High Octane Professional Learning

As a Learning Strategies Teacher, my thoughts surround my students, all of whom are identified with a Learning Disability. They are the focus of the OECTA CLC Project: “How might technology be leveraged to increase independence among exceptional learners?” The team for the project is Leslie Cardarelli, Charlene Davidson, Sarah Faloon and me. Lynne Coletti (Principal of Student Services) and Jenny Mbamulu (Faculty of Education student, U of O) participated in our final session.Here are our reflections on our learning journey and the importance of self-directed learning.

The gas-gauge needle hovers over the empty mark, as I pull into the Petro-Canada on a frosty Ottawa winter day. Bracing myself, I zip-up my coat and then step out of the warm car into the -30 degree weather. There, standing in the blustery wind, I must choose between regular, mid-grade or high octane fuel. I know regular is the most common choice, but also know that an improper octane will cause a thumping noise in my car’s engine.

Tank full, I get back in the car. Driving away, I think about my selection of high octane fuel. How it makes my car run efficiently, yet powerful and dynamic.

As I drive on, I think about professional learning. How for me, the best experiences refuel me, yet allow for questioning, thinking and engaging. They make my learning personalized. Enable me to collaborate with people who push my thinking forward. They fuel my passion by trusting me to hold the steering wheel of my own learning. Professional learning of this type is high octane.

I am no expert on fuel, but I do know that the higher the octane number, the more compression the fuel can withstand before detonating. Making higher octane fuel less likely for premature combustion, thus reducing knocking sounds in engines. I believe what is true about octane and engines is, in many ways, also true for teachers.

For instance, consider the professional learning of teachers. Look at how resistance, apathy, indifference, and disconnection emerge when teachers receive inadequate and irrelevant learning experiences. Feel the resulting knocks–reverberations, rumbles, and perhaps silence–that emanate from professional learning when it does not work. The whumping in the professional development engine that signals rebellious and retreatist behaviours in the form of lack of compliance, negative attitudes and lack of participation. Listen to the rattling sounds of ritual compliance–just enough effort, little personal connection, no true learning. Hear the tension between freedom and authority, and very little engagement when not provided with choice. Lack of teacher agency can breed resentment and disengagement. Over time, it breeds overall hostility towards professional learning.

Malcolm Knowles shows us a way to increase the octane of professional learning. He points to the importance of self-directed learning to adult learners, introduces the concept of andragogy, and defines its key principles. Knowles distinguishes between pedagogical practices and those required by adults. Adult learners have strong desires to direct their own learning. They have a wealth of experiences upon which to draw. The experiences, both good and bad provide the “mental backdrop” for new learning to be added. Adult learners find value in professional learning when it relates to their current practice. New learning occurs best when it is specific and immediate, and focused on a “problem or gap of knowledge.”

Professional Development has changed dramatically since I began teaching. Then, top-down leadership was the norm for PD. Now, there are many more opportunities which provide relevant, more personalized learning experiences. Global connections have in part impacted collaboration. Professional Learning Communities now stretch beyond our classrooms, boards and cities. Forums such as Twitter, GAFE Summits, EdCamps and so on provide teachers with self-selected development options. With such forums, there is opportunity to both lead and follow. Much of professional learning today, is seeking out what you need. It is using the connections you have and sometimes, it is creating your own learning experience to fill the need.

High Octane Professional Learning is also enabled by programs such as the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association’s Collaborative Learning Community program. It is personalized, self-directed learning at its finest. In it, teacher agency is central. This OECTA program funded my most recent Professional Learning experience. I wish every PD opportunity for every teacher could be like this one has been for me.

Our team, Leslie Cardarelli, Charlene Davidson and Sarah Faloon, are truly invested in our own learning. We decide upon our own goals, we determine our action and progress, we collaborate with others, and collect evidence of our learning. We pursue our own interests and passions in innovative ways. For us, discussion stems from a desire to learn how technology best plays a role in increasing independence with exceptional learners. Our self-selected mandate is sharing our journey in ways that empower other teachers to overcome the barriers they face. We were trusted and enabled to hold the reins of our own learning. A true mark of andragogy is the movement away from teacher compliance towards greater autonomy. This is the foundation of each OECTA CLC project.

As we come to the end of this years’s project, each of us has reflected upon the process and our greatest learning. Please read below my team’s reflections on our learning journey.

Leslie Cardarelli, K to 3 Resource Teacher


Things have changed in regards to technology when working with students with special needs. I am a Resource Teacher working with the population of Grade 1 to 3 students. Some of these students have not been identified with having any exceptionality as yet but are severely struggling when in the classroom. Some of these students don’t know what a letter is, their sound, and how letters make words.

There are paper and pencil tasks, storytelling, clapping of syllables of words, rhyming activities etc that I use to work with my struggling readers. They are slowly beginning to make sense of what a letter is and what sound it makes but at times are disengaged and lack motivation.

With technology my students are more engaged in phonological activities, rhyming activities, printing activities, etc. Students become more attentive, more confident and feel better about their abilities when using different apps such as Starfall.com and ABCYa. Apps which have the student actually form the letters (ABC Alphabet) on the touch screen computer/IPAD are appealing to my primary students.The students are taking their time to complete activities using technology and are so proud of their results.Graphics and visuals are very enticing to the students. They want to learn! There are reward incentives on various apps as well.

Since students can be visual, auditory or tactile learners, different apps are reaching their strengths as learners. Students enjoy their work more than they did before.

Charlene Davidson, Junior Special Needs Teacher


Beginning this journey with my group, I was hesitant to take the time to be more reflective with others in my teaching practises. However, I knew that the importance of doing such will only enhance my own growth and development as an educator. You see, being a system class teacher sometimes feels very lonely. The class programming and needs of the students is not like a “regular” class, which is a term I’ll use lightly as I know that no class is considered such. I have 16 students within my Junior Special Needs class, and yes it’s a lovely number I will not lie, but in all my years of teaching I have not been so tired after a day of work. Their needs are demanding, both academically and socially, yet they do try so very hard to do their best. It’s no fault of their own, it’s just they’re learning who they are – aren’t we all?

My hope, as an educator, is to help my students be more independent. They are surrounded with so much technology and opportunities I want them to take full advantage of it all for themselves. They want to be “just like everyone else” as they are learning how different they are. My goal is for them to gain the independence they need to be successful and to learn how to advocate for themselves. I too, along with my students tried Hapara and Google Read-and-Write extensions, and learned that it’s okay to figure it out alongside my students. We persevered!

As I wrap up our journey, I too have gained confidence in trying some of the tech savvy tricks. It was an absolute honour to be apart of this community and to especially have a chance to brainstorm and problem solve with Laurie, Leslie and Sarah. Their knowledge and expertise have enabled me to accept my own hesitations, but empowered me to try.

Sarah Faloon, Primary Language Class Teacher


“Believe you can and you’re halfway there”.

In my 13 years as an educator, I have always found this quote by Theodore Roosevelt to be incredibly true. When faced with a challenge, students who come to the table with a strong sense of self have the confidence to persevere and work through any task, no matter how difficult. They see the unknown task as an exciting challenge.  When a student has little self-assurance, the tasks are perceived as insurmountable. In my current role as a special educator, I find myself dealing with the latter more often than not. The fear of failure and anxiety level demonstrated by some of my students is overwhelming.  How can a child succeed if they truly believe that they are not capable?

After participating in four educational and inspirational days with talented special education professionals, I feel even more confident that this is our main priority as teachers.  Give students the confidence to move forward, and they will. Teach them the strategies and provide them with the tools that will help them succeed, and they will use them. Empower them to be their own best self-advocates, and they will rise to the challenge.  Our job is to teach students how to learn. Teach them that learning may not look the same for everyone, but that is not what is important. Teach every child that there is no shame in learning differently. And finally, pass the message along to other educators that with every child comes a unique learning style, individual goals and a distinct learning path.  Our differences in our personalities, our abilities and our educational aspirations and achievements are not only OK and acceptable, but should be celebrated.

Laurie Azzi, Learning Strategies Teacher

IMG_7323This professional learning opportunity lead me to deeply reflect upon Special Education, the use of technology and the tensions that exist within education today. There is a tension between compliance to past ways of teaching literacy and new ways of perceiving literacy through the leveraging of technology. A tension between when to let go of phonics instruction, and paper-pencil tasks in lieu of greater usage of technological tools. While there is no set directive as to when to do so, typically, the primary grades are ones considered as exposure years to technology. Grade 3 and beyond, students go beyond apps and engage more vigorously in what technology has to offer.

When do we transition into greater immersion of technology for exceptional learners? My answer: whenever the shame creeps in. When the learning gap has grown too wide and a child’s self-esteem is challenged. Technology can make accessibility to curriculum and positive self-image a reality.

The word “shame” is probably my biggest “take-away” from this CLC process. A student’s shame is often invisible and over-looked by many of us. Shame is masked by various veneers our students wear: defiance, noncompliance, laziness, opposition, or lack of motivation. Sometimes, it is not the learning disability that shuts down learning. Over time, it is the shame associated with it that does so.

No amount of fidget toys, body breaks or flexible seating options will be sufficient to overcome the barriers our learners face if shame is not dealt with and eliminated. At some point, dealing with the shame will mean venturing past traditional strategies and accommodations which only scratch at the surface. We must move towards immersion in mechanisms that level out the playing field. Leveraging technology will enable this.

An additional tension in education today stems from teacher comfort levels which sometimes contradict with what is best for students. Ultimately, the scale between teacher andragogy and practice, should always be tipped in favour by the moral imperative of teaching each student. In the end, the students are the reason we are there. They are the fuel to the educational engine.


As we wrap up our OECTA CLC this year, I call to mind the quote: “The smartest person in the room, is the room.” All professional learning should capitalize on the collective intelligence of the group, and the beneficial effect of learning from the strengths and gifts of others. Personalized learning opportunities, such as our OECTA CLC, are the kind of ripple that will move the system forward across boundaries, and the constructs of time and space.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ( Robert Kennedy)

Leslie, Charlene, Sarah and I, will continue to be the ripple of change. Our message will carry forward in our own schools and continue to spread within our own Professional Learning Communities.

As with any fuel tank, combustion starts with a tiny spark. Our OECTA CLC has ignited our desire to advocate for the needs of all learners. A tiny spark can ignite a system and create the kind of ripple our educational field needs. Wherever you are, in whatever your role, be the spark to ignite the change.

Every revolution begins with a spark.” (Katniss, Hunger Games)


For more information about my reflections on our project go to:

Day 1  https://laurieazzi.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/learning-enabled-leveraging-technology-with-exceptional-learners/

Day 2 https://laurieazzi.wordpress.com/2017/02/04/think-different-disruptors-of-the-status-quo/

Day 3 https://laurieazzi.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/education-for-all-a-moral-imperative/

Thank you to the following people for their contribution to our project:
Anthony Carabache
Mara Torcaso
Lynne Coletti
Krista Sarginson
Tania Gonsalves
Kim Giles
Steve McGarrity
Jenny Mbamulu
Katarina Cavar