Teaching with the Big Ideas in Mind

19 Jan

I have been working with a grade 2/3 class at one of my schools on an inquiry around how plants, animals and humans are connected. They explored the diverse rainforest ecosystem and became quite concerned that rainforests are disappearing. They wanted to dig deeper and find out why the rainforest should be protected and share their message with the world.


Learning How to Learn

19 Jan

In this video, the Grade 3/4 students at Hugh Cairns school reflect on the inquiry process after grappling with the essential question “why are rocks, minerals, and soil important to us?”

The Power Of Immerse

3 Dec

“Our understanding is enriched when we have emotional connections.  We love to experience what we find beautiful, and we understand better when learning includes aesthetic journeys. In our own creative endeavours, we seek to craft something luminous and memorable, something that matters to others. Ultimately, our insights become potent and lasting-and we remember” (Keene, 2008, p.230).

When Johanna Stuart, the EAL teacher, and I embarked on a guided inquiry with her EAL students we were uncertain of what the final results would be.  We wondered if the students would “get” inquiry, and we questioned how we could immerse students in complex and abstract thinking, what would it look like, and how could we do this in the small amount of time she sees them each week?   Since Mrs.Stuart was focusing on reading strategies this term, in particular connecting, it seemed only natural for us to identify mentor texts that could help her EAL students build background knowledge around the concept of identity. We used the following books as mentor texts, as many of them dealt with aspects of identity that our students would be able to identify with.





At the end of each book the students were asked to think about what the big idea was in the book. It was through these conversations and their connections that they began to develop and explore the concept of identity.  After reading the book  Hooray For You, the students connected with the term “You-Ness” and we continued to explore what makes each of us unique, yet the same.   After coming up with criteria of what makes all of us the same, each student grappled with and explored a different concept such as: spirit, dreams, weaknesses, and culture, all aspects of “You-Ness.”  To collect their thinking each student wrote a paragraph identifying and explaining a “You-Ness” characteristic and represented it by drawing a picture. Lastly, they shared their new understandings with an authentic audience by creating a voicethread using the ipad. This allowed the students to practice reading fluently and with expression. Here is the voicethread they created.


We had planned for all of this, we knew the direction the guided inquiry was going to go, and we had an end in mind. But what we didn’t plan for was how the message of identity and “You-Ness” would resonate with the students.  Shortly after we finished the inquiry, I received an e-mail from Mrs.Stuart who shared with me that when she was introducing the visualizing reading strategy, one of her students commented that everyone had a different picture in their minds when they were visualizing because
“we have been learning about Youness and we all have different brain, body and heart so that’s why we are all different- we have different Younesses.”

I am reminded of our initial hesitations and questions of exploring and dabbling in an abstract inquiry with our EAL students. Seeing this unfold was yet another affirmation of the importance of immersing students in a topic.  The immerse phase is all about facilitating, or in this case,  providing meaningful ways for students to engage and connect with a topic.

Keene, E. O. (2008). To understand: new horizons in reading comprehension. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


MAKE it happen at the School Library

18 Nov

I first came across the concept of a Makerspace through MAKE magazine. I was familiar with hackerspaces but I had never heard of the term makerspace.  Therefore, I was quite intrigued when Buffy Hamilton, a teacher-librarian that I admire from the USA, was sharing ways in which she was creating a makerspace culture in her school library program.

After participating and witnessing the 2012 Maker Camp I was inspired and motivated to facilitate this type of learning opportunity at my school library.  I explored Henry Jenkin’s and Project New Media Literacies principles of participatory learning along with numerous other resources. According to these resources Participatory learning can be characterized by:

  • Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation;
  • Learning that feels relevant to students’ identities and interests;
  • Opportunities for creating using a variety media, tools and practices;
  • Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning;
  • An integrated system of learning where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged.

As the 2012/2013 school year approached I wondered in what ways I could foster a participatory learning culture that could facilitate opportunities for knowledge creation?  I decided to have a second round of library orientation, and for students in grades 5-8 I introduced the concept of a Makerspace to them. I had quite a few students that expressed an interest in technology and crafts, and so the makerspace began based on their interests. Currently we are meeting every other week over lunch.  So far the craft group has created friendship bracelets and toilet paper roll creatures and have been exploring with polymer clay.  The technology group has been dabbling in coding using an Arduino, learning Scratch and exploring the Raspberry Pi.

I have connected with a wide variety of community members to help make this possible. Saskatoon Tech Works has been very supportive and members have been volunteering their time to help the students and I. My husband and a few of his engineering friends have also been volunteering their time to help make this possible.

I have created a blog for the students to access for information and for us to share our projects and learning. Stay tuned for more information on our makerspace at Greystone Heights School by visiting and following our  GHS Makerspace blog.

Digging Deep

9 Nov

Digging Deep

This week the grade ¾ class began “digging deep” to find and select resources around their questions: what are the different types of rocks, minerals, and soil in Saskatchewan? The class was divided into three focus groups: rocks, minerals, and soil and each student used a graphic organizer to: write down why a book/website was worth investigating, record jot notes, and to site their sources.

A grade 3 student shares her search process below:

Preparing for Investigating

“The web is the go-to tool for answers, images and interactions. But even as online resources expand exponentially, making us info-seekers drool over the possibilities, the complications, the confusions, and uncertainties of Internet research also seem to be multiplying daily”( Harvey & Daniels, 2009).

To ensure that our students were prepared for this arduous task we modeled and pre-taught:

  • How to research a question by identifying key words and synonyms
  • How to know if a source is accurate and reliable
  • Differences between databases, reference materials, and search engines
  • Google Advanced search options such as reading level
  • Using pictures to understand
  • Reading and scanning online text-features

An “ah ha” Moment

Beyond some of the fundamental search skills that our students learned it was interesting to see how our students went beyond just finding the answer. It was during this phase that they realized inquiry isn’t about finding an “answer” but rather it requires them to think about what they have discovered, make connections to what they already know and to find out more about what they don’t know. As was illustrated in the clip above, the students found what some of the soil was in Saskatchewan but they didn’t know what it meant let alone pronounce it correctly.  They were able to identify that they would have to go back to check for understanding and repurpose their search process.  Lastly, they realized that they were not collecting facts in isolation. When they discovered the different types of minerals in Saskatchewan, they also found out information around where the minerals were located and some uses as well. The big picture is starting to come together.


Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Living in the Question: My Professional Learning Plan

28 Oct

Over the last month I have been working on my professional learning plan (PLP) for the 2012/2013 school year for the Saskatoon Public School Division.   To support our Professional Learning Plans, our school division has created Collaborative Inquiry Teams (CIT’s) that allow teachers to engage in a collaborative inquiry to:  a)construct understandings of student learning problems b) collect data c) collaborate to find and test out solutions d) reflect on learning.  My role as a teacher-librarian in the CIT’s is to be an instructional leader and support the teachers at my school during this process, and to learn alongside them around how to best support student learning.  Ultimately, our schools and school libraries are working together to support and advance the learning of each student.

Advocacy and Action Research

Over the last two years I feel as though I have been an observer and I have to admit that I felt disconnected from what is an extremely valuable division initiative and process.  My role was to support teachers, but I felt removed from the process because I was not directly collecting evidence of how the school library contributed to the school’s priority to student learning.  There was nothing stopping me, I just had to develop a focus and make a plan that aligned with my school and division priorities around literacy for life, expository writing and developing students conceptual understanding within an inquiry framework.  I had to be strategic, and I identified goals that aligned with SPSD initiatives and I discussed and conversed with teachers and other teacher-librarians to identify learning goals.

Developing a Focus

It was hard to narrow down the topic to develop an action research focus. I kept going back to my vision of school libraries that I created this summer in my Information Technology for Learning masters course.  One of our assignments was to represent our personal vision for librarianship, teacher-librarianship or teaching and learning for the 21st century.  I chose to articulate my vision by creating a video that addressed the question “what should be the future of school libraries?”  The answer was simple, we as teacher-librarians are perfectly situated to create and transform the future of school libraries.

A vision is important, but without a plan it is void and useless. I had this great vision, I knew where I wanted to go and I had a few ideas of how to get there but it needed to become more transparent.  It was then that I realized that my vision aligned with my school division’s learning goals and out of this came my action research question:

 ” In what ways can the teacher-librarian facilitate opportunities for knowledge creation that enables students to be effective users and producers of ideas and information?”

One of the sections of our PLP asks us to consider, “the effect on student learning I expect will result from my professional learning.” In order to address this question I need to collect both quantitative and qualitative data to gather evidence. I have already collected baseline quantitative data from students in grades 5-8 derived from a survey that  Laurie Hnatiuk, another teacher-librarian, and I co-created. Throughout the year I will also collect  qualitative data in the form of student interviews, and student work.

Collecting and Making Meaning with the Data

I have had an opportunity to look at the data collected through the survey and I plan to share it on this blog and in my school in the form of an infographic.  The results from the survey have allowed me to narrow my focus and target my instruction to meet the needs of the students. The following areas have been identified as a focus for my instruction this year and also reflect Saskatoon Public School Division’s Digital Backpack.

1)  Digital Citizenship: using information thoughtfully and ethically

3)  Produce and share powerful, compelling digital media

4) Transliteracy: the ability to read, write, and interact across a range of platforms, tools, and media

Next Steps… 

As I continue to analyze and make connections with the data collected I will need to identify action strategies.  How am I going to address the needs of the students?  Who can support me in this process?  How will I collaborate with teachers?

Stay tuned for an infographic coming soon!

Essential Questions

28 Oct

As part of our inquiry learning each school was given a .5 planning day for the Teacher-Librarian and teacher to co-plan a unit together. Our first task, and one of our goals was to develop a robust inquiry question that was authentic, significant and relevant to students’ learning.  To help frame our planning we used the Understanding By Design planning template that allowed us to stay focused on the big ideas and to uncover the essential questions for the units.

What is an essential question?

We know that essential questions should reflect what is needed for learning core content, but what makes it essential? Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (Understanding By Design, 2005, p.110)  propose that a question is essential if it is meant to:

  • Cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content
  • Provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • Require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers
  • Stimulate vital, ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, prior lessons
  • Spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences
  • NatCC Attributed Imageurally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects

We grappled with our essential questions, and mulled over the enduring understandings and here is what we came up with:

EAL Essential Question: Who am I?

Grade 3/4 Essential Question:  Why are rocks, minerals, and soil important to us?

How did we determine our essential questions? We delved into the curriculum, looked for cross-curricular connections and thought about what we wanted our students to know and to understand at the end of the unit.  This was challenging as EAL has their own outcomes and  we had a split grade 3/4 class to make curricular connections across the subject areas.

Even though this is an inquiry, both of my teachers have decided to structure the learning through the guided inquiry process. As a result, we also came up with sub-questions that would guide the student learning along the way.

As we continue on in the inquiry, I think it will be important to come back to the criteria of an essential question and reflect on whether or not our questions met that criteria.