Celebrating Inquiry Spring 2016

Welcome to the fourth issue of our online celebration of learning and achievement by University of Lethbridge intern teachers. Below you will find profiles of all projects presented at the Spring 2016 Professional Inquiry Project (PIP) Symposium. These projects were completed by by pre-service teachers in their final twelve-week practicum. Please be aware that external links are supplied by contributors and are not maintained or monitored by the University of Lethbridge.


Return to Past Issues of Celebrating Inquiry

What Does ADHD Look Like in Girls?

Description of Project:

I had a girl in my class who presented some characteristics that I recognized as relating to ADHD, but they looked different than what I had seen in boys with ADHD, so I wondered if ADHD looked different in girls. This project is to bring awareness to what ADHD looks like in girls, and bring awareness to what the inattentive presentation of ADHD looks like, because it is frequently missed.


I observed how my student behaved, and how she reacted to things. Then I searched for research articles on ADHD in girls, and books and articles on girls with ADHD. I found out that most girls with ADHD have the inattentive presentation, so I created a video to show what the life of a girl with undiagnosed ADHD-I might look like. I also wrote a report to answer questions that the video doesn't answer. I thought making a video was important, and I thought it would be quick and easy, but it took significantly longer than I expected.


This project helped me understand what to look for in students, so I don't let them slip through the cracks without getting the help they need. I'm hoping that this project allows more students who display less familiar symptoms of ADHD to get referred for assessment so they can be helped.

Jenna is currently doing her internship in a grade 2/3 class. She has done previous practicums in Division II and Division IV. She also used to drive a school bus for a school for children with learning disabilities.


Risks in Learning: Encouraging Students and Teachers to Take Responsible Risks in the Classroom​

Can encouraging students to take responsible risks in the classroom increase their overall performance in both their school work and their social setting?


Students in our schools have become very complacent with their routine, and strive everyday to simply complete the tasks laid in front of them. Instead of using their imagination and wonder in the classroom, they are focused on attaining good grades or simply getting through the day so that they can go home. The lack of inspiration and awe is having an affect on student's well being and how they interact in school. In today's schools anxiety is higher than ever and students are afraid to make mistakes in front of their peers. If students can be taught to take risks with their learning then they are more likely to perform better and actually enjoy what they are learning.

In order to get my students to the point where they were ready to take a risk I first had to develop a trusting relationship with them. To do this I simply spent time with them and got to know them individually. I ate lunch with them, played with them at recess, and developed a lunch time club for grade six students only. Once I gained their trust I had to create an environment where they felt safe taking risks. In order to do this I used my lunch time club to build trust and teamwork. I also implemented classroom management techniques and modelled risk taking myself so that students felt safe coming out of their comfort zone. I ended the project with a large inquiry project that required students to think outside the box and work independently on an assignment with little criteria. Some setbacks included lack of student motivation and trust in me, but I rectified these issues by furthering my relationships with students and working with them so that they could achieve their fullest potential.


This project impacted my students in a very positive way. For some students taking a risk simply meant raising their hand in class, but for others it meant coming up with their own theory about space and presenting it at our grade six Space Fair. This project impacted the school as the grade six teachers have decided to use my Space Inquiry Project in the years to come. The community was impacted by my project as they responded very positively to the Space Fair and congratulated the kids on their risk taking and achievements. I think that I will continue to research this topic and find new and exciting ways to implement risk taking in every classroom I am in. I even found myself taking risks in the classroom and giving my students more ownership of their own learning. This is something that I would like to look into further and teach others about.

Kelsey is Originally from Drumheller Alberta. She attended St. Anthony's School until grade twelve and graduated as valedictorian. After graduating, she moved to Lethbridge where she attended the University of Lethbridge and pursued degrees in both Arts and Science and Education with majors in History and Social Studies. She loves to stay active and read!


ActivEd: Taking Literacy on the Go!​

How can physical activity be integrated into instructional time?

Countless studies attest to the value of physical activity in promoting learning; however, the realities of the classroom setting, curricular demands, and time constraints often hinder our ability to provide opportunities for additional physical activity. Our project aims to provide a solution by making instruction mobile.

To begin, we consulted multiple educational psychology journals that had findings supporting the use of physical activity during instruction. We used these findings to justify our PIP Proposal to our Administration.

In particular, our project required the purchasing of a class set of MP3 players. We were very fortunate to be at a school with a newly opened Learning Commons that had room in its budget for expanding its collection. While it was really exciting to be approved for the funding of our project we were delayed by the process of ordering the MP3 Players through the District. This left us with less time than we expected to implement the project but allowed us to proceed by collecting audio materials while we awaited the players.
When we finally had the players we were able to do a test run with a small group of students to get their feedback to share at a staff meeting. We filmed a short video of students sharing their thoughts about the project to show the staff.

Thus far, feedback from students and staff has been very positive. Students have identified many benefits to taking instruction on the go as well as the use of audio content. In particular, students have said that they have an improved focus with the removal of noise and distraction of the classroom. Further, students are excited to be outside and repeatedly refer to the process as a reward, in contrast to reading similar material in class. Many teachers have stated their intent to use the resource for teaching in the French Immersion program as well as in classes such as Music and Social Studies, not just Language Arts. The potential for this resource to continue to grow and develop is very exciting.

We have learned a lot by completing this project. In particular, we have seen the relative ease with which instruction can be re-conceptualized to prioritize students' desire to be physically active. Additionally, we have experienced the collaborative nature of the teaching profession first-hand in the willingness of other teachers to contribute to the project and share their ideas.

Anna Gotgilf (@IAm_AMG) and Kristen ter Steege are currently completing a combined English/Ed degree. They both completed their Internship at Ecole Agnes Davidson School. Anna taught grade five humanities and mathematics, and Kristen taught grade three social studies, science, physical education, health and art.


Mindfulness in the Classroom

How can students benefit from Mindfulness practices within the classroom?


I created strategies for teachers to incorporate mindfulness-based activities for elementary students in the classroom, with the goal to enhance student learning and emotional intelligence.

Mindfulness is a cognitive science that can have a significant impact on student learning. Mindfulness-based activities are focused on increasing the overall well-being of an individual. They can offer students the opportunity to learn about their inner emotions and develop a greater sense of emotional intelligence (Rempel, 2012 p.201). One of the most well known definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Kabat-Zinn (1994) states that mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment” (p. 4). Mindfulness is mental training that encourages patience, open-mindedness, self-compassion, and non-attachment.

Interest in the use of mindfulness practices with children and youth is growing. The use of mindfulness-based activities has the power to facilitate and enhance student learning. Furthermore, mindfulness-based activities can support mental, physiological, and social development for children.

Considering the 21st century learner, there is a need to provide children with skills and strategies to combat the stress and pressure of living. Currently, rates of depression, fear, and anxiety are increasing and impacting children at an earlier age. In addition, more students are being diagnosed with ADHD.

Mindfulness practices offer an alternative solution for students to develop a greater sense of emotional intelligence, thus, finding more success as a learner.


In order to prepare for introducing mindfulness-based activities to students, I consulted several masters of mindfulness. This consisted of Lethbridge school counselors, community mindfulness teachers, and professional development sessions focused on integrating mindfulness in the classroom.

Incorporating mindfulness-based activities within the classroom was achieved through two methods: (1) participation in a “Day of Mindfulness”, and (2) daily mindfulness activities. Below is an account of how each of these two were achieved.

A Day of Mindfulness

In order for students to fully understand the concept of mindfulness-based activities, I organized an entire day that was focused on mindfulness, titled “A Day of Mindfulness,” as an introduction to mindfulness. Four different classes (Grades 3-5), participated in varying activities such as yoga, mindful coloring, mindful eating, personal affirmations, and writing gratitude letters.

Prior to participation, I planned for the school counselor to give a lecture to students and teachers on the theory and science behind mindfulness and how students – and teachers - may benefit from mindfulness exercises. This introduction set the stage for participants to fully understand and appreciate mindfulness-based activities. Furthermore, I sought community mindfulness teachers to coordinate each of the stations. As a result, teachers could fully participate and become more knowledgeable in the practice of mindfulness.

Throughout the day I facilitated the activities and observed the behaviors of students. The following day I asked several students to fill out a survey to give me feedback and to provide empirical evidence for the success of the day. Ultimately, I created this day as something for me to leave behind, since the school could continue practicing and growing in this area for years to come.

Daily Mindfulness Activities

After students obtained the understanding of mindfulness, I began to incorporate daily activities and teachings. Students participated in a variety of activities, which included, guided meditations, mindful walks, mindful mandala coloring, and guided yoga videos. These activities were used as brain breaks throughout the course of the day. Furthermore, during morning announcements, I included messages ways for students and staff to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives: for example, “take time to today to focus on your breathing (the inward and outward of your breath)”, or “as you walk, feel how your body moves and the sensation beneath your feet”.


Overall, this project was a great success. Concerning students, the majority of individuals had heard of mindfulness, however, 35% of students had not. Furthermore, 95% of students who had participated found mindfulness beneficial in decreasing stress and increasing focus and relaxation. A significant amount of students informed me that they were likely to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives and would consider recommending it to a friend or classmate.

Student Responses:

Mindfulness is for everyone because it helps calm you down in even the hardest situations. Mindfulness also helps keep you calm in hard situations because it is easy to do.”

“It was amazing. I loved the cool things we did in yoga and I loved when we got to color and do your own design in mindful coloring, it helped me to understand mindful in a different way. Now I can do it all the time, I am so glad that I got to participate in this wonderful activity, thank you Mr. Fitz.”

“I like mindfulness because it is peaceful and gets to be a calm spirit for your soul and it is like mediation for the body and [you] get to do different things that are mindful for you.”

“It was amazing and fun ..[and] interesting. Yoga helped me stop being stressed and when I got home that letter (student gratitude letter) [I shared it] and it was heartfelt and true thanks to Mr. Fitz.”


I found mindfulness-based activities to be extremely useful for classroom management and overall student well-being. As energy levels rose throughout the day, mindfulness exercises allowed for students to return to a place of focus and relaxation. Good learners are listeners, observers, and problem solvers. Mindfulness is focused on cultivating these characteristics in individuals and can have a positive impact on learning. By practicing mindfulness-based activities within the classroom we can help create a learning environment where more students are ready to engage in learning.

Suggested Resources:

  1. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  2. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
  3. Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids, by Eline Snel (Audio Guided Meditations)
  4. No Ordinary Apple, by Sara Marlowe (Mindful Eating)
  5. I Think, I Am!: Teaching Kids the Power of Affirmations, by Louise Hay (Affirmations)
  6. MindUp. The Hawn Foundation. (Mindfulness Curriculum)
  7. PlantGrowLove. (Free Teacher Resources)
  8. GoNoodle, Maximo. (Yoga)


Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. (p. 4) New York: Hyperion.

Rempel, K. (2012). Mindfulness for children and youth: A review of the literature with an argument for school-based implementation. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychology. 46, (3), 201-220.

Andrew is a University of Lethbridge graduate, with a Bachelor of Arts in Kinesiology. He is a Pronghorn athlete, competing in Track and Field. Andrew has background in athletics, interest in philosophy, and enjoys helping others reach their personal and academic goals.


Teaching Our Students to "Think like Engineers”

How does the integration of the Engineering Design Process during science instruction enhance student learning?

My inquiry question was developed out of an opportunity I had while in my practicum that allowed me to be part of an Engineering Design Cohort, which brought together over 30 different teachers within the district to try and implement the Engineering Design Process into science instruction. After learning about the Engineering Design Process and how it is catered toward any science instruction, I came up with the inquiry question that I wanted to explore within my classroom. The goal of this project is that students would be more engaged with the Engineering Design Process because of the applications that could be used across the science curriculum, and because of the realistic applications that are embedded within the process.

My method began by inquiring about what students thought about engineering and what it means to be an engineer. From there, we dove right into our own cycle of the Engineering Design Process where we came up with a realistic project for the students (build a structure that would be used in an outdoor space that the school was beginning to design). We separated students into Engineering Teams that they would be seated with for the length of the project. I created Engineering Notebooks for the students where they kept their group’s work separated into each stage of the process. There was also a picture of the Engineering Design Process on the front of their notebooks. As we went through each stage of the process, students had time to reflect on why engineers would use this stage and why it was important. They reflected on their own learning through this stage and how it would help them specifically for their own projects. We also had experts (carpenters, Lowe’s associates, airport personnel, etc.) come into our classroom to give our students tips and pointers, and to talk about the different applications of engineering.

Something that was vital for this inquiry was documentation of student learning, and to make student learning visible. I created a large bulletin board display that had the Engineering Design Process and stages, with a large amount of photos of the students throughout the stages. This allowed for students to track their own learnings throughout the length of the project and they were able to reflect on those photos. At the end of our unit, we had a culminating exhibition during the student-led conferences, where we created posters for the students and they were to present their projects and posters to their parents (ensuring they go through all the stages of the Engineering Design Process).

Melissa is originally from Calgary. She moved to Lethbridge in 2012 to pursue a combined Math and Education degree, anticipating graduation in Spring 2016. She completed PS3 in Chestermere, and is am hoping to get a job abroad once she graduates. She is extremely excited to integrate inquiry based learning into her classroom moving forward!


Math Fact Fluency

What are the best strategies to improve math fact fluency?

The idea for this project came to me when realizing that I had 20 students struggling with their math facts and two 30 minute flex periods a week. My goal was to effectively use this flex time to build math fact fluency skills in as many ways as possible. While my project was focused on grade 2 addition and subtraction you can easily adapt for multiplication and division. Math fact fluency is key when progressing in math.

I used a ton of strategies throughout this project but found some to be more successful than others. I created a "Mad Math Minute" program in which students completed timed math sheets. They were rewarded for their progress through a 'monster world' in which they could move up levels as they completed sheets. They could see their progress and were motivated to move up!

I also did a lot of whole class oral activities, center work, and individual tasks. A lot of my activities were movement based which was great for my kinesthetic learners. I also used a lot of games. For a detailed list of my strategies please refer to my website.

My students’ fact fluency has definitely increased since implementing these strategies. They are able to complete their "Mad Math Minute" sheets in quicker times as well as with fewer corrections, if any at all! When learning other math concepts such as two digit addition they are more confident with their math skills which makes a big difference in their participation levels. They also thoroughly enjoy our quick math periods and show excitement and engagement.

In the future I would love to implement these strategies daily. Most are really quick and easy to place in filler spots. I think the improvement would have been even greater had I had the opportunity to do Mad Math or other strategies daily.

This project really made me aware of the importance of basic facts and the need to solidify them at a young age. Knowledge of basic facts is necessary for success in future math lessons.

Kelsey was born and raised in BC. She loves the outdoors and staying active! She is passionate about learning in every subject which is why she loves teaching elementary school. She is a P.E major but her heart lies in Language Arts and Social Studies.


Students Taking Leadership Roles

Why is student voice in a leadership capacity important?


The practicum school we are at has a Spirit Committee, where students take action to create a positive school environment and help raise money to create positive changes in third-world countries. The school is working with Free the Children and Me to We and is continually creating and hosting fundraisers to help raise money towards building a school in Ecuador. The idea for our project and inquiry question came from a day the school calls “Flex Friday,” which is a day of learning via alternative methods. One goal of Flex Friday is to engage students in their interests so that they are learning without even realizing they are learning. It was on this day that student voice and opinions became very prominent.


What we and the students did:

  • Attended leadership conferences
  • Created fundraisers for the school, local and global communities and put them in ACTION
  • Spread positive messages and appreciation for hard work throughout the school
  • Encouraged student voice and sharing within the classroom

External sources we consulted include:

  • Peer-edited journals
  • Leadership conference speakers

Steps Taken Include:

  • Meeting with other staff involved
  • Meeting with students
  • Creating a plan
  • Executing the plan
  • Documenting the execution via film/ video.
  • Reflecting with the students

Setbacks /Surprises:


  • How quickly the students come up with ideas
  • Student initiative and desire to create positive changes in the world (student voice without prompts from teachers)
  • Start-to-finish was faster than we anticipated it would be


  • Over-ambitious plans for creating positive change


This project impacted the students in a positive way. Many students wanted to participate and take charge in the creative process of deciding what kind of things to do in order to create a positive school environment and also to fundraise. These fundraisers were successful throughout the school because everybody had a chance to participate on some level during the fundraisers or kindness-spreading activities.

The spread of leadership and student voice became apparent within individual classrooms as students approached teachers with ideas for new fundraisers or stories of how they helped contribute positively to the community. Student voice became a daily part of teaching and brought about good behaviour. Students became confident in their work and themselves as their voice and opportunities to share pushed them to pursue hard work to achieve success that they were proud of. The sharing of student voice helped contribute to a positive learning environment because it helped to build rapport with the teachers and students and amongst the school community.

What we left behind was a sense of community in the school. The students may not remember what we did or how we contributed to the school, however they will remember how they felt. As for a tangible item left behind from this project, we have left videos about the school that will be used on the school’s website and a student-created book of different fundraisers and ways to create positive change.

Future implications include a plan for more web conferences between schools revolving around the topic of creating a positive and bully-free school environment. There have also been discussions about creating a Spirit Option class in the school where there can be a dedicated and responsible student body with a properly allotted time frame for the planning and action to take place.

Megan is a PSIII student with a major in English. Her 1st degree is from Mount Royal University and it is a BA in English with a minor in Film Studies. She has a profound love of education as it allows her to use her creativity and inspire it in students. She not only likes the increased confidence she sees as students develop and appreciate their ability to learn, but also genuinely enjoys getting to know the people around her. She lives in Calgary, Alberta with her long-hair Chihuahua named Foxy Lady. She likes to read books and binge-watch television series and movies in her spare time. Megan completed her project with Dominique Borrelli.


Mindfulness for DIV I and DIV II Students

How can mindfulness meaningfully impact the psychological, emotional, and cognitive state of students?


After meeting my students, and thinking about their needs, I decided to research the topic of mindfulness. Many of the students in my PSIII class struggled with with identifying their own emotions, thoughts, and feelings, as well as appropriately acting on those emotions, thoughts, and feelings. I noticed that because many of the students struggle with understanding why they feel the way they do, it makes it very difficult for these students to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors. Consequently, the students in my class frequently frustrated not only themselves, but also their peers. This has led to animosity between several students in the classroom during recess time and group activities.

My goal was to help the students develop different strategies and routines to help them become more self-aware, and to be better able to regulate themselves. My hope was that if the students could better self-regulate as individuals, then I could better help them foster a positive feeling of classroom community, including an understanding that they are each an integral part of the collective.


To begin, I researched the topic of mindfulness. For the first month I consulted different books, websites, and videos to better educate myself on the topic. From there, I begin to implement what I found into my own daily teaching. There were no real setbacks and I was surprised at the degree to which mindfulness positively impacted me. I was not anticipating to enjoy the different activities as much as I did.

From the very onset of my practicum, I also chose to implement a silent period of mindfulness after the last recess of the day. Students silently (or at least there were supposed to be silent) entered the room to the same meditative music, and worked quietly on independent work at their seats. They were permitted to color, draw, read, or do nothing except listen to the music and their thoughts. I found that performing this routine every day for 5-10 minutes was quite effective in helping the students to reach a calmer place, where they were better prepared to learn.


Looking back, I am glad that I chose to research mindfulness. I have learned a lot about self regulation, stress management, and the importance of focusing on the moment. I believe that all of these things will help me to be a more successful educator.

I do wish that I had the opportunity (that is, the time) to implement a few more of the structured mindfulness activities. With my future students, I will make it a goal to infuse more mindfulness because I really believe in the benefits for learning.

Overall, I think that my professional inquiry project was a success. I may not have done everything that I had set out to do, but I certainly learned a lot!

Kaitlin enjoys reading, the gym, and her dog Dobby! With her hectic life schedule, she tries to find time to relax and just enjoy the moment.


Incorporating Literacy Across Curricula

How Can I Better Incorporate Literacy into Social Studies and Science Curriculum?


Literacy is an educational building block that students must master in order to be able to comprehend material at higher grades. Teaching students to read is therefore the primary focus of early elementary educators. It is beneficial for students to incorporate literacy into all aspects of the curriculum, rather than solely focusing on reading during language arts class time. During my third professional semester, I explored the best methods of incorporating literacy into Social Studies and Science curriculum. I also explored some of the best literature that is currently available in my school, university and public libraries.


To incorporate literacy throughout Social Studies, I began with the Calgary Board of Education’s Grade 2 Literature Connections (http://www.learnalberta.ca/content/sslc/pdf/literatureconnections_gr02.pdf). I checked my school’s library, the University of Lethbridge library, and the public library to determine availability of the suggested books. Through conversations with teachers and librarians, I was able to add books to the list. I made these books available to my students in themed book baskets, read portions to students, and referenced them during my teaching.

I did not have the same starting point with Science, so relied more heavily on conversations with teachers and librarians. The non-fiction section of the school library was very helpful to me as I was easily able to access books on the topic we were currently studying. I also made these books available to students in themed book baskets and referenced them during my teaching.


Throughout my practicum, I found that providing access to relevant texts was engaging for students. Students enjoyed the books, talked about them with their friends, referenced them during class, and asked if they could have more time with them. In order to make book baskets effective, it is important that the teacher have read the books and made reference to them during teaching. This will build more interest in students as they will wonder what other information the books have. Students also enjoy talking about what they have read with someone who has also read the book.

Giving students the opportunity to write about their learning is another useful life skill. Not only does it build literacy, it requires students to be metacognitive about their learning. When students think about their own thinking, they become more articulate and better able to explain what they know. Students clearly understood surface tension because they had observed it multiple times and written about it, making that term part of their vocabulary.

Today’s students cannot imagine a world where books were our only source of information. Teaching students literacy through online sources is an engaging life skill. Students may balk at reading a book, but when they are given the same information on a website, they are entranced. I believe that when we meet students where their interests are, we can use that as a starting point and then introduce them to other ways to access information.

The truth is, school is reading, and the more we can demonstrate the importance of reading and the enjoyment reading provides, the more students will want to read. When students learn to love reading, nothing will stop their learning.

Jaylene has a passion for literature. She enjoys reading aloud to her children and sharing with them the books that she enjoyed as a child. Jaylene believes that teaching children how to read is a very important and rewarding challenge.


Engagement in Elementary PE

How can I best achieve engagement in an elementary school physical education class?

At the onset of my PS3 internship I was assigned to teach PE for three separate grade 2 classes. Early on, I encountered a variety of issues from the students including misbehaviour and non-participation, a scenario that is all too familiar to teachers inside and outside of a PE classroom. I knew that if I wanted to be successful in teaching PE this had to change, particularly as these types of issues can endanger the students' safety in a PE context. After consideration of previous coursework, and consulting professional resources, I decided that I could likely address the majority of the issues I was encountering by achieving higher levels of student engagement.

My initial step was to institute an ordered routine of a warm up activity, stretching activity, and main lesson activity into each class; however, I greatly varied the individual activities within that routine structure. In essence, the students knew what to expect without knowing what to expect. After consulting a variety of resources, and making considerations for the small amount of time available on a daily basis for PE, I modified my routine. Warm up activities were replaced by "instant activities", the stretching activity was removed, while the main lesson activity remained the sole constant from my original approach. To inform my activity selection I began to survey the students on a weekly basis regarding their engagement level during each activity I introduced in class. This data was then used to inform subsequent activity selections. It was a challenge to gather reliable qualitative data as many students were concerned with hurting my feelings through negative scores, but it got easier to counter this over time through the establishment of trusting relationships and interpretation of the data within the specific context of my classroom.

This project positively impacted my students as I saw a marked decrease in behavioural issues and non-participation in my PE classes as my internship progressed. Over time, I began to see anticipation build in the students as they would eagerly ask, "What are we going to do today Mr. Sakamoto?" This project has impacted the school as I have left behind an online repository of all the activities and ideas I instituted throughout my practicum complete with descriptions, student engagement scores, and my own anecdotal observations for any other teacher to use as they see fit. The experience has also greatly informed my pedagogical practice in elementary level Phys. Ed. and will remain with me throughout my career. Furthermore, it has pushed me to connect with other physical educators all over the world who will continue to help me progress as a more effective PE teacher.

Jeremy is a B.Ed. after degree student majoring in social studies education. In 2014, he graduated from the U of L with a B.A. degree, majoring in history. He is married and has a 6 year old daughter. He enjoys reading and a variety of sports in his spare time.


Love the Ones You’re With: Creating a Classroom Community

Learning doesn’t happen in isolation, so what strategies can a teacher use to create a classroom community that gives students a sense of security and study pals?

My PSIII placement is at Catholic Central High School in Lethbridge, which operates on the quarter system. Quarters are shorter academic units than semesters and allow the school to offer four different sessions of classes per academic year. Students are enrolled in two classes every quarter. My practicum started at the beginning of Quarter 3 and I taught the entire English Language Arts 10-1 course over 38 three-hour instructional days. That's not a lot of days! I wanted to know how to create — within 38 days — a classroom community where students connect, feel safe enough to express ideas in front of peers of varied backgrounds, listen to one another’s ideas, engage in authentic dialogue, and push their own academic, social, and personal limits in order to grow.

Method and Results:

It’s the first day of class. Students shuffle in, spot their friends, and slip in with that group. My worst fear is that these students would stick with their friend groups for 38 days and conclude this class not knowing the names of the other students sharing the same space. That didn’t happen.

The education faculty stresses the importance of teachers building relationships with students. It's frequently recommended that teachers not even start delivering curriculum until they've taken a few days — a week even — to get to know the individuals on their classlist. In a 38-day quarter, instructional time is valuable, and with five units to cover, I felt the time crunch on Day 1. I looked online for ideas to arrange the physical setup of my classroom in a way that promotes a positive learning environment, and brain break strategies that would help students mix and mingle without sacrificing instructional time.

Who says icebreakers can only be used on the first day? Using them throughout the course helps prepare students for collaborative group work, and encourages students to share ownership for the learning environment of the class.

Throughout the quarter, I purposely chose activities that required students to “mix and mingle.” Whether they drew playing cards to form small groups (all aces together, ones, twos, threes, etc.) or were asked to seek out the person they know the least in the room for a “speed date” review, students were encouraged to cooperatively work with their classmates. Did students complain? Sometimes, but it was interesting to observe the obvious student separation on Day 1 dissolve as the quarter progressed.

Teacher blogs, school websites, Pinterest, and other PIP websites offer plenty of fun icebreaker strategies that are ideal ways to help people get to know one another. These activities can also be designed to get students acquainted with course content and expectations. An added benefit is that these get-to-know-you activities help create a relaxed environment where students share ideas more freely, and participate more fully in the course.

In the physical space, I constructed bulletin boards aimed at building classroom community, but they spilled over into the entire campus. A meme wall I created to communicate classroom procedures and expectations had a watercooler effect. Students not enrolled in either English language arts class taking place in this classroom could often be found gathered and chatting around the wall. A vice-principal event came into the room asking to see this “meme wall I keep hearing about.” Students from an English class other than my own asked if they could be part of the bookselfie wall. The engagement of these two bulletin boards was bigger than I imagined.

In the quarter system, students attend two 80-minute blocks with an eight-minute break in between. Yes, instructional time feels like it’s in short supply, but research shows that students should have a kinesthetic brain break every 25-30 minutes. Brain break activities take about 1-3 minutes of class time to complete, but the efficiency of students skyrockets after, so it’s time well spent. I never had to justify a “game” to my administration. They acknowledge that students can’t work for 80 straight minutes, and encourage these types of breaks.

Don’t be afraid to participate alongside students. It shows them you’re part of the community. Again, teacher blogs, school website, Pinterest and other PIP websites are great resources for suggestions. Keep a brain-break list handy and throw one into your lesson plan. Gauge your students. You may not use it that day, and that’s OK. It’s just nice to have on those days students’ energy levels are low.

I believe brain breaks are a quick and effective tool to improve students’ concentration and relieve stress. After a quiz, with 100 minutes of instructional time remaining, I launched a quick brain break and saw students shift gears. They were suddenly settled and ready to learn. However, next time I’d explain the purpose so students understand that brain breaks are researched-based and scientifically proven to be effective. In my course evaluation, some students recommended “less games.” My mentor teacher suggested some students in the academic stream are driven to work, and would see brain breaks as a “waste of time.” On the other hand, every student left this classroom knowing their peers’ names. They came in as strangers on Day 1, but would voluntarily work with each other during group work early in the quarter. To me, that indicates success.

I do not consider this project complete. I created a website, http://createclassroomcommunity.weebly.com/, that acts as a resource for first day activities, student engagement strategies, fun formative assessments, energizing brain breaks. It’s a compilation of strategies I learned during my education classes at the university. Others I picked up from fellow teachers I observed during my professional semesters. Plenty came from online sources such as teacher blogs, school websites, and other professional inquiry project websites. This is a one-stop spot for strategies to use throughout my teaching career and I plan to add to the project throughout my teaching career.

In reflection, I learned two important things about teaching. The first is to “read” your students. We teach students, not curriculum. As a beginning teacher, our lesson plans are our safety nets. We fear deviating from “the plan.” But what’s best for our students? An unplanned three-minute break that boosts their brainpower is better for them than plowing through coursework when they aren’t paying attention. I also learned to take time for fun. When the teacher participates in brain breaks, it helps students feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings in and out of class. They’re more likely to improve class participation. Plus, it creates a mutually beneficial and exciting learning environment.

Alisha is a recovering reporter and editor trying to adjust to life outside the newsroom with the help of a BA/BEd degree. She will complete her degree in Spring 2016, with a major in English Language Arts education and minors in social studies education and CTS.