The Great Paper Roller Coaster Challenge

IMG_3284.JPGI can clearly remember many examples of the opportunities my teachers gave me for hands on experiential learning.  And I know that many of these experiences directly led me to academic and personal successes.  So I try to make sure that I have similar opportunities for my class.

One of my favourite examples, is what I call the Great Paper Roller Coaster Challenge, as adapted from Andrew Gatt on his website.

Essentially, I tell the students that the city is looking to add a roller coaster attraction to a local park and is looking for mock ups of potential designs.  Students score points for the length of time their coaster takes, the excitement value, the sturdiness of their build, and the use of a theme.  They then subtract points for the cost of materials.  Bigger isn’t always better! They also have a limited amount of tape, so they have to conserve it or buy more themselves.

You can see it’s very easy to frame this project as science or STEM, and outwardly, I do call it science and have students learn about the physics and math, but there’s a hidden curriculum here too.  What makes this project really great is what’s not taught.

As students work in small groups, I know they’re going to have interpersonal challenges.  Sometimes these are small, and quickly resolved, and other times they require mediation. These bigger ones give me a chance to sit down with students and have a frank discussion. Kids get a healthy dose of empathy and understand each other on a deeper level.  I actually look forward to when the kids say, “Mr. Inscho, we just can’t work together!” In the end, these often become the most effective groups. The approaches to collaboration are fascinating to watch, too.  Some groups delegate, some work as a unit, and others, they find a way that defies my description but still get to a finished project.

Individually, students learn to work carefully, patiently, creatively and think critically.  If students are hasty or careless, their coasters fall apart and simply don’t work.  It’s not uncommon for components to be disassembled and reassembled multiple times in order to get it right at the beginning of the project.  By the end they’re much more patient and careful in their building.  Simply by the nature of this project, I know that students are going to have challenges in bringing their creativity and design to functional reality.  As I circulate, I offer some suggestions but generally let kids figure it out.  It’s not beyond them and they’re proud of the solutions they come up with.

Finally we showcase the coasters and have other classes come through the room for an hour or two.  Younger kids are in awe and excited to try them out while mine are pleased to share their creations.  They’re also proud to explain to their peers what problems they overcame, and how they did it. Occasionally they use some scientific language to do it, but I’m satisfied with their applied knowledge.  Yet often they are unaware of their most significant learning: the perseverance, critical thinking, and collaboration.  Perhaps I should make that more explicit.  Perhaps not. Would you?


Engaging Students from the First Minutes of the Day.


About this time last year, our K-7 school was having difficult discussions about ways to engage students better, and sooner in the day.  We were particularly concerned about those students who were so disengaged, that they wouldn’t arrive on time. Too many were arriving 15, 30, even 60 minutes late almost every day.  Our solution to the problem was to make the first minutes of the day some of the most fun.

As a staff we committed to doing 15-30 minutes of Daily Physical Activity (DPA) first thing in the morning.  But we also changed the look of DPA.  Too often we sent kids for a run and called it DPA, and many kids hated it.  They walked, they hid, they complained and there was little to no value for most.  It was one more reason not to come to school.  In the reimagined version, our administrators paired up similar grade classes and scheduled them one of five locations in the school that we would rotate through each day of the week. Teachers committed to adding variety to the activities and making them fun–to great success!

In the end, there are still some students who continue to arrive late, and we may never reach all of them, but we have noticed better attendance in general.  Additional benefits we’ve seen include a greater connection with students as this time allows for us to have a brief conversation with many students outside the academic setting.  General fitness levels are increasing, as is the sense of community because kids spend the time playing together, laughing together and talking.  All too often that is lacking in their lives.  Finally, having that chance to decompress from the stresses that they may be leaving at home, connect with an adult and expend some physical energy is translating to greater self regulation in the classroom.  Kids return from DPA ready to apply their minds, now that they have satisfied their bodies.

Here’s a look at what my grade partner and I do each week:

Day: Monday Location: Upper Covered Patio and Playground
We use the playground equipment to do timed fitness circuits.  Stations often include running low hurdles, step ups, pull ups, planking, tricep dips, push ups and running a lap of the building. Over time, enthusiasm for this has waned and we need to consider ways to remotivate.  One successful strategy is to make it an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) workout.  Last week I had students run one lap, do 20 jumping jacks, 20 step ups, 20 tricep dips, and 20 pull ups.  They had 15 minutes to do as many as possible and count their reps for points.  The goal is to improve on the number for next week.  I’ve never seen them sweat so much.  This strategy is a keeper.

Day: Tuesday Location Cement Basketball Court
We use the court to run relays that build coordination. The classes are divided into four groups to get as many kids moving at once in this small space. The relays might include:

  • sprints
  • jogging backward
  • forward lines (run out to the second line, back to the first one, out to the end line, and back to the beginning.
  • backward lines (as above but students run backward as they run out, forward as they return.
  • crossovers (aka grapevines)
  • side gallops
  • hopping, on one foot or two
  • walking lunges

To step up the level of fitness, sometimes we’ll have the next person in line hold a plank or do pushups while they wait.

Day: Wednesday Location: Lower Covered Patio
This is a bit of a games day.  Four square is popular with our students and this location has two courts that students use for four square. We also bring out tennis balls to play pass, skipping ropes, and crank up some music.  Some of the students are really into volleyball and will pass a set or pass a volleyball around in a circle during this time too.  Wednesday’s DPA is a class favorite because it offers the most free play with a little bit of structure to get it going.  It also offers the most opportunity to chat with students while just passing a ball back and forth, or engaging in a four square game with them.  This is the day that DPA often extends well beyond 30 minutes because we see so much value in kids being kids and playing.

Day: Thursday Location: Lower Playground/Turf Fields
The schedule says provides an option on Thursday to use the lower playground, or make the 10 minute walk to the the local turf fields.  We’ve been using the turf fields for more sustained running.  For about 12 minutes of running, I call out lap times as students make their way around the fields.  Some other classes use the fields for more relays.

Day: Friday Location: Gym
Friday is an extra special fun day because we’re in the gym with music pumping again.  We do extra silly relays, and relays using gym equipment here.  In addition to many of the same relays we do on Tuesdays, we spice things up by having students do wheelbarrow races, run in partners inside a hula hoop, have to hold beanbags head-to-head with a partner, or do a somersault on a mat as they run to the other end of the gym.  Crab walks, leap frog, and bear walks are easier on the gym floor than the cement outside.  One of the class’ favourites is to roll a hula hoop to the other end of the gym and back, but if a student can dive through it without knocking it over, no other members have to run.  As my grade partner and I find new ways to get creative and come up with sillier and sillier relays, the students respond in kind with good sportsmanship and lots of laughs.  Students are able to laugh with each other instead of at each other and the community really grows in a positive way.

A note on rainy days:
If you know anything about the west coast of British Columbia, you know the the weather is predictably unpredictable and we get a lot of rain.  For this reason, the school field was never a scheduled location as it can get quite muddy, though many of our classes chose to do activities there during better weather. 500 Up is one of my favorites requiring little equipment to have lots of fun on the field.  Track and field activities might also happen on the field.  Our school is also fortunate to have a number of covered patios and walkways.  On rainy days, we can still go outside under a patio and play a game of Simon Says that involves lots of fitness and yoga poses.  Students getting caught not doing what Simon says have to run out in the rain around a nearby tree.  The covered walkways are supported by poles that we use too.  Running around the building in small groups at the sound of a whistle, students run under the walkway in one direction and then slalom through the poles on the way back to stay out of the way of the next group.  Blowing a whistle helps to spread out the groups and keep a safe distance.

Making a school-wide effort to commit to DPA has had noticeable results in our school this year and has addressed some of the concerns that we set out to.  To our surprise the rewards have been even greater than expected from that conversation a year ago.  Is it time for your school to have the same discussion? Maybe it’s just you and one or two other teachers that commit to trying it. What could you lose? We gained attendance, engagement, fitness, fun and community.

What is a Bully’s Mindset?

I read an article last week, and watched its accompanying video that discussed bullying behaviour from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.  It suggested that bullies act the way they do not out of a lack of self esteem, but because they have a high one that they seek to maintain, and that bullying builds popularity and social status that eventually lead to greater mating potential.  Furthermore, they’re genetically predisposed to the behaviour and there’s not much that can be done about it, except perhaps to provide alternate pathways for status and achievement to kids hardwired this way so that they they’ll not need to bully others in their pursuit of status and popularity.  To me, this is akin to buying off the gangster with “protection money”. Some of this may make sense in isolation, but it seems to me that there has to be more to the story.  Especially because there doesn’t appear to be any evolutionary advantage to being hardwired to be meek and gentle, and very little to being empathetic, yet all these qualities exist (though I do recognize there are theories to explain each of these qualities too).

This has been bothering me for a week and it wasn’t until I started reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset yesterday that I started to put the pieces together.  Admittedly, I’m only 80 pages in, but as I read, Dweck’s description of those with a fixed mindset continually reminded my of my most difficult, bullying students. These students constantly seek to reaffirm their superiority, they are afraid to take risks for fear of demonstrating a deficiency, and seek the easiest paths to success.

Is it possible then that bullies aren’t genetically hardwired, but come to school with a fixed mindset for social prominence, or are even put in a fixed mindset by our school systems?  Dweck does a great job to explain how people can be inadvertently, and intentionally put into a fixed or growth mindset, yet; she makes it clear that whatever your initial abilities or talents may be, your qualities are not fixed.

“Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them.  Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.” p.46

And so it may be that bullies act from a fixed (but changeable) mindset that drives them to be socially dominant at whatever the cost, and the reason that buying them off appears to work is because they are also prone to take the easiest path to success–and there’s no risk involved with taking a buyout.  As effective as this appeasement model may be (as long as the buyouts continue), it isn’t morally right.  It would appear to me that if we can change the mindset of bullies, we would be off toward a much more successful path.  I am excited to finish reading Mindset to learn more on how I can go about doing that.

Do you think traditional approaches to bullying are effective, or do either of these two perspectives change anything for you?  I’d like to hear and discuss it with you!

ISTE Reflections – It’s the People

A week has passed since ISTE 2015 ended in Philadelphia and I switched into tourist mode with my wife who flew out to join me for a little vacation.  While visiting all the tourist attractions in the city, I often thought about what I’d blog, yet never wrote a sentence.  I came to the conference with a number of learning goals and feel I thoroughly accomplished all of them, and so there’s lots that I could talk about, and I might later, but I keep coming back to the most profound part of the ISTE experience: the people.

This was my first major conference anywhere away from home, and my number one goal was to meet as many of the wonderful educators from my PLN that I’ve been talking to online for years as I could.  Everyone I introduced myself to was so friendly, and many people felt like we’ve known each other for years.  I guess we have. Though I’m not a major player in the online world of edtech, a number of people knew me and introduced themselves too.  This networking was very intentional because I wanted to develop deeper relationships with the people I already knew, and many new friends too.  Just like with students, learning happens better with someone you have a solid relationship with.  I want to be able to reach out to my PLN and ask for help and advice, and receive it from friends helping each other out, rather than as a professional courtesy (thought it’s always appreciated!). I also want to have a greater common ground on which to think deeper with people.  After five days of networking (and learning a lot), I can safely say mission accomplished.  If for no other reason, the people alone made it worth travelling the 4000 km from Nanaimo to Philadelphia.  I look forward to learning working and learning with all of you!


Kids Love to Read. Let them.

I had the privilege of hearing Pernille Ripp and Erin Klein speak a couple of times at ISTE.  The topic of their presentations, and of many conversations with them so many other incredible educators was literacy.  In short, the message was clear: kids love to read. Let them!

An incredible thing happened at my school this year.  We got out of the way and let kids read, and did they ever! Let me explain how.  At the beginning of the school year, the entire staff agreed to take a different approach to literacy education and get kids reading.  All kids.  Often.

We did it by looking at the Daily 5, by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser and implementing common language across the school.  Different classes implemented more, or less of the elements of the Daily 5 framework, but we were all committed to Read-to-self and the common language in the framework.  Read-to-self, stamina, urgency, independence and most importantly good-fit-books became words that all students were familiar with.  We taught students how to select good fit books.  They understood that, like a pair of shoes, what fits me might not fit you and that’s okay as long as we all can find a pair of shoes.  We taught them that nobody starts as a good reader, but with practise, anyone can become one.  Day after day, we built stamina, and students independently chose the books that led to successful reading and a love of reading.  Wondrously, our times to read-to-self became magical times in classrooms as students lost themselves in books of their choice.  No tests, no logs, no reports, just book after book after book.

Reimagining Daily 5 and CAFE for intermediate grades: Readers’ CRAFT.


I was first really introduced to the Daily 5 about a year ago when my wife and I requested a meeting with our daughter’s teacher to learn more about this program that was happening in their class.  I immediately liked it, and began to imagine how it could work in my grade 6/7 class. Due to other circumstances (see my last post), I had a lot on my mind and didn’t pursue the matter…  Fast forward a year and I find myself teaching grade 6/7 in that same school my students attend.  There is a whole-school focus to implement elements of the Daily 5, but we have 10 primary divisions and only 5 intermediate divisions.  Needless to say things are often primary focussed and I again found myself thinking about how the this could all work in upper intermediate. My principal ordered a copy of The Daily 5 book (by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser) for each staff member, so I figured I could start with Read to Self and have time to figure our the rest when the book arrived, so I jumped right in with both feet.

Students immediately took to Read to Self and had a sense of purpose with their independent reading that I haven’t experienced before.  We made I-charts, built stamina, learned all about good-fit-books, and plotted our progress…

Read to Self Plot

Very shortly, the class had built up their stamina to sustain their reading for forty minutes and I didn’t know what to do with the time because the book hadn’t arrived yet.  However, The Daily 5 book arrived shortly before Christmas break and I devoured it before picking up The CAFE Book too.  Over these past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to continue.

Next Steps

Now that I’ve read the books, I know how to break down my literacy time, insert mini lessons, conference with students and add new elements of the Daily 5.  The next element will be Work on Writing, but more on that shortly.

What I’m looking forward to right now are those mini lessons and student conferences.  But this is where it’s taken a lot of thought to adjust for upper intermediate.  Much of the Daily 5 focuses on emergent reader strategies, and by grade 6/7 there are few of them left.  Does that mean that I drop Listen to Reading or Read to Someone? No, I don’t think so, but they might look different than what’s presented in the books.  Many of the strategies might look different too, especially under the Accuracy and Fluency headings.

Reading some blog posts at Ladybug’s Teacher Files and Runde’s Room also got me thinking about the CAFE analogy.  I like what these two have done and changed it to Readers’ CRAFT.  First, I connect more to this constructivist approach as it reminds us that we are doing more than taking in items off of a menu (an over simplification, I know), but we, as readers, are selecting the tools needed to build ourselves up as good readers.  I’ve gone so far as to call the new menu a Readers’ Craft Toolbox.

In the Reader’s CRAFT, C, A and F are taken from CAFE to be Comprehension, Accuracy and Fluency, but R is for Response to Text and T is for Text Elements, or Terms and Vocabulary, depending on who you talk to. The author of Ladybug’s Teacher Files uses Text Elements because her grade 5 class is has a high number of ELL students, and that works for her, but I think that’s just an expansion of the Use text features strategy from the Comprehension category.  I prefer the idea of Terms and Vocabulary both because it stays closer to Boushey and Moser’s Expand Vocabulary, and because Jen Runde’s descriptor is: I can find, understand, and use interesting words. Which both speaks to the constructivist in me and is again close to Boushey and Moser’s intent.

Response to Text is the significant difference in the change from CAFE to CRAFT.  I know that it begins to move away from Boushey and Moser’s focus solely on the reading, but in the intermediate grades, where literacy moves from learning to read toward reading to learn, reading responses have an integral part and I feel that they can be integrated into the CAFE structure both formally and informally as students develop as good readers. This structure will help me leverage them better as part of a more holistic program.

Reader's CRAFT

Work on Writing

The next element of the Daily 5 that I intend to introduce is Work on Writing. I’m not quite ready to do that yet because I want to do some more research.  In my reading of books and countless blogs these past few weeks I came across one blog were the author developed a writing menu based on the Six Traits of Writing for a K/1/2 classes.  I’ve used the Six Traits to structure my writing program in previous years and love the idea of integrating it into a CAFE type menu, so I’ll see what I can do for grade 6/7.  Unfortunately, I can’t find that blog again as I write this, but I’ll update the post to give credit if/when I come across it again. But it’s likely somewhere in one of the posts I’ve pinned on my Daily 5 Pinterest Board. I also just noticed (literally) that Jen Runde has rearranged the traits: Ideas, Organization, Voice, (Excellent) Word Choice, Sentence Fluency and Conventions into a VOICES menu.  I think I’ll have to take a closer look at this and see how the Six Trait strategies can be used this way… there’s so much to learn hers, and I’m so excited about it!

More Integration

I also need to spend more time Adrienne Gear’s Reading Power and Writing Power books.  The strategies in those will fit well into both CRAFT and VOICES, so to start, I don’t think that I’ll give students a personal copy of these but will instead give them a blank copy that they can fill in with the strategies that we learn in the mini lessons.  That way, I’ll be able to modify the lists as I learn alongside the students.


CRAFT and VOICES are a work in progress for me, and I still need to figure out if it will be Daily 5 or Daily 4 (I don’t see Word Work working out with my class, unless it’s just a time to work on their spelling program) but because I’ve spent a ton of time on it, and I like to share, this link is a free copy of the CRAFT board and other forms I recreated to setup my Daily 5 pensieve. I’ve provided a PDF of the CRAFT board headers to preserve the fonts because I created it in a Mac version of MS Word that many might not have standard fonts, but I’ve included the .docx file of everything to make it free to change and personalize.

CRAFT Board Headers (PDF, docx)
Individual Reading Conference (PDF, docx)
Individual Writing Conference (PDF, docx)
Keeping Track Conference Record (PDF, docx)
Menu Cards (docx)
Reader’s CRAFT Toolbox (PDF, docx)
Strategy Groups Instruction (PDF, docx)

The files are licensed under a Creative Commons, non-commercial, share-alike license, meaning you’re free to use them and tweak them, as long as you give credit to me for my contribution (as I have done for those I have built upon) and don’t make any financial gain.


Reluctantly, I will be voting yes, but yes nonetheless.

Tomorrow our union votes.  This may be the most important union vote I have taken in my 10 year career, and is most definitely the most difficult.  Voting to stand up for fully funded public education and lose many weeks of pay was easy. This is hard.  Through marathon bargaining session the BCTF and BCPSEA (i.e. BC Liberals) came to tentative agreement.  But does it give teachers and students what they deserve? Not even close. Does it really address the issues that we went out for? Hardly. Most of what it does is prevent further cuts to the system. Yet with a government that seems intent on dismantling public education, not losing might just be winning.

Being realistic, I think this is the best we were going to do.  All the stars eventually aligned and we had the best mediator in the business, tremendous public support, moral and financial support from unions across the country and internationally, pressure from international students and a Premier that needed to save face after causing this mess–before she leaves on a trade mission to India.

There are many reasons to vote no (,,, but then what? What’s the plan to move forward? Will the stars stay aligned? I doubt it.  Voting no will alienate the parents who have stood by teachers throughout this. They are the basis for public support.  Vince Ready is gone.  Finances can only hold out so long.  Union leadership will come into question.

There are also many reasons to vote yes, (, and I think we need to look long term here.  We have brought the issues of class size and composition to the forefront.  More people than ever before are beginning to understand the complexity of teaching and the environments we do it in, and they are supportive of making public education better.  By voting yes we can leverage that support for continued positive change.  We can activate apathetic voters for bigger change. We can keep education a key public policy.  In the short term, we can get kids back into classes to learn.  We can do what we are passionate about, and collect a modest paycheque while doing so.

Reluctantly, I will be voting yes, but yes nonetheless.  I encourage my colleagues to do so as well.