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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

#NeedATeacherAskATeacher: Informal Mentorship as Support for Pre-Service Teachers During the Time of COVID19

As the world turned sideways a few weeks ago with COVID19, teachers with students from K-12 and post secondary responded with collaborative spirit, professionalism, optimism, and love. The hashtag #NeedATeacherAskATeacher was created by a group of educators and leaders soon after schools closed indefinitely in Alberta as a way to support practicing teachers and parents who were navigating both online education and or homeschooling.

The Unlikely Design Challenge of Moving A Practicum Online

At the same time as this support community was established on Twitter, University of Calgary pre-service teachers were beginning a four week online course which was redesigned by an amazing team to support students in what would have been their practicum in schools. In this course, students prepared a lesson plan to teach to their online cohort. Instructors worked to build relationships as quickly as possible because these pre-service teachers needed to trust their small groups to simulate the age group that they planned to teach. Imagine how playful this could be, as they were asked to bring props, materials, and even invite their own children to participate!

These pre-service teachers, although very well supported by their instructors and their cohorts, no longer had the wisdom and experience of partner teachers to share their experience, their educational philosophies, and their tricks of the trade in real time as they planned and taught their lessons. 

How Might We Create An Opportunity For Pre-Service Teachers to Still Learn From Practicing Teachers?

Enter the spark of an idea to invite the #NeedATeacherAskATeacher community to create an informal mentorship opportunity, connecting pre-service and practicing teachers during these unprecedented times. In the world of design, we would say this was a smash up between creating a collision space for the wisdom of experienced teachers and the questions of pre-service teachers. When asked to participate, many teachers responded quickly, saying that they wanted to pay it forward, or that they appreciated mentors when they were starting out, and also that they looked forward to learning from pre-service teachers, who might be better versed in technology and online learning. 

Voices From the Field

As a professional learning tool, Twitter inspires and motivates as a powerful professional learning tool, connecting teachers far beyond the walls of their classrooms. This was an attempt to amplify the online field experience for pre-service teachers. If they couldn't be in the classroom, perhaps the wisdom could come to them. Alongside the invitation for pre-service teachers to ask specific questions, we began by asking practicing teachers an open ended question based on the course outline, as an opening for teachers to share their advice. The responses below offer a wide range of things for all teachers to consider as they begin to teach in an online setting. 

What's Next?

Generosity and reciprocity are abundant in this grassroots initiative designed to offer pre-service teachers those bits of wisdom that happen on the fly in busy classrooms. We'll continue to ask guiding questions to the community and invite pre-service teachers to ask their own questions as well, creating an interesting "pop-up" professional learning opportunity for all involved. Jump in and join the conversation!
Thursday, March 19, 2020

Room to Breathe (R2B): Personalizing the Language Arts through Student-Designed Projects

The Origin Story

My teaching partner Tara and I knew we needed to redesign the way we taught Language Arts to our grade 8 students this year. Last year was okay, and we did some pretty neat things with our kids, but it certainly wasn't streamlined, and engagement was pretty variable, depending on the task. So we went away in the summer with lots of things to think about, good books to read, and ideas to percolate.

When we met over coffee in August, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to do a reading/writing workshop-style approach. In this initial conversation, we wondered about how we would teach the other strands that are a part of our curriculum: listening, speaking, viewing, and representing. We thought maybe we could do something with these on Fridays. I was just pulling out of the parking lot when Tara called me on handsfree saying, "Wait a minute. WHY would we only do these strands on Fridays?? Why not all the time?"

This is how Room to Breathe was born.

R2B In a Nutshell

Students self-design projects that include an Inhale (Reading, Listening, Viewing) - in other words, text interpretation - and an Exhale (Writing, Speaking, Representing) - in other words, text creation. When they design their projects, they associate "I Can" statements - our entire curriculum reworded in kid-friendly language. Students conference with their teacher before they begin, and again at the end of each Inhale and Exhale. This allows us to help set students up for success when they start, to identify skills that need to be taught, and what resources will be needed. It also allows us to collaboratively assess the student work with the students (more on that later!).

The Logistics

We created a flowchart for the Room to Breathe processes to help students get the hang of it, at first. They've done it enough now that this is old hat for them.
Students use a planning sheet to organize their idea before we conference. The planning sheet includes the "I Can" statements, as well as a spot for student, teacher, and parent to sign when approved.

The very first set of conferences to get the first Inhale approved is fast and furious, but then meetings are spaced out. Students set their own due date for the completion of their task and write their name on our classroom calendar on the due date. That becomes their next conference date.

We offer minilessons based on student needs and questions that we compile as we conference prior to beginning a task. Here is a slidedeck we are continually adding to based on our minilessons.

The Principles

Now that we've gotten the "what" out of the way, we want to dig in a bit deeper into the "why."

A few principles guide our work and have been designed to be heart and centre in R2B.

For student learning to be truly personalised, they need to be the ones making decisions about what to read, view, create, and share.

We have heard people bemoaning the idea that today's youth don't read and write anymore. This is simply not true. In fact, students are reading and write more than ever before using social media and other platforms. In addition to all this reading and writing, they are engaging in sophisticated forms of content creation through platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Tik Tok. The problem is that this kind of text interpretation and creation is sometimes not acknowledged or honoured in classrooms. Of course, we want our students to interpret and create in more critical and analytical ways. But by using the topics and ideas they already care about and allowing them to design their own tasks around these interests, student learning will be incredibly personalized and rich.

We were very inspired by the incredible book Beyond Literary Analysis as we designed R2B and their website Moving Writers has been instrumental as well. In both resources, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell offer real strategies and methods for using topics that captivate our students and design tasks around them.

Assessment is teaching.

Most of the most powerful work in R2B happens during conference times. We have a chance to sit, one-on-one, with our students and really talk about their learning. When we look at the work that they completed and talk about what they are proud of, and what their next steps are, they get immediate, actionable feedback about what to focus on next. Because this project is ongoing, the feedback they receive is immediately implementable. 

Assessment happens here, not alone, on my couch.

We collaboratively assess and grade all work in R2B with our students, during conferences. In these assessment conversations, and following a conversation about what they learned and demonstrated in their work, we ask our students to suggest a grade for their work. In 99.9% of situations, students' perceptions of their own work is in line with our perceptions. We assess against the "I Can" statements the students selected, and if they can provide lots of evidence to show how they met the outcomes, there is no reason why they shouldn't receive a 4 (our school board uses a 1-4 indicator scale for assessment and reporting). 

The conversation, however, has quickly shifted from one of evaluation and judgment to one of learning - how can we, together, help you improve the complexity of your thinking and learning? We had mentioned that we wanted to push our students into analytical and critical thinking, and to support our students, we created a continuum of thinking:

This document has proven very useful for assessment conversations because if they aren't finding themselves using analytical, evaluative, and creative thinking, they are not demonstrating mastery.

It has also been very useful during conversations with students when we plan the next task. One of the things that happens frequently in the conversations approving projects in moving forward is that they want to do something that is in the more basic levels of thinking. For example, a pitch we might get is "I want to watch a movie and then I'll write an article summarizing it." For our students, shifting their thinking from a place of summary or retelling to one of critically and analytically looking at the topics in the text has been a major teaching moment in these assessment conversations.

Student choice and ownership leads to authentic text interpretation and creation.

The proof in this approach has been the incredible engagement of our students. Our students can't wait for the hour in their day when they can truly breathe and focus on something that they have designed to explicitly engage themselves in their own learning. We have had an incredible range of student projects, which you can check out on our blog.

A Special Note About COVID-19 and Online Teaching and Learning

Many of us have found ourselves in situations where we need to be designing work that students can complete at home and submit online. As we learned about schools being closed indefinitely in our province, we breathed a sigh of relief because R2B could continue, business as usual. 

We plan to continue R2B with our students. Students can use Google Drive to work on their projects, as they had done while at school. We can move all conferences to video conferencing software. We can record video lessons when students need minilessons. Because this approach is so individualized, we don't have to rely on finding other web tools to allow students to continue working on their literacy learning. We can just carry on. If you are looking for something to afford your students purposeful, personalized learning while they're practicing social distancing, consider R2B. There's no better time to start.


Please borrow any of our resources if they are helpful to you.

Get in Touch

If any of these resources are useful to you, you've been inspired by our approach, or have any questions for us, please reach out to us! You can find us on Twitter at @luckybydesign (Erin) and @bestcircus (Tara), or you can e-mail the Creativity Collective at

Friday, August 16, 2019

Warlords of Japan

This is going to be the trickiest project to post about because it's based on a simulation that's copyrighted, called Warlords of Japan. We used this simulation as a starting point for ours, but made some considerable additions and changes. After all, this simulation was published in 1991, and pedagogy has changed quite a bit since then (there were a lot of regurgitation-type activities in it). The game also touched on just under half of the curriculum we needed to teach, too - it focuses only on the time period in Edo period Japan when the Emperor closed its borders to the Western World. Our curriculum also asks us to address the period of rapid adaptation in Japan following the Perry expedition to Japan when US sailors basically forced Japan to open its borders to the West. That being said, the core game structure had definite merit, and I'd say this project was probably our students' favourite out of all three games we played with them this year.

The game worked like this: Students were placed in a goningumi (which is a traditional Japanese concept where groups of five households were held collectively responsible, and were rewarded and punished as a whole), or clan. Each goningumi was assigned a territory of Japan where their home castle would reside. The goal of the game was to take control of the most territory to become the shogun of Japan. The game play took place using a map of Japan. Each goningumi was awarded koku (a traditional Japanese unit of measurement that equated to 350 pounds of rice, enough to feed one adult for a year) based on how many territories they occupied. We needed a LOT of coloured map pins to play this game. Have a look at the game board below. I feel like I cannot post the rules of the game since we used the copyrighted rules without many adaptations.

The actual purchase and movement of troops was only part of the game. The more important piece came through the roles that students played each game day. Students rotated and took on one of several roles each day, which included: 
  • daimyo: the leader - the one who makes decisions about purchasing and moving troops
  • banker: the person who does the accounting based on the previous day's work and decisions to figure out how much koku the daimyo can spend
  • artist/calligrapher: this person did a task related to art or calligraphy based on that day's focus
  • cartographer: this person would create a map related to the day's focus
  • historian: this person would complete a task related to a historical event or occurrence based on the day's focus and record it in a notebook called the History Book.
  • culture minister: this person would create rituals or traditions for the goningumi based on real Japanese cultural traditions. The culture minister also used a criteria sheet to assess the group's collaboration each day.
One final role was mine: Emperor.

Each day, each goningumi would be given a roles sheet, with specific instructions for each role. Here is an example:

Day #2

Your assignment is to design and create a samurai war mask on paper which reflects the values and colours of your region. 
Your assignment is to create a blueprint (aerial view: looking down from the sky) of your Home-Castle. Make sure you include all necessary buildings (such as sleeping quarters for your head positions and armies, a trading centre, supply sheds, wells or water access, storage for weapons, gardens and food storage, areas to grow rice, areas for sewing, silk production areas, kitchens, latrines (bathrooms) that are away from your food and water supplies, and any other vital building structures). Also place defensive walls around your city, watch towers, gates and other methods of defence. Create a legend which explains the symbols used on your blueprints.

Using your knowledge of the social structure during Edo Japan you gain from Reading #2, you will write two personal letters from two people in your region within the feudal hierarchy: one at the bottom and one at the top. 

Your first letter should  be written from the perspective of a low-class member of society who is unhappy with their position in the feudal hierarchy. In your letter, discuss their frustrations and provide some recommendations for improvement that would make their lives better. Your second letter should be a response from a person higher in the hierarchy. Both letters should be about a half a page. 

This assignment should be written from the first person perspective where you are pretending to be in each person’s shoes. 

Read Reading #2 about Feudal Japan with the Historian. Develop a set of rules you will follow in your goningumi regarding the different roles that exist in your group. For example, your Daimyo might have special privileges as the highest ranking member of your goningumi. Consider things like dress, language, seating, privileges, etc.

Because we developed most of the role assignments ourselves, I feel fine sharing these role sheets with you. Each day progressed through some historical events related to the time periods we were learning about, following the required events from our program of studies. As the days progressed, the focus changed. We went through feudalism, isolationism, a focus on the Dutch traders at Nagasaki who were permitted to stay during isolationism, Perry's expedition, opening the borders, and rapid adaptation. To help students understand the historical context of these and to help them with their role assignments, we also created a daily reading for the groups. We created most of these ourselves, too, and so feel fine sharing them as well. 

We assessed the work of the group at the end of each day. This is something we need to consider iterating next year, because although it was really good to see what each student was learning and able to do each day, the assessment took a long time (with six groups in each class, and two classes, I was spending 1 - 1.5 hours after school each day assessing this project). However, in doing this, we also awarded moves. The total moves each goningumi earned were how many available moves (how many pins could be moved) during gameplay. So, essentially, if individuals in the group completed their role, the more moves the goningumi had the next day to play, and the better the goningumi would do in the game. 

One clear advantage this game has is its possibilities for differentiation. Each role could earn up to 4 moves, and this allowed us an opportunity to modify or differentiate for each student's needs. It would be possible, therefore, for a student who is following a heavily modified program, to earn 4 moves based on the individual expectations for that student. In essence, then, each student had a pathway to excellence that was personal to their own learning plan. And what this meant was that in groups that were heterogenous and teacher-assigned, success was possible and probable for each group. No student could feel that their group was letting them down if they followed the pathway to success that we laid out for them. 

I would fill out a moves tracking sheet at the end of the day, which the next day's banker would use to figure out how many moves they had to use.

Moves Tracking Sheets

The CULTURE MINISTER assesses the group at the end of each period.

Members stay with the group and do not wander.
Members remain seated with their group.
The group’s volume is not excessive and does not detract from the classroom setting.
Positive language is used and the group refrains from negative or inappropriate speech
Group is on-task and working on the given assignments.
Finished members are supporting and helping group members or working on chapter questions and are not serving as a distraction to their goningumi or the class.







The EMPEROR completes the following assessment based on how well each person fulfills their role and completes their work:















A brief note about the social expectations part. I am a teacher who believes strongly in the intrinsic motivation of students to create a classroom where everyone can learn. I spend significant amounts of time establishing, developing, and reinforcing classroom community. In reality, though, sometimes this doesn't always end up working. Especially in May and June. Which is when we were doing this project. Because a lot of my time during the work period was spent running the gameplay, the social expectations piece was designed to remind groups of the social expectations of being a part of a group, as well as give them a mechanism to self-police themselves to make sure they were living up to them. I took every group's self-assessment here at face value.

We played the game for nine days before declaring the shogun. The goningumi that had occupied the most territories became the shogun of Japan. Because during Edo Japan, the Shogun was the one who called all the shots (the Emperor became more of a figurehead), we spent the next day, as a class, in adopting the traditions and customs the winning group had developed through the first nine days. Following one day to live according to the culture of the winning goningumi, I declared war on the shogun (mirroring what happened historically, which was that the Emperor and his allied forces attacked the Shogun and his forces to restore power to the Emperor, which became the Meiji Restoration), and re-established the control of the Emperor.

We watched this video to ensure we all understood the historical context:

As a final assessment piece, we asked each student to choose one of four questions and create a brief written response. Our four questions were:

  • How did time and geographic location shape Japanese worldview?
  • How did Japan’s worldview foster the choice to remain an isolated society?
  • How did Japan’s models of governance and decision making reflect their worldview?
  • How did Japan’s worldview shape individual citizenship and identity?

We were pleased, when reading their responses, to see that most students had a solid grasp on understanding the role worldview played in the isolation and adaptation periods of Japanese history.

Resources Shared in this Post: