My Journey to Moving towards a less Constrained Classroom

I recently blogged about a moment in the classroom when I had little to no kids. In fact I only had 8 due to various reason, so I decided that I couldn’t go on with traditionally teaching and instead moved to a choose your own adventure model of learning. I let my kids explore whatever they want to do or work on any projects that they wanted to. This got my brains thinking about:

“What if learning was like this everyday?”

I had many questions about this process and trying to make it a whole class approach:

I know that we are hampered with the curriculum but are we?  
Is it possible to let all kids explore what they want and for us to assist with the learning? 
Is there benefit to have all kids learning the same thing at the same time? or should students do what they feel like? 

I also struggled with the idea that if this is a better model of teaching how do we do train teachers and sustain this model. I loved the responses that I received from my PLN and I am still researching and learning more about this process.

However, though I still have more questions then answers I have decided to go ahead and try something for our next unit of study in Social Studies.

The idea started with Myron Dueck’s tweet:

I loved his insertion of choice of medium and how will I showcase the learning expectation. As you know I have been struggling with how do I let the openness to happen while still maintaining the curriculum. My thought is for the students to complete a series of challenges anyway that they can.

I devised five challenges that link specifically to the curriculum big ideas. I tried to leave it as open as possible focusing on a key question for them to investigate and then let them decide on how they will showcase their learning.

Here is my plan. I still have to create the website along with what the badges will look like but its a work in progress.  Thought I would share with you my process and if you have any advice please let me know.

What do you think of this idea?
Do you think it will work?
Any advice?
Anything that you would change?

I cannot wait to hear your ideas. Thanks for helping me with this plan.

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What does it mean to have a reflective class?

Just before the winter break I got my hands on probably two of the greatest books I have ever read. The books were titled: Teaching students to self Assess and Hacking the Classroom: 10 ways to go Gradeless in a Traditional Classroom by Starr Sackstien

You can find both books: Amazon.ca

These book were revolutionary because it validated what I was already starting to do in the classroom. For a long time I have felt that the way I was assessing students wasn’t working. When I first started teaching I like many just followed what has been in place for centuries. We taught, we had students review and then we tested. We got data from these test but to be honest was it accurate or reflective of what that student can do? 
These were the questions that I asked for numerous years before I sat in my classroom watching my students taking a test. Some of my students started to ask their friends some questions. I was about to tell them to be quiet when I sat there a decided to listen. The types of questions I was hearing was basically what I already knew about these students based on my observations.  Then as I was marking I kept nodding as I already knew why those particular kids got the marks they got. 
This is when it dawned on me that I already knew more about my students than any test was going to give me. Based on my interviews, observations and comments I made throughout the problem solving process, I already had a better picture of my students needs, next steps and achievements. This was the moment that I gave up formal testing. However, reflecting back I was still missing something. 
I had these amazing comments and observations I would share them with students but kids didn’t read them (well most kids that is). This took me a long time to reflect on this, which is why I was led to this amazing book. 
So what was I doing wrong? I was giving marks with my comments. I know this may seem like a simple thing but basically my students only honoured the mark and not the grade.  
If you think back to your own learning what have you always wanted, that lovely A. School has never been about the learning but always about the grades. This is true for our parents too. I come from a fairly traditional household and even when I came home with a 95% the reply back was where is the other 5%. It has been ingrained in our society to think about the letter and not what we need to achieve the letter grade. 
So what have I done this year to address this: 
After reading the books I rapidly changed my practice. I started thinking about how I can make my students better at reflecting and honouring the learning process. We first started with looking at our Curriculum. Yes I actually read the curriculum document with my kids. Before each unit of study we sit down and reflect on what standards we need to learn based on what the curriculum says. I have the students tell me in their own words what they have to do to achieve the standards of their grade level. now I do teach grade 6 but I think this can be done at any grade you just may have to think about the amount of expectations that you want them to focus on. 
We also created a google form for their reflecting purposes. This is still a work in progress. This form gives me a quick look into my students thinking about what they thought they achieved and did on the assignment. Once these are submitted we have a conference about their learning where I either agree with their assessment or disagree. We also discuss next steps and my observations of their work. These conversations are about five minutes in length. 
I also turned to having students do a final reflection on what they think their term 1 report cards are going to look like. This took a while and I am going to try and shorten this process but I also got very rich and amazing discussions from it.
Now you may think that grades are important but I have seen more growth this year in my students then ever before. 
On a recent reflection about their writing here is what some students said: 
I think I got 3 as my final mark. Maybe even 2.8. That is because my tone; it felt like I was shouting. I also plagiarized so that would cut out some marks. I would work on my tone and remember not to plagiarize in the future. I think I was stressing my point a bit to much and the person who I wrote this letter to already knew about this topic. It felt to him, even me, that I basically screaming through the letter. Next time, I should consider my audience. My goal is to get a level 4 in my next writing piece. ~ Raghav

I think I would get a 3 because in the comments you wrote “This the work I expect from you all the time” and I followed most of the guidelines given. ~ Manpreet

Now this was their first attempt at reflecting and is still a work in progress.  In fact after some short reflections on our reflection this is what students said during their final report for term 1: 
I think I deserve this mark because I can do and understand basic math, but I need more practise on justifying my work and answer. I need to work on think more deep and more logically. Math has a big part of logic which I need to practise on because I am very used to the algorithm and what we have been taught in primary grades. I need to focus more on understanding the numbers. ~ Pavneet

– in the Surface Area Assignment he used math terms to write an answer to the question he was given – In the None To Many assignment Manchit used math concepts to do math calculations to find the mean and the median – should try to understand what is happening when you do the math equation
~Manchit
It is funny because these comments was what I wrote on their reports even before I read their responses. I have found that the more students reflect and conference with you the more that they become in charge of their learning. 
Now this does take time. It is not something that can be done on the side; you must put the effort into making it a part of your practise and taking the time to reflect but the more that you do this the better students will get at it.  I often hear that we need to prepare our students for what lies ahead but the reality is in life grades don’t matter. They mean nothing except for university and even the grades they look at are the last years. What we need to do is train our children to know how to get the grades they want. To set goals and learn what it takes to meet them. We are training our students for today because in doing so we train them for tomorrow.
So I encourage you to a) read the books and b) jump in going gradeless.  You have nothing to loose and all to gain. 

Are we reluctant to share?

Are we scared to share? Do we often feel like what we have to say isn’t worth reading? I know that I do. But we have to remember that what may seem as silly to us is often not for others.
It reminds me of this video that I have seen numerous times: 
I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when I reluctantly posted this post on “What does it mean to be a Teacher?”
I say reluctantly because I wasn’t too sure about the topic. I mean I loved the idea, it is why I decided to write but I wasn’t too sure if anyone else would have cared, or even wanted to read it. It was more of a reflection or response to the comments I was hearing about our profession of teachers. However, I decided to post and the next day a good colleague David Petro posted my blog on his daily Math Reviews (on a side note if you are not following David or reading his weekly blog you are missing out). The funny thing was my post wasn’t even about math but on what it means to be a teacher.  It did comment on teaching being more than telling, which I often think this is the preconceived notion of a teacher and why many think they can do our job but I digress.  The fact was that David saw something in my post and then felt the need to share it. Even though I didn’t think that the ideas were decent someone else did. 
To be honest I think that as a profession of teachers we all have amazing ideas and need to share them. We only get better by reflecting and learning from one another. So if you ever feel like your ideas don’t matter remember that an idea that may seem trivial to you, may not be for someone else. If you don’t share that knowledge or thought than you are depriving the profession of some amazing ideas. 
So I encourage you all as teachers, readers, parents get out and blog, Share your amazing ideas and connect with amazing people. And a big thank you to David for reminding me about this.

What it is Like to be an ELL Learner?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an ELL learner in your classroom?

For me I would have to say I never really have.  Not that I haven’t thought about how I could help but that the perspective has always been from the other side. Me the English learner, teaching English with good pedagogy. But never really with the lense of what it was like to receive a foreign language.

I will have to say I have never experience life as an ELL learner until I was in China. I mean I knew what it was like to be a teacher of ELL students, I know the pedagogy and the approaches that I need to do in order to engage and help my ELL students but I have never felt what it was like to be one until two weeks ago.

It is probably safe to say that the majority of us in North America as teachers can say the same thing as I did just above. Born and raised as an English speaker, in an English country I have never known what it was like to not understand the language around me. Well that changed dramatically when I went to China for the Global Education Summit.

Even though this summit was a Global Education Summit it was predominantly meant for Chinese teachers so it was predominantly or pretty much all in Chinese. In addition to this our interpreters didn’t understand English that well and there was not enough of them to go around for all of the English speaking teachers.

This meant that I spent the majority of my day listening to the cadence and rhythm of random words and sounds. Though it was pretty and every now and then I picked up a word or two it was quite frustrating and often times I tuned out and wasn’t engaged in the conversation. I mean why would I want to be when all I heard was the Charlie Brown teacher. WanWAA WANAA

This was quite a frustrating experience. My brain was able to comprehend what was going on but I wasn’t able to communicate all of my thoughts in a manner that was acceptable to the audience I was talking too.

To help with this there was a lot of hand gestures, asking questions, visual cues, lot of review of english and Chinese, repeated practise or listening and talking, etc. But in the end many of times I was just bored and lost interest.

This got me thinking about my own classroom. Is this how my students feel? Is this what they are going through as they learn a new language?

In my head I was thinking no way, my classroom is amazing! but to be honest it is most likely the reality that many of my students have just tuned me out.  Can you blame them? It is a lot of work to listen intently, to try and pick up words that you think have meaning. I mean I wanted to learn, I wanted to be there, I wanted to participate but I just didn’t know what was happening. Even with translators it was hard work and after a day of it my brain wanted to explode.

I know as teachers we do amazing things in the classroom to engage our ELL learners but it was truly humbling to be in the other shoe ( so to say) and really shifts your paradigm and perspective on your own classroom.

What do you do in your classroom to help engage the ELL learner? What strategies do you find work best? 

This post s more of a umm…I never thought about this. I have more questions than answers but wanted to put this thought out there. I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts.

Global Education Summit: China 2015

This has been a well over due post but after two weeks away from my family, they were my first priority.

This summer I was given the opportunity to go to China for their Global Education Summit (GEC2015). Basically, the Chinese are embarking on a path of discovery and trying to analyze good teaching practises. Professor Guoli Lang decided to bring Project Based Learning to Chinese Classrooms. In order to do so he started a GEC community three years ago with teachers from the United States, Finland, Australia, Singapore and now Canada. He has also teamed up with Ann Lieberman from Stanford University who was the person to bring my teammate Michelle Cordy and myself, along a with two teachers from Butler University and Lab school in the States.

As I stated the point of the conference was bring Project-based Learning to China. This was a totally new experience for many of the Chinese Teachers; even after three years the teaching that the other GEC countries brought was a total new phenomenon.

The conference lasted two weeks, during which time we were asked to develop a project on Flight or bridges and then model a lesson from that unit. We were given three days to meet and greet with our students and then 75 minutes to teach the lesson, which was broadcasted over a huge screen to about 200 teachers.


The first day was a little rough as I was still getting over jet lag and being 12 hours ahead of everyone. However, during this day we got to see parts of the school and I was able to play some sports with the kids on the play ground. There is nothing in the world that can put a smile on a Teachers face then being with students. I know that many of you understand, there is no word to describe it but one of the biggest learning moments I had is no matter where you are in the world kids are kids.


I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the schools that we were at. The first school was in Beijing. Supposedly it was the number one school in the whole city but that aside, even though in a gated community it had a welcoming vibe. I say parents and kids coming and going and doing all of these amazing activities together.  The Chinese value good physical education and culture in their programs. There is a lot of facilities for activities and the students even learn the culture of serving tea.  

They have three wings a K-1 wing, 2-3 wing and a junior wing. Also in the school are various cultural and physical spaces. I saw at least two band rooms, with numerous practise spaces. Some of the classrooms became specialist music rooms as well. For example there was a room dedicated to violins and one for a cello. They had a ballet section as well as the whole outside was for sports (basketball, football, volleyball, track and a jungle gym).  From what I have seen and heard there seems to be a really good balance between school, the arts and physical education; then again students go to school for a long time each day so it is a little bit easier to fit that into their schedule.

Before I knew it I had a huge line of students. In fact they asked if I was the new Volleyball Coach.

Library Reading area
Hallways of the School
Library
Tea Classroom
Music Room and Band
More from the Library



The school from the outside

The only thing that I was not a fan of was the differences in classrooms. The picture above is the American classroom. Students sit in groups there is paper and “stuff” all over the wall. It is a visual nightmare. The Chinese classroom are all in rows with very little visual, in fact nothing except for the socialist tenets and rules of the school.  It made me reflect on my own space and how effective the “scholasticy” posters are (Caveat: I have nothing against scholastic. I use that name as a verb to describe all store bought posters).  I have been thinking about this for a while but I wonder how effective these posters really are. Sure they make our rooms look pretty and full of information but do the students really view them? If we just put them up on the wall and never refer to them then what good are they? (Caveat: I know that many teachers use these posters quite effectively and they do have great content on them.) All I am really trying to question is the purpose for our posters. Is it to make our room look amazing and special or is it for educational purposes? For me I would rather see student generated success criteria, performance rubrics, and student work samples on the bulletin boards.




The school in HangZhou was even more artistic. They had a sculptures yard, outdoor playgrounds, ponds and a track in the middle. Quite an amazing design.  




Makes me think about our own school design and classroom design. What can we do to make it more inviting? What can we do to make it a true learning space? What is a true learning space? What makes it a learning space?

Sorry a lot more questions than answers. 

However, back to the teaching.  We finally got to our Demo’s and it was really great to see all of the teachers in action. Here are some of my thoughts:

First I want to start off by saying that no matter which group was teaching it was interesting to see some commonalities between all three. 1) the interaction with students is a key for problem based learning. In all three groups the teachers spent time talking to students, working closely with them, giving them feedback and helping them to improve. 2) Kids are kids. In all three groups the same behaviours that I would witness in my classroom in Brampton happened here. Kids are kids and they are just happy to be learning. They want to talk, they want to feel honoured and they want to have fun. 3) Good pedagogy is good pedagogy. In all three classrooms there was wait time, good questions and a reflection process.

Here are my thoughts on the Chinese group:

The Chinese teachers designed a ball launcher. It was interesting to see how even though they had three teachers in the classroom, each one work as a separate unit. The teachers seem to have specific roles to play. Afterwards I found out that they actually do. There was the Chinese teacher, the math teacher and the physics teacher.  Each of them were looking for different things and taught different parts of the lesson. Where I do think that specialty teachers have their place I would rather have teachers know their content super well and be able to teach it effectively than having three teachers out of sync with one another. The best world would be where these teachers could teach together fluidly, which would serve the best interest of the students.

Here are my thoughts on the American and Finnish Teachers:

I loved the connections that the teachers made with each student. They knew who and what each students was. This connection is very important because it makes the students feel that they are honoured and feel important. This may not have any statistical value but it does have quantitative value.  We were given three days to work with these students in order to bring the best out of them. Having a good connection and making them feel honoured is key to this success. These students did amazing work and I attribute this to being the key to success. I was also amazed at all of the good teaching pedagogy: the scaffolding, the good thinking questions, student voice, and observations where tremendous.

Overall, good teaching is still good teaching no matter where you are in the world. Kids need many things to be successful. Scaffolding, clear expectations, clear assessment and honouring their voice. I was truly honoured when they asked the students what did they learn and they said: 

“that learning can be fun, mistakes are okay as long as you are learning, and that they have a voice and ideas.”

This is really what our kids want, they want to know that they matter. When they feel that they matter, they will learn and do amazing things for you as a teacher. We had three days to get students who spoke very little English to basically perform and learn about flight the biggest key was making them see the value in learning; of course also tied into amazing teaching pedagogy and learning.

Need I say that this was quite an interesting experience. However, in the end meeting some great people from Finland, the United States and Australia was truly remarkable and the best part of my two weeks. Take a look at all of the photos: https://plus.google.com/+JonathanSoMrSo/posts/MAi31hCZrBS.

No grades no problems

I had to laugh a little when I heard the news this morning on my way to work, “there may be no formal report card for public elementary students this year!”

“Oh, no! The world is coming to an end.”  I don’t mean to make fun of anyone who feels this way but at the same time it feels a little “sky is falling mentaility.”

For me the final report card is a labour – some task that many only see the letter grades and not the helpful comments that go with it. They are often a cause for smiles on kids faces as they beam with pride or hidden because the child doesn’t want to disappoint or face the eye of failure.

However, I want you to think about a couple of things:

1) should the final report be the first time you hear success or failure? 

       If not then how important is this report card? Why is it so honoured the without it the world is done?

2) are your elementary marks or any grades for that matter, tell how successful you will be in the future?

     Don’t get me wrong they are good indicators but are they everything?

     If no then again why are they so important?

Is it an accountability piece? If so then I can give you every mark and note I have ever done on any student at any time. Why because that is my job as a teacher.

For me assessment is about learning and  learning is not shown in a final letter grade but in growth and reflection. I can’t speak for every classroom in Ontario but in my classroom, all students have access to the class coconstructed rubrics, success criteria and their own reflections. We are always talking about their performance and they all know what their strengths, and weaknesses are. All assignments come with formative feedback based on our rubrics the have comments on how they did and what they can do better next time.  We have constant conferences with parents and students and all work is posted in their portfolios.

Kids have private class YouTube channel that they vlogg, blog and tape their thinking.  Assessment is truly an open door policy.

So in closing I ask you two more questions:

What is more important, a formal document with my EDU speak and grades or a child telling you how they are doing and what they can do next to improve?

                          Or   

What is more important a document that comes to you three times a year or ongoing formative refections and assessment that comes every assignment?

For me it’s the ladder of the two and why I find the discussion of no report cards quite hilarious we need to relax and ask our children or their teacher.

If you ever want to know how they are doing, just ask.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Is our job as a teacher obsolete?

I know that the title may be a little disturbing but it did catch your attention?

When I ask this question I gt a varying degree of answers and it is because of these answers that I have decided to write this post.
Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the role of a teacher and the role we play in the grand scheme of learning. Putting aside various fees on teaching pedagogy I think we can all agree that teaching is currently undergoing a dramatic change in its profession. I think that we can also agree that knowledge is no longer obtained the same ways in which we use to obtain it and it is very rapidly changing. It seems that every second there is some new break through in technology or some new scientific break through.  So if this is the case should our teaching change to reflect this?

This actual idea started with a post from my good friend Brian Aspinall

Catch the whole conversation here: https://twitter.com/mraspinall/status/599915516254236672.
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This started a chain reaction and conversation that was truly amazing to be a part of. There was two main parts to this conversation. The role of a teacher and 2) creating and sustaining this change.

The Role of the Teacher

The bases was that teaching has not changed, our role continues to educate and motivate students to learn but what has and should be changing is how. Now this may stir some to stand up and revolt about what I am saying but I truly believe that the teaching profession needs to change their methods or we will become obsolete. 

I think this for three main reasons: 1) With the ever increasing access to information students can obtain anything in manner of seconds. Its as easy as saying, “Siri, whats the population of China?” Presto you have that information. The problem lies in how do we assess which information we need and what is true. This is critically thinking. This is the skill that needs to be taught. However, we often find classrooms a place of regurgitation of information that is outdated the moment we learn it.  Now please don’t get me wrong, facts are important to learn, basic skills are needed and yes memorizing is important too but all of this can be learned at the same time as critically thinking and evaluating information. 2) Learning is happening whether we like it or not. Now this is not a new phenomenon but I do find a lot more students are taking to youtube, books, and other information to learn about topics that interest them. My own five year old daughter knows how to youtube minecraft in order to figure out how to do something in the game. If we are not careful in our teaching soon students may soon see school as an obsolete place.  3) My final reason is that I am ever depressed to see that school itself has not really changed since its inception. What I mean by this is schools, physical space and mental space. We can still walk into a school and it looks the exact same way it did in 1880’s. Yes materials, tools, and colour has changed by the premise of school hasn’t. Kids sit in rows or even groups, they walk in straight orderly lines, we go to school 8-3, Sept to June, its endless at the similarities between the eras. But with the rapid changing world this needs to change.

If we are going to make this shift then as a teacher our role needs to change. No longer am I the wise person who stands before the classroom to impart all of my wisdom in one fell swoop, no longer am I the end all to be all for information and no longer am I the one to start, initiate and carry the conversations. These areas fall on the students.  However, I am the one to plan rich and engaging lessons, I am the one who anticipates the majority of work and possible answers, I am the one who is constantly walking around my classroom, inspecting students thinking, strategies and work samples. I am the one that is assessing as I work, thinking about next steps, where students are and what I need to do to make that happen. I am also the one that plans purposeful questions and comments that at the right moment can make many students go “Aha.”  I am also the one that if I recognize real struggle that I differentiated for them but only when they need it.

In addition, school shouldn’t be this archaic place of learning. Space needs to be reinvented, times and timetabling needs to be more flexible. We need to go back to a place of learning.

Creating and Sustaining


This last part is the one I am currently struggling with. It is very easy to get discouraged by how slow progress seems to be going.  We have often debated, the time factor, the money factor, the willingness to learn but to me these just seem like excuses as to why something is failing. They are all factors in they why but I think that instead of focusing on the why we should be asking how do we support this change?

What do we need to do to allow fellow teachers to grasp, understand, implement and then affect change in others?

What is missing that isn’t done already?

or How can we change what we are doing already in order to affect this change?

I don’t think this is a simple answer but I do think that it needs to happen faster than it is currently. Our students are embarking into a world that rapidly changing, information that use to last us a life time is no longer lasting these students more then a year. We need to change our teaching methods, strategies in order to meet this. Then again, this is only my opinion, would love to hear yours.