Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Do We Give Up The Carpet Too Soon?

 In September, we engaged in four demonstration lessons on co-constructing criteria. As we worked alongside the teachers of an elementary and junior high school, we planned the lessons and we considered the physical layout of each classroom. We asked, “How might we best use the space to meet our instructional goals?” We all knew we wanted:
·      Students to feel our presence with no distractions.
·      To feel the presence of our students so their energy could inspire our teaching.
·      Students and teacher to feel part of and to be part of a community of learners.
·      No physical barriers between students, so that they could easily and quickly turn and talk and think together.
·      No barriers between teacher and learners, so that we could easily listen to their conversations and make moment-by-moment instructional decisions.
We wanted this both physically and symbolically in some part of each lesson no matter the grade level, the subject area, or the specific content.

We felt we needed a meeting or gathering space – a place where we can be in community with one another. In many early years classrooms, this has typically meant a brightly coloured carpet where the whole class can come together. Why do carpets disappear in older grades? Are we giving up that gathering place too soon? After all as teachers know, it is more than a carpet. It is a way to use the environment to create a learning advantage. It is a learning advantage that emerges when we build community, inspire each other and meet instructional goals.

And so, we have learned from teachers how to create a “carpet” wherever we go – K to 12 to adult – so that the environment supports the learning. For some spaces, it means having students move their chairs into a part of the room and create an ‘inside-outside’ circle. And for others, it means creating two or three lines of chairs in a semi-circle around an instructional area. Regardless of the configuration and in spite of the lack of an actual carpet, teachers gather students away from their desks, in order to create powerful learning-teaching spaces.

Written collaboratively – Brenda Augusta, Sandra Herbst, and Anne Davies

Monday, 24 September 2018

Portfolios: Digital or Paper?

We’ve been reflecting on our recent two-day Institute in Ajax, Ontario on the topic of portfolios and collecting evidence of learning and inspired by our latest publication, Collecting Evidence and Portfolios: Involving Students in Pedagogical Documentation. The time was filled with discussions about the context within which portfolios make sense, the five purposes for which teachers and students might create them, the processes involved, and specific classroom examples. One exchange in particular has stayed with us. 

A system-level lead teacher was planning for the implementation of portfolios in Kindergarten through Grade 12 classrooms. We had just finished a group discussion about whether or not portfolios should be paper or digital. The instructional leader started the more small-group conversation by reflecting:

I’ve just realized that paper or digital is not the first decision we have to make. We need to slow down and back it up a bit. 

His realization is one that many participants had over those two days. Regardless of format or platform, the purpose and process of involving students in their own pedagogical documentation is what matters most. That is to say, a portfolio is the residue of a deep process of learning…and that process is what requires thoughtful conversations and decision-making. 

Written with my colleague Sandra Herbst

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

You’re The Best!

You’re the Best!

We’ve all heard it before, maybe especially at this time of year.

You’re the best teacher I ever had! I’m going to miss you.

We smile and think to ourselves, “I bet you say that to all the teachers.”

But what if this year you actually let it in, even just for a moment? What if you took some time to celebrate what worked so well for you and your students this year that you must absolutely do it again next year? What if you considered the hours spent on lesson design, the work only a professional teacher can do in a way that takes into account the curriculum, the students in front of you, and the evidence of learning that tells you who needs what next? What if you gave yourself credit for the relationships you build with your students, believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves? What if you celebrated the collaboration and learning you have done this year with colleagues?

What if?

Teaching (and we are all teachers my friends) is deep thinking work that engages our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Not if we’re lucky, as some would have us believe, but if we’re intentional. The next time someone gives you a message about your impact as a teacher, just let it in. Don’t deny it, don’t shrug it off, and for goodness sake don’t worry about the spelling. That’s what I’m doing with this message from a Grade 2 student.  J

Happy summer!

Monday, 28 May 2018

Building Efficacy

I’ve had a long history with the idea of efficacy… dating back to when I decided to become a teacher (age 5, true story) and knew only one four syllable word (Mississippi – again, true story, but admittedly an odd choice for a girl from small town Saskatchewan).  I became a teacher because I wanted to help others love learning… and I believed in my ability to make it happen. This belief was based on evidence, not arrogance. Year after year I watched my mother and her Grade 2 students do amazing things that decades later would be explained by research into the brain and learning, differentiation, and quality classroom practices. Armed with twenty-one years of this research and a newly minted B.Ed., I began my teaching career with a clear end in mind – fostering a love of learning in my students.

Like all first year teachers, I was challenged by my thirty-two Grade 1 students and all they needed to learn. The path that we followed that year was not direct, not perfect, and certainly not without setbacks. But I did not give up or take it personally. Because I believe in the power of teaching and the ability of a skilled practitioner to make a difference for learners, I became what Regie Routman calls a teacher-learner. For the next twenty years I studied the art and the science of teaching - learning from my students, colleagues, mentors, professors, authors and then applying my learning to my teaching and reflecting on the impact on student learning. All the while believing in my own ability, and that of my colleagues, to make a difference in the lives of children.

I learned the word ‘efficacy’ when I began training as a coach.  I still credit the word with being hired as a consultant. As I remember that interview, I was asked about the qualities of a person who, in my opinion, would make a good consultant. I responded that I believed they wanted someone efficacious – someone who believed in her or his own ability to make a difference, and further, believed in the efficacy of teachers and would view the role of consultant as supporting and developing that efficacy. This has been my mission for the last fifteen years.

On my reading list this year was Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning by Jenni Donohoo. It is helping me think about something that occasionally happens when I do a demonstration lesson or work in residence, teaching a class with a group of teachers observing. In the debrief following the lesson sometimes a teacher will say, “Of course that worked. They had to pay attention with so many of us in the room.”  And each time it happens I pose these questions:
  • For what reasons was this carefully designed lesson successful with these learners at this time?
  • What factors within our control might have contributed to the success of this lesson?
  • How might we develop the capacity to talk about the power of the thinking, planning, and impact of a professional teacher and leader?

What we do matters. Why we do it matters. How we do it matters.

Collectively, we need to both believe and live this.


Donohoo, Jenni. 2017. Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning.Thousand Oakes, CA: Corwin.

Routman, Regie. 2000. Conversations: Strategies for Teaching, Learning, and Evaluating. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.