Monthly Archives: September 2015

A Beautiful Example of Digital Technology Used to Re-Imagine Literacy

I (Pooja) read a blog post I wanted to share with you all. Lee Bessette, a college instructor, shared an experience of how technology was used as a tool to “re-reading, re-teaching, realizing.” Bissette, while teahcing the works of Thomas King (Indigenous writer), had students use their laptops, smartphones, and tablets to make real-time connections with the text. She explained:

…all of my students have laptops or tablets or smartphones, so instead of me telling them who the actors are and why it matters, I have them use google. And find pictures. And look at the shows and history. And who W.P. Kinsella is and why he is being referenced. And then they can collaboratively annotate the text.

We didn’t come up with any hard answers, but just explored theories, including one reference to the first lines of Paradise Lost that a student found by googling “garden, heaven, seat, Eden.” And many of my students are still struggling with this level of discourse around literature. But, as I told them today in an email (I know, SO OLD SCHOOL OF ME), that these readings that we did today around the setting of the garden were completely new to me, too, even after reading and teaching this story countless times. And that it has taken 20 years of practice to have a DUH moment like that one I had before class about said garden.

But the moment wouldn’t have come if it hadn’t been for the integration of technology in active and productive ways in my classroom practice. I could have the students find and collect the information needed to begin to make meaning in the text and focus on taking that process of meaning-making to the next level. They still don’t believe me when I tell them to “google it” and require them to annotate together, but I think after today we are all finally heading in the right direction.

Bessette demonstrates how all the smart technology brought into class on a daily basis could be used in a truly meaningful way. She used technology to enhance student learning by digging into a text in multimodal ways. By having student collaboratively annotate the text, she had them learn from one another and in turn gain deeper insights. A great model for using digital technology to re-imagine literacy!

Read the whole blog post here:

Guest Post: Monica McGlynn-Stewart: Talking Stickers

Image_TalkingStickersI (Monica) am an advisor to a team of recent MBA graduates from the University of Toronto who are one of six teams in the finals for a $1 million start-up fund for their product. Here is how they describe their work:

The Attollo technology assisted learning concept has been developed for use by parents and children in informal urban settlements in developing countries as part of the 2015 Hult Prize Challenge – which is the world’s largest student-based competition. Talking Stickers involves stickers with embedded bar codes (QR codes) that can be scanned by a device, which in turn is prompted to record and replay user generated audio content or replay pre-recorded audio content stored on the device. This spring and summer we have piloted our device in Toronto in George Brown College’s lab schools, and in Hyderabad, India and Mombasa, Kenya.

Whether these young professionals win the final prize this weekend or not, they are committed to bringing their technology to developing communities in India and Kenya to support the literacy learning of children in low-income communities.

Here is a link to a short video on their recent pilot projects in Kenya and India:

Here is a recent article in The Globe and Mail about the project:

Canadian school in global final for social enterprise prize

The question, on paper, is simply stated: How would you provide quality education by 2020 for 10 million children under the age of 6 living in the world’s urban slums?

Six business school teams from around the world, including one from Canada, think they have an answer to the question posed by organizers of the Hult Prize, a global competition for young social entrepreneurs that drew 22,000 applicants this year.

Next week in New York, at a session of the Clinton Global Initiative, a Hult partner, the winning team will walk off with $1-million (U.S.) and a chance to market a potentially game-changing, socially conscious business idea.

Win or lose, the four-person team of MBA graduates from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management plans to pursue its idea for “talking stickers” – quick response bar codes that activate a low-cost reader enabling children to listen to a recorded voice or to record their own voice to say or sing the words.

For example, with talking stickers, the child (or parent) could use a hand-held device to scan a bar code near, for example, a bright yellow star on the page of a nursery rhyme book to hear Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. By scanning over a differently programmed sticker with a bar code, the child or parent then could record their voices to practice their language skills. The stickers are not just in books; they can be placed on household items, which then become tools for the language development of young children.

Earlier this year, having scrapped their initial idea for the Hult Prize, the members of Team Attollo (Latin for elevator) turned their attention to the literacy challenges faced by young children in impoverished countries. According to Hult Prize organizers, 112 million children up to 6 live in slums without access to schooling while 70 million children, more than half of whom are girls, are prevented from attending school.

“We found that language development and vocabulary is the key issue in early childhood development,” says Jamie Austin, who like teammate Lak Chinta, holds a PhD in neuroscience and earned a Rotman MBA this year. The other team members are engineers Peter Cinat and Aisha Bukhari, who earned their Rotman MBAs in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Over the summer, with advice from early childhood professor Monica McGlynn-Stewart, the team conducted trials in Kenya and India, working with local school officials and families who cannot afford even modest school fees for their children. The early results were promising, with children and their parents adding to their vocabulary.

Meanwhile, with help from Toronto-based Autodesk Research and U of T engineers David Johns and Matt Ratto, the Attollo team developed a low-cost prototype for the hand-held device, with a view to making it affordable ($1.50 a month) to families who earn between $2 and $5 a day. As well, the team is working with local publishers and schools to develop school curriculum content for the stickers.

Over the summer, Hult Prize organizers brought finalists to a boot camp in Boston to make their business idea “investment ready.”

“It was a little bit collaborative and competitive,” says Mr. Austin, of the relationship with the other five teams. “We would talk out the ideas and we saw each other’s presentations every week,” he says, with coaching from academics and industry leaders. “We got tons of feedback from the Hult Prize business experts.”

Mr. Austin and his colleagues are so committed to their venture that, for now, they have quit their day jobs to found Attollo as a social enterprise company.

The other Hult finalists are: ESADE Business School (Spain); the University of Tampa (United States); Oxford University (England); and two from China – Jiao Tong University Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance and National Chengchi University.

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In lab schools, learning in classrooms benefits students and researchers

In lab schools, learning in classrooms benefits students and researcher

In the Globe and Mail, our national newspaper in Canada, David Israelson wrote an article on the Jackman Institute of Education. I (Clare) found it captured the spirit of ICS. It would be great if every child could have an education like ICS.

Six-year-old Sophia Salamon and her nine-year-old sister Anna are being watched.ICS

The Salamon sisters, in Grade 1 and Grade 4, respectively, are part of a bigger learning experience. Their school is the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School, at the University of Toronto, where educators study how children learn by using the school’s classes as living models.

“When we looked up the school, we thought it sounded fantastic,” says Tracy Pryce, Anna and Sophia’s mother and a student at the University of Toronto.

“It’s in line with our educational philosophy. I compare it with my own experience when I went to school. Seeing my kids and what they’re getting from what they’re learning is such a difference from what I feel I had as a child.”

At a laboratory, or lab school, there are almost always visitors in the classroom, says Jackman’s principal Richard Messina. He laughs at the idea of his school’s 200 students being the educational equivalent of lab rats.

“It does conjure up images of mazes and exercise wheels,” he admits, “but our children become quite desensitized to having adults in the room.”

In September, for example, the school, which runs classes from nursery to Grade 6, was visited by a delegation of 24 educators from Kobe, Japan. “We have had 700 and 1,000 visitors per year,” says Principal Messina. “The children just continue with whatever they are working on and they’re used to speaking with adults about learning.”

The concept of a lab school comes from the work of educator and philosopher John Dewey, who set up the first lab school in Chicago in 1896. Prof. Dewey believed that the best way to train teachers was to have them teach and to accumulate new research and knowledge directly from the classroom.

The Jackman lab school, a few blocks from the U of T’s main downtown campus, is one of only a handful of schools of this type in North America.

The best-known lab schools in the United States are at Columbia University in New York and the original at the University of Chicago.

“Just as the physics department or the chemistry department have labs, the education department has a lab,” Mr. Messina says.

Being a lab school fulfills three functions, he adds. It produces research that can be applied to public education, it’s a forum for teachers to further their knowledge, and “we provide exemplary education to the children we are fortunate to have with us.”

“I feel very fortunate that we’re there,” Ms. Pryce says. There are 22 children in each class – half boys, half girls – and the school is committed to diversity.

To help ensure diversity in its enrolment, 13 per cent of the students receive tuition support, Mr. Messina says.

In addition to its teachers, each classroom has two Masters of Education students who are pursuing two years of graduate work while teaching.

“Almost all teachers in the school are involved in research that’s going on in their classroom,” says Julia Murray, a Grade 5-6 teacher at the school who is now on maternity leave and did her Masters at the Institute several years ago.

“The research going on is often cutting edge, and it’s about best practices in education,” she adds.

For example, Mr. Messina says scholars are researching the emerging concept of brain plasticity: “Think of the brain as a muscle that can be developed, metaphorically, so that errors should not be considered embarrassing but a natural and necessary part of learning.”

The Jackman lab school was also one of the major providers of research for developing play-based kindergarten programs and full-day kindergarten, he adds.

Ms. Pryce says she likes the school’s inquiry-based learning approach – encouraging her children’s natural inquisitiveness while maintaining classroom structure.

“There’s a strong philosophy of teaching children to ask questions, not for children to get information but to develop their own theories,” she says.

“It’s a secure environment socially, mentally, intellectually so they develop the confidence to speak out.

“The benefits for my children have really been clear.”

The school has a waiting list that parents sign up for when their children are born, he says. “We seem to draw applications through word of mouth. Many people seem to know about us even though we don’t advertise,” Mr. Messina says. Jackman evaluates its programs to make sure that students are being well educated and finds that they do well as they move toward higher education.

“We hear that our children seamlessly move on to Grade 7 and beyond, that they’re very comfortable with the inquiry process, stating opinions and knowing that these may change,” Mr. Messina says.

Teacher Diversity: Study Reveals a Decline in Teachers of Colour Across the U.S.

The Albert Shanker Institute recently released findings from their study titled: The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education. The examined teacher diversity from 2002 to 2012 in nine major American cities: Boston, Chicago, Clevland, LA, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C.

Findings from the study revealed that the number of teachers of colour has dropped over the past decade across all nine cities. Albert Green from The Atlantic noted “Despite the fact that more students of color will be filling classrooms at increasing increments every school year, it’s a well reported fact that almost 80 percent of their teachers are white—and it doesn’t appear that that will change any time soon.” Green concludes his article asking pertinent questions in attracting and retaining effective teachers of colour. He says:

It is no longer a question of, do we need teachers of color? There is no shortage of data that shows that minority teachers not only help improve the outcomes of ​students who share their background, but also that of academic performance of students of all races are improved. The questions now are: What can be done to curb the high-attrition rates for minority teachers, and will addressing hiring disparities for black and Hispanic teachers do enough to equalize students’ attainment levels?


The Albert Shanker Institute reports outlines a number of recommendations on a local, state, and national level. Some of these recommendations include:

  • To increase the number of highly qualified minority teachers—and particularly Black, Hispanic and American Indian teachers—entering the profession, the U.S. Education Department and the state departments of education should invest in and support high-quality teacher education programs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the nation’s Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) and public colleges and universities serving large numbers of minority students.
  • To ensure that novice teachers are well prepared to enter the classroom and receive the mentoring and support they need to be successful, the U.S. Education Department and the state departments of education should establish incentives for close partnerships between colleges of education, on the one hand, and school districts and charter networks, on the other hand. Particular attention needs to be paid to providing adequate mentoring, support and training in culturally responsive practices to novice teachers—of all races and ethnicities—working in the challenging conditions of high-poverty, de facto racially segregated schools
  • Urban school districts, district schools, charter networks and charter schools should develop close partnerships with colleges of education to ensure that an increased supply of well-qualified Black and Hispanic teachers are prepared to teach in city schools.

The Albert Shanker Institute Study:

The Atlantic Article:

Collaborative practice is the way to go: Growing as a Teacher Educator

Somehow, since the beginning of my teaching career, I have found myself in collaborative teams:

As a classroom teacher, I found amazing ‘teaching partners’. As a doctoral student, I was an apprentice in Clare’s literacy courses where collaborative practice was modelled. As a beginning teacher educator I looked to my mentors and found support through our strong research groups. Now, as a teacher educator I have developed strong partnerships with colleagues and have invited doctoral students to co-instruct my courses. How wonderful it feels to not only be a mentor but to learn from others while modelling good practice.

This year I am working with a doctoral student who has experience in teaching with technology. Not only am I learning a lot about practical use of technology in classrooms, and the theoretical underpinnings, but my students are benefitting from our partnership.  My course has gone from limited technology to a rich and authentic integration of technology. Let me share some examples:

  1. Developing a sense of Social Media/Digital Citizenship: We now have a class Twitter account and hashtag. We are composing tweets as a class, or as individuals which share what we are learning in the course.  This link helps those who do not know how to use twitter (i.e. me) get started:
  2. Improving communication: We now have the class connected with Remind, a communication app that many schools and teachers use to communicate with parents/students.
    1. When we first established this system our students raised the concern about access — what if parents do not have the technology to communicate in this year? What if they do not have the language to do so?  We had thoughtful, critical discussions about access and inclusion
  3. Demonstrating connected learning: My teaching partner is going to blog about the course, as a model for how teachers can do this.  She is walking us through the process of setting up a blog, including asking all the students to sign a permission form as a teacher would ask parents. If not all students sign the form to agree, she will model how to handle this in their future classrooms.
  4. Building our Digital Footprint: We are having students create About.Me or LinkedIn pages so when searched on Google, a professional reference to them, their work, and their values, will appear.  
    1. This experience will link closely to the course content. In our course we explore our Ministry’s Heath curriculum. The curriculum documents looks at teaching children about making good decisions when confronted with online challenges.  We explore how important it is to model good decision making online and to think about ourselves as professionals.
  5. Learning about online tools for teachers: Have one week with a Backchannel discussion tool.
  6. Connecting to a broader community: Our course looks at teaching the Arts. We are going to have a few students volunteer to look for arts integration projects on the crowdfunding site, present them to the class, and then have the class vote on which one we could support. Each person could donate a Loonie, and we could contribute $30 to a classroom in need somewhere near our community, or somewhere in Canada.

I am extremely excited about infusing these elements into my course. I have realized from our beginning classes that it is so much more than the actual doing and integrating of the technology that becomes important. I am learning that the discourses around the infusion is equally, if not more, relevant to developing good pedagogy.  I cannot say enough just how wonderful and beneficial collaborative practice can be.

I will let you know how it all plays out. I am anticipating a heightened program and learning experience for the students and me.

Robertson Program for Inquiry-Based Teaching in Math and Science

This past week I (Clare) met with the Robertson Foundation Program for Inquiry-Based Teaching in Math and Science. The program is housed at the Jackman Institute of Child Studies (JICS) and in short I was blown away with the work they are doing. The team includes: Bev Caswell, Jisoo Seo, Zach Pedersen,  Larissa Lam, Dr. Joan Moss, and Zack Hawes

Here is a short video of Dr. Bev Caswell talking about the program.

The purpose of the Robertson Program is to create, demonstrate, and disseminate ImageFamily-Math-Night-collageinquiry-based teaching models for mathematics and science by focusing on both teacher and student inquiry. The crux of inquiry-based learning is critical thinking- an essential skill for teachers, who strive to deepen students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics and science in authentic ways and for students, who choose to pursue academic and professional careers in the STEM professions (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

One of their initiatives has been a collaboration with “Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) schools and the First Nation communites they serve.  Family Math Nights were designed collaboratively with indigenous instructional leaders, First Nation educational counsellors, school board numeracy facilitators and the Robertson Program/Jackman ICS/OISE team. 

First Nation community members and RRDSB educators developed activities  – such as canoe symmetry, creating tangram clan animals, wigwam construction, exploring number patterns through Metis jigging – that raise awareness of concepts of geometry and measurement embedded in local cultural practices. As well, school board numeracy facitlitators and OISE team offered activities that reflect current research in spatial thinking – a strong predictor of overall math achievement.

This deeply collaborative and respectful approach to planning Family Math nights – designed under the leadership of First Nation communities in collaboration with the school board – highlights a model of success being used across the RRDSB.

Hosting a Family Math Night at your school is an opportunity to build and strengthen positive relationships among home, school and community. Not only that, children of all ages get a chance to see math as an inclusive, playful, engaging and accessible endeavour.”

For more info check out their website:

Metaphors for Teaching Literacy

I (Cathy)  recently asked literacy teacher educators (LTEs) to complete this statement,  “Being a literacy teacher educator in the 21st century is like…”   As a researcher and teacher educator, I was profoundly struck by the power behind their words and the images they selected to represent them.   Before peeking at the three responses  provided below, consider how you might complete the statement.

Being a literacy teacher educator in the 21st century is like…

…“Green Eggs And Ham…it’s not what you expect, it’s a reciprocal journey, and you can’t just try it one way. Nothing tastes better than when you’ve seen them try it, like it, and beg for more!”

green eggs

“a futuristic video game – visually exciting, fast paced, limitless possibilities, not knowing what may be next, all the time wondering if you are going to be able to keep up!!”

.  Tron

…“keeping candles lit on a breezy night. Challenging but possible… delicate but powerful… romantic but necessary… not so much ‘constant work’ as it is diligent work… It requires focus and awareness of the ‘current’”.

 Candle in the wind

The literary representations of these three LTEs displayed a profound sense of excitement, overshadowed by trepidation as they enter an unknown territory, with unproven results.  The uncertainty and vulnerability of their roles were clear.  What do your words and image say about your views of teaching literacy in these fast changing and tumultuous times?


Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves | Edutopia

I (Clare) found this interesting article on Edutopia. I thought it would be of interest to educators especially since it is the beginning of the school year. Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves | Edutopia

Consider using autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance as practical classroom strategies to reinforce the intrinsic motivation students need for making the most of their learning.

Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond by Larry Ferlazzo, available March 21, 2015 from Routledge.

My previous post reviewed research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and described the four qualities that have been identified as critical to helping students motivate themselves: autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance.

In this post, I’ll discuss practical classroom strategies to reinforce each of these four qualities.


Providing students with freedom of choice is one strategy for promoting learner autonomy. Educators commonly view this idea of choice through the lens of organizational and procedural choice. Organizational choice, for example, might mean students having a voice in seating assignments or members of their small learning groups. Procedural choice could include a choice from a list of homework assignments and what form a final project might take — a book, poster, or skit.

Some researchers, however, believe that a third option, cognitive choice, is a more effective way to promote longer-lasting student autonomy. This kind of cognitive autonomy support, which is also related to the idea of ensuring relevance, could include:

  • Problem-based learning, where small groups need to determine their own solutions to teacher-suggested and/or student-solicited issues — ways to organize school lunchtime more effectively, what it would take to have a human colony on Mars, strategies to get more healthy food choices available in the neighborhood, etc.
  • Students developing their own ideas for homework assignments related to what is being studied in class
  • Students publicly sharing their different thinking processes behind solving the same problem or a similar one
  • Teachers using thinking routines like one developed by Project Zero at Harvard and consisting of a simple formula: the teacher regularly asking, “What is going on here?” and, after a student response, continuing with, “What do you see that makes you say so?”


Feedback, done well, is ranked by education researcher John Hattie as number 10 out of 150 influences on student achievement.

As Carol Dweck has found, praising intelligence makes people less willing to risk “their newly-minted genius status,” while praising effort encourages the idea that we primarily learn through our hard work: “Ben, it’s impressive that you wrote two drafts of that essay instead of one, and had your friend review it, too. How do you feel it turned out, and what made you want to put the extra work into it?”

But how do you handle providing critical feedback to students when it’s necessary? Since extensive research shows that a ratio of positive-to-negative feedback of between 3-1 and 5-1 is necessary for healthy learning to occur, teachers might consider a strategy called plussing that is used by Pixar animation studios with great success. The New York Times interviewed author Peter Sims about the concept:

The point, he said, is to “build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language.” . . . An animator working on Toy Story 3 shares her rough sketches and ideas with the director. “Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying ‘no,’ the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, ‘I like Woody’s eyes, and what if his eyes rolled left?” Using words like “and” or “what if” rather than “but” is a way to offer suggestions and allow creative juices to flow without fear, Mr. Sims said.

“And” and “what if” could easily become often-used words in an educator’s vocabulary!


A high-quality relationship with a teacher whom they respect is a key element of helping students develop intrinsic motivation. What are some actions that teachers can take to strengthen these relationships?

Here are four simple suggestions adapted from Robert Marzano’s ideas:

1. Take a genuine interest in your students.

Learn their interests, hopes, and dreams. Ask them about what is happening in their lives. In other words, lead with your ears and not your mouth. Don’t, however, just make it a one-way street — share some of your own stories, too.

2. Act friendly in other ways.

Smile, joke, and sometimes make a light, supportive touch on a student’s shoulder.

3. Be flexible, and keep our eyes on the learning goal prize.

One of my students had never written an essay in his school career. He was intent on maintaining that record during an assignment of writing a persuasive essay about what students thought was the worst natural disaster. Because I knew two of his passions were football and video games, I told him that as long as he used the writing techniques we’d studied, he could write an essay on why his favorite football team was better than its rival or on why he particularly liked one video game. He ended up writing an essay on both topics.

4. Don’t give up on students.

Be positive (as much as humanly possible) and encourage a growth mindset.


Have students write about how they see what they are learning as relevant to their lives. Researchers had students write one paragraph after a lesson sharing how they thought what they had learned would be useful to their lives. Writing 1-8 of these during a semester led to positive learning gains, especially for those students who had previously been “low performers.”

It is not uncommon for teachers to explicitly make those kinds of real-life connections. However, research has also found that this kind of teacher-centered approach can actually be de-motivating to some students with low skills. A student who is having a very difficult time understanding math or does just not find it interesting, for example, can feel threatened by hearing regularly from a teacher how important math is to his or her future. Instead of becoming more engaged in class, he or she may experience more negative feelings. These same researchers write:

[A] more effective approach would be to encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of course material to their lives. This method gives students the opportunity to make connections to topics and areas of greatest interest to their lives.

What other strategies do you use in the classroom to reinforce any of these four critical elements of intrinsic motivation?

Source: Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves | Edutopia