Intersectionality: What “Diversity” Really Means

Posters created for Women’s March on Washington, 2017. Women’s Voices for Change.


When we talk about “Diversity” and “Diverse spaces”, what do we really mean?

Do we mean to include some people, and not others? Of course, we don’t mean to do that! After all, who intentionally goes out of their way to be exclusive?

In today’s political climate, we can’t afford to think about what intentions others had in mind when creating spaces for diversity. If a conference that focuses on gender diversity in education hardly has women of colour in attendance or represented, that’s inexcusable. We also can’t afford to hear excuses and defence. We didn’t have time… the topic was not on the agenda…we didn’t know who to reach out to…

Excuses show nothing but sloppiness, inconsideration and a lack of recognition of one’s own privilege.

I get excited to see amazing initiatives that focus around inclusion and diversity, especially when they happen in Canada. So when I came across a conference about women education in Canada on twitter that highlighted women leaders, I was disappointed to see that while their focus was on diversity and inclusion, all their speakers were White, and they even had a male speaker on the panel.

Don’t we have enough White men speaking on almost every issue? It’s time for them to give that platform to people who need to be heard.

This women’s tweet struck me as strange especially considering the fact that this panel could not speak for anyone like myself, much less other marginalized groups. Where are the women of colour doing amazing work in Canadian education? Where are different ability advocates? Are there LGBTQ rights educators represented?

I just wish the panel represented “everyone”.

I am glad someone else noticed, because it’s so exhausting for people of colour to constantly be the only ones who notice and speak out on these issues.

This panel in fact is a great example of what white feminism looks like. If you’re curious about what White Feminism means, please read this list of resources created by the Women’s March organizers.

Intersectionality matters! And that’s why to me this conference and every other conference that brands itself as inclusive and focused on diversity fails when they do not have proper representation of the people.

What does intersectionality mean? Merriam Webster defines intersectionality as the following:

It is not enough to talk about gender diversity, we must also intersect that with race, culture, ability, sexuality, and other types of intersections that go along with being a human being. We must not look to these issues as Black and White issues only, or Women Men issues. There are different intersections that we need to consider in order for us to be truly inclusive.

If you’re curious, I did try to bring up the issue to the organizers of that conference:

I worry that their reaction was more on the defensive side, than willing to learn and own the areas they need to work on and grow from. It’s so important that when we do mess up, or even just not consider an angle of an issue, that we’re willing to hear criticism and learn from our mistakes. Otherwise how do we grow to be better human beings? For me, like I said above, in this day and age, we can’t afford to make an excuse of “not knowing” or “we didn’t have time”.

Diversity is more than slotting a couple of minutes to discuss at a conference. We need to work on this throughout planning, decision making, advisory, outreach, communication, and so many other elements. This issue is systemic, and if we don’t try to work within and really reach into our own systems, and organizations to improve the culture, then we’re not going to improve or change the world.

If you’re organizing a conference, your outreach is the most important aspects to get all stakeholders’ voices included in the conversation. Let’s invite everyone to participate and truly exemplify inclusion and diversity, not just make attempts.

Disruption in Education: It’s a good thing, and it’s more than a buzzword

This post was originally published in International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today magazine. 

Screenshot 2017-04-04 21.52.29

Google defines disruption as a “disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity, or process”. We need to look at disruption as a concept to use and implement in education, not as a problem, but as a strategy to formulate solutions to current problems. Like many other trends in education, we also need to avoid the concept of “disruption” to be a mere buzzword, and we should work towards creating real tangible solutions.

Check out the whole magazine here, and my article is on page 36.

Meet @BlairImani the activist fighting for intersectionality and rights for those on the femme spectrum

Blair_Imani_Chinatown-39This interview was published originally on The Tempest.

Blair’s activism and presence on social media and in real life has been an inspiration to many women of color everywhere.

I connected with social justice activist Blair Imani after we both tweeted using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow, which was created by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, after Donald Trump alleged that Ghazala Khan’s reverent silence was due to Muslim women “not being allowed” to speak. Blair rose to prominence on social media after her infamous arrest last summer in Baton Rouge at a #BlackLivesMatter protest.

The image of her arrest, being dragged by two white cops, went viral on social media and really demonstrated the amount of violence, both mentally and physically, that Black people encounter on a daily basis.

Blair’s activism goes beyond social media: she works with Planned Parenthood as a Press Officer, developing communications strategies for their ongoing campaigns to help women have access to safe and legal health care. She also founded Equality for HER, a non-profit organization that seeks to uplift marginalized voices of women and people on the femme spectrum.

The Tempest: Can you tell us a bit about your background, and what inspired you to enter the activism space?

Blair Imani: Growing up in America, we are taught to put ourselves in a box to survive. My parents always taught me that this ideology was flawed and unnecessary, and for that I am grateful.

I was introduced into the world of activism and advocacy from a very young age, due in large part to my younger sister, Chelsea. Chelsea is two years younger [than me] and has always been a confident free spirit. Chelsea is on the autism spectrum and also has bipolar disorder. She didn’t speak in full sentences until she was four and had tantrums well into our elementary school years.

Growing up I didn’t understand why…my friends, family members, and teachers didn’t accept her. My parents were Chelsea’s constant advocates in a world that did not want to accommodate her. Preschool was a particularly difficult time. Chelsea was kicked out of two different schools. The private school I attended accepted her but would send her home when she had a tantrum, as we lived across the street. One teacher callously told my mother, “we don’t deal with this kind of behavior.” It seemed like everyone was eager to discard Chelsea.

I want to create an intersectional feminist space, one that valued different voices.CLICK TO TWEET

My parents always reinforced the notion that absolutely everyone, no matter their differences, abilities, etc., should be treated with respect and honor. When I was seven we moved to a new neighborhood and enrolled in a public school in southern California, K.L. Carver Elementary. The principal at the time, Liz Hollingsworth, [and] a team of teachers ensured that Chelsea would have all of the resources she needed to succeed. Chelsea was able to get free speech therapy, free sensory integration therapy, modified curriculum, and more. Now, Chelsea is 21 years old and runs her own Etsy store. She is a high school graduate, enrolled in higher education courses as she decides what she wants to do next.

Read Next:  32 people who prove #DisabledandCute is our favorite hashtag of 2017

I strongly believe that had it not been for the relentless advocacy on the part of my parents, DeWalt and Kristina, Chelsea would have been cast aside like so many members of our community who struggle with their mental health.

Tell us about Equality for HER. What inspired you to start this organization?

In 2014, I started Equality for HER, which stands for Health, Education, and Rights, because I was in a lot of different women spaces that were hegemonic. People had the same backgrounds, culture, language, and I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was really discouraged by the lack of intersectionality in the women’s groups to which I had access.

I don’t fit in a lot of spaces. And I was tired of it. People who are cis-gender were very welcomed, but if you were nonbinary or trans*, you weren’t welcomed. I wanted to create a feminist space that was intersectional, one that valued those voices who are different.

What are your goals for this organization? And do you have any upcoming projects planned?

Women/Femme History Month through Equality for HER. I like to be as inclusive as possible so instead of “women everything”, which is very cis-centric, I created a campaign that also features all members of the feminine identifying community. We use “femme” to make it inclusive for all genders. Monique Le is an artist who’s going to be doing all our artwork, and Glendon Francis will be doing all the bios for our different features. This year, we’re going to be making calendars, and we’re also going to be doing an e-book (inshallah).

This is a historical and systemic problem.CLICK TO TWEET

Working in Planned Parenthood, I am learning how nonprofits work and I am also learning how to sustain an organization with a larger movement, and that’s been very valuable for me.

What do you think needs to be done for women of color and folks on the femme spectrum for equality to become the norm in our society?

If any group is given access to the resources that they need to be successful and be their full potential, the equality question kind of evaporates. Take for example the Great Migration, a time when Black Americans fled the violence and racism of the south, only to be confronted with a new form of racism in the North. These families ended up being cut off from having homes, jobs, and resources because of the systems and barriers in place. This is a historical and systemic problem.

Where Black women were able to carve out opportunities for themselves, they were thwarted by very targeted laws such as mandates against running small businesses out of publicly funded housing. Studying this chapter of American history, it becomes very clear that  so many communities have, and continue to be, cut off from resources that they need to succeed in this society.

Can you share with us the backstory about what led you to convert to Islam?

I converted in 2015, and before I converted it really upset me that people felt that Muslim women were oppressed and were forced to wear hijab. I met Myam Mahmoud, who is a rapper and breaking down barriers wearing a hijab, and being around so many kickass, welcoming, and amazing Muslims activists inspired me to convert.

Who are some of your favorite activists currently doing similar work? Who do you look up to in the field?

I look up to my contemporaries like Linda Sarsour, DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and Sam Sinyangwe. I also look up to Angela Davis, a lot of my activism in college was informed by a desire to be like her. In trying to be like her I found myself. And of course John Lewis!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Social Justice Activism in the Digital Space

17039310_1202455816540800_1423831378427276039_oTwitter recently has added a new feature, where you can mute any account that doesn’t have verified profile information, like a photo, phone number or email address. This feature is particularly helpful for activists on Twitter. If you’ve ever tweeted about social justice issues, GamerGate, Trump, or any other political issues, you’d likely have come across an egg troll account that is specifically made to harass people.

This feature comes in particularly handy over the past few days, since I’ve tweeted about a counter-protest that’s happening in Toronto’s City Hall to unite against islamophobia. My Twitter account was mobbed by White Canadian nationalists. They were attacking me and writing about my activism on Twitter. This makes me feel very afraid for my own safety, and more importantly the safety of my family. 

The fact is the US Muslim ban and the new US administration’s anti-Islam rhetoric is rippling over to Canada. And this hatred and bigotry is beginning to show Canada’s racist roots that still need to be treated.

I spoke to a representative from Amnesty International last week. And they advised me on not crossing the US border at this time for my own safety. Muslims are being detained, mistreated, and harassed on Canadian soil. This is real, and non of this is “fake” news.

If you’re a social justice activist, or you want to get into this work, my biggest advice to you is to take care of yourself, first and foremost. I have my Twitter account now locked, because the harassment and abuse is very intolerable. And no one should have to go through this. I also suggest you take appropriate measures to communicate through private messaging apps. I was introduced to Signal actually by the Amnesty International representative, and quickly learned that several of my fellow news editors use it to communicate about their work. Here is a great article from Teen Vogue about how to keep your messages private.

Here are a list of things to think about if you’re an activist in the digital space:

  • Take good care of yourself: Know when to take a break from it all, and give yourself time to focus on you, your mental and physical well-being. This is the most important thing to consider.
  • Make sure you are connected with a supportive network: Having people to reach out to who know this work and how to handle difficult situations can be so helpful to keep you going in this line of work. 
  • Communicate using private messaging apps when organizing: Signal and Whatsapp are just a few examples.
  • Block and report: do not engage with trolls. Use the block and report options liberally. 
  • Don’t be discouraged: You are making a difference.

Despite what racists want me to do, I will be attending today’s protest at City Hall with many other organizations uniting against anti-Islam groups that are currently on the rise in our country. What they want, is for us to be fearful and silent. But they will not win.

Community Initiative: Solidarity Ribbon Campaign

One morning, after I dropped off the kids at work, I noticed a few white ribbons were tied around my neighbours’ trees and a couple of other neighbouring houses.


On the ribbon it had three words “All Faiths Welcome”. This was a couple of days after the Quebec shooting. It was also a couple of days after the executive order was signed to ban Muslims from 7 countries, one of which was our home country, from travelling to the US. Seeing the ribbon brought tears to my eyes, the fact that our neighbours were thinking of us in those difficult times meant so much to me, my husband, and our family.

I spread the word, so did my neighbours, who also told their neighbours, and a few days later, I saw many of them on the other side of the street. People were really desperate to do something, and I think the ribbons spoke to many, because it’s such a small and simple act of kindness, but also a strong symbol of solidarity.

Friday morning, my neighbour and I visited CBC News to talk about the white ribbon campaign that she initiated in our neighbourhood to help combat and raise awareness about Islamophobia after the Quebec shooting. The ribbons spread so the message is getting across to many of our neighbours, and community members.

My neighbour was so kind to start this campaign, but we need to keep the momentum going as she mentioned to me this morning. It’s important to remember that Islamophobia and bigotry has been something we learned to deal with our whole lives here. It’s nothing new. I am glad that there’s more awareness about it, but we still need to organize and build stronger communities together that explicitly fight this hatred.

If you’re interested in spreading this message in your neighbourhood, please check out the Solidarity Ribbons Facebook page. And if you’d like to listen to our 8 minute interview with Piya on Metro Morning, you can access the podcast here.

In the spirit of love, solidarity, and justice,


Organizing Against Islamophobia & the US Travel Ban

Protestors march along Yonge Street Saturday, February 4 as part of a national day of action opposing hatred against Muslims.
I attended an event organized by my community, Parkdale’s Legal Services at the local library. The event focused on addressing Islamophobia in Canada, the province, and the community, as well as the impact of the travel ban on refugees and immigrants.
The event could have used more Muslim voices on the panel. There was only one Muslim woman on it, and her story was great to hear. I appreciated the fact that an attendee called this out. The organizers claim they tried to reach out to Muslims community members, and the local Imam, but they weren’t available.
One of the important things in organizing, whether it’s a movement, events, conferences, etc, is that you have a diverse representation of voices, but most importantly, the voices of those who you’re trying to specifically fight for.
The event was great and I’d like to share some of the key points here, so that others benefit. It’s important to note that while many Canadians believe that this ban impacts people in the US, it actually is a fact that this impacts people worldwide. So, as a Canadian citizen, and as a Muslim woman who was born in Iraq, it’s important that people recognize how this impacts me, my family, and millions of others who are dual citizens, refugees and immigrants in the US and Canada.
Some of the demands that were made in the event were:
  • To immediately suspend the Canada-US safe third country agreement, and conduct a review of whether the US still meets the designation of a “safe country” described in the agreement.
  • End the Canada refugee resettlement backlog by immediately landing Legacy Refugee claimants.
  • Lift cap on private sponsorship of Syrian refugees so that Parkdale community members can work together to bring refugees to safety.

Continue reading

Resources to Teach about The #MuslimBan

Thousands of protestors gathered at JFK airport in New York City Saturday in protest of people detained under Trump’s executive order Friday. Stephanie Keith, Getty.

Many educators are often afraid of discussing “controversial” issues in the classroom. The word “controversial” here puts a shroud on many relevant topics, such as politics, daily events, history, social justice issues, equality, and many others.


What are you so afraid of? Having a healthy debate in the classroom? shouldn’t students be exposed to different perspectives than predominate hegemonic ones? Or are you afraid of “not getting it right”? if that’s the case, then one needs to take themselves out of the picture.

Discussing these issues in the classroom will not only benefit students’ knowledge, learning, and other critical thinking skills, but it’ll also be impacting the future generation. Do we want to raise kids who are complicit, docile, and shy away from having a point of view? Or do we want to raise strong citizens that can speak about their values and beliefs with conviction?

If you’re still worried about discussing the Muslim Ban in your classroom, I would suggest you read through this thread:

I didn’t create a lesson of my own, seeing I am not in the classroom currently, and frankly, this topic is still hard for me to discuss. There are though a few resources that you can use here:

  • #EduColor teacher and activist, Valencia Clay, created a #RefgueesWelcome lesson plan. It has great strategies on initiating the discussion with students, as well as several useful links and resources. Here is the lesson plan being use by fellow educator, Stephanie Hardinger’s 4th graders.

The last suggestion I’ll leave you with is, often times, all we need to be moved to create change is to look at images and analyze them:

#NoMuslimBan: A letter to my Muslim Brothers and Sisters

Alsalam alaikum,

How have you been? I know you’ve been suffering for a long time now. But this past weekend, we took a hard blow. We all did. Not one of us, all of us. It doesn’t matter if you are an Arab Muslim, an African Muslim, or a convert Muslim. Hearing that we are not welcome in a country we have helped to build has been something we’re just getting used to.

We go about our daily lives, work, family, homes, friends, and ignore the micro aggressions around us. We are good at ignoring the hatred, and bigotry that most of us encounter on a daily basis.

cladtwjvaamwo3nBut how can we keep going when there are now national policies being put in place to keep us out? How can we keep on living when our brothers and sisters, our family, our being kept away from us?

The Muslim Ban is a national threat to all of us. Not only Muslims, but everyone.

Where do you go when you’re surrounded by such reckless hate?

I have to breathe, and remind not only myself, and you, my brothers and sisters, that we can get through this. Our faith, our strength, and our solidarity can get us through this. We must stand up together, shoulder to shoulder, in the face of hatred and bigotry. We must not give in to evil. We must remain strong. And have faith that things will get better. And things will get better, because there is still some good in this world.

Yours truly,

A sister.


What is Impactful Work?

When I am asked “Why did you want to get into teaching?” my answer was often about making a difference, or creating an impact in education. That, and the fact that I also enjoyed working with young people who are still trying to figure out their goals in life.

ext-2Joining Ci.Strategy+Design, as an Educator-in-Residence, taught me a lot about Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Solution-Based Thinking, and more importantly, how to work with people to make an impact in the spaces you’re in.

What is Impact???

Google defines “impact” as: have a strong effect on someone or something.

extOur individual definition of impact can vary, from grand humanitarian acts that very few can compete with, to small acts of kindness that many of us can encounter on a daily basis. Mustefa Jo’shen, my partner at Ci.Strategy+Design, defines impact as “a third stage of a life-cycle, that begins with awareness, followed by engagement, which is measured by impact. That represents a change in the status quo.”

One of the most prominent social justice activist and Muslim women that I constantly look up to for meaningful and impactful work amongst many communities is Linda Sarsour. Her work is a constant source of inspiration to me and millions of people out there. To me, her impactful work goes through the cycle that Mustefa describes above, which is that it starts off with awareness. Sarsour constantly creates awareness campaigns about issues and causes that are meaningful to the communities, and puts urgent political and social issues at the forefront of her platform to educate and show people what’s at stake. Then she engages with the work, which means she actually goes and is on the ground doing the work herself, such as her most recent project, as an organizer for the #WomensMarch that occurred last Saturday January 21.

attends the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Linda Sarsour. THEO WARGO VIA GETTY IMAGES, Women’s March, NY. 2017.

Work, any work, can be impactful. It’s up to us how to design experiences for the people we work for, the culture we’re in, and the people we serve, to make sure that the work that we do makes a difference.

These days, I am learning a lot about helping people create an impact and making a difference.

How to Create an Impact

  • Understand the needs of others: We can’t begin to make a difference without knowing what problem needs to be solved. When working with schools, organizations, or companies we need to first understand the need of the stakeholders, and what they’re looking for.
  • Be Flexible: It takes a bit of flexibility, and even some patience, when working with others, and figuring out the work process. This is worth the work, because often times, the bigger the impact, the more flexible we need to be.


  • Little Steps, Big Difference: Don’t be discouraged by the how long the process and the timelines usually take. Often times, it takes quite a bit of time to work on and build something that is truly impactful. Also remember that those little milestones throughout the process, often make a big difference too.




If this sounds interesting to you, and you’d like to collaborate together, send me an email You can also check out the work we’re doing on our website. (We are doing research on our new design, and it can be accessed on a desktop).

Digital Writing for English Language Learners

Book Cover by Rebeca Zuniga.

The best part about publishing a book is knowing how it’ll impact students and teachers to make writing and learning a bit easier for everyone. In 2015, I was approached by Rowman and Littlefield editor, Sarah Jubar, to write about English Language Learners. She had read some of my Edutopia, Education Week, and personal blogs and envisioned one book to help students in ELL classrooms.

I had a baby and a toddler at the time, and I didn’t think I could do it. It meant that I would need to write during evening hours. With a lot of support from family, I decided to go for it. I felt that if there was ever a right time for me to write a book, it was now, and I shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity.

Late evenings had me believe otherwise at times. Like many difficult things in life, I pushed through this one, because the final product sounded like such a great reward and well worth sleepless nights.

I am excited it’s finally here! My book is currently out on pre-order on Amazon, and will be out this coming Spring, sometime in April. This book has many amazing contributions from so many great people, and I can’t thank them enough for supporting my work and always championing my cause.

Here’s a summary of my book, if you’re interested in using it in your English Language classroom:

Digital Writing for English Language learners looks at practical ways educators can implement the use of technology in their English and Language Arts classroom for English Language Learners. The book provides a variety of classroom activities and assignments that can be completed with English Language Learners using social media and other digital writing tools. The book also looks at creating a culture that fosters the necessary conditions for student voice to thrive in an English Language Learners’ classroom.

The book is available to be pre-ordered on Amazon here, in hardcopy and paperback. It’s also available to pre-order on the publishers’ site.

Social Media & Digital Citizenship 

A recent article on The New York Times discussed the “Unspoken Rules Kids Create for Instagram“. The article focused on how kids (middle school, and some high school) had unwritten rules on ways they engage on social media. For example, what types of images to post, how often, etc.

Common Sense Consus, 2016.

The one thing that stood out to me was how these rules were known amongst kids themselves, and actually had to be explained to the adults. We as adults, sometimes have the perception that kids don’t understand what it means to engage in a responsible way online. The rise of digital awareness and even being cognizant of cyberbullying issues in today’s youth could be as a result of the education that kids are receiving about digital literacy.


Screenshot 2017-01-07 23.05.05.png
Common Sense Media Census: Plugged in parents of tweens and teens. 2016.

However, I do think it’s also as a result of technology serving to be a great communication tool that allows kids to have access to social media, where they can see issues like bullying, prejudice, racism, sexism etc, being heavily covered.

Of course parents play a huge part in helping to raise the kids’ awareness of positive digital engagement and self-representation online. A recent study by Common Sense Census found that parents overwhelmingly have a positive attitude towards the use of technology and social media as tools to improve kids’ education and their development of important social skills.

Parents agreed that technology positively supports their children with schoolwork and education (94 percent). Parents also felt that technology can support their children by supporting them in learning new skills (88 percent) and preparing them for 21st-century jobs (89 percent). Parents agreed that technology increases their children’s exposure to other cultures (77 percent), allows for the expression of their children’s personal opinions and beliefs (75 percent), supports their children’s creativity (79 percent), and allows their children to find and interact with others who have similar interests (69 percent). Only 54 percent of parents felt that technology supports their children’s social skills.

This is interesting, because it suggests that parents *do* see the importance of technology and the impact it can have on teaching and learning.

However, the study also found that those parents who are concerned about their kids’ social media/technology use were less aware of their kids’ activities on devices/online.

What does this all mean?

It means several things:

  • The more parents/guardians talk and discuss the use of devices and social media with their kids, the more their kids use the “rules of engagement” on social media.
  • Discussing digital literacy and social media use in the classroom and schools helps students.
  • We have to trust kids once they’re given all our own “rules of engagement” on social media. They ultimately will make the right decision.
  • Talk to kids more. Ask them questions about what they do on social media, why do they do it…Questions should be judgement free…and kids will only open up if they do feel it’s safe to open up.
  • Do not underestimate the power of modelling! The study found that parents on average spend up to 9 hours of screen time everyday! Holy cow. If we want our kids to detach from their devices for a bit, it has to start with us.

So when it comes to social media and rules of engagement, kids are basically figuring out ways to better communicate with each other. To them, and this should also apply to adults, there is no difference between online and real life. Their actions online should replicate their actions in real life. From an educator’s perspective, it’s important to see that many students have already come to this understanding themselves. Then it doesn’t become a conversation about “digital citizenship”, it becomes a conversation about what it means to be a “good citizen/human”.



Equity in Collaborative Spaces

screenshot-2016-12-20-22-29-51We discuss collaboration in different spaces a great deal in and outside of education. We talk about the benefits of collaboration, the importance of it, and how it can look like. But do we ever discuss the downside of collaboration?

Do we ever spend enough time to focus on how collaborative spaces can be equitable and inclusive for everyone?

A few years ago, I collaborated with a White “prominent” education leader on an initiative. I mention that he’s white, because his part played a huge role in silencing me throughout the initiative. So race here is a vital aspect, as I do identify as a Muslim woman of colour. Therefore, to have a hand in the direct oppression and silencing of women of colour, one needs to identify the systems and identities at play in the work structure.

We were aligned on the mission and vision for the project in many different ways, except one: Equity.

Like many projects I’ve led, I shouldered the workload myself. Taking initiative on starting and executing on the project tasks. I was under the impression we were clear on what all members in the group (we had other members, but him and I were the main ones working on this, since we initiated it). Apparently, I was wrong.

He emailed me the week before the event was to take place asking me to back out and cancel it, since we “weren’t aligned” on major decisions, despite my and the team’s efforts to communicate them. Long story short, I refused to cancel what was a great project. I had to carry the torch for the entire group, to not fall apart, and ensure the success of the event.

Because when things fall apart, there almost always is a person there to pick up the pieces. And that’s often the work that needs to be done.

As a result of that I learned the importance of understanding and aligning yourself with equitable practices when entering collaborative spaces.

You might be thinking: “Well, I only work with good people, who won’t do what this guy did”.

We don’t *really* know someone unless you work closely with them. Even then, you still might not fully know them.

I’ve learned that collaborative spaces first and foremost need to ensure equity before starting the work process.

Continue reading

3 Diverse Children’s Books My Kids are Reading


For me, as a mom, it’s so important that my kids read diverse books in school and at home. Diverse books allows children to see that there is not one variation of what it means to be human. We’re all different, and representing that really well in books helps children to develop an understanding, empathy, and kindness of other cultures, races, and ethnicities around them.

The other day, when we went to our public library, I couldn’t help but notice the amazing display of diverse books in the children’s section. My two girls are almost 5 and almost 3, and they loved listening and looking at the pictures of these three stories:

Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke & Lauren Tobia

One World Together by Catherine & Laurence Anholt

God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmond Tutu & Douglas Carlton Abrams

What are some of your favourite diverse books that you read with your kids?


A Snapshot of the Tibetan Refugee Crisis


I met a wonderful lady today. She’s Tibetan from Nepal. She told me her story.

She has two kids, a 3 year old and a 7 year old. She arrived a few years ago in Canada, without them.

I asked her why.

“It’s too expensive to bring the kids. It’s easier if I come and sponsor them.”

“How much does it cost to bring them over?” I asked.

“Around 20 to 30K. For illegal passports and papers.”

“Why Illegal?”

“We’re Tibetan, so we’re considered refugees in Nepal. They won’t give us papers.”

“I have a lawyer here (in Canada), but he said it’ll take a while.” “I left and my son was 2 he’s close to 4 years old now” She tells me as her eyes well up with tears.

“But you know, I am here for my family. I hope to help them soon and bring them over.” “It’s hard, it’s very hard” She says with tears in her eyes.

I feel helpless listening to her story. My eyes tear up and I choke back tears as I look at my own two kids playing in front of me.

Please read here about the Tibetan people, and their refugee crisis.



How to Grow your Social Media Community

_sfjhrpzjhs-nasaA little while ago, a large publishing company consulted with me to get advice on how to engage their audience and build interest-based communities. 

Here is a snapshot of the framework I presented to them.

Your social media’s growth cycles are incremental to exponential, it embodies ripple effects to create organic growth cycles. These cycles form from your campaigns, publications, and projects.

What are these cycles?

Empower voices — Amplify voices — Engage voices.

Empower voices

Editors create opportunities for smart domain experts to create content on publications as writers. This empowers both parties’ voices as leaders.

What kind of voices do we empower? publication editors, current active writers, domain experts, thought leaders, external writers/editors/journalists, educators, students, budding writers, great ideas.

  1. Who are some of the people who would be interested in working on your platform?
  2. What kind of interest do they have?
  3. What domain do they belong to, if any?
  4. How can they help to support growth and development of communities/publications?
  5. How are they perceived in their community? Credibility/reputation/status/charisma etc…
  6. How can we leverage their support?
  7. Are there any risks involved in leveraging their support?

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Create a Safe Space for Students to be Heard: A Workshop

brene-rbownThe week before elections, I was invited to speak to The Hun School of Princeton students in New Jersey about the concepts of Grit and Resilience. The Hun School works to read 1 or 2 common books each year and have a conference about the theme of the books. This is such a neat way to get all students to connect to each other despite their grades and subject interests. It’s also a nice way to build a school community, by focusing on one theme as a school, you can see how everyone brings in their own experiences, interests and shared stories.

This year’s books that were chosen were Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand for the upper school, and Left for Dead, by Pete Nelson, for our middle school.

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Literacy Beyond Reading & Writing

photo-1440439307159-c3afc8a8e4ffThis post was originally published on The Writing Project.

When we hear the word “literacy” immediately some of the things that come to mind are: books, reading, writing, libraries, and maybe even magazines, newspapers. But we all know that’s not what encompasses literacy. Literacy moves beyond reading and writing. It includes the process of deciphering symbols, patterns, images to understand and come to meaningful conclusions about complex contexts, cultural understanding, and communication.

Do our students know that “literacy” moves beyond reading and writing?

Most importantly, how do we begin to break our traditional understanding of literacy to include wider meaning and contexts?

It has to start in the classroom. For many of our traditional classrooms, reading and writing are the core values that are focused on when it comes to literacy. We need to show students that “Literacy” moves beyond reading and writing and can encompass: cultural literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, digital literacy and much more.

According to Media Smarts, in 1987 Ontario was the first canadian province to mandate media education. The media strand still focuses on core strands such as oral communication, and reading and writing. However, it also adds an extra layer of including media mentor texts, media audiences, and media productions to strengthen students’ learning when it comes to reading, writing, and critical thinking.

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From Education to Entrepreneurship

4c8e51a7650c6d7c24b7c4f5f6c90832Leaving something that you have done for so can be a very challenging thing to do. There is a lot of initial denial, grief, and heartache. But it can also be a very rewarding step that you take to a new beginning.

Many years ago, I wanted to become a teacher not because I loved teaching so much, but because I wanted to make a difference in students’ lives. I wanted to make a difference in education, and be part of an industry that impacts students everyday. Social justice, social impact, and equity were my core passions, and I believed that education was the most appropriate place for me to make a difference.

Growing up as an English Language Learner and a refugee myself, I related to many of my students. I wanted to improve the learning conditions for them in the classroom. As an English professor, I asked myself daily: “How can I make a difference in students’ lives today?” Luckily, I taught English and Literature, and as English teachers, we use writing as a tool to empower our students’ thoughts and ideas.

Writing can make a difference in this world.

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How to Support Students in these Difficult Times


The world woke up on November 9 to the news that Donald Trump is America’s next president.

This is a nightmare to everyone who has been insulted and assaulted by Trump and his supporters. It’s a nightmare to Black people, Muslims, LGBTQI communities, women of colour, immigrants, Mexicans, and many marginalized groups who have been wronged and will continue to be wronged so long as he’s in power.

I received many emails and messages from teachers asking how they should help their marginalized student population. Many educators are grieving. This is not to say that Clinton was the perfect candidate, in fact, she was far from perfect. Clinton has played a huge role in what’s currently going on in the Middle East and North Africa. However, Trump is a bigot, a racist, a xenophobic, a misogynist, and he isn’t trying to hide any of it. In fact, he’s encouraging it.

This is already creating an unsafe learning environment for many students. Here are some of the incidents that have occurred so far, only one day after the elections.

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Global Storytelling: How it can impact students

Image by UK Department for International Development. July 8, 2014. Alia and Basma* (right), both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon, set up by UNICEF and Lebanese NGO Beyond Association with the help of UK aid. “It’s good to have the classes here”, says Basma. “I hadn’t been able to go to school for a year before because of the conflict. “I feel much better now that I’m learning again.”

When I was in grade 6, we had a social justice activist visit our classroom from South Africa. He shared his story of being part of the movement against the apartheid, how he was imprisoned, and the massive impact the apartheid had on his family, his country, his people. I remember listening very intently to his story, with my limited English at the time, and feeling a sense of connection.

I connected with him, because his story was heartbreaking, and communicated a sense of loss and tragedy. I also connected with him, because he was not home. He was telling his story to kids (and adults) who did not share his struggle and hardship.

I looked around the room and noticed the impact it had on my peers. I saw right then and there that he was making a difference, by educating my peers on an issue they did not know about.

In my new role as Executive Director of The Writing Project, I started working directly with teachers recently to help them introduce and discuss the refugee crisis in their classrooms. For several of the teachers I worked with so far, they wanted their students to learn about the crisis, but aside from knowing statistics and facts, the teachers wanted the students to hear a story from someone who’s experienced being a refugee.

Of course, it’s never easy to share my story with others, whether they’re adults of kids. It’s always difficult and brings back a lot of sad memories. But I also struggle with sharing my story, because I don’t want it to claim who I am as a person. I continue to share my story though, because it has shaped me to become the person I am now. But I share my story, because I want to raise awareness about this issue. I hope that when the kids hear my story, they’ll learn to be more empathetic to others who look different than they do. I hope that by sharing my story, kids will understand the importance of learning about other cultures. I hope that by sharing my story, I dismantle stereotypes and assumptions that society has created about refugee, Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East.

Global storytelling can have such a powerful impact on students, and I am lucky to be able to connect to these students, their teachers, and more importantly their reflections and takeaways from the experience of hearing my story, and learning about the refugee crisis.

Global storytelling doesn’t end with just telling a story. It’s so important to me that I connect with the teacher to figure out her goal of wanting to have the call with her class. What learning outcome is she aiming to achieve? What have the students been learning in class thus far about the refugee crisis? What were their thoughts so far about the issue?

It’s also important that students reflect on the topic and the experience. Some of the students whom I connected with were so excited to start writing about their takeaways. In fact, during our Skype call, they were so curious and had so many questions, that they guided the discussion with their questions. I was so surprised and happy to see how respectful the students were in listening and asking the questions. And most of them were very mindful that this is a topic that’s difficult for me to share.

Pernille Ripp already wrote about her classroom process and their takeaways from studying the refugee crisis. I really looking forward to reading all their responses and the teacher’s reflections from the whole experience. It’s so important that students write reflections about the topic, and if they can and are able to, to share these reflections. I believe that it is by sharing our ideas that we can connect with others and make a difference, and they can do that by writing and sharing their work with their peers and even digitally.

Working with Fabiana Casella, an EFL teacher and an ICT Specialist from Argentina, and her students on their cross-curricular world project on the refugee crisis was so rewarding. Seeing her students’ writing and ideas about the topic meant the world to me. It meant that students are listening, and are aware of this issue, and they’ll be working hard in their own worlds to make a difference. With Fabiana’s class, I recorded myself reading my story that was published on PBSNewshour. They then had many questions for me, which Fabiana recorded and sent, to which I replied to them in writing. You can check out Fabiana’s classroom project here.

When I saw that speaker, and was able to connect with him, that moment stuck with me forever. Global storytelling with students is such a great way to connect students to the issues and topics that are being discussed in class. Global storytelling is also such an incredible way to help other students feel a sense of belonging, assurance, and affirmation of who they are, and what they believe in.

Rusul Alrubail is the executive director of The Writing Project, a platform that helps to empower the voice of young learners with critical thinking and digital literacy skills to be their own advocates. 


Planting a Seed – Our Project on the Refugee Crisis

Pernille’s class did a unit on the refugee crisis, and I was honoured to share my story with 3 of her classes. I love the process that she did to guide her students through the topic. By having students debate, discuss and ask questions about a topic that’s causing a great deal of discussion, outrage, and intolerance is so important to help students see and understand the urgency of the situation. Please have a read and I hope this Pernille’s lesson inspires you to start the conversation with your students.

I grew up in a home that had a newspaper on our table every morning.  Laid out for us kids to see, we grabbed the comics first, then the Danish news.  I was a teen when I started reading the international news.  Being aware of the world was something that was expected of us, after all, Denmark is a small nation.  We read the paper, we listened to the radio, we watched the news.  Not always fully attuned but always aware of at least some of the bigger things happening in the world beyond our own.

Being a globally aware and invested teacher is something I have tried to live and breathe for many years now.  After all, the Global Read Aloud was created with the idea of making the world not only smaller, but also more interconnected to create more empathy and kindness.  My students have therefore in varying…

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Who Am I? Help Students Explore Their Identity

This post was originally published for Annenberg Learner foundation

Image copyright: badmanproduction / 123RF

Being an English language learner, in middle school, was a really difficult experience. I had many questions about my identity, and who I was as an individual. This was a result of the language shift, but a culture shift played a huge role in this complex narrative that played in my head as well.

As a result of this experience, it was so important for me (the teacher) to create a safe classroom culture where students can explore, discuss and more importantly, express their identity. One of the important benefits from being able to discuss one’s identity is for students to feel confident in who they are as individuals. At the same time, identity exploration in the classroom can help students to also develop an appreciation for diversity in their communities and ultimately be more empathetic for others.

A teacher can help to facilitate an activity in the classroom that focuses on identity expression by using prompts to get the conversation started. For example: ask students to explore some theme questions that deal with identity, such as “Who am I?” “What do I care about?” “What do I want others to know about me?”.

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“Find out why you feel that way and take a step back”

My interview with Rolland Chidiac, listen to it here:

In this episode I chat with Rusul Alrubail. Rusul is an education writer, consultant, and blogger who is currently working on The Writing Project, a platform that fosters and nurtures student literacy and voice. Prior to her work with the Writing Project Rusul was a Professor at Seneca College who taught English and literature courses to first year college and undergraduate students. Rusul is a big believer in the power of student voice to create positive changes in people’s lives.

Listen in to what Rusul had to say about her current work – going from being a college Professor to working with #EduColor and Edutopia (building communities at the Writing Project), pronouncing her name properly and the importance of addressing people by their proper names, her story and the motivation/inspiration to do a TED talk, #EduColor (inclusive collective that focuses on issues of race and culture in education), the positives and negatives of her work with EduColor, her experiences/perspectives with racism (via gender), the importance of hearing diverse stories (getting to know different cultures and who people really are), her blog site, and what she would say to someone to help them get motivated/inspired (become aware of why you don’t feel motivated and then take a step back).

Do Not Silence Women of Colour

Through years and years of silencing, I learned that people’s hidden biases will attempt to silence the voices of women of colour. Society has conditioned them to believe that our voices do not fall under dominant hegemonic cultural expectations, and therefore aren’t worthy of being heard. 

I chose this image of Black Muslim sister, Blair Imani, getting arrested for peacefully protesting in Baton Rouge. While silencing of women of colour explicitly and violently happens daily, in protests, activism, policing and other racist acts, the silencing of women of colour also happens on a daily basis implicitly, professionally, and silently.

Advocate staff photo by BRIANNA PACIORKA — Law enforcement arrest Blair Imani during a protest on East Boulevard in downtown Baton Rouge on Sunday, July 10, 2016.

I am struggling to write this post, because I don’t exactly know what I should be sharing about my experience with being silenced by whiteness. If you’re reading this, and are not familiar with the concept of whiteness, please read here.

So here’s a list of “don’t” to everyone who’s ever been involved in the systemic silencing of women of color. When you see this happening to anyone, don’t stay silent. Speak up and tell them it’s wrong to silence women of colour.

Don’t take our ideas without giving us credit.

Don’t use our voice to further advance your agenda.

Don’t interrupt us.

Don’t tell us we can’t do something. Especially when we worked so darn hard to do it already!

Don’t stop us from doing anything. 

Don’t speak about diversity when you’re not interested in hiring people of color or getting them on board of your organization.

Don’t use our voice.

Don’t ignore us. We’re here. And we’re going to get louder.

Don’t steal our work, thoughts, tweets, and writing. We know when you do. 

Lastly, and this is a do: Celebrate with us.

Why is there so much hate? Hate that won’t even be recognized as hate?

Why not amplify our accomplishments instead of trying to put us down, or worse, ignoring it all together?

Yes, this is an angry post. I am tried of dealing with this every single day. I am tired of watching my strong, beautiful sisters of color dealing with this on a daily basis. It’s discouraging, and dehumanizing.

Be a source of empowerment and positivity. Don’t suck our energy, discourage and silence us.


Higher Education is Pushing More Professors into Poverty

The summer of 2014 I received a phone call that would forever alter my career as an English professor. The chair of my department called me to tell me that the college will be getting rid of contract faculty starting January 2015. Of course, I was a contract faculty there. My heart dropped. My mind raced.

“Why? Does that mean I won’t be teaching anymore?”

“Faculty will have an option of either going part time (6 hours a week) or sessional (over 15 hours).” My chair answered.

Seneca students helped distribute leaflets to their classmates as they waited for the bus.

“Okay” I stammered, “that’s not so bad, perhaps I can make it work”.

“I am glad you’re looking at it from a positive light, if you have any questions, I’ll be in my office this week”.




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Five Ways to Advocate for Justice in Education

A slide from Dr. Ruha Benjamin’s Tuesday Keynote at ISTE2016.

This post was originally published on Teaching Tolerance

“We live in a time of crisis,” warned Dr. Ruha Benjamin in the beginning of her opening keynote at the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. Benjamin, an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier, is the first black woman to keynote this conference.

And the space and timing were ripe for her message: We live in an era when people who are different are treated unfairly, when people of color have to defend their mere existence. Yet, we can all do something about it.

Take the education technology world. One of the major criticisms of ISTE, known as “the premier education technology conference,” is its lack of racial and ethnic diversity among speakers. That’s why Benjamin’s speech was such a groundbreaking and historic moment. Her fearless voice shattered the facade that this event is solely about technology in education. Instead, she shifted the focus to the heart of what makes education so vital: how we can help build a system that supports students and all their identities.

Benjamin called us to fight against oppressive systems in education, which she described as “parallel realities where some are nurtured and others are crushed.” She then reminded us that our inaction can be just as hurtful as outright support of those systems’ inequities and injustices. This point stood out to me, and I kept wondering what we, as educators, can do to change unjust conditions in education for students and teachers of color.

I caught up with her later that evening to chat about empowering voices in the education community and speaking out on such crucial issues as equality and social justice. I took away a few key points on how educators can work to bring about social change and justice in our classrooms and schools.

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The Toughest Lessons Learned: Conversations on Race

“In a sense the limitations of Orientalism are, as I said earlier, the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region.” ~ Edward Said

Edward Said, “Orientalism” 1978.

The first time I read Edward Said’s “Orientalism” was when I was doing my Master’s in Literature, back in 2008. I remember signing up to do a seminar about it. I also remember my professor guiding me to refute Said’s argument. That the West “others” the East because of their admiration of our goods, culture, ethnicity, and beauty.

I didn’t know any better, and did so much research that week in order to formulate an argument I didn’t believe in. Here is what I believed in:

  • The West others the East, and there is nothing good about that.
  • Colonialism is wrong now matter how you put it.

During that seminar, my own people argued against me. Or in better terms, schooled me. What’s shocking, is that I didn’t feel like I’ve failed, or embarrassed. I felt like this was the first time ever someone was showing me how to have a proper conversation about race. Conversation that involved theorizing and synthesizing.

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Show Solidarity with Words & Actions


This post was originally published on José Vilson’s blog. 

“Your silence will not protect you”

Audre Lorde calls for our silence to be transformed into language and action in her 1977 speech. But if our silence will not protect us, then why do we hold on to it for comfort? Why do revert to silence when we witness, see and read about the injustices and cruelty of this world? Why do we let fear take over? Why do we let compliance sink in?

There are many reasons for silence. But I am not looking to hear reasons and excuses for your silence or lack of action. I am here to tell you that while educators dominate the Twitter-sphere with their skyrocketing number of tweets and followers, only a small fraction of those tweets are dedicated to discussions on racism, social justice, inequity, Islamophobia, homophobia and other systematic prejudices. Conversations are happening, but they’re a very minor, and often times you see them in spaces where people of colour have already paved the way for them, such as on #EduColor and#SoJustEdu.

Pew Research Centre published survey results on social media conversations about race. According to the survey, “two of the most used hashtags around social causes in Twitter history focus on race and criminal justice: #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter”.

So then why are educators so silent when it comes to race conversations? 

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Supporting First Nations, Métis, & Inuit Education: How do we maintain momentum that is driving us toward change?


       I am Not a Number, a children’s book written by Jenny Kay Dupuis & Kathy Kacer. Illustrated by Gillian Newland.

As we get ready for a new start to the school year, we look back on some of the most important issues to cover, and learn more about how to support educators and students to reflect on some of the best practices for supporting their own growth of understanding the world around them. Equitable pedagogical practices and culturally responsive teaching happens with intentionality and purpose. So it’s important to be mindful of focusing on marginalized issues that we rarely hear about and discuss in the classroom and schools. With that, I am honoured to interview Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis to discuss ways to support aspects of Indigenous learning in the education system, and how we can each make an impact through knowledge and action on First Nations, Métis and Inuit issues.

  • How do you view the term ‘reconciliation’? What question(s) should we be asking ourselves when it comes to supporting reconciliation?

Nearly eight months after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) Final Report was shared, organizations across Canada are looking for meaningful, authentic ways to support Sections 62 to 65 of the report which focuses on areas of education and reconciliation. Although we talk about the concept of reconciliation between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Canadians, we need to make an enduring commitment to go beyond ‘just talking’ about reconciliation. We need to seek out authentic opportunities to respectfully listen to and understand the complexities of histories (“community memories”) and how it has impacted today’s generation, so that as citizens and caring school-community leaders, we may have the opportunity to move towards action-oriented change and fulfill reconciliation in a meaningful way.  

As a matter of principle, we need Indigenous voices at the forefront to help others understand the accuracy of details and the authenticity of values. For many years, Indigenous people’s voices were silenced due to the impacts of assimilation policies. Considering this, we need to ensure that Indigenous people have a place where their voices are at the centre of this conversation.

So the questions that we perhaps need to ask ourselves include: (1) “How do we respectfully maintain the momentum that is driving us towards change?”; (2) “How can we all make a conscious, genuine effort to ensure there are spaces and places for Indigenous peoples to be part of this change?”

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How To Create a Culturally Responsive Classroom for Refugee & Migrant Students

Lebanese teacher, Nathalie Jaber, helps a Syrian student in a school in the Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan.

I had an interview last night with Shelly Sanchez for her BamEd Radio show. The topic was The Teacher Challenge: Strategies to help migrant and refugee students feel comfortable in the classroom. It’ll be aired in a few weeks, but after doing the interview I had a chance to reflect on our conversation.

I told Shelly that discussing the topic of refugee and immigrant students is one that is special to me, while I feel passionate about the topic, it also brings back a lot of unhappy memories. Memories of fleeing our country. Memories of arriving to Canada and going through a huge learning curve and culture shock in school. So while I feel very passionate to help teachers help refugee and migrant students, it comes at a cost that requires a lot of self-care and other healing strategies. In a way, discussing and writing about this topic has been a strategy for me to cope and heal.

Being a refugee at the age of 11 has taught me so much about teaching, learning and meeting the learning needs of my own students when I was teaching.

Here are some strategies to try out in the classroom to help create a culturally responsive environment for all students:

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Parent Challenge: That First Day Greeting

momanddaughterI was just chatting with my sister about first day of school, our fears and anxieties about our kids starting kindergarten and daycare! For those of you who know, I am currently full-time at home with my two young daughters. My oldest, 4 will start kindergarten this September, and my youngest 2.5 will start daycare for the first time.

I am dreading so much of it and I never thought that I would feel this way when the day finally comes when I don’t have my days full of juggling kids activities, shopping, playgrounds, and so many other things that keep me occupied with them throughout the day.

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Equity for English Language Learners

This post was originally published on Edutopia as a part of the #EduColor series on race, equity and social justice.

Courtesy of Edutopia.

To understand English-language learners’ need for equitable education, we must first look at the dramatic increase in the numbers of ELLs in U.S. public schools. Between 1997-1998 and 2008-2009, the number of ELLs in public schools increased by 51%. However, the general student population only grew by 7% (Center for American Progress). ELLs are the fastest-growing student population with approximately six million currently enrolled in public schools (TESOL International Association).

Consequently, equitable practices both in and out of the classroom must be implemented to ensure that English-language learners get a fair opportunity not only at learning, but also at excelling in learning.

Ensuring Fair Assessment

With all of the standards and testing that teachers have to conduct in the classroom, it’s important that we ensure a fair assessment for ELLs. When we assess this population, we must remember to separate language skills from content skills. Some of these language skills include vocabulary, comprehension, phonology, grammar (syntax), and meaning (semantics). Content assessment focuses on whether or not the student was able to grasp the subject matter. Duverger (2005) suggests that “another way of disentangling the effects of language proficiency on content proficiency is to have a double scale of criteria: criteria relating to the content being delivered and criteria relating to the language being used.” This is a helpful strategy as it allows the teacher to create some sort of scale or rubric to easily identify the language skills during and after assessment.

Providing Students With Quality Instruction and Resources

To many ELLs, the learning opportunity that they receive is different than their native-speaker counterparts. Research suggests that effective English-language learning classrooms foster a strong environment of collaboration, dialogue, and group engagement. It’s important that students have multiple opportunities throughout the day to engage in conversational-style learning with their peers so that they can practice their oral language skills. Working collaboratively also fosters a culture of community in the classroom.

Research shows that ELLs can experience two categories regarding the quality of instruction:

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Three lesson ideas for teaching your class about Eid al-Fitr

This blog was originally published on The Guardian. While Eid al-Fitr was last week, these activities can work well with another upcoming Eid al-adha to help cultivate a feeling of belonging and safety for Muslim students and students of colour in the classroom.

As fasting in the holy month of Ramadan draws to a close, some 1.6 billion Muslim people around the world will celebrate Eid al-Fitr on Wednesday 6 July 2016.

When translated from the Arabic, Eid al-Fitr means “festival of breaking the fast” and traditionally lasts up to three days.

As families and communities across the UK prepare for the celebrations, teachers might be wondering how to bring the festival to life in their classrooms. Some pupils might not be familiar with the meaning and significance of Eid to Muslim students. It’s important to create a safe and mindful environment where all students to feel comfortable, and those who practise Islam can celebrate.

“Celebrating who we are” activity

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Getting Started with Writing: Create a Topic

cA4aKEIPQrerBnp1yGHv_IMG_9534-3-2So you’re starting an essay?

Here are some steps to get you started…

Topic: What is your research topic?

Explanation: Choose a topic that you’re interested in writing about. If your teacher gave you the topics, think of a specific aspect of the topic you’d like to discuss. For example, if you’re writing about “Social Media”, ask yourself: What about social media do you want to discuss?

Example: Your topic here would combine the two: “Social Media and social justice activism”. More specifically, maybe you’re interested in discussing:

“trending hashtags that relate to a specific social/political cause”

Why is your topic important? What is your research topic?

Convince us why this topic is important and why we should care about reading it. Provide some facts, research, examples, or a powerful quote.

ex: With trending hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter #YesAllWomen and #IdleNoMore, social media has become a powerful tool for social justice activism.

Here is an example using The Writing Project:


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Bring Digital Literacy & Citizenship to Your Class

This post was originally published here on Annenberg Learner.

Ms. Ferrales students participate in a class discussion on the Haitian Revolution in Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

Before my class started blogging and creating digital stories, they had many questions regarding online use of blogs, social media platforms, and YouTube. Some students, rightfully so, were concerned about their privacy. Some students were more concerned about their communication and the digital footprint they would be leaving. As a result, before we were all comfortable with displaying our work digitally, we needed to address these concerns.

When it comes to digital citizenship, there are several elements (including elements of digital literacy) that are important to discuss and understand. Mike Ribble identifies 9 digital citizenship elements. In my classroom, I found myself covering the following:

To see the rest of the post check it out here.

Systems of Adversity: For the Love of Teaching – TEDx

I did a TEDx on May 14 at Kitchener, Waterloo. My talk discussed the need for each of us to find and share our voice. Through my own experiences moving through the Middle East and eventually settling in Canada, I attempt to show the power of finding and sharing your voice even when others may try to suppress it, calling on educators to enable their students with love and empathy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you have had any similar experiences of adversity in your life.

4 Goals for #ISTE2016

I am at #ISTE2016 today with The Writing Project team. We arrived last night at 9 pm, but it was 11 pm EST (my timezone). So I was a bit tired but it was still so exciting. This morning we had breakfast with #Edumatch and #Edspeakers members!

I heard from many educators that when we attend ISTE, it’s important to pace yourself and make sure that you’re getting some downtime from all the conference events. The conference has yet to officially start, but I have created a few goals to get out of #ISTE2016 this year, and I hope this list helps you:

  • Connect with my PLN one of the most important things for me is to connect with my professional learning network. It’s so important for me to connect with people whom I’ve already connected with online. After all, if we know each other online and are in the same space, why not say hello and meet face to face? Connecting with our PLN is still one of the most amazing and fascinating experience for me when attending international conferences.
  • Share the Learning This may be a bit obvious, but often times when you’re at a conference, it gets super busy and we might not have enough time to actually tweet, Periscope etc. So my goal is to be intentional about it, but to also enjoy the moment.
  • Go with the Flow Which brings me to my next point, go with the flow! I plan on going with the flow and being okay with that. If a conversation happens that stops me from going to a session, I’ll be fine with that, because after all, some of these most spontaneous moments can create the best connections.
  • Make time for Downtime I learned today that it’s important to take some downtime from all the excitement. It can get a little overwhelming, meeting people, having conversations, getting stopped in the hallway, so I plan on visiting the Blogger’s Cafe for some relaxing time, and who knows, maybe I’ll even get to write a blog post.

Here is what happened today at the #EduMatch/#Edspeakers meetup:

I finally got to meet my amazing friends Shelly Sanchez, Sarah Thomas, and Valerie Lewis. And many other fabulous educators. I feel so lucky to be here, not many educators have this opportunity to connect, share and learn at such a large event.

We also hosted the #Edumatch / #Edspeakers meet up which was such a success! Valerie, Sarah and Shelly stressed the importance of finding your passion and communicating your passion to others. Most importantly help others to see that educators can be entrepreneurs, and be passionate about creating projects that make a difference. We then discussed the importance of #Edspeakers and why we need to have diverse voices in education to speak, present and be influencers.

Are you at ISTE? if you are, let’s connect and say hi!


Why We Should Care About Equity & Social Justice as Educators

This post was originally published for Teacher2Teacher
Have you ever walked into a room full of people and you were the only one that looked visibly different? If you haven’t, chances are you’re lucky, maybe even privileged to not have ever been in this position, but I encourage you to read on and walk in my shoes for a bit. If you have, I know how you feel.
Years and years ago, as a muslim student of color, life was tough. My struggle wasn’t because no one looked like me, my struggle was that many students looked like me, but none of my teachers did. Why does that matter? Research suggests that we are biologically wired to empathize with people who look like us. Teachers could not understand what it was like being me, a former child refugee, now struggling to learn english and make friends.
Fast forward years later, I am one of the very few muslim women who work at my college, and the only one in the department of English and Liberal Studies. All this, combined with being a new young teacher, led me to feel very isolated, in a profession where I needed collegial support the most to retain my enthusiasm and positivity for students. Of course, my colleagues were wonderful, but this wasn’t about them being good human beings or not, this was about my wanting to relate to someone on the same level of experience, mindset, and background. So I tell my students this: “We discuss social justice and equity in the classroom to help raise awareness that these issues directly touch our lives, and if we don’t speak up for ourselves, then who will?” My students all agree and in fact voice this same sentiment to me in so many ways. Some of them are international students, some of them are English Language learners, many of them are students of color, some of them are white students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some of them hope to make a difference. They are my students, and I love them all, and I care about issues that touch them on a daily basis.
We are all impacted by equity and social justice issues, some of us are more impacted than others. Teaching about these issues helps raise awareness, and allows students to think critically about their stance on such topics. Teaching about equity and social justice issues though also makes our teaching and our pedagogy relevant.
And since those issues were near and dear to my heart, it was a great surprise to me that they weren’t discussed at all when I became a connected educator on Twitter. Twitter was and still is a great way to connect and learn from many educators globally, but the lack of discussion of equity and social justice created that same feeling of walking into that staff room and felt like I didn’t belong. One day, I saw tweet inviting us to join a chat focused on racial and social justice in education. I was very excited and added it to my calendar. That evening, when I joined #EduColor’s first chat and I also discovered the importance of joining affinity groups in education. Joining the chat led to my invite to join #EduColor movement as a member and most recently, a steering committee member. #EduColor is a movement that focuses on issues of race, culture and ethnicity in education. We advocate for equity for students and teachers of colour and other marginalized individuals whose voices rarely get heard. As a result of joining #EduColor, I feel supported, empowered and driven to continue to advocate for issues I truly feel passionate about. Probably the biggest benefits of joining #EduColor is building close relationships with educators who have had the same struggles I’ve experienced. Their support and constant wisdom truly does empower an educator in the classroom. Here are a few tips on how get started with teaching about Equity & Social Justice issues:

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Teaching Inquiry Strategies to Improve Students’ Writing

SeattleClass-300x225My favourite part of teaching English has always been the freedom that comes with teaching it. As an educator, I never feel like I am bound to specific rules or instructional strategies when it comes to teaching writing to students. As explained in Reading & Writing in the Disciplines, writing is a process that students work on to improve over time. My goal as an educator has always been to empower students to believe that their writing voice is important, and that they have something to say. This epiphany didn’t come to me easily though. My students, many of them are struggling writers and a lot of them are English Language Learners, have a hard time engaging critically with works of literature: short stories, novels, etc. When students can easily engage with the text by reading, they have a much easier time writing about that same text.

One day during a writing workshop, as I was helping one student decide what topic to write about, I found that I was asking him a lot of questions. My questions were scaffolded, and they moved from description to analytical questions. As the student answered each question, he was able to discover his focus. The success of using inquiry to strengthen students’ writing is also what led me to create The Writing Project.

Here are some examples of questions to ask students to help them to understand and interpret text:

– See the rest of the blog at Annenberg Learner blog.

4 Ways I Like to Spend My Summer

How many times did you come home and still did school work or thought about that student that was just way too chatty in class? Teaching is one of those jobs that is very hard to avoid bringing home. Some teachers do manage to leave work at work, but for the majority of us, it’s constantly on our mind. We often get so caught up with our roles as teachers that we don’t have time to look to learn things outside of our own professional development. A while ago, this was something that was on my mind constantly, I wanted to learn about something completely new outside of teaching. And for a while, I had no idea what that may be. This required me to reflect about my own personal interests outside of teaching that I wanted to extend.

I decided to reflect with my students: what are The Ingredients of Me? We decided to do this activity to find out a bit more about ourselves outside of our current roles: teacher, students, parents, brothers, sisters, and much more. Our discovery led us to think that even though we might only be doing an activity we enjoy as little as 8% of the time, this might be something we’d like to further develop.

Here are a couple of things that I want to learn more about that can also be transferred into teaching and the classroom:

Writing Join a local writing shop to write with others and get feedback on your writing. If you’re a teacher blogger this can help you improve your writing, but also motivate you to be consistent in writing. There are many local writing workshops that are free to join, some are in the evenings some are on weekends. My favourite ones are 1 hour a week, where writers meet to just write solid writing for one hour, then they can choose to share their writing or not, but in this way, it’s not time consuming and pushes us to actually focus and write. One bonus benefit of local writing workshops is that most of them are held in local coffee shops, so it’s a very relaxed, no-pressure type of environment.

Photography During a local neighbourhood Fall fair, I discovered that there are several photography classes near my area. While these are courses and require more commitment, if one has the time to devote to learn something new, why not? The classes for beginners are especially interesting because they go over the basics. The basics help you sharpen your skills even when taking a simple picture of your classroom, or an activity you completed with your students. Your Instagram friends will start asking you for tips!

Design Thinking I only learned about Design Thinking as a process about 3 years ago. So when I joined the Design Cofounders team, and witnessed how they apply to on a day to day basis to solve problems, I saw how useful that knowledge can be in and outside of education. Design thinking is a very solution-oriented process and this helps with forming and shaping our understanding of problems on a day to day basis. However, the biggest benefit of learning about Design Thinking, is the process itself. Its emphasis on iteration, collaboration, brainstorming, feedback, solution-based thinking and most importantly, empathy are all skills we can benefit from on a daily basis.

Digital Communications This is the most fun topic for me to learn about and explore, and probably the biggest! Digital communications is so much more than using social media daily. There are so many aspects of digital communications that we can delve into and they directly impact how our students see information transmitted to them everyday. Community building, engagement on social media, digital literacy, infographics, illustrations, all impact how we see information and understand it. Now you’re wondering how you can learn about all of this? Diving into social media and building your own digital presence through profiles, writing, sharing and collaborating can teach us a lot. You can also check out the articles here and select an angle that fits with your interests.

Our interests define who we are as people, and it’s only human nature that we work to connect our learning with our daily roles. It’s really important for educators to look outside of education for knowledge but also for hobbies. It helps us to de-stress, step outside our immediate work pressures and focus on something new. This helps us to feel rejuvenated and renewed when we enter the classroom, because not only can we share our knowledge with our students, but to step outside our comfort zone and gain a new perspective.

“Why is your point important?” On the importance of Analysis in Writing

This post was originally published on The Writing Project’s Blog.

When we write, it’s important that we try and think about the reason why you’re writing your point. This helps us to stay focused on making our point clear to the reader, and helps to push our thinking to the next level. Instead of focusing on “what” and “how” the story was told, think about “why” this point is important for the readers to know about.

This moves writing instantly from being descriptive to being analytical. Analytical writing means that critical thinking is used to communicate a strong message.

For example:

Your analysis allows the reader to understand your point of view, but also to be able to form their own perspective and opinion about your ideas. This helps to make your writing stronger and more engaging.

How Teachers Can Take Charge of their Professional Development

NetworkCircle123rf-300x283Isolation in the classroom is a serious feeling that many teachers suffer. I was definitely one of them. I felt very isolated when I started teaching and could not relate to most of my colleagues. There was very little time for colleagues to meet in person and a lack of PD opportunities. Many of them were great teachers, but I needed to connect, collaborate and share thoughts and ideas on teaching.

When I became digitally active and connected, I realized that many windows of opportunity opened up for me all at once. Being connected and active on the digital sphere means a lot more than occasionally maintaining social media accounts. It means connecting with like-minded individuals who share your interest and passion in teaching and learning. This sharing is a two-way street: you learn and you give it right back by sharing your knowledge.

As a whole different world of opportunity opened up to me by being a digitally connected educator, this translated into improving my pedagogy and teaching strategies in the classroom. It also allowed me an opportunity to really reflect on my teaching, make sure it’s relevant, and pass on the knowledge of digital citizenship to my students.

There are so many available pathways for professional development that teachers can seize without having to rely on their school or department. Teachers can take charge of their own professional development by taking advantage of the following opportunities:

This post was originally published on Annenberg Learner Foundation Blog. See the rest of the article here.

How to Give Constructive Feedback to Students

This is a guest post by Ethan Miller. Ethan is a dedicated private ESL teacher. Apart from his passion for teaching, Ethan loves to write and holds a degree in creative writing. When he is not teaching or writing his book, Ethan loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. You can check out his blog Essay Writing Tips and Help on WordPress. 

Being a teacher is a tough job. Handling kids in classroom, planning lessons, preparing tests, correcting test papers, attending parent teacher meetings and teacher conferences – all this while trying to cover the vast syllabus prescribed for the academic year…Phew! Things can become a tad bit overwhelming.


But apart from the above demands of a teaching job, a teacher is also responsible for the overall academic growth of students. And in order to help a student perform better, a teacher needs to use the tools of feedback and criticism. Criticizing comes easily to most of us, but a majority of teachers fail to come up with constructive criticism, often leaving students feeling angry or worthless. Even if the intention is not to be harsh, feedback can convey the wrong message to students if not delivered correctly.  And this, in turn, can have an adverse effect on their behavior.  

Constructive criticism ensures that your message is conveyed without hurting the feelings of a student and gives them direction to improve. Here’s how you can master the art of constructive criticism:

Don’t make it personal

When you are giving negative feedback, try not to point out the old mistakes of the student as it will make him/her feel miserable. We all have biases and you may not be fond of a certain student, but that bias should not come in the way of constructive criticism. Talk about the issue at hand, rather than making personal remarks and criticizing the student.   

Mind your tone

When we criticize, we tend to go overboard and pay little attention to the tone of our speech. A sentence can be interpreted differently depending on the tone. Always use a friendly or nonjudgmental tone while conveying a difficult message to a student.   

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Teaching Students to Analyze Sources of Information

Students analyze primary and secondary sources, from Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

As a result of the civil war in Syria, more than 4 million people have fled Syria since the conflict started. This situation, along with war and injustice in other countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and many more, has resulted in a global refugee crisis. As refugees seek to move to safer places, countries struggle with managing the flow of people and the issues that arise when new communities are introduced to existing ones.

With trending hashtags such as #RefugeeCrisis #SyrianRefugees and #RefugeesWelcome and a U.S. presidential election on the horizon, there is no doubt that students encounter such devastating stories on social media and the news, and multiple views about how countries should (or shouldn’t) help refugees. I decided that I have a duty to help my students understand and critically engage on such topics, as they do impact our lives.

However, I am also wary that I need to help my students learn how to identify biases and different perspectives when reading, researching, and engaging with such topics. The media and news contain a lot of information that needs to be questioned and analyzed before helping students to form their own opinions about the issues at hand.

Here are some steps I used to guide students through a research project:

– See the rest of the article here.

This post was originally published on Annenberg Learner Blog.

#DecolonizeHistory: Storytelling & Resistance

On the power of storytelling to free ourselves from a history of violent oppression.


by Mitra Fakhrashrafi 

“I started writing because there was an absence I was familiar with. One of my senses of anger is related to this vacancy – a yearning I had as a teenager… and when I get ready to write, I think I’m trying to fill that.” –Ntozake Shange

#DecolonizeHistory is about storytelling that disrupts space to present narratives that have been actively silenced or neglected. #DecolonizeHistory is a Toronto-based sticker-art project aimed at interrupting space, addressing colonial roots and undoing processes of white supremacy. Historical narratives within mainstream discourse are presented without the context of colonization, slavery and imperialism, despite the fundamental role they play on all aspects of life. Within these erasures, there are narratives we are told at the expense of silencing other narratives that are actively unrepresented. We are taught to honour the anti-apartheid work done by Nelson Mandela, while we are simultaneously huey queen sttaught to…

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Moments of Empathy

Empathy truly touches the heart of people in many unimaginable ways and makes us see potential and believe in others. I was asked who was my favourite teacher, and I realized that it’s not so much a favourite teacher that has impacted me, but it’s all favourite moments of a display of empathy from my teachers that have stuck with me and truly impacted me as a person.

In grade 5 one of my teachers gifted a book for the summer for me, it was a harder level than my English at that time but she said “I know that by the end of the summer, you’d be reading it”. That was so powerful because I ended up reading it. Her believing me in me and displaying that belief through her empathetic actions is what drove me to read the book.Ms. Fujimoto, I’ll always remember when she asked me if those boys in my group were bothering me. They had been bullying me for a few weeks and we were in a group together. After I told her they called me names, those boys never bothered me again. There are many other memorable moments that stayed with me and made me the person I am today. They all have one thing in common: empathy.

Empathy truly does impact people in so many beautiful ways. We just need to recognize it and own it.

Being empathetic takes patience. It takes time. It doesn’t come easily. 

Being empathetic also requires us to asses our biases. What do we truly think? Why? How can we change this perspective to help us understand others? Do our own beliefs and biases prevent us from understanding and even empathizing with others? 

Reflecting inwards helps us to perform better outwards. 

When we’re empathetic, we touch more than minds, we touch hearts. And that can make a world of difference.

My #Workflow: An Interview with @RoyanLee

My interview with Royan Lee about my Workflow.

The #MyWorkflow series asks educators who are active creators on social media to share how they do their work. Today we speak to Rusul Alrubail, a renaissance educator who does just about everything. Currently dedicated to being a full time mother to her beautiful daughters, Rusul remains incredibly active in education through her writing and connecting. If she’s not facilitating an Educolor Twitter chat or writing another powerful piece for Edutopia, she’s working hard to organize EdCamp Toronto, or blow people away as a featured speaker at the next TEDx education event in Ontario. To make a connection with Rusul is to broaden your pedagogical horizons and worldview.

How do you pay the bills?

I work part time with Edutopia as community facilitator. We engage the community in positive ways, help educators, parents and students when they reach out. I also work with them on copywriting. It’s a fun job that works really well with my schedule and being a full time at home with my two little girls. I am also a freelance blogger and consult occasionally with several organizations. I am also a co-founder of The Writing Project, an essay writing app for students that the Design Cofounders team is currently piloting with several schools and universities. Before that I was a contract professor at Seneca College for 5 years, I taught English literature and composition to undergrads and college students.

My husband is also the founder and CEO of Design Cofounders. That’s also very helpful when it comes to paying the bills.


What regular activity brings you little money but loads of happiness?

Probably freelance blogging for education publications, and writing on my site. I do it because I love writing. It brings me joy because it opens up ideas and conversation to many people, and it always surprises me when someone new engages with me because one of my posts resonates with them. I especially love that they’re usually from somewhere across the world. I also do online webinars and presentations and those are fun too, to connect with other educators.

What’s your current phone? Which phone do you miss? What will be your next one?

iPhone 6s. My next one will probably be another iPhone. I’ve been an apple girls for the past 8 years, it’s what I’m used to. Even though I still dislike the way my photos sync, so I use Dropbox instead. It’s counterproductive but it’s working for now. My husband has encouraged me to go android, he loved how everything syncs with cal and gDoc, but I use those apps on my iPhone anyway. But never say never.

What’s your current laptop? Which laptop do you miss? What will be your next one?

I have a 13 inch MacBook Pro. Before that I had an 11 inch one. The next one will probably be the MacBook light. My husband got one and it’s the lightest, most elegant looking laptop.

What apps and/or methods do you use to stay productive?

I just started using Evernote again after deleting it. I wanted to give it another try. I mostly use Dropbox for photos, google calendar, and Google Keep on my iPhone.

image1 (1)

Google Keep was actually my most used app till recently when it comes to brainstorming and outlining ideas for my blogging. Here’s a rough outline of one of my blog posts “the heart of teaching” which was Edutopia’s #2 most viewed blog last year. I had woken up one night with the baby, and an idea came to me and wrote it. You can also see that I omitted some parts in the final post.

Which apps do you check persistently, even if you wish you didn’t?

I check Facebook and I hate it. I joined Facebook because of Edutopia work. Working on Edutopia’s social media requires me to monitor Facebook posts and comments. I don’t like Facebook because it feels noisy for me. I also merged professional connections with family, and I have conflicting feelings about this. It’s a bit too late to go back unless I create an entirely new Facebook account and that’s not happening.

I check Twitter a few times a day to read news and connect with online friends. But I do have my notifications turned off because otherwise they’ll take up way too much of my attention.

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Using Poetry to Facilitate Discussions

Poet Nikki Grimes talks with students. Click on this picture to watch the classroom video in Teaching Multicultural Literature.

This post was originally published on Annenberg Learner Blog.

If you present poetry as if it were castor oil, no one will be interested. Instead, teachers can approach it as something fun, and also explore poetry that connects to the students and their lives (as opposed to choosing poetry that they feel “should” be studied).” – Nikki Grimes, in Teaching Multicultural Literature

Poetry is a type of genre with which many students have a hard time engaging. In fact, it’s also a genre that many teachers struggle to teach, as a result of its complexity and form. I, for one, am one of those teachers. Helping students to decipher lines, tropes, and the meaning of poems, while at the same time keeping the lesson engaging was a struggle for me. Consequently, I was a little worried before the start of a poetry unit that my students would be disengaged from the lesson. As a result, I decided to ask students to bring songs, lyrics, or poems that they enjoyed and that conveyed a special message or meaning to them.

To my great surprise, while many students opted to bring song lyrics, a large number of them shared poems that they liked and that resonated with them. One particular student shared Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” As she read it, she started tearing up making for a very emotional read.

I asked her about what made her tear up. She answered me with the following, and I will never forget it:

“We’re always put down by society, men, and sometimes those who love us. It’s why I have this on my mirror, it gives me strength every day to walk into the world as a black woman.”

Maya Angelou’s poem resonated with my student and many students who heard it that day, because it touched on what it means to be a woman of colour in society. The poem challenges traditional notions of beauty constructed by society and elevates the beauty of a woman to which we can all relate.

For this lesson I learned three things.

  1. Never underestimate the interest of students in a certain subject area. It might not be a popular subject or theme or unit, but what students might share may allow us to get to know them and understand them.
  2. Poetry, just like literature, has the power to start an open conversation about issues that students care about and that directly touch students’ lives.
  3. By giving students a choice to bring their own examples, I opened room for discussions about topics that are relevant to them. Our particular conversation taught my students about what feminism means and that everyone, not just women, shares a responsibility in advocating for women’s rights.

Facilitating a conversation by teaching poetry began with sharing selections and samples. To help my students start the conversations, I asked them: Why did you choose the piece? What was so special about it? What resonated with you? From there on it’s crucial to build on that conversation through more questioning, inquiry, analysis, and reflections.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 2, “Engagement and Dialogue,” read an interview with writer Nikki Grimes about teaching poetry to students. Also explore methods of teaching poetry to help students engage in the work. Find strategies for helping students to connect with the texts they read, and instructions for how to host an open mic event with students.

The most important thing to remember is to enjoy the experience of teaching poetry and learning with and from students.


Re-Energizing our Struggling Learners: Strategies for Reading & Writing

Reading and writing


 Activate — -> Read — -> Discuss — -> Respond

Reading: Engaging with complex text. Understanding & Analyzing Texts

Many of our struggling readers have a difficult time reading and engaging with complex text. There are several strategies that can help them to engage in actively reading the text as well as applying critical thinking skills while reading to later engage in writing.

Identify Fiction vs Non-Fiction

One way to help struggling readers to engage with complex text is to first understand the difference between a non-fiction and a work of fiction. We can do this by creating a classroom chart and brainstorming the differences on each side, with some examples.

The chart can include all the elements that make up a story: Setting, characters, themes, etc. As well as the components that make up a work of nonfiction: Thesis statement, evidence, diagrams, labels, research, data etc.

Image BY Reyna Sandoal, BlendspaceFiction nonfiction

Vocabulary/Terminology Comprehension

Many of our struggling readers shut down when there is unfamiliar vocabulary, terminology, or concepts in the reading. Familiarizing students with non-fiction by introducing vocabulary and terminology that might appear in non-fictional text can help to eliminate reading road blocks.

Miss Grubb

This may include elemental and content terminology:

  • Thesis statement
  • Evidence
  • Concluding sentence
  • Literary techniques

Brainstorm & Categorize Genres:

  • Drama
  • Poetry
  • Short Story
  • Documentary

The Writing Project

By helping students become familiar with content specific vocabulary, we are helping them identify which keywords are important to distinguish, and engage with critically, and which words to skip when skimming the text. There are many vocabulary building activities that you can do with the students to help them to remember and understand certain terminology:

Grouping vocabulary words together into categories can help students to understand the different elements of fiction versus non-fiction.

For fun vocabulary activities, think about using social media with students to help them learn vocabulary words.

  1. One activity can be for students to create funny videos or tweets of definitions.
  2. Another strategy is to ask students to locate specific elements in text that define the vocabulary words related to the content of the genre, ie:identify where the evidence is? Underline the topic sentence, etc.
  3. Have students create their own memes of their favourite literary strategy: Metaphor, irony, etc.

Activate: Pre-Reading Activities

“Struggling readers often have a difficult time transferring old knowledge to new situations.” ~ (Kelly, et al)

Spend the first 10–15 minutes of class to engage readers with subject of the text they’re about to read.

Consider the following when designing pre-reading activities:

  • What’s the students’ background knowledge about the subject/text that is being discussed?
  • What is their interest level? (This can be gauged by asking students in the beginning of the lesson or the day before)
  • What would they like to know about the topic?
  • How can this text/subject be connected to their everyday life?
  • Is this topic relevant to them?

Some suggestions for pre-reading activities:

  • Fiction: Show a short clip of a video that relates to the subject/theme of the text. Ask students to share or record their initial thoughts about it.
  • Fiction: Share a photograph or an image with students and ask them to reflect on what it may symbolize.
  • Informational text: share a tweet or a Facebook post related to the reading, and have students discuss the topic.
  • Informational text: have students debate both sides of the argument presented in the text before reading. Then compare and contrast their points with the ones the article makes.

Activate students’ Prior Knowledge on the topic:

What is one thing you know about…

When did … happen?

Can you recall…?

If you were to describe … in two sentences, what would they be?

What is one thing you want to know about…?

Reading: Scaffolding Reading of Complex Text:

  • Read text aloud with students.
  • Make sure to revisit vocabulary words you discussed/introduced in the beginning of class.
  • Define other vocabulary words that you came across when reading. Provide examples outside of context of the text.
Image by: Rusul Alrubail
  • Use chunking as an effective reading strategy to scaffold complex text.
  • Ask students comprehension questions that can only be answered if they read the text closely.
  • Make sure to ask for evidence to prove the answers to the comprehension questions.

Ways to Help Struggling WritersRusul Alrubail, 2016.

Assign Relevant Topics:

  • Relevant issues to students’ interest, backgrounds, culture.
  • Pop culture
  • Social Media
  • Current news/events
  • Hot topic debates.
  • Music, art, poetry.
Rusul Alrubail. Social Media & Student Communication Skills.

Introduce Students to an Authentic Audience:

Discuss: Guiding Discussion Questions


Ask Students guided questions about the reading. Start with the basics:

Who? What? Where? When? How? =

Knowledge + Comprehension + Application

Don’t make the questions very simple to find. Give students a chance to close read the text & support answer with textual evidence.

Why? Most importantly? So what? Why should we care about this issue/topic? = Analysis + Synthesis

Discussions lead to students forming opinions, their own point of views and gaining perspective on real world application:

“How can I apply what I just learned in this discussion to real life?”


Give students a choice, but don’t be afraid to also provide them with gentle suggestions. 

Provide a short prompt for students to respond to related to the class discussion they had.

Here is an example of an argumentative paragraph assignment.

Description — → Analysis


“So What?”

This helps them to see relevancy in their writing and lets them understand the power of their words.

Help students see the importance of peer feedback. Set time for them to share their work with others and provide constructive comments and feedback to each other.

This post was originally created as a presentation for The EdCollaborative Gathering.

How to Write an Argumentative Paragraph

How to Write an Argumentative Paragraph (1)Argumentative writing is one of the most crucial writing for students to grasp, as it provides them with the tools to be able to convey their point of view clearly to an audience.

Argumentative writing also provides an opportunity for students to understand different point of views when reading news articles, opinions and essays. By understanding the structure and logic of argumentative writing, students would soon be able to make a distinction between bias, subjectivity versus objectivity, and all the different logical fallacies that are often used in argumentative writing.

The cornerstone of each argumentative paragraph is a topic sentence. Topic sentence declares to the reader what your topic is. The key to a great topic sentence is to make it clear, concise, and contextual.

For example: Topic: Social Media

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are powerful tools to raise awareness about social and political issues through digital protests using hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter & #ICantBreathe.

Next, provide evidence to support your point of view. Here is where you can Summarize, Paraphrase, or Provide quotes to support your argument.

Analyze: It’s not enough to just plop a quote or a statistic to the reader, you need to convince the reader why this piece of evidence supports your main argument. Consider the following: Why is this important? What do you hope to prove to the reader? How does this piece of evidence strengthen your argument?

More explanation: Here is where you provide anymore explanation, logic, research to support your point of view. Did you miss anything? What else can you say that can help the reader understand, more importantly, be convinced of what you’re trying to say?

Counterargument: Many writers are afraid to produce a counter claim to their argument in fear of having their arguments falter right in front of the reader’s eyes. This might be true depending on how you produce the counterclaim. Providing a counterargument shows several things to the reader: That for one thing, you did your due diligence when it comes to research, and you’re aware of the literature on the topic. It also shows the reader that you’re not afraid to debate this issue, because you’ll have facts to support your claims.

The key to providing a strong counterclaim is if you can disprove it by more evidence that further supports your point of view.

For example: There are many sources that suggest digital protests have no real life impact and cannot change people’s mind about racism/prejudice etc. However, here are a few policies that have been changed as a result of these protests: xyz etc etc.

Concluding Sentence: the concluding sentence can be a summary, but to make it more interesting and engaging to the reader, provide your opinion of why you think this issue is important. In other words, answer the big “So What?” question, why should people care about what you’re saying? This doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but it does need to be specific to be able to connect the readers to your topic.

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Write a paragraph that makes an argument about one of the issues that we have discussed in the class so far. Your paragraph can use evidence from the articles we read to support your idea, and can also use evidence from your personal experience. Feel free to adopt any point of view for this assignment.

Topic Suggestions:

  • Gender and gaming industry
  • Domestic Violence
  • Social media to raise awareness about issues (digital protest using hashtags)
  • Gender roles: domestic and public (home and workplace)
  • Racism

Your paragraph should include: topic sentence, supporting ideas, evidence, analysis of evidence and a conclusion sentence.