Monthly Archives: May 2016

“How boring school is” for certain students

Paul Tough, educational writer and broadcaster, has recently published a new book entitled Helping Children Learn: What Works and Why. In this book he explores recent research around trends in low-income schools in the U.S., as well as what is working and what is not. What he discovers is  that students who attend schools in low-income neighbourhoods are often “bored.”

My experiences both in the classroom and with research have revealed a similar finding. Students from low-income neighbourhoods tend to do a lot of remedial work, test prep, and fill out an immeasurable amount of worksheets. Often lacking are opportunities for students to explore and discuss topics of interest, move around the classroom, and extend the classroom into the community.

In an interview with Tough comments on how “boring” classrooms often are  for students in low-income neighbouhoods:

Some of the basic principles we have, in terms of discipline, in terms of pedagogy and how we run our schools are not advantageous to kids who are growing up in adversity. This research on just how boring school is really resonated with me, especially the research about how when you’re growing up in a low-income community, school is more likely to be repetitive, boring and unmotivating. I hadn’t really picked up on that as being a significant problem before doing this reporting, but this research was really persuasive to me, not only that it’s true for a lot of kids but that it really matters in terms of their motivation. 

Classrooms are often boring and worksheet driven in low-income schools because the perceived need for classroom management is high. From my own experiences teaching in an urban school, the expectations were that our students were always quiet in the classrooms, walking down the halls, and even outside. Students were expected to walk down the hall from class to class in a line organized by size, shortest to tallest. This school-wide norm was always a tension for me. I thought it felt so militaristic and so unnecessary. I felt it made the assumption that our students needed more discipline that their counterparts in more affluent neighbourhoods. Tough comments on behavioral management approaches in low-income schools:

There is a lot about the way we punish and discipline kids that the research increasingly shows just doesn’t work, especially for non-violent offenses. The idea that all kids need is no excuses schools and strong discipline to succeed is clearly not supported in the research.

I haven’t read Tough’s new book yet, but I do look forward to reading it this summer.

A true milestone: Mom’s 90th birthday

IMG_1699Today we celebratedIMG_1713 my (Clare) Mom’s 90th birthday. What a milestone. She is a great Mom, Grandmother, and Greatgrandmother. Mom did it all (almost) – she was a successful business woman, volunteer at the Canadian Opera Company, Board Member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and volunteer at the IMG_1690Canadian Institute for the Blind. She was always up for a challenge – bringing Luciano Pavarotti to Toronto twice to support the Columbus Centre, helping at image1the local church, and always organizing family parties. We had a small family celebration for her birthday. Here are some pics. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Momsie! We are so lucky to have had you in our lives for so long.


The Graduation Speech Harvard Is Calling ‘The Most Powerful’ You’ll Ever Hear

Teaching vs Assuming

'My reading comprehension is so-so, but I do make up for it with my highlighting skills.'


While teaching a third year university course in the Early Childhood Program I(Cathy) caught myself making assumptions about my students’ levels of comprehension.  While working with with one student who seemed to lack a focus in her paper, I asked her to take the article we were examining home with her and highlight the important issues she noted on each page.  When we next met, I asked to see the article;  every paragraph was highlighed; every word was now encased in bright neon yellow.  When I asked her if she thought perhaps a point made in one paragraph could be more important than another she insisted that it was all important because it had been published.  Images of classes I had taught to elementary school children on discernment of text and critical thinking, and critical pedagogy flashed through my mind.  Was she never taught this?  I had assumed my third year students would arrive in my class with this skill. I was wrong. So now what?

I smiled at her . “Let’s look at the first paragraph together,” I said. I knew I couldn’t catch her up with her many lost years, but we could make a start. Such is teaching.



You Can’t Win Them All

Teaching can be very satisfying, but it isn’t easy. I (Clive) just received my course Clive Beckevaluation for last term and was reminded that “you can’t win them all.” I thought the course was my best ever, and most students rated it as “excellent.” But some just said it was “very good” (hmmm – why was that?) and one gave it a “good” or “moderate” on every item (what’s their problem?!).


One of the most important principles in teaching, I think, is that you can’t win them all. Some people don’t like it because it implies you aren’t going to try hard enough: it lets you off the hook. But on the one hand, it helps you be realistic and maintain your morale as a teacher; and on the other, it reminds you that everybody’s different. Different people want different things from a course and have different views on how to teach. Yes we should try to meet every student’s needs in a course, but no we shouldn’t be surprised or become dispirited when some students are not ecstatic about our teaching approach.

Gold StarBut come to think of it, if I found some good videos and varied the class format more, maybe I would get excellent from everyone…. Just joking!


The “Books For Refugees” project

A recent article in The Atlantic highlighted an initiative spearheaded by Dr. Rachel McCormack, a professor of literacy education at Roger Williams University, to provide Arabic-language books to refugee shelters across the Netherlands. McCormack emphasized that “returning to school, particularly when it’s in a new language, is a huge adjustment for many Syrian children” and “maintaining their birth language and culture is key to every child’s identity.” She hopes providing access to Arabic-language texts will help Syrian children and their families integrate into Dutch society while maintaining their own culture and language.

Link to the article:


Authors and Amazing Tales: In Awe of Lawrence Hill

During the school year my night table fills with novels; one beautiful literary piece after the other, the books pile up. The vision is to retreat to my room early enough to read these marvellous texts at an enjoyable pace in order to get to the next… yet my  time during the academic term does not allow me the pleasure.  With the coming of summer and the end of an academic term I find some space where I can begin to read the books I attempted to read throughout the year.  This year, I begin with Lawrence Hill.  Most are familiar with Lawrence Hill, a Canadian writer whose most popular texts include: Blood: The Stuff of Life  and The Book of Negroes.

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Blood: The stuff of life was turned into a lecture series. You can listen to excerpts of the Massey Lecture series here:

Two incredible literary works that move me to think about humanity… and inhumanity. The Book of Negroes was turned into a  television mini series. Based on historical fiction The Book of Negroes is the story of young African girl, her voice, her journey in the 1700s from Mali, Africa to South Carolina, New York, Cape Breton, and London. How impactful a process to explore the novel — to try to make sense of history and our present — to think about narratives and then consider the media and digital implications for developing such an intense story into a visual series.  I think of how high school teachers could use this novel to explore so many issues and then to look at the decisions one makes when transforming such a sensitive story into film.

As I read Hill’s novels I cannot help but consider how  the narratives in these literary texts can be used to improve my own practice in teacher education. I ask myself: Can they inspire the reader to more deeply understand the intensity of the relational acts involved in teaching in classrooms?  Why do certain groups of children have a greater likelihood of failing at school? How do our systems shut people out without some of us ever realizing it? What kinds (if any) of understandings should teachers have about the histories of our communities before ever stepping into classrooms? How in teacher education can we support a deep understanding of children’s learning?

There is just so much to know while in pre-service and so much to teach in teacher education. What is most important? Why? When I think about the construction of teacher education programs I am now thinking less in terms of required courses and more in terms of broad understandings and the connections across disciplines and understandings. For example, as we teach about child and adolescent development (psychology) we must thing about language and literacy development (content) inclusive of social context (equity and foundations).  After all, when we enter classrooms we know that our work as teachers is dynamic, complex, forever evolving and completely relational.

Fishers of Paradise: Canadian Novelist to be honoured

On June 9, Canadian author Rachael Preston will be unveiling a Project Bookmark Canada plaque for her novel The Fishers of Paradise, that depicts the struggling squatters that occupied Cootes Paradise in 1930. The plaque is to be installed along the Desjardins Waterfront Trail in Hamilton, under the second rail bridge. I’m proud to share Rachael was a member of my writing critique group, so I was lucky enough to see the book develop. It’s a fascinating novel and I highly recommend it. It sheds light on an aspect of Hamilton history that was truly buried until now.  Book clubs- take note!

Racheal and dog

Story Summary:

The boathouse community of Cootes Paradise is under siege. The squatters’ shacks that line the shores of Dundas Marsh stand in the way of an ambitious politician’s “City Beautiful” plans. When a handsome drifter settles there, Egypt Fisher and her mother both fall under his spell. No one expects Egypt’s gambling con-man father to return after a mysterious six-year absence. But he does and he’s furious. Unhinged by jealousy and a harrowing brush with the local mafia at a cockfight, he reveals a family secret that sets Egypt’s world off-kilter and poisons her relationship with her mother. When Egypt tries to turn the situation to her own advantage, her lies set in motion a series of events with devastating consequences.

Rachael Preston now  lives in Departure Bay, Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She moved to BC from Hamilton, Ontario, where we’d been for ten years. She has authored three novels, Tent of Blue, 2002, and The Wind Seller, 2006, both with Goose Lane Editions. In 2012, she self-published The Fishers of Paradise.After winning Arts Hamilton’sinaugural Kerry Schooley Award for the book most representative of Hamilton, Fishers, was picked up by Wolsak & Wynn and reissued in April 2016 under their new James Street North Books imprint.





Longitudinal Study of Teachers


Clare, I (Clive) and our wonderful research team are gearing up for our annual visits and interviews with the 40 teachers in our SSHRC study. This is the 12th year of study and we have got to know the teachers well; we are really looking forward to seeing them again. (Actually, we recently received SSHRC funding to follow them for another 5 years, which is exciting.)

At the same time, Clare, Elizabeth Rosales (one of our team members) and I are working on an article on longitudinal study of teachers for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. This is a challenge, because people differ on what longitudinal research means. For example, some say it must involve studying the same “cohort” year after year (as in our project), while others include “cross-sectional” study of different teachers at different career stages.

In the article, we have decided to take a broad view of longitudinal study, including any research that has a time perspective. For one thing, studying the same teachers year after year is not always feasible: funding is often just for a restricted period, and teachers may move to other parts of the country (we have been lucky in that nearly all our participants have stayed put, either in the Greater Toronto Area or the New York/New Jersey area).

Where feasible a cohort study does have clear advantages. As we are finding, you can get to know the teachers and their context very well, and so understand the details of how they change and grow and why the changes occur. However, large-scale cross-sectional studies of teachers at different career stages – such as Huberman’s research in the 1980s and the 2001-2005 VITAE study in the UK – can also provide enormous insights.


Thinking about Reading Recovery

I (Yiola) am interested in early literacy for a number of reasons: my area of expertise is elementary  education; I was an early years teacher for ten years; my own children are now in early years programs; and, I believe that understanding literacy in the early years is  foundational for understanding teaching and learning.

With recent discussions going on about early years literacy programs and talk of play versus direct instruction; and, exploration and social development versus academic rigour (neither of which I believe are true binaries but instead call for a thoughtful consideration of a developmental and critically rich fusion) I am compelled to think about reading in the early years. You see, it seems to me parents are often in a panic if their child is not reading and more and more I am hearing of excited parents proudly sharing that their child was reading at 3 or 4 while other parents are silently panicking if their child is not reading by 6 years of age.

I often think back to when I was a classroom teacher and I recall the complex yet carefully crafted time sensitive processes for reading acquisition. I also clearly remember having a Reading Recovery Program at our school and watching our first and second graders enter and exit the program with a good degree of improvement and development. Most children would come out of reading recovery with gains. The very few who did not required further testing and support that went beyond the readiness phenomenon.

In my readings I came across this interesting article about Reading Recovery and the relevance of levelled texts, phonological processing AND comprehension as all significant  components of early reading development.

Here is the article in full:

This reading reminded me that there needs to be an amalgamation of approaches and strategies in the early years classroom. More and more I think that the programming and planning of early years teachers is by far their greatest challenge – not deciding upon play versus directed learning – knowing how to plan in ways that are engaging, that tap into curiosities and children’s questions and that allow for literacy rich exploration while also ensuring time for literacy focused experienced.