Snowball Season!

I have a love hate relationship with snowballs.  February bus duties are dreaded by every teacher or principal who finds themselves in the middle of a “battlefield”.  But alas, someone with a sense of humour and a penchant for looking at the positive side of things, created an engaging cooperative learning activity that makes snowball fights FUN for teachers!

It’s fun for students too!

Here is how it works:

  1. Participants are asked to write on a blank sheet of white paper.
    1. If this is an ice-breaker or ‘Getting to Know you Activity’, they could be asked to write 3 things about themselves;
    2. If it is to be content based as in a review or check for understanding, students could be required to respond to a question or problem;
    3. If it is to be used as an exit card, students could be asked to write reflective comments about that content or their understanding.
    4. It is generally a good idea to keep the snowballs anonymous since they might be less intimidating that way.
  2. Each student crumples the paper up into a “snowball” and the teacher signals the beginning of the battle!  Always aim below the neck!
  3. At the end of a minute ask participants to grab the nearest snowball and respond to it
    1. If it is 3 things about themselves they could try to guess who the person is
    2. If it is content related they could add another comment; offer an improvement; you could have another round of snowball fighting.
    3. In the case of the Exit Card, the teacher will want to pick up a few (anonymous) snowballs and read them out and respond to them.  But be sure to collect ALL Exit Cards/Snowballs to review later.

I have orchestrated a few snowball fights in workshops with teachers.  I even tried it with a group of 200+ teachers in an auditorium in Kuala Lumpur!  But I think this can work in any setting, any age group.

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Creative Teaching Techniques with Sekolah Sri Acmar

Sekola Sri Azmar116This past Saturday I had the pleasure of working with over 30 teachers (elementary and Sekola Sri Azmar11secondary) from Sekolah Sri Acmar at a professional development workshop we hosted at the college.  The teachers specifically asked for creative teaching strategies and so I decided to focus on one of the most powerful ways to be creative in the classroom: using cooperative learning techniques.

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If anyone were to follow me around from workshop to workshop they would soon see a Sekola Sri Azmar66familiar pattern in spite of the fact that the content is different at each one.  I always have a three part lesson format to the workshop (a MINDS ON, an ACTION, and a CONSOLIDATION part).  This I inherited from my years in Ontario education.  Each part of the ‘lesson’ is filled with cooperative learning activities that engage the participants in the learning.  This is evident from the agenda that typically looks like this:


Another pattern to be noticed is that I ALWAYS begin with sharing of Learning Outcomes.  (Incidentally, I revisit those throughout the workshop and again at the very end of the workshop/lesson).

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The activities outlined in each of the three parts are all interactive activities that advance the learning for the participants.

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Since coming to Malaysia I have noticed that many teachers rely heavily on powerpoints Sekola Sri Azmar119for their lessons.  Far too often the powerpoints contain slide after slide of dense information that the teacher reads out to the students.  Talk about ‘Stand and Deliver’!  This is a hard habit to break and certainly cries out for ‘creative’ teaching techniques.  With just a little bit of work the dense powerpoint can be revised and Sekola Sri Azmar112energized with the infusion of cooperative learning activities such as indicated in the typical agenda above.  Students need these structured activities to pause and reflect on the new material, to mull the information around in their brains and figure out if it fits with what they already know about the topic.  It is this ‘mulling around in the brain’ that allows learning to happen (Fisher & Frey, Sekola Sri Azmar1102009).  Students also need opportunities to interact with their peers so that they can bounce ideas off of one another and challenge their own thinking in the process (Vygotsy, 1962).  You will note that the typical agenda includes both reflection and structured group activities to provide the necessary opportunities for learning to take place.

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In summary, one key to being a creative teacher is to rework boring lecture style presentations so that they are rich with several opportunities to reflect and to interact.  The pictures of the teachers from Sri Acmar, complete with smiles and giggles, are evidence of how engaging and relevant cooperative learning techniques can be.

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You may be interested in this Fisher and Frey (2010)  article, Building and Activating Background Knowledge, available  at


Strategies for Activating Prior knowledge at

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Life is one big box of chocolates! (chocolate cookies that is!)

Apologies to Forrest Gump!


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Chocolate cookies were the order of the day when approximately 50 South Australian Matriculation teachers from Taylor’s College got together recently to explore rubrics.

I was inspired by a lesson I saw on and decided to introduce the idea of rubrics, and more importantly, students co-creating rubrics, using this lesson plan and some of my own chocolate chip cookies.

Now this is easier said than done!  Not the lesson planning part–but the cookie baking part.  It is a long time since I baked chocolate chip cookies!  Unfortunately this once weekly ritual when my children were young has long since passed.  I am happy to say though that the cookie gods were in my favor the evening I baked cookies for this workshop.  My husband of course was the most willing of guinea pigs.  On cookie number 5 he asked if I could make them crispier–a question that almost got him banished from the kitchen for good.

So I arrived at the workshop with cookies in tow.  Initially the teachers thought I had just baked a treat for them and many had eaten their cookie long before the rubric-making began.  Together we gathered suggestions about what some of the qualifiers for ‘the ideal chocolate chip cookie’ would be.  Of course in trying to model a 21st century classroom I certainly did not simply ask the question but gave the teachers a mini wipe off board and led them through a Think-Pair-Share before eliciting the qualifiers from the group of them.  We then created the rubric together as a whole group before the same pairs used the rubric to assess my chocolate chip cookie.

There are many benefits to co-creating rubrics with students.  Students develop a deeper understanding of the criteria and what is expected of them.  This goes a long way to teach them to monitor their progress and become independent learners.  Often the rubrics that come with a set of curriculum expectations are very generic in nature and not very student friendly.  They need to be much more specific so that students can not only relate to them but use them to self-assess and determine their own next steps.  Rubrics need to be in a language that is meaningful to students rather than couched in complicated terminology used by policy and curriculum makers.

The rest of our workshop time was spent working in groups to examine some ways we can make rubrics more specific and student-friendly.  Teachers were left with the challenge of looking at rubrics they have used in the past to assess a task and consider revisions that make these rubrics more specific and student-friendly.

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Welcome SMJK Ave Maria Convent

 I had the pleasure of meeting  75 teachers from SMJK Ave Maria Convent on 12 April in a workshop we offered at Taylor’s College.  This group of teachers got up early on a Saturday morning and travelled over 2 hours from Ipoh to Subang Jaya.  I was amazed at their energy level in spite of the long bus ride.

Welcome SMJK Ave Maria Convent teachers

Welcome SMJK Ave Maria Convent teachers

The group had asked for a workshop about teaching Generation Z AVM SJK 03students.  I must admit that I had to look this one up to be sure. There are as many different labels for students out there as there are motorcycles in Malaysia!  21st century learners, Net generation, Internet Generation, Connected Generation,…. are but a few.  No matter the label, there are still some very distinctive characteristics associated with the students in today’s classrooms.

We started the workshop with a  ‘Getting to Know You’ activity I call ‘Take Off, Touch Down’ where teachers switch places (airports) if they identify with the characteristics I call out.  It’s an engagingAVM SJK 08 and kinesthetic way of asking how many people use the internet in their classrooms, how many use facebook, how many use twitter, etc… Interesting stats collected: most of the participants use facebook but very few use twitter; less than 5 use the internet regularly in their classrooms; and most had not used Google Drive, although ‘Googling’ was a regular pastime.

As usual in any of my workshops I try to have a ‘Minds On’ activity for the lessons learning goals.  I wanted to find out what these teachers understood already about Generation Z students.  Of AVM SJK 45course I couldn’t resist the chance to connect with their prior knowledge using an interactive cooperative learning strategy.  In this case we used a ‘Whip Around’ and used coloured ice cream sticks to call teachers names at random.  The Whip Around is a favorite strategy I learned from the book, Checking For Understanding (Fisher & Frey, 2007) and is an effective way to check understanding of a particular topic. I triedAVM SJK 35 this activity out with the use of Wipe Off boards I had purchased from the Daiso store (RM5 store).  The wipe off boards were a real hit.  The teachers enjoyed writing their Gen Z characteristics on them almost as much as they enjoyed being able AVM SJK 31to catch a good glimpse of their neighbour’s board.  (That’s okay with me!)   I discovered that there certainly were some common understandings of characteristics of Gen Z students: Gen Z students are hyper; independent; active; impatient;short attention span; facebook users; etc… This activity was a good segue into the next learning activities that focused on the teaching strategies necessary to teach 21st century learners.  I shared an excellent prezi that eloquently describes these needs.  (The prezi is available at  After reflecting on the kinds of changes we need to make in our teaching practice we examined Bloom’s Taxonomy (the revised Bloom’s) for ways that we can design tasks to generate higher order thinking.  TheAVM SJK 21 Daiso wipe off boards proved useful again. Teachers with a Blue board were asked to design a ‘Creating’ question/task; those who had a Green board were to create an ‘Evaluating’ question/task, and those with a yellow board were asked to create an ‘Analyzing’ question/task.  We then engaged in a Quiz Quiz Trade (a cooperative learning structure from Kagan, to share each other’s assignments and gather feedback to improve them.


Benjamin Bloom observed that, in 1956 when he created the taxonomy,  approximately 90% of classroom activity was AVM SJK 36recall/knowing type activity.  I asked teachers to try and approximate what the % would be in their own classrooms in 2014.  They used the wipe off boards again to create a pie chart that indicated the % of each of the 6 types.  A quick glance around the room revealed that most of us still spend well over 50% of the time in classroom activities  that require students to recall or know–the lowest level of thinking.  And yet, we are to teach students critical thinking skills!

Reflecting and self-assessing is certainly necessary if we want to change and improve practice.  I think that we all left the workshop more aware of the changes we should make to teaching practice.  Who says teaching is easy after all? It really is all about change.

It was a pleasure to meet colleagues from Ipoh and work and learn together with them.  They had fun, but I did make them work very hard.  I certainly hope they had enough energy left to shop in KL while here.



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You CAN teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Yes it’s a cliche…but if the shoe fits? Sorry, it’s Friday afternoon and creative juices aren’t flowing as nicely as I would like.

When you have been in education as long as I have it’s easy to feel like an “old dog”, particularly when surrounded by young teachers.  Last week I was invited to facilitate a workshop at our Canadian Pre-U campus for the 30+ teachers there.  They are young pups (to keep the metaphor going), and have no shortage of energy.  The group also included 3 teachers-in-training from Queen’s University in Ontario, thus lowering the average age of the group to ‘twenty-something’.

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The topic of the workshop was left entirely up to me.  Initially I thought it would be about relationship building and student voice, but when I sat down to actually create the workshop it seemed to take on a life of its own.  I blame that on the Queen’s students.  You see, when I observed some of their classes a few weeks ago I was impressed and inspired at the ways in which they engaged their students and provided exciting opportunities to discover new concepts and new tools.  So my workshop ended up being about Change.  Ch-Ch-Changes to be exact. cpu four I even played David Bowie’s , song Changes during the opening cooperative learning activity.  Nobody noticed though. (Only old dogs listen to David Bowie I guess).

Change is what is necessary to be an educator in the 21st century.  Even this young and energetic group of teachers who were raised on traditional teaching and learning approaches after all, will need to evolve somewhat.  When I went to teacher’s college in 1980 I was convinced that the pedagogical skills I learned would be part of my teaching practice forever.  But today’s teacher won’t be able to be so comfortable.  They are no longer the authoritative voice in the classroom. They are no longer the expert in the room.  The 21st century learner can connect with information and people all over the world.  They have a world full of experts at their disposal. Today’s students want to be active learners engaged in their learning.  The passive learner no longer exists.

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Hopefully this workshop modelled the kinds of changes teachers would implement to engage the 21st century learner.  We started with a Pair-Up; teachers wandered around the room exchanging hellos to others and then paired-up at the fifth exchange.  Pairs then rallied 21st century learner characteristics back and forth.  Later, they created questions or tasks that elicited higher order thinking (HOT) and then exchanged these tasks in a Quiz Quiz Trade cooperative learning activity. They reflected on their teaching practice: examining it first for 21st century friendly learning experiences; and then again to consider the amount of classroom time spent in HOT activities.cpu justine and jim

Justine and meThey created and contributed content slides to the interactive google presentation (an idea I stole from Queen’s student Justine when I observed her class).  They also created an Exit Card in the form of Haiku to further reflect on their learning.  Whew!

I certainly hope the teachers enjoyed the session as much as I did. They may be young pups, but they will continually need to learn new tricks to keep 21st century learning engaging and relevant.

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As for me, I continue to get excited by all of the rich learning opportunities I have.  Meeting the Queen’s students inspired some changes in my own practice.  You see, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Change—Bring it On!

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Welcome teachers from SMK Bandar Damansara Utama (4)

Today I had the pleasure of meeting and working with over 50 teachers from SMK Bandar Damansara Utama (4).

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Ms Yoong and I facilitated a workshop as part of their professional development day held at Taylor’s College.  It is always so refreshing to meet teachers from our feeder schools and learn about each other’s practices.

Today’s session focused on Engaging Classroom Environments using cooperative learning and blended learning techniques.  We were armed with 60 iPads for the occasion!

We started out with some “Getting to Know You” activities.  We learned that almost all of us are regular facebook users and visit the internet daily.  Approximately one third of the teachers use the internet with their students.  We also discovered some artists among the group, as evident in the self portraits that were created.

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Creating an engaging classroom environment is an absolute necessity for today’s learners.  Lessons that start with  learning outcomes that are shared with the students can engage them by providing a target.  When students understand what the intended outcome is they are able to monitor their own learning and take responsiblity for it.  Teachers can carefully plan learning outcomes that are easy for the student to understand, are measurable, and are connected to previous learning.  In today’s workshop we created learning outcomes by breaking them down into 3 parts: the stem; the verb; and the outcome.  Each teacher folded a paper into a burrito fold (3 parts) and  used the 3 columns created to write their learning outcomes.  Some sample learning outcomes created in today’s workshop:

1. By the end of class students will be able to describe unimolecular and bimolecular reactions.

2. By the end of class students will be able to perform factorization of quadratics.

3. By the end of class students will be able to identify various computer applications.

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Throughout today’s workshop we kept engaged in the learning via some cooperative learning strategies and group work.  Each cluster of 4 people worked collaboratively as face partners, shoulder partners, and through ‘numbered heads’.  Each group member was numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4, which made it easy to facilitate discussions as well as efficiently perform some classroom tasks (such as collecting iPads).  Fun team activities like ‘balancing acts’ and ‘Take Off, Touch Down’, kept our oxygen flowing and energy level up.

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The session ended with everyone becoming a ‘roving reporter’ and conducting interviews with one another to explore ideas they can use in their classrooms.

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We sure hope everyone enjoyed themselves as much as Ms Yoong and I did.  Learning together is such fun!

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What good teachers do

Yesterday I facilitated the first of nine workshops planned for new teachers who have joined us in the last several months.  The workshop, What Good Teachers Do, focused on reflection.

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Our learning outcomes for the session:

Teachers will

  • recognize the importance of being reflective
  • demonstrate the need to teach differently than the traditional ways they have been taught
  • identify the characteristics and qualities of effective teachers
  • justify that there is more to teaching than “delivering a syllabus”
  • build relationships with your mentor and other new teachers

Admittedly, this was an ambitious set of targeted learning 2014 Feb 06 - Teacher training at CPU33outcomes.  Our enthusiastic group of 16 eagerly participated in all of the cooperative learning activities that were a significant part of the two hours.  We learned about reflecting by reflecting.  First we reflected on our experiences as a student in school and selected a metaphor that described that experience. Who could forget that most of us stood in the partly sunny/partly cloudy corner?

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Many teachers think they are reflective when they share classroom experiences with colleagues.  Certainly there are many conversations in staff rooms everywhere that would indicate this.  However, this isn’t quite what I have in mind when I talk about being reflective.  In a recent article  from, Julie Tice tells us that,  “without more time spent focussing on or discussing what has happened, we may tend to jump to conclusions about why things are happening.  We may only notice reactions of the louder students.”

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It is very important that we embed a process for reflecting into our practice to ensure that it happens.  We can do this by first of all keeping a reflection journal.  We started an electronic reflection journal in the workshop today with three reflections, and a plan to collect and organize our thoughts and observations.  Being reflective is a big part of our own professional development.  Without reflection, how can we refine our practice?

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Together we also explored some of the characteristics of 21st century learners and reflected on how we will need to teach differently than the way we were taught.  This reflection was followed by a self-assessment rubric for reflections where teachers were asked to give themselves a ‘1’ if they completely made suggestions about how teaching should be different or a ‘0’ if they did not completely make suggestions.

2014 Feb 06 - Teacher training at CPU24We learned that “good teachers reflect”, a quote from a colleague’s teacher portfolio, and one that I tweeted out last week. (Thank you Rathi!).  Reflecting is what good teachers do to improve their teaching and ultimately to improve the learning experience.

Happy reflecting everyone!  See you at the next workshop.

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