Monday, June 14, 2021


 Some assignments can be just as much fun to mark as to complete. In my class, we are wrapping up units of study (or at least the formalized, marked portions of these units) and ensuring that the culminating tasks are all completed. 

For the Grade 5-6 health unit on substance use / addictions, I was inspired to create a particular assignment because of my son's happy memories based on a similar project. My son just finished his first year of college, but he can still quote from memory a few of the lines that he had when performing in a group play in elementary school about "the dangers of drugs". I decided to have my students write scripts about situations in which someone could have to make a decision about alcohol or drug use. 

Together, the students and I developed a similar evaluation criteria checklist. If we ran out of time (which we did), we would just focus on the 4 health-related goals:

This truly became a family act, because I invited my daughter, who just finished her third year of university, to come be a guest lecturer and teach us all about the proper way to write a script. Creative writing is one of her minors, and she took a scriptwriting course this past year. She prepared a short slide deck with all the formatting and layout directions we needed.

For a brief moment, I was a bit concerned that I was expecting too much from my students. My daughter is 21 and my students are 10-12 year olds. Script writing is a noticeably different writing style. Even the font is dictated. (In case you were wondering, it's Courier.)

It turns out to have been a good experiment. The students wrote two scripts - one for language class that was a script adaptation of a short story their team selected, and the original health scripts. The students seemed to like it because:

1) scripts have structure = there is security knowing that there is a set way to complete a task. Having a specific format gives the creators "something to hang their hats on". 

2) student scripts look like the real thing = the final products looked authentic, and that was impressive!

3) script writing is a creative endeavor = I had some students work willingly outside of class time to craft these scripts. Some predicted that this script would be the best thing they wrote this entire term. Even the adaptations had wiggle room to present things in different ways. 

4) script writing can be collaborative = group writing can be challenging sometimes and invigorating at other times. The language scripts were completed in three heterogenous groups of six students each. There was choice for the health scripts and 12/18 students decided to write in a pair or trio. Students even tracked who gave what idea or how they contributed. 

My colleague and I enjoyed marking them because:

a) the student scripts revealed their knowledge and misconceptions clearly = many of my students are somewhat na├»ve; they still think that a "shady older man in an alleyway" is the person that introduces others to alcohol or drugs. These scripts will actually help my co-teacher and I plan some of our follow-up lessons, so we can talk about how it's more often friends in social situations that involve alcohol or drugs. 

b) scripts are a familiar format = we've watched TV shows and movies, so reading a script (although we are definitely not actors or producers or script writers) felt like something that wasn't taxing or boring. 

c) some of the scripts were funny = my colleague and I laughed until we cried while marking some of the scripts. We had seen first drafts prior to the final submissions, and we had provided feedback along the way, but reading them together was a completely different experience. Some were intentionally hilarious and some were unintentionally a hoot.

I'm sorry that we didn't actually get to film any of these scripts - that was going to be a goal if we were headed back to in-class learning in June - but the experience was worth it. We've got finger tutting demonstrations and student-in-charge lessons to look forward to, but maybe if there are any holes in the schedule, we can convince a group or two to provide a "live" script reading just for our class. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Heavy Heart

 Let me tell you a little bit about my sister. 

Have you heard of the term "Irish twins"? This phrase (as defined by this website) describes when two children are born to the same mother within twelve months. (Heads up that the phrase itself can be mildly derogatory or offensive.) My parents were married and childless for twelve years and then had two children in the same calendar year. The legend goes that my younger sister Mary Carol did not want to miss Christmas so she was born in December instead of her original due date of February. For a few months every year, we are the exact same age.

My sister and I were close playmates when we were little and my mother even used to dress us alike. We took baton and dance lessons together and were part of a Saturday bowling league. As we got older, we tried to distinguish ourselves from the other. We shared friends but as we went through high school, we had different interests and passions. In high school, I was the "bookish one" and my sister was the "musical one". She was a gifted trumpet player and organist and would travel with the school band all over the world. (We used to work weddings and funerals at our local church - she'd play the organ and I would sing.) In university, I went to York and studied English and French/Humanities; she went to the University of Toronto and studied Sociology and Music History. We weren't as close as when we were younger. In the early 2000s, she moved to Alberta.

Circumstances changed recently and she had the opportunity to move back to Ontario. She and her husband bought a beautiful house in the Kawartha Lakes region. They were excited to find jobs here so they could be closer to their families. It was lovely to have her in the same province. Our different lifestyles in our 20s and 30s (family structure, leisure activities, priorities, careers) weren't as pronounced or didn't seem to matter as much now that we were both in our 40s. We bonded over the shared challenges of dealing with extended family issues and a common history. The pandemic threw a wrench into our plans, of course. We weren't able to see each other almost at all due to stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. We couldn't even have them over for the holidays.

Then came the bad news: neither my sister nor her husband were able to find jobs that would pay them a decent wage. The glorious house (a converted school house from the 1920s) had serious flaws that cost a lot of money to fix. They had to make a very hard decision that was hard to accept but in the end was the wisest choice for them; they are moving back to Alberta. 

I am crushed. It's hard even to type these words. I'm trying to think positively. It's not the end of the world. I know things could be much worse. Still, this rationalizing doesn't do much to make me less sad about this loss. 


The unfortunate thing is that I'm experiencing parallel losses right now.

Replace "my sister" with "my students". 

Explain "circumstances changed" by noting the switch from a library placement to a classroom teaching job.

Repeat "it was lovely". Note that I missed library but enjoyed my Grade 5-6s.

Repeat "the pandemic threw a wrench into our plans".

Explain "then came the bad news" by noting the decision for students to not return to in-person learning in June 2021.

Repeat "a very hard decision that was hard to accept but in the end was the wisest choice".

And again: I am crushed. It's hard even to type these words. I'm trying to think positively. It's not the end of the world. I know things could be much worse. Still, this rationalizing doesn't do much to make me less sad about this loss. 


ETA  I plan on visiting my sister sometime this summer, pandemic be damned. I plan on dropping things off and picking things up from my students' homes so I can at least see them in person one more time before the end of June, time be damned. This makes the sadness sting a little less.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Finding Joy in a Food Truck

 There's a lot of uncertainty and unhappiness swirling around right now. Provincially, the education sector is on tenterhooks as they wait to hear if they will be sent back to in-person schooling or not. Nationally, the discovery of 215 unmarked children's graves at a Kamloops BC residential school is a grim reminder that First Nations peoples have been seen and continue to be seen as lesser. 

This blog post is not meant to minimize these terrible things or to pretend like they don't exist. The intent is to look for the little things that can, at least temporarily, boost my spirits, make me smile and carry on.

My students talk about their personal lives while we are at school. One talks about helping her family with their food truck on the weekend. During my weekly Friday night social time online with a few of my colleagues, we toyed with the idea of supporting the family's business by visiting the food truck over the weekend. The bonus was that, if we could coordinate our times, we could see each other too!

Well, not only did we successfully arrange this excursion, I went twice! (The photo below, of me in my yellow shirt, is from my Sunday visit.)

This is Street Eats Market Scarborough. It's an idea that makes sense in our pandemic conscious society - see for the details, but it involves arranging several food trucks in an easily accessible area with closely monitored numbers of visitors. 

I was SO happy on Saturday and Sunday. The reasons were quite clear:

1) I was outside. 

It's hard to escape the computer, between running classes on it and using it to write report cards. The weather was a bit cool, but it was sunny and with a light jacket and long pants, so it was pleasant to be outside.

2) I got to see my friends and my students.

I didn't realize how much I missed seeing *live* people. Yes, some of us reconnect via our House Party app, but it's not the same. I carried on like a fool when I caught a glimpse of my student and her sibling in their family's truck, waving madly as if it were a celebrity sighting. Remember, I haven't seen them face-to-face (excluding when I dropped off supplies at students' houses) since early April. 

(No pictures of the students - gotta respect the privacy. Big thanks to Farah for allowing me to reproduce the photos she took on Saturday of the adult visitors.)

3) The food was delicious!

I've never been to a food truck festival before but I love the concept. It satisfied my desire to "go shopping" and it exposed me to many different kinds of food. I really wanted to patronize every food truck present, but as my daughter kept reminding me, to my chagrin, I wasn't able to carry everything I wanted. That's why I had to go back the next day for more! Let me tell you about some of the things I bought. (Warning - this isn't a food blog, so my photos of the meals don't do them justice!)

Los Vietnamita - Saigon Fried Chicken (This is what my student told me to order and it was so good!)

Get Your Own Taters - Taters filled with Bacon and Cheddar accompanied by Chipotle Dip (perfect snack AND even breakfast meal the next day!)

Food Dudes - Fish Tacos, Truffle Fries, and Strawberry Jalapeno Lemonade (so tasty, and such unusual combinations of flavors!)

Beaver Tails (I know it's a typical Canadian tourist treat but I never had one before! I chose the classic version. Forgive the bite marks in the photo!)

Jesa Sweet Tooth (This baker sold white/milk/semi-sweet chocolate chip cookies that were so moist and scrumptious!)

Rebozos - Churros (The chocolate and dulce de leche versions were equally tasty!)

I couldn't help but constantly thank all the food truck and security personnel for making it possible to have such a wonderful experience. It did wonders for my emotional well-being. Yes, I'm probably even more chunky than I was last weekend because of all that food going in (and straight to) my belly, but I have no regrets. I look forward to the mixed blessing it will be when gyms can re-open and I'll deal with the extra weight. 

Monday, May 24, 2021


 My goodness, what a week! We have less than thirty days of school left. This is the time of year where we are wrapping up units (or frantically trying to start and complete new ones, as I mentioned last week). This is also the time that teachers start to collect marks and compose our final report cards. The teachers in my board received a document that is supposed to guide us on our grade compilation process. At first glance, I thought, "Oh brother, do we really need this right now?" However, when I took a second look, I found that this advice provided by the board is useful - just we need to take it with a grain of salt.

One of the main quotes that stood out for me was:

Collection of evidence about what students know and can do through multiple modalities and the triangulation of assessment data (classroom observations, oral communication, and task performance) will assist to inform the grade/mark for students with inconsistent attendance and/or work submission.

This has potential to be frustrating to teachers - how do we accurately assign grades when students are not handing in assignments? After all, educators are not trying to be cruel to their students by "punishing" them with low grades. We cannot invent grades out of thin air - but this comment suggests that we can obtain an idea of what students know via other means. (This still doesn't help if students aren't communicating with their teachers while online, but that's another kettle of fish.) My students and I have talked about grades not being something done to them, but that they can be an active part of the reporting process. In fact, my students will have direct quotes inserted into the learning skills of their report cards; we did this in Term 1 and will do it again in Term 2.

Please note: this image comes from Ken Whytock on Flickr - - and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 license and no changes were made. 

This is another reference to triangulation in the board-wide letter:

I want to talk a little bit more about triangulation because I realized that it connects directly to a series of medical appointments that my father had recently. They used triangulation to help with their diagnosis process. I won't go into a lot of detail out of respect for my family's privacy.

As a teacher-librarian, I love triangulation. I talked about it a lot as a way to examine whether or not a source is reliable. Prashant Kulkarni, on says, 

Triangulation means using more than one method to collect data on the
same topic. This is a way of assuring the validity of research through
the use of a variety of methods to collect data on the same topic, which
involves different types of samples as well as methods of data collection.
However, the purpose of triangulation is not necessarily to cross-validate
data but rather to capture different dimensions of the same phenomenon.

Triangulation also makes a lot of sense. Educators cannot limit the way they collect evidence of learning to just one method. What if the student does not function well on tests? What if they were sick the day the educator chose to do a major task related to the grade? This idea about "one size does not fit all" relates to an image that Dr. Campbell (Dr. ABC) shared in his presentation, about having a wide variety of animals (fish, birds, chimps elephants) prove their worth by a single test - climbing a tree.

Please note: this image also comes from Ken Whytock on Flickr - - and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 license and no changes were made

If you are one of those teachers who only uses a single or pair of tests to determine what a student's grade is in a subject, please, I beg you - Stop it! Am I saying it's easy to collect observations, conversations, and projects? No way! It takes a lot of time and effort for me. In fact, they, the students also have to make an effort to demonstrate in different ways what they know and how they know. It doesn't abdicate their responsibilities. The nice thing about collecting different kinds of evidence is that if one method has some flaws, hopefully the other methods used can overcome any biases, contradictions, inconsistencies, or gaps in the information. (For my dad's situation, this involved intake interviews with others, an interview with dad himself, and a lengthy, vigorous test that used different types of questions.) Teachers need to see the student from as many different perspectives as possible. Our goal is to help our students to learn and to describe how their learning journey has gone up to a set point.

Now to try and find the time to assess all these artifacts. (On the Victoria Day holiday, I hope to finish marking the baton solos, the first set of spooky narratives, two of the guided reading samples, and three sets of questions related to patterning. Wish me luck!)

Monday, May 17, 2021

Sentence Starters


I don't have much "gas left in the tank". 

(I don't have a picture of me running out of gas, but I think this screen shot of me, falling into a pitfall seed trap in my Animal Crossings New Leaf game, will suffice as a place holder for the sentiment.)

We've got six weeks left of school, and a few more tasks to complete (as well as two math units and a whole science unit to address). I'm happy to be "with" my students online, but I miss being "with" them in the flesh. It's hard to stay engaged, motivated, and energetic when you spend all your instructional time in front of a screen (as well as all your marking time and planning time).

It's not all doom and gloom. My students did a fantastic job presenting at last week's Unleash Digital Learning conference. Last week and the week before, I was involved with a team from the Ontario College of Teachers revising the Media Additional Qualification course guidelines (similar, but not quite, to what I did last year with the Teacher-Librarianship AQ courses). Just this past weekend, I enjoyed listening to Dr. Andrew B. Campbell give the second part of his OSLA-sponsored workshop on Becoming a Champion of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. But I've already reflected on those things and I don't know if I have anything more to say at this point right now on those topics.

As I was tidying up my little cave to get ready for teaching on Monday, my eyes fell upon a list. It's an important list to my students and it seems like such a little thing. I don't know if I've ever mentioned it in detail before, so here's a simple thing we do in our class.

All teachers have to do attendance. You can make every moment count in a classroom with tweaks to these every day requirements. My colleague, Farah Wadia, uses her attendance time to introduce a greeting from a different language. The students learn where the language is spoken, and replies back to the teacher as she models the use of the new word:

e.g. "Jambo, Diana" / "Jambo, Ms. Wadia".

In my class, the tradition that has evolved is for the students to select a "sentence starter". I begin the sentence, using the name of the person that needs to answer, and they complete the sentence in whatever way they want:

e.g. "Diana eats ..." / "Diana eats when she's bored"

These sentence starters serve multiple purposes. It...

  • gives us insights into the person speaking (although you don't always have to answer truthfully)
  • demonstrates that students know how to construct a sentence, with a subject and predicate, in a way that makes grammatical sense
  • flexes our creativity muscles
  • allows students to have voice and choice in the classroom
The person who comes up with the sentence starter is the first person to answer attendance in the morning, so that provides a bit of variety to our routine.

We've been doing this both in our in-person classes and online. The day we run out and then devote class time to brainstorming new ones is a highlight for some of the students. Others like to incorporate math into it by calculating how quickly we will go through the generated list. (We used sentence starters only in the morning while at in-person school, but we use them for morning and afternoon attendance while online.) It's okay to repeat some, and it generates murmurs of admiration when a new sentence starter is offered. The sentence starters have also branched out from simply verbs to adverbs (e.g. "Diana always ...") and possessives (e.g. "Diana's favourite ..."). Here are just a few of the lists I've found - with names blocked out. (We cross suggestions out after we've used them.)

I hope that this simple little routine will be remembered fondly by the students in my class. I know it'll put a smile on my face when I think about it after this year is through.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Unleashing Digital Learning

 This school year has been most unusual; that goes without saying. I guess, in a way, it's more surprising that certain things have continued in modified forms. Despite being a "new" classroom teacher, I've been able to present at a few virtual conferences. I was at the TDSB Beginning Teachers Conference and ECOO Camp in August, and gave my first keynote at the MTSPA Day Conference in October. I have slowed down in 2021, only speaking at the OLA SuperConference in February. I've got a few more presentations coming up in the summer (hopefully NAMLE - I messed up my notification dates, so I am unsure that I am still eligible to present - and definitely the ETFO Summer Academy 2021) but the one I am currently focused on is coming up this week: TDSB's Unleashing Digital Learning 2021 online conference.

I have been to the #TDSBUL conference in the past, but this year will be different for several reasons. According to my wiki, I presented at Unleashing Learning in 2018 with my dear friend Denise Colby on the topic of " Playing to Learn: Critical Exploration of Games Based Learning". I vaguely recall driving down to the Beanfield Centre at Exhibition Place. Denise and I were going to co-present something this year, but the deadline snuck up on us and we didn't get our proposal package submitted in time. This year's conference will be virtual, naturally, but the biggest change is that I will be presenting with my students. 

I have presented with students before, such as in 2011 at an OLA SuperConference session we called "Students Speak Out!". This time, the students were involved in all stages of the planning and preparation process. I wasn't going to apply to present, because I'm tired and teaching online has not always been joyful, but when I mentioned it to the students, enough of them were interested to make pursuing the creation of a proposal worthwhile. We were delighted that we were accepted.

We used a collaborative document to plan the overall topic and individual slide responsibilities. The students told me what images they wanted and together we populated the slide template we were provided by the conference planning committee. Part of last week and some of this coming week will have language class time devoted to practicing our speaking parts. We've got a nice mix of students ready to share. 

I looked through the list of sessions available and I think we are the only workshop where students themselves will be speaking. If you are a TDSB employee and have registered before 6:00 pm on Sunday, May 9, 2021, then you can attend our session, which will be held on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 from 5:00 - 5:20 pm.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Guests in the Online Classroom

 Friday, April 30 marked the 30th week of this school year. Of these 30 weeks, 10 of them have been online. (6 were in January-February 2021 and 4 so far have been in April.) My students, who have been working on rates and ratios, will recognize that this means that the amount of time spent online compared to in-person is a 1:2 ratio. Or, they might say that 1/3 of our total time has been online. This is hard on the students but even more challenging for the students in virtual school, who have been learning online for 100% of this school year. Regardless of the numbers, learning through a computer instead of in a classroom with friends still takes a toll on everyone's social, emotional, and mental health. 

To make things engaging as we enter the home stretch, which equals about 8 weeks of school remaining, I've tried to jazz things up by bringing guest teachers and visitors into our online class. It's not quite the same as a field trip, but it adds a new energy to the online environment. I want to thanks the three that I've had recently.

Mary Maliszewski

Mary is my daughter. She has just finished her third year of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. She is an English major with a minor in Creative Writing and Media Studies. She has popped by unofficially a few times prior to this to interact with my students, as a vehicle for students to practice asking questions and to provide a persuasive argument on watching a certain book-to-film adaptation. This time, she was present for a longer period, to give a short presentation on role-playing games. The plan is to incorporate RPGs into our language program, for those students interested in trying it out. This will count towards some of their reading, writing, oral, media and mathematics (probability unit) marks. 

Neil Andersen

Neil Andersen is the president of the Association for Media Literacy and a former TDSB teacher. He had a wonderful idea about a media literacy project that my students could do and I enthusiastically welcomed him in to introduce it to the class. The topic is the creation of Digital Media Nutrition Labels. I don't want to say too much more about the project, because it will be revealed more on the AML website. The students did a bang-up job creating them.

Francis Ngo

Francis Ngo is a friend of mine and one of the members of the newly formed TDSB Digital Content Team. Our upcoming partnership will be an interesting one. Usually I am the teacher-librarian in collaborative ventures with other educators, but this time, Francis will play the role of the TL while I act as the classroom teacher. We plan on co-planning and co-teaching for my current Grade 5-6 math unit on Patterns and Probability. I had the pleasure of teaching with Francis for a single year together, but this was a number of years ago. My Grade 6 students were in JK when he was there, so it is like he is a new face to many of them.

Another guest I should thank is Sheila Whitmore, a retired teacher who works as an occasional teacher. She has supply taught in my class a few times this year, including twice in April online. I appreciate how willing Sheila is to jump in to this environment and support the students. 

I've got a pile of marking and planning to complete, but I need to be patient and kind with myself, just as much as I need to be with my students. My other regular "guest", SERT teacher Renee Keberer, has been a huge help, especially with her Herculean efforts marking the health test and tracking our social studies student progress; she eases the pressure off me. Let's hope that the last eight weeks will be ones with happy memories, even if they aren't generated in the ways I had hoped.