Posts tagged community building
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?”

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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!

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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.

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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!

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.

Why Escape Rooms?

Being able to work in a classroom of our own at Milton District High School is a bit of a blessing for us.  Turning this space into our own demonstration classroom is a bit of a dream come true. Who wouldn’t want a blank slate to play in?  We realized quickly that we were going to be slowed down a bit by factors that were beyond our control. The room needs to be able to demonstrate a wide variety of uses for multiple subject areas and pathways all while being functional for secondary or elementary students and teachers.

The first step we took in our space was to measure the walls and order whiteboards.  We like to work vertically and from our experience, so do students. Once the install is complete the demonstration room will have space for 17 to 20 student groups to work.  Unfortunately the delivery and install could take up to a month.

Step two was to find some furniture vendors who would be willing to work with us in outfitting the room with functional, flexible furniture.  We got really lucky on this one, as plenty of retailers wanted the opportunity to play with us. You can look forward to furniture as a vehicle to change pedagogy in a future post.  Again though, the downside is that scheduling the meetings, delivery and install takes time.

So we were expecting to have about a month of time where our demonstration space would be a blank slate.  Yet we had a few goals we wanted to meet, such as getting to know some of the Milton District staff and students.  We also had this funky display case attached to the room that could be accessed by a lockable door.

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“That would be a cool feature in an escape room…”, we thought.

This was quickly followed by, “We should turn this into an escape room!”  We might have high fived. This was innovation. We had a product, the demonstration room, that we wanted to improve in the short term.  At the same time we wanted to improve our understanding of the school community itself.

We put together a package of sorts for interested classes, based around a YouTube video we saw that discussed the skills that are required to be successful in an escape room.  We wanted to go a bit deeper than the video, linking the skills used in an escape room to our own Learning Skills and Global Competencies. Our idea was to show the video, have the students complete a Breakout Edu escape room, then debrief their success or failure by linking back to their own individual learning skills.  

We did become a victim of our own success.  We offered up 25 time slots for classes to participate in the escape room, of which, 19 ended up being filled.  We didn’t initially plan for what to do when a student repeated our room. In fact, we only expect to run the same room several times, so we wouldn’t even mix up the puzzles.  In the short term, we thought that the one or two “repeats” could help us watch their class for good examples of team communication. We would then lean on these students to help guide our debrief with their class.

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This worked well, for two days, then disaster as a Grade 9 class arrived at the escape room with fully half of the students attending for the third time.  On the fly between periods we printed out the puzzles for a brand new escape room and quickly set the room up. This wasn’t super ideal, as we had not really tested the room ourselves and in the end the room itself was a great deal more challenging than our first puzzle.  To this date, no one successfully solved that second room.

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Another challenge we faced was facilitating the debrief at the end of the room.  Several classes took close to the full 45 minutes to escape. Add the travel time and our intro activity and were we pretty much at the end of our period with the students.  So while we wanted to have a rich discussion with each class, we found ourselves more often congratulating them and then sending them on their way with some homework. Most often, “Think about how good communication and teamwork skills can help you in real life”.  Again, not quite what we were picturing when we decided to run with escape rooms.

That being said, lots of good came from our two week experiment.  We met lots of students from all grades and pathways. We also got to meet a fair number of teachers.  This is important to us, as we believe that intentionally building community in authentic ways is important on the first day of school, the second day of school and every day after too.  So we hope that those classes who participated in an escape room did notice a shift in their own community. We saw it happen in a few cases, where a class would arrive dragging their heels and asking “What’s the point of this?”, only to leave smiling and laughing.  

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We are coming to realize how important a sense of play is to school communities.  People should feel that it is fun to be learning. This doesn’t mean that the activities are all fluff and candy and certainly it wouldn’t make sense to do an escape room every day with your students.  But if we can find authentic ways to make students and staff feel excited about coming to school to learn together, that’s a big win. So tell us, what do you do to make students feel excited about learning?

Community Building From Day One
A new school year always brings changes.  For us, that change is the fact that we’ve been released to work on the Shift full time for this year.  For the past year and a half we’ve been teaching two classes in the morning and then working on sharing innovative HDSB stories for one period each in the afternoon.  This was a great set up for us, as it allowed us to keep a foot in the classroom and field test some of the interesting things we’ve been hearing about. It was also challenging, as our ability to travel and meet with other innovators was somewhat limited.

On Tuesday, the first day of class, we used our extra time to visit two schools to see how they start building a community with their students from day one.  We know that a safe and inclusive community is key to creating a school where innovation can thrive. We’ve also learned that community is something that needs to be built continuously.




Iroquois Ridge High School invited us in to see how the first few hours of the first school day works to build community right out of the gate.  Grade Nines are welcomed by the Grade 11 and 12 students on the school’s Link Crew, new students in Grades Ten to Twelve are welcomed by a welcoming team called Ridge United, new staff are brought on board and even parents get a small taste of what high school is like. It was great to see how they made sure to foster a welcoming atmosphere to all newcomers to the Ridge community, not just the grade 9s.

We then dropped in on Irma Coulson Public School which, on first view, looked to be in the middle of some sort of high energy festival.  We could see the back field as we walked in the front door and assumed that the by volume of noise and intensity of activity that a concert was going on.  Nope...it was just recess. We really are out of our element when it comes to the daily routines of elementary school. We were pleasantly surprised when the Kindergarten teachers spoke about how quickly their “kindies” had stopped crying once their parents left (who were probably crying more than their children were!).



That’s when it struck us just how scary the new school year can be.  For students new to a building, or school in general, where they don’t know anyone, don’t understand or the norms and routines or what is expected of them, the new school year can be filled with uncertainty.  It’s this reason that makes the work teachers, students and everyone in the building do to build community so important. When a new student is able to start the school year on solid ground, with a positive, welcoming experience, they are able to feed off that positive energy to be more engaged, more excited, and ultimately, achieve better in school.

Curriculum is important, teaching and learning is important, but as we’ve seen students will grow more if they can exist in a school or classroom where positive community is built intentionally every day. If you are interested, check out some community building activities we posted last year on the blog.  But don’t just listen to us!  Check out the work that Iroquois Ridge and Irma Coulson staff and students started on day one of the school year.



Gratitude for your PLN
Do you have a professional learning network (PLN)?

When you are planning a lesson, thinking about pedagogy, or learning about something new, do you have a group of people you turn to for guidance and support?



It used to be the people who worked in our teaching offices or schools that we would rely on the most.  Today, access to social media gives us a much deeper pool of colleagues to draw ideas from. If you have an idea for a lesson, chances are there is someone else online who has done something similar and can help.


So while The Shift has lots of people we rely on in person to bounce ideas off of, we also have a much wider PLN online that we can draw inspiration from.


After June 4th and the #LoveMyHaltonSchool event, it would appear that this is true for many of us!  Just how big is the PNL of teachers in Halton? How far does it reach?



Surprisingly, pretty far!  There were almost 400 different twitter accounts active on Monday tweeting about why they love working in Halton.  All together, they created 1,569 tweets that were seen by 162,000 people! Our messages of love were view over two million times.  That’s a huge Professional Learning Network!



Importantly, it benefits our own wellness as educators to express gratitude for the things we love.  There is shown to be strong links in positive psychology research between gratitude and improved mental health and happiness.  There are even apps that are used to journal and track gratitude on a daily basis! (of course there is...there is an app for everything)  So it is important in our working lives to take stock of our Halton schools, staff, students and community.  Expressing our appreciation for these things can only make our day to day work easier. So thank YOU Shifters for brightening everyone’s day, and taking the time to share why you #LoveMyHaltonSchool.




Innovation Journey
WI Dick Middle School in Milton is on an Innovation Journey.  Inside their school they had a large, open area called “The Mall” that was used for Quality Daily Fitness breaks.  Really, the space was being misused and ended up collecting large amounts of garbage throughout the day. As well, WI Dick Middle School had an aging Mac Lab that, while used, didn’t do much to promote creativity or collaboration among students.  The staff identified that they wanted to make improvements to how these learning spaces were utilized. Not to spoil anything, but they were more than successful!



The Mall has since become an extended classroom that teachers can use for group work, combined classes or breakout space.  It has been furnished with flexible seating, whiteboards, a dedicated chromebook cart and other supplies to drive collaboration.  But really, the repurposing of The Mall was a side show compared to what we were about to witness in the old Mac Lab, now rebranded as the “Innovation Lab”. To set up this space, science teacher Mark Maunder has taken the tired, aging computer lab and has transformed it into a dynamic, student centred space where they tackle design thinking projects, learn to empathize, build, code and solve creative problems.



There have been many times when we have had the good fortune of witnessing the energy of empowered students in our travels into schools around Halton, like the Learning Commons at JT Tuck, and Ms. DiGiantomasso’s Grade 8 math classroom at Aldershot. The Innovation Lab at WI Dick Middle School exuded that same level of kinetic energy!  This space is a great example of structure creating behaviour. In this case, by focusing on students creating in teams, and guiding them through the design process, Mark has set the conditions for empowered learning to take place in the room. He reflected on how some of the students that have had difficulty engaging in some other areas of school have found a safe space here where they are engaged, interested and valued.



The space itself has been thoughtfully designed to be flexible, inviting and dynamic.  Students work on whiteboard tables that are able to lift up and store vertically with ease.  The tables allow for risk-free ideation and much like the Thinking Classroom framework, allow students to work vertically.  There were some lost cost design solutions as well including LEGO donated by the community, and some repurposed cork boards and other reinvented materials.   They demonstrated how creating a space like this can also involve solutions don’t necessarily always break the bank.

One of the reasons for success in this project, which is still very much framed as a pedagogical experiment is the presence of The 3 Ps of Innovation (Permission, policy, protection) that nurtures the conditions to allow this new venture to happen.  Mark was given open permission to create this space and program with the focus on learning skills and soft skills as outcomes, rather than specific curricular outcomes and grades.  Mark has noticed that there are many more opportunities for fluid pairings with other subject teachers as needed to cover curriculum. This repurposing of space has worked because Principal Christine Bejjany gave teachers the permission to launch, with the policy and protection to try, fail and learn with a focus placed on learning skills as allowed a flexibility to the project to exist.

In future, the hope is to find ways of bringing this type of learning into all spaces, using maker carts and a design thinking framework in other classes and in other courses.  The insight and the forethought into scaling up is both exciting for the school and welcome that the space fits into a greater plan of change within the priorities of the school.


Waves of Gratitude
What would you do if you were asked to nurture a shared culture of innovation within the Halton District School Board?  Where would you start? Where would the journey take you?

There are many challenges in this role.  How do you go about “being innovative” and create spaces and ways for teachers to “share more”?  It would be great to visit schools and classrooms more frequently as there are literally hundreds of amazing educators in our board doing hundreds of amazing things to innovate our classrooms.  We are trying our best to capture a shared culture through this blog, personal Twitter feeds, and The Innovation Gnome.  YET, there are hundreds of ‘on the ground’ stories left to be told by you.
There have been many people who have helped along the way --  providing the framework to define “Innovation”, and inviting us into classrooms to chat or watch awesome learning unfold.  This support has been invaluable. How do you go about thanking so many people for such great thinking?

Here lies the idea of Challenge Coins.  We were intrigued with the private act of gratitude using a Challenge Coin since we listened to a podcast about them several years ago.  If you aren’t familiar with what a Challenge Coin is, we can give you a bit of history.  

Challenge Coins started as a military tradition, during the First World War.  They were meant as a symbol of pride, teamwork and unity. Soldiers who were separated from their units could flash their unit coins as proof they were who they said they were.  The act of carrying these Challenge Coins gave soldiers a renewed sense of belonging as well as gratitude for the teamwork and camaraderie found on the front lines. Military Challenge Coins help to keep the network of support that so often accompanies - and really, defines - the military lifestyle alive, even after a return from deployment.


As time went by, the Challenge Coin itself morphed into a new tradition.  They became a way for brothers and sisters in arms to thank each other for a special achievement.  The ultimate token of thanks would be to pass your Challenge Coin off privately to someone else whose service and achievement could never truly be thanked in a public forum.  Today, the tradition of the Challenge Coin has spread to many other areas -- Educational Institutions, First Responders, Disney World, and so on. Many groups have developed their unique Challenge Coin as a token of gratitude.  To quote the podcast, “they have become physical proof of a hard fought relationship”.


What does this mean for Halton? There are many educators in the Halton District School Board staff who need to be thanked for making school different and at the same time helping others shift their mindsets about education.  This can been accomplished with a low-key, private expression of gratitude through the sharing of a meaningful token of thanks, as educators support each other on this journey. There is much value in knowing that someone took the time to acknowledge effort and express gratitude for the contributions made. There is also empowerment, providing people with the opportunity to “pay it forward” and pass their expression of appreciation along.  It’s not a secret token, rather a private gesture of sincere thanks.

Part of the joy in that kind of moment is knowing that others can also have that same opportunity.  Thanking someone for their contribution to your growth as an educator is an extremely valuable event.  Don’t be surprised if one day, someone you’ve worked closely with quietly hands a Shift Coin to you. Enjoy that moment, because you’ll be asked to pay it forward too for someone else.   Most importantly, if you haven’t seen a Shift Coin in the wild don’t worry, that just means it hasn’t got to you...YET.

Wonder Walks
This semester, interested teachers in Halton were able to apply for funding for projects that explored Innovation.  That is, projects that will improve a Process, Product or Understanding.




All in all, 49 applications were received with 18 of those projects receiving funding.  Matt and I have been busy trying to connect with as many groups as possible with the intention of blogging about what we’ve learned.  However, we’ve found that many of the groups want to talk about their learning in their own words.


Kelly Bourassa is a Grade One teacher at Brant Hills Public School.  She’s working with her elementary school colleagues at Norton and MacMillan Public Schools on peer to peer collaboration around open ended inquiry projects.


Finding innovation Outdoors


Every Friday morning my class goes on a ‘Wonder Walk’ in the forest near our school. It is my students’ favorite part of the week. The children are free to explore and commune with nature, some for the very first time. When I first ventured outside the classroom I had a plan, an agenda of what we were going to do in the woods. I felt that I was not doing my job if I didn’t assign them a task or a focus for their learning.


Over time I have watched the students as they discover this space and I have learned that to encourage creative minds and innovative ideas, you often need to abandon the lesson plan. You need to trust the innate sense of wonder and imagination that children have and let them lead the way to innovative ideas.  During their exploratory play they work cooperatively to build structures, create games and toys, and find treasures. The students are mindful, they self-regulate and cooperate. They make observations about the environment that lead to some amazing wonderings about the world. This is where I find my purpose as a teacher. I listen to their conversations and prompt further inquiry and discussion. This journey has allowed me to shift my teaching approach. I realized that I can cover curriculum expectations and encourage the development of global competencies through these authentic interactions.




We are beginning to recognize the importance of teaching transferable skills in order to meet the needs of the 21st century learner. This is going to require moving away from the current structured program and incorporate time in the weekly schedule for practicing interest based inquiry. Long journeys begin with small steps, perhaps in the forest.

~ Kelly Bourassa
“We really don’t have a plan”
"We really don't have a plan". That is the spirit of risk taking and experimentation that Sylvonna Brennan and Andrea De Mendonca took when launching into the unknown and piloting “Engology”, an integrated Grade 11 English and Biology course this past fall. You may have seen their article in the Toronto Star. We were interested in digging a little deeper to get an understanding into the conditions that allowed this great combined credit course launch and where it will go from here. 

The basics of their integrated course are easy to understand. Students were offered an English/Biology package of courses in the afternoon. Topics from both sets of curriculum were woven together and both teachers worked closely on creating a coherent experience for students.

Both Sylvonna and Andrea were open to admitting that they were working alongside their students in this new adventure. Many times during the semester they empowered their students to advocate for how they wanted the courses to progress. There were times when the students would push back on topics or evaluations that they did not like and the teachers valued that student voice. 
Rethinking Reading Lists in Engology
Both teachers expected to attract the high achievers in their building to the integrated program. However, in practice this isn’t what happened. Their program attracted the dreamers at their school. It attracted students who wanted to take a risk and try something new and because of that, the cohort of students who joined them were the right kids for the course.

The community in the room grew organically over the semester as students had their beliefs about the Engology credit tested. Many thought it was going to be a bird course and they were soon proved wrong. The course was different, but not easier. Students and teachers noticed a strengthening of their “soft skills” as they were asked to think critically and communicate often about what they were learning.

Communicating understanding in new ways
This lead to a culture of risk taking in the Engology classroom. It’s easy to write a test and put down what you know and then forget about it. It’s a lot hard to communicate your understanding in different ways, to apply it, to write stories that weave the science curriculum into english. Students got comfortable with failure because they had embraced a spirit of iteration. They tried, failed and then learned.

For their parts, Sylvonna and Andrea are learning from their successes and failures too. Both are excited to teach the course again in the next school year. They are hopeful that student interest will allow the program to be run in both semesters. Sylvonna dreams about outfitting her classroom with furniture that will help promote discussion in a more relaxed atmosphere. Andrea is looking forward to finding ways to highlight how biology and science are represented in the media. She is dreaming about an assignment where students critique a film or tv show and talk about how science is glorified or misrepresented.
The creation of the Engology course was a project eight years in the making. Much of the day to day planning was done informally, in the hallways between periods. Sylvonna and Andrea exemplify why, when embarking on a creative or innovative act like this pairing of courses, you need to just launch into it, without a complete plan. It is through the lived experience of creating every day that that the magic happens.

What have you dreamed big about? What’s your eight year project that you wish you could try? We’d love to know!
What We Don't Know
I’d like to introduce you to Alex.  She was a student of mine who graduated last June.  I met her for the first time when she was in my Grade 9 Academic Math class.  My first impressions of her was that she was a hardworking student who seemed to be interested in school.  I don’t know if a teacher can ask more from a student.


It was midway through the semester when I learned that Alex was also a competitive diver.  I’ll plead ignorance in that I didn’t really know what this meant, except for the fact that sometimes she missed classes for competitions.  Every so often Alex would travel on a weekend to B.C. or Nova Scotia and miss Friday or Monday, or both.  From my perspective, these trips didn’t impact her achievement very much.  She was always on top of her homework and would seek me out when she needed to make up a test.

I saw Alex every once in a while when she was in Grades 10 and 11, but never taught her during that time.  She’d be in “math help” sometimes, or I’d pop into her classroom one day when I was playing #ObserveMe.  Some days she was happy, sometimes when I saw her she’d be frustrated with her academic progress.  She was hard on herself, driven to do well, as she set high academic standards for herself.  

I taught her again in Calculus and Vectors, a course students might take if they are heading on to University to study Mathematics or Science or Engineering.  Occasionally, some students take it just for fun.  In the class, Alex struggled to balance her diving schedule with her school schedule.  She was stressed out about her semester and what to do in the future, unsure if her passion for diving was holding her back academically.

The performance task I gave for Calculus and Vectors was pretty open ended.  Students could solve the two problems I had created, or make up two problems of their own to solve.  In Halton, this task is only worth 5% of a student's overall mark, so I’d rather they not sink too much time into it.  I also ask students to reflect about their school year, what worked, what didn’t and then finally tell me what mark they think they have earned in the course.

Alex surprised me.  Watch her video and see if you are surprised too.  Don’t worry, I’ve edited out the Calculus parts.



I had no idea that she was riding a train from Burlington to Scarborough every day to diving practice.  I had no idea she spent four hours per day without WiFi trying to maintain her marks.  I was blown away by the words she used and the ideas she expressed with her reflection.  She was dedicated, she knew things took her longer to process but she didn’t blame anyone for that, she learned for the sake of learning.  She understood that her part was a bit harder than it could have been but she appreciated the effort she had to use to make it happen.

It’s amazing to me, what I didn’t know about her individual struggles.  I’m so glad I asked my class to reflect on their year because otherwise I wouldn’t have appreciated each student's individual journey as much.  Our students have stories to tell, sometimes more than one.  Listening to Alex reflect made me appreciate how complex those stories can be and how important it is for teachers to create a space where they feel safe telling their story.   
Small Victories
I have been teaching now for over a decade, and I am slowly approaching my 10,000 hours.  I have easily already surpassed 10,000 hours, if you count all the prepping, planning and marking.  So I generally feel that at this point I have a pretty good handle on the classroom.  So it bruises my ego a bit to say that I have a class that is challenging my abilities as a teacher. In fact, I walked into a teacher workroom to loudly declare “I feel like a new practice teacher”!  I have a group of students that struggle with impulse control, focus in class and situational awareness.  This has kept me on my toes, as there are lessons that I have successfully run for years that have gone up in flames this time around.  It has forced me to self-assess how I am running a class period and re-think how I deliver my curriculum.  

The one thing that has helped me through is by reaching out for ideas and support from colleagues.  When I was a newer teacher, I used to think that it was a sign of weakness if I admitted things weren’t going well in my class.  As a result, I probably vented at home to my partner more than I should have and didn’t seek advice and support in school as much as I could have. This time around, I have reached out to other teachers that teach some students, sought out strategies from the Spec. Ed department, and yes, vented to other teachers when it wasn’t going well (every other day or so, thanks Jamie).

Using advice from colleagues, rethinking curriculum delivery, working hard to really understand the learners in my class and keeping a firm hold on maintaining the community building in the classroom have all helped turn things around.  I celebrate the little wins when I can, and the moments of connection I can make with students.  Today, I applied a strategy given to me by my colleague (thanks Mitch!) and it worked: give students an opportunity to be active FIRST, get out of the class for something, then return to class and tackle one task.  So we did just that, we took advantage of a nice sunrise (there are benefits to having a photography class first period in the day!) and ran outside with our cameras to capture the orange-pink sky and the epic clouds.  Coming back together, we all learned a new creative edit in Photoshop, keeping lockstep with each other and helping everyone to stay at the same pace.   We left with the whole class learning a new technique that they didn’t before and all students were on an even playing field.  They all “got it”.  I left the period with a little bounce in my step, thankful for the small victories.

Ignite the Spark
Last year, Halton was able to send 25 teachers to the 2017 OAME Conference.  There was lots of good learning and discussions during the three day conference.  What many realized was that there wasn’t much of a secondary conversation after the conference.  People were inspired, but what was lacking was a way to share that inspiration with other teachers in the board.

Enter Janet Juby and Laura Gatey, who were inspired enough to propose a Halton Mini-Conference in order to promote sharing.  Part of this mini-conference was a series of Ignite talks.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, participants get 20 slides that auto advance after 15 seconds, giving you five minutes to speak about one topic.




Constructing an Ignite talk is a challenge, as you are forced to be very purposeful with what you decide to share.  I spent my five minutes speaking about Risk Taking and why I think encouraging our students to be risk takers is so important.


I was much more inspired by the other nine Ignite speakers.  I was left with a list of things I want to learn more about.


Tammy Knetchel validated my feelings about Interleaving and Spiralling.  She made me wonder what Interleaving might look like in other subject areas.


Erin Kinsella spoke about the need for Wellness in our classrooms.  The more I explore the ideas of Wellness, the more I see it is linked closely to Community Building.


Stephanie Briggs shared a story about her teaching philosophy and her desire to convince others that thinking is always greater than memorizing.


Lindsay Kueh nailed a talk about coding in math classrooms.  She made me want to diver back into coding and find ways to incorporate it into my classrooms.


Sheri Hill asked us why we are so excited about Fridays and asked how we can use play to engage our classrooms.


Todd Malarczuk encouraged us to jump on and off the various educational bandwagons at will.  Find the things that work for you, leave the other things behind and grow your own personal pedagogy.


Virginia Houston told the group about having students build their own Escape Room and show off their own learning by creating something.


Aaron Neal speaking for Michael Szarka, who was absent due to illness, stepped in and improvised a talk from Michael’s slides.  He did a great job convincing us that it’s ok to ask What If?


Matt Coleman joined the math world for a day and talked how we can gain longer periods of time with our students by Hacking the School Day.


What I really loved about the Ignite talks was how everyone focussed on personal inspiration, the teacher’s journey, their philosophy, their “why”, and not necessarily a strategy.   Passion was on display all day long!