Archive for the ‘critical thinking’ Category

elementary math focus afternoon: September 28

Posted on: October 14th, 2015 by jnovakowski

On the afternoon of September 28, about 220 educators from 15 Richmond elementary schools converged upon Steves Elementary for our first of two elementary math focus afternoons.

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After an overview of current updates to the redesigned curriculum in mathematics and some thoughts to connect us as we work together, there were many sessions for teachers to choose from during two “break-out” times. Each sessions focused on at least one of the key aspects of the redesigned curriculum such as Big Ideas, a core competency or the First Peoples Principles of Learning. All of the sessions were facilitated by Richmond teachers – math mentor teachers, teacher consultants and some of the teachers from Steves.

Here is a link to the program for the afternoon and an overview of the sessions provided:

Elementary Math Focus Afternoon Sept 28 sessions

Please contact the presenters or myself through Richnet if you are interested in more information.

Three professional resources that were recommended throughout the afternoon are:

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We have a growing number of educators in Richmond becoming active on twitter. Any tweets tagged with the hashtag #sd38math for the day are archived HERE through Storify.

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Some of the resources shared during the afternoon:

introduction_math Aug 2015 – Introduction to BC Math Curriculum, K-12

whatsnew_math – What’s New in Math, K-9

BCAMT BasicNumberFacts1 – BCAMT pamphlet for parents on basic facts

The Sum What Dice Game Jan2013 – Sum What Dice Game

FH final Turtle Pond coding – Fred Harwood’s coding resources

Financial Literacy primary resources – Primary Financial Literacy Resources (QR codes)

High-Yield Routines September 2015 – High Yields Routines, SD38, K-8

We are hoping that this afternoon was a great launch for the school year, especially for the 17 Richmond elementary schools that have math as a school goal or professional learning focus. We all know that an afternoon like this can be inspiring and teachers take away ideas to use in their classrooms but professional learning takes time. At the end of the day, we asked teachers to turn to each other and commit to trying one or more new ideas that they heard about during the afternoon. We hope that teachers will continue the conversation we began by sharing what they are trying on twitter, through blog posts or conversations at their schools so that we can make our professional learning visible and learn from each other.

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Looking forward to the second event on January 18th!


creating spaces for playful inquiry – September 2015

Posted on: October 9th, 2015 by jnovakowski

Last spring we held a very well attended series called Creating Spaces for Playful Inquiry. This series was a result of a visit to the Opal School in Portland by Braunwyn Thompson, Michelle Hikida, Hieu Pham-Fraser and myself in January 2015. We reflected on our experiences and how they connected to what we were already doing in Richmond as well as to the changes in BC’s redesigned curriculum. The group of 50 teachers attending this series wanted to continue the conversation so we have scheduled a three-part series for this school year. We opened the series with an event that welcomed teachers new to this series as well as visiting educators from seven other school districts. With about 120 educators filling the gym at Blair Elementary, it was an inspiring evening thinking about playful inquiry with Susan MacKay and Matt Karlsen from the Opal School.

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Teachers arrived to find a “buffet” of loose parts, most gathered locally. These materials were going to be used during the evening for educators to engage in playful inquiry themselves, to consider how materials might help them engage in inquiry, represent their thinking or consider metaphors.

The teachers also received a small bag of local natural materials to take back to their classrooms.


When some of our teachers hear “Opal” they immediately think of story workshop, which is one pedagogical structure that Opal educators use to enact playful inquiry in their classrooms. This evening though was focused on playful inquiry more broadly and is very closely aligned with the goals and principles of BC’s redesigned curriculum. Susan and Matt engaged the audience in rich professional thinking and learning beginning with the provocative quote by Carlina Rinaldi:

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Professional learning is not linear and neat but messy and takes time. What are we curious about? What are own own inquiry questions? Just as we want our students to engage in playful inquiry, we need to embrace a stance of inquiry ourselves and see ourselves as teacher-researchers.

Quoting Brene Brown:

“We have to be willing to not know, to figure out – because thats the find of play that brings joy.”

Susan and Matt asked: What new questions are alive within you?

What was emphasized through the evening was a pedagogy of listening – of the importance of listening to children so that we can be responsive and help to develop and sustain their capacities.

I hope that teachers were abel to consider the notion of playful inquiry and deconstruct and unpack what that means for them. What does playful really mean? In talking about “play” I remind parents and educators that play isn’t only about playing with “things” but that we can also play with ideas, concepts, language and story. Susan and Matt reminded the audience that play is not an “activity” but a disposition or a strategy.

How are you nurturing a playful stance in your learning environment?

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Susan and Matt showed an excerpt from a DVD about a year-long inquiry from their school. The young students were curious about wild animals and spent months thinking about their relationship with wild animals. The clip that Susan and Matt showed revealed just the very final part of the inquiry, when the students visit the neighbouring zoo, wearing animal masks they had created. This short clip seemed likely out of context to me, for the teachers in attendance who did not have a sense of the whole inquiry. Having seen the whole video a few times, once presented by the teacher involved, I was very inspired by the inquiry as a whole and wonder what questions those in attendance had. What more do they want to know? What was the journey that took the students and teachers to this point? Both Marie Thom and I have the DVD “Inquiry into Wild Animals” – please contact us if you would like to borrow it so that you can see the whole story!

More information about the Opal School of the Portland’s Children Museum Centre for Learning can be found HERE.

Opal school’s blog can be found HERE.

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Because the evening was scheduled on the same night as some of our school’s “meet the teacher” events, we had the session video-taped by media students at Hugh Boyd and we will be hosting some after school sessions for teachers to view and discuss the presentations by Matt and Susan.

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We are looking forward to continuing this conversation through the series and other professional learning events this year.


thinking about your year with math in mind

Posted on: September 24th, 2015 by jnovakowski

I have had several meetings with teachers in the last few weeks, initiated by teachers who are wondering about and wanting to discuss an overview for how they might consider the teaching and learning of mathematics in their classrooms this year. We are in a year of optional use of a redesigned curriculum here in BC and I am suggesting to teachers that they explore one aspect of the curriculum, as it applies to math. Unlike some other curricular areas, like science and social studies, there actually aren’t significant content changes in math.

So aspects of the redesigned curriculum you might consider as you are thinking about math this year…

  • thinking about how a core competency like creative thinking or communication might be developed in mathematics
  • considering ways to personalize learning for students – using open-ended tasks, questions & problems and providing choice of materials, contexts or ways to represent learning
  • weaving the First Peoples Principles of Learning into your math teaching and learning – think about the role of story, place and self-identity
  • what opportunities do your students have for mathematical inquiry?

In terms of content and curricular competencies, have a look at what is the same and what is different. There is new content around financial literacy from grades 1-9. Computational fluency is very foundational in the redesigned curriculum – what does this mean for your grade level? What routines or practices are you using in your classroom to ensure your students develop computational fluency? I highly recommend Number Talks by Sherry Parrish and High-Yield Routines for K-8 published by the NCTM.

Begin the year with some assessment – what do your students know, where are they on a continuum with respect to certain concepts, how do they feel about math, what are they worried or wondering about. Let this guide how you plan learning experiences for your students.

In thinking about mathematical topics or “units” over the year, I encourage teachers to begin with topics that build a mathematical community in the classroom and provide an opportunity for all students to feel successful in mathematics. I often begin with patterning or some data analysis/graphing. With patterning you can introduce how materials are used in the classroom and there are lots of opportunities for open-ended tasks. With graphing, the students can create and discuss different types of surveys and graphs (relevant to their grade level) as they get to know each other at the beginning of the year and when large graphs are created together, they can be posted in the classroom, nurturing your mathematical community. These topics are also more visual-spatial in nature and this is an area of strength for some students who may not always view themselves as strong math students. I try to balance these types of topics over the year so there is one of them in each reporting period. I often include geometry in the second term and measurement in the third term, but may adjust these if one connects better with a science or social studies topic we are studying.

For number concepts and operations, I look at what is new content for that grade level (ie. fractions is first introduced as content in grade 3) as well as what I would describe as core or essential content. These topics need to be experienced throughout the year. Teaching fractions for two or three weeks in grade 4 is just not enough – we need to introduce the concepts early in the year and keep looping back to them in different ways over the year. For both new and core content as well as other the other required number-related content, I make sure to build in lots of opportunities for practice, review re-learning, re-thinking and experiencing number work in lots of different ways to develop both fluency and flexibility in working with numbers.

We are so fortunate in BC that although we have a required (legally mandated) curriculum, it is not prescriptive. We do not have scripted lessons, required texts or high-stakes testing as many jurisdictions in the United States do. We have flexibility in how we enact the curriculum in our classrooms, which allows us to be responsive to our students. There is no “best” order or way to teach mathematics…this is where our role as a professional educator comes in. We make pedagogical decisions based on the goals and requirements of our curriculum, but most importantly, based on the needs of our students.


summer professional reading and opportunities

Posted on: June 24th, 2015 by jnovakowski 2 Comments

Thought I would share some of the professional books I have on my summer reading list and yes, of course I hope to dive in to some fiction as well!


Learning by Choice: 10 Ways Choice and Differentiation Create an Engaged Learning Experience for Every Student by A. J. Juliani

50 Things You Can Do With Google Classroom by Alice Keeler and Libbi Miller – I follow Alice Keeler on twitter and she always has great tips 

Let’s Find Out!: Building Content Knowledge with Young Children by Susan Kempton

Building Proportional Reasoning Across Grades and Math Strands, K-8, by Marian Small – I read anything by fellow Canadian Marian Small, always learn something new

Doing What Scientists Do: Children Learn to Investigate Their World by Ellen Doris

Making Number Talks Matter: Developing Mathematical Practices and Deepening Understanding, Grades 4-10, by Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker – Number Talks have taken off in our district and I’m looking forward to reading another perspective on this practice

Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions by Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz – we bought a set of this book for teachers in the district to read over the summer and participate in a slow chat on twitter, using the hashtag #intenttalk

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica – it’s Sir Ken, enough said

Math is a Verb: Activities and Lessons from Cultures Around the World by Jim Barta, Ron Eglash and Cathy Barkley (NCTM)

Critical Maths for Innovative Societies: The Role of Metacognitive Pedagogies by Zemira Mevarech and Bracha Kramarski (OECD)

Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools by Ron Ritchart – a group of Richmond educators attended a series with Ron Richart this year and I am looking forward to reading his latest book that continues to focus on thinking.

Another new book that is not in the photograph is Creating Thinking Classrooms, published by the Critical Thinking Consortium here  in BC. I have a long history with TC2 and respect the work of Roland Case immensely. I’m looking forward to making connections to our redesigned curriculum with this book.


There are all sorts of professional learning opportunities over the summer. Check in the External Pro-D Opportunities conference on Richnet for more information. I have listed two that may be of interest below:

As part of the Festival of Forestry, there are two Forestry Tours this summer, one on Vancouver Island and one in the Lower Mainland. More info can be found HERE.

There is a K-3 Institute at the University of Victoria from Augsust 17-19. More information can be found HERE.

And for those of you that are thinking ahead to the Provincial PSA Day in October, you can check out the BCTF site HERE for more information.

Specifically, the BCAMT is hosting the Northwest Mathematics in Whistler – for more information and to register, go HERE.

The BCScTA is having their annual Catalyst conference in Richmond – more information and registration can be found HERE.

Have a restful and adventure-filled summer!


transforming learning series – March 2015

Posted on: March 11th, 2015 by jnovakowski

This week, the consultants and coordinators (CNC…Richmond loves its acronyms) from our school district have shared a series focusing on the redesigned curriculum. Teams of teachers from each elementary and secondary school are provided TTOC release to attend these sessions. This is the third series we have had and is our district’s commitment to supporting teachers with awareness of the redesigned curriculum.

The curriculum website can be found HERE.

We present in teams and I have had the pleasure of working with Lorraine Minosky, literacy teacher consultant and Diane Tijman, district curriculum coordinator for ELL and Multiculturalism.

After an overview of the website and major themes in the curriculum, we asked educators the question:

What do we want the children we teach to be like when they are adults?

Diane led the participants in a Silent Chalk Talk as they recorded their ideas, then rotated and connected and built on to the ideas of others.

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This task always leads nicely into discussing the core competencies, a foundational piece of the redesigned curriculum. After a discussion of what the curricular and assessment parts look like, we broke into groups to look closely at aspects of the curriculum, in an EdCamp style.


We ended the morning with school teams having a time to talk and plan how they are going to move forward towards the redesigned curriculum – choosing one aspect to focus on.

Documents we shared during our session today included:

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Curriculum Redesign Update Winter

Trans Curric Math Overview May 2014

Trans Curric Science Overview May 2014

Trans Curric Lang Arts Overview Nov 2014

Trans Curric Social Studies Oct 2014


a visit to Opal – January 2015: reflections

Posted on: February 2nd, 2015 by jnovakowski 3 Comments

As I reflect on my three days visiting the Opal School in Portland, I go back to one of my tweets that kind of sums things up for me – “values, humanity, joy” and of course #playfulinquiry. The focus of the visitation days was looking at questions and playful inquiry. As a team we wondered about how we might make sense of Opal’s interpretation of playful inquiry for our context.

We knew we were going to see beautiful environments. We are fairly well versed in Story Workshop and the use of loose parts. As fellow pacific northwesterners, we too embrace our outdoor learning opportunities year-round. We also knew we were going to powerful teaching and learning. And we did.

I think the most powerful practice I observed was a pedagogy of listening enacted by both teachers and students in every classroom we visited. I have never seen such patience and kindness and strong trusting relationships between teacher and child but also between the children. During class meetings, the students often sat in circles so that they could all see other. They each had a turn to speak and respond as needed. The teachers genuinely listened to the children and responded with a prompt or question to continue the thinking and discussion. When there was a conflict, and of course there were conflicts as these are real children we are talking about, the teacher kindly coached the children through the conflict. In a classroom of 9-11 year olds, we witnessed the children doing this for each other, with no need for adult intervention. The students have experienced this way of being in a community, many since they were three years old or in kindergarten and the teachers commented that the students often take the language of listening home to their own families. I never heard a raised or cross voice the whole time we were there and I never observed a sense of being rushed, or needing to wrap things up to move on to the next thing, whether during solving a conflict or during a class meeting. There seemed to always be time to listen to each other. What a gift. What an important priority.

At the core of what we saw was shared values amongst all community members – teachers and students, the sense of humanity in all that was done and a sense of joy that filled the classrooms and spirits of those who lived in those spaces.

Outside of each classroom, there was an introduction to that classroom community and a sharing of the values and principles. Within classrooms, there were often prompts posted such as “What does it mean to be together in this community?” that focus on the sense of community that was so evident in every classroom we visited.



We wondered what it would be like to teach in a school community where everyone shared the same principles and values about children, learning and teaching? We have experienced pockets of that in our schools but along with the right of autonomy in our system, sometimes comes quite disparate views on what it means to be a teacher and how children are viewed.

Throughout our visit, the power of story kept resonating and reminding us that we all have a story to tell. The Opal teachers and students look for the stories that live within materials, ideas and concepts. They create stories to think, to learn, to understand and make sense of the world. They share their stories. It was not surprising that one of our last acts on the last afternoon of our visit was to engage with studio materials and create a story of our experience at Opal. All four of us created very different stories, but with similar themes.



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During our visit, we were also struck by the way teachers position themselves as teacher-researchers. Now being a perpetual student myself, this has probably always been how I see myself although I have not articulated it that way. I think positioning yourself as a learner and with a stance of inquiry yourself is a very powerful model for your students. The Opal teachers carefully jotted down students’ comments, diagrammed their creations and transcribed discussions on both clipboards and using iPads.

The documentation that teachers engaged in was visible in all of the classrooms and hallways. We found out that the staff has a professional learning meeting every Wednesday afternoon from 2-4 and also meets with their grade group teams twice a week after school for planning, collaborating and reflection. We learned that the staff all uses Evernote to share their transcriptions and documentation, with teachers all having a different colour to comment and reflect within their shared learning documents. Whereas some of our teachers might spend time photocopying or “unit planning”, the Opal teachers seem to invest their time in discussing their students together, thinking about what is at the essence of the stories that are emerging in the classroom and how to negotiate an inquiry-based curriculum that connects to their state standards but builds on the students’ interests, stories and questions. Documentation that makes both thinking and learning visible is an essential part of their process and reveals what has happened so far in the students’ stories and what might come next.

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I truly felt I was in the presence of brilliance.

In terms of a negotiated and inquiry-based curriculum, the teachers referenced Loris Malaguzzi and the notion of the “ball toss” where teachers may toss a ball out to the child/class and in a way provoke or invite engagement but then the child/class tosses the ball back with their own meaning, ideas and questions and so it goes, back and forth. For this game to be successful, so many things need to be in place and we talked a lot about this in our team. Relationships, trust, care, community. And for many teachers, an uncomfortableness may be caused by a letting go that is needed to negotiate and plan alongside and in response to students.

Many of our schools have seen evidence of the power of a common vision when they choose a school goal and all focus on that, using consistent language and working towards a common goal. Examples are many of our schools who use the language of Adrienne Gear’s Reading Power or our schools that our focusing  on mental mathematics strategies. There is power for all involved, teachers and students, to have some consistency and community around the way we talk about thinking and learning together in a school.

How might we choose to live with our required curriculum? The Opal teachers have state standards, Common Core and testing. Here in BC, we have mandated curriculum and learning outcomes but have much autonomy as to how that curriculum is enacted in our classrooms…we can choose to live with our curriculum in a manner that is less restrictive for our students and ourselves and is more connected, purposeful and meaningful.



As we move towards our redesigned curriculum here in BC, I see this as an opportunity for shared understandings and working together towards some common goals. The competencies, inquiry-based approaches, focus on personalized learning and teaching and learning through big curricular ideas will all need to be a common focus of all our K-12 staffs as we move forward together to support student learning.

In Richmond, our core belief statement is “the focus in on the learner” and I felt many connections to this at Opal School and felt that focus enacted and lived by both teachers and students. The child as learner, the teacher as learner. A focus on learning and making that learning visible. It was a rich professional learning experience to reflect on our own beliefs and principles of teaching and learning. By living in a different context, even for a short time, you are able to hold up a mirror to yourself and reflect on where we are in our own story.


*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here

a visit to Opal – January 2015: an introduction

Posted on: February 1st, 2015 by jnovakowski

I was part of a team from our district that visited the Opal school in Portland, Oregon at the end of January. I was already acquainted with Opal school, having attended events where teachers from the school shared their experiences and I have many of their published resources. Teams of early learning & Kindergarten teachers from our district have visited Opal. Marie Thom, our Early Learning and Full Day Kindergarten teacher consultant, has continued to nurture learning environments in our district’s classrooms that honour the child and Reggio-inspired practices. All of our StrongStart classrooms and many of our kindergarten classrooms have been influenced and inspired in this way. We have beautiful, inspiring classrooms we can visit in our district and many of our kindergarten teachers are investigating Story Workshop with the support of Marie and Lisa Schwartz, one of our literacy teacher consultants. Story Workshop is a foundational piece in Opal classrooms and videos sharing the Story Workshop experience at Opal can be found HERE. Many of our early learning and  kindergarten teachers are also exploring natural spaces, gardens and outdoor classrooms with their children. A Museum Centre for Learning video created  about the importance of nature play can be found HERE.

This time, our district team was comprised of myself, Michelle Hikida (grades 2&3 teacher at Diefenbaker), Braunwyn Thompson (grades 3&4 teacher at Woodward) and Hieu Pham-Fraser (teacher-librarian and resource teacher at Blair). Our professional focus of our visit was to look at the systemic big picture and structures that were in place to nurture and support inquiry-based learning for primary grades and beyond. We wanted to consider what might be needed in order to grow the practices that are taking hold in our early learning and Kindergarten classrooms to classrooms with older students. What might be the perceived constraints that teachers are feeling? What aspects or interpretations that are “fitting” for our younger learners might also fit with our older students, or what adjustments might be needed?

Michelle and Braunwyn are math mentor teachers in our district and we were also looking for examples of mathematical inquiry and mathematics teaching and learning that is based on the practices, principles and beliefs we know the school is known for. Having been a teacher-librarian and resource teacher myself, I know the influence this role can have in a school and is one of the rare opportunities we have in our system for teacher teaming and collaboration which is the lens Hieu was looking through during our visit. We came to realize that teacher collaboration was such an essential part of what we experienced at Opal.


More information about Opal School, including its guiding principles, can be found HERE.

*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here

Our first evening at Opal, we were drawn together in the theatre space at the museum and provided with an overview of what our experience would be. With the thinking frames of noticing and wondering as well as collecting, connecting and sharing…we set off to the classrooms. Of course, we loved what we saw but we also had many wonders. We made many connections to things that were already happening in our district and connections to our redesigned curriculum in BC and its focus on competencies, inquiry and personalized learning.

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We then spent two full days at Opal. The mornings were spent in classrooms while the children were in attendance. We relished these times, being a “fly on the wall” and having a glimpse into classroom life at Opal and what it meant to be in those classroom communities. In the afternoons, we reflected, listened to Opal educators share their stories and thinking and had time for group discussions.

Part two of this series of blog posts will share what I think are the essential elements of what we experienced and I will make connections to our Richmond context.


primary teachers study group: session two

Posted on: January 26th, 2015 by jnovakowski

Our second session began with some sharing. Gillian Partridge shared a project she did with her grades 2&3 students, inspired by the Mix It Up book. The painting on the left is an abstract representation of salad and the one on the right used mixing of colours (focusing on prairie colours as the class is studying Canada) and creating circles and understanding fractions.


Margaret Choinski shared how she used the book What Do You Do With An Idea? to inspire students to create building plans during their study of structures. She has a parent visit the class who is an architect and he explained that the architect is the “idea person” being buildings which was a great connection to the book and the process of creating.

magnificent thingOur new picture book was introduced – The Most Magnificent Thing by local author Ashley Spires. I shared how I used this book with two primary classes at Lee.

We talked about the great messages around habits of mind and dispositions that are highlighted in this story – perseverance, determination, trying something another way, seeing things from different perspectives.

As a science focus for our district this year is Creativity and Innovation, we are very happy that Destination Imagination has donated two copies of this year’s project guide to each of our schools. Even if schools don’t choose to enter into DI’s competitions, the manuals have a wealth of great ideas, including instant challenges, to develop creative thinking in the classroom. We tried out a series of mini-challenges from the book. Each challenge had a specific set of materials to go with it.

#1: Create a device that will move the egg across the table without any team members directly touching the egg.

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#2: Build a bridge between two chairs that will support the weight of the egg.

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#3: Build a tower that will raise the egg above the table as high as possible.

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#4: Tell the life story of the egg non-verbally using gestures, words or drawings.



Each challenge had the constraint of time – 4 minutes. We talked about how that has its pros and cons but creates an urgency that some students need. We also discussed how some students would love the challenge and problem-solving of the building challenges while others would flourish in the final storytelling challenge. We always need to be thinking of creating opportunities for all of our students to shine and be successful.

We also looked at the draft information for the Critical Thinking Competency. Richmond has a long history with critical thinking so for the teachers in our group, the description of critical thinking was not really new information but the idea of the profiles of students will be a new way to assess students’ competency in this area.

IMG_0660We shared some of the resources from the Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2) which has been creating resources for teachers for years.


Thank you to the Blair team for hosting us!