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, 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.