Tag Archives: ELA

Animals in School? Fostering empathy through civic engagement

IMG_0095 2
A special guest post by Emelie Luciani from Engage Animal Welfare Education – engageanimal.org

The Grade 6 students at Nesbitt School were lining up for their turn to greet Athena and Sofia. Having done this activity many times before, the dogs stood expectantly at our sides with their tails wagging softly. Each student would have a chance to practise politely greeting a dog with both of our canine ambassadors. We discussed the importance of steps such as asking the guardian’s permission and letting the dog choose to come to you as opposed to going into their space.

“This is Athena. She was adopted from an animal shelter,” I said to my group of eager students, introducing the 9-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier at the end of my leash. My colleague stood in the other corner of the classroom with Sofia, a happy-go-lucky Shih Tzu who stood below the knee.

Welcome to one of the workshops offered by ENGAGE: Animal Welfare Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to building empathy among youth. According to Edutopia, empathy builds positive classroom culture, strengthens community and prepares your students to be leaders in their community.engage

  1. Empathy builds positive classroom culture.
  2. Empathy strengthens community.
  3. Empathy prepares your students to be leaders in their community.

IMG_0044Youth are often drawn to animals and there is now a wealth of research linking animal-assisted programs to the successful development of empathy and pro-social behaviour. Through ENGAGE’s interactive programming, students learn how they can improve the lives of animals in their communities – something that is not only good for the animals themselves, but also serves to empower youth and foster civic engagement. Bringing Athena and Sofia into a classroom enables students to learn how to listen, understand, and respect dogs and in so doing, practise the values of compassion, cooperation, and responsibility.
ENGAGE’s humane education programming strives to create links between youth, animal shelters and the general public in order to advance animal welfare in the community at large. At the core of its philosophy is the facilitation of projects in which youth can improve the lives of animals in their communities. One such activity has students writing for an authentic purpose as they craft descriptive adoption profiles for cats waiting to be adopted in local shelters and by animal rescue groups. Written by the students from the perspective of the cat, these profiles are powerful empathy building activities that also benefit shelter cats as they are then used by these organizations to promote adoptions.cat_profile

Educators can foster the development of empathy by finding ways to integrate animal welfare into the curriculum in subjects such as English Language Arts, Science or ERC. The fact that all animals are sentient beings, with experiences and interests of their own, can be continuously communicated to students and students can be given the space to tell their own stories in various media about their relationships with the animals that surround them.


Read more

Developing Empathy in the Classroom

Edutopia: Empathy in the Classroom: Why Should I Care?

The Guardian: Lost for words: How reading can teach children empathy

*A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed the authorship of this piece to Colleen Ovended. The correct author is Emelie Luciani.

Dear Prime Minister: Writing letters for World Environment Day

CC BY-NC Sylwia Bielec

Back in 2002, when I was teaching Secondary Three English Language Arts, then-United States President George W. Bush was trying to pull together a coalition of allies to attack Iraq for (wrongly) suspecting the country of having Weapons of Mass Destruction.

As you can imagine, there was considerable discussion and debate amongst the students as to whether or not Canada should participate in the war. I had finally hit upon a topic that got my students to freely offer their opinions through talking and writing.

After a discussion around what can be done in a democracy to influence the government, the students decided to write individual letters to Prime Minister Jean Chretien offering their personal opinions. Each letter was unique, some students appealed to the heart and some focused on arguments that appealed to logic and the mind.

Whether it was the opportunity to express his or her own voice or the chance to write a letter on an authentic topic, I don’t recall once having to respond to the phrase, “I don’t know what to write”.

The process of composing the letters included:

• thinking through opinions using different brainstorming tools
• reviewing the letter writing genre
• drafting, editing and revising

We sent off the letter (we did not even need a stamp!) and a few weeks later we received a letter back from someone in the Prime Minister’s office and an autographed picture, which the class proudly displayed.

I told you that story because a few days ago I received an email from Cam Cheema who works at the David Suzuki Foundation. He is inviting students in Quebec to write letters to influential politicians, including today’s Prime Minister and Minister of Youth, Justin Trudeau.

David & Cam 2
David Suzuki and Cam Cheema


Cam would like students to send the letters to the Prime Minister’s office on June 5, World Environment Day in an effort to influence the government towards developing an environmental bill of rights.

I don’t want to spend time trying to convince you about the value of a clean environment and healthy planet. I do want to convince you to teach your students to talk about important local and global issues and write persuasive letters to decision makers about topics that are important to them. (Incidentally, other people will happily convince you to care about the environment. You will find a school guide to participating in World Environment Day here.)

Curriculum Connections

I hear the voice the in my head ringing, “how is this connected to the curriculum?”  Beyond the obvious connection to the Broad Area of Learning Environmental Awareness and Consumer Rights and Responsibilities, writing a letter to the Prime Minister has clear connections to the English Language Arts curriculum (and beyond) when we see the purpose of the letter as:

• a persuasive text moving people to act or behave in a certain way
• an argumentative text convincing people of a point of view through a logical sequencing of ideas and/or propositions

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 3.05.01 PM(Progression of Learning p.19-20)

In addition, students engage all three ELA competencies as they discuss the issue at hand, read about it across various media platforms and eventually write their own thoughts on the matter.


LEARN has produced “How-To’s” to support students in writing a letter in English and French.

Check out some activities from the David Suzuki Foundation Blue Dot to spark some discussions with your students about the issues surrounding access to clean and safe water, clean air and a healthy environment.

If you are a teacher interested in talking about the environment let us know!   Maybe you and your class are already doing a great sustainability project.  If so, you should tell Learning for a Sustainable Future.  They are offering a class a $500 award under the LSF Jack Layton Award for Youth Action in Sustainability.


Call to Action

You’ve helped your students write letters to the Prime Minister.  What do you do next?

Send the letters to Cam and someone on his Blue Dot team will hand deliver the letters to the Prime Minister’s office in Montreal or Ottawa.

Cam Cheema
Organisateur Bleu Terre / Blue Dot Organizer
Fondation David Suzuki
La Maison du développement durable
50 rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest
5e étage — Bureau 540
Montréal (Québec)  H2X 3V4

If you are going to participate – please email Cam to let him know the letters are on the way.  You can contact him at ccheema (at) davidsuzuki.org.  He is a really nice guy, don’t hesitate to ask him, or get your students to ask him any questions you may have.

Educators for the Environment?

Is there a critical mass of educators that want to seriously engage students from across the province in being active citizens on issues related to the environment?

If you want to keep the conversation going and share project ideas, grant opportunities and resources please share your contact information here.


Singing the Grade School Blues

Rob Lutes singing the Blues.

When I was about twelve years old I was flipping through my parent’s record collection and came across B.B. King ‎– Live In Cook County Jail, an album cover faded and textured like prison denim.

From the moment I put the needle to the record I was transported by the sounds of inmates laughing and booing in response to introductions of the prison director and chief justice of the criminal court.   Then comes the introduction of B.B. King who immediately kicks off with “Every day I have the blues”. It was at that moment that I understood how the blues easily communicates loneliness, sadness and hardships of life to an audience.

As B.B. King says “Blues don’t necessarily have to be sung by a person that came from Mississippi as I did, because there are people having problems all over the world”.

There is power in playing blues music to a group of people that seemed to have lots to be blue about. There is power in teaching students how to express their emotions through lyrics and music.

This post is not meant to be a total downer, but rather a chance to introduce Rob Lutes, an accomplished singer songwriter who has been providing a blues songwriting workshops for students in Quebec, across Canada and in Europe. What he does is work with students to learn about the intersections of history and music. The workshop shows how the blues was a vehicle to comment on important societal issues, personal feelings and emotions.

Rob starts his workshops with the story of the blues as rooted in the history of slavery in North America and extending through the African-American experience of racism, segregation and discrimination. Reflecting on the history of music in North America, he quotes the Willie Dixon line “the blues as the roots, the rest is the fruits” crediting the blues as the basis for much of the modern music that we enjoy today.

The second part of the workshop is where the real fun and learning begins. Students engage in writing and performing a blues song in 20 minutes. Rob works with students to brainstorm subjects, vote on a single topic and then facilitates the writing of a collective song using the Delta Blues style following the traditional AAB rhyme scheme. This style and the songwriting portion of the workshop as a whole is successful because “creativity flourishes within constraints”.

Some might say it’s impossible to write a song that fast!  Let me try one real quick.

Writer’s Block Blues

I don’t know what to write

I don’t know what to write

I’m begging please, don’t let it take all night

During my conversation with Rob, he tells me that he is pleasantly surprised to see students typically disengaged throw out lines that get the whole class enthused, building off each other. Encouraging students in this way has potential to provide valuable opportunity for student voice. Opening a space for students to write about issues in society or realities in their community.

Last year Rob brought his workshop to three schools in the Gaspe. Talking about important community realities (or at least the reality of 16 year-olds), the secondary 5 students collectively came up with a song called the “The Lifted Truck Blues”.

Last summer, grade 4 students at Clearpoint Elementary School wrote The Bad Dream Blues as part of the Montreal Folk Festival’s inaugural Artists in the Schools program. You can hear their song here.

The Bad Dream Blues

I went to sleep, I saw a shadow in my room

I went to sleep, I saw a shadow in my room

The shadow had eight arms, it was flying on a broom

I thought it was a ghost, so I called the ghostbusters

I thought it was a ghost, so I called the ghostbusters

They showed up right away with a big duster

Something woke me up saying you got to follow the rules

Something woke me up saying you got to follow the rules

It was my Mom saying it’s time to go to school

I got The Bad Dream Blues 

If you are interested in organizing a workshop or talking about education and the blues you can contact Rob at roblutes33@yahoo.ca

Rob Lutes Blues Playlist
Diddie Wa Diddie – Blind Blake
No Love Today– Chris Smither
It’s Tight Like That – Tampa Red and Georgia Tom
Fishin’ Blues – Taj Mahal
Tight Money – Bobby Rush

Rapping Across the Curriculum

The following is a guest post by Dan Parker. 
Dan Parker holds an M.A. in Education and a B. Ed. in High School History and French Second Language. He taught in Quebec for three years and then decided to quit his day job to follow the call of combining music, education and activism in classrooms and communities around the province. He is part of the Culture in the Schools network and offers workshops in rap and spoken-word across disciplines and ages.

Dan Parker performing for the Rap Battles for Social Justice which he founded

The class is filled with suspense and excitement. An instrumental hip hop beat plays through a small but loud amplifier and a laptop. Two mics are ready to be held. The desks are covered with sheets scribbled with rap lyrics, created in only 20-30 minutes by the students themselves. The beat turns up for the frenzied last minute rehearsals before presenting. The teacher gets ready to observe and evaluate in an authentically riveting learning situation.

No matter the subject or age level, this is the climax of the Rapping Across the Curriculum workshop.

In History class, the highest academic achiever grabs the mic and drops the knowledge with a vivid verse explaining the Quiet Revolution so well that some students will study her text for the upcoming test!  In English class, the class comedians take on the roles of Iago and Othello for a hilarious Shakespearean rap battle. In Ethics and Religion, the shy teenager hesitates but then makes jaws drop once he shares his frustrations about discrimination via rhythmic poetry.  In elementary school, a chorus of pre-teens repeat syncopated sentences about why calculating area and perimeter is useful. And in a grade 3 class, children jump up and down, making bee sounds, as they rhyme about springtime.

Inspired to accomplish feats over beats

Today, hip hop music is an informal but influential educational resource. Many teens listen attentively to the verses of their favourite rap artists, and some even memorize and recite their words like mantras! Why not give your students the opportunity to bring this dimension of their personal way of learning to class? Plus many studies have shown that music, in general, speeds up the learning development of speech and reading skills, trains children to pay more attention for longer periods, and enhances their sense of empathy for others!

The enthusiasm that rap music solicits is undeniable. Of course, not all students are rap fans. Some even hate mainstream rap music. But the excitement of expressing oneself in a rhythmic game is so contagious that it gets the haters/naysayers applauding and, quite often, even performing in the long tradition of spoken-word poetry that transcends the rap music genre. Younger children may not have even heard one single rap song before the workshop, but they are familiar with nursery rhymes which makes this urban genre easily accessible to them.

Students learning about hip hop beats in a primary school music class

What does it look like in the classroom?

Getting children and teenagers excited about learning is what I do. I enjoy creating creative learning and evaluation situations as well as collaborating with other educators. Since 2014 I’ve given over 200 Rapping Across the Curriculum workshops in over 40 schools all over Quebec.  The course content and the social contexts have been very diverse.

When I walk into a class, I may not win the students’ respect at first. Some of the teens even think, “who is this lanky Brazilian-Canadian who wears no bling (jewelery), swag (stylish clothes), or anything resembling what famous rappers look like? Is this a joke?”. To convince them, I take them for a ride.

First, I briefly break down the history of rap lyricism which reveals the many phases and styles of this international art form rooted in African-American and Latino-American culture. Then, we enter the topic that the teacher has selected, such as the Quiet Revolution in History. The students suggest key words and short sentences from the mind map or word banks that they have already prepared in a previous class before my arrival. I cover the black/white/smart board with their contributions.

Finally, the magic happens: I turn up the beat and grab a mic. The students’ suggestions on the board become my playground. This is pure improv. I jump from one word to another, rhyming, making jokes, explaining key concepts, asking questions, getting the group to cheer and repeat, then finishing by hitting them hard with a punchline near the end of the 4 minute freestyle.

Applause. Victory. I epic-win their attention. How? Recognized skill instills respect. Now they’re ready to listen. After a quick rhythm and street poetry lesson, they’re ready for action.

High school student on the mic with Dan watching

From past projects to future echoes

In the heart of Montreal, I galvanized Contemporary World students to rhyme about tensions and conflict related to racism in North America. In a Montreal suburb, teens in a Work Oriented Training Path program spat bars with me about what it means to be vulnerable. In a primary school in Mascouche, music class became rap class where children learned how to record a verse and design a basic hip hop beat. North of the 49th parallel, I gave lyric-writing tips to Cree teens who rapped about their hunting adventures with their families.

Sounds like fun? Then let’s get the ball rolling. Time is ticking.

Making it happen – Culture in the Schoolsculture_ecole_en

Dear teacher, here’s how you can make all this go down in your classroom.

First you contact me at mrparkerquebec@gmail.com. You’ll tell me about the topic you’d like your students to rap about, and then I’ll design a custom-made workshop that covers your course curriculum.  We’ll fill out the Culture in the Schools forms together, and then apply for funding from your school board.  [Note:  many other artists are also available via their Répertoire de ressources culture-education.]

Since the Ministry of Education pays for 75 % of the fees, your board and your principal will probably be happy to approve the request and have the school only pay only 25%. Plus, your school administration would surely enjoy the idea of livening up course content, raising all-round student learning engagement, and sharing photos and videos of their students rapping online for the school community and the parents of prospective schoolchildren.  

We’ll need to make sure to meet the Culture in the Schools deadline in October or November, depending on your school board. Some schools have teacher committees that select the visiting artists, so you could propose that they choose the Rapping Across the Curriculum workshops as one of the school’s requests. It’s a good idea to team up with other teachers so that several classes can experience what it’s like to rhyme on the mic to the beat. Schools can have artists visit for several days. If you’re too busy to jump through these bureaucratic hoops alone, maybe one of your colleagues will be motivated to do the paperwork for their classes as well as yours.

And if you want to really make sure students across Quebec get to experience this unique learning style, share this blog post with the teachers, educational consultants and principals in your networks.

Now I pass the mic to you. Looking forward to hearing from you and, eventually, your students.

Blue Metropolis: Bringing Professionals into the Classroom

Photo courtesy of Blue Metropolis

On a warm fall day, I sat down with Lisanne Gamelin, the new Educational and Social program coordinator for Blue Metropolis. I was struck by her enthusiasm for projects that bring professional writers, photographers and filmmakers to work with young people in their schools and communities.

Let me say that again: Blue Metropolis writes grants to get money to pay professionals to work with students to tell the stories of their community through words, images and drama. They do this because they believe in “The power of words, the power of expressing yourself – the power of speaking out”. The more I think about this, the more excited I become. What would it take to get more schools and teachers to engage in these types of partnerships?

 Young writers connected to their communities

logo_FI first came to know Blue Metropolis through the Quebec Roots program. Every spring I would be sent a book filled with student writing and photography illustrating slices of their English community. From Montreal, to La Tuque to the Lower North Shore of Quebec.

Last year, one Blue Met project was called Unearth our Past, which saw students from six schools throughout the province visit local cemeteries in search of heroes and role models buried there. With the help of playwrights, the students turned the stories into short dramatic works presented at schools, in the community and at the book launch in Montreal.

The potential of this type of project is illustrated through a series of stories by CBC radio reporters who followed classes through the process. Listening to the voices of students and teachers you can hear the enthusiasm and nerves that go along with revealing local stories to a real audience.

This year Blue Met has launched Heroes in my Backyard, a project that aims to highlight the contribution of WWII heroes who at times have been overlooked, in particular women and individuals who belong to visible minorities and the First Nations. Combining history and video, and under the guidance of professional writers and filmmakers, Secondary 4 and 5 students will produce a video capsule about the lives of these forgotten heroes.

Real live writers working with your students

Let me say that again. Blue Met is paying professional writers and filmmakers to work with students to produce important stories that will inform and educate young and old. I find this an extraordinary opportunity for a number of reasons. The potential of the partnership was sparked from a conversation my friend Frederic Bohbot who is working on Heroes in my Backyard and happens to have recently won an Oscar Award for the short documentary “The Lady in Number 6” (humble brag).

He said, during the two days he will spend with students, he will listen to their ideas, help them know what not to do and prepare them for the decisions they will have to make. On the surface, this may seem like pretty conventional school stuff, which a teacher can handle. But what is interesting to me are the things a teacher cannot do alone. In most instances, a teacher has not dedicated themselves to the craft of film or screenwriting. And we should never underestimate the power of the outsider in bringing out a student’s best work.

The process Frederic expects to take with the students will force them to grapple with the hard questions of film-making. The film is short. What is important? What do we want to transmit? He expects the process of “getting the essence across” will change how they do things in the future, as his work as a filmmaker has changed him: “I’ll never watch movies the same way anymore. Knowing the decisions you have to make”.

Isn’t this is what we want for our students? To experience the power of words and communication, to know all the things you need to do to make something successful. To create a production that fully captures the attention of the viewer and communicates something of importance.

The partnership with Blue Met brings professionals into the classroom. This often requires teachers change their practice or go the extra mile. When all is said and done, is it worth it? If the answer is yes, what do you as an educator need to make this happen?

The Story of Manga – Do something like this, but better

mangaI’m a learn-by-doing kind of guy.  As a teacher, when it came time to planning my lessons I was not someone who could just wing it.  I always had to complete my own version of the work in which I was going to ask my students to engage.  Doing so allowed me to better understand the big picture and decide what to scaffold.

When it came to production pieces, I followed the show-don’t-tell philosophy.  I had to model what I wanted the students to produce.  My funny line (at least I thought it was funny) was, “do something like this, but better”.

Last month I was shown a learning situation called the Story of Manga. Many years ago I taught in Japan and saw young and old readers devouring these stylized graphics novels on trains and in parks.  Anything that gets young people excited about reading and writing piques my interest.

Recognizing that the English Language Arts (ELA)  program emphasizes the reading, writing and production of multimodal text.  I thought The Story of Manga resource had some great potential to get students researching the manga genre, combining both photo and text and using technology to create their own comic. But before promoting the resource, I thought it only fair to create my own Manga using the Story of Manga process. Overall, it was a good experience and I encourage you to check the resources out.  Tell your students to “do something like this, but better”.

This is my story:

Like a good student, I read the teacher guide and student booklet.  I watched some of the videos showing how to use the apps.  I realized if I were to use this project with students, I would ask one student per group to become an expert in using specific apps and helping troubleshoot with others.  But then, for some reason I went off on my own direction and started, playing with the tools. I came up with a story, snapped pictures with my ipad and produced a manga comic that was not really that great.

But in my efforts, I learned something.  Stick to the plan.  While experimenting has value, I probably should have paid attention to the scaffolding laid out for me.  My first draft had too much dialogue in each panel. I did not take the right pictures,  I had to pull the whole thing apart and start again.

Take 2:

Read the The Story of Manga- Teacher Guide

As the guide says… “This Learning and Evaluation Situation is designed to allow students to produce a digital, Manga style comic strip using an iPad and digital software. The students will demonstrate their understanding of the LES by appreciating, creating, editing and publishing their own digital comic book”.

The guide provides an overview of apps and digital tools that students will use to create a manga.  It includes an annex of videos that show how to use the apps (in French).

The Story of Manga – Student Booklet

A booklet taking students through stages that lead to a great manga.  It provides a chance to research the genre, develop characters, story-boarding and exploring different emotions.  The learning situation culminates in editing and publishing a comic.

Check out the Story of Manga.  Maybe the resource will engage your students in reading, writing and producing their own manga. Shazzam!

I would love to read any manga your students produce.  Please share them.  If there is interest, we can create a student gallery.

You can read my manga here.  What do you think?  Peer feedback?

Authentic experience: Students writing for real audiences

CC BY-NC 2.0

I was a first year teacher writing on the chalkboard, simultaneously trying to keep an eye on a room of rowdy secondary 2 students.  Suddenly, I heard the words that always  make me shudder.  “Sir, you spelled a word wrong”.  The implication of this phrase is that I, the teacher may not be all-knowing; a fact I was trying to keep hidden until later in the year.

The word in question was learned and my student, a young man of Jamaican heritage, shook my confidence by telling me the correct spelling was “learnt”.  Standing in front of 20 students, I was unsure what to do.  On one hand, I was fairly  confident I spelled learned that way for my whole life.  But on the other hand, “learnt” looked strangely correct.  Needless to say, the whole issue was dropped when I asked him to look it up in one of our dusty dictionaries.

But I was shaken.  After class, I looked up the word and learned/learnt that both spellings are correct.  The British use learnt and Americans, learned.  Being Canadian, we were free to vacillate between the two.

I tell you this story to underline how authentic experiences cement knowledge and competency.  I certainly won’t forget what I learned that day.

Reflecting on that experience got me thinking: in what ways can teachers allow students to have authentic writing experiences, where student work culminates into something that is actually read by people other than just their teacher?   If students are writing for an authentic audience, will it increase engagement? Will it change the way they write?

There are two Quebec examples of students writing in English for an authentic audience that have recently caught my eye.  Secondary 1 and 2 students at Metis Beach school were given the opportunity to produce a special edition of the Heritage-Lower St Lawrence newsletter. HLSL is a community organization dedicated to serving the English population of their region. I invite you to click on the link and observe the quality of student writing.  Highlights include a history of the school and community, an article about bullying and a feature on a class project inspired by the “freedom writers”.  It quickly becomes obvious that the students worked hard to write, revise and rewrite compelling and clear articles because they knew their words would be read by the community and beyond.  Their teacher, Erin Ross, said her motivation in setting up this opportunity for her students was feeling that it was ”important to have my students have a new learning opportunity in their English class.  It is all about the process and showing them that they have a voice.”

I spoke to Melanie Leblanc, the Executive Director of Heritage Lower St Lawrence and she raved about the student-produced newsletter for her organization.  She said members “loved knowing what was going on in the school” and noted that since the newsletter was published, the community has an “increased sense of belonging to the school”.

A second example of authentic writing comes from the infamous GrEAU project.  GrEAU is a hydroponic based agricultural business founded and run by a group of students from Mecatina School, located in La Tabatiere (a village on the Lower North Shore of Quebec)  The project is a sight to behold, in part because of the authentic need the business is fulfilling along with the strong marketing and communications website.

The students involved in the project worked collaboratively to develop a very clear website to share information about how the garden grows along with recipes to get the most out of the fresh produce. The students also had numerous opportunities to be interviewed on CBC radio and Radio Canada communicating clearly in English and French.

I spoke to Ben Collier, one of the founding members and he agreed that collaboratively developing the website allowed him to learn how to present scientific findings and better understand how to communicate what was accomplished.  I asked Ben about the editing process and he laughed, remembering how in normal school projects he did not always proofread assignments before handing them in.  But with the GrEAU project there was no leniency for errors, the group wanted to make sure everything was perfect.

These two examples show the potential of developing authentic writing opportunities with students.  If you are inspired to co-develop opportunities for students in your own schools, please share the results.

If you want to learn more about authentic writing contexts for students, I encourage you to check out a new resource site from the MELS called Literacy Today QC. It includes positive evidence of integrating authentic contexts in your curriculum and examples of authentic classroom activities.

Follow me on twitter @ELA_LEARN

A Reminder That Life is Good: the QEP, Professional Autonomy and Paulo Freire

7075566659_b2d828bbeb_oIt was the spring of 1999.  Heading out the door of the inner city elementary school where both my husband and I were working, I bombarded him (as I always did) with a series of mini episodes of what had gone on in my grade 5/6 classroom that day; snippets of exchanges with the students, jokes and fun mixed with a smattering of “a-ha!” moments that were always to be celebrated.   He smiled, half listening; clearly deep in thoughts of his own. Earlier that year, Christopher had developed curriculum that integrated, among other subject areas, literacy, technology and sports in a way that was not only improving the students’ reading and writing abilities but was so engaging that it inspired a targeted group of at-risk kids; it built their self esteem and commitment to continue along the path of learning.

News of this dynamic teaching and learning curriculum had reached the ears of the ministry and he was now going to be the focus of a documentary that would clearly demonstrate for the rest of the province the QEP (our new Quebec Education Program) in action, lived out with an at-risk population. Our principal was delighted.  I was thrilled and Christopher was overwhelmed to be recognized in this way. I continued bubbling with what all this meant.  He was going to be the face of the QEP.  How wonderful!!

As we buckled up our seat belts, Christopher turned to me and spoke for the first time since we had walked out the school door, “Mel.  What the hell is the QEP?”

I remember laughing out loud.  As we had just recently returned from living in the Cree community of Mistissini for over a year and a half, we had missed all the commotion and build up of the soon to be implemented Quebec Education Program.  This didn’t seem to matter though because as it turned out, the philosophy and ideology behind this “Reform” was based on what was occurring in our classrooms already.  It emphasized the importance of knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, inquiry-based learning, collaboration, cross-curricular learning, and democratic living.

As I read more deeply the numerous documents produced by The Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS), it quickly became obvious to me, that there were many elements of the QEP being implemented that would profoundly alter the teaching and learning in Québec schools in my opinion for the better.  For one thing, it accorded greater recognition to the professional, teaching methods, and choice of methods of evaluation of students’ learning (MELS, 2005, p. 8).  As well, it allowed teachers to choose their pedagogical approaches according to the situation, the nature of the learning to be accomplished or the students’ characteristics.  This could be managed by lecturing, explicit instruction, project-based teaching, inductive teaching, strategic instruction, cooperative learning or any other method the teacher deemed appropriate. (MELS, 2005).

For the first time in my career, this progressive ideological shift was putting the teachers in control of their own classrooms.  It was affording them the opportunity to be autonomous professionals.  Who knew better than the teacher him/herself what was best for their students?

The role of teachers became one of supporting students in their learning process, helping them structure and build on their knowledge, rather than being the expert who transmits information.  Students were encouraged to participate in constructing their knowledge. “Instead of mostly listening, they are actively engaged in processing the information so as to transform it into knowledge and competencies.” They may even act as experts in cases where they have specific knowledge. (MELS, 2001, p. 2)  In this “innovative” way of looking at teaching and learning, of primary concern is that students transform information into viable and transferable knowledge “The elements of knowledge students develop are tools that should help them understand and take action in the world,”(MELS, 2001, p.1).  Learning does not simply take place in the classroom.  It does not begin and end with the ringing of the bells, “…the reform aims for learning that takes place in school to be transferable, i.e. to serve a purpose other than just school.” (MELS, 2001, p. 2).

It goes without saying that having teachers take into consideration a program that implies a major adaptation on the pedagogic level has been anything but easy. We must be patient and keep in mind that changes of such magnitude cannot be implemented into a machine as vast as the educational network over a short period of time or without experiencing some difficulties.  Many have questioned whether or not the disruption and disorder brought about by this shift has been worth it.  I am reminded of Margaret Meek, who in referring to Freire writes “and He wants us to consider the worth of an idea by asking what difference it would make” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. xxvii). When looking at the pedagogic basis and the potential outcomes for students being educated in this way, I think it will make an enormous difference in the way that teachers and students come together to share in the learning process, to dialogue and to empower each other and themselves.  So my answer to the question “Is it worth it?” rings out loud and clear “Yes, it is most definitely worth it!”

Fast forward almost ten years.

In the fall of 2008, I had the privilege of taking a graduate course with a critical pedagogue who had come to McGill.  It was a time in my life that I will never forget.  He would sit at the head of the semi-circle, clad in black jeans and a black t-shirt and he would talk to us…no, tell us stories is probably more accurate.  One thing was clear, he was not impressed with the manner in which schools operated and the overtly discriminatory practices that occurred throughout our North American system.  He spoke of the issues of a standardized curriculum where so many students were simply left out of the equation due to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation or social status and of teachers who were forced by the government to push a curriculum that they knew would fail so many of their students. 

One evening, half way through the semester, a number of my peers, who were not from Québec, joined in on the conversation, angrily claiming that they understood exactly what this critical pedagogue was talking about.  They ranted openly about the problems we had here in Québec as our curriculum was without question as standardized as others throughout the rest of Canada and the United States.  I was shocked by their statements.  How could anyone who had read this document claim that it was standardized when the very underlying philosophy promoted teacher professionalism and autonomy by advocating self-selection of pedagogy, resources, methods and evaluation?  It became clear to me that they hadn’t read the document.  And when I asked this question outright, the answer that echoed around the room was that indeed they hadn’t.

Months later, I was sitting in his home, when his son, who was a high school ELA teacher, walked into the room holding onto his laptop.  His eyes were wide in disbelief as he scanned the screen.  Looking up from his reading of The Québec Education Program he exclaimed in disbelief “Hey, did you know that Freire is quoted in here?”  I chuckled out loud.  Here was the son of two of the most prevalent minds in critical pedagogy, not to mention a successful English Secondary School teacher, and he was just now realizing that the curriculum he was teaching was based on the theories and ideology of Paulo Freire.

What struck home at this point was that here was a curriculum document that was almost ten years into implementation and it was still being referred to as “The Reform” or even “New” and added to that was the reality that so many in the field of education, from classroom teachers to critical pedagogues, had never taken the time to sit down and read it through in order to understand the freedom it offered along with the respect of viewing teachers as professionals.

In an era of “No Child Left Behind” standardized curriculum throughout the United States and a thrust for “back to the basics” in most of North America, we in Québec have been given the opportunity through the Québec Education Program (QEP) to teach a completely unstandardized curriculum.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Freireian based model of critical pedagogy underlying the English Language Arts literacy program. It was designed to promote the development of literacy as both an individual achievement and a social skill as well as “the development of a confident learner who finds in language, discourse and genre a means of coming to terms with ideas and experiences, and a medium for communicating with others and learning across the curriculum” (MELS, 2008,  p.6)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting our Quebec curriculum at a gathering of academics and teachers at The International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, held at the University of Illinois.  The dialogue that followed my presentation was a mix of shock and confusion.  There was an overwhelming buzz of excitement and genuine interest in the curriculum that is found here in Quebec.  No one could believe that our teachers were awarded such autonomy and self-determination in deciding the best suited pedagogy, resources and teaching strategies to ensure their particular group of students be able to meet the outcomes at the end of a cycle.  They cringed as they compared this to the system under which they were forced to work; teach to the test, no time for the rest.  There simply wasn’t a mechanism put in place that would permit them to look at their students as individuals, to allow for a variety of perspectives or opinions, or for that matter to even ask the students what they wanted or cared to learn. They were envious of what we had in place and I truly began to understand once again how lucky we were.

So as the end of year stress begins to build.  I think it is important to remember that we have been given a very precious gift…the acknowledgment that we are capable and competent to accomplish great learning alongside our students.  And to think that we have a government document that supports this, reassures me time and again.  When the pressure starts to become too much, I simply have to open up the QEP and read “More than ever, teaching requires autonomy, creativity and professional expertise.” (MELS, 2001, p.5) If you ask me, that’s not a bad thing at all to have to work towards!


For further reading:

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. London: Routledge.

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. The Education Reform: The Changes Under Way. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/lancement/Renouveau_ped/452771.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. (2007). Provincewide panorama – Literacy in Québec in 2003. Info Adult-Ed. Vol. 4, Issue 1, January 2001.  Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/_information_continue/info/index_en.asp?page=article6

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Preschool Education, Elementary Education. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/dfgj/dp/programme_de_formation/primaire/pdf/educprg2001/educprg2001.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Secondary School Education, Cycle Two. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/sections/programmeformation/secondaire2/medias/en/5b_QEP_SELA.pdf

The Power of Poetry

(c) haley8 under CC License
(c) haley8 under CC License

Crowded Tub

There are too many kids in this tub.
There are too many elbows to scrub.
I just washed a behind that I’m sure wasn’t mine.
There are too many kids in this tub.

– Shel Silverstein
© Shel Silverstein, reprinted from A Light in the Attic published by Harper Collins


For the past couple of years now, this is the poem I use to start my lecture on teaching poetry to my second year elementary pre-service teachers at McGill University.  Reason being….it makes me laugh and I can recite it by heart with lots of emotion.  It is then followed by a couple more silly ones such as this gem.


Falling Asleep in Class

I fell asleep in class today,
as I was awfully bored.
I laid my head upon my desk
and closed my eyes and snored.

I woke to find a piece of paper
sticking to my face.
I’d slobbered on my textbooks,
and my hair was a disgrace.

My clothes were badly rumpled,
and my eyes were glazed and red.
My binder left a three-ring
indentation in my head.

I slept through class, and probably
I would have slept some more,
except my students woke me
as they headed out the door.

– Kenn Nesbitt
Kenn Nesbitt, reprinted from If Kids Ruled the School published by Meadowbrook Press.


And then, very quietly, I change the slide and start to recite another poem. The boisterous and giddy group suddenly, as if by magic, simply stops chatting and laughing and moving around in their seats.  You can actually feel the mood change in the large auditorium.  I swear it almost even drops a degree or two.  And as they sit and listen, you can see them deep in thought.  Many of them transported to another time and place.


On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.

Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

– Billy Collins
© Billy Collins Included in the book, Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.


And when I read Billy Collins’ final line, the sad, sorrowful stillness that hangs heavy in the air is broken only by a sigh or two as the young soon to be teachers consider the power that his words hold.  It is at that moment they begin to understand that there is something so special about this genre.  This is important since “poetry—merely whispering its name frightens everyone away.” They start to see and feel that poetry can affect a person and touch their very inner self in a way like no other form of writing can.

Kenn Nesbitt, the great children’s poet whose poem you read above has written five reasons why he believes that poetry is important and should have a central place in our classrooms.  Here is my take on how we can use these reasons as springboards for classroom practice.

Good poetry always makes you FEEL something.

“A good poem will give you goose bumps or butterflies in your stomach, or it will make you cry, or it will make you laugh. Or a good poem will make you feel better when you are sad or grieving.”

As a teacher, consider poetry as medicine for the soul. What ails your class, or a particular student? There is probably a poem or a poet that will help open your students to the emotions that they keep to themselves. Or maybe you want your students to become passionate or empathic about something – like peace or the environment – or make others passionate about something. Reading and writing poetry about the things that move us allow us to move others.

Poetry has power.

“How many people remember, to this day, a poem they learned as children? Well, imagine if your children became little poetry sponges. What would stick in their brains? New vocabulary. New ideas. What would be the result? A bigger imagination. More fun reading. Possibly a lifelong addiction to books. Possibly a desire to write.”

No doubt, poetry has sticking power. The sheer joy of reading poetry aloud, and of reading it well, of feeling the rhyme, meter, alliteration, rhythm wash over you, is equaled only by its ability to stay in your head. Reading poetry to your students, or allowing them to read powerful poems and learn them by heart, are the pathways to a multitude of  personal poetic experiences.

Poetry is intimate.

“With poetry, you can express your love, your disgust, your giddy elation, your mild bemusement, your wild imagination or any other feelings you have roiling around inside you.”

After a disaster or other tragedy, teachers all over the world reach for poetry and the arts as a way of getting students to come to terms with what they have experienced. Unfettered by sentence structure and punctuation, poetry allows for the immediate release of pent-up words. Writers at all levels can write out their feelings in a way that resonates with them, and share with others something deep without worrying so much about form.


Poetry is something you can share.

“Sharing poetry doesn’t just mean reading it aloud together either…A poem you wrote can make a better gift to a friend than just about anything money can buy.”

As learners discover the poems that move them, they can share these poems with each other, and with others in their family. The Poetry Foundation’s Record-a-poem initiative asks people to record themselves reading their favourite poem, paying hommage to the idea that poetry is meant to be shared as a way of providing insight not just into the heart and meaning of the poem, but also insight into the reader who made the choice.

Poetry will get your kids reading and maybe even writing.

“You see, kids don’t just read poetry once. They read it again and again and again.”

The immediacy and ease of writing poetry (at least, that is what it can be, if you present it as such) can lure reluctant writers into the realm of words. A gateway to self-expression with words, poetry will appeal as a genre for both reading and writing. Poems can be short, but loaded with meaning, and thus appear non-threatening and manageable.


The discussion in my class then goes on to recalling the way that so many of these bright eyed future teachers were they themselves taught poetry when they were so young and impressionable.  Sadly, many of them share that they were instantly turned off of this beautiful, rich genre because all they were ever asked to do was to deconstruct the poem to discover the hidden meaning.  They became so sick of this procedure, especially because they were often told time and again that their interpretations were wrong, that they simply didn’t want to ever consider bringing this delightful form of literacy learning into classrooms of their own.   I reassure them, and tell them that I understand why they feel the way they do.  I then recite for them Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a classic from my grade 5 years that I as a student had to pull apart line by line.  They sit and nod empathetically, and then I put up this poem


After English Class

I used to like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
I liked the coming darkness,
The jingle of harness bells, breaking—and adding to
-the stillness,
The gentle drift of snow. . . .

But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for,
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep—
They all have “hidden meanings.”
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.

– Jean Little
Hey World, Here I Am! published by Kids Can Press

Another burst of laughter and then we talk about how traditionally, poetry was introduced by analysis, and interpretation of the poem; that this dissection of the poem’s meaning and structure was meant to provide insight.  Unfortunately, we know it only alienated many people from the world of poetry.  Famous children’s poet Lee Bennett Hopkins has explained that he hated poetry in school because he was taught by this same method that he refers to as the DAM approach: dissecting, analyzing and meaningless memorization.  So many of us were taught to question why did Robert Frost stop by the woods on a snowy evening and why then did he write a poem about it. Well, who cares–the only one who knows why is Robert Frost. What’s important is that we bring our own experiences to the poem. The real question is, what does the poem mean to you?–not what it meant to him.

The first step in getting your students to read and write poetry is to choose and read poems that are immediately accessible, non-threatening, and relevant to the students’ lives.  The goal is to ensure that every one of your students has a positive successful experience with poetry.  Do not begin with the most difficult poems but rather select poems that show a range of emotions and a variety of subjects so that your students will get a sense of poetry’s possibilities.

I always end  my poetry lecture with the story of a thought-provoking piece by Shirley McPhillips where she discusses an interview of poet Robert Bly. In it, she points out that cultures other than ours have found ways to weave poetry into the fabric of both daily life and ceremony. She shares how Bly was fascinated with the little school children in Iran who would stop by the grave of the famous 14th century poet Hafez and sing his poems to him.  He then mused why we didn’t do this here.  Why we don’t bring the poets into our hearts as opposed to bringing them only into our heads.


There is a country
where children kneel
at the graves of lost poets.
In the morning they come
to the tomb of Hafez
and sing his poems back to him.
In this way, they get associated
with the heart early on,
breathing in messages.

The pull and tear
as the outside world stirs
the linings of some inside sky,
growing orbits of fuel
and fire, outvoicing words,
they become messengers
to the world.

– Shirley McPhillips

This is the power of  poetry. This is why it needs to be in each of our classrooms; so that each and every one of our students can for themselves experience what only poetry is capable of doing to our mind, our heart and our soul.  It is indeed something to be celebrated and cherished as part of our daily lives…rather than a chore that must be endured.


For further reading/viewing:

A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching From Poems We Love by Nick Flynn and Shirley McPhillips
available from Stenhouse Publishers – http://www.stenhouse.com

Bill Moyers interview with Robert Bly –  http://youtu.be/e9by9LB-tqY

The Poetry Foundation’s Learning Lab – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/

Happy Valentine’s Day from a Life Long Learner

(c) Karen Horton
(c) Karen Horton

I have spent the past twenty years of my life entrenched in the Elementary school system here in Quebec. My roles and responsibilities may have shifted and evolved over the course of time but my underlying focus and driving impetus have remained constant; to discover ways to engage and expand children’s understanding and love for literacy.  My dedication and passion for literacy began at the start of my teaching career in developing critical literacy lessons for my own classroom in the English Montreal School Board inner city and has deepened through my work with pre-service teachers at McGill University in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education as I encourage them to consider how their choice of resources and pedagogical approaches will have a distinct effect on their ability to create a community of readers and writers in their future classrooms.  My time spent traveling across the province as a consultant for English Language Arts Elementary Education at the Ministère de l’Éducation du Loisir et du Sport with our team’s fundamental intent on assisting in the understanding and implementation of the Language Arts competencies of the Q.E.P to now working for LEARN in generating and supporting dynamic and enriching literacy experiences for students and teachers of all ages has allowed me to remain an active participant in the field of education and literacy.

All my life I have loved school.  As a child, I remember with fondness the excitement of a backpack filled with school supplies, a new dress for the first day, the smell of autumn leaves, the sound of the entry bell and best of all the anticipation of all that would be accomplished that year. As an adult working in the field, I remember that feeling of excitement once again when the Q.E.P. was introduced with an English Language Arts curriculum dedicated to the study of literacy.  I have prided myself in trying to be a true role model of lifelong learning for my students. I have always done my utmost to better my teaching abilities and my own professional knowledge.

As I strive to advance my understandings and perceptions on how literacy might be best taught in today’s elementary classrooms, I am once again filled with those same feelings of excitement and anticipation as I find myself a few nights a week in the classrooms of McGill’s education building…not as teacher but as a student.   It is because of the children and teachers with whom I have had the good fortune to meet and speak with throughout my educational career that I know I am ready to continue on to the next steps of my own academic journey of discovery.

Our world is changing and evolving at an extraordinary rate. We now live in an increasingly diverse, globalized, and complex, media-saturated society.  In order for our students to be prepared to navigate this 21st century world, they must become literate in 21st century new literacies that include, but is not limited to, critical, multicultural, digital, and media literacies.  If we are to encourage them to be passionate literacy learners then we need to meet them where they are at and engage them in a way that they too will discover a love of literacy that will last a lifetime.

Literacy instruction has traditionally referred to the teaching of basic literacy skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking. However, in today’s digital world, technology has contributed to an expanded understanding of literacy. Besides having basic literacy skills, 21st century students also need technology skills for communicating, analyzing, accessing information, thinking critically about messages inherent in the media, understanding data, and developing strong opinions. If students do not sufficiently learn these new literacy skills, there is a distinct possibility they will be unable to properly process information they are presented within the very near future.

What sends the blood pumping through my heart at this moment is the possibility of looking at literacy from a different perspective; of re-inventing the way I have been used to seeing literacy in action.  I want to explore deeply and sincerely the actual impact of incorporating the new literacies into an elementary English Language Arts literacy curriculum. This venture will contribute to a more holistic understanding of teaching multiliteracies within Quebec’s elementary classrooms.  It will provide a greater depth and breadth of understanding of how the new literacies can be implemented in unison with the traditional literacies, look at the contribution that these pedagogies and practices can have on teachers and students alike, and draw conclusions that will be important to the English Language Arts educational community province wide, and beyond.

What has inspired me to want to really gaze intensely at the new literacies was actually the following piece of traditional poetry.

Valentine for Ernest Mann
by Naomi Shihab Nye

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.


This is my Valentine to you all in hopes that you will find love and passion in everything you do by simply looking at what is around just a little bit differently.  After all, that is the life force of a poet…to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.  Poets do indeed see with the heart; maybe we can too.