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?

Practice and Publicity

Much is said these days about “digital footprints”. If people Google you (and they probably do), what do they find and what does it say about you? Who controls that?

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Image by We Are Social Media

I am motivated to write this post by a question I heard one Principal ask another of a particular staff member who was a prolific tweeter, blogger, and social media extraordinaire. The one Principal asked, “Gosh, is Steve (not the teacher’s real name) really as good as he seems on Twitter?” The other Principal simply gave a look. The look spoke volumes! There was an obvious disconnect between what this teacher did and what this teacher said.

I’ve also had many people share with me that it drives them crazy when some administrators and teachers seem to use social media to “toot their own horn”.

While the reality is that not everything an educator shares via social media “matches” their practice, I believe that it is healthy to share. Teachers need to share what they are experimenting with in their classrooms. Principals need to share what they are experimenting with in their schools. This sharing helps others learn because it encourages them to reflect on their own beliefs and practice. Most people are apprehensive to share because they fear how this sharing will be perceived or that they don’t have anything significant to share. Sharing takes courage because you open yourself up to the world and to the possibility that someone may disagree with your ideas or views. But, whenever I speak to anyone about the possibility of tweeting or blogging about something, I simply share the message from Derek Sivers’ awesome video, Obvious to you. Amazing to others:

“We’re clearly a bad judge of our own creations. We should just put it out and let the world decide.”

In this sharing though, I think it’s important to be as honest as possible and to not only share what goes really well, but also that which does not go as planned. I screw up a lot – ask anyone! What comes to mind as I sit here typing:

  • I remember my very first MysterySkype with a class from Missouri. I really wanted students to do well so of all things … we talked about Missouri; where is was in the U.S., that it was land-locked… Uh, this is a MYSTERY Skype – students aren’t supposed to know where the other class is from!!! Embarrassing, but I learned. I’ve since done many MysterySkype sessions and helped others with them as well.
  • I remember participating in the WikiSeat project and designing and building my own chair. Once I was done, it was hideous. I wrote a blog about going through this process and having to start all over again: Read that blog here. It’s not always easy to publicly talk about mistakes, but in the end I was happy that I didn’t settle for my first attempt; it clearly wasn’t the best I could do.
  • During a recent Year-End assembly, the video I worked on for hours froze halfway through because I rendered it at the highest possible resolution, resulting in a file over 2 GB that my computer could not handle. This was not a private failure. There were over 700 students, staff, and parents, watching as I tried in vain to get this movie to run. I later rendered the movie at a lower resolution that played fine on my computer. I invited anyone interested to come down to the gym and watch the whole movie. Again, my first attempt was unsuccessful, but in persevering I succeeded.

Many people talk about mistakes and failure and how we should embrace these experiences because they lead to new learning and understanding. We expect it from our students, but do we “put ourselves out there” in a similar way? Do we make ourselves vulnerable? Do we really embrace failure as a vehicle for learning?

FullSizeRender 4While it’s true that practice does not always match publicity, it’s also true that it’s up to the world as an audience to take from digital footprints what they deem true and valuable, and to enter into respectful, dialogue when they disagree with someone’s view. Sharing, however, should always be encouraged because risk leads to growth, we all have something of value to share, and we are better collectively than we are on our own.

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.

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?

Little things can make all the difference.

20121011-184041.jpgA teacher today received the sort of letter that all teachers dream about – a letter stating that they had made a difference in a child’s life. When this teacher found out that her new student who had just come to Canada, was a talented pianist, but no longer had a piano to play, she asked what we could do. The answer? We rolled a piano to her room so she could play regularly for her classmates. Sometimes, little things can make all the difference.

The letter from the child’s mother is shared with permission below.

Dear Teacher,

I do not know English very well. I feel the need to write to you about my daughter. She is a very emotional child. She is usually happy and chatty. It is a difficult time for her. When she came to Canada she left her friends, house, piano, cat and her father in Turkey. We are very happy to have you as her teacher. She can play the piano now and [she is] very happy. Thank you very much for your help. I can not visit the school too often because I go to school myself. If there is any problem, please write back to me. Thank you again.

Paying the Price

My last mylearn365 blog post was about committing time this summer to exercise and take care of myself.We all have different reasons for doing this. Some people exercise to lose weight or build muscle. Some people exercise to prepare for an upcoming athletic season. For me, it’s the upcoming school year that has me gearing up.

I think sometimes in the media, our work in schools as teachers and administrators is sometimes misunderstood. Too many times our work is defined by those on the outside by weekends off, holidays, summer vacations, and a supposed 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. day.

I am taking care of myself because I know the truth about working in schools. To me there is no work more fulfilling where you have not only a chance everyday to make a positive impact on the lives of others, but to change a life forever. This work challenges one emotionally, mentally, and physically. While I don’t often feel “stressed” at school, it is only because stress levels are so elevated most of the time, I don’t even notice. It’s only after a week or two off that I realize I’ve been in a chronic state of stress.

The teachers I know start well before 8:30 a.m. and stay well after 2:30 p.m. They love their students. They buy many of their own supplies. They use their own time to assess and plan. They take it personally when a child doesn’t do well and continually look for ways to reach students. And quite often, I see teachers come to school, day after day, worn down, but persevering because they don’t want to let their kids down.

Today, I think about the many friends and colleagues who pay a dear price every year – their own health and well-being – to make sure the important work in schools continues. I urge everyone to take care of themselves and find the balance in life that is so needed. If we can do this, we will all be better able to take on the upcoming challenges of a new school year.

The Underdog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would love to hear your thoughts!