Mama said there would be days like this…

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-1-45-13-pmI was asked to share one of my favourite teaching days today. I carry four or five around in my heart but rarely have I been required to write out the details of such moments.  I can tell you it’s much easier to look back one those days through the lens of time.  It offers greater clarity and gratitude. I must confess that I’m not always so aware in the thick of it all.  How many of us really are?  When you are in the midst of that type of day, do you know when it’s really, really great? Are you that present in your life that you can be living and reflecting simultaneously? I’m working on it but not quite there.  However, I’m pretty sure I had a niggly feeling it was pretty awesome day but I needed space and time for a real sense of the magic in it all.

I may have serendipitously stumbled upon one of the best days of my teaching career just three years ago. Not a lights turn green as you roll up to the intersection-coffee is fresh and warm-first parking spot available-kind of good day, but rather one that is nothing short of transformative and magical. A day that may come so rarely and one that begs for reflection  in order to see its true value. I do fear that even upon close retelling, some of that magic will be missed, a comment not heard, a line of poetry unsaid, a student’s thoughts not fully captured. But even with those fears facing me, I still feel a call to ruminate and reflect.

The day began with a simple email from a student. She asked if I might consider showing a slam poem video on YouTube. The student covered all her bases by suggesting that we could review technique and also explore the class view on the poet. The title of the piece was Suli Breaks’ Why I Hate School But Love Education. Unknowingly, this became the intro to our poetry unit and the day that will be stamped on my teaching passport forever.

There was something housed in that request, in that video, in that room and in the darkness that spun magic. Students connected with that video, the message and the medium. We talked for 80 minutes. We laughed. We cried. Okay, I cried. Just me. But there were tears. We talked about what we love about learning and what we hate about school. I heard voices that had been silent.  I heard voices that had been angry.  I heard their voices. I can still close my eyes right now and immediately see the young man who pulled me aside at the end of class and told me he wanted to be a poet. He said he didn’t know it was a job. Until this day. I see the angry girl who never handed a thing in, who never spoke to me, never looked me in the eye, who never showed up…. I saw her hang back by the door and shove something in my hands. Her book of poetry. She placed her ideas and dreams in my hands with explicit directions to NOT SHOW ANYONE and give it back by noon.

See? Stuff of dreams. My kids were connecting and building and dreaming over poetry. The poetry had brought them comfort and connection. I always tell the students that poetry finds you and calls out to you when you need it most.  Poetry has always fortuitously found me and it had found them too on that day.  As we were sharing in the love of words together, I finished the class with a cherished line of poetry that has brought me great solace over the years. David Whyte’s poem entitled “Sweet Darkness” has a line that resonates with me,

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Ever so often a moment becomes magical, transformative and reminds you why you were meant to be on the earth. This day reminds that poetry can bring you alive and can be so large and welcoming.

Sharing and Reflection on “What is Worth Teaching”

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 10.17.53 AMJust a few more sleeps until our third face to face for cohort 21 and I’m so excited! This meetup is always a thrilling one for me as the people around me begin to share and develop their professional goals and dreams. Pretty exciting stuff, huh?  I get to spend a day listening to others declare how they want to effect change in their classroom. Or their school. Or maybe the world! Some will share that they are grappling with a really tough question with seemingly few answers.  Yet.  Others will decide to try something new. Really new.  (And maybe really scary.)  All of this is happening in just two short days! And I’m lucky enough to get a front row seat!   

With all of this potential awaiting to be released, I thought I would use the remainder of this post to consider some big questions I’ve been grappling with as of late. I recently read an article by Dr. Spencer Kagan entitled “What is Worth Teaching?”  for my writing specialist course.  The article begins by asking the astronomically large question: “What do we most want to give our students?” As we approach Cohort 21 eve (it’s a thing, isn’t it?), so many of us will be developing ways and plans to answer that very question!  What do we want to leave our students with? When considering that question,  I am reminded of an action plan last year that explored bringing more joy into schools. Others considered how music can change our learning.  In my own attempt to answer that question, I spent last year reflecting on happiness and what makes us happy.

As a Senior English teacher , I’m up to my eyeballs in grading, marks, looming deadline and such.  This article was fortuitous in that respect…as I mark essays, assignments, writing portfolios and the like, Dr. Kagan’s article reminds me that there is more to my teaching, my students, and their journey than simply the grade at the bottom of a rubric. What do I want my students to take away from their time with me?  From their high school English classes?  From their writing?  From their academic career? Kagan offered five ways to “burn brighter fires” in our students.  We need to fan the fires of Truth. Beauty. Empathy. Innovation and Excellence.  I thought I would reflect on the three that most resonate with me.

Truth: When considering the notion of truth as it pertains to the English classroom, I hope that we are creating students who are seeking to ask questions, to seek truths in the texts we study and in the very words others write, and finally our own words. In recent years, our English dept has come to acknowledge that we may not be sending students off to universities in the humanities. Long are the days of English majors leaving our hallowed halls, full of the canon and ready to face university.  With the rare exception, our students are going into business, law, medicine or science.  As someone who so deeply believes in the value of the humanities to teach what it means to be human, to make connection, and to seek the truth, I still feel comforted that the English classroom has a place in “truth seeking”.  In terms of writing, so many of our assignments seek to answer this question: “What does the author say about how the world works?”  By asking that simple question, we begin to ask how the world works, our place in it, and the universal truths of life.  That feels like a pretty daunting and awesome task for us all.  

Empathy: Kagan points out that empathy is so closely linked with truth as it is “seeking the truth about another.” By the nature of what we do in English, I think empathy is built into so much of our courses and conversations.  We read and write to know we are not alone. When we read of Scout and “walking in the shoes of another”, we are emphasizing with Tom and Boo. When King Lear’s heart is “broken into a thousand shards” over his wicked and ungrateful daughters , we can’t help but feel his pain.  As I reread the article, I was struck by how fundamental empathy is. It is the foundation of “human relations: caring, kindness, charity, cooperation….” and so many other qualities that will make our students empathize with others. When considering how to bring more of this into my class, I loved the suggestion Kagan offers of the paraphrase passport. How often do our students (and teachers?) listen with just enough focus on how we will respond?  This activity suggests that during a class discussion,  you must paraphrase the person who went before you in order to continue to conversation.  I can only imagine how much better we would all become at really listening to each other, with that strategy!
Excellence: This is something both teacher and student must purposefully seek.  The section that most resonated with me was driving for excellence as well as self acceptance.  Without those paradoxical forces, “we would beat ourselves over the head in an attempt for excellence and yet [we] will never be good enough.”  Ultimately, this feels like the most crucial of all lessons. How can we work to our fullest potential?  How can we know we have done the very best we can, and that our best is good enough?  That is the crux of what we want our students to grapple with as learners, and as humans.  In terms of writing, I think collaboration and feedback build excellence as well as empathy and self acceptance.  These skills are not simply adopted but need to be modelled, practiced and celebrated when done really well!

My action plan still remains the same, but with a renewed sense of why I’m here as an educator.

With gratitude for the journey,


Opening Up Our Classroom Doors….to Better Teaching?

“Although it may be unused, the front door continues to appeal to our sense of arrival. Call it the ceremony of coming home.” 

― Akiko Busch, Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live

When I first started teaching twenty years ago, I found myself in a classroom housed in a portable, separated by a big playground, a very long walk to the bathroom in the winter, and a real sense of being removed from colleagues, administrators and most other students.  A week after my arrival in my “dream classroom” (And it really was. I was a teacher. A real teacher with book orders in my mailbox and a class list!!!), I was sent packing. I was labelled “redundant” due to low enrollment at that local school, and shipped to a new school by Monday.

Again, the teachers were busy, the school was full, and I found myself surrounded by very little people and not a lot of guidance or mentoring.  My mother arrived on that evening of my first day, politely asking me if I knew “how to teach kids to read” and when she left, I burst into tears.  I wasn’t sure I knew how to teach reading. Had they taught me that in teacher’s college?  Did I have a lesson plan for that one?   The only real advice I recall receiving was from a veteran teacher who told me “not to worry, kids learn in spite of you.”  And with that sage advice, I began my career.  It felt like teaching was really trial by fire.  (Edit note: I looked up that idiom to ensure I was using it correctly.  Definition: Any ordeal which tests one’s strength, endurance, or resolve.  Yup.  That’s the right one.)  Most teachers taught with their doors closed.  Some literally and some metaphorically. Nevertheless, the doors felt closed.  It never occurred to me that I should ask to come in.  Ask to watch a lesson.  Ask for an opportunity to see another teacher in action.  So, with that early sense of how highly private and personal teaching seemed, I began the job I had wanted since pre-K!  The door remained firmly closed. There may also have been a few prayers, hoping no one found out that I wasn’t sure if about this teaching reading gig.

Why do I share all of this?  Thankfully, everything seemed to have worked out those first few years. I occasionally chat with past students or catch up with them on Facebook.  They seem to be able to read.  I am not sure any of those “grade one superstars” were stunted by that early teaching version of me.  I must have done something right!  But even with those successes, I’m not sure I really opened my doors to other teachers.  I worried I would be judged.  I worried I wouldn’t measure up.  I worried.  I worried some more.  And so I kept the door shut real tight on my teaching.  My successes.  My failures.  All tucked away nicely in room 114.   I wasn’t opening my door.  I wasn’t sharing.  I wasn’t talking about anything. Those difficult conversations about our craft?  Wasn’t sure I wanted to have them.

In the past year, a few opportunities have presented themselves to me at HTS and I think they have really begun to make me consider this closed door policy with a more critical lense.  The first moment came with the arrival of Dr. Robert Evans.  He presented a talk on collegiality and how this was very different than congeniality.  Congeniality was about baking muffins for a colleague that you also call a friend.  Congeniality was photocopying lesson plans for a sick partner.  Collegiality was very different. It was about tough conversations.  It was about saying no.  It was about being open to feedback. Even the hard to swallow, hard to believe feedback.  It was about opening the doors to your classroom. Literally and figuratively. It profoundly affected me and I had a number of occasions where his words were put into action with teaching partners, and I began to hear tough things with the spirit of collaboration and collegiality.  The second moment that really changed me again was an opportunity to be selected to take an instructional coaching training session through National School Reform Faculty. I spent a week exploring protocols around classroom observation, giving and receiving feedback and offering support to your fellow teachers.  This opportunity also made me consider how much I need to get out from behind my desk, my walls and my door.

With this begin shared, I have begun to consider my 2015/2016 action research plan.  I am going on a trip.  I’m pretty sure I won’t need to pack much at all. I think I can probably manage carry-on with this one.  I’m going to explore how my teaching can be transformed by the journey.  I’m going to try and visit a different classroom every month. If I can visit two in a month, added bonus! I’m going to explore art.  I’ll stop by kindergarten.  Grade 12 math (Gulp.)?  On the itinerary.  I’m going to explore as many different places as I can.  I’m also going to offer a ticket to my room.  Door will be open.  Come on in.  It may be loud.  We may be off topic slightly but there will be laughter, learning and another teacher sharing in all of that.

I’m beginning my trip in grade six on Tuesday.  I am heading down the halls of HTS to a teacher who has oodles of ideas, a beautiful classroom, anchor charts everywhere and lucky for me-an open door.  Thanks, Kristy! I’m on my way.

Stay tuned for my adventures.  And if you find yourself walking near room 114 in the senior school, please drop in.    I bet we will both learn something new.

Yours in adventure and growth,


PS. If you have never had the opportunity to see Dr. Evans, here is a talk he gave.  Worth the 45 minutes.



Do I have a growth mind-set? (Also known as my epiphanic moment or the time I realized I may be uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.)

Growth Mind Set

I have recently been reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset- The New Psychology of Success  as professional development.  I began reading the book to access the knowledge and strategies I needed to support my students.  I had begun to notice that some of my students were really uncomfortable with challenging work that asked a lot of them.  Even more uncomfortable with failing. Terribly uncomfortable with feedback that wasn’t glowing and demanded a second look, more detail or a complete overhaul. Just really uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.  When work was easy, all was well in the world.  When the test or assignment came back with accolades and the desired grade, all was even better in the world. But what happens when it’s not glowing?  What about when the positive may be overshadowed by a lot of “where to go next to improve”?  What do you do then?  Therein lies the difference between those with a fixed mind-set versus a growth mind-set.    Some were eager for  feedback as a chance to become better at a skill.  Others relished a chance to “attempt a challenge”.  I also came to see others did not accept challenge as a chance to flex their mind.  The work was just too hard.   They dropped the course.  They didn’t read the feedback.  Or worse, feedback was terribly personal that they assumed “a teacher hated them” or that they just didn’t get the material. AND NEVER WOULD.  Enter the fixed mind set.  You were either good at X or not.

With each page I read, with each Youtube clip I watched, and with each growth mind-set infographic I agonized over, I was working to find a way to encourage my own students to be more comfortable with failure. I want my students to embrace challenges and resist the temptation to quit when things become hard, uncomfortable or confusing.  I want my students to hear feedback as critical but helpful and not criticism.  I want my students to be up for any challenge.    I am going to help them get there! I am going to help them develop a growth mind-set.  It will make them better students, better future employees, better partners…BETTER HUMAN BEINGS.   (Lofty goal, aren’t they?)

But as I read through the book…a quiet voice started getting a little louder.  For all I asked of my students, I wasn’t so sure I was asking that of myself.  Am I up for the challenge?  Do I attempt work that is really challenging and jump in ready to learn?  Can a colleague offer feedback about my teaching? My interactions with students? My marking practices?  And can I take that and learn from it?   Do I take feedback as a path to empowerment or terribly personal?

Ultimately, asking myself one question: Do I have a fixed or growth mindset?

How can I ask of my students what I don’t foster in myself?

As I move forward in my growth as a teacher, I need to persist in the face of difficulty or setbacks.  I need to accept challenges that may not be easy.  I need to hear and grow from feedback. I need a growth mindset.

My journey begins this year.     Anyone else with me?






Why Cohort 21 rocked my socks and may just do the same for your socks!

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 12.30.56 PMLast year, an email arrived from the Conference of Independent Schools offering teachers an opportunity to participate in a professional learning community with other educators from across Ontario.   This innovative program was built around the principles of 21st learning and what it means to be a teacher in this global community. The year long initiative encouraged collaboration, an exploration of technology in the classroom and deep reflection on the practices of an educator. I jumped at this chance and spent almost a year immersed in the world of tweets, blogs, hash tags, action research plans and have yet to experience anything nearly as meaningful and transformative in my career as Cohort 21! Ultimately, what appealed to me was the opportunity to model being a “life long learner” for my own students and head back to “school”!

The Cohort 21 experience offered participants a chance to:

  • be effectively embedding technology and best practices in their classroom
  • actively reflect on their practices to a wider audience while taking part in a larger, meaningful discussion about the future of teaching and learning
  • be reading, writing, and reflecting about teaching and learning
  • become attuned to their schools mission statement and how it relates to the 21st century
  • be a part of a highly motivated cohort of learners who will continue to critically assess their teaching in terms of student success (Cohort 21 website 2014)

The model encourages teachers to “learn through doing”. Over the course of the year, we had sessions on Twitter, WordPress, Google drive and a number of applications and tools for the classroom. Each member considered an area of interest to focus on through blogging, tweeting, conversations and ultimately, an action research plan. I chose to explore feedback and how to make it more meaningful for my students. I wanted to use technology to include my students in the feedback process and open the dialogue up.  I spent the year meeting online and face-to-face with member school teachers, collaborating, sharing and reflecting.

As the year came to a close, I had come to realize that feedback MUST be collaborative and students need to be an integral part of the feedback loop! They need to be active participants and not passive receivers of feedback. Real effective feedback occurs when the learning is still happening so there is time to act on it! Technology speeds up that process so it becomes timelier. Finally, the more personalized I make the feedback; the quicker a student will access the right support at the right time and with the right tools. This year really gave me a chance to reflect on my practices and the change has the potential to redefine the feedback loop and shifting the process from a teacher-centered experience of providing feedback to a conversational review.   No longer do I need a pen and tiny scribbled in the margins! I was able record my thoughts, suggestions and feedback right on the document itself within Google docs.  If a student is struggling with a concept, I have begun to provide links for support within Google applications.   I have also had a chance to use this when editing student work and the immediacy of the comments are so helpful for students and not limited by the writing centre hours or the classroom walls!

Throughout the process, I couldn’t help but notice how well this dovetailed with the plans for so many of our school’s missions to be 21st century learners as students and teachers.    Here was a hands-on, practical and innovative way to explore technology and how it can work to improve student success. This experience has been one of exploration, collaboration, curating, and building relationships with like-minded individuals. I began this experience unsure of how I could contribute but immediately I felt valued, acknowledged and energized by people who wanted to continue to explore and understand their role as educator, technology integrator, and learners.

This was really a chance of a lifetime and I’m so glad my socks were rocked!

With gratitude for the experience,

Danielle Ganley

Cohort 21 2013-2014 participant and 2014-2015 coach




Using Collaborative Tools to Rethink the Feedback Model

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 3.04.19 PM         How is feedback changing for me? How am I changing feedback for my students?

With the final session just days away, the action plan completed and the blog still to write, I will end this part of the journey with a reflection on feedback.  I think the biggest takeaway for me is that the technology has allowed me to foster conversations around feedback in some pretty new and exciting ways.  I began the year looking for ways to improve my practice and ultimately provide students with feedback that was kind, helpful, and timely.  Throughout the course of my time at cohort 21, things began to shift for me and the action plan became more about creating dialogue, rather than a passive downloading of feedback onto a student assignment.   To engage the students in an authentic conversation about their work became the real “aha moment” of my year.

As a busy English teacher and leader in our growing writing centre, the struggle has always been to ensure that all of our students can find the support they need.  The school I work in has an extensive co-curricular program, demanding academics and a long school day.  This all means that students are pulled in a number of directions at the end of each day.  Struggling to find time to meet during the posted hours was often difficult for some students.  Within the classroom, I also struggled to find a way to work with students to provide timely feedback that didn’t begin and end with me.  I wanted to redefine the traditional (and terribly passive) feedback model to engage and challenge students to contribute.

In and out of the classroom, I have begun to work outside the confines of the four walls to support students and begin a conversation or dialogue  around their writing.  By utilizing the collaborative nature of Google drive with an extension app Kaizena, I can provide students with a number of exciting options.  The application allows for a section of text to be highlighted and the teacher can leave audio comments for the student.  No longer do you need a pen and tiny scribbled in the margins! You are able to record your thoughts, suggestions and feedback right on the document itself.  If a student is struggling with a concept, I am able to provide links for support within the application.   I have begun to use this when editing student work and the immediacy of the comments are so helpful for students and not limited by the writing centre hours or the classroom!    This exciting application makes feedback quick, helpful and timely- all necessary for success in the feedback game!

Finally, I am reconsidering so much in terms of student engagement in their written feedback for this term and beyond.   How can I ask more of my students? What will this look like?   Well, it may begin by asking for feedback on my feedback.  Rather than writing annotations in the body of a piece of work and then giving an overall comment, perhaps I will only write annotation and ask for the overall comment to be written by the student themselves! What do YOU see as strengths in your piece? What doesn’t work?  What needs improvement?  It might look like a lot LESS pink pen or highlighted comments in the margins of a google doc.  It may be more of a conversation and a lot less marking each little mistake or comma.  Let’s work together to figure out what could use improvement with this piece! We need to also recognize and acknowledge what is really working in the writing as well!

In the end, I’m reminded that “learners need endless feedback  more than they need endless teaching.”

Here is my final action research prezi on collaboration and feedback!

With gratitude for the journey,


Why Feedback makes a horrible house guest…(Or why feedback really does matter!)

As the time ticks away on this action plan blog post, I sit in front of my computer with an idea.  Not a plan really just yet.  Just a simmering in the back of my mind for a long time, nagging, can’t be ignored for too much longer, slowly percolating  idea. But not a real plan.  Yet.


It may as well be my achilles heel, my hamartia and my damocles sword all rolled into one.   Feedback nags to the English teacher.  Feedback can’t be ignored.  Feedback demands to be heard.  Feedback knows its importance and never misses a chance to remind us.  When I take in yet another essay, accept another summative or ask for just one more metacognitive response, feedback winks at me obnoxiously.  When a student arrives at my desk,   wondering if I have marked her essay yet, feedback is standing there, arms crossed, looking VERY unimpressed.  Every night that my exploding, overflowing marking bag arrives home, feedback tags along, always asking  for an extra blanket, fresh mints on her pillow or a spot at the head of the table.  Feedback is the house guest that has clearly overstayed her welcome.   With all that being said, I recently read an article on the principles of good feedback and it resonated with me.  It really is the backbone of my action research plan.

  Learners need endless feedback more than they need endless teaching.

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 8.19.36 PM

What will that look like?  Endless feedback?  Can my poor pink pens take it?  Will my family be forced to order pizza yet again as I struggle under the weight of more essays?   I want to explore how my feedback can become more timely, specific and targeted.   Can I find a way to be more effective, provide more feedback but without so much sacrifice?  I’m going to try! 

What might it look like?

-Timely feedback with the use of technology such as google drive, kaizena, and socrative

-Peer reviews and a feedback process among my students

-Feedback that is kind, quick, specific and helpful

-Developing key elements of excellence so students know where the targets are

And that is why I’m fluffing the pillows, putting out the best china and inviting feedback for good.

Need inspiration? Need a pick me up? A reminder of why we are all here?

I stumbled upon the quote “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of human connection and insists they can be the best they can be.”   It really resonated with me and I did a little research and found the quote was attributed to Rita Pierson, a master teacher of 40 years.   She did a Ted talk recently and I include the seven minute talk.  It’s really powerful, and so worth the watch.





Just thought I would share a great resource….

Just thought I would share a great list that came across my computer in one of the education group on diigo. It’s a large list of tools that help inquiry based learning…what becomes even more helpful is that it’s divided by different phases of the inquiry base model.

I’ve tried a great deal of them and would be happy to share my experiences!

Hello world!

Welcome to Cohort 21 Cohort 21. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

Cohort 21 is a unique professional development opportunity open to teachers and school leaders who are seeking to build a learning network amongst CIS Ontario member schools. The Cohort 21 community will be built on a foundation of collaboration and innovation and together, will investigate and refine 21st century teaching and learning best practices through the rich experience of “learning by doing”.