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November 26, 2019

Active Learning with Student-Teachers at McGill

Last night, I worked with close to 60 student-teachers in McGill’s MATL program. I was invited in by their instructors, Caroline Mueller and Heather McPherson. They asked me to plan a lesson that would allow the student-teachers to experience learning with technology (as opposed to learning how to use technology) in the context of their course, Cross-curricular Teaching Methods. We worked together in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms, which provided an environment that allowed for flexible ways of working together.

Since the course is about the CCC, what I taught wasn’t as important as how I went about it. Caroline suggested I recycle a lesson I did with her students at Place Cartier last year and then again last week so that is what I did…and it worked for close to three times the intended audience.

My How

I organized the entire lesson via a website. I can’t emphasize enough that visual instructions are more effective than oral instructions. How many times have I given extensive instructions to a group of learners and as soon as I say, Go! There is a moment of inaction and then I see and hear this:

One girl whispering into the ear of another girl with a text bubble that reads, "What does she want us to do?"

Organizing everything on a website solves the issue of having to re-explain the instructions any number of times after having already said them. It saves time and it allows the learners to help each other without having to rely on their memories for important instructions . This can be helpful for students who aren’t sure as well as for students who may arrive late. The website deals with the logistics of a lesson, saving my time for interacting with learners around their learning. I prefer this to paper-based instructions because, frankly, I am fed up of cleaning those papers off of the floor after a lesson. Also, if I decide to change the instructions at any point, the website always has the latest version. 

When students interact with a website, they are also practicing literacy skills. Finding the information, reading the instructions, being able to move easily between the different pages of a site in order to accomplish their tasks – all of this helps them in their ongoing literacy development.

I used Google Sites to organize my materials. Google tools are great BUT they have horrible URLs or web addresses! I use QR Codes and Short Links to make sure that my students have access (without frustration!) to the materials I create for them. If you teach second language learners, little kids (or actually – just about any clientele!) you have probably experienced the torture of everyone trying to type in a web address at the same time and the inevitable, “It doesn’t work“s that are yelled out when letters are omitted during typing. You can do a search for QR Code generators or Short link generators to find one that you like. It means the difference between asking your students to type in a link that looks like this:  https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1C8EAbZtMvOHxDOrt4OnxJVU-MWYP-_okZGP-Ut7wQk4/edit?usp=sharing

or one that looks like this: http://bit.ly/selfiespresentation  Even easier? Point your phone or tablet at this QR Code and it can bring you to the same place without having to type anything at all – saving a student’s time and energy for interacting with the material, not accessing it. 

The way that I organize my materials and ensure that students have access to them has a lot to do with how they will interact with the course content. With this lesson, I divided the students up into groups and they went through each section of the lesson using a Station Rotation model.

Working in stations allows for so many things to happen. Most importantly, it helps to increase relationship around learning – between student and teacher and between students themselves. 

Last night, I had close to 60 student-teachers working in three stations. The groups were not small so I organized the activities within each station to be done in even smaller groups. Caroline and I each had a teacher station so that the groups could be divided down even further when it came to interacting with the teacher. Because of this, I was able to speak with each of the students in a way that would never had been possible had I presented to them all as a large group. In the classroom, this station becomes a rich site of formative assessment.

For the other stations, students were asked to be active participants in their learning. They were making sense of the information together. They were able to choose between different activities that spoke to them. I organized their interaction so as to amplify their thoughts and input as much as possible. There was time for reading, for recording, for designing, for writing, for viewing, for talking, for reflecting, and for helping each other.  

Here is the website I created to guide the students through all of these experiences:

At the end of the lesson, I usually present something similar to the info in this blog post alongside descriptions of what competencies we were working on at the different stations. This time, I added an interactive slide to the presentation I was using and asked the students to indicate which CCC they felt were being targeted over the course of the evening by moving little dots around the slide. The final result looked like this… For the course instructors, the mixed results may indicate that CCC are still not fully understood in the same way by all of their student-teachers.

Some of the dots you see above were actually much larger at one point. I think the student-teachers who decided to blow up the dots minimized them a bit since last night…

My favourite part about this activity had to do with the conversation it opened up about how this will likely be how many of their students will act the first time they do a new activity with them. And that usually students try to find fun in learning – especially when they are trying new things that they aren’t sure about. And that is ok, it is their job as students to do that! And it is our job as their teachers to talk with them and to keep trying new things so that they become used to doing things differently. 

Connection to the Digital Competency Framework

I did not explicitly talk about the framework with the student teachers. I felt that I was already asking them to do a lot last night! But what I did do was model how to target and develop the CCC using technology and digital resources. Much of the new Digital Competency Framework does address the CCC from the context of learning, teaching, and doing with technology. 

When working through the framework with some TLTs a few weeks ago, a number of the teachers were concerned about how too much of an emphasis on a specific technology framework might continue to keep technology as something separate from everything else we do.

I think that modeling the features described in the framework while addressing elements of the programs we teach could be a first step towards truly integrating what we do with technology and digital resources into everything else we do with our students and colleagues. Explicitly. Actively.

September 4, 2019

Innovation without Innovation

That title totally doesn’t make sense. But at the same time, it does. We are at the beginning of a new school year and with that comes new initiatives and new focuses. Schools have Welcome Back! PD days where we are told we have to design and deliver explicit direct instruction through high impact practices or use blended learning to revisit mastery-focused literacy solutions within professional learning communities or use design thinking to collaborate on innovative solutions for competency development in our 21st century at-risk learners!

Differentiate, design, 21st Century, Innovate: What does it all mean?

Ok. Full disclosure – those sentences were created with this Educational Jargon Generator. They make us laugh (maybe) and that is because they are so close to the truth of what we hear maybe a little too often in education. (And those didn’t include any acronyms! How’s about we PLC about RTI with CCBE and DBE teachers in FGA and FP? We can submit a PDIG application for that.)

We so often throw around these words and phrases without really thinking about or clarifying what it is we actually mean. I think we use jargon because it is much quicker to throw out a catch-phrase than to spend time talking about what we really mean by it. And when we are quick to identify THE solution, THE key to all of our problems then we assume that it won’t take long to fix whatever it is we think our problem is.

And we can say we ticked the box next to this year’s must-have professional development about innovation or technology or whatever.

But, then, what happens when our problem isn’t fixed? We give up, go onto the next theory or catch-phrase, and start all over again.

Oh, Flexible Spaces, we tried that last Fall. It didn’t work.

The thing is, the downside of using buzzwords or jargon too often is that they lose meaning. You just may end up with a group of people who all say they are “differentiating” or “innovating” or “designing flexible spaces with UDL” or “using design thinking” or “leveraging technology” or “insert buzzword here” without actually checking in with each other that we all carry a shared understanding of what each of those words or phrases mean. Even worse, the word can end up ruining the practice:

“[Buzzwords] are a dangerous mechanism to lose sight of things that bring value to organizations and affect the bottom line. Buzzwords make us tired of hearing about it. They make us crave the day before we heard about it. They solidify patterns that hold firm on the status quo. Sometimes that buzzword may be something you actually need to do, and dismissing it puts your business [or practice] at significant risk.


Beyond Buzzword: Innovation and Design Thinking by Erika Bailey

Each of those buzzwords originated in a practice built on respect for student learning and the teachers who work with students every day. Any of those things, when given time and space and clarification (and…more time and space and clarification!) CAN be a solution. They CAN be a key. But none of them are THE key or solution.

I think if anything comes close to THE key or solution, it would be the time and space to talk about and act on what matters to us as educators – and to include students in those conversations. This quote is almost cliché, it has been used so often, and it is so true:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead – disputed citation

So my focus this school year will be on innovation without “innovation”. 

In other words, I don’t want to innovate without having conversations with my colleagues and with students about why and what and how. This process takes longer because, well, change and planning for great things takes time.

I feel this way because I love my job. I care about learning. I care so much about the people I work with and the students we all work for. 

And really, I don’t want to tick an innovation box, even if we leverage technology to do so 😉 

June 28, 2019

#ThisIsAdultEducation

I spent Wednesday morning watching some students present their final websites to their classmates in Caroline Mueller’s Social Media and ME course at Place Cartier Adult Education Centre.

I am so glad I did. 

Behind all of the work we do developing resources,
integrating technology, making websites, writing grant proposals, going to conferences, presenting workshops, collaborating with different groups, getting better as teachers and consultants…. there are the students.

The websites ranged from a presentation of a variety of favourite things to very specific purposes. One student created a site as a way to start her own photography business, another created one to support her brother’s business in St Lucia. In each site, I could sense the personal relationship to its creator. 

Some of the students talked about overcoming their personal struggles throughout the course and through their sites. I heard stories of dealing with depression, of managing as a young single parent, of working night shifts before coming to school, and even one person who had just lost a close friend. One student had never typed before, let alone use Google apps to make a website! His first job was in a gold mine in his home country to make money to come to Canada.

And this was all over the span of two hours. 

One student said, “There were times where I was frustrated and wanted to break things. It was difficult but worth it. Especially with a 2 and 3 year old at home!”

So, when I am tired and frustrated about the work I do I am going to remember these brave people who are working so hard to become their better selves. They give me hope for the future – they should give us all hope for the future.

You can visit their sites and find out more about Caroline’s course at her course website:

Posted in: Students
June 25, 2019

Getting Better Together

Digital Action Plan. New courses. New partners. New projects. New people.

It has been a busy year and if there is one word to describe the past 180 days, it has to be collaboration.

Four smiling people sitting cross legged on a field with text: What is collaboration?

Collaboration in education usually invokes images of smiles and people getting along while working on projects. When we say collaboration, maybe this is the picture we have in our head. And when we don’t want to collaborate with people, maybe it is because we think that it will be really difficult to attain that image with the particular people involved – if not impossible.

I think collaboration needs to be so much more than getting together (smiling and getting along) to achieve a pre-set something – whether it be a learning resource, an evaluation situation, a video, a set of ideas, a workshop, or an article.

Years ago, I read an article that I keep coming back to, Conflict amid Community: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration by Betty Achinstein. Her research demonstrated that, too often, what was missing from collaboration and community was conflict. (Not the yelling at each other and fighting kind of conflict, the opposing viewpoints kind of conflict.)

Now, we might think that to be a good thing. But, really, it is not. Conflicting opinions exist in community. When we ignore that, when we think there is only one way to do things, then we get into dangerous territory of privilege and oppression. When we focus on only one way of doing things, then we lose out on a diversity of ways of doing and being that, when put together,  become something new, something great. 

And that is what Betty Achinstein found. That when teachers collaborated on various projects, they very often met with conflict. The knee-jerk reaction to conflict is to make it go away – to smooth things over, to concede to something that we may not agree with, or to choose to exclude diverse viewpoints from the conversation. But, when conflict was allowed to happen, when teachers listened to each others different points of view and worked together anyways, they were able to achieve great things. Together. And the community got stronger. And individually, people felt better because they were heard and together they were contributing to the betterment of their community.

This year, I worked on many projects with many different people. Our Adult Education RECIT team in the English community doubled in size, beyond that, the RECIT network more than tripled in size. There was a demand for more resources to support the English network and so I have been starting to work with more people across it – from the youth sector into the adult sectors – and we each have our ways of doing and being that become part of our collaboration process.

And so of course – conflict occurs. When it is talked about and worked through and accepted as a part of the process, I believe that what we are working towards is better. Universal Design in education is steeped in empathy – the designing of learning environments and products with the greatest possible potential users in mind. How can we do that without listening to, considering, and integrating opposing viewpoints? 

Each year around this time, as I start to think about the year to come, I ask myself – how are we getting better? When my ideas were challenged this year during collaboration, the end results were always better because they included multiple points of view. It wasn’t always easy for me and sometimes it took longer than I wanted, but it was always better. So my wish for next year, is that we continue to challenge each other so that we can continue to get better. Together.

June 19, 2019

From differentiation to accessibility through Universal Design.

I have been thinking and talking a lot about accessibility this year. As teachers, we want our students to be successful in our classrooms, in our schools and centres, in whatever their goals are. But how do we do this? Concretely, what do we do to ensure that this happens?

For many, the quick answer is through differentiation – when we tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of our students.

With differentiation, we get to know our students needs and/or learning styles so we can create lessons, activities, or environments that cater specifically to those needs.

Focusing solely on differentiation can be problematic on a variety of levels:

  • Differentiation is reactive – it begins after meeting our students
    • …(What happens when we have continuous intake of students like we do in many adult education centres?)…
  • Differentiation entails a lot of work that happens while we are with our students in order to modify lessons and instruction to accommodate a variety of individual needs as they are presented to us.
  • Designing lessons based on individual learning styles is not backed by evidence of improved learning – in other words, if we focus on individual learning styles it is a lot of work that is not proven to be worthwhile.

Where does accessibility come in? Well, it doesn’t. At least, not right away. In fact, I’d even argue that with differentiation, we are looking more at accommodation than at accessibility.

When we train our focus on accessibility, we can use frameworks like Universal Design to anticipate possible obstacles to learning in our lessons and environments and then design them away before the students can encounter them.

I think that both universal design and differentiation have similar motivations:

  • Empathy for the learner experience
  • A focus on choice and flexibility
  • An understanding and acceptance of multiple access points to learning

Their differences lie within their approaches.

With differentiation, we respond directly to individual needs. But we have to wait until these needs are presented to us in order to respond so it is a reactive approach.

With universal design, we anticipate obstacles and get rid of them so that the largest number of people can access the learning. It is not directly focused on the individual but on the collective, yet in a way that honours the individual.

I found differentiation exhausting as a teacher. Mainly because so much of the work had to happen once I met my students. When I started to move my focus towards creating learning environments and situations with multiple access points from the get-go, before I even met my students, I found that I was actually better at meeting individual needs than when I was working so hard trying to differentiate based on them! It was still a lot of work but much of the work could happen before I was ‘live’ with the students, which made things much easier.

As I wrote at the top, I have been thinking and talking a lot about these ideas lately. How we widen access to learning – especially in a context like adult education where we may only be with our students for a short while – is becoming increasingly important for me and the people I work with. I see accessibility being directly tied to empathy and, ultimately, respect for our students and their learning experiences.

Here are two videos I made recently based on some workshops I gave this year, some on my own and one with my colleague Sandra Laine of the RECIT service national, domaine des langues.

Part 1 answers the question Why Universal Design for Learning?:

Part 2 answers the question What is Universal Design for Learning? And it addresses some differences between UDL and Differentiation.

These videos were originally created for an article I wrote with Emilie Bowles, RECIT regional service to general adult education, for a special edition of the Carrefour FGA newsletter on Universal Design for Learning (pp. 11-13)

For more discussion about UDL and Differentiation:

UDL and Differentiation and how they are connected

Distinctions between accommodation and accessibility

Similarities and differences between Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction