Water is Life

I have been learning with, from, and about water for several years. In another blog, I shared examples of what decolonial water pedagogy might look like in a Grade 2 classroom.  Whenever possible, it is critically important to invite Indigenous artists, activists, and Earth workers to share their knowledge with students in their own voices.

Water is Life:

This fall, the Grade 2-6 students participated in a workshop with Joce Two-Crows Tremblay and Faye Mullen called “Water is Life”.  They describe the workshop as: “Wondering on water as an ancestral highway, as home, as Medicine and more, through story, song and ceremony.”  

It was a beautiful morning. We gathered in a circle and welcomed our special guests with the song, “Funga Alafia”. Archer Pechawis, a Grove parent, joined us and shared songs and drumming. We offered tobacco and gratitude for their teachings. 

Water as Home:

Joce taught us about the strong connections between language and land. We learned about the Indigenous roots of many words spoken in English. After the workshop, I asked the Grade 2 students to document their new learning on inquiry cards with the prompt, “Now I know….”.

…that Toronto is pronounced many different ways. SOL
…that Lake Ontario in the Indigenous language is “Lake Handsome Lake.” DEMA

Water as Relative:

After a discussion about the importance of water and who we consider to be our relatives, we learned about the relationship between salmon, people, and water. When young children see themselves in relationships with land that are rooted in reciprocity and respect, they might care for all humans and more-than-humans as family.

Water as Ancestral Highway:

In preparation for the workshop, everyone had made salmon puppets, and we re-created water using tarps and blue material. As Joce and Faye paddled up the river, singing an Anishinaabe Water song, our salmon puppets swam upstream to spawn.


…a song about water. GWEN
…that people sing river songs to catch up to salmon. CLEM

At the end of our journey, we learned more about how Anishinaabeg used land as tools and technology in innovative ways.


...how to catch salmon, and when to.  DESMOND

…people put Willows down to trap big salmon.  SVEA

Water as Medicine:

We ended our workshop with a Water Ceremony. We sat in a circle and water was poured into our cup. As we held water in our hands, Joce and Faye invited us to think about how living things can feel and absorb our energy, and that is why we must be aware and intentional about our relationship to land. We were encouraged to send greetings of love and hope and gratitude to the water. After sitting quietly and reflecting, we drank from our cup and wondered if the taste of the water was affected by our ceremony.

…water can hold lots of energy. LOTE
…water gives life to everything. ELLIOT

It was a powerful morning.  We learned many important lessons about land and language, connection and community, technology and teachings.  Everyone enjoyed learning outside with and from the land, through storytelling, movement and music.  Thank you to Joce, Faye and Archer for sharing your knowledge with us.

Eco-Justice: Learning with Water

I was invited to co-host a webinar about Ecojustice Education, hosted by the Toronto District School Board’s EcoSchools team, in collaboration with OISE’s Environmental and Sustainability Education Initiative. 

My inspiring co-host was Farah Wadia. Farah is a Grade 7/8 teacher in Toronto, and she has written about her work raising issues of environmental justice through the study of water with local and global connections in VOICE magazine. You can watch our webinar here.

As an anti-colonial educator, I am actively learning how to centre Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, worldviews, and stories of resistance throughout my curriculum. This integrated water inquiry is one example of what eco-justice pedagogy might look like in Grade 2.

Land as Pedagogy: Welcoming Circle
As I deepen my understanding about how to support Indigenous sovereignty, and actively disrupt settler colonialism, I am coming to know that some of the most powerful work I can do is to build relationships, make connections, and acknowledge land with respect.

Every morning, we begin our day outside. We take a few deep breaths together and pay attention to the land (which includes plants, wind, animals, water, soil, etc.) around us. We notice the clouds, the mist, the frozen puddles, and share our observations with each other. We honour the original caretakers of land, practice gratitude, and promise to care for the land as part of our responsibility as treaty people.

My approach to land education is to honour, celebrate and strengthen the relationships that children have with their natural environment, which includes the urban setting. Inquiry-based learning that is grounded in love and wonder can support children to be curious and critical thinkers. If children feel a strong connection to the land, they might also feel responsible for taking care of the land, and each other.

Building Relationships: Sharing our Water Stories
Our water justice inquiry began with an idea that I learned about in the first edition of Natural Curiosity. In September, students shared samples of water that they had collected from different water sources they encountered during the summer. Every day, one student shared what they love about water, and told stories about the water they had collected. We wrote about every experience. This act of storytelling helped to connect us as a community, and created a shared intention for learning with and from water.

A Community of Co-Learners:
Students shared their knowledge and what they love about water in different ways. During MSI (Math-Science Investigations), I asked everyone to build and create structures that connect to water. We used inquiry cards to document what students already knew and the questions they wanted to explore together. These questions provided diagnostic assessment, and will guide our inquiry throughout the year.

Taking Action:
It is critical that young children learn stories of resistance, and see themselves as agents of change. We are reading many picture books to support and guide our inquiry. “The Water Walker” by Joanne Robertson and “Nibi’s Water Song” by Sunshine Tenasco, are two excellent stories written by Indigenous authors. Reading these stories inspired more questions:

Why does Water need to be protected?
Do all people have access to clean water? Why or why not?
How can I take action to protect water?

Students used a Venn Diagram to make text-to-self connections and compare themselves to Anishinaabe Water Protector, Josephine Mandamin. 


Write for Rights:
As students learn to recognize inequity and confront injustice in their lives, they need multiple strategies and tools that they can use to take action and feel empowered as activists and allies.

Every year, Amnesty International organizes a letter writing campaign on December 10, called “Write for Rights”. In 2020, I learned that Amnesty International was highlighting the First Nations community of Grassy Narrows. I decided that the students would learn about the issues and write letters of solidarity. Everyone was very surprised when Premier Doug Ford wrote us back! 

Learning Through the Arts: Water Poems
We are learning that Water Protectors will often sing to the water. This call to action has inspired us to write our own songs of gratitude for water in our local community. In preparation, the Grade 2 students wrote a variety of poems, and we explored the sounds and shapes that water makes through soundscapes and movement. Students expressed their appreciation and love for water in creative ways.

Water Songs:
As we compose our water songs, we will continue to listen to the songs of Water Protectors for inspiration and guidance. Some of the songs that we have been learning are: “The Water Song” by Irene Wawatie Jerome, “Home To Me” N’we Jinan Artist from Grassy Narrows First Nation and “We Stand” by One Tribe (Kelli Love, Jordan Walker, and MC Preach). It is my hope that we will sing our songs to the water, with gratitude and joy.

Anti-Racism and the Fight for Black Lives

I recently joined educators from across the province to participate in ETFO’s powerful four-part webinar series called, “Anti-Racism and the Fight for Black Lives”.  It was an amazing professional learning opportunity, and it should be mandatory for all ETFO staff and members.

The program involves watching a short video clip each week, and engaging in courageous and critical conversations about anti-Black racism with other educators.  ETFO released the video, “Anti-Racism and the Fight for Black Lives” during the 2020 Annual Meeting, as part of the ETFO’s Anti-Black Racism Strategy.  This video is available to all members on www.etfo.ca, along with guiding questions to explore on your own or with your colleagues. 

In the video, we hear the voices of Sandy Hudson, who is a political activist, writer and the founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, and Phillip Dwight Morgan, who is a journalist, poet and researcher.  The interview is moderated by Alejandra Bravo, who has a history of working for progressive social change with grassroots, immigrant and labour groups. 

What does it mean to fight for Black lives?

Throughout the interview, Sandy Hudson and Phillip Dwight Morgan share knowledge and insights about how educators might use this moment of “awakening” to fight for Black lives and demand systemic change.  One of the issues that we discussed each week was the impact of police in schools and in communities, and the call to action to defund or abolish the police, and re-imagine different ways to respond and care for each other.

Each session was organized and facilitated by ETFO staff Alice Te and Matthew Sinclair, and included opportunities to break out into smaller groups to share ideas and reflect on the guiding questions.  The active and deep engagement of the participants was inspiring.  Educators from Kindergarten-Grade 8 leaned in to listen, learn, ask questions and share resources. 

What is your positionality?

In our first session, the facilitators shared a definition of anti-oppression work as the “active and consistent process of change to eliminate individual and systemic oppression”.  Alice Te and Matthew Sinclair acknowledged that we are all in different places on our learning journey towards equity and racial justice, and that being an ally sometimes means standing UP, standing BEHIND, or standing WITH others, depending on your positionality.  

Throughout the program, we were encouraged to move from individual to collective action, and think critically about how we can use our privilege as educators to work towards systemic change.  As an educator who is committed to learning and unlearning what anti-oppression looks like in schools, I am always grateful for the opportunity to learn from and with other educators about how to disrupt institutional racism.

How can we transform Canadian institutions?    

In order to change or transform systems of education, we must first recognize that schools are not safe or equitable spaces for all students, families, staff and community members.  Schools continue to reinforce White privilege, and create barriers for Black, Indigenous and other racialized students.  Please read the following ETFO VOICE articles about the impact of institutionalized racism in schools:

Anti-Black Racism in Education and Black Students Navigating the Pandemic by Stephanie Fearon

Sisters in the Struggles: Racialized Women and Microaggressions in the Workplace by Angelique Cancino-Thompson

Can you spare some change?

In Part #1, Sandy Hudson invites us to think about the difference between fighting FOR Black lives and fighting AGAINST anti-Black racism.  She says, “It is not enough to be a good person.  You have to be ready to accept a change in your living conditions, so that everyone else’s living conditions, in particular Black people’s living conditions can change.”  Alejandra Bravo agrees: “Solidarity is only real if it costs you something.”  

Educators have a lot of political and economic privilege, which can be used to fight against anti-Black racism.  As we consider how we might change or transform our institutions, we need to be ready to put our money where our mouth is, and fund direct action.  We also need to recognize how institutions are interconnected and advocate for change so that all communities have equal access to health care, housing, paid sick days, food security, accessible transit, etc.  

Two organizations that are working hard and deserve our financial support are: parentsofblackchildren.org and showingupforracialjustice.org  

Why defund police?

Part #2 focuses on defunding the police.  In the video, Sandy Hudson challenges us to shift how we think of safety and security in our society.  She explains that police have historically harmed many communities, including Black, racialized, Indigenous, 2SLGBTQ+, and the underhoused.  This harm and violence is still ongoing, and police actually make some folks feel less safe.  Hudson shares facts about how police budgets are allocated, and argues that funding must be provided to support services that are more effective, and to build alternatives.  

Why are police in schools?

As part of this program, we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Phillip Dwight Morgan, and hear more about his personal experiences and his advocacy work.  Morgan encouraged us to critically reflect on the role of School Resource Officers (SRO’s) and police in schools, and to consider the impact for Black staff, students and their families.  He also questioned where police are located in Toronto schools, and the racial bias of defining “high priority” neighbourhoods as areas that have a higher percentage of racialized families.  These discussions helped me to understand where the call to defund the police comes from, and how it connects to the fight for Black lives.

What is the role of educators?

In Part #3, we discussed other forms of anti-Black racism, racial profiling and bias that need to be addressed in schools and other spaces for youth.  We also shared ideas about how we can use our position to best create and promote changes in our school and local community.  

In our break-out groups, we talked about the importance of representation, and the need to hire more Black educators.  We also talked about centering stories of Black resilience and pride, innovation, love and joy.  Educators from rural and northern communities talked about how they might teach students about anti-oppression without “othering” or reinforcing “us/them” inequities in their predominantly White communities.  Everyone agreed that addressing anti-Black racism in our schools benefits everyone.   

ETFO has developed many resources to support educators to engage in this work, including White Privilege Lesson Plans and ETFO Black 365 Canadian Curriculum.  Please share any resources that you have used in the comments below.  

What does solidarity look like?

Part #4 focuses on the need for awareness and action.  In the video, Alejandra Bravo asks if changing our individual behaviour will help make Black lives better.  Sandy Hudson and Phillip Dwight Morgan criticize the impact of individual acts of solidarity, if they do not include the call to action for systemic change.  For example, many folks are comfortable hanging a poster that says, “Black Lives Matter” or posting a black square on their social media, but they are not comfortable advocating for the abolishment of police.  

The discussion in our break-out group was interesting because we all have colleagues that are at the beginning of their learning journey, and need to do the individual work to recognize how they are impacted by and complicit in reinforcing oppression and privilege.  We talked about how we might support all members in our school community to engage in courageous conversations about racial justice and anti-oppression work.  After participating in this program, I understand that fighting for Black lives must also include advocating for systemic change and funding direct action to fight against anti-Black racism.

What are the next steps?

ETFO has a lot of privilege and political power to advocate for systemic change.  I look forward to hearing about the next steps that ETFO will take to continue to fight for Black lives.   

I am grateful to ETFO and all of the educators who created this professional learning opportunity, and I am inspired by the members who showed up every week to actively engage in this critical work.  I encourage everyone to watch the videos, and to participate in the webinar series when it is offered again.  


“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind….”

This term, I had the honour of working with a Master of Arts student in Child Studies and Education, in his first teaching placement. Working in collaboration as a co-learner and co-teacher is a humbling experience. It is always a lot of work, but I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on my own practice, and remember what it feels like to be a new educator.

Ishai Buchbinder and I had a lot of fun creating an integrated unit about Wind for the Grade 2 students. This inquiry connects to “Air and Water in the Environment” as students “investigate, through experimentation, the characteristics of air and its uses.” (The Ontario curriculum, Grades 1-8. Toronto: Ontario, Ministry of Education, 2005.) This blog post is a documentation of our learning together.

Where Do I Begin?
Ishai asked me to describe the planning process for developing a series of lesson plans and activities that culminate in a summative assessment task. This year, I am trying to integrate Indigenous perspectives through land education and environmental inquiry. I am also trying to center stories of Black excellence and innovation throughout my pedagogy.

First, I look at the expectations in the Ontario curriculum, think about the “big ideas”, and generate a few guiding questions to support our inquiry. Then, I brainstorm several activities that might help us to explore and investigate our learning goals. Next, I gather resources, including: picture books, songs, videos, real-world examples of innovation and creativity. Then, I think about a summative task that would allow students to have choice and demonstrate their understanding in different ways. Finally, I sequence the learning activities in a way that builds on prior knowledge and connects to new learning, while also being responsive and open to following the interests, needs and questions of the students.

Who Has Seen The Wind?
We started our inquiry with an active game called “When The Big Wind Blows…” and a poem by Christina Rosetti called, “Who Has Seen the Wind?” This poem has been re-imagined as a song, which I learned from an Orff Music workshop. There is a simple ostinato that is layered underneath, and patsched on the lap: “Wind, Wind, Passing By.” We chanted and sang this song outside during our Welcoming Circle, and acknowledged the wind with gratitude.

Knowledge Building:
Ishai shared a riddle with the students: “What takes up the most space but is something that you cannot see?” After solving the riddle, the students shared what they already know about air and wind. Then, we asked the students to generate questions about what they wanted to know, using “I wonder…” inquiry cards.  These activities help to honour student voice and position all of us as co-learners,

During MSI (Math-Science Investigations), I ask students to design and build a structure that is moved by the wind. Desmond made a dragon. Ezra made an airplane. Florence made a forest. Elliot made a structure that is powered by the wind. All of these activities provided diagnostic assessment and helped to guide the next steps in our inquiry journey.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
We learned about the true story of William Kamkwamba, who used innovation and creativity to build a windmill out of recycled materials for his community in Wimbe, central Malawi. You can listen to “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” read aloud. You can find William telling his own story by searching his name. His brilliance has also inspired a movie. After reading the book, we made our own paper pinwheels and took them outside. Everyone loved running with the wind and making the blades spin! 

Paper Airplanes!
Ishai told us about the “Super Secret Mysteries of Flight”. We learned about thrust, lift, drag, and gravity, and their relationship to air. Then, he showed us how to make a ten-fold paper airplane. Here are the step-by-step instructions. It was challenging to listen and follow each instruction carefully. After folding our paper airplanes, we tested their flight in the school yard. We experimented by changing the thrust, and adapting the wings to make it fly straight and long. This was another active and fun activity!

Mr. W
After watching this short video, we had an interesting discussion about the main character. I asked: What do we know about this character? How does this character feel at the beginning and the end of the video? What kind of things do we see the character do? Why would they do these things? Who is this character? Why was this video made? This discussion encouraged students to think critically about media texts as part of our learning about Media Literacy.

This video also inspired us to begin writing our own Wind Stories. We used a graphic organizer to organize our ideas using time-order words, (First, Next, Then, Finally). Some students wrote from the perspective of Wind, and others described the movement and impact of wind. We used a collaborative editing and revision process to share our stories and improve our writing.

Testing our Theories:
This year, we are fortunate to be working with Doug Anderson, who is the co-author of Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Environmental Inquiry. After learning with Doug in the Rainbow Garden, several students wanted to know more about the relationship between the sun and the wind. Svea asked, “I wonder how the sun makes the wind?” 

We talked about how we might find the answers to our questions. We could: read books, look on the internet, ask someone. After reading a book called “Air”, which explained some facts, Ishai asked how we might test what we learned from the book. The students had different ideas about how we could prove that warm air rises and cold air is heavy. We went outside to find out. The students worked in small groups and used movement to demonstrate how the sun makes the wind. It was a great opportunity to use our bodies to express our understanding.

Learning Through the Arts
As we explored the movement of wind, we read the book, “When I Get Older: The story behind ‘Wavin’ Flag’” by K’naan. We learned that the song was inspired by his grandfather’s poem. K’naan’s family journey story supported many thoughtful discussions about civil war and refugees, settlement and anti-Black racism, how schools might be more welcoming to new families, and the impact of poetry and music to create community.  We listened to the song many times and went outside with fabric “flags” to wave in the wind. We are hoping to choreograph a dance and embody the lyrics, “Love is the answer”.

We also learned about two artists who have created complex wind sculptures that are moved in the wind. We watched a few videos about the work of Theo Jansen and Anthony Howe. The students were mesmerized and inspired by the movement of these beautiful sculptures.

Another song that we learned was “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan. This is a song that we sing every year during Peace Week and on Remembrance Day. It is an opportunity to reflect on the “big ideas” of conflict and justice. In the past, we have written messages of hope and peace on leaves that are released from the third floor window.

This year, our Visual Arts teacher, Shannon Greene, made powerful connections to Treaty Recognition Week. After learning “A Treaty Poem” by Melissa MacLennon and students, Shannon encouraged the students to write promises of peace on paper leaves to keep in the classroom. Copy of Land Acknowledgement and Dish With One Spoon Resource

Squirrel Nests:
As the leaves continued to fall, the students began to notice piles of leaves in the branches. We learned that they were nests made by squirrels, and we started to think about how animals might protect themselves from the wind. We went on a walking excursion to a local park, and Ishai challenged the students to build their own squirrel nests with leaves, sticks and air.

After building with natural materials, we did a “Gallery Walk” and visited all of the squirrel nests. Students were asked to describe one thing that they were proud of and one thing that they might do to improve their nest next time. These “GLOW” and “GROW” comments allowed us to practice self-evaluation, and provided valuable formative assessment.

Finally, it was time to test our squirrel nests. Each student was given fluffy goldenrod seeds to represent the squirrel, which was placed inside the nest. We used straws to simulate the wind, and to test the strength of each structure. Everyone had an amazing experience learning outdoors together!

Wind Machines!
As our final summative task, the students were invited to plan, build and test a structure that can be moved by the wind. Before building, students were encouraged to think about what they had learned about wind and apply their knowledge to their structure. Everyone drew a plan and labelled the materials that they would need. We spent several days in the classroom building and revising our structures, based on descriptive feedback.

On the day that we tested our wind machines, each student had an opportunity to share their structure and make predictions about how it might move. After testing, Ishai conferenced with each student to document their thoughts and ideas about how successful their wind machine had been, and how they might improve their design next time. It requires more time to connect 1:1 with students, but conferencing provides strong summative assessment data, and supports every student to feel successful about their learning.

Journey through Inquiry
Working with a Teacher Candidate was refreshing and reminded me about the importance of play, storytelling and movement in our lesson planning. Throughout our inquiry about Wind, the students were very engaged, and they had multiple opportunities to explore and demonstrate their understanding.  As an experienced educator, I am still learning about how to integrate and make connections across the curriculum in creative ways.  I am also learning that when we trust our students and follow their natural curiosity, the journey through inquiry will be deep, meaningful and fun!

M is for Mindfulness

My inbox and social media feeds are filled with reminders to take care of myself and to focus on the mental health and wellness of my students and community, and I am trying. This month, I felt the phunk of COVID fatigue. I am working hard to create playful moments of joy, and generate my own light.

My teacher friend, Bruce Gramlich, offered me a new resource called, “Fostering Mindfulness: Building skills that students need to manage their attention, emotions and behaviours in the classroom and beyond,” by Shelley Murphy (2019). In this book, Murphy has curated educator stories and several concrete examples of intentional exercises and activities to support the practice of mindfulness. Murphy believes that in order for educators to be successful at supporting students to be mindful, we must focus on our own practice. Like many educators, I am always paying attention and aware of what is happening to those around me, but mindfulness is about paying attention to myself.

What is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is both a way of being in the world and a practice. As a way of being, mindfulness is the quality of presence we bring to everything we do. It describes our innate capacity to pay full and conscious attention to something in the moment. It is the awareness that emerges from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of our experience” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Reflecting the Sky:
When I think about mindfulness, I imagine sitting still and meditating, breathing with intention, not thinking about anything, just “be”ing in the moment. Those moments are very rare for me. As soon as I step into the school building, I am pulled into a current that is swift and fast. I am a strong swimmer, but I have to work hard to keep my head above the water. I rarely float, and there are few moments of stillness. I love my work, and I am grateful every day for the creative flow and waves of energy, but I know that the water needs to be calm in order to reflect the sky.

As I begin to cultivate a practice of mindfulness outside of the classroom, I am learning that there are moments of wonder and gratitude in many different activities, including walking in the park, cooking a delicious meal, listening to music, riding my bicycle, playing with my dog, and doing yoga. One of the challenges for me is to re-create these moments in the classroom. Here are some examples of how I am trying to practice mindfulness and honour stillness with/in my Grade 2 students:

We begin every day outside in a circle. Before we acknowledge the land with respect, gratitude, and a commitment to take action, I invite everyone to take five deep breaths together. We do “Five Finger Breathing,” and use one finger to trace each inhale and exhale around the fingers of the other hand. Acknowledging land includes noticing and paying attention to all of our relatives: the wind, the birds, squirrels, puddles, and roots in our school yard. We recognize the original caretakers of the land and review our understanding that a treaty is a promise. This daily practice of gratitude is an important part of mindfulness and also supports decolonizing pedagogy.

Listen to the City:
As we sit together and breathe, we use our senses to pay attention. I ask students to share what they hear, see, feel, smell. We talk about seasonal changes and transformation. Murphy (2019) calls this practice “Mindful Sensing.” Soundscapes are a dramatic convention that can be used throughout the curriculum, and can be combined with movement. Students use their voices and/or found sounds to tell a story. We have created soundscapes connected to our learning about water and wind. After reading the book, “Listen to the City” by Rachel Isadora, students worked in small groups to create a soundscape about the city and share it with the class.

Blindfold Tree Walk:
In one corner of our school yard, there is a small grove of cedar trees growing together. This area is being cared for and used as an Outdoor Classroom by many educators. One day, we used our sense of touch to do a Blindfold Tree Walk. We worked with a partner to find a special tree. Then, one partner was blindfolded and guided carefully to different trees to touch, until they found their special tree. Before blindfolding students, we talked about what might be challenging for people who are Blind or have low-vision, and how we can support them to walk safely. After participating in this activity, students reflected on the experience, and described what they noticed and how they used their senses to find their special tree. I also tried this activity and was delighted when I reconnected with my tree.

What Does Peace Feel Like?
This activity inspired us to explore another book called, “What Does Peace Feel Like?” by Vladimir Radunsky. This book is filled with the voices of children who use their five senses to describe peace. Students were inspired to write their own descriptions of peace, and used watercolours to paint what peace looks like. We shared our poetry with a special guest who joined us via ZOOM. Donna Jodhan is a disability justice activist who we met ten years ago when she successfully challenged the Canadian government to make websites more accessible for Blind people. It was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate, reflect and recognize the importance of allyship and advocacy.

Loving Kindness:
“Heartprints” are celebrations of when we have been successful at meeting our learning goals. Currently, we are working on the following goals: “I can be a good friend”, “I can keep trying” and “I can solve problems.” After recess, I will often ask students to share a story about when they were a good friend to someone, or when someone was a good friend to them. As they are sharing, I write their story on a heart-shaped piece of paper. These heartprints are hung in our classroom. Heartprints support cooperative learning, encourage the practice of gratitude and sharing appreciation, reinforce positive behaviour, and help us to create an inclusive and kind classroom community.

My teacher friend, Kelly Fricker recently supported her Grade 1/2 students to share random acts of kindness and #passiton. Together, they generated a list of positive messages to encourage the adults in the school building, and wrote them on heart-shaped paper. Kelly filled every mailbox with messages such as, “You’ve got this!”, “You are appreciated! ”, “You are my sunshine!” I was inspired and worked with my own students to fill the mailboxes in my school with messages of loving kindness. It was a wonder-full activity. Pass it on!

Progressing With Difficulty

As the deadline for completing Progress Reports approaches, I am reflecting on the word “evaluation” and thinking critically about the ways educators and schools “value” knowledge and measure “success”.   

Despite the challenges and loss created by COVID-19, my young students continue to demonstrate compassion and resiliency.  They are actively engaged in learning and happy to be together at school.  They are working hard, and with support, they are rising to meet my high expectations.  I believe they are progressing very well.

The problem is that when educators measure student “success” against a standardized level of achievement, some students are constructed as “failures”.  This can be very discouraging.  We know that how students feel about themselves impacts how they learn.

We also know that report cards and standardized assessments, like EQAO, reflect a colonial and Eurocentric approach to education that often excludes or disadvantages many students.  Educators need to think critically about how assessment and evaluation practices reinforce racial inequity, and privilege student “success” and belonging.

How might we transform assessment and evaluation so that all students are empowered to achieve excellence, and feel successful?

For the last twelve years, I have been exploring collaborative assessment as an alternative to traditional forms of assessment.  I am inspired by the possibilities of self-assessment and goal setting to engage our students and families in the teaching and learning process in meaningful ways.

What is collaborative assessment?

Collaborative assessment involves students, families and educators as co-learners in the process of gathering and sharing formative assessment.  It helps to build trusting relationships and strengthen the home-school connection.  Collaboration assessment may include any of the following strategies: an introduction letter about a child written by a parent, inventories or surveys, individual goal setting, self-and peer-assessment, checklists, rubrics, portfolios, journals, and Student-Led Conferences.

What are the benefits of collaborative assessment for students, families and educators? 

The Ontario Ministry of Education has published several resources to support collaborative assessment because there are many benefits for students, families and educators.  Collaborative assessment invites students, families and educators to actively engage in the teaching and learning process, and creates a reciprocal relationship where students, families and educators share responsibility for learning.

Research has shown that the use of goal setting and self-assessment in the classroom engages student voice and supports critical thinking and meta-cognition skills:

“Self-assessment has been shown to impact both increased student achievement and improved student behaviour.  Involvement in the classroom assessment processes can increase student engagement and motivation.”

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. “Student Self-Assessment”. Capacity Building Series K-12.  (December 2007)

When educators empower students to make choices about how they will demonstrate their learning, and evaluate how well they have met the learning expectations, it helps to create an inclusive environment that honours and celebrates the multiple and diverse ways that students learn and share knowledge.  Additional benefits of collaborative assessment include:

*accountability by students for their own learning

*pride in achievement among students

*confidence by students to take on leadership roles

*learning independence in students

*parent participation in school life

*improved communication with parents resulting in deeper understanding and confidence in what happens at school

*more positive student-teacher relationships

*valuable feedback for teachers and families

*common understanding of the language of assessment

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Webcast Professional Learning Series. (2010) Viewer’s Guide: Student-Led Conferences.

What does collaborative assessment look like in the classroom?

In our Grade 2 classroom, we will focus on goal-setting, portfolios, and Student-Led Conferences.

Throughout the year, students will be supported to set individual short-term academic and social goals.  These goals will be achievable and meaningful.  Students will have many opportunities to reflect on their goals, develop and evaluate their own success criteria, and celebrate their achievements.  I will send home these goals as we create them together, so that families can support their child to work towards achieving these goals.  When students set individual goals that are “just right” for them, they will feel successful.

All students will have a portfolio in-class and on-line.  A portfolio is a collection of work samples chosen by the student and/or by the teacher.  Students will be encouraged to select several pieces and reflect on their own work and process throughout the year.  Portfolios offer an opportunity to explore growth and learning in concrete ways.  Students will share their portfolios with their families in February, and at the end of the year in a Student-Led Conference.  Families will also have an opportunity to explore their child’s portfolio at Parent-Teacher conferences.

Student-Led Conferences are powerful opportunities for students to identify their strengths and share evidence of how well they are meeting their learning goals.  Usually, there are 4-5 conferences happening in the classroom at one time, and I will rotate between them to listen and add to the discussion.  Last year, we used technology to facilitate Student-Led Conferences virtually.  I will write more about how to support Student-Led Conferences in another blog post.

How can families support collaborative assessment?

Family involvement is a crucial part of collaborative assessment.  Families are encouraged to be involved in the assessment process in any of the following ways:

*writing a letter of introduction, which includes their own goals/hopes for the school year

*helping their child to develop appropriate goals

*supporting their child to achieve these goals at home

*sharing observations, asking questions during Parent-Teacher conferences

*participating in Student-Led Conferences

*providing feedback after interviews and conferences

*understanding the curriculum expectations

*reading the report card


I believe that one of the most important skills that students and educators can learn is self-reflection.  As an educator, I am always actively reflecting on the choices that I make inside and outside of the classroom.  I know that I am not the only one who struggles with assessment and evaluation.  It is a critical part of our work, and an opportunity to think about how we share power with students.

Learning is an emergent and collaborative process, and I believe assessment and evaluation should reflect this.  I want to create brave spaces that acknowledge and celebrate different ways of knowing and learning, provide students with authentic and multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding, and use collaborative forms of assessment and evaluation so that all students can feel successful.



Write On!

I love to write, and I hope that my enthusiasm for the writing process inspires and encourages my Grade 2 students to write on!


At the beginning of the year, we are working together to create a brave and inclusive community where everyone is recognized as a “very important person”.  The VIP program celebrates one student each day.  Everybody has a story, and we learn about the VIP by listening and asking questions.  Together, we talk about what good writers do as we write several sentences about the VIP.  We notice the letters in their name and practice printing them correctly.  Then, everyone draws a picture and writes about the VIP.  These pages are collected and sent home as a book for the VIP to share with their family.

On the first day of school, I was the VIP to model the process.  Yes, I was wearing a cape at the time, to demonstrate our superhero arms-distance protocol, and to reinforce that we all have superpowers.

The Peace Book:

Every year on September 21, we recognize the International Day of Peace as part of Peace Week.  Peace Week is an excellent opportunity to introduce and/or review the Zones of Regulation and practice mindfulness strategies.  We share ideas about when we feel peaceful, and brainstorm agreements for how we might resolve conflicts and solve problems in our community.  We sing songs and read stories about peace and justice.  After reading “The Peace Book,” by Todd Parr, we created our own classroom book inspired by his book.


In the early primary years, students are growing as readers and writers.  We all require support to become more independent and confident in our new learning.  Writing prompts and predictable structures can help emergent writers to get started and complete their work.

On the first day of fall, we wrote short poems called “Good-Bye Summer!  Hello Fall!”  We generated ideas for our writing by sharing what we love about summer and fall in a Knowledge Building Circle.  We also used Drama to play out our favourite activities and connect our bodies to our learning.  We sang songs about the signs of fall, drew pictures, and wrote about what we noticed in our Nature Journals.


In my first year of teaching, I started as a Long-Term Occasional from October-June.  The teacher who left was exemplary, and she had established a program called MSI: Math-Science Investigation, which I continue to this day.  Before STEAM, there was MSI.  It involves solving problems through building.

During MSI, I invite students to build a structure connected to our current inquiry (e.g., build a structure that includes a repeating pattern, build a habitat for an animal, etc.)  After building with different materials (e.g., pattern blocks, straws and connectors, corks, Lego, etc.) students will write and draw about their structures in their Math Journals.


When I asked students to build a structure connected to water, they made: a hydroelectric dam, salmon, a lake, pipes, a boat, and a machine that turns saltwater into freshwater.

Toy Day:

Every 6-8 weeks, I organize a Toy Day in our classroom.  On this day, everyone is invited to bring a toy to share.  We use these toys as provocations for many learning activities in the classroom, including Drama, Math, Writing, Media Literacy, Art, etc.

At the beginning of Grade 2, I am collecting diagnostic assessment data about my students, and I always use the Grade 1 Ministry of Education writing exemplar, which is descriptive writing about My Toy.  After sharing and playing with our toys, students are motivated to write and draw about their toy.


COVID-19 has impacted student learning in different ways.  There might be gaps in achievement, which need to be identified before we can build new skills.  I will use the assessment data to develop individual short-term writing goals with each student, and support everyone to work towards meeting their goals.  When students work towards individual goals that are “just right” for them, they can always feel successful.  These writing goals will also be shared with families, to strengthen the home-school connection and encourage a relationship of collaborative assessment.

Community Immunity!

COVID-19 has turned everyone into a first-year teacher.  It doesn’t matter how many years of experience you might have, because this year is unlike any other that we have ever experienced.  All of us are re-imagining new ways to connect with students, whether you are learning together on-line or in-person.  It is a very humbling experience to be starting from scratch.

I have chosen to teach in-person because I crave community and collaboration.  The weeks leading up the first day of school were frustrating and stressful.  Everyone was scared and nervous as we struggled to create new routines and protocols.  As soon as the students arrived, I began to relax.  There is still so much that is unknown and unpredictable, but I know how to play and learn with children.

Here are some of my insights from the first few weeks of teaching Grade 2.

Sign Language:

Wearing masks makes it very difficult to communicate clearly.  We cannot read each other’s lips or facial expressions, and it is hard to hear each other.  For those of us who are teaching outside, our voices are struggling to project.  I grew up with a father who was deaf-blind.  As a child, I learned about barriers, disability justice, and how to communicate with my hands.

I worked with my students to develop simple signs that we can use to help us communicate.  We have symbols for: turning up the volume, sharing the same idea, making connections, asking to use the washroom or get a drink of water, and letting someone know we are smiling underneath.  I made a short video, which I shared with my families after the first day of school.  Send me an email if you would like me to share it with you.

I also bought myself a voice amplifier, which helps everyone to listen, and makes me feel like a rock star!

Drama and Play:

Drama is a powerful way to teach and create community.  I have been using role-playing and charades to practice and reinforce new routines, and problem-solve different scenarios.  I believe in the possibilities of play, and I am holding space for us to play together.  After months of isolation and loss, we all need to connect and have fun!

Every morning, after pre-screening and sharing our connection to land, we play a few cooperative games.  We have been learning each other’s names by clapping out syllables, using gestures or wordplay, such as “Very Velvet”.  We ask questions and “Step into the Circle”.  We change places with someone else “When the Big Wind Blows….” and we try to guess who is leading the action in “Follow the Leader”.

My teacher friend, Peyton Leung, shared this link of Socially Distant Outdoor Games for Kindergarten-Grade 8.  Check it out!  Also, here are some Drama Games that will work on-line and in-person.

Outdoor Learning:

All the educators at our school are trying to spend as much time outside as possible.  We know that learning outdoors is safer, and we are transforming our pedagogy by teaching and learning outdoors.  There are many challenges to overcome, including city traffic and construction noise, carrying the materials you need everywhere you go, the lack of shelter and easy access to washrooms, etc.  We are embracing the “big ideas” of change and adaptation and using our imagination to co-create new possibilities for education.

Kindergarten-Grade 6 students have been exploring measurement and mapping, as we connect with the different areas of our school yard.  Inside our “portable desks” are materials we can use for documenting our learning.  We are all learning how to keep our knapsacks organized and take responsibility for the extra masks and layers, hand sanitizer, “sit-upons” and school supplies.

This year, we will be deepening our understanding of land education and collaborating with Doug Anderson, who is one of the co-authors of Natural Curiosity 2nd edition: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Children’s Environmental Inquiry.  We will explore a pedagogy of relationships, and honour land as first teacher.

There are extensive resources that connect Outdoor Learning to the Ontario Curriculum.  These Kindergarten-Grade 8 activities were created by the Peel District School Board Field Centre Instructors.  Please share other resources that are supporting you to do this work.

Teaching Beyond the Land Acknowledgment

In order to minimize exposure to COVID-19, many educators will be teaching and learning outdoors.  This is a wonderful opportunity to re/connect with land, explore environmental justice through inquiry, and integrate First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples’ knowledge and perspectives throughout the curriculum.

As a non-Indigenous ally and accomplice, I am learning about the critical importance of teaching through relationships.  This year, I will be teaching Grade 2 and I hope to be outdoors every day, learning with, through and from the land around our school.  We will use environmental inquiry and land education to explore the “big ideas” of gratitude, reciprocity, and respect, as we critically reflect on land in the context of colonial settlement.

Whose Land?

In every school, the day begins with a land acknowledgment of the traditional First Nations, Metis, and/or Inuit territories that the school is situated upon.  This is an important way to honour Indigenous protocol and understand ourselves in relationship to land.  It can also be a call to action to decolonize schools and recognize Indigenous sovereignty.

In “What are land acknowledgments and why do they matter?” Indigenous writer Selena Mills invites us to think about how land acknowledgements connect to reconciliation and justice.  Land acknowledgements are an important way to honour Indigenous peoples’ kinship beliefs, deep connection, and relationship to land.  They can also be used to unsettle colonial narratives and hold all of us accountable to our responsibilities as treaty people.

This year, our school days and entry times might be staggered, and many students will be learning remotely, but I hope that educators will continue to begin each day with a land acknowledgment.  This can be shared orally and/or it can appear visually at the top of your virtual classroom.

Call to Action

It is our responsibility as educators to deepen our understandings of Indigenous protocols, history, world views and perspectives, and to integrate these teachings throughout the curriculum.  These calls to action are clearly outlined in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report, which are endorsed by ETFO.

After learning more about the diverse communities that have lived and continue to live on the land, students can demonstrate their understanding by writing their own land acknowledgement, and include actions that they will take to care for the land.  Here is a template from Amnesty International to consider.

Where Do I Begin?

Every time I teach about lived experiences that are not my own, I approach the new learning with curiosity, humility, and respect.  I position myself as a co-learner, actively listen, and share my own questions and learning process with others.

I reach out to families and invite community members to share their knowledge and teaching with us, paid for by Parent Council funding and/or my classroom budget.

I search for resources that are culturally relevant and responsive, written or created by the communities we are learning about.  I site the voices and sources of the texts we are using, and focus on narratives that celebrate resistance, love, beauty, innovation, pride, and achievement.

With my students and their families, I try to create a community of collaboration and curiosity.  At the beginning of the year, I will encourage reflection and critical thinking about the questions, “Who am I?” and “Where am I?”  Throughout the year, I will use the Land Acknowledgment to:

  • share stories about our multiple and diverse relationships to land
  • ask questions and learn about the original inhabitants and caretakers of land
  • identify and disrupt settler colonialism and systemic racism
  • learn about treaty agreements and Indigenous rights
  • encourage deep connection and gratitude for our relatives
  • acknowledge our collective responsibility to protect land
  • explore and honour our family journey stories
  • engage in acts of solidarity with Indigenous resistance

As we (re)story our relationships to land, we can begin to transform schools, and build relationships of mutual trust and accountability between Indigenous and Settler communities.  Teaching beyond the land acknowledgment is a powerful place to start.

ETFO Resources

ETFO has developed outstanding resources to support the integration of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis perspectives in the classroom.  Ask your Teacher Librarian and/or Administrator to bring these inclusive texts into the school:

You can find additional resources, including posters, webinars, and literature at: www.etfofnmi.ca  You can also find excellent articles in ETFO’s VOICE magazine.

Additional Resources:





Please share any other resources that you use in the comments below.  Thank you!


Full Disclosure: I am a proud and active ETFO member who feels grateful every day for the privileges I have as an elementary educator.

In the last 17 years, I have met educators and activists from all over this province who are passionate, committed, smart, innovative, creative, and brave.  I am inspired by the collective strength of our membership, and ETFO’s ongoing commitment to equity and social justice.

Professional Development

As a classroom teacher, I have participated in many programs offered by ETFO’s Equity and Women’s Services, as well as ETFO workshops, conferences, and Summer Academy courses.  This professional learning has supported me to deepen my teaching practice, build relationships, develop leadership skills, and find my voice.  ETFO facilitators and instructors are strong, and they always bring an inclusive, anti-racist/anti-oppression framework to their practice.

I strongly recommend visiting the ETFO website regularly to find out about professional development opportunities that are available, and to work with your local union to bring ETFO workshops to your area.  Search: “Supporting Members & Local Leaders: Equity Workshops”

Mobilizing for Justice

Last year, I participated in a powerful ETFO program called “Mobilizing for Justice”.  At the time that I applied, I had no idea that our school year would be impacted by job action and COVID-19.  This program supports women members to learn what it means to be an ally in social movements, and to develop an action plan in their local communities.  I used the opportunity to create a BBSAT: Building Better Schools Action Team to increase engagement and political action.

As we prepare to return to work, I am using our BBSAT to mobilize and organize families to support what we need for a #SafeSeptember.  You can find resources to create your own BBSAT at: BuildingBetterSchools.ca.

Recently, I joined OEWU: Ontario Education Workers United.  They are actively working with Ontario Parent Action Network and other community groups to fight for the schools our students deserve.  OEWU have organized many resources to empower members to mobilize for justice in our schools.  Check out these resources: linktr.ee/oewu

Union Steward

Another way to get involved in ETFO is to become a Union Steward.  In my first year of teaching, I shared the Union Steward role with a mentor teacher.  Working in collaboration with 1-2 other staff members helps to build relationships across divisions and supports effective communication, especially in a big school.  Last year, during our contract negotiations, I really appreciated the support of my co-Stewards.

Union Stewards participate in training throughout the year, which is an excellent way to learn about your local and provincial union, and to appreciate the importance of solidarity and action.  This training has prepared me to advocate and collaborate with staff, families, and community members.  I have also made a lot of friends and allies!

Annual Meeting

If you really want to appreciate the power of the union, you should attend an Annual Meeting, which is held every year in August.  This is an opportunity to meet educators from all over Ontario, hear reports from ETFO officers and committees, ask questions, participate in elections, vote on resolutions, and receive a line-by-line financial report of how our membership dues are spent.  It is exhausting and exhilarating!  ETFO members work hard, and they know how to celebrate and honour achievement.  The annual dinner is always a highlight!

Every other year, the whole delegation participates in United Social Justice Actions.  This year, ETFO will take action on anti-Black racism and will re-affirm its commitment to develop policies, professional learning and curriculum resources to hold members accountable and push for systemic change in schools.

You will find excellent resources created by ETFO members at: www.etfo.ca.  Search: “Building a Just Society: Anti-Black Racism”.

Re-Think, Re-Connect, Re-Imagine

This year, I am honoured to be joining the writing team at ETFO’s Heart and Art Blog.  I look forward to learning with you during this transformative year as we explore pedagogies of hope and healing.

The 2020-2021 school year will be challenging for all of us, but it can also be an opportunity to transform the way we teach, learn, and assess.  It will require us to collaborate, to think critically and creatively about pedagogy and possibilities.  As my wise ETT colleague Ayesatta Conteh says, “May we rise as we re-imagine.”