Tell Them Tuesday

February 11th, 2020

Dear Greg Lawrence, Lyle Stewart, and Gordon Wyant of the Saskatchewan Party,

Today, as we vote on sanctions, I reflect on the conditions within our classrooms in Saskatchewan. I think about the way things are and how far that is from how they should be. Mostly, I think about how much I love my job and care about each and every student that I’ve had the privilege to teach. I worry daily that I am not doing enough for them, but with the current conditions there is no way I ever could be. 

This is not about money – even though educators should care that our salaries are not increasing at the same rate as the cost of living, thus reducing our spending power. This isn’t about the ploy to give us $1,500 of our own surplus health plan money that would then be taxed. It’s a little bit about not covering our 1.5% wage increase last contract and forcing divisions to cover the cost, leaving 24 out of 26 divisions with a deficit budget. But that’s only because this decision ultimately resulted in less teachers and educational assistants in our classrooms. We’ve accepted 0% before. We didn’t become teachers for the money. We are merely asking for decent working conditions. We want to work in an environment where we do not feel overwhelmed, understaffed, and muzzled. We want to work in a system that allows us to meet the needs of all our learners. We want each student to achieve to the best of their abilities. We shouldn’t have to ask for this and we certainly shouldn’t have to fight for it.

I dream of working in a learning environment that I would want for my nephew, own children, friend’s children, your children, and all the children in Saskatchewan. That dream starts with a discussion around classroom composition. We need a contract which ensures that the kids who need support get it, in turn helping all children have the learning environment and supports they need to succeed. Something so crucial to the success of our province should be on the bargaining table, yet the Saskatchewan Party refuses to discuss it. We don’t need another committee to tell us that there is no money (read: education is not a priority). If we want a healthy Saskatchewan, education should be high on the list. We don’t need another committee to tell us what we already know: chronic underfunding has left education in a dire state.

Education Minister Gordon Wyant said himself, “our students need our teachers in the classroom.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet, even though enrollment has increased by 20,000 with 6,000 additional English as Additional Language (EAL) learners, less than 200 classroom teachers have been hired and only 21 EAL teachers. We lack educational psychologists, educational assistants, counsellors, speech therapists, and occupational therapists in our schools. While some divisions lack these roles in terms of numbers, others do not have the means to hire these professionals altogether, leaving students with unmet needs that teachers are trying to fill with no additional time or resources.

Imagine a split class of 30 students. Some are First Nations with relationships that we need to mend from previous injustices. Others are EAL with past trauma and limited English proficiency. There are a handful of students on Inclusive Intervention Plans (IIPs) who may or may not have diagnoses – anything from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disabilities (LDs), Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), etc. Others are struggling but are waiting to be assessed, and thus they are not being supported by outside agencies or being represented on intensive support lists. Some have been assessed but there are no available school professionals or outside agencies to provide support. A couple of students have behavioral plans and violent outbursts that evacuate the classroom and compromise staff and student safety. We have students who are homeless and haven’t had lunch for days. We have students with Child Protection Services (CPS) involvement, those on the run from abuse, and those with mental health and addictions in their immediate lives. There are students with medical needs that need to be monitored. We have students who threaten to bring weapons to school and others who we worry about sending home at the end of the day. There are the students who rarely attend. Academically, there can be up to 8 levels of reading, math, and writing in one room. There is no educational assistant in this room and minimal outside agency support. It’s just one teacher, being asked to manage it all.

This isn’t fictitious – this is the new norm.  Do the math: teaching 30 students in a 7-hour day equates to about 14 minutes with each child. Trying to meet these complex needs within that time frame is mindboggling, without even planning for the curriculum. Between the extra-curricular activities, trying to teach all outcomes to all children despite the aforementioned concerns, rewarding positive behavior, deescalating violent outbursts, creating classroom materials, marking assignments, implementing differentiated instruction and adaptations for all three tiers, lesson planning and goal setting, following multiple behavior supports plans (often with conflicting strategies), documenting our every move, taking data for behavioral support plans, assessing each and every outcome and indicator, lunch duty, increasing parent engagement, and so on, you start to realize the absurdity of what we expect our teachers to do. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if you stopped reading. I also feel like it’s too much. It’s no wonder that close to 50% of teachers quit within the first five years. Enrollment is up, inflation is up, but why aren’t our priorities keeping up? We can’t keep guilting teachers to do more and be more with less. In this system, we will never be enough. I became a teacher because I believe in inclusion, but our funding model is leaving everyone behind.

You have the opportunity to change the trajectory of education in Saskatchewan. The financial decisions you make will impact the future of this province. We need a stable fiscal plan for education and that includes discussing classroom composition and making our students the top priority, as they should be. Yes, we need responsible spending as taxpayers work hard for their money. But prioritizing education is money well spent. The government needs to be held accountable for student success and the standard of education in this province. Teachers are burning out and that should scare us all. Teaching conditions are the learning conditions of our students and our students are the future of this province!

Sincerely,

Kourtney Gorham, B.Ed.

Task Bag Learning

Today we will be talking about learning with task bags. I worked alongside my Educational Psychologist, Jenn Osberg, and my Consultant, Michelle Michaluk, to create literacy, math, fine motor, and life skills task bags that would meet the needs of my learners. As a primary Student Support Teacher, task bags are part of my regular intervention and we love them because they:

  • are play-based and hands-on
  • cover a variety of curriculum and/or individual outcomes
  • are simple to use and model (if another teacher or Educational Assistant will be implementing them)
  • include high-interest materials
  • promote student engagement
  • can be accomplished quickly (5-10 minutes of practice)
  • can be used with 1-3 students to add social goals, such as sharing and turn-taking
  • are quick interventions that reinforce previously taught outcomes
  • are easy and cost effective to create
  • can be created from “Busy Bag” idea books, simple internet searches, or unused items around the classroom

I have used my task bags with a variety of students, particularly a student who could only say two words when they started in our Kindergarten program. Task bags became an easy way to develop this student’s vocabulary, name recognition knowledge, and keep them engaged. What I like most about these task bags is that after modeling the use of the task bags a few times, they are easy for any other adult to take and use and they fit nicely into any schedule. I use my task bags for intervention times. I have also used them for additional literacy and math practice with Kindergarten students who need additional practice time after our centers. It is quick and easy to pull them for 5-10 minutes and target the specific concept and can be done within their classroom. In the classroom, these task bags could be set up as a center after teacher modeling/explicit instruction. I recommend using task bags with 1-2 students but I have used them with up to 3 learners.

 

I have organized my task bags into two shelves and four categories: 

 

a) early math skills

 

 

b) early literacy skills

 

c) fine motor skills

 

d) life skills  

There are countless other tasks bags that could be made and I hope you find use for them in your own room. Please find the task bag labels and instructions attached: Task Bag Instruction Templates. Happy teaching!

 

Classroom Library

Today we will be talking about classroom libraries! The Saskatchewan Reads document states that “libraries play an important role in supporting and engaging students as readers. “They provide environments rich in information, literature, and technology that, together with effective instruction, enable students to achieve curriculum learning outcomes and acquire the attitudes and skills for lifelong learning” (Saskatchewan Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 1).” It is recommended to have books around the room, in addition to on the shelf, and students can assist with this book selection. I plan to display books on top of the shelves once I have read them aloud to the students. Another option is to switch out books based on current units of study and/or student interests. Routman (2014) states that “excellent classroom libraries” should be of top priority “ahead of the latest technology, resources, programs and standards. It is only through wide, self-selected reading that we will produce proficient and joyful readers as well as writers” (p. 99). It has been one of my main back-to-school priorities, as I know the importance of a well-stocked and organized classroom library for student literacy achievement.

 

My classroom library has both leveled books (blue bins) and interest books (green bins). Students select from both blue and green bins to fill their individual pouches so that during guided reading they have books to keep them engaged and improving during read-to-self and partner reading. Having students self-select these books regularly helps avoid interruptions to my guided reading lessons, as students are excited to read. Students get to choose where to sit, whether it is the reading cubbies, couch, Tipi, swivel chair, standing desk, carpet, or pretty much anywhere but the roof! We even get to enjoy the outdoor classroom space in the fall and summer.

 

When students are both comfortable and interested, classroom management takes care of itself. Well… pretty much. We do have to go over stamina training (graphing time on-task to meet a class duration goal) and lessons on the “Right Fit” books using the 5 Finger strategy. 

Scholastic notes that “experts claim a classroom library should have at least 20 books per student, so a typical class of 28 students would have a classroom library of close to 600 books.” While that may seem like a lot of books, 20 books per student is on the lower end, especially when considering the diverse learning needs in our classrooms. I am proud to say that I have grown my classroom library to 500 books over the past three years. I found the best sources are garage sales, family members and friends with young children, and talking to administration. As a Student Support Teacher, the number of students that I serve varies so 500 books feels like the right amount… for now!

The changes I made this year to my classroom library were to my green bins, or interest book sections. I created more sections so that books can be found easier. I used to put multiple categories in a bin but this just didn’t work for student put-back. Using the labels I found, I created 12 categories: Friends, Family, Cultures/Canada, ABCs, Math, Weather/Seasons, Animals, Fiction, Feelings, Good Character, School Stories, and rhymes and poetry. There are many other categories but I found these worked best with my previous system. The labels were easy to use and I printed the bin labels on Avery 8168 labels. The corresponding book labels were printed on Avery 8293. Everything printed well and it looks visually appealing but not too distracting (in case you are interested in these labels for your own classroom).

 

My hope is that students will be able to select books that they are interested in and also put them back in the correct bins. I will explicitly show them how to select and re-shelf books. At this time, I will also explore with students the books that can be found in each section and we will move books around if needed so that it makes sense to the kids. The system is self-explanatory enough that educational assistants, substitute teachers, co-teachers, administrators, and parents will be able to come into my room and select and re-shelf books to read with learners without me having to explain things. This should help books stay where they should.

My blue bins, or leveled books, are relatively the same as last year with a color-coded dot that roughly correlates to 2 levels of Fountas and Pinnell. I am not too worried about each book being precisely leveled as students will learn how to select “Just Right” books. The idea is that they are reading books that are within their level so that they can build fluency, maintain comprehension, and feel successful, albeit while still being challenged.

Class 18

I am beyond excited to share the classroom library with a new set of learners and some returning friends! As I always say, reading is succeeding!

‘Twas the Week Before School: A Look Into Our Classroom

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, not Christmas time; back to school time! This classroom – and more importantly, this teacher – is ready for the kiddos to return!

‘Twas the week before school, when all through the class

Not a student was stirring, not even a gasp;

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The sight words were hung on the bulletin with care,

In hopes that the new students soon would be there;

The teacher planned guided reading snug in her bed,

While visions of comprehension strategies danced in her head;

Reading Strat

Link: The Measured Mom

Soon students in their new shoes, and I in my dress,

Would settle our brains and bodies to do our best.

When inside the Tipi there arose no chatter,

The students would learn Zones of Regulation to solve a matter.

Class 21

Student-friendly labels on the books for sorting in a flash,

Will make it easy for students to have a reading bash!

Class 23

Some students, to the reading cubbies will go

Some at the standing table looking at objects below,

When, will students to my wondering eyes appear,

I can’t wait until tomorrow when they are finally here.

But will the little students be so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment Whole Body Listening was it!

   More eager each day for the students that came,

She whistled, and planned, and labelled by name;

“Now, Sweetheart! Now, Honey! Now, Buddy and Friend!

Learn, reading! Learn, math! Learn, writing and pretend!

Write on the whiteboard tables but not on the wall!

Now walk only, no running, walk only in the hall.”

Marshmallows

Link: Kindergarten Lifestyle

A clean class before the hustle-and-bustle fly,

When met with an obstacle, give growth mindset a try.

So students, the outcomes and lessons we’ll do,

With buckets full of books, and F&P sight words too.

And then, for the wiggles, a sensory cushion on the seat

Let the kids be kids and move their little feet.

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Another option for those who need turning around,

A swivel egg chair the students will be glad I found.

Class 24

The board all dressed in Letterland, letters from head to foot,

The math manipulatives covered so I get student input.

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A bundle of Good/Poor choices, Inside Out in the back,

And Circle of Courage is all part of our pack.

  Her eyes-how they twinkled! Her smile how bright!

The students were coming, their minds like a light!

Her small little class wrapped up like a bow

And the tabletops for writing were as white as the snow;

The classroom bulletins were covered by curtain,

Weighted dogs, Telemircale teddies, and pillows were there for certain.

Class 19

The room felt like home with plants in their pots,

The students would care for, and water them lots.

The teacher area was organized, set to work like an elf,

And I’d work in the space, that was all to myself.

Class 12

In a wink of the eye, in the guided reading zone,

Students would soon know how to read on their own.

Class 18

Looking at the I Cans, and getting straight to work time,

LLI at the horseshoe table to ensure all is fine.

Class 11

And laying on the couch when the teacher knows,

That a strategy is needed to care for the woes.

Class 20

She can see the whole group, from any spot,

But the students snuggled in their sections cannot.

Class 8

I heard the teacher cheer, as she prepped into the night,

“Happy School Year to all, and to all a learning right!”

Adapted from A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, 1779 – 1863