For the Islands of Excellence conference, we were so pleased to partner with Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program to be able to give away scholarships to a few educators to join us for the conference.

Here are some snippets from their blogs.

Heidi Siwak Twitter @HeidiSiwak

Islands of Excellence left us with new connections, compelling ideas and a vision for the future of education. The question now is how do we build bridges between these isolated pockets of innovation and expand these types of initiatives so that more learners have the opportunity to experience a different approach to education that matches more appropriately the requirements of today?

Brandon Zoras @BrandonZoras

I got to connect with teachers in all fields, admin, community activists, and everyone in between. It was great seeing so many other leaders in their fields working towards the common goal of providing the best possible learning experience for students. The conversations were great starting points for change and really challenged the status quo.

Ally Fly @FlyOnTheCWall

One of the really exciting things about this conference – about this evening – was that it brought together not only educators, but individuals from “the outside world” … What I mean by this, is that as a Grade 5 teacher I spend the vast majority of my time in my own room with my own students – therefore, the opportunity to connect with others and across such a vast spectrum was a true gift!

It was our pleasure to be able to support Heidi, Brandon and Ally to attend the conference and we are all so grateful to Microsoft Partners in Learning for helping make waves!

~ Jenn

To kick us off for the first ever Islands Of Excellence, we have the most amazing list of speakers talking about a multitude of intersections with education.
Don Adams, YMCA Academy
Rita Fundner, CCICT & CareerMash,
Mandy Wintink, UExperience, Center for Applied Neuroscience Coaching
Adil Dhalla, My City Lives
Julian Diego, SKETCH
Ashley Lewis, Aesthetec Studio Inc, Girls Learning Code, Mobile Children’s Museum
Andy Forest, Maker Kids
Jessica Tudos, kika creative
There is still time to get a ticket.
This event is powered by Pecha Kucha.

Julian Diego is a Program Coordinator at Sketch Working Arts. Julian Diego is a Program Coordinator at Sketch Working Arts, where he has been focussing on supporting youth through movement arts, such as kung fu, dance and theatre. SKETCH is a community-arts development initiative for young people, ages 15-29, who are homeless or living on the margins. Based in Toronto, SKETCH engages youth from all over Canada. The initiative creates equitable opportunities for diverse young people to experience the transformative power of the arts, to develop their leadership and self-sufficiency, and to cultivate social and
environmental change through the arts.

SKETCH celebrates and proliferates its community-arts practice with partners in various Canadian towns and cities to build a movement where young people, free from barriers, are celebrated and engaged as culture makers, perception changers and collaborators in building creative community. It has been recognized locally, provincially and nationally for its unique, capacity-focused approach to youth engagement and organizing through the arts.

SKETCH also works to mentor and support emerging artists who wish to affect change in the Greater Toronto Area. These collaborative partners include Womynation, creating arts activities for young women of colour; Connect To Youth, creating awareness and advocacy for youth through theatre; and New Eyez, educating the community on barriers newcomer youth face.

SKETCH maintains a strong partnership network to create community supports to marginalized youth in social service, health, environment,employment and education. Every year SKETCH engages 650 to 800 street-involved and marginalized youth, and sees approximately 10,000 visits per year in our community-arts programming. These youth engage in arts exploration and self expression, skill-building and capacity-building projects, career-development opportunities, and youth-leadership training–all while participating in a lively and vibrant community of youth art makers.

Your chance to come to Islands Of Excellence as a Microsoft’s Partner in Learning scholar is still available.

Applications have been extended until Tuesday November 13, 2012 at midnight. Applications will be accepted at splash [at] makewaveshere [dot] com

1. What are some innovative ways that you are using Microsoft technologies in your classroom and school?

2. How do you communicate online and share your ideas, experiences and best practices with other teachers?

3. Is critical pedagogy, or components of it, a part of your teaching practice? How do you explore critical pedagogy with your students?

4. Would you be willing to write a short blog post on some your innovative uses of Microsoft technology in the classroom?

We are pleased to announce sponsorship from Microsoft’s Partners in Learning. We are passing on the goodies to you. Apply for a PiL scholarship by November 11, 2012 at midnight to be considered. Applications will be accepted at splash [at] makewaveshere [dot] com

Are you an innovative teacher that is pushing the boundaries of technology use in the classroom? Do you have an active and vibrant online community where you share your ideas, experiences, and best practices to create the 21st century classroom? If so, Microsoft’s Partners in Learning (PiL) program would like to help you build your online communities. In partnership with Make Waves, PiL would like to sponsor your attendance at their inaugural Islands of Excellence Conference on November 16th and 17th.

If you are interested in a receiving a full-conference pass to the Islands of Excellence Conference, please answer the following questions:

1. What are some innovative ways that you are using Microsoft technologies in your classroom and school?

2. How do you communicate online and share your ideas, experiences and best practices with other teachers?

3. Is critical pedagogy, or components of it, a part of your teaching practice? How do you explore critical pedagogy with your students?

4. Would you be willing to write a short blog post on some your innovative uses of Microsoft technology in the classroom?

PiL’s Mission:

Partners in Learning is committed to bridging development gaps and helping realize basic rights by improving education and providing young people with the skills they need to become productive members of society. Since its launch in 2003, PiL has touched the lives of more than 200 million students and teachers in 114 countries.

About PiL:

Microsoft’s Partners in Learning is working with educators and school leaders in Canada to deliver a portfolio of professional development, tools and resources designed to advance teaching and learning and connect with educators worldwide.

Join our PiL Network

Visit our Canadian blog

Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

Kathryn and I met Don Adams, the Head of the YMCA Academy in May. When we were still just talking about what Islands of Excellence could be. Don immediately blew us away with his passion and compassion for his school and students. We have been sharing and shaping the growth of Make Waves and Islands of Excellence with Don along the way. We are so lucky to have Don as a supporter of ours.

You can come hear Don speak on Friday November 16th at the Pecha Kucha.  


Tell me about best or challenging day

Amongst many great days, one stands out in particular. It was my first day at The YMCA Academy, and I was being introduced at an assembly of the school as the new principal. It’s important to understand that many students with learning disabilities do not react well to change — structure is of utmost importance — so my arrival at the school could be fairly disruptive. Understanding that, I was a little nervous about the assembly.

After the introductions, one student approached me with a broad smile, extending her hand in welcome. She said “Don, it’s good to meet you. Please come into our classes — I’d like to get to know you better.” Imagine yourself as a high school student, asking the new principal to join you in her classes!! What a remarkable school!

Tell me about something when you surprised yourself

I like to push personal boundaries, so “surprising” myself isn’t that uncommon. I once set a goal of building myself a car — a real car — from scratch. I worked on that for six years! I’ve been driving it every summer now for the last four years. I had no real mechanical or engineering experience or expertise, so the idea was a bit audacious. But I did it, and it’s a great car!

What do you see are the benefits of having multidisciplinary or different perspectives in education

As a group educators are the most other-focussed people in the world. Each is concerned with bettering the life chances of his or her students. Each, being individual, has his or her own ideas and methods on how to best do that. So, connecting with other educators broadens my repertoire of available methods and ideas, and makes me a better teacher and administrator.

Tell me a story of an IOE that you know

I just found out about a really marvelous mentoring program for youth between the ages of 15 and 23 — Called StepStones. It is for youth entering early adulthood with minimal levels of support in their lives — aging out of foster care, formerly homeless and runaway youth, youth with active mental health/substance abuse problems, delinquent youth estranged from their birth or adoptive parents etc. In this program, youth are connected with long term mentors, for a minimal period of one year, to work on goals and essential life skills related to then critical domains: Permanence, Identity, Self Care & Health, Housing, Education, Job & Career, Finances & Money, Transportation, Life Skills, and Community, Culture, Social Life.

I initially met Andrew Campbell on twitter and invited him to the Islands of Excellence Hack Jam in July. Since then, Andrew has been one of our greatest supporters and inspirations for IOE. Outside of the classroom, Andrew is running a few education initiatives including Staffroom Radio, Beautiful Learning Spaces blog and a campaign to get iPads for his school, so far raising over $13,000! Andrew and I have been working on the Beautiful Learning Spaces blog since mid-September after a series of conversations about how we could start re-designing schools that were destinations on people’s travels as are the fountains in Rome.

Andrew is a grade 4/5 teacher at Major Ballachey Public School.


What is an Island of Excellence?

Umm hmm. Well I think we talked about this before. I think calling it an island of excellence is always problematic. Because people don’t see themselves in terms of excellence you know. I think that is just the way we are. We are pre-programmed to see the faults and the cracks. Not what you are doing. So I struggle with that part of the excellence part. I was trying to think about how this would apply to me. And I think that this idea of island of being isolated as being that sort of something that is on a higher ground surrounded by stuff that is not like it. Right? There is difference around it and I think that the thing that helps me with that is the idea that the island is isolated but technology, social media that kind of stuff, provides connection between the islands and allows there to be bridges built between the islands so you can communicate back and forth between the islands and generally just fill it in.

Describe your best or most challenge day.

I get to choose which one? I immediately went to teaching. I think that for me the best days are the days when you come in with sort of like no expectations but are pleasantly surprised with what happens. That you suddenly go “Oh”, I thought it was going to this way. Like, going back to what we were talking about before about letting the kids lead. I love those moments when suddenly you think you are going this way and something happens and you go Oh, that’s way more interesting to go that way, which I wasn’t expecting. And you do it. And you suddenly go, Wow. A good example would be last year the board decided they wanted to engage students more? So they decided what they will do is that they will have a conference. Where they would invite representatives from all the high schools to come in to the conference and they would meet and talk about all this stuff. At the start of the day I told my students that this was going on and they expressed disappointment that it was just high school students. Like why are they the only one that get voices. And I thought about it, and I said you’re absolutely right. And so I checked it out and sure enough there was a twitter feed. So we tweeted about it. And we worked out so that my kids were able to say “ok what are the focus questions” they got the focus questions.. And they tweeted their responses in to the conference. And they showed up on the screen to all the delegates. And this was something completely unplanned and I had no idea this was going to happen at the start of the day. And it was amazing. And that to me, that kind of stuff is what I would say is the best day. And then if I had to flip it the other way, like a bad day would be a day when it is just crushingly boring, you know, when nothing cool happens. It’s just kind of just going through the routine, there’s no creativity, there’s no spark of energy. I mean there are, in all of our lives there are days when there’s just stuff you have to do.

When did you do something that surprised yourself?

When I surprised myself? Umm, I think I surprise myself a lot. I think that is something that happens pretty frequently with me. I think I tend to have a low opinion with myself and abilities [snicker]. So what I try to do is I try to set myself up to do stuff that I don’t really think I can do. And then I am surprised when it works out as well as it does, you know? I was thinking of actually when I started off teaching and not the first school, but 2 years after. I went to a school that was the first network schools in TDSB. And my principal came to me and said “You’re a new a teacher, we have this thing called a computer network. I don’t know what it is. Do something with it”. I kind of went “ok” and umm and i was able to pull it off and do some really cool stuff with it. I had no idea going into it that was what was going to happen. I guess it sort of happened this year as well. In this past school year, where I went to my principal and went, “look, we really need more technology in our school. Our students don’t have very much money. I would really like to try and raise some how can we do that? “and he said ” I don’t know see what you can do” and so now suddenly we have a fundraising campaign, and we have 13000 in the bank towards new technology in our school. The fact that that stuff kind of happens and it’s not because of forethought or good planning or intelligence in anyway; it’s just because people throw themselves at it, and let’s see what happens you know. It’s like one of my favourite quotes, from one of my favourite books the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. In that book Arthur is taught how to fly. And he is told that the way you learn is that you throw yourself to the ground and miss. I always think that is such a good metaphor for taking risks and learning you know? Cause that is essentially what we do right? We kind of go “alright we’re going to go, boom!” and when you miss, you fly. I think that’s really cool

What are the benefits of connecting educators from different fields and industries?

I guess, I got to ask a question, so by multidisciplinary or different perspectives we’re talking about people outside the traditional education sphere? Is that the idea? Or do you want me to answer it how I think?

<What do you think it means?>

I think that one of the mistakes that we have made in education. And i think every discipline kind of does that. We’ve gotten caught up in wanting to be experts in everything we do. We’ve gotten caught up in thinking that we know what we are doing. And that has its strengths because we take pride in what we do and it pushes us professionally. But the problem with it is that education is not just for educators it’s for everyone, you know. And in our efforts to wall off what we do and make it for us, we shut other people out and other people become disconnected from all of education. I was thinking about this on the weekend, we have kind of missed the point of public education. We have made the mistake that public education is about educating this child and we’ve missed the fact that public education or any education is an investment in our society and we’ve missed that you know. The only way that we get back to getting people to understand that public education is really about making this a better place to live for everyone forever and not just about educating this one particular individual child. That’s the only way we’re ever going to move forward. We’re only going to get that if we include other people and like breaking down all the walls and inviting people into the process and taking the process out to other people

Tell us a story about an Island of Excellence who you know

I think my, the one that sprung to my mind, is actually one of my favourite sort of people doing excellent things story. I went to a TLCP meeting last year and this was a TLCP meeting with 3 other schools. TLCP is teaching and learning through critical pathways. It’s sort of a process of teaching. So you’re grouped by grades. So I sat at a table with a guy that is teaching the same grade as me from a different school and I didn’t really know him. And we started talking about what we are doing in different programs. And what I found out that he was doing a 1 to 1 program that nobody knows about. He has over time through people donating things, through going out and begging things collected a class set of laptops. And he has them, and his kids do everything on laptops. And nobody knows about it and nobody talks about it. He is the only one doing it. He doesn’t go out and tell people how to do it. He doesn’t share it. He just does it. Because he thinks that’s the right thing to do. And it’s not like he’s possessive about it. He just doesn’t thinks it’s anything nothing special. It’s just more of sort of an expression of him doing what he thinks is right. And he kind of thinks that everybody should do what they think is right. And it was just such a surprising thing to find out that somebody was doing something that they didn’t, I was just like “wow”, and you are doing that, you just so far ahead of everyone else in doing that sort of stuff. And he just didn’t think it was a big deal. He was very unassuming about it. And doing it, like in a school where everyone thought it was insane. So he was doing something very excellent, and he was surrounded by differences or indifferences?

I met Stephen Young on Twitter. I was at a conference and saw an awesome picture of Former Mayor David Miller doing a rock star pose with a guitar and had to reach out to him on Twitter. In my search for David Miller’s twitter handle, I found Stephen tweeting him to ask him to speak at his upcoming Civics Education Network conference. I knew that I had to reach out and find out more. After a 2 hour coffee meeting, Stephen agreed to do the Islands of Excellence interview.

Stephen Young is a high school teacher at Rosedale Heights and the Founder of Civics Education Network.


What is an Island of Excellence?

I don’t like the term islands. It feels disconnected from everything else. I go into my head and think – ok, Island of Excellence. We have been playing with trying to think of ourselves as a Centre of Excellence, for CEN anyway. We provide, we develop resources and excellence for civic education. If you want to teach someone about civic education, we are going to have the top quality of everything you would need, at least of what we can provide. We are going to bring people together, who will help develop that together, to help you and you will contribute back to be a perpetuating network of civic education. So, I don’t know how Islands fit into that. What is connecting the pieces? So maybe more like a hill of excellence?

Other organizations are not like us, we are connecting to practitioners. We are connecting to the people in the classrooms and the students who are connected to the people. There are other organizations like Civics and Student Vote, they aren’t exactly like us. But there are the politicians and the activists, there is a massive community of civic engagement and civic society, the whole concept is: let’s connect to civic society and the knowledge they have to the educators who know what they are doing and those who don’t. We aren’t connecting to other organizations; we are connecting the people who need the support with the people who can provide that support. I have picture of a railroad or a round house, or a web of sorts. That is so overused. More as a centre of connections.

Describe your best or most challenge day.

Personally, I would have to say my best day was my wedding day. My wife would kill me if I didn’t say that. *laughing* It is fresh in my mind. We did it all ourselves.

Yesterday, I confirmed Michael Ignatieff as a keynote for the conference. I don’t know what he will say, but Hey! He will draw the numbers.

(pause for more thought)

September 4th. Yes, the start of school. It is both best and challenging. You don’t know what you are going to get. There is a whole group of kids in front of you, some of them you know, some of them you don’t. They are very different. The 9’s are scared witless. The 12’s are thinking about getting into university. The 10’s and 11’s are thinking “I gotta be here, so I am going to cause sh*t all year.” They are very different and very challenging to figure out. But by the same token, I just spent a week redoing my classes and I am excited to put them in front of them and inspire them.

When did you do something that surprised yourself?

This isn’t really a specific moment. I am surprised that this organization is functioning. CEN started 7 years ago; about 5 years ago we got off the ground. I went into City Hall, after being involved with other organizations that had used the city chambers. So, I proposed the idea of having a mock city hall to Kyle Rae. I had a chat with Kyle Rae, he says “great idea”. He says come by during the next council meeting and tap me on the shoulder. So the next week I come back, he hands me a copy of the procedures book. I spent a week simplifying and compressing it and then we brought 3 classes down. We spent the day playing the roles of mayor, councillors  city staff, and the whole she-bang  We sat in the council chambers, they gave us access to the voting procedures and the voice system, and they could turn the mics on and off. That led me to the idea that this could be a program. We could do this with teachers who were interested. But that idea flopped, the city had no interest or money. The teachers didn’t have enough time. So it fell apart. I try again and got a bunch of OISE people. So, we got to an organic place where we do conferences and inviting councillors and activists into the school. And things keep growing. Now we are talking about doing a councillor shadow program. We are working with an intern to see what might happen. It is sitting on a back burner now.

What are the benefits of connecting educators from different fields and industries?

Schools can function in two different ways. They can function as islands. They are little specks on the landscape and they do their own thing and then that’s it. High schools are more likely to be like that than elementary schools. Elementary schools have more parental connections and connections to the neighbourhood. There are a lot more of them, they are hyper local. High schools are larger. There are islands within the building. The departments are islands; you hang out with your department. In our building, there are 3 distinct floors. Our top floor is academic, our 2nd is has some academic, our basement is our arts.

You have to try and bring schools into the community. Schools are trying to do this more and more. It is challenging. It is a challenge of how you do it too. The easy root is to do the Terry Fox run. Let’s raise some money and give it to a charity. The TDSB really promotes this too. These are all really good; they all connect to the community in some way. But I think schools could do better. I think schools could connect better, taking the kids and actually saying “How can we improve our community?” It doesn’t just mean giving money. “How can we reach further into the community and truly become part of it?” You know, help build outside and around; more than giving money and walking away. “How do we knit it into the fabric?” For some schools this is easier than for others, it depends on what community the school connects to. Is it the local community or some other community; like our school connects to the arts community because our kids come from all over the city. The universities are better at this. They weave themselves into the city better. They can make a small change to the campus, but it is a massive change to the city.

Tell us a story about an Island of Excellence who you know

There’s Taylor Gunn, who runs Student Vote. Bringing mock elections into school and giving students the chance to experience democratic process. I believe in 16 year old voting. I think if that was the first time they were voting, then it would keep them voting.

There’s Jayme Turney from Toronto Public Space Initiative, he is quickly becoming a power or knowledge in that particular field so we’ll see where that goes.

Today, we went back to where it all started. In May, Kathryn and I attended our first event together, TEDx YMCA Academy titled “The Heart and Soul of Learning Disabilities” and today we went for “Machines and Minds”. These two events really encapsulate the kind of school the YMCA Academy is, a school of inspiration, experimentation, taking risks and putting themselves out into the public to share.

The TEDx talks were each inspirational in their own way, speakers ranged from entrepreneurs who are designing for education or have had unique education paths of their own to a brain scientist. I admired each speaker for their courage to share their stories. I especially liked the personal accounts of learning practices and differences.

The YMCA Academy expresses vision and passion for learning differences and we are so excited to be hosting Islands Of Excellence 2012 in the school.

Make Waves,


On July 11, we hosted a Hack Jam for Islands of Excellence. We hosted this Hack Jam for a 1 reason, find out what people are thinking. And we got that question answered and then some. We asked a few simple questions and let the conversation flow. We are so excited to get a chance to launch Islands of Excellence and already have so many people interested in supporting the project. We asked about best, worst and day/days of the week for conference preferences. These logistical questions have really helped us to help define what kind of professional development and connections people are craving.

We also facilitated a bit of group discussions and got an overwhelming amount of information that we are slowly working through and digesting. There was so much information, that I fear we have been a bit delayed in relaying it out.

Here are the first few things we are working on:

  • logistics for the actual conference (date, place, etc)
  • glossary of terminology that we use (hack jam, unconference, etc)
  • features of Islands

This last one was the biggest take away for us. What is an Island of Excellence? This was one of our group discussion questions and the conversation just erupted (haha island humour). We love when there is so much insightful, critical and engaging inquiry and discussion that is rooted from an idea that we are still testing. This is what prototyping is all about! Check back in the next little while to see who is being featured.

Get out there, make waves!