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School Growth: Small Changes Lead to BIG Impact

“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” — Dylan Wiliam

NOTE: I am continuing to use my blog as a way to be transparent and share my learning within my professional growth plan. One of my goals is to support staff professional learning and drive learning forward through instructional leadership in the area of literacy. To view my current growth plan goals (still developing), click here

During my years as an administrator, one of the big mistakes I have made is trying to do too much too quickly. This has caused burnout, disengagement, lack of focus… and an overall lack of progress. The staffs I have worked with have been very supportive and patient with me and provided me with regular feedback with how things are going. I remember in my first few years as a principal, our teacher-librarian pulled me aside and said, “Chris, we love the ideas you share… they are exciting and likely great for our school… but we can only do so much in order to do them well. How about we focus on one for a few months and then go from there.”  This feedback changed me as I realized that in order to do something well in a school, there must be focus, depth, collaboration, and commitment. By trying to do too many new things, I was actually moving staff away from the goals and ideas because I was stressing everyone out!

I met Simon Breakspear almost 10 years ago at a BC Principals Conference. I really liked what he had to say about creating change in education. I have continued to follow Simon and we have connected a number of times at various conferences and through various platforms of communication. His thoughts on “radical incrementalism” really resonated with me as a way to make small changes to create big growth. My friends Cale Birk (District Principal in Kamloops) and Neil Stephenson (Director of Instruction in Delta), mentioned the term “Learning Sprints” a number of times and recommended that I attend another session with Simon to check out his work on sprints. Last year, I attended a session with Simon and then I followed up this year at the BC Principals and Vice Principals Association fall conference to dive deeper into Learning Sprints.

From the Learning Sprints website:

Engagement in Learning Sprints supports the adoption of evidence-informed practices and enables educators to collectively plan, act and evaluate their impact. The approach is aligned with the existing research evidence into the features of effective teacher professional learning and the science of behaviour change.

…The process has been designed to be simplerelevant and manageable for already overloaded teachers and their leaders. Most of all, it is designed to be adaptable to your school context and focused on the challenges specific to your classrooms and learners.

(check out the site for free resources, videos, and support)

As I wrote in my last post, I moved to a new school this year and this school has a strong foundation of literacy and self-regulation along with an effective collaborative culture. The idea of Learning Sprints seemed like a good fit to build on the wisdom and strengths of the staff to help drive professional growth and student learning in the school. I also liked how the sprints framework encouraged small changes based on evidence-based practices while also focusing on instruction and involving a reflection and evaluation to see if the strategies were successful. The cycles of trying a new idea were short; if the strategy was not successful, the teachers could try again for another 6 weeks or move on to trying a new strategy. Simon talks about “failing small”; too often, we try a new strategy or idea for a long time (1 or more years) and then look back to see if it worked. The fact is that if the strategy is tried for a long period of time and does not create the intended outcomes, it is failing big because of the time and efforts taken to try something that didn’t work. By running shorter cycles, we can “fail small” and if something does not work well within the context, we can reflect and then either pivot and continue or stop and move on to try something different.  I presented the idea of Learning Sprints to teachers and they seemed to appreciate the autonomy to choose an area of needed growth for their classroom (as long as it worked within our action plan goal of reading) and they liked the idea of working collaboratively with colleagues to possibly learn new teaching strategies. We also discussed the idea of failing small and trying new ideas that involved less risk for students (and higher reward).  The sprints process would build on the expertise within the school, use evidence-informed practices, have a short 6-week cycle focused on clear goals, encourage collaboration, and involve reflection and assessment.

At each staff meeting (we meet every couple of weeks) through the first 2 terms, we spent a chunk of time on our sprints. It is important to follow the phases of PREPARE (Design, Define Assess),  SPRINT (Teach, Monitor, Support), and REVIEW (Analyze, Transfer, Reset). We were able to participate in two sprints this year (some groups chose to pivot slightly and continue on with the first sprint as well). As this was not only about the professional learning within the sprints but also about the sprints process as well, we had the following successes (based on observations and the survey with teachers) :

  • Focused collaborative learning teams.
  • Allowed for deliberate practice with instruction.
  • Didn’t feel like “one more thing” to add as it built on what we were already doing or hoping to do.
  • Created action/change in the classroom.
  • Led to positive results for student achievement
  • Led to more successful strategies learned to be added to the teachers’ toolkits.
  • Was a good reminder of the importance of assessment
  • Allowed for ongoing, collaborative learning and a chance to spiral deeper in an area of professional learning

And the following challenges:

  • Narrowing down the learning outcomes (we improved upon this for the 2nd sprint)
  • Trying to maintain the focus on sprints through report cards, reading assessments, etc
  • Keeping the sprints goals at the forefront of instruction
  • Having clear assessments (at the start) to determine if the strategies were working (this was my error and something that we improved upon for the 2nd sprint).
  • Needed to spend more time in the REVIEW phase
  • We need to find a better way to include non-enrolling teachers and support staff in the process (music, learning commons teachers).
  • We need to use common resources for ideas on evidence-based practices (we will be using research as well as Jan Richardson’s book, “The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading” next year).

The results of the Learning Sprints teacher survey were:

  • 88% of teachers said that “Learning Sprints helped me to focus on a small, manageable idea/strategy with my students.”
  • 81% of teachers said that “The Learning Sprints process helped with collaboration between grade group colleagues.”
  • 81% of teachers said they “saw a positive impact on student learning as a result of our efforts within the Learning Sprints process.
  • 75% of teachers said, “I was able to add a strategy to my teaching practice because of our efforts within the Learning Sprints framework.”

Although this was a learning year for the Sprints process, we have already seen success and it is clear that teachers found the process to be helpful in driving professional growth and student achievement in the school. When we surveyed teachers about the successes and challenges of our school action plan, a number of teachers also shared on their own that learning sprints was a key piece that we need to continue with as we move forward into next year.

Too often in my career, I have seen schools, districts, and provinces make huge changes without really knowing if they will be successful. When we make large changes, we take big risks as these changes require so much capital (funds, time, resources, etc) and if we do not achieve the intended outcomes, it is a big loss for all those involved. Learning Sprints allows us to bring in evidence-based practice for a short cycle to determine if it has a positive impact in our context. If it doesn’t work with our context, it is not a significant loss and we can pivot or reset to take a different path to support teacher growth and student learning. By making these small changes, over time, we begin to see big results… and a significant impact on school growth.

 

 

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Building Staff Culture: The Importance of Slowing Down

Too often we communicate, make decisions, and act in such a rush. Yes, there are many decisions that can and should be made on the fly but there are also many times where we should take the time to pause, reflect, listen, and contemplate… and the best way to do this is something that we seem to be losing sight of in education (and society)… SLOWING DOWN.

As part of my professional growth plan, I continue to reflect on the importance of building staff culture but as I moved to a different school in August 2018, my goal has shifted to one focused on building a positive culture to one focused on Instructional Leadership. Although I continue to reflect on developing and now maintaining positive staff culture, I am hoping to wrap up some final thoughts in this post and possibly one more. For previous posts on building a positive staff culture, please read:

Slow Down… 2 words that I have repeated to myself over and over again over the past 2+ years as an educator, a formal leader, a husband, and a father. At one time, I was excited at the speed of my learning and communication as I was embracing all things technology and took pride at being a self-proclaimed “connected educator”. However, as I have taken the time to reflect on life in this hyperspeed world of information, communication, and notifications, I have realized that although the connections with people and ideas are much more vast, connections and ideas within my school and personal life have also lost some depth. Instead of reading and reflecting, I was scanning. Instead of talking, I was texting. Instead of resting, I was racing. As my friend Cale Birk once said, I was continually trying to “drink from a firehose”. I needed to change things… I needed to slow down.

By slowing down… I realized that we can do and feel so much more. My friend Carman McKay shared with our staff at James Hill last year about the importance of face to face conversations (or at the least, phone conversations) as this keeps us connected at a deeper level.  Deeper, meaningful relationships are not formed through quick text messages or emails so he shared that he will text but will not use that form of communication to replace face to face. Following these words from Carman, I also read a book called “Digital Minimalism” that included portions that echoed Carman’s thoughts. In a quest to connect with others, I was using social media to trick myself into believing that I was staying in contact and although I was aware of some parts of people’s lives, I was losing touch with closer relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. For me, I realized social media can serve a purpose and it can be a starting point to a conversation but should never replace an actual conversation.

By slowing down… I moved from skimming and scanning things online and started to actually read and reflect and think more deeply. I now read fewer tweets and blog posts but take more time to read books, research articles, and blog posts that made me think deeply about education and life. By reading less, it gave me time to think more. In doing this, I started to also focus more on things that were truly important in education and my life… things that were evidence-based and/or created a noticeable difference. By slowing down, I could read less, think and reflect more, and focus on fewer things more effectively.

By slowing down…  it helped me, as a principal, to move away from being quick to respond (often when emotions were high) to pausing, reflecting, and then responding in a more thoughtful manner. By doing things like taking email off my phone, I found I was less concerned about the speed of my response to a worrisome email and placed more focus on tone and thought in my words. Because I would only respond to email in front of a computer, I didn’t feel so rushed and I was more focused on the task at hand. I often would even pick up the phone (shocking, I know) and call someone back or request a face to face meeting after an email to ensure that we engaged in an actual conversation where there could more of a chance of empathy and understanding.

By slowing down… it has helped with my health and wellness. I feel I am less concerned about “keeping up” with blogs, tweets, and posts and more concerned about having meaningful relationships with those around me. I still struggle to slow down with being in a job that involves many people and a variety of endless tasks but I have realized that we do have way more time to make decisions. The small ones can be made on the fly but when we are supporting people in a building and have to make decisions that have a serious impact on these people, we all need a reminder to slow down and pause before making decisions. This has helped me to seek first to understand and lead better with my heart and mind.

By slowing down… I take less pride in being “busy”.  We are all busy in some way and this is not something we should wear as a ‘badge of honour’. Over the past number of years, my comfort and pride in being busy prevented me from looking around and seeing that others are willing and wanting to help. I often failed to notice the needs, wants, and wellbeing of others. I failed to notice the beauty around me and take the time to enjoy the moments with students, staff, and my friends and family. The simple acts of going for a walk outside, engaging in a real conversation, breathing deeply, and noticing the many amazing things around us have helped make me happier and healthier. By slowing down, I have embraced many more moments and ensured that I stay in that moment longer while trying to avoid that pull to the busy or perceived urgent matter.

My current school, Shortreed Community Elementary, is full of ALL aspects of life. We can get caught up in the speed of trying to quickly solve the many problems our children and families face; however, this can be overwhelming and exhausting. What some staff (at Shortreed and James Hill) have modeled to me is that in order to best support our community, I need to embrace the team, focus, listen, seek help, work through things in a face to face manner, and… slow… down…

By slowing down… we can create stronger and deeper relationships, make more thoughtful decisions, lead healthier lives.  By doing this, we can positively affect staff culture and the wellbeing of our entire organization.

I continue to have to whisper these two words to myself: SLOW DOWN. In a world that seemingly demands us to be faster, I encourage you to remind yourselves to simply slow down.

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What PROBLEM are we trying to solve?

This is a post in which I am sort of “thinking out loud” so I would love your thoughts.

I went for breakfast with a great critical friend of mine, Brian Kuhn, a few weeks ago. Brian is the CIO of the Vancouver School Board and we were discussing the many changes taking place and how we manage these changes (with technology but also other areas of change in BC schools).  I am reading Friedman’s “Thank You For Being Late” and within it, shares how our rate of change in society has surpassed the extent to which we can actually adapt to change. This reading, with the conversation with Brian, certainly got me thinking.

We discussed things like redesigned curriculum, collaborative software/apps (Google, Office 365, etc), online report cards, communicating student learning, phone systems, device management, MyEDBC, and online attendance. I was stating that with so many changes coming from outside, it is hard to encourage schools and educators to make positive changes on their own (in addition to the changes that are mandated).  Brian then said something that is simple but I cannot get out of my mind and have used many times already since being back in the buildings this year.  He said, when looking at new ways of doing things, we cannot look at the tools, new procedures, devices, etc without asking…. “What problem are we trying to solve?”

Once he said this, I went back to my sharing of the many changes that have been mandated or presented as options and asked this question. I have been sold on many “shiny” things and ideas in the past few years.  In my early years as an admin, I wanted to try everything because it looked great and someone had sold it well. As I gained experience (and hopefully wisdom), I have become more cautious of the new and shiny things and reflected more on the purpose (the WHY) of the tool or new idea.  When I use the question, what problem are we trying to solve, it can rule out the new and shiny unless it is helping us solve an agreed upon problem.

An example of the problem first approach would be what we did for our staff meetings. I initially started using Google Docs with staff because it was the “cool thing to do”… all the “cool kids” seemed to be doing it. Before I left my last school, I had a few staff members share with me that they felt there was too much tech and not enough face to face. When I arrived at my new school, we spent time discussing effective staff meetings. The problem that was stated by many staff members in an anonymous survey was that there was an inequity of voice in staff meetings – some staff member’s voices were heard much more often than others. We had defined our problem.  Now, if inequity of voice is the problem, then we can explore solutions that can help solve this problem. We can and do use tools like collaborative documents (ex. Google docs, Office 365) to provide an opportunity for people to share their thoughts and build off of the ideas of others without having to speak in front of people, we can use survey apps (ex. Google forms, Office 365 Forms) to get input from people (either anonymously or with name), or we can use strategies such as Pair-Share and Chalk Talk to have people share their voice in a small setting or in writing so it is more of a safe place.  Using Google Apps because it seems fun to try is much different than using Google Apps as ONE of the solutions to solve a problem.  We implemented a few different strategies to solve our problem and all have been effective at providing more equity of voice.

So when we look at the many changes and ideas that are presented to us as educators, it is important to engage in the dialogue around the WHY: what problem are we trying to solve?  Here a few initial thoughts based on my discussion with Brian:

  • If we are doing online report cards (vs sending home a paper copy), what problem are we trying to solve (environment? ease of access? time?)? Who is defining the problem? What is the current user (parents) experience with paper reporting? What will the user experience be with online reporting (are we asking)? What other problems arise as a result of this (new formats, new language, etc)? Is the problem big enough that it is worth making the change right now?
  • If we want teachers to do online attendance, what problem are we trying to solve? Who is defining this problem? What problems may arise with moving to online attendance (vs paper attendance)?
  • For Office 365 in our district, I believe the problems are clear: we do not have a central location to store documents that can be accessed by staff and we need to have a cloud-based storage solution that aligns with FOIPPA (stored in Canada).  Office 365 has been an effective solution for the issue of central storage and collaboration.
  • For solutions like the redesigned curriculum, the WHY and stated problems with the previous are vast but a key one for us is that in the previous curriculum, there was very little flexibility to dive deeper into topics and for teachers to have the autonomy to tap into students strengths and interests.
  • For communicating student learning, we have had numerous discussions with admin and teachers and I believe that the problem can be summarized as: report cards being sent 3 times per year does not provide parents with enough information to be fully aware of their child’s learning and work closely with the school to support development. If we then phrase it as a question, we can begin to explore the potential solutions. HOW can we use technology to provide a (parent) window in to student learning so they can become more engaged in their child’s education? OR If we use [WordPress, FreshGrade, Edmodo, or another preferred platform], will parents become more informed of their child’s learning so they can work more closely with the school to support their child’s education?

In the last example above, we move from stating the problem to framing the problem as a question to gather as many solutions as needed. This has been very helpful for us to create specific solutions once the problem has been stated. After all of this, we have to remember to always look back and seek evidence to see if our solutions are actually solving the problems we stated.

Too often we are drawn in and sold on solutions to problems which we have not even defined. Effective sales people do this very well as you walk away with something new that you didn’t even know you needed! In schools, we have so much change right now.  I love Brian’s idea of defining the problem first and then seeing if we can find potential solutions as I believe this will help us filter and manage the changes more effectively.

I am still working through this so I would love your thoughts or successes or challenges with managing change.

Image: Pixabay

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The 4 Pillars of a Positive Staff Culture

Part of my professional growth plan is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. 

I have been privileged to work at two different schools in the past 10 years each having their own organizational culture.  Culture is something that is hard to see but we can always feel; it is the vibe of a school – the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that exist within a school staff. In order to create change in a school, we need to work as a staff to create a positive school culture. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” so before we can talk about driving real change and having deep reflective conversations, we need to change the behaviours to change the culture. So how do we do this?

At James Hill, our staff has focused on building positive staff culture for the past few years. Our goal was to build school culture, not by isolated team-building activities but through the important work we do together.

To ensure we were acknowledging the importance of behaviours, we started with creating some norms or commitments for our staff meetings and collaborative time (Hat tip to Cale Birk for the idea). The staff came up with the list below and I am sure you can see some themes that arise from the list.

This set of commitments guides our behaviours and has helped create an environment where the staff meetings are a place safe enough to have those conversations that often take place in the parking lots and staff rooms. Prior to a discussion that may have some opposing views, we remind ourselves of these commitments.

More recently, we have talked about the attributes of an effective staff culture.  Staff shared their experiences both in a positive culture as well as a negative culture. They then captured words to describe a positive culture and the words were put into a wordle (Hat tip to Suzanne Hoffman for the idea).

Through the work we have done as a staff and through my journey with them, as well as my learning with the staff of Kent Elementary (my former school), I have come up with what I believe are the Four Pillars of a Positive School Staff Culture. I am sure there are many more areas that could be used as pillars but these four have been most effective for our schools. The pillars include cultures that are:

  • Strengths-based
  • Collaborative
  • Innovative
  • Focused

As you can see, these four pillars are also based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care. These values weave their way through all four pillars and without them, the pillars can crumble.

In future posts, I will go through the pillars and values in more detail but here is a summary of the 4 pillars.

  • A strength-based culture is one that believes that EVERY staff member has strengths that can be tapped into to benefit the school as a whole. Feedback with staff always starts with strengths (characters and skills), staff memebrs are given the opportunity to determine their strengths, and each staff member is encouraged to use these strengths in the important work with students.
  • A collaborative culture is one that believes the “smartest person in the room is the room itself” (David Weinberger). Staff tap into the strengths of each other and engage in reflective dialogue to drive professional learning forward and create positive change. Trust is a huge part of a collaborative culture and a big change we wanted to make was to move the “parking lot conversations” into the staff meetings. Truly listening to others is such an important way to build trust and a collaborative culture.
  • An innovative culture is one in which educators feel safe to take risks, think critically and creatively, and implement new ideas with support. An important shift we have tried to make is moving from the question, “Can we….” to the question, “HOW can we…”  An important role for principals is to work to provide the resources (time, materials, etc) to build an innovative culture and help good educators become great educators.
  • A focused culture is one that knows the key areas of growth that the school is working on as well as the strategies that can have the most impact in the classroom. With so many ideas, policies, and procedures being sent our way, it is important to be a good filter and keep the staff focused on they vision and mission.  This continues to be my highest area of needed growth.  

The aforementioned pillars are based on important values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care that not only guide our behaviours but also guide our journey toward a positive school culture.

At James Hill, we have had our challenges but have made huge strides in moving toward a positive staff culture. This year has provided so many examples of a staff that sees the strengths in each other (and taps into this), collaborates in scheduled meetings as well as on their own time, and is willing to take more risks to bring new ideas to the classrooms. With a revised curriculum in BC, focus has been a challenge for us but we will continue to grow in this area as we use the other three pillars to help create more focus on our mission and goals as a school.

I look forward to reflecting and sharing not only my learning but also our growth as a school organization to continually become a more positive school culture.

 

 

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8 Strategies to Bring Out the Best in Your Staff

IMG_2546As a school principal I am always reading leadership books and listening to podcasts on how to create the conditions for an effective organizational culture in schools. Each school and organization is different but I have appreciated the books by authors such as Dan Pink, Jim Collins, Steven Covey, Robin Sharma, Seth Godin and many others that have focused on the emotional aspect of organizations. Pink’s book “Drive” (based primarily on the research of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) has been instrumental in helping me to work to create an environment that makes professional autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose at the core of what I can provide for staff members to help bring out the best.

An area that I continue to see having a large impact on organizational culture in school is strength-based leadership.  The idea is rather simple: encourage staff members in areas of strength as much as possible and watch them flourish. Educators are often highly criticized by the public (you will see that many governments do not follow the research referenced below when working with educators) so a strength-based lens really helps to create a more positive organizational culture that focuses primarily on what we CAN do rather than all the things we CANNOT do (yet).

My reading recently led me to some research that supports what I have observed actually works in education and this research was not conducted in the field of education. The Corporate Leadership Council surveyed over 19000 employees in 34 large companies (ex. Canon, Lego, LG, Lowe’s, H&R Block, Caterpillar, etc) in 27 countries to determine what are the key strategies to increase performance in the workplace.  The paper was released in 2002. It is a lengthy document (but well worth the read) so I have summarized what I believe are the 8 (alright, there are more) key points from the research. I am not a huge fan of quantitative data, but I believe there are some very important trends in this research. I have added my thoughts as they relate to the role of school and district administration (in italics).

Note: “The term “impact on performance” indicates a shift, either up or down, in the percentile rank of the employee” (p. 7a)

  1. Employee understanding of performance standards resulted in an increase of 36.1% in individual employee performance.  Providing clarity around what is expected in our schools is key to teacher and staff performance. I am not saying that principals decide these expectations but are we (principals and district leadership teams) asking our teachers and staff what quality instruction looks like? Is this clear to new and experienced staff members? Do we have a vision of instruction at our schools? On the other side of this performance management aspect, the use of ranking employees (sometimes done in the US through test scores) resulted in an extremely low increase of 0.1%.
  2. A culture that encourages risk-taking resulted in an increase of 38.9% in individual employee performance.  By promoting a risk-tolerant culture, employees are encouraged to push themselves beyond their current practice (p. 21a). How much of our school culture is based on compliance? Do we provide autonomy and time for teachers and staff to try new things and take risks?  How do we support this?
  3. Internal communication resulted in an increase of 34.4% in individual employee performance.  When employees were able to engage in effective communication with their peers, believed that management was sharing all relevant information, and felt they had a voice with management, performance significantly increased. Are principals and district leaders sharing all relevant information with teachers and staff? How is this information communicated? Are we facilitating time for collaboration and communication for staff members? Are we creating the conditions for teachers and staff members to be heard and feel they have a voice in our schools?  On the other side of performance culture was that “differential treatment of best and worst performers” (ex. bonuses for better performers and the weeding out of low performers) only resulted in an increase of 1.5%. “Weeding out underperformers and rewarding top performers does not in itself provide employees with information, resources, or experiences that directly improve their performance” (p. 21a).
  4. Helping find solutions to problems at work resulted in an increase of 23.7% in individual employee performance. Helping employees to attain needed information, resources, and technology resulted in an increase of 19.2%. Are we helping to make the job for teachers and staff members easier by solving problems and providing them with the needed tools?  I remember Chris Kennedy said to me, “it is our job to give good teachers the tools to become great”. I know our budgets are tight but do we provide enough resources to help our good get to great? On the other side of the manager-employee interaction aspect, “measuring employee performance and results” resulted in only a 5.6% increase while “making frequent changes to projects and assignments” resulted in a decrease of 27.8% in individual performance! Can we please move on from measuring and ranking teachers using test scores? How often do we ask people to shift the focus to a new goal, a new flavour for professional learning? Are our school and professional plans for one year or longer? Are we given the time to take our projects to completion?
  5. Emphasis on performance strengths (in formal reviews) resulted in an increase of 36.4% in individual performance while the emphasis on performance weaknesses resulted in a decrease of 26.8% in performance. (In addition, an emphasis on personality strengths resulted in an increase of 21.5% while an emphasis on personality weaknesses resulted in a decrease of 5.5%).  The swing from emphasizing performance strengths to emphasizing weaknesses results in a whopping 63.4% in performance! In our feedback to staff during evaluations, is the focus on strengths or weaknesses? Are we continually taking the time to acknowledge the strengths of our staff members? We always want to provide each other feedback for improvements, being “tough” or providing too much negative feedback can undermine the goal of the performance review.
  6. Providing fair and accurate informal feedback resulted in an increase of 39.1% in individual performance. Manager knowledge about employee performance resulted in an increase of 30.3%.  According to this research, fair and accurate feedback was the single largest driver of individual performance. How often are we in classrooms and follow up with informal fair and accurate feedback? In order for us to have knowledge of performance, we need to be in classrooms – how do we make this a priority? Instructional Rounds may be something to consider so feedback is not solely coming from admin.
  7. Providing informal feedback that helps employees do their jobs better resulted in an increase of 25.8% and emphasizing personality strengths in this feedback resulted in an increase of 22.3%.  Are we providing helpful feedback? Is there a relationship there that makes the presence in classrooms and informal feedback actually valuable? When we are in classrooms, does our presence and follow up feedback actually help or hinder performance? On the others side of informal feedback, when performance weaknesses were emphasized, performance actually decreased by 10.9%.
  8. Being provided with the opportunity to work on things you do best resulted in an increase of 28.8% in individual performance.  The opportunity to do things people do best “contributes more than any other on the job development or training opportunities to improve performance” (p. 43a). Do we know the strengths of our staff members? Are we aligning opportunities with these strengths? Are we encouraging leadership opportunities in areas that people do best?

Here is a summary of the best drivers of performance (resulting in increases of 25% of greater):

Source: Corporate Leadership Council 2002 Performance Management Survey.  http://bit.ly/1Q8rvmF

Source: Corporate Leadership Council 2002 Performance Management Survey. http://bit.ly/1Q8rvmF

Here is a summary of the worst drivers of performance (resulting in a decrease in performance):

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 10.13.07 PM

Source: Corporate Leadership Council 2002 Performance Management Survey. http://bit.ly/1Q8rvmF

For me as a principal, this challenges me to be better and continue to grow in the following ways:

  • Be in the classroom more often – not to “hover” or just to be there to provide informal feedback but to also find out what the strengths of staff members are and to determine the resources staff members need to be successful in their jobs. Often we need to provide ideas, feedback and needed resources, then simply get out of the way.
  • Make sure feedback (formal and informal) is fair and strength-based.
  • Ensure that staff members feel they can take risks in their classrooms and have the time/resources to support this. I need to also make sure that staff feel that I will support them if they take a risk and it does not go as planned.
  • Have more dialogue with staff around creating clarity of what effective instruction looks like. Yes, there are many ways of teaching but are there certain characteristics that we should be striving for in our schools?  This needs to be a staff discussion and not a principal-driven expectation. I often hear that the principal needs to be the “instructional leader” which I believe is flawed. As a principal, I teach only a small amount and I think that we need many leaders of instruction on staff and the principal needs to be a part of this… with teachers. Staff should drive the conversation on clarity of expectations in our classrooms and it is up to us (as admin) to create the conditions for staff to be supported to meet these expectations in the classrooms.
  • Make time for effective communication. This involves helping to ensure there is effective communication between staff members, making sure I share all relevant information (and build trust with transparency), and actually take the time to LISTEN to staff members.
  • Provide leadership opportunities in areas of strength for staff members.

When I look at the above list, as a teacher, it seems these were also goals for me with students and the classroom community. Although this research is not from the field of education, it was timely for me but I also wonder what was missed from this? What other ideas and areas (particularly in education) can help create a “high-performing workplace” in our schools? As I strive to grow in this area I would appreciate thoughts from teachers, admin, as well as people in other fields.  How do we create the conditions that bring out the best in the educators in our schools?

@chriswejr

 

 

30

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

 

 

11

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.

IMG_6187

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.

 

5

Creating Time for Teachers to Tinker With Ideas #RSCON4

Finding out what we are curious about.

Finding out what we are curious about.

We often hear criticisms about the lack of innovation and creativity from administrators and staff in schools.  I understand these concerns; however, my response is, “if innovation and creativity are important, why do we provide educators almost no time in the schedule to explore and play with questions and ideas?”

UPDATE:  The YouTube Video as well as the slides from the RSCON4 session are at the bottom of this post.

A couple years ago, I offered to cover 8 classes (spread out over a few weeks) prep-free so a teacher could tinker with an idea.  I called it the “Fed-Ex Prep: Time for Innovation” (based on the idea shared by Daniel Pink in Drive – you can read my reflection here) as I was providing time for teachers to explore… with the idea they would have to deliver something back to the staff. Although this was successful, it only provided time for one teacher at a time and relied solely on me to cover.  It was a good idea but not something that changed the structure or culture at our school.

In our school, like many others, we see pockets of innovation and brilliance but I think we need to work to create the conditions for staff to connect, share, and collaborate on ideas.  I wanted to build on the Fed-Ex Prep to encourage more time for innovation and I also wanted to create more time for teachers/staff to meet during the day so I spent much of last year reflecting and trying to determine ways to implement collaborative time into our school schedule.  I already knew the WHY so my how/what questions were:

  1. How can we create time for teachers and staff to collaborate without any additional cost?
  2. What will we focus on during this time?

I spoke with many people and toyed with many ideas around shifting the school schedule (that is tied to the bus schedule that impacts most of our students) but this was going to take at least a year to gather input and support from parents, community members, and educators… and after those discussions, we still may have had hurdles to clear.

At the same time I was exploring ways to create time, I was also reading/researching the idea of a Professional Learning Community (the DuFour model).  Many people were helpful in this research (big shout out to my friends Bill Ferriter and Cale Birk) and I began to try to engage our staff in moving toward a PLC model and creating time in the schedule.  I had an idea for time in the schedule and staff were on board for this time to collaborate; however as we started to move into the PLC model, I felt it was not fitting the culture of our school – I felt I was following a slightly top-down recipe rather than meeting our staff where they are and growing from there.  (This is not a criticism of the PLC model… more of a criticism of how I was trying to implement it. I learned a ton from the reading and conversations that shifted my thinking.)  After a few meetings with staff around this, it didn’t feel right so I threw a tweet out there that asked for Canadian educators’ experience (as our system is quite different than the US) with implementing a PLC model in an elementary school.  One response caused a significant shift in my thinking – Delta principal Dr. Janet Lauman said she had done her dissertation (a must read) on learning communities in BC schools and she had seen successes and failures.  She encouraged a “Living Systems” model she was using in her school that created time for staff to collaborate but was way more grass roots and free for innovation.  After a few phone calls, coffee at Tim Horton’s, and dinner with a few of our teachers, Janet and I came up with a plan of what it was to look like at our school.

This was not going to be a PLC model nor would it be focused on specific school goals (although the majority of our staff meeting time is professional learning based on our school goals).  This would be time for teachers to meet and tinker with ideas.  Here is a summary of the simplicity and how it works for our school:

  • In the final months of school, we created a new vision and mission statement for Kent School.  We also discussed the WHY of collaboration time.
  • In the summer, we decided that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, during the period before lunch, we would have our teacher-librarian, our music teacher, and me available to cover classes so teachers can meet (2-4 teachers/staff – our special ed teacher is also able to cover for special education assistants so they can meet with teachers).
  • In the summer, we also went through the details of the scheduling and then asked the question, “what are you curious about? If you were given prep-free time during the schedule, what would you explore?”  We then posted all the questions and ideas on a board and put them into themes (ex. Technology, writing, self-regulation, outdoor education, and fine arts were some themes that stood out).
  • Once the year started, I would create the schedule a week in advance and either staff would come to me with a need or question or I would go to them with encouragement to explore one of their questions.  The time could not be used for a typical prep.

The simplicity of this model concerned me.  Would this really have any impact on our students?  Would staff use the time effectively?

We are one month into our experience of being a living systems learning community and the impact thus far has been significant.  We have had a teacher and special education assistant completely redesign their room so it supports more students in their self-regulation needs.  We have had our intermediate teachers meet to discuss cross-classroom art themes to explore and teach.  Our music teacher worked with me to create a website that will help to better the communication with parents and share the musical learning happening in our school.  We have had teachers (classroom and spec ed) meet with our child care counsellor to develop ideas on how to more consistently work as a team to teach the needed social skills of some of our students who struggle with behaviours. Our teacher-librarian met with a few teachers to discuss inquiry-based learning and implementing a different reading framework. The best part of all this is the simplicity.  Our grade 6 teachers met with our First Nation Support Worker to discuss ways to embed learning around Residential Schools into many parts of the curriculum.  The time we have created is basically “seed” time.  The conversations do not end after 45 minutes; they continue through lunch as well as after school (in person and online).  The time gets the ideas growing and more and more staff are asking for more time to meet to continue to grow these ideas.

We have had a challenging September with a number of new students coming to our school that require significant support (that we do not always have).  The stress level is very high but in spite of all this, there is a culture of learning and positivity in the air.  Staff are excited to learn and grow with each other.

Although we have not provided Google’s 20% time and we have not provided time for every teacher each week, the seed time we have created has encouraged teachers to set aside their busy schedules, meet with another staff member and simply tinker with an idea. There is never enough time… but this model has provided a window in to the impact that just a little bit of time can have for teachers to create positive change by meeting and tinkering with ideas.  This model is messy and I do not know where this time together will lead us; however, it is also grassroots, strength-based, organic and all about meaningful, relevant, personalized professional learning. I am truly excited to see where our staff takes these ideas in the coming months.

This post will be one of a few stories shared to initiate dialogue during my presentation, “Educational Leadership: Creating the Conditions For Passion and Innovation”, at the FREE Reform Symposium Worldwide  E-Conference that happens October 11-13.  My session will occur at noon Pacific on Saturday, October 11.  Hope you can join us and share some ways we can create the conditions for more innovation and passion in our schools and learning environments.

#RSCON4

#RSCON4

Thank you so much to Janet Lauman for her insights and leadership.

Here is the YouTube Video as well as the slides from the RSCON4 session:

 

10

The Power of Outdoor Play: We Built a Hill

Students celebrating on our hill.

Students celebrating on our hill.

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

Richard Louv

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

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

Kent Elementary Garden

Kent Elementary Garden

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

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

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

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

Open for sledding!

Open for sledding!

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

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

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

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

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

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

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

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

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

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

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Spirals of Inquiry Chat With @jlhalbert & @lkaser – May 26 #inqBC

Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser (image from http://bit.ly/10TVG39)

Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser (image from http://bit.ly/10TVG39)

Chris Kennedy and I are excited to host an upcoming Twitter chat with BC educational leaders and authors Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser. The chat will focus on key areas from their latest book “Spirals of Inquiry” (see below) and will take place this Sunday, May 26 at 8pm Pacific with the hashtag #inqBC.

Here is more info taken directly from Kennedy’s recent post:

Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser have been at the forefront of teaching and learning in British Columbia for decades. I have written previously about their work with theNetwork of Performance Based Schools (now the Network of Inquiry and Innovation). Their latest book Spirals of Inquiry For equity and quality is a welcoming book; it takes us from where we are and invites us on a team journey. Halbert and Kaser have a wonderful way of bringing us aboard and to become part of their team – “We have had the privilege of working together on system transformation for a number of years. We have experienced the joy of teamwork and the support that comes from facing challenges with a trusted learning partner. Inquiry is not a solitary pursuit. Meeting the needs of all learners is simply too big a task for any one leader, teacher, school or district to attempt alone.”

I have taken a stab at defining inquiry in my post All About Inquiry; I referenced the work of the Galileo Educational Network and in reviewing previous posts realize that I have made reference to inquiry in one out of every five posts written. Inquiry is THE buzz word in education, but while there is opportunity there are also drawbacks that can be attributed to one word used so often, by so many, in so many circumstances. There is general agreement we want more inquiry (the anti-inquiry movement is quite quiet), but exactly what this is and means is not clear. Although the work Halbert and Kaser describe is hard work, their approach is straight forward. I find it far more accessible than other frameworks and they provide structure without recipe.

Halbert and Kaser encourage us to start our investigation into inquiry with four key questions that “help move our thinking from a preoccupation with content coverage, to a focus on what learners are actually experiencing with the learning we are designing for, or with, them”:

  • Can you name two people in this school / setting who believe that you can be a success in life?
  • Where are you going with your learning?
  • How are you doing with your learning?
  • Where are you going next with your learning?

They move into their spiral approach, quoting Madame Gertrude de Stael, “The human mind always makes progress – but it is a progress in spirals.” Halbert and Kaser focus their spirals around several key questions continually coming back to the first:

  • What is going on for our learners?
  • What does our focus need to be?
  • What is leading to this situation?
  • How and where can we learn more about what to do?
  • What will we do differently?
  • Have we made enough of a difference?

While I researched the book to better understand the process of student inquiry, it reminded me that we, as teachers, need to be committed to the same efforts with our own learning.

Halbert and Kaser have created a book with useful approaches to both student and adult inquiry; more importantly, they validate the work in British Columbia, link the efforts they describe with existing practices in districts across the province, and do not hit us with a stick if we are not all doing it yet. I would argue this book should be a must read for all new teachers, and for educators with decades of experience, it is a reminder that we are all part of a big team, who need each other and that our students need us, for as Halbert and Kaser conclude, “Let’s stick together and stick with this work until every BC learner does indeed cross the stage with dignity, purpose and options.”

WANT TO LEARN MORE

Spirals of Inquiry is available through the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association for $20 (all proceeds support innovative and inquiring schools).

I encourage you to join us and add your questions and insights May 26 at 8pm Pacific for this important Twitter chat on professional learning through inquiry.