Monday, April 19, 2021

Enough About Me - #PaidSickDays

 I didn't know what to write about this week. I just had "Spring Break", so it was a week without classes but not a week without concerns. The good parts involved sleeping in and playing video games distantly with friends so that meant a break from the usual routine, but it wasn't completely peaceful and restful. 

In addition to the usual worries and time-takers (e.g. tackling the large pile of marking, planning for an uncertain amount of time online, wondering how to best support my parents as my dad continues to slowly recover from his surgery), on Friday, the premier of Ontario made an announcement with new rules and restrictions. I thought it was going to be more "smoke and mirrors" changes-that-weren't-changes (such as calling it a "shut down" instead of a "lock down") but I was unfortunately surprised. There were changes, but not beneficial or useful ones - primarily, the police were granted more ability to stop people at random. The official quote is:

amendments to an emergency order (O.Reg 8/21 Enforcement of COVID-19 Measures) have been made that will provide police officers and other provincial offences officers enhanced authority to support the enforcement of Ontario's Stay-at-Home order. 

Effective Saturday, April 17, 2021 at 12:01 a.m., police officers and other provincial offences officers will have the authority to require any individual to provide their home address and purpose for not being at their residence. In addition, police officers, special constables and First Nation Constables will have the authority to stop vehicles to inquire about an individual's reasons for leaving their home.

If you want to know the source, it comes from this link (although I'm unsure if it will change or be updated by Monday).

The uproar was quick, and the backpedaling happened quickly thereafter. Sadly, the changes weren't significant ones - the main alteration was that outdoor playgrounds won't close. Police forces claimed that they would not use this authority given to them to card and harass but already there have been reports of individuals being stopped and questioned, especially people who aren't white.

What could have been done instead? These aren't my ideas: I've heard them shared by people much more experienced than I am. I'll limit the suggestions to what I guess might be the two biggest change-makers. Quite simply ...

  • arrange for paid sick days, especially for those working in "essential" but dangerous positions (e.g. grocery stores, delivery personnel, warehouses, etc.)
  • prioritize vaccinations for those who are at more risk for exposure, rather than age

I'm fortunate. In my profession, I have paid sick days. I'm also lucky enough that, due to several factors, I actually have a vaccination date booked. (It's 3 weeks from now, but that's a lot better than a lot of people.) 

It doesn't feel like my MPP listens to me - I've written him before and he's replied with a form letter about the wonderful things his Conservative government is doing. Still, I will try to email and phone him to ask for #PaidSickDays. I need to use my social capital to try and push for real measures that will protect Ontarians and actually "flatten the curve" (remember that slogan?). Please let me know in the comments if there are other actions I can take to try and make paid sick days a reality.

I will do my part as an individual and stay home and wear my mask when I have to go out. I keep my socializing to House Party and Animal Crossing New Horizons virtual island visits. (Thanks to Jennifer Cadavez, Beth Lyons and Wendy Burch-Jones for "playing with me" this past week.) One of my favourite things to do in ACNH is wish on stars - so I'll fill the rest of this post with photos of me wishing - wishing for #PaidSickDays for those who don't have them, for better leadership, and for an end to this COVID nonsense.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Land Grab

 Last week, the students returned to school after a four-day long weekend, only to return to remote online learning the very next day because Toronto Public Health issued a Section 22 order "to close schools to in-class learning from April 7 to April 18". 

I was grateful that we had a single day together, so that we could have an outdoor physical education class using our batons, as well as a visual arts double period so we could sculpt with plasticine clay. Simultaneously, I was grateful that TPH took measures to keep students and education workers safe. I was able to use the opportunity to try something new and unusual digitally for social studies.

I wanted to bring Minecraft into the classroom for this social studies unit, but unfortunately, the myriad of devices the students use at home to access online learning makes it challenging to coordinate a single world. However, a friend of mine alerted me to a simple, platform-agnostic tool called Gather Town. (Thanks Tina!)

I decided to try it out with my students. The Grade 5s are studying First Nations and European Explorers and the Grade 6s are studying Canadian Communities Past and Present. What types of communities might we construct together in this open world, with no instruction manual or teacher direction?

These questions below are the questions that my students and I discussed shortly after our initial foray into Gather Town, as well as the reflection questions provided for more in-depth thought the day after the first visit. So, I guess I'm completing the same homework here that I gave my students.

1) How did you feel entering the new space?
2) What did you do when you got into the space?
3) How did you learn to do things?
4) Once you discovered how to change the environment, what did you (or others) do?
5) Why might the teacher not have told you what was possible?
6) Did anyone ask if they were allowed to make changes?
7) Why were people so reluctant to leave?
8) If you went back again, what would you do?

a) Why did players want to enter this world?
b) What kinds of interactions did you notice?
c) How did groups form? What did these groups do?

I was the first person to enter this space, so it felt like a big responsibility.
I briefly looked through the tutorial that the game provided, looked at the terrain, and wondered what would be the most natural kind of setting. I planted a few trees that I decided belonged to the area but kept some wide open spaces as well, so that I could mimic nature as closely as possible with some forest and plains. I placed a tent so I would have somewhere to "live". I knew more than most of the students did about Gather Town, but I was no expert. This is what the online space looked like when the first of the visitors started to arrive.

I didn't want to impose on the visitors, so I wandered around a bit and said hello. I watched as the students ran around the space, checking things out and attempting to communicate with each other. They figured out how to talk via emojis before I did.

I discovered that I could allow others to alter the environment through a simple switch. Without making any announcement, I changed the settings. I didn't want to lead or direct their play in any way. How quickly would they learn that they had some new powers? The answer was not long. 

These two photos were taken only seconds apart. This unusual new plant began sprouting everywhere, and I mean everywhere! No one asked permission, even though my name in the game was labelled MzMolly - so there was no mistaking me for other players. Maybe they felt like it was a "new space" so it was theirs to do with as they wanted? I'm curious to read their reflections to this portion.

I don't want you to think less of my students - they were behaving just like true explorers. Just as toddlers test out limits to new objects by using all their senses and pushing items to their limits, and just as players new to Minecraft begin by smashing everything in sight while discovering their powers, these students relished their abilities without considering the long-term effects. There are many types of gamers - the most simplified versions are "Killers / Achievers / Explorers / Socialisers"  (you can even take this test to see what type you are, although this test is more thorough and nuanced). Everyone interacted with the world in a different way, and no one worried about the "curriculum connections" or "learning objectives" as they were in-game (which is what I had hoped would happen).

By the end of the first session, others were squatting in my house and any spare open land was completely covered by these tiny dark green plants.

I did have to "put on the teacher hat" and tell the students we had to leave the world, with a promise that they could return. It was hard to get them to leave, because now that they had figured out what was possible to do, they were eager to do more. 

On the last day of remote online learning prior to Spring Break, the students had a second opportunity to enter our Gather Town space. The space transformed even more rapidly this time around. Individuals started to claim their spaces, and their additions definitely differed from the original theme! Tents, video games, fountains and shrubs began to appear. I started to worry that my space was going to be usurped, so I started to try and make a sign that said "Mz Molly's Spot", even though I hadn't intended on claiming a section for myself, but I didn't know how to write on the sign! I even caught the moment when someone briefly added a large pink SUV to the land!

Players wanted to enter the world because they were invited to join, because others were joining, and because they thought it would be fun and adventurous. Students did not realize how they had constructed their avatars until after they joined the game, but it turns out that several had chosen to be snowpeople, and they found each other right away and hung out together.

Near the end of our short second session, there was a huge dance party being held right in front of my "house" and all sorts of items placed on and near my tiny little corner.

I didn't mean for it to become a simulation, because in my opinion, despite there being a lot of social studies simulations online, many social studies simulations are fraught with issues, such as trivializing  and gamifying the experiences of marginalized people. However, this experience will provide great personal connections for me and for the students when we discuss things like interactions among communities, especially established vs emerging ones, or the development of relationships between groups and the impact of settlements. Respecting people and their rights sometimes has to be concentrated efforts because individual zeal can override consideration for others. I hope it will be a memorable way to understand complex past history and develop empathy. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Eggs - Not That Kind

Eggs - Not That Kind by Diana Maliszewski 

Today's blog post will simultaneously appear on my personal blog (Monday Molly Musings) as well as the Association for Media Literacy website.

I am crafting this reflection on the Easter weekend. On Animal Crossing New Horizons, virtual me has been busy collecting eggs of all types in preparation for the game's "Bunny Day" celebration.

But that's not the type of egg I want to discuss here. 

My Grade 5s and 6s are studying the Human Development and Sexual Health portion of the health curriculum right now. Often, this is a topic that is not greeted with enthusiasm by the students. There are many reasons for this reluctance: the topic is seen as "gross", "awkward", and uncomfortable to discuss in a classroom. I'm not usually the type of teacher who turns to pre-generated lesson plans, but OPHEA (Ontario Physical and Health Education Association) has readily available very thorough and age-appropriate resources. I downloaded them, reviewed them, and began to follow them.

There are certain recommendations provided as part of these lesson plans. The tips are very helpful and inclusive (e.g. using non-gendered language). For instance, OPHEA suggests that these units are taught in mixed-gender classrooms. As the lesson plans state, 

Teaching puberty in an all-gender environment allows students to: 

● learn to talk comfortably and respectfully with each other 

● understand that they need to learn about others 

● understand that many changes are the same for everyone 

● learn that they are more alike than different.

Despite these wonderful materials, my students began to complain about their weekly health lessons. They'd joke about being excused to go to the bathroom - for 40 minutes. I even heard through their parents that they were not happy about learning about this content - until Fred and Annabelle came.

Fred and Annabelle are the names given to two Giant Microbe stuffed toys that I own. The students named them almost immediately after I first brought them into the classroom. Fred is a sperm. Annabelle is an ova or egg. Suddenly, the concepts became less icky and more concrete when the sex cells became personified. Students were comfortable noting the "homes" that Fred and Annabelle resided, and the "roads" they used to get to their "destinations". 

We were very conscientious about not substituting common objects as stand-ins for organs of the reproductive system. My student-teacher even commented on how relieved she was not to see any "bananas as penises" references during my initial lessons, unlike her own cringe-worthy middle school health class experiences. 

We directly addressed the common euphemisms employed to discuss topics like menstruation so that students would be able to make connections between "classroom language" and "society language". I also learned, thanks to my own children, that these terms change with each generation. I knew about
  • a visit from Aunt Flo
  • being on the rag
  • that time of the month
but I didn't know that nowadays, some people call it
  • Japan (for the big red dot on their flag)
There are a few fascinating articles that list some of the 5 000 code terms for periods, as well as the different terms based on languages spoken.  Speaking of periods, we also had the chance to destigmatize periods by distributing menstrual pads for everyone in Grade 5-6 to examine. 

There are a lot of great potential media lessons that can be linked to this topic.

Ones I've directly addressed with my students are:

1) Why is it easier to talk about spermatogenesis and menstruation when we have Fred and Annabelle?

2) Why do some people give "code names" for body parts? Why do we use the scientific terms in class?

Other potential questions and activities that lend themselves well to an integrated media/health discussion include:

1) After reading the article called "Top Euphemisms for 'Period' by Language", what similarities and differences do you notice?

2) Watch or look at advertisements for "female sanitary products". What colours are used most and least? Why?

3) What words are used to describe periods and period-related products? (e.g. sanitary, hygiene) How does the word choice influence what we think about menstruation?

4) Examine and redesign packages for menstrual products, especially for younger users. What images, words and packaging would you use?

5) Make a YouTube video that explains how the industry has or has not addressed the needs of their target audience with regards to menstruation.

6) Compare "period talk" videos on YouTube (e.g. Adita Gupta, American Girl).Which do a good job? Which do not? Why?

7) How do social media platforms (i.e. Tik Tok, Instagram) represent sexuality in images and language? What makes you feel more or less comfortable? (This is definitely for older students)

8) Why do so few dolls have genitals? Why might this matter?

Big thanks to Carol Arcus for helping me compile this more-extensive list of "period possibilities".

If you are looking for other media texts to supplement this instructional topic, AML board members recommend:

  • Period End of Sentence (a short documentary suitable for older grades)
  • The Period Purse, an organization that aims to reduce stigma around menstruation

Monday, March 29, 2021

Reading, Writing, Reaching Targets, Wrestling with Strategies

 Now that I'm a classroom teacher for this year, I use a program for my planning and marking on a website called I like PlanBoard and MarkBoard, part of the Chalk suite, because I can see at a glance what I've done for the week (which helps me when I compose my Highlights of the Week newsletter for my students and their families) and I can examine what assessments I've gathered for a subject and the class average.

I've been a bit worried about my class' guided reading results. My students love to read, both during silent independent reading time and during read aloud time in class. Despite this affection for the activity, many of the answers I notice that they submit for guided reading tasks are insufficient. When I first noticed this, I revised my instruction sheet, so that it would be clearer on where marks were earned for each question.  I ran lessons on the difference between a summary and a main idea. I also have been coordinating my guided reading tasks to the media texts they are writing and hearing, so that, for instance, when we were writing letters, we read letters and analyzed letters, and hopefully the immersion would help. We officially finished writing comics a while back, but reading comics is still happening, with our read aloud of Class Act (compounded with my observation that they needed more time on reading and analyzing comics on their own - anyone who says that comics are "easy reading" or "easy to write" need to revise their opinions!). 

I declared that my goal was to try and have every student obtain a 10/15 or higher on their more recent guided reading tasks. 66% would be a reasonable goal, I thought. 

I tried to figure out what I could do differently with my teaching approach to help them improve. I ran a series of three teacher-directed mini-lessons to model how to attack the questions. I invited our special education teacher in to watch part of one of these lessons, so that she could supplement my instruction with strategies that she found useful with the students she services. She offered graphic organizers, sentence starters and mnemonic devices. In addition to this, I was able to borrow the special education teacher to sit with one of my three guided reading groups to provide coaching.

This weekend, I got caught up on a lot of my marking, and that included the most recent guided reading assignment. If I just look at my class average, then there has been some improvement, from 45.8% on the first comics-themed guided reading to 53.7% on the second to the most recent results of 64.2%. This is technically a jump of two letter grades; I should be elated. However, I don't think this means that everyone is earning a 10/15 score; I suspect that those with higher marks are boosting the average. If I have time, I might like to create a graph with the three scores for each individual student and look at it that way. Then, I can target the specific students who have not yet made it to a 66% and work just with them.

 I was discussing my dilemma with my husband and wondering aloud if my target was too ambitious or unrealistic. He asked me if I thought the issue was around reading comprehension or expressing ideas. This is a very good question. Do some of the students just not understand the reading samples? Or do they understand but are unable to put into words (written or oral) their thoughts? This is now also making me reconsider my next steps. After our unit on writing reviews (product, book, and movie) ends, we were going to move to a horror theme, based on what the students requested. I found a fantastic list from an article called "Fifteen Frightful Favorites: A Fifth Grader's Horror Booklist" from School Library Journal that I had students select possible upcoming read-alouds. Based on the even distribution of votes, I was going to do literature circles instead, with 3-4 students per book. I think it may be better to provide horror short stories for small groups and keep a novel for whole group consumption. We can also adapt these short stories into scripts (more reading and writing) and create mini-movies (oral and media). My mind is spinning - and this is just for the Reading strand of Language Arts, which is a subject I myself have affinity and comfort! You can imagine the mental gymnastics occurring as I figure out physical education, or math!

Monday, March 22, 2021

Bananas for Baton

 In last week's blog post, I mentioned that one of the resources I acquired from elsewhere was a class set of batons. Big thanks to the director of the Camaros Baton Club for making this possible. It was going to be a very expensive personal venture otherwise, and I couldn't guarantee how good of an investment it would be to commit to such as large purchase. If this week is any indication, buying them in the future might be worthwhile.

I've introduced the sport to my students and I did not predict how wildly popular it was going to be. My students have fallen in love with baton twirling. Want proof?

Restrictions: I have prohibited them from taking their batons home or outside, but this has not stopped them from asking to stay in at recess and after school to practice. I have had to insist that students store their batons on the back ledge near the chalkboard, because I've caught students pulling their batons out of their desks during math or language class to use.

Curiosity, Preoccupation and Substitution: Every week, I conduct two-minute chats (down from my original five-minute plan) with individual students. This week, at least two of the students wanted to talk about how to do 4-finger twirls. Since the batons are no longer permitted at their seats, students have found alternatives - twirling their pencils. During recess, a student went and found a long stick and has started using it in the yard to rehearse his moves.

Demonstrations: The students have only had two gym classes focused on baton twirling skills so far, but they were super-keen to show their twirling prowess to as many of the adults in the building as possible. Small groups (with adequate physical distance) have gone in search of an audience and have shown off to the principal, the school secretary / office administrator, the kindergarten teacher, and our special education teacher. 

There are no gender boundaries with my students and baton. Both boys and girls equally adore twirling. Some have already established their "favourite moves".  Even the students who are not usually fond of physical education time have found baton twirling success in some format. As they explore what's possible with their batons, they've requested instruction - "Can you teach us how to toss?" / "Can we do passes?" The students also spend a lot of time admiring each other and complimenting each other on how fluidly or quickly they can complete moves. 

I wish I could share more photos but 1) it's really hard to take pictures when I'm busy coaching 18 eager athletes, and 2) I need to respect the privacy of my students. Here are three images, with faces obscured.

I was a baton coach a long time ago (in the 1990s) and a baton twirler myself even longer ago (in the 1980s). It was a huge chunk of my life in the past and it's really taken me down memory lane to pull out my old baton case with my own pair of batons and revive those dusty attempts at flashes, thumb flips, and spinners. Even though I am a NCCP (National Coaching Certification Program) Level 1 coach for baton, I am quite rusty at running classes. It's coming back to me slowly. Ironically, the baton and dance club I used to work for, the Scarborough Entertainers, used to offer classes on Monday nights at Banting & Best Public School, which is my current school's close neighbour! It is my hope that when this unusual year comes to an end, I can run an after-school baton club for a larger group of students. 

Saturday, March 13, 2021


I am trying hard not to focus on the fact that this was supposed to be March Break. I really needed the rest, but the week of recuperation has been postponed to April 12-16, 2021.  I crafted my long range plans so that new units would begin after this week, so that I would have time to plan them more efficiently, but that idea has flown out the window.

Planning involves more than just deciding the topic for your lesson. I have to consider my approach, design my assessments / assignments, and collect my materials that the students will need to help them understand the concepts.

 We are lucky that in my school, we have a central supply room. It is well-stocked with different colours of construction paper, student notebooks, masking tape, glue, staples, markers, sticky notes and other items you might find in a stationery store. No one on staff hoards, we take what we need, and a committee usually keeps the room tidy and tracks when supplies get low. This is quite a blessing, because in other schools, individual teachers are responsible for ordering their supplies of pencils and erasers and it's just too bad if they forgot to request an item or obtain enough. 

Having said this, sometimes  I need rather unusual supplies that aren't typically ordered for school consumption. This is where my colleagues and friends have saved my bacon multiple times. (This also shows that teachers collect really odd things, "just in case".)

Thank you Ms. Wadia - during the six weeks of online learning in January - February 2021, you loaned my students whiteboards so they could do their work without wasting paper. You also lent me fraction manipulatives, spinners, and other math tools to help me teach while I was at home.

Thank you Mr. Tong - you provided me with enough balloons for my students to conduct their static electricity experiments.

Thank you Ms. Hong - you lent me your own personal stash of LED lights, copper tape, alligator clips, wires, and round cell batteries so these same students could build paper circuits.

Thank you Ms. Wilson - you aren't even a teacher at my school, and you've allowed me to rent 18 batons so that my students can have a unique physical education experience that still respects physical distancing and the restrictions around sharing equipment. You've saved me hundreds of dollars with this arrangement.

Thank you Ms. Yogalingam - (our class' student-teacher) you brought in your potato clock (bought with your own money) so that the students could get the same thrill of seeing vegetables produce electricity.

Thank you Ms. Teotico - (not a teacher, but a parent) you helped our school obtain toothbrushes and we had enough to use for our teeth as well as for art class!

I have my own share of unusual items that I needed as supplies to use for teaching. I brought in a dozen can-can skirts, for example.

Is there a correlation between a tendency to hoard and involvement in the teaching profession? You never know when you'll need something as supplies!

Monday, March 8, 2021

Yes to Miss Yogalingam

 This weekend, I worked on the Summative Evaluation for my student teacher. She has given her consent for me to mention her here by last name, as well as to publish a few photos. 

I have a confession to make: I was really nervous about accepting a teacher candidate this year. I worried about introducing another body into the classroom and another potential exposure to COVID. (We are very, very cautious in our school and no one enters unless they have to come in. Why take the risk?) I worried that, since I had a completely new teaching assignment this year, I wouldn't have anything to offer. (How do you teach someone how to do something when you are only just learning parts of it yourself?) I worried that there was too much uncertainty and it was unwise to introduce another element of possible chaos. (Heck, I wasn't even sure that I would still be teaching Grade 5-6 by the time she started her placement on February 16!) 

I am so glad and grateful that I said yes to having Miss Yogalingam! I like her even more than my last teacher-candidate from 2020 (don't tell!). Miss Yogalingam has been exactly what the doctor (PhD in Education, maybe) ordered. 

There are so many positive things I can say about Miss Yogalingam. I'm going to try and keep it to my Top 4, even though my documentation is 14 pages and growing and my evaluation is already 2000 words long.

She Takes Her Time

Miss Yogalingam does not rush through her lessons or explanations. It would be quite tempting to do so, especially when she only has four weeks of time with the students (and this week, March 8-12, is her final week with them). For instance, for the Grade 5 science unit, When I've complimented her on how thorough and methodical she's been in her teaching of the math and science units she's adopted, she just reminds me that if the student does not have the foundation established firmly, it is difficult for them to proceed successfully. For instance, expectation 3.2 is "identify properties of solids, liquids and gases and state examples of each". Some of the students were confusing properties with examples. Miss Yogalingam has been reinforcing the differences between properties and examples of solids, liquids and gases in every lesson since she realized that they were mixed up.

She Chunks Her Concepts

Even our substitute principal (who was an absolute treasure and came to watch one of Miss Yogalingam's lessons) commented on how well Miss Yogalingam breaks down complex ideas into manageable bite-sized bits. Whether it is dance, where she reduced all the steps into small sections to attempt, or the creation of a graph on an infographic in math with every necessary component earning attention, Miss Yogalingam was able to reduce tasks into parts that were comprehendible and possible to undertake. I really admire that about her, because my own teaching style is much less directed/guided and much more exploratory. Students need many different types of methods and they received a healthy variety when they had both of us in the room. When Miss Yogalingam is no longer in the room, I'll remember to divide tasks into small portions more often like she did.

She Looks Back on Her Lessons

Miss Yogalingam is a very reflective practitioner. She has a notebook that she writes in a lot. Sometimes it's something I said, or something she noticed from a student. Often it's thoughts related to the lessons she just taught. I used to joke about the amount of reflections we used to have to write in the Faculty of Education, but to be honest, reflecting on my teaching is what makes me a better teacher. It's is such an honour and pleasure to have someone to reflect on the class experiences with together. Miss Yogalingam and I share observations, consider perspectives, and brainstorm alternatives or next steps. Sometimes artifacts help us with our reflections, as we look at a photo that was taken, a video that was recorded, or a whiteboard that was written or drawn on. Miss Yogalingam does things with those reflections too. She makes changes, watches some students more closely, or does something different to do better. 

She Adapts Her Approaches

Always willing to try things, Miss Yogalingam recognized her strengths and did not constrain or contain herself to them. I'm teaching puberty for health right now and I know that she was relieved not to tackle that challenging topic, but she was willing to act as a scribe when we brainstormed our "ground rules" for creating a safe and inclusive classroom when discussing human development respectfully and sensitively. She agreed to read a picture book aloud after some preparation using the document camera, even though she claimed that she was intimidated by my read aloud skills (but as a former/shelved teacher-librarian who has been in the job longer than she's been alive, I have a bit of an head start on honing those talents!). After the picture book experiment on I Read Canadian Day, she altered the way she delivered a lesson and used the document camera, not because it was more comfortable for her (it wasn't) but because it was beneficial for the students and more accessible. She switched up the homework assignment she had originally planned so both grades would have the same task.

I learned so much from having Miss Yogalingam in our classroom. We are definitely going to miss her when she leaves this Friday (March 12). Thank you so much to OISE for placing her with us!

PS I'm not the only one who has accepted a student teacher into his/her/their class environment. My friend Sarah Wheatley (happy belated birthday, Sarah!) who is teaching virtually has also had a wonderful experience with her teacher candidate.