Curriculum Development for Most People Might Just be Like Making Sausages

Curriculum Development for Most People Might Just be Like Making Sausages

Superintendent of Schools – Last week the Board hosted their fall joint meeting with trustees and school councils. In addition to trustees, about 70 people were in attendance with a combination of division administrators, school administrators and school council representatives. The two-hour event included a casual pizza supper and information about resources for school council leaders and information about the ward boundary review, but the main focus was about the Alberta curriculum development currently underway.

Two Directors from Alberta Learning walked the group through a 75-minute presentation mostly focused on the “why” and the “how” of the curriculum development project. Looking around the room the group was nodding appropriately and when we had table talk opportunities there was plenty of discussion. We had bursts of questions/comments at certain points. When talking about the development process a couple key question were asked – “How are students being involved in this process that will impact them?” and “Have you talked to recent graduates about their thoughts about what they needed to learn?” These questions resonated with people and a conversation spun-off about when and how that could occur.

About 60 minutes through the presentation a parent made a comment that really hit home with me. The parent stated (very politely) that most of what had be presented did not really make any sense to her. Some other parents quickly vocalized similar sentiments. My mind raced through the previous 60 minutes as I tried to process her comment. I came to the realization that the talk was too much about the “why” and the “how” whereas parents in this room were more concerned about the “what” this means for their children. The talk had acronyms that parents did not know; it talked a lot about the technical components of the development process, which potentially really did not matter to parents; and a six-year timeline to build curriculum just does not make sense to many people. There was a hunger to talk about how and when the eventual curriculum would be implemented.

I walked away from the event with a reminder that we need to make sure that when talking to parents we avoid the edu-jargon that dominates our language. We consistently make assumptions about terminology that we use in our business is known to everyone. We need to focus on how whatever we are talking about impacts their children. Like everyone, we all want our kids to be successful, get what they need and have every opportunity available to them when they finished our system. We need to listen to what parents want for their children. People generally trust public education, but need to know that their kids will get what they need in the end. Maybe, for parents, curriculum development is like making sausages – we don’t need to know about how it is made, but just that it is good.


Middle School Literacy at CLMS – Let’s Celebrate!

Middle School Literacy at CLMS – Let’s Celebrate!

RVS Humanities 8/Reading Intervention/Drama Teacher, Chestermere Lake Middle School – Nothing brightens my day more than seeing kids learn a new skill or strategy and knowing deep in my gut that it will pay off in their lives for years to come. As a reading/writing workshop teacher in the middle school, luckily this happens regularly and my days are extremely bright!


wuosFor all of you middle school ELA teachers out there, choosing a method/strategy/program… can be extremely frustrating. The ELA Program of Studies is extremely complex, and how can we possibly teach “the good stuff” that is going to stick, when all of those outcomes are so incredibly vague?? (Pet peeve #1) I learned long ago, that implementing a reading and writing workshop in my class was the only way that I was going to move kids forward in multiple strands and enjoy the ride along the way.

I have had the pleasure of studying with Lucy Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project at Teacher’s College at Columbia University in NYC for the last two years. After teaching 23 years, I wanted MORE STRUCTURE with MORE STUDENT/TEACHER CHOICE in my reading/writing lessons and the new middle level Units of Study in Reading were exactly what I wanted. Unfortunately, these reading units for grades 6-8 weren’t available to the public yet, so I decided to save my pennies and take the plunge to learn straight from the masters at TCRWP and get my hands on those units!

In my grade 8 classroom, the first month is spent developing the students’ reading lives. Many students read very little outside of school time anymore, so I need to give them mass amounts of time to explore, investigate and analyze their reading interests, skills and goals. While building this reading life, I also focus on one aspect of narrative reading that is beneficial to them in later analytic endeavors – characterization. It is difficult for kids to analyze and interpret the themes in a piece, when they are still struggling to analyze and interpret the characters and their actions. Through a series of read-alouds, minilessons, conferences and mostly INDEPENDENT SELF-SELECTED READING, I see kids slowly reaching their reading goals (which were all based on growth mindset, of course), talking about books they are reading daily.firstfrenchkisscover2

Mentor Text for Unit 1: First, French Kiss: And Other Traumas by Adam Bagdasarian – Humorous memoirs of a boy growing up in the 80s…so many cringe-worthy, laugh out loud moments! This novel was exactly what I needed to motivate uninspired readers to want to search harder for more books that interested them.

At the end of the unit, I followed the lead of my colleagues at TCRWP and celebrated! This year, I decided to have a “Glow-In-The-Dark Reading Party” complete with toasts to their reading accomplishments (with water in champagne glasses) and gummy worms (to symbolize their status as bookworms, get it??). I don’t know about you guys, but after 25 years of teaching, I need to pat myself on the back more often for a job well done and the students need that boost as well. Candy is usually part of that celebration in my world!


As part of a balanced literacy program, I alternate a reading unit of study with a writing unit of study, so my students have now moved on to building their writing lives and figuring out what moments of their lives they want to share in their first published memoir. Now how should we celebrate? I’ll let you know when we do!

Until next time,

Tracey Bowes

What’s All the Buzz About Trauma-Informed Schools?

What’s All the Buzz About Trauma-Informed Schools?

Psychologist – “This tells me that there’s a lot of brains in here right now that are wired for survival, and just might be a little on edge.” That was the sentiment expressed by Biology teacher, Erik Gordon, when responding to the information that in his class more than 13 students indicated that they have experienced significant trauma in their past.

The concepts of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive approaches or practice seem to be popping up everywhere in the education system. Our ability to support students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) also is finding its way into many staff room conversations. So what exactly does it mean to be trauma-informed or trauma sensitive? Well, a quick Google search will bring up a number of articles, programs, and ideas around how schools can begin to work with students who have been traumatized. Some of these programs can be quite expensive, but behind any commercialized answer resides two key concepts that are at the heart of being a trauma-informed educator:

  • Understanding that trauma impacts a child’s developing brain and can cause structural changes, which can impact a child’s behaviour, memory and learning.
  • Belief that positive educator-student relationships, where the child feels safe, valued, and cared for can begin to tip a child’s resiliency scale towards the positive, even though it might be stacked with negative weight.

This shift in thinking can sometimes be difficult because sometimes ‘the kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.’ When Erik Gordon learned about the impact that ACEs had on a child’s brain architecture, he began to work with them differently. He started to try to find more ways to connect with them, such as jamming together over lunch hour. He also began to see their behaviour as something that they may not have full control over. In fact, at Erik’s school, all of the teachers learned about the impact of trauma on the brain. They started to have regular meetings where they would discuss what was going on for their students and identify strategies to have more positive and meaningful interactions with them. As a result, suspension rates went down and achievement went up. Erik’s school’s story has been captured in a film called ‘Paper Tigers’ that Rocky View Schools Learning Support has purchased a license for.

Interested in watching Paper Tigers? Register an account using your email at and watch the documentary in its entirety. Perhaps you could hold a screening at your school and have an open dialogue about the film and its connections to your school.

Anxiety and Learning

Anxiety and Learning

Principal, Langdon School – Steven Feifer, D.Ed, and Douglas Toffalo Ph.D are leading experts on cognitive neuropsychology in their latest book, A Scientific Approach to Reading, which offers teachers and parents a firm understanding of how the brain learns to read and how teachers can prevent learning barriers.

Since I can remember I have heard students at all grade levels talk about their natural ability to be a logical or a mathematical thinker. They would say comments such as, “I’m good at math or my parents aren’t good at math and neither am I, or this is too hard for me.”  Somehow along they way they have decided that their brain either has the ability or does not have the ability for math. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a strong believer in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. However, I also have read compelling arguments in research (Feifer). How can an elementary student already know they are not proficient in mathematics and never will be? The answer is, they can’t know. Here is where the teacher, the parent, and the school culture must come into play. What does prevent the long-term storage of math skills in the brain? Feifer talks about various reasons to why students struggle, have trauma, anxiety, executive functioning issues, learning disabilities and more. You can find the list in their latest books, “Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading”.  One that resonates with myself, is anxiety.  

Anxiety and Learning

“As Hopko, Ashcraft, and Gute (1998) noted, the central executive system lies particularly vulnerable in the anxious brain of a math student.  The central executive system serves primarily to suppress or inhibit any negative distractors that may have an adverse effect on problem solving.  If this mechanism is not functioning efficiently or perhaps is preoccupied by worrisome thoughts, the central executive system becomes consumed with directing cognitive resources toward more rudimentary flight or flight response” (Feifer & Toffal, p. 59).

Master teachers are aware of student anxiety because they are keenly aware of their student needs. However, today we still make the error of putting students in positions where a) we have not helped them deal with their anxiety (whether, social, emotional or academic), or b) we put them into situations where they need to perform under undue stress.

I remember taking a psychology class in university (1996) where our professor openly talked about how the exams will be tough to finish in the time he is going to give us. I found this intriguing as to why a professor would design such an experience; he continued to inform us that only the brightest will do well on the exam, and the majority will hit the bell curve. Do you think the anxiety level of my class went up at that moment? You bet. Though my experience is personal and may not represent the masses, let me tell you what happened. For each exam I put in countless hours of studying, I can remember being anxious and worried that I would not remember the hundreds of pages of information and lecture notes. In the first three exams, I achieve the bell curve. For myself, this was disappointing given the hours of preparation. On the fourth exam I decided to try something different, (partly due to frustration and partly due to curiosity), I chose only to review my notes and reading but did not take the time to memorize. I decreased my studying time by 80 percent. My “gut” was telling me my memory recall was being interrupted during the exam. Can you guess what happened? You guessed it; I achieved the same result, the curve. At this moment, I began to understand that my anxiety level was preventing my short-term memory recall from occurring. One might argue I did not spend enough time memorizing, or that I had a faulty study system, however, my other courses did not have this issue.

Students are at the whim of their thinking, social constructs, teacher comments, and the environment they learn in. Whether we are an adult in a university setting or a grade 4 student, effective learning requires us to be in an anxiety free classroom (Feifer & Toffal0, p. 66).

Helping Teachers 

Sometimes, adults will use forms of motivation that fall on the competition or manipulation side of learning. For instance, we use skill and drill with a timed response in many of our classrooms. I am not saying you can’t have a time limit, but the time is what we ask students to focus on, not skill of strengthening the neural pathways. Neuroscientists will tell you we must still have repetition for skill development to strengthen neural pathways, but this is not what I am referring to. Throughout Canada we see systems in Mathematics that promote speed recall where students are both leveled and pressured to perform under time constraints. We also see teachers using comments such as, “You should have learned that last year? I don’t have time to teach this again!”, “You need this for the next grade, you better get it right.”, “If you don’t learn this you will not be successful next year.”, and  “This is necessary knowledge; how can you not know this?”  Comments like these and more, do not motivate students; they create anxiety.  Students today are keenly aware of what is being said to them, and over time, they will begin to believe certain untruths about themselves, especially when they are confronted with failure due to the inability to recall learning while under stress or because it was learned under pressure.

6 ways schools can practically remove barriers:

  1. School-wide programs for classroom culture including practical techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety.
  2. Educating students on mental health, from the standpoint of how to have sound mental health and how to help others who are lacking it.
  3. CDA (Child Development Advisor) must have effective processes for guiding especially anxious students.
  4. Teacher training on both positive classroom culture and brain-based learning. (Given our learnings of the brain in the 21st Century, this goes without saying).
  5. Have an RTI system in the school to help students with areas of struggle, resulting in greater confidence.
  6. Jurisdictional support for students with high needs (top of the pyramid) for appropriate school resources.

Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading
Steven G. Feifer, DEd, and Douglas A. Della Toffalo, PhD

Vacations: They Are School Absences Too…

Vacations: They Are School Absences Too…

Project Leader, Attendance Innovation Campaign – We often talk about the importance of regular school attendance and how it impacts the development of academic, language, social, and work related skills in children. The research clearly shows that students who miss two days each month are placed at significant risk for current and future challenges at school. Despite knowing the impact that school absences can have, we often do not address a root cause for why many students are not in school – vacations.Present with a purpose

Vacations offer unique learning and relationship building opportunities for children, and very few educators or school administrators would ever downplay their value. Issues arise, however, when vacations are extended into, or implemented during, the school year. Unlike many vacations, schools offer a structured setting for academic development, language-rich environment, opportunities to develop social competencies, and experiences that nurture work-related skills such as persistence, resiliency, problem-solving, and the ability to work with others to accomplish goals.

There are approximately 180 instructional days in one school year and teachers have a large amount of curriculum content to cover within that timeframe. Given teachers share their knowledge and passion for learning on a daily basis, students who miss school because of vacations are placed at a relative deficit for lost instructional time and valuable learning opportunities. Many parents have the perception that their child can easily catch up on missed work and it can be the case for some. Unfortunately, the research demonstrates that many students who miss this instructional time will not catch up.

If parents intend to take their children away on vacation during the school year, we ask that they consider the impact it can have on their child’s learning and take steps to minimize it. By limiting the amount of time that is taken away from instruction, parents set their children up for success in the future. For more information on how parents can help improve the attendance of their children, please visit: