Things I Meant To Blog About…

When life gets busy blogging often falls to the back burner. Here are some of the things I meant to blog about over the past few months.

Rube Goldberg

We wrapped up our simple machines unit with a Rube Goldberg day. The kids planned, designed, and created some fantastic projects in our school’s Makerspace. Watch this video if you want some amazing project inspiration!

The one with the can and the light switch actually worked really well!

The Best PE Game

I found this online one morning when trying to plan a quick lesson for baseball… Now I can’t find the link for the life of me but basically in teams of 3-4 students line up and you spread hoops out all over the gym the first student in line runs and stands in a hoop. The next student throws them a ball or beanbag and if they catch it with two feet still in the hoop they bring the hoop back to their team. The team with the most hoops at the end wins! Super easy and can be easily adapted to many sports.

Rock the Salish Sea

Our school had the most incredible opportunity to work with Holly Arntzen and Kevin Wright to perform the “Rock the Salish Sea” concert. It was an amazing experience for the students and the show was absolutely incredible. Very proud teacher moment!

City Hall Visit

To wrap up our unit on government, we went on to City Hall and had a Q&A session with Mayor Lisa Helps. She was so great at answering all the kids questions (even the cringe-worthy ones!) and after they gave the students a snack and let them sit in the counsel chairs. It was such a cool experience for my students and some of the questions that came up were just incredible – I love watching them learn outside of the classroom.

And now back to paper writing, report cards, and field trip planning… Happy June everyone! We are almost there.


Math: The Struggle is REAL!

I have struggled with math for as long as I can remember.  In high school I was the one who attended grade 11 and 12 math help three mornings a week and still shed tears over it every other day.  Throughout my prerequisite math studies for my B. Ed. I failed a stats course (the only class I’ve ever failed…too bad it cost $300). Upon handing in my final exam I was certain I did not pass my Math 360 course, which used to be a mandatory B. Ed course at UVic.  My life has been filled with many frustration filled math related tears and over time I have grown to strongly dislike math.

I am proud to say that the times, they are a changin’ over here in Mrs. Alleyn’s math world and that is largely to do with Nikki Lineham’s fantastic math website, Educating Now. Nikki is a brilliant middle school teacher leader in our district; Meaghan and I are both fortunate and grateful to have had access to her website through our respective schools.  Nikki’s site is a business, and therefore runs by paid subscription, so I won’t divulge the inner workings of her lesson I’m blogging about today, but I do want to share how the lesson went for my grade 8s.  I also want to share how Nikki’s work has turned me in to a more confident math teacher, which is something I never thought I’d ever be!

Today in math my grade 8s and I were working on the concept of “preservation of equality”, that is: “What does the = sign really mean?” My class came up with all kinds of answers to this question, but not a single student was able to tell me that the = sign actually means to BALANCE both sides of the equation.  I was so pleased that no one was able to tell me that = means “balance” because it meant I had found a weakness in their understanding (and, my own understanding, if I’m honest!) We then worked with the concept of a scale/teeter totter and I ended up holding various objects in my hands, arms outstretched, pretending I was on one end of the teeter totter and Charlee, my 1.5 year old daughter, was on the other end.  We talked about what would happen and came to the conclusion that because I am obviously heavier than Charlee, the teeter totter would launch Charlee high in the sky.  We then discussed what might happen if Joel, my husband, joined Charlee on the teeter totter.  Obviously his added weight would raise me into the air.  We then discussed how we could even out the weight between my family on the teeter totter and decided that if Charlee came to my side, perhaps she and I would balance Joel.  It was so interesting to me to use my family in the analogy because I had never thought of the = sign this way before.

Let it be known that my grade 8 class has a very wide range in mathematical competency – I’m talking a range from about grade 4 to grade 11.  I think the best part of today’s lesson is what came next…

After some more work with numbers and teeter totters and balancing my grade 8s set out to complete their learning task, which was to create five questions solving for x, while using the teeter totter concept to help them answer their questions.  Check out the differentiation that occurred once my students let loose:

Are you freaking out as much as I am freaking out over how awesome this learning task is? My struggling learners were able to use the teeter totter to help solidify what the = sign means; therefore, bringing them to a deeper understanding of algebra. My very advanced learners were able to differentiate the task to meet their level of ability, while still being challenged by the pictorial component (let me assure you, my strongest math students are rock solid when it comes to doing math in a procedural manner, but they do struggle when they need to show their work conceptually, as you will notice above).

As I sit here writing this post I am in awe that I taught this lesson today.  I keep thinking, “I did this!? I understand this!?” Today’s lesson was a huge learning experience for me and for many of my students.  I was not taught math like this, but our redesigned math curriculum calls for concrete, pictorial and symbolic representation of student learning, which is why I am so grateful for Nikki’s lessons and teachings.  Nikki’s work has certainly made me a more confident math teacher.

P.S: Meaghan and I, along with a handful of our teacher friends, plan to take Jo Boaler’s new online, self-paced math course this August.  Click HERE to check it out and let us know if you want to join our math posse.  We are certainly interested in collaborating about math over the internet with our international teacher friends and readers!

Note: Tale of Two Teachers is in no way financially affiliated with Educating Now. We simply love their work and both use it regularly in our respective classrooms.This post was written with permission from Nikki Lineham, teacher in SD61 and part of Educating Now. 


No pencils, no papers, no problems

My grade 8s have a very exciting year end trip coming up! In a few weeks all the grade 8s in our school will head out on a paddling and camping trip, which they have been preparing for since January.  Our school is incredibly lucky in that we are situated right on the ocean – some classrooms even have a pretty sweet view – allowing us easy access to the water.  Our school is also incredibly lucky to have two very dedicated teacher leaders who have taken on and developed the Big Canoe program over the last few years.  Check out last year’s trip!

It’s been an interesting experience hearing about all the prep my grade 8s have been doing because indeed they are not only “my grade 8s” – I share them with my teaching partner, Amy.  Most canoe prep days have taken place on Amy’s work days, not mine, so it has been easy for me to be far removed from the program.  That said, in the last two weeks our final paddling “training” days have taken place on MY work days and I definitely cannot complain!


Happiest teacher in all the land.

Admittedly, most of my work days are filled with meetings before and after school and during breaks, two massive handfuls of behaviour issues, a handful of parent/staff emails to send, a handful of pencils to dish out (because while we can be prepared for canoeing, we are never prepared for math!), a handful of extra photocopying to do…you know what I’m saying?  There isn’t a lot of time to kick back and breathe in the glory that is these last few weeks of grade 8 with my students.  These last few weeks are precious.  Nerves are uncertain and sometimes behaviours come out stronger than ever (and with every behaviour being a form of communication, my goodness…So. Much. Communicating). The end of grade 8 is full of transition days to high school, final IEP meetings with families, ceremony prep galore, wrapping up assignments, report card writing, class party planning, field trips…it’s busy times.

Our days on the water these last few weeks have provided me with one calming thought:

No pencils, no papers, no problems.

During these last few weeks I’ve witnessed my (our) grade 8s work together in ways I thought were unimaginable back in November.  I’ve seen the struggling learners be leaders in the canoes.  I’ve seen my “usual crew” rise up and build shelters, row in sync with one another, and share chocolate treats with their friends.  I’ve seen the more reserved and reluctant students shine brightly as their confidence on the water grows.  There is just so much learning that happens out there with 13 bodies crammed into one canoe – we have no pencils, we have no papers, and we truly have no problems.  It’s beautiful.


I think, for me, the icing on the cake was being present with some of my students and staff at a recent town hall meeting where our canoe program was presented to local politicians.  Three of my students stood up to speak about how the canoe program has impacted them and influenced their learning.  Things like teamwork, resilience, creativity and perseverance were brought forward.  As I sat in the (very small) audience my teacher heart glowed with pride for these brave, young people who spoke truth about their learning outside of the classroom and who brought the importance of our school’s canoe program to attention with their testimonies.


I can’t wait to see what the next few weeks have in store for these incredible kids!


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?


Inquiring Minds

So back here, you may have read about my inquiry project that I did in my grade 8 English class last year. I got a lot of questions and comments about it and have been meaning to write a follow up post… Finally – here it is!

As I mentioned in the first post about this, the project was far from perfect and there were many things I will change when I get the chance to do it again. What I want to give you here is a starting place in case you want to do inquiry with your own class (which I HIGHLY encourage everyone to do!)

inquiry_learningStarting it off:

As a teacher, your first step is to determine your goal – What do you want students to get from the project? There could be many possible answers to this but the ones that spring to mind for me are: increased interest in learning, ability to self-direct their studies, increased knowledge of subject area, increased connection to classroom community, increased interest in global connections, relational accountability (being accountable to ourselves, community, and the earth).

Once you have a goal in mind it will be much easier to choose activities that suit your end goal. The inquiry project to me was ultimately a lot of strategic planning on my part. How can I guide the students from their personal subject to a global idea?


Here are a bunch of the activities that I used. Some worked better than others but in the end they all had their place. These activities were mixed in with a lot of class discussion, individual research time, and personal sharing. The one thing I wish I had done more of was the conversational aspect (between students and also with me).

1. Inquiry Partners: We used a clock partner schedule to have individual meetings with partners (I made my own but here is an example). During these times I would put questions up on the board to help guide student discussions. We talked about generous listening before we started and one time the listening partner was not allowed to speak until the time was up and they would switch. Teaching real listening is such an important skill – especially in middle school!

2. Image Representation: Each student had to create an image that represented their inquiry at the stage it was at. No words were allowed but they could use whatever they liked (computer, art, etc.) to create their image. The idea behind this activity is to access some other ways of knowing and learning.

3. Interview: Each student had to find someone in the community that they could interview – this turned out to be a lot of work for me – totally worth it! They developed a list of 10-15 questions that they were going to ask so we talked about what makes a good question and what kind of answers they were looking for, etc. This ended up being one of the most valuable parts for some students. One of them interviewed a professor at the university who clearly explained some of the complications with distribution of clean water around the world.

4. Self Reflection: Part of the final project was to look back at their inquiry journey so far to see the journey the had made. I asked for some reflection into the activities that really helped move their inquiries along and also got the students to look forward to where their inquiries may take them in the future.

5. Community Comparison: With a partner (either in the class or outside), they had to create a comparison diagram (venn diagram or other form) that showed similarities and differences in their thoughts and opinions. The goal of this activity was to open up the conversation from a one sided “sharing” piece to a more dynamic conversation where different points of view were expressed. For some students there was a LOT of learning that happened with this activity.

6. Global Perspectives: For my class’ inquiries this was the main component of the last two months. We were focusing on making global connections with their interests and creating an understanding of relationality. There were a couple of different parts to this but mostly it involved working in small groups with a map of the world and discussing how each of their topics connected to different parts of the world.

7. Sharing: This is the activity that was both the most powerful and least effective at the same time… And lesson learned for next time! As you may recall, I had never taught in June before and had no idea quite how crazy it would become. We didn’t end up having time for everyone to share and there was some frustration with the crunched timeline. The students who did share though really made an impact on some of their classmates. It was really interesting to watch the students reactions to their peers while listening to them talk about their passions. Many amazing questions came up and I think the full class sharing piece is a really important part of the inquiry project.

So those are the main components of my inquiry project last year and I hope they are helpful to you. Please let me know if you have any other questions and I would absolutely love to hear about how you use inquiry (or similar projects) in your own classrooms.


A Letter to Myself


Our envelope of self-addressed letters…

In class today I had the students talk about their goals for the upcoming year and then write a letter to themselves that will be given back to them in January. The point of this activity was to provide some time for reflection on their goal setting and also to allow them to be very personal (since no one else would be reading their letters but them!) I encouraged them to think beyond school goals and write about personal goals with friends, hobbies, home life, etc. as well. Most of the students were thoroughly engaged in the process and it was interesting to see how seriously some of the 8th graders took the assignment too. While I was in the reflective state of mind I decided that I would write my own letter and share it here with all of you…

Dear Me,

I hope everything is going well this year and that the job situation worked out one way or another! This letter is to remind you about how much you believe that everything happens for a reason… Even the crazy, unknown, stress of not knowing has a place in making you grow as a teacher and as a person. Although I would love to write and say that I think you must be in a full time job teaching your dream subjects, I know this very well might not be the case and I also know that’s okay! I want to remind you that some stress is natural and pushes us to do better, but you need to work hard to control and alleviate stress in your life as much as possible. Remember to run, remember to do yoga, remember to read and breathe and relax.

I know how easy it is to get caught up in this little world of job seniority, but I hope that deep down in the bottom of your heart you ALWAYS remembered that what matters the most is showing up (mentally, physically, spiritually) and being there for each and every one of your students.

I hope this year so far has brought you joy and that you took that joy and appreciated it. I hope you are practicing gratitude everyday because you have been privileged and supported through so much. Also, I hope you remembered to return that support whenever you could. Have you worked hard to be a good partner? Daughter? Friend? Did you remember that those relationships are the most valuable thing you have? Please take a moment to appreciate those people in your life who have supported you through the hard and stressful times you faced in the past few years.

The biggest goal I made this year was to enjoy. I hope you enjoyed the little moments and the big ones. I hope you took time to live fully and laugh a lot. In teaching, I hope you enjoyed the classes that you spent time in. In life, I hope you enjoyed a lot of laughter and love with great people. Continue your year looking for enjoyment in the everyday – be excited by your experiences and opportunities.

Be grateful. Be happy.



I want to hear from you:

What are your goals this year?

How do you do goal setting with yourself or with your students?


What Makes a Good Substitute Teacher?

Substitute teachers, Teachers-On-Call (TOCs), Supply Teachers… Whatever your title in your district is we are all in this together! Sometimes you feel like a babysitter, sometimes a drill sergeant, sometimes a self-promoter, and, hopefully more often then not, you feel like a “real” teacher. This substitute territory can be tricky to navigate for the classroom teacher and substitute alike. This post was written to bridge the gap a bit when it comes to expectations and what is helpful for the classroom teacher – as always we would love to hear your feedback!

In the last few weeks we’ve experienced some teacher angst among our more established teacher friends.  A new school year is about to begin and those teachers with their own classrooms and students are facing another year of struggles…finding a good sub. We can attest to these struggles because we both had small contracts last year and we both got sick and needed to book substitutes for our own classrooms.  Unfortunately, we never got the chance to sub for one another, but we did manage to find good people to cover for us when we needed them too.  So what makes a good substitute teacher, then? We’ve asked a few of our teacher friends to help us out with the answers to this question.

Here’s what they have to say:

Have a bag of tricks with varied lessons, games, activities and art projects for a range of subjects.  Be “friendly tough” with students – don’t put up with silliness or rudeness, but also don’t publicly shame students if they do cross the line.  Using your sense of humour goes a long way!  Don’t assign homework unless you’ll be around to mark it (i.e. longer term stints), or if the teacher has specifically asked you to assign homework (when a substitute assigns homework it usually doesn’t get completed and can turn in to a “make work project” for the enrolled teacher).  Similarly, when a substitute creates lessons that don’t get finished in class, it can be hard on the enrolled teacher because he/she doesn’t know how to finish up the lesson or mark it (if you, the sub, are doing an in-class project, make sure you have the time to mark it yourself).  *This next point is specific to the style of the teacher: Prepare to do your own planning/prep if you are subbing for more than one consecutive day.

A nice reminder for tonight, because we know that we will not be sleeping soundly at all! A mixture of nerves and excitement has taken over.

A nice reminder for tonight, because we know that we will not be sleeping soundly at all! A mixture of nerves and excitement has taken over.

Karley’s thoughts:  I am definitely not a pro by any means, but I’ve found some key things that really tend to work in my favour when I’m subbing.  When subbing I try my best to be as competent as I can.  I always show up at least 30 minutes before the bell rings (I’m usually more like 40 minutes early), I check in at the office in the morning and meet the office staff and principal/VP if possible, at the end of the day I make sure the classroom looks like it did at the start of the day, I leave a detailed note or email for the teacher, I introduce myself to neighbouring classrooms teachers (“Hi, I’m Karley Alleyn and I’m subbing for _______________ today.  I just wanted to introduce myself and let you know I’ll be here all day” kind of thing), and I always bring a few good stories (my own, personal stories) or quick activities.  I find that establishing myself in the classroom as best as I can before the school day starts is what really sets the tone for the day.  These things might seem like “no brainer” actions, but I do know of subs who don’t engage with the school and the students from the moment they set foot in the school; ignoring to establish immediate rapport can set one up for disaster before the bell even rings.

I always introduce myself to the students in a fun, yet clear and concise, way.  I make sure the students know that even though I’m “just a sub”, I mean business.  I frequently have had students switch names on me, or sit in different seats…when things like this happen I don’t let it bother me, but rather I approach the students in a warm manner (I’m not the kind who raises their voice and yells) and let them know that I have the seating plan right in front of me (most times I actually DO have it right in front of me).  I let students know that the name switching thing might be funny, but it is actually a safety issue.  I tell the class that if we were to have a fire or earthquake that I would be doing attendance outside and if they were joking around with switched names we could all get into serious trouble, or worse.  If it sounds like I’m in “lay down the law” teacher mode during these discussions, it’s because I AM! I can pull a quality “serious face” and in my experience kids seem to get the point straight away and come clean with the switched names.  Of course I never hold a grudge on the students who try to play games; they’re just testing the waters!  For me it’s basically just about setting the boundaries as the TOC from the moment the bell rings; if I let the kids know they aren’t getting away with their silly antics from the get go, then we are usually good for the rest of the day, and beyond, because we are able to establish trust with one another.

Meaghan’s thoughts:

I actually really enjoy subbing! Not that I want to do it for the rest of my life or anything and I definitely prefer being a classroom teacher but I think subbing is fun and that really helps me out with the job. For me, attitude is the most important part of it – I need to have a positive attitude about the job from the time I get the call to the time I leave the school at the end of the day. Yes there will be those moments where you have no idea what’s going on but hey, what can you do? That’s all a part of it.

Karley is exactly right with being prepared, that’s how you start the day off right! Now I’m not so much of a morning person so being 40 minutes early has probably never happened for me despite my best intentions haha but 30 minutes for sure! You never know what you might have in the classroom so it’s important to make sure you have enough time to prep, plan and photocopy. One of my best days of subbing was when there was absolutely no day plan for me – getting to do whatever I want for all the subjects = AWESOME! I got to try all of my best one off lessons for every subject all day and the kids really enjoyed it as well. However, many times you will get a detailed day plan left by the teacher and it’s important to try to follow the plan to the best of your ability. Most teachers will be fine if you couldn’t get to something or had trouble with a part of a lesson (as long as you leave a note) but I think it’s really important that you at least try to get through everything. I’ve heard of a few situations where a substitute just did their own lesson even when there was a detailed plan left by the teacher… This is a no go for me. Teacher’s have timelines and missing a day of work could really throw things off especially when there is a deadline like report cards or a holiday coming up. Unless a teacher gives you the option to do your own lesson you should always follow the plans that are left.

My best advice on being a good substitute teacher is to truly enjoy it: make connections with the kids, participate in your own games and activities, be positive, and be your best.  If you are anything like us we are working towards those full time contracts so we won’t be substitutes forever and there are many positives to being a substitute (little or no marking/planning, less time at school, etc.). We have the unique opportunity to try out different grades, schools, classrooms, and routines on a daily basis – Let’s enjoy it!


It’s the hills that make us stronger…

This is just a quick post of some rambling thoughts…

Right now I’m training for my second half marathon so, besides school, running is taking a lot of my time! Tonight I went out to search for the “perfect hill” to run my hill repeats.

As I was running up this “perfect hill” I found myself feeling a little angry with my pre-run self who seemed to think that a super steep hill was what I needed.

When I get tired during hill runs I try to keep reminding myself that the hills are what make me stronger and a better runner. Tonight though my mind wasn’t as much on the hill as it was on my French test tomorrow and that assignment I didn’t do great on the other day and how overwhelmed I feel sometimes in my class and on and on and on…

It was at this point that I reminded myself that the hills are what make me stronger and better. My hill tonight is that studying I need to do while my friends are all at a barbecue. My hill tomorrow will be working hard to think through what I’ve learned this week and apply it on my test. And next week I will have to do it again.


And just like I feel great right now after my run…

When this course is done the “hills” that I’ve had will make me a better teacher and a better French speaker. In the end those hills are worth every second of pain we may feel!


A Little Inspiration…

As you may know, I am currently a research assistant at our local university. We are working on a project about a type of self-directed inquiry called “Transformative Inquiry.” I joined this project in the summer before my final year of university and it has been an influential part of my teaching ever since. In our final year we take the Transformative Inquiry course and it is one of the first opportunities where we are able to really look at our place in this education system: what we bring in as a teacher, what we want to change, etc. Through this process I have really begun to understand who I am as a teacher and what I am going to bring to my students that I feel this world needs.

My "Path with Heart" from my TI Project

My “Path with Heart” from my TI Project

The freedom of being able to look a topic of interest was a turning point for me when it came to the delivery of curriculum in my own classroom. When I took my contract this year I knew I wanted to incorporate some of this style of learning but I wasn’t sure how.

After Christmas, I ventured into the personal inquiry project with my students and it began to take shape. Each student looked at a topic they were interested in and had to research it, talk to friends/family members about it, conduct an interview with someone, etc. And then we looked at their topics with a global lens to see how connections could be made worldwide. The students then had to do a personal, community, and global connections piece and a presentation for the class.

The project was far from perfect… We needed more time on a few parts that I tried to rush through and much less time on other areas. It ran too late into the end of the year and not everyone had the opportunity to present. Some students were confused about the process and very focused on an end result. Some lessons went off the rails pretty quickly and we had to switch gears… But in the end there was a lot of great connections and learning that came from the project and I am so happy that I ventured into the unknown with this one.

My subject connection was to language arts, although I believe you can connect personal projects to most, if not all, subjects. I think writing and sharing about their interests was some of the most effective learning this year. When the students were talking about something they were passionate about they seemed to get lost in their topic and speak from their heart. Their writing was deep and moving – well written and again, from the heart.

I learned a lot from doing this project but the thing that was most astounding to me was watching the students talk about their topics and share the information with each other. In June, when some of the students were presenting, I saw something come alive in the class. There were students sharing very personal information and the rest of the class appeared to be truly listening to their peers. I saw connection and understanding grow between many students. It was amazing to watch and I felt so inspired.

The beautiful words from a student...

The beautiful words from a student…

I received a note from one of my students on the last day of class that thanked me for the opportunity to present to the class about a topic that she did not feel she had been able to talk about otherwise. In this note she said that I had inspired in her a love for English and expressing herself through writing and then she said that she only wished I had found the same inspiration this year. Well all I can say is that I truly did… I am inspired to continue to have students complete personal projects and I am inspired by the passions and ideas that the students have. I have found more inspiration in watching these students share than I ever could while reading or researching anything on my own.

Do you do any personal projects or inquiry in your classroom?

Would you like to hear more about the specifics of my project?

Also, please share some of your inspiration from your students!