8 empowering middle years novels with a social justice theme

I am very passionate about teaching social justice. My friend Rehbeka shared with me this Barns and Noble list of social justice themed books. Thank-you Rehbeka and Barns and Noble

As the United States watches a new administration take over the White House after a contentious election year, a wave of social and political activism has swept the country. For generations, young people all over the world have taken an interest in social justice and found the courage to fight for their own rights and the rights of others. Here are eight inspiring middle grade books that prove you’re never too young to stand up for what you believe in and make a difference

1.The Breadwinner Trilogy, by Deborah Ellis

This series follows 11-year-old Parvana, who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. When her father is arrested and her family is left without someone who can work or even shop for food, Parvana, forbidden to earn money as a girl, disguises herself as a boy to help her family survive. The Breadwinner is an empowering tale with a sharp and brave heroine.

2. Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper
Stella lives in the segregated south in 1932. Out, late one night, wandering around, Stella and her brother witness a Klu Klux Klan activity, starting an unwelcome chain of events in her otherwise sleepy town. With a compelling and courageous voice, Stella tells the story of how she and her community ban together against racism and injustice.

3. A Little Piece of Ground, by Elizabeth Laird

Living in occupied Palestine, twelve-year-old Karim is trapped in his home by a strict curfew. Wanting to play football with his friends, he decides to clear a rocky plot of land for a soccer field. When Karim is found outside during the next curfew, tensions rise, and his survival is at stake.

4. One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams Garcia

Set against the backdrop of the Black Panther movement, Delphine and her sisters visit their estranged mother in California, attend a Black Panther day camp, and discover their mother’s dedication to social justice issues. A moving, funny novel with a captivating voice, the sisters learn about their family and their country during one truly crazy summer.

5. Sylvia & Aki, by Winifred Conkling

Sylvia and Aki never expected to know one another, until their lives intersect on a Southern California farm and change the country forever. Based on true events, this book reveals the remarkable story of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, the California court case that desegregated schools for Latino children.

6. Operation Redwood, by S. Terrell French

When Julian is sent to stay with his disinterested aunt and uncle for four months, he discovers that his Uncle’s corporation plans to cut down a group of redwood trees at Big Tree Grove and decides to take a stand to save the trees. Perfect for the young environmentalists in your life, Operation Redwood is an adventurous and gripping tale as Julian and his friends hatch scheme after scheme to save these giants of nature.

7. I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali with Dephine Mainoui

For more mature readers, this unforgettable autobiography tells the true story of Nujood Ali, a ten-year-old Yemeni girl married off at a young age, who decides to resist her abusive husband and get a divorce. A moving tale of tragedy, triumph, and courage, Nujood’s brave defiance has inspired generations of women and young girls.

8. Return to Sender, by Julia Alverez

After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family hires migrant workers from Mexico to save his Vermont farm. Tyler bonds with one of the worker’s daughters and navigates complicated moral choices in this award-winning novel about friendship, cooperation, and understanding.
What empowering middle grade novels about social justice would you recommend?


My Journey to Peru 🇵🇪

I volunteer taught in Peru through a program called Maximo Nivel. Before I arrived I had received no information on the level, age, or setting I would be placed in. My friends and I brought down three hockey bags full of medical and educational supplies.  The students loved the rubber ball and soccer ball I brought. At my orientation I was told I would be placed at an after school program where I would be with three different groups of students. I was also informed that my location was a dangerous area where families lived in poverty. The school was helped built by a construction program through Maximo Nivel. I was surprised they had 5 computer when I arrived. However, the computers were not in my area for my lessons. I had a table and whiteboard for my lessons. I stretched my abilities to not use technology in my lessons because I didn’t want to rely on technology that could potentially not work each day. The internet was very unreliable throughout Peru. I worked with one 14 year old boy for the first hour. I helped him with his English homework he had from school. This was the most enjoyable time for me, I really felt in my element. He was the most advance in English out of all the students I got to work with. My next two groups of students were at the very beginning stages of learning English. These students challenged me in areas I never got to explore during my two EAL practicum placements in university. I was able to learn a lot through this experience. I learned way more from my the challenges that arised than my lessons that went perfectly as planned.

The Finnish School System

My last blog post touched base with my Scandinavian trip I did almost exactly a year ago.

Here are Some Amazing Facts About Finland’s school system

from businessinsider.com

1) Finnish children don’t start school until they are 7

2) Compared with other systems, they rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens.

3) The children are not measured at all for the first six years of their education.

4) There is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken when children are 16.

5) All children, regardless of academic strengths, are taught in the same classrooms.

6) Finland spends around 30 percent less per student than the United States.

7) 30 percent of children receive extra help during their first nine years of school.

8) 66 percent of students go to college. (The highest rate in Europe)

9) The difference between weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the World.

10) Science classes are capped at 16 students so that they may perform practical experiments every class.

11) 93 percent of Finns graduate from high school.

12) 43 percent of Finnish high-school students go to vocational schools.

13) Elementary school students get 75 minutes of recess a day in Finnish versus an average of 27 minutes in the US.

14) Teachers only spend 4 hours a day in the classroom, and take 2 hours a week for “professional development”.

15) Finland has the same amount of teachers as New York City, but far fewer students. (600,000 students compared to 1.1 million in NYC.)

16) The school system is 100% state funded.

17) All teachers in Finland must have a masters degree, which is fully subsidized.

18) The national curriculum is only broad guidelines.

19) Teachers are selected from the top 10% of graduates.

20) In 2010, 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots

21) The average starting salary for a Finnish teacher was $29,000 in 2008

22) However, high school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what other college graduates make.

23) There is no merit pay for teachers

24) Teachers are effectively given the same status as doctors and lawyers

25) In an international standardized measurement in 2001, Finnish children came top or very close to the top for science, reading and mathematics.


Getting In Touch With My Nordic Roots

I went to Norway, Sweden, and Finland in November 2015. These countries school systems are very different than Canada’s. I went to a teaching conference in Saskatoon a couple of years ago and a teacher from Finland was there as a speaker. I knew that these counties have some of the best school systems in the world but I did not know all the specific details of them. Listening to the speaker was very inspirational but also made me question how I could implement these values and ideals into my own classroom while follow the Canadian school system requirements.

While in these Scandinavian countries I instantly got the feeling that children were a high priority. It was the little things that I noticed among the bigger things. They had very elaborate play structures. I did not just see a few, I saw many! They definitely brought out the child in me because I got excited by the sight of these fun and very different play structures. I saw a lot of fathers in Sweden sipping coffee and pushing a stroller. A tour guide pointed out that they are called latte-papas. We played a game where whoever found the most latte-papas won. I didn’t win but I think within the span of 15min a girl claimed to have seen 20 latte-papas. They have great paid leaves for mothers AND fathers. In Norway each baby is issued a care package from the government with all the essentials. The baby even sleeps in the box that the essentials come in! Can you imagine if every baby in Canada got a bed from the government filled with essentials? There is so much support from the government in these Northern European countries.

Finland is know for it’s education system. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are known for their maturity/paternity leaves. Here is what mothers and fathers can expect(facts from businessinsider.com):

Expecting mothers in Finland can start their maternity leave seven weeks before their estimated due date. After that the government covers 16 additional weeks of paid leave through a maternity grant, regardless of whether the mother is a student, unemployed, or self-employed. The country also offers eight weeks of paid paternity leave. After a child turns three, parents can also take partial care leave, in which they split time between home and work. That lasts until the child starts second grade.

New parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of leave at 80% of their normal pay. That’s on top of the 18 weeks reserved just for mothers, after which the parents can split up the time however they choose. Sweden is unique in that dads also get 90 paid paternity days reserved just for them. The idea is to promote bonding between father and child during a time when moms are getting most of the attention.

Norway’s system is flexible and generous. Mothers can take 35 weeks at full pay or 45 weeks at 80% pay, and fathers can take between zero and 10 weeks depending on their wives’ income. Together, parents can receive an additional 46 weeks at full pay or 56 weeks at 80% of their income.

These three countries have a strong philosophy that “less is more“. You can see this in their homes and lifestyles. They decorate very simply and live comfortably in a home that are only the size they need. They do not buy into consumerism as much as North America. Many do not even own vehicles. Typically woman wear less make-up. They truly believe less is more.

This same idea that less is more can be seen in the Finnish education system. Blogger KELLYJ1111 has drawn conclusions about the Finnish education system from his experience in teaching math in Finland.

1. Less Formal Schooling = More Options

Students in Finland start formal schooling at the age of seven. Yes, seven!

• Upper Secondary School: This three year program prepares students for the Matriculation Test that determines their acceptance into University. Students usually pick which upper secondary school they would like to attend based on the school’s specialties and apply to get into that institution. I think of this as a mixture of High School and College. (In recent years a little less than 40% choose this option.)

•Vocational Education: This is a three year program that trains students for various careers as well as gives them the option to take the Matriculation test to then apply for University should they so choose. However, the students in this track are usually content with their skill and either enter the workforce or they go on to a Poly-technical College to get further training. (A little less than 60% choose this track.)

(But wait! Shouldn’t everyone take calculus, economics, and advanced chemistry?! Shouldn’t everyone get a University degree?! No, not everyone has to go to University! Hmmm….. interesting….. What if we provided options for those who want to become successful (and very profitable) welders or electricians? What if we didn’t force students who know that their talents reside outside of the world of formal academics to take three years of high school classes that they found boring and useless? What if we allowed them to train in and explore vocations they found fascinating and in which they were gifted? What if we made these students feel valued and like they had a place in the education realm?)

• Enter the workforce. (Less than 5% choose this path)

2. Less Time in School = More Rest

Students typically start school between 9:00 and 9:45. Actually, Helsinki is thinking of creating a law stating that schools cannot begin before 9:00 am because research has consistently proved that adolescents need quality sleep in the morning. The school day usually ends by 2:00 or 2:45. Some days they start earlier and some days they start later. Finnish students’ schedules are always different and changing; however they typically have three to four 75 minute classes a day with several breaks in between. This overall system allows both students and teachers to be well rested and ready to teach/learn.

3. Fewer Instruction Hours = More Planning Time

4. Fewer Teachers = More Consistency and Care

Elementary students in Finland often have the SAME teacher for up to SIX YEARS of their education. That is right! The same teacher cares for, nurtures and tends to the education of the same group of students for six years in a row. And you had better believe that during those six years with the same 15-20 students, those teachers have figured out the individual instructional needs and learning styles of each and every student. These teachers know where each of their students have been and where they are going. They track the kids’ progress and have a personal invested interest in seeing the kids succeed and reach their goals.

This system is not only helpful to a child because it gives them the consistency, care and individualized attention they need, it also helps the teachers understand the curriculum in a holistic and linear way. The teacher knows what they need to teach to get them to the next step, while also giving the teachers freedom to work at the pace of their students. Teachers don’t feel the pressure to speed up or slow down so that they are “ready” for the teacher next year. Again, they are the teacher next year and they control the curriculum! They know where the kids are and what they have learned and will plan according to the students’ needs! I really believe this is a HUGE part of Finland’s success story and it does not receive enough attention.

5. Fewer Accepted Applicants= More Confidence in Teachers

So……children have the same teacher for three to six years. What if your kid gets a “bad teacher”? Finland works very hard to make sure there are no “bad teachers.” Primary education is THE most competitive degree to get in Finland. The elementary education departments in Finland only accept 10% of all applicants and turns down thousands of students annually. A person not only has to be the best and the brightest to become a primary teacher, they also have to have passed a series of interviews and personality screenings to get in. So, it isn’t enough to be the smartest in your class, you also have to have the natural ability and drive to teach.

6. Fewer Classes= More Breaks

As I stated before, students only have three to four (or rarely, five) classes a day. They also have several breaks/recesses/ snack times during the day and these usually happen outside come rain or shine. These 15 to 20 minute gives them time to digest what they are learning, use their muscles, stretch their legs, get some fresh air and let out the “wiggles.” There are several neurological advantages for these breaks. Study after study supports the need for children to be physically active in order to learn. Stagnation of the body leads to stagnation of the brain and unfocused, “hyper” children.

7. Less Testing = More Learning

8. Fewer Topics = More Depth

I have observed several fifth through ninth grade math classes in Finland. I have looked at the curriculum covered over these five years of education and I realized that I attempt to teach the content of five years of Finnish math education in one year. Each math topic presented in every grade level I have observed here is include in my seventh grade curriculum.

Again, the American mentality of “more is more” simply does not work. If I am to get through everything I am expected to do in one year I have to introduce a new topic/lesson every other day and I always feel “behind”. Behind what, I am not sure, but the pressure is there pushing me and my students along. In Finland, teachers take their time. They look deeper into the topic and don’t panic if they are a little behind or don’t cover every topic in the existence of mathematics in a single year.

Also, students only have math a few times a week. In fact, after Easter Break, all of my seventh graders only have math ONCE a week! My heart still panics a little when I hear this! I can’t believe that is enough math time! How will they be ready for the tests?! Oh— wait. There are no tests. There is no need to rush through. The students get to actually understand the material before they are forced on to a new topic. One teacher showed me a course book and said that it had too many topics for one five week grading period. I looked at the entire book and had to stifle a chuckle because it essentially covered what would be found in ONE chapter from my textbook. Why do we push our kids in the U.S. to learn so much so quickly? No wonder they are stressed out! No wonder they give up!

9. Less Homework = More Participation

According to the OECD, Finnish students have the least amount of homework in the world. They average under half an hour of homework a night. Finnish students typically do not have outside tutors or lessons either. This is especially shocking when you realize Finnish students are outscoring the high performing Asian nations whose students receive hours of additional/outside instruction. From what I can observe, students in Finland get the work done in class, and teachers feel that what the students are able to do in school is enough. Again, there is not pressure to have them do more than what is necessary for them to learn a skill. Often the assignments are open-ended and not really graded. Yet, the students work on it in class diligently. It is very interesting to see what happens to the students when they are given something to do. The students who were not listening to the lesson at all put away their phones and start working on the task set before them. Even if it is just a suggested assignment, they give it their full attention up to the end of class. It is almost like there is an unspoken agreement: “I won’t give you homework if you work on this while you are in my classroom.” This system has really made me think about the amount of homework I assign on a daily basis.

10. Fewer Students = More Individual Attention

This is obvious. If you have fewer students you will be able to give them the care and attention they need to learn. A Finnish teacher will have about 3 to 4 classes of 20 students a day- so they will see between 60 to 80 students a day. I see 180 students every single day. I have 30 to 35 students in a class, six classes in a row, 5 days a week.

11. Less Structure = More Trust

Trust is key to this whole system not structure. Instead of being suspicious of one another and creating tons of structure, rules, hoops and tests to see if the system is working, they simply trust the system. Society trusts the schools to hire good Teachers. The schools trust the teachers to be highly trained individuals and therefore give them freedom to create the type of classroom environment that is best for their individual students. The Parent’s trust the teachers to make decisions that will help their children learn and thrive. The Teachers trust the students to do the work and learn for the sake of learning. The Students trust the teachers to give them the tools they need to be successful. Society trusts the system and gives education the respect it deserves. It works and it isn’t complicated. Finland has it figured out.

Less IS More.

Click the link to read more of  11 Ways Finland’s Education System Shows Us that “Less is More”.  APRIL 15, 2015 / KELLYJ111




Spring has Sprung cross-curricular


You can use these pieces for:
Math –
Addition, subtraction, and geometry

Language Art-
Write a poem/story about your flower
Research about a certain kind of flower

Cutting, measuring, following instrutions

Check indicators and outcomes that can work for this project. Then modify accordingly

What I did? I am a sub and was just left a picture of what to do. I did mine in steps with the grade one and two class. I emphasized the numbers and shapes as we did the project. I cut their stems (at recess break) and they used the size as a guide for their 4 petals. I only used one colour but students wanted to use mutli colours so I allowed them to use 2 colours if they wanted. I displayed pictures of different flowers via google on the smart board for some inspiration. Students came four at a time to pick from the piles of colours. I demonstrated how to glue and do the petals before they got their paper. when everyone was done I demonstrated how to cut out 2 nice triangles. They then got to choose if they wanted light green or dark green paper. when everyone was done I showed how to crumple up the tissue and glue it. Each student then got to pick a colour of tissue. I liked allowing students to be creative and pick their own colours.


I find the more life experiences teachers have the more they have to offer and share.

I subbed in a French immersion school and found that my elementary, and university French education helped a lot. I mean, of course it did! But something I have realized is the more life experience I gain the more I have to share with students.

I am glad that you need a language course to complete the UofR education program. There are so many EAL students in our classrooms and it’s a great experience to learn another language. It helps you understand their struggles, it helps you teach them English, and it reveals components of their culture.image

My first EAL teaching experience abroad.



Journey into the world of subbing

I have official started my teaching career!
I am subbing in rural communities and have been enjoying my time in different classrooms.
I have taught everything from kindergarten to grade twelve.
I have always been set on grades 8-10 but I have enjoyed my time in grade 5-7 while subbing.
Subbing in Kindergarten to grade 4 has been a great experience and I have come across challenges I never faced in internships or university. The problem I faced the most near the beginning was realizing where they are academically. I started off teaching K-3 believe they had the knowledge of a senior elementary school student. This may seem ridiculous but I have a middle years education degree and occasionally forget what level students will generally be at. I was reading about the tropical rain forest with three grade four students and was shocked they didn’t know basic geography or the difference between a city, province, country, or continent. This was a great learning experience for all four of us. I had a great discussion with the students and reminded myself of the knowledge an average child below the age of 9 has. In reflection of this day I remember starting to learning about Canadian geography in grade 5 and 6. It is great to have high expectations for students but I need to remind myself the early learning are not at the level as middle years students I have been used to.