2

5 Reasons to Rethink Awards Ceremonies

CC image from G. Grossmeier https://flic.kr/p/7Es433

As we near the end of March, many schools have moved into the final term of the year and this often leads to discussions about awards ceremonies in schools.

I recently had the honour of travelling to Red Deer, Alberta to present on the topic of rethinking rewards and awards in schools (view slides here). This was such an honour as Red Deer is the hometown of a late friend of mine, Joe Bower, so I was able to meet his father, brother, and wife during my time there. Joe was a strong critic of the use of rewards and awards in schools and he and I had regular dialogue on the topic. My keynote was a tribute to all Joe taught me and all he stood for as an educator. A special thank you to David Martin for bringing me there; it was wonderful to finally meet him and his wife and to see that he is an even better guy in person than he is online. 

Jim and Jeff Bower – father and brother of the late Joe Bower.

When I say that we need to rethink awards in schools, many people immediately think that I believe in awards for every child. This is far from the truth; when I share that we need to rethink awards, I think we need to move away from awards altogether.  I have been privileged to work at two schools that have moved away from awards (I acknowledge that this is an easier move at elementary school than high school) to a system that works to honour all students for their strengths and growth. The lack of awards has not taken away from our academic achievement and has helped to create a more supportive and collaborative school community. Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools.

Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools:

  1. Awards shift the focus from the process (learning) to the result (award).  Whenever we offer a reward or an award for doing something, we risk shifting the focus to this extrinsic offering. There are over 50 years of research in the world of social sciences that have shown this over and over again. By focusing on the award, students use skills that give them the best chance to win the award: compliance (no risk-taking), point-gathering (and grovelling), getting noticed, and beating others. Why be creative and take risks when this can lessen your chances of getting an award? We also risk defining value of our students based on awards. If they win, they are valued… if they do not win, then what?  Also, if we feel that awards motivate students, we have to consider that awards only motivate those students who have a chance of winning. Seeing that a similar group of students win each year, do we really think that awards motivate a good number of our students? Are awards the best tool we can use to “motivate” students?
  2. Awards are not always about excellence. They are mostly about simply being better than those around you.  One argument that schools often make is that awards portray excellence. My argument is that they might highlight excellent results for a select few students in a certain area but they are more about excellence relative to those peers around you. Awards are often for the “top” student in a certain category so in order to win, you simply need to be better than your peers. If you are in a school that believes that awards are essential, why not have a standard? Why not have multiple winners if multiple people achieve that bar? Also, I often wonder what population of students deems the “top student” award acceptable – a class of 5? 50? 100? A student in a smaller school/class will have an advantage as they have to “beat” fewer classmates. It is also important to remember that even at Harvard, 99% of students are not in the top 1% of their class (HT to Todd Rose for this reminder). If awards were so crucial to excellence and success, why do we not have awards in our families for the best child? Parent awards in schools and communities? Teacher awards in schools?
  3. Awards encourage a culture of competition and inhibit a culture of collaboration. I am not opposed to competition; I play sports, I have coached sports for a number of years and I hate to lose. I believe there is a role for competition in life but we need to be careful when we add competition into learning and education. Success in a competitive culture is about defeating others at all costs.  Why would we collaborate when it could build success in those around us and lessen our chances of winning? We can also create an attitude of superiority in that we have students that, even if they do not say it, they may believe that they are better than others… and why would they think this? Because we tell them this with the awards! Why would a student collaborate with a “lesser student” if this could risk bringing their own achievement down (in their eyes)? In the end, education is not a zero-sum game (winners and losers); if we try to truly personalize education for our students, how can some be winners and others be losers? If we believe competition is important, make it a choice – encourage students who enjoy competition to enter contests so at least those who have no desire to compete are not forced into a contest. Competition for awards in schools is nothing like the world outside of school. Outside of school, we CHOOSE to enter competitions and often choose to enter competitions that we have a chance at being successful. With awards, we force kids into a competitive game and then we create the criteria and select the winners (and losers) in learning.  If you are a strong believer in competition in the classroom, perhaps use more ‘competitive collaboration’ that occurs when students work together (stealing ideas is encouraged) in healthy competition against other groups and learning/innovation wins (see more on this from George Couros here).
  4. Awards assume that ALL students learn at the same rate and have the same opportunities. In this awards game, we assume that students all start at the same point when they come to us in September and then reward the person that finishes best. If a student comes in to the school year way ahead of his/her peers and they finish only slightly ahead of their peers, is this the best learner? Has this child achieved the most growth?  There are so many factors that affect a child’s achievement (beyond his/her control) such as: family and home life, mental health, date of birth, genetics, parent education, socioeconomics, income and educational opportunities, language, and parent social and cultural capital. So, in saying this, are awards (particularly those in elementary schools) more for the students… or the parents? I also often wonder at what age is it appropriate to start offering awards – preschool? primary? intermediate? middle? high school? Why at this age?  Each child is different so it is important for us to honour each student’s educational journey throughout their time with us.
  5. Awards offer a narrow criteria of success.  By only offering awards for select criteria and for a select few students, how many students are missed? Again, I am not saying we should give awards to every student, I am trying to show reasons to rethink. How many students have strengths or show awesome growth but then are told that they are not valued at the year-end awards ceremony?  What kind of hierarchy of education do we create when success in certain areas of learning are valued more than others. As we move away from a focus on percents, how do we decide the winner? (I have been part of some intense debates as both an intermediate and high school teacher as staff fight for their student to be named the winner). If we believe ALL students have strengths and ALL students can learn, how do our awards ceremonies align with this belief?

Instead of naming a student who is THE best, our goal as a school should be to work to bring out the best in EVERY student.

Does an awards ceremony at the end of the year that honours a select few students based on narrowly defined criteria bring out the best in every student? The concerns around awards far outweigh the benefits so I encourage you to start the conversation to rethink awards in your school.

For more posts similar to this on rethinking awards ceremonies, click here. For an example of a different way of honouring students, see below. 

Thank you to David Martin for the opportunity to share! (pictured with his wife, Jenn)


At our school, although we do not have a “replacement” for awards at our school, we have chosen to honour every grade 5 (we are K-5) in the school during monthly assemblies. At some point through the year, students are selected (alphabetically) to be honoured by standing up in front of the school and having the principal share their strengths, interests, and virtues. (Students complete a survey in which they share what they believe are their strengths (character strengths and talents) as well as a few interests. Teachers also share what they believe are the students’ strengths and interests.) 

  • Example: Teachers believe Tim is 
    • an enthusiastic and engaging student who gives the impression he is always mulling something over –  has a very active mind
    • just as able to work independently as he is with a partner or in a small group
    • a “hands on learner” who is quick to begin work on assignments and check for understanding if he is unsure of himself
    • creative thinker
    • very capable student in Mathematics – he seeks to master and apply concepts and really enjoys tackling challenging problems and finding multiple solutions
    • enjoys sharing his learning during class discussion 

    Tim says that:  

    Inside of school, loves: P.E, Math, Art
    Outside of school Loves: Piano, Video games, Swimming
    Character strengths: Creativity, Curiosity
    Skills: Math, Video games
    Wants to be a Scientist Architect Engineer
    Wants to people to know he LOVES ice cream
    Advice: anybody can be anything if you try hard enough


 

 

 

 

0

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.

3

Inclusion Through Strengths: Learning With Logan

Note: this story of inclusion is shared with the encouragement and permission of Logan’s mother.

Logan has been at James Hill Elementary since kindergarten. During this time, it has been easy to pick out all of his challenges – his struggles to read and write, self-regulate emotions, say the right things (and not swear), and his struggles to build real friendships. He has Autism and Tourette Syndrome and the journey n school has been a roller coast of emotions for Logan and his family as he faced a few good days combined with many, many challenging ones. (There was a time when we almost made the mistake of planning a half-day program because he was not having successful afternoons – thankfully, we listened to his family andworked together to create an afternoon plan that tapped into his strengths and interests and created success.)

As Logan has grown, his interests in things like animals (particularly reptiles and insects) were noted and encouraged by staff and his family to be used in school through a variety of projects. One of his grade 3 teachers saw a snake she had never seen before near her home so she took note of the characteristics, came in to the school on the following day and ran it by our expert, Logan, and he was able to identify they type of snake it was. Another staff member embraced his love of animals and ran a school-wide fundraiser, led by Logan, to bring in Canadian Tire money to donate to the Langley Animal Protection Society to help out local rescued cats. During this fundraiser, Logan went around to all the classrooms to share details about the initiative. Because Logan had struggles in communication, he used an iPad to read out the information to the students.

IMG_5095Fast-forward to grade 5. In the past few years, although Logan still has a love for Kingdom Animalia, he has developed a keen interest in communicable diseases, nuclear disasters, and safety from these and all sorts of disasters that can be harmful to humans. His parents have embraced this and Logan can often be seen walking around the grocery store or the school with a gas mask and hazmat suit. He has almost become our leader in pest control at the school. Although Logan has been physically floating in and out of the classroom, his participation in class has been fairly minimal… up until a few months ago. At this time, his teachers and support staff started to notice that his strengths and passions could be used in the classroom more often.

Although there has been much effort over the years to include Logan more effectively in the class, during a unit on communicable diseases, Logan’s experience at school shifted to a much more active, positive experience. He then became a classroom expert on the topic. He participated more in class discussions, he was engaged in the tasks, and walked with more of a “swagger” at school. One of his teachers, Colleen Giddings, then asked him if he wanted to share his vast knowledge of viruses with the class. The next day, Logan waited patiently and then when it was time, brought out his iPad and didn’t just share a few bits of information, he actually taught a mini-lesson on viruses! He walked around with his iPad and showed pictures and shared his knowledge and passion for the topic. Rather than trying to get him to participate, the challenge then became how to teach him timing – when and where to share his knowledge!

As the class is a shared classroom, his other teacher, Kathy Lambert, continued to chat with Logan about other areas of interest and asked him if he wanted to bring his hazmat suit in to share his knowledge about safety.   Not only did he just bring in his suit… he taught a full 30 minute lesson on nuclear disaster and radiation safety! He lectured and shared his knowledge, asked questions, answered questions from peers and also used a variety of tools like pictures, maps, stories, and even finished with a historical video on nuclear safety. This same student that struggled to be in class, speak to peers, read, write, self-regulate emotions… gave a 30-minute engaging lesson to his classmates. Logan is on a new streak and for the past few months, showed his story and identity at school has changed.

Inclusion is not just about helping certain students be more involved in a class; it is a mindset about how we do things. Over the years, Logan’s family and staff at his school have embraced who he is and what he loves. They have started with his strengths and when these strengths were brought into the school, he became more confident, active and engaged in class. His struggles are still there but these have been overshadowed by his strengths.

When we start with strengths, students flourish.
When we start with strengths, we use these to build on our struggles.
When we start with strengths, we work to INCLUDE.

Thank you to Logan, his family, as well as the staff and students at James Hill for showing the power of using strengths in inclusion.

Check out the 3-minute video clip below of Logan in his element… teaching his classmates about nuclear disasters and radiation safety.

1

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? 

 

2

We Find What We Look For In Our Students – So What Do We See?

CC Image by Ryan Haddad https://flic.kr/p/inZ5S

CC Image adapted from Ryan Haddad https://flic.kr/p/inZ5S

When we look at our students with struggles, what do we see? The following video is an incredible story of how a teacher/professor became so frustrated with a student for sleeping in his class… that he actually asked him why.

We find what we are looking for.  If we look and see a “sleeper” in class, we will see a student with no hope, no potential, and one that is as disengaged as it gets. However, if we look through a different lens, a lens of an inquiring mind, we may see there is untapped genius just waiting to come out.  Check out this must watch video:

This educator could have looked at this student as simply a sleeper and written him off like many others had before. Instead, he chose to go deeper and ask the important questions about what the behaviour was telling him and what actions were resulting in this behaviour.  When he did this, instead of looking for deficits, he found strength… he found passion.

Becuase he asked “why” and looked for this strength, he was able to work with this “sleeper” to create a game that changes lives. So many of us have been touched by the awful disease that is Alzheimers.  Michael Wesch was able to create the condition for his student, David Dechant, to flourish. Dechant and Wesch created a team of students who then worked with residents of the Meadowlark Hills continuing care retirement facility to create a game that would keep memories alive. The students listened, scanned old photos, read journals and diaries and used all of these to create a game for the residents – a game that would help them to remember for a brief moment their life with their significant other, their home, and the many stories that made them who they are. Had this teacher seen his student only for his deficits, this life changing use of technology would not have happened.

Watch the trailer for this life-changing game, “Falling Up – an Interactive Empathy Game” at the bottom of this post.

At our staff meeting this week, I shared these two videos.  I shared these videos because these capture my WHY of educational change. We need to continue to change education so students like David (“the sleeper”) no longer go through our education system learning all the things they cannot do and very few things they actually can do. We need to change so we can tap into the interests of our students, bring out their creative strengths, and use these to help them lead a worthwhile life. I recall as a high school teacher hearing parents tell their kids, “just get through school.. then you will be fine”. If we bring more of our students’ strengths into the school, not only will they “get through school”, they will have a positive identity as a learner and often flourish in an education that is more meaningful and relevant.

We find what we look for. What do YOU see in your students? Are you tapping into those strengths within?

Thank you to George Couros who recently wrote about this video in his great post, “Finding the Genius”.

 

11

10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

I sometimes struggle with the volume of posts that give lists of  “5 ways…” or “10 reasons…” but I have recently been asked a few times how schools could get started using a strength-based model with students.  This list is by no means the end but more about the start; these are thoughts that have worked in schools I have had the privilege of working in; however, the context of your school is different so the ideas will vary depending on the school.  If you have further ideas or examples, I would love to read them (and steal them) so please leave them in the comments below.

Shifting the lens in schools to a focus on strengths rather than deficits… a focus on CAN rather than cannot… has been one of the most significant changes for me as an educator, formal leader and parent.  Where do we start?  What can we do this month? This year?  (there are links embedded in the list if you would like further detail on some of the stories and ideas).

  1. Shift from MY students to OUR students.  A previous teacher or a teacher in a different subject area can have knowledge of a child’s strengths and a positive relationship with the child.  Do we embrace this relationship or do we shut it out?  If we shift our focus from being classroom teachers or subject teachers to school teachers, can we better tap into the strengths of other adults in our building? Relationships are not zero-sum in that if one person has a strong relationship, it does not mean that others cannot as well.  Students need at least 2-3 strong, positive relationships with adults in the building.  These strong relationships often come with the knowledge of a student’s strengths… embrace these.
  2. Make the first contact about the strengths.  Make that first contact a positive one.  When we start the year, inquire into the strengths of our students – inside and outside of school and tap into these throughout the year.  Run a class or school Identity Day. Make the first contact with parents a positive one.  It doesn’t have to be about something the student has done but more about sharing that we value him/her and we know who they are.
  3. Schedule in time for a child to use his/her strengths in school.  If a child has a strength in the arts, technology, or with helping younger students (for example), provide time in the day or week for this to happen.  A student who struggles will often flourish when given a purpose or an opportunity for leadership beyond the classroom.  The important thing is to not use this as a punishment or reward.  If it is important to help change the story, schedule it in… but do not use a child’s strength as a carrot/stick to have them do the things we want them to do.  If we use it as a reward, we may get some short term compliance but the student will soon figure out that his/her strength is not valued.  Having said this, I do know that students will try to get out of doing the things they do not want to do and things in which they are not successful (adults do this too).  This is why it is scheduled in to the day/week/month so the students have to continue to work on areas of struggle AND they continue to get opportunities to use their strengths in a way that helps the school community.
  4. Teach parts of the curriculum through the strengths/interests.  Start with one lesson or one unit and ask how we can include the strengths and interests of our students.  It doesn’t have to be a big shift like Genius Hour but can be smaller shifts that include the curriculum like guided inquiry, writing assignments, reading reflections, and different ways of demonstrating student learning.
  5. In meetings, start with the bright spots.  If we are having a meeting about a child, start with the positives and see how these can be built upon. We need to acknowledge the struggles and look to how we can tap into the strengths to build confidence and change the story.  As principals, we can model this in staff meetings as we start each meeting/topic on sharing the bright spots.
  6. Start the conversation on how we honour students in schools.  Are there certain strengths we honour over others?  How do we honour the strengths of students that fall beyond the traditional awards and honour roll? Are traditional awards ceremonies the best we can do?
  7. Reflect on our assessment practices.  In our assessments, do we build on what students CAN do or do we focus more on what they cannot do?  Do our assessment practices build confidence or strip it away?  I know it is not a black/white practice as we need to support the challenges too but we need to reflect on the balance of strengths/deficits in our assessment practices.
  8. Watch those labels.  Do the designations of our students define them?  I realize there is a need for designations but I wonder if sometimes these work to put lids on kids.  A designation should come with a plan on how to embrace the strengths of the child and help us to support the deficits; it should not BE the story for our students.
  9. Start with strengths of staff and the school community.  Are we embracing the strengths of the adults in the building?  Do we tap into the strengths of parents and families in the school community? Once we know a child’s strength, how can we use the aligned strengths in our school community to help?
  10. Share the stories.  Share the stories of strength in your classroom and schools.  When you look for the bright spots and you share these beyond the classroom walls, you shift the culture of the school.

We find what we are looking for. When we start with strengths, we change the lens we look through and see the strengths in our students more than the deficits. When we change this lens, we change the stories of our students at school.  For many, this change in story can be life changing.

In BC, we have many schools that are already making this shift and we have a golden opportunity to create more space for us to bring in the strengths. This list is just a start.  If you have other ideas, please write them in the section below.  Hopefully, I can tap into YOUR strengths which will help me and others through the stories and the comments you share.

Click here to access a FORCE society “In The Know” series webinar on the topic.

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:

 

17

Kindness and Care: More Than A Single Day Effort

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by forpawsgrooming: http://flickr.com/photos/forpaws/5554199536/

As “anti-bullying day” approaches again this year, I get questions as to what we will be doing as a school for this one day event.  My response has been,

“As a school, we will continue to do what we do every other day: promote a culture of care, empathy and kindness through teaching and modeling.  We will continue to try to nurture the strengths and interests in our students and help them to be more confident and proud of who they are. We will also deal with bullying and conflict (2 very different things but often confused) in a serious but teaching/learning manner so the lacking skills are taught and the focus stays long-term.”

Bullying is something that nobody should have to go through and when it occurs, we need to take this very seriously and deal with it very carefully.  We also need to be proactive in what we do – we need to create the culture in which people are cared for and care for others.  Now, I am not opposed to the intent of Anti-Bullying Day, as I am often blown away by the efforts of students and I believe we need to stand up to bullying, but I do think the focus is on the wrong thing: bullying.  Whenever we focus on something, it grows.  If we seek negatives in our life, we will find them.  If we seek positives, we will find them too.  Maybe we need to shift and focus on the positive qualities we want to see.

It is easy to put on a pink shirt and say that we are fighting bullying on that day… it is much more difficult to model, teach and create a culture in which kindness, care, and empathy is the norm.  We probably would find it difficult to find someone who is NOT “anti-bullying” (or pro-bullying?) but maybe not have a difficult time to find students and adults who struggle to lead a life of care.

I see many examples of students standing up for qualities like care, acceptance, and empathy and then adults naming it “anti-bullying”.  Check out this “acceptance” flash mob at a Vancouver Giants game in which the students use positive qualities (then titled “anti-bullying)”.

My former principal and mentor Roxanne Watson models this change and wrote a recent post that that challenges us to shift our focus:

… It is a complex issue.  Each time I hear of another life lost to bullying I ask myself why we as a community have not been able to address this problem effectively.

Bullying.  Bully-Prevention.  Anti-Bullying.  Stand Up 2 Bullying.  Stop a Bully.  Pink Shirt Day.  There’s no shortage of attention to bullying these days, nor should there be.  As a former child, an educator and part of a large family I have experienced first-hand the effects of bullying.  I certainly read the paper and follow the news and there is no lack of stories which document the terrible impact bullying has, not only in our schools but in our workplaces, in our own families, neighborhoods, churches, teams, clubs and any other place where people come together.  Each time a bullying story hits the news we hear a renewed sense of outrage and are inundated with anti-bullying campaigns.  It seems to me, considering how often we hear of bullying and how many of us have experienced it in our own lives that these campaigns have not been effective over the years.  So, I have a suggestion;  Stop focusing on bullying and start focusing on kindness.

… I’m tired of hearing the word “bullying”.  It has no positive conotations for me.  It’s a negative spin on a negative problem.  It’s time we stopped focusing on reducing bullying and started focusing on promoting kindness.  For every anti-bullying program that’s out there there is  a program that promotes peace/kindness/empathy.  These are all skills our children (and adults) need to learn.  Roots of Empathy is just one.  Tribes TLC is another, Random Acts of Kindness is a program that has been used at Kent Elementary and found to be wonderful in promoting positive interactions without the need for the usual reward that comes with some of these programs. It has long been a goal of mine to switch peoples’ thinking (starting with my own) from reducing the negative to increasing the positive.

…Kent Elementary is a progressive school.  They believe strongly in creating the conditions for children to be successful. (http://connectedprincipals.com/archives/6554) This is the type of approach that will reduce bullying.  In the same way we create a positive culture for reading or healthy living or self-discipline we can create a culture that recognizes, promotes and teaches (coaches) kindness.

…I strongly believe that all people (not just kids) do the best with what they have at the time.  Students who bully lack the basic skills and understandings of kindness.  Perhaps they have not experienced kindness in their own lives.  Do we punish them?  Many believe this is the way.  I do not.  I believe we take them aside, model kindness, provide opportunities for kindness, recognize (not reward, but recognize) kindness and promote kindness. We create the conditions for them to be successful.
As with other successful approaches this will take time.    It takes time to identify those people who truly are bullies (and they aren’t always children).  It takes time to work with that individual, to have them see how people perceive them.

…You see, no “program” works for everyone.  As in reading or math or behavior a multi-faceted approach is likely required.  This takes time. I believe it also requires a shift from a focus that reduces the negative to a focus that increases the positive.  Aren’t our children and our communities worth it?

Will we do anything different on anti-bullying day at our school?  I am sure there will be dialogue around it and there will be Pink Shirts worn; more importantly, however, our bigger challenge is to continue to honour each child for who they are, focus on their strengths and support their challenges, teach rather than reward and punish, and model a life of empathy and care.  I realize we do not have this all figured out and bullying still exists at Kent School… but I will leave with a few comments from parents/families in the past year that show the value of a school culture on a child:

Bullying is less of a concern for my daughter since Identity Day.  Identity Day showed her that she had a strength and other children recognized this.  The conversations at Kent around recognizing the strengths in others and themselves, along with my daughter’s participation in the drama program has given her a sense of identity and confidence. — a parent of an intermediate student

I am so happy that my cousin gets to come to school and be proud of who she is. — a family member at our honouring ceremony/luncheon 

Please take a moment to watch this powerful video/poem by BC poet Shane Koyczan.  I heard his words a few years ago at a conference and his story challenged me to seek the positives in others.  Bullying needs to end… and there is power in voice and seeing the beauty in each child.

Thank you to Roxanne for her continued mentorship.  Please take her challenge and focus on a school culture of kindness.

14

Leadership: How We Treat People

Lessons from a friend.

This morning I lost someone who brought so much laughter and joy to all those around him.  Ben Meyer – a caring friend, committed teammate, and wonderful person – lost his battle with cancer.

I recently had a conversation with a close friend who lost his mother to cancer at a young age. I asked him,”How do you continue on in life after such a devastating loss?”.  He said, “We have no choice… we live and continue to model and teach the lessons that my mom taught us.  Her legacy lives on each day through me, my brothers, my students, and our children.”

There has been much talk on Facebook about the laughter that Ben brought so many of us with his story-telling and positive outlook on life; you had no choice but to get sore cheeks from laughter when he was telling his legendary stories.  No matter how many times you heard them, (because there was always someone there that had not yet herd them), his strength in re-telling it sent tears rolling down our faces.  Just 3 days ago, when he was struggling to talk, he retold one last story to 5 of us surrounding him in the hospital… that is what he was all about – making people smile.

He treated EVERY person around him with the same care, energy and happiness that just made you feel like you were better because you spent time with him.  Ben was a leader and he knew his strengths.  He never hacked down those around him; instead he chose to build everyone else up.  Ben was not the best ball player… but he played on the best teams because of the positive impact he had on others.

My director of instruction said to me the other day, “People do not remember positions or rank or certificates… they remember how you treat people”.  Ben treated everyone as if he was so glad that you were near him at that moment.  You had no choice but to “catch” his positive energy.  Ben will always be remembered… for the wonderful way he treated people.

The legacy will continue... all smiles, all the time.

When someone passes on, we often hear the good things that he/she brought to our lives.  For Ben Meyer, he heard this throughout his life because that is how he led his life – it was all about the good things.  He continually challenged himself and savoured the moments.

Ben taught me a lot as a person but the most important lesson was a simple but  essential one: treat people well.  I am thankful for the 11 years I knew him.  It is now up to those of us who knew him to continue to model and teach the lessons he taught us… and the impact and legacy of Ben Meyer will continue on forever.

We love ya Benny…