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The Freedom of Giving Up Control

When my non-teacher friends describe teachers, words like type A, perfectionist, and control freak tend to be at the top of the list and although they may say it’s all in jest, I know that’s exactly how they see most educators.  Truth be told that in conversation with colleagues and observing many classrooms, I have to admit that to some degree, giving up control presents a challenge that not everyone is willing to take on.  For some teachers, the thought of having students organize the classroom library or put up a bulletin board on their own makes them nervous, to say the least.

I’ve always thought of myself as an educator who shares in the learning with my students and I’ve worked to create an environment in my classroom that I feel is conducive to exploration, inquiry and self-expression.  Of course, this is how I believe things to be without taking into consideration if indeed, my students feel the same way.  I decided to speak with my class about how they felt with respect to the control they had over how things we run.  Interestingly, we came to the conclusion that although they felt they could question anything and could express themselves while feeling valued, they did wish they had more control over day-to-day routines such as organizing supplies, creating the class calendar, writing the homework, putting up bulletin boards, etc.

I realized that I hadn’t given them those opportunities because of my limited belief about how much eight and nine year-olds could handle without creating havoc in our classroom.  I had my doubts about giving up that control over the day-to-day tasks but was curious to find out how they would handle it.  Students began to put up and take down bulletin boards, organize the class schedule and calendar, write up the homework on the information board, organize the forms and notes mailboxes, track completed and unfinished work using class charts, create their own anchor charts, organize the classroom library and supplies cupboards, etc.

What began to happen was wonderful: the students quickly demonstrated how independent and capable they are to run the day-to-day classroom tasks and I had more time to myself that I used to plan, mark and prepare for activities.  Giving up control ended up giving us all the freedom we needed both to do our jobs better!

Financial Literacy

Money “Cents!” Introducing Financial Literacy in the Elementary Classroom

Financial literacy is defined as, “Having the knowledge and skills needed to make responsible economic and financial decisions with competence and confidence.”  In A Sound Investment, 2010, a document released by the Ministry of Education, this is the definition according to leading experts called upon to look into the need to integrate financial literacy in the elementary and secondary curriculum.

Four years ago I began to wake up to the fact that I didn’t fully understand my own personal financial reality and the consequences my decisions had on both a short-term and long-term level.  I realized that I needed to understand the impact my financial decisions made on both my personal life and that of the global economy in order to participate as a responsible citizen in today’s every-changing and complex society.

I took the first step by immersing myself in resources to support my own financial literacy and those that would help me integrate the concepts and skills into my own classroom.  To my amazement (and delight), students thoroughly enjoyed each and every opportunity to learn about topics that focused on money management, healthy living skills, decision-making and personal awareness, consumer awareness, and responsible citizenship.  In addition, families showed their appreciation in having their children begin preparing for their financial future at such a young age.

I know that if I had been introduced to financial literacy in the elementary grades and explored it in-depth in secondary school, many of the financial decisions I made throughout my adult life would have been different.  We always want what is best for our children and often times that means doing for them what we wish was done for us.  Integrating financial literacy just makes “cents!”


The following are a few resources to get teachers started with learning about and integrating financial literacy in their own classroom.

A Sound Investment, Ministry of Education, 2010

EduGAINS: Financial Literacy Resources- Ministry of Education

Investor Education Fund: Inspire Financial Learning






Photo of Carmen Oliveira

My Critical Friends

One of my favourite moments in my practice are those times when I can sit for a few minutes and just reflect on what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, how I thought about things in the past and where my learning has taken me.  Now, let’s be clear, these moments are few and far between (unfortunately) within the whirlwind of a school day but it’s worth finding the time because I often come away with a  few “aha!” conclusions.  I’d like to share one such moment I had today.

I was thinking back to my first years of teaching  when I believed that I not only had to be the best at what I did but I had to travel that road alone.  Not because I didn’t want the support (are you kidding? I knew I needed all the help I could find) but because I felt that as a professional who was leading these young minds in their quest to learn about the world around them, I had to be the know-it-all guide.  Eight years down the road, I now love the feeling of being in a state of continuous and perpetual learning along with my students.  So what caused this shift in my thinking?

My own growth has been exponential and I owe much of it to a special group of people I l call my “critical friends.”  This is a term introduced by Andrew Hutchinson, a sector consultant, in 1998.  A critical friend is defined as “a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work.”

I have been fortunate to work with critical friends as teacher colleagues, administrators, instructional leaders, professors and sometimes my own students.  As I sat back today, I realized that their feedback about my practice, the collaboration between us and their willingness to guide me as I work to find solutions and new goals to reach is one of the greatest tools I possess on my own quest in education.

Not a bad “aha” moment for a five minute break 🙂

If you’re interested in further reading, this article by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick that summarizes the process.

Photo of Carmen Oliveira

Tackling Challenging Topics: The Dolphin Dilemma

Recently, our Grade 4 class began exploring habitats and communities in our Science unit.  The children were very excited to share what they thought we would be learning about and which habitats and animals they were looking forward to researching.  One student was eager to tell the class that she saw dolphins at a marine park during the summer and would like to learn more about them because they were beautiful.  Now, I have to preface my story by saying that every student I’ve ever had in my classroom knows how much I love dolphins.  In fact, anyone visiting my classroom immediately notices the countless dolphin figurines lovingly given by many of my former students.  However, what students may not know is how strongly I believe that these mammals do not belong in marine parks but rather, should be left to swim in the wild.

During our classroom discussion one of the boys surprised me by asking the student who had visited the marine park why she liked to see dolphins in pools when they were supposed to be in the ocean.  Many students looked at him confused and admitted to having seen dolphins in marine parks and they also thought they were “cool.”  He seemed outnumbered by the blank and puzzled stares coming from his classmates and looked at me for support.  I have to admit that my natural reaction would be to defend him, prove why he’s right and try to educate students by raising awareness about the issue.  Of course, after so many years of tackling challenging issues related to social justice, the environment and students’ personal lives I know that the best way to engage in meaningful conversation is to keep an open mind, look at all perspectives, raise relevant questions that will provoke critical thinking and provide factual (hopefully biased-free) material that can be used to analyze the issue at hand.

This always takes me back to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk  “The Danger of a Single Story.”
In the past I’ve broken down this video with my students for us to realize how biased we all are to some degree and how those biases can greatly affect how we see and interact with the world.  When we have the tools we need to deal with challenging topics, we end up not only learning more, but growing from our experience, even if we continue to disagree.  It’s a powerful lesson to learn in life: before deciding where we stand on an issue,  step back and look at it from all sides before venturing toward a conclusion.

I do have to confess that despite all my attempts to stay neutral I did wear my Dolphin Project – Swim Wild t-shirt to school that same week.  Needless to say the students have decided (without my coaxing) that they’d like to learn more about a dolphin’s natural habitat and study the impact that keeping them in marine parks has on them.  This inquiry will definitely present some challenges for me but I hope to guide my students to their own well thought-out conclusion.  I’ll post our findings in the near future 🙂


Children must be taught how to think

Let’s Get This Learning Started

This year I begin a new journey as I welcome the opportunity to teach Grade 4.  For the record, I must admit that I was a bit nervous simply because I’ve been teaching Grade 6 and above for the past five years.  However, the first week has proven that if we enjoy getting to know our students and work to create engaging opportunities for them to learn about each other, the classroom environment becomes a comfortable place to be, no matter which grade we’re teaching.

Although I’ve had to be more mindful of the way I communicate by constantly keeping in mind that the students in front of me just left Grade 3, I continue to be amazed at how capable children can be when they’re given guidelines for learning and are then left to explore and build on their understanding of the world around them.

This year, my goal is to be very intentional about the feedback I provide, the conversations I have, and how I approach character education.  This goal stems out of the learning I experienced (and continue to do so) with some very powerful books I decided to read this summer.  “How Children Succeed,” by Paul Tough and “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” by Carol S. Dweck, really got me thinking about the way I approach conversations, feedback, and teaching in my classroom.  The books focus on the power of building a strong character based on resilience in children and how to help them understand that more than our talents or abilities, it is our mindset that influences our learning.

If you want to start off your year by exploring how a simple idea about the brain can create a love of learning and a resilience that is the basis of great success in every area of a child’s life, I recommend you take some time this year to read the books I’ve mentioned.

For a quick overview, I’ve provided an article by Carol S. Dweck below where she explains the growth mindset and how it can positively affect and change the way students learn, think, and perform.

Dweck: MiindSets and Equitable Education

we made it

Celebrating Learning as the Year Winds Down

As our school year winds down, I thought I’d share a few ideas I’ve used in the past along with some I’ve recently come across that can create fun and meaningful opportunities to reflect on the learning and  overall experience in our classrooms this year.

END OF YEAR BOOKLET: This booklet is geared toward junior students but can easily be modified for primary grades.  This booklet is a way for students to think back on the various aspects of their year and includes tasks that involve creativity by adding artwork.  Students enjoy reading each others’ booklets and sharing them with the class at a year-end party.

END OF YEAR AWARD: Students create their own award to present to anyone they wish.  They decide what the award is celebrating and the recipient can be someone in the class, the school, their family, or community.  You can make it fun by having students draw each others’ names and create an award for their classmate which they present at an end-of-year award ceremony.  This often becomes very humourous with some silly awards being created.

TEACHER REPORT CARD: I can understand why some teachers would be wary of having their students do this but I actually find it very helpful and the students love giving me feedback.  I spend so much of the year assessing them and sharing descriptive feedback about their learning so why shouldn’t they do the same with respect to my teaching?  Students are quite insightful and honest.  Some of the reports I’ve received have been eye-openers and got me thinking about how to better my program the following year.

LETTER TO NEXT YEAR’S STUDENTS: This gives the current students the opportunity to reflect on their year and think of advice to give to the students for the upcoming school year.  Both the students writing the letter and those reading it the following year really enjoy this opportunity to get a sense of what can be expected.

LET STUDENTS TEACH A CLASS: You can split the class into groups and assign each a specific topic you studied this year. Give them time to go over their topic and invent a good review activity, which they have to grade (or not, if it’s too much for the end of the year). You assess them on whether they were able to re-teach the concept or skill and how effective their review activity is.

STUDENT CREATED QUIZ SHOW: Have students come up with questions for a quiz show about concepts, skills, facts, or anything they learned throughout the year.  Create categories (ie. like Jeopardy) for each subject area and have students organize their questions.  Enjoy the quiz show as a class competing against the teacher or form teams of students to compete against each other.  Prizes can include a longer recess, extra gym time, or some frozen treats at the end of hot June day.

end of year booklet part 1

end of year booklet part 2

end of year award

Teacher Report Card

letter to next year students

Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.

My Little Guru

Ever since I can remember, I have always strived to surround myself with people and experiences that inspire and motivate me to question, learn, and celebrate the art of living.  My teachers, or gurus, have manifested themselves in different forms.  A parent, a sister, my son, a friend, poets and writers in my favourite books, social activists, great teachers, or simply people who demonstrate an innate ability to rise above obstacles in their quest to live a life of purpose.

I have the privilege of coming across little gurus each and every day of my life.  They happen to share a classroom with me.  I owe much of my learning and growth, both professional and personal, to my students.  One in particular has left me humbled and deeply grateful for allowing me to be a part of his journey.  Daniel* has been the reason behind quite a few sleepless nights.  His life has been one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  At the start of year, his personality reflected the confusion, fear, anger, and instinct for survival that is expected within his reality.  He’s the one  I would come home and talk to my family about non-stop because I was determined to understand him and somehow be a guide or figure that would help him see how amazing he truly was.  After a few weeks of racking my brain and over-thinking the situation, I decided to let it go and just work on three things: building trust, getting him to believe that I liked him no matter what he did or said, and playing to his strengths at all times so he felt the power that comes from knowing that he matters.  I learned to really listen, so much so that he would need to feel that he was the most important person at that moment.

What unfolded in the following months was a teacher-student relationship where I learned far more than I could teach him.  When his social worker came to visit 3 weeks ago, he asked me to be at the meeting with him.  What I heard during that time, was nothing short of astonishing.  His wisdom, strength, compassion, and resiliency left the social worker and I in complete awe.  I was in the presence of a little guru, a teacher who knows how to use obstacles to create possibilities and hold himself accountable for the decisions he makes in life.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the speech he recently wrote for our Speech Arts unit.  When I conferenced with him to look it over, I had to make an excuse to leave the classroom so I could have a cry in private.  He gave me permission to share it with you:

Have you ever had a moment in your life when you didn’t believe you could do something or you thought you weren’t good enough?  I remember having low self-esteem.  There was a time I didn’t care about myself and I felt I couldn’t be me.  But that time is long gone and now when I come to school I’m proud to be Daniel*.  I feel free from judgement.  I walk down the hall and feel joyful.  Every child needs to have someone who inspires them to stay true to themselves.  They must be inspired.  The change can happen in your life and it’s amazing.  

My teacher inspires me because every day I’m with her she gets me to really think about life and how I can become better and better at what I do.  When I’m having a bad day and so something I didn’t mean to, she sits down with me and talks to me.  We talk about how I can use what I know to make decisions to avoid negative situations.  I have learned to just be me without changing for anyone else.  

…Imagine what society would be like if everyone who needed help had someone to inspire them?  Thinking back to when I felt so low and not like the Daniel* I am today I realize that having someone that came into my life and helped me change made all the difference.  There’s a quote in my classroom I really like.  It goes like this, “I may not be perfect, but parts of me are pretty awesome.”  I’m not perfect, but I am a very unique and awesome kid.”

I let him know that he inspired me to share our story with teachers world-wide.  He smiled with the smirk of self-confidence.

We Stand Together Display

Learning While Making a Difference

The last month has been a whirlwind of learning and creating social action in our classroom!  It is amazing how a simple learning goal can transform into an inquiry project that takes us and our students to another level of understanding.  Of course, those are the most unforgettable experiences which often lead to continual exploration and questioning.  Let me explain…

As part of our Grade 6 unit on Native Peoples, I decided to have students look at  history through different perspectives.  This meant that we explored their culture, customs, and stories through their eyes.  At the same time, students were reading a Silver Birch book entitled “Shannen and the Dream for a School” by Janet Wilson describing the journey taken by an Aboriginal teen living in Attawapiskat who fought to have a new school built after the old one was torn down only to sadly lose her life in a bus accident before seeing her dream become reality.  Coincidentally, I received an invitation for my class to take part in an enrichment program headed by Free the Children’s Craig Kielburger and the Paul Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI).  The We Stand Together initiative would have students explore Aboriginal issues facing communities today while also learning about and celebrating their culture.  This invitation could not have come at a better time for us and what unfolded was an inquiry project based around the topic of equity in education for all Canadian students.

The excitement and engagement became immediately palpable once my students felt that what they had studied began to manifest into a relevant and current topic that could bring together so many different people from such diverse backgrounds and cultures.  Our learning became embedded into the Arts by exploring Aboriginal art, listening to Aboriginal music, and appreciating their different styles of dance.  We looked at the issue of residential schools and how that impacted Aboriginal children and their families.  Students decided to create a display case in the hallway of the school providing information about inequitable education practices and what we planned to do to make a difference.  We also kept a learning log which the students are very proud of because they can see the journey they’ve taken throughout the inquiry.  Presently, students are writing letters to the MP for Attawapiskat, the Right Honourable Paul Martin, and Craig Kielburger to let them know how they feel and what they plan to do.  We are creating a book and video to send to the students of Attawapiskat to simply let them know that they are not forgotten and that students in places like Scarborough are working to bring awareness to the issue and have committed to doing their best to help influence the decision to finally build the school they’ve been promised so many times before.

Our inquiry will be presented at a school assembly this month and even though the students are proud of what they’ve learned and hope to do in the future to make a difference, ultimately, they’ve come to the realization that the questions just keep coming and the journey continues.  As one student commented, “I can’t believe I’m learning about this happening in my own country.  I used to think that only other countries had unfair laws or ways of treating their people.  I like learning about the history but it’s great that I can make a difference so it doesn’t happen again.”

Students decided that they would all read "Shannen and the Dream for a School"


Students learning about the current issues faced by Aboriginal students


Students sharing ideas using an Aboriginal custom called "Circle Talk"


Proud to show the display case providing information for the school
Newspaper Poetry

Discovering Our Inner Poet

I love teaching writing.  Let me be more specific.  I loved teaching writing except when it came to poetry.  For some reason, I’ve always managed to bring to life the other writing formats and genres with engaging lessons set upon a backdrop of real world contexts.  The students, for the most part, ate it all up and asked for more.  That is, until  I mentioned we would be exploring poetry.  The good times would come to a screeching halt as their faces reflected what I had also thought of poetry as an elementary student: boring and challenging to understand (how did I know what so-and-so meant by this-and-that?…and who cares?).  So of course, with my determined and stubborn personality, in the past few years I’ve focused on learning how to breathe life into this wonderful writing genre.  It hasn’t always been an ocean of roses but, for the most part, the exploration has led us to a whole new level of appreciation and learning.

We have just completed our poetry unit (which will continue  informally throughout the year) and I can honestly say that the class thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’d like to share with you a few of the activities and resources that made the experience engaging, meaningful, and memorable.

If you haven’t already done so, I strongly encourage you to purchase Classroom Events Through Poetry by Larry Swartz (just purchase any of his books on poetry and drama and you’ll be well on your way to an incredible teaching/learning experience).  It’s a practical and concise book that provides easy and meaningful activities to explore poetry in our classroom and our lives.  We started by looking at poetry in books, researching it on the internet, and sharing it with each other in daily poetry circles.  We created newspaper poems by cutting out words and phrases and ordering them to try and create a themed poem.  We took 2-4 sentences from a favourite poem and created a graffiti wall on our classroom door (the students thought this was very cool!).  We acted out poetry, sang poetry, and shared the lyrics of our favourite songs after listening to them together.  We learned about different structures by having groups of students become “specialists” as they taught the class the structure, gave examples, and had everyone try to create their own.

The culminating task involved creating a poem in the structure of their choice and presenting it at our Poet’s Cocktail Party!  This was no ordinary party!  Invitations were sent out, the poems were displayed all around the classroom, students dressed up, and food was ordered (grapes, cheese, crackers, cupcakes, and grape juice in place of red wine).  As jazz music played, students mingled by reading each others’ poems and discussing their thoughts and opinions.  A few students shared their poems and we snapped our fingers in appreciation of their work (yes, we snapped fingers, not clapped because that’s apparently what poets do).

A few students decided that they wanted to enter the Urban Voices poetry contest and their poems have been sent off.  How special would it be to have a winner come from our class!  Keeping our fingers crossed.

We cut out words and phrases from newspapers and ordered them to create a themed poem.


An example of a newspaper poem.


An example of a newspaper poem.


Students took 2-4 lines from favourite poems and created a graffiti wall on our door.


This poem was presented at our poetry cocktail party.
Photo of Carmen Oliveira

Equity Work: Difficult and Transformative

I am currently taking a Mentoring AQ course that is really impacting my understanding of equity in education and how I can work with my colleagues to explore this topic in our teaching practice.  I truly believe that it is necessary for all of us to take a step back and explore equity as it pertains not only to our classrooms, but to our schools, communities, and personal lives as well.  I have decided to share some of my learning and wonderings as I take a closer look at the “Equity Continuum” from OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling and the TDSB’s Equitable and Inclusive Schools site.

OISE Centre for Urban Schooling:

TDSB Equitable and Inclusive Schools:

Just some food for thought…

Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they   need.”-Rick Riordan, The Red Pyramid

This very simple and yet profound quote set off a critical unit of inquiry around equity in my Grade 6 classroom last year.  Over the span of a few weeks (and subsequently the school year), we explored, discussed, questioned, challenged, and brought to light this important understanding that, in order for everyone to experience success and a strong sense of self, they would not necessarily need to be treated exactly the same.  The best part of this experience was my own journey as I grappled with my previously constructed schema around equity and fairness in all aspects of my life.

I vividly remember coming back after a supply teacher had been in the classroom during this period of inquiry and having my students astonished and fuming at her reaction when a student asked for extra time and a quiet space to complete a task.  She said she had to be fair and that everyone would need to hand it in at the same time.  When the students let her know that fairness is when they have the right to learn the way that is best for them to be successful and in our classroom that means people may need different treatment, she completely disagreed in a manner that undermined what they had come to understand as being “fair.”  Our conversation was lively, to say the least, and their questions were ones I have come to ask many times since then: “How can we get people, especially in education, to think about fairness as a way of everyone getting what they need?” and, “How can we create a positive space where teachers, students, and parents question, challenge, voice their own opinions, and feel that they have the right to self-advocate?”  (Theirs were in kid-friendly language, of course).

After looking at the “Importance of Equity in Education” from the TDSB’s Equitable and Inclusive Schools page as well as the “Equity Continuum” from OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling, I came to realize that, for me, the reasons that make equity work personally and professionally difficult are the same as those that make it transformative and fundamental if we are to move forward in education.

Whether it be with friends, colleagues, mentees, students, or parents, I find that when a conversation begins to challenge the status quo, challenge stereotypes, or involves having to critically look at ourselves, our beliefs, our expectations, or our practice, discomfort can quickly build up and the outcome takes the form of people shutting down, becoming outwardly upset, and unfortunately not evolving or learning from the experience.  I feel that at the core of this difficulty in equity work is the reality that all of us are complex beings having been influenced on so many levels in so many ways by so many people throughout our lives therefore often making us oblivious to how our own story is projected in what we think, say, and do both personally and professionally.  We seem to jump at the opportunity to try and convince others to take our viewpoint and find it easier to criticize those who do not share our beliefs.  However, looking at and inside ourselves is a whole other story.  Thus, the difficulty lies in welcoming discomfort as we tread the path of looking at equity not only by having others explore it but in also working through it ourselves.

The beauty and transformation in equity work comes about when we all courageously welcome the discomfort that arises in questioning our belief system as it pertains to our own culture and that of our school, classroom, and global community.  When we are willing to question the status quo, challenge stereotypes, critically think about how our experiences and schemas influence our pedagogical practice, hold all students (and anyone connected to education, for that matter) to the highest standards and expectations regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, linguistic competence, etc., we begin to pave a path toward open-mindedness, acceptance, respect, and transformation not only within our personal lives but in our professional practice as well.  When I began to take a deeper look at the Equity Continuum, I came to the realization that, even though I honestly believed I understood equity and had infused it in my teaching, there were so many other layers to it that I had not yet begun to peel back.  In the world we live in today, this may be one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as educators, parents, leaders and global citizens, “How will we work to ensure that everyone gets what they need to live a dignified life?”

I now know where my focus on equity will take me: unlearning what I have over time come to believe as the truth when it does not support the idea that everyone can be held to the highest standards and expectations regardless of their cultural background, race, gender, socio-economic status, etc.  I’m willing to get my hands dirty as I explore the topics, ideas, beliefs, experiences, and realities that continue to shape my understanding and practice of equity within our education system.

As Will Durant commented, “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” I chose this quote because it can provoke discomfort by having us admit that we may be ignorant while also noting that the path to discovery is progressive which to me signifies that learning happens when we entertain that which may make us uncomfortable.  Learning is messy business.  That’s what makes it transformative.