Layers

“Layers… Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers… 
You get it? We both have layers!”

-Shrek

IMG_7264I’m a lucky person!

I consider myself lucky for many reasons. Among these reasons are my health, the family I am part of, and the work I do in schools that allows me to make a positive difference every day. What more could I ask?

Most people who know me would also say that I am fairly laid back and that not too much bothers me. For the most part, I think that’s true.

I’ve been sitting on this blog topic for some time and it’s only until quite recently that my wonderful admin partner, Kelli Vogstad (@KelliVogstad), encouraged me to express my thoughts. So, here I go.

I sometimes feel misunderstood and it bothers me! There, I said it.

You see, I have been with the same school district for over 20 years and I have come to be quite “typecast” in that time. In case you didn’t know, many consider me to be a “techie”, as in I like to use computers, iPads, sound equipment, and so on. While I can’t argue this, it bothers me to be considered so one-dimensional. Don’t get me wrong, I think if leveraged properly and integrated thoughtfully, technology can most definitely have a positive impact on student learning.

But, here’s where I reveal a layer of myself most people wouldn’t expect…

I also believe that technology is not THE answer. Using technology to simply replicate what we’ve always done in classrooms, is a waste of valuable funding and doesn’t significantly move student learning forward. Technology cannot save bad teaching or poorly designed learning experiences!
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Obviously, issues in education have layers too!

The fact is, my love of technology is just one aspect of who I am. Like Ogres and everyone else in this world, I do have layers. That’s what makes us all special and unique.

As I write this, I wonder if we sometimes overlook the uniqueness of those we work and learn with everyday.  Do we look at people and issues through a narrow lens and generalize? Are we blind to the layers below the surface? What thoughts come to mind when you consider the following statements:

Male vs. Females students?

Primary vs. Intermediate teachers?

Novice vs. Experienced teachers?

Loud vs. Quiet classrooms?

Siblings of a student you’ve had in your class before?

A student’s socioeconomic background?

Appearance?

This list could go on and on. The point is, many of us have become so busy, we often don’t spend the time needed to do important things well. In schools, we feel pressure to “cover curriculum” so we hop from lesson to lesson and unit to unit without digging deep into meaningful learning.  In working with students, do we follow Dr. Gabor Mate’s advice and “collect” students before we direct them?

We can only do this if we are truly committed to teaching kids first… and subjects second!

How do we welcome students each day?

How do we welcome students who arrive late?

How much do we know about each of our students and do we care?

Do we work hard enough to uncover and appreciate the layers in those we work and learn with everyday?

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?

Immigrants and Natives (Of the Digital Variety)

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Image: A. Vendramin

Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) recently visited the Surrey School District and I had the chance to both chat with and listen to him. During his session and in a blog he subsequently wrote, he expressed his distain for the terms digital native and digital immigrant. I hadn’t given the terms much consideration until he shared his thoughts. The term digital native, he argued, gives kids today way too much credit when it comes to the use of technology, whereas the term digital immigrant not only sells educators short but also underestimates their role in technology integration in schools. Bill adds that, “…we hang our students out to dry every time that we make blanket assumptions about their ability to grow without us simply because they don’t need owner’s manuals to figure out how to use the new gadgets flooding the marketplace every year.”

In his blog titled Is Embracing Digital Learning a Moral Issue for Educators?, Wesley Fryer (@wfryer) grapples with the issue of the teacher’s role in the use of social media and digital tools in classrooms. He suggested that, “The teachers who teach my own children TODAY who aren’t embracing the uses of digital media in various forms are doing them a disservice, because they are inadequately preparing them for today as well as the world of tomorrow.” He also wondered out loud if the following passage should be excluded from his next eBook:

While there have been and will continue to inevitably be older teachers who will retire from education rather than learn “new ways” of teaching and learning in the digital information landscape, that choice is not a moral one for those of us who choose to remain twenty-first century educators.

Recalling the many times over the past few years I have worked with students on issues involving the use (and more often misuse) of technology and social media, I too have started to question the role adults, both educators and parents, play in guiding students through the rich, but complex world of social media. If the students of today were truly digital natives, they would not only use technology appropriately and in innovate ways, but they would also more consistently demonstrate the same social skills online that they do face to face. The reality is, many kids don’t do either of these!

Even further, I would suggest that as educators, steering clear of, or avoiding social media and digital tools altogether because of the fears or insecurities we may have, essentially amounts to negligence. If a child reported abuse, would we not make the necessary phone call? If a child showed up at school hungry every day and never brought a lunch, would we not find a way to feed them? And if a student were experiencing serious learning challenges, would we not do everything possible to provide them with support?

Despite our personal opinions about whether or not students should be utilizing technology and social media, the truth is THEY ARE. While many of our students make wise choices about their use of social media, inappropriate use can and does lead to difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. I feel strongly that it’s our responsibility as educators to provide them with not only appropriate and authentic ways to integrate social media and technology into learning, but to share the vast knowledge we have regarding responsible and thoughtful decision-making and social interaction.

Truly, there is much we can learn from students and much students can learn from us. Surrey Schools Deputy Superintendent Jordan Tinney (@jordantinney) succinctly tweeted, “Teachers build a bridge between what students know about the tools & what we know about good teaching.” The key certainly is capitalizing on the strengths of all learners – both teachers AND students.

Picture 8As educators and parents, we have the opportunity before us to leverage the power of connectedness via social media. In doing so, we will more effectively engage learners who are becoming increasingly difficult to engage.

What are your thoughts regarding students, education, and the use of social media and digital tools?