Thursday, December 26, 2013

Variety in the Classroom Benefits All Learners!

There is the old saying 'variety is the spice of life' to consider when running an inquiry based classroom.  True.  But is it enough to provide variety without a focused goal?  I think this leads to confusion and a sense of disjointed, scattershot teaching.  Better to have a clear focus and to provide learning opportunities that reflect an overall theme.  I can provide a couple of examples from my own class to support this idea and which will highlight the importance of maintaining a certain rigour to the development of curriculum goals.

First, let me tell you about our most recent exploration.  We've been working on a project called Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast.  The kids came up with the guiding question, 'What's it like to live in other parts of Canada?'  This was just about perfect: open-ended enough to allow true inquiry, focussed enough to provide a clear framework for the work ahead.  Now, the creative and challenging part is to design tasks that will stay within the guiding spirit of the question, but not be too constricting.  We feel we really nailed this one with the following activities:

1.  Newscasts. (iMovie and Photo Booth) The kids wrote, recorded and presented a beautiful series of newscasts using iMovie.  They used the news from the Canadian region they were studying to explore current events, climate, and culture.  Photo Booth allows for the creation of endless backdrops and background videos using the effects tab.  The 'newscasters' can appear in the middle of a typhoon or in some exotic locate.

One section of a newscast

2.  Tellagami Weather Reports.  The students strung together 30 second Tellagami (you have to check this app out for your class.  It's brilliant) avatar clips to explore weather phenomena from their region. Absolutely hilarious, highly creative and the end product is so polished, it's perfect.  Script writing and using two apps (Tellagami and iMovie) to create a short avatar-based film is pretty rich stuff. Wonderful to share with the group, click here!

3.  Tourism brochures.  The students loved creating travel brochures for their region using the Pages templates.  Any word processor can be used and the students love the challenge of making a content-rich professional looking publication.

4. Stop Action Claymation.  This was a huge hit.  The students had to think of special recreation or occupation activities going on in their region and create a stop action movie.  It was a blast to see how creative they were in depicting all kinds of regional quirks.  We used the simplest app I could find, called Stop Animator. It's free on the App Store and couldn't be any easier to use.  Once again, the students can string their films together to make a whole-class movie.  What an amazingly fun and truly creative task, click here!

5. Google Earth Tour Builder.  This new offering from Google is in beta form, apparently, but to me it's ready for prime time.  It was a very simple task to show the students how to add pictures and text for the various locations they were exploring.  Once imported, the material uses Google Earth as the guide to take everyone on a virtual tour of the area.  This is very rich in content and allows for refined research and editing.

6.  iMovie.  The kids love making their own movies and are always intrigued by the process of assembling material from a wide variety of sources.  The goal was to take images from their region (hundreds in some groups' presentation) and overlay music and voiceover to create a true exploration of their region, highlighting important geographical features.

This exploration hit all the right notes. At the end of each work day, we sat back and watched some truly amazing displays which were both rich in content and creativity.  The kids absolutely loved it. In my next blog, I'll discuss what happens when things don't go so well.

This post was written by my colleague Pete Douglas. You can find the original post on our website.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why Teach Concepts of Disciplinary Thinking?

The 2013 Ontario Revised Social Studies/History & Geography (SS/HG) document has a list of tools and strategies (p.7) that encourage teachers to shift how they might teach SS/HG.   The concepts of disciplinary thinking is incorporated into this curriculum and by applying the concepts, we give students' a way to learn and engage in the material presented.  It encourages them to think critically about history and challenges them to rethink the past, present and future. "... it is crucial that students not simply learn various facts but that they acquire the ability to think and to process content in ways best suited to each subject" (p.12).  By moving away from memorizing facts, teachers will need to plan and promote students' inquiry to explore issues and deepen their understanding. Teaching historical thinking and pursuing challenging content knowledge will develop students' ability to "do" SS/HG. 

Getting ready to "do" Social Studies

Thing we know (we think)

Disciplinary Thinking will help students organize and understand knowledge in a meaningful way. The following is a chart from the SS/HG curriculum, it is included in the front matter of the document. (p.13)

So how and why do you teach concepts of disciplinary thinking in your SS/HG classroom? 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Combined Grades

We recently had the opportunity to plan and work together with the new revised Social Studies/History and Geography Curriculum document. One of the activities at the Ministry of Education roll-out was to plan for combined grade lessons. We are working with a grade 4/5 split and the new document allows for easy planning for combined grades. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Workshop Presentation 2013

Pete and I enjoyed sharing our work on inquiry-based teaching at a conference in Toronto. Click here to view the slideshow we shared with participants. We had over 80 participants but managed to make it a hands-on, and engaging workshop. It's fun to share our learning about teaching with the inquiry approach!

 Grade 4/5 Classroom

Monday, October 14, 2013

Let's Chat!

We're using #ontsshg hashtag on twitter to discuss the 2013 revised 'Social Studies/History & Geography' curriculum document for Ontario. Please join us every Thursday night at 9:00 to 10:00 (EST), to chat about disciplinary thinking, the inquiry process, ideas, lessons and much more.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Natural Curiosity!

The following resource is worth investigating! 

"Natural Curiosity: A Resource for Teachers" - Building Children's Understanding of the World through Environmental Inquiry - From University of Toronto, The Laboratory School at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study - OISE.

This resource can be uploaded at and it's free!  It is worth taking the time to take a look at it. Website shares videos and inspirational stories...enjoy!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Goals of SSHG - Let's Have a Conversation

The  previous post "Let's Have a Conversation," looked at the vision of the 2013 New Revised Social Studies, History and Geography. The vision statement lists what it is hoping this document will achieve. The goals help students realize the vision as they:

  • develop the ability to use the 'concepts of disciplinary thinking" to investigate issues, events, and developments;
  • develop the ability to determine and apply appropriate criteria to evaluate information and evidence to make judgement;
  • develop skills and personal attributes that are needed for discipline-specific inquiry and that can be transferred to other areas of life;
  • build collaborative and cooperative working relationships;
  • use appropriate technology as a tool to help them gather and analyse information, solve problems, and communicate.  (p. 6 - New Revised Social Studies, History and Geography)
How do educators help students achieve these goals in SSHG? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New SSHG - Let's Have a Conversation!

In June 2013, the Ontario Ministry of Education released the New Revised Social Studies, History and Geography. Teachers across the province will receive their copies in September. However, September 2014 will be mandatory implementation. This will allow time for teachers to explore and learn about the tools and strategies to help achieve the vision of this program.


"The social studies, history, geography, and Canadian and World studies programs will enable students to become responsible, active citizens within the diverse communities to which they belong. As, well as becoming critically thoughtful and informed citizens who value an inclusive society, students will have the skills they need to solve problems and communicate ideas and decisions about significant developments, events, and issues." Ontario's New Revised Social Studies, History and Geography - Ministry of Education

What does this vision statement mean to you? Stay tuned as we continue this conversation!


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Writing in Kindergarten

Inquiry question: What does writing look like in a play-based kindergarten classroom?

This is a question that many Kindergarten teachers struggle with! In a play-based classroom, finding evidence of writing, needs to be planned and organized. What does writing look like? This post will look at; the instructional approaches to writing, stages of the writing development and assessment, planning and classroom organization for writing.

Key Instructional Approaches to Writing

It is important that teachers and students write daily in kindergarten.  As stated in the Ontario A Guide to Effective Instruction in Writing, there are 5 approaches to writing that need to be considered when planning for writing - modelled, shared, interactive, guided and independent writing. (pg 1.4)

1.     Modelled writing lessons:  Teacher writes daily (5 minute lessons), providing varied writing. Daily writing helps encourage students to understand that stories matter and helps them make a connection between oral language and written word.  In my experience, sharing my personal stories about my life, my kids, my pets, help children tell their own stories. Who doesn’t want to talk about their cat playing with a live mouse! Note- the lesson can be whole group, small group or one-to-one.
2.     & 3.  Shared/Interactive writing lessons: Allows for children to actively engage in the writing process. They enjoy taking the marker “pen” to write on the chart paper and share what they know. Note- the lesson can be whole group, small group.
4.     Guided writing lessons:  are temporary and in kindergarten will most likely be one-to-one.  You might notice that a student needs immediate guidance about strategies and you can target that learning.
5.     Independent writing: is done throughout the day in play/learning centres.

Writing by the teacher and the students occurs daily in a Kindergarten classroom with different approaches. Early writers need to observe teachers and friends writing in authentic and well-supported ways.

Stages of Development & Assessment

Students move through various stages of writing at various rates. It’s important that teachers understand the stages of the writing in order to plan and assess where their students are, on the development scale. Teachers need to observe and record student’s movement through these stages. Recording the date (students can use a date stamp) and keeping samples of their work to see the growth of a child’s written work is valuable information. Building a writing portfolio is a great way to share students’ progress with families.

Scribbling is writing! 
When working in the kindergarten classroom, I had to explain that scribbling is writing, to students and to adults alike. I also, encouraged the adults, not write on students’ work. I would ask the student to tell me about their story and if I wanted to remember it, I would record it on a post-it note. We also had a list of prompts and questions to ask our writers. For example, “tell me about your picture’ or  “I notice…” We celebrate all stories, including the scribbles!

You can check out the following link for examples of the different stages of writing. We have the stages posted in every primary classroom, which is very similar to the one listed from the website (see below) because it helps to remind everyone involved about the stages of writing.

Once our students are writing independently then we need to observe, record, and conference with each student to help move them along.  "Although conferences appear to be warm, informal conversations, they are in fact highly principled teaching interactions, carefully designed to move writers along learning pathways." -Lucy Calkins

After a block of play/learning time, it’s important to share the writing. Regie Routman talks about whole-class sharing, but you can also have partner sharing.   “I never skip whole-class share in kindergarten…Students just learning to write need and benefit from having their efforts celebrated.” (P. 207 Regie Routman) I usually had a schedule for children to share their writing on a given day, with the whole group. Then the rest of the class participated in partner sharing, taking turns to listen to each other’s stories.

Planning and Organizing a Classroom for Writing

Observing the classroom and where children are in the stages of development will guide the mini-lessons for whole-group, small-group or individuals. These mini-lessons lessons allow for opportunities to introduce, assess, and teach writing concepts.  Planning for writing needs to be intentional and authentic. Multiple opportunities for students to work independently needs to occur daily, so what does that look like? Where is the independent writing? Each of the centres/play/learning areas needs to be carefully organized for writing. Providing multiple opportunities for the Kindergarten team to interact and work with students one-to-one or small group throughout play/learning centres day is vital to a child’s success in writing/learning.

Play/Learning Centre
Materials to Include
Possible Prompts
Writing Centre
- wide variety of paper
-wide variety of writing utensils
- examples of student’s work
-word cards (such as children’s names or words related to theme)
-book binding material – stapler, hole punch
-magnetic letters
-writing folders
-we talked about writing letters in whole group today, would you like to write a letter to someone?
Reading /Library Centre
-paper and pencils
-class-made or individually made student books
-books with variety of formats and content
-I notice in that book you’re reading, that the character writes a letter. Would you like to write a letter to someone?
Science Centre
-paper and pencils
-post-it notes
-student made work
-writing pertaining to ‘watching our tadpoles grow’
- Our tadpoles are growing! How can we document that to be sure?
-I took a photo of you looking at the tadpoles. Let’s make them into a book with writing about what you notice
Block Centre
-paper and pencils
-post-it notes
-I noticed you made a road! There are some writing materials if you’d like to make signs with it.
Math Centre
-paper and pencils
-examples of students work
-How can we make that into a story problem? Let’s write it down.

From: Writing Instruction in Pre-Kindergarten Classrooms: Methods, Considerations, and Practices. Capstone Experience, Sarah Shufelt, Peabody College of Vanderbilt University

In Conclusion

If you plan, organize, provide mini-lessons and tools for writing at the play/learning centres in a play-based kindergarten classroom, you will observe writing everywhere! 

“Young children learn the most important things not by being told but by constructing knowledge

for themselves in interaction with the physical world and other children – and the way they do this

is by playing.” (The Play’s the Thing) 

Bibliography & References

A Guide to Effective Instruction in Writing – Kindergarten to Grade 3- Ontario Education – Excellence for All – 2005

Calkins, Lucy. Units of Study for Primary Writing (K-2). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jones, Elizabeth & Reynolds, Gretchen. 2011. The Play’s the Thing: Teacher’s Roles in Children’s Play. Teachers College Press

Routman, Regie. 2005. Writing Essentials. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Shufelt, Sarah. Capstone Experience. Writing Instruction in Pre-Kindergarten Classrooms: Methods, Considerations, and Practices. Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.

Stages of Writing -

The above post was written for an AQ Kindergarten course! 



Sunday, May 26, 2013

Celebrating Reading!

Bonnie, Scott Cooper & Donna White

For the past couple of years, our school has been involved in reading books that have been picked by Ontario Library Association (OLA).  Our volunteer extraordinaire, Donna White, ensures that our school purchases the books that have been nominated for the school year.  Thanks to parent council and a supportive principal every class has a selection of new books to read.

Students read the books that are selected for their age group, track their reading and respond to the text in a variety of ways. Donna visits each classroom to conference one on one with each student about the book they've read. She collects their comments and will post them on our bulletin board.  In May, our students have an opportunity to vote for their favourite Canadian book. We compare our selection of winners with "The Forest of Reading Award Program" and announce our results, along with OLA choices at our year end celebration.

This year, Donna organized our celebration for the entire school with guests from the Public Library. Bonnie took time to announce the summer programs at the library but most importantly made the announcement of the book winners that we've been anxiously waiting for. Scott works at the library but he is also a musician! He performed songs he wrote for some of the books nominated and entertained us with his music. Our students love him! We ended our celebration day with a treat.

We had fun!  And most to read at our school!

How do you celebrate reading at your school?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Inquiry-based teaching is not daunting. Just do it!

Pete (my partner in crime) wrote a great blog post on our website - Inquiry-based about our PKE project and our work with the inquiry approach to teaching and learning. I'm publishing it here, in the hopes that followers of this blog will also follow our work on our website. Enjoy!

 Some of the constant comments we hear after a workshop are that the teachers love the techniques, can't believe how engaged their kids were, and how motivated the students were to complete the explorations.  Unfortunately, close on the heels of these positive comments is a tepid suggestion that 'maybe I'll try it next year when I have more time'.  The truth is, it's not difficult to make the change from a coverage approach to an inquiry approach. 

Start off small.  Think of some really neat topic in your curriculum that you enjoy teaching.  Ask your class to create a list of questions that they have always wondered about the topic, or ask them to create a mind-map of ideas or questions they associate with the topic.  Then, ask them to think of ways you might explore together.  You, the teacher, will be learning along with them.  (As an aside, I can honestly say that in my classroom we have now tipped the balance:  the students end up teaching me more than I teach them on new explorations.  After all, there are 27 of them researching and writing, and only one of me.) 

Gather some simple materials to get started.  Show a few videos, read a few books together, or take a field trip to build some excitement and background knowledge.  This gives you lots of time to determine what mini-lessons you might want to include (we are responsible for a curriculum, after all).  Now the real fun begins.

Set up some teams or groups in your room and give them fun names.  Mix and match like crazy and don't worry about setting up just the right combination.  The students will all bring something to the table that is going to build a satisfying whole.  Create a rotation of activities that the group can rotate through and make sure of one vitally important element:  every group presents their work to the class.  The students will feel the excitement of preparing to teach their peers and rise to the challenge, I guarantee it.  They may stumble and hesitate, but end result will be that their work has an audience, is appreciated, and is the stepping stone for greater success down the line. 

See, it's not that hard.  Get started today!

Pete Douglas

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Inquiry For Teachers and Students

Our experience with the "Provincial Knowledge Exchange" (PKE) program funded by the Ontario Ministry of Education and supported by our board has been very rewarding. This unique Professional Development (PD) opportunity for teachers has provided time for us to work with them in their classroom and explore the 'Inquiry Approach' to teaching.

Pete and I continue to follow a template for our "Day of Inquiry" with teachers and students:

1. Introduce the theme and topic for the day by sharing a "Learn 360" movie clip and a mentor text. This step helps students to develop background knowledge and gives us information about their understanding of the theme. 

2. We model questioning and record our learning as a group on chart paper. We also start a vocabulary list that the teacher can continue working on when we leave. 


3. Students in groups of 5 or 6 are given a bucket with informational text for research, chart paper and post-it notes to record their questions and new learning.

4. Once students have a list of questions and new learning, each group shares their information to the class.
5. Next,  each group is given an opportunity to explore and they are provided with hands on activities. We work on a station rotation,  giving each group a chance to move from one station to the next.

6. During the station exploration, teachers help students to think critically and we guide questions that promote curiosity and wonder.

7. Finally, each group shares their learning and presents to the class. In the clip below, students use the iPad to take pictures of information they learn. Then, they transfer the information to the Explain Everything App to create a slide/audio presentation.
Frogs by Justin
Special thanks to  
Danielle Parent - our Primary Level partner and  
Judith Gatt - our Principal.
We appreciate your support!

Do you have questions about the inquiry approach to teaching?
What do you think about this unique PD opportunity for teachers?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Collaborating and Learning

Our school began using the Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention System (LLI) in the winter of 2011. It's an early intervention system for small groups that we purchased to supplement our literacy program and to support our lowest achieving students in the early grades. It has been very successful for student learning and unexpectedly, it has been a great source of Professional Development for our teachers.

Through creative planning with a supportive principal, we were able to collaborate and learn all about the LLI system as a team. We were given time to meet twice monthly to discuss lessons, students and our own learning. We also collaborated with our sister school and started a professional book club using "When Readers Struggle - Teaching That Works" by Gay Su Pinnell & Irene Fountas to expand our knowledge and understanding of how children learn to read.

Not only has this system been successful in supporting our lowest achieving students but the material and resources provided by this program gave teachers a solid knowledge and understanding of what an effective guided reading lesson looks like in a classroom. The lessons in the program provide teachers with powerful, daily, small-group instruction that they were able to put into practice and embed into their classroom literacy instruction. This process helped to enhance effective literacy practices at our school. 

Have you found unexpected PD opportunities in your school? Please share!