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Archive for September, 2011

Writing a blog takes courage. I remember the hesitation and ‘queasy’ feeling I had the first time I hit the “publish” icon on my blog.   But, we have an amazing group of  school and district leaders who are putting themselves out there in new ways this fall.  While, as school and district administrators we often write for a public audience, blogging does feel different from writing a school newsletter. The content might be similar, but it is more personal than a  Principal’s Message on the front page of a newsletter.

We often talk about the many changes happening in education and how we, as leaders, need to model the change.  We want students to take the risks, own their learning, be ready to make mistakes but to learn from them as well,  and to create content for the digital world.  We can help by modelling all of this.

On so many levels, what our leaders are doing in West Vancouver is very powerful.  Our leaders are redefining how we communicate with teachers, students, parents, and the community.  The fear? It is that technology will make our world less personal, but so far, the blogs by our principals and others are having the opposite effect; the writers seem more human, the stories more real, as they share stories about their schools in their own words.

So, what are they blogging about?  Here is a sample:

Cathie Ratz, Principal at Irwin Park, recently blogged about (here) their use of appreciative inquiry and how they are using the book How Full is Your Bucket with students.

Michelle Labounty, Principal at Ridgeview Elementary, picked up on a theme we spent some time exploring last year in the district, and shared thoughts (here) around Parents as Partners.

Brad Lund, Principal at Caulfeild Elementary, is tracking the progress of the schools new iDEC (Inquiry based Digitally Enhanced Community) program in his blog.  He recently shared (here) some of the initial responses to the new venture.

Steve Rauh, Principal at West Vancouver Secondary, is a ‘veteran’ blogger, having started his blog last year. He regularly writes posts as a way to shine a light on the different programs or areas in his school, and recently wrote about the Best Buddies organization (here).

Jennifer Pardee, Principal at Bowen Island Community School, focused on place-based education and the key role the local community plays as a primary resource for learning (here).

Val Brady, Principal at Hollyburn Elementary School, shared research from People for Education on the Top 6 Secrets to Student Success (here)

Our District Leaders are also blogging . . .

Gary Kern, Director of Technology and Innovation, shared some thoughts on what parents can do to help their children with digital literacy (here).

Lynne Tomlinson, Director of Learning Services, wrote this past week about the power of professional learning teams (here).

Jody Langlois, Director of Student Services, picked up on our opening day presentation and added her thoughts to the work of Dr. Stuart Shanker (here)

Barely a month has passed, and our school leaders are modeling the way to build community in digital space.  You can access each of the blogs aggregated centrally (here) or through each school’s website.

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In the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell’s popular books Blink and Outliers, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have written a book about children that challenges many of society’s (and my own) assumptions.

Based on new research about the brain, they make a compelling case that what we think we know about topics – from praise, to teaching about race, to siblings and relationships — may not be correct.  Their book NurtureShock is a great read for parents/educators, and a challenge to reexamine what we think we already know.

I can highlight many ideas from the book, but here are a few of the “new” insights I gained:

  • We should be praising kids for their effort and not their intelligence — when we praise for intelligence, kids are far less likely to take risks out of a fear of being wrong.  We need to praise the process.
  • Kids are getting an hour less sleep than they did 30 years ago, and it is having a dramatic effect on academics and emotional stability.  There is a likely link between the lack of sleep and the obesity crisis among young people.
  • We should consider talking with children about race like we talk to children about gender. We can be more explicit at a younger age rather than just create environments where kids are exposed to many races and cultures.
  • We need to give kids some immunity for telling the truth and offer them a route back to good standing when they lie.  According to the research, lying is a sign of intelligence, and often those kids who lie do better on academic achievement tests.
  • We shouldn’t be testing students for being gifted until Grade 3, and those that do the tests for Kindergarten are wrong more than they are right (okay, this wasn’t really new but it confirms what is largely the norm in Canada).
  • Books and videos that end with a problem being resolved often have a negative effect on kids; if much of the book or show is spent on arguing, threatening, excluding or teasing, kids remember this and not the resolution.
  • Teenagers arguing with adults is a sign of respect, not disrespect, so much as the arguing is constructive to the relationship.
  • There are many programs that, on the surface, appear like they should be great, but have little effect on kids behaviour (DARE was cited as a primary example of this).  The thinking is, since human behaviour is incredibly stubborn, it is extremely difficult for interventions to be successful with kids.
  • When parents have a conflict, they are better to resolve it in front of their kids rather than continue it outside of their presence — this allows kids to see the resolution, and not only the conflict.
This is a cursory list of some of the key messages I was left with after reading the book, and there is a lot more material that could be highlighted – some of which a real challenge to my natural instincts as a parent and a teacher.
There are a number of ways to connect with the ideas of the book, including a Facebook site, Twitter account, and a website with a number of other articles along the same lines as the book (given Stuart Shanker’s recent visit, I was interested in this one, which questioned the validity of the marshmallow test).
I always love a book that challenges my assumptions, and is open for discussion or debate with other parents and teachers.
Here is an interview with author, Po Bronson and others, outlining the Myth of Praise (Chapter 1 from the book):
Have you read this book?

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More districts are embracing the use of personally owned devices in schools. Certainly, the current trend of students bringing their iPods, netbooks, tablets and other Internet-ready devices to school is the latest, but not the final step on the digital journey.

We spent the 1980s bringing in computers to schools, often having several students working together on one computer. In the ’90s, there was a huge growth in class computer labs and, over the past decade, with technology becoming more mobile, we have established one-to-one pilot programs.

Since schools and districts have experienced ongoing success with these programs, technology costs have decreased and devices to access the Internet have increased. Many districts, including ours, are looking at what role and purpose personally owned devices in schools can play. And, as we open up our networks, we are seeing a huge uptake of students with their various Internet-ready gizmos.

In secondary schools, the vast majority of students have a device with which they can access the web.  This is not only true in West Vancouver – close to 80% of teenagers in Canada have a cellphone, and many others have a similar device with Internet capabilities. So, this is clearly a growing trend. While it is true some devices work better than others to access information, no longer are students limited to time in a computer lab, or having to rush home to their computer in order to engage digitally with content and the community.

Often, my advice to students and parents regarding technology is, “If you are paying (for your child) to have a cellphone and can’t afford a computer, you should look at making a different choice.”  It might seem harsh but, in terms of learning, a netbook or tablet computer has greater potential. Access to the district’s wireless networks are less of a problem, and there are simply more functions that can be performed on a computer than can be done on a cellphone.

There are also certain devices that are more appropriate for certain ages, and tasks, than others.  At the rate devices evolve, we hardly have “the answer” about which tool would be more appropriate, but we are encouraging students to have a netbook or similar device beginning at the Grade 4 level.  Before and up to that level, then a slate (perhaps to be shared with others) seems to be more appropriate.

In the next few years, I think there will be a ramping up of personally owned devices in schools, as well as more of a consensus on what the “right” devices are for certain ages.  I suspect, in about 10 years from now, all students will have a similar gizmo they will bring to class, and a series of digital learning support tools.  In the context of today, if students had a netbook and then other digital tools like iPods, cellphones and cameras (as necessary) available to them this would be a digitally rich class.

And so it goes. We are solving the information challenge by promoting Internet access and encouraging the use of various devices, and then we will have a new challenge with the range of devices in the classroom.

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One of my new (school) year’s resolutions is to reallocate some of my time from television to books.  And, while there are many books about education, from time to time I will blog about the education/leadership books I have read and made connections to our work in West Vancouver, and the broader education community.

One such book is the well-researched Childhood Under Siege by Joel Bakan. Bakan is a professor of law at UBC, and the author of the widely cited book and film The Corporation.  His latest book examines how big business targets children.  And while its viewpoint is largely focussed on the United States, and interspersed with some Canadian examples, it is a cautionary tale beyond these borders.

Bakan focuses on five areas in which corporations are targeting and harming children: media, pharmaceuticals, toxic chemicals, child labour, and education. While all five have links to the school system, I found the section on media particularly compelling.

Addicting Games is one of the sites he mentions. The site is owned by Nickelodeon and is one of the largest sources of online games.

Says Bakan:

Many of the site’s games deliver emotional content interactively – players can act out and control virtual acts of brutality and murder rather than just passively watching actors or animated figures do so, as they would on TV.

Bakan also questions the spin-offs from the Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Call of Duty series.  Games I am more familiar with, like Neopets and Webkinz, also come under the microscope. Bakan says of these sites aimed at pre-schoolers and elementary students, “pet sites succeed by manipulating, using casino-style tactics, the intense feeling kids have for their virtual pets.”   What is common at the heart of all of these games — is addiction — it has “become the gold standard in gaming, the true mark of a game worth playing.”   This chapter is an interesting read in the wake of Stuart Shanker’s visit to our district at the beginning of this school year. When asked about the one piece of advice he would give parents, Shanker said he would “encourage them to get rid of their televisions.”

Bakan’s book does work into the subject of education more deeply, examining the string of US policies that have relied heavily on standardized tests.  I found this to be sad, but also reassuring, knowing how we are forging a different path in BC, and in Canada.

As parent groups look for study books for the fall, Bakan offers one with links to both parenting and schooling.

Here is a video of Bakan explaining some of the book’s key points:

Bakan’s book is a call for community and regulatory solutions to the areas he identifies.  I am interested in your thoughts, and the views of those who have had a chance to engage with the book and/or its themes.

For West Vancouver blog readers, the book is available through the West Vancouver Memorial Library.

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Michael Fullan is one of the architects of the current government of Ontario’s platform on education (here), and has recently written a widely cited paper Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform, which I have previously blogged about here.

While his most prominent work is with Ontario, Fullan has been working, on and off, with school districts and the Ministry of Education in British Columbia for more than twenty years as well.  This past week, along with two others very involved with innovation projects around the world, Valerie Hannon and Tony MackayFullan spent a full day working with school superintendents highlighting several key concepts in the context of our work in BC.

From the 2010 McKinsey and Company Report, How the World’s Most Improved Systems Keep Getting Bettertwo findings were emphasized:

- When capacity is low, the source of new system ideas / action is the center

- When capacity is higher, the sources of system innovation is peers

These findings speak to our work in West Vancouver, and across BC.  We have very strong teachers, administrators and schools. We have already taken direction in finding formal and informal networks to improve and develop new practices.  In our district, we can point to a series of networks driving innovation.  While we have been focussed on enhancing our digital networks through blogs and Twitter, we do have other face-to-face networks supporting innovation.

Fullan also shared a list of key practices that district leaders need to focus on:

  • Change in district culture
  • Building district leadership
  • Small number of core priorities
  • Focus on assessment – instruction
  • Non-judgmental
  • Transparency of data
  • Principals as instructional leaders
  • Proactive re:  provincial agenda

While the list is not groundbreaking, it is a confirmation of the work so many of us are doing here.  To begin with, in West Vancouver, we have not been shy about encouraging our best teachers to take on principal and vice-principal roles, and to be our learning leaders – which is supported by Fullan’s list. The final point is also worth highlighting because so many schools and districts have taken up the challenge of personalized learning in BC.  Some have personalized the language around it, contextualizing it for their community, but have held to some of the core principles which I often summarize in 10 words when asked to describe the learning we are creating:  kids own it, teachers guide it, parents engage with it.

A final challenge that Fullan placed before superintendents was the need for us to engage in cross-district learning and thoughtful, district-government interface.  Again, this speaks to the work I have previously described to our principals and vice-principals as being co-petitive (competitive in a cooperative environment).  This is really what we want for teachers in schools, schools in districts, and districts in the province. Fullan described it as “mutual allegiance and collaborative competition”.

Over 700 people attended the BCSSA Fall Conference last November, and many more followed online.  The dialogue continued in many different ways throughout districts.  It is good to be challenged and supported by learning leaders like Fullan, who have track records in very strong jurisdictions. It is also a good reminder that BC is part of a global network trying to figure out where we need to go next with students and learning.

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Happy New Year!

For most, New Year’s Eve is December 31st.  For many in education, it is the first Monday in September, with the much-anticipated New Year’s Day being the Tuesday that will follow, and the first day of school.

Coming from a family of teachers, it always seemed to make more sense that the Tuesday after Labour Day should have been the first day of the year. It was Labour Day weekend when we would reflect on our summer, look ahead to seeing our friends again, and set goals for the coming year.  As August wound down, summer days a little shorter, Labour Day weekend loomed and I can remember the butterflies and nervousness looking forward to the year, and the restless sleeps that still continue to this day as I ‘go back to school’. I cannot recall ever being able to get a good night’s sleep on Labour Day.

The 16-month calendars that are now sold in stores are brilliant — we always replace our wall calendars on September 1st — the last four months are always left blank. The first day of school is a time of fresh starts, grand ambitions, as well as New Year’s resolutions.

Like many others, I have commitments to be better at work, be better at home, and better at balancing them both.

To all students, teachers, parents and everyone connected to our education system — Happy New Year, and have a wonderful school year!

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