Can You Hear Me?

by Stephen Kohner
Teacher, Baie-Comeau High School
On-line SOS Tutor for LEARN

I have been an on-line tutor for LEARN for a number of years now. I tutor one night a week for the SOS Writing Centre during their fall/winter and spring sessions. Students from across the province, who are enrolled in an English school, have access to a number of free on-line tutors Monday to Thursday nights.

I want to tell you of one very recent episode I had that made me understand and truly appreciate the impact, function and beauty of on-line tutoring, in particular of the Zenlive platform that is in use. For those not familiar with this tool, a teacher is able to use an interactive whiteboard, chat, video, PowerPoint, web-based or text based materials in a asynchronous or synchronous manner, delivering it over the Internet (It does a whole lot more…)

One evening, a student signed on, one whom I had never tutored before (we have our repeat customers…). I always begin by asking the student if they can hear me, if they have a microphone, if they can view the interactive whiteboard, etc. It helps me, within a few seconds, to understand what features of Zenlive I can use. I then ask a few personal questions to help me situate them in terms of geographic location, grade level, and school. I follow this up by introducing myself – many are amazed that they are actually in touch with a teacher based in Québec, but located many hundred of kilometers away. The English education sector in Québec is small, so I usually know most of the high schools by name; sometimes I am lucky and I know a teacher in their school. Such was the case one evening back in late February.

I found out that this one student attended an alternative school in Montreal that had a focus on the Arts-  be it music, drama, visual arts or dance. Coincidentally, I knew one teacher from this school since we are on a Quebec Ministry advisory board together. Sure enough, this student had this particular teacher. You can imagine the virtual bond that was instantaneously developed.

I asked the student if she could hear me all right… since there was no response, I instantly began to text chat with her. “No,” she responded. “I do not have speakers or a mic.” We tutor students that have all kinds of different computer realities; we work with what the student has, so I continued to text chat with her. I turned off my mic. Long story short, she was looking for help in writing a piece for a Blue Met project entitled Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Coincidentally, I had worked on that initiative last year with my students so we had yet another connection.

We worked for a good 30 minutes or so (way past the “official” tutoring hours). I had shown her how to write a haiku, so together, using the interactive whiteboard, we came up with a number of them based on music, more specifically, the violin since it was the instrument she played at school. We said good night to each other, and I thought nothing more of the encounter. That is until I met up with her teacher at my next advisory board meeting…

“Do you know the story of X, the girl you had tutored a number of weeks ago?” asked her teacher.

“No… I only know her name, that she plays violin and she attends your school,” I replied.

“Well, let me tell you something… she was born deaf.”

My mind was turning, trying to put the information together… deaf… violinist… huh?

It turns out that she plays violin because it is one of the few instruments that allows her to feel the vibrations. She is gifted in music and taught herself to speak (she does not speak very clearly, hence, the reason why she did not use the microphone to talk with me on-line). She demands a lot of herself and insists on being treated as a “regular” student.

I realized at that point how powerful a tool the on-line classroom environment is to those students with special needs, to those who do not want any special attention, to those whose physical disabilities simply do not show up on screen. This girl came in as a student, used the on-line tutoring platform and never once gave any hint that she, in a regular school, would have been labeled as a special needs student. The online learning/teaching platform provided a detachment from everyday societal judgment. You can imagine how empowering an experience it proved to be…

I find it incredible that students in Quebec, through LEARN, do not have to worry about labels, stereotyping, special treatment, or reputation when they learn on-line. They are who they are – plain and simple – students who need a helping hand from time to time. We, as on-line tutors, deal with their needs, not their “baggage”, or history, or even their IEPs. On-line tutoring is like working blind – and I have learned that that is not a bad thing at all.

SOS LEARN: The Tutors’ Perspective


(c) Jonathan Crowe

SOS LEARN is a free online tutoring and homework help service that has operated through LEARN for the last five years.  The strength of SOS LEARN comes from its tutors, Quebec classroom teachers by day who, by night, transform into Super Tutors, ready to help solve whatever homework problems are thrown their way.

To give you an idea of what these tutors might face in an evening, I spoke with a few tutors for their perspective on why helping students in the evening is so important to them.

The Super Tutors I spoke with are: Stephen Kohner and Nancy Langlois from Eastern Shores School Board, and Neil MacIntosh from Western Quebec School Board.


What is your day job? 

Stephen:  I work at Baie Comeau High School.  Currently, I teach secondary one and two combined for English Language arts and multi-media.  Multi-media complements the ELA program.  In secondary cycle 2 ELA, I have two groups:  secondary 3 and 4 combined and secondary 5 alone.  I also teach secondary 5 Contemporary World history and secondary 3 and 4 history. 

Nancy:  I am a French second language teacher.  I teach at Evergreen High School and I teach sec. 1 to sec. 5 so I have all the levels.  I started tutoring…in 2008. 

Neil:  I am a full-time science teacher this year at Pontiac High School.  I teach secondary 4 Science and secondary  5 Physics.


What are some questions you are commonly asked about tutoring online?

Stephen:  A lot of people cannot even imagine what it is like to not have the student in front of them.  They don’t ask a lot of questions because it is a foreign concept.

Nancy:   I have questions that are asked by colleagues and friends, but as well students.  The first question that they ask me is, “Do you get paid to do that?” (Yes, tutors are paid.)  They also ask me a lot how it works, “Do you have a board? Can you talk to students? Can you write?”  I explain that we can chat orally but also we can type in.  And they also ask me where the students come from, which is often the big region of Montreal.  They want to know how it works.  Some people are afraid of online sessions, so … they just want to know how all this works.

Neil:  They want to know if there is a cost.  No, there is no cost.  What sort of internet access do they need?  (Answer here.)  Can they talk online? (Yes, but they can text chat, too.)

Teachers ask what resources they can access online.  I remind that beyond tutoring there are other programs for students: the Success Checker programs, the videos and course materials, VodZone (all available from LEARN Homepage.)


Describe the interaction with students in an online tutoring session.

Stephen:  A lot of times they want to work on a particular piece of writing, a particular genre.  The other thing that they really want help in is revision.  They bring in their work and they put it on the white board, or they e-mail it to me.  Often the sentence structure or the flow of ideas needs to be tweaked to make the piece much more fluid.

Nancy:  We often think that because it is online, the human part won’t be there but I am realizing that is not the case.  It is often the same customers that come back.  They do create a relationship with us.  When there is no SOS LEARN, they ask me when it is starting again. 

Neil:  I tend to like it when they come with a specific problem to work on.  Otherwise, I invent a question, or take one from a text.

I enable the students from the get-go to draw the question themselves so that they pick up the technology.   I unlock the tools and they write the question on the board themselves.  That way, they take ownership of the problem.


How do you deal with multiple students being in an online session at the same time?

Stephen:  If it is very busy, I sometimes ask students to come back in a few minutes and so then I can give them very individualized attention. 

Nancy:  In languages, it is easier, because it’s not linear, so I am able to deal with it better than in math.  I ask all the students that are online with me if they have homework.  That is a priority.   If needed, I ask the students to come back in a little while.  Sometimes, I have students that come in and they don’t have any work to do.  They just want to practice their French.  If I have a student that has homework and another student that doesn’t, I will scan the work and send it to the student who has no homework and we work on it as a team. I have all the books at home and a printer that scans so I send it by e-mail.

Neil:  Students are very patient and very respectful. They take turns.

Sometimes they wind up helping each other.  We work through questions together.  It tends to be one-on-one, but the kids wind up enjoying listening and sponging up knowledge from the questions others ask when there is a larger group.


How does tutoring at night impact your daytime teaching or vice versa? 

Stephen:  I find that the online tutoring gives me a better understanding of what is going on in the province in terms of ELA.  There is no other secondary ELA teacher at Baie Comeau High School, so the other ELA tutor, Phil, who does two of the nights of SOS, is one of the closest teachers to me, not in terms of collegiality, but in bouncing ideas off because we can each see what the other has done with students the night before.  We have never met each other but we’ve got this bond, in terms of belonging to a wider community.

Nancy:  It made me more familiar with issues that cities have to deal with like out of province students or new immigrants who have French as a third or fourth language.

The other impact that it had is that I am using more and more technology in my classroom, I have a Smart Board, so I am integrating that and discovering websites that I used for LEARN and am now using in my classroom.

Neil:  It makes me aware of the areas of confusion that students have so I relate that back to my classroom situation and determine areas where I might need to concentrate more.

I just enjoy it!


What aspect(s) of teaching online do you wish you could import into your school classroom?

Stephen:  I am away from my class quite a bit for meetings and what I would like to be able to do is to use the online platform Zenlive and have my students listen to me while I am away.  I am also intrigued by the use of the online classroom described in Audrey’s blog.

Nancy:  I have two.  The first one is motivation.  The students who come online come here because they want help.  You don’t have to deal with their motivation, it’s already there.

The other thing is the students are really respectful and they appreciate so much the help they are getting.  I have no students who leave my SOS classroom without saying, “Thank you!  I really appreciate it.  You helped me tonight.” Usually students tell me every night and usually they say it twice.  They say it and they type it in the chat log.

The goal is to make a difference and to help them the best we can, and you feel like you are doing so.

Neil:  I wonder about using Zenlive in class to bring people into my class for a presentation.  I was recently talking to some third year teaching students at Bishop’s.   I had to cobble together a variety of tools.  But with Zenlive, I could have controlled the classroom myself.

Budgets are shrinking.  We go to face-to-face meetings where we have established relationships, but after that we could meet online.  Not much technical expertise is required to use the platform.


Describe one session when you knew you were really helping a student.

Stephen:  [Stephen told me a wonderful story in response to this question.  It was so wonderful, in fact, that I asked him to use it as the basis for his own post for the LEARN blog.)

Nancy:  Some students had written assignments to do, a text to write. And they had problems with that, with the introduction, the development, the conclusion. I would ask them to do a fast e-mail and then I posted it on the board.  I would help them edit, so we would edit together and I would explain all the grammar and sentence structure as we worked on their writing.  I was helping them and teaching them at the same time.

I also try to give students different websites and tools to be able to fix their problems when I am not there.

 Neil:  That’s easy.  There was a secondary 5 class a few years ago that lost their teacher near the end of the year and I wound up essentially teaching that class at night time.  All of them passed the final exam.  I got a huge amount of thanks.


To help get a better idea of what SOS LEARN online tutoring and homework help looks like, and to hear from a few more Super Tutors, please watch our short video (click on the SOS logo to view.)



Listen Up!

(c) T.J. Lentz

by Michael Canuel

I have a confession to make.  I know that many of you will certainly think less of me once you have finished this article, but I feel the time has come to share my thoughts on a subject about which many of you feel quite passionate.  In fact, if you never speak to me again, I will understand and respect your decisions, but I hope you will at least give my perspective some small consideration.
Let me start by saying that initially I did not feel this way.  It took a while but after living the experience over and over again, I am convinced I am right and justified.

Enough with the temporizing!  Here is my declaration.  I prefer audiobooks to regular paperback or hardcover books .  There!  I have said it.  Out in the open and I can’t take it back.  Now give me the opportunity to explain what happened, and maybe you will have a little sympathy.

The fault lies not with the paper book, dear reader, but with electronic gadgetry and Black Russian Terriers.  Five years ago, I adopted a Black Russian Terrier, and her name is Tess.  When she came to live with my family, she weighed less than ten pounds.  Today at over a hundred pounds she needs to be walked regularly and five minute strolls do not suffice.  Today I walk no less than an hour a day.  I am fit thanks to my dear Tess, but she is partially to blame for my conversion to audiobooks.  The second factor is my iPhone which is loaded to the hilt with audio books.  In fact, in the last three years I have spent an average of $1500 annually on audio- books alone.  I listen to everything.  Fiction.  Non-fiction.  Biographies.  Bestsellers.  Award winners.  Classics.  Pulp.  I am an eclectic listener.  You may decide to categorize me as lacking in taste and judgment.   (I just finished the complete Hunger Games Trilogy after re-visiting William Faulkner’s Light in August).

My rationale was very simple.  If I am walking, or driving (please no lecture on the hazards) I felt this was time I could make useful and productive by listening to books.  Slowly, but surely, I became addicted.  More and more.  I have special status at the iTunes store and with

While you gather your breath and try to assimilate what I have confessed to you, let me tell you that I still do read paper books, and electronic books, and all sorts of printed material.  I even read books off my iPhone just to vary my sources.  In fact, rarely do I have less than three or four books going all at once.  I love reading.  I just have come to love listening to books more than I do reading them.

My background includes a nerdy adolescence where I was a part of rowdy group of guys who formed their own book club and competed at the St. Laurent library.  We would see who could read the most books in a week.  The librarians stamped our cards and we never returned anything late.  That was unthinkable.  We were so nerdy we tested one another to make sure we completed the books we took out.  We read everything from the Hardy Boys to Schopenhauer who quite appropriately said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”  What became self-evident for me was that reading is an unnatural act.  We have to be taught to read, that is, to decipher symbols which form letters, ascribe sounds to these letters, then join the letter sounds together to make word sounds and then ascribe a meaning to the word, then combine the words into sentences which in turn have a collective meaning.  Or something along those lines.  I know that once you are adept, reading stops being anything mechanical and almost a natural act.  But it remains only almost natural.

For most of us, hearing comes naturally, so listening which is focused hearing is easy.  No one taught me to listen to birds singing, or really to identify the different chirping of nuthatches or chickadees.  I heard, and I listened naturally.

At first listening to an audio book required that I stop looking to turn the page, or that I close my eyes to pay attention.  Walking a big dog through the woods with your eyes closed is not a recommended activity.  What did happen is that I started to visualize the characters much the way I do when I read paper books.  I could see and feel and experience everything the way I always had.  But I was walking.  I was outdoors.  Rain, snow, sleet.  Nothing has kept me from walking and walking.  There are times Tess wonders if we are ever going back.  We eventually do as the battery on my iPhone has certain limitations, but once charged, I am ready to start again.

Now I can hear some of your saying you prefer your big leather-bound novel, a cup of tea and a roaring fireplace to my electronic substitute.  I am not saying I am adverse to any of that, but my preference has changed over the years.  I recall how my children loved having their parents read to them.  The sound of the book long before they could read themselves resonated in an indefinable way.  The comfort of the sound.   The escape into the words they heard and the development of imagination.  My wife and I were our children’s first audio books in a very real way.

And here is the relevance to lifelong learning.  Audio books offer an interesting and powerful alternative for those who are challenged in any number of ways.  The number of titles and variety of choices continues to grow at an incredible pace.  The iPhone, or any of its myriad substitutes, makes literature in its countless forms accessible.  Those whose eyes are failing have access to a magnificent library, or those who have never been able to decipher the symbols and letters can come to appreciate everyone from Plato to Plath.  (Okay, Plath is never “enjoyed”, but she is appreciated.)

Before writing this tell-all confession, I did some research to see if I could find anything which would support my point of view.  To my surprise, there is lots of solid research which highlights the value of audiobooks, some dating back to 1995.  One of the interesting points is that listening to a book, one is likely to remember more completely and for a longer period of time than one who reads conventionally.  There is lots of evidence as well regarding the value of listening as a means to learn to read.  Now all of this you may argue, may be simply justification for my switch from reading to listening.  You may argue I am growing old and lazy.  You may be right.  However, as the light fails, and my eyes are no longer able to connect me to regular books, my ears and mind will be tied to the umbilical cord which is my headset and iPhone.

Call me what you want, I have gone over to the dark side.

For more:

Benefits of Audiobooks for All Readers by Denise Johnson

Recorded Books in K-12 Blog –

Learn Out Loud –







Memories From the Field: Looking back on a teacher’s experience

(c) Todd Berman

by Melanie Stonebanks

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry (we) pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. – Paulo Freire

In the fall of 1992 a wide eyed naive young woman sat on a teacher’s desk scanning an empty classroom in a public elementary school located in the inner-city of Montreal, Québec.  Having recently graduated from the Department of Education at McGill University she was filled with ideas of how she was going to make a difference in the lives of her students.  With a box full of illustrated picture books and a file folder of activities she knew that she was where she was meant to be and that the next few months were going to be the best ones of her life.  After all, she had been so successful in her suburban neighbourhood working with the children at her local church, community pool and park; the perfect archetype of the North American teacher.  How different could it be teaching children in this milieu?  They would love her and all that she was going to bring to them.

Fast forward a month.

A young man sits on the second floor balcony of his apartment in Notre-Dame de Grace, Montreal.  He has just returned from teaching a day of physical education to some elementary aged children.  It has been a good day.  He calmly strums away a melody on his guitar humming and thinking carefree thoughts.  His eyes look out down the adjacent street and he sees an old woman who appears to be not only carrying two heavy bags in her hands but the weight of the world on her shoulders as well.  He watches as she shuffles along for a couple of steps, lays down her burdens and with shoulders shaking obviously sobs before continuing on her way.  He is filled with empathy for what this poor old thing must be dealing with.  Suddenly, he sits up.  A dawning recognition sweeps over him.  As the figure approaches, he realizes that it is not some aged bag lady but his girlfriend coming home from her teaching day.

Whatever preparation that young woman thought she had, whatever advantage of race, socioeconomic status, religion (and even gender in the elementary school environment) she possessed, did not prepare her for the challenges of the urban/inner-city schools and clientele. Those dreams, my dreams, of sharing my love for language arts came to a crashing halt in a context I, given my university education, had little right in which to teach.  I found myself, during many long sleepless nights, wondering why my degree did not specify limiting my teaching boundaries to only reproducing education to those like me.

I must admit that I hate it when my husband, compares his experience going to the same schools as I did.  After all, his elementary school was not only within the same school board, but was a mere five to ten blocks away from my own and we went to the same high school. How is it possible that his schooling experiences differed so much from my own? However, I am well aware that our individual student histories did much to shape how we approached teaching in the system a number of years later.

For Melanie, a person who loved her elementary school experience, anything that approached critical perspectives of her beloved home away from home was a personal affront. For Christopher, a person who felt elementary school was something to endure, theory of education provided an exploratory window into understanding experience and changing schools. Certainly, the fact that we both grew up in a homogeneous, White, Christian, middle class neighbourhood and until some ten years ago, public schools in Québec, Canada were either streamed as Protestant or Catholic, played an integral role in our experiences in school, as Melanie was a reflection of the system and Christopher was not. (Stonebanks & Stonebanks, 2008, p.2)


The years I spent teaching in the elementary classroom were fraught with many inner battles of attempting to make sense of the disconnect between my personal school and home life experiences and those of my students.  Our lives, in almost every way seemed to be dissimilar and therefore the ideals that I brought with me into their classroom did not always serve them in the best possible way.  My memories though of my years in the classroom are happy ones that I will cherish forever.   And, having bumped into one of my former grade 2 students in the elevator at McGill University, in her final year of the Bachelor of Education program, where she told me that I was the reason she had decided to go into the field of teaching, I am confident that I was able to successfully support the learning of my young charges. Add to that a phone call from one of my husband’s university students who had decided to enter into the field of education despite her family repeatedly telling her that it would be too difficult a battle for a young Muslim woman sporting a hijab.  She had been a grade 5 student of mine during my first year of teaching.  I had brought my husband into my urban/inner-city class on a variety of occasions for support and “street cred” as his brown skin and Iranian, Muslim heritage gave me an instant stamp of approval in this multicultural milieu.  It was actually his presence in the classroom that allowed this young Pakistani Muslim girl to see herself in the role of teacher. It was a naive and even shoddy attempt at acceptance, but in the absence of any efforts by other teachers to even try and bridge the wide chasm of “them vs. us”, it worked. All I wanted to do was try and get the children to love reading and writing as much as I did, and rather than think critically about the subject, material and the methods, my attempts focussed on building relationships. Not that this is an unworthy goal, but in the absence of the aforementioned aspects to critically examine, what I was basically imparting was a sentiment of “trust me and you’ll see that I am, ‘we’ are right”, rather than questioning the foundation and purpose of literacy.

Were I to return to the classroom, would I do things differently now?  Would I be more in tuned with the reality of what I needed to do to create a curriculum that fostered critical literacy so that my students would be able to transfer their questions and perspectives from the safety of the classroom into the outside world?  Would I be a better reflective practionner, able to observe and analyze the teaching and learning exchanges taking place on a daily basis in order to modify and improve my craft?  The answer that comes without any surprise is most definitely.  However, I feel that it is important to re-examine and reflect on my early years in the field, mistakes and all, so that I might at least be an example of how living, loving and learning about critical literacy is a never-ending evolution and that each and every one of us has the ability to ourselves be a project of possibility.

Join me in my next few posts as I will share some of my early classroom attempts to engage my students in critical literacy experiences.  There will be some successes and some misses along the way.  Nonetheless, there will much to think about and hopefully enough to inspire those of you out there in the field right now.  More soon!


References for further reading:

Freire, P. (c1993, 2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum.

Stonebanks, C. D. & Stonebanks, M. (2008). Religion and Diversity in our Classrooms. in Shirley R. Steinberg (Ed). Diversity: A Reader. New York:  Peter Lang Publishing.