The Wejr Board

…sharing stories that reflect on the present & future system of education

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10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student (a slightly cynical post)

It is no secret that I have concerns with the focus on awards in schools. For the past 9 years, I have been privileged to work as a principal in two different school communities who have both moved away from traditional awards ceremonies. As someone once told me, “we need to be hard on ideas and soft on people” – this is a satirical criticism of the IDEA of traditional awards ceremonies in schools and is meant to highlight issues with (and challenge people to rethink) the use of these in schools, and is NOT meant to be a criticism of parents nor educators. 

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

Defeating others is crucial to the success of our children, and it is our role, as educators and parents, to prepare our students for the big bad real world that is out there that will eat you up and spit you out. I was having trouble sleeping last night so I came up with a list that will help me raise my kids as well as my students to become better than others and win more traditional awards at school.

10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student:

  1. Have parents with a post-secondary education. There is much research to support a correlation between parent education and student achievement. This is not really a secret so, if you want a student to win academic awards, it is important that the child’s parents have something beyond a high school education. (I realize there is exceptions to this but the correlation is pretty clear)
  2. Have parents with higher income. There is also a correlation between socioeconomic status and traditional achievement in schools so, again, it makes a difference if the parents have more financial and cultural capital to access more support and educational opportunities.
  3. Be born in the first 3 months of the year. Schools organize students by date of birth (or as Sir Ken says, “date of manufacture”) so being born in at the start of the year can give a student a significant advantage. In Canada, a child born in January could have almost 12 months of advantage through growth and development as compared to a peer born in late December (some states use September as the cut-off so it would be a similar comparison to a child born in September and a child born in August).  Although the date of birth has less of an impact as the student get older, it makes a difference in schools for early learning opportunities and resulting student confidence and self-efficacy.
  4. Place the majority of the focus on getting good grades. Many awards are decided based on who has the top marks in the grade level so getting a good percentage and/or GPA is essential to cleaning up the awards. Therefore, it is important to pay less attention to soft skills and the process of learning and more attention to getting good grades. The 0.1% in the grade book can make the difference between an award-winner and an award-loser so it is important to ask for bonus marks and do everything to collect the most points in school.
  5. Avoid collaboration. Remember that the people around your child/student stand in the way of him/her winning the award. Awards are only won by defeating those around you so, by collaborating, you could be hurting your chances as you may be making those around you that much better.
  6. Avoid courses that challenge the student. As was stated in #4, the goal is to get top marks so by enrolling in courses that are not an area of strength and that are challenging for the student could result in lower marks. Also, I have heard that students can enrol in courses with “easy-markers” (I am not sure what this means though) so this could help their chances at winning as well.
  7. Self-promotion is key. Decisions on awards are sometimes made as a team so it is important that academic accomplishments are shared so everyone knows the top grades and other achievements that have been attained. Also, awards are heavily based on short-term extrinsic motivation so self-promotion, along with the focus on grades, will help keep the emphasis on the extrinsic (rather than intrinsic).
  8. Attend a small school.  Winning awards is not about achieving some standard or level, it is simply about being better than those around you. If you attend a smaller school, you have a much better chance of winning as there are fewer students around you.
  9. Give awards out in the home and community.  Because awards mean that we stand for excellence, it is important to also give awards in your home to your top child. This will not only highlight excellence but also help teach the other child that loses the award how to cope in the big, bad real world. Outside the home, work with the community to give top parent awards and top children awards so families and community members can also compete with each other in the promotion of excellence.
  10. Comply, comply, comply. A great way to getting top marks is to colour inside the lines and think inside the box. Do not question the way things are done or try to be creative and do things in new ways as this may mean that you will not do exactly what the school is asking and, therefore, risk getting lower grades. There is a game within in school and those who learn the rules of “doing” school well and comply, collect the most points, and beat those around them… win!

As you can see, there are so many variables that are beyond the control of our students that impact who wins the traditional awards in schools.  Parent education, parent financial and cultural capital, student month of birth, school size, etc all provide some students with an advantage and leaves others with a disadvantage. We, as educators, often express concerns about school rankings because of these aforementioned factors yet we rarely question the ranking (well, ranking by placing at the top) of students in schools that are affected by these same factors.  Most of the time, parents and students are doing the best they can but face hurdles outside their control which can affect achievement at school. As a community, we need to help ALL students go over/around these hurdles so we can create the conditions to bring out the best in each of them. Having said this, we need to ask ourselves, as a school community, if traditional awards ceremonies actually promote excellence and bring out the best or if they simply promote achievement using narrow criteria defined by adults within the building. Are awards the best we can do to highlight student learning and growth in our schools?

I am not saying that the answer is to “give awards to everyone” (which I oppose) as this creates a whole different issue; I am saying, though, that we need to rethink how we honour our students and we need to create new ways of promoting excellence and celebrating learning that goes beyond our traditional awards ceremonies in schools.

Please do not tell me thoughts like these are creating this “enabled” generation of millennial adults (whatever that means.. apparently I just missed the cut-off to being a Millennial). The vast majority of schools still use traditional awards and millennial adults went through schools that used awards… so if a lack of responsibility and independence is a concern (which is a valid concern), let’s talk about this and discuss strategies we can use every day to improve this for our children and community.

The late Joe Bower and I had many conversations on this topic and I feel like these thoughts are a tribute to him. Check out one of his posts on this topic here.

 

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Sports Day: Shifting From Competition to Inclusion

IMG_6764Last year at James Hill, we made the decision to move away from points and 1st-4th place finishes for our annual elementary school Sports Day. We felt that the focus on points and winning was misaligned with the goal of the day. Seeing students and parents arguing with grade 6/7 student facilitators about who finished 2nd and 3rd in the “Rubber Chicken Relay” made it fairly clear that something needed to change.

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to competition (ask anybody I have coached or played with or against) and there is a role for healthy competition in youth development. I am not the guy that thinks we should give out participation trophies for everyone for just showing up at a tournament but I do think that we often put the focus on winning when the focus should be on development (that is for another post.. in the meantime, check out Changing the Game Project). I do think that our school’s “Sports Day” (which does not really involve a single “sport” and could be renamed) is a day in which the main purposes are fun, teamwork, and movement.

Last year, I did have some questions from parents asking if not focusing on competition was ill preparing our kids for the “real world”. I understand this concern and we do provide opportunities for our older students to compete in floor hockey, track, cross country, basketball and other artistic and academic competitions. For Sports Day, I strongly believe we need to align our activities with the purpose and goals of the event. I am not sure, though, if winning the “Bottle Fill Relay” is the real goal of sports day and helps to prepare our six-year-olds for when they are 18 and entering the world beyond school.  I do know that focusing on movement, fun, and teamwork is a great way to spend a day together as a school community.

When we moved away from the competitive nature of the day, we saw some significant improvements in teamwork, inclusion and fun. People were cheering each other on right through the duration of the activity and often there became a side-event that created even more fun for our students. For example, in our Bottle Fill Relay, rather than the only goal being to fill up the bottle the fastest, our grade 5s started splashing each other as they participated in the event and this resulted in more cheers, laughs, and smiles.  A teacher also recently shared this story with me:

Not having the points and placings has really helped to create more of an inclusive sports day. In the past, when a child with any type of physical or mental struggle(s) was placed on a team, there were statements whispered like, “now we are never going to win.” or “there goes our chances”. She went on to say that this year, not having the overt competitive aspect created the conditions that brought out the best in teams. Students were working together and cheering each other on more than in past years. The goal was not to finish first but, for some students, to simply finish with smiles. Those teams that had a child with physical and/or mental disabilities on their team looked to him/her as an asset rather than a liability (it bothers me to say that students looked at others as a liability in the past but for some, it was unfortunately true). Students with struggles were cheered MORE for their efforts and their accomplishments. Nobody said “oh man, we have Steven..”, they said, “let’s go, STEVEN, we can do this!”. More kids cheered. More kids participated. This was the most inclusive sports day ever.

The key lesson for me is that our purpose needs to guide our actions. Is there a role for competition in schools? I believe there is but elementary sports day should be about movement, fun, teamwork, and creating the conditions to bring out the best in ALL our kids.  Kids will still be competitive with each other in a fun way; however, when we shift our focus away from competition, we get more collaboration, more fun, and more inclusion.

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Working With Children With Challenging Behaviours? This Changes Everything

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

There is a simple mistake that the vast majority of us as parents and educators make when dealing with challenging behaviours: we focus on the behaviour.

When we focus on the problem behaviour, most of our theories and strategies involve attempting to get less of this behaviour. We bribe with rewards for when the behaviour might not be present and we punish when the behaviour does occur. This type of “behaviour intervention” makes a HUGE assumption… that the behaviour is a motivation problem.  We assume that if we can “motivate” (bribe/punish) the child to the thing we want him to do, after enough intervention, he will do it more often. Dr. Ross Greene says this is the philosophy that “Kids do well if they wanna [do well].”  This often “works” for the kids who don’t really have any significant challenges with behaviours (although when we try to “catch kids being good”, we end up teaching many kids to be good at getting caught being good and create further problems of kids wanting something in return for doing the right thing) but I have yet to see this work for the students who need the intervention the most.  In fact, I have often seen this approach work against students with behaviour challenges; we put a carrot out there (if you do this, we will give you this), the student then realizes he/she is not going to get the reward, and this actually brings out the problem behaviour that we do not want to see. If all we focus is on the challenging behaviour, we miss the most important part: the opportunity to create collaborative solutions for the underlying problems.

By assuming that challenging behaviour is a motivation problem… we forget that behaviour is a SKILL. Behind every action in kids (and adults) are numerous skills that people have learned over the years.  Skills like problem-solving, self-regulation, listening, critical thinking, empathy, academics, and many others all play a role in how we behave. This is the BIG idea that changes everything about working with kids with challenging behaviours: “Kids do well if they CAN… if they could do well, the would do well. Something must be getting in the way” (Dr. Ross Greene). This lens changes our role as educators and parents; our role then becomes members of a team that has the task of finding out what is getting in the way.

Kids do well if they can…. NOT kids do well if they wanna. When we make this shift in philosophy, we see that behaviour challenges are a result of a lagging skill and/or unsolved problem. By focusing on the lagging skills, we can actually teach kids the needed skills in a way that prevents the behaviour from occurring. I have used the philosophy for a number of years and it has been proven more effective than any other behaviour support I have used; this should not be shocking because when we view behaviour as a skill, our most important job is to teach!  If a child struggles with reading, we teach. If a child struggles with behaviours, we don’t simply bribe and punish… we teach.

Greene shares with us a few keys to working with kids with behaviour challenges:

  1. Kids do well if they can. Focus on determining the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are causing the behaviour.  Challenging kids are challenging when the demands of a task outstrip their skill level. We need to stop obsessing on behaviour.  Instead, we should be emphasising problems (and solving them) rather than on behaviours (and modifying them – when we solve the problems the behaviours are modified).  Expectations are important so we need to reflect on what our expectations so we can determine what our student may be having problem meeting. We also need to ensure that the bar for these expectations are close to the skill level of our students… much like we do with other aspects of teaching.
  2. Solutions must be collaborative and proactive. Too often, solutions we (as adults) come up with are done TO the child and what we need to be doing is coming up with solutions to unsolved problems (and lagging skills) WITH the child. This does not mean collaborating on consequences… this means collaborating on solutions to problems. (Note: I am not opposed to consequences that are logical and restorative but I think we too often believe that this will solve the problem when, if it is due to a lagging skills or unsolved problem, it rarely solves it and actually exacerbates the problem). Nobody likes a plan done to them yet we do this to kids with behaviour challenges all the time… and it often makes it worse.
  3. Model empathy and care.  When determined the lagging skills and unsolved problems and we work collaboratively as a team with the child, we show we care and can empathize with his/her struggles in certain skill areas.

I have tried to use this philosophy for a number of years with great success, but for some reason, I seemed to have recently sidetracked myself about it. This year, I have continually focused on the behaviours and dealing with what seemed to be crisis management without working hard to understand the underlying unsolved problems. As Greene says, “The more crisis management you do, the more crisis management you do.”  We have done a ton of crisis management this year and have done very little of focused discussions on determining lagging skills and unsolved problems and then working collaboratively to help teach the skills and solve these problems. Four members of our staff recently attended a 2-day workshop with Greene and it all came back to me; we realized we have made a number of decisions at school that have not helped with our students struggling with behaviours. We have been focused on behaviours and doing our “solutions” TO kids rather than with them. In the coming weeks and into next year, I look forward to our core team working to use Greene’s approach and working with staff and families to create more success for our students.

The challenge with this approach is that it takes so long. It takes so much time. It requires time for collaboration with staff and collaboration with the struggling students. The other side of this, though, is that our other attempts to provide intervention (that have not worked) have taken tons of time yet they have got us not much further ahead (and maybe even further behind) than we were at the start of the year. So the question is: how can we NOT make the time to work together to do something that has proven to work? Much like when a child struggles with reading, we make the time as best we can. The added challenge to problem behaviour (which is often tied to academics) is that it can affect the learning environment for staff and students… which is why it is that much more important to make the time to engage in this process.  The least that we can do is consider shifting our philosophy. If we don’t, we will simply continue to spin our wheels and end up with students and staff who are more stressed with bigger struggles that we had before. (an important additional comment by Steve MacGregor on Twitter: there needs to be a core group or a team approach to make this truly effective.)

We need to rethink how we approach behaviour in our schools. We need to move away from a program that focuses on behaviour (and attempting to change with carrots and sticks) and move toward a philosophy that seeks first to understand the unsolved problems and/or lagging skills, then help solve the problems and teach the needed skills.  This changes everything.

I highly recommend Dr. Ross Greene’s workshops and books (particularly Lost at School). You can also do a “walking tour” of his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions and get tons of free resources (like the ALSUP – Assessment of Unsolved Problems and Lagging Skills) on his Lives in the Balance website

NOTE: I understand that life is full of choices and there are times when behaviour is a choice. I am writing primarily about significant behaviour challenges in this post that we often assume are choices (but have been shown in my experience and many that Greene has worked with) to be caused by underlying unsolved problems. Also, Greene is very clear that PBIS (Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports) does not align with this philosophy as the focus is often on changing behaviour (with positive rewards/prizes/tickets) rather than determining lagging skills and working collaboratively to solve them.

I also like the term “unexpected behaviours” (rather than problem or challenging behaviours) that my friend Karen Copeland has encouraged me to use. The goal of the approach in this post is to make these behaviours more expected because when we know what is causing them, we can work collaboratively to prevent them from occurring. 

For a quick preview to Greene’s approach, watch the video below.

 

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Inclusion Through Strengths: Learning With Logan

Note: this story of inclusion is shared with the encouragement and permission of Logan’s mother.

Logan has been at James Hill Elementary since kindergarten. During this time, it has been easy to pick out all of his challenges – his struggles to read and write, self-regulate emotions, say the right things (and not swear), and his struggles to build real friendships. He has Autism and Tourette Syndrome and the journey n school has been a roller coast of emotions for Logan and his family as he faced a few good days combined with many, many challenging ones. (There was a time when we almost made the mistake of planning a half-day program because he was not having successful afternoons – thankfully, we listened to his family andworked together to create an afternoon plan that tapped into his strengths and interests and created success.)

As Logan has grown, his interests in things like animals (particularly reptiles and insects) were noted and encouraged by staff and his family to be used in school through a variety of projects. One of his grade 3 teachers saw a snake she had never seen before near her home so she took note of the characteristics, came in to the school on the following day and ran it by our expert, Logan, and he was able to identify they type of snake it was. Another staff member embraced his love of animals and ran a school-wide fundraiser, led by Logan, to bring in Canadian Tire money to donate to the Langley Animal Protection Society to help out local rescued cats. During this fundraiser, Logan went around to all the classrooms to share details about the initiative. Because Logan had struggles in communication, he used an iPad to read out the information to the students.

IMG_5095Fast-forward to grade 5. In the past few years, although Logan still has a love for Kingdom Animalia, he has developed a keen interest in communicable diseases, nuclear disasters, and safety from these and all sorts of disasters that can be harmful to humans. His parents have embraced this and Logan can often be seen walking around the grocery store or the school with a gas mask and hazmat suit. He has almost become our leader in pest control at the school. Although Logan has been physically floating in and out of the classroom, his participation in class has been fairly minimal… up until a few months ago. At this time, his teachers and support staff started to notice that his strengths and passions could be used in the classroom more often.

Although there has been much effort over the years to include Logan more effectively in the class, during a unit on communicable diseases, Logan’s experience at school shifted to a much more active, positive experience. He then became a classroom expert on the topic. He participated more in class discussions, he was engaged in the tasks, and walked with more of a “swagger” at school. One of his teachers, Colleen Giddings, then asked him if he wanted to share his vast knowledge of viruses with the class. The next day, Logan waited patiently and then when it was time, brought out his iPad and didn’t just share a few bits of information, he actually taught a mini-lesson on viruses! He walked around with his iPad and showed pictures and shared his knowledge and passion for the topic. Rather than trying to get him to participate, the challenge then became how to teach him timing – when and where to share his knowledge!

As the class is a shared classroom, his other teacher, Kathy Lambert, continued to chat with Logan about other areas of interest and asked him if he wanted to bring his hazmat suit in to share his knowledge about safety.   Not only did he just bring in his suit… he taught a full 30 minute lesson on nuclear disaster and radiation safety! He lectured and shared his knowledge, asked questions, answered questions from peers and also used a variety of tools like pictures, maps, stories, and even finished with a historical video on nuclear safety. This same student that struggled to be in class, speak to peers, read, write, self-regulate emotions… gave a 30-minute engaging lesson to his classmates. Logan is on a new streak and for the past few months, showed his story and identity at school has changed.

Inclusion is not just about helping certain students be more involved in a class; it is a mindset about how we do things. Over the years, Logan’s family and staff at his school have embraced who he is and what he loves. They have started with his strengths and when these strengths were brought into the school, he became more confident, active and engaged in class. His struggles are still there but these have been overshadowed by his strengths.

When we start with strengths, students flourish.
When we start with strengths, we use these to build on our struggles.
When we start with strengths, we work to INCLUDE.

Thank you to Logan, his family, as well as the staff and students at James Hill for showing the power of using strengths in inclusion.

Check out the 3-minute video clip below of Logan in his element… teaching his classmates about nuclear disasters and radiation safety.

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The Wrecking Ball: A Story of Inclusion

15936739285_460b008ec5_zFollowing a thought-provoking session on inclusion with colleague Diana Wilk at our district pro-d day (as a follow-up to a memorable day spent with Paula Kluth in the fall), I tried to share a story with her but emotionally struggled to get through it. It is a story of inclusion being modeled by kindergarten students and one that we can all learn from.

As in the majority of kindergarten classes, we have some students that struggle with personal space and can demonstrate some behaviours that can be looked at as being socially not acceptable.  One student in one of our clases, Justin (not his/her real name), has some challenges and loves to wreck towers, buildings and other things that students have built with blocks, lego, and other items.

Our teacher, who cares deeply about Justin, decided that while Justin was learning that this was not acceptable to wreck other students buildings, she would take a picture of the students’ completed tower/building before it was dismantled. As students in kindergarten are often so accepting and patient, this temporary solution seemed to be working while Justin learned the necessary skills.

A few weeks ago, two girls had created a rather large structure with blocks. They were beaming with pride and asked their teacher to take a photo of their work. While the teacher was going to grab her camera, she heard, “Justin….NO!” and then turned to see Justin run over and smash the structure to pieces. The teacher comforted the two students and then took Justin to a calmer area of the classroom to once again talk to him and remind him about respecting other people’s work and personal space.

After a few minutes of working with Justin, the teacher was interrupted by the two girls asking if they could talk to Justin. They then brought over Justin to their newly created structure and said, “we built this tower but we need someone to take it down… will you be our wrecking ball?”  Justin then turned into his own version of a wrecking ball and dismantled the structure as the girls cheered him on. The smiles in the faces of all three students, and the tears in the eyes of the teacher said it all. These students had come up with this inclusive solution on their own. Justin continues to cherish his role as a wrecking ball and is learning to wait until the timing is right to do “his job”. This role has enhanced his sense of belonging and created a more positive experience for him and his friends.

Inclusion does not just benefit those who struggle. By creating the conditions for moments like this to happen more often in schools, we can teach and practice the skills of empathy, understanding, and care and support our students in teaching so many of us that inclusion brings out the best in ALL of us.

CC image from Michele M.F.

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We Wore the Orange Shirts… What’s Next? #orangeshirtday

Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters

Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters

Today was (is) an important day in the steps toward reconciliation in Canada. Today, many people wore orange shirts “in honour of residential school survivors and in memory of those who did not”.  This is a huge start in creating awareness of the tragic and horrific years that residential schools were in existence; in addition, it is also a chance to highlight the incredible strength of the thousands of people that survived their residential school experience.

I was proud to look around at so many colleagues in the Langley School District wearing orange today as a way to say that we are committed to reconciliation.  Thank you to Michael Morgan along with our leadership team for putting this at the forefront of what we do as educators in Langley.

Having said all this… some of my critical friends (who are so passionate about equity) who continually challenge me to be better would say that wearing an orange shirt is easy. It just scratches the surface of building understanding and working toward real reconciliation.  As Justice Sinclair shares at the video on the bottom of this post, “We cannot look at quick and easy solutions because there are none” and so the more important question is, “what can we do today to make steps toward reconciliation?”.  We did an amazing job of supporting Orange Shirt Day… so what’s next?

One of the challenges that I face is the fact that I often do not know the answer to this question. However, I have had the privilege and honour to work with incredible people who have continually challenged and mentored me during my years in the Fraser-Cascade School District (Kasey Chapman, Nancy Pennier, Robert Genaille, Tyrone McNeil along with far too many to name in the communities of Seabird Island and Sts’ailes) as well as people whom I get to work with now in the Langley School District (Cecilia Reekie, Donna Robins (and the Gabriel family), Bonnie VanHatten along with many others).  If there is one thing I have learned through the many conversations I have had with these mentors along with many survivors of residential schools is that I just need to listen.  I need to listen to the stories. I need to listen for guidance. I need to listen to determine how to support (and work alongside with) those who will lead us to reconciliation as we move down this important path.

Orange Shirt Day has led to more questions from educators, students, and families than I have ever encountered in the past and this is such a positive start. The challenge is moving beyond the single day event and making this an important journey toward reconciliation.

I feel I have very few answers. I also know that this is ok because I have many people that are leading me and so many others down this path that we must take as an education system and as a society.  “Every Child Matters” – every child in our past, present and future matters.

Thank you to everyone who has promoted Orange Shirt Day and taught me so much about the tragic experiences of residential schools as well as the incredible strength of those survivors. We must now keep the dialogue and actions going beyond Orange Shirt Day. Connect with those who can lead us on this journey together as a Canadian society. Reconciliation affects all of us. Take the time to simply listen to our neighbours and community members, ask questions, seek to understand, seek guidance, and move forward together.

As terribly difficult it is to hear the stories from the survivors of residential schools, it is so moving to see the unbelievable strength in people. I am honoured to to have the opportunity to be even a small part of such an important journey in our country’s history.

What Is Reconciliation from TRC – CVR on Vimeo.

For some key resources and powerful, yet heartbreaking stories, visit the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada websites.

Here are 10 books to read with children to help teach about residential schools. 

 

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Are We Marking Assignments or Assessing Learning?

Good ole spreadsheets.

CC Image from Joseph Thibault https://flic.kr/p/6Fg2z2

There has been much focus on shifting our assessment practices in education and, particularly in BC, moving toward more Assessment For Learning (or formative assessment) in schools.  This is such an important conversation and needed change but at some point along the way, Assessment OF Learning (or summative assessment) has been given a bad rap.  To have sound assessment practices in a classroom and school, we need a solid balance of ongoing formative assessment (click here for more info) as well as an effective way to verify that learning has occurred (summative).  Formative assessment should be where we spend most of our time, but summative assessments are still very important.

As we engage in dialogue in our school around assessment, I recently posed a question at our staff meeting that said:

Are we marking assignments or assessing learning outcomes?

Although I failed to provide enough time to discuss this at our staff meeting, the conversation spilled over into the hallways and the staff meeting the next morning as teachers engaged in some (at times frustrating) dialogue around the topic of summative assessment.

For the vast majority of the teaching portion of my career (high school math/science/PE as well as intermediate), I developed assignments and tests/quizzes based on the curriculum, arbitrarily assigned each question or portion of the project a point total, and then marked students work based on their “learning” demonstrated in each question/portion.  I would then tally the points and give them a total like 17/21.  This is how I was assessed in school and how most of the teachers around me at the time assessed student work.

In my 6th year of teaching, I was evaluated by my principal and during this, he asked me a question that changed my mindset on assessment. At the time, I was fond of my spreadsheets and all the marks that I had in them (I now look back and realized how I used spreadsheets to fool parents, students, and myself into thinking that assessment was objective).  There was a student in my math class that was failing and we were discussing my frustrations with her because she did well on tests and quizzes but never handed in any assignments (I was even marking homework at the time… ugh).  He asked me, “what are you assessing?”.  I responded proudly with my knowledge of the curricular outcomes and he challenged me by saying, “do you think that you are adding to other aspects of your class to the assessment?” and he continued to ask, “are you assessing tasks or assessing the outcomes?”.  I stopped and had no response. I was failing a student who knew many of the learning outcomes… simply because she did not hand in or complete all of her work.  She actually had learned something in my class and I failed to acknowledge this. The marking system I used was great for putting into a computerized grade book to come up with a percentage but I had very little knowledge of which outcomes the students had learned and which they struggled.  This system also provided me with very little feedback on my teaching. The dialogue between my principal and I continued but from that point on, I started planning the assignments and summative assessments not based on tasks, but with the learning outcomes in mind.

As I moved into vice principalship and life in an intermediate classroom (grades 5 and 6), I continued to plan with the outcomes in mind.  Assignments, projects and quizzes were based on the learning outcomes.  Each section was an assessment of an outcome.  My spreadsheet shifted from arbitrary points on assignments and randomly weighted tasks to how each child was assessed on the learning outcomes.  By planning my assessments with outcomes in mind, I found I marked WAY less and had a better understanding of where my students were at in their learning.  Check out a good video from Rick Wormeli on grade books at the bottom of this post.

There is so much more to be discussed about effective summative assessment practices (standards, late marks, zeros, bonus marks, redos, assessment types, grading consistency as well as assessing effort, etc…) but I really believe that an important question to start with is:

Are we marking assignments or are we assessing LEARNING?

What do we need to do right now to start to make this shift in our schools?  How are you making this shift?

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10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

I sometimes struggle with the volume of posts that give lists of  “5 ways…” or “10 reasons…” but I have recently been asked a few times how schools could get started using a strength-based model with students.  This list is by no means the end but more about the start; these are thoughts that have worked in schools I have had the privilege of working in; however, the context of your school is different so the ideas will vary depending on the school.  If you have further ideas or examples, I would love to read them (and steal them) so please leave them in the comments below.

Shifting the lens in schools to a focus on strengths rather than deficits… a focus on CAN rather than cannot… has been one of the most significant changes for me as an educator, formal leader and parent.  Where do we start?  What can we do this month? This year?  (there are links embedded in the list if you would like further detail on some of the stories and ideas).

  1. Shift from MY students to OUR students.  A previous teacher or a teacher in a different subject area can have knowledge of a child’s strengths and a positive relationship with the child.  Do we embrace this relationship or do we shut it out?  If we shift our focus from being classroom teachers or subject teachers to school teachers, can we better tap into the strengths of other adults in our building? Relationships are not zero-sum in that if one person has a strong relationship, it does not mean that others cannot as well.  Students need at least 2-3 strong, positive relationships with adults in the building.  These strong relationships often come with the knowledge of a student’s strengths… embrace these.
  2. Make the first contact about the strengths.  Make that first contact a positive one.  When we start the year, inquire into the strengths of our students – inside and outside of school and tap into these throughout the year.  Run a class or school Identity Day. Make the first contact with parents a positive one.  It doesn’t have to be about something the student has done but more about sharing that we value him/her and we know who they are.
  3. Schedule in time for a child to use his/her strengths in school.  If a child has a strength in the arts, technology, or with helping younger students (for example), provide time in the day or week for this to happen.  A student who struggles will often flourish when given a purpose or an opportunity for leadership beyond the classroom.  The important thing is to not use this as a punishment or reward.  If it is important to help change the story, schedule it in… but do not use a child’s strength as a carrot/stick to have them do the things we want them to do.  If we use it as a reward, we may get some short term compliance but the student will soon figure out that his/her strength is not valued.  Having said this, I do know that students will try to get out of doing the things they do not want to do and things in which they are not successful (adults do this too).  This is why it is scheduled in to the day/week/month so the students have to continue to work on areas of struggle AND they continue to get opportunities to use their strengths in a way that helps the school community.
  4. Teach parts of the curriculum through the strengths/interests.  Start with one lesson or one unit and ask how we can include the strengths and interests of our students.  It doesn’t have to be a big shift like Genius Hour but can be smaller shifts that include the curriculum like guided inquiry, writing assignments, reading reflections, and different ways of demonstrating student learning.
  5. In meetings, start with the bright spots.  If we are having a meeting about a child, start with the positives and see how these can be built upon. We need to acknowledge the struggles and look to how we can tap into the strengths to build confidence and change the story.  As principals, we can model this in staff meetings as we start each meeting/topic on sharing the bright spots.
  6. Start the conversation on how we honour students in schools.  Are there certain strengths we honour over others?  How do we honour the strengths of students that fall beyond the traditional awards and honour roll? Are traditional awards ceremonies the best we can do?
  7. Reflect on our assessment practices.  In our assessments, do we build on what students CAN do or do we focus more on what they cannot do?  Do our assessment practices build confidence or strip it away?  I know it is not a black/white practice as we need to support the challenges too but we need to reflect on the balance of strengths/deficits in our assessment practices.
  8. Watch those labels.  Do the designations of our students define them?  I realize there is a need for designations but I wonder if sometimes these work to put lids on kids.  A designation should come with a plan on how to embrace the strengths of the child and help us to support the deficits; it should not BE the story for our students.
  9. Start with strengths of staff and the school community.  Are we embracing the strengths of the adults in the building?  Do we tap into the strengths of parents and families in the school community? Once we know a child’s strength, how can we use the aligned strengths in our school community to help?
  10. Share the stories.  Share the stories of strength in your classroom and schools.  When you look for the bright spots and you share these beyond the classroom walls, you shift the culture of the school.

We find what we are looking for. When we start with strengths, we change the lens we look through and see the strengths in our students more than the deficits. When we change this lens, we change the stories of our students at school.  For many, this change in story can be life changing.

In BC, we have many schools that are already making this shift and we have a golden opportunity to create more space for us to bring in the strengths. This list is just a start.  If you have other ideas, please write them in the section below.  Hopefully, I can tap into YOUR strengths which will help me and others through the stories and the comments you share.

Click here to access a FORCE society “In The Know” series webinar on the topic.

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Start With Strengths: Change the Lens. Change the Story.

CC Image from https://flic.kr/p/4BDBPS

CC Image from https://flic.kr/p/4BDBPS

How many of our students have strengths that either go unnoticed or unacknowledged in school?  When we discuss students, do we focus on their strengths and all they CAN do or their deficits and all they CANNOT do?  What are the stories of life at school for our students?  Are they all positive?

In my first year as an intermediate teacher and vice principal, I struggled to reach some students; I especially struggled to reach a student named Dom. After about 6 weeks of trying, I went to my principal, Roxanne Watson, and asked for help.  I sat with her and listed off all the things he could NOT and would NOT do.  After about 8 examples of things he could not do, she said, “Stop, tell me what he is GOOD at.”  That question changed not only who I was as an educator but also as a person.  I did not have an answer to the question.  After 6 weeks, I sadly could not state a strength of a student I had more contact with than anyone else.  In the 6+ weeks that followed, we worked to embrace the strengths within Dom and that changed everything.  We tapped into his strength as a First Nation drummer and singer and Dom became a leader in the class, the community and the school (please read Dom’s full story here).  When we changed the lens, we changed the story.

I recently interviewed Amy, a student at my wife’s dance studio.  Amy is one of the top dancers in the Fraser Valley, a dedicated leader in the studio, and a devoted student-teacher that helps develop dance in the younger students.  Passion for dance and the arts runs through her veins and she has such presence on the stage and in the studio.  Yet, when I asked her what her life was at school compared to the studio, she said

When I am at the studio, I am confident and get to be the real me.  At school, well… I am not good at school.  I just try to blend in… just be invisible.

This student, who can passionately perform in front of 600 people in a theatre and who consistently places at or near the top in every dance competition she enters… when at school, tries to be invisible.   Amy went on to say that hardly anybody knows her creative side and she rarely gets to share who she is at school. She did, however, get to do this with Mr. C.  Mr. C embraced her strengths in the arts as Amy was able to demonstrate her learning through creating – some through music and poetry and others through writing and sketching. She flourished in his class (and was rarely absent).  There were tests and quizzes but there was so much flexibility in how the student could learn and show their learning that Amy felt that she COULD do well in his class. She felt like Mr. C was truly interested in who she was as a person and because of that, she was completely engaged in his class.

You see, our students are building stories of who they are right now.  What we say to them and about them creates part of their story of who they are in school and beyond.  The conditions we create for them in schools affects who they are.  With this in mind, what stories are we helping to create in schools?  Are we helping to create positive stories that we can build upon or do we sometimes unintentionally work to create negative stories that cause our students to be disengaged from school?

During my years at Brookswood Secondary, Kent Elementary as well as my short time at James Hill Elementary, I have witnessed the power that occurs when we start with strengths.  When we create the conditions for children to use their strengths at school… they rise, they lead, and they flourish.  I am not saying we ignore the deficits; we definitely need to work to support the areas of struggle.  Struggle can be a good thing.  What we must do first, though, is start with strengths.  Too often, when a child struggles in school, we look at all the ways that he/she needs support in the areas of weakness… yet we fail to focus on using the “bright spots” or strengths.  Appreciative inquiry is a great place to start when discussing our students; ask questions like “what is working well?  when does he/she flourish? what strength can be tapped?”.  Through  my work with some wonderful students, staff, and families, I have seen the change that occurs when the first question is “what is he/she good at”?  I have seen a child that has severe anxiety with academics lead by reading to kindergarten students in the library each morning.  I have seen a child with significant behaviour challenges lead our tech crew by setting up and maintaining sound and tech equipment in the school.  I have seen students who could not be on the playground without engaging in conflict become a “coach” for primary students in the areas of dance and tumbling.  There is ALWAYS a strength within a child… when we take the time to find it and embrace it at school, the story changes.

We find what we are looking for. What we look for gets bigger and we observe it more often.  Teaching (and parenting) is a very difficult job.  There are days when I look back on my day and disappointingly wonder if I even said a handful of positive things to my kids and students.  Of course we need to continually challenge our kids to try new things (and make errors) and expand their comfort zones; we must continue to embrace the struggle and provide effective ongoing feedback for growth.  However, we need to seek out those strengths more often.  Julie Collette, of the Force Society and Kelty Mental Health said to me, “notice what we are noticing”.  We need to reflect and ask questions like: What are we focusing on?  When we interact and assess our students, is there a balance of strengths and deficits?  Are there structures in schools that allow some students to share their strengths but hinder others?  We need to shift our lens… start to reflect 0n what we are looking for and start to look for the strengths within ourselves and our students.

My challenge to myself and to all of us is to start with one child in our class/school (or our own child) and make an effort to find that strength and work to use it more often in schools.  Create assignments and learning opportunities that not only get students to do what we need them to do but also provide the opportunity for them to share who they are.

When we start with strengths, we change our lens… and by doing this, we change the story for many of our students at school.

I would love to hear more examples and stories of educators and families that have embraced the strengths of their children/students.  Please share those bright spots!

I recently had the honour of presenting a webinar for the Force Society for Kids’ Mental Health as well as a keynote for educators in North Central BC on this topic.  You can find a September regional viewing session close to you here or view the 60 minute webinar presentation on your own here.  You can also view 2 sets of slides below:

 

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How Does School Choice Impact Our Neighbourhood Schools?

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo by Nicola Jones: http://flickr.com/photos/photomequickbooth/2870985192/

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo by Nicola Jones: http://flickr.com/photos/photomequickbooth/2870985192/

As an educator and a parent of three year-olds, I often get asked the question, “where are you going to send your kids to school?”.  This still tends to catch me by surprise and my response is always… “the one down the road”.  This often leads to another series of questions like “you’re NOT sending them to _____?” or “really? you think that is a good school?”.  Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague that lives nearby and when I responded with “the school right near our house”, she was so relieved as she said that, as a parent, she was feeling so much pressure to choose to drive her children to another school outside her neighbourhood and that by “just” having her children attend her neighbourhood school, she was doing them a disservice.

These conversations lead me to ask, “when did we start thinking that schools in our own neighbourhoods were not ‘good enough’?”  When did we think that going to school with kids in our neighbourhood was only an option if you could not (or do not) choose to go to another school?

Choice is a form of power and I completely understand how parents want the power to choose what we feel is best for our children.  I also know that we want our children engaged in school and when a specialized program across town can offer this, it because an enticing option.  I am concerned, though, about our neighbourhood schools.  I am concerned about our communities.  What impact does school choice have on the health of our communities if some or many of the children and youth do not attend school there?  If our children spend the majority of time outside of our communities, will they have as much pride and ownership over our communities?

I don’t like to romanticize the past but I will for a moment.  I grew up in a small town where we had only one option and that was to attend Coquihalla Elementary.  Was it a great school?  Absolutely.  Were there issues there?  Absolutely.  The school was the hub of the neighbourhood.  If there was an event, every kid in the community was involved and people took pride in the community.   There was no statements said to my parents like “wow, you are just going to send him to that school?”.  The best part of it all for me was that all my friends and every kid down the road went to school there.

One thing I have heard people say to me is that “our neighbourhood school has so many troubled families and kids… I want my child to be in a less stressful environment.”  I get that and I can respect that; however, these same troubled families and children are in our communities… they are OUR children too.  At the far end of the spectrum, the impacts of decisions like this can be seen in many neighbourhoods in the US (and some in Canada) in which many people with money and access choose to drive their child to a different school… and the community school becomes a school with mostly families with high financial (and often other) stressors.  This can lead (and has led) to a large inequity of educational programs and opportunities for students (just google the debate on charter schools and vouchers in the US).

I understand there are situations in which a school cannot provide a child with the services he/she needs and the district and families can choose to transport the child to a different school to access more services.  I also know that there are some children for whom the current structures and education system does not work.  I can completely respect that as some students have a very difficult time experiencing success at school without options for extra services and more flexible environments.

School choice and market theory in education seem to be a solution many districts are forced to provide.  If they do not provide this, families can (and do) opt to leave the district and, on a large scale, can a significant impact on the financial well being of the district.   The BC Ministry of Education promotes school options for parents but, to me, this seems like a slippery slope.  In a recent conversation with admin colleagues from different schools, it was stated, “it’s like we have ended up competing with each other… and families seem to be always seeking a ‘better’ school to try.”  To provide what some families want, many districts have created specialized schools and academies to try to attract students (and beat out other schools/districts in the competition for students).  By doing this, neighbourhood schools often lose students and staff with strengths in certain areas.  For example, if we have a school that specialized in music education, they will attract many students and teachers with strengths in music.  How does this impact the music programs in other schools?  How does this impact the music education of the students who cannot access the specialized school?  If we have a school that specializes in trades and it attracts those with interests in trades, how does this impact the trades programs of our neighbourhood schools?  There are some that state that providing school choice is a key strategy to better meet the needs of all learners as they can access more specialized programs and become more engaged as their education will be tied more to their interests.  However, when we look beyond the surface, if not ALL students can be provided with this access, how does this impact our neighbourhood schools?  Do our community schools become schools for those who do not choose other schools or for those who cannot access the programs at other schools? Can we do both? Can we have specialized programs in some schools AND maintain effective options for students within our neighbourhood schools?

I am not blaming school districts for providing school choice as I think they have been forced to try to compete with each other for students and left with having to offer school choice as they try to service the needs of the families within their catchments (I cannot imagine the ongoing dilemmas faced by superintendents and boards of education).  I also recognize that sometimes this competition has led to innovations within the schools and districts (although I would argue that if we spent more time collaborating than competing, innovation could be even higher).   I also do not blame, nor do I have anything against, parents who choose other schools and try to provide the best education for their child.  I do think, however, that we are on a path that is hard to stop and this worries me about the future of our neighbourhood schools.  I realize some parents do a ton of research on schools; there are also some that make choices about schools based on test scores, rankings, neighbourhood incomes, school structures, and reputations without ever having set foot in the schools within our own neighbourhoods.  School choice is everywhere in BC (apart from some rural districts) and North America so I am not trying to challenge every school district in the western world.  My questions and concerns about school choice is a concern not about districts and people but about what long term impact this might have on our schools down the road.  Once we have opened the gates to market theory in education and more and more school choice, academies, and specialized schools, how can we possibly go back?  So if school choice is here to stay, then how do we work to provide effective opportunities in our neighbourhood schools so they are not just the default option?  How do we provide equitable access to choice schools?

Many families (and voters) want the ability to choose the best education for their child.  School districts have a role to listen to their communities. But what long term effect does driving our children outside of their communities have on our neighbourhood schools and our communities as a whole? 

I have stated some of my opinions but I also wonder if I am being a traditionalist here?  Will my views change in the coming years?  Has this school choice bus already left the garage?  Have we already moved beyond the idea of  a “neighbourhood school”?  Am I participating in school choice as I choose to send my kids to the school closest to where we live?  Many of us commute to work and are often more connected to people outside of our communities (through work and social media)… so am I putting too much emphasis on community?

I don’t know the answer to these questions and I do not have children currently in the school system but I do know that, in a few years, I will proudly send my kids to the same school as our neighbour’s kids attended… the school down the road.

What are your thoughts?

Note: in my Master’s of Educational Leadership program at the University of British Columbia, we were always challenged and encouraged to reflect upon current trends in western education; market theory/school choice was one topic that was continually critiqued and discussed. For a more academic post I wrote  in 2011 on school choice, click here

@chriswejr

 

 

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