Gratitude

My students have been learning about growth mindset and self-regulation. For Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 30th, we focused on gratitude. We discussed the things in our lives that we take for granted but are thankful for and in some instances, couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without. The questions to guide our discussion included:

  • What are you grateful to have learned or be learning about?
  • What are you challenged by?
  • What is something that you use everyday and couldn’t live without? What toys are your favourite?
  • What person or thing makes you smile?
  • What do you like to smell, taste, touch, hear, see?
  • What do you appreciate in nature/outside?
  • What are you thankful for in your community, at home, at school, etc.?
  • What do you appreciate about yourself? About your friends?
I am Grateful for...
I’m pretty proud with what they came up with and the kind things they said to each other during the discussion. We learned that we can use words and a listening ear to brighten someone’s day – truly a lifelong lesson!

Legs Up The Wall

We have been learning about strategies to use when we are in the blue, green, yellow, and red zones. Yoga is a strategy we often use in the blue or yellow zones. One of our favorite poses is called Legs Up The Wall. In this position, students lay flat on their backs with their legs against a flat surface, like a cupboard or wall. Students can put their hands on their heads, by their sides, or on their body. Their legs can be straight up and down, bent into a butterfly pose, or open in a V-shape. The benefits of this pose include calming the nervous system, quieting the mind, reducing stress, releasing pressure and tension in the lower body, and inversion benefits without a lot of effort. It is quick and easy and students love it! One of my students told me about how she was practicing at home and her mom wondered what she was doing. While it may look silly, it is totally worth it!

– Try with classical music for added calming benefits.

Tell Them Tuesday

February 11th, 2020

Dear Greg Lawrence, Lyle Stewart, and Gordon Wyant of the Saskatchewan Party,

Today, as we vote on sanctions, I reflect on the conditions within our classrooms in Saskatchewan. I think about the way things are and how far that is from how they should be. Mostly, I think about how much I love my job and care about each and every student that I’ve had the privilege to teach. I worry daily that I am not doing enough for them, but with the current conditions there is no way I ever could be.

This is not about money – even though educators should care that our salaries are not increasing at the same rate as the cost of living, thus reducing our spending power. This isn’t about the ploy to give us $1,500 of our own surplus health plan money that would then be taxed. It’s a little bit about not covering our 1.5% wage increase last contract and forcing divisions to cover the cost, leaving 24 out of 26 divisions with a deficit budget. But that’s only because this decision ultimately resulted in less teachers and educational assistants in our classrooms. We’ve accepted 0% before. We didn’t become teachers for the money. We are merely asking for decent working conditions. We want to work in an environment where we do not feel overwhelmed, understaffed, and muzzled. We want to work in a system that allows us to meet the needs of all our learners. We want each student to achieve to the best of their abilities. We shouldn’t have to ask for this and we certainly shouldn’t have to fight for it.

I dream of working in a learning environment that I would want for my nephew, own children, friend’s children, your children, and all the children in Saskatchewan. That dream starts with a discussion around classroom composition. We need a contract which ensures that the kids who need support get it, in turn helping all children have the learning environment and supports they need to succeed. Something so crucial to the success of our province should be on the bargaining table, yet the Saskatchewan Party refuses to discuss it. We don’t need another committee to tell us that there is no money (read: education is not a priority). If we want a healthy Saskatchewan, education should be high on the list. We don’t need another committee to tell us what we already know: chronic underfunding has left education in a dire state.

Education Minister Gordon Wyant said himself, “our students need our teachers in the classroom.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet, even though enrollment has increased by 20,000 with 6,000 additional English as Additional Language (EAL) learners, less than 200 classroom teachers have been hired and only 21 EAL teachers. We lack educational psychologists, educational assistants, counsellors, speech therapists, and occupational therapists in our schools. While some divisions lack these roles in terms of numbers, others do not have the means to hire these professionals altogether, leaving students with unmet needs that teachers are trying to fill with no additional time or resources.

Imagine a split class of 30 students. Some are First Nations with relationships that we need to mend from previous injustices. Others are EAL with past trauma and limited English proficiency. There are a handful of students on Inclusive Intervention Plans (IIPs) who may or may not have diagnoses – anything from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disabilities (LDs), Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), etc. Others are struggling but are waiting to be assessed, and thus they are not being supported by outside agencies or being represented on intensive support lists. Some have been assessed but there are no available school professionals or outside agencies to provide support. A couple of students have behavioral plans and violent outbursts that evacuate the classroom and compromise staff and student safety. We have students who are homeless and haven’t had lunch for days. We have students with Child Protection Services (CPS) involvement, those on the run from abuse, and those with mental health and addictions in their immediate lives. There are students with medical needs that need to be monitored. We have students who threaten to bring weapons to school and others who we worry about sending home at the end of the day. There are the students who rarely attend. Academically, there can be up to 8 levels of reading, math, and writing in one room. There is no educational assistant in this room and minimal outside agency support. It’s just one teacher, being asked to manage it all.

This isn’t fictitious – this is the new norm.  Do the math: teaching 30 students in a 7-hour day equates to about 14 minutes with each child. Trying to meet these complex needs within that time frame is mindboggling, without even planning for the curriculum. Between the extra-curricular activities, trying to teach all outcomes to all children despite the aforementioned concerns, rewarding positive behavior, deescalating violent outbursts, creating classroom materials, marking assignments, implementing differentiated instruction and adaptations for all three tiers, lesson planning and goal setting, following multiple behavior supports plans (often with conflicting strategies), documenting our every move, taking data for behavioral support plans, assessing each and every outcome and indicator, lunch duty, increasing parent engagement, and so on, you start to realize the absurdity of what we expect our teachers to do.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you stopped reading. I also feel like it’s too much. It’s no wonder that close to 50% of teachers quit within the first five years. Enrollment is up, inflation is up, but why aren’t our priorities keeping up? We can’t keep guilting teachers to do more and be more with less. In this system, we will never be enough. I became a teacher because I believe in inclusion, but our funding model is leaving everyone behind.

You have the opportunity to change the trajectory of education in Saskatchewan. The financial decisions you make will impact the future of this province. We need a stable fiscal plan for education and that includes discussing classroom composition and making our students the top priority, as they should be. Yes, we need responsible spending as taxpayers work hard for their money. But prioritizing education is money well spent. The government needs to be held accountable for student success and the standard of education in this province. Teachers are burning out and that should scare us all. Teaching conditions are the learning conditions of our students and our students are the future of this province!

Sincerely,

Kourtney Gorham, B.Ed.

Be Safe! Program

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the Canadian Red Cross Be Safe! Program. The program is aimed at children 5 to 9 years of age and teaches them personal safety, covering sensitive topics such as sexual abuse. My school division purchased the kit, which includes detailed teacher lesson plans, posters and visuals for each lesson, parent and administration information and communication packages, Trusty the puppet, stickers, the program songs on CD, and a Your Body is Yours book. The resources are in both English and French. I shared the program information packages with my administrator and connected it to the Saskatchewan Grade 1 Health curriculum outcome: USC1.3 – analyze, with support, feelings and behaviours that are important for nurturing healthy relationships at school. Then I took the online educator training to better familiarize myself with the program before sharing it with my kiddos. I sent a letter home with each child so that their parents could better support them if sensitive topics came up at home. I’m not going to lie, after I sent the letter home I felt anxious and wondered what the response would be and how the program would go but…

  1. The program is phenomenal! 
  2. I received ZERO complaints and instead, praise from caregivers! 
  3. I was supported by my administrators and division to teach this important topic.
  4. And, most importantly, my students loved the lessons and were able to retain the information! 

Let it be known, this is not a sponsored post but it may start to seem that way as I rave about this program. I believe that everyone’s favorite part of the program is the puppet, Trusty. It has helped my kids engage and connect with the topics. Now having a puppet is all the rage in Gr. 1 and students are asking their parents for their own puppets!

The progression is well timed and has so far followed the thought process of my students. It starts with comfortable topics that may have already been discussed throughout the year but adds new information of interest. For instance, the lessons start with the rights and responsibility of children by introducing learners to the UN Charter of Rights and Freedoms. My students loved to learn that play and rest is their right! When asked to clean up at home, one of my students tried to use this newfound knowledge to her advantage, citing play as her right! Her mom and I had a laugh about this and then she thanked me for challenging her daughter with topics like this!

The program continues with lessons on safe and unsafe friends and adults. All of my students now understand that a safe adult has to be someone you know and trust. The program moves into body positivity and accepting diversity and my students loved reading People by Peter Spiers, focusing on the cultures and diversity that we have in our own classroom. Since teaching the lesson, I have overheard three students talking to others about why they are proud of their bodies and the cool things they can do!

These three lessons set the tone for the future lessons and help to gradually and naturally arrive at more serious topics such as public versus private. We started with public places, items, and internet safety and worked our way into private body parts. I appreciate that the program properly labels private parts of the body. I told my students that they needed to know the real names if they wanted to be farmers, doctors, nurses, teachers, moms and dads, firefighters, police officers, veterinarians, EMTs, etc. and that while we only say these words when we are hurt, are in the bathroom, and/or need help, it is important to know these terms even if they make us laugh. One of my students said it was a bit weird to hear me say those words and others were shocked that girls and boys have different body parts. But by the next day when we discussed caring for our bodies, the laughing and awkwardness had subsided.

The program teaches the personal safety strategy – Say No! Go! Tell! – and the students are able to remember this quite well. The teachers across the hall have heard us yelling ‘no’ on numerous occasions and I’m proud of how firm my students will be. We are learning that touching should always be safe. A student said to me, “Is my mom brushing my hair a safe touch because it hurts me?” Another student was able to compare this to getting a needle (necessary and from a doctor) so the class decided it was a safe touch. That is complex social thinking from a group of six and seven year olds! At the end of the lesson, a student asked if we would be talking about secrets, which just happened to be the next topic of discussion. If that’s not well timed, I don’t know what is! Students are learning to identify their trusted people and that they are always allowed to say ‘no.’ They are able to define terms such as safety, secrets, bribery, etc. I’m so proud of the learning that has occurred.

While I felt ambivalent at the start, I am so glad that I went out of my comfort zone to teach this program. It has more than exceeded my expectations. But if you are not yet convinced, I will leave you with this information from the Be Safe! Kit Information Package: 

The safety of our children matters. Their right matters. Having adults that protect them matters. Our children matter! 

 

Multisensory Approach to Letter Formation

As per our school’s Learning Improvement Plan (LIP) focusing on student writing growth, I am embedding different modalities of letter formation into our phonics lessons. The students are enjoying a multi-sensory approach to writing: play-dough, chalkboards, whiteboard tables, wiki sticks, letter magnets, wooden pieces, etc. A new favorite is writing our letters with paint brushes in shaving cream. It is a really simple lesson that warrants student engagement.

A typical phonics lesson activity: Lakeshore letter-sound buckets for sorting initial sounds.

Shaving Cream Letters Lesson:

  1. Hold up letter cards and get students to state the letter name, sound, and action.
  2. Students copy the letter, starting at the top, with paint brushes in shaving cream. They form the lowercase and the uppercase for each letter.
  3. Students “erase” their letter with their brushes and repeat the process for the rest of the target letters.

Writing letter ‘v’ in shaving cream.

But What About the Mess?

I find that it is not as messy as it may seem. Each student needs to roll up their sleeves and be reminded not to eat, fling, or touch the shaving cream with their hands. We talk about how it smells good but would not taste good (you may want to note that it is NOT whipped cream). I get students to wipe off any excess shaving cream on the side of their tin (get baking pan tins with higher edges rather than baking sheet tins with lower edges) and then at the end of the lesson we use paper towel to clean the brushes before putting them in water.

Ready for the next letter!

The Benefits

The best part of shaving cream letters is that students do not feel pressure to form their letters perfectly. If they make a mistake, they simply can “erase” and try again! The teacher can observe the letter formation and remind students to hold brushes appropriately and start from the top during the lesson so the practice is meaningful. All students, especially those who dislike pencil-to-paper work, seem to buy-in to the novelty of shaving cream letters. No tears, busy minds at work, and smiling faces… seems like a win to me!

Classroom Safe Spaces

Creating a safe place for students in our classrooms is so important as it allows them to take a break, develop coping skills, work through their emotions, and ultimately, feel safe, regulated, and calm so that they can learn. Safe spaces come in all shapes and sizes and help a variety of learners. Here are a few of my examples:

I typically incorporate visuals of emotions from the social-emotional program(s) we will be learning that year (such as Zones of Regulation, Mind Up, Inside Out + Zones, Circle of Courage, etc.), good/poor choices cards, and breathing/calm down/yoga activities. I like to keep the space cozy and sensory-focused with sensory bottles and/or fidgets, noise-cancelling headphones, weighted and non-weighted stuffed animals and blankets, and a personal space like a comfy chair, cushion, couch, or tent. As the year goes on, students will identify a tool-kit of strategies that works for them that is available in the area. The idea is that they can use the area as needed, identify how they are feeling, and self-select (or accept) a strategy to regulate and get back to the task at hand. I find that having a safe space actually increases student learning time as long as explicit instruction about the area/strategies occurs. Best of all, students are more regulated and calm!

Task Bag Learning

Today we will be talking about learning with task bags. I worked alongside my Educational Psychologist, Jenn Osberg, and my Consultant, Michelle Michaluk, to create literacy, math, fine motor, and life skills task bags that would meet the needs of my learners. As a primary Student Support Teacher, task bags are part of my regular intervention and we love them because they:

  • are play-based and hands-on
  • cover a variety of curriculum and/or individual outcomes
  • are simple to use and model (if another teacher or Educational Assistant will be implementing them)
  • include high-interest materials
  • promote student engagement
  • can be accomplished quickly (5-10 minutes of practice)
  • can be used with 1-3 students to add social goals, such as sharing and turn-taking
  • are quick interventions that reinforce previously taught outcomes
  • are easy and cost effective to create
  • can be created from “Busy Bag” idea books, simple internet searches, or unused items around the classroom

I have used my task bags with a variety of students, particularly a student who could only say two words when they started in our Kindergarten program. Task bags became an easy way to develop this student’s vocabulary, name recognition knowledge, and keep them engaged. What I like most about these task bags is that after modeling the use of the task bags a few times, they are easy for any other adult to take and use and they fit nicely into any schedule. I use my task bags for intervention times. I have also used them for additional literacy and math practice with Kindergarten students who need additional practice time after our centers. It is quick and easy to pull them for 5-10 minutes and target the specific concept and can be done within their classroom. In the classroom, these task bags could be set up as a center after teacher modeling/explicit instruction. I recommend using task bags with 1-2 students but I have used them with up to 3 learners.

 

I have organized my task bags into two shelves and four categories: 

 

a) early math skills

 

 

 

b) early literacy skills

 

 

c) fine motor skills

 

 

d) life skills  

 

There are countless other tasks bags that could be made and I hope you find use for them in your own room. Please find the task bag labels and instructions attached: Task Bag Instruction Templates. Happy teaching!

 

Classroom Learning Environment Pt. 3

Wow! I have no idea where the time went, but here I am a week away from my 3rd year of teaching. Over the last couple of years I have been working towards creating a positive, safe, and inclusive classroom learning environment. Here is what the room looks like this year:

I have divided my room into 5 zones: a) the guided reading zone; b) the instruction zone; c) the self-regulation zone; d) the student reading zone; and e) my teacher zone.

The guided reading zone is quite similar to how it was last year with a word wall featuring the Fountas and Pinnell words from the 25 and 50 lists, a moving whiteboard, a horseshoe table and large chairs so student have the option to sit or stand, and my “don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover” comfy green chair. This space is great for small group guided reading lessons, Fountas and Pinnell reading intervention, and playing the many beloved phonics and phonological awareness games.

The student reading zone has been updated with whiteboards for word work and writing practice. I added mats with Velcro (a bit heavier than cupboard liners) to make the reading cubbies an even better place to be! This area is a classroom favorite. It is the perfect place for learners to read-to-self while I am working with a small group in the guided reading zone (from this spot I can see what all of the kids are up to!). Students also enjoy Flashlight Fridays in these spaces and are often found cuddled up with a pillow, book in hand.

The instruction zone features the Letterland alphabet train, a letter carpet, plants, and book shelves that divide the guided reading, instruction, and self-regulation zones. This year I have add a curtain to one of the shelves to keep the contents out of sight and out of mind. I also reorganized my books into classroom collections and student resources; I am hoping that I have made it student-friendly enough that students can select books at their level and return them to the right bin… only time will tell. This space is where the whole-class instruction occurs and where we learn about rules and procedures, such as Whole Body Listening. One of my main focuses this year has been alternative seating. In this area, I now have a blue rocking chair, a blue swivel egg chair from Ikea, and 3 sit disc cushions. I have also used bed risers to turn one of my hexagon tables into a standing table. I painted all of the tables with Rustoleum Dry-Erase Whiteboard paint. I am excited to see the look on the kids’ faces when I tell them they can draw on the tables!

The self-regulation zone still has the black comfy couch, some pillows, Telemiracle teddies, and weighted dogs. This year I have added a weighted blanket and replaced my colorful tent (which is now in another calm-down area in the school) with a tipi that I won from One Tribe (check them out on Facebook to grab your own custom-made tipi)! I’m quite excited about this space and think it goes well with the Circle of Courage poster and teachings already in place. This space is a calm-down space for students and a space where students can work one-on-one with an educational assistant on task bags, reading, etc. The space is private due to the bookshelf and the pocket chart (with the daily schedule on one side and good/poor choices on the other side). From my spot in the instruction, guided reading, or teacher zones I can still see the students in the area without there being an entire audience. The students are given the chance and the tools – such as fidgets, timers, and Zones of Regulation and Inside Out visuals – to work out their emotions in a safe place.

Finally, there is the teacher zone. Nothing has changed (except for all of the knowledge learned). The stop sign remains on the desk but what student would want to be in that space anyways? Textbooks or a tipi? Reading rubrics or a reading cubbie? The choice is pretty simple!

I am looking forward to another year in the classroom and cannot wait to see how the kids respond to the environment, grow and learn, and build relationships with their peers. As George Evans notes, “every student can learn, just not on the same day, or in the same way” and this is the space just for that!

Our Favorite Learning Tools!

I asked my Grade 1s to share some of their favorite tools for learning! Here are their top picks:

Emotions/Classroom Community:

This year I combined Inside Out lessons with our Bucket Filling, good/poor choices, and Zones of Regulation emotional programming. I have found that the students are more engaged with the lessons and are able to relate better.. (this could be because we watch the movie together with some delicious popcorn!?). The “Let’s Talk About” book series is also a learning tool that we utilize.

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Zones of Regulation Curriculum by Leah Kuypers

 

 

Reading:

The Grade 1s enjoy Flashlight Fridays and using our slinkies to sound out words, our ropes to retell a story, and our mirrors to visualize our pronunciation of words and letter sounds!

 

 

 

Sight Word and Alphabet Learning:

The students love forming letters with magnets, salt, play dough, and shaving cream. Writing on our Buddha boards and chalkboards is always fun, too! Some alphabet and sight word games that they enjoy are: upper/lower match boxes with popsicle sticks, bowling, fishing, balloon pop, ball toss, golfing, toppling bunnies, scavenger hunts, fly swatter, cup stacking, bingo dabber, egg flip, and toppling towers sight word/alphabet games. We enjoy sounding out CVC words on our pool noodles and by jumping in our hula hoops. As a teacher, my favorites are the word walls and my Lakeshore rhyme and alphabet buckets with initial sound or word family toys/examples. The picture cards are also a great find! As always, I recommend the Florida Center for Reading Research for engaging, research-based phonics and phonological awareness games.

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Reading Intervention Planning

This year I had the opportunity to attend a Joyful Literacy Reading Summit in Saskatoon. We learned all about helping struggling readers thrive through a games-based approach. I spent the next couple months trying to implement my newfound knowledge into my teaching, as it positively applies to my work as a Student Support Teacher. So far the kids are loving the games and our Grade 1 reading scores are improving!

With my brain full of great ideas and seemingly not enough hours in a day, my first step was to read Putting on the Blitz by Janet Mort. The text offers ideas about setting up meaningful interventions and there are great game-based resources and examples to learn from. My task was to try and figure out how this would work for my students and within my environment with the resources allotted to me. The next step was to approach my room and resources with a different lens. I had to figure out what I already had in my room that could be used to create game-based phonics and phonological awareness interventions. Suddenly fly swatters were looking like tools for learning in our Sight Word Splat instead of for their intended use! However, I did also have to purchase resources and took advantage of great finds at the Dollar Store, as well as, the Teacher Tax Credit. It is amazing what resources you can find when you look at things with a different perspective.

With significantly less  money in my pocket, my next step was to pull everything together and create a phonics and phonological awareness intervention year plan. This year plan utilizes the games that I have already created in my classroom, as well as, the Florida Center for Reading Research’s Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading curriculum. If you are a primary teacher and especially if you are a primary Student Support Teacher, I highly recommend taking the time to utilize this resource. It does take a lot of time to create – printing each game on cardstock, cutting, laminating, labeling the resources in Ziploc bags, and filing – but in the end you have hundreds of age-appropriate lessons, games, and assessments that focus on phonological awareness, phonics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. The best part is that it is research-based and the kids are highly engaged by the games! They ask me to play them again and again!

The intervention plan is flexible in regards to the proposed timelines and activities – the students’ understanding will dictate the speed in which you proceed or review concepts and your classroom resources and game creations will vary from my own but can easily be incorporated into this plan. There are Saskatchewan curriculum connections. And since reading intervention is one piece of the literacy pie for my Grade 1’s, I have included guided reading plans with reading strategies and resources.

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I find that having this intervention plan posted in my room allows for easy planning in my Weekly Planner, which can also be adjusted to meet your planning needs. This planner helps when you need a substitute teacher due to an unforeseen event, such as illness. At a quick glance, my substitute teacher is informed about our daily activities, where to find the materials, who I am teaching at what time, and the behavior and academic needs of my learners. So far I am finding that the two resources work nicely together.

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May your literacy and intervention planning be as joyous as your play-based teaching!