Monday, December 28, 2015

Contemplating Sexism and Racism During the Holidays

Part 1 - Instead of Fighting 

I don't write nearly enough about equity issues. This is a problem because ignoring situations don't solve problems. Then again, often I'm unsure about how to deal with them appropriately. This is why I'm in an informal book club reading The Dream Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson- Billings. This is why I follow some people I respect on Twitter, because they make me think about things that make me uncomfortable.
  • @RafranzDavis
  • @RusulAlrubail
  • @TheJLV
  • @Veronikellymars
Recently, I saw this brilliant tweet that made me feel less timid and less helpless about dealing with some issues of stereotypes, equity and "isms".


 Instead of fighting with people (especially little girls) who love princesses, work with the concept and turn it around. Instead of denying the appeal of Disney heroines, critically examine it and expand on it. I worried about my students' obsession with royal blonde beauties and this approach is pretty neat. When our kindergarteners sing our "Hello, How Do You Do?" circle song for library time, we ask "What else can we do?" and the answer is frequently a noun instead of a verb: "be a princess" / "be Spiderman". Lately, we've been probing with clarification questions: "What does a princess do?" / "What does Spiderman do?" The answers are fascinating, with suggestions such as "brush their hair". I'm on the lookout for a book describing real jobs of royalty, or maybe in a new Dramatic Role Play, we can deal with what royalty does.

I'm unsure if gender stereotypes play out in the same way that racial or cultural stereotypes do. I don't think little girls "grow out of them" like they do with princess obsessions. (My own daughter is turning 16 in a few weeks. When she was 3, she wore mouse ears and a tail everywhere and loved being a fairy mouse princess. Now she is a independent-minded, confident young woman who thinks most boys of her generation are cocky and self-centered.) Is there a way to take biased assumptions about other groups of people and turn them around to make them work, instead of battling them?

Part 2 - Can You Love Something Flawed?

I was originally going to make this a separate post, but I realized as I composed it in my head that thematically, it fit with Part 1.

A long, long time ago, when I first began my blog, I used to write a lot about Twilight the book series by Stephenie Meyer. I really enjoyed those books. I read Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn six times each. I joined fan sites. I attended conventions. I wrote chapter summaries for major websites devoted to the books. I saw the film adaptations on opening night.

Years passed, and something changed. I still had fond memories of the books, but there was something "not as perfect" about the novels. I had heard for years about the complaints that Twilight played into harmful gender stereotypes and that it normalized stalking behavior. I witnessed a Canadian YA author made a very public rant about it to several audiences; people encouraged me to have a verbal debate on the topic with that author, but I didn't think it was worth it. I still had fond memories of the series, but there was a valid point in the tirade. (I didn't agree with bad-mouthing another author's work in a public forum, but this was beside the point.) Even Stephenie Meyer was aware of the criticisms leveled at her work, which is partly why I believe she a) why she had a long interview published in The Twilight Saga: The Official Illustrated Guide and b) why for the tenth anniversary, she wrote a gender-swapping version of Twilight called Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined with Edythe replacing Edward and Beau replacing Bella.

Meyer said she was motivated to make the switch because of questions she received at signings about Bella being a "damsel in distress."
"It's always bothered me a little bit, because anyone surrounded by superheroes is going to be in distress," Meyers explained. "I thought, 'What if we switched it around a bit and see how a boy does,' and, you know, it's about the same."

(Cynical me says that it also was a way to make new sales on an old property.) I didn't read the new version, because now, the book series doesn't have the same allure for me as it used to. I still think the original does a wonderful job of describing what it feels like to be in love for the first time and how magical even holding hands can be, but the flaws are becoming more prominent.   This web article, written by actor Tyson Houseman, which discusses the portrayal of Native Americans in mainstream Hollywood movies, made the point quite well that the portrayal of First Nations people in the Twilight series was "problematic", to use his term.

So this is my question: can you love something that is flawed? I'm not talking about people here, because we are all flawed or less-than-perfect. I'm wondering if you can still be a fan of a book or an organization (like our current school system) that you can see is problematic, that might show or can do bad things to other people. I hope the answer, like I say Tyson suggested indirectly in his article, is that you can be aware of the difficulties but still be involved with it.

Part 3 - Holiday Tune POV

A short reflection here, on a couple of articles that I've come across this holiday season about the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" and the various interpretations, both liberating and sinister. I find it fascinating that a song could be, as time evolves, at first positive and now so negative.

I know that at our school holiday sing-a-longs that occur the last week of school (a practice that I've internally debated for quite some time, but never been bold enough to challenge or question), that there has been an effort to explain words or terms from popular classics so students understand the context - "don we now our gay apparel" from "Deck the Halls" is a common example. I'm unsure how effective the explanations are, be it because the students are too excited about the event or upcoming vacation to listen, or because addressing a gym-full of students ages 4-13 can be challenging as a teaching moment. What are the curriculum ties that make it relevant to carol in the gym? My school does not sing any obviously religious tunes during these sing-a-longs - what impact does that have? How can we approach this activity in the gym and afterwards in a way that helps students understand how language evolves and that respects both Canadian culture and our diverse traditions?

Monday, December 21, 2015

TeachOntario - TVO and Virtual Community

TVOntario has always been good to the field of education. I've used their websites and videos for summer school to help explain math concepts. Their television programming is thought-provoking. The latest venture from TVO has even bigger potential.


Beginning in 2016, the Professional Learning Series will launch. There are a lot of places, virtual and physical, that run webinars and workshops. What's unique about this series is the amazing infrastructure set up to continue the learning conversations before and after the talks. Participants come from all over Ontario, from school boards big and small and everything in between.

Here's a great benefit: with TVO at the helm, board politics can be minimized. My colleagues and I participated in a TLLP with a focus on cross-board collaboration. It was successful in many ways with many different boards, but, in my opinion, the collaboration between the main two boards was not as strong as other partnerships. I suspect that part of the difficulty lay in establishing roles and sorting through bureaucracy with not one but two school boards. TVO involvement means that work is not proprietary to one person or board, and the reach can go even further.

Katina Papulkas is the new Director of Educational Partnerships for K-12 and her enthusiasm for this project is contagious. Signing up to join the community is easy: go to https://www.teachontario.ca/welcome and fill in the short registration form. Members need to use their board email. It's easy and there are so many discussion groups you can join (or create). I myself am still getting used to the interface but it holds a lot of potential.

I may be slightly biased in favour of TeachOntario because a) I've known Katina Papulkas for a long time, ever since she was a fellow teacher-librarian in the TDSB, and b) Denise Colby and I will be presenting a session called "Minecraft in the Classroom: Connecting Creepers to Curriculum" on February 4, 2016. Still ... don't just take my word for it! The Professional Learning Series begins January 14, 2016 with a talk by Stephen Miles on 3D Printing in Elementary Schools. It's followed by Blended Learning on January 21 by Maureen Asselin. There will be sessions on Google Apps for Education, video conferencing, digital citizenship, Twitter, Makerspaces, and mentoring, just to name a few. It's easy to sign up, and you can always access the archived videocasts if you cannot attend on the specific day. Try it out and see what you can get out of TeachOntario.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Pets at the Pound - Drama Role Play

"We start by locking the children in cages ..."

Before you get the wrong idea and report me for egregious and improper conduct, let me explain the game that my students and I invented for drama class.

My official title is "teacher-librarian", but if you looked at my schedule (this year and in the past), a huge chunk of my time is spent teaching drama and dance. It's a lot of fun. The students have particular activities that they really enjoy doing, and while trying to brainstorm how to do similar but different tasks, the students and I created this role play.

In the Toronto District School Board resource document called Treasures for Teaching and The Treasure Chest, there's a section that explains about role playing with young students. (I'll quote it here when I grab the book from school.) To paraphrase briefly, it encourages teachers to play pretend along with their students.
(ETA Pages 19-24 of Treasures for Teaching: Story, Drama and Dance in the Primary Classroom (3rd Edition) describes Dramatic Play as "pretend play, in which children become different characters in different times and places having different experiences." It also says "The world of dramatic play is the world of pretend, where all things are possible. In this domain of make-believe, children construct people, places, objects and events. They draw upon real-life experiences, everyday observations, and their favourite stories to shape their dramas. Children step into various roles, exploring multiple points of view, which teaches them to imagine how another thinks and feels.")

The students love playing "Toy Store", an activity I borrowed from the days when my own daughter took drama classes at The Drama Workshop on Yonge Street. In this scenario, the children are toys that come to life when the toy store owner (played by an adult) isn't watching. The students at my school go absolutely bananas when they play it. There's plenty of creative planning that goes on "between the scenes". We talk about what the toy store owner could do to try and discover why her toys are always off the shelves when she returns from a break. The students make great suggestions, and they also come up with great suggestions for how the toys can stay undetected. (For instance, after one conversation, the toy store owner installed security cameras all around the store. When the toys came to life after the toy store owner left for the day, they immediately smashed all the cameras or turned them so they'd film the wall instead of the shelves!)

There's only so many times I can play "Toy Store" before I get tired of it. (For the record, the students NEVER get tired of it!) Based on their keen interest in our school library pets, two skinny pigs named Chocolate and Vanilla, I decided to make a new variation of  this type of game by inventing "Pets at the Pound".

Before we played "Pets at the Pound", we had a short talk about what a pound was for animals. We distinguished it from a pet store in several key ways, the main one being that the animals were often strays or turned in by owners who could no longer keep them. The animals in the pound were anxious to have a home. We used chairs as kennels and cages. Students chose whether to be a dog or a cat and stayed in their "cages", hoping that a visitor to the pound would choose them and adopt them.

This game has several unintended advantages.

1) "Main Stage" and "Side Stage" Role Play

Unlike "Toy Store", where all the action is focused on the toy store owner's arrival and departure, there's opportunities for many other things to be happening simultaneously. While the pound employee shows prospective pet owners some of the animals in the cages, other animals are conversing with each other (with barks and meows), while others try to escape their cages and others try very hard to get the attention of humans or other animals.

2) Shared Power Dynamics

Once we played "Pets at the Pound" a couple of times, we passed on roles like the Pound Employee and Potential Pet Owner to the students. The ECE and I went to our cages and pretended to be dogs or cats, while the students wandered around from cage to cage, with their role props (keys for the employee, balls or pretend treats for the visiting humans). They were very good at telling wandering animals to get back in their cages.

3) Common Experience AND New Experience

Most children know about dogs and cats, so even the students who don't speak English could participate, because speaking English wasn't an issue. Yet, there are still experiences they have not yet had that I didn't realize until we played this game. When we play "Pets at the Pound", it gets REALLY loud. One of the SK students said, "Does it really have to be so noisy?"
"Have you ever been to a real pound?" I asked. She hadn't. Perfect - a possible field trip for 2016!

4) Open-Ended Content

I'm always amazed by the directions the students take the role play. One pair of students, pretending to be shopping for a pet, took out a dog and then asked if they could give the dog a bath. This was completely their idea. Others took the dogs for walks, or brushed them.

5) Links to Other Subject Areas

I also teach kindergarten media literacy, and when we had a post-role-play conversation, some of the students talked about how they (as dogs and cats) wish they had been picked but weren't. Perfect moment for empathy! The ECE and I said that this might be how actual animals feel when they are passed over for adoption, and then we brainstormed what could be done to draw attention to the animals. The students said we could make signs and posters. We took a media class to "draw in role" and make posters featuring themselves as a dog or cat, with details (like age, cost, and colour) and orally, they gave reasons for why they would make a good pet for someone.

I'm thinking of writing this description up and sharing it with CODE (Council of Drama and Dance Educators), if they'll have it. It's been a lot of fun and as long as I describe it in a way that doesn't make it sound like I'm locking children up in cages for jollies, I'll be safe and we'll keep playing.

ETA: Here are some photos of one class playing "Pets at the Pound". Student faces have been covered to protect privacy.




Monday, December 7, 2015

Memes - from Twitter Inspiration to Project Finale

Inspiration can come from many sources. I noticed at my school that many classes have been displaying some new, appealing artwork by students. When I asked the teachers how they came up with these art ideas, the answer is often "Pinterest".

Although I have a Pinterest account, I know I don't use it as effectively as I could. My go-to social media site for professional ideas is still Twitter. Thanks to Twitter, I was swept up in book spine poetry creation thanks to the Toronto Public Library and Kansas City Public Library's public "friendly feud" and Fran Potvin-Schaefer's TDSB library challenge. Way back in October, I saw a link to a blog post about creating memes with students. As I tweeted, it was perfect timing because of a teacher who wanted to collaborate with me.
Julie Millan gave us another great perspective and reminded us about ethics and digital citizenship.
So, how did the projects fare? Quite well, actually! The original blog post that inspired my work didn't make public the bank of images that the teacher-librarian collected, so I did some digging around and found a few meme generators. Many had inappropriate content for school use but this one seemed the tamest:
imgflip.com/memegenerator
 As the teacher and I planned the unit and explored using memes for social studies and social justice, we agreed that using just a meme would be insufficient to share all they learned as part of their research project. The final task was tweaked so that students would create a brochure and a meme for the NGO charity of their choice.

The students were very excited to make memes. They thought it'd be easy. What they soon learned (like I did last week with my Much Ado About Nothing Twitter play) is that comedy is complicated. Making something funny with an important message as well wasn't easy. Finding the right image and using the right combination of just a few words was more challenging than they originally thought.

We used the article Julie cited as a discussion starter in class. There was still room for improvement in student comprehension, as they came to the library to print their memes in colour. One ELL student had selected a photo of a person with a developmental delay wearing a Superman suit and a goofy facial expression as the image for her meme. She did not understand that the visual was intended to mock the man rather than make him appear heroic. The classroom teacher grabbed the teaching moment and explained why this photo was disrespectful and helped the student select a better shot.

Students also used SMART Senteo Response clickers to answer questions about what constituted a meme vs a brochure, generating some media literacy marks so students could "identify the conventions and techniques used in some familiar media forms and explain how they help convey meaning and influence or engage the audience".

I'll try and post both the hall display of the finished projects as well as the anchor chart (developed with the students) about the characteristics of a meme here on this blog so that there are examples.

ETA: Here are some of the final products!



I'm grateful I was able to partner up with this teacher for what turned out to be a very engaging and interesting project. (Our next project together? Wab Kinew's Craft Reconciliation challenge!)



Monday, November 30, 2015

Back to the Virtual Stage

Just when I swore I was not going to take on another project, Danika Tipping (Barker) offered me an opportunity that I just couldn't pass up.

Several years ago - I can't believe it was way back in 2011 - Danika organized Brevity is the Soul of Twit - experiencing Hamlet via Twitter. I was Osric and I reflected a LOT on the experience. I may have gone a bit overboard on the behind-the-scenes preparation, even going so far as to create his own Goodreads account and posting my notes about Osric. I may not be Heath Ledger, but I really took the role seriously and had a fantastic and educational time doing it.

Fast forward to 2015. Danika is at it again. This time, it's not a tragedy - it's a comedy. (Much Ado About Nothing). My part is not a minor one like Osric - it's Don Pedro, the Spanish Prince, one of the main characters in the play. Another couple of big differences this time around are that a) I've never read or studied Much Ado About Nothing and b) I didn't have the same amount of time to prepare.

My colleagues have already begun to blog about their experience with doing Shakespeare via Twitter. Niall Cooke has shared how he had some trepidation about the prospect. Danika described how she approached it differently in terms of organization. I *have* to approach it differently myself this time - this is improvisational, without as much advanced preparation. I'm flying by the seat of my princely Spanish pants right now. What have I learned so far?

1) It IS possible to cram a bit and get by.

This isn't a lesson I'd recommend to my students, but it is true. I've read play summaries and character descriptions on various websites but I have a huge copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare semi-permanently open to the act and scene we are presently portraying and I read and re-read the portions intensely. (Part of this was my fault - I thought I had an extra week to read and ponder my motivations but I didn't.)

2) Comedy is hard.

Humor depends so much on context, situation, cultural and historical references, and many many other factors. I'm told that at school I can be funny, but could I do "funny on demand"? Because the audience isn't directly in front of us, it's hard to tell if a joke or pun or image works or not.  We only get feedback via a DM from one of our castmates or if our director RTs a line - but who knows the purpose of the retweet.

3) Positive interdependence is key in drama - and the show must go on.

We can't all be chained to our computers all day to respond to tweets, despite the calendar guideline. Being committed and flexible while working as a team helps. Big thanks to my dear pal Alanna (aka Beatrice) who helped out by stepping in for the Governor with a key line (because in real life he had already gone to bed when the events were unfurling - as we remarked "off stage", it was a LONG scene!) Alanna also saved my behind by helping me turn Don Pedro's press release into an image file so it could be tweeted easier. We have each other's backs (and passwords, if need be).

Here's a Storify of the action so far.






Thanks Danika for the opportunity. Follow #muchtado to catch all the action!


Monday, November 23, 2015

Current Events in the Elementary Social Studies Class

Twitter chats are all the rage. Some make a bigger impact than others. Recently (November 19), I participated in the #ontsshg (Ontario Social Studies History Geography) chat and the topic was on how to deal with current events in the classroom, especially considering the recent news in Paris.




It was a timely chat, because I'm doing some collaborative teaching with a Grade 2-3 teacher for social studies and for the time being, we've been splitting up the two groups for some temporarily separate instruction. The classroom teacher indicated to me that she really hoped to sensitively address issues surrounding the recent anti-Muslim actions occurring in Canada recently as an aftermath of the Paris attacks.

The most recent lesson actually linked perfectly to a sensitive, student-led, age-appropriate discussion about the issues. I described it in this (edited version) of the email I sent to the classroom teacher describing the lesson.

The children insisted on sharing their continents song [the classroom teacher] taught them, so I let them sing it. (Very catchy!)
To connect it to last week's Grade 2 social studies, I asked them what continents Canada and India were in. They knew Canada right away, but we had to go look at a big map to realize that India was part of Asia. 

We then took turns looking at the dot jot notes we had collected on Divali to see about what would be useful to add to our Venn diagram. We put stickers on the points we used. We did some Internet research to see what the temperature in Toronto and Mumbai was, so we could see how climate impacts the celebration (although we didn't discuss that part as much). We had to do some misconception routing because at first the students didn't believe that there were Hindu temples in Canada, only India. We connected it to mosques and churches. 

We divided into two teams to see how many different holidays we could brainstorm and record in 5 minutes.
[One group] listed 17. [The other] group listed 7. ... We didn't get time to go into creating a group definition of holiday, because as we were looking at our lists, K asked the other group "What's Eid?" T chimed up right away to say it was a holiday that she celebrates. I asked T if she'd like to explain a bit more and she agreed to "be the teacher". She talked about Eid, visiting family, getting money, and praying. Then she said "but a bad thing happened before ... some boys came to a Muslim girl and said mean things to her because she was Muslim". It was a perfect segue into current events. The questions and responses that were flowing were pretty amazing, especially between E and T. I can't remember everything that was said, but here's some of it. 
"How can you tell someone's a Muslim?" E asked. 
"Well, you can tell by their names - my name is a Muslim name"
"But if they don't know your name, how would they know if you are Muslim"
"Sometimes what we wear ..."
(This is where I clarified for the group about hijabs)
"We speak different languages too ... N speaks Arabic and I speak Farsi..."
Others chimed in about their beliefs. J said she's a Christian. K said he doesn't have a religion (I introduce the word "agnostic"). 
I asked the class if T was a Muslim (yes) and a Canadian (yes) and I said that a small number of people who said they were Muslim had done some bad things in another part of the world, but that did not mean all Muslims were bad. K said "is this like #myCanada?" [a writing prompt the class teacher had given her class prior based on the Twitter conversation #notmyCanada]  T said "we Muslims are supposed to do good things". 

We talked a bit more about how we might like to learn about holidays that we don't know much about. Someone said "like Eid". I said, "yes, but T already knows lots about Eid" and she said "I wouldn't mind doing more about it". 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Assessment can be Fun!

In the 2010 Ontario Ministry of Education document, Growing Success, seven fundamental principles of assessment and evaluation are outlined.

The Seven Fundamental Principles
To ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable, and that they lead to the improvement of learning for all students, teachers use practices and procedures that:
• are fair, transparent, and equitable for all students;
• support all students, including those with special education needs, those who are learning the language of instruction (English or French), and those who are First Nation, M├ętis, or Inuit;
• are carefully planned to relate to the curriculum expectations and learning goals and, as much as possible, to the interests, learning styles and preferences, needs, and experiences of all students;
• are communicated clearly to students and parents at the beginning of the school year or course and at other appropriate points throughout the school year or course;
• are ongoing, varied in nature, and administered over a period of time to provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate the full range of their learning;
• provide ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement;
• develop students’ self-assessment skills to enable them to assess their own learning, set specific goals, and plan next steps for their learning.
The purpose is to improve student learning, but what I didn't consider (and it's not listed in the document) is that assessment can be fun. Usually evaluation isn't fun for me. I agonize too much and second-guess myself. However, I had two recent assignments that I actually enjoyed marking - and the students did too.

Kindergarten Music - Singing Solo

This is my first year that I can recall teaching kindergarten music. I was very self-conscious about the prospect because I knew I was not as knowledgeable as our music/ESL teacher. (There were so many ELL students to service that there was no room in her schedule to see the three kindergarten classes for music, so they became my responsibility.) I met with the teacher and took pages of notes on what she typically does. What I realized is that I couldn't completely mimic her program. I have a different teaching style and it was okay for me not to replicate the music teacher's entire repertoire. One of the techniques I recently tried that she usually did not employ was to hear children sing individually. I thought this would backfire. I predicted that many students would refuse to sing. We had been playing a physical game for weeks based on the song "Pop Goes the Weasel" and the SKs had even rewritten the song with new lyrics (which wasn't my idea but theirs - inquiry learning takes us in unexpected directions). I borrowed the class iPad, pulled up a  recording app, and first asked the seniors to sing their new verses. They did a phenomenal job. I decided to take the plunge and try it with the juniors. To my surprise and delight, 95% were able and willing to do it! For some, I had never heard them speak in English alone before, and here they were, singing in English! If I can figure out how, I'll embed some of the MP3 files we recorded here in the blog so you can hear some of their sweet, tiny voices. 

Primary Drama - Face Acting Feedback

Long range planning has taken a bit of a back seat for drama and dance this year, as I try harder to integrate our drama/dance lessons with what's currently happening in the regular classroom and give students greater say in what and how we do things. (This happens to an extent - if it were up to them, we would play "Bop It" and "Toy Store" every single class!) We started with voice acting and have now moved to face acting. We had long discussions about emotions and how feelings are expressed with facial expressions. One of our final tasks will be a single photo with props that represents a specific emotion or situation, but to help prepare students to do this, our "mid-unit" evaluation consisted of selecting six emotions and showing them on our faces. We took photos and I printed them out. Growing Success describes assessment FOR learning and assessment AS learning (and notes that "terms such as diagnostic, formative, and summative, which are used to identify the nature of assessment, have recently been supplemented with the phrases assessment for learning, assessment as learning, and assessment of learning. ... the nature of the assessment is determined by what the information is to be used for" [page 30]). The activity we did last week was both FOR and AS. The class members examined the photos and selected the best facial expression each student made (designated by tally marks on sticky notes). We re-discussed what made certain expressions more effective than others and then wrote detailed feedback to each other using the "two stars and a wish" structure on a larger Post-It (c) note. I used the same format when providing my own feedback and evaluated both their facial expressions and their evaluations. This matched these drama expectations:
  • B1.4 communicate feelings and ideas to a familiar audience (e.g., classmates), using several simple visual or technological aids to support and enhance their drama work 
  • B2.3 identify and give examples of their strengths, interests, and areas for improvement as drama participants and audience members
I actually enjoyed looking at the photos and providing feedback. Often, my feedback mirrored that of the student evaluators, which made me feel like I was on the right track. I'll try and scan some of the examples, but unfortunately I'll have to blur the faces for privacy reasons. 




I know it's not a prerequisite to make marking fun, but it definitely made the task easier and made me eager to complete it in a timely manner. 



Monday, November 9, 2015

Students Solve a Decade-Old Problem

Ever have a problem that seems nearly impossible to solve?

For me in the library, it was this: "How do I allow intermediate division students to use the library freely at recess without them abusing the privilege?"

Even before it was printed in Together for Learning, I always wanted to "alter 'hours of operation' and rethink assumptions about 'acceptable activities'" (T4L page 10). Unfortunately, every time I opened up the library for teen recess use, the same thing would happen: students would flock in just because it was cold outside; they would come in the library but then leave to wander the halls or congregate in the bathrooms; I became overwhelmed with policing the visitors instead of supervising or assisting those who truly wanted my help, and it became like another yard duty. The other teachers would become upset with the student conduct and every year, I'd have to tell the intermediate students that they could come after school but not at recess.

I didn't want this to happen again, so this school year, I turned to a group for help: the students. As Leading Learning suggests, "engage students in discussion and planning: what do they need, what are their ideas for transforming the school library?" (LL page 24). I explained to the Grade 6, 7, and 8s my dilemma. I described the pitfalls I encountered every year. I tried to model some of those Individual Growth ideas from Together for Learning, like considering divergent opinions and participating in the social exchange of ideas.

The students did not disappoint me. They came up with a plan, with some additional suggestions from their classroom teachers. Some aspects of their plan might not have fit with my own vision, but so far, it's been working well. Each junior and intermediate class has about eight Popsicle sticks marked as recess passes. The students take them when they want to go. This way, the class teacher has an approximate idea of how many students are in the library, a tool the teachers requested. Students write their name, date and circle their purpose in a library visit binder. Listing a goal means that students are accountable for their library time. The students themselves monitor how often they go to the library - the agreement is that they would only visit once per day, to allow other students the opportunity to go the library as well.




An unexpected benefit of the library visit binder is that I'm gathering data on what activities the students use the library for the most. When I get my MakerSpace up and running again, it will be another opportunity for library recess visits and it'll be interesting to see if that changes the reasons for the visits.

When the weather gets colder, it will also be fascinating to see if the self-regulation continues as well as it has been. I am so pleased with the students for helping me solve this problem. I wonder what else we can solve together?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Academic & Social Lessons Learned from Halloween

Believe it or not, despite my love for dressing up, I don't "do" Halloween much in my lessons at school. (I actually searched my blog history to see if I've ever written about Halloween in the past and I hadn't.) I supply classroom teachers with Halloween-themed read-alouds from the library, but I don't use them myself. I am the semi-official photographer at the Halloween parade (for archiving and yearbook purposes), but I began the health and safety spiel in the gym on Friday by reminding the students that not everyone celebrates Halloween and that's okay (which means both observing the signs of participating houses so you don't knock on doors that aren't giving out candy, and respecting the students who do not want to dress up for whatever their reasons). Yet, observing Halloween traditions led me to some recent learning of my own.


Halloween Academic Lesson Learned

= Math is everywhere (and I'm not as math-phobic as I thought!)

Ever since my husband told me it was easier to supervise our children as they trick-or-treated than it was to distribute candy at the door, I've been giving out candy, to prove him wrong. For some reason, I counted the visitors. In 2012, we had 135 trick-or-treaters. I lost my 2013 figures (which upset my sense of order) and in 2014 we had 98 trick-or-treaters. I liked counting because then my husband and I could estimate how much candy we would need without running out. This year, 2015, we had 121 visitors. I thought that was the limit of my mathematical leanings, but a Twitter conversation with Aviva Dunsiger made me realize that a lot more math was happening.








 I don't consider myself to be a math fan, either as a teacher or student; however, Aviva's observations opened my eyes to authentic numeracy tasks, that I was *willingly* doing.

Halloween Social Lesson Learned

= Watch for unspoken needs (and know when to push and when to wait)

After that incident a few weeks ago with a student experiencing an anxiety attack, I've been trying to be more observant with some of my quieter students. One of the Grade 1 students I work with has been talking a lot more to me now than she did while in kindergarten. This is good, even though what she often tells me is "I'm scared". She needs a lot of praise, encouragement, and wait time. She asked me last week whether or not I liked her, and when I effusively responded positively, she seemed genuinely surprised and happy. On this chaotic Friday, I noticed that "A" was holding back even more than usual. I asked her if she was okay and she said no. After some cautious and gentle questioning, it turns out she wanted to dress up but left her costume at home. Thankfully, as part of my Library Learning Commons Play Area, I have a bin filled with costumes. I offered her the chance to wear one of the costumes. It took her a long time to decide and express her desires, but after a while, she selected a sparkly cape and we pinned it into a dress. Unfortunately, her fear came back with a vengeance when she had to return to class and I was about to take a group photo. She didn't want to go in. I didn't force her. I took the photo without her in it and quietly let the supply teacher know she was safe but in the hall and feeling a bit ill-at-ease. What was going to happen when her class went into the gym for the Halloween parade? Would she choose to sit while the rest of her class walked? I watched and when it was her class' time, one of her friends held her hand and together they marched with the rest of the group. I saw "A" in the hall by herself a short time later and talked to her. She admitted that she was scared to get up but she did it. I applauded her bravery and asked if it was okay to take a photo of her now. She agreed. (I put the blue square on the photo here to protect her privacy.)


I discussed the incident with my husband afterwards and he commented that sometimes it depends on who asks the person with anxiety to do something (i.e. a fellow student invited her to get up to walk vs the teacher demanding it). I'm glad I was able to help her. It wasn't always easy waiting as long as I had to, but she overcame that challenge and hopefully it will make other challenges in the future less scary.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Undervalued Sense

I love to talk about and think about my students and the weird, wacky, and wonderful things that happen on a "typical" day at school. Spending time with the kindergarten classes often generates the most entertaining stories. For instance, there's one sweet little boy in junior kindergarten that has a habit of getting very close to my face, arms, and legs, and smelling me. As he sniffs around me, he announces, "I smell you. I smell you Ms. Molly." I'm pretty used to my personal space being invaded by little people, who touch, grab, and hug me constantly, but this scent examination unnerved me at first. Did I stink? Was I too sweaty? After this happened several times, even after I had made a special effort with my bathing that morning and a liberal application of perfume, I realized that this was just how this particular student interacts with me.

Smell. We spend a lot of time on sight and sound in school, but less on feel and definitely less on smell and taste. Why? The other senses tend to lend themselves to learning in a much more direct manner - such as looking at the words on a page and listening to someone read aloud to comprehend a written text. People also react strongly to smells - an American mother was banned from her child's elementary school due to her smell and workplaces have arranged scent-free policies to be sensitive to employees and visitors with issues, like a school in Barrie, or in Coquitlam. Some individuals, like the ones cited in this article, take matters into their own hands when odors become too much. Is it possible to completely block scents? This article I found from the Canadian Medical Association Journal states that the scientific evidence behind these scent-free policies are complex and blanket restrictions are not always helpful. Then there's the work currently being investigated by a friend of mine, Melanie McBride, who is an inter-sensory researcher at Ryerson University. A lot of Melanie's work is at a level beyond my comprehension, but she is passionate about scents, the cultural associations with some, and natural vs artificial ones. (Forgive me Melanie if I'm oversimplifying some of the aspects of your studies.) Using smell is part of the human experience. What are we missing when we try to delete the sense of smell from school and learning? Smell and memory are closely linked - what if we could help our students remember content more thoroughly through smell? This website claims that certain scents improve retention and this super-brief article mentions the attempt to link subjects to certain smells. Smelling things are one way we try to make sense of our world - students smell the liquid in my mug to see if I'm drinking tea or hot chocolate or hot water with lemon. Smelling is a natural sort of inquiry. One of the kindergarten teachers in my school has cups with holes in them for his students to explore certain scents at their own pace - coffee and chocolate were two examples he used. As long as we are careful with it and culturally respectful about it (e.g. curry may reek to some unexperienced noses but it is not a "foul stench"), we should consider scent - in our poetry, in our science and health units (e.g. natural gas alerts) and elsewhere. Smell should not be a bad word.


P.S. This photo was taken while my dear friend Denise Colby and I were in Newfoundland. While we toured the Newman Wine Vaults in St. John's, we took a sommelier scent test to see if we could categorize the bottled fragrances. Both of us fared quite poorly but the volunteers said that out of the ten bottles, most people can only identify two or three. Denise, do you recall our scores?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Making Mistakes & Mental Health

This incident happened a while ago, but despite the fact that the child involved does not seem to be irrevocably harmed by the experience, it bothered me enough that I have to write about it, to help me process what occurred and what steps I need to take to ensure it doesn't happen again.

The apologetics before the story: I'd like to think that my class environment is a safe and happy place to be. I believe I'm getting better, year by year, at modifying and accommodating my lessons so that students can find success. I also try to watch carefully to ensure that no students fall between the cracks, especially the quiet ones. This school year, I had noticed that a Grade 3 student in one of my classes was not participating during my library lessons. We were doing a task on the interactive white board (IWB) and when I invited her up to try, she shook her head and refused. I offered her the chance to go up with a friend, but she declined. I checked in with my school's ESL teacher to see if the activity was too advanced for this particular student and the ESL teacher said that the job was reasonable and possible for her to understand and do. Her refusal was not because of limited English. The ESL teacher said that if it occurred again, just send the student to the ESL room so that she could talk with the child in her first language to discover what was going on. The next class, the student again refused to try the task. I coaxed. I had another student do the precise action I wanted and then erased it for her to do. Again, she shook her head no. I told her to go see the ESL teacher. The student refused to move. This was getting frustrating and so I did something stupid. Instead of letting it go, I escalated it. I thought she was just being obstinate. I gave her a choice - to go to the ESL teacher, do the job, or go to the office. She didn't move from the carpet. What?! I sent another student to report the act of defiance to the principal. He came down and tried to escort the student out of the library but she wouldn't take his hand. Disobeying the principal? Something told me to stop the lesson and allow them time for book exchange, to end the drama. As the children spread out to search for books, my principal whispered to me something along the lines of "I'm not going to drag her physically to the office. Look at her - she's terrified". He was right. What I initially interpreted as stubbornness was actually an anxiety attack.

I felt horrible and guilty. I should have known better. I have family members who have anxiety disorders and I should have noticed the signs. I apologized to my principal for acting like a new teacher who had no clue about classroom management. He accepted the apology and said that the experience at least put this particular child on our radar. The ESL teacher spoke to the child later on that day and told me that the reason she did not want to go up to the IWB was because she was afraid that her classmates would laugh at her. It may not seem reasonable, but it stressed her out, and this article mentions that behavioral changes such as stubbornness may actually be a reaction to stress. My pushing added to that stress. I think I apologized to the child herself, after the ESL teacher had her apologize to me. I still feel bad and would gladly apologize again, but she's gotten over it - she still says hi to me with a big smile when I see her in the hallway. I think this blog post is another way for me to say sorry for my actions.

Here's the "call to action". Even though I have direct experience with dealing with loved ones who have anxiety, I still didn't recognize the signs in a student. Teachers need to learn more about mental health and wellness. There needs to be more support. Today is the Canadian federal election official voting day. Keeping in mind that all news outlets have their own biases, here is a list of where the four main political parties stand and their policies. Take a look at Social Issues. My voting patterns are all over the map - in the past, I've voted Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Reform, and even the Family Life Coalition. Without revealing whom I voted for, I'll tell you that this time, I voted for the party that has pledged money towards mental health innovation for children and youth and support to community mental health associations. Vote. Make your voice heard.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Treasure Mountain Canada 4 - Return to Small Scale Researching

If Carol Koechlin asks me to do something, I say yes.

Anita & Carol, TMC1, Edmonton 2010
Who is Carol Koechlin, you may ask? If you ask that question, chances are you are new to the teacher-librarian world. Carol is an influential author and workshop leader. As revealed on this virtual wall of honor for library mentors, Carol Koechlin was a big influence on my career. She loves to tell stories of what I was like as a brand-new teacher-librarian, a "little mouse", if you can believe it. (I do remember staying late creating book records on special index cards for the card catalogue - that's how long I've been involved with school libraries!)

I do things when Carol asks, not because she's bossy or demanding. Quite the contrary. When Carol makes a request, the end result benefits the participant and the school library community as a whole.

Recently, Carol asked me to consider writing a research paper for Treasure Mountain Canada 4, and to encourage other teacher-librarians in the province and country to do the same.

What is Treasure Mountain? To quote the history of the event from the TMC website,

Treasure Mountain Canada is visioned as an extension of a research retreat project called Treasure Mountain,in United States, developed  by Dr. David Loertscher and colleagues in 1989. A dozen retreats since then have established this 'meeting of the minds' in school library research as a valuable catalyst for improvement based on analysis of research in the field.
TMC1 print copy of papers, circa 2010

Me? Write a research paper? I'm not an academic! That's probably the first reaction teacher-librarians might have to such a proposition. I'd challenge you to undertake a lesson I used to often do with my elementary school students in the library - ask them (and ask yourself) to draw what a researcher looks like. What do you get? What gender or age do the drawings show? What clothes do the researchers wear? What tools do the researchers use? Why do the pictures look the way they do? What do we mean when we say research? Google the definition of research and you won't find a focus on the person but on the process. Research involves systematic investigation, inquiry with a purpose. Don't we research when we are purchasing a car, to discover which model would best suit our needs? Shouldn't we do a bit of research prior to an election, to learn about the candidates running for office in our region? Even the youngest children conduct research, be it to see how to conquer the last level of Super Mario Brothers, discover how to build a redstone-powered roller coaster on Minecraft, or select the coolest Halloween costume or Christmas gift for themselves. Teacher-librarians are conducting research frequently too, although they may not realize it. We are all researchers.

Treasure Mountain Canada research papers do have suggested themes, but they are not as onerous or intimidating as one might initially think. The topic for TMC4 is on implementing the National Standards for School Librarianship as outlined in Leading Learning. Too wide? TMC4 narrows it down even further, to three possible areas:

Theme: Growing Impact of Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Libraries in Canada
  • Co-teaching for Deeper Learning
  • Innovation for Learning
  • Building a Learning Community 
I find conducting research to share with a larger audience exciting. I prepare an Annual Report on my library program to give to my principal and examine my own successes and challenges, but this type of action research is invigorating. Selecting a particular unit or teaching practice or pathway and examining it deeper can lead to new insights, and with more people reading and thinking about the discoveries, the particulars can be honed and polished in the original location, and/or spread to new locations. How powerful is that?

The attendees of TMC1 in 2010
Treasure Mountain Canada is held every two years. The first was in Edmonton; the second in Ottawa; the third in Victoria and the fourth will be in Toronto. (I went to the Edmonton event but haven't been since.) The official call for papers is here on the website. Even if you cannot attend the symposium in Toronto, submitting a paper (or website or video) would help significantly to continue the conversation beyond the borders of our schools and boards. For 2016, I plan on writing two papers, on teacher-librarian mentorship and on using Games Based Learning in the library learning commons. I've got until January to write my papers. Join me. Join us.

P.S. Another benefit to TMC is being with TL friends (like June & Joanie)

P.P.S. Added plus? Touring the host city (e.g. me at West Edmonton Mall)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Clarification (aka Moving Away from Minecraft Part 2)


Is the sun setting on Minecraft?
On August 24, 2015, I wrote a blog post about my reluctance to continue promoting Minecraft now that it was no longer an independent product. According to my blog statistics, that post had 41 page views (which is a respectable number for my small blog) and two comments. I received several comments, retweets and favourites via Twitter (thanks Peter, Tim, Liam, Diana, Zelia, Deborah, Cathy, Teresa, and Joel; I embedded a sample tweet below).
My favourite Ontario EduBlog curator, Doug Peterson, even commented on it in his weekly review.

Thank goodness that Doug not only highlights blog posts, but explains his subsequent thoughts, because it led me to write this follow-up post. I have a hard time disagreeing with Doug - I'm not sure that he even realized that ages ago, as part of the "performance PD" at ECOO, we were supposed to "trash talk" our opponents and I struggled with the task because I just respect the old guy too much. On further reflection, I found that I wasn't disagreeing with him so much as clarifying things.

Doug wrote:
 It’s too late to close the barn door here.  We buy by brand and each of the products has built upon the nature of the previous technology.  It’s not just a mouse, it’s sculpted to fit the hand. The tablet has wrist recognition.  The keyboard is noiseless.  Where would I be without corporate involvement and making things easier, more productive, more ergonomic, and ultimately better for me?
I don't know if I'm the best one to comment on this, as I own an iPhone 4 with no intention of updating my iOS, even if it means missing out on Apple Music (or whatever it's called). I don't object to corporate involvement; my concern is not that corporations are telling us what to use, but in the case of Microsoft and Minecraft, telling us how to use.  I received an email from Microsoft advertising "Free Development Tools and Training from Microsoft". One of the portions of the email read:
Build the Best Games
Whether you are building your first game, porting an existing one, or launching the next big thing, Microsoft makes it easy for you to build innovative and differentiated gaming experiences across multiple devices.
I also saw this tweet promoted:
And for something a bit more recent, there's this tweet:

Microsoft Edu (note the handle) wants to get involved in schools in ways like Google (Google Certified Teachers) and Apple (Apple Distinguished Educators) have already, and Minecraft is their way in. A mystery benefactor sent me a nice present via inter-office mail (a Minecraft magazine) and one of the articles discussed the impact that Microsoft might have on the game. Of course, as luck would have it, I've misplaced the magazine somewhere at school along with my notes on it. If I remember, I'll edit my post to include the salient points.

Back to the clarification. Doug asked three questions that I felt compelled to respond to:
  1. Will it being branded and supported by a corporate entity change the experience?
  2. How much change would affect her abilities as a classroom teacher to get the best from it for her kids?
  3. Is this a fight worth fighting or is it just a natural evolution?

Here are my answers:

  1. Corporate involvement changes the experience for me. It doesn't for the students. It makes me feel like every time I encourage the use of the game, I'm indirectly working for Microsoft. 
  2. I don't know the answer to the second question. I've noticed that Minecraft at my school is slowly being ditched/rejected by the older students - it's not as "cool" anymore. It's the younger students clamoring for the re-institution of Minecraft Club. 
  3. What about option C - yes to both? It may be a losing battle, but it's a Don Quixote windmill fight I still want to have. Natural evolution? - Tim King wrote in a tweet to me that "Berners-Lee gave us the Internet . Torvalds gave us Linux. Altruism in tech is the exception :("

What I'm discovering since my original blog post is that it's harder than I thought to walk away from Minecraft - not for me, but for others when thinking of me. My students still want Minecraft Club (albeit the younger students). Several people have approached the GamingEdus about some small projects and we've accepted them. We aren't adding any new schools on the Multi-School or Professional Play servers. I'm still putting distance between me and Minecraft; it's been over five years, after all and I want some new challenges. Maybe since he's been so influential on my growing understanding that I should end with a tweet from Peter Skillen:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Seeing Things Differently

Turn a blind eye. See the forest for the trees. Love at first sight. I never realized how many English phrases refer to vision, until we enrolled a student at my school with a significant visual impairment. I want to respect the privacy of this student, so I will be deliberately vague about him/her. I realized early on that what I knew about accommodations and modifications did not or could not apply to this situation - I was out of my league. The great news was that the classroom teacher and I were not alone. The Vision Department of our school board sent a Special Needs Educational Assistant, a Vision Itinerant teacher, and an Orientation and Mobility teacher.

I have learned so much from these experts that I wanted to share some of it here on my blog. What I really love about our conversations is that I don't get the feeling that they are lecturing me or that I'm wasting their time with my questions, despite the fact that they have a very full schedule, with over 40 students to assist and teach. They graciously agreed, not only to mentioning them but to even letting me post a photograph!

L-R, Ellen, me, Cathy

Instructional Considerations and Strategies

When Cathy, the Orientation and Mobility Specialist came in before school started, I was eager to milk her for as many ideas and suggestions as possible. She wisely doled out her knowledge in small chunks, so that I wouldn't become overwhelmed with information. For instance, in the first week, she gave reasonable suggestions for improving my supply bins: reprinting the signs with high-contrast clear printing as well as attaching the actual physical object held in the bins to the front near the signs for a tactile reinforcement. This was useful for the sighted children as well.

I teach a lot of subjects that rely heavily on visual input and I was concerned about how to alter my typical teaching patterns so that our new student would get the most out of the lessons I provided. I think I may have squealed a bit too loudly when Cathy introduced me to the existence of coloured hot glue gun sticks. She taught me how to create a raised border on the edges of a paper so that students could interact with, write or colour on paper.

I noticed that the class library books now have Braille additions, thanks to Ellen, one of the Central Vision teachers. As the teacher-librarian, I am keen to investigate further to discover how easily we can do this for books in our school library collection.

Mistakes are part of learning, and I make a lot of them. I tried to modify a task (a version of the Tribes activity, "Where Do I Stand?") using the cord covers usually meant to stop wires from becoming tripping hazards. It didn't go as well as I would have hoped, and I was lucky enough to find both Ellen and Cathy in the teacher workroom the same day I taught that lesson. I explained what I had attempted to do and what the result was; they praised my effort and had several recommendations that I could try next time (like an initial border and a "back border" so that students wouldn't crowd around the former and unintentionally block the student with the visual impairment).

We had a team "meeting" this past week to clarify our roles and find consistency in our approaches. I took copious notes and will try my best to apply what I learned from the conversation. For instance, prior to this meeting, I thought having the SNA (special needs assistant) describe the pictures in a book while I was reading it would help - but too many voices makes it hard to focus. If the teacher reading the book can take a moment to describe the picture to the whole class, the student with the visual impairment will be more likely to stay focused on the single voice at the front of the class. Other ideas that were important for me to remember are:
  • to be mindful of my language and my use of endearments, because if I am using them for the blind student only (or even other subgroups of students), I might be creating barriers
  • to provide verbal prompts discreetly, to maintain the student's dignity and independence
  • to use the same terminology for techniques the student is being taught 
  • to identify myself by name to the student when I approach so I am recognizable
  • to be specific when I speak and avoid using vague words like "here" or "there"
I began the post with a reference to sight-related terms. Ellen and Cathy reassured us that we didn't need to be afraid to use words like "look", "see" and "watch", because they are common terms and not offensive to use with students who are blind, who know what you mean. Thanks to Cathy and Ellen, I am seeing things differently and am grateful for all their wisdom and support.

(Note: this is not a classroom blog. It is a personal blog reflecting on my professional practice. Updates will continue during Phase 3 of the Ontario public elementary teachers work-to-rule action. I support ETFO, my union.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

When is it safe to share your passion projects?

This weekend, I baked a cake and slipped a file into it to give to a friend.

I made it myself!
Don't call the police on me; it was all inspired by a role-playing game (RPG) that my family plays with some dear friends of ours once a month.

Thanks to dictionary.reference.com, this is a basic definition for RPG: a game in which participants adopt the roles of imaginary characters in an adventure under the direction of a Game Master. I've talked about this with my husband with an education slant to it years ago at the OLA Superconference. (It was so long ago that the link will take you to a Powerpoint!) I also write a lot about this particular RPG we play on my other blog about Family Gaming. People know about online versions of RPGs like World of Warcraft; we enjoy those as well, but in the game that we play with our friends, we use cards, character sheets and our vivid imaginations. We play superheroes and have epic battles with high-powered villains. In the previous adventure, one of our players ("Thumper") behaved less-than-heroically, injuring Karin, a non-hero NPC (non-player character, someone "portrayed" by the Game Master) and Thumper was arrested for the assault. It was such an exciting and unexpected turn of events that we talked about it frequently through emails and at home among ourselves. It also inspired us to create a few "game artifacts" for this weekend's fun.

A "bon voyage" card for Thumper

Inside, the other player characters wrote to her. Long story behind the autograph.

A get well card for Karin, who is in a coma

The characters wrote to her as well.
I've written about passion projects before, but I want to take a different approach in this post, because last week, a student who was excited about something he made, brought it to school and he was arrested because of it. The story of Ahmed Mohamed is still being unraveled in the news, but regardless of where the truth actually lies, the portion I want to focus is on creative endeavors that can be misunderstood. Remember when students were suspended for making their own copies of the book from the manga Death Note? Were they dangerous indicators of unhinged minds, or creative experiments inspired by comics? If I told people (outside this blog, where I have the space to explain and make references) that I baked a cake with a file in it for a pretend prisoner, what would the reaction be? Would I be considered an obsessed nerd? Cute or odd? When people hear about cosplayers who spend months creating outfits so they can resemble their favourite characters from film or books or games, are they admired or feared? My response is to use caution before letting your "geek flag fly", because you never know when your really neat pet project will be seen as something less innocent and more sinister. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Care before Curriculum

If the Associated Press gives me permission to run the photo, this blog post will begin with a picture of a fire fighter lying down next to a child who was in a serious car accident, jointing watching an animated movie on a cell phone. (If permission does not come by my self-imposed publication deadline, you can see the image as part of this news report on the incident.) If I had to sum up the main message of today's blog entry with one picture, this would be it.

The first week of school has come and gone. It's been a whirlwind of experiences, especially because this year I will be working frequently with our youngest students, some of whom are attending school for the first time. Three separate moments demonstrated to me that we need to build relationships before lesson plans, and love (or care) must come before curriculum.

The first event happened on the second day of school. We no longer have "staggered entry", where only a few junior kindergarten students start each day, building up to a full class by the end of the week. This means that every JK student started at the same time. There were a lot of tears and a domino effect of crying. A relatively new stipulation also insists that classes receive their prep time delivery right from the very first day of school, so transitions occur quite soon in the schedule. I was bringing a kindergarten class to the library and a little boy was crying and did not want to enter. One of our junior division teachers crouched down next to him in the hallway and talked softly and kindly to him. With her encouragement, he walked into the library. When I thanked the teacher at the end of the school day, she said that the student reminded her of her own son, who was also a new JK student prone to weeping. With tears in her own eyes, she said that she'd want someone to do for her son what she did for that other little boy.

The second incident took place in a car. I was carpooling with a colleague to a staff "welcome-back-to-school" social and she was transporting her own children to their grandfather's house before the party. The boys and I were chatting and the conversation led to talk about video games. We discussed Terraria ("you have your own server?"), Minecraft, some of the popular Minecraft YouTubers (like Exploding TNT and Stampy), and League of Legends. He was incredulous when I said that I sometimes just like to watch my own son play video games. The teacher later told me that her eldest boy had gushed that he'd love it if I was his mom, and was in the process of trying to arrange a play date with me and my son at my house.

I can't really divulge too much about the third event. It's not something that I wish for any teacher to experience and after nineteen years in the profession, dealing with things like that don't get any easier. I cried a lot, especially when I realized that I was seen as a safe harbour.

Let's look back at that iconic photograph. The emergency worker featured (Casey Lessard) did not want to elevate his actions - he referred to all the other personnel not seen in the photo and said they did more than he did. That may be true, yet it is the compassion and consideration for an individual's emotional state that made this such a compelling visual. Even with all the labour strife looming and the massive responsibilities to do the job, teachers must remember that we are dealing with people first, students second. My favourite quotation is "it's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice". Help them succeed academically, but first make sure they are safe, healthy and happy. There are all sorts of "warm fuzzy" quotes I could include to conclude, about how teachers can make a difference - my challenge, and all of ours in education, is not just to quote it, but to do it and make sure they students know it and feel it.


Monday, September 7, 2015

Blood is thicker than Corn Syrup

Frequent readers of my blog will notice a pattern based on the calendar, and this is the time for my Fan Expo Canada reflections. (For blog posts on Fan Expo Canada from 2014, 20132010, and 2009, click the year links.)

This year, my creative daughter decided to cosplay as Zoe from the video game Left 4 Dead. To continue with our family tradition, I matched my costume to hers by dressing as a Hunter infected. Souvenir stores in Ocean City, MD and Value Village helped me find my outfit but I had a challenging time locating fake blood. Halloween items are slowly emerging on the shelves right around now, but not quickly or profusely enough for most stores to have exactly what I needed. I understand that fake blood is not always in demand beyond October, but it was still frustrating to be stuck on this one detail. I took to Twitter to register my Quixotic quest.
@FanExpoCanada retweeted me and all of a sudden, I received plenty of advice from strangers.

  1. mixing blood here too for Teen Zombie Murder Mystery Friday night! You're welcome.
  2. here's one site with the ratios but there are many more! Fake Blood Recipes-Steve Spangler Science via
  3. kryolan store attached to CMU College is my go to, most Party City's carry blood year round too!
  4. you can make your own, clear cornsyrup, red, and yellow food coloring and mix to the shade of blood you want.
  5. check pinterest for fake blood recipes!
  6. you can make your own with corn syrup and food colouring, or just look up the multitude of recipes on yourtube!
  7. Google making fake blood. Lots of recipes to suit your needs.
  8. Corn syrup and food coloring. ;)
  9. corn syrup and red food colouring. Delicious and cheap. Works well for bloody teeth.
  10. I'm noticing lots of places have Halloween stuff out already! You might luck out at Value Village!





It was delightful to get so much help. I guess I could have searched online for home made fake blood recipes, but I wasn't aware they existed. Silly me. I'm a pretty novice cosplayer. Poppy (who I know in real life as Sharon, but whom I've only met while playing Minecraft on the GamingEdus server) sent me a link with a great series of step-by-step instructions and I decided to try it out and document it here.

The main ingredient is corn syrup. Bulk Barn helped a lot.


Naturally, the recipe calls for a lot of red food colouring, but if this was the final step, it would be too bright and not thick enough. Blood is thicker than corn syrup, so add corn starch.


The surprise ingredient for me (but not for movie fans) was chocolate syrup. The colour darkens and the consistency thickens.


Before we tried the mixture on my face, we placed it on my son's arm. He was so impressed that he said he wanted to dress as an infected (aka a regular zombie) for Fan Expo Canada too.


 My daughter was nervous when coating my eye with the fake blood. (She doesn't wear eye shadow or any makeup so she doesn't have a lot of practice with this sort of thing.) I think it turned out extremely well.


This is the link for the recipe (written in a lovely, experimental inquiry method).
This is the link for one of the best semi-professional make-up jobs for the specific zombie I'm doing.

Here are the photos of us in our complete costumes.

Zoe (my girl) allowed me to share this duo shot

It was so hot my blood ran down my face


I really appreciated the online community that helped me with my outfit and the process of doing the makeup myself. Feel free to make the obvious connections to the classroom.