"I try to cultivate positive relationships because I think students learn better in positive environments."
This simple and profound belief has guided David deBelle's practice since he began teaching in 1987 at Joyce Public School in the Toronto DSB. He has taught JK through Grade 5 at the school, as well as French and Phys Ed and, since 2000, has been the school's teacher-librarian and technology convenor - regularly team-teaching with classroom colleagues.
"My job is to meet students' needs, connect with and engage them and support my colleagues in various ways, not just through technology."
As well as running the library DeBelle team-teaches mathematics with Grades 3, 4 and 5 teachers, undertakes IT-related projects with other teachers and fills in where he's needed for prep coverage. He has worked with colleagues to adapt and develop curriculum and to create a rich and collaborative teaching and learning environment - where teachers can draw on each other's strengths. He has written Ministry curriculum documents, run an AQ course and completed a Master's degree. But he truly shines when engaged with students. His enthusiastic and gentle manner commands their attention and inspires them to achieve to the best of their abilities.
As Joyce PS Principal Cheryl Paige - who nominated him for the PM award - puts it: DeBelle is a "gifted enabler who'll do anything to engage students and make colleagues look good."
The big picture
From developing hands-on, integrated curriculum that uses technology in innovative and engaging ways to running after-school activities for parents and students, DeBelle considers the whole child. Having been in the same school for years has allowed him to get to know children as they grow and their families, as brothers and sisters follow each other through the grades. Some former students even return to volunteer at the school.
The school also fosters close relationships with parents, especially those who might hesitate to get involved because of difficulties with English. At Joyce PS as many as 70 per cent of students speak a language other than English at home. But both children and their parents have been enthusiastic participants in the after-school music and literacy programs that employ technology. DeBelle worked with colleagues to create a reading program for parents and children using interactive reading software called WiggleWorks, which is accessible on the board's web site.
"The reading program drew more than 20 parents," says Paige. "And in the first year of the music program, we were overwhelmed by the response. By the second year we were able to handle 100. There is constant demand.
"We are in a school where there is very low turnout for parent council, but this brings them into the school and they come in to help their children," Paige adds. "What is great about both of these programs is that they allow parents who don't speak English to participate."
This is a fun and non-threatening environment. With music, language isn't a barrier and with WiggleWorks, parents learn reading strategies they can use at home to support their children's reading. The interactive audio element helps some to improve their own English reading skills. By empowering and assisting parents, DeBelle and his colleagues improve their students' chances for success.
DeBelle also initiated the Joyce Green Club and secured a grant from the TD Bank to naturalize part of the schoolyard and create a hands-on, outdoor, living classroom to teach students about animals, plants, seeds and trees, and, of course, environmental responsibility.
He has sponsored student chess programs and board-wide chess and math competitions. A former Canadian badminton champion, DeBelle contends that daily physical activity directly contributes to student success, and he runs after-school programs ranging from floor hockey to Tai Chi.
Math, music and robotics
DeBelle defines his practice as a balance of constructivist and transmissive; he draws on both hands-on techniques and direct instruction. "Either way, without motivation there is little learning, so I always try to engage a variety of learning styles with an emphasis on visual and kinesthetic learners."
As part of a Grade 5 science unit in robotics, students work in groups of three to build a Lego car, program its on-board computer and then write a report on the project. Students learn problem solving, computer programming and teamwork while covering required curriculum expectations. They are actively engaged and have fun while learning. Their achievements are further rewarded with the culminating activity in which their designs and programming are put to the test in a bumper-car challenge.
DeBelle also co-developed the school's innovative and engaging mathematics and music program with his colleague Anthony Micallef - who teaches both music and Special Education. At Joyce PS all students receive instruction in a state-of-the-art music lab at least twice a week. The lab boasts iMac computers, Roland synthesizer keyboards and a variety of software instructional materials.
Junior division students receive a structured and intense program in which mathematical concepts - including numbers, fractions, data management and problem solving - are employed to create original musical compositions, many of which sound impressively professional and complex.
DeBelle and Micallef drew on a large body of research connecting early childhood music instruction with higher achievement in mathematics. In The Arts with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jenson suggests that the musical arts are not only part of our built-in biological design, but may even be responsible for developing essential neurobiological systems. According to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, music is one of the most powerful ways of contemplating and understanding the world.
While not intended to be a comprehensive course in mathematics or music, the Joyce PS program integrates the subjects and enhances student achievement and enthusiasm in both. This project was the basis for a ministry curriculum document, Enriching Mathematical Concepts through Music, co-authored by DeBelle and Micallef.
In 2002-03, Lee Willingham, a pre-service instructor at OISE, researched and reported on the profound and positive effects of this programming at Joyce PS. He notes the effect on student achievement and on the attitudes of students, teachers and the community. The report includes instructions and visuals on the mathematics and music program and is available at schools.tdsb.on.ca/joyce/main/pathfinder/midi_index.html.
The tech advantage
Access to technology is a great resource for DeBelle and his colleagues. The school's computer lab is equipped with iMac computers, printers, scanners, a data projector and a touch-sensitive SmartBoard. In his own instruction DeBelle makes good use of technology - employing PowerPoint and data projectors for lectures and preparing handouts that are expertly keyed and laid out. Believing that technology can significantly enhance the teaching and learning process, DeBelle feels fortunate to work in a school with so many time-saving resources that help him do his job.
"Today in math class I showed 60 children a piece of exemplary work," DeBelle says. Scanning a document for display on a 10-foot screen, Debelle points out, "It's effective and enjoyable to teach with these kinds of tools at my fingertips."
But while technology can help and is a great tool for engaging students, it is only one tool. When asked how the school spent the $5,000 award that accompanied DeBelle's recent Prime Minister's Award for teaching excellence, the answer is "Books for the library!" It's not all about new technology. It's about creating a rich and collaborative teaching and learning environment.
"I aim to provide exciting, interesting and challenging experiences every day," says DeBelle. "I try to greet children with a smile and let them know I think they are special."
The success of technology programming at Joyce PS has provided opportunities for DeBelle to speak with school visitors from around the world. He has travelled to England to talk about his work and has spoken to colleagues throughout the province via presentations at the Ministry of Education, on TV Ontario and at countless workshops and conferences. He also teaches an AQ Computers in the Classroom course in the school's computer lab.
Incredibly, DeBelle found time to finish his MEd this spring, focusing on technology and student achievement, and he intends to start his principal's qualifications this summer. "This is a very hard job that needs to be appreciated and valued. I hope I never forget this, especially if I am fortunate enough to become a principal one day."
Teaching and learning
When pressed to offer advice to other teachers, he notes the value of talking and sharing. "Ours can be an isolated profession," says DeBelle. "Open your classroom door, share and invite colleagues to work with you. Students will benefit and you will save your sanity."
He also knows how much teachers are squeezed for time and that this can restrict their effectiveness and ability to learn, innovate and help children. He says, "Team-teach when you can." He suggests that by teaming with others who have complementary strengths you can focus on doing a few things well: "Become a literacy, numeracy or technology specialist, for example. You can't do it all but you can learn to do a few things well."
When asked what's next, DeBelle talks about implementing the Davis Dyslexia Correction Program and Davis Learning Strategies. The latter is an early intervention program for K-3 students, and the former is a one-to-one intensive program for older students with learning disabilities. He has seen these programs succeed and has submitted a proposal to the TDSB's Innovation Fund to run a pilot project next year.
The energy and enthusiasm of this gifted enabler seem endless. The words of Dagmar Grasser, School Council Chair, come close to capturing him: "Mr. D. has a special touch with kids; they love and trust him. He's smart, hard-working, dedicated, sincere, patient and athletic. He's a perfect role model for children and adults."
Certainly, DeBelle knows that students learn by watching as well, and he aims to teach by example because he knows that he did.
"I try to maintain a positive attitude and a connection with students and am very aware of how many pairs of eyes are on me at all times. Students learn from how we are, not just from what we say."
DeBelle has studied and taught Tai Chi for 25 years and credits his first Tai Chi teacher and mentor with providing a valuable lesson about teaching: "He spoke little English; his lessons were simple, direct and powerful. This reminds me not to spend too much time talking during my classes, but to observe students closely while they practise."
There are so many ways to get a point across aside from talking and David deBelle continues to explore and discover new ones.ps
Gift of technology
David deBelle's strengths as an educator are not dependent on technology, but his school's computer resources are impressive and present an opportunity that he has enthusiastically embraced.
In 1999-2000, teacher-librarian Leon Lenchner (the Toronto Sun's 2001 Teacher of the Year and a Claude Watson Award winner) oversaw implementation of a $700,000 grant from the Ministry of Education. It was part of a program promoting the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in schools. Joyce PS was one of seven TDSB Pathfinder schools directed to experiment with technology - integrating it into programming. When in 2000 Lenchner was seconded to teach at York's Faculty of Education, DeBelle implemented Lenchner's vision.
As massive amounts of technology entered the school, the first challenge was to ensure that the teachers knew how to use the laptops they received. Technology training and ongoing ICT support for staff continue to be core responsibilities for DeBelle.
Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence
David deBelle's Award for Teaching Excellence (2003-04) was announced in March 2005. His Certificate of Excellence recognizes the enriched and collaborative learning opportunities that he has created - enabling students to make a difference in their school and community.
The Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence honour outstanding teachers who encourage their students to become lifelong learners and good citizens who will contribute to Canada's growth, prosperity and well being.
David deBelle cites various influences on his thinking regarding technology and education.
Seymour Papert is a mathematician and cofounder of the artificial intelligence lab at MIT, and he collaborated for many years with Jean Piaget. In his book Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, Papert describes how powerful computational technology and ideas can provide children with new possibilities for learning, thinking and growing emotionally and cognitively. Other influences include critic and communications theorist Neil Postman, knowledge-building theorists Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter and educational commentator Larry Cuban.
Eric Jenson, The Arts with the Brain in Mind (Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, 2001).
Seymour Papert, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
Seymour Papert, The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
For information on the Prime Minister's Awards of Excellence or to nominate a teacher for next year's awards, visit the Industry Canada web site at pma-ppm.ic.gc.ca/pub/k12/index.html.
Joyce PS's web site: schools.tdsb.on.ca/joyce.
For information on the work of Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter, visit ikit.org/people/~bereiter.html.
For information on the work of Larry Cuban, visit www.edtechnot.com/notcuban.html.
For links and critiques of many of Neil Postman's books, visit www.alteich.com/links/postman.htm.