Sunday, January 25, 2015

Campfires aka Talking Circles aka Brags & Drags

In my classroom, we have begun to use the cave, watering hole, campfire and mountain top. It has set up instant norms for classroom expectations when working under a variety of situations.  To be honest, it took about 2 minutes for my students to buy in.  Here's why:


NCIS in the classroom: a great teaching tool!

We make a campfire to act as our talking circle. We used to simply call it our talking circle or sharing circle, which is a custom firmly rooted in the Ojibway culture. Now I just need to call out "campfire" and everyone knows what to do.They  pull their chairs into an inclusive circle. Everyone has to be a part of the circle. Everyone has to be respectful and let the holder of the feather speak uninterrupted. Everyone has the right to pass.

We use the campfire/talking circle in two ways. The first way is through Brags & Drags. I have always had a sharing circle in my classroom, since my very first year of teaching (Grade 1) on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, nearly 18 years ago.

My sharing circle has evolved somewhat, as it is sometimes hard to elicit a response from Junior and Intermediate aged students. An ETFO PD presenter a few years ago, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, told us about his Brags and Drags that he had students share.  By focusing the conversation topic on something good that has been happening to you (brags), and something that isn't so great (drags), students are much more likely to respond.

How to do "Brags&Drags"

  1. Campfire!

  2. One person begins, holding the talking stick, sharing feather, whatever you decide to use.

  3. They share up to 2 things (1 brag, 1 drag, 2 brags, 2 drags) OR they can choose to pass

  4. Opportunity for questions when they finish ( we max it at 2 questions for sake of time)

  5. Pass the speaking object to the next person - only the person holding the object may speak unless they are finished and open up the floor for questions (it just takes too long to pass it around for every question).

  6. One issue that comes up is that some students retell every detail from an event and you could end up spending WAY too much time in the circle. We limit it to the main idea.

  7. What are they learning? How to ask good questions, active listening skills, speaking skills, main idea of an event, empathy, how to be part of a much more.

Because of Brags & Drags and our sharing circles over the years, I have learned many, many things from my students, and gotten to know them on a level that I don't think I would have otherwise.  I know when things are bothering kids (tough times at home), or why they are so tired (all night gaming), or even why they are so giddy and over-excited (winning a hockey game, upcoming sleepover). My students also get to know me, and when I've been up with a sick child at home they seem more compassionate and understanding toward me.

Brags & Drags are probably my most valuable teaching tool. At the beginning of the school year we have them at the start of every day. It builds a strong sense of community, of empathy, and builds bonds in a short amount of time.  Once the year gets underway we limit it to Monday and Friday mornings, just so that we can use other days of the week for meetings of a different sort (which is my second use of campfires/sharing circles, and will be a future post). Visitors to the classroom are always asked to join us in the circle, and hopefully they even share a brag and drag from their lives.

In the past I have heard criticism that my talking circle is a waste of valuable teaching time. However, when that same educator later came to me and ask what was going on with student X or student Y, they had a major shift and began to understand the purpose of my circles, because I always knew the answer. Kids need to talk, and they need people to listen.

For me, Brags & Drags extend beyond the classroom. As a parent, they are a surefire way to actually get an answer to the question "what did you do at school today" from my own kids, as opposed to "nuthin". It is a great way to start a meaningful conversation at the dinner table, on a car trip, at bedtime...

So today, my brag is that I've managed to eke out some time to blog. And my's a school night...

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Over at BYOD,ASAP, Heather posted #10GoodThings. She has an amazing list of great things that she accomplished in 2014. Be sure to check it out!

So, in the spirit of trying to keep up with the "Theijsmeijer", here goes my attempt (in no particular order other than it is the order that I think of them).

#1. In 2014, every student in my class sewed a quilt and entered it in a national contest, the Canadian Quilter Youth Quilt Challenge. Best of all, the class then collaborated on an article that was published in the Canadian Quilter magazine. The excitement on their faces when the magazines arrived at our school was amazing. I have to say it was probably the most rewarding moment of my career when every student realized that they could now call themselves a published author.

#2. I was awarded the Rainbow District School Board's Teacher of the Year Award. To be honest, I was very uncomfortable about the whole situation, but there were several awards for our little school last year, so the recognition for Assiginack Public School was great.

#3. I delved into the world of the virtual learning environment, and became comfortable with the D2L platform. I now have learned to create widgets, embed padlets and Instagrams, and it has become an important tool to use with my students.

#4. Some educators, for whom I have a lot of respect, convinced me to take the Principal's Qualification Course. I have now completed Part 1 and I am waiting for the PQP Part II to run close enough to home that I can manage the driving. I'm not sure that administration is the dream at this point, but I love the learning. My practicum involves spreading the message of effective technology usage in schools, and I am working with students, teachers and the community to develop 21st century skills in our students.

#5. My class last year was chosen as the Runner's Up for the Hudson's Bay Company Name the Canoe contest. We were all jumping up and down in our portable so much that the whole room was shaking!.
Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 7.15.12 PM

#6. In 2014 I had the opportunity to work with an incredible principal and educator, Margaret Stringer, who encouraged me, inspired me, and gave me confidence in my skills as a teacher. She retired at the end of 2014, and will be greatly missed. However, I continue to move forward with the classroom design project that she helped me begin. Her legacy of making things beautiful will continue on.

#7. I attended my first Manitoulin IGNITEd session. It was on Robotics and I was hooked. Santa even brought my own two children a Lego Mindstorm. Together, our family is enjoying the world of robotics and programming.

#8. Last year I had a small class of 18 grade 5/6 students. I was able to share my love of sewing with them, and taught them to use sewing machines and hand stitching to create. The students who took to it the most were a big surprise, and a few of the boys sewed their mothers beautiful fabric bags for Mother's Day. I want to continue with creating and in future hope to create a Maker Space within my classroom or maybe even the school. Maybe that will make next year's #10GoodThings list.

#9. Winning the little battles. There have been moments of crisis, when students and parents have pushed back.The litany of "we want you to tell us the answer", and "why don't you just teach us - we don't want to find out on our own" and "technology is a lot of work" has been tough to take at times. It has gotten me down. But, there have been small victories. By the end of 2014, my students began to ask to use tech tools. Learning through technology has become the norm in my classroom. I think we are going to make it.

#10. My family. My husband is a principal for the Wikwemikong Board of Education, and we get to talk geeky teacherness as much as we want. He helps me through my moments of doubt. My two children, Brooke and Dane, are students at my school and I get to see them grow and learn 24/7. My sister-in-law teaches down the hall from me, and 4 of my nieces and nephews attend my school. And, at family holidays, we all get together along with my sister, my brother-in-law, my other sister-in-law, AND my mother, and we get to share the triumphs and the tribulations of life as educators. It is so great to be able to have an entire family, and extended family, that GETS IT.

Wow. Looking back, 2014 was an incredible year. I hope that 2015 can live up to all THAT.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Classroom design: a reading room.

"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often." Winston Churchill

If you believe those words, then I must be absolute perfection.  My desk has moved three times in the past 2 days in my classroom. And I'm still not happy, but it's a start.

I began to make changes beyond simple desk formations this week in my classroom.  I shoved my clunky teacher desk along the wall, and created an area for student books to be shelved within easy reach. My student librarians, two girls who applied for the job at the beginning of the year, jumped in to help and soon had a beautiful book display.

Then my husband returned from his trip "down south" with  the items from my Ikea list. (Ikea is a 6 hour drive one-way from here on the Island - so it's a big deal and usually involves a long shopping list.) A cheap floor rug and some clearance thrown pillows. Actually, I got two floor rugs, but we don't have any floor space in the class for the other one right now, so it is rolled up in a corner, just waiting...

Since I was spending money out of my own pocket, and since kids have a way of staining and destroying items without even trying, I didn't want to spend too much.  I simply looked online for the cheapest options I could find. Plus, I didn't know if the students would think it was "cool" enough and actually want to use them. Was I wrong.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500"] Ikea Hulsig Rug - $14.99[/caption]

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500"] Ikea Krakris Cushion - $1.99 x 8[/caption]

It's funny how  you can never really predict how students will react to change. Especially teens.

The next thing I knew, my librarians were asking to move more shelves and a giant storage cart around. They were SO excited. When they finished and were marvelling at their handiwork, I went over to inspect.

read 2

A "reading room" had been built into our classroom. (sorry for the poor quality 4s iPhone pics - I need to bring a better camera to school)

This morning, I brought in a plant from home that had been a Christmas gift from one of the students and I placed it in the reading area. The class started to buzz and a boy came up and said that they had a plant at home that was dying and maybe he could bring it in to see if we could save it and have it in our classroom. Another student came over and said that we needed to hire for another job - plant caretaking.

The reading room is the hot spot, and students have been piling in with books and pillows, discussing their book club books and planning out geography inquiries.

Two students spent recess break inside, poring over furniture catalogs and sketching out classroom design ideas on grid paper. I can't believe how passionate they were becoming over table and stool styles. One of them is now dreaming of becoming an interior designer. The other is plotting ways that we can finance the ideas.

My teacher desk got moved again, to the front of the classroom, against the wall. It currently has an organizer shelf piled on it.

I have a feeling it isn't finished moving yet.  Each move it has inched closer and closer to the doorway. Its days are numbered.

More changes are coming. Just that much closer to being perfect...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Planbook: a web-based planner for Ontario teachers

Do you Planbook? (If "Facebook" can be used as a verb now, then I'm going to make "Planbook" a verb too - as I definitely "planbook" more than I "facebook" in my life as an educator).

I began using this online planning tool in 2013 and I have never looked back. Seriously. This is probably the best $12 I spend annually as a teacher. It's even better than coffee on Monday morning during report card season.  It's THAT good! Or I just don't have much of a life.

Some of my favourite features are:

  • you can plan from any computer with internet access

  • you can extend lessons onto the next day if you didn't get them completed (a far-too frequent occurrence in my life)

  • direct links to the Ontario curriculum - really!

  • you can set it up to follow a 5-day schedule like we have in our Board

  • the ability to attach files and insert links makes for easy planning

  • you have access to previous years' plans

  • and did I mention it's only $12 per year? (well, slightly more with the low Canadian dollar right now, but definitely still worth it!)


Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 9.29.04 PM

(image from

Whenever I am at professional development activities there is always a teacher or two looking over my shoulder as I am planning for the next day's lessons, wondering what program I am using. As far as I know, everyone who I have shown it to has been a convert. Even the self-proclaimed techno-phobes have tried it out and loved it.

Not sure if you want to spring for the $12? No worries. There is a free trial period of 1 month. After a month, you can then pay if you decide to keep the service. If not, there is no obligation. No. Strings. Attached.

No, I'm not affiliated or receiving any monetary compensation yadda yadda. I'm just a very happy customer. I am thinking about buying stocks though. :-)

One of the best parts is that you don't have to sign up for the free trial with a credit card. Really. is definitely worth a look.

If you have any questions about using it or are looking for tutorials let me know...I can probably help you out.

Check it out - and let me know what you think.

Okay, I'm off to "planbook".

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Classroom Transformation Beginnings


"The true strength in our classroom lies in the collaboration of learners...not in the knowledge of one expert"

I'm so excited about my new classroom door decor. I used my Silhouette craft cutter and vinyl cling material. Easy and I love it.

My students have struggled this year with trying to learn in the 21st century, but in a classroom that is clearly stuck in the 20th century with its antiquated students desks and fixtures. To celebrate 2015, I have begun to try and make a workspace that allows for collaborative learning, effective use of technology, and trying to make it an inviting space where we are excited to gather each day to learn.

Here are some frightening images of what we have been making do with.

I have been trying to make it collaboration friendly, so desks in 'L' shapes was one of the many iterations that we have attempted this year.



The area under the Canadian flag is a teacher desk, file cabinet and open bookshelves - necessary because the old projector we had required a wired connection. (The child with the waving arms is my daughter, not a student, so no worries about privacy.) My new projector is wireless and we are loving it.  I am no longer chained to my desk and am working on emptying it out and hoping to replace it with a standing workstation.

Soon, I am hoping the area where my desk was will be a cozy reading nook. My students are excited about the changes and my two librarians (we apply for class jobs at the beginning of the year) are going to be busy setting up the new space.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

21c Classroom Design - The Dream

I have a dream.  I want my classroom to be a place where students are excited to come each day because it is inviting. I want it to be a place where I want to go each day because it meets the needs of my students as 21st century learners. I feel that classrooms should feel like you are walking into a cozy coffee shop, or the "Central Perk" of Friends (showing my age now!).

This info graphic that I put together gives a brief introduction into what I think my 21st century learning space should be (but it keeps in mind existing spaces and tiny budget realities).

21st Century Classroom

Now here is a school authority that has dreamed big (and obviously has managed to find big $$$) and they have created the ultimate learning space.  Check out the Great Prairie Education Agency website.


Great Prairie 21C classroom

All I can say is WOW.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Report Card Resources

Yes, it is that beloved time of year again. For most teachers, nothing strikes terror into their hearts more than a looming reporting deadline. Here are a couple of great resources to make the task slightly less daunting, or at least, minimize the chance that you will have a principal demanding rewrites!

1. MISA London is an amazing teacher resource. I highly recommend taking a look at their comment frameworks as well as their learning skill videos. I continually revisit this site as a refresher before delving into comment writing.

MISA London Assessment and Evaluation 

2. Growing Success, the "bible" of assessment, evaluation and reporting in Ontario Schools. When in doubt, look it up here.

Ontario Ministry of Education Growing Success

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 9.21.09 AM


I have debated for some time about starting a teaching blog, but it is one more task to add to a seemingly endless list of To-Do's. What has pushed me over the edge is the fact that I need an effective way to share ideas with other teachers. Too many conversations have ended with me telling someone..."I have a link/article/site for that somewhere... I will see if I can find it..."

Now I can tell them it is here.