A new wave of young teachers is entering the profession. Professionally Speaking asked some new teachers and some experienced ones what kinds of changes they’re bringing with them. One thing is certain – the newcomers all say they still have a lot to learn from their more experienced colleagues.

By Wendy Harris

The tension is palpable as the election draws closer. Conservative, Liberal, Alliance and NDP strategists huddle to debate last minute tactics. Speechwriters work overtime to fine tune messages to sway voters. Which party will capture the sometimes-fickle electorate? Who has momentum? These are questions that will have to wait ... until after recess.

This is Carrie Geberdt-Noade’s Grade 5/6 class at Northwood Public School in Windsor. The voters, speechwriters and party faithful are all Grade 5 students deeply involved in a social studies unit covering democracy and elections.

But there’s more than civics being taught, says Geberdt-Noade. The students are developing communication and written language skills with all the speechifying, math skills analyzing voting numbers and patterns, computer skills doing Internet research, social and co-operative skills in sorting out party issues. Best of all, the students are having so much fun with the election that this other learning has been integrated and absorbed naturally as part of an engaging, not to mention thoroughly democratic and noisy, process. "It’s active learning," says Geberdt-Noade.

Geberdt-Noade is on the leading edge of a giant cohort of new teachers in Ontario who will help shape our schools for the first half of the 21st century. These new teachers bring with them not only their youth, enthusiasm and range of life experiences, but also a new set of teaching skills shaped by research that documents more and more precisely what children and young adults need in order to learn.

By the year 2005, about 50,000 of Ontario’s 124,000 full-time teachers in the publicly funded systems will have five years experience or less. That means two out of every five teachers will be people like Geberdt-Noade, new teachers with new ideas who will spread new pedagogies throughout the system.

S T AN D A R D    B E A R E R S

And while these young teachers may be the standard bearers for new teaching practices, these practices are also being eagerly adopted by more experienced teachers through formal professional development opportunities as well as informal staffroom discussion.

Jim Craigen is an instructional strategies facilitator with the Durham District School Board, a board that is internationally recognized for innovation in teaching teachers how to teach. Craigen says that pedagogy has been utterly transformed over the last 10 years because of what has been learned by brain theorists and researchers about how people, and most particularly children, learn.

"All the new information on brain theory indicates that kids learn in a very different way than we thought," he says. "We’re really just on the fringe of a learning revolution. We can track how kids learn with MRI scans. We can track brain functions. We now know how we can activate the brain and the kinds of techniques and strategies needed to activate learning."

One of the most effective strategies to activate learning in children employs the ideas clustered around the concept of multiple intelligences. That means teaching specifically to the needs or intelligence(s) of a child who may learn in other ways than the traditional linguistic/verbal or logical/mathematical modes.

Some 95 per cent of all instructional materials are geared towards those two intelligences. Most kids don’t learn well that way, says Craigen. Some children learn in a visual/spatial way, by making mind maps of images that help them to retain knowledge. Others learn kinesthetically, perhaps by building models or using manipulatives in math, and still others relate to music or rhythm and poetry as a way of retaining new ideas or concepts. (Think of the ABC song – it stuck, didn’t it?) Most kids learn when lessons appeal to several of their eight intelligences.

C O N V I N C I N G    D E M O N S T R A T I O N

Todd Miller, a Grade 6 teacher at Thunder Bay’s Isabella Public School, experienced a stunning example of multiple intelligences at work in his classroom this year.

For one of his science lessons, he asked students to design and build a battery-operated car. Four of his students who generally work at a low C or D level finished building a car quickly, with remarkable results. In other words, they were all kinesthetic learners – they learned with their hands. However, when asked to write a log on the process of creating the car, they struggled.

Meanwhile, four of Miller’s A students kept asking more questions about what they should do and how they should build the car. They struggled for hours to come up with a plausible vehicle. It was a graphic insight for Miller into the fact that children learn in very different ways. "It’s not that the A students are so much brighter, it’s that they respond to your kind of teaching," he says. "I’m a pencil and paper person. A lot of teachers are. That’s why I did well at school." But that’s definitely not how all people learn.

According to Craigen, who has trained teachers all over the world, the majority of students in Canada are either bodily/kinesthetic or learn interpersonally, that is by interacting with others either one on one or in a group. "Many students need the active involvement of someone else." Hence, the growing emphasis in many classrooms on co-operative learning, team research and group work.

What educators have learned about multiple intelligences has spawned numerous teaching techniques that are being adopted by teachers across the province. Animated literacy is one of them. It employs music, movement, poetry, visual cues and gestures, phonics and a host of spin-off techniques to help children learn to read.

Process math follows a similar path, teaching students to arrive at math solutions by following an investigative process rather than by relying on rote memory work. Tribes training helps teachers to foster strong working relationships and accountability among their students. And quantum teaching, a new method whose roots are in California, attempts to incorporate all these ideas into a style of teaching that according to Mark Joel, a staff development co-ordinator for the Durham board, "puts the pizzazz back into education."

D I F F E R E N T     A N G L E

Joel says new and compelling research is emerging daily about the extraordinary workings of the brain. And that has compelled educators and teachers to examine and re-examine all their methodologies to ensure that what they’re doing is consistent with what is known about brain function. "If they always use the same approach, they’re always going to get what they always got," he says. "They have to learn how to look at teaching from a different angle."
Looking at things from a different angle is precisely what new teacher Erin Aylward did in her Grade 7/8 classroom at C.D. Howe Public School in Thunder Bay when she detected that her Grade 7s were less than thrilled by the prospect of studying the battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Aylward decided to inject some drama into the lesson by getting her kids to act out that critical moment in Canadian history. One student was the St. Lawrence River, one was a clock (the eyewitness account they were using as background research made reference to the hour when the battle began), one was General Wolfe and another was, of course, Montcalm.

There were also many supporting roles. "They had a riot, they were killing themselves laughing," reports Aylward. But they also learned their history – the marks from a test on that particular unit were really high.

Aylward clearly doesn’t yearn for the old school stereotype of neat rows of tidy children keeping their mouths shut. She is well aware that individual kids learn in very different ways. With that in mind, she strives to make her classroom sizzle with the energy of students really grappling with new ideas in ways that make a connection with all the facets of their personalities.

She doesn’t rely on "pencils, papers and little tests." Rather, the emphasis is on active participation and an effort to teach her students to synthesize the information they already have in order to arrive at a new understanding.

H U G E     D E B T

That’s not to say that experienced teachers or teachers of previous generations are not dynamic. All of the young teachers interviewed for this article have been in the profession for no more than three or four years. Some are in their first year of teaching.

Every one of them says they owe a huge debt to the teachers who preceded them. As Miller says, "I’m not trying to break new ground. I work with teachers who have taught for 20 or 30 years and who are fresher than I am. I’m really trying to emulate them. I am so amazed at how dynamic they are."

Ottawa’s Val Palumbo, who started teaching at St. Pius X High School in 1999, finds her role models by looking across the table at family dinners. Both her father and mother are veteran teachers, so she grew up with talk of tests and curriculum. But while a love of teaching unites this family, they sometimes now part company at the classroom door when it comes to technique.

Val says teaching new curriculum math to Grades 9 and 10 almost requires a departure from traditional teaching methods to allow students to investigate and express math concepts in a wide variety of ways. It’s particularly effective for the students who traditionally haven’t done well in math because they are invited to use different methods of inquiry to get at a response.

"They can answer questions using whatever tools they know how to use," says Val. That means they can explain concepts in words, rather than numbers or with a drawing or by showing their thinking in whatever way they can communicate it. It’s a radically different approach than both her parents may have learned when they started teaching more than 30 years ago.

Val’s mom, Carla Palumbo, is a math teacher at Notre Dame High School in Ottawa. She teaches the senior grades, 11, 12 and OAC, and as yet, has not had much experience with the new curriculum. She says if she is going to cover the curriculum in its entirety, she has no choice but to use a straightforward Socratic method that gets to the point quickly.

N O    T I M E

"When it comes down to it, I don’t have time to use different methods," she says. "(The curriculum) requires a teacher to use older techniques that have worked all along." Carla says in her view, the biggest changes have occurred in assessment practices, which used to be entirely knowledge based and are now based on knowledge as well as thinking, communication and application skills.

Taking a slightly different viewpoint is Val’s dad, Fidel, who retired this year after 35 years of teaching history, most recently at Hillcrest High School in Ottawa. Over the years he changed and developed his individual teaching style to suit the needs of both his students and the curriculum.

"It’s a continuum," he says. "There’s really no major break between the old and the new." So while there has been no radical change, Fidel has been continually learning new and more effective teaching techniques.

In fact, if teachers are going to keep up with the dazzling shifts in pedagogy and curriculum, they have no choice but to keep on learning throughout their careers – to be dynamic, active, life-long learners.

Bev Freedman, superintendent of programs for the Durham District School Board, says her board has placed a huge emphasis on staff development. One of the first things teachers learn is to accommodate a wide range of learning styles and abilities in their students because as she says, "life isn’t fair and kids aren’t fair."

As Freedman puts it, some kids need glasses, some don’t. Some have trouble reading or writing or completing their work or demonstrating that they’ve learned their lessons by completing a test. That’s not fair. And teachers need to modify their teaching accordingly. "Teachers have traditionally taught to the middle and students on either side of the spectrum weren’t dealt with or recognized."

For example, says Freedman, based on an analysis of EQAO results several years ago, the board "clearly had a problem with boys’ reading and writing. We found that we were teaching it the same way we always have and it has always never really worked but we continued to do it anyway."

A N I M A T E D    L I T E R A C Y

Armed with that knowledge, several Kindergarten teachers from Durham schools went to California about three years ago to study animated literacy. They returned absolutely convinced of its efficacy and have spent the last couple of years training all the Kindergarten teachers in their board how to use it.

Wendy Armstrong, an early literacy resource teacher with the Durham board, taught Kindergarten for 24 years before moving into her new role of training teachers this year. She says in all her years of teaching, she has never encountered as comprehensive and widely successful a program as animated literacy. "Where has it been the last 24 years?" she says.

Starting with the basic sound P children are taught about "Polly Panda Painting Purple Pants on Pizza Pans." They learn a gesture and movement to go along with the P sound. They learn a song and they draw. They do the same with the letter U, otherwise known as Uncle Upton. They put PUP together and call it a noun. And so the reading program builds. "There is something in this program that every child can do and relate to and focus on ... . We’ve seen the results."

Teachers who are adopting process math to pique children’s curiosity about numbers also like the results. Anne Lakoff, a Grade 5/6 French immersion teacher at Runnymede Public School in Toronto, explains that the strict methods of yesteryear for getting directly from A to B have been replaced by a more circuitous investigative process.

It’s a process that allows students to explore math ideas in many different ways – verbally by using words to describe math problems, kinesthetically by using manipulatives to demonstrate math in three dimensions and interpersonally by participating in a range of group activities.

"It’s a reflective approach to math," says Lakoff, adding that it can also be a very exuberant and creative approach too. Process math is largely based on solving real life problems like how to allocate money at a grocery store or how to evenly divide up a pizza among five friends or seven or any number of variations that the problem may present.


Spice Donohue, a science and social studies teacher at Nor’Wester View Public School in Thunder Bay says that all her training and intuition leads her in the direction of teaching that naturally utilizes the new methodologies – integrating lessons from several disciplines at a time, using different strategies to appeal to different kids and scaffolding or providing learning structures to nudge her students along, to name a few.

As a foundation for co-operative group learning, Donohue puts her students into tribes to promote not only individual self-worth but also supportive relationships among the children she teaches.

They frequently participate in a community circle in which each child shares ideas or stories while the other children practice non-judgmental, attentive listening. Young children may talk about favourite pets or what their families did during a vacation. Older students have dug into much heftier subjects. When the shooting at Columbine happened, for example, her Grade 7s talked about weapons, anger and teenage alienation.

Donohue describes the community circle as "one of the strongest, most powerful things in my classroom."

For Donohue, the most important skill she can offer her students is to teach them how to think. "We’re trying to produce learners for jobs we don’t even know will exist," she says. "Everything is changing so quickly. It’s the unique thinkers who don’t think in a straight line who will succeed."

Brain theory and multiple intelligences aside, there are a bewildering array of other influences which are affecting teaching methodologies in Ontario’s classrooms. The rapid pace of technological change is one.

For Tracy McGillivray, a Grade 4 teacher at Ottawa’s _St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School, technology is a vital component of her teaching. Sure, her nine and 10-year-old students know how to use a computer. But they also regularly make use of digital cameras, scanners, projectors, laser printers and a range of sophisticated software that they’re expected to integrate as part of whatever they’re learning. Again, her pupils often work in groups, showing each other their latest technological discoveries and teaching each other what they know.

The explosion of standardized testing and evaluation have also radically changed how teachers plan their lessons and teach in their classrooms.

Denis Maika, principal at St. Herbert Catholic School in Mississauga, says teachers must constantly focus on what they expect from their students and how they will evaluate them, the ultimate goal being a common picture of student achievement across the province.

Rigorous evaluation with rubrics that clearly show where a student is now, what good work looks like and how a student can get there are key to that goal. Assessment and evaluation that are the same province-wide mean that teachers are now able to figure out which kids aren’t getting it so they can move on to other teaching strategies that may be more successful.

A S S E S S M E N T    C H A N G I N G

Maika can remember when the goal of educators was almost exclusively to make children feel good about themselves so they could learn. It was a time when marks and marking were somewhere near the bottom of the list of concerns. Those priorities are pretty well reversed now but according to Maika, schools still develop the self-esteem children need to achieve. "As kids get better academically, they develop a better notion of their self-concept. We will have all these kids feeling good about themselves and doing well."

But much of what happens in the province’s classrooms, does, in fact, remain the same.

L E A R N I N G    E N V I R O N M E N T

Teri Dunn, principal at St. Jude Catholic School in Mississauga, has been in education for 34 years, 11 of them as a principal. She is philosophical about changes in teaching practices. The foundation of good teaching rests on some fundamental principles. First and foremost, teachers must like kids, she says. They need good classroom management skills and good planning skills. They need a vision for education. They need to form strong collegial bonds with their colleagues "because they’re the people who will support them and see _them through."

Cameron Grant, a new 30-year-old Grade 5/6 teacher at Brock Public School in Windsor, echoes those sentiments. Like his colleagues everywhere, he picks and chooses the strategies that work for him from a huge array of new ideas, practices and pedagogies.

But in the end, he says, what is most important is the learning environment he creates for his students. The quality of that core relationship between teacher and student is what new teachers say attracted them to the profession in the first place, and remains a profound source of satisfaction now that they’re at work. Good teaching remains good teaching, they say.

That means connecting with each individual child in their class and finding a way for that child to really learn and to end up loving learning. "At the core is the teacher and the student and the instruction," Grant says. "Nothing can replace that core relationship in the classroom."

Ottawa math teacher Val Palumbo inherited her love of teaching from her parents, Carla and Fidel. But she uses very different teaching techniques than the ones they brought to their math and history classes 30 years ago.

Spice Donohue puts her students into tribes to promote supportive relationships.

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