The Magic of a Memoir: a stations approach

Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.

~William Zinsser

These activities were designed for Ms. Pederson’s Writing 12 class, and we decided to arrange the activities as 5 stations. Her class came to the Learning Commons for a week to complete all of the activities, our goal was to better prepare them for an upcoming assignment where they would be asked to write their own short memoir. Classroom discussions around the difference between autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs, took place before we started these activities.

First, we started by explaining the first three activities, and then the students had the first two classes to work through the stations in any order.

The first three activities were:

Station 1: Writing Territories: learning more about me

Station 2: Pg 1 The Smell and Sound of Words – article written by Alexandra Fuller, and Pg 2 deconstruct and writing activity

Station 3: My World in Black and White: a photo memoir

Debrief stations 1-3:

After everyone had a chance to finish, we discussed what new things we learned about ourselves, and what things were the hardest to write about. A few students read out their writing activity from station 2, and some of the students shared their photo memoirs (those who were comfortable sharing).

Next, we introduced activities four and five. Again, the students could work through these two stations in any order.

Station 4: Mystery Memoirs

Station 5: The way I see it… 

Debrief stations 4-5:

After everyone had a chance to finish, we debriefed the results of the mystery memoir activity. We revealed the books hidden in the brown bags, I book talked a few of the titles and read a short senopsous of other titles. Some of the students also shared their photo memoirs (those students who were comfortable sharing). Some of the memoirs we used for our activities are on this list, but there are many great memoirs to choose from. The only activity that we would revamp next-time would be the Smell and Sound of Words; it was far too easy for the students so we would find a more sophisticated passage. Overall, the students had fun with the activities, and some discovered memoirs they wanted to read. How do you teach students to embrace the Memoir? I would love to hear your ideas!

 “Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.”

~Thomas M. Cirignano

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Vlogging a great book!

It has been a while since my last post, primarily because of moving to a new school. It takes time getting to know a new staff and build relationships. But change can be fun and invigorating. So, now I’m enjoying teaching, learning, and sharing with a terrific group of teachers from Elgin Park Secondary. This project was done in collaboration with Ms. Rosemary Rollins – an amazing English teacher at Elgin Park.

Class #1

In her classroom, Rosemary introduced her students to some children’s classics (titles from the Vancouver Sun Classic Children’s Book Collection). She then brought her class into the Learning Commons and we discussed the benefits of reading a classic. The students had made a list of 3 titles they would be interested in reading, they then had time to look through the titles and choose one for their novel study. The students had three weeks to finish reading their book.IMG_4597


A few weeks later, the students returned to the Learning Commons and we had a lesson on Vlogging – what it is, and why it’s become popular. We also looked at examples of some YA Teen Vloggers who have a large following on Youtube and Instagram – they LOVED this!

Next, I introduced them to a free app I installed on our iPads called Knovio. It’s a great tool for uploading images and recording a students voice and  face. It also has a feature where you can type notes so the presenter can have cue cards in view when recording. If a student is uncomfortable recording their face, then he/she can shut off the camera and record voice only to accompany their slides. We spent a few minutes and reviewed some recording tips to help make a more polished presentation, and I showed them how to use an app called Skitch (which allows you to write text on any images, or add an arrow to highlight an area of an image). After our lesson, the students completed a handout as review and started working on their storyboard sketch.IMG_4775


A few days later we invited Ms. Miller’s grade 7 class to join us from Chantrell Creek Elementary. I gave the grade 7’s a short introduction to Vlogging before the 9’s came down, and then I gave them a worksheet they would work through with our grade 9’s.  After the grade 7’s completed their interview, the pairs worked together looking for images to add to the presentation. The grade 9’s had been asked to focus on one particular narrative element for their vlog – so images needed to reflect their focus. IMG_4781


For the 4th class, our grade 9’s came to work in the Learning Commons alone. They worked on completing their final recordings, and then emailed a link to their teacher, teacher-librarian, and grade 7 buddy. Their Vlogs will be evaluated using this rubric and some vlogs will be shared with the class. Vlog Shot

This project was fun and not a big headache in terms of technology. We used Knovio, Skitch (by those who wanted to add effects), and a Gmail app that I installed on our iPads. The Gmail app made it easy for students to sign into their Gmail and copy/paste a project link for sharing. We warned all of the students in advance to have a Gmail.

The students enjoyed working with the Knovio app, and they really enjoyed learning about vlogging and watching the YouTube clips of teen vloggers. Most had never heard of vlogging, and most had never read any of these children’s classics. I think we forget, that even with all the Disney adaptions, these stories are often new for many students – especially our ELL students.

So, how do you promote the classics in your schools? I would love to hear about it.  A classic never goes out of style! :-)

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Selfies: contemporary self-portraits #me

So ask yourself, “Does your online identity paint a complete portrait of who you are?”

The “selfie” has become such a global phenomena that it has universally connected us through the language of self-expression : #selfie, #me, #closeup, #myselfandi. Just spend some time on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, or Twitter, and you will quickly find a world of people willing to share a piece of themselves through their smart phones. There is a sense of control when we take a selfie, you can control how you will look in a picture before it is put out there for the world to see. However, the reality is, we can never control how people really see us.



This was an incredible project designed by Gary Smith, one of our art teachers at Johnston Heights. Gary was assisted by the very talented Donna Sheh, who is working with Vancouver Biennale BIG IDEAS. The project started when Gary brought his Gr 9 art class to the Learning Commons. I loaded the photo-bucket app onto our iPads, and then assisted students with editing and uploading their photos to a Dropbox file we made for their class. The rest of the project was completed in the Art room over the next few weeks, and the student had some interesting class discussions around the questions on their reflection sheets. The following pictures show how it came together for a final gallery display at the Bell Centre – Vancouver Biennale BIG IDEAS Education Program partnership  with @Surrey_Schools on Wednesday, May 21 (7 – 8:30 PM).

The entire project from photos, to forms, to covers, to installation – was a big undertaking, but well worth it. Our students were excited to see their work come together in one large exhibit of contemporary sculpture. It is a dynamic visual representation of our youths’ culture and their involvement with social media. Such AWESOME work, Mr. Smith, and all the students in your class – you ROCK!! For more information go to:

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To eRead or not to eRead, that is the question?

This year our PAC bought us 7 Kobo Arcs for the Learning Commons. These beautiful colour tablets were purchased the weekend of Black Friday for $99 – not bad! The leather covers were ordered online from Amazon for $8 each, and the plastic pouches were ordered from a dollar store for under $5 each.  With the Follett and Overdrive apps installed, the students can easily download books from our database or from the Surrey Public Library. An app lock was also installed so student would not download other unwanted apps onto the device, and a permission form must be signed and on file before a loan takes place.  Now our students now have the opportunity to try an eReader and many of them are excited, yet others have the preconceived notion that they won’t like using one.

There are many arguments around the pros and cons of using eReaders, but the bottom line is this: give the students the opportunity to try one and let them make up their own mind! It’s all about choice; it’s all about personal preference.

Love them or hate them an eReader can offer us:

  • Selection – ereaders provide a library on the go with a great selection of e-books, and some have special features like built in dictionaries to decipher hard words
  • Convenience – they are extremely portable and lightweight – easy to carry, hold, or pack
  • Affordability – e-books are cost effective and it’s often cheaper to purchase ePubs than hard copies, and access to free e-book downloads are available from school libraries, public libraries, and apps

As a teacher, I love having more copies of the Classics available when the senior students are doing their big unit. As a traveler, I will never travel with a hard copy again. With that said, I do like to hold a real book in my hand while sitting at home on a lazy afternoon. So how do you feel about eReaders? Do you Love them, hate them, or are you on the fence? I’d love to hear!

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For the health of it: collaborating with our feeder school

“Hold your head up high and be proud! Remember we can smell fear, and there is nothing to fear because everyone is friendly at JH! I envy your youth because you are just going to be starting high school – it’s an exciting time for you! It’s the end for me, and I will miss it.” ~ Idris, JHSS Student


Those were some parting words of wisdom from a senior student for our visiting gr 7 class. It was such fun to spend time with the students from Berkshire Park Elementary. Plus, collaborating with the teacher-librarian (Kirstin Lintott @mrsbookblabber), and the grade 7 teacher (Janet Bates), was a pleasure for both our Superfit teacher, Tracey Riddoch and me.  We had the students work on parallel assignments, our hope was that the grade 12 Superfit class could help the gr 7s meet some learning outcomes for their Healthy Living assignment. But what really came out of this collaboration much more valuable than any lesson we could have dreamed up!

For the actual lesson, our grade 12s started by sharing some things they wish they had known about health & fitness when they were in gr 7. They emphasized going to bed at a decent time and getting sleep, “sleep is important and I never got enough when I was your age”, I heard a few of them say. They talked about packing a good lunch, and how much better they would feel eating healthy. They also told them not to waste money on non-nutritious fast food (our school is surrounded by fast food chains which can be a big temptation at lunch break). The gr 12s showed them how to use apps like MyFitnessPal – it houses a large food database for calorie counting, provides nutritional information on the foods consumed, and allows students to document their daily progress. The grade 12s also shared websites like  – great for a variety of health and fitness information like nutritional facts, recipes, and workouts to help make a healthy living plan. The grade 12s concluded the visit by taking each group on a short tour of our school. They made sure to focus on the gym, weight room, and our foods wing (where they will learn more about nutritious eating habits).

But the real value in this collaboration was in a message we had not predicted; that our school was going to be a fun/safe place to attend in September, and nope… they didn’t need to worry! On their way out the door I heard students say “that was fun”, and  “I’m not afraid to come to anymore”. Spending time with those “really big” kids showed the gr 7s that senior students may be big, but they are just kids: funny, silly, friendly, nice, and helpful kids.

Below you will find the grade 7 assignment as well as the Superfit pre-assignment and parallel assignment. We will probably do this again next-year with some changes/improvements, but overall it was a great experience for young and “old”. So… how do you collaborate with your feeder schools? I’d love to hear about it!

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Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 7.27.50 PMScreen Shot 2014-01-14 at 6.53.13 PM

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Student Video Tutorials to Go!

Technology isn’t easy for everyone, and learning to use new web tools or apps can be difficult if you’re left to struggle on your own. I remember how confused I was back in 2011 when someone tried explaining Google docs to me – just show me and I’ll get it, I thought to myself.  I know I am a visual learner, and I read somewhere that approximately 65 percent of our student population is made up of visual learners. As a teacher, I know that one good visual aid can dramatically increase a student’s learning. That old saying,  “a pictures is worth a thousand words” means everything to we visual types!

So when I started having my Library Science students make video tutorials, it was as much for me as it was for them. All my students learned something new, and we had the short clips to introduce new web tools to  classes in the Learning Commons.

Advantages of student video tutorials include:

  • Peer teaching engages students.
  • Our students are mastering 21-century skills.
  • The Library Science students learn a concept better by having to explain it in a tutorial, and this makes them great teaching assistants when classes come in!
  • Teachers can use our tutorials in their rooms, or they can add them to their websites for students to access from home.
  • Teachers can preview the tutorials before they work with their students.

So… here are a few video tutorials my students have made. Some are better than others, but we learned something from each one. Slowly we are building our own JHSS Video Tutorial Database, and that’s proving to be a very useful resource. Yup, another work in progress – I feel like I say that a lot lately :-D

Click on this image and it will take you to a page on my blog of video tutorials:Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 6.31.19 PM                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      You can also find us on YouTube: Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 6.46.21 PM

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Does Fiction Matter?

During the past week I have been focusing on fiction, and promoting Canadian Library month and Drop Everything and Read on National School Library Day, October 28th.

The big question...

The big question…

I invited the English 8 classes into the Learning Commons and we attempted to answer the question: Does Fiction matter?
We started with a brief discussion on the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Then we reminded them about using descriptive language in their writing, and the 5 “Ws” they should think about when writing a short story (this had been previously discussed in class).

Story Prompts

Story Prompts

I then held up an example of a story prompt (from a series of wordless photos), and together we brainstormed ideas for good opening sentences.

Their classroom teacher divided the students into groups of three, and we began the Flash Fiction Writing Carousel. I had 9 stations set up that included one colour photo, one numbered station card, one pencil, and a piece of lined paper with 2 paper clips on top.


The first sentence of the story was the hardest, and it took the most thought and group discussion. The students were instructed not to turn the paper down to hide their first sentence, but to wait and hide the top sentence when they finished their 2nd story (so one line is only visible). We also told them to leave a space between every sentence to make the folding of the paper easier. When the groups completed all 9 stations we read some of the stories out loud (some we saved to be read out later in their classroom by their teacher).

Answering the question

Answering the question

Working together!

Working together!

Building the story

Building the story

Next, the same groups were given a sheet of paper and asked to answer this question: Does Fiction Matter?

It seemed easy for the students to write down one or two ideas, but then they really had to start thinking a little more. After 15 min we shared some of our results, and it was fun to see how passionate some student became about the need for Fiction.

I finished our sessions with a Book Talk on the 8 nominated titles for Surrey Teens Read and other new arrivals in the Learning Commons. The students had a quick book exchange, and they were all very excited to get their hands on some of the books I introduced to them.

Group brainstorm

Group brainstorm

Book Talk

Book Talk

So… by the end of the two classes did the students answer the question?

The students said that fiction is interesting because it tells a story and it entertains us. Fiction takes us to places, and it makes us feel something – that could be terror, joy, or sadness, but it transports us into someone else’s world, and they thought that was exciting. They told me reading would be boring without fiction, and they even came up with another question. Without fiction, where would all the great movies come from? Yup, stories are a powerful thing, and who doesn’t love a good story?

 “Without a doubt the two best words in the English language are The End”        Ken Scott

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