It Just Works


“Teachers are required to use some of the worst software I have ever seen.”

This quote from Lane Merrifield, co-founder of Fresh Grade, in his recent talk at TEDxWestVancouverED, sure resonated with many teachers and administrators in the room.  Given the user experience in our province around some of the required software systems over the last twenty years, I know why people think this.

When I first heard people talking about FreshGrade – it was through my cynical experience of other recent technology software that I entered the conversation.  Really – we need another e-portfolio system?  Don’t we already use several in the district.  But this is different, I was told – it just works.

Over the last year we have had a growing number of teachers use FreshGrade in their classes.  Unlike previous initiatives where we provided the tool to everyone, it has been very organic.  And it has that word of mouth excitement one rarely gets in the world of education technology.   All of us who have seen the power of digital access in a classroom have got our hopes up only to have a far too often OPUD (over promise, under deliver) from our digital tools.

This feels different.

I have seen the power of FreshGrade with my younger son, who attends school in another local school district.  This is my ninth year as a parent in the school system, with four kids from grades 1 – 8.  I have seen more of my younger son’s thinking, learning and engagement in a month through the FreshGrade app than collectively with all the other teachers over all the years.  And this is not an indictment of the other classes – there were photo sites, blogs, emails, newsletters and a host of other tools, but the way  this experience truly engages me in the communication of student learning is different.

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It is not just me noticing what is going on.  Michelle Hiebert from Abbotsford blogged about what she was seeing with FreshGrade last spring, Ian Landy (the Cal Ripken of BC edu-bloggers for his daily posts) has regularly written about his experiences as a Principal with it in Sorrento, and Tracy Sherlock even covered it in the Vancouver Sun.

I would say this is the only time I have seen a piece of software grow like this in its use with teachers, but that would not be fair.  Right now we are seeing similar growth in the use of a variety of Google Classroom tools.  And again the comments I continue to hear are that the tools do what we want them to and they make sense for teachers and schools.  Maybe we are getting to a new place with software in education – as we become less reliant on trying to make tools created for something else work for education, and embracing tools designed for learning.

I look back about a dozen years to when the portfolio came and went in British Columbia as part of the grad program – and it was too bad.  Part of the vision of the 2004 Graduation Program was having every graduating student present a portfolio to school and community members.  There are many reasons why it failed, from poor resourcing to a design that made it really just a collection of boxes to check off.  More than anything, I think it failed because the technology was not ready for the vision.

I regularly challenge people who suggest that many teachers are anti-technology and just don’t want to enter the modern world.  The teachers I know and work with want to use technology that allows them to do things not possible without the technology and make learning more relevant and engaging.

Looking at the growth of FreshGrade in our district is showing that to be true.

Thanks to grade 4 teacher Ms. Bourne for using FreshGrade with her class – I am sure I am not the only parent who really appreciates your efforts.  I see FreshGrade has also noticed and profiled her this week.  

The Healthy Tension

tensionI know the word tension is often viewed as a bad thing. I think there is a frequent healthy tension when it comes to change in education. And I am feeling it right now.

In a post-standardized and personalized learning world how do we decide which  structural decisions are at the class, school, district and system levels?

One area we are seeing this tension right now is around reporting.  Should reporting look the same across the board in a school?  Across a district? Across a province?  These are all good questions.  Traditionally reporting in British Columbia has generally looked the same across the province.  The Ministry of Education sets out the rules that see students have a certain number of formal and informal reports each year.  Across the province, letter grades and work habits are used in a fairly consistent manner.  And I get it, as students move from community to community or graduate into the world of post-secondary school or work, having some common elements of reporting help make the system run smoothly and clearly.  While those of us in the system have been openly questioning the current reporting structures, I appreciate the larger community often feels assured knowing that there is some sameness when it comes to assessment.

Recently, many districts (including West Vancouver) have been looking closely at different ways of reporting.  And thus the healthy tension within education.  We have some outstanding report card pilot projects in our district and we have decided that the work in different schools needs to inform a common district approach to reporting.  For this fall we are looking at a new common approach to reporting in both Kindergarten and Grade Four.  These new reports flow out of the work we are doing around the curriculum changes in BC.  Of course with diverse programs like IB and French Immersion, even our efforts to have a common approach to reporting will be nuanced.  I know other jurisdictions have held tightly to common reporting across the entire system, while others allow incredible autonomy at the teacher level.

My general view is that wherever we work really influences how collective we need to be.  As a teacher, I often didn’t feel what I did in the class needed to be connected to what was happening in other classes, I just needed consistency throughout my teaching.  As a principal I strived for consistency in the school but didn’t always feel we needed to be consistent with other schools.  As a Superintendent I feel the need to create some common structures across the district, and I see those at the Ministry of Education trying to ensure some common approaches across the province.

As I stated, it is a healthy tension between the class, school, district and system level on a variety of topics as the tension helps open up the conversation.  Whether it is determining what body of content all students in a school, district or province need to know; deciding if there should be a common set of digital tools for teachers and students; or identifying reporting structures that should be consistent in a system there are important conversations to have.  And continue to have.

I have said in presentations that “schools are not fast food franchises” each should have their own signature reflective of the community in which they exist.  I also often say those in schools, “are more than just a group of independent contractors who share a parking lot.”  It is a balancing act to see both these concepts at work.

As we continue to see change in our system, we need to be continually thoughtful and mindful of the parts that must to be consistent across schools, districts and the system.  There is not necessarily one right answer, but the rich conversations that come from these decisions should make our system better.


Real World Competition


I was recently reminded about the type of real world competition that we should be preparing our students for.

I was listening to Dr. Jeff Goldstein, Institute Director, Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education, discuss a project that will see a grade 5-7 student experiment selected from West Vancouver and be carried out in microgravity by astronauts at the International Space Station.  Our students, working in teams, will each create an experiment – the number of entries will be short-listed to eventually three that will be sent to the Smithsonian where a team of experts will select the experiment that will be carried out in space.  Dr. Goldstein was making the case that the process of being selected (or not) was an important part of the learning.  Students need to understand that part of being a scientist is competing for research dollars.  One does not just show up and announce she is a scientist and start doing experiments.  This is the competition of the real world -working in teams on a project and competing for selection.

This project reminds me of a similar type of experience we are offering students – YELL(Young Entrepreneurship Leadership Launchpad).  Through this program, students connect to accomplished entrepreneurs in both profit and non-profit sectors, learning about communication, presentation skills, branding, marketing and other core skills.  They then turn their attention to solving a real world problem and work with a mentor in the community that leads to a venture challenge and participation in a Provincial Business Plan Competition.  Again, the process reflects the real world of business.

Of course, these types of opportunities are not new.  Particularly in elective areas, we have a rich history  of real world competition.  For example, our visual arts students have long been competing for placement in art shows and galleries.

We do still romanticize the “Jeopardy” like competitions of schools of the past.  The Scripps National Spelling Bee, for example, is covered on live US National television.  While yes, spelling is important, and factual knowledge is important, the competitions are holdovers from a time when the content one knew was king.  Spelling, for spelling sake, is a very isolated skill. More and more it is the application of what one knows that matters.  The thirst for real world relevancy is why students creating experiments that will be tested in space or starting businesses that will face feedback from the community are so enticing.

I wrote several years ago about how my teaching had changed – increasingly it has been about trying to create real world opportunities for students.  It is these type of opportunities that seem to be generating so much excitement with students in our schools.

I hear competition is disappearing from school.  Not true.  It just may not look the same as a generation ago.

We may not rank and sort students as much as we used to – but competition is not disappearing, in some ways it is hopefully becoming more real.


Being Out There

out thereI am often told that in the type of job I hold, it is better to say nothing. I am told it is a no-win situation, if you communicate, no matter how positive the message there will be some who take issue to what you say, how you say it, or twist your words and use them against you. And I have experienced all of that.

I do think it is our job to be out there.  And while the most important messages that parents receive from the system are from their child’s teacher, and the next most important are usually from the school’s principal, it is also important for superintendents to communicate directly to families.

In the digital world, this message can take many forms and often needs to come in multiple forms to reach people.  I know this blog is just one way to connect to our community.

This past week, I sent out the following back-to-school email to all the parents in our school district:

Our schools were open last week, preparing classes, planning activities and taking some time to reflect on the past and the future of education. We enjoyed welcoming all our new and returning families today, and hope that you’ve had an enjoyable summer break.

Over the summer, I heard many remark on how good it will be to get back to a ‘normal’ school year. And while I understand where that’s coming from, in light of the challenges we faced a year ago, this year in West Vancouver Schools, I’m asking our teachers, students and parents to challenge the validity of normal. As I wrote about in my blog, The Culture of Yes, normal is about average, and as many who work, learn and teach in our district already know, West Vancouver Schools is an exceptional place.

On Thursday last week, as we do every year, we launched the new school year by inviting all staff to attend an Opening Day morning event, followed by an afternoon of professional development. We were so privileged this year to hear from one of the world’s foremost experts in education, Dr. Yong Zhao. His ideas are inspiring, especially in light of the move towards the new curriculum.

Dr. Zhao spoke passionately about the evidence that shows all schools need to move away from educating for the average, to educating the individual. Rather than fixing ‘deficits’, we need to help children become great, achieve their autonomy and enhance their potential.

Fortunately, this work has been underway for some time in the district, with our work on project-based learning, inquiry, self-regulation and digital literacy. The curriculum doesn’t teach – teachers do that. A litany of specific education outcomes does not guarantee success, student motivation, passion and talent contribute to that outcome.
We are, I am proud to say, making sure that our students not only understand the facts – which are widely available in the digital age – but also understand how to interpret them and use them creatively to solve the right problems.

We are teaching kids to take on a world that is far different than it is today. It is critical to instill the creativity, confidence, compassion and resilience that young people need to embrace those changes.

Along with the Board of Trustees and my colleagues at West Vancouver Schools, we wish you a successful and pleasant year ahead!

I never know how many people read these emails that I send out, but I know from those who respond that there is definitely some engagement.  I always get some very kind responses, appreciative of the information and always some that take issue with the topic – that is what happens when you put yourself out there.  Whether the concern is about the role of technology in schools and more broadly in society or whether personal experiences in schools are reflective of what I am saying – the engagement is encouraging.

This past time I was struck by two particular responses – one from a mother in Italy who wrote:

My son started just yesterday his school year and is absolutely thrilled about West Vancouver school, new friends and the programs that can be accessed.  I look forward to hearing about you and any news you will forward to me

and from a father from Germany who wrote in part:

I am very proud that my son is taking part in this terms school program to learn, how different countries estimate the importance of educational background in complete different ways. In Germany we have nowadays a huge discussion about inclusion on the one hand and reduction of school years. What we do not have, and it hurts me to say it this clear, is a discussion about elite in the most positive meaning of the word, about investment in the most precious „resource“ we have — our children and their education.

What a great reminder that we are really communicating for a global audience.  I sometimes get stuck in my thinking that my messages are going out to the people within a few mile radius, in my mind who have always been here, and with whom I already have a largely shared experience.  Of course this is not true.

In our schools which have students from around the world, coming from a range of systems and experiences, messaging with them is not only a nice thing, but the right thing.  The revised curriculum conversation in British Columbia may be covered on our local 6:00 news, but we need to reach all of our families and engage them in our conversation.  And whether one lives around the block or on the other side of the world, continually coming back to messages of what we are doing and where we are going are crucial.

Some good first week reminders for me.

I do think with the power of the tools we have, we need to take up the opportunity to communicate more than just when we are thinking about closing schools because of snow.

Celebrating Normal?

normalAs people are returning from summer and attention is beginning to focus on the upcoming school year there seems to be enthusiasm over the normal year that is ahead. I have been hearing it from staff and parents.  People say, “you must be glad to finally have a normal year” or “finally it will be a normal start-up”.

I know what people mean.  Given the labour dispute that carried on into last fall, and the seeming treadmill of the last five years which has seen us in a cycle of potential job action, job action, post job action – repeat – it is nice this is not sucking up all the oxygen in BC education again this year.  But normal is an interesting word.  The more I hear it, the less I like it.

For me normal feels boring.  Normal is about average.  And our schools are about the exceptional.  More than ever we want to support our students and teachers to be anything but normal.  We want to tap into the passions of our artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers in our classrooms.

I am reminded of this scene from the movie Soul Surfer:

So let’s have a year where we have conversations about curriculum for our modern world and assessment that makes a difference for learning.  Let’s have a year where we focus on excellence and equity. Let’s have a year where we teach and learn about residential schools, gender identity and our natural world.

Let’s embrace all the young people that will enter our classes the Tuesday after Labour Day –  who each have their own story and their own struggles and challenges.  And as they try to fit in, we need to remind them that normal is overrated.

And as the adults that have amazing opportunity to work with students, let’s commit to being better versions of ourselves this year.

But when we look to this year – let’s not let it be normal.


This post is a duplicate of the article in the  AASA – August 2015 School Administrator Magazine.  

The entire issue (here) is dedicated to topics related to high school sports.

A superintendent’s case for a forward-thinking approach to interscholastic athletics addressing safety, cost and the balance with academics

His first reported concussion happened in youth soccer. His second came in high school football. A possible third head injury may have happened in pro football training camp. But when a rookie 24-year-old linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers, Chris Borland, decided to retire from the NFL in March, not due to injury but rather to prevent injury, the sports world uttered a collective gasp.

Parents and players have taken notice of Borland’s story and the growth in concussion research. In my 7,500-student district, I recently received an e-mail from a parent quoting Mike Ditka, an NFL Hall of Famer and legendary Chicago Bears head coach and tight end. While that may have surprised me, the provocative words he echoed did not: “If I had a young son today, I wouldn’t let him play football.”

More than ever, superintendents are being drawn into controversies around interscholastic sports. In just the past few months, news media have reported on a superintendent who resigned following the contentious termination of a varsity basketball coach; several superintendents drawn into student-athlete disciplinary cases over alleged hazing; a superintendent challenged by her community after she disciplined a football coach for an offensive sideline tirade; a superintendent who cancelled games against another school over the rival team’s “Redskins” nickname in support of his own school’s Native American population; and several superintendents caught in the middle of school board budget debates around financial support for school athletics.

Sports and schools have been interconnected for generations. Yet the rising tide of serious challenges is raising new questions about the sustainability of interscholastic sports programs. These deal with student-athlete health risks, competitive pressures from a social media-fueled public and tough questioning around the educational value of school-based programs when public revenues are stressed. Jointly, or in isolation, these pressures could lead to a scaling back, if not disappearance, of some school sports in the coming years.

Reigning Romanticism

To an outside observer, it seems as if high school sports never have been more popular. Varsity sports are big business, with communities investing in football and basketball facilities and major sports news outlets like Bleacher Report and ESPN giving high school athletics expansive coverage.

Beyond widespread media attention, several other factors support the notion that school sports will continue to thrive. Communities have a rich history of school sports, and nostalgia runs deep in our schools, notably in smaller communities whose sole identity these days may be tied to their public schools.

Adults often romanticize their own school sports experiences — from cheering on the football team to scoring the winning goal in a soccer match or a buzzer beater in basketball. Superintendents recognize the considerable pride that comes to a school and a community when a sports team wins a regional or state championship. Movies such as Hoosiers and Rudy continue to inspire us.

And unlike in other countries, where sports facilities used by pre-collegiate students typically are not located on a school campus, gymnasiums in North America generally are an integral part of school campuses. Given the physical connection, it makes logical sense that sports such as basketball, volleyball and wrestling will continue to remain within the school domain.

Three Pressures

The challenges I see school system leaders confronting in interscholastic sports fall into three categories.

Athlete safety. Coaches and school leaders always will assert that students’ safety comes first in scholastic sports participation. But grim evidence from expanding medical research on the long-term effects of sports-related concussions indicates that brain trauma can cause permanent cognitive impairment, memory loss, depression, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to erratic behavior and suicide.

We’re learning that it’s not just the bone-crunching body hits in football that cause injury. Successive sub-concussive blows, even in sports such as soccer, rugby, lacrosse and ice hockey, can cause as much or more brain damage. The recovery time can be longer for children and adolescents. Notably, the majority of injuries occur during practices, not in interscholastic competition. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics indicated 58 percent of reported concussions in high school football occurred in practice sessions.

Most chilling, however, is the “culture of resistance” among players to self-report concussion symptoms. According to the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, “High school athletes and those with scholarship possibilities especially will try to convince parents and coaches that they feel fine, in order to resume play.”

Other serious student safety challenges include physical harassment, sexual abuse and the ugly ritual of team hazing. These issues are forcing superintendents, like one last fall at a high school in New Jersey, to take serious measures — in that case, cancelling the school’s varsity football season in response to a hazing incident. Community and public reaction to the cancellation was mixed and only proves to demonstrate how difficult it will be to make changes to the nation’s most popular sport.

Blurring lines between school and community sports. Beyond health and safety concerns, sports themselves are changing. Basketball, volleyball and soccer, for instance, used to be school-based sports primarily. Now, it seems as if the school season is just preparing young athletes for the extended club season. The Amateur Athletics Union basketball circuits across the continent have youngsters playing dozens of games, even sometimes more than 100, during the “off season.” Colleges use the AAU programs as the go-to source for recruiting athletes, meaning parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.

Coaching and profit motives in some community programs have professionalized youth sports and raised questions about where school-based sports fit into this new world. In the community, athletes can freely move between programs in a “free agent” environment, and coaches and sports programs can be talent collectors, while public schools hold to academic and residential eligibility rules that limit movement.

High school sports once were neatly organized into seasons that more or less matched the terms of the school year. Students could run cross country in the fall, play basketball in the winter and participate in baseball or softball in the spring. Over the last couple of decades, youngsters have been pushed into a 12-month calendar. This poses a challenge for schools that try to encourage students to play multiple sports at the same time non-school-based sports programs are stressing specialization.

The place of sports in school. One historical advantage for school sports over those in the community has been the cost of participation. In most school districts, there is no pay-to-play measure. This has changed in recent years. As school district budgets tighten, superintendents and school boards are faced with choosing whether to prioritize athletics or core classroom services.

We also are seeing the need to redirect revenue sources once targeted for athletics, such as those generated by campus vending machines and gym rental use, to support the overall operating district budget. I am faced regularly with turning down requests to financially support school sports in my district as teams rely on user fees and parent fundraising more than ever to cover costs.

While competitive sports in secondary schools engage small numbers of participants, we realize we need to find ways for all students to be active to support their physical and academic health. Given the alarming rate of youth obesity, there are concerted efforts to focus on sports that promote inclusive participation and lifelong fitness. Classes in yoga, dance and personal fitness are becoming more common in high schools and our physical education classes have decreased their attention to competitive sports while increasing their focus on lifelong fitness.

Finally, the increased emphasis on global academic competition in education challenges the place of high school sports in the future. When our nations are competing with Finland and Singapore on the international stage and the stakes for our students are rising, competitive school sports can be seen as a distraction. Do we want our great math teachers spending their nights preparing lessons or coaching basketball? (OK, the answer is probably both!) As the expectations ratchet up for educators in the classroom, it is harder to see where commitments to competitive athletics fit into the new definition of a teacher.

The Way Forward

As a school principal recently said to me, “If we were starting schools from scratch, do you really think we would include competitive sports when the community does them so well?”

This conversation really challenges me. I have coached varsity-level sports, I’ve been president of the High School Basketball Association, and I’ve seen the amazing and continuous benefits of school sports on the lives of young people. I would far rather be the superintendent cheering on the championship team than overseeing the demise of these programs — which is precisely why we need to take a serious look at competitive sports in schools moving forward.

At their core, our schools are about nurturing the brain. As I wrote in my response to the parent’s e-mail with his warning from “Iron Mike,” we need to play close attention to the evolving science of brain injury and take student safety seriously. But let’s evolve our sports rather than eliminate them.

Football needs to be different because we know better than to continue to allow head contact in the game. The heads-up tackling initiative is a step forward. Helmet-mounted impact sensors may be another. Within the next few years, concussion management training for coaches and conservative “return to play” guidelines must be standard protocol.

We need to look at whether some sports are managed better in the community and, if so, perhaps we should stop offering them in schools. In British Columbia, we offer 17 different sports for boys and girls through our schools. Working with a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit groups, all those involved in sports need to jointly support high school student-athletes and not be in perpetual competition with one another.

For me, hearing community members tell “Friday Night Lights” tales of the past offers wonderful nostalgia and history, but it is not instructive about where we need to go next. Superintendents and other forward-looking system leaders must begin to envision competitive school sports for 2035, not 1955. The challenges individually are not insurmountable, but collectively they are a daunting set of factors. While I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while; looking 20 years out, like many other aspects of schooling, they may have to evolve.


With a single tweet, the 83 year-old newspaper in my community disappeared. Of course this is nothing new, it is happening in communities across North America as the newspaper business continues to search for its place in the digital world.


Community newspapers don’t get enough credit for the important role they play with our school system.  They are so often our storytellers.  They tell the narratives of our kids, our teams, our musicals, our art shows, our academic success and our commitment to service.  They also keep us honest and tell our stories of controversies like bus service changes or school closures , budget decisions and staff misbehaviours.  Community newspapers connect schools to community.  In the district I work, we lost one of our two local newspapers last year with the closing of the North Shore Outlook and now this past week, the community I live in has suffered the same fate with the closing of the Richmond Review.

I have tagged more posts “Change” than anything else on my blog.   I champion change.  And we are seeing this change play out in almost every industry.  It is why, I believe, sometimes change in education is so hard.  With so much change in our world, people often hold onto the traditions of school hoping that at least they will stay the same – romanticizing the world we used to have.  And I kind of get it – we are all in favour of change, expect for the things we don’t want to change.  Some of the change feels more like loss.

The Richmond Review felt like more than a community newspaper.  I remember the excitement growing up seeing my name in the paper for something to do with school or sports.  It was great moments of pride for kids and families if their name was in the newspaper.    While I will read the Vancouver Province, Vancouver Sun and Globe & Mail on an almost daily basis, I would read the community newspapers where I lived and worked cover to cover – I would love seeing stories of people I knew or better understanding the views of those I lived and worked with.

Over the years I developed wonderful relationships with several people who worked at the Richmond Review.  In particular Sports Editor Don Fennell became a friend.  I first spoke to him as a high school student, and then probably hundreds of times over the twenty-six years he spent at the paper.  Whether we hadn’t spoken since last week or last year, he had that great ability of picking up a conversation and making one feel so comfortable.  I love his quote in the final edition of the paper, “I don’t like good-byes; I love Richmond.”  Don and the others at the paper made the community better.

Of course earlier this year when a deal was announced that saw the other local paper the Richmond News and the Richmond Review come under one owner – it was clear something was going to change.  This story has been repeated across North America.  And while I might be a little jaded thinking how unfair it was to kill-off an 83 year-old community paper with two days notice in the middle of summer, it doesn’t change the fact that despite the greatest efforts newspapers have been unable to transition into a viable economic model in the new digital world.  Surviving, not thriving describes most of the local newspaper that continue.

But this blog is largely about education and what does this change have to do with education?  Actually a lot!

If teachers, coaches, principals, schools and school districts need yet another reason why they need to be storytellers in the digital age this is it.  Local newspapers have long been our storytellers and these stories are important.  We need to tell them.  It is not enough for our websites to be information rich, they need to be rich in stories of the people.  If the North Shore Outlook and Richmond Review are not around to tell stories of our great young soccer players, or the high school performance of Grease, or the students going to Africa to build a school we need to tell these stories.

So, you want another reason to start a blog or change your website?  We can no longer rely on the traditional community media to tell our stories.  And people still want to hear these stories.  We need to tell them.

We need to write, photograph and video what is happening in our schools and then bring it to people’s attention.  Kids still want to see their names in the newspaper – we just need to figure out what that looks like in our world.


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