Posts Tagged reform

Reforming Through Our Strengths

Our Strengths

In the recent past, I have been reading endless blogs and seeing news headlines (and Oprah shows) that focus on all the problems with the current education system (much of these focus on the US system but there is a relation to the Canadian system).  We are bombarded with examples of educators that have been fired, test scores that are too low, and students who cannot read.

We often look at our students in this same way – through deficit thinking, the idea to try to bring up the weaknesses. Lately, a lot of schools and teachers are doing not only this but focusing more on the opposite; instead of bringing up the weaknesses, they are focusing on the strengths.

After reading Pernille Ripp’s post today, I thought: what if, instead of focusing on the weaknesses and problems with our current system, if we started to highlight the great things that are happening in schools every day throughout Canada and the world?

By walking through our school, being on Twitter and reading blogs from some fantastic educators, I see and read about amazing things that happen in schools every day – blogs that don’t focus on test scores, data, violence, or punishments.  These educators are writing about Identity Days, encouraging students to be proud of who they are, amazing things grade 1 students do in their first week, seeing students for who they truly are, and tapping into the leadership of our students.  What would happen if stories like this dominated the media?  Would we see a more positive education reform by showcasing examples of deeper learning and strength-based education?

I realize that we cannot ignore the problems that are embedded in the education systems of Canada and the US but we cannot forget the endless wonderful things that happen each and every day in our schools.  Many students ARE learning and participating in engaging lessons that focus on the learner.  Many teachers ARE looking beyond the external behaviours and forming relationship to show how much they deeply care for their students.  Schools ARE transforming from factory-models to learner-centred environments that put the students first.

So instead of slamming the deficits, why not reform through focusing on our strengths?

Tags: , , ,

Good Luck, Thank You, Farewell

I have been asked by a few parents to post my Farewell Speech to the Grade 6′s that was said at our Grade 6 Year-End Honouring Ceremony June 24th, 2010:

When principals come up and give farewell speeches to classes leaving their school, they often talk about moving on and getting a step closer to the ‘real world’.  Lately, I have been pondering this idea and I have come to the realization that to our students, school is the real world.  This is not some fantasy fake world that exists in some other level or continuum – this IS the real world.  We have to be careful about ‘warning’ our students about entering the real world because as I have grown to know these amazing students, I have realized that their present real worlds may actually be more difficult than the world in which they will enter after high school.  Many of the kids in front of you are determined, supportive individuals who have overcome an unbelievable number of challenges and obstacles just to get to this point in their education.  This needs to be recognized.

EACH student needs to be recognized for all their strengths and talents that they have; they also need to be recognized for the contributions they make to our school and community.  As you are well aware, the Kent Staff has made a monumental step to change the way we honour our students.  In the past, we would be here and watch a select few students get recognized; we still want to recognize those athletes and academic students, but what about the students who spend every lunch hour working with younger students?  How do we recognize them?  They do not do this for any award, they just do this because it is the right thing to do – and this needs to be recognized.  I will never forget last year when I overheard a student say that they “lost the athletic award”.  This student has a strength in athletics yet he viewed not getting the award as a loss.  This is exactly why the First Nation program at our school puts on an honouring ceremony that recognizes the strengths of every FN student in the school and why we have expanded our year end ceremony to include all members of our grade 6 class.  The recognition of all our students is so important and so very well deserved.

In the next few minutes you will hear teachers talk about their students’ strengths and qualities.  It is our hope that these students are already aware of these amazing qualities and will leave our school and continue to focus on these talents.  It is our hope that these strengths are, in fact, passions and that they spend their time doing something in which they are passionate about.  So grade 6’s, you know what you are good at – do it!  Really challenge yourself in these areas.  Push yourselves and encourage each other in these areas of strengths.

When you push yourself you might actually go outside of your comfort zone and take a risk.  When you do this, you WILL make mistakes – please remember mistakes are made because you are pushing yourself and that is a great thing.  That is how we learn and move forward in life.  My wife, Tonya, is a dance teacher and there is a saying that she uses in dance:  “if you fall, make it part of the dance”.  That is what we want you to do – push yourselves, take risks, fall, get up – and make it part of the dance, make it part of your plan.  Times when you fall is when the best learning takes place.

Although, there are many teachers in this school that have put in significant amounts of time to help you to learn, I just wanted to take some time to thank you for some things YOU have taught ME:

  • Thank you for teaching me that field hockey can be played with lacrosse sticks and can involve teamwork of players in grades 1 through 6
  • Thank you for teaching me the importance of buddy reading and the power of having an older literacy mentor
  • Thank you for teaching me that it is ok to show emotions and that growing up can be one of the most difficult times in our lives – and that we need each other so much during this time
  • Thank you for showing me that kids do NOT need to do things for a reward – the volunteer time you have put in to help supervise our primary students at lunch time, run our gym equipment room every single day, go out every lunch and help students in our strong start centre, preparing lunches for gatherings of our families and elders, helping to ref mini-hockey games in the primary end, for giving back to our community by giving up your Saturday to accompany two of our valued elderly adults as you pushed them in their wheelchairs to attend the Highway of Heroes event a few weeks ago.

These are just a few of the things that you have taught me.  You have not participated in these important activities for any reason other than ‘because it was the right thing to do’.  We need to recognize and honour all of you for not only your accomplishments and strengths but also what you have taught us during your time here in your ‘real world’ at Kent.

Today is your day, enjoy the moment and we wish you nothing but the best in the next phase of your education.

Thank you.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

A New Era of Ceremonies

If you read a previous post, “Death of an Awards Ceremony“, you are well aware of the change that Kent Elementary School made this past month.  The staff decided to abolish all the awards and honour roll recognition and replace this with an honouring/recognition ceremony for ALL our grade 6 students.

Although the conversation started about 3 years ago (with the previous principal), I continued the conversation and happened to be principal when the decision was made; due to this, I kind of took the weight of the ceremony on my shoulders as I wanted it to be so successful that people would wonder why we ever did the awards ceremonies in the first place.

So how did it go?

Rather than trying to summarize the entire afternoon event, I will discuss a few key bits of information as well as the moments that stood out to me.

  • We have 4 grade 6 teachers at our school this year (with splits and shared teaching loads).  Each teacher spoke about the student in their class for about 30 seconds and the best part was that they spoke in their unique style.  One teacher listed off the many positive qualities and key moments she had observed throughout the year, two other teachers (who shared a class) shared a short and entertaining poem about each student, and one teacher entertained the students and audience with his wit as he spoke of how he pictures his students using their strengths in the future.
  • In past years, we normally had an Awards Ceremony for students in grades 4 through 6 which  included about 175 students. We set up 100 chairs and that usually sufficed.  This year we were recognizing 55 grade 6 students so I figured 100 chairs would be plenty.  By the time the ceremony started we had added another 40 chairs and by the time students were recognized, there was a wall of people standing at the back.  I did a scan of the audience and as far as I could tell, every single student had someone there to observe he/she get honoured by their teacher.  In the days leading up to the event, I even had some parents ask if their child was going to get an award because they wanted to know if they should take work off; I loved responding to these questions (yet another reason why this format worked well) and saying that each child would be recongnized.
  • I taught half of this grade 6 class last year so there were many great moments for me; however there were two that summed it all up. A student, Andrew (pseudonym), was called up to be recognized.  The process was for the student to stand, listen to the comments from the teacher and then shake hands with a few people and receive their certificate (which stated their strengths and interests).  While the teacher was speaking, a slide would show with pictures of the student and a list of their strengths.  Now Andrew is an extremely quiet child that is not the best athlete nor is he the most academic; he is, however, a great kid.  As he was called up, he checked at the slide to see the picture of him and read his strengths.  At this point he was trying to hold back a slight grin.  When the teacher said that he was a gentle guy, he tried to bite his lip to stop him from smiling.  When the teacher commented on his skills in technology, he could not hold back the grin much longer.  When the teacher said he is the “man with the swagger” and a “true gamer” and one who will be working for EA Sports (video game designer and producer), Andrew let out a grin and a laugh that I will never forget.  I taught this child for an entire year and I have never seen him beam with pride like that.  The other moment happened the day following the ceremony.  A girl, Tanya (pseudonym), was recognized the day before and one of her strengths was that she was ‘quiet, clever’.  The next day, this individual was helping me to clean the gym and out of nowhere, this quiet girl asked, “Mr. Wejr, do you think I am clever?”  I smiled and stopped for a moment and said, “Tanya, the greatest thing about you is that because you do not speak often, when you do speak up, people listen.  They know that what you have to say must be important and that what you say is, in fact, clever”.  She responded with a quiet appreciative grin with a glimmer in her eye and continued on helping me stack chairs.

Although there were many proud and emotional moments in which parents, staff, and students held back their tears, the moments with Andrew and Tanya completely summed it up for me.  Had we carried on with the traditional awards ceremony, Andrew would have sat up there and watched as a few of his classmates received awards.  He would probably not even have cracked a smile.    This year, Andrew grinned from ear to ear and even leaned back and laughed as the cameras of his family took photos to help cherish the moment of recognition.  The conversation I had with Tanya would have never taken place and I would not have shared a memorable moment with a ‘quiet,clever’ student.

There has been an overwhelming response to the previous post on the decision to change the ceremony (once Alfie Kohn tweeted it, people from around the world stopped by to read it).  There is obviously a huge interest out there around this topic.  So my question is: why are we still having huge ceremonies that award a select few and fail to recognize so many strengths, talents, and interest of our students?

Parents of students at our school, I would love for you to leave your feedback about the 2010 Kent Year-End Ceremony.

To read my Farewell Speech to the Grade 6′s, please click here.

I look forward to witnessing the growth of this event and Kent School in the coming years.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Death of an Awards Ceremony

This is the time of the year that most schools are meeting and arguing over who is the top student in a variety of categories; high schools have selected their valedictorian (mostly based on who has the highest grades) and majority of schools are gearing up for their annual awards ceremony.

Yesterday, at our staff meeting, a decision was made that will change the way we end the year at Kent.

If you are a person who believes school is all about grades and awards, I am afraid that you will not like the decision made by our school yesterday; if you are a person who loves the idea of the “proud parent of an honour roll student” bumper sticker, you may be frustrated by our school.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of a tradition at our school – a tradition that awarded top students not for their efforts and learning but for their grades and achievements. The staff at Kent School decided to abolish the “awards” part of the year end ceremony.

Academic award winners? No more.  Athletic award winners? Nope.  Honour roll ? Nuh uh.

Part of our school goal is “for each student in our school to recognize and develop his/her unique talents and interests…”.  The key words in this are “each student”.  We do not want to just recognize those that excel in specific areas, we want to recognize EACH student for the areas in which he/she excels.

As a school, we need to move away from the traditional educational hierarchy that says those students who excel in language arts and maths are more important than those who excel in fine arts. We need to move away from recognizing only those students who have figured out the “game of school” and know how to “do” school well.

What motivates students? Grades (and honour rolls) or learning? There are many students that are unfortunately only motivated by grades.  This is not their fault, it is what has been taught to them.  The comments such as “if you want an A, you must do this…” or “if you do this, you will lose marks” have taught students that grades and achievement is more of a priority than learning.  Grades are extrinsic motivators while learning results in more intrinsic motivation.  So, do we want students to motivated by grades or learning?  Learning!

When I ask our grade 4 students what the honour roll is, they have not a clue, nor do they care. Yet, in the past we have awarded certain students for getting good grades by giving them a certificate and telling them that they made this esteemed club called the honour roll. By doing this, what are we teaching kids? Are we not teaching them that it is not so much the process of learning that is important but it is the resulting grades and report card marks?

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, talks about the difference between praising students for their effort and ability. If we praise students for “being smart” or “being athletic”, research says that we create students who are afraid to take risks and usually shy away from challenges. What kind of students do we want – those that rise to the challenge and take risks or those that believe that what they can or cannot do is ‘fixed’ and based on how ‘smart’ they are.

Alfie Kohn (referenced in the “For the Love of Learning” blog by Joe Bower) sums it up nicely when he writes this about awards:

“…researchers have found that children who are frequently rewarded — or, in another study, children who receive positive reinforcement for caring, sharing, and helping — are less likely than other children to keep doing those things.

In short, it makes no sense to dangle goodies in front of children for being virtuous. But even worse than rewards are awards — certificates, plaques, trophies, and other tokens of recognition whose numbers have been artificially limited so only a few can get them. When some children are singled out as “winners,” the central message that every child learns is this: “Other people are potential obstacles to my success.”Thus the likely result of making students beat out their peers for the distinction of being the most virtuous is not only less intrinsic commitment to virtue but also a disruption of relationships and, ironically, of the experience of community that is so vital to the development of children’s character.”

So what will our year-end ceremony look like?  Each grade 6 student will be honoured and recognized for their strengths, talents, and/or interests.  There will be no honour roll, no academic winners (and losers), no athletic award winners (and losers) and no recognition that one student’s talents are better than another.  The focus will be on EACH student and not just CERTAIN students.

In schools we always need to question and reflect on why we do things.  Why do we present awards to certain students?  What does this do to help learning in schools?  Why do we state that proficiency in math is more important than excelling in theatre?  How do we motivate our kids?  When our answers to these questions do not place student learning at the forefront, we need to change the way we do things.   At Kent School, we have by no means solved all that is concerning with education, but we have made a step forward.

For another blog on thoughts on the idea of “valedictorian”, please read Eric Sheninger’s blog “Recognizing the Valedictorian in All”

Thank you to Roxanne Watson (my previous principal & one of my mentors) for helping to fuel the passion in this area and starting the conversation with our staff.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

How we teach IS what we teach

Larry Cuban once wrote, “How you teach becomes what you teach” and this is something that I have lived by for a number of years.  I have it written above my desk and I often use this when discussing pedagogy with parents and teachers.  Although teachers teach the formal curricula, it is the way that it is taught that truly teaches our children how to lead their lives.

Have you ever pretended to not hear a comment so that you would not have to deal with the conversation that would result from the inappropriate nature of the comment?  By doing this, you have just taught your kids that the comment has your approval.  For example, if a child is walking down the hall and states, “That is so gay…” and the child realizes that you heard him but you pretend not to hear and keep on walking, you have just told that child that it is acceptable to use that term.  Children are very aware of what teachers and adults hear and how they respond (some boys seem to have those “spidey” senses).  The small amount of time it takes to stop and have learning conversations with students can have large impacts on the way they develop character in school.

I was in one of the elementary school classrooms the other day and I was listening to students discuss why it was so important to be caring and compassionate toward each other.  I was encouraged to become part of the discussion so I asked the students how they had learned to be this way; they responded by pointing to the teacher.  I took this further to ask how it was taught to them and one student summed it up best when she said, “it’s not something she tells us it is just what she does”.  How you teach becomes what you teach.

I also had a conversation with a different teacher around promoting active, healthy lifestyles with our kids.  He discussed how this year has been so different because he has been able to model the healthy lifestyle. He spoke about how he has become so much healthier and physically fit this year and how he uses this to motivate his students.  “If we want to promote this lifestyle, we have to do this with the kids and we have to BE this lifestyle”, he commented.  How we teach becomes what we teach.

These 2 examples occurred in the school this week led me to these further reflections:

  • If we want to teach the qualities of care and respect, we must demonstrate this to our children on a regular basis.
  • If we want learning to be the key part of school, we cannot focus on grades and achievement.  By focusing on the latter, we teach students that the result is greater than the process.
  • We cannot teach democracy by running our class like a dictator.  Encourage student voice.
  • We cannot teach the importance of environmental awareness without DOING this in our class (recycle centre, natural light, conservation)
  • We cannot teach kids to do the right thing by rewarding them for doing the right thing; the focus then becomes the reward, not the feeling that one gets while doing the right thing
  • We do not teach a student that their strength or talent is important if we take this away from them as a punishment

As parents and teachers, we need to model the qualities that we want to see in our children.  We teach our children more than just the curriculum.  We have the opportunity to teach our students to become caring, compassionate, and collaborative people; the best way to do this is not through the formal curriculum but to have the lessons come from our actions.  How we teach IS what we teach.

Tags: , , ,