Students as Teachers: a Culture of Inquiry and Learning

“I am just going to check in on everyone and see how they’re doing” – one of my Kindergarten students said as she led her peers through a step-by-step challenge where they created a DIY ‘marble run’ out of paper tubes and tape. 

My DECE partner and I were blown away by her kindness, patience and commitment to the success of her classmates during this process. 

We have been trying to keep an open invite for all students in our class to have the opportunity to be the “teacher” or the expert on a topic of their choice. Through online learning, fewer natural moments of teaching happen from student to student like they would in a physical classroom. Hands on collaboration between students virtually can be tricky, as they lack the opportunity to share space and materials. We decided it would be more equitable to schedule these student-led activities ahead of time, in order to allow all students time to prepare the proper materials. As I move to in person learning in the fall, it is my goal to continue this practice as a means of supporting students belonging and contributing in respect to the Kindergarten program. It is my hope to further explore the benefits of fostering students confidence as teachers in the classroom as I continue to learn from my competent and capable young learners. Here are my initial thoughts:

The classroom community

  • Inviting students as teachers creates a culture of learning, respect and curiosity
  • Students teaching their peers builds community and invites students to be vulnerable and make mistakes

Through the lens of a child

  • When our students stepped into the role of educators, it provided my DECE partner and I a unique opportunity: to see the world through their eyes. Through their ideas, descriptions and step-by-step processes we were able to develop a deep understanding of the way they view the world, the way they solve problems and the way they persevere through challenges. 
  • Many children enrolled in Kindergarten programs are immersed in their first experiences of formal schooling. For some of my students, my DECE partner and I are their very first examples of educators. The way that children go about giving instructions, gaining the attention of others and providing words of encouragement can be reflective of what they see. It can be very powerful to listen to a student recite an encouraging phrase verbatim, such as “You are a problem solver!”.

Benefits for students

  • Teaching their peers provides students with the space to take risks while gaining confidence in their own ideas and abilities 
  • For the students involved in this practice as the learner, it allows them to explore new ideas or approach learned concepts from a different perspective than my own or that of my DECE partner. 

Inviting students to perform a new role as a teacher is inclusionary, culturally responsive, relevant and meaningful – which is the basis of everything I hope to cultivate in Kindergarten. 

Questions that Matter

My 7/8 students have been learning about data and how it connects to the world around them. Data is more important than ever as it relates to the way our province will go forward during these challenging times. Students were able to comment on how important data is when making decisions that impact our world. As always, I am grateful when math concepts are so easy to relate to the world around them.

I usually end the data unit each year with a survey project that would directly impact their learning. Students come up with some questions that they can ask their classmates and then we use the collected data to start something in the school. Times are challenging right now and it seemed like there was no question to pose to the student body. So, I let my students come up with some questions that matter. Here is what they came up with:

  1. What low contact sports would you like to play? (Options: dodgeball, soccer skills, badminton and volleyball)
  2. What time of day would you prefer to play? (Options: first break, second break or after school)
  3. What days of the week would you like to play? (Options: Monday to Friday)
  4. Who would you like to play with? (Options: mixed classes or class vs. class)
  5. What would you like to eat at graduation?
  6. What trips would you like to go on this year?

Of the six questions, students determined that four of them related to something we could start immediately while the other two were not necessarily good questions for this point in the school year. We started this planning period before the government announced that there could be a return to high contact sports should they be offered in schools. Provision of extra curricular activities is voluntary and a number are offered in my school.

Students got to work with this survey project. They were excited to ask their classmates sport related questions and predicted that volleyball, which has always been the favourite, would still be the favourite. A grade eight made a comment that even though they assume it will be volleyball, it would still make sense to complete the survey to see if their classmates were interested in more than one sport. Although the students in my class know that not everyone enjoys playing sports, they could not think of any survey questions relating to other topics. They noted that since these activities would be played “for fun”, that many students may come out.

Here is how the rest of the project played out:

  • Three students created an online survey differentiating between check boxes and multiple choice questions. They came to the conclusion that students should be allowed to select more than one sport and more than one day of the week but should have to chose between the time of day they preferred the most and the style of play they would most prefer.
  • My class helped me write an email to the six classes we would survey as they acknowledged you cannot just walk into a class without first planning a good time to survey.
  • Students came up with a contact-free way to survey where they had a sanitizer bottle near both devices and had students get called up row by row by their teacher to come complete the survey. They made sure that students who did not intend on participating in these activities should not complete the survey as it would skew the results.
  • We read the results and drew some conclusions.Here were our results:
    87 students completed the survey

Sports:

  • 58 students want to play volleyball
  • 24 students want to play badminton
  • 33 students want to try some soccer skills
  • 32 students want to play dodgeball.

Time of Day:

  • 38 students prefer to play after school
  • 33 students prefer to play at first break
  • 16 prefer to play at second break.

Style of Play:

  • 60 students want to play with mixed classes
  • 25 students want to play class vs. class.

Day of the Week:

  • 32 students would play Monday
  • 24 students would play Tuesday
  • 32 students would play Wednesday
  • 26 students would play Thursday
  • 30 students would play Friday
  • 37 students said it wouldn’t matter to them

Conclusions we drew about the data:

My students were not surprised that volleyball came out on top. They did however share that they did not know that many students would be interested in dodgeball and badminton as they had never been offered before. My students knew that after school would be popular but were shocked it was so close to the first break results. They knew second break would not be popular as most students go home for lunch during that time. They thought class vs. class would be the most popular as we had done a trial survey in our class and it was the most popular vote by far. The last question shocked them the most as they thought nobody would pick Monday. They were confused about the low numbers for Tuesday as it was a random day to have the lowest number of votes.

We then discussed next steps regarding our results. My students thought we would need to:

  1. Meet in their groups to discuss the results of each questions
  2. Write a small paragraph explaining the results of their question
  3. Have a meeting with the principal and vice principal to share the results
  4. Ask permission to run mixed intramurals as previously cohorts could not mix

After completing steps 1-4, the five students who shared the results with admin mentioned that at this time, we cannot mix cohorts. So we will have to run with the less popular result and explain that it could change in the future (class vs. class). Since basketball is running right now as the announcement of changing COVID guidelines allowed high contact sports, we will only have a few time slots to run these sports. As long as students see that their voice matters and their selections inspired programs in our school, then that is what counts!

Something that I did not expect to happen occurred during this survey project. One of my students made a realization that 87 students are interested in these intramurals but only 30- 40 students tried out of the team sports offered at our school. We discussed why this could be and my students came up with many great reasons. To summarize, the pressure of being on a school team may be too much for some and they prefer the smaller commitment of a fun intramural. My students assume that the time commitment of being on a team could have been too large or the pressure of a whole team depending on you being too much. I love competitive sports and I think they are great for students as it teaches them so much when being part of a team. However, I see how beneficial it is to have options for students that may not enjoy that competitive setting.

Our project has come to an end and we are excited to see how students enjoy these new activities at our school. My students will hopefully see that their questions mattered and that they will enrich the lives of students in the school. I think we will even be able to find ways to run most of these programs during DPA time (during the regular day’s schedule).

Provision of extra curricular activities is a voluntary part the work we do. It is important that they remain voluntary. Additionally, it is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic that if they are offered, they are only provided if all health and safety protocols can be observed to protect students and staff.  

“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Gender Splendour!

This year, our school community will celebrate Gender Splendour from April 6-9, 2021.  It will be our 11th year implementing arts-based curriculum that explores gender identity and equity, 2SLGBTQ+ communities, inclusive families, and disrupts homophobia and transphobia. 

Over the years, the Kindergarten-Grade 6 students have participated in several inclusive and intersectional workshops, including: Love Makes a Family, “The F-Word” (feminism), Kiki Ballroom and the History of Voguing, Toys Will Be Toys, LGBTQ+ Rights Around the World, Pronouns and Possibilities, and more! 

When I was in elementary school, my mother came out as a lesbian.  This was in the 1980’s and she told us not to tell anyone because she was afraid of losing her job.  I learned about the painful impact of fear, silence, and homophobia outside of the home.  I also learned about the power and strength of community and love, as we marched in the streets at parades and protests.  My young life as an activist and an ally has developed into a strong, on-going commitment to social justice.  When I became an educator, I was determined to break the silence and celebrate the pride and resistance of 2SLGBTQ+ communities.

All You Need is LOVE….and an ALLY:

When Shannon Greene joined the staff, I found an ally and an accomplice.  We were both creative and committed to transforming our pedagogy.  Together, we brainstormed ideas about how we might support students, families, and staff to explore and express their intersectional identities.  We gathered resources, including picture books and media texts to support these critical conversations.  We reached out to families and community members, and generated guiding questions to investigate.  We wanted to empower students to stand up to injustice and take action.  And we wanted to have fun!!   

Boas and Bowties:

We celebrate Gender Splendour during the second week of April, which includes the International Day of Pink.  This year, COVID-19 has pushed our celebration a week earlier.  In addition to wearing pink, we encourage everyone to dress-up in different ways.  These Dress-Up Days are always optional.  They are meant to be playful and fun, and create brave spaces for community members to express themselves without fear.  In the past, we have worn: Rainbow Colours, Wings and Capes, Boas and Bowties, Clothing Inside-Out, Spots and Stripes, Glitter and Glam, and Pink! 

Free to Be:

Every social movement needs a soundtrack.  Throughout the years, we have discovered several songs that make us think, and make us dance.  “True Colours” by Cyndi Lauper, is an anthem that honours how it feels to be seen.  “Same Love” by Macklemore, explores issues of homophobia and same-sex marriage.  “Stereotype” by Samsaya, invites us to stand up to injustice.  Recently, we collaborated with Freedom School Toronto, and learned about how dance can be a form of resistance.  Everyone enjoyed learning about Kiki Ballroom, and the five elements of voguing, before strutting our stuff on the runway. 

As we prepare to smash gender stereotypes and critically examine gender binary roles in our society, I am feeling reflective, grateful, and proud.  I am also looking forward to practicing my “death drop!”

Student-Led Conferences

Writing report cards and IEPs during COVID-19 was frustrating and stressful. COVID-19 has exposed deep inequities that affect families disproportionately, and it has impacted teaching, learning and assessment in significant ways. There are so many challenges to assessing and evaluating students on-line, and there are many strengths/skills that cannot be measured on a report card.

Needs Improvement
The current assessment, evaluation and reporting practices and procedures needs improvement. Ontario schools reflect a colonial, Eurocentric approach to curriculum and assessment that privileges some students over others. Report cards and IEPs measure students against standardized levels of achievement, which fail to recognize multiple and different ways of knowing. There is extensive research about the impacts of systemic racism and educator bias, which construct certain students as “failures”.

Most of our professional development is focussed on how we can meet the diverse needs of students and make the curriculum more inclusive; however, we also need to think critically about how assessment and evaluation practices reinforce racial inequity, and privilege student “success” and belonging. How might we transform our assessment and evaluation so that all students feel empowered to achieve excellence, and feel successful?

Collaborative Assessment
Student-Led Conferences are one example of how educators might disrupt traditional forms of evaluation, and facilitate a more collaborative approach to assessment. In a previous blog, I wrote about how collaborative assessment actively engages families, educators and students as co-learners, and helps to build trusting relationships that are reciprocal.

Student-Led Conferences, goal-setting and self-evaluation are powerful examples of how collaborative assessment can center student voice, support meta-cognition, and develop critical thinking and self-reflective skills. Collaborative assessment can increase student engagement and motivation, and has been shown to impact student achievement and behaviour.

What is a Student-Led Conference?
Every year, I prepare my students to facilitate a Student-Led Conference with their family in February and June. This is an alternative to the Parent-Teacher Conference, and often tells a counter narrative to the report card. Usually, there are 4-5 conferences happening in the classroom at one time, and I will rotate between families to listen and add to the discussion. These conferences can last anywhere between 15-45 minutes.

It is my hope that Student-Led Conferences support all students to feel successful, because they create meaningful opportunities for students to identify their strengths, and share evidence of how well they are meeting their learning goals. They also invite families and educators to share responsibility in the teaching and learning process.

What happens BEFORE a Student-Led Conference?
At the beginning of the year, most schools invite families to visit the classroom and meet their child’s teacher to learn about the curriculum expectations and classroom routines. During this discussion when I introduce our learning goals, I also share information about collaborative assessment and Student-Led Conferences. I explain the benefits, provide resources, and invite families to ask questions.

As we begin to build relationships and honour all of our “multiple intelligences” and different ways of knowing, I encourage students to set individual short-term goals that are “just right” for them. We talk about our strengths and struggles as we learn about different folks who have worked hard to overcome barriers and achieve excellence. Older students might engage in diagnostic surveys to find out how they feel about different subjects.

Portfolios
Every student will develop a portfolio, which will hold samples of work that demonstrate growth and learning in concrete ways. Some of these work samples will be chosen by the student and others will be chosen by educators. For example, I always include goal-setting and self-evaluation, as well as our monthly unedited, unassisted writing samples in their portfolio.

In January and June, in preparation for a Student-Led Conference, students will look through completed work, and choose samples of work that they are proud of. In my class, students staple a piece of paper to this work and write about why they are proud of it. Students also have the opportunity to look back at work samples, and identify how they know they are growing. This process can take several days, and it is a great opportunity to reflect and set new goals for Term #2 in January and/or for the summer in June.



Student Voice:
Before writing the report card, I always ask students to reflect on their Learning Skills and Work Habits and complete a self-evaluation. As a class, we might discuss each skill and generate “success criteria” and specific examples that relate to our learning together. I often try to include student voices in the report card, and quote their writing and self-reflection. It is critical that students understand the criteria by which they are being evaluated, and that they have opportunities to share their thinking about themselves as learners. It is invaluable formative feedback for educators and families.

During COVID-19, our Student-Led Conferences have continued on-line. I created a Google Form, and asked families to help their child answer questions about their learning. The form included opportunities for students to identify their strengths and areas for improvement in different subject areas, as well as the Learning Skills and Work Habits. These “stars” and “wishes”, or “GLOW” and “GROW” comments helped to guide our discussion during our virtual Student-Led Conference. I shared the screen and asked the students to read their ideas aloud, and invited families to share feedback. I was only able to support one conference at a time, but I believe it was worth the extra time.

What happens DURING a Student-Led Conference?
Student-Led Conferences will look different depending on the age of the student. In the early primary years, I provide families with a checklist and sentence prompts to help support the discussion. Older students can follow a script to lead the discussion. During a Student-Led Conference, students will share their portfolio with their family. Families are encouraged to listen, ask questions and share what they notice about their child’s growth and progress. My role is to circulate around the room, listen, and contribute observations and reflections to the discussion.

What happens AFTER a Student-Led Conference?
After a Student-Led Conference, I provide a template and ask families to write a letter to their child. This letter describes what they are proud of, and how they will help their child to achieve their learning goals. In my experience, families have found the Student-Led Conference to be meaningful and informative.

One Kindergarten parent wrote:

It really opened up space for dialogue about what types of learning matter to our child, some of which were a pleasant surprise to us that we can carry forward at home now as well. Also, being able to experience his learning environment at school from his perspective was deeply gratifying for us and self-esteem building for him. He was so proud to show us around the space and really demonstrate the independence he’s building there. Grateful for the entire process and so heartened to know that he is in a classroom and school environment that really values the agency and intelligence of children!
(Parent comment, 2018)

Student-Led Conferences are a powerful tool that educators can use to honour the multiple and diverse ways that students learn and share knowledge. They provide a counter-narrative to the report card, and engage families, educators and students in a collaborative learning relationship that celebrates student achievement with pride and possibilities.

Video Resources:
Grade 3, Grade 6, Grade 7/8 Student-Led Conferences
The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Webcast Professional Learning Series, Ontario Ministry of Education

Preparing for a Student-Led Conference, New Zealand

Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership, Chicago

Water is Life

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

Water is Life:

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

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



Water as Home:

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

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


Water as Relative:

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

Water as Ancestral Highway:

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

NOW I KNOW….

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

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

NOW I KNOW…

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

…people put Willows down to trap big salmon.  SVEA

Water as Medicine:

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

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

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

Eco-Justice: Learning with Water

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

  

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

M is for Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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



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



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


“Just” an Occasional Teacher

Hello everyone!

I am thrilled to announce that I will be joining the Heart and Art blogging team this school year. I look forward to time spent being passionately curious with all of you.

As educators, it feels we are under the spotlight this year to openly reflect in conversations with curious strangers on how the school year is going amidst the pandemic. Everyone is wondering how educators are creating activities and lessons for students that involve social distancing, mask wearing and constant hand sanitizing. When asked personally about how this crazy year is affecting me, I often find myself replying with “I am just an Occasional Teacher”. 

I love my job and feel valued in the school system, especially this year with the demanding need for Occasional Teachers across Ontario school boards. I feel important, worthy and necessary. Why do I sell myself short each time by adding the word “just” in front of my job title? 

The word “just” has so much power and holds the potential to remove importance from meaningful concepts. As I reflect upon my own use of the word “just”, I begin to think about how this small but significant word can affect my students. Psychologist Carol Dweck talked about students’ growth mindset and the power of the word “yet”. In terms of growing and learning, students can use the word “yet” to talk about what they cannot do, but will learn to do after practicing, taking chances and making mistakes (for example: “I do not know how to multiply… yet”).

Does the word “just” have the opposite effect? Instead of granting power and adding room for growth like the word “yet” does, “just” seems to diminish the power of whatever follows.

Let’s harness the power of “yet”! Here are some phrases that should not follow the word “just”:

  • Students are “just” playing.

Play is how students explore, investigate, discover and create what they don’t know yet. No matter age or ability, each student deserves play opportunities in an environment that respects and celebrates the benefits play can have on academic progress, social and emotional growth and overall student well-being. 

  • “Just” Art, Phys. Ed, Social Science or any subject that isn’t Math or Literacy.

Each subject and learning area contributes to holistic development while providing opportunities for learning and success in areas which students have yet to grow. Students deserve to know that each subject is important and personal accomplishments can be celebrated in sports, the arts, etc. With the pressures to push for success in reading, writing and math, we must not let talent and passion in other areas go unnoticed, unacknowledged or undervalued.

  • You are “just” an Occasional Teacher/Rotary Teacher/whatever your role is in a school.

To all my fellow educators out there, no matter what you are doing, no matter where you are, you will ALWAYS be more than “just” a (insert job title here) to your students, their families and the school community.

You are passionate.

You are important.

You are valued.

For what you know now and for what you do not know yet