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Flexible Seating: What’s the Point?

I realize it is summer but some educators are have been reflecting on their current classroom set up or changes they have recently made to decide on what their classroom will look like next year.  I recently read a couple of articles from Mindshift and Edutopia (here and here) about flexible seating and it caused me to tweet out the following:

I have been critical of Twitter as it very rarely seems to create dialogue but for some reason, this tweet caused a number of different deeper conversations of which I thoroughly enjoyed and helped with my thinking.

As with any changes we make in education, it must come from a place of purpose. I like the question: What problem are we trying to solve?

So what is the point of flexible seating? What do we even mean by “flexible seating”? From the people I have talked to and those who responded on Twitter, it seems that the main purposes (yes, there are more but these were the main ones) of these changes in classrooms are:

  • comfort
  • decor
  • student ownership of the classroom
  • collaboration
  • self-regulation

Last year, we had 4 teachers decided to create pretty significant changes to their classroom set up. The district encouraged us to make these changes and because we had to get the orders for new furniture in by a deadline to get the stuff for September, we spent some money and ordered what we felt would help with classroom design. The error I made in this is that we actually never discussed the purpose for each classroom. We ordered it because we thought it would help but because we didn’t define the purpose, we were not able to see if “it worked” as a school (knowing the teachers that made the changes, they put a ton of thought into it and likely had a clear purpose in mind but I never asked the question). Whenever we make changes, we should have a clearly defined purpose or a problem we are working on; when we have this, we can assess at various points of the year if our solutions are hindering or helping.

For our school, some teachers made the following changes:

  • one classroom that kept the desks but added in some comfort areas and standing desks
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used regular rectangular tables with chairs, shorter tables so students could sit on the floor, bucket seats, hokki stools, lap desks, and carpets. Lighting was also changed to a more natural light.
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used smaller tables that could be put together and pulled apart for various reasons, standing desks, bucket chairs, and stools. Less fluorescent lighting was used as well as some aromatherapy.
  • one classroom that kept 2/3 of the desks but had options of couches and tables of various heights as well as some floor seating options.
  • one classroom that removed the desks and had tables of various heights. A carpet area was also added.

Throughout the year, we discussed how things were going with the new design.  For those teachers who made pretty significant changes, it was a struggle for 2-3 months to help students to understand their seating options and the responsibilities that came with this (helping students to purposely choose the best fit for them). After Christmas, some teachers felt that students started to settle in and they felt that this really had a positive impact on classroom community (care, collab, social-emotional). Some felt that students who needed to wiggle and move could do this and this helped with their focus and behaviour. For another teacher, the removal of desks was not working for her class. Students had significantly more self-regulation struggles and teaching a lesson posed a large challenge (students were very distracted at tables, struggled with not having their own space, and there was less calm, learning time for individual students) so a few tables were kept but desks were brought back in. Talking to a few students, they actually preferred the desks as they had their own space and were less distracted by those at their table.

As stated, we were not able to actually tell if the redesign helped or hindered students because I had not asked for clarity around purpose so we were not able to assess the impact.  The only thing we could go on was how it “felt” or “looked” to staff members. As a school, I think overall that the teachers liked the moves but there were some challenges.

Moving back to the aforementioned reasons that people choose to redesign their classroom, there are some questions/thoughts I now have:

  • Comfort: Comfort is important but does a more comfortable classroom lead to better achievement or more success? Classrooms need to be safe with a sense of belonging but we need to be careful that we are not putting comfort ahead of teaching and learning. I am more comfortable sitting on the couch or in bed but I get a lot less done than if I am at a desk. If comfort is the key reason for making these changes, keep in mind that some/many students need their own space and can become dysregulated if they have to share space or have too many options. How do improve comfort while also improving self-reg and/or achievement?
  • Decor: We all want our classrooms to look nice for students, parents, and colleagues. It feels great when we have a classroom we can be proud of.  When we shift the decor we always have to keep student learning at the forefront. Many people have said they are trying to model their classroom after a cafe – the “Starbucks” way of design. My concern with this is that people using Starbucks as a place of learning have a much different purpose than those in a classroom. People going to Starbucks are not learning from a teacher and are all self-directed. A high school learning commons area can use Starbucks as a model but for a classroom, there should still be an effective way for the teacher to teach a lesson (content knowledge is so important!) and having so many different areas with students facing so many different ways can be a real challenge. Even if we are just trying to change the look of our classroom so it is more trendy, we still need to be aware of these changes in achievement.  Are we assessing the effect of our changes on the classroom? What if these changes actually hinder learning in the classroom?
  • Student Ownership of the Classroom: Similar to the comments above, if student ownership is the problem we are trying to solve, how can we create solutions that not only help this but also benefit (or don’t take away from) student achievement? Ownership is important but this can be done in many smaller ways first to see if they make an impact (before changing the entire classroom design).
  • Collaboration: Creating more collaborative learning spaces is not something new as teachers have been getting students to push their desks together for years. I do see the benefit of tables but I also see the drawbacks. If a classroom goes to all tables, this could actually make it less flexible as tables cannot be taken apart and moved around for individuals or smaller groups. Collaboration only works if students have enough content knowledge to actually contribute to the dialogue. Ensuring that the classroom works in a way that the teacher can still teach content knowledge is important so how do we create environments that allow for instruction, individual practice and reflection, as well as collaboration?
  • Self-Regulation: For me, this is the most important reason to reflect on classroom design (and one that I have seen the most success). Beneficial changes in the classroom to help “down-regulate” and “up-regulate” can be done without having to throw out all the desks and bring in new furniture. Changes in lighting, adding calm areas of the room, and providing various seating options (actual seats like wobble stools and standing desks) can help with the whole learning environment and thus, help achievement. A few years ago, we brought in a couple standing desks and a few Hokki stools and then looked at the effect of written output. For some students, allowing them to stand or use a wobble stool helped them be able to write significantly more with a higher quality. For other students, the wobbling became a real distraction and actually hindered writing achievement. This creates a challenge as what works for one student may not work for others. What we did well was look at a specific way of assessing success/failure when we implemented a few ideas. When designing a classroom for self-regulation, seating options is just one thing to consider as there are multiple strategies that can be used with students to help them regulate themselves for effective learning. If a child is better regulated, their achievement should increase so this is an area that can be assessed throughout the year.

There is little to no clear research of the impact of classroom design on student achievement and with so many variables to consider, I don’t think there is a single optimal classroom design for all students and educators. Having said this, based on what I have read and the conversations I have had with people I work with and online, I think I will try to keep the following in mind when I work with teachers to redesign or reflect on classroom design:

  • Be specific on the problem, purpose of the change, strategies to implement, and markers for success. Without doing this, how will we know our time, efforts, and money are making a difference?
  • Keep some desks*. I am not saying you need to keep all of them but before making big changes, switch up a portion of the class and leave a good number of desks for those students who need their own personal space. *Note that this is more for grade 2/3 and above as many early primary classrooms have not used desks for years and lessons/instruction take place at the carpet.
  • Use small tables. Large tables actually take away from flexible seating as they present only one or two options for students. With smaller tables, you can put them together or move them apart as needed. If you are buying tables, you can also get tables that can be raised or lowered based on the need to stand or sit.
  • Offer comfortable areas. When starting small (in elementary/middle), for quiet reading, students may enjoy a bean bag chair or a bucket chair. Be clear with students the purpose of these areas so that when there is instruction or individual or small group work occurring, these are not used.
  • Offer seating options (stools, standing desks). You need not change your whole classroom to offer some seating options for students who may benefit from self-reg tools. Start with a few stools and some standing desks (or small, tall tables) to and see if student learning and achievement benefits from this. If we have evidence of increased success for an individual with a certain tool from past years/teachers, please embrace this as to go back to a standard chair may make the learning more difficult for the student. We can build on evidence from past success/struggles.
  • Fail small*.  One of the most common mistakes I have made is making significant (large) changes and waiting too long to see if it is working.  If you have a clear understanding of the purpose and the strategies, use the defined success markers to see if what you are doing is effective. After a short time (weeks or 2 months), check to see how the strategy is working. If it is working… keep going, if it is not, stop and pivot.  I have tried and observed classroom design that actually hindered learning so it is important to know the impact of the strategy.  *HT to Simon Breakspear for helping me with this.

If you are a teacher that does well (and whose students do well) in a classroom with all desks, don’t feel pressured to make significant changes unless there is clear evidence that it will positively impact your classroom. Some of the best teachers I have observed had classrooms with all desks while others had a variety of seating options. We are often quick to judge a teacher by what the classroom looks like at a point in time instead of moving deeper to look at the pedagogy and learning tasks that take place over a period of time. Be respectful in understanding that what works for one teacher and group of students may not work for someone else. Find what works for you and your students. Desks are not likely the enemy that some people seem to think they are.

I have seen success in a variety of classrooms (yes, even desks in rows! 😉 and I would argue that the success is due to the teacher rather than the furniture or set up. At this point, I am not for or against classroom redesign; what I am for is us reflecting and sticking with what works and/or trying ideas to see if there is a benefit to our students. As educators, we have very little time so when we put in time and effort, we need to be aware of the changes we make and the evidence of the impact of these changes on our students. With not much research out there yet on the impact of flexible design, we need to be clear on the POINT (our why) of the changes and then check to see if our HOW is making a difference.

As I am mostly thinking out loud on this one, if you have thoughts on why we should promote or be cautious of flexible seating, please share. Thank you to all those people at school and online who have pushed my thinking on this one.

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Moving Beyond the Sit ‘n Git Model of Professional Development

This post was originally written for the Canadian Education Association in 2015. I believe it is still relevant and important today. 

I often wonder if what we see as teaching at professional learning events would be acceptable in a high school classroom. If the purpose of professional development (Pro-D) is professional learning, then what is our evidence that learning does, in fact, occur? Are we using effective teaching practices in Pro-D?

Although Pro-D is evolving, the “Sit‘n’Git” way of learning seems to still be alive and well in many conferences and workshops throughout Canada and the U.S. In the past five years, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in a large conference room for a number of hours with hundreds of other dedicated educators and not been provided with the opportunity to even talk to the person beside me. People are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to attend these events to listen to a series of lengthy lectures without the opportunity to network and wrestle with the presented ideas. I’m not opposed to a keynote address to start off the day with some inspiring, thought-provoking ideas; however, if there is no opportunity to take these ideas and move deeper, many of the thoughts that are initiated in the keynote get lost as I move on to the next session or listen to the next presenter. It’s no secret that in order for deeper learning to occur, we must DO something with a new concept; we must apply new learning to take it from an idea to implementation. Our current typical model of Pro-D makes deeper learning a challenge and often only leaves participants with a few ideas that are unfortunately left on the shelf with the many glossy white binders from workshops of years past. At some point we need to stand up and say that a high volume of “Sit‘n’Git” style of Pro-D is no longer acceptable and is an insult to those who have spent money, time, and effort to attend. While doing this, we also need to rethink the conference model and professional learning so that it better aligns with what we want to see in classrooms.

There are many articles written about rethinking professional learning (for example – http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/20/is-the-pd-day-broken/ and http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea_fone_teacherpd.pdf) For me, the experience needs to be relevant, continual, and collaborative. As educators, we need time to take an idea, wrestle with it, discuss it, and then plan for implementation. Ideally, there should also be time for follow up with reflective dialogue either as a staff or as a group.

In B.C., the current learning model for teachers is five to six separate (often not aligned, surface level) PD days, monthly staff meetings, and (optional) after school workshops. Is this the best we can do? We know the importance of professional autonomy, so how do we offer this and also ensure that professional learning moves beyond surface level workshops or lectures that give participants the chance to mentally opt out? What is our collective responsibility as schools and districts to create the conditions for deeper learning that affects positive change?

It will likely be some time before we completely rethink Pro-D, so how do we make the best use of our current model?

One of the most effective ways to create change is to focus on the bright spots and build from there. There is a powerful movement of professional learning opportunities that have moved away from the “Sit’n’Git” model to one that taps into the strengths of participants and creates more opportunities for networking. All of these require TIME and it is important for us to change the question from “CAN we provide time for Pro-D?” to “HOW CAN we provide more time for effective, ongoing professional learning?”. 

Here are eight ideas to move us beyond the “Sit’n’Git”:

1. NETWORKING/COLLABORATION TIME AT CONFERENCES – We don’t have to blow up our system; we can start small and ensure that there is important “blank” space in between workshops or following keynotes for teams or groups of people to move the learning deeper. Within workshops, always provide time for participants to DO something with their learning; move from the “sit’n’git” to the “make’n’take”. We can use models that encourage inspiring ideas (keynote, workshop) as well as the time to take the WHY of ideas and move to the WHAT and HOW. I am excited to present in Red Deer next week at the Central Alberta Teachers Convention and they have the Thursday planned for presentations and workshops and the Friday planned for networking – a great way to take the new ideas and dive deeper the following day. 

2. TEACHER ACTION RESEARCH – B.C. teacher, Jennifer Delvecchio, shared a grassroots concept of a“growing learners/pedagogy from within” group of teachers that used some of the allocated Pro-D days – along with school supported time (and some of their own time) – to take a concept and spiral deeper over time. Teachers looked at published research and then reflected on their own practices to question and implement change to benefit student learning. By continually analyzing practice in their own classrooms and making the time to meet a priority, they were able to use the published research in a way that actually created positive change in their classrooms. By tapping into teachers’ curiosity and providing small bits of time for reflective dialogue based on gathered evidence of student learning, we can drive powerful professional learning forward. I have seen the power of this in the past 2 schools in which I have served as principal. Teachers (and staff) have used professional development days, after school workshops, and collaboration time (in addition to their own time) to continually meet with a partner or small group and spiral deeper in their learning. This has a significant impact on student learning and the learning conditions in the classroom (see #3).

3. COLLABORATIVE TIME AND INQUIRY – For the past 2 years in the Langley School District, time that was previously allocated into two learning days in the year has been spread out over the year in the form of six collaboration mornings (80 minutes each). This model is more organic and teacher-driven than the typical professional learning community (PLC) model as educators are encouraged to choose an inquiry question with a small group of colleagues and then take the time to spiral deeper into their inquiry (see Spirals of Inquiry by Halbert and Kaser).  Another example of providing small bits of collaboration time at a school level (based on the passions and curiosities of staff) can be read here.

4. IGNITE EVENTS – Ignite sessions can feel kind of like an “underground” professional learning experience where a number of people meet and listen to others share a story, an idea, or an experience through a short series of slides (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide). There is some sit’n’git but the best part about the events is the networking that occurs before, during, and after the series of five-minute presentations that plant seeds of conversations.

5. EDCAMPS – More and more districts and even some schools are offering Edcamps as a way to tap into the strengths and knowledge of participants. With no formal set agenda and no formal lectures, participants bring their topics to the day and help facilitate conversation on participants’ areas of interest. The challenge with Edcamp, along with many of these participant-driven events, is keeping the passionate dialogue going beyond the event.

6. RETHINKING STAFF MEETINGS – Many schools are making professional learning the focus of staff and department meetings. If information can be sent out in a memo/email, leave it off the agenda and free up time for engaging discussions and reflections on student learning. Something as simple as “what have you tried since the last workshop/conference/collaboration that has had an impact (small or large) on student learning?” should be discussed at staff meetings. Cale Birk is doing some great work on Learner-Centered Design (LCD) that shows the power on redesigning the time we spend together learning as a staff.

7. INSTRUCTIONAL ROUNDS – The Kamloops School District has been exploring the use of Instructional Rounds (based on the work out of Harvard as a way to provide ongoing dialogue and reflections based on non-judgmental observations of educators by educators). The challenge is providing release time for rounds to take place but if a district is willing to consider HOW money is spent on professional learning, instructional rounds should be on the table.

8. SOCIAL MEDIA – There are many different platforms (Twitter, blogging, etc.) that can continue conversations past the event (and also help with the sharing of good ideas). Social media can help to connect people in areas of passion or curiosity who can have conversation that can lead to deeper dialogue in other platforms. Dean Shareski challenges us to connect with one person at an event and keep the conversation going beyond that event.

The Sit’n’Git, single event idea of Pro-D does not align with what we know about teaching, nor about professional learning. We need a sense of urgency to create change in this area. Start small. Build on what is working. Let’s work together to making professional learning more relevant and continual so it leads to deeper change in education.

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Find the Fireflies: Create the Conditions for Them to Shine

Through my work in promoting a strengths-based education and culture in schools, the question often gets raised: where do we to start? People often agree that to bring out the best in people, shifting our lens to a strengths-based approach is where we want and need to go but the thought of working to embrace the strengths of all of our students can be a bit overwhelming.

My challenge to people is to start with strengths by starting with ONE. Find one student who you observe to lack connection and that possibly has strengths of skill and/or character that might not being revealed and embraced at school.  Take the TIME to get to know this student at a deeper level and work to determine his/her strengths. A few minutes a day of focused time to simply listen can build trust and provide an opportunity to learn and tap into the strengths of a student (think of the difference this would make in a school If every staff member started with one). When we take the time to listen and determine the strengths, we build strong connections and a clearer understanding of how to better engage the child in school.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-8-42-41-pmOne of my favourite analogies about starting with one is from Rachel Macy Stafford. She writes about how, in schools, we often see the butterflies. They are easy to spot and see their strengths; they fly beautifully in school. She challenges us to find the fireflies – those students who only shine under the right conditions – and to work to create the conditions for these students to shine more often.

When we start with the strengths of one student, that one firefly, we can make a huge difference to this student. If everyone starts with one, we slowly shift the culture of a school to a strengths-based culture; a culture in which fewer students’ strengths go unnoticed and an environment in which our fireflies have a chance to truly shine.

Start with one. #StartWithStrengths. Find your firefly.

For a deeper look into a strengths-based approach to education and leadership, check out my recent TEDx talk here and below.

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6 Keys to Connecting With the Disconnected

I recently had the honour or being asked to come back to work with the passionate educators of the Fort Nelson School district to continue our conversation in strengths-based education. For the keynote, we wanted to back up a bit and look at the importance of connection… the importance of relationships.

We know we cannot teach a child without a connection. Talking about the importance of relationships is nothing new but sometimes we need a reminder of our WHY.  With the high volume of tasks, checklists and day to day duties in schools, our why (larger purpose) of making a difference through relationships can somehow get lost.  The session in Fort Nelson was designed to be a summary and a reminder of what is truly important in education.

The kids who need the most love

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

Connecting with students who are disengaged, acting out, absent, closed down, or have almost given up in school can be very challenging. Sometimes students, no matter how much we seem to try, will continually shut us out and/or push us away. As Russell Barkley writes, “The kids who need the most LOVE will often ask for it in the most unloving ways.”  We must remember our why, stay the path through the bad and the good to connect with our kids that need it the most.

Connecting is more important now than ever. According to a 2011 study of youth done by the Public Health Agency of Canada, just over half of our grade 10 students feel that they belong and have a teacher that cares about them in school. It is difficult for me to hear this as I know how hard we work in education. How can almost half of our students not feel cared for and a sense of belonging? The question must me asked… knowing this, now what? We know the links between positive school environment and mental health and we know the impact we CAN have on our students so what are we doing about this as educators, schools and as a society?

I know there are many more but here are my “6 Keys To Connecting” – these keys are designed to create connections, moments, memories, and an overall positive school experience.

  1. Be Interested. Make the time. Listen. Build trust. Josh Shipp tells us that “To a child, trust is spelled T-I-M-E”.  We need to make the time to listen, get to know students, and build trust… and we must make this a priority. Spending just a few casual minutes a day or per class with a student that lacks connection can go a long way. Greet every child, every day. As students enter our schools and classrooms, acknowledge them. Say their name. Value them. Let them know “they matter”. Greeting a student is something that takes zero additional time but can have a lasting impact when done over time. Listen – truly listen. My kids remind me to “Listen with your eyes, Daddy”.  Take a moment to not listen to simply respond or solve something but to listen to… just listen. When you make the time, you listen, and show you care, you will build trust. When you have this trust, students will let you in to their stories and you can then better understand their behaviours and where they are coming from. This helps to meet them where they are at and help from there. We know we are busy but we must always make time to be interested.
  2. Start With Strengths. Theirs and yours. I have written extensively on this topic as I truly believe it can create significant transformations in school culture (watch a recent TEDx Talk from me on this).  If we find what we are looking for, what ARE we looking for? What do we see? Look for both the character strengths and the strengths of skill and then tap into these with our students. I believe that the best way to connect with a child is through his/her strengths. Rachel Macy Stafford reminds us that we have many butterflies in our school – those students who we regularly see fly and are beautiful in what they do. The challenge is to find the fireflies – those students who only shine under the right conditions. It is our job to create the conditions for these fireflies to also shine and show their beauty. When we know students’ strengths, we can tap into this and even place them in leadership roles to help bring out the best.  Not only do we need to look for the strengths in our students but we also need to use the strengths of ourselves. It is no secret that when people spend time in an area of strength, they are less depressed, less anxious, and have more joy in life. This is true in school as well – for students and staff. I encourage people to bring in their strengths to their lessons and also volunteer their time once in a while at lunch or before/after school with kids in an area of strength. There are few stronger connections you will make with kids than when you and the students are engaged in activities in an area of strength.
  3. Celebrate and Build on Sucess.  Many of our students who lack connection have gone through their school life on a “losing streak”. They have not experienced success for months or years. The thing about a losing streak is that it only takes one “win” to snap it. When we seek out the good and then find, capture, and share it, we can snap the streak and sometimes even start a new positive one. I am not a huge fan of public acknowledgement. I know it works for some people but I prefer a more private moment. When you see a positive in a student, acknowledge it privately with feedback and a pat on the back, a fist bump or just a message saying thank you and you appreciate the effort. With the access to technology, we can also capture this in a photo or video and share it with the student, his/her family and, depending on the student (as well as permissions), with a larger audience.
  4. Be Interesting. Be relevant. Be engaging. George Couros asks us, “Would YOU want to be in your class?”.  Telling kids they will “need this in the ‘real world'” doesn’t cut it. It needs to relevant right now and connected to their lives. This is the same for adults – it is very difficult to learn anything when we are disconnected from the purpose. We often take ourselves too seriously when we need to be more vulnerable, share who we are, and bring joy and passion into the classrooms (and other learning environments). As I have been told by my kids, it is time to “let it go” – laugh, smile, and take risks with our kids. I know there is a needed balance but the “never let them see you smile before Christmas” simply pushes kids away. In addition to making our own classrooms more relevant and engaging, we can look to doing more school-wide events that make overall school life more engaging for kids. We can also develop programs that are purposeful and relevant for students (ex. trades, arts, etc) that also tap into the strengths of students and staff. Students often see us as “teachers” or “principals” rather than who we are. Being an educator is a huge part of who I am but it does not define me – it is part of my story. By sharing my love of dogs, I always have kids bringing their dogs and new puppies to meet me. This is a connection developed just because I shared a little of who I am through a video when I started at my school.
  5. Create a Sense of Belonging.  Include. Value. Belonging and being part of a community is a need for ALL of us. Do all our kids feel they belong? Do all kids feel they are included for who they are (regardless of ability, gender, sexual orientation, colour, race, religion, income level, etc)?  How do we know? An inclusive school culture is so important and it is not simply about students with disabilities – inclusion is for all of us. Many behaviours are a result of a drive to belong. Work to create safe, inclusive environments in our schools. (Do we REALLY believe in inclusion?)
  6. Lead with the heart. Teach with an ethic of care. Students may not always be listening but they are always watching. How we teach becomes what we teach – we are always modeling what we believe through our words and actions. I understand the challenges we face but we must always do our best to ensure that the decisions we make must comes from the angle of what we believe is best for kids. As the late Rita Pierson said in her TED talk, “Every Child Needs a Champion”.  Why not you?

In the end, we need to start with these keys as individuals and also combine this with ideas and events that create more of positive culture as a school.  We cannot do this alone but we can start with one. We can start with just one of our students who seems to lack connection and make the time, learn his/her strengths, build on success, make it relevant, ensure they are included… all the while by leading with our heart.

6 Keys to Connecting With Students

Download a PDF of the summary slide.

How do YOU connect with students? What was missed? 

 

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The Wrecking Ball: A Story of Inclusion

15936739285_460b008ec5_zFollowing a thought-provoking session on inclusion with colleague Diana Wilk at our district pro-d day (as a follow-up to a memorable day spent with Paula Kluth in the fall), I tried to share a story with her but emotionally struggled to get through it. It is a story of inclusion being modeled by kindergarten students and one that we can all learn from.

As in the majority of kindergarten classes, we have some students that struggle with personal space and can demonstrate some behaviours that can be looked at as being socially not acceptable.  One student in one of our clases, Justin (not his/her real name), has some challenges and loves to wreck towers, buildings and other things that students have built with blocks, lego, and other items.

Our teacher, who cares deeply about Justin, decided that while Justin was learning that this was not acceptable to wreck other students buildings, she would take a picture of the students’ completed tower/building before it was dismantled. As students in kindergarten are often so accepting and patient, this temporary solution seemed to be working while Justin learned the necessary skills.

A few weeks ago, two girls had created a rather large structure with blocks. They were beaming with pride and asked their teacher to take a photo of their work. While the teacher was going to grab her camera, she heard, “Justin….NO!” and then turned to see Justin run over and smash the structure to pieces. The teacher comforted the two students and then took Justin to a calmer area of the classroom to once again talk to him and remind him about respecting other people’s work and personal space.

After a few minutes of working with Justin, the teacher was interrupted by the two girls asking if they could talk to Justin. They then brought over Justin to their newly created structure and said, “we built this tower but we need someone to take it down… will you be our wrecking ball?”  Justin then turned into his own version of a wrecking ball and dismantled the structure as the girls cheered him on. The smiles in the faces of all three students, and the tears in the eyes of the teacher said it all. These students had come up with this inclusive solution on their own. Justin continues to cherish his role as a wrecking ball and is learning to wait until the timing is right to do “his job”. This role has enhanced his sense of belonging and created a more positive experience for him and his friends.

Inclusion does not just benefit those who struggle. By creating the conditions for moments like this to happen more often in schools, we can teach and practice the skills of empathy, understanding, and care and support our students in teaching so many of us that inclusion brings out the best in ALL of us.

CC image from Michele M.F.

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Are We Marking Assignments or Assessing Learning?

Good ole spreadsheets.

CC Image from Joseph Thibault https://flic.kr/p/6Fg2z2

There has been much focus on shifting our assessment practices in education and, particularly in BC, moving toward more Assessment For Learning (or formative assessment) in schools.  This is such an important conversation and needed change but at some point along the way, Assessment OF Learning (or summative assessment) has been given a bad rap.  To have sound assessment practices in a classroom and school, we need a solid balance of ongoing formative assessment (click here for more info) as well as an effective way to verify that learning has occurred (summative).  Formative assessment should be where we spend most of our time, but summative assessments are still very important.

As we engage in dialogue in our school around assessment, I recently posed a question at our staff meeting that said:

Are we marking assignments or assessing learning outcomes?

Although I failed to provide enough time to discuss this at our staff meeting, the conversation spilled over into the hallways and the staff meeting the next morning as teachers engaged in some (at times frustrating) dialogue around the topic of summative assessment.

For the vast majority of the teaching portion of my career (high school math/science/PE as well as intermediate), I developed assignments and tests/quizzes based on the curriculum, arbitrarily assigned each question or portion of the project a point total, and then marked students work based on their “learning” demonstrated in each question/portion.  I would then tally the points and give them a total like 17/21.  This is how I was assessed in school and how most of the teachers around me at the time assessed student work.

In my 6th year of teaching, I was evaluated by my principal and during this, he asked me a question that changed my mindset on assessment. At the time, I was fond of my spreadsheets and all the marks that I had in them (I now look back and realized how I used spreadsheets to fool parents, students, and myself into thinking that assessment was objective).  There was a student in my math class that was failing and we were discussing my frustrations with her because she did well on tests and quizzes but never handed in any assignments (I was even marking homework at the time… ugh).  He asked me, “what are you assessing?”.  I responded proudly with my knowledge of the curricular outcomes and he challenged me by saying, “do you think that you are adding to other aspects of your class to the assessment?” and he continued to ask, “are you assessing tasks or assessing the outcomes?”.  I stopped and had no response. I was failing a student who knew many of the learning outcomes… simply because she did not hand in or complete all of her work.  She actually had learned something in my class and I failed to acknowledge this. The marking system I used was great for putting into a computerized grade book to come up with a percentage but I had very little knowledge of which outcomes the students had learned and which they struggled.  This system also provided me with very little feedback on my teaching. The dialogue between my principal and I continued but from that point on, I started planning the assignments and summative assessments not based on tasks, but with the learning outcomes in mind.

As I moved into vice principalship and life in an intermediate classroom (grades 5 and 6), I continued to plan with the outcomes in mind.  Assignments, projects and quizzes were based on the learning outcomes.  Each section was an assessment of an outcome.  My spreadsheet shifted from arbitrary points on assignments and randomly weighted tasks to how each child was assessed on the learning outcomes.  By planning my assessments with outcomes in mind, I found I marked WAY less and had a better understanding of where my students were at in their learning.  Check out a good video from Rick Wormeli on grade books at the bottom of this post.

There is so much more to be discussed about effective summative assessment practices (standards, late marks, zeros, bonus marks, redos, assessment types, grading consistency as well as assessing effort, etc…) but I really believe that an important question to start with is:

Are we marking assignments or are we assessing LEARNING?

What do we need to do right now to start to make this shift in our schools?  How are you making this shift?

35

Let’s Rethink “Kindergarten Readiness”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4

When Kids Teach Kids Through Social Media

My nephew excited to learn.

My nephew excited to learn.

A number of educators in the Langley School District spent the day learning from Alan November today.  During the morning, a key takeaway for me was asking the question “who owns the learning?”(also a title of November’s book).

While at conferences, workshops, and sessions, I often share my learning through social media.  The best part of sharing my learning is when someone outside the session does or says something that takes my learning to a whole new level.  Today, my sister and nephews helped make that happen.

November showed this AWESOME video of a child attempting and reflecting on his Rube Goldberg Monster Trap machine.  This video showed a child embracing mistakes and attempts in learning, a growth mindset, and complete engagement and excitement for learning.  Take a moment to watch below:



After watching this video (and loving it), I did what I often do at professional learning sessions… I shared it.  I have the wonderful privilege of having my nephew (“MN”) at our school this year in one of our kindergarten classes so when I posted the above video on our school Facebook Page, my sister saw it and showed MN.  After watching the video over 10 times and getting so excited at the same times Audri did, my nephew had an idea… HE was going to build his own project!  Within a few minutes of watching the video of Audri, MN had gathered a few of his toys and attempted to build a quick, 5 year-old  version of a Rube Goldberg machine. Check it out below.



How awesome is that? A 5 year-old boy in Langley watched a video from another boy in another country and was inspired to participate in his own learning experience!  I love the body language and brief dialogue when his machine DOESN’T work.  MN continued to try to make this work and then grew frustrated and destroyed it (I often do the same thing when putting together furniture from IKEA).  When his mom asked, “what would Audri do?”, MN responded “Audri would keep trying… but I think I need a break so I will try more after lunch”.  His four year-old brother was also inspired and then added, “no, Mom, we don’t need a break… we just need a bigger ramp and a toaster!!!”.  They worked together to make it successful after they had a break (without the toaster but with a bigger ramp) :-).

As fantastic as this moment of shared learning was for me as an educator and an uncle… it left me with further reflections:

  • Would MN  have been inspired to do this if an adult simply told him to do it? Would he have been as inspired if he watched a video of an adult doing this?
  • Do we (adults) embrace sharing our learning and sharing our mistakes and risk-taking like Audri does?  If we do not, what do we model to our kids?
  • How can we encourage a growth mindset in which students and adults are determined to continue on with learning despite setbacks?
  • Are we showing our kids what success looks like? Is the criteria of success clear to our students?
  • Are we doing enough learning by DOING?
  • Are we encouraging enough self-assessment?  If we are the ones doing the assessment, who owns the learning?
  • Are we sharing our learning so others can benefit?  Are we sharing our kids’ learning (being respectful of consent, etc)?
  • Are we using social media to help with our learning? (like this child does when failing to start a fire with a bowdrill set)
  • Are we tapping into the power of kids teaching kids through social media?  (Show Caine’s Arcade and watch what kids immediately want to do)

I thoroughly enjoyed the day with Alan November.  Because of social media, someone outside of the session enhanced my learning by creating and capturing a moment that has made me further reflect on a deeper level.

Students NEED us.  They NEED teachers and parents to help support their learning… but we also have to reflect on the aforementioned questions and ask ourselves, “Who owns the learning?”.  When we give up some control and create the conditions for more opportunities for kids to learn with and from each other (with our support)… more student engagement and increased student learning can occur.

6

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

CC Image from https://flic.kr/p/4BDBPS

CC Image from https://flic.kr/p/4BDBPS

How many of our students have strengths that either go unnoticed or unacknowledged in school?  When we discuss students, do we focus on their strengths and all they CAN do or their deficits and all they CANNOT do?  What are the stories of life at school for our students?  Are they all positive?

In my first year as an intermediate teacher and vice principal, I struggled to reach some students; I especially struggled to reach a student named Dom. After about 6 weeks of trying, I went to my principal, Roxanne Watson, and asked for help.  I sat with her and listed off all the things he could NOT and would NOT do.  After about 8 examples of things he could not do, she said, “Stop, tell me what he is GOOD at.”  That question changed not only who I was as an educator but also as a person.  I did not have an answer to the question.  After 6 weeks, I sadly could not state a strength of a student I had more contact with than anyone else.  In the 6+ weeks that followed, we worked to embrace the strengths within Dom and that changed everything.  We tapped into his strength as a First Nation drummer and singer and Dom became a leader in the class, the community and the school (please read Dom’s full story here).  When we changed the lens, we changed the story.

I recently interviewed Amy, a student at my wife’s dance studio.  Amy is one of the top dancers in the Fraser Valley, a dedicated leader in the studio, and a devoted student-teacher that helps develop dance in the younger students.  Passion for dance and the arts runs through her veins and she has such presence on the stage and in the studio.  Yet, when I asked her what her life was at school compared to the studio, she said

When I am at the studio, I am confident and get to be the real me.  At school, well… I am not good at school.  I just try to blend in… just be invisible.

This student, who can passionately perform in front of 600 people in a theatre and who consistently places at or near the top in every dance competition she enters… when at school, tries to be invisible.   Amy went on to say that hardly anybody knows her creative side and she rarely gets to share who she is at school. She did, however, get to do this with Mr. C.  Mr. C embraced her strengths in the arts as Amy was able to demonstrate her learning through creating – some through music and poetry and others through writing and sketching. She flourished in his class (and was rarely absent).  There were tests and quizzes but there was so much flexibility in how the student could learn and show their learning that Amy felt that she COULD do well in his class. She felt like Mr. C was truly interested in who she was as a person and because of that, she was completely engaged in his class.

You see, our students are building stories of who they are right now.  What we say to them and about them creates part of their story of who they are in school and beyond.  The conditions we create for them in schools affects who they are.  With this in mind, what stories are we helping to create in schools?  Are we helping to create positive stories that we can build upon or do we sometimes unintentionally work to create negative stories that cause our students to be disengaged from school?

During my years at Brookswood Secondary, Kent Elementary as well as my short time at James Hill Elementary, I have witnessed the power that occurs when we start with strengths.  When we create the conditions for children to use their strengths at school… they rise, they lead, and they flourish.  I am not saying we ignore the deficits; we definitely need to work to support the areas of struggle.  Struggle can be a good thing.  What we must do first, though, is start with strengths.  Too often, when a child struggles in school, we look at all the ways that he/she needs support in the areas of weakness… yet we fail to focus on using the “bright spots” or strengths.  Appreciative inquiry is a great place to start when discussing our students; ask questions like “what is working well?  when does he/she flourish? what strength can be tapped?”.  Through  my work with some wonderful students, staff, and families, I have seen the change that occurs when the first question is “what is he/she good at”?  I have seen a child that has severe anxiety with academics lead by reading to kindergarten students in the library each morning.  I have seen a child with significant behaviour challenges lead our tech crew by setting up and maintaining sound and tech equipment in the school.  I have seen students who could not be on the playground without engaging in conflict become a “coach” for primary students in the areas of dance and tumbling.  There is ALWAYS a strength within a child… when we take the time to find it and embrace it at school, the story changes.

We find what we are looking for. What we look for gets bigger and we observe it more often.  Teaching (and parenting) is a very difficult job.  There are days when I look back on my day and disappointingly wonder if I even said a handful of positive things to my kids and students.  Of course we need to continually challenge our kids to try new things (and make errors) and expand their comfort zones; we must continue to embrace the struggle and provide effective ongoing feedback for growth.  However, we need to seek out those strengths more often.  Julie Collette, of the Force Society and Kelty Mental Health said to me, “notice what we are noticing”.  We need to reflect and ask questions like: What are we focusing on?  When we interact and assess our students, is there a balance of strengths and deficits?  Are there structures in schools that allow some students to share their strengths but hinder others?  We need to shift our lens… start to reflect 0n what we are looking for and start to look for the strengths within ourselves and our students.

My challenge to myself and to all of us is to start with one child in our class/school (or our own child) and make an effort to find that strength and work to use it more often in schools.  Create assignments and learning opportunities that not only get students to do what we need them to do but also provide the opportunity for them to share who they are.

When we start with strengths, we change our lens… and by doing this, we change the story for many of our students at school.

I would love to hear more examples and stories of educators and families that have embraced the strengths of their children/students.  Please share those bright spots!

I recently had the honour of presenting a webinar for the Force Society for Kids’ Mental Health as well as a keynote for educators in North Central BC on this topic.  You can find a September regional viewing session close to you here or view the 60 minute webinar presentation on your own here.  You can also view 2 sets of slides below:

 

14

10 Belief Statements About Student Discipline

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CC Image from Charlie Baker https://flic.kr/p/aTHCev

As I continue my journey in the first 4 months at James Hill elementary, I wanted to share my beliefs around student discipline with the staff.  Although my views continue to evolve and grow through formal and informal learning and school/home experiences, I want to be transparent about the lens I look through around student discipline.  At a recent staff meeting, I took the time to share these brief belief statements with staff:

  1. “Kids do well if they can…. if they could do well, they would do well.” (Dr. Ross Greene)  Behaviour is a skill. When a child struggles with reading, we provide interventions and differentiation to support and teach. When a student struggles with behaviour, we also need to support and teach… and then we teach some more.  Many students do not do well living in a grey world so, as with all learning, students need clear models and criteria (ex. criteria) of what effective behaviour looks like.  By focusing on skills, I am not saying that we do not use consequences;  however, when we use consequences, they must be logical and not punitive. We must be investigators of the skills that students lack to be successful and then work to teach those skills.  (See video below from Greene.) Create the conditions for student success.
  2. Start with strengths.  We must create the conditions for students to see and feel real success. We cannot wait until a student is on a long string of setbacks before we talk about what the students strengths and interests are… include these in their learning from the start!  These strengths should be embraced and never used as a carrot to be dangled or taken away.  If a child’s strength is working with younger students, put it in their schedule.  This will help build confidence and give them a sense of purpose and positive identity at school.
  3. Students need to belong.  We ALL need to belong.  If a student is consistently being sent out of class or moved from school to school, how can we expect a sense of belonging?  I realize that there are some students whose behaviours can pose a safety concern and we must look at and balance each student’s needs… but we must maintain the goal of creating a sense of belonging in the classroom.
  4. Students need to know they matter.  Take the time to connect with kids.  Find out their strengths and interests.  Find out who they are.  Take the time to show the students that you do care about their life beyond the classroom.  Differentiation is not just about teaching at a child’s level, it is also about including their strengths and interests.
  5. Focus on self-regulation and self-control skills.  If a student cannot sit still, they are telling us they need to move.  Yes, sitting still is a skill but it is also developed more easily for some.  If a student has meltdown, there are likely many opportunities to intervene (that occur prior that point) to help teach the student the skills needed to self-regulate his/her emotions.  We also need to reflect on if our classroom environments help or hinder a child lacking self-regulation skills.  Do our classrooms have a calming sense (as Shanker asks… have we removed some of the “visual clutter” in our classrooms?)?  Do we provide opportunities for students to move as needed?
  6. We cannot motivate students.  We can only create the conditions for students to motivate themselves. (adapted from Ed Deci and Richard Ryan)  The use of carrots and sticks will help students to become good at… getting carrots and avoiding sticks.  Students should learn to do the right thing… just because it is the right thing to do.  Carrots and sticks are effective in the short term but ineffective in the long term.  Teaching the needed skills and creating the conditions for students to motivate themselves takes a lot of time but it is worth it in the end.
  7. Students make mistakes… and they need to make things right.  Every student will make a poor choice, an error in judgment, or react inappropriately at some point. When this occurs, it is important that we look to restitution to help make things right (ex. doing something meaningful for the person that was hurt – see the work of Diane Gossen). Some view this as “letting him/her off the hook to do something positive” when what it is really doing is helping a child FEEL what it is like to do something positive and then creating a moment to reflect on the difference between what it FELT to do something negative.
  8. We need to move from MY students to OUR students.  We need to tap into the many relationships and resources in our school.  If there is an education assistant or former teacher that has a positive relationship and can help, embrace this. If the teacher across the hall can offer a quiet area when needed (for self-regulation), explore this idea.
  9. “How we teach becomes what we teach.” (Larry Cuban)  If we want to see it… model it.  If we want children that our caring, kind, empathetic, inclusive, etc, we need to model this at all times.  We are not perfect and we make mistakes but it is how we respond to these mistakes that teaches our students how to respond to theirs.  Whenever we have that opportunity to discipline and “teach the child a lesson”, we need to be reflective on what that lesson is.  Even at the most challenging times, we must do our best to remain respectful as our actions teach so much.  Being respectful, kind and caring does not mean we need to be permissive.  A teacher once told me that when we are working with students with challenging behaviours, we need to be kind and firm.
  10. “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” (unknown)  We must seek to understand.  We often hear that we should “send kids home” when they misbehave.  There are many problems with this but the main one is that for many (not all) students who struggle,  life outside of school is not filled with love and care. Sending a child home to a stressful, uncaring situation can make matters worse.  In addition, if the goal is to teach a child to behave at school and in life, when we send him/her home we are crossing our fingers and hopeing for change… which rarely (never) happens when he/she returns to school.  As stated, kids need to feel they belong and they are cared for… sending a child home can escalate behaviours  in the long term.

Kids need us.  For students who struggle with behaviour challenges, it is never a simple solution.  Teaching 30 students (with a variety of academic, social and emotional needs) for an entire day can be completely exhausting.  When discussing solutions, though, we need to ask the question: who is this about – the teachers/admin? or the student?   It likely falls somewhere in the middle but it is important to keep in mind the needs of everyone.  In the end, it is our job as admin, teachers, and staff to create the conditions for student success.  Meet students where they are and teach the needed skills from there.

I share these statements here not to state that my views are correct but to share with others for understanding as well as provide an opportunity for feedback to help me grow.  Please add your thoughts (support AND challenge) in the comments.  Are there key areas that I have missed or need to be changed?