Monday, December 30, 2013

What I learned by attending a Christmas Novena

I hope that, for those fortunate to have a vacation, that they are enjoying the time away from work. I know that during the last week of school, I was really tired, but it wasn't because of all the Winter Concert preparations. From December 16-24, 2013, I participated in a Christmas novena.

A novena, as explained succinctly here, is a series of prayers that lasts for nine consecutive  days. Christmas novenas run until Christmas Eve. Christmas novena traditions differ from parish to parish. This link describes a Christmas novena practice my husband is more familiar with, but at the Roman Catholic church we attend, the Christmas novena is a full Mass - at 5:30 a.m.

Let me tell you something about myself. I am NOT a morning person. Now, I've read that some of the most successful people in the world are early risers. I'm okay with not being one of the most successful people on the planet if it means I don't have to open my eyes before 7:00 a.m. However, I really wanted to challenge myself and I thought this was the way to do it. This is, ostensibly, supposed to be an education-themed blog, so let me explain what I learned about education by attending a Christmas Novena.

If there's a will, there's a way.

I had some significant doubts that I would be able to attend all nine mornings. Thankfully, I had help. My husband came with me every day and he woke me up in time.

Some extra obstacles were thrown into the mix to test my resolve - especially a rather large tree that partly fell onto my sidewalk and street at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night and partly fell onto my driveway at 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning. The Toronto Ice Storm of 2013 would have made a perfect excuse to discontinue my novena attendance, but I can be pretty stubborn when I want to be, and I was determined.

Stage 1 of tree collapse - Saturday evening

Stage 2 of tree collapse - Sunday morning 
Thankfully my neighbour recommended that I move my car up the driveway on Saturday night, and I'm so glad I did, because that's where the second big branch landed. It would have hit my car, but instead it just blocked my car. My husband and I called a taxi to collect us and transport us to church. Some friendly parishioners brought us back home.

This links to school because if someone is truly determined to do something and committed to the cause, almost anything is possible.

Having positive support helps.

I would not have been able to accomplish this novena without

  • my patient husband, who woke me up daily and came with me
  • the priests who said the Masses
  • Tony and Kathleen, who drove us home when we had no available car
This links to school because goals can be met if a group of people are working together to make it a reality and they all believe it's possible.

Change takes time and old habits die hard.

My usual bed time is around 11:00 p.m. but I knew I wouldn't be able to maintain that practice if I wanted to still function during the day. I began going to bed between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m., which still gave me nine hours of sleep. I thought that this alteration wasn't affecting me, until a teacher at school asked me during an assembly what was wrong. I was puzzled and I said that I was just being quiet and modelling proper assembly behaviour for the students. She whispered that she noticed I was looking extra tired and run-down and I clued in that the early rising was still taking a toll, despite getting the same amount of shut-eye.

I wasn't a very pleasant person to be around those first few mornings - I was cold, and tired, and became hungry about 2/3 of the way into Mass - so I'd sit in the pews, shoulders hunched, only able to mutter or mumble half-coherent sentences when spoken to. I asked my husband for his honest evaluation of my attitude and he reported that by the end of the novena, I wasn't AS crabby or grumpy as I was at the beginning, but I was not up for any Miss Congeniality awards.

This links to school because we assume that if we've taught something once or twice, the students should internalize it, but it takes a lot longer (and willpower) to make good habits stick. It's not easy and we should acknowledge that fact. Just because something's good for us doesn't mean we have to like it!

You aren't alone.

This connects with the "positive support" idea, in a way. When my husband and I attended the first day of novena, we expected a very small group of people to be there with us. This was far from the truth - the parking lot was PACKED. We had to park in the school lot next door. Many people, like me, still had to go to work after Mass, and having us all in the same boat was very humbling for me. If they could do it without complaint, then so could I.

This links to school because others have walked the same path before you and others are going through the same thing you are academically (be it struggling with concepts, or managing school projects). Take inspiration from them.

This is my last blog post for 2013 (and hubby has promised, as a belated Christmas gift, to turn my blog into a book for me), so I want to wish everyone all the best for the upcoming year. Readers = thank you for reading and occasionally commenting. Self = keep teaching, learning, reflecting, and blogging.

Monday, December 23, 2013

CBC Gives Minecraft Club a Media Lesson

School is over for 2013 but I have enough fodder and education-based anecdotes to carry me through the rest of the calendar year.

On November 28, 2013, Julia Pagel came to my school to meet my Minecraft Club members and interview them for a segment on CBC's Spark radio program. The great thing about Julia's visit was that it gave us some real-life learning in return.

My club for October - December 2013 was reserved for the intermediate division students (in Grades 7-8) and they were excited when they heard that "the media" was interested in speaking to them. The group declared that they were going to produce a "behind the scenes" video of the experience to be posted on YouTube. Since they had signed special media release forms for this particular event, I saw no problem with creating and posting this video, especially since this was all their idea.

Julia explains the process to the Macphail Minecrafters

I think my boys (and for some quirky reason, for the first time ever, my Minecraft group this time around consisted of all boys) were a little surprised to see just one person with a microphone and boxy device show up to our school. On the students' behalf, I pretended to be the paparazzi and spent time taking photos and video clips of the club interacting with Julia. She taped intermittently for the entire club session that afternoon and stayed until after 6:00 p.m. to interview the three teachers behind GamingEdus (Liam O'Donnell, Denise Colby, and me).

This link will take you to the segment that appeared on CBC Spark on Sunday, December 15, 2013. (It was replayed, with a slight correction, on Wednesday, December 18, 2013.)

My students don't listen to the radio much, especially CBC, but teachers do! I received some nice emails and some Twitter shoutouts, like this one.

When the club members met again, before the radio interview aired, I reminded them that they needed to take some time from their Minecraft playing to compile their YouTube video. This news wasn't received too happily.

"Can't we play first?"
"How about we do it for five minutes and then play?"

I shouldn't have been too surprised - quite a few of our club members tend to under-perform in school-related literacy, numeracy, and social tasks. However, I had the perfect, real-world example to use. I asked the guys how long Julia recorded audio footage and how long the radio clip was going to be. (Julia recorded for two hours at our school and a little less than an hour at Denise's school. That's three hours of sound that she had to condense into a four-minute slot.) I also talked to the students about how long after the recording she was going to spend on choosing and editing the data she collected - Julia revealed during her visit that it would take about two weeks or so to listen and decide.

"So, do you think five minutes will be enough time for us to make this video?"

The boys grudgingly accepted that they just *might* have to put a bit more time into the project. They had some technical difficulties the first time around, and Mr. Ngo, our dance/drama teacher and technical wizard, gave them an impromptu lesson on uploading files and taking control of technology. We met at lunch for some exclusive play time in the PvP zone, and the following week, the gang finally got around to viewing and selecting the photos and video clips they wanted in the mini-film. They had some more technical difficulties and so I promised to help them take the items and assemble them using video-creation software over the holidays. If I finish the video prior to this post going live, I'll embed it here.

Teachers can talk until their faces turn blue about the need to take time to work on projects and establish reasonable deadlines, but this doesn't translate into reality until students see authentic examples. Thanks to Julia and the CBC, this experience became a great media lesson on the behind-the-scenes effort it takes to create quality programming. Julia also did a fantastic job of telling the students in advance that, although she appreciated all their contributions, due to time restraints, she would not be able to use all of their quotes in the piece. In the end, two of our boys were featured: Hassan, explaining the mob arena, and Leo, with a memorable quote about Minecraft freeing his imagination despite his age. Leo was particularly excited. He has only been playing Minecraft for three months (and only speaking English for a couple of years) and he was keen to access the radio archives. This was another unexpected learning bonus - exposing students to another media form they may not pay attention to but is valuable. I want to thank Julia Pagel and the CBC for taking the time to teach us while we had the chance to share our Minecraft story.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Helpful Politicians

Today's blog post title does not refer to the way we integrated the Rob Ford saga into our intermediate division discussion on values.

Today celebrates how three politicians (two municipal, one provincial) helped our Grade 4-5 students with our language and social studies inquiry.

Our current TLCP (teaching learning critical pathway) is all about how to help our students research and summarize in their own words. The junior and intermediate division chose to integrate this pathway with the new social studies curriculum and our language expectations. The new social studies curriculum is exciting, but it is sometimes challenging to locate age-appropriate resources for our students to use. I am collaboratively planning and teaching social studies with our Grade 4-5 teacher for this unit, and so I offered to contact our federal, provincial, and municipal representatives to get their opinions. Below is the text of an email I sent.

My name is Diana Maliszewski and I am the teacher-librarian at Agnes Macphail P.S. in the Toronto District School Board. I am writing on behalf of Lisa Daley, a Grade 4-5 classroom teacher, and her students. We are working together on a joint inquiry project for social studies.

The guiding question for the Grade 4s is "How suitable is it for the pandas to be in Toronto and Calgary?"
The guiding question for the Grade 5s is "Why were different levels of government involved in bringing the pandas to Canada?
The guiding question for the teachers is "How do we teach students to synthesize information from a variety of sources without plagiarizing?"

The new Ministry of Education social studies curriculum encourages connections to current events and issues, as well as integrated, cross-curricular learning. This is why we'd like to use you as a resource on this topic. We plan on sharing your email response with our students so that they can quote or paraphrase you when answering their guiding questions. Would you, or someone in your office, be able to answer the following question?

How do you feel about the pandas currently staying at the Toronto Zoo? How was your level of government involved in this event?

Thank you in advance for any response you can offer us. The students will be very excited to hear from you!

I sent this email out on November 29, 2013 and I was amazed at the response I received.

The very same day, November 29, Bas Balkissoon, the M.P.P. from Scarborough Rouge-River, sent a reply!

On December 10, Chin Lee, the Councillor for Ward 41 sent a lengthy answer, providing pros and cons!

On December 13, Raymond Cho, the Councillor for Ward 42 arranged for Heather House, the manager of education for the Toronto Zoo, to give a detailed response to our query!

(I should mention that the MP from the school's area did send us an email on December 2, saying that she and her staff would work on this, but we haven't heard her answer as yet.)

It's easy to poke fingers at politicians and find fault with them, but I'm a firm believer in appreciating help when we receive it. These politicians were under no obligation to answer. Our students aren't even of voting age yet! However, these elected representatives (councillors and MPP) took our request for information seriously and took time out of their busy schedules to answer or arrange answers for us. It takes a village to raise (and educate) a child, and I want to thank Mr. Balkissoon, Mr. Lee, and Mr. Cho for contributing to the education of the students at my school.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Complex Media Concepts on Gender and Kindies

Aviva, I'm so sorry! Early this school year, (August 20, 2013, to be precise) I promised Aviva Dunsiger, a great teacher that I met online (and a recent winner of the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence) that I would share with her what I have done in the past when teaching Media Literacy to kindergarten students as part of prep coverage. We were having a discussion about how, despite having a very few media expectations in the kindergarten curriculum, it was possible to generate an entire year's worth of lessons and activities. I never got around to sharing some of my past lesson plans, and Aviva no longer has to do kindergarten prep coverage at her school, but that's okay because I tried some different things this year and this blog post will highlight some of the changes and some of the observations I've had with this altered approach.

Overall expectation #5 in the language section of the kindergarten curriculum states that students will "demonstrate a beginning understanding and critical awareness of media texts". The specific expectations related to this expectation are that students "begin to respond critically to animated works" (5.1) and "communicate their ideas verbally and non-verbally about a variety of media materials" (5.2).

In the past, I tackled these expectations much more "organically", through the use of the video game Webkinz. My kindergarten students learned the definition of media (which I also use for the primary division classes - we made videos to share the definition) and learned about ads. When the floating objects popped up on screen while we were playing games or designing our rooms in Webkinz, we would click on the advertisements in disguise and discuss how the colours and actions made us pay attention to it. We took virtual walks around the neighbourhood using Google Streetview, and identify the media texts we saw, capture and circle them on the interactive white board, and classify them as ads or non-ads.

This year, I thought I'd steer the conversation a bit more, while still honouring student inquiry. Halloween was a big deal for the kindergarten students and so during media class, we talked about whether or not costumes were media. We played with my costume bin during media time and virtually dressed our Webkinz toy in costumes. As the ECEs and I listened in on the conversations, we noted, especially in one particular class, some very strongly held opinions about gender and costumes - for example, "You can't wear that - you're a boy."

Is it too early to examine gender roles and stereotypes with 4- and 5-year olds? We (the ECEs and I) decided to try some lessons to foster that "beginning understanding and critical awareness of media texts". We had conversations about the costumes students chose to wear, and the message they imparted. I was amazed when one kindergarten student proclaimed that boys like to wear superhero costumes like Spiderman and Ironman because boys want to be powerful, not pretty. Students drew a costume of their choice and in follow-up interviews, identified the target audience. The most recent, and challenging, activity was for students to draw three costumes - one that a boy would probably like to wear, one that a girl would probably like to wear, and a costume that either a boy or a girl would like to wear. Here are some of the results. I've blocked out the names to protect the students' privacy.

This student chose to create Spiderman for the boy, Barbie for the girl, and rock star for the "anyone". It's interesting that certain media brands appear for the gender-specific costumes.

In this example, a prince is the "boy costume", a princess is the "girl costume" and a baby works for both. This reminds me of an activity someone did in one of my university English courses - does it matter if it's a boy baby or a girl baby? Do we treat it differently once we know the gender?

For this sheet, the boy costume is a vampire, the girl costume was going to be a princess but the artist admitted it was Spiderman, then changed it to be Spider Girl, and the gender-neutral option is a pumpkin.

Despite the similar colours, the artist specified that the boy costume was Green Lantern, the girl costume was an Indian girl (interesting cultural ideas), and the third choice was a vampire. It's interesting to compare this piece with the one above, which stated that a vampire was a boy outfit. Can you infer the gender of the creators based on their choices? The first two were drawn by girls; the latter two were drawn by boys.

The four above examples were completed samples. Many students struggled with that third costume and had no idea what to sketch. One child drew what she claimed to be a knight but wore long eyelashes, long hair and jewelry. This piece below was quite fascinating.

The boy costume is Spiderman. The girl costume is a princess. The "anyone" costume is "cut in half to be a boy and a girl". 

This particular class is quite taken with the external markers for gender. They've told me that girls must have long hair - despite the fact that I have short hair. "You cut your hair like a boy." they told me. They learned about Terry Fox and when I told them that some medicine they use to fight cancer makes your hair fall out, I asked them if a girl stopped being a girl if she lost her hair. This question made them pause, but they still cling to their own ideas. This perspective colours their other inquiries - they are interested in their classroom on learning about dogs and they have strong preconceived notions about how you can tell a girl dog from a boy dog - a girl dog wears bows and ribbons and has long hair. It will be interesting to poke and prod at these ideas and bring more examples that clash with their mental models.

I should say that not every kindergarten class is the same. When I showed the outline for the single costume task, another class shouted that this was a gingerbread or a person - completely leaving out the idea the other class proposed that the shape was obviously "a gingerbread boy". 

I'm pleasantly surprised with how well this more complex approach to kindergarten media has been progressing. I'll let you know how it goes. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Gifts We Get and Give

The JKs made me a beard in 2012 to go with my outfit.
It's December, which means that it's now okay to start thinking about the winter holidays - specifically Christmas. (Call me Scrooge, but I'm just not a fan of buying presents in August or hearing carols in November.) As part of my Advent / countdown to Christmas preparations, I examine my collection of lists, which would put Santa himself to shame. I keep lists of people I send cards to, people I give gifts to, and those who give me gifts, so that I can write my thank you cards. I have my list of what I've received every Christmas since 1985! As I was looking at the lists of Christmases past, I realized that many, many students give me presents. This surprises me a bit, because I am a specialist teacher, a teacher-librarian, not a classroom teacher. I wouldn't consider the teacher-librarian to be high on the list of consideration for shopping goals. The fact that I am remembered in this manner touches me deeply. I don't teach in a particularly affluent neighbourhood, so I appreciate the financial sacrifice families make as well to give me a little something for the holiday.

This is where it gets awkward. I don't need many of the presents my students give me, but I think it would be presumptuous and rude to tell people not to give me anything. I myself bristle when I see wedding invitations that include a line about "cash only" or a birthday party that requests "no gifts". Gift-giving is up to the individual; it's not a requirement. On the flip side, I don't want parents to "waste" their money purchasing a box of chocolates for me, which I often cannot eat because of my nut allergy.

I'm a parent as well as a teacher, and I give presents to many of the educators and other professionals in my children's school and where I work. What do I tend to give to teachers for Christmas? What would be on my wish list for Christmas? I have two traditional types of gifts I like to give.

Charity Donations

I like using because it lets me browse many different registered Canadian charities and give with the click of a mouse to several organizations at once. I try to select charities related to education and literacy. I can make a single donation and honour an entire group of people. This year, I gave to IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People - the folks connected to the National Reading Campaign) and the Children's Aid Society of Toronto. Last year, I gave to Doctors without Borders, People for Education, and the Canadian UNICEF Committee. Even if it's a small donation, it feels good knowing that my gift can do more than sit on a shelf gathering dust. If the recipient likes it, that's icing on the fruitcake; the organization appreciates the help.

Gift Cards for Class Supplies

Figures vary, but teachers spend a great deal of their own money to supplement their classrooms. One survey suggested the average was $444 annually. This isn't just an American phenomenon, as this recent  CBC story shows. I like getting gift cards for book stores or shops that carry a variety of items, so that teachers can decide to purchase items for their class or for themselves to use in class as needed. This avoids the need to ask teachers what they want or need. I also like getting and giving a Tim Hortons gift card, for that occasional doughnut or hot chocolate. 

My personal wish list that I've given to my husband has some different items written down, but hopefully this short rumination will help make your shopping adventures a bit easier this year.