(De)coding Possibility

My Grade 10 Computer Science class, many years ago, was a place that housed hundreds of zeros and ones across the blackboard.  I remember my teacher explaining the process, so meticulously, trying to help us create new sequences through this language of binary codes.  I went through the motions, but like many students, I internally questioned both purpose and relevance.  At that time, I could not imagine what was to come, an evolution of code forming into a new literacy.

I recently spent some time with students who were invited to explore coding activities. Like any context for learning, my insatiable curiosity lies in how particular conditions can sometimes lead to the anticipated, but most often to the unexpected.  This particular conversation with a grade 5 student was no different.       


After many variations of failed and successful attempts of toggling, jumping 3 spaces, turning ‘left’ with no option to turn ‘right’, we became curious about the ‘behind-the-scenes’ in computer programming.  We wondered about design, the designer(s), their intentions, left-handed vs right-handedness, and the advantages/disadvantages to both.  

Then this happened.

Ms., if you had to choose between being a circle or square which would you choose?”

“Circle – hands down.”

“Really?  Why?  I would choose a square.  We had to debate this in one of my classes.”

This was the spark of a brief, yet beautiful debate.  We suddenly found ourselves immersed in conversation about structure and movement.  We were strangers.  She had no prior knowledge of my love of geometric shapes, art forms, construction and design.

I added, “Circles are smooth, sleek, curved, so natural and calming in form…no sharp edges.”

“Yes, but squares are more grounded, they’re organized with solid boundaries.”

I was overwhelmed.  I was reminiscent of Jo Boaler’s words in relation to mathematical thinking, “…a beautiful, open, creative, and multi-dimensional subject” and “such work is exploratory.”

“Circles represent something infinite, no beginning, no end…everlasting.  It’s a Catholic shape.”

She chuckled.

“Ok, but squares have equal sides…they represent equality. They even support 3D shapes better…a cube can move, slide, but it can also stay firmly in place.  It’s a more predictable shape.”

“I guess I like the unpredictability of a sphere…so many factors can affect its movement.”

We went on to defend our positions.  I imagined the endless ways in which I would extend this experience, across the curriculum, for this student.  How do we co-construct meaning and identity by reading our world through shapes, form and design?  I wondered how this initial coding exploration, other provocations, THIS conversation, could unleash learning opportunities in unplanned ways.  


A constant buzz continues to hover over and within education ~ preparing students for a world which does not yet exist ~ but how often do we turn a blind eye to the powerful role educators and students play in the creation of this new world?  This student reminded me, as many do, that learning is complex and multidisciplinary, but there is something so simple, almost magical, in the everyday conversation.  Deep learning inevitably happens when all lines, curricular or otherwise, become blurry in those moments of discourse. How often do we plan for one subject, but organically move into another.  Do we plan with the intention of STEAM, but only focus on one-fifth of the acronym?  How do we remain open to social engagement, the heart of assessment, to ultimately humanize all learning?

I now look back at those countless zeros and ones as definitive shapes with infinite possibility…  


Student Work Study…never a final draft

One of my dearest friends, Stepan, recently shared this from his favourite blogger/writer of 2016:

Steps tweet

Here is the link to Giselle’s blog: Giselle Franco.  She is currently a secondary student in Toronto.

The timing was perfect.  Student Work Study is (formally) winding down in the province of Ontario.  Many mixed feelings continue to resonate about this decision.  Last week, as I was writing my SWS product for Ministry submission, I read Giselle’s blog that pushed me through the editing, re-writing, revisions, but most importantly, through the moments when I felt I was losing my mind…

There were many such moments.

Here is a copy of my supposition ‘Disrupting Design: A Call to Re-organize’

Writing is both challenging and necessary.

Many thanks for the reminder, Stepan and Giselle, to keep writing and creating!



(Co)Learning Skills

For many teachers, this time of year usually defines itself by way of report card writing and/or exam time.  Stress levels vary.

A couple of years ago, one of my students asked me, “How long does it take you to complete report cards?”  He had apparently picked up on my stress level.  After breaking it down into an average time per student, it hit me, painfully.  It had become this mechanical, tedious, time-consuming task, almost formulaic, devoid of all meaning to learning itself.  It seems we’ve evolved from evaluating expectations and effort (from my childhood), to very systematic copy/paste reports, to now tapping into teachers’  ‘professional judgment’ in personalizing report cards as much as possible.  For years I was trying to tell someone else’s story, but not painting a very clear picture.  Sometimes I wonder about evolution….

This is a snapshot of what ensued following that initial question.  Looking back, I wish I had documented the time, but there is something so moving about writing it now, as I continue to observe and wonder about students through my Student Work Study.

The conversation that followed morphed into a rich discussion.  Some questions from the class included:  ‘How do you know what to write?  Is it hard to do?  Why do you have to write comments when most of us just look at the marks anyway?’

An ‘aha’ moment to say the least…

Over the next few weeks, these discussions created the lessons – for reading, writing, critical literacy – across the curriculum.  The lines that once divided subjects were suddenly becoming blurry.  We dissected curriculum expectations, the Growing Success document, and past report cards (yes, even my own from many years ago).  We focused on some of the language and meaning in Growing Success, as a starting point, beginning with the fundamental principles:


(Growing Success, p.6)

The first and last bullets resonated deeply.  Even though students’ self-assessment skills were ongoing, developing at their own pace, it no longer made sense for me to continue writing about students, for students, without students.

I wanted to take a critical look at inclusion and learning:


(Growing Success, p.8)

What assumptions were lurking in my classroom?  How were we approaching and communicating our learning? How could we support diversity and honour individuality on a ‘standard’ report card?  We suddenly realized what would become the enabler…a collaborative, co-writing piece for the report card itself.  Something ignited during this time.  I remember one student asking, “Is that even legal?  Aren’t we breaking the rules?”

I smiled, “Nope.  We are simply going to re-think this whole report card thing.”

We looked at each of the Learning Skills:


(Growing Success, p.11)

This lead to many discussions and writing experiences (i.e., small/large group, partners, student/teacher conferencing sessions).    Countless curriculum expectations revealed themselves throughout the process.  Some mini-lessons were framed around perspective and bias in writing (who wrote Growing Success and why), word choice and meaning for each of the learning skills, predictions/debate of what might be included/excluded in the next Growing Success document, evolution of report cards, connections to the Ontario Catholic Graduate Expectations, quick writes, mini-literature circles, etc.

Students’ Learning Skills on their report card ultimately included their perspective (Strengths & Needs), verbatim, as well as my own.  We co-wrote ‘Next Steps’ after many drafts.  I recall my principal’s comments after reading the reports, “The Learning Skills were my favourite part to read.  By knowing your students, you helped them better understand themselves as learners – student voice at it’s best.”

I recently finished reading Daniel Pink’s Drive.  He offers some strategies for parents and/or educators :

“Too many students walk through the schoolhouse door with one aim in mind: to get good grades.  And all too often, the best way to reach this goal is to get with the program, avoid risks, and serve up the answers the teacher wants the way the teacher wants them.  Good grades become the reward for compliance – but don’t have much to do with learning.  Meanwhile, students whose grades don’t measure up often see themselves as failures and give up trying to learn…Report cards are not a potential prize, but a way to offer students useful feedback on their progress…a great way to get feedback is to evaluate their own progress.” (p.188)

I no longer hold the ‘red pen’.  I learned that breaking the rules sometimes means challenging the status quo to create something even better.  I was reminded how one student’s question can change everything….again and again.

Can’t wait for a doover.

Intentional Learning

Last week, I read a post by Matthew Renwick called ‘Maximize Learning, Not Technology’’.  While common to come across posts that focus on how to optimize learning using 21st century tools in innovative ways, this stood out in a slightly different way…it focused on the why:

“So when we have our students, what do you believe is the best way to spend this time? I believe it’s the student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-with-self experiences that are the priority. Digital tools have a place, but it should not be the focus. If technology is the form, then pedagogy is the function. We need to ask ourselves why we want to use technology with a learning initiative, instead of what the technology is or how it can be used. This post is not to put down the role of technology in education, but to offer a different perspective – “

This had me wondering as I recently began my time in one of my SWS schools.

As a Student Work Study teacher, I enjoy the first few encounters getting to know students. I’m usually bombarded with wonderful, curious, questions, (i.e., How old are you?  Are you married? Do you have children? Are you a ‘real’ teacher?, etc.) Always a beautiful reminder of what students are consistently curious about – the personal side of a teacher…the human factor in learning.

This primary class was particularly interesting.  I sat at a table with five students.  They were questioning, discussing, and documenting their research.  I listened intently.  My ‘in’ was asking them about a website they were using: www.pebblego.com.  I was fascinated by how they were making sense of all the online information as they continued to tell me about their research – an animal of interest.  They beamed with excitement whenever they discovered something new.  As they transferred their information to a graphic organizer, and through our conversation, I began to notice a few things:

  • they were talking through their learning
  • they were synthesizing information through conversation
  • they were building new knowledge
  • the words ‘technology’ and ‘iPad’ were never mentioned

“Schools have arrived at a point where access to online/digital learning is no longer the main issue. Instead, how access is thoughtfully and smartly utilized by educators will make the difference in students’ learning lives going forward.”

An integral part of Student Work Study is to interrogate personal biases and assumptions through observation.  Conversations with the classroom teacher are when biases get interrogated best.  I asked about her journey in creating such a dynamic learning environment.  Based on my own knowledge and experiences, I assumed she had prior experience in Early Learning, particularly in a Reggio-inspired setting.

I was wrong.

She shared that she consistently seeks out support, ideas, new learning, from anyone and everyone who she feels will guide her practice to become better every day.

The next day, I put my notebook and iPad away.  I challenged myself to simply observe through my senses.  After a shared reading lesson, students proceeded to various centres in the classroom…some to a table to read various books, others to a small guided reading session with the classroom teacher, some to a ‘wonder wall’ to post questions, some to a table to write,  some to a small, cozy reading nook, and some to a table with iPads.  It was the coffee shop ambience, minus the coffee.

As an educator and researcher, I noticed that all students, regardless of location, or tool, were all researchers themselves…not simply about a topic or subject, but about themselves as learners.  Students were exploring various tools to nurture their curiosity.  They physically moved through the space in order to move their thinking and learning.  They were problem-solvers, meaning-makers, questioners, and collaborative and reflective thinkers.  I noticed in these moments their demonstration of every learning skill we continue to discuss as ‘a challenge to teach’.  There was a common understanding of the why in their learning.

I asked the classroom teacher once again.  I wondered how such intentional planning and practice seemed so unintentional and natural?

“I ask friends and colleagues, I search online…about how to make things better, like the setup of the environment and how that connects to inquiry-based learning.  My job is to help them figure out, how to figure out, what they need to figure out.”

Doesn’t get more ’21st century’ than that!

Writing: Practicing What I Teach

I spent the greater part of my first year in a new teaching role, writing, as I usually do, in a personal journal.  Most nights it was either pen to paper (I’m an avid collector of stationery and writing journals), or fingers to a keyboard (I can type faster than I can think…well…almost).  Either way, there are endless pages in my possession that trace my thinking and learning.  Until recently, I viewed all of my writing as just that…personal.  Although I would argue that some writing should remain for me, and only me, the reflections I have documented about my role as a ‘Student Work Study Teacher’ would have had a greater impact on my learning if it had been made visible to a larger audience.


Some of the most beautiful conversations I can recall with students are about writing…why we write, forms that we use, and how, and with whom we share the beauty (and sometimes pain) of the written word.  Perhaps I have thought too long about naming my purpose and audience rather than letting it unfold through the writing itself.

I can think of an endless list of reasons for not sharing my writing in a public forum, but all can be connected to one word: fear.

Fear of judgment.

Fear of hesitation.

Fear of offending.

Fear of misunderstanding.

Fear of being misunderstood.

One of the books I read over the summer, ‘It’s Complicated’ by Danah Boyd, focuses on ‘networked teens’ (too many talking points that would exhaust my first attempt at blogging).  While reading, I often thought about my own fears, as I continue to navigate an online social world.

“New innovations will introduce new challenges, as people try to reimagine privacy, assert their sense of identity, and renegotiate everyday social dynamics.”

I wondered….how could I reimagine my writing in a reimagined world?

A friend recently shared, so eloquently, so poignantly, the challenge of representing thoughts in written form.  “It would be considered a miracle if we could ever fully express our thoughts in writing.”  Poetic justice.  His statement was liberating.  It grounded me.  It put my ego in check.  It reminded me to practice what I teach.

It’s definitely complicated…

Sometimes you just need to begin to see where the words take you.