Category Archives: Growth

A New Chapter

This past spring, I made the decision to leave the classroom and try something new. I accepted a new role working with Teacher Candidates in the B.Ed. program at the University of British Columbia. While I will continue teaching Intro to Teaching and Learning Core French as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I am also be coordinating the Social Emotional Learning cohort. This means I am responsible for teaching Inquiry courses, embedding the theme of SEL into our cohort throughout the year, and acting as Faculty Advisor for a group of Teacher Candidates.

When I made this decision, I felt nothing but excitement. What an awesome new challenge! However, while saying my goodbyes in June, I started to second guess myself. By the time summer was in full swing, I was sure I had made a mistake… What was I thinking? I love my kids! Knowing that I wouldn’t return to my school or to any classroom in September made me very emotional.

Most of us enter the teaching profession because we want to make a difference in the lives of kids and I was no different. Those pre-teen years in particular come with a lot of angst, social awkwardness, and sarcasm that I secretly love. Those years are when I felt most disconnected from adults in my own life, so I’ve always wanted to help those who are looking for a positive role model and a bit of empathy while maintaining the facade of nonchalance and grown-up-ness. Little people in big bodies who just need to know they are loved…

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However, having met my group of Teacher Candidates this week, I am feeling much more optimistic. They are a wonderful group of people who, like all of us, are in this to make a difference in the lives of kids. Their hearts are in it and they are authentic, intelligent, compassionate people. I already feel like I am getting to know many of them and I haven’t even had to give up my addiction to bad jokes and sarcasm!

I can tell that it will be a fantastic year of learning and I know they will all make a difference in the lives of kids. I can see the potential for far reaching impact in this new role and that is exciting. I can also see that I am going to learn so much from them. But most of all, I can now see that although I may not have a physical classroom this year, I have met my new “kids.” And I couldn’t be more excited to see where this new adventure takes me…

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It’s the Little Things

Over the past couple of years, I have often questioned my abilities as a teacher. I have had a lot of rough days and a few occasions where I wondered if I could ever do enough. I think we all end up in this place once in awhile because it is truly a job that never ends and could always be done better. However, I have also been trying to focus more on the little things that bring us joy as educators. There are, of course, many moments related to academic learning that are super special, but it’s not these moments that I find most meaningful and it’s not these moments that keep me in this profession. It’s those little things that are about relationships that really get to me…

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  1. That smile from that kid who just needed someone to talk to at recess.
  2. “Can I give you a hug, Ms. B?”
  3. The moment a child finally opens up to you.
  4. An email from a parent thanking you for your understanding.
  5. That kid who comes to ask you about anxiety after a lesson on mental health.
  6. The student who feels safe enough to share that their grandfather passed away during morning meeting.
  7. “I know you get it, Ms. B. You understand.”
  8. Watching a child develop a new friendship.
  9. Parents who let you know that their child is happy to come to school.
  10. Returning after an absence to: “We missed you!”

There are a million moments that we could reflect upon because we truly do make a difference in the lives of kids. They matter. We matter. Relationships matter.

When we’re feeling down, we need to remember that it’s the little things that matter the most.

Talking Openly About Mental Health

My struggle is anxiety. I didn’t know it until I was an adult, but I’ve actually been anxious my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I have experienced chronic daily headaches and I was a classic worrier growing up. However, it wasn’t until my physical health began to fail me about 3 years ago that I realized something was really wrong. I was highly motivated and inspired by my work, yet I was horribly sick and began fainting. I was often dizzy, unable to eat, and angry. Doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong, so I began to think it was all in my head. It wasn’t until I found an outlet through fitness and support through counselling that I realized my physical symptoms were all a result of anxiety. I was relieved; at least I wasn’t suffering from some horrible physical illness! Little did I know how difficult this journey would be – digging deep to understand the root of our emotions is not a task easily checked off our weekend “To Do” list. I know now that it is challenging lifelong work.

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Photo via Pixabay

Since my own journey of self discovery began, I have developed so much compassion for students who suffer from anxiety. I often share my own daily experiences with them, like how it’s hard to sleep at night and how sometimes it feels like there’s an earthquake when there’s not. Or how sometimes my anxiety is triggered by events, like flying or large crowds, but most of the time it is completely unpredictable and difficult to explain. I also share self-regulation strategies that work for me like nature walks, yoga, and mindfulness.

For some reason, I have been sharing more openly in my classroom this year than before. I think being in a new school has provided me with an opportunity to share my true self – the one who I’ve been peeling away layers to get to know over the past 3 years – the one who has come so far and yet still feels like a child sometimes – and it feels good.

However, the reason I share all of this with you is because it’s easy to forget that many of our students are suffering from physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety every day. It’s becoming an epidemic in our fast-paced, modern society. These kids need to know that we know why words like “calm down” or “don’t worry about it” are unhelpful… and that negative behaviour is often an indication that we’re struggling with something inside. Other students have family members who are struggling with depression, addiction, eating disorders, or mood disorders – as do many of us. Simple conversation can go a long way toward developing a sense of acceptance and compassion for those struggling with mental health issues. It shows students that positive mental health is something we are all working on, not something you either have or you don’t.

Through sharing, we may be putting ourselves out there, but we may also end up modeling a growth mindset for our students. I personally think that being vulnerable is worth the risk of healthier, happier, and more empathetic kids.

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Photo via Pixabay

Communicating Student Learning: My Personal Journey

Three years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why I Hate Letter Grades. I figure it’s about time I write an update on my adventures…

In the fall of 2013, one brave soul (@BronwenHowden) decided to join me in the ride that was our district’s Communicating Student Learning pilot. We were two teachers in one of five schools that term to design our own report card template. We jumped on board very quickly and fumbled our way through implementation in first term. It was a very sudden shift for the community and in hindsight, there are many ways we could have communicated more clearly. However, we learned a great deal, and by second term, we were using feedback from parent surveys and a focus group to make changes to our template. By third term, we were finally gaining confidence in our methods of communicating student learning. While we knew all along that we were working to design assessment that promoted growth and learning, it was finally becoming more widely accepted in our community and we had evidence from students to support the shift that had taken place.

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cc Photo Credit: liquidnight via Compfight

We continued revising and using our template the following year alongside digital portfolios with Fresh Grade and approximately 8 more teachers and tons more schools in the district. We felt our confidence grow as we were more able to articulate our rationale for the changes and more students and parents began to see the benefits of assessing in alternative ways. Parents having access to ongoing communication of learning via Fresh Grade was hugely beneficial, and we referenced these learning samples in our CSL anecdotal assessment. We decided to maintain this formal paper communication in addition to the portfolios throughout the year, as we had already changed a lot in a short period of time, and it put many parents at ease. However, we did make some significant changes to our template, such as removing formal reporting of individual subject areas (other than Literacy and Numeracy) in favour of more cross-curricular approaches to learning and including personalized learning plans for each student. We also focused on improving the quality of our ongoing communication with parents.

Bronwen and I came out of that second year feeling there was no way we could ever return to the “old ways” and confident we could now move away from report cards altogether. Although there were a million and one factors that influenced our decisions throughout those transitional years, there were five main principles consistently guiding our practice:

  1. Formative Assessment
  2. Competencies
  3. Student Conferencing
  4. Self-Assessment
  5. Ongoing Communication with Parents

Experiencing this transition as educators provided us with the time we needed to truly explore what quality assessment looked like in practice. Looking back, we can see that learning intentions and criteria guided all of our assessment, students were involved in the learning process through co-creation of criteria and regular self-assessment, and we were focused on developing competencies through content knowledge. We improved our communication with parents through the use of Fresh Grade, email updates, class blogs, social media, and conferences. One on one conferences with students lasting 15-20 minutes every term were invaluable. It was a lot of work – we had to completely rethink how we structured our days – but somehow it felt like less work than before, as it all became so much more meaningful. We knew our students’ strengths and challenges inside and out. Even more importantly, so did our students.

Now in a new school (and desperately missing my original partner in crime!), I have finally made the complete shift to communicating student learning through Fresh Grade. I don’t think anyone can argue that it is valuable to have regular updates about their child’s learning, but change will always be difficult. I remain focused on quality assessment in my use of Fresh Grade, as it is not really about the technology, but a shift in mindset.

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cc Photo Credit: SevenSeventyFive via Flickr

There are numerous Surrey Schools educators who have already put together guidelines about the what, why, and how of digital portfolios, so I will refer you to to their brilliant work. You can find links to many of them in Elisa Carlson’s blog post here. What I have done is put together a few key pieces of advice, educator to educator, for those who are moving toward ongoing communication of student learning for the first time:

  • Be transparent! Students and parents need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can be involved. Let them know you are learning alongside them but also share resources to help them understand the transition. Ask them what they want and highlight connections between their input and best practice.
  • It’s all about the learning! If you are doing significantly more work than your students, STOP. Portfolios are not about including as much as humanly possible, but providing quality assessment of key learning throughout the year. Students should absolutely be involved in the process, no matter their age, and assessment should be moving their learning forward.
  • Learn to embrace change! Change is not meant to be comfortable but it should be meaningful. Don’t try to do the same thing in a new way; if you’ve committed to using portfolios or other alternatives to grades, you’ve committed to being a part of the change. It’s ok for your communication to look different… it should.
  • Be prepared to listen! Not everyone is ready for change at the same time. Focus on strengthening relationships by finding common ground. Actively listen to those who disagree with you. Take feedback for what it is – a learning opportunity. Remember that parents, teachers, and administrators all want what’s best for kids.
  • Find a partner in crime (or several)! Together, we are better. Collaborate. Share. Question. Collaborate some more. Support each other along the way.

I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore multiple ways of communicating student learning in my district. It’s been an amazing journey that I would not trade for anything. What are you doing to ensure quality assessment and communication of student learning?

CSL, Fresh Grade, and the draft BC curriculum provide me with so much flexibility in designing meaningful learning opportunities for my students. You can check out my visual presentation entitled “Redesigned Curriculum in Action” here as a sample of some things we do in Division 3.

Three Words for 2016

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cc Photo Credit: keithcarver via Compfight

Happy New Year! Once again, it’s been awhile since I have devoted time to blogging. I’ve written many a post in my head, but unfortunately, they have not often translated into actual posts for people to read. I would like this to change because writing brings me joy and provides me with an outlet for reflection. However, the highlights of my 2015, although not blogging related, were pretty awesome, so I’m going to tell myself I have a long list of very good excuses and forgive myself for the lapse in writing.

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Photo Credits: Patricia Gillespie, Moonrise Photography

I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, but I have been inspired over the past several years by educators who have shared their “one word” for the year. While I like the idea of a guiding word, I never felt that one was enough. So rather than choose just one, I’ve carefully chosen three words that I feel will help guide me through 2016 – not to achieve goals necessarily, but to help me be my best self.

1. Balance

This is a word that I am choosing to remind myself that it is important to rest, rejuvenate, and restore. As someone who struggles with anxiety daily, I am prone to overworking myself in pursuit of approval and perfection. I hope that the word BALANCE will remind me to revisit my passions outside of education and to focus on my social and emotional needs. It represents my desire to act and to reflect, to share and to listen, to care for others and for myself.

2. Strength

This past year, I gave up a passion of mine that keeps me grounded and in good physical health. This year, I am reminding myself to revisit physical activities that make me feel strong – hiking, dance, yoga – because to me, STRENGTH means positive physical and mental health, a sense of self. It also reminds me to look for courage within myself when I am lonely, overwhelmed, or afraid. I hope I will have the STRENGTH to make healthy decisions for myself in 2016.

3. Relationships

This word is to remind me to revisit and strengthen the many meaningful RELATIONSHIPS I already have in my life. I often get wrapped up in my day to day life and forget to connect with those I would consider my closest friends and family. I am hoping to change this. I also feel this word represents the most important aspect of my educational philosophy; I hope it will remind me of my professional values in stressful times so I can choose care and compassion over reaction.

So those are my guiding words for the new year. There is so much right in front of us that we forget to nourish. Rather than planning for drastic changes, I’m hoping my #threewordsfor2016 will help me better understand myself and my role in the lives of those around me.

What words will guide you in 2016?

Five Life Lessons

There goes my commitment to blogging a minimum of twice a month! November just flew by and now winter holidays are already upon us.

To get back into the swing of things, I’d like to share five things I’ve learned (or re-learned) this past month.

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Photo Credit: Some Driftwood via Compfighcc 

1. Change Is Both Amazing and Difficult

Two of the classes at our school are participating in our district’s pilot program  “Communicating Student Learning” to revise our current report card model. We have moved towards a focus on core competencies (Critical Thinking, Creativity, Personal & Social Responsibility, Communication) and we have chosen to take letter grades off of our reports. Instead, there is an emphasis on self-assessment and conferencing with individual students. Personally and professionally, I have found this experience to be incredibly rewarding. I have had many meaningful conversations with students about their strengths and goals in the past couple of weeks. It is amazing to see the insight that most 12-year olds have about themselves as learners. It was also wonderful to hear about what they are enjoying and what they are excited about. My eyes have been opened to how powerful a single conversation can be as I’ve been able to more clearly understand what particular students need from me to help them improve. Others are struggling to accept the new format; some are uncomfortable with self-reflection and others want to keep letter grades. I understand their struggles because change can be difficult and overwhelming. Hopefully second term will go more smoothly for everyone as we all adjust and become more comfortable with the changes.

2. Masters Programs Require A Lot of Time!

This one has been a steep learning curve for me. I was so excited to embark on my new learning journey in September, but I was completely unprepared for how much time I would have to dedicate to my coursework. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the course… but it has been a balancing act that has not always worked out for the best. I am hopeful that I will improve my time management in January!

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Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

3. Family Is Important… And So Is Health

Originally from Ontario, my spouse and I usually fly back to Toronto every year for the Christmas holidays. All of our family is there; we moved out here together in 2009 looking for something different. This year, we have both been under a lot of stress and not as healthy as we would like. After much discussion, we made the difficult decision to stay in BC for the holidays this year. With no family here whatsoever, it will be our first experience alone for the holidays in eight years. I love my family and I look forward to my once-a-year visit… but this year other things had to take priority. Everyone needs some down time once in awhile and for us, this is the way to get it this year. The best decisions – the ones that make the most sense at a particular time – are not always the easiest. I will miss spending time with family, but I look forward to exploring new traditions.

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Photo Credit: mohammadali via Compfight cc

4. New Challenges Are Scary

I have been wanting a student teacher for quite some time and finally requested one this fall only to not be assigned a placement. I was so disappointed, but in the end, it would have been completely nutty to have one these past few months! This week I was offered the chance to work with someone beginning in January. My initial reaction was excitement – I’ve been looking forward to this! – and then I realized just how scared I am. What if I am not a good mentor? I like to think I enjoy a challenge, but sometimes my inner child pops up and reminds me that I don’t feel ready. However, in this case, I will accept and embrace the fear, and then move on, because I know it will all work out. At the very least, passion is contagious!

5. I Can’t Do It All

I have had to let a few things go this year. For a variety of reasons, it was a very overwhelming fall and there is no way I would have survived if I had kept it all on my plate. For the first time in my career, I was burnt out and ready to quit. As someone who has struggled for a long time with perfectionism and a need to please others, this was a very difficult lesson. I can’t do it all; in fact, I don’t want to do it all. I am learning to focus my energy on the things that matter most to me. I am learning that I don’t need to have my foot in everything. This lesson has been a long time in the making, but it is finally beginning to sink in and it feels pretty good…

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Photo Credit: Pete Reed via Compfight cc

I know it’s December and it’s a crazy time of year for many… but don’t forget to take some time to relax! Sometimes the things that most need our attention are right in front of our eyes and we choose to ignore them.

What are some lessons you’ve learned so far this year? What are you looking forward to?

Open Questions in Math

With a background in high school Music and French, I was definitely terrified of teaching Math when I started teaching five years ago. I “succeeded” in Math in school, but I never enjoyed it or fully understood why I was doing what I was doing. However, as part of the Numeracy Project in our district, my school participated in a lot of professional development surrounding Numeracy and over the course of my first two years of teaching, I began to love the subject that I had hated growing up. By year three, I thought I had it figured out. I spent my time filling in students’ gaps, working with small groups, and offering choice in the problems students tackled. I was differentiating, for sure, and students were experiencing success in learning, but I don’t think I helped ignite a passion for Math in many students that year. The following year, I explored project-based learning in Math with some success although I didn’t feel I was addressing those knowledge gaps quite as effectively. I had completely shifted my teaching style, yet somehow, I lost my passion for teaching Math along the way. What was missing?

The problem isn’t that my students weren’t learning; it’s that I forgot about the big ideas. With so many learning outcomes in Math, it’s easy to become focussed on the minutiae of what students are supposed to learn and to forget about the big picture. However, it is the big ideas that should guide our instruction from K-12; by focussing on the big picture, we can encourage critical thinking and creativity in a domain traditionally seen as rigid and procedural.

I read Marian Small’s book “Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction” about 3 years ago, but I don’t think I effectively put it into practice at that time. Now that my enthusiasm has been revived, I’ve been begun re-exploring how open questions impact student learning and student engagement.

Here are some examples of open questions we’ve tackled in our Math class over the past couple of weeks…

Using 12 base ten blocks, which decimal numbers can you represent?


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While some students came up with three possible answers for these questions, others came up with fifty. The point is that everyone could enter into the problem. Some students are just beginning to understand tents and hundredths, so they worked on using all of the same type of block. Others could easily see patterns in numbers and were challenged to find as many answers as possible and to represent them in different ways.

___ + ___ = 4.32 OR ___ – ___ = 4.32

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Again, this open question offered choice. Students could choose addition or subtraction. They could show their understanding with whatever tool they wanted. Some chose to work symbolically while others made visual patterns concretely with the base ten blocks. They were all on task, collaborating, and learning.

Sometimes teachers get bogged down with the PLOs and forget about the big ideas. Here, we are focused on representing numbers in different ways. Without explicitly talking about it yet, students are beginning to see how decimal numbers and fractions are connected through questions like “Represent one fraction and one decimal number in as many ways as you can. Which is bigger and how do you know?” They are already discovering that fractions and decimal numbers are closely connected, that there are ways we can represent both such as fraction circles and number lines, and that finding equivalent fractions is helpful when comparing and ordering. But most of all, I’m just excited to see kids engaged in Math, especially those who struggle. One simple change can sometimes make a bigger impact than trying to completely redesign the way we teach and learn.

How do you differentiate Math instruction for your students? What has worked well for you?