Monday, March 12, 2018

First Flight

Happy March Break to those on holiday right now! I'm writing this blog post at my sister's house in Calgary. My sister moved out west about a decade ago and has been keen to have some familiar faces from Toronto come visit. I popped by in 2010 while I was in town for the Treasure Mountain Canada library symposium, but hadn't been around since then, because in my opinion Calgary was too expensive, too far, and too cold.  This time, we found decent airline sales that coincided with my spring vacation. packed extra layers for Calgary's unpredictable weather, and took the plunge. What makes this trip extra special is that my son came with me and it is his first time travelling on an airplane.

Peter had some mixed feelings about flying. Part of his emotions may have to do with watching the famous Twilight Zone episode, "Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet" - his logical mind knew there'd be no gremlins interfering with the equipment, but when we are faced with new, unfamiliar challenges, our logical thoughts aren't always the primary ones.

Peter embodied the old Nike slogan - "Just Do It". He claims that he didn't have a strategy to make the first flight less stressful but I did notice a few things we did to make it less anxiety-provoking. He brought some manga to read to keep him occupied. He and I chatted a bit and watched the movie "Coco" together on the in-flight entertainment system. He was so engrossed that he didn't even realize that we had some turbulence.

I couldn't help being a bit of a proud mother, taking photos of my very patient son as he sat in his seat and whispering to the flight attendants that this was his first flight. They offered to introduce him to the pilot after the journey, but we had some delays with take-off, so it was after midnight when we landed and we were too tired to take them up on their invitation.

We don't have a long time to spend exploring "Cow Town" and the main purpose of our visit is to spend time with my sister and her significant other. Peter continues to embrace new experiences and actually went ATVing on a frozen Albertan lake. My son inspired me to try new things as well; my adventures weren't as hair-raising - I tried some fancy new tea and arancini at an Italian restaurant in Kensington for lunch. Our other plans include seeing Banff and the Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum in Drumheller.

If I had to determine what the "big idea" was for this blog post (hey, it's hard turning off your "teacher brain" for a week!), I'd say that it's important to try new things even when they scare you, and make a point of spending time with people you care about. We all don't have the financial freedom or room in our schedules to fly across the country, so in your own ways, in your own neighbourhoods, try something new and reconnect.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Dean Machine

This past week, my ball hockey team made it to the finals in our school tournament. This past week, several of our intermediate division girls attended the LC3 Girls in STEM conference. The common factor in both of those events is an amazing teacher that often doesn't get the credit he deserves - Dean Roberts.

Ms. Lee & Mr. Roberts on PJ Day

Let me tell you a little bit about Dean. I first met him when he was a student teacher. Teaching is a second career for Dean and he took to it like a duck takes to water. We "lost" Dean a couple of times as a permanent teacher due to surpluses and seniority numbers, but somehow he always made it back to our school, for which we all should be incredibly thankful.

Dean is willing to do almost anything for his students, staff, and school, even if it means looking a bit ridiculous or sacrificing what little of his free time he has available. (He teaches Grade 6-7 and is often one of the last ones to leave the school at night because he stays behind to mark and plan.) Let me provide just a few examples. When I was teaching the ESL self-contained class for history, the students needed some fun but concrete ways to understand the type of people populating New France. I asked Dean if he could pretend to be a coureur de bois and answer questions from the students. Dean gave up his prep time to do it and even improvised when he forgot his special clothes.

Dean the coureur de bois and Diana the nun
 Dean participates actively in our school spirit days, and in 2016 for "Movember", Dean allowed members of the class that raised the most money for prostrate cancer research to shave him on stage.

Taking it on the chin (literally) for a good cause
When I saw a leather couch on the side of the road just before school began this year, I turned to Dean for help transporting it to use in the library. Dean didn't hesitate - he drove his truck to my neighbourhood and carted it back to school.

I've mentioned the ball hockey tournament - it is now a school tradition and Dean organizes it all, from the "draft pick day" to refereeing the games, from publishing the statistics to paying for the engraving on the trophy. This takes a lot of time and effort but Dean gladly performs this service because he knows how much it means to the community.

Dean presents the trophy to Siobhan's winning intermediate team
Within his class, Dean is always trying out new, engaging tasks for his students to undertake. Often, it means a lot of work on his part. Right now, he is re-designing a better green screen film studio for his students to use for their commercials. He built this incredible puppet theatre the year he had students create and perform their own puppet shows and he let me borrow.

Here's the deceiving thing about Dean - because he has such a jovial nature and comfortable rapport with his students, sometimes people don't realize what a talented, competent, committed, professional teacher he is. His students love to joke with him and tease him, which for me is evidence about how much they like him. They feel perfectly at ease to complain about a math lesson or try and persuade him to give extensions to assignments. They talk to this male role model in ways that I suspect they dare not with their own parents. Dean is fun-loving but Dean is also serious - about teaching and learning. A lot of what he does pedagogically happens behind the scenes. For instance, Dean approached me last spring about a student that he had some concerns about regarding his reading. Dean asked for book recommendations that matched the student's passions and strove to read these books himself so he was more knowledgeable about what he could suggest. This student, now in his second year in Dean's class, has become an incredibly motivated reader who reads constantly instead of minimally and shares books with his fellow students to support their love of reading. I can't place all of the credit for this transformation on Dean; sometimes it's a matter of the right reader finding the right book to launch the love. However, Dean's unwavering support, positive reinforcement, and determination to help this student reach his potential has been important to his development. 

I am very fortunate to co-teach regularly with Dean for a shared library-media period this school year and I can testify to the amount of consideration he puts into making the best learning environment to help all of his students succeed. Dean, I hope I haven't embarrassed you too much by devoting today's blog post to you, but you deserve the recognition. Keep up the good work!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Radio Reality

If you saw my blog post from a few weeks back, then you are aware that my students and I have launched another exciting media unit. I like big, engrossing, complex topics to explore.

In 2013, it was media-tie in products related to movies.
In 2015, it was food and restaurants.
In 2017, it was clothing and fashion.
For 2018, it's all about radio.

I'm a big believer in making experiences as authentic as possible; therefore, I wanted my students to see the inside of a real radio station. Before everyone and their brother declares that this will be their next field trip, let me caution you: this sort of visit cannot be arranged frivolously. These are working environments not designed or intended for young children to tour. There are liability issues, transportation challenges, and security considerations. We were just extremely fortunate that the "stars aligned" and that we had two wonderful contacts (Dwane Read and Shawn Haswell) that made what is usually impossible a reality.

Gillian, Dwane, and Diana at CHUM-FM

On Thursday, February 22, 2018, 25 students visited the CHUM-FM radio studio in the morning and the Allan Straight Radio Institute at Ryerson University in the afternoon. We selected five students from every primary division class to visit. (Although I'm teaching this unit to the Grade 1-5 students in the school, only the Grade 1-3 students will have their entire media literacy grade determined through this inquiry and my administrator and I decided to prioritize those classes when deciding who should go.)

The Morning at CHUM-FM

Dwane (the promotions manager) and Gillian (the promotions coordinator) at CHUM-FM were informative and delightful tour guides. We learned about the different jobs that exist at a commercial radio station - such as music directors, program directors, imaging directors, the creative team, announcers (they aren't called DJs anymore), engineers, and more. We saw all the "tools of the trade", such as the control board, the microphones, headphones, computers and monitors. 

The students were exceptionally well-behaved and extremely quiet - so quiet that we were permitted to be in the broadcasting room with CHUM-FM announcer Richie Favalaro while he was actually on the air! I think I was more excited to be in the room with such a well-established radio personality than they were! Richie Favalaro is on the air from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. every weekday and on weekends too.

It's THE Richie Favalaro showing us where he works

Richie is not the only person we met. We were introduced to Wade, the imaging director, who described his job as "painting a picture with sounds". He said that it can take 4-5 hours to collect separate pieces of sounds and put them together effectively for a 45 second creation. Thankfully the clips are played often so it is not just for a one-time airing. This was a great lesson to hear when students want to rush through a project - good work takes time. 

Wade shows the students how he does what he does
We also met Lisa, the music director, who just happened to be meeting with Jody from a record company. Jody brought songs to discuss with Lisa for potential inclusion on the CHUM-FM playlist, and we actually got the chance to hear one of the songs she brought! I asked Jody how she persuades music directors to select her company's songs, and she explained that she uses all sorts of techniques - she points out the positive aspects of the song, offers "streaming numbers", demonstrates the potential popularity of the tune and uses other statistics to back up her recommendations. Lisa is responsible for scheduling and planning 300 songs a day and she credits her love of music and gut feeling for predicting hit songs for her success in her position.

Jody (L) and Lisa (R) describe their jobs
Thank you so much Dwane, Gillian, Richie, Wade, Lisa, and all the CHUM-FM staff for allowing us into your workspace to learn from you.

The Afternoon at Ryerson University

A short bus ride later, we were at the Allan Slaight Radio Institute at Ryerson University. Shawn Haswell, the manager of production and facilities, led us on our tour after the students had consumed their lunches. We were very fortunate that it was Reading Week for the Ryerson University students, so we were able to visit without interrupting students. The students really warmed up to Shawn, asking him if teenagers *really* came there, among other questions. 

Shawn tells us who Allan Slaight was and why this place bears his name
It was a wonderful opportunity to see similar radio production tools to those used at the commercial radio station, but actually have the chance to get even closer to the equipment. We learned about "cough switches", devices in an interview suite that speakers can use to quickly mute their microphones if they have to cough or sneeze. Shawn pointed out aspects of the learning space that we would not have noticed otherwise, such as the "floating floor" that holds and hides all the wires, and the sound-dampening walls. 

Trying out the microphone at Ryerson
Shawn was very encouraging about our planned goal of podcasting and broadcasting. He recommended free, novice and intermediate apps and software for us to use and gave us microphone usage advice.  Thank you so much, Shawn, for allowing our young students into your institution and giving us your time and attention.

We had to leave at 1:00 p.m. but the students learned so much from their brief times at these marvelous places. Part of the responsibility involved for chosen students was to use the photos they took while on the trip to create a presentation for their classmates so they could learn what "radio reality" is like. I won't be able to share those presentations publicly because the students don't block faces when they take pictures, but I hope to share them with Dwane and Shawn so they can see the impact that they made by making an exception and permitting us to visit. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

My MakerFestival Family

Happy Family Day everyone! Today I'm feasting on a buffet lunch at a favourite restaurant with my husband, son, and daughter. For the majority of this weekend, however, I've spent it with another group of wonderful people that I enjoy spending time with - my "Maker Festival family".

I didn't get permission from them to post their faces on my blog, so you'll have to be content with some of the more "artsy" photographs. This is a shot of my Maker Festival peeps hiking along the Bruce Trail.

Maker Festival Toronto "is a celebration of Toronto's tech, DIY, and maker communities" (see and our big event is our annual Extravaganza, held at the Toronto Reference Library. It takes a lot of planning and organizing to make it happen. The "core team" of volunteers met for a retreat peppered with meetings this past weekend at a picturesque farm near Walters Falls, Ontario. Why bother travelling two-and-a-half hours north for a series of planning sessions? It was much more than that. 

Never underestimate the importance of bonding as a team. I know it can be trendy to mock those "team-building exercises" that corporations force their employees to attend, but learning about the other people you plan to collaborate with can be a powerful and positive source of energy and motivation.  We all chose to devote our time this weekend to being present and it makes a huge difference. All work and no play makes Maker Festival a dull team, so we did plenty of both. Away from the regular distractions of our lives in a new location, we had fun indoors and outdoors.

In addition to the hiking along the Bruce Trail, we went tobogganing on the property and also made a snow dinosaur sculpture together. 

It was a great opportunity to try new things, take risks, fail and reattempt, and creatively solve problems. For instance, Vicki decided that our dinosaur looked like it would be fun to ride. It's hard to tell in the photo above, but this snow creature is pretty tall. The first try at riding it didn't go so well.

We modified our snow beast with foot holds and other members gave Vicki a boost - and she was successful! This was analogous to the activities we attempt for Maker Festival Toronto. As Eric said during one of our talk times (and I'm paraphrasing here), "If we don't fail in at least one thing we try, we aren't trying boldly enough".

Our indoor times together also served multiple purposes. We had a storytelling evening, where the quality of listening was unparalleled, and the sharing personal and riveting. We played games, such as "The Thing from the Future", which got our creative juices flowing.

We also talked business. We shared our "whys" - the reasons for volunteering with this organization. We used the World Café brainstorm technique, as well as the Unconference model, to consider what might seem outlandish ideas or new directions or best practices. This is not a "sit on your laurels" sort of event. The wonderful thing about these sessions was that we are an eclectic, diverse group of people from different backgrounds (i.e. I'm the only teacher in the group), and everyone's voice was heard and acknowledged.

It wasn't easy to sacrifice a large portion of a long weekend to leave my family behind, but I'm so glad I attended this retreat. (Sorry Sophie and Melissa that illness kept you away; you missed a great time.) Thank you Eric, Jen, Andrew, Paul, Tom, David, Nathan, Jounghwa, and Vicki for making our Maker Festival planning retreat a memorable and rewarding experience

Monday, February 12, 2018

Goldilocks Test my Radio Lessons

I've launched a new inquiry unit with my students for media, and it's all about radio. There don't seem to be a lot of pre-made lessons on the topic, which usually suits me just fine; I like inventing my own or modifying other lessons to make them my own and suit my school community. I don't know much about radio myself, so I'm learning alongside the students.

Work sample from lesson #4 - I love what the boss is doing!

I'm providing these lessons to students from grades 1-5. We began with a "Jail Man" (not Hangman - we had a media discussion about the message in losing a game of hangman which led to some fascinating talk about what students think jails are for) to guess the mystery word: radio. Then we conducted a KWL brainstorm, but instead of a "What do we know? What do we want to learn? What did we learn?", I changed it into a "What do we know? What do we wonder? Where can we look for the answer?" This was a helpful exercise because it gave me an idea about the students' preconceived notions and prior knowledge about radio.

I wish teachers were able to guarantee the success of a lesson prior to teaching it. Thankfully, I have the opportunity, since I teach the same lesson to multiple classes, to tweak the specifics to try and improve the experience. With these brand-new learning experiences, I worried (and justifiably so) about whether the content or approach would be beyond their comprehension or abilities.  I needed to do the "Goldilocks Test" on my lessons - are they too easy, too hard, or just right? Below, I've reproduced five lessons that I've taught so far about radio, and included my personal feedback and reflection on them. (I didn't include the curriculum expectations in the lesson plan because this is an old File Maker Pro program I use to generate my lesson plans and it doesn't contain the most up-to-date expectations; I will mention which expectations match which lessons in the reflections.)

1) Radio Stations in Toronto: Who Owns What

One lesson that I thought would be really boring but ended up being quite engaging and revealing for the students was about discovering the producers behind radio stations. The key to the success of this lesson was a) to ensure I had many differently coloured highlighters, and b) to provide adequate time to complete the task. A grade 4-5 class did a lesser job on this task than a grade 1-2 class, and I suspect it was because they had less time to complete it. I really liked how the students worked well in their groups to search for the repeated names. Did it matter that I cautioned them that this would be evaluated? I liked how some of the students made a connection between the inventor of the telephone and the name of one of the major radio-station owning companies. My regret with this lesson is that I didn't immediately do a follow-up on why knowing who owns the radio station actually makes a difference. I hope it's not too late to do another lesson based on this list, and talk about how the ads chosen reflect the company interests, and other potential impacts. The expectation met by this lesson is #1.6 - "identify who produces selected media texts and why those texts are produced".

2) Increasing Our Radio Knowledge via Online Databases

Pebble Go is a wonderful database for elementary school students. The information is provided in digestible chunks and has read-to-me capabilities. Yet, I am not certain that this lesson was as instructive as I had hoped. The Pebble Go questions that were provided along with this section of the database were not always linked as closely with the text as I might have liked, and the definition of things such as electro-magnetic waves, was even still a little uncertain for me as an adult after reading the explanation.

Even though there were only four questions, I found it helpful to separate the answering of the questions from the reading of the text. We completely ignored the last question because it was covered by our introductory KWL task. When students only had to answer one question before taking a break, they were more enthusiastic about answering them. If I divided up the task like this with a class, it gave me the opportunity to re-read the Pebble Go non-fiction text passages a second time before tackling the questions. This provided another assessment piece. I think I should have modified the questions. The first one asked about why radio might be better than a telephone in communicating messages. This presumed that radios are better. A t-chart to compare might have been a better choice. The expectation met by this lesson is #2.1 "identify elements and characteristics of some media forms".

3) Radio Vocabulary Pre-Assessment

I wanted to pre-teach some of the challenging, radio-specific vocabulary, and tap into their own ideas - students are not "tabula rasas". I wracked my brain about a fun and engaging way to begin to introduce these words. I chose to use the Senteo Clickers because I felt like the students needed practice using these devices before using them in a high-stakes situation, i.e. a test. I also wanted to foster some growth mindset by giving a difficult task but showing them that they don't have to be successful immediately. This was probably my worst lesson so far. The students were thrown off because they were taking the test anonymously instead of logging in with their student numbers. I told them that the results didn't matter because it was unfair to test someone on content they haven't learned yet. They were more preoccupied with the device than they were with discovering these new words. Even though there were only 5 words (taken from a fantastic book called Media Madness by Dominic Ali and Michael Cho), they were completely befuddled and bewildered. The students were not interested in learning about the correct answers after the pretend quiz. The questions were too hard. I didn't bother trying it with the junior division students I see, but I wonder if they might have responded differently. The expectation met by this lesson (somewhat) is #2.2 "identify the conventions and techniques used in some familiar media forms and explain how they convey meaning". The funny thing is that this lesson wasn't a complete waste of time - a student made a reference to one of the vocabulary words in her drawing from the next lesson.

Using the word "playlist"

4) Imagine Inside a Radio Station

I wanted to provide time for the students to listen to commercial radio, since many of the students claimed that they never heard a radio before. I didn't want the students to just sit and do nothing while they listened to the radio. My first attempt was to allow them to play with some toys while they listened. This backfired - they were too focused on playing and talking with each other to pay attention to the radio. What else could they do while they listened that was productive but still allowed them to hear what was going on. This then evolved into the lesson task you see to the right. Students could draw what they thought the inside of a radio station looked like. This task bombed again when I first tried it, because many of the students were frozen and drew nothing because they said they had no ideas because they had never been to a radio station and just couldn't imagine anything. Too hard? The task became more manageable and possible when we added a short group brainstorm at the start. By asking who and what they thought they might see, students heard other students make suggestions that they could piggy back on for their own drawing.  Drawing while listening meant that they could hear the radio better, and this led to great observations and some clearing of previous misconceptions - e.g. students thought that they only time they'd hear "just talking" would be for the news, but they discovered that DJs or radio hosts talk quite a bit in between songs. They also noticed that the name of the radio station is mentioned frequently. The expectations covered by this are overall #1 "demonstrate an understanding of a variety of media texts", #1.6 "identify who produces selected media texts and why those texts are produced" and #4.1 "identify, initially with support and direction, what strategies they found most helpful in making sense of and creating media texts"

I plan on having them do a second drawing to show the learning

Drawing means they can illustrate what they don't yet have words for

5) Radio Station Similarities in our School

I've been in contact with some commercial radio stations to try and arrange a visit, and we have concrete plans to participate in a broadcast with an Internet-based radio station, VoicEd Radio, closer to the end of this unit. In the meantime, however, I wanted the students to get a firmer idea in their heads about what happens in a radio studio. The idea to connect radio to the school PA system was Ms. Lung's - she mentioned it as I was talking to her about my media lessons. I thought it was brilliant, hands-on, and useful. For some classes, I combined it with watching one full but short video (How a Radio Station Works, Radio Station Equipment ) and part of a longer video (KMKT Studio Tour). Once again, I found it was more successful if these two experiences were split up into two separate, short lessons. I also wish that I could allow the students to do more than buzz their empty classroom (or classroom where we sent some of their fellow students to hear them speak to them), but the students knew that playing with the PA system while other classes were in session would probably be frowned upon. The same expectations mentioned for the fourth lesson would work for this lesson as well.

Performing a "Goldilocks test" on my lessons can be a bit inconclusive. Were the students in a good mood the day I delivered it? Did I split it up or combine it? Did I provide enough time to think and do? I plan on doing some more reading from that Ali book, and teaching with Stephen Hurley about VoicEd radio's purpose and methods, but if anyone has any suggestions for future lessons, please let me know. This is definitely a work in progress!

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Need for Feed(back)

Determined that my past sewing adventures were not merely a fad, I decided to sign up for sewing classes with the Toronto Parks, Recreation and Culture Department. It's been a different experience than my attempts to learn how to sew from my mother. Our assigned instructor was not available due to a family tragedy, so we did not have classes for the first two sessions. For the next two sessions, we had a substitute instructor, who had to hurry all the way from Richmond Hill to Scarborough to teach and who was unfamiliar with where the resources for these classes were located. This past week, our original instructor returned, but she had to do a lot of administrative catchup. Despite all these setbacks, we've actually done quite a bit of work. We learned how to measure ourselves and each other properly. (My fellow classmates, Tamra and Judy, and I have gotten quite up close and personal while practising these skills!) We also learned how to thread a sewing machine, cut out patterns, pin them to fabric, cut out the fabric, and stitch parts together.

Pinning my pattern, aligned with a fold

Re-pinning my pattern correctly on the right side

Unlearning/relearning which way the pins are placed

Shoulders stitched on a prototype top
I noticed that I peppered my sewing teachers with a lot of questions, a lot of them along the lines of "am I doing this properly?" I found that I really needed feedback.

Perfect timing on that notion of feedback. I'm involved as a participant in the TVO Teach Ontario book club for The Feedback-Friendly Classroom by Deborah McCallum. The book's subtitle suggests that it will help readers "how to equip students to give, receive, and seek quality feedback that will support their social, academic, and developmental needs". I like how Maureen McGrath, our facilitator, has set up ways for us to provide our own feedback on our learning through this text. Participants such as Beckie, Maureen, Kit, Alexis, and Alanna have provided great insights via the discussion threads. For instance, I really like how Maureen gave an example of a single-point rubric - it gives a lot more room for specific feedback that a traditional, four-column rubric doesn't always provide.

This is Maureen's sample posted on TeachOntario

 It hasn't been all back-pats and celebrations, however. I've struggled with this quote:
"Teachers sometimes need to provide feedback next-steps that highlight what to do better; students sometimes perceive this as negative feedback. When students give feedback in a feedback-friendly classroom, we want them to focus on only the positive aspects of someone's work." (page 91)
I'm not sure how much I can support this statement, especially considering my recent sewing class experience. If my instructor is too busy with someone else to tell me what's wrong with my pinning performance, I don't want to have to wait until she's free for me to proceed - I'd rather have a fellow student, who I know has the expertise to advise wisely, to tell me that I've pinned the pattern to the wrong side, or that there's a bump in the fabric that I didn't notice. If I'm approaching a situation with a dis-regulated student that might escalate the negative reactions, I'd rather have a colleague give me a heads-up on what not to say to that student, because as the classroom teacher, they might have had more experience dealing with that student's outbursts. Maybe the "focus on only the positive aspects" only applies to students? But if that's the case, is that implying that students can't identify the flaws in someone's work? Or that they cannot make those suggestions in a helpful way? I'm not certain.

I know for myself that if I genuinely want to improve something, and I'm mentally ready to separate myself from the work, I don't just want to hear the "good stuff". This was well illustrated at a meeting I went to very, very early in the morning on Friday, February 2. I'm thrilled to be the incoming, junior OSLA Super Conference planner. Jess Longthorne is the outgoing OSLA SuperConference planner. Alanna King is the formerly junior, now senior OSLA Super Conference planner. These are big shoes to fill with this role but I'm excited about the opportunity. This 7:00 a.m. meeting was for all the new and current Super Conference planners, led by the absolutely phenomenal Michelle Arbuckle from OLA. The entire meeting was focused on feedback. They used the "2 Stars and a Wish" strategy and Michelle took copious notes on what everyone shared.
These are volunteers who have been working together for a year, and non-stop since Tuesday to put together a fantastic conference. They were exhausted but they realized the need to reflect and share. Key to the sharing was the "wish" portion - the things that hadn't gone well, the next steps, the aspects that might need changing somehow if possible. It would be completely understandable if some people were not willing to hear these "criticisms", but coming from those who were part of the team meant that they weren't personal affronts, but observations that shouldn't be shunted under the carpet. We don't have to act on every single one of these feedback suggestions, but we should hear them out.

Another great example of listening to feedback and then making your own decisions came from a Forest of Reading Silver Birch nominee I read this past week. (I got caught up with some more of my reading by borrowing books from students - I read The Doll's Eye, Summer's End, The Stone Heart, Yellow Dog, and From Ant to Eagle - all really good books!)

In the back of the book, From Ant to Eagle, the author describes getting feedback from the first literary agent who responded to his inquiry, suggesting that he change the ending of the book so that (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) Sammy doesn't die. Alex Lyttle tried it - he rewrote the second half of the book. This is what he said happened next in this process:
But after rereading it, I decided it no longer felt like my novel. Yes, it was happier, and yes, many people would likely prefer it that way, but it wasn't what I had set out to write. The harsh reality of pediatric oncology is that there are thousands of children like Sammy and Cal out there, and in the end, I chose to tell their story.
Even those this book probably caused me some dehydration from crying so much, I'm glad that Alex Lyttle didn't change his original ending. It seems like even experts like literary agents and editors can provide "incorrect" feedback, which still leaves me struggling with that idea from Deborah McCallum's book that I wished was more developed: how to reverse inaccurate feedback from peers (and when to allow critical comments). I welcome any feedback from readers about how to deal with this, either via Facebook, Twitter, or through comments directly tied to Blogger.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Consent Curriculum

In my blog post published January 22, 2018, I mentioned that I obtained permission/consent from the fabulous LTOs at my school to publish their photos and write about them. I made a point of adding that sentence because I knew that I wanted to talk at some point on my blog about consent.

Consent is a pretty important concept and I don't think it's too early to start talking about various types of consent with students.

1) Consent around Photos

In September, we have our families sign a media consent form. It's a generic one and I understand why. Teachers, or at least the ones at my school, take a lot of photos for a variety of purposes - as pedagogical documentation, for evaluation by the teacher, for displays in the classroom, for sharing with parents via password-protected sites, and even for sharing (without faces) on social media. Right now I'm working on the school yearbook, and I really should examine which families have indicated "no" on the media consent forms. In the past, when I checked in with some parents, they readily agreed to the yearbook and explain that they signed the way they did because they were concerned about their students' images appearing online. That's harder and harder to regulate. We don't film our Winter or Spring Concerts for general distribution because some performers do not have media consent forms signs. Yet, other parents or families will film their own children (and naturally, catch other students in the process of recording) and share the photos or video on Facebook or other social media platforms. I know some schools just ban audiences completely from taking any photos at all during school-wide events, but that seems rather heavy-handed and does not foster great school-home relations. (I speak from experience on this topic - and thankfully, with some advocacy, parents were allowed to take photos during the Grade 8 graduation at another school without having to try and snap photos surreptitiously without being noticed by the principal.) The ones that are often left out of this discussion are the students. When students make awesome things in the library makerspace during recess, I ask if I can take a photo. It's a polite thing to do. (I bet some celebrities wish that paparazzi would be so courteous!) Often, they students are the ones asking me if I'd take a photo for them. No one wants their images to be misused. We should be aware that visuals of any sort can be manipulated by others using technology and that we should try to be as cautious as we can when sharing photos beyond the physical/virtual walls of our school. Still, it's best to ask permission - often, it might be a yes when the sharing is for positive, celebratory reasons that given agency to the individual and are shared respectfully.

2) Consent around Touch

The Girl Guides of America wrote a holiday-related post in December 2017 advising families not to force their children, especially their daughters, to hug relatives. (This article, from the New York Times, links to the actual article as well as describes some of the reactions the post received.) I know my parents would have struggled with this recommendation, but it makes a lot of sense. My cultural background (Caribbean/West Indian) has a tradition of hugging and kissing every adult goodbye after a gathering. Knowing, however, that 80% of assailants are friends or family of the victim (I found that statistic from makes possibly offending a grown-up a healthier option that suppressing a child's ability to show appreciation or greetings in other ways.

I'm pretty comfortable with students hugging me but I know that for some of my students, they struggle with appropriate boundaries, especially with strangers. I try to remind students to ask for hugs rather than just grabbing me. Modelling behaviour is so important. I also model how to say no. For instance, when some of the kindergarten students went to hug me, they tried to climb up me like a tree. Not only is this unsafe, it's uncomfortable! When a student did that, the next time he asked for a hug, I said no. I explained that I didn't want to be climbed like a tree. I didn't owe him an explanation but I wanted him to understand that I denied the request because of past conduct, not because I didn't like him. 

I also need to remind older students that the kindergarten students are not dolls, and should be treated with respect. Older students, even kindergarten helpers, will pat the 4-year-olds on the head, or hug them, or beg for hugs from them. Some even pick them up, and observant readers of the blog know that carrying a student who doesn't need help is a practice that I don't approve of, unless the student has fallen asleep on your shoulder and you (the adult in charge) need to take them back to class. Asking permission before touching or picking up is a trend that has even filtered down to infants (I understand the sentiment, but I'm not sure how far I'm willing to go with allowing babies this liberty, especially if I have to take my child away for safety reasons or if they refuse because they don't want to leave somewhere and we must go.)

On the other end of the age line, there are more serious issues around consent.

3) Consent around Intimacy / Sex

I love this video (and I've embedded the curse-free version below).

The importance of this lesson (and the flip side - empowering people who are "offered tea" the freedom to decline if they don't want it) was reinforced for me a couple of years ago, through Minecraft. My friend Denise Colby and I wrote about the experience on the GamingEdus blog. Read the description there. Students must be able to say no to things that are uncomfortable (not about things like taking tests, but to situations that are unsafe and optional and not in their best interest).

I called this blog post "the consent curriculum", one, because I love the alliteration, and two, because I think we need to build things like requesting and obtaining permission to say and do things into daily experiences for young people. If we aren't given the opportunity to make decisions for ourselves, even if it means saying no, then when and how will we learn?

Monday, January 22, 2018

What LTO seems to stand for at my school

On the day before our report card writing day, I had two rewarding interactions with two of my colleagues. I had a great conversation about one of the Forest of Reading Silver Birch nominees with Ms. Clarke as she worked in the library during her prep time. I also had my first co-teaching class with the ESL self-contained class intermediate students and their teacher, Ms. Tse. You will not have encountered their names before on my blog. I've written about my fellow teachers before (such as Ms. Wadia, Ms. Daley, Ms. Hong, Mrs. Commisso, and Ms. Singh, not to mention our fabulous ECEs) but the reason you've never heard of the others prior to today is because they are new to our school - they are LTOs (long-term occasional teachers). They are so much more than LTOs. Let me highlight a few reasons why. (Thanks for the two of them for giving their consent to sharing photos of them on the blog - more about consent in an upcoming blog post!)

Ashley Clarke

Ms. Clarke showing learning buddies how to fold

Ms. Clarke is our Grade 4-5 teacher. Ashley is enthusiastic and effervescent - a bubbly personality. I loved how Ashley introduced herself to her class, demonstrating how open and respectful communication in her class could be fostered and grown. She knows her students well, despite only having been with them a relatively short time. I've never heard Ashley complain about a student; she loves even the most challenging ones. I want her positive attitude to be as contagious as the flu! She's a team player who embraced working with other teachers right away. She volunteered to help Mme Awara supervise and run the school STEAM Club after her first or second week at school and attended Tinkering Thursdays at RJ Lang P.S. to learn more.
Ashley usually works during her prep time in the library. I'm quite apologetic because often I will have a kindergarten class in the space, but she says she enjoys hearing the littlest ones doing all sorts of neat things and somehow she's still able to get things accomplished with the cacophony. She incorporates some important themes and topics in her lessons, from growth mindset to commercialism to coding. She also uses the school library well (take a look at her tweet featuring some of our print resources).

Rose Tse

Ms. Tse editing Pixton comics with kids in the lab

Ms. Tse is our ESL self-contained and prep delivery teacher. Rose is conscientious and thoughtful. Her level of organization absolutely astounds me. It is not easy to juggle the schedules of ELL students from five different grades and five different classes. Despite a less-than-ideal schedule and responsibilities for many other classes (kindie STEAM, primary dance and drama and ICT), she's got it all together. Rose is always thinking about what's best for her students and is willing to advocate for them to ensure that their needs take priority. When the students freaked out after seeing a mouse in their portable, she moved them out and found space for them to work until their fears subsided.  Rose is resourceful, always seeking out books or websites or techniques that will help her students learn a little bit better. She's willing to devote the time, which is why I caught her on film creating this huge grid for one of the prep classes she sees.
Rose is a reflective educator. She's always asking herself how she can stop negative behaviour patterns, how she can help her technology students finish work when their time is limited, which app is grade-appropriate for what class, and so on. She's super-observant; after our first history lesson together with the Grade 7-8s, she noticed so many things about the student comfort and participation level, the type of comments they made, and the differences in how the group operates in different environments. 

Both 2018 LTOs

Rose and Ashley have dedicated what little extra time they have to volunteering to be ball hockey coaches. This is a significant time commitment, with extra practices and games, but they are willing. I should mention that both Rose and Ashley rely on public transit to get to school. This may not be a big deal to some, but to me (who relies on my car tremendously despite living not far from school), I'm so impressed with their dedication. Rose and Ashley have worked together at other schools and both of them have wonderful things to say about the other. My only disappointment is that they do not have permanent contracts with our school board yet. We love the teachers that they replaced, but we also are so lucky and grateful to have them take their places.

So, what does LTO seem to stand for right now at my school? There are several choices when it comes to Ashley and Rose:
Loves Teaching Others
Lots To Offer

Monday, January 15, 2018

Monkey Business

I've realized that the first photo that appears in Blogger is the image that appears in links or snapshots of the post. This is why, even though the picture you'll see is only part of what I want to ruminate on, it's the first one I'm placing in the text - so that the other image, the one that inspired many tweets and blog posts because of its inappropriateness, does not become the first thing you see when you read this.

Part One: Ball Hockey

Every January, the staff and students at my school get involved in a school ball hockey tournament. Teachers coach their teams and we even have a trophy with the names of the winning junior and intermediate team engraved on it. Each year, a theme is selected for the team naming. This year, it's countries, to coincide with the Winter Olympics. Last year, the theme was animals. Teachers will often use alliteration when selecting their names. I co-coached a ball hockey team; my name begins with an M and my colleague's name begins with a K. Our initial thought was to call our team The Monkeys. We thought it'd work with our letters and had a Davey Jones / Mickey Dolenz, fun vibe.

Thank goodness something in my brain was triggered shortly after making that decision and I asked our wonderful ball hockey coordinator to change our team name to the Mighty Kestrels. However, some of the earliest ball hockey schedules originally had the old name.

"Why did you change it?", eagle-eyed students on my team asked me.
"The name can be kind of offensive, calling someone a monkey", I tried to explain.

I didn't go into details. The students in Grades 4-6 that comprised my team just looked confused when I said that the name might be inappropriate.

Part Two: The Puppet

This is a photo from March 2017. I even wrote a blog post about this lesson. The interesting thing about this lesson was a comment that a student made a couple of weeks after we had this activity. A grade 7 student approached me and told me that I shouldn't use the monkey puppet because it was insulting to black people. (The student in question was a person of colour.) The student recommended I replace the puppet with a panda "because a panda is black, white and Asian". I apologized for my error and thanked her for being so frank and honest with me. I've not used the monkey puppet since then. (I didn't throw it out - instead, I added it to the collection of puppets I keep in my library play space.) I remember telling some of my colleagues, who were surprised with the student's reaction and some even dismissive, because I never suggested that the monkey was supposed to represent anyone. I just reiterated that I was glad the student felt comfortable and confident enough to raise the issue with me.

Part Three: The Sweatshirt

It is important to publicize and elevate other people's voices, especially those who know more than you do. TDSB educator Matthew Morris knows a lot. He is already well-known for his eloquent TED talk as well as his feature article in ETFO Voice magazine. When I saw his blog post on this issue, it nearly made me say, "Why should I write anything more about this issue? He's phrased it much more powerfully than I could!"

However, it should be that all educators that need to talk about this, bring this up in their classes, and object to this. We have to. It's not just for media educators or for teachers who "specialize" in equity (another problematic statement). I'm not the only one to suggest that issues like this must be addressed in class.

I wasn't able to initiate the discussion about the sweatshirt this week because we were talking about another news item via social media that had racial undertones and related directly to our recent unit on fame. This was particularly relevant because many of our students (who are of Asian background or heritage) told us that they watch Logan Paul videos and in one class, over half of the students saw the video that included the body of a person that took his own life. Others saw the related videos of this online celebrity treating Japanese people disrespectfully.

I'm glad that my media AQ course introduced the idea of "classroom connections" (conversations about current events and media topics) to me. After talking at length with the Grade 6-7 and 7-8 classes about the YouTube vlogger's insensitive and insulting recent series of videos (so much so that we skipped book exchange and a math lesson - we were startled by the end-of-the-day bell in one case!), one student spoke to me afterwards and said, "You know what we should talk about next? That shirt that said 'coolest monkey in the jungle'." Both of us started to talk animatedly at each other about how this was totally what we need to address.

I searched later about explanations to help people understand why this comparison is objectionable - for some reason, people can understand why not to call someone a pig easier. I found this article ( but it is a bit long. This article, from the same website ( is a bit shorter but not necessarily engaging. To make things a bit more complex, I found a comment from the boy's mother who does not agree with the complaints (see or I'm not sure what "not my way of thinking" means - I can understand why she might not object, and/but it *would* be a different scenario if she had posted a photo of her son wearing this vs a company advertising this photo right next to the blonde boy wearing the sweatshirt they chose for him to model. What I've recently discovered is the MTV Decoded clips. The one I've embedded below doesn't explain the particular example I wanted, but I like how accessible the message is to a wide audience.

So, what's the take away from all of this? 

It is important to become aware of terms that can be offensive. Even though educators may not mean names or phrases in a derogatory manner, we must remember three media concepts: that "audiences negotiate meaning in the media", "media contain ideological and value messages" and that "media have social and political implications". If someone objects, apologize, make changes, and learn more so that these mistakes, which may stem from our own unconscious biases, do not occur again. This isn't political correctness. It's human decency. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Say Cheese!

I learned quite a bit over the holidays. Some of the lessons were expected ones - such as, keeping a happy secret can be stressful but when it's successful can be delightful to those surprised. (To my sister Mary Carol, if she's reading this: your visit was probably the highlight of the season for Mom and Dad, but keeping it under wraps wasn't easy!) I also learned some things I didn't anticipate - like what it's like to play Minecraft in virtual reality (which you can read about on the GamingEdus website), or the ins and outs of cheese.

My sister is lucky I posted one of the few "normal" shots (here, with Dad)

Regular readers will recall that in early November 2017, my husband took a solo trip to Wisconsin. While he was there, he enjoyed what he told us was "the best cheese [he's] ever eaten". Ever since then, he's been on a quest to replicate that culinary experience. We went to a higher-end grocery store and found some five-year old cheddar, which was pleasant but not the same as the ten-year old delicacy he consumed while away. We started to investigate the location of cheese speciality shops in and around our neighbourhood. We found a store near my parents' house and made time to go while school was out. I didn't expect to pick up an education while picking up something edible.

We spent nearly an hour in Art of Cheese ( with Bill. There are so many things that I discovered thanks to Bill's expertise. It was quite fascinating. We learned about the difference between Reggiano Parmesano and "parmesan" cheese (including the icky fillers used in the generic powdery stuff found in most grocery store shelves), the notion of the third taste (the combination of the taste of one food combined with another to create a third, unique flavour), different milk providers for cheese (cow, goat, sheep, and water buffalo, as well as the different kinds of cows), cheese options for those who are lactose-intolerant, the "magic palate cleansing cheese",  and so much more. We restrained ourselves from going too crazy; that is, we only bought three kinds of cheese, even though we spent a pretty penny on it. The eight-year old farmers' cheese we purchased was gone by January 5 and I had to return to Art of Cheese to buy more. Unfortunately, the store is closed from January 1-19, so my plan to take photos for this blog post was thwarted (as well as my goal for more aged cheese).

So, why was learning about cheese so special? Here are three reasons I can determine (and they lend themselves well to teaching and learning in school too):

1) Bill is passionate about his subject matter and cares about the people he's interacting with.

If you look at the Yelp reviews for the business or the article from BlogTO,  you'll notice that the words "entertaining", "knowledgeable", and "passionate" come up often. If Bill only cared about cheese, he'd be a wise bore. If Bill only cared about people, he'd be an ineffective socializer. He knows his stuff and he makes the listener want to know more. That's the hallmark of a good teacher.

2) Visiting Art of Cheese is a hands-on (or is it mouth-on?) experience.

Bill gave us many samples of cheese to try out. Some cheeses were meant to illustrate a point. Some were meant to expand our horizons. Some were meant to appeal to what we said we liked. It wouldn't have been the same experience if Bill just talked about the cheeses without letting us taste them. I realize that the topic of "cheese" is less theoretical or esoteric than other subjects teachers must cover, but if these subjects can be presented with as much authentic, "try this" experiences, it'd be very engaging and educational.

3) It seemed like we had all the time in the world to explore cheese.

As I mentioned, we spent nearly an hour in the cheese store. Bill took his time to answer all of our questions, provide interesting background information, and allowed us to make our purchasing decisions without pressure. This is probably one of the hardest examples to implement in school, because there is a sense that we have to "cover" all that's required by a certain time. I know that when we return to school, my staff and I will have two weeks until Term One report cards are due. That sometimes means that we accidentally promote a sense of urgency in the classroom - we have to "get things done in time" instead of learning because it's fun or we're curious or other reasons.

I'm afraid that "a little learning can be a dangerous thing" - while at an Italian-ish restaurant the other day, I turned down the offer of sprinkled Parmesan because I was concerned that it wasn't "the real thing". Am I becoming a cheese snob? I guess that's evidence that learning has happened - it makes an impact on your day-to-day life. Thanks Bill for "ruining" us!