Monday, March 27, 2017

Second Hand Shopping, First Rate Teachers

Last week was a whirlwind of activity as I went on three (of four) planned half-day field trips. Frequent readers of this blog will remember that I'm deep into a media inquiry unit with my Grade 1-5 students about clothing and identity. An economical way to begin to make clothes, especially for non-sewers, is to go to stores like Value Village to find tops and bottoms to "upcycle" or alter. The students have practiced various techniques to hone their creativity in crafting clothes and we are now at the stage where we are planning our outfits and starting to make them.

I want to talk about the trips, but I also want to talk about what, or more precisely who, made these trips so wonderful (so far - I go on the last trip today, Monday March 27 - I hope I'm not jinxing things by sharing the successes). 

Pity the poor teachers on my staff. They get drawn into these wacky schemes of mine because their students are participating. Yet, these endeavors would fail miserably without their input and efforts.

On Monday, March 20 - yes, the first day back from our March Break holidays - Mrs. Alexander and Ms. Kim's classes went to the Markham Value Village store. Thank goodness for Brenda Kim, the Grade 4-5 teacher. I'm a "big ideas" sort of person, and sometimes the details trip me up. I was pretty pleased with myself that this trip wouldn't cost the students anything except the money they'd choose to bring if they wanted to purchase clothes for their projects. After all, we planned to use public transportation and the TTC is free for children under the age of 12. Brenda suggested that we should pay for the adult volunteers accompanying the students and she agreed to buy the required tokens during the March Break. Brenda emailed me over the March Break to draw my attention to an important point: the store we planned to visit was north of Steeles Avenue, and children were required to pay to ride. Yikes! Brenda offered to purchase the York Region transit (YRT) tickets for everyone for the first trip in addition to all the tokens I'd need for the adults for the subsequent trips. I arranged to pay her back with some of my library budget funds. So much for the "free" part of the trip! As it was, we chose to only buy one set of YRT tickets and we walked for 20 minutes to save some money.

Lance was the store manager for the Markham location and he was very welcoming and kind. After our visit, he even offered to bring free t-shirts to the school so that the kindergarten kids (who were not part of this trip) could do an Earth Day activity.  Thank you Lance! Thank you Brenda and Siobhan!

Lance shows the kids how they pack clothes to ship overseas

Students shopping for clothes to use for their media projects

On Wednesday, March 22, our youngest learners from Rooms 116 & 117 visited the North York Value Village store. Jenny Chiu and Aileen Morgan arranged for many parent volunteers to come with us, which was a blessing. I really admired how Jenny used this trip to make connections to other subjects and lessons. She supplemented our tour guide's explanations with points related to their social studies unit on community and how community members help each other. She also encouraged the students to use their addition skills to estimate and calculate if they had enough money to purchase items.

Joan was the store manager for the North York location and she left me speechless with her generosity. She told us that because the children were shopping for items for their media project (at which point, a couple of students embarrassed me by saying "What project?"), she allowed each and every student to select one item of clothing for free. This was completely unexpected. The store was busy that day with a surprise 75% off selected items sale, but Joan and her staff gave us their time and attention. She even donated two boxes of books for the classroom libraries, free of charge. (Carrying these boxes on the TTC was quite an adventure, but we appreciated the gift.) Thank you Joan! Thank you Jenny and Aileen!

They need forklifts to move the heavy bundles of clothes

How heavy is an entire class of Grade 1s? The big scale said 1100 lbs

On Friday, March 24, Rooms 115 and 114 ventured to the Scarborough Value Village store. This was quite possibly the most challenging trip. The destination was switched to Scarborough to deal with the Markham travel limitations. Originally, we planned on going to the Markham location twice and the North York location twice. The Scarborough location involved taking three different buses just to arrive. We were also somewhat concerned about returning to school on time. Our Wednesday venture showed us that it was possible to travel, tour, shop, and travel back in the allotted time, but it felt rushed. This is where the organizational skills and flexibility of Kerri Commisso and Stephanie Vinluen shone through. Kerri recommended that we leave earlier, during the lunch hour. She informed all her students and their parents in advance about the location change. Kerri and Stephanie contacted their parent volunteers to request that they come earlier. They set up travel buddies and Kerri gave students cards with school information printed in case anyone got lost. No one did. I was amazed at how smoothly everything ran. Something extra remarkable: Stephanie is actually a LTO (long-term occasional teacher), yet she handled the field trip like a seasoned veteran. 

Our bus drivers were extremely professional and patient as well. I wouldn't have necessarily seen a group of 40 excited children boarding my bus and greeted them with a smile, but almost everyone seemed genuinely happy to have us on board. Mo on the Lawrence 54 route was especially nice and waited until both classes had crossed the street and entered the bus before leaving the stop.

Blair was the store manager for the Scarborough location and he was also very accommodating. He allowed every student to select a book for them to keep for themselves at no cost. The cashiers serving our students was delighted to ring up their purchases. Thank you Blair! Thank you Kerri and Stephanie!

Selecting hats for our media projects

Blair shows us how "Cram-A-Lot" squishes clothes
Kerri even sent me a photo and a thank you note after the trip. Thank YOU Kerri, and all your fellow Agnes Macphail Public School staff members, for rearranging your schedules, losing your prep times, and pausing your own lessons so that we could take these trips together. Field trips aren't easy; teachers have a lot of responsibility to keep students safe during these excursions. These teachers I work with made it look easy. Members of the public were curious to see us out and about on the bus or in the store and asked us many questions about our purpose, which was a great opportunity to share our environmental, media, and mathematical investigations. We'll be partnering with Value Village more in the future and they have front-row seat invitations to our fashion show and charity auction, which will be the culminating end task for our media literacy unit. The students had a great time and I did too, thanks to some amazing adults.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Richer Than We Think

Usually, my family and I spend our March Break vacation at home, relaxing or visiting with friends. This year, partly in honour of Canada's 150th "birthday", we decided to take a trip to Ottawa. My son and daughter had never been to the capital city of Canada and we thought it'd be a new and fun experience. I had only been to Ottawa twice before, and the last time was in 1999. We did some research and chose to stay at the lavish and historic Chateau Laurier.

We drove to Ottawa and spent three days in total there. Monday and Wednesday were mostly dedicated to traveling there and back, but Tuesday was jam-packed with activities. We reserved a tour in advance with the Canadian Mint and my husband lined up early enough on Tuesday morning to snag us tickets for a guided tour of the Canadian Parliament.

Maman by the Portrait Gallery with Parliament in the distance

In the Parliament Building

In the library
On Tuesday afternoon, we were also able to squeeze in a visit to the Canadian War Museum and on Wednesday morning, before we left for home, we toured the newly renamed Museum of Canadian History.

My feet - I'm not flatfooted so I could've enlisted in WWI if I was a man.

Hubby in the replica of trench warfare - oppressive, scary

A piece of the actual Berlin Wall

Totem poles at the former Museum of Civilization 

Mexican creation myths in yarn (I thought of Lisa Noble)
My children are both at an age and stage where they can enjoy and appreciate various museums and have the stamina to walk around. (I logged over 22 000 steps on my Fit Bit on Tuesday!) In fact, I think my son most enjoyed exhibits that he had some sort of connection to - he had completed a history project on the Fenians back in Grade 8 so he was interested in seeing the Fenian artifacts. Our favourite place was the Mint, where we bought some souvenir Canadian 2017 coins, and our favourite place to eat was Zak's, a diner close to the By-Town Market. My bacon and sausage poutine cost a lot more than I'm used to paying for poutine, but it was delicious!

Bacon and sausage poutine

Hubby's foot-long hot dog really was that long!

It wasn't until after we returned home and did some "minor" things that it really hit home to me how fortunate and financially comfortable we are, to be able to afford to go places and do things. When I returned to the GTA, I saw a couple of friends, Jennifer Casa-Todd (York Catholic DSB) and Alanna King (Upper Grand DSB) who introduced me to some decadent gourmet donuts. The next day, not only did I drive all the way to Aurora, ON to buy a dozen of these donuts for my family and for some other friends I spent time with that evening (Francis Ngo, Diana Hong, and Rob Reyes), I also did some shopping at Yankee Candle and Lush. I was a bit ashamed at blowing over $40 just on donuts, but then I looked at how much I spent on candles ($100) and on bath bombs ($30), neither of which are necessities.

I considered myself to be blessed (good job, roof over my head, wonderful spouse, healthy and happy kids) but I don't think I ever realized how financially well-off we are. I thought that, since we are a one-income family and we live in a much-maligned area of the city that we were just "average". Well, I looked it up and according to CBC News, the median family income is $76 000 and the richest 10% of individuals in Canada make more than $80 400. This is as of 2013.  Here's the Statistics Canada results, which are similar.

There are many other ways that we are richer than we think. My family is so lucky to be able to have all the adults and children with open and free schedules at the same time on March Break. Time together is such a treasure. Some families need to arrange time off in advance, or can only have one parent free to travel at this time with their kids. Other families have to scramble to find accommodations for their children because both parents work and can't manage to take time off. The members of my household get along extremely well with each other, so there are no "I hate my sibling" wars in the car or elsewhere - we enjoy spending time with each other. We have enough shared interests that we liked the places we selected to go as a group, but we also respected personal time and everyone had a chance to have it in Ottawa (reading, visiting friends in Ottawa, using the computer, or swimming in the chilly but stylish swimming pool).

How can I demonstrate that I'm aware that this isn't the reality for everyone, including my students?  I've struggled with this before and wrote about it here. I suspect that it won't be as big of an issue because for the first week back from the Break, I have three field trip planned (in a week and a half I will have taken 8 classes on 4 field trips - more details on where in a future post). Still, my time in Ottawa and with my friends made me very grateful for what I have.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Math-itudes and Teaching Differently

"Are you here because we aren't smart? Because we need extra help?"

This paraphrased question was what greeted me when I went up to a Grade 6-7 class to begin a new partnering adventure. I was really surprised by this reaction and the classroom teacher and I spent a few minutes talking with the group about the purpose of my visit before we began. As we explained to the group, their teacher had booked this time slot for partner time, which is often a time for the classroom teacher and teacher-librarian to work together somehow. This is usually a math period, and their teacher (a conscientious, talented, and all-around good guy) thought that it might be a great opportunity to give his Grade 7s some more attention. His Grade 6-7 class is a bit "lopsided"; there are only 5 Grade 7s and their teacher wanted to ensure that they received undivided attention for a portion of their next unit. He asked if I could take the Grade 7s and enrich their unit on fractions with some problem solving tasks. I wasn't present because they were weak students or unintelligent. Yet, when I showed up during math time, this is what they assumed.

We decided to work in the library. Instead of sitting at tables, we sat on the couches in the "cozy corner" of the library and started off with a community circle conversation about math in general. Most of the group shared some apprehensions about the subject. I told them that I was somewhat atypical of a math instructor - my math classes don't look like a traditional math class.

This was true twelve years ago, when I first came to my school and the principal included Grade 7 math as part of my teaching assignment timetable. Back then, it didn't work out so well for the students I had. Why? It was because I was not confident about teaching intermediate level math and so I agreed to use all the tests written by the other educator teaching Grade 7 math as the primary means of evaluation. In my math class back then, we did a lot of talking and group work. My scrapbook from 2004-2005 shows scenes from my math class of preteens sprawled on the floor sketching or crowded around the blackboard together. The tests they received were all paper-and-pencil, individually assigned, and marked according to specific criteria that my group had neither discussed nor constructed. The students I taught did not fare as well on these tests as the students the other teacher taught. This was before three-part lessons and math congress techniques were widely known or used. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have advocated for using other instruments to inform my understanding of their learning. I also would not have let my own discomfort with the subject material dictate the direction the class took.

Back to 2017 ... after our community circle chat about math in general, the students discussed what they knew about fractions. I wasn't completely responsible for their entire unit, because I only was scheduled for one double block and they have math daily, so I had the freedom of designing tasks so they could apply what they knew about fractions in authentic situations. I "warned" them that we might do unusual things, and one of the things we did was live-tweet our learning that day. The students gave their permission for their work to appear on Twitter, and one even suggested we tag our related tweets with the hashtag #fractions. I like that idea! I think I may retweet them but call it #fractionaction. Here are the tweets we shared.

What's with the monkey?  Well, I find that it can be useful to have a "third party" that can be the focus of any negative attention related to the subject. This is the case with Smedley the elephant (read the link to a post in 2013 about this toy). I also find that bringing in something completely unexpected gets our brains zipping a bit more. I had just bought this monkey puppet with my Scholastic Book Fair proceeds and I was dying to use him for something. Did the Grade 7s find it childish? If they did, they didn't tell me. They were too busy splitting their granola bars. This used a lot of math concepts from other strands. The granola bar was 10 cm long, so students used measurement as well as number sense and numeration to calculate where they should chop it. One used 1/2s, one used 1/3s, one used 1/4s, one used 1/5s and the final student used 1/8s. The fantastic thing was that as we were talking, my adult library volunteer mentioned that she was baking just that past week and had to figure out how to measure 1/8 tsp when she didn't own a 1/8 tsp measuring spoon. This was "real math" and led us to consider baking next week as our math activity.

What I'm doing isn't revolutionary or particularly innovative. What makes this possible is having a smaller number - challenging in junior / intermediate classes where enrollment is closer to 30 students per class than it is 20 - and less pressure to "cover" everything. It's also a overt effort to avoid math phobia and keep a positive attitude about learning math.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Do Meetings Have Value?

Do your meetings look like this?

If meetings (and this includes staff meetings) look a little like this, then why do we bother to have them?

I had three meetings this past week - one for LC3 (Toronto District School Board Learning Centre 3) area Teacher-Librarians, one for OSLA (Ontario School Library Association) council, and one with the organizers of the MakerEdTO conference.

Our meetings were mostly productive, but I'll admit there were times that I tuned out mentally. As I sat at my computer desk contemplating this blog post and reflecting on the various meetings, I turned and saw two books on my now-tidy book shelf that really offered some practical solutions and guidelines.

I should make it a point to re-read these books at least once a year, if not more, to remind me of their key points. For instance, in Unlocking Group Potential to Improve Schools, Garmston and von Frank list five standards for effective meetings (page 17).
  1. Address only one topic at a time
  2. Use one process at a time
  3. Balance participation and make meetings interactive
  4. Use cognitive conflict productively
  5. Have everyone understand and agree to meeting roles
I often think back on how well or poorly a meeting went, but I don't often use this helpful criteria to guide my evaluations. Many of the strategies this book suggests are already in play in the meetings I attended (e.g. establish an agenda, assign clear roles, etc.). Some interesting suggestions to creating "smarter groups" include (page 69) increasing the social sensitivity of the group and turn taking. Norms of collaboration like (pages 84-88) pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions, placing ideas on the table, providing data, paying attention to self and others, and presuming positive intentions can be incorporated more frequently in all my meetings, by me and others.

Whose job is it to ensure that meetings are worth the time? Garmston asks a similar question. "Who is responsible for keeping the group on track - a facilitator or group members? The answer is both." (page 17) I thought it was both bold and brave for one of our council members at the end of our lengthy meeting to suggest we revisit how we structure our time together, recommending we look to shortening information items and breaking off into smaller groups for discussion items so our energy does not lag. We still have to follow Robert's Rules of Order and obtain group consensus through voting as part of our council deliberations, but it doesn't mean that the meeting must be dull or drag on. My colleague's suggestion meant that he valued the time we had together - we only meet four times a year face to face - and he wanted that time to be as productive as possible. How would principals react if a teacher requested a change to the staff meeting traditional format?

I was only the meeting "leader" for one of these three events; I think it'd be fascinating to do a debrief to see how well we met the standards and how we could address them more effectively in future meetings. Often, this meta-reflection gets left out or is done in whispered asides by pairs of participants as the main purpose of the meeting takes center stage and tasks get assigned and deadlines get established. If I had to answer my own question title, I'd say that meetings do have value but can be even more valuable when carefully crafted with attention to process as well as content.