I’ve been spending the last few days reading and reflecting on the choices many people are making for their #OneWordOnt and honestly, I’m stuck. Last year my word was “courage” and that was appropriate for where I was both personally and professionally. I had just come through some really difficult times and was in a new role in a new school so I needed to put aside my fears and own my voice. 2017 provided me many opportunities to share my thinking (even if it scared me) and have many conversations that were both deep and meaningful as well as difficult. Looking ahead to 2018, I’m not in that place anymore and have been thinking about my goals for the new year.

One of the words that has come up in my life lately is “simple.” As someone who feels like I have 176 different tabs open in my brain all the time, (and literally on my computer as pointed out by my students on a regular basis) I find myself pulled in multiple directions constantly. I feel like I don’t always get everything finished because I have a jumpy brain that doesn’t necessarily focus all the way to completion of a task or something catches my attention and I forget to go back to what I was originally doing. I realize this is what many people experience in modern day life, but I feel like I need to remove some of the complexity to focus on the simple.

I’ve also been thinking about the word “embrace” as I find my introvert self doesn’t necessarily embrace all the amazingness that is happening around me. I definitely try to appreciate and capture it through photos and video, but I don’t necessarily immerse myself in the experience.  I’ve always been the person who reluctantly joins in when it comes to experiences outside my comfort zone or is worried about what others think. I don’t really want to be that person any more nor do I want my children or students having a person who holds back as their role model. Life is short and wonderful and when those opportunities present themselves is when we need to jump in. I need to be better at letting myself embrace those experiences and live in the moment.

So I guess I broke the rules and have two words or maybe it’s just that those words are what I’m thinking about right now and in a month or two will be just distant memories with my jumpy brain…

#OntEDAssessment Reflections

On the first day of school this year, the Ministry of Education announced that it was re-examining and planning to “update provincial assessment tools including EQAO testing.” For many of us, this is exciting news as there are many areas worth exploring that can better aid in student learning.

In the past week I have had the pleasure of participating in two podcasts on VoiceEd. A Learning Province – A voicED Radio Conversation about Assessment in Ontario and An Assessment Conversation allowed me the opportunity to engage in conversations with educators from across the province on the topic of EQAO testing and for me, with being an English teacher and Department head, a focus on the OSSLT.

Since the conversations, I have been pondering a couple of ideas related to the modernization of EQAO testing.

  1. One of our board operational goals is graduation rates and since passing the OSSLT is a graduation requirement, that can be a barrier for some of our students. Granted I know we have the OSSLC,  (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course) that many students take and pass to therefore graduate, I can’t help but wonder what would happen to graduation rates if the literacy test was more of a snapshot of learning rather than a high stakes requirement for every student in the province.
  2. The OSSLT is a paper and pen task whereas any summative task I ask students to complete in my classroom is completed with the use of technology. To their credit, EQAO attempted an online version of the test, but it had issues and was therefore dismissed for last year and this year. In considering the needs of my learners, (both with an IEP and not) allowing the use of technology greatly allows them to better express their thinking.
  3. Current pedagogical thinking about the classroom encourages student voice and choice as a means of engaging deeply with the learning. One participant in the podcast talked about some of her students not having enough cultural context in order to display their true skill level in reading or writing. I know the OSSLT writing team works hard to try and create tests that avoid this issue, but the reality is that it is nearly impossible to write one test that is culturally relevant to all the learners across our province. Accessing background knowledge is a key skill in reading comprehension and if students don’t have that knowledge because of their personal situations, how can they be penalized as not having the skills?
  4. Last year I engaged in a TLLP (Teacher Learning and Leadership Program) sponsored by the Ministry of Education and OTF (Ontario Teacher’s Federation) and one of our focuses was on the triangulation of assessment through incorporating conversations and observations into our grades. The OSSLT doesn’t allow for any conversations or observations which can be detrimental for our reluctant students especially when assessing their ability to read. In my English classes, I spend a lot of time sitting down listening to students talk about what they’ve read in a low stakes and comfortable environment and this has given me far more data than any multiple choice or short answer question on a test ever could as the students are more willing to share when they are comfortable. It also allows me to ask questions which facilitates deeper thinking. I can roll and adapt to the conversation to get at deeper learning and can come back to a student if that day is not working for them. With the test, the students have one three hour block to demonstrate those skills and we know as people, stressful environments can cause a lack of well-being and therefore the fight or flight mentality – neither of which is beneficial for learning.
  5. Finally, I’m wondering if the definition of “literacy” needs to be updated for the test. In today’s society, there are so many more literacies and if students are only being assessed on reading and writing, is that enough? Not to mention, the English curriculum encompasses oral communication and media studies as equally weighted against reading and writing. Shouldn’t students be literate in speaking and listening as well as deconstructing and creating media texts? To me those are incredibly valuable skills in our society and if EQAO really wants to inform teachers to help influence our teaching, then we need to be accounting for more than just reading and writing.

I would love to engage in more conversations about this topic so please feel free to comment or tweet me at @msjrea.

Modelling Self Reflection

Yesterday I wrote a post about the importance of reflection in learning and Carly asked me how I model reflection in the classroom and I wish had some elaborate process to share but the answer is really simple, I discuss my own reflections on learning with them. We have open and honest conversations about how even though I’m a teacher, I’m a learner first and that there are times I’m wrestling with how things have happened in the classroom, what I did well, where are my areas for growth, that I’m wondering if I made the best choice in a situation, or if what there was a better course of action. Students need to hear that teachers don’t actually have all the answers and that we are fallible, but that from every experience, we are learning and growing.

For two of my classes, these conversations are between myself and the students, but this year I have a TLLP (Teacher Learning and Leadership Project) with my colleague, Andrew Bieronski. In this project, we spend time in each other’s ENG 2DI class and have made a concerted effort to model reflective conversations for our students. He and I make time on a regular basis to break down how an activity has gone over in the class. We discuss how we designed the task, our observations about how it went, what we were proud of, the task’s strengths, what we saw as areas for growth and our next steps if we were to that task again in another class. The students then see us in the role of the learner and feel more comfortable to share any potential insecurities they have about their learning. Being able to openly model a deeply reflective conversation with a colleague has been beneficial for our students in so many ways. The students have seen us ask each other questions to clarify our own learning, ask questions that have challenged our thinking, as well as asked questions that have extended our learning. I think students need to see adults engaging in these kind of conversations as it not only shows them that reflecting with others pushes us to think deeper, but that they are essential for growth. On a human level, it also models collaboration and mutual respect which two essential skills in today’s workplace.

So there’s no real crazy method here. Just good solid conversations – a skill if of itself.

Reflect and Grow

Today is Blue Monday – theoretically the most depressing day of the year. January is a hard month in general; walk into any school and you will see students and staff alike stressed out with the impending end of the semester, summative tasks, exams, report cards, and any other multitude of issues. One of my pedagogical beliefs about learning is that it should be fun and if it’s at all stressful, it shouldn’t be that the students are worried about the grade, rather that they are confused and problem solving – not in fight or flight mode.

Another main pedagogical belief I hold is that all learning should be purposeful and meaningful to the students – especially the summative tasks. Traditionally, I feel that summative tasks have been a regurgitation of information rather than a celebration of learning. In English, all four of our strands have a metacognitive overall expectation and I believe that’s the most important aspect of a summative project as it allows the student (and teacher!) to reflect on the growth in skills over the semester.

In preparing the students for deeply reflective tasks, I had many interesting conversations. In all of my classes, reflection through a focus on the process rather than the mark on the finished product is encouraged, but for many students this is ingrained in their mindset and still the mark supersedes the journey. I can understand as marks are the currency for post secondary, and I look forward to the day when some other method gets students where they want to go, but for now, all I can do is encourage them to reflect and grow; reflect and grow.

So today I’m reflecting on what I can do during this challenging day and month. For myself, I’ve taken time out to chill on my couch with my dog and write this post. I’ve also been reflecting on this semester for me as a teacher, but more importantly as a learner. I’ve had many exciting and engaging learning opportunities and conversations that have made me think more than ever about my practice, but more so about education in general. What I’ve concluded is that WE don’t take enough time to do this kind of reflection on a regular basis. As adults, we have a multitude of excuses for why we don’t (time being the major culprit here) but it’s so necessary for growth. As educators, we really need to step back and think deeply about what’s happening around us. We want our students to be effective reflectors and thinkers, but we need to be the models for that kind of behaviour. If they don’t see us engaging in reflection, it’s not worthwhile to them. We need to give them a reason as to why what we ask them is purposeful and meaningful to us as learners so that they see the relevance and connection to their own lives.

So this leads me into tomorrow. I’m going to have conversations with my students about the importance of reflection and why we need to be thinking about learning, not just learning. The best lesson I can provide for my students in these final days of class is to truly relish the process and to reflect.

Reflect and grow.

#onewordONT #oneword2017

365 days is a both a long and short amount of time. Long because there are times when it feels that negativity will prevail and difficult situations are a constant state, but short when you see how much your children have grown and developed or how far you have come professionally or personally or both. More than any other year, 2016 felt both long and short to me.

Now that we are a couple days into 2017, I’m thinking about my goals, hopes, and dreams for 2017 and I’m excited for what the year holds, but scared too. Hopeful as I am blessed with a number of wonderful aspects of my life. I have two lovely and amazing girls, family and friends who love and support me, a job that I adore, and a number of exciting professional opportunities that I feel blessed to have coming up. I am so grateful for all those elements of my life, but they can also be daunting for so many reasons.

So after a conversation with my dear friend Donna Fry (@fryed), my #oneword2017 is courage. I’m changing my mindset and instead of feeling frightened, I’m going to be brave (or I’m going to tell myself to be brave anyway) and to face the challenges as they come while enjoying the little things along the way. Brene Brown says, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen” and in order to make this change in my life, I need to let myself be seen more often through new experiences, challenging conversations, and using my voice rather than staying quiet. Letting myself be seen requires courage and thus, my word for 2017.

A scary yet exciting journey of personal growth.





A virtual visit from @danikatipping

I’m going to make a bold statement for an English teacher – I don’t love Shakespeare. The stereotype is that all of us Englishy types love the Bard, and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some of his plays, (Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night) but I don’t love his work the way I love other literature. I very much have an appreciation for his work and the effect his plays have had on modern day society, but truly, he’s not my favourite author.

I also don’t love that many English teachers seem to look to his work as something that “needs” to be taught. I think it’s important for students to see a variety of texts to read and discuss and to me, he should be in the mix, but I worry that all too often courses are structured around a Shakespearean text. I’m concerned we are doing a disservice to our students by limiting their access to other great authors as well as their voice and choice as many of our students don’t enjoy his work the way we do. And in all honesty, English is a skills based course and the texts shouldn’t matter that much as the skills from the respective strands are what we should be focusing on regardless of what the students are reading.

With all this in mind, I’m so very pleased that Huron’s English department has gone in the direction of only doing Shakespeare in grades 10 and 12 (credit to the former head – Callie Sockett!). I’m one of the grade 12 university teachers and Hamlet is on the course. I really enjoy Hamlet as play, but I also am aware of my strengths and areas for growth and know that there are other people out there who have a much deeper understanding of the play and that is why I asked my dear colleague and hero, Danika Tipping, to join us virtually (Google Hangout) on Tuesday of this past week.

Danika is amazing! She is deep, thoughtful, reflective, and engaging. She has also done some awesome work with students studying Hamlet focusing on the life lessons and human behaviour that comes from the text rather than decoding the language. We talked for the whole class about what we can learn from the play, from the characters, and about life and real life experiences and skills the students can take from the play. We also discussed what Danika thinks is the most important attribute a high school student can leave our buildings with and she thinks that is the ability to be flexible when it comes to life. Things don’t always work out the way we had hoped, and it’s how we assess then react in a situation that is important. Being able to logically see what is happening and act appropriately is an important skill as the rate of societal change is exponential and will continue to be.

On my end, I was also thinking about role modelling. We ask students to engage in deep academic and reflective discussions and thinking, but when there’s only one adult in the room, it’s hard for the students to see and learn from this kind of interaction. I also think we don’t spend enough time encouraging students to ask good questions. We as teachers intuitively ask deep questions to elicit thoughtful responses, but we don’t often ask them to do that as well. In our conversation, I asked Danika a number of deep and challenging questions and then in our post conversation debrief asked the students to reflect on the kinds of questions I was asking her. They had noticed I was asking hard questions, but didn’t necessarily realize why and it made them think about how they engage with others.

Finally, from a life perspective, I was very honest with the students about that Danika is far more of an expert on Hamlet than I am. I can hold my own, I understand the play, I think Hamlet is a fascinating character and love deconstructing him from a social sciences perspective (I have a double major in English and Sociology), but I have limitations too. I am not an actress and never was a drama kid, but Danika is an actress and can speak to the idea of the play on stage and why Shakespeare would have incorporated certain aspects. She has also taught the play many more times than I have and with that comes experience that through this interaction helps me learn too. I wanted to put myself in the role of the learner in front of my students so that they could see that we should ask for help and to access our resources including other people who are experts in the field. I think sometimes adults (especially teachers) feel like we need to be perfect when students need to see us as learners and putting ourselves in situations where we are learning along with them so we debrief after about what and how we learned.

Many of my students commented that they thought from a different perspective after having her virtually visit our class. She brought a different dimension to the learning that wouldn’t have happened with just me and I’m so thankful that my students had that experience as it has deepened their thinking and learning as well as mine.

Finding the Motivation

I’ve been thinking about motivation lately. It’s November which is typically when we see students (and staff) start to lose their drive as the weather is getting colder, it’s getting darker earlier, and for many people, it’s a long stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas break. On the whole, I feel very grateful that I don’t usually have the November blahs, but I can appreciate that many people do.

I love learning and I especially love all my time in the classroom, so for me, I find I lose motivation to do things I love outside the classroom (like write this blog, exercise, and get enough sleep). Even though all of those activities are excellent for my mental and physical health, I have let them fall by the wayside over the last year. In reflecting back, it’s fascinating that I didn’t realize I wasn’t doing some of the activities I love. It actually shocked me that before my last three most recent blog posts, my last one was written in February!?!?! I went seven months without writing anything and I didn’t even notice. I love to write here (even though not many people read it) because the act of writing helps me mull over and clarify my thinking about different ideas. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking, wondering, pondering, researching, connecting, discussing, or learning the last seven months, it’s more that I didn’t feel motivated to write and share my thinking.

So, how does this reflection help me today?

Well, it helps me empathize with my students. Writing is an activity I enjoy and I didn’t engage in it for quite some time. I can understand that for many students, writing is a struggle and not how they want to be expressing their thinking (a necessary and important component in the English curriculum) but I can understand on a deeper level where they are coming from now.

Empathizing with students is important, but what is perhaps more crucial is that I have deconstructed why I didn’t feel motivated to write and have thought about strategies to help bring me back to an activity that I love. For me, the major aspect is that I often don’t realize I’ve let something slip until I get reminded somehow and then think to check on where I left off. I had a feeling that I hadn’t written in a long time, but truly didn’t realize it was seven months ago. It’s sad that I let myself go that long without writing, but at the same time, it’s given me the opportunity to engage in self reflection leading to personal growth. I know now that I need to make time for these important aspects of life and that even when I may be feeling unmotivated, I need to check myself and look to my progress (or lack thereof) to continue to guide me on my journey.

Even though I felt disappointment at the lack of writing, I am grateful. Grateful that I have had the opportunity to reflect, grow, and find my motivation again. It’s from these experiences that I will be able to connect more with my students as truly life is the learning journey and one of the best lessons we can give our students is showing them that sometimes you have to dig deep to find that lost motivation and drive in order to attain your goals.

Change: is it just semantics?

When I was in high school I made my first email account (remember Hotmail?) and when it prompted me to make a signature, I used my favourite quote from the wise baboon (he’s actually a mandrill even though he refers to himself as a baboon), Rafiki, from the Lion King, “Change is good… but it’s not always easy.” As someone who has never been satisfied with the status quo, (even in high school) that quote has always spoken to me and is still very relevant now that I’m an adult.

With moving to a new school in a new role, my learning curve in the past two months has been intense. Paying attention to the culture of the student body, acclimatizing to a new staff of colleagues, and coming into a role where things are different from my previous schools and trying to learn the in’s and out’s of how life unfolds, have made for a rich learning experience. I’ve had so many deep conversations about learning and life and found mentors in unexpected places. To me, that’s the beauty of change. The unexpectedness, the uncomfortable feelings, but the learning and connection with others that happens in these organic situations.

I’ve loved every minute of this new experience as I’m making connections both with previous experiences and with others, thinking of new ideas and possibilities for the learning of my students and myself, as well as seeing the world from different perspectives. So it makes me wonder… if I see change as such a positive experience, why is it scary for so many people? Is it just semantics? What if we changed the language? What if change became just learning? What if change was framed as a more positive (and possibly enjoyable) experience? What if “failure” was just more learning?

I know these are deep questions with complicated answers, but it’s a conversation (or realistically, multiple conversations) that we need to be having more often.


#OSSLT 2016

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you will know that I am not a fan of the OSSLT for a variety of reasons, and usually I condemn the test but this post has a positive tone for a change. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all praising the test, but rather I want to publicly share how impressed I was with the students and staff at Huron Heights.

We chose to have all our grade ten academic level students attempt the pilot test in two back to back sessions with a 15 minute break in between. We got all 270 students signed in and the test was set to begin at 8:10 am. As soon as we began, we ran into major technical issues. I was one of the designated “tech support” and was thankful I chose to wear sensible shoes as it seemed like every student writing the test had tech issues. It was a stressful start but what happened the rest of the morning was a true credit to character of the Huron community.

With patience and grace, almost all (minus maybe 10 students) finished both booklets of the OSSLT at Huron. In debriefing with two of the ENG 2D classes yesterday morning, virtually every student had the white screen at least once if not a couple times, every student had the spinning wheel of doom for anywhere from a few minutes to 40+ minutes, and over half of them had to power off their Chromebook because their screen froze which meant they had to get a new password from a proctor and that process took a long time as the proctor website was overloaded as well. In reading the tweets, news articles, and connecting with other educators around the province, it sounds like this was a ridiculously stressful experience for many students, and although I know many of our students felt anxiety and pressure, they handled the process like pros. I was fully prepared that if I couldn’t offer the proper tech support, I would hear about it, but the exact opposite was true. In many cases, we actually laughed at how bad the tech situation was and students expressed gratitude for us helping them even though we couldn’t really do much for them. That truly impressed me and speaks to the caliber of students we have at Huron.

In our debriefing sessions yesterday, we were visited by one of vice principals and we discussed that this experience, although unpleasant, was actually a really good life lesson for all of us. Life doesn’t always go the way we had planned and stressful situations are a reality, but at the end of the day, being able to manage your emotions, keep your anxiety level down, and persevere through challenging circumstances are qualities that will serve you for the rest of your life. Our students demonstrated these qualities in spades and I couldn’t be prouder to be a Husky.

Feeling Proud to be a Husky

So we are six weeks into the school year and even though I’ve started at a new school in a new position, it feels like home.

Huron Heights is a wonderful place to work, but more importantly, to learn. One of the main characteristics that permeates through the school is the culture. It is obvious that respect and excellence are the core values as demonstrated daily by students and staff alike. I have three wonderful classes full of students who take pride in themselves and their learning. I have also been very pleased with how open most of the students have been to demonstrating their creativity and thinking outside the box even if it makes them uncomfortable. The fact that all three classes have been willing to take risks (especially in the media strand of the English curriculum) has made for a very enjoyable and rewarding past six weeks in the classroom.

Huron is also one of the pilot schools in the WRDSB for the Chromebook 1:1 project which means that all of our grade nines and tens have their own Chromebooks. I have two grade ten classes (one academic and one applied) each student has their own device which makes technology integration seamless. Also, in that almost all my students used their Chromebooks last year, they are unbelievably comfortable when it comes to working digitally. They use Google Drive very effectively to manage their files, almost all students work in multiple Google Classrooms, and use other various tools and apps easily to demonstrate their learning. I’ve really appreciated that when I ask students to complete a task in their own fashion, they have an idea of what works for them (Gdoc, Gdrawing, Gslides, Piktochart, etc.) and they take it upon themselves to choose what works best for them rather than me dictating how the learning is to happen. I also use a website for my daily lesson plans and have noticed that many students just leave it open in a tab and refresh the page on a daily basis. I love that they are being proactive about their learning and know how to find all of our resources.

Our school is also a MSIP (multi-subject instructional period) which means that our classes are only 60 minutes long. I know there is quite a lot of debate about this style of timetabling, but so far I love it. I think it’s great for the students to have that period to “travel” or visit a teacher for extra help or finish work from class. I have a lot of grade nines in my MSIP period, and they have gotten extra help from some of the senior students in the class which I think is so important to maintain the sense of community in the school. It forces the students to engage with others in the building that they might not come into contact with on a daily basis and is especially great for fostering connections and learning opportunities across the grades. Naturally this means that I have 60 minute periods for my classes. It is a great length of time for me, personally, as I am someone who can lose focus after an hour. I feel that the students also appreciate that length of time as there is much more variety to their day with this timetable which is especially important at the applied and college levels.

Finally, I’m really appreciating my new colleagues. I feel so welcomed and valued and that alone makes the transition smooth. Huron’s staff is full of energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate teachers who care deeply for their students.

I am (again) blessed.