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!

…And Still We Rise

I can remember the first time I went to …And Still We Rise. Imagine, if you will, a room filled with women who are working to empower each other, further their learning, tell their stories, and be mentors for others. I was in awe! I attended workshops and sat in amazement of the educators and the guest speakers. Listening to their experiences and views of the world, I was so inspired to think differently about women and our places as part of society as educators, co-conspirators, and disruptors. Whose voices should we uplift and whose stories should we amplify?

As every year, this one was filled with amazing women at the podium, including Funke Alexandra, who shared her research focussing on the history of Black Canadian women in education. There was Deb St Amant, the Elder-in-Residence at Queen’s University, and whom I remember being a strong advocate and leader in her time with ETFO. ETFO President Karen Brown, whose voice and presence was empowering and inspiring. We also got a chance to hear the story of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore through the eyes of Anjula Gogia. Though I was only in attendance for part of the conference, there were beautiful sentiments of solidarity and wonderful opportunities for learning. It was incredibly empowering to be part of it all.

What I love about …And Still We Rise is the space for women to come together. In life, I wear many different hats and it is hard to carve out time and space in my day to think about myself. I am busy with work, with parenting, with family and at times it feels like every spare moment is allocated to something. A women’s conference like … And Still We Rise is a place where coming together with other women who have similar experiences where we can learn from one another provides a few moments of breath.

There is time to think and connect with one another. There’s actually time to sit and eat a meal together, sharing ideas and conversation with new friends and in community with those who are already a part of our lives.

When I first started my journey with ETFO, everyone told me that going to …And Still We Rise was a must-do experience. I wholeheartedly agree! It’s the space for all women to be heard on issues that they think are important. It’s a place where women can tell women’s history and experiences that are often erased or unvoiced in history books. It’s a time to consider how women can advance social justice, build solidarity between struggles, and contribute to the broader women’s movement. If you have the opportunity to attend …And Still We Rise, I encourage you to take the time to learn, connect, and grow!

… And Still We Rise is ETFO’s signature women’s conference that runs annually in February each year.

Women In Action

In November, I had the opportunity to shadow some wonderful facilitators at a Women In Action workshop. I was so impressed with their ability to connect and uplift the women to see themselves as leaders. While I had already attended Women In Action Part I many years ago as a participant, being a facilitator was a completely new and inspiring experience.

When you attend Women In Action, it is the chance to be part of something special. You get the opportunity to connect with other women in a safe space. Some may be part of your local and some may not be. You will get the chance to really think about the skills and traits that you bring as a leader and recognize the strengths that you already have within you.

Women in Action is designed to inspire attendees to think more broadly about their roles as activists and unionists. Learning and setting goals for yourself is an important part of the time you spend together. As facilitators, we really worked hard to encourage the women to reflect on social justice issues and unionism as they pertained to them and consider themselves as powerful individuals capable of changing the world.

While the food, facilities, and workshop was amazing, I think what I really enjoyed most was the bonding. Hearing the voices of women laughing and chatting and building relationships with one another is a sound unlike any other. I missed that sound over the past three years! Having the space and time together without distraction to focus on professional growth and begin the journey with peers who become friends is unparalleled.

If you have already had the opportunity to attend a Women in Action Part I session, there is also a Part II and a newly developed Part III. Each part provides space to learn more about yourself and to forge relationships that will last a lifetime. In fact, I am still friends with some of the women that I met all those years ago and we are so fortunate to connect annually at Annual Meeting together in Toronto. It’s such a pivotal experience in my work at ETFO that it still influences the way I think about myself today.

If you are able to attend a Women in Action workshop, you will not be disappointed. You will learn a lot about yourself, about issues pertaining to women, and about how to overcome them. You will be reminded of your inner power and your own strength. And you will be changed for the better. This program is organized through your ETFO local and members who identify as women can connect with their local to inquire about the chance to be part of the program.

Learning Experiences

The words ‘learning gaps’ and ‘gap filling’ always give me a sense of urgency and dread. The word ‘gap’ seems so impossible – I get a visual of the Grand Canyon in my mind and think of how long it would take for me to fill it. It brings memories of rote worksheets and intensive pull out programs which seemed scary to me as a student and overwhelming as an adult. However, most recently in a conversation with a colleague, she gave me an alternative way of thinking about how to connect with student needs. The words “missed experiences” suddenly seemed like something I could do.

Think about the math learning continuum, for example. If students are working with multiplication and are relying solely on skip counting when multiplying, they have missed a few experiences along the way; perhaps they were away due to Covid, perhaps virtual learning was a challenge. Whatever the reason, they have missed a mathematical experience that they need to build their understanding. It might mean working physically with array models or the experience of sharing mental math strategies with peers. It could even be building and scaffolding questions that help to frame their thinking. Whatever the experience looks like, it should be meaningful for everyone.

A missed experience isn’t a deficit in learning. It is a circumstance that can be changed. If I got lost while driving to a new destination, I had strategies to use; I could consult Google Maps, I could stop and ask for directions. I knew how to navigate through the challenge and not just think I had to give up and go home or be stuck there until someone came to get me.

Changing my language from learning gaps to identifying missed experiences was empowering. It meant that I could provide intentional lessons and tasks that helped to meet their needs. It meant that I knew what my actions should be and that I could focus on what the students COULD do and build from there. Keeping an asset based mindset gave me a hopeful feeling and I felt that I could use the tools and knowledge I already had to provide experiences for all students to learn with and from one another.

Is there a space and time for intensive instruction? Of course there is! But that doesn’t begin and end in one session and teachers are a powerful force when it comes to helping students within the classroom, too. We have a great wealth of knowledge, strategies, and expertise. Providing meaningful experiences for students to learn and feel confident is what we all do best.

Anti-Black Racism to Change Pedagogy and Practice

In the fall, I was fortunate enough to take the Additional Qualifications course Anti-Black Racism to Change Pedagogy and Practice, Part 1. In one of our reflections, we were asked to think about a six word teaching philosophy. Mine was: All bring knowledge. All can learn.

I based those words on what I believed to be recognizing all students and their ways of knowing and being. I always felt that I wanted to acknowledge who students are, their learning styles, the things they liked/disliked that helped to make up their identities. My goal was to know each student personally, especially to help them feel like a part of the classroom community.

Now through the lens of dismantling anti-Black racism, I consider the biases that I have brought to the classroom and the learning community. I acknowledged colour and racial identities; probably a much easier task as a racialized woman myself. However, I also think about how I considered representing racial identities in the classroom. Often, I considered teaching and learning around racial identities as a way to acknowledge injustices happening to equity deserving identities and the systems of oppression that surrounded them.

Teaching to dismantle anti-Black racism requires learning about Black identity and the understanding that Black identity is vast and varied. Black identity was erased so intentionally throughout history, including the loss of language, traditions, and even families. Black children deserve autonomy over their identities and that my role is in creating space that affirms their identities (even when fluidly evolving) and sustains their identities (even in the face of oppressive forces).

Thinking back to the factors that influence affirming spaces, I am reminded of the importance of acceptance and genuine care. To create a space that is Black affirming, we need to acknowledge and accept different identities with unconditional love and joy. In schools, this can sometimes be complicated for Black students as often educators are seen as the symbol of a larger system of oppression. However, educators can always offer radical and unconditional love to students by continuing to be present, honour student voices, and student experiences and by creating conditions allowing them to explore, share, and develop their own identities. Our own work, as educators, comes with building our own understanding of the systems of oppression that influence each of us and also engage in dismantling our own actions and belief systems that uphold them.

Revisiting my original teaching philosophy “All bring knowledge. All can learn.” I realize that I want to revise my words into actions as a reminder to myself to be an intentional anti-racist educator. Including verbs to create a call to action while centering students and understanding that they bring a myriad of experiences and perspectives, I revised my philosophy to: Know students. Affirm students. Sustain students.

This spring, ETFO will be offering part one of the three part series Addressing Anti-Black Racism to Change Pedagogy and Practice. For educators who are wishing to build and extend their knowledge of how to dismantle discrimination and encourage transformational change, I highly recommend this course offering. You will have opportunity to learn about intersectional Black identities, historical constructions of Black identity, and the space to reflect on how our actions as educators can create culturally sustaining educational spaces.

Book Tastings

Remember that saying, “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover?” Well, up until a few years ago, I actually still did that in bookstores. It is overwhelming to enter a place that has so many possibilities and to have limited time to choose something that I used the easiest and most accessible strategy I had!

Just shortly after Covid restrictions were lifted and we were able to go physically to the local library, I felt like I had much more time to think and explore different types of books and genres that I might be interested in reading. Our library is such a cozy and child friendly place that my kids could go to their section and I could wander the stacks. I would use my phone to read reviews, read the first page or so, maybe think about the synopsis, the author, and really think about the books I was choosing to read. Sometimes I would even consider my state of mind – did I just come out of a heavy story? Did I need something lighter? What was I in the mood for?

As school started this year, I really wondered how much time I had spent teaching these reflective strategies to students. I know I taught strategies for choosing a ‘good fit’ book in primary (I can read the words, just right vocabulary, interesting), but I didn’t really pull apart strategies for junior and intermediate grades. I know I didn’t give them enough opportunity to think reflectively about their relationship with reading and their identities as readers.

Enter book tastings. This fun and engaging way to introduce new books to students allows them to try out some strategies for book selections and reflect on themselves as readers.

A book tasting is an activity that allows students to ‘get a taste’ of different texts. There are a few different strategies for setting up a book tasting and here I am going to outline my own thinking around the activity. Remember though, like any good meal, if you choose to try it in your classroom, add your own ‘flavour!’

Set the table first. Some educators really work to create an atmosphere, including tablecloths and place settings, but the essentials are a ‘menu’, a pencil, and a high interest selection of books that best suit the readers. You might want to find out prior to the book tasting what types of books they are interested in reading (e.g., graphic novels, non-fiction, dystopian, fantasy, etc.) or perhaps a topic they are interested in learning about (human rights, climate change, famous people, etc). It’s great to have this take place in the library where they can check the books out right away or to use books that you plan to have students engage with for activities like literature circles in the classroom. The ‘menu’ would have the list of books to be sampled and space for writing notes or rating their preferences in order, depending on your purpose for hosting the book tasting.

There are lots of ways to ‘taste’ the books. The whole activity should take about one period or less to keep the time moving quickly for the students. It should be enjoyable and honour that it can be a long time for some students to sit still and focus. Plan on students spending about five minutes exploring each book.

The actual ‘tasting’ can be done in different ways, depending on your purpose.  If you want to have students freely engage with a variety of books then set each table with a few books and students get the opportunity to sample them at their own leisure.  Explicitly explaining some strategies would be helpful, for example, look at the cover, read the synopsis, read the first few pages, think about your current mood, is this an author you enjoy, etc. If you want to try a more guided approach, have the same books at each table and lead some conversational dialogue.  Ask students what they think of the cover and what type of book they think this would be.  Take a moment to read the first few pages together. If possible, look up the author’s website for information about who is writing this text and what is their message or intention for greater depth.  

The specifics of hosting a book tasting might look different, depending on the educator’s style; however, the purpose of hosting a book tasting is most important.  A book tasting is a fun vehicle to have students reflect upon and practice their strategies when choosing a book to read.  It’s promoting conversation about reading, to think about ourselves as readers, and to build a reading community together. 


The Teacher Down the Hall

During these longer nights and shorter days, I often find time to reflect on my own journey as an educator. Coming up on 25 years very soon (gulp!), I can honestly say that I am not the same educator I was at the beginning of my career or even the same as I was five years ago.

Earlier this year I wrote a post about professional learning and realize as I reflect on my career that I also need to acknowledge the teachers down the hall. These educators have influenced and shaped my vision about students and teaching in so many ways through their mentorship, their permission to be human, and their examples as leaders. I want to dedicate this post to the teachers down the hall whose influence and teaching extended beyond students and to colleagues.

One of my favourite educators would always remind me, “You are human.” Teaching can be overwhelming and is often described as the job that never ends. I know there are times when I felt I could literally work 24 hours and still not have “finished”. However, we also need to understand that we are human. We need to give ourselves some grace for the weight of the work we do and know that we need time to recharge. Setting boundaries for work doesn’t make us bad teachers, it means we are humans who deserve the time for necessary self-care.

An intermediate colleague I worked with once asked me, “If you’re not having fun, how do you think the students feel?” In the light of all the curriculum expectations and data collection, it’s hard to remember to ensure that the class community enjoys their time together. Whether it’s engaging in community building, sharing funny stories, or a cool science experiment, having fun makes the learning environment a comfortable and safe place to be. It helps to build relationships between students and educators. One teacher I worked with always greeted his primary class with a morning joke and that was always brought up by students years later at every grade eight graduation. Those small moments where we have fun are sometimes the small moments that have a big impact.

Another mentor teacher would always tell me, “We teach children, not just curriculum.” It is so important to know each child that we share space with during the day. To recognize that they hold different identities and experiences, acknowledging that those factors influence how they feel seen at school. As teachers we all want students to feel welcome and that school is a place they belong. Getting to know and accept students’ full identities, such as cultural heritage and neurodiversity and everything in-between is necessary to create that feeling of belonging.

Working with another colleague, I learned “Be passionate about your own learning!” Teaching is a practice and one that we strive to get better at doing each year. Learning more about teaching strategies, resources, and new pedagogical research are all ways we can fuel our own professional learning. Trying new strategies helps to deepen our understanding of subject matter and to stay excited about teaching.

I reflect on those conversations and am so grateful to those teachers who gave me a shoulder to lean on and a listening ear. When I think back on the last two decades, it seems like no time has passed since my very first class. I feel like that same new teacher on the inside, though I have been shaped by different experiences and growth – much of that due to conversations and mentorship from those teachers just down the hall.

Thinking Beyond the Exit Card

One of my favourite ways to gather assessment is through thinking prompts. I love it because it gives me a quick snapshot of a child’s thinking at that moment. At the beginning of my teaching career, I used to use exit cards to determine whether or not students could understand a concept. Asking them to answer a question or to complete a parallel task were the common types of exit cards I used. As I started to reflect on my teaching practice and student learning, I felt this type of assessment had a certain finality to it. I was trying to find out what the students retained from lessons, but this didn’t leave a lot of room for student voice and reflection. These types of questions seemed content focused. As I became more interested in having students think reflectively about their own learning, I began to change the questions I used and while it took some time and a lot of modelling, these prompts became an important part of assessment that informed my own practice.

Reflecting on Learning Styles

Some thinking prompts help to elicit responses about students’ learning styles. They can be a great tool to arm students with the vocabulary and knowledge to advocate for their identities as learners. I always found this strategy most helpful in meeting student needs, honouring their voices, and being able to help make learning accessible for them. At the beginning of each year, I would begin by sharing about my own learning style with students. For example, I am a slow thinker so I need process time. I am a visual learner and like to learn by seeing things in math. If music with lyrics is playing, I get distracted easily. Sharing these examples empowers students with the knowledge that not everyone learns the same way and it’s okay to need different spaces or accommodations when we are learning something new. Prompts that help students to consider their own learning styles may include, “I could focus or learn better when….” or “I find it was easier to (use ……. strategy) because…..”

A few years ago in a grade four class, we were working on exploring sound. After designing and building musical instruments, I asked the students to finish the sentence, “I could focus on building my instrument better when…” The answers ranged from students who liked frequent check-ins with me through their progress, to those who worked better when they could talk with their friends, to others who liked being able to draw out their design before building. It was interesting for me, as the educator, to be able to see the variety of conditions the students wanted to do their best work. I used the information gathered from those exit cards to prepare for our next experiment and organized spaces in the classroom where students could choose to work based on their reflections.

A Change In Thinking

Sometimes I choose certain sentence starters when I want to encourage reflective thought. It allows me to see where the students’ thinking started and also asks them to reflect on their learning. In my classes, it usually takes some practice and modelling to use these prompts effectively. I would model my own thinking out loud for students during large group discussion. While reading aloud, I would often pause and explain how something changed my mind about a character or prediction and emphasize that when we have new information, our ideas may change. My favourite thinking prompts that encourage this type of response include, “At first I (thought)…. Now I (think)….because…” or “My thinking shifted when….”

I have found this opportunity for reflection gives students a chance to really engage reflectively in their learning and also provides valuable information for me. One year, we had worked with different representations of fractions and I had asked students to think about the prompt, “At first I thought…. Now I think… because….” One of the students shared the idea, “At first I thought fractions looked like pizza, now I think fractions look like linking cubes because the cubes are the same size and pizza slices are not always the same size.” This was far more interesting to me. In the past, I might have asked students to draw a representation of a few different fractions and looked at which representation they might use. With this response, I could see which manipulative was most influential to shift their thinking. I could also see they understood that fractions should be equal parts of a whole. As feedback for me, I could see the representation that helped to build their understanding and I could use that to inform future lessons.

When I think back to being a student, I wonder how I would have responded if I had been asked those reflective questions as a student myself. Would it have still taken me until university before I knew more about my learning style? Would it have changed my relationship with teachers to know that they really cared about what I thought and how I learned? What I love about these thinking prompts are that there is no definitive right or wrong answer; all the answers encourage students to know that I care about their learning, their thinking, and their ideas and that getting the right answer isn’t the most important thing to me. And maybe that’s the real lesson I want them to learn.