Helen Wolfe, OCT, introduces innovation and incites inspiration at a downtown Toronto school in a marginalized community.
By Jessica Leeder
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk
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Helen Wolfe, OCT, is a hard one to spot. It’s lunchtime in her classroom at Nelson Mandela Park Public School located just east of downtown Toronto. The students gathered here are an unlikely smattering of girls ages six through 13 — some with long braids, others with bright hijabs. Most have abandoned their food in favour of the coveted silver MacBooks that have been handed out for sharing. Groups of up to five girls can be found in front of each glowing screen, all awaiting a turn to type in their bit of code. When one hits a roadblock, a chorus of singsong cries goes up: “Helen!”
Petite and peering over reading glasses from beneath a mop of silver curls, Wolfe materializes from a cluster of chattering students. She had been teaching them how to use co-ordinates to move a cartoon bird through a maze and turns now to bend over the laptop in question. While she sorts out its wireless connection problem, another student finishes building a tablet computer with a Kano kit (kano.me) and begins to program it; others are troubleshooting together as they learn how to use a 3D doodle pen (the3doodler.com). When the bell rings, there is no scramble to leave. In fact, Wolfe has to coax the girls into heading back to their regular classes. She has discovered over the past six years that doling out a parting snack at the door does the trick.
It has been that long since Wolfe — who is a reading teacher in Regent Park (one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods) — launched this not-so-little lunch club. The weekly Girls Crack the Code gathering has garnered the attention of many big names in the tech industry, including Kirstine Stewart, the career strategy officer of Diply (a user-generated, social news and entertainment community) and a former vice-president of Twitter Canada. At each meeting, you’ll find Wolfe and her daughter, Sarah, a volunteer, alongside a crew of female students who are eager to learn a raft of skills (code.org).They cover everything from how to build various computers to becoming proficient in different programming languages (tryruby.org).
To some, this initiative may sound like a big leap for Wolfe, a humble, veteran teacher who jokes that she is “700 years old” and used to write report cards on the original tablets — you know, the ones made of clay. But once you consider her philosophy and much-lauded approach, which won her a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2015, you’ll see it’s far from a departure.
“Coding is connected to math and logic. It has co-ordinates, problem-solving and it’s all about working together — which real developers do,” Wolfe explains. She feels strongly that those skills should be imparted regardless of socio-economic status. “There’s an old saying, ‘Your postal code should not establish your destiny.’ There’s no reason why the next Steve Jobs shouldn’t be a girl in this club — except for lack of exposure.”
Now in her 40th year in education, Wolfe, known simply as “Helen,” has spent the bulk of her career downtown, in the Toronto District School Board. She has bookended her time with positions at Nelson Mandela Park, where the average family income is about $23,000. Low rents in the area make it attractive to new immigrants who face a myriad of hurdles. Many students, for instance, only begin to learn English when they arrive at school. Others, who know the language, often have a more limited vocabulary than that of their peers in more well-to-do neighbourhoods. Principal Jason Kandankery, OCT, agrees that those facts can translate into challenges in the classroom. Thankfully, Wolfe sees them as opportunities; she has honed an elastic teaching style in pursuit of justice, which in her case means imparting skills that can help break the cycle of poverty.
“Literacy must be a priority in low-income schools because it contributes so much to student success,” says Wolfe. “You have to be stubborn and dig in your heels and find every way possible to make literacy central to everything you do. You have to believe students can achieve more than they think. Why should a student at this school not read as well as one at another school?”
In addition to having taught each primary grade, Wolfe has worked as a librarian and a reading teacher, as well as a literacy coach and mentor. Her fervent drive to support literacy extends to digital media, mathematics, science and critical thinking. In the classroom, she starts by creating experiences that will inspire everyone.
“I’ve always felt that in a marginalized community, you must, must, must take children on field trips,” she says. “To develop language and new vocabulary, you have to do new things.” Wolfe has accompanied students far and wide, from the Mohawk Institute Residential School on the Six Nations reserve in Brantford to North Buxton, a southwestern Ontario terminus of the Underground Railroad. Other favourite destinations are museums, including the Gardiner and the Royal Ontario Museum. “It opens their imaginations to new possibilities and connects language instruction to concrete experiences. In other words,” Wolfe says, “it helps to level the playing field.”
Closer to home, she conducts neighbourhood walks and regularly invites community leaders into the classroom. “It’s about making sure they know that their cultures, communities and their ideas are valued,” she says. “Individuals who feel valued are more motivated to learn.”
Kathy Skandalakis, OCT, counts Wolfe as a mentor. She is often struck by how willing the teacher-librarian is to “take risks” in the classroom, in an effort to find methods that work. “Helen really gets how to support her learners and honours the learning process,” Skandalakis says, adding that Wolfe encourages her to integrate elements of media and technology — from Flip cameras to moviemaking applications — into her lessons. “The creativity piece is huge for her. It’s about popping the bubbles and letting sparks fly.”
Wolfe is not one to dust off and reuse lesson plans year in and year out; instead, she teases out what grabs her students and runs with it. One year, a playful lesson with plastic snakes proved so captivating for her Grade 2s that they studied the reptiles for the entire year, transforming an empty classroom into a Snake Exploratorium filled with student-created museum exhibits, artwork, reports and more. “You have to start with a little of your own enthusiasm,” Wolfe says. “And once they catch hold, you just go with their questions.”
To buttress her lessons, Wolfe draws on a team of volunteers and former students (everyone from doctors to engineers to artists), that she has been assembling for decades, to speak to her classes and mentor individual students. It’s an added layer of enrichment.
Mary McGee is a volunteer math tutor who first met Wolfe 12 years ago. “She never seems to burn out,” McGee says, adding that the award-winning teacher is careful to lend extra support to those who are both struggling and gifted.
“Through commitment and dedication,” McGee says, “Helen is able to provide rich learning experiences without the additional resources that tuition can buy.”
Where extra resources are necessary, Wolfe goes hunting — applying for dozens of grants over the years. She recently won her school an Indigo Love of Reading (loveofreading.org) grant worth nearly $100,000 (distributed over three years), that will go toward creating classroom libraries and improve interest in reading. Each class got to go book-buying at the nearby Toronto Eaton Centre mall. “Many of our students had never been to a bookstore,” Wolfe says. “I’ve always felt that if you have the opportunity to pick your own books, you’ll be more likely to read them.”
Thenuka Thanabalasingam, a University of Toronto biology student who met Wolfe a decade ago at one of the lunchtime clubs, explains that her former teacher’s ongoing support has been a great influence.
“Not only does Helen encourage you, she helps you achieve your goals,” says Thanabalasingam. “She has always been on my side. That’s very powerful — especially at a young age — when you’re unsure of what you want to do, not to mention a little scared.”
For Wolfe, seeing students succeed and becoming the best they can be in all areas, including science and math, is the payoff.
“I don’t consider myself excellent or outstanding,” says Wolfe. “But I’ve always worked at being the best I can be — and that’s what it’s all about.”
The OCT featured in this department has been recognized with a national teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.
Looking to start a club but not sure where to begin? Teacher-librarian and Girls Crack the Code founder, Helen Wolfe, OCT, shares her six indispensible secrets to launching a successful school club that your students won’t want to quit: