Jennifer Bairos

Re-thinking learning for the 21st Century

I Don’t Want To Go To A Meeting Today

I have a meeting today, and I’m not exactly looking forward to it. Not because of the meeting agenda. The conversation planned is important and relevant.

It’s just that I feel like I’m being pulled in a million directions at work, and while I know it will eventually settle, when there is one. more. thing. on your schedule, it’s overwhelming. I also probably could easily not go, because it’s kind of optional-ish.

I’m in the middle of trying to grow my teaching practice in two different areas. I’ve been wondering a lot about assessment and also about student well-being; however, my time to do meaningful work between them feels split, and I often feel like I’m doing both of them crappily (yes, I’m making that word up).

I was speaking with @nblair about this at our third Face to Face session on Friday, and she gave me a helpful reframing. She said, “Instead if looking at it as two projects, try to see it as you’re exploring many elements of your teaching practice, right now.”

That reframing gave me permission to feel that baby steps in both of the areas are steps on the same path. Growth is messy and slow. And, importantly, growth doesn’t care about lining up with a school calendar. My goal need not be perfection.

I just want to try and do a little bit better than I did yesterday.

So, I’m going to show up to this meeting. I’m going to show up, because showing up is a baby step. I’m going to show up, because my students deserve it. I’m going to show up because I love my school. I’m going to show up because we can do hard things.

Sometimes I even succeed in this.

Cute shoes help.

Jenn

Middle School Matters by Phyllis L. Fagell

Did you realize that every middle schooler today was born after September 11, 2001?

Their world is completely different than the one in which we grew up. While much has remained the same (“Oh no! There’s the boy I like.” or “I’m not going to try out, because I know I won’t make the team.”), so much is different (“Should I vape with my friends?” or “She posted that picture on Snapchat just to make me jealous!”).

I don’t yet have a middle schooler of my own; however, I have spent the last 15 years teaching middle school. It certainly has its ups and downs, but I firmly believe in the importance of the middle school years in a child’s development. Students in Grades 6 to 8 need adults in their corner as they test boundaries, emerge from childhood, and discover who they are going to be in the next chapters of their lives.

However, if there’s one thing that’s predictable about middle school, it’s that it’s unpredictable! Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor who works actively in schools and in private practice with parents and their children. She wrote Middle School Matters as a guide for parents (and educators) with the key skills we can help foster in our middle schoolers.

I found myself nodding along in the scenarios she described, as I have seen many of them in our day to day life at school. Fagell tackles shifting friendships, bullying, sexual health, anxiety, academics, and more. What I love most about this book is that throughout each chapter, she provides possible conversation starters you can use to speak to your children or students.

Since I teach middle school, my students all head off to high school after they’re finished with me, and then many of them plan to attend college or university. It’s easy for me to get locked into the mindset of preparing them for high school; however, I loved being reminded that the purpose of school isn’t to get into another school. Our purpose as teachers is to prepare them for their career and for their relationships with others as they grow. This resonated quite a bit with me.

I wonder about the middle schoolers who don’t have a supportive home life. How might we help them see their value in this world? How might we guide them during difficult moments in their lives? How might we build our relationships with these students in a meaningful way to be their safe space?

Middle School Matters is also must-read for parents with children middle school. I quite enjoyed it, and I suspect parents of middle school students will glean important insights and tips for all of the ups and downs that come along with this transitional period in their children’s lives.

Jenn

Why I Didn’t Do My Homework

I tried to do my homework. I really did. I’m a self-proclaimed goody two shoes, and I have always done my homework. Last year, parts of my Cohort 21 homework had graphs. But this time, I felt really stuck. I even tried to get @estewart to do my homework for me.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

But, hear me out.

I’d like to dive into student-teacher relationships, and specifically how I might foster these relationships in a second language with middle school students. I want to learn more about how my students feel and what my students need when it comes to these relationships; however, I worry that directly asking my students about this myself puts them in an uncomfortable position. They are kind people, and I know that openly asking my students to share extensively about their personal experiences feeling safe in my classroom might not yield the most honest results, because I’m sure they’d be worried about my feelings. Or maybe they’d be worried about how I judge how they feel. It feels extremely personal.

Instead of chatting with my students, I’ve been speaking with other teachers at my school about student-teacher relationships. @estewart has been a great resource. Additionally, I’ve joined a book club at my school where we are reading a chapter a month from the book The Third Path by Dr.David Tranter, Lori Carson, and Tom Boland. The goal of this book, and our book club, is to figure out how we can weave together both student-teacher relationships and curriculum in our classes.

At our first meeting, one of my colleagues said that since she’s done training in The Third Path, whenever she feels conflict with a student, she often pauses to ask herself, “Is this going to build the relationship?” and I like that thinking. It certainly feels like it will create more peaceful days to let some things just go.

I also had each of my students write a Take Care of Me Letter at the beginning of the year. They wrote this letter in English; however, it was a really wonderful “get to know you” activity, that helped me quickly learn about my students in September.

So, I’m trying. I didn’t do my homework, but I’ve tackled this question from a few other angles, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can learn and try next, hopefully using French more often than English.

See you Saturday!

Jenn

world's best try-er

A Mind Spread Out On The Ground by Alicia Elliott

If you’re looking for some Indigenous non-fiction for yourself or your classes, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground may be a title to check out.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is award-winning Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott’s debut essay collection that holds back nothing as she shares her thoughts on the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada.

These essays are thoughtful, controversial, and absolutely necessary. Part-memoir, part historical exploration, Alicia Elliott opens up about her own trauma and abuse while simultaneously examining the systematic roots of oppression Indigenous people in Canada faced throughout history and continue to face today.

“We know our cultures have meaning and worth, that that culture lives and breathes inside our languages. Canada knew that, too. Which is why they fought so hard to make us forget them.”

 

She tackles the issues of mental health, abuse, language, culture, residential schools, racism, colonialism, poverty, belonging, cultural appropriation, and body image. Additionally, she calls out Canadian political parties (both past and present) for what they have and haven’t done to help mend these relationships, so healing in these communities can begin.

“No one should have to feel thankful that their child isn’t dark-skinned.”

 

While these essays examine how racism continues to be fed in Canadian society today, Alicia Elliot offers hope for us to be thoughtful about our own voices and choices moving forward. If you’re interested in learning more about a modern perspective on Indigenous relations and history, I highly recommend this coming of age collection by a wonderful writer. It’s available now from your favourite bookseller.

xo

Jenn

Disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada for review purposes. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.

I Cried During P.D. Week

I cried during PD week this year.

You see, as our school continues to strive for excellence in creating a caring and nurturing environment for our students, we devoted much of our P.D. week before school began talking about relationships. We looked at Dr. Tranter’s philosophy of The Third Path and the 8 conditions necessary to teach through a strong student-teacher relationship.

According to this perspective on education, the first condition necessary is safety. “Students need to feel emotionally safe in order to explore and learn.” (www.thirdpath.ca) . Afterwards comes regulation, belonging, positivity, engagement, identity, mastery, and meaning.

Of course, I want my students to feel safe in my classroom, but part of me is already questioning whether, even after 15 years of teaching, I can even truly say I have figured out step 1 of 8 on this path. I teach French to middle school students. I love it, and I love them; however, I know this subject is a tough sell to many. My students take risks every single time they speak in my class. How do I make sure they know it’s safe to try? That no one is judging what they can and cannot say in French. How do I make sure that’s true?

I also know this means my relationships with my students matters even more.

But this only brings me more questions. How do I get across to my students that I value who they are and what they think? How do I build my relationships with my students in a more meaningful way? And, most importantly, how do I do this all in a second language?

Last year, I used my Cohort 21 action plan to dive deep into encouraging and supporting more interactive oral communication in the classroom. I was (and continue to be) so excited about what I learned, and the new routines and learning activities I brought into my classroom. Speaking in French became our number 1 priority, and I spent many hours thinking and rethinking lessons and learning activities to encourage my students to speak more. And they did it. It was a great year.

As I embark on my next step growing as an educator, am I going to lose what I have gained? How do I strengthen my relationships with my students without feeling like I’ll have to do this in English, and therefore give up some of the progress we made last year? What does meaningful relationship building look like in a second language?

And, as I talked this all out with a colleague in the middle of our gymnasium, I cried. I was overwhelmed with these questions and the feeling that I am in front of a battle I may not win. And I was scared. Anytime we open ourselves up to relationships, the possibility for rejection exists. Then what?

All of this sets the stage for what I’m hoping to think about this year in C21. I have honestly no idea in which direction my action plan will go, but I’m looking forward to seeing both familiar and new faces at our first Face to Face session this Saturday. I’ll be the one carrying the Kleenex.

xo

Jenn

Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim – Book Review

Seeing yourself in a book is such a gift. The moment you read a passage and instantly feel validated or less alone is powerful. More than once, I’ve reread sentences, paragraphs, and even whole pages because the author was able to put into words exactly how I felt about something. However, this feeling doesn’t come around with the same frequency for everyone.

Well-Read Black Girl is an essay collection of Black women writers reflecting on how they found themselves in literature, how certain pieces of work guided them through childhood and adolescence, and how the words of others inspired them to write as well. It was born from Glory Edim who created the @wellreadblackgirl community on Instagram.

Well-Read Black Girl is small but mighty. I was introduced to so many authors, playwrights, poets, and titles I’d never heard of before. My formative years were vastly different than the women in this book, so reading this collection for me was eye-opening and reminded me how reading can be a powerful act of empathy to learn about others.

As an educator, I firmly believe that it is important for both children and adults to be able to connect with the texts they are reading, and this essay collection reaffirms that we need to ensure that young readers have a wide-range of books at their fingertips. You never know which book is going to connect with which reader, and it is important for them to read about and reflect upon the experiences of others, as well.

Highly recommend!

Jenn

Disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada to read and review. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.

Creating Cultures of Thinking by Ron Ritchhart – A Second Language Teacher’s Perspective

Sometimes I find reading educational books as a French teacher to be challenging. There are always so many wonderful, inspiring ideas, but how do I harness them in a second language and remain true to prioritizing use of the target language in my classroom?

The language barrier is a big area of tension for me. How do I engage high-level thinking using a beginner/intermediate-level of vocabulary while also keeping our learning meaningful and engaging for young teenagers? It’s a lot to hold at once!

I haven’t found the magic answers yet; however, Creating Cultures of Thinking by Ron Ritchhart gave some ideas to mull over. The sections on prioritizing what is absolutely the most important in our classrooms resonated with me the most. I loved his question, “If you had your students for only six weeks, what would be the single most important thing you would want them to understand? ” (Ritchhart, Creating Cultures of Thinking, p.100.)

My answer would certainly be that I’d want my students to understand how to communicate orally for a purpose, which reaffirms much of the work I’ve been exploring over the past year.

The other idea I really loved was about how teachers, “have to weigh the importance of accuracy against the goal of developing independence.” (Ritchhart, Creating Cultures of Thinking, p. 209.) This is something I’ve been thinking about for the past few years in my teaching, especially with written tasks my students complete.

I used to spend ages giving feedback on every single grammatical error, but I’ve learned that I need to shift my thinking around written feedback. I do not need to edit all of these errors. The students do not need to correct all of these errors. Not only is it, I’m sure, discouraging to see such a high volume of edits on  your work as a student, but perfection is not actually our goal. I want to assess students not for the number of mistakes they make but, rather, for the clarity of their ideas. This idea is certainly still a work in progress in my classroom and in my teaching, but it’s where I’m hoping to move more and more in my assessments.

There were plenty of other great ideas in his book as well. I’d recommend any teacher pick it up!

Jenn

Under Pressure by Dr. Lisa Damour – Book Review

 

Note – @gnichols  has an excellent post about Under Pressure here (with charts!) if you are interested in more.

I have been a middle school teacher for nearly 15 years, and I can confidently say that some of the most significant shifts in education have aligned with the awareness of mental health challenges taxing our teens and how to support them. Under Pressure by Dr. Lisa Damour is a refreshing look at stress and anxiety, and explores how we as parents and educators can help our girls during their tumultuous teenage years. I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Damour speak a few months ago on her book tour. I took pages of notes during her presentation with ideas of how I can best support my students, and I couldn’t wait to read her book for more. While Dr. Damour focuses her work on girls, I found so much in her speech, and in her book, helpful for both boys and girls.

Dr. Damour begins her book by sharing the framework through which we should look at stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety have a bad reputation, and it’s important to remember that stress and anxiety are often healthy for us. She says, “Stress is what happens when we operate at the edge of our capacities, and when we operate in this arena, we stretch ourselves and grow.” Anxiety is closely connected. She describes anxiety as, “the gift that keeps us safe.” (She also acknowledges that chronic or traumatic stress and anxiety are real, though different than everyday/healthy stress and anxiety.)

Secondly, we have good kids. Our teens (boys and girls) are the best generation on record. They drink less, smoke less, have less sexual partners, and are doing the most interesting things. This is a hopeful book. Technology has changed the landscape of youth, but it has not made it worse as we may be quick to believe.

With all of that in mind, Dr. Damour explores five areas where girls experience stress and anxiety: at home, with their friendships with other girls, with boys, at school, and as part of the culture society builds for women.

In each chapter, she shares specific examples of girls she has worked with and her advice for coaching them through stressful periods of their lives. Rather than taking a negative view on stress and anxiety, she offers specific language to help girls manage tricky situations in a thoughtful way, so they do not get overwhelmed or scared by their emotions. For example, when a student says she’s feeling really nervous about a test, you can reply, “Good! I’m glad you’re worried. That’s the ideal reaction, because right now you know you’re not ready. As soon as you start studying, your nerves will calm down.”

Under Pressure is a helpful book for parents, educators, counsellors or anyone else who finds themselves in coaching situations with teens. From my teacher lens, it gave me much to draw on the next time I need to help one of my students who is feeling stressed or anxious. Through my parenting lens (even as a boy mom), I found much of the book transferrable to how my son may encounter stress and anxiety, and it made me think about how I want to talk to him about his relationships with girls as he grows.

Jenn

Disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of Under Pressure from Penguin Random House Canada for review purposes, and my school covered the cost of my ticket to see Dr. Damour speak. All thoughts and opinions are still entirely my own.

Where I’ve Come From and Where I’m Going Next

It feels strange to reflect on the end of Cohort 21 while I am on March Break and still feel squarely in the middle of my action plan; however, the school calendar waits for no one, so here we are.

Cohort 21 became part of my teaching journey at the exact moment when I most needed it. I was beginning to feel disheartened, fearful of change, and generally a bit down on myself as a teacher. This year, I’ve learned that I’m probably doing better than I think I am. This feels ridiculous to type, but I believe it’s an important lesson. I’ve learned that there is power when diverse educators come together, reflect deeply, and open their doors. The support I’ve sought and the encouragement I’ve received from C21, my administration, my colleagues, and even teachers outside of CIS has been invaluable in helping me rediscover my love for teaching French as a second language. I feel inspired, excited, and grateful to have discovered an experience and group of people so positive and so action-driven to best support educators, students, and our shared future learning.

Below is a slide deck that illustrates my action plan story, as it stands right now. I now truly understand the term “the end of the beginning.” I’m excited about the new energy in my classroom, and I can’t wait to experiment further with these ideas.

Additionally, you can hear me “thinking out loud” about my How Might We question and action plan on @ckirsh‘s Teaching Tomorrow podcast here.

As for Cohort 21, this is not goodbye. I am looking forward to our fourth Face to Face session in a few weeks, and I’m hopeful to continue working with Cohort 21 next year (even if I have to sneak in!)

Jenn

 

Interactive Oral Communication in the FSL Classroom

When I was reflecting on what I learned during Cohort 21 this year, the number 1 answer I have is that I learned so much about interactive oral communication.

I have spent a good amount of time reflecting on when my students speak French in class and when they don’t. I realized that they speak with me in French a great deal, and they find success in orally presenting projects they’ve completed. What were missing were opportunities for my students to speak French to each other.

 

With this realization in mind, I redirected my how might we question to focus on how I can support and encourage my students to build this skill.

What’s exciting about this realization is that it falls entirely in line with the trend in second language education in Ontario towards the CEFR (Common European Framework for Reference). In its simplest form, the CEFR encourages language learning via authentic situations vs grammatical drills and vocabulary lists. Interactive communication thrives in the CEFR.

Instead of worrying about what my students know about a language, I needed ask myself what can they do with a language. (source) And this meant that I had to increase my expectations of my students.

To help me with this, I spent the day with a teacher whom I know is rocking interactive oral communication. Richard Smith teaches Grade 7 and 8 Core French in Ottawa and is passionate about getting middle school students to speak in French.

He reminded me that we are the model for our students. We need to be excited about speaking French in class, and speak French as much as possible.

As I watched him teach and thought about my own lessons, I realized that I often structured my lesson as:

1. a teacher-directed thing – 30 mins

2. time for individual or partner work/discussions (the latter which often shifted into English) – 20 mins

I was asking my students to do the hardest part at the end of the lesson.

French is not easy. It’s a tough subject and a tough sell for a lot of middle school students. But they can do it. And we can sometimes forget that most of them want to do well and enjoy it.

However, we have to structure our lessons for success. I needed to move the hardest part of their 50 minute period to the beginning. If they are going to be speaking to each other, I need to get to them while their momentum for the class is still high.

Now my lessons look like this:

1. 2 or 3 grammar raps and a handful of oral review questions connected to the raps to warm everyone up. (see www.aimlanguagelearning.com and www.educorock.com for the best grammar raps) – 5 mins

2. Interactive oral communication activity or oral discussion. (Language teachers in the house – bookmark this Google Slide presentation. It’s Richard’s bank of communication learning activities and on its way to being my most visited website of the year.) – 15-20 mins

3. a teacher-directed thing either from CEC or AIM  (often, but not every day) – 15 mins

4. individual or partner work time (usually reading/writing) 10-15 mins

So far, it’s going well. There is still lots of room to grow. There are moments when we still need to use some English in the classroom; however, my students are all generally pretty excited about the new energy and new learning activities in the classroom. For example, my grade 7 students love the “Last Letter, First Letter” challenge with teams creating lists of 30, 40, and up to 46 words in 7 minutes!)

It has meant I’ve had to say au revoir to other pieces of our program (some of which I love so hard), but I know what we’re doing now is important and what my students most need at this time.

Jenn

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