Using Partner Work and Conferencing in Math

A few months ago during my volunteering, my supervisor introduced me to the idea of Math Sharing Conferences in the classroom, and so far, it is one of my favourite ideas I’ve seen being used during Math. In a nutshell, the activity begins with the students being introduced to a new Math concept in the form of a whole-group lesson. Afterwards, they are presented with a set of 3-4 questions, to be worked on in partners (which have been strategically chosen ahead of time, based upon the students’ academic strengths and needs). The first 2 or 3 questions are designed to reinforce the main ideas from the lesson, and the final question is framed as an extra challenge for the students who finish their work early.

I love this idea for at-risk learners for 2 main reasons: (1) by working in partners, students are both able to split their work load evenly and help one another to problem solve, thus decreasing any stress or anxiety that they may associate with Math tasks, and (2) Once the class has been given ample time to work, the structure of the activity allows for time for the whole class to form a “conference group” and share their strategies with the entire group. This discussion session is great in my opinion, because it gives any interpersonal and verbal-centered learners an opportunity to shine, and it introduces the class to idea that in Math, everyone learns and works differently. I want my students to feel confident in their ability to solve Math problems, and to know that they can do so using an almost endless amount of different strategies. The conference portion of this activity is also a good time to reinforce growth mindset principles with the class, making it an excellent tool for helping at-risk children develop the resilience, determination, and self-confidence that they need to thrive in the Math classroom.

My Goals for 2017 as a New Teacher

Ah, January. The month of fresh starts, and newly created (and often broken) New Year’s Resolutions. This year, I am more determined than ever to achieve both my professional and personal goals (the former will be the focus of this post), and will use a number of different strategies to keep myself motivated over the course of the year. With regard to teaching, I have set 3 main goals for myself as a newly certified professional:

  1. Earn a spot on a supply list: This one is rather self-explanatory. I have recently done everything in my power to ensure that 2017 is the year that I receive my first-ever teaching job, and I will continue to keep my eyes open to other potential opportunities. I am so eager to enter the classroom as a professional, and feel as though I am well-prepared.
  2. Expose myself to a wider variety of educational technology: I am always looking for ways to become a more tech-savvy teacher, so I feel as though this is a good choice for my second goal. So far, I have learned about the following technology-related programs in my time spent volunteering:
  • Go Noodle: Go Noodle is a website providing interactive, kid-friendly games, songs, and activities,  which my supervisor uses with her Grade 4s for their Daily Physical Activity (DPA) time. The kids love the fun, upbeat, interactive nature of all of its video content, and they genuinely enjoy singing and dancing along every DPA period. I think Go Noodle is also an excellent resource for “body breaks”, and can be used throughout the school day as needed.
  • Kahoot: Kahoot is a free website providing kids with game-based learning activities. I’ve seen it being used in the Grade 4 classroom several times, primarily as a review tool after a lesson, and/or before a unit test. The students love the interactive nature of Kahoot, and are able to play along on their tablets. I would definitely try it out in my own classroom!
  • Dreambox: In Math, my supervisor has recently begun using Dreambox with the Grade 4s. Dreambox is an online Math resource that allows students to independently practice the skills and concepts that they learn in class. I’m very intrigued by this resource for two main reasons. First, Dreambox teaches Math using a variety of games and engaging activities, which I am passionate about incorporating in my Math lessons as often as possible. Second, Dreambox allows teachers to tailor each student’s account to his or her ability and achievement levels (in a very subtle way), allowing each child to work and improve throughout the year at his or her own pace. This makes Dreambox a great opportunity to use independent work and differentiated instruction at the same time.
  • PlanBoard: I know that this website is likely very popular with students, but I was unaware of PlanBoard as a lesson planning system until I began volunteering with the Grade 4s last Fall. I love how easy the website is to use, and how organized it will help my day plans to be. I will definitely be using this once I finally begin working full-time!

3. Conduct professional research throughout the year on my free time: As a teacher, I would like to be able to inspire my students to become life-long learners, and I feel as though one of the best ways for me to do this would be to set a positive example, and remain one myself. Some examples of the topics I would like to learn more about this year are play-based learning, teaching strategies for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, mindfulness and meditation in the classroom, and preparing Intermediate students for the transition to high school. I am very passionate and enthusiastic about these areas, and eager to expand my knowledge and understanding of each of them.

What I’ve Been Up To Lately

Since September of 2016, I have been volunteering regularly in a Grade 4 class within my former public school. I have also applied to the supply list for my local school board (and received a job interview in November), but this volunteer position has been wonderful so far, because it is providing me with valuable classroom experience in the meantime.

My favourite part about this job is not only the amazing, inquisitive, kind, and funny children I’ve gotten the chance to work with in both small-group and one-on-one tutoring settings, but the teacher who has been supervising me each day. I am currently working with Mrs. Skinner, my own Grade 1 teacher, and the person who inspired me to enter the profession myself. Watching her teach from the perspective of a new teacher has been incredibly rewarding, and I have gained a great deal of insight into her classroom management techniques and routines, the power of strategic student grouping throughout daily activities, and into the processes and strategies that she uses when planning lessons and units over the course of the school year. Overall, this volunteering feels like a completely full circle moment for me, and I’m definitely enjoying my time at the school. I’ve met a number of supportive fellow teachers, been exposed to several new assessment and evaluation tools, and had the chance to start and maintain an ongoing resource bank, containing activities and ideas for my own future reference and use. This position has also reminded me to stay optimistic about my professional prospects as a teacher, and it has been a great, incredibly fulfilling first step in starting my career. I am so excited to see what 2017 has in store for me, and I will continue to post updates as they happen.

My First AQ/ABQ Experience: Summer 2016

Happy New Year! I know that I have definitely not been writing on this blog as I should be lately, but that is all going to change in 2017. I’ll be back to making regular posts, and today, I wanted to take some time to discuss my post-graduation experiences. I became an Ontario Certified Teacher, received my Education degree from Queen’s, and decided to embark on not only my first try taking courses over the summer, but completing my first Additional Qualifications (AQ) and Additional Basic Qualifications (ABQ) courses as well.

The first course I selected this past summer was Special Education, Part 1. As a whole, my favourite part of this class was having the opportunity to explore a range of educational topics that I am truly passionate about. As I have discussed in previous posts, one of my main goals as an educator is to improve the social and academic lives of students with special education needs, and to make going to school a positive experience for them; one that they look forward to each day, rather than dread. In one discussion-related task, I also had a chance to apply Dr. Richard Lavoie’s theories of equity (i.e., giving each child what he or she needs in order to succeed at school)  versus equality (i.e., treating every student in exactly the same manner, regardless of their academic strengths and needs) to my writing, and this was incredibly fulfilling. Special Education, Part 1 was also my first experience with the phenomenon of online group assignments, and we were able to cover a very wide array of exceptionalities in a more in-depth way, making the course both informative and very eye-opening. Finally, one of my most important take-aways from the course was the in-depth knowledge and practice I received working with student IEPs, a skill that will be crucial as I prepare to enter my own classroom someday.

Next, inspired by my former placement students in Grades 6 and 7, I decided to complete an ABQ in Intermediate English. This course was exciting for me, as it allowed me to boost my confidence in my own ability to teach Intermediate learners, gain a great deal of new teaching strategies and ideas, and receive insight and advice from fellow teachers who are far more experienced in the classroom than myself. In addition, I learned how to create an implement a writing program in an Intermediate English class, and as a final assignment, I created my first detailed unit plan from start to finish, using Poetry as my topic (no surprise there!). I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in this course, and I am excited to be able to frame my English lessons in a way that sparks a sense of joy and curiosity in my own students. Overall, I would say with confidence that my first experiences taking AQ and ABQ courses with Queen’s University were very positive. The course content was engaging and interactive, and I was fortunate to have incredibly supportive and knowledgable instructors who were truly passionate about the subject matter. I also enjoyed the freedom to work at my own pace, and gained a very valuable professional development opportunity as a new teacher. I would without a doubt recommend these types of courses to my colleagues, and hope to take further AQ classes later on in my career.

What does “At-Risk” Mean? “At-Risk” for what?

The term “at-risk” is used to identify children who, without support or assistance, will likely experience a negative school outcome. In other words, “at-risk” children are “at-risk” for struggling at school and getting overlooked or neglected by the educational system. This is because “at-risk” children possess one or more risk factors, which fall into one of three categories:

Academic Risk Factors: school-related factors such as negative school climate, lack of resources (physical and/or human), giftedness, learning disabilities without identification or support, no regard for differnet learning styles, etc.

Social Risk Factors: These can include living in poverty or low SES areas, community characteristics (e.g., crime, low expectation levels), gap between home and school, minority status, and many other social factors.

Personal Risk Factors: Examples are disabilities, chronic illnesses (mental or physical), bereavement, lack of home support, abuse, etc.

The more risk factors a student has, the more likely it is for him or her to have a poor educational outcome.  That being said, it is important to remember that being “at-risk” does not guarantee that a child will struggle in the future; it simply means that he or she may ecounter difficulty if help is not received. This help usually comes in the form of protective factors which help to mitigate a child’s risk factors. Examples of protective factors include: resilience, positive and strong adult role models, positive and supportive school climates, guidance and counselling, providing choice, personal attention from teachers, and many, many more. “At-risk” students (or “children of promise”) with a sufficient amount of protective factors are therefore more likely to overcome their challenging circumstances and experience a more positive future outcome.

How else can I incoroporate the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model?

Aside from the GRR model itself, there are a number of related techniques that you can use in the classroom, as you assume the role of the More Knowledeable Other. They include:

Scaffolding: This is a crucial componet in helping students develop more responsibility for their learning. It involves starting off with simple tasks, modelling each phase of the learning process, and breaking larger tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Materialization: This strategy can be thought of as using physical objects to help faciliate and solidify student learning. I saw this tactic used VERY frequently in my Kindergarten practicum, and perhaps one of the most common examples of materialization is the use of manipulatives in Math lessons. In my own experiences, I have found that manipulatives are great for any age group, because they allow children to visualize the concepts that you are teaching them, and being able to see, touch, and explore the materials themselves allows for deeper experiential learning.

Private Speech: In the final stages of the GRR model, this takes the form of frequently monitoring one’s own learning through the use of mental directions, monitoring porgress, and self-coaching during difficult tasks. As adults, we do this instinctively, but younger children must be taught this skill explicitly, primarily through the use of think-alouds. During a think-aloud, teachers verbally model the types of phrases that indpendent learners say to themselves, and the sorts of tricks and techniques that they use so that over time, the students begin to build this capacity as well.

 

Some Self-Determination Theory-Inspired Teaching Tactics

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in other posts, it can be hard to picture a theory being used in the classroom simply by reading about it. One of the many aspects of my At-Risk concentration courses that I appreciated the most is the fact that we were equipped with a variety of strategies to apply each of our discussed theories to our own teaching. The following is a list of strageies related to Self-Determination Theory (SDT):

Conferences with students: To me, any teacher looking to use SDT in the classroom should use this technique as a starting point. This is simply because by holding an individual meeting/conference with a struggling student, it is much easier to tell exactly what the problem at-hand is, and what it is likely stemming from (i.e., is it a lack of autonomy, competence, relatedness, or a combination of the three?).

Be human: This technique can indirectly strengthen students’ sense of competence? Why? Being human and owning your mistakes shows your students that everyone is imperfect, and that mistakes are an acceptable (and oftentimes necessary) part of the learning process.

Circle Process: By now, I’ve sung the praises of circle process a LOT. But in addition to a great classroom management technique and instructional approach, circles can be a perfect opportunity for your class to increase their feelings of relatedness. They allow everyone to be seen at once, and to take turns sharing their opinions. This establishes a strong sense of respect and community amongst students over time, and it gives them the sense that what they have to say is both valuable and important.

Co-creating Assignments: This tactic specifically targets students’ autonomy, because by creating assignments and other assessment tasks collaboratively, you are essentially relinquishing a small amount of your control as a teacher, and giving your students the feeling that they have a say in their academic lives. It is also a great idea because it allows the children to be accountable for their own learning and performance, and it can also decrease some of the stress that tends to surround summative assessments.

Awesome Art Ideas: What Worked Well during my Practicum

Although I would not describe myself as a Visual Arts expert by any means, this past practicum block allowed me to become more confident in my abilities to teach Art to a group of students. My Associate Teacher and I decided that it would be fun to integrate Visual Arts with the 4 elements poetry that the kids were working on, and gave me complete creative freedom with my lessons. Essentially, I could lead any Art activity that I wanted to with the class, so long as each student’s work was depicting one of the 4 elements. As a whole, this teaching experience was incredibly rewarding– I watched in awe as the class became engrossed in their projects, and created artwork of a quality far beyond any expectations that I had for them. It was awesome, and I am so happy that I was given this opportunity during my placement. Here are a few of the ideas that I found worked especially well with the Grade 6s and 7s:

Ripped Paper: While this option was not as popular as I thought it would be, the kids were definitely intrigued by it. Ripped Paper art can be used with any age level, and it simply involves creating a rough sketch, and filling in the outline with small pieces of ripped up construction or tissue paper.

Pointillism: This was by far the class’s favourite! Pointillism is a style of painting invented by French Impressionist painter, Georges Seurat. It involves creating images using nothing but tiny dots, which I had my students do through a combination of Q-tips and acrylic paint.

Pastel Silhouette Art: This one was another big hit, and it was the first Art activity that I presented to my students. Each one was given the freedom to create an abstract background using various colours of pastels, and later cut a silhouette out of black construction paper to glue over top, giving the piece a shadow-like effect.

Graffiti Art: As a final Art project, I asked the class to depict one of the 4 elements using graffiti-style artwork in the medium of their choice. Some used pastels to create the desired effect, some used paint, and all of the students came up with something unique. Although many of them were slightly disappointed that the school did not have access to spray paint in order to create authentic graffiti, many of my placement students enjoyed this Art activity, and one even called it “cool,” thus giving me a large boost to my ego as a student teacher.

Mindset and Resilience: Some Strategies to try with Students

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Resiliency Theory and Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset has really resonated with me as a future educator. I believe wholeheartedly that resiliency is one of the key ingredients in overcoming any risk factor, and teachers can play a significant role in helping children to develop this trait over time. Knowing how to go about doing so however, is not always so easy, so I’ve compiled a list of my favourite classroom applications of Mindset and Resiliency Theory, as discussed in my At-Risk concentration course:

  • Place emphasis on strengths: No matter the student, always keep your attention primarily on what he or she CAN do, rather than what he or she CANNOT do. Doing this both implicitly and explicitly will eventually help children to develop a higher level of self-efficacy, confidence, and resilience, because it allows them to see themselves as talented and capable individuals.

 

  • Create a safe and inclusive space: While this is certainly not an overnight process, it can be one of a teacher’s greatest tools in helping children become resilient. This is because inclusive, welcoming, respectful classrooms in which every child feels cared for, loved, and valued as individuals provide a safe space for both academic and personal growth. They give students a haven in which they are free to be their true selves, and this in turn provides the emotional support that they will need to overcome life’s obstacles.

 

  • Learn something new: This technique is aimed at helping kids to unpack their definitions of “intelligence,” and shift their focus from doing everything correctly, to growing as learners and making mistakes along the way. In my curriculum course for Mathematics, I experienced this technique first-hand when I was given the task of learning a new skill that incorporated Mathematics in some way. I chose latch hooking (or rug hooking), and found the experience of stepping back into the shoes of the learner incredibly useful and eye-opening. I think a great idea would be to choose a new skill to learn as an entire class, and to experience each phase of the learning process alongside your students, in order to demonstrate to them the importance of frustration, setbacks, mistakes, and perseverance  in achieving our goals.

 

  • Model Learning Goals: One of the main ways that I incorporated this strategy in my practicum classes was through the use of anchor charts, which I introduced to the class at the start of a new unit, and kept on display in the classroom during work periods. To me, learning goals help students to develop a growth mindset because they focus on individual improvement, knowledge building, and skill development, not on achievement or grades. In order to be successful, learning goals must focus on specific skills, be written in student-friendly language, and make use of “I” or “we” statements. For example, the learning goal for my recent Grade 6/7 Poetry unit was “We are learning to write different types of poetry about topics that are related to one of the four elements (Water, Air, Earth, Fire).” I then expanded on this learning goal with the following success criteria: “The language in my poem uses the 5 senses to help my reader make mental pictures,” “I have used detail and descriptive, creative writing to make my poem sound interesting,” and “my poem is my best possible work.” I chose these criteria because they gave my placement students a goal to focus on, without having them become pre-occupied with a mark. Instead, I wanted them to put their attention towards reaching their potential as writers, and developing new skills along the way.

 

  • Give Praise for Effort: As teachers, it can be easy to fall into the trap of citing ability as the reason for our students’ achievement. But well-intended compliments such as “You’re so smart!” or “Great job– you’re really good at [insert skill or subject area here]!” can potentially backfire because they cause children to develop a fixed mindset about themselves and their successes. Instead, it is often more effective to praise children for their hard work and effort, and expressing genuine pride and excitement when they persevere during a more difficult task. This will let students know that they are capable of improvement, and it also makes them more likely to respond positively to challenges.

Using Self-Regulated Learning Theory in the Classroom

In my opinion, one of the most helpful components of my At-Risk concentration courses were our discussions of theory-related teaching strategies. While I do find educational theory to be incredibly interesting (and I can see the merits in many of them), I personally find it more useful to not discuss a variety of theoretical perspectives, but to bring these ideas to life and apply them to the classroom as well. With regard to Self-Regulated Learning Theory (SRL), there are a wide variety of things that we as teachers can do to help children to develop the skills that are needed in order to monitor their own progress at school.

First of all, one of the main ways to apply SRL to the classroom is through consistent modeling of self-regulatory skills. This is especially true for younger children, who need to receive explicit instruction in order to develop these capacities in themselves. At any grade level though, I would be sure to model self-regulatory skills for my students, and discuss the strategies that I use to keep myself on-task throughout the day. On a similar note, it has been shown that students benefit from the use of frequent check-ins (self and teacher), discussions which isolate certain skills and learning strategies, think-alouds, and the use of anchor charts listing learning goals and success criteria. Another helpful SRL-related strategy is teaching your students about the value of metacognition. I was first introduced to this concept by my Grade 10 English teacher, Mr. Richard, who to this day is still one of my favourites. He explained metacognition in a way that was incredibly straightforward and easy-to-understand, because he told us that it was simply the practice of “thinking about thinking.” In other words, metacognition can be practiced by pausing to think consciously about our own thinking patterns, and the strategies that work best for us as learners. This information was a game-changer for me, and as a student, it helped me to become more self-aware and efficient at keeping my learning and productivity in check. I can definitely see myself using these techniques with my students, regardless of the grade level I end up teaching.