Friday, February 27

The Highlight of My Week (or All About My Class Reading Program)

Bear with me here, but I get pretty excited when it comes to reading. This week, I assessed most of my students on their reading levels (with help from my awesome Trent University Teacher Candidate), and I was absolutely thrilled to see the progress they’ve made. (I’m sure I’m supposed to maintain a neutral expression as they read, but if any child looked up he or she would have seen the silly grin on my face!)

Our school board uses the PM Benchmark program, and what happens is that I sit with the child, give them an introduction to the story, and they read it to me. I keep a running record of their errors, which can be helpful when figuring out if they’re substituting words that look the same (hat/hot), or mean the same (hat/cap), and what words they’re still having trouble with. Then the child retells the story to me and orally answers a few pre-set reading comprehension questions. Their percentage of accuracy, combined with their comprehension, tells me what level they have reached in the program.

Some ideas I incorporate in my class to support reading (this list is by all means not exhaustive; just a few highlights):

Self-selected reading: For 20 minutes a day, every day, the students are allowed to find a cozy spot in the room to silently read material of their choosing. In September we have to do a lot of work on how to choose a just-right book, so that the time they spend reading each day can really help “grow their brains”. Regularly choosing books that are too challenging, or way too easy, won’t be beneficial for them.  I truly believe that the best way to improve reading is to read. Crazy, I know, but compared to worksheets and drills out of context, reading material that they’re interested in is so motivational and authentic. For children who really struggle, especially those with learning disabilities, there are some great direct instruction (rote drill) type programs that are very successful (our school board uses Empower, which is taught to small groups by the Special Education Resource Teacher), but I always want to combine that with high-interest books as well. 

The kids love to read somewhere other than their desks!

An extensive classroom library: We do visit the school library once a week, but in the classroom there are hundreds of books students can access as often as necessary. Bins are labelled by genre or book series. I never label based on reading level, which some educators might disagree with, but I also provide each student with a handful of leveled books from our school “book room” to keep in their desks to supplement their own choices, so they always have material they can handle. Points earned from Scholastic book orders really help to build the library, as well as donations from families and thrift shop finds. I allow students to borrow books with no sign-out system, and to take books home at will. I trust the families, and if a couple of books go missing along the way by accident it’s still totally worth it. (I’ve had many books returned months and even years later, when families discover them at home!)

 “Featured Book” rack: This is where I place books we’ve read in class (it can be very helpful for kids to reread books that they’ve heard as read-alouds) and titles that go along with a subject of study (e.g. Black History Month, liquids and solids).

Grade 8 buddies: Once a week for half an hour we meet up with our buddies from the Grade 8 room. Sometimes I visit the older classroom first to talk about what strategy/skill  the Grade 2/3s are working on, and some days there’s a writing component or I even switch it up and have them work 1 to 1 on a math task, but usually it’s another solid chunk of reading time.

After school program: In January, I set up weekly after school program where a few of my students stay for an hour and read with local high school students looking to earn their volunteer requirements. I can really see the difference it’s making for those kids.

At-home-reading:  No rules, no reading logs. (I'm a parent; I get it!) I find students a short book, at the right level, from the book room, make a note in my binder, and send it home. When the student can read it fluently (sometimes this is the next day, sometimes weeks later), it gets returned and exchanged for a new one. That’s it.

Before I wrap up, I want to make sure I’m clear that there’s a whole lot more to reading than the scores: I can see the kids’ interest levels have shot up, parents tell me they’re reading more at home (and more willingly), the students can show their comprehension and share their thoughts about reading material much more adeptly, they say "YES!" when I announce they have extra time to read – but there’s also something to be said for cold, hard data, and seeing those numbers go up really does give me a thrill. (By the way, I don’t share the actual levels with the students, we just talk about their progress in descriptive terms, but I do update parents with notes in the planners.)

A grandmother of one of my students stopped me after Mass on the weekend to tell me how impressed she is with the gains her grandson has made. While teaching kids to read is most definitely “my job”, it’s certainly nice to get that acknowledgment. I’m also very aware that the progress happens much more quickly when there’s support at home as well, so I’m definitely not doing it alone!

So there you have it – the highlight of my week! It might help the kids too that their teacher is a voracious reader. On tap for the weekend: catching up on my favourite magazines on Next Issue, and reading Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. Can’t wait!

Wednesday, February 18

Why Your Kid Needs To Be At School (with my CHEX Daily segment)

What's the magic number of days considered "normal" for a student to miss in a school year? What do you do if your child doesn't want to go to school? What if you just have to book appointments during the school day? I discuss these questions and more with CHEX Daily hosts Teresa Kaszuba and Mike Judson.

With so much experiential learning going on today, there's no way for kids to totally "catch up" on what they miss. When parents ask for make-up work (or sometimes even when they don't), I try to find a Math practice sheet to reinforce whatever skills were worked on that day, but a lot of what we do (stories, discussions, presentations, investigations, experiments, physical activity, partner/group/older buddy work, Music/Art/Drama, guest speakers, library visits, etc.) is pretty much "you had to be there".

As I mention in the segment, naturally kids get sick (believe me, so do teachers!) and will miss some school days each year. But what about when absences can be avoided?

He's tired, her fish died, I worked late yesterday and wanted to spend some time with him, someone is visiting from out of town...on occasion, these reasons are understandable. But they can add up quickly - especially when a child knows how to play mom or dad!

My girls certainly missed their share of days last year, as my older daughter had strep throat three times (seriously), and my younger daughter got it twice. Grandma and Grandpa are our dependable stand-by caregivers (and the girls LOVE being with them) so when one gets to spend a sick day at their house, the other is quick to highlight all of her symptoms, both real and imagined. As a parent, it's sometimes hard to tell, but I err on the side of "send them to school now, ask forgiveness later", and 99% of the time that's the right choice.

Now, the controversial topic of pulling kids out of school for holidays. I totally get that it's cheaper and sometimes more convenient to travel during the school year. (I wish I could do it, too!) I also completely agree with parents who point out that a lot of amazing learning goes on during family vacations. Depending on the destination, there can be very rich History, Geography, Science and Arts lessons taking place.

It's great when parents can let the teacher know well in advance if they're planning to pull their child from school. I always make sure to avoid class trips and special events when I know a student will be absent, and try to schedule reviews and tests appropriately. I don't think it's necessary for kids to take "homework" when they travel (though one of my students recently returned from Florida with a beautiful journal filled with memories and photos to share, which was awesome), but I will fully admit that I expect them to complete work on missed Math concepts, either before the trip or when they return, or they will be at a disadvantage going forward.

Last thing: there's a big difference between a child who, as a ritual every morning, announces from bed "I don't want to go to school today!" but eventually heads out the door with a smile, and a child who is truly experiencing anxiety about it. As a teacher, I would definitely want the parent to contact me if this was happening so we can get to the bottom of it and make sure that not only does everyone have the full picture (my own daughters have moments when they dramatically announce that they have no friends at school and played with absolutely no one that day, forgetting their mother was out on lunch duty and saw them running around happily with their peers) and that school can be a positive experience for the child.

(P.S. The website I refer to in the segment is

Monday, February 16

Montreal: Habs + Shopping = Fabulous Family Trip

I am so thankful for the wonderful Family Day weekend we just enjoyed. We planned a trip to Montreal with my parents and my brother's family, and it went off without a hitch! The highlights:

  • We hit the road directly from school on Friday, grabbing a fast-food dinner along the way, and arriving at our hotel, Square Phillips, around 9 pm. We unpacked and settled into our little suite, complete with kitchenette and pullout couch for the girls.

  • Saturday morning was so cool - after the free continental breakfast at the hotel, we went out to Brossard (about 15 minutes away) and watched the Montreal Canadiens' practice. Dad had been before, but we weren't sure if the team would be skating on a game day. Thankfully Montreal Gazette columnist Dave Stubbs was kind enough to give me the details for that day's practice, so we arrived right on time to get prime spots in the viewing area. It gave me a great chance to try out my new stalker DSLR camera, and I got some awesome shots. 

First on the ice: Max Pacioretty

The team warms up

While the girls were disappointed that PK Subban wasn't out that morning, 
we got lots of shots of another favourite player, goaltender Carey Price:

If only I had remembered my Media Pass...
(we were right outside this door, so the view wouldn't have been any different!)

Full disclosure: Maggie was SO ready to go by the time the hour-long practice wrapped up, 
but she's always quick to turn on the high-wattage smile for the camera!

  • After the practice, it was time for a trip down memory lane. Montreal was a very common destination for our childhood trips (Dad being a lifelong Habs fan and all) and my brother and I have fond memories of our usual dinner spot: The Barb-B Barn! While it's not upscale, the food is cheap and delicious, and the downtown location is very convenient. It's a fun family joint, and it was neat to share it with our spouses and children. (Even nicer that Mom and Dad picked up the bill. Thanks for that!)

  • No trip to Montreal would be complete without a little bit of shopping. My dilemma, however, was the record-breaking cold. I bundled up and braved the three whole blocks that it took before I could get into one mall and then continue underground. My main destination was Simons, because I had so much luck there on last year's trip. I am very pleased to say that I made it through the entire transaction without the salesperson switching over to English on me. To be fair, I only said "Bonjour", "Visa" and "Merci", but still, I must have sounded like a native on those three words!

  • The main event of the weekend was our trip to the Bell Centre Saturday night to watch the Habs take on the Toronto Maple Leafs. While we did take Frannie last year, this time around we decided to leave both girls with their Grandma, aunt, and two younger cousins back at the hotel (they were fine to swim, eat treats, and enjoy the new books/activities Grandma had purchased for them that afternoon at Indigo!) I believe I mentioned the brutal cold (my sister-in-law tried to be encouraging: "It's warmed up! It's only -22 now") but we walked as fast as my seven year old nephew could go (which was pretty quickly!) It was a close game, if fairly uneventful, but it was fun to see overtime and a shootout, from which our Habs emerged victorious (you can see them celebrating below; sorry no fancy camera here, just my BlackBerry!)

While Montreal is one of my favourite cities at any time of year, I'd really like to take the kids back when it's warmer to get more out of the shopping, history, and family destinations (amusement park, zoo, science centre, museums, etc.). Perhaps you can look forward to a great travel story this summer!

How Much Do You Know About the Ontario College of Teachers?

I know a fair bit about the Ontario College of Teachers, probably because I've been a proud card-carrying member since 2000.

I was surprised to learn, however, that a lot of Ontario parents don't know that not only are their children's teachers regulated by the College, but that there is also a range of parent resources available to them at the Ontario College of Teachers website.

First, it's important to know that teachers in publicly-funded (which includes Catholic) elementary or secondary schools in Ontario must complete a teacher education program at an accredited university, and then apply for certification through the College. You can find more details about Ontario teacher certification here.

A very handy website tool for parents is the College's "Find a Teacher" feature. This is their public register, and lists everyone who has been certified to teach in Ontario's publicly funded schools. If you enter the name or registration number of a certified teacher, their record comes up, including the initial date of certification, qualifications (initial degree plus additional qualifications - for example you can see that I hold Specialist qualifications in Special Education and Religious Education), status with the college (I'm in "Good Standing" - whew!), and any applicable disciplinary history (none for me).

While at first I had mixed feelings about parents knowing where I went to university (Trent for my B.A. and the Trent/Queen's Concurrent Education program, in case you're interested) or how long I've been teaching, I realize that as public employees, there is some information about us that is important to our "clients" (the parents and students), and transparency is necessary. That said, privacy is certainly maintained, as there are no addresses or other contact information for teachers, nor is the employment history shown.

By the way, I can attest to the fact that teachers look up other teachers too - but don't say that I told you! Sometimes I'm curious about where someone went to school, or I'm trying to guess their age by the date they graduated. (Just being honest!)

Ontario parents are encouraged to sign up for the Ontario College of Teachers free electronic newsletter, TheStandard which includes information such as:
  • College services that help you learn more about teacher qualifications
  • How the College works to ensure high standards in education
  • Reports on trends in education
  • Changes in education legislation

If you have a particular interest in education, I also recommend you check out the College's excellent quarterly magazine, Professionally Speaking. Regular readers know that I've written for PS a couple of times, including one of my favourite articles ever, where Canada AM's Marci Ien spoke about a remarkable teacher who had a huge impact on her. They were even reunited at a photo shoot for the story!

To find out more about the free resources the Ontario College of Teachers offers parents, please visit

Disclosure: This post was sponsored by the Ontario College of Teachers. Opinions are, as always, my own.

Tuesday, February 10

Truly "Heart"felt Valentine's Day Gifts from SickKids

Incredible work happens at SickKids in Toronto. I have several friends and family members whose children's lives were changed and even saved by the wonderful work done by the SickKids team, so when I was asked to help share this original Valentine's Day gift idea, I just couldn't turn down the opportunity.

Before I pass along the information about their SickKids Get Better Gifts program, I first want to share how my friend, a mom of a child who has faced life-threatening cardiac issues, feels about SickKids:

"Without the Hospital for Sick Children, our beloved son William would not be alive today. When William was recovering from his second surgery, a couple beside us was with their baby daughter, who sadly had been there for several months. We talked about how much the hospital had done for both of our children, and the husband said to us 'If you ever want to see a miracle, all you have to do is come here.' The children, whose lives are saved every day there, are living, breathing miracles."


February is Heart Month, and with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, visions of red roses, romantic dinners and cinnamon hearts are no doubt dancing in your head. If you’re looking to give something beyond a box of chocolates, look no further.  

The SickKids Get Better Gifts program offers a symbolic alternative to traditional gift-giving and a meaningful way of showing someone you care, while making a positive impact on children and families at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). It’s a great way to honour friends and loved ones while supporting families and children with serious illnesses or injuries.

Your gift will help patients like Liam.

Featured in our recent brand campaign, Liam has undergone two heart surgeries and may need a third procedure one day. While in the hospital, he spent time playing doctor to learn about what he was going through. He not only had the comfort of his parents and some of the country’s top medical staff, but also had his trusty blanket to protect him during check-ups, overnight stays and open-heart surgery. Watch Liam’s videos here and here.

Did you know?

·         Congenital heart defects are among the most common birth defect. Each year, about 1 out of every 100 babies born has a heart defect.

·         Of the children requiring cardiac surgery at SickKids, 21 per cent are under a month old and 40 per cent are under a year old.

·         Each year in Ontario alone, SickKids performs more than 85 per cent of paediatric cardiovascular surgery.

·         The Labatt Family Heart Centre is one of the largest paediatric heart transplant centres in the world.


For a full list of ideas, including Valentine’s craft supplies, 30 days on a heart saturation monitor, or a treasure trove of toys, visit our online gift catalogue.


Gifts available online start as low as a $10 gift certificate, and include worthy causes like Books for the Children’s Library at the Family CentreSupplies for Cooking and Baking ProgramsA Memory of a Visit from a Furry Friend, Teaching Dolls and Sleeper Chairs. By the way - not only are these great Valentine's Day gifts, but something to consider for other occasions as well - teacher gifts perhaps?

Wednesday, February 4

It's Report Card Time!

Term 1 report cards go home this month for elementary students in Ontario, which made it the perfect topic for my latest visit to CHEX Daily. What's covered on the report card? How is it different from the progress report that was sent home earlier in the year? And how can you use it to help your child improve?

I am thrilled to say that my reports have been written, submitted and now I can put my full focus back on the rewarding part of teaching! (Don't get me wrong - communicating with parents is essential. This just isn't my favourite way to do it.)