Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Hacking Leadership with Passion Projects Part 2!

Image result for teacher passion project image  Back in first semester, I wrote about my learning journey this year as an educator and leader in my
school. After reading about teacher passion projects in the book Hacking Leadership by
Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis,  I too wanted to support professional development in this
meaningful and purposeful way to members of my team.   Teacher passion projects are
when teachers take control of their own professional learning through choosing an area of education
on which to focus.  Topics are varied and learning is centred around working toward
becoming a better teacher overall. Learn about it here!  
My first post focused on my inspiration, implementation and leadership strategies.

Read about here on HDSB's The SHIFT Blog logo.jpg

As the project began, we had 5 people participate.

Topics included:
Distributed Learning and use it to introduce blogging into their pedagogy  

Inquiry research on the positive impacts of exercise and diet on emotional well-being with a student
who struggles with mental wellness.

Special Education Additional Qualifications course work to understanding students with learning
disabilities better  

Website development designed for teachers full of helpful and thoughtful resources.  

Finally my own project …  enhancing my leadership skills through supporting teachers in their
learning - a.k.a. - capacity building.   

Some projects took right off and others continue to be a work in progress.  What is important to me as
a leader is not the final product, but of course, the process of learning itself.   The professional
conversations happening along the way are invaluable. In addition to conversations between myself
and participating team members, they were also asked to reflect on their learning more formally at
midterm and at the end of the semester.  See reflection responses here: (Some people preferred to
discuss their answers orally rather than writing about them in the form - which is why you’ll see only
some responses.)

My reflections:
Providing the opportunity for my colleagues to learn in this capacity allowed teachers to fuel their
understanding of working with exceptional students.  They were able to engage with students in
meaningful ways ultimately creating positive impacts. The fact that teachers owned their own
professional development allowed them to make connections with each other and with kids in new
ways that were meaningful to them and their practice.  

As a program lead for Special Education at Milton District High School, one of my goals for my
department is to help filter special education knowledge throughout the school and support strategies
within regular classrooms.  The team is diversified in their subject areas ranging from English,
English as a Second Language, Science, Student Success, The Arts - to name a few - and because of
the learning communities happening from within the Passion Project, this goal began a successful journey.  

Todd Smiley,program lead for Science and new to the  SERT role this year pursued his Special
Education part 1 qualifications.  He reflects by saying;
“[The learning from the passion project]  gives me a new perspective on our students, their needs
and the best way to support them ... Through discussions and by supporting teachers in the
class I was able to share strategies that can be used to support exceptional students. ...
 I learned new skills and was exposed to new ideas that I can implement in the classroom”.

Allison Fuller, English teacher and new to the  SERT role this year pursued Special Education
part 2 qualifications is now also inspired to pursue specialist qualifications in the area of
Special Education based on her learning this year.  

Some of the work done in a couple of the projects:
Christa Talarowski is a SERT new to Milton District High School last year.  Her topic was to create a
website for educators that provided resources.  Her intention was that educators be “provided with
learning opportunities and resources to build awareness." I hope to be the creator of resources
assisting educators in their pursuit of equity and inclusion of students)”.   Her work can be
viewed here: Create With Positivity

The blogging project -  Educator and SERT Christina Paquette was so excited to find an outlet that
allowed her to really create a community of learning within her ELL classroom.   Here are some links to
her work:

The outdoor activity that inspired the blog response to First time in the snow.   
Students new to Canada see snow for the first time and then blog about their experience.    
See an example of the student the blog here: Walk on Snow for the first time.  

More Reflections:
I set out with the intention to as a leader, support meaningful and purposeful professional development
within my department as a means to enhance teacher capacity within the school.  It was invigorating for
me to work with my colleagues in a way that was supporting all of our learning. As much as they learned,
I too learned, growing my leadership skill set. I feel this project was successful and I would  absolutely
run this initiative again.
The capacity to build professional learning communities within the department is a wonderful way to
bring cohesion to a team that works across several different departments.  It is hard to connect with each
other daily, and this provided an opportunity to check in weekly ‘geek out’ in our learning.
The Passion Project opportunity also allows professional conversations to filter through to several
different departments, as teachers return to other departments , new ideas and strategies reach into
their team practices,  spreading the knowledge of supportive and engaging strategies for kids who
learn differently throughout the school.

Next Steps:
I really like the structure I used to implement the project, and I am happy with the process.
I may consider personalizing the reflection questions to more specifically address
Special Education as it relates to my own school.   I also know that as the school year progresses
so does the pace and intensity of the job. People become busier and time is of the essence,
as is energy.   I recommend running an initiative like this once in a year.
Pick a semester and end date the project before the turnover.
Why? It puts some parameters on finishing.  Although we know learning never really ends
and continues on, people also need to feel a sense of accomplishment and closure in their
initiatives. This allows them to plan their next steps in where they want to take their learning
moving forward.   

Connect with me!
Are you are interested in trying out a Teacher Passion Project Initiative? Connect with me
any time!  I’d love to help in any way I can. Email me at
You can follow me on twitter: @Sjcronin39.

Hacking Leadership with Teacher Passion Projects

Sarah Cronin is a teacher for the Halton District School Board and the program leader for
Special Education at Milton District High School.   She is passionate about helping students with
learning differences (LD) be confident and empowered and ready to make their mark on the world.
 You can learn more about her journey on her blog.

My learning journey this year as an educator is centered around enabling and igniting teacher passion
through teacher passion projects.  I’m a big fan of the Hacking Learning Series - and my favourite book
so far is Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis. Chapter 8 highlights running
Teacher Passion Projects as a way to develop capacity in staff and to help staff truly benefit from
developing as a professional.   What is a teacher passion project? Teacher passion projects are
when teachers take control of their own professional learning through choosing an area of education to
focus on. Topics are varied and learning is centered around working toward becoming a better
teacher overall. Learn about it here!  I was so enthralled by the idea that it inspired me to run a
version of this in my own department.

Here’s why I was inspired:

  1. I work with amazing Special Education Resource Teachers (SERTS), and as a leader, I want to contribute to their professional growth in a meaningful way.
  2. Teacher Passion Projects give the teacher choice in what they want to learn - to connect that learning to their passions, with the goal of becoming a better teacher.    
  3. I want to be a part of a team that consistently strives to be the best they can be.
  4. The concept is simple and can be easily executed.  

Here’s what I did:

I contacted Joe Sanfelippo on Twitter (@Joe_Sanfelippo)  and told him that after reading his book,
I was inspired to recreate a version of teacher passion projects in my department.  
 I asked for his help in setting this up. Joe connected me with his outline, and templates used in
his school district.

I took the templates and modified them to match my team needs.
Passion Project Learning Objective and Goal Plan Form
Passion Project (Professional Growth Opportunity) Mid Year Review
Passion Project Professional Growth Opportunity Final Reflection

I presented the idea of participating in the passion project to my team.  This was definitely an opt-in choice,
it wasn’t mandatory, and it wouldn’t reflect negatively on them should they decide to not participate.  

I volunteered to cover one of their classes on a rotational basis of their choice.  This allowed them to work
on their passion projects within their school time table, not on a lunch, and not on a prep.
 (I have the flexibility in my own schedule to be able to offer this - this is key to having teacher buy in.)

I began my own passion project - (Teacher Passion Projects as a way to develop Building Relationships
and Develop People by Stimulating growth in the professional capacities
of staff  - Ontario Leadership Framework.)

We began:  Watch one teacher talk about her passion project experience thus far:  Christina's Video


My team this year has doubled in size.  We were four SERTS (myself being the only full time SERT),
and we are now eight.  I am excited for the growth in department as we now have in addition to
the original four -  two Program Leads - one from Science, and one from
Social Sciences/French, one teacher from English, one ELL teacher, and one additional EA.  
Wow! The intimidating part for me as a leader is: all of our new additions had little to no
experience as a SERT. How was I going to support and help develop our new additions in
all the knowledge a SERT needs to have?  Answer: Teacher Passion Projects come to mind….

So out of the nine person team not including myself,  five people have jumped on board this opportunity!
And so it begins.  We just started this journey after the October long weekend.

My Leadership Strategies:

I set a schedule to cover classes of participating teachers.  This is a rolling commitment based
on our schedule agreement. I book myself as busy in my calendar at these times.  

Regular meetings with each person to discuss, inspire, and guide the passion project.  
So … admittedly, I originally thought this would be more scheduled.
However, it turns out I meet with them on a drop in basis.  They drop into my office or I into
theirs and we talk about how things are going, what resources are needed, the ins and outs of
various topics.   I’m learning a lot from each about their topics. The casualness of this discussion
is what is great - we collaborate in our own professional learning  community that has no start
time or end time. I like this aspect as I believe it allows the learning journey to flow naturally.

Connecting through social media:  We follow each other on twitter and we text regularly.
 These provide great arenas for discussion and resource sharing.  
You can follow me on twitter: @Sjcronin39
Read more educational articles at THE SHIFT BLOG

Examples of some of the Passion Project in Progress:  

Passion Project topics included range from classroom pedagogy to leadership initiatives.

Some teachers are learning about Distributed Learning and will use it to introduce blogging into
their pedagogy with their classes.  

Another is experiential research that is aiming to document an example of the positive impacts of
exercise and diet on emotional well-being with a student who struggles with mental wellness.  

Others are taking Special Education Additional Qualifications and are using this knowledge to enhance
their teaching practice by understanding students with learning disabilities better and how to best
support them and sharing this knowledge with their other departments.

 On the leadership end, we have website development designed for teachers full of helpful and
thoughtful resources.

Finally my own project … enhancing my leadership skills through supporting teachers in their
learning - a.k.a. - capacity building.

Next Steps:  

Connecting with each teacher at mid term in a more formal setting to discuss where they will take their
project and their learning.  

Having the teacher record that on the  Passion Project (Professional Growth Opportunity)
Mid Year Review .  It says Mid year because some passion projects may take the year, or it may
take a semester.  Either way, I will be meeting with them at mid term first semester.

Through Discussion, tweak the purpose of the project and its connection to educational research.

Through discussion, support the shaping of sharing the learning with others.  

I will keep you posted on the journey!  Until next time...

~ Sarah Cronin

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Thousands of Free Teacher Tools Coming in the Hack Learning Toolkit

Thousands of Free Teacher Tools Coming in the Hack Learning Toolkit

The Power of Student Voice - Reflections on hosting a living library.

Image result for student voice quotes

At Milton District High School, much importance is given to student voice.  We want to hear what our students are thinking and we value their opinions.  In fact, we often poll students and encourage student committees to lead us in moving the school forward in a variety of ways.

When it comes to teacher professional learning, students have a lot to offer.  Teachers often 'sit and get' their learning from their colleagues, and are not often given the opportunity to learn from their students directly.   This year my team and I  hosted a living library at our February PD day.  A living library works like a a regular library, but instead of checking out a book to read, you sit with a human being and hear their story instead.  Conversations ensue, questions are asked, learning takes place, an most importantly, empathy grows.  That is the power of story - it nurtures empathy - which is a gift that we all need to give for all other gifts to be relevant.

 As Special Education Resource Teachers one of our most important jobs focuses around advocating for students.  Not only are we advocating for student needs, we teach kids about themselves as learners and in the process build self advocacy skills.  Our philosophy is an understanding that we have students for four years.  From the time they enter grade nine, we walk beside them and build advocacy skills along the way. By the time they graduate, we have students who understand their learning needs, know what tools and strategies that work for them, and they are ready to leave us because they are equipped with a tool kit that allows them to independently and efficiently problem solve in the world.

The living library is an excellent vehicle to empower students to share their learning stories face to face with teachers.  It is the ultimate demonstration of self advocacy.  It is a powerful learning experience for everyone involved, and one that forged deep relationships and better understanding between our students who learn differently and our teachers.   

We invited 2 students with learning differences, 2 students who are on the spectrum, two students who are English Language Learners, and three parents whose children attend MDHS who also have learning differences.  Before the day of the living library, we set out 5 questions for kids to answer.  We met with them twice and helped them prepare their answers.  We prepped them on how the library would look and work so they knew what to expect the day of.  We gave parents the same questions and allowed them time to prepare their answers in advance.   The format for the library had to be altered slightly because we have a large staff - 80 members.  We split the staff into four groups alphabetically, had two students in 4 separate rooms paired with a facilitator (a SERT) who read the questions and supported the students as they answered.  As you can imagine, the students were exceptionally brave in being  publicly vulnerable - especially in front of people who are responsible for grading their school work!    The parents also had their own room and facilitator.  The staff rotated through each room in 15 -  20 minute intervals - which means, each student/parent group shared their story 4 times.

The result was overwhelmingly positive.  Emotions were strong as teachers heard our students' stories, tears were shed on both sides - from the students as they told their most vulnerable story, and from the teachers who's empathy flourished in connecting and understanding as they "walked a mile "in their student's shoes.   Our  students  and parents were empowered, likely for the first time in their vulnerability.  The living library provided a platform for them to be heard - an opportunity that many students may never fully experience.  Parents provided the other side of the coin that described  struggles and challenges fought against and overcame- the trials and tribulations of navigating a school system with a child who learns differently.  They told of their needs going forward, and shared connections with teachers on a level beyond the teacher-student relationship to one of human experience... the connection that parents have between each other that implicitly understands that every parent only wants the best for their children.

The MDHS staff was moved in their understanding of their students.  Here's what they had to say when asked :
Explain your experience with the living library today:

  • "I loved making the very personal connection of learning differences to specific people. Makes me think twice about my actions, thoughts and words."
  • "So poignant to understand the people behind the IEPs and the family members' struggles."
  • "Having the opportunity to listen to students and parents share their stories is so meaningful and really does hit home."

What stood out most about today's session?

  • "Listening to students with LD explaining how they feel in the classroom at particular times, as well as listening to parents and their struggles and/or hopes for their child."
  • "The personal connections. The messages from the kids."
  • "The emotional response, difficult but really great to see the impact on kids"
What strategy would you consider implementing (in your classroom) this semester?

  • "Having more time with students to talk to them about their experiences in order to understand more the "whole student"."
  • "I will resist the temptation to get caught up at my computer during quiet work time, and will make an even GREATER effort to walk around and ensure everyone is on track. Her explanation of how kids will only ask for help or clarification in very certain circumstances really struck a chord with me and reminded me how important that is. But mostly, today's session just reminded me that I have to be EVEN more kind, EVEN more patient, EVEN more compassionate, especially with the kids who are struggling."
  • "Working with students to get them to advocate for the strategies that best work for them to ensure their individual learning, success and growth."
NOTE:  We shared a video version of one student's story with administrators at a Family of Schools meeting.  Administrators wanted to know what they need to know about Academic Level Students.  So... we showed them :-)

If you are interested in running a living library at your school, please feel free to connect with me.  I'd be happy to assist in any way I can.  You can email me at

Here is a sample of the questions we asked and one student's response.  

Why Homework Isn't Necessary.

I follow Teach Thought: We Grow Teachers articles regularly.  Among the many sophisticated and cutting edge articles on the site rests this article from September 2017: "

Alternatives To Homework: A Chart For Teachers"   .   

As a Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT), I often take issue when my students are presented with large amounts of homework.  They often fall behind in class, work exhaustively to play catch up, and end up feeling defeated.   I especially take issue with it as a parent, when my own kids are inundated with outside of class time work.  As a parent, I have experienced first hand the frustration of this cycle.  Think about this:  How many people go to work all day, and then come home to complete the tasks they didn't get finished that day at work - for hours?  Who would want to?  Many of us would be searching for another job that offered more life balance.   We all need time to rejuvenate, and after work (and after school) is a time to do other things in life that are important and meaningful such as enjoying family time, social activities (organized or other), diving into learning about something of interest - for interest's sake.   Of course there will be times when we need to put in some time outside of school or work, but not everyday - for the sake of "getting it done".  I believe that skill practice should be done in class.  I believe that assignments and activities should be done in class.  The issue many teachers face is time.  Often educators feel pressure to move forward in curriculum and less pressure to ensure skills have been learned before moving on to the next.    I would rather see a focus on skill mastery than a completed check box indicating that the skill was taught.  (Has it really been taught if students haven't demonstrated their true learning of the skill?)  

Curriculum as it stands currently does not partner well with Universal Design for Learning.  As the student advances through the grades, the curriculum in each one relies on the learning from the grade previous.  I think teachers worry that if they don't get through the curriculum, they set students up for failure in the next grade.  They feel a sense of pressure to complete them all skill requirements in a short amount of time ( at the secondary level, it's 5 months).    Here's where I point out that the curriculum is a guide. It can be used to build skills that are foundational that are reinforced in later grades.  Consider curriculum as the training an athlete receives. The teacher is the coach. The coach's job is not train the athlete to be an Olympian in a short time, but rather to work with them to bring them to a level where they can perform their best.   School is one of the only areas where we rush kids.  Can you imagine applying this same sense to learning to swim, or to playing a musical instrument?  How could a person do the back crawl before they can float?  How could a person play a song, before they know the musical scale, or timing, or understand rhythm?  Why then do we feel this pressure to move forward before we know the skill is acquired at school? As a teacher, I'd much rather see learners slow down, take their time, and ensure skills have been acquired before moving forward to the next skill. 

This of course, comes down to the topic of assessment.  Universally Designed Assessment provides the freedom to be able to do so.  Homework should not be a part of that assessment, however, homework that allows the student to think more deeply about the learning allows for deeper understanding and later, better application.  

As Kathleen Cushman’s Fires in the Mindoutlines,  alternatives to homework can do just this.  Have a look at the chart below and see how you can help your students think more deeply about the learning done in class.

In the "Try This" column, each suggestion takes the learning to a deeper thinking level.   It requires the students to show their thinking, their understanding, and their application in ways that go far beyond homework completion.  You will also notice that much of this assessment is done in class!  Here is my call to action:   How can you, as an educator, re-think homework practices in your class to allow your students an opportunity to think more deeply about the learning?  Would you need to even call it homework? 

Friday, 4 May 2018

How Technology Can Bridge the Gap for the LD learner

How Technology Can Bridge The Gap For The LD Learner.

I am a strong advocate for using the right tool for the right job. For kids who have learning differences, the right tool is essential to demonstrate full understanding of learning. Educators often see technology as THE tool to support students in their learning, yet often it is an option that is provided without understanding why the tool is needed, and worse, how to use it for a specific task. Let's take "The Essay" as an example - it's a common final product that most every student is asked to complete at least once in their school career. For kids who have challenges in reading and writing, it's not enough to plunk an electronic device down and say "There you go! This will help you write your essay!" and then walk away. Students need to know WHY they would even want to use technology to write it - in fact, many students with learning differences push back and refuse to use the tech at all, claiming it's easier or faster to write it out by hand.

As teachers we need to give kids the WHY behind the tech tool. There are many technologies available (Google Extensions being one of my all time favourites) that are considered assistive and understanding why we have chosen the technology for a specific job is more helpful than the technology on its own. In our Essay example, a voice to text/text to voice technology can be useful - buy why? What is it about that tool that will make the job efficient for the student who struggles with reading and writing? For one thing, students can dictate their ideas - but is that helping them learn to write an essay? Not really. So why not use text to voice as an editing tool? And why not have the entire class use the read back feature to edit so everyone can hear their grammatical and spelling errors, or to hear run on sentences, or lack of sentence fluency. The tool is there to be used to enhance a specific skill. In our essay example then, the technology doesn't help the student write the essay - it helps them develop editing skills to develop their voice and to share their understanding of the learning in an intelligent way.

Teachers need to think about the skills they want students to build. In writing an essay, skill sets include organization, research, citations, bibliographies, editing, and building an argument - to name a few. For each of these skills, there is a technology that can assist all students, and especially those with learning differences, in producing their thinking.

My experience as an educator in special education has led me to understanding that most times, kids know more than they can demonstrate - especially kids with learning differences.

  • Kids have lagging skills in various areas (executive functioning)
  • Learning Differences (Reading, Writing, Math)
  • Cognitive Deficits ( e.g. Processing, Memory, Perceptual Reasoning)
  • Social Emotional Issues due to home life or from peers 
  • Attention Issues ( ADD/ADHD)
  • Mental Health Concerns - Anxiety
Take a look at the list above and picture your classroom. Ask yourself - who's left? A teacher has a variety of levels of learners in one room so how can one person support all the learning needs?  

Enter assistive technology:  The function of technology is to use it purposeful ways to navigate the learning process.  In other words, you need the right tool for the job at hand. 

Technology can help level the playing field for all types of learners.
Note the positioning of the teacher in the photo above. She positions herself as a learning partner  alongside the kids. The teacher doesn't need to be a tech expert to use the tool, she only needs to facilitate the learning - and that learning can include understanding the technology itself. This idea is foreign for teachers who are used to being subject experts and are uncomfortable not knowing how to do something as they use it in practice. However, isn't this the essence modeling learning? A classroom of learners should include the teacher as a learner, and it's amazing when the classroom is an environment that supports learning at all levels. The beauty of technology is that it can be used for everyone. What may be necessary for some (learners who learn differently), can be good for all.

Technology can remove systemic barriers and allow everyone to participate equitably. The illustration below is my favourite way to highlight the idea that fair does not mean equal. The picture on the left is what being fair looks like - but being fair doesn't work. The middle picture is what differentiation looks like. It is equitable, and it works well enough. The picture on the right reflects Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Remove the barrier and everyone can participate in the game. This is important for kids with learning differences who absolutely do not want to be centered out for being different than anyone else. Again, what is necessary for some, is good for all.

When we choose the right tech tool for the job, we need to think about it's purpose. The SAMR model helps us decide what it is we want for students, and what kind of technology would be helpful. Have a quick peek at the video link describing SAMR here.

Once you have purposefully chosen your reason to use technology, you can begin to look at choosing the right tool for the job. Remember: It's not about the app, it's about pedagogy. The Padagogy wheel helps us choose that tool - in fact - Teach Thought's article from August 2016, titled The Padagogy Wheel - It's not the about the App, it's about the PADAGOGY explains beautifully how the wheel works and why it is important.
At the end of the day, what we want for our students is to know who they are as learners, to be efficient, and resilient. We can model how to do this for students if we help kids choose the right tool for the job. Once they know how to do that, they can independently navigate and problem solve their world.

Hacking Leadership with Passion Projects Part 2!

  Back in first semester, I wrote about my learning journey this year as an educator and leader in my school. After reading ab...