Volunteer Opportunity: Lead Teacher

Foster Learning is in need of a volunteer Lead Teacher to assist with tutoring one evening a week.

Duties include supervising tutoring and answering questions from the tutors if there is a need (this rarely happens). This can be done from any internet connection. Depending on the interest of the volunteer, additional duties could optionally include preparing tutoring materials, or administrative tasks such as sending reminder emails to students and tutors, scheduling tutoring sessions, and writing student progress reports.

This role would be perfect for a B. Ed. candidate who wishes to have more experience with Grades 5-9 math, perhaps a J/I specialist or I/S with math teachable. A police reference check is necessary, and experience with youth in foster care is an asset, but not expected.

Please forward all questions to knelson (at) fosterlearning (dot) ca.

Welcome Foster Parents!

If you are a foster parent with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, you may recently have received our brochure in the mail.  If so, welcome!

We are currently recruiting both students and tutors for our January start.

Students will ideally be in grade 6, 7, or 8.  We are recruiting crown wards only, for our first session.

Tutors will ideally be in grade 9 or 10, with at least one high school math credit underway or completed.  They can be any child in your home, including foster children, adopted children, or biological children.  They don’t need to be superstars in math; a willingness to help is the most important criteria!  Older students are also welcome.

I encourage you to call the number, or email the address, on the brochure to speak to me in person with any questions.  You’re also welcome to leave a comment on this page and I will respond for everyone.

How much homework?

This is the second of a series of articles inspired by a session I led for foster parents with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. In this series I am exploring how to resolve homework issues with teenage foster children.

Previously…what is homework?

How Much Homework?

Many people know of the popular “ten minutes per grade” rule of thumb. For a child in grades 9 to 12, this works out to 1.5 to 2 hours of homework every evening. At least some research (Cooper) has reinforced that this rule is a good one for high school students, showing that there is a correlation between the amount of homework students do and their marks. (There is less correlation in middle school, and, surprisingly, none at all in elementary school.)

Doesn’t it seem odd that we even discuss it in minutes? Some students are fast writers, some struggle; some whiz through math problems and others puzzle over them for what seems like forever. Mix in learning disabilities or FASD, and you’ll easily see that two students in the same class will take very different amounts of time to complete the same work.

Also, new teachers don’t always accurately estimate how much time the homework they assign will take. As a new teacher I would routinely plan class activities that I thought would take ten minutes—and then be surprised that they took the whole period!

A study by the Toronto District School Board (Sinay) looked specifically at what they called academic resilience, and which factors helped students with low socioeconomic status succeed in school. They found that homework completion was the student characteristic most associated with academic resilience, finding that students were about 1.5 times more likely to be successful if they regularly completed their homework. This means that as foster parents, we can directly affect the success of the children in our care simply by helping them with homework completion. (I’ll be exploring how to do this in future posts.) But the amount of homework assigned to a student can, of course, impact their ability to complete it, and therefore to succeed.

When It’s Just Too Much

Several foster parents in the session I led with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society shared stories of students with excessive homework. They worried about students having to regularly stay up late, quit co-curricular activities that they enjoyed, and pass up social opportunities. There will always be crunch times when homework is temporarily heavier, but you may find yourself in a situation in which, over a period of weeks, even with good time management, a child’s life is becoming unbalanced due to homework. I encouraged those foster parents to try limiting the homework a student does. This needs to be planned and implemented carefully. If you are able, speak to the teachers involved and explain that you’re seeing negative impacts of too much homework on your foster child, and tell the teacher that you will be limiting the homework.

If you are planning each evening’s work with the student (again, more about that later), you can help them prioritize which items to work on, and how much time to spend on each. You may be able to look at a list of math questions, for instance, and tell your foster child to do only every other part, or only every other question. Write a note for the teacher, either on the margins of the assignment or on a separate piece of paper. Keep it brief and polite; you need only say “I told Asha to stop at this point,” and sign it. Involve the student in the conversation—this is an area where you want to develop their critical thinking as well. I don’t mean “critical” in the sense that they criticize the teacher and the homework! Rather, you want them to think about what they’re good at, what they need to practice more, and which of their assignments is going to help them do better.

I don’t claim this is a foolproof strategy. A clever child might try to take advantage of the policy by dawdling over one worksheet for a full two hours so they don’t have to do any other homework! But judiciously limiting homework is an important tool for foster parents to have on hand, and they should feel free to use it if it helps their foster child to succeed.

Next up…not enough of a good thing?


Cooper, Harris. “Homework for All – in Moderation.” Educational Leadership 58.7 (2001): 34. Print.

Sinay, Erhan. “Academic Resilience: Students Beating the Odds.” 2009: 1–2. Accessed from http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/AboutUs/Research/V5_I1AcademicResilience.pdf on Nov 9, 2013.

Just what is “homework”, anyway?

This is the first of a series of articles inspired by a session I led for foster parents with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. In this series I am exploring how to resolve homework issues with teenage foster children.

Why We’re HereID-10090175

Few students love doing homework, and few parents love forcing them to do it. In fact, in 2007, the Canadian Council on Learning stated that 72 percent of parents across Canada “report that homework can often be a source of household stress”. Although this is a statistic from the general population, I think we can assume the number would be as high or higher if just foster parents were interviewed.

What is Homework?

Well, obviously, it’s work that students do at home. But there are a few different types of homework and a variety of reasons teachers assign it.

Cathy Vaterrott, associate professor of education at the university of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework, says:

Good homework helps kids cement what they’ve learned, but it isn’t busywork, isn’t given in extreme amounts, and definitely doesn’t require parents to become substitute teachers at home.

The most traditional view of homework breaks it down very simply:

  • projects – assignments too big to complete in one class, or the allotted class time
  • studying – moving information and skills from short-term to long-term memory
  • preparing for tests – making sure the skills and information already acquired can be accessed quickly

Some teachers learn that homework can be sorted into four types:

  • preparation – material given to students before a lesson, to pique their interest
  • practice – the traditional type, which consolidates a skill just after it has been learned
  • extension – goes beyond what was learned in class, often applying skills to new situations
  • integration – applies many different skills to a problem

A teacher might diligently follow this breakdown and even label the homework assignments by type. For example, a teacher with the best of intentions might try to activate students’ prior knowledge by assigning a series of questions about a topic they haven’t yet started learning about. An anxious student might read the questions and panic, exclaiming, “But we haven’t learned this!”

Especially in the younger grades, the traditional reasons that teachers give homework are almost entirely unrelated to the individual subjects. This homework is assumed to teach children:

  • responsibility
  • confidence
  • persistence
  • goal setting
  • planning
  • ability to delay gratification

In this view, homework is for students to learn self-discipline and time management. However, students who have missed school or have significant learning gaps may not have learned these skills in elementary school. These students are at a severe disadvantage when they reach high school, with teachers assuming they can handle the increased workload and subject-specific assignments they are given. Many foster children fall into this category, with many having poor attendance, multiple changes in schools, and a lack of parental involvement at home during their elementary school years.

One of the topics we’ll tackle later in this series is how to explicitly teach older students these skills, so that we can close the gap and move them towards more success with their homework.


Canadian Council on Learning.  2007 Survey of Canadian Attitudes toward Learning: Results for elementary and secondary school learning.  Ottawa, 2007.  Web.  Accessed from http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/SCAL/2007/SCAL_Report_English_final.pdf on November 8, 2013.

Harvey, Virginia Smith, and Louise A. Chickie-Wolfe. Fostering Independent Learning: Practical Strategies to Promote Student Success. New York: Guilford, 2007. Print.

Vatterott, Cathy. Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2009. Print.

Rope image courtesy scottchan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Resources: Khan Academy

The Khan Academy has been in the news lately, partly because of Sal Khan’s recent book, The One World Schoolhouse.

I’ve long loved the Khan Academy for their Knowledge Map, now called the Learning Dashboard.  Just recently they expanded the Learning Dashboard to live up to its name.  It’s now a personalized interface into the site that includes a math pre-test for new learners, and suggests areas to practice or master.  The points and badges have been retained and are now more prominent.

It’s a wonderful use of technology, and the videos and practice questions together are incredibly useful.  The only downside is that like most technology-delivered math curriculum, it focus on individual skills.  There are opportunities to post questions on videos and get help from coaches, but they can be problematic for youngsters and don’t add up to a social construction of mathematics.  Put together with our curriculum and coaching framework, however, it’s one of the best free sites available to help students improve their math skills.  A student’s research for the week will likely often include practicing or mastering a skill on KhanAcademy.

Now recruiting!

FosterLearningHere is your opportunity to Foster Learning in youth in care.  We’re recruiting the first group of Math and Science Coaches, to begin in January 2014.

If you are…

  • a crown ward, biological or adopted child of foster parents with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto
  • a high school student who has successfully completed Grade 9 Math or Science (or equivalent)
  • looking for community service hours, plus improving your own math/science marks
  • able to have access to a stable internet connection and a computer that can run Skype and other software
  • interested in helping others succeed

then please…
Speak to your family’s worker or send an email to knelson (at) fosterlearning.ca with any questions.


More about the job:

  • Under the direction of a Lead Teacher, you will provide math tutoring to one or two students in Grade 6 to 8.
  • The tutoring begins with a unit on Fractions, then moves on to an online workbook at the student’s grade level.
  • All tutoring is arranged and provided online, through software such as Skype and Scribblar. It is expected that you will work from home.
  • You do not need to be a math whiz! A significant piece of this program is teaching students what to do when you don’t know how to answer a question. We provide extensive training to help you with every aspect of the program.

Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions you might have.


The high-level vision

FosterLearningSo, here’s the vision… Children in foster care (including kin homes and children formerly in care) are matched up with students two years older.  They work together over the internet, using technologies like Skype and Scribblar, for math and science coaching.  The children in care get a consistent coach who stays with them throughout their schooling, and after two years can become coaches themselves.  The coaches collect hours towards their community service requirement, and later, can choose to be paid an hourly rate.  Lead teachers work with the coaches to ensure a high-quality, positive experience for every student.

A collection of details and a few questions I anticipate will be frequently asked:

  • Students will ideally be in Grade 6 or 7 when they begin.  We want to help with the transition to middle school, and also catch girls before any distaste for math or disbelief in their abilities kicks in.
  • Coaches will ideally be in Grade 9 when they begin, although they can be older.
  • Students need not be behind in math or science.  We will have plenty of enrichment activities for students who excel, so that they gain the experience of writing contests and talking about math with other good students.
  • Coaches need not be good at math or science.  Part of good coaching includes modeling how to find out about a topic.  Coaches will also find their own performance in math improves as they study the subject in depth with their students.
  • Traditional 1-on-1 tutoring will be a portion of the coaching.  However, that will be balanced with group sessions for two to four students to work collaboratively on an activity that covers multiple grade levels.
  • We’ll start with math and science and expand into other STEM subjects according to demand and the availability of lead teachers.
  • Coaches will receive extensive training, both before they begin and throughout the program.  They will stay current through the online forum on the website.  Training will include information on the unique needs of students in foster care to ensure that the appropriate sensitivity and respect is maintained.
  • We are starting with children in foster care because of our experience as foster parents.  We are familiar with the typical educational experiences foster children may have, for example; missing school for meetings, court dates and family visits,  periods of stress and upheaval when school is a low priority, and changing schools mid-year.  We are also impressed and inspired by the resilience and spirit of the foster children we’ve had the pleasure of working with.
  • A nominal hourly rate will be charged for coaching; tentatively$20/hr for 1-on-1 and $10/hr for group activities.  Advice and assistance will be available on the programs that pay for tutoring for children currently in care, and how to apply.  Coaches will be paid the student minimum wage, $9.60/hr.

What we need to do now:

  • Recruit coaches for September 2013 and give them their initial training.
  • Recruit students for September 2013.
  • A small amount of funding is needed to reimburse the cost of the webdomain and hosting, set up the forum software, buy a pro license for Scribblar, and a pro license for Wolfram Alpha. I would also like a classroom license for IXL.com and per-student materials from JUMP Math for students in Grades 6 to 8.

Medium-term goals:

  • Secure outside funding so that coaches can be paid even if there is a shortfall in coaching revenue, and to provide an honorarium for Lead Teachers.

Long-term goals:

  • A larger amount of funding would allow us to supply students with refurbished, used computer equipment so they can participate in the program.
  • Potential partnerships with programs such as JUMP Math and IXL, reflecting a higher volume of usage.
  • Data collection to test our interventions and activities and measure how well our program is ultimately helpful in improving educational outcomes.
  •  Research or develop software that can be used on the iPad to encourage student involvement.

Resources: Homework Help

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Homework Help is open to all Ontario students from Grades 7 to 10.  It provides free math tutoring through interactive whiteboard chat.  During the school year, from Sunday through Thursday, from 5:30-9:30pm, you will find dozens of certified teachers answering questions of all types, from the most basic review, to EQAO practice questions, to Waterloo contest questions.  Teachers on the site help lead students, rather than giving them the answer.

Our coaches encourage their students to use Homework Help regularly.  It is an unparalleled way to get a specific question answered, especially if you are doing your homework or studying for a test.  Our coaches then encourage their students to think about the experience and put the question they asked into context.  “What was harder about this question than the other ones?”  “What did you learn from the teacher that you didn’t know before?”  “Do you need more practice on this type of question, and if so, where will we find more questions like it?”