Monday, December 29, 2014

Year Over, Years Older

This is my last post of 2014. Where did the time go? I'm still on vacation as I compose this post and my to-do list is a kilometer long. However, I made sure that on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, I relaxed and enjoyed the holiday with my family. One of my favourite presents was from my considerate husband, who ordered me a bound and printed copy of the first two years of my blog.

Thank goodness for iPhones and taking selfies!
Even though I have a pile of novels to read before January, I sat and read through the entire book, which contains my ruminations from 2009-2011. It was really neat to see how I've changed and how I've stayed the same. The biggest alterations?

My opinions about online privacy

In the past, I never used to mention people by name on the blog. I avoided using photos. I employed a pseudonym while on Twitter. Thanks to influences like Lisa Dempster and Gwyneth Jones, I started to be less afraid and more pro-active about controlling my positive digital footprint. I believe my thoughts are still evolving, as recent talks with Andrew Campbell and Peter Skillen have urged me to consider the online privacy of others as well and the digital tools I use.

My views on how blogs and Twitter work

My posts chronicle my relationship with Twitter, which mirrors many people's experiences. Beginning with "I'll just get an account to see things; I won't post" in 2009 to over 5000 tweets five years later, Twitter has become more important to me professionally and personally than I originally thought. I also used to fill my blog with "freebies", links to lesson plans and book reviews I wrote. Now, those items are still available on but my blog is more about reflecting on my teaching practices.

My pop culture and book obsessions

Boy, I used to write about Twilight a LOT back then! Thanks to the series, I have a group of wonderful adult friends from all over North America and we still keep in touch via Facebook, but I don't gush over the books I'm reading anymore.

My other observation is that I feel a lot older. It's not just the hair. (I've decided to stop colouring my hair, partly because I couldn't remember what the original hue was. Turns out it's salt and pepper, with emphasis on the salt.) I'm tired. In the past, I was involved in a lot of things, and I still am, but staying on top of everything isn't as easy as it once seemed to be. Maybe it's just my faulty memory, and the truth could be that I struggled with keeping things tidy, deadlines and completing tasks just as much back then. Still, in addition to my usual duties with school and the magazine, I'll be taking an Additional Qualification course starting in January (on Mentoring - my first official-like-on-OCT-records course since I completed my MEd in 2010, which will be exciting), running my church's Marriage Preparation program, working on the TLLP grant with the awesome Liam O'Donnell and Denise Colby, and getting closer to finishing that self-initiated research project on readers' choice programs (that I wrote about way back in the early days of my blog). I'll pace myself, monitor my energy levels, sleep when I need it, and chunk work so I can complete jobs and feel like I've accomplished something.  I may need to operate at a different speed, but if I approach 2015 with an "aging like fine wine" view instead of an "aging like an overripe banana" view, I'll be fine. Make 2015 bring you health, wealth, happiness, and all that you need.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Giving Time to Grow Readers

I gotta shake off the Grinch! I've been crabbier than usual this past week, because of

  • my lack of sleep due to the Christmas Novena
  • my messy library due to instrument storage for the Winter Concert and a poorly maintained Play Area
  • my impatience with loud audience members (partly due to my demophobia)
I noticed my attitude shifting from "half-full glass" to "half-empty glass" and I needed to take action to stop the slide of negativity. This post is part of my action plan. (Catching up on sleep during the holidays and making a list of all the things I am grateful for this past year are other components.)

In January 2015, my school will launch the official beginning of our Forest of Reading program. To prepare, the books have been made available to the staff to read in advance. This way, the adults will have already read the books and they can facilitate conversations with students on various titles and sign their passports. (A description of how we run our Forest of Reading program with the passports can be found in this article from Voice magazine.) I have heard that in other schools, teacher-librarians are floundering and trying in vain to beg other teachers to participate by reading at least one short book. At Agnes Macphail Public School, I am so very fortunate, because I have so many staff members, from the principal to teachers to educational assistants to early childhood educators, eagerly borrowing books at this insanely busy time of year to read. Some have been reading nominated titles since October, when the lists were announced by the Ontario Library Association and some keen student readers reserved copies from the public library. One classroom teacher in particular has surpassed my reading total by a large margin and continues to use her spare time to read. The wonderful thing is that teachers are reading books from many different lists, because it gives them the opportunities to chat with students in various grades. 

Way back in September, I took photos of our staff members for a "brains behind the books" bulletin board display. As a tribute to these wonderful school staff members and all they do to give time to grow readers and good young people (but while still maintaining their privacy), let me share here the pictures of our outstanding staff. If you are from my school or know some of the teachers, see if you can figure out who is who. 

 Merry Christmas, and special best wishes to our special education teacher, who began her maternity leave on the last calendar school day of 2014 (and her due date was yesterday, December 21).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A "Touchy" Topic

Last week, a friend of mine, who works with the school board centrally, stopped by my school unexpectedly. The snow storm had made his commute insane; he had been travelling for over two hours and still had not reached his destination. He asked if he could work in the library at my school instead of wasting more time trying to battle the weather and travel conditions. I welcomed him in. It was wonderful to have him around because he joined in and co-taught a couple of classes with me. In the afternoon, we were doing a drama activity called Toy Store with a Grade 1-2 class. The children were toys in a toy store that come to life when the toy store owner wasn't "around". As the toy store owner started to clean up the store and put the toys back on the shelf, my friend stepped out of role for a moment to ask "How are we supposed to move them?" I thought this was an unusual question until I realized that, as a male teacher, my friend was very cautious about when, how, and where he made physical contact with students.

Photo from Life Magazine
His question made me reflect on touching in schools. When my friend was a brand-new teacher, she said that most of their professional development workshops began with this message: "Welcome to today's session - remember, keep your hands off the students". This was a slight exaggeration, but understandable. Teachers need to be cautious when touching students so there aren't accusations of inappropriate contact. In a quick Google search, policy surrounding touch in the classroom encouraged restraint and caution: Touch only when necessary. Be professional and use professional judgement. However, I did find  this webcast that suggested that touch is important in schools. The discussion mentioned the famous Harlow monkey experiment where baby monkeys would cling to the comfort surrogate instead of the food surrogate. However, this opinion was definitely in the minority.

I am not as cautious as I should be. I admit - I do touch my students. However, most of the time, I do not initiate the contact. Students run up to me and hug me in the hall. If I sit on the carpet, students want to sit next to me or sit on my lap. While walking in line, students want to hold my hand. I don't encourage it but I don't discourage it when it happens, and if the hug lasts for more than a second or two, I try to redirect the student. I think this is due in part to my own upbringing and cultural norms. I'm comfortable with physical contact. I'm friendly and I express it by shaking hands or patting arms. I must keep in mind that not everyone is at ease with touching. Patting a head or rubbing a shoulder may be seen as very disrespectful or too intimate. It seems, though, that some children need that physical connection with someone.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with another friend who is doing her PhD on smell. We need our senses. For the safety of students, we have no-touch policies at some schools. To help people with sensitivities, we have scent-free environments. Respecting these needs are important but we do lose a little something when we deny or deprive our other senses when we learn. Maybe this is why students love "hands-on" learning - if we can't touch people, we can touch things. Making things with our own hands satisfies a basic need we have. Look at this article that my friend Lisa Noble sent to me about the benefits of holiday baking. I won't hug each and every one of my children's teachers to thank them for treating my son and daughter well, but I can thank them by creating cookies. (In addition to the Orange Ice Box and Lemon Lime Twists I made before, I tried four new recipes. I forgot to take a photo of the Cinnamon cookies, but the others are below.)

White Chocolate and Butterscotch Cookies

Cherry and Lemon Cookies

Mini Raspberry Pinwheels
So where does this leave me and the way my students interact with me physically? I don't think I can completely stop returning hugs or holding hands, but I will be more aware. After all, not all touch is "bad touch", and acting as if all contact is forbidden sends the wrong message. Having said that, I'll be careful and consider how, when, where and why to touch. What do you think?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tasty Field Trip and Teachable Moments

Last week, I had two half-day field trips with a total of four primary division classes to our local mall to visit some restaurants as part of our media literacy unit. What I witnessed was some great "incidental teaching" by the classroom teachers that came with me as well as some generous franchise owners that welcomed us with open arms.

Let me begin with the restaurants - I want to thank Avinash from Saravanaa Bhavan and Alpesh from Subway, both located at Woodside Square (1571 Sandhurst Circle, in the McCowan Avenue and Finch Avenue East area) for allowing forty children to "invade" their spaces. We had originally arranged to visit four restaurants that week (two locations for the Grade Two classes and two different ones for the Grade One classes) but one establishment never returned our phone calls/emails and the other place asked us not to come in because the manager wasn't on the premises, even though we had a phone call confirming our visit. Having fewer restaurants to compare and contrast was disappointing, but the sites that did allow us to come were so generous with their time. We were able to peek inside the back areas and kitchens where regular customers never get to venture. They answered many questions cheerfully. For simplicity's sake, we ate at Subway and they provided juice free of charge.

Here are some of the photos our students took themselves using the iPads we brought along.

Wall art at Subway

Menu at Subway

Wall art at Saravanaa Bhavan

Chopping green tomatoes in the kitchen

I must also thank the classroom teachers and parent volunteers that accompanied us on the walk and supervised the children during their tour and meal. I especially admired how the teachers used every moment for imparting lessons. On paper, this was a media trip but it also became:

  • a social skills trip (as Mrs. Morgan did a "think-aloud" to prepare the students on how to order their lunch themselves and the necessary steps)
  • a math trip (as they supervised the children as they paid for their meals and ensured they gave enough money and received the proper change, and estimated how long it would take to walk to our location)
  • a geography trip (as we walked through the neighbourhood, turning the right directions to lead us there and back)
  • an ergonomic, environmental education and design trip (as Ms. Chiu asked questions while the students waited for their turn to go into the Employees Only area such as "Why is the garbage can located here near the door?")
  • a language arts / oral communication trip (as both Ms. Chiu and Mrs. Morgan encouraged their students to speak loudly and clearly enough for the Subway employee to understand their order)
  • a visual arts trip (as we examined the art on the walls and the colour choices)
  • a social studies trip (as one of our adult supervisors, a student's grandfather, explained the cultural significance of the music, the food options, and the eating methods in the South East Indian vegetarian restaurant)
  • a critical literacy trip (as we saw how businesses try to get consumers to buy and continue buying from their establishments, from the smells to the survey with the free cookie on a return visit, to the kids' menu "toy")
I'm sure I'm forgetting some of the other curriculum connections (like equity, physical education, and more) that came out of our visit. Everyone that went enjoyed themselves and the students are inspired to create their own restaurants after seeing real-life examples. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Deal with a Disappointing Day

Today found me in a disagreeable state of mind as I sat down to write my blog post. Good advice says think twice before you press publish, especially when you are in a grumpy mood, but on the other hand, I heard that sharing just the high points and successes can be discouraging to others, who may feel like they cannot measure up to the "Twitter Superstars". I'll share a few of my disappointments today and maybe get around to reflecting on how to handle it. I will practice phrasing my thoughts using the "I feel" statements I was taught in Tribes - where the feeling and situation are explained and no blame is given. (I'll reveal all the self-blame and finger-pointing underneath.)

I feel disappointed when a lesson flops spectacularly, especially when effort was made to reschedule it so it occurs.
I am unhappy with the technology. Our kindergarten class was all ready and quietly waiting and the silly TV and DVD refused to play the sound. It took precious time to go to the computer, log onto Learn360 and try to find and download the clip I needed and by the time it was ready, the children had to return to class to dress for lunch.
I blame myself for not checking in advance to ensure that everything was in working order. I should have had Plan B ready, with the necessary video already downloaded to my computer so I wouldn't have to madly search in front of a crowd of 4- and 5-year-olds.

I feel disappointed when rules are broken in a particularly cruel fashion and one of the school clubs I run are part of the reason for the infraction.
I am unhappy with a couple of my students. They should have known better than to do what they did. Their actions were mean and thoughtless. I can't reveal what they did but it's really not nice.
I blame myself for not doing enough to prevent this behaviour. My administration was a bit cautious about allowing Photography Club to begin in the first place and I reassured my principal that the students would be responsible. I had to eat my words. My initial response to this incident was to shut the club down but my principal was the voice of reason and suggested that the actions of some should not penalize the majority. We discussed steps to take next time the club is formed, which were all reasonable, and I wish I had thought of them beforehand.

I feel disappointed when my volunteer efforts aren't recognized and communication between home and school is inconsistent.
I am unhappy with the administration at my son's school. I was the CSAC chair at my own children's school for two years and last week, we finally found people to fill the executive position. (Actually, it took three people to replace me, a fact I took perverse pleasure in noticing.) I saw the school newsletter today when I got home, which had a front-page announcement introducing the new co-chairs and included a blurb written by the pair. There was no "thanks to the departing chairperson" note at all. While I struggled with getting simple replies to my emails, how were they able to have a paragraph written, approved, and published in less than a week?
I blame myself for not fostering a better communication link or bond with the principal. It's a bit of jealousy - why does it appear to be so easy for the new chairs and the principal to work together? Why didn't the principal and I "click" but they do? Was it something I said or did?

I feel disappointed when I read about cases involving the abuse of trust by educators and the gender biases at play.
I am unhappy with some teachers and the justice system and society's double-standard. I first found this article on Yahoo (thanks hubby for re-finding it for me to link here after it disappeared from my Yahoo feed) about the number of female teachers who sexually abuse their students. The female perpetrators receive much lighter sentences than their male counterparts. The reason may be due to society's gender attitudes - it's not bad for this to happen to a pre-teen or teen boy, but it's a tragedy for the same to happen to a girl.
I blame myself for reading negative articles when I am in a bad mood. I probably also unconsciously hold some of these same biased attitudes that lead to these sorts of court decisions, and I don't like that realization. I have never abused a student but I suspect I would be initially more disgusted with a 40 year old man involved with a 15 year old girl than the opposite - and that's wrong; both cases are morally distressing and equally disgusting.

So how do I deal?
Writing about it actually helped. I know I didn't have to press "publish", but I wanted to prove my life isn't always a bed of roses and I'm not always Positive Pollyanna. Realizing that these disappointments are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things helps - we have a good friend dealing with brain cancer right now, so complaining about a lesson that bombed is small potatoes. My son told me to do something different that makes you happy and makes you forget about your disappointments. If you have other tips for dealing with a disappointing day, please add your comments below.