Monday, August 27, 2018

TDSB BT + PB4T3 = Lots of Letters and a Loaf of Bread

Confession to make: I like being busy. I like the hustle-bustle of workshops to deliver and places to be. I may have over-scheduled myself this past week, however; because I had four presentations/workshops in three days (as well as a podcast recording the day before). What do all those acronyms stand for, and what was going on?

TDSB BT = Toronto District School Board Beginning Teacher
(Summer Institute [August 21] and Teacher-Librarian Support Session [August 22])

What did I do? I spent a large portion of my non-presenting time reconnecting in the vendor hall with some wonderful people that I rarely get to see. If I try to name them all, I know I'll forget some. It's such a wonderful feeling to turn one direction and see someone hurrying to greet you, and then turn another way and see a different familiar face smiling at you.

I gave a presentation called "Making Media Literacy Fun and Relevant". Thank you so much to all the participants. The educators in the room really got their creative juices flowing with the activity where they tinkered with making school-related memes.

On the 21st, after my talk, I spent some quality time with Andrea Sykes, the new TDSB Program Coordinator for Library and Learning Resources (and Interdisciplinary Studies) discussing the plans for the next day's New Teacher Librarian professional learning. Andrea really helped me understand the vision, mission and flow for the day. Conceptualizing it as a collaborative inquiry gave it concrete purpose. Chatting together with Andrea (before picking up my son from video game development camp) was time well spent.

The new teacher-librarian session, in my opinion, was very successful. What made it great was how the focus was centered on the new TLs and their needs. Andrea assembled several experienced teacher-librarians in the room and offered them as human books to browse in the quest for answering the novices' most burning questions. It felt very rewarding to be a part of those conversations, which ranged from maker spaces to reigniting the passion for reading in middle school students. I really hope that I can stay in touch with several of those TLs throughout the year. Sadly, I had to leave earlier than I would have liked, so that I could make it to my other commitment.

PB4T3 = Pedagogy Before Technology
(3rd Annual Conference [August 22] and Minds on Media Session [August 23])

 What did I do? During the afternoon of August 22, I facilitated a session with Michelle Solomon on "Media Literacy and Social Media". This was my first time presenting with Michelle and my first official function as an executive member of the Association of Media Literacy. Presenting with Michelle was delightful; we found a comfortable rhythm and supported each other as we reviewed the eight key concepts of media education with our large group of attendees, sometimes in unorthodox ways.
The next day was "Minds on Media", a cornucopia of options for educators to explore at their own pace. The list of options can be seen at and I worked with Michelle Solomon and Neil Andersen discussing all sorts of media topics. What I absolutely loved about this format was similar to the new teacher-librarian session the day before; it was an opportunity to go deeper with fewer, as opposed to a traditional workshop in which we often go shallow (in terms of ideas and implementation) with many (audience members rather than one on one).

I appreciated how we didn't feel rushed to cover specific outcomes. For instance, I spent a lot of time chatting with "N" from York Region (despite being in different boards, we are actually pretty geographically close to each other) and together we brainstormed and plotted both integrated and stand-alone media lessons for her Grade 6s that I also want to use next year.

Similar to the TDSB event, PB4T also afforded me the chance to talk with people. I was so happy to see how many great supply teachers and LTOs I know now have permanent contracts. After Minds on Media (and spending 4 hours in the car driving all over the city to collect my son from that aforementioned camp, getting him home, and returning to the conference site!), I was blessed to spend time with several of the presenters at dinner and afterwards with some of my favourite people (Michelle Solomon and Alanna King) sharing stories.
So what's with the bread, you might be wondering? This incident blew me away. I was in the vendor hall of the TDSB Beginning Teacher Summer Institute when my friend, Marianne Bartkiw, approached me. After our initial greetings and pleasantries, she said, "I have something for you" and out of her bag, she pulled out a loaf of bread. She told me (and I'm paraphrasing here because halfway through her explanation my heart impeded my brain from a proper recording) that her very first presentation to educators was with me. I remembered our session well - it was in 2016 on inquiry and the two of us did a great job on it, if I do say so myself. She said that it was her very first workshop of that sort and she appreciated the planning and presenting support she received from me during that time. Now, as an Early Reading Coach in the board, she gives workshops all the time. She explained that she couldn't recall if she adequately thanked me back then and so she wanted to show her appreciation. She did it by baking a loaf of homemade sour dough bread for me.

You have no idea how much her gesture touched and impressed me. I nearly cried. Do people realize the positive impact they have on others? Her action inspired me to copy her example and I baked red velvet cookies for my Cross Fit coach (whom I wrote about here) because he made our first week back to training (after that three week hiatus) an easy transition. Marianne, thank you for being a wonderful human being. (My family has enjoyed the fruits of Marianne's labour.) Thank someone who's not expecting it, if you can. It'll make their day.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Work Environments

I was out of the country from July 29 - August 19, visiting my husband's family in the US. We decided to do something a bit different and so we took a short mini-trip to Pittsburgh, PA. While in Pittsburgh, my family and I went to the National Aviary and toured a Pennsylvanian coal mine. Both excursions were really enjoyable and educational, but for the purposes of today's blog post (and its connection to education), I wanted to focus on the coal mine.

Our tour guide told us that he has worked in coal mines for 49 years. He spoke positively about being a miner and said that nowadays, it's a decent paying job with a lot of camaraderie, despite some of the drawbacks. This wasn't true in the past. During our trek into the mine, he shared a lot of stories, with awe in his voice, about the early miners and the many challenges that they faced. For instance, in the photo above and below, he demonstrated how the miner, who had to purchase all his equipment from the mining company, would lie on his side and use his pick ax to chisel out a trough of coal. Then, he would use that manual drill to bore holes to put explosives in and release more of the coal.

Our guide described how many of the workers were immigrants, speaking little or no English. They were paid in "scrip", company money that was exchanged for food, clothing, tools, and their lodgings. The mining corporation charged exorbitant prices for necessities and the workers were often in debt to the company. The miners were sometimes cheated of their just payment, meager though it was - for example, if a foreman or supervisor examining the container of coal claimed that the half-ton load included rock that was not coal, they could refuse to pay for the entire load. (They still kept the load, which meant they took the coal and "inferior" rocks for free.)

Advances in technology and machinery made the work somewhat easier, but not always better. The middle of the three photos below, the shaker conveyor belt, helped to transport the coal down the mine, but it was very noisy and back then, safety wasn't a priority. Many miners lost their hearing because they were exposed to these loud machines for long periods of time every day.

In the past, illumination usually only came from the lights on their helmets. Our guide briefly shut off all the lights while we were in the mine, and it was so dark that I could not see my hand in front of my face. The mine wasn't great for taking photos or videos, but these were two short videos I took of some of the demonstrations.

The ironic thing about our tour is that our guide said that mining was a tough job, but he'd never trade places with, say, a teacher. I was thinking the opposite! Teaching is a tough job, but I can't picture myself ever possessing the fortitude, strength, resilience, and determination to be a coal miner. In fact, I made this t-chart with some comparisons.

Comparing Coal Miners and Teachers
  • “Tough jobs”
  • Unions crucial to proper treatment
  • Decent pay (at least for 2018 Ontario teachers and 2018 Pennsylviania miners)
  • Poor treatment in the past
  • Not always respected, though work is important
  • Close-knit friendships develop between workers
  • Long hours (if you count teacher planning and marking time)
  • Don’t always get to see the fruits of their labour
  • Location (deep underground vs inside a classroom)
  • Access to resources (some of today’s teachers still buy their own supplies to use for work)
  • Gender (miners mostly men, although “girls” were allowed in mines in 1975; teachers mostly women)
  • Danger (likelihood of injury or death high for miners in past)
  • Physically vs psychologically demanding
  • Training
  • Education

Touring the coal mine also gave me a solid dose of reality. My Twitter feed is full right now of people agonizing or rejoicing about setting up their classrooms before the students arrive. I will not complain about my work environment, when I remember that others labour kilometers deep in the ground, in dark and claustrophobic spaces similar to the caves that reminded me of where the Thai soccer team was trapped for weeks. I will appreciate my school library space even when the air conditioning is on too high or the books are in disarray, because standing in the dark in a mine had me recall the virtual sensation of being trapped in a Minecraft mine, and I know which experience I'd prefer. Mining is a tough, dirty job, but someone has to do it (especially if we want our carbonated drinks and other amenities for 21st century living, even though there are other ways to get energy) - and I'm grateful it's not me.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Preferred Pronouns

I have a friend who is probably the most organized person I have ever met. They can organize even the most unruly and expansive teams. They can run huge events and keep all the moving parts operational. They have incredible reservoirs of energy and can somehow function on very little sleep, which sometimes leads me to believe that they are part-robot. They also prefer using the pronouns "they" and "their" to refer to themselves.

Switching my terminology has not always been easy. I first met my friend when they went by their "dead" name and it took concentrated effort to use the pronouns they prefer. English grammar lends itself to certain regular sentence constructions. A lifetime of using either "he" or "she" has ingrained those two choices in my brain and mouth, but I can change.

For example, there are several meetings leading up to the big event where my friend and I volunteer. At one of these meetings, we were going around the table introducing ourselves, because we had some new members. I started the introductions and said, "My name is Diana and my preferred pronouns are she and her." This gave my friend the opportunity to mention their preferred pronouns without having to initiate the conversation. I was pretty pleased with myself and my actions, until two realizations stopped the self-congratulations.

First, the only reason I included that statement about preferred pronouns was because my friend was in the room and I knew my friend is trans. Would I have considered mentioning pronouns if they were not present? Shouldn't I be mentioning my preferred pronouns, regardless of who is in the room? After all, I shouldn't rely on a visual scan of the room to decide whether or not someone in the room has a preferred pronoun that might not match the ones society considers appropriate for us.

Secondly, when I shared this anecdote with another friend, she asked if by addressing the pronoun issue, might I inadvertently be putting those who are struggling with their gender identity with making a stand or decision? I think it's better to bring it up but I can understand the conundrum it may put people, even for those who have never considered the possibility that someone's gender may not match their perceptions.

This is why representation in books matter. Maybe not everyone has a trans friend. Exposure to these concepts should not be dependent on whether or not someone knows someone else. I've seen it written that homogeneous schools are the ones that need even more diverse perspectives in literature, so that everyone, not just those who relate to certain characters, can interact on the page with different people. Fellow teacher Rabia Khokar reminded us recently in the Library AQ course during her presentation of the importance of books as "windows, mirrors, and doors".

It's important to have all sorts of books in a school library that reflect various lived experiences, regardless of personal opinions. After all, one of the "rights as a reader" is for readers to abandon books if they do not want to read it; no one is obligated. For some students, books like these may be the only chance to see someone like themselves. A few years ago, a parent asked me through my administrator about what "percentage of gay books" I had on the school library shelves. My original answer to my principal was "not enough". Needless to say, he didn't quite phrase my response to the query in the same way I delivered it. In 2017, one of the Red Maple Non-Fiction nominated titles was Trans phobia: deal with it and be a gender transcender by j wallace skelton and Nick Johnson. I know that this book addressed the topic of pronouns; I just never took the initiative to try the suggestions for pronoun use that the book offered. Hopefully it will not take the presence of a racialized friend to make me pay attention to colour and culture, or a friend with a disability to notice accessibility issues, or someone with financial issues to care about class/economic concerns. Sometimes, it does, because when issues are personalized, and you actually know someone who experiences discrimination due to their identity, you pay attention more. At least, I do. But I can change; I can improve.

Monday, August 6, 2018

I got an N on my report card

During the last week of school, I was away for three of those four days. I had a good reason; I was supervising the Grade 8 students on their grad trip to Albion Hills. It can be challenging to plan a decent lesson for students to undertake with a supply teacher for these "dying days" of school, but I had a risky but useful task. The job of the students was to team up and write a report card - on me. With me away, I felt like they would be more honest about their opinions. I had a wonderful supply teacher, who went over the learning skills and what they meant, explained how teachers cannot decide on grades without having evidence to back up their claims, and helped the students take this task seriously. After all, on the Annual Learning Plan, there is a section where educators can include student and parent feedback on their teaching. This would be an authentic way to gather some thoughts directly from the students.

When I returned from the trip to the Etobicoke Outdoor Education Centre, I found a huge pile of report cards for me to read. Guess what? I didn't need to worry about the students being frank. Two of the seven classes that were given this activity to do did not have as much time as the other groups did, so the occasional teacher did it as a group activity and recorded the whole-class answers.

In case you can't read it clearly, those are "S"s for Organization. If you aren't familiar with the Ontario elementary report card, Learning Skills are given an E for Excellent, G for Good, S for Satisfactory, and N for Needs Improvement.

With some of the other classes, in which they wrote the report cards in small groups, some of the results were even ... harsher. Some groups tried to lessen the blow by giving me Term 1 and Term 2 results and showing some improvement (e.g. I got an N in Term 1 and a S in Term 2). This example I've scanned and replicated here had quite a bit of detail and evidence. I blocked out the "teachers' names" (I loved how many took a creative writing approach to the upper section of the report card), but read this report.

I came home to my family and cried, "I got a N on my report card for organization!"

"This somehow surprises you?" was my sarcastic son's reply

 Now, I have to give the students credit. These marks did not appear out of nowhere. They gave rationales. They provided examples. What I found interesting about this exercise was how they conceptualized "organization" and made it synonymous with "tidy". Have we inadvertently created this idea - equating a clean desk with a good grade? It doesn't say that on the report card description of organization. It seems to be more about time management and completing work. Many student "evaluators" also felt that it was my responsibility (as opposed to a shared responsibility) to maintain order in the school library. Having said that, I realize that keeping things orderly is not one of my strengths and is something to which I should devote more time and effort. We didn't get a chance to go over the report card results with my "teachers". I wonder what next steps, if any, I should take ... both to improve my organizational skills, and to expand student ideas of organization. If you are reading this and have any ideas, please share them in the blog comments or via Facebook or Twitter.