Monday, October 27, 2014

The Ideal Library

October is Canadian Library Month. There's a website devoted to it. Every year, when I remember, I try to mark it in some way. I shared my idea for this year via Twitter and my library mentor, the amazing Carol Koechlin, suggested I submit it.

 When Carol asks, I don't hesitate, so here's my story, complete with illustrations, and the requisite title with snappy one-line description.


The Ideal Library by Diana Maliszewski

When I asked my students to draw the perfect library, the results surprised me.


I posted the chart paper with the challenge on the blackboard in my school library. When my junior division classes came in for their weekly library period, they began reading, discussing, and planning even before I clarified the directions. The task was relatively simple: in groups of 2, 3, or 4, think about what would make an ideal library. Draw it. The design voted the best submission will have the chance to build this library in Minecraft.

The students and I co-created the success criteria and then it was time to plan. The teams of 9-11 year old students got to work right away and even continued the task through their beloved book exchange and free reading time. The next day, they began hounding me in the hall - which project was the best? Had a winner been chosen? I knew the students were keen to work on Minecraft, especially in a way that allowed for student choice, creativity, and leadership like this assignment did. I was busy, but a few days later, I finally sat down to examine the entries.

As I flipped through the drawings, many of which were multi-paged portfolios filled with labels, I was struck by a common thread. Many of the drawings resembled our current school library, even down to the interactive white board, play area, and large comic collection. At first, I worried that the students weren't being creative enough, but I know our students and they are imaginative. My second theory startled me: for them, at this time, their school library IS the ideal library. They love their school library. Even the plans that were innovative contained elements of our current library - the video game room recommendation by Joyce echoes our twice weekly Minecraft Club meetings, and the crafting area mirrors the Build Zone area and last year's Hacker Club activities. I'm always looking for ways to improve my program, place, and practices, but I need to realize that for many of my students, they get to experience the ideal every time they enter the doors. As Jeremy told a recent visiting principal from Denmark, "the one thing you should know about our school library is that it's awesome".

(Below are a few of the "ideal library" drawings done by some of the students.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Montreal in a day and the benefits of bilingualism

This weekend was a whirlwind. On Saturday, my beloved husband and I attended an Archdiocese of Toronto Marriage Preparation Facilitator workshop, which was excellent. On the following day (Sunday, October 19, 2014) I was awake at 5:30 in the morning and on the road by 6:00 a.m.; my destination was Montreal, with my 74 year old father and 77 year old mother to visit her older brother who is currently in hospital. The plan was to drive to Montreal, visit my uncle, and then drive back, all in a single day. This was challenging but not impossible. I am accustomed to long periods of driving because my husband, kids, and I go to Baltimore every summer and we take the car. Bringing a lot of CDs to play and packing sandwiches and drinks help a lot. What I didn't realize would also help a lot would be my skills en français.

I haven't been to Montreal in a very long time and I remembered it as a very Anglo city, but I noticed that French is very important there and more frequently used that my memory indicated. My kind colleagues (Farah Wadia and Dean Roberts) gave me great directions and we also relied on the GPS. Although there are many bilingual signs, all of the street signs are in French only. This actually caused me to miss an exit when I asked my father if the GPS had said "ouest" or "est" because I didn't hear it the first time, and he couldn't reply quickly enough because he didn't know the words. There was a lot of construction near the hospital and when we were walking out the parking garage exit, a security guard stopped us to tell me, in French, that the way we were travelling towards was out of bounds. Thankfully, my spoken French was sufficient enough to ask for guidance and he pointed us in the approved and correct direction. I quickly learned to ask "Tu préfères l'anglais ou le français?" Sometimes it was French, sometimes English, and sometimes my choice. At one point during our visit, I tried to go back to the car in the parking garage to collect some things, but the level we chose was inaccessible via the regular elevators due to renovations. I found some construction workers and had to explain: "J'ai perdue ma voîture. C'est au quatrième étage mais je ne peux pas trouver mon auto." Although my French might not always have been grammatically correct, it was good enough for people to understand and respond accordingly. No one laughed at or insulted me for substandard speaking.

I loved French in school. I'm so old that when I was in elementary school, French wasn't mandatory until the intermediate grades, and I remember doing a self-initiated French commercial for Pac Man cereal at an assembly ("Chomp chomp, delicieux!"). I took French all through high school and was in the French Club with Mme Stamp (who taught me about the delicacy of bacon and cream cheese crepes). When I went to university, I selected English as my major and French as my minor. However, in my second year, I had a professor that convinced me that I could not speak French. After that year, and despite receiving a B in my French course, I changed my minor to Humanities.

Club photo from the BPCI 1989-90 yearbook. Yes, we're wearing berets.

I'm really sorry that I didn't continue my French lessons. I've taught Core French Grades 4-6 (without my AQ, but that's another story) and my experiences in Montreal yesterday taught me that even my rudimentary French speaking and reading abilities are helpful; it would have been even better had I persevered with my studies. Knowing another language has very clear benefits - I may not be able to articulate why studying calculus has helped me in my life, but I can sure explain why knowing French has been beneficial. At my school, I'm trying to pick up a few phrases here and there of Mandarin and Cantonese so I can connect with some of the parents who do not speak English. My students are fortunate to know not one, not two, but three languages, and I hope they continue lire en français, ecriver en français, et parler en français.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Velkommen Dansk lærere

On Thursday, October 16, 2014, a group of Danish educators will be visiting my school. Torben Ruwald, Kim Clausen, Lars Rasmussen, and Lene Krabbe will spend two days with our staff, watching our classes, asking questions, and learning about the daily operations of an elementary school in Ontario, Canada. This visit is sponsored by the Ontario Principals Council and the TDSB's director's office. My principal has reassured us that this is not meant to be a "dog and pony show", but when people come halfway around the world to check out your education system, you want to make a good impression. I had similar angst when the director of education came to visit my school, and so I wrote a blog post about what I would want to showcase if given the chance. I want to do something similar here, but for the visit to be truly educational, it would help to know more about our visitors - knowing your audience is good for a teacher as well as a presenter, and I better remember that because the very next day, I'm scheduled to speak at the Simcoe County District School Board Teacher-Librarian Conference, "Inquiring Minds".

 I have to confess that I know very little about Denmark and the Danish educational system. I Googled "best education systems in the world" and in this link, Canada is listed as #7 in 2014 and #10 in 2012. In the same site, Denmark is listed as #11 in 2014 and #12 in 2012.  Other sources rank Denmark similarly close to Canada in world results. On this side of the Atlantic, we hear a lot about the Finnish education system - why have our colleagues chosen to come to Canada for their quest? If I get the chance, here are my other questions as well as my sharing points.

I wonder ...

  • When foreigners think of Denmark, what comes to mind first? If you could change this, what would you want foreigners to consider first when they think of your country?
  • What does it mean to be Danish? What constitutes your national identity?
  • What are you most proud of with regards to your educational practices? What are you most displeased with regarding education in your country?
  • How do your schools compare to those in Canada? What are the similarities and differences?
  • What do you know about Canada and the Canadian educational system? 
  • What are Danish children passionate about? How does this compare to Canadian students?
  • What do you hope to see while you are here?

You may be wondering ...

  1. What are those odd looking animals doing in the library? (clue = skinny pigs don't aggravate allergies)
  2. Why do the students keep talking about Minecraft? (clue = tapping into student passions through clubs and in-school tasks help them learn)
  3. Where did all these iPads, SMART Boards, HP netbooks, Acer netbooks, Macs and PCs come from? (clue = a variety of technology tools, won and bought, make differentiated instruction easier)
  4. When do the kids stop asking questions? (clue = encouraging inquiry throughout the day and in many different subjects makes learning "sticky")
  5. Who manages the Library Assistants during recess? (clue = students show responsibility and initiative in many ways)
The answer to #1

The answer to #2

I hope Torben, Kim, Lars and Lene enjoy their time with us and that it's a time for all of us to learn something from each other. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Chunking & Feedback Save the Bloody Red Shrimp

This past weekend, my son had to finish a research project on an invasive species. At first glance at what had already been done, I thought that this was going to take a lot of work and was not going to be a pleasant experience for anyone involved. When my son and I sat down together at the dining room table, he was extremely unhappy. He felt like I was going to tell him about how terrible his project was and how he was going to have to re-do it all.

I don't know what caused it. I don't know if it was because of all the "growth mindset / fixed mindset" tweets I've been reading, or the sight of my precious son's absolutely miserable face, but we had to do something different.

Instead of launching into an action plan of my own creation or making a long list of the perceived flaws, I talked about what I liked about the project. I liked the colour of the poster board, because it suited the subject matter. I liked the title and the placement of the title on the poster board.

"Yeah, but it could be bigger", he said.

So we talked about the title. When he or I were tempted to talk about other parts that could be fixed, we stopped ourselves.

"Let's just talk about the title", I suggested. "Otherwise, we are going to get depressed and overwhelmed by the job."

We talked about how we could change the title to make it even better, and decided that it would help if the title were bigger and clearer. I pulled out my Cricut machine and it cut out the letters he wanted, in the style, colour, and size that he wanted.

Chunking the job into manageable tasks, we went through each section. We also used descriptive feedback, always starting with the positive and focused on his opinions before my own, to keep the best parts of the project and make small improvements. I realized that my son has a very creative and artistic flair and just occasionally needs help with the implementation of his ideas. For instance, he had created bubbles that encapsulated each required paragraph - a great organizational tool and layout strategy. It was just that the bubbles were drawn in freehand and were hard to see. We used my scrapbook tools to make the bubbles out of light blue paper and placed them on top of the poster board, and we noticed right away how attractive it became.

This method worked even when we had to go to the computer to retype his paragraphs. He had used a school computer to compose his original sentences and we didn't have access to the file. As he typed, he added more detail and rephrased things for clarity (not because I said so, but because he himself realized it would be better). His paragraphs tripled in size.

I got permission from him to share a photo of the original and revised project, side by side. (To be fair, we peeled off the main photo from the original and reused it on the revised version.)

What made me so happy was seeing my son realize that he had the power to improve his work. He'd exclaim out of the blue comments like:

"Wow, this looks really good!"
"Hey, we're almost done!"
"I like how this is turning out!"

I don't know why it took me so long to figure out that these not-so-new teaching strategies (chunking and descriptive feedback) would work so well with my boy - after all, it was Joanie Proske's patient advice that helped me complete my Masters of Education capping paper back in 2010, and what inspired me to continue doing research, even though I find academic writing very challenging. This weekend, my Readers Choice Awards research project received funding from the Ontario Library Association. I'm excited, and nervous, but like my boy, I have renewed hope that I have the skills to complete this project. With a positive attitude and great support mechanisms, I may just yet have some work published in a peer-reviewed journal. (Big thanks to Bozena White and Francis Ngo for helping me along the process.)


One last note on the positive part: descriptive feedback can be positive if the recipient is ready and willing to hear recommendations and not perceive them as personal criticisms. I was so impressed with Julie Millan for sharing some of her workshop feedback (notice she didn't call it "evaluation forms") to her followers on Twitter.

Julie didn't take those comments as an insult or a suggestion that she is not a great presenter. (I've heard Julie speak - she's wonderful.) However, she used this as an opportunity to go from great to FANTASTIC, and at the same time, modeled for us how we as teachers and students should accept feedback