Social Software and e-learning

This week’s reading on social software and e-learning directly relate to my research topic of personal learning networks in K-12 education and therefore were of great benefit to explore in preparation for future writing.  In particular I appreciated the perspectives presented in that they helped to solidify some of my thinking as well as present both the value and the challenge of the digital age that come with our new way of not simply using social software but “living” with it.

Social Software has forever changed the ways in which people live, work, play and learn.  We have made a substantive shift from using technology for specific tasks to having technology as an embedded part of our everyday life.  According to Pereira et al (2013), social software and the socialization of technology “have changed the interaction between people and computers” (p. 4).  Social software has become very much embedded in how we create and maintain relationships.  In the digital age, we are very willing to give away our autonomy and our security in return for a social interaction that is provided by social software.  Pereira et al (2013), warns us that in these digital environments “there is little concern for human values such as privacy, reputation, autonomy, among other cultural aspects” (p. 5).  As a K-12 educator, I am aware that much care and attention needs to be taken to attending to the human values listed in this research to determine how to safeguard students in the face of living with technology that has become embedded in our most personal ways of being and interacting with others.  I agree that, there is great “need for studies, investigations, and theories to support understanding and placing values at the core of the analysis and design of social software” (Pereira et al, p.5, 2013).

As an online teacher who works to find innovative ways for students to engage with learning, I agree with Tozman (2011) when he states that the one of the greatest values of social software and the semantic web will be in the ability to more accurately and intuitively meet the needs of a diverse group of students through targeted, personalized intervention, facilitated through new web and mobile technology.  “The real growth and evolution in learning, it seems to me, has been the ability to distribute learning to greater numbers of learners and yet allow it to be even more targeted to the learners to whom it has been distributed” (Tozman, p.3, 2011).  This idea of learning becoming more personal thanks to social software was repeated by Chatti, Jarke & Specht (2010) where they describe learning as shifting in a “move away from command, control, and passivity toward openness, emergence, flexibility, active participation, and dynamic” (p. 79).   As well, this potential for targeting learning via social software is described by Frye, Trathen, & Koppenhaver’s (2010) as they outline practical examples and models of how this move to learning that is open, flexible, active and dynamic can be leveraged using social software such as blogs.  Their research illustrates “technology-enhanced learning environment and instructional strategies that are meaningful, safe, and supportive of students in collaborative reading, researching, writing, publishing, and responding” (p. 52).   I have seen from teachers in our school division who have used blogs, wikis, and social software such as Twitter and Skype to create Personal Learning Environments in which there student create, share and refine their learning in the social presence of their peers.

This week’s readings connected to the conversations I had as a facilitator at The Future of Digital Learning Forum (  Much of the discussion at the forum focused around the semantic web and how it will shape the future of learning.  The keynotes, Audrey Waters, George Siemens and Mark Millron emphasized how the future of digital learning is one in which the semantic web has the potential to change learning for the better, in terms of more targeted and specific support for students but also holds great challenge in our ability to protect learners digital identities.  Due to social software our digital autonomy is at risk when every keystroke we make is a data point that can be stored and analyzed.  Audrey Watters asked us to consider ways in which students, parents and teachers could protect the data the share through their use of social software as vigorously as one would protect any other part of their identity.

The potential for learning that exists thanks to social software is that the growth of the intelligent web will lead to “emphasize machine-facilitated understanding of information in order to provide a more productive and intuitive user experience” (Tozman, p. 1, 2011).  Unfortunately, with the great potential comes the added risk that much of our digital selves will be freely given away the quest for a personal learning experience.  Therefore the challenge of protecting our digital data so that it can be used to serve best interest of the learner and not just that of the social software provider is essential to the future of digital learning.   Educators and learners alike must decide what we value in terms of social software, what is worth the risk in order to reap the potential benefits of the powerful intelligent Web.



Chatti, M., Jarke, M., & Specht, M. (2010). The 3P Learning Model. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 13(4), 74-85.

Frye, E. M., Trathen, W., & Koppenhaver, D. A. (2010). Internet Workshop and Blog Publishing: Meeting Student (and Teacher) Learning Needs to Achieve Best Practice in the Twenty-First-Century Social Studies Classroom. Social Studies, 101(2), 46-53.

Pereira, R., Baranauskas, M. C., & da Silva, S. P. (2013). Social Software and Educational Technology: Informal, Formal and Technical Values. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 16(1), 4-14.

Tozman, R. (2011). How mobile computing and the semantic web will change learning forever. Learning Solutions Magazine.



Teaching in a Distributed Learning Environment

The readings for week three are wonderfully connected to my work and all attempt to answer questions about online teaching and learning that define my work as a teacher researcher in a distributed learning environment.  What does it means to teach online?  How is teaching and learning different when students and teachers are physically at a distance from one another?  What unique skills are required of teachers to be successful in distance learning?  How does research inform us as to best approaches for design and delivery of e-intensive learning?  How can we best train and prepare teachers for working in digitally enhanced and intensive learning environments?  And lastly, what are the implications for teachers working in digitally enhanced learning environments?   All four articles point to something that I feel to be true: there is something inherently unique about teaching online and at a distance.  Online teachers require a specific skill set and mindset.   These teachers are required to be both pedagogical content experts but also experts in digital tools that require a resiliency in approaching e-enhanced and e-intensive learning.

Many of my colleagues at the Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC) participated in the Alberta Teachers Association study on the impact of digital technologies and therefore when the research was complete, it was used in discussion at ADLC about what it means to teach online and at a distance. This research along with many other studies helped to inform changes to ADLC as it transitioned from correspondence style distance education into an e-intensive online school.  I feel very fortunate in my role as a teacher researcher to have many opportunities to discuss the issues and implications as presented in this document with one of the researchers, Dr. Phil McRae.  The Alberta Teacher’s Association makes an interesting  point in that “the term distributed learning means different things to different people” (ATA, 2011, p. 9)  This is something I have come to find in my own research and personal experience and in researching best practices and research informed approaches to distributed learning.  This lack of consistency when it comes to defining the approach to learning makes it equally difficult to prepare teachers for teaching online and at a distance.  If the terms online/distance/distributed/blended were more clearly defined, teacher professional learning for each might be more effective.  As Yang (2014) concluded, the blended approach to teaching, “prompted the needs for new teaching approaches and skills that are different” (p. 202). Therefore new approaches to teaching require proper training and development.  Discussions during the ATA focus groups pointed to the need for continual training as the teacher’s believed, “substantial effort was required to attain mastery” in the skills required for e-enhanced learning (ATA, 2011, p.6).  The teachers in the focus groups also felt that their teaching context was unique and new teachers to their environments may  not be prepared in terms of “specific interests and aptitudes” (ATA, 2011, p 6).

As distance learning continues it’s shift in terms and approaches from correspondence, to distributed, to online and now to blended approaches to learning, a deep understanding of connectivism in essential for teachers.  As Starkey’s (2010) research clearly states, “The beginning teachers in this study were working from theoretical models that pre-dated the digital era” (2010).  In a connectivist approach to e-enhanced and e-intensive learning, the teacher shifts from the content knowledge expert who gives information to students to the “role of a learning expert” (Starkey 2010, ).  Starkey categorizes knowledge of digital tools as pedagogical content knowledge and stresses that in a connectivist approach to learning teachers would, “encourage students to go beyond the teacher’s existing knowledge base by making or enabling connections” (Starkey 2010).  This new role as teachers a expert  or lead learner who encourages their students to make connections by modeling learning, interaction and cognitive discourse for their students would require a unique skillset including; knowledge of learning theory, practical experience and a great deal of digital resilience.  As Ferriter (2011) points out, digital resilience is much easier for a connectivist as it is “easier for those of us who are willing to share what we know – and what we need” (p. 87).  As we work on planning our professional learning for our online teachers for the upcoming year, I will take away a great deal from the week three readings and apply it to our long and short range plans.  Recognizing the e-intensive teaching is an exciting profession that comes with many unique challenges and unique joys is the first step to creating professional learning that will help  online teachers see themselves as expert learner guiding their students to engage in critical discourse with the teacher, with each other, with the content and then connecting those experiences to their place in the world.


Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). 2011. The impact of digital technologies on teachers          working in flexible learning environments. Retrieved from ca/uploads/ 1006/20100621inspiringact86934.pdf

Ferriter, W. M. (2011). Becoming Digitally Resilient. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 86-87.

Starkey, L. (2010). Teachers’ pedagogical reasoning and action in the digital age. Teachers & Teaching, 16(2), 233-244.

Yang, Y. (2014). Preparing language teachers for blended teaching of summary writing.Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27(3), 185-206.

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Developing Multiple Literacies through a Curriculum of Action

Week 1 Reflection:  Developing Multiple Literacies through a Curriculum of Action

There is an interesting parallel between this week’s readings and the work we are doing prototyping curriculum development (  for Alberta Education’s Curriculum Redesign (  As I read Jewett’s (2011) discussion of exploring ICT literacy through real world experiences such as geocaching in the article Multiple Literacies Gone Wild, I am reminded of the importance of developing curriculum that allows students to pursue multiple literacies by engaging in work that is worth-while (Jardine 2002).  As a member of the curriculum synthesis team, we engaged teachers, students, parents and community members across Alberta in conversations about how curriculum could and should be developed.  We heard time and time again that curriculum must allow for authentic, worthwhile work as the means for students to develop competencies and literacies.  Jewett reminds us through the story of the boys in the article, that through the authentic and engaging task and experience while geocaching, the boys are able to develop multiple literacies that are clearly real world in application such as mapping, global positioning systems (GPS), and communication (2011).

As we prototype curriculum, we find ourselves asking the question, “what are the ways of being” for each discipline?  How do we honour the disciplinary skills and knowledge that lead to the habits of mind of a scientist, a social scientist or an artist?  Jewett observed through the boys experience geocaching that literacies come out of disciplinary contexts, social interaction and the ways of being related to the task at hand (Gee 2005, Street, 1995).  The boys developed their literacies not through the practice of independent skills but rather through the context of the authentic, engaging task.  They learned through trial and error and likely made some mistakes along the way: a map read incorrectly, a missing coordinate in the GPS, a misunderstanding of the cache owners instructions all would contribute to their experiences.  Regardless, there was no requirement to first be competent in GPS coordinates before heading outside.  The literacy was developed and strengthened in the act of engaging in the task.  Quite possibly some of these small errors and corrections along the way, lead to a deeper understanding of the literacy employed.  The literacies were developed through experience and measured through the boys ability to engage in the work of geocaching.

In Lau and Yuen’s (2014) study of ICT literacy in junior secondary students, the authors stress the importance of measuring this literacy in both students and teachers.  The authors explore the multiple existing ICT literacy measures and the need to develop a conclusive measure of ICT literacy in both students and teachers.  This measure contrasts with the idea of measuring literacy through engagement in authentic tasks.  The authors conclude that “ICT alone was not a catalyst for school wide improvements” (Venezky and Davis 2002).

As teachers, we might ask ourselves, how do  essential ICT skills and literacies impact our students’ learning?  Do these literacies need to be taught and evaluated explicitly using ICT scales prior to students engaging in authentic tasks?  It is possible that many of the competencies and literacies that we deem as valuable can be developed through the authentic work of the discipline, work that is worth whiling over (Jardine 2002).  These readings will once again focus my work on prototyping a curriculum of action that allows for students to develop and measure their multitude of literacies through engagement in work that is contextualized and placed in real-world experiences.

Gee, J.P.  (2005). An Introduction to Discourse analysis:  Theory and method (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Jardine, D. W. (2002). On the While of Things.  In P. Clifford, S. Friesen, D. W. Jardine, Back to the Basics of Teaching and Learning: Thinking the World Together. New York: Routledge.

Jewett, P. (2011). Multiple Literacies Gone Wild. Reading Teacher, 64(5), 341-344

Lau, W. & Yuen, A. (2014). Developing and validating of a perceived ICT literacy scale for junior secondary school students: Pedagogical and educational contributions. Computers & Education. 76, 1-9.

Venesky, R.L. & Davis, C. (2002). Quo vademus?  The transformation of schooling in a networked world.  

Zabala,J.S.(2005). Ready,SETT,go! Getting started with the SETT framework. Closing the Gap,23(6),1-3.

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What Grows Here?

dont-judge-each-day-by-the-harvest-you-reap-but-by-the-seeds-that-you-plant-22 (1)Blame it on the two feet of snow on the ground and the fact that it is May the 5th, but I have gardening on my brain.  Seeds are strewn across my table, potting soil is piling up in my garage, and my hands itch to dig in the dirt.  I want to get messy, scatter seeds, and watch, impatiently waiting for something new to grow.  I really want to tend my garden.  Sometimes people ask, why would I bother with a garden?  My backyard is the size of a postage stamp and there is barely enough space to kick a soccer ball around, let alone grow potatoes.  Gardening takes time, and hard work, and aren’t we busy enough?  Do we actually grow enough food to make it worth our efforts?  Those of us who garden know the answer is more than yes.  The work is challenging and the results are often unpredictable.  As we plant our seeds it is hard to determine if this variety and that soil will yield the best crop.  We read up to date science and apply our current best practice of gardening.   We bring this combination of knowledge and skill to our garden and hope and pray for the best.   When things fail, we adjust and redo.  When they thrive we record the winning combination to use again on future gardens.  It is more than worth the effort, as through the process we learn and grow ourselves.  Gardening  is not defined by the sum of it’s parts, it is defined by the iterate process.  It is through this process that we the gardener grow…not just our seeds.

Question, Research, Plan, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Repeat.

This is the same hope and aspiration we have for our curriculum development prototyping work.   We are often asked questions like: Why bother to contribute to this process?  What if anything in schools will really change?  Will the effort you put in produce?   When asked over and over why we would take up such challenging, unpredictable work the answer is because we grow through the work.  That is the intention. It is the same hope we have our students in our schools.  We develop curriculum prototypes just as we would garden.  Through an iterate process that is as important if not more than the finished product.  We plant seeds of thought, seeds of hope, seeds of inspiration and pray that our future students will reap the rewards.  When we notice students are no longer thriving, we will analyze, evaluate and once again begin the iterate planning process with an essential question:

“What grows here?”

Jim Parsons and Larry Beauchamp envisioned for Alberta Education a Curriculum Development Process that would allow for iteration to be applied to curriculum that is flexible, responsive, relevant, inclusive and engaging for all students.  It is a process that at its heart is about learning and growing.  Not just for students but for all of us in our community (garden) of learners (growers).

Curriculum Development Process

“So what grows here? In the end, I guess we do. And isn’t that why we garden in the first place?” -Lois E. Hole

When envision what a curriculum prototype could look like, my colleague Alison Van Rosendaal posed the question, “If the metaphor for our old curriculum was the industrial model or more specifically the conveyor belt, what is our new metaphor for curriculum?”  In our conversation, she shared the following video.  We found this to hold a lot of potential for creating a new metaphor.

Keep planting, keep sowing and never ever stop growing.








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Special Education at a Distance


– Excerpts from ADLC AISI Cycle 5 Project

When teachers traditionally think about supporting our most at risk learners, those with various learning needs such as learning disabilities (LD), English language learners (ELL) and First Nation, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) students, it is unlikely that we think about teaching them at a distance.  It is true that some of the best interventions and supports that schools have for students with special learning needs involve proximity to a caring adult.  Schools often focus on providing specific, one-to-one interventions designed to close the achievement gap and promote academic growth. The traditional correspondence method of distance education may have lacked support for some of our most at risk students.  Fortunately, times have changed for the better in distance delivery and in the best interests of all unique learners.

Over 90 years ago, Alberta Education entered into a service agreement with The Alberta Distance Learning Centre to serve the distance education needs of the students and teachers of Alberta. Over the years, this service agreement has taken on many forms. However, the mandate remains the same: to provide high quality learning resources and services to the students and teachers of Alberta.  This includes students with exceptional learning needs and learning disabilities.  ADLC registers students from urban, rural, and remote community schools from across the province in facilitated or independent learning programs. ADLC students may also be homeschooled. ADLC’s students are as diverse as Alberta’s populations with various learning needs including FNMI, ELL, Children in Care, and Learning Disabilities.  When thinking about distance education as a means to meet the needs of learning disabled students, it is important to examine four core factors: the universality of online course offerings; the ability to differentiate instruction; flexibility in time, pace and place; and online supports for skills remediation including specialized online courses.

Universally Designed Online Courses


Over the past ten years, many students accessing distance learning resources have made a shift from traditional print correspondence to online learning. As a result, the opportunities for creating universally designed, online learning resources increased. This became the mission of ADLC; to design courses and learning opportunities that are universal (providing access to all learners) and that engage students in authentic learning experiences. Many students have difficulty understanding concepts that are presented primarily in text and may benefit by online course materials that consider different learners, using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. Visual and auditory supports implemented in the ADLC online courses aim to provide students with opportunities to learn using lesson materials incorporating audio, video, imagines and text-to-speech software. As well, an additional UDL strategy of providing students with options to express their understanding from various alternative assessments in a benchmark of all new ADLC courses.  By implementing UDL, instructional materials and processes ADLC courses and resources are designed to allow students with diverse needs to engage, interact, and learn from them (Abell, Jung, and Taylor, 2009).  The UDL learning principles frame ADLC course design by providing choice of alternative assessments and assistive technologies, such as video and text-to-speech software, in online courses for all learners. “The UDL perspective looks to create flexible instruction, engagement, and assessment options that reduce barriers at the outset of the learning process” (Messinger-Willman and Marino, 2010, p. 9).

Differentiation of Instruction

Differentiated instruction essentially is the understanding of the learning needs of our students and differentiating content and process to support those needs. To differentiate, teachers must be able to pick and choose from a myriad of tools to support student learning.   Alberta Distance Learning Centre resources provide classroom teachers with supports to meet the needs of their diverse learners. Teachers have the ability to make strategic choices as to how content will be delivered, what process students will come to understand and make sense of this content, and how the students will be required to show what they know (Tomlinson, 2003, 2005, 2012; Turville, 2008, Strickland, 2009).  Teachers can differentiate ADLC content and assessments that are already created to curriculum standards and with UDL principles in mind.  ADLC course content also contains assistive technology such as; engaging videos that have both captioning and transcripts, font can be easily changed and enlarged, audio and text-to-speech tools. Most importantly, the content and assessment can be self-paced to go as fast as students can but as slow as they must. This is the essence of differentiation. Teachers and students working with ADLC resources do not have to proceed in a lock step, group fashion. There are multiple entry points for students to receive the appropriate pacing and interventions required to promote learning.  ADLC course materials support differentiated instruction and personalized learning.


Flexibility in Time, Pace and Place

Many of our most at risk learners seek to be at a distance: at a distance from peers who may not accept their differences, at a distance from teachers who are overwhelmed by the demands of our classrooms, and at a distance from those very supports that schools work so diligently to provide.  Many students in distance education programs self-identify as having a learning disability.  As students become aware that the ways in which they learn may be different or unique to their peers, many students realize that they need flexibility in time, pace and place in order to effectively learn.  In our busy, full classrooms, providing this flexibility is difficult.  Students come to the Alberta Distance Learning Centre in order to meet their learning needs.  Whether it is to upgrade or accelerate, to access courses that are not offered by their community schools, or to allow for flexibility in schedules, ADLC provides students with the access they need.  Students who choose to take ADLC courses benefit from student-centred programs and customized instruction to meet their individual needs, where learning can happen at any time, at any place, and at any pace.


Skills Remediation

As the composition of our classrooms change, to become more and more diverse with students not only with unique learning needs but also with English language gaps, ADLC provides options for skill remediation at a student’s own pace.  Many of these tools can be used either inside or out outside of a normal day of instruction.  Alberta Distance Learning Centre provides options for teachers, parents and students to remediate these skills at a distance.  Programs like Imagine Learning (for English Language Learners) and Successmaker (for skill development in numeracy and literacy) provide remediation in a way that supports both teachers and learners.

Alberta Distance Learning Centre offers Imagine Learning, an interactive ELL resource designed to teach English and develop language and literacy skills using an engaging and effective online software program.  With Imagine Learning, students complete activities focusing on phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. This adaptive program provides over 2500 engaging activities.  Ongoing assessments are provided throughout the program and can be printed for parents in the student’s first language.  Strategic first language support is also available to students within the program, with an option of fourteen languages.

SuccessMaker® is another interactive tutorial software used in over 20,000 schools throughout Canada, USA, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The program presents new skills and concepts in small chunks that help build student confidence. Consisting of sophisticated multimedia mathematics and reading courses delivered through an online management system, SuccessMaker®: enhances math skills, develops elementary math concepts, and increases reading skills.  With Successmaker, each student receives an individualized program monitored by a supervising teacher as well as monthly reports that outline progress and changes made to accommodate the needs of each student.


Implementing Universal Design for learning principles and strategies can make educational environments and materials naturally and seamlessly functional for learners with diverse needs by guiding the selection of flexible, usable, and accessible tools, materials, and surroundings, and the development of learner-centred collaborative and interactive curriculum (Curry, Cohen, and Lightbody, 2006). “By offering UDL-aligned instructional approaches and curriculum materials,… students might begin to show more interest and engage more fully with curriculum materials that are relevant and comprehensible given their own learning style, ability, and interests (Abell, Jung, and Taylor, 2009, p. 182). However, Edyburn (2010) asserts that to understand and meet the special instructional needs of all individuals, researchers and teachers must continue to “seek to understand the impact of various instructional designs on the success of diverse learners” (p. 36).  ADLC strives to determine and evaluate UDL instructional processes that increase student learning and performance through sustained engagement and development of expertise (Edyburn).


Abell, M., Jung, E., & Taylor, M. (2009). Students’ perceptions of classroom instructional

environments in the context of ‘Universal Design for Learning’. Learning Environments

Research, 14(2), 171-185. Retrieved March 23, 2012 from Eric Database.

Bennett, S. (2009). Including students with exceptionalities.(What Works? Research into

Practice: Research Monograph #16). The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario:

Ministry of Education. Retrieved March 9, 2012 from .

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). (2011). Universal design for learning

guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author. Retrieved February 17, 2012 from .

Chen, M. (2009). Influence of grade level on perceptual learning style preferences and

language learning strategies of Taiwanese English as a foreign language learners.

Learning and Individual Difference, 19, 304-305. Retrieved March 8, 2012 from ERIC


Curry, C., Cohen, L., & Lightbody, N. (2006). Universal design for science learning. The

Science Teacher, 73(3), 32-37. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from ERIC database.


Abell, M., Jung, E., & Taylor, M. (2009). Students’ perceptions of classroom instructional

environments in the context of ‘Universal Design for Learning’. Learning Environments

Research, 14(2), 171-185. Retrieved March 23, 2012 from Eric Database.

Bennett, S. (2009). Including students with exceptionalities.(What Works? Research into

Practice: Research Monograph #16). The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario:

Ministry of Education. Retrieved March 9, 2012 from .

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). (2011). Universal design for learning

guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author. Retrieved February 17, 2012 from .

Chen, M. (2009). Influence of grade level on perceptual learning style preferences and

language learning strategies of Taiwanese English as a foreign language learners.

Learning and Individual Difference, 19, 304-305. Retrieved March 8, 2012 from ERIC


Curry, C., Cohen, L., & Lightbody, N. (2006). Universal design for science learning. The

Science Teacher, 73(3), 32-37. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from ERIC database.

Toulouse, P. (2008). Integrating aboriginal teaching and values into the classroom.

(What Works? Research into Practice: Research Monograph #11). The Literacy and

Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario: Ministry of Education. Retrieved March 9, 2012 from .

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It’s a small world


So this just happened.

In September, I wrote a blog post Ways of Knowing about a Ukrainian artist, Olena Kulchytska.  This artist, for reasons I cannot explain, moves me.  I feel like she grounds me, connects me to the exact place in the universe I need to be.  At the time I was deep into thinking and working on a potential prototype for the Curriculum Redesign for Alberta Education and had been spending time with the notion of Ways of Knowing as introduced to me by Jim Parsons and Larry Beauchamp.  I felt that the way in which I was was able to recognize and connect with the art of Olena Kulchytska was truly another way of knowing.  It was not memorization or recall, it was entirely instinctual.

Although I don’t find blogging easy, my connection to Olena Kulchytska was something I wanted to capture before the feeling was lost or muddled.  I’ll admit, I’m an emotional blogger.  I tend to only write when I have an emotional connection to a topic.  Olena Kulchytska is very emotional to me.  I believe there is a reason I found her work, a reason I am continually draw to her.  In that blog post, I discussed my cousin, Anna and her husband Andry Kuchabska who are both artists in the city of Lviv where I had spent my summer, and with whom I credit for my passion for art.

Months later, after the post had gone quiet and I had once again been stuck with writer’s block, I received a notification in my inbox that I had a new comment on my now stale blog post.  My first thought was, weird.  Who would have found this post now?  The answer was Marina Kushnir, an artist from New York.

Dear Laurel! My name is Marina, I was Anna’s and Andri’s college friend, and also Anna’s roommate in Lviv. I was looking for them for years (actually I found them briefly once, and then, unfortunately, lost again…) This time I tried to Google them and was soooo thrilled to find your story! Please give your aunt/sister my FB page link, and I hope never to lose her again!!! Thank you so much :)

After some digging, I confirmed that Marina was in fact my cousin Anna’s roommate and is living in New York as an artist.  Anna was thrilled and just as amazed as I that this old friend from another time and place could find her, via my blog.  It just goes to show that sometimes our instincts or our ways of knowing that something needs to be be written are for reasons we could never predict at the time.

My response to Marina was this:


What an amazing surprise it was to receive your comment on my blog. It never ceases to amaze me what a small world we live in. One can never guess which connection will lead to the next. I have spoken to Anna and she is thrilled to hear that you found this blog post and her. I will send her you contact information. I am happy to be able to help you reunite.

Are you living in America? We worry very much for all of our family in Ukraine and pray for democracy, freedom and prosperity for their people. A beautiful country with so much pain.

If you are ever in Calgary, AB Canada. Please contact me. Friends of Anna and Andri our friends of our. :)

I once again revel in the notion that once we are connected and tap into all the ways of knowing, it is truly amazing what a small world  we live in.  And I keep telling myself that these three things  matter:

Keep creating, keep sharing, keep connecting.



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Ways of Knowing

follow your instincts

While traveling in Ukraine over five years ago, I spent a great deal of time looking at art.  My aunt, Anna Kuchabska and her husband Andri are both artists, Anna a professor at a college in Lviv and Andri an art teacher for young students. Seeing art through their eyes has been a gift I will treasure all my life.  On one particular day we at lunch at an artists’ cafe, Dzyga, in the city centre surrounded by the old walls that protected the city from invasions over the centuries.  We finished eating and decided to step foot into a small art shop.  More of a junk shop than a formal gallery, art and antiques  strewn throughout the space, we wandered and explored each finding our own way through the store.  And then my eyes hit it painting above and I stopped.  I didn’t move, I didn’t speak.  Instead, the piece of art spoke to me.  It spoke as if we had spoken before, as if we knew each other.  Andri found me standing alone and came to see what I was seeing.  I couldn’t explain it but I was moved by the emotion of the piece and I had a tear in my eye.  He took one look at the painting, then at me, and smiled.  Yes, he said, she is beautiful.  It is Olena Kulchytska, a much celebrated Ukrainian folk artist.  Motioning his around the room he asked, how on earth did you find her in all of this?  I couldn’t explain how.  I just knew.  I left the shop without buying the painting that day.  And over the years I had long forgotten the name of the artist, but I never forgot the image of the mother and her baby and they way it made me feel.  Not ever.


I have been fortunate enough to have returned to Lviv, Ukraine two other times for both work and pleasure.  Each time I searched out the small shop near the cafe to see if I could find the painting.  Each time the shop was closed. This summer, I returned once again to the city I love with my family.   We ate lunch as we always do at the small artists’ cafe where my art shop no longer lives.  I smiled quietly at the boarded up door.  Then as we got up to leave, I  noticed another small junk shop across the way.  Curious, I motioned for my family to go ahead without me and I stepped inside.  It was tiny and crowded and full soviet memorabilia.  I looked around seeing war medals and weapons, not my kind of thing.  Then I looked up and a tiny painting caught my eye.  It was of a woman sweeping and I asked the man to take it down for me.  He told me that it was expensive as it was made by a famous artist. Having traveled to Ukraine many times, I know that tourists are often told these things and they are not always true.  I told the store owner in my broken Ukrainian that if the artist was so famous, please write the name down for me and I will check with my aunt who is an art professor.  I expected him to gaff at this request but he did not.  He simply wrote one word in Cyrillic on a tiny scrap of paper.  I couldn’t read it so I thanked him and walked away.  That night, I showed the paper to Andri who once again smiled and laughed.  You know who this is, yes?  No. I replied.  It is her, Olena Kulchytska.  The artist you loved many years ago when you visited.  I couldn’t believe it.  In all the art in Lviv and trust me there is a lot, I had found another tiny work by the artist I had once so loved.  This time, I bought the painting, and it now hangs in my office where I can see it everyday I work.  It reminds me that sometimes you just know something and that way of knowing is just as valid as any other.

Women's Work

Intuitive ways of knowing are where you know you know something, but you just cannot explain how. You feel it, in your heart, in your mind, your body.  The knowledge comes from your lived experience.  There is no evidence or explanation for your knowledge.  This way of knowing, and feeling the knowledge in your whole body is what we call intuition.

Intuition in education is viewed as a key element to discovery, problem solving and gaining understanding.

In the initial stages of inquiry, intuition can be considered  as a basic source of evidence to support a theory.

Intuition is the capacity for attaining direct knowledge or understanding without the intrusion of rational thought or logic.

Intuitive knowledge comes to the surface seamlessly when a person is confronted with a complex problem.

When used intelligently, intuition has the potential to enhance executive judgement and decision making.

(Parsons and Beauchamp)

Intuition as a way of knowing by feeling or embodying knowledge can be counter-intuitive to everything that we have been taught in schools.  In schools where evidence rules supreme, trusting our intuition as evidence is rarely if ever encouraged or rewarded.  Yet, most people can agree or attest to having similar experiences to the one I described above.  If we sometimes know that we just know something, why do we not encourage this way of knowing in our students?  As we begin the process of rewriting the Alberta Curriculum for all students in our province, we have the opportunity to embrace and celebrate the many, varied ways of knowing.  It is imperative that our curriculum developers do so.

In order to know what is true, one must have a complete understanding of what is considered to be knowledge, knowing and truth.


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A History Lesson with Growth in Mind


 I used to think you were smart

This past weekend I learned a true lesson from my Grandpa Hank.  A fellow history buff was over for dinner and we spent much of the evening diving through boxes of treasures that I am fortunate enough to possess.  Being a history major and teacher of social studies, I have been entrusted with the task of keeping my family’s historical documents safe.  I recently received a box in the mail from my uncle that contained among other treasures; my grandfather’s flight log from the Second World War and the letter he received when he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).  The cross is awarded to officers and Warrant Officers for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy. 


I remember how impressed I was to to learn that my grandfather received the DFC and that he flew more missions than the famous Memphis Belle (His crew had 35 successful sorties while the Belle had 25).  A list of his missions and letter of commendation is below:

NELSON, F/L Henry (J87209) – Distinguished Flying Cross – No.10 Squadron – Award effective 15 March 1945 as per London Gazette dated 23 March 1945 and AFRO 721/45 dated 27 April 1945.  Born 1922 in Coronach, Saskatchewan; home there (student, former Royal Canadian Artillery); enlisted Regina 17 February 1942. Trained at No.7 ITS (graduated 17 July 1942), No.19 EFTS (graduated 23 October 1942) and No.11 SFTS (graduated 5 March 1943).  Commissioned May 1944.  No citation other than “completed…many successful operations against the enemy in which [he has] displayed high skill, fortitude and devotion to duty.”  Medal presented 18 June 1949. Public Records Office Air 2/9051 has recommendation dated 19 December 1944 when he had flown 35 sorties (166 hours four minutes), 24 May to 2 December 1944.

Acting Flight Lieutenant Nelson was posted to No.10 Squadron as a Flight Sergeant in May 1944; has now completed 35 sorties comprising 166 operational hours.  He has attacked heavily defended German targets including Duisburg (three times), Stuttgart, Cologne (twice), Kiel, Essen (twice) and Munster.

Throughout his operational career this Canadian officer has pressed home his attacks with great determination.  His cheerful confidence in the face of heavy opposition and fine offensive spirit in action have maintained morale at a high level.  He is undeterred by intense flak and his leadership has played a good part in the success of his operational flights.

He was the captain of a Halifax aircraft detailed to attack Duisburg on the 14th October, 1944.  The starboard inner engine failed 70 miles from the target and, unable to maintain the briefed height of 19,000 feet, he continued and successfully bombed the target from 16,000.  His skillful handling of his aircraft under these difficult conditions is worthy of high praise.

I consider acting Flight Lieutenant Nelson a pilot of great courage, and strongly recommend that his fine operational record, skill and strong devotion to duty be recognized by the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Knowing that my grandfather was a very successful man; in the military, in farming, in business, in relationships, I always assumed that he must just have been fortunate enough to be born with talent.  Then I recently started reading the book, “Mindset” by Carol Dweck.  I had heard many of my educator colleagues talking about this book, people I respect and who I have learned a great deal from in the last year, people like Jesse McLean.  In the book, Dweck explains that “it’s not our abilities and talents that bring us success, but whether we approach our goals with a fixed or growth mindset.”  Reading Dweck helped me realize that although I very much believe in a growth mindset for my students,  I have been living a fixed mindset for myself.

“What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” Bloom

Having taught students with significant disabilities both learning and behavioral most of my life, working as an advocate of inclusive education, I could not agree with Bloom more.  Given the right supports and an environment that fosters a love of learning, every student can learn nearly anything. The problem was, for many years, I did not apply this same belief to myself.  Although to others, I may appear to jump at the chance to take on new challenges, I know that I struggle with a  fixed mindset. Often I protect my ego by not trying too hard at things that I fear I do not have a predisposed “talent.”  Like Calvin I associated having to work hard at something as undesirable.  I always did well in school, so I figured I must have just been born (at least a little) smart;  that my success came from my ability, not my effort.  I never really learned that a growth mindset allows a person to be afraid, to risk , to fail and to truly learn.  It was fine for my students, I was a caring teacher and I expected them to trust me enough to take risks in my class but I rarely took the same risks myself.  Case in point: I want to learn to play the guitar, but I don’t think I have any talent so I haven’t tried.  I love and appreciate art, but I know don’t have any artistic talent, so I don’t paint.  I love reading edu-blogs of people that I admire but I barely write myself.   I could go on but I think you get the point.

So what does this have to do with my grandfather and the DFC?  Talented pilots win awards, right?  Pilots born with a gift, born with a predisposition to flying, pilots who are praised for their talent and due to the praise continue to fly more and better.  This is what I believed until I read my grandfather’s flight log.  It was pretty remarkable.  Not because he was remarkably talented or showed a natural ability or gift for flying from the start.  But because according to the flight book, he showed no talent at all!  His first reports from flight training stated he was of “average” ability with “no distinguishing faults.”  Not very flattering when compared with how we praise our children and students today for every small accomplishment.  So what motivated him to continue to try?  Clearly not talent, not ability, not praise.  What took my grandfather from an “average” pilot to an officer who acts with valour, courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy?   A growth mindset, that’s what.  If the log book showed anything it was that my grandfather flew and flew and flew and flew some more.  He tried, he risked, he struggled and he learned.  And that is the best lesson a dusty old box of treasures could ever teach a granddaughter about life.  I hope to remember that to move beyond fear of failure, to struggle, to be uncomfortable and to work through the messy, tough spots is how we learn and grow.   Writing this blog is something I am not good at and I find very uncomfortable.  I don’t have a natural born talent for blogging.  It will take practice and developing a regular habit of writing to get better.  I will be afraid, it will be messy, it won’t be great right away and I am finally starting to realize that “average” is a great place to start.

Flight Lieutenant Henry Nelson, my Grandpa Hank.

Grandpa Hank


24 May 44      Aachen (4.14)                            10 Aug 44      Dijon (6.45)

2 June 44       Trappes (4.50)                           25 Aug 44      Brest (5.30)

5 June 44       Mont Fleury (3.45)                   11 Sep 44      GARDENING (5.15)

7 June 44       Juvisy (4.35)                               12 Sep 44      Munster (4.25)

9 June 44       Laval (5.15)                                27 Sep 44      Calais (3.20)

12 Jun 44       Amiens (4.35)                            4 Oct 44         GARDENING (5.50)

14 Jun 44       Douai (4.00)                               6 Oct 44         GARDENING (4.00)

15 Jun 44       Fouilliard (5.30)                          9 Oct 44         Bochum (5.10)

19 Jun 44       Domleger (1.30),                       14 Oct 44       Duisburg (4.55)

Group recall                                                           14 Oct 44       Duisburg (5.15)

27 Jun 44       Mont Candon (3.40)                  23 Oct 44       Essen (4.55)

4 July 44         St.Martin l’Hortier (3.30)            28 Oct 44       Cologne (5.05)

5 July 44         St.Martin l’Hortier (3.30)            30 Oct 44       Cologne (5.30)

6 July 44         Croixdale (4.15)                         6 Nov 44         Gelsenkirchen (4.50)

23 Jul 44        Kiel (5.15)                                   18 Nov 44      Munster (5.40)

24 Jul 44        Stuttgart (8.00)                           28 Nov 44      Essen (5.25)

28 Jul 44        Foret de Nieppe (3.15)             30 Nov 44      Duisburg (5.10)

8 Aug 44        St.Philibert Ferme (3.20)          2 Dec 44        Hagen (6.05)

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Tenure – A tenuous topic

Last night I had the honour of accompanying my husband to the Long Service Recognition Dinner put on by the Board of Governors at his private school.  This night was of special interest to me because not only would my husband be recognized for his 11 years of service, but this would mark my “tenure.”  That is if I had stayed.

The year I was hired, 2002, there were ten new hires.  Our private school had a mandatory, intensive new staff training program.  The new hires spent a week together learning about the organization, its history and pedagogical philosophy.  The training was fantastic.  The hires were young, smart, keen, talented, and brought with them a diverse range of teaching experience. We had everything going for us and last night, we were recognized for 10 years of service.

The problem:  Of the 10 original hires, only one remained.  Not me.   And I couldn’t help but wonder, what were we recognizing?  What is significant about staying in one place?  Why is loyaly recognized over and above excellence? And what about the others, like myself who have moved on?  Should we not be recognized for our accomplishments as well?  Those of us who left undoubtedly took a risk to walk out the door.  Hopefully, we all did so to pursue a passion, to move our teaching forward, to learn and grow personally and professionally.  Some of us are raising children at home, others are teaching in different schools, some in new and exciting roles and yes, others have left the teaching profession altogether.  It has always bothered me that we as teachers label our colleagues who move out of teaching into other careers, as burnt out.  Would we say the same of someone who moved from selling real estate to mortgage broker and then later investment banking? Is this person burnt out or simply moving forward as a professional in ways that challenge them and bring fulfillment?

The other day I was reading Chris Smeaton’s post, “Do we want great school?”  which made me think (as his posts always do). What does it take for a school to be great?

Greatness also requires us to take a significant leap from our current paradigm. We need to understand that although our current schools are “good” we will never elevate to greatness following the same path. Collins suggests that as little as a 20% change (need to ensure the “right” 20%) will assists us in getting out of our comfort zone and move us toward greatness. Simply put, we can no longer exist as we are and reach that pinnacle.

My previous school certainly had every opportunity to be great.  And there were certainly moments of greatness over the past 10 years.   Undoubtedly,  the teachers who were recognized last night are excellent educators who have done great things for students.  The combined experience and organizational knowledge that a long-service teacher provides a school can be invaluable.  These teachers have been required to read books like, “Good to Great” and “Danger in the Comfort Zone.”   They clearly understood that they were not allowed to “get too comfortable” in their teaching.  Yet, all of the administrators at the school had been in their roles over 20 years.  What dangers have they experienced in the comfort of their leadership positions?  What innovative ideas were brought to the school through new leaders and diverse perspectives?  The safety and danger for any school  administration staying the same for over 20 years is that the leaders are rarely asked to risk and are seldom challenged in their thinking about education, students and the future.

For me, I hope to never be recognized for long service alone.  My hope is for a career defined by positive risk taking, strong work ethic, life-long learning and a commitment to do what is best for students.  First, last, and always.  If that means I never stay in the same place for 10 years,  so be it.  Tonight I will throw my own, Shorter Service but Hopefully No Less Significant party.  Join me?

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Winning and Losing

Winning and Losing

We are always battling. Daily, we win and loose battles at work, with addiction, disease. This makes me wonder, why is it always a fight? What do we gain from seeing our lives as a series of conflicts? What does it mean to win and lose?

My mom lost her battle with cancer a year ago today. Or so people say. I say that she won. Every day for 10 years, she chose to win. And winning wasn’t always a victor, it wasn’t always something to celebrate, it certainly was not pretty. She chose to win to stay and be with us. It was not for her. It was not because she was afraid to die. It was simply because we could not let her go. Her love for us was stronger than her love for herself and therefore she continued to win, to stay, to be alive for us.

How do you honour someone who despite their pain and the struggle, chose to win, to live for you? What do you say, what do you write to commemorate their fight?

All we can do is live, and love and win, in the way she did for us. But that isn’t as easily done as said. Winning in that way is not for the selfish of heart.

The true kind of love involves attention, awareness, discipline, effort, and being able to truly care about someone and sacrifice for them, continuously, in countless petty little unsexy ways, every day. You put your arms around them and love them regardless, even when they’re not so lovable. And of course they do the same for you.

This kind of love has little to do with falling. It’s a long climb up the rocky face of a mountain, hard work that most people are too selfish or too scared to bother with.

7 Things to Stop Worrying About Today –

My mother knew this to be true. That to win in life and death is long climb up a rocky face of a mountain. She was neither too selfish nor too scared. She bothered and we won. Thanks, Mom.

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