Re-thinking learning for the 21st Century

The Best PD I’ve Done In Ages (other than C21 obvs)

Every fall, I meet with my assistant head to discuss my own professional learning goals for the year. This year, I’d like to shift my classroom routines and lessons to focus more on oral communication. During our discussion, I told her about a teacher I know of, Richard Smith, who took the potentially drastic step of removing desks his Grade 7 and 8 core French classroom because his focus is so high on oral communication that he doesn’t feel he needs permanent desks. (He uses whiteboards around the room and clipboards for each student when they do writing activities and assessments.)

Since my school operates with a 1:1 laptop program in its middle school, which I love, I don’t know that I’d ever remove desks entirely, but my questions were these: What oral communication learning activities is he doing with his 7s and 8s each day? How can I incorporate some of them into my own classroom?

In my chat with my assistant head, she encouraged me to plan a visit to see him teach. I’d seen Richard speak at various conferences in the past; however, being able to spend time observing him directly would be even more meaningful. Richard was graciously open to having me visit for the day; however, he is in Ottawa, and I’m in Toronto. Not exactly a day trip. To make this work, my husband and I booked a family trip to Ottawa one weekend in December, and we planned to stay an extra day, so I could see Richard teach.

To say my day with Richard was valuable would be an enormous understatement. He was so passionate, thoughtful, and generous that I spent the whole day furiously taking pages of notes. He made sure that each lesson he taught that day was unique, so I could see as many different activities as possible. He also shared many of his resources with me (yeah for the ease of Google Drive!)

Richard reminded me that I am the model for my students. They will mimic the energy for and use of French that they see.

He also said to me that his goal is for 80-90% of each class to be in the target language. This was actually a relief to hear because I’d seen Richard speak so many times that I’d built up in my head that he was conducting all of his Grade 7 and 8 core French classes in the target language 120% of the time, and that seemed like such a mountain to climb from where I feel some days. Knowing that, even with the best teachers, there is wiggle room is comforting.

I’m so grateful to Richard for sharing his classroom with me, and I strongly encourage you to find another teacher in your field and check out what they’re doing. It’s so energizing! As Seth Godin  says, “Most of the time, we adopt the scarcity model of pizza. ‘I don’t have that much, and if I share it with you, I won’t have any left…’ But in fact, the useful parts of our life are better characterized as, ‘If I share it with you, we’ll both have it.’ An idea shared is more powerful than one that’s hidden.” 



  1. Jennifer Weening

    This is so amazing @jbairos! How wonderful that he welcomed you in to his classroom and was so generous in sharing his ideas and resources with you. I think that this sense that sharing multiplies the wealth of good ideas rather than taking anything away from the one who shares is so powerful and it is beginning to spread more and more. And what a great thing that is!
    So interesting that you called his move to eliminate desks a “potentially drastic step” – I think that for so many of us, this is a scary idea because of the way that we still do much of our teaching. I’d love to hear more about some of Richard’s methods for teaching in this oral-focused way. Perhaps another blog post with some of your own attempts? How did you get connected with him, anyway?

    • Jennifer Bairos

      Hi Jennifer,
      I had seen Richard speak at conferences in the past, and he’s always sharing videos, pictures, and ideas in a Ontario French Teacher Facebook group. I messaged him there, and that’s how we got connected.

      Mainly, Richard uses AIM in his classes. I’ve used that program in the past, and was looking for (and found) ideas on how to marry it with the program we’re currently using. I will do another post next month with some of the activities I learned and tried!

  2. Sarah Thompson

    I am so jealous of your visit. Can’t wait to discuss this more with you in January!

    • Jennifer Bairos

      We HAVE to connect in Jan!

  3. Graham Vogt

    Amazing @jbairos. Thank you for sharing this rich experience and advocating so passionately for sharing. I believe that nothing will have a stronger impact on teaching and learning than overcoming our inhibitions and opening our doors. Trips to Ottawa are amazing, but sometimes we only need to travel down the hallway. Hey, we have a Math Teacher at our school restructuring her class in a similar way – lining it with white-boards and removing desks – to make learning visible, to better share and celebrate it. I’ll be happy to connect you!

    @mneale @acampbellrogers @ashaikh

    • Jennifer Bairos

      That is so cool! Our school is just coming to the end of a major build/renovation, and I will be moving into a new classroom in the next few months. Once I see my new space, I’m looking forward to thinking about exactly how to make it work best for student learning. Some of our new spaces have whiteboard paint directly on the walls for exactly that reason – sharing student thinking – and also for anchor charts, or whatever else we think of! I will keep you posted!

  4. Garth Nichols

    Powerful post about a powerful experience. It speaks to your drive and passion , as well as the enormous support from your school. Dig into some of the Action Plans of Cohort 21 past seasons and you will see some more great thoughts on space as the third teacher!

© 2021 Jennifer Bairos

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑