Passing Time

You won’t be getting any lesson plans or teaching stories out of me for a while, because my husband and I were blessed with a beautiful baby boy in February. My life has changed from taking attendance and searching out innovative ways to teach Shakespeare to tallying wet diapers and searching out innovative ways to get a baby to sleep.

I have been responsible for young lives before, but not like this. Never one whole life for one whole lifetime. So it’s been an adjustment. In a card from a friend, she shared age old words of wisdom with me to help me get through the adjustment and the challenges that come with it – “this too shall pass.” I had heard this phrase before, and had been clinging to it in the days following his birth. When his cries of hunger, boredom, and sleepiness were indistinguishable to me, making me feel helpless and inadequate, I whispered, “this too shall pass”. When he hit a growth spurt and was eating every hour, making it a challenge for me to shower daily or even eat regularly, I mumbled to myself, “this too shall pass”. When he was up every night crying until one in the morning, I said with assurance to him, “this too shall pass”. When he refuses a soother he was happily sucking the day before, I reminded myself, this too shall pass. When he kicks his feet and flails his arms and screams for no apparent reason, I cry to the Heavens, “this too shall pass!” and I dream of a day I will finish a meal or sleep for more than three consecutive hours.

But there is an ugly side to this truth. When he falls asleep in my arms and his little hand squeezes my finger, I realize with a start – this too shall pass. When he smiles at me simply because I smiled at him…..the little noise he makes before and after a sneeze……when we sit and ‘talk’ to each other……the look of wonder in his eyes as he discovers the ceiling fan, a blanket, his hands…….when his chin quivers as he coos. This all shall pass. My heart is stricken with joy and grief as each new stage passes by. And suddenly, the cries in the night do not jar me as much. When he wakes up immediately after I put him down, I am not as frustrated as I once was. The memory of his smile tempers his cry, with the bittersweet knowledge that it is all passing much quicker then I could have imagined.

So I don’t rush to put him down and sweep the floor or do the dishes anymore. I let the laundry pile up. I let the dust gather and the meals stay last minute. Because our little boy is learning to roll over , and this too shall pass.

Novel Study

I have had three students in the last two days finish their novel for Grade 9 English and tell me it’s the first one they’ve ever read. I cannot express to you the look in these students’ eyes: they feel proud, and smart, and successful.

There is one very powerful variable at play in this situation: student choice. The students are allowed to choose their own novel. This is our second time through doing a Grade 9 novel study like this: last year, my English co-teacher and I took the students to Chapters and they were allowed to select a novel. We purchased the novels with some funding we had applied for, and those novels ended up in our school library when students were done reading them. This year, we weren’t able to take students to Chapters again, but we brought them up to the library to do the same novel selection process. Our criteria was that it needed to be fiction, or if non-fiction, then an autobiography or biography. The way the unit is structured, students need to read something with a plot. So there is a restriction there, but most students select fiction or biography anyways.

Before selecting novels, I talked about time frame with students and ensured they knew they needed to select something they could read in five weeks. I also briefly explained to them the fact that they would be selecting their own end mark, and completing tasks to a mastery level to receive that mark. We then went up to the library where our librarian-extraordinaire had pulled some titles off the shelves and grouped them by theme, doing a quick book talk on some of the more popular titles. Students then selected what they wanted to read and started to read it.

The next day, I rolled out the specifics of the assignment. First, text coding.

Text Coding bookmark

I have done text coding many times over the past few years, and in my opinion, it kicks comprehension-question’s butt. I explain to students that they already do some of these things as they read, and what they don’t yet do as they read will improve their reading skills if they start to do it. Text coding forces students to interact deeply with a text, to create a map of their thoughts as they read, and allows them the ability to go back and remember parts of the text. If I could let them write directly into the books, I would, but the aforementioned librarian-extraordinaire would probably take issue with that, so we use sticky notes. Some students prefer to do their text coding on lined paper or in a notebook, and that works too. Yes, sometimes students end up drawing flip book drawings or making “kick me” signs with the provided sticky notes, but they get it out of their system fairly quickly. Especially when I begin to ration their sticky notes.

After a day or two of reading and practicing text coding, I lay this handout on them:

ela 9 novel study contract

The concept is not new to them, as I had explained the idea of the contract before, but I wanted to make sure students had selected novels they were interested in and could read in the time frame, and that they got a good start on the text coding.

To review: students select their own novel, percentage they want to attain, and projects they want to do to attain that mark. Does that mean every student does great in this unit? No. Some of them don’t finish their novel. Some of them don’t finish their projects. Some of them get their mark reduced for “Incomplete” projects or projects that need revision. It’s not a perfect system. But the students who are strong readers and would have done well on a more ‘traditional’ novel study still do well, and are often challenged. And so far this year, three students who have never read a novel read one. And I count that as a success.


I’ve been working through an issue for a little while now: late marks. Let me walk  you through my journey.

Semester one, last year. I, like most teachers, started off the semester with an overview of policies and procedures, including that on assignments handed in late. I had a late policy in my internship, as did my co-op, and most teachers I’ve talked to have one. Some are 5% a day, some are 10% a day, some won’t allow late assignments to score higher than 50%, so on and so forth. I don’t remember exactly what my penalty was, but it was something like a few marks for each day an assignment was late.  I ran into a few problems fairly quickly, the most troubling being that of inaccuracies – sometimes, I didn’t know how many days late an assignment was, due to a variety of factors, so it seemed like I was arbitrarily reducing their mark. What about when an assignment was late but the student told me it was due to family issues, or sports games? How did I know the other students with late assignments weren’t struggling with similar issues but just didn’t tell me? How did I know some of the students weren’t just using reasons like that as an excuse? Half-way through the semester, I gave up out of sheer frustration.

The next semester, I started really thinking about late marks. I had taken for granted that it was just something that teachers do – I feel it’s expected of teachers both within the profession and outside of the profession to teach the students about deadlines and due dates. But here’s what it really comes down to – is that my job? When I look at my particular curriculum, I don’t see any outcomes or indicators that outline anything about students being able to submit work on time. Other English teachers and I can dicker about AR9.1 and how it possibly has a place there, as it has students looking at their own personal strengths and needs in regards to the English strands and their contribution to a community of learners, which one could argue in certain cases involves being prepared, but that’s a mighty stretch and would not apply to every single assignment. So I’m thinking now that  for me to give a student a 4/10 instead of a 10/10 because of late marks is  malpractice*, because what I should be assessing and evaluating is their achievement of the outcome/indicator, and a mark of 4/10 does not reflect their ability in regards to that outcome/indicator, but rather their ability to hand things in on time. And if that ability is affected by a Learning Disability, the student needing extra time to complete assignments because they are slower processor or ‘outputter’, home or family issues, or other factors, then that 4/10 is a reflection of something entirely different than the outcome/indicator I am being employed to assess.

Now, for those of you who just heard me say “teaching students responsibility isn’t my job”, I would like to be clear on that topic, as I believe it is a part of my job. But for the reasons outlined above, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will end up reflected in assignments – in fact, most of the time a late penalty policy ends up doing the exact opposite; the more time that passes, the less motivated a student is to complete the assignment. And they are right. You would think that a student would reason, “I had better get this assignment done today or it will be worth even less tomorrow!” But what happens more often than not is the student reasons, “This assignment is only worth X% so it’s not worth doing anymore.” The thing about late penalties is that their whole reason for existing is to motivate students to hand assignments in on time, but it has been my experience that they don’t do that at all. So that is the second flaw of late penalties – they don’t actually do what they are meant to do.

So what do we do for late assignments? Well, I’ve been doing nothing in the way of reducing their mark. And you know what? Compared to when I did, I have the same average number of students handing things in late. I still have due dates, and I still hound students who don’t hand things in on those due dates. If students don’t hand something in on time, I inquire as to why they have not. For my Grade 9 students, I escort them to the homework room at lunch to get done assignments. I call parents and I email them with assignments attached. And if/when that assignment is handed in, I evaluate it based on what it is and not on when it was handed in to me. The fact that a student is chronically late with assignments is something that will show up in student comments rather than their mark. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system, but it’s working so far.

For those of you about to protest, with the outcry of, “That’s not fair! You’re not rewarding students for handing things in on time and punishing those who don’t! How is that going to prepare them for real life?” My responses are threefold.

1.The “real life” we warn them about often does not exist. You aren’t going to get fired if you show up late for work once, and with some jobs, even if you show up late all the time. There are plenty of times in my own job that I’ve been late with a deadline and been met with grace rather than punishment. I’ve even been “past due” on paying some bills, without any penalty other than “great, now I have to pay two month’s worth of this bill this month.”

2. “Real life” will teach its own lessons in a way that I never can in high school. Go ahead, pay your credit card bill late, and you will have to incur the financial penalty. Lesson learned. Show up to a meeting late, and your boss may have words with you. Or, show up to work late all the time, and you may get fired. Lesson learned. A situation like this happening once will teach a student infinitely more than my late penalties ever will.

3. If I really wanted to prepare students for “real life”, I would sometimes have a late penalty, sometimes not, and sometimes reduce assignments at random. I would enforce very strict and unwavering deadlines for certain assignments, while allowing for re-submission on others. I would penalize students for the most minor of mistakes on certain assignments, and allow for gross error on others. I would do all this to teach students “life ain’t fair, get used to it.”

My point is that there are situations in life where you really can’t be late, but I believe that students will learn those situations and adjust accordingly. My silly 5% reduction will NEVER hit the students as hard as a 5% interest fee will.

I welcome your thoughts, criticisms, and feedback. Submit them before Friday, October 25th. Late comments will be considered 5% less valid for each day late that they are submitted.

(*If you think “malpractice” is a strong word to use here, read “Fix 2” in Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading. I borrowed the term from him.)

Tweets like Shakespeare

Go back and read the title again, but this time, to the tune of “Moves like Jagger.”

My grade 10’s are reading Macbeth. But not in the way you’d think. It’s much cooler then the Macbeth you may remember reading in high school. I mean, look at this guy:


He’s a strong fighter. He’s a ruthless King. He’s power hungry. He is owning that purple dress/cape ensemble. And he’s a little bit crazy.

There’s three versions of the Macbeth graphic novel: original, modern, and quick text. The original is, well, Shakespeare’s original version of the play. The modern text is an updated version, and the quick text is the bare essentials of the story. All three texts have the exact same graphics – the only thing that changes is the speech bubbles.

The students started reading the original version, because I wanted them to at least try it out. After a few scenes, they could switch to the modern text if they were having trouble understanding the original. I didn’t hand out many quick texts: I saved those for students who were really struggling. Most students switched to and stuck with the modern text. A few of them thought the original was easy to understand, so they stuck with that. And surprising to me, a few students requested the original play in its full text, rather than the graphic version.

Before reading the play, we discussed the idea of control, and I presented them with the provocative statement (more on that in a later post), “You have no control.” In small groups, students brainstormed all of the things they have no control of. Answers included: disease, weather, parents, curfew, friends, leg hair, acne, the sun, the moon, assignments at school, work hours, blood type, and itches. We discussed this a bit, had some laughs, and talked about the conceptions of ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’, and who controls ours. I would have liked to branch the discussion into topics like ‘who controls society?’, ‘how do we give up control?’, and ‘how do power and control relate to one another?’ – but the bell rang.

The next day, we reviewed our previous discussion, and I gave them a handout that listed different statements that touch on themes of Macbeth, and they wrote whether they agreed or disagreed – things like “women are more frail and delicate than men”, “people who say they know the future are fake”, “the saying ‘what goes around comes around’ is true”, and “sometimes good people do bad things”. When they finished, we went through them and shared our answers, discussing our reasons why we agreed or disagreed. I announced to students that I was going to hand out the Macbeth texts, and they all groaned. Imagine their surprise, and my joy, when I pulled out the graphic novels. It is truly a satisfying moment when a 15 year old boy gives a small nod and smile at a text, declaring, “This doesn’t look so bad.”

A word to those of you who are experiencing heart palpitations because I did not force students to read and analyze Shakespeare’s original play, including matching quotes to characters who said them and notes and lectures on the lines ‘unsex me here’: Do you want students to be able to translate lines and regurgitate quotes, or do you want them to actually like the play? You see, I think we’ve been teaching it backwards. We force all students to do an in depth study of the play in its original form, hoping some end up liking it. And some do. But most walk away with a bitter taste in their mouth, missing the beauty and lessons of the play because they were too busy hating it. What if we taught the play in a variety of forms – parallel texts, graphic novels – focusing on the themes and lessons of the play rather than the language? From my experience, most end up liking it. And some of them are able to translate lines and regurgitate quotes. And guess what – it’s the same handful of students in both scenarios who are able to read, translate, understand, and enjoy Shakespeare. So try out some other text forms.  It’s a beautiful thing to see students who declared they HATED Shakespeare say,  “Woah, did you get to scene 3 yet?” and “Check this out!”. And yes, I did still call attention to the most famous lines of the play, including ‘unsex me here.’

Students mostly read on their own, and at the end of each Act of the play, they completed this sheet:


We did the first one together, but after that students worked at their own pace. The summary  and themes/evidence sections are pretty self explanatory. I’m sure I don’t need to clarify this to you, but I sure did need to clarify for the students that the ‘character snapshot’ section is not for them to draw the character, but to describe him/her. The bubble with the Facebook ‘like’ thumb is for them to write something they liked about the Act. For the tweet box, I told them to pretend they were Shakespeare and had just finished writing the Act: What would he Tweet? I think this was my favorite box.

photo 4 photo 3 photo 2photo 5

I recently attended and presented at the IT Summit in Saskatoon, with some wonderful colleagues. You NEED to see the presentation. We talked about digital citizenship, BYOD, Skype in the classroom, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Glogster, Xtranormal, Animoto, and so much more! I know that I will be pulling resources from this until the end of the school year. Which is approaching at an alarming rate.




Is it still cheating if I don’t get caught?

That’s the question we sought to answer in Grade 10 English. We read a book, of that title, by Bruce Weinstein. He’s the ethics guy. No really. That’s his registered trademark. Check him out.

The first 30 pages or so of the book is Bruce explaining ethics, myths of ethics, and his own 5 “Life Principles.” I really enjoyed teaching this mini-unit on ethics, because it’s a topic that I’ve previously shied away from, for one big reason. Ethics and morality are deeply personal. Of course we have a common standard of ethics, but beyond those, what we believe is right and wrong – and why – is varied from one person to the next. If all teachers began teaching their own personal set of beliefs, students would be confused and teachers might be upset with each other, not to mention parents wondering why their child was coming home with a certain idea that may differ from what was being taught in the home. However, we also don’t want to go the other way and have a classroom devoid of any ethical teaching, and in a lot of ways, it’s impossible NOT to teach your own set of values in some way. The key is balance. And the ironic thing about it is that the best way to find balance is to explicitly teach ethics. When you teach it directly, students learn how to recognize society’s ethics,  what shapes and influences those ethics, and how they are learning and developing their own moral code of ethics.

We read the first 30ish pages together, discussing the author’s ideas and where students agreed and disagreed with him. The rest of the book are questions that teens have asked, and Bruce giving his answer according to the 5 Life Principles he explained at the start of the book. It seemed to me that it was a great time for a contract, as some of the students were really passionate about the topic and had a lot to express, while others just wanted to know what they had to do to pass. I’ve only done a contract based project once, as a novel study, and was pleased with the results, so thought I’d try it on a smaller scale.

Ethics Project Contract

Is It Still Cheating_ reading journal

I’ve already made a few tweaks and changes, as one of the difficult things in a contract based project is to ensure there is balance between the tasks for each percentage (and ensuring there aren’t any loopholes of ‘shoot for a 90 and do half the work and still get a 60 but it was less work than a 60’). If you’re wondering what the “Answer 2 ethical questions” task is: I had students write down two ethical questions. We put them in a bucket and then to complete that task, students drew two questions and answered them. My favourite question was, “Is stealing a peanut from Safeway wrong?”, because students would read it and laugh, and then I’d say “Well, is it stealing?”, and they’d say, “No”, and I’d say, “Iiiiissss iiiiitttt?” and give them a really high-eyebrowed look, and they’d look at the question again and say, “Noooooo?”, and I’d say, “What if I stole a whole bag of peanuts, is that stealing?”, and they’d say, “Yea”, and I’d say, “Well isn’t stealing just stealing?”, and I’d tilt my head with just one eyebrow up and back away to leave them think about it. I literally did that to like eight students. It wasn’t so much about them agreeing with me as it was to get them to think with their critical ethics hats as opposed to their whimsical peanut thieving hats.


Digital Story: Growth

I made a digital story! It still needs some editing, but I’ll have to wait for some time off work to fine tune it. Click below to see the animation. It’s inspired by a picture I took on the way home from Estevan (see Bits and Bites).

It’s called “Growth”


Message in a Bottle

Did you watch Lost? The show had a lot in common with teaching.

You find yourself thrown on an island. You feel disoriented, confused, and overwhelmed. You go into survival mode – what do I need to do to at a bare minimum to keep my heart beating and my lungs breathing?

Then you notice them. The others. They are a mysterious bunch, and they now must be included in the survival plan. You aren’t sure if they are friends or foes. Some of them are still trying to figure that out. But it becomes quickly apparent that you need to work together to survive. What do they know about survival that they can teach me? What do I know that I can teach them? You learn more about each other, and as time passes, things settle down. Life on the island begins to make more sense. You learn how to build a fire. You learn where to find food and how to build a basic shelter.  (And, unlike Lost, there are no polar bears, time travel, cryptic numbers, or button that makes the world go round.)

You survive.

And that’s the problem. Teachers spend the first year or two of teaching in “survival mode”, and unfortunately, some get stuck there. They continue to teach as though they are on an island, isolated from other teachers, working hard to do their job as best they can, reinventing the wheel every semester. It’s tiring. It’s discouraging. There’s no one to bounce ideas off, no one to borrow things from, no one to tell you you’re doing a good job, no one to share your frustrations with, no one to problem solve with. Some teachers left on the island too long become bitter, disfigured memories of a teacher who was once optimistic and eager to teach. Now they just throw coconuts at you if you try to show them a way off the island. (I think they’re resentful of all the time they spent alone, and intimidated by a world they were cut off from for so long).

Sharing with our colleagues is critical. Without sharing, we risk becoming overworked, lonely, irrelevant, bitter, or coconut-flingers. And the great thing about teaching nowadays is that you don’t have to eat lunch in the staff room and hope you find a colleague to connect with (although that’s good too). You can connect and share using Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or any number of other sites, or take part in learning experiences like #etmooc. (For anyone who might be feeling overwhelmed or uncertain of where to start, here’s a helpful infographic.)

So, with sharing in mind, here are some reflections from the “Sharing is Accountability” #etmooc session tonight:
just because I shared it doesn’t mean I’ll think like that forever.  Allow people freedom to change their mind and message.
lather before you shave. It’s an old lesson, but a good one. If you have constructive criticism to share, it sure doesn’t hurt to point out what was done well first. We do it for our students, so why wouldn’t we do it for each other?
– filter. There is a lot of information out there, and there is no shame in filtering it. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t do everything, feel guilty if you don’t do anything” – Shareski
– comment. Sharing can be a vulnerable experience, so it’s nice to know there’s someone out there. And comments can start conversations that lead to connections and more sharing.
– we are on the same team! – so stop throwing coconuts.


I’m taking part in a massive online open course on educational technology:

This is my introduction:


Lead a Horse

In the realm of School, in the land of English, there stands a group of horses. They have been assembled by the Head Horse Herder to be led through this land of English, by one who has traveled it much. They are a diverse group, ranging in size, colour, shape, and running speed. As the sun breaks over the horizon, the Horse Herder sweeps her hand across the land and explains that this will be their domain for the day. It is a barren land, with cacti and bramble bushes and thistles, but there are throughout the land Pools of Knowledge. It is these pools the horses must visit with the Herder, so they can gain knowledge of the land and make it through the harsh terrain alive. “Some pools,” explains the Herder, “I will lead you to. Some pools, you will discover on your own. But you must surely drink of the Pools of Knowledge, or our time in this land will be wasted, and you will not make it to the end.” She explains the rules in the land of English, how they will start out as a pack and learn about how to drink from the Pools of Knowledge, how they must never splash each other, and that the land was tough and unsympathetic, but together, they would make it through. “And the most important thing for you to know about this land,” she went on with a heavy voice, “is that I can lead you to these pools, but only you can decide to drink of them.”

Things started out well. They followed the Herder to the first pool. They listened to her instructions and most horses followed them. Some of the horses were already showing rebellion, though, because they jumped and splashed in the pool when they should not have. The Herder went over to one such horse and explained why the rules were in place: “I have led many horses through this land, and I have seen horses who did not make it. You must follow my instructions to survive the day. My rules and teachings are for your good, because I know what it takes to make it through this land.” The horse nodded its head and ambled off to join the others drinking from the Pool. The Herder smiled and a mist filled her eyes, and she knew that the “Horse Whisperer” training had served her well. She watched as the herd drank, albeit tentatively, from the first Pool of Knowledge. She could see that some of them were used to drinking from Pools, and some were not. She noticed that some horses were very skinny and had clearly missed drinking from some Pools of Knowledge in other lands, while others were strong and well nourished. She knew it would be a challenge to lead these horses through the land, but she was prepared and excited for the challenge.

Some of the visits to the Pools of Knowledge went very well, while others did not. She talked to many more horses about the rules and about the importance of drinking from the Pools of Knowledge. “Your survival in this land depends on it!” she would say with fervor.  She learned new things, too, as some of the horses had different ways of drinking. Some of the horses didn’t know how to drink, and she took a lot of time and energy teaching them how. She noticed that some of the horses weren’t coming to the Pools of Knowledge. Some of them were running around playing, while others were just standing in the distance. She always made the trek to talk to these horses and herd them to the Pools, but as time wore on, she grew weary of her journeys to meet these horses, especially because some of them whinnied and neighed at her quite loudly. But she did not give up. She had met horses like this before, and knew that sometimes, with the right amount of patience and correction, these horses would come to the Pools and drink. And some did. But some ran and played no matter what she said. She tried to herd them still, but hoped that some day they would realize their own need to drink from the Pools and join the herd.

Some of the horses ran away and the Herder could not find them. She grieved this deeply, and searched for them every chance she got.

By noon, the hot sun hung high in the sky and the horses – and Herder – were feeling worn down. The horses grew restless of visiting the Pools. They wanted to run and play and chase each other, and the Herder would sometimes let them, but she knew that they had a long journey and they needed to stop at the Pools, or they would not survive.

There was one horse in particular the Herder was worried about. This horse came near all the Pools of Knowledge, but did not drink. Pool after pool, the Herder watched the horse; it did not drink. Was the horse scared to drink? Did it not know how? Did it already drink from this Pool? The Herder prompted and persuaded the horse closer to the Pool. She gently pushed its head nearer to the  Pool, until its lips touched the cool waters, thinking that if it felt the water it would realize its own thirst and drink. It did not. She took some water in her hand and held it up to the horse. It did not drink. She threw the water onto the horse’s lips. It did not even lick them. She grew frustrated with the horse. She got out her “Horse Whisperer” training manual and read about similar situations. She wrote letters to the Head Horse Herder and asked for suggestions. She consulted other Herders who had led this horse through their lands. She tried everything they suggested.  She got out her canteen and filled it with water from the Pool, pried the horse’s mouth open, and poured the water in. It did not swallow. She filled four buckets with water and put the horse’s feet in them, holding one up to its mouth. It did not drink. She brought another horse near it, letting it watch that horse drink. It did not drink. Out of sheer frustration and defeat, she jumped in the pool and splashed the horse, yelling, “Do you not know your own thirst?” It did not drink.

The Herder continued to lead the horses to the Pools of Knowledge. As the sun ambled slowly down from its peak in the sky, the horses ran throughout the land, selecting Pools to drink from. The Herder smiled; then the horse that would not drink came into her sight, and her smile faded. With desperation, the Herder went to the horse that would not drink and dragged it to a Pool. She went through the familiar routine they went through at every Pool. It did not drink. She sat down, defeated. Her “Horse Whisperer” manual fell out of her bag as she sat. She felt like a fraud, and threw the manual at a cactus in the distance.

As the sun slipped slowly into the horizon and the last light began to fade, the horse that would not drink looked at the sky. It furrowed its brow. It looked at the other horses drinking their last Pool to its dregs. It looked at the Herder and said,

“Hey, is there a way I can, like, quench this thirst of mine?”

The Herder passed out.