Category Archives: Teaching

“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)




“Back Where I Belong”: finding joy again

Ever since hearing the words “Black coat, white shoes, black hat, Cadillac” on the radio in 1995, I have been a fan of the band Rancid. Over the years, their songs of social justice, righteous anger, and calls for change have spoken to me and have encouraged and challenged me. I have bought every single album they have released and I have yet to be disappointed.


Rancid just put out a new album: …Honor is All We Know. As soon as I popped the CD into my car stereo the very first song on the album made me smile and laugh to myself. The first song on the album is “Back Where I Belong.” That is exactly how I have been feeling lately and I couldn’t help but laugh that my favourite band was able to express what I was struggling to put into words! It was like meeting up with a friend who was able to hear what I was saying while seeing through all of the details and was able to repeat back my own thoughts with clarity and precision. I’m back where I belong.

“I’ve been gone way too long and I’m back where I belong.”

2015 is a better year. 2013 I thought was one of the worst, and then 2014 happened. So, 2015!


Why do I feel that I’m back where I belong?

Reason One: I have found joy at work.
I love teaching. I love literature. I love teenagers. Last year I was not encouraged, I was only teaching part time while subbing the other 0.5, and I did not experience joy at work. Since January, my co-workers have made an effort to make our department a place of joy and encouragement. Just last week, I received two anonymous notes of encouragement from my colleagues. Likewise, I was able to pass along some nice encouragement notes to some of my colleagues. That sense of joy and excitement to share my lessons, to work together with like-minded people, and to celebrate our successes we have had with our students have changed everything. I feel like I am back to how I want to be as a teacher and that is because of the support of those around me. I not longer feel like I am working in isolation and it feels great to be part of a team again!


Reason Two: Aboriginal way of knowing.
Since January, at work we have been looking closely at the Circle of Courage and how that leads to being a better educator. I learned this weekend at the Royal Alberta Museum that of the 70 Medicine Wheels in North America, 50 are within Alberta. So it feels like it makes sense to adopt and practice the Aboriginal way of knowing/ Circle of Courage in my teaching practice. The Circle of Courage looks at four areas: Belonging, Independence, Mastery, and Generosity. In order to fully complete and balanced, all four areas need to work together. A deficient or a surplus on one area means that the balance is off. In order to help each other become well-rounded, it is important to us to encourage, challenge and support each other in each area. As a teacher, this has helped me in establishing my classroom and in showing students that mastery is not the only goal of education.

Growing up, I spend years in Winnipeg. That city is rich with Aboriginal and Metis culture. For a long time I even thought that it was part of my own personal heritage. I truly enjoyed the learning about his aspect of Canadian identity and it was hard for me to move to Ontario where there was no mention of our First Nations and where Louis Riel was seen as a traitor and a rebel deserving of death. So, any chance I get to explore and experience Metis or FNMI culture, I try to embrace that way of knowing. For me, the adoption of the Circle of Courage in my place of work has felt right and good and I am continuing to explore how this reawakening will influence my practice and my way of being with others.

Ribstones, Viking, Alberta

Ribstones, Viking, Alberta


Reason Three:Sweet surprises.
Before the words “Pay it Forward” I had “Sweet Surprises.” Growing up, one of my favourite kid’s books was called “Sweet Surprise.” I have no idea who wrote the story and I can’t seem to find an image online, yet this book was revolutionary for me. Doing nice things for people without looking for a reward or acknowledgement. Spreading joy and surprises to others just to bring them joy.

I decided to go back to the premise this year. I wrote up a bunch of “Sweet Surprises” and put them into a decorated canister. Every once in a while, I’ll draw out a paper and see what sweet surprise is waiting for me to share with others. So far I have pulled out these surprises:
-send puns to friends
-buy Mom flowers
-take a moment–right now!–and DANCE
-send a gift to your sister

I have had so much fun putting together these surprises and then seeing the joy of the recipients has double my joy. I feel like I’m returning to my childhood roots of finding joy by spreading and giving joy. So, the Sweet Surprises will continue to happen.


After a few months (and even years) of feeling lost, I finally back where I belong. It’s been a long time, but I’m back.

“It’s a long, it’s a long, long way home / Man, I’ve been gone way too long and I’m back where I belong.” (Rancid)
“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22)


“The Impossible Knife of Memory”: finding a voice

When high school students want to talk about literature outside of the classroom, that is an exciting moment! This year, along with two other teachers, I am helping to run the school’s Book Club. I find it interesting that the group chose a book with such a strong-voiced protagonist because all I can think of is books like Twilight and the books by Ellen Hopkins. These teenagers must be looking for a voice that they are not able or not confident enough to embody on their own. In The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, the narrator is 18 year-old Hayley Kincain who lives with her father, an recent veteran of the US Army, and the novel tells the story of surviving high school while living with a father who has PTSD.

I did enjoy the novel, but I have enjoyed the conversations with the Book Club even more. Some of the members of the Book Club have such sad stories, that they can relate to the miserable life of Hayley Kincain. In the novel, Hayley has blocked a lot of her early childhood memories because they were so volatile and hurtful. For the girls reading this book in the high school, they can relate to the absent father, to the stress of war, to the pain of having a rough childhood full of fighting, and also the heartbreak of wanting friends yet not being able to let others in to their lives. I am continually reminded in my job as a teacher that teenagers are amazing humans beings.

Yes, I enjoyed the novel and the discussions with the Book Club members, but as I read I kept thinking of the film Hurt Locker. I remember seeing this film; it stayed with me for days. I could not imagine the stress and the trauma that these men and women experienced. I think that is why I enjoyed reading The Impossible Knife of Memory. As much as Hayley tries to suppress her childhood and the bad memories and as much as her father tries to suppress his memories of fighting in war, those memories still surface and do act like a knife, cutting deep into the goodness of life. For me, and I’m sure for many, one of the most haunting scenes in Hurt Locker is when the soldier is back home and is trying to do something as simple as buy cereal. The clip of the scene really is powerful.


For teens, seeing an example of two people who deal with their horrible memories and the fall-out of those memories allows them to see what could happen in their own lives: the experience of reading the book answers some of their ‘what-if’ questions. Our final discussion on the book is after Christmas Break, and I can’t wait to hear what they thought of the entire novel and it’s significance to their own lives.

“I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.” (Kofi Annan)