Books: ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’

I’ve been reading a lot and I keep thinking that I should keep track of the books I read in some way.  Since I’ve rather neglected this blog lately, I though I would revive it to act as a place to store my ‘book reports’.  Not sure if this will be of interest to anyone but me, but hey, it’s my blog!

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories, by Hilary Mantel

Book cover My local public library does a good job of placing new or otherwise interesting fiction and non-fiction on a display near the library entrance.  This is where I picked up The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories by Hilary Mantel.  I hadn’t read any of Mantel’s writing before, but her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were Man Booker Prize winners, so I thought I would give this a shot.

Many of the stories in this collection were rather bleak with the main characters usually being unfulfilled women leading dreary lives.  The male characters were often unpleasant or merely unremarkable.  Having said that, though, there were some interesting stories.  Much in the stories you were left to guess at and to wonder what the author meant.  Many times, I found myself rereading entire stories to try to puzzle them together.  In one story the very last sentence revealed all and I had to go back to reread the story with this new knowledge.  My favourite stories in the collection were the title story, and The Heart Fails Without Warning.

I wouldn’t recommend reading this book if you’re depressed, but the stories are interesting and make you think.


Storytelling and My Favourite Thing

I was just reading a post by Naryn Searcy and was about to write a long response, then realized what a great opportunity to get back to writing here, on my own much neglected blog!

So, storytelling.  On the Through A Different Lens blog, Naryn posted 5 Photo Stories describing a storytelling activity she assigned the students in her English 12 First Peoples class.  She combines three different ideas to come up with a really engaging activity that fosters creativity.  Rather than me describing it in detail here, you should go and read her post.  I’ll wait.

One of the aspects of Naryn’s activity involved assigning the students random props.  This reminded me of the improv activity ‘My Favourite Thing’.  I discovered this activity here a few years ago when I was looking for drama activities.  Here’s how I do it with my students.  Students are put into groups of 4 and given a prop.  Without any prep time they each take turns telling a story to the class about why the prop is their favourite thing.  If appropriate I give a time limit for each story.  If it is a student’s turn and they are stumped they pass and give it a go at the end.  They are encouraged to think outside the box and to consider the elements of a good story.  After a group tells their stories, the class is asked to comment on what the people in the group did well.  Everyone starts to get the hang of what makes a great story.    

A couple of years ago I had a group of grade 8′s who were amazing at this.  One boy in particular could spin the most amazing stories; we would literally hold our breath waiting for what he would say next.  Through his stories he inspired his peers to take risks and try to improve their own storytelling.  

Last week I introduced ‘My Favourite Thing’ to my grade 5 group.   Some of the props I used were a pink foam crown with ‘jewels’ on it and a roll of paper towels.  It was the first time my students had done this activity and the stories showed promise, though it is amazing how so many innocuous props turn into weapons!  One student really got it and came up with a fantastic story for the roll of paper towels (at one point it became a red carpet for a celebrity in the story).  After everyone had had a turn students begged to get a chance to tell a story about one of the props they weren’t assigned.  I look forward to seeing how their story telling skills improve as we return to this activity over the course of the year.

Are there storytelling / drama activities that you’ve tried that have been successful with students?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments :-)

Programming with Scratch

One of the assignments for the Learning Creative Learning course I’m taking is to create a project in Scratch to introduce yourself to the other course participants.  Scratch is a visual programming language developed for kids.  I liked the idea of a maze, but I also wanted to try out variables (these are the parts of the game that keep track of the score and the number of lives you have left.)  I started out by looking at the code other basic maze games used.  For most of the rest of the coding, when I encountered problems my fabulous 12 year old son helped me out :-)  I encountered problems uploading images and sounds so almost all of the images were either from the Scratch library, or ones that I drew myself or library images that I edited.  The only image I could upload was that of the unhappy face.  The sounds are recordings of my son’s voice.  When you finish the maze, there is an ‘easter egg’ on the final screen (my son’s idea).  The game is embedded below, but if it doesn’t show up, here’s the link.  To start the game, click on the green flag.  Use your arrow keys to navigate the maze.


There were times during the creation of this project that were very frustrating, where I wasn’t able to program the game to do what I wanted it to.  When I was able to solve those problems though, it felt great!  I was really invested in the learning.

The Kindergarten Approach to Learning

I’m toying with participating in the Learning Creative Learning course which starts up today.  I participated last year, but as usually happens I started off with a good head of steam which then quickly petered out.  I’m hoping to have more staying power this time.

This week’s activity is to read Seymour Papert’s essay on Gears of My Childhood and to write about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you.  I wrote about this when I took the course last year–you can read it here.  This time around I thought I would respond to the other reading for this week:

In the paper Mitch Resnick argues that the kindergarten approach to learning is an approach that fosters creativity and that it should not be discarded after kindergarten.  With technology we can use kindergarten-style learning with learners of all ages.  Resnick describes kindergarten-style learning as using a process of the student imagining what they want to do, creating a project based on what they’ve imagined, playing with it, sharing the creation with others, reflecting on their experience which leads them to imagining new ideas and new projects.  The image below is from Resnick’s paper and illustrates the process.
I have been using an approach similar to this when introducing a new topic or technology with my students, though I could certainly extend it further in my practice (especially the reflection part).  For example, this year my students are creating their own mini radio shows.  They are essentially podcasts.  I started out by introducing students to the audio recording software Audacity*.  I’m not a big fan of giving really explicit instructions on how to work with a piece of software.  It is probably because that is not how I learn to use new software and because I don’t think it is a realistic approach to use if you want to encourage people to be lifelong learners.  I want to encourage students to play and experiment with software.  So with Audacity, I showed the students the basics; how to record a track, how to delete a track, and how to copy and paste parts of a track.  I also showed them where the effects were located and what some of them were (eg, echo, change pitch, fade in/out etc.)  To keep frustration at bay, I reminded the students that their job is to explore and experiment.  There will be some things that don’t work, and I’m here to help them through that.  There is no concrete object/project that they have to complete at this time.  Then I set them loose with the objective to play and experiment!  I did this last week with a small group of grade 1s and 2s and it was a lot of fun.  The kids had a blast exploring and they were creating interesting audio with a real joy that would not have been there had I given them a recipe of prescribed steps to follow.

With my other classes that are a little further along in this process I see students who are fearless in what they are willing to try.  They create interesting audio, share it with their peers, receive feedback, move on and create something new from what they have learned.  I use this approach with almost all new technology that I introduce my students to (eg Scratch, MaKey MaKey, BitStrips…), but I need to consider if there are other areas where it would work too.

How do you encourage a kindergarten-style of learning in what you do?  Please leave me a comment below, and thanks for reading this!

*Note: I chose Audacity for a number of reasons:
  1. it is free, so if my students really get into using it they can put it on their home computer for free
  2. it works on multiple platforms (PC, Mac, Linux) so again, if students really get into using it they can add it to their home computer pretty much regardless of platform
  3. it does a lot, without being overwhelming
  4. it is open source, which I’m keen on

Do Your Homework

Apparently there is no rest for the wicked.  Even though it is the winter break I have been given some homework to do.  I’ve been tagged by Naryn Searcy (@nsearcy17) in this post.  This is a blog meme that has been bouncing around the edu-blogosphere for the last while.  For the task you are asked to include:

11 Random facts about yourself
11 questions asked by another
11 question that you ask another 11 people in your PLN

It looks like a great way to get to know those in your PLN a little better, be introduced to new people, and (in my case at least) serve as an impetus to get back at blogging.

So here goes…

11 Random Facts about Me

  1. I’m good at putting out small fires (stovetop fires, fondue fire, bedroom curtains on fire, student desk on fire).
  2. I was born close to the geographic centre of BC.
  3. When I was little I thought that my grandparents were wanted by the FBI.
  4. My daily commute used to include driving past three maximum security prisons (Kingston Penitentiary, the Prison for Women, and Millhaven) as well as Collins Bay Institution.
  5. On that same commute I used to knit while I rode the Glenora Ferry.
  6. When I taught biology at South Okanagan Secondary School I had a real human skeleton in my classroom.
  7. The only student who ever fainted in my class did so when I was showing her the above mentioned skeleton.
  8. My first car was a 1982 Pontiac Acadian Diesel.  Yes, a diesel.  No, it was not wicked fast.
  9. I enjoy playing golf, so feel free to treat me to a round ;-)
  10. I am allergic to cats and dogs.
  11. I love running along Skaha or Okanagan Lakes during the fall when the sun is blazing and the sky is blue.

11 Questions asked by Naryn Searcy (here)

  1. How do you balance time spent on face to face relationships in your own district vs online relationships?
    This is an area I have to work on as I swing from one extreme to another.
  2. Where do you want to go in the world that you haven’t been yet?
  3. Are you a morning or night person?
  4. What was the last book you read/movie you watched or song you listened to?
    Book: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
    Movie: Elf
    Song: The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme).  My kids are always humming this.
  5. In what school/position do you think you “grew up” as an educator (really figured out how you were going to fill the role of a teacher/administrator etc.) ?
    As a distributed learning teacher at the Home Learners’ Program / ConnectEd.  In this position I got a much better understanding of how the school system works.  I was also exposed to a much wider variety of student learners and their needs.
  6. What is one thing you would miss if you had to leave the community you currently live in?
    My wonderful neighbours.
  7. What is the source you rely on most for news about what’s going on in the world?
    The CBC.  I use other sources too, but this is my main source.
  8. What is your favourite movie and why?
    My favourite movie is Pulp Fiction.  The characters are interesting, it has a fabulous cast, and I love the dark humour and how the different stories intersect.  There are also images from the film that really stick with you such as when Uma Thurman’s character is administered adrenalin via a syringe directly to her heart.
  9. Who will win the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup this year?
    I don’t follow football, so no idea there.  As for the Stanley Cup I’m going to say Chicago.
  10. If your son/daughter wanted to enter the field of education right now, would you encourage them?
    I would definitely not encourage either of my kids to enter the field of education.  Though I enjoy teaching I do not see public education in BC improving anytime soon, it is just going to become more and more frustrating to be a teacher in this system.
  11. What is a good moment from 2013?
    Spending time at Long Beach on Vancouver Island with my husband and family this summer.

11 Questions for Others

  1. What lead to you becoming an educator?
  2. If you hadn’t become an educator, what would you have done instead?
  3. Are you concerned about student privacy and security with regards to cloud computing?  For example, do you have any reservations about students using Google Apps or other cloud based services?
  4. What was the first ‘real’ job that you had?
  5. What is your current favourite book, movie and / or album?
  6. What did you always want to be when you grew up?
  7. What is the strangest food that you’ve ever eaten?
  8. If you could sit down and talk with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why.
  9. How far away do you live from where you grew up?
  10. What is your favourite way to unplug and unwind?
  11. Salty or sweet?

Tag, You’re It!

I don’t like tagging people, but it is a great opportunity for me to share who I like to read and connect with.  So here goes.  If your name is on the list feel please don’t feel obliged…
  1. Errin Gregory @ErrinGreg
  2. Phil Macoun  @pmacoun
  3. Judith King @judithaking
  4. Jodie Reeder @JodieR0808
  5. Starleigh Grass  @starleigh_grass
  6. Darcy Mullin @darcymullin
  7. Todd Manuel @toddmanuel_67
  8. Shawn Ram @sram_socrates
  9. David Truss  @datruss
  10. Lisa Read @LisaRead
  11. YOU!  If you are reading this and are interested in the meme, consider yourself tagged.  Just remember to link back here so that I can read your post.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Post back here with a link after you write this. Go on, you have homework to do.

EdCamp Okanagan Reflection

Saturday was the culmination of many months of planning by  Carolyn Durley, Naryn Searcy, Darcy Mullin and me.  EdCamp Okanagan in Kelowna happened on Saturday, and what a ride!

I’m not sure when Carolyn, Darcy and Naryn decided to host an EdCamp, but in the summer Naryn contacted me to see if I would like to be involved.  I’d never been to an EdCamp and was keen to see one occur locally.  Over the next few months the four of us met in Google Hangouts to plan the event.  

Two weeks prior to EdCampOK we only had 20 registrants, and that included the four of us.  We started to get a little concerned!  Registration started to pick up though, and by the day of the EdCamp we had 64 registrants.  I’m not sure how many people actually attended, but it must have been close to 60 (some couldn’t make it, and others registered in person).  This ended up being a pretty good number.  With much fewer than this we wouldn’t have been able to offer as many sessions.  Much more than this and it may have been more difficult to manage; at least for our first time doing EdCamp!  We had a broad range of participants; K – 12 teachers, UBC-O student teachers, principals and vice principals, at least one superintendent as well as a director of instruction, an education consultant, an environmental educator, and a UBC-O professor.  Participants came from Salmon Arm, Sorrento, Enderby, Vernon, Kelowna, West Kelowna, Rossland, Penticton, Okanagan Falls, and Oliver. 

An EdCamp is an ‘un-conference’ of sorts.  All attendees are expected to participate in the event.  The EdCamp starts out with participants suggesting topics, often by writing them upon a whiteboard.  After a certain point people are then asked to vote for topics they’d like to see make it on the schedule.  In our case we gave participants three post-it notes to stick under their top three topics.  We then sent everyone off to an introductory session where Tom Schimmer explained the EdCamp model and answered questions.  During this time we tallied votes and set up the schedule.  Tom must have done a wonderful job explaining things because when it was time for the first sessions to begin, everyone headed off to the discussion rooms and no one looked lost or confused :-)  


During the first three time slots we ran 3 concurrent sessions each 55 minutes long.   In the first time slot I attended a session facilitated by Paul Kelly.  He shared his school’s experience piloting Chrome Books and Google Apps.  There was a lot of interest in the relatively low cost Chrome Books and people were impressed with how Paul’s school was using Google Apps.  Interesting questions were raised regarding our responsibilities as educators when we are using cloud computing solutions.  For more on how Paul’s school is using Chrome Books and Google Apps, check out his blog; Eduglean. 

The second session I attended was led by Todd Manuel.  The session was titled ‘Social Emotional Support For At Risk Students’ and Todd shared the shift that his school had made in how it deals with at risk students.  Instead of isolating at risk students when things go wrong (by using out of school suspensions) they started using in-school suspensions and they made an effort to connect the student to multiple adults in the building.  Todd gave an example of a student, Mike (not his real name), who had shown up to school stoned.  Once the whole intervention was carried out Mike ended up being in contact with 8, yes 8 different adults in the building.  As a group we also talked about how just saying hello to at risk students in the hall is one way to start to build up a relationship.  Sure, they may ignore you the first 3, 4, 10 times, but eventually they may start to feel a connection.  Think of Mike; he now has 8 adults in the building saying hi, expressing an interest in how he’s doing.  Pretty powerful!  There was a really big group in this session, but there was still lots of opportunity to for small group discussions.

The third session I attended I was asked to facilitate.  The topic was pretty broad; Technology in Schools.  It was a medium sized group–I think there about 12 of us.  We shared the challenges we faced using technology, why we use technology, and what our ideal technology set up would be.  Lots of interesting discussion and I’m sure if we just had a little more time we could have solved everyone’s Education Technology woes ;-)

I enjoyed each of the sessions I attended.  They all differed in terms of numbers of participants, topics and general format.  I also met a large range of participants–there was not a lot of overlap between the different sessions.  It was also fabulous getting the opportunity to meet face-to-face people that I have known on Twitter for many years; they did not disappoint!

We rounded out the day by bringing everyone together for a session of ‘Things That Suck’ facilitated by Graham Johnson.  The format of this session is described here, but essentially a contentious topic in education is thrown out there and people are asked to stand on one side of the room if they think the topic sucks, the other side of the room if they think it doesn’t and in between if you are in between.  Once people have arranged themselves they are asked to talk to other members in their area about why they are standing where they are.  Then people are asked to share out.  It is a great way to explore different sides of an issue, and some people really get fired up!  It was an invigorating way to end the day.

As things wrapped up, Darcy, Carolyn, Naryn and I felt very positive about how things went.  There are definitely some things we would do differently, but overall it seemed that participants enjoyed the format and the discussions.  We found ourselves saying “when we do this next year…” which must be a good sign.




Summer Reading: ‘Quiet’

Quiet Book imageNext on my summer reading list is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking  by Susan Cain.  This book was a recommendation of one of my students’ parents.  I had watched Susan Cain’s TED Talk on this topic so my appetite was whetted.

Some of the main points in ‘Quiet’ are that:

  • we live in a world largely geared to extroverts
  • introverts make a up a large portion of society
  • emphasis on extrovert characteristics means that we often overlook the important contributions of introverts
  • there is evidence that some of our cherished extrovert focussed methods or strategies are actually not as effective as we might think (eg. group brainstorming)

As I read the book I realized that my classroom was really extrovert focussed despite the fact that I know that I have a lot of introverted students and despite the fact that I am moderately introverted.  I cringed when I read that group brainstorming is not as effective as individual brainstorming; I spent quite a bit of time on group brainstorming this past year.  

Looking forward to the new school year, what I have learned from reading ‘Quiet’ will definitely influence how I do things in my classroom.  I won’t toss all of the ‘extroverty’ things that I do, but I will definitely try and provide an environment that is more accommodating to introverts.

If you’re a teacher, do you think that your classroom environment meets the needs of both introverts and extroverts?  Regardless of your job, does your workplace provide an environment where people all along the introvert-extrovert spectrum can flourish?  Let me know in the comments.

Previous Summer Reading Post: Summer Reading: ‘The Code Book’

Finding My Middle School Mojo

Ok, time to start reflecting on the past school year.  I’m going to start with how I found my Middle School Mojo.

This past September I started in a new teaching position as one of two teachers in my district’s Gifted Program.  The program is for students in grades 1 – 8 and is a pull in program; students spend part of one day a week with me learning in a theme-based program.


As a high school trained teacher who has spent most of her career teaching students in grades 8 – 12 this was a big change for me, but one that I was looking forward to.  At the beginning of the school year I found that I connected well with the grade 4 and 5s, but had difficulty “hitting the target” with both my younger students and my middle school students.

Part of my problem in the beginning with my middle school group (grades 6 – 8 ) was that I didn’t really have a good understanding of what the program should look like.  My own children had been in the elementary (gr 1 – 5) program for a number of years, so I had a pretty good idea of what went on there, but the middle school portion was a bit of mystery to me.  In addition, I only had one 1 hour block with them once a week and it was on Friday mornings.  This was challenging for a couple of reasons:

  1. An hour once a week doesn’t offer a lot of time to really sink your teeth into projects.  (Especially when many students would forget and show up part way through the class.  This did get better as the year progressed.)
  2. A lot of leadership and special activities occurred on Fridays, pulling students from my class.

Despite these challenges, after the winter break I felt like I was starting to get into a groove with the middle school class.  They were starting to gel as a group and I was discovering what sort of activities worked well with them.  This class went from being one that I was anxious about, to one that I looked forward to every week.  I started to worry less about having students follow my original game plan and I focussed more on providing them outlets with which to express their amazing creativity.

Near the end of the year we had an extended class where it was evident how much the students had grown and bonded together.  The creativity and confidence of the older students inspired all of the students to stretch and to try and rise to that same level.  They helped each other shoot video ads for their final project, celebrated in each others’ accomplishments and, when there was a bit of downtime, they would sing 80′s songs together acapella.  Nice!

There were a number of the key things that I learned from last year’s experience.  First, that it pays to be patient.  Those first two months I didn’t feel like I was hitting bullseyes very often, but I persisted and tried different approaches.  Second, that it takes time to get to know the students, and in a program like this the real magic happens once you start to figure out students strengths and start to make connections with them.  And third, it is ok to revise your original plan, especially when the revisions are centred around the strengths and needs of the students in your class.  

In a future post I’ll reflect on my steep learning curve with my younger students.  Cheers, and thanks for reading.

Image Credit: bullseye by Emilio Küffer, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

Summer Reading: ‘The Code Book’

The Code Book imageOne thing that I love about school holidays is having the time to read!  The first book I read this summer was ‘The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography’ by Simon Singh.  I chose this book because in the new school year I will be exploring code (cipher) making and breaking with my students.  ’The Code Book’ is a fascinating read!  Simon Singh goes through the history of codes, ciphers, and cryptanalysis with lots of interesting stories about the people involved.  I found the section on the Enigma Machine especially intriguing.  Singh does a wonderful job of explaining fairly complex ideas in an easy to follow way.  The book ends by looking at data encryption.  This may sound like a dry topic, but Singh really makes it understandable and engaging with the stories of the pioneers in this work.  Aside from the content of the book, one thing that I really like is that it has a comprehensive index.  As I read the book I made very brief notes knowing that I could quickly find out more info by going to the index.  If you like non-fiction presented by true storytellers, then this book is definitely worth a look.

Do you enjoy reading?  What are your recommended reads?  Let me know in the comments section!

Summer Blogging

cat stretching

Leeloo stretch by Les Howard, licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

This past school year has been a busy one.  I started a new position and this involved a lot of stretching and learning on my part.  I am happy that I took on this new role and am looking forward to the new school year.

I started a class blog, TWIG, where I posted weekly updates on what we were working on in class, but I haven’t blogged reflectively here on the year and I figure it’s time.  Inspired by Errin Gregory’s post, Intentional Summer Posting Plans, here is what I’d like to blog about this summer:

  • unpacking the past year
  • thinking ahead to what I’d like to do differently this year
  • working through ideas for the new year
    • projects
    • routines
    • communication with parents, teachers, and schools
  • reflecting on summer reading
Whether I am able to cover all of those topics remains to be seen.  I’ve gotten a first summer post out now though, and that’s a start!