Networking in a Pandemic (key to survival)

Networking -key to survival through a Pandemic (or ever).

Today, I was inspired by Doug Peterson (doug-off the record) in his post “The value of a network”. I resonated (sooooo much) with this entire blog post.  Being part of this vast community has been what has held me together through all of this. Being able to ask questions, share resources, seek help/support, or simply just vent has meant everything to me.

It has been 6 months since schools were first shut down, along with most business and industry. Teaching and Learning during a pandemic has been a challenge  – but not all bad (in the context of education). I mean, in a really big way, as an industry, many folks have found solace, comfort, support and community though online tools, especially networking.

Many of us in this digital network of “peeps” have been advocating the use of 21st Century tools for years. Wifi in schools was a big initiative back in 2003 (or so). Then using tools like Skype and Google to teach students about “live documents’. And through it all, we advocated how these tools and techniques might actually provided more opportunity for students (and educators) who may not have succeeded otherwise. I was one of those educators who relied on specific tools to get through the day.

And now (15 years later), many folks, I’d argue,  including school leaders are discovering different (not always better) ways of doing things (what we’ve been advocating for years).  Online meetings are not new, just new to many folks in public education – but, I bet this may become normal (just today, I had two teachers reach out to me via our online conferencing tool). In the past it would have meant emails or driving to a school or a visit. Remote teaching and conferencing through digital tools is not new, just new in public education. Twitter groups and chats – not new. But, lately, it seems like folks are diving into this community and discovering the magic of sharing outside the walls of a school or district.

Now, do I think that our system was prepared for a full online shift? Absolutely not. I do believe, however,  that this adversity may lead people to explore different ways of doing things which might eventually lead to a more dynamic, equitable and flexible teaching and learning environment.

Back to Twitter. It has been almost 12 years since I’ve been using Twitter as a learning and sharing tool and about 10 years of teaching online courses. During these years, I have found many friends and colleagues (from across the world) who are like minded in their / our drive to improve education structures with the intent to build a more inclusive and innovative system.

These days, I follow a lot of people. Some I follow directly and others I follow on Twitter lists, private and public. Ontario Educators should know about the lists since they’re my resource for Friday mornings.  -Doug

These past 6 months have allowed me to renew my relationship with Twitter and participate in online discussions relating to both my profession as a special education teacher as well as my own community (Hamilton, Ontario). I learn so much from my community and have been so blown away by the amount of sharing and supporting, not just from experienced teachers, but from those new to the field.

As Doug reminds us,

The connections made and their value supports the notion that learning never ends. It’s almost criminal when people join Twitter because they were required to because of some course and then drop it when the course is over.

It is hard to name everyone, but I wanted to highlight a few folks who have gone out of their way to connect people during this unusual time in all our lives. The share, reflect and fight for innovation, equity and safe schools and communities:
David Truss is an educator and school leader from Coquitlam BC. More than anyone, I’ve enjoyed his daily blog posts, podcasts and reflections. I wish I was better at commenting. He is truly a connector and not only shares stories and ideas from his own life as an educator, but he is always amplifying and highlighting the ideas and contributions of others.
Jason Lay @jlay02: Keeps me up to date with Ontario News, resources and discussions. He ever hesitates to included others in discussion, including me (and I really should respond more). His most recent share: “A series of short tutorials to walk you through the steps of creating a new course using the @CanvasLMS Series includes: Creating a New Canvas Shell Configuring Basic Course Settings Creating Content Pages Setting a Course Home Page @PowerLrn








Lisa Noble @nobleknits2 – What can I say? Another teacher who is not only sharing classroom tools and ideas, but genuinely wants to support folks outside the classroom. It is Lisa that led me to start my “Covid19” knitting project. I’m about half way through. One line per day. 
I am fairly certain that this post will only be read by me (haha) and that is ok. Having a place to share and post my own ideas and resources will give me some motivation during a very strange and bizarre time in my (our) life.
I hope to post something at least once per week. Something to share and support others and something to keep me focused and motivated as well!
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Minecraft and Fractals – a wonderful pair!

Minecraft and Fractals
By: Zoe Branigan-Pipe and Beth Carey

screenshotWe are all familiar with Math Manipulatives and the power of hands-on learning. Minecraft allows students to explore, create, design and problem solve in many dynamic ways. Here is one example of using Big Ideas and Concepts in Math. These concepts, once understood, force learners to use practical math skills in an authentic way.

“Today I learned about fractals the mathematics of nature introduced by Benoct Mandelbrot. Fractals are a repeating pattern in all directions with any shape. Inspired by Ancient Egyptian architecture this fractal is made entirely of gold blocks and glass. Although it is impractical it just shows what minecraft can really do”. -Gwen, Gr. 5 Student

Big Ideas: How does the concepts of fractal geometry link to the elements of design, engineering, and invention of the past and present and guide future decisions?

Overview: Grade Five Gifted students explore the connections and implications that nature has had on Math, Science, Art and Engineering. Using Minecraft as a creative and collaborative tool, students extend their learning of daVinci to explore and create fractals.

Source: Quillan and Makenna
Source: Quillan and Makenna


Who has heard of Fractals? Can someone give an easy definition? What are other things that we know of in nature that are fractals? How have fratals impacted our world? How does understanding the science of Fractals help scientist learn about Co2 levels on the planet as a whole? Where else could this idea be used to help the world? What surprised you about Fractals?



Activity Summary:

1) Background Information: Introduce and discuss the concepts relating to Fractals focusing on the principles of S.T.E.M.
2) Knowledge/Understanding: Show and discuss parts of video: Fractals The Hidden Dimension HD 1080p / Nova Youtube:
3) Communication/Thinking: Discuss, identify and list the many math concepts discussed in the video (Geometry, Symmetry, Patterning/Algebra, Problem Solving, Number Sense).
3) Communication/Thinking:Provide examples of assortment of Images that relate to Fractals.
4) Practise: Allow students, individually and/or in partners to draw and design their Fractals on paper
5) Application/Practise: Use FLAT world on Minecraft or Minecraftedu. Have students create their Fractal design in 3D dimension
6) Thinking/Communication: Allow students time to discuss, write and describe their Fractal on Collaborative document.
7) Consolidation/Sharing: Have students take SCREENSHOTS (F2) and copy/paste their screenshots into collaborative document/virtual bulletin board for sharing.

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Cell Phones in my classroom: I give Permission

This post is in response to the recent Vote by the Teachers Federation Union to Ban Cell phones from the classroom. According to CBC, “The new rules state that mobile devices should be turned off and stored during school hours, unless special permission is given.” Ontario teachers’ union votes to ban cell phones in classrooms

The meeting minutes found here indicates hat Policy Statements, 73.0, Student Use of Personal Electronic Devices in the Classroom, be amended to read: LINK  WHERE did the word BAN come from?  please not use the world ‘BAN’ here?  Could it give the wrong message? How about we advocate for ‘Safe Use’, or ‘Education/Training is needed’ or, ‘Helping students and teachers navigate online tools?

IMG_0290I use cell phones in the classroom.  I also use as much social media, web 2.0 and chat tools with my students as much possible. I have two specific reasons: First, it is these tools that provide assistive technologies and needed accommodations to many students that would/could not otherwise succeed in a system that is meant for the mainstream of learners. Second,  What I’ve come to realize, as both a parent and teacher is that unless these tools are explored, discussed, shared and scrutinized in the classroom by knowledgeable and informed educators – with kids – that THEY (our students) are going to have little opportunity to explicitly learn how to use them effectively, safely and appropriately in the real world.


We know that cell phones and similar tools are becoming (or will become) a way of communication in the future. It is for that reason, that  Parents, Educators, Teachers, Instructors, Professors and of course Learners need to step back from the podium of teaching and find ways to integrate, moderate and balance the safe use of these tools instead of banning them.  I wonder, would better training/education about these tools  for the students, parents and teachers be more practical? What if the real problem (or reality) is that the way we are teaching students needs to change?

It wasn’t long ago that the Globe and Mail quoted our Premier (ex), “Telephones and BlackBerrys and the like are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want our students to do is to be well-informed,” Mr. McGuinty said. “And it’s something that we should be looking at in our schools.” (

The Horizon Report K-12 also emphasized that such tools are also conduits for learning,

> Mobiles are a category that defies long-term definitions. With more than 1.2 billion new mobile devices produced each year, the pace of innovation in the mobile markets is unprecedented. Mobiles,  especially smartphones and  tablets, enable ubiquitous access to information, social networks, tools for learning and productivity, and hundreds of thousands of custom applications. Mobiles were listed in previous years because they could capture multimedia, access the Internet, or geolocate. Now they are effectively specialized computers for the  palm of your hand,with a huge and growing collection of software tools that make use of their accelerometers, compasses, cameras, microphones, GPS, and  other sensors.

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 9.13.58 AMIn the winter of 2011, the Ontario Teacher Federation Publication, “Voice” also showcased and applauded use of cell phones and other devices in the classroom. “Opening the door to student-owned devices, means facing  the challenge of dealing with a number of computing platforms in our classrooms”, writes David Curruthers, an Ontario classroom teacher.

Further, the June 2013 issue of Professionally Speaking features the latest gadgets and tools that are designed for the classroom, including cell phones.

– Smaller than tablets, smartphones are popular among students. “The kids have them in their pockets,” says Todd Wright, OCT, a curriculum administrator in information communications technology at the York Region DSB. “And some of the screens are bigger than they used to be, so they’re more useful.” But smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy S III and BlackBerry’s Z10 aren’t as powerful as tablets and laptops, which limits the software these hand-held devices can process. Still, users can access hundreds of thousands of apps on iTunes and Google Play. There aren’t as many for BlackBerry and Windows Phone 8 (yet). (source)

Allowing cell phones in my classroom was difficult, but how can I, as an educator put barriers on the very tools that students are using in the real world? Isn’t that my job as a teacher, to prepare them for the world they are living in now and the future?  I had to spend many classroom hours developing trust with my students as well as inviting parents and community into my class often.  This included teaching them social skills when using these tools, appropriate use and balance.  In the end,  it allowed me to step back from that need to ‘control’ the environment in every which way and facilitate a classroom where rich inquiry driven projects could be at the basis of teaching and learning.

A couple of simple ideas:

* Use of QR codes in the classroom

* Integrate Instram – Great opportunity to share and discuss social media practices (privacy issues)

* Interviewing people

* Quiz application

*Internet source (on rare occasions and always with parental permission)

* Safety (on trips)

* Class texting

* Practice Digital Citizenship

*Learn how to monitor and balance use of tools

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Teaching “how to” Self-Direct Learning

Student:  I am easily distracted from the work I have to do.
Teacher: What are you distracted by?
Student: Stuff like the latest article about the Redstone update in Minecraft <that allows you to use the concept of electricity, pistons, electrical flow, breakers) or by the book that is screaming my name, or distracted by the story that I’m co-writing with my friend <the one I want to publish>, or by the new world I’m creating in Minecraft that allows collaborators to co-build and discuss in real time or by the new mode that I’m creating and why the Java Script isn’t working…….
Teacher thinking: How can the distractions become the learning focus? Would this then eliminate the distraction?


One student writes,

“I was shocked when I found out how much I was self directing my learning, about a voxel platform called Minecraft. I learned almost everything there is to know about Minecraft, and I was shocked to find out that I found it all out through <a concept called> self directed learning. I learned it all through tutorials, Wikis, and finding stuff out just by fooling around in game.”

As a teacher of a special education classroom (Gifted Education), my prime directive is not to teach content, but to teach my students to recognize their own learning needs, to advocate and then to reflect on what works or doesn’t. It is to have them ask, ‘What do I need?” instead of “How can I meet your expectations”? It is my hope that these students can begin to see the difference between education and schooling and between teaching and learning.  Ultimately, it is so that my students can drive their own learning and understand the structures that they need in place in order to be successful.

With the concepts and examples of Flipped Classrooms, Khan Academies’ (and the like), Massively Online Open Courses (MOOC), and variety of online courses such as Harvard Open Online Courses or MIT Open Courseware, the structures and tools are available for learners to access whatever content they need in order to solve the problem or complete the project they have in front of them. Therefor, my role as teacher is clearly redefined.

I showed my students the video, “If Students Designed their own Classrooms” and asked them to think about how this could relate to their own learning. I wondered how they conceptualized the concept of self-directed learning.  Initially, they didn’t see a connection to themselves. Why would they?

Students at this age still need structure, guidance and ongoing support and feedback. These students have been faced with teacher directed lessons, schedules, and goals. The concept of Inquiry (in the classroom) is somewhat foreign and like any skill or knowledge based lesson the students need scaffolding and monitoring each step of the way.

A student of mine wrote the following piece.  Alexander is a student that hasn’t had success (as he explains) with traditional teaching methods and has felt disengaged for much of his schooling.  After watching the video he felt inspired (even optimistic) that, in some instances, our system can create learning environments that are based on choice, interest and passion and can be driven by the student. Alexander asked me to post his thoughts where others can hear his voice.

Kids go to school to learn, right? To expand what they know? Then why do teachers decide what the students learn? What if they already know it? What if they are ahead, or behind? The student will know that better than the teacher. They know what they know. They know how to most easily do it. The student knows how they learn. So let them learn that way. Let the student choose how to learn, and what to learn, because THEY KNOW. Each needs to learn their own thing, their own way. Each needs different work, and, sometimes, special attention. So let them learn. School is a learning environment, not a teaching one. How would an adult answer a tough question? Look it up. So let kids do that too if they want. Let them do projects, or paragraphs, or a diorama, or even a model in Minecraft! If they want to do it,  then they probably do it better that way. If they say that they know that already, then teach them something new! A teacher’s role should be to help learning, not to tell kids to do something. I skipped science today because we had to do stuff on circuits that I knew in grade two!!! I came to school to learn, and I wasn’t learning anything except how to be bored, which I learned enough of in grades two to five (in grade one it was still mostly games). As I said, people come to school to learn. SO LET THEM.

What works for me?

  1. RELATIONSHIP – In order to implement this approach of teaching there has to be a significant understanding of who the student is as a learner. We take a significant amount of time reflecting on how to communicate what we know, how to reflect on how we know it, and how to synthesize what is next.
  2. BLENDED LEARNING – Each day, I provide individual tasks via Edmodo or Google Docs. Students will either choose a goal or be assigned one to work on. The Blended Learning structure allows students to access his/her individual plans and to communicate with teacher. It also allows for parents to be involved. Uploading plans and activities ahead of time has also been effective!
  3. TOOLS – I try to provide time for students to explore and learn how to navigate the tools (ie: Khan Academy, Math apps) and let them pick out the activity or app that interests them to share with the class. The “Resources” section in the classroom is important.
  4. TIME – Provide enough time to allow students to work on a given task. It often takes them 10 minutes to get going on a task. This time for “small chat” is important – like it is for adult learners.
  5. FEEDBACK – Ensure students aren’t just ‘doing the work’ but that there is a purpose. Give feedback to each group, or individual. I find myself walking around the room, prompting, checking, and reassuring.
  6. DIFFERENTIATION – Allow students to use the tools or apps they want rather than assigning. Some may use Educreations, while others are using the Livescribe.  The marker and chart method works too, although the students always upload what they’ve done to Edmodo or Evernote.
  7. INDIVIDUAL EDUCATION PLANS – I print out their IEP’s and allow them do fill it in or comment/edit what I have already done.  This is significant in helping them recognize that they have a VOICE.  We do this several times a year and then hang them up on clipboards.
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World of Sand Challenge – Problem Solving, Inquiry – and fun.

“Salt and water combine to form salt water, which sinks below pure water. Heating up salt water causes it to split back into salt water and steam. Steam rises and condenses, eventually forming water droplets. Plants drink water and grow, but die if exposed to salt water. And that’s just three of the nineteen materials available for you to draw.” – World of Sand

What I’ve discovered most about my students in this Gifted program, is that they want challenge. Not just any challenge, but a challenge that doesn’t have just one answer, but a myriad of possibilities. They want a challenge that can be done, and re-done over and over, with different results or possibilities. They want to create the challenge, to ask the questions, and to discover solutions. The epitome of inquiry?

Today, one of the students finally got to implement HIS challenge. Details posted on his blog post – “World of Sand Challenge” (A comment on his post would result in a  smile).

Using the REFLECTION app on the SMARTBOARD along with the iPad app World of Sand, he demonstrated how to combine the elements, tools and chemicals to create reactions. Once the students had a chance to practice, he set specific guidelines: Acid, Liquid Fire and Acid to be set as “automatic” – in that order. The problem? Combine the other elements so that these elements/chemicals do not touch bottom of screen.


Here is one student explaining their result. I feel humbled to be part of their learning journey.

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MY TOP 10 LEARNING SPACES – A Universal Design, in a Gifted Classroom

The learning environment is what will help create community. Before anything, students need to feel safe. Not just physically safe, but safe to learn how they learn, safe to think “outside the box”, safe to ask questions, safe to make mistakes, safe to be who they are.  I recently read a post by Jackie Gerstein, a friend and mentor who talks passionately about the importance of community in the classroom (It’s About Connections Not Content). Below, I talk about the learning spaces to honour all learners.  It is my intention to help these students find their passions, their gifts, and their understanding of themselves.

The Circle

Each day, we start off in a large circle. We might play a game, talk about a current event or gather our ideas for upcoming lessons. The circle gives brings the class together as one team, a group of co-learners and a support structure that they will need.

Comfort and Escape

A few years ago, I taught in a brand new school with small classrooms. A quiet “comfy” space was not an option and was strictly forbidden by fire regulations. I yearned to provide my students with an area to go when they needed to unpack and reflect. As we know, this 7 hour day, surrounded by an assortment of individuals can be overwhelming and draining. This classroom (an older school) allows for this space.  Students can use it to work collaboratively using the bulletin board or small table or even the floor as a workspace.  Of course,  reading a book, plugged into a good song is also pretty fantastic for any learner.

It only took about one hour before a student crawled into this “getaway”.  A calming environment that is still in the same room is a true gift for any classroom.


Exercise – Meditative, focus~refocus, transition

I truly love to Hula-Hoop. Not only because it is great for the abdominal muscles, but the repetitive motion is soothing. After a long day, or a long think-session, there is nothing better then grabbing a hula-hoop,  with a little music (or quiet is good too) and finding a place to gather thoughts and re-fuel for the next “thing” to come. Another true gift that this classroom offers – enough space.


There has been much debate about the use of Gaming in the classroom and its integration into core subjects like math, social studies and language. The Kinect offers an incredibly fun way for students to work together in solving problems, debating stories and characters, and thinking through puzzles and math games. Allowing students to move around, challenge one another and discuss the creation and process of the game itself is incredible insightful and meets them in their world. We will be integrating Minecraft in our classroom this year, as a way to plan, think, and discuss through creation and collaborative building.

Apple TV, Reflection, Interaction.

So often, we use the projector and whiteboard to deliver instruction and content. But with the Reflection App or Apple TV, students can broadcast their work and designs on a larger surface. To show the students a quick video, or demonstrate an iPad tool, I can stand anywhere in the room and broadcast quickly and safely. Even better, students can broadcast their work.  Only a few years ago, I found myself stumbling trying to improve my motor skills when using the Smart tablet.

Group Think-Tank and iPad Center

One of my students asked, “Too bad we can’t just write on this table!”. I wonder if “Idea Paint” would work here.  To move away from their desk workspace to a group workspace is valuable. It is also valuable to have an option to go back to ones own individual space. With the use of the HWDSB iPad program and the School iPad purchases, I have about 10 iPads in the classroom. We will start of with interview videos. A favourite app used today was WORLD OF SAND. I highly recommend it. Highly.

Weekly Schedule, Handouts and TEA.

Posting a daily overview is important, but to see it in context within the entire week is essential. Like adults learners, our younger students want to know what is next and why, and especially how it relates to their learning. There is a definite accountability attached to this practice, but it is so worth it. At the end of the week, I brew tea and together we work on the next weekly schedule. It empowers them and gives them voice.

Choices and Voices

This image keeps changing. As students become more comfortable with me – and more confident, they start adding more ideas and information here. It is fascinating to see how many students ask to get away from the brick and mortar. They want field trips, walks, and to learn outside.



Blended learning is not only going to provide more solid communication and on-going information for students and parents, but also more access to content and learning. While it might be surprising to some (ha, ha!), I am not the bearer of all knowledge and information.  Neither is the Internet. A blended learning platform (where students can also learn online) such as EDMODO (something new I’m trying this year) will allow me to facilitate content that is rich and diverse to a group of students that vary greatly in learning needs.  As well, each student will be given a personal blog, and will have access to my daily plans through Google Docs and our classroom blog (another huge accountability risk that is worth the immense outcome).


My favourite learning space – The real world.  This year, I’ve established a partnership with the Hamilton Farmers Market where students will get a chance to learn stories of the lives of real Hamiltonians. Students will learn to shop, cook and share resources.  Most importantly, they will have an opportunity to socialize and interact with citizens and with each other in authentic ways. With some structure and guidance, they will have a chance to apply what they have learned at school to something real.


We have also arrange for several community walks. Our school location is surrounded by hundreds of acres of forests (Royal Botanical Gardens) and wooded trails. The colours, smells, sounds and wildlife are the inspiration I’ll need when teaching poetry and creative writing. Perfect for finding space and time to talk, share and develop a real sense of self.



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Social Media, Twitter and the need for networked support – how far does our support really go?

Look at the “Seven Degrees of Connectedness” and think about how you nurture, support, and develop relationships on line, professionally and even personally. Do you have a close circle, a clique, a group of educators that you depend on – those in Stage 6 or 7? Do you have colleagues that work in your school, your district, your city – that you empower or that empower you? Do you have their back when they mess up, or need a pat on the shoulder, or need a word of praise here and there? Do you have the strength to DM them a concern? What would you do if you noticed they made an offensive remark? Are you prepared to have that “difficult conversation”? Do you do it in private? In public? Do you Unfollow them? DM them?

For many of us, Social Networking has changed the way we work, relate, share, create and learn.  Just think, throughout history, innovators have created so many different avenues and channels to share and communicate and strengthen relationships at many levels – some very surface and others very intense and deep – even life changing. What about the printing press? The mail system? The phone, radio, television?  In so many ways, the transparent nature of all of these tools makes us all so vulnerable, which is why we depend on our relationships and our trust in others to help us do the right thing and be the best we can be. We want to encourage risk taking so it will lead to new innovations, new thinking, new perspectives. But, with each of these channels comes a risk. Risk of error, risk of misinformation, risk of misinterpretation, risk of bias, risk of judgement. Even risk of friendship or something deeper.

Online tools, like Twitter or Facebook also pose a risk. We know this. Have you ever said something “in the heat of the moment?” that should have been kept private?Have you ever deleted a Tweet?

Sometimes we are just learning, and along the way, we make mistakes.  When I first started on Twitter, about four years ago, I had no idea that I was “Tweeting” with location settings “ON” until @dougpete sent me a friendly DM suggesting that I take it off since he could see exactly where I live. Not a good idea.  Another time I tweeted out comment that wasn’t all that appropriate during a live debate (political) and again, received a DM from an online colleague who simply reminded me “Zoe…you have a very public audience here”. Once, I even Tweeted out my home phone number in the public stream, instead of the intended DM.  Again, an online colleague, one whose relationship and trust was built over time, sent me a little note, “Zoe, delete the last tweet”.

Whatever the channel or method, face-to-Face or online, the way we nurture and respond to relationships depends on the level of trust we have. Even in a public stream like twitter, there will always be a circle of colleagues and friends (STAGE 7) that will protect, support, guide, teach and nurture one another.  So ask yourself,

Where do my colleagues fit in the framework?
Where do I fit in the framework?
How will I respond to a Tweet that offends me?
Do I DM an online colleague to help or offer advice?
Do I make public a concern or do I DM a concern?
Do I have people to count on, in the stream, like in the Face to Face world?

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Due Diligence and Social Media, Gaming and 21st Century Learning. Will education Institutions be held accountable?

Due Diligence and Social Media, Gaming and 21st Century Learning. Will education Institutions be held accountable?

“What?, you’ve been banned from 8 different servers?” I shrieked at my 11 year old son.  

“It’s part of the game – to build trust, act normal, get more responsibility from the server owner and then, destroy” he explained.

I gasped.


“In many servers, the point is to build and protect. If you are in a server shared by others, you always take the risk of having your things stolen and your creations destroyed…but for some players, hacking into a server and destroying is the main point”.

I gasped. “But it’s not nice…..”
So he explains, “most teachers and adults aren’t even aware of what is going on in the background of the server and chats”. He grins and asks me, “Do you know that most of us can get the brute force server hosting password?”  “Do you know how many servers don’t use ‘world guard or world bucket’ plugins to protect the word, protect the players?”
Minecraft is Boring.  The real fun and thrill comes from the design, the programming and the challenge. What we do in schools is just the “Basics”. Boring.

I gasped. “Where do you learn all this stuff then?”

“Online. Together.  Youtube”  Never school.

I gasped. “What about Ethics? Character? Kindness?”, I wonder. I continue to wonder (now with my TEACHER LENS),  “I’ve never heard of a school based PD about Minecraft servers, or world bucket”. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of a mandatory in-service, PD session about any social gaming , or media tool or strategy. 

Step Up Districts and Schools. Parents can’t do this alone.   Make Social Media and Blended Learning Strategies as much a priority as traditional literacies. Be accountable and insist that all teachers have a solid understanding of the tools, strategies, and pedagogies so that we can help kids navigate in these online social environments. I want my children and my students to be safe online to understand online risks, and to have a chance to practice good online citizenship under the direction, coaching and support of a knowledgeable teacher. Help our children understand the hard and soft skills associated with these environments – help their parents understand how to coach, monitor, guide.

When it comes to the use of social media, gaming, multimedia and multi-modal learning strategies, I wonder, how many educators are encouraged to teach with it, without fully understanding the tool itself, or grasping the research behind its use, or acknowledging the implications of its use (including safety). How many educators are encouraged to teach with it without being provided the tools (computer, systems)  and aren’t given in-school time to practice and learn?

It isn’t about updating our skills (like other literacies) it is about learning the skill.

The problem is that with other literacies (like reading and writing) we already knew them before entering the profession – we don’t have to learn them. We have a solid grasp about grammar rules, reading strategies, sentence structure, writing process. But with new literacies, especially the use of online tools, we are having to spend more time and resources to learn them. I’m not sure if our resources  (people, infrastructure, knowledge) fully support this reality.

With this, I ask – where does the responsibility lay on education organizations to guide kids in an environment (even facebook, youtube, twitter, gaming)where they are spending so much time? Why are we OK with them teaching each other?

Ask yourself, in your school, or organization – Do teachers , leaders and parents know how to properly moderate a student blog?  How about protect gaming server? or properly cite resources?  or manage content privately while also being transparent and open? or create effective comments on a blog?  or understand ‘public audience’? or how to have a conversation in an online chat?

In going back to my own children’s online behaviour, the story I started with – I as a parent can’t do it alone. I need support from the school system to guide and support my child’s learning in these online environments.

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Seeing with New Eyes – International Perspectives on Trust and Regulation in Education

George Zegarac, Ontario Deputy Minister of Education and Zoe Branigan-Pipe (Teacher, HWDSB)

The conference in Jerusalem, Israel that Van Leer hosts each year  is intended to encourage professional dialogue among educators, academics, representatives of the Third Sector, and policymakers from diverse areas and places in Israel and abroad.    This year, I was asked to attend as a Canadian Teacher Representative, along with Ontario Ministry Officer, Colette Ruduck and our Ontario Deputy Minister of Education, George Zegarac.

With the theme of “Trust and Regulation” at the center of our discussions, it did not take long to realize that my context, as a Canadian Educator, a parent, and a student –  was one of privilege and opportunity.


In bringing my Canadian values of equality, diversity, safety and choice with me in these talks with Ministers, education officials, principals and teachers,  I found myself acutely aware of the key differences that separate our profession, here in Ontario (and Canada) from the rest.  In contrast to many of the other countries represented, our Canadian context was unique in that the regulations (organizations, federations, policies, curriculum) imposed actually tie in Trust and Relationship building and partnerships as key factors to increase capacity building with a wide range of stakeholders. Our regulations are meant to encourage equality and diversity, choice, opportunity, innovation – fundamental values in our society.  Many other countries examined our systems of education and were fascinated that while we hold teachers and students strongly accountable and maintain a highly regulated profession, we also have a high degree of trust for teachers, administrators and district decision makers.  It was clear however, that the relationships between Trust and Regulation are directly related to the values, customs, culture of a society. These conversations, coupled with the touring, informal and formal discussions gave me a new lens to look through.

I was incredibly humbled to be asked to speak at the closing ceremony of the conference. Here,  I would be the voice of not just of Canadian teachers, but of teachers from across our Globe. Left unedited, here is what I said:

“I am a Teacher. My mom was a teacher, My grandma and my great-grandma were teachers. So the perspective and story that I am going to share today is from that lens – my teacher lens.

I am humbled and appreciative for this opportunity, not just representing my fellow colleagues in Ontario, Canada – but also to talk on behalf of some of the teachers that I’ve met at the Van Leer in Jerusalem, Israel.

Dead Sea -Lowest Place in the world - and vanishing fast
Yadvashem -Holocaust Museum

First, I would like to give you my sincere gratitude for welcoming me into Israel. This experience – in its entirety has been life changing in many ways. Your country is so full of history, and so many stories. I have cried- both tears of joy and tears of tremendous sorrow. I’ve toured your museums, your galleries, your shops, your places of worship and have had many authentic conversations with your citizens. I have learned how little I know and how much more I need and want to learn.
I think it is important to recognize that my reflection – our reflections together, are because we are breaking a routine, a norm, a place of comfort.

In the words of Canadian Education activist and academic – George Siemans, “Routines, the ones we personally engage in or that define our society – are the embodiment of values we’ve held and choices we made in the past. They support and reinforce the system in which they function – Sometimes, however, as he says, it is important to break the normalizing influence of routines so we can encounter new perspectives and new ideas, and this – sometimes takes a new location, or a new group of people. Times of change require new thinking.

This is what we have done here at Van Leer.

Teacher Voice being heard at VanLeer

I spent the day with 20 educators from around the world. We shared our stories and contexts and compared the realities that we all face as teachers and learners. We – the carriers of the curriculum, the subjects to theory and research, the caregivers of children- together, devised a series for recommendations. First and foremost, teacher voice needs to be heard and respected. That is what we all want, regardless of our country or context – to be heard.

We need our profession to be respected, which includes paying us well, treating us fairly, supporting us with resources, nurturing our learning and leadership opportunities. We need to feel safe to make mistakes because we too are learners, especially in a profession that is changing so drastically in the 21st Century. We need to feel trusted and with that, we want our skills, our education, our talents and our passions to be respected so we -together – can become the creators of our own pedagogies.

Teachers, District Managers, Ministry officials and researchers worked together  where we emphasized and discussed in length the role of high-stakes or standardized testing.  I was indeed inspired to learn that these passionate and experienced leaders agreed that such tests don’t work when used to rate, or punish teachers. I heard leaders and officials agree that such tests are not always authentic and can even sometimes do more harm then good. But I was particularly inspired also, to learn that systems of education can achieve and can be highly ranked without the use of formalized testing.

Together, educationalists from all different levels made ourselves accountable. We recognized that changed can come from all levels.

As researchers, we have a responsibility to translate these complex messages to the public. We need to think critically about the research and what it is telling us. We need to engage the social justice movement and include many stakeholders in forums and discussions around the issues of learning and teaching within our communities. We need to re-empower our teachers and principals to to rebuild capacity, because, as stated so well by author, Robin Alexander, CAPACITY BUILDING IS A PRE-condition FOR TRUST.

As principals, we need to empower our teachers and community. We need to continue this conversation with our colleagues, in our districts and also take risk to advocate for a fair and just system that puts student learning above all. I can tell you, that in my teacher group, the importance of the teacher/principal relationship came up over and over and over. I even wrote down some quotes on this, ” I don’t care about authority, but I get a good amount of Trust from my principal”, said one teacher. Another one said, “My principal will be the filter for the authority, for the leaders”; and yet another, “Trust – allows me to teach in my style, developing my own curriculum…Leadership is very important in my school.” One proudly voiced,”I am very dependent on my principal – he is a dynamic supportive leader”.

So I wonder if there is a correlation between that supportive, trusting principal and the fact that we have incredibly dynamic teachers here, at Van Leer from all over the globe? I am sure that it is no coincidence.

Lindy Amato (Director, Professional Affairs), Ben Levin (Professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy), Colette Ruduck (Ministry Officer) Zoe Branigan-Pipe (HWDSB Teacher Leader) George Zegarac (Ontario Deputy Minister of Education)

As Director Generals and Deputy Ministers, we need to recognize the efforts of the grassroots. I had some great talks with my own Deputy Minister, George Zegarac about how important it is to never ever forget what it is like in the classroom. I believe strongly that if the leaders and officials here could stay in touch with the realities of teaching and student learning, change could happen and teacher voice would be heard. I hope you
all find time, after this conference to go visit some of your teachers and tell them how proud you are. As a teacher, I can tell you – it really does mean a lot.

As Teachers – it is possible for us to make change. We too need to think different because change can start with us. We need to make our voices heard by be socially active. By sharing and reflecting our learning openly and even by sometimes being vulnerable and asking for help and challenging the status quo. As teachers, we need to recognize that our learning environments are changing and are very different from how we were once trained and educated. We need to remind our leaders that we are not just teachers of academics but we teach the whole person. This is something we discussed in length in our teacher group.

Many of us struggle, without supports – to help impoverished families, students with mental health disabilities, learning disabilities, students that speak a different language, large class sizes, violence, inequalities. This is common to all of us. This morning I resonated strongly with Michael Bilton on the panel who spoke about his own experience as a student and the importance of a caring teacher that fed him, nurtured him and made him feel safe.

While many of us are charged with teaching a standard driven regulated curriculum, we know, as teachers, that we are dealing with so much more. And I would bet that there isn’t a single teacher in here that would sacrifice a students safety or health for the sake of a single test. I challenge the teachers and leaders in this room to use both face to face and online social networks in order to stay current, motivated, and strong. Tools of the 21st Century
(and even 20th Century) have given us the gift to extend our learning and communication beyond our own environments as we see here with all these international delegates. Many of us here, in despite of some difficult times, are leaving feeling refueled because we know that with a bit of risk taking and determination, our
voice does matter and in the end, we know that every single person here, really has the same end goal – to help children succeed in our world.

I end with a thought that we discussed in our teacher group which is how very much teacher voice, teacher talent needs to be trusted and valued and that our policies and structures need and can reflect and support that. To quote John Lennon – “they expect you to pick a career, When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear, A working class hero is something to be, a working class hero is something to be”, – I think being seen as a working class hero is often how our governments justify taking away from our profession “for the greater good”. This is, perhaps the greatest dichotomy we are faced with, since our children really are OUR greatest resource.

Again, I thank you for this incredibly humbling opportunity. I also thank my own schol district, the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and the Ontario Ministry of education for supporting my own growth as a teacher and learner and giving me the opportunity to be here with you today.

I challenge you now, to think of one thing – one doable action that you will make happen after this conference. Will you write about it? Will you join a blog and start advocating? Will you keep your connections created here alive? Will you change how you treat teachers and students? Will you empower your colleagues? For me – I promise that I will take responsibility for not only what is happening in my world of education, but also for yours. I will continue to use Twitter, my blog and other avenues to learn about your classrooms and I will give all of my students a wide perspective of what is happening in places around the world.

In the Old City

Thank You.

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