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 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:
 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!)