What is Soft is Strong

This blog post was inspired by the 2022-2023 Leaders for Tomorrow Group Members and Facilitators and by Brenda MacNaughton’s recent blog “Refresh and Ignite”. I hope through this month’s posts to share with you some of the opportunities offered by ETFO and highlight ways you may get involved. 


In Brenda’s post she discussed the women’s retreat she was attending in Rice Lake and highlighted the importance of women’s programs. If you are interested in learning more about the rationale for and impact of these specific programs, please refer to the 2022 Equity and Women’s Programs Annual Meeting Report as referenced in Brenda’s blog. 


Leaders for Tomorrow is a year long program for women from designated groups. Over the course of four sessions we learned about the history of our union, ways to increase our involvement in the union, and the importance and impact of taking on leadership roles. Our facilitators encouraged and supported us as we explored our identities and worldviews and what it means to be a leader. 


In our final reflection we were encouraged to represent our journey throughout the Leaders for Tomorrow in a meaningful way. Songs, dances, objects, art pieces, were shared by the women to symbolize thoughts, feelings and personal and professional growth throughout the year.  


Below I will share a small part of my reflection describing my view of leadership that evolved throughout the program. 


Water. It is what connects us, to one another, to our Mother’s, to the Earth. 

It is not only all around us, and within us; It is the source of all life. 

It is a powerful force and symbolizes my journey in Leaders. 

When a quote by Lau Tzu (Lawoh Tu) I recently heard resonated with me, I knew water would play a part in my self-reflection of this program and of leadership.

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. 

But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.

As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.

This last line “What is soft is strong” really struck me. 

In this, I was reminded of the different ways leaders show up. Water although a powerful force, doesn’t fight; It flows. My vision or understanding of leadership has changed to incorporate the strength that comes with softness, surrender and flow; and how leaders don’t have to swim upstream or struggle against the tide, but can navigate these challenges quietly transforming and flowing as needed and find their way in and around systems and barriers, and lead from places of softness. 


ETFO offers educators a variety of programs and learning opportunities through the school year and continuing throughout the summer. Summer Academy is another wonderful program I will share more about in my next post. Stay tuned!

Embracing Change

I couldn’t believe it when I got the call. Although, hopeful and eager, I knew the odds of getting my dream job right out of Teachers’ College was not likely. So, when that call came in for a homeroom class of Grade 1 students in a school close to home, I was ecstatic. That first year was full of learning, not only for my students, but for myself as well. As I settled in, my classroom became my second home. As we know, educators often spend more waking hours at school than at home. And, I loved my job, my students, co-workers and community; I landed my dream job and I wasn’t going ANYWHERE. 

Or was I…

I still remember going home so upset that dreadful day in early spring when I received a letter from my school board indicating that I was redundant.  What does this mean? Redundant? How did this happen? I thought. I was confused with the process and what it all meant. The staffing process can be overwhelming, confusing and a little bit scary for new and even experienced teachers. Gratefully, my Local was there to support me through the process. If you’re working through the staffing process of your board right now and unsure of anything, remember to reach out to your Local and ask questions. 

Since that first year, I experienced many other unplanned changes to my job assignment depending on the needs of the school. One year, as a result of being surplus, I took a junior homeroom teacher position with the hopes of getting back into the primary division, preferring Grade 1. Although initially unwelcomed, that change, among others, opened my eyes to the variety of teaching roles within my board. 

Intermediate Student Success Teacher, Music, Physical Education, and Dance teacher, and recently providing preparation coverage/planning time to our Special Education, Self-Contained Classrooms are not roles I ever thought I’d do. Truthfully if some of those initially unwelcomed changes early in my career didn’t happen, who knows if I would have taken those opportunities as they came up. When I started my career I had little interest in teaching anything other than primary homeroom. I certainly didn’t want to work outside a traditional classroom setting. 

Experience in different teaching roles throughout my career has allowed me to truly grow and learn as an educator. While the changes, especially early in my career, were hard to accept, I am glad I did and now embrace these changes and challenge myself in learning new roles. In fact, in September I will take on yet a different role within my school and look forward to learning and growing with my students. 

If you are new to teaching or have been doing the same thing for years, I encourage you to explore other teaching roles and see what is out there  – You might surprise yourself!

The Beauty in the Tangles

As we head into the last few months of the school year, I am reflecting on how messy education can be. From staff changes throughout the year, families moving in (or out); holidays or assemblies interrupting the flow of a unit, I’m often feeling as though things are messy, and a little chaotic. 

I’m reminded of the fairy lights: 

I had this really long string of fairy lights at my trailer that I took down and brought home to repurpose. As careful as I was removing them and transporting them, they inevitably, quickly became a big tangled mess. As I turned them on to ensure they still worked, I contemplated throwing the tangled bunch into a vase or clear glass bowl. 

Tangled Beauty

But I could use a lesson in patience and untangling them certainly provided an opportunity for me to practice patience. So I set to work on them one Friday evening and over the course of five hours, these lights, once tangled, yet bright, were quite the opposite ~ untangled but dull. The pulling and hours of manipulating damaged the delicate wires and they no longer worked.  As I chuckled at the irony, I thought to myself, “I guess that’s the lesson here”. I saw the learning was maybe not in patience after all, but in the beauty of a tangled mess.

 Sometimes we are in a rush to get it all untangled and figured out or maybe we only see the chaos and messiness of the situations we are in – personally and professionally. I’m sharing this story because it serves as a reminder for me that sometimes I’m not where I want to be, maybe I feel a little tangled; and maybe you feel that way sometimes too. And it’s that’s ok. Learning to let some things untangle on their own or maybe just appreciate them as they are is ok too.  

As we head into the final two months of our school year, remember that everything won’t be untangled and neat in education or in life. I hope you see and appreciate the beauty in the tangles.

Arts-Based Learning: Part 2

In my previous article I mentioned that the use of arts in non-artistic disciplines are accessible and adaptable; thus can be used for different purposes and throughout the curriculum. Therefore, I will be providing you with three examples, each from different content areas and different grades/divisions which can also be used at different points in learning. I will also include some considerations when employing these methods. 


Example 1: 

Students use found and recycled materials and drawing materials to create 2-Dimensional and/or 3-Dimensional art pieces to demonstrate their understanding of 2-Dimensional shapes and 3-Dimensional solids. An activity such as this will yield vastly differing results while allowing students with varying levels of understanding to engage in the activity. By examining the art pieces produced teachers would gain insight into students’ understanding of two- and three-dimensional geometry. The use of vocabulary during discussions with students would provide teachers with further information about the entry points for students. 


Example 2: 

Students utilize various art materials such as paint, plaster, newspaper plastercine, glue, to create 3-Dimensional components of the solar system.  Exploring with and utilizing texture, colour, shape and size would allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of physical characteristics and differences between space objects. Perhaps an art gallery could conclude the unit allowing students to share their new knowledge and justifications for utilizing various materials.


Example 3:

Students will paint, draw or sketch an image of a significant historical event in Canada. In this final example, students would create their art piece throughout a unit of study. This would allow them to add details as they learn more about significant elements and people involved in the historical event. By fostering discussions throughout the creation of the art piece, teachers could gain insight into student understanding of significant people, events and developments in Canada and address misconceptions and/or omissions in student learning. 


When utilizing arts in non-artistic disciplines, it is important to focus on the learning and expression of their understanding rather than the outcome or the esthetics of the art product. Avoiding language that places judgement on the art (or artist) will create a sense of safety, fostering trust between educators and students. Remember to use open-ended questions to foster follow-up discussions. Here are some sample conversation starters for your consideration: 

Tell us about your art piece.

Tell us about the content area.

I noticed you used clay and sand, can you tell me why you chose those materials for this project?

How did your understanding change throughout the project?

How might you use this new knowledge in the future?


Of course there are unlimited ways of including arts in non-artistic disciplines, I hope these posts help you consider some of the ways you may include these methods in your own classroom and teaching practice. 

Arts-based Learning in Education: Part 1

Moving, creating, responding, expressing… not just for Arts classes. 

In this post I will be explaining the benefits of arts in education and why you should consider utilizing arts-based learning in your teaching across all content areas. 

Because arts-based methods and learning can be interpreted in different ways, I will begin by defining arts-based learning for the purpose of this article. In this post I refer to arts-based methods or learning when referring to the approach used in which students demonstrate their thinking using art (e.g., visual, music, movement). By demonstrating and expressing their thinking before, during and after a lesson or unit of study utilizing various forms of art, students are engaging in arts-based learning. This may include a drawing or painting, a sculpture, an expressive dance, or even a song. I’m also referring to the use of arts as a way to learn and share thinking with others. For clarity, arts-based learning is distinct from instruction and assessment of the Ontario Curriculum – The Arts. 

In our classrooms we can use arts-based methods as a means to motivate and engage students. Painting, drawing, sculpting, dancing, singing and any type of creative activity allows students to talk, listen, create and learn together. Let’s face it, after the primary grades, the academic pressures our students face increase and the time and space given for arts-based and creative activities lessens. We can make use of the playful and fun nature of arts-based activities to authentically engage learners. 

Because art can be a medium for bringing people together, the arts naturally create opportunities for community building within our classrooms. Additionally, specific arts-based activities can be utilized to capitalize on community building opportunities by encouraging and supporting students to work collaboratively on art pieces. 

Furthermore, utilizing the arts in non-artistic disciplines reduces barriers for diverse learners to engage with the curriculum. For example, English Language Learners may appreciate the opportunity to express their thoughts creatively through drawing, singing, movement, and other forms of art rather than through text based activities. Arts-based activities are also flexible in that students can experiment using various materials including free or low-cost, found and reuseable/recyclable, and natural materials such as rocks, sticks, or empty food containers. 

Finally, arts-based learning is inherently strengths-based focusing on what students can do. Students can express their understanding of complex concepts before, during and after units of study in unique and creative ways. This builds confidence amongst learners, especially those who typically struggle with other forms of expression. 

By understanding the benefits of utilizing arts-based approaches in the classroom, it is my hope that you will consider exploring this approach across various content areas. In my next article I will be providing some practical ways of doing so – Stay tuned!

Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy (CRRP) is becoming more and more spoken and written about within teaching and learning communities. In a fast-changing world, educators are challenged to question their own beliefs, values, practices, and pedagogy while remaining in a system that supports and fosters a specific worldview. 

In an effort to connect with like-minded educators who wanted to explore these ideas, I joined an equity, diversity and inclusion focused book club. The book club offered an opportunity for any 20 staff members from the board to receive a copy of the book and engage in monthly discussions of the text. Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students by Zaretta Hammond is written for educators who want to understand the science and research behind culturally responsive teaching, reflect on their thinking about why we do what we do and challenge the status quo.

While reading this book, I really appreciated the inclusion of an in-depth explanation of the structural functions of the brain involved in learning and the background knowledge required in order to foster a deep understanding of the role culture plays in learning. Being a reflective teacher, I loved that the author challenged the reader to explore their personal worldviews, core beliefs, and group values and that she described the necessity to go beyond surface (i.e., observable elements such as food and music) and shallow (i.e., social norms such as unspoken rules around personal space or eye contact) levels of culture. This is a concept that resonates with me because many people think of the surface and shallow levels of culture, but to effectively engage in CRRP we need to go beyond that and focus on the roots of culture. As members of an organizational structure I believe it is all of our responsibility to reflect on dominant cultural practices and the explicit and implicit messages these practices convey.    

This book assists educators who are ready to dig deep and reflect on their own beliefs and values. In order to understand the worldviews of others, we must first have self-understanding, knowing our own worldview, beliefs and values as well as their origins.  Hammond fosters the development of self-understanding by including a set of inquiry questions following each chapter summary. Furthermore, additional resources for further exploration are also included at the end of each chapter. While I did not access these resources yet, they may be useful for additional supportive information as I revisit the text.

Additionally, our book club included educators with different backgrounds and in varying roles and members expressed that some of the concepts were helpful and being utilized in their professional practice. The ideas presented are adaptable for varying grades and the contents of the book suitable for all classroom and school settings. This book would be appealing for any educator ready to rethink traditional teaching practices. 

Although some readers may feel the book fails to provide specific examples or lessons, Hammond does a thorough job of creating opportunities for educators to reflect on and shift their mindset about students’ capacities, especially in regards to working with dependent learners. A change in our thinking or expanding our worldview is more valuable to me than a specific lesson plan, and a mindshift fosters CRRP becoming embedded in our practice. Our ever changing classrooms require educators to not only understand the necessity of CRRP within education, but to question the origin of the views, values and beliefs on which our current practices are built. If you are looking for a resource to support your own professional development or that of a group of educators, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain may be just what you are looking for!

Hammond, Z. L. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin Press.

Rethinking Celebrations

Winter Solstice is a time of reflection as we appreciate what darkness brings and celebrate the return of the light, through longer days. After years of not being able to gather together and celebrate the changing seasons and other holidays, the opportunity to do so this year sparked a greater appreciation in doing so. It also allowed me to reflect deeply on what is truly important and what I will choose to focus on during 2023. 

In reflecting on celebrations, I thought of June, the end of the school year for us here in Ontario. What a joyous, transitional time for us to celebrate our school year, our students’ success and ready ourselves for a time of rest and relaxation as we anticipate summer break. 

The past three “Junes” were not quite the same as what we’re used to. Although this year, we will not likely endure drive-by graduations, individual photo-ops, social distanced chairs or other modified year end celebrations keeping us more than just physically apart; It is hoped we will finally be able to celebrate the successes of our students, together, in ways we have in the past. 

This opportunity to gather and celebrate student resilience and growth should be a celebration in and of itself. Perhaps though, the pause button during the peaks of the pandemic combined with the COVID-19 restrictions we were following, may also provide us with the opportunity to consider the past celebrations and rethink how we view student success and what we choose to highlight, honour and celebrate.

Last June, as the music teacher, I was asked to select one grade six student to acknowledge for their individual music achievement. To many, it seemed a simple enough task. Selecting the student who obtained the highest achievement or grade, showed the greatest improvement, was determined most valuable, or was the hardest worker were some suggestions to narrow down the recipient. 

But still I struggled. And in the end because I could not choose just one student, a music award was not given. 

Like many good teachers, I had spent the better part of the school year encouraging cooperation, interdependence and group success; I promoted group interaction and dialogue. And by the end of the year, my students, for the most part, became a unit. A group. A community. They were a community of learners: Where everyone tried their best; Where each student improved in some way; Where every single student felt valuable; And many attained high grades. 

Students supported and helped one another. In my eyes that was the success. What else could I want from a heterogeneous group of eleven and twelve year olds from varying backgrounds, strengths, challenges, and capacities? A community of learners. Could our year end celebrations recognize the collective success of students rather than honour only those whose individual achievements stand out? What message do we want to send our learners as they move into the world and become our future leaders? That of individualistic achievement and getting ahead of another or do we want to emphasize the sense of community, collaboration, collective growth, and group wisdom? 

As we move into 2023, and old traditions reemerge, I will continue to reflect on and challenge our traditions, their origins, and the messages they send by asking myself:

Whose philosophies are these practices built upon?  Whose worldview do they highlight? Do my current practices and past traditions align with my teaching philosophy, classroom makeup and community values?  I urge you to pause and ask yourself the same.

Joyti De (Give Light)

For many educators, December can be a fun, albeit busy, time of year. It is also a time of the year that brings about much controversy in regards to how we celebrate the season. While many people around the world celebrate Christmas in a similar way, many do not. And with an ever changing population, it is imperative that we, as educators reflect on our past and current practices.

We might ask ourselves:Whose traditions, values and worldviews are we highlighting in the classroom?
When I reflected on that question, I realized that for many years of my career, I emphasized colonial and Western traditions with my students. Many writing and reading lessons previously centered around a jolly man with a red suit, his elves, and of course his famous reindeer.
In an effort to promote cultural diversity and increase feelings of inclusion amongst students, I have been making a conscious effort to avoid work, games or activities surrounding Santa, elves or Rudolph this season.

In addition to rethinking past activities, I have also sought out materials I could use to highlight worldviews that are different from Western or colonial worldviews. If you want to utilize culturally oriented techniques and generate excitement, foster learning and create community, music is a well-known strategy. As a starting point, I utilized a resource I have found useful for teaching music virtually and in-person over the past few years. Joyti De published on Musicplay Online in the Holi unit is sung in the Hindi language. Because I do not speak (or sing) Hindi, I really appreciate that India-born, educator Manju Durairaj partnered with Musicplay Online to offer this song to educators. If you are interested in accessing this content and do not subscribe to Musicplay Online, the lesson can be found on YouTube as well.

Joyti De is often sung during Holi (Festival of Colours, Hindu religious) and is a call and response song in which the students’ response is Joyti De. I explained that Joyti De translates to Give Light in English. With Manju’s guidance, the other lyrics were explained too. My students were also recently familiar with the book I am Love by Susan Verde which focuses on sharing the love and light within us with our friends, family and community. In the follow up activity I connected the song with the book. Students coloured and cut out three candles. Students kept for themselves to remind themselves to be self-compassionate, loving and kind to themselves. The remaining two they gave to others to symbolize giving their light or sharing their love.

I cover teachers’ preps and therefore am in a number of classes throughout a week. What resonated with me was that my Hindi speaking students could connect with the lesson. In one Grade 3 class, a student new to Canada proudly stated “I know that is Hindi”, and translated the song for me and his peers. In another primary class, a young girl heard the song and said, “I hear that (language) in my country, Pakistan”.

Give Light (Joyti De) is a good reminder for all of us at any time of the year and because this song is traditionally sung during Spring, I look forward to revisiting it with my classes later in the year.

Pay Attention!

“Pay Attention!”

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve said that to my students over the years. I’d bet many of you can say the same. We often think that our students come to school ready to learn and have all the necessary skills to be good learners. The reality is they don’t.
In today’s world, we are all inundated with stimuli. Although many of us as adults have the capacity to decipher what it is we want to pay attention to and how to redirect our attention when it drifts, we need to teach our students the skill of paying attention. We need to teach them how to learn.

So, how do we teach students to pay attention?

Paying Attention in Action:
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I love a good read aloud book! I hope you check out one or both of the great books highlighted and/or try the activities described below:


Puppy Mind by Andrew Jordan Nance is a picture book that tells a story of a young boy learning how to pay attention by becoming friends with, and subsequently training his active, wandering mind. Nance correlates the training of our minds to the process of training a puppy – with gentle, consistent effort.
In Breathe Like a Bear, author Kira Wiley uses animals, story and imagination to offer readers ways to explore different mindfulness skills including paying attention. In the “Focus” section of her book different animals describe activities that could be used at school or at home to increase breath and present moment awareness, an easily accessible and widely utilized method of learning to pay attention.

Classroom Activities:

Using natural and created sounds teachers can strengthen students’ listening skills. Listen For One Minute is a low risk activity I use often and also doesn’t take a lot of preparation or planning. In this activity, students simply sit still for one minute and listen to the sounds they hear. They are encouraged to only note the sounds they hear such as “creaking door” or “coughing” and to avoid labeling the sounds as pleasant or unpleasant; and not to generate a story about the sound. Following the activity, we discuss the sounds we each heard. Listen For One Minute is very repeatable, as sounds around us constantly change. It is a gentle way of introducing and strengthening the skill of paying attention through mindful listening. You could try it too; Simply listen to the sounds around you for one minute wherever you are reading this.
Another simple activity to cultivate mindful awareness is called Change Five. Change Five requires one or two students to leave the classroom for two minutes and change five things about their appearance. Students love the challenge of being the trickster by taking off a sweater; trading shoes with another trickster; tucking in a t-shirt or taking off earrings. When the tricker(s) return to class the other students have an opportunity to hone their observation skills by trying to identify the changes made.

Paying attention is a skill that can be learned; And as such, it must be explicitly taught and practiced in order for it to be strengthened. These short, simple practices and books I’ve shared here today can be utilized throughout the school year and can help your students to

“Pay Attention!”

Remembrance and Reconciliation

As we approach Indigenous Veterans’ Day, November 8th and Remembrance Day, November 11th I will proudly wear my handmade poppy by Anishinaabe beader and artist, Erin Gustafson of Couchiching First Nation.

The poppy serves as a reminder to take time to reflect on the courage of those who fought and many who died to protect our rights. In doing so, I vividly recall the story of one particular soldier.
The day a typically soft spoken, mild mannered, young girl presented her Heritage Fair project and stood in front of her classmates and proudly and confidently shared a story about a man she admired was a day I wouldn’t forget. It was about ten years ago when I, along with her classmates, first learned about Francis Pegahmagabow, my student’s grandfather (in hindsight, perhaps it was her great or great-great grandfather). Nonetheless, the sense of pride she felt while speaking of her hero was evident.

While some stories of Sergeant-Major Francis Pegahmagabow or the lives of others like him can be easily found with a quick internet search, the resonating effects of hearing these stories from direct ancestors are astonishing.
Still today, I remember the smile that crossed that young girl’s face and the pride that oozed out of her as she spoke about her family. What stood out to me then, and still today is the fact that Pegahmagabow fought to protect Canada at a time when Indigenous People were denied the rights held by most other Canadians. Can you imagine being denied the rights your partner, child, sibling, family member, or friend risked their life to protect? That is the case for many Indigenous People of that time. And when Pegahmagabow returned from war, he continued to fight for the rights of his people. He fought for civil rights for Indigenous People within Canada.

In 2016, many years after his death, a bronze statue was unveiled in Parry Sound, Ontario honouring the Anishinaabe World War I sniper, Francis Pegahmagabow. Another pride filled moment for my former student to share stories about her ancestor. These stories and others like them must be highlighted within our classrooms, painting a more accurate picture of the contributions Indigenous People play in our country’s history.

As we move through the time of remembrance and reconciliation, please seek out opportunities to honour Indigenous Peoples by sharing stories like those of Francis Pegahmagabow. Go Show the World is a fabulous book written first as a rap song by Wab Kinew. In it he describes some of his Indigenous idols, allowing others, especially young people to see themselves represented in their heroes. I urge you to share your story and provide opportunities for students to do the same. It’s incredible what we can learn from one another.