Monthly Archives: April 2014

Big picture concepts- otherwise known as “themes” & testing

Discussing Literacy is a good idea, but I know at least one reader would question what type of Literacy was the main point- Literacy as a broad concept encompasses so many areas- the top athlete in one field may be able to identify pictures of his competitors and all the others from generations earlier who helped develop the sport- yet be unable to read and decipher print. And it is this – being able to read and decipher print – that Educators discuss and countries brag about in regards to their populations.  So we have devised tests that are meant to demonstrate just how literate a region, school, or state is.  Students prepare for them, teachers fret about them, and I am told housing pricing rise and fall in accordance with an areas’ test scores.  What then do they really prove? 

First of all, a student’s ability to identify theme, or main big idea within a piece of writing.  Why? Because even when the actual question, “identify the theme” does not appear on a test, recognizing theme allows a reader to note when and where and how the writer supports this “big idea”.  “Good writing” offers a point of view, a particular perspective about an issue, and then, regardless if the paper is a “persuasive essay” or an “exploratory” one, goes on to, within the writing, support this perspective.  Story is no different- we suggest that each form of writing has a particular use and this may be true, however, within each piece is a story line that once unpacked has at its core a main idea focus.  The old expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” is what can happen when students are told to read the questions first and then zero in on answers. – Backwards – !  Such students answer in the quickest manner, after speed only, and ignorant of the Big Picture or Theme within the piece are unable to notice when the questions themselves do not make sense.  Reading through a piece, and noting both the Big idea and the ways the author supports his/her points, provides a student with the readiness when then given questions to immediately dismiss the obvious wrong answers; then, a return to the reading allows for finding the correct response.  Yes. It is a slower process, and perhaps the real issue then is the time frame within which the testing occurs.  Not all students quickly absorb material.  For this reason, giving students an understanding of general ways to group a reading allows students to not only say “I can do this” but “this reminds me of something else”.  

We constantly offer students material; it is imperative too, to allow students time to make sense of the material, and to- on their own-, suggest ways to classify what they have been reading.  When a student can state: this one is about nature, this one is about rising above adversity, this one is about growing up and recalling personal experience…, the student is developing critical thinking.  As Teachers, we ought not to be afraid of Ministry or state ordered curriculum evaluations.  We ought instead, to focus on the thematic teaching that it is possible to create within a whole school- Math literacy, Financial literacy, Physical literacy, Emotional literacy, Media literacy… and encourage inter and intra-personal understanding.  Writing, unless a fact based article- such as an encyclopedic offering, demands an affective* response.  A reader is asked to care about the character, the problems the character encounters, and how the situation is resolved. Readers needn’t like the character, they must however recognize what the author is suggesting.  

The recent Earth Day provides a case in point: questions relating to Financial Literacy may also touch on global dependency on certain fuels.  Enter geography and cultural studies, with maps and media articles as source material for developing group and solo projects. The hands-on clean up of school grounds or if possible neighbourhood parks etc, providing an exercise in observation, a combination of art and science class, and the physical activity itself used to discuss the benefits of walking over riding- leading into a history lesson about the development of transportation.  The unifying theme? You thought I would repeat Earth Day, and indeed this topic tied the activities together however the larger picture is Literacy- with pre- planing on the (various) teacher’s part to offer vocabulary, readings and written assignments.  

It is almost a “taken for granted” that elementary teachers do plan their curriculum from a holistic perspective, but even within elementary schools some teachers (being individuals after all) have area strengths.  And once junior and senior high teachers recognize the benefits of collaborative work, they rarely return to a closed door policy.  We are so fortunate in this day and age to be able to access one another via internet, to share material and lesson plans and to commiserate when required- that it seems the lessons we can all learn from working with students pre and post testing is that the tests themselves are only one part of the BIG PICTURE- Education continues to be about how to encourage children to grow towards independence and claim their own.  We may even be able to reduce “test anxiety” if we as educators return to enjoying our own lifelong learning process, and continue to brainstorm, connect, and share our stories.  



*affective response The emotional response to a situation.

Rules in writing – and how to break them! Modeling exercises

Was tempted to call this – How to move beyond the 5 paragraph essay.  So often we are using this basic concept, of 1 paragraph for the  introduction, 3 paragraph body, and 1 paragraph conclusion that we forget to encourage pupils to play with the writing format, to focus on the content and to use the 5 paragraph scheme as a version of an outline.  Because, the reality check is, did the piece of writing share information, rather than merely regurgitating something? For so many students offering opinions is a scary position to find themselves in.  Yet every piece of writing does share an opinion. 

It can be fun to begin with informal debates; using a randomized system to divide up the the class into groups and then have each group practice responding to both real issues and nonsense ones.  By “randomized system” I suggest drawing straws, names in a hat, sounding off with numbers…, the options for adding opportunity for different students to work together are numerous.  And it is through the scrambling of expected norms in a classroom, that students may find themselves more willing to share an idea- when one is no longer “the quiet kid” or the “outspoken one”, the brainstorming that must take place to plan an argument – academic argument, using a logical progression- can begin to take hold.  I have noticed so many students attempting to write any piece in one “perfect” sweep; rarely do the results merit the hard work such students are actually doing.  The students who are more freely aware of the process that writing entails, are less likely to ponder their initial attempts, knowing well that brainstorming is just that – a beginning.

From the brainstorming,  a move to construct an argument while recognizing what might be the counter argument (in a debate it is best to be prepared) provides the thinking in action that moves an in -class exercise towards a life skill. Students must challenge one another, defend a position, and accept when an argument or position will not be the winning one for that session.  The process itself may be examined, and when students take turns as the voting judges, learning to question why they approved of one position over another, the “higher level thinking” begins to be displayed.  Turns may even be taken, with various students assigned to be the “devil’s advocate” within a group.  Higher level thinking skills are brought to the fore, and this ability to both challenge themselves and challenge others, can be put into written responses.  In effect, the students themselves are modeling the process, sharing in selecting the more strongly supported position, and recognizing what is meant by offering “proof” in an essay.  

Personal admission: strong proponent of experiential knowledge. For any learner, regardless of age, recognition of a concept comes through the application.  When writing is demystified, and shown to be a means for communicating a point of view, regardless which genre we are highlighting in a class at the time, it is possible to have learners find the argument.  By using academic vocabulary even with younger pupils we allow the learners to hear the actions, while doing the exercise.  Underlining the theses statement and commenting on the supporting paragraphs ought to be more than supplying a visual with a sample essay already commented upon.  The importance of all students being able to identify main idea is not merely to increase Ministry mandated test scores, but is another life skill.  If students can read instructions and then describe in their own words how to play an online game, they can also offer an opinion as to what they believe makes one game more challenging than another, and thereby join in a “debate” with peers on a topic of their interest.  Being able to support their opinion becomes crucial to comfortable communication.    As does being able to walk away from an argument and maintain one’s opinion- the ability to agree to disagree

Today’s blog was inspired by a comment that preceded a recipe- an unusual comment as most cooking sites offer the recipe with the expectation that the recipe itself is “king”.  This website chose to remind readers to improvise. While many of us do “tweak’ recipes based on personal preference and family eating habits or restrictions, I was struck by the thoughtful wording that preceded the instructions: “A recipe…  cannot pretend to replace the practiced hand and telling glance of a watchful cook. For that reason feel free to stir your own ideas into this dish. When you cook it once, it becomes yours, so personalize it a bit.”;  my sentiments, exactly!

FYI the recipe was for Cornbread- and I have changed it by adding a little less of the butter/margarine/oil component- and it is delicious 🙂






wwasA recipe is merely words on paper; a guideline, a starting point from which to improvise. It cannot pretend to replace the practiced hand and telling glance of a watchful cook. For that reason feel free to stir your own ideas into this dish. When you cook it once, it becomes yours, so personalize it a bit. Add more of an ingredient you like or less of something you don’t like. Try substituting one ingredient for another. Remember words have no flavour; you have to add your own!

Higher level thinking test questions: understanding and teaching

Books, Books, Books.  They were, and still are to be found in my home: magazines, journals, posters too.  Like the internet, books are connected, with ideas referencing backward through time.  For a reader, these connections can be a reason for recognizing the “new” ideas, or the new challenges, and even if one doesn’t enter into the conversation directly, the connections provide understanding and put into context what the author may have had in mind. – Fancy Literary Term: allusions- dictionary definition, simplified, to refer (back) to something else- a pre-internet form of links or “buttons” .  However there is a second implication in the term “allude” and it can be suggesting “implying”.  Students do need to understand both the actual reference in a piece of writing and the implications that a reader may infer, if learners are going to be able to “make sense” of formal Reading Comprehension tests- regardless of if the test is called “Common Core” in the States or E.Q.A.O. in Canada or given any other title in any other country.  Reading Comprehension testing and students scores improve when Poetry is both offered and shared in the learning process.

Why Poetry, and not merely any other form of writing, when poetry or analyzing a poem may only be a small portion of the exam/test itself? It is impossible to teach poetry without getting into or allowing for personal responses, opinions based on the combination of emotional response and the actual words on the page. Poems that “work” do so on many levels, allowing a variety of ages, and readers, to “enter into the imagery”, and be absorbed by the rhythm, before the analysis.  Poems that “work” may also be read from both the literal and the figurative (stance) – demanding a lesson into second readings, a scavenger hunt of sorts for clues within the writing which begins the practical aspect of what many readers do on automatic pilot: read it again. 

Descriptions on tests qualify questions, only a few instruct young learners to offer “proof” from the test reading or their own personal experiences.  The majority of questions aim to demonstrate that students were in fact tested, that the learner knew how to respond to a similar type of question.  And it is a “taken for granted” that as an educator one might be annoyed at the style or implication teaching to the test demands.  Yet I am not, for test taking needn’t be an overwhelming threat to one’s ability to demonstrate knowledge, nor ought it to be a frightening experience.  First the test itself needs to be placed in context,  that learners might see it as a positive challenge- give students a brand new piece of technology and ask them to “figure it out”, or a new game, or a new way of walking to school- each is a challenge- that requires putting together the old way – what one knows, with the new object- what one is trying to make sense of.  If the testing challenges do annoy me at all, it is in their very lack of “higher level” thinking questions;  learners of all ages do want a challenge to be challenge worthy- the prize is so much more satisfying then. 

What we forget when we have learned to read:

Or why it can be difficult to be told to “just sound it out” :


Early readers begin with daily practice, preschool through grade 2 but which one of us, as adults, would easily make sense of this chart? Reading will continue to require a combination of oral help- teacher demonstrating, writing practice, and the blend of phonics with whole language.  It isn’t an either / or, it must be an interactive, comprehensive, approach to the “magic” which can happen when squiggles become words, words become ideas, and imagination inspires the reader.


Genuinely curious- why do we use “authentic”- R 2 many people not?

I know I may get into “trouble” for this blog post but I am writing it anyhow.  Simple question, doesn’t hearing about how ‘authentic’ everyone is “supposed to be” seem a little unauthentic?  Having grown up in an era when Draft dodgers were arriving to the Canadian Midwest in droves, when as students we were encouraged to “rail against complacency”, a product of a time period which has been formally recognized by writers such as Ivan Illich as a period of DE-schooling of society, (when) being oneself seemed the only person one would possibly want to be, and when individual thought and action was still believed to be a way of “life”, the concept of “authentic” never arose.  Sure we had fads, and giant parties ( open houses – word of mouth was big then too ) but I don’t remember anyone who was concerned about not being “unique”.  Rather it seems the emphasis was on how to contribute while growing and learning; was it really more simple then? Before the introduction of “plastic” people we had “phonies”,  and again, I do not remember actually hearing anyone labelled as such.  We, or perhaps I, were fairly accommodating- making room for one more in a car (piled in – pre-seatbelts), at a party, ( guns? when the prevailing music sang “stop the war” ), and dare I state it, small businesses were visible at street corners.  Perhaps it is a form of nostalgia then, this buzz cry for authenticity, a desire to return to a time when people did connect face to face, and when a handshake and a smile was often followed by an introduction.

Have people’s behaviours changed? or just the circumstances?


The verb rail means to criticize severely. When you rail against ( — )  at a town meeting, you speak openly and loudly about how wrong the (—)   is …

Yes, we even used terms like this! 🙂

Gifted and talented: “but of course”

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”
–  What matters is what something is, not what it is called.
–   From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, @1600:

Yes but- recently read about a school that has the label “gifted” in its title. The school is in the States, and according to the article doing something unique. Kids are getting access to AP classes and IB classes and enjoying having a “rounded” education wherein everyone takes the same basic classes- expectations- “C”  to remain in the program. HMMM

Here in Ontario, the term gifted may have a different connotation. The term highlights a student’s ability to think outside the box, seeing connections that might be missed by others, and recognizes the very real situation that many gifted students manifest- asymmetrical learning, focused awareness and knowledge ahead of their age group, in one or more specific areas. Moving a child into a gifted program, suggests that the teacher here will now be able to not only further challenge the student(s) but that also the teacher will recognize social and emotional differences gifted individuals might display. True, the academic mark- the A, or B, or C may not be the “be all” or “end all” in the program, however, the somewhat skeptical side of me questions when the bar for students is set so low. Students are so very aware of not only their own likes and dislikes but also of what and where they fit into any program. I have had students share their versions of themselves, stating clearly what they think about school, the labeling process, and the opportunity to socialize. So I continue to envision a learning environment in which the gifted and talented thrive through participation, and learn to accept, pragmatically if not wholeheartedly, that some aspects of learning, the testing, be they standardized or situation specific, need not be cause for anxiety, and they (tests) should not be ignored. When one aspect of labeling a student involves the question of “potential”, students can choose to not demonstrate knowledge, or as is also often the case, to not let on when they haven’t actually absorbed a concept- saving face is so much easier for some than admitting to ignorance. And here is where the educator must have thorough knowledge of both the student(s) and the area(s) of study. It is no surprise when so many of the home-schooled students do demonstrate superior focus, greater depth of knowledge, and broader reach, than the students in some programs. Working with a very broad range of students has provided me with the recognition that sometimes, like Mark Twain* suggested, it is important to not let school interfere with an education; equally important, to not be confused by a label – to look for the person inside.


FYI: both my children did receive the title “gifted” when in elementary grades. My focus and curiosity and reach to discover how and when to step back and allow each one to discover his/her personal strengths continues. As a parent and as an educator the term “special needs” resonates, suggesting the wonderful high notes all children bring and the awareness that no label ever truly gets to the heart of a personality. They say one is lucky if able to share one’s passion: how very lucky am I!

*Mark Twain is generally credited with the quote- perhaps because his two primary characters, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer spend much of their time running away from “civilization” and when in school appear to take a lot of “whippings”.

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“Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights”. –


At School, Work and Play

According to Marissa Mayer, formerly a Vice President at Google and now CEO at Yahoo, “Creativity loves constraint.” *

– and children of all ages, given the opportunity, love to be “creative”.

Quotes do need to be placed in context: as her (Marissa Meyer’s)  further comment is equally important “Yet constraints alone can stifle and kill creativity.” Going for Clarity: the use of the word constraint here doesn’t mean constraints as in – “jail cell” – it does mean how to focus a problem so that there is a yin/yang in action = focus, expand- focus –expand- ad infinitum…knitting doesn’t have to be negative like the character in Tale of Two Cities, knitting is in fact generally the more recognized action of joining together – twine, wool, and people, ideas, activities- etc. When brainstorming as a group, someone does need to be the “knitter”. 

Think of a classroom, filled with bouncy children. Now take those children on a field trip. And instead of all the rules about what can’t be done, supply 5 rules for action: what to expect at destination, how to behave, what to look for, how to record the new information, and where to meet up when trip is complete. If preparation pre-trip is planned and performed with the students involved– and if input from the students allowed – meaning active questioning regarding these (or any other rules) encouraged and discussions about the purpose of the event handled in such a way that the participants are eager to attend- then a certain amount of “freedom” may be permitted within the event itself. Brainstorming is central to “Hearing oneself think!” A key then is that the space in which brainstorming will be practiced be known as a “safe space’. So much lip service has been paid recently to the concept of “failing forward” and being able to take risks. How often is this really allowed within either classrooms or boardrooms? Boardrooms may not be filled with “bouncy children” – often times they are filled with self censored and cautious adults. And these same adults do constrain themselves to the point of little real brainstorming taking place- in favour of a “yes” session.

How much better if we could adapt a little of the “crazy” attitude seen in the show “The Crazy Ones”**. Not egalitarian- that is unrealistic-, better to establish some simple roles, similar in practice to the currently popular “literature circles”***- a focused learning environment in which players don the mantle of a particular role, and switch up this role regularly- then each participant has the opportunity to engage in an empathetic situation while offering ideas (brainstorming is about sharing ideas) that are both personal and also ideas pertaining to the “role”- allowing for a subjective and an objective experience. Getting into “character” may also alleviate some of the self-censoring that often takes place. Please note, the above is not advocating for a “free – for – all” – establishing parameters returns to this notion of “constraints”. Over all, the umbrella constraint, or ideology, must- (oh dear, a prescriptive)- must be- mutual RESPECT- think Aretha Franklin- put the song on if it helps- and let the ideas flow.

**“In the episode, Simon’s campaign wins, but not because it’s entirely based on spontaneous creativity and impulse. Read more at”
***For All Ages:
How to conduct a Literature Circle

1. Choose a book you would like to read and find 4-5 others who would like to read the same book.

2. Each participant is assigned a different role as a reader.
a. Discussion director – Your job is to write down some good questions about the story that you think your group would want to talk a bout.
b. Artful artist – Your job is to draw a picture of something about the story. Don’t let anyone see what you are drawing. When you show your group the picture, they will have to guess what you drew. After they guess, tell them what you drew and why you drew it. It might be
i. A character
ii. A problem
iii. A funny part
iv. An interesting part
v. A scary part
c. Word wizard – Your job is to pick two special words in the story. They might be words that are new, weird, interesting, funny, descriptive, or important. When it is your turn to share, read the sentence from the book and tell what word you thought was special. Tell your group why you picked that word.
d. Connector- Your job is to make connections between what you read and your own life. Write about what the story reminds you of. It might be
i. Something from your own life
ii. Something that happened at school
iii. Another story that you have read

3. Read independently and quietly.

4. Get together in a literature circle and share your thoughts about your connections.


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Pinning on Pinterest got me wondering- a boy’s books? a girl’s books?

Pinning on Pinterest got me wondering- books for boys?*  books for girls*?

I like the visual charts and am grateful to the people who put the charts together and then… there are simply books that it would be great to encourage everyone to read.  Another site that had me wondering asked readers to contribute their idea of a “best line” from a book- so many offered up sentences from “classics” like Dickens, and Twain, Austin and Fitzgerald… and numerous quotes from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”- texts that would have been on High School reading selections.  Books that offer insight into the Humanities appear to have “staying power” – and had the reading audience for that particular site been younger, sentences from the Hunger Games might have appeared; this recent blockbuster movie(s) and trilogy had massive appeal – across the gender divide.

Books give us story- and kids know right away if they like or dislike the characters and the action, even if they are not yet ready to speak about the tone, or suggest that the vocabulary felt contrived, or that the action plodded along rather than catapulting the reader into the protagonist’s problem (literary analysis) .  They also know that peer pressure can affect their liking/disliking a novel too.  Children learning Greek myths may decide to “love” the Percy series- and not worry that the “hero” is a boy while the reader a girl… when I was working with post secondary students from Japan, I was struck by their knowledge of the Anne series; male and female alike wanted to get to Charlottetown (50th season this July)  for the Anne of  Green Gables summer festival- a book series that L.M. Montgomery wrote for an adult audience without expecting it to be relegated to “books for girls”.  The Harry Potter series may have a strong female secondary character- but the stories belong to Harry- and if enjoyed, appeal to both genders.   The “if enjoyed” above was intentional- having had students who ran the gamut from being passionate about Harry Potter to preferring almost any other story.  

There is no “magic bullet” for making a reader, when “a reader” refers to someone who looks to books as relaxation; while enjoying  the story, the reading meets a reader “somewhere”.  Even strong readers, that is, individuals for whom reading is fluent and who have little trouble comprehending text may choose to discard a “popular” text, and may label themselves as non readers, preferring other activities.  Best we can do then is encourage students to read for understanding, and to recognize that joy in literature includes all aspects of the graphic expression- comics, graphic novels, magazines, online gaming ( yes! gaming!!), art work…

Gender specific kid’s and young adult lists seem more directed at the adults – our hope in selecting the “right book” for the child.  Best practice: make use of the library- borrow a whole bunch of books, and if time permits while the children are still of elementary age, read the books with them.  There are so many new authors, and libraries make it their practice to stock the new with the classics- many offer on line book clubs too. Whether it be Fact or Fiction, students will be required to read a large amount of material between grade 1 and grade 12.  As educators and parents, it is important we allow children to be comfortable with a variety of texts. Image

Please note: A non reader is not to be confused with a student who has a difficult time making sense of the printed word.  The non reader CAN read, but has chosen to use free time in other activities. If we are to really broaden the next generation’s vision of roles as encompassing opportunity for all- perhaps separating boys and girls books is less than ideal. 


Pet Peeves, and very short rant

Don’t buy an essay- Learn How to write one 🙂
Email me to learn more!

The pet Peeve:  The many students who purchase essays for Academic purposes – see article:  

   Ed Dante’s article clarifies not only what a “big business” the buying of essays is, but also suggests that some students are “hopelessly deficient” and that universities are failing them- as in allowing students to get away with the purchased paper.  

The author’s tone is clear = he has no respect for either the students or higher academics because he has been successful at beating both systems.  How sad. 

The reality:  learning How to write a paper is doable for all.

Disclaimer: what follows IS a short ad:

Hi. I have successfully trained students at all levels to work through the essay writing process.

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Spring and Summer are opportune times to hone skills: too often the reason behind a student grasping for a purchased piece of writing is the student lacks the reading skills to understand where to begin. 

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