Monday, May 30, 2011

How do you know it's true?

I plan on writing all about my experience at the CLA (Canadian Library Association's) conference in Halifax after I digest it a bit more (and recover from the minor jet lag). In the meantime, I wanted to share my thoughts on a couple of lessons I conducted with some grade 5-6s students on a tricky question: "how do you know it's true"?

If you recall my Justin Bieber themed post, you'll know that the classroom teacher and I were able to take advantage of a teachable moment to go over critically evaluating information we read. I realized, however, that one lesson on this wouldn't be enough to absorb the idea. While peeking over the shoulder of some grade 7-8 students while they worked/played on the computers in the library at recess, I found this press release about Google Motion - the latest innovation from the same team that brought us Google Maps and such.

We have two grade 5-6 classes. I showed the video to the first group. Only two students looked disturbed / mistrustful. When we clicked the "try Google Motion" button and discovered it was an April Fool's prank, there was lots of discussion. I asked the students why they believed it and why the few doubters suspected it wasn't real. I actually took notes on what they said and here are some of their responses:

Why did you believe it?

CG - They made it sound convincing and they had people talk about it and they had proof

ST - They had many reasons and they interviewed a scientific person for scientific reasons. They had a diagram.

BV - It actually showed someone using the Google Motion and then it showed when he was moving how it worked.

SB - Paralanguage sounds scientific so you don't know what the word means so you just try it out ... because they are adults, we trust them.

PA - We know technology is improving, we know about X-box Kinect and so we know some things are possible.

Why did you suspect this wasn't real?

PA - Isn't it impossible-ish to type everything using your body?

KC - How do you say no when shaking your head means backspace?

A few weeks later - the delay was due to things like field trips and track meets - I did the same lesson with the other grade 5-6 class. Immediately, the loudest student in the class started proclaiming "it's a fake!" Here's an abbreviated transcript of what this group of students said:

How did you know it's fake? Why might you think it's true?

AS - When the person was doing the actions, simple words appeared like the ands - how would you show that? Pxxxx (name of boy in other class) told me that it was fake. Pxxxx is my friend.

MS - Pxxxx said that Mrs. Mali showed that it was an April Fools joke tot he class. It said on the Internet.

FZ - You know it was fake from using common sense and logic. Like how Axxxx said, those easy words, plus there's a lot of words in the English language which would be hard to make actions for every single one of the words.

VD - Normally when they have something about technology and it's really new, they'd show it on TV. I didn't see it - it's not very like big.

VJ - Like for this commercial, usually it shows what the product does and they have experts explaining so they think it's real and they go for it - watch carefully and use common sense.

NH - It might sound fake. They might be fake experts.

HX - One of the little clips of the guy doing it gave it away because he just bent and a whole bunch of words came up. That's kind of impossible. If someone saw it on April Fools, they might not believe it because it was April.

What I found fascinating was the differences between the two classes and how they actually talked about lessons among themselves - "sharing notes", so to speak. When they knew it was a fake, the second group was so much more confident, almost cocky in their assertions - "use common sense". The challenge is that the voice of doubt doesn't always speak up in the students' minds when they are "just reading". I want them to apply this lesson, not just to things they read on the Internet, but textbooks, lectures, even things their parents say.

One of my grade 3 students was working on a project on contributions by First Nations culture to the modern day. When his classroom teacher and I looked at his dot-jot notes, we were horrified. Some offensive stereotypes were written as "facts". We knew that the resources we had directed him to use during class and library time did not contain information like this, so we asked him where he got these ideas from.

"My parents told me."

Grade 3 might be pretty young to encourage children to defy their parents to their faces, but what I want to teach is that even our parents aren't perfect and that we need to think about information we are given, the biases they may contain, and determine what's true.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to make an author nearly cry

This is a photo of renowned author and illustrator, Barbara Reid. Barbara is one of the Toronto District School Board's Writers in Residence. We won a visit from Barbara by participating in the board's Just Read It campaign - it involves having students fill in online forms reporting on the books that they read. Barbara has presented at hundreds of schools but she told us in a letter she sent after her April 20 visit that attending our school was a unique experience. How is this possible?

When we learned that Barbara Reid would be coming to our school, we were very excited. Prior to discovering we had won a visit from her, we had created plasticine art inspired by one of her books that we'd read, "Perfect Snow". We wanted to do something a little more special to commemorate and prepare for this visit. The primary division students were learning about inferences in their language arts lessons - the ability to "read between the lines" and made educated guesses based on text clues. In media class, I call it the implied or "quiet" message (as opposed to the overt/"out loud" message). With my principal's blessing and the approval of Barbara herself, I arranged with a vendor to sell some of Barbara's books to the students that would be autographed. What Barbara didn't know was that we planned on using the profits from the book sales to donate to a charity in her name. As we explained to the young students, when you are giving a present to a person, you could ask them what they want, but it's so much more delightful when you can figure out exactly what they'd like and then it's a wonderful surprise. The challenge for the grade 1-3 students was to learn about Barbara Reid by visiting her website ( is the link) and by reading her books thoroughly and inferring what topics are most important to her as a person. This was a bit of a calculated risk - in talking to the grade ones, many didn't understand that there were different types of charities; they thought charities were only for poor people surviving disasters, like the Haiti earthquake and Japan tsunami.

Barbara was a wonderful presenter. She tailored her Powerpoints to the age of the audience and was an engaging speaker. We had her for the morning, for four periods. She talked with the kindergartens, the grade 1-2s, and the grade 3-4s, and for the final period, everyone came back to the school library. The school superintendent came to help us with the presentations. There were free books for two students with the highest library circulation statistics in their grade range. Then, we explained what we had been up to. Each class chose a representative (teacher or student) to say which charity they had recommended and why. As each group explained, Barbara made little gasps and comments.

"Oh my! I actually give to that charity already!"
"How did you know?"
"That's a wonderful group! I support them."

The principal and I took the list of charities and we made an executive decision about which one to support. The student council created a big fake novelty cheque for us to use in the presentation, and we gave $100 to the charity Sleeping Children. The rationale by the children was this: Barbara Reid writes a lot of stories parents can read to their kids at bedtime. There are some kids in the world who don't have good places to sleep. This charity will help them.

Barbara Reid was taken aback. She finished signing the pile of books for autographing while standing up because she said she couldn't sit after that presentation. She said nothing like this had ever happened before at one of her sessions. She wrote the school a lovely letter thanking us for the donation and telling us how touched she was by the gesture. She said she was near tears at school and barely held it together. Her letter showed how supportive she is of school library programs - one way to make an author nearly cry is to close school libraries. The way I prefer is to make them weep with joy by doing something good for the world.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Here are the links - now where's the difference?

As promised, here are the links to the recent newscasts on school libraries in which I've played a part. I will put them also on my personal wiki, found at

I'll do it "n00b style" as well as more fashionably embedded ... right here is the Global TV spot on school libraries.

The actual link is:

Over here is the CBC report on The National that featured my students.

The actual link is:

My husband phoned my father yesterday to alert him to my appearance. He phoned me afterwards to tell me a) that I looked both "like a movie star" and "very professional" on screen and that he was so proud, and b) how ludicrous it was that some schools were closing their libraries.

Reactions to the TV spots have been similar to those of my father. One of our kindergarten students went up to his teacher today and said "Mrs. K, I have good news and bad news to tell you." As she recounted to me, she asked for the bad news first and he replied, "The bad news is, they are closing some libraries. The good news is, Mrs Mali was on television!"

I'm pleased that so many people, both in and outside the field of education, are bothered and upset by the cuts to school libraries. It gives me hope. The media exposure will bring the issue to the forefront. What I hope to see, both short-term and long-term, are positive changes to support school library programs and personnel. If there's no difference as a result of these stories and reports, if the outrage felt doesn't translate into action, then it is (to paraphrase Lady Macbeth) "a tale told by idealists, signifying nothing".

Monday, May 16, 2011

Media Frenzy

Usually, I compose my blog posts well in advance. I'm glad I didn't do that today, because there was a flurry of activity that is best reported now.

A couple of weeks ago, the Ontario School Library Association heard that the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, in an attempt to save money, planned on dismantling their elementary school libraries and shipping the books to classroom collections. They also decreased their staffing to a miniscule four library technicians. Several OSLA members met for an emergency planning meeting to create their advocacy campaign and official response to the dreadful decision by this specific board.

It just so happens that People for Education, the non-profit advocacy group, released their annual report on the state of Ontario schools. It was very disappointing to learn that in 2009-2010, only 57% of elementary schools had a teacher-librarian on staff. Less than a decade prior, that figure was 80%.

The combination of the school board eliminating libraries and the People for Education report meant that school libraries were very news-worthy today. AT 10:30 a.m., Global TV contacted my school to see if they could film a segment to air at 6:00 p.m. that evening about what school libraries offer students. I received permission from my board's media department and started to make arrangements. The news crew planned to arrive around 1:30 p.m., during my ICT time with a grade 7-8 class. Thankfully, several of the students go home for lunch and were willing to bring media release forms home to have their parents sign. During lunch, I cleaned the library (school libraries get pretty messy pretty quickly!), attended a pre-set meeting on another topic, and went looking for lipstick. (Note to self: put a tube of lipstick in your purse!)

Cortney and John from Global TV were professional, pleasant, and genuinely interested in what we do in the school library. The students used the descriptive feedback I provided for them to improve their wiki pages - a media assignment. They filmed me conversing with the students on their wiki assignment, tidying the shelves (something I do very infrequently - usually my library volunteers handle it) and asked me a few questions. Thank goodness for editing! I know I've been told often to have your "elevator speech" always ready - a short, concise blurb about why school libraries are important and what they do for students - but when asked to describe what teacher-librarians do, in a nutshell, and to explain it without edu-babble in a succinct way ... I have to confess I stumbled a bit today. How can you convey the passion for personal reading, the critical evaluation skills for researching, and all the other things teacher-librarians do in a memorable sound bite?

This isn't the first time that my students and I have been on the news. In fact, just this past Friday, several students appeared on The National - CBC interviewed them while they were at the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Awards at Harbourfront. It was a great opportunity for them to experience how media is produced (they were surprised to see that, out of a twenty minute interview, only about a minute of footage was used in the broadcast) and share their passion for reading. (I will include the link to the news segment in a follow-up blog post.) Another news station phoned today to arrange an interview, but the producer decided to pull the story - why, I'm not sure. However, I'm grateful that so many news agencies have been reporting on school libraries: The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, CBC, and Global TV. As I said in a Twitter post, when teacher-librarians complain about cuts to school libraries, it's seen as merely self-preservation. It's not about that; it's about students and learning and love of learning. The more voices speak up, the more fuss and frenzy we hear from different quarters saying that cuts aren't right, then the more legitimate the arguments become and the more likely people are to pay attention and maybe, possibly, do something about them. This is a media frenzy I can seriously agree with!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Chad Solomon - An Author and a Gentleman

I broke the first rule of blogging - be regular. The first week of May was so busy that I didn't get a chance to write. I had plenty to talk about, but not enough time to get it down via keyboard.

Last week, my "family of schools" (a group of schools all in the same neighbourhood and "governed" by the same school superintendent) held its annual Silver Birch Celebration. In addition to our Quiz Bowl competition, we invite an author to present to the kids. This year's author was Chad Solomon, author of "The Adventures of Rabbit and Bear Paws" series of graphic novels. (Chad and I were also both together at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in the kids area.)

Have you ever done something you've regretted later on? I have a list a kilometre long of stupid things I've said, off-the-cuff remarks I've made that sounded obnoxious that I'd love to rewind the tape and do over. (For instance, I'd like to apologize to an audience member at a TCAF panel discussion I was on last year, for answering part of his question with the slimy reply "you'll have to buy the book" > I was trying to rush through the answer and I didn't mean to seem so full of myself; I'm sorry.) One of the things I'm sorry I did was I wrote a pretty negative review of Chad's first graphic novel. There were a lot of culturally significant parts to his comic that I misunderstood as interpreted as poorly portrayed. My friend Maria Martella from Tinlinds invited Chad to meet with our GTA Graphic Novel Club (a book group focused on comics for readers/educators). When Chad explained the grandfather teachings and mythical characters and archetypes to us, I finally understood why things were drawn and told the way they were. Chad is of Ojibwa heritage and consulted with the elders of his tribe before he began this huge enterprise. His books teach a lot about what we like to pigeon-hole now as "character education" - things like respect, love, humility, and courage.

The more I got to know Chad as an author, illustrator, publisher, and businessman, the more impressed I became. He works very hard to promote the graphic novels (his website, is updated regularly) but it's not all about making money. I was reminded of this several times when he spoke with our students. He worked very hard to make his presentation interactive. He brought puppet versions of his characters and consulted with the kids on a group brainstorm on incorporating grandfather teachings into a story and drawing cartoons starting with simple shapes. He also gave away free copies of his books as prizes to the students. His generosity extended into the autograph session. He sold his books at a discounted rate because we hired him as a guest speaker. One of the teachers volunteered to handle the sales while he autographed and to thank her, he gave her a free book. One of my students lost her wallet and he gave her a free book.

Good deeds come back to you. My student found her wallet and insisted on paying Chad Solomon for her book. She wanted to pay the full price, not just the discounted price, for the books, but I told her to just stick to the original price tag. She wrote a lovely note to him to explain why she wanted to give him the money. I'll be giving it to him this TCAF weekend.

Bad actions need to be fixed. Long ago, I wrote a less-than-complimentary book review. I hope this "person review" makes up for the misguided opinions of the past.