Sunday, December 8, 2013

Aboriginal Book and Video Club Gatherings

This past week Naryn Searcy, Anne Tenning and I have been planning the session we are going to be doing at the FNESC (First Nations) conference on Dec.13. We are going to be talking about the Book Club we began last year, about Through A Different Lens, and also about English First Peoples; sharing ideas on what we have done, and and also what we have seen as a result.

As part of the process of planning I had the opportunity to have short interviews with 8 SD67 staff about the book club, and 8 students about English First Peoples.  I left the week feeling unusually optimistic about the future and the bridges we are making.

The Book and Video Club appears to have taken us as a collective of educators a step forward in a number of ways -- it has exposed those of us who are not of Aboriginal ancestry to literature, ideas, stories, we might never have been exposed to.  It has given us a tiny bit of understanding and a thirst for more.  It has given us an appreciation of First Nation culture and a desire to make our schools better places for our students of Aboriginal ancestry.  I heard all these things in the interviews.  It is an exciting place for us to be.  I also heard from educators who are of Aboriginal ancestry that they are thankful for the journey we are on together.  That the more we all work together, understand the history and culture ... the better our schools will be.  We all seem to be thankful, not just for the books and the authors who have visited - but for the chance to talk honestly with each other, ask questions, and think quietly about where we have been and where we can go.  It is surprizingly energizing to be on this journey, and  I am so thankful for it personally.

Some of the ideas I heard this week that connect with the book club are:
- one principal bought every staff member a book by a First Nations author
- one S.S. teacher has all his kids reading Indian Horse, and is thinking of how to organize an entire S.S. class around literature
- a number of people are buying books by First Nations authors as gifts for Christmas.

In addition to the book club, I had the chance to talk with students who are taking First People's English.  I talked with students who are of Aboriginal ancestry and students who are not.  I was so interested in what they told me.  Everyone in some way talked about building a community of understanding, or feeling so open to learning, or of feeling challenged to think differently.  One girl talked about learning so many things that were preparing her for life -- what being educated is really all about; how it was changing her perspective.  I was shocked at the reflectiveness of kids in grade 10 -- and wondered if I was anywhere near as reflective as they were at that age!

Recently in the BCTF magazine there was an article called "Raising the profile of First Nation courses".  Here is a quote "40,537 students completed English 12 compared to only 184 students for English First Peoples 12".  Provincially so few of our students are being exposed to English First Peoples.  In 2013-2014, we have three courses being offered here at Princess Margaret.  We have 30 students in grade 10, and 60 in grade 12 being exposed to materials, experiences, field trips and culture of our First Nations people.  All eight of the grade 10 students said that FOR SURE they were going to take First Peoples English 12.

We are on a journey in SD67.

Ideas for ENGLISH in Through A Different Lens

A few weeks ago we met as a group of English teachers that work in Through A Different Lens to share ideas and learn from each other.  There were 10 teachers in middle and secondary school that shared ideas on topics such as teaching novels, parody, characters, ethics, and parts of speech.  There were far too many ideas to share in this blog but there are a few short ones that I’ll write here.

            One teacher shared a strategy she uses for building character.  This can be used for pre-writing or just as beginning to understand who the character in the novel is.  Students can focus on different characters in the same book, or a character in their own book.  This strategy can also be used as a pre-speech idea if the students are talking about themselves.
            Students collect 10 items important to their character – this can be pictures or it can be 3D objects, a class assignment or a homework assignment.  This teacher used the website www.theburninghouse What are 10 items you would want to take with you if your house burned down?  What are 10 items that your character would want to take with them?  Why are those items important to them?  What are the connections?  She suggested the items be put on a white board and then they could write brief explanations about each item.    

Here are examples from the website:

            A number of teachers talked about the use of a value line in class discussions, and how it is interesting to do value lines both pre- and post-.  Pre- helps kids think about the topic, but they may be quite unsure what they think about it at that point.  Post- helps them think about how their thinking might have changed by learning about the topic.
            An adaptation to the value line if students are not quite ready to commit to the whole class, is to put the students in groups of 4 and put a piece of masking tape down on the desk and then use different coloured poker chips.  Students place their poker chip on the line and have an opportunity to talk with others about why they placed it in that spot.

            How do you get students to stop using low-level words in their writing?  One teacher had them list the low level words around a gravestone and then they could refer to it when writing to be sure they did not use those words.

            There is a great website called where you can get templates for making trading cards.  These can be used for developing cards on characters in novels, or non-fiction people in content area subjects, or organisms in science. card creator

            Classroom weeblys, twitter in the classroom, using as a wall for classroom conversations, developing units around interests such as zombies, or playing games such as avalanche when teaching skills.

            Comox School District has put together an amazing website with many ideas for reading and writing.  Have a look.  It is filled with ideas.  Go to Comox School website and look under resources for Literacy.

It was a great morning.  Thanks to all for sharing your ideas so freely.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Learning Place

Entrance to the school

Sometimes it is good to go away and see what others are doing.  It helps to see things from others perspectives.  It kind of jolts you into rethinking or thinking differently.  This past week I was fortunate to go to Haida Gwaii (the joys of working part time).  I got to walk on the beach and through the forest, go to art galleries and museums.  I got to soak in the beauty and the culture.  I also had the opportunity to visit a school in Skidegate and sit in on a teacher meeting about reading for the CR4YRs project (Changing Results for Young Readers).

This elementary school was both beautiful and unique, and what I was struck with was the obvious presence of the Haida culture.  The school itself had natural light, and a lot of natural wood – beams and carvings, nooks and crannies, places to sit and think, murals on the walls with sayings about nature, slanted walls in places … and there was also a great deal of the Haida language present, and art, drums and painted paddles.  There were photos of elders who speak the traditional language in the foyer of the school. The teachers explained that the children take classes in the Haida language – Haida immersion they called it.

Looking down one hallway
I was struck by how beautiful and rich the school felt, and how welcoming and special it was.  Even the classrooms were different, not square boxes … just a little bit different. A few slanted walls, a different kind of entrance way, a padded bench here and there.  I loved being there with natural light coming through the ceiling around the beams.  School … an interesting learning place.

Student Art
If I was a child of Haida ancestry, I think I would come to school knowing that my culture and language were appreciated and respected.  And if I wasn’t of Haida ancestry, I would be so curious about the culture and attracted to it. 

It made me think of our schools.   How inviting are they to kids and parents of various cultures, especially our students of Aboriginal ancestry?  What could we do to show appreciation and respect for their culture?  How can we make our schools a place where all kids can more easily belong and connect?

Language Posted

by Judith King

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bumper Stickers Year 2: Secondary Teachers

Twenty secondary teachers met a few weeks ago to write their semester one case studies. There were teachers in English, S.S., Science, Math, Spanish, French, Psychology, First Nations, Art, PE, Counseling, Learning Assistance.  There were teachers in the first 5 years of their teaching career, and a few in their last 5 years, male and female.  Though they are a divergent group in many ways, they have some important things in common.  They are a group of remarkably committed professionals, who are willing to try things and share their thinking with others.

What has struck me over and over about this group is that they don’t judge each other – or it seems, themselves.  They share freely both their small steps and their grandiose ideas.  They laugh, they tease, they encourage, and they work.  One teacher remarked how great it was to be able to work “with such progressive minded educators and share ideas, strategies and plans to engage at-risk learners”.
At our session, along with their case study we asked the teachers to write a bumper sticker about one or more of the big ideas they gained from doing the case studies. Here are some of the things they said: 

With certain students, extreme circumstances
 call for extreme measures.

Peer interaction and support can play an invaluable role in the lives of vulnerable students

Create situations where
 student’s strengths are showcased

Talking with students about their interests is always appreciated

It is worth it
even if you only help one!

Alternate forms of assessment during tests allows different students to succeed

Change to habits is a process

Connections with kids = win win!

Connect curriculum to lives

Connect, Connect, Connect

Validate each student -
let them know they are worthwhile

Connect and encourage student learning

Physical Engagement is a starting point

Choose Choice

Give choice of hands-on activities to synthesize learning


posted by Judith

Elevator Stories - Year 2: Secondary Teachers

Along with the bumper stickers, this year we asked the teachers to write in 25 words or less, why they thought the project “through a different lens” is different than anything else they have been involved in … There were too many to write here, but here is a sampling of the different ideas:

I think the “Through a Different Lens” project allows you to examine your teaching style, broaden your teaching and assessment strategies, and enables you to  learn from your colleagues.  I think it forces you to do something different (change is good) and ultimately makes you a better teacher.

Sometimes feel as though I am the only one who struggles to come up with strategies and ideas of how to engage and connect with kids. When we go into the sessions I feel part of a “team” that has a wealth of knowledge and experience. I always leave with ideas of simple things to try with kids and with more energy to do it. I feel engaged and willing to try new things and experiment in my classroom.

This project involves collaboration with other teachers (which doesn’t happen as often at the high school level) and support from facilitators. The exchange of ideas is priceless and there is a high level of commitment to reflect and to continue whether or not you are successful. I think that the connections that the teachers at our school are making with the students are life changing!

Because it is a consistent, reoccurring event it provides sustainability to my practice - it makes my practice current, engaging and excites me. 

This project also helped me see that sometimes “success” is not just defined by marks or credits or grad rates. Sometimes keeping students in the building and making them feel valued as human beings is true success. Not all teachers (or administrators) agree with this, but the people in the TADL project do!

TADL allows me to develop my practice without defining (limiting me to) one strategy or program while ensuring a focus on student learning.  The focus on one learner (who I chose as at-risk in my class) ensures accountability to myself - and will also ensure an impact on my entire class.

Focussing on at risk students but the strategies used work for the majority of learners.  The inter-disciplinary sharing is invaluable.

The Different Lens project truly pushes me to reflect on who my students are in the class and what I have tried (specific strategies) to try and improve the success of those students. I must then carefully evaluate the actual result of the changes I have made (for specific students and the class as a whole).  I have never been involved in any professional development that makes me reflect on the results of my practice in such depth.

 This project has provided me with the moral support to keep working with our most difficult students. The importance of encouragement from a fellow staff member to “keep up the good fight” cannot be understated when sometimes we want to give up. There were numerous times this semester when I needed the support of others for ideas and to remind me that what I was doing was making a difference.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Power of Language

The difference between the right word and the almost right word
 is the difference between
 lightening and the lightening bug. 
Mark Twain

Help!  We need a conversation about language.  We have come so far in so many ways but we still go back to language that really doesn’t describe our kids, or our intentions.  Instead of hip replacements, we need language replacements.  We are teaching kids differently, we are seeing great things happen… and then we fall back on language that does not fit.  I have been thinking about this a lot, and reading some articles about labeling, about hurting, about keeping people in boxes.  I know none of us want to do that.  But we need to find new language. 

            So that is my challenge to everyone… what language do we want to use?

Here is an example.  What does low mean?  I hear it quite often, I am sure you do too.   “I have a low class this year”.  “I mix up my groups so I have lows working with highs”, “I have a low group” or a “low student”.  Really?  According to what?  What makes someone low all over?  Okay, I understand that some kids struggle in reading, math or writing, maybe in art or PE, or making friends.  Which of these makes them a “low all over student?”  I know actually, it’s a rhetorical question.  I have never heard any of us describe a student who has difficulty drawing as a low student … but I have heard it a lot when it comes to academics. 

Is that really what we mean?  I don’t think so.

Language is so incredibly important.  If we wouldn’t say to the child “You are low” then do we want to be describing the child to anyone else that way?  Maybe that is kind of the rule of thumb. 

Some of the Canadian groups for children and adults with disabilities have put forward “People First Language”.  People first language puts the person before the disability, it describes what a person has, not what a person is.  For example, Johnny has a learning disability, not Johnny IS learning disabled; or Faizal has autism, not Faizal IS autistic.  Or instead of “I have 3 learning disabled kids and 4 behaviour kids in my class” it would be “I have three kids with learning disabilities, and four kids with behavioural issues in my class”. It goes into things like “He receives special education services” vs “He is IN special education.”  “She uses a wheelchair” vs “She is wheelchair bound”.  And so on and so on. 

Does that sound picky?  Ask anyone with some kind of a disabilities… and guess what? It isn’t picky to them.  People first.  In fact, if you want to get serious about this, you find alternatives to the word disability, because it really isn’t,
it’s just different.

I remember years ago when the Performance Standards first came out in BC.  Sharon Jeroski (author of the BCPS) warned us all to be so very careful with the language:  not yet meeting, minimally meeting, meeting and exceeding.  She warned us to be sure that we always said, “the child’s reading is minimally meeting”, not “the child is minimally meeting”.   No child is minimally meeting, just their skill of reading or writing etc.  But again, we get sloppy, and out the words come. 

So here is our struggle in this project.  We are working so hard to make better conditions for kids who have traditionally struggled in school – we need language to describe what we are doing.  Here is some of the language we are using to describe who we are talking about:
            - students who are at-risk of not completing school
            - students who are doing average work
            - students who are doing strong academic work

Is there better language?  Can we do better than this?

Richard Allington, says any kid who struggles is a “curriculum casualty”.  What else is out there?  Any ideas or suggestions?  Please write if you have some.  We want to learn.

P.S. what is a mixed ability group?
Words hold power.