Archive for category Parent Engagement

Looking Forward With Excitement; Looking Back With Pride

Walking on, looking back with pride.

Walking on, looking back with pride.

Pardon the delay of this post. It was originally written a week ago but the flu hit our family and it never got posted.

As I begin the next exciting journey of my career with the honour of being the principal of James Hill Elementary in the Langley School District, I have had many moments of excitement as well as many that have caused me to pause and reflect on my time at Kent.  Prior to the final week at Kent, I found myself looking back with a critical eye – looking for all the things I could have or should have done differently.  Maybe this was because I was handing my “stuff” over to the next principal, maybe it was because I was struggling with leaving a school and community I love, or maybe it was just me reflecting on how I need to continue to grow as an educator… but I think this caused a bit of a shadow over the many truly wonderful things I was privileged to be a part of at Kent.  After talking to a great friend and teacher at Kent, Stacey Garrioch, my sadness, nervousness, and minor regrets began to turn into happiness and pride.

I then made a list of the positive (major) moments, ideas, and changes that occurred during my time at Kent.  I have written about many of these in my blog before (linked below) but as I add closure to my journey at Kent, I wanted to describe the proud moments and changes that stick out to me and pay tribute to the efforts of the staff, students, and community of Kent Elementary and the Fraser-Cascade School District.  Please note that these changes were not my doing; these changes often arose from an individual or group on staff or in the community and I just helped to make the change a reality.

  1. Ending awards  This conversation began prior to my arrival at Kent but I was honoured to be part of the final decision to move away from student of the month and year-end awards. Rather than award a select few students for strengths in which we chose to be the most important, we decided to honour each child at one point during the year for the strengths and interests they brought to our school. Our year end ceremony moved from an awards ceremony, in which often only parents of award winners attended, to a grade 6 honouring ceremony in which our gym was packed as each child had family members there to support him/her.  Death of An Awards Ceremony and Rethinking Awards.
  2. Moving away from rewards and punishment  This is another conversation that was initiated prior to my arrival but I was proud to be part of its evolution.  We moved away from sticker charts and behaviour prizes to instead place emphasis on students doing the right thing… just because it is the right thing to do.  When negative behaviours arose we placed the focus on determining the lagging skills, putting supports in place to teach/coach the lagging skills, providing opportunities for restitution, and working to ensure their is a positive sense of belonging. In the past few months, the school has also created a team to implement self-regulation strategies into a few classrooms. My Issue With Rewards, Creating the Conditions: Student DisciplineThey Need Teaching – Not Punishment, and Movement Is Not A Reward.
  3. Focusing on student interests, strengths and passions  Too often we place all the emphasis on the deficits of our students and staff.  The previous principal of Kent, Roxanne Watson, helped to show me the powerful shift that occurs when we start with strengths.  One of the successful initiatives that we have had at Kent for the past 6 years is the Choices Program that provides the opportunity for teachers to teach in an area of their passion and for students to choose to learn in an area of interest or passion.  Kent has a tradition of strong athletics, music, Aboriginal culture with dedicated staff that support this each year. Honouring A Student’s Strength: The Story of Daniel and Giving Students Choices
  4. Putting a focus on outdoor play   It started with a group of teachers working together to create a beautiful garden in the back field.  Parents then built a sandbox.  We then built a hill!  All of these provide the students with so many more opportunities to be inquisitive and active in the outdoors. The Power of Outdoor Play: We Built A Hill.
  5. Making the school library (and the teacher-librarian) a priority  Kent School has shown me the impact a passionate teacher-librarian and well-designed library can have on literacy (not just skill but, more importantly, a love of stories and reading).  In addition to literacy as is traditionally defined, a teacher-librarian can be a leader in the areas of research, education technology, inquiry and professional learning.  The staff at Kent have also shown me that we do not need pizza parties, prizes, nor points to encourage kids to read. Creating the Conditions: A Love of Reading.
  6. Fostering a partnership with our First Nation Communities  Although Kent School has a effective relationships with a number of the First Nation communities, the working relationship with Seabird Island is one that should be a model for others to follow. The Seabird Education committee consists of band leaders who are passionate about creating positive change and working to ensure all children get the best education possible.  The admin and (passionate) FN Support Worker met with the education committee four times a year (in addition to other less formal meetings) in which we discussed evidence and actions that could help the students.   The education committee supported and challenged Kent School in ways that created change that benefited not only First Nation students, but also all the students.  This was REAL collaboration with REAL trust in which there was a dynamic tension that allowed for intellectual collisions to help move us forward.  We have a long way to go to ensure more success of our Aboriginal students in BC but Seabird Island and Fraser-Cascade have made significant gains in this area.  Seabird Education Committee: Learning Together
  7. Increasing parent communication with technology  A key belief of mine is that in order to best communicate with families, we need to meet them where they are.  At Kent, we moved beyond the paper newsletter to include more frequent information (that can initiate 2-way dialogue) sent out in our blogs, Facebook Page, Twitter feed, Remind101 (SMS), Flickr, YouTube, etc to create a variety of ways to share the wonderful things that happen at the school. Using Tech To Meet Parents Where They Are, Parent Communication: To vs WITH, and Your School Needs a Facebook Page
  8. Shifting the focus away from grades  This is not as significant of a jump at an elementary school as it is at a high school; however, a focus for our school has been to put less emphasis on the grade and much more emphasis on growth minsdset with descriptive feedback, success criteria, and clear learning intentions. This has helped to create better evidence of learning, decrease anxiety, and increase confidence. 6 Big Ideas of Assessment Practices
  9. Continuing to make inclusion a priority  This was nothing new for Kent School as we just continued down the path that was set in motion long before I arrived.  I was always proud to see all students fully included with support throughout the day; not only does this help the child with special needs but it also has a huge impact on all students as they learn communication skills, empathy, care, and (most importantly) friendship. Modeling and Teaching Our Kids to Reach Out and Include
  10. Creating time within the day for teachers to meet and tinker with ideas  We often say that collaboration is important and that we want innovative practices in schools yet we often fail to provide the structures to make these a priority.  In the past, I have tried some extra preps for innovation (“FedEx Preps”) but this year, we placed time in the schedule for innovation and collaboration. FedEx Prep: Time For Innovation, FedEx Prep: A Reflection, and Creating Time for Teachers To Tinker With Ideas
  11. Providing opportunities for student leaders  Student leadership is part of the culture at Kent School.  Whether it is through buddies, supervision, help with decisions, or running activities to improve the culture of the school, the students worked hard to lead. I recall someone asking what our “leadership program” was and, although I am sure there are some great programs out there, I responded with “we had dedicated teachers that model and encourage it… they create the conditions for students to lead.”  When we moved to a “Play First Lunch”, our staff, along with the grade 6 students, made sure that the younger students were supported in the transition.
  12. Increasing opportunities for students and staff to connect with others  Encouraging and supporting the use of technology and social media to connect and learn from others had a significant impact on our school.  Although we did provide release time for staff to visit other schools, the technology provided the opportunity for staff to connect with and learn from other passionate educators around the world.  I am proud of the many ideas that were ‘stolen’ from others to benefit students at Kent. :-) How Social Media is Changing Education
  13. Continuing to foster community partnerships  Being in a small town in which relationships are key, the school has a lengthy tradition of community partnerships.  Here are just a few examples:  twice a week before school, retired community members come in and read aloud to children (one-on-one) in the packed library;  students regularly work with the Fraser Valley Regional Librarian to help support stories and literacy; the choir regularly travels to community halls and care homes and performs for others; the grade 6s reach out to the care homes to play games, read, and do crafts with elders; the Kent athletes participate in tournaments and playdays with nearby First Nation communities of Seabird and Sts’ailes; students also attend celebrations such as Sto:lo New Year at Seabird each year; the high school leadership students are regular helpers at a variety of events we host; students and staff from the Agassiz Centre for Education buddy up with Kent students and also partner in a number of “Senior-Teen Luncheons” at the Legion Hall to promote generational relationships and understanding; then at Christmas, the school invites the community supporters in for a huge turkey dinner in our gym.  One of the most memorable (and heart-wrenching) moments was when our community embraced Lilee-Jean and her family as we welcomed this beautiful 2 year old in to spend her first and only day at school.  These community partnerships help the students learn far beyond the school walls. The Most Beautiful Morning Spent Dancing in the Rain
  14. Embedding Aboriginal ways and culture  Some key staff members have worked hard to make sure that Aboriginal education and knowledge of First Nation language and culture moves beyond being a “field trip”; culture, language, history, and story-telling all occur across the curriculum and throughout the day.  The idea of honouring a child for the gifts he/she brings to us is just part of what is done at Kent.
  15. Showing pride in who we are  We worked hard to honour children for who they are. We challenged and supported students to grow and excel and also remember the strengths and interests in their lives that help to create their identity.  One of the most memorable activities I have been a part of was Identity Day in which each child in the school did a project on themselves.  The conversations and learning that resulted from Identity Day spilled over into days and months following the event and helped to create better understanding and more confident learners in the school. I will always remember a luncheon/honouring ceremony when a cousin (a young adult) of one of the students nervously and emotionally spoke up; she said, “I went to Kent 8 years earlier… and struggled… and I am so proud to see my cousin go through Kent school and be PROUD of who she is”. Identity Day: Pride in Who We Are

I am so thankful for all the opportunities that were offered to me during my time at Kent School and the Fraser-Cascade School District.  Writing this post has shown me the awesome power of having a blog as I was able to look back and read about the learning moments that occurred during my journey.

As I finish the chapter that is my journey at Kent, I look back at powerful learning, close relationships and wonderful memories.  As I start my new chapter at James Hill, I look forward with excitement for the opportunity to create new learning, new relationships, and new memories. I have only been at James Hill a few times now and I am already learning so much from the staff. One of the greatest aspects of education is that, although we may have similar goals, things are done differently with a variety of perspectives in different communities and contexts.   Each school community has its own ‘ecosystem’ and these new perspectives and relationships inspire me and help me grow that much more.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of this community and write a completely new chapter of my life full of moments that will make me proud to be a principal and educator at James Hill.  Hopefully I can add a few small pieces to the already strong cultures and traditions at our school.

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My girls and I “looking forward” with excitement!

Thank you so much to the communities of Kent and James Hill along with the districts of Fraser-Cascade and Langley.

If you are interested, here is the video I created for the community of Kent School that was shown on the last day of school.

 

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What Message Are We Sending In Our First Contact With Parents?

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Peter Gerdes: http://flickr.com/photos/petergerdes/2905280530/

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Peter Gerdes: http://flickr.com/photos/petergerdes/2905280530/

As we start a new school year, one of the key aspects to consider is our relationships with the parents and families of our students.

In the past year, not only have I had reflective conversations with parents and educators about moving to a focus on communication WITH parents (rather than communication TO parents), but I have also discussed preschool and kindergarten beginnings with close friends as well as people in my family.  I have heard personal stories of parents being told by the school that their child is “not ready for school” or is “a constant problem”.  I have also heard of wonderful school:family relationships being built from the first moment they meet – teachers that have made that effort to focus on the positives, empathize, and truly listen to families as they share stories about their child.  The experiences of those that have been there and those that are nervous about getting there all say the same thing: the first contact that is made from teachers and the school to the families is crucial to developing a positive relationship.

These conversations lead me to reflect on the question, “What message are we sending in our first contact with parents?”

Are we:

  • sending a list of forms to be signed and rules to be followed?
  • calling to tell them about a negative incident with their child?
  • meeting them to do a formal assessment on their child (ie. kindergarten or preschool assessment)?
  • meeting to discuss the deficits their child has?
  • telling families how to parent?

OR

Are we:

  • sharing who we are and opening up a conversation about us and their child?
  • calling to share something positive or just talk about the child?
  • meeting them to just get to know the child and the family?
  • calling to share some noticed strengths and interests of the child?
  • developing a relationship in which there is open communication between the school and the family?
  • determining the best way to meet parents where they are for communication?
  • listening to families about their thoughts and feedback?
  • working to build trust?

I realize that in elementary school classrooms, in which students often have only one teacher, it is much easier to develop relationships with families.  This does not mean, however, that because I am a principal or a high school teacher and have more students that I do not try to develop positive relationships with our families at the start of the year. Each contact we make with our families is an opportunity to foster an important relationship.

For me, I will continue to learn from families and staff at Kent on how important this first contact is in forming relationships.  I will work hard to be visible and present with students and families and initiate positive dialogue around our students.  Many of our families come to school nervously “giving their baby” to us… and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, there is a lack of trust. We must work hard to build this trust through listening and engaging in positive, open conversations with our families.

I recall a parent whom I had a very positive relationship with say to me, “I remember the first time you walked up to me… I got nervous and thought – what did my kid do?”  She went on to state that when she went to school, it was NEVER a good thing when the principal called or approached.  Other parents chimed in saying how nervous they get when they see the school’s number on the call display.  This feedback from parents shows how we have to work to overcome the perception that a contact with the school is a result of a problem; we must have a balanced authentic communication of celebrations, sharing of information, and concerns.  This balanced communication all starts with the effort to create a positive first contact with parents.

As my friend Heidi Hass Gable reminds us, “although educators have often taught and worked with parents, students, and curricula for a number of years… we have to remember, that parents are new each year.  This year is often the first time they will have gone through this grade or subject.”  She encourages educators to be patient, empathetic and understanding to parents (she understands this can be challenging and also encourages parents to do the same for school staff).  So if we approach parents as new to us this year, what will be their first impression of our class/school? How will they feel after our first contact?

Although ongoing communication WITH parents/families helps the school, the students, and the families… it is also important that at this time of year, we work hard to lay the foundation and make that first communication with families a positive one. It is also a great opportunity to share our story of who we are as teachers and to find out who our students are as children. Let’s share our stories and listen to the stories of our families.  Let’s work together as parents and educators to make that first meeting or phone call a positive, effective one.

As this is an area that many of us continue to work on, if you have ideas to share, I would love to learn from you – please take a moment comment and share.

Related Posts:

Power of Positivity: The Friday 5 Positive Phone Calls

Building Trust With Parents

Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

Thank you to my wonderful sister, my friends, and staff for sharing their experiences with me and helping me grow as an educator and parent.

 

 

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The Power of Outdoor Play: We Built a Hill

Students celebrating on our hill.

Students celebrating on our hill.

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories.These are the moments when the world is made whole.”

Richard Louv

In the past year, we built a large hill on our back field for our students. To some, the idea was silly… but to most, including our students, the Kent Hill has been something that has helped encourage play and learning in more ways than we ever imagined.

It is no secret that staff and parents at Kent Elementary have strong views on the power of outdoor play and exploration. For a number of years, there have been different ideas and activities like a community garden, outdoor education at the local research station, nature walks, the building of a large outdoor sandbox, and class hikes to the rivers and lakes. In 2007, some teachers at Kent applied and received grants and worked with local university programs and engineering companies to design and build our beautiful garden.

Kent Elementary Garden

Kent Elementary Garden

Within the garden are paths, large rocks, and stumps for kids to play on. In addition, the teachers (particularly Ms. Trish Fushtey) went to great lengths to work with local artists to have each child design and build their own concrete and tile stepping stone for the paths. What we began to notice was that more children were playing in the garden creating their own games than were playing on the playground equipment. We also took note that students loved to play on a little hill that was covered by plants.

One staff meeting a few years ago, I showed the video “Born To Learn” with the intention of simply creating dialogue around education reform. This video led to a passionate conversation around outdoor play and a “long shot” idea of developing a large hill in the field was even thrown out there.

As the garden needs regular maintenance, we held a work bee last year and some dedicated parents came and helped a few teachers and students weed and prune. During this activity, a comment was made by Kathie Cardinal (a teacher very passionate about outdoor education), that we once threw around the idea of building a hill out here… and because of the excitement and dedication of our parent group, they responded with – WHY NOT?

This got the ball rolling on the design and creation of our own Kent Hill. Collin Johnson, a parent and local engineer, worked to research and design the hill with safe and child-oriented slopes. Wendy Clark, Teresa Stoeckly, and Amber Kafi (parents) also worked with Collin to hold meetings and tap into local resources to help create this hill at little to no cost. We took the minutes and designs, along with our WHY, to the Board and asked for permission to build. Although there were some questions, in May 2012, the idea for the Kent Hill was approved and last summer the hill was built and seeded. When the students returned to school in September, the Hill was built but fenced off as we needed the seed to grow. We told them that when the snow arrived in the winter, the PAC had purchased 50 Crazy Carpets that could be used for the hill… the excitement grew along with the grass.

Open for sledding!

Open for sledding!

Unfortunately, our winter was a warmer, wetter one but we did get one sprinkle of snowfall… just enough to move the fences and free the sledders! Normally we would have to wait until the ploughs came to clear our parking lot to create our snow hill; this time it was all ready to go with only a few centimeters (half-inch) of snow.

Following the muddy winter, we finally opened the hill. Of course the students were thrilled to be able to run and roll up and down the hill – the challenge became getting them back into the school shortly after the bell :-).

It is difficult to express in words how the hill has enhanced life at Kent. When I presented our highlights (including the story of the hill – see presentation slides below) to the Board, I shared some expected outcomes of the hill: increased outdoor play, excitement, wonder, health, fitness, and excitement. I also shared the outcomes that we didn’t foresee: regular learning on the hill, infusing the hill into physical education classes and sports day, buddy play (as both primary and intermediate students have access), using for sensory needs (ex. spinning, rolling, climbing), and student developed self-regulation strategies.

The benefits were numerous. Teachers at Kent worked with students to create brand new minor games that used the hill as a key component of their PE environment. Many students stated their favourite event in sports day involved the hill. The last two in the above list really showed how much students can teach us. When a student is a bit antsy in class, we often encourage them to go for a walk or run in the field. I was working with some students that were having a rough day (behaviour-wise) and they mentioned they were having a high energy day. I asked them if they would like to go for a run with me around the school and their response surprised me… they said, “actually, can we climb up and down the hill a few times?”. After we did this, I asked them what they liked about the hill to get some energy out and they responded, “we like digging our hands in and helping us to climb – feels like we are bears”. In the child’s mind, the students were being bears; in my mind, these students had shown me that the hill can be used as a way to help students self-regulate by using not just their legs but also their arms and creative minds. Not only did a “simple” hill create the conditions for more play and joy outdoors, it also helped our teachers enhance play in class and helped our students with some of the sensory diets and self-regulation needs.

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

In a fast-moving, light-flickering, and sound-blasting world, I think it is that much more important to help our students learn to ground themselves with nature. What this development did was show us how much students love playing in the outdoors and that a simple, low-cost hill can be a great first step to creating more of a highly beneficial natural play area in schools.

Please take 2 minutes and watch the video below that was shown for the Board about our Hill.

Special thank you to current and former staff for modeling and encouraging the value of outdoor play and wonder.

This would not have been possible without the relationships with our dedicated parent community. Thank you to the following people for making Kent Hill a reality:

  • Collin Johnson, Wendy Clark, Teresa Stoeckly, Amber Kafi of our PAC
  • Abby Contracting
  • Kafi Landscaping
  • Kafi Bobcat
  • Burden Propane
  • District of Kent
  • Dogwood Manor
  • Kel-Mor Enterprises
  • Strohmaier’s Excavating
  • Timberwood Excavating
  • Wedler Engineering
  • Bott Development
  • Timbro Contracting
  • School District 78

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Share Who You Are, Let People In

A family sharing a little bit of who they are… with me.

Sharing who we are and letting people in are so important to building trusting relationships with students, staff, family, and the community.

Yesterday, I was in my office gathering some things together after the bell had gone, when a kindergarten student, “K”, peered into my office and in the smallest,sweetest voice said, “Mr. Wejr, would you like to come and meet my dog?”  My first thought was that this was a child excited about her new dog and wanted to share it with people so I immediately (and excitedly, as I love dogs) said, “Sure!”

When I walked to the front of the school, not only was there a dog there waiting to meet me… but a BULLMASTIFF waiting to meet me!  Two years ago, we lost our beloved Ozzy to cancer.  This was such a challenging time for my wife and I as Ozzy was our life for so many years.  We still miss him every day and whenever I see a bullmastiff, my stomach fills with excitement and my mind fills with great memories of our big bear.

I said to K’s mom, “Oh my… a bullmastiff! My favourite breed in the world! Did you know this?”  She then let me know that she had walked with her dog to school to pick up K and there was a group of parents at the other end of the school.  When they saw the bullmastiff, they told her that she had to take her to meet Mr. Wejr!

When Ozzy was diagnosed with cancer, I was very emotional but I actually mentioned it at an assembly and shared much of his final months/days with people through social media.  As hard as it was, I let people in.  Staff reached out to me.  Students continually asked how Ozzy was doing and always were there for hugs.  When we lost Ozzy, inspired by words from my buddy George, I wrote a blog about losing our “little” guy and celebrating the life of Ozzy.  Staff and families of Kent School, along with many people online whom I have never met, read the post and reached out to me with empathy and care.

I think too often we feel that we should hide our personal stuff from work.  We hear (especially on social media), “keep the personal and professional separate”.   I know that we need not share ALL our personal stuff but what if I had not shared any of the love and struggles we shared with Oz?  What if I kept stories of who I am as a person outside of school completely private?  Would I still get moments like the one that happened yesterday?

I strongly believe that, as educators, we need to share who we are.  Put ourselves out there.  Let people in.  Be more vulnerable.

I don’t meant that we need to do this solely through social media and I don’t mean we need to just share our tough times.  We need to be comfortable with sharing more of our personal side – the moments of joy, sadness, success and challenge.  As a principal, there is nothing I love more that hanging out, playing and chatting with the students every recess and lunch. I get to share a little bit of who I am and I get to see a little more about who they are.  My students check out photos of my family on Instagram and constantly ask how they are doing.  I also really enjoy the informal dialogue with parents and staff at the end of the day.  I love it when a parent or staff member comes to tell me something about an event or topic which they know I can relate (ex. dogs, toddlers, books, sports).  When we do this, we humanize us.  We move from Mr. Wejr: the principal – to Mr. Wejr (or Chris): the person, the teacher, the husband and father, the sports fan… and the guy who would love to meet my dog.

When staff, students, and families see us for who we truly are, the relationships change… the conversations change… and the moments change.  

Thank you to K and her mom for taking some precious moments out of their time together to share a little bit of them in a moment with me… and their dog.

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Will My Child Be OK In A Split Class?

Nervous about split classes? It will be ok.
(CC) Image from http://flic.kr/p/4nNBEG

Each year, we set up classes and find that due to the way our enrolment numbers fall into place, we must create some split (or multigrade, combined) classes. Each year, we also have a high number of parents who are concerned about their child’s placement in a split class… particularly the upper grade of a split.

I truly appreciate the concerns that parents have as they often bring up very valid questions such as:

  • Why has my child been placed in a split class?
  • Will my child get challenged if they are the older grade in the split?
  • Will my child get the required support if they are the younger grader in the split (or the other side in which parents believe their child will get challenged more and develop faster if placed in this type of split)?
  • Will students in a straight grade class gain more learning than my child?
  • Will my child get bullied more in a split?
  • Will my child feel they have failed because they are back with the younger grade?
  • Will my child be provided with the same opportunities (field trips, projects, etc) in the split that are provided in the straight grade class?

As splits are inevitable every year (this year 60% of our classes are split classes), I feel it is important to share some key thoughts around this issue to ease some concerns of the parents.

There is much thought (and hours) put into the placement of students in classes.  At Kent, the teachers start this process in the last term of the year as they separate their students into two balanced groups (based on gender, present ability, needs, required support, etc).  Following this, the administration creates the first draft of classes and then presents this to the staff for feedback.  By the end of the year, students are placed in classes on a temporary basis as they will need to be switched based on enrolment in September (students and families are not notified of the placement as it is likely to change).  In the fall, the students and classes are shifted to make room for new students (and gaps left by students who have moved over the summer).  Teachers are again given the classes to provide feedback on class composition.  After all this, the classes are finally posted.  At Kent school, present academic ability is only one factor and students are NOT placed in a split based solely on this (ex. students with higher academic assessments are placed as the younger grade in a split). The Richmond School District writes:

Parents often ask how students are assigned to combined classes and what reasoning goes into deciding whether a student should be placed with older or younger students.  It is often assumed that the “brighter” students are placed with older children and those who are less able are placed with younger children.  This is not an effective way to compose classes and should not occur.

As you can see, placing students in classes to provide them with the best support is not an easy process nor is it an exact science but educators put in many hours to try to put students in the most appropriate learning environment.

The biggest and most valid parent concern is often about having a child’s needs met.  This SHOULD be the number one concern for parents regardless of whether their child is in a split or straight grade class.  The key is to meet with the teacher and discuss your concerns and then stay in contact with your child’s progress throughout the year.  As for not being challenged as an older child in a split, any teacher will tell you that within EVERY class, there is a span of 3+ years of development and teachers put in most of their effort planning and assessing at the students’ current levels.  John Goodlad’s research estimated that the typical straight grade class has a development span of 5 years and a split can have up to 6 years.   Research by John Hattie also states that the effect of multi-grade classrooms is almost zero (0.04).  Effective teachers always have a number of different lessons going on at the same time as they must differentiate to their students’ abilities and interests. As Rob Taylor writes in the BCTF magazine:

“Teaching the splits is different and no easy task, but the wide range of student abilities is really no different from any other classroom. Keep that in mind. Remember that your main focus is teaching students, not grades or outcomes…”

Students need to be supported in ANY class they are in and with this support, they will learn at the same rate regardless of being in a split or straight grade class.  As for research in this area, both the Vancouver School Board and the Richmond School District cite the work of Dr. Joel Gajadharsingh from the Department of Curriculum Studies from the University of Saskatchewan as he

“…completed a Canadian study on the effects of multi-age grouping or combined classes on student learning in 1991.  He found, using standardized tests, that students in combined classrooms did as well or better in the following academic areas: Math, Language, Science, Social Studies.  Using teacher-made tests or teacher-determined assessment strategies, he verified that B.C. students did as well or better in the above mentioned areas.  He also found that students in combined classes performed better than students in single grade classrooms in the following areas: independence, responsibility, study habits, and attitude toward school.” (click here to access more work from Dr.Gajadharsingh in the book “The Multi-Grade Classroom: Myth and Reality – A Canadian Study”).

As in a any classroom and/or learning environment, through the efforts of the teacher and the support of the school and parents, the students should get the support and challenge they need to grow as educational learners.

Another thing to think about is that we are in a system that, as Sir Ken Robinson states, separates students based on their date of manufacture and often nothing to do with their strengths and interests.  Some schools and parents are choosing to create more muti-grade classrooms (ex. some public/private schools as well as schools like Montessori and Waldorf – for a list of schools in Atlantic Canada encouraging multi-age classrooms, click here)  based on the idea that students can benefit of being placed based on their strengths and interests as well as potential benefits of peer mentoring, leadership, and the skills of independent learning and responsibility can be furthered developed.

Unfortunate social/emotional challenges like bullying and anxiety are present in many straight and split classes and these need to be dealt with immediately so students, families and schools can work together to develop skills to help lessen the impact on students.  In addition, at Kent we now work (thanks to parent feedback) to ensure that grade-peers often remain together for events. If there is a majority of students in a straight grade, then those students in the split need to have opportunities to attend field trips, participate in leadership opportunities, etc with the other class (ex. at Kent, all grade 3′s go to Fort Langley and our staff makes efforts to work together to make this happen).

Students are required to receive instruction based on the BC curriculum in any class they are placed. Therefore, many teachers will use groups and theme-based approaches to teach the concepts of two different curricula to students in a split class. In the areas of numeracy and literacy, teachers will differentiate the instruction to the developmental levels in the class.

The most important thing to remember is that relationships and communication are key.  If your child has an effective relationship with his/her teacher and there is effective (2-way) communication between the school and the home, your child should have a great year at school.

Remember, there are stories of  successes and struggles of students in every type of class.  You will meet parents and students who struggled in split and straight-grade class as well as those who experienced success. Regardless of which class your child is in, as a parent or family member, your concerns need to be heard.  I encourage you to meet with your child’s teacher to voice your concerns; the teacher and school staff can then work with you to move past these and ease any stress you may have over the placement of your child in a split class.

If you have any other ideas or comments on how to ease the concern for families of students in split classes, please leave it below.

More resources:

 

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Building Trust With Parents

LISTEN. CC photo from http://flic.kr/p/8wdXrR

At Kent School we meet with a few different parent groups throughout the year and always get helpful feedback on how we can improve things at for our students.

Today we had a First Nation Honouring Ceremony for our kindergarten and grade 1 students so prior to this event, we invited the parents to come in an hour early to discuss education at Kent School (we have created a few First Nation Parent Groups based on previous feedback from parents).  We were thrilled to have over half of our students’ parents come in early.

We started the discussion with examples of how most parents ARE already involved in their child’s education and how some are engaged as well as explaining the difference between involvement and engagement.  I then demonstrated all the ways that families can use technology to become either more informed or more engaged with the school.

As with most meetings, I feel the most important part is the dialogue.  I spoke about how, although I believe school-family communication is very important to student learning, this cannot be done effectively without trust.  We wanted to hear from the parents about how the school can work to build trust in families so they not only feel comfortable coming to the school but also confident that they can speak about their child and feel they have been heard.

After some table talk, we asked the parents to share their thoughts.

  • A father spoke up first and said, “it’s simple… the only thing I ask is that when I discuss my child, LISTEN.  I have been part of schools that have constantly told me what to do but never listened to what I had to say.” [in my opinion, in addition to listening I think we (as educators) need to seek out voices of those who generally do not speak up]
  • A mother spoke up and said, “We know what our child cannot do, we want to hear HOW he is learning and what he CAN do – we appreciate when schools do this on phone calls, meetings, report cards… kids also need to hear this – that they have strengths and areas they need to work on”.
  • A mother stated, “If the school has to tell us something concerning, it is much easier to hear when it is sandwiched between some positives.”
  • A mother discussed how her work affects her involvement, “I feel so disconnected with the school because I work.  I know teachers work all day so I don’t want to bother them in the evening.  I like the idea of having other ways to communicate with teachers so we do not interrupt their time away from school… this would really help me. That way, I can stay connected to my daughter’s school better at times that work for me and the teacher.  I WANT to be connected in person, but working full time makes it tough.”
  • A group of parents said the like receiving the positive phone calls and comments (see post about Friday 5 Positive phone calls)  so they know that just because the school number comes up on the call display, it does not mean it is a bad thing.

There are so many reasons why some parents do not feel they have a relationship with their child’s school.  Policies and directives cannot build trust with parents; however, relationships can.  This is where we need to start.  Build relationships by LISTENING to parents and ENGAGING in dialogue around their child’s learning.

Too often, the education system tells parents what to do or makes judgmental statements that further disengage parents.  We all know that working WITH parents to increase involvement enhances learning in children.  A few parents and families from Kent School have spoken up and provided feedback on how to build trust…

Are we listening? 

Thank you so much to the families that provided feedback; also thank you to our passionate First Nation Support Workers who continue to work so hard in helping our school build relationships with our families.

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Using Tech to Meet Parents Where They Are

Some of the many ways to connect with families.

At Kent we provide many opportunities for parents and families to stay informed and involved in their child’s education.  Nothing is better than face to face communication but many times this is not possible so I believe it is important to provide a variety of ways that parents and families can both receive information and engage in dialogue with the school using technology.

As I have described in the post “Parent Communication: TO vs WITH”, schools need to use technology to not only provide information TO parents but to also engage in conversations WITH parents around student learning.  Social media, in which parents can leave comments and questions, can be a great tool for this.

Below is a list of the many ways that we use technology at Kent School to try to engage and involve parents by meeting them where they are.  Following the list is a screencast of the many ways that parents can use our blog as a starting point to access the many ways to stay (or become more) informed and/or engaged.

PARENT INFORMATION AND DIALOGUE

  • Parent Info For Kent Elementary Facebook Page - many parents are already on Facebook so we need to ‘meet’ them there. For my belief on why “Your School Needs a Facebook Page” click here.
  • Good Things At Kent Blog – this is our school blog in which we share all the events and day-to-day occurrences at Kent School.  For the past 3 years we have done a “10 Good Things To Talk About” each Friday (thank you to Yrsa Jensen, SD36 for the idea) and this year we have moved this to a blog format so parents can access this through their mobile devices and also provide feedback through comments.
  • Email – the majority of our parents receive email of any information but many still like to receive the paper version too.  Parents can opt out of receiving paper format here.  Teachers also use email to keep parents informed of student learning.
  • Twitter – our school is on Twitter (@kentelemschool) and the same info that is on Facebook is on Twitter but it is just another way to receive the info or engage in dialogue with the school.  Some of our teachers are also now on Twitter. NOTE:  When something is posted on the blog, it automatically goes to our Facebook Page which is automatically linked to our Twitter account (so there is not much more work in having the same information available through a variety of means).
  • Text Messages (SMS) – our school provides the option for families to stay informed of important events via text messaging (Remind101).  This is not a way to engage in dialogue but only a way for parents to receive info.
  • School Website – a teacher and his students run the school website.  It is used for coding and problem-solving with the kids and as a way for teachers to showcase student projects and provide info on what is happening in their classes.  NOTE: The Fraser-Cascade School District is moving to a more user-friendly, standardized format for school websites/teacher blogs so stay tuned.
  • Library and Principal Blog – our teacher-librarian hosts her own blog here that describes all the learning that happens through our school library.  She also uses it as a way to promote community and family literacy.  I also encourage parents to subscribe and comment on my blogs around my philosophies of education.
  • Contact the principal – my cell phone is available for parents to use to contact me via calls or text messaging.  (Thanks to Chris Kennedy and Darcy Mullin for the encouragement). I am also available through email, my direct line, and Skype (for those parents who prefer “face to face” but are unable to come to the school.

OTHER USES OF TECHNOLOGY SHARED WITH FAMILIES

  • Student Blogs – our intermediate teachers use KidBlogs to encourage connected learning with their students.  Parents will be able to read and comment on their child’s blogs.
  • Animoto - each month, a video compilation of students is created, shown to the students, and sent to parents.  Click here for an example.  Students also create videos of field trips, etc using this program.
  • Flickr - photos of students and events are uploaded to Flickr and available to parents.
  • YouTube – messages and videos of students at Kent showcased here – often using a private link.
  • Google Docs – used for collaboration with students, staff, and parents
  • Google Calendar – school calendar is updated and posted.  My calendar is available online and posted outside my office.

Here is the screencast I posted on our school blog on how parents can access the aforementioned tools to stay involved and/or engaged with Kent School (sorry for the monotone but my wife kept signalling me to keep my voice low as we had 2 sleeping babies :-) )

Nothing is better than face-to-face communication so families are always encouraged to meet with their child’s teachers.  If this is not possible, or preferred, technology can be a great option for families to connect with their child’s school.  We are continuing to learn in this area so if you have any other recommendations or comments, please share them below.

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You’re Invited! Edcamp Fraser Valley – Dec 3

Last April I attended the best professional learning day of my career: Edcamp Vancouver (for more on my experience as an “edcamper”, please click here).  Following this experience, I knew we had to bring an “unconference” like this to the Fraser Valley so along with some other admin, teachers, and parents, we have organized Edcamp Fraser Valley for Saturday, December 3 at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge.

So what is Edcamp and why is it such an amazing learning experience? Grant Frend, one of the Edcamp FV organizers, describes it as:

One forum that enables educators [including students, parents, community] to engage in meaningful and relevant professional development is the Edcamp model.  What is Edcamp? Edcamp is organic, democratic, participant driven professional development for educators. There are no keynote presentations, there is no formal pre-set agenda, and participants set the course of the day.

My thoughts on Edcamp:

  • flattened hierarchies – voices from ALL people passionate about education can be heard rather than one expert and many listeners
  • participant driven – have a topic you want to learn more about – put up an idea and then join up with other interested people
  • all about conversation – the “empty vase” model of professional development does not exist at Edcamp -YOU drive the learning!
  • relationships – you get to meet new people that share areas of interest AND/OR you get to meet those people whom you have already connected with online
  • flexible schedule – the schedule is decided on the day and participants are encouraged to vote with their feet – they can decided to move to a different session at any time
  • networking sessions – there is much more time in between sessions to continue the dialogue or meet up with other participants to reflect on the sessions. Click here for the schedule for the day.
  • price is right – it is FREE! (unless you want lunch which is $5)

Here are some slides from David Wees (the educator who brought Edcamp to BC last year) that describe the Edcamp Vancouver model:

If you are a ANYBODY (students, parents, community members, trustees, educators, etc) interested in education in the Fraser Valley or beyond, come join us in Maple Ridge on December 3rd!

With the release of the BC Education Plan, this is a great opportunity to share and discuss the future of education in the province.  For more information and to register, please go to the Edcamp Fraser Valley website.  Join people already registered from the Frasey Valley, Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, Okanagan and Washing State!

Also, like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.  For an information sheet to distribute, click here. For more info, please contact me.

 

For a more in-depth talk on Edcamp, please watch the embedded video from Kristen Swanson:

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Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

Communication TO is not the same as WITH. photo from http://bit.ly/pvuhJa

As our school moves to attempt to add another stream of communication to parents via SMS (text messaging), I have been asked – “how many ways do we need to communicate with parents?”  Should parents not just try harder to stay informed of their child’s education?

My responses are twofold:

  1. We need to differentiate our parent communication so we meet families where they are.  Each family has a varied level of involvement and engagement due to time availability, access to technology, and ability to exchange in dialogue.  Some families have the social-cultural capital (non-financial social assets like time, education, confidence, etc) to engage in ongoing face-to-face dialogue with the principal, teachers and staff at their child’s school; others prefer to use technology (email, blog comments, Facebook, etc) to communicate while some families are content (or due to family circumstances, it is the only option) to receive information from the school.
  2. We need to be clear of the difference between communicating TO families and communicating WITH families.  There is a purpose for both but we need to be very clear that TO and WITH serve different needs for our families.  Communicating TO families is a way of broadcasting information while communicating WITH families is a way of exchanging in dialogue.

So with the understanding that we need to meet families where they are and we need to use a number of different tools to communicate both TO and WITH families, what are some ways we can do this?

COMMUNICATING TO – GETTING THE INFORMATION OUT THERE

  • newsletters
  • reports
  • announcements, newspaper articles and ads
  • emails, SMS
  • Website
  • Twitter feed
  • Blogs
  • Facebook Page

COMMUNICATING WITH – CREATING DIALOGUE

The key with parent communication is clarity of PURPOSE.  We cannot say that we communicate WITH parents effectively if we are not visible in the public and our technology does not encourage feedback and dialogue.  Technology is not a replacement for face-to-face dialogue but can be used in a way to increase the likelihood of these meetings through developing confidence and better school-family relationships.

Schools have traditionally worked to improve communication TO parents and families. In today’s system this is not enough. We, as educational leaders, need to increase dialogue and communication WITH families by not only making ourselves more visible but also by embracing the available social media tools to meet parents and families where they are.

 

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A Principal’s Map For Parent Involvement

I am pleased to once again have Sheila Stewart (@sheilaspeaking) write a guest post for The Wejr Board.  Sheila is one of my mentors on the topic of parent and family engagement in school.

Sheila’s perspectives and advice regarding parent involvement come from a variety of roles and experience in education and working with parents.  She is involved in local and provincial parent networks in Ontario, and she supports newcomer families with English language learning.  In the past 8 years, she has worked collaboratively with a number of principals and administrators to support parent involvement initiatives, consultations, and activities.  She recently presented to principal candidates on school councils and parent involvement.

A Principal’s Map for Parent Involvement* by Sheila Stewart

I think being a principal is an amazing and key role to have in education.  I also recognize the work load of principals—from managing the physical space of the school to the responsibilities they have to the school community—staff, students, and families. The responsibility of establishing parent involvement, outreach and communication strategies at the school will rest a large part on the principal as well.

From Davi Sommerfield http://bit.ly/orsLjF

Parent involvement has become a frequent topic of conversation in education lately with the many ways that it is analyzed, interpreted, and deliberated upon.  The visions for and expectations of parents in both their involvement in their own child’s education and in the broader context of school and community may also vary from district to district, and from stakeholder group to stakeholder group—each may want something different in what it looks like and in its outcomes.

So…where to start as new to the principal role, or new to a school?

From the system level (Ministry/Depart. of Ed./District/School Boards) the message may be that the kind of parent involvement to foster and focus on is that which increases student learning and/or specific “achievement” outcomes.  I am not sure there is a set of clear and certain strategies that can be used and measured, but not all should be at loss because of this and nor should parent involvement be dismissed.  I believe that the links with parents and families remain essential to supporting students.

The culture and climate of the school will become apparent quite quickly to a new administrator.  This is the context where a principal will need to navigate various avenues that are suitable to the parents and families of the school’s students.  It is important for principals to find a style that is appropriate to his or her school community, whether the school is large or small, urban or rural, elementary or secondary.  A principal who develops strong relationships with parents and parent groups, will have parents who are more likely to become involved in the school community, and this in turn will have a strong impact on the overall effectiveness and inclusiveness of the school.  The principal will be key in modelling and setting the appropriate positive tone and connections with parents.

As long as principals are familiar with their local policies and mandates regarding parent involvement and parent advisory groups, they should be able to create a suitable and flexible plan for the school community.  Parents will be diverse in the ways they want to be involved, and the best plan for parent involvement should honour this.  Policies and guidelines can be helpful, but there will always be realities to consider.

Before establishing a plan, a principal might want to consider the following:

  • Get to know the ways parents connect to the school currently (e.g. face to face, formal/informal, electronically, social media).
  • Take some time before moving forward with new plans—extra time may be needed to build relationships and trust to support changes you may want to make ahead.
  • Build on what is working well—lead through listening.
  • Help all stakeholders connect to the broader picture of education, while still maintaining that each student matters and has unique needs.
  • Create opportunities and spaces to understand and gain clarity about what parents need, what the comfort zones of involvement are currently, and what barriers exist.

A principal might also want to determine the following:

  • Are parents involved in authentic, engaging ways, or are they receiving mixed messages about the nature or pathway of their involvement?
  • Have parents been receiving information about the positive things and extra efforts that teachers/staff have been doing to support students and the school? (creates confidence and can inspire further support from parents)
  • Has the school demonstrated a welcoming approach and honoured the roles and expertise of parents in their child’s life and in the community?

Communication Comes First!

Regardless of the approach or plan, it will be important to establish clear communication plans and strategies—who, when, how, how often, what—between the school/principal and parents/community, between teachers and parents, and also the parent group with each other and the school’s parents.  Principals are ultimately responsible for school communications, so they need to be clear and strategic in all the various protocols that may be preferred by both teachers and parents. Steve Reifman also has a great list of suggestions on his blog, “9 reasons to communicate frequently with parents”.

It is also important that the school community is aware of how 2-way communications can occur.  This may involve a number of different ways, including electronic communication and/or social media.  Opportunity for 2-way communication often IS the parent engagement.  All else can flow from there, in a much more proactive and realistic way which may also reduce the need for conflict resolution.  On-going input and feedback from parents will also help inform a principal’s decision-making at the school.

Here is what it might look like as you proceed into the school year:

  • Parents who want to support from home will know that it is valued and will still have access to support and 2-way communication channels.
  • Parents who wish to help in the classroom and/or communicate with their child’s teacher will know when and how to do that.
  • Parents who are committed to and interested in the more structured and organized meetings and activities at the school will be valuable and vital for further connections and partnerships with families through shared leadership and outreach.
  • Parents who attend special events, read the school news and blogs will feel connected and will share the good news with others in the community.
  • Parents who cannot attend the school as often will know how to communicate with the school or teacher or parent group.

What is it all for?

Clear and understood channels for communication and an inclusive vision of the different way that parents will support kids should enhance the principal’s ability to facilitate partnerships and positive relationships within the school community that will ultimately support student experiences at the school.  Through various communication and involvement pathways, all parent participation can be valued.  As valued and trusted participants in education, it is more likely that parent involvement will benefit principal leadership, teacher support, and student learning, as well as contribute to an inclusive, vibrant school community.

I hope this framework of ideas is useful and leads to discovering more effective and practical strategies that can be shared further.

*Note: at Kent School, we have a goal of “Family Engagement” as we realize that the support systems of many of our students extend beyond the parents. The ideas from Sheila will be applied to our goal.

Thank you to Sheila Stewart for her efforts and thoughts with this post.  As always, comments and questions for Sheila and others are appreciated and encouraged.

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