If you could create your dream school what would it look like, feel like, sound like?  Let’s assemble and imagine together! Join us for #NotAStaffMeeting on November 29, 2018 from 4-6pm at Milton District High School.  We are inviting all interested educators to come hang out, chat and dream. This will be an informal affair to reconnect, feed each others’ mojo with some total support, deep thinking, saying Yes, And… Go Big with our ideas.  Let’s chat about the future of our schools and how we could make school different in Ontario.  

Does that sound like something you would be into?  Join us! Fill out this quick Google Form so we will get an idea of numbers, and let’s PLAY!

Matthew ColemanComment
Collaborative Thinking

Being embedded as coaches in a school is providing The Shift with many unique opportunities to collaborate with other teachers.  Two weeks ago, we were approached by two Milton District High School Science teachers who had heard about the Thinking Classroom and wanted to try it out with their Grade Nine Science students.  This was exciting, because it was going to be a challenge for us as well as them. Our own areas of expertise currently lay outside of the science curriculum, we could bring the strategies of the Thinking Classroom to the table, but as far as knowing how to apply it to individual topics, we were at the mercy of the classroom teachers.  But this is how we like to learn and grow, collaboratively.

The topic in question was Bohr Rutherford diagrams and the periodic table.  This is traditionally taught by the teacher leading a lesson on atomic theory, the parts of the atom, how to draw Bohr Rutherford diagrams and then, how these diagrams related to the periodic table.  Traditionally, the periodic table was given to the students first, without creating a reason for them to need it. Hilary Rivett and Jennifer Pratt, the teachers working with The Shift, wanted to change that.  They were hoping that by using the Thinking Classroom model students would better understand and appreciate the need for the periodic table.


So with those two goals in mind, teaching students how to draw Bohr Rutherford diagrams and making them want to use the periodic table, we got to work.  We spent some time discussing the research and philosophy behind the Thinking Classroom, why it is good for students and teachers and how it can be applied to the classroom.  As luck would have it, we’ve recently released a Podcast on this very topic. You can listen to it here.

The format we decided on was pretty exciting for the educators, and we knew it would be a challenge for the students.  In a nutshell, the teacher would gather the class around one of the whiteboards in the Demonstration Classroom and start their lesson.  The script was simple, “This is how I would draw Lithium. This is how I’d draw Boron. This is how I’d draw Argon”. Total lesson time, about four minutes.  Some questions were asked, like “What makes up the nucleus of an Atom”, but other than that, students were sent to their groups with the challenge question, “Can you draw Beryllium?”.

There was a frenzy of frustrated struggling.  Students were not in Flow, they didn’t know how the teacher drew their diagrams, what the rings represented, what the numbers on the board meant, or how to even start drawing their element.  However, as groups moved back and forth between their boards and the teachers work small hints of understanding began to emerge.

“Every drawing has that thing in the middle with different numbers.”

“I think the dots are the electrons.”

“How do we know how many protons Beryllium has?”

And this was the moment the teachers were waiting for.  The groups were quickly realizing that they needed a tool to help them draw their diagrams.  That tool was the Periodic Table.

“Is there something you’ve seen that might help you?”, asked the teacher.  The words were barely out of their mouth before the groups were rushing to their backpacks to grab their Periodic Tables.  Connections were quickly made between the atomic number of an element and the number of protons. With a bit more thinking, students realized that the number of protons and electrons were equal in these diagrams.  More insight followed with respect to the placement of the electrons. Students were flying through our examples now and by the end of the 75 minute period had drawn several diagrams, listed the steps to draw any of the first 20 elements and were working on consolidating their drawings into an individual meaningful note.

Hilary and Jennifer were pretty pumped with how well things went.  Normally it takes them two days to get students this far along. Everyone was looking forward to day two, which was going to start with a challenge.


“Draw the first twenty elements, as a class, as fast as you can”

The students didn’t disappoint us, but the point of this exercise wasn’t to see how quickly things could get drawn.  The teachers wanted to consolidate a bit more of the learning from yesterday and have a big visual for the class to refer to.  Students were again divided into groups of three and sent to individual white boards to work. Their question for the day, “What patterns do you notice in our big periodic table of Bohr Rutherford diagrams?”  Some groups jumped right into finding patterns, others needed some nudging. “What if you looked across the rows? Or down the columns?” More thinking from students resulted in some pretty insightful observations around the trends and rules of the Periodic Table.


There was a bit of a disaster at the beginning of the third day, as the class created Periodic Table had been mistakenly erased in the night.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us when multiple students in the class asked if they could redraw it before the bell rang! Afterwards, student groups were assigned two different elements and were asked to use an online source to learn all they could about each element, including how it behaves.  Once groups had a decent handle on their elements, the teacher asked them to circulate around the room and find other elements that might belong to their “family”.  Students were again able to reinforce the connections made the day before with respect to the trends and patterns in the Periodic Table.

The work was wrapped up by one final consolidation with teachers and students, and the teacher asking “Why are some elements more reactive than others?”

To which one student replied, “Maybe because some have less electrons?”

Which is a great point for these students to get to, mostly on their own, by the end of this activity.  On day four they will be back in their regular science lab doing some experiments around reactivity of elements.  It’ll be a great way to test some of the theories and patterns they determined previously. All told, there was about 20 minutes of formal teaching over the three days of this activity.  The bulk of the work was done and lead by students, working collaboratively and thinking critically. The biggest challenge was getting them used to working within the Thinking Classroom model.  One class in particular was very high energy and had several students that were prone to outbursts. The great piece from having students standing, working at whiteboard was that the energy from these students were directed at the problem being solved, rather than the class and teacher.  All in all, a lot was learned by the teachers and us in this process. The Shift was able to mentor two teachers through a planning and execution of a lesson while at the same time teaching them about the Thinking Classroom. As a bonus, we learned a lot about the Periodic Table too!

Engaging with our PLN

Do you have a Professional Learning Network?  Is there a group of educators with whom you enjoy connecting with, who push your own thinking and expose you to new ideas?  We like to connect with as many people as we can online. One of those people is Matthew Oldridge, an educator who is currently on secondment to the Ministry of Education.  He tweets about mathematics, or education, or pop-culture, or his family. We enjoy his online presence because it isn’t one dimensional, he is great at letting people in and showcasing the fact that yes, he is a human when he isn’t teaching.

Matthew recently posed a series of questions on his blog which he challenged his own PLN to think about and respond to.  These are the types of questions that The Shift likes to think about and, by speaking about them, coach others into thinking about them too.

The Shift sat down and talked through each question and have responded to the ones that we felt we had the most to contribute.  If anything we says resonates with you, take the conversation online or respond in the comments below.

What has been your most powerful pedagogical moment?


It was probably attending the Deeper Learning Conference.  The experience peeled away a lot of the movie magic that was applied in the documentary Most Likely to Succeed.  Were students completing high quality projects? Yes.  Were they also being taught curriculum in a setting we might recognize?  Absolutely. The fact that students were doing both made this moment so powerful.  We love teaching students about math and art. We don’t love that we have to take the subject we love to teach about, and more often than not measure that learning through a timed test or static project.  We’ve often wanted our students to show us their learning in different ways but were never fully satisfied with the tasks we would give them. Attending Deeper Learning and visiting High Tech High convinced us that projects that integrate learning across subjects, that force students to dive deeper into their learning, and have students exhibit their learning in public ways were possible.  It’s something we would love to help other teachers try.

What changes do you want to see in curricula around the world?

The greatest overall change we hope to see change in curricula is one that values depth over breadth.  There can be a great deal of stress and anxiety that comes with trying to cover all the topics in a curriculum so packed with content that they have no time to go deep on anything.   If curricula had less specific content to cover, what could that space allow?

  • It could allow for students to go deep with their learning.  Removing that stress of breadth of curriculum would allow educators greater flexibility to bring students as the leader in the curriculum

  • Going deep with curriculum would enable bringing student voice and student identity.  Simply put, not cramming in content would allow flexibility and space for students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum.  

  • That space would give time and space to uncovering curriculum from multiple viewpoints.  Understanding and building empathy for many points of view, so that one story doesn’t become the only story.   

What do you think is the purpose of education in this day and age?

The world is changing at a blistering speed and the model of education we need to prepare students for that future can no longer rely on developing young people for a singular, defined career.  We don’t know what the world will look like when these learner will reach adulthood, the purpose of education should be to do a better job of preparing for a changing world, rather than a defined one.   How might we empower students to find their passion? What opportunities can we provide to students so that they are motivated to learn? Education should foster creative, problem seeking, collaborative, empathetic citizens that can adapt to our changing world.  

What would you like to see change the most about education?

Let’s start with students.  Like we said in the previous question, the change we would like to see for students is education that puts students in the drivers seat, with students empowered to find their passion.  If we can empower students, they will feel their voice is heard and reflected in their learning. A single story is replaced with many stories and many voices and with that students we feel more ownership over their own learning.

For educators, the change we would most like to see is a community of sharing, supportive educators, with silos created by walls, schools, departments all melted away.  Education is stronger when it is done together. No one should ever feel that they are done learning or growing and everyone needs a coach or mentor. Our hope is that, moving forward, education becomes a much more collaborative act.

Lego Wall.gif

On both of these fronts, we see signs of hope.  Through maker education, equity work, design thinking and the thinking classroom model, we see a shift towards students uncovering the curriculum through play rather than being treated like empty vessels to be filled with content.  On the educator front; organic professional learning networks, the twitterverse, and online sharing are creating cracks in those solitary silos of teaching. We’d love to normalize educators being in each other spaces, co-teaching and learning together.  After all, how can we expect students to learn how to work together as adults, if they never see other adults collaborating and problem solving together.

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 is passionate about helping students with learning differences (LD) be confident and empowered and ready to make their mark on the world.  You can learn more about her journey on her blog.

My learning journey this year as an educator is centred around enabling and igniting teacher growth through teacher passion projects.  I’m a big fan of the Hacking Learning Series - and my favourite book so far is Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis. Chapter 8 highlights running Teacher Passion Projects as a way to develop capacity in staff and to help staff truly benefit from developing as a professional.  Teacher passion projects are when teachers take control of their own professional learning through choosing an area of education to focus on. Topics are varied and learning is centred around working toward becoming a better teacher overall. Learn about it here!  I was so enthralled by the idea that it inspired me to run a version of this in my own department.   I intend to use blogging (~Shifters note: did we mention Sarah has a blog?) to track the journey.  

Here’s why I was inspired:

  • I work with amazing Special Education Resource Teachers (SERTS), and as a leader, I want to contribute to their professional growth in a meaningful way.

  • Teacher Passion Projects give the teacher choice in what they want to learn - to connect that learning to their passions, with the goal of becoming a better teacher.   

  • I want to be a part of a team that consistently strives to be the best they can be.

  • The concept is simple and can be easily executed.  

Here’s what I did:

  • I contacted Joe Sanfelippo on Twitter (@Joe_Sanfelippo)  and told him that after reading his book, I was inspired to recreate a version of teacher passion projects in my department.   I asked for his help in setting this up. Joe connected me with his outline, and templates used in his school district.

  • I took the templates and modified them to match my team needs.

Passion Project Learning Objective and Goal Plan Form

Passion Project (Professional Growth Opportunity) Mid Year Review

Passion Project Professional Growth Opportunity Final Reflection

  • I presented the idea of participating in the passion project to my team.  This was definitely an opt-in choice, it wasn’t mandatory, and it wouldn’t reflect negatively on them should they decide to not participate.  

  • I volunteered to cover one of their classes on a rotational basis of their choice.  This allowed them to work on their passion projects within their school timetable, not on a lunch, and not on a prep.  (I have the flexibility in my own schedule to be able to offer this - this is key to having teacher buy in.)

  • I began my own passion project - (Teacher Passion Projects as a way to develop Building Relationships and Develop People by Stimulating growth in the professional capacities of staff  - Ontario Leadership Framework.)

  • We began:  Watch one teacher talk about her passion project experience thus far:  Christina's Video



My team this year has doubled in size.  We were four SERTS (myself being the only full time SERT), and we are now eight.  I am excited for the growth in department as we now have in addition to the original four -  two Program Leads - one from Science, and one from Social Sciences/French, one teacher from English, one ELL teacher, and one additional EA.  Wow! The intimidating part for me as a leader is: all of our new additions had little to no experience as a SERT. How was I going to support and help develop our new additions in all the knowledge a SERT needs to have?  Answer: Teacher Passion Projects come to mind….

So out of the nine person team not including myself,  five people have jumped on board this opportunity! And so it begins.  We just started this journey after the October long weekend.

My Leadership Strategies:

  • I set a schedule to cover classes of participating teachers.  This is a rolling commitment based on our schedule agreement. I book myself as busy in my calendar at these times.  

  • Regular meetings with each person to discuss, inspire, and guide the passion project.  So … admittedly, I originally thought this would be more scheduled. However, it turns out I meet with them on a drop in basis.  They drop into my office or I into theirs and we talk about how things are going, what resources are needed, the ins and outs of various topics.   I’m learning a lot from each about their topics. The casualness of this discussion is what is great - we collaborate in our own professional learning  community that has no start time or end time. I like this aspect as I believe it allows the learning journey to flow naturally.

  • Connecting through social media:  We follow each other on twitter and we text regularly.  These provide great arenas for discussion and resource sharing.  You can follow me on twitter: @Sjcronin39

Examples of some of the Passion Project in Progress:  

Passion Project topics included range from classroom pedagogy to leadership initiatives.  Some teachers are learning about Distributed Learning and will use it to introduce blogging into their pedagogy with their classes.  Another is experiential research that is aiming to document an example of the positive impacts of exercise and diet on emotional wellbeing with a student who struggles with mental wellness.  Others are taking Special Education Additional Qualifications and are using this knowledge to enhance their teaching practice by understanding students with learning disabilities better and how to best support them and sharing this knowledge with their other departments.  On the leadership end, we have 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.

Next Steps:  

  • Connecting with each teacher at mid term in a more formal setting to discuss where they will take their project and their learning.  

  • Having the teacher record that on the  Passion Project (Professional Growth Opportunity) Mid Year Review .  It says Mid year because some passion projects may take the year, or it may take a semester.  Either way, I will be meeting with them at mid term first semester.

  • Through Discussion, tweak the purpose of the project and its connection to educational research.

  • Through discussion, support the shaping of sharing the learning with others.  

I will keep you posted on the journey!  Until next time...

~ Sarah Cronin

Journey to Innovation

Gord Donaldson is the current principal at Maple Grove PS who is also currently trying to innovate his golf game to lower his handicap in between trips to hockey arenas and baseball diamonds with his kids.

I had a moment recently to reflect on our school’s journey in innovation.  As I pondered how we got to where we are, I never realized how far we have come in such a short period of time.  When you think innovation, you sometimes think big, or quick. Our journey was neither. What it is, is impactful.


It all started with a cool spring day in May of 2017 at the Country Heritage Barn.  Knowing we needed something to “Shift”, but not sure what it was, we sent about 20 staff members.  Did that make it more difficult to have 20 occasional teachers in the building in one day? Sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Of course, we learned that we need to move from “ya, but” to “yes, and”, but more importantly we learned that a journey to innovation requires risks.  It requires making mistakes and trying again. It requires getting out of your comfort zone. Heck, even those who “don’t dance” (like me!) tried line dancing.

So, now what?  It’s great that we can try new things but what does that mean?  It was time for Maple Grove to go to the movies. In watching “Most Likely to Succeed”, staff were challenged to rethink school, to rethink what a 21st century learner is, and what it is they need to be successful. We started with flexible seating by incorporating a few bean bag chairs per classroom and a carpet area, even in intermediate.  Imagine the stereotypes we broke! Now, only a year later we have bean bags, carpets, hokki stools, chair bands, standing desks, cushions, couches, tables at different heights and more in all of our classrooms.  It’s funny how innovation can be contagious when it works in one classroom and everyone wants in! No classroom is left behind.


We also added a stationary bike into every classroom for movement breaks.  What did we find? In amongst dealing with the issues of pedals put on the wrong side in assembly or older students over-tightening the tension, we found that students were taking their movement breaks in the classroom instead of the hallways.  And after the initial awe of a new tool in the classroom, we found that our students only needed 2-3 minutes on the bike before settling in. Need a break? Now it is happening in the classroom. No more pretending to go to the bathroom or get a drink, just because you need a movement break. Combine these fantastic tools with flexible seating, our halls became empty during class time as students have all the tools they need right there in the classroom. Talk about maximizing learning!


Now that we had innovated our environments, it was time to innovate our pedagogy too.  We had to teach students how to use the space. We had to teach students explicitly about self-regulation.  By using the Zones of Regulation right across the school, our students began to recognize their learning needs and focus in on the learning. Our teachers realized that the academic learning needed to change too.  We shifted from your typical classrooms to 21st century classrooms. We focused on Project based learning and guiding students through Inquiry questions. Are we there yet? Are we masters of Inquiry? Not in the slightest.  Are we much better than we were twelve months ago? Absolutely. We started with tasks like “Create a community (either urban or rural) and research the different components about that type of community and present your findings in a form or your choice” and now we are asking our students things like “Will we run out of energy?” and “Why do people live where they live?”. Progress. Amazing progress in a short period of time.

The first reports from students were that project based learning was way more engaging than school work.  It was working! We felt like we had fooled kids into thinking that learning wasn’t hard. It was like magic.  And as you know with 21st century kids, we had to keep the level of engagement high. That’s where we transformed the Library to our Learning Commons.  Not just with flexible seating, but with the tools that are available to students to help both engage and make connections. Chariot Races with robots down the hall to connect to medieval times? You got it!  We are currently in the exploring stages with some of these materials, but engagement is high with our Dash and Dots, Spheros, Ozobots, Osmos, Vex Robotics, Greens Screens, Makey Makey and Bloxels. And that’s the next steps on our journey.  How can we use these engaging tools to connect to student inquiry and learning within the curriculum?

I set out to write a blog of about 250 words.  I missed. There is just so much to say about our journey in such a short period of time.  We could not be more proud of our progress, and the “Shift” that has happened in our school.  Feel free to check out even more in a Maple Grove Innovation Slideshow. Words cannot describe it all, but a picture is worth 1000 words, I am told.  Each step of the way seemed small. But when you look back, the Shift is monumental. We are not finished.  We never will be. Innovation is a journey, and ours started small. When will you be ready to take risks, make mistakes, and step out of your comfort zone? Your students are counting on it.

~ Gord Donaldson

Blogging 101

The Shift Blog has been running now for 18 months, documenting Halton’s journey of making school different.  The Shift Blog has grown to include guest bloggers who have helped give voice to other perspectives as we all work to shift our practice.  We at the Shift hope to encourage more educators to share their learning through blogging and to that end, we thought we would dedicate a post to some tips for blogging for the the Shift, which we will call Shift Blogging 101.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone:

It was bit of a challenge for us to step outside of our comfort zone when we started blogging.  Through a lot of trial and error we’ve discovered some things that work for us. We typically think about and talk about the topic of a blog for a few days before we sit down to write.

Find a blog buddy:

Writing a blog post with a blog buddy is not only more fun, but more effective as well.  Once we commit to writing a piece, we get started on a collaborative Google Doc. This makes it way easier for us to work together as a team, track edits and make suggestions.


When choosing your topic to write about, try to keep the focus pretty narrow and personal to your experience.   What specific project or class would you like to share with your readers? Broad topics that try to cover too much are not recommended.

Images and Multimedia:

It is a good idea to include photographs, original animated gifs and/or video, to make your post more interesting and to add visual context.  Remember that any student visible in your multimedia content should have permission to be shared online in photo release at your school. If you are interested in adding an animated gif to your post (which is the Gold standard of multimedia awesomeness here at the Shift blog) but are unsure how to go about it, all you need is an interesting video and we can help you with how to go about creating a GIF.


The tone of the blog is definitely a conversational one over a rigorous, dense one.  Readers usually appreciate an open, candid and warm tone. Describe your project, your idea, your topic including what is going well, what isn’t going as well and what you see next in your journey.  The Shift blog really tries to embody that open spirit of “Try, Fail, Learn”. Don’t be afraid to talk about what went wrong, as being reflective is important. To get a better sense of matching the tone of the Shift Blog, have a read of some recent posts. Of course, if you are here reading this, chances are you already have been reading the Shift Blog!


Try to aim for quality over quantity.  On the Shift Blog, there have been blogs as short as a few sentences,  to longer more in-depth posts.  If you are looking for a word count range, the average post would be about 600-800 words in length.

To sum up, the best way to start blogging is…..to just start! It doesn’t need to be perfect, start small with something you want to share and go from there!

Matthew ColemanComment
Playing with Purpose

A little while ago The Shift wrote about the Three (Silent) P’s of Innovation.  Simply put they are

  • Permission: educators need to feel that they have the permission to try something new

  • Protection: innovators should feel that they are protected if something goes sideways

  • Policy: people need assistance in navigating the policies that may slow down innovation

We’ve worked within these three P’s for the past year, mostly helping to convince others that they do indeed have the permission to try, fail and learn.  Innovation is a part of the Halton District School Boards Improvement Plan, so teachers should feel that they are protected when trying something new. As well, administrators and IPLs are well versed in assisting teachers when navigating through the relevant policies.

But something was missing from the three P’s and we’ve recently realized what that is: play.  Students, teachers, administrators, support staff should all feel as excited for Monday morning as they do for Friday afternoon.  Wouldn’t it be great to hear the words “I can’t believe this is school!” more often from educators and students?

Let’s be clear about what we mean when we say “play”.  We do mean having fun and being excited. We also mean being filled with a sense of awe and wonder.  We mean that when the bell rings, everyone is disappointed because they don’t want the learning to end.  If our classrooms are filled with purposeful joy, we’ve won. Playing in an escape room is great, but how do we make sure there is a defined purpose behind that play?

Educators need to feel that sense of play in what they do as well.  Experimenting with different ways to make your classes more engaging, more student focused and more playful should hopefully also feel like play.  If we hold that mindset of play while we create experiences for our students, we will have more fun on the journey and we will be more forgiving to ourselves when things go sideways.  

Last Thursday a group of HDSB Science teacher got to experience a little bit of playing with purpose when they travelled to Toronto to learn about Integrative Thinking.  This was a chance for teachers and administrators to fully “nerd out” on thinking and learning and they had so much fun doing so. The first integrative thinking tool they learned to use was called the “pro-pro” chart.  Think about making a decision by coming up with a pro-con list. You then make your decision based on which option has the least cons. The pro-pro chart is a rich tool that allows you to look at the benefits of both sides of a problem in order to uncover an “ultimate” solution. The ultimate solution isn’t about choosing one side or the other, but a creative path that speaks to both sides of the problem.  We will be digging in more detail into this tool in an upcoming blog post, so stay tuned for more soon from teachers actively playing with the pro-pro chart with their students.

The best part about integrative thinking and the pro-pro charts is that, when using them, it doesn’t feel like school, it feels like play.  Students are engaged because they feel like their opinions matter and that their voice can affect change. Teachers are excited because they can witness the thinking process happening in real time.  This is play, with purpose and it is absolutely required for innovation to happen. So let’s add to the three Ps to reflect that mindset: the four Ps! Permission, Protection, Policy, PLAY!

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.


“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.


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.

IMG_6856 2.JPG

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.  


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?

Breaking Radio Silence

It’s been awhile! We’ve been busy of course since September 4th…spending time in the classroom we’ve been loaned by Milton District High School. We’ve been calling it the Active Room, our Sandbox, or most accurately the Demonstration Room. It’s been pitched as, eventually, a place where teachers and students from all pathways, subjects and panels can come and experience learning in different environments.


We’ve been meeting with various furniture vendors in an effort to bring in more variety to the classroom. It’s hard to imagine how to make school different if students are still arranged in rows of desks and are facing “the front” of the classroom. We’ve been looking at some of the non-negotiated norms of school and how we can push back against them, defronting our space so that all spaces become areas of learning is our first challenge. In the end, it is important to us to create a room that all teachers can see themselves and their students learning in.


Being new to our classroom space and new to Milton District, we knew that we wanted to do the work to build community with our coworkers and students as fast as possible. We had a few weeks of time before this space could truly function as a Demonstration Classroom, so we decided to open up our own Escape Room. The Escape Rooms at Milton District ran for the past two weeks and hosted students from all grades. It was amazing, while facilitating these rooms, to watch how creative thought can have a mind of its own. There were times when we could see great insight leaping between students as classes of 30 worked together to solve common problems. We love the act of completing an Escape Room because we see many parallels between them and the Global Competencies.


If you’ve been following along with The Shift for the past year you’ve probably noticed that we are communicating with you from a new platform. In addition to changing rooms, we are happy to be launching a new platform from which we will be documenting our journey. Hopefully at our new website you will find enough content to keep yourself asking “Why”. Too keep you coming back for more, we are also launching our new Podcast! In our podcast we hope to explore the small changes in practices that educators have made and the bigger changes that have followed.


We have big plans in the works for this year and we hope you will all continue to let us elevate and amplify your voices, all the while giving us the opportunity to play in your classrooms. Time to Shift!

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.

Dessert vs. Main Course
This week, The Shift is learning about Project Based Learning with the Buck Institute.   We are diving into what it might look like to coach other teachers as they embark on their own PBL journey.  A big part of what we’ve explored so far revolves around helping teachers feel comfortable and supported in trying something new.  Your first step into PBL doesn’t have to be perfect, and any teacher needs to accept that some failure might happen. Being transparent with your students about your own learning helps!

Our biggest takeaway so far is an anecdote describing the difference between giving your class a “project” vs engaging in “project based learning”.  Typically, a project is something that is assigned to a class after the learning has happened. The amount of new learning that happens during the project is minimal and the students are generally regurgitating what they already know.  A project is like dessert.

Project Based Learning, on the other hand, IS the learning.  A teacher poses a problem or driving question to the class and lets students explore that problem in their own way.  Learning and teaching happens throughout, depending on student needs. Sometimes there is whole class instruction, sometimes the learning is done with smaller groups, sometimes it is teacher driven and sometimes student driven.  In the end students have, individually or in groups, created products that demonstrate their deeper learning around the original problem. As teachers get more comfortable facilitating this type of learning, it is often the students who pose their own problems or questions to be explored.  Project Based Learning, done well, is like the main course of a great meal...and we are hungry!

Actual #pblcanada footage
Summer Learning Opportunities

Well, fellow Shifters, you are probably tidying your desks, thinking of a (HOT!) Canada Day weekend and looking forward to some much deserved rest.  Thank you for following along with and supporting the Shift this year, your energy and enthusiasm has been contagious!

If you are looking for some summer learning opportunities, look no further.  There are at least two chances to Shift in the coming months!

First up is Second City at the Barn.   July 12th and open to ALL staff in HDSB, this is a great opportunity to laugh and learn with the incredible Second City Improv Group.

Next, in August you can participate in the second Shift Your (Blank) Summer Learning Day.  This is a great opportunity to energize yourself before the new school year begins and learn with like-minded Shifters like you.

Signing off for the summer!

Jamie and Matt