Passing Notes

Notes from a Parent/Teacher to Parents and Teachers



A different “Back to school”



Check out my latest post at for alternative ideas on the whole Back to School situation you’re finding yourself in, if you’ve got kiddies. You’ll find ideas for reusing your kid’s old supplies as well as tips for goal-setting with children at the beginning of the year.






Luz shines light on comics and environmental issues.

Cool girl.  Check.  Impending environmental disaster. Check.   Local and global content.  CheckThis book’s got it all and then some.

Enter, “Luz Sees the Light” by Claudia Davila.  Some might consider Luz an unlikely “superhero”.  She is!  That’s the great thing about her, she’s a resourceful, enlightened young Latina who exemplifies the credo: Think Globally, Act Locally.  Luz, – (which means “light” in Spanish and rhymes with “moose”), – faces the daily problems related to power outages caused by our over-reliance on dirty oil.  Though at first dismissive of the importance of what this means on a global scale, Luz eventually sees the light and realizes that she has as much to do with the solution as anyone else.  Much to her chagrin, Luz’ friends don’t necessarily share the same ideas.  What’s an enlightened girl to do?  Does she have the power to sway opinion?  You’ll have to read it to find out what plans she and her neighbours have in mind.


Beyond this being a great read for kids of about grade 3 age and up (and adults alike), one has to appreciate any comic which disproves the antiquated belief that “comics have no place in reading”.  Why do I make mention of this?  Well, I’ve heard all too often, “my kid will only read comics and not real books“.  Hmmnn, I’ve read some wonderful biographies and historical narratives that are in graphica form.  Last time I checked, any genre – (historical fiction, non-fiction, etc.), – can be worked into this form, often called comics, – (which I”ll refer to as graphica).


Beyond that, graphica is a great way to develop reading skills!  For example, graphica makes excellent use of inference skills as children often have to rely on various features of graphica to figure out what has happened in a section where the author/illustrator has chosen to leave it to the imagination of the reader.  Readers also have to infer or figure out  a character’s feelings and emotions.



Some suggested activities:

1.  How about a discussion about WHY millions of folks are turning off the lights during Earth Hour in April.  Better yet, how about chatting about more consistent (daily? weekly? monthly?) ways of using less energy or trying to use cleaner energy.  Kids who want to feed their inner Type-A can graph and share the results with family members based on the findings in different rooms of your home.  Over time, the improvement should really motivate you and them to make some goals around energy consumption at home.

2.  Who doesn’t love new-ish toys?  Well then get to it and organize a kid’s SWAP with toys, books and/or clothing.  It’s fun, thrifty and a pretty good way of not buying new things that need to be manufactured (which equals taxing our Earth’s natural resources, polluting habitats and buying into consumerist notions).

3.  Children can illustrate, using panels a part of a story they don’t understand, or maybe condense their favourite book into a 4 or 6-panel comic.  Or perhaps do an autobiography in comic form or study science concepts using this approach.  Really the possibilities are endless.

4.  Claudia, Luz’s creator, has made a 4-panel blank comic JUST FOR YOU!

And because she’s cooler than cool, she’s offered readers a black and white colouring pags.  Just head over to her Facebook page, scroll to find a comic and “save as” to your computer before printing:

5.  For the kid who likes digital technology, try these comic strip generators; just keep in mind that these digital formats have some limitations and I encourage the use of self-drawn ones as well.  

I hope that getting to know Luz will provide a window of opportunity for you to jump into the world of graphica!




P.S. Author/ illustrator extraordinaire, Toronto-based Claudia Davila has recently won the Honor Award for the 2012 Green Earth Book Award:

…and if you live in the Toronto area, check out her upcoming Book Launch for the newly-published “Luz Makes a Splash!”



A twist on lunch notes


School lunches are right around the corner!  Dread it or love it, it’s almost that time of year and the kids have got to eat, so why not make an event of it?


Head over to my blog at and get some ideas for making your child’s lunches more memorable with jokes, brainteasers and quotes.  Believe me, it’s easier than it sounds especially if you can carve a few minutes out of one day to do several at once.  Your kids will look forward to receiving these little surprises.





“Sex Education” in Ontario: a last-millennium approach

I’m not sure how many parents are familiar with the Ontario Curriculum, but I’d venture to say, not many, unless you’re an educator yourself.  There have been many revisions to the curriculum, in all instances for the better.  With one exception:  the curriculum related to Physical & Health Education, specifically Growth and Development (e.g., Sex Ed.).


You see, when the Health curriculum was revamped fairly recently, everything was revised but all except for the section on Growth and Development were actually published.  Teachers still have to teach the topic but they have to use the very vague and lacking content from 1998.  Yes.  1998.  OK the worst part is not how dated it is or how minimally it’s described.  The worst part is that it wasn’t revised because it was a contentious issue for some sectors in society.

This begs the question, “whose responsibility is it to teach this stuff to YOUR kids anyways?”.  I’m of the opinion that the responsibility lays on the shoulders of schools and parents (though some would differ with this, in either respect).  The breadth and scope of what children and adolescents need to know is huge, and goes way beyond the anatomical lesson or birth videos shown to us many years ago as students.  It goes way beyond just “sex”, hence the misnomer that is “Sex Education”.



Ophea, which spear heads many of the excellent curriculum and community initiatives, resources and support for Physical and Health Education in Ontario has this to say:

learning to make reasoned decisions, take ownership of your own body and develop skills for healthy relationships is a component of healthy living that our students need to live safe and healthy lives…Learning about healthy development, including sexual development, requires an understanding of sexual health in its broadest context – sexual development, reproductive health, interpersonal relationships, affection, abstinence, choice and sexual readiness, protection, body image, and gender roles and expectations.”


That is quite a bit of stuff to wrap our minds around.  It’s about developing healthy attitudes, relationships, exploring gender roles and so much more.  So educators are working with fairly antiquated curriculum in this respect, and one that is not inclusive of LBGTQ perspectives either.

Given the intensity of what kids are “offered” in the form of “Sex Ed.” through the media, it goes without saying that parental and school communities need to be on the ball with this one.  I for one cringe at the way “Zack and Cody” refer to girls as “hot”.  Don’t even get me started on other shows which showcase everything ranging from heterosexist content to the proliferation of gender stereotypes.  Just last week, I was chatting with some moms over the highly sexualized behaviour of really, really young kids in social situations last week, and the images of “rainbow parties” are making my head spin.

So what’s a parent to do?  What’s an educator to do?

I propose that the “Growth and Development” portion of the Health curriculum needs to be revised to include a more holistic approach asap!  So how do we get started on this?  It’s not a job for one, but for many.



More information about Ophea’s work and their response to this curricular lag can be found here:


Given the lack of inclusivity in the 1998 excerpt, there are some great resources for educators and parents put out by the TDSB, whose Equitable and Inclusive schools Department is cutting edge.







Must Read: The Incredible Book Eating Boy

This is a modern classic.  A must read for all ages, for the book-lover OR the reticent reader.  By what criteria you ask?  Well both types of readers can connect with the content.  Boy loves books so much he literally eats them.  Or, Boy finds the illustrations wacky and alluring and the content just plain fun.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers is a visual feast.  Jeffers captures Henry, – the protagonist’s, – obession with obtaining his smarts through his tummy by using mixed media; his hand-drawn illustrations combined with the torn pages of real book pages and covers, and library cards breathe life into the muted colours of this fabulous read.  The cover has an actual bite taken out of the back. That alone is worth the CA$10!

Kids seem to love that Henry’s capacity to think and reason decreases with each book that he ingests.  What is a boy to do when his only obsession leads to his, uh ,stupidity?  Well, you’ll have to pick the book up to find out!


How can you use the book with your kids?

  • This book lends itself to creating a mixed media collage along the same lines as the book.  Old newspaper pages and thrift store books combined with your own children’s illustrations can lead to a short book written by your kids or to some pretty stunning art work.  You can even use Jeffers art as a springboard to making cards for gift giving.
  • You can read up until Henry needs to decide how to deal with his eating problem and have your child come up with possible solutions.  Then return to the book and find out out Jeffers decides to end the narrative.
  • This book is especially great for young readers and for determining what the elements of narrative are:  For example, the problem and the solution are clearly noticeable for children.
  • Encourage your child to ask question as you read, the text provides many opportunities for that
  • Kids who are so inclined can try to find out, through some detective work, how books or paper are made, from start to finish


And as always, you and your kids can just enjoy eating, err, I mean reading it!






Practice Safe Water Play this summer

Welcome back Ms Whitworth, our lovely guest blogger!  Not only is she a great classroom teacher, she also knows a thing or two about water safety.  She has been teaching swimming for about 6 years now with a private swimming company and  has qualifications for both teaching swimming and teaching water safety/life saving with the Red Cross organization.  She’s a perfect fit for you because she’s worked with all types of swimmers from very young to very old, terrified to too-comfortable-for-their-own-good, and everything in between.  Without further ado…


I have been witness to how just a fraction of a second can make a difference between a teaching opportunity and a lost cause. Now, we all have enjoyed time at the beach somewhere or another and I’ve seen often enough in my time teaching and my own personal life, that there are times when parents get this anxious look on their faces and go into overprotective mode, and they have every right to. I would like to toss out some simple tips for how to talk to your child and use the family beach trip as a learning opportunity for water safety issues that are surprisingly common.

During the hot days of summer we all like to cool down with a nice refreshing dip in the lake, pond, pool, or whatever source of water we have near us! Many of us spend time at the waterfront or the many public pools that are now open for use. Being safe and knowing a few things about how to help prepare your kids for fun and fantastic times in the water is crucial, more so during the summer when we are all more likely to be around water. I am going to give you a few tips for things to watch out for, things you should make sure your kids know, and what precautions you can take to ensure the safest summer yet!


The number one cause of death in children is drowning. This can happen in just a few centimetres of water, but generally tends to happen in deeper waters like a pool, lake, or ocean as a result of any number of factors. As a parent, talking to your children about things such as the buddy system or making sure there is always a responsible adult watching when you swim is sometimes even more crucial than taking swimming lessons or being in the water with your child. I will offer a few tips and try to explain them as best I can about how to talk to your child, what steps to take as precautions, and how to have fun in the water!


Communication is always such a good tool and starting as young as possible in the water- even if it is just the bath tub- is a great idea!  Let’s start with talking. As soon as your child can understand you, the parent should start explaining simple concepts such as make sure you have a responsible adult watching you. Communicating to your child that no matter how amazing a swimmer is, we all get tired or injured sometimes even though we take all necessary steps to prevent that from happening. As a swim instructor myself there are still times I get cramps in my side after swimming for extended periods of time! Things to ingrain in your child’s mentality about being around water are as follows:

1) it is FUN!,

(2) there are many things you need to do to stay safe, and

(3) even the best swimmers need to take certain precautions.

Water is fun and developing that sense of playfulness in your child is a great thing, but do it with care and show them how to have fun and not take uncalculated risks at the same time.


Swimming lessons are great at helping develop the skills needed to be a safe, strong swimmer, as well as teaching safety lessons, but not everyone can afford them or is around water enough that they feel it necessary to have their children go to lessons. This is not by any means a plea to invoke my beliefs about swimming on anyone; I am merely trying to provide information to help make this summer great!


The use of the buddy system is a great way to stay safe in the summer when you are around water. It is a simple concept that basically entails that you are never alone around water, you always have a friend with you to watch you, help you, call for help if it is needed, and you do the same for that friend. Even now, after my years of experience — and probably because of it! — I still use the buddy system when swimming at my cottage. It is just another way to make sure that if something does happen, even though you’ve been as safe as you can, that you get help sooner rather than later! Rather than making this a long and tedious article on the statistics and technical ways of water safety I am going to give you the most important precautions, steps, ideas for you to make use of yourself however you see fit.

Top 15 tips to be safer in the water this summer:

1. Make sure to use the buddy system

2. Make sure you know your limits as a swimmer and don`t go past them on your own

3. As a parent, ensure that you, or someone who is responsible and qualified, is ALWAYS watching your children when they are in the water

4. Take swimming lessons (there are a variety of kinds, prices, and locations to suit a multitude of needs)

5. Make use of bath time to teach simple ideas such as how to breathe under water

6. Know the body of water you are swimming in. For example, is it really shallow, really rocky, does it have a strong current that could cause problems for weaker or tired swimmers?

7. Use common knowledge and common sense. For example, if there is a thunderstorm outside, don’t go near the water until the weather is clear or don’t swim in a place known to have strong currents and undertows

8. Know the basic signs of drowning and the four types of swimmers. They are: tired (they usually are out of breath and moving slowly), injured (either with a muscle cramp or as a result of an unsafe choice made such as jumping into unknown waters), unconscious (they are usually face down in the water not really moving), and non swimmer (usually they display the ‘typical’ drowning look with hands flailing and yelling for help). Knowing the types of swimmers will help you stay away from unsafe swimmers as well as get them help if you notice they need it.

9. Make sure your child (ren) know how to get help from responsible and safe adults (moms, police officers, lifeguards, etc.) in the community when they are around water

10. Teach your child about water safety. You can find information on the Red Cross’s website at under the tab ‘how we help’

11. Teach your child that listening is just as important, if not MORE IMPORTANT, in the water than anywhere else!

12. Use beaches and pools where lifeguards are present and on duty

13. Teach kids how to tread water (this is where they stay above water by moving their hands in a figure 8 motion, and kick their legs as if they were riding a bike) so that they can stay above water if they happen to fall into a pool or lake

14. Talk to your child about why it is necessary to stay alert and know everything you can about the water you are in before swimming and give them some of the simple statistics which may help older children understand the gravity of water safety issues.

15. Do not ever let your child dive into unknown waters — no matter how well they can swim! Always go feet first; your feet will heal a lot easier than your brain if there is something dangerous about the water (as cynical as that sounds)!



Have any questions?  Ask away!


Ms Whitworth




A Must Read for any child who’s ever moved to a new place: “Augustine”

We’ve all been there, young or old, – we’ve had to move classes, schools, neighbourhoods, cities, countries, or entire continents.  If you’re little, usually the move was not of your choosing.  Such is the case for Augustine, a lovable and artistic penguin that hails from the South Pole and eventually moves to the North Pole.

Though slightly fearful of what lays ahead, Augustine encounters a teacher who values and encourages artistic expression in her students.  Augustine realizes that she can call more than one place, “home”.

Author/ Illustrator Melanie Watt, – (well known for her Scaredy Squirrel and Chester series), – renders tender and soft illustrations that invite us to love Augustine from the get-go.  Her aptly named stuffed animal (Picasso), accompanies her throughout the move.  Watt creatively engages our background knowledge of famous painters (Renoir, Dali, Mondrian, Warhol, Harris, etc.), – by using a famous piece by each of those artists to tell the story visually alongside Augustine’s narration.

Some transition ideas for kids who have had to move

  • Have children make a Memory Jar using a large pickle or similarly-sized jar.  Children can choose what to place, (photos, trinkets, natural elements, artifacts, and so on), – from the place they have had to leave.  They can pull out their jars when in need of some home comfort.
  • Kids can write e-mails to old friends and family members.  This will keep relationships alive and hone writing skills.
  • Letter-writing has not gone the way of the dodo bird, though it would seem that way with the use of internet communication.  Your kids might enjoy writing on beautiful papers using special pens as much as emailing!
  • Families can make a “welcome package” for any newcomers to the neighbourhood.

There are many connections to art in the book.

  • Children who tend towards the “academic” can research one of the artists found in the book and/or imitate an artist’s style.
  • Kids can also design and have copied at a copy centre, their own postcards to use as communication.
  • Don’t forget to visit an art gallery, and take the time to paint, sketch, draw, sculpt…
Off to paint with my sweet M.,



What parents ought to know about Learning Skills – 10 tips to facilitate taking initiative

Last week I wrote about what parents can do to help kids learn the-skill of “self regulation.  This and several other skills appear on the Ontario Progress Report Card for a reason.  They are hugely important in determining success in all areas of kid’s academic and personal lives.  The Ontario Ministry of Education states that students should take initiative.  A student:

  •  looks for and acts on new ideas and opportunities for learning;
  • demonstrates the capacity for innovation and a willingness to take risks;
  •  demonstrates curiosity and interest in learning;
  • approaches new tasks with a positive attitude;
  •  recognizes and advocates appropriately for the rights of self and others.

What does this mean really?

Children who are curious seekers of knowledge often take initiative to find new information, and they confidently approach new opportunities with ease.  Their attitude is not a negative one, rather they seem to possess a positive outlook when trying something new.  Children who take initiative often have a strong sense of independence and prefer autonomy when doing things. A part of taking initiative is related to being able to face and attempt to overcome obstacles (do you see the correlation between this and self-regulation?).  Finding opportunities for growth can be about developing a self-understanding of strengths and weaknesses and figuring out and acting upon creative ideas to get beyond challenges.

Here a a few ways you can make the best of your child’s attitude towards taking initiative:

  • Be aware of your child’s developmental stage.  Young children are unlikely to take initiative the way you may envision it.  Younger children learn these skills by playing and exploring.  You can mentor them by facilitating safe exploration of their world. When you encourage them to explore, they develop confidence to explore and try new things.
  • If your child has already learned how to do something independently (e.g., tying shoelaces, feeding themselves, folding their clean clothes), try not to do that task for them.  Expect them to do it and they will gain confidence and belief in themselves.
  • Encourage them to participate in community events that develop a sense of empathy.  This could stem from a personal situation/ issue that they feel connected to (look into the examples of Craig Kielburger, Hannah Taylor and Iqbal Masih, -three youngsters who have changed their local and global communities).

  • Be a role model by taking on issues that affect your community.  If they see you take initiative or if they have other role models who do so, they are more likely to replicate those actions
  • Try to encourage them to do things for internal rewards (pride), rather than external rewards (“bribery”).  Keep in mind some children need those external rewards in order to start being motivated, and can eventually work towards internal rewards.
  • Help your child to reflect upon their choices and actions when they do see that they have a challenge ahead of them, and facilitate and assist them with planning their next steps.
  • Being proactive can be hard for some children to grasp; be their mentor and hold their hands less and less as you see them able to do more and more of the work themselves.
  • If they fail, – which they will, – help them to see the growth and learning that occurred from that “failure”.  Come up with language that your children feel comfortable using, as “failure” has negative connotations.
  • Be genuine and specific with your praise.  They need to hear you say specifically why what they did that was great or what they can do to plan for a better result in the future.
  • Listen.  Allow them the space to give themselves praise and constructive feedback.
What other tips can you offer to help children of all ages develop initiative?




What parents can do to help kids learn the skill of “self-regulation”

Your child’s final Ontario Progress Report is going to appear in their backpack fairly soon.   While you may be tempted to file it away after noting the overall marks, the summer is a perfect time to work on “Next Steps“.

Many parents noticed a change in format and content in 2010 when the new reports were being implemented in different districts in Ontario.  The Growing Success document gives the context and expectations for assessment and evaluation that teachers must use. At the forefront of the changes and literally now at the front of the Report Card, you’ll find the learning skills section that outlines six “Habits of Mind”, titled, “Learning Skills“.  These are vitally important for students to integrate into their actions and learning, at school, at home and within their communities.  These skills also go hand-in-hand with learning in the content areas.

Below you’ll find the Ontario Ministry’s breakdown of Self-regulation, which is only one of the Learning Skills.  More attention will be given to the other Learning Skills in future posts.



 The student:

• sets their own individual goals and monitors their progress towards achieving them;

• seeks clarification or assistance when needed;

• assesses and reflects critically on their own strengths, needs, and interests;

• identifies learning opportunities, choices, and strategies to meet personal

needs and achieve goals;

• perseveres and makes an effort when responding to challenges.


Below are some of my thoughts on how to facilitate these skills with your young ones:

  • You can start by:  setting 2 or 3 goals.  When children are setting goals, they need to be very much involved in determining what goals they will work towards.  Keeping it manageable by setting just a few goals and making them possible to reach ensures that children will believe that they can achieve them. (For example, instead of “being more organized” as a goal, try “putting my bag away as soon as I come home”, “picking up toys off the floor before bedtime”, or “placing my plates in the sink after eating”.)
  • Setting goals speaks very much to a child’s ability to know themselves as learners, to understand their interests and choose goals that are relevant to themselves.
  • You will need to figure out what needs to be done to achieve the goals, they will need to work on the goals, you’ll assess with your child if they were achieved satisfactorily and together re-set new goals if those were met. Along the way, your children will need plenty of genuine encouragement  and you’ll have to frequently check in to make sure that the goals don’t need to be changed to better suit your child’s current situation or needs.
  •  A perfect time to start this is during the summer months.  As much as your children are going to hate me for saying it, there are “Next Steps” in that report card.  This is an excellent moment for kids to take stock of everything that they excel at both in and out of school.  I like the format of “Two Stars and a Wish“.  You can tell your child two areas where they did well and one thing you’d “wish” for them to improve.  They should also develop their own and put it in writing so that they can look back on them and reflect on their progress.

  • If there aren’t a lot of academic goals to be met, then have your child focus on a personal goal related to family relationships, an extra-curricular activity they do or something new they’d like to try out.
  • For those needing lots of help on the academic front, be aware that your child can feel overwhelmed if you try to tackle all of their needs all at once.  Start small to build confidence and pick only one goal at a time, especially if school has been a source of stress in the past.
  • Minimize stress around said goals!
  • Talk about people you know that have persevered through challenges.  This helps to bring to life that challenges are a part of life and that goals can be a great way to manage and move beyond hardships.
  • Help them to understand that small hurdles along the way are to be expected and overcome.  Give them examples from your own life.
  • Your child may like to visualize themselves achieving their goals as it helps to envision the final outcome and lessen patterns of negative thoughts that some children are prone to doing.
  • Kids need to count on you to make it fun.  (The child who needs help with math is ging to HATE doing worksheets during the summer, so why not find them some online math games, or have them help you with the countless activities in the home that are related to math?)

What else do you do to build these skills?





Anyone wishing to take an in-depth look a the Ontario Ministry’s document on assessment and evaluation can link to:  Growing Success.


Get your kids writing…with food!

You read that properly.  Writing with food.

By now you know that my ideas are not for the faint at heart.  Creative and messy is how I roll!

Writing with food is perfect for children who are learning new words or for those who are having a hard time remembering how to write some common words which do not seem to have any easy way to be remembered.  For example, the words, “said”, “write”, and “would” are words very often found in the English language but they can’t be read by using a  sounding out strategy. In cases like these, it helps to find many opportunities for kids to write these words, but without the worksheets please!  Writing with food and the like go much further than pencil-and-paper tasks because writing them in various ways with a variety of materials helps to develop muscle memory.


Alternatively, if you’re at a beach, children can write words in the sand, if you’re at a park use fallen branches, in the craft room there’s plasticene and pipe cleaners, and at home, there’s food, of course.  Anything that is pliable (cooked pasta works nicely) can be used to write single words.

You can choose to reuse the food if it’s dry food as is the case of the beans and pasta in these shots, and given the state of affairs in the world today, it’s the most responsible way to play with food.

Must go tend to baby!