Designing outdoor classrooms at St. Gregory

The work of greening our school continues.  With financial assistance from the City of Ottawa, Evergreen and TD Friends of the Environment, we have planted twenty trees on our property and have added raised beds to nine of these trees.  In the process, we have created a community partnership that includes our funders, the Ottawa Catholic School Board, Carleton University and our parents, staff and students and two wonderful resource people from Evergreen – Ann Coffee and Andrew Harvey.

Phase II of this project was the construction of raised beds
Phase II of this project was the construction of raised beds

We are now working on Phase III, the construction of two outdoor classrooms. Research shows that getting students outside helps them to learn better, keeps them attentive, encourages their imagination and improves the overall class environment (Globe and Mail, September 24, 2013).

The planning phase is really interesting.  Ann and Andrew have always based their planning for design of our green spaces on student consultation.  Conversations with our students happened before any trees were planted and now have taken place to help come up with a design for the outdoor classrooms.

one of the early conceptual drawings for one of two outdoor classrooms
one of the early conceptual drawings for one of two outdoor classrooms

We have a long way to go, but I would say these consultations are the most important part.  Their ideas and opinions breathe life into the plans and proposals we are putting forward.  What a great way to make a permanent mark on your school!

Landor Print DefaultToyota


Making it real – oral language in French class

This is the second Triad whose work is being featured on this blog.  I sat with them last week as they established their baseline for their inquiry.  The group has already recorded a good deal of student work to act as their baseline.  They do have plans to continue to share work using different forms of social media including Skype.

The oral component is always a priority in second language teaching.  Our goal is to make it authentic and usable in the real world (e.g. salutations, good manners, every day basic vocabulary).If students are engaged in authentic conversations in the class and are taught the necessary vocabulary, then they will feel comfortable and be able to converse amongst themselves in the classroom.  This activity is very rich because it brings language arts components to real life situations.

The FSL Triad met on Friday to discuss our Baseline results. Our junior kids were paired up and they asked each other questions EN FRANCAIS about their family.  Some teachers gave them “sentence starters” such as Quand (When…) Qui (who…) Ou (Where…) Est-ce que (Does…) others chose not to.  We noticed some were easier to use than others.  For our mid-line, we will interview another class in the same school (e.g. Jennifer Kealey’s class will meet with Caroline Ghaffari’s class). And our final activity will be to SKYPE with a class from another school.  The question will vary a bit – we will ask “what does your family do at Christmas”.

The students will converse with a partner and ask one another questions about his/her family. For our midline assessment, the students will have the same conversation but with a student from another class in our school. For our final assessment, the students will have the same conversation but with a student from another class in one of our triad schools, through Skype. Results will be examined to see whether the students are more comfortable speaking and if they are using more complex vocabulary and sentence structures.

#edcampottawa Blogging in the classroom

Notes on the sessions today at #Edcampottawa

Megan Valois @msvalois 

– great work on blogging – lots of information outlining the rationale for using blogging.

Terrific idea – to send a more detail home on what type of social media will be used in the classroom.

The letter from Megan’s blog is here – this blog is a terrific resource!

Now using blogging as a way to reflect on the work going on the the classroom.  Also books the iPads once a week to use the machines for blogging during the day.

Students learn how to give meaningful feedback and are expected to give feedback to other students’ blogs.

When students comment on other blogs, the majority of students will go back in and improve their posts – students are learning from each other!

Really interesting the work that must be done in advance of blogging – here are the main two sessions:

  • what makes for a good blog post
  • how to give effective feedback
second session at #Edcampottawa on student blogging
second session at #Edcampottawa on student blogging



co-constructed chart Megan uses with her students prior to blogging – what makes an effective blog?  What make for effective feedback?

Teacher collaboration project – Math journals


I have written briefly about one of the teacher collaboration inquiries that has been going on in our three schools.  In this post, the teachers have written an explanation of their work so far.  I am hoping that more of our teacher groups will do the same so we can post their work on this blog.

These rest of this entry is written by Teresa Zappavigna, one of the teacher triad members.

Our Triad team came together in early October to determine an area of focus for our students in our junior grades.  After examining EQAO scores, last year’s records, and our personal running records to date, our next steps became quite evident.  The attitude toward math and in particular, problem solving, needed to be addressed. Many times, students have the skills, but are thrown by the math language.  Students needed to find a tool to help students break down math  problems (scaffold their thinking) in order to understand:  “What do I know?”; “What do I need to know?”;  and “How can I help solve the problem/ What strategies can I use?”. A tool was introduced by our partners from St. Daniel’s.  They were in the process of working on interactive Math journals which help guide a student’s problem- solving process and encourages them to demonstrate their understanding of new math concepts in a personal and creative way (through re-enactment, art, poetry, music, crossword puzzles, etc.,).  Our intention is that if we explicitly teach problem solving strategies and provide opportunities for students to prove, explain and reflect on their learning in Math journals, then students will have more success in explaining their thinking while problem solving.  By allowing students the opportunity to express themselves creatively (be it literacy, numeracy, arts, verbal, kinesthetic, tactile,) we hope to make math fun for students who shy away from math.

We are still in the process of developing a routine using these journals with our students.  Our observations so far have been positive.  Students have been eager to share their rap songs, cartoons etc with the class and are often asking the teachers if we will be working on our “journals today”.  The atmosphere is changing and we hope to continue these “brag books” as a tool to help students develop efficient problem solving strategies.

Video of a student conference…Please watch both (one is the continuation of the other) In this video, teachers can see the importance of conferencing with students on their journals, EVEN if the student puts a GREEN traffic light on the activity. He or she might not fully understand the concept. The example is a student working on Place Value activities.

samples and photos from the teacher inquiry


math journal - grade 4


Sample of a grade 4 journal – this is a collaborative project in grades 4, 5, and 6 being carried out in three schools

Using iMovie to highlight school sports

Coming off of ECOO13, I am trying to use all sorts of new technology to highlight what is going on at our school.

One of the really fun tools has been iMovie trailers.  We have made a bunch of them to really jazz up the reporting of some of our tournaments.

Friday, we hope to take the next step by training our grade 6’s to use more of iMovie in order to make a series of anti-bullying videos for the school.  Moving beyond trailers is a big step, but it is very exciting to see how quickly our students are learning to use this great tool.

Here is today’s video – the cool thing about trailers is that it sets up the shots for you.  I actually did most of this work in 5-10 minutes!  Great fun!

The real test comes this Friday when the grade 6 students will present their video material!  Looking forward to this.


Triad Project: The use of math journals to encourage purposeful talk

Yesterday, we spent the entire day with Lucy West.  It was a great day and I learned a great deal.  She asked us to tell her one thing that we would take away from the session.  I told her I would visit all of the junior math classes and really find out what they are doing.

This post is based on my observations in the grade 6 math class.  The teacher is using math journals as a way to get her kids to think about math concepts – today she is focusing on mean median and mode.  There was a good deal of very purposeful talk from the students based on their journaling.  The teacher’s questioning encouraged additional contributions from her students.

Math journaling is the project the grade 4- 5-6 Triad is working on this fall – three schools and the teachers in grades 4,5 and 6 are taking part in a collaborative inquiry on the benefits of using math journals.  Here is their inquiry statement:

If we explicitly teach problem solving strategies and provide opportunities for students to prove, explain and reflect on their learning in Math journals,

then students will have more success in explaining their thinking while problem solving.

Based on Lucy West’s talk, three simple things can change the learning culture of a classroom

  • turn and talk
  • tell me more about that?
  • who can repeat that?

All these were observed today!  Great lesson

Lucy West – Focusing on Student Thinking

Notes on Lucy West session today at our School Board


How would we know real learning is taking place? seeing student thinking as evidence?

What concerns you about being an instructional leader?

  • need more time to work on learning – more time reserved for PD would help
  • understanding more about what the problem is about grade 6 math scores on EQAO
  • getting a clearer picture – what are the initiatives that truly have an impact on student learning.

First Big Idea:

You can have positional authority but still not be a leader.  70-80% of people in positional authority are not effective – so what makes someone a leader??

How are we going to define leadership?

‘Anyone who wants to help is a leader’

‘leadership is a verb not a job’

the most important tool is influence – everyone has a circle of influence.  Identifying who is in your circle will give you a picture on how you can move a school.

Leadership is something you choose to do some of the time.  There are many informal leaders – if we can influence them we can have greater influence in the school.

Second Big Idea:

What are you passionate about?

Leadership is passionate – if I am willing to put my ideas on the table, if I am willing to say what I am passionate about, you can at least open a dialogue with your teachers.

Do we know what our teachers are passionate about – what do they care about.  You may find common ground if you can find out what they are passionate about.

If you try to impose ideas on people you are going to lose people – can’t do this and be effective.

Vital Smarts – a resource mentioned by Lucy that addresses some of these questions

VitalSmarts is an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.
With award-winning training products based on more than 30 years of ongoing research, we have helped more than 300 of the Fortune 500 realize significant results using a proven method for driving rapid, sustainable, and measurable change in behaviors. We can teach your organization how to:

  • Dialogue safely about any topic
  • Achieve universal accountability
  • Help leaders influence organization-wide behavior
  • Increase employee engagement through self-directed change

The biggest issue in any organization is people NOT speaking up.  What do we do about that?  We need to get people to tell us what they think.

When something doesn’t work well – how do we encourage people to approach us?  When we are willing to do this we can change the culture!

Adaptive challenges cannot be solved by technical solutions – the job is to sort out what really matters.  Do we ask – what really matters?  What are we going to focus on?

Bottom-line purpose – to get kids to learn.  But, no one knows how to reach 100% of the kids 100% of the time – that is an adaptive challenge – we can use technical solutions to change adaptive challenges.  

The materials we have have to be used mindfully. 

Adaptive challenges are solved more through a process – ask questions, innovate, collaborate, work together – all of these practices are adaptive solutions.

Leaders need courage – we need to challenge the status quo.

Raise the taboo issues

point out contradictions

What risk are you willing to take?

Obstacles to Learning – tool for us to use can you identify what your obstacles are?

  • what learning look, feel and sound like?
  • what gets in the way of my learning?
  • how do we create a learning culture in which people become public and reflective and committed learners?

A Fractal – never-ending pattern – how many teachers exhibit the same obstacles to learning that we do?  How many students have the same obstacles?  How many are caused by the nature of the school?

What Happens in your organization when people

  • question authority
  • are skeptical
  • complain about situations attempt to do things differently from the norm

Habits of Mind

taking small steps to build a habit of mind to address the obstacle you have identified.

For me?  Turning off my phone at night!

if you focus on Vital Behaviours you can make the changes you want to make.

to actually hear what kids are saying and following that – this is a key behaviour.

What happens when a student gives an answer – what does the teacher do?  Anything that invites the students to tell what they are thinking about.  Dialogue that emphasizes reasoning, the big idea and critical thinking – that will allow for a student-centered classroom.

How to analyze a math class?

  • Who is doing the talking?  Asking the questions?
  • What’s the focus of the talk?
  • What are the students saying?
  • What happens when someone makes a mistake?

When you focus on discourse – we are learning to listen to each other, consider another’s perspective, how to challenge someone in a respective fashion – it means learning to work collaboratively with others.

We need to have a questioning culture (Fullan) where it is OK to make mistakes.  To be able to sit in the place of uncertainty more comfortably.

We attend to results, but not the culture and behaviour we need to have to bring about changes.

what questions might people use when they are thinking critically?

  • how do you know that
  • what is your source of information?
  • what evidence do you have, what further evidence do you need?
  • how might I be wrong about this?

mindset – the problem especially math, is that the teachers do not have the content knowledge – what do we need?

learn math from people who can teach they way they need to teach their children – not a one-shot idea.  This needs to be teachers working in teams to develop vital behaviours.

In your class, how do you us questioning?  What would happen if you the principal spent a week just listening to what questions teachers use?

lesson planning – to solve a problem look for as many ways to solve a problem as possible – this way you can predict what students will come up with.

The Turkey Problem – 24lb. turkey – 15 minutes per lb. how long to cook the turkey – why is this a rich task at grade 3?  Because they haven’t been taught to do this yet and different units. Specifically:

  • prior to any teaching of multiplication algorithms
  • sharing student work after students have solved the problem
  • teacher deliberately determines the order in which selected partners will share
  • thinking is visible

also, see this earlier post on math

Emphasis on the student doing the talking rather than the teacher.

The basic talk moves:

  • turn and talk
  • tell me more about that?
  • who can repeat that?

These three techniques can shift the culture in the classroom

turn and talk

Points on accountable talk :

  • use accountable talk asap
  • remind students to use each others name when talking
  • concentrate on big ideas
  • plan with others
  • have students turn and talk about the concept
  • daily expectations …tech explicitly
  • go back to students to clarify

this is not a natural skill –

what the teacher observed:

  • students not afraid to make mistakes
  • students willing to challenge each other
  • kids are coming to class
  • students writing notes in their own words

If the teacher is willing and ready this is what can happen!

Where to go from here?  I need to get into more math classes to see what really is happening at our school!!