Professionally SpeakingThe Magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers
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In this issue



Exemplary Teacher

Gayle Corbin

Remarkable Teacher

Atom Egoyan remembers David Bennett, Colin Skinner and Dougal Fraser



Governing Ourselves

Exemplary Teachers

Gayle Corbin

Prime Minister's Award winner Gayle Corbin shares strategies for the classroom

“Hook the boys. Get them engaged and your classroom will run better.” As she begins her seventh year of teaching, Gayle Corbin shares one of her award-winning strategies.

Corbin is one of the 2006 winners of a Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. She won it, in part, for her work with literacy in her own school and throughout Renfrew County DSB.

She knows what works with boys and she captivates all of her students. “When students are engaged in their learning, there's little need for classroom management. They manage their learning on their own.”

Her Grade 4 students at Central PS are using a pause-and-check reading strategy as they tackle an informational text on coral reefs and polyps.

The kids scan the page before they begin reading, noting bold face, headings, illustrations and captions.

“What does bold print mean?” Corbin sings out. “I'm important! Check the glossary,” the students chime back. They may not know anything about polyps, but armed with strategies to aid comprehension as they read, they soon learn.

After the passage has been read aloud twice, students summarize each paragraph in their own words. The strategy works and they get it. Corbin proceeds, “Now you're going to do some of your own reading on dolphins, and I know this pause-and-check strategy will help you with it.”

Principal Bronwyn Scott feels that Corbin's previous experience with children is one of the factors contributing to her success. “She worked in daycare, then as an education assistant before she went back to school and finished her degree to become a teacher. Gayle possesses a deep understanding of how children learn and what works with them.”

Her students would agree. Megan, Brittany and Brianna appreciate that their teacher makes learning fun and pushes them to do their best. Justin adds, “She helps us figure things out. She doesn't tell us the answers.”

Austin likes it when “she lets us get up and jump and dance” after students have been sitting and working for a while. “We get all fidgety and when we can dance and sing, it helps us work better.” The kids are all expert at singing YMCA and doing the Macarena and the Chicken Dance.

And it's not just song and dance for fun. Corbin has the kids link mathematical concepts, such as transitions and slides, into their dance moves. “Rotate clockwise 180 degrees. Now cha cha slide!”


Fun and learning are the best combination.

To get their attention during the day, Corbin claps out complex rhythms rather than raising her voice. Invariably, the students stop talking, put down what they're doing and clap back.

“Work can be fun. I learn better when I can have music, dance and math all together,” Billy explains.

Corbin wants to equip students with the skills they need to become independent readers, thinkers and lifelong learners. She is an avid learner herself and has completed specialists in reading and computers in the classroom. “I'm never satisfied,” she explains. “I'm always trying to make things better.”

Corbin incorporates ideas from Me Read? No Way! A Practical Guide to Improving Boys' Literacy Skills into her teaching. The Ministry of Education guide summarizes the growing evidence that gender is a significant factor in both choice of reading materials and reading achievement. It points out that boys are more likely than girls to be placed in Special Education programs, more likely to drop out and less likely to attend university.

The results of Grades 3 and 6 Education Quality and Accountability Office assessments and the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) consistently show that boys do not perform as well as girls in reading and writing.

The guide recommends that teachers provide suitable reading materials and offer more engaging topics of study for boys. The 2003 OSSLT survey showed that boys read a wide variety of materials outside of school, including magazines (64 per cent), newspapers (50 per cent), comics (35 per cent), manuals and instructions (25 per cent). In addition, 82 per cent of boys reported that they write e-mail messages and participate in chat-room conversations.

Corbin carefully chooses reading material and activities at the appropriate level, including high-interest non-fiction and guided reading. She looks for books that will hold the interest of both boys and girls.

Recognizing that more boys than girls tend to be kinesthetic and spatial learners, and that boys can be more competitive than girls, Corbin tries to build on this when possible. Students are allowed to work anywhere in the classroom, including lying on the floor and sitting in a rocking chair.

During a science unit, Corbin brings in old VCRs and broken appliances. Students disassemble them, find all of the pulleys and gears, and discover how they work.

She uses NHL scoring leaders in her math programming. “We pick our team of six players and the students track their points. They love the competition and they're improving their math skills at the same time.”

One of the most effective approaches Corbin uses is a whole-group investigation, based on the work of Tony Stead, an Australian educator and literacy expert who specializes in non-fiction reading for children.

What I think I know
Students record their prior knowledge before reading.
Students confirm their prior knowledge based on the reading.
Students learn that not all of their prior knowledge is accurate.
New learning
Students identify information from the text that is new for them.
Students propose wonderings for further research.

On a large bulletin board, she sets up a Reading and Analyzing Nonfiction (RAN) chart that shows five interconnected categories. The RAN chart prompts students to locate new content and identify ways in which their understanding has been expanded, strengthened and clarified.

Literacy skills are thus applied to non-fiction reading in any subject area, in this case learning about dolphins. Before reading aloud from a book, Corbin's students write two things they already know about dolphins on cue cards and pin them up under “What I think I know.”

Under “Wondering,” they write something they don't know and wonder about, having to do with dolphins. Again, kids can pin up their cards if they wish, giving the kinesthetic learners a chance to move around. Students are asked to group duplicate or similar ideas.

Corbin reviews the cards with the class before she begins reading. She reads aloud for a few minutes and then returns to the chart.

“Boys and girls, based on what you just heard about dolphins, what information can we confirm?” Cards are moved to the next column as students pile up their learning. Incorrect information is placed under “Misconceptions.” Students site the resource in which they locate all information they use.

Next, students are paired up and given books to read. Corbin takes care to make similar-ability pairings to ensure that each student gets through the material and completes the chart.

“Mrs. Corbin's activities give us time to think about what we are learning and let us have fun too,” explains Olivia. “Fun and learning are the best combination.” Metacognition and critical thinking become second nature to these kids, who are thriving in this environment.

Corbin sets up her classroom with tables instead of desks and encourages co-operative learning - students spending time discussing books, newspaper articles, math problems and so on.

It's important for them to realize that there is more than one way to look at things, more than one way to solve a problem. “Encountering differing opinions and ways of doing things is part of life,” Corbin explains. “Teaching one another is one of the best ways to learn.”

“She inspires all of us to reach higher standards.”

Colleague Elizabeth Brumm laughs that she's taught forever and still feels inspired by Corbin's quiet enthusiasm. “I feel motivated by her to better myself. I see what she does with her students and it makes me want to try different things too. She inspires all of us to reach higher standards.”

Lisa Rigby, a Special Education resource teacher at Central PS, works closely with Corbin and was one of the people who nominated her for the Prime Minister's Award. Rigby's nomination letter, in part, reads: “A teacher is more than a purveyor of information. A good teacher gets children excited about learning. A gifted teacher like Gayle Corbin digs to find each child's unique magic. In her eyes, every student is a celebration just waiting to be discovered.”

“Gayle is a school teacher, not a classroom teacher,” Principal Scott observes. “That's an important distinction.” Corbin coaches a number of sports teams, operates the school's travelling library, organizes the school's Relay for Life cancer fundraiser and gives board-wide presentations on literacy and instructional strategies.

Corbin is one of her school's Early Literacy Intervention Program teachers, running a withdrawal class for JK to Grade 2 students with low reading skills. In a tiny but brightly decorated room, she meets with up to nine students each day for 20 to 30 minutes to work on their reading skills. The goal of the program is to provide the support they need to succeed in a regular classroom.

Improving students' reading levels at Central PS is something Corbin and her colleagues take very seriously. In 2005, they applied for and were granted Ministry funding to start up a program they call RACE to Read. RACE stands for the names of the schools involved: Renfrew CI and Admaston, Central and Queen Elizabeth public schools.

In 2005-06, Corbin headed the program that brought together senior boys from Renfrew CI with junior boys from the other three schools who were reading below level, for one half day a week. Each older student was paired with an elementary boy with similar interests to undertake an activity - a game, sport or something creative. Then they turned to a complementary literacy task. They read or wrote a story, played language-based games such as Scrabble or followed instructions to build something- perhaps a robot.

To participate, the secondary boys must enjoy reading and are encouraged to share their enthusiasm. They soon become both role models and friends to their young partners. Over the 2005-06 school year, 38 percent of boys involved in RACE to Read rose from Level Two to Level Three readers, in large part thanks to thisprogram.

This is not to say that Corbin's programming focuses only on the boys. It doesn't. In fact, it's her girls who are some of her most vocal supporters. Alycia, Jenika, Cassandra, Megan and Keisha can't agree on whether she won the award because she's fun, nice or caring.

Perhaps Principal Scott sums it up best. “I feel privileged to work with Gayle. She'll pour everything she has into her work and then come back and do it all again tomorrow. She's always professional, giving and ready to rethink something or improve on it for next time. We're lucky to have her here at Central.”

Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence

The Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence honour outstanding and innovative elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines who better equip their students with the skills they need to meet the challenges of a 21st-century society and economy.

The awards recognize teachers who have excelled in the following areas:

  • integration of information and communications technology in the classroom
  • innovative and exemplary teaching practices
  • student skills development
  • student interest and participation
  • student achievement and performance
  • teacher commitment and leadership.

Me Read? No Way! A Practical Guide to Improving Boys' Literacy Skills can be downloaded from the Ontario Ministry of Education's web site.

For information on Tony Stead and his approach to teaching non-fiction, visit: