Why Blog?

This is a sample blog post written to illustrate the features of a blog post.

Blogging is a great way to develop your thinking about a topic because a blog post can continue to evolve through commenting. Don’t think of a blog post as a final published piece of work (although it can be sometimes). Think of your blog as a place for you to play around with and explore ideas and engage in discussion with others.

As a writer you can include multimedia in your blog post to help communicate your ideas. You could even do a video or audio blog post.


Photo by Megan Myers

It’s important though to make sure you give credit to the creators of any content you use in your blog post and to make sure you have permission to use the content. You’ll see I’ve credited the photographer and if you click on the photo it takes you to the original source.

A good source for images that you have permission to use is Flickr’s Creative Commons images.

My advice to new teachers at the start of the school year


I first posted this in 2011, but I still stand by this advice. There are also some really great comments at the bottom that contain additional advice:

1) Be yourself (unless your “self” is rude, obnoxious, spiteful, arrogant, or similarly unpleasant in which case you should rethink your chosen profession anyway). When I first started teaching I worked very hard at adopting my “teacher persona.” I believe this was a result of some benign advice from an associate teacher or a professor at the faculty of education. The thing is, it’s exhausting and the kids see right through it. I tried to copy the teaching styles of teachers I respected and admired, and I suppose that’s not a bad way to start. It actually helped me figure out the kind of teacher that I’m not. I am not a stern no-nonsense disciplinarian. I am silly, laid-back, and occasionally irreverent. That doesn’t mean my students run amok, but I had to find my own way to “be a teacher.”

2) Dress up. A little. But dress your age. If you, like me, barreled on through your undergrad and straight into teacher’s college and then were lucky enough to get a position the next school year (I know… very lucky), then you’re… what… 23? Wow. You’re not much older than the grade 12s and you won’t look much older. You’re not going to fool anyone into thinking that you’re an ancient 30 something like I am, but when you’re 23, it’s embarrassing and awkward to be mistaken for a student (When you’re 32, it rocks). So, judge the vibe of your school. Some schools are more casual than others, but don’t think you can get away with the board short and flip-flop look that the eccentric, close-to-retirement, history teacher is “rocking” (questionably). If you dress up a little bit, it sends a signal that you think this important enough to dress up for and that helps–but don’t be afraid to out your own stamp on it that says “hey I’m not 32 yet.”

3) Don’t do stupid things. You’ve probably already been so scared by faculty of education lectures and gossipy horror stories that spread through your social foundations class about teachers who did foolish things on social media and were then fired. That’s not what I’m here to do. I do not want you to decide to erase your web presence and ban technology from the classroom because you’re afraid of all the horrible things that could happen to you. We are in an interesting place in our history right now and I suspect 20 years from now (I hope) we’ll all laugh about the angst we were having in education over social media. Rather than trying to eliminate your web presence, create a professional one. Start a professional blog where you reflect on and share evidence of your learning. Get on Twitter and start following other teachers (Not sure how to get started? Go here.). They will be a great support network for you and can help you out when it’s 1:00am and you really can’t hash out ideas with your department head and your girlfriend is sick of hearing about how stressed out you are. Don’t friend students on Facebook (I know some teachers who do and I have the utmost faith that they are extremely professional with their students but I won’t ever advise you to do it), but you may consider setting up a Facebook page for your class. If you teach in the Waterloo board in fact, it’s encouraged. That way you can keep in touch with students in with a medium they use, but they don’t have access to your personal information. Bottom line: never post anything online that you wouldn’t say in front of the class or in front of your principal. If you must vent, save it for direct messages and emails to your friends.

4) Cut yourself some slack. You won’t be a perfect teacher in your first year. Actually you’ll never be a perfect teacher. That’s okay. Think of your goal for your first year as being one of survival and harm reduction. Do as little harm as possible to yourself and your students, and you’re off to a good start in my opinion. If you’re a good teacher, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time agonizing over decisions you made, coming up with different ways you could have but didn’t handle a situation, and generally berating yourself for sucking. You probably don’t suck. Lighten up. Have a beer. Go for a night out with your non-teacher friends (do you still have those?) and don’t talk about school–they won’t get it and it’s not healthy for you to talk about it all the time.

This is hardly an exhaustive list but you probably have enough people giving you advice. Hang in there. Have some fun. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century: The Sequel

Lots of sequels come out in the summer time (I think… Just go with it), and the OTF Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century conference was no exception. I was lucky to attend the conference last February as a panelist discussing my take on the use of social media in the classroom. Then I was doubly lucky to be able to hang out with Will Richardson (who’s played a huge role in influencing my philosophy about technology in the classroom) during the Minds on Media sessions the following day.

For the #OTF21C sequel (check that hashtag on twitter to see an archive of the tweets from the past three days), I got to repeat my panelist role but also became a Minds on Media facilitator (which meant less time picking Will’s brain but more time hanging with cool teachers eager to learn about blogging).

The panel discussion was essentially very similar to the one back in February. I noticed the same tension between those people (students, teachers, consultants) who are working with social media and those people (union representatives) tasked with protecting teachers from the potential dark side of social media. And I noticed Will biting his tongue at times (Excellent restraint, Will!). I just hope that down the road there will be teachers and students and administrators who shake their heads with amusement as they look back on the “old days” when we were all filled with angst about technology. There was one question toward the end of the panel from a teacher who was very concerned that students might be spending too much time in front of screens to the detriment of their physical and socio-emotional well-being. I’ve started to get a little tired and frustrated by questions like this, but I have to exercise a little more patience. I think I replied with something like, “Maybe, but people said the same thing about books, when books became more readily accessible. Same argument; different medium.” It is the same argument, but I have to remember that this is still a new and threatening area for some people so they may not see it as being the same.

After the panel Brian and I braved the record-breaking temperatures outside the hotel to visit Melanie McBride and Jason Nolan at the EDGE lab which is part of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone. Wow is this place ever mind blowing! Read more about it here. After a tour, we headed upstairs where all the different teams worked. It’s an eclectic group. There were teams working on everything from mobile health apps (VitalHub) to game development (HugeMonster Inc.). And then there were research teams including EDGE lab where my friend Melanie works. The EDGE lab itself was a pretty eclectic group made up of people who brought unique and often opposing perspectives. Noah and Jason demonstrated some soft circuit prototypes they had developed to help adorable little girl communicate in and interact with her peers in spite of her limited speech and motor skills. We had some great conversations (I can’t even begin to attempt to sum them up here) about school and learning (and how the two are quite often mutually exclusive!). It’s incredibly liberating to talk to people who are interested in education but are not constrained by the traditional education system. There are so many ideas we don’t even discuss in education because we know we “can’t do that” in our current system. We walked back to the hotel like zombies, although in fairness I think was 38 degrees in downtown Toronto with a breeze that felt like a gust from a convection oven.

Then there was some much-needed socializing, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Friday was devoted to Minds on Media. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Minds on Media process (brilliantly organized by Peter Skillen and Brenda Sherry), unlike traditional PD where one might sign up for a session, sit in a chair and listen to the presenter’s agenda, teachers are free to move from station to station and the agenda is that of the participants. I had a bunch of links and resources prepared but essentially my first question when people arrived was, “So, what do you want to talk about?” It was exhausting, but very rewarding and I loved it when a teacher ran over to me, beaming, saying “I just wrote my first blog post! And I embedded a video!”

I love these conferences because they provide me with a chance to learn as much as (or usually more) than I present, but I also love them because they are, as Melanie would say, affinity spaces. These are spaces where I get to learn how I want with the people who I want to learn with. Thanks to all my friends, old and new, for the great experience.

Doug Peterson, a friend and prolific blogger has posted a number of reflections on his own blog which you can read here.

Thoughts on bells, whistles, and frivolity


Recently, I’ve had  teachers ask me questions about teaching using social networking sites like Ning and Grou.ps,  and I’ve noticed a trend. They like what social networking sites seem to make possible and they want to use technology to increase student engagement, but they’ve expressed concern over the fact that the sites have a lot of bells and whistles. I think they’re concerned that students will confuse the educational sites with the social sites they use outside the classroom.

I understand this concern because I am well aware that students behave inappropriately on sites like Myspace and Facebook, but if you decide to use a site like Schoology or Edmodo (which are cool–don’t get me wrong) because you don’t want to use something that looks too much like Facebook, then aren’t you kind of defeating the purpose? Aren’t you missing out on opportunities to teach appropriate use of social media? If you want to have students create Facebook-like profile pages for characters in a novel you’re studying, but you don’t want to use a site that mimics what Facebook can do because it doesn’t look “educational” … then why bother? If the goal is to increase student engagement then you should use a tool that’s … well … engaging. Shouldn’t you?

Now, I’m not saying Edmodo and Schoology are not engaging. They are. I’ve used Edmodo and my students have thought it was cool. I’ve checked out Schoology and it looks pretty useful too, but you need to really think about what you’re trying to achieve and then choose the best tool for that task.

I’ve had teachers tell me before that they tried blogging with their students but they weren’t really into it. When they tell me what tools they’re using for blogging, then I get it. The tools are boring. Yawn…. Appearance matters, okay?

I think some of the concern comes from teachers worrying that other teachers, administrators, or parents might not think that students are learning when using a site that looks too “social”. My response? Invite those teachers, administrators, and parents to join your site. People fear what they don’t understand (duh), so let them in.

And who says education can’t be fun? Bring on the bells and whistles, I say. 

Now what?


Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.

A little anonymity can be a beautiful thing


But not too much!

This semester, I’m teaching media for the first time. To say that I love it would be an understatement. I am indebted to my friend Andrew for his wonderful lesson plans. To say that he loves this course would also be an understatement. I’m also working collaboratively with Jamie Weir, a fantastic and innovative teacher in Listowel,Ontario. While our courses are not identical, we are flexible and I liken the our collaboration to jazz improvisation. The coolest part about our collaboration is that our students are members of a ning and a wiki where they are able to connect and share ideas.

And now to get to the subject of this post: Anonymity. In order to participate on the ning, students need to display the same level of respect and civility that we require them to display in class. Now, I don’t want to jinx myself, but so far so good. In fact, when I read the comments students write on each others’ blogs, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that they are not just civil and polite, but kind and friendly. I know that there is a common belief that the anonymity (or false sense of anonymity) provided by the internet promotes bullying and other types of antisocial behaviour. All you have to do is check out a youtube post or an online version of a newspaper article to see that.

On the other hand, a little anonymity can be a good thing because while students know that their comments are being tracked by their teachers, they also seem to be more willing to take positive risks that they may not take face to face. See the exchange below between a student in my class and students in Ms. Weir’s class (I’ve blanked out last names and faces).

ning comments

It’s funny to me that they’re discussing (among other things) the idea that technology creates a barrier to connections and yet without technology, they’d likely have never had this discussion.That seems like a nice note to end on.

If a tree falls in the forest…

Photo by john-morgan

While writing in isolation and without an audience may not be quite the same as the old “If a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear it?” adage, but it’s got me thinking.

In preparation for a workshop, I’ve been giving thought to the idea of authentic writing opportunities for students. In Kathleen Blake Yancey, in her article “Writing in the 21st Century” concludes by saying:

Through research documenting these new models [of composing], we can create the theory that has too often been absent from composition historically, and we can define composition not as a part of a test or its primary vehicle, but apart from testing. In creating these new models, we want to include a hitherto neglected dimension: the role of writing for the public. As Doug Hesse has argued, the public is perhaps the most important audience today, and it’s an audience that people have written for throughout history. If this is so, we need to find a place for it both in our models of writing and in our teaching of writing.

We always tell students to consider their audience and purpose when writing, but so often their only audience is the teacher, and then, we are often only seen as judge. Students need authentic opportunities to write which is why I think Web 2.0 presents so many amazing opportunities for students to write for a real audience and receive feedback from peers–not just those peers in their own classroom who may have preconceived notions about who that student is, but for peers around the world. I believe that when students write for an audience and receive real feedback, they see writing not just as a task they have to complete for marks, but as a way to forge connections.

If we want to make writing engaging for our students, we’ve got to make it authentic.

Just as an aside, right now I’m waiting on some input from student bloggers about why they enjoy blogging. Thanks to Jane Smith and Nathan Toft for their help with this. Check out their class blogs by clicking on their names. You should also check out Portable PD for great information (the name says it all). These teachers are amazing and I have so much to learn from them, not to mention a local star-teacher David Carruthers. All three of these teachers are doing great work with podcasting too.

Blogs and PLCs

Random quick thought:

Everyone wants teachers working together in professional learning communities but we teachers are already so strapped for time–and don’t get me wrong I’m not saying that this should in any way replace release time–maybe blogging is the answer.

My partner’s doing a great job of playing devil’s advocate and brings up a number of good points about teachers not comfortable with technology, and others who would feel that this is yet one more burden they have to deal with on top of the school work. To them I say, no problem. Do your own thing. It’s cool.

But I’m sure there are other teachers out there like me who are interested in collaboration with colleagues who may also be more comfortable with technology. I’m still new at this, anyway.

We work in a vast school board and it’s rare that we get a chance to get together and share ideas. Maybe this is an answer.

Just a thought.

Stolen Goods

I stole this from another teacher’s blog. 


With so much concern out there about liability, teaching, and online technology, I thought this was a great set of rules and guidelines to keep teacher/class blogs professional and safe.


This blog is one place where Ms. Barker’s students will be practicing their communication skills for this class. Assignments will frequently have a blogging component, so expect to check in here often. Some things you should know about this blog:

  • Any posting that might compromise your privacy or safety will be deleted. I’m going to be moderating comments, which means that I’ll be checking each comment before it goes on the blog. I’ll be looking for things like a safe user name (first name and last initial only) and no personal details in the content.
  • Keep it professional. Any objectional content will be deleted. (And deleted posts mean no marks …)
  • Feeling shy? If you really don’t want your comment to go public on the blog, just put “please don’t post” in your comment and I’ll read it, mark it, and then delete it. But it’s a whole lot more interesting if you put your comments out there for others to read …
  • Remember that the only electronic contact between you and me will take place in public virtual spaces like this blog – places where I will be posting messages that the entire class can see and respond to. I will never email you, IM, chat, or otherwise contact you personally. If you receive a personal message from someone who seems to be me, please let both me and a trusted adult know right away.