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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