Rethinking Alphabet Charts

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Check out this alphabet chart. H is for chicken, Q is for people, R is for flower, S is for dessert, J is for drink, N is for spaghetti and Q is for queue. What???

This chart (and many like it) illustrate the fact that no purchased alphabet chart matches the vocabulary or experiences of all children . . . so save your money and engage your students and your school community in the experience of making their own unique classroom alphabets.

Here’s how:

  • Release the idea of an alphabet chart; the chart format is too crowded for young learners and it’s difficult to see by anyone other than the students who sit very close to it.
  • Create a classroom space – at child height – to place alphabet cards. Measure a  section of wall long, enough to hold 26 alphabet cards, with space below for 2-3 images representing each picture .
  • Take your students on regular “community alphabet walks” to search for and then photograph or draw for the names of local objects, locations, plants or people that begin with a certain letter. Place these images below each letter.
  • Make these images meaningful by including them in science, health, math and language arts lessons.
  • Add / replace pictures over time.
  • Remember that there’s no need to begin with A and end with Z; add images as they are discovered. Watching the alphabet “grow” will enhance a student’s ability to visualize alphabetical order. For example:
    • as the image is placed under a letter, compare the placement of that letter with the other letters of the alphabet. Is this letter at the beginning, middle or end of the alphabet? What letter is before it? What letter is after it?
  • Every once in awhile, create new letter cards with a different font. This encourages children to experience one of the many ways that written language is flexible.

Please visit us at: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at






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Close looking: “O that she knew she were . . . a balloon?”

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At Beyond the Apple, we’re always looking for an intriguing image that provides an anchor to “cog up” a student’s problem solving. When we saw Canada’s Twisted Team recreate  Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene in balloons, we knew we had a winner.

To begin this close looking experience, share the image of Twisted Team’s balcony scene with your students (any age, any subject) and extend an invitation to engage:

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Then, invite the students to share their ideas:

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As the conversation develops, focus the “How” conversation on the micro, for example, how did the team create Mickey’s ears, the grass and the musicians:

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Then, view the image from the perspective of the Twisted Team. How did they anticipate, encounter and solve problems?

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Regardless of the age of your students and the subject you teach, the teacher’s role is to listen carefully as the conversation and problem solving develops and interject occasionally with questions that extend the problem solving:

  • How did you figure that out?
  • Could there be another way?
  • What little problems could become big problems?
  • What big problems might actually be little problems?
  • How is this like (provide a link to a current topic of study)?

Throughout this process, a teacher gains insight into how each student approaches a problem, the various ways students “connect the dots”, and the insightful ways students link this problem solving activity to their own experiences.

For more close looking experiences, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at

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Re-imagining our teaching practice: how do we begin?

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Dana’s words, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn” serve to open this conversation about how a teacher’s ongoing professional learning can and should modify, enhance or wholeheartedly change their teaching practice.

Let’s get that conversation started.

  • Accept that change is disruptive, causes friction and takes time, so approach the possibility of changing your teaching practice through an appreciative lens.
  • Acknowledge while some of your teaching practices are effective, there are some students who, despite your best efforts, experience limited success or become disengaged. These students are the impetus for a change in practice.
  • Gather information about each of these students: Review work samples, formative assessment results and classroom discussions with a perspective of possibilities rather than a perspective of problems:
    • Ask: What is this student’s “known”? Regardless of the student’s level of achievement (high, average or low), recognize that the student’s known is the foundation on which to build.
    • Ask: What does this student need to know next? The answer to this question lies in scaffolding on the student’s known.
    • Ask: What is the community knowledge of the student and what are the interests of the student? Acknowledge these as foundational funds of knowledge.
  • Use a student interest and/or fund of knowledge as an anchor for the next steps lesson. Regardless of the interest, a student interest can anchor new lessons in any subject area. Check out T’s story.
  • Rethink the lesson planning process by re-imagining the sometimes “solid walls” of lesson plans, curriculum and your existing practice as louvered walls that open to allow new ideas in.
  • Plan a lesson that looks and feels different from your traditional practice. As you begin, keep Dana’s words in mind: Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.

    • Remember to keep an appreciative perspective in place.
    • Check out social media for research based conversations on topics such as educational change, literate identity, funds of knowledge, teaching that builds on the known, etc.
    • Talk to your colleagues.
    • Try something new. A good start point: Reduce the introductory “teacher talk”. Begin the lesson with music, artwork, an outdoor experience or a video.
  • Anticipate an enthusiastic response from the student(s), but be prepared for a less than enthusiastic response. Change is disruptive for students as well, so there may be friction. You may feel under attack, but don’t take this personally.
  • Keep trying – remember that a student may have taken years to build up this level of disengagement, so the switch from disengaged to engaged can be a long journey. Persevere, confer with colleagues and remember to keep an appreciative perspective.
  • Keep expectations high. The goal is for each student to feel real success, not to be prompted and helped.
  • Provide the student with feedback asap. Be honest and provide evidence. Start with an acknowledgment of the student’s known, “I notice that you can . . ” and then a direction to the new, “The next step is . . . “. For a simple but very effective method of recording student progress and providing feedback, check out our Meaningful Feedback in Minutes.

Finally, each disengaged child has the right to start again, so keep a journal of successes, partial successes, and moments that lead to frustration. Write and reflect on each entry with an appreciative perspective.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at







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Does the image of an apple hold back educational change?


The purpose of an iconic image is to create and sustain a message. So, why does an apple represent education? It might be a reference to Newton’s apple, which certainly reflects the search for knowledge, but here’s what most people think:

  • “A” the first letter of apple and “A” is the first letter of the alphabet.
  • The apple was an inexpensive and healthy gift, intended to supplement a teacher’s meager income.
  • The apple is the ultimate bribe for good marks.
  • Johnny Appleseed spread apple seeds across the country; teachers spread knowledge.
  • The apple is a biblical reference linking Adam and Eve’s apple to new beginnings.

Hmmm, since education should be associated with learning to think critically, question, problem solve, and discover, perhaps the apple isn’t the best choice. Maybe it’s time to retire the apple and search for an iconic image that represents learning as opportunities to engage in a variety of active, thought-filled and innovative processes.  Any ideas? If so, contact us at

P.S. While we’re at it, could we also ditch the all too common images of desks in rows, blackboards with chalk alphabets, and the image of a big red A+ or F circled at the bottom of an assignment?

For more conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or

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Exploring Social Studies Through Arts-Based Pedagogy

 The Beyond the Apple video introducing arts based pedagogy is available at:

Infusing arts-based pedagogy into classroom practice provides students and teachers with an opportunity to view content through a new perspective.

Here’s how we used arts based pedagogy to link the social studies curriculum with the study of poetry.

The focus of the social studies unit was to introduce the 6 components of social studies (citizenship, diversity, economics, geography, history, and relationships) and to apply those components to daily life.

Students were asked to think about Maxine Tynes’ poem, “Is It Okay To Look At You”? (see below) as a representation of daily life. As they read, they were to decide which component(s) of social studies the poem most represented, and to create a line drawing to explain their choice.


To maintain anonymity among peers, but to ensure we were gathering information about individual student responses AND to be sure sure which component each student chose, each student wrote their name and the component chosen on the back of their post-it.

Students passed their post-its to us. When all post-its were collected, we placed each post-it on chart paper. You may wonder why the students didn’t post their own images – we wanted to provide an opportunity for everyone to watch the pattern of responses unfold.  As the pattern became evident, the questions began.

Here are the results:

arts based pedagogy

These simple illustrations provided us with a lot to think about. Many of the illustrations were fairly obvious and we wondered how deeply the students had thought about the links between life, the poem and the components of social studies. We had a lot of questions to pose to the class, and the seeds to plan the follow up lessons, but first, we decided to see that the students had to say.

Here are the questions generated by the students:

  • What is the difference between citizenship and relationships?
  • Are there overlaps between diversity, citizenship, and relationships?
  • Does history have a “place” in this poem?
  • How can we view this poem through the lens of economics?
  • Geography column is empty. Can this poem be viewed through the lens of geography?
  • Are all of the components of social studies inter-related?
  • If the components are inter-related, how, when and why do we separate them?

Needless to say, we were delighted. Turns out, they didn’t need us to challenge them to think more deeply.  The posting of the drawings and the obvious omission of connections to history, geography and social studies spurred the students’ deeper thinking. That thinking led to more socially aware questions. The follow up conversations, which focused on the links between social studies and life experiences were full of thought and insight.

Let’s hear it for arts based pedagogy!

Is It Okay To Look?

By Maxine Tynes

Is it okay for me to look at you

as you go limping down the street?

May I look at your wheelchair?

May I pick up your cane?

May I watch how you get up the stairs

that I can run up and down as easy as the rain?

My mom tells me not to look

at your twisted lips or legs or arms or hands

but I want to see

and to ask you, too-

What’s it like?

Does it hurt?

Could it happen to me?

How’d it happen to you?

I’m not sure that I should look at you,

not sure just what to say or do

’cause my body is whole and normally strong.

Your body is different.

I’m me.

You are you.

I finally do take a chance-

I look at you, you look back

and then you smile.

Tynes, M. Pottersfield Press, Nova Scotia, 1991

For more of our thoughts on arts-based pedagogy, go to Arts- based Pedagogy: gaining insight through multiple lenses 

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at

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What Does Growth Mindset Look Like?

Growth mindset, first mentioned by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, is a simple but powerful idea with tremendous impact. In essence, people with a growth mindset have a “not yet” attitude. Rather than thinking “I don’t know it”, a person with growth mindset thinks, “I don’t know it yet.”

When faced with a challenge,  the learner with a growth mindset acknowledges what is known and what is not yet known, then commits to  learning the “not yet” though active problem solving, research and collaboration. It’s an intentional shift from “not yet” to “got it!” Getting to “got it” means not only new understandings of content, but also, perhaps more importantly, exploring new ways to problem solve, research and collaborate.

Watch Cail’s growth mindset process as goes from “not yet” to “got it”. Cail reflects on what he knows, plans the next steps to improvement, puts the planning into action, reflects on accomplishments, and then continues to plan the next steps to improvement.

(Thanks to Accomplice Content Supply Co.)

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at

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Rethinking lesson planning

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 8.18.49 PM(from lesson plan templates / Google images)

Writing lesson plans is an integral component of a teacher’s daily practice. The lesson plan template is designed to communicate the topic of the lesson (the curriculum focus), the activities of the lesson (the process through which students engage in the topic) and the anticipated results of the lesson (the product through which the students demonstrate their understanding of the lesson). That certainly sounds like a sensible approach to organizing a teacher’s instructional day — through organization comes success in student learning.

If only it were that easy.

Every teacher knows that even the “best” lesson plans — the ones that we have spent hours perfecting, that our peers have recommended, that were created by our favourite teacher gurus, even those lesson plans that we’ve used successfully in past years, can fail miserably.  About 5 minutes into the lesson, we realize that we’ve lost our focus, the students are not engaged, the anticipated connections are not being made and we know, in the pit of our stomach, that the results will be much less than what we anticipated. Often, we struggle through to complete the lesson and wonder, “What went wrong?”

The easiest way to this question is to assign blame:

  • the students are uncooperative
  • the students weren’t prepared
  • there are too many students in the class
  • the students don’t care
  • I’m a terrible teacher

But blaming others or ourselves takes us backwards. Even if one or more of the answers listed above are true, what we need is a way forward. So let’s rethink the lesson planning process.

We begin with a shift in mindset about lesson panning.

Often, the mindset of lesson planning is focused on determining what students don’t know and providing the information to fill that gap. Not so — the mindset of lesson planning should focus on how to scaffold student learning from what Dr. Marie Clay referred to as the student’s “known” to the student’s “new”.

What does that look like?

A “known to new” lesson plan is responsive to student learning, integrates prior learning strategies from all subject areas, focuses on student progress AND, perhaps most important, allows the teacher the flexibility to adapt and alter the process and the product while maintaining the original focus of the lesson. Sounds complicated . . . but it doesn’t have to be. With a shift in mindset, all the pieces fall into place.

Here are the entry points to a “known to new” lesson planning mindset:

1. Gather information about the student and reflect on the student’s “known”.

Ask yourself:

  • What information do I have about each student?
  • Do my observations, conferences, conversations and work samples tell me about the each student’s known? This includes the student’s progress to date, interests, and levels of engagement with different formats of learning.
  • As I reflect on the information gathered, what patterns in the class’s or group’s “known” emerge? This information allows you to plan effective small group and large group lessons.

If you don’t have this information yet, start gathering it now.  The observations and information gathered throughout the day about individual student learning provide the foundation on which to plan the next lesson.  Lesson plans without a foundation of the known are built on quicksand and the probability of sinking is high.

2. Review the similar trends and patterns among individual student results. Use this information to determine the participants in small group and large group lessons. 

3. Find or develop a lesson plan template that provides explicit space to acknowledge the known and the scaffolding activities that lead to the new.

4. Use a “known to new” mindset to plan the lesson.

Ask yourself:

  • Does the focus of this lesson build on the students’ known? If the answer is no, then rethink your entry point or the students will be stuck before they begin. (Think of your car being stuck in the mud — you can continue to spin your tires and go deeper into the mud, or you back up to reconnect with the roadway. Once again, going back takes additional time, but the time taken ends up being time saved.)
  • Are my expectations for success clearly stated in the lesson plan?
  • How will I convey my expectations to the students?
  • How will the lesson unfold? Is there some time to teach, lots of time for students to practice, some time to respond/share?
  • How will I ensure each student has a voice in this lesson?
  • How will I gather information about student learning?
  • How will I schedule time for conferencing and feedback?
  • How will the strategies learned in this lesson be integrated with other subject areas?
  • How will the lesson be differentiated and still maintain the lesson’s focus?

  4. Use what you know about the students’ known to choose engaging teaching resources.

Ask yourself:

  • What introductory images, quotes, activities, stories, videos, etc. will capture the attention of the students?
  • Are the teaching resources culturally relevant and/or diverse?
  • Can the resources be integrated with other subject areas?
  • Do the texts, images etc. match the developmental and /or instructional level of the students?
  • Can the resources be differentiated?

NOTE: Remember that an image, news item, story or account of a sporting event from the student’s community is a much more powerful teaching resource (and MUCH less expensive) than those created in a location and culture far away.

  5. Ensure the assessment – feedback – next steps loop is woven throughout the lesson plan.

Ask yourself:

  • How will the students demonstrate understanding? Are there alternate ways to demonstrate understanding?
  • What assessment tool best matches this task? Examples include: informed observation, anecdotal notes, checklist, rubric, reading record, etc.
  • How will I provide feedback to the student(s)?
  • How will I use the information gathered to plan next steps instruction?

To sum up

To avoid that pit of your stomach feeling of  “What went wrong with this lesson?”  change the mindset of your lesson planning process. Begin with “What has been accomplished?” or “What is the students’ known?”  Set expectations and make a plan that provides the student with opportunities to scaffold to the new. Throughout the lesson, observe and listen to your students, using their words, demonstrations and questions as cues to what they’ve accomplished and what they need to know next. And finally, acknowledge that if and when necessary, a willingness to alter the path to the known is a sign of professional knowledge, not professional failure.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at




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Let’s Do Our Homework About Homework

A change in thinking about homework is upon us . . . and it can’t come fast enough.

Here are some articles to start this conversation:

Homework Alert: How Much is Enough? Council of Ministers of Education, Canada

Rethinking Homework by Alfie Kohn

Homework is Wrecking Our Kids

Here are our thoughts about reframing the practice of homework:

In some areas, homework is tightly controlled and monitored, in other areas, teachers have a choice about whether or not to assign homework.  Whether you have a choice to assign homework or are expected to assign homework, here are some things to consider:

  1.  Homework Equity

There’s an assumption that once homework is assigned, it’s up to the student (or the student with the parent/guardian’s help) to complete it. Knowing how diverse our classrooms are, let’s think about that assumption in terms of equity.

  • Does the student have a parent/guardian who can provide assistance?
  • Does the student have a place to complete the homework?
  • Does the student have time to complete homework?
  • Does the student have the background knowledge to complete the homework?
  • Does the student have the language to complete the homework?
  • In addition to your homework assignment, how many more homework assignments is the student responsible for?

2.   Homework Effectiveness

For homework to be effective, it must add value to student learning, so consider these questions:

  • How is this homework assignment tied to prior learning?
  • How does this homework connect lesson content to the real world?
  • Are differentiated versions available for students who excel or students who struggle?
  •  Does the homework provide some challenge, but just enough challenge to be completed independently?
  • Is there variation in the format used to complete the homework? For example, in addition to written responses, are are there opportunities to illustrate, record, photograph, create, observe etc.?
  • How will you mark the homework and provide feedback?
  • How will your feedback enhance student learning?

3.  The Tricky Bits

Once issue of issue and effectiveness are considered, some tricky bits remain.

  • How will you handle the “bookkeeping” of complete, incomplete, late, marked, and resubmitted homework?
  • Is there a consequence for incomplete homework? If so, is the consequence equitable?
  • For how long does a student have to submit a late homework assignment?
  • If the homework is completed incorrectly, should it be reassigned?
  • How will you respond to a parent/guardian who completes the homework for the student?
  • How will you respond to a parent/guardian who questions the value of homework and asks to opt out?
  • How will you respond to parent/guradian or student comments about homework that is “boring”, “too easy” or “too difficult”?

4. Good Homework

Good homework should be meaningful. Vatterot (2010) sums this up:

“Meaningful homework should be purposeful, efficient, personalized, doable, and inviting. Most important, students must be able to freely communicate with teachers when they struggle with homework, knowing they can admit that they don’t understand a task—and can do so without penalty”

Clearly, homework is a complex issue. Perhaps we should move away from the homework as “the school day part deux” format and toward an “explorations and applications of learning”.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at

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Gosling Glen and Duckling Dell: Street signs that make us think

Driving through Amherst, Nova Scotia, I saw this street intriguing sign.


The elementary school teacher in me was intrigued. For the rest of my drive, I thought about how to use this image as an anchor for a project that engages students in thinking, research, reading and writing. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Display the image of the street sign. Beside the image, post questions that invite the students to think. Questions such as:
    •      What’s a gosling?
    •      What’s a glen?
    •      What’s a duckling?
    •      What’s a dell?
  • Students work in small groups to share what they know and gather additional information about goslings, glens, ducklings, and dells.
  • The next question to pose is, “If you follow the arrows, where will you go?” The obvious answer is, “to streets named Gosling Glen and Duckling Dell” but, hold on, what if that’s not where the arrows lead?
  • Using a “thinking outside the box” mindset, invite your students to brainstorm other possible answers to, “If you follow the arrows, where will you go?”  The chart below will get you started. It offers a few outside the box answers to the question and some extending research questions chosen to engage students in thinking, reading, and writing in a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres.

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  • Have each small group of students complete one of the “possible answer/research questions.” When complete, share the results.
  • Go back to the beginning by reminding the students that all of their work originated from looking at, talking about, and thinking about 4 words on a simple (albeit intriguing) street sign. Kinda cool!
  • Search for other intriguing signs, images, or questions that provide anchors for students to share knowledge, research, read, write and, most of all, think.

What’s the purpose of this sort of project? Think about the group discussions in terms of the grade level’s expectations for speaking, listening, vocabulary building, and cooperative learning. Then think about grade level expectations for strategic thinking, using research skills, questioning, and writing for a specific purpose. Needless to say, there are cross curricular links as well. As you observe the process unfold, decide on the focus points of your observations and make notes about student progress.

Stay tuned, because we’re visiting another Nova Scotia town named Pugwash, where the street signs are written in Gaelic . . . maybe that will lead to a project linking home language to school language.

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For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at



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Close Looking (1): An “After the Storm” Beach Alphabet

At Beyond the Apple, we’re always looking for an interesting image or piece of text to create an engaging anchor for a lesson. Who knew we’d find our next image on a Nova Scotia beach after a mid-summer Nor’easter?

After the storm raged, the outgoing tide revealed a beach littered with individual strands of beach grass. As we walked along the beach, we noticed that each strand had been shaped into a unique curve or angle; many strands of grass were in the shape of  a letter. At that point, a lesson beginning with a close looking experience began to take shape.

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While this close looking lesson begins with a search for naturally occurring letters, it quickly moves into learning opportunities focused on science, categorization, the arts, and language use. Here are some of our ideas:

  • After viewing the samples above, begin your lesson on close looking with a search for naturally occurring letter shapes (not shapes created by manually placing twigs, leaves, rocks, etc. into letter shapes). If you live by the sea, finish our beach alphabet with shapes found on a beach; if you live inland, create a nature alphabet with shapes found in plants, rocks, or in the clouds.
  • Discuss the force(s) of nature that created the shape. Was it wind, water, angle to the sun, erosion or a combination of several forces?
  • Brainstorm a word bank for each letter that links the letter to the location. For example, “b” is beach, ball, baleen; “s” is sand, sea, storm; “c” is for castle, conch, crest.
  • Do some research about the words in each letter’s word bank and create labelled diagrams, definition trees, or “Did you know?”  fact sheets.
  • Use the words chosen to create poems.
  • Illustrate each word with a scenario that brings the word to life.
  • Link the beach / nature alphabet to the stories and language of home; for example, if “c” is for “conch”, invite a community member to share their knowledge about how conchs are used as a food and as a wind instrument.
  • Honour the home language(s) of the school’s community by using the same letters to create a multi-lingual alphabet or personal thesaurus.

Close looking encourages learners of all ages to take time to observe, to think, to discuss, question, to debate, to read and to write. Close looking is a great example of  learning in action. To get started, all you have to do is open your eyes.

For more conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education  or contact us at

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