Category Archives: Teaching

Choices into Hope

I don’t regularly follow American news. Nor do I follow their politics of the day. Heck, I didn’t pay attention to the most recent U.S. election until after Trump won. It’s not my country. I can neither effect events that happen there nor can I be affected by the decisions made there (well maybe, but let’s not get into that now). I often don’t even join the Twitter conversations between American educators (or British or Australian) in my PLN. Too much of the context is different.

But, I have been moved by Michelle Obama.

The first time was this past summer when looking for mentor texts for the upcoming school year, I stumbled upon a Poynter post called “8 writing lessons from Michelle Obama’s DNC speech”.

I was hooked. The writing, the delivery, and the passion of the speech reeled me in.

So, when I saw mention of Michelle’s last speech as a First Lady fly by me in my Twitter feed on Friday, I didn’t hesitate to curate it for later viewing. This morning while making chicken soup, I listened and I watched Michelle Obama’s final message at the 2017 National School Counselor of the Year celebration.


A strong contender for my 2017 word of the year was hope for all of the reasons that Michelle states:

Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise.

Hers is a message for all students, in every corner of the planet. One that young people need to hear repeatedly.

That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us — politicians, parents, preachers — all of us need to be providing for our young people.

But it is also a message that clearly spells out students’ responsibility.

But I also want to be very clear: This right isn’t just handed to you. No, this right has to be earned every single day. You cannot take your freedoms for granted. Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms. And that starts right now, when you’re young.

Sometimes students (and adults) think that choice means freedom from facing obstacles in their lives and freedom to do only that which pleases them. Michelle Obama’s speech to young people shows us that’s not the case. Rather, we need to learn to make the choices that make hope possible.

Full Remarks Transcript

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#craftreconciliation: The Climbing

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 the first part of the series 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. To meet this goal I have attempted to include the tools that were created for this project and to show them in action.

The Trek In

We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.

— Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC.

The climbing metaphor is an apt one. The preparation-physical, mental, emotional-for the task at hand, be it climbing or reconciling, is a process. As one does not simply head out to climb Everest, one does not just reconcile the past.

We didn’t reach the summit of the mountain, nor did we expect to. We managed to get to and set-up base camp. We figured out what tools we might like to use, what supplies we would need, and who would do what. We made short forays out from the base camp to check the terrain and plot out possible routes. We acclimatized. While this foundational work was valuable (and made visible our next steps), our biggest accomplishment was that we became a ‘we’. Students and teachers from all over the province from grades 3 to 12 sat around the virtual campfire and began the conversation on reconciliation.

All of our students … they’re the next generation. They’re the ones who are really going to have to come to terms with reconciliation [and] understand it.

When we have conversations together, when we get together and collaborate, and we learn together, then that personal connection can carry us a whole lifetime.

CBC Interview

The Summit Bid

It’s no small feat to make the summit of a mountain. Beyond the physical, emotional, and mental preparation, climbers need to be knowledgeable about the mountain they are taking on. This is the learning I need to better organize for next year: Ensure more opportunities for students to build robust background knowledge early in the process. We began with some background readings and videos on the TRC calls to action. We had conversations in class and online. We did some writing around which call to action was most important. But many students still struggled to connect personally. Of course, they connected with the overarching narrative: my students certainly know about residential schools and their own family history. Locating themselves personally in the conversation about reconciliation was more difficult, and I didn’t understand the gap until late in the process when we hosted Waubgeshig Rice.

This interview was a game changer for many of the Wikwemikong High School students. Wab summarizes his coverage of the Canadian Government’s apology and the TRC hearings as a journalist, and he answers student questions, ranging from water issues to the Indian Act to the future of the language,  from his own experiences. Post-interview, we saw an increase in student engagement, which carried students all the way to the finish line. It’s obvious, I know. The personal connection made via the hangout plays into what we know about student voice and choice.

The interview also reviewed or consolidated the foundational background knowledge that students needed to have to continue on with their own investigations.  The shallow background knowledge that the students acquired in the first part of the course led to a quality of ‘sameness’ across the project. If I want my students to truly engage in the topic (from a personal perspective), we need to spend more time on the front-end teasing out the issues so that students can see them. Yes, of course, residential schools were wrong and people’s lives were traumatically impacted. Yes, of course, racism is hurtful and harmful. Yes, we do want to build relationships between Native and non-Native people based on trust, honesty, and a greater understanding. But, diving deeply into reconciliation will mean grappling with really tough issues, and that is what we need to do. Consider these issues:

  • How sustainable are the many First Nation remote settlements, regardless of changes to education, infrastructure, and governance?
  • How can the treaties be honoured in the 21st century?
  • How might the land-based resources discussion be part of the reconciliation discussion?
  • How might the education of First Nations students shift to include cultural teachings?
  • How might individuals participate in the MMIW inquiry?
  • How might we debunk common myths about First Nations people?

These are some of the issues that people are talking about via social media. Reconciliation between peoples does not occur in the abstract, but rather in the concrete world the people share- land, water, laws, institutions, and language.

What Next?

Beyond bringing in more experts at the beginning of the course, we need to connect students across the project more intentionally. We need to devise a way for students to build knowledge together and then share their learning with each other. We need to facilitate student conversation via commenting more directly and purposefully. This last item-thinking through commenting-is an important modern skill to have, and in the work that I do in all of my classes that connects us to others, I see students struggling to engage in online discussions.

If we can do these things, we will be more prepared to make a bid for the summit of reconciliation.

Our future, and the well-being of all our children rests with the kind of relationships we build today.

– Chief Dr. Robert Joseph





Filed under #craftreconciliation, Teaching


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Rick Wormeli via Tweet by Andrew Kozlowsky @MrKoz31 July 14, 2016

This is a second post for #cyberPD, which is exploring DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence by Kate Robers and Maggie Beattie Roberts. In the first post, I focused on how we need to establish the student learning need before we can turn to the tools that might support student achievement and how we can better determine that student learning via teacher collaboration. This conversation is where I live; it’s what I want to focus on all the time.

Why am I doing this learning?

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In my classroom, this question has a permanent home, and periodically, I ask students to write down what they are doing and why they are doing it and post their thinking. It’s hard for them to think about why they are doing what they’re doing. Sure we have learning goals and success criteria. Yes, we often co-construct both. Nonetheless, seeing the learning and connecting this discrete skill with the next one and the next one, so that eventually they can

  • engage in the research process;
  • write a blog post;
  • synthesize their reading into an infographic;
  • participate in an online literary discussion;
  • read increasingly complex text and make meaning with those texts;

is hard to hang on to.

Kate and Maggie offer us a series of four tools that can make the learning visible, and thus make it stick:

  1. Teaching charts
  2. Demonstration Notebooks
  4. Micro-progressions of skills

I already use both teaching charts and bookmarks regularly, and many students do access them when they need to recall earlier learning or to remind them about what questions they need to consider. For example, together we will construct a teaching chart of what the research process entails and then we will unpack each step thereby creating a series of explicit teaching charts. Here is one showing how an information paragraph with integrated evidence is constructed:

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However, not all students turn to these tools for support despite not yet being independent in that skill. Maybe the model of how one paragraph (in this case) is not enough. Micro-progressions may be the right tool for some of these students.

Micro-progressions show the way toward higher levels of work. by providing actual examples of work that’s improving, as well as listing the qualities that make up each “level” of work, micro-progressions allow for both self-assessment and self-assignment (17).

The first challenge I faced in tackling the creation of a micro-progression was that for every skill (including the one above) there were sub-skills that needed their own micro-progression. To write a good information paragraph with different types of evidence integrated with the writer’s own thinking, students need to be able to know how to integrate evidence using a variety of signal phrases. They need to know how to paraphrase. They need to know how to locate, read, and cull information from those sources that may be relevant to their topic. And this is what Kate and Maggie mean when they note “we encounter trouble when we teach too much to hold onto, too much to remember” (46).

Where to start?

I decided to start with an essential skill that students should be using throughout their academic career: the research note. The student note-making samples used in this strategy are all submissions from my students.



But notice how the note with the most breadth and depth is the one that includes the student’s own thinking. Well, that got me thinking about another essential skill: making connections. The models used in this strategy all come from student work.



I am keen to integrate the use of micro-progressions into the teaching – learning process and to get feedback from the students. I am hoping this strategy can provide clarity of purpose because they can see where they need to go next and independence in the self-assessment process that we began this past year (which I haven’t yet blogged about).

And as we co-create more micro-progressions, we may even innovate on the model, and add in an answer to the question: Why should we learn this?

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#craftreconciliation: Strategy


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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.


Refers to students purposefully selcting and using techniques and processes in order to construct and communicate meaning.

Strategy means…

From theory

Apply comprehension strategies before, during and after reading, listening, and viewing to develop understanding.

To practice

The #craftreconciliation project for me was a way to frame the research process for students. I want them to care about their topic. I want them to learn the steps in the process so well that they can decide to innovate and make the process theirs. But first, we work on making meaning with increasingly complex text. The conversation about reconciliation can be challenging not just because it might be emotionally charged content, but also because the content; that is the history, the politics, the culture, the opinions found in these conversations are complex. Take, for example, Daniel Francis’ ideas around the imaginary Indian. Students struggle to grasp the notion that people think that “Indians” don’t exist in the modern world, and especially that Francis’ argument that the “history of the “Indian” image mythologized by popular Canadian culture since 1850, [propagates] stereotypes that exist to this day.” Or the article on the Greetings Native Savages” sticker that I wrote about in #craftreconciliation: Critical Literacy. This is interesting, but tough stuff.

And worth the effort.

When we recognize how the ideas in a text connect to our experiences and beliefs, events happening in the larger world, our understanding of history, and our knowledge of other texts, we value what we are reading.

What’s the purpose of doing this thinking?

    • To deepen meaning and understanding
    • To think critically
    • To evaluate what I  have read/viewed/listened to
    • To accept or reject the text
    • To understand various perspectives

How do we do it?

The strategy I focus on is annotating a text. There are many systems for annotating a text but all of them push readers to read actively. Here is my list:

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Students initially hate this process because…well… because it is work. And because they have not yet discovered the pure joy that comes from marking up a text as a means of discovery. Although the student below includes highlighting in his repertoire, he identifies what each colour signifies creating intentional and meaningful annotations.


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From theory

Use subject-specific processes to create, solve problems, research, make decisions, revise thinking, communicate ideas and reflect on learning.

To practice

I want to make two points about teaching the research process.

  1. We need to teach it.
  2. It’s a process.

This is hard, hard work that we need to do. Every time we make a major purchase in our lives, we will want to research to find the best product, the best deal, the most appropriate item. Never mind the loftier research pursuits that we might engage in like researching for a job or which candidate should get my vote.

Here are the steps in my research process:Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 5.45.55 PM

Here is one student’s process:

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Here is one student’s mid-term reflection:

When it comes down to researching and creating research notes, annotating, increasing vocabulary to understand harder texts, and learning about media portrayal, I have to say this is the biggest learning process I’ll ever go through. I have to say it is fun and hard, and in going through it I have learned about so many things: purpose questions, styles of text, elements of text/posts, learning new words and phrases. Furthermore, the process gives me more knowledge to use for when I head off for college.

Did you notice he used the words FUN and HARD in the same breath?

That’s what I’m talkin’bout.

From theory

Select and use appropriate organizers to gather, manage and communicate information and ideas

To practice

I realize I am running the risk of English teachers everywhere lining up to take a shot at me for using a formulaic approach to writing. I hate it too, and as soon as a student says to me “I’m done with that structure!” the celebrations ensue. We are learning to include evidence from our notes into our writing to support our ideas. We are learning to use transitions to connect and link our ideas.

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I do lots of modeling on how to write, which is posted digitally and in the classroom for student reference.

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From theory

Use a writing process to generate, explore, develop, and refine writing for particular purposes, forms and audiences.

To practice


This image is the bottom portion from the Research Process above. Not only do I model how to write each type of paragraph in the report, but we work together through the writing and revising process. While I know that many teachers are dissatisfied with the peer editing/reviewing process, my students use peer feedback extensively, likely because we use the same peer editing tool structure over and over. Practice for mastery!

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The #craftreconciliation project is full of examples that illustrate how students used reading and writing strategies to help them develop their researching skills, including the planning skills they used to plan their #craft builds.

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: Metacognition.

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Teaching Vocabulary

Much of my learning this year via the collaborative inquiry I participated in was around vocabulary. Essentially, I came to the conclusion that I need to do a lot more work on explicit vocabulary teaching. And like, Jo, I have not been a huge fan of rote learning. But this year I have been thinking more about the role of background knowledge plays in students being able to generate their own ideas. They do need more exposure to the world, but they also need the words, the language to articulate their discoveries.

Reading all the Books

If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then…

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3 Great Ideas for Encouraging Growth Mindset in the Writing Process


I am so thrilled to share this post with all of you. Because it’s the first one, I’ll offer full disclosure: 1 of the great ideas is from my wife, and 1 is from yours truly. The topic:

What are you doing in the classroom to facilitate growth mindset in writing?

So, without further ado, here we go!


– From Allison, an English teacher in New Jersey:

Most students inevitably make the mistake of regarding writing as a product rather than a process, and therefore they often produce poorly edited work and then either ignore or bristle at the feedback given to their product. The most obvious solution to this problem is the use of drafting and revision in any essay to move students toward a growth mindset. Still, thoughtful revision is hard to come by.

To combat intellectual laziness and product-oriented thinking in student writing, one of the more…

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#oneword15…6 months later



On January 1, 2015 I declared that my word of the year would be innovate:

My word is INNOVATE. But this choice has little to do with technology directly and more to do with thinking about using the curriculum in innovative ways. I want to challenge my understanding, my perspectives, my biases about the curriculum. What does it mean to construct meaning? Communicate meaning? What about to generate, gather, and organize ideas and information? What changes, if anything, when literacies include digital literacies? How might English as a discipline need to be reconsidered?

What I avoided in that initial post was answering the question why? Why innovate? And why did I choose a word that is so closely tied with technology, but not focus on the integration of technology in teaching and learning that is at the centre of so much of the educational conversation today?

I’m an English teacher, and I am not a particularly geeky English teacher either. Like most English teachers, I believe English class offers students the opportunity to engage with and consider deeply the big ideas of our lives through the stories we read. Narratives provide a lens to the world that we may otherwise never access, and that lens helps us to understand each other, which is more important today than ever before. So the study of the narrative structure and stories, which in fact, is all the Ontario English Curriculum asks us to do (“read a variety of texts”) is not the problem.


Academic students* are bright, curious, and creative, but that doesn’t mean that they want to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and write an essay. And yet, is there any doubt that the majority of instructors and professors in post-secondary do still require traditional demonstrations of learning from their students?  While I believe that students need to be able to write at length to explore their thinking, I also believe that students must be fluent in digital literacies, so that they can be critical consumers and purposeful creators of digital texts.

This, then, is the current and pressing challenge for the discipline. We can neither abandon the old wholesale nor adopt the new only. We need to innovate: To find novel solutions to this important problem.

mrsdkrebs via Flickr

I let go of many of my certainties: whole class novel studies, literature circles, and lessons from the past. Instead, we choose our own novels to read, we considered various critical perspectives in small groups using the Question Formulation Technique, and we looked for new ways to have conversations about a book that no one else in the class was reading (via Goodreads, for example).  In the academic class, we collaborated to create a Mindomo map on literary theory, designed personal poetry anthologies, and blogged to think out loud about our learning.  In the college class, we considered how our worldview impacts the decisions we make, which led us into an inquiry on ethics. Students’ contributed their thinking (aka research reports) to our on-going wiki textbook: Global Perspectives: A Textbook for Teens by Teens. 


I pushed myself to push the students to own their learning, to be the designers of it. There was choice in text, in topic, in theme, in approach.  We worked on learning to be learners.

If I were to look back on the type of work I’ve done, I would say that I improved in different ways. If I hadn’t taken a risk to do certain things, I probably would have been way below than I am now.—grade 11

In the beginning of the semester, we covered a lot of things, one of them being: you cannot learn and grow if you don’t fail. During the course of this semester I have had many setbacks and failures, but that’s okay, now that I have recognized these problems I can keep working on them again next year, both in English and in my other courses.—grade 11

We still wrote essays.

Writing my second essay has proved to be better than my first one, which is probably due to my actual liking of the topic. I went into this essay having more motivation to do a good job. I actually wanted to do it. In my mind, it wasn’t me being forced to write about something I didn’t want to. It was me putting my story onto a piece of paper, which to me, is a lot more appealing than the former.—grade 11


Innovation in learning is a process of self-discovery. It’s looking for unique ways to solve the problem of making the learning our own. It’s a journey to yes.

Yes, you can read what you want to. Yes, you can make that video. Yes, you can research that topic. Yes, you can write that rant. Yes, you can remix. Yes, you can Skype that person for an interview. Yes, you can research via Twitter. Yes, your poetry anthology can be digital. Yes, your poetry anthology can be non-digital. Yes…


*Although here I am writing about students who will pursue academic studies beyond high school, I do not think that this conversation is just about them. Students who choose to enter into apprenticeships or directly into the workplace also need many of the same literacy skills. 


Filed under Professional Learning, Teaching, Year End Reflection