The Wejr Board

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


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. 



We Find What We Look For In Our Students – So What Do We See?

CC Image by Ryan Haddad

CC Image adapted from Ryan Haddad

When we look at our students with struggles, what do we see? The following video is an incredible story of how a teacher/professor became so frustrated with a student for sleeping in his class… that he actually asked him why.

We find what we are looking for.  If we look and see a “sleeper” in class, we will see a student with no hope, no potential, and one that is as disengaged as it gets. However, if we look through a different lens, a lens of an inquiring mind, we may see there is untapped genius just waiting to come out.  Check out this must watch video:

This educator could have looked at this student as simply a sleeper and written him off like many others had before. Instead, he chose to go deeper and ask the important questions about what the behaviour was telling him and what actions were resulting in this behaviour.  When he did this, instead of looking for deficits, he found strength… he found passion.

Becuase he asked “why” and looked for this strength, he was able to work with this “sleeper” to create a game that changes lives. So many of us have been touched by the awful disease that is Alzheimers.  Michael Wesch was able to create the condition for his student, David Dechant, to flourish. Dechant and Wesch created a team of students who then worked with residents of the Meadowlark Hills continuing care retirement facility to create a game that would keep memories alive. The students listened, scanned old photos, read journals and diaries and used all of these to create a game for the residents – a game that would help them to remember for a brief moment their life with their significant other, their home, and the many stories that made them who they are. Had this teacher seen his student only for his deficits, this life changing use of technology would not have happened.

Watch the trailer for this life-changing game, “Falling Up – an Interactive Empathy Game” at the bottom of this post.

At our staff meeting this week, I shared these two videos.  I shared these videos because these capture my WHY of educational change. We need to continue to change education so students like David (“the sleeper”) no longer go through our education system learning all the things they cannot do and very few things they actually can do. We need to change so we can tap into the interests of our students, bring out their creative strengths, and use these to help them lead a worthwhile life. I recall as a high school teacher hearing parents tell their kids, “just get through school.. then you will be fine”. If we bring more of our students’ strengths into the school, not only will they “get through school”, they will have a positive identity as a learner and often flourish in an education that is more meaningful and relevant.

We find what we look for. What do YOU see in your students? Are you tapping into those strengths within?

Thank you to George Couros who recently wrote about this video in his great post, “Finding the Genius”.



Take the Lids Off Kids… and Watch ‘em Shine!

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

As I walk in and out of classrooms this week (the first week for our students with their 2015-16 teacher), I love seeing the “about me” activities. There is never an easier time to strike up conversations with kids than when they are sharing something about their culture, family, strengths, and interests.  The harder part is getting a word in with them and moving around to talk to more kids as so many love to share when this is the focus.

Last week we had Marika van Dommelen, from the Rick Hansen Foundation, come and speak to our kids about accessibility and inclusion. As a woman with spina bifida, she shared how, growing up, many doors were closed for her as she was told that she would never swim, never drive, never have kids, and never complete a “regular” education. Her family fought hard to keep these doors open for her as she said they focused on all that she COULD DO instead of what she could not do. Years later, she has proven everyone wrong and opened all those doors that were once closed by adults close to her as a child.

It was yet another reminder of how often we respond to a child’s struggles and, although unintended, possibly hold kids back from success in an area of strength. Chief Marilyn Gabriel of the Kwantlen First Nation recently said to our admin team,

“The role of our elders is to look for that gift in our children… and then work to develop and nurture this gift so they can become our artists, nurses, singers, and teachers.”

It is our job as teachers to not only work to help areas of student struggle but also work to bring out the gifts and strengths that lie within.

Kids flourish when they are given the chance to work in an area of strength. They rise up when asked to lead. Yet, when a child is misbehaving, our first reaction is often to close the doors… to put a lid on the student. We take away “privileges” that are possible strengths like PE, play time at recess, extra-curricular activities, and helping out in other classes. Of course, there must be (logical) consequences for misbehaviours but maybe we aren’t looking at the bigger picture or maybe we are looking through the wrong lens. What if there were consequences for behaviours and ALSO the opportunity for students to lead in areas of strength? What if a child’s identity was able to positively shift based on the opportunity to work in an area of strength?

I have seen this over and over again – when kids are placed in leadership roles in a school, they always rise up.  Students with “behaviour problems” become our tech crew, our big buddies, our gardeners, and our own “Mr. Muscles’ Moving Company”. Their identity as a student changes. They no longer see themselves as a “problem” but instead see themselves as worthy and even a positive leader.

If a child is struggling, don’t close the doors and take their strengths away. Schedule time in each day/week for students to be able to use their strengths in such a way that their behaviour has no impact on whether or not they get to do this important leadership work.

As educators and parents, it IS our job to bring out what is within… so the question is: what are we bringing out? This year, let’s work to bring out the strengths in our students. Take the lids off kids… and watch em shine!


Through a Child’s Eyes… It Was the Best Day Ever

IMG_0644As a parent of twin four-year-olds and a principal of an elementary school, there are times when I look back with disappointment in the way I responded impatiently or somewhat disrespectfully to my kids and/or students. As I lay calmly in bed later at night, I think, “why did I respond like that? It really wasn’t a big deal, but I made it into a big deal simply due to frustration. Why can’t be better at…”

We can be so critical of ourselves. I see my wife at home as well as some staff members at school who are often very hard on themselves when reflecting on their day spent with kids. It is so easy for us to see the negatives… to see all that went wrong in a day. I am not saying it isn’t important to look back with a critical eye but far too often the negatives become the focus.

I recall observing a teacher do a fantastic science lesson that had students moving, engaging with others, reflecting, and creating. Kids loved it! When I asked the teacher how she thought it went, she listed off all the things that went wrong in her mind. That is far from what I saw. What we see depends on what we look for. If we look for the positives and strengths, we will find them; unfortunately, we too often look for all the problems. We need to see both but we also need to do a better job of seeing the strengths.

A few months ago, I was away for a few days and I texted my wife and asked how the day was. She said that our girls had a really rough day filled with meltdowns, tears, fights, and frustration. I felt for her as I can only imagine how hard it is for my wife to run her business and look after twin preschoolers by herself… especially during a day full of meltdowns and tears. The interesting thing was that when I Facetimed my girls at bedtime, it was a very different story of the day.  They eagerly told me they went for a bike ride, they swam, they baked cookies, they read stories… and they told me it was “The Best. Day. Ever!!!”.

Simple moments that we may take for granted can be important memories for our kids. I need to remind myself to take the time to look back with a more positive lens so we, as adults, can also smile at these moments. We know we will look back years from now and smile… the challenge is to do this now.

Teaching is incredibly difficult. Parenting is incredibly difficult. But these are the best “jobs” in the world… because, as teachers and parents, we have the power and the opportunity to possibly make a child’s day “the best day ever”.

To all the educators and parents/families out there, have a wonderful school year and here’s to making many days the “best day ever”.

Thank you to our Superintendent, Suzanne Hoffman, for reminding me of this by showing the following film at our summer admin meeting. Take 4 minutes and watch this powerful short film, “To A Child, Love is Spelled T-I-M-E“. #grabthekleenex


10 Ways to Determine the Strengths of Our Students

The job of an educator... CC image from

The job of an educator… CC image from

It is no secret that I am a big believer in embracing the power of a strength-based philosophy in education. I have written about the why and how, but the question that comes up in workshops is: how do I determine the strengths of my students?

An important activity is for students to understand that each and every one of them has strengths.  These can come in the form of activities (ex. dance, hockey, math, etc) and in the form of character strengths. It is also important to share what these strengths could look like in each student; strengths are not something that a student needs to be the best at but more about personal skills, qualities, traits and virtues that students have developed.  For a poster of 24 character strengths (developed by Dr. Martin Seligman) click here.  This poster can be used as a way for students to choose character strengths that may represent them.  For middle and high school students, I recommend watching the short film “The Butterfly Circus” as a way to lead to deeper dialogue on the view that every person has strengths and it depends on the perspective we choose.

Through the work of many passionate educators whom I have had the chance to work and/or learn with (in schools as well as online and in workshops), I have come across the following ideas:

  1. “All About Me” Activities – These are common in many classes and provide students with the opportunity to share a bit about who they are through a visual arts or writing process.
    • The Identity Tree – family and friends make up the roots, interests and strengths make up the trunk and character strengths/virtues make up the leaves

      Identity Trees

      Identity Trees at James Hill Elementary

    • Student Identity Crest – include family, culture, strengths and interests
    • Presentation – each student creates a slide/poster that includes important images and words of strengths and interests.
    • All About Me Book – often used for students with special needs but is something that can be used for all students.  Some of the students at our school have been doing this with the “Book Creator” app on the iPad.
    • Movies – some of our students have used iMovie to share a bit about themselves to share with peers and educators in the school.
  2. Class Survey – use a paper survey, a google form, or other online surveys (with permission) to ask questions about strengths and interests in and out of school.  You can also survey family members to provide thoughts about the student.  This would be great to be included in a student’s file.
  3. Shared Stories – through prompts, students can share stories of themselves that reveal strengths.
    • “What makes your heart sing?”
    • If I had a day to help someone/something I would…
    • I was most proud of myself when I…
  4. “Who Am I?” Flowchart – I came across the flowchart created by Leyton Schnellert (2011) and recreated it in the image below:

    Wh Are The Students? created by Leyton Schnellert (2011)

    Who Are The Students? created by Leyton Schnellert (2011)

  5. Spend Time With A Student – A 2×10 strategy can be done for students who are struggling but can also be used as a way to get to know any student. Spend 2 minutes a day for 10 days straight having a natural conversation with a student. Find out what brings out the smile and move deeper in the following days. Other teachers I know have lunch (or “tea”) with one or two students each week engaging in natural dialogue.  Something as simple as spending quality time can have a lasting impact on a child and open up our eyes to their lives beyond school.
  6. Identity Day – Although this is generally done as a school-wide event, it can also be done within a class.  During Identity Day, students plan, prepare and share a presentation about themselves.  They can present on a strength, an interest, their family, culture… anything that represents who they are.  I have been involved in two school-wide Identity Days and it is a great way for students and staff to better connect with each other on strengths and interests.  For a description of Identity Day, click here. For resources that can help you run an Identity Day click here.
  7. Create Space for Strengths to be Revealed – More and more teachers are providing time each week for students to explore and create in areas of strength and interest.  Ideas like 20% Time, Genius Hour, and Innovation Days provide opportunities for students to showcase and bring out their strengths.
  8. Strengths Chats – For educators struggling to find the strengths in one or two students, Kathy Cox has developed a strengths grid that can be used to frame individual conversations with students (called “strengths chats”).  She has divided strengths into social, academic, athletic, artistic, cultural/spiritual, and mechanical. You can view the strengths grid in her article here.
  9. Observe – Take the time to watch and listen to your students. Ask the right questions. Instead of asking “how was your weekend?”, ask “what was good about this weekend?” or be like Dora and ask “what was your favourite part?” :-).  Create space in the lessons for students to share stories that reveal skills, traits, and virtues. You can also ask family members and friends to share what they feel a student’s strengths are.  In elementary, watch a child during choice times and recess.
  10. Ask Adults – If you are struggling to see the strengths within a student, check with a former teacher, coach, family member who has observed the student in his/her element doing something that helped them to flourish in that moment. If a student had success with a former teacher, tap into this!

For the vast majority of our students, it is not difficult to create the conditions for strengths to be revealed.  The challenge is often to create ways for these student strengths to be used more often within the school. For some ideas to get you started on including the strengths of students, click here. For some of our students, though, life has been a series of challenges and they often hesitate to open up to let us in.  For students with years of struggle, the fact that they come to school most days can show a real strength in resiliency, determination, or courage so this can be a starting point to embracing character strengths.

Some may be overwhelmed with the thought of trying to determine the strengths of ALL student (some high school teachers teach 200+ students during the week); my recommendation is to start with one student… use some of the aforementioned strategies to determine the strengths of one child and build from there.  The role of the principal is critical as well as they too must be involved in modeling and looking through the strength-based lens to impact school culture beyond the classrooms.

I realize many teachers already do some or many of these ideas and some do much more. I would love to hear and learn more… how do you determine the strengths of your students?

Click here for an archive of a great Edcamp35 conversation on embracing the strengths of students.


Are We Stealing Images?

Many educators, artists, and writers work hard to create slides and images that can be used to spread ideas and initiate important dialogue.  Many people also share their work on the internet through a variety of methods.  This is important as the sharing of ideas can result in “intellectual collisions” (C. Christensen) that can not only create some change but also improve upon ideas once they have been shared.

One thing I have noticed is that many of us share and use this work without reference to the original creator.  When we share an image (or a quote) in a tweet, and we do not give a reference to the artist or author, are we are “stealing” images?

I realize we may not be intentionally stealing images but just because something is on google images or Flickr (or the internet, in general), it does not mean they can be shared without reference.  Many times, they cannot be shared or used AT ALL unless there is a direct link to the original piece that included the work.  Check out this post by Canadian photographer Francis Vachon “10 bogus excuses that people use when they steal a photo from the Internet” for more information.  I used an image from a company on my blog a few years ago and I did not link the image correctly to their site.  They contacted me and respectfully asked that I link to their site; luckily the company used it as a teaching experience (they acknowledged that I did everything right except the image link) and I was able to learn from it.

I have seen the great work from people like Krissy Venosdale, John Spencer, and Bill Ferriter shared without reference and it often appears that the tweeter or blogger has actually created the image. Here are some examples I have seen recently:

CC Image from Venspired

CC Image from Venspired

This is the work of Krissy Venosdale and she has made this available through Creative Commons. I have seen her work shared many times and, unfortunately, usually without attribution.  Worse, I have seen posters and images created with the same message and phrases with NO reference to the original work.  Krissy is amazing; if you ask her if you can use her designs and work, she often helps you to do this.  She even created a James Hill version of this poster for us!

CC Image from Bill Ferriter

CC Image from Bill Ferriter

The above slide is from my friend Bill Ferriter.  Bill creates some wonderful slides that always initiate great dialogue.  I have used his slides in presentations, workshops, and staff meetings as Bill shares with Creative Commons permission.  On the slides or in tweets, I attribute his work and often just point to his Flickr site where the image is located.  This is another image that I have seen shared over and over again; I have even seen it attributed to someone else!

I strongly believe that very few of us intentionally use images as if they are our own; however, as educators, we all need to do our best to model the appropriate use of images to our students.  If you want to share an image and are unsure of the reference, ask. Creative Commons is all about sharing; If you use or share images, use Creative Commons images on Flickr and provide the correct attribution.  At the least, do not share an image or quote and present it as if it is the work from you.  If you see an image tweeted without attribution, hold off on the retweet and ask the tweeter where the original image is from (or who created it).

Much like we know not to use the words from books as if they are our own (plagiarism), we should know not to use images from others as if they are our own.  People work hard to create powerful images to drive conversation. We can often share this work, but we must make sure it is referenced properly.  I have made many mistakes of not referencing and using Creative Commons images, but I continually learn in this new world of sharing (I likely still make many mistakes in this area and have even more questions). Hopefully, we can navigate this new world of digital sharing and work together to model appropriate practice and hesitate before downloading and sharing an image without permission.

Some sites to consider using for images:


Are We Marking Assignments or Assessing Learning?

Good ole spreadsheets.

CC Image from Joseph Thibault

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?


Let’s Rethink “Kindergarten Readiness”

A great family moment. Skating together on their own for the first time.

A great family moment. Skating together on their own for the first time.

Considering it is kindergarten registration at our school next week, I wanted to share my personal thoughts.

I have never taught kindergarten nor have I ever run a preschool program.  I have been an elementary educator for 8 years and am now a father of two wonderful girls that so many people think we should be getting them ready for kindergarten.  I read so much from childcare “experts” that push parents to get their kids “kindergarten ready” and this often focuses on skills like letter recognition, counting, colouring, sitting still, etc.  Preschools and daycare centres market themselves as the “best places to get your child ready for kindergarten”.  Parents feel the need to give their kids the edge by getting their children into the “best preschools”.  (I LOVE the preschool our kids go to… not because they are focused on academics but because they love and care for our kids and give them an opportunity to be happy learning and exploring with others – and to be clear, I don’t blame preschools for marketing themselves – they are a small business and often must do what the market demands).

When did we “realize” that pushing children to learn outside the home at a young age best prepared them for kindergarten? I have yet to meet a kindergarten teacher (and I have had the privilege of meeting some amazing ones) that says to a parent that their child should have this ideal list of skills prior to entering kindergarten.  Yet, so many articles say “kindergarten teachers all want…”.  What message does this send to parents if we say a child should know how to print and spell their name and their child comes to school not knowing how to do this?  “Thank you for bringing your child to our school… but she cannot print her name so you have failed as a parent to get your child ready for kindergarten.”  We would never say this but how many parents feel this? How many parents are so stressed out to get their child ready for kindergarten that they miss out on the wonderful moments of love, exploration, curiosity, and play?

A kindergarten teacher said to me, “The only thing I ask of parents is that they give their child all the love and care they can provide… I will teach them once they arrive. It is up to me to be ready for your child”.  Of course we want to encourage read alouds, exploration, outdoor play and so many other joyous parts of being a parent; however, we don’t need (as parents) to feel pressured to sit at the table going through a kindergarten readiness workbook trying to ensure our kids learn how to sit still and do worksheets so they have a better chance of “graduating” from kindergarten.

As a parent, I have been blown away by the constant comparatives of our children – percentile scores, toilet training (some call it the real life “pissing contest”) and other quests to achieve milestones earlier than the “norm” (who’s Norm?).  Parents are constantly inundated with marketing ploys and information to give their child the “edge”.  I get it – we want our kids to be successful.  I also know that there is such strength in parent/family attachment.  I worry that the pressure to give kids an edge actually affects parent attachment in our kids.  Through pressure to get kids involved and schedule them in activities so much, we actually encourage attachment to someone else and take time away from family time… time which we will never get back.  I am not saying we don’t get our kids involved in activities they enjoy; I am saying let’s do this for the right reasons.

The current reality for many of our families is that both parents work.  This makes time with family that much more important.  I never want to tell parents what to do but I feel that we need to relax a bit and stop worrying so much about giving our kids an edge and preparing them for kindergarten.  Education is a life-long journey and the years of parenting kids seems to fly by at an incredible rate.  Let’s give parents a break from the stress of always being told what to do to be the “best parent”.  Let’s stop forcing families to constantly compare the development of their “baby” to some arbitrary “ideal” academic standard for preschool aged children.  Let’s rethink the pressure of things like “kindergarten readiness” and instead promote ways that families can spend more time together playing, reading, imagining, exploring, and living in that moment… because we all know how quickly these moments pass.

I would love your thoughts on this… as I am still trying to figure things out for myself as an educator and a parent.

A plug for my friend Scott Bedley who, along with his brother Tim, have created an opportunity to start a conversation around the importance of play.  February 4th is Global School Play Day and this is a great kick off to encourage schools and families to embrace the joys of creativity, exploration, friendships, and learning.  It is a reminder to put down the devices, put aside the schedules and be in the moment.



10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld

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.


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

CC Image from

CC Image from

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: