Teacher Profiles: An Interview with Kerry Ballard

Kerry Ballard

This week I invite you to join a conversation that I had with a dynamic teacher as we discuss a Literature Circle project that she undertook with her Cycle 1 students.

Teacher’s name: Kerry Ballard
School: Lower Canada College
Subject:  English Language Arts
Levels: Grade 1
Experience: 15 years

Melanie:  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kerry:  I am thrilled to be profiled on the LEARN website! I have been teaching for fifteen years and have worked in private schools in both Toronto and Montreal. I have taught almost every subject and grade level, but my passion remains cycle 1, ELA. My husband (who is also a teacher) and I are the proud parents of three young boys. They are already growing into avid readers!

Melanie:  What inspired you to start this project?

Kerry:  The Book Club project was something I had been thinking about for some time. Several years ago I had done some work at MELS correcting grade six LA exams. One of the issues that kept coming up was, “How are we teaching students to think and respond about their reading?”  When I began teaching grade one last year, my school was implementing reading comprehension strategy instruction at every grade level. As my students were just learning to read, I struggled with making the teaching meaningful and sought ways to put the teaching and learning into a context. I began to research the work of experts such as Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey, and after reading their book, Comprehension and Collaboration (Heinemann, 2011), and attending a Heinemann conference, the project began to take shape.

Melanie:  Can you give us a quick overview of the Book Club?

Kerry:  I teach in a bilingual grade one, where I have two groups of students, seen on alternate days. Working on a ten-day cycle, each group met three times per book.  At the beginning of each new session, I established my goals for the students, giving myself time to plan each meeting and design or gather resources, if need be.

It is particularly important to note that with grade one, every step of the Book Club process was modelled, from choosing a book, to having effective discussions, to what to put in a Book Club journal.

A typical Book Club week opened with time for the students to select new books. I laid out multiple copies of each book (no more than 5 to a group) and allowed the students the opportunity to browse before making a choice that was of interest to them. Allowing the students to self select books increased their motivation to read and incidentally created heterogeneous groups.  After they chose their books, the students gathered with their group and participated in shared reading. A weekly tracking sheet was handed out with assignments, that included a nightly reading of the book and an explanation of the work to be completed at home or in class.  Students were also given time to reflect on and think about ideas for their Book Club journals.

The next meeting opened with a Fishbowl, which is a strategy I used for modelling expectations or introducing a new concept. The students gathered together to “look into” the fishbowl and make observations about what they saw and heard, their observations  were discussed or recorded on chart paper for future reference.  I was fortunate to have another teacher in the room to be my fishbowl partner; alternatively, you can enlist the help of a parent volunteer or make short videos about the strategy you will be modelling.

After the Fishbowl, students would gather in their groups and begin to work on a collaborative assignment. Homework that evening (found on the tracking sheet) would reinforce the concepts exercised in class that day. All homework was entered into the Book Club journal as a means of keeping track of student work and thinking.

For the last meeting, students would immediately get into their groups and share their reflections that they had completed at home. They were also given time to work on or share their Book Club journals.

Melanie:  Can you offer some titles of Books that have been featured in the Book Club?

Kerry:  Initially, I used random class sets that had been left in my classroom by previous teachers; however, I quickly realized that I needed books with richer content, different reading levels that supported the goals I had for Book Club. With the majority of my students being boys, I felt it necessary to use more non-fiction, which also supported inquiry. The series by Ladybird entitled Mad About…  were well –written with rich content and attractively laid out pages of information about a given topic such as sharks, insects, space and horses. These books had added value, because they were inexpensive hard covers for years of use. Later on, we began a unit on fairy tales and once again, Ladybird had an excellent selection, as did Scholastic. Some fairy tales lent themselves to more interesting discussion than others and I would recommend titles such as The Ugly Duckling, The Princess and the Pea, The Elves and the Shoemaker and The Nightingale.

Melanie:  How has the Book Club impacted your teaching and evaluation practices?

Kerry:  The greatest impact it had on my teaching was to understand the importance of taking a step back and relinquishing my role as the purveyor of knowledge so that I could allow my students the time and space to construct and share their ideas collaboratively.

On the other hand, the Book Club also made it evident that careful, consistent feedback was important for students to understand what they were doing and how they could move forward.

By modelling expectations to the students at the beginning of each meeting, they were able to articulate what they noticed the teachers doing in the Fishbowl. At the end of their own meetings, they would gather as a class and I would ask them what worked and what did not work in their groups that day.  This process helped them to understand and recognize how they themselves were going to be assessed.

I also realized that a variety of assessment tools were necessary at different stages of the Book Club. I used anecdotal notes as I observed students within their groups, which I later transferred to a checklist of observable behaviours. As I conferred with individual students about their Book Club journals, I discussed their entries with them, encouraging them to reflect on their pieces and share their thoughts. After the final Book Club meeting at the end of the year, I developed a simple rubric for a summative assessment of each child.

The evaluation piece is still not perfect. I found the final rubric to be too definitive, as it did not measure the richness and the progress that I observed during student discussions; however, I have been researching other formative and summative assessment tools to improve this aspect of my teaching.

Melanie:  What did you feel was the greatest accomplishment that came from implementing this project in your classroom?

Kerry:  Due to the collaborative nature of the Book Club activities, the students learned to work together and share ideas. Most importantly, they actually talked about books not only in ways that explicitly demonstrated comprehension, but there were authentic conversations happening in the classroom. The Book Club project was intrinsically differentiated and allowed all levels of readers to participate in a meaningful way.

Melanie:  What words of advice could you offer another teacher who was interested in starting this type of project?

Kerry:  I would recommend thinking about the different models for literature circles that would work best for your class.  I would also suggest combining this with an inquiry approach to encourage students to gather information about ideas in the texts in order to construct background knowledge.  This project involved explicit teaching about strategic reading prior to launching the Book Club. During the actual implementation of the project, we revisited and modelled the strategies for students regularly so that they were certain of the learning goals.  Although the planning may seem daunting at first, once the entire framework is established the Book Club is easy to implement and the student response will motivate and inspire your teaching!



If you are interested in reading more about The Book Club project you can click on  “Embedding Comprehension Strategy Instruction into Literature Circles” by Kerry Ballard to read a detailed write up that Kerry has produced.  As well, there will soon be a link in the ELA section of LEARN that will offer a teacher guide along with exemplars of student work and graphic organizers to assist you in implementing a Book Club in your own classroom. Happy reading!

Check-in Call: Parents at LEARN

(c) Duane Brayboy

Sometimes the smallest acts can have the biggest impact.

At the beginning of the school year, my daughter’s teacher called all parents of her students to check in and introduce herself.  For me, it was a two minute phone call.  I told her all the little things that I would want someone teaching my child to know about her:  the parent’s perspective.  When I hung up I felt so grateful that, in those few moments, I had the chance to share what was important to me about my child and her education.

The most important part of the communication, to me, was that the teacher did not spend any time, other than introducing herself, informing me about the class or plans for the school year but rather she asked questions.  What should I know about your daughter?  Does she like to read?   Are there any issues or family changes that I should know about?  Because she cared enough to ask these questions, I knew that if I had any concerns over the course of the school year, I could contact her and we could work together.   (It helps that this wonderful teacher keeps the conversation going by sending home a weekly e-mail with the subject “Dinner Topics!”   The e-mail contains questions parents can ask at home relating to class activities from the week, allowing for a family chat about learning.)

Most teachers have learned over time that developing a positive connection with home, with our students’ first teachers the parents, is worth much more than the time it takes.  By establishing that positive first contact, the teacher opens up the possibility for further important communication over the school year.  Teachers write letters, send out e-mail updates, make “sunshine calls” (and the often necessary, less sunny calls), set up classroom blog spaces and find other opportunities during the school year to establish the vital home-school connection.

LEARN wants to connect to parents too.  I was invited to speak to parents at a local high school a few weeks ago about LEARN’s resources for students.  With our free online tutoring program, SOS LEARN, starting next week (shameless plug!), the school was interested in having parents know more.  After spending an hour taking parents on a tour of the LEARN site, and highlighting some of the resources that teachers use but parents might not be aware of, I turned the tables.

“Now, I want some information from you,” I said.  “I have shown you what I think may be useful to you, but tell me what else you would like to see.”

I knew from the questions that the parents had during the presentation, there were some very specific interests related to their children: special needs, students heading to CEGEP, enrichment.  I gave parents a short survey to complete to help us as we plan to improve the parents section of the LEARN site.

Here are the three questions I posed:

1 – How can LEARN support you?

2 – What would you like to see on the LEARN site?

3 – What are some things you would like us to highlight from your community?


Most of our regular blog readers are educators and many, like me, are parents too.   It would be great to connect with you and hear about what you, as parents, would like to see on the LEARN site.

From the point of view of educator, what ways have you communicated with parents that has established a meaningful home-school connection?

Consider this my two minute check-in call.


On the topic:

4 ways We Can Connect to Parents  http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3273

Did I mention that SOS LEARN, free online evening tutoring with real live teachers, starts on October 22 and students can register now? 

SOS LEARN: The Tutor’s Perspective

Can You Hear Me?



Dianne Conrod

Principal – Online Learning






Striking my Fancy: Blogging for Literacy

(c) Todd Berman

Earlier this year, Susan van Gelder started the conversation about blogging with her post here. She then inspired me to tell a story.

A good friend of mine, we’ll call her Clarisse, has a son in elementary school. And, like many sons across the province, starting from first grade, there are a few things about school that he found hard to swallow, among these, the forced reading of books and the writing of book reports. He likes to read, don’t get me wrong, and reads with gusto… except when he knows that he has to write about his book… every day. Then, the heavy artillery comes out. Avoidance techniques: “let me just get to this next level, mom!”. Moaning: “But Mo-o-om!!”. Shouting. Tantrums. The things he would never dare to say at school get said at home: “This is so boring. I hate this. It’s stupid. You never have to write about what you read. Etc.” When he is finally cajoled or coerced into writing, his prose is wooden and basic, even for his age. Mid way through the first grade, Clarisse, armed with the haunting image of the next eleven years of homework hell, approached her son’s teacher to see if he might consider making some changes to the daily writing practice. Perhaps, she suggested, we might try writing about whatever is interesting to the child, while still continuing with daily reading. The teacher was quick to agree to try a new way (for him) of approaching writing and the students were off! Miraculously, the nightly grumblings subsided as Clarisse’s son wrote about Lego, Spiderman, his dogs, and anything else that struck his fancy. The teacher reported that by the end of the year, the quality of his students’ writing had improved significantly, and students were writing at a higher level than in previous years. (If this is interesting to you, check out Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy by Irvin, Meltzer and Dukes).

So what does this have to do with blogging (as indicated by the title of this post)? Clarisse’s son doesn’t need to use a blog to write about his Lego project, or his most recent effort to figure out how to get webs to fly out of his wrists. So how can blogging in any grade benefit young writers? There are three main, and tightly intertwined, reasons for choosing a blog for your students’ writing practice: 1) Blogs increase motivation for writing; 2) Blogs create a community of writers and 3) Blogs allow for a variety of text types.

 Note: A blog is a great communication tool and there are many wonderful teachers using blogs to reach out to students and parents – or other colleagues! This post, however, is about the second kind of classroom blog, the kind where students themselves are the ones writing.

Blogs increase motivation for writing


As educators, we all would like our students to want to write and to feel some gratification from the exercise. It would surprise many of us to realize that, in fact, young people are already prolific writers – in the genres of texting and status updates! And so, because of their relationship with other social media, blogs are cool. Using the computer, or your mobile device to do your homework adds a distinct cachet, as reported in this article in The Independent. Even with the proliferation of technology in our schools, regular computer use remains sparse and has not lost its pulling power. In addition, blogging technology goes beyond the capabilities of a word processing document. Students can add an image from the Creative Commons, or link to things that are relevant in their post, including posts from other bloggers. A blogging platform allows students to tag their work with keywords, creating categories and interrelationships seamlessly and easily. And, prosaically, professional writers these days tend to use the computer to write, and this resonates with young writers as well.

Another way that blogs, even those restricted to a single class, increase motivation for writing is by providing young writers with an authentic audience. The ELA and SELA programmes both mention linking literacy learning to the world through audiences of increasing variety. Through a classroom blog, students can write for their teacher, for their parents and for each other. They can write for other young people or people of all ages and from around the world. This kind of access to audiences is authentic in that it reflects the way the world communicates today.

Blogs create and nurture a community of writers


When students write for each other, and engage with each other in writing (through comments and discussion), they are participating in a community of writers. The beauty of blogging is that it is a one-two literacy punch: the writer writes an initial post, and other writers respond through the comments, or through references to the original post in their own blog entry. If you are worried about initial participation in commenting on the work of others, consider making commenting on other people’s work a requirement of your writing classroom.

Blogs also allow writers to witness their own progress as well as that of their peers, by easily providing a catalogue of one’s writing, much like a portfolio. Students are more likely than with a traditional writing medium to read works written by writers at their own level, or close to it.  They are also accountable for helping the community grow and prosper, and this sense of belonging is a powerful motivator for learning.

Blogs allow for a variety of text types


Gone are the archaic days of the early ’00s when a blog was limited to text+ pictures only! Today’s blogging platforms seamlessly (for the most part) handle audio and video files. Students can use a variety of media to express themselves and you, the teacher, can set specific requirements as to their frequency. A lot of the media choices made will depend on the type of blog that you have, and the type of blog entries you are expecting. Students might have an assignment to take a photograph as a text, or create a podcast interview or short video.

As with any pedagogical device, the devil is in the details. Legal, ethical and logistical considerations abound, not to mention issues around how to organize a blog for maximum benefit to young writers. The next post in this series will focus on these four interdependent categories and will hopefully leave you with something to start with in the classroom. Meanwhile, if you are interested in pursuing this discussion, why not join me for an online web event next week on October 15th at 8pm. All details here.

Sylwia Bielec
Resources linked
Youth Voices – http://youthvoices.net/
Motivation for Writing Through Blogs – http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?bgsu1151331882

Online PD or What I’ve Learned In My PJ’s

On the laptop in pyjamas
photo by Sharon Drummond

It was our last class together as senior seminar students with Dr. Anderson. For most of us, the moment represented the penultimate step in completing a rather lengthy graduate degree and…we were elated. Together, we shared virtual eggnog and recounted stories of how our families traditionally celebrated the holidays. A number of students were located in Eastern Canada, a few on the West Coast, one in the Bahamas and another in Dubai.  We were teachers, administrators, two emergency room doctors, a nurse, a web developer and an instructional designer. During the previous three months, once a week, we had all come together at the same time, to explore the then current trends in distance education.

On this particular night, I remember Dr. Anderson cheekily asking us to fess up and tell him what we really did while we participated in his class. He knew that we weren’t always sitting there, glued to our computers, pen and paper in hand, waiting for an epiphany. For nearly five years of my life, I had spent what could have been my daily downtime chillin’ in front of the TV or zoned out with a good book, revved up and thinking about distance ed practice and pedagogy. And yes, I’ll admit it now, sequestered in my basement office, I sometimes had one ear on a baby monitor, a stack of laundry at my elbow, and was often sporting my flannel jammies! Nonetheless, I was still able to actively engage with the process, the people and the content.

I am an online learning convert, but why do I love it so much? Well, there are some pretty obvious benefits to learning at a distance (beyond the accepted garb!) that have been widely discussed. Here are the ones that I can relate to with the most enthusiasm:

Learning online provides freedom and flexibility.  The notion of anytime, anywhere learning is pretty intoxicating for somebody who loves to discover new stuff all of the time, or wants to master what he or she already knows. You don’t have to travel farther than the nearest laptop to be able to actively participate in an online session with master teachers and a group of diverse and invested peers.  For me, the ability to maintain a busy professional and personal life while pursuing graduate studies, without the hassle and expense of travelling to the nearest urban centre, is liberating. Also, with the myriad of available platforms that support both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration, the task of scheduling group work, organizing follow-up sessions, and even attending an impromptu meeting becomes much less cumbersome.

Learning online enables community building on a large scale. I love meeting people who share my professional interests, in the hopes of both learning with them and from them. What better way to open up a community to as many stakeholders as possible than via the net? During my years at Athabasca University, I met people from all over the world, and together we supported each other’s learning and created some pretty cool content that I can still readily access. Of course, sustaining communities of practice or professional learning communities is yet another challenge, but one that is again potentially less difficult to overcome without the constraints of having to be physically present somewhere.

Learning online encourages accountability. This means a couple of different things to me. Online learning helped me be accountable to myself in terms of taking ownership of my learning and development as a professional…in a province where no formal requirement is made of teachers to upgrade either skill set or knowledge base.  Being accountable as a student in an online setting is another aspect.  It’s really hard to hide in an online class with only a dozen or so participants.  Individual participation is easily noted, and it can also be quite obvious when someone doesn’t come prepared or isn’t really “there”.

As much as I appreciate the many benefits of online learning, I acknowledge that in order for online PD to be embraced by more teachers and school boards, it has to be effective, and not just in terms cost savings. So, the question you may be asking is what does GOOD online PD look like? Well…it should probably look like GOOD traditional PD! It should meet the needs of the individual, positively impact on practice, and ultimately improve student outcomes.  But how? The research literature in the field suggests that high-quality PD has to:

  • be content/subject-matter focused with an understanding of student learning needs
  • provide opportunities for active learning around authentic tasks
  • encourage collaboration
  • occur over time
  • allow for feedback and follow-up
  • be supported in order to allow for continued growth and change

Now, all we have to do is figure out how to meet all of these benchmarks,  using the best-suited technology at our disposal. What does THAT look like? Is it a blend of both online and offline learning experiences? I strongly suspect that it is, but what’s the magic combination?

This year, LEARN is offering a series of web events which we hope will respond to a need from within the milieu. We aim to target a different topic or practice each month, across curricula and communities. To me, these initial monthly online sessions are only the very beginning of a grand experiment in which we will collectively discover a model that might help us to systematically implement meaningful PD for our educators.  And, we invite you to please join us as we engage, explore and exchange.

I’ll make sure to keep you posted!

Kristine Thibeault

For more information on LEARN Web Events, click here.