesson plan. We were learning stuff this morning and that didn’t happen every day.”  A four footed learning experience sounds like fun!

Readers are compelled to understand Hattie’s actions through the mind of her pet. It becomes evident that there are different interpretations of an event when we learn about each character’s thoughts. Fenway seems to think that the backyard is a dog park with very few dogs. Certainly he deserves better.  Fenway amusingly describes what he sees, but his dog brain does not understand the meaning.  There are opportunities to visualize what is really happening. I am thinking… could we design a perfect dog park for Fenway?

Finally, there are parallel stories happening here.  In one, Fenway is learning about family routines and dog life, and in the second Hattie adjusting to a new neighborhood, new friends and trying to train her rambunctious, little puppy.  This second story is more subtle.  Fenway does not have complete comprehension of what is happening to Hattie, and his frustration and challenges seem overwhelming but a sensitive reader will see that Hattie is having her own struggles with the situation and readers will celebrate with Hattie when she finally gets Fenway to not only walk on the evil floor but also obey her and, Sit! Hattie is delighted and showers Fenway with kisses.  Fenway thinks…., “A deliciously happy moment that I hope will never end.” So true Fenway!  I felt the same way.

The story of Hattie’s growing confidence and sense of power in her world is one of the deeply satisfying messages of this book.  A great message for kids to hear. Fenway describes Hattie in the moment: “She puffs out her chest, and gazes into my eyes. Her expression is full of love. And power.” Oh Fenway you gave her that feeling! How well I remember my own 9 year old, owning the moment, as she trained her dog to obey – one of those small significant events that empowers kids to know that they too can have an impact on the world.


Finding the Best Blend for Learning (It’s not about the coffee.)

Will this bridge support 500 grams?

Last fall, at the BlendED and Online Symposium, one of our discussions centered on this question:  How do educators define blended learning? This is relavent question in education today, and one that is especially pertinent to me, because I teach students in both online and face to face settings. How is blended learning put into action in my classroom? Here’s the story of one day.

On this particular day the grade 3’s were excited to come together to take on a bridge building challenge.  Could they use the supplied materials and budget requirements to build a bridge that would support 500 grams and span a gap of 30 cm?

The day started off with an online meeting. Three students in distant locations, Mexico, Somalia, and Calgary met to discuss types of bridge construction, essential considerations for bridge building, and an examination of local bridge design. These students were given the challenge and agreed to meet with us later in the day to share their final bridge designs.

Shortly thereafter, other grade 3s arrived onsite to work together on the same challenge. Both groups knew they are working towards a common goal, in different locations. In an effort to promote collboration and aware that 8 year olds would want to take their own bridge home at the end of the day, I explained that everyone could discuss ideas and help each other, but would build their own bridge.

Each student received a budget of $100 dollars to purchase supplies needed for construction.  This added element in the design challenge defiantly preoccupied several students as they immediately set to work to determine just what they could buy and  how that would impact design.  A cubic centimeter of plasticine cost $1.00 and one student happily concluded that he could buy $79.00 worth. Others set to work building and decided to determine the cost as they went along.

Focused conversation, iterative planing and construction, successes, and problem solving filled our day. One student learned that hot glue, did not work well for joining plastic straws and plasticine, another discovered that plastic cups with a wide base were perfect for pillars. “Is it possible to build a bridge for vehicles and trains?” “What could I use to reinforce this weak spot?” “What is the best way to join these popsicle sticks for the purpose I have in mind?” Good questions filled the day.

Mid-afternoon we met with our other classmates via a Google Hangout projected on the interactive whiteboard. Everyone could see and with the benefit of a speaker system and microphone in our classroom each student could participate in the conversation.  Students were ready and eager to explain their design, discuss their process, and test their bridges.  Interest and excitement were high.

Connected Learners

Each student had been purposefully engaged in the building process and now they were genuinely interested to see and hear what others had done, and to learn more about the design process from others.

Now consider the ways students connected on this day: an online meeting via Blackboard Collaborate, face to face collaborative work, and a Google Hangout to conclude the day. Is this blended learning? Yes, it is, and not because of the technology we accessed or the face to face time we shared, although that may be part of the definition of blended learning. It’s because the needs of the learners were met in a variety of ways. Connected learning enabled students to problem solve, create, collaborate, and learn from each other. The best blend of learning opportunities is always in response to student needs.

How do you support learning in a blended environment?





Reading Life Part 1

Winter evenings…..time for reading….. and that Reading Challenge on Goodreads!  One year I reached a goal of 24 books, but last year, well, I did not even get close. To remedy this underachievement I set this year’s goal at a measly 15 books. Yes, I admit I did that. However I am on a roll this year.

A little over one month into the year I’m delighted to have read 5 books. Each one has taken me on a journey to another time and place.

The Naturalist by Alisssa York

The Naturalist by Alissa York, took me back first to Philadelphia 150 years ago, and then to Para, Brazil, and into the Amazon Jungle. It made me long to visit this green and living forest during a time when fewer people inhabited this space or traveled its winding rivers. Of the three main characters, Rachel is the true naturalist passionaltely observing the rivers, the forest, and the creatures that inhabit the land. Iris the artist, records the beauty and striking features of the creeping, crawling, hopping, flying and slithering life they discover. However it is Paul whose journey reveals and opens to him his early childhood in jungle before he was brought to America. Vivid pictures filled my mind as read this novel.

“Orange – a bed of it, a pool, hot as flame against the bone-white sand. It’s not until they are in the monetaria, yards from the shore, that its meaning becomes clear.  …….. Butterflies. Hundreds, thousands of them, packed tight, holding their bright wings erect. ……. The flock stays long enough for Iris to complete a handful of studies and one watercolor sketch. Lift off begins with a flicker. A ripple along the margins and the whole mass rises, peeling away from the beach.  Iris and Rachel stand to watch it float out over the river, where it unravels in a trailing cloud.”   Page 179 Chapter 24 

Raj by Gita Mehta


Raj, by Gita Mehta, was fittingly purchased in a cluttered bookstore in Jaipur, India. India had captured my imagination in every way. Who lived in the ornate rooms of the forts and palaces we explored? Who were the women hidden behind the purdah screens? My brain was abuzz with the mystery and mystique of ancient kingdoms in this exotic land. Raj, written from the perspective of Jaya Singh, born to the Maharajah of Balmer a fictional kingdom, gave me the insight I longed for.  Through Jaya’s life I learned about the wealth of royal India, the impact of colonialism, Indian soldiers fighting bravely as part of the British Empire, and the bitter struggle for independence.

So there you have it, the beginning of my 2017 Reading Challenge.



Reflections on, ‘Creating a Passionate Literacy Classroom’

Today I had the opportunity to hear Pernille Ripp, a Wisconsin 7th grade teacher, who started The Global Read Aloud in 2010.  Check her blog: Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension to learn more about her passion for students, learning and literacy. The session, Creating a Passionate Literacy Classroom, was organized by the Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium.

It was inspiring to hear Pernille speak and while I have lots to share and think about, for now, I want to identify some of the resource gems she provided in her presentation.

The Human Digital Library:   The website states: ‘The Digital Human Library (dHL) is a nonprofit organization that connects Canadian teachers and students with hundreds of organizations and experts around the world who are delivering interactive curriculum-based opportunities for learning using technology – for free.’  I like this, for free. Take note, dHL is spotlighting A Kid’s Guide to Canada ‘a national teacher-led initiative organized by elementary teachers from across the country.’ I’ve registered on this site and now I’m thinking about the ways my students will be involved.  If you are planning a project contact me, maybe we can share ideas.

Pernille spoke about the value of global projects as a way to create connections and promote empathy. Here is a link to a Padlet (online bulletin board) with a variety of global projects. Take a look, in what way might your students get involved?

As a book lover I was curious to hear about her favourite books.  Pernille shared a number of picture books, middle school books, and young adult books. Of course like all readers, she explained that her book lists are ever evolving, as you will see if you check her blog. Each book she described had appeal.  Here is a sample of a few that I appreciated because of the connections to history and social issues.

Picture Books:

When We Were Alone – David Alexander Robertson, an author from Manitoba, The story of a mother and her grandmother.  Sharing the memories of the native boarding school.

This House Once by Deborah Freedman out next week – different pieces of the house as the house is built is shows where all the parts came from.

Stepping Stones –  A Refugee Family’s Story by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Badr Canadian Author in English and Arabic.

She challenged all of us:  How would you describe your reading/writing identity as a teacher?  Who are you as an adult reader? As an adult  writer?  And… Who are the literate role models for our students?

This was a keen reminder to me. While I occasionally share my own experiences as a writer with students, her questions prompted  me to try write more often, and to be that role model of writing that kids need to see.  And as for reading?  I am an avid reader and so I loved her advice, the best planning for instruction that a teacher can do, is read.

Question, Interest, Intention

Is it true that those who teach learn twice? If so teachers are the most fortunate of all.

My question for this year: “Is there a way I can shift more agency to the learner?” A question inspired by, Invent to Learn by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager.

My interest and goal: Strive to remain current with research about learning.  Apply this understanding to my work with young learners in my online and blended learning classroom.

My intention: Never confuse the pencil, the poet, or the poem. In other words integrate best practices for learning with technology in such a way that the technology becomes invisible, enabling both the learner and the learning to be the focus of all that happens.