Monday, December 2, 2013


I won’t keep you in suspense any longer: Feet on Floor, Bums on Chairs.  

I’ve started trialling mindfulness in my classroom (or just a chance for a few minutes of silence from my highly productive, very noisy fifth grade class), and it’s going surprisingly well.

It’s not hard.  It takes a bit of training.  It takes one or two minutes, a few times a day or every time you feel like your head is going to blow off.  The students love it.  They request it.  It slows them down.  It quiets them down.  A less nice way to say it?  It shuts them up.

But joking aside, when students sit quietly for a moment or two, focus on their breath (after getting their giggles out of the way and their initial holding of the breath and dragon-like releases that will inevitably be the first experiences of your fof boc-ing), something happens that is quite magical.  There is focus, and not just focus of the usual fifty to seventy percent, but a collect consciousness focus that one rarely sees outside of a Buddhist retreat. 

And what happens when there is 100% focus?  You get students all on the same page: receptive, ready to think, to listen, to collaborate.  They’ve cleared their minds of boy germs and girl germs and worries and "I don't want to's," and they are good to go.

It’s a little mini miracle right there in your classroom, and you can get it two, three, maybe even four times a day: students who are clear, present, and ready to inquire.

So how do you Fof Boc?  There are no rules that I know of, though mindfulness training in the classroom is becoming a very popular topic that you can investigate at your leisure.  All we do in our classroom is sit up straight, with our palms up resting on our thighs, and I say, “Breathing in…breathing out,” about ten times.  I breathe with them.  We usually close our eyes.

That’s it.  Fof Boc.  At least three or four times a day I’ll hear, “Ms. Rempel, when are we going to Fof Boc?”  That’s when I usually do it.  Or when I need a few minutes to breathe myself.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Putting the To-Do List Away for the Night

"Let's not work; let's play instead."

I've got a list up to the top button of my pajamas of things to get done (including this blog), but I've decided that for tonight I'm going to ignore the vast majority of them.  In fact, after I post this shortish blog, I am going to turn my computer off for the night.  The only condition on which I will turn it on again will to be watch Portlandia or Parenthood or West Wing(Can you believe I still haven't finished that most excellent series?) on Netflix.

Blog aside, my other obligations I shall meet are reading with my kiddos, tucking them in bed, and spending a nice chunk of time with that sweet chunk (Oops, I mean hunk) of a man I call my husband.

I'm blessed.  I love my life.  I love my family.  I love my job.  Sometimes it all seems like too much, but a bit of perspective helps with that.  My "too much" is somebody else's idea of paradise.

So what doesn't need to get done, won't.  Nobody's going to get hurt; nobody's going to judge me; nobody's going to even notice: except for me.  And I've decided that just for tonight, I'm not going to care.  (By the way, my daybook is up to date, the schedule is on the board, and my lessons are all prepared, just in case any of you think I am neglecting my job!)

That's my new start for today: to give myself a break once in a while.  Like I said, I love what I do, but sometimes I just do a bit too much of it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Messy Thinking

I'm a big fan of "making thinking visible" in its many incarnations, and my big goal is to use at least one visible thinking routine each day in any discipline (or transdiscipline, better yet!), and to really start to make the routines what they are: routines.

I am presently reading Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison and so far one of my biggest takeaways is the messiness of thinking - in a positive way.  They suggest that instead of thinking about the different kinds of thinking ala Bloom's Taxonomy, it might be better to start thinking about the quality of thinking within different kinds of thinking, and to start teaching to that.  Project Zero research suggests, contrary to Bloom's taxonomy, "understanding is not a precursor to application, analysis, evaluating and creating but a result of it (Wiske, 1997).  Therefore, understanding isn't a type of thinking, but a result of thinking.

All of this thinking is actually making my brain hurt after a long day of tending to a daughter with food poisoning, and doing my own soul searching kind of thinking about the randomness of the universe, how powerless we can feel when we can't help the people we love the most, and at the same time list-making all the items I need to pack for my five day trip to Xi'an tomorrow with a group of ten and eleven year-old students that begins tomorrow.

Today I am living proof that thinking is disorderly, non-sequential, doesn't always seem to make sense yet is strangely interconnected.

And so to bed.  Dreaming is a whole other level of thinking that I think it's safe for educators to stay well away from in their research!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Taking Action

If I want my students to take action, I daresay I need to take some myself.  So what does "taking action" mean?  This is a question our staff wrestled with over a weekend PYP workshop, giving up our  Friday of teaching and our Saturday of leisure to grapple with and come to some conclusions about.

It's an absurd question in many ways since we take action in thousands of ways each day, physically and through our responses to stimuli, many of the obvious stimuli being our students, the people we come in contact with on a daily basis, our guilt and our obligations.

But does altruistic action and action coming from a place of wanting to make the world better really exist?  And if it does, can we actively promote it?  Can we push it?  Can we do it model it ourselves without being patronizing or smug or feeling holier-than-thou?

The most obvious call to action in the coming weeks is probably helping the victims in the Philippines after the devastating typhoon, and there is no question that we should be doing this. This is necessary and we should give as we are able to the needs that we see and are able to support, but my pay check can't begin to save the world's problems.  (Please, however, go to the link I have posted and see how sending money IS important and vital in times of disaster and crisis.)

Please Don’t Send Your Old Shoes to the Philippines

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan need your help. But send money, not your hand-me-downs.

Typhoon relief effort: Manilla
Volunteers in Manila pack relief goods inside a Department of Social Welfare and Development warehouse before shipping out to devastated provinces hit by Typhoon Haiyan.

The question remains, how can I take action in the here and now?  Here's the list I came up with for myself as a teacher, a parent and as a friend:

I can inspire others to make a difference.  I'm not a highly talented person, but this is one thing I am pretty good at.

I can provide information about what is happening in the world: helping students to think outside of their own personal universes.  Teachers are obliged to do that, especially those of us who teach students old enough to cope with real-world issues.

I can play more with my kids - at home and at school!

I can give my time: to causes, to people, to writing about needs and informing, to just being present for people and being an active listener.

I can give my kindness and compassion to those who are in front of me right now.

I can be mindful: fully present in each moment.  

I can make more of an effort to make authentic connections with people.

I can approach people with a lack of judgment and an attitude of acceptance for where they are now.

I can give my encouragement.

I can offer my high expectations and the means to help students meet them.

I can more consistently offer my positive energy.

I can clean up my local environment with my family.

I can make choices to not pollute by virtue of what I buy and don't buy and how I dispose of it.

I can make choices of what to eat or not eat by virtue of how it impacts the planet, its people and its creatures.

I can make decisions moment by moment to live mindfully, making choices that contribute to a kinder, safer, more loving community of people.

These are the gifts of action that I can give to my family and to my class and to my school.  I am sure there are many more, but they are the ones at the forefront of my mind as I write tonight.  Am I doing it consistently?  Do I have pureness of heart in all of my actions all of the time?  Of course not.  I am a work in process; a teacher in process; a parent in process; a friend in process.

Small actions, small daily actions: they can make a difference that is more profound than we can know.  We probably shouldn't know how profound our actions can be, in fact.  It's better to just come from that place of wanting to make a difference, doing our best, and letting the results float on the current of life.  We don't need to know the results of our action.  We just need to know that we're doing our best.

Monday, November 4, 2013

What is the Most Powerful Question You Can Ask Your Students?

Without keeping you in suspense any longer, the answer is:

What makes you say that?

Think is the 12th most used verb in English, yet how much of it do we actually do?  Not enough, according to much of the research into teaching and learning, and certainly not enough according to the state of our world.  How much could a little more thoughtfulness (in terms of thinking and kindness) entirely change our planet and how it conducts its business?

That being said, how do we actively encourage students to think more deeply and not just give rote answers to simple questions?  The dead easy sentence - What makes you say that? - can help students explain, describe, justify, expand, and, most importantly, think about why they are saying what they are.

So often students (and normal civilians) just answer what they believe the other person wants to hear.  When asked to explain, however, they are at a loss for words.   If you want your students to start actually thinking about what they are saying or writing or doing, all you need to do is regularly ask, "What makes you say that?"

This simple prompt causes a neuron jump to the next level of brain activity.  It doesn't let you off at the first bus stop, but makes you get out of the suburbs and into the inner city of your brain.

"What makes you say that?" is slowly becoming a part of our classroom vocabulary.  I encourage students to use it with each other in their partner or collaborative groups.  For example, if they're working to solve a mathematical word problem and Grinelda says, "The teacher ate 69 apple pies," the other students in her group should immediately say, "What makes you say that?" and she should be able to explain her answer, or alternately respond, "Hang on a second, there's NO way she could have eaten that many pies without throwing up; maybe I'm wrong.  Let me think through it again."

My teaching goal is to institutionalise this question so students are constantly having to elaborate, explain and justify in their speaking, their writing, and across all disciplines.   It's a simple practice that, from the first day you start using it, will make your students more alert, more tuned-in, more likely to understand or to try to understand, and much more willing to explore their own ways they think about the universe and all of its many questions.

(By the way, it's also a great way to encourage intellectual discourse when speaking to people with whom you ardently disagree, whether it be on politics, religion or whether gluten-free or dairy-free is better.  Rather than causing dissent and hard feelings by arguing (unless you enjoy doing so), you can simply say, "How interesting.  What makes you say that?"  Then you can smile and nod as your companion either succeeds in persuading you or talks himself down the rabbit hole.  For me, I love it, because it takes me right out of the controversy that I shy away from, and people think I'm a good listener.)

If you are more interested in learning about this and other simple "thinking routines," visit Harvard's Project Zero site at

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

List Making That Leads to Inspired Learning

Yes, I do enjoy making lists, but lately I am tiring of them.  It's not just because I can't begin to scratch the surface of all the daily stuff I need to do, but also because I think the biggest thing I need to do doesn't lie in the making of lists: it's about listening and engaging and inspiring.  Deciding to listen and engage with my students and family is infinitely more likely to lead to their success and happiness than is my searching for the perfect guided reading segment or making sure every last PYP journal is read and commented on before I go home each day.  (That is not to say I don't do these things, too!)

I'm just saying that I contribute to my own joy and the joy of others in a much more meaningful way by actively engaging with them, rather than actively engaging with WHAT I have to do in order to be with them.  This evening, our seven year old daughter asked at dinner, "Is the environment or money more important?" prompting a great family discussion.  (This is a girl who is into BIG concepts and questions.  She's deep.  She's so deep, I had to go read the latest People magazine just to debrief!)  Then there is the joy of reading Little House in the Big Woods with Charlotte and Emily, and deciding that yes, maybe we could try to make a doll out of a cob of corn just like Laura had, but it might start to smell badly in a short while, but what the heck, let's do it anyway.

I started to make a long list of what I should do for tomorrow, which I will likely have to weed my way through, but I came up with a  list I like much better.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Goals For School Tomorrow:

  1. Be prepared for class.  (But of course.  I had to put that in or principals who read this might judge me.)
  2. Be spontaneous if it's going to lead to something learning-related and fun.
  3. Be kind.  To everyone.  Across the board.
  4. Listen to at least five kids read.
  5. Compliment at least 10 kids in my class on something specific and meaningful.
  6. Make my students laugh at least three times each hour.
"There is no try; there is only do."

Now there's a list that's a challenge, but I think I can manage!  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Teacher's Permission to Write Rubbish

Why are so many people afraid of so many things, but they’re never afraid of mediocrity?
Alex Bogusky and John Windsor

My students all have writer's notebooks that they carry around with them so whenever they get inspired or hear some juicy conversation, they can quickly jot down their ideas or snatches of talk in their little incubator notebooks, and use their seed ideas to create stories or poems or narratives later on.  They have pages reserved for favorite words, memories, feelings, and list of all sorts that will inspire them to write.

I've been keeping a writer's notebook of one sort or another for the better part of 40 years now and probably have tens of thousands of pages of nonsense, most of which is mouldering in my storage locker outside of Seattle, some of tucked in my desk at school and others in safety vaults and storage boxes all around the planet.

Truth be told, most of what I write is inane: my guess would be that at least 80% of it is detritus.  But there's gold in "them thar hills," and the job of a writer is to keep writing no matter what, and then be willing to sift through the rubble and find the flecks of gold.

I'm not saying everything I publish is anywhere near the gold standard or even silver: most of it is more like costume jewelry, in fact.   But then again there's nothing wrong with a bit of flashy, cheap jewelry that attracts attention and looks pretty.  I'm not looking to be the best of the best (I'll save that for the likes of John Irving and Alice Munro), but I am looking to entertain and put out some modicum of literature that does not prove distracting by its poor punctuation, prosaic by its over baked metaphorical allusions or just plain predictable and banal.

Because, yes, I write for myself, but I also write for an audience.  Those 10s of 1000s of pages mostly deserve to be buried under the volcanic ash of unwanted paraphernalia in my storage locker, but some of it also deserves to see the light of day and to be seen by the enlightened reader.

So I tell my students to let go of their monkey minds and let their pencils bleed onto their writer's notebooks or their fingers tap onto their google docs as the case may be, but not to censor, just to write. The hard work is what comes later: the editing, the culling, the finessing. I love that part too.  How gratifying it is to watch a piece evolve from so-so to stellar; how great is it when you can toss out all those tired metaphors and replace them with figurative language that sucker-punches you with its vicissitude rather than simply "jumps off the page?"

I'm all about just getting it down, throwing a lot of it out, finding the shiny gems that glimmer when exposed to just the right light, polishing them up a bit, and getting them out to whatever person who happens to stumble upon my humble attempts at writing.  I'm all for getting my students to do this as well!

Because what is writing for if not to share?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Popsicle Stick Solution

I rarely call on students who have raised hands.  In fact, students do not raise their hands in my class unless there is a fire.  They know that they are ALL responsible for being able to think through and answer whatever task I give them.

This is perhaps best teaching tip I ever received - and I think my husband gave it to me, genius that he is!  While this takes just moments to prepare, is easy to institute, and requires very little pre-teaching time, it is perhaps the simplest way to get full student involvement and alertness.  Now isn't that something ALL teachers pine for?  Yearn for?  Would sell their souls for?


1. Simply buy enough popsicle sticks that is double the amount of your class (or eat the equivalent number of popsicles).

2. Write each student's name with a marker on a popsicle stick.  (Do it twice so you have two sets.)

3. Put the popsicle sticks in two separate containers in parts of the room where you are often doing group instruction.

4. Whenever you are doing an activity that calls for participation, tell the students you will be using the popsicle sticks, rather than taking hands.

5. When students wave their hands and yell, "Pick me; pick me," ignore them and pull out a popsicle stick and call on that student instead.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.


Using popsicle sticks accomplishes a few very important things:

First, it ensures the same students are not continually responding to, participating and answering the questions while the others sit aside ambivialently, lost in their own worlds, knowing the teacher wouldn't dream of calling on them if they could call on "Chatty Cathy" with her arms flailing like a flag on a windy day.

Second, it keeps ALL students in a state of what Kath Murdoch calls "relaxed alertness."  They don't know whether they will be called on or not so they must prepare a response or be thinking of something to say when they are called on.  They know the classroom is a safe place to be and they will not be made fun of or judged (per our classroom essential agreements), and they know we will all be encouraging them to "give it a go."

Third, popsicle sticks can be used for creating impromptu groupings or partner activities.  In my class, I have a rule that no complaining is allowed, and we all agree that using the popsicle sticks when making groups, partners or choosing someone to do something is the most democratic and quickest method of getting on with the task at hand.  I use it for this purpose at least twice a day.

Third, popsicle sticks come in very handy when doing small group activities.  For example, I'll say something like, "Discuss with two people around you what makes this chapter so suspenseful and be prepared to give an example and an explanation.  You've got three minutes.  Then I'll be using the popsicle sticks."

(When using the popsicle sticks, students need to be given adequate thinking/preparation time so they aren't expected to give impromptu answers.)

This gives students who have a hard time coming up with ideas on their own the chance to chat about it with others, deepening their own understanding through the insights of others, while also giving them a little fire under their butts.  Having to actually explain (and being given adequate wait time) is a powerful experience for the shyer students or those who are inclined to drift off into their own worlds.

If you're heading off to the freezer section today, buy a couple of cartons of popsicles and start consuming them at a high rate of speed.  (Popsicles for breakfast, kiddos?)  Alternately, they are widely available at craft and stationary stores.  (That way you aren't stuck with the stains or stickiness, either.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Noisy Children: What's a Teacher to Do?

I don't know how I ever ended up becoming a teacher and how I lasted these nearly 26 years because I have a serious problem with noise.  (And yes, I HAVE been that teacher who has given one warning too many and then had children sit in silence all the way home on the bus from the field trip.)

Speaking from some experience (but not necessarily from a high degree of success), here are my suggestions on the noise-front for those of you who feel my pain yet have no way to combat the rising tension as the noise level in the classroom escalates to new and unexpectedly shrill volumes as it inevitably does.  Every. Single. Day.

1. Practice deep breathing.  I can't stress this one enough.  Since I've started meditation (mediTation not mediCation), I am a much better teacher.  "Oh," I notice to myself, "the students are yelling again."  Then I smile and breathe some more.  Sometimes I breathe very deeply and very heavily.

2.  Buy one of those shop bells that a customer rings when there is no one at the front counter.  I have one on my desk and one at the front of my classroom.  When I need the class to freeze (or shut up), I ring the bell: my own shrill reminder of their own vociferousness.  It quiets things down.  For at least 30 seconds anyway.

3. I occasionally succumb to "feel sorry for me" moments (or even days) where I say, "Ms. Rempel has a really bad headache today so I'm going to ask you to be particularly kind and just whisper.  Then Ms. Rempel won't have to yell at you and then everyone will be happy."  Sometimes it works.  Don't overuse it, though, or it will completely lose its power.

4. Remind your students that you signed on to become a teacher, not a police officer.  Sometimes it's hard for them to tell the difference.  Sometimes it's hard for me to, as well.  If you play police officer for five or 10 minutes, they usually get the picture.  I don't have a uniform or anything, but that might help.

5. Keep a stash of Advil handy.  And earplugs.

6. Don't take it personally.  Unless you're a substitute teacher or particularly unlikable (which I most certainly am not), students aren't being noisy just to annoy you: it's just who they are.  It's their job to be noisy just like it's your job to get them to zip it up. It completes the circle.

7. Ask yourself, "Is it productive noise?"  Let's face it, noise is necessary.  If kids are going to investigate and inquire and learn, they need to talk.  If they're not talking about who they've got a crush on or about the Rudolph-like pimple on your nose, then you may just need to let it go. I find if I'm inquiring with them, I'm not nearly as bothered by the noise.  So get involved (it's your job, after all), and think of it as the sweet sound of learning instead of chaotic anarchy.

I've got nothing else, folks.  Teaching and learning is noisy and messy and completely unpredictable.  Just go with it.  Or get out of the business.  I'm sure there's a cubicle waiting for you somewhere, if you want to find one badly enough.  I think I've already made my decision.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The 20 Second Rule

"The less energy it takes to kick-start a positive habit, the more likely that habit will stick."

I just finished reading a chapter in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Accor that confirms my suspicions and my own at-home experimentation: following the path of least resistance can lead to the greatest success.  As I read his story and experimented with my own, I'm now on a quest to see how I can apply this in the classroom.  I'll keep you posted on that, and I'd love to hear your ideas, too!

In the book, Dr. Accor gives the example of trying to create a new habit of practicing his guitar every evening.  He set up an elaborate record keeping system, kept his guitar in the closet not 20 seconds away from his couch where he usually succumbed to the lure of television, and decided to replace his TV watching habit with his previously joyful habit of playing guitar every day.

Guess what?  It was a rip roaring failure!  He played for four days out of the 21 tick boxes he had set up, and went right back to viewing old episodes of Seinfeld.  Now this is a social scientist who studies successful habits and happiness as his career.  What could have gone wrong?

If you haven't guessed it yet, it was the 20 seconds it took Shawn to go to the closet and retrieve his guitar.  In try number two, Shawn got a music stand and set it up in the middle of his living room with his guitar perched on it.  Success?  You bet!  In his words: "What I had done here, essentially, was put the desired behavior on the path of least resistance, so it actually took less energy and effort to pick up and practice the guitar than to avoid it."

Just to add fuel to the habit fire, he did one more thing: he took the batteries out of his remote control and put them in a drawer very close to the couch where he always watched TV.  The time it took him to put the batteries into the remote control (about 20 seconds), greatly reduced his TV watching habit as well.  He just couldn't be bothered.

 A few weeks ago, I started a habit of my own.  I have an old step box from aerobic videos that I used to indulge in and suffer from.  It's been sitting in our bedroom for years, occasionally used for bouts of exercise or for our daughters to have tea parties on.  I noticed how ugly and unused it was and resolved to throw it out, but then I had a better idea.  I put it on top of my scale (effectively hiding that guilt-inducing machine that I haven't stepped on in more than a year) in my bathroom, right beside the bathroom sink.  Since that step box has been living in our bathroom, I have been using it during all of my morning and evening ablutions:  while brushing my teeth, flossing, moisturizing and the like.  And it adds up!  At least twice a day, I step up and down maybe forty or fifty times, and sometimes longer since I'm now more inclined to polish and floss and exfoliate since I know I'm getting in my exercise at the same time!

I figure this easy, incidental exercise will pay big dividends: bigger than a daily weigh-in on the scale that's for sure.  In fact, I was so affirmed by "The 20-Second Rule" that I've just moved a set of eight pound weights beside the toilet.  This is perhaps an image you don't want to entertain, but you get the picture.  Essentially, the en suite bathroom is becoming my new gym!

So, my personal victory is underway, but next I want to figure out how to translate it into success with my students at school.  I want to make it easier for them to reach their goals, and it seems a few little time-saving tweaks could help them maximise their efficiency and increase their output in so many areas.  Trial some ideas in your own classrooms and let me know how it goes.  Meantime, I'll see what I can come up with and keep you posted!

How about a climbing wall in the bathroom?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

10 Rules for Keeping Parents Happy

My own kids soar because of the
fantastic teachers they have had!

1. Take care of their kids.  Make sure they know that their children are your top priority while you are at school.  And mean it.  They should be.

2. Keep in touch with them.  Sending out a weekly email to keep parents updated on the goings-on of your classroom shouldn't be an extra chore: it's just what you do.  It's your job.  Parents deserve to know.

3. Answer their emails.  Pronto.  Even if you can only say, "I'm busy at the moment, but I'll get back to you as soon as I am able," is polite, professional and puts you in their good books.

4. Be a partner with them and respect their choices.  With the child in the middle of the huddle, you're a team.  Make sure they know it.  Make sure their child knows it.

5. Adopt an open-door policy.  I let my parents know that I am always happy to see them, provided we set up a time in advance.  The more open you are to discussion, the less likely they are to come knocking down your door later.

6. Build your relationships now and nurture them throughout the year.  I know many excellent teachers, but they don't build the parent/teacher bond that is essential to giving your students their best year possible, and that actually, in the long run, makes your life easier.  Building trust with parents should be one of your top priorities.

7. Be sure to let parents know when their children do something commendable, even if it's just in a two sentence email.  They appreciate it and so do their kids.

8. Don't try to come off as a know-it-all, but as a partner with them in their child's learning.  Ask parents for their advice on how to best help their child.  Their insights could make YOUR year a lot easier, and will help you differentiate more effectively for each child's individual needs.

9. Be warm and positive.  Always start your conversations with a smile, a confident handshake and a positive comment about their child.  Sure, you may have to bring up some hard-to-handle issues, but there is ALWAYS something good to say.  That's what you lead off with and that's what you end with.  Always.

10. Don't try to hide things from parents.  If something "goes down," let them know.  If you need to apologise, do so.  If you messed up, own up.  Parents respect teachers who aren't perfect: more than anything, they want teachers who care.

And we do, right?  Why else would we be in this medium-paying gig if we didn't care as much as we do?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Making Thinking Visible While Measuring Angles

Warning: Unless you are familiar with both "Making Thinking Visible" and an inquiry-based teaching approach, you may not find this particular blog useful.  If you are, please read, comment and add your suggestions!  I don't profess to be an expert by any measure or degree.  (I'm making a funny...)

I will soon be starting an inquiry into angles in mathematics, which fits well with How the World Works and our primary six/grade five study of structures.

After taking the "Making Thinking Visible" online course offered through Harvard as a staff last year (google it to find all the thinking routines/take the course to dramatically improve your teaching and your CV!), it has become clear to us all how well the thinking routines fit in with our inquiry model in a PYP school.  Last year, I used them extensively within my transdisciplinary themes, but this year I'm getting more comfortable using them in stand-alone mathematics planners.

The conceptual understanding I want students to arrive at is: Angles can be measured and constructed for a variety of purposes.

In order to do this, students are going to start by doing a THINK/PUZZLE/EXPLORE routine.  This can be used as a mini assessment.

Students will make obviously connections that go beyond geometry.  Angles are a very important concept in geometry though they are not often thought about in our daily lives. However, angles impact our lives in more ways than we think. Students will begin to understand that we all use angles without even realizing.

We will do a THINK/PAIR/SHARE with the following questions:
1.              How do people in various professions use angles to complete their work?
2.              How do all people use angles in their everyday lives?
3.       How do you use angles?

After time spent walking around the school in pairs and identifying angles, then coming together to list them, students will get an “Angle Facts Worksheet” in which they will have to draw the examples they found. 

Students will also undertake a “building a house” activity that promotes understanding of angles; students will do the CREATIVE HUNT thinking routine with the word TRIANGLE, identifying its parts and purposes (How does it work?); the main purpose (What is it for?); and the audience (Who is it for?).  Students will make a ‘target diagram to explore this idea.

After ample inquiry time, students will watch two videos on identifying and measuring angles.  After they complete their viewing, they will do the CONNECT/EXTEND/CHALLENGE routine.

Students will then engage in some Mathletics exploration and problem solving to do with angles and finally do a HEADLINE routine to summarize their overall understanding of the importance of angles.  This will serve as a good summative overview.

 Reflections on planning a mini-inquiry using the thinking routines:

By using the “backwards by design” planning model in addition to incorporating the visible thinking routines in my mini-inquiry into angles, I feel really empowered about how I can teach students to think and explore through mathematics without using direct instruction at the outset.  Though it wasn’t my intention, I find it interesting that I used three UNDERSTANDING ROUTINES (Connect/Extend/Challenge, Think/Pair/Share, and Headlines) while planning an inquiry into angles.  It makes sense in that this is a rather straightforward concept, but can be taught/learned with a depth that I haven’t explored before as a learner or as a facilitator.

The fact that I plan to use a CREATIVITY ROUTINE (Creative Hunt) will also be an interesting trial: I'm hoping it will allow us to see that you can go beyond basic facts in geometry and see things from different angles.  (Pardon the pun!)  I like the idea of extending student thinking beyond the factual and exploring the creativity and play behind things, even when dealing with empirical, proven information.

I'm so thankful that I am learning how to be playful in mathematics, and teaching my students to be the same.  The best part?  They're learning more deeply through their exploration and play, and they're having fun.  You can't argue with that combination, can you?

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Happiness Component to Learning

Today's blog isn't one about how to facilitate learning so all students will learn in a way that suits them and is appropriately differentiated.  We'll leave that for another day.  Besides, for anyone bothering to read a teaching blog about inquiry, there are resources up the ying yang at your fingertips.

Today's blog is simply about remembering to keep it fun.   It's the beginning of the year for most of us, and that means right now we have the opportunity to set the tone for a community of learners that we'll be a part of for the next nine or ten months.

Pretty much everybody learns best when they are having fun.  No, we're not paid to be entertainers, and, no, every lesson doesn't need to be a barrel of laughs, but the day can be planned in such a way that levity, joy and pleasure are an important component of it.  This includes your delivery and facilitation of lessons as well as all the moments in the day where we have the opportunity to help students feel positive and happy to be at school.

In The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, he writes:

"We become more successful when we are happier and more positive.  For example, doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster.  Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent.  Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers.  It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive."

Isn't it great news that we can improve student assessment simply by helping them get in a resourceful, happy state?  I love this research!  What are some ways in which to do this that take place in the day-to-day workings of a classroom?  Here's a few ideas just to get you started, but I'm sure you can come up with a bucket load of your own.

  • Compliment your students.  When you notice them doing something kind or on-task or things that are part of the Learner Profile or Attitudes, be sure to take a few seconds to honor them publicly.
  • Pull students aside privately on a regular basis for quick one-on-one pep talks where you let them know how much potential you think they have, and how impressed you are with particular aspects of their performance or abilities or personalities.  
  • Send individual emails to students with short but sweet comments such as, "I really appreciated how willing you were to help out your group during collaborative problem solving today.  Way to go!"  It only takes a minute of your time, but the delight and ensuing motivation of such comments (not to mention the parent appreciation) long outweigh the "trouble" it takes to write a few a day.
  • Tell a joke a day (or five or six).
  • Share inspirational quotes.  Sometimes I use quotes (with deliberate mistakes) for my DOL (Daily Oral Language) practice so students can get a dose of inspiration while figuring out the structure and use of language.
  • Allow for laughable moments.  If someone says or does something funny, join in.  Show them you like to have fun too.  
  • Put up a daily cartoon for students to read when they come in to class.
  • Tell funny stories about yourself when you were their age.  Students always love to hear about their teachers' follies and mistakes!
  • Inquiry based learning encourages game playing.  Make sure your learning areas are full of games that are fun and help students meet your set objectives.
  • Have fun with your colleagues. That joy will be translated to your students.

When push comes to shove, we all have to go to school five days a week.  So do our students.  Why don't we all decide to have fun doing it?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Strict, Not Mean

I'll never forget the student who came to me near the end of the year and said something to the effect of, "I went around telling everyone that you were mean, but then I learned the right word.  You're strict."

(To my credit she also added that I was fair, and pretty and that she loved me.)

I actually like having the reputation of being a strict teacher, so long as nobody thinks I am cruel or unfair.  A better way of saying it these days is that I have high expectations for all of my students.  (And for myself.)

When we hold students to high expectations both behaviorally and academically, they tend to meet them.  In the essential agreements our class wrote together this year, the students actually talked about how they wanted to hold themselves accountable for their thinking, their work and their behavior. I felt so proud of both them and the stellar school I teach at that has taught them to expect the best of themselves and others!

Students (at least in primary school), often come up to their teachers with their work and say,"Is this good enough?"

My response is always, "I don't know.  Is it?"

The answer is often a sheepish look and a mumble of, "I guess I could __________."

By and large, students know what to do to improve the quality of their work, though they may not know HOW to do it.  That's where we teachers come in: those one-on-one moments, the mini-lessons, the guided reading sessions, the impromptu "Hey, I noticed _______: do you mind if we take a few minutes together to figure that out?" are some of the most powerful learning moments for students and forge some of the most trusting relationships where students know they're not going to be labelled as dumb, but they're going to be accepted for where they're at, and helped to advance a bit further.

I hope the fact that I take the time to share and chat and demonstrate and sit down on the carpet and read with a kid even though my back really hurts mitigates my reputation for strictness.  Also, laughing long and hard about twenty times a day, telling really great stories and listening to their sometimes really boring stories with genuine enthusiasm probably helps.

I'm not too worried about being mean.  And, anyway, aren't you supposed to start off the school year being really mean?

Does this look like a teacher students are afraid of?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Some Great Inquiry Resources

School has started and my professional reading has been kick-started after a summer of beach reads and fluffy magazines.  (Okay, I always read fluffy magazines!)

These are some of the books that I've been delving into lately or have been referring back to.  Good chance they are in your school's professional library.  Have you looked through it lately?  If they're not there, they are worth making your own personal investment in!

About Teaching Mathematics: A K-8 Resource by Marilyn Burns.  This is a comprehensive text that helps teachers teach math in a way that builds understanding and skills, with a focus on inquiry-based, often open-ended problem solving.  

Classsroom Connections: Strategies for Integrated Learning by Kath Murdoch.  In her own words, "The best topics are built around big ideas that engage students in learning about significant, robust and transferable ideas."  This books is chock-full of strategies to help your students do exactly that!  It's one of my all-time favorites...

Understanding by Design  by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe  This is a resource to help YOU help kids dig deeper into their projects through thoughtful planning. It's indispensable if you're committed to an inquiry-based learning environment! 

How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson.  Differentiation isn't only a buzz-word, it's a must-do.  This is a no-nonsense guide on how to really think, plan and actualize differentiation across the curriculum in your classroom.

Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm.  This was recommended to me by a teaching colleague, though I haven't read it yet.  I'm excited to get to it!  It seems like it will fit right into "Making Thinking Visible" routines we already use at our school, and, of course, our PYP curriculum.

My kids giving an example of why
inquiry and critical thinking are
so important!

Happy reading!  Remember: even five minutes a day of professional reading is going to improve your teaching practice.