#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.

#1151 The Active Classroom

Overheard at my son’s school:
Parent: “How’s my child doing sitting still in your class?”
Teacher: “I don’t know. We don’t sit still for very long.”

That was music to my ears. I don’t sit still well. I took this brief excerpt to heart when it comes to developing my teaching.

Gardner’s Intelligences
Howard Gardner hypothesized there are many different intelligences reflected in people from math/logical, verbal/linguistic and bodily kinaesthetic perspectives. In the article above it is suggested that “Providing students with multiple ways to access content improves learning.” (Hattie, 2011) Sitting still at a desk is just one of many ways to access learning.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
UDL looks at ways to improve student learning by offering flexible options to support student success. Options include alternative assessment, flexible workspaces and regular feedback. One common UDL phrase is “Necessary for some, useful for all…”

Active options in and beyond the classroom stimulate success in students who struggle sitting still and can benefit all students in the class.

Classroom Options
I use “vertical, non-permanent work spaces” (white boards) all over the class to get students working together sharing, problem solving and brainstorming. We go outside to explore science and math in the real world. I incorporate drumming in transition times.

The Art of Sitting Still
While I am an active learner I benefit from developing the ability to sit quietly with my mind. And I see the value for all kids. So, while I work to keep the class moving I also build in quiet time where we practice sitting still to accomplish tasks.

Sometimes that is disguised as trying to beat our own world record for independent silent reading – as in how long can the class be engaged in reading without developing wiggly bums or chatty mouths. Or a quiet, meditation exercise like the 60 Second Fix after recess or DPA (daily physical activity.)

School is traditionally designed for quiet, diligent worker bees. That works well if you or your child is a quiet, diligent worker bee. More and more I am seeing more UDL and active options in classrooms – bike desks, Forest School inspired outdoor learning, flexible work stations…

That’s moving in the right direction!

#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.

#1149 Hidden Challenges

• “I’M GOING HOME…” and he stormed out of class.
It was the end of the day – unexpected behaviour for a young student in class.

• The young student was struggling with reading. He had support from home and school. Everything else seemed to be tracking well. Parents had had his eyes checked a year before.

• A young student was (often) found crying in the bathroom at recess. Anxiety, awkwardness were presented but no reasons could be found for the distress.

These three real scenarios perplexed parents, teachers and students themselves. What was causing the behaviour or performance? Often, there is no obvious explanation. It takes a team of people (teachers, support staff, parents, students) to find a solution to challenges.

Hidden Challenges
Hidden challenges are often at the root of unwanted behaviours or performance but cannot be detected easily on the surface.

Hidden challenges can obscure the cause of a predicament. Sometimes the student is an expert at hiding details that cause them distress. Why hide information? Embarrassment, fear or lack of understanding can cause people to obscure information.

Hidden challenges can include ailments that are not visible or obvious (physical, mental or emotional), societal pressures, personal or relationship distress, economic or cultural factors. All can consume the person and alter behaviour without any outward signs.

Listen to the student, parents, other teachers, support staff. There will be clues.
Observe routines. Changes can shed light on changes in behaviour or performance.
Keep notes of anything unusual or out of the ordinary.
Seek help
Ask for support from others who may have connections.
A big part of a teacher’s job is to find solutions… part teacher, part detective.

What really happened?
Scenario number three above describes a 12 year old boy who slowly developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – he was tormented by his own thoughts and fears of what might happen if he did not act in a certain way.

At its worst he was crippled and unable to perform on tests or active play. From the outside there was no obvious trauma or cause. His parents and teachers were baffled.

That 12 year old boy was me, a long time ago. With proper detective work and support I was diagnosed and received help to overcome the OCD and related anxiety I developed when I was in Grade 7.

Under stress, I still feel the effects of OCD and anxiety. I (usually) have the tools to manage the symptoms reasonably but I’m also good at hiding the observable behaviours that used to grind my life to a halt.

The experience has also helped me recognize clues when I encounter puzzling behaviour from students with hidden challenges.


#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?

#1146 Secret Learning

Don’t tell them they’re learning.
But keep up whatever keeps students excited.

A Finnish teacher describes her kinder class’ “secret” learning as they learn early math and literacy through very non traditional activities such as stomping puddles. I’ve seen children gleefully learning traditional material in puddles, mud and snow with full engagement. If they are enjoying their activities, they will be learning.

Before modern school, people supported their life through trades, skills or professions for which they had aptitudes. They learned what they liked to do or where they had skills. And the learning was not a chore. In essence they were experiencing secret learning – following their passions or skill sets…

And so secret learning can support many modern students – challenged or traditional. Allow the student to learn through their passions and the learning becomes easier…


What learning expectations relate to frogs?
Photo courtesy https://pixabay.com

What early learning expectations relate to frogs?
• Math – Early numeracy: Count the digits (fingers/toes).
• Language – Vocabulary: Describe how the frog feels.
• Science – Habitats / Life.

For more advanced learners more complex passions can draw out their learning.

The biggest challenge of “secret” learning? Time and resources to connect with students…