Category Archives: Literacy

#craftreconciliation: Questioning


design process

Wikwemikong High School #craftreconciliation 


In the fall of 2016, Wab Kinew wrote a Facebook post inviting educators to partner “mainstream” classes with First Nation schools/classes to discuss “What does reconciliation look like?”.  Jaclyn Calder and I joined forces (along with Shannon Simpson and Caroline Black) to design a project that offered students an opportunity to think deeply about the relationship between Natives and non-Natives in Canada, generally, and their understanding of reconciliation, specifically. You can view the project at #CraftReconciliation with SCDSB, Wikwemikong, and Rama First Nations.

Here I am summarizing and reflecting on the project. There are five posts in this series, and they are organized around the Ontario Adolescent Literacy Guide‘s five components:

I have also organized the posts in a way that I hope makes visible the teaching – learning process so that other teachers can ‘see’ the learning that emerged from this project.


Refers to students’ curiousity, exploration, and inquiry to evoke, expose, and extend their thinking

Questioning means…


From theory

Pose and answer questions in collaboration with peers to expose various ways of thinking

To practice

I use the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) whenever the students need to generate some questions on a topic or issue.

The (QFT) is a step-by-step process that helps students learn how to produce their own questions, improve them, and strategize on how to use them.  Using the QFT requires that students ask all the questions.  The teacher’s role is simply to facilitate that process.

Below you can see what the students did in small groups. One student does all the writing. I review the process (because we have done this many times). I manage the time. I cheerlead. I do not give students question suggestions.

I used this question focus (thanks Jennifer Casa-Todd) because it incorporates the general idea of tolerance, racism, and the dominant culture without focusing on ideas specific to First Nations, the Truth and Reconciliation  or  #craftreconciliation. The goal is to teach students how to use questioning to generate ideas to ultimately create a research plan.

Question Focus:

“Canadians are tolerant of people’s heritage, customs, and religious beliefs; we are far less racist than any other country.”

Step 1: Write the quote above on your chart paper.

Step 2: In your group, brainstorm as many questions that relate to this quote as your can – 5 min

Step 3: Categorize your questions as opened or closed – 1 min

Step 4: Change one open question to a closed question – 1 min

Step 5: Choose what you feel are your 2 most important questions and discuss why they are the most important – 4 min

Step 6: Present and add you questions to the wall.

Here are a few of the questions the students presented:

  1. Why is Canada so accepting of other cultures and customs and not FN’s customs & beliefs?
  2. How is Canada more tolerant than other countries?
  3. Are we necessarily talking about Aboriginal people?
  4. Is this prompt by a non-aboriginal person?
  5. Why are Canadians good with everybody who isn’t First Nations?

Want to learn more about the QFT process?

From theory

Explore, wonder, and investigate to solve problems and build understanding

To practice

Next, students used an Inquiry Planner to track their thinking and to help them determine a specific topic for research that they are truly interested in.

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I wish I had more of the inquiry planners to share; however, this was a non-digital task so I don’t have them anymore. The final column is not completed because this early thinking led students into the full research process. The connections they made turned up in the research report planner. This student drew upon her prior knowledge of racism, the class readings we worked with together to expand and extend our background knowledge, and the QFT questions to help her generate her own thinking about the topic of racism. Others explored stereotypes, residential schools, a specific call to action, etc.

From theory

Ask questions that clarify, extend thinking and challenge ideas to probe more deeply into an issue or topic.

To practice

The above inquiry planner generated some thinking and questions around a topic the student wanted to know more about. She drew on the readings and conversations of the course, but she also had to find her own article, annotate it, and create a research note. Now, she was ready to tackle the full research process. Students could choose to continue working with their initial topic or they could change their topic based on the learning that they did in the initial inquiry process. The student who chose to explore racism initially (above) decided to explore a new topic. You can see that she has  a few questions on the topic of intergenerational trauma. This was new learning for her that emerged from her reading for her racism inquiry and it drove the focus for her research report.

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From theory

Use technology to pose questions and explore divergent perspectives

To practice

We used many different types of technology to ask questions and consider each other’s perspectives. Some of the students used or Mindomo to organize their thinking and planning. Others posted questions and responded to questions in the discussion forum. We all listened to various members of the project present their ideas about reconciliation via Google Hangouts. Click on the image below to hear a brief exchange between a student from Caroline Black‘s class and another student. Also note the responses of the students on screen to the question, the wait, and the response. Interesting.



From theory

Use self-questioning to assess readiness and guide learning

To practice

design process

Throughout the build portion of the project students were asked to reference the design process, and ask themselves, Where am I in this design cycle? What do I have to do next? What’s my plan?  This self-assessing took place in their notebooks and in conferences, neither of which I collected. One student did make reference to this process in his final course reflection, which I included in the first post of this series. 

The #craftreconciliation project is full of examples that illustrate how students used questioning to help them make connections, build knowledge, and develop as independent learners.

If you have questions about #craftreconciliation or if there are parts of this post that need clarification, please use the comment box to connect with me.

Up next: Strategy

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Filed under #craftreconciliation, First Nations, Literacy

#craftreconciliation: Critical Literacy

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In the fall of 2016, Wab Kinew wrote a facebook post inviting educators to partner “mainstream” classes with First Nation schools/classes to discuss “What does reconciliation look like?”.  Jaclyn Calder and I joined forces (along with Shannon Simpson and Caroline Black) to design a project that offered students an opportunity to think deeply about the relationship between Natives and non-Natives in Canada, generally, and their understanding of reconciliation, specifically. You can view the project at #CraftReconciliation with SCDSB, Wikwemikong, and Rama First Nations.

Here I am summarizing and reflecting on the project. There are five posts in this series, and they are organized around the Ontario Adolescent Literacy Guide‘s five components:

I have also organized the posts in a way that I hope makes visible the teaching – learning process so that other teachers can ‘see’ the learning that emerged from this project.

Critical Literacy

Refers to students critically analyzing and evaluating text as it relates to issues of equity, power, and social justice to inform a critical stance, response and/or action

From Theory      

Use technology to seek divergent perspectives, interact with authentic audiences and express ideas.                               

To Practice

In the beginning of the #craftreconciliation project, we worked on building students’ prior knowledge of the Truth and Reconciliation Report Calls to Action. We read about the calls to action, discussed them to unpack what they might look like in action, and then individually we wrote about the “most important call”. Finally, we prepared to share our thinking and to listen to the perspective of others in the project.

Google Hangout Prep

Choose ‘the most important’ Call to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Report of Canada and share with the rest of the group.

  1. What is the recommendation?
  2. What are some examples of that recommendation in action?
  3. Why is this the most important recommendation to focus on to reach reconciliation?

From Theory

Take a stance and engage in a response or action in the interest of equity, fairness, and social justice

To Practice

Students had multiple ways to articulate a response to the issues around equity, fairness, and social justice throughout the project: the hangouts and backchannel, discussion threads, Goodreads group, and their builds and research reports. A few students also decided to share their thinking with CBC Sudbury. The image below is linked to one student’s interview.

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“Breaking Sterotypes” emerged near the end of #craftreconciliation and provided students with another way to engage in the broader conversation of reconciliation.

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Breaking Stereotypes

From Theory

Determine whose voices are present and whose voices are missing from the text

To Practice

When students are learning about topics or issues that they care deeply about, the researching; that is, the planning, reading/viewing and note making process become personal. We gravitate toward the information that confirms our perspective. Most of the work in the research process is done in student-teacher conferences (which I need to learn to or remember to record!), but the planner below displays one student’s thinking and my initial thoughts.

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From Theory

Evaluate sources for bias, reliability, fairness, and validity

To Practice

One step in the research process is to make notes from sources. At then end of each note, students are required to summarize the main ideas of the text and complete an evaluation of the source. The criteria we use is SCARS.

Rating Scale

When you find what looks like a perfect source, quickly skim the material and on the back of your research note page, rate the source according to the 5 criteria on a scale of 0-2 (0=none or poor; 1=not bad or acceptable, 2=excellent).

  • S (sufficient) = 0 (i.e. very short article or a very narrow focus)
  • C (current) = 2 (i.e. published in a recent magazine)
  • A (accurate) = 1 (i.e. mostly reliable writer, credible magazine, but no bibliography included)
  • R (relevant) = 2 (i.e. exactly fits the topic I chose)
  • S (suitable) = 1 (i.e. some language that isn’t clear, no bias or bias is stated as part of the argument)

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From Theory

Recognize that texts are created by authors who have certain perspectives and bias

To Practice

The article “Doctor gives First Nations child ‘Greetings, Native Savages’ sticker” generated a range of responses as we unpacked the text together. First, students wrote a purpose question for reading and making notes based on the headline of the article only.

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Next, using, students collaboratively annotated the article. You can see a few of their comments below. Then we had a class discussion about the article. I wondered out loud about why this hospital  would be giving out stickers and where the stickers come from. I asked students to make connections to a time when they received a sticker/prize from someone and how they felt about getting it. I asked them to consider the source. Some of the students had seen the movie and they recounted it for the class. What does the sticker have to do with the movie? Did the text on the sticker come from the movie?


Students did some quick searches and found a few reviews that gave them insight into the movie’s themes of colonization, power, subjugation, and cultural disregard.

So what?

Student comments and questions included the following:

Dreamworks produced a movie that challenges the view of the dominant culture.

Yes, but the line from the sticker never actually occurs in the movie. Who made the sticker then?

Is the hospital at fault for buying any promotional items?

It seems that the First Nation community has some legitimate concerns about their treatment at this hospital. Why did CBC use that headline? Are they being sensationalist?

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Companion pieces to the above news article:

Home Is The Cutest Vision Of Colonial Domination You’ll Ever See

Film Review: Home – A colourful take on colonialism

The #craftreconciliation project is full of examples that illustrate students working on the development of their critical literacy skills. When students are studying topics and issues for which they have deep prior knowledge, they are more able to challenge the ideas and perspectives found in all of the texts they consume.

If you have questions about #craftreconciliation or if there are parts of this post that need clarification, please use the comment box to connect with me.

Up next: Questioning.


Filed under #craftreconciliation, First Nations, Literacy

#craftreconciliation: Voice & Identity

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In the fall of 2016, Wab Kinew wrote a facebook post inviting educators to partner “mainstream” classes with First Nation schools/classes to discuss “What does reconciliation look like?”.  Jaclyn Calder and I joined forces (along with Shannon Simpson and Caroline Black) to design a project that offered students an opportunity to think deeply about the relationship between Natives and non-Natives in Canada, generally, and their understanding of reconciliation, specifically. You can view the project at #CraftReconciliation with SCDSB, Wikwemikong and Rama First Nations.

Here I am summarizing and reflecting on the project. There are five posts in this series, and they are organized around the Ontario Adolescent Literacy Guide‘s five components:

I have also organized the posts in a way that I hope makes visible the teaching – learning process so that other teachers can ‘see’ the learning that emerged from this project.

Voice and Identity

Refers to students’ decisions, choices, and actions that advocate for their learning, and make connections to the experiences, values, culture, and interests (Adolescent Literacy Guide, 40).

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               Link to example

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 6.30.17 PMLink to example

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This is a two-part example. First, read Seth’s reflection on the inquiry process.

The #craftreconciliation project has been important because we get to see what everyone is thinking on subject #craftreconciliation. I know for my build I followed the #craftreconciliation project design process that is put up in Ms. Balen classroom. The steps help me and nick for this project #craftreconciliation. The first step was clearly define the problem or challenge and are challenge was putting our thoughts onto paper. It was hard to think of an idea to make in minecraft but once we got it we started to conduct our research. We continued following Ms. Balen’s project design process and the next step was to start generating ideas. Our first idea was to make a wampum belt of two people a white man and a native man holding hands in the center, with both of the weapons they would have used back in the day to fight each other like a gun and a bow and arrow. The weapons would be in their opposites hands was suppose to represent the old wars we have been through and them holding hands represents nations coming together and focusing on our relationship as two nations. We got up to a point in where we were just about to build then we noticed that that picture wouldn’t fit in minecraft because it would be too big for the squares of space that we had. So we had to generate a new idea on a new build because we were facing problems with the first build. We were thinking and thinking but finally I came up with the idea that we would make words out of wool. Wool can be easily burned in the game minecraft, that’s why i picked that. The words we use were Genocide, Deceit, and Destruction. Each word was right after the other so one word would be hidden and the one in front of it would be destroyed with fire, keeping in mind that these are the words that we don’t want any part of anymore. Our last word was peace and it was written in stone and that was to represent that it’s here to stay. Peace isn’t going anywhere it will stay between our nations. That was my creation on the #craftreconciliation project and I found that it was fun to show our ideas in minecraft. To sum it up I think that Ms. Balen’s project design process helped us because I need a place the start and something to see visually to stay focused and that’s what the project design process did.

Then listen to Seth and his partner, Nick, describe their build.

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Link to example

The project is full of examples that illustrate “when students can relate what they are learning to something that is important to them, they tend to feel more competent and are likely to think more deeply” (Adolescent Literacy Guide, 45).  For instance, the hangouts (extremely popular events with the students), pushed the students to listen intently to

  • Make connections and respond in the back channel or on camera;
  • Identify various perspectives to note the similarities and differences;
  • Reflect on their own ideas to make decisions about their research and their build.

If you have questions about #craftreconciliation or if there are parts of this post that need clarification, please use the comment box to connect with me.

Up next: Critical Literacy


Filed under #craftreconciliation, First Nations, Literacy


I grew up in a place and at a time when communication beyond face-to-face interaction was limited to the phone. Long distance calling was exorbitantly expensive and so, rarely done. It was hard to imagine being an ocean biologist when the nearest ocean was a thousand miles away. It was hard to believe that you could do anything other what you saw in front of you, and most of the time, there was simply nothing there.

Nothing on TVCreative Commons License via Compfight

I’m not even exaggerating.

I still live on the edge of the populated spaces in this country where there are no traffic lights, no stores open for evening shopping, and no line-ups for…well, anything. Waiting in traffic means someone is helping that turtle trying to get to the other side or a family of raccoons have decided to cross the road. And yet I don’t have to live on the periphery of  intellectual spaces any longer. I can participate in the most current educational thinking of Ontario, Canada, and beyond. I don’t have to wait for someone else to decide what is important for me to know about teaching and learning. I don’t have to hope that someone will provide me with inspiration for my work. I don’t have to draw on only the local resources to design courses that are meaningful, relevant, and intellectually engaging for my students.

What this does mean; however, is that others in my situation don’t have to either. This has been the challenge, then the difficulty, and now the problem facing me of the past five years. Why are the educators around me not embracing the opportunities offered via the current technologies to grow and learn past where they are physically located? Why rely on Nelson or Pearson solely to teach their students? Why do they think that what they have always done is sufficient today?

This brings me to this…..

MakeThingsDifferent screenshot Fryed

And Donna Fry’s blog is a source of inspiration for me. She tagged me in this post where she enumerates the 5 things that she thinks we need to stop pretending in order to #makeschooldifferent.

Here is my list…

#1.  We need to stop pretending that teachers can do this job alone. We need to recognize that planning time cannot mean that teachers work in isolation; nor can it only mean planning across grade teams. It must also mean having time to connect with educators beyond our four walls.  It means growing our PLN. It means honouring social media connection time as valuable.

#2. We need to stop pretending that all educators are de facto good learners. Tom Whitby has said, “To be better educators, we must first have to be better learners.” Agreed. And this does mean all of us who claim the title of educator: ECE, EA, Teacher, Coach, Consultant, Coordinator, Principal, Supervisor, Education Officer, Program Manager etc. We all need to expect of ourselves first what we expect of our students…to be risk-takers, metacognitive, and ‘learning ready’.

#3. We need to stop pretending that someone else is going to do the work. All educators at every level of our education system must engage in the actual work with students. The days of “walk-throughs” by administration need to end. Rather, administration needs to work in the classroom to remain connected to the ever-changing demands of the teaching-learning exchange.

Instructional rounds conducted by teachers and administration have taken hold in some places and work because they support/model a culture of ongoing learning. I have to believe that that culture is passed on to and/or picked up by the students, too.

There are other examples that demonstrate the importance/value of everyone doing the work. You can see here the Northern Ontario eLCs working with teachers and students of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. Another example comes from a session I attended for preparation work for a new e-learning course where Lori Stryker from the Assessment Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education spoke about her work with teachers and students in classrooms to ensure that the work does not live in the theoretical realm, but moves always to practice.

#4. We have to stop pretending that learning is about isolated subjects driven by content. We need to design learning to be interdisciplinary so that students and teachers can tackle real world needs. This might mean solving real problems like how a school can acquire a new field for outdoor learning and recreation/training, or it might mean developing a program that responds to students’ desire to learn about the traditional life of their people (much like the  Specialist High School Major program in Ontario does). We need to see this kind of learning become the norm.

Frankly, it is becoming more and more difficult to explain to high school students why they need four English credits. They don’t dispute needing to develop and strengthen their communication/literacy skills, but many of them would rather do that work via robotics, student council, or a music business course.

Which brings me to …

#5. We have to stop pretending that only some teachers are teachers of literacy. Everyone needs to be able to speak, read, write, and create really well. Literacy is the set of skills that drives all other content–regardless of discipline. Literacy instruction needs to be built into every part of a students’ day because it is a set of skills that was, is, and will always be needed. Advanced literacy skills ensure that students will be able to think critically, communicate persuasively, and work collaboratively. In Ontario, the work of incorporating/embedding literacy into every grade 7-12 classroom is supported by the Adolescent Literacy Guide and the folks at the Curriculum Services Branch of the Ministry of Education. It’s up to our school and system leaders to make sure that every teacher is skilled at literacy instruction.

Of course, there are more than 5 things to stop pretending. Here are some other voices who have expressed ideas that I would add to my list too!!!

Heather Theijsmeijer

Colleen Rose

Ms. Armstrong

Deborah McCallum

And I would like to challenge my English teacher colleagues  @msjweir@arachnemom, @sarle83, and @danikatipping. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts ladies!!!


Filed under Literacy, OSSEMOOC, Professional Learning, Teaching

Reclaiming Storytelling

2014 represents the year that I moved digital storytelling from theory to action. Well, began to move…there’s lots of learning to do.

Storytelling was often used among native peoples, not only for moral teaching, but for practical instruction, to help you remember the details of a craft or skill, and for theoretical instruction, whether about political organization or the location of the stars. One advantage of telling a story to a person rather than preaching at him directly is that the listener is free to make his own interpretation. If it varies a little from yours, that is all right … However many generations have heard the story before the youth who hears it today, it is he who must apply it to his own life.

                                                  – George Manuel and Michael Posluns, The Fourth World, 1974.

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By Tom Thomson (1877 – 1917) Public Domain,

“Free to make his own interpretation…”

Inquiry-based learning has grown exponentially in the past few years, which is terrific from my thinking. It connects to the kind of parenting I did when I was a stay-at-home mother. I hated the thought of my kids going to school to sit in rows and to be told what to do. Inquiry learning is about exploration and questioning, and it begins when we need to know how to do something or when we are truly keen on a new idea.

But inquiry-based learning also reflects pedagogy that sustained indigenous people for thousands of years. In fact, at least one resource explicitly acknowledges that there “are several parallels between Indigenous perspectives on education and those of Inquiry-based Knowledge Building” (Natural Curiosity, 13).

Because I teach First Nations high school students, I am constantly considering ways in which the learning we do can be holistic, experiential and relationship-building. One of the challenges is that I teach English where inquiry-based learning, although not impossible, does not lend itself easily on its own to real-life applications like that of The Students Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) created by Jeff Goldstein or even the Flat Connections Global Projects run by Julie Lindsay.

 What we can do is revisit storytelling as pedagogy.

First Nations’ tradition of storytelling is a method of transferring knowledge–their history, ways of being, reconciliation to the tragedies of life, thankfulness, observations about natural phenomena and behaviour–from one generation to the next. Not merely entertainment on the long, dark winter nights, storytelling was a foundational piece upon which the communities were built. The on-going conversation between storyteller and listener emphasizes the value of listening and of the trust that is needed to listen well, and it is an opportunity for the exchange of ideas, which sustains the process as a significant part of their intellectual tradition.

And I don’t mean that the teacher is telling or creating the stories. No, the idea is to challenge students to tell their stories–traditional or new–for a modern audience.

This is an idea a long time in the making. 14 years ago, I wondered if technology open-up the possibility of a re-emergence of Native storytelling. Sure, the form would be different…virtual rather than face-to-face, but the voice would be there and sound effects could replace hand gestures and body movement. Well sorta. But you get my drift, right? (I had not yet come across the actual phrase “Digital Storytelling”!). Outfront, a CBC show that ran in the early 2000s was billed as, “radio stories about real life… all about your ideas, your experiences, your perspectives, your story. It’s an hour of storytelling, experimental audio and new ways of making radio” (PRX). The general idea was that non-journalists could submit a proposal to CBC, and if chosen, producers etc. would travel to you and produce the piece.

Perfect opportunity for us. And yet, I could not get this idea off the ground. Maybe I didn’t know enough back then to pitch it well. Maybe I had not yet learned how to work around the deep shyness of so many students. Maybe it was too far of a reach.

And yet, at its core, I knew that students needed to tell their own stories. I knew that we needed to find ways to honour the literacy of the place and its people. My students needed to not just be in this world as First Nations people, but of it. Not to recreate or hold on to the past as it was, but to embody their belief system in the now.

Fast forward to 2013 when the conditions seem ripe to try again: technology was more advanced, the advent of cell tower spurred on the acquisition of personal devices, which meant more individual involvement with social media, Chromebooks had arrived, and web-based tools had become wide-spread.

 Darkness Calls by S.K. Sanderson

Examples of digital storytelling from a First Nations’ point of view were also emerging all over the place. We watched the first episode of the 8th Fire where we met Steve Keewatin Sanderson, a comic and computer games illustrator from the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Have a listen to him talk about people’s response to his art here from 3:35-5:15.

Ruptured Sky presents the War of 1812 from First Nations’ perspective in an interactive graphic novel format. From the site:

The Ruptured Sky is a digital literacy title that delivers insight into the vital role played by First Nations in the outcome of the War of 1812. The resource exposes an important part of Canadian history, one that has been underserved throughout the generations. Most of the principals involved in this project are First Nations artists, creators, writers, historians, subject matter experts and educators. It is important for students to have access to a resource that reports historical events from First Nations perspectives.

And then there is Never Alone.

The pedagogy of digital storytelling

We know that digital storytelling is a powerful way to get students engaged in learning.  But I am working toward an understanding that by using a variety of web tools, students will be able to garner the skill set to experiment with telling their own stories to not only gain traditional literacy competencies, but to also gain self-confidence and increase a sense of dignity in themselves as Anishnabek.

Let’s have a look at the progress to date: The why of digital storytelling*, followed by examples from my high school classroom….

  • It develops creativity and critical thinking

Students synthesized their understanding of three different narrative elements in The Fault in Our Stars (TFiOS) via Tackk board (unfortunately the site is gone).

  • Students who are shy or afraid to talk in class get a chance to speak out their minds

Grade 9 students choose a web-based tool to learn and then created a tutorial. Here is one tutorial  created by a selectively mute student.

  • It empowers and provides students to express and share their  voices

Students in grade 10 receive their own blog and we begin to learn this process. Student’s first Post

  • It helps students explore the meaning of their own experience, give value to it, and communicate that experience with others

We are in the process of creating a grade 9 collaborative project with every grade 9 student ( 45 students). It has two main parts: (1)  Lipdup based on the song We Are Done by the Madden Brothers and (2) an online wiki collaborative textbook called, Global Perspectives: A Collaborative Textbook for Teens by Teens. The overarching questions is: Do teens really have to care about dignity and tolerance?

  • It is a reflective process that helps students reflect upon their learning and find deep connections with the subject matter of a course or with an out-of-class experience

Learning Well: a story of contrasts produced collaboratively by a grade 11 class.

  • It fosters students sense of individuality

 Students in grade 10 receive their own blog and we begin to learn this process.  Student learning to blog about her own interest.

  • It also gives students an opportunity to experiment with self-representation and establish their identity

Introverts and Extroverts inquiry presentation.

It is no small task for teens to figure out who they will be. For First Nations teens the task can seem insurmountable. What does it mean to be a First Nations person in the 21st century? I don’t have the answer, but maybe if students have the knowledge, skills, and tools they can reclaim storytelling as their guiding force.

Finally, thanks to all my digital storytelling teachers:

Alan Levine, 50+ Web Ways to tell a story

Alan NovemberEducational Resources for Educators

Amy BurvallCreative Projects

Darren Kuropatwa, Presentations

Silvia Rosenthal TolisanoBlog

Susan Oxnevad, Blog

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Filed under Literacy, Year End Reflection

The Transformative Power of Reading and Talking Literature

031/365 - The Reader

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Antoine Robiez via Compfight

Why stories?

If we ever need to be reminded about the importance of stories in our lives, the month of March does the job with World Read Aloud Day on the 5th, World Storytelling Day on the 20th, and Canada Reads 2014 from March 3 – 6.

And we do need reminding.

Take Stephen Lewis, Canadian philanthropist and activist, who acknowledges during Canada Reads 2014 that he has not been a reader of fiction, but through his participation in Canada Reads he claims “I am determined to start serious reading…[the conversation about books] engages you in the literature.” (7:00 mark)

I needed reminding too.

For too long, I have been reading professional education texts by the likes of Dweck, Hattie, Katz, Kittle, Boushey and Moser, Routman, Allington-you get the idea.  As a new literacy coach, the gaps in my knowledge about K-6 literacy, in particular, were unavoidable; I was after all a high school English teacher. But one needs to respond to challenges, right? One way I cope with the queasiness that high levels of risk creates in me is to work really hard.

Head down and go.

The thing about learning is that it is all-absorbing. It’s not  that I didn’t have time for literature (both fiction and creative non-fiction); it’s that I only had time for reading that supported my learning. It’s a matter of perceived value.

Don’t get me wrong, I did read–there were all the incredible primary stories that reminded me of the absolute joy that illustrators offer, Giraffe and Bird  (what attitude expressed on the page!!) being one of my favourites . And the middle school stories that grab your heart and punch & hug & hold onto you like Wonder does.  And the YA stories that push the dark corners of possibility closer to the centre of our consciousness-magic, fantasy, science fiction, crime, war, and love-there’s wonder here, but there’s pain too: The Fault in Our StarsThe  Hunger GamesAmy & Roger’s Epic DetourThe Maze RunnerLittle BrotherFor the Win, Into the Wild. And lastly, I did read the odd adult story like State of Wonder and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. 

But, with my return to the classroom and to reading with and along side my students, I am once again immersed in those conversations about life that emerge from the perspective of literature. This is so satisfying. Stories, after all, are the lens through which I have grappled with all of life’s complexities, and helping my students create that lens for themselves is a goal to be sure. So, the students of Room 121 have begun thinking about stories or ways of knowing. We are reading biographies or autobiographies of one sort or another at the moment. Our list of titles includes The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianA Beautiful MindMetallicaJ.K. RowlingInto Thin AirAmelia EarhartA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusSteve Jobs: The Man who Thought DifferentHer Last Death: A MemoirSix Months in SudanSteven Tyler A Long Way Gone.

I love the diversity of these titles and I love that in each case the reader can think about the story as a legitimate way to understand his or her life.

But, but, but…..what titles can you suggest for us?

And, and, and…..check back to see what we are thinking about our reading.


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Literacy–a word for all educators.



I just returned from a terrific professional learning day with my literacy counter parts from across the Northeastern region of Ontario. This session was hosted by  educators from the Curriculum and Learning Resources Policy Unit, Joanne Folville and Julie Gayoski-Luke.

The focus of our conversation was The Adolescent Literacy Guide, a new resource from the Ontario Ministry of Education. This resource was placed in our hands last fall and we were asked to review it and consider how we would use it in schools with teachers and administration. Now, we gathered to share our work around this resource. Like everyone else in education, the Ministry is interested in gathering evidence of its resources’ effectiveness. The idea behind this resource was not a full roll out; that is, the guide was not to be handed out en mass. Rather,  its content was designed and formatted to be accessed as needed-more of a ‘dip in and grab’ process.

I am still processing the rich conversation around this resource, but today I wanted to comment on the ongoing issue of the word literacy. There was a strong feeling around the table that the Ministry should have used the title The Adolescent Learner’s Guide rather than The Adolescent Literacy Guide. The claim made is that when high school teachers hear the word literacy, they immediately think that’s the responsibility of the English department, and tune out.

I get that. But it’s time we called these teachers on this attitude. We can no longer rely on a definition of literacy that is limited to a person’s ability to read and write.

According to the Canadian Council on Learning, “true literacy encompasses much more than just these basic skills. It includes the ability to analyse things, understand general ideas or terms, use symbols in complex ways, apply theories, and perform other necessary life skills―including the ability to engage in the social and economic life of the community.”

And for Douglas Kellner, Ph.D. at UCLA “literacy involves gaining the skills and knowledge to read and interpret the text of the world and to successfully navigate its challenges, conflicts and crises.  Literacy is a necessary condition to equip people to participate in the local, national and global economy, culture and polity.”

These are useful and relevant definitions for literacy in 2013. They are inclusive. Here is the beginning of a list of literacies:

  • Ecoliteracy
  • Financial Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • Critical Literacy
  • Emotional Literacy
  • Information Literacy
  • Aural Literacy
  • Visual Literacy
  • Multicultural Literacy
  • Physical Fitness and Nutrition Literacy
  • CyberLiteracy
  • Digital Literacy
  • Web Literacy

Is there any course offered in high school that does not include reading and writing? Is there any course offered in high school that does not require thinking, analyzing, or the application of theories?  Is there any course offered in high school that does not also tap into any of the above literacies?
It is time for all educators, even high school content area teachers, to accept that they are teachers of literacy.

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