How democratic is your classroom?

I am currently in a summer course called Alternative Approaches to Schooling – which is BLOWING my mind – with concepts of free-schooling, willed-curriculum, unschooling, holistic education, critical pedagogy and democratic education. We have also been reading an amazing book called Tuning Points, which chronicles the personal journeys of 35 education revolutionaries.

All of this new knowledge is provoking my own thinking about my plans for next year. Am I helping to develop the whole child? Will my students experience freedoms and personal liberties? What structures of power will exist?

And the question that has been circling my mind the most…

How democratic will my classroom be? 

I used to think my approach to teaching was very democratic and that I helped to set up a community of learners where students had ample voice and choice…. but the more I have read, thought, discussed and watched real examples of democratic classrooms, the more I am beginning to wonder. Schools like Summerhill and Windsor House are living breathing examples of how trusting children to participate in real and important decisions can be quite magical. Watching a student-led “council meeting” from minute 23-32 on this documentary shows just how powerful true democratic processes can be in the classroom.

I think back to my pages and pages of detailed classroom layouts that I would sketch in the summer, showing exactly where every piece of furniture would be, all to be set up before any student stepped foot into the classroom…

I think of my pages and pages of detailed systems and routines for being quite, moving spots, going to the bathroom, starting the day, ending the day, cleaning up, packing up, solving problems that I would plan on my own and train students to follow during the first few weeks of school…

I think of all the “community meetings” where I controlled what was discussed, how it was discussed and who participated in the discussion and when….

And I’m feeling like, perhaps, my classrooom was psuedo-democractic at best. Where I always had the final voice and veto and I would carefully decide what decisions and plans students were allowed to participate in.

This year I would like to try and do better. I would like to try and become a truly democratic community, where students and I make plans and decisions together. Where all of our votes count for one. Where students are trusted with real responsibility to make real decisions that actually matter. Where the classroom looks and feels and functions more like the real world.

How? I have no idea yet… but when I figure it out I’ll be sure to share it with you here! 

In your classroom and school, are you teaching about democracy… or through democracy?

How much have you planned  for next year without your students?

Working with adults will make me more patient with children

As PYP Coordinator, I have worked with adult learners for two years and I have loved every minute of it. The amazing conversations we’ve had about teaching and learning have blown my educational-mind and have played a huge part in my decision to go back into the classroom.

I have to admit though, when I took the job as PYP Coordinator I had no idea what to expect! (To be honest I was a little intimidated to work with adults!) Now, after two years of working with adults I look back and value the strong relationships I’ve built and the great learning experience I have had!

However, there were some things that surprised me about adult learners – the very same things that used to frustrate me as a classroom teacher. I have started to wonder if  these similarities might have more to do with being a human, than being a child.

So here is my list of 10 things that I’ve noticed we do as adult-learners that will hopefully make me more patient when working with child-learners:

  1. We talk while someone is talking – I can’t recall one staff meeting or professional development session where side conversations weren’t going on while someone else was speaking.
  2. We forget to clean up after ourselves – After most 45-minute collaboration sessions or 3-hour unit planning sessions I find myself throwing out wrappers, left over food, empty water bottles, used tissues – not to mention putting communal pencils back in their cups and clearing away scrap papers.
  3. We opt to not participate – A few months ago we did a “Sentence, Phrase, Word” Visible Thinking Routine to help our staff unpack the IB’s expectations for Three-Way Conferences. We made a chart paper for each grade and subject team where each staff member could place their post-its with their sentence, phrase and word. It was interesting that many of posters had significantly fewer sentences, phrases and words than members of their team who were present.
  4. We forget to bring things – Sometimes a request is made to bring something specific to a staff meeting or collaborative planning session, for example a device, a PYP binder, day plans etc.. And sometimes people have shown up without them.
  5. We need more time – Many times tasks are planned to take one hour… one session… one afternoon to complete, but often certain teams and individuals need more time.
  6. We take a long time to wrap up a conversation – With our large staff of 125 adult-learners we raise our hand to re-collect everyone’s attention after a group discussion. Most times this takes at least 2 minutes of holding up my hand. It makes me think of all the times as a classroom teacher I counted down from 5 (from 5!) and expected my students to have wrapped up their conversation and re-focused their attention!
  7. We take a long time to transition – We try to have a lot of movement in our professional development sessions, where staff move from place to place and activity to activity. Even if the transition is something small like go post your post-it on the chart, we are often looking at transitions of 5 minutes plus and lots of invitations (and reminders) to head back to our seats.
  8. We don’t follow instructions – At the beginning of the year we did a Chalk Talk as a staff where we explained that during a Chalk Talk you communicate with others through your marker, not by using your voice… we lasted 45 seconds without talking to each other.
  9. We get “off task” – I’m not sure there has been one grade or subject collaborative planning session when teams are working on their PYP planners, where random tangents of conversations have not erupted – …. travel stories, new restaurant discoveries, tales of weird childhood injuries etc.
  10. We choose to work with our friends – As much as possible we try to mix and mingle our very large staff in a variety of ways – instructions to sit with people you don’t know, turn and share with someone who is not on your team, name cards on tables – and yet somehow, the majority of the time,  friends end up sitting with and working with friends.

I’m not saying as adult learners we are bad or misbehaving. Quite the opposite! I’m saying that if  we as grown-up, responsible, mature, professionals do all of these things… how can we possibly get upset at children for doing them? As I head back into the classroom next year, I hope that when I am faced with children who take a long time to wrap up their conversation, forget to bring their device, talk while someone is talking or don’t follow instructions that I treat them with the same level of patience, respect and dignity that I would treat a group of adults in that same situation.

Ask yourself…

Have you ever whispered to a friend during a staff meeting?

Have you ever left behind a pencil, water bottle, coffee mug?

Have you ever showed up to PD without a device or writing utensil?

Have you ever had a quick conversation with a friend on the way back to your seat?

Have you ever sat beside or worked with one of your friends?

I know I have…

My Magic Answer

As PYP Coordinator, I am honoured to be considered a resource for teachers when they have questions about teaching, learning and everything in between. The questions I am asked cover a wide range of curiosities:

“How should I set up my classroom?”

“How can I welcome a new student coming part way through the year?”

“How can I have my students show what they’ve learned about ______ ?”

“How can I get my students attention?”

“What should the timeline be for this project?”

“How can I be a better teacher?”

Even though I get asked a wide range of questions, I noticed something interesting. Something very interesting! I can answer all of the questions above – and most of the questions I get asked throughout the day – with the same answer:

“Ask your students.”

Go ahead, try it. Go back through the list and see if that answer doesn’t work for any of those questions…

Teacher: “How should I set up my classroom?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I welcome a new student coming part way through the year?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I have my students show what they’ve learned about ______ ?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I get my students attention?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “What should the timeline be for this project?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I be a better teacher?”

Me: “Ask your students.”

See! It is magic! It works for every question! Let’s try some more…

Teacher: “How can I build a classroom community?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I use Twitter in the classroom?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “What should I put up on my inquiry cycle?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I have my students reflect on their learning?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “What resources will help my students inquire into ________ ?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher: “How can I tune in to what my students already know about ________ ?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Teacher:“Why are my students not engaged?”

Magic Answer: “Ask your students.”

Oftentimes teachers are so busy and bogged down… now I know why! They are doing the thinking on behalf of all of their students. Why not share the load? They say two heads are better than one, so surely 20+ heads are way better than one!

Why not invite student voice into your decision making?

Why not share problems of teaching, learning and everything in between with your students?

Why not turn the questions we have as teachers into collaborative inquiries with your class?

Why not trust your students to have creative, brilliant solutions that you maybe haven’t thought of?

Why not get rid of “secret teacher business” altogether?

Why not trust students to tackle the problems we grapple with as adults?

So next time you have a question why not try turning it over to your class first, because you know what my (magic) answer will be anyway…

Ask your students. 


Connecting with Students

At the beginning of the year, I chose the word connect to guide my intentions, goals and actions for the year. I wanted to connect more with students, teachers, parents and the on-line PYP community. Three months in, as I reflect on my growth so far, I can see that I have made the most progress connecting with students. As I try to unpack “why is it like that?” (causation) I can identify a few  factors that have helped me.

Here are the 10 things I’ve tried that I think have helped me connect more with students:

  1. Smile at them – a simple act that makes a big difference. I notice that when I smile at a student, their usual first reaction is shock and surprise, always followed by a smile back. I often wonder why students are so shocked to have a teacher or adult smile at them? Is it that rare? I truly hope not.
  2. Say hello and goodbye – As often as possible, I try to position myself in a place that allows me to greet students in the morning and send them off at then end of the day.
  3. Learn names. Use names. Pronounce them properly – Recently I read a quote that said some students can go a full day at school without ever hearing a teacher/adult say their name. How heartbreaking! This year, I have intentionally tried to learn as many names as possible and use them in my interactions and conversations with students. Whether its a greeting, a question, a compliment, I find using their name adds a nice personal touch. I’ve also tried my best to pronounce each name properly. This often requires lots of practice and seeking out feedback from students. But the students are always so appreciative of the effort. It has taken me three years to master “Ahmed”! My next challenge is “Khaled”.
  4. Ask questions and care about the answer – Edna Sackson advises us to go beyond learning students’ names and start learning their stories. How can we do this without asking questions? How was your weekend? How is your family? How was your day? This year I have tried to ask questions, not just to ask, but to really listen and care about the answer. It has been amazing to learn about students’ lives outside of school.
  5. Inquire into their interests – 90% of my conversation with the Grade 5 boys at my school are about WWE. I have absolutely no interest in WWE myself, but I love hearing their passion and excitement when they talk about their favourite wrestlers, favourite matches and favourite moves. Whether it is WWE, Trash Packs, Bey Blades, Geronimo Stilton, Premiere League or Frozen, there is such power in learning about the interests of each student. You don’t need to care about the same thing, but you can still acknowledge their interest and ask them questions about it to show you are interested in them.
  6. Care for themThe Relevant Educator has a great post explaining the difference between caring about students and caring for students. This has been my inspiration for actively seeking opportunities to care for students. Whether that means picking up something they dropped, holding a door open for them, helping them carry a heavy backpack or teaching them how to to tie their shoe. Small, simple acts of kindness can go a long way to show you care.
  7. Take interest in their language, culture and religion – As an international teacher, most of the students at my school are from a different culture, speak a different language and practice a different religion than me. I find the more I ask, listen and learn about their language, culture and religion the better I understand them as people and our relationship becomes stronger. I enjoy being able to use simple phrases or hand gestures that students understand. It is great to be able to acknowledge and wish them well for an upcoming holiday. It is clear that they appreciate the interest and the effort.
  8. Take their problems seriously – Sometimes I find we minimize students’ problems. I think it would be helpful to reflect on how we would feel experiencing those same problems as adults. How upset would you be if your money was stolen out of your purse? Could you focus on your job if you and your best friend were in a fight? This year I have tried to empathize more with students when they are looking for help solving their problems – both big and small. I have tried to put myself in their shoes and consider how I would be feeling if I were them, and it has helped me invest more time in listening to their problems and supporting them through solving those problems.
  9. Have a sense of humor – I love having jokes with students. One student calls me Cruela Daville, one student gives me points when she sees me drinking water and takes points away when she sees me drinking coffee, one student thanks me for the Starbucks I left on his desk (which I never do) and I love it. I love joking around with students. I love laughing with students. I love being invited to see that side of their personality.
  10. Play with them – This is the jackpot. Whether it is playing tic-tac-toe, who can reach my hand when I wear high heels, stella-ella-ola, solve the riddle, a moon walking contest or the latest version of rock-paper-scissors (which requires going into the splits!)  I find that playing with students is the best way that I can build genuine relationships with them. I try to force myself to go out for recesses that I am not on duty, specifically to play with the students. (Not to mention it provides fresh air, exercise and stress relief for me!) 

It’s interesting that sometimes you hear teacher’s say “I don’t have enough time to build relationships with students”. As PYP coordinator, none of my direct responsibilities involve students, but I actively seek out opportunities to purposefully connect with students. For me, building relationships with students is intentional… and essential… and the best part of working in the field of education! I often ask myself, Who have I not connected with yet? What can I do to form a bond with this student? and I purposefully invest the time and effort to build that bond. And the investment is so worth it. I am proud to say I have numerous authentic, meaningful relationships with many of the students at my school. I love when they run to my office to share their learning with me. I am honoured that they trust me with their problems. I enjoy the inside jokes we share. I appreciate that they listen to me when I have a reminder or redirection about their safety or behavior. I like being invited to take the Bean Boozled challenge! (If you don’t know what this is, consider yourself lucky!) 

I can also acknowledge that connecting with students is not accidental. It’s  a causal relationship. I invest in the relationship in purposeful ways and I reap the benefits daily.

Which of these do you already do?

Which of these might you want to start doing?

What else do you do to intentionally connect with the students?


Stealing their thinking at recess: Are you telling or asking?

Last year I wrote a post asking teachers to reflect on whether or not they are stealing their students’ thinking. At the time when I wrote that, my understanding was that an inquiry-based approach to teaching was something that happened within the classroom – an approach to academic teaching. Now as my own understanding of inquiry grows and evolves I am starting to see how inquiry as a philosophy should inform our interactions with students throughout the entire school day and extend to include those teachable moments about behaviour, personal choices and social interactions. The biggest part of the school day, where I have noticed that an inquiry-based approach is missing… is at recess.

Recently, I have tried to be an inquirer at recess and observe how teachers deal with problems and situations. More often than not I am seeing and hearing teacher telling students what they did wrong, why it was wrong and what they need to do next time.

Where’s the thinking in that?

I have to admit that before reading a blog post from @h_sopeirce about her Magic Question, I too was approaching recess interactions this way. But when I started to use the magic question “What will I see differently next time” in my conversations with students I started to see the power of asking instead of telling. I realized that for as long as we are telling students what they did wrong, why it was wrong and what to do next time, we are stealing their thinking. We are doing the thinking and reflecting for them and all they have to do is look at us and listen.

How can we expect change in their actions or behaviours without helping them reflect on and change their thinking?

How can we expect them to change their thinking, if we are doing their thinking for them?

So over the past few weeks I have been testing out ‘an inquiry-based approach’ to recess duty! Here is how it usually goes after I notice something of concern and invite the student(s) involved over for a chat:

What do you think I would like to speak to you about? 

I have found this is a key question. If our goal is to have our students be truly reflective, then they need to be the ones who notice and name their undesirable behaviour and I have yet to have a student who is unable to do so when asked this question.

Why do you think that is a problem in our school community?

I have noticed that many times I have asked this question and students truly have no idea why their choice or action is problematic. How can we expect students to behave a certain way if they do not understand the reasons behind those expectations.  I have also noticed that this question allows students to develop the understanding that sometimes expectations for school look and feel different from home and it is important to understand why in the context of school a certain behaviour or action is not welcome.

What will I see differently from your next time?

This is the magic question from the Globally Minded Counsellor. Check our her post to see why it is so magical!

And if I don’t see that next time what should I do?

This questions is an interesting one for a few different reasons. First of all because it throws the students for a loop. Most of them are thrown when they realize I am asking for their advice about what to do as a teacher. Second, the suggestions are usually grossly disproportionate to the behaviour. “Send me to the principal office” or “Call my parents” or “Expel me” are typical pieces of advice for choices  like running in the halls or throwing garbage on the floor. Thirdly, their suggestions are usually quite punitive and come in the form of punishments. This requires some guidance and reframing that my job is to help them learn about their choices and grow as people, not punish them and I am looking for a suggestions that will help them think about their choice and hopefully learn from their mistakes.

teacher telling

If we think of the golden 80/20 ratio we strive for within the classroom (where students are doing 80% of the talking and teachers are only doing 20% of the talking), perhaps we should be striving for the same ratio during recess conversations.

Afterall… whoever is doing the talking is doing the thinking. So if we are doing all the talking in a conversation with students at recess, we can be pretty sure that we are stealing their thinking.




Goodbye clip charts. Hello individualized behaviour plans.

The term ‘behaviour management‘ has always bothered me. It gives the impression, that as teachers, all we are trying to do is ‘manage‘ behaviours in hopes of getting by and surviving the day. If our focus is only on managing behaviours are we missing an amazing opportunity to help develop good humans? I think so.

In my opinion one of the biggest culprits of ‘managing‘ behaviour is the good ol’ whole class behaviour plan.

clip chart

You know the one. Maybe you’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve used it. Maybe you’ve experienced it as a child. It comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is shaped like a guitar. Sometimes it looks like a stoplight. Sometimes it uses IB language. Sometimes there are stickers involved. Other times, clothespins. Lately it has made its way online in the form of  Class Dojo. No matter how you slice it, it is what it is. A whole class behaviour plan. Very public. Very one-size-fits-no-one. Google image search “Whole Class Behaviour Plan” to see the full spectrum of options!

I’m not the first blogger to launch an attack on the whole class behaviour plan…

So What’s My Problem with Public Behaviour Charts?

Why I Will Never Use a Behaviour Chart Again

6 Reasons to Reject Class Dojo 

But I do want to take a different approach when re-thinking the whole class behaviour plan. I have decided to interview the most child-centered educator I have ever worked with. You may know her as the Globally Minded Counsellor or follow her on Twitter @h_sopierce. I know her as Heidi, my colleague, sounding board and friend. I have decided to interview her in order to explore the debate about whole class behaviour plans from a counselling lens – with the student’s best interest at the heart of it all.

Press play on the podcast below to listen to what Heidi had to say about whole class behaviour plans versus individualized behaviour success plans:

Here is a summary of the major points from Heidi’s podcast:

From a counselling lens, what do you think about whole class behaviour plans with regards to classroom management?

  • only manages behaviours at a surface level, but unless we look at what each individual students needs they will only be management tools to help the teacher succeed, but not necessarily impact the students’ behaviour
  • more about keeping a classroom in control, than changing students’  behaviours
  • sets the tone that the teacher believes that students will fail in their behaviour somehow
  • shaming and calling students out in public are harmful to the student in the long run

Is there ever a time when a whole-class behaviour plan is needed?

  • need to reflect on strategies teachers are using and perhaps gaps in systems, routines, consistency, boundaries that might make it seem like a whole-class behaviour plan is needed
  • might need to identify behaviours that 2 or 3 students need to change, not usually all 20 students need to change

What can teachers do who want to move away from the use of whole-class behaviour plans?

  • build authentic, genuine relationships with students (greet each student at the door – make eye contact, shake their hand use their names; get to know them as individuals – what motivates them, what’s happening at home, what are their interests)
  • reach out to other teachers and counsellors and see what works, what they suggest, and what resources are available

How do you know when an individualized behaviour success plan is needed?

  • after you have tried a variety of differentiated strategies for behaviour supports for your students and they still aren’t working that might indicate that a student would benefit from an individualized behaviour success plan
  • the 1 or 2 students who need to be “taught” about their behaviour and not just “told” or “reminded” about their behaviour

What advice to do you have for teachers who want to create an individualized behaviour success plan?

  • sit with a counsellor or administrator and consult about wanting to set this up
  • create it with the student – sit with student and discuss behaviour; pick one or two specific behaviours to focus on;
  • ensure it is goal oriented – make it specific, not general and vague
  • make it developmentally appropriate
  • ensure the plan allows for the student to celebrate success
  • have a ‘celebration’- high five, chat with the teacher, playing with teacher etc.
  • build in time to re-set
  • praise, praise, praise, praise – share the good stuff with their family!
  • keep it simple
  • make it a working document that is revisited
  • needs to be consistent
  • be okay with trial and error
  • involve student in tracking and self-reflection in an age-appropriate way

(To read more about Heidi’s perspective on the impact whole class behaviour plans can have on students, check out her blog post: How your classroom management practices led to counselling.)

To sum it all up, I will use a famous “Heidi question” that I hear Heidi ask all day, every day (it’s what makes her such an amazing, truly student-centred educator)…

What’s best for students?

If we use this question to re-think our use of whole class behaviour plans and drive our process when building individualized behaviour success plans, we can rest assured the we too are keeping our student’s wellbeing at the heart of everything we do.

What are your thoughts on whole-class behaviour plans?

What are your thoughts on individualized behaviour success plans?

How do you ensure you practices align with what is best for students?


These are a few of my favourite routines

I have to admit, when I was in the classroom I was obsessed with classroom routines! The more my students knew what to do, when to do it and how to do it, the more independent they could be and the more time for learning we all had. Now that I am out of the classroom, I love going in to other teachers’ classrooms and helping them develop routines that meet the needs of their students. So I thought I’d share some of my all-time favourites here, with all of you too!

Here are 20 of my all-time favourite routines…

Start of the Day:

  1. The meet and greet – I would stand in the door way and greet every student by name with a “hello” and “how are you today?” It took some practice about how to politely respond, but eventually it shifted and I would stand in the door way and the students would greet me!
  2. The daily warm-up – Each day I would have a few tasks written on the board so the students would know exactly what to do and how to get ready for the day. Early on in my teaching journey this started as closed-tasks- worksheets and assignments – but eventually it morphed into some of the best inquiry time of the whole day!
  3. The morning show – I pressed play on the 45 second “Hawaii 5.0” theme song and students would tidy up and head to the carpet. We greeted each other, we talked about the date, talked about the weather and then came the special guests of the morning show – a few students each day who came ‘on the show’ to share news, sports or entertainment. For the first few months I was the host of the morning show, but once we were in a routine I transferred that responsibility over to students and they each took turns being the host!


  1. The transition song – Whenever moving from the carpet to desks or desks to the carpet, we always used the same transition song. Students became familiar with the chunk of time they had to either tidy up and move locations or move locations and get learning materials prepared. By the end of the song everyone was expected to be where they were supposed to be… And if we had extra music to spare, we rewarded ourselves with a dance party to use up the remainder of the song!
  2. The squiggly, wiggly spider – if I was waiting for my students to settle down and get ready for a lesson or instructions I would use my squiggly, wiggly spider to play catch with my students. The squiggly, wiggly spider only likes to get thrown to students who are ready to go… And low and behold, once I start throwing that thing around all of the students want a turn and get themselves settled!
  3. Clean, quiet and _____ – In order to ensure our classroom community was properly cared for, before going out for break I would dismiss them one group at a time. Each day I would say, “I’m looking for a group that is clean, quiet and ______” and which ever group met all 3 criteria would be dismissed first and so on. To keep it fun, each day I would change the third criteria…. Some days it was “clean, quiet and happy” other days it was “clean, quiet and asleep” other days it was “clean, quiet and statuesque!”.
  4. Gems – it was really important to me that my students were respectful of people learning and working when we walked through the halls… But to be honest, that is a big ask and often needs a little extra support. Before leaving the class, once all students were in line, I would count down… Sometimes from 5, sometimes from 10… And I would stop at whatever number the entire class was straight and silent by. I would hold up that many fingers for our entire trip (to the gym or the library) and if I heard a sound I would go down by one. If I was really impressed, I might also go up by one! How ever many fingers I held up when we got to our destination was the number of gems we would add to our gem cup. When the gem cup was full, we would decide as a class, how to celebrate our accomplishments!

gems squiggly wiggly spider

Attention Getters:

  1. Simon says – Simon says is a great quick-and-easy body break that allows students to stand up, jump around, reach for the sky, touch your toes and sit back down. It’s also a great way to shape listening behaviours: “Simon says sit criss-cross”, “Simon say hands in your lap”, “Simon says eyes on the speaker”.
  2. If you can hear my voice – I love this one because you never need to go louder than a whisper! You start out by whispering a direction, “If you can hear my voice touch your shoulders” only a few students will hear at first, so then you do it again with something different, “If you can hear my voice touch your head”, when you know you have a few students that are participating make sure the next instruction is sound-related, “If you can hear my voice clap three times” or “If you can hear my voice say cha-cha-cha”. This gets the attention of the other students, but does not require you to raise your voice!
  3. Make it rain – This is one of my secret favourites! The first few times you do it, structure it like follow the leader – the students copy exactly what you do when you do it. After your class has done it a few times, all you will need to do it start rubbing your hands together to signal the beginning of the rainstorm and the class will join in. This is really effective because it allows students to get out some energy with the clapping and stomping, but then brings the energy right back down to a calm atmosphere. Here is a what it looks like in action:

Learning times:

  1. Red dot, yellow dot, green dot – Before each learning task we would decide as a class which colour dot would best help us learn. A red dot  which means silent, a yellow dot which means whisper voices or a green dot which means indoor voice. Throughout the activity we would reflect on whether we made the right choice and whether or not our volume matched the dot we chose.
  2. Red cup, yellow cup, green cup – What a waste of energy it is to sit with your hand in the air until your teacher comes over to help you! So students would have a stack of 3 cups and place the colour on top that signifies how they are doing. Green means we are rolling along. Yellow means we think we are on the right track but might need a quick check in. Red means we are stuck and need help ASAP. The best thing about this system is that once you put your colour cups up, you have all your hands and energy to spend on continuing to try at the learning task!

colour cups

Secret Codes:

  1. Washroom – if students needed to go to the washroom, whether it was during a lesson, a guided group, or a one on one conference all they had to do yes make a ‘W’ with their fingers and I could either give them a thumbs up if they had permission, or thumbs down if it wasn’t a good time and they had to wait a moment or two.
  2. Drink – same thing for a drink of water, but a ‘D’ instead of a ‘W’
  3. “Me too” – students want you to know when they did something the same as another student, or thought the same as another student, so instead of having 20+ students always yelling out “me too” they would just snap their fingers and myself and the other students would automatically know that whatever had just been said by another classmate also applies to them… With interrupting the speaker or the flow of the lesson! A wink or a thumbs up is great way to non-verbally acknowledge the students snapping their “me too”.

washroom w

End of the day:

  1. The mystery item game – Each day I would pick one object that was out of place. Sometimes it was a big object, like a desk or a chair. Other times it was a small object, a pencil shaving or an eraser bit. Students had the length of the Love Inc. song “You’re a Super Star” to try and find the mystery object and put it where it belongs. When the song was over, if all students were back in their seats I would reveal the mystery item of the day and the detective who found it and  put it  back where it belongs!
  2. The pack up challenge – Every time students packed their bags at the end of the day, they tried to do so in order to leave enough time for one, fun thing. Sometimes if they packed their bags with 5 minutes to spare we would play a quick game of Sparkle or Desk Top Dodge Ball. If they were all packed up and ready to go with 10 minutes to spare we would read a chapter of Wizard of Oz. If they packed up with no time to spare, sadly we had to line up right away with no time for a fun activity. Each day I gave them the same amount of time (12 minutes) and the leftover time for fun was completely in their hands!
  3. The hand off – whether dismissing from inside the classroom or out on the playground, students had the choice of saying goodbye one of five ways: high five, hand shake, fist bump, chicken wing or hug. It differed from student to student, it even differed from day to day, but was so important to send them off smiling!

Just for fun:

There is SO much great thinking and learning to celebrate each day, I always liked to mix it up with a few of these fun alternatives to clapping:

  1. Round of applause – students clap their hands in a big ’round’ circle
  2. Crab clap – students interlace their fingers and clap together the heels of their hands
  3. WOW – students make a W with each hand and the O with their mouth and say “WOOOOW!”
  4. Standing ‘o’vation – students actually stand up, make a giant O with their arms and say “O!”
  5. Power whoosh – teacher count to 3 and everyone says swoosh and pretends to throw their positive energy in a classmate’s direction.


The tricky thing with procedures is that they don’t ‘just happen’, they take a lot of thoughtful planning and a lot of practice with students. When I was developing routines with my students I would always follow this simple framework: Rehearse. Remind. Redo. Whichever routine I wanted to establish I made sure we had time to practice before we actually needed to use it. I would often model it, then we would rehearse as a class, then I would invite student ‘actors and actresses’ to show what it would look like in an actual situation. Once I was sure all students had ample time to rehearse the routine, I would start using it in class. For the first few times, I would ‘remind’ students who forgot about the routine we had practiced, “Don’t forget we have a secret code for that where you….”. Eventually I would invite individual students or the entire class to ‘redo’ something according to our special routine, “Let’s try that again the way we practiced.” These three steps are not linear. If I ever noticed we needed a lot of reminders and redos, that was often a clue to me that we might need to go back to the rehearsal phase. These three phases happened everyday, all year long, but the investment of time really pays off! The independence of my students and the amount of learning time these procedures allowed was worth every rehearsal, reminder or redo.

So where do you start? My advice, is to sit down and think about your teaching day. What parts of your day are taking up a lot of learning time? What parts of your day require a lot of ‘discipline’? What parts of your day drive you nuts? These are often clues that a procedure is missing!

Then what? Once you have a list of all the procedures you would like your class to have, prioritize them. Which ones are absolutely essential to begin practicing? Which ones can wait a day, a week, a month? Take it slow. Work on one procedure at a time. Wait until your students have mastered it, then introduce the next procedure on your list.

Here is a 6 minute video of an actual class: How many procedures can you spot? How much learning happens in 6 minutes because of the procedures? Which procedures might you want to adopt in your own teaching practice?

What does an inquiry-based, first week of school look like?

During this year’s staff orientation, we used inspiration from two blog posts (sowing the seeds of inquiry & 10 things to do on the first day of school) to move towards a more inquiry-based, first week with students.

Here is a glimpse into what it looked like in classrooms from KG to Grade 5…

Students helped set up their learning environment:

IMG_0021 IMG_0115 IMG_0040 IMG_0086

Students helped choose what to do for the first week:

IMG_0014 IMG_0144

Students explored the school:


Students’ questions were honoured:

IMG_0106 IMG_0078

Students and teachers learned about and connected with one another:

IMG_0034 IMG_0026 IMG_0041 IMG_0049 IMG_0127 IMG_0139

Students and teachers discussed what it means to be ‘students’ and ‘teachers’:

IMG_0074 IMG_0048

Students shared what they want to learn about in the coming year:

IMG_0075 IMG_0032 IMG_0080

Students thought about and shared their learning preferences:

IMG_0130 IMG_0129

Students explored the learner profile, PYP attitudes, key concepts and action:

IMG_0147 IMG_0134 IMG_0105 IMG_0101 IMG_0100 IMG_0091  IMG_0045 IMG_0019

Student constructed essential agreements:

IMG_0143 IMG_0133  IMG_0104  IMG_0072  IMG_0155IMG_0145

Students reflected:

IMG_0137 IMG_0095

Students played:


The week was a success! The feedback from teachers and students was overwhelmingly positive. Students loved being included in the planning and set-up for a new school year and teachers felt the more ownership they handed over to students the more positive and enjoyable the learning community became.

There is a definite buzz around our elementary school. Enthusiasm… fresh ideas… confidence… inquiry… I can’t wait to see where all this amazing energy takes us this year!

What does your inquiry-based first week of school look like?



A Crash Course in Classroom Management: 10 Basic Strategies

With the new school year around the corner, there are some great posts about developing inquiry-based learning environments:

Is this a habitat in which inquiry can thrive? 

10 Ways to Create a Culture of Thinking

Developing Independence and Inquiry

However, some of our first year teachers say that it can be quite difficult to master inquiry-based learning environments without having a solid grasp on basic classroom management first.

Here are 10 tips that I found helpful when I was in a classroom that allowed me to keep students safe and maximize time for learning:

1. Channel Mary Poppins.


Be equal parts firm and fun. When appropriate be silly, joke around, have fun, sing, dance and play games, but when needed be direct, firm and deliver the message that needs to be delivered to keep students safe and learning.

2. Say it straight, simple and with a smile. 


When those moments come when your students need redirection say what you need to say respectfully and directly. “Bader, eyes this way.” or “Min, please walk.” Never, ever, EVER yell. If you yell, you’ve already lost them and it will take a very long time to get them back.

3. It’s all about systems.


Coaching football is all about systems. Running a classroom is no different. The less students depend on you to know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it the better. Before the school year starts sit down and mentally go through a whole day. Think of each and every routine that is needed. How do you want your students to enter the class? What is their morning routine? What is the procedure for coming to the carpet? What is the system for going to the bathroom? Map out each procedure that is needed and the specific steps within each procedure. Then decide when and how to introduce the procedures. What systems do students need to know right away? Which ones can wait until the second day of school or later in the week? Once you know what routines you want and when you want to introduce them, remember the three magic words of developing procedures: Rehearse. Remind. Redo.

4. Managing a class is like driving a car – scan every 15 seconds.

driving mirrors

When you are learning to drive a car you are told to check your mirrors every 15 seconds. The same applies when managing a classroom full of students. Whether you are reading a story, having a one-on-one conference, working with a guided group or roaming around make sure you position your body in a way that allows you to see all your students and make a point every 15 seconds or so to look up and scan the entire room. This allows you to keep your finger on the pulse of the class and offer redirections as needed.

5. Collect before you direct.


Have a strategy for getting your students’ attention when you need to speak to them. Do not talk over them. Ensure you are giving them a clear signal that they need to be listening and make sure you are giving them enough time to wrap up their current conversation and transfer their attention over to you. Often the best ways to do so is with a different sound or frequency. Trying to get their attention by talking when they are all talking is tricky. But if you whisper, play simon says, ring a chime, play a short song, sing a direction, clap a rhythm or play an instrument it makes it easier for students to actually hear that you are trying to get their attention. It might take 2, 3, 4 or more tries, but stick with it until you have everyone ‘collected’.

6. Win over your ‘back pocket’ kids. 


Every class has one or two (or three… or four) students that you need to get on your side right away. These are the students who often need the most love and attention and can either end up being a teachers best ally or their biggest challenge. Identify these students as soon as possible and make sure you make a connection with them right away. Give them extra responsibilities. Ask for their help with something. Tell them all the wonderful things you have heard about them from their previous teacher. Put in the love and attention early on so their charisma and social influence becomes a productive force in your classroom.

7. Consistency and Follow Through


Mean what you say. Every single time. To every single student. It is very behaviourally confusing for students when they are redirected for something one day but not the next. And even more behaviourally confusing when some students receive redirections for doing the same thing that other students ‘get away with’. If you have classroom expectations, be consistent and follow through. Students need to know that when you say something you mean it. Every time. For everyone.

8. Time is hard. Music is easy. (and more fun!)


Conceptualizing and self-monitoring chunks of time is quite hard. “I’m going to give you 2 minutes to (get ready for PE, unpack your bag, tidy up the classroom)” is setting yourself up for disappointment. Choose a song that is 2 minutes long and have your students set the goal to have their task finished by the end of the song. The more you use the same song, the more the students will know when it is half over or almost done. Also, who doesn’t like a little music to make unpleasant jobs like tidying up the classroom more enjoyable!

9. Specific behaviour plans for specific students’ specific behaviours ONLY.

behavior chart

Whether it’s a clip chart, a sticker chart, a stop light or class dojo…there is no need for full class behaviour plans. If you have clear expectations, routines and procedures most students should be able to get through the day with the typical amount of help and assistance. There may be one or two (or three or four) students who after the first few weeks of school, seem to need something extra. Sit down with those students individually and come up with a plan together. Be specific, unpack the behaviour, have the student track the behaviour, and set goals and celebrations to help reduce the behaviour over time. (More about this coming soon!)

10. Build real relationships with your students – play with them.


This is the secret ingredient. The best piece of advice I can offer. If your students like you, feel comfortable around you and know that you genuinely like them, you will have a much easier time with classroom management. Take the time and make the effort to build real relationships with each and every student. Learn how to pronounce their name properly. Learn about their family. Ask them to teach you a few words of their language, or a few important tenets of their religion. Show your human side – talk about your family, be open with mistakes, model how you deal with emotions and frustrations. And most importantly, play with them. Go out for a recess that you are not on duty and play. Race against them, play tic-tac-toe, skip, shoot a basketball, colour a picture – you won’t regret it. The relationship that can be built with students through play is very different from a relationship that is only built inside the classroom. And it’s so worth it!

These are 10 basic tips for classroom management that have worked for me. What would you add to the list?