Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Yesterday my girlfriend posted a letter to her grandmother on facebook. Her grandma doesn't use facebook but Kirsti needed someone to share with as she sat by her grandmother's side in the hospice. The ugliest thing about brain cancer is that it steals the mind first. The ugliest thing about cancer is that Kirsti's grandma has spent most of her life fighting to live- four relapses of breast cancer. Tonight Kirsti is praying alot because she believes this may be her best friend's last.

You may not believe in the God that I cling to in my dark moments but I am certain that we can negotiate a heaven and hell that we both believe in. I am terrified of the liminal space between life and death. I cannot wrap my mind around this degree of suffering. That someone who has truly fought to live must still drift apart, mind from body, and ugly pain in both directions. I don't know how to understand what her eyes might see now, or what she might hear as her family gathers to pray. Or if my own uncle knew that we prayed for him. What does it feel like in that space? To know that death is seeping in, that it will hurt, and that there is nothing left that can be done? Purgatory. A medical and spiritual reality. Heaven then, for you, may simply be the peace of death. My heaven entails a spiritual fulfilment because I need to believe that even suffering comes to fruition. But we agree on the peace of death.

So please tonight, as I pray to my God, pray too for a heaven. Pray that after the pumping and surging the hum of silence is beautiful. Pray for Kirsti's grandma.

In Faith,


Dear Grandma, I am sitting here with you beside your bed, and there is so much I wish I could tell you. As you lay sleeping I think of all the
adventures we've had together, the laughter we've shared, and the lessons you have taught me. I think about what its going to be like when you are in heaven watching down on us. I want to tell you how much I am going to miss you, how much I love you, and how much you have inspired me. But I feel that words are not enough. I know me going to school was always so important to you, so I want to make sure you know that I am going to finish school, and I will try my hardest to get the best marks I can. I will live every day in a way that would make you proud. I will be a role model for my sister and cousins, making sure to be there for them as you have been there for me. Whenever life throws an obstacle at me I will think about you and how strong and brave you were.Truth be told grandma, I don't know what to expect when you're gone to heaven. I just can't imagine my life without you in it. I wish I knew how to tell you how much I will miss you, and how much I love you; but I know you don't like to see me sad, so I've wrote you this letter instead. I know that there isn't much time left, and that soon you will be with God, but I am not going to say good-bye. Because I know that you will always be in my heart and in the hearts of all of those who's lives you have touched; I know that you will always be watching over us.

I love you Grandma, you will always be in my heart.

Kirsti Cook

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What kind of teacher am I?

I keep a little "black book" full of teaching ideas that blindside me when I don't need them (because I can never think of any when I do). Throughout my APT I have been gathering adjectives and statements that my students, mentor teachers, family, and friends have used to describe me. Recently I organized them into a mind map hoping to find an image of the teacher I am. What I love most about the mind map are the contradictions- they speak volumes about the educator I want to become and the obstacles between "there" and now.

Some Observations:

"Obsessed, OCD, and Pushing Too Hard": As the cliche goes, my greatest strength and weakness might be the same. My perfectionist's nature drives me to be the best teacher I can be but also causes me to be impatient with myself. I need to be more patient with myself, and to accept that the art of teaching takes time. Right now my family is worried that I'll burn out.

"Funny and Sarcastic": An insightful grade 12 student pointed this out to me. The balance between sarcasm as humour and sarcasm that hurts is very fine. I am usually good at reading students and predicting who can handle my humour and who cannot but I must always be cautious.

"Accomodating vs. Too Lenient": I tend to be very empathetic when it comes to extending deadlines or adjusting assignments. While the students recieving these favours are always grateful, other students who have worked hard to meet deadlines sometimes get frustrated. I do not believe that fair means equal, nor do I believe that deadlines and late penalties are always good indicators of learning. I can't be a pushover but I do believe in extensions and and exceptions. In my own classroom I would make my criteria for extensions or exceptions clear in advance.

"Friendly vs. Overwhelming": Apparently I exude quite an air of confidence. I say "apparently" because I often feel awkward around new people and I'm not usually aware of my outer confidence. Unfortunately my confidence can be intimidating for students. I'm not certain yet how to channel my confidence into approachability. However, student warm up to me quickly after I've had a chance to be goofy around them.

"Easy to Read": During parent teacher interviews my mentor teacher pointed out that my body language really gives away what I'm feeling. I am trying to become more conscious of how I react to the things that parents and students say to me.

"Creative and Innovative": I really feel that these are the traits that make me "me", as a teacher and in everything else I do. I love creating, innovating, and problem solving. What I have enjoyed most about teaching language arts and social studies is the room for creative curriculum and lesson planning that they afford. I also truly appreciate the freedom my mentor teacher has offered me to experiment during this APT.

To go on longer would be narcissistic (me? no...). However, I'd reccommend this reflective activity for anyone who is focused on growth and change- it really helped me look into myself. I intend on creating a similar mind maps at different stages of my career to "map" my evolution as a teacher.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Student Feedback On My "Voices" Unit

Here is an excerpt from the unit outline I created for my ELA 30-1 Voices Unit:

What does it mean to have a voice? In this unit we are exploring the concept of “voice” and how it is projected through different written and visual forms by comparing the responses of several authors to the same event: The Holocaust. We will think critically about how and why voices are exchanged in society and the important themes that emerge from these conversations. A number of important themes will emerge from our exploration of Holocaust literature. We will concentrate on: Affirmation on the Human spirit; the human will to endure or survive, Experiences which change one’s perception of self and the world; turning points, limitations, and How social conditions affect the individual’s attitudes, values, and behavior.

Despite the dark nature of Holocaust studies, I was very excited to share this unit with my students at DCHS. I developed this unit as a highly formative learning experience and was excited to see how students would react. Here is a brief description of some of my activities and assessments:

Postcard Assignment: to learn about "voice" students were challenged to write a series of postcards from the perspectives of a German soldier, a German civilian, and a concentration camp prisoner.

Postcard Assessment: Students shared their first two postcards in peer review workshops. They were divided into small groups and given the marking rubric that I would be using on the final postcard. The students recorded their constructive feedback in reflective journal entries and used it to improve their next effort. I evaluated the final postcard in one-on-one conferences with the students so they would have an opportunity to see how I evaluate and to justify their written and visual choices.

Reflective Journalling Assignment: Students were given reflection assignments related to the different works we studied. Ie) A found poem in response to the imagery of Night by Eli Wiesel, A cartoon frame analysis in response to Art Spiegelman's Maus, and a variety of personal response questions.

Reflective Journalling Assessment: Throughout the unit I took the students journals in to read and respond to them. In advance I told the students that I would decide which entries would be officially marked at the end of the unit. I selected four substantial entries and evaluated students using a rubric focused on the quality of though and effort they put into their entries rather than technical details or specific answers.

The final entry that I assigned the students was an evaluation of the unit. I wanted to critique the content of my unit, the assessment techniques I used, and my instructional strategies. Fabulous responses! These students have a great handle on the concept of constructive feedback. I recorded their observations in my own notebook:

Overall I really enjoyed this unit. Witnessing and reading the passion of students is a priceless experience. The topic provoked powerful discussions in class and brilliant written responses- critical, creative, and personal! I will be using the critical feedback I recieved to fine tune this unit in case I can use it again (*crosses fingers... let there be an ELA position open!!!). Notably, some students struggled with the "openess" of the reflective journal assignments I gave them. Though I wouldn't change that challenge, I will borrow some exeplar responses from this go-round so my future students have an idea of what is possible.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sneaky... Very Sneaky.

It seems like I only blinked and two weeks evaporated before I even had time to reflect on them. I really dove into planning my Voices in Holocaust Literature unit for the ELA 30-1's. I am passionate about the issues in this unit and more importantly, I want my students to be well prepared for their diploma exam. I am also wrapping up units with my Social 10-1'S and ELA 20-2's- both are completing major assignments.

I am a firm believer in formative assesment and have planned all of my units to be heavily fo
rmative with summative evaluation at the end after several peer-review or teacher-student workshops. I am paying for this now as I will be drowning in evaluation for the next two weeks. It seems like I spend every waking moment working on lesson planning or evaluation. This weekend I went to visit my girlfriend (the one whose grandmother is dying of brain cancer)and spent the whole time reading and commenting on student journals.I also went to visit my own grandmother and spent a lot of that time re-reading the novel I am teaching.

I just finished a round of anti-biotics to get over some inconvenient virus and I need to take better care of myself. I am well aware of the relationship between leisure time and mental/physical wellness but it doesn't change what I need to get done here or how many people I have to please. I want my students to feel that they are valued, I want their parents to believe I am teaching, and I want my mentor teacher to see creativity and know-how, and I want EVERYONE to see that I work hard. Yet every time I am temtped to become bitter about this "life-sucking" practicum I can't help but blame myself. Who I'm really trying to impress is me. I know I could rely more heavily on external resources but I instinctively opt for my own ideas. I want to find my own creative potential and offer my students personal and inspirational lessons.

What I need to do now is re-adjust my scales. I need to bring the priorities in my personal life back into balance. I need to curb my ambition for the sake of my health, my relationships, and the longevity of my career. I need to re-direct my energy towards integrating outside resources into my creative vision. I also need to take time to appreciate the small successes I am having. The students have matched my ambition with their own creativity and hard work and the results have been amazing.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Snow Day

In a rural community hell must literally freeze over before the buses are canceled. The first thing I do in the morning (other than uttering death threats at my alarm) is look out the window to see how early I'll need to leave to contend with mother nature. This morning I couldn't even see the front porch. By 9:00am I finally convinced myself to dig the car out (then get it stuck on the other side of the house). Tomorrow I expect pestilence or locusts.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Building Repoire

It seems I'm overdo for a seasonal plague so this week I'm having the headaches, sore throat, and upset stomach all in one convenient package. Also adding to my stress: my girlfriend's grandmother- a woman I have come to deeply admire-is succumbing to brain cancer after five battles with breast cancer. If the phrase "it never rains but it pours" hadn't already been coined somebody in Delburne would have thought it up in the past couple weeks. Beyond the tragedies immediate to our school (see Feb. 2009 posts) it seems that we- students and teachers alike- lug the gravity of our personal lives to school as well, be it a common cold, depression, or the knowledge that someone we love is suffering. The combined weight can be exhausting and I have become increasingly conscious of what helps me stay afloat. In the past two weeks I have laid the groundwork for meaningful relationships with many students. Sharing moments of humour, understanding, and success with my students has kept me motivated and optimistic about my practicum and life. I believe that at the end of the day the school should be a community of caring. We may be struggling in entirely different ways but teachers and students benefit equally from knowing that they have a community to count on when life gets heavy. I'd like to share some of the ways I have been building repoire with my students:

Share Experiences
My students began to connect with me when I shared personal stories and experiences- especially embarrassing ones. I had a ten minute lull at the end of my ELA 20-2 class earlier this week and decided to tell my students about my first experience in their small town. I had made a quick stop at the grocery store and in a rush hopped into my gold Ford Taurus and had my hands on the wheel before I realized the car wasn't mine! In fact, my (identical) car was parked right beside it. Why don't people lock their cars in this town?! The students thought this was hilarious and began to share stories of their own. This was my breakthrough with a group of students who were very hesitant to accept and respect me. Even students that have an issue with the teacher in me seem to like the "person" in me.

Recognize Individuals
My classroom is full of individuals, not generic students. I have hockey players, dancers, video gamers, and cowboys and they appreciate that I remember this. I'm making an effort to provide opportunities for my students to share who they are in class. I have started a "Canadian band of the day" ritual with my Social Studies 10-1 students. Every day we sample a couple of songs by a Canadian band that a student has done basic research on. Not only are we getting our recommended dose of Canadian content, but students have an opportunity to share their interests in music (and music is life for many students).

Have A Presence
I've learned more about my students from conversations in the hallway than in my classroom. Mornings before class, lunch hour, and my planning block have been precious opportunities for me to connect with students. Two simple phrases have dramatically changed my hallway experiences at DCHS. The first couple days of my practicum found me floating through the hallway surrounded by curious glances. I decided that I would confront students rather than leaving them to stare. "Good morning" and "how is your day going" have become habits for me. I get a burst of energy in the morning because I am greeted by my students.

Get Involved
My favorite teachers were the ones who showed up at my basketball games, dressed up for theme days, and support school fundraisers. A couple of my students have invited me (and reminded me repeatedly about) the senior boys' and girls' basketball games tomorrow night. This is another chance for me to find common ground with my students- I love basketball and I'm a vocal fan! I also made a point of bringing cash for the bake sale today. Just my luck- the cookies were sold out but I could tell that the students were excited to see me in line.

MY MOOD IN MUSIC: "Degausser" by Brand New