Winning Back Our Students

Originally published June 5, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 10.36.57 AMI had the honour of attending a keynote presented by Dr. Gordon Neufeld a few weeks back. Dr. Neufeld’s work focusses on “attachment” and the power of relationships in the development of a child. We know intuitively that when a child has a strong bond with a parent, a teacher, or another trusted adult, they will do almost anything for that person. We also know that when that attachment is not present, children can be defiant, do the opposite of what is requested, and start to orient themselves towards their peers. One of the most profound statements Dr. Neufeld made during his keynote was, “We have to win our students back!” This statement resonates for me because I increasingly see students that schools have clearly lost. There are a few reasons why I think this is so.

In these times of increased accountability in education and with teachers saddled with the overwhelming pressure to “cover the curriculum” and prepare for standardized tests, school has become irrelevant to many students and disconnected from their reality. For these students, school is tolerated, school is something that is done to them, and school is something they try to survive. In fact, as a teacher reflected back on his schooling experience during a recent conversation I had with him, he said, “I didn’t really enjoy elementary or high school, and when I got out…” His words struck me. He was talking about his schooling experience as if he had just finished a prison sentence. He then went on to share that his educational experience changed after high school because then, he actually had some input regarding his learning. We clearly need to do a better job of incorporating student passions into the work we do in schools. Students do a great deal of incredible learning on their own, but because it doesn’t take place between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. at school, we don’t seem to value it. Learning that takes place at school represents only a small part of the total learning a child does.

This phenomenon was illustrated in a recent fine arts performance at Cambridge Elementary titled, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. The play was about a magician and his assistant. Several times, the magician would send his assistant off with a task, such as preparing props, or finding items. Each time, the assistant would get side-tracked practicing and learning magic tricks because in reality, the assistant really wanted to be a great magician as well. The assistant learned so much each time she was sent off to do a task, but inevitably, the magician would return and become very upset because the tasks were never completed and because the assistant appeared to be doing nothing. I couldn’t help but feel that schools are very much like the magician in this play. We seem to think the learning opportunities we provide are the only ones that are valuable. The good news is that at the conclusion of the play, the Sorcerer acknowledges all the learning the apprentice had done and agreed to include one of her magic tricks in his performance. We need to make sure learning is relevant to students, places value on student passions, and that students are given the opportunity to learn through play.

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Another reason “we have to win our students back” is that in our frenzy to “cover the curriculum”, “teach content”, and be accountable, we have lost sight of the fact that children need to be connected to people who care about them. Dr. Neufeld stated, “humans don’t do separation.” If a child comes from a busy home with working parents, has no other adult to attach to, and is surrounded by teachers who only focus on delivering content, that child will quickly seek help from people who are unable to really provide that support – peers. Dr. Neufeld shared that all children need to have a “home-base” at school –  a caring and trusted adult.

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CC Image courtesy of Bill Ferriter on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/e6Wh1K

Thankfully, all hope is not lost! I believe that schools are beginning to understand the important messages communicated by Dr. Neufeld. Some say that there is too much change in education. But really, can we afford to not change? Can we continue to live with the fact that almost half of high school students wait to “get out” of school so that the real learning can start? We are starting to see curriculum reform that focuses on the development of key competencies such as communication, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking, rather than a curriculum that is inundated with content that overwhelms students and teachers alike. Teachers are hearing the message that part of the important work they do in schools is connecting with students before directing them. And most important, those who work in schools are beginning to value and tap into the wide range of skills, talents, and passions that learners bring with them. Clearly, there is much more work to be done, but thankfully schools have started to fight the important battle to win back our children!

Where Is The Learning?

Originally published April 24, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.

img_5149Cambridge Elementary is two years into a journey of documenting and sharing student learning electronically through digital portfolios. One very important thing that this process has done is essentially reflect back to the viewer a clear picture of the learning that is (and sometimes isn’t) taking place. The documentation forces one to ask the very important question, “Where is the learning?”

In the work I do daily, I have the opportunity to visit many classrooms. These visits allow me to not only connect with and support students and staff, they give me the opportunity to have a strong sense of the learning taking place. Like when I visit digital portfolios, my class visits always take me to the same question, “Where is the learning?” And when I talk about learning, it’s important to know that I don’t just look at specific curriculum connections, but also the development of core competencies and “soft” skills.

A phenomenon that has stormed into Cambridge and many other schools throughout SurreySchools this year is 3-D design and printing. Everyone seems interested in the possibilities of this new technology and students are spending hours of their own time at home designing and testing items. As students become more proficient with their design, we gradually grow closer to the point where they begin to think of how they can harness the power of 3-D design and printing to actually solve real-world problems. We know students everywhere are doing this already! A great example of this is a wonderful project completed by outstanding local Teacher-Librarian Anna Crosland and the students over at my previous school, Georges Vanier, who used 3-D design to create and print braille tags for doors to help a visually impaired student navigate safely from place to place within the school. Read more about this work here!

One teacher in particular at Cambridge Elementary, Peter Beale, has demonstrated a genuine passion for learning about 3-D design and printing and has opened up this new world of learning to his students. Recently, they were given the opportunity to reflect back on their 3-D experiences and they were encouraged to go back to the all important question, “Where is the learning?” Sure we knew students were engaged and had a great time designing and printing their objects, but could they articulate their learning?

Kiera, a Grade 6 student shared:

3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner
3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner

“I created a 3D model of the Eiffel Tower. Later on I added two more towers like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Seattle Space Needle. You might be wondering how I made the Seattle Space Needle, Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Eiffel Tower. Well, I searched up tinkercad models of these towers to try and find the right shapes. Somehow I was able to create these towers. I was pretty impressed myself.

Creating the Eiffel Tower wasn’t easy. I really didn’t know what shape to use for the base, until I started experimenting till I finally found it. I really only needed to use 3 shapes. Pyramids, Cubes, and the shape called a Round Roof. Once I was done, I thought it turned out pretty good but I thought I needed more things. You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t add the criss cross like the real Eiffel Tower in Paris. I tried making it but it was complicated. Some things would pop out and it just looked like a big mess.

Now the Space Needle was a different story. It was the hardest one. It took me days just to find the right shapes. I had to combine shapes just to have the right shape. I also searched up a model of the Space Needle and tried to make my Space Needle like theirs. The base wasn’t that hard until I got to the point where there were details that were almost impossible to figure out how to make. In the end, I was able to make it and I was proud of my self.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was probably the easiest one to make. I didn’t really need to search up a model of it from tinkercad cause somehow I was able to just experiment with a bunch of shapes and create the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I duplicated a lot of things and didn’t add much detail as the real one does. I was really happy on how it turned out.

Notice the powerful language…

  • I created
  • I searched
  • I really didn’t know
  • I started experimenting
  • I thought I needed more things
  • I had to combine shapes

mistakesThis learning story talks about critical thinking and problem-solving, not knowing and searching, trying again in the face of failure, and most importantly that mistakes help us learn. The student above communicates clearly where the learning is!

So if you were wondering if students actually learn anything in the process of 3-D design and printing, this student helps us respond to this question with a resounding “Yes.”

The Power of Relationships

Originally published April 10, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.com

I am fascinated by schools and school culture, and by the question, “What makes a school great?” I’ve written about this topic before, and a couple of events from the past week prompt me to dig into this topic again.

The first event was the yearly publication of BC Schools Ranking by the Fraser Institute. While I maintain that this sort of ranking based on one standardized test is superficial, my curious nature forced me to have a look at the publication. I was happy to see that the students at our school did well on the Foundation Skills Assessment, which provides a snapshot in time of a student’s ability in reading, writing, and numeracy. But, it continues to disappoint me that this data is used to rank schools. It makes me wonder if parents think private schools are “better” because of these rankings, or that children receive a more rich learning experience at a private school because of these rankings.

Anyone who spends a reasonable amount of time in a school knows that these places are vibrant, alive, and complex in nature and can’t be reduced to a single number. I believe the purpose for all schools is to build the human capacity of all community members – students, parents, and staff members. This doesn’t just mean reading, writing, and numeracy, but includes:

  • physical and mental wellness
  • developing perseverance, work ethic, and a growth mindset
  • confidence
  • superior communication skills
  • competencies of creativity, critical thinking, problem solving
  • caring for others with a “servant heart”
  • fine arts skills

Schools build this capacity through exemplary teaching and learning, and meaningful collaboration. However, none of this capacity building takes place in the absence of meaningful relationships. This brings me to the second event. Late Friday afternoon as teachers were saying their good-byes and heading home for the weekend, I asked one teacher about her weekend plans. She mentioned that she was off to take her son to a baseball game. When I asked her where he was playing, she said, “Walnut Grove” which happens to be where I live. I don’t necessarily believe in “signs”, but I took this conversation to mean that I should probably go catch part of the game. Shortly after, off I went to head home, get changed, and walk over to the baseball diamond. I found out four of my students were on the team and that two of the coaches were parents at our school. Siblings, parents, and grandparents were in the stands and needless to say, the players were a surprised to see me in the stands.

I mention this event because I think in order for us to expect students to take a genuine interest in school, the people who work in schools need to take a genuine interest in students, their passions, and their world outside of school. When schools do this, the important message, “YOU MATTER” is communicated to students.

Relationships are the foundation of all work done in schools, and is one very important part of helping a school be great!

How is the power of relationships reflected daily at your school or workplace?

Putting Ourselves In the Position of Students

The post was originally published in my school’s blog, CambridgeLearns, on October 4, 2015.

Slide50This past Friday afternoon after a busy week at school, many Cambridge staff members participated in a few fun social events. First, we headed over to the Bose Corn Maze where we had a great time answering trivia questions and navigating our way through the corn in teams.

However, this learning story is much more about the second event – Curling. I’ve watched Curling many times on television, but never appreciated the amount of skill involved.  I very quickly found myself on my back after trying to actually curl my first stone. I wasn’t really embarrassed because I know that while everyone had a chuckle, no one was making fun of me. As I continued to try, and try really hard, I began to grow frustrated that I was struggling so much with a task that others made seem so easy. In fact, some teachers who had never curled before looked like experts right away! My struggles had nothing to do with the instruction either. Our teacher broke down the task into small parts, modelled these, and gave us ample time to practice. I just was not going to catch on to this activity without more time and practice.

IMG_2755In that moment, my mind immediately went to our students…your children…who are asked every day to put their learning out there, to risk-take, and to try things that are very difficult for them. I thought of the feeling many students have when they struggle to learn new things.

That’s why I think it’s always important for us all – principals, vice-principals, teachers, parents –  to be learners too. When we put ourselves in these positions – positions where we play the role of the learner – we are made conscious of what it feels like be a little afraid, to take risks, to struggle, and most importantly to persevere and see ourselves get better at something.

Despite the quality of our instruction, not all students will grasp concepts the first, second, or maybe even third time around. I think the most important lesson we can teach children is to always work hard and to keep on trying because with enough time and practice, any of us can be great at something.

So…

When is the last time you put your own learning out there?
Risked?
Failed?
Got up?
Tried again?
Refused to give up?

Digital Portfolios … Moving Beyond The Glorified Scrapbook

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Surrey Schools Superintendent, Dr. Jordan Tinney, CNN Interview, 2014

Co-authored with Kelli Vogstad.

Inquiry is a dynamic and emergent process that can foster a culture of collaborative learning with teachers working together to consider, explore, and reflect on issues and approaches related to shared questions and intentions. It has been said that when educators make their own discoveries, they become energized by the desire to inquire more deeply and to learn more broadly. You actually get the opportunity to not only ask questions, but also to delve deeply into these questions.

We think it would be safe to say that in the culture of openness, sharing, and genuine curiosity fostered in Surrey Schools, the process of inquiry has led some teachers into a state of dissonance. Dissonance, results as teachers pause and take a step out of their practice and become increasingly reflective. Teachers have called into question much of what they have always done in schools, and careful reflection and discussion, has led them to make responsive changes in practice as they work to better meet the needs of their students. We suspect teachers throughout the district continue to experience this so-called dissonance, and the unrest it has caused has resulted in thoughtful exploration around many topics, one in particular, communicating student learning.

We began by asking . . .

  • What does exemplary communicating regarding student learning look like?
  • Do our current tools and strategies adequately communicate the rich learning taking place in our classrooms?
  • Do parents have the information they need to be the supporters of student learning that we want them to be?
  • Do we hear the voice of students?

For the first time, we were equipped with the tools to create digital portfolios with learning evidence in the form of descriptive feedback, images, audio and video. Imagine giving parents the opportunity to see and hear their children in class engaged in activities that demonstrate their learning in almost real time. Parents can now be invited to look into their children’s classrooms, access activities, and see what their children are learning on their own time and schedules. No longer do they have to wait for the parent-teacher interviews, products to be brought home, or report cards. Teachers now had the tools to make this all happen.

But learning is messy; inquiry is a journey, and most journeys have bumps in the road. With digital tools in hand, it became easy for teachers to collect artifacts…too easy! Many digital portfolios became “media dumping grounds” and “glorified scrapbooks”. In the beginning, it was new and exciting. Parents loved to see their children smiling into the cameras, a beautiful piece of artwork, or a polished published story. As teachers began to question their collections and reflect on the goal behind digital portfolios, they asked themselves: How are we communicating student learning? It became clear that parents didn’t need more, they needed better.

Transformation calls for us to move past simple replication with technology. As our inquiry into communicating student learning continued, teachers had to ask themselves: Were they using these tools to document, show, change, and improve student learning? We had to move beyond the technology, and focus on the pedagogy and what we were really communicating to parents. If you take a picture of a spelling test and send that to a parent does anything really change? Can we justify sending an image of a student simply posing with some artwork which he or she created? If anything, this is a recipe for infuriating parents. As parents ourselves we’d be asking some pointed questions:

  • Really, you spent $500 on an iPad for a teacher so that they could send me a photo of a spelling test?
  • The artwork is great, but can you tell me why they created it and what they were supposed to learn?
  • Why don’t I hear my son or daughter reflecting on what they learned?

It would be easy to be disappointed, to point the finger at technology, to make excuses, but the road forward is not paved with excuses. Rather, it is time to leverage the connections we have with teachers and to harness some of the exceptional exemplars we know exist. These exemplars are created and chosen by asking simple but serious questions whenever artifacts are collected and shared with parents.

Where is the learning?

If we describe learning as a change in behaviour (“I couldn’t do this before and now I can”, or “I used to do this but now I do this”, or “I used to think this but now I don’t because…”) we begin to think critically about what we capture and share. What we document should show what kids know, understand, and can do. What is captured and shared should show a child’s learning over time, changes and growth in his or her ability to communicate, think, and build his or her capacities of self as a learner.

Here are some examples of teachers and students talking about changes in behaviour:

Students making learning visible by explaining their thinking:

Students reflecting on their work over time:

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Students engaged in conversations about their learning:

What is worth sharing?

Parents know their children best. Often times, parents are able to share with teachers, what their children can do. We believe parents want to know how their children are changing, both in how they act and how they think. Parents also want to support their children at home. We can help parents provide better support by showing and communicating to them not only WHAT their children are learning, but WHY. At the same time, if we provide the criteria behind what is shown in the portfolio so students and parents both know what “good” looks like we can help move parents to deeper understandings of the “whys” behind the learning tasks. And, to go further, if we include descriptive feedback prior to summative assessments we can provide parents with meaningful data they can use to assist in the intervention process.

Here are some examples of teachers sharing this kind of valuable information:

Explaining to parents how they can support their children’s learning:

Sharing criteria and exemplars with parents:

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Explaining to parents WHAT students are learning and WHY:

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How much should we share?

When teachers suddenly found themselves with the ability to easily capture evidence with their devices, they thought they had to capture everything. Not only did this inundate parents, it overwhelmed teachers. We didn’t collect and share everything before; why start now? How much we collect and share is a discussion we are currently engaged in. For us, it comes back to Jordan Tinney’s quote cited at the start of our post, “We’re trying to boil it down to what do parents really want and need to know…”

True, different parents want different things, but we believe all parents want to know if their children are learning and progressing. They want to know if their children are having difficulty and struggling in their learning. They want to know what the teacher is doing and what they as parents can do at home to help their children be more successful. And mostly, parents want to know that their children are cared for, safe and respected, and liked by others. Through thoughtful digital portfolio collections, parents can be reassured that the teacher really understands and knows their child and is helping them learn and succeed.

As we continue this journey of inquiry into communicating student learning, we have become connected in our desire to improve our understandings and practices and to continue to reflect on what we know, what we do, and how this relates to student learning. We are ready for more dissonance and more questions as we develop better and more meaningful ways to help students learn so we indeed have the data and documents to capture and collect and share with parents. This is our challenge!

Practice and Publicity

Much is said these days about “digital footprints”. If people Google you (and they probably do), what do they find and what does it say about you? Who controls that?

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Image by We Are Social Media

I am motivated to write this post by a question I heard one Principal ask another of a particular staff member who was a prolific tweeter, blogger, and social media extraordinaire. The one Principal asked, “Gosh, is Steve (not the teacher’s real name) really as good as he seems on Twitter?” The other Principal simply gave a look. The look spoke volumes! There was an obvious disconnect between what this teacher did and what this teacher said.

I’ve also had many people share with me that it drives them crazy when some administrators and teachers seem to use social media to “toot their own horn”.

While the reality is that not everything an educator shares via social media “matches” their practice, I believe that it is healthy to share. Teachers need to share what they are experimenting with in their classrooms. Principals need to share what they are experimenting with in their schools. This sharing helps others learn because it encourages them to reflect on their own beliefs and practice. Most people are apprehensive to share because they fear how this sharing will be perceived or that they don’t have anything significant to share. Sharing takes courage because you open yourself up to the world and to the possibility that someone may disagree with your ideas or views. But, whenever I speak to anyone about the possibility of tweeting or blogging about something, I simply share the message from Derek Sivers’ awesome video, Obvious to you. Amazing to others:

“We’re clearly a bad judge of our own creations. We should just put it out and let the world decide.”

In this sharing though, I think it’s important to be as honest as possible and to not only share what goes really well, but also that which does not go as planned. I screw up a lot – ask anyone! What comes to mind as I sit here typing:

  • I remember my very first MysterySkype with a class from Missouri. I really wanted students to do well so of all things … we talked about Missouri; where is was in the U.S., that it was land-locked… Uh, this is a MYSTERY Skype – students aren’t supposed to know where the other class is from!!! Embarrassing, but I learned. I’ve since done many MysterySkype sessions and helped others with them as well.
  • I remember participating in the WikiSeat project and designing and building my own chair. Once I was done, it was hideous. I wrote a blog about going through this process and having to start all over again: Read that blog here. It’s not always easy to publicly talk about mistakes, but in the end I was happy that I didn’t settle for my first attempt; it clearly wasn’t the best I could do.
  • During a recent Year-End assembly, the video I worked on for hours froze halfway through because I rendered it at the highest possible resolution, resulting in a file over 2 GB that my computer could not handle. This was not a private failure. There were over 700 students, staff, and parents, watching as I tried in vain to get this movie to run. I later rendered the movie at a lower resolution that played fine on my computer. I invited anyone interested to come down to the gym and watch the whole movie. Again, my first attempt was unsuccessful, but in persevering I succeeded.

Many people talk about mistakes and failure and how we should embrace these experiences because they lead to new learning and understanding. We expect it from our students, but do we “put ourselves out there” in a similar way? Do we make ourselves vulnerable? Do we really embrace failure as a vehicle for learning?

FullSizeRender 4While it’s true that practice does not always match publicity, it’s also true that it’s up to the world as an audience to take from digital footprints what they deem true and valuable, and to enter into respectful, dialogue when they disagree with someone’s view. Sharing, however, should always be encouraged because risk leads to growth, we all have something of value to share, and we are better collectively than we are on our own.

The Principal’s Office

FullSizeRender 3I have been an Elementary Principal for 6 years and I love my job! Many views in education run deep and one such view is the role of the Principal. As I think back to my own schooling and how I viewed the Principals I had, it is clear to me that many students and parents still view Principals as I did. To me, Principals were scary, distant figures. You didn’t go “see” the Principal unless there was big trouble. The Principal stayed in the office and it was rare if you saw him/her outside or in your classroom. And, you most definitely didn’t want the Principal to phone your parents because you’d have consequences at school and even worse consequences at home. Does any of this resonate with you?

When I first became a Principal, I remember being outside at recess and a young student coming up to me and saying, “Shouldn’t you be in your office?” More recently, a parent came up to me in some distress asking, “Is everything OK? I heard James (not the student’s real name) was in your office today?” As a new Principal, I remember everything coming to a halt in a classroom when I walked in, with the teacher stopping whatever was happening to either have the class greet me or explain what the class was learning. The view of Principal, it seems, runs deep…even though much has changed in education since the time I was in elementary school.

Each day, I try to transform this view of a Principal’s role because I don’t want students, parents, and teachers to view me the way I viewed my Principals. To me, Principals need to model the learning they expect to see from others. Principals need to experiment and take risks, reflect and learn from mistakes, help others with their learning, and share their learning with others. Principals need to be people that ALL students, parents, and teachers trust and feel comfortable speaking to. Principals CAN’T be figures that people are afraid to approach and talk to.

What I do, I do because I believe relationships are central to the work Principals do in schools. I believe Principals should:

  • Go to school everyday with what I once heard called a “servant heart”. Effective Principals serve others, which in turn, encourages people to do the same.
  • Try to be outside before and after school greeting families and making sure they feel welcomed.
  • Also go outside at recess, play, and connect with as many students as possible.
  • Get out of their offices when they can and get into classrooms because that’s where the magic happens.
  • Do everything possible to not be “scary”, and that often means being a little bit silly.
  • Invite groups of students to work or have lunch together in their office.
  • Allow themselves to be vulnerable because that let’s everyone know Principals are human too!

Sure, sometimes Principals have to deal with difficult situations, upset parents, students who need reminders about expectations, and a myriad of other scenarios, but these tasks are made much easier when Principals are viewed as the caring, involved, professionals they are, rather than the scary monsters some people think still lurk behind the door to the Principal’s office.