read a little bell before the bell

I love to read. It wasn’t always like that though. After taking a literature heavy course load through high school and university, I swore off the printed word for a spell.

It wasn’t absolute avoidance or aversion. I did read the paper from time to time, although selectively. When I took a job in broadcasting during the early 90s, my self imposed reading embargo was over as a boatload of reading came with my job as newsreader, DJ, and local reporter. Even though reading was a key part of those workdays, there was not much desire to do so outside of work.

Fast forward to 2007. 

I’m back in university trying to finish a degree that started in 1984. The interweb had become the main source for reams of digital texts and other content from online libraries and newly prescribed course materials. Once again reading became more like work rather than a daily getaway and reward. I struggled to read anything more than what was required. 

As such, it took some time to find a genuine motivation. About 2 months in, it began to change when by some bit of fortune, the text(s) started became so much more relevant to my life as a 40 something adult. I’d like to call this my mid-life renaissance, but fear it maybe considered a bit to melodramatic. Whether it was a personal essayist, scientist, or philosopher it was as if reading no longer felt like assigned work, but rather as tools  intended to strengthen my heart and mind as an educator. It’s 2022 and my reading game is still going strong. 

Teaching Community by bell hooksThis leads me to my most recent read Teaching CommunityA Pedagogy of Hope by iconic educator bell hooks.  Although it took me a bit of penny pinching to add to my collection, it is worth every dollar. I can’t wait to share this text with others who, like me, are on a journey to create inclusive communities in their classrooms.

Please note: I am not naive enough to think that one book could be the lever that moves all barriers and mountains, but I truly believe that the ideas in this text can be leveraged to make a difference when and where they are applied in our classrooms. Be advised that this book contains much “thought fuel” and plenty of feelings too. 

The greatest feelings I had throughout reading this text were this strange sense of acknowledgement and validation. I may have thought and felt many of the ideas shared, but hooks has organized and articulated them so perfectly and has gifted us with an opportunity to reflect, respond, and put community into action. 

I guess what spoke the loudest across the chapters was an emphasis on disrupting the status quo through compassion and community in education. Reading Teaching Community encapsulated my goals as an educator in a personal and professional manner. I love how hooks puts it,
“…the most powerful learning experience we can offer students…is the opportunity to be fully and compassionately engaged with learning.” Creating this space requires 3 things; commitment, courage, and compassion. None will work unless combined with the others. Notice how curriculum wasn’t mentioned? As @callmemrmorris often reminds us via Twitter. “We teach students not curriculum.”

hooks continues, “Refusing to make a place for emotional feelings in the classroom does not change the reality that their presence overdetermines the conditions where learning can occur.” We have to see our students where they are and not in the spaces we want them to fit within. We have to acknowledge that everyday comes with a raft of emotions that rise and fall. Teachers need to be prepared to accept the highs and lows that happen at the speed of learning. Whether a student is sad, anxious, joyful, angry or a combination they are showing us that they do not feel emotionally safe in that moment and will struggle to be truly present as a result. How we choose to respond to them in those moments will determine whether they feel seen and a part of the community or like an outsider looking in. 

hooks also shares, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” This is probably the hardest space to occupy as educators. We were conditioned through past experiences and pedagogy to be the centre of our classrooms in the past. However, what was thought to have worked back in the day, was really only a means of perpetuating dominant culture in order to maintain power over students rather than respecting and sharing power with them and empowering them as learners. 

Can you tell that I love this book? hooks also discusses the intersectionality of identity and identity in academia. She writes with clarity and candour that challenged my perspectives while affirming them at the same time. This is why I share that everyone should read a little bell before the bell and I know this will be one of those texts to read over and over as my career continues. 

Happy page turning.

it can wait

Welcome back. 

I’d like to start this year of posts off with a few doses of gratitude. 

Thank you for not rushing towards that photocopier.
Thank you for resisting those urges to cover desks with papers.
It can wait.

Thank you for not going willingly towards that textbook.
Thank you for resisting those urges to get down to business so quickly.
It can wait.

Thank you for not going quickly towards those tests for, as, and of learning. 
Thank you for resisting those urges to assess from the start.
It can wait.

Thank you for not going gently towards getting back to “normal”.
because whatever” normal” was, is no more. 
“Normal has left the building.” 

I share these moments of thankfulness with you as acknowledgement of the incredible work happening throughout elementary schools in Ontario. I see how you are prioritizing students above all else this month by establishing community first. It was clear from day 1 walking around my new school, from check-ins with caring and committed like-minded educators around the province, and via social media that this is exactly what is happening. I am hearing stories of caring climates coming to life where students are feeling included, welcome and connected first in classrooms everywhere. 

Thank you for choosing to establish safe, inclusive, and caring community as that crucial first cornerstone to hold up their classrooms regardless of minstry blustering and ad content. In the past, this was not the priority when law and order, worksheets, and “what did you do over the summer?” tasks were the focus during those first weeks back. Students can tell when it’s authentic, relevant, and when they feel welcome/seen. 

Thank you for thinking of these first few weeks, not as a the chance to make up for some perceived lost time, but rather as an investment in the next 40+ to follow. By taking the time to establish genuine channels of connection before all else, students are going to feel and trust that they are the ones you are teaching and not the curriculum which, by the way, will wait. 

And while I’m at it, thank you for taking the time to read this too. 
Cheers to another great year ahead at the speed and joy of learning. 
W!ll

 

Amazing Race to the End of the Year

This year, I am so excited to bring back a game I played with my French students years ago: The Amazing Race.  If you are looking for a fun activity to consolidate student learning, this is a great way to motivate your pupils in the last few days, easily adaptable to any subject or unit.

The challenge that I had the first year I tried it was determining how to make equitable ‘teams.’ I was concerned that by letting students choose a partner, the group project mentality of “don’t pick _____ so we aren’t last” would come out and two top students would dominate the standings each day. Sometimes putting kids into pairs based on “close or similar” levels can work (e.g., and A and B student, a B and C student) and eliminate the compulsion for extroverted students to dominate an activity or the frustration or a student with differential learning needs who can’t keep up with the partner. In the actual Amazing race seasons, there are tasks with various skills needed so the idea is for students to see that everyone has a strength that can be used at some point in the ‘competition.’

I also try to put in some elements of the show that give the students a chance to show good sportsmanship. One year, a particularly strong team finished in a round with an “express pass” that could be given to another team to get a head start the next day. Instead of choosing another friend pair, these students graciously gave the pass to a classmate that had found the last round challenging because “we know that he tried really hard.” I like to think that this small act of kindness showed him that like in the Olympics, there are moments for competitors to demonstrate that winning with the right attitude can be just as important.

Every year when there are Field Day or other end of the year events, I try to encourage students based on a story I heard a father tell at the memorial service for my friend, who passed away while we were still in high school. The father told a heartwarming anecdote of how his daughter, who had petit mal epilepsy, chose to compete in a foot race and came last due to a lack of physical coordination. Watching tearfully as the medals were handed out, one of the coaches took her aside and explained that instead of coming last, she had really come seventh: because there were many other students who had chosen not to participate. Whatever the reason for sitting out the race, even if they were ahead of her with physical skills, she had demonstrated that by showing up she was willing to do her best for herself intrinsically. Years later, this is the attitude I try to instill in students: if you just show up, sometimes that can be enough to prove that no matter what day you are having, you have done your best.  And yes, this is naturally something I think about in my teaching philosophy as well.

 

E is for Equity (part 2)

I am back again for part 2.

I hope you enjoyed (or planned to enjoy) some of the books from part 1 of E is for Equity.

After reading And Tango Makes Three (by: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell) to my Kindergarten class very recently, I need everyone to stop what they’re doing and read about the immediate reactions my young learners had to the story.

The story is about 2 penguins in the Central Park Zoo that fall in love and hatch an egg together. This story is so fun and exciting for the listeners as they watch Silo and Roy become the proud penguin parents that they always wanted to be. The penguins Silo and Roy are both boy penguins.

My students burning questions at the end of the story:

  • “What do penguins eat?”
  • “Do penguins eat polar bears?”
  • “I went to the zoo once!”
  • “Can I go to the bathroom?”

N – The Name Jar 

Written & Illustrated by: Yangsook Choi

O – One Love

Adapted by: Cedella Marley

Illustrated by: Brantley Newton

P – The Proudest Blue 

Written by: Ibtihaj Muhammad, &S.K. Ali

Illustrated by: Hatem Aly

Q – Lubaya’s Quiet Roar

Written by: Marilyn Nelson

Paintings by: Philemona Williamson

R – R.J Palacio (Author & Illustrator)

We’re all Wonders

S – Sulwe

Written by: Lupita Nyong’o 

Illustrated by: Vashti Harrison 

T – And Tango Makes Three

Written by: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell 

Illustrated by: Henry Cole

U – Under My Hijab 

Written by: Hena Khan

Illustrated by: Aaliya Jaleel

V – Susan Verde (Author)

I am Human

Illustrated by: Peter H. Reynolds

W – When We are Kind

Written by: Monique Gray Smith

Illustrated by: Nicole Neidhardt

X – Except When They Don’t

Written by: Laura Gehl

Illustrated by: Joshua Heinsz

Y – Be You!

Written & Illustrated by: Peter H Reynolds 

Z – Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story

Written by: Shirin Shamsi

Illustrated by: Manal Mirza

sounds

I love walking around and peeking into classrooms – especially at my own school. As a SERT, it does not seem as weird when I show up unannounced in the middle of a lesson or work time since I am always in and out over the course of a day. In the spirit of transparency, my curiosity has found me marveling in rooms at other schools too. There is so much to see each time the opportunity presents itself. Long before ever becoming an educator, I was wont to wander off the tour when given the chance – still do.  Now that I am, it would be great if we all had more time to visit each other’s amazing learning environments. 

Each of my visits offer informative insights into these incredibly and creatively constructed spaces. I’ve even made some friends along the way as a happy coincidence when my curiosity leads to conversations after compliments. I think every educator wants to check out what is going on in other classrooms, but we are given little opportunity to do so while siloed in our own schools. Wouldn’t it be fun to swap places with a teacher of the same grade for a week to experience what they do and vice versa?

Admittedly, that wonder and awe comes with a hint of professional jealousy as well. I think of the time, effort, thought, and sweat it takes to make learning come alive within them. It is a gift to work among so many talented and caring educators. Each trip to another educator’s classroom is guaranteed to give me a boost of energy and inspiration. Now imagine what would happen if we all had the time outside of our own walls?  

This has occured to some small extent during family of schools events or one-off PD sessions that happen occasionally. I always love it when another educator visits my classroom. It is validation. It definitely keeps me on my toes and, like watching a movie with your own children, you notice things that you might not sans visitor(s). 

I know that when folx come by my room, they do so with an open invitation to my classroom. Over the years I have welcomed delegations from Brazil, Denmark, and Sri Lanka. Not to mention system admin types from time to time. I always wonder what they must feel like to be back in the classroom? What do they remember from “their days” pacing the rows and teaching. What did it look like? What did it sound like? 

For me, their is this constant soundtrack playing in the classroom. Each day it constructs itself out of the rythym and melody of which we all play our part.

Now, I bet you thought it was something like a cross between Brazilian Thrash Metal, Opera, and Worldbeat and it kind of is however the beautiful noise that gets made is more of a melodic cacophony to accompany the magic that happens wherever and whenever students are being taught. If you listen close enough, you here the soundtrack that accompanies a live rocket launch or cornerstone being laid. It could come in the form of a question or a response and the a “Wait! No, I meant…” followed by an answer and mini-exhale. It could sound like 26 pistons each firing perfectly to accomplish a task or like the timed pops of fireworks at 10 pm on a summer holiday (all safety precautions observed, of course). These are the sounds that reverberate off of pastel painted cinderblock walls. 

Sure I could put on some Lo-Fi Hip Hop or share my Productivity Workflow playlist from Spotify, but they could never compare to the intersection of lives and learning going on each day. 

Like our students, the sounds we hear in class have their own rhythms. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as productive noise. It can be unnerving to new teachers who enter the classroom still holding on to their own experiences as learners, but now nearly a decade past those carefree days from K to 8. At risk is losing the energy in a room when order is the only expectation. Teachers each need to work out and manage their “acceptable noise” levels with students. We must also be willing to renegotiate these terms from time to time. Setting routines and irreducible minimum expectations starts in September, but must be consistent from then to June. 

This might require a few changes to be achieved. With the sun burning brightly and birds chirping, the energy/noise levels in classrooms seem to be set to 11 out of 10. As such, a little more outside and movement time built into the day has helped. I am also adding in more time to productively self-direct or collaborate. My recent art classes saw us touring the school and then partnering up to co-create something. Through all of this, the room was filled with creative conversation with only a few moments of chaos.

I wonder whether someone else would hear it that way if they visited? I guess there is only one way to find out. 

 

E is for Equity (part 1)

I’m a new teacher.

I’m always looking for books to add to my library that support the inclusive, equitable and culturally responsive environment I strive to achieve in my classroom. This school year, I have been investing in books that celebrate diversity to ensure that all students see themselves reflected within the Kindergarten program. I have been in search of stories by BIPOC authors, stories that celebrate differences, and stories that share messages of inclusion to add to my collection. I decided to create an A-Z list of stories that I love. This list is far from exhaustive and there are MANY amazing books I could have added. The stories below from A-M are stories that were appropriate for my Kindergarten class, but could definitely be read to students beyond Kindergarten as well.

If you are a new teacher looking to begin your picture book collection, this one’s for you!

A – Alma and How She Got Her Name

By: Juana Martinez-Neal 

B – Black is a Rainbow Colour

By: Angela Joy

Illustrated by: Ekua Holmes

C -Bilal Cooks Daal

By: Aisha Saeed

Illustrated by: Anoosha Syed

D – Don’t Touch My Hair

By: Sharee Miller

E – Eyes That Kiss in the Corners

By: Joanna Ho

Illustrated by: Dung Ho

F – Forty-Seven Strings: Tessa’s Special Code

By: Becky Carey

Illustrated by: Bonnie Leick

G – The Gift of Ramadan

By: Rabiah York Lumbard

Illustrated by: Laura K. Horton

H – Hair Love

By: Matthew A. Cherry

Illustrated by: Vashti Harrison

I – I am Enough

By: Grace Byers

Illustrated by: Keturah A. Bobo

J – Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You

By: Sonia Sotomayor

Illustrated by: Rafael Lopez

K -Suki’s Kimono

By: Chieri Uegaki

Illustrated by: Stéphane Jorisch

L – Love Makes a Family

By: Sophie Beer

M – My Heart Fills with Happiness

By: Monique Gray Smith

Illustrated by: Julie Flett

Pop Culture in the Classroom

The first week of May has two important pop culture events: May the Fourth and Free Comic Book Day.  These fan celebrations are great ways to connect to student learning and camaraderie both in and out of the classroom.  More and more, students are interacting actively with media in terms of their interest in characters and immersive communities.

When I was growing up, the May 4th “Star Wars Day” existed only as a pun and has exploded over social media the past 10 years.  Most of my colleagues knew of my fondness for this space franchise and when the day began to be celebrated with fun tie-ins for kids both young and old, I naturally incorporated it into my classroom.  I was particularly excited for this year’s being the first in person occasion in three years and the first since arriving to my new school two years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised when colleagues showed up in some Star Wars hair and shirts with stuffies of various characters, and since our principal encouraged us to be inclusive and call it “Space Day”, there were many star and moon ensembles as well.

Students enthusiastically showed up at nutrition break to my room wearing various outfits, including some in costumes.  They participated in word searches, Mad Libs, and fun poses against a galactic backdrop.  What pleased me the most was that many years ago, mostly only boys would have these shirts and plushies on hand.  The fan culture has catered more and more to all genders with various characters and positive representation that appeals to a wider variety of fans.

Free Comic Book Day is a wonderful opportunity to check out the local comic book store and begin the journey to learning about superheroes and villains in graphic novel form.  Students enjoyed drawing using step by step videos of characters from their favourite cartoon shows and were encouraged to check out events at their local library.  Once again, more inclusivity in terms of characters’ backgrounds and ethnicities leads to more children seeing themselves represented on the big and small screen and in the pages of books that are a great resource for a variety of reading styles.

The terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ can be used to negatively stereotype both neuro-divergent and neural typical children with interests and personalities that don’t ‘fit’ into society norms.  It’s empowering to see students embrace ideas that being a fan, whether comics or sports, is something that can introduce lifelong friends and talents.

Curtis Carmichael- an inspiring teacher and activist

On March 4th, my school staff was lucky enough to listen to one of the most passionate guest speakers I have ever heard. His name is Curtis Carmichael and a talented author, teacher, speaker and activist. He is best known for his bike ride across Canada, striving for change in his Toronto community. He is also known for writing Butterflies in the Trenches, the first augmented reality book of its kind. I will include his website here in case you wish to learn more about his story and specifics.

Carmichael discussed many powerful topics with us, the first one being our job as educators. Here are the things he highlighted:

  • Unwrap each child’s gift
    • Carmichael is a firm believer that every single child has a gift and its our job to “unwrap it” and see for ourselves what makes them so special.
  • Prepare them for the real world
    • Carmichael mentions the importance of not running away from the community where they grew up but looking for ways to make it better. The real world will introduce new challenges for them after their educational journey and we need to prepare them for those

As for his book Butterflies in the Trenches, Carmichael encourages educators to read it with their class and to use the teacher guide it comes with. As he puts it,

    Butterflies in the Trenches is the candid story of Curtis’ life in the public housing projects in Scarborough, Ontario, where he grew up surrounded by trap houses, attending underfunded schools, and avoiding drive-by shootings. He shares raw and intimate stories from his childhood as a drug dealer and hustler and explores the effects of poverty, systemic racism, and police brutality on Black and low-income communities.

His story is so important for other children to hear as they grow up in similar surroundings. Hearing what he did was a meaningful story that all in the room were beyond inspired by. The opportunities he is presenting for young Black Canadians is outstanding and I shared his story with my class the Monday following this presentation. They had many questions about his journey across Canada and all that he has gone through.

Other ideas he speaks about are co-creating classroom activities with your class. Asking them what works and what doesn’t and going from there. I know the year is quickly wrapping up but there is still time to get everyone on the same page. He also mentions “Gamification” which is turning educational premises into games. This will encourage participation from the students in your class and will get them more engaged in their learning.

After Carmichael’s Zoom call ended, I thought about how to continue inspiring community in my classroom. I did an activity with them on the Monday where I asked them about their definition of community. These were their answers:

  • big group of people
  • BLM
  • a large amount of people in a group that agree on a specific topic
  • civilization
  • a place where people work, live and get along

I was saddened to see that “our class” or “a school” didn’t quite make it on the list. I will work harder to create community in my classroom and continue to look at activities that will engage all. The more initiatives that we take on as a class, I find it brings us closer together. We look forward to perhaps celebrating another spirit day as a class or creating a “Pink Day” for the entire school with the other 7/8 students. I was grateful for Carmichael as he reminded me of the importance of community and how co-creation is such a great way to start.

I look forward to sharing about how my students react to his book after we receive our copy next week.

Carmichael on Twitter: @CurtisCarmicc
Instagram: curtiscarmicc

 

Understanding Gender Neutral Pronouns

There is no doubt that I am very passionate about addressing issues related to equity and social justice, especially any work related to anti-oppression, anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia. For me to fully understand and advocate for social justice and equity, it is important that I am aware of current challenges, barriers and inclusionary practices. However, I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of gender neutral pronouns requires further learning and understanding to ensure I am respectfully honouring the identities of staff and students (in fact, all people) in my community. So, I did some research for my own professional growth and I found out some interesting facts that I would like to share with you. 

It is understood that people who identify outside of a gender binary most often use nonbinary pronouns that are not gender specific. These include: they/them/their use in the singular form. However, I learned that there are other pronouns that are used, such as: ze (pronounced “zee”) in place of she/he and hir (pronounced “here”) in place of his/him/her. This was new learning for me that opened my eyes to the ways in which I address individuals and the assumptions I often make about their identities.

Assuming one’s identity and choice of pronouns based on how they look and/or how they dress can be false and disrespectful to one’s gender identity and gender expression. I learned that pronouns may or may not match one’s gender expression, such as how the person dresses, looks, behaves or what their name is.

In recognition and commitment to equity and inclusionary practices, as well as the Human Rights policies in Canada, it is encouraging to see more people, including workplaces and organizations, supporting individual’s use of self-identified pronouns, in place of assumed pronouns based one’s sex assigned at birth or other’s perceptions of physical appearance. It might seem a simple gesture to some, but it’s an important recognition for others. It’s about letting someone know that you accept their identity as they are. 

The response to the following questions might help you better understand gender pronouns and how you can affirm someone’s gender identity:

What’s the right way to find out a person’s pronouns?

If I was introducing myself to someone new, I would say, “Hi. My name is Gary. I use he/him pronouns. What about you?” However, do keep in mind that for many people who don’t identify as cisgender, it could be more difficult for them to share their pronouns, especially in spaces where they don’t know people and/or they don’t feel comfortable or accepted.

How is “they/them” used as a singular pronoun?

“They” is already commonly used as a singular pronoun when you are talking about someone and you don’t know who they are. Using they/them pronouns for someone you do know simply represents a slightly different way of thinking. In this case, you’re asking someone to not act as if they don’t know you, but to use non-binary vocabulary when they’re communicating with/about you.

What if I make a mistake and ‘misgender’ someone, or use the wrong words?

I would simply apologize for my error. It’s perfectly natural to not know the right words to use, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Consider addressing groups of people as “everyone”, “colleagues”, “friends”, “class” or “students” instead of “boys and girls.” The important thing is making that non-assuming connection with the person and being open to learning new things and new ways of understanding one’s identity. 

What does it mean if a person uses the pronouns “he/they” or “she/they”?

That means that the person uses both pronouns, and you can alternate between those when referring to them. So, either pronoun would be fine. However, be mindful that some people don’t mind those pronouns being interchanged for them, but for others, they might use one specific pronoun in one context and another set of pronouns in another context/space, dependent on maybe safety or comfortability in the space they occupy. The best approach is to listen to how people refer to themselves.

ETFO has a wealth of resources to support your teaching and learning of gender neutral pronouns. I found their Social Justice website very helpful in my research and understanding of gender neutral pronouns. In fact, ETFO has plenty of ETFO 2SLGBTQ+ Resources for students of all ages.

Mentoring Moments: Time Management 101 for the New Year….

This New Year, I wanted to encourage you to manage your time, your busy time, your spare time and alone time. I can’t think of a better time to blog about this topic than now as we make new years resolutions for the up coming year ahead.

I can honestly say that if you organize your time well as a teacher, you will be able to have work during work hours and build your family and friendship lives separately and explore life the way you would like…

As a mentor or mentee at any given moment in your teaching career, time management skills will help you accomplish everything you want and not burn out in your profession. Remember it’s a career and you need to explore the learning opportunities, balance life and enjoy the moments as we teach daily. So, here are my thoughts. Please feel free to share yours…

Strategies that have worked for me!

  • Using a calendar that is user friendly
  • Goal setting weekly
  • Timed To Do List with daily, weekly and monthly goals

Plan with a Backwards Design in mind

  • Plan the ending of your lesson first.
  • Then plan your teaching goals.
  • Then plan the steps that will take you to the goal.
  • Consider student input in how you plan things out.
  • Set those learning goals for your students and lesson.

Maslow vs. Vygotsky vs. Bloom

  • Put the needs of the students first, with high expectations on what you expect them to do.
  • Remember all students have to feel like the belong to make significant contributions.
  • Let students guide the lesson pace and ideas.
  • Make the space so that you can advocate for your students.
  • Remember “RELATIONSHIPS” are the key.
  • Inquiry with gradual release of responsibility has been my secret to being successful.

It is always important to draw connections between Maslow’s basic needs to ensure they are met and Vygotsky’s learning expectations as we develop skills for students.

Photo credit: for the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs graphic.

Photo credit: for the  Blooms Taxonomy graphic.

 

Photo credit: for the Vygotsky’s philosophy graphic for Inquiry based learning.

We build amazing lesson expectations so that we can guide discussions and lead students to think with higher order thinking skills when approaching problems. We encourage students to look at situations that they face with a problem solving mentality in order to develop their comprehension skills, and resilience.

Reflection: What were your New Year’s resolutions as an educator? Write them down with timelines. SMART goal them. That’s my goal for you as a reader of my blog!

Yours in Education,

Nilmini