Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Marking Wrongful Conviction Day at ODSS

View of the display upon entering the Learning
Commons. The bright colours seem to contradict
the gravity of the injustice, but there is also a
level of happiness about being
In Grade 11 College Preparation English (ENG3C), we do a unit about the wrongfully convicted. Traditionally, the viewing of the film Conviction culminates in the writing of a letter to the Innocence Project in the United States. Students are responsible for researching a person who was wrongfully convicted, and writing a letter of gratitude to the Innocence Project.

Taylor's poster
Three semesters ago I did some research and discovered that there was a Canadian equivalent to the Innocence Project: The Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted (AIDWYC). I decided that students would learn about Canadians who were wrongfully convicted and AIDWYC helped to exonerate. Some of the exonerees include Steven Truscott, David Milgaard, and Guy Paul Morin.

Students in both my classes last year wrote letters of gratitude to AIDWYC. One of the best parts of this activity was AIDWYC's personalized response. I was pretty excited when AIDWYC wrote me a letter acknowledging my class's work.

Then things got weird.

Alex's poster
I noticed that my students were being called down to the office. I couldn't figure out why until one student informed me that they were getting letters from AIDWYC. The wonderful people at AIDWYC found the time to write PERSONALIZED letters to each of my students. They also shared my students' work with the exonerees. I was amazed.

This year, instead of writing letters of gratitude, my class put together a display to mark Wrongful Conviction Day, which is October 2, 2015. Students still completed research, but instead of writing a letter, they had to make a poster to educate the ODSS community about the exonerees and to raise awareness about the grave injustices that unfortunately occur in the Canadian legal system.

I am grateful that AIDWYC exists to protect the rights of Canadians and to play a role in bringing the outside world into the classroom.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Importance of Sharing

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about the role of sharing in education, and how the act of sharing is important in developing better teachers and improving student learning.

To me, sharing is a mix of practical and emotional. There is the electronic and physical sharing of resources; the informal discussions of particular content and skills; the sharing, as appropriate, of pertinent student information; and the sharing of emotions.

In the last three semesters, I have benefited greatly from the ease of sharing resources via UGCloud. I have taught three new courses, and for all three courses I have had EIGHT colleagues share their folders with me. This helps to lessen the anxiety of teaching a new course and it prevents the need to "recreate the wheel". I especially benefit because I get to see what other people are doing in their courses and then shape the course to fit my teaching style and the needs of my students.

Additionally, sharing doesn't just take place on the cloud. Sharing also happens in informal ways as department members drink their morning coffees or eat lunch together. I have added excellent resources to my repertoire, such as handouts about effective presentations, deconstructing visual texts to make meaning, or using transitional words.

Sharing isn't just the electronic or physical exchange of course content and skills. It is important to share information about students on a "need-to-know" basis. This is especially true at the start of a new semester. It is nice to have students' former teachers tell me the techniques they used to best help a student or what warning signs to be aware of.

There is also the sharing of emotions. Oftentimes, teaching can seem like an individual job. It is possible to simply close the classroom door and teach. But I think that the sharing of our ups and downs about our experiences creates a realistic picture of what being a teacher means. It is buoying for me to hear teachers talk about their successes, and it is helpful to be able to share perceived and actual failures and challenges. This allows me to realize that I'm not alone and that all teachers have their wins and their losses.

Now this isn't to say that sharing is easy. I'm sure that there are many reasons why sharing is hard. For some, they may not share their resources. And I bet this isn't because they don't want to; it may because they lack confidence in what they're creating. I think this may also play a role in sharing emotions. No one wants to come across as a braggart when talking about the impact he or she has had on a student or recounting an awesome lesson. Additionally, it is hard to talk about the fact that all teachers fail. Some lessons flop. Some classroom management decisions backfire. But we need to share this and learn from each other.

Essentially, I am thankful that I have colleagues who are willing to share and are eager to support. I think this goes a long way in making me a better teacher, which in turns helps me improve learning for my students.

Thank you.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The first day of school...the plans have changed

The Syrian refugee crisis has shaken me. I look at the faces of Syrians still in Syria, those who have made it to Europe, and those who have gotten to Canada. I can't imagine taking such risks, and this drives home the fact that, for Syrians fleeing their homes, the risks outweigh staying.

I want to do something, and the first thing I wanted to do was sponsor a Syrian family. This seems especially fitting for me, as my husband was one of the 68,000 Vietnamese refugees to make it to Canada as a result of the nation's sponsorship program. Obviously, this is a big step, and we're not quite ready to make a commitment.  But I still want to do something. 

This led me to make the decision to delay my first week plans for school. Instead of jumping right into short stories and plays, two of my classes are going to complete guided research about Syria and the Syrian refugee crisis. The ultimate goal is for students to write letters to Hon. Chris Alexander (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) and MP David Tilson (our local representative). Fortunately, I am able to delay getting into the regularly scheduled program, which is already full, because I have a department head who encourages us to try new and different things, and a principal who is more interested in deep learning than content coverage.

I have struggled to figure out how I can bring this topic to my students. Fortunately, I am connected on Facebook and Twitter to a great number of educators who have been sharing articles and their experiences. My rough outline of what I think I am going to do is here.

A colleague and I were talking about images, specifically the horrifying image of Alan Kurdi drowned on a beach in Greece. We also brainstormed some quotations, but the one that really stuck out to me was Joseph Stalin's quotation “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. I decided against using the image of Kurdi drowned, which has spurred the increased interest in helping Syrian refugees, as his aunt has requested that people remember her nephew as he was: smiling and happy. I decided that I am going to have students look at an image of refugees in Germany and an image of Alan Kurdi in happier times.

I am hoping that these images and what they represent will bring encourage discussion and interest, before students are tasked with doing some research. Because it will only be the first day of school, I have found the research for the students. They will have access to a variety of articles, images, and videos to help them (and me) understand the crisis and what Canada is (or isn't) doing.

To be honest, I am rather uncomfortable with my new first day plans, as I am taking three risks:
1. students will engage and discuss on Day 1 (what if they don't?)
2. my clear goal, but vague "travel map" will get us to the letter (what if the goal is only clear to me? what if we get lost?)
3. the technology will work (please don't fail me!) 

Hopefully, by the end of the week, the students and I have powerful letters to send and strengthened empathy for the Syrians forced from their home.