An Open Door


Have you ever thought about what makes your class or school special? Ever wondered what makes the difference that makes the difference? These have been questions that I continue to look for and reflect on all of the time.

Today something sparked my thoughts even more. I was in a meeting today, with a bunch of staff, talking with our Superintendent about our wonderful school, when one of my colleagues made an interesting statement.

When I first came here I took a back seat to reflect on what makes this school special. Part of what I noticed was that everyone’s door was open….

She went on to further describe that having an open door showed her how open and comfortable we were with one another. I can go to anyone for help no matter what.

Now, I am slightly paraphrasing here but you get the understanding of this message. Even as I write this I am still struggling to find words to talk about my thoughts but I thought I would share some of these thoughts with you. You see, she hasn’t been the first person to mention that there is something special about Ray Lawson.   I have also noticed that things are different here but couldn’t figure out why. When my colleague made this statement it was a big aha for me. It never dawned on me how something as simple as an open door could help others see you were warm and there to help, it was something I just did.


As teachers, we want to create a culture where students are competent, curious, and capable. We also want to create a culture of love and understanding. But for that to happen it starts with us. The comment my colleague said, made me think about how I present myself to my colleagues and to my students/ parents. Do they see that what I am saying is put into practice? or do they see something different?

I never would have thought that something as small as an open door would make such a difference but it does. Here at Ray Lawson, we walk into each other’s classrooms all the time. No one ever bats an eyelash. We talk about best practices, we talk about students and we question our teaching, ALL THE TIME. Screen Shot 2017-11-01 at 6.48.57 PM

In Peel, this is one of our beliefs but how do we put this into practice? What do you do in your classroom that allows students, parents and other teachers to see you as open, flexible and responsive to their needs?  Love to hear your thoughts.


My Guest Post on Starr Sackstien’s Blog: A Grading Journey of Epic Proportions (Part 1)

Here is part one of my guest post on Starr Sackstein blog post. It is a post about my journey ongoing gradeless. Part one deals more with my beginnings and initial thoughts and part 2 will deal with my classroom and student samples. Hope you enjoy!


Jonathan So shares his experiences of going ‘gradeless’ and offers some insights into his process. Read on to see how he reflected and adjusted his learning to better help students reflect and grow as learners.

Source: Guest Post: A Grading Journey of Epic Proportions (Part 1)

5 Best Things that I have done this Year

This year I started a new grade and even a new division, grade 6. On top of this I have decided to do a lot of things differently. I have thrown out grades completely, I have no desks, I have gone 95% digital with my classroom, collaborative problem solving and I wanted to turn my grade 6 middle school classroom into a place of inquiry and learning. As the year has progressed I have gained more and more confidence in my decisions.  I am close to my 200 limit here but let me briefly share with you what those decisions have looked like.

1) Throwing out grades: 
In the past I have done this for the most part but this year I have not given one grade to a child. Instead, I have written monthly reports or updates about students strengths and weaknesses. Students have then written down what they think their strengths and weaknesses are and next steps for improvement. This goes home to parents (well actual in their drive). Students are more engaged, they ask questions not about marks but what they can do better. I have students who are now conferencing with me without my prompts. It has been great.

2) I have no desks: 
As part of making my space inquiry driven and “play-based” I have no desks, just work stations. Kids choose where they want to sit. The carpet, desks, under desk, wherever they feel comfortable to work. This has given me more freedom to worry about the learning. Kids have also become more independent as they have learned to move where they will be getting work accomplished not just with their friends.

3) Going Digital: 
I honestly keep forgetting the photocopy code. But having google drive it has allowed me to open the classroom walls and share every file with my students. They want a note or homework taken up its there. Want to share a video with parents, its there. No more paper, no more mess all online.

4) Collaborative Problem Solving: 

I have been blogging about this for quite some time and I am in no way an expert but this has single handily been the best thing that I have done this year. For those that are unfamiliar with CPS, it is basically working together to get our difficult kids to not be difficult. I started it because my daughter is one of those difficult kids. It is not because she wants to be or because we have really bad parenting but because she doesn’t know how and needs help to learn it. This year I have done it with certain kids and the whole class and I really don’t have problems in the classroom. I don’t have to be the mean, strict, yelling teacher but one that can talk to my kids and work through a solution. Just a fair warning CPS like any method is not a immediate fix. It will take time but it is time well worth it.

5) Inquiry in a Middle School

Some may think this isn’t possible but again another great moment. My kids are driven to work on projects because they care. I have gotten some of the best writing and learning from them all because of inquiry and allowing them to invest in a big idea versus checking off curriculum. The funny part, all curriculum is done.  Now if you have been reading my blog I absolutely love inquiry but I have often heard that it is hard to do in middle school. I would like to challenge that notion as it has been amazing.
Take a look at these writing samples (please remember that my kids are all ELL): 
What has been some of your best things that you have done this year?

Can we truly have a student led lesson?

My students hard at work on a class project. Focus: Why do people Come to Canada?

I have heard these terms (student led and Student choice) being used and it has started to make me do some thinking. My biggest problem that I am having is if we as teachers are making detailed and thoughtful lessons, can we truly have student led lessons?

Now I know I may be questioning or going with the flow but, hear me out. I understand that as teachers we need to have the voice and ideas of the students at heart of our lessons. Teaching is no longer about the wise old sage on the stage giving all of their knowledge to their students. but should be more about facilitating the learning that is happening. If that is what you mean by student led then I am all for that. However, let me push some thinking more here.

In the last three years I have been highly influenced by Stein et al. article titled: Orchestrating Productive Mathematical Discussions: Five practices for helping teachers move beyond show and tell.  In this article they showcase five practises that all teachers should be doing.

11: Anticipation (P.322)

The first thing is for the teacher to look and see how students might mathematically solve these types of problems.  In addition, teachers should also solve them for themselves.  Anticipating students’ work involves not only what students may do, but what they may not do.  Teachers must be prepared for incorrect responses as well.

2: Monitoring students’ work (P. 326)
While the students are working, it is the responsibility of the teacher to pay close attention to the mathematical thinking that is happening in the classroom.  The goal of monitoring is to identify the mathematical potential of particular strategies and figure out what big ideas are happening in the classroom.  As the teacher is monitoring the students work, they are also selecting who is to present based on the observations that are unfolding in the classroom.

3: Selecting student work (P.327-328)
            Having monitored the students, it is now the role of the teacher to pick strategies that will benefit the class as a whole.  This process is not any different than what most teachers do; however, the emphasis is not on the sharing, but on what the mathematics is that is happening in the strategies that were chosen. 
4: Purposefully sequencing them in discussion (P. 329)
With  the students chosen, it is now up to the teacher to pick the sequence in which the students will present.  What big ideas are unfolding, and how can you sequence them for all to understand?  This sequencing can happen in a couple of ways: 1) most common strategy, 2) stage 1 of a big idea towards a more complex version or 3) contrasting ideas and strategies.

5: Helping students make mathematical sense (P.330-331)
As the students share their strategies, it is the role of the teacher to question and help  them draw connections between the mathematical processes and ideas that are reflected in those strategies.  Stein et. al. suggest that teachers can help students make judgments about the consequences of different approaches. They can also help students see how the strategies are the same even if they are represented differently.  Overall, it is the role of the teacher to bridge the gap between presentations so that students do not see them as separate strategies, but rather as working towards a common understanding or goal of the teacher.

If we follow these practise as teachers we are thinking about good contexts that will create huge discussion in our classrooms. We are anticipating results and answers so that we as teachers can ask the right questions at the right time. We are planning and sequencing work so that the end results end up close to the Big Ideas that we were hoping to accomplish and we as teachers are prodding, questioning and revoicing so that the Big ideas are brought to the students attention. Finally, we then create similar problems so that students have the opportunities to try these ideas out again.

Now I know that this article is a math article but these practises can be and should be for all subjects. So if we follow this line of thinking, who is really leading the lessons? Is it the students? or is it the teacher? If we as teachers are putting in this much thinking and planning do we truly have student led or based lessons? or is it because we have put all of this planning into our lessons that students feel that the lesson is student based and that is really all that matters?

Love to hear your thoughts.

#MakeSchoolDifferent: Five things we have to stop pretending

Last week (I think) I was challenged by Aviva Dunsiger to think about my five things that we have to stop pretending in education (You can read her post here:

I am finally getting around to writing it.  These are in no particular order.

1) That differentiating for each student is not possible:

I know that this may seem like a pipe dream statement but I think that as teachers we need to think about each of our students in the classroom. I know that we do but we truly need to think about how we can teach to each student and meet the needs of each student. Fosnot makes a great statement in one of her books, “[Teaching and learning are often seen as synonymous words and ideals but] without learning there is no teaching.”  This statement has made we really think about how I am meeting the need of my students. It has made me think about the philosophies, strategies and assessments that I use in order to teach. Not every student is the same, so why is our teaching styles?

2) That students are vessels in which we impart our knowledge to:

I know that this is a very hot topic but to be honest most if not all people learn not from listening but from a combination of listening and doing.  I love this picture from Syliva Duckworth.

I know that we need to have some knowledge given in order to move forward but to be honest we need to give credit to our kids that they know a lot of things and can solve many problems we through at them.  As a teacher we need to find that balance between saying enough and allowing our students to explore, to muddle through and figure things out on their own. Learning is so much richer when this is accomplished.
3. That a test is the only way in which to assess students knowledge:
For centuries, students have gone to school, sat in desks, listened to teachers and then regurgitated information on a sheet of paper to show their understanding.  But is this the best way to understand our students learning? Is this a true test of their abilities? Is this really making them learn? or is it making the cram for a bit and then forget?  The true nature of a test shows you what a student understand at the particular moment in time. There is a purpose for it but I personally don’t think that it is the end all to be all like it is being used today. In all honesty I don’t think a test should be used at all. I think that teachers need to and should move into learning portfolios and project based learning. We need to have more conversations and observations of our students and communicate that as a grade. This is again is actually a lot harder then giving a test. Teachers need to know their content matter, curriculum and have a really good assessment strategies in place. Their needs to be clear communication and more communication with parents and students, but in the end this type of assessment is a lot richer. 
4. Parents don’t care about their children’s education: 
I hear this a lot in education, “Our parents just don’t care about their child’s education.”  I know that their might be some parents who may feel this way but deep down inside I would say that all parents want their children to succeed and all parents do care about what is happening in the classroom. The problem is that they may think that the only time to contact teachers is when their is a problem, when you contact them or during parent interviews. Why? because that is exactly what happened when they when to school. For the longest time and still today, the classroom is this mysterious place. Its like the Bermuda triangle. Kids go in and come out but no one knows what happens inside. The only communication parents have is what their kids say. If their kids come home happy or say nothing is wrong then parents don’t question it. We also have to keep in mind that it is really hard to raise kids today and many parents work various hours in order to support their children and household. It may be more that they can’t care because they actually can’t or more don’t have time. However, when kids come home excited to learn and excited about your classroom I will guarantee that parents will take notice.  We as teachers need to do more to open our classroom up and bring in parents; excite them to be a part of the community. 
5. That we don’t need to teach diversity and inclusion: 

This last one is an important one as it is something that I have been dealing with personally this last week. I teach my children about diversity and inclusion. I teach my children all about the ism’s, everyone of them. I teach my children that we need to love one another, allow others to have opinions and honour those opinions; whether you agree with them or not. I teach my children that just because some one is different then you (whether religion, believes, physically or racially) you do not discriminate, you do not hate and you do not make public comments about it. You may at home believe many different things but in the classroom and out in the world we need to be tolerant, loving and accepting. I teach these things because I want to make sure our world is loving and peaceful. I don’t want wars, I don’t want hate. However, I am constantly reminded and moreso this week then ever, that this needs to be done more in the classrooms. I feel this because this week I have seen close friends bombarded by hatred and slander because people don’t believe the same thing as they do. I have seen people lash out at me because I stand up for anyone who is being discriminated against.  Unfortunately it is never the children we teach but one day those children will become adults and I want to make sure that they know that hatred is hatred. That even though you may not believe or think the same as the person next to you, when you make that comment or thought public you are crossing a human rights line. That you are perpetuating further war and hurt. No one has the right to judge as we ourselves are not perfect. It is okay to have differing opinions and believes but there always needs to be discernment and tolerance in what we say and do.

Again these are my thoughts and observations about teaching. They are always up for discussion and I would love to here your thoughts on how we can make school different.

I am now calling on:

Betsy Callanan

Jay Wigmoore

Roland Chidiac

Matthew Oldridge

Michelle Cordy

If they have not done so.  Of course I would also love to hear from anyone and their amazing ideas.