Monday, April 17, 2017

A Little Lost Dog

The four-day Easter long weekend was welcomed with open arms in my household. Our self-imposed Lenten restrictions were lifted; we spent quality time with family members; we celebrated an important holiday and we enjoyed some much needed rest and relaxation. Circumstances still sneaked in a surprise for us to deal with - an unexpected visitor.
It was around 6:00 p.m. or so on Saturday, after we had returned from a delicious dinner, that we spotted this little ShizTsu outside our door. She was barking, not in a vicious way, but in a plaintive, "let me in" tone. Let me mention at this point that I've never owned a dog - my parents had dogs before I was born and after I moved out, so I have no experience dealing with dogs. I checked the Toronto Animal Services home page and it recommended taking the dog to a nearby shelter, but at this time, the shelters were closed.

I didn't know what to do. I brought her a bowl of water and some leftover pulled pork and rested it on the edge of the porch. Then, my husband and I walked around our neighbourhood to see if anyone was looking for a lost dog. They weren't. Thankfully, at around 8:00 p.m., the situation was resolved.
I did not get a chance to speak much with the teen boy and older man that picked her up. By the time I opened the door, they had the dog in their arms and were walking away. I only had enough time to say that I was glad they had located her and that she had been here for about two hours. There was neither time nor opportunity for me to confirm that they were the true owners but the anxious-yet-relieved look on the youngster's face made me believe that it was their dog. It's a good thing I didn't take the dog away to a shelter, or they would not have been reunited.

Usually on this blog, I make an effort to connect what I write about here to education. A couple of tweets I read this past weekend stopped me from making any simplistic comparison.

 My students aren't little lost dogs needing to be rescued. I am no savior. The lesson is for me and about me - that I can choose to ignore things that happen, practically right on my doorstep, or I can do something about it. Kindness must be more than words. Action or inaction is a choice.

I also need to realize that my doorstep is a lot bigger than I envision. I've noticed lately that two books in my school library collection have been panned by others in the FNMI community (see recent tweets by Angie Manfredi, aka @misskubelik and Colinda Clyne aka @clclyne) . This has happened right at my Twitter doorstep. It'd be easier to ignore it or dismiss it as just one opinion. I shouldn't and I can't. I need to speak to the Aboriginal Center or an elder or someone like Jeff Burnham from Goodminds ( to make an informed decision about these books. The answer isn't always clear-cut but that doesn't mean that I should sit back and wait for things to resolve magically on their own. I feel bad about sick people but it's only now that I've finally decided to give blood (on Easter Monday at 5:00 pm) - my first time,and about time! I have to put my money where my mouth is and make my actions match my words.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Redo? Start New? Assessing Clothing Plans

This weekend and last weekend, I was up to my ears in marking. Despite the fact that evaluating student work is a key component of a teacher's job, and assessment informs pedagogical "next steps", marking is not something I look forward to doing. It can be enjoyable - I admitted it here and here in past blog posts - but at this time, with 8 classes and approximately 170 projects to examine and evaluate, it didn't feel like a joyful task. There are several other things I'd rather do, as I confessed on Twitter.
My family must think it's the worst thing in the world from the way I gripe and complain about it. I listed some of the reasons for my ambivalent feelings about assessment in this blog post from 2013 - I'd add to those points the pressure placing a grade on a project produces in parents and students, and how this sometimes diminishes the pleasure of creation. However, marks can be motivational.

Communicating progress (and that includes sharing marks) is an important part of being transparent in our practices. It shouldn't be a mystery how to do well in class. Last week, I had every Grade 1-5 student that I saw complete a little paper form to place in their agendas. It was a Progress Update note about our projects. It provided the mark earned at that time for the sketches and plan sheets that were due March 31, listed a new due date for any interested students (regardless of the mark they received) to resubmit work, and a checklist to indicate whether they planned to construct the clothing mostly at school, at home, or an equal combination of both. This note caused a flurry in many households. Several parents came to see me to ask about how this mark was calculated (using points gleaned from the success criteria the students co-constructed with me), why they hadn't seen their children sketching at home (because I provided instructional time during class for it to be completed - I'm not a huge fan of homework), and how their children could improve (by following the feedback provided to the students with their work that was handed back to them). I admired how several parents assisted their children at home and/or stayed after school on Friday with their sons/daughters to help them make some final additions to their work.

I tried hard to leave it up to the students to decide if they wanted to re-submit their work. Most showed reasonable judgement but there were a few that I had to "strongly encourage" to take a second look at what they had turned in and try a little harder to include the required elements or provide a bit more detail.

Then there are students on the other end of the continuum, who created fantastic plans but still wanted to return them for re-assessment. Some students were concerned, as they are now on the building stage, that they'd have to resubmit their plans because they had made changes to their clothes. I explained that sometimes plans had to alter because of a lack of materials, or a better method, and that as long as they weren't completely scrapping everything they had considered before, "going back to the drawing board" wasn't necessary.

I should have taken my own advice about assessment from summer school - making the sketches from all the classes due the same day was easier for me to remember (and technically, it was the students that chose all their due dates for this project, which we listed in a letter explaining the project home to parents) BUT if I only had one or two classes to mark at a time, I would not have felt so overwhelmed by the mountain of marking. In fact, even as I bemoaned the big pile, I took a couple of photos of some of the sketches. These three below, for example, were created by Grade 1 students.

I don't regret undertaking this project, despite the mess, the extra expenses (I keep running to Michael's to purchase gems and fabric spray paint), and the marking. Our superintendent came to visit last week and she was pleased by the many facets this investigation involves: ecological literacy (e.g. reusing clothes, purchasing from Value Village), equity (e.g. how clothing can express our identity and how our identity is multi-faceted), social justice (e.g.children working in sweat shops), math (e.g. measurement, area), visual arts (e.g. colour and design), media (e.g. text production, intended audience), etc. I think marking the final products will be a pleasure (partly because it's done at school - maybe I dislike homework even more than the students!) and our fashion show will be an exciting endeavor. Stay tuned!

Photo of our Term 1 "Identity Inquiry"display on what makes us who we are

Photo of our Term 2 display on Value Village & making our outfits

Monday, April 3, 2017

Facing Challenges in Montreal

This week, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to la belle province to present at the QSLiN annual library symposium. The event was made extra special because my daughter accompanied me to co-present one of my sessions. This was her first visit to Quebec (excluding our short foray into Hull during March Break to tour the Canadian Museum of History) so we were excited to explore Montreal's attractions together, albeit briefly.

Why would I title today's blog post using the word "challenges"? Well, there were intentional and unintentional obstacles to overcome during the voyage.

Challenge #1: Navigating a New City

We drove to Montreal from Toronto, which isn't a terrible journey. We left at lunch (because my daughter did not want to miss any more school than was absolutely necessary) and arrived at our hotel in Point Claire at 5:30 p.m., so we had the whole evening to do with what we wanted. We still had energy after our successful drive but weren't keen to spend more time in the car tackling Montreal's notorious traffic, so we decided to use public transportation to go downtown and examine old Montreal. The hotel gave us a map and directions on the route to take. It took us longer than ten minutes to walk to the mall to find the bus terminal but that was the least of our troubles. We found the bus and hopped on happily a little after 6:00 p.m.. We drove, and drove, and when the bus stopped at "the end of the line", we were nowhere near the subway station. Turns out, we got on the right bus going in the opposite direction. The driver instructed us to get off and wait for the next bus, which would take us back to where we should have been. The trip downtown should have taken us an hour, but instead it took us two hours.

A photo of our bus stop, where we spent lots of time.

When we arrived in Old Montreal, exiting at La Place D'Armes, it was dark, cold, and wet. Reading the map given to us at the hotel was an exercise in futility because there was not enough light to see. We viewed the Basilica of Notre Dame and took some lovely photos. After a while, our stomachs reminded us that we hadn't eaten since our quickly scarfed-down lunch at an enRoute station off the highway in Ontario. Finding somewhere to eat in downtown Montreal should be a breeze. I was in contact with a former elementary school student who now goes to McGill, and he texted us several recommendations. (He also asked if we needed him to come downtown to help guide us, but he was ill and we said distance assistance would work just fine - good ol' Andrew!) It proved difficult to try and find some of these restaurants. Many places were closed. My French is passable but as I told my audience the next day, "je ne suis pas billingue, malheureusement" and all signs were in French. When we asked fellow pedestrians for directions, often the suggestions made us lost. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I report that we got lost at least six times that night. The convenience store clerk reassured us that the Montreal Poutinerie would be open by the time we arrived and we would have plenty of time to eat. Not at all. We found that restaurant at 9:00 p.m. and it had already been closed for thirty minutes prior. Just as I decided to turn on my cellular data to look at a map myself instead of relying on others, my phone died. My daughter, who had patiently tolerated all these setbacks, turned to me and said, "Mom, we should just go back to the hotel". I empathized with her dismay. By this point, I was tired and hungry too, but I didn't want to end our adventure on such a sour note. Thankfully, I looked up and right across the street was a little pub. We dashed in and checked to see that it would be allowable for a 17-year-old to enter. They agreed that we could stay until 10:00 p.m. and you've never seen two more grateful diners ever. We listened to live music and ate a satisfying meal. Our return trip back to the hotel was uneventful and smooth and we straggled back to the hotel by 10:30 p.m., exhausted but pleased that we had still met our goal of touring downtown.

The Basilica of Notre Dame at night

Love the architecture of Montreal (not the snow)
The view of old Montreal from our seats in the St. Paul pub

Challenge #2: BreakoutEDU

The QSLiN symposium was enjoyable. It was held in the same hotel where we were staying, so carrying our props and costumes from our room to our presentation site was simple. We set up during the morning keynote but were able to hear Pam Harland's afternoon keynote address.

Pam Harland describes library leadership in her keynote
The closing event of the conference was a BreakoutEDU experience, run by the incredible Sandra Bebbington, who didn't let an injured foot and a lack of sleep deter her at all. I've played collaborative problem solving games before, like "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes" with my family at Christmas, but I had never participated in a real BreakoutEDU event with strangers before. Why would people buy in? Who would care? People did commit and we did become invested in the task. I had only met a couple of the individuals recently during my last workshop. (Ute will be my convenor for ABQLA in May and we were introduced to each other that afternoon.) I didn't know these people well, yet we all came together as a group to try and solve the problems we were dealt. It wasn't easy! We had to divide up the tasks to get things accomplished with enough time to spare, and we had to rely on another group, that was in possession of a deciphering tool, so that we could crack a code we were given. I think my face as captured in the tweet below accurately represents the level of difficulty of this task.

Sandra explains the Breakout setup

Locks, waiting to be solved and opened

What does this say? 

Using another group's device to help us read our clue

Sandra was kind enough to provide a few hints when she saw that some groups were struggling and in the end, the group opened the box with less than a minute left on the clock. We were very happy and I felt some sort of kinship with my tablemates, even though I didn't even have time to learn their names. It was only because her Twitter avatar resembled her in real life that I realized I was working with the wonderful Ellen Goldfinch next to me!

Was it a relaxing way to end the conference? No, but that was a good thing! Participants were energized, neurons were firing, and people were thinking and talking with others. It was worth staying until the end, and a lucky attendee walked away with a great door prize - a BreakoutEDU kit of locks and containers.

Bonus Challenge: Maintaining School Libraries and QSLiN

I was so thankful for the chance to be a part of this symposium. Sandra Bebbington and especially Julian Taylor were generous with their time, friendly, considerate, attentive, and helpful. The status of school libraries in the province of Quebec is rather different than here in Ontario. Julian explained it a bit to me both in a Skype call in preparation for the conference and a post-conference chat. In the past, the Quebec education system was organized along religious divisions, but after 2000, this switched to linguistic divides. Neither the English nor the French school boards in Quebec have teacher-librarians quite like we have in my school board. (I was going to say "in Ontario" but several school boards have eliminated the position of teacher-librarian.)  Historically, Quebec has not been as "pro-library" as other parts of Canada. Staffing in the English sector of Quebec is healthier than in the French quarters. For the fortunate schools, at the secondary level, they will have a library technician five days a week; at the elementary level, they may have a library technician one or two days a week. Most of the people in school libraries have tech degrees and love libraries enough that they don't want to see them disappear. Outside of Montreal, to the south, north and east, the elementary school library is likely supported by a parent volunteer or a staff member who has taken an interest in this role.

With the challenge of no teacher-librarians in the province, how is it even possible to have a school library organization exist? Well, it's a bit complicated. I appreciate this explanation from Julian:

The Quebec Ministry of Education's DRD (Direction des ressources didactiques or “Dept of Didactic Resources") came up with a plan to encourage the hiring of librarians at the board level in both the English (9 boards) and French (60 boards) sectors. That program started in the 2008-2009 school year (for 10 years). This was a great initiative by the ministry and many librarians were hired at various boards throughout Quebec. I [Julian] was charged with creating the first library personnel training day for all library personnel in the English sector (public, private, and native schools) in that first year, spring 2009. This was the first "Library Symposium".

Then in late fall 2009, a representative from the DSCA (Direction des services à la communauté anglophone; basically Dept of English Community Services) invited all of us who worked as library personnel at the board level (us new hires and a small number of people who were already in place) and asked us what we saw as needs within the community that perhaps the DSCA could help us to realize with a project using funds from the Federal government to help minority language rights in Quebec. This was basically the birth of QSLiN, but it would take another year or two for the name to be set.

The DSCA helped the English sector school board library personnel to meet, realize their community’s common needs, then gave them the structure to have QSLiN created and the funds to run it. The Quebec School Librarian’s Network is an committee of English Educational Community Librarians, that supports the community  by facilitating information literacy, supporting school library personnel, encouraging professional development, sharing resources, collaborating with the educational community, advocating for school libraries and hosting a symposium that brings the community together.

School libraries have faced a number of challenges in Quebec but more and more people see their value and will continue to invest in their future. The future of QSLiN is never certain, but challenges like this (and the others I've described above) can be tackled with:
  • passionate people
  • a positive, growth mentality
  • finding funds and other support systems
I look forward to returning to Montreal in May for the ABQLA conference, and seeing some of my new contacts again. A bientot!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Second Hand Shopping, First Rate Teachers

Last week was a whirlwind of activity as I went on three (of four) planned half-day field trips. Frequent readers of this blog will remember that I'm deep into a media inquiry unit with my Grade 1-5 students about clothing and identity. An economical way to begin to make clothes, especially for non-sewers, is to go to stores like Value Village to find tops and bottoms to "upcycle" or alter. The students have practiced various techniques to hone their creativity in crafting clothes and we are now at the stage where we are planning our outfits and starting to make them.

I want to talk about the trips, but I also want to talk about what, or more precisely who, made these trips so wonderful (so far - I go on the last trip today, Monday March 27 - I hope I'm not jinxing things by sharing the successes). 

Pity the poor teachers on my staff. They get drawn into these wacky schemes of mine because their students are participating. Yet, these endeavors would fail miserably without their input and efforts.

On Monday, March 20 - yes, the first day back from our March Break holidays - Mrs. Alexander and Ms. Kim's classes went to the Markham Value Village store. Thank goodness for Brenda Kim, the Grade 4-5 teacher. I'm a "big ideas" sort of person, and sometimes the details trip me up. I was pretty pleased with myself that this trip wouldn't cost the students anything except the money they'd choose to bring if they wanted to purchase clothes for their projects. After all, we planned to use public transportation and the TTC is free for children under the age of 12. Brenda suggested that we should pay for the adult volunteers accompanying the students and she agreed to buy the required tokens during the March Break. Brenda emailed me over the March Break to draw my attention to an important point: the store we planned to visit was north of Steeles Avenue, and children were required to pay to ride. Yikes! Brenda offered to purchase the York Region transit (YRT) tickets for everyone for the first trip in addition to all the tokens I'd need for the adults for the subsequent trips. I arranged to pay her back with some of my library budget funds. So much for the "free" part of the trip! As it was, we chose to only buy one set of YRT tickets and we walked for 20 minutes to save some money.

Lance was the store manager for the Markham location and he was very welcoming and kind. After our visit, he even offered to bring free t-shirts to the school so that the kindergarten kids (who were not part of this trip) could do an Earth Day activity.  Thank you Lance! Thank you Brenda and Siobhan!

Lance shows the kids how they pack clothes to ship overseas

Students shopping for clothes to use for their media projects

On Wednesday, March 22, our youngest learners from Rooms 116 & 117 visited the North York Value Village store. Jenny Chiu and Aileen Morgan arranged for many parent volunteers to come with us, which was a blessing. I really admired how Jenny used this trip to make connections to other subjects and lessons. She supplemented our tour guide's explanations with points related to their social studies unit on community and how community members help each other. She also encouraged the students to use their addition skills to estimate and calculate if they had enough money to purchase items.

Joan was the store manager for the North York location and she left me speechless with her generosity. She told us that because the children were shopping for items for their media project (at which point, a couple of students embarrassed me by saying "What project?"), she allowed each and every student to select one item of clothing for free. This was completely unexpected. The store was busy that day with a surprise 75% off selected items sale, but Joan and her staff gave us their time and attention. She even donated two boxes of books for the classroom libraries, free of charge. (Carrying these boxes on the TTC was quite an adventure, but we appreciated the gift.) Thank you Joan! Thank you Jenny and Aileen!

They need forklifts to move the heavy bundles of clothes

How heavy is an entire class of Grade 1s? The big scale said 1100 lbs

On Friday, March 24, Rooms 115 and 114 ventured to the Scarborough Value Village store. This was quite possibly the most challenging trip. The destination was switched to Scarborough to deal with the Markham travel limitations. Originally, we planned on going to the Markham location twice and the North York location twice. The Scarborough location involved taking three different buses just to arrive. We were also somewhat concerned about returning to school on time. Our Wednesday venture showed us that it was possible to travel, tour, shop, and travel back in the allotted time, but it felt rushed. This is where the organizational skills and flexibility of Kerri Commisso and Stephanie Vinluen shone through. Kerri recommended that we leave earlier, during the lunch hour. She informed all her students and their parents in advance about the location change. Kerri and Stephanie contacted their parent volunteers to request that they come earlier. They set up travel buddies and Kerri gave students cards with school information printed in case anyone got lost. No one did. I was amazed at how smoothly everything ran. Something extra remarkable: Stephanie is actually a LTO (long-term occasional teacher), yet she handled the field trip like a seasoned veteran. 

Our bus drivers were extremely professional and patient as well. I wouldn't have necessarily seen a group of 40 excited children boarding my bus and greeted them with a smile, but almost everyone seemed genuinely happy to have us on board. Mo on the Lawrence 54 route was especially nice and waited until both classes had crossed the street and entered the bus before leaving the stop.

Blair was the store manager for the Scarborough location and he was also very accommodating. He allowed every student to select a book for them to keep for themselves at no cost. The cashiers serving our students was delighted to ring up their purchases. Thank you Blair! Thank you Kerri and Stephanie!

Selecting hats for our media projects

Blair shows us how "Cram-A-Lot" squishes clothes
Kerri even sent me a photo and a thank you note after the trip. Thank YOU Kerri, and all your fellow Agnes Macphail Public School staff members, for rearranging your schedules, losing your prep times, and pausing your own lessons so that we could take these trips together. Field trips aren't easy; teachers have a lot of responsibility to keep students safe during these excursions. These teachers I work with made it look easy. Members of the public were curious to see us out and about on the bus or in the store and asked us many questions about our purpose, which was a great opportunity to share our environmental, media, and mathematical investigations. We'll be partnering with Value Village more in the future and they have front-row seat invitations to our fashion show and charity auction, which will be the culminating end task for our media literacy unit. The students had a great time and I did too, thanks to some amazing adults.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Richer Than We Think

Usually, my family and I spend our March Break vacation at home, relaxing or visiting with friends. This year, partly in honour of Canada's 150th "birthday", we decided to take a trip to Ottawa. My son and daughter had never been to the capital city of Canada and we thought it'd be a new and fun experience. I had only been to Ottawa twice before, and the last time was in 1999. We did some research and chose to stay at the lavish and historic Chateau Laurier.

We drove to Ottawa and spent three days in total there. Monday and Wednesday were mostly dedicated to traveling there and back, but Tuesday was jam-packed with activities. We reserved a tour in advance with the Canadian Mint and my husband lined up early enough on Tuesday morning to snag us tickets for a guided tour of the Canadian Parliament.

Maman by the Portrait Gallery with Parliament in the distance

In the Parliament Building

In the library
On Tuesday afternoon, we were also able to squeeze in a visit to the Canadian War Museum and on Wednesday morning, before we left for home, we toured the newly renamed Museum of Canadian History.

My feet - I'm not flatfooted so I could've enlisted in WWI if I was a man.

Hubby in the replica of trench warfare - oppressive, scary

A piece of the actual Berlin Wall

Totem poles at the former Museum of Civilization 

Mexican creation myths in yarn (I thought of Lisa Noble)
My children are both at an age and stage where they can enjoy and appreciate various museums and have the stamina to walk around. (I logged over 22 000 steps on my Fit Bit on Tuesday!) In fact, I think my son most enjoyed exhibits that he had some sort of connection to - he had completed a history project on the Fenians back in Grade 8 so he was interested in seeing the Fenian artifacts. Our favourite place was the Mint, where we bought some souvenir Canadian 2017 coins, and our favourite place to eat was Zak's, a diner close to the By-Town Market. My bacon and sausage poutine cost a lot more than I'm used to paying for poutine, but it was delicious!

Bacon and sausage poutine

Hubby's foot-long hot dog really was that long!

It wasn't until after we returned home and did some "minor" things that it really hit home to me how fortunate and financially comfortable we are, to be able to afford to go places and do things. When I returned to the GTA, I saw a couple of friends, Jennifer Casa-Todd (York Catholic DSB) and Alanna King (Upper Grand DSB) who introduced me to some decadent gourmet donuts. The next day, not only did I drive all the way to Aurora, ON to buy a dozen of these donuts for my family and for some other friends I spent time with that evening (Francis Ngo, Diana Hong, and Rob Reyes), I also did some shopping at Yankee Candle and Lush. I was a bit ashamed at blowing over $40 just on donuts, but then I looked at how much I spent on candles ($100) and on bath bombs ($30), neither of which are necessities.

I considered myself to be blessed (good job, roof over my head, wonderful spouse, healthy and happy kids) but I don't think I ever realized how financially well-off we are. I thought that, since we are a one-income family and we live in a much-maligned area of the city that we were just "average". Well, I looked it up and according to CBC News, the median family income is $76 000 and the richest 10% of individuals in Canada make more than $80 400. This is as of 2013.  Here's the Statistics Canada results, which are similar.

There are many other ways that we are richer than we think. My family is so lucky to be able to have all the adults and children with open and free schedules at the same time on March Break. Time together is such a treasure. Some families need to arrange time off in advance, or can only have one parent free to travel at this time with their kids. Other families have to scramble to find accommodations for their children because both parents work and can't manage to take time off. The members of my household get along extremely well with each other, so there are no "I hate my sibling" wars in the car or elsewhere - we enjoy spending time with each other. We have enough shared interests that we liked the places we selected to go as a group, but we also respected personal time and everyone had a chance to have it in Ottawa (reading, visiting friends in Ottawa, using the computer, or swimming in the chilly but stylish swimming pool).

How can I demonstrate that I'm aware that this isn't the reality for everyone, including my students?  I've struggled with this before and wrote about it here. I suspect that it won't be as big of an issue because for the first week back from the Break, I have three field trip planned (in a week and a half I will have taken 8 classes on 4 field trips - more details on where in a future post). Still, my time in Ottawa and with my friends made me very grateful for what I have.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Math-itudes and Teaching Differently

"Are you here because we aren't smart? Because we need extra help?"

This paraphrased question was what greeted me when I went up to a Grade 6-7 class to begin a new partnering adventure. I was really surprised by this reaction and the classroom teacher and I spent a few minutes talking with the group about the purpose of my visit before we began. As we explained to the group, their teacher had booked this time slot for partner time, which is often a time for the classroom teacher and teacher-librarian to work together somehow. This is usually a math period, and their teacher (a conscientious, talented, and all-around good guy) thought that it might be a great opportunity to give his Grade 7s some more attention. His Grade 6-7 class is a bit "lopsided"; there are only 5 Grade 7s and their teacher wanted to ensure that they received undivided attention for a portion of their next unit. He asked if I could take the Grade 7s and enrich their unit on fractions with some problem solving tasks. I wasn't present because they were weak students or unintelligent. Yet, when I showed up during math time, this is what they assumed.

We decided to work in the library. Instead of sitting at tables, we sat on the couches in the "cozy corner" of the library and started off with a community circle conversation about math in general. Most of the group shared some apprehensions about the subject. I told them that I was somewhat atypical of a math instructor - my math classes don't look like a traditional math class.

This was true twelve years ago, when I first came to my school and the principal included Grade 7 math as part of my teaching assignment timetable. Back then, it didn't work out so well for the students I had. Why? It was because I was not confident about teaching intermediate level math and so I agreed to use all the tests written by the other educator teaching Grade 7 math as the primary means of evaluation. In my math class back then, we did a lot of talking and group work. My scrapbook from 2004-2005 shows scenes from my math class of preteens sprawled on the floor sketching or crowded around the blackboard together. The tests they received were all paper-and-pencil, individually assigned, and marked according to specific criteria that my group had neither discussed nor constructed. The students I taught did not fare as well on these tests as the students the other teacher taught. This was before three-part lessons and math congress techniques were widely known or used. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have advocated for using other instruments to inform my understanding of their learning. I also would not have let my own discomfort with the subject material dictate the direction the class took.

Back to 2017 ... after our community circle chat about math in general, the students discussed what they knew about fractions. I wasn't completely responsible for their entire unit, because I only was scheduled for one double block and they have math daily, so I had the freedom of designing tasks so they could apply what they knew about fractions in authentic situations. I "warned" them that we might do unusual things, and one of the things we did was live-tweet our learning that day. The students gave their permission for their work to appear on Twitter, and one even suggested we tag our related tweets with the hashtag #fractions. I like that idea! I think I may retweet them but call it #fractionaction. Here are the tweets we shared.

What's with the monkey?  Well, I find that it can be useful to have a "third party" that can be the focus of any negative attention related to the subject. This is the case with Smedley the elephant (read the link to a post in 2013 about this toy). I also find that bringing in something completely unexpected gets our brains zipping a bit more. I had just bought this monkey puppet with my Scholastic Book Fair proceeds and I was dying to use him for something. Did the Grade 7s find it childish? If they did, they didn't tell me. They were too busy splitting their granola bars. This used a lot of math concepts from other strands. The granola bar was 10 cm long, so students used measurement as well as number sense and numeration to calculate where they should chop it. One used 1/2s, one used 1/3s, one used 1/4s, one used 1/5s and the final student used 1/8s. The fantastic thing was that as we were talking, my adult library volunteer mentioned that she was baking just that past week and had to figure out how to measure 1/8 tsp when she didn't own a 1/8 tsp measuring spoon. This was "real math" and led us to consider baking next week as our math activity.

What I'm doing isn't revolutionary or particularly innovative. What makes this possible is having a smaller number - challenging in junior / intermediate classes where enrollment is closer to 30 students per class than it is 20 - and less pressure to "cover" everything. It's also a overt effort to avoid math phobia and keep a positive attitude about learning math.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Do Meetings Have Value?

Do your meetings look like this?

If meetings (and this includes staff meetings) look a little like this, then why do we bother to have them?

I had three meetings this past week - one for LC3 (Toronto District School Board Learning Centre 3) area Teacher-Librarians, one for OSLA (Ontario School Library Association) council, and one with the organizers of the MakerEdTO conference.

Our meetings were mostly productive, but I'll admit there were times that I tuned out mentally. As I sat at my computer desk contemplating this blog post and reflecting on the various meetings, I turned and saw two books on my now-tidy book shelf that really offered some practical solutions and guidelines.

I should make it a point to re-read these books at least once a year, if not more, to remind me of their key points. For instance, in Unlocking Group Potential to Improve Schools, Garmston and von Frank list five standards for effective meetings (page 17).
  1. Address only one topic at a time
  2. Use one process at a time
  3. Balance participation and make meetings interactive
  4. Use cognitive conflict productively
  5. Have everyone understand and agree to meeting roles
I often think back on how well or poorly a meeting went, but I don't often use this helpful criteria to guide my evaluations. Many of the strategies this book suggests are already in play in the meetings I attended (e.g. establish an agenda, assign clear roles, etc.). Some interesting suggestions to creating "smarter groups" include (page 69) increasing the social sensitivity of the group and turn taking. Norms of collaboration like (pages 84-88) pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions, placing ideas on the table, providing data, paying attention to self and others, and presuming positive intentions can be incorporated more frequently in all my meetings, by me and others.

Whose job is it to ensure that meetings are worth the time? Garmston asks a similar question. "Who is responsible for keeping the group on track - a facilitator or group members? The answer is both." (page 17) I thought it was both bold and brave for one of our council members at the end of our lengthy meeting to suggest we revisit how we structure our time together, recommending we look to shortening information items and breaking off into smaller groups for discussion items so our energy does not lag. We still have to follow Robert's Rules of Order and obtain group consensus through voting as part of our council deliberations, but it doesn't mean that the meeting must be dull or drag on. My colleague's suggestion meant that he valued the time we had together - we only meet four times a year face to face - and he wanted that time to be as productive as possible. How would principals react if a teacher requested a change to the staff meeting traditional format?

I was only the meeting "leader" for one of these three events; I think it'd be fascinating to do a debrief to see how well we met the standards and how we could address them more effectively in future meetings. Often, this meta-reflection gets left out or is done in whispered asides by pairs of participants as the main purpose of the meeting takes center stage and tasks get assigned and deadlines get established. If I had to answer my own question title, I'd say that meetings do have value but can be even more valuable when carefully crafted with attention to process as well as content.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Inquiry Ain't Easy - Especially for ELL

I wish I spoke Mandarin and Cantonese.

This would be helpful, not because I want to travel to China in the future, but because I want more ways to help my English Language Learners.

Even when we share the same language, sometimes it isn't easy to teach and learn.

Take my recent group of Grade 4 students. I like partnering with their teacher because she is excellent at inter-teacher communication. She has a Grade 3-4 combined class this year and we agreed to separate the Grade 3s and the Grade 4s for partnering time for science, so that we could spend more time on content-specific tasks and concepts. We planned together, taught apart, and reflected on the process together. At first, I had the Grade 3s and she had the 4s. After six weeks, we decided that it would be healthy to switch groups. She admitted to me that she did not feel particularly adept at inquiry based learning and asked if I could focus my time with the Grade 4s on inquiry. I readily agreed. As the teacher-librarian, I thought I was decently qualified to work with students on developing their own inquiry questions. I believed that it would be less difficult because our inquiry questions would stem from topics they just finished studying with their classroom teacher. These students had been exposed to inquiry-based learning before, so it should just be a matter of reigniting their prior learning. I was looking forward to open inquiry, where the student questions would guide our investigations.

Silly me!

The students generated their own questions about light and sound but when I dug a bit deeper, through conversations with them and with their classroom teacher, I discovered that many of these questions were ones that they already knew the answers to or were already answered earlier in-class. Some of the questions weren't even "big, thick, meaty, juicy chicken wing" questions; they were "small, thin, bony chicken wing" questions with yes-no or one-word answers.

Then there were my ESL students. Despite having read and internalized these guidelines for supporting and including ELL in inquiry - see - I had trouble reaching them. They were extremely hesitant and reluctant to speak and ask questions, never mind generate their own questions.

I used my board's fabulous Virtual Library site to try and inspire some new questions, but my ELL Grade 4s found the material too advanced and my English speaking Grade 4s were distracted and unfocused. (It didn't help that the wi-fi was malfunctioning that day and we couldn't maintain a stable connection.)
This was not going as well as I had hoped.  I had followed the TDSB Implementing Student Inquiry guidelines. I used the Wiggins and McTighe Backwards Design model (page 11). I sought student voice and choice, as well as positive interactions and a comfortable learning environment (page 13). My solution lay back in the types of inquiry possibilities. I needed to abandon the idea of open inquiry in favor of a blended inquiry model.

We were playing with my buzzers - a method of participation that many students seem to enjoy, even those who don't like to talk - when my own sound-related inquiry question hit me out of the blue: "How might we be able to reduce or eliminate sound?" I got really excited about this idea, and I guess it showed, because the students started to become enthusiastic about it too. It also became very concrete and I was able to explain it to my ELLs in a practical way: stop Mrs. Mali from hearing the buzzer. I had four buzzers and so we divided into four groups to investigate. I rearranged the groups so that my ESL students would work with other students; they are inclined to wait until the end of the group selection process and just collaborate with other ELLs or with whomever is "left over". Thankfully separating the ESL students from each other is not as much of a problem as it might appear, because many of the other students are bilingual and can converse in Mandarin / Cantonese and English quite well. I spied on the groups as they worked and I could hear them actually applying the things that they had learned earlier with their classroom teacher. The neat thing was that each group used different techniques to try and mute the sound. (The rules were that the buzzer still had to make the original sound [no removing batteries] and that I had to be able to see them pushing the buzzer.) I could see where they understood ideas and where their notions were a bit incomplete.

Group 1 - Modifying headphones to make them more sound-proof

Group 2 - Covering buzzer with Styrofoam on bottom and top

Group 3 - Using fabric and tape to seal in / mute sound

Group 4 - Using cardboard and tape to silence the buzzer
While they worked on their inventions, I had some time to try and locate supporting resources at a variety of reading levels. I was relieved to find print books in my own library collection that covered the same material but with varying levels of vocabulary. (The classroom teacher informed me that the Grade 4s were jealous of the Grade 3s when they had a science "clicker test" in the library and she recommended that I try to give the Grade 4s a chance to use this method of evaluation. See for an explanation of these "clickers" that the students are so fond of using.) I think I will need to create two different tests on the SMART board because my Grade 3 ELLs did not perform as well on the "regular" clicker test, even though I thought I had modified it enough.

This week, we will test the prototypes to see if I can hear their buzzers. The students will write (or draw, or write in Chinese) about why they think their design will work. We will review the reading material presented to ensure everyone understands the content and hopefully have our "clicker test" at the end of this week as well. (This, combined with my observation notes, will be my triangulated assessment pieces.) Does this "solve" my ELL engagement issues? No. Adequately reaching my ESL students is perpetually on my Annual Learning Plan, because it is a constant tinkering to see what modifications work with which students, and how much modification is needed for understanding to occur. However, it does remind me that inquiry isn't a walk in the park, even for an "experienced" teacher-librarian. It's okay to use guided or blended inquiry. Inquiry is messy. Inquiry is uncertain. Inquiry is engaging.

Monday, February 20, 2017


My friend and fellow teacher-librarian, Salma Nakhuda, lent me a book when I last saw her, when my students were at her school teaching her club how to finger-knit. I had just finished a big, ambitious project (my second finger-knitted skirt - it was both a success and a failure) and I had forgotten to bring home some of the Silver Birch novels I had not yet read. I had time. I picked up the book to read over the holiday weekend and finished it in a day. I thought today's post would be a great opportunity to reflect on that book, Let the Elephants Run by David Usher.

This was my first "professional learning" read of 2017. I didn't read the book "properly" because the book provides action items that you are encouraged to try, over time, and some involve writing in the actual book. This is a library book, and a loaner as well, so I broke the rules I was supposed to break. Follow me so far? However, I think I can be forgiven, because my blog is often where I "tak[e] notes and collec[t] ideas about the world around [me]" (Action Item #1 - page 12). The book's goal is to help readers unlock their creativity. David Usher divides his book in two - a section on freedom and the other on structure. In the first section, readers analyze their own creativity, imagine what's possible, reconnect back to childhood creativity, mess with our established patterns, consider the importance of creativity in this time of rapid change, and make the time investment and do different things that expand your mind. David calls those wild and crazy ideas that emerge from creative wellsprings "Pink Elephants", which is why the book is called "Let the Elephants Run".

One of the most intriguing action items in this section was to determine if you are a "monster" or "mouse". He recommends playing a game called "Bang Bang Click Bang" to check your introvert/extrovert level and detect how much you observe or listen. (Heads up - I'm more monster than mouse.)

The structure section of the book outlines Usher's creative process. It is:

  • curiosity
  • interest
  • exploration
  • ideas
  • collect
  • file
  • filter
  • experiment
  • moment of creative collision
  • work
  • ship it
I wanted to see how his process matched or differed from my own. For instance, I'll compare it to the journey I've been taking alongside my students this year when it comes to our clothing inquiry and learning to sew. I'm not sure if it stemmed from curiosity - it might have started that way in July 2016 when I talked to Jennifer Brown and heard she had a sewing machine in her library. Then it was pushed onward by a sense of need or worry - my mother was getting older and I knew I couldn't depend on her forever to hem my pants. Interest and exploration definitely followed. I experimented before I had all my ideas together, for good or ill. As for bringing this into the classroom, I definitely collected ideas. I bookmarked Melanie Mulcaster's Makerspace On the Spot and On a Dime resources and searched for books to add to my school collection. I started to hoard cardboard (but in a wiser way than I did before, thanks to the guidance of Ray Mercer). I'm not sure how much filtering occurred, but right now I'm in the work and creative collision stage. Actually, strike that last sentence. I did a lot of filtering as I searched through YouTube and Learn360 videos to try and find an age-appropriate multi-media text that helped students grasp the social justice aspect of making and reusing clothes. 

I spoke to my good friend Moyah Walker, another TDSB teacher-librarian, on the phone the other day about the possibility of having her host a meeting at her school. As is often the case, we started to talk about what we were doing with our students and I was excited to hear that she's doing something with clothing design and her students too! All of a sudden, a creative crash happened and what started as a single-school event branched out. I'm in the process of arranging for Moyah to come and talk to my students about the sort of ideas she's sharing with her students. Her students will participate with mine in our culminating task. The final piece of this inquiry will be a fashion show and charity auction. I talked to Lance, a manager at a Value Village where we'll have a couple of field trips in March so that the students can discover where to obtain clothes at a fraction of the usual cost for them to happily hack and modify. He was super-supportive and enthusiastic about our plans and asked if a few of his Value Village contacts could attend the fashion show and share our results. Awesome!

Notice how many names were mentioned? This fits with the section in David's book on Idea Accelerators. I'd quibble a bit with his assertion that you need a "river of great ideas from really smart people". You need to be a "thought leader" but also a risk-taker, willing to share, enthusiastic and approachable. 

I'm improving in my "operational infrastructure" (Action Item 17 - page 192). When the students and I created restaurants - a project that they still talk about two years after the fact - I didn't adequately consider the time it would take to cook the food, and I had to abandon my initial "I want this to be as authentic as possible" ideal for a more practical "we need to collect orders in advance so we have enough food". This year, I'm giving the classroom teachers advanced notice about the activities planned (and sending them photos of our clothing creation experiments in process), so they are more aware and can be collaborators if they choose. 

Student-made cardboard flip flops

Student-made bow tie

Student-made finger-knitted toy scarves

This blog post coincides with the 18th Action Item - to "describe what you are working on in detail. Define your timeline to completion." (page 197). I am "commit[ing] to [my] creativity and go[ing] public", so that my "trusted circle" can chime in, make suggestions, and provide feedback. The students and I will determine the dates, but it will definitely be before final report cards.

The final action item in the book is to do a "post-mortem" on my last creative experience. I began this post by mentioning my finger-knitted skirt experiment and so I'll end by examining that project.

After making my first skirt (which was partly an accident), I wanted to see if I could make a skirt that didn't require wearing leggings underneath. I looked at my various finger-knitting books and none showed skirt designs, but I thought I could employ the braided technique from a headband and use it for the skirt. 

Braided headband, October 2016

It was challenging to braid those long finger-knitted chains (each chain was one ball of wool). 

Balling ends so they are easier to braid

Braiding chains, January 6, 2017

 My children helped by sitting on the ends and I kept the other sides in balls that I maneuvered around like shell game props. I wasn't sure how to get the right diameter so I used one of my own purchased skirts and pinned the Rapunzel-like braid around the skirt and then to each layer of the spiral.

Using skirt as guide, January 28, 2017
I had to buy more safety pins because I didn't have enough to hold it together. I hand stitched the braid together.

Hand-stitching the braids, February 2017
I finished it and it looked just like a real skirt, with no see-through holes. That part of the experiment was a success. The only problem was that the waist was too small and it was very hard to put on!

Finished skirt, February 17, 2017
My husband also noted that the skirt wasn't particularly flattering to my figure. The good news is that I can donate this skirt to my school fashion show and charity auction. If I had to do it again, I think that instead of using the skirt as a model for the size, I'd measure it to myself (and a wider part of myself so I can wiggle it on better). I think I may also do a single colour, so you can't see the stitching so much.

I will actually end this post with a warning for myself and other educators - beware the "factory education". A quote from Ken Robinson says:
"Mass systems of public education were developed primarily to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution and, in many ways, they mirror the principles of industrial production. They emphasize linearity, conformity, and standardization. One of the reasons they are not working now is that real life is organic, adaptable, and diverse."
In schools, we need to innovate and embrace "curved line thinking". Let us be the innovation nurturers, not the creativity killers. I'm going to try and do my part by encouraging students to make their own clothes, their own ways, with whatever materials and techniques they choose. These lessons are not intended as just a "how-to" but a "how-might".  I'm excited to see what they'll come up with in a few months.