Stealing Freedom Part 1

My afternoon class has really struggled with transitioning from one subject to the next twice in the afternoon for 3 x 40 minute periods. They get really engrossed in what they are doing and don’t want to switch, even when they are excited about what they are doing next. They love to learn, but really struggle to keep it together through changes. With this in mind, I decided to try something new. I changed up the afternoon timetable so that instead of all the switches, we spend the first 80 minutes on either social studies or the second subject (art or drama or health) and then finish with gym as usual. The idea was that with about 15 minutes left, we would tidy up and have a snack, a break that my students seem to desperately need. For art or drama or health, this time would make a nice time to debrief or reflect as needed, but for social studies, this would make a great time for a read aloud.

The grade 6 students are currently studying communities in Canada, multiculturalism, and what makes our country what it is. The focus is on different types of communities and different groups of people. The grade 7 students are studying the history of Canada 1800-1850. I chose the book Stealing Freedom for our read aloud as the topic of the underground railroad fits the curriculum for both grades. Right at the beginning of the book, there is this picture:

I asked the students first what they noticed and most pointed out the reward, but some also mentioned the hat and unique/unusual clothing. Some mentioned that she was black. I then asked them to write down on post-its what they wanted to learn about the person pictured. They had some great questions!

We read the first chapter and talked about things like “Where is Maryland?” and “is she a slave?” and in the end, we had a great discussion about why Ann Maria doesn’t know her birthday and how old she is. I asked them at snack to discuss how they would feel if they didn’t know their birthday or how old they were. While many groups veered off topic, they did all seem to discuss and the consensus was that it would be horrible. I forgot to have them predict how old they think she is, but they are hooked.

Today we had an afternoon that went off without any serious incidents. It was awesome! We still have a few tweaks to make to the routine, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out in the longer term.  My hope is that we can be more productive during our time and that students will start to love a subject that they mostly disliked when I started.  (So far, it looks good, but I don’t want to be too optimistic too soon.)

My One Word Goal for 2017

Sometime around the first of January, along with the usual slew of resolution posts, a number of educators in my extended PLN started posting their One Word Goal for 2017. One of my favourites, Aviva Dunsiger, wrote hers a little early and as usual challenged us to think about our one word. I was always very skeptical of the concept of a one word goal. How could anyone possibly use only one word in creating their learning plan for the upcoming year. I am a goal setter and have been for a long time. I have two massive whiteboards posted in my living room in which I lay out those goals and hold myself accountable. With all the resolution posts, I noticed that my goals for 2016 had been mostly erased and that the board needed updating. (It still does.) So I took a minute and started thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in the next year. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I need to learn to prioritize what gets done. I do prioritize, but I don’t think I’m always very good at it. I could get better.
  • I need to continue to cut down on my commitments. If you read my about me page, it becomes abundantly clear just how over-stretched I really am. I love everything that I’m involved in, but it’s not humanly possible to do everything and do it well, so choices need to be made. Here prioritizing will help.
  • I need to make more financial progress, which means that I need to work hard and keep as many sources of income as possible, but also I am exhausted and need to cut down on commitments, one of which might someday need to be some of the work. This one will be tricky.
  • I also have goals around working out and being healthy, finding time to read, finding time to exercise, and finding time to relax and spend time with my family and friends and stopping being a workaholic hermit.

This is when it hit me. My one word goal, the word that all of these come down to is this: balance. I need to find some balance. I need to figure out how to balance my financial imperatives with not burning myself out. I need to figure out how to balance being the teacher that I’ve always wanted to be with also having a life and not working 18 hours a day! I need to figure out how to balance the things that I love to do (the volunteering, the reading, the puppy time, the creative work that I do for fun) with the things that I need to do (like working as much as possible to pay off my student debt and not incur more debt). I need to find balance.

I have always been terrible at this. I dive into things with my whole heart and overcommit all the time. So here’s where I need your help. What do you do to find balance?

Taking a Break

Taking a Break

Going into the winter break, I actually needed the break, probably more than ever before, in my mind, just to have enough time to plan. A week before the break, I thought that I would spend most of my time planning, getting myself caught up and ready for January. But as the time wore down, I started seeing articles popping up everywhere about how teachers should spend the break taking a real break so that they can come back refreshed and not burn out before the end of the year. Most of them I found in unusual places, but one of the blogs that I usually read by John Spencer had this to suggest on the topic. The proverbial straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back was when my administrators told me as I left to get some rest over the break. I did.

I spent the first week and a half working retail (a little, but not too much), visiting with family, playing lots of games, going on lots of walks with Charlie, and binge-watching Netflix as I attempted to return my house to some semblance of normal. It was glorious. Slowly I have been working my way back to “school-mode” over the last few days, even spending a couple of half days at school, but I have been easing in much more slowly than anticipated. It hasn’t been an easy transition back. I thought I would be ready by now, but I have to admit that 3 more days of break would be nice. While I feel less prepared for the return to routine next week than I had hoped, I do know that taking a break was the best thing I could possibly have done for myself, and for my students.

My students will come back to a teacher who had some time off, who can talk about spending quality time with family over the break, and whose more relaxed brain will be calmer and more patient in dealing with the inevitable hiccups of the classroom. My lesson plans may not be as brilliant as my perfectionistic brain would like, but emotionally I’m calmer, more refreshed, and ready to deal with things as they come up. And when I come to class calm and ready to learn with the students, they get my heart as well as my head, and that’s really putting students and their well-being first. By taking care of myself for a little while, I am equipped to care for them.

As we head back in January, I need to figure out how to find some better balance. So my question for you is this: how do you maintain balance during the school year so as not to wear yourself out and to be healthy so that you can be a better person, for yourself and for your students?     


Photo credits to Ben Wood.

Fun Fact Friday

Every day, my students come in to a problem waiting for them on the board. They go up and answer that question, signing their name to their thoughts as a way to sign in and get their minds on and ready to go for the day. During the week, this entails some sort of math problem that requires them to register and defend an opinion mathematically. (For example, see my post on the WODB activity here: But from the start, I had this idea to shake things up with something a little more light-hearted: Fun Fact Friday. (I have this thing for alliteration… we also have Mindful Mondays and WODB Wednesdays…. I blame my father for this, but that’s another story.)

On Fun Fact Friday, instead of a question to start off the day, I posted a fact that I borrowed from I picked that sight because fun facts are supposed to be light-hearted, but I still wanted to slip a little mathematical thinking in there. As I was writing it up, I was nervous. Very nervous. But I put up my fact and invited them to add their own, and to my delight, the first few kids entered the room, looked at the board, and started putting up facts.  And not just any facts, but really interesting things that I didn’t know, many of which contained numbers/data/mathematical thinking somewhere! They sparked great discussions about the content (and how do we know). Some of them didn’t know any facts off the tops of their heads, but they used devices around the room to look up and find one.  I had been hoping for that but wasn’t sure it would happen.  It was a great start to the day!

Today showed me that my students really love to learn. Some days they hide it well, and often they don’t want to put in the work, but they really want to learn new things. They don’t want to do the work though so I have to hide the work well in something that seems like fun. I have been working hard all along to tap into that, and I have several ideas, but I want to hear from others as well. How do I tap into this desire to learn? How do I keep the learning light-hearted and fun so that students still see it as enjoyable?

Note:  The photograph has been altered only to remove student names in the interest of their privacy.

Our First WODB

I have been quiet on the web for the last couple of days. I had an interview for and was hired into a grade 6/7 long-term occasional (LTO) position, and it has been a whirlwind of prepping and trying to teach a very challenging group of junior/intermediate students. Today was day 2.

I planned a math lesson the way I wanted to do it, knowing that with my group it could flop miserably, but to my delight, it went off quite well! First we did our first WODB (Which One Doesn’t Belong) for the non-math-teaching-geeks out there. They had to sign their name to the one they thought didn’t belong and write in their reason. They were reluctant at first, but loosened up when they realized that they were allowed to use the same reason as some of their classmates. Knowing that they might be tempted to cluster in their answers, I provided an incentive for original thinking: as a class, they had to try to find my secret teacher choice. If they did, they would get a small prize. Here is the board for the day:

Students came up with all kinds of great reasons, some of which I hadn’t even considered! A few of their reasons were not well explained, so we discussed what they meant, and I clarified and made visible their thinking in green (my teacher colour). Despite their best efforts, they did not come up with my secret teaching reason. I chose 2×2 because it is a perfect square. I picked this one, because it tied into exponents (which the grade 7s had learned in the fall), and it opened up the idea of an array, which should open up their view of multiplication. After saying that it made a perfect square, another student said that it didn’t have to be a square and separated the two groups of two. I should have paid him. It got the class talking about another way in which we could talk about multiplication. Overall, we had a great discussion.  The image to the right shows some additional insights and reflections on student thinking.

I followed this up by splitting them into visually random groups and having each group take one of the multiplications and representing it as many ways as possible on a sheet of chart paper. They struggled with what this meant at first, and I had to call them back in to model it a little in the middle, but they seemed to wind up with a broader conception of multiplication by the end.

For grade 6/7 students, the multiplication was a little simple, but I noticed during my transition day of observation that students did not seem to have a lot of flexible thinking when it comes to the idea of multiplication so I wanted to back them up a little and try to open up their minds a bit. I think it worked, even if it did take a while. They now have a base from which to add in an extra digit.

Recreating First Contact… a.k.a. How a desire to make snow forts became my best history lesson ever!

Today was a good day. I guess all days have some good in them, but today had more exceptionally awesome moments than most. I had a grade 7/8 class in an alternate program here in Ottawa, which afforded me the privilege of a co-teacher and an EA, both of whom were AMAZING! Because we got a fair amount of snow today, many of our students were late, which gave my co-conspirator and I a little extra time to go over the day and do some planning. Originally, the plan was to go outside after lunch and then come in for history. But then the magic started to happen. Somehow, we got talking about how great it was outside with the snow. The first couple students had arrived and we were talking about making snowmen, but then the conversation shifted to forts and how we could use the idea of forts to move the history lesson outside. After that, things started to snowball.

My co-teacher said that we could put the students into groups of First Nations, British, and French, and then we could go out and build forts and simulate the fur trade which was a topic the grade 7s were studying. Then we had to figure out how to simulate the trade and what we could use to stand in. (Rubber chickens were beaver furs, colourful soft golf balls represented knowledge of the land, and pattern blocks were used by Europeans to represent fire arms, ammunition, blankets, and spices from Asia.) The First Nations got to go and set up their fort first because they were already on the land when Europeans arrived. At the last minute, we added a couple extra rules. First, you could speak English within your group/fort/nation, but not to the others to simulate the language barrier. Second, you needed all of the items to survive, but especially knowledge of the land. Finally, only one person at a time could go and trade because at the time, the leaders would tend to speak on behalf of everyone. We both contributed ideas to these rules, and each time a question was raised, we conferred and went with the consensus.

This is where it got really interesting. Part way through the game, the frustrated British asked if they could use their ammunition and fire arms to attack the First Nations and steal their furs. After a brief consultation, we decided to let it play out because in history, it did sometimes go down like that. But they could still only send one. The First Nations were startled at first, but quickly fought back, “killing” the initial emissary. We had not planned on this approach, so how a person “died” was pretty much made up on the spot. The British then tried to steal all the golf balls (knowledge) to try to get all the points and win. I had to tell them that you couldn’t get knowledge from someone who wasn’t alive, and took them back. In the end, all of the British group perished and were killed, the First Nations population was greatly reduced, and the French, seeing the war, sat back and let them kill each other, taking the loot in the end. While I would never condone killing each other at school, that element of the game led to some great discussion in the follow up session.

The debrief is where this lesson gained all it’s power. We sat around United Nations style in our groups and discussed what happened. First we talked about how the game was similar to actual history. It was interesting that resorting to violence was brought up first, and how that introduction changed dynamics and strategies among the parties. The British acknowledged that greed played a major role in that decision, and that greed was probably also a major factor in history as well. We discussed supply and demand and the fact that not everyone was willing to trade. We talked about the rivalry between the British and the French. We talked about the language barrier, how it was difficult, and the many strategies to overcome it, but that led to a conversation about how they knew that each group wanted to trade in a way that the initial peoples would not have. Historically, they wouldn’t approach a situation knowing each other’s intentions.

This led to differences. First, the British lost. They were wiped out. Our world might look radically different if that were the case. We will never know. Also, the First Nations were all lumped as one group rather than their smaller groups. We thought that next time, the British and French should be slightly smaller and there should be more smaller groups of First Nations. There were other differences that I am currently struggling to remember.

Finally, I asked a number of what if questions…. First, what if the smaller teams and more First Nations? What if, when the First Nations acquired a gun, they suddenly got more beavers to trade with? How could we keep the realistic element of being able to attack someone while acknowledging that killing one wouldn’t eliminate an entire group? Students had some very valuable and thoughtful answers to each of my questions, probing deeper and thinking things through, questioning each other where appropriate.

After school, I thought that using a fire arm on another group should come with an element of risk as fire arms were not as reliable back then. (Add in a dice?) As I sit here, I think about how we might add in the element of European disease. What if I didn’t tell the First Nations groups that they were supposed to trade…. what if I had them build their forts and hunker down with their stuff and let the Europeans be a surprise? What happens when you struggle? How do you form an alliance with someone if you don’t speak the same language? How can we make knowledge of the land a more useful and real element to the game? Do it in the gym where there are a number of different types of markers and they need to know which areas are safe and which are treacherous?

One of the students suggested that they all make alliances and that the land be governed by a council consisting of leaders of all the nations. The group as a whole decided that probably it wouldn’t work because eventually somebody would get greedy, but I can’t help but admire the ideal in this. How can we work together for the prosperity of all rather than the few? How can we protect against a small group getting greedy and not playing by the rules?

Why was this lesson so great? First, there were many contributors: three adults and several students all input ideas into the final outcome of the game. Second, we all had an open mind and allowed things to evolve naturally. This gave a nice sense of flow to the activity and the learning. Students asked great questions and were able to share remarkable insights. There were a lot of small group probing discussions throughout as I checked on the groups. The hot chocolate while debriefing didn’t hurt either! It was an honour and privilege to be a part of it!

My parting thoughts for today are these…

  • How can we work together for the prosperity of all rather than the few? What paradigms need to shift in society for this to happen?
  • How can we improve upon this simulation, either to make it more real or to increase the learning opportunities?
  • I have this hypothesis that part of the success of today was that students were up, outside, and moving! How can we add more opportunities to get up, out, and move on a daily basis?
  • Finally, many students had input into the way today’s activity was shaped. How can we include student ideas in this natural way more often? We had a fantastic student:adult ratio today… could this work in a class of 25 or 30 kids in the same way?

I would love to hear your suggestions!