#dayofpink

This year, our positive school council committee planned an excited pink day event in our gym for our whole school. Student leaders in grade seven and eight set up, helped lead the stations and cleaned up at the end of the day. Students created posters and made announcements, informing the school during the week about our commitment as a school to stand up against bullying and discrimination. Our school board’s official statement about pink day is as follows:

On April 13, HWDSB students, staff, and community members raised awareness and affirmed their commitments to combat homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying through Day of Pink. The event celebrates allyship and those who take a stand against discrimination and hate.

Students wore their pink/rainbow colours and participated in excited pink day activities. Our activities were:

  •  Bracelet making
  • Colouring pages of the 2SLGBTQ+ leaders from the day of pink website
  • Photoshoot with green screen with the day of pink background
  • Kindness rainbow with sticky notes of positive messages (pictured below)
  • Nail painting
  • DJ station with positive songs
  • Runway with props

Classes came down for thirty minutes at a time and the student leaders facilitated their stations all day long. The excitement amounts the intermediate leaders was so great to see! They have all been looking forward to these leadership opportunities for so long and it was so fun to see how engaged they were all day long. They even swept up their stations without being asked! Not only that, the staff and students were abuzz with excitement as they chatted about how fun the day was. Teachers were talking about it the next day, thrilled that we were doing something exciting for the whole school community once again. Something with a message that we can all stand behind! 

I think it was such a great day and we look forward to planning another whole school event. I know the grade eights are excited to show their leadership schools again, especially with grad so close and grad awards on the horizon! Pink day was a success and it was our first one since 2019. Can’t wait to do it again next year, but with less feather boas!

How did your school celebrate international day of pink? 

The Power of Groups

It has been a full two years without student desk groupings and I had completely forgotten about all the benefits it brings to the classroom. Not only does it brighten student morale, but it provides so many rich learning opportunities. I wanted to dedicate this post to the celebration of being back in groups!

Last year as we all know, (even though we did group work) students had to sit on their own due to COVID regulations. Since I taught online last year, I did not get to witness many group work settings as my students who worked in breakout rooms chose to keep their microphones and cameras off. I was able to witness group chats but nothing is better than in-person group work.

As restrictions are lifting, students are able to get back to some of the simple things they could enjoy pre-COVID, one of them physically sitting beside their peers. ** I created groups in my classroom last week and I cannot express how much of a change it has brought into the classroom. Just having a peer nearby has brought so many students to life, some who have been putting their head down and not participating this year. Now that they are sitting directly beside a group of people, they have no other choice but to become involved in the conversations and the learning around them. They do not seem frustrated at this, rather they are thankful for this new opportunity. This peer support has really helped a lot of my students. I was starting to think that some of my students would never regain the ability to socialize with others but the proximity of their peers has really helped them grow out of that discomfort. About six students decided they wanted to continue sitting on their own, but after a few days of seeing how exciting the prospect of sitting in a group was, they merged groups with nearby friends. These group settings have created new friendships that couldn’t have started without the new group settings.

Having students working nearby each other has also allowed for many group work activities. Some of the ones we have enjoyed in the past two weeks have been:

  • Solving complex math problems, drawing off the ideas of their peers to contribute to their answer
  • Brainstorming about topics such as the forms of bullying, landforms and types of mixtures
  • Solving hands on tasks that involve building structures or mechanisms
  • Students getting help from a friend with spelling (before they had to travel out of their seat to ask for this assistance which wasn’t allowed)
  • Confidence when solving independent problems by comparing end solutions
  • Sharing devices to research as we only have two iPads in our classroom
  • Being involved in conversations which otherwise would have had to take place across the room
  • Continuing to improve collaboration skills which have been on pause
  • Allowing for differentiated instruction opportunities that have been on pause since 2020

I know that groups can pose a classroom management issue such as breaking up group conversations. I am actually thankful for these conversations as before, it was challenging to get anyone to speak to each other. Attempting to chat with someone across the room was actually more disruptive than it is with the group settings. I continue to work on classroom management techniques as I have not had the practice with managing physical groupings since 2020.

I look forward to continuing to look at new and exciting group work activities as we are able to provide these for our students again. We are currently learning about hydraulics in our grade eight science unit so I am looking forward to students creating their own hydraulic machines together. I am also extremely thankful for the new friendships that have formed, especially with it being so close to the end of the year.

I know these successes are small and it may seem silly, but the power of physically grouping students has really changed things in my classroom and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

If you have any exciting new group work activities you have tried, I would love to hear them as it has been a while since I have done some fun team building activities. 

**Note: All of my students that sit in groups wear masks (their personal and preferred choice).**

ETFO’s recent media release related to masking can be found here.

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.

 

Allyship with Parents/Families

I am a firm believer in parents/families/caregivers engagement in the school community, and, by extension, in their children’s learning experience and success at school. Families who talk with their children about their day at school, who support and continue the learning at home, who actively communicate with teachers and the school, and who volunteer their time to participate in various opportunities at school are all examples of engaged and aware  parents/families. That’s all great, but for me, the real question is how can we support parents/families who are NOT able to engage in many of the above opportunities at home or at school? Do we provide support to (is it our responsibility to support) parents/families so that they too can support their children’s learning at home? Do we need to reconstruct/redefine what engagement looks like?  Is our engagement with parents/families co-constructed and, if not, where do we begin and who will be at the discussion table? I think it’s important to shift our focus from getting parents/families into the school to supporting them at home.

 

How can we support parents/families to support student learning at home?

One of the things that has worked well for me was my focus on building strong relationships with parents/families and trying to understand their lived experiences, the systemic barriers they face on a daily basis and their diverse needs. Regular communication between school and home helped me to build trust, to break down barriers and also to create strong learning partnerships. I believe that students achieve greater emotional, psychological and academic success when they are able to see and benefit from an effective reciprocal partnership between home and school. Building a trusting partner relationship allowed me to better understand the underlying challenges students were facing at school, and by working in partnership with their parents/families, we were able to create greater opportunities for student success at school and at home. Parents/families were more likely to engage when they felt valued, acknowledged, respected and were seen as equal partners in their children’s learning and development. For me the learning that happened at home extended to school and vice versa. Now, how do we create that same opportunity for all of our students, parents and families? 

Another thing I did was to collaborate with community organizations to further enhance efforts at school to support parent interests and student needs. Public libraries, health services, community centres, community sports/clubs, religious organizations and so on can offer an array of programs and services that can support student learning, student mental-health and help bridge the support gap between home and school. I was able to connect with many of these programs and services throughout the years and they have been instrumental in providing additional support to students and parents/families. At times, it might be necessary/helpful to go above and beyond to make those connections possible. That decision can sometimes be difficult for educators to make, but often results in greater success when it comes to parental engagement, student success and well-being.  Helping parents access these programs  deepened my connections with families in my community and contributed to building a multi-directional and reciprocal approach to student success. I believe that when parents/families feel supported at home they are more likely to support their children’s learning and development at school. 

Helping parents/families understand their roles as co-educators in their children’s learning was also something I did to further enhance the learning that took place at home. One of the things I had to consider was how to communicate with and support parents/families from diverse linguistic backgrounds with limited comprehension of the English language. For the most part, I had access to interpreters, when needed, through my school board and I was able to share important information and documents with parents/families in their native language. Unfortunately, not every family, staff or school board has access to the same level of multilingual support in the province of Ontario. That is concerning to me and it’s something I hope will change in the near future. In the meantime, there are many other important roles parents/families can play in supporting their children’s learning at home such as being an active listener, a mentor, a coach, and an advocate for their children’s rights as well as their social, emotional and academic needs. I was able to work with many parents/families to develop strategies for student success at home. It was important to me to ensure that the parental engagement strategies we co-constructed were culturally relevant, responsive and differentiated to meet the needs of the individual families and improve student achievement. However, equitable access to interpreters and important documents in diverse languages continue to be a barrier for many parents/families across Ontario. This is something I hope principals, superintendents and executive members of each school board in Ontario seriously address in order to close the inequity gaps for our parents/families. 

 

Here are some of the things I considered when Co-Constructing Parent Engagement Strategies – Focused on Student Learning

  • Build strong, respectful relationships with parents/families to better understand their needs
  • Identify and help remove systemic barriers to parent engagement that may prevent some parents/families from fully participating in their children’s learning at home and at school
  • Provide resources and materials (including texts, digital resources and community organizations/connections) on ways to support children at home
  • Regularly communicate information about their children’s progress, including their successes, strengths and needs – keep in mind parents/families busy schedules and other factors that might limit their ability to communicate regularly
  • Encourage parents/families to also support children in other ways such as active listening, encouraging, guiding, monitoring, discussing and asking questions that promote courageous conversations and critical thinking
  • Create classroom opportunities that encourage parents/families and students to work together on tasks that are culturally relevant and have real-life applications

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

 

 

Supporting Student Transition from Elementary to Secondary

If you have ever taught grade eight, you are currently a grade eight teacher or you have a child (or had a child) in grade eight then you might appreciate how exciting and stressful this time of the year can be for so many grade eight students as they prepare to transition from elementary to secondary school. As a former intermediate classroom teacher and a guidance counsellor who has worked with many grade eight students, I can certainly say that the process of choosing a high school, applying for a specialized program of study and/or completing course selections for grade nine can be a bag of mixed emotions for students, depending on the level of knowledge and support students have at school and at home. Regardless of the grade students are in, teachers can create opportunities for students to develop strategies and skills that can support them in their transition process. Even though students might feel overwhelmed and isolated at times, they are never alone in the process. They also need to know that our support is non-judgmental, though intentional at times especially for the most vulnerable students, and that our intention is to empower students to make choices about their own life and their own future pathways. 

 

Stress and Anxiety

There is no doubt that the transition from elementary to secondary school can be stressful for many students, especially during the current pandemic when more students are isolated and social support for their transition may not be readily available. Adults and students alike are all experiencing an increased level of stress and anxiety in these uncertain times. For the most part, adults have developed strategies to manage their anxiety, however young children are, more so than ever, depending on the adults in their lives to support them throughout this journey. So, how do we as educators monitor their emotional wellbeing and offer sustainable support?

Here are some suggestions that might be of value to you, regardless of your work circumstances or guidance model in your area:

  1. Get to know your students, whether they are in kindergarten or up to grade eight, and understand their emotional strengths and needs. Pinpoint which parts of the situation students are experiencing that you as an educator have the power to change or influence for the better, and then offer your support accordingly.
  2. Communicate regularly with families/caregivers about their role in supporting student achievement and well-being, as they are the ultimate decision maker in this process
  3. Chances are, you cannot do this alone, so get support to support students. Talk to colleagues, your admin and other school-based support personnel. Keep in mind the best interest of the individual student, the nature of the situation for the student and your Board’s policies around confidentiality. 
  4. Be socially and culturally sensitive to each student’s situation and lived experiences. Above all, be intentional in supporting (without dictating or pigeonhole) vulnerable students, marginalized students and racialized students and ensure they have equitable access to programs and services
  5. Support students in a specialized program or with an Individual Education Plan in having a successful transition
  6. Show care and empathy, and offer assistance to students who might need social/emotional support that best meets their needs

 

Your support to students is crucial now more than ever. Students of all ages and abilities continue to navigate through the pandemic, as well as managing other social and family challenges, and intermediate students also have to adjust to a new destreaming program in grade nine. Some students may find this time of year overwhelming and might need to develop strategies to self-advocate for themselves to ensure all their needs are met. There are many ways to embed self-advocacy in your assessment Of learning and assessment As learning to support student achievement and well-being. With a strong sense of self, students are more likely to see themselves as owners of their own destiny and can independently advocate for themselves. I see this as a gradual release of responsibility and an opportunity to empower students to take charge of their learning and their own future. 

 

Here is a Self-Advocacy Toolkit that was shared with me that could be of some support to you in your classroom (regardless of the grade you teach). This Self-Advocacy Toolkit is intended to be completed by each student. Teachers may wish to facilitate this as part of their instructional day. 

Self-Advocacy Toolkit: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1yCD8KViE7-B_NfB1fEkb2Uvsj74H0qcZ_6oka-b3WwE/edit?usp=sharing

 

Ultimately, when it comes to transition and course selections, students and families/caregivers make the final decision about their destination and pathways. We will offer support and guidance to ensure success and a seamless transition from elementary into secondary, and this support can begin as early as kindergarten. When we work together, support each other and respect each other’s choices, even when our perspectives are different, we enable individuals to self-actualize and reach their full potential.

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?

The Unspecified Parts of a Lesson Plan

As I was creating my lesson plans one day, I took a step back and thought about what my plans would look like if they were delivered exactly the way that I wrote them. Academic learning and curriculum connections are crucial to the lesson plan itself and seem to be my main focus when planning. I began to think about the ways I engage my students in learning that I don’t record in my lesson plans. I thought about my specific ways of being with students during certain times of the day. The times I exude calmness and the times I exude excitement. I wondered about the times I use words of encouragement, constructive feedback and the moments I applaud students efforts. 

I wondered what would happen to my planning and teaching if I added notes into my plans like “remind students they are important” or “remind students to be safe this weekend”. 

As a newly permanent teacher, I am constantly reflecting on best practices and looking for ways to plan meaningfully and effectively. I am teaching virtually this year and often add additional information about my lessons into the “speaker notes” section of my Google Slides. As I was creating my lesson, I added in some of the above mentioned “unspecified” aspects into my plans. I wanted to explore how or if this practice would impact my teaching or have an effect on student learning. After implementing this practice for one week, here are my reflections:

  1. Adding notes about social and emotional learning into my lesson plans allowed me to continue to be mindful and check in with students about how they were feeling throughout the lesson and the school day itself. 
  2. The added positive notes and words of encouragement to my class were a great way to remind myself that, along with my students, I am also doing the best I can.
  3. My focus remained on my students, rather than the curriculum. Especially during reporting periods, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the worry of meeting curriculum expectations. Adding in my “unspecified” notes grounded me to what was most important. 
  4. Even with my “unspecified” notes, I noticed that I still added meaningful dialogue into each necessary moment. Even though there are daily reminders or common phrases we say to our students – there is no way to predict what each of our individual learners are going to need to be successful or feel loved that day. There is no plan other than to be responsive.

What are the unspecified parts of your lesson plans?

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.

 

Saying you care is not enough…

This month, students in our board completed a survey where they answered 60 questions related to their feelings in school. They answered questions about many topics which I assume will give a detailed account of how students view our board. Some of the questions were:

  1. How often are you taught about women, people of colour, Indigenous People and the LGBTQ community? (Often, sometimes, not at all)
  2. How often do you see posters around your school that you feel reflects an image of someone that looks like you?
  3. Do you feel safe when you come to school?
  4. Do you feel you had at least one caring adult in the building?
  5. Do you feel people would miss you if you were not at school?
  6. Do you have a friend/friend group at school?
  7. Do you feel that you have a purpose in your school?

As a grade 7/8 teacher, I know from experience what the answer to most of the above questions would be. Intermediate students often feel that they are never represented, that they are unsafe at school, that they can’t relate to any adults, that they are not relevant and that they do not belong. That is often the case in the intermediate grades because students start to reflect on the “perceived unfairness” of the world around them. But how do we as educators address these issues and the lack of sense of belonging that these teens feel?

These surveys were anonymous. So, unfortunately, I will not be able to see how my students answered the survey. Our board will share the results eventually which I am sure will create a need for new learning. However, our student success teacher created a similar survey last month and I was able to view the results to that survey. The answers shocked me. The students who I speak to the most during the day (since they often approach me for help with their relationships) shared that they felt they did not have a caring adult to speak to in the building. The students who appear to have the most friends shared that they feel that they have no friend group and that no one would miss them if they were absent from school.

I knew I had to have some private conversations to address these concerns, especially about the fact that they cannot connect with any adult in the building. The conversations that followed were very interesting. They knew that the staff would listen to what they had to say but they felt that they just pretended to care. They felt that they would only listen because it was their job, but that they didn’t actually care. It was very hard to convince my twelve and thirteen year old students that I would truly care about something that they were going through. Whatever had happened to these students in the past had led them to believe that adults would say one thing and mean another. I have a long road ahead to show these students that the teachers in their life will always be a positive support system.

I think it all comes back to instilling a positive class community. Taking time to have those conversations with your class about holidays that they celebrate, starting every Monday off with conversations about their weekend, taking time for fun activities are just a few things that can be done to show your students that you care. Also, remembering that at all times, the curriculum comes second to your students well-being and self-worth. I recognize once again the importance of creating that classroom community in September and remembering to take the time to listen to a student’s needs, even if it is when you are about to run out of the classroom at break. Actions speak louder than words and especially after that long period of online learning, students need to be reminded that we are there for them and that we care. Not because we have to but because we want to. I will continue to remind my students of that throughout the rest of this year, because saying that you care is not enough, you have to prove it.

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.

Doodles and Daydreams

As I walk up and down the aisles checking the students’ work, I will inevitably find someone whose side margins of their worksheet are filled with colourful drawings.  When I first started teaching, I would have been annoyed at the lack of work being completed.  Now, I know so much more like some students doodle for mindfulness, or because that is their signal that they need help but are hesitant to ask for assistance.

But of course, I also have a duty to ensure students understand their work.  So, instead of admonishing them, I try to bring what they are doing into the current lesson:

“Wow, that’s a really nice dragon!  Remember how we’re doing colours in French today?  Do you think you could tell me the colours you chose in French on the side?”

“Cool robot!  Hey, you know how we’re talking about rocks and minerals for Science?  I wonder what metallic ores you might use for his body?”

Sometimes I read the stories in my Ontario College of Teachers magazine about Canadian celebrities and the teachers that have made a difference in their lives.  My favourite that I shared with my students was the one on Olympic gold medalist Bruny Surin and how he was encouraged to try out for sports in high school from the coach when he was a shy newly landed immigrant.

I often wonder if I’ll influence someone enough that they’ll mention me in an interview someday.  Then I worry that they’ll mention me, but as “that teacher that discouraged them and didn’t make them feel like they were good enough.”

I wasn’t really a doodler in school, but I was definitely a day dreamer.  There were plenty of times that I probably fooled teachers into thinking that I was paying attention when in reality I was just facing forward running through a story or an episode of my make believe world in my head.  I already understood a lot of the work, but this was my way of dealing with feelings and thinking what to do next with my learning.

I have plenty of students that have struggled with writing and math, but could run circles around me with their art skills.  So yes, sometimes I sigh inwardly at a lack of completed assignments but more often than not, I marvel at the way they use drawing to capture their feelings and assist with their memory.  That’s why I prefer to guide them to use their talents for where their creativity may take them.

Speaking of a doodler and a dreamer, I was reading a book this summer when one of the interview excerpts mentioned a young man who was caught by a teacher years ago making an elaborate storyboard with a Western battle.  Instead of punishing him, she stated she could help him put his work on a giant mural and present it to the class-on the condition that he also got his work finished.

The young man was movie mogul George Lucas.

Probability wise, I’m not likely to have the next big Hollywood writer/director in one of my classes.  But I’ve taught enough to know that my chances of of making a student’s day positive on how I react to their artistic expression are certainly more than 50/50.