Writing for Life

by Cathy Herrick

“Writing is a core skill for living, not just for school” (Kittle, 2014). This belief underlies the Living Sky School Division’s purpose for a focus on writing. Students, like adults, write for a variety of purposes and for a variety of audiences, and for many it is hard, hard, work.    Teachers across all curriculum areas have students write to share their ideas, check for understanding, problem solve, and to explore their thinking.

WritingThe Living Sky School Division set a goal two years ago to support the enhancement of student writing across all grades.  Many schools have also established their own writing school goal.  Professional development activities, regular and focussed teacher conversations about writing, and the implementation of a variety of strategies have all been some of the ways teachers have sought to improve their instruction and students’ achievement.   In an effort to provide teachers and students with some specific feedback from a division perspective, a small sample of student writing from grades 3, 6, 9, and 12 is collected every  year from all schools.  Teachers from each of these grades meet once a year (May) to collaboratively score hundreds of pieces of students’ writing from across the school division.  Every student’s work is assessed by two different teachers using a four point rubric. This specific feedback is returned to each student for reflection.  Data collected from the collaborative scoring days is collated and returned to schools to guide planning for the upcoming year.  Division wide data is organized to provide a picture of how well our students are achieving curriculum expectations for writing and to guide supports for the upcoming year.

Through the collaborative scoring process teachers have commented that meeting together to assess students’ writing provides an invaluable opportunity to discuss students’ common strengths, weaknesses, and the strategies that are working to close gaps and improve writing.  Assessing the work of other students across the division also provides a common understanding of expectations for proficient writing at a variety of grade levels.

Time well spent? Students write every day to learn, to share stories, opinions, and ideas, and to demonstrate their thinking and understanding.  Writing is a life skill that requires explicit instruction, lots of practice, timely and specific feedback, and lots of encouragement.  Parents, teachers, and community members want to see children succeed, and the skill of writing for a variety of purposes and audiences is important.  Teachers working together, students working together, and parents, children, and teachers working in partnership yield the result of a community that writes to understand and to be understood.

May 23, 2014Permalink

Why Write?

By Donna DesRoches and JoAnne Kasper

This week the English Language Arts/Early Language and Literacy Consultant and I, the Instructional Technology Consultant, are leading a workshop on the four purposes of writing and how technology can be used to motivate, engage, collaborate and demonstrate understanding in the writing process. Our agenda can be found on the Learning and Technology Wiki.

The workshop will be broken down into the four main purposes of writing: to describe, to tell a story (narrative), to explain and to persuade.  We will then break each section into three acts: theory, technology and application.

The ELA/EL Consultant will provide a brief overview of each purpose for writing, sharing resources and strategies.  I, as the Instructional Technology Consultant, will give a short how-to on some of the technology tools available for teachers.  I plan to demonstrate programs available on our windows machines, online tools and apps for the iOS devices that are gaining popularity in our schools.

Workshop participants will then have an opportunity to experiment and play with any of the tools suggested while the workshop leaders move about the room supporting teachers as they play and learn.

We have built in reflection on learning in two ways; one is with the use of Padlet to encourage reflection throughout the day and the second is to have teachers respond to this blog post letting us know what they have learned and what they will apply within their classroom setting.

Our hope is that teachers will come away with a deeper understanding about the purposes of writing and greater confidence in using technology to meet writing outcomes.

February 27, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

Mastery: Promoting Fires in Students’ Bellies

by Cathy Herrick

The idea of Mastery has been around for centuries, in many fields, and has many definitions.  In education writers, researchers, administrators, and teachers have their own pre-determined ideas as to what constitutes mastery.  A review of some of the most recent thinking on this topic reveals that there is no one common definition, nor a “right” definition, but rather some agreement as to what constitutes mastery and what does not constitute mastery relative to student learning and achievement.

Mastery, Mastery Learning, and a Mastery designation on a rubric all have different connotations.  Mastery is defined in the Oxford dictionary as, “an action demonstrating or involving great skill or power…. to perform a notable deed, or wonderful feat.”  Benjamin Bloom describes the concept of mastery learning as a possible outcome for any student who was provided adequate time and “favourable learning conditions” to perform and be assessed on a criterion-based scale determined by a teacher (Bloom,1977).  As a school division we are working to establish some common criteria to assess deeper levels of understanding of curricular outcomes, which we have labeled as Mastery on a rubric.

Teachers, administrators, coaches, consultants, and superintendents in our school division are exploring, collaborating, and doing some deep thinking about what Mastery as a concept means relative to student achievement.  Challenges to develop criteria, learning tasks, and exemplars are initiating some consternation and uncertainty for teachers when facing pressures from students and parents who are used to a point system to measure success.  However, this inquiry, discussion, experimentation, and reflection are all necessary components to understanding and developing the ways and means of ensuring that students have access to authentic learning activities that build the “fire in their bellies” to learn and to continue to learn.

Engaging students in learning has a fundamental tie to the Mastery level. Students demonstrating a desire to work hard, to think strategically, and to accept some ambiguity also clearly know themselves well as learners. Tomlinson worries about college students who have no experience of the “fire in their belly” to drive them to do hard thinking, to read, to debate ideas,  and to push themselves toward excellence in a real world pursuit” (Tomlinson, 2013 ). She worries that students don’t know how to reason or to think abstractly because they have learned to “jump through the hoops” of schooling, doing what is necessary to get the points.

At the Mastery level on a rubric we want to promote:

  • Students accomplishing novel challenges through the application of skills and understandings
  • Students “effective transfer of learning done with creativity, polish, and grace” with an understanding of what has been done and why (Wiggins, 2013 p. 13)
  • A student’s desire to get better at something that matters to them
  • Authentic tasks at the heart of “doing” the subject

We have taken a risk, developing rubrics that challenge students to demonstrate mastery of an outcome.  We are modeling the “messiness”, the risk-taking, the inquiry, the struggles, and the tenacity that we expect of our students at their highest levels.  We continue to learn; we have a “fire in our belly” to “get it right”, to assist our students in achieving the highest levels possible.

Though we can’t define or measure “mastery” only as an attitude/behaviour, nor can we completely ignore it as we observe students in their pursuit of Level 4 – Mastery.  Our Olympic athletes have provided us with some insight these past few weeks as they achieve mastery levels in their sport.  Not only have they learned the fundamental concepts and skills of their sport, but they have applied them and their understandings in races, in games, and during performances.  Every athlete has a fire in their belly to succeed. These athletes have not attained a level of Mastery focusing only on bits of knowledge, isolated drills, or by not knowing what excellence looks like.  Thus, on our rubrics we want to ensure that Mastery does not look like:

  • A march through facts and sub skills, dotted with quizzes
  • A high grade on a test/quiz of low level questions
  • A simple recall of facts and skills
  • Proficiency with drills and exams
  • Local norms and low expectations, nor
  • Arbitrary calculations

Forging ahead as educators we must not be satisfied with learning that is just ‘good enough’. We chose this profession because we love to see the ‘light bulbs’ turn on, the excitement in the eyes of learners who make new discoveries, and we relish the moments when tough questions with no answers get asked and debated.  Developing classroom climates and practices that inspire kids to achieve mastery levels of learning involves:

  • Students believing that the learning task matters,
  • Regular inquiry, problem solving, and innovation,
  • Timely and descriptive feedback (including re-assessments),
  • Fostering intrinsic motivation rather than pressure to get the grade,
  • Self-comparisons rather than comparisons to others,
  • Environments where students can safely take risks and believe that they can succeed, and
  • Planning that begins with the end in mind.

Gusky (2013) promotes that Mastery can only be measured in light of a world standard, that students deserve the opportunity to know where the bar is.  An Olympic athlete knows, or has an idea, of what Mastery looks like in his/her sport.   While, we in education may not be all the way there yet, the goal is worthy of the pursuit, which begins as a school division, extends to the province, the nation, and beyond.


Cushman, K. (2013). Minds on fire. Educational Leadership, 71(4), 38-43.

Gusky, T., Anderson E. (2013). In search of a useful definition of mastery. Educational Leadership,
71(4), 19-23.

Tomlinson, C. (2013). Let’s not dilute mastery. Educational Leadership, 71(4), 88-89.

Tucker, C. (2013). Five musts for mastery. Educational Leadership, 71(4), 57-60.

Wiggins, G. (2013). How good is good enough? Educational Leadership, 71(4), 10-16.

February 26, 2014Permalink

Partners in Journalism

Partners in Journalism
Student Producer

I recently had the opportunity to watch an exceptional group of high school journalism students in action at Unity Composite High School in Saskatchewan, Canada. With tremendous support from the divisions’ ICS Assistant Manager, Ryan Kobelsky, students from UCHS and students from the Uttam Girls’ School near Delhi, Indian, broadcast a joint, simultaneous newscast that took place on Skype across a distance of 11,000 kilometers and 12 time zones.

Ruth Cey, classroom teacher and UCHS Assistant Administrator, had proposed to her  Journalism 20 class that they do an international broadcast  with a partner school.  She explored possibilities on Skype In The Classroom and then, not satisfied that there was a suitable partner, she approached a student in her class, Kezia, asking her if she knew of a school in India that would be interested in a joint project.  She was aware that Kezia had connections and thought this might be a more effective way of finding a class with whom they could collaborate to create a series of television articles about daily life in India and Canada.

Kezia was soon on board  and became the go-between in India, teaching about the project in the classroom at the Uttam School for Girls, using the tools from the journalism wiki and then conveying all sorts of information to the students and the school administration. During the month that Kezia was in India they stayed in touch via telephone and email. To quote Ms. Cey “she was brilliant – responsible and committed”. When Ruth was concerned that the project might not get done in a timely matter, Kezi assured her that it would. She was the lynch-pin in communicating and coordinating the Indian part of the project.

That evening the excitement in the studio was palpable as the class of 22 students, teachers, parents, guests, principal, and the press took their places to watch the live production.

Control Centre
Control Centre

The control centre; tricaster, teleprompter, camera, lights, Skype laptop, and green screen were all ready to go and breaths were bated as the Skype call was placed – a spontaneous round of applause broke out when contact was made and the voices from 11,000 kilometers away were heard.   The broadcast was underway!

Anchors from each school introduced their segments and the Master Controller, Heather, mixed the live feed, the Skype feed and the recorded video on the fly. Director Ryan maintained Skype contact with the Uttam Times artfully signing them on and off.  Producer, Kezia, whose hard work contributed to the evening’s successful broadcast provided Hindi translation services when necessary and problem-solved when the final recorded segment seemed lost in cyber-space.  Due to some quick thinking on the part of one of the anchors and a guest appearance by Ms. Cey enough time was bought to allow the inclusion of the elusive video.

UCHS Journalism Class
UCHS Journalism Class

Another round of applause occurred when the newscast ended and the final sign off completed.  The one hour broadcast and the newscast team of eight; producer, master controller, teleprompter, the three UCHS and two Uttam anchors belies the hours of planning, researching, interviewing, writing and filming that was undertaken by the Journalism students at UCHS and the students at the Uttam School for Girls.

To paraphrase Ruth Cey, the purpose of the project was not only to provide an authentic, genuine journalism experience but also to connect, collaborate and ultimately encounter and experience cultural similarities and differences – and so they did from the rural Canadian world of pick-up trucks and hockey to the more poetic use of language and the world of billiards, golf and tennis of the Uttam School for Girls.

They made it happen!
They made it happen!

The streaming video has been archived. Students are currently reviewing and editing some of the footage so there maybe a few changes once final exams are completed.  Contact Ruth Cey (@ruthcey) for information about how this inquiry-based journalism project came to be and contact Ryan Kobelsky at the Living Sky School Division for information about the technical aspects of the project.

January 28, 2014Permalink

Concerning Aboriginal Education

by Michelle Sanderson

Cross-posted at Indigenous Education

I recently read,  an article about Paul Martin as printed in May 15, 2013, in  the Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), Aboriginal education vexes Martin, Canada.,  and I invite you all to take a good critical read of this article. To summarize, Martin is celebrated for putting some of his own money into projects aimed at helping Indigenous people.   I bring indigenous history and an anti-racist, anti-colonial, and critical lens to the article in understanding the reasons and manner with which Mr. Martin  concentrates his efforts to alleviate the suffering and attempting to address the problems experienced by Aboriginal people.

After reading the article, I found that Martin names a lot of the problems indigenous people face when being a member of an oppressed group in Canada. These are touted on two different areas in the article, some of the problems that he named quite uncritically, I might add, are half of the homes have single parent families, half of the students who are in school are in foster care, high unemployment rates, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, weak literacy/low literacy rates, lack of role models, reserves are economic dead ends,  poor housing, educational inequalities,  25% – 40% less funding per student for primary students in schools, and last but not least, gangs, crime and violence.

That list is a little overwhelming, maybe even daunting. However;  the problem with the article, is that the reader is left to their own devices to make sense of these sad and grim statistics.  Without a critical view of what all of this means, the article in itself, serves to do a dis-service to indigenous people.  I commend Martin on putting his money where his mouth is, but, at the same time, I worry, that without a critical understanding of the statistics he’s touted, that he just may be very well be perpetrating stereotypes about the very people he’s trying to help. We must ever be conscious of the brush of stereotyping.

As many elders and spiritual elders explain, you can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.  If you know your Canadian history, then you’ll be aware of how our early indigenous ancestors experienced the newcomers. The newcomers saw our early indigenous ancestors as needing help, that there was something wrong with them, that they didn’t have something, that should be given to them, that they, the oppressors could provide. This deficit thinking led to some very profound mindsets, or strategies, which painted indigenous people with negative connotations.  Without a critical understanding of these multi-faceted problems called into attention, we may blame the victim.  We can avoid that by  educating ourselves and understanding our nation’s true history, which isn’t pretty.

It is this very Canadian history, which is intertwined with colonialism, racism,  which in large, lead to where First Nations people are today.  Policies like residential schools to “take the Indian out of the child” were a real part of our history and it’s this, our shared history, which has material consequences in today’s society. Unrealized treaty promises lead to economic detriment to First Nations farmers. There were untold opportunity, for the early settlers, and true, like the Canadian national story tells, there were difficult times for those settlers. However; those settlers had opportunity and privilege which was systematically denied to the early First Nations farmers. Time and time again tales of withheld impliments, denied access to the market are told about our First Nations farmers. It’s sad to hear about it, but as well, there are many tales of lost lands, which were then placed into the hands of the newcomers or settlers. These are the stories that are untold in public education, deliberatly or not, which need to be told.  It is these events, which have  lead to the material consequences of poverty for generations for some and wealth for others. Some are still benefitting off the wealth of that very land today. So, although it may seem like it’s all in the past, there are true material consequences to the policies and laws that were put into place in the early 1900′s to privilege some and to deny others. This, in short,  is the definition of racism. In order to move forward, we need to acknowledge our dark past. There’s no moving forward without the validation of the truth.  There are still tons of residual trauma connected with unrealized treaty promises, residential schools and policies like the Indian Act. The last residential school, here in Saskatchewan, was closed only in the 90′s. It’s not far enough in our distant past to relay the racism as a past tense, as in it happens no more. These same policies are at the root of today’s lived oppression, poverty and intergenerational trauma which have affected today’s indigenous people. Many of us both indigenous and settler, are trying very hard to walk a new path, and reconnect with wellness, through a variety of ways, and it’s important if we’re going to walk this road in the manner our indigenous ancestors intended, hand in hand, sharing all economic opportunities and the land and seeing each other as humans beings, as cousins, that we indigenous and settlers have to understand our dark past to meet our bright future together.

Regardless of thestatistics, or the problems which are said to be “plaguing” First Nations,  without fully understanding the situation, it is extremely detrimental to the communities you are working in to not understand our collective histories.  More importantly, when working with oppressed groups, such as Canada’s First Nations, it’s important to remember that the indigenous people did not arrive at such atrocities by themselves.  These problems and statistics are real material consequences which were, and are, arrived at through policies, procedures and implementations of real laws aimed at marginalizing the First Nations people.

Some of the laws aren’t too far in the distant past. In this modern day and age, we can see differences in funding, as much as 13,000.00 per child, in on- reserve schools, compared to provincial schools.  This only serves to ensure a lower quality of education, ensure less teacher time for indigenous students on reserve than in the city. Martin is right when he talks about our indigenous students being second class.  And the policies just keep coming! With the education act being pushed through parliament with the omnibus bills, we see more legislation coming to provide even less to indigenous students on-reserve.

One challenge I would put to Martin, is to look at First Nations in a new way, as a group of oppressed people who do have the role models in their communities, who do care about their children’s education and well being,  and indeed many First Nations people do work, are sober, are educated,  pay taxes and deserve to be treated and talked about with dignity when and where the subject of indigenous people exists, in education, in mainstream, in the economy and even in the media. It is also equally important to realize that for those who are suffering ongoing lived oppression, that they didn’t quite get there by themselves and that Canada itself has a long and on-going violent colonial  history toward Aboriginal people and would do well to acknowledge its role in the predicament that First Nations and Metis students find themselves in.

I’ve included some links and citations to some articles, which delve into these multi-faceted issues further.  I hope my article/blog sparks some conversations, to change the old way of seeing and look through the world with new critically awakened eyesight. I applaud Mr. Martin and I hope that he continues work for the wellness of all humankind and I encourage him to further educate himself as to how to better “become an ally.”

The Hawthorn Report (online)
Cardinal, Harold. The Unjust Society. 2nd ed. Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 1999. 140.
Lawrence, Bonita. “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview.” Hypatia. 18:2. 2003. 3.1
Mullin, Jessica. “Opinion Shale-gas exploration debate exposes intersecting issues of race and colonialism.” October 18, 2013 Miramichi Online
October 25, 2013Permalink

Student Generated Comics Using the Comic Life App

by Donna DesRoches

Recently I have had the pleasure of working with groups of students using the iPads and an app called ComicLife. I watched theirComicLife App Icon enthusiasm and excitement while first creating their story, mapping out a short storyboard and then creating the comic.

In the article, Using Student Generated Comic Books in the Classroom, the author believes that because kids are familiar and comfortable with comic books several benefits emerge when they create their own comics particularly in the areas of reading, writing and research skills.

Designing a comic book provides an opportunity for students to be creative in the presentation of their writing.  It also allows them to apply and demonstrate their knowledge in an innovative and imaginative way:

  • Through comics students can investigate the use of dialogue, succinct and dramatic vocabulary and nonverbal communication.
  • Designing comic books can generate expository composition including historical and biographical writing
  • The creative process allows students to determine what is most important from their reading, to rephrase it succinctly, and then to organize it logically.

There is a natural fit for creating comics and using the app ComicLife within the grade 9 ELA curriculum but it can be used as a form of summative assessment across all subject areas.  The article, Using Comic Life at Every Level of Bloom’s, provides some very specific examples of how the ComicLife App can be integrated into a variety of subject areas including math.

Quality projects using ComicLife occur when students are well prepared both in content knowledge and provided with a clearly designed process.

Some basic steps enable students to use ComicLife to its full advantage:

  1. Provide a number of comics or graphic novels to students and have them analyze them for comic book elements:
    1. Flow of images through panels or frames
    2. Borders and gutters
    3. Captions (voice of the narrator)
    4. Speech and thought balloons or bubbles
    5. Tone shown through shape, bold or italics
    6. Use of symbols to represent concepts or ideas
    7. Sound effects represented by words
    8. Provide students with time to play with and explore the ComicLife app
      1. Select templates
      2. Menu buttons to select and change
      • Font styles
      • Page layouts
      • Insert and delete pages
      • Sharing options
    9. Access the camera
    10. Access the photo gallery
  2. Provide students with a template or process for creating a rough draft or storyboard of the comic.  I usually have students draw panels on a blank sheet of paper. Another way to storyboard is the use of cards as illustrated in this post.  Students can then manipulate the sequence of the cards to create the best story flow. Often they need to be encouraged to keep their drawings simple – stick figures are best – and to focus on the dialogue.  They should also know that once they begin creating their comic some points in the storyboard will and should change.
  3. Once students have completed their storyboard they can begin to create their comic.  I am always surprised at how important the storyboard is to students as they refer to it often in the midst of the creative process.
  4. The finished comics can be printed.  They can also be shared with their classmates via an Apple TV.
October 21, 2013Permalink