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

 

 

9

Do We REALLY Believe in Inclusion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@chriswejr

19

Not Everyone Is Able to Tweet and Post Who They Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

7

The Importance of Modeling Positive Use of Social Media

Used with permission from the Magnussen family.

Cyberbullying. Stalking. Pedophilia. Narcissism. Screen time. These are the headlines that grab the most attention around the topic of students using social media.  These articles and reports strike fear into parents and schools to the point that has resulted in the banning of social media.  By banning, we put our heads in the sand and cross our fingers that somehow, in some way, students will avoid using social media or somehow miraculously figure out how to use it in a positive manner.  When we do this, what actually ends up happening is we get students sneaking around using social media tools and teaching themselves what is and what is not appropriate.  Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold on to Your Kids,  speaks of the problems with this on a broader level as peers then attach to each other without adults (teacher, family) and teach themselves which behaviours are acceptable.  In order for adults to guide and be the teachers of any skill, we need to be aware and we need to be involved.

As adults, we need to be the teachers.  We need to be the models.  Much like with other skills and behaviours. We need to focus on the relationships we have with our students/children and model and teach digital citizenship.

At our school we have students up to the age of 12.  In a very informal survey I did last year, I found that almost 75% of our students in grade 5 and 6 were using some form of social media (predominantly Instagram and Facebook) and many of them were using it with very limited support from adults.  This is not a criticism of parents nor is it a criticism of schools and teachers; we are all taking this new journey together and as we grow with the tools, we start to see the issues that arise.  Because of this, I have taught mini-units of social media with our 5’s and 6’s with the focus on digital footprint and online communication (as well as what to do when a child experiences negative behaviour online).  We speak of BOTH the negatives (ex. the importance of knowing how to take a screenshot on any device as well as the impact of this) and the positives (ex. the positive impact a child can have on others through supporting and sharing online).  My goal with these sessions is not to tell students to connect online but rather to teach the impact of posting online as well as the skills of how to communicate and interact online. In addition to these sessions, as more students and classes begin blogging and connecting for educational purposes, it also provides us with key opportunities to teach digital citizenship.

One thing that I have been thinking about lately is the idea that my friend, George Couros, recently mentioned to me: Digital Leadership.  Much like leadership offline, students and adults can LEAD others in how they interact and treat each other online.  When we put our heads in the sand and ban social media, we miss a huge opportunity to showcase and tap intp digital leadership and model a positive online presence.

In a recent session I did with the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils on schools using social media to enhance parent engagement, a question was asked about the fear around using Facebook in schools (click here to access the archive of the session).  My response was that although I understand the fears involved with posting online, I believe that it is our job as adults in 2013 to MODEL appropriate and positive use of social media.  For example, like other schools in BC, we have fairly strict protection of privacy laws (FIPPA) so we need to have specific consent of parents in order to share photos (especially when stored online outside of Canada).  This consent is often beyond that of a 12 year old’s understanding… so in addition to the consent that is required by an adult, I ask the students before a post a photo of them.  I want them to learn that it is not appropriate to post any photos of friends or peers without them knowing.  Another area that I also am trying to model with students is how and when to put the devices away and self-regulate in a world in which there is always someone online that wants to engage.  Students know I use social media and they also see me using technology in a very purposeful manner (see Why I Took Facebook and Twitter Off My Phone).  By sharing the ways we use social media and including students in this discussion, we schools can be digital leaders and open the doors to some deeper learning experience on how to better navigate this new(ish) world of social media together.

Not only is it important for schools to model digital leadership and citizenship. it is aslo important to share the stories of other digital leaders (particularly youth) who are using social media to make a positive difference to others.  Many of you know the relationship that I had with the family of  a young girl, Lilee-Jean Putt, whom we lost recently to cancer at the age of two. Because of my online connection to LJ’s mother and father, I came across the Facebook page of a 17 year old girl, Angel Magnussen, who has made it her life purpose to help sick children in a variety of ways. Angel is not your typical 17 year old.  She is a 17 year old who is #proudtohaveDownsSyndrome (from her Twitter bio) and a passionate girl who has started her own non-profit business “Hugginz By Angel”.  This business raises money for BC Children’s Hospital in a variety of ways but most importantly, by selling (well, mostly raising money and donating) beautiful blankets Angel makes to wrap around as many sick children in need an “Angel Hug”.  From her Facebook page:

I have just started up my own Non Profit Fundraising Business “Hugginz By Angel”. I make and sell specially designed cute cuddly hospital pajamas for kids and teens and blankets young children and babies. I knit Love Hats for sick kids too. I want to make sure that every sick child is wrapped up in a warm hug. Sales of Hugginz benefit Variety the children’s charity. Please check out my Hugginz By Angel photo album to see the photos and get the ordering and sponsorship information. You can help me to reach my fundraising goals for these charities by sharing my website www.hugginzbyangel.com and spreading the word about my latest fundraising efforts.

Not only is this impressive, but it is also inspiring to see how she is using her blog, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to share the stories of so many others that are fighting battles and need our support.  Because of all the work she is doing, the mainstream media has started to take notice and, in addition to the numerous honours she has received, she has been recently featured at WeDay as well as on CTV.  Although I have never met Angel (but hope to one day), please take a moment to like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter – you will read stories of empathy and unbelievable care that is having an impact on so many families needing support.

Negative issues like cyberbullying are important to discuss with our students and children; however, because of these issues it makes it that much more important for adults to model and be digital leaders for our youth.  Angel did not learn to use social media in a positive way one evening; she has the support of her mother to help tap into the power of social media and enhance her message and purpose.  As schools, we no longer can stick our heads in the sand and hope this goes away.  We need to be digital leaders and find ways to become part of the conversation, share powerful stories like Angel, and model the positive use of social media to our students.

 

3

Modeling and Teaching Our Kids to Reach Out and INCLUDE

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Erickson Ocampo: http://flickr.com/photos/coolbite1/3596619861/

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Erickson Ocampo: http://flickr.com/photos/coolbite1/3596619861/

Every year, as a principal, I hear the heart-breaking stories from parents and kids about not having friends, not being invited to play after school and never being invited to a birthday party.  Although we are only a few students and children in communities, these stories are far too common and are not only devastating to the children but also the families.

As I grow with my kids, one of my goals is to always reach out and invite a child who, for whatever reason, needs a friend.  I have seen parents do this in our school as they taught and modeled to our children the importance of including others in their circles.

When I was in elementary school, I remember new students moving to our town and struggling to make friends.  On a couple of occasions (probably more), my parents asked me to choose a child that was new or struggled to have friends and invite them to come to a Canucks game with my dad and I (back when the Canucks games were mostly losses but very affordable). These events grew into friendships and modeled to me the empathy and care that is needed to truly understand and appreciate the value of friendships and inclusion of others.

As we move into another school year, my challenge to parents (including me) is for us to reach out and include students beyond our children’s typical friendship circles.  If it is a new student in the class, set up an after school activity for a day.  For birthdays, start by reaching out to one child that needs a friend… and if our children disagree, this gives us the perfect opportunity to embrace a teachable moment about empathy and care.  If it is a student that struggles with some behaviours or disabilities that require support, invite the child to come over with the parent so you can truly understand the challenges that both the child and the family face.  Raising a child with a disability and/or a child that requires significant behaviour support can also be very difficult for the parents. They, too, can be left feeling alone and negatively judged as “bad parents” when it is often a condition that is not about parenting and more about extra support, empathy, and understanding.

A series of these small efforts can have a life-changing impact on children, families and society as a whole.  I invite you to join me, and many families whom I learn from, in reaching out and teaching our children to include others.

@chriswejr

 

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we:

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

OR

Are we:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

Power of Positivity: The Friday 5 Positive Phone Calls

Building Trust With Parents

Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

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

 

 

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

11

The Most Beautiful Morning Spent Dancing in the Rain

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Heather: http://flickr.com/photos/michar/2530447234/

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Heather: http://flickr.com/photos/michar/2530447234/

We are faced with challenges every day.  We also faced with a choice of how we respond to these challenges.  Today I had a slap in the face reminder of how, even when faced with the worst hand a parent could ever be dealt, there are people that choose to seek the positives… there are people that choose to Dance in the Rain.

Lilee-Jean was born 5 days before my girls in late 2010.  She started her life just like every other child… but 10 months later, something horrible started to grow inside her little developing brain – a tumour called Gliobastoma (GBM).  For the next year and a half, Lilee and her family did every treatment they could to beat this awful disease.  Although the chances of winning were very low, they kept fighting… After months and months of treatments and battles, they started to feel like they had a chance of beating this tumour.

Just when the sun started to shine a tiny bit on this family, the dark thunder clouds came rolling back in and another tumour was discovered… their worst nightmare came true: time officially became the enemy.  Chelsey, LJ’s mother, shared this quote in a recent blog post:

“Today we fight. Tomorrow we fight. The day after, we fight. And if this disease plans on whipping us, it better bring a lunch, ’cause it’s gonna have a long day doing it.”
― Jim Beaver, Life’s That Way: A Memoir

They still fight every day. As devastating as this has been to this family, they somehow have had the power to change their lens… to understand that if there is a chance of shortened time, they need to embrace every single moment they have with their precious daughter.  Chelsey wrote,

Once again, as always, with urgency, we are living. We are laughing. We are dancing. And we are singing…

…Andrew [LJ’s father] and I have compiled a realistic, relatively short and doable list, not only to fill Lilee-Jean’s life to the brim with love, laughter and magic, but to keep ourselves focused on our now and not our later.
We have chosen to call it “Dancing In The Rain” in stead of a “bucket” list for obvious reasons, and if time allows, we will hopefully be adding to it as we cross things off.

There is no better way to fight disease and to fight death, than to live. So when we finish our last few stomach churning, heart wrenching “to do’s” they will be put aside, and left to gather dust until the time comes for them to rear their ugly heads… IF that time does come.

One of the items on the list was “go to school”.  Because of Andrew’s ties to our community (he attended our school years ago and is very well know in Agassiz), LJ’s story has grabbed and wrenched the hearts of many of us in Agassiz and at Kent School (I wrote about this here after she came to visit us following surgery).  Both our kindergarten teacher (Stacey Garrioch @garrioch) and I reached out to the family to offer LJ a chance to spend her first day at school with us.  Andrew and Chelsey agreed that this would be a great fit so this morning, we welcomed our newest student to Kent School.

Photo from Chelsey Whittle

Photo from Chelsey Whittle

Stacey set the day up as a typical day filled with tons of play-based learning for Lilee-Jean and her classmates.  As with every new member of the class, the students were so excited to meet and play with LJ – who showed up with a big smile and her “lucky bear” and new Tinkerbell lunch box.  She hung her coat up on the hook with her name on it, met her buddy and sat down and joined the class.  She was, of course, one of the VIPs so this meant she led some songs, shared calendar time, and told us all about the weather. She was a real Kent student in Division 10.  I think the best part of the day was when I walked in to check in to see how things were going and I couldn’t see Lilee-Jean; she completely blended in and was just ‘one of the kids’ playing in the house centre.  She was busy feeding her baby with two other students like any typical kindergarten student would be doing.  The other times I popped in to take in the moments, she was either pointing out the L in a puzzle and saying this stood for Lilee-Jean, eating her snacks with her classmates at the table, writing on the white boards, or dancing the Gummy Bear Dance with her friends.  I did not want this day to end but I knew she was a typical two year-old and needed her afternoon nap.

Photo from Jessica at the Agassiz-Harrison Observer

Photo from Jessica at the Agassiz-Harrison Observer

I didn’t want this day to end because I wanted to continue to be able to pop in and see Lilee-Jean bringing joy to all of us by just being herself in her first day of school. I imagine this is what Andrew and Chelsey go through almost every moment of their lives… and unfortunately, the moments must fly by.  At noon, Lilee-Jean had her lunch and hung out and played with her classmates.  She then gave every child and adult a big warm hug and left school with a huge smile as she danced in the puddles and caught the rain drops in her hands.  Tonight she will have a girls night as she and her mommy go to a spa and a hotel to continue their dancing in the rain.

As I sat in my office to collect my thoughts, I wondered: when faced with life’s challenges, do we look through the lens of all the problems we cannot change?  Or do we choose to change the lens and see all the wonderful moments life has to offer and dance in the rain? Andrew and Chelsey are going through what every parent fears. They CHOOSE to embrace the life they have with their beautiful daughter, Lilee-Jean.  Because they choose to do this and choose to share their story, I am forever changed. Lilee-Jean may not live on forever but all that she and her family have taught me about life and love will live on through me and so many others that have been touched with their story.

Thank you so much to LJ, Andrew, Chelsey for sharing today with us.  Thank you for letting so many of us into your lives through the window of social media. Thank you for inspiring me and so many others. Thank you for Lilee-Jean for allowing me to spend the most beautiful morning dancing in the rain.

Love for Lilee… forever. xoxo

Please support this family by going to Chelsey’s blog here and liking Love For Lilee on Facebook.

My daughters sang a song they love and one that I know means a lot to Lilee and her parents.  Have a look at the video below or view it here.

13

Is a School Awards Ceremony the BEST We Can Do?

Questioning Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some ideas to consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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