An Interview with Jennifer Aston

One of the really neat people that have helped me with divergent perspectives on social media is Jennifer Aston.  She’s an instructional coach with the Thames Valley District School Board and amplifies her work there online with social media.  It’s this amplification that takes me into different areas and I appreciate that.

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Doug:  Normally, I start my interviews by asking where we’ve first met face to face.  In this case, I don’t recall that we’ve actually met.  Correct?

Jennifer: We have not had the chance to meet yet, but I hope that we do one day! Hopefully in November at BIT2015. I hope this isn’t too forward but you are part of my morning routine. My “early riser” PLN tweeps. I often read the articles that you forward via Twitter with my morning coffee. Especially on Fridays with your “Best of Ontario Educator Blogs”.


Doug:  Whew!  I would have hated not to have remembered!  Now, your blog lists your name was Jennifer but on social media, I’ve always known you as Jen.  Can I call you Jen?


Jennifer: Of course.

Doug:  OK, Jen it is.  Tell us a little bit about your job as an instructional coach.

Jen:  This is my second year as an Instructional Coach with the TVDSB.  In our current model, there are 34 of us serving every single school in Thames Valley.  I don’t have a particular subject in which I specialize, I work with teachers in all subject areas K-8.  At the moment, I’m working in two French Immersion schools (that is my background) and two rural Public Schools.  Three of the schools are in the St. Thomas area and one is in downtown London.

Partnering with an Instructional Coach is up to the teacher and by invitation.  The work between a teacher and coach sort of follows the “Plan”, “Act”, “Reflect” cycle. When I first meet with a teacher, I try to do more listening than talking and ask the right questions to help guide our work together.  Next, entails either me watching the teacher teach and giving them feedback, co-planning and co-teaching together, or modelling an instructional strategy while the teacher observes. Sometimes once, sometimes for a longer period of time.  Afterwards, we debrief and talk about what we learned and what next steps would be of benefit to the students.

My job involves meeting the teacher where they are at. I think that over time, teachers have realized that I’m not judging them or evaluating them, and that I’m just interested in learning together. We focus on improving student learning. I help them figure out their best next step.

I’m also a part of a lot of professional learning networks and board initiatives involving teachers at my schools. I meet with administrators regularly to talk about school goals and instructional strategies.

I feel lucky to have this job, but I miss having my own classroom and students.  I do look forward to going back one day.  I’ve committed to another year of coaching, we can coach for up to 4 years.

Doug:  How does that differ from the learning technologies consultant that I used to work with at Thames Valley?  I fondly remember working with Cliff Kraeker

Jen:  Sometimes my work involves consulting with our consultants (we call them Learning Coordinators).  They are more specialized and have more expertise than I do.  I’ve developed great relationships with people in all kinds of different departments and I enjoy that collaboration as well. When I am stumped, I go to the learning coordinators for an answer if I can’t figure out something with the teacher, or if I need someone to help me clarify my thinking, suggest a good book, tell me what the research is saying or even just talk it out. They like to hear what I’m observing too.

Doug:  Do you have a family of schools or does your reach extend all over the District?

Jen: I’m working at Southwold PS, Sparta PS, Pierre Elliott Trudeau FIPS and Lord Roberts FIPS.  I currently serve approximately 120 teachers and 2100 students.  I have wonderful coaching colleagues in Elgin and we are very supportive of each other. All 34 of the Instructional Coaches have a conference board where we can ask each other questions, collaborate and investigate together or share resources.

Doug:  If I asked you what your current pet project in any of your schools was, what would you say?

Jen: Oh boy, I have too many at the moment!  Currently, the Blue-Green Algae issue in Lake Erie is one that I’m concerned about.  I started investigating it back in 2011 after an article I read with my students.  There’s also a great video by David Suzuki called “Save My Lake” which deepened my understanding.  It’s something I’ve been tracking and that has multiple ties in Social Studies and Science in a variety of different grades. What I like about the issue is that it’s not all “doom and gloom”.  Lake Erie made a comeback before.  There are lots of different perspectives and levels of government and agencies that need to work together.  It’s not enough to learn about something, what action can you take?

I’m a bit of an idealist – what if one of our kids comes up with the solution?

Doug:  If a reader of this blog was interested in the details of the project, could they find them online?

Jen: Absolutely, here is the file folder that I created for a recent TVDSB “STEAM” conference presentation.

https://docs.google.com/a/thamesvalleymail.ca/folderview?id=0B2NPsKnlj2YoWjZreDc2T2JlVlU&usp=docslist_api

Doug:  In addition to your day job, you and Dawn Telfer moderate the #fslchat.  What got you interested in that?

Jen: When I first started working at Dawn’s school, it didn’t take me long to realize what a wealth of knowledge she is. She was a huge help as I got started and is a truly amazing teacher librarian. We soon realized that we were both on Twitter, passionate about the value of a second language and love talking tech.  We started researching together, asking around about existing language chats and participating in #langchat. Then we decided to start our own. I remember our first chat. It was Dawn, myself and one other person. We felt a bit embarrassed, but we had a vision and kept plugging away it and thankfully it grew! We’ve been fortunate to have some great supporters including Sylvia Duckworth, who just mentioned us amongst other language chats in Professionally Speaking.

I think we realize that teaching French whether it’s in Immersion or Core French is a specialized thing. On top of that, I think there are lots of Core French teachers that may be working in isolation and we were hoping to help them develop connections with other teachers.  It was really about building an online community of French teachers. What I love the most about it is that it’s less about Dawn and I and is starting to take on a life of it’s own.  We realize it would not be what it is without the people that contribute to it. Our vision is to get it to the point where it would run without us.

Doug:  How do you get regular ideas to keep the chat fresh and interesting?

Jen:  Our first year was easy.  There was a new Ontario curriculum that people were exploring and a wealth of topics came out of that.  This year, we’ve been asking for input from participants and many of our regulars are even guest hosting. We occasionally survey or just informally ask at the end of a chat.

Doug:  How many people would you have participating on any given week?  Are they mostly Ontario Educators?

Jen:  It ranges between ten and twenty participants.  Most of the teachers are from Ontario, but we also have chatters from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta and British-Columbia.

Doug:  If you were to sell the concept of the #fslchat to a non-participating FSL teacher, what would be your pitch?

Jen:  Come and get energized and inspired by some amazing French educators.

Doug:  You’ve recently become very engaged in coding/programming instructions.  As a former computer science teacher, that’s obviously very near and dear to my heart.  What’s your specific interest?

Jen: I have to credit Brian Aspinall with this one.  I was listening during a #csk8 chat and asked him where I should get started. I was forwarded and challenged to try a tutorial video and accepted.  As I worked, I immediately realized the value in it.  Next I tried some of the code.org tutorials with my 8 year old daughter.  I see so much valuable thinking skills and learning skills.  And kids are totally engaged.  Lisa Floyd was offering sessions for coaches and learning coordinators at TVDSB and I attended her session and saw how it connects to robotics and all the different languages there are to learn. Generally, I’m interested in learning languages. I think that coding language may be a choice for students in the future.  I’m exploring how learning to code is the same or different than learning a second language.  What metacognitive strategies are the same or different? How can you marry the two?

Doug:  Have you ever created a program or script for your own specific purpose?

Jen:  I have to admit that I’m a relative newbie to coding. So far, I’ve played around in code.org and in scratch.mit.edu.  I have to credit Austin Gagnier with my Scratch knowledge through his #csforstudents tutorials. I like making math visible through coding – making shapes and playing with equations.  My next step is moving from blocks to trying Python or Java and playing around with Scratch for Arduino this summer.

Doug:  Where do you see coding/programming fitting into your day job?

Jen:  Well, by now I’ve got a pretty good rapport with the teachers and students that I work with. I know a few teachers that might be interested and that are open to learning new things and I’ll gently try and weave it into the conversation. Or, just not so subtly flat out ask them!  This is a time of year when teachers seem more willing to try something new. So I have a few takers.

Earlier this year, I ran a coding club for Grade 3 students briefly at one of my schools. But I could not sustain it on my own. I’ve coded with a Grade 2 class, a couple of Grade 7 classes, a Grade 8 class and with a Grade 6 class pretty soon. Sometimes my approach is “can we try something?” which works well.

Sometimes taking a risk and trying something together works out well.  Other times if it fails. It’s easier to fail with someone else and figure out why.

Ultimately, I need to have an open stance to learning new things.  Modeling this for our students and for other teachers is really important.

Doug:  You’ve really embraced social media.  In particular, I’m incredibly impressed with your #fsl Sharing resource.  

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0BzLADYfqmhwdRTZ3WDhySkROUVk&usp=docslist_api&ddrp=1#

What’s the story behind this?

Jen:  I think this was Dawn’s idea. Or it might have been one of the chat participant’s ideas.  I read “Drive” by Daniel Pink last summer and did some reflection about open source sharing. I think I started one on my own, but it didn’t take off.  Dawn revived it and got the community participating more. I think that we have to be flexible and use what others are using. Curation is important too. We have to go with the flow… I’m learning to “Storify” the chat and posting to a Google Plus community that was created by one of our participants.  David Fife, who is a VP in my area has shown me a new platform involving Twitter and opening up the possibility of video chats. Dawn and I are meeting to check it out this week and might try it before the end of the year. I like to try new things and form my own opinions of them.

Doug:  And, you’re a regular blogger at https://jaston.edublogs.org/  What’s your motivation to blog?

Jen:  My supervisor Susan Bruyns and Cliff Kraeker.  Sue first mentioned it to me in a meeting we were having after starting the Instructional Coach role.  My reaction was kind of “meh… I’m good with 140 characters”.  Later, Cliff offered a session for coaches on blogging.  He was really passionate about it. Sue was in attendance too. During the session she mentioned that as Instructional Coaches, we have a unique perspective that needs to be shared. When it became less about me and more about giving something clicked.  Having a supervisor that is on Twitter, blogs regularly and keeps current on tech trends is motivating. I’m glad that so many people in leadership positions at TVDSB are tweeting and modelling being connected in education.

Doug:  Where do you get ideas for blogging content?

Jen:  I get a majority of my ideas through the work that I do with teachers and students.  Sometimes, an idea comes after a conversation with an administrator where I am asked some good probing questions. I’m often reflecting on my drives to and from St. Thomas and in between schools. Because I’m not specialized in one area, I think about connections and common ideas I see in multiple subjects. It just sort of builds up and then I just know when it’s time to write and sort it out online.  It’s rather cathartic. Sometimes I have to live with the blog for a few days before hitting the publishing button. It’s still terrifying at times.

Doug:  Have you had success as an instructional coach in getting others to blog?

Jen:  I’m working on it. Dawn and I collaborated on a blog last year. That led to her blogging about the transformation of her library to a learning commons.  As I am sitting here, I’m already thinking about ripping off this idea and interviewing some of my #fslchatters via my blog.  Perhaps they would get the blogging bug that way too…

Doug:  You’re also a proud mother.  Does your enthusiasm for social media (and technology) spillover at home?

Jen:  I am a proud mum. I’ve got two amazing, articulate, strong, spirited and creative girls.  But my husband and I are pretty strict about screen time. We have CBC radio on a lot and my kids will act out a “Debaters” episode. They were ridiculously excited to go to the CBC building in Toronto hoping they might meet Steve Patterson. They love bagpipe music thanks to my husband’s influence.

The girls know that I post picture of them on Facebook, but never on Twitter. They have really limited iPad or TV time at our house. I don’t think they fully understand social media yet. They are often outside, building stuff, exploring, making up games, drawing, reading etc. My husband also loves Twitter, but he uses his for more political reasons. We use it for different purposes.

I know the day will come though. It’s important that I model how to use it positively.

We’re going to be coding together this summer though!  I do test out apps with them to see how easy they are to use and get their opinions.

Doug:  Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.  We now have so much more to talk about if we ever do get a chance to meet.

Jennifer is online with Twitter at:  https://twitter.com/jen_aston  Give her a follow and check out her blog at https://jaston.edublogs.org/.  And, if the idea of a chat about FSL intrigues you, get involved #fslchat Sundays, 9-10pm.

5 thoughts on “An Interview with Jennifer Aston

  1. What a great interview. I’m so proud of Jen and her passion for taking on all challenges. She models making her thinking visible, which is so important for our instructional coaches. She’ll be glad to know that 2 of our newest coaches for the upcoming year are bloggers! The instructional coach team is becoming our social media leaders in Thames Valley!

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  2. Thanks so much, Doug. I learn from Jen all the time, through our mutual interests in coding and #fsl. She does such a great job of modelling ways to share her learning, and being open to learning. Going to be a major #fslchat gathering at #BIT15, I think.

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