Who Among Us Values Perseverance?

I live in a drafty, old, character-filled house.  I love my house with it’s lacquered wood doors and mutton bar windows.  Somewhere in 1928 the Davidson’s moved from Saskatchewan to Delta with the promise of owning a beautiful chicken farm.  They bought 10 acres and built the house that I now livIMG_1505e in with my family.  I’m sure that Mrs. Davidson must have loved to garden.  From the old pictures I can see row upon row of vegetable gardens, vines and plants thriving in the large yard.  She obviously wasn’t strictly into planting to feed her family because there are remnants of several ornamental plants around the yard that pop up in the funniest places.

I have snowdrops in a circle beside the driveway where there once must have been a tree. There’s a plant with sweet yellow flowers and velvety leaves that peeked through the soil by my garage a few summers ago after I had removed the sod and added some mulch to create a flower bed.  One of my favourite plants that has managed to survive the ninety years is this amazing 15 foot tall and about 10 feet around rhododendron.  (If you look closely in the above picture you can see the rhododendron’s stalk and leaves just to the left of the stairs.)

Every year around this time it produces these massive, bright pink blooms. I love this plant not just for its blooms or it’s colossal size, but for it’s tenacity.  You see somewhere between 1928 and 1991 when I bought the house someone spliced the rhododendron with another less grand purple rhododendron.  My pink rhodo with it’s glorious blooms, large, light green leaves and gnarled old branches is slowly being enveloped.

The purple rhodo seems to be a hardier, maybe because of youth, plant and several years ago began to grow around the pink.  It wasn’t that noticeable until last year when the rhododendrons bloomed.  The back of the plant was always filled with purple blooms, but last year the purple overtook the pink in the front.IMG_1504

If I could, I would go back in history and change what happened to my pink rhodo.  I would defend the rhodo’s right to persevere through whatever difficult times it might have had.  I would encourage the gardener-of-the-time to value it for its pale green leaves that curl in the heat of the summer and its majestic blooms that all too quickly lose their colour, fading from dark pink to almost white.

Recently, I have felt like the pink rhododendron spliced together with a system that values grades above tenacity; percentages above perseverance.  I want to continue my education, but it appears as if history is in control of my choices.

I completed an amazingly engaging two year program in graduate studies last year.  The program has had a huge impact on the way I practice teaching and I realized how much I love learning.  I decided that I would apply for the third and final year.  Two days ago I was told that I need to appeal to the Dean because my GPA from my undergrad degree from 1988 does not meet one element of the university’s criteria for acceptance.

I persevered through school, elementary, high school and my undergrad.  I learned, though I never felt as if I was valued and knew that the majority of my written work was a C+ at best.  I failed high school the first go round and chose to attend night school.  I put myself through university despite the challenges of working two jobs and moving from my home at sixteen.

I am the pink rhododendron.  I am trying to reach out and move beyond the grades and percentages.  I no longer want to be smothered by the system that tells me I am C+, which isn’t good enough, or that I have little value because, like my rhodo, I pale in comparison to others.  I am so much more than how others choose to define me.



Understanding Your Learning Strengths

One quick thing to share, I had my group of intermediate girls working on research projects this morning.  I love that they can articulate in what they learn best.  I would like to take a little credit for this as I have opened the door for them to choose from many different ways to set up their learning environments.

Girls who IMG_1499know that they work best when they have music or white noise to drown out any surrounding distractions (App:  WhiteNoise)





And a girl who knows that when she does her research she understands the written word better when she can transfer the text over to Kurzweil and listen to it as she reads along.


Writing Rubrics Some More

Erin and I repeated the exemplars lesson with the students. Before we sent them off into groups I wanted some feedback from the students.  I asked, “What dGroup Discussionsid you like about yesterday’s activity and is there something that you would change if you could?”

I liked that we got to work in groups.  I wish we could have agreed.

I just loved the comment about wanting to agree, because my favourite part of the lesson came when I realized that there was no clear agreement on which story was Yucky and which was Plain and I said so to the students.  And for the students with a penchant for debating (some-but not me- might say arguing) their eyes lit up.

Debate and Defend Opinion

I Liked when we got to read someone else’s story.  I wish we could start writing our own stories.

Food for thought, I wonder if we are slowing down the progression of this too much for those students who grasp ideas quickly.  How else might we organise these lessons to allow for sufficient practice and experience for students who need that practice but also deliver it at a pace that keeps the interest of those at the faster end of the learning scale?

One final thought,  the day before some students were absent and missed, what I think the students felt was a very engaging and exciting lesson. When we did the second lesson yesterday it was day two so there was very little discussion about jobs when working in groups, people’s responsibilities, or what it means to say that everyone has a voice.

One of those students who was absent for the first lesson (and maybe the magic) was definitely disengaged from the small group work.  By the time we got to the large group sharing I had totally lost him to his pencil box and the fun of attaching felts to his clothing (quite an inspiring image, I know). So…Was he disengaged because he missed an engaging introduction to the lesson the day before? In which case…Yikes!  Kids are sick all the time and miss school.  Or…Was he disengaged because he’s mostly disengaged during group and teacher-directed language arts lesson as a result of little recognition and success in class (Classroom 2.0 Discussion: Uncommon Commonsense Ways to Empower Struggling Students, Karen Cameron)?

Finding the Writer Within Her

I’ve been trying to figure the easiest way to help E build her writing portfolio that she is going to need for the Writing Rubric we are developing in her class.  Yesterday I played around with an App that I have on the iPad (on loan from the district…Thanks Delta!)  It’s called Audio Class Notes  Screen Capture

It’s free and with that has limitations (time limit to the recordings), but for yesterday it seemed to work great. Together I helped E map out the details to her story.  I quickly showed her how to use the app to record her story and off she went.  The 3 Stegosauruses and the Big Bad T-Rex  She was ear-to ear grinning when she finished and felt so proficient and confident that she was able to demonstrate how to use it with the Education Assistant who works in her classroom!

I was able to type her story up at the end of the day yesterday and gave it to her teacher.  The teacher was amazed at the details, organization and length of E’s story.

Now I’m wondering…In what way will I continue to support E’s writing progress?  When I type up her writing do I leave out all the capitals, periods, paragraphs and have her edit? Do we read her drafts together looking for areas where she can add details?  The ideas I typed are hers, but the structural elements are mine.  Will seeing her words written down engage and excite her to extend and improve her own writing?  Hmmm…Questions I can’t yet answer…

Developing Writing Rubrics with Young Students

Erin and I started the process of developing writing rubrics yesterday in the grade two-three class. We found three grade level writing exemplars on-line for the students to “clothes-line” or rank with the idea that the samples would provide us with the beginning details and  Engaged! language for the rubric.

Things that went well:
The kids were super engaged, I think, for many reasons – lots of opportunities to move; it was self-directed; choices of how they would be involved whether that was all oral participation or some oral, some written.

There was an opportunity to present and defend an opinion about why a story should be ranked Yucky, Plain or Tasty (three of the four descriptor we want to use in the rubric). One girl Discussionsactually asked, “Is there a right or wrong answer?” and when I said no she had a the biggest smile on her face!

I couldn’t have predicted it, but there were two groups who just couldn’t agree on which story was yucky and which was plain.  From a teacher’s perspective the ranking seemed obvious, but when the students started listing the reasons why they ranked one story above another it was the most amazing feeling for me.  I realized that I had begun the activity with a preconceived idea of what would be valued by the students.  This epiphany was definitely the highlight of the lesson for me!

This story, The Two SqwirelsBC Ministry of Ed Exemplars)  has an awkward ending, repeats the same words over and over and mixed up words, though it was the longer story and one with more detail their points seemed valid.  This story, The cat is nervous of The fish, didn’t make sense, didn’t have good details and made spelling and punctuation mistakes.

The debrief with Erin was great.  We both realized that we need to repeat this activity.  We want to give the students more opportunities to work as a group, because it was great. We want to learn more about their perspective on what makes good writing.  And we want to give them more opportunities to look critically at another student’s  work, risk-free, to help them develop the language that will eventually go in their writing rubric.

Self-Directed Learning

“Sue really doesn’t get multiplication and division.”

After the summative assessment the teacher recognised that Sue was struggling and wanted me to help her to grasp the concepts of multiplication and division.  There were two other students that the classroom teacher identified as struggling so I included them in the group.

I started with the Frayer Model (from PRIME Math; see below for the end-product) and multiplication.  At first the students weren’t able to precisely define multiplication.  They lacked the math vocabulary so I guided them to what I thought were the easiest elements to add to the model, characteristics and examples.  But even examples was a stretch, so I stepped back even further to manipulatives.

First, I had them use manipulatives to create a model that either was or was not aIMG_1460n example IMG_1459of multiplication. Then I asked them to rotate around to the models  and ask themselves the following questions:  Is it an example of multiplication?  If so, what makes it multiplication?  I asked the students to create two more models and again rotate around. As they worked through the activity I was inspired watching them trying to define the model (the second question).  I could see the wheels turning and saw ah-ha moments for all the students as they articulated what it was that made the models examples of multiplication.

Next, I asked the students to write an numerical expression of the model.IMG_1464 Well, we were looking at multiplications so it was no shock when all three of them wrote a multiplication equation.  When I asked, How else could you write an expression of the model? the puzzled looks told me I had more work to do.

I brought them back to the  Frayer model, under characteristics they had:  Times; groups of; equal; array; same.  Is there something in there that could help you?  Is there something about the way the model is organised?  It took some time, with me pausing (it’s really hard not to give kids the answer!)  They came to a consensus that groups of and equal described IMG_1467each model.  What’s a good way to write the expression if you’re trying to say that there is an equal number of things in each group?  Which lead them to this:

It was an easy step to move to adding examples, non-examples and then to concisely defining multiplication.


To support their learning I introduced them to Khan Academy where they were able to watch the videos on multiplication and then try some problems. They seemed to really enjoy being able to make choices and focus on what they wanted to work on/ learn.  Everything was at their individual level and speed. https://www.khanacademy.org

I guess I need to call this lesson sequence development a step in a great direction for me. I knew that the kids were engaged and, through the course of the five support blocks they became more willing to speak about what they were thinking, share, support and contribute to the discussions.

What I didn’t know until yesterday was that this way of learning is something that the students want to repeat, something that they saw value in.  Thanks to Sue for putting it so clearly when she said, ” Now that we’re going to work on division can we just use that paper thing with the sections?  You know, the one where we really have to think about what division is with examples and everything. And then maybe we can watch some videos and do some problems on Khan Academy…”  Can you say self-directed learning?

The next question for me, I guess, is, “Do I start right away with the manipulatives or do I jump right to the Frayer Model to see what they know first?”





I’ve been talking a lot about perseverance with Tanya, the grade seven math teacher. Our school just participated in the yearly event Math Celebrations where groups of four students from schools across the district spend an afternoon working collaboratively to solve challenging math problems.

There are two adult judges at each table who observe the students as they work through the math problems. They watch for team work, perseverance, and finding the correct solution. All three elements are weighted equally.

As Tanya worked with the students to select team members it became glaringly obvious who among them was operating with a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset”. Those with a fixed mindset would read the problem and either blurt out a solution or disengage from the group because they did not recognise the problem and were unwilling to persevere through problem-solving with the team.

It’s a reminder to me that as I teach I need to be aware of the language I am using to build that growth mindset. It’s, “You really worked hard to solve that problem.” versus, ” You really are smart. You got the answer.”

Reading Fluency

It’s funny how I learn and integrate what I have learned into my practice.  How is it that I can feel so comfortable and confident about something and not remember where the idea originated?  Who told me that?  Was that in some research I read?  Who was the author?

My question yesterday about E’s reading fluency brought me back to a book.  Looking to understand how to build fluency I opened Teaching the Brain to Read, by Judy Willis. I have fully integrated so many of Dr. Willis’ ideas and yet this second read lead me to some truly enticing possibilities.

Fluent readers are simultaneously decoding, recognising (patterns), comprehending and responding to the text they read.  They have well established categories in which to organise the incoming information/patterns.

Inefficient readers, like E, are taking a brain detour, focused on individual words, trying to decode and recognise the patterns.  There is no efficiency to the reading process.  Every word is new, meaning they don’t recognise the patterns and so it takes a great deal of energy and time to process the information.

Time plays a huge factor.  The more time it takes the less likely the new information will move from short-term memory to long-term memory.  Without the movement or integration there is no learning.

I remember the feeling I had after the first read-through of Teaching the Brain to Read. I was excited by the idea of developing pattern recognition with the inefficient readers with whom I work.  My program became filled with graphs and flashcards; learning logs and goal plans. I felt so confident when sharing with parents what I was doing and why.

After my second reading I have reminded myself why I’m doing the things I’m doing and have some new and exciting ideas. I’m going to focus on rereading having E read books of interest until she doesn’t need to pause to decode words, until she has memorized the book, and can read for understanding, improve her fluency, and build her confidence.

(Guess I’m like the alzheimer patient who forgets so much that she can buy her own birthday present and be surprised when she opens it.)


Literacy Intervention Program and Reading Fluency

E was in the LIF program for 12 weeks, working one on one with me to try and improve her reading.  Her sight word vocabulary improved as did her accuracy for reading more difficult texts.  She ended the program able to read Level 17 Alpha Kids, 98% accurately, but only 14 correct words per minute.
(Below is a sample of her reading)
 You can hear how she has developed the strategy of reading on gaining meaning and goes back to make corrections to miscues. She reads with no fluidity and her speed is very concerning.

So, where to next? I know she has the sight words and has the strategies to decode.  What is holding her back from reading more fluently?

Am I Supporting Students or “Squeaky Wheel” Classroom Teachers

I often wonder whether I am in this learning assistance position to support at-risk students or “squeaky wheel” teachers.  Does that sound like a silly thing to wonder about?  Sarcastic? Maybe.  The wondering is coming because I have seen what can happen when I am allowed to identify students who need an intensive support program, use my skills to teach them in a one-on-one setting and design my schedule to fit students’ needs.

I graduated S from the Literacy Intervention program on Friday.  She is still struggling with her confidence, but has developed her skills in decoding and monitoring her understanding of grade level reading materials. Working with S alone allowed me to tailor my teaching to fit her learning style, work within her zone of proximal development (Vygotsky), and give her specific directions to build her reading skills, something that I have been unable to do in the watered-down program that I find I am stuck with year to year.

At the beginning of every school year as I set my schedule I take many things into account and try to be fair with the support that I provide.  But fairness shouldn’t necessarily mean even amounts of time for every classroom.  Unfortunately, my schedule ends up being less about what at-risk students need and more about what “squeaky wheel” teachers expect.

Squeaky Wheels.  You know them.  Those teachers that teach the same way every year, no matter who is in their class and what their students’ needs might be.  They do not differentiate their teaching.  They expect students to engage in learning, “because they’re teaching”.  And worse yet, they take little responsibility for meeting the various needs in their classrooms.  The expectation becomes a “take him and fix him because he doesn’t fit in my classroom.” And so it falls to me to teach these students, make room for them in my schedule, watering down my effectiveness with the 1-5% of students who truly need my help.

Hmm, 1-5%?  At my little school of 200 that would be…ten students.  TEN STUDENTS!  Ten students who are truly at-risk and in need of intensive intervention.  Not 33 to work directly with, develop IEPs, design programs, and support outside of their classroom in large groups.

Next year, when the LIF grant has disappeared and I am back to negotiating and appeasing colleagues with whom I need to retain a good working relationship I wonder if I might be able to set my schedule with the students’ needs in mind.  It’s a hard sell to those squeaky wheels who see only the need for change within the students attitudes and engagement and do not see a need for change in their teaching practice.