Brain Candy: Sheri Alcordo, Exemplary OCT (Photo: Jaime Hogge)

On a rainy Friday morning, Sheri Alcordo stands in front of her Grade 5 class at Driftwood PS and explains their morning assignment. “Remember this is an activity to build your vocabulary, acquire reading strategies and increase your focus,” she says to 37 students. “So you should be highlighting with a pencil or a highlighter. I’ll give you five minutes to silent read and then we’ll talk about it.”

A 2012 winner of the Premier’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, Alcordo thinks it’s important to squeeze as much teaching as possible into each lesson. So something as straightforward as discussing a reading assignment on the merits of exercise becomes not only about understanding the content, but also developing new vocabulary, listening to arguments and supporting fellow students.

Alcordo is now questioning her students on what they’ve read, and instead of calling out their names, she tosses a Nerf ball from one student to the next. “Some students need to move around a little,” she explains. “So I try to tap into those kids as well — kids who are different learners.”

Her award-winning teaching style is nothing less than creative. Alcordo keeps students on their toes by introducing a variety of hands-on activities that involve student mentoring, acting, writing plays and comic strips, audio and video reporting, and integrating computer technology.

Guest speakers also keep the excitement level high and the inspiration flowing. An Aboriginal spoken-word artist (and musician) dropped by last year to talk about Anishnaabe traditions and culture. During the visit, students developed their literacy and music skills by writing, performing and recording their own songs — they even made CDs of them. To add a political spin to things, party representatives stopped in to explain the importance of local government and why it’s never too early to plan on becoming a future leader.

Sheri Alcordo

Some students need to move around. I try to tap into
those kids as well — kids who are different learners.

But before students take on the world, Alcordo believes they should understand the need to be respectful and resourceful. She invited a FoodShare representative to help communicate this message and discuss topics ranging from energy conservation to stewardship. “As we learn about citizenship, rights and responsibility, students begin to understand the importance of using resources and contacts within their community,” explains Alcordo.

Building diversity

Driftwood PS is located in an ethnically mixed Toronto neighbourhood where poverty, guns and gangs have caused more than a few problems. Alcordo has been a fixture at the school for 18 years and builds on the diverse community by integrating arts, crafts, dance and conflict resolution into her Grade 5 curriculum.

As you walk through the school, it is clear that Alcordo does not limit her dynamic approach to the confines of her classroom. A hallway mural — designed and painted by students — depicting people of different ethnicities holding hands in a circle, along with scenes from the neighbourhood, is one example of how she thinks outside of the box, drawing on teamwork, creativity and social activism. Another project they took on was making a quilt for those affected by a recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The idea behind the gesture was to spread peace and love while offering their support, and the project tied in mathematics and art with the cross-stitch design.

Whatever the activity, Alcordo insists that students show respect toward one another and cultivates this by introducing a rich range of cultural backgrounds — it’s one of the reasons she won the Premier’s Award. And, she needn’t go far to accomplish this with students’ families hailing from such countries as Hungary, Somalia, China, Vietnam, Jamaica, Pakistan, Turkey, Guyana, Ghana and Nigeria. Alcordo involves parents in the process by asking them to share their cultural traditions. For example, last year one parent gave a mehndi lesson and then explained its relevance to the class.

Since mutual respect doesn’t always come easy, Alcordo comes at it from every angle — even through dance. Visiting b-boy dancers helped students join the mini flash-mob fad while a ballroom-dancing program, Dancing Classrooms, added a number of cultural dances to their repertoire.

Negotiating innovation

The Tribes Project and Peace by PEACE (Playful Explorations in Active Conflict-resolution Education) program supply the tools to master the invaluable skills students need to collaborate, negotiate, offer opinions and solve problems. “As we work together with a common purpose, these activities foster a sense of community in the classroom,” Alcordo says. “They also encourage caring and kindness — character traits that the TDSB promotes.”

When it comes to her dedication, passion and conviction, it seems no one can say no to Alcordo. She’s put her negotiation skills to the test when she managed to convince Scholastic and Frontier College to donate books to her students, relied on her resourcefulness to apply for a grant that allowed her class, and others, to take a Toronto International Film Festival workshop, and she’s used her contacts when she appealed to a retired math teacher to help develop a program for them. The duo came up with the innovative Junior Super Hero program that encourages reading, writing, math skills and more. Check it out at

Modelling inner strength

Alcordo works hard to be a good role model for her students. “I tell them that I’ve gone through many challenges and show that you can overcome anything — as long as you have inner motivation and someone there for you. I want to be that person, along with their parents, to help them.”

And, she doesn’t mind sharing her mistakes and the lessons she’s learned if it’ll help her students grow. Alcordo reveals that as a student, she wasn’t good at math and had to seek extra help. She also tells them of the grief she experienced when one of her children died.


This respect that Alcordo shows her students can be traced back to her own school-day experiences. Growing up as the child of a divorced mother who was one of the few visible minorities in the small town of Shelburne, Ont., Alcordo felt ostracized in her own Grade 5 class. “The classroom environment was not inclusive at that time,” Alcordo recalls. “As a teacher, I’m reflective in my practice — I don’t want others to have to go through that same feeling of isolation.”

To make every child feel like an important part of her class, Alcordo contacts each one over the summer — before school begins — to let them know what they can expect and ask them about their likes and dislikes. She looks at their student records to develop strategies on how to work with those who have learning challenges or are painfully shy. (Her Master’s degree is in Special Education and adaptive instruction.)

One of her strategies is to celebrate student success, so every time they reach a goal, they place a jelly bean in a jar. When the jar is full, the class celebrates — usually over lunch. It could be playing an educational or cultural game, making a bracelet or just spending time chatting.

Alcordo also ensures that her students spend time out of the classroom. Last year, they gardened, cleaned up the neighbourhood, participated in public library programs, attended and performed at African heritage celebrations and took part in the Black Creek Revitalization Project. And this year, they’ll visit the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies where they’ll learn about the six million Jews who died in Europe, as well as those who survived and have made Toronto their home. They’ll also stop by a local seniors home to read to the residents, and perform plays and music.

Alcordo’s inclusive style is widely known and respected — in fact, last year, the Toronto DSB selected Alcordo and her teaching methods as a model for equity and inclusion for Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogies (CRRP) for beginning teachers. Throughout the year, teachers came to her classroom to watch, learn and share best practices. They were often overwhelmed. “I had teachers in tears when they saw how the children were respectfully connecting with one another,” says Alcordo.

In the eyes of her colleagues, Alcordo is a champion in the classroom. “Sheri is a passionate and caring teacher who holds an open-door policy for learning to be shared, and for colleagues, families and community members to become co-teachers and co-learners throughout the learning process,” says Sharron Rosen, OCT, who worked with Alcordo on the CRRP project.

“She is a strong advocate for her students and teaches them to be strong advocates as citizens,” says Driftwood PS Principal, Debra Lavine, OCT. “In my many years as a principal, I have never had so many parents request for a child to be in a teacher’s class as I do for Sheri Alcordo.”

Alcordo takes this all in stride and focuses always on the students. “I value that they are in my care,” she says. “I am determined to provide a space where students feel safe and comfortable to be who they are and to be able to take risks to reach their full potential socially, emotionally and academically.”

Round-up of Alcordo’s SIX secrets to teaching success:
  1. Create a safe classroom community by making it inclusive and equitable. Build students’ confidence by reinforcing a positive attitude. Build respect and show the children how to help each other with a student-mentor program.
  2. Be open and transparent. Invite parents into the classroom. Write or phone parents frequently to let them know how their children are performing — talk about the positives as well as what needs to be improved. Let students know how they’re doing and work with them to make a plan to do better. Share your teaching ideas with your colleagues.
  3. Celebrate accomplishments. Encourage the class to applaud their peers by putting jelly beans in a jar with each achievement and then reward the students with a special celebration.
  4. Celebrate ethnic diversity in the classroom. Learn about your students’ heritage, and use it in the classroom to build respect for cultural diversity. Ask them to share their ethnic backgrounds with their fellow students through oral and video presentations, art and drama.
  5. Take into account those who learn differently, those who have learning difficulties or have physical disabilities, as well as those who come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This is especially helpful when doing your lesson plans.
  6. Tap into outside resources. Bring speakers into the classroom and take your students into their community. The sooner they understand the importance of using resources and contacts within their community, the better off they’ll be.