It’s that time of year. The ISU (Does it Really Matter?)


Although its been nearly twenty years since I graduated high school, I remember that chapter of my life with incredible fondness and clarity. I remember the movies my friends and I went to see, the hijinks of school dances, romantic blunders, course of study and the good, bad and ugly of learning.  In regards to courses, whether it be English, Art, Technology, History, the ISU (Independent Study Unit) was placed upon me and my peers with great authority. Now, as a teacher, I often reflect on that time and the great amount of stress my teachers placed on the ISU; the percentage value was the driving narrative. Completing the ISU for a Grade 13 (this was back when we had OAC), course was as if you were being chased by the T-Rex in Jurassic Park; I was Jeff Goldblum, limping to the finish line hoping for survival and a place to hide out.

Today, like then, I wonder:

What really is the point of the ISU?

Who I am as a teacher, derives from my own experience as a learner both in high school and post-secondary. The two worlds are most definitely connected.

What I wasn’t in high school:

In high school, I wasn’t the academic over achiever I was in College and University. In high school I was entrenched in my goal of studying and making movies. I loved all things media and as a visual learner did not connect to most teaching styles. This was at a time before differentiated instruction was a pedagogical approach – learning was strictly taking notes and taking teacher information as gospel. (Remember, this was pre-Google and having immediate access to facts and other point of views).

Although I valued the importance of learning and moving onto post-secondary, I didn’t benefit from a culture grounded strictly in Quizzes, Tests, ISUs and Exams. It seemed all so purposeless; all internalized and did not motivate me.

For example, take my Gr. 13 English course. Although I was able to squeeze out a B (trust when I say it was a challenge to score that grade), the entire experience was sterile. Although, my teacher was a dramatic lecturer, helpful and importantly a good person, the experience was terribly isolating. I wrote strictly for marks and assessment (not knowing any better) as the sole end result. I worked for the grade but not the learning; I didn’t receive descriptive feedback but rather lengthy notes once a submission was made with no opportunity to resubmit (nor would I ask, as such a culture wasn’t in place).

As such, I’m not sure what I really learned.

Yes, I learned (to some point) how to write an essay, but I didn’t learn how to think critically, apply that to my world view, construct knowledge, show learning, share etc.

So, what about the ISU?

Like my time in high school, today I still wonder about the ISU. As I see students stressing days before their exams, is their ISU really worth all of the stress and drama? Is it something we do as teachers because it was what we did or is there room to reimagine?

Are students really learning with the ISU or are they merely doing?

Is the ISU serving student learning or are students serving the ISU?

It’s because I was looking to really learn something new,  that I choose College as my first post-secondary experience. Disenchanted by a high school experience that was linear in thinking, I was looking for something experiential (even though I didn’t know that term). It was while at Humber College’s Film and Television Production program that I found my academic grounding; a provocation that the work I was doing is learning, leads to a final project and the final project is going to be experienced. Unlike high school where I received my ISU mark on the exam day or not at all, my work in college was going to be lived and was shaped by constant feedback. This was game changing.

Further, my elective courses in Communications, English and the Humanities, served my specialized program in Film; teachers were teaching me to be a critical thinker and shaped what that could look like. Whereas in high school, I could memorize effectively, in college I learned to think. It was because I felt empowered by that thinking that I not only worked thereafter in production but successfully completed a BA in Film Studies with Distinction – working not for the marks but a love of learning (the great marks were a bonus).

With all of this, as students in my Communications Technology program finish their ISUs, the stress they feel differs. By no means, do I want them to share in my past experience; their ISU is about deep learning, collaborating, provocation. They are not working to serve the ISU but rather the ISU serves them to produce work that their proud of and that will be experienced (I’ve written about this recently) well after the term ends. By the time they “submit” they’re aware of their success because of descriptive feedback.  Their learning isn’t isolated.

I suppose, as so many of my students are now running around completing ISUs, I only hope that their not running from their own T-Rex.  If they are, it may be time to reimagine the ISU and what is really stands for.

Here’s an example of a Gr. 12 ISU from my College/University Comm-Tech class. All projects, will be screened at Yorkdale Silver City – ensuring that the ISUs are lived and shared.

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Parents. Are you watching Andi Mack? You should.


If you’re like me and have young children at home (my daughter is 7 and my son is 4), then you’ve probably heard of, or have at least watched, one episode of Disney’s Andi Mack. If you haven’t, this is a show that is both for you to watch, reflect and navigate and for your children as they grow to understand who they are, friendships, diversity and the importance of inclusion. Where as recent Disney pop-culture artifacts such as Descendants 2 was painted with a hyper racist lens that vilified and misappropriation blackness, Andi Mack represents the maturity that a major broadcaster can demonstrate when it comes to addressing and importantly representing “otherness,” on screen.

Let me begin by stating that I unapologetically love this show. In many ways, it really is the This is Us for early teens, tweens and preadolescents. With the narrative of young Andi Mack so dependent on the relationship between the past and present, it presents like This is Us, the complexity of family, choices, relationships and importantly the art of moving forward. If you’re my age, you may remember the early 90s and short lived series My so called Life. Like that show, Andi Mack doesn’t shy away from the realities of the current day; progressive and liberating. 

For those, who have no concept of the show, young Andi is an intelligent, charming, innovative and creative Tween (in season 1) who’s life becomes unexpectedly complicated when she finds out an long seeded secret – that her older sister Rebecca, who is estranged for her parents, is really her mother. In having Andi as a teen, Rebecca was sent away and consequentially never truly returned home. As such, Andie’s grandparents acted as surrogate parents with her mother/grandmother laying down a foundation for discipline and expectation. Andi, like Rebecca, is bi-racial (Asian and Caucasian American) and as such, her existence is grounded in finding the balance between old tradition and new, while respecting and embracing who she is as a person, daughter, granddaughter and friend all while having a maturity to be reflective and to be a self-advocate. 

It’s with this, that the show runners have created a “kid show” with rich maturity and a range of emotional intelligence. From Andi to her African-American friend Buffy (who is stereotypically athletic but progressively, and equally intelligent and self-directed as she navigates pre-teen life as her mother serves in the U.S. military and leaves a void), to Cyrus (the boy of the group who feels inadequate as a result of the strains that come from divorce, re-marriage and navigating step-parents), each episode provides a teachable moment when watched through a critical lens.

As a parent that is really my personal goal; to allow my young kids to escape and be entertained but to also leverage the time spent together on the couch to shape critical literacy, allow for questions to be asked and to also quietly observe how the kids react to narrative and messaging; perhaps not addressing big ideas in the immediate but taking cognitive note.

This speaks to the show’s most progressive narrative piece thus far. Beyond Andi trying to bring her once teen parents back together within the frame of what she perceives as a “traditional family,” to her mother Rebecca’s rejection of her ex’s proposal or the interracial coupling of both Andi and Buffy with two Caucasian boys, is the narrative of Cryus’ sexual discovery; when he recognizes that while having a girl friend he has feelings for Andi’s boy-crush. This is not to say that Cryus pursues such feelings, but rather the particular episode allowed for his character to verbalize his “internal conflict” and bravely embrace who he is. In conversation with Buffy, he shares the awkward feelings he’s having – cautious and uncertain of Buffy’s reaction. Buffy, emotionally grounded, mature and loving, ensures that Cyrus feels loved and confident in who he is.

As evident in the scene below, the writers, directors and show runners create a touching scene that voids exploitation or dismissal  but provides not only the characters but us at home with a cathartic moment that is real for so many people – not just adults.


It’s with this brave programming, that promotes inclusion and respect that we as parents are reminded that our children are multifaceted and in the case of Cyrus, our children need to feel and be loved – accepted for who they are and not who we want them to be. As such, as a parent, I must ensure that the door is left open for the honesty that this show promotes so richly through the lens of children. 

Andi Mack airs Monday’s on the Disney Channel – don’t miss it.

Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture | Tagged , , ,

Descriptive Feedback: The Exhaustive Journey Worth Taking


Frankly, as semester one comes to a close, I am exhausted.

This doesn’t take away from the great sense of joy I have in working along side my Communications Technology students as they work to produce a mosaic of short films that range all genres and aesthetics. With the grade tens working on monologue shorts that promote shaping narrative strictly through a combination visual and voice over to senior students in grade eleven and twelve developing narrative shorts – building their craft in shaping dialogue scenes through a combination of master and coverage along with effective picture and sound editing, the journey we’re on comes with some high stakes.

The stakes? Big Screen. Big Sound. Big Experience.

Not just for marks, the students from the onset of the semester have the immediate understanding that their creative work in the class is produced for an audience; an annual end of year showcase that takes over our local multiplex from the concession area being transformed into a print media gallery to original short films projected on the big screen, the journey leads to students benefiting from a truly experiential experience – going beyond the walls of the school and into the community with meaning and purpose.

Specifically, in regards to the films being made, the art of the movies speaks to the shared experience of coming together, listening, watching and understanding a specific point-of-view.  The true culmination for learning is not this “ISU” or exam but the annual community showcase that is grounded in recognizing that “assessment is learning.”

Now, why the exhaustion? It’s simple: For Descriptive Feedback to be meaningful, the process must be all immersive.

For students to grow within such deep learning (the process from development to production ) of these films takes nearly 5 weeks, I must be deeply hands on. This means actively demonstrating a true belief that “assessment is learning.” Assessment is not about the end but rather the journey.

As students work, I work along side them. The feedback is provided consistently; from sitting with students during development and provoking a discourse to read and reshape treatments and screenplays before the submission of their “final” developmental proposal to viewing “dailies” and providing notes for improvement and encouraging (and insisting upon) reshoots, to editing along side students to ensure they have constructed the most effective scene possible (and to revise the script, re-shoot and revise the edit where needed),  the experience is shared with the ultimate goal being for each student to find their success. Throughout this process, there is not such thing as failure. Its all learning and doing.

Ultimately, Descriptive Feedback means that as a teacher I’m doing; and if done with some resemblance of authority, the exhaustion should be deep and I should be bed ready by the end of the day.  It’s thrilling really:  From the moment I arrive , through my prep and lunch, I’m all in and wouldn’t have it any other way. 

For my students, my most sincere hope is that this journey has ignited confidence , autonomy, resilience and a pride in the work they’ve accomplished together. Production is not easy – its a collaborative process that is challenging, tests friendships, relies on self-directness, heightens critical literacy and promotes and builds creativity and digital skills. It’s layered and with the big screen as the end result, the outcome is well worth the time and effort.

Importantly, I’m so proud of each and every student for what they accomplish together – such a project as the one below doesn’t happen in isolation.

It’s a magical journey and is a constant reminder of why I have the best job in the world.


P.S. Thanks to Elaine Hine (from the Ministry of Education – Student Achievement Division) who in collaborating and sharing in conversation about “Assessment For, As and Of Learning” shared the phrasing that “Assessment is Learning.” This notation is very much the perfect articulation for the work I try to do with my students and which I found so inspiring.

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The Last Jedi & Media Literacy as a Moral Imperative

THe last jedi

I write readily about the value of popular culture and media literacy to shape critical discourse amongst students. As students are entrenched within the mediated space, it’s a moral imperative for educators to leverage their sanctum to construct, like media itself, an opportunity to explore the realities of today.  Just as I walked into the school today on a busy Monday leading into the final week of classes before the Christmas break, students were entrenched in deep conversations relevant to consumption. From Netflix to sports (which in an all-boys school where I teach invites rich conversation about the codification of masculinity), students (like all of us) are entrenched within the great experiment of popular culture – a mirror into our shared values.

At the top of the conversation was the opening weekend of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. From students who didn’t like the humour or to those who didn’t understand the connection to the original trilogy (spoiler free here – but particular imagery that speaks to Luke), its safe to say that students, generally, read less and consume visual and audio more. Excitingly, I’ll have the pleasure to watch the film with one hundred students or so, at a private screening this Friday – a great way to share in some pre-Christmas movie cheer and casual conversation about why the force remains so topical and relevant – breaking away from mere consumption.

Looking at the growing popularity of Star Wars and of the bridge between the original trilogy and prequels now connect with the young audience of today, there’s a great opportunity to leverage the story of Rey to facilitate meaningful learning as it pertains to religion and violence. As I wrote in the Catholic Film Reader available from The Catholic Curriculum Corporation, the original Star Wars was culturally responsive (nothing new within the critical realm when looking at the film through the cultural lens of the 1970s), but importantly the search for “hope,” within the guiding nature of the “force” overtly speaks to the need for faith and spirituality to provide guidance at times of chaos. It is with the chaotic in the forefront, that the new series is grounded in an urgency that was lacking with the prequels – a cultural need to explore the potential relationship between violence and religion within a relevant socio-political milieu. 

Just look at the opening scene from The Force Awakens below. As Kylo Ren is introduced as a Dark Vader wannabe, co-writer and director J.J. Abrams plants the narrative within real world conflict – particular the realm of the child solider. These soldiers, faceless, act based not on their own beliefs but by those in which they were bred. They’re shaped by the evil appropriation of a religion – distorted and exploited. Importantly, as the opening conflict takes place on dessert terrain, the landscape evokes the realities of conflict in parts of the Middle East and Africa. As such, whereas the prequels lacked a cultural urgency (other than revisiting the brand), the new series (although commercially driven, as well), is grounded within a rich cultural study of violence today.

By no means do I want to give away any spoilers as it pertains to Rian Johnson’s epic and ambitious entry into the series with The Last Jedi, however, the conflict between  good and evil grows as Luke is in battle with his Jedi religion (discerning) and struggles to understand it’s purpose and his role within it. As Luke’s story takes shape and the connection between him, Rey and Kylo Ren are bridged, the connection between religion and violence grows, echoing to the major conflicts of today. The canvas is not simply painted with the good and the bad but rather the complex narrative between all characters – forcing the viewer to explore religion beyond their respective institution and importantly how they live with their faith in their day-to-day (looking through a lens of purity and connection, rather than distortion or difference).

It is with the need to intentionally provide students with an opportunity to be active citizens, knowing and critical responsive to the realities of today, that a film like The Last Jedi provides for  an authentic opportunity to teach to and from popular culture and media literacy.

May The Force Be With You.

Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television, Star Wars | Tagged , , , , ,



With yesterday’s release of Marvel’s culminating epic, Avenger’s: Infinity War trailer, it may not be best timing to release a blog into the Twitterverse that celebrates both the success and shortcomings of Justice League; what has been hailed online as a “Frankenstein” of a movie and that through the “critical” lens of movie writers has been savaged; deemed lesser in comparison to this past summer’s Wonder Woman  and more pressingly the most recent Marvel release, Thor Ragnorak. As social media conversations and Rotten Tomatoes certification seem to readily dictate box-office success, the release of Justice League brings forward a pressing concern of film criticism itself, one that is deeply embedded in quick reading rather than a cinephile approach to analysis; providing a discourse to examine a popular artifact like Justice League (regardless of its shallow character development or its poorly cloned stamped upper lip of Superman) as a cultural artifact. Through this lens, the film is amply fresh for its attempt to shape a rich conversation about the age of heroes and the legitimacy of violence.

Let me assert that I’ve now watched Justice League twice and I find it to be unapologetically fun. Yes, the tone of the film is fragmented, the narrative feels rushed, the story succumbs to aggressive spectacle and the CGI looks oddly cheap for such an expensive production. However, within the mosaic of such cinematic mishaps, rests a film yearning to say something about our deeply darkened contemporary socio-political space that lacks a shared will for change. As with the rise of Superman in the Action Comics of the 1930s, the character’s resurrection in Justice League is entrenched in and speaks to a time where humanity lacks genuine leadership.

As shared by Bruce Wayne in the scene above “the world needs Superman.” It is within this framework that Bruce Wayne reminds us that Superman, both now and in the past, speaks directly to the political. Not only was he born out of the Great Depression but his most recent screen incarnation frames him directly within the lens of a fragmented cultural milieu. From him being an “immigrant threat,” in Batman V. Superman to the newly recognized emblem of hope in Justice League, he along with Women Woman as God-like characters, speak to a need our need to be saved; both physically and morally. At a time where politicians disingenuous runs rampant and wars continue to brew within the structure of post-colonial realities, characters like Superman and Wonder Woman not only save, but as Bruce Wayne, asserts “inspire.”

Importantly, as Bruce asserts that Superman was a symbol of hope, Diana (Wonder Woman) speaks openly about the nature of war and violence. In speaking to her love Steve Trevor, she reminds Bruce that leadership must be active and in service. As such, Diana’s cautioning to Bruce about placing soldiers in harm’s way unnecessarily out of a personal sense of righteousness, reminds us of the horrors of colonialism and more recent wars and realities. As such, Diana speaks to a need for accountability and for leadership to be sacrificial.

It is with this reflection that just today, I brought my students to a double screening of Justice League and Thor Rangorak. Two films completely different in form and style but aligned in their deep rooted colonial concerns. Although Thor Ragnorak is much more successful in framing a rich narrative between colonial and postcolonial realities, Justice League does attempt to deepen the superhero context beyond the CGI and action set pieces. With this, it most definitely deserves a second chance. 

With Christmas just around the corner, give the League a chance even it is because The Last Jedi is sold out. You just may be surprised. 


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More than Nostalgia: Stranger Things and Our Upside Down


Much has been written about Stranger Things as a nostalgic throwback to the glory of 80’s pop culture where all things now retro, felt new. As an 80’s baby, admittedly, the show pulls at my heart strings. From allusions to E.T in Season 1 to the obsession of arcade game play in Season 2, the pulse of the series is grounded not just in a “simpler time” but rather a decade where all what we now know was at it’s point of genesis (Nintendo Switch wouldn’t be possible without Atari and the arcade). Although the series is celebrated for its nostalgic factor, I argue that it’s greatest success rests not just in narrative and reference but it’s understanding of genre. Like the works of Spielberg, King and Cameron that the show pays homage to, the Duffer Brothers and executive producer and director Shawn Levy, recognize that genre is about the shared cultural experience – about time and place. Fittingly, the horror and anxiety brewing in the small town of Hawkins may take place story wise in the 1980’s but urgently reminds us of the lurking reality today; a socio-political time where it seems like we’re all living in the Upside Down.


From the opening frames of Episode 1 Season 1 where Dustin, Lucas and Will ride their bikes home in the dark after a epic day long game of D&D at Mike’s house, the image of the bike (with lights flashing) harkens semiotic imagery; images of Elliott running from the “bad men” in E.T where the promise of adolescent innocence (and quest for the paternal) confronts the secrecy of government or The Goonies where a squad of kids get on their bikes in search of treasure to save their families from economic greed and a local government not willing to help those on the outskirts from over development. As such, to appreciate the nostalgia of Stranger Things is to understand genre, recognize that popular culture is rooted in the political and understand that it’s nostalgic connection is not merely grounded in fandom but meaning; the films the series pays homage too aligns with the politics of not only the 1980s but the realities of today.

The looming fear then and now: Government

From James Cameron Sci-Fi and War hybrid Aliens where Ripley has a deep distrust of the “corporation ” the notion of the government and its secrets not only creates the narrative’s upside down (the gate that’s been opened) but reflects and mirrors the upside down that exists in our everyday; a post Edward Snowdon political space fragmented by a lack of trust and where the notion of government seems self-serving rather than in service of the people. As in Season 1 where Mike’s dad naively asserts this his wife that Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) and his goos should be trusted because their government, or as in the opening frames of Season 2 where he quips that “we’re all patriots here,” his lack of active voice, protectionism of his family and critical view of the political institution heightens a shared need to be skeptical; government must be held to account and reminds us that all is not what it seems.

What is truth?

The 1980s was consumer obsessed decade born out of harrowing times; the death of JFK, the horrors of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the questioning outcomes and achievements of the Civil Rights movement and other political truths that propelled the 80’s into the “me” decade. As the Cold War carried on, the narrative timing of the series is fitting – many unknowns and new realities emerging. This is very much connected to our today; making the show a relevant genre study of popular culture as a mirror and reflector of time and space.

Are we in the Upside Down?

In my teaching of film and new media, I challenge students to recognize that popular culture rises out of the political; a testing ground to see what a shared cultural experience looks like. In the show’s immense popularity and response across a diverse demographic base, it can be argued that the anxiety brewing in Hawkins provides not escape from our everyday but a mode to process our own uncertainty. The nature of horror lives out the political. As such, to watch the show as a simple throwback to the 1980’s limits it’s deep relevance of today. At a time where secrets and lies are shared readily on the web to investigations into democratic sabotage , our now like the Cold War anxieties of the 1980s reminds us of how upside down our world really is.

As with the characters in the show – be skeptical. Be critical.


Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television, Netflix | Tagged , , , , , ,

What my Students taught me about Learning Skills

LS2 copy

To understand and deeply appreciate the reality of the teacher in the classroom is to live deep inside the trench. Working along students with the hope to meet not only your respective goals as a classroom teacher but importantly provide students with the support and framework to meet their expectations and individual definitions of success. From their academic aims to their social pursuits in the school community, the hope is that all students grow into active, mature and responsible citizens. Often within this discourse, teachers are driven by the time constraints in meeting the curriculum expectations and working within a realm where initiatives are abundance. It’s with this that some of the best teaching and learning happens outside of the curriculum (those small moments) but can very much guide students in becoming the very best version of themselves (and teach, teachers at the same time about what learning is).

As educators in the classroom, how often do we intentionally address the learning skills noted on the Ontario report card?

Do we allow students an opportunity to reflect on the skills they will need today and tomorrow to achieve excellence?

In doing so, we have the great opportunity to learn a great deal about our students – who they are now and who they want to become tomorrow.

Last week, I facilitated the second annual Portfolio Camp at my school. In working with Gr. 9 STEM BTT students, that goal is to provide learners with an authentic understanding of why digital citizenship matters within the context of online social profiles as a new resume. Through the lens of Creating Pathways to Success and the IPP and importantly the Catholic Graduate Expectations, the conversation was shaped to allow students to direct the thinking and share in reflection about the skills needed to succeed in their today and tomorrow.

To begin the day, students participated in a small group brainstorm activity.  

In small groups, the class of twenty-six students shared their working goals for tomorrow (potential jobs, post-secondary education goals etc.) and the skills they believed are required for a particular profession or to “succeed” in a global economy.

As I walked the room, it was amazing to see students actually sharing – being open about their fears, ambitions and questions about what the future holds (all incredibly viable reflections). As the students shared their group reflections, some of the big ideas (and somewhat typical references) came to forefront, including:

  • Leadership
  • Collaborator
  • Problem Solver


As the conversation progressed and we dove into such terms, other ideas began to grow. Students began speaking about the need to be inclusive, respectful, empathic, compassionate, politically aware, humble, selfless etc. The human skills that are needed regardless of education or socio-economic stature. 

It was in this change in conversation that the framework for the Ontario learning skills provided context for a deep reading and practical application of the  Catholic Graduate Expectations – the importance of not only being a Collaborative Contributor and Effective Communicator but to be a leader through the lens of A Reflective, Creative and Holistic Thinker.  It was in addressing the big idea of leadership that the term was defined through the footsteps of Christ. The students shared (and learned) that being a leader is much more than organization, sharing workable ideas or being the most intelligent person in the room, but rather, the ability to help people grow, stand up for what is morally right, to admit fault, to treat people with dignity and to share in the common good.

It was with this opening camp day activity that the students became aware that designing their online brand, curating their portfolio and understanding the urgency of digital literacy and citizenship was very much about ensuring that who they are online matters. Their ability to shape the world through their digital footprint (their attitudes and values shared online) was and is much more urgent that the work curated from a respective class.

It was in listening to the students share and dive deep in this  opening conversation that the “intentionality” of the learning skills became so clearly important and a great reminder to me as a classroom teacher to pause and support students in this discussion.

Moving forward, my practice will now most definitely change. At the start of each new semester, the learning begins with this similar conversation and sharing.

Pause. Curriculum can wait.

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