Perspective


Today was our Grade 7 Daycamp at beautiful Golden Ears Provincial Park. Our daycamp always includes a hike which I enjoy because of the personal conversations you can have along the way.

Today I chatted with one of our moms who came along. She is from Syria and we spoke about the unrest back home – lack of freedom, government control, slaughter of children and innocent civilians.

I could not help but feel embarrassed that I have any complaints at all. Taxes, tolls on bridges, health and education systems…all seemed trivial as I had this conversation.

Perspective – at times – tells us to appreciate what we have!

It Takes a Village

I wish the end of the year wasn’t so crazy. But…amid the craziness, sometimes something profound emerges. Today, I received an email from one of our Education Assistants. She works with a high functioning autistic student who is transitioning from Grade 7 to high school. It’s been a journey with this student and at times, I’m sure we all wondered if we were getting anywhere with him. But at our Grade Seven celebration assembly on Friday, the years of work by so many caring people became clear.  I wanted to share the EA’s reaction to the day. As I read, I could not help but be reminded that it truly takes a village to raise a child. In schools where the narrative is one of caring, collaboration, and team-work – where every adult invests in every child – special things happen. Continue on and read as the “village” is thanked…

Many of you approached me yesterday, after the Grade Seven ceremony, to congratulate me for the great job I’ve done with my student in the past few years. As good as it felt to hear the words, I don’t believe I am the one that deserves all the credit. I know I had a part in it, but my student wouldn’t be the “dude” (as he calls himself) he is today, if I were the only one who had contributed to his growth and success. Every one of you had a part in this! Some of you a bigger part, some a smaller one, but you have no idea how even the smallest gesture that probably meant very little to you, actually ended up making his day, on several occasions.

I’ve been sitting here for hours trying to make a list of how each one of you has gone out of your way to support my student during the past 8 years.  I realize that it is impossible to cover it all, but I think that the following list includes most of it.

So…THANK YOU for:

  • stepping into my shoes, when I couldn’t come back in September and doing an AMAZING job with him. Thanks for helping him cope with the stress of a big change in his typical routine and most importantly, for guiding him through the process of making friends. When I came back, I couldn’t believe my eyes! He was actually asking kids if they wanted to play with him and their answer was…YES!!!
  • allowing him to walk around in September 2011 and after careful consideration on his part, letting him choose his own Grade 7 teacher/class (and not taking it personally)
  • making him feel like a valued member of every class he’s been in, over the years.
  • making him feel cool, even when he was not acting that cool.
  • never giving up saying “hi” to him, even when the answer to your greeting was a steadily growing scary growl 🙂
  • looking for me around the school to let me know that he had said “hi” to you, without you initiating it, because you knew that it was an important milestone in his progress.
  • cheering for him, as he entered the gym, at the Grade Seven ceremony yesterday.
  • teaching him the “fist pump” greeting. That was a big turning point in his life that built his confidence and when he started believing that growing up and moving on to high school wasn’t such a bad thing.
  • for always having faith and seeing the good in him.
  • smiling, even when you were walking your Kindergarten class down the hallway and knew that he could have gone after one of those cute little things, at any time.
  • letting him walk into your room and park himself on your couch and having to carry on with your work.
  • taking over when I needed a break. “Some of us” are not good at asking for help, but you always knew when it was needed.
  • making his day, every 1st day of the month or so, when you put the Westcoast Reader in my mailbox!
  • last but not least…THANK YOU for everything you know you have done and I forgot to include in this list!

If I could, I would also thank all the students that have been around him, over the years and have ALWAYS accepted him for who he is, no matter what…especially those who have “taken one for the team” from time to time, and never retaliated.
Also, I think I can speak for all of us, when I say that the biggest thank you should probably go to his family. Thanks to them for being the family we all wish to work with and for standing 100% behind everything we have done!

What Makes Great Teachers

I recently stumbled upon a video titled, “What Makes Great Teachers” and I was reminded of the many conversations I have had with our school Vice-Principal, Sundeep Chohan (@skc99) about teachers and what makes them effective. I’ve always been passionate about technology and how best to bring technology and pedagogy together into something special – something transformative.

But what I have always believed is that teacher quality is the single most important factor when it comes to student learning, and that no amount of technology integration can by itself make a teacher great.

So what makes a teacher great? The first thing that comes to mind is the care teachers show for children, and the relationships they work hard to establish and maintain. Great teachers know their students. Great teachers show their genuine care for students in everything they do and say.

Great teachers also know their stuff! They continually assess learning so that both they and their students know exactly where they are and where they need to go. They focus more on skill and strategy development rather than content. They plan engaging and student-centred learning experiences that address the wide range of learning needs we find in classrooms today. And yes…they strategically incorporate technology into these learning experiences.

Finally, great teachers don’t view themselves as great because if they were to have this mind-set, they might be convinced that they had “made it” and that further professional development was not required. No…great teachers are great learners who continually self-assess, ask questions, invite feedback and think critically about decisions they make in the classroom. They view their development as a continuum – a path – that is worth traveling because in the end, they know their students will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

What do you think makes a teacher great?

Field of Dreams – The Importance of Wonder and Awe

This post was inspired by two recent events: hearing an inspirational keynote address by Michael Wesch (@mwesch) yesterday and attending my son’s soccer game today at Hjorth Road Park in Surrey – a place I like to call the “Field of Dreams.” Let me tie the two events together.

Michael Wesch’s address at the 2012 SPVPA Convention at Harrison Hot Springs yesterday spoke about the importance of reaching learners by creating a sense of wonder and awe – the same wonder and awe experienced by those in Wellington, New Zealand when it began to snow one day.

How does my son’s soccer game relate to this and why do I call Hjorth Road Park the “Field of Dreams?” Back in the Spring of 2009, I was the Vice-Principal at Holly Elementary School in Surrey. Holly is a Level-1 inner city school. Translation – the need there is great, but so are the rewards for those who work and learn there. It was (and is) a common practise for the school to sponsor children by registering them for organized sport. We did this through Canadian Tire’s great program called JumpStart. There were so many children who would benefit from such experiences that one day, a wonderful and dedicated educator and friend, Corrie Shaw, and I decided to register a whole team for Spring soccer – 18 boys in all, from every corner of the globe. Not one knew a thing about participating in organized sport, but they loved soccer and most certainly deserved the opportunity.

Before our very first game, we met at the school and walked the 10 minutes to the park together. Some of the boys walked ahead of us and as we reached the park, we heard a sudden clamour and several boys gasp, “WOW!”

They had crested the hill and what lay before them was a brand new, beautiful turf field.

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ImageOne boy asked, “Are we playing here?”

“Yes,” we replied.

He pointed at the rough, rocky area next to the field and said, “In Iraq, we play on that.”

His response made me understand that we must never assume when it comes to a child’s experiences, and that we must always take advantage of opportunities that create wonder and awe in our students.

Even before the first kick, this had become their “Field of Dreams.” The team went on to a 7-1 record and many of the team parents went on to register their sons for soccer the next season.

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I’ve taught in many classrooms and schools. It is difficult to regularly provide activities that create a sense of wonder and awe for students. At times, this seems impossible. But when it does happen – when you can get kids to stop and say “WOW” – it’s a magical reminder of why we do what we do.

Besides this soccer story, these WOW moments are the moments I remember the most:

  • Sharing with a class that a their contribution to the Make-a-Wish Foundation helped a sick child fulfill her dream of going to Disneyland before dying.
  • Feeding the homeless in one of the toughest parts of Surrey.
  • Delivering a Christmas hamper to a needy family.
  • Witnessing a spectacular view at the top of a mountain after a long hike.
  • Discovering a child’s hidden talent when given the chance to perform in a Talent Show.
  • The sense of satisfaction and responsibility a student experiences when they have the opportunity to decide what and how they will learn.

These moments – and the sense of wonder and awe associated with them – are what students remember and learn from the most. Creating such opportunities are a great challenge, but our kids are worth it!

Why do you do what you do?

School culture and school narrative…I hear the phrases often in my daily work. It doesn’t take long for a student, parent, or new staff member to walk into a school and get a “feeling”. That feeling not only speaks to how business is run in a school, but also what is important to those who work and learn there. I wrote in an earlier blog about the importance of every child, every chance, every day. First impressions are critical…You only get one chance…There can’t be any bad days.

But here’s the thing about school culture…if it’s positive, forward moving, student centered, and grounded in respectful, caring, professional relationships, people will share that “feeling” with you the first chance they get. They can’t help but share because it feels “right”. The feeling is so obvious and present you can almost reach out and touch it. Conversely if school culture is cold, guarded, judgmental, lacking trust, and not focused on sacrifice to ensure success of every student, it becomes an uncomfortable topic no one wants to talk about and that’s why, as a school leader, few are likely to mention it to you.

Words and actions aren’t just simple gestures – they are a window to our heart and reveal to others not only what we feel, but more importantly what we believe. Leaders, both formal and informal, have the responsibility of scripting their school’s narrative. Your school narrative – the story you tell everyday through your actions and words – communicates clearly to those around you what you believe and value. Simon Sinek’s powerful video is a must see and introduces us to a premise he calls “the Golden Circle”, which articulates the importance of knowing and communicating our purpose, our cause, our belief, and why our institution exists. As leaders who want to invoke positive change, Sinek reminds us that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

All behaviour has a purpose and all behaviour communicates something. Some interesting questions to ponder:

  • Do people count down the days until the weekend or holidays?
  • Do we really believe that ALL students can learn?
  • Are excuses made about student learning because a school has a high percentage of English Language Learners or has inner city status?
  • Are teachers in your school “silos” or do they believe that what the group can achieve is greater than what a single person can?
  • Do teachers view themselves as master teachers, or life long learners tirelessly pursuing mastery?
  • Are students happy, engaged, friendly, welcoming?
  • Are delicate issues fodder for back room or parking lot chat, or are they respectfully presented and discussed?
  • Do parents view themselves as partners in education and members of the school community?

How would you answer these questions? What do your answers reveal about your school culture?

Why do you do what you do?

Is This the Day?

ImageEvery child, every chance, every day…I first heard this phrase years back when Surrey Schools Superintendent Mike McKay shared it with us. It’s a simple phrase, but a profound one. Jacques Barzun stated that “In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” But if you do get a glimpse of the fruit of your work as an educator, you are reminded of the life changing impact educators have on children. As busy as schools get, reminders like this can be the fuel to not only keep going but reach new heights in our practice, renewing our commitment to doing whatever it takes to reach our students.

If you are as fortunate as I have been to reconnect with former students, you become aware of how impressionable kids are and how vivid their memories are of the smallest details of their school life. A small gesture, act, or comment might be what lingers on for the rest of a child’s life. Thousands of these take place…every day. Unfortunately, we don’t know which small seed we will plant, when or if it will grow, and what it will turn into.

If Henry Brooks Adams is correct in stating “A teacher affects eternity…” (and I think he is), then we have to treat each and every day as the day we will make that small gesture, act, or comment, however ordinary or inconsequential it seems at the time.

We in schools need to be at our best and more, every day – for every chid every chance we get. How lucky are we that because we teach, we get to live Christa McAuliffe’s words daily, “I touch the future!”

What is your story of touching the future?

The Underdog

My dad in Naples, 1960, before his long ship ride to Canada.

This post might seem to be about basketball, but read on and you’ll find that it’s about something much deeper…

It’s March Madness time!  If you aren’t a college basketball fan, March Madness is the tournament that plots the best college basketball teams against each other to determine a National Champion. Besides dramatic finishes, the part of March Madness I love the most is cheering on and celebrating the ‘Cinderella’ teams – generally the 9-16 seeded teams – that defeat powerhouse squads and then go on to unexpected runs in the tournament. You know, like the 2006 12 seed George Mason team that defeated basketball giants Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut to make it to the Final Four.

But do I pull for the ‘underdog’ more than others? Maybe…

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My affinity for the ‘underdog’ – either in sport or in life –  might stem from my upbringing. Growing up, my sisters and I didn’t have much. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t change that for the world. We were healthy, well-dressed, well-fed, well cared for and most importantly, VERY loved. We just didn’t have a lot of ‘stuff’. Looking back, I’m glad we didn’t because now as an adult, I appreciate the simple things in life and value what I have. But more than this, I think my dad’s story best explains why I love the ‘underdog’. You see, my dad was an ‘underdog’…a real ‘underdog’ in life. He would tell me stories about immigrating to Canada from Italy in 1960, by himself on a boat…with nothing and without a word of English. He landed in Halifax at Pier 21 and rode the train all the way to Vancouver. Two years later, in a construction accident in Saskatchewan, he lost the tips of three fingers on his left hand and returned to Vancouver unable to work. He eventually went back to Italy, found a wife (my mom) and returned to Canada. My dad worked hard physically – really hard – but it was next to impossible with a growing family to save enough money to buy a piece of land and build a house. With no assets, a bank loan wasn’t in the cards. Then one day, destiny intervened. Driving out to Langley to have a look at a 5-acre parcel of land he had heard about, my dad met Charlie Rae, the elderly man who owned the property. Knowing that my dad didn’t have the money (but also quickly realizing my dad’s character and integrity) Charlie offered my dad the property…on a handshake…$8,000 for 5 acres. “Pay me when you have the money,” Charlie said.

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Charlie Rae, his wife Ruby, and the Vendramin kids. I’m the one with the goofy bowl haircut (and the only boy).

Charlie would become like a father to my parents, and like a grandfather to us children. Not only did he pull for the ‘underdog’, he did something that would forever change the life of that ‘underdog’ – he gave him a chance!

If you work in schools, you work with ‘underdogs’ everyday. It might be the student who has physical, emotional, or intellectual challenges, someone who has suffered abuse or witnessed violence, children from refugee camps, families or single parents struggling financially, or those dealing with separation, divorce, or other trauma. Responding to the needs of these ‘underdogs’ is made even more difficult when you consider that often these are the more challenging students and parents in your school.

I have a great vice-principal, Sundeep Chohan (@skc99) who I am fortunate to work, learn, and laugh with everyday. During a discussion following a very challenging ongoing situation with a parent, it became clear to us that as an administration team, and collectively as a school, we will be judged not only by the depth and quality of staff and student learning that takes place, but by how we persevere and deal with our most challenging parents, students, and situations… and how we support the ‘underdogs’ in moving forward. It’s challenging work – but work that connects with who I am. It’s also work that I love and am proud of.

So, do I pull for the ‘underdog’ more than others? Maybe… but I like to think that there’s a little bit of Charlie Rae in all of us.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

KONY2012 – Lessons Learned

The last thing I want to do is pile on, but now a short time after the KONY2012/Stop Kony video went viral and took the social media world by storm, I continue to try to make sense of the initial eruption of support and concern and the subsequent backlash. I suppose that me writing this post is a way for me to make that sense.

So how and when did this start for me? Early one morning about two weeks ago, my 15 year-old son came to me wanting to talk about this video he had seen on YouTube. Now, he’s 15 and he initiates a conversation with me so of course I was thrilled. He’s a typical teenage boy – he eats, sleeps, plays soccer, loves being with his friends, and has an electronic device attached to his hand most of the time. He’s not passionate about much – at least outwardly – but was he ever passionate when speaking of the video he saw. “You need to watch it,” he exclaimed. I did. How did I not know about this?

It’s been a short time from KONY2012 trending on Twitter to becoming one of the more hotly debated current issues. The world is now being exposed to angry Ugandan reaction over the lack of focus on both the victims of LRA atrocities as well as the role played by the Ugandan government. Michael Diebert explains further in his post.

Aside from exposing me to new terminology such as ‘slacktivism‘ and ‘clicktivism‘, I support Matt Levinson’s views that KONY2012 is best viewed as a teachable moment.

Let’s Talk

Agree or disagree with the Invisible Children organization and their promotion of the KONY2012 campaign, it has made people ask questions and talk. Earlier I mentioned my teenage son. After he watched the video, I was thrilled that he had questions and wanted to engage me in conversation – every parent and teacher should want that. I was also excited when children at school showed genuine concern over what they had heard and seen in the video. Why did Kony and the LRA do what they did? Where is he now? What are people doing to help? How is money raised going to be used? All good questions. We need to be concerned when our students and children no longer have a reaction to such world events.

Slow Down

What else do we know about adolescents and teenagers? Well, they can at times be emotional and impulsive. When KONY2012 went viral, there were requests right away to do fundraising, show the video at an assembly, and stage a protest. Some students also shared that they had gone online and purchased several “Action Kits“. Instead what we did was model patience. Many times students (and our own children) look to us and wait to see how we will handle situations. We listened to students, we talked, and we waited long enough to allow the situation to become more clear. We now have information we didn’t have even a week ago. Should students want or choose to pursue a fundraising campaign, they would do so with a better idea of what they were supporting and how funds would be used.

Information Literacy

Students have access to what seems like an infinite source of information. For them to be successful, they need to be able to think critically about what they read, hear, and see and filter bad from good information. I am not going to call the information presented in the KONY2012 video good or bad, complete or incomplete, but like all good research, multiple sources and perspectives are always considered. KONY2012 has been a great opportunity for students (and adults for that matter) to develop information literacy.

Our Grade 7 students participate in a 30 hour famine every year and through discussion, are given the opportunity to select the charities they will raise money for. In the past few years, they have chosen to continue to support the Canadian Red Cross efforts to provide aid to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Invariably, discussion around KONY2012 will continue as our students make decisions about where to direct their support.

There will be opportunity for new learning and understanding…and I look forward to the conversation.

Focus Day 2012 Musings

I spent Surrey Schools Focus Day 2012, February 10, taking in a presentation from David Warlick. It was a great opportunity to not only connect with colleagues, but to also stay on the cutting edge of IT and its role in education.

My musings about the day…

…David’s introduction was great. He talked about “Black Swans” – instantaneous transactions by computers in the stock market. I sat there thinking, “Where is he going with this?” Turns out David makes a point of sharing something at each workshop that he had just learned. He does this to illustrate that we must continue to learn – to evolve – to be master learners…not just master teachers. Such modeling is crucial if we wish our students to be life-long learners as well.

…We need to prepare students for an ever changing world – one that does not yet exist.  We need to prepare students for THEIR future, not OUR future! Got me thinking about Facebook…or Twitter…or any of these relatively new phenomena.  If you asked your students even ten years ago what they wanted to do when they got older, none would have responded, “I want to work for Facebook” because it didn’t yet exist. David also talked about ‘BG’ – before Google.  What did people do before Google?  They either sought another information source or continued to wonder!

…Social connectedness is a priority. If you work with kids, you already know this. David used an interesting analogy – he called this need to be socially connected to an “invisible alien tentacle”.  If they walk in our classes and we tell them to sit down and be quiet, we essentially prevent this connectedness and “chop off this alien tentacle”.

…His belief (and mine) -we can’t help but learn when we are connected to many other people…all the time!  Our role in this? We need to look to the edge – the cutting edge – and become “edge-dwellers”.  Our students are already there. Students today don’t have a “ceiling” or limit to information – they live in an information rich, abundant, digital, connected world…a world difficult to contain. Kids expect to access and control information. If we are going to exist there with them, we can’t expect to hold them back. Rather, we need to prepare them for the ever changing world – or as David states,  “prepare our kids with wings”.

Effective learning…inspires personal investment, provokes conversation, and promote responsiveness from the learner.

Thank you David for the countless examples of how quickly our world is changing and how seamlessly our kids are adapting to these changes. I left the session with a renewed conviction that we do our students a disservice if we disregard the pace of change, their learning preferences, and the role of social connectedness in teaching and learning.

BYOD

Georges Vanier Elementary is a wireless campus…an increasing number of students are bringing their wireless devices to school…any staff members have a keen interest in technology and how it can be effectively integrated into teaching and student learning…all the ingredients of a “perfect storm”.

BYOD – bring your own device – may have seemed a thing of the future, but after my experience a few days ago, I realize that the time for BYOD might be now!

While on supervision a few days ago, I had a conversation with a group of girls from several of our grade 5/6 classes.  I noticed one of the girls with an iPod touch in her hand. I asked her if she used her iPod in class and it was clear that she thought she was in trouble for having the device at school. Once she realized that I was genuinely interested in how the iPod could be used in class to enhance learning, the student began to share that her teacher did in fact know about the iPod and that she was permitted to listen to music during art or when class assignments had been completed.  I continued to probe. Had she used her iPod as a calculator? Had she looked up the definition of word she didn’t know? Had she gone online to answer one of the many nagging questions that spontaneously pop up everyday in the classroom? All of these activities would have been easy to do in a wireless environment, but she hadn’t yet made the leap.

Then I discovered that 6 of the 8 girls in the group I was speaking with had iPod touches. They all began to pull them out (now that they knew I wasn’t going to confiscate them :-). What did I learn?  Well, besides the interesting fact that girls like to carry their iPod touches on the inside of their boots, I learned that we may be closer to BYOD than I would have thought – close enough that it may be time to start conversations with teachers and parents regarding how they feel about opening the parameters and allowing students to openly use their own wireless devices.

Students are armed and ready. Are we?