Monday, October 30, 2017

Costume Etiquette, Costume Considerations

Last week, our principal forwarded us this message from the Instructional Leaders for Aboriginal Education in our school board. (Credit to Christina Saunders and the other ILs.)

"Halloween is often an exciting time of year and also provides an opportunity to provide rich teaching and learning contexts that engage students in critical conversations that include cultural appropriation, stereotypes and caricature versus culture. This is supported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, action # 63 iii. Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.

Racist costumes stereotype, misrepresent, disrespect and dehumanize Indigenous peoples." 

This was a great opportunity for some timely media literacy lessons. The #mycultureisnotacostume hashtag on Twitter elicited some great images as discussion points. However, I wanted the interaction to be more of a student realization than a teacher-led lecture. Thankfully, I had recently been reminded of a great resource thanks to my Media Literacy AQ course. "Haunted Media" is a guide for teachers of primary, junior, intermediate, and senior students for integrating media lessons into topics that lend themselves well to this time of year. I must be honest; I usually do not like using pre-written lessons. I've used the rather crass analogy of a dog urinating on a tree to explain how I need to make my mark on a lesson and "make it mine". Thankfully, this guide helped me by showing some excellent conversation starters that I could modify for my task. (I guess autonomy and agency are rather important to me as an educator.) I liked these questions because they were open-ended but still helpful for reaching the idea of appropriate and inappropriate costumes. I also like that these questions are not dependent on whether or not someone chooses to celebrate Halloween. The questions I used were:
  • Are costumes media?
  • Where might you see costumes?
  • Why do people wear costumes?
  • How might people feel when they wear costumes?
  • How might people feel when they see others wear costumes?
  • What questions can we ask ourselves before selecting a costume to wear, if we choose?
I introduced a few of the images from the original developers of the My Culture Is Not a Costume campaign (according to Know Your Meme, it was Ohio State University in 2011 -, including the one of the "Indian". I conducted this lesson with students from Grades 1-8 and it was very interesting to see the differences based on their ages. The youngest students had no clue what the feather headdress, coloured lines on faces, tomahawk and buckskin were supposed to represent. "Is that a clown?", many of them asked. When I explained that the person was supposedly dressed up as an "Indian", one made reference to their classroom teacher, who is of East Indian descent and from the country of India. All students, regardless of age or experience, however, could read the emotions of the faces of the individuals holding the offensive photographs and could understand that they were not happy. The older the students were, the more they understood how insulting the costume was because of the message the costume communicated about someone else's culture. (I promise to edit this post to add some of the comments the students made - I typed their responses as a method of assessment.)

The oldest students were able to branch out and generalize to other areas. Ms. Wadia, our talented and supportive Grade 7-8 teacher, was with me when her class experienced this lesson. She and I both commiserated over how difficult it was to find appropriate costumes for female teachers to wear if they chose to dress up for Halloween. The job of teacher is a media construction itself - our kindergarten students discovered this when we emailed Sylvie Webb a few years back to ask if a princess was an example of media and she explained why it was, and it applies to teachers too.
(She said that princesses [and teachers] "communicate a message
-through the clothes they wear
-the books they read
-what they talk about
-the toys they play with
-how they wear their hair
-the shoes they wear")
When teachers select costumes to wear for school, they are navigating many audiences and are communicating many messages. Not only should a teacher's costume not be offensive to a culture, race, or sexual minority, but it also has to be suitable to wear around children. So many women's costumes are variations of "Sexy [Something]" that finding a non-sexy outfit to purchase is challenging and that teachers may have to make their own or explore other options. We added another question to our discussion (and I'm paraphrasing here because I can't recall the exact words): "Why is there such a difference between male and female costumes that are supposed to depict the same thing?" There were a couple of interesting suggestions from the students. As often with these rich discussions, there wasn't enough time to sift through the ideas, but I hope that some seeds of critical thinking may have been planted.

So, what will I be for Halloween? I'm renowned for having two costumes - one for the morning and one for the afternoon. No spoilers here - you'll just have to wait and see!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reflections from TDSB Teachers Read and TMC5

I began composing this blog in a hotel room in Winnipeg. It's been a hectic week but one that I've enjoyed tremendously. Two big events occurred that I participated in and I wanted to give adequate time to sharing and reflecting on both. I wondered if there were any parallels I could draw from the two – I’ll share the similarities at the end.

Manitoba bison, Ontario teacher-librarian

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 = TDSB Teachers Read

As part of the Library and Learning Resources Open House to honour School Library Month, the Professional Library Department organized a TDSB Teachers Read panel. Five educators in TDSB were asked to champion a favourite professional learning texts. Each presenter had just five minutes to summarize the book and persuade the audience that their book was the “must-read” for TDSB for 2017-18. The talks were live streamed and recorded so that people who wished to experience the Canada-Reads-look-alike could do so at their leisure. I was one of the panelists and my book was Calm Alert and Learning by Stuart Shanker.

I chose to use an Ignite Talk as the format for my presentation. (An Ignite talk is a five-minute presentation in which the images from the slides automatically advance every 20 seconds.) I decided to share with this style because I wanted to ensure that I did not go over time and I wanted my viewers to be entertained and informed. Even though it meant extra stress for me beforehand to prepare and rehearse the Ignite talk, I think it was a wise choice because the time elapsing did not take me by surprise during the actual talk. (Thanks Jennifer Casa-Todd from the York Catholic District School Board for introducing me to this technique and allowing me to do it at a conference she arranged in her board some years past.)

I want to thank my fellow panelists … Rahim Essabhai, Chris Lee, Christina Saunders, and Jennifer Watt. I also want to thank Natalie Colaiacova for arranging such a dynamic and enjoyable event. I stayed long afterwards to talk with Joel Krentz, Catherine McCuaig, and Rian and didn't get home until 7:00 p.m. that night. 

If you missed the event, you can still see it by going to and you can click this link to go to the voting site. (Pssst - I'd appreciate it if you voted for Calm Alert and Learning if you get a chance!) Check the twitter feed from #tdsbReads

Saturday, October 21, 2017 = Treasure Mountain Canada 5

This was my third Treasure Mountain Canada research symposium and it did not disappoint. I flew out to Winnipeg immediately after my Media AQ course. I was sad to miss the Manitoba Teachers Society’s SAGE (Special Area Groups of Educators) conference that was connected to TMC5, because it had a lot of relevance to my school and my board’s emphasis on indigenous education and would have been extremely useful to my own school's work.

You can see for all the papers contributed to this school library think tank. The day was filled with great keynotes (Dianne Oberg and Camille Callison), wonderful table talks on some of the informative papers submitted (I got to hear from Pat Trottier and Jo-Anne Gibson; I myself presented twice), virtual visits (Leigh Cassell and Michelle Brown) and brain-melting "big think" tasks. I am going to have to sit down and digest all the things that were discussed.

Thankfully, I was not alone at TMC5 - several Ontario teacher-librarians and educators were in attendance: Michelle Campbell, Alanna King, Jennifer Brown, and Melanie Mulcaster. I am also grateful for my Manitoba friends, especially Jo-Anne Gibson and Vivianne Fogarty. I have known Jo-Anne and Vivianne for a long time but we only get to see each other at conferences.  This time, we were on their home turf and I know Melanie and I were grateful to have a bit of extra time before our flight home to enjoy brunch at Fort Whyte, a nature conservatory and education/recreation center. We were incredibly fortunate to have time to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Visiting this facility was thought-provoking (and we even got a sneak peek at their library). The night before, Melanie, Jennifer and I spent time with Melanie's university friend and companion to eat a scrumptious dinner and walk around The Forks.

So, what's the similarities? I had an alternate title for this blog but I thought it would spoil the "surprise" that connects the two events.

Treasure Those You Don't See Daily

Even though I work in the same school board as some of my friends, Toronto is a huge city and I don't get the opportunity to visit with my colleagues. Double that for friends in different school boards. Triple that for acquaintances outside the province. Spending time together is so important. I'm a bit extra nostalgic because this is probably the last time I'll see Jo-Anne face-to-face. She is one of the most hard-working, talented, and wise teacher-librarians I know. You must read her paper on "Facilitating Reconciliation through the Library Learning Commons" - it will help not just school libraries but entire schools on ways to make the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations possible to implement.

Melanie and Jennifer in Forks
Rob, Jen, Andrew, me, and Mel
Me, Joyce, Vivianne, Mel and Jo-Anne at Fort Whyte

Learn Before, During, and After

I had to prepare for both events weeks ahead. For TDSB Teachers Read, it meant choosing my book and preparing my persuasive argument. For Treasure Mountain Canada, it involved reflecting on my practice and writing a paper. There was lots of learning during the events as we listened, asked questions, and came up with thoughtful answers. The learning after is still important. What will we do with this information? The Museum of Human Rights even had a section where it asked visitors to commit to paper what they would do.

The interactive display at the museum
This is what Melanie and I wrote and left as our promise
I'd write more, but this is getting shared around 8:30 p.m. on Monday, October 23, 2017 - pushing my Monday deadline a bit! I have media literacy reflections to consider, report cards to start, an extra presentation to prepare ... but despite it all, I have no regrets taking the time for TDSB Teachers Read and Treasure Mountain Canada.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Media Monsters: Harvey, Boycotts, Intersectionality and Slacktivism

I'm taking my Additional Qualification course in Media. We've had two classes so far and both have been intellectually stimulating/challenging. Media literacy, according to the slides from the first day, is the "knowledge and skills necessary to understand and use the codes and conventions of a wide variety of media forms and genres appropriately, effectively, and ethically". There are eight key concepts we'll examine in the course.

1. The media construct reality.
2. The media construct versions of reality.
3. Audiences negotiate meaning.
4. Media messages have economic implications.
5. Media texts communicate value messages.
6. Media texts communicate political and social messages.
7. Form and content are closely related in each medium.
8. Each medium has a unique esthetic form.

My observations about the media around me have sharpened as I take this course. For instance, last Tuesday (the day after Thanksgiving), I was at the University Avenue courthouse because I had been summoned to a jury duty pool. After going through a security search at the front doors and having my papers checked, one of the first things the entire group of assembled citizens did was watch a video about what an honour and privilege it was to be called to jury duty. ("Propaganda", my husband said when I returned home.) People in the captive audience chuckled in self-recognition when someone in a hard hat told the camera "I was unhappy when I got called for duty. I didn't want to go."  I sat processing a 17 page article about Marshall McLuhan's ideas about media and used my waiting time to read and comprehend McLuhan's sometimes complex and convoluted thoughts. Despite hearing how important our presence was to a democratic society and to the justice system, the entire room cheered when we learned that we were dismissed after only half a day. Typical jury duty pools take four days.

Neil, Carol, and Michelle (our course leaders) opened the second class with something they took turns calling "Old Business" and "Classroom Connections" (correct me if I used the wrong terminology, folks). We discussed some of the current events of the past week, such as Eminem's "lyrical tirade" against President Trump, the outrage over Dove's recent advertisement, the TDSB's decision to remove the term "chief" from job titles, and of course, the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal. The great thing was watching how Neil, Carol and Michelle deftly facilitated the discussion and helped the class extract media learnings from the conversation. Neil encouraged us to be careful when taking very clear positions about contentious issues in class discussions because of our power relation as the teacher - rather, by positioning it as "I've read X" or "Some say...", it gives students a chance to offer their own opinions so that students are not just agreeing or disagreeing with you because of who you are. There were some interesting points made about the Weinstein controversy. Would the condemnation be the same if he were more liked? Or more attractive? Who is to blame for the continuation of these offensive practices? What role should actors / actresses who were "in the know" have played in speaking out? Why might victims not come forward? Is the "court of public opinion" trying him too quickly?

Similar conversations about the Weinstein affair were happening on Twitter, one of my favourite social media platforms. Actor Rose McGowan, in particular, was quite vocal, and then was reportedly suspended from the microblogging site for violating standards. At some point, someone started the hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter and suggested that to protest the unfair treatment of women in general and Rose McGowan in particular, women should refrain from using Twitter on Friday, October 13, 2017. This was all happening at a pretty rapid pace, and I thought I'd join in.
I avoided Twitter all day on Friday, despite the urge to share things like an audio recording of the students choosing to practice a song in the library, or my library recess visit statistics for September and half of October, or my son's Scratch-made video game (all examples of media texts). When I returned to Twitter on Saturday, I saw people complaining about #WomenBoycottTwitter because by female absences, men who did not want to hear "feminist complaints" were happy, and that wasn't what they wanted to have happen. In this alternative opinion, women should have been louder on that day instead of absent. Then, there were these two tweets.

They had a point. Why did I choose to participate in this movement but not in issues relating to Jemele Hill from ESPN? I've made a conscientious effort to follow more educators of colour on Twitter, and I read #EduColor Twitter chats, but obviously the effect of being a better ally has not been sinking in as deeply.

Or does it actually matter? What did my absence for a single day do on Twitter? The Oxford Dictionary defines slacktivism as:
The practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.
Was I just jumping on a bandwagon? What difference did it truly make? What did I hope to accomplish?

Let me look back on those media concepts. "Media texts communicate political and social messages." "Media texts communicate value messages." Maybe I had hoped by my lack of tweets that I was communicating my values about the politico-social situation of sexual harassment. I don't want people to be preyed upon by sexual predators, especially those who wield power and appear to "get away with it". I want my world to be fair. Yet, my own point of view means I miss things. "Audiences negotiate meaning."  I'm grateful for a more diverse audience so I can hear about these different viewpoints. As an educator, I'm uniquely positioned to deal with these "scary monsters": harassment, protests, civil unrest, bias, and more.

Then there's McLuhan himself, who said that his work "is designed for the pragmatic purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences" (page 2). We are deluded at times that "it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what is does to us and with us" (page 3). That's why my husband says he focuses more on the local news; it feels more grounded and less infuriating to him. National or international news "angers up the blood" and he feels like he is impotent about doing anything about the feelings invoked. (He also says that Huxley was more right than Orwell when it came to predicting the future, but I digress.) Celebrity news, as it is distilled on social media, does things to us and with us. We become outraged; we want to act, and act quickly. We have to think critically before we act impulsively. McLuhan says "education... should be helping youth to understand and adapt to their revolutionary new environment" (page 8) - that can be hard to do in a timely fashion when events occur and media texts are produced in response at such a rapid pace. McLuhan describes the world as "a global theater in which the entire world is a Happening. Our whole cultural container of people is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism, itself contained within a new macrocosm of a super-terrestrial nature" (page 12). It really does feel like "the media" is a many tentacled creature, not a monster per se, but alive and active. An issue or event comes to the forefront and it's approached in many different ways by many participants and spectators; how long it is at the center depends on many factors. McLuhan says "the global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable. Uniformity and tranquility are not hallmarks of the global village; far more likely are conflict and discord as well as love and harmony" (page 13). That's certainly true in the Weinstein case, especially when similar situations are examined (e.g. what about Woody Allen? Bill Cosby? Donald Trump? Bill Clinton?)  He elaborates that "electric media open up totally new means of registering popular opinion" (page 14) (now, he also says that political democracy is finished, but I won't get into that). There are definitely a plethora of popular or unpopular opinions.

So maybe staying off Twitter was a lazy or ill-advised method of registering my disapproval of sexual predators. I had my reasons, even though they missed the boat in certain ways. What should I have done instead? I hope other friends, especially those like Michelle Arbuckle, who also avoided Twitter on that day, may have some suggestions for me.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Thankful for the hard things

It's Canadian Thanksgiving. We had our family celebration at my house this year, for a change, and everything went well, except for the cheese straws I tried to make.

Cheese straws are supposed to look like this (image taken from

This is what my cheese straws looked like

I think the recipe I got has the wrong measurements *sigh*

I have a lot to be thankful for, but believe it or not, I'm quite thankful for my recent suffering.


I had a terrible migraine last week that could not be tamed with the usual methods of medication, dark rooms, and bed rest. It was so bad that I actually had to miss a day of work. Yet, after it was over, I was grateful for it. Why? Because I often take my health for granted. I am not thankful for my good health unless it's taken away from me. When wellness returns, I become appreciative of the ability to look around without visual disturbances (one of the characteristics of my occasional migraines) or that my head does not feel like it's full of knives.

My migraine and the subsequent recovery meant that I had to postpone the start of my Cross Fit Lite class. Around this time last year, I wrote about working with a personal trainer and a research assistant. My personal trainer closed her studio in 2017 and the self-directed exercises weren't creating the same results for me. My good friend and fellow teacher-librarian, Moyah Walker, recommended that I sign up for classes at Cross Fit Canuck. Zach is the class leader and he really put us through our paces, so much so that I couldn't walk properly for three days. My legs, behind, and arms hurt something fierce! I hobbled around like if I recovering from some sort of accident. I'm not a masochist - I didn't enjoy the agony itself. What I knew was that the pain had purpose. My muscles hadn't been challenged like that in a long time. If I keep trying, I'll get stronger and increase my stamina. Do I want to do 150 squats in 15 minutes again? No, not really; but if it helps me keep fit, that's a good thing.

My challenges this week were not all physical. Terry Soleas, my research assistant, and I, set a goal to write a research paper based on our work and to submit it to a peer-reviewed academic journal. Writing a real research paper has been a goal of mine ever since I finished my Masters of Education degree from the University of Alberta. Unlike my other writing projects (like writing this blog, or writing for The Teaching Librarian magazine), academic writing does not come easily to me. I tend to over-quote because I worry about plagiarizing. I wrote, and re-wrote, and revised, and edited multiple times. Thankfully, Terry is incredibly skilled and talented. We collaborated online on the writing and spent a good two hours on the phone going over the document sentence by sentence. We have some "critical friends" examining the paper right now and then it will be submitted. Keep your fingers crossed that it will be accepted!

I also attended my first class for my Media Part 1 Additional Qualification course this past Friday. I love teaching media and I'm excited about learning from the great minds in the course. Our first reading assignment, due this Thursday, is to read an article about Marshall McLuhan. No problem, right? Well, it's 16 pages long, with 3 columns per page, and it's actually pretty dense. Once again, I'm thankful. One, because it will provide me with something to read and do while I'm in the jury duty pool selection tomorrow. Two, because it's going to push me mentally in a way that I haven't since my last AQ course. It's not all "putting your nose to the grindstone" - the media walk we did at Yorkdale elicited some excellent conversations in class. (Here are a couple of photos I took of examples of the key concepts of media literacy.)

Clarifying time: of course I am thankful for the good things in my life, like my family, friends, health, job, opportunities, home, food, and more. Maybe this is a reflection of my faith practices - suffering can be an offering; if we are fat and happy, we are less likely to turn to God for supplication because we are content and don't need to request anything. I don't hope for more migraines or busted legs or difficult tasks, but I'm thankful that these challenges can help me to become a better, and more grateful, person.

Monday, October 2, 2017

STEAM and Skinny Pigs

The focus for our school's PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) this year is STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math). Everyone is expected to help support the Engineering Design Process somehow through their program. It can be relatively easy to implement in the library, as the Library Learning Commons Maker Space at Agnes Macphail P.S. is still alive and kicking, and inquiry based learning is a hallmark of what happens in that space as well. An authentic opportunity arose, thanks to another element of my school library that my students love: the school skinny pigs.

(You can see how much my students dote on the skinny pigs based on some of the recent responses to the new OSLA initiative, "My School Library Rocks".)

The format I'm using for the STEAM inquiry is Ask/Imagine/Plan/Create/Improve. To be honest, I think we need to make it STREAM because I noticed that Research plays an important part.

Ernie and Bert are my two current skinny pigs. Since about mid-August, my family and I have noticed that the skinny pigs aren't getting along. I'm used to typical scuffles, but this was getting more serious. Ernie's back was covered in scratches, wounds, and bite marks! This level of aggression was worse than anything I had seen previously. My Ask was: How can I get the skinny pigs to stop fighting?

My husband conducted some preliminary research online and found this article: The article suggested extra hideouts, extra food, and possibly some sort of divider to temporarily separate them. I set up the cage in a new way with two copies of everything.

In the picture above, I put a dustpan up as to keep the two of them away from each other. The dust pan fell over almost immediately. I knew this wouldn't last. My Imagine was: How can I build a wall between the skinny pigs that will keep them both safe but also be temporary? (Permanent walls aren't always the answer to problems, a lesson I hope some powerful people will learn eventually.)

Ms. Keberer, the HSP/MART teacher, and I did our Plan informally and then we Created a simple wall with cardboard and pipe cleaners. 

Our wall lasted about a day. Both skinny pigs chewed right through the barrier and made a big enough gap for them both to squeeze through. We knew we needed to Improve our design.

My students are often crowded around the skinny pigs' cage, observing them intently. Some immediately noticed the damage to Ernie's back. I mentioned to my Grade 1-3 library and media students about the problem with Bert bullying Ernie. (This misbehaviour led to the "cancellation" of the skinny pigs' first birthday party on September 18, but I caught some students quietly singing Happy Birthday to Ernie and Bert that day.) The students heard me read them the wonderful book by Ashley Spires, The Most Magnificent Thing. When they saw the chewed remains of the first prototype, they had many suggestions on how to improve it. I asked for their help, and they jumped right in. They drew plans. I asked them to list what materials they'd need and they wrote all sorts of things. When I asked how much of these materials they'd need, one pair realized they needed to measure the cage.

I've only just begun this STEAM inquiry but it looks like it will be engaging and hopefully will solve my skinny pig problem. I'll share some of the designs and prototypes as they develop.