The Other 11 Months

Black History Month is just around the corner. I’ve seen the posting of new books and the sharing of activities and TPT lessons on notable Black people. I know that some go all out with their bulletin boards and their quotes of the day. Some really push hard for Black people to be “celebrated” during the month of February. Many give themselves a lot of credit for their efforts in February but I wonder what happens the other 11 months of the year? Years ago, I wrote about my thoughts on the “Cultural Months” that are “celebrated”.  I guess as the month where I’m supposed to be “celebrated” approaches, I’m reminded again why these months don’t sit well with me. In this post, I once again ask for a few considerations to be made.

Black Teachers Exist in Schools Too

I know that a lot of what we do in education centers around students. This is imperative. At the same time, I think that it sometimes gets lost on some that within the school setting, Black teachers exist too. We’re real. We face the same challenges and impacts that are presented to staff in meetings when it comes to anti-Black racism. Just because we are adults, doesn’t mean that we are somehow beyond or above any of it. When working to seek more equitable outcomes for students, it should not be lost on anyone that teachers are looking for the same equitable treatment. Please keep this in mind when you are speaking with Black colleagues and wanting to “pick their brains” for activities this month.  We’re Black every month and I honestly think that many would be shocked with what we have to contend with year-round. 

Words

As teachers, we’ve all heard about impact versus intent. We’ve also heard that words matter. This month, while you are trying your best, please know that there will be moments of discomfort for Black people navigating spaces that were not meant for them, particularly at a time when they are supposed to be “celebrated”.  If a colleague feels safe enough to speak up about something that is said or written that is problematic, listen. Learn. I know that it’s uncomfortable to hear that we’ve made a mistake but doubling down on words, concepts or ideas that are anti-Black is more uncomfortable for the person who spoke up. When someone shares with you something that is problematic, remember that it’s not all about you. Take steps to grow, move on and change.

Excellence

Recently, I had the chance to revisit the notion of Black excellence with my friend, judy. It’s one that I have often struggled with because I find it implies that as Black people, we have to be excellent to be noted and/or celebrated. Me just sitting and being as a Black woman somehow isn’t enough when it seems as though the demand isn’t nearly the same for others. As you celebrate this month and the excellence that is Blackness, I ask you to consider and reflect on those you choose to share. Why do you share their stories? What is it about their story or existence that makes them worthy of note? While you’re doing that consider your Black colleagues. Are they as excellent in your eyes? Why or why not?

I’m certain that some of what I have said here as truth for myself can be the truth of others who struggle with being seen within education spaces. While it’s great that we celebrate the diverse identities that exist within our school communities during special months of the year, it’s imperative that we do more throughout the other months of the year. See your colleagues. Realize the impact of your words. Value existence as excellence.

The Year We Learned to Fly

I love a good picture book. When I get a recommendation or see a new book shared on social media, I often get excited to think about how I can use that book with students. Recently published, The Year We Learned to Fly by Jacqueline Woodson caught my eye. This time, I wanted this book just for me. Similar to The Day You Begin, Jacqueline’s powerful words are brought to life through incredible illustrations by Rafael López. This book is a celebration of oral storytelling; a reminder to “ believe in” and “dream a thing”; and the importance of living your truth. In this post, I’m sharing the impact of this book on my life.

Oral Storytelling

Oral storytelling is found in a variety of cultures and is a time-honoured tradition for many. In this story, the children’s grandmother shares advice, words of affirmation and of their ancestors. With gentleness and sage, their grandmother helps the children to understand the power of their beautiful and brilliant minds in order to help lift them out of boredom and new and challenging situations. With fondness, this book reminded me of my grandmother’s words of wisdom – old sayings that seemed to have passed down from generation to generation – as well as the words I find my own mother sharing with her grandchildren. The grandmother’s words are so powerful and transformative that while reading, I found myself feeling nostalgic for days of youth and missing spaces where I’ve had the chance to learn from elders. 

Believe In and Dream a Thing

Over the last couple of years, the pandemic has made dreaming and believing in a thing a bit challenging for me. While I’ve wanted to dream or envision future projects and/or goals, the question of possibility or probability often pops up and hinders the imagination. Early on when the children are bored, the grandmother guides the children with the words below:

With spring on the horizon, I think it’s time for me to lift my arms, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and believe in a thing. I don’t know what that will be but I’m looking forward to dreaming and imagining again. Who knows, I might even come back and share it with readers. 

Living Your Truth

At the end of the story, the two children move to a new street where they are not welcomed and are ignored. I love how the girl in the story stayed true to what her grandmother had taught her and encouraged her brother to do the same. They found freedom on their own rather than looking for acceptance from those around them. Even as an adult, I find this hard. In spaces where I feel unwelcomed and ignored, my tendency is to retreat into myself and I so loved the confidence with which these two children learned to fly.

These are just some of my thoughts in reading this book. I know that I will probably read it over again and perhaps my insights might change. I know a lot of us as teachers get excited about finding a new picture book or novel and sharing it with students. I’m learning to slow down and take some time to reflect on the words and how it resonates with me. I’m certain that I’ll share this book someday with students but for now, this one will just sit with me for a bit longer. Is there such a book for you?

Critical Consciousness Lesson Plan Template

If you are not following her Twitter, you are seriously missing out! The incredible judy mckeown is an Equity Resource teacher in the Peel District School Board and frequently shares her resources online. Earlier this month, she shared her Critical Consciousness Lesson Plan Template and once again, I was reminded why I so appreciate the work that she does. In this post, I’m going to be digging into this resource and reflecting on some of the questions from the template.

I’m certain that we all remember lesson planning at the Faculty of Education. The tedious work of planning out each part of every lesson and the pages upon pages that you were going to share with your Associate Teacher. I know for me, my favourite part was finding my hook or the minds on but was often unsure of where the lesson might go from there. While I had my plan in mind, I found it difficult to include what I might say or specifics on our consolidation of the lesson because you never know how students might engage with the material. I remember one associate teacher who wanted to know my script for each lesson and it terrified me to think about what if I went off-script. Over the years, I changed the way I visualized my lessons and honestly got rid of the lesson plans that were pages long. 

When I saw judy’s Critical Consciousness Lesson Plan Template, I immediately thought of the 3-part lessons we might be familiar with but what blew me away were the questions contained within. In every section, there are deep and meaningful questions that guide you in developing lessons that are truly student-centred.  As if that wasn’t incredible enough, the checklist on the right really prompted me to think about how this lesson relates to social issues potentially affecting students and others in the world around us.  Below I share my thoughts on a question posed in each section.

Learning Goals: How have you involved students in determining these goals?

This question is huge! When I think about learning goals, I think of taking them from the curriculum and turning the words into student-friendly language. Ultimately, it’s me looking at what they “need” to learn; deciding what we’ll be learning at that particular point in time; and posting it for them, in hopes that they understand where they are going. Upon reflection, this in no way involves students in determining these goals. Imagine the difference that could be had if students understood what they “had to learn” from the curriculum and were a part of determining what they felt ready to tackle and how this new learning might connect to recent or past learning. How might this change the learning process for that group of students? How might this also connect to student interest in terms of subject areas?

Materials: What will you need to provide for your students to create the best conditions for learning?

I consider this often when doing Science experiments in order to make sure that I have everything that I need but what about materials or resources needed for other subject areas? We know that resources are often limited in some schools. How might we get creative in using math manipulatives to help students take ideas from concrete to abstract? What are ways in which we can work together to ensure that what is available creates the best conditions for student-centred learning? How do we create environments for students to be able to retrieve materials that are readily available, when they need them, without fear of being looked at as different?

Before: Minds On: Before starting your lesson, what conditions have you created so that students will have the skills needed to engage in the learning in both meaningful and respectful ways?

It can’t just be me, but this question wowed me. I know that many times, I have walked into lessons making assumptions of what students should know without making sure that I have prepared them with what they need in order to succeed in the action portion of the lesson. I’m not saying that we automatically jump into big, brand new learning with expectations, but often there are things that I expect a Grade 5 student to be able to know, without making sure that they do know it, which leads to frustration on their part with learning new material. How different might the experience be if I really sat down and made sure that what I was planning was learning that they were ready to engage in? Might this involve extra time to make sure that there is success in the lesson? Yes and I think it would provide for deeper learning when we get there. 

During: Action: Where will you create intentional pauses for students to think through and absorb their learning?

This is huge! When planning units, I think of intentional opportunities for students to reflect but within each lesson? I can’t say that I do. The goal here isn’t for students to reflect and to show the teacher what they are learning but it’s for them to be able to absorb their own learning. To make sense of it. To process it and understand what it means for them. This might look different for every child. Some may write. Others may draw. Others may enjoy the opportunity to talk things through with peers. How might we slow down and offer more of these opportunities along the learning journey? How might this lead to an overall richer learning experience for our students?

After: Debrief and Consolidation: How can you build in ways for students to direct how the lesson is debriefed?

Another great question that takes me back to the question for the learning goals. I wonder if this is something that we talk about from the beginning? As a facilitator of the learning, I wonder how we can help students to think about different ways of debriefing or consolidating the learning. I know that many are used to gallery walks or whole group discussions, but what if we allowed students to share their ideas on methods that work best for them? Sure, it might not necessarily turn out the way in which we envisioned our lesson plan or what we think students would “get” out of the lesson but I think it could be incredible to authentically see what students have learned and have them share that with peers. 

Extension: Next Steps: How can you also find ways to follow the lead of your students and support them in the action(s) they wish to take?

I’ve always thought that the sweet spot for authentic learning is at the intersection of the curriculum and real-world experiences. When students are able to see the relevance in what is being learned, they are able to determine what, if any, action they may wish to take. This question isn’t about us as teachers thinking about the direction or action we want to take lessons or projects but following our students and supporting them. This also reminds me that I don’t need to be an expert in every issue but learning with and alongside my student is important in the role of supporter. I also love that this is more than just the lesson being over and done with in the classroom but more about thinking of using that learning for personal or social good. 

Critical Consciousness Checklist: Include the material conditions and realities of your students’ lives?

Although all of these questions are essential, this question stood out the most when I think of student-centred lesson planning. I also think that it is imperative for us to be conscious of the ways in which we bring in our bias about the realities of our students’ lives, particularly when they are not our own. So much damage is caused when we think we know something about our students but haven’t taken the time to listen to or understand members of our school community through their own sharing. By bringing the community into the classroom, and being open to learning from students and their families, we stand a better chance of creating spaces that are truly inclusive. When done correctly, I think this moves away from so much of the tokenism we see online to actually creating opportunities for students to show up as their whole selves within learning environments. 

This post is really just the tip of the iceberg of this incredible template. Since reading it, my mind has been going about my own teaching practice. I know that I will be using the questions within to reflect and interrogate why I choose to do what I do within the classroom, in hopes of becoming a better teacher. Thanks for sharing this, judy! 

Interested in finding more of judy’s incredible resources online? Check out her Linktree. I promise you’ll find some incredible resources that will help you reflect on your teaching practice and grow, if applied. 

New Book: Art of Protest

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of Design Thinking. Designers inspire me by their inherent optimism to create effective solutions for people. This year, in my role as a teacher for Media Literacy through STEM, I’ve been really thinking about the power of graphic design and how Graphic Designers tell stories through their work. Graphic Designers have a specific message for a specific audience and use what they know of their audience to design specifically for them. I recently happened upon the book, Art of Protest by De Nichols. I was so amazed by this book and my personal learning of how art is used in social movements. In this post, I share some of my learning from this book. In order to respect the author and the content outlined, I’ve merely shared a small portion. 

Why Art Matters in Social Movements

One of the goals of art created in protest is challenging the status quo. Throughout this book, there are so many symbols that are representative of social movements and their desire to challenge current societal rules, norms or what is perceived as acceptable. In reading this section, there was mention of artists repurposing materials to bring awareness of societal flaws. One artist that I took the time to learn about was Elizabeth Vega. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, a group of organizers constructed an altar with a Christmas tree made out of water bottles. This was done in honour of Jakelin Caal who was a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died on December 1st, 2018. Beyond the Christmas tree, they also created a blockade at the entrance to the facility, made out of water bottles that were lit with Christmas lights. In this art installation, the use of the water bottles was symbolic of the issues related to various water crises in America. This section got me thinking about how we investigate and explore messages within current art pieces created in protest and how we might support students in understanding the idea of symbolism. 

What Exactly Is Protest Art

This was by far the most robust section that got me thinking about various art forms that are used to object to an idea or concept. From street art to poetry, photography to music, the history of protest art outlined in this book, blew my mind. In this section, there are prompts that invite you to think about what you see in different art. After taking some time to consider what you see,  you have the opportunity to learn about the use and history of different symbols within. One symbol that I had no idea of was the umbrella. “During protests for democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, activists used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and other aggressions by police. Since then, the umbrella has become a symbol of the protests and gave the movement its name” (page 32). In Visual Arts periods, I’ve often taught students to reflect on the different emotions evoked from different colours. There’s a great graphic within this book that explains some of the symbolism of colours and movements associated with them. This was incredible learning for me and something that I have definitely been looking out for as I explore art and learn more about social movements. 

Youth Leadership and Protest Art Around the World

Earlier this week I had the chance to connect with a former student and was asked why I wanted to become a teacher. While my explanation spoke to my long journey to this point, the one thing that I know for sure is that working with students is honestly the best part of the job. I often say that children are the best humans on earth. From their ability to empathize with others to their desire to call out the wrong they see in the world, children are candid and when passionate about an issue, are eager to bring about change. One thing that I loved in this chapter was the Try This prompt – Wear your cause: Paint a t-shirt with a protest message that shares your vision for positive change. Anyone who knows me well, also knows that I have a variety of t-shirts with powerful statements that resonate with me and who I am as a Black woman. I choose carefully which spaces I wear my shirts. While reading this, I envisioned students feeling safe enough to create their own messages for ways in which they would like to see a more just world, and wearing them. What conversations would be sparked by their shirts? What changes would be made within our schools?

Protest Art Beyond Today

People are getting more and more creative in their use of technology in art forms. The quote on page 74 is filled with the inherent optimism I mentioned at the start of this post: “Our world right now is ripe for change, for progress, and for new ideas of what tomorrow can bring”.  One of the many questions I am left with is how might we meaningfully engage students in Art, using technology, to bring about social change for which they are passionate?

To say this book had an impact on me would be an understatement. I think every teacher wanting to support students in social change should take a read, for their own learning and for some of the great ideas within. As for my next steps, I’ll continue to take some time to learn.  I’m also thinking of ways to use this book with students to support them in using elements of design to bring awareness around social issues that are of importance to them. 

Infographics – Hands on Learning With Technology

In my timetable this year, there are periods where I work with teachers and students around the use of technology. Excitingly, over the last month or so, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with a Grade 4 teacher, to consider the skills that would be important for students to know at this grade level. In this class, students have 1-to-1 technology and we were pretty excited to help students further develop their proficiency. Our board uses Google and we thought we would start with exploring Slides to see what students might create. 

While there are many different ways of learning to use Google Slides, we thought it would be fun for students to jump right in and play. There really is nothing like being a part of the experience, rather than watching someone tell you how to use a tool. As such, we decided to adapt a Google Scavenger Hunt that was shared online by Caitlin Tucker some time ago. While we thought we would fly through the scavenger hunt in a session or two, we realized that we really needed more time to make sure that students were able to play and discover as they were guided.  Since the Google Suite for Education Tools are so similar, we also wanted to make sure that students were able to transfer their skills from one tool to the next. Navigating from Slides to Docs, students quickly realized that the similarities in the menus in each of the tabs and the toolbar. 

Students were also learning about infographics with their teacher and once finished, they had the opportunity to create their own infographics on any topic of interest. Students learned that infographics are visuals used to easily represent information or data. They learned that they could have charts or diagrams to display information or images that would help the reader understand in a deeper way. We took some time to explore infographics found online and in magazines and quickly realized that they have key features:

  • Titles and subheadings
  • Clearly organized information 
  • Important statistics
  • Bold or bright colours are used to capture the attention of the audience
  • Graphics and images that stand out and draw the reader in

Before creating their own, we wanted students to use the Explore feature to conduct research and we also had a brief mini-lesson on how to cite information. Students quickly understood the importance of rephrasing the learning from websites but also making sure that they credit the author of the information they are using. They were so eager to start.  From Snakes to countries of family origin to cute pets and Fornite, students created some incredible infographics, helping their readers to understand the topics in a clear way. It was clear that the skills that we learned during the scavenger hunt were being put into use now when it was their turn to create. 

I’m so grateful to have had the time to collaborate with this teacher because it gave us the opportunity to sit and consider what skills we wanted students to walk away having learned and how we could facilitate the learning of these skills in a meaningful way. Pausing and supporting students in learning how to effectively use technology is so important. Moving forward, I know that I will continue to ask and consider “the why?” behind using technology and whether or not students have been supported in learning how to use the tool prior to expecting them to complete a task.

In Solidarity

We’ve all heard the phrase or received the emails signing off by saying, “In solidarity”. Over the last little while, I’ve been thinking of what it really means to be in solidarity with others, particularly educators. A quick Google search will reveal that solidarity is defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group”. While I know that as educators, we are passionate with regard to our common interest of having a collective agreement that is fair and beneficial to members, I wonder how much further we are really willing to take this idea of solidarity? In this post, I’m picking apart this definition of solidarity and asking educators to reflect.

Unity or Agreement of Feeling or Action

Immediately, this had me thinking about those who feel safe within the school space and those who do not. How do you feel walking into your school and being your authentic self on a daily basis? Sit with that question for a minute. What are the first few emotions that came to mind? Now I know that we are in times that are challenging as we are navigating a pandemic. So many may think that they are tired or overwhelmed but I want you for a minute to consider what you may normally feel when you walk into your building. For some, it may feel great, in that you have a colleague or two that you can connect with or plan with. What happens if you don’t feel this way? What happens if you are feeling isolated because you have chosen to stand up against the status quo? What happens if you are on the receiving end of daily microaggressions? It’s in these moments when you realized that there are possibly a variety of groups who are in unity or agreement of feeling but that there is not one universal feeling when it comes to education. This might be considered a microcosm of the world but in a profession where this word is so often uttered, I wonder how we might come together for true unity. School historically hasn’t been safe or welcoming for many. In spite of policies and procedures in place, many still struggle to enter with a common feeling and we haven’t even dug into the actions yet. 

Among Individuals With a Common Interest

As teachers, what is our common interest? I would offer that it should be ALL of our students and ensuring that there are conditions available for them to succeed. If the success of all of our students is the goal, why is there such a dissonance when it comes to hearing what is needed and us being able to act accordingly? If we know that some are achieving while others are not, then shouldn’t we all be commonly interested in ensuring that we do whatever it takes to support those who aren’t? Many are eager to reflect on and change practice but it’s sometimes scary to see the push back and dare I say abuse that comes to facilitators of learning spaces when educators are asked to reflect and grow. How can we in good faith possibly call our students to do better when we ourselves aren’t willing to? What is our common interest in education? Is it student-centred? 

Mutual Support Within a Group

What does mutual support look like within a group? 

It looks like people being able to freely show up as they are without fear of being dehumanized but rather supported within their workspace.

It looks like having the opportunity to collaborate with others and respectfully dialogue about how best to meet the needs of students so that students are given opportunities to thrive within the school environment. 

It looks like rather than sending a message or calling after witnessing harm, people speaking up for one another so that the harm doesn’t continue to occur. 

It looks like everyone doing their part and being respected for what they bring. 

How do we show mutual support within our school communities? As I mentioned before, we are all going through challenging times. Many of us are tired and burnt out. How do we show up for and support each other through the challenge? I’m not talking about having fun and doing special days. Those are problematic and superficial at best. But how do we really show up for one another so that we can do right by our students? That’s really what I am interested in finding out. 

What are the ways in which we can show up for our colleagues in order to ensure that our common interest – students – are centred and we are unified in taking action? The next time you utter the phrase or send the email with “In solidarity” in your signature, please consider what it actually means and whether or not you truly are in solidarity with the person on the receiving end of your “greeting”.

Tone Policing

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more that it has become easier to vilify the messenger and the way in which the message was delivered, rather than to listen to and reflect on the message. While tone policing has been around forever, the experience of having my words discredited because of “how they were delivered” is something that is relatively new for me. Perhaps this is because I have been speaking up more or simply because others are tired of hearing about their discrimination. 

I remember being in a meeting and after having asked a question about an issue of equity, being yelled at by the meeting organizer because that wasn’t the place or the time for that type of question. Believe me, it’s never the time for a Black woman to ask for equality. I remember another person in the meeting coming up to me after to ask me to share my vision with her, so she could go and deliver my vision to the meeting organizer. They mentioned that I seemed angry when asking the question and that I should have been calmer when speaking. This was highly insulting because, at that moment, I realized that it wasn’t really about the message, it was about who delivered the message. My question, no matter how nicely or calmly asked, would not have been well-received because it highlighted a “problem” in the group. The other person saw my question as being valid in the meeting and rather than in that moment speaking up, they chose to capitalize on my “vision” and consider how they might better be able to communicate my simple question. To this day, years later, this question still has not been answered. To my knowledge, no steps have been taken to implement the much-needed action related to my question. The deflection worked. 

This is just one example of the way in which tone policing works to keep the status quo. It happens in many environments and also happens in schools when issues around changes in practice or policy are brought up. Often those choosing to bring up an issue are racialized and/or marginalized, and it is through our lived experiences that we try to shed light on what is problematic. In these moments we are often perceived as angry, enraged, or upset – which we have every right to be – without actually considering that we already know: that being angry, enraged or upset at work is not permissible for us. We school our words and manage our temperament to ensure we are not perceived negatively and still, any challenge to the status quo, can easily give us these labels. The focus shifts to our perceived behaviour rather than the “problem” at hand. 

In a profession that calls itself a practice, shouldn’t there be room to grow? If we are all on a “learning journey”, why are some so offended at the thought of having something to work on? If ever you find yourself getting defensive by the words of a colleague, someone you work with, or a student, might I suggest you try the following? 

Sit With the Discomfort

Take some time to sit with what you are feeling and consider that perhaps what you are feeling in this moment, might just be a fraction of what the other person might be experiencing on a more frequent basis. If ever I have highlighted a racist or discriminatory practice, know that I have probably experienced this practice many times before – both as a child and an educator. Having to experience it again is uncomfortable for me. No longer can I sit through this discomfort nor will I silently allow for students to sit through the discomfort so that others will be comfortable in their “fun”.

Understand that in education, once we become teachers or administrators, the learning doesn’t stop there. There are always new things to learn and ways to reflect on practices that are harmful and exclusionary. The discomfort that you might be feeling can lead to action and change, if you decide to do something about what was discussed. 

Consider the Message

What is it that the other person wants you to hear? Why or how might this information be valid to your practice and/or growth as an educator? What steps do you need to take in order to bring about change? Consider thinking about where you might be able to do your own learning about this issue. Remember, it’s not up to the person who brought the situation to your attention to relive the experience and teach you how to change. Change comes from doing your own work. 

Act

I can’t tell you how many people have said that they are reading and learning, with little or no action. This reminds me of the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” It’s through action that real change occurs. If there’s all this reading and learning, shouldn’t action accompany it? Shouldn’t there be a shift in practice that is evident? It’s through your actions, that racialized and/or marginalized people will know that you have truly heard the conversations we have been trying to have. 

I do want it to be said that I am not condoning disrespectful dialogue. In no way do I believe that people should be disrespectfully spoken to by others. As someone on the receiving end of some pretty disrespectful and harassing comments, I understand this all too well.  Rather, I’m speaking to the intense need that some have to immediately discredit the words of another when they are called on their discriminatory language and/or actions. It’s easy to say that the person didn’t say what they had to say in a manner that was “nice”. For example, I’m really not sure how you tell someone “nicely” that their words or actions were racist or xenophobic. 

Sadly, tone policing is also often the precursor to campaigns of intense gaslighting in order to make the messenger consider the way in which they delivered their message and to detract from much-needed work to improve workplace conditions for all. When a conversation is one that is uncomfortable, please consider the message, rather than focusing on the messenger. Sit with the discomfort. Do your own learning and act. 

Reflection as Learning

As elementary teachers, I think that we can all admit that we like a good project. As a culminating task, projects can be a great way for students to demonstrate their learning of the content of a unit. When open, projects can allow for students to share this learning in a variety of ways. In the past, I’ve offered students an opportunity to get feedback at certain points in their projects but I would admit that the larger reflection piece would happen at the end. I often felt good about them sharing what they would have done differently but this year, I’m trying to switch things up a bit. I’m wondering what a difference it would make if students were given time to sit and reflect on their work at multiple opportunities throughout the process, and then use those moments of reflection as jump-off points for further learning. How might we offer students meaningful opportunities for reflection throughout the learning process, in order to further inform their learning? In this post, I’m sharing my thoughts about what I call reflection as learning.

Feedback From Peers

In all of my design projects with students, there are opportunities for them to gather feedback on their ideas from their peers. Usually, after they have brainstormed their ideas and come up with the design that they are most passionate about, they create short storyboards to share their ideas with others.  This often allows for students who are a little more reluctant to share all of their ideas, the opportunity to sit with one, further develop it, and be ready to share it in pictures and words with others.

This year, since part of my assignment, is Media Literacy through STEM, I have been working with the Grade 2s and 3s on a building challenge that focuses on movement (Grade 2) and strong and stable structures (Grade 3). For our challenge, students have been asked to create a structure that can move objects from one place to the next, using a force – either a push or pull. They also can’t use their hands to move the objects onto their structure.  Along the way, we have had lessons about different types of movement; simple machines; structures and their purposes; and stable shapes and materials. From there, students used this knowledge to develop an idea for what they would create for their challenge. When it came time to share their ideas with their peers, it was great to hear the buzz in the classrooms as they spoke about their designs and heard from others about theirs.  For the first time in a while, I heard one student ask another if they could take a part of their solution and change their idea. The student was ok with the sharing of their idea and I watched as the other student quickly made changes to their design. This happened several times in one class and in this first opportunity for reflection on their projects, I saw just how much these students were willing to change around their ideas in order to make them even better. Often with design projects, I have found that students are reluctant to change their ideas and almost stick with what they first designed, even after getting feedback from others. This was not the case with this group. I was excited, to say the least. 

Time to Implement

I’m willing to admit that this is one of the areas that I need to grow in as an educator. Offering students the time required to successfully implement the changes needed to demonstrate learning from feedback given. Most times, I feel like I won’t have enough time if we have a project that goes on for months. Instead, I’ve settled for students sharing with me at the end – either in writing or an exit interview – what they would have changed, rather than allowing them the extra time to actually do the change.

With the Grade 2s and 3s, after students finished their designs, we did a rapid paper prototype. Given a piece of paper, glue, tape, and scissors, students were tasked with creating a 3D model of their structure in a limited amount of time. It didn’t have to be perfect but the goal was to see if what they designed would be easily built (feasibility) and what it might require as they also consider the found materials available. During the rapid prototyping, I quickly got a sense that some students were stuck on where to begin. A few were stressed, thinking about the fact that they had limited time. For some, they quickly got in the zone and began building, creating and making changes as they went. Once finished, it was time yet again for the students to reflect.

Guiding Questions

When reflecting, both orally and in writing, I use guiding questions to help students to think about their experience and also think about their next steps. After our paper prototyping, this was no different. 

This time, students were asked the following six questions:

  1. In the space below, tell me about the structure that you built.
  2. What was the easiest part of building your paper prototype?
  3. What was the most challenging part of building your paper prototype?
  4. If you could build your paper prototype again, what would you do differently?
  5. Now that you have built a prototype of your structure, what steps will you take when it comes to building your real structure? What do you have to keep in mind?
  6. List the found materials that you will need to build your structure.

Some of the answers were fascinating.

  • One student was surprised at how anxious they were about building “the perfect structure” and that when it came time to build, their anxiety prevented them from starting to actually build what they wanted. Their next step is to look back at what they hoped to design and see whether or not it is feasible and to plan out the steps of what they will do first, second, etc. 
  • Another student realized that materials are limited. While they were unrolling large amounts of tape for their paper prototype, they realized just how much they were wasting and are considering what else they might use instead to strengthen their structure. This led to us having a conversation about the use of materials for building projects and why we were mainly trying to reuse materials that were around the school. We also discussed other ways of fastening materials. 
  • One student thought that what they built for their paper prototype was much better than what they had designed and will be taking some time to re-draw their design prior to building. They want to make sure that their thoughts as they built were being captured so that they would remember them later. The paper prototyping for them was an opportunity to build with concrete materials and gave them more ideas as they worked with the materials. 

The students have been building their actual structures for the past week and it’s been such a pleasure to watch. Next, we will be moving into the Media Literacy part of our work which will see them creating commercials for their structures. I can’t wait to see what they come up with and I do know that through reflection – both for students and myself – the learning will continue.

Dear New Teacher

Dear New Teacher, 

Welcome to the profession. Please know that you are seen and that during these times that many seem to call unprecedented, it’s ok to be nervous and uncertain about what it means to be a teacher this year. As a teacher of 12 years, I feel the same. I write to you in hopes that you will not give up as I sometimes am tempted to do, but that you will push through the tough moments that may come your way. I also write with a few pieces of advice that have been weighing on my heart and wished someone would have told me in my earlier years. Here goes.

You are more than a teacher

For years I thought much of my worth came from being a brilliant teacher. I gave so much to the profession both inside and outside of the school day. If someone needed something done, I often raised a hand, sometimes at the expense of myself. What the last few years have taught me is that I am so much more than my career. At the end of the day, teaching is rewarding, And yet, there will be times like the challenges that we have had over the last few years, where the reward may seem delayed or small in comparison to the work required. It’s in those times that we may need to dig deep and find our sources of inspiration from elsewhere. I urge you to take time and know what brings you joy. For me, it’s been walking and spending time with like-minded people with whom I can freely speak and who call me to critically think about my practice and life. In these relationships, there have been many moments to express the frustrations that come and moments to laugh and experience deep and lasting joy. My family has also been central in helping to take stock of what is most important. Time is fleeting so I’m making sure that I spend each day with those who matter most. When words elude me or I’m deep in thought about the work that needs to be done, art has been a source of expression. What brings you joy beyond the profession? What makes you get up in the morning, ready to embrace a new day? I urge you to take some time to find out because balance is essential in this profession. 

Mistakes will happen

I think sometimes we forget that teaching is a practice. I think of this word in its verb form: to perform an activity or skill repeatedly in order to improve or maintain one’s expertise. Practice implies that there is improvement being made and I think we need to leave room for and accept that mistakes will happen and it’s from those mistakes that we have the opportunity to learn. As I mentioned before, this is my twelfth year teaching, and I’m teaching something new and not what I had expected. You see, for the last few years, I have been working on my junior program, particularly in literacy, and have had some great ideas as I watched goals on my annual learning plan become accomplished. I had hope that this year, I would be able to further create with students but things have taken a different direction. Teaching prep, I’m learning how to time activities and lessons for 30 or 40 minute periods and doing this from grades 1 to 5. It’s the beginning and I’ve decided to be gracious with myself and to do my best. I’m learning from mistakes as I go and keeping my expectations reasonable. When you walk into your new building, I hope that you will try your best every day and be ok with the result. If things don’t work the first time, it’s ok. Try that lesson again or abandon it altogether. Your worth isn’t wrapped up in how successful or unsuccessful your lesson was. Reflect and try again tomorrow if you choose. It’s ok. 

Speak up

When you don’t understand or when you see something wrong, I urge you to speak up. The more you do, the easier it becomes for others to continue to do the same and to be heard. As one who has spoken up time and again, I know that it’s hard and that the risk is great. The fear of reprisal is something that many of us hold within and yet if we don’t speak up, nothing changes. If you are speaking from a place of privilege, I challenge you to consider what you are willing to give up so that others may have greater access. You will hear lots of talk of equity, I would ask you to consider what this talk really means and how we might move beyond the talk. I’ve heard it described as a “journey”. To me, this is a way of saying that it will take an undefined amount of time to learn and eventually, act. We can also take stops along the way at the things we like and move quickly past the things we don’t or that are uncomfortable. I ask you to demand tangible action when these talks arise. Ask what will be actually done in classrooms and schools to implement true equity. If you yourself don’t know what to do, take some time to learn. Reach out to others with whom you can learn. For far too long, there has been a small group who continues to put themselves on the line for what is right. Imagine the impact you can have by speaking up and doing what you know to be right for students and colleagues in your school. Please speak up. 

So there you have it. My words of advice. Not that you needed any but I thought I would just share. Mistakes will happen, so take it easy on yourself. Know that you are more than a teacher. Speak up. This year will certainly not be an easy one. I hope you take some moments to reflect and really sit with what it means to be a teacher in 2021.  Once again, welcome to the profession. 

Arianna

Milo Imagines The World

This year I am teaching a prep teacher. In this role, I am teaching a Grade 1/2 class virtually and it’s so interesting for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s been years since I have taught a primary grade. Secondly, in the past, I have had the opportunity to teach in person and when we’ve had to switch to virtual, we had already established our classroom community. Seeing these students virtually for only 40 minutes, 3 times a week, I’m slowly getting to know more about them and their interests. Last but not least, I’m teaching STEM and it’s been interesting thinking about access to materials when students are virtual and making sure that I keep in mind that STEM isn’t a specific subject or thing but rather a mindset that includes the development of a variety of skills, over time. 

As I have for years with many of my classes, I started this year with a picture book. This year’s book was Milo Imagines the World.  The publisher’s website describes the book as follows:

Milo is on a long subway ride with his older sister. To pass the time, he studies the faces around him and makes pictures of their lives. There’s the whiskered man with the crossword puzzle; Milo imagines him playing solitaire in a cluttered apartment full of pets. There’s the wedding-dressed woman with a little dog peeking out of her handbag; Milo imagines her in a grand cathedral ceremony. And then there’s the boy in the suit with the bright white sneakers; Milo imagines him arriving home to a castle with a drawbridge and a butler. But when the boy in the suit gets off on the same stop as Milo–walking the same path, going to the exact same place–Milo realizes that you can’t really know anyone just by looking at them.

We took our time digging through the pages and the imaginations of Milo as we read. I found the teacher’s guide helpful when it came to posing questions at different parts of the story and also being able to address Milo visiting his mom at the correctional facility. I found the rich conversations around families and our perceptions of others based on their looks so interesting because of the age of these students. Once again, the little people of the world rose to the occasion and we were able to have conversations about these important issues.

As a culminating activity for this book, students – like Milo – created their own images about their lives. We called these posters and spoke about how they share key information with our audience. Once we learned about colours and the size of our font, students got to organizing their own posters that shared different things about themselves with the rest of the class. From their family structures to things they like and are of significance to them, the students had the opportunity to present their posters to the class. Given the option to do it digitally or on paper, many choose to do their own drawings on paper and it was really neat to see their own stories come to life on their pages. It was a great way for me to get to know the students as they eagerly shared about themselves. 

As the year progresses, I’m hoping to continue to build on the classroom community we have already started. Critical and essential conversations around identity can be had at any age. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to start off the year this way and  I also look forward to working with students around building skills in creative ways. This is totally new for me and I’m interested in seeing where this takes us.

Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.