Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

Primary Preoccupation - A grade one teacher inviting the world into  her classroom

My First Year of One to One: A Reflection

Best Buy CardA little over a year ago, I won a contest from Best Buy Canada. The contest asked applicants to write about what they would purchase at Best Buy if they had any amount up to $20 000 to spend. Since it had long been my dream to be a one to one classroom, and I was intrigued by the possibilities that iPads held for young children, I chose to say that I would purchase a class set of iPads.  Much to my delight, I was chosen as a winner, and I had the opportunity to go on the shopping trip of a lifetime! (This contest now appears to have disappeared.)

While the initial and on-going management of 30 iPads is no mean feat, I have loved having this opportunity for my students. Some day I may blog about specific apps or ways of using them that work particularly well for me, but this summer has given me an opportunity to reflect on some of the overall changes that have happened in my classroom.


One of my fears when I was able to put a device into the hands of every student was that the students might focus on the screen, the way many children do with a television or a computer. Those children become absorbed by the device, ignoring all that is going on around them.

Happily, this has not at all proved to be the case for us. The students did not want to just use the iPads; they wanted to share them.  The hum of voices excitedly talking to their peers about what they were doing was just the same as it had always been. They just had different things to share.

Children Using iPadsOddly, this showed up in an interesting way in my classroom. The couch was a popular place to work, but once that was full, some students would pull chairs next to the couch forming a line of learners sitting side by side. This happened over and over. When that line was “full”, the next students would make a line in front of the couch. The only logical reason I could see for this was their ease in sharing what was on their screen. And share they did. There was a constant chorus of “how did you do that?” and “look what I did” going on in my classroom.

Sharing Their Learning

Over many years, I have been moving from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered one.  One of the things I have come to value most highly is choice.  I have offered my students as much choice in how they learn and in how they demonstrate their learning as I can. The iPads have given my students so many more opportunities for choice.

Taking a Pictures with an iPadFor example, at the end of a unit of inquiry, I ask the students to share their learning with me through an artifact that they create.  There were always a few digital choices available in my classroom, but the iPads have given us a rich variety of options that were just not available before. The students can now choose to use photos, podcasts, screencasts, videointer-active books…well, you get the idea. My only criteria is that whatever they produce, they must have some kind of digital product that can be archived on their digital portfolio.

Interestingly, the run away favourite way to sum up what they knew was to draw pictures with markers, to post these pictures on a large sheet of construction paper and to make a video of themselves talking about the images they had drawn.  The iPads offered a variety of ways to do this.


Using iPads on the CouchKeeping students engaged is never really an issue in grade one. Six year olds are interested in most anything.  If I told them we were going to do some rote practice of math facts with enough enthusiasm, they would probably cheer about it.  Having said that, they were indeed engaged!  The opportunity for them to have access to a device with a variety of apps that could allow them to explore and create was something they loved. My children were not using their iPads in every spare moment—they still liked other classroom tools such as Lego, dominos and drawing paper—but the iPads were a popular choice, even at lunch hour or recess when the weather was too cold to go outside.

Independent Learning

Having iPads gave my students a new way to learn things that were not part of our curriculum. I put some apps on our iPads just because I thought they looked interesting, and not because I had a direct plan for them. One of the apps that I put on the iPads was GarageBand. I had never used it, but I knew that other teachers had used it in interesting ways, so I added it.  I didn’t get around to figuring out how to use it, but my students did. They taught themselves and then taught me as well. We were able to save some of their music and to use it for our classroom videos. The same was true of a clay molding app called 123D Sculpt. Again, the students taught themselves how to use it. We never did post any of these clay creations anywhere, but the students loved to use it.

This past year, my students were fascinated by what you could do with dominos—both with setting them on their ends and watching them fall and with seeing how high they could be stacked. They tried various ways to stack and as they got better at this, one student or another would document this learning as it was happening. They did this independently, without any prompting from me. It was just something that they wanted to do.


I strive to help my students to understand themselves as learners. I want them to choose ways to help themselves learn that work for them, not necessarily for me.  For some skills, such as reading, spelling and counting, there is just no substitute for practice. The iPads gave my students additional ways to practice each of these skills, finding a way that best helped them to learn. I would sometimes suggest a way to practice that I thought would work well, but I generally trusted them to make the decisions they needed to make for what worked for them.

Reading on iPad and BookTo practice each of these skills, my students sometimes chose digital and sometimes non-digital means. For example, I put many eBooks on the Kindle app on our iPads as an option for our independent reading time. The students could also read blog posts by the teachers or students in other classrooms. They could read our Twitter feed. Or they could read books. Some students preferred digital and some preferred non-digital, but most moved seamlessly back and forth between the two.


Reading on an iPadThere was something very special for my students in having their own device. They never had to wait their turn. Whenever they needed it for learning, it as available to them. All of the photos, videos and other artifacts on the iPad were theirs. No one was deleting things that were important to them. They looked after the charging and care of their iPad. If they forgot to charge their battery, they had to stand by the charging shelf as they worked. I don’t think anyone had to do that twice.

I realize that money is a huge factor in the one to one issue. There are presently very few models that allow this choice for everyone.  No other classrooms in my school have this option.  Having seen the results for myself though, I think we need to do some outside of the box thinking about how we can make this happen.  I know one teacher who held weekly pizza sales at lunch to make it work in her classroom. Do you have other ideas? I’d like to hear them. This kind of learning needs to be spread around.

The Journey to “Connected From the Start”

Eight years ago, I started out on a journey to open up my classroom and to connect it with the world.

Today is a big day in that journey. My book, Connected From the Start: Global Learning in the Primary Grades is being released as an eBook.  The thinking, the writing, the editing and the reediting this book has required have been an interesting part of my journey. I’ve had to reflect in a way that I never have before. As this day has FINALLY arrived, I’m feeling a lot of different emotions: trepidation, excitement, satisfaction and hope.

Trepidation Every time I publish something on this blog, I wonder. I wonder what the readers will be thinking as they read it. I wonder how they will respond. I wonder if others will see the potential that I do. A book is a lot of blog posts worth of wonders.

Excitement I’m thrilled that there is now a resource available to help teachers who want to begin connecting their classroom.  I often get emails from teachers who want to start their own journey in connecting their classroom, but aren’t sure where to start.  I’m happy to reply, but you can only say so much in an email. I have always wished that a resource existed that I could point those teachers to. Now there is.

Page from Connected From the StartSatisfaction I’m satisfied that after a year and a half of hard work, there is a user-friendly resource for curious teachers—one full of colour, hyperlinks, pictures and video from my classroom.

Hope is by far the most powerful of the emotions I am feeling. I want those who read my book to understand the tremendous potential that there is in a connected classroom. I hope that I have written a book that will be helpful to those teachers in choosing tools that work well for any grade level, but especially for primary classrooms where our emphasis is on literacy.

I hope that teachers will use this resource to become connected and to realize the powerful potential of social media to transform their classroom from a closed community into a learning space open to the world and with a worldview.

I hope that because of this book, other teachers and classrooms are transformed the way that mine has been.  I hope that other primary teachers can find ways to use tools such as blogs, Skype, and Twitter to open their classroom to the world.

I hope what I have written helps your classroom to be a connected place.  If you want to go on this journey with me, you can find the book here.

My own journey with my classroom continues. I can’t wait to see where it takes us!

Whose Conference Is It Anyhow?

A few weeks ago, some of my students and I made this short video to show how they feel about blogging. It’s also in my soon-to-be-released book. (End of commercial, I promise.)

What does a blog have to do with student conferences? As one of the children mentions in the video, my students use their blog as an online portfolio. That is, a digital record of what they have been learning and doing in our classroom. That portfolio is the focal point of our student-led conference.

The Portfolio Belongs to the Students

I’ve blogged before about why my students have digital portfolios. The writing, videos, images and podcasts that are part of each student’s portfolio are at first likely to be selected by myself, but as the year progresses, the students take more and more of a role in this choice. Sometimes I ask everyone to post about a certain outcome on their blog. If that is the case, the students usually have choice as to the medium they chose to use. For example, we recently posted about what we had been learning in math and, with several apps to choose from, some students chose to use Educreations while others chose Draw and Tell.  Other times, the students themselves choose what they want to post. During the spate of indoor recesses we had this winter, many of the students took pictures of their recess “creations”, whether falling dominos, Lego creations or villages with 3D blocks and posted these on their blogs. If we have all completed a paper artifact of some kind, I will remind them saying, “if you’d like to post this on your blog, go ahead”. Some do and some don’t. When we were using pastels and practicing perspective, I offered this option. About half of the students chose to post their drawing.  It is their portfolio, so I want them to have some choice about what it contains.

The Conference Belongs to the Students

Twice each year, my school division holds student-led conferences. I ask my students to choose three things that they think they have done well to share at this meeting. Before the conference, I meet briefly with each student to find out what he or she has chosen to share. I do sometimes have criteria. For example, at the conferences we just held, I asked that one of the posts they shared contain writing so that we could discuss that.

When it is time for the conference, the students, with varying amounts of support from me, talk about each of the artifacts that they have chosen, focusing on what they have done well and what they would like to get better at.

I am so proud of the growth in skills and confidence that my students displayed during their conferences. One of my students, who spent our conference last fall huddled on her mother’s knee, answering with only nods, head shakes and occasional words, confidently stood up in front of her parents and with only a little prompting from me, shared aloud what her learning had been for each of the artifacts she had chosen. I felt like I would burst with pride.

Another of my students’ mother could not be present during the conference, so her father made a video of “her presentation” to take home to share. The students know what they need to learn. Our conference is a chance for them to share their progress toward that target.

The Goals Belong to the Students

Another of the objectives of the student-led conference is for the students, with input from myself and from their parents, to set a goal for the next term. Our report cards have a section for goal setting that includes student strengths, goals and steps the student, their parents and I will each take to help meet those goals.  I am always prepared with some options for this, because although the student is not familiar with our curriculum, I do want the student to have some choice. Because I usually teach grade one, the goal we choose is often a reading goal, but if the child is doing well in this area, I will sometimes have some suggestions in other areas as well.  Once the child has chosen the goal, we discuss what the student, their parents and I will each do to help in reaching that goal. The student feels ownership because he or she has been involved in choosing it and in deciding how it will be met.

Like my students, I too am on a learning journey. I get choice in my learning goals. This blog is my space and I get to choose what I post and when. As much as I can, I want to provide those same opportunities for my students. It is their conference. They should have some of the choices that ownership implies.


Salamanders, Toads and the Power of Connecting

I am so sold on the power of connected learning.

Earlier this month, Discovery Education had a special live broadcast about amphibians.  I knew my students would be interested and Karen Lirenman, who teaches grade one in Vancouver, knew hers would be as well. Why not watch together, we thought, and compare our learning? Because of the time zone thing my class didn’t actually get to watch it live, and the plethora of special events in classrooms in December meant it was actually a week later before our classes got to connect to talk about the learning.

It was Karen’s brilliant idea to have the students take notes on whiteboards as they watched to help them to remember what they learned. Despite the fact that much of the writing was only readable if you were the writer or a grade one teacher, it did in fact help the students to listen and remember, and made them feel very grown up.

Later, we chatted with Karen’s class via Skype to compare our learning. What did you learn? Naturally, there were things both classes remembered, and things that only one did. There were also the “wasn’t it cool that…” moments as we talked about some of the things we had learned, like the fact that some amphibians freeze in the winter and then revive in the spring.  Before the call, one of my students had said, “I have an I wonder for them”.  (“Wondering” is  one of the things we are learning to do in our classroom.)We had seen on Twitter that they were missing their gingerbread characters, and she wondered if they had been found. So at the end of the call, after we had exhausted the subject of amphibians, we also talked briefly about the disappearing gingerbread people from Karen’s classroom. The students were engaged in asking questions and in sharing their joint learning.

For me, though, the best part was right after we said “good by” to the other class.  I asked my students if they had learned anything from the conversation.  “Yes!” Would they like to learn this way again? “Yes!”  “Why?” There were lots of answers, including “I can see what the kids look like” and “We can hear about stuff they learned.” My favourite answer, though, was from a student who looked at me as if I had asked a silly question and replied “’Cause you can learn more stuff.”

Learning through connecting with other classes just seems obvious to my students. And that feels right to me.



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