Monday, January 30, 2012


I am part of several professional learning communities. My school embraced PLCs long before they were trendy and/or mandated. I flipped through my 144 posts from this blog to see if I ever mentioned our PLC journey before, but I hadn't. I have, however, written about it here with a group of my colleagues for The Partnership, an educational journal with links to the Univesity of Guelph. One of the main things about a "proper" PLC is the establishment of group norms. (I've become rather protective of the term because people misuse it constantly and people who dislike PLCs often aren't part of "real" ones - I favor Richard DuFour's definition.) Creating group norms together sounds a bit silly at first - don't we all want the same thing for a group to work? - but it can go a long way towards creating a healthy, productive team.

As the junior/intermediate chairperson, I attend the junior/intermediate PLC meetings at my school. There are usually between 6-7 of us in attendance. At our most recent January meeting, in addition to our book study discussion (Chapter 2 of Karen Hume's Start Where They Are) and planning for our next TLCP (Teaching Learning Critical Pathway, on inferring while reading), we talked about how we would handle it if someone transgressed the group norms we established.

This was a challenging conversation. Because a PLC is supposed to be a democracy, we needed to find a way to deal with "misbehaviour" together instead of relying on a "police officer" to deal with infractions. It's easy for a teacher to reprimand a student in their class - but a fellow teacher? Someone wondered aloud whether all of this was actually necessary but my experience as chair (not just in this school but in every school I've taught in as a contract teacher) has shown that it's better to have a system in place before problems occur.

We decided to take a page from the sports area and use a combination of "3 strikes" and a "black card" system. If someone was ignoring our group norms and acting in a way contrary to our agreements, we'd try to gently give them a warning or alert them to their conduct. If it continued, someone could anonymously put one of these "black cards" in their mailbox, with the norm they were defying circled. If you receive one of these cards, it would be your responsibility to reflect on your conduct and change. If you are really unaware of what you've done, you would bring the card to the group for some feedback. The group was quite nervous about even receiving their copy of the cards for them to use. I'm curious to see how this system will work. I know my fellow staff members do not like conflict or confrontations but I hope that this will help us all behave. What do you think? Could this even work for students? Or would the anonymity of it cause further problems?

The card would look something like this:

AMPS Junior/Intermediate Division
PLC Group Norms 2011-12


Be Prepared


Right to Pass / Participate

Use time effectively

Summarize / Reflect

Monday, January 23, 2012

Nominate someone today

Shhhhh ... can you keep a secret? I've nominated someone for an award. I won't name the person or the award (because I know how well secrets are kept when you announce them on the Internet) but I hope the person wins. I like nominating people for awards because it's a way to demonstrate my appreciation for what they do and how they go above and beyond the call of duty. Sometimes they win the prize, like my former principal Wayne Hamilton did in 2005 when he won the Ontario School Library Association's Administrator of the Year Award. He deserved it.

I can tell you what it's like from the other side of the fence, when you discover that someone thought you were worthy enough to submit your name for an award: it's humbling and wonderful. I received the Follett International Teacher-Librarian of the Year Award from the Canadian Library Association in 2008. Lisa Weaver phoned me at my home on a Sunday to give me the news and I remember plunking down on my stairs in disbelief and then shedding some tears of joy and shock. (The other great thing was I was flown out to Vancouver to receive my prize! It was my first time in British Columbia and it was a memorable experience.)

There are many different kinds of awards that you can nominate someone for. In the interest of full disclosure, I was asked by someone from the Ministry of Education who reads my blog ...

Yes, you read that last line correctly. Mini-tangent alert: I was surprised and delighted to learn that someone from the Ministry of Education actually reads my blog. I'm not talking Dalton McGuinty or anything like that but I never wrote this blog expecting it to get noticed. This must be like what my husband felt when he discovered that his blog was quoted by Forbes magazine or mentioned in the L.A. Times. It's almost like getting a nomination for an award in itself - authentic recognition. But enough of the digression; we return to our regularly scheduled blog post.

I was asked by someone from the Ministry of Education who reads my blog if I might consider reminding readers about the Premier's Awards for Teaching Excellence. It's my pleasure to do so, because I've nominated a group of people for one of the categories in the past. They did not win but I hope that was because there were so many well-deserving, marvelous educators in Ontario. There are eight award categories. (The ones with asterisks are new awards for 2012.)
  • Teacher of the Year
  • New Teacher of the Year
  • Early Childhood Educator of the Year *
  • Excellent Support Staff
  • Excellence in Leadership
  • Lifetime Achievement
  • Team of the Year
  • Full-Day Kindergarten Team of the Year *
 Nominations are open until February 6, 2012. Award recipients will be announced in the spring. The website has all the information you need about the criteria and process -
If you want to make someone's day (or week, or month, or year), take the time and nominate them. When I get around to it, I may reflect more on awards and badges (there was some great discussion around this year's Edubloggers Awards) but in the meantime, consider filling out one of those forms.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Motherhood and TL PD thanks to Mary

Mary @ her 12th birthday party.
Today is my daughter's 12th birthday. On this day in 2000 at 4:03 p.m., after 16 hours of labor, I became a mother - and the real work began. I debated about devoting today's blog post to Mary but then I remembered that, long ago, I wrote a magazine article about how parenthood impacted my abilities as a teacher-librarian. I searched online and found the article here. It's an old piece from 2005; my son was only 2 when I originally wrote it. I thought it'd be interesting to reflect on what I wrote back then and compare it to my reality today, with a 12 year old daughter and 9 year old son.

My daughter still loves reading more than my son. The great thing is that even though she's an extremely capable reader, I still read to her every night. The books are different. We just finished reading The Hunger Games and started Catching Fire on Saturday. I love being able to talk with her about the novels. We started reading just one chapter a night but she loves the Suzanne Collins series so much, I now read two chapters aloud. After chapter 4, she declared, "The more I hear about Panem, the more I despise their form of government." My son likes reading more than he lets on, but he prefers graphic novels to prose fiction. For his most recent Sunday night reading material, Mary and I jointly read the 4th volume of the Colleen A.F. Venable Guinea P.I. series, Fish You Were Here.

I still test out books and activities on my children before trying them at school. My latest experiment has been playing Minecraft with them. You'll be able to read more about the results here on this blog in the near future and on my other blog, Family Gaming XP. If my kids like it, chances are good that it will succeed with my students. 

I have changed and matured (thank goodness) since I wrote that article. I think I'm less "snobby" about "fluff reading" than I was back then. Now, I buy Dora the Explorer and Lego Ninjago paperback picture books for my school library because I know that my young students enjoy them, and reading for pleasure, as you heard on this blog a few weeks ago, is a crucial thing for school libraries to develop.

My children still continue to make me a better teacher and teacher-librarian. For that and so many other things, I'm grateful. Happy birthday to the best daughter in the world.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"Shared" Reading

During the winter break, I was able to finish reading all of the ten nominated books for the Ontario Library Association's 2012 Red Maple award. They were really engaging novels and I enjoyed reading them. I need to start the Silver Birch nominees soon but I'm not panicking because there are other teachers on staff who have volunteered to read the titles as well.

There's a good reason why all the nominated books must be read soon. In 2010, one of the Red Maple titles was challenged in my school board. The final decision was that the book could remain in the schools but there were nine recommendations made by the review committee and endorsed by the board's director about participating in the Forest of Reading program (which includes the Blue Spruce, Silver Birch, and Red Maple awards).

Point #6 can be the most challenging directive to follow: that the "principal ensures that sponsoring staff read the books in the program being delivered". The Silver Birch program involves three lists of ten books each and the Red Maple program has twenty books every other year (this year just has ten). In case your math is rusty, that equals 40-50 books that someone must read in order to run the program at his/her school. I know another teacher-librarian in a TDSB school and he has to read all of the books by himself because no other staff members will read them. This is distressing and disappointing. Why is it that some teachers insist that their students read nightly but they themselves are unwilling to read one children's fiction or non-fiction book? By sharing the reading workload, everyone benefits.

In my school, we use a "passport system". Teachers read whatever books they want to read from the list and when they are done, we put the information on a large chart in the library. The students check the list to see what teachers have read the same book that they have completed and then they book a "chat" with that teacher. I've stressed over and over that this is supposed to be a "chat", not a "test". The individuals are supposed to discuss the book for enjoyment and to see if the student has completed the book and understood the content. The recent TDSB guidelines would also add that staff encourage critical thinking as part of the post-reading experience. If the staff member feels that the student has indeed read the book, he/she signs the passport. Five signatures means that the student can vote for a winner.

The ironic thing is that, even though I have many helpers to make my work light, the students give me a hard time if I *haven't* read all of the books. When I try to explain or rationalize, they firmly state, "You *have* to read all the books. You're the teacher-librarian!" (They also say they like to "do their chats" with me, so it softens their demands a bit - plus the books are fun to read.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

What's Worth Keeping?

I've had some free time over the holiday and so I've spent time de-cluttering and cleaning the house. I keep "portfolios" for each of my two children, which consist of art, writing, and other creations that are worth saving. I sorted through a huge pile of papers to decide what should be kept. I got a little depressed and pensive because most of the items that I deemed worthy to put in the portfolio were not things that the kids had created in school.

What was my "criteria" (to use a big education term) for selecting portfolio-worthy items? I've never formally written it down but I suspect most parents that save (or hoard) their children's work use similar items for consideration.
  • Is the item significant? Does it show some insightful learning? 
  • Is the item unique? Does it show some creativity?
  • Is the item meaningful? Does it show some effort?
Many of the papers I examined from school were worksheets or tests. The few I did keep were projects - such as my son's research notes and final product comic on the discovery of gold and silver in Ontario and my daughter's newscast script on the Hope Diamond for her gifted class. A few were creations from art class.  

Despite this, my children's portfolio binders are full. What's in them? Here's a sample:

This is an imaginary movie poster for a series of books that my kids and I read together - the Guinea P.I. books by Colleen A.F. Venable. Did I make them do this? No. They were inspired to draw this because we read the books and liked them and talked about the possibility of making our own YouTube video film using their Littlest Pet Shop toys as the characters. (Like it is in real-life Hollywood, this project is delayed due to pre-production negotiations.)

I commented on the lack of school-related items in the kids' portfolio to my husband and he replied that things hadn't changed much in 150 years in education. This bothered me - that in spite of all the technology at our fingertips and all the resources available to us, our students aren't often asked to produce things that are worth keeping. This is not a criticism of my children's school or their teachers - not at all. However, I think that I need to make myself hyper-vigilant and ensure that the things my students do in school are "worth keeping". This notion should apply to both the final products students produce as well as the ideas that inhabit their minds. Are these artifacts / thoughts creative? Are they the result of effort? Are they evidence of true learning? If we can stay away from cookie-cutter projects that can be whipped together in a night by reluctant, procrastinating workers who only persevere to get a grade on the report card or a nagging teacher off their back and are immediately forgotten the minute they are handed in, then I think that 2012 will be a good year for education.