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!

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?

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.

My TOP 10 Video List

To This Day Project – Shane Koyczan

Terry Fox – ESPN

Obvious to you. Amazing to others. Derek Sivers

Leading by Lollipops. “Drew Dudley”

Leave your Legacy. What will your name leave behind?

The Most Astounding Fact

The Encounter Collection

The time you have (In Jellybeans)

Do Schools Kill Creativity? Sir Ken Robinson

Tied for 10th…

See Something, Say Something.

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action

The Story of Dick and Rick Hoyt

When Building The Team Is Not Enough

“Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.”

-Henry Ford

Photo: A. Vendramin
Photo: A. Vendramin

Almost eight years into my school administration journey, I continue to understand that the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. This realization was no more profound than one day in early May 2013, while I listened to a keynote address by Elise Foster, co-author with Liz Wiseman and Lois Allen, of a wonderful book called The Multiplier Effect. To summarize, Elise’s keynote was about ways in which leaders can bring the best (and most) out of those around them. She also shared that sometimes, leaders can intentionally or accidentally do the opposite and shut down the genius in their organizations in various ways, including:

  • Ruling by fear.
  • Not having trust in those they work with.
  • Needing to feel they have all the answers.
  • Making rapid or unilateral decisions.
  • Micromanaging.

She called such leaders, Diminishers. As I listened, I realized that in taking pride in my own work ethic and feeling the need to lead and be involved in every initiative, I was being an accidental diminisher and in doing so was communicating something very clearly to those around me: to get things done, I had to get them done myself.  While my admin partners and I have been working extremely hard for many years to build the hardest working, talented, and caring team possible (which for the record I think we have done at Georges Vanier Elementary), my over-involvement, though well-intentioned, has held back these skilled people.   I’m embarrassed to say this because this isn’t really how I feel. I DO have confidence in the team I work with: confidence to plan and carry out initiatives and confidence to make morally sound decisions. My actions however, were contradicting my beliefs!

As Wiseman, Allen, and Foster state:

“Becoming a Multiplier often starts with becoming less of a Diminisher. And this often means doing less: less talking, less responding, less convincing, and less rescuing of others who need to struggle and learn for themselves. By doing less, we can become more of a Multiplier.”

So what’s changed?

Most importantly, since hearing Elise’s keynote, I have been conscious and intentional about not only identifying genius at our school, but utilizing it. Mostly, this has looked like me “tapping the shoulder” of the right people to lead initiatives and playing more of a support role. But transformation does not occur in isolation.  Trust, fostered through strong relationships, must exist. A culture of innovation and risk-taking must also be present. I believe that people are willing to take on challenges and operate outside their comfort zone when they feel that taking risks is celebrated and encouraged, and that their experimentation will be supported.

The changes I have seen since this personal shift in thinking has been dramatic! I am so impressed by the initiative and leadership so many staff members have shown, from coaching to committee work to organizing school events. And all of this because I finally realized that building the team is not enough – you need to not only get out of the way and let great people do great work, but trust the team you have put together.

Effective leaders bring the best out of their team by working in the background, continuing to uncover and utilize people’s native genius, asking provocative questions, laying down challenges, building community, and providing ongoing support and guidance.

Glad I finally came to realize this!

#betterlatethannever

Dear Students…I’m Sorry

“Never let the competition define you.
Instead, you have to define yourself based
on a point of view you care deeply about.”

-Tom Chappel

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Me with my four sisters. I’m the one sharply dressed in blue!

Before becoming a Vice-Principal then Principal, I had the honour and pleasure to teach for 12 years. I loved my work in the classroom and was always guided but what I thought was best for students at the time. But, it’s true what they say about time and how it has a way of making you look at things from a different perspective.

We are in an exciting time in Surrey Schools because much of what we have held to be true for so long is now open for discussion and improvement. Of particular interest to me are the changes to B.C.’s Curriculum and the discussion around how we can better communicate student learning to parents.

I believe we need to question everything we currently do around how we inform parents about their child’s progress and how we invite parents to be partners in this process.

For a recent community forum at our school, I prepared a presentation and in it, I used images of my own report card from my Grade 7 year. Doing so awakened many emotions that had been dormant for so many years – emotions that I still work to deal with and overcome today.

IMG_3250I realize now that my teachers viewed me as a pleasant, average, boy. My parents considered me lazy and not as “smart” as my three older sisters, based completely on the letter grades I brought home. You see, those letter grades – those symbols meant to communicate my strengths as a learner – defined me. When you are defined in a certain way for long enough, you begin to define yourself in the same way. And so, because I was always compared to others based on grades and the notion that better grades meant you were smarter and worked harder, I began to doubt myself and my worth.

IMG_3251I struggled with this for years, and realize that still today, some of this same thinking creeps into my consciousness.  When I am asked to present, or be part of a team, or lead an initiative, there are still times I doubt myself. I need to convince myself that I have many strengths and gifts and that I CAN accomplish anything if I work hard enough!

This defining runs deep, even in those that love you. I will never forget the day of my university convocation as I stood with my mom, waiting for a photo to be taken, when she quietly turned to me and with wonderment, looked at me and said, “I never thought it would be you.” That might sound cruel to say, but my mom honestly meant it and I don’t blame her. School defined me for her – that’s all she knew.

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So having gone through this, you’d think that I would be more sensitive as a classroom teacher. Hopefully I was, but I now realize that each time I gave out a C-, C, C+, and even a B for some students, I was essentially defining them, whether I liked it or not. I cringe when I think how many students I had a hand in defining in this negative way.

Often, students who received these grades were the hardest working students in class, but found the work challenging. Some of these students were also immensely gifted in areas we didn’t measure with letter grades, or at all for that matter.

To all my students…I’m sorry.

For those students who said “thank you for the A” when you got your report card, I apologize if I sent the message that you’d made it, you were done, you had reached the top. My message should have been, “where can you go now?” or “how else could you do this?”

And for that student who at the beginning of one year shared that her goal was to win the academic award, I apologize for not spending more time helping you focus on the joys of learning, creativity, and sharing your wonderful ideas with others.

To all my students again…I’m sorry.

This understanding drives me in the work I do today. I work with students each day who have a myriad of hidden strengths and abilities. I am committed to uncovering these treasures and encouraging others I work and learn with to do the same.

I continue to work with my colleagues to explore new and innovative ways of inviting parents to this conversation about their child’s learning, to break down traditional barriers to authentic home-school communication, and to provide them a “window” into the classroom.

Mostly, I am dedicated to ensuring that students have a say in how they define themselves and that I help them to do so in the most holistic, honest, and positive way possible.

What will you do today to uncover the many hidden abilities your students possess?

What will you do with this information?

How will you share this information with parents?

What’s Different Now?

photo-116Colleagues from my school and I are days away from a sharing session at which we will share our Innovation Learning Designs (ILD) journey with other schools. It has been a journey, but like most journeys, I don’t foresee an actual final destination. How can I? One of my greatest realizations now is that two short years ago we could not have foreseen where we are today, nor can we foresee where we will be in another two years. I often joke about the fact that when our initial ILD proposal was written, no one on our team had ever touched an iPad, let alone worked in a wireless environment. How could we possibly predict where we would go. That’s why it was fascinating to meet with members of our team and answer a question like:

What’s Different Now?

You’d think the place to start would be to discuss the obvious things we are seeing our students doing. What’s different now? Students are:

  • Documenting and reflecting on their learning via ePorfolios
  • Following passions and determining what and how they learn during Genius Hour
  • Writing in and out of the classroom, in and out of class time,  for authentic purposes through their eBooks and blogs
  • Developing questioning skills and learning about the world around them during MysterySkype sessions
  • Bringing their own devices so that research and publishing resources are at their fingertips
  • Fulfilling their need to socially connect with peers around the world through projects such as Global Read-aloud, Postcard Exchange, and blog commenting
  • Creating, building, and sharing furniture as part of the WikiSeat project

Yes, things have changed for students. No, I could not have predicted these changes just two short years ago.

But, something surprising happened along the way. Many of our teachers transformed – as did their practice. Before technology impacted students, it first opened doors to our teachers. What came through the doors forced many on staff to think critically about what they were doing, encouraged them to share the already great things going on in their classes, and exposed them to what I consider to be the only source of high quality, on-going professional development. Quite frankly, none of the rich activities listed above were taking place prior to the floodgates opening. When I say floodgates, what I really mean is the combination of…

Wireless + iPads + Twitter +Connection

…and I attribute all of this to the ILD process. Historically, hardware replacement was based on the premise of having so many machines for so many students and replacing it every so many years. Frankly, this method was flawed. Successful implementation (which was present only in pockets around the District prior to ILD) was dependent on who your admin was and who was on staff. Mostly, hardware was given to schools with most asking the question, “Now what?” ILD forced schools to come together, work collaboratively, and develop a plan based on learning that could be supported with technology. It had never been done this way! The fact that teams committed to professional development and sharing further strengthens the process. So has ILD been successful? I dare anyone to say it has not. There is a tremendous amount of evidence to support this:

Part of the Surrey contingent at #ConnectEDca
Part of the Surrey contingent at #ConnectEDca
  • Over 30 educators from Surrey attended the recent #ConnectEDca conference in Calgary. That’s over 10% of attendees. There is an obvious thirst for learning and sharing.
  • I have NEVER been connected to more administrators and educators as I am today. These people both validate and make me question what I do.
  • Home-School Communication has been enhanced. Parents are reading the school blog and following our school Twitter feed. At a recent parent event I shared the Vanier News (our school blog) and asked how many parents had visited the site. I was amazed when probably 75% of parents put their hands up!
  • Teachers are venturing off (virtually and physically) to other schools and bringing back innovative practice. There is definitely a “cross-pollination” of ideas taking place.
  • Teachers are increasingly open to change and new ideas now that the world of teaching and learning has been opened to them.
  • Teachers are becoming increasingly reflective via blogging. It is now cool to reflect, blog, and share.
  • Teachers are CONNECTED!
  • Since there is technology in each room, it has become “invisible” with the focus being on authentic learning experiences.

photo-115So as I look back and look ahead, I am amazed and excited. Amazed at the growth that has taken place in our students. They are excited about learning. Many arrive early most mornings. A teacher who recently had her students start blogging (which was a HUGE leap for this teacher) shared excitedly with me one morning that many of her students wrote a blog the previous evening, even though it was not assigned. Students writing?  Because they want to? How could this be? It’s happening!

I am excited because teachers are now not only excited about their student’s learning, but their own learning as well. The most significant aspect of our ILD journey has been, and will continue to be, the growth in the adults in our building. For truly when teachers become co-learners with students and are open to risk-take with opportunities that promote innovation, creativity, and doing authentic work, then the journey will be a grand one for all.

I look forward to the continuation of this learning trek…

I would like to personally thank Elisa Carlson for her drive, determination, and support in moving so many educators forward in the Surrey School District. She was the first one to give me the confidence to share my views, learning, and understanding.

Elisa, thank you for valuing those around you and for asking the difficult questions that needed to be asked!

CUE in Review: Charting A Course Forward

“Our kids will spend the rest of their lives in the future.
Are we getting them ready?”

-Kevin Honeycutt

Blog co-written by John Horstead, Don Chila, and Antonio Vendramin.

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Sir Ken Robinson

Attending the CUE conference this year was a valuable experience in many ways, beginning with Sir Ken Robinson’s keynote “Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative”.  Together with close to 4000 educators, we applauded, laughed, and were inspired by his blend of personal experience and transformative thinking.   One of his quotes particularly resonated with us: “Human talents are very much like natural resources in the ground…and they don’t always manifest themselves without the right conditions.” Throughout the rest of the sessions we kept coming back to the question of whether schools are providing the necessary conditions for authentic learning and creativity to flourish.

Technology doesn’t have a separate role in the transformation of education; it is central and inseparable. Journeying through airports, hotel environments, and the conference, it was impossible to ignore the connectedness of our society.   The access to information, the ability to communicate anywhere with virtually anyone, and multiple ways to share were all prominent observations. Instinctively, we believe that thoughtful integration of technology into teaching and learning can serve to not only motivate and engage students, but to allow students to do REAL learning doing work that matters. To go further, we may be able to address Chris Lehmann’s (@chrislehmann) question from a recent visit to Surrey Schools: “Why does school stink for so many kids?”

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As we traveled from session to session, many thoughts and questions crept into our consciousness.

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 7.22.21 PMHow do we separate the NOISE from what is truly important? These are the questions, factors, opportunities, roadblocks, challenges that educational leaders grapple with as we work with staff to move students forward in a time of change that is unprecedented in its accelerated pace.

What implications does a  ‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy have for a school in terms of bandwidth, equity, privacy, acceptable use, and impact on student learning?  It’s interesting to note here that it was very evident at a premier conference like CUE, the bandwidth was not sufficient to support the number of learners present.  Beyond this, are the adults in our schools, as a team, committed to safely and effectively guiding learners in information and technology-rich environments?

Screen shot 2013-03-29 at 11.46.44 AMWhat practices do we see evident in the classrooms at our schools and are these practices innovative and transformative?  Are teachers and students actually doing work that matters to them, and are we simply calling practice “innovative” because technology is involved?

It was encouraging to interact with numerous educators from across North America and engage in conversations that reaffirmed that the direction we are heading in is both necessary and rewarding… Or as our BC Ed plan states “The World has changed…the way we educate our children should too.”

We must keep pace with the revolution.  Analysis-paralysis has been a limiting factor for too long.  Ignorance on fire is better than knowledge on ice.  Modeling best practice and innovation, supporting and encouraging risk-taking, and being lead learners will be a good place to start. Learners, and the world they live in, are changing and so must we.   Relationships, together with high quality, personalized instruction will always be at the heart of optimal learning.  The challenge now is leveraging technology to make learning personally relevant to students.

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Kevin Honeycutt

Like Sir Ken Robinson’s opening, Kevin Honeycutt’s closing keynote was both stirring and inspirational. He cut to our true purpose and that is the job of forming meaningful relationships with those at the centre of all we do – students!



Wonder And Awe

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Today was a special day. Special because a difference was made in a child’s life. Teachers @georgesvanier36 noticed that a student in Grade 4 was struggling with his learning and attention. It was clear he was having trouble seeing and that he needed glasses. A few weeks ago we took him for an eye examination and our suspicions were confirmed. Today we went back and picked up his glasses. Once we arrived back at the school, we went into the office and I asked him to try on and show off the glasses he had picked out for himself. He not only looked great, but he could see clearly. As we walked the hallway to his classroom, the student walked slowly, quietly, thoughtfully, looking at the walls and down the long corridor. Then it struck me – he was literally seeing some of these things for the first time! More importantly, it was a moment of wonder and awe not only for him, but for me as well as I watched him marvel at everything around him.

It’s important for us to create wonder and awe in our students, but to be open to it as well. Please enjoy these three videos that create wonder and awe in me every time I watch them: