Digging into the Curriculum


So, I just realized it’s been almost six months since I’ve blogged; it’s amazing how time flies! Well I am back and I want to dig deeper into integrated curriculum and inquiry.

If you’ve read my previous 3 posts on inquiry, you know that I am passionate about integrating curriculum with an inquiry and social justice lens.

Today, I’d like to talk about intentionally using curriculum expectations, learning goals, and success criteria when creating tasks.

As I’ve mentioned previously, one way to approach inquiry is select a big idea/concept related to the curriculum and generate an essential or driving question that is open ended for students to explore. Students may be exploring and investigating the answer to their driving question, but explicit teaching is still happening in the classroom. Inquiry does not mean we let the students go without playing a role in the learning nor does it mean we relinquish complete control over the learning environment. When we talk about “letting go of the control”, we mean allowing students the freedom to go in different directions, based on their questions and interests. This is what we mean by honouring student voice and choice; it allows students to take their learning in new and exciting directions.

Our explicit teaching during the inquiry process starts with examining the curriculum expectations; it tells us what to teach but not how to teach it. In other words, based on the big idea and driving question selected, what skills do students need to develop in order to successfully respond to the driving question? In order to successfully communicate their thoughts and opinions related to the driving question? One can say, that communication is a skill in itself and that is correct; students need to be taught how to analyze, evaluate, judge, justify, organize, compare, contrast, and the list goes on. They don’t magically hone these skills without teacher support.

This past year, I started to look at curriculum expectations in a new light. As an instructional coach, I have had the opportunity to attend many PD sessions and workshops and many of them started with a Know, Do, Be Framework in terms of goals for the day. Here is an example:

Know: Deepen our understanding of instructional practices and how they might affect the decisions we make in support of the students we have (i.e., what is the outcome of student learning?)
Do: Intentionally selecting and implementing practices based on our learners’ profile
Be: Reflective and responsive educators based on student learning needs

The lightbulb went off and I made a connection between the Know, Do, Be Framework and our curriculum expectations. When deconstructing an expectation, it can be broken down into a Know (Content), Do (Skills), and Be (Habits of Mind). Even though I consider myself pretty familiar with curriculum expectations in terms of content and skills, I never thought of breaking it down to its nuts and bolts in this manner.


Curriculum Expectation (Grade 4 Math): collect and organize discrete primary data and display the data in charts, tables, and graphs (including stem-and-leaf plots and double bar graphs) that have appropriate titles, labels (e.g., appropriate units marked on the axes), and scales (e.g., with appropriate increments) that suit the range and distribution of the data, using a variety of tools (e.g., graph paper, simple spreadsheets, dynamic statistical software).

Know (content): charts, tables, graphs (different types; titles, axes, scale, etc), primary data

Do (skills): collect and organize

Be (habits of mind): not always present, however, as the teacher you may generate a “be” such as “critical consumers” (however, this may fit with another data management expectation)

I didn’t realize until about a month ago after reading an article, that Susan Drake, a professor at Brock University had done some work around this framework; I would love to get in touch with her to have a deeper dialogue about curriculum and student engagement and achievement.

Based on this framework for interpreting curriculum expectations, I created a chart not only to organize my thinking around the overall and specific expectations but also to assist teachers in determining what exactly they would like their students to know and do. From there, teachers can generate a “be” if they so choose. This “know” and “do” then helps to create learning goals and success criteria. which can also be connected with the four categories on the achievement chart and 7 processes in the mathematics curriculum (*note: these processes span all subject areas; not sure why it’s only in the mathematics curriculum).

(I’ve attached a PDF document with the Know/Do/Be framework at the end of this post)

Using the curriculum expectation from above, a learning goal could be:

“We are learning to collect and organize data and select an appropriate type of graph to represent the data.”

What mathematical processes do you see in the above learning goal?

So, now, we need to create a rich task and generate success criteria for the task based on the learning goal. (I will be talking more about rich tasks in my next blog post). Our next step, as teachers, is to think about an instructional strategy that aligns with the learning goal and task, which will help students to be successful. This is where your explicit teaching comes into the picture. What instructional strategy will you use? Why? How will you use it? These are questions you need to think about when selecting a particular instructional strategy. So, what instructional strategy can you use to assist students with organizing, collecting, and displaying? I’ll leave you with that question to ponder 🙂

How will we know whether students are successful in achieving the learning goal? We will know because we will assess student work based on the success criteria we generated and then provide descriptive feedback to students to help them to create next steps in their own learning.

Students will be able to use this learning when working on their inquiries; for example, if their inquiry includes displaying data to prove their point, then they have learned the skills to do so through the carefully crafted tasks designed by you, which includes the learning goal and success criteria!

Therefore, in very simple terms, we need to:

1. Start with the curriculum expectations
2. Break it down into the Know/Do/Be components
3. Create a learning goal in student friendly language {keeping in mind the 4 categories of the achievement chart and 7 (mathematical) processes}
4. Create a rich task
5. Generate success criteria (aligning with the learning goal and task)
6. Provide descriptive feedback to students

There is much more to the above steps but it is a basic structure of how we need to re-examine the curriculum and the work we do with our students.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back next week (I promise!) when I talk about rich tasks not only in mathematics but also across other subject areas through an inquiry lens.


Mathematical Thinking: No Pencils Allowed!!!



So the good news is that I successfully defended my dissertation and am now a PhD; the bad news is I haven’t blogged since February! This seems to be the recurring theme for the last year; writing a blog post and then becoming busy again with work and completing my degree requirements. Hopefully, now that I have completed my PhD, I will be able to blog once a week.

This week I’d like to talk about a topic that has been a focus in my role as an Instructional Coach this past year – that of mathematical thinking, reasoning and proving. I supported teachers in my schools in these areas and it has been great to see students develop and demonstrate their mathematical thinking, aligned with learning goals and success criteria.

When students reason and prove in mathematics, they are explaining their thinking and providing the evidence in a systematic manner using a variety of representations.

Many times, it is difficult to understand what a student is showing in his/her work. Before I provide some suggestions, we need to understand what reasoning actually is; what is reasoning?

The Ontario curriculum states:

“The reasoning process supports a deeper understanding of mathematics by enabling students to make sense of the mathematics they are learning. The process involves exploring phenomena, developing ideas, making mathematical conjectures, and justifying results. Teachers draw on students’ natural ability to reason to help them learn to reason mathematically. Initially, students may rely on the viewpoints of others to justify a choice or an approach. Students should be encouraged to reason from the evidence they find in their explorations and investigations or from what they already know to be true, and to recognize the characteristics of an acceptable argument in the mathematics classroom. Teachers help students revisit conjectures that they have found to be true in one context to see if they are always true. For example, when teaching students in the junior grades about decimals, teachers may guide students to revisit the conjecture that multiplication always makes things bigger.” (Ontario Ministry of Education, p. 14).

What key words stand out in this definition? I’ve bolded and underlined what I feel are the important terms and statements when it comes to reasoning. Students need to be able to make conjectures based on their prior knowledge and then provide proof/disproof of that conjecture depending on the question being posed. They need multiple opportunities to practice demonstrating their thinking in a variety of ways and developing their ideas in group settings and individually.

So, when do we reason? I know I rely on my reasoning skills when I am presented with a new problem or when logical thinking is required. For example, I was presented with this problem recently:

You are in a cabin and it is pitch black. You have one match on you. Which do you light first; the newspaper, the lamp, the candle or the fire?

I used logical reasoning and decided to light any of the items, you had to light the match first!

Now this  might not be a math problem but you get the idea; here’s one for you to try:

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 5.21.35 PM

So, what number is the car park on? How do you know? (Feel free to post your answer in the Comment Section).

We also have to look at the context when we are reasoning; think of the “bus problem” that I am sure several of you might be familiar with. I don’t remember the numbers that were used in the original problem but it goes something like this:

“The Grade 6 classes were going on a school trip, there were 78 students altogether and one bus can hold 22 students. How many buses needed to be ordered?”

Many students perform the standard algorithm and divide 78 by 22 to get 3.5 and their answer is 3.5 buses without using reasoning to understand that you can’t have half a bus, so we really need 4 buses. In this case, the context helps us to reason through our answer and explain our thinking.

When students are given a problem, whether it is open- routed or open-ended, they have to deconstruct and understand the problem in order to determine which strategy to use; this requires reasoning since they need to use the information given in order to select a strategy to answer the question. Sometimes, there is information missing from the problem and students need to realize what information is missing and how to fill those gaps in order to solve the problem.

Last but not least, students will use their reasoning skills when dealing with open-ended questions. These types of questions have multiple answers and multiple pathways to get to the answer. They will need to use their reasoning skills to determine the best path to get to an answer.

As I said previously, sometimes when we are looking at student work, it is hard to decipher their thinking, evidence, and reasoning. This is where conversations and observations are powerful. As educators, we recognize the importance of triangulation of data, so when we don’t understand what a student has written, follow it up by a conversation with that student with some probing questions or better yet, observe students while they are working and ask those clarifying questions in order to better understand their thinking process.

Here are some probing questions you can ask:

  1. How did you do this step?
  2. How did you know to…..?
  3. Tell me more about…….?
  4. What happened when you……?
  5. Why did you…..?
  6. How is this like….?
  7. How is this different from….?
  8. Can you find another way to solve the problem?
  9. Does your solution make sense? How do you know?
  10. Can you explain…?

Finally, in order to track and support students’ mathematical thinking and make it more visible, here are some suggestions:

  • Use Markers. When students use a pencil, they erase their mistakes and start over. This deprives us of seeing their thinking and how it evolved as they solved the problem. I have my students use markers and if they make a mistake, they place a line through it and continue underneath. This allows me to clearly see their thinking and have richer conversations with them, when looking at their work. This also supports growth mindset because students begin to see mistakes as valuable.
  • Give them the answer. Math can be stressful for many kids. This is why I would regularly (not every day) provide the answer to the question (e.g., the answer is “47”) and tell them to “prove it.” This allowed students to explore and investigate more freely and without a lot of stress. It has worked really well.
  • Modify the Question. Sometimes, I would modify the question for students in a “yes” or “no” format, (e.g., “Shelly says the answer is 2.5. Is Shelly right?” OR “Shelly says the answer is 2.5 but Jason says the answer is 3.5. Who is right and why?”). This also allows students to explore, investigate, and develop ideas but in a different way, especially with the latter example because students have to prove why either Shelly or Jason is wrong.
  • Convince a friend. Can they explain their reasoning to a friend? Can they answer their friend’s questions effectively?
  • Convince a skeptic. Can they explain their reasoning and thinking to someone who is not quite sure? Can they answer his/her questions effectively? Do they manage to convince the skeptic their line of thinking is correct?
  • Trade with a classmate. I’d often have students exchange their solutions with a partner and see if the other person can follow their line of thinking. Can Student A understand what Student B has done on paper? If not, what can/does Student B need to do in order to make their thinking more visible and explicit? The same goes for Student A. This is another great way for students to communicate as well as seeing the different strategies used to solve the same problem.
  • Group by strategy. Students can also be grouped by strategy and work together to show their thinking. After presenting a problem to students, let them get started individually; walk around and make a note of which strategy each student is using and then stop the class after a few minutes and pair them up (or groups of three; I don’t recommend groups of 4 since one or two students will end up taking a backseat), have these small groups continue working on the problem using their shared strategy and then share solutions as a class.
  • Take the paper away. There are many ways to solve a problem on paper, yet we often don’t emphasize other ways to solve the problem, without the use of paper. My suggestion is, take the paper away and challenge them to show their thinking in another way; what about acting it out? Going outside? Using manipulatives? Can you think of other ways students can demonstrate their thinking without the use of paper?
  • Marker for each student. In my first suggestion, I talked about having students using a marker (or pen/pencil crayon) to do their work; if students are working in small groups, give each student a different coloured marker so you can track individual thinking (a placemat can work well here).

I hope you find some of these suggestions helpful and effective!

I also recommend ThinkFun games for students to practice their reasoning, logical, and spatial thinking skills. These are fun and engaging games to support mathematics in any classroom. My 5 year old nephew is hooked on Rush Hour!

Here are a few titles:

  1. Rush Hour
  2. Gravity Maze
  3. Blokus
  4. Shape by Shape
  5. Block by Block
  6. Circuit Game
  7. Tipover
  8. Laser Maze
  9. Robot Turtles
  10. Brick by Brick

Visit their website at: http://www.thinkfun.com/

Next week, the plan is to continue talking about mathematical thinking and reasoning from the lens of assessment; in particular learning goals and success criteria. It is important that we assess what we are supposed to be assessing and this is where the difference between success criteria and task requirements come into play.

Until next week!



Ministry of Education (2005). The curriculum: Grades 1-8: Mathematics, 2005. The
curriculum: Elementary. Retrieved from

Financial Literacy in the Classroom


It’s amazing that’s it been almost five months since my last blog post but life was busy as I was adjusting to my new role as an instructional coach, working on writing chapters 4 and 5 of my dissertation, and instructing Additional Qualification courses in mathematics.

Now that I am back, I want to start off the year talking about financial literacy. While it is true that we have seen our scores in mathematics decline and therefore, are now focusing our attention on ensuring students having a deeper understanding of this discipline by exploring strategies to develop skills such as spatial reasoning, proportional reasoning, number sense, number fluency, and relationships and connections between concepts and skills, I feel that we also need to examine ways in which to teach our students about finanical literacy.

Financial literacy is about understanding how money works and how to manage and invest that money. More importantly financial literacy is about making wise choices and informed decisions about money. Because of advances in technology, which allows service providers to reach their consumers in more ways than ever, we need students to be aware of the manner in which these providers can entice and convince them to make poor choices. The popularity of online shopping, different payment options, and credit cards, have given the illusion that money isn’t “real”. In a time when unemployment rates are high and debts are increasing at the same time that cost of living is increasing, children of all ages need to be taught skills related to financial literacy in order that they are effectively equipped to grasp concepts related to personal finance. Stats Canada (2016) states that students who have completed a bachelor’s or master’s degree owe $26,000 while those who earned a doctorate degree owe approximately $41,000 (Statistics Canada, 2016)(and it’s only going to get worse as the cost of higher education increases). Combine these factors with an uncertain global financial market, and it should be obvious that teaching financial literacy skills to our students is imperative. We not only need to teach our kids how to handle personal finances but we also need to teach them the principles of economics in order to assist them to be well informed citizens who understand the important financial issues facing our nation and the world.

It needs to start at a young age when children first begin to receive an allowance. It needs to start with something as simple as the difference between a “need” and a “want”, which can lead to rich discussions about the value of saving. I always started my financial literacy unit with this concept and then each student randomly selected a job (e.g., hairdresser, plumber, interior designer, engineer, teacher, fire fighter, etc). The look on their faces when they were doing their monthly expenses always made me laugh because they were shocked at how much money was deducted from their paychecks in the form of tax (each of my students selected a job/profession from an envelope and then conducted research on that job); thereby teaching them the difference between gross pay and net pay. They were also visibly surprised when they realized the interest rate on their credit cards – yes folks, credit cards doesn’t mean free money 🙂

I started to teach financial literacy about 6 years ago after a couple of real life experieneces:

1) Those of you who know me, know I love my shoes! Aldo was having a sale and I was looking at a pair of beautiful stilettos, I happened to overhear the conversation occuring beside me between two high school girls. They were looking at a pair of boots and they were 30% off. One girl said to the other, “I have no idea what 30% off means for these boots?” to which her friend replied, “What makes you think I know?” I cringed and decided to intervene. I approached them and told them the answer and they looked at me as if I had two heads. “How did you figure that out so quickly?” one of them asked. I then proceeded to give them a 10 minute lesson on percents right there in the store. As I was helping them understand the concept of percentages and the relationship between percents and decimals, I could see the lightbulbs going off in their heads – what a grand moment! They were so happy that they finally got it and they couldn’t thank me enough. I left the store without buying any shoes but with a sense of accomplishment that I had done a good deed. 🙂

2) I went to purchase some blinds to cover the windows of the door that led out to our balcony from our kitchen. I had someone come in to install them for us and as he was putting them up, I heard him mutter under his breath, “Well, I’ll be damned, it’s right.” I asked him what he meant and he turned to me and said with a straight face, “This is the first set of blinds that I’ve installed where the measurements are correct.” He went on to tell me how all the other window coverings he had attempted to install weren’t possible because the owners hadn’t taken accurate measurements. I, needless to say, was floored. I thought he was joking but he clearly told me that it was no joke.

3) I’ve had many experiences where a high school student and/or a university student couldn’t give me exact change when their cash register wasn’t working. Almost every single time, I would have to tell them how much they owed me in return. One example was when I gave the cashier $20 on a purchase of $16.45 and he gave me $4 back. Now, some people might just take the $4 and go on their merry way but me being a math geek gave it back and told him he actually owed me $3.55. He was a bit embarassed but like the Aldo incident I took it upon myself to give him a quick lesson on mental math strategies and thankfully he was thankful 🙂

These three incidents combined caused me to reflect on what I can do differently in my math classroom. I, therefore, took it upon myself to start developing my own financial literacy unit. As I mentioned above, it started with a discussion around weekly allowances, needs vs. wants, and then assigning them a job. From there, they were given weekly assignments and tasks that gave them a better and deeper understanding of money and financial literacy. I even gave them opportunities to research and discuss topics such as the stock market, financial portfolios, pension and retirement plans (this was in my Grade 8 classroom).

This topic can and should be linked to our Ontario curriculum. We looked at proportional and spatial reasoning by exploring and examining such things as floor plans, shopping, redecorating, and the stock market. We looked at expenses and cost of living through number talks and we made connections between financial concepts and our seven mathematical processes. In other words, teaching financial literacy should not be an add-on but viewed as a natural integration based on the overall and specific expectations in the curriculum. 

Many adults make poor choices with their money and it’s because they were not taught effective ways to manage their money or make informed decisions. They need to have these important discussions with their children; parents shouldn’t be afraid to share their experienecs, good and bad, with their children because in essence they are sharing their knowledge and their persepctives about money matters. I am one of the lucky ones as my dad started a finanial portfolio for me when I was in elementary school and he was the one who taught me the value of saving and investing, which is another reason I want to pass on the knoweldge I received from my dad to my students. These conversations need to be supplemented in the classroom where teachers guide students through a variety of topics and concepts that have direct links to our curriculum expectations, the four levels on the achievement chart, and the seven mathematical processes.

If financial literacy programs are implemented in education and we have a continuum of concepts from K-12, then perhaps the next generations will not only learn to start saving and investing in high school but also graduate with less debt in order that they can have the same benefits as their parents when it comes to retirement.


Statistics Canada (2016). Graduating in Canada: Profile, labour market outcomes and student debt of the class of 2009/2010, 2013Consumers making wise choices. Retrieved from


Part Three: Inquiry in the Classroom


Calvin and Hobbes is one of my favourite comic strips and the one above demonstrates how the education system focuses too much on facts and less on the development of skills. Inquiry not only helps students to acquire skills such as critical thinking, analyzing, and evaluating but it also helps with growth mindset. By asking essential questions, which are open ended such as the ones I have done in my class, students begin to realize that there isn’t one answer to a question and that the answer isn’t clear. This is where inquiry starts with students asking even more questions. Now, I want to take a minute to point out the difference between wondering and inquiring. Wondering leads to one right answer. For example, we might wonder why dogs can’t eat chocolate but there is one correct answer to this question (it’s because of the compound theobromine found in cocoa), so it can’t be considered real inquiry. Inquiry leads students in different directions, with each student answering the question based on what they learned, their experiences and perspectives. For example, when my grade 8 students were studying cells, the big idea was “ethics” and the essential/driving question was “What role should ethics play in science, technology, and medicine?”. It was amazing to see the process unfold as my students flip flopped while we were discussing stem cell research. As they attained more knowledge and discussed these issues with their classmates, their perspectives changed, which led to thinking differently and ultimately asking more questions. I remember one of my students who ended up researching stem cell guidelines in different countries and how it impacted their communities, which led to a great discussion during one of our community circles. Because the inquiry process might be new to many students, they will ask you what you think. I always refrained from giving them my opinions and views because mine didn’t matter. The purpose is for them to go on their own path of learning and not be influenced by your views because traditionally students have always looked to the teacher for the “right answer”.

I think one of the best things about this unit was our literature circles. I found several novels that pertained to biotechnology, stem cell research, and cloning. I remember how surprised my students were when I introduced the novels; “You mean we’re reading fiction in science class?” <cue confused looks>! This was not only a great way to integrate language into my science class but also gave them a great introduction on how to ask questions (close and open ended) by using the Q-chart. I did not have them rely on this chart for questioning as it can be limiting but it was a good way to introduce them to the art of questioning and assessing their questioning skills.

I always get questions about how to assess inquiry units. My answer usually takes the form of how inquiry is a great way to assess through triangulation of data (i.e., observations, conversations, and product). When I have conversations with my students, I always ask prompting questions, which are open ended such as:

  • Why do you think that?,
  • what else have you discovered?
  • What questions do you still have?
  • Tell me more.
  • So what if…
  • Why do you say that?
  • Can you explain that?
  • Can you give me an example?

Giving students time to think (i.e. wait time) and not judging their responses are two other key factors when engaging in conversations with students. By asking open ended prompts and not judging by saying things like “That’s right.” or “That’s great. Good job” will allow the learning to continue and students to carry on by digging deeper and asking more questions.

My observations are done by completing a form for each student, which involves certain indicators (e.g., doesn’t give up easily, attempts several approaches, and brainstorms other solutions, etc) with space to write down my comments. I complete these observational forms for both their research process as well as how they interact with their peers during group discussions (e.g., asks appropriate prompts to ask questions, speaks in a respectful tone, accepts other alternatives even though might not agree with them, etc).

In terms of products, we generate success criteria as a class for the many ways in which we can demonstrate our learning (e.g., essay, movie trailer, podcast, website, speech, newspaper article, etc). This does take time but once it is done, it is accessible for the rest of the year. In terms of products, my students choose three tasks from a tic-tac-toe board I create such as this one:

podcast PSA brochure
speech movie trailer commercial
persuasive essay comic book story website

Sometimes I let students choose any three to make a tic-tac-toe pattern or I tell them they have to do the centre square and then choose any two others to complete the pattern.

Finally, I have students complete regular self-reflections once a week, which also helps with the learning skills portion of report cards. This takes the form of journal responses where I ask students:

  • How are you progressing? How do you know?
  • Has your opinion changed? Why or why not?
  • Anything I can do to help you with your learning?

In addition to triangulation of data, I also ensured that each of my assessments was based on at least one of the four levels on the achievement chart (i.e., knowledge/understanding, application, thinking, and communication) as well as the seven processes in math because those can be applied across the curriculum (i.e., representing, reflecting, connecting, reasoning, proving, selecting tools, and computational strategies). It does take a lot of planning and preparation and with time and experience it will become seamless; I have done this for almost 7 years and I am still learning, adapting, and changing things!

These inquiry units are a great introduction to personalized learning, which I will be talking about in a future post.

Again, as always, feel free to leave comments and questions!

Part Two: Inquiry in the Classroom


If I needed more proof that inquiry based learning is important in our schools, I need to look no further than my four and a half year old nephew. He has got to be one of the most inquisitive kids I have ever met. I am constantly amazed at his curiosity, his questions and his creativity. I know that many kids his age display these awesome traits and it saddens me that these qualities might be killed as he progresses through school. I imagine it’s pretty much gone by grade 3 when students are getting ready for the dreaded EQAO. I try and nurture these traits in him as much as I can when I ask him to come up with games we can play outside or ask him prompting questions to all his questions. I want him to constantly question, wonder, evaluate, and critique what he hears and reads. I want him to hold his own in any discussions and debates he may engage in with friends, parents, adults, and his peers. And the same goes for my niece but she’s only 17 months at the moment. 🙂

The education system seems to value memory over thinking. It’s more about recall of facts over defending, examining, critiquing, and evaluating. It’s more about knowledge than testing out hypotheses by building and constructing, assessing, and rebuilding to test out the new hypotheses. In the 21st century information can be googled so why are we still focusing on facts and not skills? We talk about 21st century skills such as communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking but these are not 21st century skills. These skills have been around forever but they just look different! When I was in school I was taught how to communicate effectively in oral and written formats, how to collaborate with my classmates on projects, assignments, and discussions, and how to think critically about the information I was reading in magazines, newspapers, and textbooks. The only thing that is different is how we approach these skills because of all the new resources and technology now available to us. We can now communicate with classes around the world because we have Skype and Twitter and blogs, we can create products using multimedia resources and share them globally on YouTube, we can think more critically about world issues because we have access to more information than ever before, and we can collaborate with teachers and students from around the world and engage in meaningful discourse about science, history, geography, and important world issues related to social justice and equity. If we combine these skills with all the resources and technology at our disposal, the sky’s the limit in terms of teaching and learning with our students!

This is where inquiry based learning can support the importance of skills over knowledge and facts. If we start with a “life big idea” such as survival or power and ask students a related essential (driving) question that does not have one right answer, we are promoting the very skills we want students to acquire – evaluating, critiquing, thinking, judging, defending, and examining, just to name a few. Sure, students will still be using Google to look up information but it looks very different. They are using the information they find on Google (or in magazines, newspapers, and books) to answer the question but skills such as evaluating and critiquing come into play because students have to defend their response. It’s no longer about having the right answer because “google said so”. It’s more about expressing their thoughts and opinions based on the information they acquired and their own experiences at the same time honing a variety of skills. We are inundated with so much information in this day and age, we need to do right by our students and help them to practice these skills in order that they can transfer them to other areas of their life. We want students to be able to navigate their adult life successfully and if we centre teaching and learning around skills rather than content, facts, and knowledge, we might just be successful!

As I mentioned in Part One, this doesn’t mean that explicit teaching of concepts doesn’t happen. It does, it is just not the focus of the unit. For example, when I taught grade 8 one of my big ideas was, “Ethics” and the essential question was, “What role should ethics play in science, technology, and medicine?” This was related to our Cells unit but I still taught my students parts of a cell, the difference between a plant cell and an animal cell, and the basics of genetics using a variety of instructional strategies (including the flipped model but that’s another blog post). The important part is the placement of these lessons as well as teaching students how to evaluate and critique websites and news reports on TV. One activity I have my students complete: I place students in groups of 3 or 4 and assign each student a different news channel (CTV, Global, CityTV, etc). They then watch the 6:00 news and answer a few basic question such as: (a) what is the lead story? (b) how did they report it? (c) whose voice was heard?, (d) whose voice was not heard and why do you think so?, and (e) what were the next two stories? I repeat this activity with a variety of newspapers too. This activity helps students to start thinking critically about what they are reading and watching on TV. Combining explicit teaching of skills and content can ensure that students are getting the best of both worlds and will be confident when it comes to presenting their findings and the answer to the essential question. When students recognize that their voice is valued, they become more engaged in the learning process and are motivated to dig deeper and ask more questions. I remember one year when I was teaching grade 7, the big ideas was “Survival” and the essential questions was, “Does earth have a greater impact on us or do we have a greater impact on earth?” one of my students decided to investigate when California would have its next earthquake. He was looking at statistics, numbers, and patterns to answer this question and it was exciting for me as his teacher to see him excited about his learning. This is a great way for learning to become more personalized for students as well.

Equally important is to ensure that the big ideas and essential questions have a social justice/equity lens. In the above example with “survival”, we talked a lot of about how people in different countries survive. For example, we looked at minimum wage, living conditions, working conditions, and how they prepare and plan for natural disasters. We also looked at how developed countries assist these countries in terms of disaster relief and whether it was enough; should we be doing more? Using technology to have these discussions is so powerful; why not use tools such as Skype, Twitter, and Instagram to discuss these issues with students from these countries? The discussion is rich with possibilities and leads to increased understanding of who we are, where we come from, and what we can do to help others. Many of you have heard the term “digital natives and yes by all means kids these days are very good at using technology and social media for personal reasons but they don’t necessarily know how to use technology for learning purposes. As educators, it would be so beneficial if we used these tools with our students to reach out to others, understand, appreciate, and respect different cultures, and help to talk about the many issues facing us in this century such as climate change, terrorism, stereotyping/racism, and crime.

In math we have shifted our focus on open ended questions over procedures, facts, and algorithms. We want our students to see the beauty in math and how math is all around us. So why not take this a step further into all areas of learning? By taking the idea of open ended question in math and using it in other subject areas, students will really come to value process over product, skills over content, and learning over performance.

Here are a few more Big Ideas and Essential Questions I have used in my classroom.

Big Idea: Identity

Essential Question: How does culture shape our identity?

Big Idea: Environment

Essential Question: What natural resource do we need to preserve the most?

Big Idea: Change

Essential Question: Is Canada’s history, a history of progress?

Again, please feel free to leave a comment and ask any questions you may have. I am more than happy to engage in discussions about inquiry and learning in general.

Part One: Introduction to Inquiry


Several years ago as I was sitting in my grade 5 classroom in June getting ready for the summer holidays, I was reflecting on the school year gone by and thought to myself, “There has to be a better way to teach all these subjects!” My main goal was for my students to recognize that science, geography, language, math, history, etc were not isolated subjects nor were they an island on their own. There are many opportunities for cross-curricular integration and I had designed and delivered many lessons where students were learning in this manner. However, I still felt there was a more effective method in which students could explore issues, topics, and concepts in an integrated fashion. Additionally, as someone who values social justice and equity issues, I wanted to find a way to ensure that social justice was part of my teaching units.

I never thought the journey that I started that summer would end up being one of the best learning experiences of my life! I remember sitting at my parent’s kitchen table (I was still living at home at this time) with all the curriculum documents spread out in front of me and doing a scavenger hunt of sorts. I was searching for ways in which the expectations in one subject area overlapped with expectations from other subject areas. I started with the science and social studies curricula since they would be the best ones in which the “big ideas” would come to light. My next step was to generate a list of these “life big ideas” and related questions (which we now know as “essential questions” or “driving questions”). Since I was teaching grade 6 the following year, my first big idea was “development” and my related essential question was, “Should Canada continue to invest in space exploration?”  I spent the next few weeks planning this unit; designing lessons, looking up resources, mapping out assessment strategies, and drafting a newsletter to parents about the unit.

This type of approach to teaching and learning allows students to use the inquiry method. They are introduced to the big idea and essential question and some initial discussions occur in our “community circle”. Students then engage in their learning by accessing the necessary resources (books, newspaper articles, websites, magazine articles, etc) to answer the question. This is not to say that there is no explicit teaching happening during the unit; of course there is! These explicit lessons just need to be planned carefully in terms of what information is being disseminated to students and when it is being disseminated in the learning cycle. I found that my students were engaged because their learning was self-directed; instead of giving them answers, they had to find them on their own. In other words, they were constructing their own knowledge and forming their own opinions and views based on their research and their experiences. I wanted my students to realize that there is no one right answer to these types of questions. One student could argue that we should continue to invest in space exploration while another student would argue that we shouldn’t invest in space exploration but as long as they each have valid and reliable arguments, they are both correct. Furthermore, this type of learning allows students to really listen to each other. We had weekly class meetings where we discussed the question and students shared how they felt. If students disagreed with each other, they did so respectfully and challenged each other by asking good questions (this in itself takes time to build in a classroom!). I also provided choice: my students could choose how to present the answer to the essential questions. Therefore, if one student’s strength was writing, he could write a persuasive essay; if another student wanted to deliver a speech, she delivered it in front of the class, and if another student loved technology, he shared his website with the class (my assessment procedures have evolved since then, which I will share in part three of my series). In the end, my students told me they really enjoyed the unit because they were allowed to express their thoughts and views, collaborate with their classmates, and didn’t have to complete a bunch of worksheets. Based on their feedback, I was determined to ensure that all my units were based around a big idea and essential question.

Here in no particular order are some other big ideas and essential questions I have done with my classes:

1) Big Idea: Survival (grade 7)

Essential Question: Does earth have a greater impact on us or do we have a greater impact on earth

 2) Big Idea: Ethics (grade 8)

Essential Question: What role should ethics play in the advancement of science, technology and  medicine?

3) Big Idea: Change (can work for all grade levels)

Essential Question: Is conflict necessary for change?

4) Big Idea: Power (grade 8)

Essential Question: Is water a right or a privilege?

5) Big Idea: Human Rights (grade 6)

Essential Question: Should Canada/countries continue to trade with countries who violate civil rights?

This is just a sample of my units. I will share more in part two of my series as well as on my website (which won’t be until late fall/early winter).

Here are some guidelines I have learned about writing essential questions:

  • Essential questions are concepts in the form of a question
  • Essential questions promote inquiry.
  • Essential questions have no one right answer, therefore open-ended.
  • Essential questions depends on the knowledge, prior experience, and questions that students bring to the table.
  • Essential questions set the focus for the unit of study
  • Essential questions are cross-curricular
  • Essential questions promote critical thinking, reasoning, collaboration, communication, etc.
  • Essential questions are related to the curriculum.

Things to Think About

  • What prior knowledge do students need to know?
  • What do students need to know in order to answer the question?
  • What resources can/will they use/access to find the information?
  • What instructional strategies best suit this type of learning?
  • What types of formative assessments will you have in place to ensure they are learning what they are supposed to be learning?
  • How will you accommodate for students who are on an IEP or who are ELLs?
  • How will you support struggling students?
  • In what possible ways can students demonstrate their understanding in terms of answering the essential question?

These are all things I have learned along my journey over the last 7-8 years; so my one word of advice is to start small because it can be overwhelming! I know I was overwhelmed when I first started but as I gained experience and received feedback from my students, it got easier and better! I now have a bank of these “life big ideas” and “essential questions” and I will share more of them in my follow up blog posts.

I’ve also had the privilege of delivering a three day course in the summer of 2014 and 2015 to teachers where they had the opportunity to explore teaching in this manner and providing a good chunk of time for them to plan one unit for the upcoming school year. It was a fantastic experience as we discussed the many benefits to students learning with an inquiry stance. I am still learning and brainstorming essential questions related to the big ideas as well as spending time gathering resources and bookmarking newspaper and magazine articles related to the major themes inherent in the open ended questions I ask my students.

Part Two of this blog series will hopefully be completed by the end of next week 🙂

Please feel free to leave me any questions or comments you have about my journey 🙂

Twitter in the Classroom


About a month ago, I wrote a blog post about social media in the classroom and have been meaning to follow it up with a post about Twitter in the classroom. Summer is to blame! Between going away on vacation, catching up with family and friends,working on my dissertation (Twitter in the math classroom!), and instructing an online course, my blogging has fallen to the wayside.

So here it is; a follow up to my last post about social media in the classroom. As I mentioned in that post, we often talk about bringing the real world into the classroom and what better way than Twitter? I have used Twitter successfully in my classroom and have found the majority of my students have been engaged and motivated to share their learning, interact with each other outside of the classroom as well as interacting with professionals from various disciplines. Twitter is a great tool to connect with others from around the world; whether your class is interacting with other classes globally or communicating with professionals in the field of math, science, geography, or music, there are many ways in which Twitter can be used to learn and engage students.

Twitter is not only a great tool for reinforcing course content and communicating but it is a great way to teach life skills, including digital citizenship. Many schools and districts ban such sites and this is such a disservice to both students and teachers. Filtering such sites doesn’t allow students to practice how to effectively navigate social media platforms nor does it allow them to distinguish, observe, and become familiar with proper online etiquette and behaviour. I’ve told my students numerous times that employers look at their online presence or digital footprint when making hiring decisions. One great strategy is to have a company or organization to come speak to your students about the importance of digital citizenship.

Twitter guidelines dictate that students must be 13 years old to create their own Twitter account, hence students in grade 8 and higher can create their own for academic purposes. They can also create a separate ‘private’ account but they need to realize that nothing is private because Twitter is a public domain. They can still held accountable for any negative or disparaging remarks they make towards others including other students, teachers, and to anyone else they may follow. If you are a primary/junior teacher, creating a classroom account is the best way to go. There are still many ways you can use Twitter to engage and motivate students even though they don’t have their own account.

One thing I do recommend is to send a letter home to parents outlining your inclusion of Twitter into your teaching practice. My letter included information about Twitter in terms of what it is and how it works; I also included reasons for integrating Twitter into my classroom and explicit examples of how it will be used. At the bottom, I had a tear off portion, which parents signed and returned, giving permission for their child to create an account and use Twitter for school purposes (grade 8). I would still recommend having this tear off portion for primary and junior students as keeping parents informed about technology use in the classroom is critical especially in terms of social media use. I also included a “Twitter 101” brochure for parents, which provided information about Twitter in terms of creating their own account and how to use its many features. Having parents follow your classroom on Twitter is a fantastic way to keep them informed, engaged, and involved in their child’s learning.

Below, in no particular order, I outline ways in which you can use Twitter in your classroom, which I have used successfully with my students.


  • create own classroom hashtag
  • organize tweets by hashtags as well (subject specific, reminders, field trips, etc)
  • post announcements and homework
  • post important dates such as tests, projects, and other assignments
  • post pictures and summary of field trips
  • post summary of learning for the day
  • post pictures and videos of learning for the day
  • post links to articles and videos pertaining to course content
  • Trivia Tuesdays or Trivia Thursdays
  • retweet articles from newspaper and TV news outlets
  • retweet tweets from professionals in subject-specific areas
  • students post questions about the homework and difficulties they might encounter
  • post a poll question (favourite for “yes” and retweet for “no”)
  • connect with classrooms across the country and around the world and host monthly twitter chats about a pre-determined topic or issue
  • connect with classrooms across the country and around the world to learn concepts and content together
  • follow industry professionals in all subject areas (searching by hashtag is one way to find them!)
  • follow government organizations and discuss current issues
  • follow newspaper, TV, and other media outlets to discuss global issues
  • find and connect with local organizations for sponsors and class visits!
  • post quote of the day
  • post fact of the day
  • in a primary/junior classroom have students use their initials as a hashtag to sign off their posts (a great way to assess; periodically you can do a hashtag search and assess that particular student’s tweets)
  • have students conduct research by using hashtags (for example, if students are researching “cells”, have them try the hashtags “cells” or “cellbiology”)
  • post inspirational quotes and have students post them too!
  • scavenger hunt (post clues and have students tweet their journey)
  • have students tweet a muddy point (something they learned which they still are not clear about)
  • exit (and entry) slips


  • tweet main idea of a story, poem, chapter in a novel
  • compose a poem in a 140 characters
  • compose a short story in a 140 characters (keep it interesting; how about a mystery or horror story in 140 characters?)
  • fix the tweets of celebrities and athletes in terms of grammar and spelling (with the 140 character limit, what would a proper tweet look like?)
  • in terms of the 140 character limit, discuss the importance of being grammatically correct vs. sharing an idea; which one is more important and why?)
  • students creating questions based on a short story, poem, novel, or magazine article and posting it for a classmate to answer in a 140 characters
  • build vocabulary: students compose a sentence on a particular word and then have them compose another one with a synonym and/or antonym
  • word games: word jumbles, word association, list as many synonyms/antonyms as you can, crossword puzzle clues, guess the definition, etc
  • review grammar by having students compose examples of run-on sentences, past tense, future tense, present tense sentences, compound sentences, and sentences with mistakes in them (other students have to find and correct the mistakes)
  • tweet as character from a novel as you read the book (thoughts? feelings? predictions?)
  • have students take on personal of novels from a character and have them engage in a twitter conversation (what would the conversation look like between Hermione and Ron?)
  • class newspaper: use paper.li (or another similar platform) and have students contribute 1-2 articles they wrote individually or collaboratively or have them share an article they found on another site
  • in their novel study groups, students participate in a twitter chat about the book (an online book club!); have students generate the questions for the chat using Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Q-chart
  • write a movie review
  • compose a book review
  • if the book you’re reading was made into a movie, who would you cast and why (unless of course it already is a movie or you could ask them to recast)


  • tweet as a historical figure (what would Tecumseh’s Twitter feed look like? Sir Isaac Brock’s? Napoleon’s?)
  • students have a Twitter conversation as historical figures (what would a conversation between Brock and Tecumseh look like?)
  • What if an event never happened?
  • what if an event ended differently? What would have happened?
  • post critical thinking questions (Who really lost the War of 1812?)
  • “This Day in History” factoid


  • connect/use Google Earth
  • post of picture of a mystery place and have students guess the place
  • trivia questions (flags, capital cities, major landforms)
  • post information and pictures of their travels
  • tweet about hypothetical natural disasters (tsunami, hurricane, tornado, etc)
  • create a disaster relief plan
  • tweet their opinions about geographical issues (have a twitter chat)
  • where is one place in the world they want to go and why?
  • take measurements and collect data to map out later
  • compare and contrast the geography of your country with that of the a classroom you might be working with in another country


  • post questions for students to answer around the scientific method (for example, post a scenario and ask question such as, “what is the independent variable? dependent variable? What is a placebo?)
  • post pictures of lab work with steps and results
  • post pictures of science examples in nature
  • host a twitter chat with an environmentalist, doctor, physicist, etc
  • monthly twitter chats about scientific advancements and issues (stem cell research, cloning, global warming, etc)
  • post opinions on these issues
  • science trivia questions
  • “This Day in Science History…”
  • Guess the Scientist (post a picture of a scientist and have students guess who it is)
  • read articles and analyze articles for fact vs opinion
  • create PSAs and post link for others to see
  • research science related topics using hashtags (#biology, #biodiversity, #cells, etc)
  • science jokes


  • follow accounts in French (people, organizations, news/media outlets)
  • pen pal program with another class (in a different province/state and/or country)
  • students translate tweets into French
  • students tweet in French (comprehension questions for example)
  • play vocabulary games
  • question of the week for students to respond to (What is your favourite dessert? Where would you like to travel, etc)
  • compose and post sentences in the past, present, and future tenses


  • use Twitter to gather data and statistics on a topic
  • follow major sports team (and athletes) and use data to create a question, answer a question, or “I wonder” question
  • estimation skills (e.g., post a picture of a room and ask students to estimate its size)
  • post pictures of sales in the shopping mall or real estate information and pose a question (encourage students to do the same)
  • post pictures of math mistakes you find and ask students to identify the problem and fix it
  • problem of the week
  • students post pictures of them solving a problem and the steps they took to solve it
  • tweet out solution to a sudoku puzzle
  • post a question and challenges students to solve it in multiple ways
  • students create problems and another student has to solve it
  • post pictures of math they see when out and about
  • post pictures (you or the students) and hashtag it with #whereisthemath ?
  • post photo challenges; students have to find an example and tweet out the related picture (e.g., post a picture of an item/object that has right angles)
  • 140 character journal response

As you can see there are many ways to use Twitter in your classroom and students are excited and engaged when they realize their tweets and thoughts can be seen by others from around the world. I highly encourage you to connect with teacher around the world to share your learning, learn content together, and participate in monthly Twitter chats. It’s amazing how many people will see you tweets and be interested in what is happening in your classroom. I once had an environmentalist follow our class because of the tweets she was seeing coming out of our classroom and we ended up having an awesome twitter chat with her. Student asked her questions about the environment and our climate and it was a great hour of connecting and learning. Because of that chat, I found my students became even more engaged on Twitter and started sharing articles and stories about current event and global issues.

I also held “study chats” on a regular basis. If there was a test coming up, the night before I had a twitter chat with my students, where I provided sample questions and gave them the opportunity to answer them for practice. This was also a great chance for them to ask any questions they had about the content and skills they were being tested on; and yes, some questions I posed on Twitter were on the test 🙂 (I always sent a letter home to parents letting them know we would be online in the evening reviewing for a test). 

  • One thing to remember is to NEVER engage in any personal conversations online. If during a chat, a student asks you a personal question, DO NOT respond! Do not even respond by saying, “this is an inappropriate question” or “you really shouldn’t be asking me this.”  Ignore it completely as if it were never tweeted and speak to that student face to face the next day about this issue. *

I know many of you will ask about the issue of privacy. That is up to you. You can make your classroom account private and accept followers at their request, just like Facebook or you can keep it public and block individuals who are inappropriate. If you teach grade 8 and above, I highly suggest you ensure students create private accounts and accept and reject people based on their accounts (see, digital citizenship rears its head again!). See my previous blog post about guidelines in terms of students creating their own account and staying safe.

I am sure I will be updating this blog post five minutes after it’s posted because I remembered more ways in which I used this great social media platform! There are just so many ideas for Twitter in the classroom!

Have fun and stay safe online!

Next Week: Part 1 of Inquiry Based Learning