Friday, August 22, 2014

Things to do this Fading August in England!

Festivals and good cheer since the days of old @ Source
Summer holiday events abound in the waning days of August

With the beginning of the school year rapidly approaching, many teachers can relish in the comforting thought that we are refreshed and recharged for the year to come. I can only hope that everyone will feel the same way by the time September returns to our calendars. Nevertheless, another one of the reassuring aspects of life in the UK is the plethora of events that happen all year long throughout the island. The month of August is no different.

Perusing the trusty 'Visit England' website in eager anticipation, I came across many fascinating adventures ripe for all to see and experience! August itself boasts 29 upon my initial search. The events ranged from the Oxford Foodies Festival, End of the Road and Bournemouth Air Festivals to three days of music in Leicestershire and the Robin Hood Festival. With a fantastic list to choose from, I only wish I had the opportunity to see it all!

Take a look, choose and enjoy.

As always, wherever you are in the world at this late stage of the summer break, I can only continue to emphasise the great importance of enjoying your surroundings and unique experiences anywhere you go, either by yourself or with your family and friends. Whether it is Canada - as you pack your bags to go back to London in the next couple of weeks - or Istanbul, on one of your final vacation stopovers this summer; or finally England itself - if you were so inclined to remain there this summer. It's what makes the difference between feeling like you are just doing a job in another country and knowing that you are having the most incredible time teaching and traveling in this vast world.

Vital links:

Visit England official website - list of events this August

Monday, August 4, 2014

John Venn's Big Day

The big 180 for Johnny V.
Happy Birthday John Venn!

Indeed it is John Venn's 180th birthday. For all of us here at Classroom Canada, I wanted to extend a heartfelt thanks to the man that created the essential, vital, eternal Venn Diagram.

Its use varies extensively, to say the least. From logic to statistics, Math and Geography, to Computer Science and even English. As definitively summarised by Wikipedia, the Venn Diagram is a diagram that "shows all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets." For example, the relationship between creatures with two legs and creatures that can fly. Simple, yet ingenious, it allows us to find the common variables between two or multiple points of study.

Many times I have found myself using it in my English classes, from evaluating the similarities/differences between two poems on love, to comparing Lady Macbeth with the murderous advances of other nefarious characters in literature. The Venn Diagram brings perspective, order and focus to students who crave understanding and vision.

Venn Diagram showing which upper case letter glyphs are shared by the Greek, Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Source

A man who began his education in London, in today's Highgate School, and ventured on to Cambridge to complete his degree in Mathematics - John Venn is a testimony to ingenious creativity mixed with pure logic and philosophy.

My hat off and a toast to you, good sir!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Misusing English Words

Misusing English since Chaucer's days

What do the words Travesty, Ironic, Bemused and Enormity have in common? Why, they are simply part of a series of words that we have all been probably misusing since we first heard of their existence!

In '10 Words That You've Probably Been Misusing,' Tyler Vendetti has cleverly outlined ten of the worst offenders in terms of improper word usage. He touches on the fact that there are plentiful words in the English language that have had their definitions mixed up because of the simple fact that there are so many words in the English language itself.

Which begs the question: How long have each of us been using some of these words incorrectly? Rather than contemplate that question, I would rather turn your attention to Vendetti's 10 most common culprits:


Sound familiar? To find out what you think each of these words mean, followed by an entertaining explanation of what they actually mean, be sure to check out Vendetti's post in the Vital Links below. Enjoy!

Vital Links:

10 Words That You've Probably Been Misusing 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Social Media: Bridging the Gap between School and Home

Embracing Social Media

The extensive use of social media in every aspect of our live is undeniable. It's a part of our daily routine, some more immersed and intertwined in it than others. The fact is that it's there to stay, no matter how many people can't stand it, blaming it for their children's woes and failings in schools, and claiming the 'unplugged' life as the key to success. Be that as it may, social media is an important part of almost any successful profession, and it waits for those students who grow up and graduate from school. However, that's their future. The focus today is on our current students at school in the here and now.

I think the first underlying point we need to accept as educators is that kids enjoy using social media. It's one of the main ways they feel they can express themselves, keep in touch with their friends and thrive in a way of socialising that is quite different from the traditional, old school ways of 'hanging out.' Even students who don't fully embrace it use it, knowing it's a normal part of life, inside and outside of school. It incorporates both aspects of 'chat' - being able to talk, gossip and comment - as well as 'visual' - sharing photos of each other, whether to show their friends what they're doing on the weekend, or simply to take a picture of something they find interesting. As an extensive user myself, I find those aspects of social media brilliant.

As it stands, eradicating social media is an impossibility. Parents and teachers can try to curb and limit it's use, but inevitably it is there at the end of the day, waiting for eager kids and teenagers to resume their digital socialising ways with intensity. It think the more wiser choice would be to first understand the use of social media, the mentality behind its use; followed by embracing its positive potential and implementing ways of utilising it to help students achieve their goals at school - while also understanding your students better.

Constructive feedback through social media

Recording feedback onto an online system - which parents can then access -  via a smartphone is a great way to provide constructive feedback to your students while also keeping their parents up to date on the progress of their children, including their strengths and weaknesses. This parent-teacher-student interaction does not have to be limited to only parents' evening anymore, or end-of-year reports. It's now, immediate and interactive.

ClassDojo is another great program which enables teachers to record feedback for students which they can see immediately, both academic and behavioural - it's a great resource for enforcing better classroom management. Students can be rewarded for good behaviour, while also being reprimanded for poor antics. Best of all, it's all recorded and all parties can see students' habits and progress over time. Some teachers even choose to blog and tweet about the work their students are doing. Apps such as Evernote enable teachers to share students' portfolios with their parents. Edmondo lets parents see the written work of their kids, including teacher feedback and homework for any particular day.

I think all of these great tools really push students to work harder since they know their parents are watching their progress, as well as their teachers. As for the parents themselves, it gives them a medium to keep in touch with the school work of their children in a more efficient and manageable way - rather than the old method of letter sending.

Finding a balance amid the risks of social media and networking

Naturally, with each social media platform comes risks. Namely, the spread of false information, gossip and plain lies. Closer interactions with parents can unfortunately lead to a forum for complaints, inappropriate and uncomfotable situations, and cyberbullying. And it's not the students that are necessarily doing it.

Vigilance, careful planning and execution is paramount. We need to have a sound strategy of how to implement each social media platform, understanding its full capabilities, potential, and knowing exactly how we want to use them. This, of course, varies with each teacher. The ultimate goal is to get students to work harder and take responsibility for their schoolwork. Not being shy to use the tools out there and getting parents more directly involved will only aid in this quest for academic betterment.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Weekend Trips in the UK #2 - Aviemore, Scotland

Scenic views in Aviemore, Scotland. Source
Peaceful trekking in the Highlands

I have always been fascinated with Scotland, particularly the Highlands. Thinking about it now, I can't recall if I became enamoured with this magical place studying UK history as a young boy or after watching Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery swinging swords in 'Highlander' for the first time all those years ago. Whatever the case, travelling to Scotland to witness the beauty of the Highlands became a dream for me early on in my life.

As teachers, we all feel the need to detox and relax after frantic days in school, especially near the end of the academic year. A trip to the Highlands is certainly one of the best ways to recharge your energy and spirits. When I got the opportunity to teach in the UK not long ago, I seized my chance almost immediately and made the long journey north, several times.

The journey itself to any location in the UK is always a joy. Whether you choose to rent a car, take a tour bus or fly, each method of transport is unique. When travelling to Scotland, however, I insist you take a train. There is just something about a peaceful, coasting train ride through the English countryside, followed by a plodding climb up the fields and hills of Scotland.

My senses were certainly stimulated that early summer weekend on the train from Paddington. It is particularly fascinating when you pass the border of England and Scotland. There was no wall of Hadrian proportions barring potential invaders - rather a modest looking fence, much like a farmer's boundary, separating the two countries.

Aviemore itself is a town and tourist resort that can be found in the Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands. The town itself is known for its ski resort - Britain's most visited during the winter months. However, what drew me to the place was the prospect of hillwalking in the Cairngorm Mountains. The railway station at Aviemore offers a particularly majestic view of the Cairngorms. There are plenty of things to see, and Aviemore - with its surrounding ancient forests, lochs and rivers - is one of the finer spots in the whole of the UK, summer or winter.

In terms of accommodation, The Cairngorm Hotel is right in the middle of town. And after a day of exploring the peaceful surroundings, there is no better way to wind down the evening than sitting with your friends by the open window and sipping on a "Sheepshaggers Gold" or "Tradewinds." The days do tend to go by quietly, but there are pubs and nightspots within the town itself if you fancy that as well.

Dell Lodge Source
For those seeking more of the "good life," there are holiday cottages in Aviemore you could only imagine in your dreams. Quaint, pretty, splendidly serene. One option is the Dell Lodge in Aviemore, a Georgian country house by an ancient Caledonian forest in the Cairngorms. It is run by a couple who organise several interesting activities and workshops, from yoga to bread-making and even playing the ukelele. They offer a weekend package for those who are interested. I think it's a spectacular idea for a relaxing weekend. Alexandra Topping, from the Guardian, wrote a great piece on this very location, detailing the experiences she had on a weekend at the Dell. Reading by the fireplace in the winters, or biking nearby in the summer, accentuated by plenty of food, drink and good cheer, the "good life" is surely a lovely prospect to consider.

For me, this part of Scotland is summed up best by Alexandra after she had just spent a few hours mountain biking through the forest: "The key is that the activities draw you into the surroundings, engage you over dinner, and stimulate mind and body...'I think people are starting to realise that checking your phone all the time doesn't make you feel great,' says Louise. 'This,' she adds, spraying through mud, 'makes you feel great.' "

Aviemore, another jewel of the United Kingdom.

Vital Links:

A 'Good Life' at the Dell Lodge in Aviemore - the Guardian article

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Canada Day 2014

Just lounging about with Johnny A. Mac on a beautiful Canada Day. Source
Happy Canada Day 2014!

It's that celebratory day on the calendar, July 1st! Hockey touting, Tim Hortons questing, Maple Leaf wearing, hanging out with all our buds, time of year again! As Canadians, we know how to have a relaxing, fun time, whether it's with our friends, family, or just fellow citizens. Taking a stroll through the online world yesterday, I was interested to see what exciting events were on hand in London for July 1st.

What struck me right away was that the Canada Day festivities at Trafalgar Square, a staple of all things Canadian in the UK - food, concerts, visiting RCMP's, etc. - for the last 8 years, was sadly cancelled. "Due to extenuating circumstances..." Which of course smelled like financial obligations not being met. Alas, whatever the case, one of the most popular 'Canadian' events of the year in London was not happening today. No home away from home.

And so like many other Canadians, as I noted on the Canada Day International facebook page, I just moved on to see what else I could find. I wasn't the only one. One Mark Sultana, from Burlington, posted that he was organising an event called 'Pop Up Canada' at a pub by Trafalgar Square - there will be a one-man act, but plenty of Canadian drinks and poutine. There are always alternatives and opportunities to make the most out of today.

Yes, the celebration this time may lack the pomp and grandeur of yesteryears, but as always, we make do with what we have. It's Canada Day, time for whatever you want it to be. Humble barbecues with your mates outside the flat, catching a dinner and a movie with some Canuck friends, going to a concert, or just wearing a Canadian shirt on this day, to remind all your students that you are from Canada - yes, that country beside America. No, you don't say "eh" in every sentence. And no, Justin Bieber did not live on your street. We are the country that rocks at the Winter Olympics, but woeful at the Summer games. Rubbish at football (saw-kah - British for soccer), but getting better at tennis. Just all around cool teachers and even cooler people.

From all of us here at Classroom Canada, I wish everyone a very Happy Canada Day!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Does Going Online Help Students Appreciate the Classics More?

Digital Dickens you say? Source
Turning students towards online access to primary texts

Ever since I can remember, I have always enjoyed reading classic literature - from Swift and Defoe to Sterne and Dumas. As my enjoyment of studying the English language became stronger in high school, so did my interest in writing. The connection between the two grew inexorably, eventually leading me to the teaching profession itself.

It's a typical English teacher's story, told by a typical English teacher.

Not every person, however, has the same interests. This is natural, encouraged and expected. Many students flock to maths, science and business; some to art and PE. We are all unique in our interests and passions. Nevertheless, I have always believed in a balance between all subjects. As a student, I made an effort to dabble in many different subjects - Geography, Social Sciences, Astronomy. I have always felt that our students need to have a certain understanding of most of the subjects we teach in school. A good, basic comprehension. You never know what knowledge or skills you will need in the future. For example, for some reason I have constantly found myself using math over the years. Did I study it in Year 13 in school or university? Absolutely not. But there it sits, needing to be used, as if to say gloatingly: "You know you need me." So I crunch the numbers, add, subtract and multiply. Another skill.

Studying literature may seem pointless to many, but I believe it has such an importance in our lives today and for the future. Many ask, "Why is it important to read a story about something that happened to a fictitious character in a setting that is 150 years old?" In itself, this is a true statement, logically makes sense. But there lies a richness in classical literature that explores so many themes, issues and topics that echo in our world today in the 21st century. It is one thing to say that, but quite another to make our students understand and grasp this themselves.

The classic approach struggles to say the least. A paperback book intimidates all those who first glimpse it. A Dickens novel looks very much daunting. Take 'Bleak House' for example. Its size is staggering, littered with such rich, descriptive writing. Still, not very appealing to your average 16 or 17 year old. We read the books aloud, ask comprehension questions, sprinkled with critical ones, and it can all be hit or miss depending on the class we are teaching, as well as the individuals. At the end of the process though, the students always feel like they are being forced to read the literature we give them. They ultimately struggle to identify with classic authors. What is the best approach then?

In a recent Guardian article by Roger Walshe, he writes about a survey which concluded that "94% of teachers reported that students rely on online sources when conducting research." It seems staggering, but completely makes sense. Why read a 150 page chunk of 'Pride and Prejudice,' one night, highlighting and taking notes - the proper way - when I can just 'sparknotes' that, finding all the answers, character analysis and plot summaries that I need. Yes, I kill the thrill of discovering the plot twists as I go, but at least I won't get zero on my homework.

It's the unfortunate truth - many students don't mind killing those precious moments of literature exploration, as long as the work is done.

One reason springs up: According to another survey by Walshe, "82% [of]...students struggle to identify with Victorian or Romantic authors..." In their opinion, the resources teachers are given are uninspiring. Walshe suggests exposing students to more authentic primary sources, such as letters, manuscripts, newspaper reports and notebooks - "student respond to the aura and authenticity of the real thing." It's one thing to imagine Dickens writing "back in the day," but an entirely different thing to see some of his old manuscripts and drafts, observing words crossed out, corrections made, realising that even a great author such as Charles D. made mistakes in his day.

But how to get a hold of these original sources that have always been in the possession of those chosen few historians and literary academics who have the privilege to handle and study them. Walshe has a solution for this as well: Discovering Literature. In his own words, it is a "digital gateway to more than 1000 of our greatest literary treasures, from the manuscript of Jane Eyre [to]...newspapers, maps, photographs and other supporting materials which bring their lives - and works - to life."

I think it's a brilliant resource. It enables students to learn about classic literature through the use of material that "brings to life the social, political and cultural world of the author." Perhaps with these original materials, we as teachers can inspire our students, and ourselves, to see classic, old literature in a new, more relevant perspective where each student can find something significant they can identify with - whether personal or social. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing classic literature to the inevitability of time and the digital landscape of our modern society.

Vital links:


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