The Little Red Sweater

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I often get asked by teacher candidates and teachers how I got interested in ELL and Technology especially in terms of research and practice.  When answering my mind always goes back to a “little red sweater.” There is a “little red sweater” that sits on my bookshelf as a reminder of a class I taught early in my teaching career.  It was gift from a young grade 6 boy who I taught in probably the most influential year of my teaching career. At the time I was teaching in an inner city school that was made up of mostly immigrant students. It was during this time of teaching I learned the most about teaching, about meeting the needs of my various ELL students and about using technology to aid in this process.  I had language abilities all over the map and often I commented on the “school-house” nature of this teaching context. Basically it was an interesting yet difficult teaching context. During this year, I used technology including learning management systems (Desire 2 Learn), SMART boards, and a variety of other educational technologies to teach my kids. It was not just about technology however. I used a variety of methods in hopes of helping my students to be successful.  This work was the beginning of my fascination of ELL students, technologies and best practices.

This “little red sweater” has become symbolic of this experience and a reminder that there is still lots more work to be done in terms of research and practice.

Digital Cameras and Classrooms

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My writing breaks lately have consisted of taking mid-afternoon walks. I have really enjoyed connecting with nature and taking in the sights and sounds of my neighbourhood. What I have really loved is capturing what I see with my iphone camera.  As you can see from my various photos posted here,  an iphone camera is pretty incredible. If you have an ipad, ipod etc. and you are not using it, you may want to consider using it with your kids when you are teaching. Some examples of what you can do in your classroom:

  • Nature walk
  • Math Curricular Connections (i.e. capture the various patterns in the playground)
  • Capturing Art in our World
  • Starting an Inquiry
  • Stories told through Pictures

Of course this list is rather limited and there are so many others ideas I could list. However, if you aren’t using digital cameras or devices in your classroom, you may want to give it a try.  I find it especially helpful in an elementary classroom where often kids struggle with their fine motor skills and it provides an alternative for these children to show what they know. One other benefit of using a digital camera is that students can revisit their learning later. Perhaps they can reflect in their journals or blogs about a particular picture at a later date. It also a great way to engage in formative assessment for teachers.  These pictures can be part of a pedagogical documentation panel or something you show during a parent/teacher interview.

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Advice for the New Substitute Teacher

2406657961_2803a9dfe1_o-245x180 I know a number of you following my blog are recent teacher graduates and about to embark on the journey of being a substitute teacher or Teacher on Call.  Like so many, I also started off as a substitute teacher. Here is some advice for those of you starting out:

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  1. Have business cards handy. There is often a sign in book in the front office and I use to leave my card with the secretary or with the teacher I was substitute teaching for. Other substitute teachers I know pop their cards into teachers’ mailboxes at the end of the day. What should you put on your card? I would start off with your name, telephone number, email address, specialties, and if you have a website include this. If you are tech person, you may even want to put a QR code in place of your “website URL.”  Business cards can be created a number of ways.  You don’t have to break the bank to do it.  Please see below for some options:
  2. At the end of the day, I usually left a note for the teacher on my own personal stationary (i.e. header with my name, email address and contact information).  It is simple to do by pre-creating this stationary in Word and then photocopying or printing a few sheets and bringing it with you to your sub job. If the teacher loses your business card, there is always your personal stationary around to aid them if they want to contact you again.
  3. Bring your updated resume with you. You never know when you will get a chance to speak with the principal or assistant principal in the school. It is always a good idea to be prepared.
  4. I often had games in my bag (i.e. a ball, Mad libs, picture books, etc.).  There are times when the plans the teacher has made do not fill the time.
  5. Bring a whistle. You never know what you will be asked to teach. I was always glad when I had to teach PE and I had my whistle handy.
  6. Bring a notebook with you. Substitute teaching is awesome especially for new teachers since you get a chance to learn.  I always wrote down the many teaching ideas I got in my notebook. It will be helpful when you have your own classroom in the future.
  7. Get to know the layout of the school (i.e. washrooms etc) and emergency plans (i.e. exits, fire drill routines, lockdown procedures etc.).
  8. Introduce yourself to the neighbouring teacher.  You never know when you will need something and they will be able to provide you with the answers.
  9. Arrive early. It gives the principal and staff a positive image of you.
  10. Enjoy it! It’s a great opportunity to practice your classroom management on the fly and experience a variety of different teaching settings.

Bringing it Back to the Learner

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Awhile back I shared some of my thoughts around research, theory and practice. Today I reflect on how all of these concepts come back to the learner. As I have moved into another identity of a researcher, I have begun to contemplate the significance of the “learner.” As a teacher, it always came back to the learner and in the role of a future K-12 researcher, this premise has altered slightly but it still reflects the idea of the “learner.” In this context, I look at my research participants and I present the narratives (“the story”). My research findings could have potential implications for pedagogy and ultimately the “learner.” What I take from this discussion is the concept of a “narrative.”

During high school I really wanted to be a journalist. I loved writing and reporting the story. I wrote for my high school paper and then later in university I wrote for the university paper and in each of these experiences I had the opportunity to share narratives and stories I had investigated. Although I never pursued a career as a journalist, what fascinated me with this idea of being a reporter was sharing narratives and stories. This fascination continued during my masters, I read a book on narratives. In this book, the researcher Curtis (2006) reflected on how empowering narratives can be. Narratives have the potential to change. It is also through a narrative that we gain a better understanding of a social phenomenon.  So you are probably wondering how does this relate back to this idea of a “learner?” It is quite simple actually. As a teacher, you can be the researcher and your students are the participants. Ask them questions and get to know their stories. When you have a better understanding of their learning needs, you can then plan more purposefully.

One way to do this is to engage your kids in the narrative process. Encourage them to tell stories about themselves and become “storytellers.”   It might be done multimodally and not necessarily in writing.  They should sing it, dance it, or even paint it. However, have them express aspects of their life.  Through these narratives you will learn a lot about your students. How they choose to tell these narratives (i.e. song, dance etc.) will tell you something about them as a learner. Perhaps they prefer singing to writing. Or maybe they just love to paint. These are all aspects that can be incorporated into your lessons. It seems simple right? However, you are wondering how can I do this?

For the elementary teacher, it might start with taking time out of each day to have a “talking circle” and encouraging your students to share a story from the day.  You might provide your students with sketchbooks and encourage them to reflect via different modes (i.e. pictures, words, etc.) about the stories they see around them. You might even get all your kids to create digital journals, encouraging your students to note “stories” in their surroundings.  Perhaps you will set up  Twitter accounts and get your kids to “tweet” out their stories using hashtags etc..  I was really inspired by this TED talk recently about Twitter stories.

It is also an excellent way of getting your kids to tell their narratives and for you to get to know your learners.

Feeling inspired?! Who am I kidding?!

With that type of title, you are probably wonder what this blog post will be about. For those of you that are following this blog because you are curious about starting a PhD program or just curious about my journey so far. Today my so called “drama” is finding/developing an appropriate title for my upcoming dissertation study. I am at the point in my proposal writing as a PhD student that I need to come up with a  title for my forthcoming study. How is that after writing up over 76 pages of a dissertation that I don’t have one coherent title? How does one “wrap it” all up in one title? The pressure of basically saying it all in a few words is overwhelming.  There is always the title that features the famous “colon.” However, of course you want to be “witty” and “smart” and have some deep metaphorical meaning behind the actual words. Ha! Who am I kidding?! I think my “wit” went out the door on page 1 of my writing process. However, as I will be sitting here contemplating this title for the next couple of hours, I will reflect on the importance of a title and how you can “lose it” or “win it” all in a few words. This is at least easier in some ways then coming up with a varied title for every single conference abstract you submit.

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Actually, my blog post isn’t about my PhD student “title drama.” However, I was reflecting on how to inspire and mentor. I came into this PhD program with a bigger goal of wanting to go into the business of “mentoring” teachers. Of course I have aspirations to further research etc. and as I go deeper and deeper into the literature I imagine the possibilities for me in terms of research in the future. However, as I have realized in my experiences, mentors are critical and there often aren’t enough. I have been very fortunate in my time as a teacher to be continually in the presence of a mentor. I have had some amazing mentors from the ones back in my teacher education days. Mike, my first real mentor, has been an amazing inspiration to me. He still cheers me on from the sidelines after all of these years.

I tell my teachers to find a mentor early in their career. It might be a peer or it might be just a more experienced teacher or someone that just inspires you. The reality is this person is someone that will support you from behind. I am certainly not an expert at this. However, I have noted from my experiences with people I consider mentors that these individuals encourage and support in little but large ways. These people are leaders. They don’t have to be in leadership positions to lead. However even in small ways they push people to be the best they can be. If you are in a PhD program or teaching in a school, mentors are a critical part of any journey.

Tips for Teaching Eportfolios

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It’s that time again when Teacher Candidates are preparing their eportfolios for job interviews or practicing teachers are updating their eportfolios. The past week (and this coming week) I have been conducting some tech workshops on how to do eportfolios. However, I always get asked what should I put in my eportfolios, what are employers (i.e. school boards and administrators) looking for?

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Have a clearly written teaching philosophy. In the past I told my students and colleagues to jot down their beliefs about learning (how kids learn), assessment, classroom management etc. It doesn’t have to be long but it is important to know what you believe in and be able to articulate it clearly. You will be asked over and over again during your teaching career what you believe in.  It’s always good to know “why” you are doing something. Don’t be scared to link it to the course readings or scholars!
  • Pick artifacts that showcase your skills (i.e. pictures that show your best practices (i.e. pedagogical documentation panels etc.). Be reflective when making your choices. How do you want to present yourself? Does your choice of artifact connect to your teaching philosophy? Remember to adhere to the Privacy Act rules when picking your artifacts.
  • Personalize it! You want your employers to get a sense of you as a person as well as a potential colleague.
  • Avoid putting lots of text. Add pictures and videos. Make it fun!
  • In my original eportfolio (back in my teacher education days), I included student quotes.  I also tried to showcase my best work from my teacher education experience (i.e. lesson plans, IPP examples etc.).
  • Include letters of references
  • Showcase things you have done in the community etc.
  • The entire purpose of a eportfolio is for you to reflect on your teaching experience. Enjoy it!

Random Sunday…

This will be a VERY random blog post!

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First, I get asked often what I am listening to. For those of you that don’t know me, my most productive writing sessions occur when I am blasting my “itunes” loudly. Lately it has been a mix of music from Christian Worship (Hillsong, Kari Jobe, etc.) tunes to Top 40 tunes (Zedd, Arianna Grande etc.).  My favourite variety is LOUD music past midnight (ha, as I recall I had Usher blasting a few nights back).   So for those graduate student peers that wonder why I NEVER go to a library to study its because my music is way too loud.  I went to a library awhile back, just to switch it up, and I got a really ANNOYED neighbour telling me to shut off my music (opps! Yes, I did have headphones on).

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Second, there are so many benefits to living in Vancouver but one of my least favourite parts about being here is the RAIN! I don’t know how people do it. As soon as the clouds roll in, my eyes automatically start closing. No wonder my caffeine intake has increased 200 percent since moving here. It’s not because of the lack of sleep (well, maybe partly) but more the cloud cover. Today was one of those days. It started off raining (or I should say pouring). Thankfully the sun came later (see photo above).

Untitled_1Third, I always get asked for technology teaching tips. Here are two for all the teachers that read this blog. Consider using podcasting software (i.e. Garageband (MAC) or Audacity (MAC/PC) (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ ) as an assessment tool. If you are doing Alberta ESL benchmarks or just wanting to do some formative assessment (i.e. informal reading assessments, etc.), podcasting is your answer. I just love using podcasting software to record kids’ talking (i.e. at centres or even during whole group discussions). You can capture quotes from the kids and use them for report card comments or (better yet) Pedagogical Documentation panels. For those of you not familiar with this, check out my website. I have posted online tutorials (http://melaniewong.ca/Teacher%202/index2.html ).

Another technology teaching tip is consider using Skype or Blackboard Collaborate (if your school district has it) to invite guest speakers into your classroom.  It is such a great opportunity for your kids to connect with experts from all over the world (i.e. a university professor etc.).  You can even consider doing a virtual field trip.  There are a lot of websites online that offer options for you to consider.  Please see below:

http://www.eschoolnews.com/2013/04/07/ten-of-the-best-virtual-field-trips/2/

http://www.educationworld.com/a_tech/tech/tech071.shtml

http://www.areavibes.com/library/online-field-trips-for-students/

Finding Martial Arts in the Madness

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For those of you that know me, you are aware that I speak about martial arts probably more often then I speak about doing a PhD.  I discovered martial arts during my masters at UBC when I took Karate at the GSS. When I moved back to Calgary, I thought it would be fun to take Kung Fu. At the time I did not realize it would become a life passion.

There is just something so graceful and lyrical about it all. I watched my senior classmates move in Wushu and I just went, “wow!”  For someone, who walked into walls for most of her life (yes, I walked into walls prior to starting martial arts) it was just neat to watch people move so easily and gracefully across the room. I just love how it all flows. It is like this impossible dance to me. This dance does not allow me to do anything but focus on the movements. I have joked to my friends that Wushu saved me; uncoordinated Melanie can walk without walking into walls. I will never be a pro but I just love how free it all feels when I am doing it.  20140623-194234-70954491.jpg

I recently started doing Chen style Tai Chi. People have this misconception that Tai Chi is slow and for old people (ha, I had that impression too before). However, I have learned that it takes extreme focus and control to do it right; I get such a workout from it. It works every single muscle in your body if you do it correctly. I come out of every single class stronger. Martial arts has kept me sane during this PhD. It has helped me to take that mental break that I normally do not get.

Juggling

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Part of what I have learned as a PhD student is that you are constantly juggling a bunch of hats (balls whatever you want to call it) as an academic. It sounds like there isn’t much difference between that and my time in the school board except I can say it has been more insane. I have been writing like a maniac all evening between checking my email periodically (and answering those that fly into my inbox so I don’t forgot) and mentally preparing to teach tomorrow AM. That isn’t including the work I had done earlier in the day (prepare for a workshop and plan for teaching). What drives me nuts is that I will shortly have to turn off the computer and end my very productive evening of writing to sleep (or else my students will see a very CRANKY PhD student tomorrow AM). My question for experienced academics is how do you do it? For the emerging (if you can even call it that) academic such as myself, who has not even finished her PhD yet, this is insanity. There is always this guilt when I turn on the TV to quote “have some down time” quote but really I am still working on my marking while I watch TV.  We haven’t even added abstract and publication deadlines into the mix today (ha!). It is a very interesting puzzle for me that I need to really contemplate…this idea of how can one person do it all?

Getting out of the Procrastination Blues…

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Back when I was in high school, I spent hours offline and online writing. In the digital environment, I wrote for an online fan magazine for Savage Garden fans and much of my spare time was devoted to crafting articles for my newsletter column. In the non-digital environment I was writing for my high school newspaper or writing  in my notebook. All of these writing experiences were empowering.

As I entered into adulthood, I began to blog. When I blog, I often write and decide not to post what I have written for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is because what I am thinking and reflecting on has become too personal. Or maybe it’s just because I am not ready to share my “half baked” ideas with the world. However, what I have learned during this PhD process is that words are a powerful tool to express what is on your mind. I also find that writing is a very personal experience especially as I move forward in this PhD process.

So why am I reflecting on writing today? Long story short, I am experiencing some writer’s block lately and to be honest I think it is a case of the “procrastination blues.” What usually takes me about 5 hours to produce has taken me about 2 weeks. I spend hours moving paragraphs around and rewording things to make it more (or maybe it is less) coherent. I am more excited about checking social media then doing my writing.  I am pretty sure everyone goes through these stages in their PhD journey. However, the question for me is how do I move out of this “hole?”

A friend of mine has been encouraging me to use an app called “Toggl” (https://www.toggl.com/). It is a digital timer. My goal starting today is to get about 5 hours of writing done daily. I have to start the timer when I am working but stop it when I take breaks. You get a running total of how many hours you work for the entire day if you use it continuously. I used this during my comps process when I wasn’t able to focus. It really worked, at least for me and then I stopped using it. However, I am going back on the “Toggl” train. Hopefully this is will get me out of my “writer’s block” aka “procrastination blues.”

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