Action Plan

related to my amazing action research project

Nobody wants to be racist (and yet unconscious bias is a real thing)

Nobody wants to think of themselves as a racist. And yet, many research studies reveal that we all hold unconscious biases, or hidden racist ideas. When left unchecked, these harmful ideas can perpetuate racist actions and reinforce racist systems.


An excellent illustration of this phenomenon is a recent exchange that repeated Clark’s classic 1954 doll study. In a video, completed by a 17-year-old film student and disseminated through the media, a young black child clearly reflects society’s prejudice: The child describes the black doll as looking “bad” and the white doll as “~nice” (Edney 2006). Children internalize our society’s biases and prejudices, as have all of us; they are just a little less able to hide it” (Moule 2009).


I am always on the lookout for rich teachable moments to use with my students to highlight issues of equity, power, and privilege. So while I had known about this idea of unconscious bias for some time now, it took me teaching reading for almost a decade to see the perfect moment to uncover our collective unconscious biases as English students.


With our novel study of The Chrysalids, we began by exploring the core habits of highly successful readers. One of the first habits we dove into was visualization. After we had a class that explained how good readers have a “movie camera” on in their minds, I asked the students to “cast” the characters that we have met so far in the novel. “Imagine that you are a director and you need to find actors to match what you are seeing in your mind.” Students loved that their independent learning at home centred around Google Image searching terms like: “old man farmer” and “sweet little girl with pigtails” and picking the images of the people that fit their mental images best.

“I guessed that students wouldn’t have even considered the race of the people they saw, seeing “white” as “neutral” or the default.”

My assumption was that most of the actors casted would be white. Even though our Grade 8 classes are not solely comprised of white students, I was guessing because most of the media my students consume has white people in central roles, students would primarily reproduce this depressing lack of diversity. My guess was that most students would sadly just see the sea of white faces that Google presented to them as “normal” and not specifically search for people of colour. Moreover, I guessed that students wouldn’t have even considered the race of the people they saw, seeing “white” as “neutral” or the default.


Well, I printed out all their “actors” and posted them on the bulletin board on the first floor of the Middle School. Before I had a chance to explain this mental exercise or have the students digest what they were seeing, a number of students stopped in the hallway, observed the board, and then promptly inquired with their teachers why there were so many white people on the board! While some students of course had cast people of colour in the roles of this novel, they were correct that most images were indeed confirming my hunches. I will say that I was rejoicing internally that the students who saw this board on their way to class actually noticed the stark lack of diversity!

When I brought the Grade 8 classes to the board and took them through a “see, think, wonder” routine, it didn’t take long for students to start to wonder why there were so few people of colour, why we chose so many actors that look the same, and what the author imagined when he wrote the book.

After the students were given a mini-lesson on unconscious bias and watched this video, I gave them permission to visualize characters that don’t look like them, that don’t look like “typical Hollywood actors”, or that aren’t just by default white. When we just assume that white is the default race, it is one subtle way that we recreate racist biases and limit the possibilities for people of colour.


While this was one lesson as part of a larger unit about reading skills and habits, the theme of questioning what we assume to be “normal” has been showing up in our novel The Chrysalids quite prominently. While I aim to explore rich literature with the students that exposes themes around othering, inclusion, equity, and justice, I also recognize the benefits of finding all the little teachable moments that inch-forward our collective awareness of anti-racism ideas. Seeing the anti-oppressive moments in the everyday experience of how we picture characters in our minds is one small step towards how we might challenge the racist status quo in our daily lives.


Works Cited

Moule, Jean. “Understanding Unconscious Bias and Unintentional Racism”. The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 90, No. 5 (Jan., 2009), pp. 320-326.


Building Equity in the Middle School English Classroom

Everyday, I step into my school and see pictures of white women on the walls: old-timey white women from the 1850’s when my school was founded, middle-aged white women who are alumni and doing impressive things in the world, scores of white women who graduated in years past. These faces greet me as I walk towards my classroom and affirm my place in this building. Everyday, I walk past fellow white teachers. Walking quickly with their heels clicking against the old wood, walking with purpose and power, assured of their status in this building. And everyday I walk past classrooms of students learning of and through well-known white figures like Shakespeare, Sir John A., Pythagoras, Deb Ellis, Bill Nye, or Darwin.


It is time to challenge this racist status quo in my teaching practice.


This year, my goal as a teacher is to de-centre whiteness in the English classroom.

But first, let’s hear a little about racism from the always-entertaining and informative Francesca Ramsy of MTV’s Decoded, so we can get closer to being on the same page about racism.

So what does “de-centring whiteness mean”?

If you are white, which I am, it is not difficult to look around our institutions and see white-culture reflected back at you. When I was a young person in school in rural southern-Ontario, all of my teachers were white, all of the books (Every. Single. One.) that I read had white protagonists in them, and most (I’m estimating 99% until high school) of my classmates were white. My whiteness was held up in front of me like a mirror and validated.  

In the classrooms that I teach, my students do not represent the larger diversity within the city of Toronto. As a teacher in an independent school, this is not surprising considering how much it costs families to send their children to my institution. That said, as more independent schools are waking up to how important it is to be inclusive spaces for families of all backgrounds, there is a shift within the student population to be more racially diverse. This is one reason for de-centring whiteness: not all of my students are white.


But it’s also for the white folks in the house.


We do all of our students a monumental disservice, you could even say a human rights violation, if our hidden curriculum is only valuing and validating whiteness. All students need to see more than just the single stories of groups of people in order to enter the world post-graduation a responsible citizen of the world.

So what does “de-centring” whiteness entail?

Well, at its most basic, it includes me providing and teaching books with racially diverse characters and exploring the voices that are not included in any text that we read. Who is present and who is silent?

It includes exploring and discussing concepts such as implicit bias, micro-aggressions, single stories, white supremacy, power, and privilege.

It involves ensuring that each student in my Middle School has the ability to investigate all aspects of their identities.

One of my favourite partners in crime at my school, a fellow provocative rabble rouser, proposed that we bring this question of identity investigating forward to our Middle School at a December faculty meeting. We asked:

How might we ensure that each member of the Middle School has access to opportunities in which they can share and investigate all aspects of their identities, especially those aspects that may be marginalized, difficult to understand, or not widely represented in our community?

And ran a protocol with about ½ of our Middle School faculty, collecting beliefs and doubts about the possibility of running student affinity groups.


As I write this, I can hear the voices of Cohort mentors coaching me to keep it manageable, to remember my sphere of influence, and to design something that I actually have the power to control. So my action plan is not to run affinity groups (as it might not be until next year that such a project is ready to launch…if ever), but rather, this is what I think I can bite off reasonably this year:


  • Collect data and research about launching affinity groups
  • Meet with key stakeholders about this possibility, sharing findings from first preliminary MS Faculty protocol
  • Run at least one protocol with stakeholders outside of MS Faculty (parents, students, board members?)


While I serve the Cohort 21 community as a facilitator, every year I chose a project focus to research, blog about, and experiment with in my classroom. Why wouldn’t I leverage the collective hive-mind power of many CIS Ontario teachers together in one space, with one purpose? With so many people to ask questions to, and so many school experts to be connected with, I have always found that connecting my school goals with my Cohort 21 action plan research is the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone.

So, Cohort hive-mind, my question for you is: how do you support your students of colour? What opportunities do you provide your students to explore their identities? Do you / have you used affinity groups in your school and, if so, what has your experience been?

First steps towards “wow”

We are now into week four of this History adventure and there have been some ups and downs…some moments of sheer brilliance and some moments of “what the heck was I thinking?” But like anything in the life of a teacher, you win some and you lose some. Here are some highlights from the last few weeks of trying to be more experiential with Grade 7 History.

Week One: QR Code Scavenger Hunt

IMG_2299What it was: After their pre-learning, the girls scattered throughout their school, cell phones in hand, and completed a scavenger hunt all about the people of New France.

Why is was great: The novelty of having their cell phones actually permitted in class was a riot! They loved the independence of running around the school testing out their learning and working as a team to answer questions and challenge their learning. IMG_2296

What wasn’t so awesome: I don’t think this was “experiential learning” as much as just active, fun, and novel. Which is important, but the actual deep learning wasn’t so present.

Week Two: Acadian Expulsion Simulation

What it was: Inspired by this little gem I found over the winter break, I started the class in costume (as an Acadian woman, Madeleine, of course), welcoming them into my house. I was gathering all the women together from our town to decide what to do about all the men being locked in the church for 3 days. After some discussion about what to do, I left the class (to milk my cow…who else is going to do it), and returned as a British officer. I took them down to the church (chapel) and they became the men of Acadia, having to decide whether to sign the Oath of Allegiance. The students then debated back and forth about why they would sign and eventually had to make a decision.

Why it was great: The students loved being thrust into a character. Some really got into it. They also commented the they really liked having to make those hard decisions themselves and they developed more empathy for what the Acadians went through. I could also refresh the information from their Independent Learning (homework) in character and they actually developed a deep, complex understanding of this chapter in History.

What wasn’t so awesome: While it’s a lot of fun to be in character, it’s also exhausting. Most of the students went along with it, but some were a little sly and kept asking why we weren’t speaking French if we weren’t in Acadia? Ha ha!

Week Three: Battle of the Plains of Abraham

IMG_2354What it was: We reenacted the famous battle that decided the fate of New France.

Why it was great: The students totally got into it! They loved the dramatic death scenes, acting it out, and having their peers play key roles of the important characters. It was a nice day outside and playing around in the fresh air was a welcome change from the classroom (so was being in the chapel last week, for that matter).

What wasn’t so awesome: The questions on their weekly check-in quiz were centred around the aftermath of the battle, not the actual battle itself. The information from the experiential part of the learn was stickier, so students often reverted to using this information on the quiz (even if it didn’t actually answer the given question). I realized that whatever we do in the “Playing History” day is going to have a more lasting impact than what the students read or discuss in class.

Later today, we will go through a Loyalist simulation that is one part “Octopus” and one part “Mafia”. Stay tuned on the learning moments from that experience.

School as exciting as an amusement park?



Can this be a reality?

Or better yet…

Should this be a reality?

Truthfully, I don’t have the answer to either of those questions, but I did leave the second Face 2 Face with a clear direction for my action plan this year: how can I make Social Studies (specifically History) a novel, exciting, and entertaining experience for young people? 

A bit of background on my background. While I love learning about History and Geography, my area of expertise is undoubtedly English and Drama. I studied Drama for four years, which by extension, I was also studying literature as well. But for that matter, the study of Theatre is also actually a master course in History, just through the lens of performance. There is no better way to understand what was happening in Russia during the turn of the century than by studying Chekhov!

This said, teaching Grade 7 Social Studies has been a welcome challenge. Last year I feel like I was just getting the hang of everything. This year, with a tiny bit of experience, I feel like I can push myself to try new things. Also, there were times last year where I was getting bored with what I was teaching, so I can imagine my students were just on the verge of poking themselves in the eye with a protractor.

IMG_2072So this past month, I asked myself and my fellow Cohortees how I could make Social Studies as exciting as an amusement part (without the vomiting). It’s not so much that I want to make every class an unbelievable experience (who can sustain that?), but I want to increase the novelty, make my students excited to come to class, surprise them a little each day, and have us all collectively step outside of what we expect school to be like.

The ideas that flowed from my partner @mjohn, as well as the other friends who posted a sticky note fertilized my thinking on the topic and help me narrow my ideas down.

IMG_2071But what I really needed was the space of the winter break to process everything. I don’t know about you, but I have found it really hard to engage in the creative side of teaching when I am just trying to keep my little head above water. We teachers are actually artists and we need the space to process ideas and make our visions a reality.

So that’s just what I did. Cuddled up by the fire of the cottage, I wrote down about 10 different incredible ideas and planned out how I could incorporate them into how I teach History this term.

My current idea: Playing History.

How It Works: Each week we have a class devoted to “Playing History”, which is the amusement park of our learning. We will go on scavenger hunts, walking tours, role plays, re-enactments, play games in character and so on. One class a week will be devoted to the background learning and another class (or half class) will be centred around checking the learning / understanding.

Stay tuned for more about our first Playing History session: a QR Code scavenger hunt!



Growth is always happening


It’s hard to believe that another year of Cohort has come to a close…but I’m not even close to being done my journey of growth. That’s the thing about growth; it is always just there.

I tried to make my summary of learning a touch shorter, but I just had too much to say and share. The video above summarizes my action plan findings for 2015. Enjoy!

The first few steps towards awesome: teachers showing their growth mindsets


Amidst my journey of trying inspire my students to get closer to having a growth mindset, it actually didn’t even occur to me that it is also valuable to help inspire my fellow teachers to join in on the growth mindset bandwagon.

The last project tuning protocol on April 2nd, while it wasn’t geared towards growth mindset intentionally, it was actually all about growth mindsets at the end of the day.

Beth Nichols shared her action plan and her current progress. It was obvious to me that Beth is a teacher who embodies the very essence of growth: being open to feedback and being so excited to get better, change, and improve was what was fuelling Beth!

But then it was also the other participants that blew me away. Being surprised by how much they took away for their own practices is always a happy side-effect of participating in a protocol. Brent Hurley said something to tune of: I was tired and hesitant to participate, but I’m so happy I did…I learned so much. I’m paraphrasing (watch the vid to get the actual quote) here, but the general run down is that watching people be so excited to learn was like a breath of fresh air.

Sometimes you have be vulnerable to take that first step towards growth! Thank goodness we have such great, supportive fellow Cohortees around to help hold hands during those shaky steps towards awesome.



Blogfolio Next Steps

Mar24 agendaI had the opportunity to present at Sterling Hall’s “Character Education Unconference” this past Monday March 24th, sharing our journey so far with Blogfolios. If you ever have the chance to share something from your classroom with a group of educators: DO IT! Being able to just sort through this process in preparation was enough reason to put myself in this uncomfortable position. But then being able to get some feedback and bounce ideas off my fellow teachers was really the icing on the cake. It was the cherry on top that I could go with my incredible colleague and also see her present!

So where am I and where are these Blogfolios? Currently, students are about 2 months away from sharing these with their parents. Students have about 8 artifacts posted from throughout the year (I was hoping for a few more by this point, but c’est la vie) showing either a growth, challenge, or next step.

In two weeks, students will hopefully have a piece reflecting on their growth from the beginning of their debate journey to now, picking apart how they have seen their growth mindset (GM) develop (not in those words exactly, but this is where I want the students to go with their writing).

In May, students will be sharing their Blogfolios in small groups (or just one-on-one with their parents). It would be awesome if they were sharing these with their “support sister groups” (small “Tribes” style groups with high trust built since January), to all of the parents belonging to that group of 3 or 4 students, answering questions about their development over the year using posts from their Blogfolio as evidence of their learning and change.

But one major thing I’m noting about exploring growth mindset is that Blogfolios are just scratching the surface. Since Garth shared this Tweet out…

Growth Mindset Rubric

I’m now curious about how to embed GM into evaluation tools / rubrics. Where else I can be filming students to document change? How could documentation play a role in students seeing their growth and change over time?

That’s the thing about growth mindset: you can never really be done!

Seeing growth with your own eyes

There are so many firsts in the beginning of a teaching career. These last five years (not the musical version, sadly) I’ve had so many awesome new experiences. This year, however, is the first time I’ve been able to take a second stab at a project. What a great way to put into practice what I’ve been learning about growth mindset! The only way I can get better in my practice as a teacher is to try try again.

Before the break, my students were busy bees preparing their arguments for their upcoming debates connecting “The Book Thief” to Canadian History using big ideas to unite the content of these seemingly separate areas of thinking. You can read my posts from last year about this project here.

Version 2.0 of this project is much more centred on fostering a growth mindset with my students using some pretty straightforward ed-tech-tools. Some of the basic changes are as follows:

1) Students were filmed giving a basic, fun, and unrehearsed debate. I uploaded all the clips to a shared Google folder. They reviewed the clips of themselves and completed a reflection on their “performance”. They judged themselves against a success criteria that we drafted together in class.

Success Criteria


2) Once they had their basic arguments formed, feedback was incorporated, and they had a simple debate script developed (all on Google docs), they filmed themselves (in partners) on iPads. Before they hit “record” though, they had to review what they wanted to improve from their first filming and make efforts to improve this aspect with their second stab at it. Neither this stage or the first stage was evaluated with grades, to allow students the time and space to just make mistakes and learn from that process. All the videos were uploaded to a shared folder so I can view and comment on this assessment as learning experience, offering necessary feedback before their final debate.

3) The next stage will be for students to reassess themselves using this same success criteria above, and make a plan for what they want to focus on with the presentation of their final debate. My hope is that this three-stage process can be added to the students’ Blogfolios, chronicling their learning and their growth over time.

I’m surprised with how simple yet powerful it has been for students to be confronted with themselves so clearly. It’s impossible to ignore the weird fidgeting, constant “ums”, or shifty eye contact when you are looking right at yourself. If anything, students are TOO critical of themselves when viewing the recorded presentations.

But leveraging the “squirm factor” and obvious emotional reactions of watching yourself on screen is such a powerful way to promote authentic reflection and growth. I’m excited to see if the pay off is stronger final presentations!



The Three Rules of Reflection

I was “himming and hawwing” (spelling suggestions welcome on that one) on how my exploration of portfolios as a means of teaching growth mindsets really enhanced / pushed forward 21st century learning in my classroom and then reading this Mind/Shift article called “What Meaningful Reflection on Student Work Can do For Learning” by Larissa Pahomov helped me see the forest for the trees again.

Pahomov has three clear suggestions for what reflection should be: metacognitive, applicable, and shared with others. Let’s start with metacognitive, shall we?


“When children are first learning to reflect on their work, their educators use simple prompts to get them thinking: Do you like what you made? Did you do a good job?Eventually, they are also asked to consider the process: What did you learn from this task? 

Metacognitive reflection, however, takes this process to the next level because it is concerned not with assessment, but with self-improvement: Could this be better? How? What steps should you take?”


This begged me to consider what questions are being asked of my students when they are looking at their own work. I see now, after reading this article, that the kinds of questions posed to the learner could be more explicit with generating metacognitive thinking. This is the template the students are using currently to think about their learning artifacts, which we adopted from what the grade 8 class used last year (why re-invent the wheel, right?). For the next round of portfolio entries, I think I will add these questions to guide the metacognitive process more:

– What did you learn from creating this work?
– Could this be better? How (be clear with what steps you would take)?


As teachers, we know where the class is headed in the learning journey and why each skill, knowledge set, or content piece is important for students to learn…but do the students know this?

“By being transparent about future tasks and assignments, teachers remind students that they’re going to have to use at least some of these skills again, so there’s no sense in making the same mistakes. Reflection suddenly has a real and immediate purpose: You know where this course is going, so how are you going to improve the quality of your own journey?”

There is a question on our reflection planning template that asks: “This (assignment/exercise, etc.) will help me in my life because” Students should be able to answer this clearly and directly. There shouldn’t be any guessing about it. So the point of why we reflect on these learning experiences should also be clear and understandable…or else the time spent processing could be an enormous waste. This reminds me that while we are learning anything really, I have to be exceptionally clear about why we are learning what we are learning. How this will serve them as contributing members of society and when this skill / knowledge will be applied in their lives. If they don’t see the point, you might as well not both.

Shared with Others:

“By sharing their reflections on their academic work, students can both advise and seek help from their peers. Sharing their achievements helps those who struggled with that particular task, and sharing their weak spots helps them troubleshoot as they work through a problem set or have a peer edit a rough draft.”

The beauty of Blogger accounts is that we can easily share with adults, other students, future teachers, and other important stakeholders in the lives of my students. Even stakeholders outside of the immediate learning community (Uncles, Aunts, Skating Coaches, Youth Group Leaders, Camp Directors, imaginary friends) could be invited to the blog and comment / share in the learning. When we return from the break, students will be introduced to their “Support Sisters” (think Tribes learning) that will serve as an audience and sounding board for portfolio entries. The importance of building trust, safety, and a supportive / non-competitive family within these support sisters is essential and something that I need to ensure happens.

So, based on this reading, my next steps are:

  • Add specific metacognitive questions to artifact reflection planner
  • Consistently be transparent about why we are learning what we are learning
  • Build time for trust building within support sisters groups
  • Make it a requirement to share the blogfolio with one other non-parent person outside of the classroom

The Problemn With Student Portfolios

(borrowed under the creative commons license)

Here is the problem with student portfolios:

Most of the time, students and teachers hate them. Teacher pretend like they don’t, but they fake it very badly, the whole process gets rushed, then executed at the last minute, leading  students to hate it equally, because it is obvious the process is ridiculous and inauthentic and a colossal waste of time.

Phew. I’m glad I got that off my chest.

But that’s not even the real problem with portfolios. The real problem with portfolios is that they could be amazing, outstanding, and brilliant learning experiences and often they don’t reach their potential in the classroom. Portfolios, I think, are one the most misunderstood members of our educational landscape (standing somewhere awkwardly in the corner next to graphic novels probably…but that’s another post) and I want to do something to change that.

Maybe you’ve read already that I’m embarking on a year long exploration of growth mindset in my classroom. It has been harder than I thought it would be to find ways to embed this philosophy in my teaching (leveraging 21st Century tools to make this happen) and I’m humbled by the posts of fellow teachers out there that Garth pointed out to me that are struggling with the same challenges. My hunch is that infusing the portfolio process with a growth mindset philosophy, students can better reflect on their setbacks, actually learning that challenges are essential to achieving their goals.

This is where we stand right now with portfolios in Grade 7:

  • Students have chosen 2-3 artifacts that they feel show either a growth, a challenge, or a success. See one example here.
  • We will likely use Blogger as a platform to house these artifacts and help students curate the story of their learning this year (see the chart that explains this decision making process).
  • Students have shared some artifacts with their parents during the conferences (I also want students to have the power to choose what they show their parents and what they don’t show their parents to make their writing more honest and vulnerable).

Pros and Cons


And this is how I’m hoping to remix  portfolios:

  • The instruction of portfolios happens in tandem with instruction on growth mindset. Students have to be taught how they learn and grow. By doing so, I hope to help students “buy in” to the portfolio process and see the merits in this kind of learning.
  • We set monthly “portfolio parties” in class: we watch some YouTube growth mindset videos, we chose current artifacts, we write about our learning / progress towards goals, we celebrate each other’s successes and learn from our shared challenges.
  • We use the power of Google tools (YouTube, Docs, Blogger, Kaizena) to get students to write and reflect about their learning in multiple modalities.
  • Students can curate their work: the final conferences are student led. Students can chose who they invite to view / celebrate their work (in addition to having their parents / guardians present).
  • Students see their own teacher actively engaged in the process of “documenting” work: therefore this blog needs to be shared with them!

I want to know the good, the bad, and portfolio horror stories from your own practices. What has worked well for you / your students? What will you never do again? Let’s share and learn from our missteps and failures together!