By Melinda Julie Phuong, educator, student leader, and KNAER intern

Melinda is a Masters of Education candidate at York University. An Ontario teacher by profession, Melinda holds a Bachelor of Education degree, from York University, as well as a bilingual Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from Glendon College. She is an active student leader on campus, where she currently serves as Vice Chair of the York Graduate Students in Education and is a student representative for several committees on-campus as well as a proud student ambassador for various activities and programs off-campus. Melinda is passionate about all things related to education and politics. She is involved in her local community, advocating for youth civic engagement and the empowerment of girls and young women. Melinda is interning at KNAER through York University's graduate internship program.

After attending conferences, I like to sit down and make a few notes on my experience. Once I began writing about the 2016 YRDSB Quest conference, it became clear that I had a lot more to say than just a couple of short points. I ended up spending the better part of my day reflecting on thought-provoking messages I listened to, from inspiring people during my two days at the conference. I also reflected on what made Quest such a success. Similar to lesson planning, when teachers take into consideration of what needs to be covered, who their students are, and how best to mobilize the knowledge to help them learn, I started to think about the ways in which this conference was organized so effectively. For example, like in backwards design, I think the organizers made sure their outcomes were in line with their intended goals. They found a way to reinforce the same theme throughout the conference in different ways and to build on attendees’ knowledge in a way that made logistical sense. The organizers achieved this by having a variety of speakers including people of various race, gender, age groups; teachers; administrators; international educators; government officials; academics; and even people from the private sector. Additionally, there were many different types of workshops and activities available to choose from including workshops that provided blended learning (online and in-person) and the hands-on Active Learning Labs, the Playground to channel the inner child while learning, as well as traditional keynotes woven throughout the conference programing. Despite it being a large conference, the learnings and messages seemed personalised for each attendee as each of us took away something unique from our experience at Quest. Here are eight messages that are most influential to me from the York Region District School Board’s 2016 Quest conference on “Deep Learning in a Digital World”.

[1] Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples of Canada

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Throughout the conference, Elder Laureen “Blu” Waters (@laureen_blu) shared many important messages on listening, learning, and reconciliation. However, there was one message that resonated with me the most and may resonate with other educators as well, regardless of whether we are Indigenous peoples of Canada or not. Elder Blu reminded us that we all have a responsibility to help our students understand Canada’s not so perfect past (and not so perfect present) for the sake of reconciliation. “Don't be afraid of creating that reconciliation,” she said. It should be everyone's responsibility to right the many wrongs that have happened to our Indigenous peoples. Facing the truth is never easy, but it needs to be done. We must “listen, open our minds to learn in new ways, and acknowledge emotion”. This message made me think deeply about not only what it means to be an educator on Indigenous land, but also what it means to be a Canadian citizen. Despite Canada being a pluralist society, the Ontario education system tends to privilege certain types of knowledge and ways of thinking. However, I think we are starting to see some shift towards more inclusive curriculum and teaching methods that better reflect our pluralist society and I strongly agree that it should continue to further the process of reconciliation.

 [2] A Student Message on Refugees


Amanah was an original theatrical performance by the students at Maple High School (@MHS_YRDSB) about the trials and tribulations that refugees go through on their journey as well as the need for acceptance after escaping their war-torn country. To this day, it still sends chills down my spine when I think about how powerful it was and how it left the entire room emotional that morning. I loved that Quest organizers included YRDSB students in the conference and gave them many different opportunities to showcase their talents. To me, these inspiring performances at the beginning of each morning served as a reminder that students are the most important stakeholders in education and that the purpose of these types of conferences is to empower them. It was remarkable to see the numerous complex and artistic layers these students were able to weave into one performance and really shows how much educators sometimes undermine students’ abilities. Through incorporating their own cultural identities, personal narratives and cross-curricular learning, these students created a production with an extraordinary level of depth and understanding of social issues both in Canada and globally. It amazes me to see what students can produce when they are given opportunities for direct engagement in their own learning.

[3] Refugee Education


The story Amanah hit home for me. As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, the parallels I drew between the experience of Syrian refugees and my own family only reinforced my belief in the importance of helping one another in times of need. When my father arrived, Canadians such as his church sponsors, his high school teachers, his employers, and those who could communicate with him in his mother tongue helped him with the tremendously difficult transition and integration to the customs and norms of this beautiful new country. Despite all of this, my father still felt out of place in class because the non-refugee students sat together and the refugee students kept to themselves. The personal experience of my own family is a constant reminder to me that students may be dealing with challenging situations outside of the classroom that can impact their mental health and wellbeing, as well as their physical safety. It reminds me that schools have the potential to be a safe, welcoming, and supportive spaces for students. It also reminds me that the diversity found in Canadian classrooms provide an excellent opportunity for students to learn about issues around the world so that they can develop empathy for others and reach out to help those in need. There are always opportunities for deep learning from one another through our unique lived experiences.

[4] A Culture of “Yes” to Bring Back the Joy of Learning

In using Twitter hashtags to rethink the purpose of education and in remembering that joy is a critical part of the learning process, teachers in Rafranz4-min Davis’ (@RafranzDavis) school district of Lufkin, Texas offered opportunities for all students to use play in the classroom and connect with the world beyond their local communities. Among those would read tweets that shared common hashtags, they used Twitter as an effective digital knowledge mobilisation tool to further their own thoughts and ideas for the classroom. Digital technology, as simple as a blog post, coding with Raspberry Pi, or playing Minecraft, allowed students to literally take learning into their own hands. Herkeynote reminded me of a quote I came across in one of my Education classes from John Dewey, who said that “If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow.” Rafranz had emphasised that learning should be more than reading a book, filling out worksheets, or staying contained within the physical walls of a classroom, just because that’s how things were done yesterday. Positive change can be attained through creating new opportunities for everyone in the classroom and teachers need support through a culture of ‘yes’ to make it happen sowe don’t end up robbing our students of tomorrow.

[5] Issue + Gift = Change

Thirteen-year-old YRDSB student and activist Hannah Alper’s (@ThatHannahAlper) keynote takeaway was simple: Issue + Gift = Change. Her favourite story, The Starfish Story, written in 1969 by Loren Eiseley is now also a favourite of mine. This is how the adapted version goes:

“An old man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, he could see someone moving like a dancer. As he came closer, he saw that it was a young woman picking up the starfish and gently throwing them into the ocean. ‘Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ ‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die,’ she said. ‘But young lady, you do not realize that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.’ The young woman listened politely, then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. ‘It made a difference for that one.’”

As a young leader myself, passionate about education, Canadian politics, international human rights, leadership, youth civic engagement, and girls and women empowerment to name a few, sometimes I forget how small actions can make a big difference. During election season, I’m one of those people who will go canvassing door-to-door, speaking about important issues at stake because I truly believe in the significance of engaging with voters, especially people my age who are notorious for apparently being “apolitical”. On some days, I feel as if my efforts make zero difference in the community and it’s discouraging. I can also relate to the ageism Hannah was referring to in one of the myths she discussed during her keynote because I’ve often been told that young people like me are too naive to know any better about the world. In fact, while canvassing during the last election, I had several people tell me that I should leave it to the experienced folks who have been around more to decide who should be in power. 

Despite this, and especially after hearing The Starfish Story, I believe the positive change that Hannah and other young people have made is real and powerful. Hannah uses her gift of being a fantastic communicator to voice her passion and concern for the environment, among many other issues, in her blog ( and on Twitter, where she has over 40.5K followers to date. In addition, given the highly emotional reaction from the audience during Amanah, followed by a standing ovation for these students at Maple High School, I suspect the message and performance made an impact on at least a few people in the room. After Hannah’s keynote, and given my keenness on Canadian politics, I considered how small acts by youth can also have a large impact on the Canadian political landscape. In 2015, a higher number Canadian youth headed to the voting booths to cast their ballots and this small act by each youth affected the overall result of our federal election. Elections Canada reported that 57% of youth turned out to vote in 2015, compared to just 39% in 2011. What some might view as the “naivety” of youth is in fact what makes youth a force to be reckoned with. And, like Hannah, I share the view that when we have support from our community, we can make the greatest impact together. As Hannah said, “Community is important, because none of us can throw all the starfish back on our own”. Educators have an important role in supporting children and youth in their exploration of issues that matter to them as well as empowering them to use their gift(s) to create positive change.

[6] Deep Learning on an International Scale


During this keynote about Middlefield Collegiate Institute, my alma mater, Principal Janani Pathy (@JananiPathy) said that after listening to the voices of the students, the admin team realised that “Inclusion looks and feels very different from a student point of view versus an adult point of view.” This connects with Elder Blu’s message earlier that morning, that we all benefit when we listen to the voices, experiences, and perspectives of young people and when students are included in all aspects of the learning process (their learning process). Janani explained that Middlefield Collegiate Institute had sought out examples of other schools that had successfully created inclusive spaces. They discovered that in Finland, school is often viewed as an extension of home and therefore decided to transform their school in Markham, Ontario into a living space based on this model. As photos of a transformed Middlefield Collegiate Institute were displayed across the giant monitors, the audience volume in the room grew in amazement at how incredible the reimagined classroom looked: couches, green screen walls, and whiteboard tables to name a few transformations. It certainly looked more inviting for both teaching and learning. I started hearing audience members chatting with those next to them on ways they might be able to transform their own classrooms. It was easy to tell that the room was filled with excitement and energy over this. I think that sharing the story of their learning process shows how knowledge mobilisation between countries and contexts is so important. As such, educators should not be afraid to connect with people around the world to exchange ideas, learn from one another, and bring new knowledge into schools.

[7] Accessible Learning


The Honourable David Onley (@HonDavidOnley) has been a role model of mine since his anchoring days on CP24 when I had just started elementary school, so it was naturally a great privilege to meet and chat with him before the keynote! As one of the first on-air television personalities with a visible disability and Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor with a physical disability, he is a trailblazer for people with visible and/or invisible disabilities. People with disabilities (myself included), might not have otherwise seen themselves as future viceroys, journalists, or educators due to the lack of representation in such fields. Shortly after getting up from his scooter on stage, David said that technology has enabled him to live a productive life as a person with a disability. Many assistive devices are used in schools to provide students with equitable access to quality education and learning. As David later pointed out, “accessibility [in its broadest definition] is whatever it takes to achieve your full potential”. No two students have the exact same needs but when students acquire the necessary skills and tools, they are more capable of overcoming any obstacle that might come in their way in life.

 [8] Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

I enjoyed listening to David Onley speak about his valuable lessons in leadership including how position, desire and intellect don’t necessarily make you a good leader, and that “there are born leaders AND leadership can be taught”. As educators, we must help ignite the fire in our students so they can become leaders in issues that are important to them. He ended off his keynote with this powerful piece of advice that sums up why passion, empathy, and knowledge mobilization are crucial in education:


From Elder Blu’s uplifting prayers and important messages, to the incredible display of YRDSB student talent; from learning about successful education models in other parts of the world, to meeting and hearing from David Onley, one of my role models, this year’s Quest conference was eye-opening for me. In my two days there, I experienced “Deep Learning in a Digital World” through the various activities and workshops meticulously planned by the organizers and diverse presenters at Quest. I hope to continue this learning on Twitter as I continuously strive to be a better educator.

So, what about you? Did you attend the 2016 YRDSB Quest conference? What messages resonated with you the most? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @melphuong