Embracing math raps, Minecraft and Star Wars in the classroom

Originally published on illuminate

Minecraft

Created by Mojang, a games studio based in Sweden, Minecraft is described as a “sandbox video game”, allowing the player to choose what, when and how they want to approach the available choices in content. Activities in the game include building, exploration, resource gathering, crafting and combat. Source: minecraft.net.

Step into Jessica Maloughney’s (BEd’11) Grade 2 classroom at St. Patrick’s Community School in Red Deer, Alta., and you may be reminded of a six-year-old’s bedroom. Minecraft posters decorate the walls, Lego figurines are tucked around the classroom, and collections of Star Wars and Frozen books populate the bookshelf.

These aren’t just classroom accessories. They’re part of Maloughney’s teaching practice. When she teaches her 18 students about math, for example, she might get them to channel their “inner Kanye” with backwards caps, spouting rhymes about numbers as “Math Rappers.”

“The basic foundation of my job as a teacher is communication,” says Maloughney. “To communicate with a student, you need to meet them where they are. They aren’t going to come up to your level at age six to meet you. You need to enter their world.”

Bringing ‘home’ into the classroom

For Maloughney, entering the world of her students means engaging with a wide variety of realities. More than half of her students speak English as a second language, and three are absolutely new to to the language. Many of the children are from low-income families and live in a variety of home situations. They have different medical concerns and a range of behavioural disorders.

Maloughney says integrating popular media her students enjoy into her classroom is one of the best tools she has available to connect with them and help them tackle challenging circumstances.

“The classroom is their home away from home,” she says. “For some of them, this is the most stable place that they know, and seeing things that they choose or enjoy, it makes them feel more welcome in our ‘classroom-home.’”

Jason Wallin, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Secondary Education who studies media and youth culture in curriculum, agrees that breaking down the walls between a student’s school life and life outside the classroom should be a major focus for teachers. When a teacher considers education as existing in a different sphere from the lives of students, students can feel alienated.

“We take this really important youth identity component that’s developed outside of school, and we largely divorce that from the classroom where we have more formal curriculum concerns,” says Wallin. “When a teacher begins to break down the false dichotomy between the informal curriculum of popular culture and the formal curriculum of the school, you’re dis-alienating the students from those identity constructs that they form elsewhere, and they can bring them into the classroom itself.”

The language of pop culture

One major potential source of alienation that concerns Maloughney is the language barrier faced by her English language-learning students. When she started integrating popular kid-friendly movies, video games and fictional characters into her teaching, she saw a marked improvement with these students.

“It’s a scary thing to come to a new country and sit in a classroom where you are just meeting the other kids and you don’t know the language,” she says. “It’s amazing to see these kids who have been in Canada for a month who can’t tell you the names of basic objects in the classroom, but they can quote things from The Lego Movie. When you see their faces when they recognize something, it’s special.”

Lydia Menna, a language and literacy professor in the Department of Elementary Education, is not surprised that Maloughney’s English language-learning students pick up television, game or movie references in English more quickly than they do some of the formal curriculum. Teachers need to provide multiple entry points into literacy learning so students can see themselves as readers and writers, Menna says.

“That whole idea of connecting with students’ interests—diverse literacy practices and cultural experiences can make for more meaningful learning,” explains Menna. “As a learner, often your most memorable learning experiences are the ones that connect to something that you are interested in.”

Bringing popular stories and characters into the classroom also makes social interaction with English speakers easier for the English language learners.

“For them, being able to gauge what their classmates are interested in and realize that it’s the same things they enjoy, it gives them a starting point,” Maloughney says. “It also gives them more language, since they might know the references in their language, but not necessarily in English. Hearing the reference in English helps them pick up the words for concepts they already know.”

Flipping the teacher-student hierarchy

All young learners can benefit when the popular culture they draw from to construct their identities outside the classroom is treated as valid curriculum content by educators, says Wallin.

“It’s important as educators that we attend to this complex life-world of students outside of the school and say ‘This matters and is deeply relevant to what we should be doing in the classroom,” he explains.

Maloughney agrees. “Kids are so much more ‘with it’ than people give them credit for. At six years old, a lot of them already understand that the adults in their lives don’t want to hear about how they got to the next level in Minecraft, or how they drew a picture of Iron Man because he’s their favourite Avenger. It’s sad. But if you give them the opportunity to talk about things that they are passionate about, they are over the moon.”

When teachers take their students’ interests more seriously, it also presents the opportunity for teachable moments where students can start questioning their consumption of media and develop critical thinking skills.

“As adults, we’re sometimes out of touch with children’s culture, and it’s important to understand the way things are marketed and how those forms carry ideological meaning,” says Wallin.

“Adding youth and pop culture into your teaching is not going to cost you more time, energy or effort,” says Maloughney. “Students know what they are passionate about and they will happily take their turn to be the teacher and teach you about something that maybe you don’t know.”

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From the comic book store to the classroom

Originally posted on illuminate. Written by k.barnes and m.henderson.

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich's collection. photo by k.barnes

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich’s collection. photo by k.barnes

Once thought of as a niche medium appreciated mostly by stereotypical middle-aged comic book collectors like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, the graphic novel has been steadily moving from the fringes to the mainstream since the late 1980s.

In anticipation of Readin Week 2016, we sat down with Gail de Vos, professional storyteller and long-time sessional instructor at UAlberta’s School of Library and Information Studies, and David Lewkowich, assistant professor in the Department of Secondary Education, to talk about this relatively new hybrid of text and image and its value as a medium for teaching and research.

De Vos has taught a course focused on graphic novels since 2001. Her favourite character is Baba Yaga, a witch from Slavic European folklore who is depicted as a villain in the comic book series Hellboy. Lewkowich, whose research interests include literary theory, young adult literature and cultural studies, currently loves the character Marlys Mullen, created by cartoonist and author Lynda Barry, because Marlys is able to look through the complexity of her older sister’s experience and tell a joke.

Responses have been edited for length.

Faculty of Education: Why did you start integrating graphic novels into your teaching and research?

David Lewkowich: It is important to me, especially on the first day of class, to help my students understand and break down the view that the “teacher” has a wealth of knowledge. Instead, it’s about creating a relationship and space where the teacher is a beginner every day. I find that comics and graphic novels allow an avenue into this world view.

Comics and graphic novels make us all beginners. There is no one right way to read them, as no one has been formally schooled in how to read comics.

Gail de Vos: As a professional storyteller, I began reading graphic novels and comics because of my research into reworkings of folktales in pop culture. After reading a lot of them, I realized that they are the closest print medium to oral storytelling and folktales. I was truly captivated by this whole idea, which led to my research and teaching on the subject.

Faculty of Education: How does the medium help you interact with students?

Gail de Vos: I often think about the importance of self-interpretation, which is something David has hinted at earlier. This is all about learning to be confident—that there is no right or wrong way to read this. Once a book is in the public domain, the author and illustrator, or sometimes just the illustrator, no longer have control over how the book is read. It becomes about how the reader responds to the illustrations. I often start my courses off with wordless graphic novels, so that there are no words to show the readers where to go.

Often people don’t know how to start reading a graphic novel. They want a “how to read graphic novels” explanation because of their previous exposure to text-based books. This is especially true when you start reading wordless graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I agree with Gail. There is something about how we have been schooled to read language in that we think that it’s a solid structure. There is something about the interaction of words and images, and images alone, that allows us to go more inside ourselves with our reading. It allows us to inspect the connections that we are making with the text.

photo by k.barnes

photo by k.barnes

Faculty of Education: What are the different themes that you seek to explore with students?

Gail de Vos: Self-discovery is a major theme that I’m interested in. It can be found in all forms of literature, and it’s a theme that is repeated over and over again in graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I love graphic novels that tend to explore themes around love, adolescence and memory. These are all aspects of human existence, where it’s all about unanswerable questions and how can we allow the text to play with us.

I’m also interested in how our past experiences in school and our early experiences with teachers can impact a teacher’s future teaching. Words alone don’t seem to fully capture the emotional complexity of these ideas or themes.

Reading graphic novels allows us to explore our emotional past in a way that words can’t. I know that when I set foot back in a high school working as a teacher, I dealt with a lot of insomnia and my own emotional frustration, both of which I didn’t expect; I see that happening again when I look at my students. Working with graphic novels allows me to help support students in their own emotional discovery.

Faculty of Education: What advice do you have for educators, librarians and other information professionals looking to integrate graphic novels into their work?

Gail de Vos: Read them for yourselves. For every class I teach, regardless of the content, I put graphic novels on the reading list. I also suggest using wordless graphic novels so students take time to appreciate the illustrations themselves. It helps students become more observant.

David Lewkowich: Encourage students to dwell on the page. It can be hard to slow down on the page, but when you do, you notice things that you may have thought were only tangential. Sometimes it’s these tangential moments that can add a lot more to the text.

Comics create a level playing field and allow for discussion where no one possesses the knowledge as to what is the meaning of the text and everyone can come to their own conclusions.


The University of Alberta is proud to be a partner of Read In Week Edmonton 2016. The purpose of Read In Week is to create a greater awareness of the importance of reading. Historically, the event has successfully promoted the school as an important place for the development of lifelong literacy. Read In Week Edmonton runs from October 3-7, 2016. Visit the website for more information.

Undergrad students gain a new perspective on education research

Originally published on UAlberta News.

Two undergraduate Elementary Education students were recipients of the University of Alberta’s undergraduate summer research awards, providing them with chance to work alongside professors in their fields for four months.

Both Marcus DeWitt and Stephanie Shannon received the Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Research Award, enabling them to gain valuable experience conducting academic research while working with faculty members on their projects.

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Working with math games: Stephanie Shannon

Stephanie Shannon, a second-year Education after-degree student, worked with Janelle McFeetors on a research project that uses games to help teach elementary school students learn math. The project showed Shannon that math learning experiences don’t need to be limited to the classic worksheets that many students dread.

“Kids can learn from hands-on experience or simple games,” says Shannon. “The games approach goes a lot deeper that you think it would. In the future, I would definitely incorporate games into the math-learning experience in my classroom.

Shannon started the summer by going out into a grade 4 and 5 split class, working with the students while they were playing the games. Her insights into the students’ changing mindset caught McFeetor’s attention.

“After we completed a classroom intervention and conducting interviews with grade 4 and 5 students, she pointed out how the students’ productive disposition grew as they were learning,” says McFeetors.

“What was interesting is this coincided with professional articles I had recently read identifying this as an under-developed idea in mathematics education.”

Later in the summer, Shannon moved into data analysis and transcribing notes. In the final month, Shannon tried her hand at a new skill– website design for learnmathwithgames.com. Not only did the project help Shannon develop new skills and ideas for her to use in her own future classrooms, and open her mind to possibility of doing more academic research in the future.

“This experience was  much different than what I experienced when doing research in my first degree, she says.

“With this project, I went to the classroom and met students. You get to have that personal connection with them, but you’re still doing research. It’s a great feeling to know that they aren’t just subjects. You actually get to know them and see how they have evolved.”

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Constructing timelines: Marcus DeWitt

Fourth-year Education student Marcus DeWitt spent the summer working with Lindsay Gibson on a project that saw grade 11 students creating interactive timelines about Canada’s history using flash cards. DeWitt applied for the research assistantship in hopes the project would give him an idea of what future opportunities in academia might look like.

“I’ve considered going onto do graduate work after I’m done my undergrad and I thought this would be a good introduction while giving me good experience,” says DeWitt.

“I’ve gotten to see data collection first hand– how you’d analyze, interpret and record it. It’s a pretty big part of the research-aspect of graduate work.”

On top of seeing how data collection works in an research project, DeWitt also learned more about students’ perceptions about Canadian history and how that impacts their engagement with the curriculum.

“At first it catches you off-guard, but after hearing 30 grade 11 students say the same type of thing, you realize the misconceptions they might have on certain aspects and topics,” explains DeWitt.

“You can definitely tell if the kids were on that day when you listen to the audio recordings. If it’s an issue that hits close to home, it’ll spark a ten minute conversation.”

Throughout the project DeWitt put his keen attention to detail to work, impressing Gibson.

“He identified key deductive codes from the interviews which has been very helpful in the data analysis process,” said Gibson. “His insights into the progression of students’ thinking as the study developed were very beneficial and have helped me develop next steps for this pilot project.”

Seeing the project’s gamification of Canadian history and how students engaged with it has influenced how DeWitt plans to engage his students.

“I’ve been thinking about Dr. Gibson’s approach to this project and I think it’s a great idea how he took a topic that a lot of kids might think is boring and made it into a challenge of sorts and make it fun,” says DeWitt. “It’s definitely something I’d look into doing in my classroom in the future.”


The Roger S. Smith Award is open to continuing undergraduate students. Information on how to apply can be found through the Registrar’s Office.

A Eulogy for Rocco — Sometimes I Think

My friend Thomas wrote this beautiful piece on his pup Rocco. Grab the tissues and read on. ❤

It’s taken me a while to be able to write anything about Rocco. On top of a profound sense of loss, something else rendered me inarticulate: some form of what I can only call trauma. Rocco’s last 24 hours were awful. I watched helplessly as seizure after seizure wracked his failing body. He fought so […]

via A Eulogy for Rocco — Sometimes I Think

Students get creative in summer course

Originally published on UAlberta News.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

This summer a group of future and current Career and Technology Foundations teachers honed their skills in the workshop.

The course, taught by Don McPherson, gave students hands-on experience in developing projects they could take back to their classrooms. From making end tables to gumball machines, this was a new experience for some.

“I’ve never touched any construction or woodwork, so this is a lot of firsts for me, but I’m having lots of fun and making a lot of cool things” said Jamie Lambert-Brown, a foods teacher.

More than having fun, the students are also learning how to teach

“I’ve learned how to make meaningful learning opportunities,” said Ryan Siemens, a future mechanics teacher.

“In this course, we learned how to connect projects to occupations, as well as other curriculum, so the students are learning, interested and engaged.”

Check out the photo gallery below to see more of the students’ work. 

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Secondary Education welcomes new Social Studies professor

Originally published on UAlberta News

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

Understanding and conceptualizing evil when learning about horrific events like genocide and war is a topic new Secondary Education faculty member Cathryn van Kessel has wrestled with since she discovered the extent of her family’s role in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.

“My grandmother’s family had resistance fighters, including the man who became my grandfather, in the basement or their barn when occupying Nazi troops would stop at their house while on their rounds,” explained van Kessel.

“I can’t imagine what it is like to make that decision. No matter what you choose to do, you’re putting your family at risk.”

The perception that youth have of the dark chapters of human history is something that van Kessel started exploring academically when she was a high school teacher covering “really disheartening things” such as the Holocaust and the Holodomor. This experience forced her to re-evaluate how she taught these topics.

“I wanted to teach for social justice and about these horrible events in history so we don’t repeat them,” she said.

“I wanted to make them feel, and not just hear cold statistics, so I’d show them things like the original footage from Auschwitz, thinking I was doing a great job. Instead I was destroying any hope they had for the future.”

Rather than repeating the same teaching method for future students, van Kessel started looking into other ways to present the heavy material and learning more about students’ conceptualization of evil.

“I was concerned about how we teach genocide, but at the heart of it, I was more interested in the idea of evil and how that can either shut down or open up thinking.”

As a PhD student, van Kessel kept busy working on this research, even presenting it in the UAlberta Three Minute Thesis competition. As a faculty member she plans to continue researching into youth’s perception of evil in social studies curriculum by collaborating with colleagues who focus on terror management theory, wisdom traditions, world views and bringing it to an educational perspective.

Transitioning from graduate student to faculty member

One of the unique parts of van Kessel’s transition from graduate student to faculty member is that she made the switch at the same institution and in the same department.  She considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to remain at UAlberta and continue working with those who supported her as a graduate student.

“I keep pinching myself to make sure it’s real,” she joked.

“I just want to make sure I’m making everyone proud. It’s such an honour to be counted as their colleague and they mean a lot to me already.”

One change in particular that van Kessel is excited for is the opportunity to pay it forward to the graduate students she will work with in the future.

“It’s fun for me to think of mentoring people through the process that is still so fresh in my mind,” van Kessel said.

“I think back to when I started my doctoral degree and all the skills I built. I hope I can give them all the great experiences I had when I was mentored by other people in the department.”

Mentoring future educators isn’t new to van Kessel, however. When she was a graduate student, she transitioned from teaching high school students into educating their future teachers. Something that always surprised van Kessel’s students is her use of diverse genres of music in the classroom.

“I’ll use metal and punk, but I’ll also use really sweet, gentle and melodic stuff like The Weepies. At the end of the semester I always get asked  ‘What do you actually listen to? Is it Public Enemy? Is it Rage Against the Machine? Is it The Weepies?’”

Still, educating the next generation of social studies teachers is a task van Kessel does not take lightly.

“In some ways it is more high stakes since you have a bigger ripple which can either be a really nice thing, or a really horrifying thing depending on how it goes, but I love it,” she said.

“It’s exciting to hear how these future teachers are wrestling with the these tough topics, and telling them that it’s okay for them to be grappling with those things and how they might bring that into the classroom.”

Northern students dig into science

Originally posted on UAlberta News.

Education professor Jerine Pegg holds a tiny red wiggler. Pegg brought a box of the earthworms to a group of students in Nunavut to keep their composting project alive.

Education professor Jerine Pegg holds a tiny red wiggler. Pegg brought a box of the earthworms to a group of students in Nunavut to keep their composting project alive.

Not everyone would take a box of worms through airport security for the benefit of students learning about composting in Canada’s North, but that’s exactly what Jerine Pegg did this past spring.

Pegg, a professor in the Faculty of Education, travelled more than 2,360 kilometres to Arnaqjuaq School in Hall Beach, Nunavut, to evaluate a Let’s Talk Science program focused on supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in northern communities. When Pegg heard the students’ red wiggler worms had died, she packed more with her so they could start composting again.

Working worms

“The school’s composting efforts will turn organic waste such as banana peels or paper into nutrient-rich soil for the gardening project,” explains Pegg.

“The worms will help speed up the process of decomposition in order to have good quality soil to use when school starts in the fall. This is important in a community where little vegetation grows and potting soil is very expensive to purchase.”

As a professor focusing on science education, Pegg believes the best way for students to learn is for teachers to bring realistic, hands-on science into their classrooms, even if it means taking local red wigglers onboard a plane with her.

“While I was at the school, on multiple occasions I walked past the classroom with the worm bin and students were hunched over it, watching the worms, spraying them with water, holding them, observing their movements and asking questions.”

Let’s Talk Science

Pegg originally became involved with Let’s Talk Science—an award-winning, national charitable organization—four years ago when she was looking for a context to continue her research on teacher-scientist partnerships. This trip was the first of a series of case studies she is conducting to examine the impact of these programs in various schools in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia and northern Alberta.

Over the past two years, Let’s Talk Science has been visiting Arnaqjuaq School running in-class activities with students and workshops with teachers. As a part of one of these workshops, teachers at the school decided to start a school-wide gardening project by composting and growing a few plants. Next year the school plans to grow plants in every classroom and eventually build a greenhouse.

The power of scientific inquiry

Beyond inspiring scientific thought and curiosity, the program is having an impact in other subject areas. For example, the school’s business teacher hopes to use the project to engage students in calculating the cost of growing the produce in the greenhouse versus buying it from the Northern Store.

For Pegg, this shows precisely why it is important to encourage students to get their hands dirty with authentic science.

“Science education can develop critical thinking skills, such as asking questions, making observations, inferring, analyzing and drawing conclusions,” she says. “Understanding science is also important for many decisions that students will make in their current and future lives, such as decisions about their health and their environment.”