The Scope of Our Impact

Not only is teaching one of the most demanding professions, it is also one that garnishes the most rewards. Being a part of the narrative of our children, names us beneficiaries of their love, appreciation and the opportunity to positively impact their todays as well as their tomorrows.

I currently work in the school board that I was educated in. After 14 years as student, I’ve had the opportunity to return as a teacher, sometimes working alongside the teachers who have instructed me. I will never forget my first day on the job as I walked into the staff meeting only to see my grade 3 French teacher sitting among my new colleagues. She immediately recognized me and begged that I didn’t disclose that she had been my teacher for fear, perhaps, of her longevity being deemed something other than exceptional. I promised and never told, but more importantly, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment to know that not even 20 years before, I was a little girl, sitting keenly as she taught. I wanted everyone to know that I was a product of our system and the culmination of both peaks and troughs that have helped to shape who I am today.

What does this mean for me now? Simply that I view all my students as my potential colleagues. Not only do our students have the opportunity to join this rewarding profession as educators, but they very well can be the painters, doctors, mechanics, and bankers of tomorrow. In fact, with the rise of technology and innovation at its peak, the contributions that our students can have on our world can be found way beyond our imagination.  Therefore, more than curriculum expectations, we need to teach our students how to be kind. We need to teach them to be the kind of people that will nurture and sustain a world filled with love and respect and work to rid the world of the challenges that rob this kind of experience for those in the margins.

How  might we accomplish this? Be the change! Model citizenship. Breathe love. Administer respect. Invite productive conflict. Salute courage. The is the hidden curriculum that is constantly at work in the walls of our schools and that is the curriculum of life. Teaching our students how to navigate and persevere in challenging times will nurture the fortitude they will need moving forward.

Not only is teaching one of the most rewarding professions, it is also one of the most demanding. Being a part of the narrative of our children, names us responsible for inviting the kind of experiences that impact how identity is nurtured as students develop a holistic sense of self. Wielding the power of our impact with wisdom and love will ensure that the influence we have on our the students will be positive.


Revise, Refine, Reimagine

Although sometimes I would rather have a balanced-calendar school year, where summers were shortened and more frequent breaks are embedded throughout the academic year, the two months off that a 10-month school year calendar is still a welcomed experience. The structured close of what often is an intense year of teaching and learning, affords us the opportunity to touch the reset button, as it were, and engage in some meaningful reflection about how to continue the journey forward.

For me, this is one of the most difficult times of the year where my focus is consistently being challenged. Engaging in year-end activities (i.e. report writing, school celebrations, etc. ) while at the same time anticipating the year to come (i.e. new teaching-assignments, classroom moves, etc.) pulls my attention is so many directions that I find it hard to stay present and in the moment. My mind is constantly racing ahead as I would honestly rather engage in the year-end clean-up of my classroom as the thrill of reorganizing my “stuff” seems all too inviting. (Sidenote: teacher hoard WAY too many things…sigh…)

Reflecting on the year that was, however, is the best way to prepare for the year ahead. Intentionally thinking about the things that went well and the challenges that were grappled with can prepare you for a more focused year. The following is a framework for reflection that some colleagues and I have explored as we sought to address areas where we can improve in the work we do:

Revise: What were the things that didn’t work out the way it was intended to this year? Why was that so? How might you revise the experience so that it achieves the purpose and function that you had originally envisioned?

Refine: What went well this year that, with a few additional tweaks, could go even better the next time around? How might you refine your practice in ways that allows you to work smarter and not necessarily harder? What might be some efficiencies that you could employ that will allow your efforts to be stretched far and wide?

Reimagine: What possibilities might there be for aspects of your practice that you find stuck in your comfort zone? How might you embrace the spirit of innovation to reimagine possibilities that were once never an option? With the prevalence of technology and resources that support integrative thinking, what aspects of your practice might be opened to your imagination for radical shifts?

After engaging in thoughtful reflection the year forward can look so bright. With the natural starts and stops, we are compelled to be progressive as teachers. Here’s to closing the school year with a boom and beginning the new one with a bang.

Report Cards – Writing the Narrative of Student Achievement

Although it seems like the school year has just begun a few weeks ago, it’s actually coming to a close next month. Yes! You read that right. School’s almost out for the summer – despite the fact that summer seems to be taking its sweet time to arrive with the weather feeling more September-like rather than spring. With all this mix bag of weather and perhaps emotions concerning the close of one school  year and the horizon of another, there is still one thing on every teacher’s mind: report cards! Gasps for fear; leaps for joy; however you reconcile this extremely important process of formally reporting student achievement, the narratives we write have the potential to impact our learners in very significant ways.

Though the Report Card tends to be written with parents/guardians in mind, it really has a wider readership that includes the students themselves as well as a host of future teachers who have access to it through the Ontario Student Records (OSR). Knowing this, how might we be more intentional when writing the report card since the contents have far reaching implications?

Firstly, the report card is meant to be meaningful. As teachers with teaching degrees and constantly immersed in “edubabble” (terms that are usually commonplace for educators), it is important that the things we say in the report card are communicated in the most effective way so that our message comes through with intention. Keeping the use of educational terminology to a minimum will ensure that the audience can arrive to its intended message with ease. This might mean rewording the curricula using reader-friendly terms. Remember this revised versions of K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple […and Significant]. Report comments should serve as a window to student achievement in ways that demonstrates both the scope of learning that took place as well as the degree of success students experienced within it. Teacher jargon can inhibit this very clear message which can be then deemed irrelevant to parents/guardians and students.

Next, embrace a positive tone. The rhyme, “Sticks and stone may break my bones but words may never harm me,” proves false as words have the power to either build one up or tear them down. When writing the narrative of student achievement with a focus on both their strength and next steps, it is important to frame students’ areas of need from an asset-based approach rather than solely iterating deficits. “Karly constantly talks during independent work time” tells a very different story than “Karly is beginning to regulate his behaviour during independent work time.” Mere semantics? Maybe. But the impact of one semantic can birth a positive outlook or reinforce a negative one.

Finally include feedback that will matter. This is particularly true for the final report card of the year as that the content that will be learned in the new grade will differ from the grade-specific content that the student is graduating from. In this case, next steps should serve as feedforward  as opposed to feedback. What might be the skills or habits of mind that will be salient in future learning opportunities? What concepts will form the foundation for future understanding? These are the next steps that will prove useful if articulated well. Including student voice in this aspect of report card writing is a great way to value the person who is set to internalize the feedback given. Imagine the partnership that can be developed when students remain accountable to themselves as well as previous teachers for their commitment to improving their outcomes.

So my few suggestions, though not revolutionary, can alter the ways in which the report card serves out its function. Families are notified of students progress and achievement, students are empowered with meaningful next steps and future teachers read the narrative of a student from an asset-based approach. Happy writing!

Resumes – Writing the Narrative of Your Practice

Next to journaling and writing for the Heart and Art blog, resume writing is one of my favourite ways to reflect on my practice. The process of communicating my philosophy of education and demonstrating how this plays out in the day-to-day ignites my passion for teaching and learning and reminds me of why I do what I do as a teacher.

Shifting one’s role, whether it be changing schools or position or seeking new experiences, is one of many ways that educators can embrace new learning opportunities and refuel their energy for the journey ahead. Embracing the stance of reflection when composing one’s resume is essential in this regard as it distinguishes candidates amongst a large pool of applicants. The following suggestion are some of the tricks I’ve hid up my sleeves in order to present myself as a strong candidate for the mirage of opportunities within the education sector. Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. But perhaps after many years of my unofficial resumes consulting, these tricks will prove useful in your journey.

1. Use a relevant framework. The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) governs the teaching profession in Ontario and as such, using the OCT Standard of Practice as a framework for designing your resume structures the narrative of your practice in ways that align with the directives and outcome of best practice. Using the standard heading, Education, Experiences, Interests, etc., may serve useful in less specialized sectors, but as a profession, teacher resumes should mimic the framework that serves to structure our professionalism.

2. Show, don’t tell. I have read countless teacher resumes that indicate that applicants planned and taught lesson. But starting this task that on a resume is not distinguishing at all. Every teacher seeking an opportunity in education must have planned and taught lessons. A more effective way of demonstrating the scope of your practice is to paint the picture of your practice in action. This is where reflection is essential. Rather than telling what you did, show it using an affect-oriented narrative. “Embraced proactive approaches to classroom management in order to nurture a positive learning environment and foster a sense of community” paints a more intentional picture of teacher practice than “Created a positive learning environment.” The latter tells what was done while the former shows how it was done and explains why. What sets the two statements apart? Reflection that articulates the desired outcome of the action being described.

3. Treat the page like limited re-estate. Though not every posting for teachers may stipulate a maximum page number for the resume, I tend to stick to the standard 2 pages rule when applying for teaching positions. With over 7 years of experiences that seems like an impossible endeavor but by being strategic in my articulation I can demonstrate the breadth and width of my practice while maximizing the limited space of 2 pages. Being intentional about what to say, how to say it and where to say it can be fruitful in staying within the page limit. The key is to avoid repetition. Though you may have many teaching experiences that you want to display, be sure to be succinct about only demonstrating a particular aspect of your practice no more than once, regardless if it was something that you employed in other experiences. There are better ways to demonstrate your strength as an educator other than repeating yourself multiple times. Likewise, many resumes are accompanied by a covering letter which structure is very different than that of a resume. It is in your covering letter that your prose can come out in ways that will allow you to delve deeper into your practice. But remember, if you said it in your resume, use the covering letter to say something else.

So there you have it. My 3 easy steps for educators to engage in reflective resume writing. However you decide to engage in it, your resume speaks first, often before you are invited to articulate your vision and passion in person. Write it well. Write it with intention. Write is as a way to stay reflective. In the process you may be reminded, again and again, of just why you truly are an educator.

What does it mean to learn? What does it mean to teach?

What does it mean to learn? For me, learning is the trajectory between not knowing and arriving at new understanding. What, then, does it mean to teach? Teachers have long been grappling with this question and exploring the best way to define this through the study of pedagogy.  Pedagogy is the method one engages to facilitate learning. It makes the difference between those who know a lot of information (content knowledge) and those who know how to skillfully craft learning experiences that will facilitate the acquisition or construction of information. Thus, to teach means to employ pedagogy.

So beyond big words, what does good teaching look like? This is something that I consistently reflect on to see  how much I’ve grown and developed as an educator. Seven years ago, as a new teacher, my enthusiasm around teaching revolved around how much knowledge I could share with my students. This was usually demonstrated by how much I spoke. Since then, my vision of teaching and practice of pedagogy has drastically shifted in that now I believe a good day of teaching takes place when my students do much of the talking and we all engage in the learning. Effective teaching, though ultimately reflective of student learning, is the intentional construction of experiences that invite curiosity and nurture the construction of new understandings. In other words, good teaching nurtures the conditions necessary for learning to occur rather than the teacher saying a lot of “stuff”.

As a math teacher, I get excited when learning opportunities arise that provokes dissonance and ignites curiosity. The careful blend of the familiar and not yet known motivates students to embrace challenges that have a low threshold but a high ceiling. Students are engaged in a real life problem that causes them to arrive at many stumbling blocks of previous understandings and must harness perseverance in order to proceed forward in constructing understanding. In such cases, I often encourage my students to “embrace the struggle” as the the inverse reaction to dissonance is learning. This way, students become motivated learners not because of a sticker or a final grade, but simply for the joy of learning.  Bottle up this experience and you get good teaching – the intentionally crafted growth-opportunities nurtured by teachers. These experience don’t happen when teachers do all the talking, these things happen when teachers allow students to experience their own journey between what is known to that which is understood. This is what it means to learn.

How do we nurture positive relationships amongst our colleagues?

“We come to work for our students but isn’t it nice when we get along with the adults? (Heart and Art Book of Teaching and Learning, pg. 12)

As teachers, we are so careful to nurture positive learning environments for our students to learn and thrive in. We are mindful of the social, emotional, physical and mental well-being of our students and work diligently to ensure that they are safe and secure in our care. Our families are grateful for the love in which we care for our learners and they are resolved in knowing that the adults in the building are committed to their personal well-being of their children. How then, do we nurture this same kind of environment for ourselves and our colleagues? After many years of working with many different educators, I’ve come to realize that adults are super comfortable addressing the needs of students but act in ways that are incongruent with how we take care of ourselves. Collectively, we are intentional about teaching students to be respectful and cooperative, but how might we nurture these great habits amongst ourselves? The following, though not an exhaustive list, are some things we can try tomorrow to foster healthy working relationships amongst our colleagues:

  • Send a thank you note or email to express gratitude.
  • Visit the staffroom for lunch at least once a week. Sharing a meal lends itself to conversation that allows you to get to know those you work with and appreciate the diversity they bring.
  • Start a wellness club that encourages physical, social and mental well-being through physical activity and healthy eating.
  • Escape your “divisional cubical” and reach out to those you may not have the opportunity to work with. We have more in common than we think.
  • Start-up a book club. My favourite thing about reading a good book is talking about it. Why not explore a text together and see how much that ignites collegiality amongst the staff.
  • Say “please” and “thank you”. Manners just makes the world a better place.
  • Presume positive intentions but also be honest when an offence has occurred. Talking it out with the presumed offender will invite a learning opportunity, as opposed to engendering future conflict and harbouring resentment.
  • Smile wide and laugh loud. The radiance of a smile and the joy of laughter always makes for a welcoming.

As the adults in the building, we really need to take care of each other. We are growing the adults of the future and the model we set is read more nuanced than the one we say we expect. Let our actions speak volumes in our commitment to serving our learners. Let us serve the community. Let us serve each other.

Teaching the Language of Power

Most of the learning I’ve experienced as an elementary school student is a blur. There are few moments, however, that stand out as pivotal and that have helped shape my experiences as an educator today. One of such moments was grade 7. It was in grade 7 that I learned the word mediocre. Before then, I had never encountered this word and once introduced, it was truly a powerful moment for me. In learning this word I was given language to express an idea that I didn’t even know had existed. This is the power of language and this is why I fell in love with words. My fascination with the ways in which words can be intentionally nuanced to convey ideas with such lyrical intensity fascinates me; not only because of the creative ways in which ideas can be constructed, but also because it is a tool for granting access to discourses that without them one would remain silenced. I experienced the power of language but also that language was power. This experience brought me to my journey of engaging my students in the politics of language and exploring ways I could grant them access to platforms of thinking simply by equipping them with the language of power.

More than mere vocabulary boosters, words of the day or word studies, when introduced in meaningful contexts, can not only enrich student vocabularies, but can also give volume to their voices as thinkers, activists and world changers. My journey toward empowering learners with the language of power began in my first year of teaching. It was a grade two class and I was terrified. I had no idea what to do or how to go about it. It seemed like all the learning from my formal teacher education went out the door as soon as the students walked in. I realized I was in trouble when I would speak to my students only to receive blank stares. What I wrestled with was whether or not to make what I was saying more child-friendly or to simply bring the children up to speed and create many teachable moments with the words that I used. The result was the latter and we began an anchor chart entitled “Ms. Nelson’s Fancy-Schmancy Words” where when students stopped me mid-sentence to seek understanding of a specific word I used and it would be added to the list along with its definition and the sentence in which it was used. Now, 7 years later, the anchor charts have evolved into a word wall in which students are constantly identifying not only new words that I used but also introducing ones of their own and adding words they find in the literature they read or listened to on a daily basis. The love for words became contagious and the thirst for learning new ones was intrinsic.

Students were then invited to use words, or the language of power, as tools in exerting voice to an authentic audience. Students were empowered by words when they interviewed all 5 Mayoral Candidates in the 2015 Mayoral Election. Students wrote speeches and presented them as great orators in front of invited community members that included the local crossing guard, a church pastor and family and friends. Students raised awareness by writing blogs about the impact of their social identities and shared these sentiments with the school community. Their words spoke to issues of social justice and coloured the imagination with distinct imagery, was a power to be wielded in the pens and voices of elementary school students.


Word wall from my Grade 5/6 class: sabotage, aesthetics, logistics, schema, implications profound, trajectory, embrace, chronological, deconstruct, procrastinate, intimidated



Is Math Neutral?

The notion of neutrality speaks to the experience of being impartial or unbiased. It speaks to the absence of asserting value, power or privilege over another or the act of being impartial, unprejudiced and nonpartisan in nature. There are many areas of teaching and learning where the existence of prevailing politics is named and sometimes challenged: Whose stories do we include in the social studies/history curricula? What literature is considered to be the cannon? What art forms are considered cultured? But when educators think about the tapestry of math education, this notion of it being neutral tends to be widely agreed upon because of the perceived objectivity and absolutism that characterizes the ideas that are explored. But I wonder…is math really neutral?

“Math is about numbers. Surely it is neutral.”
This year, in supporting English Language Learners in math, I have learned many new Mandarin and Cantonese words from my students. More specifically, I’ve learned the inherent ways that Chinese characters are written to nurture a conceptual understanding of quantity. For example, the number eleven is written 十一 which means “ten-one” or can be understood as “ten plus one”. Similarly, the number twenty is written 二十 which could be understood as “two tens” or “two times ten”. Finally, the number thirty-three is written 三十三 Which could be understood as “three ten and three” or “three times ten plus three”. The fact that the word for the number eleven, when represented in English, has no relationship to the the concept of quantity speaks to the way numbers are represented are not neutral. This discrepancy in language representation speaks to the biased nature numbers are conceptualized through language. Thus proving an inherent bias in the ways in which numbers are conceptualized and number sense is acquired. Similarly, the bias toward English representation of numbers can limit the conceptual understanding of languages that represent numbers in a more conceptually friendly way.

“Math is about problem solving. Every has the capacity to solve problems.”
Consider the following problem: Brandon travels to the city using the subway. Each car seats 30 travelers. How many people might be on the subway if there are 10 cars? What background knowledge might students need to have in order to understand the context yet a alone respond the the problem mathematically? While the problems we pose to our learners may involve numbers that can be calculated and manipulated in flexible ways, the context, when coming from particular experiences, can deny access to the learning that needs to be achieved. In other words, if the context from which we invite students to explore math concepts can be carefully crafted in order for our learners to be able to relate to the ideas, they can also be unintentionally crafted in ways that could limit students access. In this way, contexts are never neutral because they come from a particular place of knowing or experiences that not all students have access to.

So there you have it. I’ve explored two very simple ways bias is experienced in math discourse. The presence of even one form of bias discredits the neutrality of math. If math, a lens for viewing the worlds through numbers, shapes and patterns, can be ladened with bias and politics, what else about the schooling experience share this similar trait?

Reflections on Black History Month

February is Black History Month. It is a month dedicated to paying homage to the diverse contributions and experiences of ordinary and extraordinary Black Canadians, members of the African Diaspora around the world, as well as those who live and whose roots stem from the continent of Africa. There are, in fact, many months that have like-intentions to highlight the narratives of historically marginalized groups in Canada: Women’s History Month in March, Asian Heritage Month in May and National Aboriginal History Month in June. The presence of these months speaks to the result of historical silencing of these narratives from mainstream discourse wherein a call for intentional action in addressing missing voices have been issued in public spaces. But how might we authentically achieve the goals of heritage/history months within our classrooms in ways that go beyond their designated months?

As noble starting points, heritage/history months, and in particular, Black History Month, can be addressed in tokenistic or celebratory ways that miss the intention behind their existence. Songs and dances, foods and celebrating public icons are great starting point in capturing the wealth of often untold histories/her-stories of the Canadian experience. Narratives of pioneers, inventors, politicians, “rebels” and “heroes”, civil right leaders, doctors, nurses, mothers, fathers, caregivers, veterans, children and their experiences in schools, laws, lawsuits, inclusion, exclusion, all make up the rich tapestry of Canadian nation building. With narratives so rich and deep, it important to have these included in the discourse of everyday schooling regardless of the month. As such, heritage/history months should be seen as an impetus to intentionally integrate the diverse narratives of Canadian communities in the everyday-discourse of our classrooms.

What does it actually look like to go beyond a heritage/history month? More than having images of people of racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds posted around the classroom, moving beyond the month might look like intentionally including diverse voices and perspectives in the classroom conversation. It may not solely be reading texts where the protagonist comes from a minoritized community, but rather inviting a discussion around the missing voices in existing texts. It may not be limited to including math questions that include ethnic sounding names, but rather investigating the practice of name changing or prevalence of anglicizing names in general. In grappling with what moving beyond heritage/history months might look like, consider some of the following questions:

  • How might diverse narratives be shared in ways that do not reinforce limiting and sometimes harmful stereotypes?
  • How might teachers engage students in learning opportunities when the student body seemingly is void of students who share the specific heritage that is being acknowledged during the month?
  • What might the conversation sound like or feel like when addressing painful memories as well as uncomfortable truths?
  • How might one invite the telling of stories by those who love them rather than telling their stories for them?

I end this post with more questions than answers. Perhaps this is an invitation to engage our students/colleagues in uncovering that which lie beneath the surface.

Geometry and Race

Can you have a conversation about Black History Month without discussing race?

Important question? Bold question? Irrelevant question?Let me digress here to share an exchange I had with my grade 3/4 students during math class in February.

I’m a math teacher. Although the conversations that take place in my class go deep within and far beyond the math curriculum, I love inviting my students to make connections between real life and the mathematical ideas we explore.

In an integrated unit on Data Management and Geometry, my students were invited to investigate and name the many attributes of 2D figures with a focus on the properties of polygons. They learned the latin prefixes used to name various polygons based on the number of sides. We engaged in an angle scavenger hunt all over the school, classifying the angles we noticed as acute, obtuse and right angles. We also wrote a song that highlighted our learning, adding verses as the learning progressed throughout the unit (

In a particular conversation about the similarities and differences among quadrilaterals, I questioned my students on the need to classify polygons and then further classify them within the category of quadrilaterals. I then invited them to name the other ways in which things or people are categorized based on different attributes. Almost immediately some students shouted, “skin colour!” Was I shocked? A little bit, but I thought, let’s go there. I had never really engaged in an conversation about race with this group of students and I was curious to hear what was on their minds about the subject. The conversation then delved into discussing the confusion between incongruent language that is often used to describe skin colour when the actual colours in questions were browns, tans and peach-like hues. This conversation invited students to voice questions and make connections between the experiences of fitting in and not fitting in in particular spaces – in a similar way that a trapezoid fits into the category of a quadrilateral, but not in the experience of being a parallelogram. It was an interesting conversation that led to what one student called it as being “shape racism” and another student naming it as “social injustice.” Students have a lot on their minds – I was intrigued with what they shared and the ways in which they articulated their thinking and confusions about the experience of labeling.

Race and geometry were intertwined in that one conversation. Who would have thought? So back to my original question which may, depending on how you look at it, or may not be related to everything I just articulated. Can you have a conversation about Black History Month without discussing race?