Monday, October 24, 2005

Toronto Star Series on Ontario math and literacy push

Seeing many of our volunteers are interested in teaching - I thought this series might be of interest. The Toronto Star is doing monthly reports from a Grade 7 class in - you guessed it - Toronto.

PUBLICATION: The Toronto Star
DATE: 2005.10.24
BYLINE: Tess Kalinowski

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Visiting the front lines of Ontario's math and literacy push; Program geared to what kids read Students design magazine pieces
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The Star is visiting a Grade 7 class in Northern Lights Public School regularly this year to see what Ontario's push on literacy and math looks like on the ground. This is the first of our monthly reports.

Nadia MacKinnon has taught a range of elementary grades in the last six years. Each had its rewards.

But Grade 7 has a special appeal. Her students seem to be at a magical stage of development and discovery.

"They're growing up and they're realizing what the world is all about. I can have an impact on what they think about their world. They can be very introspective and insightful about things," says MacKinnon, who for a second year is teaching Grade 7 at Northern Lights Public School in Aurora.

That charm is also a teacher's challenge, even before you factor in the hormones of 12- and 13-year-olds.

MacKinnon takes advantage of the considerable teacher training opportunities at the York District School Board, a leader in professional development. She's been studying the different ways in which students learn. Back in August, she couldn't wait to get back to class so she could put some of that information to work addressing the individual learning styles of her students.

Back then, she expected a big class and she got it. She has 30 students, including several with special needs, and there could be more by the end of the year because Northern Lights is in a new, growing neighbourhood.

To ensure each of them tastes success, MacKinnon has deliberately chosen materials and activities that allow kids to absorb information and express what they've learned in different ways. For many children, performing a song or skit might be a better expression of their learning than a traditional written test.

For teachers across the province, this year brings a fresh focus on math and literacy as part of a new push initiated by the provincial government, which has poured more resources into these areas and added 1,200 elementary teachers alone to help struggling students.

For MacKinnon, this month's writing unit called Magazine Mania is as appealing to kids who like to draw as it is to those who enjoy reading and writing. The students are expected to design their own magazine pieces, advertising and editorial copy, including visual elements. "The end goal is to give them exposure to different types of writing, not just essays. This is the kind of writing they're going to encounter most in their lifetime," says MacKinnon.

The students have already begun working on their advertisements and they've been instructed to find a partner so they can critique one another's drafts. "Group work is huge for different types of learners."

A quick scuffling and scraping of chairs and most kids have buddied up. But clearly one boy's feelings are hurt because his friend has chosen another partner. Before she can begin overseeing the work of her students, MacKinnon must help one kid negotiate a new alliance.

Each student has received what MacKinnon calls a "rubric" - a planner that will guide the students through the steps and checkpoints of creating a persuasive ad.

The products the students have chosen to advertise reflect the quirks of 12-year-old brains. There's a time-travelling skateboard and a fantasy world where kids can go to engage in "real life" role-playing games. Some, like the glow-in-the-dark basketball equipment and clothing, address what a Grade 7 student perceives to be a real gap in the marketplace.

As the students review their ad copy and illustrations, MacKinnon moves about the room prompting the teams to rethink their approach where necessary, encouraging a pair of girls to cut back on the text in their ad and depend more on headlines and images to grab the viewer's attention. She coaches them in peer evaluation. "Please be accurate and honest about it," she cautions.

MacKinnon never sits down at her own desk.

When it's time to move on to a study of the novel Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech, the chairs are again rearranged, this time in groups of five. This is the class's third literature circle. There will be six before the year is out. In each circle, every student has a role discussion director, real world connector, concept challenger, vocabulary builder or illustrator. Everyone gets to develop a different skill.

Following the discussion, they return to their desks to write a summary of what they've talked about but the volume doesn't diminish much.

At each transition in the day, MacKinnon gives clear, direct instructions and then asks the class to feed them back to her.

When the bell goes, lunch is no different. Students can eat at their desks just as long as they have healthy snacks, says their teacher with an indulgent smile.

Exhaustion is inevitable some days, says MacKinnon. "September and October always feel busier because lots of time is spent reinforcing routines and making sure that all students needs are assessed.

"It takes time to figure out what kind of learners they are."

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