About Nicholas McCowan
Nicholas McCowan (@NJMcCowan) teaches at St. Joan of Arc Academy in the Toronto Catholic District School Board and teaches Science, Leadership and Student Success.
In 2019, Nicholas was the winner of Lenovo‘s prestigious Visionary Teacher’s Award which earned him a set of VR headsets for his classroom. His submission focused on the socioeconomic limitations students face, along with the challenges associated with assimilating to a new country, as many of his students were newcomers.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Do you want access to all the past guests on this show? Do you want a network with like-minded individuals and meet other high performing educators from around the world? If so, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Sign up to join the exclusive network and you’ll get access to live virtual networking events and special opportunities that will come out throughout 2021. I promise you I will not fill your inbox, you might get one email a month. If that sounds interesting. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma today’s guest is Nick McCowan. Nicholas is a teacher at St. John Arc Academy in the Toronto Catholic District School Board. He teaches science leadership and student success, and he is also a tech wizard. He helped an entire classroom at John Vanet experience visiting the national space station and traveling through exotic places throughout the world, using the Lenovo virtual reality classroom set without even leaving the classroom.
Sam Demma (01:11):
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Academy became the first school in the TCDSB to use this virtual reality kit. After today’s guest, Nick won an essay contest put on by the big tech giant Lenovo, and he believes that using technology can empower students who are new to the country and who may face social stigma. As a result, he is a phenomenal educator, phenomenal human being. He also runs something called Teach Me Toolbox, which is an Instagram page and a platform that shares tips that you can add to your teacher toolbox. He does so much to empower and educate and inspire his students. He is also a world experiencer. He loves traveling and he’s super passionate about the ocean. Anyways, without further ado, let’s get to the interview with Nick. I hope you enjoy it. And I will see you on the other side, Nick, welcome to the High Performing Educators podcast. It’s a huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by sharing with our audience who you are and how you got into the work you do in education now?
Nicholas McCowan (02:17):
Okay. Thanks for having me on Sam. It’s a pleasure to be here. So my name’s Nick McCowan. I taught with the Toronto Catholic District School Board for this is now my 10th year nine years at the school that I’m at. Generally I teach science and leadership and student success. So I wear a couple hats at the school. As a lot of us tend to do these days. I got into this work, I guess this story goes all the way back to high school. I had one particular teacher as I think a lot of educators can, can relate with this. They all had that one teacher that inspired them. George Robel at Cardinal Newman in a grade 12 history class. What he did was he, he brought in his, his dad just randomly and this, like, he sort of like crunched over old man walked in, didn’t say a word rolled up his sleeve and showed everybody the number tattoo on his forearm. And he had been a prisoner or in one of the concentration camps during world war II. And that experience just really like that got to me because I think, you know, that was the aha moment. Like what was in the textbook was real. And I think when that, for me, that experience was where I wanted to, to do that. I wanted to give people that experience. So that was sort of the main driver from me amongst a lot of other influential experiences as I went through my educational career myself.
Sam Demma (03:45):
That’s amazing. Yeah. Yeah. It’s so cool because I have that teacher for me too, and I don’t do, I mean, I’m not working in formal education as a teacher, but I’m, and I’m, I’m aspiring to impact students in, in different ways and doing so virtual right now. What other character traits did your teacher have, you know, in your, in your, in your history class that really made an impact on you? Cause I’m sure along with bringing in his father, there was other things he did for you that made his class your most memorable class?
Nicholas McCowan (04:15):
I think he was available, you know, he, he wasn’t just a teacher. He, he, he made himself readily available in the class and outside the class and, and he talked to us, not at us. And I think that that’s a valuable distinction that a lot of teachers, sometimes when you like in different stages of your career, or even just day to day, we we’ve something happened at home and we forget to talk to the students mm-hmm instead of at them. And I think that, you know, especially now given all the restrictions we’re going through and the challenges we’re going through, it’s an important lesson to, to remember. And Robo was so good with that. I mean, he would pull you out of class when he knew you were having a bad day and ask you what was going on. He would sort of just E even down the hallway, kind of engage you with something that you mentioned in class, which empowered us. Right? Mm-hmm he was listening to what we were saying. So I think that that was sort of the most valuable thing that he offered us as well, was just the fact that he listened and, and was genuine with us on a, a day to day basis.
Sam Demma (05:18):
No, that’s awesome. And it’s funny when I think about Rob and my teacher, Mr. Loud foot, very similar. He tried to meet each student where they were at, meaning he would take his overarching lesson and try and apply it to all of our lives individually. So one kid loved fashion. He would talk about the ability to make an impact on the world. Through fashion. One of us loved sports. He would talk about the importance of using the platform you build responsibly to make a difference. And what’s crazy is that their, their preaching was backed by life experience and action. So like my teacher told us small actions make a massive change, go in the community and try something. And I didn’t know it, but he, he, for 20 years along with other colleagues of the school were organizing the food drive. And when he, when he retired from the school board after 20 something years or 30 something years, they had, they had donated over a million pounds of food. And I didn’t know that. And he did that. And I’m sure your teacher the same way, you know, showed interest in all of you guys and behind the scenes was like very calculated and, and very intentional about doing so how do we, how do we be intentional and make students feel seen and heard in this virtual world you know, with all the challenges that are being faced?
Nicholas McCowan (06:39):
I, I think the important thing is to remember that as educators, like we really have that role of a hero, right? I, I think that you can’t underestimate how much the kids are watching and how much they’re listening. And even if we can’t observe it as readily as we can, and during like regular teaching and having the students in front of us, we have to remember that they’re still listening and they’re still observing everything you do. So, and it’s even more important. And I mean, we’re constantly bombarded by warnings from our school boards, like, Hey, you know, dress the right way, have the background the right way, have, you know, have all, all your ducks in a row so that you can’t get in trouble. And, and the phrasing of that has kind of made people paranoid. So we have to under like still address those kids and be impactful from behind a screen, which has like been.
Nicholas McCowan (07:34):
I don’t know, we’ve had a whole new set of challenges given to us, and we’ve really had to adapt so quickly. So I guess some of the ways that we’ve done it is by using some of the amazing tools that are available. I, myself am a pretty tech savvy guy. So we’ve I’ve been doing this for a long time. A couple years ago, 2019 Lenovo Canada gave me the visionary teacher of the year award for some of the work we we’ve been doing with our VR project. At school, we, we were doing the virtual classroom two, three years ago using VR helmets to give students student voice at the particular school that I’m at, we’ve got a lot of new Canadians and allowing them to use tools like Google expedition which is a fantastic tool that we can get more into if you’d like.
Nicholas McCowan (08:25):
But essentially it’s one of the VR programs that you can go to anywhere in the world, see different environments. And you know, like for a kid, who’s just come from the Philippines who doesn’t have a handle on the language who doesn’t know the environment he’s coming, and he doesn’t have any friends in the class throw that helmet on him and show him his street in Manila, that kind of power from that experience is huge. And that just, that opens up so many things because now kids in the class can be like, Hey, I lived right around the corner from there. And that gives him the power to say, I now have the commonality with the kids in my class. So those kind of tools that we’re, we’re dealing with, you know, we are restricted because we can’t put the helmet on them, but we still have the ability to use similar tools from behind the screen. And it’s important to keep digging and not make it full. Do you know, like we, we really can’t just send an email like here, do questions one to 10, you gotta make it as engaging and interactive as possible. And that’s when you really grab the student’s attention.
Sam Demma (09:26):
Where did the, where did the curiosity come from for you to develop your tech skills and dive deep into to these?
Nicholas McCowan (09:39):
I would say experiential learning opportunities is, is it bad to blame Sega Genesis or like, or PS, you know, PS one through four, you know, like I think actually a lot of it came from gaming, man. I think you know, as much as a lot of parents ride the kids for gaming, I think more and more, those are the kids that are tech savvy that are, are winners when it comes to this online engagement. And I’ve seen a lot of kids become wizards with using some of the tech tools that are out there. They’re so, so better versed at it than we are. And I think that that comes from that, that kind of similar back that, that gave me that that love for it. It was no nobody in particular, but I, I guess I’ve always really taken to it. I mean, being at UofT and being at Trent University and at Ottawa doing all the degrees that I’d done, you, you, you’re doing labs, you get these opportunities to play with electron microscopes. And I mean, we’re all kids at high, right? So when you get these tools, like why not engage fully? And I love offering that opportunity to the students.
Sam Demma (10:43):
I just recently on the high performing student podcast interviewed a director of something called the, the Varsity eSports foundation and his name’s Bubba. And he talks about the difference between mean talks about the difference between gaming and eSports and the stem advantages that come along with eSports. And I’m curious to know your personal opinion on that. Should educators listening, start being more open minded to the possibility of using games to build critical thinking teamwork and even, you know, overcoming challenges as a team?
Nicholas McCowan (11:18):
Absolutely. I mean what better platform than to use one that students are already familiar with? There’s no need to like teach them the skillset to use the tech, you know, so they’re already familiar with it. So they hop in running. I use a a game called no man sky for PS4. It’s not an amazing game, but allows students to explore sort of it it’s engages them with space exploration, which helps with my earth and space science class at the 12 U level. So it’s a nice little hook activity for them. And then as soon as they have that, you can start adding to programs like sky safari pro, which is a fantastic sort of telescope tool. And I think that for students, as soon as you, you pull out those, those tools, they’re already engaged as it is. So they, they love that kind of thing big time and, and hop in with both be.
Sam Demma (12:13):
That’s awesome. And for a teacher who’s listening and thinks this is awesome and wants to give it a shot, but is so overwhelmed by the idea of this technology. What is the first small step they can take to dabble their feet in the water and give some of these things a small try?
Nicholas McCowan (12:31):
I think the best thing to do is to ask the students, ask the students, to show them what they think is best and do a quick little poll. The kids are, well, I should say students because, I mean, I got kids that are up to 18 but they’re watching the videos on like Twitch and, and watching all those streams, right, where ki people are playing the games. So a, a student would readily have, you know, a whole handful of videos that a teacher can use to, to sort of learn the basics and, and, and watch the gameplay and see whether it’s valuable for the lesson they had in mind. So I would start there with that. But a lot of the S resources that were being given by our particular board, we’ve got a great 21st century learning team that is all about a listen.
Nicholas McCowan (13:18):
If you guys have some sort of tech tool that you wanna use, go for it. We, I mean, we even got a Minecraft license so that we can use Minecraft for some of the for some of the tools in elementary. And it’s, it’s going from math to English all the way over to history. I mean, the, it, it’s pretty amazing. I think a, another, one of the valuable tools that we were talking about earlier, Google expedition, one of the things that they can do with that. And I know like for an English teacher, the chance to use a lot of tech is, is not always there. It, it tends to be more like a, a stem teacher that has the availability. One of the experiences students can have is, is being the ghost of Macbeth in the play and watching the play virtually from the stage. So, I mean, you can actually experience Shakespeare, which is the way it’s supposed to be, right? So you have students that are, are so accustomed to just opening up that small little book and reading along in class. Now you can actually live the experience, play on YouTube VR or on on this like Google expedition platform. So really the, the learning for the teacher is not that onerous. So it’s actually pretty straightforward and there’s lots of great tutorials online.
Sam Demma (14:34):
So what you’re saying essentially is teachers can take their kids on a class trip without leaving or going on a bus.
Nicholas McCowan (14:44):
Well, it’s, it’s cost effective. I’ll tell you that. We, we we’re we do that all the time in my environmental or biology classes, earth and space. I mean, talk about bringing the experiential learning to the classroom, because I mean, another one of the hats I wear, I work Fori academy. And we take students down to Belize and Costa Rica for the summer. And I mean, the very first day in class, we, it in class is a loose term because we actually take a, a skiff out like to the coral reef. And we jump into the coral reef and dive with sharks and, and Ray, and actually engage in discussions about biodiversity. And there is no better teacher, but obviously that’s an experience only a few can afford. So these VR helmets and, and this kind of technology allows that integration into the learning and when it comes for free, I mean, it’s, it’s a win-win situation, right?
Nicholas McCowan (15:41):
Like the kids are all in as soon as they can do that. Another interesting facet of that technology is, I mean, you can, some of the AR the augmented reality stuff that they can do too, is I can now put a shark in the middle of the classroom virtually via an iPad. So I can have a camera showing the class input, the shark, and we can dissect it like layer by layer, you know? And, and I think that that kind of experience for the students is, I mean, you can’t touch it, right? Yeah.
Sam Demma (16:09):
You can even do that in real classroom, unless you were thinking about it, you know, at least virtually, maybe more teachers are open to the idea of giving this a try now. That’s so cool. And what’s the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality in a very layman’s terms.
Nicholas McCowan (16:26):
Okay. Quick virtual reality will be a full immersive 3d experience. Okay. so if you want to go down the backbone of a DNA strand and look at all the different nucle or the nucleic acids, as you go down in the phosphate backbone, you can actually engage and manipulate the environment. Whereas augmented reality will be a 3d image that you can insert your, your camera’s ex view. So if you take a picture in a hallway or you have students sort of holding up a mitochondria or whatever it is they’re looking at it it’s, it’s something that they can actually manipulate in, in the virtual world, so they can spin it around with their hand. They can actually touch certain parts and information can, can pop up. So it’s a full, fully engageable learning tool that’s in that virtual world. So AR is that 3d image and VR is that fully immersive experience.
Sam Demma (17:30):
Okay, awesome. This is really, really interesting, and I’m sure there’s gonna be some and teachers who are very curious to learn more and hear more, especially from you. And we’ll, we’ll ask you to share some contact information at the end, but I wanna know in all the years you’ve been teaching, you’ve learned lots. You’ve obviously gained a lot of wisdom. If there’s an educator listening who is just getting into this, or they feel like they’re starting from the ground up, because it’s so changed and different this year what pieces of advice could you give your younger self or that new educator based on what you know now?
Nicholas McCowan (18:06):
I think the, the first thing, like when you, when you, we all start our careers, we, we really want to be that teacher, the one who students like really, they love our classes. They, they want to engage in all our lessons and we want to be the superhero that, that we all sort of start out as. And I think that we, we burn ourselves out so quickly at the beginning because we’re trying to be perfect. Mm-Hmm . And I think that the, the important message is that there is zero need to be perfect at the beginning of your career. We were all there and we all had to start building those courses and, and from scratch. And, you know, I think that not having it done the best way the first time, give yourself a break and don’t take it home with you.
Nicholas McCowan (18:52):
We are notorious overthinkers and teachers work like beyond the hours of the classroom. And I think that, you know, the, the mental stresses of, of that kid who didn’t eat in your class that day, and you worry about what’s going on at home, you, you still want to have that on the back burner, but don’t stay up till two in the morning overthinking how you’re gonna solve that problem, because it’s a group effort. And I think if you keep home and the student, most importantly, I think that that’s where those solutions start to come. So don’t kill yourself, trying to do everything. You know, I think where we’re sort of forced into this business and, and teachers were in the business of knowing so don’t kill yourself if you miss the, if you miss an answer on the board, be open about admitting that, hang on.
Nicholas McCowan (19:43):
I don’t know. And let me look it up for you and let’s learn together. Because each semester you got 30 new people in front of you, and, and you’ve got that times, you know, however many courses you’re teaching. And even if you taught it the same way, and it was successful for, you know, eight straight semesters, maybe these 30 need a brand new take on things. So be open to the new buzzword that we keep getting be flexible. So, you know, like, so be flexible in your own pedagogy and, and in your own lesson planning and curriculum delivery, because it’s really important to know that being perfect. Isn’t the, the be all and end all when you’re delivering curriculum. It’s, it’s good to have that idea in your head.
Sam Demma (20:28):
I love that. One of the pieces of advice I always tell students to is don’t, you know, don’t be afraid or shy away from asking for help. And I think right now it applies to educators more than ever. And there’s this one story called the Oracle of Delphy and it’s a story. It’s an ancient philosophy story about Socrates and an Oracle telling him you’re the wisest person in the land. And he says, no, I’m not. And, and so he goes around to talk to all the other philosophers and asks them, what do you know about life? And they all give him these, these definite answers. And at the end of all of his journey, he realizes, wow, think this Oracle might be right, cuz I’m the only one out of all the philosophers who said, you know, I know that I know nothing, and that’s why I continuously learn. I think educators are the perfect example of that because like by nature, you’re perpetual learners. Like you, you never stop learning. And right now is a chance to just learn a ton more and almost take the role of the student and the teacher, which I think is awesome and presents a cool opportunity. And if, if someone listening wants to be a perpetual learner and dive more into VR and technology and maybe have a conversation with you, what would be the best way for them to reach out and do so?
Nicholas McCowan (21:43):
I think right off the bat, I mean, email is a quick way to get in touch with me. Anyone who wants to ask any questions about what we’ve talked about?
Nicholas McCowan (21:56):
Well also I’m part of two other Instagram initiatives where I’m part of a group called @teachersmeetteachers. It’s not a dating site, it’s for for teachers to share resources and ideas and I’m it’s, it’s given me so many outlets to either share some amazing resources that I’ve found or engage in conversation with teachers or experiencing the same challenges. So give them a follow and coming up right now me and another teacher of mine, we’re starting up a new page @teachmetoolbox. And we’re gonna be putting up sort of valuable resources that will really help you get through the COVID times right now. So give those two a follow if you can.
Sam Demma (22:52):
Awesome. Perfect. Nick, do me one more favor and repeat your email one time and cut out a little bit.
Nicholas McCowan (22:55):
Sorry. Yeah. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Demma (23:10):
Nick, It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for coming on and maybe I’ll see you in person VR pretty soon.
Nicholas McCowan (23:15):
Let’s hope, man. Let’s hope, man.
Sam Demma (23:18):
Yeah, you’re welcome. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review. So other educators like yourself can find this call content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.
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