Forest of Reading Part 2 – Silver Birch, Yellow Cedar and Red Maple

For the second part of the series I’m going to focus on the Forest of Reading book clubs intended for independent readers. The Ontario Library Association created several categories based on age and reading ability. These clubs differ from Blue Spruce as the students read the books themselves in order to qualify to vote for their favorite book. In each case there are 10 Canadian books nominated and students are required to read at least five of the books to vote.

Silver Birch Express for grades 3 and 4

The list of 10 Silver Birch Express books often includes a combination of detailed picture books, graphic novels, nonfiction, and early novels. I absolutely love how accessible this book club is for readers who are beginning to read independently. For students in that age range there can be a great variety in the ability to read and yet this club makes books accessible for students to read on their own even if they are not as advanced in their reading as some of their classmates. I highly recommend a previous winner from Silver Birch Express called Meet Viola Davis. It is a very well-written overview of Davis’ life and includes the racial segregation she experienced and fought in the courts of Canada.

Silver Birch Fiction for grade 5 and 6

For readers in grades 5 and 6 there are 10 new Canadian novels nominated for the Silver Birch award. Again, students must read at least five of these books to qualify to vote. There have been many excellent books the nominated in the past and this year is no exception. The 2017 winner, OCDaniel, has been in constant circulation at my library. 

Yellow Cedar Non-fiction for grades 4-8

The Ontario Library Association recognizes the importance of non-fiction with the Yellow Cedar award. There is always a range of topics from animals to the world wars. Some students collect fascinating facts from these books and their horizons are broadened. One of my very favourite non-fiction books, Hannah’s Suitcase, was introduced to me through the Forest of Reading and I used it with many classes over the years.

Red Maple for Grades 7 and 8

Nominees in this category have included well known novelists Kenneth Oppel and Eric Walters. Having new Canadian books purchased for your school or classroom library always brings excitement to the literacy program. For some intermediate students, the Red Maple book club reignites their love of reading.

Tips for Running a Book Club

Giving students time to read is one of the greatest gifts we can give. These programs can be run in classrooms or as an extra-curricular activity. The OLA provides checklists of all the nominated books so it’s easy to track which books have been completed.  There are virtual visits with authors and illustrators if you register with the forest of reading as well.

Start early. The nominations come out in October and voting happens in April. If you can organize your funding and get the books right away then your students have more time to read!

Sometimes it’s hard for one adult to read several lists of books so this is a great opportunity to team up with colleagues and ask them to read some of the books too. In order for students to validate that they have completed reading a book they would visit the staff member who read the book and discuss the book with them.

Acknowledging reading accomplishments, such as completing a book, reaching voter status etc., can be done with announcements, posters or even a rewards program. School council, local businesses or your administration may be able to sponsor incentives such as food, stickers, or book fair credits. 

Celebrate by holding a special event. For example have an arts day with your school and get activity ideas from the nominated books.  When the OLA announces the winners you can attend in person or virtually. Your students can participate as ambassadors. It’s an energizing experience with music and great speakers.

I highly recommend participating the Forest of Reading. Students get excited about the new books and the fact that their votes decide the winners.  It’s also wonderful to support Canadian authors and illustrators!

Happy Reading!


Forest of Reading Part 1: Blue Spruce Book Club

This two part series examines the annual Forest of Reading book nominations by the Ontario Library Association. 

Cracking open a box of brand new books is a wonderful part of the teacher-librarian role.  My favourite box has always been the Blue Spruce book club nominated titles.  Within the blanket of bubble wrap are 10 brand new Canadian picture books published within the past year. The selection committee uses specific criteria to narrow down the dozens of candidates to the top ten. The stories cover a range of topics with diverse characters and themes aimed at students in K-2.

If you register with the OLA you get several benefits including teaching resources and opportunities for virtual meetings with authors and illustrators. There is a fee for these services but I found administration or the school council always willing to support this initiative. 

By reading the 10 books before the deadline in April you can register your students to vote for their favourite book. Then in May the winners are announced. Blue Spruce book club time always generated plenty of excitement among the students and staff. We had deep discussions comparing illustration styles, characters and plots.  Students were eager to participate. What a fantastic way to generate excitement about books and reading!

Since I love reading aloud, this book club really suits me. I would read several titles to classes during library periods over a few weeks’ time. I would also encourage homeroom teachers to read some of the titles to show students that our entire staff was very excited about reading.

As the winter weeks pass, I would sometimes host large group readings with several classes in the library at once. Pushing aside tables and chairs we would gather together and warm up with a song or two and then settle in to hear a new book.  Bursts of laughter and the occasional sound effect or cheers of audience participation punctuated these large group readings.

The build up to the books arriving is also an exciting time. There are so many terrific past winners of the Blue Spruce book club.  I would read these books before starting the club for the current year.  I lean towards the funny ones…The Boy Who Loved Bananas, Stanley’s Party, Scaredy Squirrel and Chester come to mind right away. There are also touching stories about friendship, family relationships and struggles that our students can relate to.  It’s been wonderful to see BIPOC authors and illustrators nominated over the years, giving students diverse Canadian perspectives.

If your school doesn’t participate in the Forest of Reading, you can borrow the books from your local public library. When it’s time for voting day it’s fun to have students make posters and announcements so the whole school knows you are hosting this terrific literacy event. For more information check out these links…

2024 Blue Spruce nominees

 How to participate in the Forest of Reading 

Blue Spruce Winners and Nominees 2002-23

Happy Reading!


Lifting Each Other Up

Recently I was talking to a new teacher and she told me that she finds it helpful when experienced teachers reach out with helpful suggestions about her teaching methods, class management and assessments. She mentioned how it’s so easy for teachers to feel knocked down in the media and that we should really focus on building each other up.

Creating a safe space for students is part of our job but it’s not the only part. It’s so important for us to create a safe workplace for ourselves and our colleagues. We can build trust with one another by forming relationships that have positive connections.

I really appreciate those colleagues who were unofficial mentors in my early years of teaching. Elementary education in Ontario went through a lot of change in the 90s and I sometimes felt like my head was spinning. Through the changes in curriculum and restructuring I had some of the kindest people around me at the 4 schools I taught at in my first 5 years. 

In my first year, I was encouraged and lifted up by my peers to start a new club. We called ourselves the Green Team and we helped with environmental initiatives like recycling, composting and waste audits. I’m sure there must have been some eyebrows raised about what I was doing but no one ever questioned me or put me down. My class studied the Green Team statistics in data management and science. The school was recognized as a Green School as all classes jumped on board with the new programs being introduced. It built my confidence as a new teacher to have support from the staff and admin.

At another school we worked with parents and created a naturalized space in the corner of the yard. Students could run around the native shrubs and plants. Again, I was encouraged and lifted up by the staff to pursue this project.  We incorporated lessons on measurement and perimeter as we designed the space. It gave us a safe space to observe plants and insects that would not have been part of the grass and pavement yard that existed previously.

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there. We each have our own passions and can benefit from sharing them. I’ve had many staff members over the years who have offered teaching suggestions and class management ideas. We continue to grow and learn and support one another.

I hope you are feeling encouraged by your colleagues and that your workplace is a safe place to try new ideas and share your passions.  If you are sharing a positive work experience in your social media you could tag #teachingmakesmesmile. On those days when you need a boost you could look through the posts and be reminded that our profession is pretty amazing on its best days.

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

Have you been considering a change? Moving schools or applying for a position at your board office? Here are a few anecdotes to think about as you consider this very personal decision.

As a child I had a teacher named Lilian as a neighbour. She was very kind to me and we often had little chats. She had worked in the same school for more than 20 years and then took the opportunity to change schools to work in a classroom with students who dealt with hearing impairments. Lilian told me she was very happy with her decision to move because it was invigorating and refreshing. She loved learning how to be successful in her new role and she adored her students.

At the beginning of my teaching career I was surplus to my school for 4 out of my first 5 years.  On the one hand, I was very happy to have a job. But on the other hand, I was frustrated. Being forced to move schools meant adapting to new staff, admin, students, parents and communities. All of that on top of adjusting to a new grade assignment.  In my fifth year, I was happy to be placed in a new school that wasn’t quite at capacity.  I stayed at that school for 26 years and was never declared surplus again.

Compared to Lilian, you might think I became stale and dispassionate about my job. One of my principals encouraged me to move, citing that it did him a world of good to change work locations frequently. I often looked at postings but always decided to stay on. After a decade of being a homeroom teacher, the position as a prep coverage teacher and teacher-librarian gave me plenty of change in subjects and students. I felt challenged by the role and really enjoyed being in the library for part of my teaching time.

There was an occasion when I applied and was interviewed for a position at another school. Part way through the interview I asked a lot of questions and realized I did not want the job. It was a relief to get the call that they went with another candidate. It wasn’t the right position for me.

Throughout my career I’ve met teachers like Lilian who made a happy change near the end of their career and some like me who made no change once they settled into a position they liked.  There are many variations as well.  We all wonder “what if” but in the end we realize that the decision to apply for new positions is yours to make. You will be considering many factors such as your health, family and career. Sometimes reducing your commute can improve your quality of life, even if it’s not the teaching position of your dreams.  It’s always a risk to put yourself out there but you will never know if you don’t try.

My new position as a semi-retired occasional teacher has been a welcome change. I used to say I would never be a supply teacher, but here I am, loving it. Every day is a new adventure!

I wish you well in the staffing process of 2024.

Take Care,



Self-Regulation with Sensory Experiences

We all experience stress and anxiety that can make self-regulation challenging. As adults we have figured out strategies to help us feel more calm and in control of ourselves.  Perhaps you listen to music, try a new recipe, get some exercise or chat with a friend. These strategies that use our senses can bring us out of our heads and more focused on the here and now. Our students will retain more of their learning if they are in a good headspace so let’s consider some sensory activities to try.


I highly recommend creating slime with your students. It is a fantastic learning experience in science and gives students a tactile, gooey substance to stretch, pop, roll, and squeeze. I’ve seen quiet students have confidence to talk to classmates while using slime and I’ve seen students who were screaming calm down completely when slime was introduced.

Brain Breaks

Exercising in the classroom with videos that have visual prompts, music and fun characters can put energy into a class after a longer period of sitting still. No video? No problem! Using a playlist of favourite music combined with body movement is energizing too!

Food Experiences

With a parent volunteer or co-op student it’s rewarding to get some easy recipes like fruit kebabs, veggies and hummus or personal pizzas going. There are so many recipes available to accomodate all kinds of needs. Plus your students will be more likely to try something new in this social situation. Years ago a colleague introduced me to the book Stone Soup and we made soup together. I kept that tradition with all my homeroom classes because students really enjoyed it and it reinforces healthy eating habits. 


Having materials on hand for students to make creations can be very soothing.  The act of creating really gets the mind focussed and calm. I’m a fan of loose parts, a collection of odds and ends like paper towel rolls, scrap paper, plastic lids, bread tags, etc. 

Soft Start

Looking for a smoother start to your day? January would be a great time to implement the soft start.  Students enter the class and have choice of quiet activities. You may include things like building materials, play dough, drawing, reading, etc. Using a timer can help students to be aware of the transition to your start of day routines.

Invite Animal Visitors

You may have local organizations that sponsor pet visits to the classroom. Animals can bring out the best in humans! I have witnessed examples of empathy from everyone in the class when they are learning about dogs, chicks or even lizards.

I’d love to hear more helpful suggestions from our readers. What works to help your students with self-regulation? Do you have other sensory activities that your students love?

Photo Credit: T. Pfautsch

The 75th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

This December marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted in 1948.  This blog highlights a few films produced by the National Film Board that can help address the topic of human rights in K-8.

With older elementary students human rights can be discussed with some historical context. The UNDHR was adopted by a very young United Nations in the post WWII era. Ideally, all of the rights in the declaration would be in place worldwide but there are no countries that are at that point yet. Progress is being made but students may be left feeling helpless as they are aware of atrocities taking place today and in the past.  A film like Hope Builders can make the difference.  This 90 minute film shows Canadian students creating positive change in their community on a year long action project.  It’s a story of teamwork and empowerment, showing the struggles and successes the students had. It ends with an uplifting community meeting that shows how much students can accomplish with good leadership and adults who demonstrate faith in their ability to reach their goals.

For younger students, there is a wordless, animated, 5-minute film called The Orange. It takes place in a classroom at lunchtime and addresses that everyone “has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of their family, including food.” It’s the perfect film to introduce young children to the ideas of sharing, caring and empathy.

Finally, for grades 4 and up there is a film called Why? This animated short film gives students a chance to reflect on how war and poverty can have a negative impact on children reaching their full potential.

Viewing and discussing these films can help students see the world from different perspectives. We can encourage students to take a role in improving human rights in Ontario and Canada by writing to various levels of government with concerns about clean drinking water for First Nations, health care in rural communities, and access to shelter and food, to name a few.

Please keep in mind that discussing human rights can be triggering for students who have experienced trauma.  Beginning the lesson with a compassionate introduction and full awareness of students’ backgrounds and needs is recommended.


United Nations Declaration of Human Rights 

NFB – Hope Builders

NFB – The Orange

NFB –Why


Prep Teacher Appreciation

My experience as a prep teacher began with my wish to be the teacher-librarian. I was so excited at the prospect of developing the library collection and sharing my love of reading with students that I took the job eagerly. Little did I know what a fantastic learning experience I would have. Like all teaching positions I had days that were incredible and some that were not.  Each prep teacher has a unique schedule and it can feel somewhat isolating to be alone in the role. Today I’m writing to remind prep teachers of their important role in the school community.

One of the most successful strategies I used as a prep teacher was to develop a very positive and collegial relationship with the homeroom teachers and all support staff. I went to my colleagues for details about students, advice on behaviour management strategies and sometimes we approached students and parents as a team to solve problems we were experiencing. Once we had a grade 1 student who was having the most difficult time remembering his classmates’ names even though he had a great memory for facts and information. He also had frequent falls and collisions when I had him in gym class. His classroom teacher and I had a talk and suggested having his eyes tested. He got his first pair of glasses and he became more confident and skilled in physical education plus he could recognize his classmates and began making friends.

The prep teacher position can be extremely rewarding. I loved seeing students over several years and getting to know some of their unique abilities in the subjects I taught.  We developed strong connections even though I was not the homeroom teacher. Getting to know the students over time was also very helpful in making book recommendations during the library period. I knew who wanted the books on soccer, hockey, jokes, pets, art, musicians, etc. 

For some students the subject that the prep teacher covers is the highlight of their day or even their week! It’s a highly meaningful and important role to play in the school. I found I could help coordinate school wide events because I worked with so many staff and students.  In a large school it can be challenging to know everyone but the prep teacher gets that chance. Students appreciate being recognized and noticed when they walk down a busy hallway. It helps a school feel safer and builds a trusting learning environment.

If you’re a prep teacher I hope you know you are not alone and you can reach out through social media to contact other prep teachers for suggestions. And if you’re not a prep teacher I hope you will consider trying the role one day.  It might be just the change you are looking for. Also, let’s tip our collective hats to the prep teachers out there and say thanks for bringing their subjects to life for our students.

Thoughts from a New Occasional Teacher – Part 2: Change in technology

In part one I wrote about the importance of safety as an Occasional Teacher. This month I started my days by discussing safety with students as part of my introduction and reminding them that in order for our brains to be ready to learn we need to feel safe. That includes being safe with our bodies, tone of voice and word choices. Then I worked on learning their names to build a rapport. I’d refer back to being safe throughout the day when issues would arise and it’s been helpful in creating a positive learning environment. Most of my work has been in the primary division so I’m interested to try this strategy with older students to see how it works.

Let’s address a question from one of the Heart and Art readers that is on the minds of Occasional Teachers everywhere, “How does one stay familiar with the changing technology presently being used in the classroom?”

I can relate to this question because I am not someone who adjusts quickly to new technology. I think I had access to Google docs for a decade before I started using it. Nowadays many teachers email me a link to their day plans with links to online resources included. I need to be connected to a projector and/or a Smart board to implement most lessons. In using this equipment I have to troubleshoot issues with sound, connection and even markers. Solving problems while keeping students engaged is very challenging but I know it’s worth it because the technology can engage more learning styles and reduce students being off-task.

Preparation is key. If I have the day plans the day before then I will read them over and be aware of the times that a laptop and/or Smart board are needed. If there is a laptop cart being used by students then I need to ensure there is time in the day to safely transport the equipment. Sometimes I need to try out an app that students are using or at least read or watch a video about it so I can assist them.

So far, I’ve found that students and colleagues are the best resource for addressing questions with technology. They are most familiar with quirky situations that arise in individual schools or classrooms. For example, I was in a room using a white board rather than a smart board and I could not find a dry erase marker but the students came to my rescue. In another room I accidentally plugged in the 3D projector instead of the Smart board projector but a colleague spotted the issue quickly.

If I’m feeling unsure about technology there are a few places I go for help. Sometimes the youthful people in my life can figure out my question immediately. This often happens with my cell phone. I have teacher friends in person and online who are an excellent resource. There are numerous groups in social media and I can pose a question there and usually get help very quickly.

My school board has a team who will answer questions and host professional development sessions on the latest software and hardware being used. ETFO also hosts pd opportunities that focus on technology including the summer academy.

Technology has changed constantly throughout my career. There were times when I had to learn and adapt quickly as new applications and equipment were introduced. Keeping up with the changes has helped my confidence and I’ve learned it is ok to ask for help, even if it turns out to be a very simple problem.

My adventures continue as a new OT and I may find more blog topics to continue this series. In the meantime, happy teaching!

Thoughts from a New Occasional Teacher – Part 1: Safety Tips

My career as an occasional teacher has just begun and it certainly is rewarding. I like being able to choose my workdays and make time for other activities. These are the benefits of working after retirement. Being a supply teacher has its challenges though so let’s look at some of the ways to have a safe and successful day as a new OT.

If I am new to the school, I usually give myself enough time to tour the school and property. It’s important to find the washroom, office, SERT room, photocopier, gym and library.  I like to borrow a book to read aloud. I’m looking for opportunities to build relationships quickly and I have a knack for silly voices so if I read a Robert Munsch book or Elephant and Piggie I can win most of the younger students over that way.  A joke book or trivia book is a handy tool for older students.

Safety has to be the priority so it’s very important to review any safety plans relevant to my day. This applies not only to students in my class but also any students I may encounter during my lunch or recess supervision. I ask myself these questions as I read the safety plan:

  1. What are the steps to take if the student is refusing to listen or do work?
  2. Is there a calming space in the classroom or in another room? If so, what are the routines? Who is allowed to use it and when?
  3. What is the protocol if the student displays behaviour that could injure themselves or others?
  4. Are support staff working with this student? How can they be contacted if they are not in the room? Who is the back-up staff member?
  5. Are there verbal or visual cues to help this student get on track? 
  6. Are there helpful routines for transitions such as recess, eating time, or gym.
  7. What will happen in the event of a fire drill or lockdown practice?
  8. Are there preferred activities or leadership roles to involve the student?
  9. Are there other staff members nearby who have a good rapport with the student when their teacher is absent?
  10. If use of technology is in the plan, what are the expectations?

As hard as it might be, if I’m in a new place I try to connect with other staff members. Building relationships with colleagues helps me when I have questions and need assistance.  Many other staff members have been in the occasional role and have sympathy for difficult situations that may arise. 

Beyond the safety plan, there are other tips and tricks to having a joyful day as an OT.  More ideas to come in part 2!


National Day of Truth and Reconciliation: Listening is Healing

As an educator in Canada, I want to help my students and colleagues be aware of the importance of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A friend recently told me he believes that listening to survivors of residential schools is an act of reconciliation and that survivors who are sharing their stories may find some comfort in being heard and acknowledged. This conversation got me curious about the idea of listening as an act of healing.

Deep listening is a little different from active listening. When we listen actively we are constantly giving cues to the speaker, such as eye contact and nodding. When we listen deeply, we use our hearts as well as our minds and notice the speakers’ implied emotions and body language as well as their spoken words.

You can create opportunities to listen to survivors of residential schools by inviting survivors to speak at your school. There may be residential school survivors in your area who are coming forward with their stories. For example, Dr. Shirley Williams was recently at a public event at the Oshawa Public Library sharing her story. The Indigenous education consultant in your school board is an excellent resource to help you seek and prepare for guests. There are protocols to keep in mind and that you and your students need to follow. I learned this lesson the hard way. About 10 years ago, I invited a First Nations presenter to speak to classes but had not prepared the students. They rushed in the library, grabbing at the items she had set in middle of the circle. I was very embarrassed but she was gracious and patient. Lesson learned!

Another consideration when inviting guests to speak is to be aware of trauma informed practice. The nature of the talk could be triggering for some students. Be prepared by speaking to your school board’s mental health staff as to what you can do to create a safe space.

Where active listening will have students learning facts and key ideas, deep listening should create a more fulsome understanding and motivate students to take action. Perhaps your students will want to make connections with an Indigenous community, read or view media by Indigenous creators or take action to be more connected to the land/water.

The skills involved in deep listening translate well to the classroom. If teachers can model deep listening, students who put it in place will help you create a positive learning environment.