I was teaching in a virtual school setting with approximately 20 grade 3 students. I decided to pursue a two-week mini-unit on persuasive letter writing. I wanted to teach persuasive letter writing and point of view in a way that was fun and engaging, and took advantage of technology and online experiences.
As part of this unit, I read aloud the popular book, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. In this story, different colored crayons protest being misused and overused and send letters to their owner, Duncan, announcing that they are going to quit. As I finished the read-aloud experience, I asked my students to patiently wait as I had to grab a cup of coffee. I quickly returned to the screen wearing a green crayon costume, complete with sunglasses and false moustache. Pretending to be the crayon from the picture book, I posed a challenge to the students to “write persuasive letters to my crayon friends and I, convincing us to return ourselves to Duncan’s crayon box.” With students laughing and excited by this challenge, they all eagerly embarked on their task.
When I left and returned again out of costume with my cup of coffee, the class exploded with excitement, telling me that the green crayon had just visited them online. They explained that they were going to be writing letters to a crayon color of their choice persuading them to return to their owner, Duncan. After two days, students completed their letters and I arranged them into groups of three in breakout rooms, where they shared their letters and provided feedback to peers. I was quite satisfied that the letters successfully met the criteria of a good piece of persuasive writing. I felt that there was potential to push the class’s enthusiasm and motivation forward. What next?
As a final task, I announced to the students that they would have a chance to present their letters at the “CRAYONS: WE WILL NOT COME BACK CONFERENCE,” to be held at the end of the week. I had created a digital trailer, set up like a movie trailer, introducing some of the crayons that would be attending the conference. At the conclusion of the trailer, I entered the scene as the ‘host,’ again dressed up in a green crayon costume, moustache, sunglasses, and all. As host, Mr. Green Crayon announced that the crayons from the book would be in attendance and that they were inviting all interested crayons (the students) from the box to prepare persuasive arguments to come back. The class responded with great laughter and their excitement went through the roof. Moreover, the trailer hooked the students into writing and preparing a convincing dramatic argument at the conference.
Then came the day of the conference, with Mr. Green Crayon as host, inviting all crayons to persuade and perform. With the presentations completed, Mr. Green thanked all the students and explained that Mr. Abbas would reveal the results of each crayon’s decision to return home or not. On the final day of the activity, I dramatically unveiled each crayon’s decision one by one. With every envelope that was opened, the tension grew but the excitement quickly rose as each crayon was persuaded to return home. Students were dancing and cheering with excitement as they saw the crayons they wrote letters to were returning home. They were not expecting every single crayon to return home as I had mentioned to them that that would be a difficult feat. Once the last envelope was opened, we all celebrated with a dance party and talked about our highs and lows with this unit. It was also only fair at this point to finish the unit off with a read-aloud of the sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home.
Students were overjoyed by this fun unit. It was incredibly meaningful because it got everyone hooked and involved and they felt a sense of purpose in what they were doing. Each student knew that their task was to try and convince a specific crayon to come home, and little things like the creation of the trailer made the experience feel authentic. Integrating drama allowed some quieter students to come out of their shell a little. It may sometimes be difficult, when teaching remotely, to make learning fun, but just laughing and enjoying our time together through the creative use of technology is everything that education needs to be — in class or online.
You can find other inspiring stories of successful online engagement in Deepening In-Class and Online Learning, by Larry Swartz, Debbie Nyman, and Magdalin Livingston. Preview the book online.
It has been a long pandemic, with much time spent away from our school communities and colleagues. As we prepare to resume in-person learning and as some continue to navigate online learning, the focus is increasingly on how we can re-establish our relationships. Mentoring Each Other is a practical, hands-on guide to developing reciprocal learning relationships among teaching colleagues. It doesn’t matter if you are a novice teacher or an established professional, this book is designed to emphasize trusting pathways to mutual learning.
Working together at large urban university, we were immersed in a culture that respected strong professional relationships as the key to success for our faculty members, teacher candidates and teachers in the field who mentored our candidates in their classrooms. Indeed, our faculty saw human relationships at the heart of all we were doing and understood the need to respect and respond to the diversity and complexities of people, experiences, talents and understandings that enriched our community.
One highlight of the book is that we have designed over 30 “Mentoring Moves” to get you and your teaching colleagues talking about your beliefs, values and practices in the classroom. Another highlight is that this book has an intentional focus on moving away from traditional top-down models of mentoring and instead highlights how everyone has learning and expertise to share. Lastly, this book opens the door for trusting relationships and honest discussion in learning communities. We know that school districts are increasingly exploring anti-oppressive, anti-racist and social justice education. For real change to take place, conversations need to be based on trust and listening. Mentoring Each Other provides the opportunity to build those relationships and can be used in support of staff learning in schools and across districts.
Today, with mentoring relationships existing within both face-to-face and virtual environments, we are consistently aware of the need to develop mentoring relationships that reflect mentor and mentee as partners in learning who have much to share and to learn from the other through active and reciprocal learning. As an example, click on our Mentoring Move “What I Bring”, which encourages mentors and mentees to consider what they bring to the partnership and how those qualities, traits, experiences and understandings serve to enhance the practice of mentor and mentee, and the learning of students in the host classroom. The Mentoring Move works well in person or virtually using a Google or other shared document.
As teachers, we are lifelong learners. We realize that much of our learning has been gained from mistakes made and learning gleaned through active participation in our communities. We are listeners who make a conscious effort to appreciate with an open mind the differences that make us unique and the objectives that we share in facilitating learners for the students in our elementary and secondary school classrooms. We hope you will enjoy listening, learning and sharing with us and join us as we mentor each other.
We are proud to note that our book has received glowing reviews:
“The authors delve into those conversations you’d rather not have and how to negotiate differences. Other tools support collaborative relationships by defining intention, planning and leadership. Teachers could use this book at any stage of their career to reflect on where they are and where they want to be. It is a superb addition to an annual learning plan and a helpful tool to use during performance appraisals.”
“By emphasizing reciprocal learning instead of power hierarchies, Parker and Vetter promote a culture of mentoring communities and demonstrate that mentors can in turn learn from their mentees. This well-researched book provides an excellent guide to the literature on this topic.”
As teachers organize each day for learning, whether in person or online, they always plan for student success. Teachers plan reading, writing, math, and science lessons by creating success criteria, reviewing assessments, organizing content, and choosing instructional options for maximum engagement. Still, many students are not engaged in learning and don’t start or complete tasks as teachers hope. This is frustrating for teachers.
The disconnect is also frustrating for students. So, what is the missing piece? What can be done to understand this disconnect?
Without realizing it, teachers tend to expect students to come to learning with the learning skills and strategies needed for successful learning, however, no one has taught the students these skills or strategies at school or at home. Learning skills and strategies (also known as executive function skills) are maturing as children develop, right through until age 25!
Our students need enough support so that weak executive function skills don’t prevent them from initiating tasks, completing tasks, organizing themselves, paying attention, and being cognitively flexible when things don’t go well the first time.
Teaching these skills may sound like a daunting task, especially since executive skills are brain based (they reside in the frontal lobe of the brain) and are particularly weak in students with ADHD or anxiety. Actually, simple steps or external supports can be shared to help students with learning skills and strategies during daily instruction. All students can benefit from these supports!
So, would you like your students to:
Be more organized?
Take more initiative?
Pay attention and remember things more efficiently?
Of course! Teachers can quite easily teach these skills explicitly everyday, in person or online.
Here are a few ideas:
Organization: Just as you check-in on learning, check in on learning skills. You can use this conference guide (and your own observations) to understand your students’ current skills and strategies with organization.
Then, as all good teachers know, you can group students for skills- based instruction to support their abilities to organize their thoughts, belongings, and their work spaces.
Task initiation: Getting started on multi-step tasks can be challenging for many students. Use procedures to help students to know the steps to start and complete activities. Students can use a pre-made list, or create their own list, based on their learning preferences. Students can be encouraged to check off the steps as they complete them so they feel a sense of accomplishment!
Using time well: Oh, how teachers wish that students would start and complete tasks efficiently! Using clear start and end times and chunking the steps (first step – 10 minutes, second step – 15 minutes) helps most students stay on task. Setting timers or stopwatches will help students work towards completing tasks effectively. Many students do not start because they think the task will take a long time, only to find out that the task was quite simple to complete.
Get students involved in the planning: Plan with your students, especially when determining success criteria. Students will share what they think they need to do and what they think you need to do to support their learning.For example, students often know that they need to listen to others, but they aren’t sure of the steps to do this in a large class. Teachers can break this down and teach the skills (eg. technology closed, eyes on the teacher for 10 minutes, guiding questions to support listening) which will, in turn, create engagement with content.
Would you like to know more about teaching (and evaluating) learning skills and strategies that support student learning?
Ready, Set, Learn is filled with organizers, prompts and sample lessons that focus on the importance of teaching students the executive skills and strategies they need in order to learn.
by Kara Dymond, reposted with permission from The Autism Lens
Helping Learners to Pinpoint Main Ideas
Writing by hand was never comfortable for me and my illegible scrawls made it seem pointless. The perfectionist in me still wanted to get it all down, so I used short forms and visual shortcuts that made it easier to write quickly, keep up, and make sense of concepts. I would draw smiley (or unsmiley) faces to identify how different stakeholder groups felt, and used directional arrows to show causal relationships. Somewhere along the way, I also began colour-coding. The visual way of representing categories, concepts, and relationships aided my recall, even more than typing up my notes (which, let’s be honest, I’d never look at again). So, when I sat down to write The Autism Lens and include some useful tools for teachers, I decided to develop a notetaking system that might help neurodivergent children and teens make connections more easily. You can read about the system, download the graphic organizers, and learn how to introduce these here.
As it turns out, my notetaking system also works for adults!
I was talking to my friend, Aidan, who is finishing up his undergraduate degree. After venting a bit about different university teaching styles, he shared that sometimes he doesn’t know what to study for exams. I shared that I’d developed a tool that might be worth a try. I’ll let him tell you the rest!
The thing about good notetaking systems is that when they’re good, they feel effortless and you wonder why you haven’t always been using them. As a student with as-yet undiagnosed ADHD, that’s not easy to find. Most of Dr. Dymond’s audience, I know, are teachers and parents of children much younger than my 28 years, but bear with me. I’m a graduating undergraduate student with a 3.9 GPA, am starting a business, and have concrete near-future plans for graduate school — none of which would have been possible without figuring out how to accept that things meant for neurotypical people aren’t always going to work for me.
I’ve always been a bit fanatical about notes and work. As a kid, learning was always easy — if I was interested in the subject — and notes weren’t required, nor studying. Topics I wasn’t interested in or didn’t have an aptitude for? I ignored them, and usually had sympathetic teachers able to help me achieve the bare minimum to move on to the next grade. I still use a calculator for basic multiplication and division. As I moved into high school though, notes became necessary. They were never useful to me, but I had to appear to be paying attention — enthusiasm went a long way in helping my teachers look the other way when my work wasn’t quite up to scratch in STEM subjects. In university, I started out by doing the same — taking notes because everyone else did, but once taken the notes went into a stack of papers on my desk and never moved.
I tried, repeatedly, to find a notetaking system that worked for me, from Cornell to verbatim transcripts, but nothing worked. It wasn’t until 2018 when I slowly started piecing together what I needed, but it was still time-consuming and tedious, and more concentration went into the process of taking the notes than the content of the notes. Then, Dr. Dymond asked me to try her system. Everything changed.
Dr. Dymond’s note system is meant for younger people than me, at an earlier stage of studying, but the system works. I was able to easily adapt it to my wide range of university subjects (including STEM, my high-school bogeyman, but now my life’s passion, along with specialized humanities courses), as well as to the software I use for notetaking (Notion, a fantastic app which is free for academic email addresses). Tagging things, categorizing individual pieces of information, is how my brain works best, and I think it’s how a lot of neurodiverse brains work best. It’s hard for me to see big pictures, and make connections, but having easy-to-remember and quick-to-write combinations of letters and emotions makes it much easier. I grasp the significance of events, people, dates, and so on, now, because of the simple addition of an emoji to the margin. I can analyze and synthesize the things I’m learning in a way that other systems couldn’t provide. What notetaking system, apart from one specifically made for people on the spectrum, would integrate a way to keep track of the emotional significance of events? Where I used to write “1655-1660 Civil War”, I now write “1655-1660 Civil War” but a sad face emoji in the margins lets me see how that event fits with what came before and after it — happy times, sad times, confusing times, etc. I can make connections between what before were mostly meaningless pieces of data. I finally feel like I’m grasping what my neurotypical classmates grasp instantly. At the end of every “session” of notes, whether they are on a reading or lecture, I limit myself to 3 main concepts in the little question/main concepts box. Since I have trouble figuring out what’s important, only allowing 3 forces me to prioritize.
Having a notetaking system meant specifically for folks like me means I’m able to finally succeed. I still apply myself to too many things at once — I doubt anything will stop that — but when I do, I’m more successful. I can see so many applications for the system Dr. Dymond has created — for every level of education. I think I’ll probably always think more about how I’m doing something than what I’m doing, but this tool adds layers to my notes that I couldn’t have found before, and does it with less work.
Thanks for contributing, Aidan! I’m so glad you’ve adapted this system in a way that helps you!
In today’s complex learning landscape, humor, compassion, and conviction are crucial. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, which means we have become even more dependent on the kindness and goodness of our family and friends, our teachers, and our students. The world can be a dark place without humor and compassion. We desperately need to be kind and generous towards each other if we are going to get through this crisis and go on to thrive and grow together.
Engaging Students Who Are Learning Remotely
The number one issue with online learning is engagement. We are relying on our students, some as young as 4 years of age, to be become engaged with a screen. I’ve heard people say, “Well, that should be easy for kids. They’re the screen generation after all. They’ve grown up looking at screens.” Yes, this is true. But most of them have only used screens for socializing and game playing. They haven’t had to use them for learning activities, which may be difficult and frankly, a little boring, for some.
Starting your online learning with something funny gets students engaged right away. Remember: you aren’t “wasting” your time doing these activities. They serve to engage your students in the learning process, so that when you do present new material, they are more ready to learn. I am working with student teachers online this term and I try to intersperse humor throughout our classes. I have started class by putting, “Which meme are you today?” up on the whiteboard. Students get to pick the meme that best describes their mood that day. These are often funny pictures of cats or dogs or famous people making funny faces. Everyone has to type in the number that matches their mood. This serves as an attendance tool, as well as a way to see who’s feeling happy or sad without getting too deeply into the issue. Just Google “which meme are you today” and click on images. There are thousands to choose from.
Another technique that I have found that works well is breaking up the lesson, so that no one is sitting, listening to me ramble on for more than 10–15 minutes (this should be adapted depending on the age and attention span of your students). Talk, then show a short, funny, engaging video on the topic you just discussed. Talk, then have students break into groups and do an activity. Talk, then have students assume a yoga pose and take a few deep breaths before starting the activity. Talk, then roll the magic name picker wheel (https://wheelofnames.com/) and see who gets to talk next. Wheel of Names is a great name generator that is free and easy to use. All you have to do is copy your class list, go to the site, drop in the names, and voila! You spin the magic wheel and when it stops on a student’s name, the screen lights up with confetti and celebratory horns. Even my adult students found it exciting. There are lots of things you can do to make your classes engaging and fun. I suspect that if you brainstormed with a small group of teachers you could come up with a whole list of ideas that would work at the different grade levels.
Compassion is key during these pandemic times. The expression, “We are all in the same boat” doesn’t apply to our students (or to us, for that matter). Some of our children have parents who can hover over them while they complete their online learning, supporting them with any technical or learning issues that may arise. Other students may have to share a computer with 3 of their siblings while their parents are at work. Still others may not have internet services at all where they live. How do we work with those students? It may require teams of teachers to come up with work packets that are delivered to student homes. Teachers could call those students to see if they have questions and to check for understanding. As well, we know that some of our students are dealing with mental health and safety issues within their homes. Keeping that line of communication open may help save that child from a dangerous situation.
Teacher Stress and Burnout
At this point, I can hear my teacher friends saying, “But what about ME? I have been so busy juggling the unprecedented demands of work and family that I haven’t had time to take care of myself and honestly, I’m falling apart here.”
Teacher stress is a fact of life right now. In a recent CBC (2020) survey of teachers, researchers found that teachers are largely overwhelmed and burned out. Developmental psychologist Lisa Bayrami, a contract lecturer at Lakehead University said the trickle down effect means that teacher stress can lead to student stress.
“We need to prioritize the well-being of educators because if they’re feeling as though they’re in survival mode… they don’t have the capacity to co-regulate and to engage in those attuned, positive relationships with students,” she said.
As I note in my book, teachers need to put their own oxygen masks on first before they can help others. This means forcing themselves to take a lunch break, get outside for a bit of fresh air, exercise sometime during the day, and schedule in some downtime. The most powerful predictor of student success is a teacher who feels confident about their abilities (Hatti, 2009). A teacher who feels demoralized or incapable of meeting the challenge cannot function at their best.
If teachers are feeling powerless and burnt out, not only is this a tragedy for them, it’s also a tragedy for their students. This is where we need to have the power of our convictions. Schools, administrators, governments, and the general public need to support teachers so that they can teach and support their students. It’s in everyone’s best interests to advocate for teachers. That means supporting them both publicly and privately. It means reaching out and helping your fellow teacher if you see that they are drowning. Finally, if you are a teacher, it means speaking to yourself as kindly as if you were your own best friend. This is hard. We can do hard things. And if we can’t, it’s OK to ask for help or to step away until we feel ready to come back.
Teachers are being asked to jump through burning hoops on a unicycle while juggling 10 balls. This means they need to be healthy, both mentally and physically.
My advice to teachers?
Take care of yourself first, and then take a deep breath and do what you know how to do.
You got this.
Wong, J. (2020, October 28). Teachers say return to school this fall has left them with overwhelming stress and a never-ending workload. CBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/teacher-questionnaire-pandemic-1.5775805 Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.
Imagine a boy or girl reading the iconic title The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. How did the student come to read that book? What prior knowledge might that reader have about the Holocaust that will that prepare them for grasping the power of this Jewish girl and her family’s story about hiding in the Secret Annex? What questions about Nazi power will be raised by reading about Anne Frank’s family? Where and how will the students find answers to those questions?
Imagine a student reading historical fiction about a Jewish child who is struggling to survive under Nazi oppression, and who desperately seeks a place of refuge. Perhaps the student is reading a title by a Canadian author: Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, Good-bye Marianne by Irene Watts, or The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser by Kathy Kacer. What if the reader of that book is Jewish? Catholic? Hindu? Muslim? What if the reader of that book is of German ancestry? How does the story of a Jewish quest for refuge connect to the student’s own religion and culture? What might that story teach them about humanity and resilience that they can apply to their own lives?
Imagine a student, Jewish or not, who is walking in his neighbourhood and sees graffiti of a swastika scrawled on a wall near his home. Does that child understand why this is a hate crime? Can the child begin to grasp where this hate came from, or have knowledge and understanding of the slaughter of six million Jews and other persecuted groups in what is known as the Holocaust?
Building Awareness, Understanding and Compassion through Literature
Studying the Holocaust can help students to understand the roots of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping. When students read or listen to stories about the Holocaust, they may begin to grasp the horrors of war, the dangers of dictatorship, and the politics of religious intolerance. Children’s literature can take students to other times, other places and when the characters and settings are drawn from historical events, readers are mining narratives where facts and fiction merge. Reading picture books, fiction, and nonfiction texts can be a stepping-stone into learning about the Holocaust, and this learning can open students’ minds and hearts to the harsh facts of genocide. Author Kathy Kacer has informed us that stories about the Holocaust can offer lessons, not only about hatred and power, but also about compassion, strength, and selflessness, and these are lessons for the ages.
Many students in today’s schools have limited knowledge or even awareness of the atrocities of the Holocaust. If young people haven’t encountered media and texts about the killing of six million Jews, then schools are likely the forum for introducing this tough topic — either through a community of readers who delve into a title, or through reading experiences where students can choose to read titles that they need or want to read. What age is too young? What information can students grasp at different developmental stages and grade levels? What information is enough? What information is too much?
Teaching Holocaust history demands strong sensitivity and acute awareness of the complexity connected to the content. As with other tough, but vital, topics, a children’s literature title can open doors to learning and understanding. The fear of not having enough information may discourage some teachers from embarking on the topic. It need not. Teachers and parents are not obliged to have all the answers to young readers’ questions, but they should be prepared for questions to be revealed and subsequently investigated.
Introducing the topic of the Holocaust connects students to the past and present, encouraging them to contemplate their own role in creating inclusion and harmony. In this way, Holocaust education can help students to develop their social awareness and understanding of social justice, diversity, and equity. Exposing young people to this period in history should be a priority in order to make them aware of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry which still exist in today’s world. The classroom can plant the seeds for possible change. International titles such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (fiction), Refugee by Alan Gratz (historical fiction), The Diary of Anne Frank (nonfiction), White Bird R.J. Palacio (graphic text), and Erika’s Story by Ruth Vander Zee (picture book) have given students strong insights into the history of the Holocaust. Along with popular titles from other countries, Canada can certainly celebrated by for the talent, wisdom, and dedicated research of significant authors who have served literature that can proudly sit on shelves of titles about living through and beyond the Holocaust. Philosopher George Santayana has written “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When young people read and respond to books on the Holocaust, they can grow in their understanding of the complexities of history, its impact on the present and perhaps come to believe in the words written by Anne Frank: “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Books Build Understanding
The following list highlights Canadian titles about the Holocaust that can be considered as essentials to help students gain an understanding not only of antisemitism, but of resilience and hope. These five books of Holocaust remembrance were selected as representations of different genres suitable for different ages. Many of the novels and picture books suggested are drawn from true stories and the nonfiction titles provide testimonies of those who lived through, bore witness to, or were family members of holocaust survivors.
THE PROMISE by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal (Picture Book) / grades 3 +
This picture book tells the story based on true events, of two sisters, Rachel and Topgy who were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The narrative and powerful visual images depict danger the girls faced, especially, when forced to separate. Three gold coins and a promise they had given to their parents keep the two sisters hopeful in their striving to survive.
HANA’S SUITCASE: A true story by Karen Levine (Biography) / grades 5-8
Hana was a Czech girl who died in the Holocaust. The book provides an account of how the curator of a Japanese Holocaust centre learned about Hana’s life after a suitcase was sent to her. The story of Hana’s suitcase has helped children all over the world dig into pages that help them to learn about the terrible history of what happened during World War II and invites them to heed the warnings of history. This title is one of Canada’s most awarded children’s books.
DANIEL’S STORY by Carol Matas (Historical Fiction) / grades 5-8
Daniel’s family is forced from their home in Frankfurt, Germany, and sent on a dangerous journey to a Nazi death camp. Daniel courageously struggles for survival and finds hope and life in the midst of despair. This book was written in 1993 to coincide with an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Though fictional, Daniel provides readers with a young teenage character who inspires and helps to make sense of and question the dreadful realities of the Holocaust.
GOOD-BYE MARIANNE: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany by Irene N. Watts, illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker (Graphic text) / grades 5-8
Marianne Kohn’s world collapses when as a Jewish student she was expelled from a German State school. The Gestapo forced their way into Marianne’s family home, destroying all their property. The story begins on November 15, 1938 — one week after the Night of the Broken Glass / Kristallnacht, when synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed by order of the Nazi government. The possibility of Marianne escaping Berlin is provided by Kindertransport, the rescue trains bound for England for unaccompanied children under sixteen. This book was first published as a novel in 1998, but was released in graphic format in 2008.
BRANDED BY THE PINK TRIANGLE by Ken Setterington (Nonfiction/YA) / grades 8+
Setterington has done extensive research into the plight of homosexuals under the rise of the Nazi Party. Homosexuals, along with Jews and other groups, were imprisoned in concentration camps. The author presents a timeline of events of those who were persecuted and those who campaigned for human rights. He writes about the fears of raids, and the ugliness of prison sentences that became a reality for homosexuals, who were branded by the pink triangle sewn into prison uniforms.
We are facing great challenges and change in the midst of a pandemic and ongoing racial injustice. As a result, many of us are experiencing unrelenting waves of stress and worry in response to the uncertainties before us. A certain level of stress and worry during this time actually acts as a natural protector. It guides our behaviours in ways that are meant to help keep us safe. For this we can thank the natural intelligence and wisdom of our minds and bodies. At the same time, we need to be intentional about making sure that we are not getting caught in an ongoing and constant loop of fear and worry in ways that are no longer protective. It can be especially difficult to disrupt this ongoing loop in a time when our daily circumstances seem to require a constant need for vigilance. To stay healthy and resilient our minds need opportunities to build resilience.
When thinking about how to best support children at home and in school, it’s important for teachers and parents to give attention to their own emotional needs. We can go back to the message we receive on an airplane just before takeoff that reminds us to secure our own oxygen mask before supporting someone else with theirs. We are advised to do this because if we were to run out of oxygen in an emergency, we would be helpless to support anyone else. This is an important metaphor for life. When teachers focus on self-care, it ends up being protective for students as well. This is why if teachers or parents ask me to name the most powerful mindfulness practice for children, my answer is always the same: YOUR practice. Even if teachers never introduce mindfulness to their students, if they commit to their own practice, there is almost always a positive ripple effect in the classroom.
We know from something called stress contagion that children will often take their cues from the adults around them. If we are feeling calm, the children around us are more likely to feel at ease. This doesn’t mean that teachers and parents shouldn’t talk about their feelings. In fact, by talking about our own feelings, we invite children to identify and share their own.
Science has shown that naming or labelling difficult emotions, like fear and worry, actually helps to loosen their grip. When students are in a heightened state of stress, the part of their brain that is necessary for thinking, reasoning, emotion regulation, and learning is less readily available to them. Teachers can provide children with opportunities to cultivate the skills they need to manage challenging emotions so they can meet each moment of their school day and beyond with less stress and greater awareness, attention, and resilience. Mindfulness of emotions helps them do that.
Mindfulness of one’s emotional experiences is central to well-being. Think of your students who are generally good at managing their emotions in positive ways. They are often the same students who show resilience when faced with challenges. Mindfulness practices and activities can help students to become more skilful at being aware of their emotions as they arise in the present moment and to become familiar with identifying, understanding, using, and managing their emotions in positive ways.
When students are able to identify and manage their own emotions (and those of other people) they are showing what has been called emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). Students with strong emotional intelligence are better at managing stress and conflict, showing empathy and kindness, communicating effectively, making informed decisions, building strong relationships, and overcoming challenges. Of course, as teachers know, there is a strong connection between a student’s emotions and their ability to manage their impulses. It is not surprising that research has shown that emotional intelligence is central to success and happiness in life. Studies show that regular mindfulness practice with emotions helps boost emotional intelligence by improving a student’s ability to self-regulate in different situations. Regular mindfulness practice helps students become better aware of the connection between their thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and behaviors. It helps to create some thoughtful space between a student’s actions and reactions. This space strengthens a student’s ability to respond more skilfully, instead of letting their feelings and emotional impulses govern their actions.
This is an especially important skill when students are confronted with stressful states and difficult emotions. Mindfulness helps children become better attuned to their feelings, which helps them manage and cope with life’s challenges. While students strengthen their emotional awareness through formal practices, the benefits extend throughout the course of their day, as they become increasingly aware of their emotions and how they influence their responses.
One way to help children become better at recognizing, naming, and managing their emotions is through Emotion Mapping (see below). This activity gives students an opportunity to take some time to pay attention to how and where they are feeling an emotion, and to give it a name. While children are better able to identify emotions when they are feeling them at their extreme, they are less able to notice and name them on the way to the extreme. Through practices like emotion mapping, students become better attuned to their emotions, which leads to a greater likelihood that they will be able to regulate them. With regular practice, children become better able to recognize and name a challenging feeling which, in turn, helps to reduce its impact and build resilience.
Tips for Teaching Mindfulness of Emotions
Invite: As always, use invitational language when introducing mindfulness activities to students.
Begin with the brain: I like to start mindfulness-of-emotion activities with a brief lesson on mindfulness and its impact on the brain. It gives students agency through helping them understand how their minds work and it creates a context for activities to come.
Teach as content: It’s helpful to think of emotions and social emotional awareness as content and skills you can teach as you would anything else (explain, model, allow for practice, provide feedback).
Teach for transfer: The goal is for students to learn about and practice these strategies within your class setting and then use what they have learned in their daily lives.
Find teachable moments: Find opportunities throughout the day to return to concepts learned; i.e. when students are emotionally reactive, upset, anxious, etc.
Set boundaries and expectations: In the midst of some of these activities, students may show their vulnerability. It is important to begin these activities with clear expectations about care, compassion, empathy, and respecting the rights and feelings of others.
Be trauma-sensitive: For all students, and especially for students who have a history of chronic stress and/or trauma, it is important to offer flexibility. At the outset, offer opportunities to take breaks or stop activities altogether. Be sure to monitor for dysregulation and offer care and compassion to help students process their reactions.
Differentiate: As you would differentiate for any other learning opportunity, plan for mindfulness activities with diverse student needs in mind.
Integrate mindfulness practices into a culturally responsive, equity-minded, and anti-racist approach to teaching and learning: Mindfulness can act as a tool to help both teachers and students develop awareness and compassion so they are resourced to take action towards more justice and peace in the world.
The Oxford Reference dictionary explains the origin of the word mentor:
In Greek mythology and Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor was the guide and counsellor for Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Educators and others have adopted the word to describe a formal or informal attachment between a teacher and a student or small group of students that goes beyond mere teaching or tutoring to include advice and guidance about many other issues and problems encountered by students.
We love that this definition identifies the importance of attachment (what we refer to as relationship) in mentoring, along with the understanding that mentoring extends beyond “mere teaching or tutoring.” While a mentor may share knowledge and demonstrate skills, a true mentoring disposition moves the mentor to support mentees in broader ways.
We believe that all teachers supporting preservice, novice, or experienced teachers are mentors. Our research demonstrates that the mentors we encountered wanted to better understand and enhance their practice in order to better support their mentees. We also observed that effective teachers and effective mentors share a disposition that includes the following elements:
Honest Self-Reflection: A mentor has greater experience in the field, yet has not forgotten that much of that experience has been gained from mistakes made and learning accumulated over time.
Openness to Listening and Sharing: A mentor is a strong listener who takes time to appreciate with an open mind the cultural, social, emotional, and economic factors that influence newcomers to the profession, regardless of their age or prior experience.
Willingness to Make Professional Practice Public: A mentor reaches beyond the sharing of knowledge and the demonstration of skills to support a mentee in understanding the thinking processes and the rationale that underpin the responsibilities, actions, and activities a teacher implements in the classroom. In doing so, a mentor deprivatizes and makes visible their practice, even though it may mean exposing their own vulnerability.
Recognition of the Value of Reciprocal and Active Learning: A mentor is a willing learner who understands that a person inexperienced in the field of education brings skills and talents from which both the mentor and the students in the classroom can learn, and that learning is internalized through active engagement and meaningful feedback, rather than from passive observation and critical judgment.
Collaboration within Professional Communities: A mentor is a partner in teaching and learning who inspires, motivates, counsels, and guides to allow a mentee to develop their independence, experience, knowledge, and skills in a safe, inclusive, welcoming, and supportive environment.
The concept of the mentoring role as one of partnership, particularly with a newcomer to the profession, may seem discordant at first. Partnerships generally mean equity in a relationship, and an experienced mentor may seem to bring more to the table in terms of pedagogy and understandings. A mentor who is able to honestly self-reflect will come to see that professional growth and development flows naturally from a mentoring situation. Mentees also have much to share to enrich the partnership.
In essence, the role of the mentor is to offer an invitation to an inclusive, safe, and welcoming physical and intellectual space within which both mentor and mentee can thrive and explore creative new ways to enhance their practice and develop their teaching excellence together. To become comfortable in the role of mentor, it is helpful to begin by getting to know the mentee as an individual with unique qualities, interests, and experiences that can enhance learning for everyone in the classroom (mentor, mentee, and students).
*taken from Mentoring Each Other, by Lana Parker & Diane Vetter
by Lisa Bush, reposted with permission from Purple Semicolon;
Let’s talk for a moment about my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Ms. X.
No, that is not her real name, but I would like to protect her identity and “X” has a cool, mysterious sound to it. And Ms. X is very cool. She wears fun shoes and sings. During this remote learning journey, Ms. X has everything done perfectly. PERFECTLY.
She follows the Alberta Education Guidelines. She focuses on basic literacy and numeracy skills. She provides open-ended assignments that follow a clear pattern every week. She assigns a small number of assignments that are fun, hands-on, age appropriate, easily adaptable, and simple. She has one class meeting each week for 30 minutes.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy as Ms. X (and now my daughter who adores Ms. X) says.
From an educator’s perspective, any family should be able to do Ms. X’s assignments.
Any. Family. At. All.
We cannot do them. On a good week we might turn in two assignments. Some weeks we don’t get any turned in. Sometimes we catch up over the weekend. Sometimes we don’t. From a pedagogical perspective, what would help this situation?
Should Ms. X be more entertaining? No. That is impossible. Her class meetings are better than Netflix. They are the highlight of our week.
Should she be more organized? No. She is perfectly organized, even by my own high standards. I have very clear expectations of her assignments every week.
Does she need to start flip-grid conversations or ask me to download interactive apps to engage my daughter further? No. That would send my anxiety skyrocketing and I would most likely shut down completely.
Should she send me emails about my kid’s missing assignments? No, that would anger me immensely.
Basically, there is nothing that Ms. X could do better.
You see, teachers, this is not on Ms. X, It’s on us. It is on me and my family. And here is where we are. Husband: full-time job. Me: full-time assistant principal. 50+ hours of daycare for my children: gone.
We do take education seriously. But it’s not our top priority. Our top priority is keeping our kids alive in a very literal sense. Also high on the list is to not do irreversible damage to our mental health and to do the jobs that pay our mortgage (especially critical during these times of economic chaos). And sometimes that is all I can do in a day.
So, some days—sure—we turn in my daughter’s journal entry. But most days my children roam the house like feral animals hiding cake under their bed, pulling the wooden boards off our backyard fence to make see-saws, and painting their eyelids pink as my husband and I teach and work online.
I share this with you because I know that countless families are in similar or more complex situations than my own.
I know that many of you are in similar or more complex situations than my own.
So, if your students are not responding well to remote learning, please, please do not take it as a personal reflection of you. Your students love you. They miss you. But that doesn’t equate with them having the capability of turning in all, or any, of your assignments.
Please reach out to them. Check in to see if they are physically and mentally safe.
But also know that, you are doing an amazing job. Your ability to adapt to this new reality has been nothing short of astounding. Resist the urge to judge your own worth as a teacher by how things are playing out now. And, please, do whatever it is that you need to keep yourself mentally safe and healthy.
by Brenda Stein Dzaldov, PhD & Ariella Segal, MEd, BSW
The jump to online learning has been quick all across the world, which has created a steep learning curve for teachers shifting to online learning, and for students and caregivers who are navigating this new reality — the reality of emergency teaching and learning.
As educators during a global pandemic, our first thoughts were, “Are our students and their families okay?” This very stressful time necessitates the need to check in on mental health and ensure that students and families have their basic needs met before they can start focusing on learning.
As online learning ramped up just a few weeks ago, educators were faced with a wide range of technical challenges: How do we get our students learning? Do our students have reliable access to technology? How can we get students and caregivers online? Can I find resources that they can “click on” that will keep them learning and working on meaningful activities? What are the best ways to teach online?
As different schools and different Boards of Education began using different tools (eg. phone calls, Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Learning Management Systems), educators started by contacting families and then sharing video links, free online learning spaces, and posted activities. However, it quickly became apparent that assigning links, sharing vast amounts of content information, and hoping that the caregivers who are isolating with young children can support teaching and learning would require a new, more systematic approach. These realizations guided the process:
Parents and caregivers don’t have the knowledge, skills, and tools to step in as surrogate educators
Young children require a lot of step-by-step scaffolding in order to start the type of independent learning that is necessary in this new online learning environment
It takes years of training in pedagogy, content knowledge, psychology, and many other fields to become a teacher. Imagine if, suddenly, your accountant couldn’t support you in managing your investments and taxes anymore. Instead, you received a great link to a website that explained how to do these complex tasks, with the assumption that you could print and navigate the necessary forms and fill them out. We’re quite sure we wouldn’t suddenly be able to manage our investments and do our taxes with that type of information!
So, let’s take a step back. As teachers collect resources, check-in to see if students and families are okay, and share or post activities for students to complete (alone or with a caregiver), we need a lens for understanding this new reality from the perspectives of the learner, the caregiver, and the educator. Let’s widen our view and think about some big issues that need to be addressed so that online learning can start to be joyful and productive learning for our youngest students and their caregivers.
1) Navigating this new environment Think about students entering the online environment in the same way as they would enter school on the first day. Students need to find their classroom, figure out how to enter the room, where their belongings will be kept, where they will sit, and how to interact together in this classroom. The same thinking needs to happen for this new virtual environment.
Spend some time orienting students and their caregivers to the new “classroom.” Teach students and their caregivers how to use any new technology or links and how to access resources that will regularly be shared with them, including worksheets, texts, and internet sites. Use step-by-step instruction or short videos to accomplish this.
Try to use familiar objects and replicate routines as often as possible in order to minimize disruption. In a virtual classroom, you could start each day with a familiar How Are You Feeling Today? chart. Whereas in their physical classroom, students might stick their names to the Emoji that best described their feelings for that day, in a virtual classroom, students would select and draw their Emoji for the day and then volunteer to share it with the class.
The consistency in a morning routine is an important anchor for students. This makes it clear that we are still there to learn together.
Example of “How Are You Feeling Today?” Chart and Activity.
(Creative Teaching Press, 2016)
2) Set up a home “learning station” with materials and resources
All young children need a learning station — a place where they sit down to learn online and where materials and resources are accessible to them. Caregivers will need help setting up this learning station, but once it’s set up, students will be able to work more independently. What will young children need in a learning station every day?
Create a short video tutorial to walk students through how to set up a home learning station. Provide a step-by-step checklist of all the “must-have” items that students could keep in their home learning station. Be flexible with expectations (eg. a bin for holding materials could be a tinfoil pan). Ask the children to send a picture of their learning stations as an exciting interaction. This approach empowers students to create their own home learning stations which makes necessary resources available while modelling how to do it in a fun, flexible way.
Alphabet chart to help with letter- sound recognition and letter formation
Number chart or number line to help with number recognition and number formation
Magnetic letters or kinesthetic letters and numbers
A set of dice
Access to a printer to print assigned sheets
3) Telling (or assigning) isn’t teaching
As educators, we know that telling students to complete tasks or assigning activities is very different from teaching them. Therefore, for every task we assign, we need to think about what is being taught, what is being learned, how the students will know they have been successful, what modelling will take place, how students will practice, and what the product will look like. (Stein Dzaldov, 2019).
Where possible, leverage additional technology capabilities to effectively model the work. Share your screen to walk through how to find the activity before asking students to attempt the work themselves.
4) Think about what elements of a lesson can be incorporated online
Just as teachers plan lessons for face-to-face teaching, designing a lesson for online learning will take some planning. Let’s take the example of using a website with young children (eg. www.raz-kids.com).
Minds on: This site is called Raz-Kids, and you will have the opportunity to choose books that interest you and that you can read.
Learning goals: On this website, we are learning to find books that interest us and that we are able to read independently.
I can choose an interesting book.
I can practice reading it.
I can tell someone what it was about.
Modelling: The teacher shares the website. The child watches or follows instructions as the teacher clicks on the link, navigates the website, thinks aloud about choosing a book, and practices reading it online. Then the teacher reflects on the reading (eg. “I chose a book that interested me, I could read it, and I know it was about different kinds of dogs.”).
Practice Time: The students are encouraged to do the activity alone or with a caregiver one time, and then to put together successes and questions they may still have.
Closure: What product do you expect from the child’s time on this website? Is it the amount of time spent? The number of tasks the child completed? Make sure the child and caregiver know what the expectations are and how accomplishments will be celebrated!
5) Share a simple lesson plan with parents or caregivers and incorporate prompts and question stems for parents and caregivers in your lesson outline
Use a different colour for prompts so that parents/caregivers will know what to access and how to support their child. To make things as simple and easy as possible, hyperlink or attach all required resources directly into the lesson plan.
Sample of Lesson Plan
6) Assessment as learning is the most important assessment there will be right now
Although “assessment as learning” has often been viewed by educators of young children as a “nice to have” type of assessment, it is probably the most important type of assessment right now. If students know what they are learning and what they need to know and be able to do to be successful, they can start to track their own learning.
Students need to be able to answer these questions when checking in on learning:
What am I learning about?
How will I know if I’ve been successful?
How did I do?
Lesson plans start with a learning goal, and a few succinct and specific success criteria that students can check off to self-assess their learning. To ensure that “Assessment as Learning” is achievable, it is crucial that the learning goals and success criteria are worded using level-appropriate language.
Sample of Lesson Plan with Success Criteria and Learning Goals
7) Check-ins are about mental health and LEARNING!
Many educators are being encouraged by their Boards to “check-in” with their students. This is very important! Check-ins must start with care, kindness, and authentic concern about well being.
As well, as educators, we want to check in on learning. Ask the child (or caregiver) to bring a product or artifact to the “meeting.”
Then, have a learning conversation as you praise the child authentically for their work:
Tell me about this.
What did you learn?
Were you successful with this task? How do you know?
You have done fantastic work on “X”!
In this new teaching and learning environment, we will have challenges ahead, and we will continue adapting to make online schooling the best it can be for young students!