Reshaping an Environment and Reshaping Behaviour

Our computer lab has not had a very good reputation the past few years. Kids will goof off and play games towards the end of the school day. This happens most frequently towards the end of the year, when teachers are exhausted and burnt out. Substitute teachers might also use the room when they are at a loss of what to do.

Poor design can also shape poor behaviour too. The computers were previously arranged in two long, cumbersome rows. Therefore, instructors often awkwardly run back and forth, down the narrow alleys, with kids switching to games the moment the teacher was far away in the next row.

ABOVE: Image from Yok Artik Ya

During the summer, the computer technician rearranged the computers; he created a better configuration that made it more conducive to monitoring delinquent behaviours. The technician placed all the machines along the walls with only two in the middle so that a supervisor can – at a quick glance or turn of the head – see who is working and who is not!

This environment places all students at an equal level and makes them accountable to each other. No one receives more attention from the teacher because they are physically more accessible nor can any individual hide away in a corner.

Clarkson Elementary Computer Lab
Image from Ninjas in Pyjamas


Since the end of August, I have worked tirelessly to reset the tone of our lab; I make it explicit each and every time we enter the computer lab that we ONLY do hard work and learning. We never, ever go to the computer lab to goof off. All the designated periods I choose are in the morning, when your mind is at it’s best state to tackle a difficult job. If they want to play a game, they are allowed to once all their work is complete.

Like the classroom, I’ve also created a protocol as we enter the space; each student picks up their “independent study” booklets from a basket, according to their individualized “ninja  numbers”.

The booklets are simply a piece of folded construction paper:

Students always refer to the booklets and not the teacher for instructions. This is considered independent study time (as the booklets are titled). If they ask me what they’re working on, I will silently point at their papers. It may sound harsh, but I am conditioning them not to rely on me.*

Each week, there are a set of tasks for them to complete. Often, they are either reviewing vocabulary card set on or going through the science modules on Facile Learning:

You can see that I don’t give more than 2 or 3 tasks. The tasks mainly require students to review concepts they’ve recently learned, but they will never be asked to teach themselves from scratch. A well-chosen task helps put their minds in the zone of proximal learning. The “sandbox” time also allows them to reassess information that they learned and to strengthen or create neural connections.

Again, I try hard not to help or prompt them. What ends up happening is that they start off independently, but begin to discuss and help each other when they are stuck. I allow them to discuss questions and possible solutions, as they will get randomized questions when their quiz starts (to prevent copying and cheating). Giving these ELLs an opportunity to practice and articulate scientific and mathematical ideas in both their first** and second language really allows them to deepen their understanding more than I ever could, in my nagging, annoying voice!

On occasion, we do a fun open-ended Desmos activity together, just to switch things up. Additional opportunities to explore math concepts through play and gamified activities reinforce a growth mindset, since these activities are open-ended tasks that do not have concrete solutions.

So after I have explained all the intention that goes into these periods, I have to share a silly anecdote!

This morning, I reminded the Grade 10s there are 9 days left until term 1 report cards. I told them to finish their science modules #1.1 to #1.5, as the multiple choice quizzes are a part of my assessments.

Now, as a teacher, you learn from experience to expect trouble. You are trained to imagine the worst case scenario and be prepared at a moment’s notice. You have kids cutting their fingers off with safety scissors or wrestling each other when you least expect it (sometimes you get an eraser in your eye and you burst into tears and run out due to embarrassment).

And I have to say, I don’t think I’m normally on edge. But I kept expecting something to happen … rather in an anxious and frenzied state! When was chaos going to start?!

Yet as I looked around me, however, I found myself in disbelief, amazed at how quiet, focused and hardworking the entire class was! I kept expecting them to start complain and give up, possibly leave the classroom in a huff.

And they just chugged on. Nearly everyone was sitting quietly, focused on the screen. Very few students were looking at their smartphones. A few wandered around chatting and helping each other out. I heard the word ‘boron’ and ‘valence electrons’ being muttered. It was incredible.

It was like I wasn’t even there.

So things were good, I kept reassuring myself. The waters are calm.

It’s really important to be thankful for the days like this, because good teaching is invisible and we often forget this when all that pays off.


*In the classroom, I have a rule called “Ask 3 Before Me”. I will not answer simple questions and tell them to check with their table partners.

**East James Bay Cree

Digital Lesson Planning

I like my tech toys, so it’s no surprise that I prefer typing out my lesson plans rather than writing them.

Last August, I spent the first couple of weeks testing out several websites, trying to figure out which to use. It’s a tedious process but if you want to find a good tool, you have to take the time to play around and check out all the specs. As I am likely to be teaching the same course for a while, I figured it made sense to find something that allowed me to organize my units and lessons, save them and then upload them again to reuse, rather than writing them out by hand year after year.

The Ontario Teacher’s Federation (OTF) pushes the free, otherwise known as Planboard, but despite bugging the CEO of Chalk, they still have not decided to make the app available offline. This is a major issue when you work in a small town with poor bandwidth. While I love seeing so many cool apps being pumped out of Waterloo, Ontario, I am not impressed considering that I’ve been asking for it and it does not seem to be on their radar at all.

Eventually, I settled on Planbook by Hellmansoft. It is available for both Windows and Mac and costs approximately $30 USD. The iPad version is an additional $6 USD, but is well worth it for me. The mobile version, sadly, is not available offline, but I tether the iPad to my phone for access. Here is a screenshot:

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 7.42.44 PMWhile the hefty price tags might turn a lot of people off, it is probably the best educational planning tool I’ve found so far. It proved itself extremely useful when – VOILA! – I found that I was able to transfer all the lesson plans and documents – linked through Dropobx – onto my planbook this year!!!

No need to retype everything!! OMG!!!!

Isn’t technology amazing?!?!?!