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Educating for Social Justice

This past March, I was able to attend the workshop Educating for Social Justice at the ETFO Provincial Office. It was an incredible experience! Sharing space and learning with other like minded educators is always so cup filling. The connections and conversations with other women were so meaningful over the course of the workshop.
To me, social justice in education is multi-faceted. It includes the way we interact with and care for students. It is a mindset that values diversity, equal opportunity to tell one’s story, and celebrates all identities. In this workshop we had so many examples of how to embed social justice in the daily classroom.
Dr. Stephanie Fearon, from York University, was the incredible keynote speaker. Her address was titled “It’s More Than Just Teaching: Storying Liberatory Learning Spaces”. She focused on storytelling and it’s importance in the classroom. I loved the way she used storytelling to share about her own family and identity. She invited us to be active learners in her presentation, and to critically think about how we tell stories and how we might unintentionally perpetuate stereotypes.
Something that I really appreciated was how Dr. Fearon framed the critique circle for us. She demonstrated a lesson for us and asked us to critique the lesson. She had us repeat that we ‘do this in service of the educator’ to ensure that everyone knew a critique was different from criticism. The idea that educators should seek critique of their work when we are striving to better our teaching practice was at the heart of the idea of a critique circle. We are all seeking to improve our practice and build trust in our fellow educators to give feedback that is meaningful and important.
Next, was a presentation by Jen Matsalla titled “Who Am I? Using Visual Arts to Explore Identity”. In this interactive workshop, we had a wonderful community building activity with open ended questions and the opportunity to think and explore our identities and the identities of others. I loved that everyone could have an entry point and it was low risk art activities that would be accessible to every student. Each table created a collaborative arts piece and we put them all together on the floor to make a large, beautiful collage of art.
We had the opportunity to listen to Michelle McKay’s presentation “Engaging in Teaching and Learning About Truth and Reconciliation in the Elementary Classroom”. This incredible early years educator shared with us her experience of working in kindergarten to provide opportunities to build students’ relationships with the land in a meaningful way. The activities she shared helped students to see themselves as stewards and in partnership with the land and community in their neighbourhood. She also shared a video clip with us of students as activists, appealing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for better care of the environment. It was so inspiring!
Lastly, we participated in a series of hands-on activities thanks to Gail Bedeau and Helen Vlachoyannacos. Their workshop, “Teaching Critical Literacy through a Social Justice Stance”, had us thinking about all kinds of texts, from visual designs to short stories and poetry. Using a variety of different strategies, these educators had us work through different tasks to experience and consider how we might use these strategies in the classroom at different grade levels to have students interact meaningfully with texts that share identities and social justice themes.
This conference is a must for educators! As an educator, it was a wonderful opportunity to learn with and from others’ experiences. I came away so inspired by Dr. Fearon’s presentation, with a full toolkit of strategies to use in the classroom, and great connections with colleagues across the province. If you’re looking for the chance to really think about how you can embed social justice into your classroom and teaching practice, this is a great place to start. Hope to see you there next year.

Bringing Culturally Responsive Learning Outdoors: Part 2

In part one of my post, I talked about the importance of breaking from narratives about the outdoors that do not serve the communities we teach. What are some next steps we can take toward helping students feel a sense of belonging in the Canadian outdoors?

We can start by reimagining outdoor learning from a stance of cultural responsiveness.

In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond provides an anti-oppressive and anti-racist framework for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners. While I will even attempt to summarize her entire work, I want to draw your attention to a few key ideas that will help us make our final learning goal actionable.

Based on Hammond’s framework for culturally responsive teaching, here are 6 approaches we can use as outdoor educators to support student well being.

A graphic of a tree that explains different elements of culturally responsive approaches to outdoor learning, such as leveraging representation, recognizing the difference between individualism and collectivism, positionality, and creating supportive, trauma-informed learning spaces.
Culturally Responsive Approaches to Outdoor Learning, inspired by Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

1. Know and Own your Privilege

To assume a culturally responsive stance, it is important to be aware of your own social position in the outdoors. Explore the following questions:

What is your relationship with the land you inhabit?

What is your proximity to power?

How might you use your understanding of your intersected identities to rethink the way you plan and program for learners?

You can use tools like the Wheel of Power and Privilege to reflect on your social position so you can be better prepared to practice compassion and listen openly to others, especially the students you work with.

2. Leverage Representation to reduce social and emotional stress

Studies over the last 20 years indicate that historically, racialized and marginalized groups are underrepresented in the outdoors. As a kid, I remember reading the popular story of outdoor survival, Hatchet, and then still seeing it taught in schools as a much older educator. Does anyone here know that book? It’s absolutely riveting – but there are lots of other great choices to offer students in today’s increasingly diverse publishing world.

Representation matters, and when students see and hear stories where they can see themselves and their community in an authentic way, the impact is powerful. And I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of authenticity, because there are many books that will tell the same stories but simply change the colour of the character’s skin, especially in picture books.

The publishing industry, like many other media platforms, have started to diversify its cent. As someone who has rarely ever seen people that look like me show up in books and media, I can personally attest that the shift in representation has been exciting and identity affirming.

3. Recognize the difference between individualism & collectivism and how they show up in different activities.

Let’s move on to the next culturally responsive approach, which is to recognize the difference between individualism and collectivism, and how they show up in different activities.

Individualism is typically associated with Western societies that value traits like independence, competition, and achievement without any outside help. Many cultures outside of Canada are more oriented toward collectivism, which is associated with interdependence and community.

We don’t always realize it, but the games we play and the activities we plan often reflect deep cultural values. Many outdoor activities celebrate and explore individualism, conquest, aggression and competition – which may not be valued by all communities. As a result, some students may experience a lot of discomfort when engaging in such activities.

For a more culturally responsive approach, incorporate outdoor activities that encourage community building, self-reflection, and personal wellness. Providing different options for kids to choose from can go a long way in fostering a connection between your students and the natural world.

4. Broaden your understanding of how different communities interact with the outdoors.

This brings me to the next approach, which is to broaden your understanding of how different communities interact with outdoor spaces.

It is a powerful practice to honour the different ways students and their families already engage with the outdoors as a foundation for learning.

People from different cultures bring different knowledge about the outdoors and the environment. As an educator, it is totally worthwhile to talk with students about what they do with their families outside, what types of clothing they wear in different conditions, and how their communities connect with and interpret nature.

They may camp, play sports, visit the beach, picnic, play music, or gather in large groups. Some communities may cope with environmental challenges differently, especially if they have arrived from a climate that is significantly different from Canada’s.

It is important to understand these differences so we can better respond to student needs and help them to feel more confident in challenging physical environments. Talking about nature in this way also builds cultural competence, and positions students as partners in learning with educators.

5. Make instructions, activities, & information comprehensible and relevant to students and families.

Next, let’s talk about the importance of making instructions, activities, and information comprehensible and relevant to students and families. As a teacher of multilingual learners, I cannot stress enough how important it is to bridge communication gaps between the school and home. In an outdoor learning context, where there is often an element of risk, maintaining clear communication is critical.

In my school board, more than half the learners are multilingual and in the process of acquiring proficiency in English. They often have families that are also learning the dominant languages in Canada. It is becoming increasingly commonplace for students to arrive with limited and interrupted schooling due to environmental events and political crises.

When we are engaging in land based and outdoor activities, it is important to know linguistic variability among students so you can provide appropriate scaffolding to make the learning, information, and instructions comprehensible.

Create a supported environment by pairing or connecting same language speakers during lessons, adjusting the pace of your speaking, or by using physical gestures to help students understand whatever activity you are engaging in.

Communicating with families about outdoor learning in the school in the languages spoken throughout the community may also help families feel more secure and confident when field trips and offsite learning is being offered. They will also know more about the role of outdoor learning in their child’s education.

6. Create supportive, trauma-informed environments that cultivate a desire to explore, play, take risks, and experience awe.

Finally, I want to talk about the last approach: create supportive, trauma-informed environments that cultivate a desire to explore, take risks, and experience awe.

Newcomers to Canada and marginalized communities often experience economic and physical barriers to outdoor spaces and may not come with the same background experiences as their peers. Though outdoor learning challenges that involve risky play are excellent ways for students to build confidence and problem solving skills, it is important to understand that some students may approach the activity much differently based on their lived experience and background knowledge.  Challenge and support students based on their level of safety and comfort.

Take into consideration that some students may have complex relationships with recreation and play. This is something I struggle with personally as a child of immigrants. My parents worked a lot, especially during time of economic uncertainty, and play and relaxation was something I believed needed to be “earned” or “worked for”.

In her book “Permission to Come Home” – which I recommend for any of my East and Southeast Asian colleagues here today – Psychologist Dr. Jenny T. Wang writes about the difficulty many communities have accessing play as a result of learning in childhood that play must be postponed for survival. As educators we can use this awareness to support students in finding their way to play so they can experience its gifts: rest, joy, creativity, and the freedom to explore and experience awe in nature.

Finally, with any activity, know your learner, especially if they have experienced recent or significant trauma that may impact the way they show up in the outdoor learning environment. Leverage nature as a resource for practicing activities that reduce anxiety or provide an outlet for releasing difficult emotions, such as meditation or other sensory activities.

An Excellent Standpoint: Teaching cultural perspectives from a vantage of excellence.

In the realm of education, embracing diverse cultural perspectives not only fosters understanding but also cultivates excellence. Each cultural group brings unique experiences, wisdom, and contributions to the society we all participate in. As educators, we should seek to delve into the pursuit of excellence within diverse cultural groups, emphasizing their rich heritage and the invaluable insights they offer to educational discourse. Thus, incorporating learning about ‘Black History’ within Ontario’s curriculum in grades 7, 8, and 10 is a step in the right direction.

Many cultures epitomize resilience, creativity, and innovation. These tenets have reshaped history and inspired generations. Educators committed to excellence incorporate the achievements and struggles of diverse individuals into their curriculum, especially cultures and narratives often left untold or intentionally omitted. By highlighting excellence areas like literature, music, art, and activism, educators empower students to recognize their potential for greatness while understanding the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.

For example, Indigenous cultures epitomize a profound connection to land, community, and tradition. Indigenous peoples have preserved their languages, ceremonies, and sacred practices despite historical injustices, embodying resilience and strength. In educational settings, excellence is found in honouring Indigenous knowledge systems, environmental stewardship, and cultural revitalization efforts. Educators committed to Indigenous excellence engage with Indigenous elders, integrate Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum, and foster respectful relationships with local Indigenous communities. By recognizing and celebrating Indigenous excellence, educators instill in students a deep respect for Indigenous cultures and inspire them to become allies in pursuing Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

Similarly, Black history encompasses a tapestry of civilizations, philosophies, and innovations that have shaped human history. From ancient wisdom to modern advancements, Black cultures have made indelible contributions to science, technology, and the arts. In educational contexts, excellence in Black heritage is celebrated through exploring classical literature, philosophical teachings, and artistic traditions. Educators committed to teaching about Black excellence promote critical thinking, cultural exchange, and global citizenship by engaging students in dialogue about Black history, contemporary issues, and cross-cultural connections. By fostering an appreciation for Black excellence (which is woven into the very fabric of North America), educators prepare students to thrive in an interconnected world and embrace diversity as a source of strength and enrichment.

Diverse heritages embody legacies of faith, scholarship, and cultural exchange that span continents and centuries. From the golden age of civilization to the present day, many cultures have excelled in fields ranging from astronomy and mathematics to architecture and literature. In educational environments, excellence in these varied heritages can be upheld through the exploration of art, ethics, and intellectual traditions. Educators committed to teaching from a lens of excellence foster an atmosphere of inclusion, dialogue, and mutual respect by promoting intersectional understanding, challenging stereotypes, and addressing phobias that stem from biases unconsciously developed through deficit teaching. By embracing contributions to human civilization and presenting intentionally diverse representation to all students, educators empower students to recognize the interconnectedness of cultures and appreciate the richness of diversity in all its forms.

In pursuing educational excellence, embracing diverse cultural perspectives is not just a choice but a necessity. By celebrating the excellence inherent within all cultures, educators enrich the learning experience, inspire critical thinking, and foster a sense of belonging among students. Through dialogue, empathy, and a commitment to inclusivity, educators can cultivate a generation of leaders who appreciate the value of diversity and strive for excellence in all they do.

“If we want to create change in Canada – if we want to have more people from communities who aren’t only represented – the answer isn’t to move towards tokenization and propping people up. The answer is to give people the tools to prop themselves up.” – Sarah Jama (Sarah Jama is the co-founder of Disability Justice Network of Ontario).

“Black history is not just for black people. Black history is Canadian history.”- Jean Augustine (First Black Canadian woman to serve as a federal Minister of the Crown and Member of Parliament).

Mindfulness Through Art

I’ve spent my life being really critical of my artistic abilities so this blog took me out of my comfort zone!  Lately I’ve been wanting to give myself a chance to create art, especially after learning that putting your hands to use can be an excellent way to relax your brain and get some good feelings from dopamine. 

There is data to back up the theory that busy hands are good for your brain. Knitting, painting, carving, needlework, cooking, gardening and so many more activities that use our hands also help us feel happy and calm.  Studies by neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert explore the effort driven reward cycle.  She believes that moving our hands to produce satisfying creations may help prevent depression and have other positive benefits on mental health.

Applying this science to ourselves and our classrooms could very helpful! Lambert encourages us to get off screens and put our hands and minds to use in more productive ways. 

I’ve included a suggestion for an art lesson. You could definitely do this with a class but honestly I also do it for myself. My brain needs a break too!

What you need

Paper – watercolour paper is great but try experimenting with old music sheets, pages out of discarded books, box board, etc

Watercolour paints – I have very inexpensive ones

Small paintbrush – since this is very blobby art, the brush doesn’t matter much

2 containers of water (one for washing brush and one for clean water to add to paint)

A marker, pen, pencil crayon or crayon

Scissors and glue (optional)

Technique

  1. Use masking tape to frame the paper and attach to the work surface.
  2. Draw curvy  intersecting lines with your marker – many of them
  3. Where the lines intersect make them thicker and  more curved
  4. Spray your water colour paints with water and let them sit for a minute 
  5. Dip your brush in and paint one of the empty spaces.
  6. Continue filling the empty spaces with colour.
  7. Allow colours to mix or leave each blob as a colour of its own.
  8. Let it dry.
  9. Options: 
  • Fold it and use it as a card.
  • Cut out shapes and glue them on a card.
  • Frame it!

If you enjoyed this activity then I encourage you to follow Andrea Nelson on Instagram. She often references that creating art soothes her brain. Her videos inspired me to do this!

A piece of white paper is taped to a table. The paper has intersecting black wavy lines drawn with marker.
Draw the lines freely.
Photo by the author.
The painting is partially complete with a variety of water colour paints mixing together around the wavy black lines.
Thicken the lines and smooth out the intersections. Add watercolour paints.
Photo by the author.
A heart shape has been cut out from the painting and glued on paper that is folded in half. Scissors are in the foreground.
This card is going to friend.
Photo by the author.

 

 

seasons

seasons May 2024

This May seemed more like dismay, and there is not a thing we can do about it. It’s in the books.

As the sun sets on our 9th month of teaching for this school year, I am finding it hard not to mumble a bit more due to fatigue. It’s not just mumbling either. To be transparent here, I am speaking a bit more slowly, writing a bit more slowly, teaching a bit more slowly, assessing a bit more slowly, and on top of it all, I seem to be walking a bit more slowly too. Now before you dial 911 on my behalf, I am otherwise in passable physical condition. I have cut down on the caffeine, tried to be more active, and have increased my sleep times. Despite that little health flex, everything is just happening a little more slowly. 

My friend commented that I might be suffering from A.G.E.. Bwahahahahaha!

If this was my first year in the classroom, I might have needed to take a day to visit the doctor, but I know that the way I feel as June draws nigh, is largely a function of time; time of year, and time in environment. Definitively and definitely. 

So how could these two factors be the cause of my compounded confusion? It’s simple. So far, there have been 170+/- instructional days to plan, deliver, assess, and repeat subject over subject. Even with a fairly balanced amount of holidays, PA days, breaks, personal illness, family illness, and weekends this work takes its toll on body and mind. These past few weeks have come with a certain heaviness and have me feeling like it is a good time to hibernate rather than frolic in the fields. I find myself really craving quiet solace instead of seasonal solstice. 

Regardless of the current sources of my discombobulation, it seems like I can’t be the only one feeling this right now. Come to think of it, I have been noticing that there is a different set of seasons in this job. Here’s what it feels like as I type this post;

Sept to late October = Spring
late October to March = Winter
March to May = Spring, then Winter again
June = Spring, then Summer

This may not line up meteorologically or anywhere else except in my perception of education, but my physio-emotional barometer has read like this pretty consistently year over year. 

Maybe a better way to make sense of my seasons can come from acknowledging that we all have them and go through them in our own way. Truth be shared, my quasi-psyentific explanation above is quite falsifiable. Could this all be more a function of my current situation with another round of reports due soon? Is the internal weather that I am experiencing only a mental anomaly? Why am I struggling instead of dancing down the hallways with only one month of school left? I think there are three big reasons. 

First, the past 9 months have taken a toll on me mentally and physically. Running teams, mentoring sessions, and clubs in addition to the planning, instruction, and assessment comes with its costs. Time is finite and so are energy levels. The need to fill our tanks is undeniable. I also would not have it any other way. 

Secondly, there is a lot going on in June. Reports, EQAO, room moves for some, grads, school moves for others, and of course an extra demanding challenge of keeping the learning happening as the temperatures continue to rise. I have resorted to a resort styled wardrobe to beat the heat. Classy and cool. 

Thirdly, I am going to miss my students. Like every year, this group has really grown on me and we have come so far together.

As I try to snap myself out of this odd out of season stupor and into true June mode I am going to double up on my down time, continue to teach a little more slowly, linger longer in conversations with my learners, and take a little more time to take each of the coming moments all in knowing that another season is already on its way.

Experiencing Outdoor Learning at Take Me Outside 2024 Conference

Finding your place as an outdoor educator can be a challenge at first. You may not immediately see the connections between the outdoors and the subjects you teach. You may also be curious about which pedagogical frameworks and approaches will make sense for your classroom.

This is where an organization like Take Me Outside can make a critical difference. Take Me Outside (TMO) is a Canadian education organization dedicated to getting students and educators engaged with outdoor learning. What is wonderful about TMO is the various events, professional learning sessions, and materials it offers educators in a variety of contexts.

I highly recommend any and every educator to explore TMO’s website to see the full range of resources and activities they have organized for educators. The work is inspiring and fulsome.

I had the unique opportunity of joining TMO for their annual conference this year. Jade, a team member with boundless energy and passion for outdoor learning, invited me to present on the topic of student well-being at the conference months before the event took place. She had found a blog post that a colleague and I had co-authored about inclusion and belonging in the outdoors, and was interested in having us share our work.

To be honest, I was surprised and a little intimidated by the offer: as someone that doesn’t actually work in an outdoor education department or taken their outdoor education additional qualification course, I felt a bit underprepared. And against all of my rational thoughts – I agreed.

What I did not expect was the journey of learning I would undertake to write the presentation. And I certainly did not imagine how transformative a conference could be when I arrived.

The Journey

Presenting and facilitating professional learning isn’t something new for me, but researching and writing an entire presentation for hundreds – in an area I felt like I had very little expertise – is a whole new ballgame. I listened to countless audiobooks about the outdoors, read academic papers and reports, took a wellness course, and even signed up for an Outdoor Learning AQ (which I ended up dropping when I realized it was not actually meeting my needs). Imposter syndrome was in full effect, and I used every opportunity to connect my learning to this conference presentation.

One surprise I had along the way was how much I enjoyed the process of preparation. I learned things so seemingly unrelated from my regular sandbox of English literacy and language learning, which was motivating and exciting. The personal wellness course I took with an incredible Toronto studio, SAOR, introduced me to a whole body of knowledge. Eventually, all the learning and reading started to intersect with my day-to-day work.

I re-wrote and re-published our original blog, presented at my board’s early years conference, and continued experimenting with different ideas in my writing. What started as a gracious invitation to share ideas turned into a full blown passion project that changed the trajectory of my professional growth.

a clothesline contains clothespins with different letters that correspond to cards that are clipped to the clothesline.
So many amazing presenters sharing the way they take learning outdoors, especially in the area of literacy.

The Conference

The Take Me Outside Conference exceeded my expectations. The event took place at the spectacular Banff Centre in Alberta, nestled high in the mountains with unreal views, access to trails, and wonderful food. I took full advantage of my local’s professional learning pathways to get the release time for the event.

Outdoor educators are among the friendliest, open-minded, and joyful group of people you will meet. While I ended up attending the conference on my own, I had no problem making new friends and connecting with other educators across the country.

The learning was as inspiring as the scenery that surrounded the conference centre. Workshops on the pillars of well-being, the environment and climate change, and Indigenous learning took place outdoors in the forests and seemingly unrelenting sunshine we were met with that entire week.

I learned the story and thinking behind Elder Albert Marshall and Louise Zimanyi’s wondrous picture book, “Walking Together”. Dr. Chuk Odenigbe gave a deeply insightful and beautiful talk on the issues of environmental racism, and nature as place of therapy and despair.

As one of the final presenters, there was an element of excitement and anxiety that accompanied me over the days of the conference. I fussed over my presentation, rehearsed, and took long walks. By the time I was up – I realized I had absolutely nothing to worry about. I was in front of one of the most warm, welcoming, and supportive groups of professionals I think I will ever meet. I had so many kind words of encouragement from my new friends, and hundreds of smiles from my fellow educators. We talked about the importance of holding space for each other and the students we teach, and how cultural responsiveness can be a starting point for fostering connections between diverse students and the outdoors.

hundreds of people gather in a circle at the base of a mountain. The sky overhead is cloudy.
A glorious closing drum circle at the end of the conference.

The Aftermath

I left the conference with so many feelings of excitement, connectedness, and insights about learning from the land. I have new goals for my teaching practice, and a whole new perspective on what it takes to build educator capacity on critical topics related to land based learning and play. I feel like I am right at the beginning.

First Chapter Friday

I first heard about First Chapter Friday, while listening to The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast. It can be challenging to get students to take the first step in choosing a book to read independently, try out new authors or genres, or to get excited about new books in the library. Betsy, from Spark Creativity, says whether you call it First Chapter Friday, Meet a Book Monday, Too Many Books Tuesday, We Love Reading Wednesday, or Thoroughly Into Books Thursday the premise remains the same: introduce students to a variety of different books for independent or self-selected reading.

I always loved reading the first of a series with students in my class. I would carefully choose books I loved, read the books with students and watch with joy when I saw them reading the next books in the series. I now realize that I introduced them to books I loved, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Among the Hidden, The Wild Robot, Princess in Black etc. Most of them featured similar characters and exciting adventures, but I know now that something else was missing: student voice and choice, a variety of identities and topics, different themes, etc. Maybe I, too, should have taken part in First Chapter Fridays for educators!

To prepare for this activity, choose a variety of books from your classroom or school library. In my experience, librarians always have a great list of new titles and authors and love the opportunity to co-plan with classroom teachers. Some school boards have a central lending library where you can borrow a box of different books for three or four weeks with a variety of titles or themes as an option. Then, ask yourself a few questions when choosing books to share.

Do I have books from a variety of genres? I didn’t realize my love of exciting adventure books was factoring into what I thought made a good read for the students in my class. When I looked around at the books students were reading independently, I saw that they loved comedy – Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dear Dumb Diary, Dog Man, etc. Be sure to include something similar to what they are already drawn to as well as some new genres and authors they might not have met yet.

Is the language and content accessible for students at this grade level? Have a peek through the book yourself, look up suggested age range levels, or find familiar authors you know in order to make some informed choice about reading levels and content. We definitely want students to try new stories, but we also want them to feel successful and excited about reading! Ensure that during your activity, you are offering books at reading levels that everyone can access.

Do these books offer an opportunity for students to learn about themselves and others? Are there a variety of identities and experiences represented? I suggest checking to ensure that the author is writing from a place of ‘own voice’ or is, at least, working with a member of that community to tell a story or build characters. If you’re not sure which identities to look for, try looking at the different heritage months or days of significance that are celebrated here in Ontario and Canada as a place to start. Find out the identities of the students and families in your school community. Seek out student voice: who or what events the students are interested in learning about.

Once you’ve chosen a few books to highlight, get ready for reading! Plan to read the first chapter of each book out loud to the students and while they are listening, they may be sketching or writing some of the key points of the book or story so that they can keep track of the details for each book. Remember, it’s not an assignment, it’s practice for students to use as a possible way to track their thinking. I like to think of this as another way for students to engage with reading and for them to find the method (sketching, jot notes, drawings, lists) that works best to express their ideas.

What I love about First Chapter Friday is that it reminds me of the importance of connecting students with reading and using it as a practice of interacting with text. When the educator reads the text aloud, it allows all students access to the story and opens the lines of discussion as a whole class as opposed to reading being an isolating activity. Thinking about the texts with students helps to build community and model curiosity and a love of reading. Whichever day you choose, introducing students to new books and new worlds can help build a community of readers.

Teaching Health for the first time

I just had my first go at teaching health class, and let me tell you, it was quite the adventure. Now, I know what you’re thinking, health class can sometimes bring up topics that may make others uncomfortable. But, diving into topics like healthy relationships and sexual health was actually pretty interesting and such an important topic for our grade eights to explore.

One of the strands we delved into was all about gender expression, gender, sexual orientation, and your sex. We talked about how each of us expresses ourselves in unique ways and how important it is to respect and celebrate those differences.

One of the coolest parts of our discussion was all about making others feel included and supported, especially when it comes to gender-related topics. Whether someone is questioning their identity or just needs a friendly ear, being there for each other is key. It’s all about building a community where everyone feels valued and loved for who they are.

And you know what? The timing couldn’t have been more perfect because guess what month it is? That’s right — it’s Pride month! 🏳️‍🌈 So, we took a moment to reflect on how we can make our school a place where everyone feels welcome and included, regardless of who they love or how they identify.

To spread some extra positivity, we decided to get crafty. Students partnered up and created posters with a positive message about embracing diversity and celebrating Pride month. Then, we plastered it all over the school, spreading those good vibes far and wide. These lessons I took from the OHPEA Health Lessons which are what we are using to direct all of our health lessons and to keep us on track.

I look forward to exploring more topics and connecting them to relevant topics for our students.

where it is

I have a hard time forgetting my first months of teacher’s college. It had its ups and downs as might be expected, but few to no negative experiences which is odd to think about. That time, moreover, made an indelible impact which continues 15 years into my career.

Having been out of school for nearly 2 decades working in the real world, teacher’s college was a daily mix of excitement, imposter syndrome, confusion, and wonder. By wonder, I mean wondering why I was there some days and in amazement at possibilities awaited at the end the others. 

Most of what was shared was so new to me. I am also prepared to admit I received the lessons differently than my younger, fresh out of university peers. It was nothing short of a life invigorating 180 degree turn to begin to learn the philosophies of education, and then combine them with inclusion, community, and curriculum. 

We started with Mazlow, Vygotsky, and Hume, and then were introduced to Freire, Piaget, and Schumacher. Reading the various passages chosen by our faculty instructors seemed more like another university course rather than a pathway to pedagogy at the time. It was the discussions however, that helped all of that theory (wisdom) become practical and purposeful.

And then there were my own experiences, mistakes, suppositions, and assumptions that needed to be reckoned with in order to make sense of this world I had all figured out already. What a misconception it can be to think that there was no more thinking to do. The revelation that I was still far from anything resembling a future educator was indeed a humbling challenge that served as a lesson and call to action.

I was now, afterall, a learner learning to become a leader of other learners. There were so many questions. Surprisingly, the answers did not come from others, but rather in those quiet times while journaling another reflective response. I shared with our dean that I was becoming more mirror than man through all of this. She laughed and quoted something I shared back, “You wouldn’t want to miss the learning.” 

She was right. I was right. We were right. I didn’t want to miss the learning whenever, whatever, however, from whoever, why ever, and wherever it was happening. This look back reminds me to continue seeking out the lessons in each of the spaces I am privileged to teach (learn). This can be difficult when it seems like there is always so much left to do, but from my own experience in doing so come many more positives such as a clearer sense of direction, resolve, validation, and purpose. 

We all need time to consolidate the what, why, how, when, and where are up to you. My advice is to take stock at different times of the year. For me, November, Feb, and May seem to find me doing this. I know that coincides with reporting times and I hope that it is only a coincidence. What I get out of taking the time to seek out “the learning” has led to some big shifts in my instructional approaches. 

The most significant shift occurred when I was in my first year as a homeroom teacher and had begun to get a little bored with the way things were going in the classroom. We were on schedule, the students were progressing well, and all seemed going according to plan, but the spark seemed to be missing. 

I decided to ask students what they would change about the class if they were in charge? At first they thought it was a trap. After all, how many students have ever had the latitude to speak their minds when asked to contribute to something as important as their own learning? Once I assured them that my intentions were good, they let me have it- respectfully.

We want;(the response)
“more independent learning” (how about Genius Hour or ISPs?)
“more art” (happy to add more art and will include this in Math too #MARTH)
“more movement”(movement breaks can be scheduled on the regular)
“more learning about real life” (consider it done throughout our different classes)
“more homework” (there’s always one kid to ask for this)

I also heard;(the response)
“less tests”(happy to shift to other less traditional types of assessment)
“less homework”(only work not finished in class except 30 minutes of reading each night)
“less note taking”(happy to provide notes and materials in digital classroom)

My add-ons
More conversations about mental health.
Time for mindfulness and quiet thought.
Snacks where food security might be an issue.
Focus on progress over perfection with a shift to praising hard work and fearlessness when it comes to making mistakes. 

Each time these convos happened served as a reminder that our students need to have opportunities to be heard in order to make their learning relevant where they are too. Whether they find their what, why, when, how and where in personal reflection, times of boredom, structured activities, sharing their voices or by accident. I have already done this a couple of times this year so far with one more big conversation to come. 

I have learned that we are on to something meaningful each time this happens as all of our attitudes as learners largely change as a result of these conversations. Now 12 years later, hearing from students, good and bad, is still where it is happening and helping me shape my work.

My class motto this year is, “Let’s fail spectacularly.” It is an odd rally cry, but seems to resonate with this year’s group of 6s. Through it we are all working to overcome our fear of getting it wrong and replacing it with a chance to take risks and make mistakes without worrying so much. 

As I consolidate all of this right now, I am putting everything where it might possibly belong in the thought boxes of my mind and hoping the voices who have shared in the past and now will continue the work that was started here, with us, where it was and is…

A diverse group of young students wearing convocation caps and gowns, smiling at the camera.

Fostering Excellence in Classrooms: A Comprehensive Approach

Picture By: Pavel Danilyuk

In the ever-changing landscape of education, pursuing excellence in classrooms is a collective endeavour encompassing academic excellence and holistic student development. To unveil the secrets of successful learning environments, let’s explore critical elements that educators can implement to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Begin with a curriculum designed to spark student interest and connect with real-world experiences. Align lessons with academic standards while infusing practical applications and real-life scenarios. Cultivate a passion for learning by making the curriculum an exciting gateway to knowledge.

Recognize and cater to diverse learning styles and preferences. Implement personalized learning approaches that allow students to progress at their own pace, explore topics of interest, and engage with materials personally. Foster a sense of ownership and motivation, paving the way for sustained academic success.

Establish clear expectations and maintain a positive, inclusive atmosphere. Implement proactive behaviour management strategies that create a safe and respectful learning environment. A well-managed classroom sets the foundation for effective learning and active student engagement.

Leverage technology as a powerful tool to enhance the learning experience. Incorporate digital tools and resources to make lessons more engaging. Equip students with essential digital skills for the future, embracing the benefits of technology in education.

Recognize the connection between academic success and social-emotional well-being. Prioritize the development of social and emotional skills, fostering empathy, self-awareness, and effective communication. Create a supportive environment where students feel valued, heard, and prepared to navigate interpersonal relationships.

Equipped with knowledge, teachers can adapt their strategies to meet the evolving needs of students, contributing significantly to classroom success. Stay current on the latest pedagogical approaches, technological advancements, and educational research. How do they align with your pedagogical practice? Which aspects can you adopt, adapt, or discard? Consistent review of pedagogical practices empowers the educator to effectively and responsively meet students where they are to guide them to success. 

Action Items for Educators:

Curriculum Innovation: Review and enhance your curriculum to include practical applications and real-world relevance. Seek opportunities for cross-disciplinary connections to make learning more engaging.

Proactive Classroom Management: Establish clear expectations for behaviour and create a positive classroom culture. Implement proactive strategies to address potential challenges and develop an environment conducive to learning.

Technology Integration Workshop: Familiarize yourself with educational technology tools and explore ways to integrate them into your lessons. Attend workshops or sharing sessions/events at your school to enhance your digital teaching skills.

SEL Integration in Lesson Plans: Infuse social and emotional learning into your lesson plans. Incorporate activities that promote empathy, self-awareness, and critical communication skills among students and their learning community.

Continuous Professional Learning Plan: Create a personalized professional development plan. Attend workshops, webinars, or learning opportunities that support you in staying current on the latest education trends. Collaborate with colleagues to share insights and strategies.

By implementing these action items, educators can contribute to cultivating excellence in classrooms in a way that supports students’ overall well-being and growth.