March 16, 2014

The Transformative Power of Reading and Talking Literature

031/365 - The Reader
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Antoine Robiez via Compfight

Why stories?

If we ever need to be reminded about the importance of stories in our lives, the month of March does the job with World Read Aloud Day on the 5th, World Storytelling Day on the 20th, and Canada Reads 2014 from March 3 – 6.

And we do need reminding.

Take Stephen Lewis, Canadian philanthropist and activist, who acknowledges during Canada Reads 2014 that he has not been a reader of fiction, but through his participation in Canada Reads he claims “I am determined to start serious reading…[the conversation about books] engages you in the literature.” (7:00 mark)

I needed reminding too.

For too long, I have been reading professional education texts by the likes of Dweck, Hattie, Katz, Kittle, Boushey and Moser, Routman, Allington-you get the idea.  As a new literacy coach, the gaps in my knowledge about K-6 literacy, in particular, were unavoidable; I was after all a high school English teacher. But one needs to respond to challenges, right? One way I cope with the queasiness that high levels of risk creates in me is to work really hard.

Head down and go.

The thing about learning is that it is all-absorbing. It’s not  that I didn’t have time for literature (both fiction and creative non-fiction); it’s that I only had time for reading that supported my learning. It’s a matter of perceived value.

Don’t get me wrong, I did read–there were all the incredible primary stories that reminded me of the absolute joy that illustrators offer, Giraffe and Bird  (what attitude expressed on the page!!) being one of my favourites . And the middle school stories that grab your heart and punch & hug & hold onto you like Wonder does.  And the YA stories that push the dark corners of possibility closer to the centre of our consciousness-magic, fantasy, science fiction, crime, war, and love-there’s wonder here, but there’s pain too: The Fault in Our Stars, The  Hunger Games, Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour, The Maze Runner, Little Brother, For the Win, Into the Wild. And lastly, I did read the odd adult story like State of Wonder and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. 

But, with my return to the classroom and to reading with and along side my students, I am once again immersed in those conversations about life that emerge from the perspective of literature. This is so satisfying. Stories, after all, are the lens through which I have grappled with all of life’s complexities, and helping my students create that lens for themselves is a goal to be sure. So, the students of Room 121 have begun thinking about stories or ways of knowing. We are reading biographies or autobiographies of one sort or another at the moment. Our list of titles includes The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, A Beautiful Mind, Metallica, J.K. Rowling, Into Thin Air, Amelia Earhart, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Steve Jobs: The Man who Thought Different, Her Last Death: A Memoir, Six Months in Sudan, Steven Tyler,  A Long Way Gone.

I love the diversity of these titles and I love that in each case the reader can think about the story as a legitimate way to understand his or her life.

But, but, but…..what titles can you suggest for us?

And, and, and…..check back to see what we are thinking about our reading.


February 15, 2014

Learning to be learners.

We have spent two weeks exploring what researchers have discovered about the brain and about what Prof. Carol Dweck has theorized about how we can grow our intelligence and realize our potential. And although every one of us can agree to growth mindset statements like “You can always substantially change how intelligent you are”,  I wonder if we can walk that talk.  I mean, to substantially change how intelligent I am, I have to do something, right?

And Professor Dweck makes it crystal clear that the thing I have to do is work hard and face setbacks head on.

Translation: Work hard means practicing and practicing means doing the work in class and independently; i.e. homework.

Translation: Facing setbacks means understanding that not getting it right away, revising, and redoing are all part of overcoming obstacles in our learning.

In the Mindset Survey we did in class, we all agreed that ” The harder you work at something, the better you will be at it.”

Let’s right now recognize that learning is hard. Maybe learning to learn is even harder. We need to do this together, because together we are better.

Here are some ways we might be able to support each other:

  1. Be leaners. Go ahead and help out the person beside you. And go ahead and accept help when it comes your way.
  2. Be a homework buddy.
  3. Use email to ask questions.
  4. Comment on each other’s blogs–often.
  5. Bring our passions into the classroom.

Now it’s your turn. In the space below, add your responses, ideas, questions, suggestions:

How do we learn to be learners?


February 8, 2014

Thinking about our thinking.

February 5, 2014

Rise up, rise up.

Technology integration is on the rise at Wasse-Abin High School this semester. Mr. Baumgarten’s TGJ3M class has a new blog that will feature their work in digital photography. Ms. Black’s ENG2L class has a class blog. You can check it out here. Of course, ENG2D and 2P, have this class blog, but we also have our individual blogs, and we are using Twitter and other web 2.0 tools in our learning. And Wasse-Abin has a new school blog that is almost ready for launch. I am looking for bloggers and editors to help flesh out the site, so if you are interested, please speak to me or use the Contact Us page or Tweet me @msbalen. It’s time we all become more savvy with our use of technology, especially in our learning!

 This is where I am headed…

image by Bill Ferriter @plugusin

January 8, 2014

Effort Matters.


Why bother?

Being productive in class?

It’s not going to change anything.

And yet we know that growth and learning require effort.


To learn to skate, pass a puck, or hit the net took time and effort. You weren’t born knowing how to do these things.

To learn to hunt, fire a gun accurately, or track a deer took time and effort. You weren’t born knowing how to do these things.

To learn to dance, make regalia, or sing took time and effort. You weren’t born knowing how to do these things.

To learn to use Facebook, download music, and play video games took time and effort. You weren’t born knowing how to do these things.

To learn to read complex texts, make meaningful notes, and express your thinking through writing takes time and effort. You weren’t born knowing how to do these things.

Work on your growth mindset and you will be able to do anything you want to do. It’s all possible.

December 8, 2013

An Open Letter to my English students.


As I think more about the conversation about marks and learning, I am reminded how sometimes what is obvious to me may not be obvious to you. Sure, I gave you a course outline, and yes, we read it together, but it was written to discuss what the possibilities of this course are, not about what the study of English is itself. Of course, I took that for granted. You are a senior and you have been taking English courses for years at this point, so you know what the subject of English is, right?

Let’s now consider English as a discipline and what that discipline demands. As a starting point, we should look at how the curriculum document describes the English courses that you have taken already, are now taking, and will be taking.  As you do, pay attention to the changes that occur from grade 9 to grade 12.

Grade 9 Applied:

This course is designed to develop the key oral communication, reading, writing, and media literacy skills students need for success in secondary school and daily life. Students will read, interpret, and create a variety of informational, literary, and graphic texts. An important focus will be on identifying and using appropriate strategies and processes to improve students’ comprehension of texts and to help them communicate clearly and effectively. The course is intended to prepare students for the Grade 10 applied English course, which leads to college or workplace preparation courses in Grades 11 and 12

Grade 10 Applied:

This course is designed to extend the range of oral communication, reading, writing, and media literacy skills that students need for success in secondary school and daily life. Students will study and create a variety of informational, literary, and graphic texts. An important focus will be on the consolidation of strategies and processes that help students interpret texts and communicate clearly and effectively. This course is intended to prepare students for the compulsory Grade 11 college or workplace preparation course.

Grade 11 College:

This course emphasizes the development of literacy, communication, and critical and creative thinking skills necessary for success in academic and daily life. Students will study the content, form, and style of a variety of informational and graphic texts, as well as literary texts from Canada and other countries, and create oral, written, and media texts in a variety of forms for practical and academic purposes. An important focus will be on using language with precision and clarity. The course is intended to prepare students for the compulsory Grade 12 college preparation course.

Grade 12 College:

This course emphasizes the consolidation of literacy, communication, and critical and creative thinking skills necessary for success in academic and daily life. Students will analyse a variety of informational and graphic texts, as well as literary texts from various countries and cultures, and create oral, written, and media texts in a variety of forms for practical and academic purposes. An important focus will be on using language with precision and clarity and developing greater control in writing. The course is intended to prepare students for college or the workplace.

The curriculum is designed in such a way that each year we build on the literacy, communication, and thinking skills we have worked on the year before. In order to use language with “precision and clarity” we need to … well, use language…we need to discuss, listen, present, and write about our ideas and our responses to the texts of the world.

And does it say what it is we are to do? What to read? What to write? What to create?


Rather, we get to decide what content is meaningful and relevant to us. So when the opportunity to participate in a Mystery Skype with another class comes along and then read The Rez Sisters alongside them, we can decide to do this.

Then what?  We need to study the form, do some thinking, and create. Here are some of the ways we are creating before, during, and after reading the play:

  • Write blog posts on our thinking
  • Comment on posts to develop and extend our thinking
  • Participate in a Mystery Skype to focus on question development, thinking, problem solving, and collaboration
  • Make research notes which develops our reading and thinking skills about the content
  • Read out loud for fluency, thinking about the form and the ideas generated
  • Discuss ideas in the play and work together to think about complex ideas
  • Create an Annotated bibliography for application of researching skills
  • Make an Oral presentation with media support to consolidate our learning about researching
  • Write a Research Report to pull all of the pieces together and practice using language with “precision and clarity”
  • Reflect on the various learning processes

You see, the study of English is not something you can put in a formula. It’s not something that you can “do” in one task, one assignment, one test. The discipline of English is one of process, of reading, thinking, writing, talking, thinking, discussing, sharing, reading, thinking…..and finally, creating in a way that makes sense for you.

Reading and writing aren’t just skills we need to master to secure a place in college or a job, but are the means by which we can bring “ourselves into realization”; they are tools we use to  “imagine possibilities that you couldn’t have imagined before.”

And the marks? You get to decide what mark you will get. Engage, participate in the process of learning, take risks, do all the parts of the process, respond to feedback, attend class, be positive, have a growth mindset, seek help, take responsibility for your learning, hand work in….and the marks will be there.

Miss more than 25 days, have a negative attitude, refuse to contribute, produce no writing, ignore the process of learning, ignore difficulties and challenges, and deflect responsibility….and the marks will not be there.

I would love this letter to be the beginning of a conversation about learning. If you have a comment to make or a point to add to extend the conversation, please take a moment to add it here.

Keep learning,

Ms. Balen

November 30, 2013

Mystery Skype. A truly collaborative event.

Last week, the ENG3C class participated in a Mystery Skpye. What an adventure!

A Mystery Skype is an online event held through Skype in which neither group knows where the other group is in the world. Through a series of closed questions (yes/no), participants piece together where they are calling from until one group guesses the correct location of the other group.

Minds On

This opening exercise was certainly a fun and engaging way to set the stage for the real purpose of the call: a conversation between teens about their lives. As the conversation about First Nations people grows in the public domain, more and more people are realizing that they do not know very much about First Nations people or the issues emerging from their communities. What interferes with the general public’s understanding of First Nations’ issues is the ongoing use of First Nations’ stereotypes, and this is a topic that some educator’s meet head on in their classrooms. Sarah Le from Orangeville District Secondary School is one such teacher. Through a variety of texts, Mrs. Lee, pushes her students to understand the multiple perspectives that must co-exist in our society, including that of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples.

Our camera person listening intently for the next question.


The Skype went off…with a couple of hitches. We were met with the challenge of acquiring the right gear (external webcam and tripod), finding an Internet signal that would give us enough bandwidth to enable the video to work, and overcoming our shyness and nervousness to both be on camera and to think on the spot! But we did it. We had coaches scrounging up the gear for us and teaching me how to get the technology ready, we had students problem solving how we might solve our weak Internet issue, and we had students who stepped up to the plate at the last second to take on larger roles than they had originally prepared for. What’s the definition of collaboration? To create something together that we could not create individually. We certainly nailed collaboration in this event!


When the Skype call ended, the first question we had was, “When do we do this again?” We were energized and engaged, and we wanted more. Our reflections about this event are ongoing. Students are / will be posting to their own blogs using the “What? So What? Now What?” reflective model.

from Commons


What happened?
What did you observe?

So What?

Did you learn a new skill or clarify an interest?
How is your experience different from what you expected?
What impacts the way you view the situation/experience? (What lens are you viewing from?)
What did you like/dislike about the experience?
How did the experience relate to your coursework?

Now What?

What learning occurred for you in this experience?
How can you apply this learning?
What can be done to improve this type of work?

November 3, 2013

Blogging in ENG3C

And finally, ENG3C begins to blog!

We know that writing is a way to sort out our thinking on big ideas. Blogging gets us writing in a slightly more informal manner than say essays and definitely more frequently.

And yet, some of you may be unconvinced by my thinking. “Really? Do I have to blog?”

Here are a couple of posts that might help you reconsider your initial resistance:

5 Reasons Your Students Should Blog

Go Teen Writers and the comments are really good too!

Here is the plan:

1. Write one blog every week. Class time for this writing will be scheduled for Friday. If you are not in class on Fridays, then you will have assigned yourself blogging homework. Of course, you are encouraged to blog outside of school too! You will write 10 posts in total this semester.

2. Comment on your classmates posts frequently. We all enjoy receiving feedback on our thinking, and the feedback is what helps grow our thinking. You will write a minimum of 10 comments.

3. Rubrics for both posting and commenting are linked below. Please read them.

Happy Blogging!!!