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Assessment for Learning:
3 Ways to Make Criteria Meaningful

The development of Criteria is an important assessment for learning tool developed to provide detailed descriptive feedback to learners...

March 13, 2016

3 Reasons this Mirror is Great for Babies and Toddlers

The very first time I placed a mirror in front of my 1 month old, I knew that including a mirror as part of playtime was essential. My little guy stared at himself, studying every part of body. He then moved on to studying his environment and toys in the  mirror's reflection. I observed that he was enamoured with comparing what was happening in the mirror and what he could see while not looking in the mirror. Using the mirror always won out, keeping him very engaged. His engagement propelled me to find different sizes and structures of mirrors that would best suit his needs. If I could only choose one mirror, I would always choose a large wall mirror. Large wall mirrors mounted as close to the floor as possible, will grow with your baby as he/she grows into a toddler. That being said, I bought another mirror that I purchased at IKEA and have found to be indispensable.

Here are 3 reasons why I love this particular mirror:

1. The mirror itself is a good size.

Most of the mirrors I found for babies were just too small. My little guy could see his face but not the rest of his body. A small sized mirror did not keep him engaged for long. I also had to keep moving the mirror so that it stayed in front of him as he was learning to move around. This did not allow for uninterrupted play.

Then I found this mirror at IKEA and was a great size. My baby could move his head, body, arms and legs around and still see most of himself in the mirror. Once he learned to sit up, the mirror was tall enough so that he could see his full self. Even now, at 14 months, he brings his toys to sit in front the mirror to watch himself play.

2.  The mirror can stand on its own, making it easily portable.

I also like the fact that this mirror closes up for easy transport and can stand up by itself. It has been useful in hotel rooms and especially for specific play activities that I prefer to set up in different rooms of the house. For example, I really liked to use it in the bathroom during water play. It was so easy to stand the mirror in front of him while he splashed around the water. Moving water play to the bathroom also helped me with easier clean-up.

3. The mirror can  be attached to baby gates.

Although the mirror comes with instructions to attach it to a wall, I prefer to fold back the shutters on the mirror and use the velcro already attached to the mirror to hang it on any gate or play pen with bars. Again, having this kind of portability has been very useful as I can easily move the mirror from room to room.

Currently, my son enjoys sitting in front of this mirror and dropping his toys behind it. He then spends lots of time trying to slide the mirror up the gate bars to retrieve his toys.

Using this particular mirror has turned out to be a great support in creating learning experiences for my son.

February 23, 2016

4 Reasons Why I Re-Thought Homework

I have been thinking about the dreaded homework debate! Does homework really need to have such a bad reputation? This question has swirled around in my mind for years. I have heard parents complain (and rightfully so) about the type and amount of homework, the lack of connection they felt between home and school and, the lack of on-going ways to support their child's learning. Since I truly believe that families require regular time together and, that homework should not be a battle, I wondered ... was the type of homework I was assigning, contributing to the bad reputation homework has received?

After careful reflection, I decided that the answer was 'yes'. I was contributing to homework's bad reputation. I reflected and decided that I had three main reasons why I needed to re-think homework.

1. I wanted homework to act as CONNECTION  between families and school - not contribute to a disconnect.

When I first started to re-think homework, I began by analyzing the homework that I was already assigning. I discovered worksheets, weekly spelling dictations, pre-made graphic organizers, nightly reading logs and writing solely based on writing prompts. Oh my! It suddenly hit me that the homework that I was giving out really did not involve families, provide a meaningful link between school and home or encourage children to explore and make connections with the world around them. 

When I was assigning this type of homework, my main purpose was for a child to be able to sit in a corner in their home and complete a task independently, without parental support. I was worried that I was 'bothering' parents by asking them to support their child's learning. I was also concerned that some children would receive parental support while others would not. Although my intentions were good, I began to realize that I was actually helping to WIDEN the divide between home and school. I was catering to the 'lowest common denominator'. By assigning  'busy work' through worksheets and dictations, I encouraged my learners NOT to have meaningful interactions with their parents. When I began to re-think homework, I really wanted to include parents in their child's homework in more meaningful ways, without contributing to a separation between school and home. 

I did this by designing writing homework tasks that were founded on:
  • the development of creative ideas and critical thinking
  • oral communication
  • the creation of a supportive home physical environment
  • opportunities for children to self-reflect and self-assess
  • opportunities for parents to provide meaningful feedback 
The writing homework I began assigning suddenly turned from worksheets to task oriented instructions. Some tasks were short, i.e. finding an example of a 'How To' informational text in their home. Other tasks required a few days to complete, i.e. write several different drafts of a 'How To' text. The key to making task oriented homework meaningful was to allow for choice, draw in aspects of the world that the child might not experience at school and, still be directly connected to the classroom. Once I began assigning tasks, rather than worksheets, I observed a much higher rate of learner engagement and pure excitement to share the conversations they had had with their parents at home.

I took the success of this type of homework and developed my 'I'm a Writer!' series of homework resources. Each piece of writing homework is a task, rather than a worksheet. The writing tasks incorporate the main writing genres, connect writing to the real-world, have a foundation in oral language, provide choice and explore the writing process.

2. I wanted to help parents to appropriately and effectively support their child's learning.

Most parents that I have worked with were very interested in helping their child improve their school work. Some well-intentioned parents were a little overzealous and practically completed the homework for their child, while others didn't SPECIFICALLY know how to help their child. While I was able to provide parents with tips during 'Meet the Parents' night, report card meetings and  through classroom newsletters, my suggestions tended to be a bit broad and not as specific and ongoing as they should have been. One of my goals in re-thing homework was to provide parents with specific, ongoing tips that mirrored the language and tasks that were being assigned in the classroom and, demonstrated appropriate and effective support for their child.

To provide parents with specific, ongoing writing tips, I designed my 'I'm a Writer!' homework series with writing tips for parents. Under each writing task is a list of writing genre or writing process specific tips for parents. Some of writing tips provide actual prompts in the form of questions and sentence starters that parents can use to help support their child. Other tips help parents to understand the difference between the writing genres and the types of writing behaviours they might observe their child doing while writing. Some writing tips are repeated for each writing genre to emphasize their importance within the writing process.

3. I wanted children to see a clear link between school and the real world.

Making a clear link between school and the real world is often easier said than done. Schools tend to be organized an artificial fashion which makes it challenging for children to automatically connect how their school work is related to the real world. Teachers are always looking for ways to make school work relevant for their learners. As a result, this was a component that I wanted to incorporate explicit tasks into my writing homework tasks that connect the real-world with different writing genres.

In my 'I'm a Writer!' homework series, there are explicit tasks which ask children to explore their home and community by looking for examples of each of the writing genres. The tasks encourage children to collect and bring to school real world writing examples so that they might  be explored at greater depth in the classroom.  The tasks also invite children to go outside and talk to people they know to gather and develop their writing ideas. By making an explicit connection between school and the real world, children begin to see why it is important for them to learn how to write using different genres.

4.  Homework should be open-ended with the ability to differentiate for individual learners.

One of the challenges I encountered with homework was trying to differentiate the work for individual learners. When I tried to differentiate, nightly homework took on an entire life of its own! Sometimes I just wanted to alter some of the wording on the worksheets, while other times I needed an easy way to include the extra support that I knew some of my learners required. To do this, I had to search and search for the supports I needed. I also had to spend countless hours using white-out to change certain aspects of worksheets in order to differentiate.

What I needed were open-ended tasks that would allow for different entry points of learning, a variety of supports that I could include for individual learners and, tasks that were easily editable so that they could be personalized to mirror my own teaching.

In the end,  I have not given up on the idea of homework....yet. As I reflect on the types of homework being generally being given,  I don't think that homework has changed much since I was a kid. So, rather than giving up on homework, I was willing to first try and re-think the types of homework I was assigning. 

January 01, 2016

How One Baby/Toddler Uses a Balance Beam

When I choose toys, tools and equipment for my child, I try to invest my money in some main pieces that will grow with my son and that he can use for years to come. Two learning tools that my son has enjoyed and has helped to improve his gross motor skills are a large wall mirror and this balance beam from IKEA.

When I first purchased this balance beam, my son was about 8 months old and I assumed that he would not actually use it for a few more months. My assumption ended up to be completely wrong. Once the balance beam was assembled, I realized that it was actually quite sturdy so, I wanted to see what my son would do with it. I placed the balance beam in front of a large wall mirror with plenty of room to play around all sides of it. Within a day, he began using the beam to pull himself up into a standing position. He enjoyed keeping himself amused by standing and slapping the hard top surface of the beam, all the while observing himself in the wall mirror.

Soon, he used the balance beam to support his first attempts at walking. He learned that if he used it as a support, he was able to walk all the way around it. He also began to use the top surface as a place to set his toys, spending lots of time moving toys from his basket, onto the balance beam, then back to his basket.

Once he became more confident walking with support, he discovered that he could crawl underneath the beam. Crawling under the beam was a challenge he happily took on. He learned that although he could fit his head under the beam, his bottom stopped him from getting his entire body all the way under. He soon learned different ways to lower his bottom to get the rest of his body under the beam. Looking in the wall mirror helped him to see where he was getting stuck and, I think, learn more quickly how to manoeuvre his body.

Now, at 14 months, he has learned to climb over top of the balance beam, sit on it and bend over it, looking at himself upside down in the mirror. He still uses the surface to play with toys, stacking blocks and comparing the sound of the surface to the sound of other surfaces in the room. All of these things he discovered completely on his own.

As much as I think that this balance beam was a great purchase, I don't think that my son would have used the beam as effectively without being able to see himself in a large mirror. The combination of these two pieces provided a challenging, open-ended learning environment where my son could learn about his own body, at his own pace. I am looking forward to observing and sharing how he will next use these two great learning tools.

April 01, 2015

3 Reading Tips to Help Children Infer Theme (Big Ideas)

Teaching children to infer theme is not always an easy task.  Many children finish a book and barely realize the book even had a theme.  When children don't go back and reflect on the text as a whole, they miss out on connecting the text to their lives on a deeper level.  They are also unable to take the ideas and lessons learned from the book and apply this insight to their own lives. In other words, when kids don't stop to think about the theme, they are missing out on one of the most valuable aspects of reading and their reading for meaning is compromised.

Here are three reading tips to help children infer the theme (big ideas) in books:

1. Use picture books as read alouds to teach theme.

Picture books today are amazing. Regardless of the age of the learner (yes, even Gr. 8's benefit greatly), picture books are an effective way to teach theme. When read aloud, learners have equal access to the text, they get the opportunity to stop and talk about their thinking and, the text is short enough to teach learners where important inferences have to be made.  All too often, teachers move too quickly into using novels as read alouds. This leaves many children struggling to understand and remember where and how inferences were made, preventing them from understanding the big ideas. Novels can simply be too long for many children and, because of their length, do not provide enough opportunities for children to practice the reading skills required to understand theme.

2. Revisit the same picture book (read aloud) for a few days in a row.

How many times have you left a staff meeting or a conversation where hours later you came up with a great idea that should have been shared but the chance was lost?  Teaching children to delve deeply into a text requires you to provide them the time and multiple opportunities to revisit similar conversations. Children need time to process their thinking.  They also require time to connect deeply with the text and come to new insights.  Providing wait time for children to answer questions about the text means more than allowing 30 seconds of thinking then responding.  Our learners require a substantial amount of wait time to absorb the text, take on new thinking, listen to their peers, re-think again and continue to connect the meaning of the text with their own lives.  To provide this opportunity for your learners, read the same picture book aloud for 3 - 5 days.  Also consider the idea that since the average child requires revisiting of a text, it is absolutely essential for your learners with special needs. You don't have to read the entire text each time.  Revisit important parts, ask children to add their thinking, comment and ask questions.  Ask different questions yourself, word your questions differently, pair children with new turn and talk partners.  Focus your questions on different big ideas in the text on separate days. Whatever you do, stop changing your read alouds daily and begin to stretch them out for a few days.

3. Cluster three or four picture books (read alouds) with similar themes.

When choosing your read alouds, choose three or four with similar themes and delve deeply into these themes over the course of a few weeks.  To make the best use out of instructional time, integrate themes with content. For example; If you are teaching about plants, habitats, saving energy or recycling for science then picture books such as:

(click on the covers to purchase the book)

are all wonderful stories, each with a different author's message, but with similar themes about caring for - and the consequences of not caring for - the world around us.  When you cluster such themes, you provide children the opportunity to experience similar, yet different big ideas.  This gives learners a wider perspective, improved vocabulary, and a reasonable wait time to develop a deeper understanding about the subject.

Lesson plans, for how you might incorporate read alouds of these books into your teaching, are available at:


Great Kapok Tree Read AloudCurious Garden Read AloudBlackout Read Aloud, and Varmints Read Aloud.

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