Tag Archives: student voice

A local innovation project: St. Jerome’s SPLICE week

As much as I was impressed by the innovation I saw at ISTE 2015 in Philadelphia, there is a local project that I’d like to highlight in my District that is just as powerful as some of initiatives I saw showcased there.

Ingredients for Success

  • 1 highly motivated Intermediate teacher-team willing to try something completely different
  • 1 administrator supporting the initiative and removing barriers that might impede success
  • 1 collaborative peer group exploring ePortfolio and the All About Me Portfolio
  • 2 dashes of inspiration (Bishop Strachan‘s similar initiative & George Couros’ presentation @YCDSB talking about Innovation week at Parkland School Division in Alberta)
  • 1 bunch of  grade 7/8 students using their creativity and passion as inspiration

Bake for 1 full week.  Result is an amazing learning opportunity for students!

Marisa Benakis and Brad Blucher, two intermediate teachers at St. Jerome Catholic Elementary School decided to drop everything in order to create a unique learning experience for their intermediate students.  In order to do this, they needed and got support from their Intermediate team and administrator, Michele Reume who gave them the go-ahead to eliminate all other subject periods.  This meant that the whole school day for one full week would be entirely devoted to this self-directed learning opportunity.  I’m not sure what SPLICE stands for exactly, but the learning initiative was awesome!

Goals of SPLICE (as articulated in the student handout)

  • To learn more about a topic that interests you
  • To push your creativity and innovative thinking skills
  • To reflect upon yourself as a learner and the learning process
  • To communicate your learning and experiences to others

Students could research or create absoultely anything of their choice and could work independently or up to groups of three.  Most importantly, they had to capture the process in a reflection and share the learning with their peers.

These are just a few of the presentations I was privileged to see:

  • A student created an All About Me scrapbook and showcased the process in film
  • A group of students built a marshmallow launcher (after unsuccessfully trying to create a potato launcher)
  • A student painted a canvas and created an accompanying short story

Many more projects can be seen in this storify.


One of the questions that is a burning one for educators is, how can you possibly assess or evaluate a project like this?  Well, Benakis and Blucher addressed this in two ways.  Firstly, students were evaluated on the quality of their oral presentation.  And though you might be wondering, what if a student isn’t strong orally,  I can assure you that when a student is presenting a project that is meaningful and personal to them, this is a non-issue.

There is also an explicit focus on Assessment AS Learning through these guided questions:

  • What did you learn about yourself as a creator?
  • What was difficult? What was interesting?
  • What would you do differently?

When we chatted later, we agreed that if we really wanted to go into the Curriculum to evaluate the project, we would likely find lots of curriculum connections.

Connections to the Individual Program Pathways, All About Me Portfolio

Both Benakis and Blucher are involved in a District  pilot exploring ways in which to implement the Creating Pathways to Success Policy Document; more specifically helping students address these four areas:  Who Am I? What do I want to Become? What are my Opportunities? What is my plan for achieving my goals?

Ed Career Poster smaller

Many other teachers in that collaborative pilot, led by Michelle Bulger, Ines DiTullio, and Patricia Zaroski are providing students with unique opportunities to explore these questions.

Interested in hosting your own Innovation or SPLICE week?

Contact @marisabenny or @blucherclass  They are so passionate about the project and its success, they would be willing to assist anyone who is interested in trying it!

Jesse McLean, @jmclean77 , of the Parkland Public School District in Alberta, generously shares his resources here.  He too is excited for schools to realize the benefits of an Innovation week project.




Big Idea at ISTE2015: Student Agency

I was fortunate to be able to attend the ISTE conference in Philadelphia.  There were over 15,000 educators there, so you can imagine the passion, excitement, and learning that happened!  I will share the tools I learned about over the course of the summer, but in this post, I want to reflect on the presentations that had the most significant impact on me.  Perhaps it is because I have been focusing on digital leadership and student voice in my own work,  but the big idea which seemed to be an over-arching theme  at ISTE for me, was the notion of student agency which I heard a few times at ISTE and which is articulated nicely in this post.  The idea being that when students are given autonomy and power over their own learning, they are in control of their own development and therefore more invested in the process of learning. This is not a new idea in Education–it’s been a buzzword for a long time now, but it’s one thing to talk about it, and another to see examples of this in action.  Below are the presentations and the examples which made this idea come to life for me.

Jennifer Scheffer, Panelist for ISTE 1:1 PLN — Challenges and Solutions for Large-Scale PD

Jennifer Scheffer (@jlscheffer), a Technology Integration Specialist/Mobile Learning Coach for Burlington Public Schools, located in Burlington, Massachusetts spoke about a unique course she created in which students run a Help Desk to assist other students and teachers.   This was perhaps one of the most significant examples of the power of student agency.  Students are not only assisting other students with tech applications at their own school, but they are interviewing industry people, and using social media to create a powerful digital footprints.  They are true Digital Leaders!  Check out the link to the Burlington Publish School Help Desk Site for a glimpse into what this looks like.

Here’s Jenn’s ISTE Ignite where she encapsulates the BHS Help Desk program in 5 minutes/20 slides:

What is the impact of this program? This powerful video reflection by one of her students says it all.

I’ve reached out to Jennifer, who has been amazingly helpful, and hope to explore what this could look like in our District.  Surely, there is potential for the Help Desk idea to happen anywhere?

Shannon Miller, ISTE Librarians Network Annual Breakfast Keynote.

A Teacher-Librarian extraordinaire, and Tech Integration Specialist, Shannon Miller (@shannonmmiller) has made connecting students a priority at Van Meter in Iowa.  She engages students in opportunities to connect with experts and other students around the world and advocates that it is important for students to have access to other people in the world.  One of the most powerful testimonials came from a young 6th grade student whose school experience was transformed when she connected with an author on Skype.  Meridan has gone on to create her own blog, Meridan’s Little Voice,  in which she showcases tech tools and inspires other students.  Check it out here.

In her keynote, Miller focuses on the many ways in which connecting students and giving them a voice is not only rewarding, but should be a priority for educators.

(Fast forward to 10:15) The quality isn’t the best, but it the message is worth the effort.

Miller’s blog can be found here. 


Chris Lehmann and Diana Laufenberg:  Transforming Schools into Modern Learning Environments

Chris (@chrislehmann) Diana (@dlaufenberg) of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia spoke to the Inquiry process and how it has transformed learning for students at SLA.

I was completely inspired by the way in which inquiry-based learning has created a place for students to take control of their own learning.  One example Lehmann & Laufenberg showcased centered around the inquiry question, “How are local communities shaped by history?” Students were to create a hypertextual narrative telling the story of a building within their zip code.  They selected a building with a name on it and had to research the origin of that name.  The results?  Incredible and meaningful.  Check out their CAPStone Project in which students explore the questions,  “How do we learn?” “What can we create?” and “What does it mean to lead” through a self-selected and designed independent project.

I am excited about exploring the potential of Inquiry-based learning in secondary schools in our District and Diana has offered to lend a hand!

George Couros  The Innovator’s Mindset

George (@gcouros), whose presentations are always so dynamic and engaging (in fact people were pressed up against the back doors to hear his talk), speaks to the Innovator’s Mindset, which is intricately connected to giving students opportunities to not just “do school” but to become participants in what that school could look like.  He advocates that leaders spend time in schools to listen to students and what they have to say.  To me, Couros’ focus on relationships & the innovative leader are the essential ingredients: only by establishing a context of trust by leaders in Districts and schools can innovation flourish as in the examples above. Each of the presenters had Superintendents & Principals that were champions for them so that innovation could happen.  Couros resources can be found here.

Everyone who attended ISTE brought their own context and experience to the sessions they attended. I’m sure that what I got out of these sessions, may be completely different from the learning of others.   Feel free to peruse the #ISTE2015 hashtag for other perspectives and check out for post-ISTE reflections at Tech & Learning.

Student ED Tech Day at St. Stephen’s

I had the privilege of being invited to the 1st ever Student ED Tech Day at St. Stephen’s last week.  The logistics of the event were organized by a group of teachers (Fab Grossi, Laura Bagnara, Melissa Alonzi, and Jason Pacheco) and three students who were part of the District-wide student ED Tech team.  Denise Dupuis, an administrator at the school not only supported the event, but ensured that any obstacles would be overcome.

Why a Student-led ED Tech Event?

  • To provide the opportunity for students to teach other students about the tech tools they use to learn.

How did it work?

  • An invitation was sent out to all students from grades 3-8 to submit a proposal for what they would teach.
  • From these, a variety of tools & projects were selected and a schedule was created.
  • Each class in the school was invited to come into the Library for approximately 20 minutes to go through the stations based on interest.
  • In each case, the students didn’t just show their peers, but got them to co-create something. Here is a sample Animoto created by a grade 4 in just a few minutes.

What was awesome…

The excitement:  it was palpable.

Administrative support:  The Vice Principal was not only a supporter but a champion of the event.  When it was clear that with over 50 presenters and over 100 kids to place, Denise extended the event to two days.

The risk free environment: Teachers accompanying their classes felt safe to peruse and learn as well and the students were really excited to share their learning with them.

The pride and ownership of the student organizers: Bianca, one of the student leads said she had gone around to each class to elicit participation and then organized which devices were needed and who was bringing their own devices.  You could tell that she was invested in the success of the event.  Kudos to Bianca, Luca, Nicholas, and Vincenzo, YCDSB Student ED Tech leaders!

The Discovery Centre:  Here students could play with Augmented Reality (just for fun)  or practice a tool they had just learned.

The potential:  there is a plan to utilize this same model for a Parent ED Tech Day in the Fall and the school is excited about having this as a yearly event.  There was definitely a realization that students are much more capable than we often give them credit.

Check out the day in images in this Storify:







Literacy Redefined

Literacy is not just reading and writing

“Literacy continues to evolve as the world changes and its demands shift and become more complex.  Literacy is not only used for reading and writing, but also to increase one’s understanding of the world.”

–Adolescent Literacy Guide, Ministry of Education (Ontario), 2012

I am in the process of writing a report itemizing the ways in which I have provided literacy support to administrators, teachers , and students in my District over the course of this school year and I’m thinking about how much my role has changed in the last four and a half years.

When I came into a Literacy support position (first Program Resource Teacher and now Consultant), the most significant part of my job was to help teachers and administrators prepare students for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT).  I poured over statistics and data  and I shared it.  I created practice tests and resources.   I was also involved in co-planning, co-teaching and debriefing with teachers specifically around reading (to support our District-wide goal for continuous improvement).  I still do this, BUT…

Two years ago, I became one of the lead learners in a District-wide initiative to integrate technology. I know that a few people might look at what I do and see this as two separate job-descriptions.  I have actually been asked, “Are you working on Literacy today or 21C?” And certainly, in those early days, I too thought that the work to support teachers to use technology in their classrooms operated separately from the literacy support I provided.  Today, I see it as the same work: multi-dimensional, multi-modal, and very necessary.  Thankfully, I work with people who support this modern approach.

Consider the NCTE definition of Literacy as seen in this wordle:


Read full Definition of 21st Century Literacies, National Council of Teachers of English, 2013 here.

This is the kind of Literacy Consultant I’ve become.  When I’m co-planning with teachers and the focus is on students using metacognition when reading, for example, I have found it to be very powerful to capture their voices using Google Forms, or Todays Meet.  It also makes sense to offer students the choice to do a close reading of text on paper or by using Explain Everything or Read and Write for Google.  I am mindful of the fact that  helping students to communicate effectively in today’s world also means showing them that they can read text using devices (that we provide or that we allow them to use) using the accessibility features on the iPad or a Chrome browser.  Students do not seem to see this accommodation as a stigma as they have in the past.  I’ve had great success having students share their metacognitive reflections and the strategies they find most effective by offering the choice of using paper and pen (or electronic doc), as well as tools like Garageband, iMovie, or other digital storytelling tools to demonstrate their learning.  When combined with the high-yield, face to face collaborative strategies that we know work with students, the literacy learning becomes even more powerful.

And how do we define text?  This video, “Effective Instruction in Reading Comprehension”, from Learn, Teach, Lead shared by Donna Fry speaks to many of the questions I’ve been asking myself.

Effective Instruction in Reading Comprehension – VIDEO – LearnTeachLead.ca
Are we defining “text” too narrowly?  How can we support students to be critically literate when they read, write, create, view, represent, etc…, if our notion of text consists only printed text or the canon?  

      • How does your District or school define literacy?
    • What are the implications of looking at digital literacy as separate from Literacy? Numeracy? Assessment? vs the benefit of integrating it (both at the District level and at the Ministry level)?
  •  What courageous conversations need to be had to open up the definition in order to truly support our students to make sense of the world around them?

     At the time of writing, George Couros’s #EDUin30w7 question asked:

There are lots of great submissions to the #EDUin30w7 hashtag that are worth taking a look at!  Would love to hear about your thoughts.

Yik Yak: What you should know, what you can do if you need to, and why it’s complicated.

A few days ago, a friend talked to me about YikYak.  I had heard of this before but had never really checked it out.  I knew that it was a platform for potential cyberbullying because The Bully Free Alliance of York Region of which I am a member, has spoken openly about the potential danger of the app which operates on the promise of anonymity.  But, when we looked at the app that afternoon the only thing that stood out was, “Poop is poop spelled backwards.”  I had no idea that one day later, I would lose sleep over some of the posts on the app.

What is Yik Yak?

Yik Yak is a social media app where users can “yak” anonymously. As is the case with other social media, the app in and of itself is not “bad”.  One student I talked to about it said she liked to see what students at different universities were saying on campus. Yik Yak does, in fact, have pretty explicit rules about its use, but the lure of anonymity makes it fertile ground for mean-spirited individuals to engage in offensive behaviour.

The premise is that you sign up for this service, enable location services, and then you can get a live feed of what everyone within a 1.5 Km radius is saying around you–completely anonymously.  Few, if any adults are in the space, so you can imagine what might happen.

If you disapprove of a post, you can “downvote,” but if you can “upvote” it as well. The up and down votes cancel each other out.  If there are 5 “down votes” the message will disappear.  The messages with the most “upvotes” rise to the top.

There has been much written about the app in the US. At USC, one editor urges that we get rid of Yik Yak completely.  Diana Graber of the Huffington Post has an interesting post about it, as does the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey, “How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?”

At one of our schools, YikYak got completely out of hand the other day.  And though some students would “downvote” comments so they disappeared within minutes, there were a plethora of offensive comments posted with several “upvotes”.

Students and teachers who were targeted were completely demoralized and upset. Understandably, the teachers and administrators who found out about it wanted IT to shut it down and I in truth, as I worried about the welfare of students targeted, in that moment I did not disagree.

What we learned about Yik Yak and inappropriate use

A more effective mechanism, we learned, is to have YikYak apply a geofence  to suspend the account if there is evidence that there are posts made by minorities or that the app is being used inappropriately.  This is what would appear if the account was suspended:

Yik Yak worked with administration to ensure that a geofence was put up–though this process takes anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days.  These steps  may provide support for administrators or Guidance Counsellors who notice that YikYak is being used offensively:

                                                                                                                                                                              (emphasis added)
Here is the contact information for Yik Yak Support http://www.yikyakapp.com/ in case you need it.

A few other things Yik Yak told us:

-if a post is flagged multiple times, it is sent to our moderation team. If you flag a post, the user who created it will not know that you flagged their post, however, if they are suspended, they will receive a notification about their suspension.

-Yik Yak cannot disclose any user information without the proper documents from law officials.

The federal Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., restricts Yik Yak’s disclosure of user account information without the lawful consent of the account holder or unless authorized by a properly issued warrant, court order, or subpoena. As a result, Yik Yak can only respond to requests for user account information that are received directly from a law enforcement agency pursuant to appropriate legal process. If you are aware of an emergency situation or other criminal activity, you should immediately contact your local law enforcement officials.
Guidelines for law enforcement officials seeking information about Yik Yak user accounts are available on the website at: [ http://www.yikyakapp.com/legal/ ]http://www.yikyakapp.com/legal/. Please have law enforcement contact us following these guidelines.

What the school did…

Administrators let Guidance and Chaplaincy know about the app and the comments made on it as it was clear that some students would need the support. There was an announcement made and a few teachers posted in the app, which in some ways made it worse.

The principal called for an assembly of the President’s Council (the students who represent each of the Councils in the school), where he asked them what they thought should be done to address the situation.  As in any situation like this, often the students posting offensive things are in the minority, and with the situation out of hand, it was clear that these students wanted to ensure that they became part of the solution.

What the students said…

So much more than we could have anticipated as they engaged in some genuine dialogue about what could be done.  Here’s a summary:

  • Many students implored us to shut the app down completely
  • Other students argued that if you shut the app down,  there are other apps that operate in the same way (they referenced Whisper and Ask FM)
  • Others made the comment that if the Board blocked the app, students would just use their own data.
  • One student made us aware of the “flagging” mechanism which can only be seen if you go into the comment itself.
  • Others suggested that they spread the word and go into the app to post silly comments and to counter-act some of the negative ones
  • One young woman suggested that teachers be more vigilant with the no cell-phone in class policy.
  • Many students wanted to into their classes and talk about the issue with them
  • Most of them agreed that the week before, there had been nothing objectionable on the app, and that most likely next week it would be not newsworthy again.

In the end, the student action plan was that while school administration and IT worked on blocking the app, students would..

1.  Flag posts which were inappropriate and identified users
2.  Post on the app in more positive ways, ensuring that anyone who was targeted was supported and/or complimented and encourage their Councils to do so as well.
3.  Speak to their classmates about the situation.

Administration empowered the students to address the problem and the students took on the responsibility willingly and with much empathy, but there will need to be much healing and support for the school community as a result of this incident.


What I did as a parent…

Being so affected by this incident, I got our family (my two teenage daughters) to download the app and we read some of the posts together.  There was nothing really objectionable.  In fact, many of the posts in our geographic area were silly:
“I’m still scared of thunder and I’m 18”
“It’s awesome to have really good conversations with my dog”

I asked them what they would do if do if they saw something mean or inappropriate.  My older daughter said she would downvote it so it would disappear as quickly as possible “so the person wouldn’t feel bad.”  Now she could have just been saying that because we were having this conversation. But we were having the conversation.
And then she said, “This is kind of stupid actually”…and deleted the app.

But yesterday, my daughter re-installed the app and I was horrified.

My inside voice screamed, “How dare you?  Delete that app right now!” My outside voice calmly asked why she would do that when she knew about the horrible things that had happened in the app and that clearly I was so affected by the events that happened.  Her response to me was interesting. She said that in our area the posts are silly and funny.  She said, “Don’t worry mum, if I see something inappropriate, I’ll downvote it or report it.”  She even asked me to look at it with her.

And despite every fibre in my being that was screaming at me to get her to delete it, I didn’t (for now) because the posts in our area really aren’t inappropriate.   Will I be extra diligent about checking up on her in that space? Absolutely.  But, letting her keep the app says I trust her and I want her to keep talking to me about the world into which I have so little insight as an adult.  Besides, now I know exactly what to do if there is something inappropriate or dangerous happening.

A Very Complicated Issue

So often we think of something like this as very black and white, but there are so many layers here to consider.

One of the students with whom we spoke was very forthright in his comments to us about how adults sometimes oversimplify things like this.  While we tend to speak about “good students” and “bad students”posting, he thoughtfully suggested that a very good student who might be needing to vent, might use Yik Yak as a mechanism to do so and that to categorize “good” and “bad” is not entirely accurate or fair.

And if your adult voice is emphatic that having an online place to vent is just stupid and dangerous, you need to read Dana Boyd’s book, It’s Complicated, which might make you rethink the idea of how students today view privacy in their networked lives.

And then there is the issue of blocking apps by IT.  There is no question that this app needed to be blocked immediately in this case to ensure the safety and well being of staff and students being targeted.  And yet there is lingering doubt in my mind that blocking all objectionable apps is a real solution; a sentiment echoed by more than one of the students.  In this case, isn’t knowledge power? Wouldn’t an administrator, like to be able to go onto the app to see what activity is happening that might put students in jeopardy without it being blocked from view because in reality students would still be able to do all of this on their own networks?  Might we need to rethink this stance in order to understand the realm of social media a little better as educators?

Then again, if we don’t block an app like this, is it reasonable to suggest that Administrators can be aware of and check all of the apps out there that might potentially cause this much damage? Who has time for that?  This issue alone took up the full attention of the admin team when we know that there are so many other issues that are important to the well being of students in a school.

Another issue that came up is to enforce the “no cell-phone in class” rule.  Does that really solve the problem? Everything I do in my job encourages the use of technology in class as it can provide so many opportunities for creativity and accessibility.  I’m not sure I could even teach a class without students using their cellphones for something (very few of our classrooms are in computer labs). This knee-jerk reaction does not seem to me the right course of action as it doesn’t really even address the issue.

George Couros’ who had just spent some time at our School Board, also really got me thinking about Digital Leadership  How can we better enpower our students? At what age do we start?  How can we better tap into student voice to help us navigate this new frontier?

And the administrator at the school posed some very interesting questions as well.  What are the legal supports in place?  Is the solution petition the government to make Bill 13C more robust to include comments as well as images?  You only need to look at the controversy surrounding this Bill to know that there is no easy answer here.

Isn’t the bigger question, beyond technology and apps? How do we teach empathy to students and an understanding that an anonymous post can be just as hurtful–if not more so?  Shouldn’t teaching students Catholic Character mean we teach them to be the same person online and face to face?

I have invited the students from President’s Council to write a guest blog-post which I am hoping they will do.   I welcome your feedback and the sharing of your own experiences.