Category Archives: Teaching

“Counting by 7s”: people matter

I’m trying to catch up on some new books. It’s been a while since I’ve read YA fiction. Lately I’ve read The Hunger Games, Hawk, and now Counting by 7s. I want to know what my students are reading (especially if they are reading as a small-group novel study in class). The Hunger Games was fun. I enjoyed it. Hawk was interesting and I liked it too. But there’s something about Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan that stuck with me.



Do you ever have times or cycles where your dreams are vivid, realistic, and disturbing. Those dreams where you wake up and you feel rotten, anxious, afraid, or sad. I can’t always remember the dreams, but I know that they wake me up several times a night. I’m not too sure what my brain is processing, but I hate these dream cycles. While reading this book, my dreams changed. I woke up feeling warm and fuzzy. I woke up feeling happy and connected. Amazing.

But then again, maybe not. Counting by 7s is the story of one young gal, Willow, who is trying to find connections after the tragic death of her adoptive parents. She doesn’t have  any other family. Not even that many close friends. So what’s a girl to do? How can someone connect at a new school in a completely terrible situation. But that what Sloan writes about. Throughout the novel, Willow collects a family. It’s lovely, it’s beautiful, and it’s uplifting.



I LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea that teens are reading about how to build positive relationships. It makes my teacher heart happy to see that students are getting so much out of this novel. It makes my societal heart happy to see teens reading about building positive relationships that build up friends. There is no competition in the book: it’s about genuine friendships and hardwork to form meaningful relationships. I think that’s also why my dreams changed while reading this book: I was so enveloped by hope and joy.

Thank you Holly Goldberg Sloan. Thank you. A wonderful reminder that life is hopeful, that people are good, and that life can be beautiful.





“The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen”: healing with literature

Susin Nielsen is a genius. She writes for teens, but she had me hooked. Her novel The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen had me fighting with my students over the school copy of the book. This book is about Henry and his journal that his counsselor makes him write after his brother’s death. The entire book is a glimpse into the world of teens living with trauma and trying their best to survive.



My teenage self connected with Henry is several ways:

  • I loved wrestling growing up, and I loved watching it with my family.
  • I love trivia and watching Jeopardy and would have loved to join a quiz team in high school
  • I was also hassled and bullied during school and dreaded encounters with certain groups of boys
  • I had amazing friends in junior high and high school who liked me for me, weirdness and all.

As a teacher, this book was hard to read because most of the negative interactions happened in the halls and stairwells, locker rooms and cafeteria. There isn’t much power teachers have in helping kids survive the horrors of being bullied 100% of the time. As much as teachers long for a safe school and a group of empathetic kids, that’s not always the case. Power struggles are real and this books was a reminder, a funny reminder at times, yet a reminder that being a teenager is so hard.



Today in my Gr 8 Health class, we were talking about emotions and healthy ways to share and express emotions. Kids know what happens when they bottle up emotions. We watched Inside Out and talked about what happens when we get to that place where we don’t feel anything at all. We looked up websites and centres where teens could go to get help. I sincerely hope that parents are having these same conversations at home, yet I know that’s not always the case. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “real boys don’t cry” and “good girls smile more.” It’s easy to default to societal norms, yet that’s what bogs down teens: they don’t know what is normal, what is weird, what is healthy, what is unhealthy, and who to talk to about all of this. So I am grateful to the arts for once again allowing us an opportunity to have these important conversations.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is a book that encourages teens with a broken family to have hope. Life might suck, yet there are always people around and those people make life worth living. Henry’s mother is in Ontario in a mental illness hospital, his dad works long hours at a construction job, and his older brother is is a box under his dad’s mattress. That’s rough. Yet the neighbours in their Vancouver apartment building become family. Through his journal and through his conversations with his school friends and his neighbours, Henry starts to heal and start to live life again. Neilsen doesn’t sugar-coat life, instead she shows true depth of feeling and pain in the midst of a truly horrible situation. Life never turns out how we want or plan, yet that doesn’t stop Henry from losing all hope. What an amazing story of resiliency for teens to read.



Teens reading about teens in well-written books that include humour is an amazing way to engage reluctant readers and to help teens see positive ways of expressing their emotions. I think of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and Susin Neilsen’s other book We Are All Molecules. These books use humour as a way in for teens to see that they are not alone. What a powerful message.  So thank you Susin Neilsen and other YA authors who are tackling really hard topics and doing it with respect, humour, and depth.



“Half Brother”:hooking the reluctant reader

Being an ELA (English Language Arts) teacher is fun and exciting because I find myself excited about the literature I can introduce to my students, especially to the reluctant readers.  David Bouchard says that it only takes one book to make someone a reader.  Just that one book that hooks them in and makes them realize what they’ve been missing.  There is joy in reading.  That is why I was happy to read Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel.



Talking with the other ELA teacher at my new school, I guess this book went viral last year.  It was so funny, engaging, and heart-warming that kids were waiting to read it, even asking parents to buy it so they could read it sooner.  Half Brother is the story of Ben, a typical teenager whose parents work a lot.  But his life changes forever when his parents move him from Ontario out to Victoria and they bring home his new baby brother: a chimpanzee!

Ben’s father is a scientist and is hoping to teach the chimp, Zan (after Tarzan), how to communicate and develop language skills through American Sign Language.  They teach Zan new words, yet they don’t teach him a lot of nouns or connecting words, mostly just nouns.  So when the experiment isn’t the success Ben’s Dad was hoping for, things get tense.

For Ben, Zan is not a pet or a scientific experiment: Zan is his brother.  The two have a great relationship as the novel progresses.  Ben tickles, hugs, kisses, plays with, and loves Zan.  They become best buds, even to the point of Zan protecting Ben from some bullies.



The novel isn’t just about Zan and Ben, it’s about Ben growing up and becoming a teenager.  He has angsty moments where he wants to make his own decisions, yet is held back by his parents’ rules.  He wants to date a girl, but she rejects him and dates someone else.  He learns about the cruelty of animal testing and becoming extremely angry at the work his father does with rats.  It’s like Degrassi episodes, but with a chimp!

I can see the appeal of this book for young teens.  It’s about pushing boundaries, dealing with anger, living with disappointment, creating friendship, and learning how to become your own person.  The funny parts, like Zan stealing the dish soap and spraying everyone and everything, or like Zan loving Jell-O, or like Zan peeing on the father, help bring this novel to life and keeps the reader engaged and curious.

There are a few books that I keep on my shelf because I know that they engage reluctant readers, and Half Brother is now part of that collection!



“The Inconvenient Indian”: better together

I don’t know why I haven’t read this book until now, meaning I should have read it earlier.  I am grateful for a friend for suggesting it; I think I just needed a personal endorsement.  I can say that reading The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America has been a fascinating, heartbreaking, and informative (of course, with a lot of humour!).



I have been learning a lot and listening a lot lately about Aboriginal ways of knowing and traditions through professional development at work.  The Government of Alberta is now adding in information about First Nations, Inuit, and Metis ways of knowing into the Teacher Quality Standards, something that gives hope and forces a lot of change within each school.   In the draft, it states:


A teacher develops and applies foundational knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit for the benefit of all students, and supports the process of reconciliation, by: (a) understanding the historical, social, economic and political implications of: • treaties and agreements with First Nations; • agreements with Métis; • the legacy of residential schools; and • the impacts of intergenerational trauma on learner development; (b) using the programs of study to provide opportunities for all students to develop a knowledge and understanding of, and respect for, the First Nations, Métis and Inuit; and (c) supporting the learning experiences of all students by using resources that accurately reflect and demonstrate the strength and diversity of First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

Although in the draft phase, the government will be releasing the official update any day now, and I know this new qualification has a few teachers feeling apprehensive because they have not taken the time to think about First Nations, Inuit, Metis knowledge as being as meaningful as Eurocentric knowledge.

In his book, King talks about how First Nations people have become invisible: society sees a stereotype, which is not helped any by the media.  King challenges readers who believe in the idea that what happened is in the past, and we should all move on.  Yet I teach Social Studies (History) and I can say that textbooks and materials like to breeze over anything that has to do with Canada’s relationship with First Nations people.  Throughout the book, King writes about a different narrative, a different story.  He is asking his readers to see the past and how it plays a role in the present.

Dwayne Donald writes a lot about Indigenous Metissage: he believes that the histories of First Nations and of Settlers should not be separate stories that don’t intertwine.  He argues that both stories belong together in relationship, just as it was when the treaties were signed.  Yet non-Indigenous North Americans have tried for years to erase and ignore anything First Nations.  Donaldson is calling educators to weave together both systems of knowledge and histories (Canada’s ‘Indian problem’).  It’s time for separation and marginalization to end, and as a Blackfoot Elder said during a conversation, education is the new buffalo.  In an article by Vivian Lee about Donaldson, she writes: “When considering Aboriginal perspectives, the tendency is to only take the surface “artifacts” of culture (the beads, the dances, the food, etc.) and to comprehend them under a Euro-Western lens. The foundational indigenous philosophies which provide those “artifacts” with meaning are not considered and so the story is incomplete. In this way, misunderstandings and misrecognitions are perpetuated.”



This is the fear many educators have about taking up the work of including Indigenous knowledge as valid in the classroom: it will become a surface exercise, a nod to a dead tradition from pre-contact North America.  Yet, the work has begun.  There are teachers who are trying, and that is the point.  Indigenous knowledge can no longer be ignored, derided, or left in a romanticized past; it has taught people how to live on this land for thousands of years, successfully, and has the possibility of continuing to do the same for us now.

So I’m with Donaldson and King: time for change.  King talks about Native actors: they either play a Native person or no person at all, which again continues the stereotype and provides an excuse to ignore what is actually happening around us.  These portrayals are not helping us see a real and vibrant culture: it allows us to keep our romanticized or racist ideas and feel that we have support in our systemic racism because mainstream culture has deemed it ok.

This week in Calgary is Aboriginal Awareness Week.  I am grateful that I live in a city where the mayor sees the importance of this work.  Food, dancing, family, laughter, and fun: who wouldn’t want to get involved during Aboriginal Awareness Week?  Any chance to learn from each other and braid together a positive story is time worth spending.



“The fact of Native existence is that we live modern lives informed by traditional values and contemporary realities and that we wish to live those lives in our terms.”  (Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian)

“So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)



“Out of Our Minds”: sci-art-ence

We must learn to be creative.  Innovation comes from creativity which is sparked by imagination.  In his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Sir Ken Robinson builds a powerful argument for the need in our society to shift how we see the role of creativity in education and in the workplace.



I started to type some of the key points I read in the book and ended up with a large list (which is might just keep at the end of this post, sorry!).  As a relatively new teacher (ending my 6th year) I am very aware of the tension happening in education right now.  The Government and other are realizing that collaborative work and innovation are essential for our learners.  Yet many educators and parents are holding back, desperate to keep the old model and tradition (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic).  As Robinson says, they are “Far from looking to the future, too often they are facing stubbornly towards the past” (Pg 47).  Yet as a classroom teacher I notice that my students are not able to creatively problem solve, even simple everyday problems, on their own.  They are having trouble transferring their skills to new projects.  They want yes or no answers and can’t handle ambiguity.  Sounds to me like they need more work with creativity!!

I am about to meet one of my professional goals of learning how to encourage creativity in my classroom and I am excited about the opportunity I have to work with Learning Through the Arts.  It is a collaboration between the school board, artists, and schools where artists help teachers to infuse creativity and the arts into any area of curriculum possible!  I know that arts are seen as an add-on that isn’t truly respected, yet I know that the arts are essential to our experiences as humans.  Sadly, “The arts are seen as disposable extras in education; something optional to do with self-expression, relaxation and leisure” (63).  Yet why can’t self-expression, relaxation, and leisure be part of Math, Science, ELA, Social??  Why are we separating students from making personal connections?



I also appreciate Robinson’s discussion about the importance and value that our society has placed on traditional post-secondary education.  He states that “The narrow focus on academic ability and particular disciplines in schools inevitably marginalizes students whose real interests and abilities lie in other domains” (250).  Not ever human is meant to study at university.  Not every student is meant to study at college.  Yet as a society we look down on those who had the creativity and know-how to make it and be successful without being educated.

I am encouraged by some of the advances that I see within my own school system.  They have a Career and Technology centre where students can explore and get involved in all kinds of different areas of learning.  Also, in the CTF courses in Jr High, the curriculum is all about adapting to and creating in the midst of challenges.  I believe that if teachers can get on-board with this kind of planning and teaching then it will influence the core subjects as well.  Robinson writes that “If we fail to promote a full sense of people’s abilities through education and training, some, perhaps most, will never discover what their real capacities are” (123).  Yes the basic are important, yet how do we teach to humans instead of vessels that need filling?



Yes I believe that education is important.  Yet I also believe that we are doing a disservice to some of our students by not catching up with culture: we need to teach kids how to use imagination and innovation to create solutions to complex problems using skills they learn.  There needs to be engagement, buy-in, and a connection to what we teach.  Indeed, “Creativity is not about a lack of constraints; often it is about working within them and overcoming them” (266).  So let’s change together for the better: teachers, parents, Governments, and businesses!



“David was dancing before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6: 14).

My Reading Notes:

“everyone has huge creative capacities as a natural result of being a human being.  The challenge is to develop them.  A culture of creativity has to involved everybody not just a select few” (4).

“Current approaches to education and training are hobbled by assumptions about intelligence and creativity that have squandered the talents and stifled the creative confidence of untold numbers of people” (8).

“education is meant to guide us from childhood to maturity.  It should be high among the ways in which we realize our creative abilities.  More often it is why we lose sight of them” (16).

“our best resource is to cultivate our singular abilities of imagination, creativity, and innovation.  Our greatest peril would be to face the future without investing fully in those abilities” (47).

Education systems: “Far from looking to the future, too often they are facing stubbornly towards the past” (47).

“If creativity is to become central to our futures, it first has to move to the heart of education” (49).

“The arts are seen as disposable extras in education; something optional to do with self-expression, relaxation and leisure” (63).

“The requirements of university entrance have had a direct influence on the nature of the school curriculum and on forms of assessment and public examination..Those who go to university rather than straight into work or vocational training programs are always seen as the real successes of the system” (65-66).

“I know artists, business leaders, dancers, sportspeople, and many others, whose accomplishments, intelligence and humanity are as substantial as anyone I have met with a post-doctoral degree” (66).

“The creative capacities of generations of people have been sacrificed needlessly to an academic illusion” (79).

Enlightenment thinking (technology and medicine advancements): “There has been a heavy price too, not least in the schism of the arts and sciences and the domination of the rationalist attitude, especially in the forms of education to which it has given rise” (98).

“The modern world view is still dominated by the ideology that came to replace medievalism: the ideology of rationalism, objectivity, and propositional knowledge.  These ideas frame our attitudes and theories every bit as much as myth and superstition underpinned the painstaking calculations of the medieval astronomers” (107).

“The creative process is not a single ability that lives in one or other region of the body.  It thrives on the dynamism between different ways of thinking and being” (122).

“If we fail to promote a full sense of people’s abilities through education and training, some, perhaps most, will never discover what their real capacities are” (123).

For Robinson, creativity is “The process of having original ideas that have value” (151).

“Facilitating creative development is a sophisticated process that must find a balance between learning skills and stimulating the imagination to explore new ideas” (161).

“The intellect cannot work at its best without emotional intelligence” (186).

“It is through feelings as well as through reason that we find our real creative power.  It is through both that we connect with each other and create the complex, shifting worlds of human culture” (196).

“Creativity is about making connections and more often than not…it is driven by collaboration as much as, if not more than, by solo efforts” (212).

“The narrow focus on academic ability and particular disciplines in schools inevitably marginalizes students whose real interests and abilities lie in other domains.  Cultivating the full range of students’ talents calls for a broader curriculum and a flexible range of teaching styles…One of the roles of education is to broaden and stretch the interests of students, into areas for which they many not have a natural affinity: it is equally important that they feel their own natural abilities are properly engaged and valued” (250).

“Schools can no longer be academic ghettoes” (264).

“Creativity is not about a lack of constraints; often it is about working within them and overcoming them” (266).

“There are many good teachers whose creative instincts are curbed by standardized education and whose effectiveness is diminished as a result.  A creative culture in schools depends on re-energizing the creative abilities of teachers” (267).

“Teaching for creativity involves asking open-ended questions where there may be multiple solutions; working in groups on collaborative connections between different ways of seeing; and exploring the ambiguities and tensions that may lie between them” (269).

“Assessment should support students’ learning and achievements.  In practice, it tends to dominate the priorities and general ethos of education” (275).

“We must learn to be creative” (286).


“The Book Thief”: more love

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, was the choice of my Jr High book club.  I bought this book seven years ago when I first started teaching and never got around to reading it, so I was grateful for my club of reading fans for picking it as our book to read.  And what a book!!



It was interesting to me that in our first conversation about the book one of the students who had seen the movie adaptation said that she thought God was the narrator, not death.  This opened up a lot of conversations about death and how we talk and think about death. We thought it was interesting how much compassion death had for those he was collecting.  Throughout the novel, death repeated expresses his displeasure and distaste with humanity for the scale of work they create for him.  He reflects on how war is no longer an equal to him, but now a weapon used to destroy others completely.

As we read, the students were truly disturbed by the scenes of the Jewish prisoners being marched into Dachau, yet the approach was new and made them think about Hitler’s Germany in a different way.  They saw from the inside out what it was like for those who tried to resist: jail, concentration camps, sent to the front lines, beaten, whipped, bullied, shunned.

As death describes his work, he shows reverence for humanity and the human spirit.  He shows respect for those who live a full life and die well.  He shows compassion for those who are left behind.  He shows honour in how he perceives the importance of every single soul, even on the nights when he touches thousands of them.



I am happy to say that resilience was a word we were left talking about. Liesel, even after losing her friends and family, is able to continue on.  That ability to cope and live on was inspiring to the students in the book club.  They were devastated by the story Zusak tells and had a hard time moving beyond the cruelty of humans toward other humans.

Yet the worst part was bringing in some Canadian facts: Canadians allowed the cultural genocide of entire Nations and no one seemed to stop that (yet, we all know there are those who spoke for the trees, so to speak).

There are numerous accounts of the Canadian Government conducting experiments on students in Aboriginal residential schools: Psychic experiments, food and nutrition experiments.  Students also died in residential schools without proper records being kept.  Generations of families were broken and separated.  Thousands of children were filled with fear, shame, and guilt.  Culture, language, teachings, and stories were lost and destroyed in order for the Government to get rid of the “Indian Problem” so that they could use the land instead of sharing the land.  We, as Canadians, have a lot to see in our shared history with the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people who we share this land with.



For me The Book Thief was a new way of looking at humanity and the needless suffering we cause by being driven by our fears instead of acting always in love.  The majority of our conversations revolved around the relationships in the book and the connections people had with each out of genuine interest and love.  Walking away from this book I am left with the impression that we need to be reminded of our darkest moments so that we can see how fear and hatred thrive.  In order to live boldly in love, we need to see each other as beautiful humans and honour the beauty in all.

people are beautiful


“What we all want should look a little more like love” (Shad).

“I am haunted by humans” (Death, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).



“Decolonizing Education”: beyond the add-on art project

Marie Battiste’s book Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit has really challenged me!  I picked up Battiste’s book in a effort to learn more about Aboriginal ways of knowing while trying hard not to appropriate a culture that isn’t mine.



With in the first few pages, Battiste lays out some interesting and hard-to-read facts about Aboriginal learners schools: “Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Indigenous peoples throughout the world are feeling the tensions created by a Eurocentric education system that has taught them to distrust their Indigenous knowledge systems, their elders’ wisdom, and their own inner learning spirit.” (Pg 24)   Indeed, that was the goal of Indian Residential Schools.  Get rid of the culture, the language, the religion.  I am happy to say it didn’t work!  Yet, there is a lot of work to be done.  Battiste writes, “Canada must dispense with all notions of superiority, assimilation, and subordination and develop a new relationships with Aboriginal peoples based on sharing, mutual recognition, respect, and responsibility.” (Pg 26)

So as teachers, how do we do this?  I want to make sure that I don’show disrespect by merely throwing in a few stories or artifacts or art projects into my units.  That’s the opposite of what should happen.  Battiste is calling for a shift in how we view education, students, and learning.  When I read the article “Using First Nations icons in school ‘not culturally safe,’ says Ron McLester,” I knew that I was on to something that others were thinking about and talking about.  In the article McLester talks about non-Aboriginal teachers trying to incoporate Aboriginal ways of knowing in the classroom without the proper training and protocol: “What I think the problem is, is having a non-indigenous person using traditional indigenous knowledge in a way that may not be culturally safe or be approved to be authentic by the community.”  So knowing your community and getting connected with the right Elders is crucial.  I love how the articles ends: “The way forward is together,” McLester said. “We share the world, we share the Earth, we share the air, so the future’s together. So let’s do it in a way that is respectful.”

And that’s where my journey is at right now.  I’m connecting with Aboriginal educators to make sure that I am teaching in a way that is respectful.  I’m becoming aware that I teach more and more using a circle, using stories, and sharing common and prior knowledge.  I’m learning along with the students.  I haven’t finished reading Battiste’s book yet because it is a heavy read.  So I continue on, hoping to decolonize the education system, at least in my classroom!



“The current structure helps preserve class structures and a ruling elite rather than sort our everyone according to their inherent capabilities.” (Marie Battiste)

“Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10-25)