Shifting in Dark Times
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Two and a half years ago, we were given an opportunity to dream about how school could be different.  No box to dream inside, no forms to fill in, no checklist to run down, just make school different.

We had small dreams during this time, that made us feel a tad subversive.

We had medium sized dreams, where we were able to ask interesting questions and find interesting answers.

We had dreamed big, and were pleasantly surprised when you decided to dream along with us.

Today, looking back on two and a half years of hard work by all of you, we realize that this dream is not ending, it’s just changing.  The Shift and by default all you Shifters are in flux.

Next September will come, you will have students in front of you, lessons to teach.  Schools will plan events, there will be high times and low times. But at the end of the day, innovation will happen, school will be different.  It will be different because of the journey you’ve been on with us. It will be different because fundamentally you believe that students deserve our best, and the best we can give tomorrow looks different than the best we can give yesterday.

Our challenge to you is to find the professional network of people inside your school who fill up your soul.  Find the people who challenge you to be better. We’ve learned that we are better when we Shift together. So yes, we might be Shifting through dark times, but it is the people we surround ourselves with who will hand us a flashlight, or spare batteries, or hold our hands as we navigate an unclear path.

We rise by lifting others.  Let’s be each others flashlight.

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Reflecting on a year of SHIFTING

Like most teachers at the end of the school year, we ask ourselves questions like, “Was I effective this semester?”  We usually ask our students to provide us with some form of feedback.  This year, it’s a little bit more challenging.  We are nearing the end of a year long experiment: release two innovation coaches to work with educators across the school board, work alongside educators, plan with them, imagine with them, teach with them. At the same time the innovation coaches would “pop up” and be home-based in redesigned innovative classrooms in Halton schools.  

We wondered, as coaches, can we be actively be planted in school communities, to allow ease of access to those educators wanting to experiment with new and improved ways of doing school?

We covered a lot of ground this year with this experiment in mind.  We launched a website, a new blog (which you are reading right now!), and a podcast to make our learning transparent.  We created a demonstration classroom in Milton District High School, then a second location at Burlington Central School.

Grade 9 Students designing in the WONDER room in the Burlington Central SHIFT space

Grade 9 Students designing in the WONDER room in the Burlington Central SHIFT space

One of the most impactful things that “Shifting” has brought here, is a change in the attitude of most students who now accept that things might not go as planned when trying to complete a challenge, but know that there are a myriad of other things that they have learned along the way, that can be applied to other areas.
— Mark Maunder, Intermediate Innovation, Inquiry and Science Teacher, WI Dick Middle School.

As Shift Innovation Coaches we wore many hats this year, in an effort to have the maximum positive impact. The Shift became a think tank team for teachers, leadership teams and administration; allowing them to re-imagine and improve a process, a product or an understanding.  We used design thinking, integrative thinking and the tools of the Hack Mindset to generate creative solutions for schools and teachers.  We’ve spent a lot of time planning and dreaming with various people in the Halton Board.  The question we ask the most? “Why?” Quickly followed by “What do you hope to get out of this?”

Being innovative isn’t just doing something different or fancy or flashy.  Innovation in education, schools and classrooms is purposeful and driven by need.  What are we trying to improve? Why does <that thing> need to be improved? Often, those we’ve coached couldn’t answer these questions, at least not right away.  We struggled, individually, with how to approach these conversations. People get really excited when they think they have a good idea and we never wanted to squash that.  At the same time, we needed to make sure what individuals wanted to accomplish, we could support within our coaching portfolio.

Working with the SHIFT introduced me to an incredible collaborative group of educators within the school board from grades 7-12 in all different roles that I would have never met and collaborated otherwise.
— Hilary Rivett, I-STEM and Science Teacher, Milton District High School and Aldershot High School

Did we end up making a difference?  Did we have an impact on the system?  This is hard for us to answer as the skills we were coaching do not directly translate into quantitative data.  We wouldn’t expect to see student achievement directly changing because of our work. Rather, we expected to see a change in student attitudes.  How does one measure that?

It was a year of growth and immense learning for us. We learned the I-THINK tools and even more about working with amazing educators implementing the tools in their classes. We have learned how to support teachers and classes in elementary, middle and high school. Prior to this year, we were working primarily with secondary classes. We learned how to create, record and publish a podcast. There is room for growth too. In working with elementary classes for the first time this year, we realize that there is so much opportunity to grow that support and we’d love to work more with K-12 educators. We had a number of guest blog posts from educators this year, and we’d love to find more stories to bolster the voice of Shifters around HDSB.

...Seeing the way the students problem-solved together in the Shift space was invaluable. Not only was it an experience that they will never forget, but it has also motivated me to be more innovative in my future planning of science. The conversation we had afterward about what they learned was every teacher’s dream! They recognized that they learned not only Science but practical skills like using different tools. Most importantly, they recognized the value of having a growth mindset.
— Sherry Somers, Grade 4 Teacher, Central Public School
Grade 4 students building in the CREATE room in the Burlington SHIFT Space

Grade 4 students building in the CREATE room in the Burlington SHIFT Space

One piece of data offered up to us when we were supporting the three I-Think cohorts that took place this year was around student engagement.  In total, 200+ students were surveyed by the board’s research department. By a large margin those students enjoyed the work they did with the various I-Think tools.  The biggest realization from us was that none of those students mentioned being bored or disengaged when their teachers used the tools of integrative thinking.

Students Podcasting in the SHIFT space

Students Podcasting in the SHIFT space

The SHIFT has helped me to look at problems as opportunities to try new things. It has reassured me that trying something outside of my comfort zone turns the classroom into a true learning environment where both teacher and student learn side by side.
— Sarah Cronin, Head of Special Education, Milton District High School

This information in and of itself convinced us that the work we supported was good work.  But we also wanted to dig deeper. Whether it was in a PD Day, in a conference session, in I-Think training, as a consultant, or 1 on 1 co-planning and teaching, we have worked with 910 educators in HDSB from September 2018 until today.  We have also been lucky enough to work directly with 1427 students from elementary, intermediate and secondary. These were students who shared shift spaces with us, or who invited us into their classrooms to work with them. It was a privileged position we have been in for the past year, and we are glad to have supported so many great teachers, administrators and initiatives.  Looking forward to our next Shift!

Working with the Shift pushed my team out of our comfort zones to try something new with our students. With their support and help to visualize and actualize our vision, we were able to try new things with our students, and this brought out the best in them. It not only empowered them, but empowered us to take risks too.
— Emily Horner, Grade 6 Teacher, Viola Desmond Public School
The SHIFT has created the safe space necessary for educators and students to try things in new or different ways and has amplified student voice in a way so clearly and loudly that no one can ignore how necessary it is for us to continue to shift.
— Michelle Lemaire, Principal, Burlington Central School
The Right Way?

Aaron Neal is a mathematics and physics teacher at Burlington Central High School.  After attending some professional development around “Finding Your Why” he was left with some questions about the ingredients that go into great teaching. This is his first guest post for The Shift.


Teaching is not a solved problem.  I love that about it. Every conversation with a student, parent, colleague or administrator is an opportunity to get closer to the solution.  I will never stop hunting for the right way to teach.  It is out there, I just need to keep hunting.  My first thought I ever had about teaching was that a good explanation was all I needed.  Now I know that sometimes the best explanation is no explanation at all. I have grown and changed, had more thoughts and ideas about education than I can remember; however, I am still on the hunt…

Just because I have never even caught sight of my prey doesn’t mean that I don’t know the scent of it.  

I don’t know what the right way to teach is; however, I think that these aspects of how to teach the right way will be the scent that leads me to it.


My time on the hunt has led me to change my practice time and time again.  Here are a couple of examples of my personal journey.

Giving Time to “Breathe” in the Learning

There was a time when I had a schedule with units of learning, quadratics for 2 weeks, linear relations for 2 weeks, a textbook section a day until I ran out and then 2 days for review and a test.  Why does the test need to come 2 days after the end of the unit? The students have not lived in the topic for long enough, they will cram, succeed and forget. They need to breathe it in make it a part of them, understand it, apply it, see how it connects to the next thing, refine, practice, build something with it.  This takes time. I don’t know how to make it work with all the other things that make up the right way; however, when I catch sight of my prey it will include time for the kids to breathe in their learning.

Time Management

Many of us have integrated large scale projects, labs, essays, cross-curricular builds, presentations and more into our practice.  I have been reflecting on this recently as my students embark on the wild adventure that I have built with them. My recent projects have produced incredible creative masterpieces and also a bunch of zeros.  When students were primarily lectured to they were forced to engage in some manner. They were locked in place with the teacher staring right at their faces. They would get a base of material delivered to them.  They may not have cared about the content, understood much of what was communicated to them or even be paying attention fully. They may not have been able to apply it in new contexts; however, most could recall enough to get by on a quiz or test.  When students engage in creative production, most are much more engaged in the problem; however, this is a release of responsibility to them. We design these projects to be a big part of their learning. So for those who fall behind, have a creative block, struggle with group dynamics, etc. they may not just be risking their grades they may also be learning less then they may have in their seats in a traditional lecture.  It is clear to me that it isn’t enough to create an awesome creative opportunity. When we find the right way it will include these projects but also instructional strategies to teach students how to overcome creative blocks, manage their time, work in groups and have pride in their craft.

I am sure there are many items on my list that are things that you feel passionately about.  You are awesome at some of them, struggle with others. I may not be the best at many of these things but as I grow my goal is to improve at as many of these as possible.

The hunt continues...

The Shift would be interested in hearing what’s on your list?  What’s missing from Aaron’s list?

Share Your Shift

Halton District School Board has been SHIFTING in a big way for the last two and a half years. Both educators, administration and corporate staff have shown an appetite for innovation.  We are seeing doors opening up, educators sharing what they do, taking risks and trying new things. There is a SHIFT happening in Halton and there are Shifters everywhere working together, pushing the envelope and improving processes, products and understanding.  Innovating is challenging, it is often the path less travelled. Innovators need time to feed their soul, reconnect with others doing this important work and recharge their mental batteries.


Date: May 23rd, 2019

What: Full Day “Share Your Shift” Conference

Play: Open Space, Swap Meet, Rotman I-Think, Empower Makers, McMaster Design Thinking, CIBC Service Design Team

Location: Queen Elizabeth Park Community and Cultural Centre, Oakville, ON

Details: 150 Spaces Limited

Lunch & Coverage Provided

If you’ve been engaged in this work, or feel like you want to get started please join us on May 23rd for a full day celebration of all things innovative!  Our partners in innovation, like Rotman I-Think, McMaster University and CIBC Service Design, will be joining us to lead sessions on new ways to shift our thinking.  There will be bands, collaborative sculptures, and slam sessions. Attendees will have the opportunity to engage in open space dialogue with other HDSB Innovators. There will even be a chance to share ideas and resources in a Swap Meet format!  

If you are new to Innovation in Halton, don’t let that hold you back!  Come along with a friend to see what Shifting is all about.  May 23rd is being designed for both academic and corporate innovator thinkers!

Register on  PD PLACE opens at NOON on Wed, May 8th to all of HDSB  — spaces are limited, don’t be disappointed!

A confirmation of your registration will be emailed to you with a participant form to submit.

Follow along to find updates on the day on our SHIFT website

Knowledge Building

Bijan Nagji is an elementary teacher at Viola Desmond Public School. He has 19 years experience as an educator in the Halton District School Board. His favourite thing to hear in a school is ”sure let’s give it a try!”.  His least favourite thing to hear is “I can’t do this, it’s too hard” and “This is just a new education fad”. He is passionate about student voice, empowering students and building a strong classroom and school community.  This is his first contribution to the Shift Blog.

The idea of Knowledge Building came across my radar in the middle of the 2017 school year. Ms. Hanmer, one of the Vice Principals at our school, dropped by my classroom to introduce me to a document.  Being open minded, I glanced at it and said “Sure, I’ll take a look”. I put it on my teacher's desk (I still had one then). Life got busy, you know how THAT goes!  And so, despite best intentions, it stayed there. As I reflect on this, I can still hear that voice inside my head saying “knowledge?” and thinking “why, isn’t that a low level thinking skill?”


Later in the school year, I heard that the Halton District School Board announced that there were some grants available from the Ministry of Education to innovate (what a different time that was!) and try new ways of learning in the classroom. The idea of trying something new, something different sounded good to me! They were looking for proposals around how to teach the New Global Competencies. Knowing that there had been discussion that the Global Competencies were planned to replace our Learning Skills in our Provincial Report Cards, I figured, hey, why not apply? So, a group of us got together and wrote up what sounded pretty impressive (to me, anyway) proposal. Thanks Ms. Horner!

We decided to use the funding to see if we can teach junior students skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.  Little did I know that it would take me into perhaps one of the best and most gratifying professional endeavours to this day. Using The Knowledge Building pedagogy was a part of that proposal and our proposal was successful! That’s when I started to look into that document, dig a little deeper and get some sense of what knowledge building really was! I learned then that it was about students “identifying problems of understanding”, creating theories about those problems, acknowledging and respecting idea diversity and then collaborating together and focussing on idea improvement! Curious yet? Check it out here!


Sometimes as educators it’s easy to stay the course and do what we already do. Risk taking and stepping outside our own comfort zone is not natural at times. It can be challenging and even difficult. It is great to find a like-minded team, willing to play and experiment with new ideas.   We took some of its theories, principles and ideologies and attempted to apply them into our classroom. We started slowly and looked at big ideas and concepts across all curricular areas and incorporated Knowledge Building within them. Some basic KB scaffolds such as “My Theory is”, “I wonder…”, “I still need to understand…” “Building onto this idea…”, “This theory does not explain…”, “Putting our knowledge together…” were introduced to students and we jumped right into using KB circles. When students seemed to have mastered some of these, we increased the scaffolds we were using, changed a few and even created some of our own. One of the topics we explored in our circles was the teenager girl Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun from Saudi Arabia and how she had been welcomed into Canada as a refugee, after fleeing from her family and country.

It soon occurred to me that our grade 5 students were engaged, respectful and actually sounded like empowered students and learners having a respectful conversation.  In short, they sounded like adults! Reflecting on this, I think that may have been my aha moment!

As part of the grant process, we brought in some experts to our school to dig deeper into how we could use Knowledge Building to teach some of the Global competencies.

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That’s when we were introduced to the Knowledge Forum! The Knowledge Forum is an online software tool used to help support Knowledge Building communities. Students have the opportunity to collaborate online with one another in this platform and build on the ideas of one another in order to focus on idea improvement

It seemed so complex at first, and a bit intimidating too! But, we gave it a go. What an exciting tool!

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We continued to take risks, play, fail and eventually learn! Oh yes, there were lots of failures along the way. Really, the kids figured out things quicker than me! They were quick to figure out how to post their comments, how to reply and add to a post and even how to attach relevant documents that supported their ideas and theories.  Even at age 10, they are so tech savvy and intuitive!

I was particularly fascinated by the analytics tool in the Knowledge Forum platform. We continued playing and exploring with the students and realized that there was invaluable data that it gave us! I liked that it allowed the silent, more reserved students to have a voice! Not only that, but students and teachers had data about peer to peer collaboration.

Students were looking at their collaboration as a class community and came to the realization that many of them were only collaborating with their friends, as this was the most comfortable for them. This opened the door for great discussion and discourse in our room about what collaboration looked like in the real world. Slowly, we started noticing a change and more authentic interactions with others. But wait, if the goal is idea improvement, we still had a long way to go! Another emerging trend came to the forefront. Students seemed to be really good at creating and stating their own theories, but not as good at building on the ideas of others or putting ideas together.


Knowledge Building is now a way of life in our classroom. If you are an educator, administrator, a policy maker, I have this to say, give this a go. Try, Fail, Learn, Try Again! The way I see it, whether you are an expert or just beginning to dabble with teaching pedagogies such as project based learning, the maker movement, Inquiry based learning, integrative thinking, design thinking or any other classroom practice, they really all fall under this one umbrella of Knowledge Building! So, no, it’s not an add on! Give it a go! I have no doubt that in the end the winners will be our students and our future generation!

Follow up to Hacking Leadership with Passion Projects

Sarah Cronin is a teacher for the Halton District School Board and the program leader for Special Education at Milton District High School.   She has written previously for us, sharing her work leading other teachers through their own passion projects.  You can learn more about her journey on her blog.

After reading about teacher passion projects in the book Hacking Leadership,  I wanted to support professional development in this meaningful and purposeful way with members of my team.   Teacher passion projects are when teachers take control of their own professional learning through choosing an area of education on which to focus.  Topics are varied and learning is centred around working toward becoming a better teacher overall. Learn about it here!  

When I started leading this project I focused on my inspiration, implementation and leadership strategies.  As the project began, we had 5 people participate. Topics included

  • Distributed Learning and how to use it to introduce blogging into pedagogy  

  • Positive impacts of exercise and diet on emotional wellbeing with a student who struggles with mental wellness.

  • Special Education Additional Qualifications course work to understanding students with learning disabilities better  

  • Website development designed for teachers full of helpful and thoughtful resources.  

  • Finally my own project, enhancing my leadership skills through supporting teachers in their learning - a.k.a. - capacity building.   

This passion project just reminded me once again about my love for education, learning and teaching. The ending never does end. I know that I am only scratching the service, I’m hoping that I can continue to grow in the area of distributed learning and provide future students with a unique, and creative learning experience.
— Milton District SERT

Some projects took right off and others continue to be a work in progress.  What is important to me as a leader is not the final product, but of course, the process of learning itself.   The professional conversations happening along the way are invaluable. In addition to conversations between myself and participating team members, they were also asked to reflect on their learning more formally at midterm and at the end of the semester.  

I am able to blend technology within a traditional classroom setting much better. I have gained confidence to experiment with new ideas, and to ensure that I don’t fall into the trap of becoming comfortable with lessons that I’ve been doing year after year. I am appealing more to the strengths of my students, while including deeper level learning too.
— Milton District SERT

Providing the opportunity for my colleagues to learn in this capacity allowed teachers to fuel their understanding of working with exceptional students.  They were able to engage with students in meaningful ways ultimately creating positive impacts. The fact that teachers owned their own professional development allowed them to make connections with each other and with students in new ways that were meaningful to them and their practice.  

As a program lead for Special Education at Milton District High School, one of my goals for my department is to help embed special education knowledge throughout the school and support strategies within regular classrooms.  The team is diversified in their subject areas ranging from English, ELL, Science, Student Success, The Arts - to name a few - and because of the learning communities happening from within the Passion Project, this goal began a successful journey.  

Christa Talarowski is a SERT new to Milton District High School last year. Her passion project was to create a website for educators that provided resources. Her intention was that educators be “provided with learning opportunities and resources to build awareness." I hope to be the creator of resources assisting educators in their pursuit of equity and inclusion of students)”. Her work can be viewed here:  Create With Positivity

Christa Talarowski is a SERT new to Milton District High School last year. Her passion project was to create a website for educators that provided resources. Her intention was that educators be “provided with learning opportunities and resources to build awareness." I hope to be the creator of resources assisting educators in their pursuit of equity and inclusion of students)”. Her work can be viewed here: Create With Positivity

The Blogging Project - Educator and SERT Christina Paquette was so excited to use her passion project as a way to really create a community of learning within her ELL classroom through student blogging: Here is an example of a student written blog that was a response to  being new to Canada and seeing snow for the first time:    Walk on Snow for the first time.

The Blogging Project - Educator and SERT Christina Paquette was so excited to use her passion project as a way to really create a community of learning within her ELL classroom through student blogging: Here is an example of a student written blog that was a response to being new to Canada and seeing snow for the first time: Walk on Snow for the first time.

I set out with the intention to as a leader, support meaningful and purposeful professional development within my department as a means to enhance teacher capacity within the school.  It was invigorating for me to work with my colleagues in a way that was supporting all of our learning. As much as they learned, I too learned, growing my leadership skill set. I feel this project was successful and I would  absolutely run this initiative again.

The capacity to build professional learning communities within the department is a wonderful way to bring cohesion to a team that works across several different departments.  It is hard to connect with each other daily, and this provided an opportunity to check in weekly ‘geek out’ in our learning. The Passion Project opportunity also allows professional conversations to filter through to several different departments, as teachers return to other departments , new ideas and strategies reach into their team practices,  spreading the knowledge of supportive and engaging strategies for kids who learn differently throughout the school.

I really like the structure I used to implement the project, and I am happy with the process.  I may consider personalizing the reflection questions to more specifically address Special Education as it relates to my own school.   I also know that as the school year progresses so does the pace and intensity of the job. People become busier and time is of the essence, as is energy.   I recommend running an initiative like this once in a year. Pick a semester and end date the project before the turnover. Why? It puts some parameters on finishing.  Although we know learning never really ends and continues on, people also need to feel a sense of accomplishment and closure in their initiatives. This allows them to plan their next steps in where they want to take their learning moving forward.   

If you are interested in trying out a Teacher Passion Project, feel free to connect with Sarah any time.  She’d be happy to help!

Even Deeper Learning

Last year, the Shift was fortunate to experience the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego.  Ever since, we’ve been hard at work with various educators around the Halton District School Board to push our learning even further.  Today, after a year of hard work, “try, fail, learn” and so many emotional ups and downs we are pleased to launch the next phase of The Shift.

Are you ready for Even Deeper Learning?

We had thought, with the expertise of our partners in the School Programs Department, that we had taken our learning as deep as it could go.  But of course, after months of trying, failing and learning, we realize that we haven’t taken our work deep enough.  As it was discussed in Ted Dintersmith’s film, Most Likely to Succeed, in order for students to investigate a subject with depth, one does sacrifice some breadth.  This was made clear to us when we started working with Rotman and their I-Think Program.  Last November, we were given the opportunity to expand on our understanding of Deeper Learning by using one of the I-Think tools.  By using the Pro/Pro chart and the models of “Keeping Learning on the Surface” vs “Taking Learning Deeper” we were able to expand on our understanding of what Even Deeper Learning could be.


First, we were able to understand that, like people who are Innovative, those who can go deeper with their own learning have a very specific set of tools at their disposal.  The Deepest Learners need to be able to break apart their misconceptions and fixed mental models with a pickaxe of knowledge. They must shovel away their own distractions as they excavate a path to new ideas.  Finally, they need to illuminate their new understandings in order to shine their light on the ultimate student success goal with their headlamps of intuition.

With this new framework in mind, we realized that to drive student learning even deeper we needed to radically transform what our classrooms look like.  If learning is to stay on the surface, so too should classrooms stay on the surface. But this isn’t how the deepest learning works. To experience Even Deeper Learning, we need to take the idea of the classroom and send it underground.


We will be mining our students for their knowledge as they explore new depths of understanding.  What a better way to do this than to physically teach our students underground. Sunlight, a cool breeze, animals...these are all distractions to the Deepest of Learners.  Halton’s newest underground school will strip away all of these distractions, except for one single Canary that will also act as the school's new mascot. Opening in the Fall of 2021, Excavation Public School, a 7-12 underground education campus, will boast the newest in Even Deeper Learning innovations.


Students will learn in some of the deepest classrooms of the world, using some of the deepest pedagogy of the 21st Century.  Thinking Classrooms become Thinking Caverns. Design Thinking will make way to Design Digging. The I-Think Tools we’ve come to embrace will evolve into Pro/Spect charts, Tunnels of Inference and Causal Surveying.  Failure is not an option at Excavation Public School because safety is our utmost concern and we aim to have a cave in free school year.

Dig deep within yourselves, Shifters, do you have what it takes to excavate this new frontier in education?
Find your own way to Learn Deeper!

Find your own way to Learn Deeper!

Finally, students will come to view their education as a network of tunnels to be traversed, rather than individual paths to be crossed.  By linking together all subjects, students will truly experience the power of Even Deeper Learning.  We are excited to be a part of this Shift in learning.  Dig deep within yourselves, Shifters, do you have what it takes to excavate this new frontier in education?  #digdeeper #ShiftUnderground #DeepestLearning

Try Shifting!

The Shift has decided it is time to throw down the gauntlet and invite our fellow Shifters to try something new. We love getting out to see other school communities and other teachers’ classrooms in action, but there are only two of us and there is a lot of great work to see. We think now is a good time for some Shift challenges.


Every so often we will post some #TryShifting challenges here. To start with, there are already three available for you to try, such as starting an educational Twitter account, or convincing a friend to do so. There are no deadlines or due dates. You can spend as long as you want working on a challenge. They can be completed individually or in a group. All we ask is that you share your work with the wider education community using the #TryShifting hashtag. Post some pictures, reflect on how the challenge went. What did you learn?

So what are you waiting for? Try some Shifting!

Want to Shift into I-Think?

Have you been following along with our work with Rotman I-Think? Are you curious about how I-Think engages students to think in powerful ways?

Do you have an intermediate or secondary science teacher friend who won’t stop talking about Pro/Pro Charts?

Are you a Halton District School Board teacher who is interested to learn more?

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Why not join us for a celebration of the work completed in Semester One, while we also launch our new work in Semester Two! You can learn how you could be involved too!

This is a free event, Register on Halton’s PD Place using the code 232844.

Not an HDSB staff member but want to learn more? Send us an email

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Listening to Students' Stories

Christine Vanderwal is a grade 7 teacher at Viola Desmond Public School. She is passionate about equity, Indigenous perspectives, building relationships, listening to students' stories, meeting the needs of her learners, and building safe school cultures. This is her first contribution to the Shift Blog.

Then he said, ‘That’s my favourite part about this class.’

One day, my students were deep into their inquiry work.  One boy wandered over to me. He told me that he was sorry to have gotten off track, but that he was looking into wood extraction and the search somehow took him to a page about his ancestral country of Pakistan.  He wanted to show me some beautiful landscape images of the country. We chatted about it for a few minutes.

Then he said, "That's my favourite part about this class."  

Unclear about what he meant, I replied, "What's your favourite part about this class?"

"That I can talk so much about where my family originates, Pakistan."  He answered.

This coming from a kid who had learned how to code on scratch, created videos, engaged in drama activities, design challenges, built a game for Genius Hour, started a blog, and played with circuits.

I would have guessed that one of those things might be his highlight about our classroom.

I was wrong.  His favourite part about our class was that we talked about our stories, we celebrated our identities, and took time to do that.

I believe in empowering students.

I want to learn about new technologies, new ways for students to express themselves.  I want to take my learning about how to integrate arts education deeper. I want to inspire kids to tell stories in different ways, to dive into Project Based Learning, Thinking classroom, outdoor education, Integrative and Design Thinking, Knowledge Building, and make everything we do in our classroom authentic.

The more I learn about innovative teaching practices though, the more I want to dive into the work of equity.

I see the two as going hand in hand.  Students will never feel empowered unless they feel heard, unless they feel valued, unless they feel welcomed into a safe space everyday.  A space where they can truly be themselves, take creative risks, speak their opinions without judgement. If we as teachers are going to empower our learners, it is AS much about the culture that we create in our classrooms, as it is about innovative teaching practices.

The work of equity, exploring Indigenous Perspectives, building relationships, listening to our students' stories, meeting the needs of our learners, and building safe school cultures needs to lay the foundation for innovation and student empowerment.

My students taught me this.

One day in my grade seven class last year something happened in the room.

I went in that day thinking it was not going to be a good one. Rainy days, double indoor recesses can be rough in Elementary school!

After the break, students were yawning, and itching to get outside.  I wasn’t sure if it was a good move or not, but I pushed ahead and had them set up the space to continue on the inquiry we’d been working through, which was part of a larger Project Based Learning experience.  I didn’t think it would go well. I couldn’t feel the energy in the room, and today, I didn’t have the energy either. It took quite awhile for students to start their investigations, I had to give some reminders to a few to make good choices, people were asking to take walking breaks early into the period, it didn’t feel great.  

Then, something shifted.  

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Two boys ran up to me, computer in hand, wanting to show a video they were watching on the impact of seismic blasting on marine animals.  They were excited that the video featured an Inuit perspective.

As they were telling me about it, another student overheard our conversation and said, “Can you throw that link on google classroom, it sounds interesting.”

It was like their energy, their passion was contagious, it began to spread around the room.

A few minutes later someone else called me over to watch an animated video she had found showing the impact of extracting resources on animals.  Before I knew it, half the class were up and gathered around her computer. We all shared a bit of an emotional moment, and it sparked ideas about how we might use art to make an impact on an audience.  Off another student went to the idea board.

I suggested that a group tweet out some of what they had found using the hashtag we had developed to try to make some connections online.  They sat huddled around a chromebook in the hallway, composing a tweet.

Someone else came up, asking if we could have a chart paper up somewhere so that he could put up new learning and thinking that wasn’t necessarily connected to any of our questions, but that shouldn’t be forgotten.

I was about to redirect a couple boys who just seemed to be wandering and chatting, I assumed they needed some help to focus or figure out where to go next.  As I approached, they turned to me and said,

“So, we were just talking about how money, the government, business, all this stuff we have, it’s just one big endless cycle that we can’t seem to stop.”

It was so neat, because they were investigating two completely different questions, but were sharing theories and ideas, finding connections. This is the power of fostering a knowledge building community in the classroom.

By the end of the period, every single student had something to add to our knowledge building board. Arrows were being drawn, connecting ideas.  I stood back and watched, listened. Even if they weren’t all talking at that point about their inquiry, I was witnessing something special, a little bit of magic. They were connecting intellectually through the inquiry, by sharing ideas, critical thinking and questions. Perhaps more importantly though, they were connecting as individuals, relationships that we had built over the year were strengthening.  I realized that all of the work we had done at the beginning of the year and throughout building relationships, getting to know our each other’s stories, talking about issues of injustice and equity in our world, exploring Indigenous perspectives in connection to the land, had laid the foundation for this deep inquiry work and knowledge building to happen, so organically.

Student Thinking up on the Knowledge Building Wall

Student Thinking up on the Knowledge Building Wall

Their voices are so powerful, when we take the time to listen, when we let them tell their story.

Teaching this way is not easy, it is so messy, so unpredictable.  It does not work beautifully every day. Kids are resistant sometimes, they aren’t always engaged, not every one of them, not all the time. Sometimes I wonder if they are learning enough. Do I give them too much freedom?  Do things need to be more structured or less structured? Am I giving everyone what they need? Are my expectations high enough? These questions are important for me to keep asking. We need to be reflective about our practice and what is happening in our classrooms.

Final Knowledge Building Wall

Final Knowledge Building Wall

Even though it is messy, I believe in it. I’ve seen the impact that teaching and learning like this can have on kids.  The power of Knowledge Building and PBL was so clear to me that day. Teaching this way empowers students, gives everyone a voice, deepens the learning and creates communities of creative and critical thinkers, global citizens who are starting to realize they can be a contributing part of our society now. It helps students develop confidence by discovering their strengths and realizing their passions.  Isn’t that what school should be about?

My students make me want to do better.  

My students inspire me to learn and to grow.  

Their voices are so powerful, when we take the time to listen, when we let them tell their story.

History in the Making

This week, Halton opened the doors on its newest elementary school, named after a Canadian civil rights leader, Viola Desmond.  Up until the Christmas Break, students who were to attend Viola Desmond Public School had been split between several other area schools while construction on their building was finished.  This splitting of the new school community made building relationships between the new staff and students challenging.  However, with the unveiling of the new Canadian Ten Dollar Bill, featuring a portrait of Viola Desmond, staff and students were given an opportunity to gather in November to celebrate.

Bijan Nagji and Sarah Patterson, two teachers at Viola Desmond, spoke to their students about the importance of this event and how they felt having their school named after such a leader.

“When I first heard about the event, I felt like a leader, like I’m representing our class and school and representing Viola Desmond in a way that everyone can remember her action and her name”  ~Navnoor, Grade 7

“The speech from the Bank of Canada really stood out for me, because the passion of Viola Desmond came across.  It was really inspiring from the words that were said, from the artwork on the 10 bill. I like the design. I also love the poem that Nadine (Williams) made.  She inspired me to create my own piece”  ~Yusur, Grade 6

“I was very excited to be one of the very first people to get the new $10” ~Jyoshika, Grade 5

Students feel a sense of pride by attending a school named after someone who stood up for their own rights and the rights of others.  They recognize that she was different and that there are many visible and invisible differences among the students at Viola Desmond Public School.  Students are excited to be learning in a community that embraces these differences, where students are comfortable talking openly about these difference and respecting everyone's diverse backgrounds.  Students realize the legacy of Viola Desmond and are happy to represent her in their own community.

What is a Pro-Pro Chart?

If you have been following along on with Shift twitter, you may have witnessed educators getting excited about something called a pro-pro chart.  You may also be wondering what on Earth the excitement is for this tool?

A group of HDSB science teachers, led by the Instructional Program Leaders for Science in both elementary and secondary panels, teaching grades 7 to 10 from eight different schools are participating in a series of workshops to learn about Integrative Thinking, which is a creative way to problem solving. It was developed by Roger Martin at Rotman School of Management as tools for businesses to make important management decisions, it quickly became apparent that these tools were enormously useful in education as a way for students to think more deeply about problems in the world around them.   Rotman I-THINK tools are accessible to students in elementary and secondary and be can used to build empathy through tackling some really tricky problems and are good entry points for design thinking and project based learning.

So what are these tools?  At their core, they are really well developed strategies that are structured to engage students in deep thinking, allowing them to examine the world around them.  The first tool introduced by I-THINK to the Halton educators is the pro-pro chart and that is the focus of our what we’ll focus on because frankly, the tool is SO. DARN. COOL!  (in a nerdy teacher pedagogical sort of way). Everyone has heard of a pro-con list for making a decision. The pro-pro chart reimagines that process to focus on the POSITIVE aspects of two opposing ideas.

In order to highlight how this tool works in the class,  let’s consider a current issue that is in the media and in current political discussion, the use of cell phones by students at school, by using a pro-pro chart.  For many, talking about this issue could quickly turn into examining the pros and cons list of for or against this idea. Doing so will inevitably lead to complaints, negative ideas and a process that feels like an unsatisfying answer.  As the video explains, using a pro con list to make a decision results in making a decision based on the side that has the least number of cons.

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Matthew ColemanComment