Digital Portfolios … Moving Beyond The Glorified Scrapbook

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

Co-authored with Kelli Vogstad.

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

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

We began by asking . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the learning?

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

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

Students making learning visible by explaining their thinking:

Students reflecting on their work over time:

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Students engaged in conversations about their learning:

What is worth sharing?

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

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

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

Sharing criteria and exemplars with parents:

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Explaining to parents WHAT students are learning and WHY:

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How much should we share?

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

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

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

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?

Change Is Not a Dirty Word

My IGNITE presentation at Surrey School’s “Engaging the Digital Learner” series, April 9, 2014.

Tonight I’ll be talking about WHY change isn’t a dirty word, the CHALLENGES to change, and some EXAMPLES of change at my own school. Mostly, I’d like YOU to consider the role you all play in being change agents in YOUR school.
Tonight I’ll be talking about WHY change isn’t a dirty word, the CHALLENGES to change, and some EXAMPLES of change at my own school. Mostly, I’d like YOU to consider the role you all play in being change agents in YOUR school.
I’m INSPIRED by change! Much of this INSPIRATION comes from my Dad. This is a picture of him in Naples in 1960 on his way to Canada. He came by HIMSELF, with NOTHING, and not a word of English. When I am afraid of risk, I think of him!
I’m INSPIRED by change! Much of this INSPIRATION comes from my Dad.
This is a picture of him in Naples in 1960 on his way to Canada. He came by HIMSELF, with NOTHING, and not a word of English.
When I am afraid of risk, I think of him!
My parents continue to INSPIRE me everyday. Here they are SKYPING with their friends. Their connection to family and friends remains strong, and THAT’S why they have changed, adapted, taken risks.
My parents continue to INSPIRE me everyday. Here they are SKYPING with their friends. Their connection to family and friends remains strong, and THAT’S why they have changed, adapted, taken risks.
I believe in the power of change and that kids are depending on our EVOLUTION to stay relevant. Signs are everywhere that we need to change. When the Twitter hashtag “THINGS I HATE ABOUT SCHOOL” trends, what are kids really trying to tell us?
I believe in the power of change and that kids are depending on our EVOLUTION to stay relevant. Signs are everywhere that we need to change. When the Twitter hashtag “THINGS I HATE ABOUT SCHOOL” trends, what are kids really trying to tell us?
If we resist change in favour of the STATUS QUO, we need to ask if we are OK with only about HALF of our learners actually being engaged in school?  The better QUESTION to ask is:  Why is CHANGE HARD for some?
If we resist change in favour of the STATUS QUO, we need to ask if we are OK with only about HALF of our learners actually being engaged in school? The better QUESTION to ask is: Why is CHANGE HARD for some?
I think that MINDSETS have much to do with it. For those with FIXED MINDSETS, change and risk create the possibility for failure and failure reflects on intellect and ability. A FIXED MINDSET does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They already have TO BE!
I think that MINDSETS have much to do with it. For those with FIXED MINDSETS, change and risk create the possibility for failure and failure reflects on intellect and ability. A FIXED MINDSET does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They already have TO BE!
As Reddit’s co-founder poetically stated, “SUCKING IS THE FIRST STEP TO  BEING SORTA GOOD AT SOMETHING.” Those with a GROWTH MINDSET believe in progression and that taking risks and making mistakes aren’t signs of weakness, but part of learning and continually getting better.
As Reddit’s co-founder poetically stated,
“SUCKING IS THE FIRST STEP TO
BEING SORTA GOOD AT SOMETHING.”
Those with a GROWTH MINDSET believe in progression and that taking risks and making mistakes aren’t signs of weakness, but part of learning and continually getting better.
Another challenge to change is SAFETY…a basic human need. Change pushes us outside our comfort zone. That’s why relationships, teams, and the support of our colleagues and administrators are crucial.
Another challenge to change is SAFETY…a basic human need. Change pushes us outside our comfort zone. That’s why relationships, teams, and the support of our colleagues and administrators are crucial.
And if you are dipping your toe into the water, getting help from someone like this – “Mr. Awesome” - can be the most intimidating thing. What I think people want to hear is: just take the first step and I’ll take it with you!
And if you are dipping your toe into the water, getting help from someone like this – “Mr. Awesome” – can be the most intimidating thing. What I think people want to hear is: just take the first step and I’ll take it with you!
Here is a picture of a group of teachers from Vanier learning about FreshGrade. Laura is the one with the purple iPad - she’s a first year teacher and she was facilitating this session. She helped her colleagues feel safe in facing change.
Here is a picture of a group of teachers from Vanier learning about FreshGrade. Laura is the one with the purple iPad – she’s a first year teacher and she was facilitating this session. She helped her colleagues feel safe in facing change.
I think the final challenge to change is making the PURPOSE for change CLEAR. I love this QUOTE: “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW.” I believe, people will go to great lengths and embrace change when they have a strong sense of purpose.
I think the final challenge to change is making the PURPOSE for change CLEAR. I love this QUOTE:
“He who has a WHY to live for
can bear almost any HOW.”
I believe, people will go to great lengths and embrace change when they have a strong sense of purpose.
This is what desks looked like at our school. The deeper the holes drilled into desks the deeper the level of disengagement. What were kids telling us? I’d like to talk about 3 changes I’ve seen since many of our teachers began to connect with each other and the world.
This is what desks looked like at our school. The deeper the holes drilled into desks the deeper the level of disengagement. What were kids telling us?
I’d like to talk about 3 changes I’ve seen since many of our teachers began to connect with each other and the world.
We have started to focus on CREATION over CONSUMPTION And teachers are SAYING YES TO STUDENT INTERESTS and allowing them to do work that is personally meaningful. Here are some examples you can try at YOUR school:
We have started to focus on CREATION over CONSUMPTION
And teachers are SAYING YES TO STUDENT INTERESTS and allowing them to do work that is personally meaningful.
Here are some examples you can try at YOUR school:
•WIKISEAT -Yes, students used power tools and created their own furniture.   • INNOVATION WEEK-Yes, students spent a whole week learning about whatever they were interested in.   •And YES, we are KIVA NINJAS too! – 53 loans worth over $1300 so far!
• WIKISEAT -Yes, students used power tools and created their own furniture.
• INNOVATION WEEK-Yes, students spent a whole week learning about whatever they were interested in.
• And YES, we are KIVA NINJAS too! – 53 loans worth over $1300 so far!
Our LEARNING COMMONS is supported by a gifted Teacher-Librarian, and it's a place where teachers collaborate, and students create and connect with the world. Genius Hour says YES to student interests. A student told us “You don’t want to learn your teacher’s passion, you want to learn your passion.”
Our LEARNING COMMONS is supported by a gifted Teacher-Librarian, and it’s a place where teachers collaborate, and students create and connect with the world. Genius Hour says YES to student interests. A student told us “You don’t want to learn your teacher’s passion, you want to learn your passion.”
Students participate in INQUIRY. Students dig into deep questions that interest them. These boys actually got lost in learning while, believe it or not, everyone else was lined up to go to P.E.
Students participate in INQUIRY. Students dig into deep questions that interest them. These boys actually got lost in learning while, believe it or not, everyone else was lined up to go to P.E.
Communicating Student Learning. We asked:  •Isn’t ongoing descriptive feedback more valuable to student learning than letter grades?  • Can we do a better job of communicating learning with students and parents?   YES WE CAN!
Communicating Student Learning. We asked:
• Isn’t ongoing descriptive feedback more valuable to student learning than letter grades?
• Can we do a better job of communicating learning with students and parents?
YES WE CAN!

Be like the terrified girl in this video who goes through a carwash for the first time. With her cozy blanket and reassuring words from her parents, she makes it through and says “Car Wash…All done!”

Imagine if we changed what we did in schools and that changed the student narrative. Instead of THINGS I HATE ABOUT SCHOOL trending, students would tweet that they LOVE to create, do work that matters, and follow their passions. Imagine!
Imagine if we changed what we did in schools and that changed the student narrative.
Instead of THINGS I HATE ABOUT SCHOOL trending, students would tweet that they LOVE to create, do work that matters, and follow their passions.
Imagine!
Do it! Take the risk! Be the change and most importantly, take your students and those you work and learn with everyday along for the ride! Our KIDS depend on it!   Thank you!
Do it!
Take the risk!
Be the change and most importantly, take your students and those you work and learn with everyday along for the ride!
Our KIDS depend on it! Thank you!

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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?

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!

Students Shine In A Culture Of Creativity

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from failures and go on to the next challenge. It’s OK to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.”

-H. Stanley Judd

The Catalyst. No longer a piece of welded metal but a piece of art!
The Catalyst. No longer a piece of welded metal, but a piece of art!

I don’t know about you, but today was a great day! May 30 was Georges Vanier Elementary’s first ever WikiSeat Showcase. If you’ve been following our WikiSeat journey, you’ll know that it’s been one of great learning, risk-taking, and uncertainty. When our WikiSeat experience first began and we gave students catalysts, none of us…Ron O’Neil, Matt White, Hugh McDonald, Gallit Zvi, Francoise Rempel, or myself…knew where we were going or how things would end up. Our experiment also was very public as students continued their work during separate visits from educators Lindsey Own, Michelle Hiebert, Chris Wejr, and Kristin Peters.

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Today was such a rewarding day because of how our students rose to the occasion. With adults taking on more of a facilitator role, students were encouraged to think for themselves, solve problems, create something totally unique, and do this all for an authentic audience. This morning as WikiSeat participants sat ready to present their creations, hundreds of peers poured into the gym, viewed projects, and asked questions. We were visited by the local newspaper as well our District’s media department, making the learning very “real” for students. Best of all, learners were completely focused on what’s important…their learning rather than letter grades (which by the way were not assigned to projects).

As I stood back and marvelled at how excited and proud our students were, I thought a great deal about school culture and about how school culture determines whether or not opportunities such as these every make it to students. It’s certainly a culture I try to foster at our school, but it’s a task I cannot do alone. I am thankful to the educators who participated in this project not only because they took part, but that they embraced and celebrated the sometimes messy and ambiguous learning that comes from innovation and creativity.

Leaving our comfort zones was made easier knowing that we can ALL be creative, and that all students truly have the opportunity to shine in a culture of creativity!

Where do we go next?

Doing Work That Matters

“Deprived of meaningful work,
men and women lose their reason for existence;
they go stark, raving mad.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

I hear it all the time…We could focus on the stuff that REALLY matters if it wasn’t for all the small, menial, (and yes sometimes bureaucratic) tasks that sometime seem to dominate our time. The more time I spend in schools and with my own growing children, the more I believe that kids feel the exact same way adults do about the importance of our time. Specifically, they not only want to do work that matters, but they also have the need to know why they are doing the work. The more I look around, the more examples of this I see.

photo-75My oldest son Jake is in Grade 11. He’s a good kid, does well in school, but nothing in school has ever really interested or motivated him. But recently, I’ve noticed a change – a good change. He has combined his passions of soccer and technology and has started to write a blog about one of his favourite teams; the Vancouver Whitecaps. His blog isn’t something that he just throws together, but rather something he devotes a great deal of time and care to. In fact, for the first time I can recall, he spends the time to make his blog “just right” instead of “just good enough”. He contributes to other blogs and has bloggers write for his. I was most impressed when, before our last Whitecaps game, Jake told me that he didn’t need his ticket because he had been given press credentials and would spend the game watching the game from the press box with the media. A few days later, he met with the editor of a local newspaper to discuss the possibility of doing an internship. Yes…Jake working for free in order to learn! To him, this is work that really matters!

Another great example of students embracing work that matters is the recent 30-Hour Famine that took place at Georges Vanier Elementary. I’ve always loved working with our senior students, but being a few months away from moving on to high school, some can have the attitude that they no longer need to buy into any school events. Teachers at the school promoted ownership by introducing the idea of doing a 30-Hour Famine and allowing students to discuss charities they were interested in supporting. Together, students and teachers agreed on dividing the money three ways between Kiva, BCSPCA, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. There was something about helping people, children, and animals in need that struck a chord with the 54 students who decided to participate. When the event had concluded, over $3900 was raised. Who said you can’t get Grade 7 students to care?

Finally, many teachers at Georges Vanier Elementary have introduced their students to Genius Hour, a time weekly when students not only get to learn what they want, they get to decide how they will share their learning with others. How do I know this approach is making a difference? It is obvious when you walk into a class during Genius Hour that students genuinely care about what they are learning because the learning is meaningful to them. Initially, some students find it difficult to come up with topics because they’ve rarely been asked what interests them or what they would like to learn more about. With time, the process becomes natural and topic selection easier.

Do we give students enough opportunity to consistently do work that really matters to them? Probably not, but the work I see currently being done throughout Georges Vanier and many other schools gives me hope that the shift towards passion-based, student-centered learning, has not only started, but is beginning to grow. After all, we all deserve and yearn to do work that is personally fulfilling and meaningful!

I’d love to hear about strategies and projects you implement to make learning meaningful for your students!