Category Archives: lesson plans and ideas

grade 9 geo takes to the streets

Now that classes are over, I’ve been taking more time to ride my bike and wander around Toronto’s vibrant neighbourhoods. Thanks to the creativity and critical thinking of my grade nine students, I’ve been seeing the streets that I’ve roamed for years through a new lens.

Spadina Remix - then and Now by AldenC on Flickr

The final summative for my Geography class was a neighbourhood field study. Students had to conduct field research as well as traditional research exploring an issue of their choice within a Toronto neighbourhood. They had to write an individual research paper and present a creative group oral presentation.

In groups, the students chose a neighbourhood in Toronto – the only limiting factor was that they could not choose an area that any of their group members live in.  Each student chose an issue in their neighbourhood, asked a question and came up with a thesis  which they supported with demographic evidence from the City of Toronto’s neighbourhood profiles as well as qualitative evidence from their field study and support from sources including Toronto newspapers, real estate boards, and local blogs like spacing and Torontoist.

Questions ranged from “Does the name ‘Little Italy’ accurately represent the culture of the neighbourhood?” to “Why are homes in Forest Hill so much more expensive than similar homes in the suburbs?” to “What kind of person would want to live on the Island?” One students studied the demographics of the waterfront condo-land, asking, “Why is the population of the Harbourfront community growing so rapidly despite a  low birthrate?” I encouraged a student to look at a contemporary issue, and she ended up researching the new Bixi program and hypothesize about its success and its potential impact on tourism, commerce, and transportation in her neighbourhood.

When I was in high school, a flashy presentation involved funny hats & ties and maybe – maybe – a neon bristol board sign. Today, you ask grade nine students to do an oral presentation, and you get a full on travelogue. I was very impressed with some of the presentations! One group studied Queen St. W. and wrote a song, accompanied by a music video showcasing the neighbourhood’s attractions. This group, who studied Cabbagetown/Regent Park conducted interviews with locals, discussing issues like safety, gentrification, and the preservation of heritage homes:

This summative was a great way to get students out of their own bubble and onto the streets of Toronto. It forced them to pay closer attention to the stores, parks, hospitals, homes, and sidewalks of their city. Students gained an appreciation for the planning that goes into a neighbourhood, and for the multitude of factors and stakeholders  that work together to make a neighbourhood safe, clean, vibrant and liveable. So now when I wander these streets, I find myself counting doctors’ offices, looking for available parking, and scanning signage for languages other than English. It’s true – teachers really do learn from their students!


We all have special needs: teaching autism in english class

As a high school English teacher, the importance of using clear, precise, and respectful language is something I remind my students of all the time.  Before my grade 9s (ENG1D) begin their book club unit on the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I took the time in class to pause and think about the language we use when discussing the book’s protagonist, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome named Christopher Boone. This was one specific goal, but in general, I wanted to raise some awareness in my class about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The previous class, I had given the students a handout with background information about ASD and Asperger’s from Autism Canada, with a few questions to answer for homework. My random fact of the day, written on the board, was:

The WHO estimates that the rate of autism is growing at 14% around the world

We discussed why this statistic may be on the rise, and my students arrived on their own at the debate around the extent to which there is a higher incidence of autism or a higher diagnosis rate because of increased awareness of the disease.

Before the students came in, I had stuck one cue card on each of their desks with one of the following words written on each card:

Spazzer, Retard, Stupid, Mentally disabled, Autistic, Person with autism, Person with an ASD, Person with Asperger’s Syndrome, Asperger’s kid, Different, Special needs, Crip, Mong, Idiot savant, Slow, Different, Special , Sped, Handicapped , Weird, Idiot , Person with special needs

Some of these words were from the novel; some were from the schoolyard. I then drew a line on the board and asked the kids to quietly come up and stick their cue card somewhere along the line.

Offensive _________________________ Respectful

This led to a wonderfully productive discussion about the disorder, and about our use of language. As we discussed the words, I asked the students if they wanted to change the placement of any of the cue cards. I asked them questions like:

  • Which would be the most appropriate words to use when talking about Christopher?
  • Why is the language  we use so important when discussing these issues?
  • Why do some words that were OK at one time now offend people? Are there any words that used to be offensive but are now OK? (This led us to a discussion of words like “queer” and “the N word”)
  • Can a word be neutral in some contexts and offensive in others?

Students were eager to share their perspectives, including several stories about their own “special needs” and about friends or relatives who have autism.

I read a passage from the Chapter 71 of the novel:

All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs… (Haddon 54).

We discussed the idea that everyone has special needs even if they don’t have Special Needs – and discussed the phrase “Normal is a dryer setting” – (also the title of a wonderful blog by Amy Wink Krebs,  a writer whose son has autism).

We ended up with all of the words beginning with “person” on one end of the line and drove home the point that a person with any sort of disability is a person first, and that they should not be labeled or defined by their disability. One student even suggested that I write “Christopher” beside “Respectful” because, indeed, the most respectful way to address a person with autism is by his or her name.

After quickly taking up the homework questions, the next activity delved into the language of the book, but still with an eye to empathizing with the challenges that everyday life poses to people with autism. I asked them how they would describe the author’s writing style (detailed, straightforward, simple words etc.).  I read an amusing passage from chapter 29 about why Christopher does not like metaphors:

The word “metaphor” means carrying something from one place to another . . . and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word “metaphor” is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining and apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about (Haddon 18-19).

We reviewed what similes and metaphors are, and I then gave them a handout about figurative speech:

An idiom is a word or phrase that is used figuratively in common speech to mean something other than its literal definition. Christopher has a hard time understanding idioms. Picture the idiom in its literal translation – this mental image might seem funny, but it could confuse and overwhelm a person with autism.

I began with the example, “I saw the school play last night. It was sick!”  I grossed them out by explaining that this could mean that everyone was sneezing all over each other and that the actors threw up on the audience. This led to a really cute impromptu comedy routine between me and the students, as they shouted out clarifications like, “No, I mean it was the bomb!” “The roof was on fire!” etc. For the rest of the period, they worked on creating straightforward, literal and direct statements out of commonly used idioms (here is the “Curious Idioms” handout).

It was a very successful lesson and I hope that today, as I observe my students’ book club discussions, I’ll see them thinking about their language and paying closer attention to the language of the text.

Perez Shakespeare

On the first day of my Merchant of Venice unit, I asked had my Grade 9s to do a graffiti wall and answer a bunch of questions. One of them was, “What scares you about Shakespeare?” I got the classic answers, mostly having to do with unfamiliar language, challenging new vocabulary and boredom. One student wrote, “dudes in tights,” and yet another admitted being afraid of Shakespeare’s moustache.

While I can’t do anything about the Bard’s ‘stache, my overall objective over the next month is to make Shakespeare a bit less scary for my students. We started with a round of Shakespearean balderdash, a game introduced to me by my English prof at OISE last year. Now we’re on I.ii, the scene where Portia and Nerissa gossip about the suitors. I created a little activity to help the students see the humour in the scene: Shakespeare meets Perez Hilton. It gets them to apply their own language to the text, and it will be a good opportunity for formative assessment, as our unit summative is a teen magazine.

William Shakespeare meets Perez Hilton

Lady Gaga wears a dress made of Q-Tips!

Brangelina adopt quintuplets from East Timor!

Miley Cyrus spotted binging on pickled eggs!

Celebrity gossip is everywhere these days, but it’s nothing new. In Act I, scene ii of Merchant of Venice the wealthy heiress Portia and her lady in waiting, Nerissa, are discussing the potential suitors who are competing for Portia’s hand in marriage. The two women gossip about the suitors – their clothes, their manners, their habits, and their personalities.

Your task is to be an Elizabethan celebrity gossip blogger. Write a creative blog post about any of the suitors in this scene, or about one of the other characters we have met in Merchant of Venice.

  • Your post must contain accurate and specific references to the character
  • Use your imagination – fill in the details as though the character is a contemporary celebrity
  • Include a creative headline
  • Write in a playful, casual tone but use correct spelling and grammar


Portia Dishes the Dirt on Oprah

It girl Portia sat in Queen O’s chair yesterday and dished the dirt about the stable of international suitors who have been knocking themselves out trying to woo her. Oprah’s audience was treated to some juicy gossip about the Neapolitan prince’s – ahem – “horse.” Apparently Miss P.  would rather gallop through the countryside with the Venetian scenester Bassanio. TMZ spotted the blonde beauty checking out Bassanio’s assets at a recent masquerade. Yesterday, @Bassan_YO tweeted, “Move over Jake Gyllenhaal! B dog’s going to Belmont 2 find the golden fleece!” Is it true love, or true lust?

SAP on the Web

Recently I have been maintaining another blog – this one  was created specifically for my grade 11 Intro to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology class (HSP3M – a.k.a. SAP, the one where I did the ‘study your teacher’ first day activity).

It’s called SAP on the Web, and has become my primary means of communicating with my students outside of class. So far it has not been the most productive forum, but it’s definitely a more functional way to get handouts, links, and media texts out there, rather than relying on our school’s Edline page.

I’d love to hear other educators’ ideas around creating a meaningful online community for your secondary school classes. Of course, feel free to use any of the handouts or resources that I post on there.  I am totally indebted to other teachers’ blogs, tweets, and wikis – there are so many great ideas out there.

Thanks for sharing!



the world is your lab

Introduction to Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology is affectionately known around my school as “SAP.” But lest the title throw you off, you won’t find any mawkishness or naivete in Ms. Antflick’s class – I’m hoping for some serious, bare knuckled inquiry. The grade 11s can handle it.

I gave a lot of thought to this course before the school year began, and my colleagues and I came up with a great course outline, structured around several BIG QUESTIONS about humanity. I was going into September feeling pretty good about the whole thing. But the boss’s words were bouncing around my skull: “They make up their minds about you in the first 45 seconds.” Gulp. I brainstormed, refined, scrapped, and reworked that first lesson for a week. Then, sitting in a traffic jam chewing on my cuticles one afternoon after a particularly grueling day spent wrassling for a chance to use the photocopier, I had an idea.

I’d make them study me.

Subject EA

I wrote on the board:  Please have a seat and look at the handout in front of you. On each of their desks was a handout beginning with the following invitation:

“Dear social scientist in training:

Our school has been asked to participate in an important social scientific study, and you have been recruited as research assistants. This study will begin today and continue until June, 2011. You will be collecting qualitative data in an attempt to understand Subject EA in terms of her behaviour, the way she is socialized, and her role in various social groups and institutions.

Please have a seat and observe the subject in front of you (Subject EA). You may get up and examine the artifacts associated with her. Please do not attempt to talk to or interact with Subject EA. You have 10 minutes to complete your research.”

There was a chart underneath with a few questions. I brought in a bunch of artifacts – a can of tennis balls, my ipod, my MA thesis, a canoe paddle, etc. I displayed them on the table in front of me, Then I sat there, silently, for over 10 minutes. Imagine! 10 minutes of silence on the first day of school – amidst all the “do this, don’t do that” course overview blah blah. I walked around, purposely biting my nails and twirling my hair, bopping to the music on my ipod (I’m pretty sure it was DOOM), crossing my ankles on the desk. I refused to talk to them or answer their questions.

Not only did they do it enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, they even asked for more time to fill in the worksheet! I overheard a couple of students discussing my outfit in detail, “Yeah, high waisted gray pants and…are those wedges? Yeah, black wedges.”

They totally got it. The spirit of inquiry was in the air – students were discussing their observations with one another, getting up and approaching the desk, examining the artifacts, scrutinizing my behaviour. It was fascinating for me to be observed, and to observe the way the students handled the task. In our debriefing, they made insightful comments about why they thought I did the activity and what it was all about.

This lesson served several purposes. It set the tone for the year – the students learned that this is going to be a course unlike anything they’ve taken before, and it’s going to be up to them to observe and inquire and figure the damn thing out. Second, it was a good diagnostic. For example, I learned that when you ask teenagers what social group someone belongs to, you are likely to get answers like “popular” or “the sporty clique.” It drove the point home that the world is our lab and that the social sciences are all about examining the world and ourselves.

Here’s the handout I gave them – Handout: HSP3M Intro

lesson plan: immigration role play

For the last month, I’ve been teaching two sections of Grade 9 Geography. I haven’t studied Geography since grade 9, and all I remember from that course was that my teacher’s favourite fish is arctic char from Lake Winnipeg. Needless to say, I was relieved to discover that I’d be teaching what I call the History side of Geography. I taught units on immigration, settlement patterns, and urban land use – much more up my alley than fauna of the Boreal forest and precipitation graphs for Charlottetown and Medicine Hat.

I’ve been co-planning these units with another student teacher from OISE, a thoughtful and dedicated educator whose thoroughness more than makes up for my seat of the pants approach to lesson planning. I think that we I put together a good unit on immigration – including the history of Canadian immigration, an evaluation of trends and patterns, a little bit of graphing and article interpretation thrown in for skill building, sharing personal histories in class and in written reflections, and a culminating role-play activity as well as a unit test.

I’ve decided to share the role-play here. Judging by my assessment of the students’ written reflections as well as their test scores, this activity was a success as it helped students understand and apply many of the terms and concepts associated with this unit.

Students were divided into groups of six. In each group, there were two immigration officers and four fictional characters who were applying to immigrate to Canada. Students were given:

  • character profiles
  • a handout detailing what makes a legitimate refugee claim
  • three copies of the point system (for each applicant except for the refugee)
  • a job description for a Canadian immigration officer
  • a task sheet with a rubric for the reflection

Students had approximately 40 minutes for the role play, and by the end of the time allotted, students playing the role of immigration officer had to use their critical thinking skills to evaluate the claims and decide which two of the four applicants should be allowed to immigrate.

The second part of the activity was a reflection, written in the last 20 minutes of class. Reflections had to include:

A) Reference to the terms we learned in class:

  • push & pull factors
  • tossed salad, multiculturalism
  • categories and types of immigrants (independent, skilled worker, investor, refugee, family, etc.)

B) If you played the role of  an immigrant

  • An explanation of the role that you were given
  • What were some of the problems that you faced?
  • Were you accepted? Why/Why not?
  • What do you think of the system? Was the decision fair?
  • How did it make you feel? Can you empathize with this person’s situation?
  • Would you have made the same decision if you were an immigration officer?

If you played the role of an immigration officer

  • An explanation of the role that you were given
  • How did playing this role make you feel? Can you empathize with this person’s situation?
  • What were some of the problems that you faced?
  • Did you find your job difficult? Why/Why not?
  • Was the points system clear? Was it fair?
  • How do you think the immigrants who you denied felt?

I gave each of the four immigrants a nuanced profile, hoping that the decisions of the immigration officers wouldn’t be too cut and dry. Indeed, there was a good degree of debate and discussion within each group, and different groups arrived at different – and equally defensible – conclusions. I would definitely use this activity again – it ran smoothly, engaged different kinds of learners in an authentic task, and provided opportunities for formative (watching the role plays) as well as summative (marking the reflections) assessment.

The immigrant profiles are below:

Rashmi Choudhary

Born in Delhi, India, you completed a four-year Bachelor of Science to earn your Nursing degree at the Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur College of Nursing in New Delhi. Having worked as a nurse for just over two years after graduating, you enjoy the nursing profession but are not happy at the hospital where you are currently employed. You are single and full of energy, and at age 24, you see a bright future ahead – you are looking for some adventure and want to advance your career in a new country. Your Auntie Aishwarya (your mother’s sister) and her husband immigrated to Canada in the 1970’s and your cousins – born in Canada – are around your age. You have met them at several family occasions and are excited to spend more time with them – one is a doctor in Hamilton and you hope he may be able to help you find a job. Your English is perfect but you do not speak any French.

Silvio Costa

Born in Recife, Brazil, you have been supporting your family working for 21 years at your cousin’s welding shop. You left high school at age 16, and began apprenticing as a welder and earning some money for your work. Lately, business has been slow and you are concerned about your two young sons’ futures. Your former neighbour Paulo, who used to work with you, moved to Calgary twelve years ago and now has a successful welding business. Paulo has promised you a full-time job when you arrive in Canada. Your wife and sons will move with you. Your wife is a hair stylist with a high school education. You understand English well – thanks to your love of American rock music – but your grammar and spelling aren’t great, and you get nervous when speaking English. You are taking a night school class to learn English. You speak no French. You have been trying to apply for immigration to Canada for six years. While you do have friends living in Canada, you would be the first of your family to immigrate.

Jane Smith

You are a 52 year old American citizen interested in starting a genetic screening clinic in Alberta, Canada. You have opened seven clinics all over the States that have succeeded. You have advanced technology that you use for the screening process for genetic diseases however, there are already two clinics in Ontario that are using the same technology. Your net worth is $7.5 million and you are willing to invest $1.7 million in developing the Canadian clinic. You will employ 4 Canadian scientists. You are a single mother and you have three dependent children under the age of 18. This is your first time applying to Canada for citizenship but you already own a ski chalet in Banff and have been vacationing there for the last 10 years.

Abdulhelil Tunyaz

You are a 31 year old Uighur – a member of a Muslim ethnic, religious and linguistic minority – who lives in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region  (XUAR) in China, formerly known as East Turkmenistan. Your community has been persecuted by the Chinese government since the late 1990’s. Your brother and uncle were arrested and imprisoned in 2001, seemingly for no reason – the Chinese government claims that they were radical Uighur separatist terrorists. You have not seen them since. You suspect that they have been tortured, and are afraid for your own safety. You are an engineer, and in November you flew to Canada for a conference. You are afraid that if you return to China, the authorities will detain you against your will.

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.