Future Minds Part III: Top 9 stats & facts about Digital Natives

ibrain technological alteration of student's mindsAfter reading iBrain: surviving the technological evolution of the modern mind, I was struck by facts and ideas that made me see  my students differently.

These facts challenged me, but they did not discourage me. I do not have a  gloomy vision of my Digital Native students’ future. It is not a depressing vision. It is not a dark vision of education gone wrong.

It is just a very different vision.

Brain evolution demands changes in the way we teach. Here’s what teachers should know about their Digital Native students:

1. They’re reading less– “studies show that fewer young adults read books for pleasure now than in any generation before them. Since 1982, literary reading has declined by  28 % in 18-34 year olds.” (Small & Vorgan, p. 3)

2. They must learn to use their brains efficientlyIn an earlier post about brain evolution, we looked at how this generation multi-tasks constantly. It’s a negative habit, because “Switching back and forth [between two tasks], like answering email while writing a memo, may decrease brain efficiency by as much as 50%, compared with completing one task before starting another one.” (ibid., p. 68)

3. They really like video games– “Digital Natives constitute the major market for video gaming: more than 90% of all children and adolescents in the United States play these games” (ibid., p. 36)

4. 20% are Internet addicted– “An estimated 20 % of this generation meets the clinical criteria for pathological Internet use– they are online so much it interferes negatively  with almost every aspect of their lives.” (ibid., p. 30)

5. There are gender differences in Internet usage– Females tend to use the Internet for social purposes– to stay in touch. Males feel more comfortable in virtual gaming social networks: “80% of online virtual gamers are young men– and not just teenagers; the average age is 28.” (ibid., p. 57)

6. They are raised partly by TV– The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents “limit their child’s television watching, [and recommend] zero television for children less than two years of age.”TV watching at such a young age can lead to permanently impaired attention abilities. (ibid., p. 67)

The problem is that 20% of children under the age of 5 have a TV in their bedrooms, and 30% of kids ages 3-6 have TVs in theirs. (ibid., p. 67)

7. They need family– “In a 2006 survey of nearly 100,000 teenagers across 25 states,  a higher frequency of dinners was associated with more positive values and a greater commitment to learning. Adolescents from homes having fewer family dinners were more likely to eixhibit high-risk behaviors, including substance abuse, sexual activity, suicide attempts, violence, and academic problems.” (ibid., p. 93)

8. They’re bored in traditional classrooms– “Many students acknowledge that classroom learning and the customary lecture/note-taking system seems boring to them.” (ibid., p. 26)

9. They may benefit from educational games– “we do know that a limited amount of video gaming may enrich some forms of cognitive performance.” Scientists and video game designers are at work to create games that attract Digital Natives and strengthen their minds. (ibid., p. 40)

Did any of these findings surprise you?

This is Part III of a series of posts based on the research of Gary Small, MD & Gigi Vorgan published in their book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

 If you’d like to read more about this and other social trends affecting education, sign up to follow this blog at the top of the home page.

Future Minds Part II: The good and the bad of our evolving brains

Last post, we talked about the ever-evolving human mind. We found the evolution is so pronounced it has created two different types of brains—Digital Immigrant and Digital Native—each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Today we’ll analyze the emerging iBrain of the Digital Natives for the good and the bad.

Brain evolution: THE GOOD

human brain evolution
These regions of the brain are being strengthened by technology.

Due to constant digital stimulation from ipads, TVs, websites etc., the minds of Digital Natives have been formed certain strengths:

1)      Multi-tasking:

“One third of young people use other media—particularly the Internet—while watching television.” (p. 25) “Their young developing brains,” explain Small & Vorgan, “are much more sensitive to environmental input.” 32

What it means: Digital Natives can do a lot of things at once, and they like it that way. But the downside is they are not completing these tasks efficiently—they are just doing them.

2)      Information-seeking:

Constant email and Internet searching sessions have developed their ability to “sift through large amounts of information rapidly.” (p. 39)

What it means: Digital Natives can find information faster.

3)      Seeing and visualizing:

Video-gaming and other media are just quickly changing pictures. As the Digital Native brains follow these pictures, the visual cortex is strengthened. (p. 39)

What it means: Digital Natives grasp the meanings of pictures quicker. They notice visual changes and react faster.

Brain evolution: THE BAD

The brains of Digital Natives have certain weaknesses:

human brain evolution weakened regions
These regions of the brain are weakened by excessive digital stimulation.

1)       Decreased attention span:  

“Digtial Natives,” say Small and Vorgan, “have shorter attention spans.” (p. 25) According to them, “When a child’s brain is exposed to excessive levels of television, computer, video, and other digital stimulation, it can lead to hyperactivity, irritability, and attention deficit disorders (ADD).” (p. 27) Their multi-tasking strength is therefore a great weakness, for “studies show too much multitasking can only lead to increased stress and attention deficits.” (p. 32)

Consider the evidence: Drs. Philp Chan and Terry Rabinowitz of Brown University studied the amount of time ninth- and tenth- graders spent browsing the Internet, watching television, and playing video games. The found that those who played Internet or console games for more than one hour a day had greater symptoms of ADHD and inattention than those who didn’t. (p. 66)

What it means: Digital Natives have difficulty concentrating on one thing. They start one project then mentally switch to another. They struggle to get things done, or to finish them well.

2)       Weakened social skills:

As Digital Natives tangle themselves in the wires of their digital gadgets; they strangle their social side, for “Without enough face-to-face interpersonal stimulation, a child’s neural circuits can atrophy, and the brain may not develop normal interactive social skills. “(p. 27) [emphasis mine]

Digital Natives after extended digital immersion, especially in the Internet, “display poor eye contact and reluctance to interact socially.” (p. 73). They find it more difficult to read facial expressions and pick up on subtle social cues. “With the digital age evolving our brains, some experts argue that our society in general is becoming more autistic in the sense that people are spending less time interacting directly with others and more solitary time in front of their computers.” (p. 73) Some experts even claim extended TV watching can induce autism in young children.

What it means: Digital Natives have a harder time talking with people and picking up on social cues.  Increasingly, they are more comfortable interacting with gadgets.

3)      Less thinking & planning ability:

The chronic and intense multi-tasking habits of Digital Natives, resulting from their immersion in digital media,  may prevent the adequate development of the frontal cortex, the part of the brain concerned with seeing the big picture, delaying gratification, reasoning abstractly, and planning ahead. (p. 32)

Consider the evidence: Professor Akio Mori of Tokyo’s Nihon University found evidence that video games suppress frontal lobe activity.  His research group found adolescent test subjects who spent more time playing video games used less of the frontal region of their brains. Indeed, “chronic players—those who play two to seven hours each day—sometimes develop video game-brain, a syndrome that essentially turns off the frontal lobes, even when kids are not playing video games. “ (p. 36) [emphasis mine]

What it means: “Are we rearing a new generation with underdeveloped frontal lobes—a group unable to learn, remember, feel, or control their impulses?” (p. 39)

internet addiction dopamine tracks
Internet addictions activate the dopamine tracks and subverts the anterior cingulate– the part responsible for decision-making and judgment. [iBrain, p. 49]
4)      Addictions:

Digital Natives are at risk for developing addictions to gadgets. Constant digital stimulation “has caused young brains to evolve in such a way that each technological invention has an almost irresistible draw.” (p. 39).

Furthermore, video games and other digital entertainment “are often emotionally and intellectually seductive.” They can “ easily become addictive, driving the brain’s dopamine circuitry so that the player craves more and more play.” (p. 38)

Yes, Internet or video game addiction is no different from shopping or gambling obsessions. “Internet addicts report feeling a pleasurable mood boost or ‘rush’ from simply booting up their computer,” say Small &Vorgan.

Consider the evidence: More than 18% of college students are pathological Internet users, and 58% report that their involvement with the Internet has disrupted their studying, lowered their attendance and GPA. (p. 51)

What it means: Digital Natives crave the latest gadget; their brains are hard-wired to. They can be at risk of addiction to Internet or video games, especially if depressed.

5)      Mood disorders:

The most common mental disorders among Digital Natives are likely anxiety and depression.

The root of these emotional problems is the high-tech revolution plunge into a perpetual state of multi-tasking, also known as continuous partial attention.  In this state, we scan the environment for something to connect with (e.g. instant messaging, texting, email, etc.). When paying partial continuous attention, people’s brains are under stresss—our brains “were not built to maintain such monitoring for extended periods.” (p. 19)

brain technology internet addiction
Digital stimulation puts us in a stressed state of continuous partial attention. [iBrain, p. 33]
This new form of stress, or “techno-brain burnout” has been found to cause our brains to secrete cortisol and adrenaline.  “In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and help memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought.” (p. 19) With enough techno-burnout, we “can even reshape the underlying brain structure” and permanently alter our mood. (p. 19)

Depression is counter-intuitively amplified in Digital Natives by social networks. “Despite the availability of social networks, email, and instant messaging, “ explain Small & Vorgan, “these electronic communication modes lack the emotional warmth of direct human contact and often worsen a person’s feelings of isolation.” (p. 77)

What it means:  Digital Natives may be more irritable and prone to depression.

6)       Health problemsDigital Natives are less fit.

Consider the evidence: In 2006, Naoko Koezuka and associates at the University of Toronto studied nearly 8,000 teenagers and found those volunteers who spend more time playing video games or on the computer were less likely to exercise.

More shockingly, “A recent study of children 5-11 years old found that those who watched more than an hour of television each day [were heavier] compared to children who watched less.” (p. 30)

What it means: Digital Natives aren’t physically active enough.

I didn’t plan to write such a long post, but as you can see, iBrain as relevant as it is shocking.

Next post I’ll write about the ugly side of iBrain—the most disturbing alteration of the evolving human mind.

Until then, rest content that it’s not as bad as it seems: Small & Vorgan never say the technological alteration of the human mind is unstoppable, nor do they claim we can do nothing to alter the mind ourselves.

In later posts, we’ll look at how teachers and parents can help their Digitial Natives navigate evolution of the modern mind.

This is Part II of a series of posts based on the research of Gary Small, MD & Gigi Vorgan published in their book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

 If you’d like to read more about this and other social trends affecting education, sign up to follow this blog at the top of the home page.

Future Minds Part I: Brain evolution 101 for parents and teachers

We are teaching an evolved brain[picture from iBrain, p. 43]
We are teaching an evolved brain
[picture from iBrain, p. 43]
[I wrote this when I was a student teacher]

We teachers spend countless hours reading our students’ minds to build the perfect lesson. We read The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Twilight, and Harry Potter—why do we torture ourselves? – to get our students so they get us.

But what about our students brains?  Why haven’t we considered the evolution of their minds?

We’re not teaching the old brain

Continue reading

Future teachers: actors and film makers?

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

Why? It’s recess, the classroom lights are off, the teacher sits at the back at her desk, and a crowd of students moves in tandem, transfixed before the board– Why?— They should be running about outside, having fun, but they’re here, in class– Why?— The teacher seems to approve the hypnotic rhythm blasting from the speakers– Why?

Educational media gets class attention
Educational media gets class attention

I will never forget the day I discovered the power of educational media. It was during my first practice teaching placement in a grade eight classroom. At recess, I found my students’ eyes glued to the SMARTBoard screen playing a cell rap. I saw them beg the teacher to play it again. They sang the song constantly, and they learned the concepts easily.

Then, I downloaded the song from Youtube and I began to jog to it. Ask me anything about cell organelles, and I can tell you.

I testify:  educational media works

See for yourself. Watch the cell rap here. It has 782, 511 views.

Why does educational media work?

Evolving brains

ibrain technological alteration of student's mindsAccording to Gary Small, Md and Gigi Vorgan, authors of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, our students’ brains are wired different: They’re wired to respond to media. Flexible and ever-evolving, our brains change depending on what we do; in our students’ case, constant interaction with websites, social media, cell phones, televisions, videos, and other gadgets creates new networks, new connections, new strengths in the human brain.

The strength of the techno-savy student’s brain is the ability to learn from and preference for messages communicated through changing images on  screens. Reading words from the textbook to learn is the preferred method of  the older generation: Since 1982, literary reading has declined by 28 %t in 18-34 year olds. (Small & Vorgan, p. 3) What has replaced blissful bouts of reading are endless hours of watching media: A study of more than 2,000 kids by Standford University found that “total daily media exposure [has] increased over the previous five years from seven hours twenty-nine  minutes to eight hours thirty-three minutes.”(ibid, p. 29)

Our average adolescent student, then,  is spending more than eight hours daily exposing their brains to digital technology; this will surely change the way teach and think about educational media. Of one thing we can be sure: When we turn on an TV screen, students find it familiar.

Emotional Responses

Educational media also succeeds because it links concepts to emotions like fear, happiness, and disgust. If something triggers our emotions, we remember it.  For example: I showed a health  class videos of a surgeon probing the blackened lungs of a life-long smoker. Using the Youtube clip, I was 100% more effective than talking about lung cancer– I could tell by the students’ looks of disgust and horror.

Creative license= memorable analogies, stories

The creativity of media produces wild analogies that are more easily remembered. It’s the principle of mnemonics– as explained on Wikipedia, “the human mind more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, physical, sexual, humorous, or otherwise ‘relatable’ information, rather than more abstract or impersonal forms of information.” I can explain something like ” the function of blood cells”, or I can tell you a funny story about a bunch of burnt-out gossipy blood cells moaning (and bragging) about their functions. Which one will you remember?

Humanizes concepts

Like the above. Taking abstract ideas and making them human. For example, in the video below, red blood cells become people: They gossip about other cells and have names like “Frank” and “Earl.” Humans are social animals; we want to learn about human-like things.


Repeating something over and over again burns it into our mind, and the makers of educational media know this. Take the cell rap: The refrain,with key information, repeats over ten times. “Cells, cells they’re made of organelles“–yeah, I wish I could forget it.

If they rhythm and rhyme are pleasing enough, the students replay the song over and over; this is another way educational media is repetitive. Like the lyrics of our favourite songs, we find ourselves humming the concepts.


Most educational clips are between 3-5 minutes, if they’re good. Any longer than that, and your students’ interest may wane. Small & Vorgan found several studies showing that high consumption of media makes students highly distracted in lectures. The study by Drs. Philip Chan and Terry Rabinowitz of Brown University, for example, found that “adolescents who play more than one hour a day had greater symptoms of ADHD or inattention than those who did not.” (Small & Vorgan, p. 66) Short clips could be better than long lectures.

Limitations of educational media

According to iBrain, teens immersed in media suffer consequences physiological, psychological, and social. Would it be damaging to bring media into the classroom? Should we limit our students exposure to media to protect them? Until I do more reading, I can’t be sure.

What educational media means for teachers

For teachers, it seems,  the future is digital. If education media works, and if it becomes popular, teachers who know both curriculum and media technology (e.g. animation, filming, etc) will fill a gaping niche. Creativity will also be needed by teachers, if they are to become the actors in and creators of their own educational media. Science teacher Mr. Glen Wolkenfeld may be the prototype of the techno-artist-teacher of tomorrow:

If educational media is the way of the future, school librarians, too, will evolve and become cataloguers of media forms. Their job will be less to find the right book; more they will need to keep abreast with the best media and direct teachers to the perfect clip for every lesson.

And educational media providers, like TVOntario, will capitalize.

Is educational media the way of the future in education? If it is, should we embrace  or fight it?

How I civilized a tribe of grade fives– teaching life skills

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

In  my last post, “Does What We Teach  Matter?,” I wrote about Alain de Botton’s vision for education; that it should be practical, and relevant to everyday life.

When I wrote it, the concept of practical education within the humanities was an abstract ideal.

Not anymore.

In my grade five practicum classroom yesterday, that ideal became a reality.

I helped civilize a tribe of 10-year-olds.

Civilization pancakes for all!

Learning takes many forms.
Learning takes many forms.

It all began with Mr. B. Every Fat Tuesday, Mr. B hosts a pancake breakfast for his grade five class. He lugs in with him a big box of pre-made blueberry pancakes, two jugs of maple syrup, a bag of the choicest apples and bananas, and orange juice. He brings plates and plastic cutlery, and organizes orange juice and fruit loops. He asks a student volunteer to bring a large table cloth. This year, I was part of his annual pancake breakfast.

Before breakfast, the set up

The kids came half an our before school started, because of pancake brain. A serious affliction, pancake brain causes students to ask: “When will we be eating pancakes?”, “Will there be syrup?” and “Where is Mr. B with the pancakes?!?” with rabid expressions and darting eyes. The more diabolical students asked, “Can I drown mine in syrup?”

We set the table with style. Use of rulers optional.
We set the table with style.

To distract, I supervised the setting of  the tables. I showed the students a picture of a proper table setting. We set the table with flourish. Every plate and every spoon was equidistant and in the spot approved by the gods of manners.

Other students busied themselves with the washing and arranging of fruits on the table, under a student’s table cloth. “It’s really old,” the girl who brought the table cloth told me, “I’m not sure if my mom wanted me to use it because it’s my grandma’s, but I took it anyway!” Um….great work…great…gulp.

Here’s what we did:

Before eating, business

Mr. B asked me to lead a pre-breakfast lesson as he frantically microwaved 100s of pancakes in the staff room. I was ready to teach the students another lost art: how to shake hands.

We were hosting not only a pancake breakfast, I told them, but also a business party. All of them were fabulously successful business people. Of course, they’d have to make personal business cards and shmooze.

We started with half of a blank sheet of paper. To make a business card, students followed the following steps:

A template for the business card
A template for the business card

1) Write your name in the very middle. Make it bold. Make it you.

2) Write the quality you admire most in people underneath your name.

3) In the top-left corner, write down three things you’re really good at. (e.g. swimming, scootering, reading, singing, etc.)

4) In the top-right corner, write down your favourite place in the world.

5) In the bottom-left corner, write down the person who taught you the most about life.

6) In the last corner, write down your favourite holiday.

With newly minted business cards, the students were ready to work the room. But first, they need to know how to shake hands and introduce themselves properly. Using a few students as guinea pigs, I demonstrated

How to shake hands & introduce yourself

A perfect handshake.
A perfect handshake.

1) Make eye contact.

2) Say “Hi, my name is _______. It’s nice to meet you.”

3) Extend your right hand as you say this.

4) Take the other person’s hand firmly, but not too firmly. Pretend the other person’s hand is a little bird: be firm enough to hold it, but not so firm you squeeze it to death!

5) Shake the hand downwards, about 3/4 inch.

6) Release the other person’s hand. Don’t wipe your hand on your pants, or rub your nose after that.

7) Ask, “What’s your name?”

8) Begin conversation.  In this case, start talking about your business cards.

9) Maintain eye contact. Don’t interrupt. Take turns talking.

After I’d shown them the handshake guidelines, I told them we’d start the business function soon. I’d put on some music (“The Rapper,” the 1970s hit by the Jaggerz), and they’d amble about the room in their showy suits. When the music stopped, they’d stop in their place and find the nearest person to share business cards with.

The business party was a hit. “The Rapper,” had the right beat and wacky rhythm. The students danced like they’d discovered movement. Some linked arms and coordinated their legs as can-can dancers as they circled the room. They dancing frenzy continued until the music stopped; then, they became serious business people talking cards. It was like a zoo, in which the animals occasionally get their act together, speak, shake hands.

After being introduced to five people, I asked them to tell me about someone they’d met. This way, the whole class learned about each other.

And they’d learned a useful life skill in the process.

Eating, then clean-up

We dug into our pancakes, and sipped our juice. Next, the class put away their plates. The cleaning brigade moved in near the sink.


I helped the three boys and two girls learn how to wash dishes in steps. They learned how to make a makeshift sponge, use just enough soap, wash off the suds, and dry efficiently.

Did they get “old wrinkled lady” or “raisin” fingers? By vote we settled the issue: the correct term is “raisin fingers.” They all had raisined fingers.

And…they loved it.

[Would they have as much fun polishing my shoes?]

What it all means

Mr. B’s pancake breakfast is a perfect example of integrating real life skills into our teaching. Each year, his class learns to set a table, eat properly, and clean up after themselves. I threw in learning to shake hands, for good measure. In one day, students learned skills their parents may not have the time to teach them, skills essential to success in life.

I feel very privileged to learn from Mr. B during my practicum. I feel that he cares deeply for his students. And, even better, I see we share the same beliefs about what education could be.

Stay posted for more grade five class adventures in March!

Does what we teach matter?

Alain de botton
Alain de Botton

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

In a BBC talk, philosopher and writer Alain de Botton argues that British humanities professors have only themselves to blame for government cuts to their departments. They are also to blame for declining  interest in their subjects. He explains:

there is a need to acknowledge that at least some of the woes that have befallen academics is squarely their own fault. To put it at its simplest, academics in the humanities have failed to explain why what they do should matter so much. They’ve failed to explain to the government, but this really only means “us” – the public at large.

They have allowed themselves to be offended by the very need to justify their relevance, speaking only in dangerously vague terms about the value of culture in helping people to “think” or they have counted on having just enough respect left not to have to spell out why they should exist at all, other than because what they do is just so important. [italics mine]

In other words, humanities professors haven’t proven the relevance of what they teach. They’re not marketing their subjects well—if at all. Allan de Botton’s view of the humanities:

My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple – they should help us to live. We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations.

It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children and our spouses.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artifacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

So, Botton thinks we need to take the abstract concepts of the humanities and make concrete connections to student’s lives. Or, we can ignore his advice and die out.

Does Botton’s advice apply to middle and high school teachers?

Botton’s advice is not only for humanities professors, but for teachers too. If we want to attract students to our electives in high school, if we want our students to remember our classes, if we want to make an impact on our world— we’ve got to teach things that matter.

The irrelevancy of some of what we teach troubles me. For example, as a teacher, I find it hard to answer students when they ask, “Why do we need to know about plot, character, and theme?”, “Why do we keep studying similes every year?” or “Why do we need to write poems?” Similarly, history teachers face a certain question: “Why do all these dead guys even matter?” In social studies class, students may well ask, “Why should I care about marriage rituals around the world?”

All these questions reveal one big, underlying question: “What does concept X add to my life?”

That question is extremely important

When I prepare a lesson now, I ask myself this question: “Why should students care about concept X? What are the real world applications of this concept?”

Next, I make certain my students know why I’m teaching what I do. For example, on Saturday I taught a class how to write a précis. I outlined the concept and asked students to answer this question on the board individually:

Suggest occasions when each of the following might need to write a précis of a report or a series of reports:

a)      The head of a department in a Fortune 500 company;

b)      A lawyer;

c)      A doctor;

d)      An engineer.

Together, we came up with many practical uses of précis writing. I noticed my students, among them a future doctor, engineer, and lawyer, sat up in their chairs and became invested in the material because I answered the question that matters to them: “How is this relevant to my life?”

Important things we could teach

While we must teach the less apparently practical concepts, we can also integrate useful skills into our courses. Here are some real life skills we could integrate into the humanities:

-How to make a phone call

– How to shake hands and make introductions

-How to apologize

– How to resolve conflicts

-How to write a professional e-mail, letter, memo

-How to speak and write clearly (rhetoric)

-How to detect faulty reasoning

-How to dress professionally

-How to manage money

-How to handles stress

-General etiquette

Is it the school’s job?

You may disagree, but I believe it’s the school’s job to teach practical skills for three reasons:

1)       Dual-income households are the norm and these parents are time-starved; they haven’t the time to teach their kids these skills;

2)      Widespread engagement with technology has caused the widespread atrophy of social and writing skills;

3)      If we want social justice, teaching things that will enrich students’ lives and help them deal with real problems, economic, social, and political is not optional.

The reality

Students won’t remember that you taught them similes. But they will remember that you taught them how to write a cover letter, because it won them a job. And that job helped them escape poverty.

Students won’t care that you taught them the Cold War. But they will care that you taught them how to present well, because it helped them get a promotion. And that promotion helped them raise a family

Botton is right: We must teach the important things.

Are there any lessons you wish were taught in schools but aren’t?

Fight the War of 1812 (at the ROM): Field Trip Plan

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

I recently went to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and viewed its War of 1812 exhibit to craft a grade seven field trip plan. Here it is, free of charge! If you’d like to download the flyer with lesson plans before, during, and after the trip, click on the link at the bottom.

Fight with Them!

This is...a call to arms!
This is…a call to arms

If I told you that this is a lesson plan for the War of 1812, you’d likely groan, roll your eyes, and made your excuses to leave through the nearest door. “I haven’t the time to read,” you might say, “about a dreadful war with no effect on the present day.”

The way we used to teach the War of 1812 was indeed dry as toast. We need to change the way the war is taught. We need to take our students to fight the war at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Unique Vision

The ROM’s Sovereign Allies/Living Cultures exhibit takes the history of the War of 1812 and transforms it into a journey into the minds of untold heroes.

Untold heroes
Untold heroes

Few know the story of the First Nations who fought alongside the Brits to fight the Americans. Few know about how the War changed these First Peoples and their communities.

War of 1812  medal awarded to a Native soldier.
Medal awarded to a Native soldier

Too long we’ve told our students that, after the Europeans landed, Natives faded into white skins. The War of 1812 exhibit challenges both our ignorance and misconceptions—the First Nations fought the war to save Canada, and they kept their culture in the fray.

True Stories

A warrior pictured in the display. Ask your students: "what is he thinking about?"
A warrior pictured in the exhibit

The exhibit tells the stories of people. Through 100 objects and original artwork—scalping knives, tobacco pipes, silver bracelets, red jackets, shiny medals, and torn flags—students meet First Peoples like John Brant, Tecumseh, John Norton, John Smoke Johnson, Little Pine, John Naudee, and White Crane.

Multi- Media

The touch screen display shows informative and moving clips of historians and Native elders.
The touch screen display

The human element of the battles is also well captured by videos ranging from the conservation of the British Red Ensign to the interviews with elders about keeping their culture alive.

Live History

The students milling about the exhibit were not students, when I saw them. They were staring into the glass, entering the lives of the people, and asking questions about battle strategies: they were fighting the war in their heads.

Scalping knives and more...take your pick!
Scalping knives and more

Blood. Emotion. Real stuff.Plain talk. — aren’t these  the ingredients of an unforgettable  lesson? Fight the war at the ROM today.

Download the lesson plans (with more pictures) here:

OISE-History- War of 1812- ROM Field Trip Plan

Down and Out in Toronto: The Other Side of Homelessness

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

We met George between an underground shelter and an alleyway cluttered with what some people call hobos. “It’s a good life I’ve got,” he announced as a greeting, “I’ve got it really good” he repeated as he puffed his chest and shoved his hands into the first layer of jackets he was wearing. Like a cowboy in some cheap imitation film I thought him then—A man posturing as a shoot-em-up star in a Hollywood blockbuster. I mean, I saw him as a homeless guy:  someone I should pity. The good life? It had passed him over and stomped on him a couple times.

I was walking the streets with a “sandwich patrol” when I met George. My teacher program at OISE requires me to do charitable work in the city to expand my awareness. The unspoken aim of the assignment is to make us teachers compassionate people: to make us better at pity.

homeless man on bench
We hit the streets looking for people like this.

Are the Homeless Spoiled?

George has a theory about teachers and “other folks like us,” and it does include compassion. More important, though, he sees teachers as a key link in the chain of tax payers who pay for his room and board. He told as much.  Without us, he explained, he couldn’t eat broccoli soup on Thursdays or rent a room in a homeless motel. He’s a great orator. Listening to him, I wanted to leave to Sweden and cash in on my first social assistance check. The drama of his speech was amplified by his yellow eyes darting from one person in his audience to another–  Us do-gooders stood dumbfounded as we watched this social-theorist-homeless guy punctuating his sentences with  side-grins and tongue clicks.

helping homeless man
…to do charitable things, like this.

Secretly, we all wanted to figure out what in God’s name was going on, and we hoped he would tell us. The homeless people we’d seen so far didn’t seem miserable:  a few had cell phones, others were clean-shaven, some proudly showed us their own room keys, and most seemed to have shelter dinner plans. We had expected a pity party, the kind that makes us feel compassionate. To our surprise – or was it disappointment?—we found optimistic and talkative people populating the streets.

The Truth behind the Talk

thoughtful homeless man
A man like George, thinking he has a good life.

As George continued his story, we began to see the dark undertones of his talk and the deep scars on his face. One of the few Asians born into a small town in Northern Ontario, George always was an outsider. His community and family had little to hope for—not much to do in the small town, not much to see, and certainly not many jobs to be had. Oxycotin and other drug addictions were common among the townspeople. Had George become one of these drug addicts? Beaten by his parents? Neglected? Sexually abused? George didn’t reveal as much, but studies of homeless people show he likely was.  He didn’t mention a rough past or seek out our pity, though he well could have.  He insisted that he had a good life: He had food. He had clothes. He had an Avon clip-on attached to a Sherlock-Holmes- style hat lending him “an air of authority.”  He had his eye on a cute Christian charity lady and was “active in the chase.” In his estimation George has a good life.

Challenging Ideas of Poverty

George doesn’t have a good life as understood in our terms of material success. He has barely enough money to rent a closet and feed himself.  His health is bad. But George has something which makes him a success: a contented soul. He and his friends clearly cultivated a deep sense of gratitude, dignity, and friendship. Their strength reminded me of the weak relationship between happiness and things. Socrates said it best:  He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.

Who was poor on the streets that night? It was us patrollers. We can tell our students the story behind the homeless’ lives; we can encourage them to support charities giving the homeless food and shelter; and we can help the homeless find work.  But we should never encourage the self-gratifying pity for the homeless. To do so suggests our superiority.  George and his friends were my teachers that night, so I can never pity them. I respect them instead.

Lessons I’ve Learned: 10 Tips for Better Teaching

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher and working part-time at a private school.

Today marks my one year anniversary of teaching at Trinwood Private School, and nearly seven years of tutoring in the GTA.  After seven years of teaching, I’ve learned a bit about how to get my students to succeed. I’ve followed the wisdom of Confucius: “When you see a good person, think of becoming like him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points” – I’ve watched teachers of varying levels of effectiveness and through this I’ve learned about myself. What kind of teacher will I be? The answer is always this: I’ll be a better teacher than I was last year.

I still have much to learn, but here’s what I know to remember  in 2013:



Whiteboards and markers are artifacts of bygone era. Lessons are most effective when they go beyond the board to include Youtube clips, articles, recordings of speeches, and pictures. Demonstrations using your body, the students in the classroom, and everyday objects succeed. Example:  To explain the idea of “hierarchy,” I show a short clip about the caste system in India.


Machiavelli insists that “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” It doesn’t work that way in education. You don’t have to be loved, but it does help if you’re students enjoy coming to class because you’re occasionally funny. Now, I’m no clown or comedian—I’m a teacher—but why would I chuckle to myself in front of the class like some lunatic when I could just make a joke?


This is a loaded question, in the same category as the question “Does my butt look big in this?” No student can give you an honest answer to the understanding question. There are egos at stake; there are inaccurate perceptions of understanding; and sometimes there is plain boredom with the material. Never ask this question. Give students questions to answer instead.


Southern decay is a molding sandwich. The controlling idea of a paragraph is the heart of a paragraph. The connectors we use are the glue that keeps the paragraph together. The introductory paragraph is the sales pitch—you get the idea. After I started using similes and metaphors with my students, I saw an improvement in understanding.

5.       BUY A “BLACK BOOK”

Remember: Tony has internal eye bleeding since karate class yesterday; Amy has an IB entrance exam next week; Maria has a severe allergy to peanuts; Jason’s parents don’t want him watching any violence on TV ; Carl is short-sighted; and you need extra handouts for next week. Unless you’re superhuman, you’ll need a black book to write all that down. And, when you remember things about your students, it pays huge dividends.


You are a window for your students to the outside world. Students rarely read the newspaper, but they’re interested in current affairs. They want to talk about the hard things. As a rule, I bring in one current event to discuss in my writing classes per two weeks.


Students are more likely to like class if they know they’ll learn something useful. They often don’t believe your subject (e.g. English) is useful. In this case, you have to teach not just English (which you know is useful) but other facts immediately applicable in their lives.  For example, while teaching writing techniques you can use examples that teach them what you know about addictions. Or, you can teach English via new technology like LiveScribe. You can use sentence examples that are also famous quotes.


Students who feel connected to their teachers and other students in the class are more likely to enjoy learning. They’re no longer free-floating atoms that happen to bounce into your classroom for two hours a week, but a tightly-knit community. Celebrate birthdays, share major events, tell students a bit about yourself (just don’t overdo it), praise students when they deserve it, and make class projects to display on the wall.


When do we use “whom” and “who”? Why do we use “that” here and not there? What is the difference between a semi-colon and a dash? These are some of the questions students have asked that stumped me. I’ve been tempted to say “it’s not important” or “you’ll learn it next year.” But I’ve found the best answer to be: “To be honest, I’m not sure. Let me check and I’ll explain it next class.” Then I do it.


A teacher without goals is a bike without wheels. I’ve learned the hard way: If I don’t know where I’m going, I won’t get there with my students. Now I make monthly goals for my classes (e.g. learn parallelism and sentence reduction), and I make weekly lesson plans too. I write this plan for the class on the board each lesson. When they’re written down, I remember the goals I need to accomplish to be successful that day. It works.

There’s much more, but I’ll leave it at that. I’m curious to hear your ideas.

Do you have any tips from your own teaching practice? OR

Do you remember any teachers that did a great job? What made them successful?

Why I’m a Teacher

This is me.
This is me.


People react to my telling them I’m a teacher in predictable ways. They all seem to assume the same things: I must enjoy spending time with children, living vicariously through teenagers, teaching a pet subject, or lounging about during summer vacations. In small part, these reasons are true. Alone, though, these reasons are insufficient: I’ve only nodded along with these people’s ideas about my choice of profession because I haven’t the time to explain my reasons. It’s complicated. It’s too much to explain in one sitting to a stranger who asks the inevitable: “Whatcha do?” and “Why you doin’ it?” expecting a few words wrapped in a smile. Let me explain now— teaching is like being a stream in a forest. I want to be that stream.

A stream anywhere is a lifeline splitting the ground—wherever it goes, the birds, the bears, the bees, the trees—all visit the stream to drink and to survive. Plants shoot their roots towards it; animals won’t stray from it. A teacher is like a stream; wherever she is, there is life-giving knowledge. Teaching, I give students something to help them thrive. For Johnny, I give the ability to read when he couldn’t. For Frieda, I give the ability to write clearly. For Xinyu, I give the ability to debate, research, and vote.So, I nourish them.

And I nourish their families too. A teacher is also a judge, psychiatrist, manager, family and marriage therapist, social worker, and activist. If Mary’s family is troubled, I’ll likely be the first outside her family to know, and perhaps her only confidant. If Jason’s having mental problems and overdosing on prescription drugs—yes, I’ll be at the hospital too. If Yousuf’s family can’t be approved citizens after five years, it’ll write to government bureaucrats. I’ve seen teachers do all these things; I’ve seen them do it after a long day of school spent building up their students with kind words. That’s what convinced me a teacher is like a stream nourishing and building all around them.

But to be a nourishing stream and a model of humanity for students thirty-five hours a week a teacher must not be burnt up inside—she faces, then, the challenge of bettering herself. This moral transformation is a perk of the job: struggling to explain a concept for the tenth time, a teacher develops patience; dealing with a student with behaviour issues, courage; knowing a student’s personal struggles, empathy; marking students’ papers fairly, a just mind; and, finally, dropping the I’m-a-university-grad-and-too-smart-to-teach-thirteen-year-olds persona, humility. Before the teacher knows it, she’s a pure stream:  a teacher with soul. Is there a better end?

The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, made an observation about streams relevant to teachers.When he said“no man ever steps in the same [stream] twice,” he meant that as a stream is never the same, so too reality is always changing. Teachers, like Heraclitus’ stream, are constantly re-inventing themselves if they’re worth a sticker. At sixteen— I know only now— I was a new tutor, an illiterate, and a bad writer despite high grades. Then, I knew nearly nothing; now, I know much more.My profession demands it. I’ve learned about how the mind operates; how your mind differs from mine; how your family affects your learning; what your lunch tells me about you. And, apart from studying psychology, I’ve learned technology. Smartboards, ipads, elmos, blogs, and the like—these are my new blackboard. Because I’m a teacher, I’ve forced myself into the twenty-first century. Because I’m a teacher, I keep learning. I’ll always be a stream overflowing with freshness.

So, let this be my answer to all those who ask, “Why did you decide to be a teacher?”:I’m a teacher, because it’s like being a stream in a forest. A stream is no small thing. It nourishes others, it keeps pure, it alters and reflects in beautiful ways. Though you can’t see a stream immediately when looking at the forest trees, or hear it in the racket of hoots and howls, you can be sure it’s there. It’s quietly bubbling along the forest floor, minding its own business, observing all around, seeking out roots. I know it may sound odd, but I want to do that for a living.