Radical Dreaming

The beginning of a new school year brings so much excitement. After all of these years, I still get butterflies before the first day. I look forward to seeing my fellow staff members, meeting new students, and creating a community together. During this time, I also think about setting goals. This year I’m finding it really hard to determine what my goals should be. To be honest, it usually consists of something unattainable (and boring), such as staying incredibly organized and eating healthy every day. These goals cause a lot of stress and worry…. And I think I’ve had those same two goals every year I’ve been teaching so far.

This year I’ve decided to try something different. Jamila Dugan talks about radical dreaming in her article Radical Dreaming for Education Now (https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/radical-dreaming-for-education-now). Radical dreaming isn’t a new concept; it’s been explored by many Black scholars over time. In this article, she states:

The idea of dreaming—and in many Black scholars’ views, radical dreaming—isn’t a fluffy notion. Being rooted in our dreams has served the most innovative leaders of yesterday and today. If we look at some of the people who have inspired generations and catapulted us forward, they have often been dreamers—people who had a vision for a world that did not yet exist.

So what does this mean as the educator in the classroom? I wanted to think about my dreams for school – not just my personal goals. What could school be for students? What is my radical dream for my children at home and the students in school with me?

I dream that they will have the support they need to make their dreams and goals come true. I dream that they have agency over themselves; that they feel safe and loved when they come to school. I dream of a space of respectful discourse and learning. I dream of a classroom that helps them to discover all the possibilities of who they are – and who they can be.

It’s not just my dreams that are important. The classroom is a shared space and we will need to create it together. The first step will be to ask students what they think the purpose of school should be and what they want to learn about while they spend their time here. I’ll need to listen to their voices and honour their truths if I want them to feel safe enough to advocate for themselves and for others.

Instead of having a list of goals for this year, I will choose to dream of possibilities. As Dugan reminds us, “Dreaming isn’t for the sake of dreaming. It spurs inspiration and new ideas as we help students build the skills necessary to turn hopes into realities.” There’s enough space in school for all of us to dream of the world that we want to live in.

It’s probably going to be slow. It’s probably going to be a lot of learning and growing together. It’s probably going to take a lot of trust in one another to build a place where our dreams can come true. But I think it’s going to be worth it.

Read Jamila Dugan’s article Radical Dreaming for Education Now on ASCD (https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/radical-dreaming-for-education-now)

Book Choices

In the classroom, I spend a lot of time with my students on how they could choose books for independent reading. We go to the library or I set out our classroom library books and then we unpack the “IPICK” method from The Daily Cafe resource by Gail Boushey and Allison Behne. I love their framework for my literacy program and this method helps to give me the language to encourage children to make thoughtful reading choices. The acronym “IPICK” uses friendly language to elicit reflection when selecting books.

I – I choose a book (look it over inside and out)
P – Purpose (why do I want to read this book?)
I – Interest (does this book interest me?)
C – Comprehend (do I understand what I am reading?)
K – Know the words (do I know most of the words?)

I intentionally do a lot of modelling and practice with the students on how to select a book. For example, I show how I might open the book and read the first page to see if I understand the story; we talk a lot about what interests us (genres, topics, etc), and I model how I choose the same authors for my own reading choices; ones I know that I love their style or their genres. I do all of this to try and develop students’ desire to become lifelong readers and to have the skills to choose books that they will be able to feel successful reading.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether my teaching does create lifelong readers; surely, the logistics of teaching students how to choose a book for themselves must make it easier to make a selection when looking at all of the vast possibilities that the library holds. Then why do I hear from parents the struggle to encourage their teens and pre-teens to read independently outside of school?

Recently, I read an Edutopia article by Kasey Short (https://www.edutopia.org/article/favorite-writers-middle-school) who was wondering the same thing. In this article, she writes that most engaging texts for upper elementary students:

– have the power to show early adolescent readers that they’re not alone in their feelings and circumstances
– provide positive examples for how readers can speak up for themselves and others
– offer understanding of those who are different from them
– provide insight into real-world situations
– serve as a mental health break and escape from the real world

This made sense to me and outlined some of the missing pieces in my thinking. I needed to think about the books that I was highlighting for students in my classroom. I needed to consider modelling my own, I’ll call them ‘emotional’ choices for reading as opposed to focussing on ‘practical’ choices for reading. Not just modelling the mechanics of looking at the first page to see if I could read the words, but thinking about what I think makes a book a ‘page turner’ for me and how that might change depending on my mood or interests. These criteria for engaging texts explain a little more explicitly the Purpose (why do I want to read this book?) and Interest (what do I want to learn about?) for which I was missing the language as a junior or intermediate educator.
As I begin planning for September, I keep these criteria in mind, and consider how to create space for these types of conversations about reading with students. Getting to know them as readers and helping them to reflect on their own identities as readers will be an interesting journey!


I have this pink schlumbergera plant.  You may have heard it commonly referred to as the ‘Christmas cactus’.  The funny thing about mine is that it blooms in June.  I know they are supposed to be in full splendour in the winter – that’s how it got its common name.  But this one is on its own time schedule. How that happened, I have no idea.  

I brought it home one spring and I’ve had it so long I can’t remember from where.   We’ve had some ups and downs together.  It took me a long while to figure out what kind of sun and watering schedule it needed to thrive.  I had to do some research and tap on the expertise of  my fellow plant friends for ideas on how to get it to bloom at all!  It took a lot more effort than my pothos plants that seem to grow in spite of my steep learning curve as an indoor gardener.  

As we just completed report card writing season, I think a lot about this little schlumbergera and not just because it always tends to bloom near my kitchen table around the time I am sitting and writing reports. Rather, I think about the journey we’ve gone through together.  Much like the students we work with, some of them will ‘bloom’ at different times than others.  Some of them might require extra time and effort; they might need us to tap on our professional colleagues for advice and resources that will help us to grow in our own professional learning. They might work really hard at different stages of growth and some of that work isn’t always visible in a final product, but in small progressive steps toward their goals. 

It’s hard to convey all of this in a single document, like a report card or a final mark.  It can be challenging to find the right words that honour a child’s learning journey and leave space to communicate how proud I am when they ‘bloom’.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to give them the message that shows I genuinely care about who they are becoming and how hard they’ve worked to get there. 

That’s one of the beautiful things about teaching.  Learning together is really a process of getting to know students and helping them to know themselves.  And in this way, we also learn about our own selves as educators; we learn and grow right alongside them.

I’ve gone through quite a few schlumbergera plants over the years.  They typically go on to live their best lives at my mom’s house where they thrive and in her front window; growing and blooming all at the right time – but this little pink one is staying right here in my own window.  We’ve worked hard together to find our own rhythm and while we aren’t doing things at all the “right” times, we’ve found a way to bloom that works for us.

Heritage Fair

Each spring, many classrooms across Ontario work hard on their heritage fair projects. If you’ve never had the opportunity to participate in the Ontario Heritage Fair, it’s a great opportunity to have students invested in learning, researching parts of Canadian history and heritage. What I love about Heritage Fair Projects is that they are Canadian focussed and can provide a real opportunity for students to critically think about what events or people are an important part of Canada.

I remember doing a similar project when I was in grade eight history class. There was a long list of men, all British or French, who were the ‘influential founders’ of Canada. My project was on Sir Wilfrid Laurier. I think I chose him because he was on the five dollar bill and that bill was the one I saw most often at 12 years old. I can’t remember learning much more about him except that he also had a university named after him in Waterloo. Perhaps I was not as invested in the assignment as I should have been.

This year, there were so many different submissions! Noteworthy Canadians, including Viola Desmond and Terry Fox, begin to really show the changing view of what makes someone influential in Canadian culture. Twelve year old me would have been excited to see a Black woman or a teenage boy with an amputated leg as people who changed Canada for the better. These activists who were visible and worked to change a challenging system of inequality are nothing short of inspirational.

It was so fascinating to see some students chose whole organizations as responsible for changing the face of Canada. Organizations such as the Toronto Raptors or Sick Kids Hospitals that have had such influence on changing the landscape of Canada, bringing people together or providing life changing services for so many children and youth. You can imagine how personal these project submissions were for the youth who chose to highlight these organizations as a defining part of Canadian Heritage.

As I start to think more about pedagogy being culturally and historically responsive, I think about how students see themselves and other identities in Canada’s heritage. I wonder how we can encourage and develop learning opportunities that are culturally sustaining – allowing students not only to celebrate and learn about their culture, but to find joy in sharing history and a place for belonging. As the daughter of a Filipina immigrant, I wonder how I could have found my heritage represented in Canada as influential and important here. Could I have learned about my own culture and found space for it to be celebrated in school? What would I have said? What story would I have told?

I am already thinking about next year’s Heritage Fair! It’s beyond exciting to think about co-creating criteria on what makes someone influential or an organization important; to encourage students to critically think and develop their own definitions about what Canada means to them. There will be endless possibilities to plan and create the conditions for students to be invested in their learning, to be excited at seeing themselves reflected in Canadian heritage. I can’t wait to hear their voices!

** The Ontario Heritage Fairs Program (OHFA) is an educational initiative that provides an opportunity for students to explore parts of Canadian history or cultural heritage in a dynamic learning environment. Teachers, community educators, and families encourage students to use a variety of research methods to explore a topic of interest, and medium of choice, to tell their stories – about the land where they live, their personal family history, or their local community stories. For more information visit: https://ohfa.ca/about-ohfa/

Teacher Listening and Student Thinking

Like all teachers, I genuinely find students to be so interesting! They have such a wondrous view of the world and how they formulate new ideas. Listening to them talk to one another and explain their thinking helps to build classroom community and confidence. They learn to discourse and disagree respectfully, but also how to change their thinking as they learn from one another. At the beginning of this year, I blogged about building community and that lists some strategies to start creating a safe classroom environment no matter what time of year. Building community and safe spaces is the first step toward creating an environment where students feel comfortable to share their thinking and learning out loud.

When I want to know more about student thinking, I always consider my intentions. I wonder what I think they might say and how I might respond to them. For example, if I am working in math on visible thinking and I want to elicit specific vocabulary, I might listen for those keywords. As importantly, I also think about what I might do if I don’t hear those words. How can I validate their thinking and also provide the words they need in a way that isn’t intimidating?

When I first started teaching, I always noted what students were saying. I was listening for the right answers. Now in large group discussions, I’m listening to who shares, trying to make space for those who don’t always share, give thinking time, and try to have students respond to each other instead of looking at me to see if they have the right answer. Sometimes that looks like think/pair/share time or I might have them write down two ideas before sharing. We explicitly practise sentence starters that allow for students to participate even if someone shares the same ideas first, such as “I agree with ___, and I also think ___” or “When ___ said that, it changed my thinking”. We also practise how to respond when we have different opinions, for example, “I didn’t think about it that way. My first thought was ….” or “Thank you for sharing. I wondered about….” I spend a lot of time teaching and modelling how to acknowledge each other’s ideas respectfully.

At times, small focus groups really help me to listen for specific ideas. Often, when I am looking for information I use this strategy to coach student learning. In small group literacy instruction, asking the right question gives me some insight into their thinking, such as “I wonder what this word might mean” or “I am not sure why that character might have said that. Do you have an idea?” These kinds of questions can be challenging for students so I find they are best given in a small group or one on one where I can coach students through conversation.

When I started to focus on listening as part of my practice, I learned so much more about students. They became more comfortable talking about their ideas and thinking with me and with their peers. I would often model my thinking process aloud, wondering about ideas, and questioning what I was thinking. I think it gave them the message that they could share imperfectly too – we don’t have to have exactly the right answer before we share some of our beginning ideas with one another. We can share the process and in this way, we can build a safe community together.

I know that I learn better when talking with other teachers.It helps me to develop my thoughts and gives me the opportunity to learn from others. One thing I have learned in all my years of teaching is how important that is for students, too: the space to think through ideas out loud. A space to learn with and from one another as a community.

Celebrating Asian Heritage Month in Junior Grades

Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity for us to learn more about the diverse culture and history of Asian communities in Canada, as well as to acknowledge the many achievements and contributions of people of Asian origin who, throughout our history, have done so much to make Canada the country we know and love. (Government of Canada, www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/asian-heritage-month.html)

Working with some junior teachers in May, we wanted to make sure we highlighted Asian Heritage Month as a celebration. The theme for 2023 is “Stories of Determination” to celebrate the contributions of Asians while recognizing the challenges that have been faced by the Asian community. We wanted to be aware of any student who identified as Asian in the classroom and to ensure they saw themselves represented in the discussions.

As in primary, we began by asking the students to name Asian countries that they knew. They knew more than the primary students were able to name, such as India, the Philippines, and Thailand. When we showed them a map of the continent of Asia, it helped encourage their thinking and vocabulary of Asia as it’s own continent. Many times, people refer to Western Asia as the Middle East and this language centralizes Europe on a map. Looking at the continent of Asia developed the idea of Western Asia which is a more accurate geographical description that centres Asia as it’s own continent.

Students were surprised to see how close Asian countries were to Europe, Africa, and even Russia. It was interesting to listen to them think through this concept. Comments such as, “I always thought Asia was so far from everything” were evidence of the new learning that was taking place. We also looked at how British Colombia was the closest province to Asia and talked about how that might influence immigration patterns here in Canada. We were fascinated listening to their thinking and to share our own wonderings as co-learners about Asia.

We wanted to maintain our focus on the theme “Stories of Determination” and use this opportunity to celebrate Asian Canadians. We invited the students to think first about any famous Asian Canadians that they knew. It was a fairly small list! We wondered out loud why that was and what we could do to learn more. Using technology, we invited the students to pair up and look through the Government of Canada’s website describing Noteworthy Canadians of Asian Heritage (https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/asian-heritage-month/noteworthy-figures.html#s8). This site is a curated list by the Canadian Government with short biographies of Asian Canadians. This list celebrates a variety of people, from politicians to writers to athletes and more. It has a diverse representation of Asian heritage, including individuals from the Asian countries that were ‘new’ to students. The biographies are shorter and in language that was manageable for most students to read and explore with their partners.

As we wrapped up our learning, we asked students to share one new Asian Canadian that they learned about from the website. We really wanted to allow space for them to think about Asian identity as diverse in culture and also in contributions. Building the idea that Asians have contributed to Canada in many different ways helps to dispel stereotypes that students may unknowingly hold about Asian identities.

Finding ways to engage students in learning during heritage months is one way students begin learning about identities that may differ from their own. If there are students in the classroom who are Asian, this is a great way to centre and celebrate their identity, too. For some students, this is new learning and for others it gives them a chance to learn even more. Whether it’s a first step or continued learning, I encourage you to think about celebrating heritage months in the classroom together!

Celebrating Asian Heritage Month in Primary

May was Asian Heritage Month in Canada, a time to reflect on and recognize the many contributions that people of Asian origin have made and continue to make to Canada. Asian Heritage Month has been celebrated since the 1990s. (Government of Canada, www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/asian-heritage-month.html)

Celebrating Heritage Months is an important step in helping students to learn about themselves and others. Asia is such a large continent and has so many diverse countries and traditions that I learn something new every year I choose to highlight this month. Even though I am half-Filipina, our culture can be vastly different from other Asian cultures and learning more about others is a great way to honour Asian Heritage Month each year.

Working with primary teachers, we really wanted to highlight the diversity of Asia. We started the lesson brainstorming any Asian countries that the students knew – and they knew quite a few! They were able to identify familiar ones, such as China, Japan, and Korea. Then we pulled up a map of the continent of Asia and looked at so many, many more! The students were able to see countries that they didn’t know yet, such as Yemen and Malaysia. Looking at the map really helped to develop the idea that Asia is a vast continent.

We also showed a variety of photos of different countries and their landscapes, monuments, and architecture. We talked about how different countries in Asia are from one another because we wanted students to understand that being Asian can mean so many things, not just a single story or single experience. With this intention for primary students, we wanted to build this knowledge instead of reinforcing stereotypes of Asian identities.

I shared with the students about my own heritage as half-Filipina and how there were things about myself that reminded me of my family and culture, the foods we eat, my skin, my nose, and my eyes. The students also shared parts of their identities and this helped us to build our thinking before reading Joanna Ho’s book, Eyes That Kiss In the Corners.

In this book, the main character shares how her eyes remind her of her mother’s eyes, her grandmother’s eyes, and her little sister’s eyes. She explains how they help her to feel proud and connected to her family. We looked at the beautiful illustrations by Dung Ho and how they represented Asian identity. The students were enthralled by the stunning colours and the way the illustrations connected to the message of the story.

As we wrapped up, we asked students to tell us one thing they learned. They shared so many things! They learned that there were countries in Western Asia, such as Lebanon. They learned that there were many more countries in Asia than they knew. They learned that there were big cities in Asian countries, but also many beaches along the ocean and seasides. We were so excited to hear that they were also interested in learning more about the countries they had yet to discover!

Celebrating heritage months takes many different forms. I loved hearing primary student voices and helping to develop their curiosity and wonder about the world. I can’t wait to see what they want to learn about next!

One Percent Better

My son has an amazing basketball coach. He is friendly and kind and nurtures them through practices to be their very best. What has set him apart from other coaches we have worked with in the past is his reflective nature. He spends a lot of time working with the team, not just running drills. He asks the team to reflect on what they already do well and what they can do to keep improving. He has them set realistic goals for themselves and then works with them to get “one percent better” each practice. Each practice exemplifies the art of assessment and feedback.

Teaching mirrors this same process. Students are involved in their own learning, assessing their strengths and what they find challenging. Assessment for learning is a chance to set clear learning goals and to actively work toward achieving them. Giving students the chance to think and articulate their needs and goals helps them to become more invested in their learning. Providing timely, explicit feedback and coaching for improvement helps students to understand how to move toward their learning goal. It also builds confidence when they succeed!

As a beginning teacher, I often thought of assessment for and as learning through the lens of project based learning assignments. A culminating project in science, for example, that would span several weeks would involve a certain intensity around student conferencing, check-ins, suggestions, reviewing success criteria, etc. I still think this can be a valuable place for assessment and learning; however I now think of assessment as an on-going part of our day and not limited to a project or single activity.

I always love to provide space for students to share, explore, and write ideas in their journals. At the beginning of the year, I just let them write; sometimes a journal prompt or sometimes free choice writing. When I look at their writing, I try to determine what they need as a few next steps. Perhaps this would be full sentences, grammar, expanding ideas, or something else entirely. Being clear with students through mini-lessons on what they needed to focus on helped to break down the steps for success, but also allowed us to build individual editing checklists in small groups. It also kept them involved in their self-editing process; knowing what to look for and work on.

Knowing how to accept feedback can be a lesson on it’s own! I think a lot about when I was a student. I felt like getting ‘feedback’ was just another way for the teacher to point out all the things I did wrong and needed to ‘fix’. Taking the time to build trust with students can help to make assessment and feedback to feel more collaborative. We both have the same goal and we will work on it together! I always try to convey this message to students about why conferencing and asking for feedback is so important.

It seems a lot less intimidating to think about teaching and learning as a collaborative effort. We’re partners in this learning journey. I learn a lot about becoming a better teacher from the students in my class and I hope they learn a little bit from me too. We are both striving to become that one percent better each day.

Embrace the Mud

Something about the beautiful sunny spring days that just makes me smile and want to spend more time outside. However, this past spring was RAINY! I feel like it rained for weeks at a time! Now, I know that saying “April showers bring May flowers” but it’s hard to keep that in remind when there are endless indoor recesses and postponed outdoor activities happening!

And so, this spring I decided to enjoy the weather. I was reminded of when I had a class trip and it rained all day. In fact, it poured! We were at an outdoors learning centre that only had a small enclosed area for shelter. Fortunately, students were dressed for the weather so we decided to dig right in.

Now, I enjoy the outdoors as much as anyone else (though perhaps slightly less than most in inclement weather), but spending all day in rainy conditions was daunting and stressful. The students, however, were prepared and excited. In fact, none of them seemed worried at all – they wanted to enjoy the day being together, learning outdoors, and being physically active.

I learned to embrace the mud! I let go of the idea of a perfect, sunny spring day and found joy in watching the students play, race, and splash. The outdoor learning staff was excellent at keeping them engaged, active, and busy. In fact, I even found myself enjoying the opportunity to build a wonderful, perfectly imperfect day together. We all came back soaked and smiling and happy.

Sometimes that’s just the way education goes. We have days that don’t go as perfectly as planned; art lessons or science experiments that leave the classroom a mess at the end of the period. This is the essence of teaching – embracing those muddy moments and seeing all the fun that is happening. Sometimes that’s the biggest lesson of all.

Teacher Librarians

After listening to Anjula Gogia speaking about the history of Toronto Women’s Bookstore at ….And Still We Rise in February, I have been doing a lot of reflecting on how the school library can be a place of hands-on learning and community. Sometimes called the learning commons, the library is a gathering space for all students and school staff. As such, the library sets a tone that resonates throughout the entire school.

In elementary schools, the library today is so much different than I can remember. My whole life I have been an avid reader. I can remember being in grade seven and eight and looking for books to read in the school library. We had to all be silent and keep a pen and paper reading log of all the books we read and how long it took us to read them. Given that this was the late 1980s, the majority of my reading log consisted of titles from Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams. I recall recognizing a formula to all of those books (mostly pre-teen romance about high school) that told us how to behave and what was going to be important in high school. Everything was very gendered and those were the only ‘girl’ options – and none of them ever applied to me. I never saw a racialized girl at the centre of the story. I cannot recall ever reading about a girl who was interested in the same things I was – books and science and just living a happy life.

Fast forward to today and the library looks very different when I enter a school. There are learning sounds of laughter and talking together. Sometimes there are maker spaces, breaker spaces, robotics, and all kinds of technology being used. The library may also host presentations or be a space for students to be in community with one another. There is a feeling of camaraderie and support for students. However, most noticeable to me is that the teacher librarians that I work with really do their best to honour student identities, experiences, and voices.

When I walk into a school library and the shelves are filled with different experiences and identities, I think of what it means to those students who might not see themselves represented in places outside of school. They see their identities accepted and celebrated; they see many possibilities about who they can become, who they can admire, and who is important. Teacher librarians have the opportunity to provide these spaces for students where they feel and see themselves as welcome without expectation and without judgment. Some teacher librarians even ask the students for recommendations on the books they want to read or identities they want to read about.

The school library can be such a joyful space! Thank you to teacher librarians who are thoughtful professionals, taking time to affirm student identities and intentionally curate materials and books that reflect students. No wonder the students look so excited to get to the library when walking down the hall!