Innovation is Relative

IMG_2574The work of a school principal is challenging, but also highly rewarding. Each day brings something new and that’s exciting to me. As I think back on this work that I love, I recall the wise words of a former principal…

“It’s incredible how quickly you can lose touch with what’s happening.”

For all of us, regardless of our work, we must continue to learn and evolve in order to stay current and relevant. Nowhere is this truer than in education. While some things remain constant, like the power of relationships, and the importance of doing interesting, personalized, and meaningful work, almost everything else continues to change around us. Here in Surrey and around the province of British Columbia, we are now working with a new curriculum, grounded in the development of important core competencies we know our students will need to possess in order to thrive in our ever-changing world.

Thank you Rosemary Heights teacher, Kristin Visscher (@mommavisscher) for these images!

Evolution is key! Recently, I heard someone say something and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. They said,  “Innovation depends on your context.” Think about that comment for a moment and then think about how much the term “innovation” is used. I consider innovation to being something that isn’t just new, but better than what came before it! Therefore, what one person might consider innovative, another might consider dated practice. But, what’s most important is to simply take a small step and try to do what you do, better.

This concept is best understood when we reflect on our own learning and growth.

When I first became a principal, much of what I did was based on what I saw other principals do. One of these things was how schools communicate with parents. Traditionally, this was done through newsletters. So, once a month I would do what I thought I was supposed to do – I would brainstorm all the things I thought I should include in the newsletter such as a message from me, important dates, celebrations of past events, bell times, reminders…all very important information for parents to have. I would neatly put all this information together, have it proofread, printed, copied, and sent home.

It was good … I thought.

But, as time passed, the way I communicated seemed to become more and more disconnected, both in time and content, from the rich learning taking place. In the background, how teachers were communicating student learning began to transform as well. Gone were the days of reports cards three times per year, replaced by ongoing, responsive, and descriptive feedback through digital portfolios. Teachers were clearly in an innovative space with their communication, evolving, risk-taking, being vulnerable with their ideas and practice. How was I to work alongside my teachers and help them lead this shift if my practice did not model what I expected from them? So I went “electronic” sending the same newsletter in PDF form via email.

This too was good … I thought.

At the time, this was relatively innovative, because I could now add more visual content which was more effective in sharing what was happening. Even though my communication evolved to a weekly blog instead of a newsletter in 2012, my thinking around communicating student learning didn’t really change until 2014 when I moved to my most recent school and I pondered for some time what the title of the school blog would be. I had used the word “NEWS” in my previous school blog. And while it’s important for us to communicate the news and events of schools to parents, schools are about learning. So, the simple gesture of adding the word “LEARNS” to a blog title forced us to make a commitment to a certain type of communication – the language of learning.

Suddenly, everything happening at school looked different to me. During my travels into classes, through the hallways, even outside before or after school, at recess or lunch, every photo, video, or conversation was focused on one central question – “Where is the learning?” What I discovered is that once you start to view behaviour that way – through a lens of learning – you realize that school is not about isolated events, but rather that learning takes place all the time, in all situations, most of the time without the learners even realizing it. If our intent as school leaders is to foster a culture of meaningful learning, then what we decide to notice and communicate to our community is of significant importance. If schools are all about learning, how is this learning continuously captured and shared? Sometimes learning can be shared in a quick tweet, or a captioned image, or a gallery of images. Other times, the learning is so rich it is deserving of being communicated through a learning story. Yes, creating learning stories takes patience and time, but when the stories emerge, they communicate powerfully. Some of my favourite learning stories are about…

Fortunately, the myriad of tools at hand today make this process much easier than it used to be. Some strategies I found successful in telling the stories of learning:

  • I always take my phone with me and document continuously by collecting images and videos.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Find a colleague who you can lean on. Ask questions. Risk-take. Start small or start big … but start! Be creative. Have fun!
  • Focus on the learning by always looking through the lens that makes you ask the question, “Where is the learning?”
  • Take some time to reflect on what happens in your busy day and your interactions with students, teachers, and parents. Write a narrative about what you notice. Tell the story of what your school is about, or what you want your school to be about.
  • I started a free blog on WordPress. There are many platforms you can use. I paid extra to have a shorter domain name (cambridgelearns.com) and that allow me to upload and embed video directly into posts.
  • I created a Facebook page because my community was already immersed in Facebook use. I had to go where my families were.
  • I created a Twitter account to be able to quickly post links to the blog and information. You can connect your Twitter account to most other applications so that your tweets show up automatically on your school blog and website.
  • I connected my social media accounts together using Hootsuite, which allows you to post to multiple accounts at once.
  • I used a free app called Chirbit (there are many others) to record and publish our morning announcements each morning. Parents can hear exactly what their children hear. Teachers can hear announcements again with their class if they missed something. In schools with many families speaking a different language, we did a second set of announcements in another language. In this case, it was Punjabi and it was totally led by students.

We ask our students and teachers daily to risk-take, experiment, and personally grow. What a powerful message we send when we say we are willing to publicly do the same. Your “innovative” doesn’t need to be relative to others, only relative to yourself.

So, how will you get started? What will be your next step?

#corecompetencies      #communication      #creativity

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?

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?

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?

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?

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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