Tag Archives: reading

The LEARN Team’s Summertime Reads


Editor’s note: This post was a labour of love for everyone on the LEARN team – and from a literacy perspective it’s always good to practice what you preach! 

With the 2014-2015 school year ALMOST a distant memory, the LEARN team wants to help you avoid that summertime brain drain that is bound to happen while you laze around swimming pools, beaches, lakes, porches, water parks and so on. Here are the summer book picks that we feel will help you stay mentally crisp, instead of fading away. Our criteria was simple: recommend a book you like!



The Physics of Superheroes
by James Kakalios

I found this treasure at a used book store last year, but haven’t had the time to read it yet! It highlights connections between comic books and physics, in particular where the authors got the physics RIGHT (I love it when the “science part of science fiction is accurate!). I’m hoping to include some of these connections in my physics classes next year.

-Kerry Cule, Online Teacher and Pedagogical Consultant


The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity
by Wm. Paul Young

Life is full of challenges. It’s easy to be taken over by the negatives. For me, this book is helping me to hope and to focus on the positives in everyone and the relationships we have. Put a little love in your hearts people!

-Doris Kerec, Administrator – Financial Services





The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology
That Fuel Success and Performance at Work
by Shawn Achor

Not a book filled with bumper-sticker platitudes, this is about science… neuroscience actually. Research proves that each one of us has the ability to shape and reshape the neural pathways in the brain. With practice, we can shift our mindset to the positive, which can profoundly affect our work and life. Well written and funny!

-Kristine Thibeault, Pedagogical Consultant


Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, And Good Food
by Jeff Potter

You’ll learn how to initialize your kitchen, calibrate your tools, play with hydrocolloids and the Maillard reaction… What’s not to love about this book?

-Louis-Gilles Lalonde, Programmer




The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes
by Andy Karr and Michael Wood

I love going out with my camera. It stills the mind, makes me live in the moment. This book is full of ideas on how to learn to look: finding the beauty in the mundane and the unusual, hunting out textures and spaces, searching for simplicity…   And it is packed with photographs by many outstanding photographers illustrating the concepts. So I will slow down, read, and take time to focus this summer.

-Susan van Gelder, Pedagogical Consultant


The Home by the Sea
by Santa Montefiore

This book tells the tale of a little girl (Floriana) abandoned by her mother and raised in abject poverty by her alcoholic father in Tuscany in 1966. This story is moving and mysterious, it’s about love and forgiveness… and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  The vivid descriptions of the Tuscan coast also kept me enraptured throughout.

-Rosie Himo, Administrative Assistant

paulbookUs Conductors
by Sean Michaels

For the pure pleasure of it I will be finishing Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, which I loved and just tore through in spring but then got sidetracked with all kinds of end-of-year commitments.  I crave books with simple yet rhythmic writing like Michaels’. So, not sure what I will find to follow it.  Any suggestions?

-Paul Rombough, Pedagogical Consultant


Irrationally Yours
by Dan Ariely

Not cosmological. Not theological. Not existential. Not flippant. Not profound. Not poetic. Not prosaic. Not too long. Not too short. Not meditative. Not self-help. And NOT irrational.

-Michael Canuel, Chief Executive Officer


Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love
by Rich Sheridan

I take a moment every week to celebrate and tweet  #3HappyThingsAtWork.  One book I will read this summer tells the story of a company that created an intentionally joyful culture, with profitable results! In Joy, Inc., Rich Sheridan shares how he built a workplace people love – work in pairs, daily short stand-up meetings, no walls, work-life balance, and Viking helmets!

-Dianne Conrod, Principal – Online Learning


Le baiser mauve de Vava
par Dany Laferrière

« Maman, veux-tu un baiser mauve de Vava? »
Dany Laferrière a transporté mon fils dans un imaginaire où s’entremêlent la poésie, la maladie, la vie, la tristesse, l’espoir, l’amour, les papillons jaunes et les méchants hommes aux lunettes noires. Et surtout, le baiser mauve à la princesse endormie, Vava.

-Julie Paré, conseillère pédagogique





Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winning economist, delves into our biased misunderstandings of the world. He seeks to improve our ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice. I need the long summer days to explore this insightful trip into our thought processes.

-Bev White, Director of Special Projects





Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
by Ben MacIntyre

The story of Britain’s MI-5 intelligence service’s Double Cross system whose elaborate deceptions duped the Nazis and convinced Hitler the Allies would land at Calais and Norway instead of Normandy. The success or failure of a series of elaborate plots and double-dealings turned on egos, personal tragedies, money, sexual behaviour and heroism.  Vintage photographs of these flamboyant agents, their British and German senior officers and the code-breaking Bletchley Park personnel are interspersed throughout the book. If you’re not a war story aficionado but find what makes people and projects tick fascinating, I recommend this as an intriguing summer read!

-Barbara Goode, Adult General Education and Vocational Training Initiatives

thomas_bookJaguars Ripped My Flesh
by Tim Cahill

How can you go wrong with a title like Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, by Tim Cahill? Pure adventure escapism. Short stories of travel from around the world.

-Thomas Stenzel, Pedagogical Consultant


The Passion Driven Classroom
by Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold

#youmatter – these 2 words will alter your students’ confidence. These words will change their outlook on learning. I am a huge fan of Angela Maiers. Her message is powerful: make sure your students know that what they do is important! This summer, I want to read more about what she suggests to “cultivate a thriving and passionate community of learners”.

-Peggy Drolet, Online Teacher and Pedagogical Consultant



 Reinventing organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations
Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness
by Frederic Laloux

Frederic Laloux looks at organizational models over time from an evolutionary and historical perspective. He offers us the possibility of a new paradigm based on case stories of existing work places and conditions for creating or transforming organizations beyond current levels of consciousness. The author uses a colour palette of red, amber, orange, green and teal to code the models – how can you go wrong… ; )

-Christine Truesdale, Director of Pedagogical Services and Educational Technology

Photo on 2015-05-29 at 11.01 AM #3

Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects  and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share
by Ken Denmead

With a full nest of littles to entertain throughout the summer days, this sweet project book is exactly what is needed to get my kiddies outside, creating and inventing. Projects from making a board game, to creating a comic book, to building a binary calendar. When your kids say, “I’m bored,” you now have ammo!

– Chris Colley, Pedagogical Consultant

audrey_bookHe’s the Weird Teacher: And other things students whisper about me
by Doug Robertson

Doug is actually a Twitter friend of mine. He’s hilarious and deep, and apparently so is his book. He has written a second one also, which I may read if I like the first one. Taking all the creative energy he has to inspire his students, channeling it into a fun to read, meaningful guide to teaching.

-Audrey McLaren, Online Teacher and Pedagogical Consultant




Photo on 2015-05-29 at 11.41 AM #4An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
by Chris Hatfield

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth Chris Hadfield talks about his early life and the events that led him to become an astronaut. He also talks about his training and his experience before, during and after his 144 days as commander of the International Space Station (ISS).

– Rob Costain, Pedagogical Consultant



The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to
Writing in the 21st Century
by Steven Pinker

I’ve started reading this because I love Steven Pinker’s other books, I love his most recent animated TED talk, and I want to be prepped for his visit to Montreal on October 22. It promises to be deep (as a cognitive scientist he draws on neuroscience), witty, practical and fun.

-Mary Stewart, Managing Editor of LEARNing Landscapes


Turning to One Another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future
by Margaret J. Wheatley

“Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk, and this is the edge of the roof” – Rumi. An unexpected book from a well-known organizational and leadership practitioner, dappled with poetry and whimsy, while staying grounded in the conversations that make us human and draw us together.

-Sylwia Bielec, Pedagogical Consultant & Editor of the LEARN Blog


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/

“MacGyvering” Low Cost Alternatives to Assistive Technologies

“Necessity is the mother of invention” may be a highly overused phrase, but that is probably because in practice it is often true. When presented with challenges and obstacles, we often come up with surprising and innovative solutions. Sometimes, the fix is a “Plan B.” In some instances, however, it opens doors to new ways of doing things, as I found out on a recent trip to the Lower North Shore of Québec.

St. Paul River, Québec
CC image “St. Paul River” courtesy Robert Costain

This year part of my work is to provide part-time RÉCIT services to the Littoral School Board. For those unfamiliar with Littoral, it is a “special status” school board whose remote geography and sparse demographics make it one of a handful of school boards in Québec not defined along linguistic lines. About a dozen schools both English and French are home to a total of about 570 students. The schools are in small villages spread out over 460 kilometers along the Lower North Shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, from Kegaska on the western end to Blanc-Sablon in the East near the Labrador border (as well as a school in Port-Menier on Anticosti Island).

The focus of my mandate for this year is to support the use of interactive whiteboards and assistive technologies in the classroom. I am based in Montréal, but have visited seven schools so far to provide face-to-face accompaniment. The visits provide an opportunity to get to know the staff and culture in each school, and to perform an informal needs assessment that guide the support I provide upon returning to Montréal.

One major preoccupation of schools is supporting students with special needs. In small communities with limited resources and access to support services, schools often rely heavily on technology to help students with learning or physical disabilities. The finer points of this approach are open to debate, but the fact is that assistive technology has been added to the Individualized Education Plans (IEP) of many students.

One assistive software program that has made its way into many schools is WordQ. Although originally intended to assist with writing, WordQ is often used for its text-to-speech functionality in the place of dedicated software like Natural Reader or Kurzweil for students who have great difficulty reading because of a visual impairment, dyslexia or dysgraphia.

A common practice is for a teacher or class helper to use a flatbed scanner to digitize pages or selections of printed text. Then, using an optical character recognition (OCR) software such as OmniPage, ReadIris or FineReader, the scanned page(s) are converted into readable text that can be read aloud by WordQ (or another program).

Each step in this multistep procedure must be working for the student to have access to the text. The process is too complicated for many students, especially those who need it the most. The OCR is imperfect and requires careful proofing. Furthermore, technical glitches are common. For example, in one school I recently visited, the use of text-to-speech to help students read was brought to a grinding halt because the scanner had stopped working. As a result the teachers were stuck and unable to provide their students with texts.

CC image "Smartphone performing OCR" courtesy Robert Costain
CC image “Smartphone performing OCR” courtesy Robert Costain

It so happened that just before visiting this particular school, I had been experimenting with OCR options for my iPhone and downloaded a basic OCR program called ABBYY TextGrabber. The app uses the built-in camera on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to photograph printed text. It then connects to the Internet to perform text recognition. Since text-to-speech is standard in iOS devices, I wondered if this might be a stopgap solution for the non-functioning scanner, so I did a little experiment with one of the teachers.

We photographed a selection of printed text with TextGrabber. The app was able to extract the text from the photo with about 90% accuracy. With a little bit of proofreading, we were able to recreate the printed text. Unfortunately, TextGrabber itself does not support text-to-speech unless the selection scanned is copied or exported. However, we were able to copy and paste the text into the iPhone’s built-in Notes app and read the selection aloud using text-to-speech. The procedure is demonstrated in the accompanying YouTube video.

Another approach is to use TextGrabber (or a similar app) in conjunction with WordQ by emailing the scanned selection to a computer with WordQ software installed. Similarly, if a flatbed scanner is available, but OCR software is not, Google Docs can be used to perform basic OCR provided the source text is clear enough. WordQ, Natural Reader on Windows or the built-in text-to-speech in Mac OS X will read text from a Google Doc quite well.

What makes these procedures compelling is that iOS and Android devices are becoming commonplace, even in remote locations like Littoral. Students and their parents have access to the technology, the apps are not expensive, and as a result this relatively easy text-to-speech solution is quite accessible to many.

There are some caveats that should be noted when using text-to-speech with students:

  • The appropriateness of using assistive technologies is based on the needs of individual students. There is no “one size fits all” solution and each student should be evaluated carefully before an assistive device is assigned to his/her IEP.
  • Optical character recognition (OCR) is rarely 100% accurate. Scanned text MUST be carefully proofread before using it with students.


Listen Up!

(c) T.J. Lentz

by Michael Canuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more:

Benefits of Audiobooks for All Readers by Denise Johnson

Recorded Books in K-12 Blog – http://www.rbk12blog.com

Learn Out Loud – http://www.learnoutloud.com







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

(c) Todd Berman

by Melanie Stonebanks

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

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

Fast forward a month.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


References for further reading:

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


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


Making meaning, making media

photo by Jon Ragnarsson

Schools and many homes today are equipped with at the very least some rudimentary form of media-making device. My own two-year old loves grabbing the iPad and going for the camera icon, clumsily taking pictures of her thumb, her lap and sometimes Lucy the Cat. And although she hates having the lens turned on her, she loves watching the result, with her favourite clips and photos the ones where she is frantically trying to wrest the tablet from my hands. These she will watch or browse through over and over again, relishing each squeal of anger and looking to me with delight. There is little doubt that my daughter is growing up in a world where the meaning we make is multi-modal (I don’t want to use the word multimedia, with its associations of presentations and complicated playback hardware). Where we respond to a video in a social media space with a photograph or a song that sparks comments, weaving a tapestry of meaning from the various modes.

Children make meaning because it is what we do as humans. Give us a stick and we’ll look for a surface to mark. We have a desire to tell stories and have stories told to us. In schools, the intertwined acts of reading and writing are a matter of course for all of us educators. We know the intricate dance of meaning hidden in the mechanics of learning to decipher words and sentences and shaping one’s own letters in turn. Not only is literacy, the ability to both read and write, a cornerstone of our education system, but we have spent decades perfecting how and when we introduce young learners to various aspects of reading and writing. Although we value reading and writing somewhat above other means of communicating, this does not mean that we should be avoiding teaching students how to ‘read’ complex media texts or how to craft intricate messages of their own.

In the past, educators who introduced media into their classrooms often focused on media critique. They went looking for biases, hidden meanings and subliminal messages, no doubt as a reaction to insidious advertising and news media techniques. While there is no harm to this approach, it is certainly a single-faceted view of media education, as though teaching someone only how to read, and not how to write. For is it not the very act of writing that brings to light a lot of what we read? The creating of characters, the choosing of words to convey emotion or lack thereof, the structuring and pacing of sentences…are these not the acts that allow us to fully appreciate what we read? It is the same with media: the act of making media, of crafting a message from beginning to end, inevitably results in some new awareness, some new understanding of how media messages impact us.

Deciding on the best effect for their purpose

Making media is about making meaning through images, characters, sound, words and motion. Like with reading and writing, there are discrete and often quite mechanical skills to be taught: as we learn how to grip a pencil, we also learn how to hold a camera and press the shutter. As we begin expressing our ideas in sentences, so too can we be taught to express our ideas in a series of shots or movements across the screen. As we play with sentence length and the legato or staccato of certain words, so too can we learn when to effectively deploy a slow pan or zoom in. And as we become inspired by what we read and want to try some of the writing devices for ourselves, we can also find inspiration in the media messages that move us.

The issue, often, is that making media is time consuming. But this is only part of the truth. When children begin writing at first, we do not expect them to come up with pages filled with writing on their own. They illustrate key words, they invent spelling, they tell their story aloud. These approaches are also effectively used for making media. Students can take photographs of events going on in the classroom, such as a sprouting bean or a special visitor.  They can also record oral reactions to what they watch or read. They can create animations that play with colours and shapes. Just as we do not expect them to write an essay in Cycle 1, so too should we cut them some slack when it comes to media production. Cut them some slack, yes, but provide them with daily opportunities to hone the craft of making media. So when they do take a photograph or record their voice or make an animation, we can take a look at form along with content. Is the photograph in focus? Is the framing good? Is it a tight enough/wide enough shot that you can see what is most important? Is the recording clear? Are there any distracting background noises? Is the animation too fast? Little by little, over time, students learn the craft of making media by taking small regular steps. Like the layers of literacy that begin with the first board books and lullabies and continue into the school years, the skills involved in ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ media texts need to be honed over time.

And you, how are you using media with your students? How are you working with teachers to make media with students?

Here are some highlights from the Quebec scene:

Tuned into Culture (Culture à l’écoute)


Animation on the LEARN website


Free Animation Software Giveaway – until January 31, 2012




How are you Reading?

Photo by goXunuReviews, under a CC license

I bought an iPad in May and it has definitely changed my reading habits. While I am an avid reader and my house is filled with books, I have started to read books on my mobile device. Why am I switching?

I’ll be moving this year and am looking at the many books on my shelves. They take up an enormous amount of space. While I love to see them and remember the hours of pleasure they afforded me, I also think about how they will fit as I downsize. The books I buy now don’t need to fit on shelves, just on virtual shelves.

I like the pluses of electronic books. I can easily highlight sections, add notes and bookmark parts I want to go back to. I recently read Lorna Crozier’s biography, “Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir” and reveled in her poetic language. I highlighted favourite passages and can easily go back to them. (I read this one with the Kobo app).

I love to read in bed and my partner loves to sleep! Now I don’t have to switch on a light to indulge in my simple pleasure. My current read is “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, which has been revealing as well as a trip down memory lane as I bought my first computer in 1983 and have owned Apple products ever since. I am using the iBooks app that comes with the iPad to read this one.

I can adjust the font and font size to the way I feel most comfortable reading. This is great for students too.

Travelling becomes lighter as both the books I take to read while on holiday and the travel books themselves are all on the one device.

If you have students who struggle with reading, the iPad can read the text to them. They don’t have to be held back by their difficulty deciphering the words. And for those who read, but still need some words defined, holding down on the word opens a dialogue box. One of the choices is define and the word’s definition is readily available.

The biggest bonus comes when reading books that were written for mobile devices. They can be embedded with links, videos, animations. Then reading takes on new dimensions. I have been reading “Playing with Media: simple ideas for powerful sharing” by Wesley Fryer. It is a great way to learn about digital text, audio and video editing and where to post it. As I read, I can watch the videos which provide step-by-step instructions. This book is a great place to start if you are just getting into using digital media with your students as well as for the more tech savvy of you who want to broaden your knowledge.

Many libraries are now loaning ebooks. You can download the book and it disappears from your device after the loan period.

In a future post, I will share a bit about how your students can become creators of ebooks. Consuming and creation are two sides of the ebook revolution.

What are the downsides? I can’t pass my books on to my 93 year-old cousin who is still an avid reader. I am not patronizing our few local independent book stores as I buy the books online. With my choice of an iPad vs one of the less expensive ebook readers, I won’t be taking it to a beach to read.

Do I read everything on a mobile device? No – I still buy books which I want to share. I have a collection of children’s books and love to sit with a child to share the text and illustrations. Though, recently I came across an amazing children’s book that was created for the iPad, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I still buy professional books. I like to take them to workshops and pass them around to inspire others – hard to do with a digital device.

How are you reading? I’d love to hear about how you feel about the switch to digital books. What device are you using? Would you recommend it to others and why or why not. Are you using eReaders with your students?

And, of course, share your favourite titles.

Susan van Gelder