Monday, March 31, 2014

Tests are Fun! Tests are Fun?

"Awww, can't we have a test today?"

"How can I give you the test? I haven't taught the content yet!"

Has this conversation ever occurred in your school? It has in mine, several times, since March Break ended and we returned to class. My students are literally begging me to give them tests. Prior to the break, all the primary grades I see for Media literacy had a big test - and they wanted more.

I'm not a huge fan of tests as assessment of learning, but I realize that it's important to differentiate assessment tools just as much as we need to differentiate teaching methods.  You've seen my project-based assessments on this blog before: students designing hero costumes and creating media-tie-in products that were good enough to barter. I find these projects exciting and fun to see develop, but some students struggle with big, open-ended and multi-step jobs like these. I also realize that for many of my students, writing is not one of their academic strengths.

I think the main reason why my students love taking my last test was because I used the SMARTBoard Senteo Response system, known by my students as "the clickers". One of the parents told me that her Grade 1 son reported that "he did a test with calculators" and she was interested to see exactly what he was talking about. The students find many things about the experience enjoyable, from pushing the buttons to answer, to watching their names disappear when I peek to see who hasn't answered a question yet, to getting their results almost instantaneously. I actually had kids announce in the middle of the evaluation that "this is the funnest test I've ever taken"!

I like using "the clickers" because of the immediate feedback given to the students. (I'm a very slow marker and the SMARTBoard does it for me.) I also like how I can monitor how the students are doing from question to question and provide support and intervention where needed (by reading the questions aloud, paraphrasing, or just reassuring). I appreciate how I can export the data and share it with parents.

I shouldn't give all the credit to the gadget. Prior to the test, I send home a photocopy of the interactive whiteboard files that I used to teach the media concepts, as well as general questions and the titles of the books we've used in conjunction with the topic. (For instance, last week and this week we are discussing crowd mentality and we've read two 2014 Blue Spruce nominees that contain marvelous examples as part of the plot: Oddrey and Willow Finds a Way.) The students felt prepared to take the test, so for many kids, "it was easy". I worried that my assessment was too simple, but I checked the curriculum expectations I was attempting to match and the task met the description. They were very proud and happy with their results, and for a group that places a lot of value on academic proficiency, these students were delighted with their "A-" or "A+".

Are there any other reasons why my students would adore test-taking so much that I'm not seeing? Or are my students just highly unusual?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting Schooled in Marriage

Every Saturday, since March 8, 2014, my husband and I have driven to Yonge and Finch in Toronto to attend a special class. This six-week course is offered by Catholic Family Services for the Archdiocese of Toronto for couples that run Marriage Preparation courses at their local parishes. If engaged couples wish to marry in the Roman Catholic church, they must take a Marriage Preparation course beforehand. At our church, Saint Barnabas, the wonderful couple that are in charge of "Marriage Prep" have asked us to take over; since they've been doing it for 28 years, I think this is a reasonable request!

When my husband and I tell our friends that we are attending this course, the news elicits a very positive response. Even though we've been married for 16 years, we are enjoying the course and learning new and useful things. I've been amazed and gratified that so many topics and activities are closely related to the Tribes TLC process. These are the similarities I've seen so far.

Making the Implicit Explicit

In both the Tribes TLC ToT (Training of Trainers) session and in the Marriage Preparation Instructors Course, the leaders run the course exactly like the participants will experience, but the "teacher of teachers" spend extra time giving background information that informs how we do things and why. We think we understand what it is to be married, or to be a student, but we make it clear what this exactly means to the participants with whom we'll be interacting. It's important to make things explicit for the people attending the class.


Module 3 (if I remember correctly) in the Tribes training is all about the four agreements (Mutual Respect, Attentive Listening, Appreciations with No Put-Downs, and the Right to Pass). Session #2 of our Marriage Preparation was all about communication, which included the art of speaking and listening, Affirmations / Meaningful Praise, Active Listening, communication styles, and articulating feelings. There are so many parallels! My husband used to roll his eyes when I talked about "I-Statements" from Tribes, but we've been using them in the marriage course and even though they can sound artificial at first, I-statements can really help, especially when it comes to the next area.

Make It Safe & Conflict

Both in Tribes and in Marriage Prep, conflict resolution models are directly taught. In marriage prep, two possible methods are shared: a behavioural set of steps and an emotional, Path Through Conflict, "Paul Model" (based on Drs. Jordan and Margaret Paul). The behavioural Problem-Solving method was almost exactly like the Conflict Resolution model in Tribes. I also know it as the ABCDE method: Ask what the problem is (using I-Statements) / Brainstorm solutions / Choose the best one for both parties / Do the chosen solution / Evaluate how well it worked in solving the problem. I also really liked how our marriage preparation course addresses IPV (intimate partner violence, also called domestic violence) head-on. The starry-eyed couples about to married might not be considering it, but many couples separate or need counselling due to violence. Schools might not like to think they are breeding grounds for bullying, but it occurs and must be discussed (as it often is, but must be done in a way that does not ignore other forms of harassment and provides options for those in unsafe circumstances).


I don't want to suggest that Tribes is a just mirror-image of the Catholic marriage preparation course, or vice-verse. The definition of Tribes is this: "Tribes is a process that creates a culture that maximizes learning and human development". The definition of a Catholic marriage is this: "The matrimonial covenant whereby a man and a woman come together to form a partnership of the whole of life is, by its nature, ordained towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament". However, experience in one can make learning in the other easier. We can all learn to be better people, students/teachers, and husbands/wives.

My friend "Debbie Cranberry Fries" has a regular feature on her blog called Marriage Mondays. Much of the advice she shares feels like common sense, but it's helpful to hear these lessons over and over, so that in our role as spouse or teacher, we don't forget to make things explicit, communicate effectively, and create a safe place where conflict is managed in a healthy manner. I know I'll try to apply these teachings to my own marriage and my own teaching practices more regularly.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Baking Cookies as Life Lessons

Here we are, back to routine of school after a week's vacation. We didn't go anywhere exotic but we did have a productive and relaxing time at home. I set myself a personal goal to attain and it taught me a lot. My goal was to bake a different type of cookie each day I was away from school. This doesn't sound like a hard task, but knowing a bit more about me might help you appreciate the significance of this job.


I don't cook. When my husband and I first discussed the division of household chores before we were married, I knew immediately that cooking would not be one of my main duties. James is a great cook and does a wonderful job feeding the family, but occasionally I'll feel guilty or some external factor will prompt me to give my rusty culinary skills some practice. When I was much younger, for some bizarre reason, I volunteered to be a part of a Christmas Cookie Exchange at the very first permanent placement school where I taught. The night before, I placed some pre-made Pilsbury cookie dough into the oven to bake, but disaster struck - I burnt the cookies and all the stores were closed. There was no time for a do-over, so the next day, I shamefully brought my scorched-black hockey pucks, clumsily wrapped in tin foil, to bring as my contribution to the cookie exchange. My embarrassment was compounded when, in exchange for my burnt offerings, I received gorgeous creations, wrapped lovingly in coloured cellophane and ribbons. My husband's friends witnessed the debacle at our apartment and as a present, one of them bought me a cookie recipe book. It didn't get a lot of use.

The Cavalcade of Cookies

I ask my students to try challenging tasks in school so I thought to myself, why not challenge myself by baking? I didn't want a defeatist attitude (e.g. "I'm no good at baking") to seep into other areas (e.g. "I can't teach math"). My family had been given a "pre-mixed" cookie kit but I lost the instructions for the precise amount of wet ingredients to add to the kit, so I had to dump the terrible results (on Sunday, March 9). Anything had to be better than that, right? Here are the cookies I baked each day.

Monday, March 10, 2014 = Spritz Cookies

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 = Orange Ice Box Cookies

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 = Lemon Lime Twists

Thursday, March 13, 2014 = Chocolate Chip Cookies

Friday, March 14, 2014 = Oatmeal Apple Cinnamon Cookies

Reflections and Life Lessons Learned

I think I learned a little something new each day after my great cookie experiment. These lessons can be applied to teaching as well as life in general.

On Monday, I burnt a large portion of the cookies. I fit pans on the top and bottom racks of the oven and used the maximum amount of time recommended in the recipe book. The pan on the bottom rack was too close to the heating elements and, to be honest, I wasn't watching the oven closely enough to notice. (One of my biggest problems with cooking is that I get distracted and don't monitor the progress as well as I should. Fear of getting burned is another issue, but I digress.)

Lesson Learned?

  • Pay attention
  • It's easier to add time; you can't subtract time you've already used (so use time wisely)
  • Don't try to cram it all in at once
On Tuesday, I made a type of "ice box cookie" that has to be made and refrigerated overnight before cooking. I tried to learn from my past mistakes and hung out in the kitchen while the cookies were baking. My husband offered to assist me and although I was determined to do this on my own, I allowed him to mix the food colouring in for the outer coating. Tuesday was a very busy day with lots of appointments and assignments and this small assistance helped me a lot. 

Lesson Learned?
  • Learn from your past errors
  • Accept help when you need it
On Wednesday, the photo in the cookbook and the instructions insisted that the dough be rolled into 25 cm long ropes and then twisted together for 12.5 cm long cookies before baking. Try as I might, I just could not get my dough ropes to stay together. They kept crumbling! My son and daughter came to help and in the end, we just decided to forego the twisted rope and make simple, single-strand ropes instead. The Lemon Lime Twist cookies turned out to be the most popular type of cookie I made that entire week. I thought it might be a bit plain, but my husband explained that the first bite seemed unremarkable, but that the more you chewed, the more time it allowed for the subtle flavours of the lemon and lime to come through.

Lesson Learned?
  • Things don't always have to go as originally planned
  • What may seem ordinary can be extraordinary with time
On Thursday, I decided to change the original list of recipes to use when my friend brought me a chocolate chip recipe. Remembering my lesson from Monday, I chose to use the earliest time cited in the recipe to use for determining when to take them out of the oven. To my chagrin, some still burned! I took a leap of faith and chose to chop the baking time in half, and the rest of the cookies were fine. By this time, my house was filled to the brim with cookies. My children aren't huge cookie fans, so I packed a variety of cookies and brought them to the church Marriage Preparation class that my husband and I were scheduled to lead that night. During the break, I saw someone peeking under the cookie bottoms. I hurried over to awkwardly explain and apologize, but this was unnecessary. The man told me that he absolutely LOVED burnt cookies and was actively searching for these specimens so he could enjoy them. He said that when he was a child, his grandmother used to have to over-cook cookies on purpose and set them aside for him and his brother.

Lesson Learned?
  • Trust your instinct - even the experts can be wrong sometimes
  • One person's failure may be another person's success
On Friday, I attempted the most elaborate recipe yet. Because this one took so much preparation, I really didn't want to burn these cookies. The cookbook said I would get three dozen cookies but after everything was said and done, I had six dozen cookies! I even had to leave the cookies in for a little bit longer because the "rule of thumb" that I had been following with regards to using the minimum cooking time didn't exactly apply to this type of cookie.

Lesson Learned?
  • Sometimes you get more than you expect
  • What works for one (or many) might not work for all
I had so many cookies in my house that I had to stop baking. Family and friends received the fruits of my labour and my staff members will also feast during recess. I learned a lot from the experience - it won't turn me into the next Julia Child, but it was good to creep out of my comfort zone for such a delicious experiment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

My Ultimate Silver Birch Book

Recently, the Ontario Library Association, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Forest of Reading program, announced the winner of the "Ultimate Silver Birch Book". The Silver Birch Award is the oldest in the collection of tree-monikor reading prizes awarded by the voting young readers themselves and the deserving winner was Hana's Suitcase by Karen Levine. The "Ultimate Silver Birch" contest was an open ballot for anyone to participate; I missed the deadline to add my $0.02 but I thought I'd use my March Break blog time to write about the book that would have earned my vote.

Picking the best book from twenty years of fantastic winners and nominees can be a daunting task. There are several authors with multiple nominations that should receive special recognition (Eric Walters and Kevin Sylvester immediately come to mind, followed by folks like Helaine Becker, Deborah Ellis, and many others.) However, my choice for the Ultimate Silver Birch book comes from an author with just one nomination to his credit: Edo van Belkom's Wolf Pack.

You may be questioning my taste in literature (e.g. "Why would she pick this over Hana's Suitcase?"), but let me elaborate on why this particular Silver Birch book holds a special place in my heart.

1) The Selection

I was on the Silver Birch Selection committee in 2006 when this title was one of the nominees. When someone agrees to sit on a review or nomination committee, he or she usually signs a confidentiality agreement. (I just finished working with the Canadian Children Book Centre on a subcategory for their Best Books for Kids & Teens Spring 2014 issue and all I can and should reveal is that it was a very rewarding process for me.) Keeping the deliberations private is very important. Once the final list is announced, the selection committee must be united in their support for the list they jointly created, regardless of individual opinions expressed during the selection process. I've seen examples of selection committee members that have been less-than-discreet about their own views, and it really disrupts the program and spreads negative vibes. I presume that the code of silence continues beyond the specific year members contribute, so I cannot say too much about the selection process from that year, except to say that I was very happy when Wolf Pack made it on the list. 

2) The Controversy

2006 was a memorable year for the Ontario Library Association and the Forest of Reading for another reason. That was the year that Three Wishes by Deborah Ellis was a non-fiction nominee and a huge controversy arose because of this selection. The Three Wishes drama overshadowed the news that other titles from that year's list of nominees were also questioned on a smaller scale, especially Wolf Pack  and Ellen Fremedon. Many adults were alarmed by some of the issues, situations, and words described in the books. (If I remember correctly, Ellen Fremedon made grownups uncomfortable because there was a gay character in the narrative, and Wolf Pack was unpopular with some adults because the characters were high-school-aged.). Despite having some schools limit or restrict access to some of these titles, young people still continued to read. My own students loved the books and we had deep and rich discussions about the content.

3) The Impact

In this interview with Open Book Toronto, when Edo van Belkom was asked about his most memorable author experience, he cited meeting a Silver Birch reader who was passionate about his book. My students and I attended the Festival of Trees that year and saw (and especially HEARD) the reaction to van Belkom's book. The screams and cheers were deafening, especially when he won the Silver Birch fiction prize. 

Wolf Pack was unique in that it was a horror book - a horror book suitable to young readers. Most of our students or children aren't plagued with lycanthropy, but they could definitely relate to the feelings of isolation and alienation that the protagonists faced daily. The villain could have been dealt with in a gory finale, but van Belkom provided a satisfying ending that did not rely on the werewolves using their strength to punish the evil-doer. By including this book on its list of nominees, the Ontario Library Association demonstrated that genre books are legitimate forms of reading. Thousands of children participate in the Forest of Reading, and for many, this might have been their first foray into a new genre not usually shared in schools. This winner also established that the Forest of Reading program is not about books adults judge or think are "good and proper" for students - it's about recreational reading, reading for fun. Some sophisticated adults might roll their eyes at the actions of the werewolf teens (just like they do or did with another paranormal juggernaut, the Young Adult series Twilight by Stephenie Meyer), but it's not about the adults, it's about the kids. Young readers loved that book and I'm so glad the Silver Birch program gave it a profile so readers could discover it and fall in literary love. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Comparing Parent Council Events

They are part of my work day and my volunteer nights. 
Both of these involve working with SACs (School Advisory Councils) and CSACs (Catholic School Advisory Councils). At work, I am one of the teacher liaisons for our school's SAC, because I am one of the chairs. At home, I am the CSAC chair for my children's school. Both council groups recently had a big community event and I thought it'd be interesting to report and compare.

Read-a-thon Fundraiser

At the school where I work, the Parent Council organized a Read-a-thon. Originally, some parents wanted to conduct chocolate sales, but the principal encouraged them to try something different that would link to positive lessons for the students (i.e. encouraging reading, instead of promoting unhealthy snack choices). Students collected sponsors and every day in school from February 18-28, we had a "Drop Everything And Read" time, signaled by certain music over the PA. Everyone that collected $20 or more automatically received a prize (a school lanyard along with another token of appreciation) and those that collected $50 or more had their name entered into daily draws for bigger prizes. The class with the most funds (divided by the amount of students in class, to make it equitable) received a pizza party, and the top twenty collectors had their names entered in the grand prize draw for a $200 Best Buy gift card. The culminating event was a Snuggle Up and Read / Pajamas day, where parents were invited into the school to read with their children in the classroom (or in the library, if they had multiple children in different classes). The fundraiser earned over $6000 for the school to help pay for new band instruments and team jerseys.

Family Movie Night

At my children's school, the Parent Council chose to set up a Family Movie Night. The main purpose for the event was a community-building exercise, but fundraising was a secondary goal. Tickets were $2 per family (regardless of family size) and buying a ticket entered the group into a raffle. One of our parents did a great job soliciting donations from local businesses and we had some attractive prizes, such as McDonalds Happy Meals for a year and a Starbucks treat basket. The school also ordered healthy snacks to sell during the movie at our school concession stand. Thirty families (101 people) came out on February 28 to watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. We don't have the results from the snack sales as yet.


1) The principal played an important role.
At my school, the principal bought prizes, drew names for the draw, delegated responsibilities to parents (counting money, setting up a reception for parents after the PJ Day), assigned teachers to tasks (managing the progress thermometers, taking photographs of the winners) and handled any challenges that came up. At my children's school, the principal bought snacks, MC'd the event, coordinated the finances (collecting ticket sale funds), gave advice, and also handled any challenges that arose. As the leader of the building, they have an important say in how the event proceeds.

2) Think about the money, honey.
Although "the purpose of the school council is ... to improve pupil achievement and to enhance the accountability of the education system to parents" (People for Education newsletter, Volume 17 Issue 1, September 26, 2013), 81% of school councils are involved in fundraising activities (ibid). Raising money is concrete and quantitative, easily measured and can be clearly conveyed to other stakeholders. . Each of these events had a social bonding aspect to it, in addition to the financial rationale; the CSAC event wasn't primarily about getting money, but every little bit helps

3) Community involvement is key.
Without the parents, these events would've flopped. It's not just the parents involved with the organization - those people were vital to the success of the event - but it was also those who chose to attend. The public school event was during the day but we still had dozens of adults come to read with their family members. The Catholic school event was in the evening and several families postponed dinner until 8:30 p.m. so they could come and show support. 


1) The amount of time available to chat vs the amount of chatting.
Watching a movie doesn't always lend itself well to prolonged conversations, but there was a lot of socializing happening in the hallway and near the concession stand between parents. While parents waited in the library for the signal to enter their children's classrooms to read with them, it was very quiet, despite having a large crowd. This may have been due to language barriers between families (because we have Cantonese, Mandarin, and Tamil speaking groups) or could be possibly attributed to our very shy adults in "official" school space. For any future events, we need to make sure parents have time and are encouraged to talk with each other. Maybe SAC members need to help facilitate those ice breaking conversations. 

2) During school time vs after hours.
Even though the CSAC event was at 7:00 p.m., three teachers stayed to watch the movie and support the cause with donations and their presence. The SAC event at my school was held during instructional hours, where all teachers agreed to give 15 minutes of their teaching time every day for two weeks to silent reading. Could this discrepancy be related to last year's "pause" (which impacted public schools but not Catholic schools)? I know that as a chairperson, I am much more sensitive now to asking or demanding things from the staff, because they are not required to stay longer. 

We took photos of both events but I don't have permission to share them here. Both events were a lot of work but were very successful. I hope it leads to increased parent engagement for both organizations.