An interview with Debbie Donsky


I don’t know that I’ve ever met Debbie Donsky in real life.  Maybe she knows? However, I most certainly follow her on social media and feel like I’ve become so much wiser after these interactions.  I was so pleased that she agreed to this interview.

This photo was taken at the front of my school by the butterfly garden the Kindergarten classes created after hatching caterpillars. The photo was taken by my instructional coach, Mirjan Krstovic. 

From her Twitter Bio, Debbie describes herself this way – School Effectiveness Lead @PeelSchools, @TEDx, Assoc. Editor Word & Deed Publishers, she/her/hers, writer, creator, mommy, teacher, leader, learner of all things

Doug:  My first question, as always, Debbie is this – Do you remember when we first crossed paths?

Debbie: Did we meet at a York Region event? I feel like you stopped and said hello to me at the Sheraton Parkway. Other than that, I think it is just online. 

Doug:  Gulp! I guess the memory may be one of the first things to go for me!

One of my favourite posts from your blogs is “You aren’t what I was expecting”.  It begs the question – “What should I expect if/when I get a chance to meet Debbie Donsky?”  https://debbiedonsky.com/you-arent-what-i-was-expecting/  

Debbie: I think that what motivated me to write this piece were the assumptions people made about me. Joining a new board where I didn’t know anyone personally was challenging. I had done it before. When I began my career I was an LTO for a number of years so I moved around a lot in those first few years not only schools but boards and then those boards amalgamated into TDSB. I started fresh in York Region as a VP and now, I have joined PDSB awaiting placement on their senior team. When I joined the board, I was told by many that my reputation preceded me in the sense that people had heard I had my doctorate, was at the Ministry of Education and that I was shortlisted in the superintendent pool. I believe their assumptions were based on all of this–my qualifications and experiences rather than me as a person. In addition, having read my blogs and been aware of my involvement in social media, many people I met felt that they already knew all about me. I was even told by someone that they had heard that I prefer to be called, “The Doctor”! The students do call my Dr Donsky but THE doctor? 

When people got to know me they would often say that I wasn’t what they expected. So I am not 100% what that means to each person who said it but what I do know, having spoken to a few people who have said that, is that they expected me to be arrogant, intimidating and condescending. I am none of those things. So ultimately, what should people expect? They should expect someone who is absolutely passionate about working with children and families, education in general, social justice and equity, learning, supporting my staff, not taking myself too seriously, having a great sense of humour, practicing gratitude and most importantly, my family. What I hope is that people will withhold judgement until they have actually had an opportunity to meet me, speak with me and laugh with me. 

Doug:  I’m a real fan of your blog and the wide variety of education related topics that you touch on.  What’s your inspiration for writing and sharing?

Debbie: The inspiration comes from my own experiences, ideas I am grappling with, conversations I have had with colleagues, parents, students, professional learning opportunities – essentially, new learning I am doing. 

Doug:  Awesome answer.  The real message is never stop learning.  I know that I value the thoughts and ideas that you share via your blog.

Unlike many bloggers who express opinions, your posts typically are backed with real research and original references.  You’re telling me (and others) that you’re well read. How do you decide what to read?

Debbie: I have a few friends whose recommendations I always take but I have always been an avid reader since I was a child. I used to take pride in alphabetizing my books on my bookshelf in my room. Now I colour code them because I always remember colour. I honestly have a book addiction and it is so out of control. I used to have 3-4 books that were next on the list and now I have about 20 waiting for me to read. The problem is that reading sends you to more reading so if I read a book and there is a reference to another book, I want to read that book. A friend told me that I should look up if there are podcasts that interview the authors so I won’t have to read the whole book but I don’t find that works for me. When I drive to and from work, I listen to Audible. I have ebooks and real books. 

Doug:  On your website, you interview yourself and I was particularly interested in what inspired your doctorate.  https://debbiedonsky.com/interview-with-debbie/  How are you able to apply this in your school work?

Debbie: Essentially my doctoral work is about how power plays out in schools. The focus of my research was Critical Knowledge Building whereby I took the principles of Anti-Racism Education from George Dei, Pedagogy of the Oppressed from Paolo Friere and Knowledge Building from Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter and wrapped them all up in a bow. I wrote about how online spaces open new possibilities for democratic social justice because voice is amplified differently. This is pre-social media! This is something I use all the time in my practice in the school. I look at participation patterns, voice – who is amplified and who is silenced and what is my role in it and ultimately, how do I infuse anti racism and critical pedagogy into all of my work. There is also a component of whose knowledge counts. The work in the thesis looked at indigenous knowledges and how we value some knowledge over others as a process of colonization in the classroom. I write about the importance of personal narrative, indigenous knowledges, and the role of family in developing our own story. The last chapter of my thesis is an autoethnography which is essentially a study of myself! I would say it is very similar to the way I write my blogs–they are informed through personal experiences, research and practical application of both spaces of learning where one is not more important than the other. 

Doug:  Now, that is interesting.  “Pre-social media” seems so long ago now and yet the same concepts would apply today, with more importance.

Come September, you take on a new position with Peel Schools – School Effectiveness Lead – what does this entail?  In a district as big as Peel, how will you make sure you’re successful and effective?

Debbie: Well that is a question! I don’t officially begin in this position until the last week of August though I have had a transition meeting with the outgoing team. I know that school success planning, mathematics and culturally responsive literature all fall under my role. I will work with the leadership team in curriculum, principals and vice-principals in the system, as well as the math team to ensure success. I am so appreciative that I had one glorious year in a school before moving back to system level work because I don’t believe we can support schools if we have not worked in them and PDSB is so vastly different from YRDSB so there was a lot for me to learn. I think the best way to determine success and effectiveness is to seek feedback, listen and respond. This can only be done when you develop relationships with those you are seeking feedback from so as always, with each move, I will focus on the relationships. 

Doug:  I trust that you will use social media as part of this job and to do active inquiry.  Can you name places you plan to look for inspiration as you plan for this job change?

Debbie: It is hard to name it before it happens but I assume, as always, it will be through the people I connect with, the learning I do and the challenges I face in my new role. 

Doug:  You’re quite a communicator with Sketchnotes.  How do you feel they fit into your professional life?  Are they for everyone?

Debbie: For me, it is a way to focus while in learning sessions. A friend of mine suggested it several years ago and I have not stopped. I promised myself when I finally get promoted I will buy myself an iPad Pro with a pen so I can try to do them digitally. Until then, it is Moleskin and fineline markers. I don’t know if it is for everyone but it works for me. I used to do sessions with classes in my former board and the experience that blew me away the most was a group of students with learning disabilities. I didn’t know them but their teacher told me that several of them would never put pencil to paper and yet in my session they could not stop. They had so much to share when they had the freedom to use images and words. It was astounding. Many people get overwhelmed looking at the sketchnotes that people make who are experienced but I think it is important, if you are interested, to just keep at it. Brené Brown says that “comparison kills creativity and joy”. We need to stop comparing and just do. Like anything, it takes practice and a commitment to learn and challenge oneself. I love looking at the different ways in which people use sketchnotes and develop their own style.  

Doug:  I’m guilty of being the opposite.  I tried Sketchnoting with the end in mind and was frustrated when it wasn’t a piece of art.  I love the story about the students.  

Your Twitter profile shows a nice collection of Twitter lists.  How do you use these lists in your online work?

Debbie: To be honest, I don’t. I think people have added me to their lists. I don’t use them. 

Doug:  Since you’re a TEDx speaker, you obviously don’t have an aversion to public speaking.  What topics are you passionate about?

Debbie: Storytelling. It is so important to tell your story, authentically. Years ago I remember watching JayZ on Oprah’s Masterclass and he talked about learning from failure more than success. He was sharing about his first hit album and that after that he tried to recreate another album so that his fans would like it. He quickly learned that the creative process is not about anyone but yourself. When you create something from your authentic self, your story, it will resonate with others. When I listen to someone open their heart and soul to me, then I am passionate about it. 

Doug:  Are you available to speak at conferences or other professional learning events?

Debbie: Yes and I have. This year I was invited to do two keynotes – one for Simcoe County DSB and one for ETFO AQ. Both were quite an honour. I have also done many workshops over the years on a variety of topics. 

Doug:  Thank you so much for the interview, Debbie.  It’s appreciated and I’m sure that our readers appreciate it as well.  Where can you be found on social media for anyone who wants to follow and learn from you?

Debbie: My website is https://debbiedonsky.com/, my Twitter handle is @DebbieDonsky and my Instragram is @debdonsky and I use that for my art mostly. 

An Interview with Shelly Terrell


One of the true joys of being online and connecting with others are the others that you connect with.  One of these people is Shelly Sanchez Terrell.  We’ve never formally met but I’ve been following her learning and sharing for a long time.  Recently, she agreed to be interviewed for this blog.  It’s a great opportunity for me to ask her questions that I’ve always wondered about.

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Doug:  Hi Shelly – thanks for agreeing to the interview.  These are always fun.  Normally, I start off by asking where we first met.  As noted above, we’ve never met face to face but certainly have interacted online.  Do you remember our first interactions?

Shelly: I believe we met on Twitter. However, I felt I connected more with you through Vicky Loras. I noticed she mentioned you a lot on her stream. From there, I read your blog and interviews and enjoyed your writing.

Doug:  Ah, Vicky.  She has connected me to a number of educators that I would have otherwise missed.  She’s my Zug/Europe/Entrepreneur connection!  You’ve got to love the online world for opportunities like that.  I’m looking forward to meeting her in person one day.

One of the things that has always impressed me is your 30 Goals Challenge, 30Goals.com.  Can you tell us a bit about these and how to get involved if someone was so inclined.  Sylvia Duckworth has captured it nicely in this Sketchnote.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/15664662@N02/18998786183/

Shelly: The 30 Goals Challenge is a community of teachers and educators from around the world who support each other in accomplishing 1 to 30 goals. When we accomplish goals, we post our reflections on our own blogs and share them as a status update in our Facebook community, https://www.facebook.com/groups/30Goals/ or on Twitter using the hashtag, #30GoalsEdu. This community has existed since 2010 and each year we grow and add new members. It’s free to join and teachers can choose which and how many goals to accomplish from any of the years. New teachers step up each year to suggest goals.

Doug:  So, this project goes back to 2010.  I think this would be a terrific activity for Faculty of Education students.  What was your inspiration to start this and was it immediately successful?

Shelly: Each January, I accomplish personal goals. In 2010, it had been 8 months I had been blogging and I decided to try accomplishing my goals with the teachers I had met online and had been so supportive. It still is one of the best decisions I’ve made. Not only did I accomplish 30 goals as a teacher that year, but I kept being inspired by the teachers who decided to undergo that journey with me.

Doug:  You’re definitely one of the more active educators on social media.  Can you identify some high points you’ve had as a result?

Shelly: Each year, I get to travel to places around the world and meet teachers I’ve connected with online. I get to step into their classrooms, see them teach their students, work with them, meet their families, and celebrate their culture and cities with them. I’m incredibly blessed to have so many high points throughout the last 5 years.

Doug:  Over the summer, incident(s) inspired you to write this blog post.  http://teacherrebootcamp.com/2015/08/10/whenleadersfailyou/  Do you still have the same feelings about leaders?

Shelly: I have been traveling and attending many educator conferences for the last 5 years and I haven’t seen much change as far as diversity in keynotes and who is mentioned in top lists, etc. I don’t see many females or those of diversity get to share as lead voices and it disturbs me. I believe many leaders in the limelight now aren’t being supportive enough and recommending new voices. I also believe that many in the limelight don’t hold ed leaders up to a standard. The leader in question here is still shared, recommended, and given major educational awards even when this person has continuously plagiarized, cut off watermarks, and so forth. There are other leaders who have been known to take advantage of females and others who have stolen credit from others for ideas they didn’t come up with. I know many leaders who support the same people even after knowing the truth. I wish more leaders would see how important it is to allow various voices with integrity lead teachers, but not enough are brave enough to do that as far as I can see. Recently, I collaborated with Rusul Alrubail, Michael Benavides, Dr. Will Deyamport, William Jeffery, Valerie Lewis, Jaison Oliver, and Sarah Thomas) to come up with Edspeakers.com which is a database free for any teacher to setup a profile and conferences to search.

Doug:  Thank you for giving these people a shout out.  I have crossed paths online with a few of them and started to follow the group last night.

On your website, you’ve indicated that you’ve led workshops in 20 different countries, including Australia and now I understand Venezuela is on your radar.  On that page, a comment from a visitor is in Spanish so I’ve got to know – with all your traveling – how many different languages do you speak?

Shelly: I can understand what people say at least at a basic level in over 10 languages. I also know how to read and speak in Spanish, German, and other languages. Unfortunately, I am terrible with accents and people don’t understand all I say verbally. I love playing a game with myself in the airport where I try to guess the language of the people around me and I’m correct a majority of the time.

Doug:  Your blog and your resources are in English.  Is that the reality of being online and a choice that you’ve made for your connections?

Shelly: I don’t feel comfortable writing in Spanish and I did learn English in school and how to express myself in English. One of the first books I wrote was of Spanish poems.

Doug:  Another of the spectacular resources that you make available online are the Survival Tips.  What’s the story behind them?

Shelly: I have created over 200 presentations and I do so much research when creating these presentations. I finally decided to place the best ones in one area on my blog so when I present on those topics, I could easily update them.

Doug:  You’re quite heavily vested in the Google world with your resources and comments.  Have you experimented with Office 365?

Shelly: I had a Windows laptop for nearly 20 years and each year it was the one that I would replace. I finally bought a Macbook and it has lasted me for years. It has also been a support for my creativity and travel. The great thing about Google is it can function on any device and I can login on whatever device. With my Macbook and Google I won’t ever want to go anywhere else, because there is no need to fix what is not broken.

Doug:  Even with all your traveling, you call home San Antonio, one of my favourite places.  I love the Riverwalk and the Alamo.  Do people that live in San Antonio appreciate them as much as we tourists?

Shelly: San Antonio is one of the top tourist destinations in the US and the locals I think love having people visit from around the world. I believe the people here are some of the nicest in the world and often will wave hi and smile. I think they do appreciate the culture and other special venues maybe tourists don’t visit as much.

Doug:  Rosco the Pug is featured nicely in many pictures with you.  There must be a Rosco story that you can share.

Shelly: There are thousands of Rosco stories I can share, because he’s my baby. I guess our pet kiddos become a part of us. I will say that when I leave or come back, he often jumps into my suitcase and nestles in my clothes.

Doug: I’ve never noticed but I need to ask – have you ever presented in Canada?  Any time you’ll be up here in the future?

Shelly: Actually, one of the first conferences I ever keynoted for teachers was in Toronto thanks to Tyson Seburn and TESL Toronto. I’m excited to announce that I will be visiting Vancouver, Canada again in April to keynote for a conference.

Doug:  Thank you so much for the interview, Shelly.  I hope that you keep sharing your expertise; you offer so much.  And, good luck in Vancouver.  It’s a beautiful destination.

You can follow Shelly on Twitter at:  @ShellTerrell https://twitter.com/ShellTerrell , her blog at http://teacherrebootcamp.com and her book “The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers” can be ordered through her website.

An Interview with Rusul Alrubail


Doug: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Rusul. You’re another person that I’ve never met in person so I’ll skip my normal first question. We met on Twitter, right?

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Rusul: Indeed we did. You started following me through a list of Ontario Educators.

Doug:  OK, confession time here.  I love your writing but I suspect that I miss a great deal of it since you publish in many places other than your blog.  Where can we find the complete works of Rusul?

Rusul: My own website: www.rusulalrubail.com Actually, I will be launching a new website soon, hopefully with the same address, and I am really looking forward to it! I try to cross post everything on my personal website, but often forget or don’t have the time. I also write on Medium.com, Edutopia, Teaching Tolerance, PBSNewshour, and Education Week.

Doug:  One of my favourite posts appeared over the summer.  “Students are not allowed in here.”  http://rusulalrubail.com/2015/08/10/students-are-not-allowed-in-here-ilooklikeaprofessor/  It inspired me to write a reply about assumptions in education.  Other than a youngish professor misidentified in the staffroom, can you give some more examples of assumptions you’ve encountered in education?

Rusul: Thank you so much, and I equally appreciated your assumptions post, because many of us encounter assumptions. That post highlighted assumptions about my age, and also about my wearing a hijab. When I taught at Seneca, there were many Muslim female students who wore the hijab, but hardly ever a professor. Some of the assumptions I’ve encountered: teachers were surprised I don’t have an accent when I spoke, because I look young some teachers feel that I don’t have enough experience, or that I don’t have enough knowledge base on the content being delivered.

Doug:  Some assumptions can be so hurtful.  It would be nice for students to have a do-over.  Is this a realistic option?

Rusul: I think everyone deserves to be treated fairly with respect. Some of the assumptions that hurt students are built around biases that many of us have innately grown used to, and are systematically developed. It’s important that we recognize our own biases, so that students can be provided with the best solutions and opportunities in education. On a practical level, this can be a realistic option, if the teacher knows her students. Knowing and building a strong connection with your students creates excellent opportunities for student achievement.

Doug:  In among the other things that you do, you’re an edcamp organizer!  Can you tell us a bit about edcamptoronto?  I see that it has been postponed.  Can you share details about its focus and when the rescheduled date will be?

Rusul: EdCampToronto is an unconference that is organized by educators who believe in the power of connection and collaboration. Sessions are proposed the day of the event and attendees decide on the schedule by voting for their favourite session. It’s really a day of sharing, learning and connecting with other educators who believe in creating positive change and advancing thought in education. This year our theme is Education for Social Impact. This theme focuses on how education can drive change on a social level through many different elements and pathways: policy, pedagogy, technology, strategy. And most importantly, through the people: teachers, students, and parents. The new date for EdcampToronto will be held at Design Cofounders’ office at 96 Spadina Ave on Saturday November 28. We’d love to see you there!

Doug:  Your teaching experience comes from Seneca College.  Can you share the similarities and differences between K-12 and college teaching from your perspective?

Rusul: There are so many similarities and differences so I’ll try to be brief! One of the big differences between K-12 & college teaching is agency both student and teacher’s. K-12 we’re teaching children/adolescents, whereas college you’re teaching mainly adults. I say mainly, because I’ve had 17 year old college students in some of my classes. So by agency, the adults are there because they chose to be there on some level, whereas K-12 students have to be there. This changes classroom management, dynamics, and a lot of other teaching strategies. Another difference is the hours spent in a college classroom is by far less than classroom hours spent in a K-12 classroom. So college instructors have a very short time to try and build a connection with their students, as most of the time is usually spent on marking and planning.

One big similarity is that all teachers build a relationship with students to get to know them, their backgrounds, and interests. And that motivation and engagement is something by which both college instructors and K-12 teachers are impacted.

Doug:  As a college instructor, your approach to social media is different.  I’ve seen you engage with educators world-wide and not just in the higher education realm.  Is this on purpose?

Rusul: It’s not “strategic” per se. I just really enjoy learning from all educators, because I believe that we all offer an essential and unique piece to the puzzle of education, teaching and learning.

Doug:  Your Twitter profile indicates that you are #educolor driven.  Can you share some thoughts on that?

Rusul: #EduColor is a movement that focuses on issues of race & ethnicity in education. The founding member is Jose Vilson @theJLV. I was invited to be a member last January and ever since then digital social activism in education is one of the main focuses on social media (Twitter) for me.

Doug:  Most of the readers of this blog are K-12 educators.  What does this mean for them?

Rusul: I am actually heading the Canada chapter of #EduColor that will be announced shortly, and many of our members are K-12 teachers. Issues of race and ethnicity impact most of our students and teachers of colour, and in order for solutions happen, we need to have the conversation. Equity in education is something that we all strive for on a daily basis, and that’s what #EduColor’s main mission is all about.

Doug:  Where and how will it be announced?  Can I help get the word out to others?

Rusul: #EduColor Canada will most likely be announced after our first meeting, which will be happening November 28 during EdCampToronto! It would be great to have your support in helping spread the word to Canadian educators. We’ll be tweeting and blogging about it to share our mission with educators in and outside of Canada.

Doug:  Will it be #educolour since it’s a Canadian chapter?

Rusul:  The hashtag will still be #EduColor for now.

Doug:  Finally, I need to ask about The Writing Project.  http://thewritingproject.com/  The website indicates that it is used by a number of students and the list is of higher education institutions.  Can you tell us about The Writing Project?

Rusul: The Writing Project is an essay writing platform for students. We initially created it as a workbook. Through a great deal of student and teacher feedback, we sought to turn this workbook into a digital app for students to use to help them write their essays. We’ve built TWP as a solution to a problem that we’ve encountered over the years with student writing: TWP helps by bridging the gap between writing a structurally coherent essay, while still demonstrating critical thinking, analysis and synthesis.

Doug:  How successful has this project been?  Where do you see it going?

Rusul: It has taken some time to design, develop and build. Our summer soft launch gave us lots of opportunities for product testing and iteration with students and teachers, presenting at several schools in Toronto as well as the Ontario TESL conferences, and we’re looking forward to a formal and widespread launch this winter. I see TWP to be a successful platform that students use to help them with writing. My aim is to make writing seamless, approachable and most importantly, enjoyable for students.

Doug:  Is there an opportunity here for K-12?  Your partners on the website are all post-secondary.

Rusul: Most definitely! Many of our classrooms that tested TWP were grades 10-12. Literary essays, research papers, and argumentative writing, whether by essays or paragraphs, are still being taught and assigned in 9-12, and many of those students will benefit to have a platform that guides them through the steps to write meaningful and relevant work.

Doug:  This sounds like an interesting piece of software that OSAPAC may be interested in reviewing.

Doug:  Since your job ended at Seneca, you’re now an educator on the move.  Can you share your plans?

Rusul: Thanks for asking! I am focusing a lot of my time on writing at the moment. I see it to be a powerful outlet that impacts a lot of educators, and I feel blessed at continuing with those opportunities. Also, a lot of my focus will go towards building out #EduColor Canada chapter this year, and of course The Writing Project’s launch.

Doug:  Thank you so much for the interview and all the best with career and all that you’re currently juggling.

Rusul is a good follow on Twitter.  She’s online at:  @RusulAlrubail.  Follow her blog at http://rusulalrubail.com/.  She promises that all of her excellent writing will appear there.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to do a number of interviews and post them to this blog.  You can check them all at the Interviews link available by clicking the “hamburger” button at the top of the screen.