I didn’t write much last year.
I miss it. The quiet. The adventure. The unknowns. I don’t know why I stopped writing. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened. And then one morning I woke up and it seemed my creative voice had slipped away and had gotten lost in the noise of everything else.
Earlier this week I went to a great talk by Dr. Greg Wells. He talked about the difference between engaging in social media passively vs. doing it with intention. He reminded us about the importance of managing our priorities rather than managing our time. He reminded us about the importance of self-care.
Then, as part of my back to school reflection process I took some time to create a Tree of Life. It helped me to refocus, reconnect.
It reminded me of Sunshine in a Jar.
This metaphor has been with me for a long time now. I realize now it is a touchstone for how I need to be in the world and who I want to be too. How did I forget?
Creativity is essential. It is the heart of innovation. It is part of being human. A creative pursuit is a mindful pursuit. I always feel at my best when writing is part of my life.
Creativity is about connectedness: to self, to others, to the world. Creativity in action documents, captures, shares, interprets, reflects, and shines a light in all corners. Creativity changes our lives and changes our world.
Are you wanting to learn more about creativity? Are you looking to reconnect with your creative spirit?
My goal is to post once a week for the next year writing about creativity, the idea of sunshine in a jar, and reflections on learning.
Some people find meditation or yoga excellent strategies for leading a mindful life. My rock is creativity. By connecting to sunshine in a jar, finding time to write and reflect, sharing with all of you, I hope to bring sunshine in a jar to life. I don’t think this metaphor is done its work yet. There is more to do. It has more to teach all of us.
I thought a lot about the type of writing I want to do. I love blogging. I love its ability for engagement through comments and sharing. I love that the posts are shorter and easier to fit into the spaces of our busy lives. I love that blogging is about the process and not about an outcome (like book sales). Blogging is about community. My post about Ezekiel Solomon has shown me the impact of one post. It now has 130 comments. It has connected so many people. So I am letting go of books for now. Turning my attention to this, to you.
So my big overarching question for the next year is:
What can I learn from sunshine in a jar?
And I hope along the way (since I am by nature a teacher) you will learn from sunshine in a jar too.
One of the many things I love about my job is that learning is at the heart of the work. Every day I am invited to learn from people, experiences, research, and curriculum subject areas.
Here are ten things I learned during the 2016/17 School Year:
#1: There is poetry in Math. I was inspired to keep a wall of my Math learning after taking a Mathematics Leadership course in partnership with Trent University with Dr. Cathy Bruce.
#2: The Zones of Self-Regulation are for everyone. Our whole school learned about the zones and defined what the “Green Zone” looked like for us. We celebrated at the end of the year with a t-shirt for everyone. Designed by a Grade 5 student.
#3: When we focus on improving Special Education processes all students win. It’s important to have clear roles and goals.
#4: Peace is not what is happening around you. Peace is what is happening within you. Self-care is vital.
#5: Sometimes you just need cake. Celebrate with staff whenever you can. And with students too! My favourite PA Day this year started with cake.
#6: Streamlining routines and processes helps the brain focus its best energy on the complexities of problem solving. We focused on Special Education, school day transitions and recess. Click here to watch our video about Recess Routines.
#7: In a small school, all staff are leaders. My staff continuously inspired me with the vision, spirit, and pride for our school.
#8: Paying attention to the little details can have a big impact.
#9: Ask for help. There are helpful people out there.
#10: When the staff truly work as a team, that’s when the magic happens.
Last year we embarked on a whole school inquiry inspired by Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.
I’ve written two other blog posts about this:
- Our Students are Learning Like Astronauts
- Building a Learning Culture Through a Whole School Inquiry
Do your students want to go to space?
Since I’ve received a number of notes from other schools who want to go to space, I thought I would post a summary of all the resources we developed for this project:
- Initial Year at a Glance: Learning Like an Astronaut at CPS
- Our Learning Goals
- The First Mission
- The Second Mission
- The Third Mission
- The Fourth Mission
- The Final Mission
- Sample Challenge Feedback
- Mission Count Down
- Learning like an Astronaut and Space Days
- Student Generated Questions About Space
- We Learned Like Astronauts! Celebration Powerpoint!
So how did it go?
Amazing. This project was engaging, memorable, and fun. The students regularly surprised me. One day I put up questions they had generated about space all over the school. Another day I came to school and some of the questions had been answered. Students challenged each other to find all the answers. Students were reading and interacting with hallways nearly every day. I found students walking the halls with clipboards, students stopping to read about Venus on the way to the drinking fountain, and students, huddled around questions debating possible answers. From Kindergarten to Grade 6, students were highly engaged. Our Grade 7 and 8s didn’t really buy in and I’m not sure why but the rest of the school was space-obsessed for the year.
For our final mission we went to space. Classrooms were transformed into planets, experiential learning rooms. Students used the arts, technology, science, and active cooperative games to teach the school. Students travelled from planet to planet in mixed-grade groups. It was an exciting way to end our project.
One day a planet fell off our bulletin board. A student noticed right away. He asked many of the staff if something had happened, had the planet been removed from the solar system? He was very concerned. A week or so later he was the first to notice the planet had returned safely. Students were paying attention–haha!
What did we learn?
- Students love to learn together.
- Sharing a learning focus K-8 was fun.
- Students learned a lot about space and a lot about learning.
- A mission a month was too many so we switched to a slower pace.
- The robot mission was the most engaging.
- A group of students from Gr 1-8 were responsible for all the feedback for every challenge–this was such a rich experience for all of us.
- It was important to give classes the option to participate for each challenge. Each challenge was an invitation for students. Staff needed to know this wasn’t about putting any pressure on–if students were driving the learning then great. If not, then continue with the regularly scheduled curriculum.
I hope this is useful for you–please let us know how your astronaut project goes!
It was such an honour to have my article on the cover of this month’s OPC Register, a publication by the Ontario Principal’s Council. It’s called: “It Takes a Village: Supporting student well-being using a collective impact model.” Please contact me if you’d like to read the article.
We have been having a blast this year learning like an astronaut. In the fall, I launched a program designed to engage the whole school in exploring 21st Century learning skills. We called it “Learning like an Astronaut.” For one school year we are trying to answer this question: “If we were going to learn like an astronaut, what would we need to do?”
My goals for creating this program were:
- To inspire students to see themselves as learners
- To create a sense of belonging and excitement about learning
- To increase student engagement
- To explore how inquiry works and how feedback works
The First Challenge:
Our first challenge we learned about the importance of becoming healthy and strong. Classes created amazing fitness tests. Classes earn points by meeting the criteria for the challenge. The criteria is set by and assessed by a student team with representatives from each class.
We delivered feedback in two ways: immediate video feedback and later written feedback. After observing each class the students responsible for feedback spoke as I recorded them using my iPhone. Before the end of the school day, I emailed the teacher the video. All the videos were also posted in a Google Drive. Teachers all have access to the drive and many classes went in and watched the feedback videos created for other classes too.
The students in the Space Crew deliver the feedback for all the challenges. They determine the success criteria and the number of points. They decided it should be the same for all the challenges. At the end of each challenge, I facilitate the Space Crew and scribe for them–the feedback is all theirs!!
Here is the feedback from the first challenge: Feedback for all Classes from Challenge #1
The Second Challenge
In the second challenge we explored a subject “fit for an astronaut.” Students could choose something to learn about in Math, Science, or Technology. They needed to become an expert in the topic and share their learning with another class. This was a hard one!
Students in the Grade 1/2 class all wrote books about the moon and shared them with kindergarten students. Students in Grade 2/3 researched space facts in their literacy centres, collected all their facts and turned them into an educational live tv show for the Grade 1/2 class. Students in Grade 7/8 studied aerodynamics and shared their learning with Grade 4. And the kindergarten students learned some space songs and sang them for the Grade 1/2 class.
It was interesting to see the curiosity building among students. They asked questions about what students in other classes were learning. This is about the time I started walking in on impromptu learning conversations among students during non-instructional times.
In January we invited the Peterborough Planetarium to visit. We were amazed by the high level of student engagement. Students recognized planets and were able to ask very specific questions. We didn’t prepare them for the visit (outside of the monthly challenges). The expert was also amazed by the level of thought in the student questions. Since we have been focusing on the skills we were surprised by how much students had learned about space.
Here are some of the skills we are focusing on: We are learning to…
When students spend prolonged time in the office they have the option of choosing a book from my basket. I added two big books about space. They always pick the space books. Students from K-8 flip through the books or look at the big map of the solar system on my office wall. One week I added a paper and pen, asking students who chose the space books to write down some questions about space.
Then I typed up their questions and randomly posted them all around the school.
I didn’t tell anyone. Just posted the questions one day. I didn’t even tell the staff.
As students noticed the questions, they started trying to answer them. While waiting in line for French class they debated why the sun shines so brightly. One student went around with a clipboard, recording all the questions and then looking at other walls around the school for answers. Then he would smile brightly, find his teacher, find me, and say, “I got it!”
Some students went in groups, moving from question to question. One teacher said to me, “Looks like the students are doing a scavenger hunt.” She didn’t realize I had put up the questions and the students were doing this “work,” this learning all on their own. This was another big shift in this project. It now truly belonged to the students.
Here is the document with their questions: What shape is Earth?
The Third Challenge
This has been by far the most engaging challenge sparking a lot of school and community learning conversations.
Your Third Mission Handout
We had full school participation in this one! Here are just a few of the robots:
And check out this video of the robot designed by the Grade 5/6 class!!
We are officially hooked on space! Our first challenge in our Learning Like an Astronaut project was to design a fitness test. We had full participation–every class delivered amazing entries with all students participating.
Classes had a month to learn about fitness and design a training program. The results were out of this world!
- Kindergarten read a book about space and then danced their way to fitness, showing their knowledge through movement.
- Grade 1/2 rewrote the words to the Hokey Pokey and included all sorts of strength, cardio, and agility exercises.
- Grade 2/3 created an actual training program with some tough elements, showing good form, stamina, and creativity. They even had students dressed as trainers leading the program and announcing how each exercise could prepare you for space.
- Grade 4 used this as a top secret mission putting together an outdoor obstacle course. They photographed the students completing the tasks, added written explanations of the exercises (by the students), and put it altogether in a fancy multimedia presentation. Whoa.
- Grade 5/6 (winners of this challenge) used every inch of the gym to put together stations that were named after space phenomena and the students were definitely sweating with this intense workout.
- Grade 7/8 used their tech skills to edit a video with flashing laser beams and “Eye of the Tiger.” It was very eye-catching and showed good team spirit.
Our Process for Reviewing Entries
We had a Specialized Space Crew of six students from various classes responsible for judging the entries. The students were referred by their teachers.The students created the success criteria.
Four of the six classes invited us to watch their fitness test. Two classes submitted their evidence electronically. After watching each entry our student group recorded their first impressions and shared positive feedback in a video. Before the next day, I sent the video to the class to view on their Smartboard within 24 hours. We felt it was important that the feedback was immediate.
During the fitness tests I took photos and videos so we would have documentation of the entries. All the files were placed in Google Drive so staff and students could spy on other classes and review all the entries. A number of classes spent some time on Friday reviewing the entries. It surprised me that students were most interested in listening to the feedback videos. The idea is that classes can learn from each other by assessing different approaches to the challenge.
Today the Specialized Space Crew spent two hours reviewing the evidence and videos, making notes and assigning points to each class.
I scribed their thoughts but all the points and feedback were direct student voice (not mine). Here are the class feedback sheets: Feedback for all Classes from Challenge #1
We had two classes tied in the points. To decide the one winner of this challenge, we asked the judges from those classes to step out of the room and the remaining judges discussed the two entries until they reached consensus on the winner. The winning class receives pizza so the stakes were high.
It was clear from the entries that students learned the value of being healthy and strong.
Our Next Challenge
The ink on the winner’s certificate hadn’t even dried and students were asking for the next challenge. We have a high level of student engagement for this project.
Here is the second challenge to be launched in the morning:
The Grade 5/6 class requested a music lesson but the teacher wanted to challenge me a bit more and push me out of my comfort zone. So last week I taught my first science lesson! The assigned topic: biodiversity.
This was a good challenge indeed. I struggled with staying focused, wanting to map out a whole unit. Science is awesome! Since the students were in the early part of the unit, the focus needed to be on classifying and organizing species. My preparations kept leading me to ecology and the impact of biodiversity on our planet. I only had 50 minutes of teaching/learning time with the students so I needed to be intentional with my laser beam learning focus. I learned before students can truly understand impact, they needed to understand the scope of what’s out there. The teacher graciously answered my many, many questions as I prepared this lesson.
- To continue with using a 3-part lesson, learning goals, and success criteria.
- To include opportunities for feedback.
- To design and implement an open task that provided multiple entry points, cooperative learning, opportunities for inquiry, and opportunities for students to share their thinking.
- To have a high level of student engagement.
- To ensure the Grade 5s (who are studying the body could still participate without prior knowledge of biodiversity).
The Lesson: Come to Australia
Using power point slides I introduced the lesson. A few years ago I went on a school trip to Australia (it’s true). When we think of Australia we often think of soft, cuddly koalas. How is wildlife different in Australia than in Canada?
Here is a quick overview of the power point slides: Come to Australia
When we first arrived in Australia, our tour guide shared this song with us:
First the class listened to the song. Then I gave each student lyrics to the song. We sang it together three times.
Students loved this song! Their energy shifted and their minds totally opened to whatever the next hour would bring. The song caught them by surprise, appealed to their sense of humour, and gave them insight into a new perspective on Australia. (At the end of the lesson, the students begged to sing it again and again and again. Throughout the day, students were singing this song to me as they passed me in the halls).
Learning Goal: We are learning to sort and classify species from Australia.
- I can organize species into vertebrate classes.
- I can describe species using details that help to distinguish them.
- I can predict behaviours of species based on their appearances.
On our trip we visited Blue Mountains and hiked through a rainforest. We went to Bondi Beach and walked in the waves. We went to an aquarium and wildlife parks. I have hundreds of pictures of wildlife from the trip–but now I’ve forgotten the names of what I photographed!
I need the help of zoologists. What do zoologists do? They ask OGY questions (zoolOGY)–Oh gee why? And they look deeply. They look into the species rather than at the species.
In groups, students were given an envelope with 30 pictures of wildlife from Australia and a large sheet of paper. They needed to sort and organize the pictures, beginning with “Oh gee why” questions to spark discussion and then looking deeply into the pictures for clues as to where they should be placed.
Use a classification system of your choice to sort the pictures:
- Physical appearance
- Structural characteristics
- Class within the animal kingdom
- Scary factor
Checklist–Does your classification system…
- Group species in a way that makes sense?
- Use labels that show characteristics?
- Show what you know about wildlife?
Big challenge (if you want it): Create groupings where the wildlife can only belong to one of the groups (no overlap in characteristics).
The class went to work immediately, pulling the photos out of the envelope and laying them out across the desk. They had more questions than answers and could not name most of the wildlife in the pictures. One group decided to sort the pictures based on “cuteness” but were surprised to find that they could not reach consensus on defining “cute.” Some groups tried to use predator and prey as their headings, developing hypothesis’ as to which animals would be in each category based on appearance. Groups with Grade 6 students who have already been introduced to biodiversity organized the pictures using the class system (what they could remember of it after two introductory lessons). While students worked there were a range of discussions from debating kangaroos to questioning the differences between reptiles and amphibians. One student mentally departed from his group to map out a more complicated system. As you can see from their work, there are many interesting choices here and opportunities for students to share their thinking and justify their choices. The student work also shows where more learning is needed.
After the students were finished with their systems they did a gallery walk, moving around the room looking at how the others had organized the photos. Then we had a discussion using these questions as prompts:
- What was similar and/or different in how other groups organized the photos?
- What questions do you have now? What will we need to investigate next?
- What did you like best about a system another group designed? What did you like best about the system you designed?
We went around the room one group at a time. Students offered reflections on what they had learned and what they liked best about the system they designed. I also offered feedback to each group based on our learning goal and success criteria.
To finish this lesson we watched another short video clip (before singing the song a few more times!)
While the students worked on the task it was challenging to ask probing questions, assess the progress of the group, and the progress of the individual all at once and then retaining this in my head. I didn’t develop a formal tracking system to use while the students worked. Ideally, I would have a clipboard with a list of look-fors to monitor individual students. I walked away from the lesson/task knowing how groups performed and how some individuals worked, but I would not be able to account for assessing each student’s learning without some monitoring system in place. Relying on my mind/memory to collect and synthesize the information would not be enough.
If I were to do this lesson again, I would create “assessment for learning” tools for making notes on groups and individuals.
The student feedback was excellent. Here are some of their comments on the lesson:
- “For your first science lesson, that was really good.”
- “Always put something at the end that makes students happy. Then we are happy when the learning is done.”
- “I give it a million out of one.”
- “You are a good teacher because you travel. When you travel you learn a lot.”
And the teacher hoped to extend the lesson the next day based on her observations of student learning and next steps.
Today I taught my first primary lesson. My background and experience is as a high school teacher and administrator. Now that I’m in my second year as an elementary principal I wanted to get into classes more, to become more familiar with curriculum in the various grades and subjects, and to explore different research-based teaching strategies.
In mid-September I invited classes to choose any subject for me to come in and teach one lesson. My stomach did flip flops at the thought of teaching grades and subjects that were new to me–and in front of my staff. But this was important to me. In exchange for the lesson I asked that the class and the teacher give me feedback on my teaching.
The first class to request a lesson was Grade 2/3. They wanted music.
The students know I am a singer (at our first assembly last year I sang Katy Perry’s “Firework” for them). I was thrilled to begin this journey with a subject I felt confident in so I could focus on teaching strategies.
To begin my work I reviewed our school board resources on assessment, including creating learning goals and success criteria. Then I reviewed the Music curriculum for Grade 2 and 3. The biggest challenge was to think about how to plan a stand-alone lesson with learning and assessment for a 50-minute period.
My learning focuses were creating a high level of student engagement, using learning goals and success criteria to design the lesson, and using a 3-part lesson.
After checking in with the teacher about what they’ve already learned in Music I decided to focus the lesson on singing the blues.
When I arrived I gave the teacher a copy of my lesson plan (as though it was my turn for a performance appraisal).
We are learning how to use music to bring people together and express emotion.
- I can use my feelings to generate ideas for a blues song.
- I can describe three characteristics of blues music.
I also wanted students to begin playing with composition and apply elements of music when singing but thought it would be best to share two with the students since it was only one period.
- Included links to three strands:
- Creating and Performing
- Reflecting, Responding, Analyzing
- Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts
- Dynamics and expressive controls.
- Form (phrase, simple verse, and chorus).
- Sing in unison.
- Apply elements of music when singing.
- Create simple compositions for a specific purpose and familiar audience.
- The Blues Lesson Powerpoint slides (Email me if you want to PPT presentation. The file was too big to post here).
- Scroll through five items on the Smartboard: Harmonica, guitar, fedora, sunglasses, blue
- What do these items have in common?
- What type of music do they represent?
- What do you know about the blues?
The students liked trying to solve this puzzle. I scrolled through the items slowly. Most students guessed “rock and roll.” After we discovered the lesson would be about the Blues, only one student said she had heard them before “playing in the square in town.”
- What are the blues?
- Sing “Bring it on Home to Me” to the class as an example. Talk about the voice as an instrument. Sing the same lyrics in a couple different styles (opera, country, rock). Talk about how the blues use a belly voice or chest voice. Invite class to activate their belly voices by doing a simple warm-up, holding their stomach and saying “ho ho ho” like Santa Claus. Remind them that when they sing the blues they need to feel it in their tummies.
- Blues songs tell stories about life experiences, particularly about love and hard times.
- Blues songs use pianos, drums, guitars (rhythm and bass).
- Blues songs use repetition, improvisation, strong belly voice, and they express emotion.
Students sat straight up and their eyes popped out when I sang. It was fun to see them react this way. I used a big, deep voice. It wasn’t a classroom sing-song voice but a full blues belting voice. They enjoyed doing the warm-up and feeling their bellies move when they used their voices. One student said, “The blues sound like a lullaby.”
- What’s hard about being a kid?
- Brainstorm together
- Aim for details
- These ideas will be used to improvise verses for our blues song
My chart paper skills are definitely lacking. The students had so many ideas I couldn’t keep up with them. I think they could have gone all day sharing what’s hard about being a kid. (The stick figure in the center is supposed to be a kid).
- The Colborne Blues
- The Colborne Blues: I wrote a little song using the background track in the YouTube video below. I taught this chorus to the students and then improvised verses based on the ideas the students had given me. Then the students took turns improvising lyrics. (Sing starts at about 17 seconds.)
The students picked the tune up really quickly. All students sang or hummed along.
After singing through this together a few times I taught them how to use their voices to create a blues background track. Students then split into partners with person A singing the background beat and person B singing the Blues, either the song we learned or one they made up. Then we invited the pairs to sing their song to the class.
Here is a sample (featuring a couple students):
We needed more time! This was a good introduction but a week would have really helped them develop their vocal and improvisation skills. Mostly I wanted to see how open they were to experimenting with voice–next steps with this lesson would be giving them feedback to improve vocal quality and to have them spend time writing the blues before singing.
- We reviewed the learning goal and success criteria, discussing our learning so far. What impressed me most was how the students spoke about their learning–they are becoming more confident with this language.
- Then students watched The “Time-Out Blues” and answered these two questions:
- What is this song about?
- What makes this a blues song?
At the end of the lesson I asked the students for feedback. They asked me to come back–and I will. Next time I plan to bring a musician with me so they can hear some blues instruments. The teacher reminded me I need to leave more “think time” before calling on students, building in ways for them to brainstorm and practice independently. She’s right–I just saw all the eager hands and jumped into responses.
I’m looking forward to my next lesson. I’m not sure what it will be. A number of classes are struggling to reach consensus. The students are debating over Music or Healthy Active Living. One class said I could choose the subject (but three other students chanted “Gym” in the background.) I’m surprised they’re not trying to make things harder on me by picking subjects that are challenging.
I’ve learned so much from this about primary teaching and learning. This experience reinforced the idea for me of assessment over time and the importance of time for going deeply into a topic. It also took a lot of time to utilize learning goals, success criteria, and the 3-part lesson but all three were essential in grounding the lesson in learning, in being intentional about our limited time together.