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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.

Does Smart Still Matter?

What is Smart  A TEDx West VanccouverED presentation.

I have been tasked with answering this question, “What is Smart?” for my short TEDxWestVancouverED talk today.  The essay that is a basis for the talk is a final collaboration I wrote with my dad this past July.  The slides are at the bottom and I am sure the video will be up in a couple of weeks.  

‘Smart’ just isn’t what it used to be.  It is actually becoming passé.

In a world of knowledge scarcity, being smart was very important. Those who were smart were the people with knowledge. Others would seek out those who were smart. Smartness was in the hands of the few.  This is not just the world of centuries ago, but this was the world I grew up in.

We know who the smart people were:

  • Political leaders
  • Professors
  • Doctors, Lawyers and Teachers
  • And Jeopardy Champions – I am sure “Who is Ken Jennings” is the answer many would have given when asked about someone who was smart

Largely, these were the people who were the keeper of the facts, the smart ones with the information who would share it with others.

In school, it was those who could recall the facts, and particularly those who could recall them quickly.  If you could memorize your multiplication tables you were quickly labelled as “smart”.  Smart was a product of a system based on sorting – some kids were smart, and the other kids were . . . well, we didn’t really call them anything aloud, but the implication was that they were less than smart. And in the traditional school smart hierarchy – the matching of provinces and capital cities along with the ability to memorize weekly spelling words was the apex of smartness.

Of course, the last 20 years have moved us away from a world of knowledge scarcity to knowledge abundance; now, all manner of information is available to everyone. For better or worse, we no longer look to our political and intellectual leaders for their all-knowing guidance, we quickly check what they have said with what we read on Wikipedia, Web Doctor MD or other online information available to us.

And even our leader of smarts, Ken Jennings, was outsmarted by a computer. . . . Damn you Watson!

Really, the value of smart is not only about the move from a world of knowledge being scarce to it being abundant . . . . we are devaluing the word ourselves.  We have:

  • Smart phones
  • Smart cars
  • Smart Meters
  • And even a Smart Planet.

The word “smart” was reserved for the few, for the special, and now we attach it to the objects in our pockets.  When we say someone is smart it ends a conversation, it doesn’t start one.  The word has become greasy.  Smart has become fast food.

We are actually at a turning point in the history of smart. We either need to abandon the word for newer, more apt descriptions of the qualities and traits we value, or come to a new understanding of the word that is reflective of what we now value as smart.

And, in our schools, especially if we listen to Psychology Professor Carol Dweck, we need to get away from so often using the word, to rather encourage effort, continual improvement and a growth mindset and abandon ranking and sorting.

So, there is a good question – what is smart?  But there is also another good question, Is being smart relevant and does it still matter?

waves-15

About five years ago we started discussions in our district about modernizing the classroom. At that point it was really a discussion about creating a level playing field with technology in our schools.

The First Wave

What emerged from the discussions was the view of a modern classroom starting with wireless access across all schools. At the classroom level all teachers were provided with digital devices. We took a different approach from the past and elsewhere when staff were given a choice about what devices they needed — some selected iPads, others MacBooks and still others chose PC netbooks or tablets. In addition, each classroom, from Grades 4 to 12, was also equipped with a projection device. These were not huge shifts, but they created some equity and it also built the groundwork for the student bring-your-own-device program. This program has taken hold throughout the district, in some schools as early as Grade 4, but largely implemented in Grades 6 to 12. Currently, most schools have a plan for students bringing devices and engaging them in the classroom.

The Next Wave

The next wave will continue to have a digital influence, but the modern classroom is far more than a ‘digital’ classroom. Of course, these are not things with clear start and stop timelines, so in some schools the final projectors are still being installed and student device programs are being finalized.  As schools have more students with devices, we will need to revisit our work and make further improvements to items like Wi-Fi access. So, for the next wave, I see four trends emerging:

1)   Rethinking the common spaces. Most notably, rethinking libraries as learning commons areas. Schools see these areas as places that can symbolize and epitomize some of the changes we are seeing with how we access information and organize learning.

2)  Refreshing the web environment.  The portal of 2010 has become clunky and dated.  We are looking to create secure spaces to make student publishing easier, and we are looking for ways to ensure the web tools our students and staff are working with outside the school day are available during the school day and part of our core systems.

3)  Self-regulation is influencing our classrooms.  I have written often about Stuart Shanker and the influence he is having, as well as the self-regulation work in our school district.  This can translate into fewer posters on the wall, different kinds of lighting, quiet areas in the classroom for some students and a variety of desks and chairs to improve  environments for learners — another important understanding about how young people learn.

4)  Outdoor learning spaces.  We now see many school and community gardens connected to curriculum, as well as schools interested in outdoor shelters or other structures to allow for more formal teaching out-of-doors. Combined with outdoor learning programs, these shifts are definitely altering how we view classrooms as strictly being an indoor activity.

The modernized classroom is a digitally rich classroom and as this first wave continues alongside the second wave, we will see more students with devices and more technology benefiting student learning.  As mentioned, the modern classroom is much more than kids with computers — from common spaces with less of a library look and more like Starbucks, to flexible classrooms with different furniture to ‘classrooms’ being outdoors, the modern learning environment is an evolving and dynamic place.

It will be exciting to be part of this shift.

Quest is Doing It

QUestu

I often hear feedback like “I really like what is happening with inquiry and project based learning, but my kids need to be prepared for university, and university is never going to change.”

Well,  last week we loaded up the bus with all of our school principals and vice-principals and headed up the highway to Quest University in Squamish.  Quest has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately and here is why.

Quest University is a private, non-profit liberal arts and sciences university which opened in 2007.  From an initial enrollment of about 70 students, it now boasts a population of about 700 (it is fully subscribed). But what is grabbing the attention of students and parents is how different the university structures its programs.

Students take one course at a time. For three-and-a-half weeks students focus on a single course with at least five hours of class time per day. The benefit around this set up is that it makes it easy to take field trips local or abroad — there is nothing else to worry about.  Students are in classes of 20, and walking through the school one sees tables of 21 — one for the professor and student to sit at for their discussions.

In their second year, students spend an entire block with 15 students and a tutor to figure out what question they are going to think about and focus on for the next two years. We heard  Quest’s President, David J. Helfand, speak about one of the questions a student came up with, “What’s the best way to educate a child?” The student then spent their third and fourth year focusing on this one question. In this example, the student read Maria Montessori and spent a month in a Montessori school; they also read Rudolph Steiner, and spent a month in a Waldorf School; then read John Dewey, and spent a month in a public school.

Students take a series of courses around their passion with a huge emphasis on experiential learning.  To date, the majority of students also study abroad and Helfand sees it as a goal that all students spend some time studying elsewhere as part of their study program.

Even the application is very different with students having to submit an original creation (some sort of passion project), along with an essay. Students who are successful in this stage of their application then move on to an interview process and final decisions are made on students acceptance.

Helfand knows a good deal about the traditional university having come to Quest from 34 years of teaching at Columbia University.  He joked during his talk that he was not all that fond of nature and looked forward to returning to the concrete of New York. He also said that he wouldn’t go back to a world of semester-long courses and individual departments.

The vision he has helped realize gives emphasis to the words of Sir Ken Robinson and his much-loved TEDx presentations.

When a small group of individuals gets together and pools their talents to work on a difficult problem and comes up with an innovative solution, in university, it’s called cheating. In life, it is called collaboration and is highly valued, but in class, it’s forbidden. (Sir Ken Robinson as quoted by David Helfand)

While acknowledging that although it is happening slowly, Helfand envisions what is happening at Quest spreading.  More universities are curious about what is going on. Student reviews at Quest are off the charts — clearly, something is going on.

The work that Helfand and Quest are heading sends an interesting message to those in K-12.  We often shy away from making some of these bold changes in our system; hiding behind a belief that since universities are not changing, we also need to stay the same. Of course, as we see with Quest, those questioning the structures of learning are not limited to K-12 or higher education; there is opportunity for growth in both systems. We are now part of a larger learning transformation not governed by any particular age or school level.

To see and learn more about David Helfand and Quest, below is a TEDx presentation he gave in West Vancouver just over a year ago:

 

 

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