Follow The New Spicy Learning Blog!

Hi all, I’ve loved, but have decided to make the jump to a self-hosted site. I did this mostly for the plugins and increased customizability. I hope you follow me down the digital road to If you are a subscriber/follower, you can re-subscribe/follow by clicking the button on my new blog as follows:



Thanks for providing me the privilege of readership.



The Spicy Learning Blog is now at

The Spicy Learning Blog Has Moved!

Hi all, I’ve loved, but have decided to make the jump to a self-hosted site. I did this mostly for the plugins and increased customizability. I hope you follow me down the digital road to If you are a subscriber/follower, you can re-subscribe/follow by clicking the button on my new blog as follows:



Thanks for providing me the privilege of readership.



The Spicy Learning Blog is now at

DIY… with a network

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user greeno777

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user greeno777

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks transitioning from the first home we’ve ever owned to what we imagine could be the last one we ever reside in. It’s not a dream home like the ones you see on TV, yet it’s our own little piece of royalty. The move has gone as well as anyone can expect, but I wanted to mention something spicy and educationally pertinent here. A house is almost too ripe for metaphor exploitation, so I’ll try to keep it at a minimum.

We are discovering that the previous owners of our house, a dour and fiery couple of empty nesters, were fairly infamous for their cartoonish grumpiness. Our new neighbours looked relieved to see a new, naive looking young family move in. We weren’t surprised at the former owners’ reputation as we encountered it first hand on our visits to the house before moving in (they almost beat up our home inspector). Basically, it seems you could call them a lot of things, but lacking in pride was not one of them.

The man of the house was so proud of his DIY ability. He installed the garage door opener, new hardwood flooring, and even an old school intercom system, among other things.

“See? Much better, cheaper than contractor,” he asserted with his thick European accent, his chest literally and figuratively puffed out.

Indeed, much of his handiwork was acceptable if not impressive. Except for a few things. Well, one in particular.

We discovered that Mr. I Don’t Need Nobody just happened to have an electrician’s license. And, by ‘license’, I mean the kind my daughter makes using Crayolas and paper. One hack job in particular nearly floored the legitimate electrician we brought in. ‘Fire hazard’ doesn’t cover it.

So it got me thinking about myself and other educators I know. Although I would classify myself as a fool when it comes to home DIY, I simultaneously define my educator self as DIY to the max.

When I first entered the profession, I was constantly befuddled by some colleagues who asserted to me things like: I can’t do x because ‘they’ didn’t provide me with the y; or it’s not possible to do blank because of this, that, and the other.

Why not? I would and still always wonder. There’s always a way to get the resources, tools, or permission needed to do great things in our schools. If no one’s going to help or provide the necessary ingredients, then I’ll just do it myself! Someone’s gotta blaze that trail, right?

In actuality, I believe the majority of teachers and administrators are of this mindset, and it’s a bloody good thing indeed. Most of our schools and classrooms accomplish extraordinary things (often off the radar) solely because of innovative DIY dispositions.

Nevertheless, when I saw that clump of wires in the basement ceiling of our new home, I had a stark reminder that there is a point where a Do It Yourself mentality jumps the shark. At some point, you cross over the line which separates problem solving to prideful arrogance. You can’t always do it yourself, and if you do, you’re going to end up clumping a bunch of electrical circuits together in a manner which is terrifying, if not fire starting (and I don’t mean the good flame).

Some time ago I asked the question of whether tweeting and blogging was for everyone, and I still believe that we need to think critically and contextually about evangelizing ed spaces like Twitter. Still, seeing some of the handy work by Mr. Just Me And My Toolbox On A Deserted Island, I’m ever more firm in my feeling that I can’t do this teaching thing without my face-to-face and avatar-to-avatar crew of education ninjas.

Keep Doing It Yourself… with a network of Do It Yourselfers.

Why I Code: A Student’s Perspective

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user steve caddy

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user steve caddy

Since coding is the new black, and we’ve already read some great critiques about the fervour, I wanted to get a student coder’s perspective. Below is another guest post from Amir (see here for his intriguing reflections on visiting his home country of Iran). He is an amazing students in my class who has been coding as a hobby for years. Again, with permission from his parents, here’s what he has to say.

Coding. It’s a new language that opens many windows. Coding is the ability to manipulate electronic and invisible things to do what you want them to do. It is the equivalent to communication with a friend. Well, it’s a little bit different, but it’s more or less the same thing.

I code to relax, really. It frustrates me when I’m stuck upon an error, but the rush of relief and pride I feel when I am able to pass by that problem, and go forward, is why I enjoy programming so much.

The first time I became really familiar with programming is when I made my first Windows binary text line. Is was extremely simple, yet I could not hide my excitement. When the command line said “Hello Amir,” I was amazed that for once I was the person on the other side, making the computer do what I want. I quickly became attracted to coding. When programming, there are many different languages, each with a different purpose and job than the other. I became relaxed with the language C#, and settled myself to expand upon this programming language. This was not a quick process.

During the length of summer, I had dedicated myself to spend as much time as I could reading about C# and experimenting with it. As soon as I felt prepared, I started coding. Instead of quickly hopping to programs with a graphical interface, I did my first few C# coding experiments in binary. The real first major thing I accomplished was when I created a calculator. You could put in any number, and any basic operation, and you would receive a rounded result. I continued onto this by making a math game, where there would be a randomly generated math equation from the few equations I had previously put in. If you succeed in your answer, the program would congratulate you, if not it would tell you you had failed.

The first time I decided to make a program with a graphical interface was when I created my very basic web browser. If I can tell you anything about coding, it is that once you start you can’t stop. I kept expanding my original browser, adding more capabilities such as tabs, a basic history system, and so on. It was an amazing experience. Now I won’t bore you on this topic, but I’ve went on to work on some more complex things such as a password box, graphical calculator, and many smaller yet important coding jobs.

Now this might be just me, but I think everyone should definitely learn some basic knowledge on programming. I mean, I’m no professional either, but if it is ever needed, I have the experience to read code, or create a program to do a certain job.

I think learning to code is one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I believe it will help me greatly in the future. It has greatly effected me as a learner. It taught me how to persevere with a problem until you solve it. Thank you for listening.

- Amir

The Impact of Culture on Feedback

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user thaths

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user thaths

There are few things as important as establishing and nurturing a culture of feedback in our schools. I don’t know about you, but I would say it’s also the most challenging thing I attempt as a classroom teacher. This is not necessarily because embedded feedback is difficult in and of itself. Rather, the struggle often lies in the barriers we either have constructed or are inevitable in this thing we call schooling. Still, were it easy, it likely wouldn’t be so important to accomplish. Today I want to touch upon one problematic aspect of feedback for which there may be no solution, but perhaps constant vigilance.

Feedback is culturally specific. This is partly because the ways in which we use verbal and non-verbal language varies, in some cases drastically. In our multicultural, mixed socioeconomic classrooms, providing feedback in a differentiated, equitable manner becomes something akin to a mutant superpower. The language and dispositions we approach the assessment process with, and employ to give feedback, unsurprisingly descends from our own culture and schema. Let me give you a personal example.

As part of a mixed ethnic/cultural/socioeconomic marriage, my wife and I learned very early on in our marriage about the sometimes hilarious dichotomies in meaning that exist in our respective families.

In her house, it took me a long time to pick up on the subtle, implicit ways people communicated. Requests were often framed as questions, and feedback was usually given indirectly.

In my house, my wife wondered why every conversation sounded like a case of domestic violence. She found communication under our roof to be alarmingly blunt and even callous.

“Ohmigod, are you guys fighting?”

“Huh? No. We were just talking about where the cheapest rice to buy is.”

Lisa Delpit wrote about this kind of phenomena in her seminal work, The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. In describing the experience of many African-American students in schools staffed with predominantly white teachers, she noted how the former often had difficulty comprehending instructions and feedback provided by the latter because it was laden with culturally specific, indirect language, often framed in the form of the question. Chia Suan Chong, a fantastic educator and blogger on english language teaching, describes a similar scenario seen in German and American business dealings, something she describes in a great post as a misinterpreted illocutionary force:

When examining the language used in meetings between the Germans and the Americans, she found that whenever the Americans proposed something, the Germans would say, ‘Yes, but the problem is…’

After hearing the Germans list out the problems with their proposals, the American perceived the illocutionary force to be, ‘We don’t like your proposal. Give us another option.’

So the Americans went on to suggest different things. But each time, they were met with the same ‘Yes, but the problem is…’ by the Germans.

Exasperated, the Americans gave up and felt that the meeting was a failure.

Meanwhile, the Germans were confounded by the Americans’ fickle behaviour. They couldn’t understand why the Americans would move on to a different proposition just when they were about the sink their teeth into a good one. To the Germans, the illocutionary force behind ‘Yes, but the problem is…’ was one that meant ‘This sounds good. Let’s explore it thoroughly and examine it from all sides.’

All of these factors really hit home for me this year when I had a fantastic conversation with a parent of a student. He told me that he thought his child was having difficulty in my class because he didn’t know exactly what he should be doing to improve his achievement. As a point of comparison, he continued to say that his child flourished in environments like his competitive swimming class, where feedback was very direct and didactic. After responding to him with what likely sounded like a bunch of eduspeak, I realized that he was right. The type of feedback I was giving and attempting to create the conditions for was not (always) suited to this student’s learning. It was likely too indirect and wrapped up in passive language. He had no idea what he needed to do to improve.

Whether it’s oral, written, modelled, or woven inextricably into the learning and conversations that happen in the room, feedback continues to be an imperfect endeavour. This might be because we cannot look at this aspect of learning and assessment in a vacuum. If our schools are hegemonic, then surely even our best practices can bespeak it.

Have you experienced the impact of culture and language on feedback in your learning environment?


Pretending to sleep

Lucy pretending to sleep

A quick post about juicy, chubby cheeks that stomp around the house all haughty.

Toddlers are funny. Lucy’s been our third one now, and you could say we notice a pattern in behaviour. The smugness, the desire to be pantless, the hilariously melodic turn of phrase. They are priceless alright.

I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if toddlers think they are actually running the world. Delusions of grandeur. They have no doubt on anything. They are passionate about everything. Lucy exhausts and delights us in equal measures. Just for fun I call her Kim Jong Il. Since she’ll be our last, I’m really savouring how unique and special it is to have a toddler.

Perhaps the most amusing thing about them is the way they are so emotional. Their outrage is as adorable as their gregariousness is irresistible. Our middle boy Jackson was quite chilled out as a tike, but the two girls have been assertive.

One of my favourite things about them is the way they play with words, as though they are notes on a xylophone. You say it like this? Well, I say it like that!

¡Viva el espíritu del niño! It rests in all of us.

What Can We Learn From the Bike Helmet Paradox?

In my neighbourhood I'm affectionately known as crazy because my family and I ride our bikes everywhere - so crazy that I get into the local paper just for riding to work:)

This photo of me appeared in our municipal newspaper. In my neighbourhood I’m affectionately known as crazy because my family and I ride our bikes everywhere – so insane that I get into the local paper just for riding to work:)

A few questions to begin.

You would agree that people, especially children, should wear helmets when riding a bike, yes? Why am I even asking? If your eyes are on this blog, you’re likely an educator, parent, or both; it’s kind of our thing to be in favour of this stuff. Now be honest: do you hate the way bike helmets mess up your hair? What about the way they look and feel? Could be designed better, you say? Well, guess what, researchers have discovered something counter intuitive but logical.

In most Western nations, bike helmets are mandated by law. Statistically, we have seen an overall decrease in bike-related head injuries that can directly be correlated to these trends. This data should support the rationale behind bike helmet legislation. Except for the fact that there are other correlations:

  • Many people admit they dislike biking because wearing a helmet is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unattractive.
  • The type of injuries bike helmets are designed to prevent rarely occur.
  • The fervour with which bike helmets have been mandated is not matched in any way with similar infrastructure (safer lanes, reduced speeds in urban areas etc.) that makes cycling significantly safer than helmets do.
  • People ride their bikes (an incredibly healthy activity) far less than ever.

What does this mean, and what analogies can we make to other initiatives in education?

Flip This: Film Yourself Teaching to Deconstruct Your Instruction

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user JonathanCohen

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user JonathanCohen

I Googled the following for fun.

01 flipped 04 literacy 03 math 02 inquiry

The flipped classroom can be interesting, cool, and useful. But transformative? A high yield instructional tool, tactic, or strategy? Come on.

What if we turned that video camera on ourselves for a different reason? How about, on occasion, we video ourselves teaching and our students learning so we can focus not on the content of what is being explained, but to deconstruct our own teaching?

One of the most important moments I ever experienced as a classroom teacher was the first time I really saw myself teaching a full lesson in front of a class. It was around five years ago. I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate in a series of workshops Barrie Bennett was running for school administrators on how best to give feedback during/after walkthroughs.

I still have the video, but cannot post it here because: a) there are students in the video whose parental and personal consent I do not have to do so; and b) it horrifies me to the core. The voice, the hair, the constant pacing, that weird thing I do with my hands! Ghastly would be the word.

A few days after the filmographer completed her afternoon in my class, Barrie Bennett did something to me which blew my mind. In front of an audience of a couple of dozen principals, we collectively watched the video as he gave me amazingly helpful feedback on everything I was doing during the lesson. It was like a colour commentator breaking down the 3rd down play on ESPN. Really, it blew my mind. If there was a photo or video of me during that moment, it probably would have looked like this. You know how all of us who are kinda OK at this teaching thing can cite a few seminal moments or people that influenced us or transformed our thinking and practice? That day is in my top 5.

Since that day, I have always found it almost too easy to step out of my own shoes and watch myself teach as though I were a fly on the wall. It taught me that one of the most important things about being a transparent, growth-oriented educator is to be not only figuratively, but literally reflective to one person in particular.


Have you ever filmed yourself teaching, or contemplating doing so? If yes, tell me about your experience. If no, what’s stopping you?

What’s so special about extra-curricular activities?


remixed from the original CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user US Mission Canada

If you’re a reader who is unfamiliar with the current labour strife between public school teachers and the Ontario provincial government, click here for a great breakdown from People for Education.

I appeared alongside Zoe Branigan-Pipe, Stephen Hurley, Earl Manners, Misha Abarbanel, and George Thomas on TVO’s The Agenda last night to talk about “The Role of the Teacher” (aka Are Teachers Gonna Start Extra Curriculars in Ontario Again Or What?). It was an honour to be a part of and I enjoyed myself. But there’s one thing I wish we had discussed in greater depth.

Why has the loss of extra-curricular activities left this supposed chasm in our schools? Why do so many students, educators, parents, and other stakeholders see the loss of ECs as a reason to cry foul with deep, passionate tones?

Correct me if I am wrong, but ECs seem to be beloved for the following reasons:

  • Students and teachers can pursue personal passions.
  • They tend to be growth-oriented.
  • They are often project-based.
  • Collaboration is valued highly.
  • Losses and failure are celebrated as learning opportunities.
  • There are often concrete goals to pursue.
  • They tend to include mixed age/grade groups.
  • There is much more movement, less sedentary work.
  • Paper-pen tasks are rarely seen.
  • There is very little rote memorization.
  • The process is seen as more important than the destination.
  • There are no standardized, high stakes evaluations.
  • No one gets graded.
  • Assessment is feedback and improvement based.
  • The development of mastery is understood to be a long process.
  • Students and teachers have autonomy for the direction of the activity.

So is this a conversation about our beloved ECs or a discussion about what’s missing from learning in curriculum proper?

3 Things Parents are Missing About Cell Phones #parenting

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user mtsofan

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user mtsofan

A sound you’ve been hearing for months, perhaps years now? One of them is the noise of hand wringing that all of us moms and dads are engaged in about what seems like the parenting question of the day:

When should I get my child a cell phone?

I dare you to find a parenting magazine or blog that doesn’t have a writer or editor assigned to this topic on an almost indefinite basis (see here and there for some recent ones). Morever, it’s hard to argue with the heat the issue generates, since cell phones are incredibly expensive and afford a child with the capability to do things you may have been put into a straight jacket for even suggesting just twenty years ago.

I start to have a problem, however, with all of the articles, blogposts, and pronouncements parenting ‘experts’ and your next door neighbour are offering when the message is laced with arrogance: I believe this, and I do that, so it means I’m a better parent than you. It really reminds me of the lead up to our family’s first-born.

As idealistic, alternative-minded, young parents, my wife and I succumbed easily to the philosophy of a ‘natural’ birth. This would have been fine were it not for the fact that we consumed pamphlets, books, and advice from our mid-wife more as proverbial kool-aid than objective information. We were actually duped into believing that having a natural birth made us, well, better people.

Alas, this is what parenting entails, especially when you are privileged enough to have a whole host of #FirstWorldProblems as my family does. So, since I can’t beat ‘em, I may as well join ‘em.

This post is partly out of hoping to fulfill a demand. As a parent and teacher whose family and professional lives are more intertwined than most (I teach in a school community in which I live; my own kids attend my school), and being a person (like it or not) whose image is inextricable from that of shiny gadgets (“Mr. Lee, did you invent the iPhone?”), I get asked the cell phone question a lot. It follows me like an echo through a corridor. I usually greet this question with a small dose of irritation, and a large dose of squirminess, and most of my responses begin with, “It depends…” I’m not here to tell you my answer; I don’t have one. I have, however, noticed that there are three things most parents consistently fail to consider.

1. It’s not a phone; it’s an internet-enabled mini-computer.

This past year, I tried purchasing a non-smart phone for my mother who was tired of the iPhone she was carrying around because it could simply do too much. Finding one was a herculean task. We call these mini supercomputers ‘cell phones’ much in the same way we call Count Chocula ‘breakfast’. It is a misnomer. But language is a powerful thing (see point 3 in particular).

2. The cost doesn’t end after the purchase of the hardware.

Most parents are still living in a time when getting your kid that desired item on the Christmas list is something you buy, wrap up, and present to the child: my work here is done. I’m not trying to say parents don’t understand that voice and data plans cost money, but many fail to even remind their children: “I didn’t just buy you a $500 toy for your birthday. I bought you, like, a $5000 toy.” I feel like many are missing out on a fantastic financial literacy moment here.

What’s more, especially as a teacher who invites students to bring their own devices to class, the number of times I see kids with shiny gadgets but no funds to purchase apps, music, etc. is a sight I’ve grown accustomed to. In this situation, why wouldn’t you jailbreak or find illegal means of accessing content? Don’t blame children for being the supposed generation that doesn’t want to pay for stuff. This is almost 100% an adult issue.

3. Most of what can be done on a smart phone can be done on an iPod Touch.

I feel like this is one of the perfect examples of how fast technology is moving in our time. I meet many parents who demonize the capabilities of cell phones for children, while failing to notice that they bought their kid an iPod Touch or similar device years ago. I couldn’t believe my eyes recently when I listened to a parent haughtily declare how she would “never let my child have a cell phone like so-and-so” while simultaneously seeing her boy thumb away on a 4th generation iPod Touch. For crying out loud, many adults don’t even have a smartphone that powerful! You can forgive anyone for missing this exponential development in mobile technology, but you can’t give them a pass if they’re simultaneously pompous about it.

What are your thoughts on the cell phone question?