Category Archives: In the Classroom

Love Our Whiteboard Tables!

This is the time of year when teachers’ focus turns to classroom design.  The #peelmathchat this week posed this question

At the top of my list are my whiteboard tables, and judging by the response to my tweet, there’s a lot of interest in them.

Several years ago I attended a session with Gallit Zvi and Hugh MacDonald.  Inspired by how they had used shower board from Lowes to use as whiteboard tables, I decided to do the same. I bought the boards at Lowes, got them cut to fit my 4 x 6 tables (2 free cuts meant my family members all purchased a board) and loaded them into the van. Once at school, I taped the edges with duct tape and was good to go – or so I thought.  What I had picked out was not shower board.  Although white and shiny, anything written on the boards wouldn’t erase off.

My solution was to head to Home Depot and purchase whiteboard paint.  Perfect!  Now we were ready to roll.

My students and I LOVE our whiteboard tables, and use them in all kinds of ways.  They are perfect for problem solving and calculation activities during Math.  Before beginning writing tasks, students can quickly draw a mind map of ideas, then get to work.  When kids ask how to spell a word, I just jot it on the table.  A favorite lesson this year made use of the Discovery Education Spotlight on Strategies (SOS) Paper Chat as my class tried to determine our class favorite for March Book Madness 2015.

group paper chat

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As you can see, it’s easy to capture the ideas by taking a quick photo with our class iPad, my phone or my camera.

Working on the table means it is easy to share thinking and ideas which spur conversations.  I’ve discovered that using the whiteboard tables encourages my students to be creative.  During class discussions, I will often find that individuals have created sketchnotes of the ideas covered.  Students who are reluctant to begin pen and paper tasks don’t seem to have that hesitation with the dry erase pens.  Earlier this year, a principal asked me about our use of the whiteboards, so I asked my students why they like using them. Here are a few of the responses:

draw on the table



Having the moveable boards has worked really well.  We are not allowed to paint our tables, so now I have my whiteboards while the table tops are protected. I also really appreciate their portability.  Groups can pick them up and take them to the hallway or elsewhere to use as needed.  We’ve also been able to use them to record information during Skypes, as a backdrop for photo shoots, and as scenery for plays and Reader’s Theatre (decorated by students to fit the theme).

Recording questions and answers during a Science 20 Questions Skype

Recording questions and answers during a Science 20 Questions Skype

Interested in setting up these tables in your classroom?  I’ve learned that when using the dry erase paint, you need to be sure to use a foam roller in order to have the surface smooth for writing on.  This year I discovered that there is a clear dry erase paint available, which opens up opportunities to have colored table tops that complement the classroom design.  Since buying my paint at Home Depot I’ve also seen it at Walmart and Michael’s (remember the 40% off coupon!). In a perfect world with unlimited budgets I would use Idea Paint, but am very happy with this alternative. I’ve found that on some of the boards the corners have been bent as students have bumped up against them.  It would be a good idea to round off the corners to start with.  I like to repaint my boards to begin each school year fresh and clean.  After spending a long time trying to peel off the duct tape edges once, I now have my students take some time in the last week to get the tape off and then use Goo Gone to remove any adhesive.  Then they are ready for a fresh coat of paint!

We all love our whiteboard tables, and wouldn’t give them up! I know that there are many more ideas out there for their use, and would appreciate any you have to share.



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The clock is ticking down on 2014 and people everywhere are celebrating the promise a new year brings, which has me thinking about the importance of celebrations.  The month of December gave us many opportunities for celebrating.  One of these was our 4H Blog Launch Party.  Earlier this year, our class connections led to an invitation to participate in author Joan Galat’s book launch of Branching Out: How Trees Are Part of Our World. It was an exciting experience and got us thinking about our writing. Since our student blogs were recently up and running, we decided to celebrate with a Blog Launch Party.

I asked students to make a list of what we needed to make the occasion a celebration.  The list included guests, time to chat and visit, and of course cupcakes! We decided to invite our school admin, our parents and George Couros.  George shared some stories with us about his use of social media, and the opportunities he’s had to meet people and travel the world because of it. Then we all had the chance to check out our class blogs, read the posts and comment on them.  It was a blast, especially when we realized that we had some outside visitors participating as well!  Some were parents who were participating and commenting from work.  Others had discovered our blogs as a result of George’s tweets about the party.  The afternoon flew by for all of us, and there was a chorus of “Not yet!” when I had to stop them.

I loved the whole experience.  It was wonderful watching the kids see their writing come to life and recognizing that their words have power.  The room was buzzing with chatter and comments.  I was having a tough time keeping up with moderating them all! The good feeling continued into the rest of the week, as students were excited to read George’s post about the experience, and to comment on his.


As the school year passes, we take time to mark certain special occasions like Halloween and Valentine’s Day with parties and celebrations.  Our Blog Launch Party experience has made me realize how important it is to also observe the ordinary, everyday events and achievements in our school life.  As the calendar changes to 2015, my resolution for this new year is to celebrate more often.  I want to make remarkable what often slides by each day as unremarkable, and to have students recognize just how special these moments can be.

Our days are filled with opportunities for celebration – the struggling student who writes nine sentences unassisted using Read/Write Gold; a very busy Division principal who makes time to visit with my students and reaches out to the world for them; parents who support our online activities with comments; complete strangers who respond to tweets from our class with insights and information; an isolated student who rushes outside to play with newfound friends; my daughter who volunteers to make us cupcakes for the class party;  connections and support from a remarkable PLN; and many, many more.  I may not be able to pull out cupcakes for each, but I can make each one memorable and special.

Here’s to 2015 – a year of celebration!

Making Differences Ordinary With Minecraft

Minecraft Group 3 Day 1
Last week I read a post “Making Differences Ordinary” by Leah Andrews that really resonated with me.  In it, she wrote

For many students with learning difficulties, we know two things: routines are critical for them to be successful, and it is often difficult for them to develop meaningful relationships.  When we ask students to go in and out of the classroom for various interventions, this disrupts the students’ routines.   It also makes it more difficult for these students to develop meaningful relationships with their peers and their classroom teacher when they are being pulled in and out of the classroom setting. Do these unintended consequences outweigh the benefits of a pull-out intervention? Is there another way?

Leah talks about the unintended consequences of pull-out interventions during class times and the importance of student routines, and I agree completely.  However, there is one major school routine called recess that can be a huge obstacle for some students, especially those already dealing with learning difficulties. For these students, developing positive relationships is a challenge, one that is made even more so in the unstructured setting of the outside playground.  Others need to know that their relationships are real and based on meaningful activities, not just babysitting.  I work diligently to create a safe classroom community that includes all learners but then the bell rings – and for some stepping outside of the room for recess can be that pull-out with unintended consequences.

I was fortunate to work for several years with the very wise Susan Weisenburger who created a recess Friendship Club in her office for just those reasons.  Students who experienced difficulties on the playground were able to have their break with her and bring a friend. They played games, Legos or just sat and visited.  I loved walking by the room and hearing the hum of happy voices and seeing smiles on their faces.

I want to recreate that experience of growth and positivity that can come from a smaller scale, safe recess setting. In my class there are students who need help establishing positive friendships, and others who would benefit from participating in meaningful activities. I am using Minecraft to provide a safe setting and establish common interests as the beginning of friendships and building positive relationship skills.

I know that having meaningful connections and relationships with peers is a critical factor in student success at school.  Just as I plan provocations and activities to build reading skills, I also need to provide strategies and scaffolds for students to assist in relationship building.  This year I can use the Minecraft club for students as a means to do so. For a student with limited mobility, outdoor recess is a challenge.  Providing the opportunity to remain inside with friends is necessary, but so is the need to ensure that they are engaged in activities which allow all equal opportunities.  Playing Minecraft does just that.  All the students are very invested in creating the world.  The focus shifts from staying inside at recess to the conversations and discussions about the requirements of their world. When this is in the forefront, individual differences fade to the background.

Leah asks “How do we continue to strive to make differences ordinary in the everyday classroom? ” I am excited about using Minecraft as a tool to do exactly that!

Twitter Time

It makes my heart happy to see so many teachers creating class Twitter accounts.  Having a one has created some wonderful learning opportunities for my students over the past two years. I’ve learned a few things (sometimes the hard way) so thought I’d share some things in the hope that it can help others.

One of the first things to you need to do is create a Twitter handle – I chose @Millgrove4H.  I would probably use something different now because I’ve learned to

  •  pick a name that will last
  • keep it short
  • make it memorable

 When selecting a name, try to choose something suitable that will continue through the years.  As teachers, we often change grades and even schools.  (As well, we discovered that using a school name can make your site simple to find during a Mystery Skype).  It’s a good idea to try to keep the name as short as possible, as it takes up less space in the 140 characters allowed.  It can be a lot of fun coming up with a name.  Probably my favorite is Victoria Olson’s @EduMinions! Handles can be changed later on.

When do we Tweet?  What’s worked well for us is to set a time each day.  Last year we called it Twitter Time, and it coincided with our morning snack.  Students got their snack and brought it to our Smartboard carpet while I brought up our Twitter account on the SMARTBoard. Each day we would check our feed and notifications. Some days, that’s enough.  At other times, if we are involved in a project such as the #mathphotoaday, or have special activities or events we will send out related tweets throughout the day. We bring the class iPad to assemblies, or use it during class presentations.  Since I have our class account on the class iPad and my iPhone, we can use whatever device is most appropriate. On days with lots of activity, the buzz of my phone is a signal for everyone to check out the latest exciting tweet!

Where do we Tweet? Everywhere! Having our Twitter account on multiple devices means we can use whichever one is most convenient.  The class iPad works well with individual or small groups of students to use.  We use it within the classroom and school.  It’s great for taking pictures and tweeting during special events like our school Olympics or assemblies.  When we leave the school for field trips it is usually easiest to use my phone.  Making predictions about what’s in store for us is a great way to spend a bus ride!

Who Tweets? Who do we Tweet with? Everyone! During Twitter Time, usually students suggest ideas, the group finetunes them and I type.  Once the class is familiar with formats and ideas, individual and small groups can also tweet. (All students are aware that since it is a class account that I am responsible for, all tweets need to be checked by me or another responsible adult before being sent out.)

For example, while growing our amaryllis, each day my Guided Math group would tweet out the new data.  If we’ve initiated a Twitter activity like #whatdoesyourspringlooklike, 2 or 3 students will take the iPad and tweet our followers to ask for feedback.  When we’ve had lots of feedback on a question, such as when we asked what people had for breakfast, and got replies from around the world, I ask a couple of skilled students to tweet individualized thank you messages. They enjoy the challenge and opportunity to put their writing skills to work.

One of my favorite ways to use Twitter is during assemblies and class presentations by giving the iPad to a student who might have difficulty focusing on the speaker. Being the class tweeter is very motivating.  Students love summarizing the learning, stay engaged, and love the positive attention their tweets get.  It’s a real win/win situation!

We’ve had lots of great group discussions about important elements of digital citizenship regarding who we tweet with.  For example, the class decided that as a rule we would only follow other classes.  As they pointed out, sometimes adults (even teachers) use their Twitter accounts for adult conversations that aren’t always appropriate for students.  Also, our account was for our class and therefore learning focused.  Of course, we did make a few exceptions such as for Olympian Neville Wright who came to visit our school.  I loved the spirited discussions that revolved around each exception, and the students’ critical thought about the importance of digital citizenship. It’s interesting to note that they asked me to check out his Twitter feed and report back to them about how appropriate his tweets were before their final decision. 

What do we Tweet? Most importantly, all our tweets reflect our understanding of digital citizenship.  At the beginning of the year, we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of digital citizenship, and thinking carefully about what we wanted to say.  I loved that my kids decided that two simple questions were all that we needed:

  1.  Is it appropriate?
  2. Does it make sense?

 Is it appropriate? was what we used to ensure that we were being polite, courteous, and ensuring we thought about any consequences the tweet might have. For example when tweeting photos we needed to be sure that we had permission to use the images, and that anyone involved knew what we were doing with them. Students know that any photos we tweet will not show student faces.  This has inspired many creative moments as they come up with ideas that relate to the tweet, but do not include faces.


Does it make sense? usually relates to editing.  Often what we want to include goes over the 140 character limit, so we have many opportunities to practice revising and removing any extraneous information.

We literally ask these two questions every time before ever hitting the Tweet button.  As the class grew more comfortable, they began giving two thumbs up showing their approval (which sped up the process).

Of course, we tweet about everything! Our tweets reflect our learning topics or activities, thanks to people and groups who’ve impacted us, or asking questions of experts.



A special favorite is tweeting authors while reading or finishing their books. During the Olympics some of the athletes were really good about reaching out to students. It’s incredibly exciting when they tweet us back!

Hashtags provide great tweeting experiences too and are a fun way to invite others to join in. I love that Dana Ariss uses #ourawesome as an opportunity for students to reflect and think about gratitude.  I will definitely be using it this year with my class. Hashtags also provide a quick and easy way to organize tweets. When we have a presentation the class tweeter will begin each tweet with the speaker’s name (eg. #tanyasays).  At the end of the day using a tool such as Storify makes it easy to gather them all together for everyone to see.

I’d love to hear more ideas and comments about using class Twitter accounts.  Feel free to tweet us at @Millgrove4H!

Sharing Our Class Blog

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As we start this school year, one of my goals is to invite parents and families to participate ‘virtually’ with our class activities through social media tools.  Last year I realized that while parents were very willing to provide their support, they may not have been aware of how best to do so.  I have been thinking through how I use different tools with my class as I prepare a presentation for September.

Our class blog is our portal to the world, and an indispensable learning tool.  In addition to providing information and forms, our class blog has been the impetus to some incredible learning opportunities.

On any given day, checking our blog provides a window onto our learning in a variety of different ways.

  • After a special activity or event, I can post photos and/or videos so that parents have an opportunity to attend virtually.
  • After introducing a new topic, as a class we summarize our learning and I record it on the blog.
  • One or two interested students write a review or summary of the activity/presentation
  • After a presentation/field trip/activity, students write a written reflection.  Each student selects their best line or phrase, and we weave these together as a collaborative post.
  • We often find articles of interest in the news or on TV that link to our current units of study.  After discussing them as a class, students reflect and provide comments about their opinions. These are then a starting point for new conversations.

I often use short videos to introduce or complement a lesson.  Students always ask to watch them again, and posting them on the blog means they go home and view them with their families. Links to websites we use during class are also added to the blog.  It’s easy for students to access the sites during class, and then they go home, use them and reinforce their learning.

These learning focused posts are a great way for parents to connect with their kids.  Instead of the dreaded “What did you do at school today?” with the inevitable response of “Nothing”,  parents get to see what has happened during the day and are ready for dinner table conversations.

The class blog provides a simple method for providing information about class assignments and events, and easy access to forms.  No more lost papers!

Sometimes, I find out about activities at the last minute or on weekends when it’s too late to let parents know.  Since all my families are subscribed to the class blog, it’s a simple matter to post the information there, allowing those interested to take part.

Each year our school identifies specific goals.   Linking goals to certain class activities informs our family and community about how we are working to achieve them, and raises awareness in a friendly, fun manner. 

Our blog has a worldwide audience, and is an easy to use source of information.  When we have a question, we can ask for feedback , data or for answers from experts .  These are the starting points for continued conversations that lead to more connections, such as Skypes with the experts and further learning.

In addition to our class blog, occasionally we post on the Millgrove School Blog, or the Parkland School Division 184 Days of Learning site.

Digital Citizenship 

Each and every day our class blog provides us with relevant lessons in digital citizenship.  From our first day of school, each time we write a blog post students are reminded of how to be good digital citizens.  They recognize the importance of copyright, and we practice how to properly cite images and ideas.  Wherever possible, we use our own pictures to illustrate our writing providing us with many opportunities for fun and creative photo shoots.  Modelling responsible use of images everyday means that students have a firm understanding that it is necessary to always have permission to use a photo, and think carefully about the appropriateness of their choices when doing so.

When I use children’s photos, my practice is to not identify them by name (with the exception of when requested by the parent).  Students are aware that this helps keep them safe, and are then more thoughtful about their use of pictures on the Internet.

Another important aspect of digital citizenship is the responsibility of sharing.  Being a connected classroom means that we learn from others, and that others also learn from us.  It is a very special moment when we realize that our actions as described on our class blog can inspire others.

How Can Families and Friends Help?

  • Subscribe to our class blog.  Scroll down on the right side until you see Subscribe by email, enter your email address and click on create subscription.  It’s that easy!
  • We love it when we get comments on individual posts.  Our class blog is our home page on our class computer and we see it every day.  It’s exciting to hear from you! You might suggest a link to a post, or describe a connection from your experiences/work for us.
  • Discuss the posts with your child.  Ask them about the activity described, come up with new questions about the topic, and think about possible extensions and connections.

I know that Tracey Kratch is designing a Digital Volunteer program that has some exciting ideas for including families.  I would love to hear any ideas you have for sharing with parents, and opportunities to invite them to participate!