Archive for category Moral Stewardship

How Does School Choice Impact Our Neighbourhood Schools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts?

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

@chriswejr

 

 

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Do We REALLY Believe in Inclusion?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by D. Sharon Pruitt

As an education system and society, we have made huge strides in the inclusion of students with visible disabilities in our classrooms, groups, sports, and friendships.  I wonder, though, if we have made as much progress in including ALL students… especially those who appear on the outside to be similar yet are different (or perceived to be) on the inside.  I am not talking about the act of everyone having a seat in a classroom; I am talking about having a mindset of real inclusion.

“We all have one basic desire and goal: to belong and to feel significant” — Alfred Adler

This is an area in which I have far more questions than answers but here are some observations that make me wonder if we REALLY believe in inclusion.

  • I have seen parents/caregivers of children with behaviour challenges (due to a wide variety of reasons) judged, scolded, and ostracized for being a bad parent when the behaviours are often far beyond their control.
  • I have seen and heard of children going through their entire elementary school years and never receiving an invite to a birthday party.
  • I continue to hear the terms “gay” and “retard” used in derogatory ways from adults and students.
  • I continue to hear and see students and adults from the LGBTQ community not being accepted and included… and unable to be themselves in certain environments.
  • I see students not being able to attend schools of choice because their families do not have the capital (ex. money or transportation) to access.
  • I have heard adults say, “why can’t they just work harder?” when discussing how people from poverty could/should gain more resources.
  • I know of people that will not hire certain applicants based on their culture and/or race.
  • I have heard the statement “I don’t want my child in a class with THAT boy/girl”.
  • I have seen many students not get the needed funding for support in schools because they do not have the correct diagnosis… or worse yet… correct paperwork.
  • I have heard people state that Aboriginal people need to move past the impact of residential schools and colonialism… and just “get over it”.

These observations sadden me as they demonstrate a lack of understanding and empathy. They make me question what we actually believe when it comes to the goal of inclusion; however, there are also many examples that give me hope.

  • I have seen a parent reach out their hand to help another parent struggling with a child meltdown at the supermarket.
  • I have seen students tell others that “it’s not cool to use that word” when hearing the “g-word”.
  • I have seen huge numbers of students embracing students that are different and actually working together to create change.
  • I have heard and seen parents and teachers modeling empathy and inclusion to other adults and children.
  • I have seen parents ask the family of a child, who struggles with behaviour challenges and lacks real friendships, if they would like to meet up for a play date for their kids.
  • I have seen and heard of many teachers providing the opportunities for students to bring their strengths into the classroom and demonstrate their learning in ways that create more confidence and success.
  • I have seen many districts create policies to end homophobia, heterosexism,  and other acts of prejudice in schools.
  • I have seen educators and community members actually listening and supporting First Nation communities to develop ideas and plans to help all students.
  • I have seen parents of students with disabilities reaching out to others to help them get over the many challenging times.
  • I have seen schools become the safest and most caring places in some of our students’ lives.

The latter examples inspire me. They show courage and leadership. In order to include and accept all people, we must first seek to understand and listen to the stories of our students and neighbours.  We need to educate about the importance of inclusion and acceptance of ALL students (and adults) not only in our schools but also beyond our walls into the communities and business world.

First we need to ask the question, do we REALLY believe in inclusion?  Then we need to reach out a hand rather than point a finger. We need to continually act and create environments that model empathy, care, and equity… and work toward a society of real inclusion.

 I was given the book “Don’t we already DO inclusion?”, by Paula Kluth, by some parents at my former school so I looking forward to diving into that to learn more practices to help me in this area.

Still learning, reflecting… and coming up with more questions that answers.  

Please share any ideas of how you or your school/community are encouraging inclusion so others can benefit.

@chriswejr

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Not Everyone Is Able to Tweet and Post Who They Are

There is often much discussion around the separation of our professional and personal lives on social media.  Some districts strongly encourage this separation while others encourage the blending of both.  I have been a supporter of the latter as I believe that if we share who we are online we develop better relationships with others.  In December, I tweeted the following:

From an organization perspective, I wholeheartedly agree with my tweet.  I encourage people to share who they are and be transparent in their views on education.

However, my friend Royan Lee gave me some pushback on this idea when he tweeted,

What I did not realize when I tweeted that, was that my view on the subject was coming from a lens of privilege – the lens of a middle class, white, heterosexual male.  Where I fell short in my tweet was that I failed to empathize with those whose lives are considered less acceptable to some.

When Royan brought this side to my attention… I stopped and thought about deleting the tweet, but then realized this is all part of the learning.  It was not my intention to be ignorant but by wearing my invisible napsack of privilege… I felt I was.

I immediately thought about my friends who have struggled most of their lives with a target on them for being gay.  I thought of my gay friends who are now so happy with their girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, and kids.  I thought of how these important friends that have inspired me and taught me so much cannot always share who they are for fear of being attacked by those who judge and throw stones.

I have been attacked for my views on education and sometimes these became personal; however, I have never been attacked for who I am or who my family is. For those with a personal social media account where they share all of the joy in their lives and happen to be gay (expand to LGBTQ), it is a sad reality that, because of societal views and judgment from others, they feel they cannot share this personal joy in their professional streams.

I recently shared a video of who I am with the families and staff of my new school.  It was very well received and it immediately help foster some relationships with families.  In reflection, I cannot help but think about what it would be like if I did not have the “typical wife and two children” family.  What if my wife and kids were a husband and kids?  Would I still share this?  I feel we have a fairly liberal society in BC but there would likely still be some families that would shut me out or view me differently.  We all love to belong and love to be accepted and although I would hope that I would have the courage to be publicly proud of my family, I am not sure I would as that might be risking this feeling of acceptance.  It is reflection like this that help me to attempt to look through the lens to help me understand how difficult it must be for my gay friends and many others who want to share who they are but live in a society that still has some people that look to judge rather than seek t0 understand.

I was going to write another post about the importance of sharing who we are… and I still believe this is important;  however, it is much easier for people with a life that is more acceptable in society.

Although Royan’s tweet was not specifically about the LGBTQ community, it was a wake up call for me to change my lens and seek to understand the difficulties for students and adults to post and tweet who they really are.  To all my friends, as well as those in my network, for whom I failed to understand their lens…. I apologize.  Thank you so much to Royan and the many others who continue to teach me to empathize with others and attempt to view life through a new lens.

Looking through a better lens.   cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Kevin Dooley: http://flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4196773347/

Looking through a better lens.
cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Kevin Dooley: http://flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4196773347/

 

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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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Is a School Awards Ceremony the BEST We Can Do?

Questioning Awards

I was recently asked by educator Larry Ferlazzo to share my views on awards ceremonies as part of his article on Ideas for The Last Two Weeks of School. Here are my thoughts:

The final few weeks of school are often the time for meeting, choosing, and awarding the winners at our schools.  Three years ago, our school made the decision to move away from awards ceremonies and consider other ways to honour all of our students.

Although I believe we need to move away from awards I also know this is a difficult decision in most schools as there are often lengthy traditions of trophies and awards.  I am not advocating we lower expectations nor am I stating that every child should get some “top _____ award”; however, as we observe our formal year-end awards ceremonies, I strongly encourage you to reflect upon the following questions:

  1. How many students have strengths and have put forth great efforts but are not awarded?

  2. What impact does a child’s parents, culture, language, socioeconomics and current/previous teachers have on the winners/losers?

  3. Does choosing a select few students as winners align with our school mission and vision?

  4. Are there other ways we can honour and showcase excellence?

  5. Is there a specific criteria or standard that must be met to achieve the award?  If yes, then can more than one person be honoured or is it simply about awarding one person that is better than his/her peers in a specific area chosen by the school?

  6. How does a quest for an individual award align with a culture that encourages teamwork and collaboration?

  7. If we honoured and showcased student learning in a variety of ways throughout the year, would a year -end awards ceremony be necessary?

  8. Do students have a choice on whether or not they enter this competition?

  9. If awards are about student excellence and motivation in the “real world”, why do we not host awards ceremonies for our top children in our homes?

  10. If we are seeing success in encouraging inquiry-based learning, focusing on formative assessment and fostering a growth mindset, how can we defend a ceremony that fosters a fixed mindset and mainly showcases winners often based on grades and/or scores?

I believe we need to honour and highlight achievements and student learning but I wonder… is an awards ceremony that recognizes only a select few, and is often held a few days before our students leave, the BEST we can do?

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Host celebration of learning events throughout the year (or one at the end of the year) in which students highlight/share examples and demonstrations of a key part of their learning.

  • Host honouring assemblies in which each student is recognized at a point during the year not through an award but through stories and examples of his/her learning, strengths, and interests

  • Encourage class/department events in which each class showcases and shares areas they have been highlighting in their learning

  • Combine the above events with parent/family luncheons so more time can be spent sharing the stories.

  • Share online the wonderful work students and staff do in our schools. Provide digital windows that highlight various stories of learning.

Although there is no single best way to acknowledge the efforts and achievements of our students, we must be aware of our school traditions and cultures and also work together to reflect upon and challenge current practices to create positive change that seeks to honour ALL of our students.

For links to posts on awards ceremonies from a variety of parents and educators, please check out Rethinking Awards Ceremonies.

 

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Kindness and Care: More Than A Single Day Effort

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by forpawsgrooming: http://flickr.com/photos/forpaws/5554199536/

As “anti-bullying day” approaches again this year, I get questions as to what we will be doing as a school for this one day event.  My response has been,

“As a school, we will continue to do what we do every other day: promote a culture of care, empathy and kindness through teaching and modeling.  We will continue to try to nurture the strengths and interests in our students and help them to be more confident and proud of who they are. We will also deal with bullying and conflict (2 very different things but often confused) in a serious but teaching/learning manner so the lacking skills are taught and the focus stays long-term.”

Bullying is something that nobody should have to go through and when it occurs, we need to take this very seriously and deal with it very carefully.  We also need to be proactive in what we do – we need to create the culture in which people are cared for and care for others.  Now, I am not opposed to the intent of Anti-Bullying Day, as I am often blown away by the efforts of students and I believe we need to stand up to bullying, but I do think the focus is on the wrong thing: bullying.  Whenever we focus on something, it grows.  If we seek negatives in our life, we will find them.  If we seek positives, we will find them too.  Maybe we need to shift and focus on the positive qualities we want to see.

It is easy to put on a pink shirt and say that we are fighting bullying on that day… it is much more difficult to model, teach and create a culture in which kindness, care, and empathy is the norm.  We probably would find it difficult to find someone who is NOT “anti-bullying” (or pro-bullying?) but maybe not have a difficult time to find students and adults who struggle to lead a life of care.

I see many examples of students standing up for qualities like care, acceptance, and empathy and then adults naming it “anti-bullying”.  Check out this “acceptance” flash mob at a Vancouver Giants game in which the students use positive qualities (then titled “anti-bullying)”.

My former principal and mentor Roxanne Watson models this change and wrote a recent post that that challenges us to shift our focus:

… It is a complex issue.  Each time I hear of another life lost to bullying I ask myself why we as a community have not been able to address this problem effectively.

Bullying.  Bully-Prevention.  Anti-Bullying.  Stand Up 2 Bullying.  Stop a Bully.  Pink Shirt Day.  There’s no shortage of attention to bullying these days, nor should there be.  As a former child, an educator and part of a large family I have experienced first-hand the effects of bullying.  I certainly read the paper and follow the news and there is no lack of stories which document the terrible impact bullying has, not only in our schools but in our workplaces, in our own families, neighborhoods, churches, teams, clubs and any other place where people come together.  Each time a bullying story hits the news we hear a renewed sense of outrage and are inundated with anti-bullying campaigns.  It seems to me, considering how often we hear of bullying and how many of us have experienced it in our own lives that these campaigns have not been effective over the years.  So, I have a suggestion;  Stop focusing on bullying and start focusing on kindness.

… I’m tired of hearing the word “bullying”.  It has no positive conotations for me.  It’s a negative spin on a negative problem.  It’s time we stopped focusing on reducing bullying and started focusing on promoting kindness.  For every anti-bullying program that’s out there there is  a program that promotes peace/kindness/empathy.  These are all skills our children (and adults) need to learn.  Roots of Empathy is just one.  Tribes TLC is another, Random Acts of Kindness is a program that has been used at Kent Elementary and found to be wonderful in promoting positive interactions without the need for the usual reward that comes with some of these programs. It has long been a goal of mine to switch peoples’ thinking (starting with my own) from reducing the negative to increasing the positive.

…Kent Elementary is a progressive school.  They believe strongly in creating the conditions for children to be successful. (http://connectedprincipals.com/archives/6554) This is the type of approach that will reduce bullying.  In the same way we create a positive culture for reading or healthy living or self-discipline we can create a culture that recognizes, promotes and teaches (coaches) kindness.

…I strongly believe that all people (not just kids) do the best with what they have at the time.  Students who bully lack the basic skills and understandings of kindness.  Perhaps they have not experienced kindness in their own lives.  Do we punish them?  Many believe this is the way.  I do not.  I believe we take them aside, model kindness, provide opportunities for kindness, recognize (not reward, but recognize) kindness and promote kindness. We create the conditions for them to be successful.
As with other successful approaches this will take time.    It takes time to identify those people who truly are bullies (and they aren’t always children).  It takes time to work with that individual, to have them see how people perceive them.

…You see, no “program” works for everyone.  As in reading or math or behavior a multi-faceted approach is likely required.  This takes time. I believe it also requires a shift from a focus that reduces the negative to a focus that increases the positive.  Aren’t our children and our communities worth it?

Will we do anything different on anti-bullying day at our school?  I am sure there will be dialogue around it and there will be Pink Shirts worn; more importantly, however, our bigger challenge is to continue to honour each child for who they are, focus on their strengths and support their challenges, teach rather than reward and punish, and model a life of empathy and care.  I realize we do not have this all figured out and bullying still exists at Kent School… but I will leave with a few comments from parents/families in the past year that show the value of a school culture on a child:

Bullying is less of a concern for my daughter since Identity Day.  Identity Day showed her that she had a strength and other children recognized this.  The conversations at Kent around recognizing the strengths in others and themselves, along with my daughter’s participation in the drama program has given her a sense of identity and confidence. – a parent of an intermediate student

I am so happy that my cousin gets to come to school and be proud of who she is. – a family member at our honouring ceremony/luncheon 

Please take a moment to watch this powerful video/poem by BC poet Shane Koyczan.  I heard his words a few years ago at a conference and his story challenged me to seek the positives in others.  Bullying needs to end… and there is power in voice and seeing the beauty in each child.

Thank you to Roxanne for her continued mentorship.  Please take her challenge and focus on a school culture of kindness.

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Creating the Conditions: Instructional Leadership #Leadership20

This is the 3rd part in the “Creating the Conditions” series; Part 1 was on Student Discipline, Part 2 was on Love of Reading.

I recently had the honour to present in the Leadership 2.0 MOOC series (in which I am learning alongside others) on “Providing Instructional Leadership” (To view the archive of the presentation click here - you can also view the slide embedded below).  When George Couros asked me to be part of this, I looked over the sessions and chose Instructional Leadership not because I am an expert on this topic but more because this is the area of current focus for me as an educational leader and this would be a way to learn from others.  I figured doing this would challenge me and give me the extra push to channel all of the reading and learning conversations I am having into one 60 minute session. (please note that due to the size of this topic, this is one of my lengthier posts but please have a read and add your stories at the end so I can learn from your experience).


As I communicated with people like Bill Ferriter (who continues to challenge me to be better), I realized that I had some concerns with the term “Instructional Leader”.  To me, that term states that there is a single instructional leader; what the staff of Kent Elementary has taught me is that that everyone can and should lead – and that many people can work together to facilitate instructional leadership.  The key role for me as a principal is to create the conditions for our staff  to be more of a professional learning community and create more opportunities for people to be involved in the instructional leadership of our school.

My reflections lead me to discussions with Bruce Beairsto and Jacquie Taylor (2 former BC superintendents who now work as consultants and volunteer as mentors) about how I can work to create the structures for the conditions for instructional leadership.  Both Bruce and Jacquie said they had a similar concern: the management side of school leadership had been given a bad rap and is something that is crucial to effective principal leadership.  Bruce said, “Leadership and management are the yin and yang of administration… management and leadership are equally noble, complex and necessary.”  He also used the analogy of a house when he said “You need management to build a house but only leadership can make it into a home” (more from Beairsto).  Through these conversations, it became clear to me that I had focused mostly on relationships and conversations but had focused too little on the structures that could facilitate more effective dialogue and put these conversations into action.  The key question for me this year is: how can I work to create the conditions for more  instructional leadership in our school?

One book that I read in my Master’s program was by Blase and Blase and in it, based on their work with hundreds of teachers, they summarize how teachers described effective principals.  The best thing about this list is that this is the feedback that has often been given to me by the staff in our school. Blase and Blase stated that effective principals:

  • lead with a shared purpose
  • empowered teachers (although I struggle with the term “empower”)
  • fostered collaboration and collegiality
  • supported risk taking and innovation
  • helped teachers become inquiry oriented
  • provided resources and time for professional growth

The majority of staff that I have worked with, both as a teacher and a principal, want to lead.  They have an area of passion or interest or they have some questions and want to explore; the challenge is often creating the conditions in which it more comfortable to do this.  When I think back to Deci and Ryan’s work on motivation (also explained by Daniel Pink), the ideas of autonomy and purpose stand out.  How can principals work with staff to provide the needed professional autonomy and voice in developing shared purpose?

Professional autonomy is one of those terms that is defined in so many different ways.  I strongly believe that in an environment of professional learners, professional autonomy can help teachers to flourish (we have “linchpins” in our schools that especially need that autonomy to fly and lead).  I like differentiating between professional autonomy as “freedom FROM” and “freedom TO” that was discussed by Blase in “Bringing Out the Best in Teachers”.  In a top-down controlled environment (think micromanagement), teachers often want freedom FROM doing things that they are directed to do; in a supportive, collegial environment, teachers want the freedom TO try new ideas and dive deeper into areas of interest.  It is important to also note that there are some ideas and initiatives that are agreed upon by staff (the “non-negotiables”) that teachers should not move away from (ie. consistency in assessment).  In our district, teachers have the option of doing some learning team professional development and are given time in lieu.  The past year, we had 5 teachers discuss ways that we could increase the joy in reading at Kent School; they met and learned together far more than the “earned” time in lieu and their conversations and ideas have had a significant impact on our school (click here to read more).  Professional autonomy significantly impacts student learning in our school as staff have shown that when they have ownership (purpose) of their learning, motivation increases.

Being part of the instructional leadership in a school is crucial to the effectiveness of a principal.  In order to be part of this, there must be TRUSTING relationships and credibility.  When meeting with staff we must work had to listen… truly listen.  When listening, I often come back to this story:

A little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class.  She danced into the kitchen, where her mother was preparing dinner.
“Mom, guess what?” she squealed, waving the drawing.
Her mom never looked up.
“What?” she said, tending to the pots.
“Guess what?” the child repeated, waving the drawing.
“What?” the mother said, tending to the plates.
“Mom, you’re not listening.”
“Sweetie, yes I am.”
“Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.
Mitch Albom

If relationships and trust are important to us, whether it is with students, staff, or families – listen with our eyes.  Doing this allows for us to not worry so much about what we are going to say next and more about actually hearing the message being communicated.  Having trusting relationships helps with the personal credibility needed to be on an (informal) effective instructional leadership team in the school.  Professional credibility comes from the earned respect from others based on knowledge and experience.  Therefore, it is so important for principals to stay up to date on ideas and practices, share this with others, and, most importantly, be in classrooms.  Both being in classrooms learning from teachers and actually teaching a small amount each week (one of the greatest learning experiences I have had as a principal was co-teaching grade 1 reading with a very experienced and effective primary teacher) can only work to build relationships and both professional and personal credibility with staff.

One of the biggest barriers to staff learning, leading and trying to go deeper with their ideas is RESOURCES.  As Chris Kennedy has stated, “If we want people to do well, we need to give them the tools.”  How can principals use the (often small) budget to provide staff with the resources to participate in instructional leadership by enhancing their practice?  The cheapest way to do this is to offer a few tools and TIME.  I find that few teachers ask for much other than time.  As principals, I think we need to move from people asking permission to try new things to asking “how can we…” try new things.  This year, I have offered teachers the option (this is not a requirement in our district) to do an inquiry-based growth plan, not for accountability and not to be sent anywhere outside of school, to help me provide the resources for teachers to grow in area of interest.  I have been so excited to read these and engage in dialogue on how our school can help facilitate their learning.  My former principal, Roxanne Watson, modeled to me the importance of offering teachers time to learn; I again have offered to cover classes for any teacher wanting to observe another.  I will also again offer a “FedEx Prep: Time for Innovation” so teachers can have some extra prep to explore an area of interest and apply that to their practice.  I am hoping that by engaging in reflective dialogue with our staff, I can better provide the tools for our staff to enhance their learning and, in effect, be more involved in instructional leadership.

As we model learning, it is important that we share this with staff and encourage collegial learning.  As Linda Lambert writes:

For decades, educators have understood that we are all responsible for student learning. More recently, educators have come to realize that we are responsible for our own learning as well. But we usually do not move our eyes around the room—across the table—and say to ourselves, “I am also responsible for the learning of my colleagues.”

We need to share our learning and share the learning happening within staff.  I believe one of my roles is to be a connector of learning in our school; I need to connect educators that are separated by bells and walls by sharing the learning story and encouraging staff with similar interests to connect.  This can be done best through face to face but also through email and social media.  Staff meetings are the only time we get to be together as an entire staff; as Scott Benwell said to me, “in BC, we have a total of about 15 hours in which we can meet as a staff – how are you going to organize that time?  Is this time best used for reporting out information or is it best used for collegial discussions that drive us forward as a school?”  Staff meetings must be effectively prepared in a way that leads to important dialogue and sharing for our staff (for a fantastic post on this, check out Cale Birk’s recent post or any of the posts at Bill Ferriter’s blog) as this can be a key structure to facilitating instructional leadership.

Staff (principals included) also need to be encouraged, supported, and challenged. As most of you know, I am not a huge fan of public recognition of individuals so I believe that private conversations that acknowledge the hard work and efforts of our teachers are so important.  Hand-written notes are something I need to do more of as I know how people appreciate these.  Staff do not work hard to get the “prize of a note” but feedback on their (often amazing) efforts can go a long way.  Feedback can also be used to challenge a staff member to reflect on certain practices.  Having difficult conversations with staff is never easy for me, but as Johnny Bevacqua says: “we need to go skate into the puck and go to the hard places”.  A colleague in the district, Mark Classen, has pushed me to seek to understand and see through the lenses of the other person; he has helped me to sit beside and discuss concerns rather than sit across from and debate.  Even our best teachers need positive feedback as well as a push to be better.  Tom Schimmer recently challenged me to approach educational conversations as “gentle nudges” rather than the right vs wrong ways of doing things.  This perspective has helped me engage with a variety of educators (both in and out of our sch00l) in effective conversations that move the focus from teaching to learning and drive both parties forward.  Having trusting relationships can open the door for 2-way feedback that will not only challenge our staff to be better but also make it easier for me to receive feedback to make me better.  It is also important that principals and teachers in our schools understand that when principals enter the classroom, it is to be further engaged in the LEARNING of the school and not to just participate in surveillance.  Although I realize that often when ANY adult enters a classroom to observe it is natural to see change, the more we are in classrooms (and GET OUT OF THE OFFICE!), the less likely it is to be viewed as an event and more as part of the conversation.  Through the conversations, gentle nudges, and positive feedback, all those involved in instructional leadership will see more growth both individually and as a team.

To create the conditions for instructional leadership, it is important that we engage in discussions and are aware of literature on current effective pedagogy.  For curriculum and assessment, one of the areas that we have focused on has been the practices included in Assessment For Learning, particularly having clear learning intentions and criteria as well as using effective descriptive feedback that student can act upon.    When I first started to learn more about AFL and became an administrator, I made the mistake of coming across (preaching) as using the practices of AFL was “right” and not using them was “wrong”; by doing this, I alienated many people in the conversation.  Since then, I have worked with teachers to highlight some of the work already being done in our school as well as setting up reflective staff meeting discussions of assessment practices to give some gentle nudges both in group and individual discussions; too, teachers have challenged my ideas and caused me to continually reflect.  For summative assessments, we are currently trying to use school data to inform us (NOT evaluate) but we have to ensure that this data is as real as we can make it – we have to work to make the data more consistent, ensure that we are assessing the same standards, and not participating in grade inflation/deflation (through late marks, zeros, bonus, etc).  Ideally, we would like to have what Benwell calls an effective dynamic tension between where we are now and where we want to be.  Although we continue to challenge each other, the strengths of staff members,combined with avenues for reflective dialogue, have moved us all forward in providing more effective, consistent, transparent assessment practices in our school.

Creating an instructional vision must be done from within.  It cannot be MY vision because if the staff does not feel they have ownership, it stays as MY vision and goes nowhere.  I need to have a voice but so do others.  The key questions I am asking myself and others are: how do we create a shared vision? how do we KNOW it is a shared vision?  One of the responses is quite simply to truly listen and build the vision from the strengths within the school.  Are other people being heard? Are we tapping into the effective practices already in our schools?  A shared vision with a sense of purpose can guide us in so many instructional decisions; getting to that point requires active listening and open reflective discussions about what we believe as educators.

Another aspect of leadership that I am working on is being a more transparent educator.  I think it is important to show that it is acceptable (and encouraged) to take risks and be vulnerable.  Leadership requires people to put themselves out there and possibly be wrong.  To facilitate instructional leadership, we need to model vulnerability and transparency and encourage staff to pursue the questions they/we have.  David Wees and John Spencer have challenged educators to not only share the successes but also the failures.  I have shared my “oopses” with staff and I plan to blog on this in a future post.  As Brene Brown wrote, “To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.”  It is important that we show care… that we show feeling… and, at times, we show vulnerability.

As I said, the topic of instructional leadership is vast as so many aspects of leadership come into play.  I believe that the main role of a principal is to create the conditions for instructional leadership to occur in our schools.  The key questions that I am exploring are: what are the conditions that facilitate more instructional leadership that drives each of to be better educators… and how do I create these conditions?

I look forward to reading any insights/stories you can share of the positives and/or negatives of instructional leadership in your schools.

 

 

 

 

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Creating the Conditions: Student Discipline

“The proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’ ” — Edward Deci

In the past number of years we have gone through a very positive and significant transition at our school.  Through the work of the staff (current and previous), we have moved from a punish and reward mentality to one that is focused on creating the conditions for students to learn the skills to be successful. We have gone from long line ups of students at the office at the end of lunch to maybe one or two students ‘arriving’ at the office during an entire day.  Most of the issues we now deal with are minor and dealt with in the moment in a learning manner, away from “the office”.

So how has the staff of our school worked to create these conditions?

A few teachers and special education assistants often talk about “backing up to where they are” when working with kids.  When we discuss student discipline or “behaviour plans” we do not discuss what needs to be done TO the child but rather what can be done FOR the child.  Appropriate behaviour is full of self-regulation and social skills that needs to be taught; punishment and rewards do not teach.  There is no standardized boxed program (or one in a big white binder) that we can buy that will solve our discipline issues.  Students are individuals and the conditions need to be created that not only help school culture but also help the student.  At our school,  staff work hard to create the conditions so we can back up to where the student is and help him/her develop the self-confidence and social skills needed to be more successful in a school setting.

For about the past 4 years, we have had a group of boys that are the rough and tough jock type.  They have turned every square inch of our school and field into some sort of hockey rink at some point. I love these guys… I coached them at recess times when mini-hockey sticks were almost regular sticks to them; however, their drive  and ultra competitive nature often gets the best of them.  Last year, their aggressive play came to a head as we seemed to be dealing with some sort of minor altercation almost every day.  We banned hockey for a few days and then the game of choice became “touch” football (their definition of touch turned out to be different than mine).  It seemed like any activity they played turned into a physical battle. I met with a Special Education Assistant (who is also a supervisor at recess/lunch) as well as a few teachers (and phoned a parent who has a similar perspective on student discipline) and we asked the question, “what conditions can we create for these students to be successful?”.  The answer came to us: they needed a coach.  They needed someone nearby that could bring them into a huddle every now and then to have some reflective discussions so they could come up with their own rules to create more fair play in the games.  Also, this coach would help some students to understand when they needed a break to regulate their emotions.  We decided we would decrease the area in which they could play – not as a punishment but but to create the conditions for them to have an adult closer if/when needed.  This small group of boys decided they wanted to play soccer and have the supervisor nearby to help them with any disputes.  They came up with some rules together and then began the games.  What happened next was one that made me sit back and smile.  What started out as a game of 8-10 boys turned into a game of 12…. then a game of 16.  A week later there were over 30 students – of all genders, skill levels, needs, and ages – playing soccer in this small area.  The game had the conditions – a level of intensity coupled with a sense of fairness – that made these students all want to play.

The start of something special – a few more students join the reflective huddle with the recess “coach”.

Of course we still have students that struggle with behaviours and some learn much faster than others; however, when we change the lens of discipline from one of punishment and rewards to a lens of skill development and self-regulation, we see students begin to develop and actually shine in an area of their life in which they once struggled.  There is not one main thing that can be pinpointed as something that changed the culture of discipline at our school.  Through the years before and during my time at the school, there has been dialogue on restitution, strength-based teaching, growth mindset, mediation, First Nation culture, awards ceremonies, leadership/mentorship, relationships, etc… all with a focus on kids.  All of these conversations have pushed us forward and provided us with more tools in our toolbox so we can work together to create the conditions for more student success.  We still have a lot to learn but I believe we are definitely on the right track.

All students are good kids – some come to school with more skills than others in certain areas.  When we have a student struggling with reading, we find ways to create a support network to teach the skills; this support network also must be developed when children struggle with behaviours.

Create the conditions for students to be successful: back up to where they are, support them through coaching, be patient… and watch them flourish.

 

 

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Starting the Conversation on Rethinking Awards Ceremonies

Since I wrote about our school’s decision to end our awards ceremony and change the the way we honour students, I have been asked a few times how people could start the conversation in their schools.  I realize that most schools have already hosted their year-end awards ceremonies but while it is fresh in people’s minds I wanted to provide a place for the conversation to continue.

As many are aware, when I arrived at my current school, the conversation had already been occurring for a few years; although I was part of the final decision, I was not part of the initial discussions (this was started by staff, parents, and admin prior to 2007).   Having said this, I have often thought about how I would approach initiating this dialogue in a different school now that I have seen and experienced the success of a school without an awards ceremony.  Keeping in mind that each school culture is different and that each school probably has lengthy traditions of trophies and awards in schools, this is not a decision that people can make without the support of some key parents, students and staff. Once you have a few people (your support network) questioning the idea of only honouring a select few in a created competition in which the winner is decided by staff, here are some possible leading questions (I need to be clear, though, that I am NOT advocating for expectations to be lowered nor am I supporting the idea that EVERY child gets some sort of “top _____ award”):

  • Does your year-end awards ceremonies and/or student of the month program align with your school vision, plan and/or goals?
  • What does research say about the use of awards/prizes to motivate (or demotivate) learning?
  • At which age do awards become necessary – 5? 10? 15?  Why?
  • How much of the award is based on culture, language, parents (particularly cultural capital and income) and teachers that the winner has/had and how much is based on the person’s work ethic?
  • What if, as a first step in changing awards ceremonies, we honoured students who met a certain criteria?  This would be rather than selecting one person as a winner (often when many others have worked just as hard).
  • What does “top ______ student” actually mean?  Does this mean they have done well or does it mean they have just done “better” than everyone else? IS the top student in a class of 12 the same as the top student in a class of 120?
  • If awards ceremonies are important for kids, why do we not do this in our homes?
  • Is it possible for an award winner to struggle with success later in life?  Is it possible that there are a few (or many) people out there who have achieved success that did not win an award?
  • If we agree that formative assessment,inquiry-based learning & encouraging a growth mindset are the direction we need to go in education, how can we defend a ceremony based on a fixed mindset that showcases winners based on grades?

The more I discuss and read about human motivation, the more questions I seem to have.  I wonder if we all provided ongoing feedback that personally honoured and challenged our students and we continually worked to form trusting,caring relationships with kids… would we need public recognition at all?

This post is not about questioning whether or not we should have awards (here are many other posts that ask that question); this post is about providing a platform to share ideas and engage in dialogue around the idea of starting the conversation about rethinkng the way we do awards ceremonies in schools.  If you have questions and/or thoughts or if you have initiating successful (or unsuccessful) discussions in your school, please share in the comments section below.

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What Matters in Our Learning: Student Voice on Assessment & Inquiry

The words of our students. Are we listening?

Through my participation in a few EdCamps, I have had the complete pleasure of meeting and chatting with North Surrey Secondary senior humanities teacher  Jonathan Vervaet(@jonathanvervaet).  I knew about his contagious passion for inquiry and assessment for learning; what I did not know was that I would also be completely awestruck and inspired by two of his grade 12 students.

During Edcamp43 in Coquitlam earlier this year, I attended a session on TEDxKids.  I strongly believe in the power of our students voices and the TEDxKids idea is one that needs to be shared and promoted; I went to gain more knowledge about the event.  Halfway through the session, two students spoke up about their experience in high school.  My ears perked up and my heart started to race as they made a comment about the power of inquiry as well as the movement away from grades.  I encouraged them to expand on their thoughts and during the next 5-10 minutes they shared one of the most powerful stories about pedagogy that I have ever heard.  They spoke about how moving away from grades and using inquiry as a focus made them realize they actually loved to learn.  I was so engaged that I did not take a single note or tweet.  The room was silent the entire time these boys spoke.  Two grade 12 students had completely captivated a room full of administrators, teachers and parents.  It was the first time anyone outside of their classroom had listened to them. At this EdCamp, these boys were being heard and they completely seized the moment.

I wanted to figure out how these two students, Kenny (@Kennycolosie) and Dylan could share their story and thoughts to a wider audience.  I spoke to Jonathan, who unfortunately missed their amazing story, immediately following the session as well as in the weeks following EdCamp43.  We tossed around the idea of a guest post or the boys skyping into our district admin meeting. He came up with an idea to try to recreate the conversation with them and then send me the audio.

The following quotes are the summarized ideas of Kenny and Dylan, two History 12 and Comparative Civ 12 students from a school in Surrey, BC (I have not separated who said what as they both seemed to agree and build upon each others’ responses… I apologize in advance to these guys as my words probably do not do justice to what they originally so passionately stated).

From Kenny and Dylan:

The typical classroom work we see is work… copy… regurgitate… repeat.  We do this for teachers and they ask us questions right away and we can answer.  However, if you asked us next week, or even the next day, we won’t have a clue.  We have memorized but we have not learned.

When we first started Mr. Vervaet’s classes, we hated it.  We were like, “just gimme the worksheets and tell me what to do and I will do it”.  He was talking about inquiry and not giving us grades.  We thought it was dumb… we said forget this feedback stuff… we wanted a percent.  It was so hard at the start.  Then, about a month into first semester, we had to do another assignment for a different class (basically had to copy and paste)… and we were like, wow, this sucks! We realized how much more we liked projects using inquiry and appreciated the ongoing feedback.  From that point on, we started to see that inquiry allowed us to research an area, based on a learning outcome, in which WE were interested.  We got to look at the learning outcome from a point of view that worked for us… inquiry helped us to become way more engaged.  Inquiry helped us to have a voice.  Rather than copying and pasting from Wikipedia, we were actually learning.  Mr. Vervaet makes the learning outcome clear, helps us to understand what it means,  and then helps us to come up with ways we can demonstrate our understanding of that outcome.

Allowing redos and not having percents has been huge to our learning too.  We can show our learning over time and keep improving rather than our stuff at the beginning and end being averaged into some number.  With Mr. Vervaet, our final mark is where we are at NOW rather than an average that includes when we struggled at the start.

Keeping the focus on learning rather than percents makes us take more risks.  We find in other classes that we don’t take risks – we don’t get a chance to redo an assignment so when it is done, it is done.  If we screw up, we lose marks with no chance of changing anything so why would we take a risk? Without redos there is no chance to show learning if we learn something after the due date.  This adds more stress because there is so much pressure to get things right the first time and there is less chance for feedback from the teacher.  If you figure things out late, there is no way to change your mark.  High-stakes learning (without the chance for improvement) makes school suck… makes us not want to be there.  When teachers focus on marks, marks, marks, it puts so much pressure on students to get marks that when the marks aren’t there, students become demotivated, disengaged and sometimes even depressed.  We see most students motivated about learning when there is flexibility of deadlines, projects that we are interested in, and a chance to redo assignments.

Clear criteria is also so important to us.  When you don’t have an idea of what you are aiming for, you end up trying everything and hoping that it is what the teacher wants.  When you know the criteria, the learning outcomes are clear and our efforts can be focused because we know what we are aiming for (rather than guessing or trying to cover everything).

Up until Mr. Vervaet’s class, we struggled to be motivated to learn in school.  We would watch the clocks and count down the minutes until the end of the day.  With inquiry-based learning, we found we were WAY more motivated in school, the learning was more relevant to us, and there were times when we even wanted to stand up and applaud.  At the end of the semester, we were like, “wow, can we retake that… we don’t want it to end!”.

If we could change a few things in high school education it would be to move away from the pressure of grades and strict deadlines.  We still know we need to get things done but having more flexible deadlines so we can plan out our work will make things less stressful for us.  Having the chance to redo assignment also removes some of the pressure and actually improves our learning.  In grade 8, we actually liked the pressure as it was kind of new… but then it wore on us and by the time we reached grades 10-12 we just wanted to get out… the focus shifts to getting to the end and you miss the learning along the way.  We also feel that thigs are changing; students lives are different than they were when teachers were in school and sometimes teachers still teach the way they were taught.  Times are different now so school should be different too.

There is clear research about the power of inquiry-based learning as well as the importance of ongoing descriptive feedback based on clear criteria and learning intentions.  If you look at the image at the top, the words that stand out to these students make it clear  what matters in THEIR learning and that we need to not only listen to the researchers (particularly Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Paul Black) and teacher leaders but also to the students in our classes.

Dylan and Kenny have provided clear feedback to us and are some of the voices of the most important people in our schools.  Their views align well with education research…. so this begs the question: how do we make mindsets like inquiry and assessment for learning become the norm, rather than the exception, in schools?  

I want to thank Jonathan for taking the time to do the legwork for this post as well as modelling and sharing his passion for education reform.  Thank you to Dylan and Kenny for their all important inspiring voices on education… keep speaking up boys!

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