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Affiliation and Ignite

Ignite-The-Fire-Within

The idea of affiliation in education is shifting.  While we still connect to traditional structures by role (unions, associations, etc.) and by where we work (schools, districts, etc.) the digital world is challenging these traditional associations as being paramount and this may be necessary to build the coalition to bring about the shifts many are looking for in our education system.  I am convinced that we need a third point of reference to bring about education transformation.

In the BC context, transformation will never take hold if it is seen to belong to the Ministry of Education, the BC Teachers Federation, the BC Superintendents, BC Principals, or any one district.  We do need another space where people from all groups can come together and work together.  What does this look like?  For a couple of decades we have seen the power of how the Network of Performance Based Schools in BC has been an amazing influence over what happens in classrooms.  The group is not seen as being owned by anyone or any group — the group belongs to the group and it is guided by the work.  Somehow, we need something similar given the larger shifts currently happening in education in BC.

And, I am thinking about this idea of affiliation because of my participation this past week in Ignite Your Passion for Discovery — the brain child of Dean Shareski. Last Wednesday night about eighty-five people, passionate about education, gathered at Relish GastroPub & Bar from 7 to 10 pm to talk about passion in education. There were 14 presenters who had exactly five minutes (20 slides/15 seconds each ) to share their passion.  In between presentations there were exchanges for great networking.  You could walk around the room, and it had a greater sense of community and was more connected than any staff meeting I have ever been a part of.  Almost everyone knew each other from Twitter  – some had met in person, but for many it was a first meeting.  This is the new world of affiliation — people connected not by role, not by location, but by passion.  It is these types of coalitions that are going to bring about shifts and change in education.  People were inspired and also reminded they are not alone — others are trying to do similar things.  The digital space is still so young, but what I saw were people picking up their digital relationships face-to-face and then were almost eager to get home and continue digitally; the digital and the face-to-face interactions had each enhanced the quality, depth and care of the connections.

Our profession will not be mandated into meeting the needs of modern learners but the power of networks and new thinking around affiliation can help diffuse the work.

I had the real pleasure of being one of the speakers last Wednesday.  I have shared by slides and the video of my presentation below (If you receive this post via email you may need to open up the website to view).  This will give you a sense of the event.  My presentation is based on a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago about swimming.

Slides (thanks to Bob Frid who took many of the amazing photos I used):

 

Video (thanks Craig Cantlie for videoing the event):

I had recently attended a conference – the kind where a ballroom of people listen to a keynote for an hour – and do that over and over.  Comparing the two events I know which was more influential in moving the conversation forward.  We need to find new ways to affiliate – more Ignites, more TEDx Events, more EdCamps.  The future of changing education is through networks.

blogging

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be impressed – this post is somewhat a blog post about a blog post about blogging.

I had a recent email exchange with Janet Steffenhagen (Janet is the former Education Reporter with the Vancouver Sun and currently blogs for the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC)) about the state of educational blogging. She had been planning to highlight BC Superintendents blogging and noticed there seemed to be fewer blogging today than three years ago. I offered some of my thoughts in her post, Blogging Challenges for Superintendents, and listed below:

- Blogging is hard. You have to dedicate time on a regular basis to writing and it is not part of a traditional pattern for most people. It is also just hard to “put yourself out there”.
- There is uncertainty about what to write. Some Superintendents use it as a journal (like Monica Pamer in Richmond) to tell stories; others use it more for district news (like John Lewis in North Vancouver). There is no one right answer, but it is hard to determine “what” the Superintendent should write about. I have always tried to be broad – some of what I write is what I see in our district, some is what I think about education trends and some is future-focused in areas that may not be directly linked to education.
- If you don’t have an audience, it can be discouraging. With so many people joining the blogging community, it can be hard to gain an audience. While the role of Superintendent will immediately get some traffic, the numbers may be small to start. One has to see blogging as at least as much about the personal reflection to find it fulfilling.
- If you blog and don’t participate in the digital community, you likely won’t stick around. I would see some people blog but would not follow this up by engaging via Twitter or even responding (or soliciting) comments on the blog. The community is part of the power. Some who blog are really just writing newsletters online.
- The job action. I think it was hard to figure out just what to say during the strike, and very few district leaders blogged. The few who were engaged in social media often got targeted as the face of BCPSEA (B.C. Public School Employers’ Association) and at times the government, so may have thought there was no need to put themselves through that unnecessary backlash. For those new to the community – even in senior district roles – this can be intimidating. Nobody likes to be publicly criticized.

Shortly after this email exchange, I read a new article from Will Richardson, Eight New Attributes of Modern Educational Leaders. Will argues, “A new breed of educational leader is emerging from all parts of the globe. It’s a leader that fully understands the fundamental challenges to traditional teaching and learning that the new interconnected, networked world is creating. It’s a leader that also sees the amazing opportunities that abundant access to information, people, and technologies is bringing to all of our learning lives.”  Will sees the eight attributes of modern educational leaders as being:

1. They are connected to and engaged in online networks.
2. They are makers with (and without) technology.
3. They are innovators and support innovation.
4. They are models for learning both online and off.
5. They see curriculum as strategy.
6. They facilitate an “ever-evolving” vision for teaching and learning in their schools, with (or without) technology.
7. They are literate in modern contexts.
8. They know “learning is the work.”

It was a timely reminder from Will, and as much as I was giving Janet a series of reasons why leaders might not engage in modern learning, Will reminds us that it is our responsibility to be engaged — so I think it is not about any particular role like a superintendent, principal or teacher — we all need to be modern learners. No excuses.

keep-calm-i-m-a-history-teacher-16

Despite the speed at which our system and profession is changing, some aspects haven’t changed at all. I do think there have been major shifts over the last several years in West Vancouver, particularly with the proliferation of digital access and commitment to inquiry, among other factors.

Listening to Will Richardson at Computer Using Educators of British Columbia(CUEBC) during the last couple of weeks had me thinking and revisiting some of my early blog posts. Will has been someone I have been learning from for more than a decade. Before the Culture of Yes, I was blogging as a school principal in Coquitlam and also teaching AP European History. One of the early pieces I wrote (early fall 2006) was Teaching History in a Time of Change and reprinted below:

Teaching History in a Time of Change by title alone implies that there may be a time of stability around the corner. There isn’t.  And it is not the change that is frightening, challenging, and exhilarating – it is the speed with which this change is occurring that is frightening, challenging, exhilarating, and, more importantly, remaking our profession.  The advancements in technology and the exponential speed at which they are happening may make our current times the most dramatic for teaching and learning history since the invention of the printing press.

There are some givens that go along with the change:  within the next few years every one of our students will arrive with a laptop or similar gizmo, all information will be on the internet, and all of our students will be connected everywhere, all the time, to the entire world. These changes are not up for debate – they are already becoming a reality in some jurisdictions. The only thing that can be debated now is how quickly they will happen and just how they will redefine the teaching of history everywhere.

I know it is risky to say this too loudly, but in short, these changes mean that teaching history the old way, whatever that has been or still is for each of us, is dead.  Everyone can now get all the facts, whenever they need them, from wherever the source of information resides.

Within just hours after the shooting last month at Dawson College in Montreal, hundreds of Wikipedians were creating the story of the event as it occurred. From first hand accounts to summaries of news stories – in the hours and days following the shooting the entry at wikipedia.org was updated thousands of times. History is being reported, clarified, analyzed, summarized, interpreted and reinterpreted in real time. In addition to the upheaval of traditional timelines for these activities, the hierarchies of historians are gone and everyone can now be an expert or, at the least, a verifiable eyewitness and commentator to events as they occur.

Canadian Idol crowned its latest winner last month. In the voting, close to four million Canadians, mostly younger technologically literate Canadians, mostly using cell phones, mostly using text messaging, voted for their favourite candidate in the final two show-down that crowned Eva Avila the winner.

Wikipedia and Canadian Idol are not isolated – they are products of the new ways in which young people interact.  The new technology tools are making learning more personal – you can read first-hand blogs from around the world. The tools are also making learning more communal – young people are active contributors in the online world, finding their voice through participation in often very complex online and digital communities.  Today’s students live in a world of convergence and collective intelligence, living in a participatory culture in which learning is no longer an individualistic endeavor.

During the recent conflict in the Middle East, young men and women from Israel and Palestine were trying to understand what was really happening in their countries.  Instead of turning to traditional news sources, they turned to one another for firsthand perspectives (link no longer active).  Who should we be teaching students to believe, the bloggers or the news establishment?  More importantly, how do we ensure students take a critical and analytical view to all sources?

So not only are the tools changing, but the students we are teaching are changing too.  As Marc Prensky so nicely describes, our students are the digital natives and we are the digital immigrants. There was great comfort when we controlled the information. Now the students are better with the tools used to access the information than we are.  The traditional teaching / learning continuum is gone and it is time for the new teaching to begin.  The challenge for all of us is to take the tools that our students are using and find ways to use them in our daily teaching.

What are 10 things we can all go back to our classes Monday and do to start meeting the challenge?

  • have students share information through social bookmarking such as del.icio.us
  • create instant messenger class lists on MSN or a similar chat service
  • have students build a wiki (collaborative website) for your class / school
  • assign students to post an assignment to the web so they don’t just get feedback from their teacher but their peers and even complete strangers
  • download Skype (a service that allows your computer to act as a phone) – have a conversation with a student across the country for free
  • read a blog created by a student in another community
  • begin to podcast lectures (audio recording files posted to the internet) or listen to others who have already done so
  • stop banning websites and start educating students on how to use them
  • put everything on the Internet – and share it with as many people as possible
  • ask the digital natives to help the digital immigrants

Embracing the new tools is not about technology, it is about reality, our students’ reality. So, what are the key challenges for History teachers in this time of rapid change?

  • continue to embrace high standards, while vehemently rejecting standardization – tests are less important than ever
  • recognize that the role of the teacher is being redesigned – no longer are we the ones with the answers at the front of the room
  • drop our protectionist tendencies as we continue to work to meet students where they are instead of asking them to come to us

In this time of rapid change teachers are more important than ever, but only if we change at the same speed as the world in which our students are living.  We have a duty to teach students the power of the new tools and how to use them – we need to lead them into the world of learning History 2.0.

Rereading this post, I laugh at some of the tools mentioned – so many have come and gone. Of course, it is not about the tools.  The conclusions and the key challenges I have identified, do largely still remain.  It was also so exciting to recently learn about the amazing work happening in our classrooms in West Vancouver and across the country, and recognized through the 2014 Government of Canada History Awards.  For the same reasons I found it so exciting to be a teacher and a learner in 2006, I find it even more so true today.

Taking Back Halloween

halloween

As a school principal, Halloween was one of the best school days but also one of the most stressful in the school year.

Whether in elementary or secondary, Halloween is a great time to have a little bit of fun and take a break from routine. For the younger students there are costume parades and class parties; high schools will often have school-wide costume competitions as well as other events organized by school leadership groups. And, how fun is it to see our favourite teachers and principals dressed up? Often, they dress in department or school-wide themes — it’s a wonderful display of community and camaraderie.

That said . . .

I struggle with celebrations in our schools that are a mismatch with our values: when we turn a blind eye to drinking at pre-grad parties hosted by parents; when we host a school dance that show videos we would never allow in our classrooms, and when I see coaches yell at athletes in a school competition in ways we would never find acceptable otherwise.

And, I do struggle with some of what I see around Halloween.

No, I am not taking a run at the unhealthy food being consumed at the parties in the classroom. While I know there are probably some who would like to see all the Smarties and Coffee Crisps replaced with toothbrushes and apples, I am okay with finding ways for candy to be part of the school experience a few times a year.

I am taking aim at the costumes — particularly, some of those I have seen in high schools. It is this part of Halloween that would often be so stressful as a school principal because there is nothing worse than having to be the costume morality police. Where to draw the line?  Should there be a line? “It is just Halloween, why don’t you let kids have some fun?  Haven’t people always done this? Aren’t we just letting boys be boys and girls be girls for one day?”  The comments and questions were, and are, endless.

In short, I have seen way too many costumes that glamorize sexual exploitation, pimping and gang lifestyles. Recently, there have been several high-profile stories that have made us more aware of the sexual exploitation of children and youth, and the larger issue of human trafficking. Unfortunately, we are seeing far too many costumes being marketed to young people who seem to celebrate these issues.

Just last week there was a major flap over highly inappropriate costumes being sold through Value Village locations in BC.

I think the advice given by the Children of the Street Society around costumes is very good:

This year, we are asking the community to be socially responsible by choosing Halloween costumes that do not glamorize either the perpetrators or the victims of child and youth sexual exploitation. We are also encouraging the community to avoid costumes that glamourize gang or pimping lifestyles. Instead, please encourage children and youth to choose appropriate costumes that represent their own individuality and creativity.

Sometimes, when we question long-held traditions, the pushback is have these questions advocating for political correctness gone too far?  I don’t see this as one of those situations. We want schools to reflect the values we hold important to us, and we need to work with our students and parents to be sure that on Halloween we send out the same signals we would otherwise send every other day of the year.

We need to stop having “sexy” in the title of every costume being marketed to teenage and pre-teen girls and we need boys to not have “pimp” or “gangsta” as a costume choice. I think we can do better by making more individually creative and appropriate Halloween costume choices.

Seth on Sorting

sorting

Much of what Seth Godin blogs about is food for thought, but every now and again he writes something that really strikes a chord with me and I need to put it in context. His recent piece on The wasteful fraud of sorting for youth meritocracy is just such a piece. He takes up a conversation that seems to be gaining more attention as we question the purpose of school and how we approach learning for students, both in and out of school. In part, I am drawn to the post because I nod my head in agreement while reading it and, in part, because it really challenges all of the structures we have created around schools.

Godin argues students are being taught our world is one in which people are picked based on performance. When it comes to activities like school sports and music, those running the programs might point out “that their job is to win, to put on a great show, to entertain the parents with the best performance they can create.”

Godin challenges this and asks:

What if we celebrated the students who regularly try the hardest, help each other the most and lead? What if we fast tracked those students and made it clear to anyone else willing to adopt those attitudes that they could be celebrated too?

What if you got cast, tracked or made the cut because you were resilient, hard-working and willing to set yourself up for a cycle of continuous improvement? Isn’t that more important than rewarding the kid who never passes but still scores a lot of goals?

We do try to do this, and it seems we are trying harder now than even a decade ago. More and more, students are being compared and sorted on past performances rather than with of the students who sit next to them in class. Of course, old habits are difficult to break. No matter how much we say as teachers and parents we value the work habits as much as the letter grades (or even more),  our eyes quickly scan to the A and B grades before looking at the G and S grades.

And just what is this system doing? Godin says:

If you get ahead for years and years because you got dealt good cards, it’s not particularly likely that you will learn that in the real world, achievement is based as much on attitude and effort as it is on natural advantages. In the real world, Nobel prizes and Broadway roles and the senior VP job go to people who have figured out how to care, how to show up, how to be open to new experiences. Our culture is built around connection and charisma and learning and the ability to not quit in precisely the right moments.

This is challenging stuff. I am reminded of Mike McKay’s question, “When will what we know change what we do?”  While we know what Godin says to be true, we are very slow to change our system.  We (me included) like many of our school rituals — from the music concerts to sports matches — showcase the students we feel are the most talented.

Godin’s final challenge, “What is school for?”  is like this piece on sorting, a great conversation starter.

Photo - Rob Newell

Photo – Rob Newell

Personalized learning has become one of those terms that can often elicit eye-rolls in a crowd of educators – so used and overused that it has been a word used synonymously with almost all current educational reforms.  As I have joked, there are very few pushing for de-personalized learning.  I have written a number of times on the topic, including specifically here in the fall of 2010, when I tried to wrestle with a definition.

This past week as part of a feature in the North Shore Outlook I was extensively quoted on what I see with personalized learning and just what it means.  Here is the text:

Not all kids learn the same way. Traditional education hasn’t always had space to address these differences, but now the West Vancouver School District is looking to change that.  It’s using personalized learning to shift the emphasis from traditional learning to an  inquiry-based system that focuses on learning  how to learn.
Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of Schools for the district, has been at the forefront of the push towards personalized learning for the last five years.

Things are changing so quickly that the key facts to know right now just won’t be the same in five years,” says Kennedy.  “The topics will be different. The content will be stale.” Rather than teach facts that will likely be obsolete in short order, the district is focusing instead on teaching students how to learn, rather than what to learn, in order to encourage them to continue learning far beyond their time at school.  “Knowledge has become so easily accessible it changes the dynamic between teachers and students,” says Kennedy.

“In a more traditional classroom, students might take notes or answer questions at the end of the chapter. In an inquiry-based classroom… They start with an overarching theme, question or challenge and go from there – this encourages ownership, exploration and curiosity.” Kennedy adds that this approach often results in powerful demonstrations of learning in the form of projects, productions and exhibitions that show real sophistication.

Part of personalized learning includes different types of learning environments and opportunities for students.  Technology is a big part of that. All schools  in the district have wi-fi and teachers are provided with mobile devices to use in one-to one learning environments.  Students are encouraged to bring their own devices, however, the district also provides devices for children who can’t afford their own or have forgotten theirs at home.  But there are also other changes in classroom design, such as offering different work station options or the ability to opt-into an outdoor class rather than an indoor one.

“Personalized learning is about giving students more control – more choice – over what they’re learning, how they’re learning it, even when they’re learning… so students feel it’s more theirs,” says Kennedy. “It’s also important for students to know what they’re working on, how they are doing, and what they need to do
next to improve.”  “It changes the students to being more the owner of the learning experience. The teacher spends more time guiding, rather than directing, learning.”

Parents also have a key role to play in the district’s approach to learning. Educators hope that parents will have conversations with their children to discover what types of learning approaches work best for them so that teachers can address each child’s specific learning needs.

The district is already seeing success with the new model. “We have a long history of very successful students,” says Kennedy. “We’re finding that some students that might not have been as engaged are finding this approach more appealing. In some classrooms students are coming up with their own questions.”

Still a work in progress, but it is important to continue to talk about the future we are trying to create and put depth behind the terms we are using so often.

Chalmers1

“Just what is it that superintendents do?”  is a question I am asked a lot by my kids as I try to explain to them what it is exactly I do. I have also written before the job looks quite different district-to-district, person-to-person, and  like many professions, there are many ways of doing the job right. There are the very public parts of the job including running the daily operations and working with the elected Board of Education. Then there are the other tasks – we all have them in our jobs — items that aren’t bulleted points in a resume, but are often the very best part of the job even if they do take up a lot of time.

The superintendency is such a wonderful role and for many reasons.  Here are just five of the things I get to do that, for me, make it such a great job:

Taxiing Guest Speakers – On a fairly regular basis we have speakers who present to staff, parents or students in our district.  Quite often I get to pick them up or drop them off at the airport. While everyone can listen to the speaker and maybe have their questions answered, I get to have 30-60 minutes of one-on-one time with an amazing thinker.  So, whether that is talking with cultural anthropologist, Jennifer James, about US politics or with self-regulation guru, Stuart Shanker, about the effects of video games on our kids, it is such a treat.

Greeter of Principals for a Day – Most of our elementary schools have a student who is”Principal for a Day” at some point during the year. It is an opportunity for a student to make some one-day rules in the school and get a sense of what it’s like to be “the boss”. Part of the culture in our district is that the Principal for a Day comes to the district board office to meet with the superintendent. I give them a small gift and a set of business cards. I also enjoy the 10-15 minutes I get to talk with them. While I spend a fair bit of time in classrooms, these interactions are some of the only sustained one-on-one time I have with younger students, and I hear some great insights about our schools, what students are learning and what they value.  And, yes, they are each a sample size of one and they keep the work real.

Graduation Dinner Guest – Every year, I make an effort to go to each high school’s graduation dinner.  I love graduation. I think it is great that I have gone to at least one high school graduation for the past 22 years; first as a Grade 12 student and then in a variety of roles leading up to and including the superintendency. I love the excitement of the students, the pride of the families and now, over time, the changes in what people do and say at the events, like how they dress and how the events are organized. I find graduations are the reflection of communities; ours are all different and all reflective of the communities in which the schools are located. For me, it is always special and a way to connect with all graduating students and families on their biggest night of the year.

School Traveller – There are very few people who spend time in all our schools — I am one of them. This Fall,  I have been in just over half our schools and will be in the others soon. It is so great to see what is happening at one school and connect that work to another. There is amazing work and vibe in our classrooms, and I can help be the connector of this work between our teachers and schools. I get to see students of all ages – again a pretty special opportunity.

Receiver of Good News – Okay, sometimes I am the receiver of challenges, but I also receive a lot of amazing emails; emails from parents who want to be sure someone knows the difference a teacher has made for their child. I receive emails about principals who went above and beyond to help a student get the courses they wanted, and emails that celebrate the amazing learning culture created in our schools. In education, it is often not apparent to us if we are really making a difference, but I do get to hear many of the stories first hand — either with notes sent directly to me or very often cc’d in an email about just something that someone thought the superintendent should know.

It is easy to find the challenges in our jobs, but in mine, it is easy to find the many great joys. I am curious to know what unique tasks people have or do that bring them similar happiness.

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