Monday, April 21, 2014

Swim Meets and Sacrificial Love

Last weekend, my son competed in his first swim meet.
This past weekend, we celebrated Easter.
I can connect the two, and not in a heretical way.

As part of the swim meet, every school was required to offer some volunteers to help manage the event. Since there was a grand total of one participant from my son's school, that meant that I was the de facto volunteer representative. I was awake and at the pool at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. This is not my typical Saturday morning routine. I like to sleep in until late in the morning. Yet, here I was, distributing deck passes and checking names at the volunteer registration desk for pool-side jobs I had no clue about what they actually entailed.

When driving back home to pick up my son for his event, I had a sudden and sobering realization. I was suffering from a wee bit of sleep deprivation for this single competition, but when I was a child, my own parents did this often, for many competitions, without complaint. I used to be a baton twirler and my mom and dad would get up at 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday, pack the car with all our costumes, batons, and equipment, and drive all the way to Kitchener or Guelph or Buffalo for a baton competition. They would sit in cold, hard seats in gymnasiums and watch us march in squares or perform our solo / duet / group routines, for hours and hours.

My sister (right) and I (left) with trophies earned from twirling.
Posing in the driveway in our costumes.

Back then, I never realized the amount of time, money, and effort they devoted to giving us these opportunities to compete. This doesn't even include the times they drove us to participate in the annual Easter Parade down by the Beach, or walking us to (and paying for) our lessons, or sewing our costumes, or any of the dozens of tasks my parents undertook. It was quite the sacrifice, and it was done out of love.

In our parade uniforms.
Don't forget the cost of photographs, like this duet shot.


At church this past week, we hear the story about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In one of the homilies given (I can't remember if it was Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Sunday - I have to confess I skipped Easter Vigil), the connection between sacrifice and love was made clear. I've also been reading the Lenten reflections of Father Robert Barron sent to me daily via email and he had this to say about Suffering Love (on April 12, 2014, in his email "Lent Day 39"):

When a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, the Nazi soldiers imposed their penalty. They took all of the prisoners from the escapee's barracks and lined them up, and then at random chose a man to be put to death in retaliation. When the man broke down in tears, protesting that he was the father of young children, a quiet bespectacled man stepped forward and said, "I am a Catholic priest; I have no family. I would like to die in this man's place."
Pope John Paul II later canonized that priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe. With brutal clarity, Kolbe allows us to see the relationship between suffering willingly accepted and salvation. He was consciously participating in the act of his Master, making up, in Paul's language, what is still lacking in the suffering of Christ.
... When a mother stays up all night, depriving herself of sleep, in order to care for a sick child, she is following this same example, suffering so that some of his suffering might be alleviated. When a person willingly bears an insult, and refuses to fight back or return insult for insult, he is suffering for the sake of love.
I am so grateful for Jesus' suffering love, and I want to thank my parents this Easter weekend for their own example of sacrificial love. They are great role models for me. My son participated in his first race - he didn't finish it (long story) but his two minutes in the competition pool were worth the three hours of volunteer time I donated that day.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Little Pig, Little Pig, Let Me In

 On March 30, I obtained a marvelous gift for my school - a pair of skinny pigs, complete with their spacious cage, plenty of hay, bags of food, and treats. Chocolate and Vanilla are two boys, skittish but friendly, and their owners felt that they could not give them the attention they deserved. They were happy to see them going to a school and that I have some experience caring for skinny pigs.

It's been a few weeks since I brought them to my school and it's absolutely wonderful to see how their presence has excited the entire student body and the staff as well. The questions erupted in such a torrent that I had to video tape some of the conversations. Pets are fantastic for inquiry, because the queries are all authentic and genuine. The students and I created a bulletin board called "100 Questions We Had About Our Pets" and I didn't even include all the questions that were asked.

 Even more exciting than the curiosity is the empathy and compassion I see in our students because of the animals. Chocolate and Vanilla needed their nails clipped badly and a Grade 6 student who has rabbits at home volunteered to clip their nails, since he does it with his own pets. I held Vanilla and Chocolate and he used another teacher's special clippers to get the length of their nails reduced. Chocolate's nails are dark, so it's difficult to see the blood vessel, and while snipping, the student accidentally nicked the vein and Chocolate bled. The poor Grade 6 student was so worried and upset. I reassured him that even professional groomers make them bleed, and we had special clotting powder for just such a situation. This same student has come every day after school to check on them and get them used to human contact. A Grade 3 girl watched the Grade 6 boy talk and approach the pigs and asked if she could have permission to go into the cage and gently pet them. She's demonstrated her calm demeanor and responsibility so I agreed that, with supervision, she could also get them used to human handling. In just a short period of time, the students have the pigs contentedly accepting strokes on their noses and necks.

There are a lot of rules and regulations surrounding animals in schools (and rightfully so), but the benefits outweigh the challenges. These pigs get children to open up their hearts and minds in a concrete, immediate way. It'll be interesting when I have four skinny pigs under one roof for the Easter long weekend, but I'll cross that piggy bridge when I come to it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Want Great PD? Enter Another Teacher's Classroom!

I am in the thick of yearbook preparation, and to ensure that this publication  is an accurate reflection of what this school year has been like from a variety of perspectives, I've been visiting classrooms for short consultations with teachers and students. I have been constantly amazed with the creative ideas for pages that the students develop. Every time I warn myself that they might be too young to contribute significantly, the students blow me away with their clever ideas. Take a look at this planning sheet from a Grade 2 class.


When I entered another classroom today, I was blown away, but this time for some additional reasons. I spoke to the teacher after school to obtain permission to mention her by name, and she granted it.

I hope this photo, taken during Ball Hockey, also gets permission!

Kerri Commisso says she has a great class, but let me testify that what I witnessed had little to do with the luck of certain names on a class list and more to do with how she has laid the foundation for her students to be respectful, collaborative and curious. I began my little spiel to the group of Grade 2-3 students by explaining that we would be selling a school yearbook and the purpose of our short chat was to plan what important events or class traditions we wanted to include on the class page. Mrs. Commisso mentioned that one of the old school yearbooks is a popular item for silent reading time in her class. Several of the students gave reasons why they enjoyed reading the old yearbook when a new girl declared that she didn't understand what a yearbook actually was. I admired what Mrs. Commisso did next. Rather than jump in with a definition, as I might have done, she surveyed the class for their ideas and documented the girl's clarification question as well as the responses from her peers on the interactive whiteboard. Kerri gave control of the flow of answers to the girl with the original uncertainty about yearbooks, reminding her that she could continue to accept explanations from her classmates until she had a grasp of the idea. After a couple of answers, she indicated that she understood, and we now had an authentic definition of a yearbook to which others could refer.

The students were full of fantastic ideas for content and, once again, Kerri arranged the class so that they themselves monitored the pace of the class contributions. She reviewed the rules of brainstorming and reminded the students that, after providing an idea, they were to select another student so he or she could add a new suggestion. I wondered how this method would work differently from a community circle (where everyone would speak in a particular order based on their location in the circle), and the students self-regulated well, not merely choosing their friends but scanning the circle for raised hands and for individuals who had not yet had a turn to talk.

Soon it became time to decide on a theme for their page. The ideas were exciting and innovative. I was a little disappointed to see a certain idea begin to emerge as a front-runner because I didn't consider it to be reflective of the class as a whole and was more indicative of the personal interests of just a few vocal students. If our purpose was to allow the students to democratically decide on their yearbook page design, how could we in good conscience thwart what was appearing to be an option that was gaining a lot of supporters? I didn't need to worry, because Kerri had a fantastic way of dealing with the situation. After reminding the class about selecting inclusive topics that could work with our content brainstormed earlier, she asked a poignant question: would anyone be disturbed, upset or bothered if a particular theme was used to represent their class in the yearbook? She mentally tallied results, taking particular note of the students who claimed to be upset by every single topic except their favourite one. By surveying the group for dislikes, she was able to whittle the selection down to three choices that were satisfactory to everyone. Individually, the students took a private vote and a final decision was made.

The wonderful thing about this experience was that Kerri was not just a master maestro conducting her orchestra solo; she included me in the symphony. I didn't just watch her class in action; I contributed to the discussion.

In our school board, we have "Exploration Classrooms", where educators can visit other teachers and see them working with students. We shouldn't forget that we've got wonderful educators that can teach us a lot right in our very own buildings. Some of them may not even realize what an exemplary job they are doing. (I think Kerri was a bit surprised when I asked her if I could write about her today.) If you want great professional development (for little to no cost), then just enter another teacher's classroom.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Tests are Fun! Tests are Fun?

"Awww, can't we have a test today?"

"How can I give you the test? I haven't taught the content yet!"

Has this conversation ever occurred in your school? It has in mine, several times, since March Break ended and we returned to class. My students are literally begging me to give them tests. Prior to the break, all the primary grades I see for Media literacy had a big test - and they wanted more.

I'm not a huge fan of tests as assessment of learning, but I realize that it's important to differentiate assessment tools just as much as we need to differentiate teaching methods.  You've seen my project-based assessments on this blog before: students designing hero costumes and creating media-tie-in products that were good enough to barter. I find these projects exciting and fun to see develop, but some students struggle with big, open-ended and multi-step jobs like these. I also realize that for many of my students, writing is not one of their academic strengths.

I think the main reason why my students love taking my last test was because I used the SMARTBoard Senteo Response system, known by my students as "the clickers". One of the parents told me that her Grade 1 son reported that "he did a test with calculators" and she was interested to see exactly what he was talking about. The students find many things about the experience enjoyable, from pushing the buttons to answer, to watching their names disappear when I peek to see who hasn't answered a question yet, to getting their results almost instantaneously. I actually had kids announce in the middle of the evaluation that "this is the funnest test I've ever taken"!

I like using "the clickers" because of the immediate feedback given to the students. (I'm a very slow marker and the SMARTBoard does it for me.) I also like how I can monitor how the students are doing from question to question and provide support and intervention where needed (by reading the questions aloud, paraphrasing, or just reassuring). I appreciate how I can export the data and share it with parents.

I shouldn't give all the credit to the gadget. Prior to the test, I send home a photocopy of the interactive whiteboard files that I used to teach the media concepts, as well as general questions and the titles of the books we've used in conjunction with the topic. (For instance, last week and this week we are discussing crowd mentality and we've read two 2014 Blue Spruce nominees that contain marvelous examples as part of the plot: Oddrey and Willow Finds a Way.) The students felt prepared to take the test, so for many kids, "it was easy". I worried that my assessment was too simple, but I checked the curriculum expectations I was attempting to match and the task met the description. They were very proud and happy with their results, and for a group that places a lot of value on academic proficiency, these students were delighted with their "A-" or "A+".

Are there any other reasons why my students would adore test-taking so much that I'm not seeing? Or are my students just highly unusual?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting Schooled in Marriage

Every Saturday, since March 8, 2014, my husband and I have driven to Yonge and Finch in Toronto to attend a special class. This six-week course is offered by Catholic Family Services for the Archdiocese of Toronto for couples that run Marriage Preparation courses at their local parishes. If engaged couples wish to marry in the Roman Catholic church, they must take a Marriage Preparation course beforehand. At our church, Saint Barnabas, the wonderful couple that are in charge of "Marriage Prep" have asked us to take over; since they've been doing it for 28 years, I think this is a reasonable request!

When my husband and I tell our friends that we are attending this course, the news elicits a very positive response. Even though we've been married for 16 years, we are enjoying the course and learning new and useful things. I've been amazed and gratified that so many topics and activities are closely related to the Tribes TLC process. These are the similarities I've seen so far.

Making the Implicit Explicit

In both the Tribes TLC ToT (Training of Trainers) session and in the Marriage Preparation Instructors Course, the leaders run the course exactly like the participants will experience, but the "teacher of teachers" spend extra time giving background information that informs how we do things and why. We think we understand what it is to be married, or to be a student, but we make it clear what this exactly means to the participants with whom we'll be interacting. It's important to make things explicit for the people attending the class.

Communication

Module 3 (if I remember correctly) in the Tribes training is all about the four agreements (Mutual Respect, Attentive Listening, Appreciations with No Put-Downs, and the Right to Pass). Session #2 of our Marriage Preparation was all about communication, which included the art of speaking and listening, Affirmations / Meaningful Praise, Active Listening, communication styles, and articulating feelings. There are so many parallels! My husband used to roll his eyes when I talked about "I-Statements" from Tribes, but we've been using them in the marriage course and even though they can sound artificial at first, I-statements can really help, especially when it comes to the next area.

Make It Safe & Conflict

Both in Tribes and in Marriage Prep, conflict resolution models are directly taught. In marriage prep, two possible methods are shared: a behavioural set of steps and an emotional, Path Through Conflict, "Paul Model" (based on Drs. Jordan and Margaret Paul). The behavioural Problem-Solving method was almost exactly like the Conflict Resolution model in Tribes. I also know it as the ABCDE method: Ask what the problem is (using I-Statements) / Brainstorm solutions / Choose the best one for both parties / Do the chosen solution / Evaluate how well it worked in solving the problem. I also really liked how our marriage preparation course addresses IPV (intimate partner violence, also called domestic violence) head-on. The starry-eyed couples about to married might not be considering it, but many couples separate or need counselling due to violence. Schools might not like to think they are breeding grounds for bullying, but it occurs and must be discussed (as it often is, but must be done in a way that does not ignore other forms of harassment and provides options for those in unsafe circumstances).

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I don't want to suggest that Tribes is a just mirror-image of the Catholic marriage preparation course, or vice-verse. The definition of Tribes is this: "Tribes is a process that creates a culture that maximizes learning and human development". The definition of a Catholic marriage is this: "The matrimonial covenant whereby a man and a woman come together to form a partnership of the whole of life is, by its nature, ordained towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament". However, experience in one can make learning in the other easier. We can all learn to be better people, students/teachers, and husbands/wives.

My friend "Debbie Cranberry Fries" has a regular feature on her blog called Marriage Mondays. Much of the advice she shares feels like common sense, but it's helpful to hear these lessons over and over, so that in our role as spouse or teacher, we don't forget to make things explicit, communicate effectively, and create a safe place where conflict is managed in a healthy manner. I know I'll try to apply these teachings to my own marriage and my own teaching practices more regularly.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Baking Cookies as Life Lessons

Here we are, back to routine of school after a week's vacation. We didn't go anywhere exotic but we did have a productive and relaxing time at home. I set myself a personal goal to attain and it taught me a lot. My goal was to bake a different type of cookie each day I was away from school. This doesn't sound like a hard task, but knowing a bit more about me might help you appreciate the significance of this job.

Background

I don't cook. When my husband and I first discussed the division of household chores before we were married, I knew immediately that cooking would not be one of my main duties. James is a great cook and does a wonderful job feeding the family, but occasionally I'll feel guilty or some external factor will prompt me to give my rusty culinary skills some practice. When I was much younger, for some bizarre reason, I volunteered to be a part of a Christmas Cookie Exchange at the very first permanent placement school where I taught. The night before, I placed some pre-made Pilsbury cookie dough into the oven to bake, but disaster struck - I burnt the cookies and all the stores were closed. There was no time for a do-over, so the next day, I shamefully brought my scorched-black hockey pucks, clumsily wrapped in tin foil, to bring as my contribution to the cookie exchange. My embarrassment was compounded when, in exchange for my burnt offerings, I received gorgeous creations, wrapped lovingly in coloured cellophane and ribbons. My husband's friends witnessed the debacle at our apartment and as a present, one of them bought me a cookie recipe book. It didn't get a lot of use.

The Cavalcade of Cookies

I ask my students to try challenging tasks in school so I thought to myself, why not challenge myself by baking? I didn't want a defeatist attitude (e.g. "I'm no good at baking") to seep into other areas (e.g. "I can't teach math"). My family had been given a "pre-mixed" cookie kit but I lost the instructions for the precise amount of wet ingredients to add to the kit, so I had to dump the terrible results (on Sunday, March 9). Anything had to be better than that, right? Here are the cookies I baked each day.

Monday, March 10, 2014 = Spritz Cookies



Tuesday, March 11, 2014 = Orange Ice Box Cookies



Wednesday, March 12, 2014 = Lemon Lime Twists



Thursday, March 13, 2014 = Chocolate Chip Cookies



Friday, March 14, 2014 = Oatmeal Apple Cinnamon Cookies


Reflections and Life Lessons Learned

I think I learned a little something new each day after my great cookie experiment. These lessons can be applied to teaching as well as life in general.

On Monday, I burnt a large portion of the cookies. I fit pans on the top and bottom racks of the oven and used the maximum amount of time recommended in the recipe book. The pan on the bottom rack was too close to the heating elements and, to be honest, I wasn't watching the oven closely enough to notice. (One of my biggest problems with cooking is that I get distracted and don't monitor the progress as well as I should. Fear of getting burned is another issue, but I digress.)

Lesson Learned?

  • Pay attention
  • It's easier to add time; you can't subtract time you've already used (so use time wisely)
  • Don't try to cram it all in at once
On Tuesday, I made a type of "ice box cookie" that has to be made and refrigerated overnight before cooking. I tried to learn from my past mistakes and hung out in the kitchen while the cookies were baking. My husband offered to assist me and although I was determined to do this on my own, I allowed him to mix the food colouring in for the outer coating. Tuesday was a very busy day with lots of appointments and assignments and this small assistance helped me a lot. 

Lesson Learned?
  • Learn from your past errors
  • Accept help when you need it
On Wednesday, the photo in the cookbook and the instructions insisted that the dough be rolled into 25 cm long ropes and then twisted together for 12.5 cm long cookies before baking. Try as I might, I just could not get my dough ropes to stay together. They kept crumbling! My son and daughter came to help and in the end, we just decided to forego the twisted rope and make simple, single-strand ropes instead. The Lemon Lime Twist cookies turned out to be the most popular type of cookie I made that entire week. I thought it might be a bit plain, but my husband explained that the first bite seemed unremarkable, but that the more you chewed, the more time it allowed for the subtle flavours of the lemon and lime to come through.

Lesson Learned?
  • Things don't always have to go as originally planned
  • What may seem ordinary can be extraordinary with time
On Thursday, I decided to change the original list of recipes to use when my friend brought me a chocolate chip recipe. Remembering my lesson from Monday, I chose to use the earliest time cited in the recipe to use for determining when to take them out of the oven. To my chagrin, some still burned! I took a leap of faith and chose to chop the baking time in half, and the rest of the cookies were fine. By this time, my house was filled to the brim with cookies. My children aren't huge cookie fans, so I packed a variety of cookies and brought them to the church Marriage Preparation class that my husband and I were scheduled to lead that night. During the break, I saw someone peeking under the cookie bottoms. I hurried over to awkwardly explain and apologize, but this was unnecessary. The man told me that he absolutely LOVED burnt cookies and was actively searching for these specimens so he could enjoy them. He said that when he was a child, his grandmother used to have to over-cook cookies on purpose and set them aside for him and his brother.

Lesson Learned?
  • Trust your instinct - even the experts can be wrong sometimes
  • One person's failure may be another person's success
On Friday, I attempted the most elaborate recipe yet. Because this one took so much preparation, I really didn't want to burn these cookies. The cookbook said I would get three dozen cookies but after everything was said and done, I had six dozen cookies! I even had to leave the cookies in for a little bit longer because the "rule of thumb" that I had been following with regards to using the minimum cooking time didn't exactly apply to this type of cookie.

Lesson Learned?
  • Sometimes you get more than you expect
  • What works for one (or many) might not work for all
I had so many cookies in my house that I had to stop baking. Family and friends received the fruits of my labour and my staff members will also feast during recess. I learned a lot from the experience - it won't turn me into the next Julia Child, but it was good to creep out of my comfort zone for such a delicious experiment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

My Ultimate Silver Birch Book

Recently, the Ontario Library Association, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Forest of Reading program, announced the winner of the "Ultimate Silver Birch Book". The Silver Birch Award is the oldest in the collection of tree-monikor reading prizes awarded by the voting young readers themselves and the deserving winner was Hana's Suitcase by Karen Levine. The "Ultimate Silver Birch" contest was an open ballot for anyone to participate; I missed the deadline to add my $0.02 but I thought I'd use my March Break blog time to write about the book that would have earned my vote.

Picking the best book from twenty years of fantastic winners and nominees can be a daunting task. There are several authors with multiple nominations that should receive special recognition (Eric Walters and Kevin Sylvester immediately come to mind, followed by folks like Helaine Becker, Deborah Ellis, and many others.) However, my choice for the Ultimate Silver Birch book comes from an author with just one nomination to his credit: Edo van Belkom's Wolf Pack.


You may be questioning my taste in literature (e.g. "Why would she pick this over Hana's Suitcase?"), but let me elaborate on why this particular Silver Birch book holds a special place in my heart.

1) The Selection

I was on the Silver Birch Selection committee in 2006 when this title was one of the nominees. When someone agrees to sit on a review or nomination committee, he or she usually signs a confidentiality agreement. (I just finished working with the Canadian Children Book Centre on a subcategory for their Best Books for Kids & Teens Spring 2014 issue and all I can and should reveal is that it was a very rewarding process for me.) Keeping the deliberations private is very important. Once the final list is announced, the selection committee must be united in their support for the list they jointly created, regardless of individual opinions expressed during the selection process. I've seen examples of selection committee members that have been less-than-discreet about their own views, and it really disrupts the program and spreads negative vibes. I presume that the code of silence continues beyond the specific year members contribute, so I cannot say too much about the selection process from that year, except to say that I was very happy when Wolf Pack made it on the list. 

2) The Controversy

2006 was a memorable year for the Ontario Library Association and the Forest of Reading for another reason. That was the year that Three Wishes by Deborah Ellis was a non-fiction nominee and a huge controversy arose because of this selection. The Three Wishes drama overshadowed the news that other titles from that year's list of nominees were also questioned on a smaller scale, especially Wolf Pack  and Ellen Fremedon. Many adults were alarmed by some of the issues, situations, and words described in the books. (If I remember correctly, Ellen Fremedon made grownups uncomfortable because there was a gay character in the narrative, and Wolf Pack was unpopular with some adults because the characters were high-school-aged.). Despite having some schools limit or restrict access to some of these titles, young people still continued to read. My own students loved the books and we had deep and rich discussions about the content.

3) The Impact

In this interview with Open Book Toronto, when Edo van Belkom was asked about his most memorable author experience, he cited meeting a Silver Birch reader who was passionate about his book. My students and I attended the Festival of Trees that year and saw (and especially HEARD) the reaction to van Belkom's book. The screams and cheers were deafening, especially when he won the Silver Birch fiction prize. 

Wolf Pack was unique in that it was a horror book - a horror book suitable to young readers. Most of our students or children aren't plagued with lycanthropy, but they could definitely relate to the feelings of isolation and alienation that the protagonists faced daily. The villain could have been dealt with in a gory finale, but van Belkom provided a satisfying ending that did not rely on the werewolves using their strength to punish the evil-doer. By including this book on its list of nominees, the Ontario Library Association demonstrated that genre books are legitimate forms of reading. Thousands of children participate in the Forest of Reading, and for many, this might have been their first foray into a new genre not usually shared in schools. This winner also established that the Forest of Reading program is not about books adults judge or think are "good and proper" for students - it's about recreational reading, reading for fun. Some sophisticated adults might roll their eyes at the actions of the werewolf teens (just like they do or did with another paranormal juggernaut, the Young Adult series Twilight by Stephenie Meyer), but it's not about the adults, it's about the kids. Young readers loved that book and I'm so glad the Silver Birch program gave it a profile so readers could discover it and fall in literary love.