Cell Phones in the Classroom

Seven years ago I welcomed the new changes that were happening around me. I embraced technology, yearned to have access to more of it – ipads, ipods, lap tops, and more.  I jumped in with both feet as our school district encouraged us to experiment, make plans, connect globally. Students were encouraged in our grade 6/7 classrooms to use their cell phones as a part of their learning tools, just as we were using the ipads and lap tops purchased for our school. I could not have predicted the changes that would take place over the years. Unfortunately not all the changes moved us in the direction we hoped to go.  As the world changed and our youth became highly connected through their phones, we (my school) needed to take a step back and rethink the boundaries of using personal devices in the classroom.

As the grade 6/7 teachers at my school became more and more comfortable with technology we encouraged the use of personal devices, specifically cell phones. Students were allowed to have their phones at their working spaces throughout the day using theses devices as research tools, as a place to record their learning, to connect to their google drives and the list goes on. In the beginning things went smoothly – students respected the limits and guidelines we set, they used them as learning tools and felt privileged to have them.

But recently we have noticed a shift and one that is not for the good. The shift may have imgresstarted over the last year or two but it has become amplified this year. Students have become addicted to their phones and especially to social media. Our 11 and 12 year olds use Instagram, Snapchat and Musically accounts to connect with their peers and with others globally. They know how to create group chat forums where what they share is well beyond what is appropriate. They create on line spaces where they anonymously pair up students as ‘dating’. They are so far ahead with coding, gaming and interacting on line that many of us just cannot keep up.

Now I am not an expert in the development of the brain but for me herein lies the problem – our preteens are technically advanced but their brains are still those of the preteen. As much as we educate them on digital citizenship, as much as we warn them about the permanency of on line behaviour, they just don’t get it. They don’t get it because they can’t. They struggle with seeing the big picture – and so they should – they are 11 and 12.

Our students do not have the life experiences to tell them that sending out a ‘funny’ picture to the entire class body without asking permission from the individual who is the centre of that picture is actually not funny at all. They do not have the knowledge or understanding that as much as they think the picture can be removed it cannot. They also do not understand that something ‘funny’ can quickly be edited to something not so funny.



Preteens do not have the life experiences to understand the consequences of live streaming  a student or teacher without their knowledge during class time.

They do not ‘get’ that pairing up individuals as ‘dating’ and sharing this out to all those on the account is embarrassing, uncomfortable and can wreck friendships.

imgresThey do not ‘get’ that if you can’t say it to someone’s face then it shouldn’t be said because they have become use to simply hitting send and not seeing the consequences of the message.

We try to educate, we try to monitor, we try to inform parents of what their child is doing on their device, but it just is not working. So finally we have had to put a stop to allowing cell phones in the classroom. We now collect their phones when the students walk through the door. We do not allow students to use them as learning devices anymore because they have shown too many times this year that they cannot handle this responsibility.They are only 11 and 12 after all.

I have to wonder how many other educators have faced similar issues. How many others have had to change how technology is being used in the class. Thankfully, my school has ipads and lap tops that I can access fairly regularly but this too has its own issues that we are trying to better manage for the safety of our students.

I cannot predict where we will go from here. I do know that we are trying to educate our students from kindergarten about digital citizenship but this does not change the fact that our youth do not truly ‘get’ the messages we are teaching not because they don’t want to, but because their brains simply are not mature enough to truly understand the consequences of their actions.

I do not know what is right or wrong. I didn’t think I would need to ban cell phones from my classroom as I felt that I would be able to teach them how to make responsible decisions but the pull of social media and their peers is far stronger than my influence when it comes to this issue.  Too many hours have been spent this year dealing with the aftermath of having cell phones at school so a decision needed to be made.

As an aside, I had many parents applaud the move to lock up the devices and many children now come to school without their phones.

How have you dealt with the changing face of social media with your students? Have new policies been put in place at your school? I would love to hear others’ thoughts, opinions and advice.


Students Can Own Their Learning

At times I take for granted how far my students have come in their ability to own their learning. It has not always been this way but over the past five years so much has changed in how I view students as learners and how I teach. Formative assessment is at the very core of these changes; the result – student ownership of learning.

This year, as visitors entered my room to view formative assessment in action, many educators spoke of how surprised they were at my students’ ability to articulate their learning. Students would quickly share what they were learning, how far they had come and where they still needed to go. They would pull out their criteria sheets and discuss how they could meet with success and share peer feedback, communicating how this helped improve their learning. This was also evidenced within students’ self-assessment pieces they shared on line, in journals and through discussions. The students were demonstrating how they learn best.


But something happened on the last day of school that has left me in awe of the changes and growth that has occurred with so many of my students.  When I opened up the thank you gifts and cards something dawned on me, many of the cards were not written by parents but by the students themselves. In and of itself this might not be unusual but it was what was written that had taken me aback.   For many it was not a simple thank you but a  letter sharing their thoughts and feelings of the year(s) they has spent with me. It was not thanking me for the wonderful activities we had done, or the field trips that they participated in, but focussed rather on how they had grown and changed as learners. It really was quite something to read their words and understand the significance of what they were saying.


A grade 7 student wrote:“You have pushed me to do my best and taught me to take risks and helped me to enjoy learning more. When I first came into grade six I was always worried about the final grade instead of taking risks with my learning and enjoying the process. Thank you so much for helping me realize learning is a journey we take through life and it is not about a final grade. You helped me understand that when we take risks we will make mistakes but instead of feeling sad we should use them to accomplish our goals.”

Another student shared: “Your learning strategies like peer feedback, reflections and self-assessments have been super beneficial to my learning. … You really inspired me to be a better learner; always challenging me to dig deeper.”

These are just two examples of the kind of letters the students wrote to me in their cards; I was, and still am, amazed at their words. Formative assessment practises can and do change the way students view themselves as learners. My evidence comes not from test scores but from the students themselves. To me there is no evidence more powerful than that.

Grades: the freeze effect

The discussion of grades, whether we should give grades or not, has been on my radar for years. I have always struggled with giving grades as I know it can inhibit the motivation of some of my students. In the past four years I have embraced formative assessment Unknown-2therefore everything in my class focusses on individual learning. My students know that learning has no end, it is about  looking to improve, reflecting on learning and making plans for improvement. This shift in my understanding what helps students learn best really emphasizes the need to move away from grades whenever possible. This past year the Surrey School District opened the doors for schools to create their own reporting process. I was truly excited to dive in but when it came to developing a format my colleagues and I felt communicated student learning clearly, we struggled. So the year passed, we debated and nothing changed, at least for our grade 6/7s at Hillcrest. (Other grades/teachers in our school did jump in.) Something happened to me recently where the impact on grades and student learning hit home on a very personal level.

In the novel, Touching Spirit Bear, there is a part in the story where a Tlingit elder demonstrates how change can occur. One way is by a constant tension pushing us and eventually moving us off our path. The other way is for a sudden and unexpected push, this might include a life changing event.  For me it was not a tragedy but the beginning of my Masters program that has caused a sudden shift. I was thrilled to be going back to school as my experience in the graduate diploma program had relit a fire within me that I did not realize was burning low. One of the reasons I enjoyed the program so much, and soared as a learner, was that I was free to learn what was important to me;  it was a pass/fail course. The pressure of grades was absent therefore I learned for me, not for my instructor and the grade he would assign.

So when I was accepted into the Masters program I was excited and of course a bit nervous. But the nerves were centred on handling the extra workload, not on how I would do academically. Our first day approached and the syllabus arrived. All was good until I Unknownread the break down of the grades, this is where my shove came – I was to be graded on my learning. I froze. Really and truly my gut clutched tight and my anxiety escalated. For some of you, grades may motivate you, but for me they were a reminder that I was not smart. In high school I was a B student and never felt comfortable about sharing this with colleagues. For some reason I felt that it just wasn’t good enough. Initially my university grades were Cs until I started to get my feet firmly planted in the system. I slowly worked my way back up to Bs and even a sprinkling of A-s thrown in but my GPA suffered from those first two semesters. It took me 21 years after graduating with a BA to build up enough courage to apply because  I truly did not feel smart enough.

Here it was again, I was feeling like I was an impostor, that people would discover maybe I should not have been accepted into the program because I was not an A student. I images-1worried about what this would do to my learning as I had discovered through the PB+15 program that I love to learn. One of the teachers in the program compared me to the Pacman of learning – I gobble it all up. But would my learning be stunted because I was more focused on what I thought the instructor might want from me rather than the freedom that is allowed in a pass/fail situation.

How could I not connect what I was feeling to what students experience every time they know an assignment is a summative one. What does this do to my learners who often get Cs if I know what it does to me as a B student? How am I crippling the learning of my students when I assign a grade? Are these students showing only part of what they can do because they focus on the grade and are worried about my judgement rather than theirUnknown-1 own growth? For me it is about not feeling good enough inside, but for my students they have the extra pressure of not being good enough in the eyes of their parents. The shove, as I mentioned earlier, has made a monumental impact on my understanding of how grades can affect student learning. I know some of my students relish grades. How do I know, because I asked them.  But for the most part it is the A students who want to keep grades, the rest would like them gone.Students have been very articulate with me regarding this issue and how they feel. I even had 4 students this spring choose ‘no grades’ as their persuasive topics of choice.  I am feeling even more strongly that we need to remove grades, at least in elementary school. This does not mean we stop assessing our students, but is giving a grade the best way to communicate their learning. What this looks like for my students next year I am not quite sure; this is a tension in my teaching that needs to be addressed.

I must end with a relieved sigh. This weekend, during one of my sessions in my Masters course, I found out that everyone gets a B  unless of course you do not complete the images-2assigned work. My shoulders came away from my ears and I was able to sit back into my chair knowing that I could focus on my learning. I am sure those closest to me could hear my exhale of stress as it was released. If the thought of being graded can still do this to me even as an adult learner and one who has many life experiences under my belt, what does this do to most of our students? How have we stifled their thinking, their love of learning every time we say, “oh and by the way, this is a summative piece so I will be marking it”?

Genius Hour #2 – Oh, So Many Questions!

My students have just completed their second session of Genius Hour. After our first one this past December I was anticipating even better projects and deeper learning. I started them thinking months ago about what they wonder about. I set up a Wonder Wall. we talked, we shared, and I found posts of other students’ projects to inspire the wonderings of my students. But I was met with many blank stares – who knew that finding something they wondered about that is driven by a great question could be so difficult! Too often it was about the doing – “I want to make a pyramid using Mind Craft”, “I want to build an arrow.”, “I want to do jumpshot tricks.” What was lacking was the inquisitive learning. We reviewed great questions, questions that prompted thinking, questions that led to more questions. Finally, after asking students to share their wonderings one night on the class website, the ideas began to flow. One students listed about 20 wonderings which spurred others in their thinking and the wonderings started to build and unfold.

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Having a slow start became, really, a foreshadowing of how the rest of this second Genius Hour went for me. I know, I know, it is not about me, it is about the students, but as educators we hope to build new skills in the learning of our students, we hope to push their thinking to new levels whenever we can and wherever we are. Over 4 Genius Hour sessions students were engaged in their learning; I cannot deny that classroom management issues during these sessions was basically non existent. Some students chose to go it alone while others chose to work with partners that had similar wonderings. There was even one group of three as they discovered their paths were completely aligned and collaboration would benefit each.

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The questions that were asked ranged from what was the evolution and creation of guitars,  how gun powder fires a bullet, and how to create anime using the deviantart website long with many more. (For a complete list of this term’s GH questions visit my class website GH page.) Really, most of the projects had students digging deeper and learning new things. But did it inspire their passions – I don’t feel it did and maybe this is where I am struggling. I have taken the time to really think about what I want from Genius Hour or better yet, what I am hoping for the learning of the students. It is important that students have time to choose their own line of learning but should it not develop their thinking more deeply? I want to help them develop their critical thinking skills so does this mean I need to be more directive with the types of questions they have? But then does this take away from the autonomy of their choices? Does this go back to the control of the teacher? Have other teachers also faced this dilemma when starting out with passion based projects?

Another aspect of this session that really, really bothered me (again I know it is not about me) was that I felt the students had their heads staring at lap top and iPad screens far too IMG_1482much. As my classroom has access to technology on a daily basis and we are a BYOD school (at least in grade 6/7) I am feeling more and more the pull to have students spend some time away from the screens and more on the creative hands-on approach. Research definitely needs to occur, but does this require accessing the computers? Could research mean getting in touch with an expert in their field? The one group of three were looking at why dogs are color blind. I happen to know a dog expert and helped the students set up an interview with her. They were thrilled with this face to face experience and gained so much more than reading the information on-line. I was hoping more students would go in this direction and ask for help with connecting with experts. So I wonder if this should be one of the requirements of their projects – connect with an expert.

I also feel that not enough students are choosing to create or make something. What I mean is that if you want to know how the insides of an Xbox work than taking one apart and discovering connections, wiring, set up are all part of the process. Yes, you can look it up on You tube but isn’t discovery one of the most meaningful ways of learning? There IMG_2917were a variety of students who did create items but did so at home. Arrows were made side by side with a dad, truffle chocolates were made but done at home, not at school. It almost felt like Science Fair rather than Genius Hour. How can I go about adjusting this so more of the discovery happens without parent help/control? Does this matter as they still are working on what they wish to do and are spending quality time with parents? How can I, and should I, expect students to do more of the work at school so that they are not just using their time with me on the lap tops?

There are just so many questions I have before I start the next Genius Hour session. I would love input from those of you who have spent time implementing and developing the learning within Genius Hour in your classrooms. How much do you establish around guidelines of GH projects? Do you ask for a ‘make it’ component and does it need to be done at school? Where have you found inspiration to help students think about their deeper wonderings? These are just the tip of the iceberg for me.

Hearing your stories and ideas may help me find solid ground with which to stand before beginning the third Genius Hour session in my class.

Jumping into the Deep End

About a year and a half ago I came across an idea that caught my eye and was catching the eye and minds of many educators around the globe – Genius Hour. I was instantly Unknownintrigued by the idea of having students follow their passions within the classroom setting. The research behind this new idea made sense. Of course we are inspired to learn more when we choose what we want to learn about and are following our questions. We also tend to be much more engaged in the learning process.

Sometime in 2012 I was introduced to Gallit Zvi who was working in the same school district as myself. With similar teaching philosophies and personalities we hit it off immediately. As Gallit has been instrumental in orchestrating the sharing of passion based learning I asked her out for coffee where we spent 3 hours talking, sharing, and inspiring each other as educators.

The theory behind Genius Hour made sense, the research behind passion based learningpassion fit nicely into my constructivist views of learning and I set out to learn more and develop a plan for implementation in my classroom. Well, as life happens I just did not get to it. As important as it was to introduce this in my teaching other inquiries kept pulling me away.

But in the spring of 2013 I finally introduced the idea behind Genius Hour with my class. They were extremely excited to give it a go and wondered when we would begin. Normally I am a teacher who does not dip a toe in when trying new things but jumps into the deep end, hoping to stay afloat. For some reason I was hesitant to do this with Genius Hour. I kept wondering how I would start, what would work best for my students, what would it look like in my room? So once again I pushed it off as my uncertainties kept me from diving in (gulp – should I say – the worry about failing!). I had promised my grade 6s, though, that we would start Genius Hour in the fall when they came back to me as grade 7s.

So September arrived, 15 familiar faces walked through our door along with 12 new grade 6s. Getting to know this group, establishing community, working through the bumps of Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 7.55.05 PMSeptember gave me more excuses to push it off. Thankfully I had one student who had been over the moon excited in the spring time about doing Genius Hour. He asked me on numerous occasions when we would get started. Without this young man’s prompting  I may still be pushing it off. Finally, finally, I decided to dig in, give it a go, and take the risk of implementing something new even though I had no idea of the shape it would take. Over the past couple of years I have started to take more risks with so much of my teaching but I still have a ways to go!

One of my teaching partners, Linda Wilson, had tried Genius Hour in her room last spring. She was impressed with the student learning and the creative, engaged process of students following their passions. Linda and I decided to do Genius Hour at the same time, that way I could use some of what she had already learned and we could share in the process. As we both have grade 6/7 combined classes we were planning to have the students work together on future GH projects so it made sense to do the first at the same time.

With two weeks left before the Christmas break I introduced Genius Hour to my class. I will leave the details of the actual process that took place  to another blog post but suffice toScreen shot 2014-01-13 at 7.58.21 PM say I could never have imagined what I witnessed from each and every student. The excitement towards learning, the engagement with every child, the creativity of their questions, the critical thinking of digging deeper, the problem solving, the sharing of specialties, this list could go on. I gave the students 4 in-class work sessions prior to share day and each of those days I would stop, look around and be thoroughly and completed in awe of what I saw.

Once again I have shown myself that I need to take risks more often in my teaching and worry less about it not coming out right because the right is what we make of the process. I need to set aside the day to day “stuff” and do what I know is right for for student learning and I need to follow that inner voice that says, “go for it, what do you have to lose.”

I could not have ended 2013 in a better way. A huge thank you to Gallit Zvi who started me 1aafd74e7a0100c095527ad156262eebon this journey, and to Denise Krebs, Joy Kirr and Hugh McDonald for publishing their own journeys; without knowing it, you helped to guide me to where I needed to go. And to all those educators who shared their Genius Hour journeys on the Wiki and Livebinder GH sites – thank you. I have a feeling that 2014 will be a year of even more changes inside Middleton’s class – I am so looking forward to jumping in to more deep ends.

If you would like to see the first Genius Hour projects please click the link to the class website Mrs. Middleton’s Class Genius Hour Page 1, Genius Hour Page 2, Genius Hour Page 3.

Assessment: A Misunderstood Term

Over the past few months I have been invited to speak to  a variety of educators on Formative Assessment, what it looks like in my class and how it has become, for me, the foundation for student learning.

Of and For

image credited to Caren Cameron

Before sharing the strategies and processes I use with my students I asked each group this question: Why do we spent so much time on Assessment of Learning when research tells us that it is Assessment for Learning that makes the biggest difference in impacting student learning?

The conversation that ensues is a wonderful reflection of where so many educators are when it comes to discussing assessment. Too often when this word is used it is thought of in negative terms. For most teachers the term assessment is associated with tests, exams, and summative data rather than the bigger picture of teachers and students using assessment practises daily to inform and move student learning forward.


One of the reasons that came from the discussions was fear. Fear of how to go about making changes, fear of what other teachers in the building will think, fear of not being supported by administration. Another reason given is uncertainty. This comes from a society that stresses competition and is unaware of what really makes a difference in moving students forward. Teachers are uncertain about what assessment for learning really looks and how to make it happen in their classrooms. The ‘OF’ is a part of the process of assessing our students as it gives a snapshot in time but it should be a very small piece of our overall assessment practises rather than the focal point.

At the end of a session, one of the teachers pointed out that he felt what I was teaching my students about setting criteria, establishing what the goal is at the beginning, giving and accepting feedback to improve learning and reflecting on what they have done and how to improve, are vital skills for life not just inside the classroom walls. It was wonderful to hear these words as I knew he truly ‘got it’. The big picture of Assessment for Learning is so much more than a set of strategies that are only valuable in a classroom.

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Since beginning my journey of embedding  formative assessment practises (or assessment for learning, whichever one you wish to use) into my day to day teaching the growth of student ownership has been quite remarkable. My students ask about criteria for all we do, they ask for time for peer feedback on a regular basis, they are reflecting in many aspects of their lives, and use learning language without a blink of an eye. After spending a few months in my class they no longer ask, “Is this for marks?” and have recognized the importance of focusing on the journey not the end. As research has shown, some of my most struggling learners are appreciating this approach the most as they feel value in what they have accomplished; they now see themselves as learners. There is no better evidence than this.


My wish is that there is more conversation around best assessment practise in the classroom. What does it look like? How do we help students take ownership of their learning? How do we help students see their own potential as learners? Most of all, I hope that one day when I mention assessment it will not be thought of as a negative word.

It continues to befuddle me that with all the research showing the positive impact on student learning of teachers who have integrated formative assessment into their teaching why not more educators have made the shift. Why do you think this is? Can this be changed? Some important questions that need to be discussed.

Growth Mindset is alive and Well

The past two years have been the best professional development I could have asked for – ever!

Two years ago I began a journey with a group of educators brought together to achieve a imagescommon goal, to complete our graduate diploma program through Simon Fraser University. This course was called Learning and Teaching Through Technology. For some it was about furthering their education and for others it was originally not just about the learning but also about the pay raise that was to come at the end. Over the course of two years many changes occurred within this very diverse group of learners. What transpired will forever impact how I view, not only my learning, but the learning of my colleagues as well.

UnknownThis Langltt truly was a diverse group. We came from a variety of backgrounds, from a variety of teaching experiences and brought with us our own philosophies of teaching. Some of the students in the course were in the early years of their teaching career while others (myself included) had already been teaching for quite some time. It was  fantastic to sit at a table where, on any given night, there might be a grade 2 teacher, a special education teacher, a French prep/Social Development teacher, an English 11 teacher, a PE teacher,  and a grade 12 IB math teacher; crazy variety to say the least.

When we first met we were all asked to share a bit about ourselves, to share a bit about where we were at in our teaching careers and what we hoped this course would do for us.Unknown-1 There were a few who were literally at the end of their rope with teaching. They had lost their desire, their passion and were thinking of getting out. Others brought with them tremendous baggage that needed to be worked through for them to move forward in their careers. And others, well, they wanted to change the way education was being delivered and wanted to set about carving a new path.

Each of us had our own journey to travel, and travel we did. As I reflect on these two years I have to wonder how our instructor got through it all. He had a Unknown-2mission for us, he wanted us to determine what was important for us, to dig deeper into our own learning and for each of us to make our own meaning of the readings, discussions and field studies. Many balked at his approach because, many of you will understand, teachers for the most part were great in school and knew how to do what they were told to do. They are not so good at the open ended constructivist model of learning, though, and this caused many uncomfortable moments. I will be forever thankful that Matt Rosati guided us through this experience, that he did not give up on his methods and encouraged each of us to find what was important to us and travel our own journey. It was not about what he wanted but what we wanted.

Over the past two years I have grown substantially as a learner. I have been exposed to a Unknown-3plethora of approaches to teaching that I did not know about or had forgotten about. I have been introduced to many exceptional educational leaders that made me question what I was doing. I was asked to create inquiry questions  around what I was doing or wanted to do in my class and complete field studies on these. But most importantly, I was asked to reflect on my teaching practise and to question ‘WHY?’ at every turn.

Much of my growth came from sitting in a library week in and week out with 23 other images-1educators hearing their stories, listening to their ideas and debating where education is heading or should be heading. I cannot state this strongly enough-  I was truly inspired by my colleagues in this class and they have helped to push me to be a better me. How can you not be inspired by a teacher who, when he began the course was simply “showing up”, but has become an educational leader in his school and a mentor in his district. Powerful learning was taking place; he is just one example of the growth mindset that developed in the class. My growth may not have been this extreme but not all change needs to be giant leaps, some can be baby steps too, as long as change and growth are taking place.

As I ruminate on the past two years my wish is that all educators have a chance to ‘go Unknown-4back to school’. I know that the time needs to be right, the money needs to be available, but every teacher should be encouraged to do more than just a single day Pro D. I would hedge my bets that if all teachers went back to school this would change the face of teaching as we know it.

I have so loved being back at school and the learning process that I am now contemplating doing something I said I would not do because I am already 23 years into teaching. I think I may just, well maybe, if I don’t back out, apply to do my Masters. It is only one more year now that I have completed this course so the thought, as scary as it is for me, is floating around in my brain. This is something I should have done a long time ago but let it pass by. Now may be the time.

Unknown-5Participating in this course has reaffirmed for me that teachers get into this professional for all the right reasons. But for some they become stuck, some get into the fixed mindset. I truly believe that with support, encouragement, and a great program, (with a great instructor) we all can  regain a growth mindset and make a difference in this profession.

I want to sincerely thank all the members of Langltt cohort; you have inspired me to keep growing, to keep learning.


Who Grew More, the Student or Teacher?

Two years ago the grade 6 and 7 teachers at my school, along with our principal, made an important decision. Little did I know that this agreement would change my beliefs about what is best for student learning  nor did I realize this was the nudge I needed to take  risks and make changes in my teaching.

Men in black

Then there were 4.

Men in black with star

Now we are 5!

In June of 2011, after much consideration, the upper intermediate teachers decided to move from 3 straight grade 7 classes and one split to 4 combined 6/7s. Notice I used the term combined, not split. There is a very significant difference in how you teach a combined class versus a split class.

This was not an easy decision for me as I had been teaching grade 7 for many years. I was in a comfortable spot where I knew the curriculum  well enough  to be able to develop new approaches to what I did each year without having to learn a new curriculum. I had so many questions of what this combined class would look like and how the parents and kids would react after the years of tradition that had taken place at our school.

DSCF2049As a collaborative group we decided to take the leap,  to start a new journey. As we took this turn, we also were starting an inquiry on the use of technology and student engagement in the classroom. We also made a decision to run a two year program – the grade 6s would stay with their same teacher for two years. Thirdly, we made a conscientious decision to change the language in our classes to ‘learning’ language.

Our first two year cycle has come to an end; the grade 6s we started with are now off to 100_4596high school and ready to fly. As I reflect on this journey I am amazed, thrilled and a little dumbfounded at all that has transpired. What is even more powerful is that the students have recognized how far they have come in the two years and articulate it clearly to anyone who might ask.

What made the most impact on the change in student learning? I don’t know if I can prioritize this. I doIMG_0951 know that having the students for two years allowed growth for all. If you were to tell me that Mary (made up name) would grow from a timid, sometimes socially inappropriate, and disinterested child to a leader in the class as well as the school and a deep, reflective thinker I would have scoffed. If you would have told me that Johnny (again made up) would go from the highly disorganized, lose everything, one line writer to the focused (not all the time but most of the time), love to help others learn, and writer of thoughtful, detailed pieces I would laugh. But these as well as 11 other powerful stories did take place. The 13 grade 7 students who walked out my door on June 28th, 2013 are not the same students who walked in September 5, 2011. Some may say, “Maybe this growth would have happened anyway even without the same teacher for two years.” Who knows. What I do know, from my perspective, is that I am incredibly thankful to be the teacher who did have them for two years to witness their growth and did have the chance to push them to find their own potential. I am lucky to have been part of their world for the past two years.

Creating a combined class rather than a split class was also instrumental for the students.IMG_1031 We did all of our learning together (except Math); there was no split curriculum or sitting in separate parts of the class. Each student had an opportunity to work with everyone in the class, sit beside everyone, build relationships with everyone. The students did not see themselves as separate but as a family. As we reflected on this at the end of the year the students very clearly stated that it was the creation of the family unit that was incredibly important to them. They felt that we all built trust together and that we learned together.

Finally, the change of language. This is harder to describe. I made it intentional to promote the concept “we are all learners.” I was not the keeper of the knowledge. In December of 2012 one of my grade 6 students wrote on my blog,

IMG_0997Mrs. Middleton

It’s Slapshot one of your students and I’d just like to say that I think your an amazing learner and critical thinker. By the way you take time to write out these posts and are not afraid to share your learning with the world is just amazing! You are one of the only teachers I’ve ever had that has made learning fun, and it’s an honor to have you as my teacher but most of all a fellow learner. It’s not just us that learns but you can learn from us. Like just today you said to Skywalker in class that you could never come up with “International classmates” by yourself. That just shows how much you have pushed our thinking in the past 3 months.

Thank you for making this the best year of school yet and more to come.


This was so powerful, a wow moment – my students saw themselves, as well as the teacher, as a learner.

I also tried to instil in each of my students that it was the journey that was important, the journey is the learning, not some end grade. Students came to embrace this and stopped asking, “Is this for marks?” or “What is my mark?” They came to own their learning. Two years ago I was wondering how I could move my students from being observes of their learning to owners of their learning. Well they have done it and I cannot believe how  powerful this piece is and how proud they each are of their growth.

Haley and IIt was a very difficult good bye this past June for me. It is hard to say farewell to those who have been such a part of my life for so long. I can feel a sense of satisfaction and a lot of pride that these  students will succeed in their lives because they have taken on the ownership of their learning, they are wanting to succeed for themselves. I also am thrilled to know that 15 of my students will be walking back through my door in September ready to take the lead in our class, to build new relationships and to continue their growth where they left off. How exciting for us all.

I cannot imagine going back to the way it was in June 2011; too much of who I have become happened because of the changes my colleagues and I made over the past 2 years. I am extremely excited to continue this journey and see what else transpires for me in this wonderful profession I am a part of.

To end this year each student created a reflective animoto of their growth – where they have come from and where they are now. I have shared three with you here but all of the reflections can be found on my website at Student Reflections. These are  powerful examples of how far each has come in their own growth as well as the growth of the learner.

Student Reflection

Student Reflection 2

Student Reflection 3

I would like to hear of changes others have made this past year or two that have made a difference in your teaching and student learning. Please share a story or two of what has made an impact in  your teaching.

Its About Choice

In January after I wrote my post about Juggling the Learning I had a number of educators give me great advice. One of my readers stated, “if something on Twitter was important to you, it will find its way at just the right moment. On a Saturday morning in May that is exactly what happened. At just before 9:00 am I opened twitter to take a quick peak. There on my screen were a number of tweets reminding everyone about the liveclassroom2.0 session just about to take place on Genius Hour.  Even though my plan had been to tackle a pile of marking I decided to switch gears and join the session. I am so very glad I did.

UnknownI have been watching the growth of Genius Hour for just over a year. I met with Gallit Zvi, one of the driving forces behind GH, last summer to discuss passion based learning that was starting to pick up speed, and followers, throughout our school district and North America. I had planned to begin Genius Hour some time in the fall of 2012 but for many reasons this did not happen.

Even though Genius Hour has been on my “to do” list for the year I cannot add insight intoUnknown-1 how well this is going in my class.  Instead, after listening in and being a part of the liveclassroom2.0 session, this helped reaffirm in myself that what is happening  in my room, even though it is not attached to a specific approach to learning such as passion based learning, is valuable and is right for my students. I realized that I needed to acknowledge what was working and not chastise myself for what I have not done yet.

There were many comments made during the session about student choice, student ownership, student motivation and student engagement when teachers have implemented Genius Hour in their rooms. Even though I have never done GH I found myself nodding my head and agreeing with many about the importance of these things. I believe my students are engaged, are motivated, and are encouraged to own their learning and because of this I can see their enthusiasm and feel their positive energy each day.7228077_orig

Over the past couple of years I have been asked how my students have become owners of their learning. What is happening in my room that students have been quoted as saying,   “learning in this class is fun”? I believe at the base of much of the shift is CHOICE. “You always give us choice to roam our ideas on how we can make projects our own instead of giving us a straight assignment where we don’t get to do what we want. Like for presentations you give us the chance to express our understanding how we want to do it.” (Grade 7 student) When given a choice, no matter how  minor it may be, students feel like they are in charge and have a say in how they learn. This is making a difference.

Often teachers are worried about losing control in the room if students are given choice. Many hear ‘chaos’ when ‘student centred learning’ is mentioned. I have discovered that making some relatively small changes will have tremendous impact on how students feel about their learning.

One small adjustment that is fairly easy to implement and can have big results is lettingIMG_1697 students choose where they are most comfortable  learning. In our class we have tables to work at, bean bag chairs, a love seat, an open common area right outside our door, and a stand up desk with a moveable foot bar (would love more of these as it is in high demand by those students who need to be moving all the time). Students will even choose to sit on the bare floor with their backs against the wall. This would be uncomfortable for me but not for them.  If students are not required to be in a specific location they move to where they are comfortable and can focus. They choose their spot depending on their needs and the needs of their learning. Rarely do they make poor decisions as they value the freedom of this choice.

3919197_origAnother avenue of choice that has shifted the ownership piece in the class, is how students are able to demonstrate their learning. It has been a rare occurrence this year that I ask for the same product as a summative piece. As long as they are meeting the learning outcomes, and are following the criteria, they can choose to demonstrate their learning in their own ways. It is not uncommon for projects to come to me as booklets, posters, power points, prezis, google presentations, voice threads, on ipad apps such as Book Creator and the list goes on. Currently the students are showing their learning of a measurement unit and the projects are all individual and unique. 3525026_origSome students are working in partners, some on their own. Some are using technology, some are creating models, and some are hand drawing the designs. Students  value the choice, therefore are able to showcase their learning to a higher standard then if I prescribed the how and what. “I also have changed in the way I make my presentations because before all I could make my projects out of was a poster board, but now I have the “CHOICE” of how I want to do my projects and it has made me a better student because I don’t like when I only have one option of how to do something because I have different ways of expressing my learning and when I get choose my way of doing something I do much better.” (Grade 7 student)

So even though I have yet to try Genius Hour in my room (it is at the top of my priority list), many of the benefits that have been witnessed by educators who are doing it are also what I am seeing each day in my room. By allowing for student choice, students will become engaged in their learning and the ownership piece will evolve naturally.  I only wish I had learned this years ago!6721354_orig

Juggling Our Learning

It seems that my blog entries are not what I originally imagined I would be writing when I Unknown-1first started to think about sharing my learning back in June. I had visions of sharing my success stories of using technology with my students, of helping others start to think about what they are doing with assessment in their classrooms and hopefully inspiring others to make some changes. But as life is never something we can predict, nor can I know what is going to really cause me to want to write and share. I have leaned more towards sharing who I am as an educator and the struggles and successes I have faced with implementing my ideal model of learning.

imagesEarly in December I was hit with a nasty bug. I was off work for just over a week but even once I was up and around the bug did not disappear for over a month. Since that time I have thought a tremendous amount about why I was so run down and what it was about my world that needed to change. My doctor asked me that week if my high level of stress was something that I could control. Yes, was my answer. He shook his head and said quietly, “You need to make some changes.” I can honestly admit that I was burned out.

For many teachers burn out is no surprise. After 22 years of teaching I seem to be working more, and spending less time away from work. I have been reflecting on why this is and what changes I need to make so that I can continue to do what I am passionate about – moving our children forward, helping them achieve their potential.  I have been wondering  if other educators are feeling the same way. I have wondered if there are others, such as myself, who want to do the very best for their students but are struggling with juggling the learning.

This is what I have come to realize – even though technology has changed the face of my Unknown-2classroom, has changed how I look at learning and has definitely impacted the learning of my students in a very positive way, it has also been a major factor in this burn out I now feel.

I am not a digital native, I am an immigrant in every sense. I still prefer to take notes with pen and paper, I still love the feel of a good book in my hands when I read at night, I still like to edit on a hard copy. Yet, I have embraced much of what technology has to offer. I love the freedom of learning, I love the connections I have made with fellow educators around the world, I love giving my students choice in how they learn, what they learn, and how they wish to share their learning. But what has happened to me, personally, is that technology has occupied much of my learning to the extent that I am always feeling I do not have enough time to plan, or to properly assess the learning of the students.

imagesOver the past year I have spent hours with my laptop, my ipad and my iphone around me and really do not accomplish much. I find myself jumping between work emails, student emails, twitter and reading and responding to approximately 10 of my students on-line journals. In the past, prior to this inundation of technology I would have been able to focus on a task and accomplish a goal such as get a plan in place, at least a rough outline of a unit I need to be teaching. This is what I battle on a daily basis. I have never spent as much time as I do now on my job. I regularly work 10 to 11 hours a day (this is at school) and still work most weekends as well. I get up each morning 1and a half hours before heading to work so that I can check in on student emails, parent communication, maybe check in on their websites, on their learning, their homework, read twitter and even look in occasionally at Facebook. All of this has contributed to the feeling of burn out. I have to wonder how many other teachers are doing exactly what I am doing and if they too feel that technology has added, rather than eased the work load.

In the Fall the internet at my school was shut down – actually almost all of Vancouver was shut down. It was a surreal feeling walking through the halls, walking into the office, and being in my classroom. The feel was one of calm. People were having conversations that were not rushed, people made eye contact instead of sideways looks as they typed out emails or sent texts, our principal had time to visit with students and staff alike without having to work at her computer, answer emails, fill in grants and applications or check on communication. The atmosphere in the school was one of calm, staff and students seemed more relaxed even for that one day.

So what does this tell us? How do we embrace 21st Century Learning yet keep the balance that is so very necessary if we wish to continue to be of value to our students and to this profession?

I started the New Year with the word “Balance” at the top of my priority list. I tried to keepimages this in mind as I headed back to work after the Christmas break but it did not take long before I was once again running on full speed. I have made a conscious effort to check twitter less often (but I honestly feel like I am left out of some great opportunities for my learning) and I am making a conscious effort not to surround myself at home during the evenings with work unless I absolutely have to. I am still loaded on weekends though, so I need to work on this! I love the growth I have experienced as I integrate technology into my teaching but I need to learn to set limits and stick with them.

Unknown-1I would love to hear from others. How have you balanced your learning, your work load in the age of technology? Is this an issue that is bigger and more concerning than just my world? If so, what are some possible answers? How do we keep up with the ever changing environment of learning without burning out? I am tired just thinking about it!