Teacher-Teacher Relationships Matter

When I first starting blogging in June, I didn’t know how important it would become to me. It is hard for me to always put what I am thinking into words, and writing has been a tremendous release for me. I took the last 2 ½ weeks off from blogging because I finished my Masters and wanted to fully devote time to my family, friends and recharge a bit before September. My first ever blog post was about the importance of student-teacher relationships. However, as we head into a new school year I wanted to write about the importance of relationships with other educators.

In my last blog post, I shared a curated Google Doc inspired by Melinda D. Anderson’s hashtag on Twitter #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. I started curating these resources because I didn’t want the great ideas that I witnessed being shared across Twitter to be lost. I shared the Google Doc on Twitter thinking that a few people would be interested, and instead the Google Doc collected over 19 pages of resources. It is difficult to put into words how much this impacted me. I experienced first hand the power of collaboration and I felt overwhelmingly connected to other educators who like me were using part of their summer to find, curate and share anti-racist resources, because they recognized that protecting our students was our first priority. It reminded me how lucky I am to work with people who commit their lives to educating others.

As teachers, we don’t just teach curriculum, we support students through social-emotional issues and sometimes we make a connection with a student and discover that we are one of the few caring adults they have in their lives. This is overwhelming, immensely rewarding and sometimes incredibly stressful. Our job is hard – it is wonderful, I truly feel that this is what I was meant to do, but it is hard. If it is hard for us, then that means that it is hard for our colleagues as well.

Student-teacher relationships are incredibly important, but as educators we also need to reflect on how we treat and talk about our colleagues.

First, be kind to yourself. I have never ended a teaching year and thought to myself, “Well, that was a perfect year.” You are going to make mistakes. You are going to have a kid you didn’t reach and beat yourself up about it later. You are going to deliver a sub-par lesson a few times throughout the year. You are human. You are flawed. You are enough.

My fifth year of teaching, I left on the last day of school and cried in my car pretty much the whole way home. That year had been extremely hard for me personally, and I felt like I had failed my students professionally. I was angry at myself, frustrated and saddened by what I had achieved in my classroom that year. I thought about quitting teaching. I wanted to quit teaching. I was tired.

At the time, my Department Head invited me to meet up with her later. She didn’t give me a hard time for all the mistakes I had made that year, and there were many. Instead, she told me that my bad days were still pretty good, and that next year I had a clean slate. She told me that I was only human, and that sometimes life gets in the way of who we want to be in our classroom. She gave me the courage and support to teach again.

This may not seem like much. But she could have done something very different.

Too often, I have been to Professional Development sessions or see Tweets on Twitter that begin by disparaging teachers. Sometimes this is posting their Syllabus on Twitter and ripping it to part as outdated for all to share and retweet and comment on. Other times, it is idle chatter in the hallway or discussions in the staff room. At times, I am guilty of this.

Now, I firmly believe that we should definitely be critical of teaching and teaching practices when we are focused on improvement. I don’t believe it does anyone any good to close the blinds and just pretend that everything is lollypops and rainbows in the education system. Also, I want to make it clear, if a teacher is harming a student, you have an obligation to speak up. You have to.

However, if one of our colleagues is struggling and feeling overwhelmed then we should offer help, support and share resources/ideas as opposed to disparaging them.  If they are struggling, we should see what we can do to help them as opposed to making their job harder.

I am so fortunate to work with the people that I do. They are my colleagues and my friends. They support me through the good and the bad, and I value their insights, creativity and friendship. Most of all, I know that the people in my department truly put the welfare of kids first everyday and want to support their students. We don’t always agree, but I never doubt their commitment. They love their students and they want to support them just like I do. The teachers I work with and the students I teach make my work meaningful. Without the support of my colleagues, I would feel lost.

Professional Learning Network’s (PLN’s) on Social Media are extremely powerful. However, we all need to work at building our own PLN within our schools as well. This job can feel very isolating and places like Twitter can offer solace and help for that, which is wonderful. However, there is nothing better than a face-to-face relationship with a supportive colleague. 


Make Assessment Meaningful And Empowering

Assessments requiring sophisticated student responses such as writing assignments, debates and/or presentations are recognized for fostering critical thinking and problem solving skills.  However, faced with large class sizes, teachers are overwhelmed by the marking these types of assignments require.  12225331274_fdeb7d98c4_b.jpg

A high school teacher often teaches up to 100 students per semester. If this teacher assigns 100 essays, and spends only 5 minutes per paper this creates 8 hours of additional work. Also, who can mark an essay in 5 minutes?!?!

However, this traditional marking system creates several other issues. Research shows that students learn best from assessment when they receive timely and relevant feedback.  One teacher marking 100 assessments takes a long time and feedback becomes less meaningful as time passes. I also find that the quality of my teaching goes down when I am overloaded with marking. It is difficult to create and execute engaging lessons when you are drowning in paperwork.  Another problem is that students only see their own work.  Seeing and critiquing peers’ work is said to promote deeper analyses of the student’s own work, and leads to better quality work, yet this rarely happens.

I would love to embrace the gradeless movement, but as a high school teacher grades count heavily towards their post-secondary acceptance. Here, in Canada, it seems like the GPA needed for most post-secondary programs is continually rising putting added pressure on our students (but that is a post for another day). Although we can’t eliminate grades in high school, we can provide assessment opportunities that offer our students rich, meaningful feedback. Not everything should be graded, and formative feedback needs to guide our teaching and assessment practices. 

Ultimately, I believe three tools hold the answer to making marking meaningful and manageable: peer assessment, self assessment and assessment of conversations.

Peer Assessment

Peer feedback allows assessments to be marked simultaneously resulting in feedback that saves teachers time and provides students with descriptive feedback in a more timely manner. Assessing other students work is also believed to be connected to improving a student’s understanding of their own work. The assessment process becomes transparent helping students understand how their own work is assessed and graded. This shifts the power dynamic in the classroom so that students have a voice and are equal partners in their own learning.

It is important that peer assessment is confidential. This can be done by assigning random numbers to student work or using an online marking system like Peergrade. The Peergrade system is an online tool that is customizable by the instructor. This allows instructors to make peer assessments confidential. It has the additional feature of providing immediate real time feedback to students while also giving them time to reflect on this feedback. Teachers can create rubrics or use rubrics and lesson plans already designed by the Peergrade team. Teachers can also decide how many students will assess each student’s work. Educators can also see the student’s work before, during and after feedback to see how the work has progressed over time. Also, this tool is free for teachers to use.

Self Assessment

Self-Assessment involves students evaluating their learning progress. Through self-assessment, students apply metacognitive skills to evaluate strengths and gaps in their learning. This can help students in goal-setting, tracking their learning progress and making critical decisions about what areas they need to work on. Personally I have found that self-assessment is most effective when students co-construct the rubric with the teacher. This often results in more student-friendly assessment criteria that is easier for the student to apply. I usually have my students write a max 250 word response explaining their self assessment. One thing I am hoping to try this year, thanks to the suggestion of a colleague, Zack Teitel, is to try out self-assessment as self-marking. Students self-assess their work, provide a detailed reason for their assessment and give themselves a mark. Then, I would look to see if I agree with their assessment or not. If I don’t, then I would have a conversation with the student explaining my viewpoint and the student could explain theirs, and we could decide together what grade they should receive. This again shifts the traditional power dynamic by giving the student a voice. Here is a link to a Google Form Learning Skills Survey that I use for self-assessment of learning skills (designed by my amazing husband jeffboulton.ca)


Often our classrooms have very rich conversations that don’t get assessed or ‘count’ for marks. I personally do not think that we should ever ‘mark’ students without telling them or allowing them to prepare. However, I do think that unstructured conversations offer rich assessment tools that we often overlook. In my blog Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice I discussed a number of tools that could be used to promote conversation in the classroom (i.e. fishbowl debates, Socratic Dialogues, Newspaper headlines, etc.). All of these types of conversations can be used as assessments providing that you discuss this with students ahead of time. Here is a link to a Conversation Tracking  sheet that we designed for our Grade 10 History students. I also like using this as a Google Form as I can quickly track it on my IPAD, Computer or phone.

Effectively using peer assessment, self assessment and conversations can transform our classrooms. Before using any of these, it is important that we use assessment criteria with our students and practice using it together. Ultimately, these tools empower students by giving them a voice in their learning and empowering them with the tools they need to succeed.


Paré, D., & Joordens, S. (2008). Peering into large lectures: examining peer and expert mark agreement using peerScholar, an online peer assessment tool. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning,24(6), 526-540. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2008.00290.x

Sadler, P., & Good, E. (2006). The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning. Educational Assessment,11(1), 1-31. doi:10.1207/s15326977ea1101_1

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). Cell Biology Education,13(2), 159-166. doi:10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

@ZackTeitel Twitter


Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice

As educators it is important that we focus on maximizing student voice. According to Edgar Dale’s Learning Pyramid, we learn very little of what we hear, read or see, but retain 50% of what we discuss, 75% of what we practice and 90% of what we teach others.  Although this has proven to be an oversimplification of learning – the message holds true. Students need to actively engage and interact with the material to learn. Learning Pyramid .png

Critical conversations teach students how to develop well thought out responses and arguments supported with specific evidence. They facilitate collaboration and can effectively build community in the classroom. When done properly, they create student-centred classrooms and empower student voice. As such, it is important that we learn and incorporate instructional strategies that maximize conversations in our classroom. Here are a few that I find useful:

Fishbowl Conversations

I set this up with four desks in the middle of the classroom, and arrange the remaining chairs in a circle around those desks. I put a bowl of papers in the middle that contain the questions or topics of the discussion. I also include a bowl of gummy worms – the bait – for the students who participate in the Fishbowl. I begin with four volunteers who select a question from the bowl and begin discussing. During the discussion, the other students are watching, listening and taking notes. If at any time, another student wants to replace a student in the centre they tap on the student’s back and they switch places. From my experience, Fishbowl conversations tend to work best for controversial topics or topics that students are familiar with and/or passionate about. You want students on the outside of the circle to want to come into the discussion. In order to do that you have to frame your questions in an engaging manner. Source:  Teaching History: Fishbowl

Socratic Dialogue

Before the day of the Socratic Dialogue, students will read an article, watch a video or engage in critical research on a particular topic. The teacher will provide the students with questions or themes to explore. Another option is to ask the students themselves to come up with three critical questions on the assigned task. On the day of the Socratic Dialogue, the students sit in a circle. The first time that I do this, I act as the moderator to model, but by the second Socratic Dialogue a student should be acting as the moderator.

I would generally suggest that the teacher chooses a moderator who is comfortable speaking in front of the class. From there, the moderator will lead the class discussion. The moderator is responsible for ensuring that all students get a chance to speak, that the conversation is respectful and on task.  During the dialogue, the students will discuss and debate in turn. If it is a large class, you can have the students form two circles. The inner circle will engage in the Socratic Dialogue, and the outer circle will watch, take notes and they can pass questions to the students in front of them. When done correctly, the teacher should be observing, taking notes on student conversations, but not verbally participating.  Source: A History Teaching Toolbox  

Use Technology

Technology provides a wonderful tool for conversations. Many – myself included – prefer texting to speaking on the phone, and you can use this type of conversation in your classroom.  You can run a twitter chat for your class on a particular topic. This could be particularly beneficial if you have already set up a class twitter page and have some followers. For example, you could invite an outside expert to moderate a class twitter chat. Similarly, you can also use Google Classroom for an online class discussion or tools like poll everywhere and padlet as classroom brainstorming tools or exit cards. Likewise, blogging when done effectively, can be a great tool for students to share and respond to each other’s ideas. Similarly, you can have your students take on a role and engage in a SnapChat or Facebook chat in character. These online conversations may be particularly advantageous to your more introverted students.

Increase Wait Time

A simple but effective strategy to get more students talking is to increase wait time. When you ask a question to the class and hear silence, it is easy for the teacher to rush to fill that dead air. Instead, get comfortable in the silence. Give students the time to think about what you have asked. Ask them to engage in a think-pair-share or write down their thoughts on the question, before opening it up to a full class discussion.

Conversation Prompts: Newspaper Headlines or Photos

Post a number of different newspaper headlines around the classroom. Get the students to choose one that they think is interesting and discuss in pairs or groups what they think it may be about. You can do this same activity with photos around the classroom. Ask them to look for evidence in the headline or photo that can tell them what the article is about? What do they know? What questions do they still have? 


Provide the class with three-five questions. Post each question at a different point in the room. Then distribute Post-Its to the students. Have each student write down their response to the question on a Post-It and paste it under each of the questions. Afterwards have the students walk around the classroom and discuss the answers that they see.

Give Students Choice

Choices give students a sense of control, purpose and ownership over their own learning. You can give them a choice board where they are asked to discuss one of the topics on the board. Or you can give them a choice in the format of their discussion. Maybe some students want to talk about it in small groups whereas others want to do so on Twitter. Sometimes the format of the discussion may matter to you, but when it doesn’t than allowing students ownership over how they communicate can be a powerful tool to facilitate greater participation in your classroom.

Let Students Play

In my last blog, Practical strategies to engage students and increase critical thinking through play I outlined strategies to promote play in your classroom. When we play, we engage in material deeply, negotiate rules of communication and work together collaboratively to achieve a particular goal. Role plays, simulations and games can be great tools for enhancing and empowering student conversations in your classroom.

Overall, when we design our lessons it is important that we think about what the students will be doing. How will they be actively involved in their own learning? This may require some creative thinking, but it will arguably result in a much richer learning experience.


Practical Strategies to engage students and increase critical thinking through play

FranklinTechnology Auctions

Have you ever been to an auction?  I haven’t, but I have watched pretend ones on TV and that was enough to make me believe that I could run one in my classroom. When my students walk into my class to learn about different technologies, I am dressed in a full suit with a bow tie – my version of an Auctioneer costume – ready to auction off technologies. I have two types of Technology Auctions that I run.

The Secret Auction

The students are not told what types of technology they will be bidding on, or how many items there are but only that they are allowed to purchase three and each item has a secret point system attached to it that will be revealed at the end. When I reveal the points at the end, the students can either accept my results or try to prove me wrong. I have never had a group accept my results yet. Instead, the teams start researching everything they can find on the technology to prove me wrong whereas the winning team is out to prove me right. Its madness, and so much fun! During the auction, I am speaking at a ridiculously fast pace as I believe an auctioneer would be jumping all over the place managing the bids and then afterwards, the students are recording all of the new information in spreadsheets or on the whiteboard.

Technology in World War One Auction.

The Prepared Auction

I tell the students that we will be having an auction in class tomorrow. I break them up into their groups, give them the rules of the auction and a list of the items that they could possibly bid on. I then give them the class to research the items, identify their strengths and weaknesses and come up with a list of items that they want to get – ranking them from most important to least important. The next day, the madness of the auction begins and after the technology has been distributed students have to explain why their purchases are superior to another teams.

Both are fun, both are effective, both are loud and noisy, and both require a teacher willing to make a fool of herself. Either way, they leave after having a lot of fun and learning a lot more about the evolution of technology and its impact on whatever time period in history we are looking at.

QR Code Treasure Hunts

This is an idea that I adopted from Russel Tarr’s book A History Teaching Toolbox. Place QR codes all around the school with questions/clues that you want the students to answer.  Make sure that each group has access to a Smartphone with a QR code reader, and then send them off around the school on the treasure hunt. As they solve each question, they should get a clue that leads them closer to finding the ‘treasure’.  You can have them submit their answer in a Google form and then have the ‘clue’ revealed in the answer spot. QR Code Generator

Socratic Soccer or Capture the Flag Socratic Soccer

I adapted this idea from B’s Book Love.  One way of doing this is that you take a marker and you draw questions on the soccer ball that you want the student to answer. When the student has the ball kicked to them or thrown to them, they have to pick a question on the ball to answer. Another way of doing this is my own version of Capture the Flag Socratic Soccer. Take your students outside to the field with a soccer ball, create two teams or if it is a large class create four and have two separate games going. Have four or five posts that each team has to get before they can get to the final post and capture the team’s flag. At each post, the team has to answer a question, solve a puzzle, etc. If they are successful they continue. If they lose the ball is stolen from them, and it is the other team’s turn. When they are not at a particular point, the game carries on like a regular game of soccer, students can steal the ball from each other, etc. However, when at a point, they have to stop the game and listen to the answer. The other team also wants to hear the question and answer, because if the team gets it wrong than they may have a chance at it in the future.  It is chaos, but is a lot of fun.  This is a great review game or introductory activity.

Simulations/Mock Trials

I have had incredible luck in my teaching career with simulations and role plays. A few that I do include: A Congress of Vienna (adapted from Yale University), The Trial of Louis XVI, Town hall during the Great Depression, Model United Nations and many different Mock Trials.    These simulations require students to take on different roles, engage in research, critical thinking and argue in character for their position. My students love it, and take their roles very seriously. They end up doing far more research than I would have ever asked them to do, and I often end up learning way more on the topic from them. I also wear a judge’s room and have a gavel that I use when the debates get too lively. My Grade 10 History and West and the World Website have links to the assignments. I will be changing these sites over to new Google Sites, but right now all of the simulations are there.

Bring in the Arts

I am not an artist. However, I draw for my students all the time. I draw planes that kind of look like sick penguins. Also, when I teach about dances from the past, I like to bust a move in front of the class. They laugh, they remember, they appreciate that I am willing to be silly in front of them – it works. However, some of our students are incredibly talented. I am talking unbelievably, take my breathe away, leave me in awe talented, and they love to show it off. Give the students whiteboard markers or window markers and let them create a mind map on the windows, ask them to make a song on a particular topic, give them play doh or lego and see what they build. Have them work in pairs or groups, make the only criteria be that it has to be collaborative and teach the class something about what we are learning, and then let them run free! They’ll have fun, so will you and they get to showcase their talents while teaching others.

Balloon Debates

This is taken directly from Rusel Tarr’s A History Teaching Toolbox. I haven’t adapted it or changed it in the slightest – this is all his brilliance. Basically, a balloon debate begins with the premise that a hot air balloon in which we are all in is losing height rapidly, and will soon crash. Each student is given a character that they have to research for and come up with arguments for why their character should stay in the balloon. The students will go up in groups of four and only present the positives of their character. At the end of all four presentations, the students will vote on one person to keep in the hot air balloon. After all of the groups of four have presented, the class has a set of finalists. Now, those people who were with the finalist but were eliminated become their teammate and seek to find out negatives on the remaining character. When the finalists present in front of the class, the finalist and their team point out reasons why other characters should be eliminated from the balloon. In the end, only one person is left standing in the balloon.  


There is a great website called Gaming the Past that links to online games that you can explore for you use in your classroom. You can also consider incorporating games that the students may already by playing such as Civilizations and/or Minecraft. Just make sure that you try out all of the games before, make sure they are class appropriate,  have clear learning goals in mind and design something to accompany the game whether it be questions or a quest that you want the students to solve at the end of the game.

Escape Rooms/Breakout Edu/Digital Breakouts

Escape rooms have become extremely popular. Basically, people are locked into a room and they have to work together collaboratively to get out.  I haven’t tried this yet in my classroom, but this is definitely on my list for fall. This article How to Create an Escape Room Your Students Will Love  outlines the steps this teacher took to create an Escape Room for her students. You can also checkout Breakout Edu which sends you a kit and games that your class can engage in to break open a box. Probably what I am most excited about, is Digital-Breakout EDU they provide games and templates that you can use to create your own online Breakout game. I like the idea of this because you can create a digital game for groups of four to work on through Google forms and other online tools. This is great because it is free, easily accessible and easily changeable when things go wrong or you want to change things for next year.  I looked online, but I haven’t found any for Canadian History, so I am hoping to use this template to create one for the Cold War and Igor Gouzenko’s discovery of a spy ring in Canada.

Have your students create a game

Instead of creating a review game for your classes, make this a student assignment. Break the students into groups of four and have them design a game for other students. Give the students a class to play the games and provide each other with feedback. Then keep a copy of some of the games to use in your classes. 



Three Simple (But Important) Ways to Use Technology in the Classroom

Three Simple (But Important) Ways to use Technology in the Classroom

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Screencastify is a FREE Google Add-On that you can use to make videos for your students or you can have them sign up and put the power in their hands.  I’ve included a Vlog below showing myself using Screencastify and sharing some of my ideas on how to use it. I also highly suggest that you check out Matt Miller’s Ditch that Textbook blog 14 Ways to Create Great Video with Screencastify in the Classroom



It is my personal belief we should all get our students coding. Not because I think that all students are going to be programmers, but because computational thinking teaches complex problem solving skills and promotes creative thinking. This is coming from a History and Social Sciences teacher, so I if I can embrace coding anyone can. Scratch is a free programming software where students and teachers can code their own videos, games and stories. It introduces students to coding language, problem solving and it is fun. Remember, play is interconnected with improved learning. There are also many extremely helpful videos on YouTube to guide student learning. Similarly, Scratch has a gallery of projects so that your students can see what this program is capable of achieving. My students can do far more than I ever can. Here is a Scratch project that I did – a very quick one – on some basic World War One Review. If I can create this anyone can! Trust me! My scratch project: Historical Trivia


Okay, I am sure that many of you are familiar with Kahoot. However, Kahoot can be used in a lot of different ways that you may not have initially thought of.

For example, Kahoot can be used to check for understanding, to start a class discussion, as an exit ticket for your classroom or as a student presentation tool. Here is a Kahoot that we used called Who do you know?  to check students prior knowledge as well as to discuss the concept of Historical Significance.  We used to it to ask the question: Why do we know some people, but not others? Are the people that we are more readily familiar with more historically significant than others? Why or why not?

Thanks for checking out my blog!




Now Is The Time For You To Know The Truth About Becoming A Better Teacher. Go Back To Kindergarten.

Walk into a kindergarten classroom and what do you see? Bright walls, anchor charts, students moving from place to place in the classroom, learning centres and lots of play. What do you hear? Students laughing, talking, reading, negotiating through play.

Now contrast this image with your typical high school classroom, what do you see? Desks (often in rows), facing the front with the teacher as the centre of the action. What do you hear? The teacher, going on and on and on, despite the fact that the research shows that most adults can only listen for 20 minutes. This has to change.

If you want to be a better teacher it is time to go back to kindergarten. So, what do kindergarten teachers do differently that makes them effective?

They Put Relationships First

kids relationships

Kindergarten teachers value and recognize the importance of student to student relationships as well as student to teacher relationships. They focus on establishing positive classroom relationships before anything else. If you don’t believe me Google “Lessons I learned in Kindergarten” or check out Pinterest.

In high school, we often forget the importance of relationships. I mentioned in a previous post that while reading Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate, I had an ‘A-Ha’ moment about the importance of ensuring that I not only know my students, but that my students know each other.

Student-Centred Inquiry Based Learning

While visiting a kindergarten classroom in June, I noticed an anchor chart on bees, pictures of bees, models of bees, signs for bees – if it had anything to do with bees it was in the classroom. The teacher told me that one of her students loved bees and was very sad when her mom told her that the bees were in trouble. Even though it wasn’t her idea or what she had originally planned, the teacher embraced the student’s curiosity and used it as a teachable moment. The students worked through all stages of inquiry, while learning about bees, science and the environment. Most importantly they learned their ideas were valued by their teacher. How amazing is that?

Kindergarten 2They Emphasize and Value Play

Kindergarten teachers value play. They realize we learn through play. In high school, too often we try to give what Dave Burgess in Teach Like A Pirate calls “The Medicine Pill” lesson. We tell students that they have to learn something, because it will be tested. How uninspiring can you get? Also, how much learning is really happening? Countless studies show that adults and young people learn the most through play. So, if your students aren’t playing are they every really learning? One of my upcoming blogs will look at how to ‘play’ in a high school classroom.

They Get Their Students Moving

We need to use brain research to inform our teaching. Kindergarten teachers get this. Their classrooms are set up with different learning centres and inquiry-based activities. Instructions are quick, and then students are up and actively involved in an activity. Kindergarten teachers recognize that kids can’t sit and listen for too long, and they also know that real learning doesn’t happen that way anyway.  The research shows that little learning takes place during whole-group instruction, but how many high school teachers (myself included) are guilty of largely teaching their students this way?

They are FlexibleKindergarten

Kindergarten teachers adjust to the needs and interests of their students. Have you ever tried getting a 4 year old to do something that they didn’t want to do? Trust me, as a Mom of young kids, it makes teenagers look like a piece of cake. We need to read our audience. Are our students exhausted? Did something happen in the news that has captivated them? This may require us to change and rethink our lesson at the last minute.

For most, this is the greatest obstacle. As teachers, we sometimes lack the confidence to be out of control; we fear questions that we can’t answer instead of welcoming them. We have to learn to let go of our need to control the environment and let our learners guide us. We might just be pleasantly surprised with what happens.


5 Innovative Approaches To Ignite Student Voice


5 Innovative Approaches to Ignite Student Voice

Create a class YouTube Playlist.


I LOVE YouTube. As a teacher this love has turned into my obsession with creating and curating YouTube playlists for my classes. YouTube lets you organize videos into themes and categories and compiles them all into one link that you can share with your students via Google Classroom or your class website. YouTube Playlists are powerful tools for igniting and supporting student voice.

I challenge my students to find videos that we can add to our class playlist and/or to share  videos that inspire or interest them. You can also feature student videos on your YouTube channel. Over the years, my YouTube Playlists continually develop and change to reflect/support not only my course content, but also the interests and learning needs of my students. As an added bonus, the students are researching and making critical choices about their selections and synthesizing their findings. If you are interested in learning how to create a YouTube playlist check out: Create & manage playlists.  

Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects – call it whatever you want – just do it .

This year I engaged in Genius Hour with my Grade 12s and Heritage Fair projects with my Grade 10s. For both projects, students create an essential question on a topic that interests them, engage in research, create a 90 second elevator pitch and create a final product and presentation they share with the class.

These projects truly ignited student voice in my classes. The students came up with topics that I never would have thought of. Also, the medium and style that they used to present their project highlighted each student’s talents and passions. One student created a website to inspire women in the arts, another tackled Islamophobia and the impact this has on her life, still another researched the history of LGBTQ rights and presented it as a spoken word winning the York Region Human Rights Award. Ultimately, these projects allowed me to learn from my students and share their passion. If you want to ignite student voice, try out Genius Hour. Be sure to check out amazing resources by: Joy Kirr, AJ Juliani and Gallit Zvi to help you get started.

Have Difficult Conversations

Too often in our classes, we avoid ‘controversial’ topics.  Rather than avoidance, it is our job to equip and support students with the tools to discuss these topics. Two tools that I use are this Google slides presentation I created: Difficult Conversations and this comic by the Oatmeal You’re not going to believe what I have to tell you that looks at the brain research behind why we have visceral reactions to controversial issues. In today’s world, it is so important that we equip our students with the tools they need to critically think and openly discuss their viewpoints and beliefs.

Value & Incorporate Student Interests  

Many of my students are interested in video games. One student told me that I could teach most of our unit on Ancient Greece through the video game Civilizations. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the game. I asked the student if he could bring in the game, show it to us and explain how I could incorporate it into my teaching. He came back with one of the most engaging and thoroughly prepared history lessons I have ever experienced, and I left hooked on the game as well as his ideas. (P.S. There is a Civilizations Edu version coming out in the fall, so he was clearly a visionary ahead of his time).

Basically, as educators we need to step back and let our students share their interests, value them and look for ways that we can incorporate them into our teaching. If we want our students to have a voice in our classroom their passions need to be reflected in the learning environment and the pedagogical choices that we make.

Build Student-Teacher Relationships

One of my previous blogs discussed strategies for improving student-teacher relationships. I can’t stress how important this is. Ultimately, if we want our students to be vocal in our classrooms they need to know that their traditions, beliefs and opinions are valued – full stop. More than anything they need to feel safe and supported in our classroom. If you want to ignite student voice in your classroom, you better be prepared to value and protect it.

Think fast, draw-a-scientist!

Think fast, draw-a-scientist!  

What image just popped into your head?

Here’s my guess – an old, white male working alone. Am I close?

The research says that I am. This experiment asks children and adults to draw – you guessed it – a scientist. When it was first used in 1983, over 5000 students from three different countries all drew males. In 2017, not much has changed. When this test is used, children and adults almost always draw a male, with glasses, working alone.  Worse still, studies have found that these stereotypes start as early as elementary school.

This is indicative of the problems women face in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Globally women account for less than 28.4% of those employed in STEM.

Attempts to address this have focused on the pipeline issue – the belief that if we get more women into STEM fields of education we’ll get more women out. However, globally women with a degree in STEM are still far less likely to work in a STEM related field than men.

How can we, as teachers, help address this issue?

  1.  We need to acknowledge & challenge STEM stereotypes.

A group of researchers in the U.S. studied nearly 1.4 million users of an open source computer programming site Github.  They found that 78.6% of programs created by women were approved compared to 74.6% of programs created my males.  However, this higher rate of approval only existed when gender was not identified.  When the programmers identified themselves as female their approval rating dropped to 62.5%. Thus, women were recognized as better programmers only if their gender remained a secret.

Women also encounter stereotypes in STEM related degrees and professions.  Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao argues that there are a number of sexist micro aggressions that continually take place in the workplace.  Pao refers to this as “death by a thousand cuts.”   

Women who do pursue careers in STEM are expected to take on different roles in the workplace – they are supposed to be the office mother or daughter and are expected to do a greater share of the clerical work than men.  This may be why in 2011 in Canada only 27% of women who graduated with a STEM degree chose to work in a related field.

It is important for us to discuss and dispel these stereotypes in our classrooms. If we simply pretend they don’t exist we contribute to a culture that values women who are seen and not heard.  We need to have these difficult conversations in our classroom. We need to give a voice to the sexism and micro aggressions that women experience.

  1.  We need to showcase and celebrate female role models in STEM.

The University of Massachusetts conducted a study where first year female engineering students were either not given a mentor, assigned a male mentor or assigned a female mentor. The students met with their mentor once a month.  At the end of their first year, 11% of those without a mentor had switched majors or dropped out, whereas 18% of those with male mentors dropped out. Yet, 0% of those with female mentors dropped out. This example highlights the powerful impact that seeing themselves in STEM has on female students. 

Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook, states that there is a lack of female role models in STEM, and that this makes these fields less attractive to women.   Interestingly, in India 30% of women are programmers versus 21% in America. Journalist Vikram Chandra argues that this is because Indian women have more female role models in STEM fields than American women.

Books, tv shows, movies, the media and our classrooms need to showcase women in STEM. If you are looking  a couple fun places to get started check out this great kids book: Ada Twist, Scientist or watch my incredibly talented recently graduated student play Yael – a strong, smart, determined female computer programmer on Degrassi The Next Class. Up to you what you use, but let’s all start talking about and normalizing the idea of women in STEM.

  1. We need to rethink how Science is taught in schools.

Science is taught as a subject that has a right or wrong answer. Most classroom science experiments are “cookbook based” follow the instructions properly and you will get the desired result. This type of teaching creates a false image of a scientist as a person whose job is to find the right answer.  Scientists are not robots that simply record what they see completely objectively. Similarly, they are not capable of seeing everything (information can easily be missed and/or misunderstood).  In fact, it is important for students to learn that when we look back at scientific discoveries, much has been challenged and changed because of the fact that humans observe the same thing differently.   For example despite people seeing swinging pendulums for 1000s of years, no one, not even Leonardo da Vinci saw what Galileo ‘saw’.  Our observations are connected to our previous experiences, prior knowledge and preconceived notions.   Finally, it is important for students to recognize that science is not separate from society but part of a complex web of issues that they have the power to act on. We need a science curriculum that empowers students to become active citizens who view science as a tool for positive social change.

Rather than imagining scientists as brilliant robotic figures, students can connect with stories of people who worked hard, failed, tried again, succeeded only to find out they made a mistake and then try again. These stories bring humanity into science and may help to connect with students, like myself, who learn better when they can see the human connection beyond the textbook formula. Also, research shows that women are more attracted to jobs that they believe create real, lasting social change and involve people. Humanizing science and valuing different approaches to research and different types of knowledge may attract not only more females, but also more compassionate scientists and engineers.



Featherstone, E. (2015, June 24). Why women in Stem may be better off working in India and Latin America. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-professional/2015/jun/24/why-women-in-stem-may-be-better-off-working-in-india-and-latin-america

Github coding study suggests gender bias. (2016, February 12). Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35559439

Hodson, D., & Bencze, L. (1998). Becoming critical about practical work: Changing views and changing practice through action research. International Journal of Science Education, 20(6), 683-694.

Hodson, D. (2003). Time for action: Science education for an alternative future. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 645–670.

Huhman, H.  “STEM Fields and the Gender Gap: Where are the Women?,” Forbes, June 20, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/06/20/stem-fields-and-the-gender-ap-where-are-the-women/#4209f47741ba

Mercado, M. (2017, June 14). Female Mentorship Helps Keep Women in STEM Subjects, According To New Study. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from https://www.bustle.com/p/female-mentorship-helps-keep-women-in-stem-subjects-according-to-new-study-64437

Schwartz, Z. (2016, April 15). Why there are still far too few women in STEM. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/why-there-are-still-far-too-few-women-in-stem/

The STEM Gender Gap: Where are the Women Equivalent of Steve Jobs? (2016, November 29).Retrieved June 02, 2017, from https://jobs.newscientist.com/article/the-stem-gender-gap-where-are-the-women-equivalent of-steve-jobs/

Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). (2017, March 29). Retrieved June 15, 2017, fromhttp://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematic–stem




Five Ways to Supercharge Student-Teacher Relationships


Almost all of my teaching successes and failures can be attributed to relationships with students. Relationships are the heart of teaching.  Accordingly, as we head into summer and begin to recharge and think about the start of the next school year, and for my first ever blog post, I wanted to share Five Ways to Supercharge Student-Teacher Relationships.

  1. Take Risks & Be Vulnerable

Too often teachers believe they have to be the experts in the classroom when in fact this creates a power dynamic that distances teachers from students. It can also lead to teacher burn out as no human being can ever be the expert on everything. If you want your students to take risks in class, then you have to model this behaviour and join in the learning.  Every time I try a new lesson, assessment or technology I tell my students that it might fail, BUT that I am excited to TRY it. This could be creating a murder mystery scene, using Screencast or introducing Genius Hour.

The point is I tell them why I want to try it, that I don’t know if it is going to work, but that I want to do it anyways because I want to become a better teacher so that I can support their learning. This means that I regularly fail in front of my students. It also means that my students know that I am willing to fail if I believe there’s a chance it could benefit them. If students know that you are willing to open up and put yourself out there, then they will be more likely to do the same in your class.


  1. Be Kind – Always, no exceptions

I only give my students one rule. I tell them that this is the most important rule for the entire semester, more important than deadlines, their final mark or the content that they will learn in this course.  Be kind. In my classroom, be kind to each other.  We will applaud each other’s successes, support each other through challenges and contribute respectfully to class discussions and activities.  Students cannot learn and will not feel welcomed in a classroom where they are not valued and protected. Teachers have to model this and enforce this. Be kind- always, no exceptions.


  1.  Admit when you’re wrong and apologize

I have two young children, my oldest is turning 4 in September. Sometimes, I have lost my temper or failed at parenting in a myriad of other ways. I cannot be a perfect Mom, but I can apologize and try to learn from my mistakes. So I do. I apologize to my son, I tell him that I am wrong and that I will try to do better.  Just as I am not a perfect parent, I am not a perfect teacher. This past year, I lost my temper at a student. I didn’t yell – I am not a yeller, but I broke my cardinal rule – BE KIND – and told him in front of his peers how disappointed I was in the quality of his presentation. At first, I felt justified in my criticism (he clearly wasn’t prepared), but then I saw the crushed look on his face. It wasn’t what I had said, it was how I said it. So, what did I do? I apologized. I apologized to the student. I apologized to the class. I told all of them that my behaviour was inappropriate and that I was sorry for breaking our only class rule. I spoke with the student privately and worked at rebuilding the trust I had broken. In the end, he told me that no teacher had ever apologized to him before and he appreciated it. This moment didn’t take away the guilt I felt/still feel, but if you want to build relationships with your students, you need to be willing to admit when you are wrong.


  1.  Get to know your students & make sure they get to know each other.

If you read Teach Like a Pirate, you know that Dave Burgess discusses his first three days. One of the first things that he does is come up with a creative way for students to introduce themselves to the class and each other (play-doh anyone?). He also rewards them by challenging them to remember each others names.  

Reading this section of the book was an ‘aha’ moment for me. How much time did I actually spend in my high school classes making sure that my students knew each other? How could I possibly create a risk-taking inclusive learning environment for my students if they didn’t even know each other?!?! The simple answer was, I couldn’t.  I am now fully committed to making sure that my students know each other, before any course content is taught.

As a History teacher, I love having students research and share their family history with the class in any medium they choose. There are also a ton of Name Games & Get To Know Each Other Activities out there that can easily be adapted for any classroom. The point is it doesn’t really matter how you achieve this goal. It just matters that your students get to know you, you get to know them and they get to know each other.


  1. As Rita Pierson so aptly stated, “Be Their Champion.”

I like to create a class calendar that I either draw out on a whiteboard or post in our Google Classroom. It is accessible to all students and everyone can edit it. I tell them that they can put any dates that are important to them. Some put religious holidays, some put their birthdays (or their dog’s birthdays), some post sporting events and some don’t want to post (also completely okay). The point is anything that is posted on the calendar is acknowledged/celebrated.  Two years ago, my Grade 12s and I sang happy birthday to a beautiful dog named Billy, and I brought in a party hat and dog treats that the student could take home to celebrate with Billy later. That student cried, which might have made me tear up as well and all because I remembered to stop at the dollar store to pick up a party hat and some dog food. Sometimes our students have major achievements, one of my students wrote, filmed and produced a film that was being shown at the Toronto Short Film Festival. It was over March break, and she invited me, so my husband and I booked a babysitter and attended her show. I left that night so impressed by her and what she had achieved and honoured to have been a part of it. When we become champions of our students, we remember why we chose this profession and it fuels our passion. 

As Rita Pierson stated “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” When we create positive relationships in our classes, our students learn better and we enjoy our jobs more.

If you haven’t already done so, please check out: Rita Pierson’s TED talk and Dave Burgess’s book Teach Like a Pirate for more great ideas on supercharging student teacher relationships.

Thank you for checking out my first ever blog post!