Monday, March 4, 2024

Sir Bob and the Return of the Chain Mail Shirt

 This past week, circumstances allowed me to re-use a lesson idea from years past. Let me tell you the story of both Sir Bob and the chain mail shirt.

Sir Bob

Sir Bob is the nickname for a suit of armor that lives in my school library. He has been there for longer than my tenure. He wears a small sign on his back that explains how he ended up guarding a school library. He belongs to Lianne Harris, a wonderful individual that conducts history and social studies presentations around the GTA. Her website is if you'd like to contact her and request an informative and entertaining presentation at your school.

I knew about Lianne even before I met Sir Bob. In my very first year of contract teaching, at a different school, I booked her to do a presentation for the junior division students. She captivated them back then. Here's a photo of her from my school scrapbook.

If Lianne is reading this, please rest assured that Sir Bob is still doing his duty watching over the students. He was even mentioned in a research study by Queen's University and People for Education in 2009 ("Exemplary School Libraries in Ontario"), when the observers described the school library environment:

... The front window looks onto the school's courtyard entrance, and beside one of the many "cozy corners" complete with comfortable chairs and a round table, stands Sir Bob, a knight in full armour. ..." (page 3)

Lianne wears and has students try on clothing that matches the time period she is teaching about. To maximize the impact of Lianne's presentation back then, I was able to bring in a different artifact that has an even longer personal history for me.

The Chain Mail Tunic

My husband has some pretty talented friends. One of them, Chris, is a history buff. In the 1990s, he decided to try to make chain mail armor out of wire coat hangers. He first lent me this vest in 1997 so that my students could feel what it was like. I returned it (after a stint in my car trunk), and Chris continued to add to it over the years. I borrowed it again in 2004 as part of a collaborative teaching unit with the Grade 4 classes. My principal at the time, Wayne Hamilton, wore the shirt, to the delight of the students and teachers.

When my own daughter had her ninth birthday, (in 2009) it was a medieval themed affair and Chris came over with the latest iteration of the armour. By this time, it was no longer a vest, but a rather long tunic. Only my good friend and teaching colleague, Renee, was able to handle wearing it. It was too heavy for any child to try it on. I returned it, thinking it was the last I'd ever get to use the armour.

 Years go by and lessons come and go. Fast forward to October 2023. My husband decided to have a few friends over for his birthday, including Chris. Chris brought with him a big surprise: a brand new chain mail shirt and coif (head piece) that he had made for me!

Chris used specially-ordered chain links to create it this time, instead of wire hangers, and it took him about six months to put it together. The metal cost over $400. (The metal links cost $100 for a kilogram.) He even added black metal rings around the edges for a more finished look. I was gobsmacked. This project took lots of time, money and effort to create. I was very grateful, and determined that I would use it with students.

It just so happens that I'm teaching Grade 4 social studies this year as part of my teaching assignment. This past week, I brought out the armour as part of my lesson. They loved it! I even roped Renee into demonstrating how protective the amour can be by hitting me with a wooden stick. It makes a satisfyingly loud song and does not hurt at all.

The students and I had great discussions about chain mail vs plate armour and comparing modern soldier outfits to older uniforms. I don't know if I'll be able to top this lesson, but it certainly was memorable, and if it helps students to get excited about social studies and learning about the past, then I'll all for it!

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Jewel that is Julie

 This Friday, our school had a big Carnaval event. The Grade 8 students created and ran games that mimicked some of the activities one might find at Quebec's famous winter festival. Students made French posters to advertise the event and French videos to play on our virtual announcements. The entire school rotated through various centers and had a wonderful time playing together and getting exposed to French language and culture. 

For the purpose of today's blog, rather than focus on the single event, I wanted to highlight the person behind this event: our school's French teacher, Julie Tran.

Julie and I have worked together for quite a while. If my school scrapbooks and yearbooks are correct, Julie Tran first came to our school in the 2005-2006 school year as a junior division teacher. I have many photos of us collaborating on various projects, even in her first year at the school. (That year, we did clothing from ancient civilizations. In 2008-09 it was the Nadcaa Auction.)  In the 2006-07 year, I helped Julie's Grade 5 class create a Claymation animated movie trailer for a Raptors contest and we were one of the winners. We co-ran several clubs together (including, in 2007-08 the Twilight Fan Club and Modern Dance Clubs). She migrated to the intermediate division in 2009-10. She unfortunately left our school in 2011 because of surplus issues. 

At the 2006 Danceathon

During a 2006 Boys Literacy Project Meeting

Working on the Charlotte's Web trailer in 2006-7

Celebrating our contest win in 2007

The school where I work is a highly coveted one by educators. It's a great place to work. The likelihood that you can return to a teaching position there is rather slim. However, Julie defied the odds by returning to us in 2022-23 as our French teacher. Since her return, she has been active. Last year, she helped with Student Council and this year switched her attention to the French Club as well as some new upcoming clubs. She also played a major role in bringing back our LEWIS (Lunch Every Wednesday Is Salad) staff tradition. 

(By the way, I spent an inordinate amount of time searching for a photo of Julie and I wearing angel halos. I thought it would make a good contrast to the frog and devil photo above from Halloween 2023 but I'll be damned [pun intended] if I just cannot find it in my photo archives!)

Why is Julie a gem? She is conscientious. She is organized. She is dedicated. She is enthusiastic. She is caring. All of these things, and more, make her a great colleague and friend. We are lucky to have her back at our school.

Thanks Julie for working so hard on on this major event for our school and continuing to work hard to have our students learn and thrive. 

Monday, February 19, 2024

A Day with Hafiz at the Archives

Happy Family Day to those who celebrate. It was a full week leading up to Family Day, with Valentine's Day, Ash Wednesday, 100s Day, and Parent-Teacher interviews all filling the calendar. I want to share what I did on Friday, February 16, 2024. Usually, half the time for elementary teachers is designated for completing interviews, and then the other half is a lieu day in exchange for staying late on Thursday night. As the teacher-librarian in charge of social studies and drama, who shepherds the translators during this time, my presence is not crucial on Friday. Months earlier, while listening to one of my guest speakers at my York University Teacher Librarian AQ course, I was captivated enough by his talk to sign up for a workshop he was running. This is how I ended up at the Archives of Ontario on a chilly Friday to explore more about Games Based Learning with Hafiz Printer, Senior Coordinator of Education Programming and Exhibitions.

On the Archives of Ontario website, this is how the GBL workshop was described:

Interested in incorporating game-based learning into your teaching?  In this full day workshop, we will explore the difference between gamification and game-based learning and how these can contribute to meaningful learning experiences.  Teachers will get the chance to try different kinds of games before going through the process of creating their own board game.

Workshop Highlights:

  1. Learn 3 Approaches to Incorporating Games:  Explore the different degrees of incorporating games into your teaching, from using existing games, modifying existing games, and creating your own game.

  2. Board Game Creation:  Take part in a collaborative game jam where you will work alongside fellow educators to design and prototype your own board game. 

Even though I was the only elementary teacher in the workshop, I really enjoyed listening to the presentation and working with like-minded educators. Hafiz made some great connections to learning and playing games.

He addressed game-based learning vs gamification, which I really appreciated. (Few educators acknowledge that a difference exists.) He showed us about using games exactly as they are with the example of Timeline. (I played Timeline with my Grade 5-6 students in 2020-21 and it's inspired me to try a version with my current social studies students.) Hafiz mentioned some cool games I'd love to buy for myself. (That's the purpose of the photo below - to remember which games he named.)

He demonstrated how to modify existing games by playing Taboo with the group in attendance using cards he tailor-made for the target audience (educators). 

The last half of the workshop actually had us in small groups designing our own games for use in the classroom. I won't go over all the steps Hafiz took us through, but it was really amazing that after the explanations and the time to work, most of the four groups actually had a working prototype by the end of the session.

The group I collaborated with created a game for Grade 10 History about the Great Depression. I generated the potential names for the game and the group chose the one they liked the best. Our game was called "Poor Us: Managing the Great Depression [in Toronto]".

An extra thrill was seeing not one, but two former York U TL AQ alumni in the workshop. Thankfully, they didn't flee or try to dodge me when they saw me. Great to reconnect again, Jimmy and Aaron!

It wasn't just the content of the workshop that made it enjoyable. Hafiz Printer is an accomplished facilitator. He's been a teacher (and an award-winning one at that, receiving one of  the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence in the past), and worked for the Aga Khan Museum prior to his current stint at the Archives of Ontario. I've seen him do a workshop as part of the Toronto Heritage Fair and he did a great job engaging middle-school students after a long day. The other cool thing about Hafiz is that he is a "hobbyist game designer" and co-founded Printer Ink Games with his twin brother. His enthusiasm for teaching, learning, and gaming is contagious. I look forward to having him present again at the York U TL AQ in the spring.

Spending time discussing games made me nostalgic for my times with the members of the GamingEdus. This is the second time this school year that my mind has strayed back to Liam, Denise, Andy and Jen. The GamingEdus website still exists (see thanks to the archiving abilities of Andy, even though we haven't posted there in a while. That ship might have sailed, but I can keep playing, thinking, and writing about games here on this blog or on the AML website ( More importantly, it can spur me to return to integrating more games and games-based learning into my social studies teaching.

PS Hafiz, here is a photo of my husband and I playing the analog version of Tetris. Borrow it from me whenever you like so you can try it out. I might be using it for my Board Game Club which will be held on Friday mornings after March Break, but you can call dibs.

PPS - Hafiz, have you heard of the Serious Play Conference? I've been getting email notifications about it ( Maybe you should apply for an award, or at least be a speaker. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Be Loud. Be Expressive. Be Brave.

 I wasn't sure what to write about for this week's blog post. To help me decide, I looked at the photos on my phone. The images helped me consolidate what was important about this past week.

This school year, I am the main prep provider for all the kindergarten classes in my school. Nearly half of my schedule involves spending time with the 4- and 5-year-olds. We are moving into a new term at school, now that report cards are completed, and I'm alert to what direction my lessons might take with these youngest learners. The inquiry theme from last semester was all about imagination. Based on my observations so far, I might focus on "being". Here's why.

Music - Be Loud. Try out Tap Shoes

I really like bringing in surprise objects for the students to explore. We've done a lot with musical instruments, from trumpets and French horns to tubas and flutes. I found my old tap shoes from when I used to teach dance and brought them for students to experiment with. I liked how they moved in different ways of their own accord to make sound. I also liked how some realized why we chose to explore on the hard tile floor instead of the carpeted areas of the classroom.

Dance & Drama - Be Expressive. Pretend with a Magic Box

A few weeks ago, we were swimming in piles of boxes. Matthew Malisani brought a huge box from home and the students in his class created a magic "house", which they were absolutely thrilled to show me. I wanted to continue the excitement, so I asked if we could play with it again but this time, I wanted to take photos and videos of the students in action. We talked about pretending to be surprised or shocked when the students "disappeared" after entering the box. It didn't go as smoothly as I might have hoped, but I captured a few great moments.

Dance & Drama and Outdoor Time - Be Brave. Climb in a Green Blob or on the Bars

Another "surprise in a bag" I shared with the kindergarten students was what I affectionately named "The Green Blob". Students take off their shoes and climb inside the stretchy fabric. Some of the students were actually afraid of seeing the blob. Some were hesitant to try it out. With some reassurance (and "the right to pass"), we took turns exploring. Some students really got into yelling instructions to the green blob, like shrinking, growing, and moving in different ways.

On Friday afternoon, both kindergarten classes went out to the "big park" to play. I accompanied them. Many students wanted to try the monkey bars and climbing dome, but they were afraid of falling. 

"Help me, Ms. Mali!", they called. 

I tried to support them enough so they'd feel safe but not so much that they didn't try semi-independently. After a few attempts, several learners began to reach farther and climb longer without me holding them. They felt really proud of themselves when they reached their spot.

I think being loud, expressive, and brave is a good mantra for us educators as well. It's simpler, sometimes, to just keep quiet if something is bothering you and not "rock the boat". Why make a fuss? Is it really a big deal? Even though confronting issues can be thorny and awkward, I think it erodes our insides if we don't address them. Nothing may change, (because can leopards change their spots?) but at least we know that we have tried our best to communicate our feelings. If we don't try to point out injustice, exclusionary/unfair practices, and just boorish behaviour, who else will? I hope people will recognize themselves in this final paragraph (coded as it may be) and take comfort. 

And, if you don't get a chance to read anything else this week, read Matthew Morris' blog post, . Thank you Doug Peterson for drawing my attention to this post. And thank you Matthew, for being there for your former students, for writing about this experience, and being expressive and brave.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Unexpected Outdoor EOEC Adventure

 I'm a bit discombobulated this week. I'm more tired than usual, behind on my evaluation deadlines for school and my AQs, and prone to forgetting booked appointments. I have a good reason for not quite being at 100%. I was asked on Saturday night if I could fill in and help supervise the 3-day, 2-night intermediate division trip to the Etobicoke Outdoor Education Center that was scheduled to start that coming Monday. Knowing how much fun and how much learning happens in these places, because I went in 2023 and 2018, I agreed. I covered for Lisa Daley, who was unable to attend, and spent time alongside the wonderful Farah Wadia and remarkable Dean Roberts, who represented the school supervisory group. Here is a quick overview of our calendar of events.

Monday Morning

There was a lot of bustling around as I dropped off supply teaching plans, collected bus seating plans and other important documents, and kept an eye on the excited 45 students in the gym as we waited for the bus. I was a little worried that I'd have to deal with vomit, as I was told that many of the students on the Grade 7 bus where I was to be suffered from motion sickness. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it seems, as I passed out many bags to use "just in case" and didn't have any puke to handle. We arrived without incident and had the required fire drill rehearsal and tour of the premises.

Monday Afternoon

We were very lucky that the conditions were still suitable for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The students were allowed to choose which activity to try. Dean and I went with the ski group. I did not ski because I needed to be more mobile to provide assistance and support to students who needed it. I admired how plucky the students were; for many of them, it was their first time on skis. Other than some spills and a nose bleed, it was a fun and injury-free activity. After the skiing and snowshoeing, the pre-teens could either go tubing or feed the wild chickadees. I supervised the bird feeders.

Monday Evening

After a lasagna dinner and some free time in the common room, the entire group assembled to play Find Frank. The students maneuvered in the dark to find a stuffed dummy who was hidden in the woods. Teachers with flashlights would try to "catch" hunters; if they moved while the beam of light was on them, they had to forfeit their "life stick" and claim another one near a central location. I didn't get to spend as much time participating in Find Frank, because I had to help a student  just before the game began and one mid-way through the activity; both students had "bathroom issues". They recovered without any further incidents. We timed their showers to keep it under 5 minutes for water conservation, and most of the female students, after some socializing in the girls' dorm hallway, were in bed by 10:30 pm. I attempted to assess some social studies projects on my laptop, but gave up around 11:00 pm. I needed sleep more.

Tuesday Morning

We awoke at 6:45 am, enjoyed our breakfast of oatmeal and pancakes, and after some more common room free time, split into three groups for our Survival Skills activity. I went with Kristiana, aka Ms. T and her group of about 15 students. She did a great job connecting their prior knowledge about what it's like getting lost to strategies for staying calm and managing the crisis (with the acronym STOP: Stay Put, Think, Observe, Plan). The students built shelters, learned how to start a fire, made bannock, and boiled water for hemlock tea.

Tuesday Afternoon

After a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup (I think - I didn't keep careful track of when we ate which of the meals), we engaged in a whole group activity called Trappers and Traders. The concept was clever; students were split into small groups representing Indigenous trappers and European traders. They had to travel along certain trails to collect information that, when reported at headquarters, would earn them pelt points. They turned in their points at their respective centers for materials that their group would access. After the time was up for earning points and purchasing items, then everyone gathered in the common room and tried to trade for goods. They had explanation cards which showed them which goods were worth most and tips on how to try and get the most out of the trade. The negotiations were heated and strategic. It was a great way to get a glimpse of the economic mainstay of early Canadian history.

Tuesday Evening

We dined on Swedish meatballs, roasted potatoes and corn for supper. The evening activity was a camp fire. We walked to the site, and sat around the fire together. Students took turns telling riddles and "EOEC Steve" showed visual riddles for the students to guess. Everyone roasted a marshmallow over the open flames and wrapped their gooey treat in a chocolate cookie for a yummy s'more alternative. After we returned from our campfire, we gathered in the common room for a Macphail tradition: short skits by each room group. As usual, they were amusing. Even the teachers take part. After the plays, everyone returned to their sleeping areas. The hall continued to be a fun place to hang out. There were many funny and fascinating conversations that had many of us giggling. The students went to bed and the teachers chewed the fat until midnight.

Wednesday Morning

Some students who were on table duty for the final day asked if they could be awoken early, so Farah and I were up at 6:00 am. (Usually I get 9 hours of sleep each night, from 10:00 pm 'til 7:00 am, so I was functioning on less time than normal.) Boiled eggs and bagels were our breakfast meal. Our final activity was a hike. We could choose to do a "sky raisin" (pausing to take things in, aka a bit easier physically), a medium-intensity, or a "spicy sky raisin" version of the hike. I'm in decent physical shape but my stamina stinks, so I was grateful that the student group I was going to supervise chose the easiest version. "EOEC Steve" led the easy version, "EOEC Dallas" led the medium version, and "EOEC Dean" led the hard version. The group I was with were enchanted by the chickens and really enjoyed the absolute quiet that only the woods in winter can bring. We sat silent, soaking it all in, for over 5 minutes by a serene creek. We engaged all our senses, from smelling cedar to hearing chattering squirrels, to feeling moss on fallen trees.

Wednesday Afternoon

Macaroni and cheese (I think) was our final meal. Farah, Dean and I were very pleased with the students' eco-challenge results. There were several days where we had 0g of food waste. They always remembered to turn off the lights in their rooms and our water consumption was lower than average (thanks to a mix of short showers and students opting out and preferring to wait until they were home to bathe). We packed up and made it back to school earlier than anticipated. As you can imagine, a lot of students slept on the bus ride back.

Big thanks to all the people who organized the trip (Farah and Lisa), worked at EOEC to let our students learn and have fun (Abby, Dean, Steve, Kristiana, Makayla, Avery), supervised students (Farah and Dean), covered for the teachers who were away in Bolton / Caledon, and the students themselves. One of the students called out to the EOEC staff as we left, "See you next year!" Hopefully, that'll be the case.