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

A Peek into the Classroom – Part Deux

Since I got a lot of great feedback on the last post – A Peek into My Classroom – I decided to post a part 2! I’ve learned a lot from reading other teachers’ blogs and I enjoy sharing with others too.

Keep scrolling to read about each picture:

ABOVE: Having a place value chart above your whiteboard or chalkboard is great. You can see I went over the value 427 just by writing underneath the each place value. The signs are from Math Equals Love. I also recently purchased these elementary word wall organizers. They are perfect for the first month, when I am reviewing general math for all the Grade 10s and 11s.

ABOVE: I was originally trained for Tribes right after my B.Ed. but have put off doing cooperative learning until this year. I will be using more Kagan structures each week to develop cooperative learning. We have four groups in Grade 10s. Each group is assigned an animal – moose, beaver, snake and caribou – and these milk crates are an easy way for the “equipment manager” to grab the necessary supplies for their peers. I try hard NOT to laminate unless they are for posters that will sustain years and years of use. I used binder clips and plastic sheet protectors to attach the labels to the milk crates.

ABOVE: My teacher’s desk. I don’t sit here much until the end of the day, or to enjoy a cup of Turkish tea (I have a stash of tea leaves and white sugar at school). I had to put a sticker on the edge of my desk that says, “Students are not allowed to sit at the teacher’s desk”; it’s taken me nearly 3 years to train students NOT to go into my stuff! The sense of boundaries is a bit of different up north, so I had to adjust to that when I first started. Hanging on the pin are growth mindset cards for the Encourage role in our student groups. I bought them off Kate Coners on Teachers Pay Teachers. She has amazing stuff! For a close-up of the cards, check out my photo from Instagram.

ABOVE: My backpack, which has a pocket for my laptop, and an Indigo book bag that I use to carry my lunch. I also have a Bing Bong keychain on my bag, because creativity is soooo important in life! He was definitely my favourite character from Pixar’s Inside Out. I even hunted throughout DisneyWorld (April 2016) just to get a collectible pin of him.

A Peek into the Classroom

Last year, my classroom was on the first floor. I’ve moved back upstairs, next to the science lab. The room is spacious and has a great view towards the front of the building (I can see if kids are skipping and headed home!)

I’d been planning on taking a few pictures of my new classroom, but kept forgetting. Here are a few shots and some of the changes I’d implemented this year:

ABOVE: Since we are going totally shoeless* this year, I put these foam mats in the corner of the room. It’s super cozy and a lot of kids like to just curl up with the blankets or the yoga mats. The yoga mats are for a yoga club that I’m trying to get going. So far, I’ve only had one session and one participant from Grade 7. That’s a start!


ABOVE: I plan on having students develop better group work skills, with the use of Kagan Structures. I haven’t had time to get things started yet, but the poster in the middle is for “Oopsie Points’. Students can call out mistakes that the teacher makes. Spelling errors are 1 point, while conceptual errors are 2 points each. I initially started this when my students were too afraid to correct me on the board, even if the error was glaring and obvious. I want them not to have blind trust in authority figures and to challenge them if they truly think something is wrong. Now I can’t get them to stop correcting me, ha! As additional motivation this year, the winning class gets a pizza party!

ABOVE: Ahhh my beloved handy  Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS) a.k.a. whiteboards! Plain on one side and Cartesian plane on the other. We just finished a unit on growth mindset verus fixed mindset. One of my students drew a cartoon character from the Class Dojo videos that we’d been watching. You have to exercise your brain to make it strong … Otherwise it gets lazy! Check out episode 1 on YouTube.


ABOVE: A great poster from Sarah Hagan-Carter of Math Equals Love. I will be using this to reinforce what a good, well-rounded and complete answer looks like in both math and science.


ABOVE: A lot of students struggle with these terms. I thought I’d put them up for Term 1. Hopefully by the end of the term, I can remove them and they will be using them properly. They helped me colour the letters. I’ll probably clean them up and laminate them later on for reuse.

*Some more info on why shoesless classrooms are better.

First Year Lessons in Using INBs

It’s been two months since I’ve been using interactive notebooks (INBs). They’re not just for elementary school students; they work amazingly well in secondary settings too! I’ve learned a few things, but I’m enjoying the ride!

  • Page numbers: Most of the students glue their foldables and write notes on exactly the same pages as my INB. This makes it very convenient; if I have to refer to an idea, I can simply refer to the page number. Also, if a student has missed classes, it’s easy to figure out what needs to be done with a quick flip through their notebook. Try as I might, there are still a few that have messed up their page order; there’s not much else I can do but to tell them to paste it elsewhere in their book. It drives me crazy, but I just have to accept it!
  • Connecting ideas: As my lessons are scaffolded, kids can easily see how each lesson connects to one another. When I used looseleaf pages, they never looked at their old notes as reference …. grrrr!!! Since keeping everything in order, I’ve noticed that they will actual refer back to yesterday’s lesson to see how it is connected with today’s work. When I taught a lesson on calculating charges of ions, I saw my Grade 10s flipping back to check the precious lesson on drawing ions. Yay! Organized notes help build independent behaviours, as well as developing metacognition.
  • Definitions: I used to find that after a lesson, I’d have to repeat basic definitions. Obviously, your want to scream, “But I just explained what a neutron is!” Since using INBs, I’ve noticed that I receive fewer silly questions.
  • Don’t give them all the answers: When I write my notes, I try to leave the last example incomplete. The students who aren’t paying attention will copy mindlessly line by line. At a quick glance, I can quickly see who is and who isn’t paying attention! I walk around to see who has finished the last example (which is usually simple to complete if they extrapolate from the initial examples). It also gives me a way of quickly assessing how well they understand as a class; I know whether I did a good job or whether I have to approach the concept a bit different next time. Next year, I will use the left page for notes and the right page will be completed by students to demonstrate their understanding. For now, going to stick with our current system.

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  • Be prepared with your teaching notes: A few times, I tried to teach my lesson without having my notes pre-written. Oops,that was a big mistake. If I try to plan it as I go along, any hesitation or second-guessing gets them confused. I end up making a terribly disorganized page in – not only my teacher INB – but everyone’s INB! If I’m properly prepped, I can flash them my page and they can see – in a quick glance – how I’ve laid out my notes. The ideas are clear in my mind as I am teaching and explaining too.
  • INBs are for notes, not for assessment: I make it clear that I never mark anything in their INBs. Looseleaf handouts come to me! You don’t get marks for copying! 

Do you use INBs? Is this something you’re interested in? What other tips can you share?

No Lamination Machine? A More Affordable Solution

Last week, in my grade 10 class, we started our unit on functions and relations.

My students aren’t the strongest math students. Even if a concept was covered last year, they often can’t recall some of the key components from the unit. While I know it was covered in the Grade 9 curriculum, they looked confused if I asked them what they remembered.

Since we’ve only started the topic, I wanted a hands-on activity to help them reinforce the differences between relations and functions. This card sort activity comes from Kim Hughly of Math Tales from the Spring. There are 12 pictures that can be sorted either into functions or non-functions.

While my students will complete the activity in their INB, I decided I wanted some classroom sets for practice.

I have been debating whether or not to get a lamination machine, but decided against it when a colleague recommended a cheaper solution: clear contact paper! It is sometimes called kitchen shelf liner and comes in all sorts of pretty patterns. I managed to find some transparent shelf liner by Contact Brand at Canadian Tire. I had picked it up over the summer but didn’t try it out until now.

It worked well! Since it’s sticky on one side, I placed all my cards onto the sticky side, cut another piece and laid it on top. I sat on the floor and laminated while watching Netflix (yes, this is really how teachers spend their evenings).

Photo 2015-09-29, 6 17 01 PMOf course, I did one more thing to make sure my sets stayed organized.

Last year, when I laminated my cards and got them mixed up, it drove me nuts to try to resort them. Come to think of it, I think I left the cards all mixed up …

Anyway, I got some coloured coding labels and put them on the back. I’d like to give credit to the teacher that I learned this from, but I can’t remember!
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Photo 2015-09-29, 7 08 13 PM

Here’s the finished product! I only made four sets as I only had four colours. I bagged everything in Ziplock bags, labeled exactly how many cards there were in each set – otherwise, they will disappear – and will be using them later this week!

Photo 2015-09-29, 7 15 48 PM

End of the Honeymoon

It’s been 6 weeks into the school year. The honeymoon season is over and some of the cracks are starting to show.

Some of my students have fallen into the habit of skipping my last period, others have locked themselves out of Class Messenger and won’t reset their passwords and I’ve had to call parents of a few kids who are abusing the privilege of using their electronic devices during class time.

But this is completely normal. Your plans are never perfect despite all the preparations you make. Life in the classroom goes on.

Overall, things are great. Some of my newer students from outside the community have started making friends and are integrating well. Class Messenger is still a successful tool; when I send out a reminder of the upcoming day at 8:30 am, a few will reply if they know they’re coming late. And despite some issues with cellphones, encouraging kids to bring their cellphones and iPods means that there are always headphones available when we need to go on the computer lab and catch up on our math lesson online.

Basic school supplies are always available to us, as long as the stock room is full, without having to dip into our individual class budgets. At any time, I can ask for paper, pencils, erasers, notebooks, markers and chalk. For any teacher working with INBs, you are often surprised to see how quickly the gluesticks run out so it’s important I always have extra boxes in the back cupboard. On top of that, scissors constantly disappear.

We had a professional development day on Friday, so I made sure to stock up on stuff. I got a dozen pair of new scissors, so to make sure everyone knows they belong to my classroom, I use a quick swipe of nail polish.

The rest of Friday was spent writing anecdotal reports by hand, in preparation for the upcoming parent’s night on Thursday, so the afternoon disappeared quite quickly.

Nothing much else to report, other than I have to get rid of a stack of marking on the weekend and make another Test Flashback for my math tests!

Choosing a Good Education Tool

For the past two years, I’ve been using Edmodo as my digital home page. It’s been a great launch pad when I want students to do a quiz, go to a website, check out a diagram or give me a short written response.

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I’ve heard teachers say that Edmodo doesn’t work and it saddens me when a teacher tosses out a great device because they don’t know how to use it.

All the education apps, sometimes known as #edtech, I’ve seen advertised on blogs, teaching magazines and social media are popular and out there for a reason. Education apps won’t survive today’s competitive market if they aren’t well designed, versatile and adaptive. Think of it this way, a good carpenter would never blame a hammer for what it can’t do; an effective tech-savvy teacher takes time to test out a variety of BYOD (Bring-Your-Own-Device) tools and focuses his/her energy on which is the best tool and what it can do depending on his/her classroom needs. Many school boards in Canada, such as the Peel District SchoolBoard, now have policies around BYOD and see blended learning as a necessity to developing strong students.

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The bottom line is, becoming tech-savvy and getting your kids to love your apps ain’t easy.

You can’t get a firm grasp of education tools if you’re not willing to put some time and effort into it. But being busy isn’t a good excuse; it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to find a YouTube tutorial or a post on a teaching blog explaining all the pros and cons or how to navigate Class Dojo or figure out how to turn Quizlet flashcards into literacy games.

If you’re just starting out, here are some important questions to ask when you choose an #edtech tool:

  • How accessible is it? Is there set up for desktops, accessible through the web or best used through an app?
  • Is it free? How much does a single user license cost? A school-wide license?
  • Which OS is it available?
  • How effectively can I roll out this tool? How will I introduce it? What strategies can I use to help my students to effectively use this site / app?
  • Does the site / app give opportunities for collaboration? (i.e. editing document together, developing discussions)
  • Am I familiar with the all the options that are available on the site? Did I spend time researching it?
  • How tech-savvy are my students? How friendly is the user interface (UI)?*
  • How do other teachers use it? Are there YouTube tutorials / blog posts about its effectiveness?
  • Are similar tools available? Which is better for my classroom (e.g. comparing Schoology and Edmodo)**
  • For BYOD tools, will a student without a cellphone still be able to access it from a desktop computer?**
  • What languages are available on it? Are translation tools available?***
  • How much bandwidth does it require? Does it load easily in the classroom?****

And smart developers know that teachers are their customers and ask themselves these questions when creating a good educational app.

But ultimately, the end user is always the student.

They are our main customers. They might vary from city to city, culture to culture, but most teachers quickly realize that our customers are pretty darn picky! While educators might choose tools based on how well we like it – we tend to focus on file management or how easily we can track our students progress – the biggest goal is to choose it based on how receptive our students are.

So far, I’ve been very, very careful about choosing my #edtech tools. I go through all the considerations I’ve mentioned above and read several reviews from other teachers before I decide to introduce it into my classroom. Not a single one of my choices have ever been rejected, but it often takes a month or so before students get comfortable with it and are able to navigate it on their own.

For example, many students were hesitant to install Class Messenger this year. They were comfortable with getting text messages from me through, but did not like the idea of a new app they had never seen before. I had to use several strategies to “sell” it, including using my own data to have students download it in class, but after 3 weeks, many of the kids saw how much more superior Class Messenger was to and any stragglers who didn’t have access to it were asking me how they could join the club. It’s worked well for our school because we have many kids without cellphones; if they only had an iPod, they were still able to be included on the updates when they connected to their wireless internet at home. Therefore, I was able to fill the needs for my students since I took the chance to try something new. And believe me, even I was initially hesitant until I put the time and effort into discovering a new app!

So while Edmodo has been working well for my students the past two years, most of my kids are starting to get tired of it. I’m working with older students – Grade 10s and 11s – they need an interface that allows them to create documents (i.e. Word, Powerpoint) and access them more easily. Edmodo can’t do that, but Google Classroom can! And since my students’ needs are changing, what better time than now?

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Of course, I only purchased the domain tonight and just started playing around with it. It’s eaten up a good 2-3 hours of my day already, so I’ll have to write more once I get this rolling. Learning about new BYOD tools is always a process with ups and downs. It will take a few months for my students and I to get the hang of it, but since I’ve heard so much from other teachers, I can’t wait to try it. It’ll be interesting to see how Google Classroom will impact my classroom in my 3rd year of teaching!

Which education tools do you use in your classroom? How do you choose a good app?

Have you looked at the #edtech hashtag on Twitter to learn more about educational tools?

Would you like to learn more about BYOD in the classroom?

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*Some UIs are designed to be similar to other social media platforms. For example, Edmodo has a similar set-up to Facebook.

**Kids don’t have Twitter? Put everyone on Today’s Meet. Want to review photosynthesis on Socrative? There’s still a desktop version available.

***An important factor to note if you work with Second Language Learners.

****I would love to use Classcraft, a classroom management tool, but the bandwidth in our school isn’t strong enough for it.

Teacher Gadgets: Tab Punch from We R Memory Keepers

Finally got my We R Memory Keepers tab punch in the mail today! It was a REALLY difficult find.*

The last week I was in Toronto for the summer, I drove to Michael’s and Staples. I called Scholar’s Choice and the lady on the phone had nooooo idea what I was talking about! While I have not taken up scrapbooking, I wanted this tab punch so that I could be able to flip through my interactive notebook easily.

Eventually, after reaching out to other Ontario teachers online, someone pointed me to Class Act, a shop in Oshawa. The owner helped me set up the order, gave me an estimate and mailed it to me in the north.

I love it! It’s so easily to use! It’s fabulous and perfect for my INBs! The punch itself cost $21 and the stickers are $6/12 pieces. Pretty pricey, which reminds me of labelmakers; the gadget is affordable but the refills are expensive! Normally, I wouldn’t justify spending this much for a mere tab on the side of a notebook, but after two full years of hard work – mind you, after already burning out from teaching once – I felt I deserve a little reward.

Plus staying organized should be fashionable!

*Yes, Amazon does sell this product, but where I work, we no longer are able to receive free shipping.