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students working together.jpgIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Kristen Muscat-Fennell, Kelly Little, Stephanie Skelton, Darrell Bax, and Lee Sparling of the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB).


When Kristen Muscat-Fennell learned about the balanced mathematics approach to teaching, she knew she had found a game-changer.


“It’s a framework for mathematics instruction that really supports student engagement, mindset, confidence-building, and achievement in students,” explains Muscat-Fennell, a Vice Principal and former Instructional Resource Teacher (Mathematics K-8) and teacher/math coach at Fieldcrest Elementary School.


kristen muscat.jpgKristen's balanced mathematics program is based upon the work of fellow Simcoe County District School Board teacher Lee Sparling, who shared her research and approach in her book Balanced Mathematics in 2005.


What is a Balanced Math Program?


The balanced math program aims to improve student attitudes toward math while they develop procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and problem-solving. Some components of the program which support higher-level thinking, problem solving and communication include:sample student journal.jpg


Math Journals: Math journals are an independent activity where students reflect upon and communicate their thinking about math in a variety of ways. The use of open questions promotes students to use math language, make personal connections and reflect upon their thinking. For example, in the primary grades students might communicate their math thinking in different ways, such as in pictures, numbers and words. See images (right) for example student math journal entry and, below left, math journal assessment.


math journal assessment.jpgMath Facts: Math facts ensure students have regular opportunities to build procedural fluency while learning and practicing math. Math fact examples might include learning all of the combinations of 1-digits numbers (2+2, 6+9, 8+4, etc.) and the corresponding subtraction exercises
(9-4, 8-5, etc.).


Math Games:  Math Games provide opportunities to build math confidence and develop positive attitudes towards math, while reducing the fear of failure and error. Games provide a fun, engaging way to practice skills and concepts. Examples of math games include flashcards, card games and dice games.


Shared Mathematics: Shared mathematics provides an opportunity for students to learn with others. Students work together to solve a higher order-thinking problem, which offers an assessment for, as or of learning. Each student has a job, such as reader, recorder, calculator or presenter, and all collaborate to solve the problem. A consolidation of learning occurs during a ‘share the wealth’ where strategies are discussed and connections to the learning goals are made. See the shared problem solving collage at the bottom of the page. student work.jpg


Guided Mathematics: Guided mathematics provides an opportunity for small groups of students, gathered according to assessment for learning to work directly with the teacher. They may solve problems, review challenging concepts, explore new technology (and how it can be used to help solve problems), explore manipulatives, focus on specific problem-solving strategies or math processes and learn new math games. For example, students may be asked to work backwards on a math problem, guess and check or look for a pattern.


Independent Mathematics: Independent mathematics provides an opportunity for students to learn on their own based on previously taught material and to stretch and deepen their thinking. Students can use group members to decode words or clarify the problem, but then work independently. This is an ideal time for students to integrate stands and spiral curriculum. An example task might be, "Raisins and sunflower seeds are sold together in packages of 250g. The ratio of the mass of sunflower seeds is 3 to 5. Determine the mass of raisins in a package. Show your work."


In the balanced mathematics program, open questions, parallel tasks, inquiry-based learning, rotating content, technology-enabled learning and a variety of assessment practices are also used. The program has proven successful for students from K-8, with great potential to be used in grades beyond.


“Teachers have adapted the program to meet the diverse needs of their students and incorporate their own teaching styles and ideas,” she says. “I think the flexibility of the program has helped with its success along the way. It’s been a sustainable, exciting project,” she says.




Teachers using the balanced math program saw increased improvement in students' procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and mathematical problem solving. They also saw improved student engagement and improved attitude for math learning. In a 2012 survey of over 300 Junior and Intermediate students participating in the program, 73% said they had increased confidence about problem solving as a result of the balanced mathematics program and 69% reported improvement in their ability to explain their math thinking. In a 2013-2014 teacher survey, 79% of teachers said they saw an increase in collaborative and independent problem-solving skills in students, 76% reported an increase in student engagement and 68% reported an improvement in student attitudes towards mathematics.


“Students are increasingly learning to use other sources to find their answers rather than coming to me,” reports a Grade 4 teacher. “They are talking more in math words, especially during math games and shared problem solving.”


This program is popular with the students. “The kids cheer for a balanced mathematics program,” Muscat-Fennell reports. “They like it. They have voice and choice.”


One Grade 3 student explained, “I like shared problem solving because I get a chance to communicate with my group and explain my thinking. I already know all of my ideas but if I share with someone else they can use my strategy too and I can use their strategies.”

math bins.jpg

Elementary principal Chris Russell reports, "When I do walk-throughs during math time I see much more involvement, excitement and fun in classrooms. More students are talking accountably and working effectively with peers."


Mobilizing Mathematical Knowledge


Finding marked success with the program, Muscat-Fennell spent the last several years sharing what she’s learned with other teachers, first through leading a Teacher Learning and Leadership Program project starting in 2011, and more recently, through the Provincial Knowledge Exchange.


“With the TLLP, our team was looking to share beyond the walls of our school,” Muscat-Fennell explains. "The project began by sharing with teachers at eight other schools and grew from there. Participating teachers were given release time to learn, practice, co-plan, and explore the program together and in their classrooms. To date, more than 350 teachers from over 50 schools have learned about the balanced mathematics program through these knowledge-sharing projects.


The team’s work implementing the program and sharing the learning earned Fieldcrest E.S. the prestigious Canadian Education Association’s Ken Spencer Award for innovation in 2015.




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: Spotlight on Award-Winning Balanced Mathematics Program

bluewater wordcloud.jpgIn this instalment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Cathy Griffin and Liz Campbell and the Bluewater Action Research Network.  Griffin and Campbell are teachers in the Bluewater District School Board in Ontario's Bruce and Grey Counties.


Taking a good, hard look at our shortcomings and mistakes is not always easy. But for teachers Cathy Griffin and Liz Campbell, that process opened a world of learning and elevated their teaching practice to heights they hadn’t imagined.


These outcomes were achieved as a result of the Bluewater Action Research Network (BARN), a project focused on using the action research process, including self-reflection, to inform and inspire improvements in practice for teachers.


“The word ‘transformative’ is so over-used, but this process is transformative,” says Campbell, who began BARN with Griffin as a Teacher Learning and Leadership Project in 2013. “When you ‘get’ this, it really is a game changer. I grew more than I have in any other PD in my life.”


cathy and liz.jpgThe Process


The BARN process begins with a full day group meeting of the teachers participating in the project. “We started off asking people to identify their values in their personal and professional lives and their concerns in their own practice,” Griffin reports. “For the most part, people came up with a huge list.” Participants are encouraged to focus on one thing they want to improve upon. They spend the balance of the day creating an action plan and referring to external research as needed. The focus is on teachers using their personal knowledge of context, students, and self, to generate and test their own theories. After Day One, participants go back to their schools and take action. They work on changing their practice and are encouraged to collect and record data in the form of reflections, critical conversations, student work and video of their practice before the next meeting.


Each teacher’s process is self-directed and self-determined, but includes identifying personal values and concerns about their own practice, planning corrective actions, reporting back to the group on the outcome of those actions and inviting others to critique their work. Educators involved in the project spend four full days meeting with the group and dedicate one personal research and writing day sometime between those meetings.


Action Research


A key facet of BARN’s approach is based on the idea of Action Research, which involves a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working in teams or as a part of a community of practice. Each individual focuses on a question, such as, "How can I improve what I am doing?"Jack Whitehead.jpg


Campbell and Griffin were specifically inspired by the work of researcher and teacher Jack Whitehead, who stumbled upon the value of filming himself teach in the 1970s.  Along with 18 other Bluewater educators, Campbell and Griffin were introduced to Whitehead through Professor Jackie Delong of Brock University in the Bluewater Masters Cohort (2011). Delong acted as a co-facilitator of the first BARN cohort in 2013/14 and continues to be a consultant for BARN. In this latest group, Griffin and Campbell invited past participants, Melissa Juniper, Bradley Clarke and Krystal Damm to co-facilitate and build sustainability in the process.


“When I video taped myself interacting with my students,” Griffin reports, “I realized that I didn’t do a very good job of just listening. My intention was getting the student to explain his thinking but I just saw myself on video taking over the conversation and misinterpreting what he was saying.”


Campbell admits this can be an unsettling process. “For some people, it’s not easy to embrace their ‘darker side,’ she says. “But once they bring the barrier down, they don’t go back.”


Some of this hesitation stems back to the fact that many teachers are “so afraid to be wrong,” she explains. “We’re supposed to have all of the answers. You have to be willing to be wrong and that should be celebrated.”


However, once teachers have identified some problem areas, tried some new approaches and reported back to the group on their successes and failures, they soon see its value. “Once they do even one round of it, they’re hooked,” Campbell says. “It brings a heightened awareness and once they have this they just get better and better.”

BARN cohort.jpg


Living Educational Theory


Another key influence on BARN has been research around Living Theory, an approach focusing attention on the experiences and implications of a person’s values that give meaning and purpose to their lives.


According to the Educational Journal of Living Theories, A living theory “is an explanation produced by an individual for their educational influence in their own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of the social formation in which they live and work.”


This aspect of the group’s journey began by asking themselves some pivotal questions, including: Who am I? How do I know? So what? And, now what? Campbell insists it’s critical for everyone to know the their own answers to these questions.


“What we are trying to get at is the ‘I’; I have my personal value connections, trust, authenticity, humility, and love,” says Griffin. “These are the things we try to embody in life.” Aligning your professional work with these values and connections is vital to being the best you can be in the classroom, she explains. "As Parker Palmer (1999) says, "We teach who we are,” she says. “You can’t separate yourself as a person from your teaching practice.”


It’s crucial that teachers are able to carve out the time to stop and do this kind of meaningful reflection, the teachers say, stressing that TLLP funding or supportive administrations are key to this. “What happens is that teachers are so busy doing they don’t have time to stop and reflect on what they are doing,” says Campbell. “If they had to do this on top of what they already do, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”



bluewater video.jpg


A part of the process for Griffin was asking her students: What in my practice is helping you learn? “They were very reluctant to be critical at first because by being critical exposes the person being critical,” she reveals. “But as soon as I started to show excitement about their barriers to their learning, it just started taking off.” Some kids reported they work better alone, some said the class was too loud, one student said he felt teaching was being lectured to. All of this helped inform Griffin as she worked to improve her practice. She also learned to stop taking any criticism personally. “You start to equate our practice with a thing,” she says. “It’s not who we are. It’s not to be taken as an attack on me but as something I have power to change.”


At the beginning of each year at Bluewater, the facilitators ask what the educators hope to get out of their year. "Then at the end we go back and ask if they accomplished it and they always say they did and way more,” Campbell reports, adding that everyone comes together for one final symposium at the end of the year to share what they have learned with each other and invited guests from across the board. This public sharing of what they claim to know from their research, the telling of their story, is a crucial aspect of the process.


As the teachers get comfortable on this path, it's natural for them to share this approach with their students, Griffin says. "The students start to become a part of the process and they start to take risks," she says. "Showing vulnerability brings down barriers for students and teachers."


One student, who worked on an action research project with Campbell in high school and is currently a student at Ryerson University, recently came back to the school to report how much her teaching approach impacted her. “She said before she had done her self-study she wouldn’t have gone out when she moved to Toronto. She said she goes out all the time now and embraces every opportunity she gets because before she wasn’t confident in herself.” “We talked about the only way to be successful is to be really honest with yourself," Campbell explains. "Push yourself to be more honest.”

Another Grade 12 girl said “'I can’t be honest with myself. I’ve lied to myself my whole life, how can I start now?' "It was so huge," says Campbell. "And I didn’t tell her that. She figured it out for herself.”


One of Griffin's Grade 6 students reported on his action research project. "My problem was focus," he says. "Our barriers are that we get nervous. Our minds wander and get distracted really easily. Our action is that we are going to be drawing while we are listening, drawing out our thoughts. And also mindfulness while tracking our focus."


One of the themes that emerged from participant feedback was that the focus on improving self was contagious. One participant reports, "Through the process of recording and reflecting, I was able to gain new insight into how my practice can be improved upon by opening myself and my work to the ideas of others. This project opened my eyes to the learning of students as well. Much like ourselves, I discovered that when children are given the opportunity to take control over some of their learning, their ownership of it and sense of responsibility is improved."


Velvet Rollin, Vice Principal of Peninsula Shores District School, says that BARN, and the action research teachers are conducting through the BARN project, are important in many ways. "BARN itself has created a community of life-long learners who are travelling a path of professional learning that is both empowering to the individual teachers because they have taken control of their own professional development, but also beneficial to the group because of their shared journey and what they are learning from each other," she explains. "It is also important to the learning journey of all staff within our schools because our BARN participants are becoming experts other teachers can access when they have questions about student learning."


Campbell and Griffin say their practice is more meaningful and continues to be inspired by the dedication and insights of BARN participants and their fellow co-facilitators.


Sharing the Learning


While not everyone can take the time out to do a full action research project in their own practice, Campbell and Griffin recommend interested teachers read Jack Whitehead's book on Living Theory as a starting point. Campbell also regularly participates in Skype discussions with other teachers from around the world on the subject of living education theory and welcomes anyone interested to connect with her.


You can find more information about BARN (including the individual questions of researcher practitioners) and the international context connection, here. Click here for a summary of the 2014-2015 BARN symposium.


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: Values & Reflection Drive Teacher Development in Bluewater Action Research Network (BARN).

Teacher-with-students.pngIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas from Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board’s Monsignor Castex School in Midland and their work on inquiry learning.


What is the recipe for an effective and vibrant student-led inquiry classroom?


That’s what teachers Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas aimed to find out when they embarked on their Teacher Learning and Leadership Program project entitled Uncovering Content: Integrating Critical Thinking into Social Studies for the 21st Century Learners in 2013.


The teaching pair launched their investigation while teaching at Midland’s Monsignor Castex School, of the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, where Douglas taught in the junior division and Robitaille was the K to 8 Special Education Resource teacher. Confident in their students’ desire to be actively engaged in their learning, the pair believed the inquiry learning approach would inspire the children and ultimately improve learning outcomes.


teacher-team-photos.png“The hope was that we would create a classroom that had students engaged, motivated and excited about learning, and the bonus is that we developed a love and a passion for teaching like never before,” says Robitaille, who is now retired. “Now school is fun and exciting for both students and teacher. The inquiry-based approach changed how the class looks, feels and sounds. This approach changed our way of teaching and learning.”


According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, Inquiry-based learning is “an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the centre of the learning experience. Educators play an active role throughout the process by establishing a culture where ideas are respectfully challenged, tested, redefined and viewed as improvable, moving children from a position of wondering to a position of enacted understanding and further questioning.”


Step One: Getting to Know the Students


In order to put student questions and curiosities center-stage, Douglas and Robitaille recognized they had to really get to know their students. The pair used a variety of strategies to achieve this, including engaging the the kids in activities centered on the students’ lives and interests. The teachers also made maintaining this connection with the kids throughout the year a priority.inquiry-groups.png

“Every kid in your classroom has something to offer and has a set of strong interests,” says Douglas, who continues to teach at the school. “They all want to learn, even if it doesn’t seem so on particular days. Find out what these strong interests are, allow them to pursue them, and watch amazing collaboration happen in your room!”


This sort of connection helps students to feel safe and cared for in a classroom, Douglas explains, which studies have shown, leads to greater engagement and, often, higher academic achievement.


Step Two: Creating a Safe Learning Environment


The next step in helping the students feel free and safe to open up and explore the world was to rethink the set-up of the classroom, Douglas explains. Clearing away anything that was not directly connected to student learning, Douglas decluttered his room, making sure learning tools were easily accessible and clearly labeled. Key to this classroom refresh was reconfiguring the student desks into small group settings in an effort to foster collaborative work. Small group work transformed the classroom into supportive learning teams, keeping his student energized, motivated and supported, Douglas explains.



With the students clustered in working teams, Douglas moved from his standard position at the front of the room leading the discussion, to sitting alongside his students, guiding and coaching their learning and hoping to spark their curiosity, he says.


Step Three: Establishing Routines


Before students could successfully embark upon group work, however, the team discovered it was important to establish routines in the classroom and teach the students the skills they would need. Modeling expectations, establishing what the classroom ‘feels like’ and ensuring students can work independently were critical to this, the teachers explain. These routines were an important base upon which groups could work effectively.


Step Four: Introducing Social Skills


Every student needs to understand their role in group work situations, how to treat each other respectfully, how to deal with conflict and how to divide work within the group, Douglas says. “In our class, we built a collaborative culture by introducing a number of activities such as pair discussion (think-pair-share), and another lesson that works well with students is ‘Home Court Advantage: Showing Friendliness,’" he says. This ability to work and collaborate in small groups is a vital 21st Century competency, studies show.


Step Five: Launching Mini-Inquiries


To teach the students how to investigate questions, and then demonstrate their learning and understanding, the teachers learned it was best to begin by sharing their own questions and curiosities. From there, the students asked questions as they searched for their own answers. As a classroom, the students and teachers then started to brainstorm questions for mini-inquiries that the class could use to build their understanding of the inquiry process.


The teachers used the 2013 Ontario Revised Social Studies/History and Geography policy document to guide them with tools and strategies to work critical thinking into the inquiry process. The policy states, "It is crucial that students not simply learn various facts but that they acquire the ability to think and process content in ways best suited to each subject." By moving away from memorizing facts, teachers need to plan and promote students' inquiry to explore issues and deepen their understanding.


Examples of questions the class considered during the project included:


  • What exactly is the value of homework?
  • The 3D movies are fun, but is the movie going experience really better? students-working-in-a-group.png
  • How much sleep do we need?
  • Do kids really need cell phones?


Often, the students would discover one question would lead to others.


Inquiry in Action


Offering students a variety of learning opportunities while also maintaining focus on curriculum goals (for this project, Social Studies, History and Geography) was vital to successful inquiry learning in the classroom, the Robitaille and Douglas explain.


A class inquiry examined the question 'What might life be like in other parts of Canada?' This question offered a terrific opportunity to put inquiry into action in Douglas’ classroom. “This was just perfect: open-ended enough to allow true inquiry, but focused enough to provide a clear framework for the work ahead.”


The pair also reported they had a great level of student engagement by integrating technology into many of the activities used to support the inquiry. Some of these activities included:


  • Newscasts: iMovie, the students wrote, recorded, and presented a series of newscasts reporting on the events, climate and culture of different regions in Canada. Photo Booth allowed students to create endless backdrops and background videos.
  • Tellagami Weather Reports: Tellagami app offered students the chance to create personal avatars to report on the weather phenomena in their assigned region of Canada. “The reports were absolutely hilarious, highly creative, and the end product was so polished, it was perfect,” Douglas says.
  • Stop Motion Claymation: Stop Animator. “It was a blast to see how creative they were in depicting all kinds of regional quirks,” Douglas reports. “What an amazingly fun and truly creative task.”
  • Google Earth Tour Builder: Students used this app to add pictures and text and build a Google Earth-powered virtual tour of their assigned region of the country.




inquiry-video.pngThe children were a lot happier in the classroom because of this inquiry approach to teaching and learning, Robitaille adds. “They were active, asking questions, being creative, doing research and producing work that was often marveled by peers, adults and teachers,” she adds. The students presented their thinking to the class and have become teachers themselves. “They were curious and interested in learning from each other,” she says. “This classroom became a workshop where the students collaborated, shared ideas, supported each other and most importantly encouraged each other. It’s surprising how students learn to build on each others strengths, much the same way adults do, when they work in a positive environment.”


Being immersed in finding answers is a lot more fun than listening to lessons or studying a book, one of Douglas’ students stresses. “I really like it,” she says. “It’s just a lot of fun. You get to work with all of your classmates instead of just doing workbooks.” Another student says Douglas’ classes are fun because he and his classmates get to teach too. “We learn in different ways,” he explains, “like with presentations. So we get to show our work to the class and it’s not just Mr. Douglas teaching. The class gets to teach.”


The teachers also learned a great deal from the process, including the value of working as a team with other educators. "I learned that teaching is so much easier when you collaborate with a colleague," Robitaille explains. "It was important for us to take time out of the day to connect, to support each other, to share, and to engage in deep conversations about what we were learning and doing in the classroom."


Ultimately, both Robitaille and Douglas found the students were more motivated and engaged than ever before after learning in the inquiry setting. “Students say they love school and can’t wait to begin the day,” Douglas reports. In the end, the students’ work far exceeded the team’s expectations.


Principal Judith Gatt found the students in Douglas' classroom to be more engaged and excited by their learning than before. "You see these students doing things, reading for purpose and it's authentic and they're going to use what they're reading in their projects when they report back," she explains. "I also get a lot of comments from parents when they get the report cards back from Pete's class. They talk about how much they know that Pete knows their child. He knows the child's strengths and he knows the child's weaknesses and he's looking at next steps."


The Team's Apps



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: Curiosity and Teamwork Make the Perfect Recipe for Student-led Inquiry Learning.



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

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!”


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Shrek_edit.jpgW.H. Morden Public School students perform in the junior stage musical production of Shrek.



In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the last 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). Sandra Dubreuil, from the Halton District School Board, is the Beginning Teacher category winner.


Whether she’s setting up Skype jam sessions for her class with other students around the world, bringing professional musicians into the classroom or trying to captivate a reluctant student musician, teacher Sandra Dubreuil takes the job of music teacher very seriously.



Getting to know each student and what they need to succeed is a big part of what Dubreuil loves about being a teacher. “I like to figure out how they learn, how to inspire them, to help them be successful and most of all, to provide them with the opportunity to love music and make it a meaningful part of their lives,” says Dubreuil, who began teaching instrumental music for grades 5-8 at W. H. Morden Public School in Oakville last year. “That's why I love teaching. It goes so much further beyond the classroom walls. Music instills confidence, pride, determination, personal reflection, learning how to win, and how to lose. It creates community and pathways to future careers.”



Music is something that can make you feel safe, it can initiate connections with others, it can broaden your horizons, and open doors you never expected to be there, she explains.


Dubreuil came to teaching later in life than most. She started her working life in the aviation industry as a commercial pilot, delivering aircraft for an aircraft manufacturing company. Yet after three years, she returned to Ontario where she decided to ignite her love of music with something she always thought she’d love to do: teaching.


When Dubreuil sees the light go on in a child’s eyes, a child who hasn’t had much interest in music before, she says that’s her greatest reward. “There was one particular student who was able to play their instrument, but really struggled with the processing speed of reading the music,” she says. “Even though we tried many different ways to help, the student still wasn’t overly inspired to come to music." One day Dubreuil overheard the student's interest in playing another instrument in the class. "We were able to get the chords for the songs we play in class and this student is now learning the music and happily brings the instrument to class every day. It's really nice to see a smile on the student's face."


“Sandra is an incredible teacher,” adds vice principal Janice Bunn, who nominated Dubreuil for the award. “She’s a brand new teacher, yet she jumps into everything with enthusiasm and dedication. She spends many, many hours going above and beyond to create a great program for the kids in class and outside of class.”


A special insight into how kids think and operate is fundamental to her success, Bunn says. “Although we have some very talented kids here at Morden, she doesn’t just focus on the best musicians. She also helps the kids who don’t have a real interest in music and tries to help them find that love of music,” she explains. “I think that’s the key. She looks at every student individually and tries to find out ways that she can engage them.”


Dubreuil is widely loved at Morden, Bunn says, pointing to a conversation between students which Dubreuil overheard in the hallway one day. The kids were talking about their ‘dreaded’ Friday class schedules, then one boy said, 'But at least we have music today, so there’s one good thing.' “She’s so dedicated and one of the best teachers I’ve ever known,” reports W. H. Morden student Maya, 13. “She’s just so amazing. She goes above and beyond what you’d expect a teacher to do," adds Caitlin, also 13.


Dubreuil’s music class isn’t all about having a good time and connecting with the music. It's about creating respect within the environment, performance and audience etiquette in and outside the classroom, as well as challenging individual limits to be proud of their achievements, she says. The student concert band has been raking in some impressive laurels of late. The band won Gold at the Golden Horseshoe Music Festival regionals competition. That win landed them an invitation to the national competition at MusicFest, where they achieved a Bronze medal. At the end of the year, the band played for fun at Canada's Wonderland and the adjudicator said that had they played the way they did that day at the national competition, they would have easily nabbed Silver Plus or Gold, Dubreuil says. “The Gold at regionals blew our minds,” she says. “The kids worked so hard. The adjudicator congratulated them for their efforts and dedication, which was really nice to see coming from him. It meant a lot to the students in the band."


These achievements were particularly sweet for the band because they pushed themselves harder this year than ever, Dubreuil reports. “At the beginning of the year, they weren’t practicing and I just said to them, ‘do you want me to push you? If you want me to push you, I will, because I know you are capable of achieving excellence.’ They can accomplish anything if they put their minds to it, and they did. They should be so proud of themselves this year.”


Sandra_video_play.jpgAnother highlight of the year was the school’s junior musical stage production of Shrek. “Every moment of Shrek was remarkable,” Dubreuil says. “Every recess we were in rehearsals and the kids really pulled it together.” Whether she’s teaching a difficult concept or trying to inspire the students to practice their instruments at home, Dubreuil says picking music students enjoy is critical. “For instance, we’re playing Uptown Funk, arranged by Ryan Meeboer,” she explains. “I use this song as a tool to have the students learn a difficult concept, which they can apply to other genres of music. Students who were really struggling are now playing that song. Its difficulty level was on the advanced side, and I was a little worried to give it to them. But I took the risk and they just ran with it. So it’s just finding things that they like to do and letting them see what they can accomplish.”


Paul VanderHelm, principal of W. H. Morden, says Dubreuil transformed the school’s music department when she arrived. “She identified areas of improvement in the room, the instruments, the program and the students,” he says. “She then set to work to make everything better. Her tireless efforts have given students a real sense of pride in what they can accomplish.” Dubreuil created a concert choir at the school, is setting up Skype and ePal connections between her students and students in Harbour Island, Bahamas and Kenya, and co-organized an event bringing a professional singer in to talk to the students about life as a musician, he says. Dubreuil has added new instruments to the school (including the Chinese harp, violins, tuba and oboe) and encourages the use of technology, such as the song composition using various programs, such as GarageBand, Finale, iWriteMusic and Audacity, in her students.


While others are clearly impressed by her work, Dubreuil insists it’s her students who should get the top marks. “I learn so much from them even though I am their teacher,” she says. “I feel like every day I am inspired and in awe of their ideas.”


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TeachOntario Talks Discussion: Student Passion Drives Success in Music

questions_in_math_slide_644x372.jpgIn this installment of the TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the teaching team at the Peel District School Board's Ray Lawson Public School in Brampton.




The teachers of Ray Lawson Public School in Brampton took teaching Math to a whole new level last year as they united in a school-wide professional learning project aimed at bringing best practices in mathematics to every classroom.


Led by Grade 6 teacher Jonathan So, the initiative was a Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP). Teachers engaged in targeted practices to improve student numeracy, problem-solving and communication strategies, while improving student engagement and confidence in Math.


Jonathan_So_headshot.jpgThese targeted teaching approaches included practicing math facts and processes, using rich, open-ended problems, accountable talk, probing questions, strategy-building, co-constructed criteria and descriptive feedback, So says.


“One of the best things about the TLLP is that it forced us out of comfort zones and had us trying new things and exploring things that we did not know before,” he says. “It was all applicable and useful to the classroom, because it was happening in the classroom. The best PD is useful PD.” All 20 teachers in the school participated in the PD sessions, which were led by a learning team of 10 teachers and So.



“We wanted to try to incorporate rich authentic problem solving tasks more regularly as part of the program,” So explains. “I wanted to give the students lots of time to learn how to use manipulatives effectively, to see different ways of recording solutions, time to practice and explain their thinking to others. This way, students will become more proficient at communicating their solutions.”


Key to the new approach was creating a bank of questions to probe students’ thinking. “The goal is to build good questioning and critical thinking as a staff and to understand how math is developed in students from K-5,” he explains.


Watch the video below, left to see So's Math class in action.


The Impact on Student Learning


The teachers found giving students real life problems, along with effective questions to consider, has had a positive impact on student engagement. “I'm so proud of how well our students can orally communicate their thinking now and explain their understanding to others,” So reports, adding that students' confidence in their Math abilities has also shown improvement. “I also find it incredible the learning that happens with seven-year-olds. The strategies and discoveries the students make and how they feed off each other is amazing.”



Teacher Learning


The greatest part of the project for So has been the collaborative aspect of planning and modifying teaching plans with his teaching partner. “Co-teaching and co-planning is the way to go. I loved doing this as a team.” He’s excited by how much he's learned in this year of teaching Math. “I have grown a lot in my understanding of the three-part lesson and the types of rich tasks that are appropriate for this kind of teaching and learning,” he says. “I have also learned how to effectively facilitate a math congress to consolidate student learning.”


Some of So’s specific take-aways include:students_working.jpg


  • The importance of posing critical questions during the consolidation phase of lessons in order to enhance the learning experiences of the students and tap into their thinking process;
  • The importance of following up with students; to use their conversations as assessment or to clarify what they were trying to communicate with their work;
  • Setting aside time to moderate student work is essential. It is very helpful to hear student reflections on their work and processes as we continue to build strategies;


So has also marveled at how even when using the same lesson, two different sets of students can produce completely different responses. “As teachers we have to be prepared for these possible outcomes,” he admits.


Teacher Jennifer Foster says the TLLP process allowed the school's teaching team to co-plan, co-teach and moderate together. "We were able to draw on each other's strengths as educators and design an engaging lesson incorporating 21st Century learning and thinking," Foster says. "The experience highlighted the importance of collaboration on a daily basis and made us aware of all the little things that we do as educators that sometimes we forget we do that makes the difference in the thinking that our students are doing. The experience made us take further risks, and also increased our own confidence as teachers."


The process of going through the project also challenged teacher Keri Ewert to expand the digital learning opportunities she provides in the classroom, she says. "We strove to provide innovative Math lessons that promoted and enhanced critical thinking skills," she says. Providing authentic, meaningful problems to the students allowed them to develop critical thinking and collaborative communication skills, she says.


Having the time to plan, discuss, team teach and talk about how it went after class, have been key benefits to the project, according to teacher Heather Childs. "This project allowed my teaching partner and myself to try new problems, debrief and then approach the problem another way," she says. "I also learned a lot by watching students in other classes learn and have conversations in other teachers' classrooms," she says.


Looking Towards the Future


Coming together as a staff to talk about teaching practices openly and professionally has been very rewarding, he says. “As teachers we do have rich staff meetings yet there is seldom as much time as we would like for deep learning discussions,” he reports. “But this actually started to happen during this project. In addition, the learning and growth of the teachers was amazing. We went from a school that taught Math as individuals to a staff that has a common language, a common purpose, and for the most part, a common practice. The majority of our staff now uses problem solving as a primary teaching tool. The students are becoming better problem solvers, communicators, and critical thinkers.”


Going forward, the teaching team plans to continue to build on this success and seek out further opportunities for professional development in Math. “It would be great if we can continue to build this into our Collaborative Inquiries next year,” he says. “This year, the gift of time from the project helped us all grow as a school.”


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TeachOntario Talks Discussion: Teamwork Drives Student Engagement in Math

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.”


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TeachOntario Talks Discussion: How Strong Relationships with Students Impact Learning

Multimedia_slide.jpgIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating teacher Derrick Schellenberg's project aimed at increasing learning and engagement through the use of authentic multimedia texts.  Derrick teaches at Sir William Mulock Secondary School, of the York Region District School Board, in Newmarket.

How do you integrate technology in the classroom without “stapling new tools onto old ideas”?

That was the pivotal challenge Derrick Schellenberg says he and his team of high school English teachers faced when they began their Ontario Teacher Learning and Leadership Project (TLLP) in 2013.

Schellenberg, who is Head of English at York Region District School Board’s Sir William Mulock Secondary School  in Newmarket, worked with English teachers Angela Barrett, Michelle von Enckevort and Beverly Woodfine on the teaching team.



Their project aimed to increase student engagement, and deepen critical thinking, creativity and innovation through the creation of authentic multimedia texts. Schellenberg defines these multimedia texts as "student-created, original, meaningful and relevant digital texts, which could include one or all of audio, video, and images." The teachers also wanted to align with the school’s focus on collaborative inquiry.


The Project

The team began by teaching students how to use of an array of digital tools (primarily Google Apps for Education suite of tools, which includes Docs, Slides, Drive, Forms and Drawings). Students were encouraged to experiment with the tools to expand their comfort level of 21st century learning.

“We believe that by giving students tools for collaboration, both inside and outside the classroom, as well as the ability to see others’ contributions in real time, we can create a more meaningful collaboration experience for our students,” says Schellenberg. “By building a unit of study around inquiry questions and providing students with digital tools to access, analyze, synthesize and share information, they will deepen their critical thinking skills.”

Ultimately, the idea was to move students from being users/consumers to producers/creators, Schellenberg says. That meant the teachers first had to know the tools well themselves, then explicitly teach the students how to use them. From there the teachers connected the tools to the secondary English curriculum.


Examples of the Project in Action

So what did this look like in the classroom? The teachers used the open-source learning management system (LMS) Moodle as a central hub for the assignments, Schellenberg says, along with the Google Apps for Education suite for collaboration and co-construction.

Examples included:

  • A Grade 10 English assignment used inquiry to engage students in learning about Shakespearean times. The students used Google Docs to develop their inquiry questions, collect research to discover answers and create a final report on their findings. Teachers were able to leave feedback for the student right on the Doc.
  • A Grade 11 University English course asked students to develop a trailer (short video) and Google Form related to their Independent Study Unit (ISU) to ask their peers questions about their inquiry.
  • Grade 11 and 12 University English classes read an abridged version of Northrop Frye’s “Autumn: Tragedy” using Google Docs and analyzed specific sections using the "Comment" feature in small groups. Students then each created one slide, and built a collaborative Google presentation slideshow about key ideas from the text.
  • An ISU assignment asked students to read a book, construct inquiry questions, watch a related film or documentary, conduct research, engage in a vlog (video blog) discussion, make a film trailer to promote their ISU and construct a final multimedia presentation (slideshow, video, etc.). See a sample student work below, left.


The Outcomes for Students


“We were especially pleased with the creativity and originality of the student work,” says Schellenberg. “We also believe that what they learned about the use of technology will transfer beyond the secondary English classroom to other subject areas. Overall, we made better use of the technology students were bringing to class, and we challenged them to do higher quality and more complex work.”


“Students created some impressive film trailers,” he says. “Although students found the task to be challenging, through observations, conversations and student video_caption.jpgreflections, we learned that they found this task to be rewarding. For the most part, they become very engaged in the task and proud of the work they accomplished."


Introducing classes to a variety of technological tools ultimately empowered the students," he says. “As we progressed through the units of study and the overall courses, there was a gradual release of responsibility (from teacher to student) so the students became more and more independent. We saw this in terms of research, inquiry questions, and tech tools,” he says. “This led to greater self-management on the part of the students, and more student-to-student collaboration, as opposed to individual dependence on the teacher.”


The Outcomes for the Teachers


“This project was extremely helpful,” Schellenberg says. “The strengths of the TLLP and PKE (Provincial Knowledge Exchange) encourage teachers to design their own professional development, and then share the learning with others in a variety of ways.”google_forms_example.jpg


The use of the apps in the assignments was a help in the teaching process, Schellenberg says. The team identified the following benefits:

  • Management and access to student work was convenient and easy;
  • It was easier to give feedback for formative work with the comment and chat features;
  • Teachers could check in on student work in progress and conference as needed;
  • Students could view rubrics-- which kept students focused on what was being assessed;
  • In administering tests teachers could monitor progress, and students in other rooms could get clarification or help;
  • While marking assignments-- teachers could batch upload to Turnitin, leave comments and feedback, highlight rubrics and students would know exactly when something had been assessed.


Teacher Angela Barrett says the project opened her eyes to new ideas, possibilities and interests. "The project pushed me to step outside of my boundaries and think about how my instructional practice, as well as assessment strategies, impact overall student success and engagement," she says. "The students responded enthusiastically and I can honestly say that it has changed the way I teach."


Designing your own project and job-embedded professional learning while working with like-minded peers was rewarding, Schellenberg says. “It feels like we have taken a giant leap forward as teachers, as learners, and as leaders,” he says. “Sharing what we are doing and helping others has become a normal part of our practice. If anything, teaching was routine before, and now we are always looking for new challenges, new experiences, and new opportunities. In terms of teaching, I have never enjoyed it more. Part of the shift for me has been moving from "maybe" to responding with a "yes" when someone brings an idea forward. I am looking forward to whatever is coming next.”


The team also credits the support of Principal Sheila Hetherington and Vice-Principal Sandy Haliburton with the success of the project.


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TeachOntario Talks Discussion: Using Authentic Media Texts to Engage Students and Improve Learning