An Interview with Sylvia Duckworth

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of promotion of my friend Sylvia so I thought it might be appropriate to dig a little deeper and have her share more about herself. She was kind enough to participate in this interview.


Doug:  I always like to start with this question.  We certainly have “known” each other online for a long time but where did we actually first meet face to face?

Sylvia:  I remember exactly when we met face-to-face. It was at the GAFESummit Kitchener, April 2012. I saw you in the lobby that was filled with people but I recognized you right away because you look just like your Twitter profile pic. I think this is a really important tip for people on social media: avoid using an avatar or an overly glamorous profile pic so that you will be recognizable in person! I remember thinking how wonderful it was to finally meet you in person, after our social media exchanges. This is a big reason why I love to go to conferences. Online communication is great, but interaction with real-live people is even better. I’m always amazed at how comfortable people are with each other when they meet f2f for the first time after having only “met” on social media before. It’s kind of like meeting an old friend!

Doug:  That makes me feel bad!  I thought my Twitter picture was glamorous.  In your day job, you’re a French teacher at the Crescent School (  in Toronto.  For those of us who have never visited, give us an idea of the school and what educational life is like for students.

Sylvia:  Yes, I teach Core French, grades 3 to 5. Crescent is a wonderful school and I feel really fortunate to teach there. It’s a Boys-Only school, so the high energy level of the boys is palpable the minute you walk into the school. I get many visitors to my class to watch me teach (either for AIM or for technology integration) and they are always in awe of the kinetic energy in the room. Teachers at my school are completely used to it, of course, but visitors are not. They wonder “How can you teach when these boys can’t sit still?”. The answer: keep your class lively, change up activities frequently, and use technology!

Doug:  I recall one of the first conversations that we had and it involved using AIM in the French classroom.  Do you still use this technique?  Can you give us an example?

Sylvia:  Oh my gosh, yes, I would have quit teaching French a long time ago if AIM didn’t come along. AIM has revolutionized the way a second language is taught. Good AIM teachers are quite passionate about the methodology and would not consider using anything else. Sadly, many teachers who receive the training and the resources choose not to use it because it’s a very steep learning curve for a teacher to learn how to implement it properly. It also requires a completely new mindset, which is hard for many teachers to do. I think that the only way to understand how AIM works and to see the benefits is to visit a classroom of a teacher who is using it properly. My classroom door is always open! If you can’t come for a visit, you can check out my AIM blog with lots of videos of me and my students: (password to view the videos is aimlanguage)

Doug:  Could the techniques be used in other subject areas?

Sylvia:  Absolutely! Many (non-AIM) studies have been conducted that prove there’s a strong link between gesturing and better cognition of certain key concepts. Here is an article that describes how gesturing helped students with math.

Doug:  Is Crescent a BYOD school?  What sorts of technology do your students bring with them?

Sylvia:  From grades 6 to 12, it is BYOD. The younger students I teach can only use our school devices: we have iPads and Chromebooks. A question I often get is: if you had to choose one over the other, what would you choose? I would choose iPads for the younger students (K – 4) and Chromebooks for grades 5 and up. However, I truly believe that the way to go is to have a mix of both. iPads can definitely do things that Chromebooks can’t but the same is true vice-versa. If your school is on Google Apps for Education, nothing beats Chromebooks for a seamless workflow.

Doug:  How does technology fit into the French language classroom?

Sylvia:  Funny, just a few years ago I didn’t see how tech could fit in the French class. Then I got a SMARTboard and my anti-tech views changed dramatically. My SMARTboard is now gone (replaced with an amazing interactive Epson projector) and I use technology with my students on a daily basis. My whole program has gone digital and we try to go paperless as much as possible. The AIM program is story-based, so there are all kinds of wonderful ways to use technology to re-create the stories. Students love to take the original story and replace the main characters and other story elements with ones of their own. The stories they make up are incredibly unique and always very entertaining. They create them either on the on the iPad with different creation apps, or on the Chromebooks using Google Apps (Docs or slides). With Screencastify (a Chrome extension), students can screencast a Google presentation to make a video of their stories with voice narration. It’s magical! Click here for an example.

Doug:  You’re a Google Certified Teacher.  How do you use GAFE in your classes?  Do you have favourite applications?

Sylvia:  For sure Screencastify (as mentioned above) would be my top Chrome extension. But a new Google Doc Add-on, Speech Recognition (Speech-to-text) has been blowing me away lately. It works in 32 different languages. I also love Google Drawings which is a much-neglected Google App (click here for a presentation on how useful this app can be). I also adore Google Forms because it allows for paperless assessments and with the Sheets Add-on Flubaroo, my marking is done in seconds. Click here to learn how!

Doug:  Recently, you have been on a roll turning out many Sketchnotes depicting some awesome educational messages.  Have you always had an artistic inclination?

Sylvia:  This is the funniest thing. I literally have not done any drawing since I was a kid. I never considered myself to be a good artist. In fact, I was always convinced that I totally sucked at art. But I discovered with Sketchnoting that you don’t actually have to have a natural artistic ability to do some wonderful things. You DO have to practice, however. When you look at my Sketchnotes you might think: Wow, she can draw, but I swear, I CAN’T!!! I’ve just gotten pretty good at re-creating images I find on the internet. Something else I love about sketchnoting is the challenge of trying to figure out the best way to draw a concept. One of my favourite drawings is one I did for Mark Anderson when he asked me to illustrate “The 4 Stages of Teacher Confidence in the Use of Technology”. Click here to see his original graphic and click here to see my representation of it. Another one of my favourite drawings is  How to Grow a PLN which was Jacques Cools idea. This drawing was replicated by someone in Russia, if you can believe it, and then blogged about in Russian!

Doug:  What was your inspiration to first learn the technique and then to do this?

Sylvia:  I was inspired by Karen Bosch, Silvia Tolisano, and Brad Ovenell-Carter. Their imagery of concepts was so intriguing, I decided I had to try it for myself. Then I got addicted to it and now I am constantly on the search for things to draw. I think the reason why sketchnoting captures so many people’s attention is that it allows for personalization of the subject matter. It is also a very effective way to simplify a concept. I would venture a guess that many people are visual learners, so it is appealing to a lot of us.

Doug:  What would you consider the essential tools of your trade?

Sylvia:  Well, I have only drawn on the iPad, so I can only speak to that (Sketchnoting on paper is another animal altogether). You will need a good stylus. My #1 stylus at the moment is Musemee Notier Prime. Then you need a drawing app. My preferred one is FlipInk but many people like Paper by 53.

Doug:  Give us some insight here…what are you working on now for future release?

Sylvia:  Nothing at the moment. I am looking for inspiration. Do you have any ideas? Mark Anderson wanted me to draw the TPack model. I haven’t yet decided if I want to take that on!

Doug:  Just today, I saw another Twitter user share a Sketchnote with you.  You must feel proud that you’ve motivated others to do that.  Is there hope for a non-artist like me?

Sylvia:  This is so true, it gives me immense pleasure to see other people inspired to take up drawing because of my sketchnotes. Anyone can draw, Doug. Even you. Trust me on this. Use this resource as a starting guide.

Doug:  Do you ever go back and modify a Sketchnote after you’ve published it?

Sylvia:  All the time! Fortunately, Flickr allows you to re-upload an image, keeping the same URL in case you posted the link somewhere online. An annoying sidenote: you need a Yahoo account to use Flickr. (Click here to see all of my sketchnotes.)

Doug:  I love your attention to detail.  You really nailed it with Vicky Loras’ ponytail.

Sylvia:  Ha, I had never attempted to draw people before you asked me to do that sketchnote about your interviews. It was a challenge for me, believe me!

Doug:  Last year, you were the recipient of the National Certificate of Excellence in Teaching and were presented the award by Prime Minister Harper.  That must have been an exciting experience.  Who nominated you?  Tell us your thoughts about receiving this very prestigious award.

Sylvia:  It was an amazing experience that I blogged about here. What I loved most about it was meeting the other award recipients and hearing their inspiring stories. The thought that kept going through my mind was “Sheesh, what am I doing here in the midst of such greatness?!” But, without exception, these teachers were amongst the most humble group of people I ever met.

8 French teacher colleagues and 2 parents nominated me and I am forever indebted to them. It is quite a lengthy and labour-intensive nomination process, which involves submitting a 10 page document detailing the rationale for the nomination and three letters of support. I was so touched that they deemed me worthy of this award and then took the time to write testimonials of support.

By the way, did you know that Aviva Dunsiger (who you interviewed in 2012) won the award in 2013? We both attribute our growth in educational technology to our wonderful PLN. If any of your readers would like to nominate a teacher for this award, nominations are open until April 30, 2015. Click here for more information.

Doug:  Many may not know that, in addition to all this, you’re also an avid runner.  What are your accomplishments in this area?  What’s next for you?

Sylvia:  Oh geez, where did you hear that? I used to run marathons, true, but that was more than a decade ago! I ran 6 total. I ran my first marathon at age 40, in 4hrs:30min, then I got more serious about it and got my PB down to (3:35) in New York. Running the Boston Marathon was undoubtedly the highlight of my running career. Now my bones are getting old and creaky and I usually just run about 7-8 km at a time, at a snail’s pace.

Doug:  Thank you so much for the interview, Sylvia.  I know that many of us are in awe at your accomplishments and are so thankful for you doing what you do.  All the best.

Sylvia:  Thank you for this opportunity, Doug. I love reading your interviews and I feel very honoured that you asked me.

You can follow Sylvia on Twitter at @sylviaduckworth.

3 thoughts on “An Interview with Sylvia Duckworth

  1. thanks so much for this, you two. I, like Sylvia, found my practice rejuvenated by the AIM approach. Now, I’m working with the added learning curve of connecting it with our new curriculum, which isn’t always seamless. I very much appreciated what Sylvia said about people needing to actually see what it looks like in a classroom.

    Still hoping for that Sketchnoting potluck session. 😉


  2. Pingback: OTR Links 02/24/2015 | doug — off the record

  3. Pingback: This year, off the record | doug --- off the record

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