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In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating teachers from Nipigon-Red Rock District High School of the Superior Greenstone DSB and their project: “21st Century Learning & Leading: Using Technology to Reach Every Child and Family.”


Research shows that parents who are engaged in their child’s education not only improve student achievement and well-being, but also make good schools even better.


Nipigon-Red Rock District High School is part of the Superior Greenstone DSB in Northwestern Ontario. The school serves the communities of Red Rock, Nipigon, Dorion, Hurkett, Lake Helen First Nation and Rocky Bay First Nation.  There are 115 kilometers between the two furthest communities and most students are bussed in from up to 75 kilometers away.


map of school.JPGGiven those distances, how can isolated schools encourage and support families to become active members of the school community so that their children can achieve greater success?


Answering that question was the challenge four teachers at Nipigon-Red Rock took on as part of their 2014/ 2015 Teacher Learning and Leadership Project (TLLP). Teachers Jenni Scott-Marciski, Colleen Rose, Kim Mannila and Erin Langevin thought they could use technology to bring families closer to the school, and so they began their project: “21st Century Learning & Leading: Using Technology to Reach Every Child and Family.”


The Use of Digital Tools to Reach Families


“One thing that is apparent now more than ever is that students at our school need strong, direct support from parents to be successful,” says Jenni Scott-Marciski.  “So, to engage students we need to engage parents first.


To do this, the teachers began by collecting data from students and parents through surveys about their need for, access to, and expertise with, technology. The results of the surveys informed local decisions regarding which digital tools to use to best engage with the school community.


The project team began by starting a school Facebook group. The goal in using Facebook was to engage parents and students through posts about school events, and increase enthusiasm and participation in those events.


The team also used Remind, a free teacher communication platform, to reach families and sent letters home to invite parents to view and comment on student blogs.


In the classroom, teachers began using Google Apps for Education (GAFE) as a way for students and teachers to collaborate both inside and outside the classroom. The news of the ease of use with these apps began to spread throughout the school, and soon even teachers who were previously hesitant to use technology began collaborating with students and colleagues using digital tools.


The team also made use of Google+ as a way to collaborate with one another online. In this online community, the team was also able to learn how to better serve students by increasing their own understanding of technology-enabled learning.


The Impact of Technology on Community Building for Students and Families:



The impact of using technology as a tool to bring student learning to families across the Nipigon-Red Rock District High School community was fantastic.


One parent shared that when the school started up the Facebook page she couldn’t believe all the things happening at the school. She laughed and explained that “every time I asked my kids what was going on at school, they would always say nothing.” This was clearly not the case! Another parent, after reviewing her daughter’s work online posted this comment, “Good job! It’s nice to see the progress of your work.” Another stated, “As a parent, I’m loving this blog. It is so nice to be able to follow along and see what you produce.”


Students also enjoyed sharing their learning with their families and friends. A Grade 12 student explained: "I have a lot of family that does not live around me. By using technology in my art class, I was able to post it on my Facebook where all my family and friends near and far could see my art. I posted a video I made on YouTube and copied the link to my Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and of course my art blog and had so many people watch it that never thought they could. Having to see the physical copy of artwork is close to nothing now days because people have their art all over the web. Technology has changed so much and I love to share my art online for all my family and friends to see who are not around."


Perhaps the best illustration on how the use of technology brought together a school community separated by vast wilderness played out earlier this year with the Nipigon River Bridge failure.


The Nipigon River Bridge, the only highway link between Eastern and Western Canada, split in two on January 10, 2016. Not only did this cut off transport of goods across Canada, it also severed the only access to school for students living on two First Nations reserves. It was a critical time to miss school, as students were in the middle of culminating tasks and exam preparation.


Due to the implementation of the TLLP project, teachers had embedded the use of technology in many Nipigon-Red Rock classrooms, and the students had become very comfortable accessing information and projects online. Teachers were able to communicate with the band offices at both First Nations reserves and direct students to blog posts, Facebook posts, and links to Google Docs so they could access their assignments, receive feedback and complete culminating tasks.  As a result, the bridge closure that wreaked havoc upon the rest of Canada, barely impacted students’ access to their learning at the school.


Regardless of the Nipigon River Bridge failure, technology has been a wonderful way to bridge the school community together in a climate that can sometimes be challenging! Students from Rocky Bay First Nation, who are located in a snow belt and are 75 kilometers from Nipigon-Red Rock, often miss school because of bad weather. Today they are tethered to the school and their learning all year, regardless of the weather.


The Impact of Technology on Community Building for Teachers:


There has also been an increase in out-of-box thinking among staff members who are now more willing to try new digital tools. For instance, the Grade 9 class has 47 students. Based on EQAO data and diagnostic testing, only a handful have reading comprehension skills at grade level. Seventeen of the 47 students have Individual Education Plans and require extra support. In response to this, a team of teachers who previously may not have considered using technology to support learning, are now doing an inquiry about the use of text-to-speech and speech-to-text tools to see how these tools can be used to help improve students' literacy skills and to assess learning in a variety of subject areas.


Just the TLLP process itself also helped bring together colleagues in a shared learning environment. “Our TLLP encouraged us to communicate more with staff members,” says Colleen Rose. The team facilitated 4 different learning sessions and staff participation was enthusiastic.


digital art.jpgHappy Surprises along the Way:


Although the team set out to reach families through digital tools, what they achieved turned out to be so much more.


The Facebook group increased engagement with school alumni, which was a surprise to the team. Bringing back former students is a great way to encourage community engagement! Parents of students currently attending the school continue to join the group today and the reach is increasing.


Through the data collection from families, the team increased their own knowledge and understanding of tools and how to use them to share and support student learning.  As new technology emerges, the team feels much more confident in their own understanding of how these tools can be used to bring the community into the classroom, as well as bring learning beyond the walls of the classroom.


Staff enthusiasm was another happy surprise. One teacher was so inspired by what was being done at the school as a result of the TLLP work, that she applied to lead another TLLP next year.


That good start continues to grow, not only at Nipigon-Red Rock, but throughout the district and beyond.


“Now if only we had more bandwidth and better information technology infrastructure in the vast northwest…” quips Rose.


Useful Apps and Online sources:


Here is a list of apps and online sources the teachers used during the project and continue to use:



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

TeachOntario Talks Discussions: Using Technology to "Bridge" a School Community Together  

Teacher Joe swimming with sharksIn this installment of the TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of Guelph, Ontario intermediate teacher Joe Grabowski from St. John Catholic School in the Wellington Catholic District School Board. Grabowski has taken his students on more than 100 science-related adventures over the Internet in a program he calls 'Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.'


Joe Grabowski’s Grade 8 students have joined an expedition on an active volcano in Italy, hung out in an Adele penguin colony in Antarctica and chatted with an ocean explorer from the bottom of the ocean. What's more, they’ve done it all from the seats in their Guelph, Ontario classroom.

These are just three of the more than 100 science-related adventures the math and science teacher has embarked upon with his classes as a part of a growing program he calls ‘Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.’Explore by the Seat of Your Pants logo

“If you ask my students, they feel like the world is coming to our classroom,” says Grabowski, who aims to connect his class with 50 scientists, explorers and conservationists each year via Google Hangouts. “It makes my students feel important when scientists and explorers from around the world take time out of their busy schedules to share what they know with them.”

These cyber excursions have spanned the globe, from Europe and Asia to Africa and the Antarctic. Students have been along for the ride via these Hangouts on a kayaking expedition on the Amazon River, chatted with an astronaut at the NASA training facility in Houston, Texas, and joined a research team tagging blue whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

image compilation showing scientists online talking to kids in class via webcam

How It All Began

An avid diver, Grabowski came to this virtual excursions idea naturally when he shared his love of the oceans, including scuba diving with sharks, with his students. “My students were deep into it -- that is, until I mentioned sharks,” he explains. “The mood quickly changed to a mixture of horror and disgust.”

Desperate to help his students see the beauty of these toothy beasts, and having no luck doing so on his own, Grabowski turned to some shark researchers in the Bahamas to speak to his class via Skype. And it worked. Soon, students who wanted nothing to do with sharks wanted to find a way to protect them. “We started writing persuasive letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, using research to illustrate why shark fin products should be banned in Canada,” he says. “They also learned of an impending shark cull, a government policy of capturing and killing large sharks in the vicinity of swimming beaches, in Western Australia, and we began drafting open letters to Australian Premier Colin Barnett.”

Ultimately, the shark experiment set in motion a series of events that launched the Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants sessions and completely flipped the way he teaches right on its head, Grabowski reports. “The primary goal is to knock down classroom walls and take students anywhere in the world, never having to leave their desks,” he says. While the focus is providing lessons related to science and conservation, the sessions are not limited to these areas.

What the Kids Learn

Giving kids the chance to ask big questions and meet meaningful role models are key educational components to the experience, Grabowski explains. “We believe these kinds of experiences inspire students while exposing them to amazing wonders and challenging issues around the globe,” he explains. “Students won't remember every math or language lesson from school, but they will remember the time they were hanging out in a penguin colony in Antarctica or chatting with someone who just rowed across an ocean.”

an image showing a video play button with a scientist standing in front of a live volcano

Along the way, Grabowski believes the adventures introduce students to exciting new projects, important issues and new careers while helping to create global citizens. “These experiences can supplement curriculum, but also create experiences that will stick with students,” he explains.

In particular, the growth in students’ questioning skills as the year progresses has been exciting, Grabowski reports. “In some of our first hangouts, students asked simple questions, along the lines of ‘What’s your favorite XYZ?’ or ‘Were you in danger?’ Later in the year, the questions became more sophisticated, often impressing our guests. It’s exciting for the students when a speaker responds with, ‘Wow, I’ve never been asked this question before!’ or ‘What grade are you guys in?!’

Increasingly, Grabowski’s students have been inspired to find ways to make sure their voices are heard when they are presented with a situation or issue that they find unjust, he says.

Conservation Awareness

Among the most memorable Hangouts was with award-winning freelance journalist Anna Therese Day, who often covers conflict zones around the world, Grabowski reports. Therese Day had been covering climate change and its impact on an isolated chain of islands called Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. She explained to the students how the islands are slowly disappearing as sea levels rise. “Anna showed them pictures of people’s houses and land disappearing, and shared interviews with children,” he says. “They were stunned by the injustice, that a country like Kiribati, having contributed nothing to global climate change, would be one of the first countries to pay the ultimate price. I think this was the first time that the seriousness of climate change clicked with my students.”

Another exciting offshoot of the program was when the class invited the three founding marine biologists from the US-based Sharks4Kids (Grabowski is the group's director of education) to share their knowledge with the students. Through crowdfunding, school board and community support, the class raised enough to bring the team to Guelph. “For five days, they made interactive presentations about shark and ocean conservation at 20 schools,” says Grabowski. “My students’ learning had spread to over 6,000 students! What a lesson, seeing firsthand, that their voices matter and can be heard on the other side of the planet. That what they have to say is important, and that opening their minds and thinking critically is more satisfying than automatically accepting one version of a story.”

Sharing the Learning

an image of the world map showing which countries teacher Joe's class has connected with via webcam

With his students having so much fun and learning so much from the sessions, Grabowski decided he should find a way to share them with more kids. As a result, he turned his classroom adventures into a not-for-profit organization called Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants which gives students around the world the chance to join in on these trips.

Now, classrooms anywhere can participate in the free events by watching the live stream on the Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants YouTube channel. They can also register for webcam spots that allow them to interact with the speaker during the live event. Or, classes can catch up on the fun by watching the finished streams anytime on YouTube.


“A classroom isn’t meant to be a contained environment,” Grabowski insists. “The students, and their learning, should spill out all around the world! This is what Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants is all about. We never know where a connection will take us. What activities it will inspire. What the scientists and explorers will have to share. We are literally, exploring by the seat of our pants!”


Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this teacher in Share under: TeachOntario Talks Discussions: World Scientists Join Students in Guelph Classroom Via Google Hangouts