Saturday, 31 January 2015

Starting with the Big Concepts, Asking Smaller Questions

Documenting one class' approach to creating online courses for students by students...

My students were beyond thrilled when I told them they could create online sites for our entire unit of inquiry this time around. After discussing our central idea, key concepts and transdisciplinary skills to give my students a general overview of what the unit of inquiry we were supposed to be learning about was supposed to be studying, I did the unthinkable for most students.

I gave the students a document with what would be on their report card for Unit 4...word for word. To the shock and amazement of my students, I pushed it even further. I told them they would be marking themselves and those would be the marks they get on their report card for the most part. Unless I saw something that was different then they did, I would use what they had given themselves. I don't know if I've ever seen my students so speechless. I've had them self-evaluate before but knowing they were completely in the driver's seat wasn't what they were used to.

I thought it was only fair they knew what they had to be 'assessed' on if they were creating the course. In order for them to succeed, they needed to be able to extract the big ideas or concepts that they would need to cover in their course. Essentially these would create their different lessons/sessions/levels. Each group was given a piece of chart paper and asked to think about what those big concepts might be. I suggested they read through their lines of inquiry, central idea and assessment sheet again to figure out what they should be focusing on. They could be as big or small as they felt necessary to be considered it's own lesson. 

From there, we discussed as a class some of the bigger ones that popped out frequently on the different pages. We also discussed that some topics could be combined to create one lesson with more detail. After that discussion, students were given time to discuss which lessons they wanted as part of their course and circled them.

After that it was important for the students to order the lessons in a way that made logical sense. As a class, we discussed how you can't have a lesson about something more specific if you haven't had a general overview and that you had to be strategic in the way your order your course. 


Whenever students take notes for research, I let them do it whichever way makes the most sense to them. This time around I wanted to add another strategy to their repertoire that they could choose from. In a Google Document, the student would make a  table with the first row being the different lessons by the concept in the correct order from left to right. Then in the columns underneath each level, students could write down all of the questions they think they might need to find out to be successful. It was important to discuss with the students that they could come back to this list and add more questions to the chart at any time. Sometimes what you are reading while researching prompts you for another question and the students are encouraged to include it in the document. This method of recording information is not fixed and is able to be changed and modified at any time. 

Survival Provocation: Learning Concepts Through Games

I love mixing it up in the classroom (and taking it outside of it too). No day of learning should ever be the same - it's one of the great things about teaching. Each time we begin a new unit, we try to tackle it from a new approach.

For our new ecosystems unit, we wanted to get our students thinking about the topic in an active way. The game survival is a fun and energetic game that instantly gets the students thinking about food webs, energy sources and strategising to survive.

The game is simple - stay alive. Each student is given a card to represent a different part of the food chain. They are herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, human or disease. The most powerful is the disease who can attack any of the players below, humans can eat omnivore, carnivores, herbivores and so forth down the food chain. There are a limited number of players who begin as disease and human.

Players will run around the game space. In our case, we used the basketball court and set up various obstacles and hiding places around it. Energy and food cards were hidden around the playing field that players could collect. If someone from higher up on the food chain catches you, you must give them one of your energy or food cards. If you have no energy or food cards left, you are out of the game.

This activity prompted a lot of great discussion following the game about what ecosystems actually are and how they work. We discussed why it was more difficult for some to stay alive compared to other players.  In addition, the students generated some excellent ideas for how to change the game as well such as:
- having an antidote for the disease so you can come back alive/ regain energy cards
- adding additional players at any level to create an imbalance in the ecosystem
- herbivores that are poisonous as a way of self-defence
- changing the actual ecosystem the game was played in
- students taking on specific animals within the game

We will play this game a few additional times throughout our unit using variations and hope to incorporate other active games to engage our learners.

New Unit, New Approach

It's an idea I've been toying with a while now - students creating their own unit from start to finish. I had a friend who had tried this to a certain extent but I wondered if I could push it further. This lead to the idea of students creating online courses, which their peers or other people could take. Would this be possible? Even more so, would this be possible with a 6-week unit? 

Online learning is becoming more and more popular in the 21st-century world of learning. One of the biggest draws is it's convenience - you do do it any place, any time providing you have an internet connection. But does it have any place in the elementary classroom? 

I was curious to know if I could really give my 9-year-old students the responsibility of creating a unit from start to finish as well as creating it as online content. I started to draft a flow chart of what I would need to do and came up with the following. 

When I introduced the concept to my students, the response I got was "Are we really going to be able to do all that?" followed up excitement that they were going to actually build a course. I think what really got them hooked as well is that I told them no other class was going to be doing in the school and we were going to be trialling this idea out. There was a sense of pride that they had been 'chosen' for such a task.

Honestly, I had no idea how I really going to do this when I first started brainstorming and still have no idea if it will really end up working like I hope it will but I've jumped in and so have my kids. I'll be documenting the whole process as I go and I'm sure my plans will be changing frequently in order to cater to my students. It's going to be a wild next 5 weeks.

What Happens When You Don't Listen To Your Students

This year my focus has really been about student voice. In everything that I do in my classroom, I really want it to be about what the students want, not what I want. Because of this mentality, I have seen increased engagement and quality of work produced. When they choose how they do their work, they want to do better. It has fully changed our classroom dynamic for the better.

The end of our last unit was hard for me. It was our How We Organise Ourselves unit about food systems. The whole of Year 5 was going to have a celebration of learning through a food market where students created a food dish using what they had learnt throughout our unit to make informed decisions and create a recipe with a rationale.

I always share with my students the idea that I was thinking of and then ask "What do you think?" Normally, this turns into a major brainstorming session and what we are left with in the end is always better than I could come up with on my own. Needless to say, when the idea of the FoodFest was introduced to my students, this happened again.

However, the challenge that arose later was that we weren't just creating a market of my class' work and food, but rather all of Year 5 and therefore there had to be a consensus across all of the teachers to allow for consistency. Thus, I had to be flexible and go with the majority on some things even when I knew my students had a different vision.

While I understand that as a teacher you have to say no sometimes to your students, it is hard to say no when you are in agreement with them. So many of the details my students wanted to included in the setup of the food market such as including money, food rating on the spot, a different classroom setup and more, were not included in the final celebration.

The students still had a great morning celebrating with their parents, but in my mind, it wasn't the best celebration we had done to date. Why? Because the students hadn't had enough say in the final product and decisions were made that did not include them.

The funniest part was when the teachers joined together and reflected on the event and how we could change it, every single suggestion of improvement was identical to what my class had originally suggested, which of course was frustrating because I knew I could trust my students to have done it their way if we had of let them.

I actually went to my class the next day and had a discussion with my class about how their ideas really matter to me and I prefer when we do things their way. To which I got the response, "Of course Ms. Mac! When you tell us an idea, we just build and build and build on it until it's a super idea of awesomeness!" I couldn't agree more.

So as we begin our new unit, I have a very big focus on making sure my students do it in the way they ultimately think is best for them. And I have a sneaky suspicion they will remind me if I don't.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Presenting: I (Used To) Hate It!!

Public speaking - to some, one of the most feared things in the world of education. Whether it is being called upon unexpectedly or having to give an oral presentation in front of the class, it is often associated with anxiety, butterflies in the stomach, panic, uneasiness and, quite frankly. can be terrifying for anyone. 

I still remember having to write speeches in grade 3 and present them in front of the class for the first time. What if you forgot what you were supposed to say? What if you had to read from your cue cards instead of doing it from memory? What if people didn't like what you had to say or even laughed at you? What if you didn't want to picture everyone in their underpants in order to calm down and relax? 

The one thing I have to say is that it really does get better with practice. The next time I had to present I wrote a speech in Grade 6 about water. The night before the written part was due, I had all the facts together but just couldn't piece it together  the right way. I remember sitting down with my mom and her helping me plan out an order that made sense, told a story and would flow. She helped me rearrange my plan to have it unfold as a normal day and all of the different places a person would interact with water. When I got up to do that speech, it was easy because we had plotted out a path that would make it easy to remember and not be stressful. Who would've thought I end up getting to represent my school at the public speaking contest in our city? But it didn't stop. The following two years I was able to represent my school again and again. Each time I gave a speech, it got easier and I became more confident sharing in front of an audience. I began to enjoy it more and it was almost like I was in another world when I stepped on the stage to speak. It also helped that I had my number one fan in the audience cheering me on, my mom. 

Grade 9 came and the unexpected happened and my mom passed away to cancer. The public speaking project was something that had kind of become a tradition for us each year. I had to decide if I even wanted to present a speech that year, do the research as normal, and have to figure out some kind of plan that made sense all on my own, with no guidance. So that year I decided to speak about something that I was really passionate about and mattered to mom.  I did a speech about cancer, the impacts of it on families and even shared a poem I wrote about cancer the night my mother died. Perhaps it was a way for me to say goodbye, come to terms with what was changing in my life or just do something I had learnt to find comfort in. The lessons she had taught me and the steps we would do together to plan it out were so familiar and comforting even when alone. But after I had done my speech that year, a part of me didn't want to share anymore and the door closed to my voice being heard in many ways. 

Fast forward to this year. Encouraged (or rather pushed a bit by others), it was time that I start letting my own voice be heard again. I first co-presented at the Singapore American School who hosted the EdTechTeam Singapore Summit featuring Google Apps for Education back in September. Even though I was terrified and was up all night worrying about it, changing slides and reviewing what I wanted to say, it was easy to talk about something else I had grown passionate about in the last year or so - the use of technology in the classroom. 
I went back to my class after that presentation and shared the experience with my students. It was a big deal to me to present at such an amazing conference and I started to wonder how my students felt about public speaking themselves so I asked them for their thoughts. Most didn't like it. They said they never had and it was a scary thing to stand up in front of their peers. They said they felt really nervous when they had to present something, just like me. 

So I decided that if my mom could get me to conquer my nerves when it came to public speaking, maybe there was hope I could do the same thing for my students. Presentations became a much more prominent thing in my classroom. First, it was just little things they had found and they shared more after an activity. Then it became students doing a bit of research on a topic before sharing. I was looking for small ways for my students to share their ideas in a safe environment where they wouldn't feel those nerves and fears kicking in. 

Finally, the moment that made the biggest impact was when we held a mini exhibition for students to share their independent research projects. We first presented to each other, then to parents, administration and other students into our class to share with. After the event, I asked my students again about presenting and one of the biggest things was that they wanted to present more. It wasn't so scary when they were confident about what they were talking about. It wasn't so terrifying when they saw how proud their parents were of them and their work. It didn't create anxiety when they knew everyone was supporting each other and they had worked so hard that they knew their topic so well. To be honest, they didn't want to stop sharing either. I think we spent about 2 days presenting and my students just kept inviting more people to come - their buddy class, a Year 6, teachers they had last year, administration - they wanted to keep talking about the work they had done and their process of getting to this point. 

From there, we began sharing our e-portfolios orally to the class more and talking about what makes a good presentation. My students would give each other feedback about glows and grows and set targets for the next time they were to present. I would actually not provide too much feedback for this but rather let my students help each other grow.  Now, it's almost time for parents to come back to celebrate our next end of the unit and it's the students asking for the parents to come in so they can present to them not the teachers saying the parents are invited. 

Through all of this, I've tried to continue to present as well each time sharing with my students my own glows and grows as I develop in this area as well. I think my students have a different level of respect when they know you are doing the same thing they are and experiencing similar feelings. Whether it is a small 5-minute presentation or a full hour session, I know presenting is helping me develop in new ways, just like my students. It's something I force myself to do, even though I'd be just as happy listening from the audience. I know as I continue to move forward in my international teaching career, the importance of sharing, leading training sessions and presenting will become more and more a part of what I do.
Public speaking may never come naturally to me - I hate being put on the spot in public, big crowds, being the centre of attention and being put in a position to be easily judged - I'm an introvert, to say the least. But it's easy to talk about things in my career that I am so passionate about - my school, what I do in my class and most of all my students. But just like my students, I'm learning to enjoy sharing more. I can only hope that in my quest to find my own confidence to share my voice again that maybe I've helped even just one student find theirs as well.

Well That Day Happened - The Importance of Being Honest

We all have those days where meetings run late and you went right to the schoolyard to pick up your students and perhaps you didn’t quite get the agenda on the board. Maybe the projector isn’t turned on, the homework isn’t up on the board and yet the students are still coming in at 9am whether you are ready or not.

My approach to those days - be honest. Earlier this month this exact same scenario and all I could hear for the first minute or so was  “Ms. Mac, where’s the homework?” “Ms. Mac, what are we doing today?” “Ms. Mac, I don’t know what books I need today without the agenda!” So I did the only thing I knew to do. I told the class to sit down on the floor and I explained the situation.

“My meeting ran late so I didn’t have time to do x,y,z. It’s not the way I wanted to start the morning and I know things are a little less organized than we usually have them. We’re going to have to work on this together this morning and get things figured out. Have you ever had one of those mornings?”

Of course, they have! Everyone has. So we brainstormed what we needed to do, divided tasks and then got to work. There was no point in hiding the fact that the day was not off to its usual start. We all need to know how to get through the bumps and doing it together seems to be a better route in my mind.

I believe that when you are honest with your students they actually respect you more. When situations happen, we have to learn to deal with them and be flexible. There is no point hiding that the morning was off to a wonky start. There was no point pretending the day was something that it wasn’t.  

The thing we sometimes forget is that a community exists best when they work together, support each other and trust each other. Some may say I’m too honest with my students but I share stories that happen me, pictures of my family, I talk to them about times I’ve experienced similar things to them and when something happens I can’t control, they know about it.  Our students need to know we understand their perspective and they need to know the perspective we are coming from. If you are honest, you show who you are as a person to your students. I figure if I want them to do the same, I should be the one to take the step first. Once you start building trust, you build rapport and create an environment that feels safe for your students. Who doesn’t want that for them?

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Getting My Kids To Love Writing - Finding the ‘Write’ Audience

We ask students to write and some of them do it simply for the love of it just like some play sports or painting. At some point though, doing work for the sake of work just doesn’t cut it for kids and I can’t blame them at all. Whenever I’m given a task, I’m always thinking why is this important? What is the point of doing this? If I can’t be given an answer or come up with one on my own, then I’m less likely to put forth my best effort. It’s the same for my kids.

I’ve been really trying to give my students work a voice that will be heard since I moved into teaching at the junior years level last year. It’s not enough to have their voice out there on the internet somewhere waiting to be heard but someone ACTUALLY needs to listen/read/experience what my students have to say.
Celebrating Published Work
One of the first things I did was make sure that when we completed a writing unit with published work that their work was really celebrated. This meant that it needed to be shared in a way that would make the students feel proud of what they had accomplished. Depending on the unit, we would find different audiences to share our work with. Sometimes that would be other classes, our parents or even each other. It was no longer just a type it up and hand it in and never be heard of again. My students are excited to share with others their work after going through the writing process and like the instant feedback and gratification from sharing with people they know in a face to face context. What I love even more about this is that not only do my students share their published work but they now share their process of getting to the product. As the ‘process’ of doing something has become more important than the ‘product’ in my class, I love that they enjoy sharing the experience of getting to the end rather than just being finished.

Using Google Documents to Comment and Make Suggestions
As a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) school, we are very fortunate to be able to use the various Google Apps to enhance the classroom experience for our students. One of my favourite aspects of the applications is being able to use the comment or suggesting feature of Google Docs and Presentation with my students. I have the ability to access any of the documents my students are working on and give them timely feedback on their work. My students know that I’m reading their work and creates a lot more dialogue about their work and thinking as we go. I also love that documents can be shared with other students so they can do this as well. Often it happens without me knowing when a student stands up and starts asking another student across the room what he meant by this comment on his work. This idea that ‘we’ is better than just ‘me’ in our writing process allows them to have an authentic audience throughout their writing journey as well.

Weekly Reflections For Our Website
At the beginning of the year when our new class website was unveiled to my students, they took ownership of the visual appeal to it but also wanted to make sure their parents could see what they were thinking and feeling throughout the week. As a class, they decided to create a weekly Google Presentation where each student was able to design a slide (or more) with whatever graphics they wanted to and reflect on their week in any way they chose too. Many chose visuals to express themselves as a component of it but most of them wrote whatever they were feeling throughout the week. Knowing that someone would be reading their reflections each week meant that it gave them a purpose to write. This was a complete student-led initiative and is completely optional for my students to do each week. Most weeks at least 80% of my class completes it depending on how much other homework they have, etc. But they do it because they want to write and create and because they want their parents to share their experience in the classroom. This is the culture of sharing THEY have created in our class community.

This is one of my favourite parts of my class. I absolutely love using Google Sites for our e-portfolios. It allows my students to share and reflect on their work. We share them within our class and occasionally with other classes as well but the biggest success has been using them to create powerful school-home relationships. At the end of every 6 week unit of inquiry, my students share their eportfolio with their parents at home and have a discussion about their accomplishments over the course of the unit. The students know that they have wiggle room within those 6 weeks to get their e-portfolios where they want them to be but know that by the end, they will be sharing them. Knowing the audience will be there has significantly increased the quality of e-portfolios since I first started doing them. The parents are not in the dark about their child’s learning and the dialogue continues to develop with the learning at home and not just in the classroom. Parents comment on their work within the e-portfolio as well. Because of this, the student has their teacher, peers, parents, and self all reflecting and commenting on their e-portfolios - quite a powerful audience.

Gmail Home Writing Program
Each week every student in my class writes me an email. They can choose from a list or just write about whatever they want. Every Monday I send them back a personal email. The students clearly know someone is reading their writing and responding to them in a timely fashion.

The more meaningful we can create the learning we have in the classroom, the more students will learn and want to share. The more students share their work with an audience that matters to them, the more pride they take in doing their work.  Students want to know what they say matters - foster a community where it can and does.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Feeling The Spark

We’ve all felt it at some point or another - that feeling of excitement when a new project is starting, feeling inspired to try something new and that passion for teaching just can’t quite be contained.

As we begin a new semester, it’s hard not to feel such things. You come back from the holiday break re-energized and ready to go and you jump right back into things with extra gusto. Personally, jump feels like too light of a term here as I have fully submerged myself.
Currently, I am working on a full write up with two colleagues on our Battle 4 Chatz project we did the first semester where we created a game with  7 levels plus a boss level for our space and shape mathematics unit. Using the idea of gamification, we increased student engagement and productivity in a fun way for our Year 5 students. It's sometimes really rewarding to look back on what you've accomplished as a team and then be able to set new targets moving forward. We look forward to sharing our findings and resources once we finish in the coming weeks!

My students are currently driving the inquiry in the classroom with their personal projects and summative marketplace with a recipe book. In just two weeks, I can't wait to see how it all comes together. 

In my next unit of inquiry just 2 weeks away, I plan on having my students lead the learning completely by creating their own online courses in groups. This will involve creating all the content in their course through research and then writing or finding creative ways of displaying their findings, creating the assessment tools and developing the layout of their online course. After they have created a course, they will switch courses with another group and beta test the online course while reflecting and providing feedback throughout the entire process.  It is amazing me that when the plan is for the students to develop the unit, assessments and fully execute their plan, that it is actually making me plan more than I have for any other unit. I am nervous and eager to see how this goes and look forward to sharing our progress along the way.

I’ve got a few different things I would like to ‘apply’ to in the next month or so as well. With conferences, programmes and even considering masters in about a year’s time, there are lots of different options to consider. Sometimes it is hard to find the balance between all of these things and be patient knowing not all of them to have to happen in the next few months. Each application deserves the attention to detail and time and hopefully, something comes about from some of them. Unknowing the outcome makes the process nerve-wracking but always worth it. Even when you don’t get accepted to something, there’s usually something you can take away from the process.

This year has the potential to be great. It’s just getting started and these are just a few things that have me buzzing right now. I can’t wait to look back this time next year and be in awe of it all.

GMAIL: Home Writing Program - What I've Learnt After 2 Years

This year I started the program from the beginning of the school year. I believe this allowed me to help build the relationships with my students from day one. Overall, the students have been very responsive. It really has allowed a few of my students to blossom as writers. These students in particular really think about the feedback they are given and I can clearly see it being applied in the following email. This just emphasises the need for timely and specific feedback for students.

Many of the same writing areas of growth appeared and have allowed me to have a more targeted approach from the beginning of the year. The biggest one will always be quantity and quality writing. We have started our dialogue about how to create paragraphs that really give your readers a ‘juicy hamburger’ paragraph (detailed paragraph) instead of a ‘grilled cheese’ paragraph (a small paragraph with not much in it).

One student this year has asked to write a weekly letter by hand to improve her cursive handwriting. I have no problem with this and provided her with resources for handwriting as well. However, she still wanted me to email my response back so she could have one on Monday morning in her inbox like the rest of the students.

It’s important for my students to know the conversation isn’t just one way either. I always allow my students to ask me questions about whatever they want, and yes that sometimes means questions about who I am and my life. As long as they are appropriate, I have no problem answering them as I think it’s important for students to see you as a person just as they are. So far I’ve never had anything come my way I wouldn’t answer. Perhaps I’m just lucky to have such respectful students. I’ve always felt being honest with my students is essential if I expect the same from them so sharing about my holidays or relating to them with stories from my own life growing up or whatever the case may be is something I think is important for my students to see.

There was one weekend when I was away at a conference for a few days and into the weekend where I did not send individual responses to students. Instead, I sent a general email to the whole class. The students were understanding of it and I responded to many of the common questions asked throughout all of the emails that week. But the following week I was back to the individual emails again.

It is a time-consuming project on my end but I truly believe the value of it outweighs that. One thing I have done to help me combat spending so much time on email writing every weekend is to create a canned message template for each week. In doing so, each student hears about maybe something I did on the weekend, something that might be coming up to look forward to in class or another topic that pertains to all students. Then, I will respond individually to the content of their emails and provide feedback where necessary.  It still means sending an email to every student but I’m not rewriting every single word in every email.

For one of my beginner ESL students, this has been a really positive experience this year. He always sends me his email in English (his native language is Japanese) because he wants to improve his English and he has! He went from a one or two sentence email to sometimes up to two paragraphs now. The other really interesting part is how he uses images and videos in his emails to help convey his messages to me. Without the use of technology, we would not have this ability.

I had a student who was very disruptive during class at the beginning of the year. We tried different strategies in class to help him be successful in whole class settings but I always found he was more successful when he was able to use the computer to communicate his thoughts. In his emails, he would always express how he didn’t want to call out but couldn’t help himself and how much he enjoyed the class. His emails provided me more insight into the student I saw in class. The dialogue created through this digital medium allowed us to reflect on what was happening in class and what we could do together to make the classroom environment work for him. I don’t believe these conversations wouldn’t have happened in class to the same effect as they have.

On holidays and summers, I still get emails from my students - not all, but some. It always surprises me who emails me too. Often it is some of the students who really didn’t like writing when they came to me. It makes me confident that the plan worked. It makes me confident that students want to have an audience for writing, that building relationships with students is important and that sometimes writing isn’t just about writing.

Many students come and go in an internationally community and I still hear from some of them every now and again. I heard from ½ of the students who moved to another country at the start of this school year and left our school community. Sometimes students need that sense of comfort from their old life as they start a new one. I’ve always said to all my students, if you write me an email, I will respond. Sometimes that sense of security, as little as an email is, is what a child needs most.

The greatest success of these writing program is that is has had impacts much farther and more meaningful than just my students’ writing. It really is impacting who they are as a person as they grow. Each week I have the pleasure of reading about sleepovers, friends moving away, disagreements on the playground, celebrations at home, parents returning from business trips and more. Each week they open up their little lives to me with trust and respect and I do my best to do the same. It has become more than writing - it is a dialogue to build the foundation of relationships, skills and attitudes that go beyond what is reported on any report card.  I can only hope that I can continue to be that source of support both inside and outside of the classroom this year.

GMAIL: Home Writing Program - Year 1 Reflections

I absolutely love this program with my students. Over the past year and a bit, I have learnt so much about my students through this initiative and it literally makes my day when I get the sweetest emails from them.

For the first few weeks of the first year of the program, I documented my weekly reflections. These are my thoughts from October - December from 2013 as the home writing program began to unfold.

Week 1 Reflection
Well, it’s out in the world now, let’s see how it goes. The students seemed pretty excited that they didn’t have to write on paper for the homework each week. By providing an example of what was expected in the email really allowed students to get a visual of what was intended.
I am glad I emailed the parents prior to the assignment – it can be difficult at times understanding the perspective of the email being sent and I could find myself in tricky situations potentially if a student emails content of concern so it’s good to be completely open about it first and educate the parents instead of trying to backpedal later. I even got a response from one parent being really supportive of the idea and excited to see what comes of this.
The first night I had a few students email me with their letters. It is interesting to see the range of emails. Some students are sticking specifically to the options, others are writing about their own topics. It is a quick glance at who chooses to be creative or follow the form.  The range of work is quite wide from a sentence to a couple paragraphs. Hopefully, I can get all of my students writing at least a few paragraphs each week to me.

One thing that also happened today was that a student emailed me about an issue that took place last Friday (not as part of their homework). This was the first time I have received an email like this from a student. It is clear that this outlet can provide students with a comfortable environment that allows them to connect with a teacher without having to have difficult conversations face to face. While I still believe face to face interactions are important, it simply provides students with another avenue to communicate with me so that we can problems solve together.
One thing I learned today is that I should draft the email from the students as I receive them. This way I’m not writing to 20 students on Sunday night. It is a bit much to do it all in one go. Therefore, this week I will try drafting the emails as I receive them and still send them out on Monday morning. I’m going to let my students read their email from me first thing Monday morning once they get settled for the day.
Some of the most common areas of improvement for writing emails include :
  • Using capitals for  Ms.  and all names
  • Using a comma after the person's name  in greeting (Ms. Mac,)
  • Writing a salutation ex: Sincerely, or Many thanks, or Take Care
  • Adding detail to explain their thinking and expand paragraphs
  • Ensuring name is on a line of its own after the salutations
Ex:  Sincerely,
      Ms. Mac
  • Rereading emails before sending

I loved how some students also included pictures in their emails. It was a great start with a lot of potential still to come.
Week 2 Reflection
Week 2 of the email writing. I emphasized to my students they should aim to write at least 3 good paragraphs to me if possible when we were reviewing our homework for the week. Hopefully, this will help them continue to develop the length of their writing.
Monday, October 7, 2013– Today was the first day my students got to read their emails from me. They were all very eager to read their responses from me. By the time I got home at night, I already had a few emails from students. Many responded to the questions I had asked them but the biggest thing I noticed was that the length of the emails had grown to almost double for most students compared to the first email they had sent.
Another thing I noticed was that I received questions about class work. I had 2 boys in my class email me to ask to meet with me tomorrow to review some of the work they were unsure of. All I thought was wow! Already my students are using this assignment not only as a vehicle to fulfill their weekly homework but also using it as an educational tool to reach out and get help. For these two particular boys, they both need extra help and rarely participate or ask questions in class. For me, this was a major success this week. These emails are truly opening up the lines of communication with my students and making them feel more comfortable reaching out for support.
I was discussing the project with a colleague tonight sharing some of my successes. I was also mentioning how labour intensive it was right now as it required me to write at least 20 long well thought out and grammatically correct emails for students each week. But how can you argue with the results?  A little work could mean a lot of rewards and right now I am enjoying getting to know my students better and being able to help them personally, socially and academically.
Topics that have come up so far in the first 2 weeks:
  • personal issues – feeling alone, adapting to a new environment, playground issues
  • academic – not understanding a topic, asking for clarification to fully answer questions, lots of students asking how to improve writing, not liking a topic and why, making connections between school and home life
  • social - how to deal with friends
  • appreciation – thanking me for help, joining teams, advice
  • learner profile attitudes – balanced, risk taker

Week 3 Reflection
  • There are a few students still writing really small paragraphs. How can I get them to expand their thoughts? Do I push it? Ask more questions back?
  • Trying to get students to review work before sending  - how do you ensure this is happening?
  • Paragraphing area of growth for some -- need to do a small group lesson about paragraphing with these students
  • Some students are really expanding their writing.
  • I am seeing the effects of writers workshop in terms of descriptive writing carrying over to the emails as well.
  • I waited until the last minute to answer all emails this week– doable, but still time intensive and hard to write longer emails for each kid when doing them all at once

Week 4 Reflection
  • I’m seeing the boys writing more without complaints.
  • I’m noticing less ‘computer typing’ errors (punctuation, capital I, etc).

Week 5 Reflection
  • Writing this week is not mandatory due to 3 day week. It will be interesting to see who writes and who doesn’t when not being “told” to write.
  • The majority of the class wrote emails still, some longer some shorter this week but kids still wanted to write which was great to see /
  • When I told them they didn’t have to write an email this week,  some of them told me to expect an email from them including some of my ESL and reluctant writers.
  • I am happy to see kids are enjoying writing and receiving the feedback.

Week 6 Reflection
  • Noticing patterns in questions for clarification of assignments. This is good to know so I can clarify to class and help make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Students talking a lot about fears and concerns (books)
  • Students are providing feedback for things changing in the classroom (addition of music, dancing, etc)
  • I’m still struggling to get a few boys to write. What other strategies could I be using? Need to get some feedback from other teachers on ideas.

Week 7 Reflection
  • I have been receiving emails about our updated house merit system and their thoughts. It’s great to get this feedback, praise and suggestions from my students. It’s also really nice to know they feel comfortable telling me what they think about it.
  • Kids are wanting to dance more in class. This should become a regular part of our class.-       questions about math
  • A few kids didn’t do emails this week (5) – Could a summative due this week be the reason?
  • I sent emails to kids who did not submit emails to inquire the reasoning - some summative due, internet down, others forgot. This created a discussion about how we need to be accountable for our work. If students feel they can’t complete the task on time, they need to have that conversation at least the day before and happy to give them the weekend as an ‘extension’ or depending on the situation, allow the student to miss a week. This helps build responsibility.

GMAIL: Home Writing Program Plan

Last year I began a writing program in my class where the students would write me an email each week and I would respond.  I created a thought out plan with input from our Director of Education Technology and off I went. After just over a year of doing this, I opened up the same document to check in and see if I was still doing everything I had set out to do and reflect on the overall effectiveness of the program.

Here is the plan created in October  2013:
In my first year of teaching, a colleague of mine had a grade 4 class who did ‘Thinking Thursday’ every week for a lesson. The concept was simple – write what you were thinking about. Students had an option to write a letter to the teacher, choose a topic from the jar or write about whatever they wanted. Surprisingly, most students would choose to write a letter to the teacher.

We had many discussions about the power of a letter back and forth between the teacher and student
  • Get to know your student
  • Improve student writing
  • Tailor individual writing with feedback
  • Challenge students by questioning things in their life
  • Provide meaningful guidance and support (pastoral)
And yet, when faced with my own classroom as a relatively new teacher, I was struggling to find time to have students write each week with the given curriculum and school demands while also giving them the choice of what to write. As a school adopting the Writer’s Workshop, it provided limited room for writing the way individual teachers view writing and more of a formula to generate writing.
I personally have never been one to be good at communicating in person and have found writing a better form of communication for me as I am able to think through what I want to say before saying it. While it takes away the initial face to face conversations, it will allow for more meaningful conversations inside the classroom and help me relate to my students more.
I have decided to incorporate this as part of their homework rather than an in-class assignment for the simple reason that it utilises technology and writing in a way that will captivate students and allow them to develop their writing skills without feeling they have to write a polished piece to publish.
Why Not Blog Instead:
  • Lack of response/ meaningful feedback
  • Forced writing
  • No authentic audience
  • Hard to have a targeted audience when you don’t know who will read it

  • To build a mutually respected relationship between students and the teacher
  • To have writing opportunities that are authentic, meaningful and inspiring
  • To provide the student with individual feedback
  • Write with a specific and targeted audience
  • Improve technology skills and digital literacy (eg. Email etiquette, typing, etc)

Writing Task:

  • Students are expected to write an email to their teacher each week about any topic of their choosing.
  • The teacher will respond to the comments/questions the student has written about in their email. The teacher will also provide general feedback for writing style, conventions etc.
  • Email is to be submitted by Friday of every week.

Guidelines for Students:

Students must:

  • Use proper email etiquette
    • Dear Ms/Mr.
    • Sincerely
    • The specific title of an email
  • Use capitalisations
  • Use punctuation
  • Use paragraphs (eventually)
  • Reread your work before sending
  • Utilise the spell check function prior to sending
  • Maintain an understanding that the emails are confidential UNLESS you are in a position where you will hurt self or someone else
  • Should these guidelines not be met, the student will receive an email from the teacher outlining that their email should be modified to meet these success criteria before resending.

Sample Email for Introduction to Students
Dear Ms. Mac,
I hope this email finds you doing well. This week at school I really enjoyed doing our summative assignment. I liked that we were able to work in groups to make our buildings. I found it tricky working with Roger on our project because he did not listen to my ideas. Do you have some suggestions on how to work better as a team?
In cross country this week, I came 4th. I ran as fast as I could and really tried my best. I would have done better but I tripped over a log on the path and rolled down the hill. But I did pass one person because I rolled really fast.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Foreseeable challenges:

Proposed Action Plan
ESL Students
  • Students may write in their native languages. I will Google translate their answers. Then write in response back. The point is to get them writing.
  • Slowly transition from native language to writing in English.
Students without access to a laptop at home
  • When students are finished their work in class, they may work on their assignment.
  • Alternatively, they can do it during ‘work in progress’ time on Friday afternoon
  • Students can also write a handwritten letter if necessary.
Learning disabilities (dyslexia)
  • Remind students to utilise spell check.
  • Importance of trying and writing for length and meaning.
  • Focus on building a love of writing.
  • Less focus on spelling etc.
Lack of technology skills (typing, the inclusion of sentence structure and conventions)
  • Students will develop typing skills by doing assignments online
  • Students will be made aware of exclusions of capitalisation, punctuation as part of the written feedback given each week.
Mandatory – reluctant writers
  • Students are writing about themselves and what interests them
  • They can share as much or as little as they want with me about themselves or choose one of the topics of the week to write about
  • Choice allows for more buy-in
Parents not wanting students emailing teachers ‘personal’ information or at all
  • Students can complete a writing assignment on paper and submit each week.
  • Students can choose from a list of optional topics.
Coming across questionable emails
  • Speak with the students for clarification of what they meant in their email
  • When necessary, discuss concerns with Year Group Coordinator, JYP, PYP coordinator
Assigning this as homework instead of in-class activity
  • Students can write at their convenience when they feel like writing
  • Doesn’t have to be related to course content
Responding to emails on weekend
  • This will be part of their homework and homework is marked over the course of the weekend.
  • All other emails will wait to be responded to on Monday during work hours
Parents wanting to be CC'd
  • Parents will be notified about questionable comments only
  • Email parents in advance about the purpose of the assignment
Email Sent to Parents Prior to Beginning Program:
Dear Parents,

I wanted to take a moment to write to you in anticipation of our next unit of inquiry which is about personal awareness. The central idea for the unit is “A person’s behaviour and how they choose to present themselves can project aspects of the identity.” We’re really looking forward to exploring it.
As part of the writing homework, students will be asked to write a weekly email to myself. Students may choose to write about one of the selected topics in their homework package or choose to write about something of their own interest, but each email must be submitted no later than Friday along with their regular homework. All emails will be sent from the student’s Chatsworth email account to the teacher’s Chatsworth email account as usual.
There will be two parts to the teacher feedback to these emails. The first part will be a response to what the student has written, while the second part will deal with writing styles, grammar and conventions.  I will read them over the weekend and students will have a response in their inbox on Monday mornings - at which point they can ponder the questions posed by myself and include their answers in the next email. I’m excited at the potential for some very interesting conversations and dialogue.
Chatsworth’s mission includes developing students as internationally aware, responsible digital citizens. By connecting with students through email, they are building skills in digital literacy and developing their writing skills in a 21st-century environment.
Students who are enrolled in the ESL program are welcome and encouraged to write in their first language if they feel more comfortable. The purpose of this writing exercise is to allow them to express themselves without feeling restricted by language. I will translate emails through Google Translate and respond in English. Students may choose to read the English response or translate it back to their first language. (Please note: No translation is perfect).

This assignment will provide students with many learning opportunities and has the potential to develop our classroom community tremendously. Students will learn how to write letters and use proper email etiquette as well as developing their writing skills with individually tailored feedback. It is important for students to become familiar with typing on a computer and remembering to incorporate appropriate capitalisation and punctuations.  

In doing this, I hope to continue to develop an ongoing relationship with my students and allow them to write about topics of personal interest in a format that is meaningful and timely.

Should you have any questions or concerns, I would be more than happy to discuss this with you at your convenience.

As always, it is a pleasure learning with your children.

Ms. Emily MacLean