The Brain Chemistry of a Positive Learning Environment

September, a time to set the foundation for a positive school year. There is an old adage, “Don’t smile until December”, but that is no longer thought to be the most effective approach.  We know that confident students are more willing to take risks and they will learn new routines and information more readily. Learning about brain chemistry we see that there are four chemicals produced in the brain that create happy feelings. They are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. Here are some examples that I’ve used with kindergarten to grade 8 students to help them feel happier and ready to learn.


“You did it!” Dopamine gives us a great feeling when we have a sense of purpose and can accomplish a task. Students with ADHD especially need help with dopamine. Many students will benefit from checklists, chunking tasks into small parts, and being given the opportunity to solve relevant problems. Taking on tangible tasks like helping a friend, organizing materials, taking responsibility to set up equipment…these tasks will help a student to be productive at school.


We all need a chance to relax, especially after a busy or slightly chaotic time like recess or a transition between classrooms or between teachers. Serotonin is produced when students take calm breaths, close their eyes, listen to calm music, or engage in an art like drawing. Teachers will feel the benefits as well!


By getting students’ bodies moving with physical education, daily physical activities, dance, and community building games you can help their brains release endorphins. Besides using online videos you can get them outdoors for a game or walk and take time to make scientific or social studies observations of your community.


 The love chemical can be released if we make stuffed toys available to hug or have a class pet or have animals visit the classroom. Some high schools have effectively used this strategy during exams to help students feel calm. While you have your class out for a walk, take time to observe and appreciate nature. Look for seasonal changes in plants and also in animal behaviour. Even if you are in an urban environment you can always watch the sky and observe weather trends. Another approach is to model how to give compliments and make it part of peer feedback.

I found it exciting to explore information about brain chemistry with my students. The kids are very curious about the brain and I found they used these techniques independently to focus, calm down or help one another.

Have a wonderful time getting to know your students and creating the best possible learning environment.


Summer Reading -Focusing on Indigenous Authors

Reading outdoors on a summer’s day is one of my favourite activities and this year one of my goals is to read more books from the perspective of Indigenous Peoples so I can better understand my students and our community. Today I’ll share a few books by Indigenous authors for learning and pleasure.

Both Braiding Sweetgrass and the TRC Summary are books I am rereading because they are packed full of information and stories that are valuable to teachers. These texts are very helpful if you’re like me, a settler who had very little exposure or education about Indigenous ways of knowing and/or residential schools.

Daughters of the Deer was recently recommended by a friend.  I have read the author’s picture book, Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox to many classes so I’m very excited to read her first novel. When doing research for this blog I saw that Danielle Daniel has a new picture book, Sometimes I Feel Like a River, so I’ll be reading that one too!

Miichi Saagiig Nishnaabeg: This is Our Territory is a book that really speaks to me because I have lived in this territory all my life. I’m sure readers around the world will enjoy this book but also check and see if you there is a book published specifically about the territory where you live. 

These books and many more are available from Goodminds which is a First Nations owned bookstore in the Six Nations of the Grand River in Brantford. Please check out their website and follow on your socials.Goodminds – First Nations Métis and Inuit Books

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2015) by Robin Wall Kimmerer  Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. Milkweed Press

Daughters of the Deer (2022) by Danielle Daniel In this haunting and groundbreaking historical novel, Danielle Daniel imagines the lives of women in the Algonquin territories of the 1600s, a story inspired by her family’s ancestral link to a young girl who was murdered by French settlers. Penguin Random House

Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Volume One Summary Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

This is the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its six-year investigation of the residential school system for Aboriginal youth and the legacy of these schools. This report, the summary volume, includes the history of residential schools, the legacy of that school system, and the full text of the Commission’s 94 recommendations for action to address that legacy. James Lorimer and Company Ltd.

Miichi Saagiig Nishnaabeg: This is Our Territory (2018) by Gidigaa Migizi (Doug Williams) In this deeply engaging oral history, Gidigaa Migizi (Doug Williams), Anishinaabe elder, teacher, and mentor to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson recounts the history of the Michi Saagiig Nisnaabeg, tracing through personal and historical events, and presenting what manifests as a crucial historical document that confronts entrenched institutional narratives of the history of the region. ARP Books

Whatever you choose to read, enjoy your summer reading, I know I will!

Indigenous Peoples Day 2023

How was your celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day? We are all at different entry points as far as Indigenous education goes.  I think 99% of my learning has happened in adulthood and I still have a long way to go. I read, watch and listen to Indigenous Peoples so I can move forward as a settler in a good way but it’s not always clear what I should do next and I admit, I stumble along the way.  In 2021, the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools confirmed the horrific stories I had heard previously.  It left me feeling guilty, hollow, and unsure how to help. When attending webinars and presentations I heard Indigenous people saying that education is a critical factor in improving relations.  We are educators and we can make a difference.

Indigenous Peoples Day gives us a chance to celebrate the joy, humour, music, art, dance and storytelling of Indigenous Peoples. This year we formed a committee to create a slide deck with some suggestions for the various grades in our school. I’ve included some of the links below.

It would be better to have people present in a live, interactive format rather than relying on video.  This is an improvement I would like to see made in the future at my school.  Dancers, storytellers, artists, musicians, scientists, writers and other guest speakers who are First Nation, Métis or Inuit have given fantastic presentations to my students in the past.  If you want a speaker for June 21st, you have to book months in advance and be prepared to offer alternate dates.  For example, I noticed that our local municipality offered a celebration of Indigenous Peoples on June 25 at the local library and the event included drummers, beading and food.  

Another part of our day included encouraging classes to spend time outside and reflect on their relationship with the land.  What does the land look like where you live? How is it used? What can we do to protect and give back to the land?  Similarly, what can you do to protect water where you live?  Our relationship with the land is the key part of the land acknowledgement that our school reads every day and our students can benefit from outdoor experiences that help them become more aware of the interdependence of all living things. 

I hope you were able to learn, laugh and celebrate on Indigenous Peoples Day. There are numerous events throughout the summer to celebrate with Indigenous Peoples and reconnect with the land. Hopefully we will all have plenty of opportunities to do so!  Here are some links that our staff and K-8 students used this year:

CBC Kids – What is Indigenous

Molly Of Denali – Northern Lights 

DJ Shub feat. Northern Cree Singers – Indomitable

Métis Red River Jig with Hip Hop fusion

Inuit String Game Story

ETFO Going Beyond the Land Acknowledgement

ETFO First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education 

Reflecting before Retirement

It’s time, and I am excited! I will retire from full time teaching on June 30, 2023. Looking back I see all the adaptations educators have made over the past few decades. From handwritten report cards to sharing floppy disks to shared online documents.  Sometimes it is very challenging to be a teacher but the rewards of the job are immeasurable. I’d like to share 7 reflections during my retirement countdown.

1.Expect Change 

Policies, curriculum, class lists, grade assignments, and technology are just a few things that have changed regularly throughout my career. It was not always easy to take these changes in stride but as my career went on I found I could usually shake off my initial resistance and adapt. 

2. The days are long but the years are short

Some days drag, don’t they? And yet here I am looking back asking, where has the time gone?

3. Take care of yourself

There are times when someone might say to you, are you aware of the Employee Assistance Program? I encourage you to listen to those friends and go ahead and get some help with mental health. We all have internal struggles that can become overwhelming and impact our relationships and our job performance.  Getting advice, counseling and support from a therapist can be life-changing. 

Similarly, I have found it helpful to take charge of my physical health and make it a priority.

4. Lead by example

I discovered some simple tricks from my soft spoken friends. I bring the class energy up and down with my body language and voice. I also set the tone for kindness, manners and joyfulness  in my classes. 

5. Rest

It’s not always easy to make yourself a priority but it’s your #1 job to take care of yourself. So go to bed early or take a nap -after work! (It’s very uncomfortable to nap with your forehead on your desk, right?)

6. Rely on your colleagues for support

I’ve been blessed to work with so many awesome humans. Our union local has also been fantastic for providing support and learning opportunities. We are stronger together.

7. Celebrate!

Chances are you are teaching because you want to make the world a better place. Remind yourself constantly that you are doing just that.

I pass the torch to you. I see the eagerness and energy of new teachers and I hope you can enjoy all the magical moments ahead.  It’s been an incredible 31 years and I’m eager to see what else life has in store for me.  One of my retirement goals is to stay connected to education, so I hope to switch to the role of occasional teacher in September.  Beyond that I will be doing what my retired friends have suggested:  Anything I Want!

I wish you all the best in your year-end countdown!

Exploring Coding using Bee-Bots in Kindergarten

Using technology with students is not always in my comfort zone but that didn’t stop me from trying out bee-bots with kindergarten students. A bee-bot is a type of programmable floor robot designed for children ages 4-7.  I wanted to see what would happen if we followed the kindergarten model of exploration and play as a way to guide a coding inquiry with bee-bots.  Here’s what I discovered.

As you can imagine when I brought 12 bee-bots into a kindergarten classroom for the first time there were squeals of excitement.  We sat in a circle to have a lesson on how the directional buttons controlled its movement and the green GO button would get it started.  Then we cleared the programming by using the X button and started over again.

Students worked with a partner, taking turns programming a bee-bot to see where it would travel.  They seemed most happy when bee-bots unexpectedly went under chairs or bumped into a shelf or wall.  Getting a bee bot to spin around repeatedly was a favourite activity of one group and another group was determined to get just the right number of commands to make the bee-bot cross the classroom.

As a prep time coverage teacher, I visit kindergarten weekly with a cart of learning tools. The cart has a variety of materials to cater to different learning styles and I refresh it with new items often. The bee-bots had been on the cart for a while and interest was waning so I got out the bee-bot maps and the covers that look like stormtrooper helmets.  These new items have refreshed interest in the bee-bots as students can program the robots to find treasure on the island map or go shopping on the town map.  

One challenge the students tried was to program the bee-bots to have coordinated movements so they look like they are dancing.  Another challenge was to have the bee-bot knock down a small tower of blocks.  I noticed students were engaging in dramatic play with the bee-bots taking on the roles in stories they were creating so we tried programming the bee-bots to retell a familiar story, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

In another class, the students noticed the bee-bots had a little hook on the back so they invented trailers to test the bee-bots’ strength. Then they tried to hook the bee-bots together so that one was dragging another around . They created a human tunnel using their friends’ legs to see if the bee-bots could make it through.

As a group we used the website and tried out different maps. This allowed me to review directionality and the way that coding sequences are recorded in the bee-bots.

All in all I’d say the bee-bots have been very successful in kindergarten and that the students have created many more ways to play and learn with these tools than the very straightforward coding lessons I was thinking we would do.  

As with most trial and error attempts in my career I learn alongside the students.  I would definitely use the bee-bots again and allow students the opportunity to explore and play with the concepts of coding.

Refresh and Ignite!

I’m writing today from the shores of Rice Lake, where I’m attending a women’s retreat for seventy Kawartha Pine Ridge ETFO members. Sharing a cabin with three long-time colleagues, we are here to “Refresh and Ignite .” At dinner last night, we heard from Ontario NDP leader Merit Stiles about the importance of women in leadership roles, followed by a very entertaining round of Drag Bingo featuring two outstanding performers: Betty Baker and Sahira Q. There are a variety of sessions offered this year including outdoor education using wonder wagons, coping with burnout, breast cancer awareness, health care from an Indigenous perspective, landscape painting, humour/comedy, and yoga.

Attending retreat weekends takes coordination and effort, and many women have multiple roles of responsibility. There were years when I could not work the retreat into my schedule, but I’m so happy to be here today, even if the skies are gray. There is strong camaraderie and a friendly atmosphere for us to laugh and learn together.

Why is this retreat just for women? We have a history; before ETFO existed, our teacher unions were gender-based. The rise of women’s rights over the past century has allowed us to look at women’s issues and note that women need opportunities to connect in a safe environment. Saturday’s informative keynote address was by ETFO vice-president Shirley Bell. She reminded us that ETFO is mandated to fund and create women’s and other social justice programs. She said, “women need to see themselves reflected in leadership.”

Our local also held an all-members retreat this year for the first time. I’m sure this event will grow over the years. I appreciate the outstanding leadership at our local office and the dedicated volunteers who put the retreat together. I can’t emphasize enough how many fabulous opportunities there are within ETFO, and I encourage readers to explore how to be a more significant part of our union.

Further Viewing/Reading:

Equity and Women’s Programs Annual Report. 2022. ETFO.

Hanson, Andy. 2021. Class Action: How Ontario’s Elementary Teachers Became a Political Force.

It’s Elementary: 2020 Edition

Using National Film Board Resources in Elementary Classrooms

Created in 1939, the NFB is a federal agency under the Department of Canadian Heritage. Its mandate is to create, produce, and distribute distinctive and original audiovisual works that reflect the diverse realities and perspectives of Canadians, and to share these works with the people of Canada and the rest of the world.  Source

Using audiovisual media with our students helps create a dynamic learning environment. As Canadian educators we can inspire our students by promoting Canadian filmmakers. Canada’s National Film Board provides many examples of film and video across all subject areas and age groups. Here are some examples of NFB content that are particularly suited to elementary educators. Please explore the NFB Education page and the NFB Blog for many more films to use in your classes. If you would like to work with other Canadian educators who promote the use of NFB content, then consider applying to be part of the NFB Educator Network.

Private Eyes Ages 6-9

Why is it important to respect individuality and encourage independence?

Topics: Independence, Physical Disabilities, Visual Impairment, Blind, Senses, Braille, Companion Pets, Communication, Confidence, Self-Worth, Challenges, Resourceful

Film Length: 14 minutes 26 seconds

Overdose Ages 6+

How does stress impact your life?

Topics: burnout, stress management

Film Length: 5 minutes 30 seconds

Elbow Room  Ages 7+   

How can you express your emotions to others?

Topics:  conflict resolution, emotion, dialogue, compromise

Film Length: 8 minutes 30 seconds

Big Mouth Ages 8-10

Is telling the truth always the right thing to do?

Topics: Truth, Communication, Social Relationships, Empathy, Unique Character Traits, Differences, Poetry

Film Length: 8 minutes 20 seconds

Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows   Ages 12+

How has the rise of social media and digital technology used entertainment and sensationalism to overshadow responsibility, human dignity and human rights?

Topics: Consent, Social Media, Technology and Innovation, Cyber-bullying, Identity, Self-Esteem, Media Ethics, Privacy, Online Relationships, Digital Environment

In Full Voice  Ages 11+ (In French with English subtitles)

How can we deconstruct and disrupt anti-Muslim racism by understanding the specific and diverse experiences of Muslim women?

Topics: Muslim women, Islam, Islamophobia, diversity, identity, religion, gender, spirituality, stereotypes, culture, intersectionality

Film Length: 52 minutes

Warnings: It is important to take a trauma-informed approach to this learning. It is not uncommon for Muslim students to experience Islamophobia in various aspects of their lives. Non-Muslim students may not be aware of the challenges Muslim students face. It will be helpful to inform and prepare Muslim students, with care, that this film may bring up some difficult emotions. It will also be helpful to remind all students of class guidelines and agreements about the discussion of difficult topics.

Hi-Ho Mistahey  Ages 12+ 

Why isn’t the right to a quality education universal in Canada?

Topics: Treaties with First Nations, Indigenous Rights, Oral Promises, Constitutional Rights, Indian Act, Underfunding, Departments of Aboriginal Affairs

Film Length: 1 hour 40 minutes

Coping With Eco Anxiety Part 2: Taking Action and Advocating for the Future

With Earth Day, World Environment Day, and World Ocean Day approaching, your students will likely hear about complex and devastating ecological issues. In the second part of this blog on eco-anxiety, we look at how you can help students cope by taking action to solve local environmental problems and teaching advocacy skills. 

Go Outside and Take Action

Local environmental problems need leadership to be solved. You and your students can take steps to show your community how it’s done!

Partner with Local Indigenous Communities:  Your school board has an Indigenous Education Consultant who can help you connect with Indigenous speakers and organizations. As educators respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, it is important to build relationships with local Indigenous Peoples who can offer authentic teachings.  They can help you with projects like ours, pictured above, choosing plants that have significance for the schoolyard. Learn about Indigenous perspectives and teachings to improve our relationship with nature and the need for wise use of the planet’s gifts. 

Grow Food:   I find potatoes the most straightforward food to grow in a schoolyard (pictured below). They require little attention; just loosen the soil, dig a hole, and plant a seed potato. You may add mulch or be prepared to pull a few weeds over the summer. Dig up your potato crop a few months later. This is a rewarding and delicious project!

Prevent Plastic Pollution: To stop plastic from ending up in waterways, I encourage you and your students to pick up litter around your school and recycle everything you can. 

Guerrilla Gardening: Plant wildflowers wherever you can. Pick plants that suit your area. We’ve had success with brown-eyed Susan, yarrow, and even trilliums. 

Raise and Release Butterflies: Painted Lady Caterpillars can be raised in spring, and monarchs in September. Release them near the wildflowers you planted. This project is not difficult and is very memorable for students. We rely on the generosity of the school council to support this project.

Learn about Advocacy and Do It

Students will be inspired by studying successful environmental advocates. Autumn Peltier is an excellent example, and she said these inspiring words:

“I feel like not only adults, but teachers and the education system have to empower [youth speaking up] and mentor that. Speaking up and using your voice is very important, something I feel like should be taught.” Source

Students will learn essential life skills like letter-writing, public speaking, and critical thinking when advocating for solutions to environmental issues.

Your school could challenge another school to work on a local environmental issue like composting lunch waste or a community litter clean-up. You could evaluate ecological problems in your school and advocate for better use of resources, energy saving, and walk-to-school campaigns.

Access Environmental Education Resources For example, the ETFO Climate Change Primer 

“As part of ETFO’s ongoing efforts towards equity and social justice, this new resource was developed to inform the membership about how the themes such as environmental racism, colonisation, and migration merge with climate change. This resource includes terminology, case studies, acknowledgement of change-makers, and resources for members to build their knowledge and understanding to inform their instructional practices. ETFO Members play an important and crucial role in raising awareness and creating learning environments for students that promote dialogue using a social justice and equity lens.”

Watch Canadian Films like the 5-minute animated short “What Rhymes with Toxic” by the National Film Board (grades 6 and up). The turtle in this film argues with a town council member who denies the health impacts of a chemical spill. Your students could write to your local or provincial government about environmental issues in your area.

Check out Ocean School. It is a free teaching resource with lesson plans to accompany videos. Included in this resource are Indigenous and scientific worldviews of ocean issues.

I hope you got some inspiration and will get your class outside for some environmental education this spring. Please let me know if you have other favourite resources for this topic, as I am always looking for ways to engage students in environmental education. Have fun learning outside and reducing eco-anxiety!


Coping with Eco-Anxiety Part 1:  Observing and Teaching Outdoors

Are you and your students anxious about the future of life on earth? The term eco-anxiety applies to those of us whose feelings of dread, anxiety, and depression are associated with climate change, mass extinction, pollution, plastic islands, depletion of the earth’s resources, the water crisis, and other ecological issues. We can help ourselves and our students to cope with these feelings in several ways.

Part 1 of this blog examines appreciating nature and getting outside to learn. 

 Go Outside and Observe

Plan a variety of teaching opportunities outdoors. Fresh air, sunshine, snow, mud, and rain give us exercise and vitamin D with the bonus of the chance to observe the seasonal cycles, the water cycle, habitats, plants, and all sorts of animals, including insects. You will need to prepare for the weather, but I believe this will reduce student anxiety about the natural world just by spending time outside appreciating the gifts of this planet. Specific learning expectations in every grade from K-8 require students to be outside. When it’s part of the class routine to take a walk together or adopt a nearby tree, plant, or garden, students will likely gain more respect and understanding of the natural world. Bring cameras outside to create media. Take time to write, draw, paint, and create drama or music outdoors. The outdoor setting is a beautiful place to let the artistic side emerge. Respectfully using natural materials is a fantastic way to work together and be creative.

Go Outside and Learn

Your schoolyard is a habitat, no matter where it is located. It’s in a weather zone; it’s on a waterway; it’s a food source for something, even if you are in a concrete jungle! Explore the nooks and crannies of cracks in the pavement. Watch the skies for birds and other insects. You will find many opportunities to cover the curriculum right outside your door. Any subject for grades 1-8 and any of the four frames in the kindergarten program has components that you can cover outdoors. If your school does not have an outdoor classroom, that’s ok! You can do plenty of teaching with students using cameras or clipboards for making observations, calculations, mapping, or art. You can set up a nature-based inquiry by asking students to compare the characteristics of trees and animal habitats or make detailed weather observations. Always ensure outdoor learning is accessible to all students, and have fun!

Advocacy – Using My Educator Voice

“Part of ETFO’s mission is the education, stimulation, and transformation of provincial and local organizations to be responsive to the diverse needs of the membership, and to be a positive influence for change at a societal level. “

 Source: ETFO Social Justice

I’ve been thinking more about my privilege in society and how to create space for others. I imagine my classroom, or even my school, as a microcosm of society and try to model kindness, joy, and hope to my students and colleagues. How do we make the world a better place? What does that look like in the teaching profession?

Reading the anti-oppressive framework created by ETFO helps me think critically about how I teach, the physical setup of my learning space, and the direction I’m helping my school take. It reminds me that part of being an ally is to advocate for those experiencing the negative impacts of colonialism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and ableism.

Sometimes advocacy work means starting conversations that will be uncomfortable, but educators need to ensure that we unlearn oppressive practices and ideologies. We can create space for the oppressed to have a voice. We can advocate spending school budgets on specialized resources for clubs or educational opportunities for students from marginalized groups. We can advocate for professional development to implement the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We also know that the arts and libraries need our voices heard to give all students access to music, drama, art, dance, books and technology. 

The teacher-librarian AQ course taught me to advocate for the library/learning commons. For years, I have had to justify my requests for the school budget to be spent on books, magazines, and technology. The effort was worth it. Recently, a student who graduated from grade eight thanked me for allowing her to exceed the book checkout limit every week. When other students were taking 1-2 books, she was taking eight. Consistently, every week, for grades two and three, she continued this pattern. By grade four, she began reading some longer books, so the number of books she checked out was fewer, but she was still reading voraciously, and she continues to do so to this day. Her family did not use the public library, and they couldn’t afford to keep up with her appetite for books, so the school library was the place she relied on to keep her reading. With this student and others like her in mind, I will continue to advocate for schools to have libraries and for libraries to have books.

Educators, your voice is valued, don’t be afraid to use it to make things better for someone else.