Polar Bears & Student Action with @amckiel

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I was putting together the final touches for a geography assignment I’d planned to present to the students the next morning.  While it was similar to an outline I’d used a few years ago, I decided to scratch it after I read two tweets from  Andy McKiel.

And so I read his blog, Chillin’ with Nanuq for more details.  After travelling to Churchill, Manitoba, Andy was embarking on a life-changing experience – the polar bear migration. In the fall each year, the polar bears congregate along the shores of Hudson Bay so they can go out on the sea ice and hunt seals.  Due to global warming, this freeze-up is happening later in the fall, and the ice is breaking up earlier each spring. The situation has become so severe, that polar bears are now listed on Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Working with Edmodo and scientists from Polar Bears International, Andy would be sharing his experiences from the windows of Tundra Buggy One, via daily live video broadcasts. While this area outside of Churchill is isolated geographically, Andy would bring this issue into our rural classroom outside of Wingham, Ontario, via Edmodo’s webcast. This was a compelling story that aligned with the original project criteria.

And so…project re-write.

The next morning, I started class with one of Andy’s images – a polar bear dangling from a helicopter as it’s being brought to D-20 (Polar Bear jail) in Churchill before being taken to a more suitable habitat.


The students were shocked and disturbed.  They were ready to learn.


After spending a few days reading Andy’s blog and the excellent educational resources at Polar Bears International, the students soon discovered they could help the polar bears by adopting one – symbolically!  As a class of 31, they unanimously agreed to reach the top fundraising goal of $250 on their own.  Due date: November 30.

The following week, when Andy returned to Winnipeg, he Skyped into our classroom to answer many unanswered questions the students had prepared for him.  They were also keen to share their “adoption” plan with Andy, whose blog posts and images had inspired them.

While we know the importance of planning a project outline and success criteria ahead of time, sometimes, however inconvenient it may be, changing those plans leads to an even greater learning opportunity. When we connect our students to narratives shared by inspirational people outside of our classroom walls, our students develop a deeper understanding.

As Andy recently voiced in his K-12 Keynote presentation, “Use your experiences to connect with other people in other places to share learning in meaningful ways. The learning becomes an event.”

“The things that motivate our students, and the things that they remember are the things that are most important to them.”  

We don’t always know how the story will end. Go with your instincts and let the story, with its unknown ending, guide the learning and inquiry as our students connect and learn.

And the proof? Today is November 30, and this group of grade 7/8 students met their goal of raising $250. In fact, they raised $293 on their own. Most importantly, every student participated. Andy skyped in once again to participate in their celebration while my students drank Coke from white cans and ate white donuts. While my students may not remember the themes of geography, they will remember what they did, on their own, to make a difference.  Thanks, Andy, for turning their learning into an event.


Achievements in the Idea Hive

It’s year two in the Idea Hive, and the learning continues for our students. The seasoned gr. 8 students (our 7’s from last year) seemed to pick right up from where we left off in June. As my teaching partner, Clarence Fisher, wrote in a previous post, these students have got “Skillz”. Similar to last year, we continued to foster the connections between our students through an Interest Survey and Flickr photo contest.

As we move towards a shared read aloud of the novel Half Brother, by Canadian author, Kenneth Oppel, our students have begun researching topics covered in the novel in order to better relate to the context: animal research, sign language, chimpanzees, and life in the 70’s, to name a few. Working in groups, two from Wingham, two from Snow Lake, they’re moving onto creating a shared Google Presentation, complete with the updated chat feature, which they’ll present to both classes via Skype.

While our students have become quite skilled at working together in a shared Google Doc, the skills required to create a shared Google Presentation needed some focus. Students struggled to agree on a number of issues including types of images, background themes, and the amount of text on a slide. New to this collaborative process, there were hick-ups and bumps, so we took some time to regroup as a class of 59. That included a shared class writing activity which we call the Knowledge Care document. Via Skype, our students shared their insight on what they need to consider and practice as they write and create together. We ended the call with guidance on how to apply these skills as they create their collaborative Google Presentation.

Clarence then spoke about the “Achievements” points that the Idea Hive students could earn through their activity in the Idea Hive site. The goal is to have our students strengthen their connections in this community. The more time our students interact with each other in this learning space, the more points they earn.  After our call, I had my kids spend the last few minutes of the day adding a comment to the Passions forum where some of Clarence’s students had previously posted on their interest: music, pets, sports, hunting, and more. And once again, I had to beg my students to log off and head out for the bus home. However, this time it wasn’t just a few – it was the entire class.

And the day ended….or so I thought.

Two hours after the school day ended, one of my students began to write about his passion – hunting. He shared the doc with me, and after dinner when I discovered it, he was still writing. While this might not be unusual to some, it was particularly moving for me. This student struggles with writing, and has never seen himself as a writer. Yet clearly, he wants to share; he has a voice.

I wondered if the “Achievements” had something to do with this. And so I asked my student, “Can I share this doc with Mr. Fisher?”. He responded with the same drive that lead me to his doc in the first place, “What’s his email? I’ll share it with him myself”.

Within minutes, both Clarence and I, the Idea Hive teachers, were in the Google doc chat room with my student, guiding him as he looked for feedback.

Teaching in a collaborative classroom helps support our students in unexpected ways and in learning spaces and lesson times driven by our students. “Achievements” came in several different forms today. Are the mindsets of educators ready to recognize and value these different forms?

It’s year two in the Idea Hive, and the learning continues for me.

Powerful Holocaust Learning Experiences & Connections

My class recently finished reading the non-fiction novel, Ten Marks and a Train Ticket: Benno’s Escape to Freedom. It’s the story of Benno (9) and Heinz (13), two brothers who were put on a train in 1939 Berlin, by their parents, as a desperate gesture to send them to safety, away from Nazi Germany. This first-person narrative, told by Benno, chronicles their heartbreaking struggle to survive their travels across a continent on the brink of war, and the pain they confronted when learning of the loss of their parents and young brother, Charlie, at Aushwitz. Benno eventually moved to Toronto, Ontario, a few hours drive from where my students live.

The story is written by Benno’s three daughters, Susy Goldstein, Gina Hamilton and Wendy Share. After watching this video interview with the authors and their father, we learn how important they felt it was to have a story about the Holocaust told from a boy’s perspective, since so many stories feature female protagonists. Please take the 9 min. needed to view this video – you will understand why my students were so moved by Benno’s story.

As a follow-up activity, students blogged about the most powerful moments for them. They used Timetoast to create a timeline, and included images with the appropriate Creative Commons license. One student, Brad, found a very relevant photo on flickr which did not fit in the “free to use” guidelines. The image showed the interior of a German train from that era, the same type of train that Benno took to escape Germany. In the book, there is a harrowing scene where Benno and his brother hide under the wooden seats as the Nazi soldiers search the cars. With my help, we contacted the owner of the image and asked for permission. Not only did Brad receive permission from Henry Law, but Henry posted a comment on Brad’s blog with more information about the Kindertransport. From Sweden to Ontario, a student connected and the sharing continued.

When I showed the students the video interview with Benno and his daughters, you could have heard a pin drop. They were clearly relieved that Benno was still living, and amazed at how young he looked for someone in their 80’s. Afterwards, I told them I’d been in contact with Benno’s daughter, Susy Goldstein. Their eyes widened even more when I explained that any questions we had for Benno would be forwarded onto him by Susy. We would make a connection. In groups, students created and presented their questions to the class, and the class chose the ones they felt were the best.

Within in a week, we had a response back from Benno.

Dear Heather,

I was delighted to receive your email and of course somewhat taken aback by the apparent interest of your class. I will try and answer the questions as best as I can.

1) Are you still connected to some of the friends you made in Birmingham and London?

Yes I am still in touch with a few of the friends I made in Birmingham and in London, however many have already passed away.

2) What were your daughters’ reactions to your story when you told them at age 9?

I think my daughters couldn’t imagine having to go through what I did when I told them that the last time I saw my parents and little brother Charlie was when I was 9 years old. I know that they all have told their children when they were 9 years old as well my story.

3) How hard was it on you, and on your friends (Jewish and non-Jewish), when Hitler enforced his unfair laws?

The non-Jews of course were not affected. My school was closed as were many Jewish schools and we had a temporary school that I had to go to. It was awful not being able to play outside or go swimming in the local pool All because I was Jewish. I didn’t really understand why but I remember that my parents were really worried at the time.

4) We were shocked to see the swastika on your car in Toronto so many years after WW II. Why do you think people would still feel that way?

I was most certainly shocked to find a swastika on my car. To this day I don’t know who did it. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of graffitti found in Toronto aon buildings and I cannot believe that it is still happening.

5) There are so many important messages in your story. What is the key one you wanted to get across to adults and students?

I think that bullying and hatred for any other religion or group can lead to the terrible things which happened in Germany. We must make sure that this never happens again and if you ever see anyone being bullied you should try and stop it so it never gets to such a terrible situation.

6) If you could go back and say one thing to yourself when you started this journey, what would it be?

When we left to go on our journey I don’t think I ever really said goodbye to my parents and little brother because I believed that we would all be together very soon. I feel awful when I think about what happened to my brother and that we never said a proper good-bye.

Finally, my students knew this may be too private of a question, and so they asked me if it would be all right to ask. I said I’d pass it on, and let Susy decide. They’ve grown close to Benno and Heinz, and so they wondered,

How did Heinz pass away?

My brother passed away from natural causes, but I am sure the incidents described in the book were a contributory factor.

Today is November 9th, while I am writing this, and it is the day that I will always remember, when our home and shop were ransacked and severely damaged by the Nazis in 1938. Please remind your class that I hope my story will allow them to learn that to hate anybody because of their religion or because they are part of any group can create a world of horror.


I now wish I’d waited for them to post their blogs after they had received these comments back from Benno. Based on their reactions when I shared the email response from Benno, I can only imagine how much voice and passion would have been added as they wrote.

I’m grateful for the willingness of people to share their experiences in authentic ways with my students. I’ve learned that I just need to ask. As a result, our small, rural and remote student community continues to connect far beyond our classroom walls. Our students experience rich and powerful learning.

Left Foot, Right Foot: Student Advice from @charbeck

Each year I get excited about designing a new math project for my gr. 7/8’s data unit. Last year, Super Mario was our theme. After meeting some inspirational teachers who are also runners at #unplugd11, I had help from @charbeck, @aforgrave and @AlanaCallan as we designed a cross-curricular math project using the students’ running data. The goal however, had to be on improvement. Every student needed to feel some success, whether it was distance or pace.

So each day in September, my students brought their bright yellow duotangs out to the track. As the students completed their run (which increased daily), I called out their time for them to record. Using Cool Running’s Pace Calculator, the students determined their daily pace.

Once October rolled in, we got to our data unit in math. Lessons included how to use Google Spreadsheets and formulas. Finally – I got to introduce the project. I was excited, but wondered, would they be? I got my answer when several students asked, “Can I start this tonight?” And they did.

I created and shared videos on how to create a spreadsheet and how to embed their spreadsheet in their blog. After reading their blogs, it was clear that this collaboratively designed project had met the goal: students were proud of themselves. They were runners. Jacob, Alyssa, Ed

Once the student blogs were posted, they pro-rated their pace to the distance required to run a marathon. Then I shared @charbeck’s results from his recently completed Toronto Waterfront Marathon. My kids were impressed! And shocked…when they found out Chris is also a grade 8 math teacher in Winnipeg. “Does he know Mr. Fisher (my Idea Hive teaching partner)”?

The next day after preparing questions, students had the chance to ask Mr. Harbeck about his preparation, race and recovery via Skype. One of my quieter students, who had recently completed his first 10 k, was jumping with excitement after Mr. Harbeck asked, and encouraged him on his own success.

Chris was humble, humorous, encouraging and inspiring.

After the call, when I asked the students, “What were you most surprised about?”, they shared what they learned from Mr. Harbeck…

The training is more enjoyable than the race.
Marathon running is a mental game broken down into 10 mile increments with a little prayer at mile 30.
Marathon runners have smelly gear and wear socks with an R on the foot (so they know what foot it goes on).
Mr. Harbeck shared his key strategy for completing the race: Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. It’s a mental game.

Thank-you to my #unplugd11 inspirational team for helping frame this project where all of my students experienced success.
Thank-you, Chris, for making my students feel so special and emphasizing the importance of positive thinking and setting goals.