A virtual visit from @danikatipping

I’m going to make a bold statement for an English teacher – I don’t love Shakespeare. The stereotype is that all of us Englishy types love the Bard, and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some of his plays, (Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night) but I don’t love his work the way I love other literature. I very much have an appreciation for his work and the effect his plays have had on modern day society, but truly, he’s not my favourite author.

I also don’t love that many English teachers seem to look to his work as something that “needs” to be taught. I think it’s important for students to see a variety of texts to read and discuss and to me, he should be in the mix, but I worry that all too often courses are structured around a Shakespearean text. I’m concerned we are doing a disservice to our students by limiting their access to other great authors as well as their voice and choice as many of our students don’t enjoy his work the way we do. And in all honesty, English is a skills based course and the texts shouldn’t matter that much as the skills from the respective strands are what we should be focusing on regardless of what the students are reading.

With all this in mind, I’m so very pleased that Huron’s English department has gone in the direction of only doing Shakespeare in grades 10 and 12 (credit to the former head – Callie Sockett!). I’m one of the grade 12 university teachers and Hamlet is on the course. I really enjoy Hamlet as play, but I also am aware of my strengths and areas for growth and know that there are other people out there who have a much deeper understanding of the play and that is why I asked my dear colleague and hero, Danika Tipping, to join us virtually (Google Hangout) on Tuesday of this past week.

Danika is amazing! She is deep, thoughtful, reflective, and engaging. She has also done some awesome work with students studying Hamlet focusing on the life lessons and human behaviour that comes from the text rather than decoding the language. We talked for the whole class about what we can learn from the play, from the characters, and about life and real life experiences and skills the students can take from the play. We also discussed what Danika thinks is the most important attribute a high school student can leave our buildings with and she thinks that is the ability to be flexible when it comes to life. Things don’t always work out the way we had hoped, and it’s how we assess then react in a situation that is important. Being able to logically see what is happening and act appropriately is an important skill as the rate of societal change is exponential and will continue to be.

On my end, I was also thinking about role modelling. We ask students to engage in deep academic and reflective discussions and thinking, but when there’s only one adult in the room, it’s hard for the students to see and learn from this kind of interaction. I also think we don’t spend enough time encouraging students to ask good questions. We as teachers intuitively ask deep questions to elicit thoughtful responses, but we don’t often ask them to do that as well. In our conversation, I asked Danika a number of deep and challenging questions and then in our post conversation debrief asked the students to reflect on the kinds of questions I was asking her. They had noticed I was asking hard questions, but didn’t necessarily realize why and it made them think about how they engage with others.

Finally, from a life perspective, I was very honest with the students about that Danika is far more of an expert on Hamlet than I am. I can hold my own, I understand the play, I think Hamlet is a fascinating character and love deconstructing him from a social sciences perspective (I have a double major in English and Sociology), but I have limitations too. I am not an actress and never was a drama kid, but Danika is an actress and can speak to the idea of the play on stage and why Shakespeare would have incorporated certain aspects. She has also taught the play many more times than I have and with that comes experience that through this interaction helps me learn too. I wanted to put myself in the role of the learner in front of my students so that they could see that we should ask for help and to access our resources including other people who are experts in the field. I think sometimes adults (especially teachers) feel like we need to be perfect when students need to see us as learners and putting ourselves in situations where we are learning along with them so we debrief after about what and how we learned.

Many of my students commented that they thought from a different perspective after having her virtually visit our class. She brought a different dimension to the learning that wouldn’t have happened with just me and I’m so thankful that my students had that experience as it has deepened their thinking and learning as well as mine.

Finding the Motivation

I’ve been thinking about motivation lately. It’s November which is typically when we see students (and staff) start to lose their drive as the weather is getting colder, it’s getting darker earlier, and for many people, it’s a long stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas break. On the whole, I feel very grateful that I don’t usually have the November blahs, but I can appreciate that many people do.

I love learning and I especially love all my time in the classroom, so for me, I find I lose motivation to do things I love outside the classroom (like write this blog, exercise, and get enough sleep). Even though all of those activities are excellent for my mental and physical health, I have let them fall by the wayside over the last year. In reflecting back, it’s fascinating that I didn’t realize I wasn’t doing some of the activities I love. It actually shocked me that before my last three most recent blog posts, my last one was written in February!?!?! I went seven months without writing anything and I didn’t even notice. I love to write here (even though not many people read it) because the act of writing helps me mull over and clarify my thinking about different ideas. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking, wondering, pondering, researching, connecting, discussing, or learning the last seven months, it’s more that I didn’t feel motivated to write and share my thinking.

So, how does this reflection help me today?

Well, it helps me empathize with my students. Writing is an activity I enjoy and I didn’t engage in it for quite some time. I can understand that for many students, writing is a struggle and not how they want to be expressing their thinking (a necessary and important component in the English curriculum) but I can understand on a deeper level where they are coming from now.

Empathizing with students is important, but what is perhaps more crucial is that I have deconstructed why I didn’t feel motivated to write and have thought about strategies to help bring me back to an activity that I love. For me, the major aspect is that I often don’t realize I’ve let something slip until I get reminded somehow and then think to check on where I left off. I had a feeling that I hadn’t written in a long time, but truly didn’t realize it was seven months ago. It’s sad that I let myself go that long without writing, but at the same time, it’s given me the opportunity to engage in self reflection leading to personal growth. I know now that I need to make time for these important aspects of life and that even when I may be feeling unmotivated, I need to check myself and look to my progress (or lack thereof) to continue to guide me on my journey.

Even though I felt disappointment at the lack of writing, I am grateful. Grateful that I have had the opportunity to reflect, grow, and find my motivation again. It’s from these experiences that I will be able to connect more with my students as truly life is the learning journey and one of the best lessons we can give our students is showing them that sometimes you have to dig deep to find that lost motivation and drive in order to attain your goals.

Change: is it just semantics?

When I was in high school I made my first email account (remember Hotmail?) and when it prompted me to make a signature, I used my favourite quote from the wise baboon (he’s actually a mandrill even though he refers to himself as a baboon), Rafiki, from the Lion King, “Change is good… but it’s not always easy.” As someone who has never been satisfied with the status quo, (even in high school) that quote has always spoken to me and is still very relevant now that I’m an adult.

With moving to a new school in a new role, my learning curve in the past two months has been intense. Paying attention to the culture of the student body, acclimatizing to a new staff of colleagues, and coming into a role where things are different from my previous schools and trying to learn the in’s and out’s of how life unfolds, have made for a rich learning experience. I’ve had so many deep conversations about learning and life and found mentors in unexpected places. To me, that’s the beauty of change. The unexpectedness, the uncomfortable feelings, but the learning and connection with others that happens in these organic situations.

I’ve loved every minute of this new experience as I’m making connections both with previous experiences and with others, thinking of new ideas and possibilities for the learning of my students and myself, as well as seeing the world from different perspectives. So it makes me wonder… if I see change as such a positive experience, why is it scary for so many people? Is it just semantics? What if we changed the language? What if change became just learning? What if change was framed as a more positive (and possibly enjoyable) experience? What if “failure” was just more learning?

I know these are deep questions with complicated answers, but it’s a conversation (or realistically, multiple conversations) that we need to be having more often.


#OSSLT 2016

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you will know that I am not a fan of the OSSLT for a variety of reasons, and usually I condemn the test but this post has a positive tone for a change. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all praising the test, but rather I want to publicly share how impressed I was with the students and staff at Huron Heights.

We chose to have all our grade ten academic level students attempt the pilot test in two back to back sessions with a 15 minute break in between. We got all 270 students signed in and the test was set to begin at 8:10 am. As soon as we began, we ran into major technical issues. I was one of the designated “tech support” and was thankful I chose to wear sensible shoes as it seemed like every student writing the test had tech issues. It was a stressful start but what happened the rest of the morning was a true credit to character of the Huron community.

With patience and grace, almost all (minus maybe 10 students) finished both booklets of the OSSLT at Huron. In debriefing with two of the ENG 2D classes yesterday morning, virtually every student had the white screen at least once if not a couple times, every student had the spinning wheel of doom for anywhere from a few minutes to 40+ minutes, and over half of them had to power off their Chromebook because their screen froze which meant they had to get a new password from a proctor and that process took a long time as the proctor website was overloaded as well. In reading the tweets, news articles, and connecting with other educators around the province, it sounds like this was a ridiculously stressful experience for many students, and although I know many of our students felt anxiety and pressure, they handled the process like pros. I was fully prepared that if I couldn’t offer the proper tech support, I would hear about it, but the exact opposite was true. In many cases, we actually laughed at how bad the tech situation was and students expressed gratitude for us helping them even though we couldn’t really do much for them. That truly impressed me and speaks to the caliber of students we have at Huron.

In our debriefing sessions yesterday, we were visited by one of vice principals and we discussed that this experience, although unpleasant, was actually a really good life lesson for all of us. Life doesn’t always go the way we had planned and stressful situations are a reality, but at the end of the day, being able to manage your emotions, keep your anxiety level down, and persevere through challenging circumstances are qualities that will serve you for the rest of your life. Our students demonstrated these qualities in spades and I couldn’t be prouder to be a Husky.

Feeling Proud to be a Husky

So we are six weeks into the school year and even though I’ve started at a new school in a new position, it feels like home.

Huron Heights is a wonderful place to work, but more importantly, to learn. One of the main characteristics that permeates through the school is the culture. It is obvious that respect and excellence are the core values as demonstrated daily by students and staff alike. I have three wonderful classes full of students who take pride in themselves and their learning. I have also been very pleased with how open most of the students have been to demonstrating their creativity and thinking outside the box even if it makes them uncomfortable. The fact that all three classes have been willing to take risks (especially in the media strand of the English curriculum) has made for a very enjoyable and rewarding past six weeks in the classroom.

Huron is also one of the pilot schools in the WRDSB for the Chromebook 1:1 project which means that all of our grade nines and tens have their own Chromebooks. I have two grade ten classes (one academic and one applied) each student has their own device which makes technology integration seamless. Also, in that almost all my students used their Chromebooks last year, they are unbelievably comfortable when it comes to working digitally. They use Google Drive very effectively to manage their files, almost all students work in multiple Google Classrooms, and use other various tools and apps easily to demonstrate their learning. I’ve really appreciated that when I ask students to complete a task in their own fashion, they have an idea of what works for them (Gdoc, Gdrawing, Gslides, Piktochart, etc.) and they take it upon themselves to choose what works best for them rather than me dictating how the learning is to happen. I also use a website for my daily lesson plans and have noticed that many students just leave it open in a tab and refresh the page on a daily basis. I love that they are being proactive about their learning and know how to find all of our resources.

Our school is also a MSIP (multi-subject instructional period) which means that our classes are only 60 minutes long. I know there is quite a lot of debate about this style of timetabling, but so far I love it. I think it’s great for the students to have that period to “travel” or visit a teacher for extra help or finish work from class. I have a lot of grade nines in my MSIP period, and they have gotten extra help from some of the senior students in the class which I think is so important to maintain the sense of community in the school. It forces the students to engage with others in the building that they might not come into contact with on a daily basis and is especially great for fostering connections and learning opportunities across the grades. Naturally this means that I have 60 minute periods for my classes. It is a great length of time for me, personally, as I am someone who can lose focus after an hour. I feel that the students also appreciate that length of time as there is much more variety to their day with this timetable which is especially important at the applied and college levels.

Finally, I’m really appreciating my new colleagues. I feel so welcomed and valued and that alone makes the transition smooth. Huron’s staff is full of energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate teachers who care deeply for their students.

I am (again) blessed.


Response to the CBC’s “Entitled Students” article

On Friday, the CBC released this article NSCC instructor frustrated with ‘entitled’ students and since then, I’ve seen it make the rounds on social media. I’m always leery of articles that make a sweeping generalization about a group of people and especially about the current generation of students so my curiosity was piqued.

The article discusses one instructor’s disappointment with the lack of work ethic and task completion she is finding in her current college courses and I can empathize. Some days it can be really tough to motivate students to complete class work regardless of how interesting the content is or engaging the method in which it is delivered. There are a variety of reasons why students don’t complete tasks and from an instructional standpoint, it is really frustrating.

However, I find it so aggravating that yet again, this current generation is being labelled as “coddled” or “entitled.” When you spend time talking with these students, you will find that overall, these students are passionate (about their own interests which don’t always line up with school), innovative, creative, understanding, and accepting. I have been teaching for ten years and so many of the students I’ve taught in the past few years inspire me. I’m constantly impressed with how interesting students are and their ideas about how to enhance the world even if they don’t always finish their tasks at school. I also think that many of them also see school as a series of hoops rather than actual learning, and not all of them are “willing to play the game.”

The other component of the article that I find frustrating is that the instructor in the article puts the blame for this on high school teachers. I often criticize how high schools are “factory models” of education, but many post secondary institutions are far more archaic when it comes to learning. My experience with university was that learning was seen as a linear progression; however, that is not true for me. My brain is constantly making connections like a web and I found lectures, multiple choice exams, and essays did not connect to my style of thinking.

The research also suggests that learning happens at a multitude of paces and is different for every person. Having a hard deadline then taking grades off doesn’t encourage learning – it’s just punitive. I understand the frustration of this instructor and the many others who share her sentiments, and I know that in the “real world” there are often deadlines, but that is not about learning. That’s performing and we are in the business of learning.

With all this said, I don’t think there is an answer and it’s something I’m struggling with every day, but rather than blame a generation of students, high school teachers, or parents, I think we need to dig deeper. We need to start asking ourselves what is really important about learning and how can we encourage our students to be motivated and empowered about their learning journey. Blame is not the answer.


The Power of Words

Since Educon last weekend, I have been reflecting deeply on how we use language and specifically how we choose our words to communicate meaning. It’s an idea that I reflect on daily and discuss often with my students in terms of their writing, but I am reflecting deeper on the words I choose to use as well as how I interpret the language of others.

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you see the situation), I have more questions than answers…

  • how much of what we say reveals our inner selves? (when I use the word “dominated” to describe how I often feel in a large group conversation what am I saying about myself? is that how I actually feel about myself?)
  • how much of what we say we use to hide our inner selves? (the person who smiles and says they are “fine” when they clearly aren’t?)
  • do we use language to reveal hidden meanings or is that dependent on how the listener interprets the use of language or can it be both?


On a positive note, (again dependent on your interpretation…) based on my conversations last weekend, I learned the following:

  • communicating is not something we have done to us, we have to be active participants in the conversation
  • listening is even more important that I had believed (and it was already pretty important in my books!)
  •  to question the use of language others use and ask them if how it comes across is really what they meant
  • to be cognizant that some situations create anxiety for others and they might not as eloquently express themselves as when in a more relaxed setting

The questions and conclusions have applications for me both inside and outside the classroom and it has me thinking… Feedback is appreciated.


#educon Reflection

This past weekend I was privileged to attend EduCon in Philadelphia with a few fellow passionate Ontario educators. The conference is centered on the idea of having conversations rather than presentations and we took this to heart. We spent hours listening, talking, and reflecting with such depth that I’m still in a mental fog today.

Through these conversations, a few prominent themes emerged:

  1. Perspective is everything:
    • I really appreciated the window into the US education system as although I constantly push for change here in Ontario, we are so blessed to have our current system. There were many conversations that discussed the issue of race and although racism is still an issue here, we do not experience the same degree as in the States.
  2. Community is the foundation:
    • We spent much of our time observing and talking to the students of The Science Leadership Academy, but what was truly fascinating was how expressed their thinking about the school. One student described that being a SLA student means that he thinks of the learning of his peers first and his own second. They want everyone to be successful and are there to support each other through the learning journey. It’s something I feel that I’m able to cultivate in my classroom, but it’s so very impressive on a school scale. We observed and commented on how happy and relaxed the atmosphere was in the school rather than the stressed out and tense environment that school seems to so often be for our students. Even the teachers looked calm and relaxed which resonated with us.
  3. Look for, listen to, and tell stories:
    • I loved this message. It came up a variety of time through presentations, conversations with students, but the deepest influence on me came from conversations on the journey home. Stories have immense power and if we don’t continue to tell or listen to the ones we see or hear everyday, we are losing out on what makes us human.
  4. Develop and continue to demonstrate an “ethic of care”
    • Zac Chase (one of the founding teachers at the SLA) discussed this in relation to the idea of data. We are living in a data driven world and at the SLA, data is important, but they are not focused on achievement data. He described that data needs to be knowing our students. Data such as the number of students who don’t have food to eat for breakfast or that a student doesn’t have a warm coat or which students are going through any number of difficult situations in their lives. It’s knowing your students, but more importantly, them knowing that you care about them as human beings.
  5. Language matters
    • Chris Lehmann discussed how we often “operate at a deficit” when we think about school and learning. It is human nature to look for all the negatives in the situation rather than flipping it to see all the awesomeness that is life. To combat this he talked about how we need to talk to each other in meaningful ways which allows us to take time to be human and vulnerable and at the end of the day, hopeful. It was a message that truly resonated with me.

So thank you students and staff at SLA. I feel blessed and honoured to have learned from you.

Thank you also to my travel companions as I have not thought so deeply as I did this weekend.

My brain and heart are full.

Student-Teacher Bond

On Tuesday of this week I read Will Richardson’s blog post, “We Feel Lost” which included a letter from a student about how he feels about today’s education system and it made me wonder about my students and how they feel. Two periods a day they are in my class working in a more personalized environment, but the other two periods they are in a more traditional classroom. (On a random note, the pure fact that I have tables rather than individual desks has apparently earned me the honour? of my classroom being referred to as a “party room” rather than a classroom. I’m still grappling with whether I should be flattered or offended… Sigh.)

The responses were interesting and eye opening for me. As can be expected with a group of 25 students, the responses were quite varied. Some got frustrated with the competitive aspect of the traditional classroom as in my room we focus on individual growth and feedback rather than grades, some also took the positive route and talked about how we are in a transition period in education and that we don’t quite have it figured out yet, but what many students chose to focus on was the bond between a student and the teacher.

I’ve always thought it was important to have a connection with every single student as my favourite teachers were ones that chose to know me as more than just the student in their class. I don’t remember the lessons that those teachers taught in class, but I remember the teachers that listened to me when I was having issues, that listened to me when I was in a good place in my life, the coaches and band conductors, and the mentors who provided leadership opportunities because they knew my dream was to be a teacher. So to pay homage to those amazing influences in my life, I’ve tried to do that with my own students.

The conversations that I had with my students this week after reading this blog post confirmed that it’s the human connection students want from their teachers. They don’t want their heads crammed full of knowledge. They want to be listened to, inspired by, inquisitiveness fostered, but at the heart of it, feel that they matter. It was an unexpected, but beautiful reminder of the power and influence that we have every single day.

Wanting to Learn More About… A post inspired by @willrich45

Screenshot 2016-01-16 at 9.56.06 AM

I read this tweet this morning and it has me thinking. One of the most important aspects of my job is knowing my students as individuals and I spend a lot of time interacting with them to try and figure out what makes each one tick. I think many teachers feel that they don’t have the time to do this step, but I would argue that it is one of the most crucial aspects of my practice as it fosters a relationship with the student. It helps the student to trust that I have their best interests at heart and am going to be there to support them on their individual learning journey.

With this in mind, I spend a lot of time reading about topics that I know my students find interesting that aren’t necessarily things I would choose to learn about personally. I want my students to be curious individuals and by learning about their passions, I feel that helps maintain their inquisitiveness as well as allow them to see me in the role of the learner. I want them to feel that they can teach me and by putting myself in the role of the learner and they as teacher, I am helping to foster their confidence and independence.

The other reason that I feel it’s important for me to be learning about what my students are interested in is that I want to be able to push their thinking further. For example, one of my students was commenting on my handwriting on the whiteboard. She noticed that it was “neater” than usual (there is a reason why I type a lot…) but it lead to a conversation about handwriting analysis and introverts versus extroverts. I don’t really know much about hand writing analysis, but she found it fascinating that how we write can reveal aspects of our personality. From our conversation, she set off on a tangent on the web to learn more. If I hadn’t listened to her or engaged her in the conversation about her observations then she wouldn’t have been motivated to learn more.

From this small reflection, it has me excited about what happens when you put another teacher into the mix. Starting in second semester, Andrew Bieronski and I will be team teaching our grade ten English classes. We will be using our digital tools to create a community, but we will also be spending time in each other’s classes so we can have face to face interactions and get to know the students. I am really looking forward to seeing what happens when our students have access to both of us and hearing their reflections about how learning changes when you have access to two teachers for one class.

I’m so excited for this next advancement in our pedagogy and what our students will leave both the physical and digital spaces wanting to know more about.