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Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Practical Ideas to Encourage Learning at Home

As schools around the world are closing their doors to in-classroom learning in the hope of slowing the spread of COVID-19, many parents are wondering what they can do to keep their children in a learning frame of mind. 

I'm in BC, Canada, on our scheduled Spring Break right now, but today our province was the latest to announce that students will not be returning to school when Spring Break ends. While that is upsetting, it is absolutely the correct call to make sure that students and staff stay healthy. As of now, we don't know what school will look like for the remainder of the year, and that is, understandably, a cause of concern for many parents. 

It's important to remember that even though they are out of school, they won't stop learning. People learn. In whatever situation they find themselves, people learn. However, in order to help ease the anxiety, here are a few things that children can do at home with their parents to keep the routine of learning happening during self-isolation.


  • Write in a journal
  • Watch a movie together as a family and find the main ideas, make connections to other movies, books, TV shows, real life, etc.
  • Read a book! As they read, encourage students to:
    • write down any words they don't know. Look up the definitions of the words at and write a few new sentences containing the word.
    • respond to what's happening in the book with a journal. They can write from the perspective of a main character or as themselves, asking the characters questions.
    • notice the characteristics of the main characters. Who do these characters remind them of? Are they like anyone in real life? Are they like characters from other stories? 
    • draw pictures of the characters and the settings in the book. Then write new adventures for those characters within the same settings. What would happen if the characters found themselves in completely different settings?
    • Write a book review or record a YouTube video giving a review of the book. Remember not to give away any spoilers in the review!


  • Bake together. Ask students to follow a recipe and measure out the ingredients. How about doubling the recipe? How could you half the recipe?
  • Involve them in grocery shopping. Look online or at flyers to see prices and set a budget. Have students add the prices mentally as you go through the store and estimate the total cost before you get to the register.
  • Watch some TedEd Riddles on YouTube and see if they can solve them faster than you!
  • Play Yahtzee, Cribbage, or other games that involve counting and strategy.
  • Solve Sudoku puzzles.
  • Play Prodigy.

Science/Social Studies:

  • Follow Crash Course on YouTube. It has videos about history, engineering, biology, A.I., and many other topics. 
  • Watch Hip Hughes History on YouTube. 
  • Ask students to compare the COVID-19 pandemic to other worldwide pandemics (SARS, MERS, Spanish Flu, Black Plague, etc.). How do they compare with each other? What is different? What did we learn from the past that helps us now?
  • Research how the immune system works to fight diseases.

Other Ideas:

  • Play board games.
  • Play outside or go for a walk (as much as social-distancing allows)
  • Listen to music and sing songs.
  • Dance. 
  • Make art.
  • Let students explore their interests. 
  • Talk about the history of your family. Where are your ancestors from? Do you know your genealogy? 

Remember that your day doesn't have to be scheduled to the minute or include everything that would happen at school. It's okay if your kids sleep in a little later than usual. Letting your kids play, solve problems, and explore their interests will create rich learning opportunities.

Any other ideas I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Why I don't take marks off for late work

It is so frustrating to sit down to mark an assignment, and see that only 60% of students have handed it in! I then have to track down the missing work. It could be a simple process (reminding students to turn in the assignment that is finished, but at the bottom of a locker or backpack) or it could be more complicated and time consuming (supervising the students on my lunch break or after school to make sure the assignment is completed or calling home to parents).

Taking off marks for turning in late work would surely motivate the students to hand in their work on time, right? And if it doesn’t truly motivate students, at least it is a deterrent to handing in late work, right? Maybe not.

As my understanding of assessment has grown and changed, my thoughts on this topic have changed. When I was a new teacher, I took marks off for late work, but I don’t anymore. Here’s why.
  • I’m assessing curricular competencies and content outcomes, not work habits

Each assignment I give my students should be assessing a specific skill, curricular competency, or content outcome. If my goal is to assess my students’ ability to construct full sentences in French using the proper conjugation of the verb “avoir,” then that is what should be marked. When a student turns in their sentences doesn’t affect their ability to create the sentences. If the sentences are correct, whenever they are turned in, then the student has met the intended learning outcome and shows proficiency in that skill. That is what I am truly assessing.

  • Taking off marks can have the opposite effect than desired

If points are taken off every day that an assignment is late, then it stands to reason that at some point, the assignment will be worth 0 points. When students reach the stage when their assignments are not worth any more points, what is the motivation to complete it and turn it in at all? If the goal is for the work to be done, so that the student can demonstrate a skill or share their thinking on a concept, taking off marks may actually stop that learning from taking place.

  • It doesn’t make much difference in student behaviour

In my experience, taking off marks for late work isn’t the motivator that teachers hope it will be. When I was a new teacher, I took marks off for late work, but I still had students who handed in late work. I realize now that it was a punitive action to take off marks, not an educational action. It didn’t help my Grade 9 students become more organized or manage their time better. Those who were already organized benefited, but those who weren’t did not. Students who were struggling with the material, who didn't have anyone at home to help them, who had busy lives outside of school (part time jobs, sports, etc.), were being treated unfairly.

So, what should we do instead?
  • Be mindful of what we are assessing. Is it an academic skill or a work habit?
  • Explicitly teach organizational and time management skills and strategies.
  • Teach students how to prioritize their time.
  • Talk with students who frequently hand in late assignments to figure out why. Having empathy for our students reduces our frustration when they don’t behave the way we expect.

So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments below. Do you take off marks for late work? Why or why not?

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Systems of Government Game for Middle School

Teaching systems of government has never been my favourite subject to cover in the Social Studies curriculum. It tends to be a dry topic with very little student engagement. To try and make it more engaging and interesting for our students, a colleague and I came up with a game to introduce the idea of different systems of government.

Materials You'll Need:

  • 10 pieces of paper
  • 10 glue sticks
  • 10 pairs of scissors
  • government cards, downloadable here


  • Students are arranged into 5 different groups. Each group represents a different country with a different system of government.
  • The teacher will distribute a red government card to each group. Each card represents a different system of government. They are: anarchy, dictatorship, direct democracy, republic, and constitutional monarchy.

  • Each group follows the rules on their card to make the longest paper chain possible with just one piece of paper.
  • After each group has begun, there will be a coup in each country and the groups will be given a new blue government card with a new system of government. There is also a new objective - to make a chain with exactly 100 links.

  • After the game, students can reflect on the government systems, how decisions were made, and which systems they would/would not like to live within.

This game fits into many areas of the BC Grade 6 Curriculum. There are curricular connections for Social Studies, English Language Arts, Career Education, ADST, and Math.

To get the complete file with instructions, curricular connections, and government cards, click here.

We envisioned this as a beginning provocation to introduce different systems of government, but it could be used in the middle of a government unit, at the end for review, or as a jumping off point for any kind of student inquiry to systems of government or country studies. I hope you and your students have fun playing this game!

Friday, 5 July 2019

Augmented Selfie: A Back-to-School, Get-to-Know-You Activity

This summer, I'm back in school as a student.  I'm participating in a Personalized Learning Summer Institute at the University of Victoria as some summer Professional Development. 

Our first assignment was to create an Augmented Selfie. We had a lot of freedom over how we wanted to put it together, we just had to make sure that it introduced who we are, what we are interested in, and our strengths. Some ideas were to create a collage, a video, or a photo essay.

I decided to create a word cloud for mine. I used words to describe my character, interests, and important people in my life.

The whole time I was creating this, I thought about how I was going to use it as one of my first activities this fall with my new Grade 6 students!

What do you think? I can't wait to have a display in my classroom with all my new students' augmented selfies!

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Why I don’t use a Rewards System for my Middle Schoolers (and What I Do Instead)

Classroom management is probably the most difficult part of teaching middle schoolers. Having 28-35 pre-teens in one room, all at different academic levels with hormones coursing through their veins leads to a lot of behavioural challenges.  I’ve tried many different incentive programs to help my kids to focus and follow expectations, including awarding points, good behaviour tickets, and offering prizes for good behaviour. What I found was that each new management technique worked for a short time, but them fizzled out.

After reflecting on my classroom management rewards strategies, these are some realizations I came to:

  • The kids who really needed the motivation weren’t being recognized.

I’ve never liked the idea of pointing out undesirable behaviours (by putting student names on the board, for example). To me, it equates to a public shaming, and I’ve never seen it actually help anyone to change course in their behaviour. It seems, more than anything, to reinforce a belief in students that they are “bad” and have no chance to do better.
That’s why incentive programs seemed to me to be a better solution. I thought I’d reward students for showing desirable behaviour, rather than punishing for undesirable behaviour. Surely seeing their classmates being recognized for doing the right thing would encourage others to try the right thing, too, right? Well, what I found was that the students who are recognized for good behaviour weren’t the ones who need the incentive programs, and the motivation for the other classmates just wasn’t there.

Kids don’t think the same way as adults do. Most won’t reason, on their own, that they can get those rewards, too, if they just do what their classmates are doing. Instead, they start to see the gap between them as the “bad” kids and their classmates, the “good” kids getting wider and wider. Those students who are often in trouble for poor behaviour begin to think that there is nothing they can do to reach the same level of their classmates, so why try at all?

  • Stop rewarding kids for doing what they are expected to do! 

This is the biggest realization that I had. For one year in a Grade 7 class, I used a ticket system to help with class management. If students had their agendas signed, they got a ticket. If their home reading was completed, they got a ticket. If their classroom job was completed, they got a ticket. If they were reading silently during literacy block, they got a ticket. You get the idea! At the end of the week, the kids could put all their tickets into a bin and we’d draw for a prize. After a while, some students stopped doing their jobs or reading during literacy, etc. because they didn’t like the prizes, so they had no motivation to get the tickets. Then I was left with a worse situation, as the students started to believe that the only reason to follow basic classroom expectations was to get the ticket, and not because it was simply what was expected. Then I had a harder time teaching them about personal responsibility and that being a part of any community, including a classroom, came with certain expectations and responsibilities.

In the real world, people are not praised or rewarded for doing what’s expected of them. I don’t get a ticket or a prize for returning my shopping cart to the store instead of leaving it in the parking lot when I buy groceries, for example, but I do it because it’s what’s expected. I don’t want to teach my students to expect something every time they meet basic expectations, so I stopped giving out tickets.

  • External rewards only go so far.

I used a class points system with a particularly difficult Grade 5 class I worked with. I started it mid-way through the year to see if it would help them to be kinder to each other and more respectful to me, and especially, to substitute teachers who came into the room. I challenged my class to let me “catch them being good.” When I saw someone being respectful, or helping out someone else, etc. I put a point on the board. When they got to a certain number of points, we had a class prize (watch a movie, have popsicles, etc.).

We did this for about a month and the kids were putting more effort into being kinder to each other. I saw it was working, so I slowed down on catching the good behaviour. After all, the points were meant to help them get into the habit of helping each other. Unfortunately, once the points slowed down and the kids realized they weren’t being recognized for kindness anymore, they stopped being kind. The points hadn’t instilled any sort of intrinsic motivation in them, and because the kids were only doing good deeds for recognition, they stopped when the recognition stopped.

Instead of rewards...

  • Remember that all behaviour comes from somewhere.
A lot of the time, kids aren't trying to be "bad" when they break expectations. Talk with the student and try to understand where the behaviour is coming from. What is lacking that the child is trying to get? Are they looking for power, love, acceptance, attention, etc.? By trying to understand where the behaviour comes from, I've found I can distance the behaviour from the child and I'm not left in a place of frustration and disappointment, but rather empathy. This allows me to work with the student to help them find what they are needing, and the undesirable behaviours stop.
  • Build relationships.
I've found that students will be more motivated to work harder for teachers they like and respect. If I start off by liking and respecting them first, asking about their interests, and sharing some of mine, the kids are much more open to redirection when behaviour starts to slip.
  • Set routines from day one.
Include students in the creation of classroom expectations. I have my own expectations in mind, but still ask the students on day one what kind of class they'd like to learn in. Their suggestions will fit into my plans for classroom expectations, anyway, but by asking for their input, they are invested in making it work. In having consistent routines, the students know what to expect and anxiety is reduced.
  • Have consistent consequences in mind for breaking expectations...
...but remember that consequences don't have to include punishment, and consistency doesn't mean that every child must be treated the same. They all come into the class with different backgrounds, and a punishment isn't going to help every child to change their behaviour. 

  • Provide frequent movement breaks outside the classroom.
I'm lucky to teach at a school surrounded by nature. We have two big fields and forests on two sides of the school. We have a pond across the street and a stream in the back forest. I like to spend as much time outside the classroom as I can. For my more active students, I send them outside to run a lap or two of the school between every block, or more frequently if needed. I can tell when they are about to lose focus and I send them out, not because they are in trouble, but because I don't want them to make choices that will get them into trouble.

  • Hold a weekly class meeting.
Throughout the week, the students can anonymously submit topics to our class meeting box. They can write about problems they're having, issues in the class, or anything else they'd like to share. On Fridays, I push all the desks aside and we sit in a circle in the classroom. We start our class meeting with "shout outs" to others. They can be to anyone in their life, but they must be for a positive reason. Students are allowed to pass if they don't feel comfortable sharing. After the positive shout outs, I go to our class meeting box, and read out the topics. Students are able to discuss the topics that were put into the box and decide on possible solutions for the author. It helps to bring us together as a team.
  • Use the term "our classroom" instead of "my classroom."
This subtle change reminds students that they are a partner in the classroom and they have expectations to keep it working properly. I remind them that we are all here together as a team, and we can help each other to succeed or help each other to fail. I hope they choose succeed!

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Middle School Classroom Reveal

This is my third year at my current school, and my third different classroom!  I feel cautiously optimistic that this will be my last move, so I'm making the room my own. This is my Grade 7 classroom:

I asked for tables instead of desks to encourage collaboration and team work.

Since my students don't have desks, they each have a drawer in the drawer carts to hold their supplies.

Drawers in use.

The pages next to my homework board are cover sheets that list all assignments and due dates for the term. If students are absent, they can check the cover sheets to see what they missed.
Extra assignments are kept by subject folder in the crate. The red baskets are my hand-in baskets. Students are not allowed to hand in assignments to me directly, it all has to go into the bin.
Extra assignments crate.

My classroom library is organized by genre. Each different genre has a different coloured sticker on the spine so the kids can find them easily.

We brainstormed classroom jobs together as a class. Each day, there are two students responsible for each job.
This is behind my desk. It has my photocopies for each subject for the week.

So that's my classroom so far!  What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Make Vocabulary Notes Work for Your Students - Create a Dictionary!

I don't know about your students, but mine don't especially love taking down notes!  I don't love notes, either, but they can be a great tool for studying and review if they are set up in a user-friendly way.  

For French vocabulary review, I like to set up the notes as a French-English dictionary.  The students use a notebook and dedicate one page for each letter of the alphabet.  I like Hilroy 32-page exercise books because I can pick them up at Walmart the week before school starts for only $0.05 each! 

To jazz up the booklets, you can glue on a simple cover.

I spend the first class setting up the book with my students.  I use three columns: 
    • I set the alphabet by English word, as it makes it easier for the students to find what they are looking for.
    • I have my students include an article for all nouns to help them remember the gender of the noun.
    • I ask my students to write the word type (noun, adjective, verb, etc.) to help reinforce grammar and parts of speech.

This method can be used by any student in any grade, and it is personalized to your class! Your students will have the vocabulary they are learning at their fingertips!

They are a great tool for studying, too.  It can be used alone, in pairs, or in groups for review! If a student finishes work early, he or she can take out their dictionary and cover the French column and quiz themselves.  Students can take the dictionary home on a light homework day and ask a family member to quiz them on vocabulary.  Students can quiz each other during class. The best part is they can take the dictionary with them to use the following year!

Don't want to set up notebooks?  Download and print a version you can photocopy for your students.  Click on the picture below!

So what do you think?  Will you give it a try?  Do you already do something similar?  Do you have another great way to organize vocabulary?  Let me know in the comments below!