Aug 182014

I know my students want to be with others students and care so much about what their friends (and their non-friends) think.  In fact, I can’t always get them to stop being with each other and focus on what we are supposed to be learning.  The good news is, it isn’t a question of time with peers or time for learning.  Research actually shows that students learn much more effectively with each other than by themselves, provided the teacher sets it up carefully. In fact, the “research on cooperative learning is one of the greatest success stories in the history of educational research” (Slavin et al., 2003, p. 177). There are 4 main reasons that working with peers is so important for adolescents:

What Research says the Value of Learning with Peers

1. Motivation: When you work is necessary for others, you want to do a better job.  In well-constructed environments where peers help each other learn, each person is critical to the teams’ success and has a personal role. Research shows there are four key intrinsic motivators a teacher can tap into: student interests, someone really needing what the student is doing, peers valuing what a student does and student feels of early and continued success. Working with peers to increase motivation in the first three, and sometimes the fourth.

2. Social cohesion and connection: Peers work hard because they care about the group and how they are perceived by peers. In adolescence, this is one of the most powerful positive or negative motivating forces. How the teacher structures the groups and creates a safe environment determines if collaboration uses social cohesion to increase learning or reduce it.

3. Personalization: Almost 80% of the feedback students get in a class is from their peers, and peers are much more likely to answer questions quickly than a teacher is.  In addition, students are more willing to ask direct questions of peers and typically get responses more specifically directed at what they don’t understand.  One downside is that peer’s explanations for “why” are often incorrect. Teachers need to structure peer learning to surface common misconceptions and correct them, and then personalization and feedback our powerful ways to improve student learning.

4. Cognitive elaboration: When people work in groups, they need to understand their ideas more fully to explain them to others, and they often gain insights, see errors, or find connections they would not understand on their own. Collaboration builds richer, more nuanced understanding than learning in isolation.

John Hattie  notes that the effect on learning for cooperative learning is better than common alternatives in terms of effect size (.52), and “much higher” if skills are explicitly taught (p. 78 of Visible Learning for Teachers).  If students know the basics before learning with peers starts, students learn more completely than they do in either individual or competitive learning environments.

Ensuring Students are Growing Learning by Working with Peers

There are many things you can do to help and lots of instructional approaches to try (there is definitely another blog post in there), but here are some of the key ones:

  • As the teacher, you ensure the classroom is a safe place to make mistakes and grow for everyone in the room.  One of the few times collaborative  or peer based learning does not help students is if they fear peers will hurt them or are judging them.
  • You make sure everyone has enough of the basic understanding and skills they need to start working with others. The focus of the work with others is on peers helping each other understand and apply learning.
  • Everyone has a different and important job.  The students are working as a group, not just in a group.
  • Peer processes focus much more on understanding together than doing common assignments. When there is a common assignment, everyone has a personal product and mark.
  • You teach your students to give good feedback about tasks, processes and self-regulation.
  • You structure and monitor peer learning, providing prompts and using questioning and feedback often.
  • Groups have mixed ability level and preferences, and students work with a variety of members of the class over time.


Read more about these concepts in works by the following authors:

May 192014

This year, Saskatoon Public Schools has struck a strategic committee to review its highly successful French Immersion (FI) program after 30+ years of instruction. The committee includes diverse voices from throughout the program from K-12 including classroom teachers, a Teacher Librarian, a Resource Teacher, schools administrators, the French Immersion Instructional Consultant, a Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction and is chaired by a superintendent of Education. One of the first tasks taken on by the committee has been drafting a vision statement for Saskatoon Public School’s French Immersion program.

While drafting the vision statement, several pertinent questions were uncovered by members of the committee. These questions lead to rich discussion and were not easily answered. Some of the most challenging questions were:

  • What is the goal of a FI program?
  • What does a FI program consistently accomplish?

One of the most immediate answers to the question of the goal of a FI program was to achieve bilingualism. Members of the committee debated the definition of bilingualism in Canada, Saskatchewan and in Saskatoon and the level of proficiency of French Immersion graduates. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines bilingual as : 1. having or expressed in two languages 2. Using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency. The discussion continued to explore bilingualism until a group analysis of our past and present students was initiated by this question:

  • Who were the historical FI students and who are the current students enrolled in French Immersion?

This last question was particularly interesting because historically FI students in Saskatoon were children born to families who spoke English exclusively. Currently, it is not uncommon to have a significant percentage of students in a FI classroom who speak more than one language. The goal of bilingualism doesn’t seem to accurately represent these students although they are enrolled in FI to learn French. Our committee started to explore the possibility of referring to students as language learners who are working towards the goal of being able to read, write and speak French, but to which extent?

I shared one of most recent pieces of research I had read on the subject of bilingualism to support the committee with the task of expanding the wording of the vision statement. Roy Lyster in his 2007 publication Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content – A counterbalanced approach quotes (Day & Shapson 1996:91) on page 22 stating: ”Functional bilingualism”-is a vague and relative notion and can mean anything from the ability to understand and make oneself understood and get by in everyday social situations to the ability to function like a well-educated native-speaker in demanding social and professional settings”. The members of the committee shared the same opinion that bilingualism seemed vague and was interpreted differently by all members of the committee. To counter this vagueness, Lyster later quotes Fred Genesee on the same page refining that bilingual competence is: ”the ability to use the target languages effectively and appropriately for authentic personal, education, social, and/or work-related purposes.” Because of the complexity of the program and the task of creating an all-encompassing vision statement, the committee concluded the meeting making a commitment to continue to reflect on the terms and language of the vision statement.

During our next meeting, we will continue our work drafting and committing to a vision statement that encompasses the unique elements of our K-12 French Immersion program and the diverse language learners it serves.


Lyster, R. (2007). Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content: A Counterbalanced Approach. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

May 132014

Tuesday evening, Saskatchewan launched its first MOOC (watch this video to learn about what a MOOC is).  Its main focus is Digital Citizenship – specifically what teachers can do to help students be successful digital citizens.  You can find everything in the main site @ .  I was excited to hear tonight that various extra sessions around 21st Century skills are also being offered on the calendar. If you haven’t joined yet, you still can at the website.

One of the main points from tonight is that the best way to be an active digital citizen is to “find your space”. Alec (a friendly guy equipped with expertise and tools) explained that it isn’t essential that everyone use the same tool, but rather that everyone be active in growing the learning of others.  I use the phrase “Learning out loud” and I think it is really important to be connected, reflecting and sharing. As teachers we want our students to be reflective and connected to powerful allies who help them learn.  We want them to metacognitive, life long learners.  We know technology is important, but many of us also know it can be really hard to keep up with all the changes in technology.

The big reason I am involved in all things technology related is because my “space” has always been the place that engages my students.  I know my students use technology to learn more than they use anything else – it is how they choose to learn and connect without anyone compelling them to. I want to prepare my students to be successful there. Not just literate, but fluent. Powerful learners with technical skills that empower them.

This DCMOOC thing is about learning how to be in that digital space and being there with others who also care about supporting students. Looking forward to learning with you!



May 062014

Like many teachers, I’d say I am pretty good at explaining new ideas to others.  I use a wide variety of types of instruction (interactive and indirect are my favorites) and I try to reach all my students. But despite my best efforts, there are students who I don’t reach and concepts my students always struggle more with.  Sometimes these are the most frustrating moments as a teacher, because you’ve already given your students your best, but it isn’t enough for them to “get it.”

Responsive Instruction is all about what to do when students don’t “get it”, but it is part of a large cycle (see Responsive Instruction Poster v2) that teachers use in everything from planning, to instruction, to assessment.This post is a summary of the elements of Responsive Instruction, which starts with curriculum and works around 2 key mindsets. The second half of the cycle, the success mindset, is a heartening way to respond when some students don’t yet understand.

Preventing the Problem: Start with a clear goal

As always in our teaching and learning, the heart of the Responsive Instruction is curricular outcomes. The teacher looks determines which outcomes or outcomes will be addressed in a sequence of instruction, and picks a specific learning goal for the day.  It is critical to start with a clear goal, because having one clear goal makes it much easier to diagnose what students struggle with.

Preventing the Problem: Focus on your students’ strengths

Once the grade level learning goal is in place, the teacher thinks about the learning with the Differentiation Mindset. This mindset has 4 key elements, all of which are about knowing the student:

  • student skills
  • student interests
  • student level of current knowledge and understanding
  • student learning style, preference and culture

A teacher keeps this Differentiation Mindset while working through the initial instruction of a new concept or process and uses a series of specific steps including: determining indicators or success criteria, pre-assessing, choosing and using an instructional strategy, and finally, using a quick check (formative assessment) to see what students understood. When you make changes to your instruction that cater to student skill level, interests or culture, you reduce the barriers your students face.  It also helps improve your relationship with your students, making it easier for them to learn from you. This means more students get it the first time.

Addressing the Problem: Responding when students don’t get it.

At the heart is a Success Mindset is the belief that all students can learn when given sufficient time and supports.The Success Mindset has 5 key elements a teacher uses:

  1. Reteaching
  2. Allowing students multiple opportunities for success
  3. Increasing choice and relevance
  4. Adjusting pace
  5. Providing additional supports

Through re-teaching, feedback and student reflection, a teacher prepares all the students to be ready to try the summative task (like a project, performance or test). Read more about reteaching:

Responsive instruction is a process that effective teachers use to ensure every student has a real opportunity to complete the learning. Through starting where students are, finding misunderstanding and directly addressing issues so all students can succeed is at the heart of good responsive instruction.

You are welcome to read more about responsive instruction in the following related posts: 


Apr 122014

Assessment for Learning Practices

Wiliam (2011) states that professional development should focus on formative assessment, as a regular assessment-teacher-action cycle produces substantial increases in student learning. Teacher learning should include

  •          understanding base knowledge of assessment practices.
  •          planning for implementation of strategies to respond to the assessment; and
  •          discussing instructional changes made and results on student learning.

Mathematics concepts build by concept over time. While the focus for many provinces, school divisions, and schools is to increase student achievement in mathematics, that requires increased opportunities for students to be able to engage in grade level mathematics. This can only occur through opportunities to fill gaps in skills and understanding, which begins with identification of those gaps.

Gap Filling

Diagnostic Assessments

The first step in providing the opportunity for students to engage in grade-level mathematics is to identify which essential skills students are proficient at and which skills are barriers to engagement. A grade-level Pre-Assessment built on Essential Learning Outcomes is a tool that can help inform students, teachers, and parents.  A Pre-Assessment can be administered in its entirety at the beginning of the school year, or broken apart into concepts needed as pre-skills for each unit of study in the new year.

The structure of a continuum of Pre-Assessment Diagnostics is

Diagnostic Design

The questions in a Grade 3 Pre-Assessment are identical to those questions in the Grade 3 Post-Assessment. In addition to those core questions, concepts from Grade 3 are added. A suggestion is that the Post-Assessment would be administered in early May to allow for reteaching and redirection in order to best prepare students for the next grade level.

Not all concepts are included in these diagnostic assessments. Only those concepts that are skill based are included. For instance, the concept of Area is not included, as a student can understand the concept of area as an application of multiplication. Multiplication appears in the PreAssessment, but knowing the area of a rectangle does not.

These assessments are meant to be formative only. They are not meant to be a part of a reporting document, as they do not fully test conceptual understanding in the depth that curriculum requires. These are only a tool to know which preskills students are struggling with, and which preskills students are proficient with.

The DRAFT diagnostics below were created by a working group from our Mathematics Community, including: Dulcie Puobi, Victoria MacMillan, Jennifer Brokofsky, Michelle Naidu, Lisa Bryden, Sharon Harvey, Terry Johanson.

Grade 3 Pre-Assessment Grade 3 Post-Assessment
Grade 4 Pre-Assessment Grade 4 Post-Assessment
Grade 5 Pre-Assessment Grade 5 Post-Assessment
Grade 6 Pre-Assessment Grade 6 Post-Assessment
Grade 7 Pre-Assessment Grade 7 Post-Assessment
Grade 8 Pre-Assessment Grade 8 Post-Assessment
Grade 9 Pre-Assessment Grade 9 Post-Assessment
Grade 10 Pre-Assessment

The DRAFT Kindergarten to grade 2 diagnostics below were created by a working group from our Primary Mathematics Community including: Rhonda Wacker, Rosemary Vinet, Kelly Massier-Anderson, Elizabeth Phipps, Tracy Schnell-Persson, Wendy Macleod, Jennifer Hamon-Adair, Jodie Wachs, Dulcie Puobi, Jennifer Brokofsky, Cassandra Neufeld

Post K/Pre-Gr1 Diagnostic with Task cards Post-Gr1 to Pre-Gr2 Diagnostic
Post-Gr2 to Pre-Gr3 Diagnostic  Post-Gr1 to Pre-Gr3 Task Cards


Apr 102014

I was at a meeting today where a group of teachers were considering what Culturally Responsive instruction looks like in the classroom. We had just finished watch a video (It’s Not Opinion, It’s a Fact) of true by depressing statistics that made me want to think about what I could do to help First Nations and Métis students. We were considering a common definition of Cultural Responsiveness, but we each started with our own. Here is my first attempt:

Culturally responsive education places the student at the center. Students construct meaning for themselves or in groups, and the teacher recognizes more than one way of viewing or understanding the world. These can be simple things, like allowing students a variety of choices about how to show their learning, or more complex things like accepting an explanation (or way of doing things) that is not like the dominant culture. It also means the teacher is supportive through pre-assessing, and starts from strengths. It is about being in relationship with the student who is not the same as you and caring genuinely about that student’s success.

The group added other elements:

  • Value identity
  • Make a safe, caring place
  • Intervene before failure and focus on success
  • Learn and explore together – everyone in a learner including the teacher
  • Be open to what is best for the student rather than what is comfortable for the teacher. Learn new things
  • Free of prejudice, not just tokenism
  • Engages indigenous knowledge, and helps learners see themselves in what they study and the building
  • Community is in the center with the student
  • Recognize the dominant culture and understand the inequality of different roles. Deliberately place yourself “beside” as opposed to using positional authority and focus on listening
  • Using the staff and student cultural continuum in the classroom
  • Use elders and attend cultural events
  • Use formative assessment
  • High expectations, mixed with love “bossy Aunties”
  • Be aware of the stories of the students

This is a pretty long, diverse list, and really daunting for some teachers, but I just learned something that I think can help.  Cultural Responsiveness (sometimes called “culturally responsive pedagogy of relations” by our New Zealand friends) starts with agentic thinking. Essentially that means knowing I can make a difference  and focusing on what is in my control as a teacher. After that, I found a helpful distinction between Culturally Appropriate Instruction and Cultural Responsive Instruction so can remember how to do both.

Cultural Responsiveness is about many of the things we are already working in in Collegiate Renewal: being student centered, co-constructing rather than telling, starting in the learner’s zone of proximal development, allowing for multiple ways of thinking about something and choice. Some instructional approaches that help:

Cultural appropriateness is about helping First Nations and Métis students see themselves in school, without telling them who they are. It means adding stories of various first peoples and their perspectives. It means cultural activities, language and icons that help students feel as welcome at school as students who are members of the dominant culture (not sure why this is important? Check out this post). These things should all be a part of the regular classroom instruction as renewed curricula requires, not just addressing FNIM content or perspectives as special events.  Some resources to help:

Trying to understand Cultural Responsiveness has left me with three big ideas as a teacher. First, it is important to believe it is your job to make a difference for FNIM students, and you have the power to do it. Next, it is about moving your classroom to make it student-centered and balance out the power. Finally, it is about ensuring all students see their own identities as important in school.




Mar 272014

Integration of Career Development Concepts into Other Subject Areas

• Does career development engage young people in their schooling and help keep them attending school?
• Does career development positively impact on young people’s academic achievement?
• Does career development assist young people in making successful transitions to college or the labour market?
• Does career development have a positive effect on people’s career and life success?

SPS Career Educators and Career Facilitators know the answer is YES to all these questions! But if you want some solid, research-based evidence, especially when those around you may question your passion about the importance of career development for ALL students, in ALL subjects, you must read an excellent study found in the BLOG section of Career Cruising. The paper is called “Fostering College and Career Readiness: How career development activities in schools impact on graduation rates and students’ life success”, by Tristram Hooley, John Marriott and James P. Sampson Jr.  The paper goes deep into the impacts of career development in relation to those four specific questions listed above, with explicit evidence to support why we ARE so committed to and passionate about helping our students discover who they are and where and how to actively pursue their dreams to lead them to a productive, successful, happy and fulfilling life! This is a must-read for all career educators and ALL educators in general – just click on the link below to access the complete report:

Mar 182014

Language Retraining

Teaching a second language in a minority context is a challenging task. The classroom teachers’ level of language proficiency is paramount since learners are often exposed to a limited number of language models and their ability to learn and acquire the language accurately is dependent on the quality of the language presented by the teacher. Those who speak multiple languages are often aware that the general improvement and maintenance of language skills is an unending process.

In 1995, the American Association of Teachers of French published Susan Colville-Hall’s article Regaining Language Loss: An Immersion Experience for French Language Teachers (See The French Review, Vol. 68 No. 6 (May, 1995) pp. 990-1002 also available from The author explores language loss and states that it may stem from the following:

  • Absence from the language classroom;
  • Teaching another subject area or language;
  • Teaching at a beginning or introductory level without the opportunity to fully use or interact with the language;
  • Lack of experience travelling to a region where target language immersion is possible.

Teachers who experience language loss or feel that they have not acquired a suitable level of language, are at risk of experiencing low levels of professional confidence and may experience a decrease in enthusiasm for the job, according to Colville-Hall. These teachers may experience the following:

  • Have inadequate preparation in the functional use of language (studying in a majority language context);
  • Lack practical, functional vocabulary;
  • Struggle to meet expectations to conduct class in target language and to interact with colleagues of higher language or native speakers;
  • Experience varying levels of language attrition patterns depending on their ability. (The ability to speak a language is rapidly impacted by limited use whereas listening and skills related to auditory comprehension are not.)

Colville-Hall indicates that the last language learned is the first to be forgotten, especially when it is used in isolation and for limited amounts of time. Of significance, the level of language acquired during learning determines how easily it will be lost. The incomplete mastery of language structure or skills are most easily lost or forgotten- even by language teachers.

According to the research, teachers who themselves decide to retrain in language often experience unintended positive consequences. Those who do retrain report the following:

  • Experience more resilient language gains that are less vulnerable to attrition;
  • Often apply additional effort to maintain their language skills and are successful in doing so;
  • Reacquire lost language skills or improve base skills thanks to language training exposure or doses of language immersion.

According to Colville-Hall, the intensity of the immersion experience is stressed to be as significant as the longevity. Nevertheless, short immersion exposure allows 

for rapid language recovery of a teacher’s original language competence.

In Colville-Hall’s research findings, language retraining results in the following:

  • Increases the language proficiency of teachers;
  • Exposes teachers to effective techniques for more effective use of culturally authentic materials;
  • Creates a sense of capability to adapt diverse language instruction tools for personal teaching use;
  • Demonstrates a positive attitude towards maintaining language proficiency.
Feb 212014

OntarioAs a division, Saskatoon Public Schools believes that all students can achieve, given enough time and the appropriate supports. We strive to create a love of reading and to grow a culture of literacy in all our students. We are left with the following question: what are the research-proven supports that ensure that all students achieve in French Immersion?

In my previous post, I reviewed highlights from Fred Genessee’s research and 2013 presentation at the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers’ National Conference in Calgary. The information strongly supported the early identification of and activation of early interventions for at-risk readers in French Immersion. You may want to read the first entry here:

In this post, I would like to continue exploring these topics but expand the research base. The April 2009 What Works? Research into Practice article from the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat of the Government of Ontario entitled Early Identification and Intervention for At-Risk Readers in French Immersion asks: How can early French Immersion teachers prevent struggling readers from experiencing persistent reading problems?

The Ontario research article emphasizes that learner confidence is key in taking risks and that ultimately that success begets success. Struggling students lack the confidence to overcome their difficulties and need support to be successful. Reading difficulties are said to be the most important factor influencing student transfer out of French Immersion. Students who do struggle in reading will most often transfer from French Immersion prior to the end of grade 3. Historically, assessments for potential reading problems occur late, often once students have acquired listening and speaking skills in French. Researchers refer to this as a wait to fail approach.

“[T]he more frustration these children experience, the more disinterested they become in reading.” (Wise N., Chen X., 2009)

In contrast to this past practice, Wise and Chen, researchers from OISE/University of Toronto suggest a new approach. Students should be given a phonological awareness test, which will help predict future reading ability. The challenge in administering a phonological test to French Immersion students is that they do not yet have the language ability to complete the assessment. Wise and Chen assert that an English phonological awareness test will identify potential weak readers in French and in English and should be administered at the beginning of the school year.

“Our young readers in French Immersion programs need early reading instruction as much as our young readers in English language programs.” (Wise N., Chen X., 2009)

As per the advice the researchers, once identified, interventions should be initiated while the gap in ability is small among students. Students identified will benefit from systematic and explicit phonological instruction and that a specific sequence should be taken:

  • Begin instruction at the word level and increase difficulty by targeting syllable and phoneme level
  • Increase awareness that:
    • sentences are made of words
    • words are made of a syllable or multiple syllables
    • syllables are made of phonemes
    •  Target instruction on segmenting and blending to develop early reading skills

Improving our practice and process in supporting at-risk readers in French Immersion will decrease the gap between strong and weak students and will ultimately lead to the increase in the proportion of bilingual secondary school graduate—the goals of the federal government’s Action Plan for Official Languages.

Jan 092014

It is “finals” time in secondary schools throughout Saskatchewan.  It is a stressful time for some teachers who are trying to finish up and for others who are trying to plan a valid final evaluation for their students. Changes in the required number of school days have meant teachers throughout Saskatoon are seeing changed exam schedules and considering the most effective ways to use the time. One of the questions that plagues many teachers is “What is the best kind of final assessment, a project or an exam?”  A colleague recently sent me a copy of Grant Wiggins’ blog post on the subject, which has a far better explanation than anything I might generate.

Wiggins calls the question a false dichotomy – essentially saying it is not about the type of summative assessment, but rather what the assessment is focused on that is so critical for creating a valid final evaluation.  His main contention is that the final summative assessment must focus on something beyond content mastery to actually demonstrate true understanding.  He describes the types of things a student can do if he or she understands:

  • justify a claim
  • connect discrete facts on their own
  • apply their learning in new contexts
  • adapt to new circumstances, purposes or audiences
  • criticize arguments made by others
  • explain how and why something is the case, etc.

Wiggins argues that a final evaluation which asks students to demonstrate these skills in relation to the requires curricular outcomes is the most effective type of summative assessment.

The whole blog post is clear and powerful, and well worth a close read. However, the most practical part of the blog are guiding questions (he calls them audits) to use is assessing your final “whatever” (exam, project or something else). His first two questions are the hardest ones, and I found them very helpful in revising one of my most recent finals. His second set are a great quick check if you know your exam, performance, or project is well focused on your course goals and at the correct level in Bloom’s taxonomy:

  • Could a student do poorly on this exam/project, in good faith, but still understand and have provided other evidence of meeting my goals?

  • Could a student do well on this exam/project with no real understanding of the course key content?

  • Could a student gain a low score on the exam/project, but you know from other evidence that this score does not reflect their understanding and growth?

  • Could a student have a high score on the exam/project merely by cramming or by just following teacher directions, with limited understanding of the subject (as perhaps reflected in other evidence)?

In the end, a final assessment of any type is only as good as the depth of learning it is testing. In the end, the most valid form of a final assessment is one focused on having student do tasks like justifying and explaining why. A student still needs to know the content of the course, but must understand it deeply enough to be able to use it after the course is done.