Saturday, October 29, 2022

What Keeps Me Going? Building Thinking Classrooms by Peter Liljedahl

As I continue to find my place in my. not so new anymore school district I continue to struggle with many things about the change.  Sadly, much of what I have been passionate about in the past has slowly been removed from me.  I still very strongly believe that technology use can and should be a game changer in the classroom to help children create content and have new ways to share their learning but I'm tried of hitting barriers and roadblocks.  I'm still reminded from time to time about the positive impact I once had on educators (and their students) and that brings me both happiness and sadness. I am not who I once was. 

This summer while having lunch with my friend Sasha Wise she started talking about the things she had been experimenting with in her classroom after reading Peter Liljedahl's Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics book.  I listened carefully and knew I was already doing a lot of what she was talking about.  I'm usually skeptical of new things at first, so I sat on the idea for a bit.  However, the more I thought about what  Sasha was saying the more I wanted to learn.

This led me to purchasing the book and joining three groups on Facebook - Building Thinking Classrooms in K-2, Building Thinking Classrooms in 3-5, and the general Building Thinking Classrooms group. If you're not aware of Peter's work, he shares 14 researched based practices. You can get a quick snapshot of them here.

This are two students working at our original vertical surfaces.

In his book Peter suggests trying the first three practices first and I did just that.  At first, I didn't have enough non-permanent vertical surfaces for my class.  I teach grade two and three this year, so it's suggested that my students work in pairs. I needed 11 vertical non-permanent surfaces. I found cellophane paper in my school art supplies and so I put that up on my walls to supplement the white board space I already had. We were set.

Sasha also shared a website called Flippity with me and I quickly set up my  bookmark with my students' names in it. It's super-fast and easy to randomize my students.  I can also quickly edit out the students who are away. 

The third thing I needed was engaging thinking tasks. I'm quite familiar with websites like Open Middle , NRICH, and YouCubed (to name a few great websites) as well as math educators like Carol Fullerton and Marian Small (again just to name a few fabulous math educators) so finding tasks wasn't as hard as I thought. Peter has some at the end of every chapter in the book too.  There are also TONS of people sharing tasks in the Facebook groups.  I quickly created my own PowerPoint to help keep me (and my tasks) organized. I have "header" slides so I can ensure my specific content tasks are organized and easy to access with my learners.  I have begun going through what I already had and started to add those tasks to my PowerPoint. As you can imagine my document keeps growing as new tasks are shared with me and I create my own.

Peter suggests that you start with non-curricular tasks so that's exactly what I did. I started with the 3x3 square grid asking my students how many squares they saw.  A shout out to Alicia Burdess for this and so many other fabulous tasks.  The obvious answer was nine but that isn't the correct answer. The students kept working on it and finally some of them figured it out. They were hooked so I challenged many of them with a 4x4 grid and they moved into "choice time" at the end of the day a few students continued trying to figure out how many squares were in larger grids. We were certainly on to something. 

I did a few more tasks over the next little while and things continued to improve. Peter talks about knowledge mobility in his book and as long as 20% of your students are capable of solving the problem the rest will be okay.  Knowledge travels when you work standing up at a vertical board.

Of course, Peter writes about many more practices in his book (14 in total) and so if you know me, I go all in.  My desks are spaced somewhat "mishmashy" in pairs around the room.  We stand when I give my short instructions. I present my lessons at various boards around the room so not to assume one board is the "front" board.  We randomize ALL the time as my student desks are completely empty. My students know if their name is listed first it's their job to collect the tools for the board while the second person finds the board.  I'm still working on integrating more of the strategies into my practice.  I'm certainly not done yet.

Another person who has inspired me is Tammy McMorrow. She is one of the administrators of the K-2 Facebook group.  She's constantly sharing her thinking there which in turn pushes my thinking.  Because of her sharing my class has also made a list of expected and unexpected behaviours at our "Thinking Boards" (a term shared by someone else in the group). In my class we've talked about being a "Hog" (someone who hogs the pen) and a "Log" (someone who doesn't contribute to the board work).  I've also found student conversation starters which I've added near our boards. All these resources have been found in these fabulous Facebook groups. When you have a ferocious appetite for learning it's great to have places and people like this who are constantly sharing. 

So where are we now? I quickly moved on to curricular tasks and they are going well too. Number sense, place value, even/odd etc. all had their own tasks. I supplement some of the tasks with pencil and paper or other hands on tasks. Now we've moved on to operations and I'm giving "Thin Slicing" a try using number strings . And do you know what? My students are loving math! It was a comment that came up over and over again during our goal setting conferences last week. Plus, the students like being randomly grouped. Like really like it, even when they have to work with someone who they aren't close friends with.  There is something about visibly randomly grouping students.  It takes away any social pressure of finding the right partner, or me making assumptions that one student is stronger than another so needs to play the leadership roll.  When I visibly randomly group my students, I am telling them that I believe they can ALL do the math. It's TRUE and Peter has research to back this up.

I still have so much more to learn and implement but I feel like I'm on a pretty great journey so far. Thank you, Peter, for all your hard work. Not only are you changing the learning in classrooms around the world, but you've also brought my passion back.  It's been a rough few years so I'm grateful to be where I am now.

As a side note last weekend when I was able to hear Peter speak in Whistler and he mentioned a math podcast called Sum of it All. In their first season they do a book study on Peter's book. If you're curious to learn more do give it a listen. Who knows, it might spark your curiosity to try it too.

Who knows, maybe this new found passion will get me blogging again. Or at the very least I might be able to inspire others to give this work a try too. Our students certainly deserve it. 


Monday, August 26, 2019

6 Ways to Transform Learning with iPad Integration

Imagine this scenario. You’ve just been given the opportunity to use an iPad with your class and you have no idea how you should use it. I mean really, you are already doing great things in your classroom without technology, so what’s the point of adding technology? In fact you’ve heard children already have enough screen time and more can’t be good for them. You even have colleagues who are already using technology for engaging drill and practice games yet they aren’t seeing any benefit from having kids pinch, swipe, and tap on consumption apps. With so much negative information surrounding the use of technology in schools why were you given an iPad to use with your students?
Well, leadership knows and agrees that using technology to replicate what you’re already doing without technology adds very little value to student learning and achievement. In fact, it may even negatively impact learning so obviously that isn’t why it’s been given to you. So how can iPad integration in the classroom help support your learners in a positive way?
Capturing the Learning
To begin with, having an iPad to use does not mean that you have to change everything you are already doing. Your engaging lessons and student driven inquiries continue to be excellent teaching practices and technology isn’t going to change that. However, by adding an iPad into the mix you are making that good practice even better. An iPad allows your students to capture and document in images, text, voice, and video. Take for example what is happening in the image below. This student has created a house for a bear using hands on materials. He then took a photo of his house and is measuring the dimensions and recording them onto the image on his iPad.  Later he’ll be able to add his voice to this annotated image to document his thinking and learning from this task.  
  • An iPad allows you create and capture learning in images, text, voice, and video. 
  • An iPad captures and enhances hands-on learning. 

This student has created a home for a bear and is using an iPad to capture and record the dimensions of the home.
Make Learning Accessible
An app such as Draw and Tell allows even our youngest learners to take pictures of their work and annotate that work. For example a student can take a picture outside their classroom door, outline the shapes that they see on it and then record their voice explaining what they have done. It allows the teacher to hear the thinking of the student even if they were busy with another student while the thinking was captured. It’s a far more meaningful task than asking your student to find and colour in shapes on a piece of paper. 
  • An iPad supports personalized learning for each individual student.
  • An iPad offers a low entry point for all learners, yet also provides a high ceiling for those who require it.
  • An iPad gives each student the opportunity to record their voice and explain thinking.
  • An iPad allows the teacher to hear a student’s voice even if they were not there when it was captured.
This student has utilized annotation tools to capture and show their understanding of shapes in their environment.
Flexible Learning Environment
In addition, an iPad is a portable device which means it can capture learning wherever it is happening. It can be brought on a forest walk to document different types of trees, used on the playground to capture shapes in the real world, or come along on a field trip to the science museum to capture the highlights. An app such as Popplet can help a student create authentic artifacts of learning of what has been captured outside of the classroom. An iPad allows your students to capture their learning anywhere.

  • An iPad allows any environment to become a place to create and capture learning.

An artifact of learning created by a student using personal images they captured in their environment.

Document the Learning
An iPad also allows a student to document their learning in images, text, voice, and video in an ongoing manner. The documentation doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around because mistakes can easily be fixed on an iPad. Yet, the work can easily be captured from the beginning of a project and stored in an app such as Book Creator. Book Creator allows a student to keep their self created artifacts (and the thinking behind them) organized and in one place. 
  • An iPad is a safe place to make mistakes as they can easily be fixed.
  • An iPad is a safe place to capture and store on-going documentation of learning.

These children are using the Book Creator app to create an artifact of learning. They know that with this app they can personalize their pages, add text, shapes, images, voice, and videos to make a high quality finished product. 
Differentiate the Learning
An iPad also allows students to create their own evidence of learning and this fits in very well within a student-centered differentiated classroom. Each child can be doing a similar math activity at the same time and yet the activity can be personalized to best meet each students’ individual needs.  For example an app like PicCollage can be used to create a poster that shows an understanding of measurement. One child may focus on the tools used for measurement and focus on using the image search feature within the app to create their artifact of learning. Another student may focus on units of measurement and use the camera feature of the device to capture some images and use the image search feature within the device to create their personal artifact of knowledge. Differentiation is made much easier when you use an iPad to support that differentiation. There is an entry point for all.
  • An iPad supports student content creation
  • An iPad supports student differentiation.

This student has used both the iPad camera and the image search feature of PicCollage to show is understanding of units of linear measurement and when it would be best to use which unit. 
This student used the image feature in PicCollage to create an artifact showing their understanding of tools used for various types of measurement.
Collaborate and Learn
An iPad is also a social tool that supports creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.  Each child doesn’t need to have their own device to gain from the value of an iPad. Students can co-create artifacts of learning using an app like  Book Creator. For example, they can use it to write non-fiction texts, create interactive stories, document the process of playing a sport, and capture positional language just to name a few ideas. They can use it for stop motion animation to document the life cycle of a salmon or to retell a favourite fairy tale. Learning together often supports creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking as two brains are better than one.
  • An iPad supports creativity by the various ways it can help students create their own content.
  • An iPad supports collaboration through working together to co-create an artifact of learning.
  • An iPad supports critical thinking by being a tool that has so many options and variables to create with. 
These children are working together to create a story with images drawn by other students. They are talking about the story they want to create using the iPad. They know that they can easily change fonts, add their voice, and create a polished finished product.

With open ended creation apps such as PicCollage, Popplet, Draw and Tell, Book Creator, and Explain Everything anything is possible with iPad.  To learn more about how you can use an iPad in an elementary classroom check out Innovate with iPad: Lessons to Transform Learning written by Karen Lirenman and Kristen Wideen.

Monday, December 31, 2018

My One Word for 2019 - Gratitude

I realize for the past few years this blog has remained relatively silent and I do apologize for that.  I am still around, and still teaching too although I have been through quite a few transformations.  In 2013 I left a school I called home for over 18 years, to move to a new school.  I liked my new school but two years later an exciting new program was forming in my school district and I jumped at the opportunity to get in on the ground floor.

The Surrey Academy of  Innovative Learning aka SAIL was born.  I thrived as an educator working at SAIL meeting children with so many unique challenges, but more importantly so many unique gifts.  I was stretched professionally to go from teaching one or two grades at a time, to four and I loved every minute of it. It made me rethink what mattered most and while I'm far from perfect I did work hard to find a good balance for each of my students and the team that I was a part of. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.

It seems though once I became unhooked from my "long time" school,  moving schools became a lot easier for me.  I loved working at SAIL, even with all the challenges that it came with, yet the opportunity to teach closer to home presented itself for the first time in my 26 year career.  I spoke with my admin and with their full support I started the process to make the jump to work closer to home.  This fall, after over 26 years, I  made the move and quit my dream job with the Surrey School District, and became an employee of the Vancouver School District.  While there are teaching jobs available in Vancouver, as someone new it isn't easy to land your own job right away.   I was fortunate to land a job as a Perm Sub.  But more than being able to get a contract right away (which means my pay and benefits remain the same in my new district), I was placed on the first day of the school year in a good school and I've spent the past few months as a member of  the wonderful MAPLE community at Norma Rose Point teaching the most kind and caring kindergarten children who happen to come with lovely families too.

Even in this new job in a good school with good people there is so much of who I am as an educator that I've shelved for the year as I find my place in a new school district.  At times it gets me down, but then I remember that this was my choice and how fortunate I am to spend my work days with the people (little and big) that I do.  I'm learning tons (it's been over 20 years since I taught Kindergarten on its own) and I am finding my place in my school and hopefully in time my new school district.

The future beyond the year is still unknown for me but I have to have faith that the right job will show up at just the right time.  Where that will be I have no idea.

So why is my word for 2019 GRATITUDE? To be honest GRATITUDE has been my word for a while now. I have been a glass half full type of person for most of my life, looking for and finding the good in even the toughest situations.  As my mother was fighting her brave and courages battle with cancer, I would see what she could still do and enjoy instead of what she couldn't.   As I was training for my triathlons, I would find the good that came out of some of the toughest training periods.  There is bad all around us but I make the effort to focus on the good.

More recently though, while I continue to focus on the good, I want to make a better effort at acknowledging the good in my life. This is where GRATITUDE comes in.  Even in the toughest times I have so much to be grateful for and I want to recognize and acknowledge that on a regular basis.  I want to keep focussing on GRATITUDE to help remind me of how truly blessed I am.  While life isn't perfect for me, and perhaps I am just as good as the next at keeping a brave face in public while I deal with my own demons in private, I know that even in my darkest hours I STILL have so much to be grateful for.  GRATITUDE helps keep me moving forward, It helps keep me grounded in who I am as a person, and it helps me gain strength from those I share this world with.  I am grateful for the similarities and the differences we all share as it's what makes me unique.  I am grateful for who I am and what I have in my life.  This year I will do my best to verbally express how grateful I am, even when I'm struggling.

What is your word for 2019?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Motivating Ourselves to Be Excellent in the K-2 Classroom!

I was totally honoured when Cool Cat Teacher, Vicki Davis, invited me on to her podcast The 10-Minute Teacher Show.  I love teaching that age level so I jumped at the opportunity to share.   Have a listen...

To learn more about the podcast check out her blog.  To hear this and other episodes subscribe here on iTunes.

Yes, I'm still here!

I do apologize for letting my blog get so quiet for the past few years.  A lot has been happening professionally but taking the time to share on this blog hasn't been a priority.

Back in June 2018 I had the pleasure of creating a digital book in Book Creator for Book Creator, one of my favourite iPad apps. The book was written with an elementary audience in mind and highlights many different ways the app can be used to help students create their own content and share what they know.  It was a real labour of love, and with permission, I was able to share some of the fabulous things my K-3 students at SAIL were getting up to with iPad. The resource is completely free and if you haven't checked it out yet, I highly encourage you to.  You can learn more about it here and can download you're own copy to read off line here.

I hope to get back to blogging once things settle for me.  I just recently switched school districts and I am working hard at finding my place in my new district.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Thoughts from My Brian...

I started this blog post back in September 2016 as I was starting my 25th year of teaching.  It was never finished but figured I should share what was written.

As I begin my 25th year of teaching I will admit that there is still so much that I don't know.  As I often say the more I learn the more I realize how little I know. Here are things I think about often and what I strive to support with my teaching practice.

All children are gifts to this world.

Children are far more capable than many give them credit for.

Children do not behave poorly to simply behave poorly.

Everyone wants/needs to belong.

Each child has a book that will successfully entice them into the world of reading.

Technology can open up a world of creativity, self expression,  and creation for all children.

Kindness can change the world.

Things don't always go as planned and that's okay.

I'd love your thoughts on my thinking.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Innovate with iPad: Lessons to Transform Learning in the Classroom

Kristen Wideen and I are pretty excited to have our book Innovate with iPad: Lessons to Transform Learning in the Classroom available for purchase worldwide through It was certainly a labour of love but we are so excited it to see it in the hands of technology coaches and classroom teachers around the globe.  If you aren't familiar with our book like me tell you a little bit about it.

Kristen and I are both elementary school teachers with a range of teaching experience. We are also both Apple Distinguished Educators who have access to iPad for our students.  She and I both quickly learned that iPad is far more than a tool to do "fun" drill and practice activities with but a tool that can allow students to create their own content.  While we realize there are some great drill and practice type apps, and there is a time and place for those too, we certainly spend far more of our day having our students create their own work, then rely on consumption apps.  What we've learned by having our students create content, particularly in an open-ended environment, they know far more than we've given them credit for.  Open-ended activities allow our students to really show us what they know or in many cases what they don't actually know even though they are able to answer questions correctly or quickly. Using iPad in our classrooms has really made a difference with our students thinking and understanding. Their learning has improved.

Our book features  five open-ended creative apps. These apps include Pic Collage, Popplet, Draw and Tell, Book Creator, and Explain Everything.  We have found with these five apps our students can create most of the content they need. However if you are using different apps with your students, many of our lessons can apply to your specific apps as well. We have also done our best to include other apps that can replace these apps. We realize many districts are limited to free apps, but even with free apps (PicCollage, Popplet Lite, and Draw and Tell  are all free!) there is so much that can be done with iPad.

After introducing the five key apps we also talk about some of the features of the book.  Kristen and I  spent a great deal of time creating the ideal layout for this book so that it can help teachers quickly find what they are looking for.  We have labeled the lessons into specific grade levels, and iPad comfort levels, as well as possible lesson extensions.  In addition most lessons have student samples and some even have links to video samples.  Many of the lessons also have downloadable task cards that you can give to your students to help them work more independently in an iPad station setting.  Our book is beneficial for teachers with one iPad or with one iPad per student and everything in between.

There are five key chapters in this book that divide our lessons up.  The first chapter has lessons focussed around numeracy and iPad.  I think Kristen and I could have written an entire book on just numeracy and iPad lessons as there are so many ways to use iPad in a numeracy classroom.  We have provide many lessons, most of which can be adapted up or down to meet your students specific numeracy needs.  In fact one of our reviews actually mentioned how he could use some of our numeracy lessons with his university students.

The next chapter focuses on literacy and ways iPad can be used to enhance and support your literacy program. Again many of the lessons can be used at various grade levels. Our hope is that you will see the lessons that we have shared and you will be inspired to create some new lessons for your students. Our book is meant to be a starting point, not an end point for innovation with iPad.

We then have  chapters focussed on science and social studies lessons. Once again the content part of the lesson can be swapped out to meet your students' individual needs.

In the final chapter of the book we take a look at ways an iPad can help with student self assessment.  At the simplest level having students be able to add voice to their work, and talk about what they did, what they are proud of, what they worked hard at, what they still struggle with, and set goals for their future learning can have a huge impact on future student learning.  It's exciting that iPad can play an integral part of this learning and growth.

To accompany the book Kristen and I have created a website. Here you will find all the student examples as well as access to the downloadable task cards.  Many teachers have found both the student examples and the downloadable extremely helpful in their classroom environments.

As I mentioned earlier, Kristen and I would love for this book to continue long beyond its purchase.  To help support this vision we have created a space on the book's website to collect and share the great  ideas this book is inspiring in your classrooms.  You can find this special sharing area under the  "Let's Share" section of the website.  Here you will find four Google Slide presentations with easy to follow instructions on how to add your ideas to the slide decks. Our vision is that this book will continue to inspire educators for years to come.

Kristen and I also have created the hashtag #InnovatewithiPad as a place to continue the sharing. Stay tuned as well as we hope to host some twitter chats to accompany the book. We really want this to be a living book that will continue to grow in usefulness.  If you want to stay up to date on these twitter chats and other future adventures with the book please add your name and contact information to this form. We will do our best not to send out too many emails, and of course you can be removed from the list at any time. We respect your privacy. 

As you can imagine, Kristen and I are excited about the resource we have created and we hope that you will find it of value too.  If you have not yet purchased your copy please head over to or and order yours.  If you are reading this and work for a district or school and would like to purchase multiple copies for your environment, please leave us a message with the approximate number you'd like to order and contact information (email works best) and we will be in touch as quickly as possible.  You can leave us a message through the contact us link on the book's blog (or via twitter, this website, Kristen's website, or any other method you have to get a hold of one of us :-)  ) .  Thank you!!