Posts Tagged strengths

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.

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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:

 

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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.

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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…

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Find Your Gift: A Farewell to the Grade 6′s

I would first like to welcome families, friends, staff, community, and most importantly, students to our Grade 6 Celebration and year end ceremony.  I hope you enjoy the format we use at Kent school in which we honour and recognize each student for his/her strengths and passions.

When I look to this grade 6 class, I think back to just over 3 years ago on the back soccer field.  I reflect upon the soccer games we had back in grade 3 in which these then 8 year-olds decided to show me how to swallow my pride and understand that I needed to work harder if I wanted to keep up with them. There have been many more lessons they have taught me:

  • How to lighten the moment to make people smile
  • How to smile to brighten another person’s day
  • Ho to get up on a table and sing like nobody is listening
  • How to play hockey with a lacrosse stick
  • That saying thank you can go a long way
  • How to be a true leader to younger students
  • How to give to others and expect nothing in return other than the feeling of doing something positive

2011 might be thought of as the year of the twins. This year, we had:

the Sedins and their unreal playoff run:

Sedin Twins

The Sedin Twins

the Green Men and THEIR awesome playoff run

The Green Men, Image: http://bit.ly/qp6uvf

The Green Men, Image: http://bit.ly/qp6uvf

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,

My VP (@4thekos) and I as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum

My VP (@4thekos) and I as Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum

Some twins that mean the world to me – my daughters,

My favourite Canuck Twins

My favourite Canuck Twins

and OF COURSE 3 sets of twins in this year’s grade 6 class: Cody/Coby, Liam/Odin, and Jacob/Ben (pics shown during speech).

We must remember, though, that although you are alike in so many ways, you are your own self, and I will quote who Cassandra (grade 6 student) names as her future husband, Mr. Bieber when he sings: You Were Born To Be Somebody. Grade 6’s: you WERE born to be somebody.  You have within you a strength or passion that is unique to you.

I DO have to add to what Justin, JB, Biebs, or the Fever says though…

Lorna Williams, of Mount Currie and Lil’Wat Nation, states (in the book Child Honouring): “The Lil’Wat [people] believe that each child comes into the world with gifts to share. The responsibility of the family and community is to see these gifts and to nurture and support these gifts so they may emerge and flourish throughout the individual’s life.  The personal and unique qualities of each person are nurtured and recognized in every child as necessary for the well-being of the family, community and nation”.

You do come into this world with your own gifts, you WERE  born this way.  However, it is up to YOU to determine what you do with these gifts.  Many of you are very skilled in soccer, or math, or music; this is NOT JUST because you were born this way – it is because you have spent hundreds of effort-filled hours practicing and honing these skills.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, states that people who are elite in their field get there after spending 10,000 hours… 10, 000 hours.  Yes, you were born with a gift but it is the effort and practice that will determine what you do with this gift.

In addition to spending time in an area in which you are passionate, I encourage you to try new things, show courage by getting outside your comfort zone and challenging the status quo. Maria Sapon-Shevin (via @Joe_Bower) states:

Courage is what it takes when we leave behind something we know well and embrace (even tentatively) something unknown or frightening. Courage is what we need when we decide to do things differently… Courage is recognizing that things familiar are not necessarily right or inevitable. We mustn’t mistake what is comfortable with what is good.

Find your gift.  Seek out or continue to work with your passion. In addition, look outside your comfort zone and have the courage to challenge yourself  and your current views by spending time learning areas in which you struggle. Through your efforts and hours, you will be able to use your gifts in a way that is unique to you and in a way that can not only help you but many others with whom you share your gift.

You will fall.  You will fail.  It is how you respond to these challenges that will determine how great you become.

I will finish with a speech from an experienced, motivated and knowledgeable young man:

Thank you for coming today as we recognize our grade 6 students.  Thank you to our grade 6 class for all the smiles and memories that you will leave with us and best of luck on your learning journey.

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Recognizing ALL Students: St. Gregory College Prep School

EVERY child has a strength inside them; it is our job, as educators, to bring this out.  “Recognizing ALL Students” is a page designed to showcase the success stories of schools that have moved away from the traditional awards ceremonies and monthly assemblies that only focus on a select few students to a place where ALL students are recognized for their unique talents and interests.

Through many conversations I have had over the past year, I have heard “That is great that your elementary school has ended the awards ceremony… but good luck doing that at the secondary/high school level!”.  I recently came across Jonathan Martin‘s post at his 21K12 site that describes in great detail the decision that his school, a high school in Tuscon, made to move away from the traditional awards ceremony.  I  thought their story would be a great addition to the conversation here so I asked if I could re-post his blog on the Wejr Board as part of the “Recognizing ALL Students: The Movement” series.

Jonathan is a colleague of mine from the Connected Principals site and a valued part of my PLN.  He continually challenges my thinking and is a great example of a progressive, informed educator who puts his learning into practice.  Thank you, Jonathan, for allowing me to post your words here:.  If you are interested in highlighting your school’s decision to recognize all students, please email me.

St. Gregory

Awards at St. Gregory: Changes We Are Making To Recognize All Students

Dear members of the St. Gregory community:

Recognizing our students for their unique talents as outstanding individuals, creative and compassionate community contributors, and extraordinary intellects is something important to us all.

Important also is that we make choices which strengthen and enhance the quality of our supportive and collaborative learning community.  We know that students thrive most and learn most when they believe that the growth and the contributions of each of them are valued deeply, greatly, and equitably by their teachers.

As each school year ends, it is especially important that we take strong strides to value every learner and enhance our learning community.   Traditionally, in the middle school, each and every 8th grade student is individually recognized, appreciated, and honored by a teacher at the lovely promotional ceremony.

In the past, our high school graduation ceremonies have only included the naming of each graduate as he or she is welcomed to the stage and awarded a diploma.   This year, for the first time, we will initiate a new tradition at graduation in which each and every graduate is personally introduced by a faculty member with thoughtful remarks valuing the graduate’s qualities and contributions. It is my expectation that this ceremony will be warmer, more personal, more affirming, and more uplifting as we put our attention on our fine students, celebrate their accomplishments, and honor their character, scholarship, leadership, and innovation.

Last spring was the first time in my 21 year career in which I had the opportunity to observe a school awards assembly or awards process.   Neither of the two previous schools at which I taught and served as Head had any awards tradition.   I thought our ceremonies, both middle school and upper school, were each lovely in the way our teachers spoke about students and their accomplishments.   But it was not evident to me that these ceremonies were affirming and uplifting to the learning of all our students.

In the days after the ceremonies, I felt a bit besieged by the disgruntlement the ceremonies created.   Parents called to say their children were demoralized, disappointed, or disillusioned by the process.  Often expressed was that the process seemed arbitrary or prejudicial, a matter of playing favorites.

One graduating senior wrote me a compelling and articulate letter, excerpted below, which I did not feel should be ignored.

Today’s awards ceremony was a huge letdown. I understand the goal is to highlight the students that succeed in our school, but instead it ended up making the rest of us feel inadequate and ignored.

The awards ceremony made me feel like my accomplishments are trivial. Essentially, today took the wind out of my sails.

Graduation is about the ENTIRE senior class and our accomplishments. I don’t want to attend a graduation where my friends and I go unnoticed once again.

Please make the rest of us feel like we matter too.

I make a habit of reading widely in the contemporary literature of motivation and the psychology of success; to my observation, there is very little reason to believe that awards are motivating for achievement.  Research has repeatedly demonstrated that intrinsic motivation is far more effective for life-long passion and purpose than is extrinsic motivation.   I highly recommend Dan Pink’s new book: Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, in which he very powerfully explains the evidence that external awards actually can reduce success in higher order thinking skills: offering someone the carrot of a reward to motivate them actually reduces his or her effectiveness and success in completing a higher order thinking, complex task.  (Conversely, for very low level, effectively mindless tasks, rewards or awards can motivate in a small way).

“An incentive designed to clarify thinking and sharpen creativity ended up clouding thinking and dulling creativity. Why? Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus.”

“Goals may cause systematic problems for organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organization.”

By offering a reward, a principal signals to the agent that the task is undesirable. (If the task were desirable, the agent wouldn’t need a prod.)”

Stanford Psychology Professor Dr. Carol Dweck, in her terrific book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains how students can be potentially derailed from their growth mindset and into a problematic fixed mindset in school settings where some students are regularly rewarded and others are not.   The psychology of all this, not all of which is entirely conscious, is very powerful according to Dweck.  Some students may take away from their award exclusion that they are simply not capable of such achievement, and discontinue their efforts.  Other students, when winning awards, come to think this is the result of their innate, fixed abilities.   In this scenario, these award-winning students can become quite conservative in their learning, choosing not to take risks or try new things in areas in which they might not be successful, because in doing so they will jeopardize their self-identity as an award winner.

The most compelling reason to continue awards as they have been, I believe, is because we do know that many of our students have exerted themselves enormously, with great diligence and efforts, and they have accomplished extraordinary things.  Indeed.   Granting these students awards is a way of recognizing, acknowledging, and honoring these fine students.

However, these are often decisions difficult to make, and inevitably there is some ill-will generated in the process, ill-will which does not strengthen our school’s learning community.  Parents and students sometimes view the awards as having been decided in arbitrary ways, or by “favoritism.”  This concern was particularly prominent in the conversation I had with parents attending the November Family Association meeting.  That some deserving students are honored by awards misses the reality that other deserving students are hurt and by their perception their effort is devalued by not winning an award.

The good news is that in our new format, each and every student completing our programs, in the middle school and in the school as a whole, as 12th grade graduates, will have their hard work and extraordinary accomplishments acknowledged as is appropriate, in remarks which speak to the unique attributes of each.   Graduates will be spoken about, commended and congratulated twice: once in the “senior dinner” at which each graduate is paid tribute to by a pair of teachers, and then at graduation, as they are being awarded a diploma.

Some have asked about the importance of awards for our students’ college applications.   In the past, 70-80% of all awards have gone to graduating seniors, for whom these awards come too late to have any impact on a college application.  Furthermore, our very experienced and knowledgeable College Counselor, Malika Johnson, reports to us that internal school awards like this are not seen by most college admissions officers as significant in their decision-making process (awards granted to students from outside our school community do, in contrast, have significance in the process).

Motivated by the many disappointed and dissenting voices I heard last spring, I have conducted a review of our awards tradition over the past several months.   I enjoyed extended conversations with the upper school faculty (twice) and the middle school faculty (once); with the Family Association in an open meeting in advance of which we advertised we’d be discussing awards; and with a group of students who joined me for a conversation which I openly announced.

In all these conversations, there was very strong support for the changes we are making to the graduation ceremony.  At each discussion, many widely varying opinions were offered about awards, but in none of the conversations, by the end, did there continue to be very strong advocacy for continuing the status quo, and in both the faculty and the parent conversations, there was by the end instead a clear majority support for ending our awards process.

Two surveys were conducted.  One went to parents, announced two times in the e-View, it received very little participation—well under 5% of parents responded.   Of those that did, a majority expressed strong support for our awards tradition.   Our St. Gregory faculty members also completed a survey, for which we received nearly 100% participation; of the 35 members of our faculty in the survey, only 4 teachers, 11%, expressed a wish that we continue with the status quo tradition of past year (15% of those expressing a preference).   23% expressed no preference, and a clear majority of our faculty members, nearly two/thirds, expressed a preference to end the status quo (85% of those expressing a preference).

With such an overwhelming proportion of our faculty in support of a change; with the strong support for such a change I received from the family association conversation; with respect for the student views that while awards are valued by some it is also understood perhaps they do diminish the sense of student community; and after discussion with the executive committee of the Board of Trustees; I have decided we will no longer have awards at St. Gregory in the way we have in the past.

To clarify further, we will not host end-of-year awards assemblies in the middle and upper school, and we will not distribute in any venue a large number of departmental and general student awards.

We are not deciding at this juncture to never offer any awards.  In our faculty poll, the plurality selection (40%) (and the majority (54%)of those who expressed an opinion) was for the option “end the status quo but allow some flexibility for some award giving.”

Hence, we are reserving the option on an ad-hoc basis to grant selectively and in small numbers awards at all-school or division meetings, perhaps at graduation or promotion ceremonies, or perhaps at all-school academic pep rallies and learning celebrations.

We are also continuing our development of a program of special diplomas for students who commit to and complete a course of study and activity to develop certain skills.   These will not be awards decided by teachers and granted to only a few, but will be distinctions students attain by their choice to pursue and their success at accomplishing them.

Finally, we will also continue to encourage and support our students in seeking external awards, individually and as part of teams.  We recognize that there is great value in our students having opportunity to participate and compete in larger arenas, and although there are still potentially problematic issues of appropriate motivation entailed in such external awards programs, there are not at all the same issues of compromising the learning community that internal awards create.

Some in our community will be disappointed about this decision, certainly.  Awards are part of our tradition, and awards offer value to highlighting the things most important to a school program, academic accomplishment.  Those community members who disagree with this decision are welcome to give feedback or share their contrasting points of view: I value greatly a learning community marked by active, civil discourse and dissent.

For me, the paramount values for an educational program are that we seek to motivate students in the best, most well research-supported ways, and that we strive to create a genuinely strong  learning community where all feel valued and all feel eager to support one another in learning.  Awards, to the best of my understanding and perception, simply do not serve these values.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Martin

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Identity Day: Pride In Who We Are

Identity_Day_Logo

As an educator, I have had so many moments that have taken my breath away; working with kids, we often find ourselves truly inspired.  On Thursday, April 14th, 2011, I had the privilege of being inspired by every student at our school in a way that I can honestly say, had me leave the school that evening with a memory of the best day I have ever had as an educator.

The idea of Identity Day started at Forest Green School in Stony Plain, Alberta and was shared with the world by George Couros.  I presented  this idea to our staff in 2010 and they agreed that they would be willing to take a risk for kids and give the idea a try.  Part of our school goal is to have our students “develop their unique talents and interests” so this idea felt like it was made for our school.

The idea behind Identity Day is that students create a project on themselves; there is no criteria, no grades, and no set topics.  Students were encouraged to design a demonstration, video, powerpoint,  slideshow, poster, display or anything that would help the audience to learn something about them. (see Prezi on Identity Day here).  The idea was that each student and staff member would present in a way that shared a talent or interest about themselves.

My project on "My Family"

My project on the "Wejr Family"

Students were given about a month to prepare their projects along with some class time.  Families were encouraged to be involved and those students that struggled were given extra support from older students and staff members.  After presenting to each class, I was not sure how the day would go (whenever I bring a different idea/event to the school, I get nervous about the result); there was not a whole lot of interest a few weeks before… but when students began to bring in their projects a few days prior, we could feel a huge buzz in the school.  Kids were bringing in Lego, pictures, books, posters, stuffed animals, sports memorabilia and equipment – the students were beaming with pride about their projects.

The day of our fair was nothing short of brilliant.  Each class hosted the other classes at one point during the day.  Kids were so excited to teach

A Grade 5 student's project on "Lego"

A Grade 5 student's project on "Lego"

others about what was important to them!  We had students bring in all sorts of animals (including a goat!) as well as so many things that were meaningful to the students and staff.  They presented and taught others everything from “stuffies” to “animals” to “sports teams” as well as things more personal like “things I like” to “my family”.

It is so difficult to put the day in words; you had to be in our school to truly get a sense of the pride and excitement in our students.  Our school was full of parents, community members and students all genuinely interested in each other.  I learned more about our students in one day than I do in an entire year!

Because of Identity Day, I can now approach any child in the school and have a conversation about something in which they are interested.  In the past week, I have stopped students to ask about dance, Lego, their family, and various sports.  What better way to have students proud of who they are than to have them showcase…. who they are!

Every child has a gift; it is up to us, as educators, to create the environment that encourages the student to develop this strength and passion.  Identity Day is one example of the many things we are trying to do at Kent School to help children find their gifts.  If you have any questions on bringing Identity Day to your school, please comment or email me at chriswejr@gmail.com or on Twitter @mrwejr.

I want to thank the students, families and staff of Kent Elementary for their outstanding efforts.  Also, thank you to George and his school for the idea and the encouragement to bring something truly amazing  and inspiring to our school.

Here is a video that includes a few of the projects from Kent’s version of Identity Day:

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No Future in the Arts?

STORY 1: There is no future in dance.

“There’s no future in dance”.  This horrible statement was made to my wife, Tonya, in her grade 11 year of high school.  Here is her story:

For as long as Tonya can remember, she has been a dancer.    ballet_shoesThis girl knew her passion at a very young age; her life was spent in the studio and on the stage.  At 7 years of age, she performed in the motion picture, Housekeeping.  She taught dance in her early teens to help pay for her dance fees (her mother also helped clean the studio).  She thrived at dance and was a provincial rep for a number of years which provided her the opportunity to showcase her talents alongside some of the best artists in British Columbia each year.  Along with dance, Tonya loved musical theatre; she was involved in musicals each year up until she graduated high school.

A few years ago, I asked my wife how often she was able to bring her passion and strength in dance into her schooling; she only remembered the one time in elementary school where she was encouraged to perform in front her peers.  Growing up, dance was all she knew; school was far from dance.  She did ‘well enough’ in school, struggled in certain areas, but excelled in the arts.

In grade 11, Tonya met with the school counselor to go over possible career paths.  All she had ever thought about was dance – teaching, choreographing, and performing.  The counselor was very blunt and told her that she should probably consider other options because a career in dance was likely not to happen.  She walked out of that office thinking that her best option would be in the field of secretarial/office management.  However, being the person she was, her thoughts shifted back to dance and she did not pay much attention to the counselor and thus, continued to perform and teach.  She soon realized that her dream also included owning and directing her own dance studio.

Let me catch you up on what she has done since then:

Following graduation, she worked as a teacher and began to audition for certain dance roles.  She landed roles in music videos, a major motion picture Center Stage: Turn it Up, as well as a place in the top 100 of So You Think You Can Dance Canada.  (She also taught hip hop classes at a certain high school which caught the eye of a certain high school PE teacher who may or may not have written this blog).

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

She spent 2 years going to school to complete her Royal Academy of Dance teaching program.  Tonya worked at a few different dance studios and in the summer of 2007, reached her dream goal and opened Kick It Up A Notch Academy of Dance.  Her philosophy as a teacher is much more than just teaching dance; she is a coach, a mentor, a friend, and a leader; she has inspired many dancers with her creative choreography and passionate teaching style.   With over 100 students at her studio along with passionate teachers, Tonya’s love for dance is spreading to young students every year.  I get emotional every year at the Year End Performance when her dancers showcase their unreal talents and love for their art.

What would have happened if she had listened to her counselor and her school’s recommendation?  Has Tonya excelled because of the education system or in spite of the education system?  How many students are pushed away from the arts and directed to focus on something that is a “real world skill” or “practical” skill?  Many of Tonya’s students give up their love of dance to ‘focus on their academics’ in school; university may be a great option for some but I often wonder how many great artists are leaving the field to enter one in which they may not have that same passion.

STORY 2: A Photographer Is Born… 25 years later.

I met Sarah Funk this past year on Twitter (we actually went to preschool together).  Since then, we have hired her a few times for professional photography sessions for my family.  Sarah is amazing at what she does and through our conversations, I realized that she has not always been provided with the opportunity to focus on her art. Here is her story:

Sarah’s interest in the arts started in dance when she began Highland Dancing at the age of 4.  Music was also a large part of her life growing up; she loved it and excelled at from age 8.   Her father always had a camera around; in fact, his camera from when she was a child is sitting in her home today.  She remembers picking up that camera on and off throughout growing up but did not take it seriously until after high school when something drove her to learn more about the art of photography.  At that time it was mostly just flowers and nature,  nothing serious.  Having children only fueled this passion for photography and she began to want to translate images in her head into a photograph.  From there, her passion has grown into a successful business based on one of the top photographers in the Fraser Valley, Silver Lamb Studios.

Thinking back, she can’t even recall what her school offered in terms of photography.  She does recall, that with art programs, they fell to electives and because you only had so many electives that sometimes, your art had to be left behind to pursue the academic courses.  It was made very clear to her by her school that she needed to complete and do well in academic classes to get into a University. She remembers it being a very pro-University environment.  In Grade 12, she actually took a music class, even though she did not get a credit for it (because she already had a “different art credit”); she took it because she loved it.

She went to University, because that’s what she was told you had to do after high school to get anywhere or get a good job.  It wasn’t pushed on her by her  parents but more from the education system.  At the time, she thought the RCMP was the career path for her and she was told a post-secondary education would give her an edge in the field.  She studied Criminology and although she enjoyed it, none of the possible career areas excited her.  So after receiving her Criminology diploma and leaving university, she worked in various retail jobs until she became a mother and stopped working outside of the home.  Only then was she provided with the opportunity to explore her interest in photography.  She began taking photos of her children and family; at that point she knew her

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

purpose, her passion – her love of photography had returned and has since grown into a key part of her life.

I am thankful for her love of photography, her art fills our homes with beautiful captured memories.

When I asked Sarah what advice she would give to a student interested in photography, she responded “I think I would tell the child to follow their passion.  Both my husband and I are prime examples of going to school for one thing and ended up in a totally different field.  I really believe that you can make a living from anything.  It makes a tremendous difference working when you are doing something you love.  I never ever thought that I would be able to say that.”

Sarah was directed into a field, away from her passion of the arts, by a system.  I am so thankful that she returned to her passions later in life but I often wonder how many people do not get this opportunity?  How many people disregard their passions for the arts because of a system that pushes people into a certain direction?  Is a university education the ideal option?  Why does “keeping your doors open” often mean focusing on academics?

In a system that is continually trying to just survive with shrinking budgets, how many arts courses are being cut?  If a child is in a small community and has a passion and talent for theatre but there are not enough students to run a program, what happens to this child’s strength?

Reading and listening to people like Sarah, my wife Tonya, as well as renown speaker Sir Ken Robinson makes me reflect on the academic hierarchy that is present in our education system.  Numeracy and literacy are very important skills for our students but at what point do we put too much emphasis on academics and lose sight of what is important for all our students?

I want my children and students to have the opportunity to be part of an education system that encourages them to follow their passions and lead a flourishing life and not one that directs them into a path determined by system hierarchy.

Thank you to Sarah Funk and Tonya Wejr for their stories.

If you have not seen this TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, by Sir Ken Robinson, it is well worth the 18 minutes.

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Strength In EVERY Child

Mr. Mendez

Every child has a strength; the key for us, as educators, is to tap into these strengths and passion and help students to truly flourish in their lives.

We need to stop putting lids on what kids can do and start opening up their worlds and providing them with opportunities to grow far beyond what they knew was ever possible.

Please take 20 minutes and watch the amazing film, “The Butterfly Circus”, below (or click here to go to the film website).  I show this to our grade 6 classes each year and the conversations we have following the viewing are always some of the most memorable.  One of my students today said, “Each one of us has a gift, and we need to recognize that.”

We all need to be more like Mr. Mendez and begin to see the strength and power within each one of us.

The Butterfly Circus – HD from The Butterfly Circus on Vimeo.

Actor from the film, “Butterfly Circus”, Nick Vujicic, inspires us all….

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Honouring A Student’s Strength: Story of Daniel

“We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.” – Sir Ken Robinson

(This was originally guest-posted as an “A-Ha Moment” on  Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.  With all the talk about how we changed our awards ceremony to focus on ALL our students’ strengths, I felt now was an opportune time to cross post.  Thank you to Pernille Ripp for the opportunity to share Daniel’s story.)

How can we truly see the potential of our students if we fail to provide the environment to bring out their talents?

I have always wanted to be a high school teacher and I was exactly that for 7 years. You never know where your life will lead you and, while completing my Master’s Degree, I was offered the opportunity to work with an amazing principal at an elementary school. Roxanne taught me to seek out the strengths in people and bring these talents out from within and opened my eyes to the power of strength-based, rather than deficit-based, teaching and leadership. My aha moment came in my first few months of being an elementary school teacher and a new vice principal.

When I did the tour of the school I was to be a teacher/vice principal, I met Daniel (pseudonym). Daniel had a smile that was contagious but was disengaged and struggled in school; the reason I met him that day was that he was in the hall after being asked to leave class. I never asked him why he was in the hall, I just started asking him about his life outside of school; we talked about music and friendships in the few moments we shared together on that day.

The next year, I was to teach a 5/6 class (in addition to the vice principal duties) so when we were creating the classes, I requested that Daniel be placed in my class. To be honest, in the first month, I really struggled with the transition from teaching 17 year-olds to teaching 11 year-olds. Many of the students had behaviour, social, emotional, and academic challenges so I spent many hours bouncing ideas off Roxanne and other teachers trying to find out how to reach these kids. I specifically started to talk about Daniel as he was so withdrawn in class – always refusing to take part in any learning activities and that smile that drew me to him seemed to have disappeared. She asked me what I knew about him; the truth was that I knew very little about him other than he struggled in class and liked music. She encouraged me to find out more about him; find out what he loved, what he was good at and try to bring that out in him.

During the next week, I spent a recess having a snack with Dan. I found out that he lived in a nearby community in which he spent two hours on the bus each day, lived with his Grandmother because his mother was far too young, and we shared a common interest in Johnny Cash. We spent much of the recess singing a variety of Cash songs and just laughing. Later that day, I was speaking with the First Nation Support Worker (Nelson), sharing with him about the moment that had occurred, and he let me in on another strength of Daniel: First Nation drumming and singing. He said this was something that he recently witnessed in his community but maybe something that we could support. The FNSW asked me if he could take Daniel and a few others to work on this interest; I believed this was a great opportunity so for 2 weeks, Nelson spent a few mornings a week drumming with Daniel and two others. What progressed after this changed the way I teach and live my life.

I asked Daniel if I could come watch one recess. I was blown away. Daniel was so into the drumming and singing that he would actually be sweating with pride as he was doing this. A few weeks later, I asked him if he could perform for our class – he unfortunately declined. Nelson encouraged him to sing and drum with him in front of our class. He nervously agreed and blew us all away when he performed; other students cheered when he finished and then asked if they could be part of “his group”. Daniel was now not only working with his strengths but also leading others to do the same. His group added girls and grew from 3 to 6 and then 8, including 2 students from another class. They played for our class every Monday morning, to start our week, and every Friday afternoon, to finish our week. They even gave themselves a name, Sacred Connections, and began to play for other schools and community events.

The moment that brought me almost to tears was right before Christmas. Each week, 1-2 new students would join up front in the singing and drumming. We often don’t see the impact of small changes but right before Christmas, the group actually had no people to play for, because every single student was up there singing with Daniel! To create an audience, I invited Roxanne and a grade 4 class to come and see the performance. We all sat there in awe of what Daniel had done not only as a performer, but also as a leader.

The other parts of Daniel’s school and life were drastically changing too. His friendships grew, his efforts in school improved and he became very engaged in learning activities. His reputation grew as a leader in the school and community and his group was asked to play at a local pre-Olympic Games (2010) event and in the spring he was asked to perform with Pow Wow drummers at a huge event in front of our entire school and community! Daniel had gone from a disengaged, quiet student who refused to take part in the learning to a proud leader and confident learner in our school.

Leadership and Strength

Daniel leading the "Welcome Song" to start our week.

That year was one that changed my life. It was not just one aha moment but a series of moments that shaped me as a person. I want to thank Roxanne, Nelson, and most importantly Daniel for teaching me that, as educators, the most important thing we can do is provide the optimal conditions for people to grow, bring out their strengths, and truly flourish.

Rather than only recognize those select few award winners at the end of the year, we need to honour every student every day.  Every child has a strength and passion within him/her; we need to help EVERY student to find this and excel in his/her own way.

Here are the comments that the person who taught me the most about this, Dominic (Daniel).

Dom 1Dom2

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