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In this installment of the TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teacher-librarian Kate Johnson-McGregor from Brantford Collegiate Institute & Vocational School in the Grand Erie District School Board. Johnson-McGregor has implemented a successful and vibrant Library Learning Commons in her school.


Today’s schools are in a state of transformation. It is important for students to acquire global competencies, including: critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, entrepreneurship, self-directed learning, collaboration and communication. The perfect place to do that is the school library.


The library has always been at the centre of learning in most schools. In an age of collaboration and authentic learning, teacher-librarians have embraced and driven change to make libraries the 21st Century learning hubs of their schools.


integrated learning.JPGOne of those teacher-librarians is Kate Johnson-McGregor. After teaching English and Drama for 12 years, Johnson-McGregor wanted to do something that would impact not only her students, but the whole school. She was teaching at Brantford Collegiate Institute & Vocational School in the Grand Erie DSB. In 2011, Johnson-McGregor left the classroom and became the new teacher-librarian at the school. She never looked back.


In 2010, the Ontario School Library Association (OSLA) created a document that outlined a vision for the future of school libraries, called Together for Learning: School Libraries and the Emergence of the Learning Commons, and later the Canadian Library Association released, Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons in Canada. Johnson-McGregor thought a Library Learning Commons was the perfect way to bring excitement for learning into the library.


What is a Library Learning Commons?


The OSLA defines a Learning Commons as “a vibrant, whole-school approach, presenting exciting opportunities for collaboration among teachers, teacher-librarians and students. Within a Learning Commons, new relationships are formed between learners, new technologies are realized and utilized, and both students and educators prepare for the future as they learn new ways to learn.”


The Library Learning Commons at Brantford Collegiate has very little in common with the school libraries of the past. It is not a place where the only noises heard are the gentle rustling of turning pages, furtive whispering and the occasional cough. Books are still very important there, but what is essential to the space is the learning, in whichever form it takes.


It starts with a commitment to flexibility. All the furniture is movable and can be rearranged to suit different learning designs. It can accommodate multiple groups and classes. It is high-tech with 30 computers, and areas for students to work on their own devices. There is a spot for quiet reading, complete with leather couches, a coffee table and a fireplace, however, jokes Johnson-McGregor: “we discourage napping, canoodling and tussling.”


couches for quiet reading.jpgFor a bit of fun, there is a Lego wall, and students and staff are welcome to build any creation they wish. Needless to say, it is a very popular spot, particularly for the Grade 12 boys.


There is no need to whisper because conversation, collaboration and curiosity are celebrated. “It's about building more of a collaborative culture in the school,” says Johnson-McGregor. “We're all on a learning journey and there's always a new way to think about something; there's always the possibility for solutions and creative ideas.”


That collaboration can occur in person and online. The Library Learning Commons has an active presence on Twitter, Tumblr and many other social media platforms. It tries to serve all of its stakeholders—students, staff and parents—equally.


What does the Library Learning Commons Offer Students?


Brantford Collegiate has 1,350 students and over 90 teachers. Students come to the library with any number of projects to work on, and although the online world provides a wealth of information, researching online is a skill that must be learned. Johnson-McGregor spends a great deal of time helping students with their research skills and ensures all online databases are used effectively.


blind date with a book.jpgGrade 12 student Chayce Perkins visits the library at least four days a week to work. “Having a librarian like Ms. Johnson-McGregor, who puts emphasis on relevant databases is something that I am extremely grateful for,” says Perkins. “Being in my last year of high school, I feel confident in my online research skills. I am thankful to have a librarian who is able to keep up with these trends and is always trying to remain on par with the best ways that current students can learn.”


In addition to helping with projects, the library always has something going on that encourages reading. The library has initiatives like “Speed Dating Books,” where 15 books are lined up on 6 tables and students rotate through getting 4 minutes per table to look at the books. At the end, they have a list of books to take out of the library. It’s a great way to expose students to different types of literature.


The Library Learning Commons is also meant to be an equalizer, and that means ensuring that all resources are accessible to all. “A tech revolution isn't a revolution if it's only for some kids, so we want to make sure that everyone can come in and use whatever we've got—and they do,” asserts Johnson-McGregor. “We have online books and resources, but also the physical resources that they can take out.”


Johnson-McGregor is always looking for partnerships with outside organizations to use the library in ways that are beneficial to everyone and to provide authentic learning opportunities for students. For instance, when the Brant County Six Nations councillor asked to use the library’s little seminar room for some local Haudensaunee women to make Two Row wampum belts, Johnson-McGregor insisted the group do the beading out in the open using the tables in the middle of the library.


Haudensaunee community explains the history of Two Row wampum belts and helps the students make their own.jpgThe group came with giant looms to make big belts and smaller looms that students could use to make individual belts. Students would come up, ask questions and start making their own belts. “Just by chance, I had a history class booked in to be on the computers and they ended up not doing their research,” describes Johnson-McGregor. “They came and sat on the floor and listened to the story of the belts and the history of the Haudenosaunee people. It was such authentic, awesome learning and it was exactly what the whole premise of the Learning Commons is.”


She also brings in experts, like the Historical Society, and the Public Library, as well as artists and a variety of guest speakers. “I am an extra pair of hands, eyes, ears and I'm always willing to try new things and revisit and rework existing ideas to make them better,” says Johnson-McGregor.


Another goal for Johnson-McGregor is to transform part of the library into a makerspace. A makerspace is a student-centred area where students can create, invent and learn using electronics, software, crafts and hardware supplies.


Along that vein, the Ontario Library and Information Technology Association (OLITA) has a technology lending library that is open to Ontario Library Association members. Johnson-McGregor uses that resource to try out new technologies in her library. For instance, she borrowed Squishy Circuit kits to incorporate into the Grade 9 electricity unit in Science. Soon students will be using Makey Makey kits to make anything from a keyboard out of bananas to a video game joystick out of their artwork.


The Library Learning Commons is an incredible place that supports academics and encourages inquiry. It also offers a variety of other activities. “With such a vast diversity within our school population, students are always in search of a place they can feel comfortable and the Library Learning Commons offers that location,” says Geography teacher Toni MacNeil.  “Students are able to express their creativity and relieve stress through makerspace activities as well as the Lego wall.”


For Johnson-McGregor, there are endless possibilities for what can be offered for students at the library, but the most important aspect of the Library Learning Commons is the collaboration with the staff.


How to Build a Collaborative Culture


squishy circuits and authentic learning.jpgIn order to build a successful Library Learning Commons and promote collaborative teaching and learning, Johnson-McGregor recommends something she calls “stealth librarianship.”


It is all about building trusting relationships with the teachers. Some tactics Johnson-McGregor uses to build those relationships include: connecting with all new teachers and helping them navigate the building, running professional learning sessions, connecting with departments that wouldn’t regularly visit the library, and when all else fails, offering free food. “Always have candy on your desk,” she says.


In this high school with so many students and over 90 teachers, it can be difficult to make yourself known. Teachers tend to stay in their own departments and are often unaware of how the library can help. So in order to spread the word, Johnson-McGregor will go to them “because I’m portable,” she jokes.


In addition to co-constructing and collaborating on the creation of inquiry projects, assignments and assessment, she gathers relevant resources for teachers and students, whether they are virtual or physical, to support teaching and learning.


“The BCI Library Learning Commons is a fantastic place of support, providing all staff with a place to pitch new ideas and questions about developing engaging projects for students at all levels,” says Toni MacNeil. “Our Teacher-Librarian is always excited for the opportunity to collaborate and team teach lessons, giving new and experienced teachers the chance to try new things and allowing students to benefit from their combined expertise.”


Johnson-McGregor credits her library technician, Sara Haddow, who manages the library collection and the space, and without whom, Johnson-McGregor would not have the time to do all that she does.


Recently, Johnson-McGregor became the incoming president of the Ontario School Library Association, and in that role she will continue to showcase how the Library Learning Commons can play an active and important role in the success of Ontario’s students.


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: Co-Create and Collaborate at a School Library Learning Commons



In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of Thunder Bay secondary school teacher Vicky Walker and teaching teams at two schools in the Lakehead District School Board. Together, the teams have improved student learning through two projects called "Engaging Aboriginal Learners" and "iPads for Success: Engaging Aboriginal and Applied Level Students."


When Vicky Walker’s Grade 10 Applied History students created iMovies on World War II that hit higher achievement markers than the work produced by her Grade 12 university-bound students, she knew she had hit teaching gold.



“Watching these students shine, explore and be so proud of their accomplishments, for me, that has truly redefined education,” says the Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute teacher. Walker boasts a long list of classroom success stories resulting from two Ontario Teacher Learning and Leadership Program-funded projects she led in 2011 and 2013.


Entitled "Engaging Aboriginal Learners" and "iPads for Success: Engaging Aboriginal and Applied Level Students," the projects aimed to improve learning outcomes through the use of technology and make school a more culturally relevant place for all students.


There were two teaching teams working on the projects. On the first project, Vicky Walker worked with Rachel Mishenene and Karen Watt. The second project involved a larger group of teachers, including Lynda Bachinski, Patricia Cibinel, Tammy Coccimiglio, Donna Hrysyshn, Sylvia Hughes, Andrea McParland, Jason Pilot, Paul Wojda, and Sheila White.



The Projects


Specifically, the first project built upon the 2008-2011 Urban Aboriginal Education Project, which identified that relationship building with Indigenous students is key to their engagement and success. Specifically, the project focused on seven key areas:

  • creating welcoming environments;
  • practicing cultural proficiency;
  • connecting with Indigenous communities;
  • embedding Indigenous content;
  • engaging and building relationships with students;
  • integrating 21st Century instructional and assessment practices; and
  • becoming interconnected professional learners.


The second project built on this foundation with the use of technology.

The projects offered students the chance to tell their teachers what would help them to be engaged and inspired in school. It also gave teachers at the board the opportunity to share research-based best practices with colleagues and to develop a teacher toolkit for engaging Indigenous students.

Welcoming Environments


In order to be successful learners, it is essential that First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students are engaged and feeling welcome in school, and that they see themselves and their cultures in the curriculum and the school community. That was a critical finding noted in the Ministry of Education’s Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Policy Framework.


“A ‘welcoming environment’ is one in which a student feels safe to learn, to ‘come as they are,’ and feels like a valued member of the school and classroom community,” Walker explains. Students want to see themselves reflected culturally in all areas of the school, including pictures, books, other students and staff. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, Walker says, including through student councils with multicultural representation, sharing or lunch circles, a breakfast program, an Indigenous students lounge or classroom, parent-guardian events or socials and community group partnerships during and after school hours.



Practicing Cultural Proficiency

Research shows that when teachers become more familiar with students’ cultural backgrounds, they are better able to understand how cultural differences may affect students’ learning. Studies have shown that

understanding students’ motivations and values, adapting materials and approaches appropriately and building mutual respect with the students, are also critical to successful learning.


One teacher involved in the project reports that learning the basics of an Indigenous language spoken in your school can make a big difference to the students. “Saying “Boozhoo” (hello), or “Miigwetch” (thank you) shows respect and that you care enough to try,” the teacher says.


Connecting with Indigenous Communities


Indigenous elders from the community can be included in all aspects of the classroom, Walker reports. The Lakehead District School Board has created an Elder-Senator Protocol to help school staff understand how to engage an elder for a school activity. Special event evenings for the community where Indigenous artists, writers and other mentors come to speak and share are one approach the schools have used to build that connection with the community. Métis author and Order of Canada recipient David Bouchard and artist and broadcaster Elliot Doxtater-Wynn are among those invited to the schools as a result of these and other projects. Walker’s research into the needs of the community also found it is important to develop strategies with parents, not for parents.


Embedding Indigenous Content


Building learning activities around meaningful content related to students’ experiences and interests is crucial to engagement, Walker and her team found.  Students reported they wanted Indigenous heritage worked into every subject and that more cultural resources should be used.


With this in mind, one teacher created a traditional garden in an Environmental Science class based on Grandmother and Grandfather teachings. Drumming circles, powwows, and outdoor experiential learning activities (including cooking a traditional meal of bannock and moose stew) are other examples of how the teachers are embedding Indigenous content directly into the curriculum.








Engaging and Building Relationships with Students


When teachers show commitment and make the students feel welcome, the student is more likely to have a positive learning experience. That was some of the feedback Walker and her teaching team received from the Indigenous students during the projects. The students also reported that it was important for them to have a teacher who:

  • “Does not pressure me with questions;”
  • “Says ‘good morning [NAME],’ every single day;”
  • “Believes you can;”
  • “Doesn’t give up on you;”
  • “Knows when something is wrong;”
  • “Has a good sense of humour;”
  • and “who listens to students.”


From creating Oji-Cree welcome signs for the classroom and breaking bread with students, to simply asking them where they are from and what they need, the teachers in the schools have found many ways to connect with the students and create trust. “I engage in conversations that make the student feel valued,” says one teacher. Another reported he aims to show the student “that a caring adult is in the building.” The simple act of a teacher knowing what First Nation community the students are from and asking questions about that First Nation shows an interest and cultural acknowledgement that breaks down educational barriers and resistance.


Integrating 21st Century Instructional and Assessment Practices


The technology integration model of SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition), created by Ruben R. Puentedura, was a cornerstone of the team’s approach in the second project. This model helped the teachers approach the integration of the technology effectively into their subject-specific, content-driven classrooms.


ipads-charging-up-in-class.png“For a student like me, being able to use an iPad, a netbook, or one of the many kinds of software that the school offers is extremely helpful,” says Grade 11 student Daisy Darrach. “It allows me to focus on something that is more tangible than just a piece of paper. It is also a great help in terms of resources as it gives us greater access to more information than we could get from simply reading the limited knowledge available in a textbook.”


With most Indigenous students at the schools being functional or fluent in the Ojibwe language, Ojibwe language teacher Sheila White says she saw an opportunity with technology to build on these skills. “I have tried different strategies to teach new vocabulary and I always felt that the students were not retaining the vocabulary and therefore resorting to memorization,” she says. Using the Neechee Ojibwe App and iPads allowed the teachers to support a more engaging and robust approach to language learning, which White reports led to greater retention and learning in the students.


The access to iPads and the Internet also helped low-income students bridge the technology gap, giving them the power to change their social structures by being empowered and engaged, Walker reports.


Parent Susan Reppard was thrilled that her daughter was able to benefit from the iPads. "By teachers embracing and incorporating technology into everyday subjects at the school, students are more engaged and interested to learn and explore," she says. "Whether it be the green room used to broadcast the televised morning announcements to every classroom via SMART boards or the software used for the metal plasma cutter in the welding shop."


Becoming Interconnected Professional Learners


Pulling all of this student feedback and teacher success stories together in her TLLP reports, and sharing them with her colleagues, has been an important step toward empowering the teaching staff as interconnected professional learners, Walker says.


As a result of the projects, one teacher actually changed her curriculum to include issues relevant to the students in her class. Another reported that teacher training needs to revolve around the student and focus on making students feel comfortable in their learning environment. “Many students, not only Indigenous students, do not have the same lives teachers do. Recognizing this is crucial for all students to have success in the classroom.” History teacher Tammy Coccimiglio reports that giving students iPads has gradually changed her teaching practice from a teacher-directed style to a more student-centered style of learning. “My role has slowly evolved into that of a facilitator, where students have the opportunity to make choices about the way they learn.”


Principal Michelle Probizanski recognizes that, moving forward, Professional Learning Communities and the Ministry of Education's Student Success Support Initiative, which focus on Applied and Indigenous Learners, are supported by these projects. “The results of the TLLP built a base from which to work, and teachers and departments have continued using technology and research-based best practices to improve student learning," Probizanski says.


According to Puentedura’s SAMR model, Redefinition is the final stage in integrating technology into education in which student learning and assessment are transformed into new educational formats. The teachers involved in these projects know they have transformed education when, in the particular case of Indigenous students, learning is rooted in cultural respect and the technology allows Indigenous student voices to be heard.


The Team's Top Apps


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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: Cultural Connection and Tech Make School More Relevant for Indigenous Teens