This week was Digital Citizenship Week at YIS. Across the school, students were exploring what it means to be a citizen in an online world. In 2R we spoke to a degree about online safety, and different students’ online habits, but it was in exploring ideas of finding balance that we really got into it.

At present we’re knee-deep in a Unit of Inquiry looking at how lifestyle choices that people make can affect their health. As part of this, we were learning about leisure, and considering the different ways we choose to spend our free time.

On Monday, Elif came into our class and shared this video…

After watching it a few times we decided that the video was about how we sometimes ignore the people we’re with, when we’re using digital devices. Most students had had experiences of this that they wanted to share.

We used a See, Think, Wonder thinking routine to explore what we saw in the video, what we thought it might be about and what questions we had.

We spoke about how maybe the ideas around balanced nutrition that we’d been exploring could be connected with ideas around balanced leisure time. When the counselor, Ms Kumamoto, came to join us we did some thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of screen-based and non-screen based leisure choices.

We decided that we would track our leisure time for a few days to get an accurate understanding of how balanced our own behaviours were. So, over Tuesday and Wednesday students tracked the details of their leisure activities. We considered whether they were indoor or outdoor, screen or non-screen based, exciting or relaxing, done alone or together with others, and how we felt when we’d done them. We also kept track of how many minutes we spent doing each, which was a great way to learn a bit about elapsed time.

After two days of recording, on Thursday students analysed their leisure habits, looking for patterns. Many students observed big imbalances in terms of how much of their leisure time was spent indoors vs out, or involved in screen-based vs non screen-based pursuits. Armed with this better understanding of our leisure habits, some students reflected on what goals they could set to better balance their leisure time. Other students just realised that with all of their after school commitments they felt they had far too little free time to begin with.

On Friday, we’ll be sharing some of what we learned about balancing our leisure time at an assembly. Seven 2R students decided that they wanted to participate and sat down to plan what they wanted to say and how they would share the responsibilities. Stay tuned for more… Now, go  enjoy some non-screen leisure too!


I’ve always had an issue with the term international school. It’s probably due largely to the fact that working with lower elementary kids, the majority of my students have barely ever lived in their country. Still others have multiple nations that they’ve been told they come from.

Invariably, our schools have special days or units of study that encourage students to identify themselves according to their national heritage. Flags are waved, food is prepared, festivals are compared and charming traditional clothes are worn. The flashbulbs pop. We are an international school. Students are affirmed in their national heritage. Or at least in a candy-coated, puddle-shallow manifestation of it.

My discomfort with this is probably also connected to my own experience. What are you going to wear on Culture Day Mr Canadian Teacher? What food will you bring? Um… Maple syrup and a hockey shirt? Or maybe bacon and a mountie hat? Canada Dry and sealskin? I’m definitely not building a fire on the playground to make S’mores and Clamato is hard to come by in Japan.

I usually end up wearing something that suggests camping and forests. I know these things aren’t the same kind of quintessential Canadian iconography. But if I think about what sort of things my family engaged in, that were meaningful and formative for me, that suggest what I love about Canada, they’re about the closest I’ve come.

As we’ve gone through the annual process of refining our Culture unit in second grade, we’ve tried continually to re-position it to get more at these sorts of things. Our central idea has evolved to be: People are enriched by their own cultures and the cultures they connect with throughout their lives. We do a whole lot of iceberg-metaphoring of culture, trying to unpack the depth of cultural traits that sit invisibly beneath the surface. We often try to pinpoint discussions of culture by discussing family culture, and letting nationality slide to the side. For a seven year old who’s possibly never lived in Canada, talking about their family culture seems much more authentic that their Canadian roots.

This takes a while for many students to connect with, but with time, exploration and modelling, most do get there. Where we inevitably hit a bit of a wall is later in the unit, when students build up a personal collection of artifacts. These are meant to be a culture collection of items that represent significant elements of their personal and familial culture. This is something that we go to great lengths to model with them and their families. We explicitly outline a wide range of artifacts that might suitably represent something that the student can identify with as being part of their family’s culture, and/or of personal importance to them.

Students share artifacts from their culture collections.

Even still, the artifacts that students bring in to share are often largely of the flags, festivals and food variety.

I began to think about how to deepen the learning around family culture. I thought it would be powerful for children to gather further insights on their cultural connections from their wider family; uncles, aunts, grandparents and friends scattered around the globe. By having students create Voicethreads of their culture collections, they could be accessed globally, irrespective of distances in place and time, and significant friends and family of students could contribute their insights on the cultural connections through audio, video and text with relative ease.

So, I had a go at converting my own collection to a voice thread and showed my class.

They were instantly on board and enthused by the possibility of their wider network being able to look into their digital culture boxes. So they set to work.

Using their existing Culture Collections, students began to photograph, import and upload images to Voicethread (and even video, which was neat, as these were now artifacts that were becoming more complex than those that could have fit in their physical boxes). Then they spent some time considering and recording comments on each artifact, exploring how it represented something which had culturally enriched their lives.

Students upload images to Voicethread and spend some time commenting on their digital artifacts.

At this point our Voicethreads are in various stages of development. We’ve added a new page to our blog to host the finished products, and one student has completed hers, ready to be shared, but we’re waiting until we’re all ready for the official launch.

I’m optimistic about it. I feel like the use of the Voicethread tool could be transformative in creating understanding about the more subtle aspects of culture. I think we’ll get interesting commentary, and likely even more interesting fodder for discussion and reflection.

At one point during a job interview, I made the point that I was uncomfortable with the term International School. The interviewer agreed and replied that he’d been reading articles lately which had suggested the alternative term Intercultural School.

It’s not perfect, because we still tend to knee-jerk associate culture with nationality, but if we can deepen our understanding of cultural experiences as building blocks of identity and threads which connect us with our communities, no matter how far flung they may be, Intercultural may be heading in the right direction.


For more on redefining the term International School, particularly in the context of the International Baccalaureate, read this essay from the IBO site.

The first unit of inquiry grade two embarked on this year was a study of ways in which we are enriched by our own cultures and the cultures we connect with throughout our lives.

As we began asking questions along a line of inquiry exploring similarities and differences between cultures, we struggled with ways to collect and make sense of the answers.

Among the Mathematics learning outcomes for this year, in the Data Handling strand, is the Conceptual Understanding that Data can be collected, organized, displayed and analyzed in different ways. This was a perfect opportunity to bring together Maths learning with our Inquiry studies.

Students began by building on the sort of questions that had been bubbling up already by brainstorming a wide range of curiosities about differences and similarities amongst families and cultures.

I challenged them to find answers to their questions from our class. Each student chose a different question of personal importance or interest and used their previous knowledge of collecting answers to their questions to go about surveying their peers.

Each student had recorded the data in different ways so we took some time to analyze the features of their data collection systems and students explained the thinking behind their strategies. One student recalled having made graphs of data in the past, as a way of clearly presenting the information, so students discussed what they remembered about this, and had a go at making their own from the data they’d collected.

We compared the varied graphing strategies students had used and the conclusions they had been able to draw from their data. We followed this with a discussion of what we thought some of the most successful features of data collection systems had been, that had allowed for us to most clearly, accurately and quickly collect information.

In small groups, students worked together to build new data collection tools, based on our previous discussions and examples, to most effectively get answers to the questions they were posing.


Students collaborate on a data collection tool.

With these complete, groups presented their tools to the class and used the questions and suggestions to refine their tools before trying them out.

Students present their collaboratively-created tools for class questions and suggestions.

Finally, it was time to put our team-created and class-critiqued tools to the test, by surveying the class. How accurate, clear and fast would the tools allow our data collection to be?


Students test their tools by surveying their peers.

Having collected data with their tools, groups used the Two Stars and a Wish reflection strategy to identify two elements that had worked exceptionally well about their designs, and one feature they could improve upon.

We shared these with the rest of the class and developed a collaborative list of features we all considered key to making a data collection tool as Fast, Accurate and Clear as possible.

Students used this list to support their posing of a final, independent question. They each created their personal, ultimate data collection tool and surveyed the class.

Students apply new understandings in creating their own super-data-collection tools.

Finally, we came back to the discussion of graphing and presenting our data. I introduced the simple graphing features of the Pages application to the class and we looked at how our understanding changed depending on the wide variety of ways we could display the data. Some students considered pie graphs to be most appropriate for communicating their answers, others preferred bar graphs. Each student explained the thinking behind their choices for a way to present their data.

We reflected on our learning through this process as being a design cycle. We looked at our original data collection tools and graphs, how they’d been improved through discussion and group work, then further improved by presentation and critique, tested by trying them in action, better understood through reflection and sharing our learning and finally improved in our individual final tools and graphs.

In reflection, one student mentioned proudly how much better his final survey and graphing worked, compared to his first attempt. Yes, agreed another, but we could still make them better next time…


The orange posters above are from the classroom display I created to document this inquiry process. All photos are my own.

Tagged with:

In the past few posts where I’ve explored my sense of what should be part of each school day I’ve looked at the value of hands-on, hearts-on learning, and of being outdoors, physical and creative. This time I want to look a little bit more at the content of the learning, or rather a lens through which to look at much of the content of learning.

It always seems such a shame, when I chat with so many other teachers, to hear how little they valued their teacher’s education program. I can say without a shred of doubt that the program I attended was very different from the norm. For one, I think I went to the university campus once to buy some textbooks. But just once. Other than that, my classes were held in the community centre of Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood.

The uniform brick buildings of Regent Park, lying under the highrises of Toronto’s business district.

If you ask any Torontonian about Regent Park you’ll likely hear about it’s bad reputation. It’s poor. It’s home to a disproportionate amount of violence, drugs and gangs. It’s home to a thick mix of recently arrived Canadians from all corners of the world, trying to find their feet in new surroundings and families who’ve been in Canada for a long time, often in circumstances of cyclical poverty. It’s also home to an impressive number of individuals, community leaders, social justice organizations, community environmental groups, education innovators and others trying to build capacity in the neighbourhood and to recognize the notable assets that already exist.

Wandering the Regent Park streets with a group of students, surveying the neighbourhood for its assets to build an asset-map of the community.

The notion of the education program I attended, was that education is also something at its best when it’s aware of and sensitive to the particularities of the community it serves. Community-based education. The basic idea is that to best teach students you need to know about their world.

So, our annual cohort of 40ish aspiring educators studied in the community centre. We did our practicum teaching in neighbourhood schools. We volunteered for local organizations. We spent so much time in the community, at all hours of day and every day of the week, that we began to understand our students in a more holistic way. We saw them after school. We saw them with their families. We saw them buying a week’s groceries and carting it all home on their bikes, and we chatted with them when we noticed them hanging out around the centre, well after dark.

A grade five student participates in my after school digital photography club, run in partnership with a local youth media centre.

When we were planning lessons for our practicum teaching there was a box in our planner that doesn’t exist on most. It was titled something like the “Social Justice element”. For some, it was doubtless the most difficult box to complete. What it demanded was that the teacher consider, when planning a unit of work, what possibilities there were in the learning for insights, actions and empowerment along lines of equity, environment and the social challenges of the community. Our professors modeled this extensively and across the curriculum. We explored using particular kinds of data sets in math, considered reading materials for literacy, varied perspectives for social studies and more.

An asset-map of their community, created with first and second grade students.

Certainly, the focuses we chose were those relevant to that community, and transferring this lens to a wealthy international school setting requires a similarly holistic understanding of the very different communities and circumstances of our students here. But I would offer that a focus on the social justice element is no less relevant.

A push towards integrated service learning is a clear starting point. And there can be no more effective way to promote environmental consciousness than by making time for exploration and relationship-building with the natural environment. The PYP proposes Action as a key element and though this can take a wide range of forms, ethically-driven social justice actions are surely a major category. Through the books we keep on our shelves, to the ways we celebrate (or don’t celebrate) holidays and festivals and certainly to the extent that we encourage self-awareness of privilege and societal influence we can make a wide variety of tweaks to our effort to encourage these practices.

If we hope for our students to view the world through a lens which identifies injustices and seeks for greater equity, it is incumbent on us to position the content of our lessons in the same way.

The makeover of Regent Park begins.

Note: The Regent Park that I describe above is no longer quite the same. A major urban redevelopment program has been ushered in over the past 5 or so years and while the supported housing numbers were meant to remain constant, the urban density was doubled to include an equal number of market-price homes. This is intended to add more class-diversity to the neighbourhood. For more on this project, click here.

All photos in this post are my own.

By the end of this past summer I felt about as fit and in shape as I ever have. After having spent most days on the road, cycling over 1500 km and making nearly twenty short films, through the course of my Green Riders project, I was in a totally different physical state from when I left home in June. And not only physical of course. I was also in a very different mental state.

In many ways I felt calmer, clearer and more purposeful in my thinking than I have for years. Not only that, I’d lost some weight, my skin was clear and I was feeling more socially confident and engaged. So… What made the difference?

I think there were three big ingredients:

Physical exercise, being outdoors and daily acts of creativity.           Sweat, sun and imagination.

Get Moving!

In my day to day I rarely make enough time for physical exercise. In fact, when my class were diarizing our exercise last year, and adding up the minutes, I had to include my ten minutes walking to and from the nearby train station, because without them it was really quite pathetic. There is no doubt that this need is the same for my students.

Second graders stretching out in a weekly yoga session.

Despite having heard for years about the numerous benefits of regular in-class exercise, even in minute-long little bursts, I’ve rarely prioritized it in my timetable. I’ve supported a wide range of exercises in class, from yoga sessions to Brain Gym, from stretching to running laps of the playground, but none of it with enough regularity to demonstrate its priority. I’ve often had understandings with certain students that when they need to get up and take a walk, that’s exactly what they should do. When they need to hit the playground running, they should listen to their bodies. But the balancing of class time has never reflected exercise as being as important as I truly believe it to be.

A new feature in my second grade classroom. Click to download!

This year I found a fun Brain Break poster on my friend Sonya terBorg’s blog, and students have gotten into rolling the dice every day or two to structure our need to move around. It’s not bad, but I still feel I need to open up and encourage its regular use. If a summer of activity is so incredibly beneficial to me, and a few moments of it are so valuable to my students, I owe it to them to prioritize it as a regular part of our school life.


Get Out!

I’ve always been an advocate of being outdoors. I know I’m happiest with the sky above me and can only imagine that it’s an experience of equal value to my class.

An unlikely danger of joining the YIS Camping Club.

I’ve consistently involved myself in outdoor education pursuits, like our YIS Camping Club, but these are the big outdoor events. Despite preaching the value of any-excuse-to-get-outdoors in the curriculum, even for a few minutes, my class really do stay in our room much more than I think is best. There are so many things that work just as well or better in the sunshine as they do between our walls.

Perhaps I need to start looking at my daily schedule more through that lens… What would work just as well or better even a few steps away from the classroom?

A second grader relaxes on an inquiry outing in the park.

On another level, beyond the benefits of some vitamin D, we know that to connect to our environment we need to explore it. So as an educator with a clear personal environmental drive, the responsibility is mine to create opportunities for it to happen.


Use your imagination…

This past summer, at the end of nearly every epic day of cycling, I would knuckle down and work at editing the seemingly endless footage we were producing. At first, the obstacle of working with new tools, mostly Adobe Premiere Pro, meant the creativity was served in equal doses with tech problem-solving. But as the summer wore on, and I became more fluent with the tools, it was amazing to transition from the physical exertion of cycling all day, to the creative exploration of the evening. It stimulated a whole other part of me and gave me a tremendous sense of following a guiding thread, as well as the excitement of regular creative expression.

Creativity in construction.

At YIS we send our students out of the class for Visual Art, Drama and Music. This sometimes makes it feel like the homeroom time is for work and the out of class time for art. I know this is a narrow definition and there are unlimited creative opportunities in all aspects of curriculum, but I think, like in the subjects above, it’s something that I need to adopt as a clear part of my scheduling lens. If students don’t have ample time for creative exploration and expression each day, I worry that their creativity isn’t only being restricted… I imagine that over time it’s likely being stifled as well.

An “imagination number system”. Creativity constructs meaning in Math.

So… Following up on my earlier post Making Time for Doing It, I now have several more elements to add to the must do list of a quality school day…

The Essential Ingredients of a Quality Day of Learning:

  • Ample time for hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on and senses-on doing
  • Structures and flexibility for regular physical exercise
  • Opportunities to take the learning out of the classroom
  • Meaningful time for creative expression and open imagination

Look for this list to keep growing in a future post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear, what would you add?

None :P None :P