Monthly Archives: March 2014

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John Harris’s ‘Inside the A* Factory’

Viv Ellis

A feature in the Guardian on the 15th March, by left-wing journalist John Harris, aroused a good deal of interest among teachers (still going if last Saturday’s letters page is anything to go by). But ‘Inside the A* Factory’ received little coverage elsewhere in the media and the underlying issues (teacher workload, teacher morale and the factory model of schooling) also continue to be ignored by the press and broadcasters. There is a national teacher strike this coming week and a lay reader would be hard-pressed to know it was happening let alone why it was happening.

The article was essentially a collection of stories of different teachers’ experiences of working in schools over the last 20 years or so. The age of the teachers reflected that but the majority of Harris’s sample seemed to be 30 or under and talking about the last five or six years.  The picture…

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Assessing Multimodal Projects

You may remember, in a former post on Mar. 21, 2014, I (Cathy) shared some of my pre-service students’ multimodal projects.  The dilemma facing me after these wonderful creations were submitted, was how to assess them.  As these were only part of a larger assignment, I already had a rubric in place for whole project, but after seeing the brilliance of the multimodal aspect, I felt these alone warranted more thought and introspection on my part.  Having a background in the arts, I was used to assessing creative process and final product, but this was different.  Although artistic and expressive, this wasn’t “art”.  Hence, I looked up a number of sources on assessing multimodal work and discovered a few different opinions.

Kalantzis, Cope & Harvey (2003) argued that a multimodal assessment needs to measure the creative process and the collaborative skills demonstrated.   Jacobs(2013) suggested it wasn’t about the final product, but “watching and noticing what students are doing and then using that information to guide the students toward new skills and knowledge”.  In the end I sought out the opinion of Gunther Kress, the founder of the Multimodalities Theory.  Kress (2003) explained that representation and communication were an affective/cognitive semiotic process and this must be taken into account in the assessment. He suggested that I, as the teacher [educator] should not ask “How does this project match what I wanted or expected?”, but instead should ask, “How does this project give me insight into the interests and motivations of my learner?”  I found this question quite insightful. In the end, I used Kress’ question to guide my feedback, which will hopefully guide the students toward new insights and knowledge.  The required ‘grade’ was based on a combination of the learners’ expressed interests from within the context of the whole project (which was on diversity), the creative process and the collaborative nature of the work.

Through this process I discovered that assessing in the new age of multimodality demands mindfulness, insight and the ability to make many connections.  To be effective, it also requires that the teacher educator, or teacher, know his/her students well.  This type of assessment takes time, but it is much more meaningful. I have to admit, as much as the students loved doing these multimodal projects, I loved assessing them in this “new” way.  We all got more out of the process.  Below is a link to one more student project expressed as POW TOON digital creation.  How would you assess it?


Strategies for Maintaining Motivation and Satisfaction as a Teacher (and Teacher Educator)

Teaching is challenging. As David Labaree (2004) says:

“[T]eaching is an extraordinarily difficult form of professional practice. It is grounded in the necessity of motivating cognitive, moral, and behavioral change in a group of involuntary and frequently resistant clients.” (pp. 55-56)

In our study of teachers, we (Clive and Clare) have been struck BOTH by the many challenges the teachers face AND how well they maintain their morale despite the challenges. Of the original cohort of 22 who began in 2004, none have quit teaching (though 2 have left the study) and none have experienced a substantial, permanent decline in motivation, though they have their ups and downs. When in 2012 we asked them explicitly about their motivation over the years, their responses were as follows:

     Average Motivation of Cohort 1 (18 interviewed) Over Their First Eight Years (Scale 1-5)

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6 Year 7 Year 8
4.7 4.4 4.4 4.4 4.1 3.8 3.8 4.2

 Interestingly, their highest motivation was in year 1. Though they were stressed and exhausted, they were excited to be doing what they had dreamed of for so long.

As for the strategies they used to keep up their morale, we noted the following:

  • Acknowledging the inherent challenges and limits of teaching – “it’s not just you”
  • Taking a broad approach to teaching, so it’s more social, meaningful, enjoyable
  • Becoming more skilled and effective as a teacher
  • Maintaining a work-life balance: having a life beyond teaching
  • Remembering why you became a teacher in the first place (see quotes below)

“Teaching is getting harder, and I’ve changed in that I would no longer recommend it to everyone…. However, I like it because I’m a doer, I enjoy being creative, and I like being challenged.” (Felicity, year 7)

“I’m happy to go to school [because] you just never know what’s going to happen; it’s always a new day.” (Jody, year 8)

“When things were going in a wrong direction [recently] with my school administration and in the school district, it brought me back to why I was there, why I wanted to be a teacher: working with the kids, dealing with their issues, getting down to the fundamentals of teaching them.” (John, year 8)

Great strategies! Good for teachers – and teacher educators too!

Teaching Social Justice Through Action


Last week at the 22nd Annual Labour Fair my (Pooja) class attended several sessions, but one profoundly affected us all. Activist Chris Ramsaroop from Justice 4 Migrant Workers (J4MW) came in and spoke to us about issues migrant workers in Canada face such as a lack of health benefits, sub-par living conditions, and low hourly wages. For many, this was the first they had heard about migrant workers in Canada. And so, many were surprised to learn some of the unsettling history around migrant workers and human rights violations.

To deepen our awareness on the issue, the following day we watched Min Sook Lee’s documentary “El Contrato.” This heart-wrenching documentary gave faces and narratives to the cases Ramsaroop spoke about the previous day. Students were deeply moved by the documentary, asking after:“What can we do?”; “How can we show we care?”

Wanting to take action, a moved student looked through the J4MW website and found there was something we can do: The J4MW group is looking for court support on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (today) regarding migrant workers access to healthcare. To demonstrate support and solidarity, the J4MW wants to fill up the open court at Osgoode Hall to send a message. My class, along with two other sections eager to attend, will be in attendance at the court today.

I have deviated from my curriculum to make room for this issue my students (and I) have come to care so passionately about. I’ve seen students utilize an extensive range of literacies over just one week: they have organized themselves into groups to get to Osgoode Hall and back; they have conducted research on previous cases related to migrant workers’ access to healthcare in Ontario; and they have critically thought and discussed what it means to buy “local” produce in Ontario.

To learn more about the provincial court hearing today at Osgoode Hall, check out the link below:

If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch “El Contrato,” I  highly recommend watching it. Below is a synopsis and link to the documentary:

This documentary from Min Sook Lee (Tiger Spirit) follows a poverty-stricken father from Central Mexico, along with several of his countrymen, as they make their annual migration to southern Ontario to pick tomatoes. For 8 months a year, the town’s population absorbs 4,000 migrant workers who toil under conditions, and for wages, that no local would accept. Yet despite a fear of repercussions, the workers voice their desire for dignity and respect.a poverty-stricken father from Central Mexico, along with several of his countrymen, as they make their annual migration to southern Ontario to pick tomatoes. For 8 months a year, the town’s population absorbs 4,000 migrant workers who toil under conditions, and for wages, that no local would accept. Yet despite a fear of repercussions, the workers voice their desire for dignity and respect.

The Power of Children’s Literature and its Omissions

While I (Yiola) knew there was a lack of representation of  “people of colour” in children’s literature, I was surprised to read the statistics. The chart below shows the number of books published last year and the number written ‘by’ and ‘about’ the different groups defined as ‘people of colour’.


Total Number
of Books
Published (Est.)

Number of Books

African / 
African Americans

American Indians

Asian Pacifics/
Asian Pacific Americans
























Two fantastic articles in the New York Times last week prompted me to write this blog:

The articles share the stark realities and implications of the statistics represented above from the experiences of African American men, writers themselves. Reading the articles echo and confirm what I believe to be the realities and consequences of our publishing marketplace.  And yet, what to do about it?

The other day I was speaking to a high school educator (a behavior specialist, child and youth worker) who shared stories with me about boys in her school who are misbehaving, who are rude and disrespectful.  I shared with her the ideas that their behaviours must stem from something much bigger than an attitude problem… that they may feel oppressed, misrepresented or not represented at all by the school and broader society.  I do not think she was buying my argument.

My role as a teacher educator is to inform future teachers of the realities of teaching, learning and schooling.  Part of that role includes understanding how systems work for and against particular groups and individual students. One concrete area for exploring such systems is children’s literature.

Christoper Myers, author of “The apartheid of children’s literature”, describes books as maps to identity and ways of being:

[Children] see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

The consequences of excluding certain groups:

what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost.

Alternatively, Walter Dean Myers, author of the second article, explains what happened to him when he connected to a text: 

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

And so, how do we as teacher educators empower teachers so they empower students to realize the flawed systems we live in but and to move beyond them to ensure each child can navigate and negotiate their personalized, broad, rich landscape of possibilities?  I suggest: we ourselves develop a critical stance and what Noddings calls a culture of care; we are explicit about the realities of the systems we currently work in; and we work hard to search out texts and materials that share rich stories of all of our students and beyond.  More so, I suggest we move to change the marketplace by publishing texts that begin to close the gaps in representation in children’s literature.

What Can I Do With a PhD?: Opening Doors to Rewarding Careers

With continued cutbacks at universities, it is becoming more and more difficult for newly graduated students to secure an academic position at a university. Is a career as an academic the only/best choice? A new report  suggests  a PhD can open many doors and during doctoral studies candidates should be exploring many option and acquiring a range of skills. The League of European Research Universities published an “advice paper” on Good Practice Elements in Doctoral Training.

Some of the key findings of the report are:
·      PhDs are increasingly drivers of their own professional development; and the training model in which the PhD candidate is heavily dependent on one supervisor is no longer robust.
·      over and over again it demonstrates that some of the most research-intensive universities in Europe are prioritising transferable skills, which are now being built into training programmes for doctoral candidates and, most frequently it seems, as elective course options and often in collaboration with other organisations.
·      the introduction presents 29 such transferable competencies like ‘working in teams’, ‘persisting in achieving long-term goals’ and ‘understanding the working of a specific high-level research-intensive environment’.

As a doctoral supervisor, one of the first things I (Clare) want to know from my students is what do they want to do when they complete their doctorate. I want them to be honest  which is often difficult because the prevailing norm in universities is that doctoral candidates should want to be academics. Some of my former doctoral students did not want to be academics but were nervous to reveal their intentions. If I am going to support my students fully I want to know what they hope the doctoral studies will lead to. I can  report some of my students who did not want to be academics are happily employed in a range of positions:  research officer in a school district, classroom teacher, and psycho-educational consultant. During their doctoral studies I tried ensure they are set-up to get  a particular position (e.g., present at specific types of conferences). A PhD in education should open many doors. It is important for us as supervisors to know there are many doors all of which can lead to a fruitful career.


Multimodal Literacy

My (Cathy) pre-service students were assigned a multimodal aspect to a major assignment this year.  If you are not familiar with the Theory of Multimodality, it is Gunther Kress’ alternative to Linguistic Theory (which only privileges reading and writing as the main modes of communication in a school curriculum).  The Multimodal Theory contests that in our new age of multiple literacies, students need to be communicating, responding and expressing through many different modes of communication (e.g. speaking, music, moving, gesturing, image, and digital technology).

When I first introduced the multimodal assignment to my students, there was some trepidation and even some anger.  It was suggested I did not have the right to be marking them on their artistry or on creativity.  Hence, I had to teach the concepts behind Multimodality Theory so they could better understand what we need to be offering students of the 21st century.  They needed to see that it would allow them the freedom to express in modes of their own choosing; that it was not graded as art but as a production of design; and, that the work could be symbolic or interpretive depending on the meaning they were portraying.  The multimodal projects would also be shared in class so all could learn from them.  This project was not just them regurgitating information for me, it was them designing and producing personally meaningful projects that express what they learned and what they deemed significant.

This week we finished viewing the projects.  They were amazing, and the student response to these projects was encouraging.  My students (concurrent students just finishing a five year educational degree) had never been given this kind of an assignment before.  They loved the element of choice; working together; taking a risk; pushing their boundaries; feeling creative; and, doing something they were interested in.  The modes they selected  to express themselves though were sometimes more traditional (dancing, rapping, singing,  writing and reciting  poetry, creating 3D sculptures, puppetry, multi-sensory art installation pieces); sometimes digital (iMovies, pod-casts, prezis, Pow Toons, popplets, infographics);  and, were often a combination of both.

Collectively, we were all blown away by the results.  We were moved.  We were inspired.  My students all said they would definitely use multimodality now as teachers.  Below are a few images of my students presenting their projects:

role play poemfish bowlRAPguitarpuppet photo (13)

Now, I have to assess these designs… but that, dear reader, is for another blog.

What Is Fiction For? Exploring the Uses of Literature with Our Students

Pride and PrejudiceReading the New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, I (Clive) was reminded of the rather negative view of life frequently presented in “good literature.” In books reviewed, life was portrayed as hard to fathom, mainly painful, and ultimately tragic. Of one collection the reviewer said: “These stories know suffering, loneliness, lust, confinement, defeat.” (Lust was the one bright spot.)
This recalled my own education at school and university, where tragic literature was the good kind and comedy was mainly fluff. A “comic” life vision, emphasizing pleasure, happiness, and good relationships, was seen as shallow and naïve.
Certainly, some people find sad and violent books more entertaining than comedies; and a well written tragedy can be absorbing. But as Northrop Frye maintained, literature is supposed to educate as well as entertain. So we have to face the question: How well does tragic fiction educate about life? My view is that it helps, but a more balanced picture is needed.
Based on my own fiction choices, I’m coming to the conclusion that entertainment is a major purpose of fiction. You want something you can enjoy on a plane to offset the cramped conditions and bad food; or that you’re glad to read in the evening when you’re feeling tired. So I usually go for David Lodge, P. D. James, Jane Austen and the like, where there’s plenty of entertainment and a fairly positive worldview.
However, there’s no accounting for taste. The main thing is that we discuss the purpose of various types of fiction with our students, helping them figure out for themselves what to read, when, and why.