Monday, August 29, 2016

If Money Was just a Minor Object

My husband and I have had very different education upbringings. I went to Canadian public schools for elementary (JK-8 at Birch Cliff Heights P.S.) and secondary (9-OAC at Birchmount Park C.I.) in what was then the Scarborough Board of Education; for university, I was a commuter student for my undergraduate and professional degrees (B.A. and B.Ed from York University) and was a virtual student for my Masters of Education degree (University of Alberta). My husband went to a private American Catholic school from preK-8, and a private Catholic all-boys high school. He traveled away from home to two different universities for his undergraduate degree, and left the country to come to the University of Toronto to pursue his Masters and PhD.

While we were in the United States, my husband reunited with a couple of his old high school friends and one of them suggested they meet again to visit their high school together. My daughter and I came along to see the actual locations of some of Daddy's legendary school day stories.

The campus was impressive. If I understand correctly, the state does not provide any money to this school. Students pay fees to attend and the school has many generous benefactors.

This glorious, gleaming hall with stained glass windows is the school cafeteria.

My husband turned to me and said "This wasn't here when I went to school." The photos above and below are from the newly built athletic centre. They have an indoor track, golf training centre, and they incorporated the old gymnasium in the new facility.

The photo above and the two below are from the library. My daughter whispered to me, "It feels like I'm in Hogwarts." They are actually going to build a new library and transform this spot into another performance space. (They already have auditoriums.) The wives in attendance - me, a teacher-librarian and the wife of my husband's friend, who is a public librarian - had to peek at the shelves and their content. They had new books as well as classics.

Inside, there are multiple working fireplaces. Many of the classrooms have little plaques beside the doors to acknowledge the financial contribution of someone. The outside grounds are quite posh. We admired the statues and carvings throughout the campus.

We were fortunate enough to have one of the staff members give us a guided tour of the school, so we were able to see much more than we would have otherwise. He was keen to tell us about the school's academic success and drawing power - for instance, a specialized program for cyber-security was admired by the NSA and used as a standard for developing curriculum. Several high school students from the program defeated other university-level competitors in a contest. The languages they offer for study include French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, (and Japanese). About 950 students attend.

If you had a large pot of money to spend on a school, what would you buy? Usually our first instinct is to purchase new technology or new learning materials (like library books). Recent news stories suggest that maintaining the facilities are badly needed, with the TDSB facing a $3.4 billion backlog and 1/3 of schools in just one board needing help. I don't think they're racing to erect statues, but there is something to be said for the optics of a beautiful school. I can see how parents with money are tempted to enroll their sons (or daughters - at girls-only private high schools). The overt and implied messages of the campus - that this is a prestigious, safe, academically solid establishment where students succeed - are communicated through the architecture, signage, layout, and expensive-looking "extra touches". Can public schools in this area compete with education institutions like this?

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Hat from Scrat(ch)

Pride can be one of the seven deadly sins, but celebrating an accomplishment that took time and effort is good. After attending the Maker Ed Toronto event in July, I was keen to do more finger knitting and complete a more elaborate project. I declared that I would make a hat.

I first spent time practicing the basics - making chains and infinity scarves.

Thinking of new uses for my finger knitting lines. Hairband?
I watched the video that Melanie Mulcaster included as part of her workshop.
I visited craft stores and bought appropriate yarn.
I also took tons of photos to document the process.

Comparing my progress to the video.
 I postponed starting the actual hat for a while. I wanted to finish my scrapbooking so I could concentrate on this project. Truth be told, I was also nervous. I realize that I can unravel mistakes and that errors were inevitable with my first attempt, but I wanted this to feel like a positive experience so that I'd be inclined to continue this potential new hobby.

Didn't buy a stitch keeper, but improvised!
My fingers aren't used to longer projects and, since I was on vacation away from home while attempting this project, sometimes I would have to leave my work to attend to other things (like eating at the many, many restaurants we visited). I didn't buy that stitch keeper that Melanie recommended, but I found that extra-large paper clips worked just as well for holding the loops in place until I could return to the task.

Curving and connecting
Making the move to connect the line and start to curve was the first challenge. I watched the video several times and was disappointed when the yarn wasn't always completely visible on the screen so I could compare. I searched for the outside stitches and "picked them up". Thankfully, after a few more rows, I could see progress happening before my eyes.

Mid-knitting (note the pinky finger has extra loops for connecting)

Hubby took this "alternate POV" shot of the knitting process.
It looks like a circle!
It's taller too!
 The video I watched described how to make a "slouchy hat", which was a bit more complex. Since I chose to make a toque, I didn't need to decrease my width. However, both kinds of hats needed a darning needle to close the top. I'm thankful I watched the videos all the way through before I began, because I would have been disappointed to leave it undone. I had to purchase a needle. The video recommended using one particular end to close but since I had a longer piece of yarn on the other side, I chose to use that side instead to close up.

Me, doing "needlework" of a sort!
I was so pleased when I finished. I could see where I had made some mistakes - a missed stitch, or a loose section - but I felt like those errors gave the hat "character" and showed that this was my first hat. A funky flower-like top emerged quite by accident.

Mission accomplished! It even looks like a hat!
I saw in the video that the hat can be worn inside-out or outside-in. I'm not sure which I prefer!

Should I wear my hat this way ...
or should I wear it this way?
I was so pleased with my handiwork that I wore the hat in the car while I drove back from Baltimore to Toronto. I took it off before I passed through customs because I thought I might look a bit too quirky wearing a wool cap in August.

So, what are the pedagogical ramifications of this project? I will keep out several kinds of wool in my library makerspace so that students can finger knit when they want. I will also put my hat on display so students can see what's possible to make. (When I first finger knit ever, as part of a class coverage during PLC time, we only had enough time to make a short chain.) I will point out and celebrate the imperfections, because it shows I'm not perfect but learning my craft and it makes the end product unique and all mine. I might make some more hats to give to relatives for Christmas and I'm considering tackling an even bigger finger-knitting project - a blanket!

My knitting success has also given me the courage to start sewing lessons (both with my mother and possibly with the TDSB Continuing Education department). I'll exorcise the ghost of my Grade 7 sewing project (in brief: back when middle school students took Home Economics, I brought my half-completed pink and purple shorts home at the end of the course; my mother, who worked for years as a seamstress with the Singer Sewing Company, took one look at my twin circles of fabric filled with pins, took it away, and three minutes later came back with a finished, polished pair of wearable shorts.) That experience taught me a bad lesson - that I should leave all sewing tasks to the expert, aka my mother. I'm going to unlearn that message and become more independent. School no longer offers cooking or sewing classes, so I hope to share in the near future how my sewing adventure personally and in the library makerspace will go.

P.S. Big thanks to Melanie Mulcaster (@the_mulc) and Jennifer Brown (@JennMacBrown) for being a virtual support group with my finger knitting endeavors. I plan on attending one of Jennifer's future knitting circle gatherings and Melanie's tutoring has been valuable. Knowing these two were interested in what I was doing with yarn encouraged me to try.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Taking a Break from Owning School Pets?

This past school year, and 2016 specifically, has not been good to my house's pet population. One of our chinchillas died in November 2015. Chocolate the skinny pig died in the first quarter of 2016. Ten days after I posted this obituary ...
Vanilla, Chocolate's buddy, died suddenly.

My house isn't exactly empty. I still have one skinny pig (Owen), one rabbit (Dolly), one chinchilla (Chilli) and one budgie (Arctic). However, there are no pets scheduled to return to school in September. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

After Max, my previous "school skinny pig" died, I "took a break" (albeit a short one) from having a school pet. I didn't want to rush right into seeking and obtaining another pet. I know the students missed having an animal in the library. When Chocolate died, many adults and children inquired about whether or not I'd get a "friend" for Vanilla so he wouldn't be lonely. Vanilla seemed fine on his own, and he had piggy pals at my house he'd visit on the weekends, so I didn't worry about finding a new pet to join the herd.

This led me to reflect on the ability to "take breaks" from other activities, and if that's a good move.

My #oneword2016 goal was "continue". I did continue to work on my previous personal, professional, and spiritual goals, for most of the school year, but I seriously slacked off this summer.

I took a break from exercising regularly after my class at the neighbourhood community centre ended in June - I don't own a scale but I suspect that I gained back a lot of the weight I lost.

I took a break from personal reading - mostly because I didn't find anything I was keen to dive into. I still need to read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Report, but I know that it will be a challenging and emotionally draining effort.

I took a break from my research project because I didn't have time to properly write the contract for my academic assistant. Once the financial details get settled, I'm eager to get this ball rolling again. It's been too long brewing - since 2010! I'm going to need to redo all my literature review materials because so much more has been written on the topic since I last collected peer-reviewed articles.

I took a break from using any electronic devices for a week while I was in Ocean City, Maryland. It was pleasant spending time away from the screens enjoying the beach, but I did have several time-sensitive emails I had to hurry and answer once I returned.

This selfie was not taken with a cell phone!

My daughter's tootsies and my awesome pedi in the sand

I don't think pet ownership necessarily falls into the same categories as these - although reading, exercising, avoiding computers and completing projects are good for nurturing happiness and positive mental health, traits also linked to having companion animals. However, owning a pet (and bringing it to school) involves more people and has more costs - I have to ask permission from my administration before bringing any new creature in the building. Obtaining most of my pets have been times when "the moment was right", like finding two skinny pigs for free with their cage. I'll see what happens when I return to school without my cage and see where it goes from there.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Crippling with Kindness

(This post was written months ago but I postponed posting it until now.)

We have a student in our school with a vision disability. I am one of his/her teachers. Several professionals from the board's Vision Department come to assist this student. I've written before about how helpful these experts have been to me. As I listen to their advice, and observe what goes on in our school, I've noticed some bad habits from our school community. These actions stem from a lack of knowledge. I suspect that the people doing these things think they are being kind or friendly - but unfortunately it's neither.

It's Not Just Style

This is not just a matter of having different teaching styles or interaction styles that I object to because they don't match my own. In a book I'm reading for a book club, The Dream Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings, the exemplary teachers profiled do not have a singular personality trait - some were playful while others were strict - but their conceptions of themselves and others were culturally relevant. In the study on Exemplary School Libraries in Ontario, one of their main findings was "there are exemplary school library programs in Ontario, but there is not a unitary conception of an exemplary school program, nor is there a single approach that creates an exemplary library program" (page 36).  What I've been observing recently is conduct that could, in my opinion, be detrimental to this student, encouraging dependence and helplessness instead of independence and perseverance.

1) A Pick-Me-Up is not Supposed to be Literal

In a crowded hallway or busy stairwell, well-meaning people may be inclined to "protect" students with visual impairments by steering them out of harm's way. Combine this gut reaction with the fact that this particular student is small and adorable, and it's a recipe for babying. This student gets pulled, carried or lifted too often. A rocking chair may be a challenge to climb into when your feet don't reach the floor while you're sitting in it, but other accommodations can be made instead - hold the rocking chair steady at the side and allow the student to climb on by him/herself. Asking permission before offering assistance would also be a step in the right direction. Grabbing someone without them realizing it is a startling experience for sighted people - what is it like for people who don't have the same ability to see it coming? We need to respect young people's physical space, not just those with low vision. I know when I see older students pat the heads of younger students (especially kindergarten students) or pick them up to hug them without permission, I remind them that this behaviour can be seen as condescending - people wanted to be treated as equals, not as pets. Speaking of which ...

2) Daredevil or Mr. Magoo vs People (Who are Blind)

Physical disabilities neither equal superpowers nor "handle with care" fragile-snowflake status. I've seen and heard people try to make this blind student "guess who's talking", or completely silence the room when the student walks in. The former practice expects that the student's superior memory and hearing will be able to distinguish voices that he/she don't hear often, and that's unrealistic. Half the time, I can't tell who is calling me on the phone unless I have call display - it's unfair and stressful to play this sort of "game" with a student who can't look at a face clearly to see who is speaking. The latter practice actually robs the student of audio cues that help him/her navigate rooms and spaces. Total silence is also unrealistic. I was advised to identify myself by name when talking to this particular student, and verbally indicate when I was walking away, so that there's no guessing about who is talking. Treat people who are blind as people first.

On WikiHow, there's a simple, illustrated guide to interacting with people who are blind. A lot of the tips make sense. (Other examples can be found here at Accessibility News, at this site promoting a book on Dealing with Vision Loss, and at the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) website.

Learning from Others

Working with this student, and watching others work with this student, has improved my own reflection and meta-cognition. It makes me more aware of what and how I say things. Do my actions match my words? How do my attitudes about individual students impact the way I interact with them? What techniques do I use that encourage independence in all students? How long should I let students struggle with a task before offering to help? Are there ever times that, in an effort to be kind, I'm actually crippling a student's abilities or potential?

Monday, August 1, 2016

ABCs and the Gift of Time

July 26-28 was three days full of really enjoyable professional learning. My co-presenter, Andy Forgrave, and I ran a course called "The ABCs of Minecraft" at ETFO headquarters in Toronto. Even though our numbers were small, ETFO still allowed the course to continue. Our 10 (which became 9) participants had a fabulous time and my big "aha" was that providing adequate time to explore, play, and discuss was a huge advantage, and one that may help our participants use Minecraft for their own pleasure and purpose later on.

I've done a lot of presentations about Minecraft over the past five years. (You can see for evidence to support this claim.) We have never conducted follow-up research to see who has listened to us talk and then proceeded to play Minecraft or introduce it to their students. I suspect that this cohort (as well as the colleagues who were involved with our TLLP project) might have a better chance of retaining and using the skills they learned because they had three days to digest and practice them. For instance, during our time together, we spent a large amount of time discussing the significance of a user name and "skin". The participants pondered over their own Minecraft names and spent time searching for, modifying and creating their visual "look" in the game. We also had time to spend in-game together - we shared a lot of laughs at our first attempt at getting a group photo while in Minecraft: a cow photobombed us and people kept walking into others or falling in the pool. We finally got the photo, only to realize one of our members was missing and we had to do it all over again!

Photo bombing cow on the right!

Our actual group shot together

Jasmi, Gumby, a creeper, and Samir together in paper/plastic form
The group plans to reunite on the Gumbycraft server in the near future so we can socialize and gain more experience playing. Thank you to all the class members, the amazing Andy (who played "good cop" to my "bad cop" - see sheep photo below for an example) and all the ETFO staff members who made us feel so welcome.

Participant: "There's a sheep in my boat! What should I do?"
Diana: "That's a great question! What do you think you can try?"
Andy: "There's a sheep in your boat? You should ..."