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Golf, Differentiation, and Mandela

I recently read an article in The Now Newspaper about Surrey golf instructor, Rob Houlding’s accolade for receiving The PGA of Canada teacher of the year for 2013 (The Now Newspaper, Dec 19, 2013) In the article, Houlding attributes his success as a golf instructor to his steadfast refusal to follow “cookie-cutter” instructional approaches.  Houlding is quoted saying,

“Everybody is different and the first thing I do with my students is try and figure out what makes them tick and how they respond to different ideas.  Everything is very individualized and I work closely with each student – I do not do group lessons … I find that private, focus-based attention from me gets the best results.”

Houlding’s words caused me to pause and reflect on how his ideas fit in a classroom setting.  Through experience, Houlding recognizes that knowing your students is a key piece to providing instruction that meets their needs.  At the same time, Houlding suggests, strongly, that group instruction is ineffective.  So, where does this leave classroom instruction, the space where large groups of children gather to learn?

In answering this question I hope to elucidate misunderstandings between differentiated instruction and individualized programs.  Where Houlding is providing his golf pupils with individualized programs, children in a differentiated learning environment are receiving targeted instruction tailored to their needs.  A differentiated classroom uses instructional methods that involve the whole class, small groups, and individuals (see here and here).

None-the-less, we can draw on Houlding’s ideas when shaping our differentiated classrooms.  Consider, for example, Houlding’s belief that successful golf programs begin with a clear understanding of his student’s learning profile.  This understanding develops and changes over time through a process of continual assessment and targeted feedback.  Ongoing formative assessment combined with critical feedback is a key piece in a differentiated classroom (see here for more information on feedback).

To share one example of differentiation in action, I will briefly discuss the processes and products of a project my students completed following the death of Nelson Mandela.  Working with a partner or alone, my students designed and created a tribute to Mandela’s legacy.  Together, we drafted assessment criteria for this project.  As a class, we discussed and read about Mandela.  Students worked in small groups to build their background knowledge.  I circulated and supported individuals where and when needed.  I asked questions and respectfully critiqued students’ ideas to deepen their understandings.  All of these processes were intentional and framed in a continual assessment/feedback loop.  Although all students were involved in producing a tribute to Mandela, the processes were carefully designed to respect individual learning styles and readiness levels.  When we design are learning opportunities in ways that honour the individual child, the results can be astounding, as evidenced in the following:


So, where Houlding individualizes his pupil’s programs we, as educators, can differentiate our instruction to provide exceptional learning opportunities for all of our students – even in a large group setting.

What change taught me

After teaching grade 6/7 for seven years (2005 – 2012) in a well-to-do south-end area, I decided to take on a new adventure in a totally new context.  This new adventure placed me into a grade 5 classroom in one of my district’s most inner city north-end schools.  Why did I do this?  I knew it was time for a change.  I knew a significant change would sharpen my teaching and broaden my understandings of the complexities within my school district.  I was aware that the experiences faced at an inner-city school would support my aspirations to move into a vice-principalship. I am so glad I made this change!

I discovered that making a change breathed new life into my career and professional development.  One of the first things I realized when I began working with my grade 5 students was the absence of any “down-time”.   I was amazed at the level of need my students demanded.  I was pushed to organize my planning and lesson implementation more thoroughly.  I was pushed to think about individual needs more carefully.  And I was pushed to work with children whose cultural backgrounds and social-emotional needs challenged my pedagogical beliefs and experiences.  My work was exhausting, at times frustrating, and absolutely wonderful.  

I learned quickly that the notion of teamwork was more acute in my new working environment than in any of my previous experiences.  Collaboration and support from my immediate team strengthened the work being done in the classroom.  My immediate team included the principal and vice-principal, my educational assistant and integration support teacher, my learning support teacher, my grade group colleagues, our school’s social development teacher, the CARE program teacher, our childcare worker, and our school’s counselor.  Although this list is typical in many schools (with the exception of social development and CARE), the difference was the frequency of contact I had with all members of my immediate team.  Working together was absolutely critical in our efforts to support our students’ complex needs.

Although I was only at this north-end school for one year, I learned valuable lessons that will remain with me throughout my career. I am thankful to my students, my immediate team, and all staff for steering my professional development in new and challenging directions. Yes change can be scary, but it sure is exciting!

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog.  I decided to start a blog because I want a space to share my learning and journey as an elementary school teacher in the 21st century.  My hope is to contribute to the valuable discussions already occurring in the online world. I imagine this blog becoming a place for reflections and commentaries.  Let’s see what happens and enjoy the ride!


Reflections on Innovative Learning Designs Year 1

So, you have a cart of iPads for your school … now what?

During the 2011/2012 school year, I was a principal member of an iPad initiative at Pacific Heights Elementary (PHE) in the Surrey School District (BC, Canada).  The initiative, known as Innovative Learning Designs provided 30 iPads, a synching MacBook computer, and an open wireless network in the school.

One of the challenges I experienced as a member of an iPad grant school was conceptualizing how to use tablet technology to support student learning in meaningful ways.  Let’s face it an iPad is a very different platform from what most educators are used to!  Up to this point, most of our experience with technology in education has been with a keyboard, monitor, and software applications.  Through my experience, however, I believe tablet technology, like the iPad, has a lot of potential to shape learning and education in powerful ways.

In order for this to happen, I suggest educators embrace three ideas to help them better understand and use iPads in their classroom.  First, iPads are consumption devices so we need to make decisions on what kind of information/knowledge we want are students to view.  Second, iPads are creative devices so we need to consider how our students will apply their learning in creative ways.  Third, iPads are sharing devices so we need to make decisions on how our students will share their knowledge with peers, teachers, and parents.  With these three ideas in mind, here are 8 additional points I have learned during my first year using the iPads.  Hopefully readers will be able to employ some of these ideas in their own schools.

  1. Start small and keep it simple.  The first few times you bring the iPads into your classroom, allow your students time to play with them.  This is an opportunity to assess your students’ comfort and knowledge with the technology.  By observing and talking to your students, you will learn who the advanced “techies” are.  These are the students who can often help others problem solve and learn new ways of using the iPad.
  2. Consider having teachers commit to one day per week with the iPads.  At PHE we used a basic weekly calendar.  Each day was divided into 6 – 45 minute blocks.  All our teachers signed up for one scheduled block per week.  The scheduled block remained consistent throughout the school year.  Because we were new to iPads, our teachers felt a scheduled time was a comfortable way to become familiar with the technology.  With teachers committing to only one session per week, many open blocks remained available.  Teachers were encouraged to sign-up on a weekly basis to any available open blocks with the iPads.  As the year progressed, we discovered more and more teachers using the open blocks in addition to their scheduled block.  In fact, finding an open block to use the iPads became increasingly challenging throughout the school year.  I think this was a very positive development.  Teachers at Pacific Heights were becoming very comfortable integrating the iPads in their classrooms and valued the level of student engagement while using them.
  3. Establish a monthly committee that is in charge of making decisions on which apps to purchase to support student learning.  Teachers not on the committee can make recommendations on potential apps to purchase.   When purchasing an app think carefully about how it promotes consuming, creating, and sharing of learning?  I think the best apps combine at least two of these three components.
  4. Purchase apps only on your synching computer.  My colleagues and I quickly learned that synching iPads was not as easy as we initially thought.  Ideally, all iPads have the same image because they are synched from one computer.  However, problems appear to arise when apps are purchased or updated on individual iPads.  This causes the image to change from iPad to iPad and the synching computer can no longer do its job efficiently.  For this reason, I highly recommend a committee forms with the primary function of making decisions on which apps to purchase onto the synching computer.
  5. Staff development is key.  Principals who are leading schools with tablet technology need to do their best to get the technology into the hands of teachers.  If teachers have their own iPads, they will begin making pedagogical connections through experimentation, professional dialogue, and increased awareness of the tool.  At PHE all teachers were given their own iPad.  I was thrilled with the excitement and interest teachers displayed upon receiving their iPads.  Most importantly, I believe that our students benefitted from our teachers enthusiasm to learn the iPad platform.
  6. Before launching your iPads for student use, create iPad “families”.  This is very simple to do and will help teachers and administrators manage the technology.  To create iPad families, teachers simply assign a number to each child in their classroom.  From here, teachers match student numbers to iPad numbers.  For example, a student assigned #1 will use iPad #1.  Forming iPad families helps to promote appropriate use.  If and when inappropriate use of the iPads occurs, teachers and/or administrators can bring a family (or parts of a family) together to discuss the concern.
  7. The smaller the iPad family, the better.  By having the least number of students per any one iPad management of the technology is easier, students will have more access, and teachers will be able to plan units that require iPads.  Thus, when making school based decisions on how many iPads to purchase, try to achieve a ratio of iPad to students as close to 1:1 as possible.
  8. Participate in the online community to expand your horizons and understanding of technology in education.  For example, join a wiki such as to learn and contribute to the ongoing discussions about learning through technology.

Feel free to contact me if you have further questions or concerns

Good luck with your iPads!