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math_class_kids.jpgIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the first of three winners of this year's OTIP Teaching Award for Excellence sponsored by the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan (OTIP) and the Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF). Melanie Brown-Robson, from the District School Board of Niagara's Lakeview Public School in Grimsby, is the elementary category winner.


Melanie Brown-Robson's energy, enthusiasm, love of life and of education are what really make her shine when she stands at the front of a classroom.


That's according to Glynnis Fleming, an instructional coach in mathematics at the District of Niagara School Board, where Brown-Robson teaches Grade 4 and Grade 5 at Lakeview Public School in Grimsby. "She is so funny and she has a robust sense of humour," says Fleming, who nominated Brown-Robson. "She is an awesome, excellent teacher and so deserving of the OTIP award.”



That giant, warm personality is a big part of why she connects so well with the kids, creating a solid foundation upon which to engage and teach, Fleming says. “She has the most incredible way of getting kids to buy into things that are kind of tricky in teaching to buy into," she says. "I am not a new teacher, but I look at what she does and try to imitate what she does. She is a phenomenal teacher; just phenomenal."


After 33 years in the classroom, Brown-Robson says every day is still a new adventure full of challenges she relishes. “I am on a constant mission to get children to understand what’s going on around them and the world and how they fit in; it just keeps me driven,” says Robson-Brown. “The thing I love most about teaching is being able to make every child feel special in their own unique way. So many kids have so many strengths, and I think it’s up to teachers to get that out of them.” See TVO's video profile of Brown-Robson at right.


Doing Her Homework


Keeping on the cutting-edge of educational research has been key to Brown-Robson's success, Fleming says. "Melanie has consistently poured herself into professional learning in both literacy and numeracy," she says. "She had also done a lot of professional learning in the summer so she has a good repertoire of tools in her tool bag. She works tirelessly to genuinely and practically tackle the professional problem of ‘what do I do when they just aren’t getting it?’"

Catherine Fosnot has been a key influence on Brown-Robson. She attended a Summer Institute run by Fosnot, and has used those teachings in her classroom. One of the key pedagogical approaches taken from Fosnot’s work is her use of strings, in which students are asked to solve a sequence of related computations, allowing them to understand how a particular strategy works. Building on this process, Brown-Robson follows Fosnot’s use of arrays to deepen the math learning.


Brown-Robson has shared her learning and success with other teachers within the school board and at OAME's provincial math conference. Fleming helped to document what Brown-Robson found worked and what didn't, and shared it with their colleagues. "I had to absolutely document it because the things she was doing are exactly the things that we want teachers to be doing," she says. "One of the hardest things for teachers to figure out is how to make it work? Here was somebody who was making it work.”


Driving Student Math Learning



It’s not unusual for Brown-Robson to meet up with friend and fellow teacher Fleming at a Tim Horton’s on a Saturday morning. But it’s not support in life’s ups and downs that brings them together. It’s the math problems. Last year she had a group of kids in her class who were working below grade level in math. "We got together on a Saturday morning (at Tim Horton's) and started to hash out, ‘what can we do to help these kids to make the progress that she knew that they needed to make?’” The pair combed over research about teaching and learning mathematics and came up with a plan. During those sessions Brown-Robson developed innovative and effective math intervention strategies that helped the children make those connections and catch up with their peers, Fleming says.


Brown-Robson's approach was to build on the children’s ability to subitize (perceive the number of items at a glance), make tens, and calculate through leaps of tens by spending time with number_line_example.jpgeach child of concern one-on-one every day. During these intervention sessions she would do one to two minutes of visual quantity recognition using a variety of manipulatives, such as math racks of 20 and 100, play money in a cash register tray, and paper clocks. With all of her students, Brown-Robson aims to address their collective learning needs by placing them in small, flexible groups and conducting ongoing informal assessments. Specifically, her work with the students using math strings has brought ‘breathtaking’ success in the students’ computational fluency, Fleming says.


Food is also a great motivator when trying to engage kids, Brown-Robson says. “A few months ago, I brought in those little white fluffy donuts with the white sugar and they had to start splitting them in halves, quarters and eighths.  We also talked about divvying them up, what’s fair and not fair and all of that,” she says. “I do lots of challenges with them regarding real life situations. So we’re going on a field trip, we need to book buses, we need to pack lunches. How many buses are we going to order? We can’t leave kids sitting on the sidewalk waving goodbye, so what do we do? Well, we have to order another bus. So it’s all of those real, day to day, life challenges that I want them to experience.”



Helping Underserved Students


For most of her career, Brown-Robson has worked with some of the most underserved students in the district. “I want them to know that when they enter my classroom everyone is safe, everyone is secure and everyone is treated fairly. Maybe not necessarily treated equally, but certainly fairly and to know that they can do anything in their life that they want to do. They don’t have to worry about where they come from, they can move forward. They can be whomever they want to be when they grow up.”


Understanding Difference


Being part Black, White and First Nations, Brown-Robson herself experienced bullying, because of her differences, in school as a child. “I looked different than the rest of the class, I came from a very different background than a lot of the kids, and my lunches were different than other kids," she says. "So I know how it feels to be different and I tell my story to the children every year when I get a new group of students. I think, that as teachers we need to really recognize and make sure children understand that it’s okay to be different, but it’s also very important for other children to get those children to be accepted. So it’s all about acceptance.  You know you look different, but you shouldn’t be treated differently. Children should celebrate their unique, individual characteristics.” Understanding that her choice of classroom resources affects students’ perceptions of both themselves and others, Brown-Robson makes deliberate choices to include resources that include racial, ethnic, sexual, ability, and religious diversity.


Brown-Robson was an associate teacher to Brooke Wardrope when she was a teacher candidate at Brock University. “I learned so much from her. She taught me the tricks of the trade and all the little things you had to focus on beyond just teaching the curriculum to the kids. It was all about creating that environment and creating that relationship with the kids. That was probably the biggest thing and most important thing that any teacher can learn because it’s all about the classroom culture.”


Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this TeachOntario Talk in Share under:

TeachOntario Talks Discussion: How Strong Relationships with Students Impact Learning

French Self Regulation w caption.jpgIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating teachers from École Secondaire Catholique Franco-Cité in Ottawa and their project: “Teaching Self-Regulation Strategies in Math, Science and French to Gifted Students in Grades 7 to 10.”


There is no one portrait of a gifted student. Like typical students, some may develop good learning habits early on, while others may progress well without much effort. After students transition into the Intermediate and Secondary years, the gifted students who did well previously can sometimes struggle with the curriculum in later grades.


The Rationale for Change

École secondaire catholique Franco-Cité in Ottawa is a Grade 7-12 French Immersion school in the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (Centre-East French Catholic School Board) . In 2013, when teachers running the Gifted Education program at the school noticed a rapid decrease in engagement in many of the gifted students in Grade 7, they knew they needed to make changes.


Gifted Education is part of Special Education and, like lower achieving learners, gifted learners require accommodations and need to be given proper guidance and resources to meet their potential. Knowing that low results in higher achieving students can lead to a complete disengagement from school, the teachers at Franco-Cité began to look for additional teaching practices that focused upon student-centred learning.


girl at desk.jpg“We wanted to offer these gifted kids something new,” says Marc Côté, a former guidance counselor at the school.  “Something more than just a spot in the gifted program with other gifted kids going through the regular curriculum.”


Côté and the gifted program teachers did some research and discovered that the application of self-regulated learning strategies, which have been proven to be very successful with lower achieving students, could also work well with gifted students.


To build their own understanding and to put self-regulated learning strategies to the test, the team developed their Ontario Teacher Learning and Leadership Project (TLLP): “Teaching Self-Regulation Strategies in Math, Science and French to Gifted Students in Grades 7 to 10.”


Côté and several teachers including Sylvie Rocan, Alex Bernard, Amélie Oulette, Boniface Basambombo, Francine Landry and Angélique Gossé, set out to test strategies in the classroom and create a website detailing successful strategies for other French Immersion teachers to use in their own classrooms to support increasing student engagement.


What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation can be defined as the ability to stay calmly focused and alert, which often involves – but cannot be reduced to – self-control. Self-regulation nurtures the ability to cope with greater and greater challenges because it involves arousal states, emotions, behavior, and thinking skills. (Stuart Shanker)


girls looking through glass.jpgA student practicing self-regulation:

  • sets own individual goals and monitors progress towards achieving them;
  • seeks clarification or assistance when needed;
  • assesses and reflects critically on own strengths, needs, and interests;
  • identifies learning opportunities, choices, and strategies to meet personal needs and achieve goals;
  • perseveres and makes an effort when responding to challenges.

Growing Success, 2010, Ministry of Education


The Project: Applying Self-Regulation Practices to Learning

The team at Franco-Cité set to work, learning as much as they could about self-regulated learning. They invited experts in the field of self-regulation to train staff and help define the best strategies for use in the classroom.  Once those strategies were established, the teachers integrated them into their lesson plans and began to pilot specific strategies to teach self-regulation to their students.


Examples of Strategies used:


  • Goal Setting:
    Teachers encouraged students to set their own learning goals.

    “The student will feel more engaged if he or she establishes his or her own goals and if they feel they are actively involved in the process of their own learning,” says Secondary teacher Sylvie Rocan. “It is easier for a student to recognize the purpose of a learning objective when they are given the opportunity to orient their experiences based on their own interests and needs.”

    Rocan also encouraged her students to set self-regulatory goals (such as time management) in a monthly survey.

  • display wall.jpgUsing Exemplars to Move up Levels:
    Students do not always understand what they need to do to meet the success criteria.  Often, they need concrete examples of those expectations.

    To help students understand the difference between acceptable and exceptional work, some of the teachers at Franco-Cité used curriculum exemplars to illustrate the levels. To make this an active lesson, teachers:
    • Provided quality work for students as a model (levels 3 and 4).
    • Facilitated a discussion group to determine why the work was of good quality.
    • Presented the work of all performance levels (1, 2, 3, 4).
    • Placed the work on the wall in a continuum from lowest to highest.
    • Asked students to describe what was different from one level to the other.
    • Invited students to self-assess their work based upon the exemplars, and note the changes.

  • Using Descriptive Feedback:
    Teachers provided descriptive feedback throughout the learning process and students were able to make the necessary adjustments to improve their work prior to a summative assessment. Descriptive feedback is clear, detailed and concise so the student easily understands what they have done right, what they need to improve or work on, and in some cases, what they need to know for next time.

    For example, Intermediate teacher Alex Bernard incorporated Google apps and provided his students with feedback, both synchronously and asynchronously, to improve their work before they handed it in.


For a full list of different strategies and how to apply them in Math, Science and French, visit the website the teachers created. The website is in French, however, using Google Translate will allow any user to explore the resources in English.


science experiment girl and boy.jpgOutcomes for the Students

At the end of the school year, the results were dramatic. The students were focused, more engaged and in control of their own learning.


“The kids were starting to see the difference between urgent and non-urgent things, and the difference between important and non-important things,” says Alex Bernard. “I saw them prioritizing better and putting effort and focus on things that would improve their performance.”


Sylvie Rocan noticed a palpable change in her classroom. “The self-regulatory strategies were transforming the learning environment by making it much more animated and energy filled,” she says. “The students interacted more with their peers and were more active. The courses were much more dynamic.”


The students got more involved and changed from passive information receivers to active participants in their own learning.


“It is also very exciting to see the transformation of the classroom into a dynamic learning environment,” says Rocan. “It is as if the students and I are now collaborators working together towards the common goal of enhancing their learning experience, and I am learning along with them.”


Outcomes for the Teachers

website.jpgThe teachers documented their learning and developed a website for other French Immersion teachers to use in their own classrooms.  The team also noted the following benefits:


  • A better use of differentiated instruction;
  • New classroom routines that encourage critical thinking and lessen teacher talk;
  • Learning from research and exploring new teaching strategies;
  • A new proficiency in the use of Google apps;
  • Providing authentic opportunities for students to work together on projects and celebrating a collaborative learning environment;
  • Opportunities to encourage kids to take chances and make mistakes without judgement.


“I think it comes down to this,” says Bernard. “We can teach a subject, or teach how to learn through a subject.  There's a big difference.  One will be useful in a few aspects of life while the other is transferable and applicable regardless of the challenge faced.  That is the most rewarding outcome for me.  Knowing that the kids will be a little bit more self-reliant after our work together really makes me feel good as a teacher.”


Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this school in Share under:

TeachOntario Talks Discussion: Using Self-Regulation Practices to Support Learning