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

 

track and field

Track and Field Day

Is it possible to have 4 words to usher in the beginning of the end of the school any better than these? Perhaps class party early dismissal come close, but I have to admit track and field day takes first place. Although it’s been a while, we start each year off running with cross country in September and October. Somehow, they have set the pace to a year of engaging students in spaces outside of the classroom.  

Aaah there’s nothing like being outdoors in the fresh air watching students roam, run, roll, and occasionally hop from event to event. Whether it’s a 100 m dash across uncut grass, jumping events (minus high jump) or 4 laps around the building as an impromtu 800 m track it is definitely a day for students to outshine the noon day sun. Now this is my idea of distance learning. 

This year the events were held over the course of a week in order to accommodate for some wet Spring weather, but student spirits were undampened when rescheduling occured. They knew those freezees waiting at the rest station were only going to be more freezier from the wait. When the sun came out to stay, the competitions were underway. And they went off with relatively few hitches or injuries. Especially, that run around the school on an occasionally uneven concrete sidewalk. Even with a less than perfect track and field the students did really well. So why state the obvious in a union blog post?

Well I wondered that too at first when the idea baked into my head while watching our students compete. It also occurred while I watched students run events, while staff supervised, and when students had free time in between. It was like hundreds of different versions of the same moment happening simultaneously yet differently for all of us. WHOA! (Bill and Ted version)

So as I watched the days run their courses, I witnessed a lot of parallel events that might have gone otherwise overlooked if solely looking at the times, distances, and names on the events lists. Here are a few things that made it to the invisible podium that day. I’ll let you decide whether they are positive or negative. 

  1. Students are really helpful when they are empowered to lead and trusted to do so. This was so obvious as I watched volunteers from older grades lead their stations, show up on time, and encourage(wrangle, herd, shepherd) the competitors through their events. 
  2. Students really thrived with the extra time outdoors. These days were pure social with a healthy amount of friendly competition. I really appreciated how students from different grades lined the event areas to cheer on their peers. For the most part this was really wholesome other than the one or two knuckleheads who thought it was okay to mock their friends throwing abilities. #teachablemoment
  3. Students gave their best efforts considering that practice for these events (standing long jump, running long jump, ball throw, shotput etc.) is usually limited to Phys Ed classes that occur only twice per week. Seeing students struggling with these skills shows how much we have missed over the past two years of pandemic learning when we were online. 
  4. There will always be some students who choose to quit before a race is over.

I mentioned earlier that you will have to decide how to see this one

For me this has always been a toughy. Having been taught from the start to give it 110% and every other cliché in the book, I was left wondering why someone would quit in the middle of a short race when they were not injured? Have some of our students cracked some code here? Maybe it was easier for them to control the moment by ending it on their terms? All of this led to an interesting discussion with my 4/5 students. 

Since I was with them for most of that day, I saw a lot of determination and effort. I made sure I told them as such and how I was a bit relieved to see most of them push through even when first place, second place, and third place were not the prizes at the finish line while an unusually larger of their peers did not. I asked them what made them finish anyways? I also asked them what made them stop at certain times? Then I asked myself what needs to happen for everyone to finish their metaphorical events regardless of the outcomes? I guess that question has to be asked of all of us? Just like the events on track and field day, how we prepare ourselves for each day really matters. 

What keeps you going when the finish line seems further away than ever? What keeps you roaming, running, rolling or hopping until the end of the race? 

Whether it is fitness, meditation, hobbies, acts of kindness, family, friends, faith, pets, any or all of the above these pursuits/passions have helped many of us finish another school year strong despite the wretched election results, a year of hybrid learning hell (personal opinion), and countless uncovered COVID 19 absences due to systemic ineptitude. Without them, I am sure that I would not be in a good place this month.

I encourage you all to take heart, you’re almost there. The tape is stretched across the line of this decathlon of months spent planning, communicating, learning, unlearning, supporting, and teaching. You will cross that line and the rest to follow will feel so good. 

Outdoor Education

I love learning outdoors! To me, the outdoors is an extension of the learning that happens in the four corners of the classroom, except there are no walls and no  barriers to one’s imagination in the outdoors. I believe learning occurs everywhere and at all times; what better way to show students the art of experiential learning than through outdoor education. 

 

What are the benefits of outdoor education?

From all of my experiences as an educator, a physical education specialist, and from all that I have learned and read about the art of teaching and learning, there is no doubt in my mind about the positive benefits of outdoor education. From the development of physical skills, mental health, spatial awareness, self-esteem, problem solving and communication skills (just to name a few) to the love, appreciation and respect for nature and all living things, outdoor education transforms lives and student learning to a whole new level beyond the classroom. I find that, though important in student’s overall growth and development, traditional curriculum tends to focus on test-based learning, leaving less emphasis on experiential, play-based outdoor learning. When students are engaged in outdoor education, their academic performance increases, their focus and attention increase, their mental and social health increase and they develop a deeper connection with, and respect for, the environment. 

 

How can schools/teachers incorporate outdoor education into their teaching practices? 

  • You can always take the lesson and/or activity outside (snow, rain or shine). As long as you prepare for the weather conditions and student safety, many activities, with some minor adjustments, can be accomplished in an outdoor setting. 
  • Consider taking part in the OPAL outdoor play education program. Schools are supplied with equipment and resources that students use in various innovative and explorative ways through free play. For example, students can build forts, balance on large wood spools, swing from tire swings and engage in pool-noodle sword play (just to name a few).  For more information, check out Outdoor Play Canada
  • I have also come across many articles that talk about the benefits of outdoor education and outdoor play in many subject areas: the arts, health and physical education, but also including literacy and numeracy. There are also many resources and organizations that are able to support teachers in building strategies to incorporate outdoor education into their teaching practices. I have used resources from Right to Play and OPHEA teaching tools and found them to be very practical and engaging for students.

If you are new to the idea of outdoor education, my suggestion would be to do a little research of your own, talk with other colleagues and/or your administrators and engage your students in a discussion about outdoor education. Another suggestion would be to start small by focusing on one subject/concept at a time and maybe just doing one activity with students. From there, you can set specific goals and measure success through feedback from participants, looking at improvements in academic performance as well as students’ emotional and social well-being. Overall, the benefits of outdoor education speak volume, in terms of student success, student development, and student mental health and well-being. Outdoor education is beneficial to every child in every school community, and it’s a strategy that I hope will one day be commonplace in all school communities across the province.

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. 

 

Supporting Student Mental Health

Everyone has some level of anxiety at some point in their life. I also understand that some forms of anxiety can be quite healthy (i.e., preparing for a test or speaking in front of an audience) can promote self-growth and development if managed appropriately. However, I believe that a sudden increase of anxiety in some students can serve as a warning signal for teachers that something is not quite right within his, her or they/them environment.  When I was a student, I knew that my anxiety level increased tremendously during tests and assignments and also increased when I had personal issues going on at home. When my anxiety was that high, I tended to lose focus on my academics and often did more poorly on tests/assignments. Luckily for me, I had great teachers in my life who really took the time to understand me and were able to offer accommodations to support my performance anxiety. As an educator, I can use my lived experiences to help manage student emotions around anxiety when preparing for a test or when grade eight students are applying to various high schools. I can also suggest strategies and offer resources students can use to monitor and self-regulate their anxiety. 

 

What are the current concerns around anxiety for students in elementary school and how do these concerns impact student learning and academic performance? 

Sian Leah Beilock in her Ted Talk video, “Why we choke under pressure – and how to avoid it” uses her experience as a soccer goalie to explain why we often choke under pressure. She says that, “When the pressure is on, we are often concerned with performing at our best and as a result we try to control what we are doing to force the best performance. The end result is that we actually screw up.” We try to control what we are doing in a way that leads to worse performance, that was definitely me. When our anxiety is high, it’s a sign that our prefrontal cortex is focusing on the wrong things. Practicing under conditions in which we are going to perform, closing the gap between training and competition can help us get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. Getting used to the performance under which you are going to perform really matters. When preparing for a test, close the book and practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations, so you can understand and visualize what it feels like before actually taking the test. 

Students who suffer from performance anxiety are likely to have an obsession with perfection. This may involve students constantly worrying about being perfect and putting a high degree of pressure on themselves to get perfect marks. An obsession with perfection is very unhealthy and can be detrimental to students’ mental health and well-being. In her article on “How Does Anxiety Affect Kids in School?”, Rachel Ehmke states that students who suffer from performance anxiety are often diagnosed with General Anxiety

  • Generalized anxiety: When children worry about a wide variety of everyday things. Kids with generalized anxiety often worry particularly about school performance and can struggle with perfectionism.

In some cases when experiencing a high degree of performance anxiety, students who normally perform well in school might fail to submit work or begin to disengage in class, which seems to counter against the one thing they most want to achieve. In her explanation of this contradictory behaviour, Ehmke says, “We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing, but when children are overly self-critical it can sabotage even the things they are trying their hardest at, like school work.”

One key solution for teachers that Karen Nelson suggests, in her article “10 Ways to Help Students Who Struggle with Anxiety” is to offer individual accommodations. When students are feeling anxious, their brain simply can’t function properly or effectively. In that case, Nelson suggests teachers set up tests and assignments so that anxious students are less likely to become stressed. She suggests that, “Extended time and cue sheets could help kids who suffer from test anxiety.” She also suggests that providing wellness breaks, trying Walk and Talk and getting to know who your students really are and their lived experiences will help to build strong relationships and minimize performance anxiety. Other helpful solutions include mindfulness breathing exercises (from the MindUp For Life Curriculum).

Here are some resources that I have used over the years to support lessons dealing with managing stress, anxiety and emotions. I hope a few of these might be of some benefit to you.

  1. School Mental Health Ontario – Mental Health Literacy and Anxiety Management Social Media Bundles
  2. Kids Help Phone 1-800 668-6868 Free, anonymous and confidential professional counselling by phone or online, available 24/7 for kids and youth 20 years of age and younger
  3. Canadian Mental Health Association – Understanding and Finding Help for Anxiety

 

 

Restorative Circle Activities

Students come to school with many issues on their minds and in their hearts. As educators, we can help them process their thoughts and feelings so they can better handle their situations and be more present in class. Restorative circles are a useful practice to do just that. While frequently used to replace punitive forms of discipline, restorative circles are equally important in proactively building the relationships and skills students need to support one another and collectively address the challenges they face, especially during these unsettling and uncertain times for many of our students. Restorative circles are most effective when they’re an integral part of school culture and are embedded in your daily classroom routines. After all, you can’t “restore” a community that you haven’t built or sustained.

Below are some steps and questions I have researched and used that can support you in initiating a Restorative Circles program in your classroom.

7 STEPS FOR FACILITATING MEANINGFUL CIRCLES

  1. Co-create a safe and supportive space: Circles work best if teachers invest time up front to build relationships, develop skills and design a bank of tools to draw upon throughout the school year.

Early in the process teachers and students together explore values—like empathy, patience, kindness, courage and open-mindedness—that are essential to understand and agree upon when sharing openly and honestly in a circle. These include honoring the talking piece, which goes around the circle as an invitation to share while everyone else listens (participants may pass if they don’t wish to talk). Participants are encouraged to speak and listen from the heart with an equitable and inclusive lens. It is important that educators inform participants at the outset that we are mandated by law to report when a student threatens to harm themselves or others, or when students divulge abuse.

  1. Be prepared: Make sure that you, the facilitator, are well rested, calm and focused.

To hold the circle space effectively, it’s important to be fully present and able to manage other people’s stories and feelings as well as your own. If you’re exploring sensitive issues that may require follow up, consider alerting support staff.

  1. Plan ahead: Decide together on a topic or theme that sustains students’ interest.

Find a relevant activity to open the circle space such as a poem, quote or piece of music. A mindfulness activity can also be used to bring students into the space after a particularly stressful event. Look for information to ground the conversation and develop questions and prompts to invite student perspectives into the circle. Keep in mind that the larger the circle the more time you’ll need for the talking piece to go around. Think about how things might unfold and be ready to adapt and adjust accordingly. Make sure to leave time for a closing activity, giving students a chance to transition into spaces that may be less conducive to being vulnerable. A closing activity can be a commitment to safeguarding the stories shared in a circle or a breathing exercise in which we provide students with prompts and time to put themselves back together again.

  1. Invite student experiences into the space: Encourage students to connect with the circle content by sharing stories from their own lived experiences.

Include storytelling rounds by asking students to talk about “a person in your life who…” or “a time when….” Share authentically with yourself. This gives others permission to do the same. Model good listening skills as the talking piece goes around the circle. Be fully present as others speak. True active listening can create the kind of welcoming space that encourages even the quietest voices to speak.

  1. Acknowledge, paraphrase, summarize and practice empathy: Listen closely to what students share so that you can build on their experiences.

When the talking piece comes back to you, touch on what you felt, noticed or heard. If you sense that there was limited substance in the first round, send the talking piece around a second or third time, asking students for deeper, more meaningful connections, reflections, or additions. If challenging or painful issues come up, model agreed-upon circle practices for students to follow. Listening mindfully and being present with other people’s ordeals and lived experiences can create supportive, healing experiences that strengthen community connections and build empathy. If needed, let students know you’re available to check in with them later in the day or week. You might also have them consider speaking with other supportive adults or students to find solace if they’re in need.

  1. Explore what it means to be an effective ally: Beyond creating a supportive listening environment, ask what else, if anything, students need from you and from each other.

Explore how to be better allies in a circle so that students know they don’t need to face their challenges alone. Invite them to talk about a person in their lives who is a good friend or ally, or a person they’d like to have as a better friend or ally. Discuss the qualities these people have (or lack) and how they make us feel. Invite students to talk about a time they’ve been a good friend or ally themselves, and what gets in the way of being our best with one another.

  1. Zoom out to promote understanding on the systems level: Explore whether there are larger systemic forces that underlie the challenges students have touched on (such as racism, sexism, homophobia or lack of access to resources). 

Introduce information, resources and voices that might shed light on how these systems operate. Look for examples of people who took action to interrupt these and other oppressive systems. Invite students to connect to this information by sharing their thoughts, feelings and related experiences. Studying larger, systemic forces in society can help students better understand their situation and can be a useful starting point for students to become more active themselves. Action and activism can inspire hope, connection and healing.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjVI-1XDX_Y

Circle time questions – Exemplars

Getting Acquainted

– What is your favourite…?

– If you had $1000 what would you do with it and why?

– How would your friend describe you, or how would you describe yourself to someone new?

– What do you like (or dislike) most about yourself?

 

Values

– Give me an example of when someone has been kind to you in your life (or when you have been kind to someone)? How did that feel?

– What do you want to contribute to the world; How do you want to be remembered?

– Share an example of when you did the right thing when others were doing the wrong thing, or when no one else was watching

 

Story Telling

– A time when you were scared to do something good/important, but you did it anyway

– A time when you laughed a lot

– What (silly/funny/crazy/weird) thing did you used to do when you were little?

 

Achievement

– One thing I couldn’t do a year ago… 

– One of my goals this year is…

– Something I can’t do but want to be able to do by the end of the year is…

 

Behaviour / Conflict

– Share one thing that makes you annoyed.

– Share a time when you were upset but then someone made you feel better.

– How can you show respect to others?

Can the Integration of Students’ Lived Experiences in your Teaching Practices Impact Student Success?

I believe that there is a profound connection between student learning and student lived experiences and the ability of educators to embed who students are with what they are learning. I can vividly recall, as a young learner, the teachers who were most impactful in my learning. They showed genuine care for my well-being and often went above and beyond academic support,  in unconventional ways, to understand my needs, including my personal challenges based on my lived  circumstances, and to support me in all aspects of life. I can  honestly say that the relationships those teachers established with me directly helped to shape me into the person I  am today. Knowing who your students are, their identities, their barriers, their abilities and their lived experiences allow educators to create the conditions for dynamic learning opportunities that are culturally relevant and impactful to student learning.

What do experts say? 

Scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay have spent decades at the forefront of researching Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogies. Their findings have been clear: “integrating a student’s  background knowledge and prior home and community experiences into the curriculum and the teaching and learning experiences that take place in the classroom are paramount to meeting the needs of all  students”.

Furthermore, research shows that learning needs of students from diverse backgrounds are not being met equitably in classrooms across the system. For example, in the current age of destreaming mathematics for grade nine students across the system, it is important that teachers are well versed and equipped with the necessary tools and strategies to support all learners in an academic classroom. When we acknowledge students’ cultural experiences and prior knowledge, we are better positioned to strengthen their ability to see themselves as doers of mathematics, language, science, history, art and so on. They are further empowered to interpret the world around them with a critical social justice lens.  

Activity

The “Where I’m From” poetry activity is a great strategy you can use to have students explore their cultural identities and values, to foster collaboration with their peers, to create a positive classroom environment and to learn about students’ lived experiences. This activity should be culturally relevant to the students in the classroom and  intentionally structured to engage all learners at multiple entry points. This will help to foster a sense of community in the classroom and help the teacher understand who the students are and how to embed their real-time lived experiences into the teaching and learning process.

My 2 Cents

I think teachers should spend the first week or two of each school year engaging students in conversations about their (the students) own identity and lived experiences and the intersectionality of their identity. This would allow students to feel comfortable and confident in sharing who they are, as well as their thoughts and opinions, with others in the classroom. Try to create a brave and nurturing space where students feel comfortable talking about their racial background, their gender identity, and their preferred name. You can use culturally relevant books, videos, posters etc. that can lead to those discussions where students are invited and encouraged to talk about their own racial, gender and cultural  identities. Teachers can then incorporate students’ identities and lived experiences into the instructional planning and teaching program. 

Whether it’s a math activity, collaborative inquiry in history or a STEM project, it is important that teachers provide opportunities for students to reflect on their interests, their passions and how they see themselves within the development of the task. Use culturally relevant and responsive resources that reflect student identities, interests and lived experiences. Providing opportunities for small group discussions and descriptive feedback will help students make meaningful connections to that task and to their real-time lived experiences. Educator’s willingness to share their own identity with students, their own experiences in school as a young learner and  how their experiences inform and influence their decision-making process are effective strategies in building strong relationships with students that engage them in embedding their own lived experiences into their learning. If we truly believe in developing young minds, creating strong leaders and critical thinkers then we must create the space for that to happen within the classroom. When we let go of the notion that we are the holder of knowledge in the classroom, we create opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate leadership, to become critical thinkers and to advocate for justice and social change.

Which One Doesn’t Belong? (WODB)

Have you ever tried ‘ Which One Doesn’t Belong?’ (WODB) in your classroom?

WODB is a short, number talk used to get students thinking before beginning a daily lesson or math activity. Students are shown a picture like the example attached below (from mathbeforebed.com). Students take a close look at the picture and decide which object they think does not belong. After sharing their ideas, students are asked to explain their thinking to justify their answer. Here is why we love WODB in our Kindergarten class:

There are no wrong answers

This gives students the confidence to share their thoughts and encourages them to take risks in their learning. 

 

WODB shows students that there are multiple ways of solving problems 

I am finding that aside from building confidence in students’ attitudes towards math, this activity builds community. Students typically begin with a strong opinion on why their answer is correct, but begin to understand and uncover the varying perspectives of their peers. It is also a great activity to practice turn taking, active listening and showing kindness towards others with different ideas.

 

There are multiple entry points

This activity is inclusive and allows students to use their own mathematical language to describe which one they believe does not belong. Students can participate in this activity regardless of their understanding of specific math concepts. In Kindergarten, with students ranging in various stages of development – this activity gives myself and my DECE partner a window into their thinking.

 

WODB promotes mathematical thinking and the use of mathematical language 

When justifying their answer, students begin to use math words like bigger, smaller, shorter, taller, less, more and begin to use the names of shapes, numbers or symbols they are learning about. Students can activate their prior knowledge and apply their current knowledge while they work with educators to extend their knowledge. I often reframe what students are saying and repeat it back to them. For example, in the picture shown below a student may share that they think the “blue” one does not belong, “because it’s blue and the others are not” and I may say, “(student name) thinks that the blue rectangle piece does not belong”. 

 

WODB can be used in any grade level 

While I am currently enjoying this activity in Kindergarten, I think about all the ways this activity could be used with students of any age. As students learn new concepts, WODB could include pictures of fractions, decimals, equations and more. When students get comfortable engaging in WODB activities, they can even begin to create some of their own pictures to challenge their peers to think critically.

 

Which one do you think does not belong?

from https://mathbeforebed.com/

 

Ants and hot coffee

It’s October’s end and everything is happening at an accelerated pace in education and in nature. As the trees offer their final gifts of colour to cherish before winter, I have been as busy as one of Aesop’s ants in my classrooms (real and digital). This is because I am doing much more work this year even though my assignment is basically the same as last year. Last year nearly broke me and I chalk it up to many decisions which were made on my behalf and all educators by people in places that resemble boardrooms more than classrooms. 

If you reread this cautionary fable, you might get the idea that many of our leaders did a lot of fiddling and fussing over the summer because it certainly doesn’t appear that they prepared for the season we are now experiencing in education. To make it even worse, not a single grasshopper asked whether any of the hard working ants wanted to hear the song they were playing over and over again at full volume. 

For all teachers, regardless of years of experience, the start of school this year might be best described as chaotic and work filled; much like an ant colony preparing to survive a cold winter ahead. Now, a bit of chaos is fine and can be expected each September. It is such an exciting time for students and staff. This year was no different. I actually prepared myself for a little more leeway in my planning to help students transition back to classes in the hopes of creating a safe space for them to land from the year and half before. This meant a lot of reviewing and scaffolding rather than brewing up fresh batches of new learning. 

This approach made a lot of sense for me especially as we are now entering our 3rd year of learning in a global pandemic. In any ‘normal’ school year, routines and rhythms are usually set in place by the first 20 days. Reviews are done and it’s grade level lessons until June the following year.  However, it’s been 2 months and although some normalcy exists, I feel that more time is needed to get students back to pre-pandemic learning. That extra work I mentioned at the start is a direct result. With students online and in-class prepping materials for both groups is adding an extra hour to each day to ensure continuity. Organizing assessments also comes with its share of work. Add in the difficulties students have with tech, WiFi, and their own burnout and you quickly arrive at the conclusion that that all of this is tiring and trying. It is also a bit traumatizing. Kind of like having hot coffee spilled on your hand the moment you pick up a cup.  

Imagine going to your favourite coffee shop and when your order arrives it is filled to the brim so fully that any movement spills that precious elixir over the sides and burns your hands. As a reflective practitioner, I wonder what I did wrong? How come after hundreds of cups of coffee they filled mine to the point where there was no room to move without being burnt? Upon further reflection though, comes the realization that this is not my fault and that I was given a situation which was nearly impossible to handle without a mess or suffering. Each time this has happened to me though, I have never let go or dropped the cup. I see this same commitment, determination, and strength mirrored in educators who choose to persist and hold on despite being handed impossible circumstances. 

Next Monday, me and all the other ants are lined up at that coffee shop hoping that today we don’t get burned, and that there will be enough room left for a little sugar and cream to stir in to suit our taste. It’s November, Spring is around the corner and there’s work to do before the leaves wither and the snow flies. 

This is not my first blog about the currently dissonant state of learning right now, nor is it my first blog about ants. In 2014 I shared this one after Deborah Gordon’s inspiring 2014 TED Talk.

And in case you missed it in my post last month.
Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.