Teach it Tuesday: Blackout Poems

Yesterday during Fika my grade 8s and I worked our way through creating our very first set of “blackout poems”.  I was inspired to try this technique with my class after seeing it set up for public participation two weekends ago at the Victoria Yoga Conference.  I had never seen a “blackout poem” before, so I was curious to experience them with my students.  The results were incredible.  Allow me to explain!

Blackout poems are a very safe and encouraging way to work with poetry because they are written using text that already exists.  The students use the written work of another author or poet and literally cross out (or black out) any words they don’t want to include.  Additionally, students can rearrange the words to their liking; bits and pieces of sentences can be moved around to create new meaning.  The only rule I established was that students were not allowed to add in new words (I did allow students to change the tense of a word or pluralize words).  That’s it!  I found this lesson differentiated nicely; even my most vulnerable and struggling learners were able to participate in this activity because all the text already existed.  The power was in the hands of the student to delete and recreate, rather than start with a blank sheet of paper, which served to boost the creative self-esteem for many students in my class. I’ve never worked backward like this in any curricular area before, so I was amazed to see the deep and powerful poems my grade 8s were able to create using our predetermined piece of text.  Of course, it helped that our original text was a piece of beautiful work from Shane Koyzcan.

This was the poem we used for our original piece of writing.  I encourage you to listen to the poem first before watching the video.  Koyczan’s voice is pure magic.

So here was the scene in my grade 8 class:  We all had our steaming mugs of tea, lights turned low, heads on desks or eyes closed.  We listened to Walking Through Words first.  Then we listened again, but this time we also watched the video. Some of the girls gasped when they saw Koyczan’s face for the first time; he didn’t look like they expected him to look.  How does a poet look anyhow? But after the initial shock there was a tangible, deep respect and acceptance for the artwork and magic Koyczan creates with his spoken and written word. My class correctly guessed that the video was filmed in Tofino, just a few hours up island from where we live and play.  After this, we listened a third time and the students followed along with the text I had transcribed (I wasn’t able to find the text anywhere on the internet, so I transcribed it myself).  I encouraged everyone to ignore punctuation and listen to how Koyzcan makes short words seem looooong, and long words seem short.  He makes periods and commas disappear, but in the most perfect places.  Then I did a quick poll to see which method each student liked best, and then we moved on to our fourth listen/watch/read.

Listening four times through the poem might sound excessive, but it was entirely necessary because only then did my students start to really grasp the essence of the words.  Once we were done listening we got to work!  Check out the blackout poems in the early stages of recreation:


We worked all through the block and some students didn’t even want to go out for break! We revisited this activity for about 20 minutes after lunch.  One student turned her work into a masterful work of art, and while I won’t share her name, she did give me permission to photograph and share her final piece of work:


Isn’t this just a beautiful piece of art?

I love how diverse this blackout poem writing experience was yesterday- we will definitely do it again.  My most favourite aspect of blackout poems is how each and every student in my class, regardless of curricular reading level or ability, was able to find success and for that I am deeply grateful.

If you try this activity out with your own students, children or even on your own terms, let us know how it worked for you!


Teach it Tuesday: New Curriculum & Science

Disclaimer to our out of province and international readers:  Our curriculum here in BC has been undergoing a massive change throughout the last few years.  While utilizing the new curriculum is not mandatory yet, many teachers here in BC are starting to implement various aspects of it into their teaching.

Back in September, when I was still on maternity leave, I knew I’d be teaching grade 8 science again this year so I went to a Pro D session offering ideas on how to integrate some new curriculum concepts and competencies into science lessons.  I thought, “Great! Perfect! I already worked so hard at making all my grade 8 science stuff last year, so I’ll just reuse it all”.  I thought I’d be able to add in some new curriculum based ideas and be done with it.  It’s now February 2016 and guess how much of that stuff I’ve reused?

Precisely NONE of it.  Absolutely nothing. Nichts.

But this is not a bad thing, you guys.  I know it sounds like a lot of wasted effort and time, but it’s not.  Trust me.  One day I will use those resources I created again, but this year just isn’t the right timing.  This year, instead of reusing my old stuff, I’ve discovered something even more resourceful and brilliant…tapping in to my local community of experts. More specifically, I replied to an email from Green Team BC back in September and together with the coordinators, Amanda and Jenny, whipped up a hands on, outdoors science/ecology education program for my class (and a few others classes in our school joined in as well!)

My grade 8 students have been working in our direct community at a park up the road from our school.  Once a month we work with shovels, clippers, gloves and tarps in the park to remove invasive ivy and plant native species in the designated garden area.  So far we have completed two “field study” sessions and we have two more scheduled before spring break in March.

Jenny, our community leader, visits our class the morning of our field study days and does a short lecture with the students.  Recently Jenny shared with us some of the work she’s been doing with the the native plant species directly in our community and that sparked a whole conversation on seeking the indigenous names for the various native plants in the garden.

What I love most about this project is how it lends my students the opportunity to do some intense place based learning.  The park we are working in is an area that many of my students access every single day.  Since we engaged in our first field session in November, my class is starting to see the park in a new way; the students are leaving a legacy in the place they play and learn.

I encourage all educators who may be struggling with the new curriculum to open your minds to creative opportunities and connections your direct school community might have available.  I am proud to say we aren’t even touching the resources I worked so hard to create two years ago…this work we are doing is much more deep and connected to our space and place.

I am really proud of how professionally my students handled their 15 minutes of fame! Read more about what my grade 8s have been up to in science this year HERE.






Book Review: Word Nerd

I can’t get over this book! Anyone who has talked to me in the last month has probably heard about how much I love this one for a middle school read. Actually I just love this book for anyone to read!


Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen

This book is well written with amazing character development. We just finished doing a novel study in class with it and almost all of the kids were hooked right away. My favourite part was a large group of students (mainly boys) who COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN! There really is nothing better than that, is there teachers?

The setting is in Vancouver, BC so some of the sights and places will be familiar to local blog readers. Ambrose (the main character) is a grade 7 boy with a peanut allergy who has a tough time at school and ends up being homeschooled. His upstairs neighbours are an older Greek couple who’s son, Cosmo, has just returned from prison. Cosmo becomes a “Big Brother” type figure to Ambrose and the story is mainly about their relationship and how the help each other out through the game of Scrabble. It is heartwarming, quirky, funny, and exciting – with an important focus on acceptance and forgiveness.

The Scrabble focus of the book had my students on a big Scrabble kick that culminated in a half day Scrabble tournament where EVERY SINGLE student was engaged in the game. (And proud moment of one particular ELL student who pulled off a 64 point word!)

When we did mini book reviews at the end of the unit, not a single rating was less than 3.5 stars in the whole class and there were a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews. Besides maybe my human rights lit circles last year, I really have never had such a positive response from an assigned class book. I had a few kids ask me to recommend more books for them too and two students are already reading one of the other books by Susin Nielsen that they found at the library.

Go read this – now! And then read it with your kids. It is THAT good!

Note: There is a bit of bad language (and some uncomfortable “puberty” type talk) in the book but I think that’s a big part of what makes it relatable and funny for students. In my mind the relevance and humour is something that students don’t get enough of at school and for that it is totally worth the uncomfortable moments when reading aloud.


Teach it Tuesday: Language Arts Gems

This is going to be a quick post to give a few ideas on some of my favourite activities for language arts right now:

Partner Reading

I started doing this activity last year with a novel study and it has become one of my favourites. It is so simple but allows for some great opportunities! I pair kids up (we have AB partner magnets with their names so that’s quickest for me to do in the morning after attendance) and they read the assigned chapters out loud to each other switching at the paragraph or page, their choice.

Things I love about it:

  • The sound of 15 kids reading out loud (but quietly) at the same time!
  • How easy it is to just read with a partner that you don’t know well (I’ve noticed much easier than having a discussion at the middle school level)
  • The ability to poke my head in and listen to kids read – for assessment or enjoyment!

Beginning, Middle, End Writing

Reluctant writer writing away

This activity is originally from 6+1 Traits of Writing but I’ve adapted it a bit to fit with in class and tutoring. For one of the students that I tutor, this is the only activity that I’ve done where he has willingly sat down and wrote almost a page! Basically you just give students the beginning, middle, and end of the story and they fill in the rest.

Things I love about it:

  • It allows for creativity without that feeling of being totally lost in options that can come with creative writing
  • It can be adapted to different interests and situations (for tutoring we threw in the dogs name – always a hit!)
  • This activity can easily be accessed by students of different ability levels as a quick write with guidance
  • I think already having the ending there takes away the pressure of getting your story to the end and helps students write

Quote and Note

I’ve written about this one before (here) but it continues to be a favourite! I haven’t been able to get as in depth into this one this year due to time constraints but it has still been rather effective after a lot of scaffolding to get them to the right spot.

Things I love about it:

  • The concept is simple for students to understand but the writing you get can be really in depth
  • Again, it allows students to access at what level they are at
  • It really helps me to get a good idea of students comprehension of the novel we are reading

What are some of your classroom favourites these days?


Things Liz Gilbert Says

Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent masterpiece, Big Magic, was a gift to myself for Christmas.  The other day I finally reached Big Magic in my rather extensive reading pile and my goodness am I ever glad this book was buried so deep in the line up because Liz’s words are speaking straight to my soul right now.  It’s like the magic piece of Big Magic was waiting until the very most wonderful moment read it.  Last week I hit a low point in my teaching.  I did a lot of reading, writing, playing and singing over the weekend.  On Monday I walked into my classroom literally a changed person.  These words have revamped my view on my craft (teaching) and have helped turn my perspective from bleak and desperate to uplifted and inspired.

“So try saying this: I enjoy my creativity.  And when you say it, be sure to actually mean it. For one thing, it will freak people out.  I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days.  It’s such a gangster move because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist.  So say it.  Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” p. 118-119

I do believe teaching is a creative art.  At least the teaching I like to do is.


This one above hit me hard.  Never enough time? Umm…yep.  Never enough resources?  Hello.  Support?  I’m actually pretty well supported, but rewards?  I’m fairly certain in my last post I hinted at the thanklessness that can run rampant in this job.


And then there’s this!  Managing oneself between those glorious moments of success and good feelings.  It’s easy to get caught up in the mess of teaching.  It’s easy to feel helpless and lost and completely frustrated.  Studies show that new teachers are often pushed to the point of exhaustion so that they give up entirely within the first five years.  So how am I managing between those bright moments?  Last week one might say I wasn’t managing at all.  I really really needed this quote.

If you feel like you need a little creativity boost in your craft, I highly suggest Big Magic.  It’s easy to read, astoundingly hilarious (I’ve had several “legit LOL” moments), and, as Liz Gilbert can only be, bluntly wise.  Check it out!


Peace and Love,



Meaghan and I are often on the same page about most things, so it comes as no surprise that her post from the other day convinced me to write down my own thoughts around the similar topic.  Yes, we work hard.  Yes, we plan and implement really cool and unique learning opportunities in our respective classrooms.  Yes, we blog about all the hard work and cool stuff we do.  And yes, we rarely post about the fails we encounter, the letdowns we experience and the downright “I give up” moments that are actually very common.

Lately I’ve been feeling somewhat sub par about this whole teaching thing.  Thoughts like, “What am I even doing?”, “Who do I think I am?” and “Why am I even trying?” filter in and out of my mind on the daily when I’m at school.  Some days I feel like I probably won’t make it to the next academic block without losing it.  Other days I resort to the most lame lessons and worksheets because I’m at my wits end and can’t think of anything better to do.  Some days I wonder if all my hard work and effort is even worth it, because the rewards are few are far between.  I think this is called survival mode.  Since November I have mostly been teaching in “survival mode”.  I do work at two of the most at risk, high needs schools in our district so even situations like students not having food to eat are part of my daily routine and it breaks my heart.  I have given my lunch to students more than once since I started back to work in November.

This job is so much more than most people think.

Recently I have been having a lot of success with my students in science!  I have been photocopying two or three pages from a textbook that is not at grade level and creating my own “worksheet” compiled of a few vocabulary words and one or two questions on the topic (right now it’s the earth’s crust).  Two weeks in a row I have had all my students complete their science tasks in class and get good marks on their work.  Two weeks in a row I have had all my students sit silently, pencils in hand and work for fifteen uninterrupted minutes.  Two weeks in a row I have literally cheered (in my head) because my class is doing work and handing it in and getting the answers right.  While some of my students are able to go above and beyond with their academic work, this below grade level “information gathering” stuff is where the majority of my class is at in science right now.  Differentiating lessons and assignments is a mountain of a task and I am basically plodding one foot in front of the other, trying to make it work for every single person.  However, right now we are all finding success in science, and being successful feels good.  So this is how we’re tackling it right now.  But I wish we could do more…

This job is so hard.  I can’t meet the needs of all my students.

I am struggling in a big way being a part-time teacher.  I compare myself constantly to the teacher I was two years ago working full-time in a different at-risk, high needs grade 8 class.  Two years ago I worked twelve hours a day, six days a week and it still wasn’t enough.  Two years ago I cried on average twice a week over some situation or other that was related to my job.  Two years ago I spent all my own money on my students and my classroom because I didn’t know that classroom funds even existed.  Two years ago I didn’t have a child of my own, so I can no longer be the teacher I was then.

The hardest part for me this year has been the disconnect working part-time provides.  I am completely, 100% on throughout Monday and Tuesday.  On Wednesday and Thursday I catch my breath and then on Friday I’m back at it.  From Wednesday through Friday I miss out on the activities at one school, while Monday through Thursday I miss out on the activities at my other school.  I’m kind of like a glorified TOC doing the work of a full-time classroom teacher.  I knew this going into the year because people warned me it would be this way.  I’m having a hard time this year because connections with students are more challenging when you’re their teacher only one or two days a week.  Making connections is where I excel within the realm of teaching – it is my greatest strength – but this year I feel like I am so bad at it. It’s easy for me to say, “Oh, I don’t even care” this year…

But I do care.

Meaghan and I, we have our extreme weaknesses in teaching.  Yes, we post all the good things (all of them!)  But we shy away from publicly sharing the tough, hard stuff because it’s exhausting, because we are exhausted, and because putting it on the internet makes us vulnerable.  This week you’ve got a dose of our low, negative selves.  We hope you can understand our realness shining through our words and reflections.  Thanks for lending your support; we know you’ve all been in this exact same position at least once or twice!


There’s always a lesson

First off, Happy New Year! Karley and I have resolved to be more consistent with our blogging in this new year so hopefully you are ready to hear from us more regularly. For the past few years I have decided to choose a word instead of New Year’s Resolutions as I find it easier to have a word to focus on throughout the year and from there I build short term goals. This year my word is fulfillment. I intend to seek fulfillment in a variety of aspects of my life, both personally and professionally. 

We often hear about how our blog portrays us with words like “exceptional” or “inspiring” and, although I’d love to think of these words as the truth, the real truth is that our blog is often just the highlights of our teaching. If everyone shared their highlights, you would see that we are one part of a huge group of educators who work hard, have successes and failures, and do their best for their students each day.  We try to make a conscious effort to be vulnerable and share our failures alongside our triumphs, but as we are both positive people there always seems to be a focus on the good. (I realize this is mostly not a bad thing and also, it’s often difficult to share the negative due to confidentiality reasons). We want to make sure that our blog stays “real.” So today I have a post about the real stuff – the tough stuff!

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, learning and growing professionally since the New Year started. This past week and a half has been difficult in many ways that I cannot share on here, but just know that it has been one of the most difficult teaching periods of my past four years. I have spent a lot of time second guessing myself on everything from the smallest of conversations to the core of my teaching beliefs. Each day has become a test to myself to put that smile on in the morning and make a connection with a student, to just breathe, and to practice patience, kindness, and empathy.

Why me? Why now?

These thoughts have been at the forefront of my mind. I care about my students deeply, I work very hard, I plan carefully, I volunteer, I help out – I try. I try SO hard. “Why me? Why now?” Last week I did a lot of venting and a lot of crying about the situations I was in. I was attempting to problem solve but I was feeling hurt and not thinking clearly. I ended the week feeling fed up and frustrated.

This week I have been on the search for the lesson, because I truly believe there is always a lesson in it. All this week I’ve been thinking of the lessons that I’ve been learning…

  1. It is important to communicate clearly
  2. I need to let things go
  3. I will always need the support of friends, family and colleagues in my life.

All of these lessons are important but all of them are also lessons I’ve learned at other times in my life…

What is different this time? What lesson am I learning now?

Today it hit me – This is a job, this is not my whole life. This is the lesson I think I was meant to learn. Teaching has always been so important to me and I’m not saying that it isn’t anymore. My students will always be “my kids.” I will still think about the best way to support student learning while I’m trying to fall asleep. I will spend my own time on professional development, my own money on my classroom, and I will never stop the endless “teacher talk” with friends during evenings and weekends.

But what I have learnt is that I can have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day at school and I can come home and have a great evening. I can go have a killer workout. I can have a meaningful conversation with my partner. I can watch a movie that makes me laugh or cry or both. I can read a book for pleasure. I can meet a friend for coffee. I can plan my wedding.


This may seem obvious to some of you, in fact I hope it does! But for me, it used to be that a bad day at school meant coming home, re-hashing every detail, playing out every possible scenario for the next day. A bad lesson would mean spending hours researching new ways to teach a concept or to re-vamp my whole unit plan.

I chose a job that I love. I chose a career that I care about. I find my work meaningful.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a job and there’s more to life than that.


Online Math Game!

Hey everyone!

I know, I know, Meaghan and I have both been entirely neglecting our blog lately.  We both have busy lives right now, perhaps busier than ever before!  I may have created a New Year resolution around the concept of “keeping things simple”…another blog post for another time.

For now I’d like to share with you all the online math game that has completely captured the hearts and minds of my grade 7 students.  I am incredibly grateful to a colleague at my grade 8 school for sharing this resource with me.  I just tried this math game last block with my grade 7s and it was hands down the best block of math I’ve ever experienced as a teacher…and I did nothing.

The game is called Prodigy Game and you can access it HERE. Prodigy Game requires the teacher (or parent) to create an account to work from – this process literally took me less than five minutes.  After I created my account I printed off the three step directions for my students so that they had very easy, clear instruction on how to join my account and create their own avatars in order to play.  My students’ process of logging in and creating their avatars was super high energy and fun!  When I was setting up my teacher account I chose the math curriculum prescribed by the game because our BC curriculum is not an option; however, the standard grade 7 math curriculum seemed to work well for my class and we didn’t run in to any issues with questions being too hard or frustrating to accomplish.

My students spent the entire math block (around 45 minutes) playing Prodigy Game in the computer lab.  I witnessed fist pumps when questions were answered correctly, I heard exchanges of, “When you get enough points make sure you buy the pony!” and I even experienced a face to face mini refresh lesson on lowest common denominators.  This game is golden, you guys.  And free.  And so incredibly easy to use.

For me, I think the best part is that now that we have worked in Prodigy Game for a block of time I can go in to my teacher account and see where my students excelled and struggled.  I can see which questions and curricular content is specifically challenging for them.  I can also (this is the coolest part) create my own assignments for either my whole class or individual students and have the students complete my assignments in game playing format.  I especially love this feature because it means I can create lessons for my most struggling learners and they still get to be part of my class and participate in the exact same game as every other student.

This game is genius!  I caught one of our special ed teachers in the hall after math and exploded with excitement while telling her all about this game.  She promptly high-fived me and told me to send her the link, but I already had – ha!

Our math block finished today with one student asking this question as he walked out the door…”Mrs. Alleyn, so…can I log in at home and keep playing this math game?”

My reply: Heck YES!

Try it out with your class or your own children and let us know what you think!




Teach it Tuesday: Holiday Lessons

Hi everyone!

Are you as burnt out and exhausted as we are? Only a few more days and then we will all get a nice break, but until then, here are some links and fun holiday lessons we’ve either created and used ourselves, or found on the internet (and used in our classrooms).  We hope you enjoy these last few days of 2015 with your students!

Christmas math:  These free, printable worksheets and puzzles are suitable for students grade K-8.  Some of the activities involve counting, and others involve order of operations questions, so there is quite a range of skill available here!  I walked into my grade 8 class room this morning and decided to bail on my math plan for the day.  I opened my computer, Googled “Christmas math” and this is what popped up.  I think a few of these exercises will do the trick for today’s math block.

Also for math, these free Christmas logic puzzles are always a hit! I’ve used them a few years now and they are a great way to get some engagement in those last few days of math class before the break.

Christmas themed “Would You Rather”:  Leah and I write a “would you rather” statement on our board everyday with hopes that our students will use their name tags to check in for the day. If you are looking for ideas there is a list of questions here.  Here is our “would you rather” for today:


Clearly our white board eraser doesn’t work that well…

Mad Libs:  I had a TOC yesterday afternoon and she left me copies of this Christmas Mad Libs.  I have no idea where she found them, but I took a picture this morning to share with you all.  I am sure (again) a quick Google search will solve the problem! I like that this Mad Libs is actually lyrics from the real Christmas carol.


I Have, Who Has: This Christmas spin on a classic game is something I am saving for the last day or two with my grade 6’s. It uses “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to have students figuring out the clues and it is a perfect way to have students work together and talk to each other while I’m still really working on building up community with the group.

Crafty Times: Last week Leah and I worked on snow globes with our grade 8s and used the crafts as gifts for various teachers at our school who have helped us out throughout the term.  I realize these take a bit of prep and planning, but if you happen to have 30 Mason jars on hand, these make for a fun and cute activity!


We laminated small photos of our students participating in various activities this term, filled the jars with bottled water (tap water did not work well) and added sparkles!

Gingerbread Cookies:  Again, something that takes a bit of prep, planning and money (admittedly) but definitely worth it!  Yesterday for Fika my grade 8s decorated gingerbread cookies.  We have a student in our class who is experiencing her very first Christmas, so all these traditional and adorable activities (setting up and decorating a tree inside, cookies, songs, etc.) are extra fun for her right now!  It was great to start off the day calmly with a group of usually very high energy kids.


Other links and activities:

We hope you have a wonderful (and fast!) last week and a happy holiday!


Better Late Than Never…

You know those times in life when your “to do” list just seems a bit more like a “don’t do” list…

Life has been a bit crazy and a lot tiring lately so my good intentions of getting this post up over a week ago has ended up not happening until now. I’m okay with this though, it happens.

What’s new?

Well I’m home from my 5 weeks in Fiji and New Zealand. I definitely want to do a post on that soon but it will have to wait because…

I got a job! I’m teaching at the same school as last year full time right now. I literally got off the plane at 5:00 pm on a Wednesday and walked into my new classroom Thursday morning, jet lag and all. It’s been a crazy go of things but I guess that’s just how I tend to do things in this life.

My class is an amazingly lovely group of grade 6’s and I am feeling very blessed… and tired… but mainly blessed – ha!  I haven’t taught grade 6 since my first practicum which was only 3 weeks long and 5ish years ago now. I’m surprised by how different it feels than grade 7 but I did want to do something different this year so its a good thing!

So what now?

It’s a bit of a funny time of year to start: most other teachers are dealing with report card stress and burnout, students are gearing up for a break, and I feel a bit lost in a whirlwind of new students and jet lag. I’ve been really trying to get to know this class well because I feel the pressure of time with the holidays coming up so quickly. I’ve been trying to have individual meetings with students, I have a meet and greet with parents this week, and I’ve been using Communication Calendar‘s daily to get to know them better.

Curriculum wise I’m just trying to get a feel where they are at. We are going to be using Greg Tang Math for basics practice and we are doing a Christmas unit in French (now posted to our Teachers Pay Teachers site). I’ve started a read aloud to practice some of the skills and routines that we will use in language arts. We are doing an Hour of Code next week and have lots of holiday events coming up as well.

Karley and I have both been actively planning what we want to blog about – but finding the time to actually do it is a different story. We hope to keep posting as much as we can and we love staying connected with this amazing professional community!

Please let us know what you are doing this year!