Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category


I recently gave a talk entitled, “What Stuart Leaves” which focused on how districts can maintain the momentum after Stuart Shanker has ignited interest and curiosity in self-regulation.

Over the last five years I have regularly written about Stuart, and his influence on our work with self-regulation.  This post from 2010, is my most read post ever.   It has been wonderful to see the growth of self-regulation in our district – like the stories told from our schools in this post from 2013.

We have an amazing group of teachers and administrators taking the lead with our work in self-regulation.  Over the last five years, it has become key to how we think about learning.  Self-regulation, along with inquiry and digital access have been ongoing themes and over-arching pillars in our work across the district.

My recent keynote presentation shared some of our experiences in West Vancouver at the Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative Roundtable (if you are reading this via email you may need to open in a browser to view slides):

So what are the key learnings we have had over the last five years in West Vancouver:

  • Self-regulation is about the culture we want and the way we want to think about kids and learning
  • Self-regulation has entry points for students and teachers at any grade across subject areas
  • Being inspired is a good first step and there are some very powerful outside voices who can provoke a community
  • There is great power in the research and the science that supports the work that is happening in schools
  • Building a strong district team is important – it needs to be part of some people’s portfolio
  • Self-Regulation is a “big tent” and there are numerous initiatives, programs and practices that connect to our work from MindUP to Zones of Regulation to secondary mental health literacy
  • It is important to continually tell our stories over and over – to staff, parents and beyond our district
  • Self-regulation should be a focus across the organization from assessment and reporting to facilities planning
  • Self-regulation connects many of our staff with the reasons they got into the profession and their passion for making a difference for every child

The greatest shift in our schools over the last five years hasn’t been the increase in the use of technology, or the move to inquiry based learning.  While both have been important, it is through the self-regulation lens that we have had and continue to have the conversations about creating the optimal learning conditions for every child.  We have learned and continue to learn from the science, and our classes look and feel different.

To stay connected to Stuart Shanker’s current work, check out the MEHRIT Centre website and follow Stuart and his team on a variety of social media channels (all links are on the website).  Stuart’s recent blog post here about the myths of self-regulation is a great read.

Stuart was very clear when he spoke with all staff in our district 4 years ago, “There is no such thing as bad, stupid or lazy kids.”  So simple, so clear and something that guides our work.

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“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.

zack fg

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.  

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I am typically not a fan of organizations using the “Report Card” device as a way to draw attention to their reports. Usually, I see organizations produce a report lamenting the work in a specific areas, looking to generate headlines like, “Organization X Gives Y Failing Grade.”

The recent ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth  does do some of that, but is far more nuanced.  While yes, it does give a D- to overall physical activity, there are good grades for a number of areas including youth participation in sports, support of parents, government and non-government investment and the role of schools.  The report lauds the physical education curriculum in each province, with special mention of Manitoba.

The most powerful part of the report was the focus on getting kids outside and letting them play.  Quoting the report:

We may be so focused on trying to intervene in our children’s lifestyles to make sure they’re healthy, safe and happy, that we are having the opposite effect . . .  We overprotect kids to keep them safe, but keeping them close and keeping them indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run.

The report relies on a variety of studies that have a number of conclusions that, while not surprising, run counter to many current practices including:

  • pre-schoolers spend twice as much time being active when play is outdoors
  • students take 35% more steps when physical education class is held outdoors
  • Canadian kids who play outside after school get 20 more minutes of heart-pumping activity per day than those who don’t

One conclusion that I found particularly striking is that children and youth are less likely to engage in higher levels of physical activity if a parent or supervising adult is present.

With my Superintendent view, some of the takeaways for me include:

  • We are on the right track in our district (and others in BC) with outdoor learning programs – and we need to continue to encourage their growth
  • The growth of urban agriculture courses and school gardens is an important trend – outdoor learning does not just have to be about physical activity
  • We need to be careful that safety and liability concerns don’t unnecessarily block wonderful outdoor learning opportunities
  • We need to be sure that recess and other outdoor learning opportunities are valued and we need to remind parents that kids should get outside even when it is cold or rainy
  • There is going to be increased emphasis on natural elements in playgrounds moving forward
  • The urgency around physical literacy is inclusive of doing a better job with structured opportunities and also ensuring kids have unstructured free play opportunities

The report takes the bold position, “Access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development.  We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings – at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.”

My hesitation in reading the report is that some will suggest that we just have to go back to the “way it used to be when we were young”.  I am always concerned with this view.  The world today is different for kids than the one their parents grew up in – it is not as simple as turning back the clock; we also often have a habit of romanticizing our youth.  The answer around getting kids active is not telling people we just need to go back to how things used to be it is about building something new rooted in our current reality.

The entire report is worth reading, and there are some great resources to share with teachers, parents and others in the community (e.g. this Infographic and this tip sheet) .  Reading the report, and reviewing the data there is a strong case for broadening our current thinking about how we encourage  young people to be active.

And as we embark on summer it is a good reminder that we need to model the way with our kids and get outside!

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How Was School Today?



What did you do at school today?


All parents have had these conversations.  Apparently students all over the world are doing nothing at school, but not to worry,  it is fine.  It is the challenge of asking questions that specific, but are still open-ended so to avoid one word answers.  We all easily fall into the trap, with our kids, our co-workers and our friends of asking “how are you doing?” and knowing the only really acceptable answer is “fine”.

In our home we are continually trying to make a conscious effort for some different conversation starters.

There are a couple of lists that I have found and used that I think are useful (I don’t love all the questions – but they get your mind working about different ways to have the after school, or dinner conversation). Maxabella Loves shared these 10 kid conversation starters on her blog:

1.  What was the funniest thing you heard all day?
2.  What was your favourite thing that happened today?
3.  Did your teacher get cross today? What happened?
4.  What subject was the most interesting today?
5.  Was anyone away today? Did that make the day different?
6.  What was something new you read today?
7.  What happened today that you wish hadn’t happened?
8.  What did you enjoy most for lunch today?
9.  What are you learning about in science?
10.  Did anyone do something nice for you today? Did you do something nice back?

Last fall I also saw this list that Liz Evans posted on Huffington Post:

  1.  What was the best thing that happened at school today? (What was the worst thing that happened at school today?)
  2.  Tell me something that made you laugh today.
  3.  If you could choose, who would you like to sit by in class? (Who would you NOT want to sit by in class? Why?)
  4. Where is the coolest place at the school?
  5. Tell me a weird word that you heard today. (Or something weird that someone said.)
  6. If I called your teacher tonight, what would she tell me about you?
  7. How did you help somebody today?
  8. How did somebody help you today?
  9. Tell me one thing that you learned today.
  10. When were you the happiest today?
  11. When were you bored today?
  12. If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed someone up, who would you want them to take?
  13. Who would you like to play with at recess that you’ve never played with before?
  14. Tell me something good that happened today.
  15. What word did your teacher say most today?
  16. What do you think you should do/learn more of at school?
  17. What do you think you should do/learn less of at school?
  18. Who in your class do you think you could be nicer to?
  19. Where do you play the most at recess?
  20. Who is the funniest person in your class? Why is he/she so funny?
  21. What was your favorite part of lunch?
  22. If you got to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you do?
  23. Is there anyone in your class who needs a time-out?
  24. f you could switch seats with anyone in the class, who would you trade with? Why?
  25. Tell me about three different times you used your pencil today at school.

In our house right now there are two questions that we talk about most often around the dinner table, or the breakfast table, or the car driving to practice, or whenever we have those moments to get caught up with each others’ lives (we borrowed them from a radio talk show):

Tell me something I don’t know?

What have we learned today?

We like both of these questions as we all answer them – kids and adults – and they are great with extended family or friends over.

It is always a challenge to try to stay engaged with our kids.  As we often say about teaching, asking the right questions is so important, and actually very difficult.  It is an ongoing struggle to not live in a world of “fine”, “good” and “nothing.”

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In my conversations around education, I often hear “Teachers think X”, or “All parents want us to do X”, or “No student will be happy about X”.  I very often follow-up with a question to determine the sample size of this observation. More often than not it is a sample size of one. The individual teacher, parent, student (and other), are extrapolating their own views to be representative of their group and who MUST think like them.

I share this caveat as background, as I fully admit that my observations in this post are based on a sample size of one — me.

I am also asked for parenting advice. I get it. I have a job where we work with young people everyday and I have four kids of my own. So, if I could give parents or potential parents one piece of advice, it would be have your children early in the year, and the closer to January the better.

January birth dates are fresh in mind as two of our four children have just celebrated their January births — our younger son on January 11 and our older daughter on January 1. In particular, I often think of our older daughter and the good fortune of her birth. She was born in the early morning hours of January 1, 2001, following a long labour for my wife that began midday on December 31. I am convinced that had she been born just a few hours earlier, she would not have had quite the same range of opportunities she has and has had.

While we are trying to break it down, the last day of the calendar year is still largely defining in our school system. A few hours difference can mean being a grade apart. We have two children born in January and two children born in June and in July. I think all have had the advantage of being born in the first six-and-one-half months of the year. While I do believe it becomes increasingly less important as they become older, the extra time they have had in the younger grades is definitely an advantage and spurred on by confidence.

Our house is also a big sports home with all of our kids playing multiple sports in all seasons. And, again, in almost every sport January 1 is the date that separates some kids from other kids. I am convinced my January-born children would have had very different sports experiences if they were born in December. While over time it does even out, the advantage of the early birthdate can lead to a child being a little taller, a little more coordinated and mature, and can also lead to extra attention for sports opportunities than for a child born 10 months later.

This thinking around sports is nothing new. It is something Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his 2008 book, Outliers — that there is a link in professional sports between those born early in the year and those who made it to the professional level in sports. It should be noted that there has been push back to his argument since its publication.

So, if you are reading this and have a child with a late birthday, what should you do? I know what my parents did for me (a late-October birth). They didn’t tolerate suggestions from early primary teachers that I was “just a bit slow” and by about Grade 5, the birthday effect had all but disappeared. Another piece of advice — as hard as it can be, move away from comparing your child to others because we all develop differently.

More importantly — and I think this is a topic that should be resident in our consciousness — we should actually think less about age be it school, or sports and more about the stages of development and how these can be supported.

As I have shared my “sample size of one” I am curious if others have had similar or contrary experiences?


And one final note – a special thanks to my colleague Deb Podurgiel who has read each of my posts for the last five years before I hit publish in an effort to help save me from myself.  She is leaving the school district to new adventures and the chances of me using their when I should use there are about to go up.

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Earlier this fall I shared a post Does Smart Still Matter? That was the script I had built for a TEDx Talk answering the question “What is Smart?”  It was slightly different from the previous TEDx talks I had given as I was limited to five minutes and given the topic. There were four of us speaking at the TEDx WestVancouverED event who were given the same task.  Here is my final video:



And here are links to the others who each “smartly” took on the same challenge:

 Personal Development Consultant Erica Nasby

Librarian Shannon Ozirny

Actor Josh Blacker

But, I want to share the story of how my talk came to be.  My love of writing is something I always shared with my Dad. He was a high school English teacher for more than 30 years with almost all of those at Killarney Secondary in Vancouver.  I did share a little bit about my Dad in an earlier post this year – Teacher. For my entire life he had been my editor-in-chief. He would always work with me through my high school and university essays. When I took a part-time assignment at the Richmond News, as a weekly columnist, my editor-in-chief came with me. He would regularly challenge me to take a clear stance, to not be vague and encouraged rich, concrete language. He was a lover of language and we would often debate the use of individual words in an 800-word column.

It became clear this past spring that my Dad’s latest health challenge, a battle with cancer, was not going to be one he would win, and about the same time that Craig Cantlie asked if I would tackle the “What is Smart?” question at the September TEDx WestVancouverED event.

So, like I had done hundreds of times before, I took the question to my Dad.  I actually wasn’t sure if I should. He was having many ups and downs health wise and having more trouble concentrating. He didn’t seem to be that interested when I first prodded him with the question. So I left it.  When I returned the next day, my Mom said my Dad had been up much of the night working on my question. So, it was out off to the back porch to sit with my Dad. I had a piece of paper and a pencil to scribble notes. Everytime I saw him, I would have that paper and pencil, waiting for those moments when the conversation would turn to ‘smart’.

This time became one of our final great conversations. My Dad was becoming weaker. But, whenever he had the energy, we would come back to talking about ‘smart’.  Pretty much every good line in my presentation was my Dad’s.  He said, “Smart is a deceptive idea if you are trying to advance a conversation” and “It gets in the way of advancing conversations.”

He was struggling with his voice and had trouble concentrating for long periods of time, but ‘smart’ was an ongoing dialogue. “It is greasy” he said, “it is a really slippery word.” At the kitchen table I remember he said, “It is a swear word – like McDonald’s.”  Growing up in our house we had a series of less conventional words that were off-limits including many of the large corporate, fast-food restaurant chains.

Our final discussion of the word focussed on how we often just throw around words because we like how they sound, without any common idea what they mean — like love, patriotism and smart.

It was quite a final project for us. I have never had to deal with someone so close to me dying. When I started talking to my Dad in June about ‘smart’ I liked the idea it was for an event in September, it gave us something to look forward to together — not too far in advance that it didn’t seem real, but something we could plan for.

My Dad died on August 3rd, but it was pretty special that we did have this final project. My September 27th ‘smart’ talk was not one of my best. I was upset that I didn’t do a better job of delivering the words my Dad had so carefully helped to sculpt with me. It was, however, very special to have that moment speaking and to be able to go back and watch the talk — the final essay of all the hundreds we had worked on together.

Thanks, Dad.

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They Will Grow Up


I share this as a reminder that all kids grow-up, even those who have driven us a little crazy in their teenage years.

We don’t often receive a lot of feedback from students, particularly those who were not overly successful in school.  So, that makes notes like this one (received last week) all the better.  This is from a former student at a school at which I was the principal about 10 years ago.  I share this with his permission:

Mr Kennedy,

I want to start off by thanking you for never putting up with my garbage in high school, and putting me in my place when I needed it. In spring of 2003, I came back to Vancouver for a visit and to re-enrol at Riverside in anticipation my family would be moving back to BC from Alberta. I was being a loud mouth as usual, and you came by and said “if it was up to me I wouldn’t have you back at my school.” Those words caught me off guard, until that point in my life I never thought the things I did affected anyone, and that was when a change began in my life. I was still a pain in the ass throughout high school, and I am positive that no one thought I would make much out of my life.

After graduation, I had a daughter at the age of 20, I was following the plan people assumed I would. In 2007, those words you spoke, along with a few from [another teacher], motivated me to prove everyone wrong. Although my idea of success was extremely skewed, I attained my goal that year of making $100,000, and was driven to exceed that goal the next year. By mid 2008, I had a talk with a mom who questioned my motives, and after a deep conversation, she helped focus my goals, and told me the best way to prove to someone was to change the world, and leave a legacy.

In 2009 I changed my focus, I switched industries and got into finance, quickly becoming one of the youngest Managers at TD Canada Trust. I began travelling the world every year for 2 months organizing charity events, and building orphanages and even starting a volunteer agency in Kenya. Kenya was my first trip, and before I left I received news confirming that my daughter was not biologically mine. Not of our anger, but out of determination to prove that I was not affected by the genes of my daughter, I built Madison House orphanage in Kenya. Since then I have travelled to over 40 countries, and helped raise nearly $200,000 for orphans in over 20 of those countries.

I am writing you because I want to thank you. Those words still ring in my head when I feel like I need to accomplish a task and have little or no motivation. Last June I made the decision to attend post-secondary school to get a degree, and eventually into law school. I was granted acceptance into BCIT’s full-time program and currently sit in the top 3% of the business department. I have a 90% average across all 7 full-time classes, and on Friday i was contacted by the University of Geneva in Switzerland in regards to my application.

I want you to know none of this would have been possible without you. I was a young punk, who cared about no one else but himself, but as time went on, I learned that I was never actually an extrovert as people assumed. I have always been an introvert with tendency of an extrovert to deal with my self-consciousness.

Regardless of our past disagreements, I want you to know, that you helped shape my future, my decision-making process, my outlook, and my ability to step back and make choices in my life. So one more time thank you Mr. Kennedy, and I can only pray you continue to move, shape, and teach kids like you have done with me.

Warmest Regards,

There is a lot in there and good reminders for me as a parent and educator.  Sometimes, even in a ‘culture of yes’, a strong “No” is an important message.

And, as Stuart Shanker regularly reminds us — there is no such thing as bad kids.

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