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?

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.

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?

What Makes A School “Great”?

“And then parents, you’d walk into the front office and the people
don’t even look up at them, let alone see them as who we’re serving.”

Steve Barr, Green Dot Charter School Network

Source: Fraser Institute
Source: Fraser Institute
This past week, I had an interesting chat with a parent. Her family had just moved into the area and she wanted an opportunity to speak with me about the school and to have a look around. She also said something that really interested me. She shared that according to the Fraser Institute, our’s was a “good” school and was trending in a positive direction. While I am obviously pleased that public perception of our school is good and that this parent was doing the leg work to gather information about our school,  I am disappointed that the Fraser Institute’s Report Card on British Columbia’s Elementary Schools is one of the few tools parents have to determine the quality of a school. Even more, when parents realize that the Fraser Institute’s Report is based almost completely on a standardized text taken once per year by Grade 4 and 7 students, they realize that this is one very narrow measure of school quality.

Formula used to determine overall school rating. Source: Fraser Institute
Formula used to determine overall school rating. Source: Fraser Institute

But, schools are like organisms and are therefore complex in nature. Schools are alive and dynamic and can’t be reduced to a mathematical formula or a letter grade, as some jurisdictions are now doing. In the video below, Steve Barr of the Green Dot Charter School Network talks about his view of what makes a great school. Qualities he includes are:

  • Quality teachers
  • A welcoming environment
  • Students are treated with care and respect
  • Teachers are empowered
  • High expectations exist for all
  • There is a sense of family
  • Quality resources are available for teachers and students
  • Parents are viewed as partners
  • Schools are accountable to parents
  • There is a belief that all kids are worth it and that they can all learn

So much of what Barr talks about is relationship-based. Relationships are central to the work we do in schools. Students not only need see the value in the work they do at school, they need to feel a sense of care, inclusion, and safety. This is essential work that forms the foundation of quality learning.  Teachers also need to be able to engage learners. With all the competition that exists (peers, television, social media), this is no easy task. But from my experience, kids are like adults and therefore thrive on doing work that is interesting and meaningful. I am proud of the many examples of such efforts from staff at our school:  Innovation Week, technology integration, the WikiSeat project,  30-Hour Famine, Genius Hour, KIVA, and promoting creativity. I am further buoyed when I see that our efforts are not isolated, but are evident throughout Surrey Schools and beyond.

So, what would you add to this list of qualities that makes  a great school?

Do you think your school is great?  How do you know?

Innovation Week – Unchartered Territory

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gvInnovationWeekTo me, being innovative doesn’t just mean making things different, but making things better! Given this,  I think our first Innovation Week at Georges Vanier Elementary would meet the criteria for being innovative. Our Innovation Week took place from December 9 – 13, 2013, and was inspired first by witnessing Genius Hour in many classrooms in our school, then by hearing about Jesse McLean‘s experience with his own Innovation Week at Greystone Centennial Middle School in Parkland School Division in Spruce Grove, Alberta. What prompted us further was hearing about Innovation Week over at Fraser Heights Secondary in Surrey.

Discussions started with staff members who embraced the idea, then we began to advertise to students. I have to say that as much as we tried to explain what Innovation Week was (though not really being too sure ourselves), I’m not certain students actually understood what they were signing up for or what they were missing. Some took their application, filled it out as best as they could, while others opted out and decided to wait and see what Innovation Week would look like.

We had a total of 75 students from Grade 3-7 participate. I was neither surprised or disappointed by that number as I didn’t really know how the event would evolve. What I do know is that since there were not enough students participating to collapse other classes to thereby free up teachers, I was alone with the group much of the time. Special thanks for our EA staff who came in to assist and to the many teachers who stopped in to look and ask questions, all on their free time. I even had a teacher who retired last year, Liane Jagger, come and assist for three days. What a great help!

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Innovation Week projects included:

  • Developing an app.
  • Website development.
  • Remote control car modification.
  • Creating a document camera.
  • Building a Minecraft server.
  • A jewelry holder.
  • Christmas crafts.
  • A new and improved chair.
  • A rolling storage container with built-in iPod charger.
  • Modifying a Snickers Bar.
  • A new breakfast cereal.
  • (Just to name a few).

So how was learning improved? Over the course of the week, students:

  • Were engaged in personally relevant learning.
  • Adjusted their initial plans based on the challenges they were having.
  • Became increasingly independent.
  • Confirmed that they made good choices regarding learning partners or realized that the choices they made regarding partners did not help them in their learning.
  • Reflected on the competencies they were developing and demonstrating.
  • Were inspired daily by videos about creativity and innovation. One favourite was Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From below.
  • Were on-task and continued to work without direct adult supervision.
  • Developed ideas for future Innovation Week Events.
  • Were extremely proud on of their learning on presentation day, sharing their projects with peers, teachers, and parents.

Most impressive to me was the curiosity of students who chose not to participate in our initial Innovation Week. These students were often out in the hallway, peering inquisitively at the work begin done inside the gym, asking to come in and see what was happening. But most rewarding to me was the response I received when I asked the group involved in Innovation Week, “Would you participate again?” They emphatically said, “YES!”

As an aside, other innovative ideas that were popping up around the school while Innovation Week took place in the gym.  In Ashley Henderson and Matt White’s classes, students participated in Learn a New Skill week and, like the students participating in Innovation Week, were initially taken aback when given the opportunity to make their own decisions about their learning, but later embraced the freedom of the experience. Skills students decided to focus on included:  juggling, learning card, magic and coin tricks, stop motion animation, duct tape purses, and optical illusions. While in Francoise Rempel and Hugh McDonald‘s classes, students spent time everyday working to create Rube-Goldberg Machines.  I had the chance to visit on the last day and were students ever challenged and engaged!

2013 ended in a very positive way at our school and I look forward to working with our wonderful staff  and community to further explore ways to innovate in order to further engage our learners and bring genuine enthusiasm to the work they do.

What innovative ideas are swirling around in your head?  Are you ready to share them and put them into action?

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!

When Square One Isn’t A Bad Place

“Maybe it’s not about trying to fix something broken.Maybe it’s about starting over and creating something better.” – Unknown

Yesterday as I sat, dissatisfied, looking at my WikiSeat, I made the decision we all need to make sometimes – to start at square one! Sometimes you think you have a great idea, but when faced with what the idea really looks like, you change your mind. So I dismantled my WikiSeat and went back to the drawing board. I eventually drew something I liked better, then set about figuring out how to make the design work. Five hours later, and after trips to the Home Depot and fabric store, I was finished my WikiSeat (with the exception of some sanding and staining I need to do).

My WikiSeat 2.0
My WikiSeat 2.0

Today, I made a point of mentioning this work to the students at my school. I wanted to let them know that a little struggle along the way is OK. It also shows that not only is starting over sometimes the best decision, but being back at square one isn’t a bad place to be because it shows you’ve been reflective and haven’t settled on something you weren’t happy with.

Meanwhile, students in five classes at Georges Vanier Elementary have continued to work on their own WikiSeat projects. From the first day we introduced the catalyst to them, there have been several construction days – and yes…they have been chaotic. In fact, what we as adults have realized is that in addition to all the learning students have done, there are many things we have learned about how we would roll out the WikiSeat project next time, such as:

  • Encouraging students to spend more time on the design and model phases
  • Working with classmates in their own classes as coordinating schedules has been problematic
  • Staggering times when classes work on their WikiSeat project so students have access to the tools and support they need
  • The importance of modelling creativity and resilience for students
  • Conducting “mini-lessons” on important steps in the building process such as measuring, marking, drilling, and upholstering
  • Reminding, reminding, and then reminding a little more when important dates are coming up
The Catalyst!
The Catalyst!

But for me personally, today was the most rewarding day in the WikiSeat journey so far. A few classes were out of the school and I had the chance to work with a couple of small groups. Half way through the day as we were cutting some wood to length, I heard a student say, “This has been the funnest school day” … or something to that effect. He didn’t say it because he thought I would hear it, but because I believe he was genuinely enjoying the work he was doing.

Mostly, the students today enjoyed doing work they were proud of and personally invested in. As the conclusion of this project nears, we look forward to our WikiSeat showcase on May 30th and the celebration of student (and teacher) creativity!

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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:

People At My School

I’ve been sharing thoughts about the many inspirational visitors we have had visit Surrey School and share their stories. Each evening, I leave with much to ponder and question. We recently had the pleasure of having Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) in our District. He spoke about many things, but one thing that resonated with me was his call for schools to be places where students feel cared for. At about that time in his presentation, I zipped over to my Twitter feed to check trending topics.  After all, our very own #sd36learn hashtag was trending during our last gathering. What I saw shocked me.  The following topics were trending:  #PeopleAtMySchool #WhatIHateAboutSchool and I was saddened by what I read.

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And here’s the bad news…these tweets were the nice ones! I scoured the feed looking for something positive and I kept thinking to myself,

If members of my school community could all tweet using the hashtag above, what would they say?

Are we doing the necessary work to not only address student learning, but create an environment where children, staff, and parents genuinely feel safe and cared for? I think I know the answer to this question, but I can’t help but wonder.

How do you know how students feel about being at your school?

What structures do you have in place that help you create a sense of belonging for children?