#1156 The Forced Apology

A young student does something wrong.
They’re told to apologize.
They do.

And then nothing changes…

There’s a lot wrong with this scenario.
The student upsets someone or something. Yes, that’s unfortunate but it happens. I like to think of these ‘oopses’ as potential for learning. Often the student is asked or told or expected to apologize and, usually, the student knows the easy way out – “I’m sorry…” 

The trouble is – in many cases – the student is not sorry. They want to get out of trouble quickly, go through the ‘sorry’ steps and get back to what they want to do. The greater injustice is that, oftentimes, the student’s undesirable behaviour does not change or is reinforced.

This winter a student from another class routinely stepped over the boundaries of school rules and general decorum. He was a high-flying prankster constantly pushing the envelope of acceptable behaviour. He’d been trained to keep playing his get out of jail “sorry” card. 

The last time he said ‘sorry’ with his big goofy grin and an expectation of absolution, I stopped. 

“I don’t think you are sorry,” came from my mouth. His smile faded with the recognition that his normal routine had hit a snag. He stood quietly, unsure what to say…

“If you were sorry you wouldn’t keep running and yelling in the halls between classes.” More silence…

“I would know you were sorry if you at least attempted to make a change.”

And I let him go…

That was the start of a slow change.

The next time I taught his class I met him at the door. I asked why I should let him in. “I could just give you your work. You could do it in the office… I don’t like it when your behaviour disrupts others. How do I know you’ve changed or are willing to change?”

That was the start of a gradual evolution. It required time and consistency and more energy than demanding ‘sorry.’ It required our relationship to grow.

The end result was better. But the cost was higher. 

Most people think teachers teach math or language or science, etc. They do, but the more important job is to develop the whole person. That takes more time and effort – often more effort than the teacher has time for.  

Don’t accept a meaningless apology. It’s the extra step that makes the difference to a student and a community.

#1155 Trees in the Classroom

Last fall, I carted six trees into my classroom. 

They fit nicely on the window ledge.

They also fit nicely into the curriculum:
• We wrote about the differences and similarities of the leaves.
• We compared the mathematical patterns and measured their sizes.
• We studied the science of trees as oxygen producers.
• We included them in art.
• We discussed the social impact of trees on neigbourhoods.
… And then we planted two trees as a lasting memory of the learning and gift to the school/neighbourhood.

Trees - curriculum links to language.
Trees in the Classroom

In the current state of our climate – more frequent floods, big storms and weather anomalies – bringing attention to the carbon capturing potential of trees at any grade level is a good thing.

I’d like to see trees planted as many places as possible. Schools and students are a great place to plant the seeds, metaphorically and literally. Growing trees in your class is possible and easy:
• Plant some apple seeds from a student’s lunch apples and see what happens.
• Contact groups like Ecology Ottawa and ask about their free seedling giveaways.
• Collect seeds in the fall and explore the process of seed germination (this can be challenging.) 

Trees for life!

Trees - curriculum connections
My tree nursery – to be planted in schools, parks and yards…

#1154 Learning Math

At the grocery store I recently paid for $92 worth of groceries. I asked for $60 cash back on my purchase. The cashier froze, paused and stammered “Ok, soooo…. How much will that be?” The bagger saved the day and helped with the math. 

I was shocked that 92+60 caused so much difficulty. What surprised me more over the next month was how often a cashier stumbled with similar, simple “mental math.”


Mental Math
The Ontario Ministry of Education defines mental math as: “Doing calculations in the mind, with little or no use of paper and pencil or calculator.”

How many math questions can you do quickly, in your head (NO calculators, please!) Leave your answers in the comments, below.

In practical ways, simple, mental math means almost instantly knowing the answer – in your head – to questions like 92+60. 
Or 12×8. 
Or 100-87.

Why is this important?
There are practical reasons. When you’re at the checkout it’s nice to verify that the cashier is giving the correct change, quickly, without the need of a calculator. Mistakes happen more often than I’d like to think.

In a bigger life context mastering mental math is useful to everyday tasks. 

I’m talking about figuring out how much paint to buy for a room that is 11 feet by 9 feet with 8 foot ceilings (320 square feet of wall space, not accounting for window or door or ceiling.)

… Or figuring out how much it will cost to take 8 kids to a birthday party movie at $8 each plus snack pack of $4.

In the classroom, mental math is crucial for higher level math. I’m not talking about 3rdyear university calculus. Word problems and bigger concepts will suffer if all the student’s mental energy revolves around simple math calculations. 

The National Research Council found that “The more automatically a procedure can be executed, the less mental effort is required. Since each person has a limited amount of mental effort that he or she can expend at any one time, more complex tasks can be done well only when some of the subtasks are automatic.”  (NRC, 2001)

What do we do to help our children?
I believe it is important for students to learn simple math by rote… so that the answer to 92 + 60 is automatic. They should learn simple math including times tables by memory.

How can students acquire this knowledge? It’s not fancy. Practice. 

Activity 1
In elementary classes I do short “Mad Mental Math” by placing 20 simple math questions around the room on “vertical, non permanent surfaces”. I encourage students to work quickly, support each other. There are no calculators allowed! It’s exciting, fun and involves all levels of math students.

Activity 2
I’ll also do a game-show style quiz where students answer simple math questions verbally or on paper. It’s lightning fast, a little crazy and fun.

For both activities, we go over the answers as a class and ask students to explain strategies they found useful to figure out the answers.

If young students automatically know simple mental math, bigger concepts come more easily…


• Laura Wheeler. nd. “Visibly random groups & Vertical non-permanent surfaces.” https://mslwheeler.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/visibly-random-groups-vertical-non-permanent-surfaces/

• National Research Council. (2001). “Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics.” Washington, DC: National Academies Press. (page 351) – sourced from “Focusing on the Fundamentals of Math: A TEACHER’S GUIDE,” below.

• Ontario Ministry of Education. (2018). “Focusing on the Fundamentals of Math: A TEACHER’S GUIDE.”http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/teachers/teacher_guide_math_en.pdf

#1153 Technology in the Classroom

This is an assignment for an “additional qualification” (AQ) course on Special Education through ETFO.

My philosophy
I love technology in education and for helping students with learning difficulties (… when it works intuitively, seamlessly and easily with other platforms / users and is used appropriately by teachers and students in the classroom.)

The qualifying statements added to the initial statement makes technology a challenging medium to manage.

technology in the classroom

Advantages of technology are amazing – especially for those with special needs. LDAO suggests many current ‘assistive technologies’ (AT) that are currently available including:
• screen reading softwarebenefiting those with dyslexia and who benefit from processing information through the ears instead of through the eyes.
• voice recognition softwareallows students to talk their words into the computer. This is beneficial to students who struggle with typing or pencil use
internet research– having a connected device opens a student to the world of information.

There are many challenges of tech in the classroom including obsolescence, compatibility, training roadblocks and misuse of technology.

One of the greatest challenges, in my opinion, is misuse of technology. Many students benefit from the tech access they are provided through their IEP. Tech assists with their writing, reading, research, etc. Sometimes, some students use the technology as a crutch and become unwilling to be without their tech, even when not specifically needed. The intended use can quickly get sidetracked by other tech/internet distractions if not monitored appropriately by teachers.

Another challenge of technology is that it can narrow our scope instead of broadening it. While teaching a science class recently a student sat sullenly and idol when she should have been researching answers. When I approached her she told me she couldn’t do ANYthing because she did not have access to a computer at that time. “How else could you find the answers?” “I NEED the internet.” I quickly pulled a class dictionary off the shelf and looked up Question 1’s topic – I had the answer for her in less than 2 minutes. The problem wasn’t that she needed the computer. She was the deer-in-the-headlights of technology – she didn’t look beyond the computer for options to complete her work.

Another challenge is the effectiveness of the technology. My first year of teaching I inherited a classroom with an (expensive) SmartBoard – an interactive projector screen that acted like a tablet. The only trouble was it didn’t work. After many support tickets, requests and visits (the problem was a hardware issue) it became functional near the end of the school year… I used alternative, more reliable technology for most of the year.

Understood.org offers 10 Qs to ask about adaptive tech to help keep the tech applicable to a student including portability, specificity to a child’s needs, simplicity…

bring your own devices
Bring your own devices – pros and cons…

Equity Issues
Good technology, used effectively expands and propels learning to a new level of possibilities and support. Life is not fair to some but technology can help. Equity does not mean that everyone gets the same. Equity suggests that everyone gets what they need to perform successfully. I need glasses to read effectively. That does not mean everyone should get a pair of glasses. Similarly, not everyone needs voice recognition software but there are some students that will succeed only with that technology. 

BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices) can be an equity issue. Some families are fortunate to be able to provide a student with a device for school use. That’s good news until there is a student who cannot afford to bring beneficial technology to support their success. School funded technology is an important step for everybody. The school board should provide for all who are documented as needing technology for success.

“Bring Your Own Device” is a growing idea in the classroom whereby students are encouraged to bring a device to school.

Critical ideas to ponder with respect to BYOD – sourced from the Peel link below:
• BYOD reduces the requirements of the board to provide tech learning tools.
• Collaboration potential through the internet.
• Learning extends beyond the classroom hours and space.
• BYOD allows higher technology into the classroom.
• Equity issues related to socio-economic ability for all families to provide BYOD.

Listen to more about how the Peel District School Board is embracing BYOD.
The benefit of students bringing their OWN technology include reducing the need for school boards to invest in tech and, often, technology brought from home can be more current than that purchased through the school.

My concern of a BYOD policy is the expectation that families provide their own devices. For some, this is achievable but for many this puts a financial stress and sets up potential “have / have not” stigma for students within a school I would prefer the school board provide ample technology for all.

My concerns have been outlined above:
• appropriate use of technology
• shortsighted “tech-only” mindset when other solutions are available/beneficial
• BYOD inequalities…

I love tech, when it works well. With appropriate funding, diligence and use, tech goes a long way to help many students perform to expectations and beyond.

For more info see the following:
Assistive Tech
Different technologies available
Access to tech
Affect of technology on socio-economic groups
Peel Board’s BYOD policy
Peel Board BYOD Parent Policy

#1152 Powerful Words

“You’re too fat.”
“Why would you want that?”
“Oh, come on. That’s so easy!”

Small words have lasting effects on brain development in youth and the “prevalence of anger, hostility and depression in adulthood.” (PsychologyToday.com)

Words affect outcomes. (Photo: OnePixel.com)

Developmental Roots
I’ve always been fascinated by the factors that turn people into who they are. There are enormously diverse factors – nature and nurture.

Our genes and predispositions are hard to change – propensity towards height, specific intelligences.

Environmental factors, of course, have a large impact on development – adequate shelter, nourishment affect the ability to grow and stresses on growth.

Social factors also have an enormous effect on the development of a person. Vygotsky built his socio-cultural theory of learning on the idea that we are products of the people that surround us.

Choosing Support
A good friend once told me “Surround yourself with supportive people.” I believe that is sage advice and will support a stronger, healthier person – and I do not mean physical strength.

Providing Support
Imagine growing up being told, regularly, by people you look up to (teachers, family, coaches) you’re too thin, fat, not good enough, disappointing. Direct words have a great impact but subtle insinuations, disapproving glances also have a lasting effect if repeated enough. Many will start to believe what they’re told. 

Imagine, instead of focusing on negatives, the same people sought to comment on positives:
• “You look good.”
• “I like that book you’ve chosen.”
• “You really did well with that jigsaw puzzle.”

Positive words support positive development. (Photo: OnePixel.com)

When I adopted my first dog in the early 1990’s I sought help to help me create an easy canine companion. I stumbled upon a book at the local library called “Training your dog positively.” It’s message was simple and applied so well to my philosophy in teaching: Acknowledge and address the shortfalls (simply/quickly) but regularly praise and promote the successes!

At school I hear and see the results of positive and negative support. Children that are offered more positives and told they will succeed generally do. Children that experience more negativity often struggle with confidence and success.

Two Options for Improving
There are two sides to the issue.
It would be lovely to just ask the world to praise and pursue positive support (while supporting challenges.) That means asking people (including you and me) to reflect and be aware of the impact of our words and actions on people. Less judgment. More positive support.
But that is a lofty goal.

Another option is to arm children with the skills to shield themselves from negativity and pursue positive role models – another challenging goal. I see children who withstand negative influences regularly. Their role models are doing the best they can… But we can encourage children to recognize their own worth and help them seek positive friends and influencers. “Surround yourself with suportive people…”

Listen, choose your words well, and smile.

#1150 The Hidden Power of Band-Aids

“17 yrs ago, I had little patience for a boy named Cedric. He was defiant and belligerent. He was what we called, “hard.” One day in my office, I asked him what his challenges in life were. He said, “I don’t have anyone to take care of me.” This is a moment I will never forget.” Danny Steele (@SteeleThoughts) 

Cedric needed a band-aid.

True power of a band-aid

Most teachers keep a pack of “band aids” close at hand. Little scrapes, scratches or boo-boos can send students in need of the healing power of a band-aid. The true healing goes beyond the scratch…

So often, I find students like Cedric need emotional support or caring. The application of a simple band-aid provides the initial caring and support sometimes missing in a student’s life.

I worked with a young student – “Peter” – who ‘trashed’ his class, twice, causing his main teacher to evacuate students.

What triggered his rage? With some digging we found the boy had a tough home life. His mom was gone. His life was unsettled and he craved attention, love and security – the lower layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Peter’s homeroom teacher was worried he was falling behind academically. However, he could not progress academically without developing a stronger base layer from which to grow.

Many people take a hard line with students like Peter (and Cedric.) “Conform, or else.” Their behaviour, however inappropriate, is often a cry for help. A hard line of consequences can add to the hidden challenges and trauma that lead to greater problems we sometimes see as tragic headlines in the news.

What is often needed is a “band-aid.” Someone to listen, teach coping skills and build resilience so the student will start climbing towards success.

With Peter, the school support team came together. We helped him develop the social skills and resilience he needed. When I first met him he clung to me physically – craving attention. As he developed new skills he started ignoring me. That’s a good sign – it means he was finding the attention, love and security in a more appropriate way. As he develops Maslow’s base layers he will be ready to learn traditional academics.

Provide the band-aid. Find the behaviour triggers. Support.

#1148 The Power of Classroom Music

I’m not an accomplished musician.
Or a drummer.
But my drum has the power to move people and change behaviour patterns in elementary classes..

It’s magic, almost.

cross curricular lesson

Drumming in the classroom for classroom management.

With a new group of students the drum is the one that does the talking. As students enter the classroom a simple drum-beat greets the students. And then there is silence. And repeat. Student intrigue kicks in. Students gather quickly. Someone risks clapping the beat in response. I smile. The drum beat repeats and more students join the beat in response.

The drum sets the direction. Everyone quickly engages.
It’s a lovely tool to help with transitions and attention.

As familiarity develops, I choose a student that follows expectations to take over the drumming transitions.

I have met few students that have not been excited about the opportunlity of drumming. The drum turns into a powerful tool that helps shape student behaviour and experience.

I’m still a novice drummer but the music it performs is magical.

The Ontario College of Teachers found out about my drumming and included a segment in their journal “Professionally Speaking.” See page 32/33.

#1147 Local Superheroes in the Classroom

I can’t keep up with my son when it comes to Superheroes. He corrects me when I get my Justice League characters mixed up. But I often ask my son and my students to dig deeper about “real” superheroes and real superpowers…

Real superheroes?
Yep, no x-ray vision, supersonic strength or flight capabilities.
Just the ability and courage to help people when faced with adversity.

How about Dr. Najma Ahmed,Toronto emergency room doctor, who pieces people back together.

Or firefighters who routinely support people in trouble?

Or the person who phoned to say they found your wallet at the coffee shop?

Real superheroes are everywhere and they deserve some recognition!

classroom project

Real Superheroes are everywhere!

Real Superhero Project
In the classroom I like to do a unit or project exploring real superheroes. We start with a read-aloud and progressing towards the students discussing and defining what makes a superhero. As a culminating task, students seek out and report on real life superheroes in their communities.

The project is easily cross curricular – touching on literacy, social studies, visual art and can include math and science on some level. Students can present their project in many formats – written, spoken, through a dramatic presentation or visual media.

Personal Superpowers
A related or separate unit can be on superpowers. Starting similarly as the superhero project, the class relates to traditional superheroes to recognize their superpowers. Through inquiry, group or independent study, students discuss and define the idea of a superpower. As a culminating task, students present their own superpowers or recognize superpowers they admire in someone else.

What I love about this project is the emphasis on young people recognizing what they are good at (their own superpower!) Everyone is good at SOMEthing. Some students just need some help to recognize and accept their excellence.

So, who is YOUR local superhero? What is your superpower? Or a superpower you admire in someone else?

#1144 Too Safe?

Can we be too safe?” a parent asked me after learning about our day’s adventure.

We had hiked a long looping trail. During snack the children realized we were high on a ridge just above our starting point. They wanted to take the short, steep direct route back to the start.

Risky play?

What came out of my mouth was the uncertainty about the potential dragons in their caves and the possibility of boiling pits of lava.

What was in my head was the steep, & rocky descent with snow, ice and unknown cliffs as well as my unfamiliarity with that part of the forest. Also, I was well aware I was solo with children under 12 years of age.

The students could guess there were likely no dragons and lava. But while discussing the real risks they started to understand the challenges of the unknown descent. I promised I would investigate the steep forest in the week ahead… and we hiked the long, safe way down.

After more solo exploration during the week I was satisfied we could descend safely as a group. The next week we retraced our uphill expedition and discussed how we could descend safely. We were practicing “risky play.”

Different groups need different levels of support to explore safety and risk. But, if asked to analyze risk, people are usually very capable to assess what is safe for them.

We had a good experience. We weighed the risks and found ways to minimize the hazards. The children practiced the valuable skill of testing their perception and reality of safety.

Regulating Risk
I often see or hear of students denied experiences that offer the ability to develop their self-regulating sense of safety. Managed scenarios can help build self preservation, self awareness and a better ability to stay safe in life.

When I teach at Forest School we talk a lot about risk and safety…
“Can we climb that tree?”
“What do you think?…”

We talk about hazards, risks and what is reasonable. Students usually come to a reasonable conclusion with support and guidance. As we explore more, students get better at assessing risk and regulating their own limits:
“Can I go higher?”
“What do you think?”
“I think this is high enough for me…”

Risk Assessments and Risk Management

Telling vs Learning
A couple of years ago, I picked up my own son from school on our bikes on a cool spring afternoon. I asked him to put on his coat. He told me he didn’t need one. He needed a coat to stay warm. But I said “Ok.” We started riding. He lasted less than a minute before stopping because he was cold. He decided to put on his coat…

Instead of being told he needed his coat, he learned he needed his coat.
Big difference. It’s called experiential education.

Can we, as parents, teachers, educators be too safe?
Hmm. We can teach risk assessment, regulation and safety with careful planning and management of “risky play.”

#1143 Teacher Directed vs. Student Directed Learning – Which is Better?

Recently, I observed a student doing nothing, quietly, in a classroom. I approached to help them clarify, support or initiate their work. To me, it was clear what was going on.  They were BORED.

I confirmed my suspicions through a direct question. I was correct. At this point urging them to complete the assignment does little to help them learn.

Teleport to a different environment where children are playing* on their own terms: Learning happens by default because they’re engaged in something that interests them. They’re experimenting. They’re trying new things and they’re learning.

Learner led learning

* I use the term “playing” with trepidation. Many consider playing to be the opposite of learning: “learning is serious business. Play is frivolous…”  Two thinkers in education – Vygotsky and Sobel suggest play grounds learning.

Vygotsky suggests children learn significantly through social interactions. Most commonly, social interaction for children includes play.

David Sobel suggests there are seven kinds or motifs of play. Like Vygotsky, Sobel places much emphasis on significant learning through play.

Anecdotes from prominent people also suggest the validity of play as a conduit to learning:

In ‘Boy‘ his childhood memoir Roald Dahl confesses of only two memories from his formative kindergarten learning days.  “I can remember oh so vividly how the two of us used to go racing at enormous tricycle speeds down the middle of the road and then, most glorious of all, when we came to a corner, we would lean to one side and take it on two wheels.”

His description is of play but learning underlies the experience: balance, fine motor control, social skills, risk analysis.

Steve Nash, NBA superstar and multiple time MVP said “I’ve worked very few days of my life.

Again, through persistent play Nash became incredibly talented and successful at his niche skill – basketball.

I play, teach and learn one day a week at Forest School. Through recent observations of students’ play with rope I experimented with learner led and teacher led learning.

I often have rope in my Forest School pack – it’s a versatile and practical tool that has many uses. A student became interested in using the rope to help her get up a tree. After some initial student investigations she started asking about pulleys. I developed two scenarios – a teacher directed “lesson” about the benefits of pulleys and some unstructured rope/pulley play time – for the students. I observed and learned.

The “Lesson” (ie Teacher Directed)
To demonstrate the benefits of pullies and rope I set up a “three-to-one” and “one-to-one” pulley system. I suggested students haul a weighted toboggan to experience the differences in pulley systems. Students followed the directions and successfully completed the challenge. There was no enthusiasm and little further exploration occurred.

Teacher directed lesson

The “Play” (ie Student Directed)
I dismantled the climbing equipment and left it for the students to investigate as they wished. Slowly, the real learning began. The “pulley student” picked up some equipment and started experimenting (playing) with building her own system. She built, with assistance, an elevator contraption to haul her friend up a tree.

Another time students initiated play with toboggans and the climbing equipment. They attached ropes to toboggans and started playing. From an educational perspective I observed practical use physics, forces, ropes and social problem solving skills being learnt with far more enthusiasm than my lesson. The students also spent far more time with their self directed “play” than with my lesson.

Student directed learning

Observing these different learning scenarios (teacher vs student led) confirmed the power of play. The teacher directed scenario (3:1 & 1:1 pulley toboggan) had value but students quickly lost interest. The other two, student led scenarios captivated students for significantly more time. Because of play their interest was sustained. Greater and more significant learning happened.

I see both pedagogical platforms – teacher directed and learner led / play based scenarios – have value.

Teacher directed environments allow students to be able to replicate information deemed important by others. However, the risk and possibility of limited retention, disengaged students, and increased misbehaviours is much higher in a traditional teacher led scenario.

Student directed play and learning increases engagement, flexible directions and social development of ideas.The risk of missing specific elements of a curriculum expectation is easily possible if the student’s interest veers away from the mandated curriculum material.

There is great potential for enormous learning if the learner led model is supported by  arms-length support from the teacher to provide connections and culminating summation of concepts. The interest, intrigue and final outcome can be so much more significant if play is initiated and followed through by the students.

My reflection and growth in education leads me to more questions:
• I ponder the correct balance of learner led and teacher/school board/ministry directed curriculum.
• Is there a danger of too much student directed learning?
• Will students miss important, foundational learning – base math, elements of literacy – because individual students lack interest?
• Or will they naturally find a need for a rounded education on their own?
• How much influence should the teacher project onto the learning canvas of the students?