School’s out for summer, but these courses are enticing teachers to hit the books

For kids, the school year’s done. For many teachers, however, summer is a prime stretch of time to hunker down for deeper professional learning that’s tough to fit in during the year. 

Rather than curling up with a good beach read, some teachers are spending time contemplating the impact of AI on education or diving deep into different approaches to teaching literacy. 

Educators tell us about three courses running this summer that tackle these topics and aim to boost what’s in teachers’ toolboxes.

AI 101 for teachers

Spending a ton of time in schools advising student teachers during their practicum assignments, Elizabeth Saville has heard one topic come up repeatedly among educators: how do we deal with artificial intelligence?  

The UBC Okanagan instructor and PhD candidate has witnessed a range of reactions, from teachers declaring AI “useless to me in the classroom” to others who wonder: “How do we support students when we don’t understand how to use it ourselves?”

A university student and professor discuss ChatGPT prompts. AI isn’t going away and students are using ChatGPT whether it’s allowed or not, says UBC Okanagan instructor Elizabeth Saville. (Rich Lam/The Canadian Press)

It’s why she created a new asynchronous online course akin to an AI 101 for teachers. “We need to help teachers develop those AI literacy skills, in order for them to be able to help their students in developing those AI literacy skills,” she said from UBC Okanagan’s campus in Kelowna, B.C.

Saville designed AI for Educators: Transforming Teaching and Learning to give participants a strong understanding of generative AI and explore how it can be a tool for planning and instruction, as well as to emphasize important ethical and privacy concerns teachers must be aware of.

AI isn’t going away, and students are using ChatGPT whether it’s allowed or not, she noted, saying it’s important to teach young people about the ethics of using this new tool and the critical thinking necessary to parse what pops up. 

A woman in a grey blazer and glasses smiles while in a bright indoor room, with a potted palm and a large photo artwork seen on the wall behind her.
Saville has designed a course that’s sort of an AI 101 for teachers, exploring how the technology is valuable in classrooms while also taking ‘a critical look at the tool itself.’ (Zameer Karim/CBC)

“Students don’t just know how to think critically. Students don’t necessarily know how to identify bias,” Saville said. She also noted that care is needed in this arena. 

“This isn’t just a Wild West, ‘take it in your classroom and do whatever you want with it’ [situation]… My course involves taking a critical look at the tool itself and trying to figure out what are the limitations of that tool and how can it be used for good? How can it be used for bad?”

Changing tack on teaching kids to read

In Ontario, Additional Qualifications (AQ) are course teachers take to dig deeper into a particular subject area or specialty. 

At Trent University, there’s been a flurry of interest in the Peterborough, Ont., school’s Reading AQ courses, which revolve around reviewing Ontario’s revamped language arts curriculum and discussing the Science of Reading — a body of research on how children learn to read that pulls from fields such as linguistics, psychology and neuroscience. 

Teachers, vice-principals, principals and even the occasional superintendent have enrolled, eager for updates on teaching the youngest learners to read. 

A teacher sits in front of her young class, holding up two small cards marked 'oy' and 'oi' in her left hand, with the word 'soy' written on a whiteboard balanced on her lap.
Ontario teacher Emily Moorhead, seen here in 2020, uses the structured literacy approach to teach early learners how to read. (Anand Ram/CBC)

The latest volley in the longstanding Reading Wars has seen the pendulum swing away from “balanced literacy,” a philosophy popular since the 1990s that leans on using cues to decipher words, such as guessing based on the first letter, looking at accompanying images or reasoning out what makes sense in the sentence.  

Instead, the current focus has shifted to “structured literacy,” an approach with phonics at the forefront that teaches youngsters the building blocks of words — the rules of how letters or letter clusters sound, for instance, and how they string together — in an systematic, sequential manner.

In the past few years, Alberta, New Brunswick and Ontario — which saw the landmark Right to Read inquiry before the Ontario Human Rights Commission — have all revamped their language curriculum with the phonics-led approach, with scores of educators seeking guidance on how to update their classroom methods.

A student writes in a notebook while a teacher helps.
A Saskatchewan teacher works with young students in June. Educators can feel hard pressed to fully digest curriculum updates during the school year, but in the summer ‘they can take the classroom out of the picture’ and fully commit to professional learning, said Trent University’s Trudy Elmhirst. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

“Some people will come in and specifically say ‘What’s phonics?’ They don’t know. Also, there’s other language that’s been introduced to the curriculum that they are not familiar with. They don’t even know where to start,” explained Trudy Elmhirst, director of AQ and accreditation at Trent’s School of Education.

“That’s where our experts, our teachers, can help them understand that.”

Teachers can feel hard pressed to fully digest curriculum updates during the school year, but in the summer “they can take the classroom out of the picture and put 100 per cent into the course. They can commit to being part of the discussions and doing the work and reading all the content and getting the most out of it,” Elmhirst said.

Literacy learning through an Indigenous lens

As a kid, Trudy Cardinal adored the Little House on the Prairie books. However, when she dug deeper into her love of literature during her graduate studies, she realized the childhood favourite — as well as parts of her schooling — “bumped against the stories I was living as an Indigenous person.” 

Another epiphany arrived soon after: the literacy classes she’d begun teaching at the University of Alberta lacked the fun and the joy she recalled from her years as an elementary school teacher.

So, the Métis-Cree educator began designing a new course to address both realizations and “bring life” into her literacy teaching, said Cardinal, now an associate professor of elementary education.

WATCH | Summer course explores literacy education from Indigenous contexts:

As kids head off for summer break, some teachers prepare to hit the books

For most kids, summer means school’s out. This gives some teachers the time to pick up new skills, like weaving Indigenous perspectives into their teacher toolbox.

Honouring Indigenous Ways of Knowing, Being, and Doing in Literacy Learning is part of an Indigenous education certificate program at the Edmonton school. Introduced after Alberta updated its Teaching Quality Standard to include foundational knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit, the class has drawn in-service Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers, from both elementary and secondary levels, as well as graduate students interested in education. 

Cardinal wants participants to gain a broader perspective about literacy education, but also practical tools and ideas for their classroom. A final assignment, for instance, requires teachers reimagine a past lesson, project or professional development workshop. 

“We want them to take what they’ve learned and not just let it sit and percolate, but actually put it into action,” Cardinal said, so “these things that have been mandated by the Alberta government, by their school districts, by their principals, it becomes something more of a passion project.”

Being in person was key for Cardinal, who believes directly experiencing and moving through a process inspires deeper understanding. 

“There’s an embodied way of knowing, being and doing that you feel when you’re sitting together at a table discussing something, when you’re sharing markers and crayons with somebody, when you’re helping each other learn the beading technique, when you’re sitting outside on that very land that you’re talking about, sharing stories of who you are and what you hope for the next generations,” she said. 

“We wanted [teachers] to feel it with their whole being versus just think and read about it.”

A close-up of hands working on a beaded image of a strawberry, with green, red, white beads seen on the table underneath.
The U of A course is held in person, with participants taking part in activities like beading, sketch-noting and outdoor discussions sitting in circle. Associate professor Trudy Cardinal, who created the course, feels that a deeper understanding is born from actually experiencing and moving through a process. (CBC)

Summer learning can be transformative, according to Edmonton teacher Andrea Coull, who took Cardinal’s course last year and called it “life-changing.” 

This summer, the Métis teacher is looking forward to further studies in Michif through U of A’s Revitalization of Indigenous Languages program.  

It’s been 30 years since Coull first attended teachers’ college and “things have changed since then, so I think it’s so important that we [teachers] continue to learn,” she said.

“It just allows us to rekindle that home fire within us … and then be excited to share those new things in our classrooms.”

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