Monthly Archives: February 2010

my philosophy of education


My Philosophy of Education word cloud created at http://www.wordle.net

The Talmud tells of two prominent sages, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva. A question is posed to both: “Which is greater, study or action?” They finally agree, “Study is greater, because study leads to action.” Inspired by this Talmudic parable, I believe that education is not an end in and of itself but a means to the most important end: acting to create meaningful change in the world. In Canada’s diverse classrooms, critical pedagogy, guided reflection, and education for active citizenship can help students understand, model, and enact a vision of a pluralistic ad productive society. As a teacher, I see my students as my ambassadors of goodwill, capable of creating far more change in their communities than I could ever bring about on my own.

Education can clarify values and prepare students for a lifetime of active citizenship, helping them understand the implications of their decisions and participation in civic life. Rather than presenting students with one “right” view of a subject, educators must offer diverse and even conflicting perspectives from among which students can piece together an intellectually and emotionally authentic narrative. When given the opportunity to examine and challenge the roots of accepted discourse, students can arrive at grounded conclusions, take ownership of their beliefs, and formulate meaningful opinions. In my experience, after studying multiple perspectives and examining how their beliefs are informed by their values, students feel empowered to address the root causes of these issues and to pursue social justice in their communities. In order to guide students through this process, I must attempt to be sensitive to my students’ lived realities both in and outside of the classroom, and draw them into curricular materials by addressing issues that are culturally relevant. I will not shy away from conflict or controversy, but rather harness its transformative potential.

I have high expectations of all students, and I realize that to meet them I must provide the necessary conditions for success. In my experience these are: manageable amounts of required background knowledge, proper scaffolding and meaningful formative assessments, learning tasks that respect diverse learning styles, teacher and peer support on the ground, and adequate and well-managed time. I hope to facilitate my students’ discovery of their own intrinsic motivations to learn by creating meaningful tasks whose completion are their own reward.  Placing students’ learning in the cognitive space where challenge and enjoyment meet creates a feeling akin to Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ experience. This is an ambitious goal in our world of distractions, but I have seen it happen, and have experienced this powerful immersion in learning myself on numerous occasions.

My teaching style draws on my experience in informal education. Thanks to two of my extra-curricular passions – painting and dance – I know that colour and movement deserve a place in the classroom. Where possible, I use constructivist methods and encourage co-operative learning.  My classroom management strategies emphasize relationships built upon mutual respect. I have a hard time enforcing rules that I myself cannot buy into, and I maintain an authoritative but relaxed presence in the class.

Through my experience with adolescents – be it in a classroom or a museum, in Algonquin Park or on Capitol Hill – I have seen that in order for true learning to occur, adolescents need challenge and meaning. Educators working with teens must above all be authentic, attentive to a plurality of ideas and equipped to manage a diverse range of learning styles and expressions. I see teaching as an exchange of ideas rather than a transmission of information. As a teacher, I hope to be able to facilitate transformation and growth in my students, and to learn as much from them as they do from me. It would be an honour to be in a position to open students’ minds to the power inherent in each one of us, and the potential that young people have to shape their futures and achieve meaningful measures of success.

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media literacy – a simple lesson on a complex topic

Today I attended Upstream – a conference organized and facilitated by the high school students who make up the Anti-Oppression Coalition at the school where I did my first practicum. An inspiring day overall and a refreshing taste of anti-oppressive education in practice, in contrast to the dry, disconnected, beat ’em over the head with it anti-oppressive rhetoric I’ve been getting in class the last few months.

One of the sessions I attended, delivered by TDSB teacher and activist Amy Gottlieb, was called “Where do you get your news?” The hour-long session provided a useful and straightforward framework for a media literacy lesson that could be used in a high school English or Social Studies class. It’s nothing revolutionary, but sometimes the most simple ideas can give students the space to have deep and meaningful discussions.  In today’s session, the students were engaged, insightful, and came up with a range of interpretations and ideas.

Gottlieb started by posting three statements on the board:

  • All media messages are constructed

  • All media have embedded values on points of view

  • Mainstream media is organized to make a profit and to gain power.

The three above statements seem to have been adapted from the Centre for Media Literacy’s Five Core Concepts, part of their Media Literacy Kit:

Core Concepts and Key Questions from CML's Media Literacy Kit

Gottlieb handed out four articles to the students on two of the current hot topics in the Canadian media – the Vancouver Olympic Games and the Haitian earthquake crisis – two articles on each subject, written from widely divergent perspectives. The challenge for teachers using this activity is to find articles that are short, offer a clear but not overly obvious or narrow perspective, and activate some prior knowledge so the students aren’t overwhelmed with new content.

In small groups, the students read the articles and analyzed them, answering five questions on a sheet of poster paper:

  1. Who created the message?

  2. What is the underlying message?

  3. Who is quoted?

  4. What is omitted?

  5. Why was this message published?

With very little prompting, the students came up with good answers to these questions, although in a longer lesson, I think the discussions could have gone deeper. Beyond the perspectives expressed in each of the articles, the activity prompted students to examine their own biases as they read and reacted to the texts. I would also suggest – as an overall literacy strategy – giving the students some sort of graphic organizer where they can record and reflect on the evidence for each of their answers.

Taking up the questions afterward, the facilitator stressed the importance of decoding and deconstructing ALL media messages – even those from alternative news sources with whom the readers generally agree (case in point – one of the articles was written by Naomi Klein, a journalist who these students know and are likely to trust as an authoritative critical voice).

The session ended with an encouraging message: the world has opened up, and the internet has democratized news media. There are countless possibilities for young people to access alternative media outlets, as well as to create their own messages. Each one of us has a valid perspective and a story to tell, Gottlieb told the students, and this DIY media landscape is a positive way for youth to get engaged in their communities. The other side of this is that in a world where anyone can create sophisticated media messages, critical literacy becomes even more crucial.

thinking cap

A student submitted this helmet as a verbal/visual response to the prompt "Creativity & Madness"

Lesson Plan – Poetry as Art & Activism

Centered around Gil Scott Heron’s classic performance poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” this lesson plan explores the history and conventions of spoken word poetry, teaches that poetry can be a powerful form of activism, and examines “The Revolution” as a pop-cultural meme. By the end of the lesson, students will create and have the opportunity to perform their own “My Revolution” poem reflecting their everyday experiences, personal histories, ideas and beliefs.


I wrote this lesson plan as an assignment for my English class at OISE. It was one of my first exercises in formal lesson planning, but it earned me a 10/10! I think much more can be done with this topic – students can make their own videos, perform their pieces, and learn more about the conventions – and social purposes – of spoken word poetry.

The lesson plan and student handouts are below:

Poetry as Art & Activism Lesson Plan

Handout 1

Handout 2

Handout 3

Handout 4

I especially like Handout 4…it traces the influence of the Gil Scott Heron poem. The iconic phrase shows up everywhere from articles about the tweeting revolution surrounding the Iranian elections to hip hop songs.

My favourite take on the poem is spoken word artist Sarah Jones’ piece,  “Your Revolution,” wherein Jones calls out the misogyny in the hip hop music industry. Might not be entirely appropriate for the high school classroom – although when the FCC tried to ban it for indecency, Jones successfully sued the FCC for censorship. Here she is, doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well…

Lesson Plan: The Ward – from Slum to City Hall

Few Torontonians today know that the location of our current City Hall was once an overcrowded slum known as “The Ward.” In the early decades of the 20th Century,  the area bordered by College, Queen, Yonge, and University was Toronto’s worst slum, a landing pad for the poor immigrants who worked to build this city.

The district was a jumbled mix of  family homes, rooming houses, small businesses, and restaurants. The Eaton’s factory and annex was at the South-East end of The Ward and employed many of The Ward’s residents. Landlords took advantage of peoples’ desperation, and rents were higher than most of the inhabitants’ wages, forcing extended families to cohabit and take in boarders. Sometimes the Health Department would condemn a property, but because demand was so high and the Department didn’t have the resources to follow-up, the landlord would soon rent the space out again without bringing it up to standard.

In 1913, Toronto General Hospital razed part of The Ward to construct a large, new hospital.  At this time, according to a report by Charles Hastings, head of the Department of Helath, there were over 3,000 households in The Ward, most of which were occupied by 2-6 families.

The inhabitants of the ward in the early 20th Century were immigrants mainly from Italy and Eastern European countries. The largest group living in The Ward were European Jews who immigrated between 1890-19320.  By the mid-1930’s, The Ward had become Toronto’s first Chinatown.

1913: A gril stands on Elizabeth Street, view of Old City Hall in teh background

A View of Old City Hall from 21 Elizabeth Street, May 15, 1913 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 187)

Lesson Plan Overview

I designed this lesson plan, for a Grade 10 Canadian History course, as an assignment for my OISE History class, around the critical question: Was living in the city worth it at this time?

In this lesson, students will discover what it was like to live in a Canadian city around the time of World War I. They will uncover the push and pull factors that brought various groups to Canadian cities, and the social and technological factors that allowed cities to sustain population growth during this period. Students will learn about “The Ward,” a notorious Toronto slum, through an examination of primary and secondary sources. Finally, by looking at Canadian urban life from different perspectives, students will judge whether the benefits of living in Canadian cities outweighed the challenges.

The complete lesson plan and a slideshow of primary documents (photographs, newspaper articles and other ephemera) are available as PDF’s for download here:  Growth of Canadian CitiesGrowth of Canadian Cities – Primary Documents.