One of the most beautiful introductions I have witnessed happened on an ordinary fall day. I had word that a new student would be joining one of my schools, and I remember walking into the office that morning and seeing a girl sitting next to her mother. Her name was Mariam* and she had just arrived in Canada. And as I worked with her over the next year, I learned just what this bright and resourceful student was capable of. Despite having had the opportunity to attend only one year of school in her home country, she was literate in Arabic. And despite the fact that she was just learning English for the first time, she was able to quickly grasp curriculum concepts taught visually and with strategic translation, and demonstrate her knowledge in a host of ingenious ways.

But as I say, I was to learn all of this over the coming weeks and months. The first day of school, in a new country, surrounded by strangers and an unfamiliar language, she was understandably uncertain and worried.

With the help of an interpreter, we explained some of the daily routines, and gave her a tour of the school. We showed her where we would take her to be picked up by her mother at the end of the day, the washrooms, the drinking fountain. Several students had already eagerly asked if they could be her friend, and when she walked into her classroom for the first time with us, the entire class smiled and welcomed her.

But I could see that she was overwhelmed. And really, who wouldn’t be? The scary situations some children have navigate each day might make most of us adults freeze up in panic. Yet Mariam carried on. She walked to her desk and sat down, but when the attention of her classmates again focused on the teacher, I could see her quietly brushing away tears. 

The girl sitting across from her noticed as well. Her name was Ellie*, and she said something reassuring in English but realized Mariam could not understand. I saw her pause, then look around until she spotted one of the class iPads on the table next to her. She took it, and began typing. For the next couple of minutes, I saw her hunched over the iPad in unwavering concentration, looking back and forth from the screen to her paper, onto which she was copying something. Finally she straightened up, looked at her paper one final time, and then passed it across the desk to Mariam.

Mariam hesitantly took the paper, and when she saw what was written on it, her entire expression changed in an instant. A smile like sunshine brightened across her face, creating a change in countenance so rapid and complete anyone walking in at that moment would assume she had been having nothing but a blast all morning. 

I looked over at Ellie’s iPad and saw that she had been using Google Translate. She had typed in English “My name is” and then copied the translation of that phrase, the wobbly and earnest Arabic letters proudly centered in the middle of the paper. At the end of her carefully-copied script, she wrote her own name in English. 

اسمي هو Ellie.

My name is Ellie. Said in a different way than usual, but all the more beautiful for it. Since Arabic reads right to left, the name “Ellie” was placed at the wrong end of the sentence. But Mariam knew what she meant. 

Needless to say, a friendship was born. 

And this introduction is just one of seemingly endless examples of the importance of first language in the classroom and the power it has, sometimes, to make all the difference. 

*names have been changed 



The Universal Translator

Those of you familiar with Star Trek lore will undoubtedly have heard of one of its most auspicious pieces of technology: the Universal Translator. Whenever Kirk and his crew, or later Picard and his, encountered someone in their interplanetary travels whose language they did not speak, nary a beat was missed. The aptly-named universal translator would kick in, instantly changing the language the other person was speaking into a language understood by the crew. Usually English. As a die-hard trek fan myself, I always wanted to hear a little more Vulcan or Klingon than the show allowed. But the technology did its job, allowing seamless communication and enabling everyone to carry on exactly as they always had, exploring strange new worlds, boldly going to them in the process.

But why am I bringing up a science fiction show of my youth, in an education blog dedicated to pedagogical issues of today?  Because the “universal translator” is becoming more of a reality in our world — and not always in a good way.

Don’t get me wrong. I am the first to marvel at the ways certain translation tools have opened up new possibilities for students and teachers alike. Students can strategically check the definitions of English words they need in learning curriculum and communicating with others. They can also do the same thing in reverse: if they know an English word but are unsure of what it is in their home language they can check that as well, the translation tool helping a bit to maintain and expand first language. Teachers can strategically use apps to translate simple definitions, vocabulary, short class assignments and even parts of worksheets, making content and goals more accessible to students learning English. 

But the key descriptor in all of the above instances is “strategic”. And effective translation is just that: focused, planned, and intentional. I have seen educators deftly use strategic translation to facilitate the learning of curriculum as well as the language students need to negotiate it. Rather than a wholesale conversion of every word uttered or written in the school day (as folks on a certain science fiction show would have it), the key parts are illuminated for students, allowing growth, learning, and inclusion.

So when determining the most effective ways to use the translation tools at our disposal, I always think back to those Star Trek episodes, to the good old Universal Translator that allows things to just ‘carry on as usual’ and ask myself, “Is the way this tool works trying to change the student into someone who understands me, so I can carry on as usual? Or is the tool allowing me to change myself and my instruction, so students can learn language and curriculum?” 

To elaborate on this statement, I offer the wise advice shared with me by ESL educators over the years, as I was learning effective (and not-so-effective) ways to use various tools: to avoid blanket-translation of lessons and interactions (such as running auto-generated first language subtitles under a lesson or conversation in real time with no other adaptations, or simply speaking into a voice-translation app to have a conversation with a student). First, these translation apps are not perfect, and errors abound in the accuracy and intelligibility of translation. Second, it is exhausting to read subtitles for the length of a lesson (or six!). Third, if absolutely everything is translated to first language, how are students learning English? How is the language of instruction being scaffolded for them? And finally, wholesale translation without other forms of scaffolding and language support is isolating. How can a student belong and contribute to class learning when they are desperately trying to read subtitles or are plugged into auto-translate headphones?

For a list of quick and effective strategies that can be used in combination with strategic translation, that scaffold English and enable MLLs to participate in curriculum tasks, I have summarized some of the critical ones in my blog entry Let that be a lesson for everyone. And although these strategies are intended for MLLs, they often enhance and amplify instruction for everyone. 

A noble goal.  And, as ever, I wish you all the best of luck in making it so. 


It is no secret that teaching can bring about the most wonderful moments, and I love the ones that come out of nowhere. You know the kind I mean. They last only a second or two. They are over almost as quickly as they began, but their sudden and unexpected beauty lingers long afterward. And when I reflect on them, some come back with such clarity it seems as though they happened yesterday. 

Over two decades in teaching has allowed me to accumulate many such memories, little snapshots in time of students’ insights and identities, talents and kindnesses. When I recall them, it is in no particular order. After some time has passed, I can never remember what happened just before a particular memory … no idea what happened right after. But those fleeting moments gifted to me stay happily cobbled together in a patchwork of images, a colourful tapestry reminding me of all the joyful moments that have occurred in my schools over the years.

This fall, a few new multilingual images have been added to that happy medley.

The first one happened a couple of weeks ago, right after morning yard duty. The bell had just rung, and the tableau of students playing in the field at once turned to unified running, as they streamed in a single direction towards their class lines. The bell also prompted my thoughts to switch ahead to the morning’s tasks … an assessment, a meeting with a new family and an interpreter, emails I had to return …

As I walked briskly toward the school doors, thoughts preoccupied with all of the above, I noticed a class walking towards me. The teacher was leading them at the head of the line, each student carrying their backpacks and books along behind her. It must have been that my gaze was turned down a bit against the wind, for my eye caught something bright and colourful under one student’s arm. The lettering on the front was bold, balanced … the shape of the script suggesting a hint of direction and movement.  As I drew closer I could see it was hangul, the Korean letter system (which, by the way, was designed with very specific movement and direction in mind … if you want to look it up, it is a beautiful creation story).  The student was walking confidently, his book for class tucked proudly under his arm.  

And that is the snapshot that comes back to me now, that lifted my spirits out of morning routines to a little bit of delight. There was a time, many decades ago, that it was uncommon to see multilingual books in schools. Where it was presupposed that English was the only language that needed to be developed, maintained, and used in instruction. Where first languages — the languages in which parents comfort children, in which children sing and play, in which identity resides — were disregarded as irrelevant to learning in school. 

What is that Jim Cummins quote again? 

It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that students leave their language and culture at the school house door.1 

Indeed, the benefits of meaningful inclusion of home languages in learning are vast; the consequences if they are omitted, devastating. (I discussed some of these benefits and consequences in my blog Lost in Translation, if you want a quick summary). 

The line of flapping backpacks and scuffling running shoes rounded the corner, and I was left with that ordinary-extraordinary memory. And I hoped that those school house doors would continue to be thrown wide open. 

 1   from the article “ELL Students Speak for Themselves: Identity Texts and Literacy Engagement in Multilingual Classrooms” (Cummins et al, 2006).

The Missing Pieces

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a teacher is to look for what is missing. From learning spaces. From lessons. From books and conversations. From perspectives. Because sometimes, what is missing is the difference between inclusion, and isolation. Between learning, and not learning. Between being safe, and not.

It’s not always easy to notice what is missing, though. While we may be keenly aware of absences that preclude our own participation in various spaces, we are not naturally aware of barriers that impact others. Of the things, that if they are missing, lock them out …

A microphone.

Text in visually-accessible format.

Enough time to read a passage in a workshop.

Sensory-friendly lights.

An educator or presenter or decision-maker with the same background and experiences we have.

The list goes on …

Yet as teachers, we don’t have any choice but to seek out what is missing, to find those barriers and do our best to eliminate them.  To create inclusive spaces so that every student can learn.

So how do we illuminate those insidious absences? We discussed one possible way this fall, at our union local’s Disabilities and Accessibility Issues meeting.

This is the third year I have been a part of this committee. And despite the fact that our days seem to be getting busier by the second in education, the only regret I feel is not joining it sooner in my career. It’s a small group of teachers, all from different schools across our board, all passionate about creating inclusive spaces for students and staff. We meet once a month at the union office and plan support workshops for teachers, information nights, and wellness events. It’s been a rewarding way to meet dedicated educators in our union that I never otherwise would have. This year we have a new goal: assisting a union-led audit of our local’s office and presentation space, to ensure it is accessible to all.

And so it was that a question occurred to me.

As we sat at the first meeting of the year, brainstorming ways our committee could assist with the audit, questions we could ask teachers who attended events at the local, one thought kept running through my mind that seemed to encapsulate all that we were trying to ask:

“Is there anything missing from this space that you need in order to have access to the same information, and the same opportunity to participate, as everyone else in the room?”

Instead of lengthy surveys and questionnaires, perhaps that simple question would be our starting point.

What’s missing for you?


What would it be like, if it were commonplace for everyone to ask that question? After every staff meeting. After every PD session. After every lesson.

How can we include you?

What are we missing?

So this year, we are asking that question. Anonymously of course. But at the end of every union local event at the HWETL office, teachers will have a chance to name what they need from our union’s spaces in order to be included.

Not a bad question to ponder in any profession, in any situation, in my humble opinion.

Gardens in September

As I begin my second year blogging for Heart and Art, I find myself being carried along by the wonderfully-frenetic pace of the fall. Although I have been a teacher for many years now, the speed at which September flies by always manages to surprise me … after a whirlwind of welcoming new families, getting students settled, and creating first language profiles for classes, October is nearly upon us!

New students and new languages have once again added vibrancy to our learning communities. It has been nothing short of joyful to see students using first languages to communicate with each other, to negotiate lessons and learning materials, to express themselves and their knowledge. 

In one of my final blog posts last year, Gardens in June, I talked a little about this kind of vibrancy … the end result of centering students’ linguistic repertoires, celebrating students for all that they are and, from those essential foundations, seeing  student growth.

I also talked a bit about a nearby community garden … 

As I mentioned in that post, I always like looking at that garden as I pass by. And last June as I drove away from the school, I approached that familiar intersection where the garden sits and took one final look. The leaves and plants had gained ground, stretching over the soil in green clumps. I knew something interesting was sure to be growing, but couldn’t yet tell what.

Over the summer the garden slipped from my thoughts completely. I did not think of it again until a couple of weeks ago, as I made my way to the school for my first visit of the new school year. Pre-occupied with to-do lists and deadlines, I rounded the corner and saw a flash of brilliant yellow, nearly a block away.

A row of towering sunflowers greeted me as I approached the intersection. It was a perfect image, really. Standing at attention, strong and sturdy, these uniquely beautiful plants were what had taken root from those tiny beginnings. Now they stretched to the sky, golden orbs mirroring the countenance and motion of the sun.

This year I am looking forward to new growth and new adventures … the language curriculum and what it means for multilingual language learners, finding ways to centre and affirm all students’ languages and identities, and creating safe spaces where everyone feels welcome. 

Dedicated educators always rise to the challenges of any given year, giving their best for students no matter the circumstances. This year will be no different. And through it all, as we tirelessly support student belonging and growth, I’m going to keep the hopeful image of those sunflowers close. 


Every summer there comes a point, in the middle of sunny slower-paced days, that I feel it. It usually happens in August, but sometimes sooner. It’s that little insistent feeling, as though someone is tapping my shoulder, gently nudging. September is coming, with all its excitement and challenges and learning ahead.

Over the break I usually centre on one area I want to brush up on, or even learn for the first time, to prepare for those first September days. Sometimes I just read up on these subjects on my own time, sometimes it’s more formal learning. Some years I have wanted to look into math, other years it has been social justice, or collaborative teaching … This year, it’s reading for multilingual language learners. 

Coincidentally, near the beginning of this summer, I heard a radio interview discussing phonics while driving to one of my schools. The child on the audio clip was trying to sound out a word, laboriously ploughing through, applying the phonics rules she had learned in an attempt to decode. Her tiny voice wobbled through all the correct sounds, a sweet staccato that let listeners know she had them all right, and would be able to blend them together into a word at any moment. I held the steering wheel and waited expectantly for it to click.

“Sa-sa-sa. Far-far. sa-fa-fa-r …. Safari!”

Her voice was jubilant on that last word. The letter sounds had finally come together and she realized in a flash, this was a word she knew. Safari! 

The radio guest who had brought the clip went on to describe that moment, the joy in reading, when students realize they can do it, decode and recognize a word, and from there begin to orthographically map it in their brains, and make meaning of the print on the page … It truly is an amazing moment. And I have some wonderings …

What if the student were a multilingual language learner, in the early stages of acquiring English? And what if that same student sounded out all the letters, applying all the phonics rules they have been taught (just as the child on the audio clip did) only to at last utter the word “safari” … and not know what the word “safari” means. No joy in recognizing the word, in realizing they know it … no increased understanding of the text …. no inclusion in the knowledge, enjoyment, and thinking processes inherent in reading that the child in the audio clip experienced. 

Earlier this year, I discussed some of the main considerations for literacy instruction for MLLs in my blog entry Equitable Phonics  including the importance of teaching and developing vocabulary and oral language, so that MLLs understand the words they are decoding.  With so many teaching resources now turning significant attention to the scope and sequence of phonics instruction, sometimes with little to no context for word meaning and oral language, I wonder how to make this process equitable for MLLs. How best to develop oral language and vocabulary alongside systematic phonics instruction, so that the process and purpose of reading is fully available to all students? How best to centre and affirm literacy development in first languages? After all, the benefits of doing so, as research tells us, are numerous and irreplaceable.

Wonderings are a constant in teaching, I think, and one of the ways pedagogical practice grows and responds to the needs and identities of students. So for my final blog of the year, I will end with these ones. May your own wonderings inspire fantastic journeys ahead.

The grandness of July

I love the tree outside my window. I’ll look up at it from my chair while reading a book, or cast a quick glance as I’m vacuuming. I suppose it’s an unremarkable tree. Not too tall, a thin trunk. It’s a common silver birch. But there is a way it looks, especially in July and August, that has the ability to instantly pierce through whatever worry I am feeling and replace it with a little bit of serenity. 

The view through the glass only allows me to see the topmost branches of the tree, nothing else. The bright green leaves are glossed, giving their surface a bit of a shine. At the slightest breeze the little triangular leaves, like pointed teardrops, begin to wave and flutter in glittering celebration.  And the backdrop to this green and silver splendour is the mid-summer sky, usually clear and bright, its deep blue electrified by sunlight. 

Not bad for a little birch tree. 

Finding grand beauty in small moments is something I’m trying to do this summer. In noticing what is around me, what is wonderful, and what I am grateful for. It’s not unlike teaching, where the most incredible joys can come from those “small” moments: a student’s delight when they understand something for the first time … an unexpected perspective or piece of art created in class … hearing pride in students’ voices as they share important events and people in their lives … camaraderie with other educators as we work together to create the best learning environments we can for students. 

As I look back on this year’s blog entries, I see it was a long, wonderful year full of those tiny moments of joy: students recognizing and celebrating their languages, educators collaborating, conversations, translations, open houses, and pincushions …

I hope this blog entry finds you happily settled into your summer, finding those wonderfully-small, imperfectly-perfect beautiful moments throughout. 

Moving across

Inna* walked into the library confidently. She had very recently arrived in Canada and was, like so many multilingual language learners, a hands-down amazing communicator. She greeted me in both Ukrainian and English, and sat down to get to work. As we conversed, she continued speaking in Ukrainian and then added some of the English she knew to express herself, and sometimes gestures. I did the same. The conversation progressed this way naturally, as we shared our likes, dislikes, and some of our interests and hobbies. 

The classroom teacher and I had collaborated just prior to that session, a quick yet impactful dialogue about what he was teaching, and how he might make it accessible to everyone in the class. He explained his lesson, which was new learning for me, and I in turn shared some possible strategies and multilingual adaptations that might work to ensure Inna could participate as well. He chose the adaptations that worked best for his set up, and I offered to show Inna some of them in a withdrawal session.

And in this way, I found myself sitting in an empty library across from this resourceful student, using all of the tools at her disposal to communicate. I got out her teacher’s questions, prepared to show her some strategic translation tools that would help fill in anything she didn’t understand, as well as some sentence frames in English and Ukrainian for offering answers. I placed them on the table in front of her.

She regarded the questions on the paper, and then me, with calm awareness. As I reached for my iPad, my finger hovering over that familiar little icon, she gave a quick shake of her head. She swiftly took out her own device, and before I knew it had snapped a photo of the text, skillfully read the translation in Ukrainian, and concluded with an assured nod of the head, “Yes.”

I put my iPad down with a smile.

Translanguaging is a wonderful tool — not only for learning and expanding all languages the MLL speaks, but for accessing curriculum and creating inclusive learning environments. From the Latin word “trans”, meaning “across”, translanguaging is moving “across” and back and forth between languages in order to communicate, think, and learn. This intelligent student demonstrated all of this in just a few moments of interaction. She used both Ukrainian and English to express herself, to check the meaning of words, to access the classroom task, and begin to form answers. 

How much of this learning, this communication, would have been possible had we been using English exclusively?  How much of her personality, how many of her thoughts and contributions, would have been silenced? When you think about it that way, why would we want a school environment that demands answers and learning be conducted in a single language? A learning environment that posits, even unintentionally, a single language as the norm? 

We know that for learning spaces to be equitable, all students’ identities, knowledge, skills — and languages in which they are encoded — need to be centered and affirmed. As Inna demonstrated so powerfully, translanguaging is one indispensable element of such inclusive classrooms. 

*names have been changed 

Beginnings at the end

As I write this blog, there are two school days left. It is that strange time of year when I feel like I can finally, finally start to come up for breath — just a little bit — after a frenetic month of deadlines and demands. 

This June seemed particularly busy … then again, I think I always say that. At any rate, it is inevitably four weeks of non-stop final assessments, transition tours, summer camp sign-ups, parent interviews, presentations, and report cards. By the end of the month, exhaustion makes itself known.

Early this morning, as the sun was just starting to colour the sky, I sat with my coffee at the kitchen table and flipped open my laptop. Weak bluish light from my calendar illuminated the still-dark room, and as I stared at the familiar daily schedules I realized that, all of a sudden, the seemingly endless list of items to complete had dwindled to just a few. The monumental tasks that had stared me down at the beginning of the month, that kept me awake at night and charging full throttle during the day, had all but been taken care of. 

In that moment, I felt that first small calm before summer. And that feeling stayed with me through the day, as I went about finishing off the final errands of the year. After school, as I walked into the sunny afternoon, I could feel the warmth slowly start to pull at the the tangle of deadlines that had matted in my thoughts, unravelling them to complete. Calm.

With school ending for another year, I am looking forward to welcoming more of that calm this summer. Whether it is spending time with my family, meeting with friends, walking in the woods, or simply taking time to listen to myself, to what I need … those are the wonderful beginnings I want to focus on now.

May you also find beautiful beginnings this summer, that the months ahead bring you what you need to rest and restore. 

Notes of gratitude

I love a good quote. And quotes are ubiquitous in the education world, thankfully. They pop up on email signatures, inspirational posters, and in scholarly articles. Many deal with how an educator’s impact can flow through generations, reaching ahead into time beyond what we now see, and how we will never know the ways in which our teaching today shapes the lives of tomorrow. Such musings often centre on how teachers can impact the lives of students. But in this blog, I want to discuss the impact educators can have on other educators.

I have been fortunate to work with amazing colleagues over the years. And the educators I work closely with now seem a concentrated microcosm of all that is good about collaboration in education. The free flow of ideas. The dialogue. The trust in one another. The courage to say, I don’t know. The humility, and sometimes bravery, it takes to try something new. Where would I be without these conversations? These gifts? My practice and approach has changed over the years, shifting in response to new information, new needs, and inspiration from colleagues. Like any practice, teaching is one that cannot remain stagnant. We always search for the best ways to educate, to affirm. 

So, with another year nearly at the close, this blog is a thank you note to all the teachers and educators that I work with. Thank you for sharing your ideas with me. Thank you for listening when I have been stumped by a challenge. Thank you for supporting me when I set out on new waters, and for having my back when the seas are a little rough. Thank you for your dedication and excellence, the passion with which you support students every day. Thank you for challenging me to see what I previously could not. Thank you for making me a better teacher. 

With increasing demands placed on teachers and educators everywhere, finding those colleagues, those mutually-supportive communities, is more important than ever. I wish you all the most wonderful luck in finding those safe harbours, those adventurous journeys, and the unifying strength that comes from it all.