Mathematical Ped-dog-agy: 6 ideas to get started.

Dogs in the classroom? 

Whatever next?

At our school, ACS Athens, an international school in Greece, the Dogs in Learning program brings dogs to the classroom on a once a week basis for a half hour period. Besides learning basic dog etiquette, teamwork and responsibility, this program also offers a place where students use their math as a creative tool to tackle problems. Not the chocolate covered broccoli problems of the text books but genuine problems in the real world. In fact dog related issues form a great vehicle for creating just this kind of problem solving context. 

Here are a few ideas I have come up with for the 5th grade. 
1: Posing the question how much does it take to feed a dog for a year leads to research online and a comparative study of price and quality in relation to breed and age. Weighing out a portion of food, dividing that into the weight of the sack of dog food to figure out how many days a sack will last, then multiplying up to cost out a year’s supply gives a lot of great practice in multiplying and dividing decimals for 5th graders not to mention accurate measurement. Many students who would like to have a dog find this interesting information which they can then share with their parents!

2: The dog question also lends itself to the study of exponential growth- in how many generations will we have enough dogs to fill the classroom if they breed indiscriminately!

3: Let’s make a made to measure cardboard dog house! This one gets us into geometry, measurement and surface area as well as practical construction issues.

4: Dog layette 

Imagine you have 100$ to prepare for your new puppy. What will you need to buy, what would be nice to have and what can you afford? This budgeting question gives practice in addition and subtraction of decimals.

5: A pet survey in the classroom gets us into data collection, fractions of a set and ratios.

6: Creating the optimal dog pen for different sizes of dog from a fixed perimeter gives students the chance to explore the relationship between perimeter and area.

That’s what I call mathematical Ped-dog-agy!!! 

If you have any ‘bonus’ dog-related math ideas, please share them in a comment!

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Ped-DOG-agy: What dog training taught me about classroom management

Just recently this spring I acquired my very first dog, and in some ways getting a new dog is much like getting a new class: you have to establish a means of communication, set expectations and develop good habits. Puppies, like children, continually test your limits. There is nothing malicious about this either from the children’s part or the puppy’s part, it is just who they are. 
If you have been a reader of this blog, you will already know that an essential tenet of my classroom practice is the social construction of meaning in the classroom: that children learn best when they collaboratively engage to discuss and derive meaning together, while their teacher helps to facilitate their learning. Some examples are my previous post on Creating Agreements, or the post on the Re enactment of the Ancient Agora. So, you might wonder, is this a sudden departure into behaviorism? Am I forsaking all that I hold dear, and am about to tell you that a stimulus-response approach is the way to cultivate a collaborative classroom? Not in the least. However, what I have discovered is that in engaging in meaning making with a dog leads me to reflect on meaning making with children. In a way, a dog is an extreme example of the communicative challenge that confronts us all whenever we try to convey our intent. While a shared language can give the illusion that communication should be simple, the actual truth is that all communication is complex. 
Communication of intent goes far beyond the words we say. It begins with that fundamental response to posture, energy and bearing by our primitive brain, popularly known as body language. Dogs respond to positive energy and a calm demeanor and this can be essential in gaining the confidence of your dog so that she can relax with you and know that you’re in charge. When you greet your incoming class with a bright smile, a positive outlook, and an open, yet authoritative, body posture, students subconsciously evaluate that body language and make decisions on how to respond to you within milliseconds of seeing you. 
It is easy to fall into the trap of wishful thinking both with dogs and with children, working under the assumption that you share a common understanding of purpose. My goal is for my little dog to be able to run freely around the house without ever leaving any small puddles anywhere. But the truth is she’s not ready for that yet and though I long to have her company and see her happily wandering around the house after me, the truth is that her understanding of which spaces are sacred and not to be pee’d on is much more limited than mine. I have not yet managed to fully share my complex human interpretation of what seems to me an entirely self evident truth, at a level that is comprehensible to doggy logic. And in the same way we teachers can often assume that students know what school is about and share our common purpose, when in fact children have their own private logic which drives how they behave. We adults assume that children should understand the logic of the adult world and meet our expectations, forgetting that the rationale behind our behavior may be just as incomprehensible to them as their behavior can appear to us! 
When attempting to make meaning explicit while training a puppy, consistency is the key to success. You need to repeat and repeat and repeat, doing the same thing in exactly the same way until it became becomes ingrained into the very ‘is-ness’ of your dog. Repetition allows the dog to test and retest its interpretation of your wishes until a mutually agreed upon consensus is achieved.
Milou taught me that I was a lot less consistent than I thought I was! When children fall into bad habits in the classroom and misbehaviors are beginning to creep in again that I thought I had eradicated weeks ago, I realize now, when I reflect on my classroom practice in the light of dog training, that the problem isn’t with the children, it is with me. I have started to become inconsistent. The truth seems to be, that any behavior that you reinforce be it with dogs or children will persist, so, if I start to respond to students who call out without raising their hand then I reinforce that behavior. It becomes rewarded and therefore it persists. Could it be true that just as “there are no bad dogs there are only bad owners”, that there are no undisciplined children there are only undisciplined teachers? Now that’s a scary thought!
Mr Theo and Ms Xenia, our dog training team who run the Dogs in Learning Program here at ACS Athens, continually remind me to set my dog up for success. This means controlling her environment and structuring her freedom so that she is not put in a position where she can fail. We can apply the same concept of setting up our students for success to teaching elementary children: structuring the classroom environment by assigning seating, or planning ahead groupings for collaboration to avoid unsuccessful partnerships. Similarly, the energy in the room can be successfully channeled by thoughtfully varying activities from independent seat work, paired reflection, hands-on investigation to group work. A timer can be used to focus bursts of intellectual activity and increase productivity by overcoming procrastination. Contrast this setting up for success with the ‘laissez faire’ classroom of low expectations where students fool around with their friends, where time is unstructured and unproductive, or work is routine, monotonous and physically confining.

In frustration, when tensions rise and things go wrong, it is easy to want to scold a dog or a child for not meeting our expectations but both dogs and children wilt under chastisement. Such venting of negative and unstable energy disrupts their confidence and security in the stable leadership of the teacher or dog owner. It is kinder and much more effective to calmly repeat the procedure that is required, with a confident, “Let’s try that again!”
When we want dogs (or students) to meet our goals, we have to challenge our assumptions that goals that are meaningful to us are equally meaningful to them. We need to decenter and look at what the situation might look like from their point of view. We need to observe their actions and ask ourselves what they reveal about their understandings and misunderstandings. If every action is essentially a communicative act, what are students (or dogs) trying to communicate by their misbehavior?

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Building Collaborative Learning Communities: By Teachers, for Teachers: Part 2 of a 2 part series


Penny Kynigou, ACS Athens Teacher, Coordinator of Professional Collaboration and Learning, NSRF National Facilitator 

David Nelson, ACS Athens Teacher, Coordinator of Professional Development & Growth, NSRF National Facilitator

This article was first published in the NSRF Connections magazine, October 2016,


…So you’ve taken the Critical Friends Group® training, you feel inspired by the excitement of tapping into the spirit and collective intelligence of teachers working together, and you wonder whether it is worthwhile to get a group started at your school? At the American Community Schools of Athens, we have conducted our own action research and have surveyed our CFG members over the past two years to find out their reactions to these meetings and to the impact that their participation has had in the classroom.

At our school, we currently have a thriving CFG  culture that has been steadily growing over the past five years, and in “By Teachers, for Teachers: Part 1”  we shared the story of how we initiated and developed our CFG community, some of the strategies that worked well and the challenges we encountered.

 David Nelson and I are both NSRF National Facilitators and we work at ACS Athens, an American international school which serves families of diverse nationalities living and working in Greece. Our school has recently undergone re-accreditation with the Middle States Association and as part of this process, the entire school has been involved in multiple action research projects that led each faculty member to review literature and reflect on their current teaching practices.

As coordinators of the ACS Athens Collaborative Learning Community  or CLC,  the name we give our CFG groups, we  were curious to learn what extent our participating teachers felt they were gaining from these meetings, and if they found value, to find out what elements they believe make our CFG meetings worthwhile. Was there evidence in the current literature on collaborative groups and organizational growth that supported these findings? In this second article we set out to share what we learned in our action research project.

Over two years of research we surveyed teachers, gathered reflections at the end of meetings, and collected “CLC stories.” Many of those stories expressed how our participants, whether they presented work or were participants in others’ work, transferred what they learned in CLC  meetings to their classrooms. In these meetings, teachers engage in dialogue amongst themselves to create plans, refine curriculum artifacts and inquire into dilemmas of classroom practice. Sifting through this data we were able to identify three core beliefs that seem to underlie why the CLC members at ACS Athens feel that these meetings offer them something unique:

    • the NSRF protocols and activities used in the meetings inspire risk-taking, empathy and growth;
    • the diverse makeup of the groups generates a high level of creativity;
    • the focus on inquiry during the meetings was a key component in successful problem solving.

NSRF protocols and activities used in the meetings inspire risk-taking, empathy and growth

As we analyzed the collective reflections, we noticed many commented on how the CFG meetings have been uniquely energy-boosting, fun, relaxing and rewarding. Many spoke of a sense of safety, the importance of a confidential place where teachers can freely share problems and receive non-threatening feedback. They identified how the friendship and trust developed within the groups help to create greater integration within the school community and a sense of common purpose across all grade levels. Our teachers frequently commented that they valued not only the support of the group in solving dilemmas but also the act of service, the opportunity to help others by sharing their expertise and contributing ideas.

It seems that it is the CFG processes themselves, which are the agents that inspire risk-taking, empathy and growth. When teachers are able to open dialogue with one another about their professional concerns and gain insight from one another in a non-threatening way, the result is that teachers feel empowered as active agents in their professional growth growth.






Without a doubt, the foundation of trust is instrumental to each group’s success. When that trust is combined with a shared vision under the careful guidance of trained CFG Coaches, who understand the subtleties of facilitating the NSRF protocols, the processes inspire risk-taking and empathy essential to growth. By opening dialogue with one another about their professional concerns, teachers gain insights from one another in a non-threatening way and they feel empowered as active agents.

This all important sense of safety is created through the NSRF protocols and the skill building structure provided in CFG training and put into practice by trained CFG coaches in our school. Recognizing and honoring that teachers’ days are busy and often fraught, every meeting begins with refreshments and the Transitions activity to help teachers release the issues of the day, follow-up from previous meetings, and connect to the group. By openly articulating expectations and establishing group norms through the Setting Agreements Activity and then holding each other accountable for those agreements, meetings become significantly more productive. The shared language developed through the Zones of Comfort, Risk and Danger Activity and the Compass Points Activity, helps to address moments of interpersonal tension in a productive stress-free manner. Planning during the final day of our initial Coaches’ Training helped us to  create a carefully scaffolded set of skills over the year, with participants learning warm and cool feedback strategies, and the proper use and construction of clarifying and probing questions. These feedback and questioning techniques foster a climate of curiosity and open dialogue about the craft of teaching as educators come together to share expertise and generate possibilities. Meetings act to connect teachers in a shared and purposeful endeavor where each feels that their personal areas of expertise, interest and experience becomes a valued contribution.

In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, systems analyst and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, analyzes the need for learning organizations to cultivate three core learning capabilities among professionals: fostering aspirations, developing reflective conversations and understanding of complexity. CFG meetings accomplish each of these capabilities by providing a space for educators to foster a shared vision of education, and by encouraging reflection and dialogue in which the group analyzes the complexity of classroom craft. We find, just as Peter Senge states of successful learning organizations, ” Team learning develops the skills  of groups of people to look beyond individual perspectives. And  personal mastery fosters the personal motivation to continually learn how our actions affect our world.” 

In the unique context of CFG work, colleagues have the opportunity to share areas of personal mastery and learn from one another. Senge highlights some of the benefits of such an organization by stating, “When we give up this illusion [that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces]- we can then build ‘learning organizations,’ organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

Psychological safety is a key factor in freeing up thinking, and strong collegiality helps participants get into a state of flow where they can play with ideas and come up with creative solutions. The collegial relationships fostered within the CLC groups widens the peer support among the faculty and encourages growth. Dave recently participated in a workshop with Steve Barkely, specialist in instructional coaching, who helped him to realize that when teachers are not being evaluated by a superior, they are less concerned with exactly what they’re doing, but rather how they can do it better.

In 2015 Google concluded a two year study of over 180 Google teams to idenfity the key dynamics of successful groups in their company.   Psychological safety topped the list as the most important of the five that they identified in the study — “it’s the underpinning of the other four”, the researches noted.  The Google analysts discovered, as we have similiarly found, that “the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles… more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teamates.”  The correlations with Google’s study and the success of the CFG and CLC communities extend further — Google concluded that their teams were also successful due to the structure and clarity of the processes, the meaning of the work and the empowerment employees feel for creating change.  

For example, Christina, first grade teacher and CLC Coach, found the meetings both inspirational and productive. She felt that the spirit of trust and acceptance found at these meetings was the key to their effectiveness :

“Even though a CLC group is filled with grown-ups who are all there for similar reasons, it is important to develop christinaa foundation of trust …. so that people can feel safe ….to have their dilemmas or work looked at so deeply. One thing I have walked away with since [my] beginning with the CLC is: ‘Always assume positive intent.’ It’s amazing how it has changed my perspective inside and outside of the school/work environment. When one feels accepted as part of a team, the empathy and security is there because we have all been in the same boat at one point or another – so there is no judgment. CLC groups, by their nature and design, are geared to make the experience a very forward-moving process…and we all like to progress, don’t we? We all like to feel productive and meaningful. We get this support in our groups…which then inspires us to tread further, freer and with more confidence in the things we do…”

Growth and learning are optimal in the tension of that creative space where one is neither too comfortable nor feeling actually in danger, known in CFGs as “the risk zone”.  CFG work provides both security and challenge, inviting participants to venture into the risk zone together, as Christina’s reference to the ‘Always assume positive intent’ strategy shows. Our ACS Athens participants found this shared adventure in professional growth not only bonding, but also valuable and stimulating.


The diverse makeup of the groups generates a high level of creativity

The second consensus that emerged from the data was that the diversity of the participants in the CLC groups generated a high level of creativity. ACS Athens, is an unusual school in that we have elementary, middle and high school all located on one single site. This means that we are one of the few JK -12 schools able to create highly diverse CFG groups including participants from across the JK- 12 range. When composing the groups at the beginning of each school year, we consciously aimed at  the richest possible mix, considering length of teaching experience, grade level and subject specialty. Although the participants initially found the mix counter intuitive, they soon discovered that they highly valued interactions and found the discussions most stimulating  when elementary and early childhood practitioners shared insights on middle school and high school dilemmas, and vice versa.


Many participants identified the importance of approaching the presenter’s topic with a ‘beginner’s mind’. They noted that this enabled them to rethink issues and challenge each others’ assumptions. For example, a fresh perspective on a handbook for parents, could uncover basic elements, which might have been overlooked by the author because they were too close to the issue. Initially participants were concerned that their lack of knowledge of a particular domain might prove a barrier to making useful contributions during the protocol, yet most participants came to realize that their insights could turn out to be the most stimulating and helpful of all. One participant also observed that a CLC meeting is the only forum in our school where we gain the opportunity to look at issues from the perspective of the whole child, something we educators too often forget while working in the’silos’ of our departments or grade levels.

justinIn another example, one of our participants, Justin, HS Science teacher, tells the story of how he brought his dilemma on motivating reluctant science students to his CLC group. He was not expecting to get much valuable insight, as no other science teacher was in the room:

“I’m in the 10th year of my teaching career, and I am finally to the point where I would call myself an excelling teacher.  Not that I’ve never thought I’m terrible, but after 10 years of experience I feel that I have a solid grasp on all aspects of my teaching: lesson planning, classroom management, integrating technology, teaching to differentiated to learning styles, connecting with students, etc. 

I should’ve been more optimistic.  I should’ve been thinking, “I will certainly get some fresh ideas,” as that is exactly what happened.  I tried two of the ideas from my diverse group of advice givers the next week with positive feedback from my students.  The diversity of the group opened me up to all new perspectives way outside of my comfort zone that I (or any teacher) would never experience typically.  Even though those ideas come from different disciplines, with some minor tweaking, I can apply them to my classroom.  Who am I to discredit the experience and knowledge of so many highly qualified teachers just because they do not teach science?”

Diversity of groups is the key to getting the most creative ideas. We are always at our most creative and open state when exploring potential solutions to problems outside of our own sphere. As Justin himself pointed out, the Dilemma Analysis Protocol used in the CLC meeting  helped him as presenter to solicit and hear the feedback of his peers in a context which encouraged ‘out of the box thinking’. This shift in intent and listening circumvents any potential knee-jerk response of defensiveness and self justification which interferes with hearing and  benefitting  from the advice of others. ACS Athens participants find the diversity of the groups an essential component. In fact, when asked at the end of the year whether we should restructure the groups school by school, they were adamant that we should retain the diversity claiming, “This was the best part!”


The focus on inquiry was the key component in successful problem solving.

The third core belief that emerged from our data was that the focus on inquiry was identified as a key component in the successful problem-solving that happens in these meetings. As Senge points out, in inquiry, ‘people begin to explore the thinking behind their views, the deeper assumptions they may hold, and the evidence they have that leads them to have these views… They begin to ask each other questions.’ Inquiry is at the heart of the NSRF protocols in which questioning techniques guide participants to explore an issue where the outcome is always unknown. (NSRF differentiates between “protocols,” used to explore many possible outcomes, with NSRF  “activities”, which lead to a specific outcome.) In a protocol, the focus question provides the direction, clarifying questions map out the known territory and probing questions unfold new horizons both for the presenter and the participants alike. The focus of inquiry in these meetings is on the craft of teaching rather than the content areas. Teachers explore the complexity of their craft through dialogue rather than suggesting simple temporary fix, solutions. Protocols give the opportunity for reflection on teaching practice not only for the presenter but also for the participants, resulting in many “Aha! moments” for everyone involved as they challenge their own assumptions. Through reflection and dialogue, an understanding of systematic causes of problems emerges. Teachers themselves become thinkers and learners experiencing a range of collaborative learning activities in the same kind of vigorous learning community that they hope to create in their classrooms. Furthermore, many of our teachers report being able to transfer activities used in CFG meetings successfully to their classrooms, using them to challenge students to think more deeply.


Once again, the NSRF training transparently teaches that tight structures provided in the protocols ensure that the inquiry is not haphazard but focused. Most protocols are preceded by a pre-conference with the presenter, typically completed the week prior to the CLC meeting. During the pre-conference the trained coach helps the presenter to identify and refine a focus question and to check that the issue is within the presenter’s locus of control (thus ensuring that meetings are productive)and to confirm selection of the most effective protocol for the presenter’s desired outcome. The focusing question then drives the protocol in order that the dialogue during the protocol helps to meet the presenter’s needs.

At ACS Athens, we’ve conducted multiple trainings to reach a critical volume of trained coaches in each CLC group. The coaches all have  have a deeper understanding of the value of probing and clarifying questions, so conversations within meetings have become more meaningful and focused  and our participants report “coming away with a plethora of ideas”. Several reported how they found the probing questions even more valuable than the suggestions offered to them, as they helped to unlock their thinking and opened them up to new possibilities. Because it is a tenet of CFG practice that presenters may only bring dilemmas that are within their locus of control, the effect is to empower teachers to discover solutions and expand their toolkit of choices.







Amberdawn, High School Social Studies teacher, in this example, reflects both on the supportive aspect of working within a CFG community and the way in which collaborative inquiry challenged and stimulated her thinking, leading to even more creative teaching ideas.

“Teaching can be a very isolating experience. Sometimes, when faced with an instructional challenge, you just need “a safe place to fall.” Not a space to whine or complain, but an opportunity to share what is troubling you about your practice without fear of judgement. Knowing that others have had or are currently facing similar problems is reassuring. Moreover, being able to benefit from the experience of others and knowing that there is a team that wants to help you to solve the problem, in an empowering and energizing way, is a priceless resource.

“You’re not alone. You are part of a group with professional purpose. Even when the ideas might not be a perfect fit for your classroom, having someone with a totally different approach can help you make your own thinking more visible. And the suggestions can reinvigorate your thought process and lead to more inspired and creative learning activities. Even if I don’t implement the exact suggestions of the group, I always walk away with something that I can develop further to meet my goals.”

Learning through an open-ended collaborative process of inquiry is not necessarily a familiar approach to all teachers, who have been taught that they must be the authority on their subject. Through participation in Collaborative Learning Communities, ACS Athens teachers experienced both the value of this style of collaborative learning for their own professional growth and how to set up and adapt the processes for their own classrooms.


Reflective comments

In every school there is an untapped wealth of experience, research and training held within the faculty themselves. In ACS Athens, a portion of the faculty are hired stateside on short contracts, whereas others are Greek locals whose relationship with the school lasts much longer. In schools like ours, it can be difficult to integrate these diverse groups both socially and professionally, yet the school has much to gain from the cross fertilization of knowledge bases.

CFG groups provide the time and space for their integration and as Peter Senge says, allow us to “tap into people’s commitment and capacity to learn”. The challenge for organizations, he says, is ‘how to initiate change and deal creatively with the challenges of sustaining momentum.’ At ACS Athens these meetings provide a vehicle for new Stateside hires to gain insights into the cultural context of Greek parenting, learn from the experience of long term colleagues while also sharing ideas from their own teaching experience and recent Stateside training. Furthermore, the CFG communities have been significant in mediating the school’s shift in practice toward a constructivist approach to learning where children negotiate meaning through collaboration and discussion. Teachers experience collaborative learning with their peers, facilitation rather than training, and the powerful conversations which happen in the reflective debrief during CFG meetings. They become familiar with protocols and are then often able to experiment with this new skill set in their classrooms and make them their own.


In this study we have tried to capture the diversity and range of influence these communities have had by gathering anecdotal evidence on the participants’ perceptions of the experience of working within CFG communities over the past two years. Yet this was just a initial attempt at framing research, and we are well aware, was quite limited in scope. One of the problems in researching this kind of community is to find a way to assess its value. Senge quotes W.E. Deming, pioneer of the quality management revolution as asserting,  “You can only measure 3% of what matters.”


One Connections reader, fellow National Facilitator, Terry Daugherty from Indiana, wrote to us in response to our previous article, telling of his own experience in beginning a CFG in a middle school consisting of 55 teachers. ” We began with a few and ended up with 80% of our staff in a CFG at the end of the fourth year. We have no evidence to really prove it, but many of us felt that the CFG’s helped sustain us, innovate us, and actually improve test scores.”

This sentiment echoes, we think, what many people who work in CFG communities are sensing. So, we would like to pose a focusing question to our readers to help us tune this research project: “In what way could we most effectively analyze the effect of CFG communities on our schools?” We would be delighted to receive your warm and cool feedback in the comments below.



Barkley, Steve, Education Consultant. “Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud”.  Web blog.

Rozovsky, Julia, , Google Operations. “The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team” Web blog post. Re: Work. Google, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. <>.


Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990. Kindle ed.

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Building Collaborative Communities: By teachers for teachers: Part 1 of a 2 part series

Penny Kynigou, ACS Athens Teacher, Coordinator of Professional Collaboration and Learning, NSRF National Facilitator 

David Nelson, ACS Athens Teacher, Coordinator of Professional Development & Growth, NSRF National Facilitator

This article was first published in the NSRF Connections magazine, June 2016,

Over the past five years at the American Community Schools of Athens (ACS) we have worked to create an environment of collaborative professional development with NSRF’s Critical Friends Group work at the core.  As coordinators of the initiative, we simultaneously studied the impact of the expanding CFG work among faculty through our own Action Research.  In this two part series, we’d like to share some of the steps that we took, a few snippets from our findings, some setbacks that we built upon, and most importantly the successes that our school celebrates.

At ACS Athens, a student-centered international school that embraces American educational philosophy, we have established what we call Collaborative Learning Communities (CLCs), wholly based on Critical Friends Group work. Over the past five years, these groups have become a driving force in professional development within this JK-12 International School in Athens.

The ACS community has recently completed a four year self-study through school-wide Action Research projects as part of the pioneering implementation of a freshly designed accreditation protocol through the Middle States Association, known as “Sustaining Excellence”.  Our research focused on the CLC and its impact on the faculty and led us to identify three core beliefs that underlie why teachers feel that these meetings offer something unique:

  1. the CFG processes used in the meetings inspire risk-taking, empathy and growth;
  2. the diverse makeup of the groups generate a high level of creativity;
  3. the focus on inquiry is key to successful problem solving.

CLC’s have been developed over the past five years by teachers for teachers. Participation remains voluntary and 65% of our faculty has chosen to join a CLC group during our monthly after-school meetings dedicated to professional development, despite having the option to work on individual projects. We have held four coaches trainings at the school and have a core group of 13 trained coaches who help co-facilitate the four CLC groups. While teachers frequently present classic CFG material, such as student work, instructional designs and dilemmas, at ACS Athens teachers have also used the collective power of the CLC “think tank” to refine and improve their Action Research designs. CLC’s are a thriving and vital part of professional growth at our school and their impact has gone beyond the dedicated CLC time.  As one of our trained coaches, Ginger Carlson, commented, “There is a cross-pollination of both ideas and the tools that are used and they have impacted faculty meetings, small groups, and classroom teaching.


Lessons Learned:  

So what factors have contributed to the successful growth of the CFG concept within our school? What lessons can we share with other teachers who seek to create thriving CFG communities?

Firstly, if you hope to start CFG meetings in your school, find yourself an ally: a new idea is a fragile spark and as they say, it takes one to light the candle and one to protect the flame. Share the idea with a few more like-minded people. Start it on your own time, because it brings joy and reinvigorates your teaching, because it’s a good excuse to spend time with the colleagues you really admire, talking about your shared passion for education. Let it be a sandbox. Play and have fun!

Secondly, keep it voluntary. Nothing kills fun and passion as fast as people who feel mandated to do something they don’t want to do and don’t see the value in. Start out small, but think big. Avoid using what sometimes can be seen as “off-putting jargon” that excludes the uninitiated; “protocol” sounds faintly threatening and “process” is a softer term that everyone understands. Make occasional presentations, to not only faculty but also administration, about what the group is doing and why, and use the opportunities to solicit more volunteers.

One of the least successful ventures we tried was to run a “fishbowl”, where observers sat in on a protocol, one of the most complex ones at that. A lot of people observing the Issaquah protocol, now called “Dilemma Analysis”, found the process incomprehensible, the strict format of questioning irritating, and the time constraints bizarre.

Without a doubt, we learn best by doing and in contrast we found tremendous success in using protocols in faculty meetings that directly involved everyone and modeled the processes.  We facilitated versions of “Success Analysis” in each of our respective schools, and applied “Text Rendering” and “Save the Last Word” to the school wide effort to conceptualize constructivist theories of education. Furthermore, the “Futures Protocol” helped the Elementary faculty to envisage Genius Hour/Passion Projects while also helping to more effectively communicate the potential of CLCs.  Wider involvement of CFG Coaches, who facilitated Data protocols to examine school-wide MAP scores, also broadened the CLCs’ appeal. The protocol modeled a non-threatening approach to open dialogue about sensitive material. All of these experiences were insights into the power, productivity and fun of using structured meeting processes and brought us many eager recruits.

Getting administrators on our side was critical, and not always easy, given that initially none of them had a background in CFG work. How did we get started? Just by asking, initially; the President of ACS Athens, Dr. Gialamas supported us as a sort of start-up, allowing core faculty to exchange a day of work on Saturday to attend our Critical Friends Group orientation for a professional day during the year. Perhaps we were seen as hobbyists at first, but soon our participants turned from hobbyists to lobbyists, sharing their enthusiasm for our groups with their administrators during the end of the year evaluation meetings.

We also made repeated presentations to administration, first to bring in Michele Mattoon to do the initial training, and then as David Nelson became a National Facilitator and offered more training, we lobbied to roll out CLC groups to the wider school community. As we were invited to facilitate protocols outside of the CLC meetings, during faculty and department meetings, our administrators saw and appreciated the equity the processes offered and the value of the trained facilitators’ skills– this was especially significant during the roll-out of the Action Research process.  In many ways as the administration helped us to achieve our goals, we helped them to achieve theirs.

The first time we attempted to roll out the CFG work school-wide and were granted a monthly meeting time, we found ourselves hindered as meetings were repeatedly postponed and rescheduled, and then postponed again.  However, the school was focused on the truly massive project of mapping out its own curriculum standards and benchmarks that would fit the unique nature of an international school. Somewhat baffled by the mixed messages we were receiving, we decided to put the roll-out on hold and go back to holding a core group with those who valued the process so much that they were willing to give up their own time to participate.

Proactively, we brought the dilemma of how to secure administrative support to the core group and two key ideas surfaced through the process: firstly, we should presume positive intent and recognize that with curriculum mapping as a priority for accreditation, the truth was that there was little time in the schedule; secondly, was there a way to invite our School President and the Dean of Academic Affairs to actually participate in a protocol themselves, we wondered?

Choosing the “Futures Protocol” and aligning with the school’s mission of creating a constructivist school with students as architects of their own learning, we invited the President and Dean of Academic Affairs to participate in seeing what ACS Athens might look like after five years. As David facilitated the process, ideas flowed so thick and fast that Penny’s hand hurt as she transcribed to the butcher paper– the room was electric, brimming with vision and collaboration. When, the following fall, we once again presented the school-wide roll-out of the CLC to the Academic Leadership team, we now had significant allies in the room!

With CLC meetings firmly on the agenda for the coming school year, we returned to the core group to tune the yearlong plan for the meetings: a plan which would scaffold the building of trust and agreements in the initial meetings and scaffold the development of feedback and questioning skills as we led the participants deeper into the work of the CFG.

We have found the existence of the Core Group of trained coaches essential for planning and supporting the roll-out of the school wide CLC. Working together to preview protocols, brainstorm solutions to our own dilemmas, such as soliciting presenters for sessions, helps us to norm the groups.  As coordinators we provide support with preconferences, prepare the materials, plans and even debrief sessions.

Throughout the entire process of building collaboration in the CLCs, open reflection and dialogue have been the most important elements in their creation. After the initial year of rolling out the CLC to the wider school, we decided to make the final meeting of the year an all-CLC debrief session, bringing together all the membership to reflect on the year. We sought complete transparency with the faculty, emphasizing that the CLCs are a work in progress and something that teachers are doing for teachers to collectively improve our craft. We wanted to solicit input in such a way that everyone could feel free to add suggestions for improvement for the following year. To do so, we created three large “Chalk Talks” to collect feedback on three questions:

1) What did you get out of CLCs this year?

2) Based on your needs, what do you see as the potential for CLCs next year?

3) What elements need to exist to maximize the potential of CLCs to help us to improve our work and to improve student learning?

Encouraging small groups of diverse teachers to interpret each “Chalk Talk”, we provided a method for the faculty members to reach wide consensus on the goals, outcomes and potential for CLC meetings. Specifically, participants first had time to add their voices to each “Chalk Talk” and then move into triads to observe and analyze trends in the data. These triads then reported their observations to the whole group, thus depersonalizing comments while still getting them out on the table. During the debrief, members themselves addressed the few negative comments that had emerged by urging each other to be proactive and share concerns directly with their coaches, to commit to the CLC process through regular attendance, and to present work in order to see the benefits of the process. There was a strong up swell of positive feeling shared in this CLC-wide debrief session. We were able to collect the distilled observations and Wordle all the comments collected on the “Chalk Talks” and use them as data. We then shared this with the administrative team as we planned together to continue CLC groups in the following year.


graph-3-cfg-articleWorldle based on the faculty’s observations of Chalk Talk Question #1:  What did you get out of CLCs this year?

Our willingness to be transparent, open and responsive has been key to building trust both with our membership and with the administrative team. We are fortunate that our administration has realized that just as teachers need to change their role in the classroom to become facilitators of their students’ learning, administrators too need to take that leap of faith to become facilitators, rather than directors, of teachers’ continuing professional growth. Our Dean of Academic Affairs, Steve Medeiros often uses the image of fractals when describing the ideal working relationships within schools. There’s little doubt that there has to be a fractal relationship between learners at all levels of the school, with teacher learning communities mirroring the ideal conditions for learning in the classroom.

At the recent ACS Colloquium last month where teachers shared the results of their Action Research in a conference style gathering of MSA Accreditors, visiting educators from around the world, and parents and students alike, we presented the findings of our Action Research into the impact of the CLC at ACS. We invite you to watch our presentation here.


Every school has its own unique story and we share our experience at ACS Athens as a vignette of our practice not a sole recipe for success.  As National Facilitators ourselves, sometimes participants in our trainings comment that they feel alone as the one or two faculty in their school who have taken the CFG New Coaches training.   Our process too began with the two of us and a shared idea.  David attended a Bloomington open training for New CFG Coaches with Michele Mattoon, Director of NSRF and returned to ACS Athens eager to put CFG work in place. Penny too had experienced the energizing power of collaborative groups and we pooled our ideas and enthusiasm.  Remember too, that the CFG training equipped us with numerous resources, as our initial school roll-out plan was even “tuned” with the help of the open training participants and it is still in use today.   Our facilitator’s guidance was invaluable and the “Tip Sheet” that appears on page 106 of the New Coaches Handbook came to life.  As she always said, “Trust the process” and we did!

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Teaching the Foundations of Collaboration: Setting Agreements

In the previous post I described a complex culminating project, the creation of a living museum, in which groups of students collaborated to research,write and perform scenes about life in Ancient Athens. Teaching upper elementary students to collaborate over complex projects does not happen overnight. In my classroom the foundations start way back in the culture of the classroom established at the very beginning of the year. Collaboration requires each student to grasp the idea that the long term common purpose is more important than their individual immediate impulses. In fact “We, not Me*” needs to become the class’s code of conduct, and in this post I shall be describing my process for establishing these foundations.

Most teachers introduce their class rules in the first lesson with a new class, and I did so myself for many years. This has the benefit of making explicit your expectations and, when they are posted on the wall, gives you a convenient third point to refer to when correcting student behavior. This helps to make it more of a procedural issue and less of a personal one. This is certainly way better than having no explicit rules at all and the class running on tacit agreements such as only becoming quiet when the teacher has become really angry. However, I have discovered over the years that there is a great power in investing some time and involving all students in identifying and agreeing upon the necessary ‘rules’ for the class. My Rules become Our Agreements. This brings about a fundamental shift in the dynamic of the classroom from one of power and opposition to one of trust, collaboration and cooperation: what “I am doing to you for your own good” gives way to what we are doing together to help us all learn. 


So, how can a teacher facilitate the creation of class agreements?
I discovered these wonderful questions from Mrs Rouse on Pinterest and adapted them to create my own agreements setting activity. I start the year by rolling out two large sheets of butcher paper each with one of the following questions written in the center,

                           “What kind of teacher would you like to have this year?” 

                 “What kind of students would your teacher like to have this year”

 I have the students respond on the charts in a Chalk Talk activity (see below), one of my class’s favorites, in which you give time for all the students to silently write their responses, link to other students’ ideas with arrows and show agreement to points made by adding a check or a star. Once the activity of responding has died down we gather around one chart at a time and identify the most important ideas. I like to write them out along the top of the paper as criteria. I review the criteria for the teacher, explain anything that might be a problem and promise to uphold their expectations to the best of my ability. Then I give each student four stickers and ask them to place them on the student criteria they think are the most essential. We can easily see where the data clusters by doing this. We discuss whether some criteria are actually covered by others, for example, the class this year decided that Be Ready was already covered by Be Responsible. We also ensure that we have phrased everything in terms of Does rather than Don’ts. If I think that something really significant has been omitted, I will suggest it at this point.

 This year we have just four agreements: Be Kind, Be Responsible, Be Resourceful and Be Respectful.

At the end, I like to add a little drama, so we all stand, put our hands on our hearts and say, “I solemnly swear that I will do my best this year to be kind, responsible, resourceful and respectful!” and then we ceremoniously hang the agreements on the wall in a conspicuous place.

Creating buy-in by negotiating agreed-upon norms empowers the students themselves to become the ones who regulate them. I always post our agreements in the classroom and periodically spend time reviewing them with my class. My key questions are, “How are we doing with our agreements?” and, “Do we need to change or add anything?” I prefer to teach my students not to use names as they reflect on what has been happening, instead to say “some students have been…” because I want them to get the sense that the important focus is on the behavior not the individuals. This helps students to better hear the feelings being expressed rather than become immediately defensive.
I have certainly found that since using this method my classes are much more fun to teach! I am not engaged in a constant battle for control and I have the tools to gently, yet effectively, have students redirect each other’s behavior. In this way I start to teach the values of collaboration, model collaboration at the very highest level of the classroom and begin to bring in the language students will need to be able to negotiate amongst themselves as they move towards complex collaborative projects, later in the year. Although I prefer to use this process in the initial weeks of the year, it could be equally useful to introduce collaboration at the beginning of a specific project later on.

As teachers we all learn from others. Combining ideas into something new and sharing them is, for me a great part of the joy in the work I do and a driving force behind this blog. I am committed to always try to attribute my sources and where possible link back to them. I would be grateful for any feedback if I omit anyone and will be only too happy to make updates to posts. 

As a accredited National Facilitator, I have been heavily influenced by the work I am doing with Critical Friends Groups for teachers, using the materials created by the National Schools Reform Faculty (NSRF) and am interested in exploring how these materials can be used with children as well as adults. The activity above is based upon the NSRF Setting Agreements protocol and the Chalk Talk protocol and has been adapted by me for use with upper elementary students.

“We not Me*” is an slogan I learned from Laura Candler in her highly recommended Back to School Starter Pack available on Teachers Pay Teachers.

I would love to hear about other ways you establish collaboration in your classroom. Please comment to join the conversation!

Have a great week!


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From Research to Reenactment…..or 55 Kids in Sheets!


Picture walking into an open space filled with decorated stalls and children clad in ancient costume. Visitors wander from exhibit to exhibit as multiple performances happen in parallel. Presenters perform dramatic scenes as if they were characters from ancient times, sharing moments from their daily lives. As soon as a few visitors gather at a stall the scene begins to unfold. Re-enacting history brings history alive for students and visitors, and is an unforgettable experience!
Creating a living museum is an exciting challenge for both students and teachers alike. While it has all the excitement of a play production, it offers students age-appropriate ownership of script writing and direction. It puts students at the heart of the creative process and shifts the teacher’s role from that of director to facilitator. In a play production, the teacher directs students through long hours of rehearsal yet most students end up in the limelight in the final show for perhaps only five minutes, whereas when students present a living museum every scene is performed simultaneously and repeatedly, and every student is a star!
Student research is the starting point. With the key facts in outline form at their fingertips, students collaborate with other classmates to write an original dramatic scene incorporating as much essential factual material as they can. What makes this presentation different from an oral report, and what brings the information to life, is that it is all told in the present tense and in the first person! Add costumes, props, and audience in an open space with display stalls, and suddenly magic happens! Students travel back in time and become, as ours did today, Ancient Greeks in the Ancient Agora. As a concept this could be easily applied to other social studies units. How about reenacting a Colonial Village, a Rainforest complete with protesting endangered species, or an Explorers’ Convention?

The living museum is a culminating activity, an exhibition of learning from the fifth grade year. The task of writing a scene for a reenactment is complex and needs to be built logically upon skills developed in prior activities. I provided my fifth grade students with two key steps before they attempt this task. First, students need to develop the skills of bringing a story to life by showing the action and interaction between characters and creating dialogue which drives the plot. The Lucy Calkins writing workshop approach guides students to show the details of a story as it happened rather than just tell about it. During writing workshop class, students learn to write such stories based on significant personal experiences. A second step, and more complex task, is to learn to write research-based historical fiction. For example, in a presentation focused on a particular aspect of daily life in Colonial America. Each student writes a soliloquy as a character from Colonial Times (plantation owner, baker, slave, silversmith etc) by writing in the first person, giving an account of the daily life of this individual and developing characterization by sharing the character’s wishes, dreams and fears. In this way the third step, and culminating task of scene writing for the living museum, builds upon all these skills but now creates a context where the student must collaborate with a group to develop something yet more complex, incorporating interaction between characters to convey the key facts in a dramatized narrative. Students work together to brainstorm ideas, assign themselves roles, improvise dialogues and devise the details of their presentation. Some choose to include elements of audience participation! Presenters prepare to answer questions or engage in discussion with the audience while still remaining in their character role at the end of their scene.

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The Ancient Agora by Maggie Daly

Each year students devise their own original scene to share their research. Some of the most successful have been: Spartans and Athenians disputing which is the better city state followed by an audience vote; farmers sharing agricultural know-how and food samples; traders bringing wares from far off lands to barter; soldiers recalling their heroic feats in famous battles; Greek gods arguing who is the best; ancient doctors healing patients by sleep therapy; Olympic athletes training the audience in the discus, javelin and long jump events; and a chance to debate with the philosophers.

Assessment on the project is threefold. Students are assessed on their research through their individual outline. They are assessed on their group performance in the event itself, and also on the brochure they each create in technology class. This brochure serves as an invitation to their parents, a visitors guide, a reflection on how the project was created and a teaser to raise anticipation about what the audience will do, see and learn.
With students taking on the writing and development of their own scenes, what is the teacher’s role? One key teacher function is time management. The teacher needs to provide sufficient development time and to determine and manage the project timeline. The following process has been tried and tested. Provide two weeks of social studies and language arts time for classroom-based research, a week for brainstorming, a week for writing dialogue and a week and a half for rehearsal. Early on, perhaps after the first three days of rehearsal, hold a first run-through where students present their unfinished scene to the class and receive peer feedback. This provides stimulus and inspiration to groups who are lagging. Gather props and costumes by the end of the first week of rehearsal to further spur progress. This really helps to bring the whole project to life. Performances suddenly improve! Move rehearsals out into the performance space three to four days before the event so that students can incorporate the potential of available natural features, set and props into their performance.
Finally, the teacher/facilitator needs to coordinate materials and people. This is a great opportunity for cross curricula collaboration. Enlist your technology specialist and/or librarian to assist the students to find resources and take notes for their initial research. In art class help students to each identify and create a key prop for their performance. During technology time create a brochure advertising the attractions on display in the living museum. Parents have a role too! Ask them to lend a sheet for a costume and perhaps some extra props to add realism. Notifying parents by email helps to reinforce communication and ensure that all students have a costume on the big day.
The living museum is a high-value learning activity, not only must knowledge be acquired but then it must be interpreted, owned and harnessed to create something original. The task is not just intellectual but leads also to plenty of social learning as ideas must be communicated, listened to, and evaluated. Much of adult life revolves around collaborative work, and it is essential that we integrate teaching the skills of how to ‘make friends and influence people’ into the unwritten curriculum. Students need coaching in how to give one another constructive feedback and how to deal with conflict to achieve consensus. A collaborative project like this one provides a perfect context and I will be sharing the specifics of how I teach the social skills needed to support such a project in a future blog post.
So, are you ready to relinquish artistic control and allow your students to take the responsibility of being architects of their own learning, and write and devise their own dramatic scenes?
If so, then creating a living museum with your class may be just the project for you!

photo (2)

This project was developed in association with my 5th grade colleagues, Ria Maratou and Marla Coklas, whose inspiration, energy and enthusiasm was invaluable in shaping the final presentation.

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Look Who’s Talking: The Equity Problem

 Answering questions in Class by Eugenie Kourti Ferrante

If, as I stated in the previous blog post, the person who speaks the most in the classroom learns the most, then establishing equity is an vital consideration in class management. While some children love to contribute in class discussions, others are silent unless actually called upon. Once in a while you will have a student who is such compulsive communicator that he/she completely dominates every discussion in the classroom. How do you regulate the interactions of such differing learners to create the conditions for equity in your class?

Here are four strategies I’ve found useful.

Calling cards

Write each student’s name on a separate small card, perhaps a playing card. Keep these cards handily near your teaching spot. Whenever you are ready to call upon a student to answer a question, resist the temptation to call on one of the waving hands. Instead pull a card from the pack. The result of this small change is that now all the students are forced to prepare an answer to the question in their minds, as no one knows which name will be pulled. This puts an end to the silent fail, students who opt out of answering questions in class and rely on others to do all the brain work while they cruise and snooze.

This is quite a classic in the teacher’s toolbox, but is very nicely described on the wonderful Rick Morris’ site: New Management.

This site, by the way, is a wonderful treasure trove of brilliant ideas for making classroom management simpler and easier to handle.


When I  had a compulsive communicator in my classroom I was at my wits end what to do with her! After many reminders and several long discussions I could see I was not getting through to her. I didn’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but she was completely unaware of how dominating her communication habits were. I finally hit upon the strategy to give her a copy of the class checklist and put her in charge of checking off everyone’s name as they contributed during each lesson. I told her my goal was to make sure that every single student spoke during every lesson and asked her to help me to make sure that we gave everyone a fair share of air time.The effect of this was that she was not allowed to speak again until everyone had participated. She was astounded to discover how little she would be able to speak if everyone had a fair share! A side benefit of this was to make her much more selective about what she decided to talk about and to focus on quality rather than quantity in her responses!

“Get your 2 cents in!”

This is a nice game to play with your class to teach equity. Give each student a paper cup and two cent coins. They should place these in front of them on the desk. During the class discussion whenever they participate they can put one cent into the cup. The goal is to get everyone to get the two coins into the cup by the end of the lesson. This lesson structures communication: students who are normally talkative need to think more carefully about what they choose to say, while it sets a participation goal for those who are normally silent.

Chalk Talk

In this activity only the pens are allowed to do the talking! Hang a large sheet of butcher paper along the wall and invite students to silently respond in writing to a focus question. They can draw arrows to link ideas, add smiley faces, stars and checks to show agreement. The only rule is to read and respond, but no talking! It seems counter intuitive but this change in dynamic leads to greater equity in participation.

Chalk Talk is one of my class’s favorite activities and I first learned it during Critical Friends Group training. This protocol is developed by the NSRF and can be found on their website here.

Do you have a favorite way to promote equity? Please share!


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Look Who’s Talking!


 Think Pair Share in action, by Maggie Daly 

                   “The person who talks the most in the classroom is the person who learns the most!”

This is a concerning thought, when you can consider how much time teachers spend talking in the classroom! How can we constructively increase students talking about their learning in the classroom? Here are four great strategies you can use in your classroom to increase productive student to student talk.


Think-pair-share is the simplest strategy to increase student participation during lessons. Ask students a question and then, rather than choose one of the waving hands, ask them each to turn and discuss their answer with a predetermined think-pair-share partner. This is a great way to encourage less than confident students who feel nervous to speak out in front of the whole class. Also vocal students now all have a chance to answer the question, so no more groans of disappointment! Finally select one or two pairs to report back their discussion to the class. I often take the opportunity to call on one of my less vocal students who, having now confirmed her answer with a friend, feels more comfortable in responding.
Teach OK!
Teach OK! is a strategy I have learned from Whole Brain Teaching. Teach your students short chunks of memorable material using exaggerated hand mime gestures to reinforce understanding. After you present the concept with students mirroring your gestures, then you ask students to turn and teach to their partner. First A’s teach B’s, then B’s teach A’s. Confident students reinforce concepts for the less confident who then consolidate their own learning by teaching in their turn. Brilliant!


Checking comprehension answers can be a nightmare when young students are unskilled at judging if their answer is sufficiently correct. It seems as if every student wants to give their answer, frequently repeating one another. Does this sound familiar?

Here is the solution! Everyone stands. You choose a volunteer to answer the comprehension question. Anyone who had the same answer should sit down. Anyone who has more to add stays standing. Repeat the process until all students are seated. This way you can deal with misconceptions, discuss the relevance of details, have listeners take notes to improve their answers and finalise the best response! 

This handy strategy comes from Joyful Learning by Alice Udvari Solner.

When teachers give students notes from the textbook, they do all the intellectual work themselves!

If you are tired of working harder than your students, here’s a strategy to shift the load. To jigsaw, divide the assigned reading into sections. Give groups of students the responsibility to read and take notes on their section and teach it back to a student from another group. Students read independently and take notes, then meet with a group of other students who have read the same topic. They discuss and determine the main ideas and eliminate extra details. Then each student is assigned to a group of students who have studied the other assigned sections. They take turns to teach each other explain the material and share their notes. Students love this activity because they take over responsibility for their own learning. They enjoy the challenge of creating their own notes but are reassured by the safety net of confirming their comprehension with the group before taking the on the responsibility of peer teaching.

As students talk through their understandings with their peers they construct and refine their mental models of concepts by a series of approximations. In allowing our students these opportunities we are apprenticing them as knowledge masters who can become architects of their own learning, as opposed to passive recipients to whom the curriculum is delivered. Using these strategies transforms a classroom into a hive of student learning!  

If you have other favorite strategies you use to increase productive student to student talk, please share!

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Bitten by the Blogging Bug?

Want to start a class blog? Here’s what I learned in the past four years of blogging with my fifth grade class. 

My blogging journey began in 2010 when I attended a presentation by Dr. Tim Tyson at the NESA conference. Teachers use blogging in many ways: some as a tool to connect with the parents of their class, others as a means to publicize their lesson materials for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers. A third class of blogs, such as award winner Linda Yollis’ 2nd grade blog, are used as a learning tool for the classroom: a place where students can reflect on their learning, respond to discussion prompts and publish their own work. I was immediately inspired by the concept of students writing for students and getting authentic feedback from their readership. Blogging quickly became an integral part of my classroom. 

My 5th grade blog is an open invitation for students to extend their educational experience beyond the four walls of the classroom as they publish stories, reflect on class activities and contribute feedback to one another through comments. With the advent of blogging in my classroom, writing has become an authentic form of communication. The blog has become the web 2.0 version of something between a cumulative yearbook, a news sheet and a class literary magazine.

If you are tempted to have a go yourself, here are some tips on getting started:

Setting up a blog is extremely simple and can be done in less than 15 minutes. My initial blog was hosted on I later moved it to which gives you more design control. Linda Yollis has developed a very useful wiki on creating a class blog. There are three main issues to decide upon when choosing the settings for your blog: who can post, how the blog will be accessed and whether comments will appear instantly or be moderated before posting.

When setting up a blog you need to consider how you plan to allow your students to post their work. While giving them the status of contributors has the advantage of allowing students to directly publish to the blog, I have preferred to ask my 5th grade students to publish through me by emailing me their posts. This way I can request additional proofreading if necessary and deal with any technical problems, such as posting images. Another consideration is whether to have your blog on open access on the web or whether to have access by invitation only. Obviously some school districts mandate specific access terms, but having tried both, I can say from experience that restricting access to invitation only reduces student participation and makes blogging partnerships well nigh impossible, thus reducing the learning potential of the blog. Currently our 5th grade blog is on open access and I have not experienced any problems. I do get parental permission for our students to participate and am cautious not to connect real names with photographs of students. Finally, setting up the blog so that all comments are moderated by the teacher ensures that I can filter any negative comments, not that this has ever happened.

When introducing the blog at the beginning of the year, I, and the technology specialist, teach students how to access the blog through a permanent link on the class moodle course during a computer class period. We also teach email access and how to attach a document to an email, as these are essential skills to participate in the blog. Occasionally we have students who do not have easy access to technology at home and they are encouraged to use the school facilities to post and comment as equity of access to the blog is a value. Students are given a sneak preview of some highlights from the past years and then encouraged to independently explore the blog further at home.

Posting to the blog is mostly a voluntary activity done independently out of class. When I see students especially excited by a class activity, I often pass someone the class iPad and suggest they take some pictures or video. “Would anyone like to blog about this?” is often all that is needed to incite a volunteer to type up a post during break or at home and they always end their post by inviting classmates to share their opinions in comments. Following the example of previous years, students often choose to post their favorite creative writing pieces to share with their classmates, who enthusiastically respond. Longer pieces are released in installments to build the anticipation, with students writing comments begging for the next episode! Often, when grading, I will invite students to post particularly successful pieces to the blog. For some students blogging becomes a hobby and they regularly post narratives which they have written at home. Occasionally, I will post discussion questions on topics introduced during lessons or assign a blog post as a homework activity.

It is always important to spend some class time teaching the desired format for commenting. I have followed Linda Yollis’ useful guidelines on teaching commenting which can be found on her wiki. I teach students how to write their comment in the form of a short letter and I provide commenting guidelines on the About page of the blog. Correct spelling and punctuation is a requirement to pass through comment moderation. Periodically, I spend Language Arts time checking the comments held for moderation with the class and peer editing them. This has the benefit of raising consciousness and the level of concern about accuracy in conventions. We also collaboratively create a rubric for assessing comment quality as a class. 

Blogging harnesses the potential of technology in the classroom and offers a uniquely immediate relationship between author and audience. Students develop a more natural and spontaneous relationship with writing through blogging. They blog in order to be read by their peers and feedback from their peers inspires them to write more. The immediacy and social significance of peer feedback helps these young authors develop a sensitivity to their audience and to become more skilled in expressing their ideas with that audience in mind. The blog hosts writing of many different genres: from suspenseful story to the steps of a science lab. The overarching goal however is the same: clarity of communication. The blog provides a safe playground for young writers to explore, soar, run with an idea and challenge one another to greater feats. Come and visit us at the OWL blog!

Do you already have a class blog? If so, I’d love to hear how your experience compares with mine. If you are thinking of starting a blog and have more questions, I’d be happy to share more of my blogging discoveries.                What do you think? Does it sound a worthwhile endeavor?

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Teachers: Endangered or Essential?

Are teachers even going to be relevant to education in rest of the 21st century? As I introduce my 5th grade students to blogging and moodle, I sometimes wonder whether, in my desire to engage students using the power of technology, I might not be helping to guide the Trojan Horse into the teaching camp, ultimately leading to the end of our profession…
In this post. I’d like to share some worried, yet essentially optimistic, wonderings.

Looking ahead to the future, it seems self evident that education will inevitably look very different in the digital ages to come. In a world where computers are able to use data analytics based on our every click, our personal computers will come to know our interests and be able to connect us with related resources much more effectively than any teacher. Materials created by the “best” teachers will be available to all who can access technology. Kahn Academy already claims to be filling this niche. Their clear explanations can be played over again and again with no sense of embarrassment for the student or time limits on the part of the teacher.

Will the classroom be a thing of the past or will teachers still have a unique role in such a context? I would like to argue the latter! A good teacher does not just repeat and repeat the same lesson. She questions a confused student to analyze and respond to the source of misunderstanding and then reteaches it the way the child needs to learn. She subtly reads a multiplicity of non-verbal and verbal cues ranging from doubt to incomprehension, wavering focus, or incipient boredom. In response she continually orchestrates a response for the class: varying the pace, energy and level of activity to meet their needs. A good teacher explicitly scaffolds a shared context for new learning by telling stories or eliciting student experiences to connect the lesson to prior knowledge. She brings with her an in depth knowledge of this particular community of learners and uses this to facilitate a collective exploration in which students debate, discuss and spark ideas off one another.

Teachers inspire their students through example and through sharing a contagious enthusiasm for their subject. This can open whole new and unexpected areas of interest that might never be ignited by merely passionless Stumbling Upon a web page. Complex new ideas are often off-putting and a teacher who can pose and answer questions to help a student find meaning is a personal guide as the student becomes familiar with new territory. A teacher ensures structure and direction towards collective growth in the best long-term educational interests of her students. Will the students of the future be learning independently, yet meander in endless fractals, elaborating a small area of interest at the expense of wider knowledge?

Teachers engineer discussions bringing students into conflict with their preconceptions, challenging their established beliefs, and raising ethical dilemmas. They introduce students to the ambiguity of truth. They even set up group projects and activities to challenge existing social dynamics. Will a world of education based on yet more of what we “Like” already, not comfortably ensconce us all within our prejudices so we never need to venture out to associate with, or understand, others who are not “suitable” or “nice”?

A student encounters many teachers throughout their school life. Each different personality brings positive, and negative, lessons in how to relate, what it means to be human, how to work productively in society and an insight into the varied perspectives there are on the human experience. So many of us remember those teachers who took a personal interest in us. The trust that they engendered enabled them to become influential in shaping our lives. Without this essentially human interaction with our teachers will we grow up like Vulcans, rational yet unable to feel?

In the future, will access to insightful teaching become the prerogative of the privileged few or will it continue to democratize the access to knowledge and subvert the standardization of truth?

What do you think?

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