thank you

It’s been a while since I’ve gushed, but as I was driving to school this week, I started thinking about ways I could show more gratitude for all of the good things that are happening in my professional life. This got me thinking about the staff at my school. In each aspect of the organization, there is much to be appreciated from our incredible office staff, caretakers, EAs, CYWs, DECEs, and admin. In that spirit, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Since this the core of readers of this blog are ETFO members, I will continue before the music plays me off and before being escorted off the stage. Here goes…

Thank you for putting in all the hours that make a difference in the
lives of learners before, during, and after school. 

Thank you for being the only smile that a child might see each day.
Thank you for being the hand that reaches out to a student who is feeling big feelings.
Thank you for being the one who comforts in times of uncertainty.
Thank you for being calm, considerate, and caring when things are not going well. 
Thank you for making sure that new kids feel welcome from the moment they
walk through your doorway. 

Thank you for teaching the basics.
Thank you for teaching the basics over and over again. 
Thank you for teaching the tough stuff.
Thank you for teaching the tough stuff over and over again.
Thank you for teaching morphemes, phonemes, and graphemes.

Thank you for providing accommodations regardless of identification(s) or not. 
Thank you for teaching number sense and problem solving,
and for teaching it over and over again. 
Thank you for extending due dates when needed,
and for allowing retests when things don’t go well the first time. 

Thank you for working hard over the summer to prepare for curriculum changes
even though you should be taking time to rest and recover from the prior year.

Thank you for teaching about truth before reconciliation. 
Thank you for ensuring that Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) are represented in your instructional resources.
Thank you for reading culturally relevant stories that allow all students to see themselves within them.

Thank you for creating safe and engaging classrooms where everyone feels seen.
Thank you for ensuring that students feel seen and know that they matter.
Thank you for seeing that every learner is 10 out of 10 at something, 
and for helping them discover and develop their unique talents. 
Thank you for hosting a GSA meeting and for displaying a “safe space” sticker. 
Thank you for running clubs and coaching teams. 
Thank you for spending recess after recess sitting in your classroom so students can catch up on their work.
Thank you for making accommodations that support the faith expressions of learners. 

Thank you for helping each other out by sharing resources. 
Thank you for answering questions and offering guidance to those who have recently entered our wonderful profession. 

There is always time for gratitude in this profession and this is my chance to show my appreciation if I haven’t mentioned it enough above. Thank you for all you do. Will

Book Reviews: Outdoor Learning

In my last post, I wrote about rethinking my own relationship with the outdoors. Here are two amazing books that have truly inspired me to take teaching outside. I think they are worth a read for any aspiring or experienced outdoor educator!

Literacy Moves Outdoors, by Valerie Bang-Jensen

In a moment when mental health and wellness are top of mind, there are fewer things more powerful than spending time outdoors. There are days when I spend more time on a screen than I want to admit, and I am always amazed at how much better I feel after disconnecting and walking in fresh air for an hour. With kids using tools like Brightspace or Google classroom to access resources routinely, it is important to bring learning outdoors as much as possible to counterbalance the screen time.

The question that remains is how: how do we take outdoor learning beyond exploring, being in an outdoor classroom, or focusing solely on science-related subjects? Valerie Bang-Jensen shares her solutions in her 2023 book, Literacy Moves Outdoors.

For me, Literacy Moves Outdoors was a refreshing read after a year of professional learning about reading instruction and phonemic awareness. Bang-Jensen’s resource is all about how educators can take literacy learning: vocabulary building, decoding, storytelling, and more into outdoor spaces like school yards and gardens. And you don’t need to be in a nature reserve or field centre!

For example, she explains how hopscotch can be used as Elkonin boxes, the ins and outs of creating a story walk using picture books and student created texts, and how signs might be used to help students to develop questions. As a teacher of English learners, I could visualize how all of these activities might be used to build vocabulary and literacy skills, even for emergent learners.

Literacy Moves Outdoors is extremely practical for teachers and a pleasure to read or listen to on audiobook. Unlike a lot of of other educator books, there is less focus on the theoretical underpinnings of the pedagogy, and more on actual activities educators can do with relative ease. In a school context where the mental health and well-being of students is an increasing priority, Bang-Jensen delivers a book that will get educators excited about taking students outdoors.

Dear Street, by Lindsay Zier-Vogel

The last few years have been tough on cities. In my social media scrolls, it is rare that I come across a post on Toronto without dozens of users either commenting negatively on the city or broadcasting how happy they are that they left. As a longtime resident of Toronto, I’m always surprised at the online vitriol: I think it’s a great place to live and yes, has problems just like anywhere else.

When I came across Zier-Vogel’s book on one of my Instagram scrolls, I was immediately drawn in. Here was a picture book that was both a story about writing, gratitude, and being in love with the city or place you live in. The story is about a child named Alice who hears the usual complaints about the city and community: “too crowded”, or “too warm!”

Alice responds by writing “love letters” to her city, leaving her notes on park benches, piles of leaves, and other places they can be found by her neighbours, future friends, and fellow community members. “Dear Park,” she writes, “You are the perfect place to picnic, especially in the summer.” Her notes put a smile on people’s faces, and remind us all to be thankful for the beauty in our everyday surroundings.

What I love about this book as an educator is how it centres the urban outdoors and the power of gratitude. The book is gorgeously illustrated with the colours of passing seasons. Diverse characters spring to life on every page. Perhaps most importantly, Zier-Vogel connects the acts of writing and reading to outdoor spaces, creating a wonderful prompt to get students of all ages penning a love letter to their environment. I could immediately see the book as part of a lesson for language arts and social studies.

Both Literacy Moves Outdoors and Dear Street are excellent additions to your school’s library. They will not fail to inspire you to take learning outdoors!

Women’s History Month

Women’s history month is this month and ETFO has shared the poster with members via email. Click link to be brought to a PDF of the poster:  ETFO Women’s History Month Poster

Many shocking and thought provoking dates on this poster as it deals with many challenging topics. I am going to have my class (history, language, art, etc.) select one of the important dates on the poster and do some extra research about the topic. This is a great cross curricular opportunity as there are so many great ways to assess their learning.

Other activities I will try incorporating:

  • Poster for a specific event (as there is so much great information on the etfo poster)
  • Presenting their information to the entire class that they discover about their topic of interest 
  • Announcements for the school so they can learn more about each topic 
  • Infographic about their specific topic 

I look forward to sharing some of their finished products but I wanted to post this as the month has just begun and perhaps some people hadn’t looked at the poster yet. But I think it’s a great opportunity as I’m sure most of our students are unaware of most or all of these moments in history. 

The Global Competencies Through STEM

As I was starting this post, I started cracking up. “On the Road Again” came to mind so I had to stop and figure out whose song it was. I don’t think that I have ever heard the entire song by Willie Nelson but the words immediately came to mind. I’m at a new school and in a new role once again! I’m continuing the work that I’ve done in the past as a STEM teacher but Library has also been added to my timetable which is a new experience for me. I’m excited for the opportunity to partner with junior teachers at my school to support students in STEM learning. 

For many of my classes, I started off with an introduction to STEM and an explanation of the TDSB’s Global Competencies, particularly since they are prominently displayed in our Library Learning Commons. For those who may not be familiar, the Global Competencies are a set of attitudes, skills and knowledge that we support students in developing over time that allow students to be able to navigate the world effectively. Through the development of these skills, we hope that they support students in contributing positively to society. 

These are sometimes big themes for little people to conceptualize in a concrete way so we’ve been working on challenges and explicitly talking about how we might use and work on improving on these skills as we work. And the skills aren’t happening in isolation. As part of our cup stacking challenge, students were reminded of the importance of problem-solving in their groups. For some of the challenges, they quickly realized that they had to flip their cups and that it would require them to effectively communicate with one another. In some instances, groups chose to take turns selecting a person who would be the leader, making sure that there was one person who was directing their collaboration. Some groups got creative in how they maneuvered the cup flips or taller stacks. Along the way, we continued to reinforce the fact that these were the skills that we were working on.

At the end of our challenges, we’ve been asking groups to reflect on the skill that they thought they did the best in and the skill that they feel the need to work on during our next challenge. The students have been so reflective! They are learning that part of effective communication is not only in the way they speak to one another but how we also listen. They are learning that being a leader doesn’t mean doing everything but also knowing how to communicate with your team in order to ensure that everyone is doing their part. As they work to problem solve, they’re learning that there isn’t just one way that works but that we can solve problems in a variety of ways. We’re failing and learning that the process and how we worked on these skills is more important than what the finished product may look like.

Thoughts from a New Occasional Teacher – Part 1: Safety Tips

My career as an occasional teacher has just begun and it certainly is rewarding. I like being able to choose my workdays and make time for other activities. These are the benefits of working after retirement. Being a supply teacher has its challenges though so let’s look at some of the ways to have a safe and successful day as a new OT.

If I am new to the school, I usually give myself enough time to tour the school and property. It’s important to find the washroom, office, SERT room, photocopier, gym and library.  I like to borrow a book to read aloud. I’m looking for opportunities to build relationships quickly and I have a knack for silly voices so if I read a Robert Munsch book or Elephant and Piggie I can win most of the younger students over that way.  A joke book or trivia book is a handy tool for older students.

Safety has to be the priority so it’s very important to review any safety plans relevant to my day. This applies not only to students in my class but also any students I may encounter during my lunch or recess supervision. I ask myself these questions as I read the safety plan:

  1. What are the steps to take if the student is refusing to listen or do work?
  2. Is there a calming space in the classroom or in another room? If so, what are the routines? Who is allowed to use it and when?
  3. What is the protocol if the student displays behaviour that could injure themselves or others?
  4. Are support staff working with this student? How can they be contacted if they are not in the room? Who is the back-up staff member?
  5. Are there verbal or visual cues to help this student get on track? 
  6. Are there helpful routines for transitions such as recess, eating time, or gym.
  7. What will happen in the event of a fire drill or lockdown practice?
  8. Are there preferred activities or leadership roles to involve the student?
  9. Are there other staff members nearby who have a good rapport with the student when their teacher is absent?
  10. If use of technology is in the plan, what are the expectations?

As hard as it might be, if I’m in a new place I try to connect with other staff members. Building relationships with colleagues helps me when I have questions and need assistance.  Many other staff members have been in the occasional role and have sympathy for difficult situations that may arise. 

Beyond the safety plan, there are other tips and tricks to having a joyful day as an OT.  More ideas to come in part 2!


sssh, our students are trying to tell us something

Chaotic, cacophonous, raucous, lively, spirited, loud, energetic, full of beans, demanding, and too loud are all words that have been used to describe my classes over the course of my career. I have also heard irreverent (not disrespectful), confrontational (willing to challenge the status quo), and demanding (using their voices when things ain’t right) too, but that has been mostly in a positive light. To be truthful I have really come to appreciate their ebullience and passion when it comes to occupying their learning spaces. After all, it’s theirs. We just get to work within it.

Until this year, there has been one word not heard describing my homeroom though – quiet. Perhaps it is because we are only 4 weeks into the new year or that this group is still trying to figure out their new teacher (good luck to them) or that I have been blessed with a room that is 80 percent filled with phlegmatic and introverted personality types. Needless to say, the silence has been a bit deafening because this group is q-u-i-e-t.

What’s that you ask? How can a group of 6th graders possibly be quiet? I know, right? Yet, here we are about to take off on a little thought flight.

This year has me thinking about the approaches I am taking with this clearly unique grouping of oddly quiet scholars. Will it last? Am I jinxing myself by the mere mention of their tranquil behaviour? Is this what teaching is going to look like going forward in the post pandemic era of constant connectivity? After all, this group was in grade 2, just learning to fly, when they were grounded for nearly 3 years. How come there seems to be fewer relentless participants than in years past?

Do I need to build more quiet, reflective, and self-directed time into my day? Could this finally be the group that will meditate with me? Do our discussions need to be in smaller groups so those reticent voices have a chance to be heard? How do I honour the A-types because every classroom needs them too?

I started browsing about and found a line that encapsulates what I am seeing right now.

“Behind silent people there is an incredible thinking machine working.” ~Tina Panossian

I know that my quieter learners are working hard. I know that they are figuring things out on the inside rather than where it can be seen. For whatever reasons they choose to work this way, I will do everything possible to make them feel safe, feel seen, and know they are intelligent.

Here’s what has worked so far; the use of no hands participation, peer to peer discussions, and small group conversations. Each of these have helped me ascertain the information necessary to know when we are in full flight to our desired destination or whether we have lost all engines and are bracing for a rough landing somewhere uncharted. Either way, we are on this journey together. Perhaps this group prefers to plug in the headphones and read rather than talk with the folx sitting in their row?

Yet, despite not having much turbulence I think that there is still a lot of work to come in order to chart the best course in navigating this unique group. The world needs introverts. The world needs deep thinkers. It is in these two truths that I get really excited thinking about what can happen if the right conditions get created to give them all flight. All I know now is that there is a chance to build something new into my instructional spaces that might be a benefit to every learner. 

I think an update post will be forthcoming in December. 

Thank you for reading and reflecting with me. Please keep the conversation going in the comments.

Remembering why

On Friday, September 29th, our school board wore orange shirts to remember the mistreatment of Indigenous children in residential schools. As September 30th is the national day for truth and reconciliation, Friday was the day we recognized  this date in schools. 

This year, one of my students who just arrived in Canada a few years ago asked why we do this every year. I gave him the best answer I could, mentioning how important it is to learn about the mistakes of our country’s past and to work towards reconciliation. He understood that but didn’t understand why we were watching the same story as last year. So this year I decided to have my students reflect on some of the key takeaways of reconciliation.

  • How genuine are apologies? Do they change what happened in the past? For this, we watched several videos of apologies made to Indigenous communities  
  • What can you do in your life to make sure you never try to change someone? We reflected on how all these children were assimilated after their arrival to the schools and how their rights and freedoms were taken away
  • We shared how learning about this each year is part of the truth and reconciliation process and that it is an important part of the work that still needs to be done

However, the “why” on Friday made me remember that the “why” should always be the central focus of all of our lessons. If we don’t know why we are teaching something or starting some project, we haven’t really thought out our lessons. If there is no end goal or why, then we need to re-examine our work and try again. Which is why I am so glad I was asked that on Friday, I needed to remember what I wanted the learning to be. I worked backwards from there.

Another important thing I remembered this year was that our newcomers may not know about this history of our country and it may be a lot to tell them at once. I had some of my students translate the central ideas around Orange shirt day but fear it may have been too much to handle. Next year, I look forward to planning ahead of time with an ESL teacher to think how I can make this learning more accessible for all.

As we reflect on our past and how we can better shape the future, I think about our new language curriculum with the Indigenous focus of many expectations and look forward to planning and focusing on the “why”. 

Gardens in September

As I begin my second year blogging for Heart and Art, I find myself being carried along by the wonderfully-frenetic pace of the fall. Although I have been a teacher for many years now, the speed at which September flies by always manages to surprise me … after a whirlwind of welcoming new families, getting students settled, and creating first language profiles for classes, October is nearly upon us!

New students and new languages have once again added vibrancy to our learning communities. It has been nothing short of joyful to see students using first languages to communicate with each other, to negotiate lessons and learning materials, to express themselves and their knowledge. 

In one of my final blog posts last year, Gardens in June, I talked a little about this kind of vibrancy … the end result of centering students’ linguistic repertoires, celebrating students for all that they are and, from those essential foundations, seeing  student growth.

I also talked a bit about a nearby community garden … 

As I mentioned in that post, I always like looking at that garden as I pass by. And last June as I drove away from the school, I approached that familiar intersection where the garden sits and took one final look. The leaves and plants had gained ground, stretching over the soil in green clumps. I knew something interesting was sure to be growing, but couldn’t yet tell what.

Over the summer the garden slipped from my thoughts completely. I did not think of it again until a couple of weeks ago, as I made my way to the school for my first visit of the new school year. Pre-occupied with to-do lists and deadlines, I rounded the corner and saw a flash of brilliant yellow, nearly a block away.

A row of towering sunflowers greeted me as I approached the intersection. It was a perfect image, really. Standing at attention, strong and sturdy, these uniquely beautiful plants were what had taken root from those tiny beginnings. Now they stretched to the sky, golden orbs mirroring the countenance and motion of the sun.

This year I am looking forward to new growth and new adventures … the language curriculum and what it means for multilingual language learners, finding ways to centre and affirm all students’ languages and identities, and creating safe spaces where everyone feels welcome. 

Dedicated educators always rise to the challenges of any given year, giving their best for students no matter the circumstances. This year will be no different. And through it all, as we tirelessly support student belonging and growth, I’m going to keep the hopeful image of those sunflowers close. 

All Good Things…

We’ve all heard the saying, “All good things must come to an end”.  Blogging for the Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning has been an honour and a learning experience. Starting in 2017, I wasn’t sure what I was walking into and yet, here we are in 2023 and I can honestly say that I have learned a great deal. This is my last year blogging for the Heart and Art and in this post, I will share some of what I have learned.

Black Women’s Voices Are Needed in Education

The title alone should suffice and really needs no explanation but I’m happy to go a little more in-depth. In June 2020, I wrote a post about Crazy Hair Day. In it, I shared personally about my hair journey and the number of Black women who reached out to share similar experiences and feelings around the day was shocking. Not because I saw myself as being the only one who experienced trauma in school related to hair but because there were so many and that in 2020, we still felt as though our voices and objections to these days were not being and continue to not be heard.

Black women have a lot to say in the world of education based on our lived experiences as students of the system and also as we navigate it as teachers. I believe that our experiences are unique and as we continue to have conversations related to equity, those experiences need to be heard and change needs to happen. While that post was written over 3 years ago and there were many conversations in schools happening around spirit days, I wonder what has changed. And that’s just one area that needs to be interrogated. How are Black women and their experiences in education being valued? There are certainly a number of policies that have been created and I’m interested in how that leads to action. 

Growing a Thicker Skin

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about work that I have done in the classroom. When I look back, it’s sometimes shocking to see what I have done in the past and how it’s no longer a practice that I would consider doing today. I’ve grown as an educator because of conversations I’ve had, books I’ve read and opportunities to reflect. 

Over the last couple of years, there have been people who have chosen to critique my work in public rather than having a conversation directly with me. While I know that my work is public and open to scrutiny as I post it, there are moments when it doesn’t sit right with me. It’s in times like these that I am learning to grow a thicker skin. It’s not that I’m above reproach but if you’re really interested in making me a better teacher, reach out. Share your incredible strategies and work with me. Comment on my post and let’s have a conversation. I sometimes find it interesting whose work gets critiqued and this is probably another reason why we might need to continue to listen to the voices of Black women.

Reflection in Practice is Essential

I mentioned before that there are some things that I have written about in the past that wouldn’t make the cut now. Blogging has etched these in my educational journey and I’m so grateful for it. I’ve seen ways in which I have grown over the years through reflection and it excites me. Taking time to be reflective and understanding ways in which I’ve needed to change my thoughts or actions has made me a better teacher. Teaching is a practice. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We have so many opportunities to learn and grow in education. Let’s work towards doing better.

I look forward to what this year will bring in my blogging adventures. To those whom my work has impacted and whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting on this journey, thank you. Let’s have a great year!

Student of the Month?

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about in my Radical Dreaming Year, is the notion of Student of the Month. In my years of teaching, we’ve always had some kind of monthly assembly or recognition where the Student of the Month is presented an award. In my last grade six class, one of the students told me that he had gotten the responsibility award every September since junior kindergarten. “Eight years running,” he joked. By the time he graduated he had a full decade of September Responsibility Award Certificates!

For a long while, the student of the month criteria had been pre-determined by someone unknown to the school community who felt children should be recognized for things like responsibility, courage, trustworthiness, etc. These character traits were displayed on a beautiful banner as the ones demonstrated by exemplary students.

I’ve also been in places where criteria has been based on academic achievement. There was a little more flexible thinking here, in that it allowed some space for discussion amongst educators about what achievement means to us. It could be the highest mark, it could be the most effort, it could be taking risks, or something else entirely.

In my last school, our staff was beginning a journey about rethinking student of the month recognition. We wanted it to be authentic and important for students to feel that the assemblies and gatherings were community building, a place to celebrate one another, and perhaps learn and share with the school. Classes would share what they were learning about and perhaps a small slide deck featuring some work or students speaking at the microphone. I think this was the most authentic and interesting of all the assembly styles!

As I think about what Radical Dreaming means to me this year, I’m wondering if I missed the opportunity to build something with students and community in the school. Imagine if I asked the students, what do you think our monthly assemblies should look like? Perhaps they would only come up with some of their past experiences (after all, that’s where my mind goes), but maybe we could dream about other possibilities, like learning opportunities, like an art show, or a guest speaker, or something else entirely! At my last school, the entire school community would sing the school song together at every assembly, led by teachers, and it was incredible!

I wonder what parents might like to let us know about assemblies. Parents, who are able, will attend gatherings and it’s a great time to be part of the school community with their children. We want them to attend and build partnerships with us. What do they think is important to recognize? What might they like to see happening at assemblies and gatherings?

I think about my own children. Some of them received awards annually – but some of them did not. How do they view themselves and their abilities in school? How does that influence what they think their teachers see and feel about them? What would they like to see happening? Could we find a way for every child to participate or be recognized? It’s not about “everybody gets a medal”; it’s about seeing something good in every child at school so they feel like they belong and are seen.

Radical dreaming takes time and community. I know that in the meanwhile the traditions may still be in place while we start to think about our beliefs, build alliances and trust with students and families, but we can work together to build something new. It may look several different ways before we find something we love – and it may feel overwhelming, so we take it slow and steady. Building community is a process and it’s in the process that we build meaningful relationships.