Coding 4 Learning

When I googled Harvey Mudd, just the thought of doing an online course at a specialty College in Math, Science and Engineering in Los Angeles intimidated me.  I started the Programming in Scratch HarveyMuddX CS002X course because the Minister of Education announced in Spring that students would be learning coding in school.  I teach computer technology with several classes and enrol a Grade 3 class on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Although I have done a good job teaching online safety, digital citizenship and navigating the internet for a variety of purposes and creating digital portfolios, as have many of the teachers in my school.  To date not many have  waded into the CODING terrain.  As an instructional leader in the school, I realized that I needed more background information to be able to expose kids to this new horizon and engage in the conversation with staff.

My personal inclination is more of a Social Science rather than Math / Science bent.  Given a fiction novel or an interesting math problem to consider, I’ll take the novel every time.  I completed the first module of the course in June and then promptly back- burnered it.  Although I thought about getting to work on the course in summer, I used all of my very best developed procrastination skills to avoid it.   My saving grace was that I had promised kids that we would do coding in the fall and wanted to support the teachers delving into this new terrain.  I knew that I was committed and there was no chance that they’d forget my intended risk taking venture.  I plodded through the assignments and hated it until I was 3/4 of the way through the course.  At that point, I was creating some pretty cool things that I could get excited about.  I was also starting to feel more able to control the outcome in a myriad of ways.  The computer was no longer the problem.  It was up to me to figure out what I had missed in the code to direct the computer.  The locus of control was with me, not the computer.  My biggest problem was to STOP working on my final project.  I went way beyond the expectations of the assignment because my own vision took over.  You’ll laugh if you check out the link.  The game is basic but the learning was profound!

Try me!
Try me!

I was also able to appreciate that I had developed a new way of thinking.  My global / holistic orientation to life had to be traded in for a very logical, sequential approach in order to complete the assignments.  Although in earlier assignments, I was able to complete the task, it was not always the best way that could be used as the course became increasingly complex.

I have been married for many years to a Systems Analyst with a passion for computer programming.  My spontaneous approach to exploring what life has to offer has always been counterbalanced with his end game approach to life.  I now have a much better understanding of the orientation.  In computer science the definition of the final product and what you want it to accomplish dictates how it is approached.  No wonder getting off the vaporetti into the circuitous streets of Venice that were not at all map friendly  stressed him out so much!

Another benefit of teaching coding to students is the complexity of the thinking required to accomplish a task.  Although it has frustrated me over the years that my husband has trouble stepping away from the computer, I can now appreciate the need to hold  several threads of thought in your head in order to navigate through the “If… then”, “if… else”, “repeat” command frequently nested in another command.  The need for complete accuracy forces you to concentrate on the task until completion.  Many nights I looked up and it was 4 am and the time had just slipped away.  In this day of high jolt entertainment, learning to focus on one task for an extended period of time is extremely beneficial and rewarding.

The level of analysis required for programming is also prevalent.  In order to debug a program, you need to follow each step of the program to determine where the error is occurring.  The bugs that initially stumped me were not the commands that were incorrectly executed but the ones that executed so quickly that you couldn’t see them.  The code not the observation of the program was what revealed the mystery.  Programs like Scratch lend themselves to being remixed.  This is when chunks of the program are borrowed to use in your own program.  A high level of analysis is required to read the code to determine the best block of code to select, and the best and most efficient way to use it in your own programs.

As you may have surmised by now, I have become a big believer in the merits of coding with children.  Recently I discovered the Usborne Lift-the-flip Computers and Coding book.  I recently used it to introduce coding to Grade three students.  The layout of the book supports the conceptual understanding of complex ideas.  The follow up was the introduction to Scratch Jr. on the iPads.  Although I carefully thought through how I would sequence the instruction, by the end of one session, some students had managed to open four stages with four different sprites that were interacting with each other.  The desire to complete specific tasks had spawned “teachers” all over the room which was buzzing.  All of the students in the room were highly engaged in mentoring and creating.

Social Media Breaks

Another perfect day at the lake!
Another perfect day at the lake!

This summer I took a deliberate online hiatus from social media.  This was facilitated by some key events.

  1. I wondered if I could.
  2. Our cabin in the Sierra Nevadas does not have internet access.
  3. I didn’t want to get sand in my iPad or computer.

Engaging with social media is a habit.  Like Pavlov’s dog, the ping or even a lapse of time, brings the strong impulse “to check”.  In many instances, it evokes a smile with a quick update or joke or pic from a friend or relative.  It may bring reassurance that the kids are okay.  It may allow for the impromptu bike ride, golf game, or tea time.   It brings a connection with people connected with common interests and reminders of that upcoming dentist’s appointment.


By all accounts, a break from social media is viewed to be a very positive thing.   The downside of “the ping” is when it signals that you are still at work with things to tend to.  It is easy to fall into the trap of, “Better to do it now, rather than adding it to the never ending things to do list”.  I’ve looked at many emails and texts that come with an expectation of immediate response, even very late at night and very early in the morning.  The NOT working 24/7 is the quest implicit in the technology break.


I LOVE Twitter as a tool for professional development.  Disengaging from posting and responding to other posts brings a disconnection with “friends” or “followers”.  If the numbers game is an important goal, then the break is not a healthy thing.  If you have cultivated connections online, then you know where to find them and how to re-engage when you’re ready.  One of the best things of presenting in Boston at the International Literacy Association this summer, was connecting with some of the people I’ve connected with online.  We’d look at each others nametag and react as old friends.  As a tool to develop your Professional Learning Community, I think Twitter is brilliant.  Although the 140 characters of text do not provide enough depth to be profound, the links to blogs and articles and other professional development stimulate the thought and connections to facilitate professional growth.  I frequently use Twitter as a way to take notes and involve people inside and outside the room in thinking about the topic being discussed during professional development sessions.  I did miss the conversation over the summer.


A close colleague and I frequently laugh about our treatment of books.  We are both prolific readers.  She sits in one place, does not bend the pages and places them back on the shelf in order by author’s last name.  I take a collection of books with me everywhere I go.  They show evidence of the beach, the bathtub, red wine, coffee and many bends in the corners.  This is probably why e-readers have never worked for me.  Professional books are marked with highlighters, stickee tabs and underlining.   They go back on a shelf if I get them back from whoever last borrowed it.  That did not change this summer but the blogging piece did change how I interacted with the books.  Blogging pushes the reflection of text to a deeper level.  When ideas are being expressed to an audience, it is necessary to refine your thinking and fine tune how your ideas are expressed.  I think I read more this summer without blogging but I thought about what I had read less.  Blogging facilitates the reflection which makes the reading more personally meaningful.  I continued to register a plethora of questions to ask and ideas to blog about LATER.


After the initial break from technology, it became easier and easier not to reach for my phone or get up early in the am to blog.  I didn’t realize was how hard it would be to get back into the habit of engaging in social media.  As with anything, engaging with technology isn’t something that some people are predisposed to do.  It is a clear choice that it is important and therefore the time and energy must be carved out to engage in it.  So now I am forced with the challenge of getting back to the gym AND getting back to engaging with technology.  Fortunately I can read my phone on the stationary bike🙂

Superheroes Champion Syrian Refugees via CBC Podcast

1947 This suitcase carried belongings of mother and her four young children to Canada to start a new chapter of life

It all started with a suitcase on Human Rights Day on December 10, 2015.  Tecumseh students were first asked to reflect on the Syrian Refugee crisis.  Students wrote letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressing their desire for Syrian boys and girls to live in a place without war where they could go to school in safety.  They wrote heartwarming notes to Syrian refugees so they would know that Canada is a country that values human right and was welcoming to people wanting to start new chapters of their lives.

This project captured the mind and heart of Grade 5/6 teacher Marion Collins, who worked tirelessly to provide learning opportunities for teachers and students throughout the year in the spirit of the redesigned curriculum in British Columbia.  With the help of a grant from Promoting a Culture of Peace for Children Society, the suitcase became a symbol of the refugee experience and a work of art welcoming individuals to add their individual voice to the multicultural expression of Canada.  With the help of a grant from ReadingBC (the BC council of the International Reading Association), the writing component of the project grew to include stories and photos of the journey to Canada of Tecumseh students, clothing with messages to Syrian refugees to go in the suitcase, reflections of what students would grab if they needed to leave home in a hurry like refugees.

Last week, Science World hosted the Digital Fair of the Vancouver School Board.  Grade 5/6 students presented their Graphic Novels inspired by CBC podcasts.  Graphic novels featured student created Refugee Superheroes to equip Syrian refugees with the skills to cope with the experience of settling in a new Canadian home.  They use captions, time labels, sounds and speech bubble to demonstrate their innovative, creative and unique style.  Most of all, they continue on the spirit of welcoming that comes from children who understand the challenges and difficulties that accompany leaving your home to start a new chapter of life in another country.

Shining A Light on Reading

Continue reading “Shining A Light on Reading”

Curriculum Learning at Gr.6 Camp


Last week was the annual Grade 6 Camp Elphinstone experience.  For students on the South Slope of Vancouver, it is a game changer.  Most of the children come to camp and experience a plethora of “Firsts”.  This year some of those “firsts” included:

  • taking a ferry
  • staying in a cabin with friends
  • sighting a baby bear
  • watching a river otter poop
  • canoeing
  • kayaking
  • archery
  • catching a fish
  • swimming in the ocean
  • attempting to hit the bell at the top of the climbing wall
  • Meal time and Campfire ritual of songs and chants and debates
  • counting the seconds between the forked lightning and thunder
  • eating Mexican sushi (actually scrambled egg breakfast wraps)
  • setting the table, serving food, and cleaning up

The team building opportunity presented by the camp experience creates a  perfect opportunity to develop the essentials of social and emotional learning.  This results in a sense of belonging and a wonderful tone going into their final Grade 7 year of elementary school for Tecumseh students.  The YMCA has years of providing high quality programming for young people and has all of the elements of the camp experience down to perfection.  The camp rituals of family style food service and traditional campfire songs and activities challenge students to take risks, engage in experiential learning and explore their identity.  The young counsellors from Canada, New Zealand and Australia are able to keep up with the pace of energetic Grade 6 students and facilitate safe and memorable learning experiences.  Our Junior counsellors from David Thompson Secondary and sponsor teachers came together to ensure the best experience possible for our campers.

If you talk to our students, they will tell you they are on a holiday from school.  In actual fact, they have simply entered the outdoor classroom to engage in experiential learning masked as fun.  The learning is not in just one experience but many experiences in nature and with peers over time.  If you have the time and inclination, you may want to open up the redesigned curriculum in British Columbia-Grade 6.  The three-day camp experience touched on many big ideas, all of the core competencies and a meaty chunk of curriculum.  The social emotional learning is pervasive throughout all of the activities and experiences and indigenous ways of knowing are infused throughout the experience.

Meal time and camp fire included  action songs, chants, listening games and debates for students to hone their powers of persuasion.  Shelter building required teamwork to come up with a plan to build a shelter from materials on the forest floor that could withstand both the earthquake and water test.  Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, the climbing wall and archery challenged students to take risks, learn a new skill and took the development of flexibility, strength and endurance to new levels.  The range of games such Running Pictionary, Capture the Flag, Camouflage tag and Wink, Wink, Murder necessitate safety rules, game rules, social interaction, spatial awareness and verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

Upon reflection, the camp experience opens a myriad of possibilities for more intentional curriculum learning.  I am not proposing duo-tangs filled with photocopied worksheets.  I am proposing that we consider the aspects of curriculum that can be incorporated into the camp experience.  Place based Aboriginal perspectives and ways of knowing as outlined in the First People’s Principles of Learning could be clearly articulated.  The opportunity to directly teach social emotional skills to allow students to develop coping skills for dealing with stress and for dealing with conflict effectively are present throughout the daily schedule.  The consideration of opportunities for direct instruction in mindfulness by tapping into nature and social interaction are plentiful.  It means people with background knowledge about the solar system, constellations, local flora, fauna and primary resources become invaluable.  Materials such as compasses, Write in the Rain notebooks and field handbooks may need to be purchased. The camp experience may be re-imagined, not as an “extra” but as a vital pathway to develop and incorporate big ideas, core competencies and curriculum knowledge for our students in a meaningful way.


imageOn December 10th, 2015, Tecumseh Elementary School paused to celebrate Human Rights Day and to consider the plight of Syrian refugees.  If you had a chance to read the Welcoming Syrian Refugees blog (Dec. 2015), you will remember that Marion Collins was reading Hannah’s Suitcase with her students and we had the idea to create peace art with the old wooden suitcase that my paternal Grandmother brought to Canada in 1947 to start a new chapter of life with her four young children.   With the help of the grant from Promoting a Culture of Peace for Children Society, the suitcase has become an inspiration for representing ideas through art, reading, writing, listening, speaking and caring.

One side of the suitcase is decorated with messages of welcome to the Syrian refugees. The other sides are decorated with Jackson Pollock inspired art by Grade 3 students. Each colour represents each individual in Canada with all of our similarities and differences.  The finished masterpiece is the representation of all of us coming together to create something beautiful.  Tanya Conley’s students also made flags of the countries of origin of Tecumseh students and of the suitcase.  A local artist, Larkyn Froese, came into help the Grade 3’s with applying the flags on the project.  Grade 6 students wrote messages of welcome on fabric squares and sewed them on items of clothing to be displayed coming out of the suitcase.

The artwork became a catalyst for more questions and an inspiration for the reading and writing of Tecumseh students.  With the help of a grant from ReadingBC (The British Columbia chapter of the International Literacy Association –ILA), Ms. Collins continued to expand the project to include a literacy component with the entire school.   The experience of leaving home and family behind is a difficult experience as an immigrant and as a refugee. Many of the parents in our school community have given up good jobs in their home country and work hard, often with more than one job, to provide better opportunities for their children in Canada.  Ms. Collins spearheaded a writing project with intermediate students to interview their parents and discover family stories of hardship and triumph.  Several albums have been filled with the interviews and photographs for display with the suitcase.

This same family history vein was pursued by Ms. Conley’s HumanEYES art based initiative that celebrates the diverse life experiences of young people throughout the Vancouver, Coast Salish ancestral lands.  This project documented inter-generational and inter-cultural storytelling and celebrates the importance of family and maintaining cultural roots.  The project culminated with an intergenerational cookbook filled with recipes, art and family photographs of her 4th graders that has been included in the suitcase as well.

Ms. Collins, her enthusiasm and the desire of staff to get involved resulted in almost all of the classrooms in the school taking part in the project.  Several classes stopped to consider the notion of taking flight in war-torn areas with very few belongings.  They learned many refugees leave home with a house key in the hope their home will survive the war or as a memory of what was.  Several intermediate classes of students designed hamsa handsan old and still popular amulet for magical protection from the envious or evil eye in many Middle East and North African cultures.  They created keychains with the hasma hand, a key and a fimo sculpture of what they pack if they needed to leave home in a hurry.  Primary students wrote and drew about what they would bring and have created albums of their ideas for inclusion in the suitcase as well.

The #WelcomeSyrianRefugees project was first featured at the United Way luncheon for Syrian Refugees that was hosted at Tecumseh Elementary school this Spring.  The most common reaction from the adults viewing the project has been tears.  In the barrage of negatives on mainstream media and social media, there is comfort that Canadian children are welcoming their Syrian children with open arms.  There is also the hope that there are many Canadian adults who are doing exactly the same thing.

Note:  The title #WelcomeSyrianRefugees came from the Twitter handle of the same name that expresses messages of welcome not just to Syrian refugees.  This project will be on display at the Vancouver School Board during July and August 2016.  Our goal is for it to be displayed at a variety of venues as a way to warmly welcome refugees as they begin a new chapter of their lives in Canada.


Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine

imageInvestigating Our Practice Conference in the Faculty of Education on Saturday, May 14th.  The day was filled with poster presentations, talks and interactive experiences by undergraduates, grad students, faculty and alumni.  It was particularly exciting to see the level of engagement of the student giving up their very sunny Vancouver Saturday to consider a range of ideas and questions.  For those of you who are not Vancouverites, when the sun comes out in full glory, we go outside – never quite certain how long it will be around.

I had the pleasure of presenting The Outdoor Classroom:  Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine with Claire Rushton, Alli Tufaro and Ali Nasato.        We were pulled together by a common interest in the opportunity provided by outdoor learning.  This one interest was able to pull together so many elements that have been embraced as key ideas in the Redesigned Curriculum in British Columbia, such as:

  • The social emotional benefits of engaging with nature
  • The natural way in which we can engage students in practicing and understanding the First Nations Principles of Learning, including:
    • experiential learning
    • patience and time required for learning
    • exploring one’s identity
    • everyone and everything has a story
    • history matters
    • there are consequences to our actions
  • Ways to engage students in cross curricular learning opportunities
  • Connecting classroom lessons to the larger world
  • Using resources in the classroom to answer our questions about observations made outdoors
  • Reporting back about the things we care about to authentic audiences

Of course, the list goes on.  Another interesting aspect of our collaborative group was the power of inquiry in developing our professional practice as educators throughout different stages of our careers.  Both student teachers have found a way to focus their  professional learning throughout the practicum experience.  Claire Rushton, as the coordinator of the Social Emotional Learning cohort has used the outdoors to bring  Richard Louv’s work to life and introduce the power of “nature … as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life..” by integrating the experiences in nature to frame discussions of social – emotional learning. I have engaged in a personal inquiry of how to use iPad APPS  (photos, Drawing Pad, Book Creator, Twitter) as a way to access information, document and share outdoor learning.  I’ve also been able to support the staff I interact with on a regular basis in their own inquiries.  Inquiry, as framed by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in Spirals of Inquiry, has provided a framework for beginning teachers as well as a school administrator and university instructor.  The learning has fuelled more questions and future inquiries.


I very much hope our collaboration continues…perhaps after the frenetic pace of the end of practicum, final observations and reports and end of year demands and celebrations!

Deborah Hodge Talks the Craft of Writing

There is nothing like the visit from a REAL author to bring to life the point that authors are real people, writing about their experiences or imaginings.  We are thrilled to welcome Deborah Hodge to speak to the Vancouver School Board.  Deborah Hodge will be joining administrators, librarians and two students from 55 Vancouver elementary schools at Shaughnessy Elementary School on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.


Each year the Vancouver Elementary Principals and Vice Principals host an author to celebrated reading and writing with elementary students and educators.  Phyllis Simon of Vancouver Kidsbooks, is one of our keen supporters.  She selects a collection of some of the most wonderful picture books that have been recently published for the selection committee to peruse.  Of course, I love this committee and always manage to find birthday picks for my friends, family and my own collection.  It is also a source of inspiration for possibilities in the school.   From our shortlist of books, we then contact the authors to determine their availability during Canadian Children’s Book Week:  May 7 – May 14th, 2016 to share their book .

For 2016, we have selected a new publication by Deborah Hodge.  This author was born in Saskatchewan but lucky for us, she lives in Vancouver.  Deborah Hodge has written over 25 books for children, many of which provide a plethora of information about nature and history.  Her picture book , West Coast Wild – A Nature Alphabet, has been purchased for all of the elementary libraries in the district by the administrator’s association.   Several schools in the Vancouver School District participated in Wild About Vancouver Festival this year and interest in learning in the outdoor classroom is growing.  The First People’s Principles of Learning have also been highlighted in the Redesigned Curriculum in British Columbia and have opened our eyes to the experiential and reflective learning of Indigenous People who have lived and learned in British Columbia for thousands of years.   Both of these factors, along with the engaging text and illustrations make this book a perfect choice.

Students throughout the district are excited about the chance to meet Deborah Hodge and have their questions answered.    Grade 3 students at Tecumseh have been writing alphabet books about topics they have been researching.  Maria got new glasses this year and has taken off with her writing.  She is wondering if Deborah Hodge saw all of the animals she wrote about in her book or if she did an internet search to find the animal that matched the letter she needed.  Victoria is writing an ABC book about the aquarium and is wondering how the author got so many good ideas for her book. Hopefully they will find their answers on Wednesday.

Special Thanks to  Vancouver Administrators for funding this project,  committee members – Maureen McDonnell and Maria Donovan, as well as staff at Shaughnessy Elementary School for hosting this event.






Moving Beyond Earth Day


Earth Day has become an established part of the school calendar.  Every school district and most schools  focuses on taking care of the environment in one capacity or another. In some cases, the focus remains on garbage pickup and recycling.  In some cases,  it extends to gardening efforts, going outside for Physical Education and composting.   I believe that our real task as educators is to nurture an appreciation of the outdoors to prevent the disconnect with nature that many of our students are experiencing, particularly in urban contexts.

Most children naturally experience the physical benefit from outdoor activity.  Some children readily participate in community building experiences with peers.  All children benefit from scaffolded experiences to develop their curiosity, creativity, problem solving and mindfulness during outdoor learning experiences.  For educators with diverse background experiences outdoors, teachable moments and connections to curriculum unfold seamlessly.  At our school, the Grade 6 YMCA Camp Elphinstone experience, has been an important way of broadening student perspective of outdoor learning opportunities available to them.  The expansion of recycling and organics in all VSB schools, the BC Fresh Fruit and Veggies program, the B.C. Milk Program for K-Gr2 students, bringing the cows to the school and exploration of food sources have all helped students to make connections between nature and their lives.

  One challenges is that educators in urban contexts do not always have the background experiences to use the outdoor classroom as a basis for developing cross curricular competencies on a daily basis.  As school communities, we need to tease out the resources that are readily available to us.   Dr. Hartley Banack ,of Wild About Vancouver, has been instrumental in helping us to engage our students in meaningful learning experiences.  Spearheading the Wild About Vancouver Festival has been a labour of love to broaden the accessibility of outdoor learning possibilities to urban dwellers in Vancouver.  With the stellar effort of his team, Wild About Vancouver was able to coordinate 65 events, hosted by 48 organizations.  Students at Tecumseh Main and Tecumseh Annex experienced nature through games, shelter building and developing their observation skills during the festival.  Hopefully this is an event that only continues to grow and increase our personal health, community building, mindfulness and experiential learning throughout the year.

Dr. Banack is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education at UBC.  He works tirelessly with students at U.B.C. to develop the skill set to engage students in experiential learning outdoors.  Alison Nasato and Alli Tufaro are two students in the Social and Emotional Learning cohort at UBC with Professor Claire Rushton.  Their coursework with Dr. Banack and Claire Rushton has been inspirational.  They have been engaged in inquiry projects exploring curricular integrations of outdoor learning within a SEL framework during their practicum experiences in Surrey, B.C.   This type of learning has the potential to impact how we engage students as the redesigned curriculum unfolds in British Columbia.

The Outdoor Einsteins has been an offering at Tecumseh Elementary for all three of terms of after school programming by the David Thompson Community School Team. CST School coordinator, Tara Perkins, has worked hard with student program facilitators from David Thompson Secondary School and volunteers to implement the program.  A grant from ReadingBC (BC Council of International Literacy Association) allowed her to develop the literacy aspects of the program. A eureka moment for many of our students and parents has been that you can even have fun outside, even when it’s raining.  Appropriate clothing, hot chocolate, student made shelters, giant umbrellas, Write in the Rain books and inspired activities have kept kids excited about participating and lining up to register each term.

Another source of inspiration I recently happened upon on Twitter in the 30X30 challenge sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation.  The goal is 30 minutes outside for 30 days in May.  What a fun way to engage our school communities!  Follow us @Tecumseh39 to see what we’re up to in our school community.  Let us know if you have other ideas on ways to learn in the outdoor classroom.