An otherwise untold story

An otherwise untold story of community building and belonging, of differentiation and application of skills learned in the classroom.

By Daniela Fiess

I have just taken a Special Education course on Literacy and Numeracy with Shelley. Reflecting back on some of the themes we touched as the foundations for inclusion and learning, I remember a visit to a small rural school sometime in April that I would love to share with you.

On Earth Day everybody from K to 12 was out and about. I joined danielathe K/1 and 2/3 classes and their high school assistants in the school yard. Some beds were already dug and the K/1 group each was assigned a little patch for their own design. Their teacher, as each child was with her, marked the patch by carefully drawing their first name letters in the moist soil—she had full attention. All seeds were bagged with pictures and sorted alphabetically, a perfect opportunity for each child to find their favourite flower or vegetable. Little flags would carry the names of the seeds in the beds, carefully copied from their packages by each child.

Proudly they watered their patches. The high school students were fully involved carrying watering cans, helping read seed packs and label, weeding the beds—they were fully put in a caretaking position for the youngest ones and completely responsible.

In the meantime, the Grade 2/3 group dug up a soon-to-be potato patch, a paradise for the boys with shovels and forks. They learned about collaboration, giving space and being careful while taking turns, sharing their tools, cleaning them and putting them where they belong, a courtesy to next ones to use them. Healthy soil and worms were another source of entertainment and a full highlight was the little frog caught by one of the teachers for the children to admire.

The garden was a fabulous opportunity for all teachers to observe as the children were immersed in their jobs. Some needed the full sensory input—they became one with the soil—others couldn’t stand having dirty hands and so carefully and timidly dug around the soil. Some planted the seeds with a system, others enjoyed placing them like in a piece of art, some use lots, some use little, some complained (and then got over it) and some just loved it.

Things didn’t get too loud, as it would have been in the classroom, so the super sensitive children could easily be with the group, maybe just doing their own little thing with their educational assistants, and still being part of the community.

To top it all off, a delicious homemade rhubarb crisp from the K/1 teacher with the school garden’s rhubarb was served to all of the busy helpers—attachment needs were thus fully satisfied!

It was a wonderful day of learning with plenty of movement, creativity and happy children.


Stepping back from strategies to invite joy

By Blake Olsen

I was teaching today in a Grade 2 classroom, and one of our subjects today was Math.  The students have a work package that they do, so at the start of our work period, I put the first page on the board for us to look at together.

One of the questions from the package was:

5+4 = 6+3

Yes      No

It initially looks like a pretty simple throwaway question, but instead of asking students “yes or no” and leaving it at that, I applied some of the learning I have been doing about Math.  I have been learning that math isn’t just about following formulas, but that students can have myriad strategies for solving problems, and their thinking can teach me a lot about how they learn.

Some of the answers I got to this question included:

  • 5+4 equals 9, and 6+3 equals 9, so they are the same
  • I used my number line on my desk to count on and see that they came to the same thing
  • I used my hundreds chart to count on and see that they came to the same thing
  • I see that 6 is one more than 5, and that 3 is one less than 4, so that makes them the same
  • I use my fingers to help me add the two questions to see that they are the same

It’s hard sometimes as a teacher to not tell my class what the strategy is.  I have a strategy or idea of how I would do something in my mind, so I have to make an effort to take a step back, and listen.  When I listen, I get to see how these students work through a math problem.

My challenge is to step back from offering strategies.  Something that stunts kids enjoyment of math, I think, is only having one way to answer a question, when, clearly, my example question has at least 5 different ways to answer it.

Instead of telling my students what to do, I have to let them tell me what to do.  I have to let them explore and use trial and error, and play around with ways to solve problems.

I’m going to challenge myself to do this again.  I’m going to ask a question and not explain how to solve it.  I’m going to ask students to write about their thinking, and learn how each other think as well.  I think this can help rekindle some of the creativity that exists in math.

What do you think?


An LD Story

A teacher reflects on her own LD story

As a child, I had all the signs of an anxiety disorder. I was often teary at school, terrified to be called on in class, worried about events, my family and people beyond my control. I would hide in the library or in the woods behind my elementary school at lunch and recess to avoid interacting with my peers. Despite this, I had good friends, was fairly well liked by my peers and did well in a majority of my subjects in school. I even often raised my hand to be called on when I knew an answer or had questions. I loved school- mostly because I dreaded being at home a large part of the time.

My parents were verbally and physically abusive towards me which exacerbated my anxiety – or caused it, I’m not sure. My biggest fear was being in trouble or doing so poorly at school that my parents had to be called at home about it. One of the first times I had a negative call home in elementary school (I don’t remember what it was for) I was beaten very badly when my Father got home from work and I was locked outside of the house in the dark for a terrifying period of time; we lived in a rural area so there were no street lights or neighbors around. When my teachers told me they had to call home, I remember being short of breath, shaking, crying and begging my teachers not to call home. My teachers never called home very often thankfully; partly I believe because my Mother did not speak English very well and was very difficult to understand on the telephone. I believe my Mother was often frustrated because she could not understand my teachers well, so she took her frustration out on me. If my teachers had called home later when my Father was home (who spoke and understood English perfectly) or invited my Mother to the school in person to talk about me- I think the frustration of my parents would have been eased, therefore making my life easier.

Along with my anxiety and I also suffered from debilitating headaches. They were migraines. At the time no one knew what they were because it was thought that children could not suffer from migraines; so they were not treated properly and I remember being in pain for long periods of time or doped up on pain medication. As well, with the language barrier that my Mother had, and being my primary caregiver; I believe she may have not advocated well for me to my Doctor. I missed weeks and weeks of school from my headaches.

As early as preschool I began to show signs of a dyscalculia with the anxiety, (but before the migraines). I remember struggling to count random amounts of toys and taking longer to count the dots on dice to play my turn in games like snakes and ladders. I would cry when I was told I couldn’t use my fingers to count in elementary school. I would cry at least once or twice a week over math homework and zone out during math lessons at school because I was totally lost. My anxiety prevented me from asking for the help I needed because sometimes I was so lost I didn’t even know where to start asking questions. My parents believed I wasn’t trying and just spending too much time crying. My teachers believed I was another girl who was bad at math. If teachers had spent more one on one time with me asking me to solve problems; they might have noticed there was a problem.

As a teenager the signs of dyscalculia were more obvious. I couldn’t tell time until I was at least twelve or thirteen. I couldn’t count change or do simple math problems without using my fingers. I would regularly reverse numbers around in problems in my school work or write the wrong numbers down when copying questions. In music, I struggled to figure out the timing of each piece and how many beats were in each bar (even after regularly taking music classes for over ten years). I always mixed up or forgot the actual numbers on the combination to my school locker. I only remembered the motions of the dial on the lock, not the actual numbers. This was how I remembered phone numbers too, by remembering the movements on the phone pad rather than the actual numbers. I also struggled in learning how to drive, mixing up my left and my right frequently- which is still a problem I have today

As a teenager, I still had signs of anxiety that were exacerbated with the new, unfamiliar social situations. I also began to struggle with completing work on time and especially during timed tests. I found I would get so anxious during tests that I would shake and couldn’t write. I told my counsellor my problem and she arranged for me to have oral tests with some of my teachers or to write research papers instead of having timed tests.

I was never diagnosed with a learning disability as a child; often I was told I was better than average in many of my subjects. I had missed lots of school due to illness, so teachers may have thought I was delayed due to that. I was diagnosed with depression however and saw school counsellors regularly from middle school to graduation. I was recommended to see a counsellor outside of school but my parents wouldn’t allow it.

I knew I was poor at math and numbers since I could count, but I never believed I had a legitimate learning disability until I spent time working as a bank teller for about a year. While I had a great sales record (selling people new banking products, credit cards and switching people to online and mobile banking) – my balancing errors were regularly the highest of any teller in the region. I often put the decimal points in the wrong spots when entering cheques into the computer; I counted out the wrong change for people; I paid the wrong amounts on bills. I one time made an error that had a client bounce several cheques and nearly cost his business a large contract. Even though I easily could have been fired, I never was because of my good sales record and because I was one of the few employees that was adept at the ‘new technology of mobile banking’ on cell phones. I was exhausted each day after work and sick with anxiety about going in the following day. Then I had my first panic attack.

I was at work during a very busy day where I was struggling just to keep up with the other tellers, when a client that had complained about me and my banking errors had joined the line up to see a teller. When I saw him remember not being able to breathe like someone was stepping on my chest, feeling dizzy and being barely able to put my closed sign up for my desk. I staggered to the back bathroom and lay on the floor for what seemed like forever. A colleague found me after I was gone for twenty minutes- I told her I had a migraine. I was sent home, made a doctor’s appointment and didn’t go to work for the rest of the week. I quit my job at the bank six months later, even after being offered a sizable promotion.

In the years since that first panic attack, I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. I have unofficially been diagnosed with dyscalculia- although my psychiatrist ‘doesn’t see the point’ of me getting an official diagnoses as an adult. I also have nerve damage in my upper back, neck and shoulders due to a high speed car accident during university, which had intensified my migraines that I still suffer from. With all of this, plus the stresses of everyday life and holding full-time work, trying to be ‘average’ is a monumental effort.

I had one teacher in elementary school for two years in a row, grade three and four, who by my grade four year started to really question my anxious, teary and frightened behavior- who really tried to pry and figure out what was going on with me at home and inside my head. I remember resisting her questions, avoiding her and being angry at her for being nosy. I remember saying things that I thought she wanted to hear to make her stop asking tougher questions. I had middle school and high school counsellor who were both the same way; really trying to figure my situation out with me resisting. If I could give them advice now on what to have done with me back then; don’t give up, take my situation seriously, don’t rely on me being ‘a nice kid’ as a sign that I will be okay, be skeptical when I say things are fine/I understand and most of all, don’t work alone- team up and collaborate with other educators and people I am in contact with in the school.

Joyful Literacy

Recently, the Powell River Elementary School Principals and the Director of Instruction attended a two day seminar on “Joyful Literacy Interventions” in Vancouver. They described it as the best Pro-D they have attended in a very long time. They came back excited and eager to share what they’ve learned. A meeting of all primary teachers and special education teachers of two school in Powell River followed soon after and a pilot project was proposed.

Janet Mort is the author of  Joyful Literacy Interventions: Early Learning Classroom Essentials. She was a teacher, principal and superintendent and is now retired. In British Columbia, on average, 70%-75% of students are reading at or above Grade level by the end of Grade 2. When Janet Mort implemented this program in a native community in Gold River, the success rate rose to 93%. This success has been matched by many other school districts within B.C. who have piloted this program.

The premise behind this program is that our most vulnerable students often come into Kindergarten delayed. There is no time to waste. The research has shown that if students have not learned how to read by the end of Grade 3, the chance of catching up to read at or above Grade level is 20%.

Traditionally, Kindergarten teachers focus on teaching one letter per week. Janet Mort states that we can’t afford to teach one letter per week, we need to teach one letter per day. Moreover, these letters are rotated on a continuous basis so each letter is reviewed and learned continuously throughout the year. As well, each letter is learned in four ways: letter name, letter sound, ability to find the letter in print, and an ability to identify items that start with the letter sound. By the end of Kindergarten, students should know all of the letters in four ways and they should have the first set of sight words mastered.

A typical Kindergarten class schedule includes daily center time, or free play. Janet Mort states that our most vulnerable students cannot afford this free play. The intent behind all regular classroom activities must be learning. Sounds like we would have a lot of unhappy, overwhelmed children? Absolutely not!

The part that is most exciting to me is that all learning and teaching should be FUN! The FUN is the most important part in all of this. Learning takes place at teacher driven and student driven centers that are hands-on, engaging and most of all fun! Students should not realize that they are working/learning and cannot be accomplished through worksheets. One example of a center is “Spaghetti and Meatballs.”  Laminated cardstock meatballs, which have letters and sight words written on them, are mixed up with cooked Spaghetti in a large pot. The students dig out the meatballs and use the cooked spaghetti to form the letter or letters of the sight word. It’s gross and fun!

Centers are taught on a gradual release model. The teacher models what to do at each center, then share the experience with the students, guide them and then let them work at the center independently. It is recommended to start off giving the students 5 minutes to play at the center. They need time to explore the material, to stick that pipe-cleaner or noodle up their nose if need be, and get that part out of their system.

Circle Charts are used to track student success on a daily basis during center time which gives teachers a visual where the gap is. This allows teachers to group students according to the need to have an extra “blitz” session where the skill that is lacking is explicitly taught in a very fun, play-based manner. This circle chart is also available as an app on an Ipad and the data can then be put in a graph.

What is most exciting about this program are the pictures and videos that were available from classrooms all over B.C. at the summit which show this program in action and prove its success. I’m excited to be a part of the pilot project to help get this program under way at one of the schools that I work at.


Mort, Janet Nadine (2014). Joyful Literacy Interventions: Early Learning Classroom Essentials. A Research-Based Approach. Pre-K to 3. Printed by CreateSpace




Supporting Students

I am going to describe a process that I am creating by combining three resources to support learners in a secondary alternative program.

The first resource is called “circle” it is an intervention that we use in our alternate programs to start the day. The students arrange themselves in a circular seating arrangement and the teacher/leader starts with a “check in” by asking the group how was your night/ morning/ weekend? The group responds individually with a thumb up, thumbs down or sideways indicating how they are feeling, good/not good/ or in between. Everyone is given the opportunity to elaborate if they wish. The next step is to provide a forum for student and teacher announcements. The next part is the question of the day, which everyone in the group has a chance to answer or pass on if they prefer. The questions can vary from lighter questions such as: What are you thankful for? What is your favorite food? If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go? Questions that promote deeper thinking can also be utilized such as: What is your opinion regarding capital punishment? Do you think Canada should provide asylum to more/less refugees why/why not? This activity is designed to accomplish many objectives: first students are learning to express themselves and in the discussion may become aware of different points of view. Students can gain tolerance and understanding for other points of view. As well, a forum and protocol is provided where any issues within the group that need to be addressed can be presented and discussed.

I have extended this activity to include a resource that I came upon at the alternate education conference last year called Quirky Kid. This resource can be found at their website and provides an extensive array of resources and information, based on research, which are designed to promote emotional regulation through developing children and adolescents’ capacity to express and deal with emotional situations. In my experience the school has become a place where as teachers we are being faced with the expanding task of helping our students to be successful in the social/ emotional domain, which in turn often has positive ramifications with regard to their academic success in school.

The final element of my plan is to incorporate lessons that were developed through a research center in the psychology department at Stanford University that is based on the Growth versus Fixed Mindset work of Carol Dweck. This website can be found at and has extensive resources designed to support educators and parents in developing and improving their students’ mindsets to make them better learners. I found this resource to be inspiring as it addresses aspects of growth, belonging and purpose in the mindset of students, which are all elements that support engagement for students in taking ownership for their education and making their experience in school more positive. I believe that as educators if we are going to fulfill our mandate of creating motivated and confident life long learners an excellent place to start is by addressing the negative mindset that many of our students have regarding their abilities as capable learners.


Jared’s Curated List of Resources





Session Four

Below are resources mentioned in our session.

Working Together Wiki: If you look on the sidebar of the page, you’ll see, under classroom resources, the link to the kindergarten page, which is maintained by the SD68 kindergarten teachers. There are also links to various curricula – including math – and STRATEGIES! Check out the learning sequences page to find some really amazing lessons developed by SD68 teachers.  I no longer have time to continue to maintain the wiki, so you may find quite a few “dead links,” but it’s still got a lot of gorgeous shared work on it.

Jo Baeler

Jump Math: Create a free account and you can access lots of free resources.

Steven Leinwand

Deeper Learning

Personalize Learning

Sherry Parrish: This is a presentation by the author of Number Talks.

Disrupting Class

Dan Meyer:  Math Class Needs a Makeover

Open Ended Math Problems and Number Sense Building

How to Teach Math as a Social Activity:

Be Less Helpful

Pull the Weed Before You Plant the Flowers

Susan Cain:  Power of Introverts

How to teach a young introvert



Session Three


Joy and Power of Reading

The Art of Possibility

The Transformative Power of Classical Music: This Ted Talk by Ben Zander gives an idea of what he means by the “Art of Possibility.”

Every Child, Every Day

The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction

Proust and the Squid (More information about Maryanne Wolf’s current research at the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University)

Teaching with Intention

The Key to Success? Grit

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

Daily Five

Is Google Making Us Stupid



Session Two

Selected Resources from Presentation

John Dewey:  How we think
Donald  Schon: The Reflective Practitioner
Dylan Wiliam: Hinge Questions
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang:   “The Stories of Nico and Brooke Revisited: Toward a Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue about Teaching and Learning
Eric Mazur: Confessions of a Converted Lecturer
Carol Dweck: Mindset and Mindsetworks
Carol Dweck: Revisiting Growth Mindsets
Stuart Firestein: The Pursuit of Ignorance
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Grant Wiggins: Seven Keys to Effective Feedback
Grant Wiggins: What feedback is and isn’t
Margaret Wheatley – What do we measure and why

Additional Resources You Might Find Interesting

Chris Kennedy: Does Smart Still Matter
David Didau: Why AFL might be wrong
The Power of Belief: Mindset and Success
PERTS: Research focussed on academic motivation
Larry Ferlazzo’s Best Resources on Helping Students Develop a Growth Mindset
Alfie Kohn: The Trouble with Rubrics
Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam: Inside the Black Box
Grant Wiggins: Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.

Session Two References

Chabris, C., & Simons, D. (2010). The invisible gorilla: And other ways our intuitions deceive us. New York: Crown.

Cozolino, L. (2012). The social neuroscience of education: Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Finn, P. (1999). Literacy with an attitude: educating working-class children in their own self-interest. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Kohl, H. (1994). I won’t learn from you: And other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New York, NY: New Press.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.

Stiggins, R. (1997). Student-centered classroom assessment (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill.

Syed, M. (2010). Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the science of success. New York: Harper.

Wheatley, M. (1992). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organization from an orderly universe. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.





If I had to choose one strategy…

I’ve argued that while strategies are important, if our goal is to ensure that each child learns beautifully, simply adding new, better or more strategies won’t necessarily change our practice. We need to be sure that we check the beliefs, values and assumptions that, consciously or unconsciously, guide what we really do – which is so often different from what we believe we ought to do.

For example, in a study of 58 9th grade English classes, 95% of the teachers said the valued discussion in their classrooms.  However, observation revealed that open-ended whole class discussion averaged 15 seconds per day.

So what do we spend time on? Does what we actually do align with what believe (or believe that we believe)?

One of my mentors is Coach Rob Stevenson of John Barsby Community School. His success in building championship football teams in a small inner city school is little short of miraculous. One of his best pieces of advice:  avoid “thick playbook disease.”  He argues that all we need is a few good plays that we practice until they are perfect.  Too many plays, he says, leads to slow feet.  If we have a thick playbook, it’s unlikely that we’ll be well-practiced in any of our “moves,” and so chances are good that as soon as things become difficult in our classroom (which is almost always), we’ll fall back into our comfort zone, which is, most often to teach the way we were taught, even if it doesn’t align with what we think we believe.

If I were going to pick one play to practice daily, it would be A/B partner talk.

First, when we routinely ask students to think together and to share their thinking, we show that we believe that each person in the class has something important to contribute.  We create a learning community.  These smaller scale social interactions allow us to more easily construct safer experiences for our students and provide frequent opportunities for students to lead with their strengths.

Second, talk is a fundament learning tool:  we learn first through talk.  We learn best, though, when that talk is scaffolded, that is, when we are talking with someone who knows more than we do, but not a great deal more (we know this intuitively when we use baby talk with our infants). We also learn at the highest level when we are teaching – and all of our students need regular opportunities to teach, as well as to be taught at a just-right level.

Third, when we talk, we’re engaged.  Think about your own energy level when you are talking.  What’s more, learning, it turns out, is not a spectator sport.  (It’s kind of like getting fit by watching calisthenics.) Research shows that the more we participate, the more we participate.  And the more we participate in learning, the more we learn.  And the more we learn, the more we can learn.  A virtuous cycle.  Which is nice for a change, when it seems that vicious circles are more common.

Finally, talk is invaluable in assessment:  as a teacher, we can’t set goals for learning unless we have information about each child; one assessment is never accurate; it has to be ongoing.  How do we find time?  A/B partner talk gives us immediate, simple, powerful, ongoing feedback to know what kids don’t know.

You might find the Guide for partner talk useful, as well as a collections of practical Talk Tips co-created by teachers and a set of Talk Rubrics developed by SD40.  What are your tips? If you don’t use a/b partner talk, what do you use instead?

If you had to pick just one strategy, what would it be?