Archive for category Organizational Leadership

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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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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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:

 

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The Power of Outdoor Play: We Built a Hill

Students celebrating on our hill.

Students celebrating on our hill.

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

Richard Louv

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

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

Kent Elementary Garden

Kent Elementary Garden

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

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

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

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

Open for sledding!

Open for sledding!

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

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

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

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

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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Will My Child Be OK In A Split Class?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More resources:

 

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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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Building Trust With Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we listening? 

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

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