Authentic Experiences

27 Nov

One of my main beliefs about education is that we need to be providing authentic “real-world” experiences for our students and to satisfy this idea, I try to have guest speakers visit my classroom on a regular basis. I often think about how someone from the “field” can provide so much more insight and explanation than I ever could. I truly believe that no matter how much research a person can do, personal experiences can trump research as human beings love to listen to stories. Personal stories evoke emotion and can have so much more of a profound impact.

In my ENG 2PI course, we spent a couple of weeks learning about mental health and the variety of treatments available. As this happened over Remembrance Day, we focused on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and veterans. Through our research, we learned that a treatment that is proving to be quite beneficial is that of using therapy dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD. We did some further research and discovered that organizations here in Ontario were on the forefront of this initiative. We invited Elizabeth Baker from Thames Centre Service Dogs and this morning she came to talk to our class about their work.

What unfolded was more than I could have expected. From the moment she and Oliver (her personal therapy dog) arrived, my students were engaged. They asked deep and thoughtful questions, were an amazing audience, and showed such respect. I was so proud as so often applied level students are seen as the ones who don’t possess these qualities but my students yet again broke the stereotype. She described the roles her dogs play in helping people and in many cases, the dogs are used to help people in extremely heart-wrenching situations. For the whole class, everyone (including me) sat with our jaws on the ground as her stories truly touched our hearts.

The transformation in my students was also amazing. Students who often don’t say anything were smiling and laughing, students who are often quiet and reserved were sharing stories about their own lives and feelings, and students who I can tell have a lot of pain in their lives were comforted and relaxed. I wish I could say the reason for this was something I did, but the truth is that it was Oliver who gave these wonderful feelings to the students. What he gave to my students as human beings was more than I could ever have done in class today.

It speaks volumes as to why it’s crucial to give these students authentic experiences that are about life…

A conversation with Anne (@adoelman)

24 Nov

This morning I spent time with one of the most amazing people on Earth, Anne Doelman. We discussed a whole variety of ideas related to education, but she asked me a question that not many people do. She asked how did my thinking get to where it is now? We share similar views when it comes to education, but as she pointed out, it’s fascinating how we have taken different pathways to arrive at a similar point on the journey. I explained my thinking at the time, but upon further reflection, some other experiences have shaped me.

I have mentioned before that I come from a teaching background and that has had a profound impact on my teaching, but in the last few years, it’s been more of a realization that what I was doing, just doesn’t seem to make sense. Asking students to think about texts in the same way (or getting frustrated when they Googled those ideas since many of them are repeated year to year), having them think about ideas that are difficult for them to conceptualize (racial segregation in the Southern US in To Kill A Mockingbird when we are in Ontario), and the realization that very few students go on to study English at the post secondary level are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why I’ve developed some of my views.

In some ways though, I’m currently feeling disillusioned with the education process. We have just had midterm report cards go home and in all honesty, I am not a fan of grades. I feel like all they do is take the emphasis off learning and that is the heart of my classroom. In WRDSB, we have our AER document with the focus on triangulating grades, but I’m worried that in many cases, it’s still the products that are winning out as the driving force behind a student’s mark. Don’t get me wrong, I love the AER and triangulation and use both extensively when preparing each student’s grade, yet I worry I’m in the minority. Why is it that at secondary we don’t put a lot of stock into a conversation with a student? Why aren’t we incorporating their contributions to class discussions in their grade? But in actuality, I’m wondering why do we still focus on grades? The argument that “it’s for university” is getting old. I think in many cases it’s just easier to rely on the products and the rubrics to demonstrate as “evidence of learning”. They cover us if we need to defend a grade, but I still can’t help but wonder what our classrooms would look like if we only gave descriptive feedback…

Of course we would get push back, but if it’s best for students, parents and students will come around. (Mine are already there.) In my humble opinion, it’s a battle worth fighting.


19 Nov

Balance is a constant struggle for me. I have a young family with my oldest being in junior kindergarten. And with kindergarten comes germs… She has been fighting a persistent cough for a month now and even though I’ve had her to the doctor, it’s still there. I’ve booked her in again, but I’m concerned because she’s not kicking it.

Where this becomes a major problem for me is that the worry I feel about her is occupying part of my brain and I feel that it’s taking me away from my students. It’s really difficult for me to concentrate when I’m worried and although I do my best to mask this in the classroom, it’s still there eating away at me.

I would love to be at home with her today, but I was sick last week and had to stay home two days. Even though I spent part of both days working, the most crucial and important aspect of my job is the face to face interaction with the students. It’s the class discussions, the one on one conversations, and the personal connections that can’t be replicated through a screen. I feel that many of my colleagues view me as “that teacher that uses a lot of technology,” but that’s not me. I am the teacher that connects with her students (in a multitude of ways) and when my part of my mind is occupied with thoughts of my child, I don’t feel as effective in the classroom.

After my family, education is my passion and as I am on a learning journey, I am doing my best to navigate these waters. Many people around me have told me that having a young family is wonderful, yet one of the most difficult times in life and with this in mind, I feel that my learning about life is happening at warp speed…

Post #bit14 Reflection

11 Nov

Last week I had the privilege of attending #bit14 with 1500 other passionate educators from across the province and beyond. In reflecting on the conference, a couple themes prominently emerged.

1. Technology is not the focus in the classroom – good pedagogy is the focal point. I read this over and over on the Twitter feed, heard it from all the keynotes, and even said it myself in my own presentation. It’s really refreshing to hear that people who are considered “technology innovators” are in fact “pedagogy innovators” and using the technology to supplement good teaching.

2. It’s about connections. One of the most important aspects of the conference for me is getting the opportunity to talk face to face with some of the most creative educators I’ve ever met. I really value the opportunity to just sit and chat about what others are doing in their respective classrooms or engage in deep reflective conversations about successes and opportunities for growth. George Couros also really emphasized that we need to making these connections not only with each other but with our students. For me, that’s the bread and butter of my teaching and to hear someone I really respect discussing its importance was quite validating.

3. School isn’t about assessment – it’s about learning. To me, this was the most important theme present. I think that we still focus too much on marks and assessments and drive the love of learning out of the classroom. We need to foster this love as personally, it’s something I had to “relearn” since traditional schooling drove it right out of me. Now that I’m in my 30’s, I have far more interests and spend much more time learning than I did in my teens and 20’s (even with having less time to myself!) There is a disconnect that happens along the way that we need to prevent so that our next generation isn’t turned off.

So thank you to the organizers of #bit14. Once again, you delivered a thought-provoking and highly reflective three days.

PD and Collaboration Through Inquiry with @ballantynedj

18 Oct

For me, the last few weeks have been phenomenal with respect to collaboration. I have been privileged to work with passionate educators who push the boundaries and are not satisfied with the status quo. The collaborations bring out my inner creativity and motivation to push my ideas even further.

Currently I am teaching a pilot course at Cameron that combines ENG 3UI and HSP (Introduction to psychology, sociology, and anthropology). I see the same students for two periods a day and the courses are completely integrated. In many cases I use the HSP content to meet English expectations as many of my students are loving studying psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

In teaching the HSP course, I am collaborating daily with Dan Ballantyne at Bluevale and our partnership has really pushed my thinking. Our planning follows the inquiry model as well as encourages student voice and choice. We are lucky in that our classes are at the same time of day as we have been able to host Google Hangouts between our classes as well as share discussions in our combined Google Classroom. I think my students have really benefited from collaborating with his students, but also getting to hear his perspective as compared to mine.

I am also blessed to work in a school where our administration is extremely supportive of professional development and outside the box thinking and was granted permission to visit Dan’s class. In terms of professional development, it was hands down the best professional development I have had in a very long time. I got to observe Dan in his element and interact with his students. He very cleverly included me by asking the students to come up with strong open-ended questions to ask me to serve the purposes of a) introducing me and b) having them practice their question writing skills. We also discussed facilitating conversations and how to deepen thinking. But my favourite aspect of the day was observing how he interacted with his students. His classroom is one of deep reflection and warmth which is a huge reflection on his practice. I feel privileged to have seen him in action as observing each other is not something happens often enough in our profession.

When we initially decided to collaborate, Dan came up with the outstanding idea of having our classes write a textbook for the HSP course. Its target audience will be students taking the HSP course and include video, links to current relevant articles, as well as student writing and reflection. This past week we have embarked upon the initial stages of writing our online textbook. Dan’s class has started a glossary while my students are writing the introductions to each of the three disciplines. It is an ongoing task with multiple opportunities for authentic audience and peer feedback via Google Hangouts and virtual discussions. The students also have accountability as if they don’t complete their responsibilities, they are not only letting their peers in the class down, but also the other class. I am really excited to see the journey our students take in writing this textbook, but also their creative end product.

In considering the past seven weeks of school, I am more passionate than ever about education and improving our current model. I am blessed to have found individuals that push my thinking and support my creativity. I feel like I have grown so much as a learner in the last few weeks and I am thankful to be surrounded by such exemplary colleagues.

Inquiry Based Learning

17 Sep

We are now into the third week of school and I feel that this is the best start to a school year in my career. I’m working with amazing colleagues, I have awesome students, and I am living out many aspects of my pedagogical beliefs.

I am also learning. This is the first year I’m using the inquiry method as a main teaching strategy and I love it! It allows me to differentiate on a deeper level as well as watch the connections my students are drawing from our class and the world around them.

I am collaborating quite closely with my colleague, Scott Kemp (@kempscott) on the grade ten applied English course and we are implementing a strategy that Scott observed in a kindergarten presentation he saw last year at the WRDSB Learning Symposium. The kindergarten teachers were using “provocation” as a means of directing where the learning goes. We have translated it to our 2p classes and it has been such a great method!

We are creating a weekly theme that we are working from and using some kind of “shock” strategy to engage them and make them think. Last week my students took the idea of what we share online (by analyzing my some of my social media profiles) and connected that with the human need for attention. My role was to help facilitate the learning and thinking but the ideas all came from the students.

This week we are thinking about privacy online and the idea of who is tracking us and after watching a Ted Talk from the founder of Mozilla, we used the Chrome Extension, Disconnect, to show the students how many sites are following our every move online. They were shocked and kind of creeped out that the Huffington Post website sent 38 sites after us, but had their jaws on the floor when after visiting the Toronto Sun website, over 100 were trying to follow our online activity. It was incredible to watch some of their reactions. From there, we created a list of research questions that we will further refine tomorrow and then they will be heading onto to the web where they will be looking for answers to our question(s). We will then be reflecting on their research and considering their learning skills.

In reflecting on the last two weeks, I have made the following observations:
– the learning is relevant to their lives (I’m sure some of them went from my class to lunch today and talked about this with their peers)
– the learning is student directed
– I am coaching them -> helping with creating deep and meaningful questions, encouraging them to think critically, helping them enhance their researching skills, and working one on one with each student every day on some aspect of his or her tasks
– we are spending a lot of time thinking about our learning
– we are reflecting (a major aspect of the English curriculum)
– I always have a plan, but I don’t always know how we are going to get to our final destination. It’s truly been a method where I have relinquished control and although many teachers find that frightening, I find it invigorating. We are learning together and I love seeing my students reach the goals I set for them and as is the case in the last two weeks, really impress me with their abilities to think critically and make connections with the world in which they live.

It is truly exciting :)

Understanding Introverts

17 Sep

I, myself, am an introvert. I’m not loud, large social events make me anxious (even supervising at assemblies can cause my anxiety levels to rise), I definitely need some quiet time to recharge after socializing with others (don’t get me wrong, I love being around people and talking/learning/laughing with others- I just need the “me” time after), and I spend a lot of time in my head thinking and reflecting. The popularity and focus on introverts in the media (like Susan Cain and her research) have really helped me understand myself which in turn has helped me understand and empathize with the introverted students in my classes.

The other day I read a Huffington Post Education article by Katie Hurley called “Understanding Introverts in the Classroom” and it really resonated with me. She gives advice as to how make your classroom introvert friendly to best accommodate those learners in the class, but the largest connection I drew from the article was how she described her son as introverted but not shy like everyone seems to think. This is true of me as once you get to know me, I actually talk quite a bit, but it’s especially true of my daughters. Both girls are introverts, however, they aren’t shy. They need to feel comfortable in a situation before they are willing to share. Also, if you catch either of them when they are over-stimulated, you aren’t going to get anything out of them because they are mentally exhausted. Once they are comfortable with those around them, they are very willing to share their thoughts, feels, ideas and numerous questions, but for some reason, not being outgoing is seen as shy.

It’s bothering me as Lexie has now started to use it to define herself. I worry that she’s too young to be internalizing such an idea. I don’t want that to restrict her as I want her to be comfortable in her own skin. It’s hard enough to be a girl and I don’t want her to be defining herself based on what others say. In a way it saddens me that at four years old, she has already learned this aspect about our culture.


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