Oct 182017

I am so worried about doing it wrong.

I know it is important to invite Indigenous leaders, like Traditional Knowledge Keepers, into my classroom, but I am not always sure what to do.  Here is some key advice I got recently from consultant Tracy Laverty when I asked for some practical advice for teachers. She was quick to tell me she isn’t an expert, but her advice is helpful and simple. If you do these things, you can breathe.

What is protocol?

Like what we do when students graduate, protocols are what we use in social situations to communicate respect and formality. When we invite elders in to our classrooms, we follow established protocols to demonstrate respect for the learning being offered.

What should I do when I have an Indigenous guest in the classroom?

  • Ask that guest how they wished to be honored (all Indigenous cultures and people within them are not the same – thinking they are is called “pan-Indigenous.”  It is like trying to speak “the language of Europeans.”)
  • Be clear about your goal. The Elder or Traditional Knowledge Keeper will do a better job for the class with more information.
  • Discuss a good way to wrap up and move forward
  • It is okay to ask if an honorarium is needed. Go ahead and ask.

Why is it important?

  • Asking demonstrates respect for the person and the culture in general.
  • You model for students that the protocol for one culture are not the protocols for another
  • You are showing you understand that cultural knowledge is valuable, and is shared by people in positions  of respect.  You take a step put of the dominant culture and make space for all people.
  • This is where Indigenous people come from, and Indigenous cultures deserve a place in every classroom on this land.
Aug 192017

It is the start of the school year, and many teachers are busy making course outlines for their new courses. Course outlines have all the typical categories like expectations and materials that won’t change, but  the evaluation category and anything you are describing about the goals of the course will likely need revision.

Steps in making an outcomes-based course outline:

  1. List the outcomes of the curriculum, but be sure to use student-friendly language.  That might mean changing something like “Evaluate one’s understanding of wellness while participating in various learning opportunities that balance the dimensions of wellness (i.e., physical, psychological, social, spiritual, environmental)”  to “I can accurately evaluate my physical, mental, social, spiritual, and environmental wellness.” The goal of stating the outcomes in your course outline is to ensure your students understand exactly what they will need to demonstrate. Putting curricula outcomes in plain language makes that easier.
  2. Describe how the various outcomes will contribute to the student’s mark by describing the weighting of the outcomes in the overall mark.  You can reference specific assessments, but you don’t need to. Remember that final summative assessments, like a final exam, still need to be mapped to specific outcomes when you assess them. When you are moving to outcomes-based assessment, you’ll likely find some of your current assessments are generally related to outcomes, but not designed to specifically evaluate them, so you’ll need to do some revising.  Look over all the indicators to see the breadth and depth of the outcome.

    For example, you might be teaching Arts Ed 9 and have student playing music as a part of the music strand, but not having them compose as the outcome requires.  Outcome CP9.8 says “Combine the elements of music and principles of composition to express unified musical ideas.” It has the following indicators:

    1. “Pose questions to initiate and guide inquiry into how best to combine elements of music and principles of composition to express musical ideas (e.g., How could we combine the rhythms that we’ve learned to create a Latin feel in this piece?).
    2. Investigate ways that beat, accent, and metre can be used to create a specific ‘feel’ in music.
    3. Investigate ways that tempo, rhythm, melody, harmonic structure, or tonality can be used to express an idea or emotional quality in music.
    4. Use silence effectively in music.
    5. Demonstrate understanding of how music elements and composition principles create form and structure in music.
    6. Analyze how elements of music and principles of composition are used in combination to create unified compositions and apply this understanding in own work.”You would want to change your assignment description of playing music to an assignment description of composing music that demonstrates elements and principles of composition.
  3. Review your outline to ensure you are gathering evidence related to each outcome. No outcomes can be skipped, or just be practiced without being graded.
  4. Look over your descriptions of your assessment policies to ensure they are consistent with the school division policies. In Saskatoon Public, use administrative procedure 360 and the secondary assessment handbook. References to mark deductions for late assignments, automatic zeros etc. need to be removed.

More information:

Jun 302017

This month is the designated month for reconciliation in Saskatoon. The flag was raised again officially, and various dignitaries spoke about the efforts of the city and country.  I think it is really important to officially acknowledge and work towards reconciliation between Indigenous Canadians and institutions, because that relationship needs repair based on past and current wrongs. Current educational funding inequities and the impact of residential schools are specifically poignant for me because I am a teacher and I believe high quality public education is a right for all children.  I am proud to be a part of organizations that have committed to reconciliation, including my city, Saskatoon Public Schools, and the University of Saskatchewan. But more than anything, I think reconciliation is a personal journey, lived in relationship with others, that occurs over time.

For me, the journey began with teaching in Meadow Lake, with my students teaching me. I already knew about residential schools, the Indian Act, and the Royal Proclamation, mostly through history classes in University. My student taught me about celebrations, fed me my first dried meat, gave me a venison haunch, and taught me basic words as I fumbled to learn new cultural things. When they joked that our modified English class was all the same type of kids and told me how hard it was to go to high school so far from home, I learned more about some of the everyday realities my Indigenous student faced. I also realized the Dene and Cree cultures I was learning about where more foreign to me than many European ones, even though they were the original cultures of Canada and I had never been to Europe.  That still bothers me.

As the Truth and Reconciliation process began, I remember watching Justice Murray Sinclair explain the basics of reconciliation and thinking I understood it. Half a decade later, I am feeling like I am just starting to grasp the edges of it.  It seems to be one of those things where the more you know the more you need to learn.

Last year, as the TRC recommendations were released, my family made a commitment undertake a reconciliation journey. My husband and I each took different post-secondary classes and attended various professional learning events.  We both talked with friends, settler and Indigenous, to try to understand how privilege was manifesting for everyone and the nature of pervasive racism.  It was the main topic of discussion in our house for months. We also tried to influence communities we worked with.  I worked with the debate association I volunteer with to make Indigenous themes a main focus of topics for debate and my husband developed programs for the children he works with. Both of us wanted to be a part of the solution, but we weren’t always clear how to use our personal gifts to help.

One of the things I struggle with all the time is a fear of “doing it wrong.”  I hear that idea from other teachers a lot, too.  Two weeks ago, I did it wrong.  Again.  As a part of a talk I was giving, I repeated a racist sentence to make a point about responding to racism. I was trying to help, but three of my colleagues (one white, two Indigenous) talked to me afterward about it because it was not helpful.  They shared some key lessons I will take away:

  1. While it is important to speak about issues directly, I need to be more careful about repeating a phrase, even as a critique.  Doing that triggers pain for people I want to support and be an ally with.  Next time I need to speak more generally.  This point is particularly difficult for me as a English teacher, when I am thinking about how to explore ideas in literature.  I need to do more thinking about this topic.
  2. When you are exploring an area of racism, you need to give it substantial time for the ideas to be unpacked.  Think very carefully about that in advance and be sure the time is there. Next time, I would not use the example because it was not the focus of the learning and wound up being glossed over.
  3. Being an Indigenous educator repeatedly puts you in a situation of needing to be advocate and respond to issues while dealing with racism. I can’t really understand what that it is like, but I need to be aware of it and as sensitive to it as I can be. That process needs to keep being a part of the journey for me.

I share this learning here because I appreciate the value of their wisdom, and their willingness to talk with me. It is another act of reconciliation for them to explain and for me to try to understand.  At first, I just wanted to give up and avoid the problem all together, to let my Indigenous colleagues do the work because they understand it better. But if I want our society to do things differently, I need to try that as a teacher and keep learning from my mistakes. That’s how I have a growth mindset.

Because of the experience, and because of the month,  I am in the process of thinking about my reconciliation focus for this coming year.  I know part of it will be on the Citizenship competencies I’d like to see teachers use to combat systemic racism and promote social justice. I am sure there will be more as I learn more, but as Justice Sinclair says, education is the key to reconciliation.  I have the agency to be a part of the solution.

I’d love to hear what your goal will be and why you’ve picked it, if you are willing to share. If you share my nervousness about getting it wrong, you might value the Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation’s site of materials or this post from the Stewart Resource Center at the STF that helps teachers get started.

May 302017

As teachers, we have a series of traditions we use when we try to determine how well our students are doing. For example, we mark everything our students do and average it together, or we might focus our feedback on finished assignments or tests. In many cases, we engage in these practices because it is what we experienced in K-12 education and during university, or because it is what other teachers showed us how to do.  I have never met a teacher whose reason for being in education is the opportunity to spend evenings marking student work.  Report card time is not happy hour.

Why we grade student work:

Having said that we don’t really like it, few of us (even experts) have a really clear sense of goal of grading even through we need to know (Guskey, 2015).  A friend of mine, who by coincidence is named Mark, was the first person to tell me that the goal of marking was to “grow the pig” not “weigh the pig.”  While the livestock comparison might be unfortunate, it has really stuck with me, and it moved me as a teacher from focusing on summative measures to formative ones that could help me better meet student need.  I realized the purpose of grading is to determine exactly how a student is doing so that you as the teacher, in collaboration with the student can be as effective as possible in growing the student’s learning. Parents look to a report card to see how a student is doing.

However, my need to actually understand exactly what a student could do or needed help with was actually harmed by my own grading practices.  I took in various examples of student work and placed them in categories like tests or assignments, but the end mark did not actually tell me how well my students were doing relative my curriculum outcomes.  I also averaged early practice in with major assignments, even though one was learning, and one was designed to see what had been learned. I had key content and skills I was trying to teach, and it began to frustrate me that my grades did not help me know exactly how the students were actually doing on the essential understandings and skills.

I was talking about the issue with my vice-principal at the time, Kerry, who suggested I think about criterion reference versus norm referenced grading, and read about standards-base assessment.  I did, because I am nerdy that way, and I made a change to my grade book.  Instead of organizing based on units, test, and assignments, I started making a category for each outcome. The simple change in my practice was far reaching.

How my grading changed:

The first time you try organizing by outcomes, it changes things.  I realized I had outcomes I taught but didn’t really assess, and that some assignments (like an essay or final exam) that assessed multiple outcomes. I couldn’t just put the average in all of them because that didn’t help with my goal, which was to know exactly how a student was doing relative to each outcome. So I started recording parts of test and essays in different outcomes.

Why it helped my students:

I had to explain my process to students because it wasn’t what they were used to, and we made one of those epic journeys together. They started asking what outcome the activity was for, instead of how much is was worth. In response, I started always explaining the goal at the start of the lesson.  My strongest students were largely unaffected, but the student who really needed me started understanding purpose more, and began doing much better. One of my students pointed out her newest evidence was much better than her first try and I found this was often true.  I started taking the best evidence instead of all evidence because I wanted to see if my students could actually do the skills in outcome I had just taught. My students understood more and took more responsibility.

A fellow teacher asked me last week why it was worth doing this.  He said it would be more work.  It was initially.  I made the switch because it made me a better teacher and improved my students’ investment in their learning. I continue to like it because it is more fair and accurate. The mark I give represents exactly what the curriculum is asking for, not something else. I still don’t like grading and find it too time consuming, but now it really helps learning and accurately reflects how much is happening.  Outcomes-based grading was worth the investment, even though I had no idea what I was getting into when I got started.

May 172017

This post first appeared in Ed Week in May 2017 

In high schools, where I work, teacher talk still dominates classrooms. While we know learning occurs in the time when student make sense of something for themselves, we persist in telling students things for most of each period, then getting frustrated when the new information is not absorbed. Brain research tell us direct instruction for grades 9-12 should not exceed 15 minutes. Even adults can’t handle more than about 18 minutes (think TED Talk), so half a period of teacher talk is largely wasted. There are some common reasons why teachers wind up talking for long periods, and some alternatives that are better for encouraging a generative learning process.


I talk to be sure my students have all the information they need to do the process or task.

Working memory is very finite, and more details are being forgotten the longer someone other than the learner is doing the talking and thinking.  Consider talking just long enough to demonstrate or highlight key details (under five minutes) or breaking up the information into small chunks with student practice in between.  If you have more information than you can easily summarize, it is too much for one lesson, anyway.  Your additional information likely falls in the “nice to know” rather than “essential” category.  Consider a step-by-step sheet or a how-to video if you want students to remember more than three details. Giving them a written version of the steps reduces cognitive load and helps student who are language learners as an added bonus.


I talk to be sure my students have all the key information about what I am teaching.

Presentations, even ones that are scaffolded and chunked, are a great way to ensure student only “get the gist.” Even with good notetaking strategies for summarizing and tools like graphic organizers for content enhancement, only some information is remembered long enough to even be recorded.  In addition, everyone has real difficulty retrieving and working with information was encountered once and not utilized. If you care enough about something to bother to teach it, then you want students to be able to remember and use it. Before explaining a new concept, help student connect to prior knowledge so the new learning has something to attach itself to.  If you describe something, stop in the description in under five minutes and ask your students to do three things:

  • Summarize in their own words
  • State why the information is useful
  • Describe when they will need the information

Engaging in these sense-making activities ensures the information is being understood, but that alone is not enough. Students needed to apply the information minutes after they summarize it in order to be able to use it later. Activities to practice or apply information are essential because they are generative learning processes. Processes with gradual release of responsibility are particularly effective in helping students use and cement new learning.


I talk to be sure my students don’t misunderstand.

The act of explaining something does provide greater clarity. It also usually results in misconceptions. After every important or difficult concept in a lesson, you need to do a quick check to ensure everyone has understood the key idea and can actually build new knowledge on it. The check should:

  • Require everyone to demonstrate what you just explained
  • Be quick
  • Allow you to see any misconceptions at a glance, so you know what to reteach.

Doing quick checks for understanding at regular intervals in a lesson is essential to ensure new information is understood correctly, and that misconceptions are not rehearsed into the brain. Tools like hinge questions, mini-white boards, quick games, and sorting activities are especially helpful in giving you good information about what you might need to reteach. Getting feedback from your students about success of your explanation is a critical step in becoming an expert teacher, because the best teachers welcome and use errors.

Simple changes to how long teachers talk can have a profound influence on the effectiveness of their instruction. Replacing chunks of your direct instruction with generative processes, formative assessment, and written step-by-steps is an easy way to make a big difference in your students’ learning.

May 022017

I love to teach, and even when I get frustrated, I am on a quest to be a master teacher.  It’s funny, because I’m always rejecting various definitions of great teaching as too detailed or not nuanced enough (yes, I am aware of the issue in that dichotomy).

In my mind, teaching is the most important thing that I can do, and knowing my impact and trying to improve is a given.  I want to be a life-long professional, and it means I am always trying to become more refined in my craft. When I look to refine my instructional practice over time, I focus on:

  • Collaborating with other teachers
  • Being self-reflective
  • Seeking and giving feedback to other professionals

Each of these elements has a critical role to play in supporting teacher learning, and has characteristics that make it more effective.

Collaboration is excellent when:

  • Teachers are focused on meeting the needs of students who are not yet succeeding fully
  • Teachers have a high degree of control and strong feelings of self-efficacy within the group
  • Teachers have protected, predictable time to work together throughout the year
  • The end goal is clear, and teachers know in advance what will make them feel it has made a difference for students

We often value collaboration as teachers because we have a lot of responsibility and often teach in isolation. However, not all collaboration is equal. Collaboration that is episodic, exists without information about research-supported practice, or is focus predominantly on sharing materials is not associated with student success. Similarly,collaboration is ineffective if there is a lot of conversation about practice by actual change, reflection or feedback.

Being self-reflective:

Being self-reflective is the mark of a teacher who is a life-long learner.  Hall and Simeral (2015) recommend 4 reflective questions and I like the two that are specific to me as a teacher:

  1. Are my student achieving as much as they possibly can? ( I also like to ask if they are as engaged as they can be)
  2. Am I as effective as I can possibly be?

When teachers focus their professional learning on answering these questions, the learning is often deep and significant. If you are interested in self-reflection and self-assessment as a teacher, you may be interested in:

I often find myself thinking about how to be more effective, or about the students I just didn’t reach this time, but I am not always sure what else I could do that wouldn’t be way too much time or effort.  Trying to figure out what more I could do is where learning about research supported practices and getting feedback comes in.

Feedback to and from other teachers:

We all understand as teachers that feedback is essential for learning.  However, many of us don’t know that feedback to teachers actually has a higher effect size than feedback to students (Hattie, 2012). In addition, the culture of high schools means it can be hard to have anyone ever see you teach, let alone give you feedback. The best feedback teachers can get is from others who understand the circumstance they teach in, who are also dedicated teachers with learning to share, and who are not there to evaluate them.  When these three criteria are met the feedback is low stakes but very useful, making it very valuable.

In my teaching career, I have been luck enough to have classes that integrated with other teachers’ classes and to co-teach classes with other teachers and interns. The other men and women I was lucky enough to work with have taught me so much about teaching just by the different choices they made, the questions they asked, and the problems they were tackling. Their feedback, and the act of giving them feedback was some of the best professional learning I have ever done. It helped me solve pernicious instructional problems and connected me with other teachers who cared the way that I did.

Mar 152017

March 14th (3/14) is recognized around the world as Pi Day. A mathematical constant, Pi represents the ratio between circumference of a circle and its diameter. Typically represented as 3.14159, Pi (Greek letter “π”) continues infinitely without repetition or pattern, and can be calculated to more than one trillion digits past its decimal point.

The late Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once stated that “musical form is close to mathematics—not perhaps to mathematics itself, but certainly to something like mathematical thinking and relationship.” Building on this connection between music and mathematics, composer Michael Blake created a musical representation of what pi sounds like. Take a listen to hear what happens when you transpose the first 31 digits of the number pi into musical notes!

Feb 232017

In the part one of this post, we discussed the concepts of working memory and cognitive load to help explain how cognitive overload occurs.  This post suggests some practical strategies teachers can use to reduce cognitive load so a student can meet a curricular outcome that might otherwise be too complex or overwhelming.

Strategy 1 – Build on Prior Knowledge

It is easier to understand new things and remember them later when they are explicitly connected to prior knowledge.  Common tools for making overt connections include KWL charts, mindmaps, brainstorming, anticipation guides, and cloze procedures. Tools that help students explicitly think about what they already know before the new learning begins are particularly helpful if a new procedure or concept is built on pre-requisite information or skills.  If you know a task is going to be difficult, start with either a formal pre-assessment to see what your students know or a prior knowledge activity they helps them demonstrate their thinking. Either way you’ll be better able to start where they are and connect to what they know.

Strategy 2 – Think carefully about your content

Make mental space for the complex generative load by reducing the essential and extraneous load.  Consider what you were about to teach and break it into what it essential and what is nice to know.  Remove anything extra including distractions like lots of visual details, cool additional facts, and extra elaboration.  It is a lot like de-cluttering a room by taking everything out, then only putting back essential items. Remember clutter is not just content, it includes anything the brain needs to make sense of like sounds, moving images, or complex vocabulary.

Once you’ve reduced your extraneous load, make the essential load as explicit and simple as possible.  Make that information easy to process by moving away from dense text.  Leave lots of white space on the page, and use text features to make the ideas easy to scan, like headings and bullets.  Consider making simple memory tools like diagrams, graphic organizers, or a bookmark with the key facts. When you distill something to a few key steps or ideas and then leave a visual up to remind learners of the steps or ideas, you reduce cognitive load while still helping students learn new things.

Strategy 3 – Take small bites (chunking)

One of the best ways to reduce the load of a task is to organize the task or idea into small bits or chunks.  Sometimes chunking can apply to the visual look of content on the page, or to small groups of information a student must learn. Chunks are most effective when they are a small unit of elements that are directly related and a complete thought. Having students pay attention to just one small group of things at a time makes it much more likely they can process the information and use it.

Strategy 4 – Scaffold and support

As much as possible, use the same structures and processes when presenting new information, so the brain doesn’t need to spend any effort deciphering the process and can just focus on the generative learning. The more automatic the process, the less load is needed to do the task.  That is why breaking in time is hard when you are learning to drive and automatic most of the time as an experienced driver. The more places a student has automaticity, the easier it is to carry the load of the new task.

You can also help by providing other supports. A student just learning English does much better with a vocabulary list and visuals than she does with just an oral presentation. Similarly a student struggling to write an essay will do much better with frame or formula to add ideas into, or a scribe to writing things down.

One of the most important reasons we need teachers to help us learn is that they are intermediaries with the content and skills.  As teachers, there is a lot we can do to make the process of learning more effective by reducing the cognitive load when we know we are about to teach something hard.

Feb 142017

I was discussing common problems students in modified programs have with high school teachers last week, and one of them sent me a couple of videos about the concept of cognitive load. I think many of us notice times when we have students struggling to understand or remember things, and as teachers we have a variety of tools to try to help. This post is designed to be a quick summary of two key ideas related to learning: working memory and cognitive load. Understanding these ideas can help teachers know what problems they are trying to tackle when they adapt their instruction.

What is working memory? Working memory is where we do our conscious thinking and learning as we take in new information. It holds a limited amount of information for a short period of time.

What is cognitive load? The amount of mental resources (cognitive processing) to complete a thinking task is called cognitive load. Familiar or simple tasks have low cognitive load and new, more complex task require high load. There are three parts to cognitive load, including:

  • Essential load: the effort involved in remembering all the parts you need to think about to do a thinking task or process
  • Generative load: the effort involved in understanding and making sense of something well for yourself
  • Extraneous load: The effort spent processing things unrelated to the task

What is cognitive overload? Experienced differently by different people even for the same content with the same teacher, cognitive overload means the learner has difficulty processing and learns less. It can be caused by:

  •  Lots of new information
  • The way the information is organized or presented
  • How much the learner is focused or can focus

Why does this matter?

Teachers can make a series of decisions designed to raise or lower the cognitive load for learners based on the learners’ needs. A student just learning English while trying to keep up with classroom work needs materials that reduce the cognitive load of language.  In general, learning is occurring when generative tasks occupy the working memory.  Teachers can do a lot to reduce the load of essential task and increase the opportunity for cognitively appropriate generative ones.

Read Next Post: What teachers can do to reduce cognitive load

Feb 012017

I had the privilege of digging into Book Love by Penny Kittle with SPS Colleagues last year. Through the reading and conversations I took away so many lessons. It was great to hear about how educators build and promote a culture of reading in a variety of schools. Although every page has wonderful quotes and insights to take away for this post we will focusing on setting reading goals and conferring with students.

Tracking reading success and setting reasonable reading goals was also central to Kittle’s work and served as a departure point for engaging students in their reading lives. Kittle discusses that students can reasonably read between 175 to 200 book in adolescence; but the “reality is that students will read on average 6.5 texts per year” (p. 23). Students are simply not reading enough to engage reading skills needed to thrive in post-secondary education or to even worse to sustain reading lives into adulthood. “Developing reading stamina by cultivating an individual reading habit requires relationships with students and systems that support, encourage, and challenge readers; it also requires will” (p. 24).

Interested in setting personal and realistic goals and beginning to confer with students? Check out the links below.

• SPS Conferring Videos (below), SPS Conferring Booklet 2016-2017, Reading Rate Class Tracking Conferring Kittle

Notebooks are a big part of Kittle’s reading life and she begins by modeling for the students how she tracks her reading life. Along with tracking books read through months of year to celebrate success of students she uses the notebooks to keep track of personal reading goals and responses to reading (personal or assigned). She begins conferring with students by engaging in informal conversations and over time as relationships are built she asks open questions to deepen thinking.

Setting personal and realistic reading goals are established with a simple calculation. Students record how many pages they can read in 10 min and follow a simple calculation to establish pages expected per week; adjusting the number based on difficulty of material.

Tracking students can be difficult with demands on time. Kittle outlines how when students are silent reading she passes out the weekly reading recording sheet and has students fill out the information. When conferring with the students she compares the goal and the recorded pages and engages the students in conversation to challenge them in meeting or exceeding their reading goals. She also records names of students 3 to 5 students a day in a weekly conferring record so she doesn’t overwhelm herself with trying to confer with each student each day but also to ensure she meets with each child at least once a week.

Classroom Libraries and Book Talks are essential to building a reading culture. Kittle believes the more books we passionately share with children the more they will want to read. Teachers can invite guests to share books, Teacher Librarians to introduce new books, or even get students to share what they are reading. Most importantly share and be passionate about books so students engage with you and in turn want to engage in new material; when you share your passion people listen!

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