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The West Vancouver School District has become synonymous  with excellence and innovative programming.  In recent years this reputation has been bolstered by our commitment to a range of sports academy programs.

I am thrilled today to announce the latest in the long list of innovative programs – our Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy.  It is tremendously exciting that we are going to engage our students with this sport that has worldwide popularity.  There is great pride in being an international community and our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy will support this.

The world is changing and we need to embrace traditional sports like fencing, soccer, hockey, baseball and basketball and also look at new emerging sports.  That is where Rock, Paper, Scissors fits in.  We know that there will be tremendous excitement over this announcement, and student-athletes will come from many surrounding communities to be part of our Academy Program.

Rock, Paper, Scissors is a sport that anyone can participate in from 5 to 85.  It will help foster lifelong fitness.  While many have raised concerns about the lack of physical activity with our youth – Rock, Paper, Scissors, gets our children away from the video games and engaged in physical competition.

Our curriculum will be based on resources available through the World RPS Society.  Students will learn about the history of the sport that is traced back to the Chinese Han Dynasty.   And the training will both be in the classroom and in the gym.  Competitors at the top-level need to be both physically and mentally sharp.  As any of our instructors will tell you, Rock, Paper, Scissors is far from random, and over time through deep study, athletes in the academy will become familiar with the various algorithms of their opponents selections.

As student progress through the grades, the academy will allow them to explore higher levels alternatives including rock-paper-scissors-Spock-lizard and other East Asian Hand Games.

This academy is completely aligned with the new curriculum – focusing on a series of competencies and embracing cross-curricular connections.  Students in the program will receive credit for English, Math and Physical Education.

Our Academy Programs have always been about supporting students through being academic athletes and taking their talents to the next level.  It is exciting to think the next World Champion might be sitting in our classrooms now and all they need is this type of program to catapult them to the world stage.  Here is a video of the 2014 United Kingdom finals:

We know that our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy we are launching today has the potential to be as succesful as our many other academy programs.  Anticipating its success we are already considering adding other emerging sports including cheese rolling and toe wrestling.  It is all about getting our young people active and excited about activity!

Finally, to quote our Academies Principal Diane Nelson, “Today marks a special day in the West Vancouver School District as we announce the very first Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy in the world.  We are honoured to welcome some of the region’s most talented athletes.  I am equally proud of this truly special sport as it continues to delight people of all ages with it’s quantum indeterminacy.”

This is the latest in what has become an annual tradition at this time of year to launch innovative initiatives.

In 2012 I launched my FLOG.

In 2013 I made the announcement of Quadrennial Round Schooling.

In 2014 we formalized our System of Student Power Rankings.

Today we add our Rock, Paper, Scissors Premier Sports Academy to this list.

Hopefully your first day of April is as fun and exciting as mine!

Writing is Writing

writinghardwork

Every month I read the magazine School Administrator cover to cover.  Produced by the AASA – the American Superintendents’ Association it moves from big picture issues, to practical current topics to interesting slices of life from a variety of others who serve in the same role as me.   It is my go-to professional journal.  Over the last four years I have got to know its editor, Jay Goldman.  Jay has been kind enough to take some of my blog posts and turn them into columns for the magazine, and I am right now working on a piece on school sports for an issue this summer.  It is not just the relevance that draws me to the School Administrator Magazine but also the quality of writing – which goes back to the tone and standards set by the editor.

I had the chance to attend a session at the recent AASA National Conference on Education hosted by Jay Goldman and his colleague Jimmy Minichello on Publishing Professionally: Guidance for School District Leaders.  I went there to look for tips on how better to take what I am writing every week for my blog and make it something that would work in a variety of other forms.  And like many of you out there, I do have dreams of writing a book one day.  It was a great session, but the key message I took away was one not really about writing for a magazine or books or even for blogging – the message I took away was Writing is Writing.  Something that fits with a message I often share, “Good writing still matters.”

There is one particular slide that brought this message home for me:

whywrite

If anything, being a good writer seems to be more important now than ever for teachers and administrators.  And while Jay was speaking about the power of writing in the context of a magazine, this slide is a great slide to answer the question – why blog?  The goal is not bloggers, for our students or the adults in the system – it is writers for the reasons that Jay outlines.  What is true is that blogging allows the writing to be more dynamic and allows us all to be owners of our own publishing company.

In the end though, writing is still writing and all of us should take up the challenge to do more of it in our profession.

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I have been teaching in a couple high school classrooms recently, and I have been reminded that students on small hand-held internet devices can be distracted and distracting.  I am being intentional in not using the word phone.  For almost all of us, the devices we call phones are primarily used for other functions.  I know for me, the phone is maybe the fifth or sixth most popular use for my small internet device.    I don’t think the discussion is about phones vs. tablets vs. laptops rather it is about what functions are best done with what size of device.

For more than a decade I have been advocating students bringing internet-ready devices into the classroom.    I have said things like, “phones are great, if that is all students have, they should bring them.”   And this is still true.

I have also regularly said, “If students have a phone and can’t afford a laptop, their families should really consider making a different (better) decision that could benefit the child’s learning.”  I know families have invested in phones for a variety of reasons and safety is a reason I often hear.  Well, get a cheap phone for emergencies and take that money for the iPhone contract, and invest in a laptop or tablet.

Back to my recent reminders.  I will focus on one particular class of grade 11 and 12 students I was working with.  We were having a discussion around leadership in the digital age.  And I have to be honest, the students on their small devices were driving me crazy!   I could see the students were distracted, and in turn, this was very distracting for me and others.  They were texting away with students in the room and outside the room, only periodically engaging in the lesson.  Now, I know it is partly my fault.  If my lesson was more engaging, the students would not have been so easily distracted.  I also could have done a better job of classroom management.  I also know that in our efforts around students bringing their own devices, the journey has not, nor will not, be linear in terms of how students use devices in their classrooms – we are in shifting times.

At our District Parent Advisory Council Meeting this past week we had a great discussion around technology that included a high school teacher and a grade 10 student.  As the student reminded us, “When kids are on their phones they are usually not doing school work.”  Heck, when adults are on their phones it is more likely for social rather than business.  I have always been a believer in the key role of adults to model technology use and it is hard to suggest kids just need to behave differently when so often we see parents busy checking their Facebook or Twitter feeds.    The power of devices in school is usually around what is possible to create, and with the small handheld devices, in schools they are almost exclusively consumption devices or texting machines.

So, the advice of the last decade does stand – that any internet device that gets you in the game is good.  But it is also true that some devices are better than others and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking devices like iPhones are changing learning.  I am a bit “old school” and like to type on a keyboard so my advice when asked about what one should get for their child is probably a laptop, or a tablet with a keyboard.  More and more other specs matter less, and work lives in the cloud – it is about getting to the internet.

And what else was I reminded in teaching classes where all students have technology; technology does not making teaching easier, but it does make it very different.

Working for the Grade

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There is a debate in education around the relationship between grading and learning. Many of our teachers and schools have shifted the ways that they give students feedback – focussing more on constructive comments for improvement and less on grades. Of course, this has been met with some concern. For so long, schools have been using grades as something of a sorting system, and while also a learning system, the sorting often took priority as students marks were used to make comparisons.  And of course, with almost all of our students looking towards post-secondary education in our community, grades do matter.

Our teachers and schools are committed to getting better at how we communicate student learning. Like many BC school districts, we have been piloting new reporting documents this year, and next year both Kindergarten and Grade 4 will be running district-wide reporting pilots. The goal of this work is to take the best information we have about student learning, and have that reflected in what we share out to parents and students.  In my last post, I referenced FreshGrade, that presents a new way of communicating student learning.  It is one of the tools our teachers are beginning to use to break down traditional way of reporting – moving reporting away from being an event but rather an ongoing dialogue.

I was recently reminded of the challenge of assessment, grading and reporting  with a story told to me by a colleague in the district about her daughter, currently in Grade 6, who attends a school in another district. Her story is a common one that I hear about assessment practices, and one worth sharing.

In this particular story, the class was asked to develop some speaking notes on a topic and deliver a 3-5 minute spoken presentation. Her daughter practiced for several days behind closed doors, working hard to ensure that she could deliver the presentation in the allotted time, as points would be deducted for presentations that were either too long or too short. She felt prepared and really enjoyed the research and work involved in putting it together. She even shared some of her ideas with classmates in the days prior to the delivery, and they talked about their shared concerns and strategies to overcome the usual pitfalls of public speaking. It was a great project, with one very big downside.

When she had delivered the presentation, her mother asked how it had gone. “Well, I don’t have my grade yet, but people asked questions and two of my friends said that I did really well.” She was pleased about the positive feedback and talked about her own impressions of the project.

The following day, her daughter returned home, locked herself in her room, and examined the grade and evaluation sheet in private. It was not what she had hoped to see, and she was not eager to share it with the family.

This story illustrates our challenge. We want assessment to help improve learning, but for this student, as soon as the grade was given, the learning stopped. Instead of being a stop on a learning journey – this became a story about ranking and sorting.

While parents love to hear that “Sophia is a pleasure to teach,” timely and constructive comments that help parents understand how they can support at home the work in the classroom is far more useful.

There are no easy answers, but this is an important conversation we are having in our schools and across the province as we look for better ways to assess student learning.

A previous version of this post was originally shared in my Superintendent’s Message that was published earlier this month for the West Vancouver School District e-newsletter, the Learning Curve.  

dotsIf education in British Columbia made news over the last few years, it was almost exclusively around the ongoing labour issues.  With new contracts in place now for teachers and support staff, there is more of an opportunity for other education stories to hit the mainstream news – whether that is television, radio or newspapers.  There have been quite a few recent stories, that might at first glance appear to be unrelated, but are all very much connected and part of a larger story – one of quite a shift happening in education, both in BC and around the world.  For regular readers of this and other educator’s blogs, this might almost seem passé, the shifts happening have been well covered inside the profession, but now, in between stories of hospital wait-times and transit plans, there is some space for some important education issues to be part of a larger public dialogue.

My broad sweeping generalization about the current changes in education around curriculum, reporting, innovation, and related topics is that students and families who are engaged and part of the change are excited, and as one moves out from them to the broader community, there is increased concern, skepticism and distrust.  While families in a class that has moved away from using letter grades in elementary school to more descriptive feedback may appreciate the way the reporting support improved learning, those at a distance may see this a edu mumble-jumble and a lowering of standards in the system.

I want to take three recent stories – read in isolation they are interesting – but collectively tell a larger story, and open up a large, rich and important conversation.

From January 29th, Tamsyn Burgmann of The Globe and Mail, wrote a story on a forum hosted by the BC Ministry of Education  and included all key educational partners and a number of International experts, including internationally known scholar, author, and speaker Yong Zhao, who is extensively referenced in the quote below:

The province should revolutionize the system by shifting the teaching emphasis to nurture every child’s individual passion and talents. The concept is called personalized learning, and gives both students and teachers more space to explore their diverse abilities.

“To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, you cannot skip the basics,” Dr. Zhou told the room. “But the basics should come after we have a passion. Sometimes we do the basics and we have killed people’s interest.”

His call for innovation comes at the same time B.C. teachers are administering the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment tests to children in Grades 4 and 7, and as the province’s education minister announced a new education strategy.

Minister Peter Fassbender told the forum the government is partnering with educators to identify several schools throughout the province to pilot programs that swap the focus to individualized learning. 

Work around personalized learning is well underway in West Vancouver, with teachers and schools focusing in inquiry, student passion projects, unique community partnerships and other initiatives give students real world learning experiences.

A week later, Tracy Sherlock of the Vancouver Sun wrote about reporting in the age of social media:

Report cards are entering the social media age as new software called FreshGrade allows real-time sharing and reporting on student progress.

Tracy Cramer, a kindergarten teacher at Richard Bullpit Elementary School in Langley, has been using FreshGrade  since the beginning of this school year and says she loves it because it makes communicating with parents so easy and it makes doing her students’ report cards relatively painless.

“Teachers get anxious around this time because of report cards. But I have all my evidence there … so I just have to go in and add a few comments and my report cards are done,” Cramer said.

She says the program gives the kids — even in kindergarten — ownership of their work.

“They will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’” Cramer said. “I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.”

And at the same time, a number of local news outlets picked up on a petition started by a parent in North Saanich to take a look at the state of math instruction – calling for a back-to-basics approach.  The CBC was one of those outlets to pick up the story:

A North Saanich parent has started a petition against new math learning methods currently being adopted as part of the province’s revamped curricula for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Tara Houle launched the petition, which calls for the return of traditional learning like rote memorization of multiplication tables. So far the petition has gathered more than 500 signatures.

“What I find is the biggest challenge is at the elementary level where we have a lot of math concepts being introduced to kids at a very young age,” said Houle. “It completely overwhelms their minds.”

Houle wants kids to develop a strong foundation of math skills before trying to learn “higher-order concepts.”

She believes new learning methods don’t stand up to research that supports explicit, direct instruction and memorization, adding that the U.K. and Australia had abandoned the new methods since adopting them.

Three different stories yet all linked. Part of the challenge with change in education is that one cannot change one part, without changing other parts as well.  If you alter the curriculum, you need to change assessment.  And if you modify assessment in K-12, you need to be sure it aligns with post-secondary admissions.  And if you are moving individual parts, you need to develop new models to lead the way on what the future of learning can look like.  And while you are doing all of this, you have to continue to ensure you have some social licence – some acceptance and approval from stakeholders and the broader community.

And on these three  items – what do I think?  I think encouraging innovation is a good thing and networking teachers and schools together is the right way to do it – so much better than a top-down approach.  I think assessment is changing and has been changing for many years.  My crystal ball says that we will be less reliant on letter grades in five years and that is a good thing.  And I think the math conversation is not a black / white dialouge.  There are fundamentals that all students absolutely need and they must be able to apply these concepts.  A return to the math teaching of a generation ago is not the answer – just ask how many parents had a good experience with math growing up but math teaching is a healthy discussion as it helps parents better understand what they can do to support their children at home.

But, as I said, the shifts are not just about these three issues – they are broader and it is heartening to see the media bringing these issues forward so we can have the rich discussions about teaching and learning for now and into the future.

Students at West Bay Elementary School

Students at West Bay Elementary School

I walk into almost all of our schools in West Vancouver and very often the first thing people want to show me or talk to me about is the changes happening around the library.  Or more specifically, schools are taking great pride in their learning commons spaces that are developing.  While the physical spaces are exciting, the changes to our mindsets are far more powerful.  We are not destined for new schools in West Vancouver anytime soon but the rethink of the library has been both a symbolic and concrete shift in how we think about space and how we think about learning.  The school library – a centre piece in schools – is now the modern hub for learning.

I like the library metaphor from Joan Frye Williams (shared in this blog from Joyce Valenza):

Our libraries should transition to places to do stuff, not simply places to get stuff. The library will become a laboratory in which community members tinker, build, learn, and communicate. We need to stop being the grocery store or candy store and become the kitchen.  We should emphasize hospitality, comfort, convenience and create work environments that invite exploration and creativity both virtually and physically.

The library as a kitchen – I love it.

And just what does this look like?

A couple weeks ago I was at West Bay Elementary for the opening of their new space.  Recently, I have been to other formal and less formal tours at unveilings at a variety of schools including Eagle Harbour Montessori, Bowen Island Community School, Cypress Primary, Irwin Park Elementary and West Vancouver Secondary.  There are many elements all of these spaces have in common.  One immediately gets the sense that the primary goal was to draw more students in to do individual and collective work. There are spaces for silent study, but also other areas that often look more like a coffee shop than a traditional library.  In listening to West Bay Principal Judy Duncan, describe their vision for their space, she said, “We believe the library is a hub of our school, a space where learners of all ages gather to learn through conversation, collaboration, independent study and purposeful play.”

Our work in West Vancouver, both with spaces and mindsets is not happening in isolation.  We have been influenced by the work at universities, like this work at the University of British Columbia, the work at other schools in BC, like this work at John Oliver Secondary in Vancouver and the work at public libraries, including the efforts of our own local library – the West Vancouver Memorial Library.  For my thinking, a particularly useful document is Facing the Future – A Vision Document for British Columbia’s Public Libraries.  It’s author, Ken Roberts, the former Chief Librarian of the Hamilton Public Library, argues that “there is a growing realization that physical libraries are becoming  even more important community spaces, places where people gather, share and learn from each other.”  In short, the shift that public libraries are facing is the same ones that schools are facing and we have a lot to learn from and with each other.  The BC Teacher Librarians’ Association, an amazingly thoughtful and forward-looking organization have also produced a document to help schools in the midst of the transition.

The photos below give a sense of some of the uses of the new space at West Bay, and what we are seeing across our district as we make these shifts.

Individual and group work.  Technology is present but not the focus.

Individual and group work. Technology is present but not the focus.

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Students working before school

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Students working at lunchtime.

 

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Activity during instructional time

For more on the specifics of this particular transformation, Principal Judy Duncan has blogged about Transforming Learning Spaces to Meet Today’s Learners.

At the recently held Ontario Library Conference, I made the argument that we can get hung-up on the money when it comes to learning commons spaces. But it is first about mindsets – we need to embrace new ways of learning and find ways for our space to reflect these changes and be the gathering places for our all our learners.  The thinking around the learning commons is symbolizing the shifts we are seeing with learning throughout our schools.

 

girls sports

So, having outlined some reasons why school sports may endure in my last post, there are also some realities that lead one to see that there are a number of factors working against school sports right now.

In no particular order, here are some of the challenges that school sports face going forward:

The discussion around concussions and brain injuries seems to be growing all the time. And quickly, the conversations often move to sports that have or are perceived to have high levels of head injuries.  Two of these sports are two of the most popular in high school – football and rugby.  And to be very fair, both sports are trying to get out in front of the issue and make their games safer.  Examples include the Safe Contact Program in Canada that deals with heads-up tackling.   The issue of safety is not going away, and there are definitely voices that question whether schools should be active in sports that can be seen to be dangerous.

We have continued to see a decline in teacher coaches in schools.  Unlike, our American counterparts, high school coaching is almost exclusively a volunteer experience (there are some Independent Schools that offer a stipend).  And over time, there has been a shift from school coaches to community coaches.  I have seem some local data that shows the majority of coaches in almost all schools are non-teacher coaches.  There is a commonly told story that teacher anger at government and new teachers without the same values as those of previous generations are the culprits.  The story seems far more complicated and the real stories don’t make up these myths.  This issue seems part of larger shifts in society that see teachers putting on their parenting hats quickly after school and leaving to coach their own children who are now playing more sports and younger ages than ever before.  Teachers are also far more likely to be working as tutors or otherwise busy after school.

Also on the topic of coaching, we have moved from volunteers to professional coaches throughout youth sports. Soccer and hockey clubs no longer rely just on willing moms and dads as coaches but have technical directors to lead their clubs.  While some coaches are trained and certified in schools the vast majority are willing volunteers looking to connect with kids and support them knowing the power of sports to help connect young people to school and positive peer groups.  Somehow these types of coaches are not enough anymore as expertise is now becoming expected in both the community and in schools.

One of the advantages of school sports over community sports has been cost.  School sports have been far cheaper alternatives than those in the community.  This has been changing.  Now school sports are reflective of the total cost of the offerings, and often can be several hundred dollars for a season to cover referee, tournament and other charges.   While there are still some very inexpensive sports to run in schools, this has been changing.  There are also not the same sources of revenue to support school sports – traditionally some gym rental revenue, or vending machine revenue or monies from other sources could help support school sports – as budgets have got tighter these sources have disappeared.  Now, schools, like the community, are having to find ways to ensure all young people have access to sports.  And the cost issue does not seem to be going away.

Did you know there are 17 school sports in British Columbia?  I am sure you can name the first few quite easily – basketball, volleyball, football.  But did you know about curling, tennis and ski and snowboarding?  There are some questions of whether there are too many school sports.  Again not a simple issue.  I have coached some senior boys and girls soccer.  Now soccer is done very well in the community but there was something great about having students organize by schools and play using “school values” which are often different from the values promoted in the community.  Like UBC saw when they looked at reducing their university Varsity sports, any move to reduce the number of sports would be met with questions of “why us”?  It does seem unwieldy to try to offer so many sports particularly given the other challenges.

In referencing a need to look at our model in the past post, I did begin to make the argument that we are moving to a much more participatory culture with a focus of having all young people engaged and not just the elite athletes.  There is no shortage of news stories around the concerns over youth inactivity and governments of all levels around the world are working on strategies to have young people be more active.  And while “sports” are a great way and we need to be exposing more kids at younger ages to the range of options, “competitive sports” in schools are often about the few participating not the many.  While it is great to win provincial championships, there is definitely something to be said for having all students out running and playing.

It used to work out perfectly – there are three natural terms to a school year and three sports seasons.  Of course the era of a sport being done in a single season is over.  In the old version, come November the volleyballs would go away and the basketballs would come out.  Then come spring break, the basketballs went away and out came the track spikes.  Now all seasons spill into one another.  It is hard for coaches to coach multiple sports and the community quickly picks up the parts that the school is not doing as almost all sports at high school are year-round.

Traditionally schooling has been very localized. The sense of global competition was not ever-present as it is today.  As the academic competition increases, school sports are often seen as an add-on for teachers and students.  Teaching has never been more difficult and the expectations around the profession are at an all-time high.  Do parents want their math teachers coaching volleyball for 3 hours a night or prepping their lessons?  Of course the answer is probably both.  But this is a huge challenge as teachers invest more time in their lessons to support students and students invest more times in their studies to be competitive in the global learning race, sports can be seen as a nice extra but not part of the core for school.

Our current set of rules are all about schools, yet increasingly our system is about students.  The system of school eligibility is about creating a fair playing field for all schools.  There are a number of eligibility policies in place to keep this.  And this has largely worked.  We have an ongoing trend of students taking courses from multiple locations, often a blend of face-to-face and online courses and it seems likely that students will increasingly be defined less by being a member of one school.  So, as a student takes a couple of courses at one school, a few at another and still other with a third institution online – how do we deal with this in a school sports eligibility sense?  School sports are built around the “school” as the centre point but personalizing learning is about the “student” at the centre.  And while I was a vocal leader of creating a fair playing field for schools I see the world shifting.

Try this out.  Find a really good high school volleyball or basketball player and ask them – who do you play for?  In these two sports that have been primarily school sports throughout time, most kids will not answer with their school but their club.  Students now primarily identify with their club not their school.  This has happened fast – I see it with my own elementary aged children.   Yes, kids play sports for the school but this is not seen as their primary identification.  While yes, in some sports in some communities the high school is the primary or only game in town – there are no sports left where the majority of training and growth happens in schools.  Student athletes compete for their school but they play for their clubs.

Parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.  One of the great appeals of school sports to families has been that they open doors to a university education.  Students are now regularly seen through club programs and students could receive full scholarships in a “school sport” without ever playing that sport in high school. Colleges and universities are also looking to bypass school programs creating their own club structures that feed their university programs rather than relying on high schools to develop their future players.

And of all of the challenges, I think the biggest one might be that potentially the community does a better job than schools of providing competitive sports.   Public and private providers in the community may be better at offering competitive sports than schools.  I wonder, if schools did not currently offer competitive athletics would there be a push to start them?  I think the answer is no.  The number of community, not-for-profit and for-profit groups offering competitive athletics is growing exponentially.  And while some of the offerings make me cringe, there are many fabulous opportunities for young people in the community that did not exist even a decade ago.  And while not perfect, groups like KidSport are helping make community sports accessible to all families.

I don’t think there is any one of the challenges in on the list that is insurmountable.  It is more about the cumulative effect of them all.  And to be clear, I am definitely not convinced that the loss of school sports would not be without huge repercussions for schools from overall student engagement, to morale to achievement levels – it might be a future reality though.  And if sports remained in independent schools and not public schools I think we would see a mass exodus from our public institutions.

While we are envisioning teaching, learning and schooling of the future we better add athletics to the conversation.  If we don’t, there will be more voices like Amanda Ripley, making the Case Against High-School Sports.   For me, hearing stories about finding our way back to the 1970’s when schools dismissed and Empire Stadium was full with students for track meets or the glory days of basketball championships at the Agrodome are great stories but not instructive.  We need to get to figuring out the role of schools in competitive sports as we go forward.

And while I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while, looking 20 years out we need to think of what new model will work.

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