Tag Archives: digital culture

All Fun and Games: Gamifying a Language Classroom

Photo credit: jonesytheteacher CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo credit: jonesytheteacher CC BY-SA 2.0

In February, I attended a session at the LCEEQ conference given by Avi Spector on Gamification. I was skeptical, as gamification is getting a lot of press from corporate training and marketing folks, and we don’t always see eye to eye on classroom practice issues.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when Avi presented an action-research project that he had undertaken with an FLS teacher in the Adult Ed. sector at CQSB, Catherine Boisvert. Now, before you say to yourself: “Oh no, Adult Sector is not for me, that’s not my reality, I teach kids”, remember that the Quebec Adult Ed. sector is geared towards students over the age of 16, so many students are actually not much older than those in regular secondary classrooms. Moreover, I discovered that the gamification model is so universally applicable across ages, that its principles are valuable no matter what level you teach. If you have read the blog before, you might know that I am a BIG proponent of action-research as a model for professional learning. We learn and grow as educators when we try sound pedagogical approaches, reflect on our experience, adjust and try again. So, without further ado, here are some key points from my interview with Avi Spector:

What is Gamification?

Avi discusses his definition of gamification and how it compares to game-based learning. Important distinction!

*Note: currently, the videos are only available on a computer. We are working to have them available on mobile devices shortly!

Reasons and Motivations for the Project

I spoke to Catherine Boisvert, the teacher whose classroom was the laboratory for the gamification experiment, via Skype last week. She works with teenagers and young adults whose pathway through traditional schooling was not always successful. Catherine had this to say about her reasons for agreeing to participate in this pedagogical innovation in her classroom:

Catherine Boisvert, CQSB

I was looking for ways to jazz up my curriculum. I work in a learning center with a small group of very disparate students, all working at varying levels of French language ability. I wanted to make my classes more dynamic and to move away from the self-perception about their abilities with which the students were coming. I get a lot of students who come into my class the first day and say to me: “I’m not good at French” – they label themselves as not being good students right off the bat. I wanted for them to have this gaming spirit, the same perseverance that came through when they talked to me about the games they played. I was really inspired by the idea of failing forward, of using mistakes as opportunities to try another strategy, or a new way of doing. I wanted to take the drama out of mistakes and have students say to themselves: “It’s ok, it doesn’t matter, I’m just going to try again”. I also wanted students to feel as though they had all the tools necessary to pass the exam, and for this, I needed them to do a lot of practicing. I didn’t want this work to feel like a burden, I wanted it to be fun.

The Six Principles of Gamifying your Curriculum

These are the guiding principles that Avi and Catherine followed when designing the gamified learning environment.


The model used by Catherine and Avi

Avi provides an overview of the setup in Catherine’s FLS classroom.

Outcomes of the Experiment

Catherine talked to me about her ongoing experience this past school year:

I had students in my class who really didn’t put in very much effort before. Less than the minimum, in fact. After the gamification model was put into place, these same people would submit work and demand feedback so they could win stars. When I would say to them “Well, I’m hesitating between one and two stars” their reaction would be “What do you mean? Give that back, I’m going to change it so I can get two stars!” They never would have said that before! It’s as though they weren’t taking the evaluation so personally anymore, it wasn’t a label that they felt they had to stick on themselves – I’m good, I’m no good. These labels are so immovable and students really feel powerless when they buy into them. I see that students feel more in control of their learning – they feel that they have the power to get one, two or three stars. As Avi would say, they feel a greater sense of agency. I noticed that even when they are trying to convince me to give them more starts, they are actually referring to their work and the clearly stated outcomes: “What do you mean I didn’t use enough comparative language. Here, I wrote ‘more than’, and ‘as much as’ and ‘similarly'”. So the learning is actually very deep and metacognitive.

Students are also more clear about expected outcomes, because the outcomes are part of the ‘game’. They are better able to make links between essential knowledge and the situations in which you apply that knowledge. This also gives them more choice as to the ways that they can demonstrate competency growth, within the LES structure that I’m using. My students no longer see tasks and objectives as obstacles to getting a good grade. They see them rather as opportunities to ‘level up’.

My biggest challenge was a cultural one. I do have students who come from cultures where school and learning are a serious business. It was more difficult to get them into the spirit of the ‘game’, because of the perception that if you’re having fun, you can’t possibly be learning. Also, next year, I won’t be starting the project in January. Starting right away in September will mean that there won’t be a disconnect midway through the year.

(Stay tuned for a blog post featuring my whole interview with Catherine Boisvert from CQSB en français, bien sûr!)

Are you working on a Gamification project in your classroom or network? I would love to hear about your experience.


Avi Spector is a pedagogical consultant with the RECIT FGA and the Riverside School Board. His provincial mandate is to support General Adult Education teachers from the nine English School Boards. You can tweet him @a_spector

All of his Gamification workshop materials can be found on his Pinterest board www.pinterest.com/avimspector

Catherine Boisvert is a French Second Language / Francization teacher at the Eastern Québec Learning Centre in the Central Quebec School Board.


The Tablet in the Room: Tablet Technology in Kindergarten

iPad in KTablets, most often though not exclusively iPads, are fast making their way into the class.  I’ve often been asked whether they should be put in the hands of kindergarten children and, in my answers, I sometimes find myself skating around a variety of key words that include play, 21st century, meaningful, and, key of keys, the Quebec Preschool Education Program.

So, I thought I’d try to put a bit of order in my thoughts.

Technology is ubiquitous in the lives of our students. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. As preschool educators, we should rather ask questions such as “Can a tablet help us… and if so, how?” and “What practices will enrich the Preschool classroom environment in keeping with the preschool mandate”.

One thing is certain, the tablet’s portability, long battery life, ease of use, and multiplicity of specialised apps/tools make it a game changer as compared to computers, even laptops.

So, how could we use it?

Heart1smLet’s be clear: it’s not the tablet we’re talking about but rather the apps that we’ll be using and how we will be using them. So, before judging apps, I decided to establish a reflection grid to help decide whether an app can fit into our activities and our class organisation in a way that is in keeping with the Québec Preschool Education Program. The preschool mandate is the first item. Note that it is NOT one of formal instruction and subject areas.  Then, I made 4 columns which highlight four key aspects:

  • The central place of PLAY, i.e. meaningful activities and various forms of play to master reality.
  • its DEVELOPMENTAL rather than instructional approach which fosters the emergence of strong foundations for future schooling. Learning activities should foster the motor and psychomotor, emotional, social, and cognitive dimensions of development.
  • the CLASS ORGANISATION that supports play and active participation in stimulating environments in and out of the classroom (gym, school yard, community, nature, etc) which invite children to observe, explore, manipulate, etc.
  • and finally, its PEDAGOGICAL EVALUATION through the observation and analysis of the children’s attitudes, behaviours, processes, strategies and productions to document their progress and inform our interventions.
    (QEP p. 52)

Just one more tool

The easiest first step in using a tablet is to find a few applications that we can add to the list of tools that we already use.  So, when asking the children to make a picture in the context of an activity, some might use paint, some crayons, and others could use a Drawing app. If you’re setting up a math center with sequencing games, you might include the tablet with an appropriate app.  A Book app (that’s an app that displays a book and includes interactive features) can be used to listen to or read an animated story in a large group, immersing the children in a large screen experience You will still stop, ask questions, ask the children to anticipate, and use all the strategies you normally use when reading to them from a picture book. Later, the children can read or listen to the story in the reading corner and use its interactive features on their own.

Do your activity differently

But be forewarned. Using the app as an added tool in your usual way of doing things usually leads to discovering that the functionalities embedded in the app let you go a step further and imagine new aspects to the activity, enriching it with new twists.

The built-in still and video Camera app is perhaps the easiest and most versatile first tool to use. The camera can be used to create traces of learning, included in the child’s picture portfolio with ease, and brought out when assessing or meeting parents. The children could record their own reflections. They can use it in many other ways, for example

  • Take pictures during a visit to … (fill in the blanks).  Back in class, you project them and together, retell the story of the visit.

With pictures readily available in the Camera Roll it is easy to use them in a variety of contexts.

  • The Camera app, in conjunction with a simple Video Creation app can be used by the children to retell a field trip, to present a science project’s observations (hatching monarch butterflies, germinating  seeds, etc.)
  • With experience and a good Book Creation app, you might help the children create a book from the pictures, a book which can be posted and shared so it can be viewed at home where the children can retell the activity/story in their own words. Some book creation apps allow voice recording.  They all let you write text.  Can you begin to see the possibilities over time? Imagine the children making an alphabet book from pictures they take, pictures of themselves shaping a letter. It would include text and voice. That book could circulate at home as well as be viewed in your reading corner.
  • The email sharing functionality in most creation apps lets you imagine an activity in which an Audio Recording app is be used by the children to make an audio greeting card which they send by email.

Are we still within our evaluation parameters: constructivist, real-life, developmental, conducive to our observing a rich collection of attitudes, behaviours, processes, strategies and productions to analyse and assess? You bet!

Open-ended and creative

There are many applications that allow the children to create in electronic media. You would use them in a variety of contexts, within a meaningful activity or learning situation, just like you use all the other media in your class. But what is new is that, over time and with experience, you can now imagine projects with a scope that was impossible to imagine before.

  • Your school has a policy of inviting next year’s crop of K children to show them the ropes? How about making a video to show them the school, to present the adults they’ll get to know (interviews), to show them what they will be doing in kindergarten and how much fun it is (videos and pictures)? This would be a major end of year project that targets all the competencies.
  • And what about opening the class to the world: talk to buddies in other countries using the Skype app – we may have cows in our fields but they get to see kangaroos or whales or … (fill in the blanks).
  • Extend their reading experience by meeting the author of their favourite book on Skype; then create your own book to send to the author.

Do not judge an app by its colour

By this I mean, it may look game-like, it may sound joyous, be animated but that doesn’t mean it fits into the kindergarten classroom play-based environment of discovery, experimentation and development. Many apps on the market have little or no pedagogical value.  You’ll find books that are the equivalent of their paper version, instructional apps, the alphabet/counting/spelling/make-a-genius-out-of-your-child type, that are really just enhanced drill and practice.  If you are looking for “games” to play on the tablet, look for apps that focus on cognitive abilities: logic, memory, strategy games, puzzles, games that can be played in pairs to encourage talk and problem solving. These will enrich the collection of materials you already use in class and they are in line with the Learnings Related to Cognitive Development (QEP, p.68).

Based on teacher experience, the LEARN Kindergarten Web site is building a list of a few apps that have been used in the K class and pass the Evaluation Grid test. And so, in the end, it all comes down to starting with an understanding of what makes our preschool classroom unique and bringing in the tool in a way that preserves that essence.

Further reading

  1. Recit du préscolaire: La tablette tactile
  2. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development: Play, what can be done.
  3. Child Development Institute: “Play is the Work of the Child” Maria Montessori
  4. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development : School Age Children Development and Parenting Tips
  5. Blog: Play Based Classroom. A preschool educator shares her experiences.


3 a.m. blogging, and why social sciences (/school) should be social, and public!

Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff
Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff

First I will partially explain the title, as NOT being because my new baby boy woke me up earlier at 2 a.m.  It’s about what kept ringing in my head afterwards, and the fact that it continued to ring at all. In part it was because I knew I was going to be writing this blog entry for others, for public consumption.  That’s what made it important enough to keep me awake, to drag me out of bed, again, to seek out tea and cookies and finally a keyboard. And likewise, it certainly was not because I was being marked on it, or because my job depended on it.  It was instead because I had an idea I thought was worth sharing. And also, it was because something of me was about to end up “shared” on the web, and I wanted that something to be made up of my ideas, or at least in this case my slant on a lot of other people’s ideas.  I wanted to represent myself.

These two profound ideas resurfaced for me recently during a highly inspiring workshop I attended by Tanya Avrith, a Digital Citizenship Teacher for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and a pioneer of their Digital Citizenship Program. On the one hand, she helped me reflect on why my other (teenage) son’s school assignments always ended up in the garbage. They were for marks, nothing more.  And as to the other idea, she alerted me to something very important that I hadn’t ever considered, to the fact that my older son already had an extensive digital/internet footprint, mostly made up things he wouldn’t be proud of, and more often than not of things others wrote about him, pictures he didn’t take, etc.  Not an ideal situation for someone searching for schools and jobs, whose college registrars and future employers would be Googling my older son’s unfortunately uncommon name.

For a Better Online Reputation, from LifeHacker
Better Online Reputation @ LifeHacker

The question is, why does this happen to him and so many others, this accumulation of embarrassing memories? It’s not for lack of information, not because he hadn’t been warned about the risks and told about the complexities of  life online. It was because, and I agreed with Tanya on this, that no knowledgeable adults regularly followed him there, to guide him and set examples.  And also… it was because none of his good work, his school work let’s say, followed him there either, to offset all the questionable traces left by others.

Already 5 a.m. and my work day about to begin, so that brings me back to thinking about my main dossier at LEARN, and if and how ideas like this might apply to the Social Sciences (History, Geography, Economics, Ethics in some programs, etc.). These subjects are “academic disciplines concerned with society and human nature” and as such they do serve to engage past and present events and issues, but usually from within the school walls. Obviously you can see from what I presented above I don’t think avoiding the internet during student activities is fair to our students on a personal and on a career-related level, but more than that, I think it is especially ineffective and inappropriate in the Social Sciences.

The Social Sciences Perspective

Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC
Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC

Let’s start with what I mean by ineffective. In the social science competencies we examine, establish and balance the facts, we interpret realities then we learn ways to voice our opinions. For me these basic skills read like a list of things one cannot do effectively, not in this day and age, by avoiding the digital, social and public space that is the Internet.

Examining what? Balancing exactly what facts? When it comes to subjects like history and geography, are we really talking about facts in textbooks alone? Are we meant to avoid current sources and interpretations, meant to ignore the news and the myriad opinions of the non-experts, the young and the old, and the stories from those who “were actually there”?  Sure, the number of sources in our digital world is vast, and many are even unreliable, but is that a reason to filter them out or avoid them altogether? Shouldn’t we be teaching students how to sift through them, how to use search engines effectively, how to compare online sources?

Interpreting, but how?  Voicing our opinions, but how, where, and for whom?  When we talk of creating good citizens, do we really mean to create citizens who avoid interpreting events, past and present, based on current representations of those events? Do we want to form students who can only write their opinions in a laboratory, for their teacher’s eyes only? In the real world, modern historians … Okay, I will get to that one a bit later, for now let’s say…people. In the real world people balance and reflect on all kinds of sources. They might read the Gazette, catch a clip from CNN, then watch a feature documentary on CBC. They might actually look it up in a library. In Quebec even Anglophones check out La Presse occasionally, or watch half of  Tout le monde en parle on Sunday nights.

From flickr user cliff1066™
Fleeing Kosovo. Flickr user cliff1066™

The world has opened up, and mobile devices help.  BBC and Al Jazeera now offer great English-language news services on devices like the iPad, and following a link from any of the above sources can now lead you to unexpected places, to bloggers and tweeters on the ground in Israel, Africa, China or Iran, to powerful and personal images shared via Flickr that scatter a thousand words worth of information across your screen in an instant.

Okay, not all people balance and reflect. In the real world, people also read short articles recommended by friends on Facebook. Are those documents the best sources of information too? Maybe, and maybe not. But either way this is one way people, probably even academics, get information, by sifting through even these social sources, through all sources.

So, given all that, then where do people, or let us now say citizens, effectively voice opinions?  Perhaps not on Facebook, which doesn’t lend itself to “reasoning historically” and doesn’t encourage one to really develop an articulate argument. But maybe, maybe even on Facebook, and that possibility is key here to what I am trying to say. What guides educators should be this:  any forum that allows and inspires students to articulate their opinion, and encourages and allows them to examine, establish facts, compare, accept and understand difference, any forum that does that is good.

For whom?

Okay, now it is a few days later and I am in the café across from my local, public library, and I am thinking about a conference I went to mid-April, which had also been what had inspired me to stay up all hours blogging this all down. To write, for whom?  That was the question.  For you, of course, is the answer! But also and in general terms for the larger public domain, to scratch out thoughts that inevitably become a small part of a larger history, that might take part in a dialogue, or that might completely disappear (but that’s okay, really) like the slow fire of so many old books printed on acid paper. Now, I am indeed talking about a kind of historian, and the conference that inspired me was the National Council on Publish History’s annual meeting in Ottawa, and in particular a workshop series I attended entitled “Connecting Communities: Social Media and Public History Practice.”

What is public history? Okay, I am going to swipe this one from the NCPH site directly:

“Public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. […] Public historians come in all shapes and sizes. They call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many, many other job descriptions. All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.”

Relevant, useful, local.  Archivists, curators, and jobs!  I really like those words.  In my eyes, this conference was about social science students (albeit life-long students) actively being citizens by “doing” history, and actually making a difference in the real world.

Here are a few quick examples I caught at the conference:  University students develop content for a mobile application that maps the history of Cleveland, process repeats for Spokane and other cities, regular users of the application can submit their stories and history becomes on-going and active. Facebook is used to disseminate unidentified photos of a ghost-mining town, so as to identify the places, people and experiences in them.  Twitter is used to present the diary entries of an individual farmer and soldier during the War of 1812, in daily entries that coincide with the same dates in 2012, in order to better represent the timing and sequence of events that occur in actual economies of war today.  Tumblr is used to reflect on historical ideas themselves, and on how social media techniques and popular culture are used to disseminate information in public life.


Public life=my students’ social world,  the community, their small tribe as connected to other small tribes, along paths I absolutely need to dare to cross.

And that’s it.  These are some of the many reasons why in the middle of the night I woke up thinking that school really should be more social, and that social sciences (and maybe all subjects) should be more public, and why now, finishing up this blog entry over a cold coffee across from the library, I might just walk across the street to see what that cryptic exhibit poster in the window really means to me, and what treasures I might find there to take home and read, contemplate, pass on.



Teacher Profiles: An Interview With Catherine Barnard

Happy New Year from the LEARN bloggers! At this time of renewal and rethinking old habits, here’s hoping this Teacher Profile of Catherine Barnard  inspires you to “upgrade” an area of your literacy teaching practice!  As Catherine and I have discussed many times there are countless possibilities out there to engage and support both your students and yourself in deep literacy learning.  We’ve written about blogging for literacy as well as the art of commenting on blogs – now meet a teacher who uses the full potential of blogging with her students.



Teacher’s name: Catherine Barnard
School: North Hatley Elementary
Subject:  General
Levels: Cycle 2
Experience: 6 years


Melanie:  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Catherine:  I grew up in the Eastern Townships, and though I studied at McGill University, I decided to come back and teach for the ETSB. I have been lucky enough to have various opportunities to travel. I have snorkelled the islands of Hawaii and discovered the vineyards of northern Italy. I am an avid racket sports player and enjoy running…on most days! I love picture books and use them often in my classroom to model various writing traits strong authors use.

Melanie:  What inspired you to start blogging with your students?

Catherine:  When I first started with the ETSB, the ability to have access to laptops in my class was an opportunity for me to experiment with multimedia projects. These types of projects gave students a chance to uniquely utilize their literacy skills, and more concretely established the idea of an audience. They helped students discover, develop, apply and establish links with the world around them. This also prompted students to not only engage enthusiastically, but it pushed students to communicate their ideas clearly and creatively.

However, I knew inside that these great learning opportunities were unfortunately limited to the time I was spending on the multimedia projects. And, the reality was that often, not all of my students were able to take on the same amount of responsibility! I started to realize that I needed to find a way to use technology more consistently in my classroom without always having to undertake a “big” media project.

Though I used my Smart board and various online tools to teach daily, I didn’t have something students could access and be contributors to on a regular basis. I had had a class website my first year teaching and enjoyed being able to organize great online tools, showcase my students’ work and have a means to communicate with both students and parents. The only thing missing was a place where ALL students could easily contribute! It didn’t take me long to figure out that what I needed was a class blog!

With a blog, I not only had a place to organize great online tools, display multimedia endeavours and a platform to communicate with both students and parents, but I also had a medium to showcase web 2.0 activities. Moreover, a blog was a way for my students to showcase their work individually, communicate ideas, points of view with peers and discuss through comments! Blogging is really a web journal of our classroom projects, activities and our “news”. By putting up posts, students and myself are able to reflect our unique perspectives and build relationships with readers and other bloggers. It truly is our interactive 5th classroom wall!

Melanie:  Can you give us a quick overview of how you use the blog in classroom?

Catherine:  Firstly, I’ve used the blog differently depending on the year. I teach a multi-grade cycle 2 class and the student needs, comfort levels, as well as my access to technology can vary from year to year. Consequently, some years students are contributors to our class blog, while other years, each student has been able to obtain their own blog to manage.

On a daily basis, I have also exploited the classroom blog in various ways. Essentially, blogs provide a communication space that teachers can utilize with students whenever there is a curriculum need to develop writing, share ideas and reflect on work being undertaken in the classroom. Sometimes it has been used for journaling, collaborating, sharing writing and other works, engaging in reading discussions, book reviews or ethical issues, and of course commenting to peers! Various web 2.0 tools available online help keep the blog vibrant and the students motivated!

Finally, I have used the blog in different subjects from Math to Art and most importantly, my students have collaborated with classes from around the world on multiple projects.  This authentic audience has greatly influenced the way they perceive the projects they undertake!

Melanie:  How has the blog impacted your teaching and evaluation practices?

Catherine:  The best way to express how blogging has impacted my teaching would be to show you a video my students and I made last year about Quadblogging (Four teachers agree to have their students comment on each other’s blogs in an organized fashion. Each week, one of the four gets a turn as the spotlight class. The other three classes visit and leave comments. Over the course of a month, every student’s work gets read and commented upon. Along the way, students learn about respectful online communication).

This video truly demonstrates the power of blogging and having an audience to share in your learning: (http://quadblogging.net/highlights/).

As for my evaluation practices, the blog has provided, for me, additional formative assessment opportunities. Through various web 2.0 activities and their comments, students are given a different medium to showcase their learning.

Melanie:  What did you feel was the greatest accomplishment that came from implementing this project in your classroom?

Catherine:  My greatest accomplishment or main goal is to have my students engaged in literacy and having fun! Blogging is just another way of allowing students to interact with print. I want them to have a way of communicating their thoughts, ideas, values and points of view in different contexts and through meaningful dialogue.

Even as a young teacher, I sometimes wonder about technology and I’m not always convinced whether its advantages out way its disadvantages. However, technology is not going away and I believe that as an educator, my role is to adapt to this growing presence in children’s lives and best equip them to use technology successfully and significantly. These days, students heavily depend on technology as a constant source of entertainment. The trick is to find a way to harness that innate quality of play children have with technology and apply it to the curriculum. I believe blogging can provide an enriched and innovative practice that helps students become more independent and successful literacy learners.

I don’t doubt that watching students involve themselves in the blogging process has been both exciting and rewarding. I have seen students who might typically not excel in various literacy situations, engage extensively. Hopefully this can continue to be a source of motivation for students and for me, as a teacher. Finally, I truly believe blogging has opened up forms of collaboration that have allowed my students to take their learning far beyond the walls of my classroom.

Melanie:  What words of advice could you offer another teacher who was interested in starting blogging with their students?

Catherine:  Well, the first step is to ‘blog surf’ as I call it! I spent hours visiting other people’s blogs, more specifically other classroom blogs! I was amazed with what I discovered. There are some incredible teachers out there with wonderful ideas and resources.

Teachers who would like to start a classroom blog need to have time to get their head around how to use the medium. They need to figure out how blogging can best be integrated within their own classroom reality and teaching practices. It is too easy to be “wowed” by the glamour of the platform and to lose sight of the fact that it is still best used as a tool for students to gain a deeper understanding of what is already being taught. Blogging, like any other tool should be used to enhance student learning. Without teacher support and guidance, I believe blogging can become meaningless and potentially a classroom distraction.

After visiting several blogs, teachers will need to find a blogging platform that feels comfortable to them. There are several excellent ones out there. I use Edublog, which in my opinion is a fantastic educational provider. A free Edublog account is available, but for about 40$ a year, an Edublog Pro subscription provides you with additional storage, priority email support, and much more.

Once a class blog is created, I suggest teachers spend time experimenting themselves with posts and become more familiar with various online tools that can be embedded into blogs. This experimenting stage is crucial and helps ensure beginning teachers don’t put too much pressure on themselves.

So, if I were to pick the 3 most important things to remember about starting a blog it would probably have to be:

1)    Don’t reinvent the wheel: Check out other blogs!

2)    Get your head around the lingo: posts, comments, widget etc.

3)    Start small!


Here is a useful link: The 10 Most Important Things To Figure Out About Blogging.


Melanie:  Can you offer some blogs that have inspired you and your students?

Catherine:  A must read is Nathan Turf’s class blog, Mr.Turf.ca and his own educator blog called Portable PD.ca

Of course, any of the blogs in our Blogroll are wonderful models:


You can also listen to Catherine talk about her experiences blogging with her classroom in an interview podcast she did with Susan van Gelder.  Simply click here and sit back and enjoy the interview.

As well, here is Catherine’s classroom blog Miss B’s Block.  Visit it and leave some comments for her students.  They will LOVE to see your feedback for sure!!  You can also check out her previous classroom blog here.  It is closed for comments but filled with interesting learning adventures all the same.

Why not take some time this holiday season to consider all that blogging can bring to your literacy program.  As Catherine reminds us, start small and you will quickly discover the enormous impact it can have on your students.

If you are intrigued, don’t hesitate to reach out.  Support and guidance is only a comment away.

Happy and Healthy 2013, everyone!

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.)



Memory Almost Full: Digital artifacts in a culture of impermanence

Digital collage (c) Sharon Brogan

Most of what I have created over the last 25 years is on magnetic media, or in the form of digital computer files. While working as a graphic designer in the early 1990s, I kept a meticulous archive of all of my designs on 3.5” floppy diskettes. I haven’t owned a computer with a floppy drive in years, and the software I used to create most the designs was discontinued almost a decade ago. I enthusiastically embraced the advent of digital photography years ago and swapped film rolls for memory cards. I have thousands of digital photos on multiple media, but few actual prints. I wonder whether those photographs will exist ten or twenty years from now. Will my kids and grandkids keep treasured photos from my time in a shoebox on a USB key?

Since I began working with computers on a daily basis over two decades ago, I’ve contemplated the lack of permanence of all things digital, and the potential consequences. The issue of digital permanence is an important one that we often overlook, so I hope to provoke some discussion here. It could have an enormous impact on how our children and we acquire and retain knowledge.

The ephemeral nature of the digital world is often lost on people. Books, photographic prints and works of art can last for centuries in proper conditions. By contrast, floppy disks and magnetic tape have a maximum lifespan of 10-20 years. Laser discs (CDs, DVDs) were touted as a more permanent replacement for tapes and diskettes lasting up to 50 years. In practice they have proven fragile and can also deteriorate in a few short years. Even if some media do last longer, we still need the ability to read the files contained on those media in order to see, read or experience the content. Software formats are in flux, and the tech industry has difficulty agreeing on common standards, preferring to lock in customers with proprietary formats. As a result, the ability to retain information is sometimes subject to the fortunes of the companies that created the formats.

Before Gutenberg came up with the printing press, most of the world relied on an oral tradition to pass on knowledge and memory. It’s true that for a thousand years before that, people also wrote on clay tablets, papyrus or anything else they could get their hands on, but it was a select few who could actually read. There were monks who created illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, but they mostly kept those manuscripts to themselves.

For most, it was the oral tales that were passed along from generation to generation that provided civilizations with their memory, or permanence. With the arrival of the printed page, human beings consigned much of their cultural memory to the printed page. The age of widespread literacy began, and for many cultures, the era of oral tradition had passed. Fortunately, many stories were adapted to print, and we still have them today. The book became the common format. You do not need a manual or a special device to read a book (though a Norwegian comedy show had fun with the idea).

The printed page is rapidly being displaced by digital texts. People take more pictures than they ever have since the invention of photography, but only a tiny fraction of them ever get printed. MP3 files are replacing compact discs and LPs, and downloadable MPEGs are supplanting film and video.

When technology fails us, or when we are cut off from the Internet, how will we access knowledge?

In this digital age, memory has lost its cachet. When we need to recall something, whether it is a random fact, a phone number, or a picture, we have the ability to look it up in seconds. In this context, what is the value of memory? Without the oral tradition to pass knowledge from generation to generation, or the physical artifact of the printed page or work of art to refer to, what will happen to our cultural memory?

What is the impact on learning? In our society, since the oral tradition effectively died a long time ago, the reflex to commit knowledge to memory and share stories from generation to generation is no longer there. During the print era, we still had to commit knowledge to memory, because books are not always at our fingertips. As we gradually shift away from printed text (hard copies), it seems to me that knowledge becomes more abstract. We do not need to retain as much. Instead of knowing things, we “Google,” or look them up. The knowledge, like the data, is ephemeral. We do not need to retain as much knowledge, because it is possible for us to look it up again later if needed.

I avoid making a qualitative judgment here. Learning might not be suffering as a result of the digitization of knowledge, but there is no doubt that it will cause us to learn differently.