Some Poetry Ideas: My Favourite Lessons from Practicum

Out of everything I had an opportunity to teach over my Winter practicum block, some of my favourite (and most successful!) lessons were my Literacy lessons which incorporated aspects of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model. In the first half of my placement, my Associate Teacher asked if I could start a Poetry Writing unit with the kids, and I jumped at the chance to do so. I have been writing my own poetry since I was 11 years old, and I couldn’t wait to share my enthusiasm with this class. I was given a set of amazing Poetry resources that my Associate Teacher had used in past years, and a theme to work with (the 4 elements: air, water, fire and earth). Eventually, I began introducing different forms of poetry and writing techniques, and having my placement students use them to write about an element-related topic.

After an introductory lesson and a baseline assessment, my host teacher and I decided it was time to help the students to refine their skills and begin adding more detail, description, and creativity to their poems. After a little bit of digging and some brainstorming, I found an amazing idea from the book that I had been allowed to borrow (It’s called Teaching Poetry: Yes You Can! (Grades 4-8) by Jacqueline Sweeney, and I would HIGHLY recommend it. Seriously. It’s absolutely wonderful!), and put the GRR model to work.

First, I haad a discussion with the whole group about ways to make our writing more creative. I introduced them to the idea of a “Like What?” poem, and read them a few examples from the book (as somewhat of an “I do, you watch” activity). The general idea of a “Like What?” poem is to create a short, rather free verse poem using language that is highly descriptive, and which appeals to the readers’ five senses. I provided the following list as a reminder on the whiteboard, and as a handout for those students who wanted their own copy:

  • Sounds like…
  • Tastes like…
  • Smells like…
  • Feels like… (what is its TEXTURE?)
  • Looks like…
  • Moves like…

When we had a chance to review the list, I prepared a large sheet of chart paper, and had the students collaborate as a whole group to write a class poem about the colour red. This portion of the lesson was by far my favourite, and while it took longer than I expected it to (meaning that the “You do together” and “You do alone” ended up being separate lessons), I was very impressed with the quality of the kids’ ideas, and with the direction that the unit was starting to go in. After we finished the “Red” poem, both my Associate Teacher and I were genuinely excited, and it strengthened my confidence in the merits of the GRR model as a classroom teaching strategy. Below is the poem that the Grade 6s and 7s wrote together:


Red sounds like anger and a crackling fire.

Red tastes like cherries, strawberries, apples, raspberries, and spicy peppers.

Red feels like rug burn, heat from a flame, frost burn, a soft rose, pain and velvet.

Red looks like blood, guts, snappers, a hot scarlet sunset, a piranha’s eyes, and firetrucks.

Red smells like Dorritos, ketchup, tomato soup, spaghetti sauce, paint, and tacos with hot salsa.

Red moves like fire, blood in a gutter, oozing lava, and like you’re gasping for air!

The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model: A Brief Overview

The core idea behind the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model (GRR) is that responsibility for learning is relinquished to students in smaller increments over a period of time. The process of GRR usually begins with teacher modelling sessions (“I do, you watch”), followed by a joint effort between teachers and their students (“We do together”). Then, the teacher allows students to attempt the learning task at hand, working in pairs or small groups (“You do it together”), until they are eventually able to perform the task independently, or with very minimal support (“You do alone”).
As discussed in a recent course lecture, there are several key concepts associated with the GRR model. The first of these is called the zone of proximal development, or the area that exists between tasks that students cannot do, and tasks that they can already perform on their own. In other words, tasks in the zone of proximal development are those tasks that students will be able to perform if they receive guidance from a more knowledgeable other (an individual with a bank of prior knowledge or experience about the activity in question).

In my opinion, the GRR model is a fantastic way to approach teaching, and it can be effective with students of any age level. I’ve seen it used to help Kindergarteners develop fundamental social and academic skills, and I’ve felt its effects first-hand as a student in Teachers College. My instructors have used GRR theory in several different classes, and it always makes me feel more confident in my individual abilities when I leave to complete an assignment on my own. I’ve even used it with my own placement students, and so far, my most successful lessons have been those which make the most use of the model. I’ll be posting some more about this topic under “Classroom Resources” soon, so stay tuned!

Collaborative Problem Solving in a Nutshell

The general principle of Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) theory is simple, but very powerful: “kids do well if they can.” In other words, all children are eager to learn and capable of academic greatness, assuming that there are appropriate resources and support systems available. In many cases, at-risk students, or children of promise, do not have these supports in place. This means that in order to arrive at a solution, teachers must be able to identify their own role in the problem, and work with the student(s) in question to change any negative behaviour that is being exhibited.

Dr. Greene also sees the root of most challenging behaviours at school as a set of what he calls “lagging skills” in problem solving, frustration tolerance, flexibility, and adaptability. One of the central strategies he suggests is the use of discussions/conferences with students in order for both parties to voice their concerns and brainstorm potential solutions. As I mentioned in a previous reflective post, my own experiences with CPS theory have so far been very successful, and I believe wholeheartedly in its merits as a teaching practice. While I could usually sense when it would be beneficial to try my hand at CPS, and when I shouldn’t intervene, there were a handful of instances when I found it challenging to gauge which strategy would be more effective. I know that as a new teacher, this skill will become more and more intuitive over the course of my career, and I am definitely going to continue applying Dr. Greene’s theory to my own teaching.

Carol Dweck and Mindset Theory

Out of all of the theoretical perspectives we have covered in my At-Risk concentration courses, my favourite has to be Resilience and Mindset Theory. The term “resilience” is the ability to adapt to challenging circumstances in one’s life, and referring to one’s self as an individual who is capable of overcoming adversity. Supporters of resilience theory have stated that resilient individuals are a product of a complex relationship between nature (i.e., traits that are inherited at birth) and nurture ( the environment one lives in as well as the availability of certain resources and supports). It is important to note, however, that resilience  must be built up over long periods of time. If at-risk students are able to find and maintain a resilient attitude towards life, they are more likely to overcome their unique risk factors more successfully. Resilient individuals can also be referred to as having “grit,” or a drive and ability to persevere despite the challenges presented to them.

Carol Dweck’s mindset theory goes hand-in-hand with resilience. A “mindset” is a cognitive network of beliefs that is formed primarily by one’s views regarding three different subjects:
1) Implicit theories of Intelligence: Is intelligence a fixed trait that we are born with, or can it grow with time and effort?
2) Effort vs. Ability: Is performance determined by how hard one works, or how “good” one is at a certain task?
3) Learning vs. Performance Goals: Is success during a task more important (e.g., a high grade), or is the learning process?

According to Dweck, one’s answers  will determine the type of mindset that he or she has. Those with a fixed mindset tend to view intelligence as an unchangeable trait, value talent over effort, and focus primarily on performance instead of on learning goals. Individuals with a growth mindset hold exactly the opposite views. They believe that one’s intelligence level can be developed over time, that performance is determined primarily by effort, and that learning new lessons and skills are more important than achieving a successful outcome. As someone who was very blessed to have had strong adult role models (who helped me to become incredibly resilient) growing up, I am passionate about providing then same type of support to my own students, and to help them begin to form growth mindsets. Below I have linked the video of Carol Dweck’s TED talk, as well as a presentation about “grit,” which was shown in my Teaching At-Risk course (and which I found VERY intriguing!):



What is Self-Regulated Learning?

As a whole, Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) Theory is a process of strategic student engagement. This requires a few key components:  (1) interpreting/making sense of learning tasks, (2) setting goals and choosing appropriate strategies to meet them, and (3) keeping tack of one’s progress, and adjusting behaviour as necessary.

Self-regulated learning is not always an innate skill, meaning that it is up to teachers to model the skills that are required in order to gradually help their students to develop them on their own. This idea was also illustrated by one of our course’s  guest speakers, Kindergarten teacher Katlynne Gow, who sees self-regulation as a spectrum of behaviour. This spectrum begins with students who are unable to participate in classroom activities altogether. Eventually, children learn to regulate their behaviour, and later their own learning, until they finally are able to participate in the learning process in a much more active way. Personally, I am very intrigued by the hallmarks of SRL Theory, and I am excited to help my own students both to find this capacity, and to apply it to their own lives both inside and outside of school.


A Summary of Self-Determination Theory

In my Understanding At-Risk Children course, the very first theory that we examined was something called Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which states that as human beings, we are each born with a strong desire to develop as individuals and to find happiness. In order to do so, supporters of SDT argue that we must ensure that we have met three basic needs. First, we each have a need for autonomy, meaning that we all want to feel as though we are the ones controlling our own behaviour and actions. There is also a need for competence, or for feeling as though we are successful at interacting with others, and with the world around us. Finally, all individuals must satisfy a need for relatedness, or for feelings of emotional connectedness to other people.

Closely related to SDT is the idea of motivation, which exists on a spectrum and can take on many forms. The first of these is called amotivation, which simply means that someone is not motivated to perform a task whatsoever. External motivation is an extrinsic drive to complete an activity, and it is fuelled primarily by a system of rewards and punishment. In the classroom, this can be seen in the traditional dishing out of candy, high grades, or detention as motivators, and it is arguably one of the least effective forms of motivation in the long run. One step higher is what’s referred to as introjected motivation, which occurs as a result of guilt, or pressure from an outside source. For example, many students pursue  academic goals as a result of family, peer, or larger societal pressure, rather than out of their own desires.

When an individual is motivated by a personal system of reward and punishment, or by a feeling of self-satisfaction after completing tasks, this is called identified motivation. While it is still not the highest level of motivation one can experience, it is definitely more effective than extrinsic motivators, because its source comes from within. Next, an even more self-determined form of motivation is called integrated motivation. This happens when one experiences decision-based pressure and a strong desire to find balance, and a good  example would be a student’s attempt to balance his or her academics with extra-curricular activities, in order to become a more well-rounded person.

Finally, intrinsic motivation is the most effective form of long-term motivation, primarily because it is entirely self-inititated. Rather than external factors, this motivation comes from high levels of interest, an innate desire to succeed, and it is driven by personal pressure and non-materialistic rewards. For example, a student who is intrinsically motivated to study for a test will do so not merely for a high grade, but for the feeling of pride and accomplishment that comes from improving his or her knowledge and understanding of the topic at hand. While intrinsic motivation is definitely not something that teachers can expect to help their students find overnight, it is a form of motivation that I personally feel we should be aiming to build up in them over the course of the school year. When students are intrinsically motivated to accomplish their goals, they will continue to thrive long after they have left our classroom.


iPads and Chromebooks and Smartpens, oh my!

Why would I want to use an iPad?


  • Make reading and writing tasks much easier by using the text-to-speech and voice dictation software that comes available and ready-to-use on your iPad.
  • Treat Siri as your own personal assistant! Talk to your iPad’s built-in software that responds to every one of your voice commands, and makes many of your school-related tasks much more manageable. Bonus: She can help with spelling, too!

Others (NOTE: These tools can also benefit students of all ages!):

  • Reduce the amount of visual clutter on every web page with your iPad’s Safari Reader view, making it easier to focus on the information that matters most.
  • Take advantage of the Word Prediction function built into your iPad. Using just the first few letters, this feature will provide you with word suggestions to make sure that you never make a spelling error in an important message or piece of writing again!


What’s available on your Chromebook?– Some Assistive Technology tools to try

Spoken feedback with ChromeVox: With only a few minor adjustments in the Accessibility Features menu, you can have your Chromebook provide you with audio feedback for any command that you perform while using it. This feature is great for students who struggle with reading and/or writing, or for whom auditory processing is the easiest and most effective way to learn. This is because ChromeVox allows you to hear everything that you click on/select, meaning you do not need to rely on visual cues alone.

On-Screen Keyboard: Just like a Mac or Windows computer, Google offers their users the option of operating the device without the use of a physical keyboard. If your Chromebook features a touchscreen, you are able to activate the on-screen keyboard and type text using your finger, or another pointer device. This tool can be beneficial for a large number of people, and it is available in your Chromebook’s set of assistive technology supports.

Braile display: This feature definite must-have for anyone who is blind or vision-impaired. Google’s Chromebook is compatible with several different Braile display programs, which once activated will make the device much more easily accessible.

High Contrast: By selecting this accessibility option, Chromebook users can change the colour of their text and/or screen background in order to increase the level of contrast between the two. There are a variety of colours to choose from, meaning that you can easily cater to your unique individual preferences. This tool is also a great way to make reading easier for those who struggle with it, or to help students with ADHD, ADD, or any other attentional issues to concentrate on their schoolwork without unnecessary distractions and frustration.

Screen Magnifier: Another great reading aide, this assistive technology feature allows you to zoom in on a portion of the screen, or even on an entire screen. The settings are adjustable as well, meaning that you can receive as much or as little magnification as you need in order to complete any reading-related tasks.


Livescribe’s Smartpens: A Different Type of Assistive Technology

As an owner of the older model of Livescribe’s Echo Smartpen, I can confidently speak to their effectiveness as an assistive technology device. The audio recording pen was a lifesaver during the first few years of my undergraduate degree, as it removed the struggle I experienced with note taking, and allowed me to focus solely on participating in class and getting as much information as I could out of my course lectures. The following is a description of Livescribe’s two newer pens, both of which are great assistive technology options for special needs learners.

The Echo Smartpen by Livescribe is a handheld audio recording pen that makes life much easier for anyone who takes notes on a regular basis. This is because while you are writing, the pen will store every word that you jot down into its memory device, allowing you to access your notes later through its included software program. The Echo Smartpen also lets users record audio data while they make notes, and this data can be accessed easily using one of two methods. At any time, you can access saved audio files simply by stopping a recording, and touching your handwritten text with the pen. Echo’s software program also allows you to access your audio by connecting the Smartpen to a Windows or Mac computer using a USB cable. Any notes that have an audio file attached to them will appear ingreenwriting.

The Livescribe 3 Smartpen  uses Bluetooth technology and an infrared camera combined with a free software app “ Livescribe+” which allows users to instantly capture notes written on special Dot Paper and transfer them to an iPad or other mobile device. Like the Echo Smartpen, the Livescribe 3 Smartpen contains built-in memory that will store notes for as long as you need them, and has a USB adaptor cable to re-charge your pen. The Livescribe 3 Smartpen sends the audio to be saved directly on your bluetooth connected mobile device. The pen’s touch-screen compatible stylus tip is another new feature, and it will come in handy when using Livescribe+ with an iPad or other tablet.

Computers and Assistive Technology: What’s out there for students?

As a whole, my alternative practicum was an invaluable learning experience, and in my opinion, the sheer variety of assistive technology available to students, and the efforts being made by major companies to make the support systems as universally accessible as possible is unbelievable. I will admit: I used to be incredibly intimidated by the thought of using technology in the classroom, simply because I was unsure of how to do so. However, this practicum has helped me to discover a number of the ways that I can go about using assistive technology to truly make the lives of my students easier. The following is a summary of some of the assistive apps,  programs, and built-in tools being offered by Microsoft and Apple’s products.

Assistive Technology Tools Built-in to your Mac

Text-to-Speech and Dictation Software: Mac computers come with the option to have words and text passages read aloud to you as you work. For students who are auditory learners, this tool is incredibly helpful. Mac users are able to select the voice and talking speed of their preference, and can listen to the text at their own pace. Text-to-speech software is convenient, simple to use, and can make the reading, writing, research, and editing processes much more manageable.

What does dictation software do? By using the “Dictation and Speech” icon on your System Preferences, you are able to speak into your computer and have your ideas transferred to text, word-for-word. For individuals who find written output difficult, or who thrive when they are able to express themselves verbally, this tool is invaluable, and it is available simply by making a few minor adjustments to your Mac settings.

Safari Reader view: With the amount of information, data, and visual content that is available on most webpages, it can be very easy for students to become overwhelmed. Again, with a few small changes however, your Mac computer can effectively solve this problem. Safari Reader significantly decreases the amount of Internet clutter that you see on your monitor, making it easier and faster to access the content that you want or need. This is done by eliminating all advertisements, buttons,  unnecessary icons, and navigation bars, and simply presenting your information in a clear and organized way. Safari Reader is also compatible with Text-to-speech software.

Word Prediction, Autocorrection, and Spelling and Grammar Technology: These assistive technology tools are great because they take all of the guess work out of the writing process. Every Mac computer has a “Spelling and Grammar” option in the “Edit” tab that allows students to check their work, and through word predictors and autocorrection technology, students who experience difficulty with spelling, grammar, and/or punctuation can eliminate much of their frustration when completing written assignments.

In addition, when they are struggling to spell a more difficult word, students have the option of hitting the Escape key on their keyboard to turn on their built-in word completion/prediction software. All students need to do is type the first few letters, hit Escape, and the Mac will then generate a list of suggested words to choose from, and automatically complete it. Autocorrection is another option, and it instantly catches a large number of spelling mistakes, fixing them as soon as they’re made.

Dictionary and Summarizing apps: Every new Mac computer now features a built-in dictionary app whose function is very straightforward—simply type in a word, and Dictionary will provide you with a comprehensive definition. This app is a wonderful homework helper, and it can assist in decreasing a great deal of frustration while reading. Additionally, the Dictionary app is unique because unlike similar products, it can be accessed any time, anywhere, even without an Internet connection.

Mac’s Summarize app is another unique assistive technology feature, and it can be extremely beneficial for students who struggle with reading comprehension and students with ADHD. This is because Summarize (which can be found/accessed through both TextEdit and Pages) works by taking a long passage of text, and reducing it to a more concise, easy-to-understand version. The app can condense longer readings into a single paragraph, or even down to a single sentence, and it is an excellent study tool because it takes the confusion out of summarizing and allows students to focus only on the most important/key concepts.

Some Math-related tools: Mac computers also offer assistance for students with dyscalculia and anyone else who finds Math challenging. For example, the computers’ Calculator app has a feature that allows users to have each separate keystroke spoken out loud to them, as well has the option of having the final result of a calculation being read out loud. For older students, Mac computers come with an app called “Grapher,” which provides a visual representation of a graph for any algebraic equation. Both of these tools can help students to improve their focus/concentration, and can make long, multi-step calculations more manageable. Teachers can also record Math lessons using a Voice Memo app, and make these recordings available for their students to download to their computer, allowing them to listen to them on their own time and at their own speed.


Windows Computers and Assistive Technology

Speech recognition: The Microsoft equivalent of voice dictation software, this tool allows you to control your computer using nothing other than your voice. Once the settings are put in place, all you need to do is talk into your computer’s laptop, and it will dictate your thoughts for you. Again, speech recognition is a great tool for students who learn best in an auditory way, or for whom writing is a more challenging task.

On-Screen Keyboard: This accessibility feature makes it possible for students to type on their computer without ever using the keyboard. Instead, a standard keyboard with all of the necessary keys will appear on the monitor, and individuals can type text using either their mouse, or another similar pointing device. This tool can be helpful for a variety of learners, especially for those with fine motor difficulties or any other difficulty that makes it harder for them to type.

Screen Reader/Narrator: Like a Mac’s text-to-speech option, the Windows Screen Reader (usually called “Narrator”) makes it possible to have any word, phrase, or text passage read aloud to you. This is a fantastic tool for individuals with dyslexia or any other reading challenges, because it allows them to tap into their strengths in auditory processing and takes away the frustration that can come with trying to read long or difficult pieces of writing.

High Screen Contrast: If you ever struggle with passages because the text itself is visually straining and hard to read, Windows will give you the option of changing your computer’s settings so that the level of contrast between the colour of the text and the colour of the background of the screen is higher. Activating this feature will make information easier and less frustrating to read, and it can be beneficial for a variety of learners with special needs, including students with dyslexia or other reading disabilities, lower vision levels, attentional difficulties, or any other challenges with visual perception.

Visual Notifications: This assistive technology tool applies to users with a Windows 7 computer. It can help with attentional and focus-related issues, and is a wonderful tool for students with any form of hearing loss. Why? The feature allows you to replace the sound-based notifications that you receive from your computer with a visual cue, such as a flash on the screen, a pop-up icon or another noticeable type of alert that doesn’t rely on audio cues.

An Overview of Assistive Technology

Because students with ADHD and/or learning disabilities are considered an at-risk group, and I recently wrapped up my alternative practicum with the Learning Disabilities Association, I decided it would be a good idea to share some of the resources and documents that I have been working on over the past few weeks. Much of this information will be used in the organization’s upcoming workshops, many of which are designed to introduce parents, students, and teachers to the types of assistive technology devices that are available for use in the classroom.

So, what is assistive technology? Assistive technology (according to the team at refers to any device, tool, program, or system of support that helps a student with a learning disability to work with their personal academic difficulties in order to succeed at school. While many options are found on a computer, tablet/Ipad or other mobile device, it is important to remember that not all assistive technology requires a great deal of technological support or knowledge.

There are numerous ways that assistive technology can improve the academic lives of students with special needs. For example, it can provide or assist with:

• Reading comprehension
• Attention maintenance over a period of time
• Organization
• Aide for students who have vision and/or hearing impairments
• Students with dyscalculia or other Math-related difficulties
• Note-taking
• Homework completion and productivity
• Studying
• Writing and researching
• And much, much more!


Erin Gruwell and The Freedom Writers

Another one of my professional mentors as a future teacher working with at-risk students is Erin Gruwell, whom I was first introduced at age 13, when my Grade 8 class went to see Freedom Writers at my local movie theatre. This movie resonated with me more than almost any film I’ve ever seen, and this past year, I made it my mission to learn as much about Erin and her students as I possibly could. I read the original bestseller, The Freedom Writers Diary, Erin’s personal memoir, AND a book written by a group of Freedom Writers teachers that contains a great deal of reflection, advice, and suggestions for classroom activities. While I will be working with elementary school-aged children, Erin Gruwell is the type of teacher that I aspire to be, and I hope that I can meet her in person someday to thank her for this. I gave a presentation about Erin and her class in my At-Risk children course this past January, and wanted to share it on my blog, along with Erin’s TED talks about the power of education, writing, and role models in changing the lives of young people.


As a becoming teacher, helping children to find resiliency within themselves is something I am incredibly passionate about. In reflecting on my own personal experiences, I would say that I am a very resilient individual, and I attribute a great deal of this to my parents and my upbringing. Growing up with a moderate physical disability, I was relentlessly bullied throughout the majority of my schooling. However, my family (and in particular my mom) helped me to discover the resilient attitude and coping skills that I would need to overcome these circumstances, and I can honestly say that I am a stronger, more empathetic and compassionate person because of these experiences.

Resilience is not an overnight process– it is gradually built up in students over a long period of time. In my opinion, a classic example of this is the story of Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers. Erin was working as a high school English teacher in Long Beach, California with a group of students who could definitely be classified as “at-risk.” Many of her students were living in extreme poverty, and grappling with issues such as gang violence, addiction, abuse, and various other familial problems when she met them. Through her innovative, caring approaches to teaching however, Erin was eventually able to bring her students together to create a strong classroom community, and to help her class develop the resilience that they would need to succeed in the face of their challenging circumstances.

The story of Erin and her students was compiled into a bestselling book called The Freedom Writers Diary, which was later translated into a movie. Last year, I had the privilege of attending a video chat session with one of Erin’s former students, where he told us that one of the scenes in the movie was taken almost verbatim from one of his own journal entries in The Freedom Writers Diary. That scene is included below:


**Links to Erin’s TED Talks: