Monday, December 26, 2016

The Best Gift

My Christmas Day tweet was used in an online news article about the Queen's health.

It's true that Her Majesty and I were both too sick to attend church, to my chagrin. The chills started Wednesday night and I spent the first day of Christmas vacation sleeping the day away, trying to recover. I was marginally well enough later on to drag myself and my family over to my parents' house for our traditional Christmas Day dinner.

As an adult, presents aren't the most important part of the celebration; yet, there was one gift this year that bowled some of us over completely. It was the last parcel unwrapped and was from my sister, who lives in Calgary. I wasn't sure what it would be, because she had already shipped presents to my house beforehand.

It was a pair of books.
Comic books.
Made by my sister.
About some true events from the past.

My brother and I lost it. We laughed so hard, we cried. We couldn't speak. We pored over each page. We were flabbergasted. We were blown away. With this present, my sister "won" Christmas.

No one else in the room had quite the same, extreme reaction that my brother and I did. They thought it was "nice". I think this speaks to the sibling bond of shared experiences. My sister took a few literary liberties for greater impact, but the funniest pages and panels were hilarious because they were so true - and here it was, saved for posterity, in comic form.

After a flurry of texts exalting her amazing gift, we discovered that there were actually more comics that she had created using Bitstrips, but when the site closed, she was unable to access or upload her work.

Those who follow me on Twitter know that I loved Bitstrips and the educational counterpart, Bitstrips for Schools. A long time ago, my school even appeared in a news segment on how we used technology, specifically Bitstrips, in our learning. (Go to and scroll down to the bottom to see the video clip.) I was really upset when Bitstrips was purchased by SnapChat and stopped operations. On the school side, we received this note back in the summer.

Hi there,

We’re sorry to announce that this is our last year of Bitstrips for Schools. The website will no longer be available after August 31st, 2016. The Ministry of Education is currently working with us to mitigate the end to services.

You can save digital copies of your classwork and activities by archiving your classrooms and then saving them on your hard drive – just follow these steps. You can log into your account here.

Thanks so much to our teachers and students for making Bitstrips for Schools such a special space for learning, creativity, inspiration and fun!

All the best,
The Bitstrips for Schools Team

Sadly, the virtual doors shut prior to August 31 and I didn't archive all the materials we had on there. It sounds like the public side was equally dismayed about the end of this fabulous tool.

I doubt that Jacob Blackstock, the CEO and founder of Bitstrips, reads my blog. What I'm hoping for is that the promised "links to download all of your comics, characters and messages" will come through, so that I can actually read and experience more of the incredible comics documenting my family stories.

Comics are important.

Comics are powerful creative outlets. This message was reinforced this year by this present from my sister and with my participation in TVOntario's Teach Ontario course, "Panels, Gutters and Bubbles: An Introduction to Comics for Educators". The learning will continue in the new year with the book club devoted to the graphic novel Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. Participants can register for the free club at What sadly won't continue is the first kids only comic book store in North America. Little Island Comics will be closing its doors on December 30, 2016. The staff and support will continue to exist as part of The Beguiling, but it will no longer have an exclusive space. Andrew Woodrow-Butcher and his staff were (and still are) a vital part of my comic knowledge building circle. I would not have been able to recommend such current and marvelous comics for that Teach Ontario course without his guidance and generosity. I was shocked to hear from Andrew (and other vendors) how some shoppers would pick their brains, only to then turn around and purchase from another distributor or vendor because their prices were lower. This is why independent sellers struggle to stay afloat. If you get a chance in the next few days, pop by Little Island Comics and buy a book. After all, it can be the best gift.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Multilingual Media Movies

I try not to repeat "old" projects that I've already worked on with students in previous years. I think it's healthy to try new assignments and not be content to go with just "tried and true". It keeps things fresh. Sometimes, however, it's worth returning to a task if you can improve on it. I think we have.

Way back in 2012, my four primary division classes that I saw for media literacy instruction created movies that we published to YouTube about the definition of media. It was an ambitious project but was popular and quite successful. This year, I've tried to improve my focus on incorporating equity. My six primary division classes watched the videos that their schoolmates created four years prior, which was a neat experience because those 2012 students are now in the junior-intermediate grades and the younger students could see what their older schoolmates were able to produce when those "big kids" were their age. We asked ourselves a powerful set of questions: Whose voices are not heard? We made those videos to help other students learn about media - who would have difficulty accessing that message? I was amazed by the insightful responses. They mentioned students without the Internet at home, students with disabilities, and students who speak different languages. The classes decided to make new videos from scratch and create them in multiple languages.

It wasn't easy. This project took a LONG time to complete. We learned about the various jobs involved in movie production and most of our decision making for the project was collaborative, except for the times when the executive producer (that's me) decided to exert her influence because of time constraints or project management issues. There were times when I worried about what the other teams would do while a certain group was active - because these are six- to nine-year-olds, it was challenging to provide other media-related tasks for them to complete independently while I helped the group that was involved with a certain stage of the project. Some groups needed a lot of coaching and support to complete their tasks.

It took three months of work, but I'm proud to announce that we made our self-imposed deadline and we have six new films to share with the world.

This movie, "Media in the Library", was created by the students in Ms.Chiu's Grade 1 class.
They used claymation and selected Tamil and Spanish as the languages they'd feature.

This movie, "The Super Media Movie", was created by the students in Mrs. Morgan's Grade 1-2 class.
They used Lego and selected French as the language they'd feature.

This movie, "Teaching Media (In Chinese)" was created by the students in Mrs. Voltsinis' Grade 1-2 class.
They used Fisher Price toys and selected Mandarin as the language they'd feature.

This movie, "A Beary Good Lesson About Media", was created by the students in Mrs. Commisso's Grade 2-3 class.
They used puppets and selected Urdu as the language they'd feature.

This movie, "Media in the Mall", was created by the students in Ms. Daley's Grade 3 class.
They used live action actors with green screen and selected Mandarin as the language they'd feature.

This movie, "Going Crazy with Media and Minecraft", was created by the students in Ms. Chan's Grade 3-4 class. They used Minecraft and selected Greek as the language they'd feature.

I am so proud of the process and the product, for several reasons.

First of all, I appreciate the parental input and support we received. We voted on the languages we'd use in our films, with the caveat that someone in the class had to know how to speak it. We had parents translate, train and coach their children how to recite the definition of media we used in class in their home language. We could not have done it without our home language experts.

Secondly, I was pleased how the majority of students were able to understand the film making terminology by being immersed in the project instead of by providing vocabulary worksheets. Many of my ELL students were able to explain about "the person who says cut" and other roles.

Third, I like how we strove to use different tools for expressing ourselves. That included the technology tools for filming and editing. Some of the software we used included DoInk, Lego Movie Maker, Minecraft Stop-Motion Movie Creator, Sto-Mo, iMovie, and WeVideo. No one had whole-class lessons on how to use the tools. A mini-tutorial for a small group sufficed.

Fourth, students were excited and engaged about the work they were undertaking. No one groaned when it was media time. I'm sure they'll be excited, like the crew was last year when we made book ending videos, to see how many views their videos receive on YouTube. We're celebrating by having a film festival and popcorn party to view everyone's project and play a new role - that of film critic!

If you get a chance, please watch their videos and leave a respectful comment. Even better - use their videos to teach your students about media, especially your English Language Learners. That's why we made them, after all.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Professional Learning Bleeds Into Personal Life

Adulting is hard.

Some parts of being a grown-up are great. For instance, I just came back from three days in Vancouver, British Columbia. My dear friend Denise Colby and I presented at the Learning Forward conference.

We're here!

Selfie outside the Vancouver Convention Centre

We were fortunate enough to get an "Extended Sharing" grant from the TLLP (Teaching Learning and Leadership Program) to lead a workshop on "Passion Led Communities"; otherwise, we would not have been able to afford to attend. As it was, Denise and I tried our best to be as frugal as possible. This meant we were only able to spend a single day at the conference. (The other two days were for travelling there and back.) In our schedules, we had room to sign up for just a single workshop to attend as a participant. The session I chose to attend was called "Handling Difficult Discussions With Ease". This was an excellent and timely workshop. You can tell by the tweets I posted.

I think I was meant to attend Kate and Michele's workshop.  You see, just before I went to Vancouver, I had a huge disagreement with people close to me.

In blogging etiquette, according to this site, we should
Think before you post any information that you do not want the world to see. The blogosphere is global and open to the public.
I won't go into details about the specifics of our falling-out. The usual pattern after a "fight" with these folks is to avoid talking about it and pretend like nothing happened. This strategy can become a problem, as Kate said in the workshop, because it's like piling dry timber up; it gets bigger and bigger and has the potential to burst into flames with any tiny spark. Kate and Michele explained that all the feelings and reactions that arise when faced with the possibility of a challenging conversation are natural - they had a very creative way of replicating this in their session with an "ice breaker" that had the audience fleeing for the hills! Kate and Michele also had several wonderful suggestions that made me decide to stop sweeping problems under the rug with these individuals and address the issues directly like a real adult. This is a lot harder than it sounds, because as the workshop leaders acknowledged, emotions can be even stronger between friends and family than between co-workers, and there are many factors at play that complicate things.

(I have to add that reading the book Lemons to Lemonade: Resolving Problems in Meetings, Workshops and PLCs by Robert J. Garmston and Diane P. Zimmerman, which I was given at my Presenter's Palette workshop and read on the plane to Vancouver, also helped with my resolve to take what I had learned on my trip to Vancouver and apply it.)

I took the initiative to start this conversation. Kate and Michele said that the person who begins the talk will often have more advantages, because they are mentally prepared for the discussion. This was true. I looked at the "Crucial Conversations Planner" (from VitalSmarts - I don't know if I have permission to share it online so I won't) and went over some of the questions. I practiced what I would say. I rehearsed it without letting my emotions get in the way or interfere with the message. I reviewed 1) the facts (e.g. everyone was upset about how a recent event went), 2) my story (e.g. I was upset and [not but - a key word choice] I didn't mean to upset both of you) and 3) the questions to ask (e.g. how can we communicate our needs and expectations better so we can avoid misunderstandings in the future?). I mentally prepared for the worst possible response. I wasn't sure how this would proceed. After all, leopards don't change their spots and I was uncertain what they would say. Despite this preparation, my stomach was still in knots.

I'm relieved to say that it wasn't a complete disaster. It was a frosty greeting but someone else whom I respect was there to help facilitate the discussion. We spent more time on a practical version of the third point in the path (e.g. "let's talk frankly and honestly about how we foresee this upcoming event running, so that we don't have an experience like we did with the last one"). My third party even took notes, so that we had our decisions recorded so there would be less likelihood of misunderstanding or poor recollection of the agreements. When exploring the others' opinions, I used only half of the AMPP strategies; I asked and mirrored, because they were not at the stage where they were ready or willing to paraphrase or prime. The upcoming celebration is now all ironed out, and people actually had the chance to express their feelings about certain past patterns, and we were able to address them calmly and with consensus.

Will things change now? I doubt it. Just as I was leaving their house after this fruitful conversation, someone brought up another unrelated issue and when I clarified my view, she quickly became agitated and defensive. Thankfully there were witnesses around so we could quickly reassure everyone that this was solvable without arguments, re-establish what steps needed to occur, and repeat what we agreed to do. I just have to remind myself this three word adage: assume positive intentions. These people don't mean to aggravate me. I may not be able to change people, but I can change how I react and respond.

Thank you so much to my (anonymous on here) third party member, Kate and Michele from the Connecticut Education Association, the Learning Forward organization, and everyone. It's great when you can apply what you learn from a workshop at your workplace; it's incredible when you can apply what you learn from a workshop to your life.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Trudeau as Teacher and Expert Presenter

My union nourished me well this past week. On Monday and Tuesday (November 28-29), I had the good fortune to attend the Presenter's Palette Part 2 workshop at ETFO headquarters with Jane Bennett, Ruth Dawson, and Joanne Myers leading the learning. On Friday (December 2), the Elementary Teachers of Toronto hosted Federation Day 2016 at the Toronto Congress Centre with a special keynote speaker: the Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada.

This photo was taken by my dear colleague, Farah Wadia.
She sat a lot closer than I did.

ETFO Presenters' Palette Group 2016

Obligatory "silly shot" (but why am I silliest?)

I wrote about preparing for the workshop last week on my blog and Doug Peterson commented on it (twice!). He noted that "the skill set can't help but benefit any classroom teacher". He's right. Your audience can be fellow educators or students of a younger age range, but many of the strategies can apply to any group you address.

I decided to tie the two separate events together in my reflection by noticing how Prime Minister Trudeau used some of the techniques mentioned at the Presenter's Palette workshop. That might consolidate my learning solidly!

Joanne reminded us that for children, the capacity they have to sit still and listen is their age plus two minutes. She was quick to add that this formula doesn't translate exactly for adults - for grownups, we can listen for 22 minutes before we tune out. Good teachers and good speakers will change things up. Trudeau kept his talk short, because he said he wanted to get to the Q&A portion, where deeper engagement can occur.

Stance / Non-Verbal Communication
Ruth had the workshop attendees think of an important event, influential person, or pivotal moment in our lives and then we had to speak about it for a minute. We were videotaped so that the next day, we could watch ourselves to examine our voice, gestures, facial expressions, eye directions, stance, and our body language. A lot of people groaned when the task was initially introduced by our workshop facilitators, but it was useful to analyze ourselves with supportive, critical friends. Knowing how to act natural when cameras are around is important too - Usha described her experience with a news station to me and to Jacqueline when we discussed our minute-long footage and I recalled my "ping pong head" when I first went on a TVO show. (I'd put my minute story here on my blog but I've lost my USB stick with it on it! Maybe Ruth can re-send it to me?)
ETA: Kelly, Ruth's assistant, is amazing! She found the clip and sent it to me. Here's my clip.

The Prime Minister did a masterful job of using gestures effectively and communicating with the crowd and the cameras. He rolled his sleeves up, as if to say "I'm getting to work, down to business". He made eye contact and wore a smile that didn't seem forced. He stayed in front of his transparent podium during his talk but moved to a portable microphone and left the podium, which made him appear more approachable. For instance, look at his open hand stance in this tweet. Open hands, as opposed to finger pointing, makes the speaker appear inviting; it looks more like a two-sided conversation than a lecture.

Different Participant Types and Their Goals
I really liked how Jane offered different "lenses" for us to use when planning our workshop. Her metaphors made the ideas concrete. She advised us to examine our workshops for a balance between content and process - what she called "gum and chewing". She also encouraged the flexible use of strategies (planned activities) and moves (impromptu tasks you use when you notice things need to change). Jane recommended we consider four professional "hats" (presenting / coaching / facilitating / consulting - this reminded me greatly of Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman's Consult-Collaborate-Coach mentoring work) and four types of participants (professors [engage them with facts], friends [attend to their feelings], scientists [involve them in formulating ideas] and inventors [take them on flights of fancy] - this reminds me of the Four Corners activity Moses Velasco did in our board's Leading Professional Learning workshop series, with feelings, big ideas, details, and action).
Trudeau balanced the needs of the big audience well. He told a personal story and related to the crowd as "one of them", which resonated with the "friends" demographic; he discussed the rationale behind giving precedence to neither the environment nor the economy when addressing the pipeline issue, which would appeal to "scientist" and "professor" types, and he encouraged creative and critical thinking for the "inventor" group:

Dealing with Elephants in the Room / Difficult Audience Members
One of the gifts we received from the Presenter's Palette workshop was a book called Lemons to Lemonade: Resolving Problems in Meetings, Workshops, and PLCs by Robert J. Garmston and Diane P. Zimmerman. Time was also devoted to discussing difficult people and situations you may encounter during presentations.
It wasn't just a "love-in" for the Prime Minister at Federation Day; he had to deal with audience members who were decidedly unhappy about his position on certain issues. There were large signs held in front of the cameras. He acknowledged their presence, promised he'd address their issue, but also used teacher humour and another personal anecdote to defuse things: "I shouldn't reward bad behaviour" (and he quickly assured the audience that those protesting weren't behaving badly and were within their rights to object, but he stated he wanted to answer other questions too from quieter participants, which is why he alternated between taking questions from the audience and questions written in and placed in a bucket for him to randomly select).

This is not a commentary on Trudeau's work to date as a politician. (To be honest, I didn't vote Liberal in the last federal election.) However, I thought that his time as a teacher has helped him to be an appealing presenter. Thank you ETFO and ETT for arranging such enriching events for teachers.