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Five-Little-Things

The post below is a copy of column that has been published this month (February 2016) in the School Administrator Magazine as part of their regular Board Savvy Superintendent feature. You can download a PDF of the article here and visit the AASA website for more details on the magazine.

The column is based on two previous blog posts on board governance from December 2014 on Board Governance and on How the Board and Superintendent Support Each Other.
Doing Small Things To Improve Governance

While much is made of the big things school districts can do to improve the state of board governance, small things make a big difference. When my board chair sits down in my office and pulls out her phone, I grab my computer as I know she is going to her “list” and I have one as well.

This exchange is part of our routine as we meet regularly to get guidance, clarification or action from each other. These meetings are one of the small things we do to maintain strong relationships and stable governance in West Vancouver, B.C. A few other ways follow.

Board work plan/calendar. Our board work plan serves as a checklist. As people move in and out of roles, it provides continuity and keeps us moving in the right direction. By March, we are finalizing the calendar for the following year. From briefing meetings to committee schedules and liaison meetings, the earlier we can establish a calendar, the more respectful we can be around professional and personal schedules across the district.

Clarity around policies (board) and procedures (superintendent). About a decade ago, our board updated the district’s policies and administrative procedures manuals. The board has 18 policies and bylaws that speak to their governance role. The administrative procedures manual, which is the responsibility of the superintendent, has 100-plus measures guiding daily operations. Of course, linkages exist between the two, but this model does help to reaffirm organizational roles.

Clear superintendent evaluation. Our board uses a framework set out by its professional support organization for the evaluation process. With our model of policies and procedures, I have been assigned a high level of responsibility and therefore should be held to a high level of accountability.

In our district, all educators participate in a growth plan model. Administrators work with district staff on their plans and teachers share their plans with principals and colleagues. I meet with our five-member board three times annually to review my growth plan, which has three areas of focus — the first is from the role description that is in policy, another is based on the district’s strategic plan, and the third is personal-professional growth.

Strategic planning.
The strategic planning process is written into policy in West Vancouver. We have just published our strategic plan that will carry the district forward until 2018. The board’s latest four-year plan includes directions around fostering learning excellence, promoting visionary governance, supporting an evolving community and embracing the transitions we are seeing with learning in our schools. Our plan is incredibly valuable as a guide to operations as we receive constant requests from groups inside and outside the district. With this in place, we can see easily which align with our objectives.

A culture of growth and support. We are in the learning business. The more we can model that the better. No matter how strong results might be, opportunities to do better are always top of mind.

The board dedicates time at each of its meetings for school highlights. Each school has an opportunity to make a presentation during the course of the school year. Often schools share new ideas and innovative approaches that are having an impact on learning. Recent reports focused on outdoor learning spaces, libraries being converted to learning commons, and ways to communicate student learning beyond traditional report cards. Support for new ideas and recognition for good work go a long way.

Beyond Routine.  While the board in West Vancouver places the bar high on learning, we always look for new ways to meet the needs of modern learners.

Readers may view this as a commonsense list, it is far more than that. It is the commitment to the plan — and the mutual understanding it creates — that can make the most difference in a high-functioning organization. As we see all the time in a district that is doing well, you will find a board and superintendent in sync and committed to doing whatever it takes to work together for the benefit of students.

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Follow-your-Passion
It is hard to believe that one of the key tasks of January is to begin promoting our program offerings in our schools next September. This past month, our Board approved a series of new secondary school courses and programs. It is exciting to see a culture of innovation come to life in the program offerings that teachers, principals and schools are bringing forward – I absolutely love the passion-based offerings for students.

We have been offering academy programs for just over a decade.  It started with hockey and soccer.  For many years, students interested in a particular academy program would have to transfer to one of our high schools to participate.  We have changed this over time.

About four years ago, we began to talk about the idea of “one district, three campuses”.  This is based on the principle that students should be able to attend their local secondary school with their friends, but have access to programs for part of their schedule at another site.  It has not been a simple move.  There have been logistics to overcome – calendars had to be aligned so high schools all had the same professional development days.  Timetables also had to be coordinated.  In our case, we now have timetables at each of our high schools where the blocks in the morning rotate and the afternoon blocks are fixed.  So students have the same last period class each day.  This allows us to bring together students from multiple sites each day in the afternoon.

Our school schedules are built so students can complete core areas in the morning, and if interested, pursue specialty programming in the afternoon.

This coming year we now have 10 different academy-style programs open to students from all schools.  We continue to be strong with sports – offering academy programming in soccer, hockey, basketball, baseball, rugby, field hockey, and tennis.  We have also now added mechatronics robotics and dance for next year.  The majority of these programs occur in the afternoon, with some classes before school and on weekends.  In addition to these programs we have several courses that are open to students from all schools – YELL (an entrepreneurship program that runs after school and partners students with business leaders in the community, FAST (First Aid Swim Training, where students earn credentialing towards becoming a lifeguard) and a District Honour Choir (that practices in the evening and performs locally and beyond).  In Art West 45 students can attend their own high school one day and every other day participate in a program that allows those passionate about arts to get extended time in this area.  It is the same principle for ACE-IT Carpentry where students attend the program every other day working towards their Level 1 carpentry credential.

In all we are now at about 15 and growing in the number of options we have available that allow students to pursue their passions as part of their school program – coming together with students from across the district who share these interests.

There is wonderful value in students attending their local school but we also need to find creative ways for students to pursue their passions.  Five years ago none of the programs existed that would allow students from a variety of schools to attend.  Now they are part of our culture.  A culture where talented teachers share their passions with students who are thirsty to pursue these areas.

I am not sure that what we are doing is transforming our system.  I can hear my friend Yong Zhao in my ear that we are maximizing the current system and not changing the system.    We are continuing to find ways for students to pursue their passions which is all part of building a system that is relevent, connected and engaging for our learners.

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one-word_feature

My education colleagues understand that in our business Labour Day is New Year’s Eve.  With the school year starting the Tuesday after Labour Day (New Year’s Day in our world), it is at this point in the year that we do most of our goal setting and resolution making.

That said, I am getting into the spirit of the season for this post.

For my first post of 2016 I am taking on a New Year’s theme and embracing the one word challenge.  What is that one word that best defines your hopes and goals for the coming year?  What word links your professional pursuits to your personal ones?  What one word sums up your focus and direction for the year ahead?

My one word is hungry!

I was searching for a word that was at the intersection of competing and curiosity and landed on hungry.  I also owe my colleague Diane Nelson some credit for the word choice.  One of the books I have enjoyed over the holidays is one she recently gave me – Hungry – Fuelling Your Best  Game by Ryan Walter.

Walter, a former NHLer and Stanley Cup Champion makes the case for being hungry, and staying hungry.  He writes:

Throughout my lifetime I have asked myself to help me stay hungry:  Why not?  Why not play on a winning team?  Why not develop an amazing culture?  Why not create an incredible family?  Why not push to play your Best Game?  Why not live hungry?

I landed on hungry having first considered competing and curiosity.

A recent influence for me is a TEDx Video I highlighted in my last post – Allison McNeil’s Collaboration . . . It Start’s With Competition.  I think we mistakenly believe that in education, with a decreased emphasis on ranking and sorting, somehow we want to compete less.  I want to compete more.  I am teased for my sometimes overly competitive nature, but if anything I want to compete harder this coming year.  I also don’t want us to shy away from building a sense of compete  with the young people we work alongside.

When I think about curiosity I am reminded of my conversations with my friend Dr. Stuart Shanker.  I have written about Stuart’s work and his influence on our schools numerous times including this one recently on the shifts he has influenced in our system.   But it is the conversations we have that I always find so striking.  He lives a life constantly curious.  He is always asking questions when we talk.  Whether it is about video games, sleep patterns or junior hockey – he is relentless in asking me what I think, linking it to what he has heard before and asking even more questions.  I know he does not just do it with me, but with everyone he speaks with.  I often think, how come someone so smart is asking me all this stuff?  Stuart lives a curious life, an ongoing curiosity I want to live more in my life.

So from Allison and competing and Stuart and curiosity I land on hungry.

Walter describes those who are hungry with words like fun, excited, focused, proactive, energized, on top, communicative, challenger of the status quo, listener, informed, open, synergistic, courageous, tribal,winner and motivated. That is a pretty impressive list.

Here is to a year of being hungry.

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Top 3Welcome to my final blog post of 2015 and my annual tradition of my Top 3 Lists for the year.

Previous Top 3 lists for  2014 (here) 2013 (here) 2012 (here), 2011 (here) and 2010 (here).

Hopefully there is a link or a video that connects with you and starts a discussion.  I am finding I am having fewer interesting discussion online – hopefully something here might help.

Top 3 “Culture of Yes” Blog Posts which have generated the most traffic this year:

1. The Learning Commons Mindset

2. How Was School Today?

3. Will School Sports Disappear?

Top 3 Learning opportunities  I went to:

  1. CONNECT 2015 – I am usually not a fan of large conference events, but this one has a good mix of sessions are great opportunities to network across the country.  I see they have Chris Hatfield as a keynote for 2016.
  2. IGNITE West Vancouver – Sean Nosek hosted our first Ignite session in West Vancouver.  It was a great way to learn with colleagues in a relaxed environment.  Who knew pro-d at the bar could have so much value.
  3. C21 Superintendent’s Academy – A group of about 25 superintendents from across the country have monthly conference calls meet in-person a couple of times a year.  We helped put together the Shifting Minds (pdf) paper earlier in the year.

Top 3 Education Books I Read That Influenced My Thinking:

  1.  Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros
  2. Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles (and the movie is also excellent!)
  3. Creative Schools by Ken Robinson

Top 3 Speakers I Saw And Remembered Their Messages Days or Weeks Later:

  1. Yong Zhao – I saw him speak several times in 2015, and even if I heard some of the same jokes a few times – he said something that stuck with me each time.
  2. Wab  Kinew – I got to see Wab in the spring, and I am really looking forward to having him as our opening day speaker in West Vancouver this coming August.
  3. Will Richardson – Will’s TEDx Video (see my next list below) proved again that he is one of the best out there at making the urgent case for change in our education system.

Top 3 TEDx WestVancouverED 2015 Videos:

  1.  Collaboration . . . It’s Starts with Competition by Allison McNeil

 

2.  The Future of Education is Ready by Lane Merrifield

 

3.   The Surprising Truth About Learning in School by Will Richardson

 

Top 3 Technology Influences I Saw in Schools This Year:

  1.  FreshGrade – It is a monster in British Columbia and likely it will be across Canada soon.
  2. Google Classroom – If you don’t think people in your district use it – you are wrong.  They are just not telling you.
  3. Coding – Each year it gains momentum and Hour of Code is part of most schools now.

Top 3 Signs That Have Nothing To Do With Technology (mostly) That Show Schools are REALLY Changing:

  1. new curriculum in British Columbia with a focus on big ideas
  2. all the value being placed on core competencies for students
  3. the changes in student reporting

Top 3 Pop Culture Phrases That Get Used Too Much in Education:

  1.  This ain’t my first rodeo
  2.  Go down the rabbit hole
  3. Anything 2.0 or 3.0 or 4.0 or . . . .

Thanks everyone for continuing to read and engage with me through my blog.  It continues to be a great place to work through ideas and connect to some of the most passionate people I know.  I have struggled to get a tweet from Dean Shareski out of my mind – he said something like, blogging is like jazz – it is not for everyone but will have a loyal following.  I did think that blogging was going to be for everyone but I was wrong.  There seem to be fewer people in education writing today than even a year ago.  I am not sure why.  That is probably a good blog post for the new year :)

Happy New Year – I look forward to learning together in 2016!

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Sentinel

It is always nice to connect in with the many other bloggers in West Vancouver Schools. Over the last five years I have continually found the themes that emerge from what others are writing to be very instructive about where we are going as a school district.

Here is a collection of some of what my colleagues have been writing about recently.

Like many in our district, our Bowen Island Community School Vice-Principal Laura Magrath has been thinking and writing about the changes in curriculum.  A recent post of hers focused on the increased emphasis on competencies:

The Core Competencies in the new BC curriculum provide a framework to use – adults and children alike – to build our confidence in key areas that apply to each and every task we face in life: Communication Skills, Thinking Skills, and Personal and Social Skills. If we use this framework, we can make any opportunity – and the choices within this opportunity – more meaningful and relevant. We can focus on “what are the best skills for this task?” rather than an unknown and ever elusive “being our best selves.”

A focus on competencies can ground us and help us determine the importance of and value in our decisions. But we can’t focus on all aspects of the competencies all of the time. Choosing a competency and clearly articulating the area we are focusing on ahead of the task can provide a sense of confidence prior to beginning, and a specific area to reflect upon and to document our progress.

Cypress Park’s Vice-Principal Kim Grimwood recently wrote about the subject area that gets discussed and debated more than any other – math.  Of course it is not a black and white issue as she pointed out in her Balancing Act post:

A recent blog about math educator Dan Meyer states that “so much of teaching math through a computational lens asks students to find the right equation and plug-in numbers. It doesn’t ask them to be big thinkers; but it’s precisely the experience of grappling with a problem that sparks curiosity, motivates students and develops the patient problem-solving that is so lacking in much of the population.”

Along with our students’ ability to think big, we also need to make sure that we are providing them with strong procedural skills. In education, we often see large pendulum swings between what seem like opposing ideas and theories.  However, in the case of mathematics what research is telling us is that we need a balanced approach between conceptual big ideas and procedural knowledge. Students are most successful when procedural and conceptual approaches are combined.

We want our students to be creative, big thinkers, and this means giving them the foundational skills to approach these problems.

All teachers and administrators have growth plans in our school district.  Craig Cantlie, principal at Caulfeild recently shared his question and thinking on his blog:

How can we redesign schools to better meet students where they are as learners across all disciplines? 

I don’t have the answer; but I’m curious to find out. I know that some schools around the world report out curricular outcomes on a formalized K-12 continuum. That’s interesting to me. At our school we have a host of clubs that are driven by student interest – what if these were during class time? We are investigating how to connect literacy and numeracy more with the maker movement. We possess the digital experience to now leverage the use of technology in student learning to a greater degree and our teachers have begun moving away from textbooks and more to Khan Academy and Discovery Education in math and inquiry to allow greater personalization. We are connecting our HOPE (Me to We) Committee members with the local high school students and outside agencies such as Startup Skool and Women Leading Change to provide relevant and meaningful learning opportunities. We are exploring opportunities to change our learning environments to be less designated classrooms, and more flexible and purposeful learning spaces. In this space the teacher role could change from “sage on the stage” or “guide on the side” to be more an “activator” of learning. A role of asking more questions that provoke debate, exploration and further drive curiosity and learning. This is interesting to me.

Ridgeview Principal Valerie Brady recently wrote about the importance of preparing students for all parts of life and giving students more than just academic tools:

Our job as educators is to prepare students for success in school and in the real world beyond school.  Teaching students to read and write is only the beginning.  A focus on success in life means that,  beyond teaching the three Rs we must also teach character, emotional intelligence, responsibility and an appreciation of the complexity of human diversity.  We must also teach the virtues of grit – tenacity, perseverance, and the ability to never give up.

While grit is a hot topic in education as of late, Ridgeview staff look to the research to expand our understanding of how grit is defined in the research and how to nurture grittiness in our young students.

While it is very important that students enjoy learning and want to come to school, the teaching of grit means that students will experience, and perhaps embrace some frustration and discomfort.  To prepare students for the real world, we must teach them how to respond to frustration and failure.  This is often a sticking point in education…while it is necessary for students to experience frustration and even failure as they move through their schooling years…. finding a balance between allowing children to experience frustration and rescuing them from this experience is necessary to developing grit.

Westcot Principal Cathie Ratz shared her thinking on kids playing with Pokemon cards . . . and it probably surprises some that a Principal would encourage and embrace these kind of passions:

Our students don’t just getting excited about anything.   Tapping the interest and passion of our students,   creative teachers leverage the interests.  Over the years I have seen Egyptian God trading cards, Flat Stanley travel around the world and the creation of new worlds to ‘teach’ mapping and government studies. I recently read about a teacher Joel Levin on twitter @MinecraftTeachr  who has embarked on a Minecraft journey  that is truly inspiring.

So, unless Minecraft, Transformers, Battle Bots, Littlest Pet Shop and whatever else begins to trend among our students seriously begins to interfere with  their healthy functioning  I want to take a little time to obsess along with them, just a little, and share in the interest and maybe leverage it all a little.

Happy playing!

West Bay Elementary School has been a leader in our district’s self-regulation work.  A recent post from Principal Judy Duncan reflected on her current thinking in comparison to her own school experience:

Three words come to mind when I think of my own experiences in school — conformity, uniformity and rules.  We sat in rows, were quiet for the most part, worked independently at our desks, memorized material, and weren’t allowed to wear jeans or hats. We were all treated much the same, all followed a long list of well-intentioned rules, and were given little choice as to how to demonstrate our understanding.
Today at West Bay and all the schools in our district, individuality, self-expression and different learning styles are embraced and celebrated. Educators are viewing student behaviour through a self-regulation lens and students are the beneficiaries. They feel empowered to make decisions for themselves as to what tools and strategies they need to ensure they experience success in school and in life. Students have greater choice, feel their needs are understood and respected, and are confident to be themselves — and they are appreciative. We are not finding gum stuck under desks and there is no argument from students when asked to remove hats on certain occasions. As my colleague Kim Grimwood, Vice-Principal of Cypress Park notes, “Students are learning how to be responsible with the choices they are afforded.”
 It is also the secondary school Principals blogging, including Rockridge Principal Jeannette Laursoo who recently used her blog to pass along the advice from a recent PAC Meeting speaker – Brett Stroh – who spoke on gaming:
One of the things that Brett said was just because one’s child is spending a lot of time playing games, doesn’t necessarily mean that one needs to be overly concerned.  “Just because they are playing a game on a Saturday for 5-6 hours doesn’t mean that there is necessarily an issue, and it’s time to hit the panic button.  One needs to also consider how the child is doing with school, family, friends and sports.  In other words, how is the rest of the world going for them (apart from the regular ‘drama’)?  Is gaming having a negative impact on or causing conflict in these areas of the child’s life?  Is the child spending a significant amount of time obtaining or thinking about the game, or recovering from its effects?
There are many ways we are trying to tell our stories in West Vancouver.  One of the ways our school principals and vice-principals often use is through their blogs.  It is an incredibly exciting time in education, and many of the ideas and practices are quite different from even a generation ago in our classrooms.  Whether it is face-to-face or digitally, we will continue to reach out and connect – starting conversations in our schools and communities.
It is great to be a member of the West Vancouver Schools digital community – our collective thinking and sharing makes all of us better.

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timetravel1

I studied a mix of History, Geography and English during my undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia. I did a practicum teaching junior and senior English and Social Studies. After a brief stop teaching math and science, my teaching load largely consisted of Socials 9, Socials 10, English 11, Law 12 and History 12 during my time at McRoberts Secondary in Richmond.

And what is something I never learned about going to school in BC, or taking social geography and history at UBC?  Or never learned about through my teacher training or ever really covered in any of my classes?  Our history of residential schools.

I thought I was doing a good job of exposing students to some of the real sore spots in our recent history from the Komagata Maru to the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.  If I had the chance to go back now into my classroom of twenty years ago probably the biggest change would be the increased influence of Aboriginal learning and I would correct my omission and include age appropriate materials to help students understand the ongoing legacy of residential schools in our province.

Of course, I know I was not alone.  One of the many reasons I think the changes to the BC Curriculum are so important, is the purposeful embedding of Aboriginal learning throughout the curriculum.  The First Peoples Principles of Learning (from the First Nations Education Steering Committee) is a document that is discussed in almost all conversations around the curriculum.  No longer is learning about First Nations limited to Social Studies in grades 4 and 10 – it is truly across subjects and across grades.

First Peoples Principles of Learning

Specifically to the topic of residential schools, there are a number of new and excellent resources that have been produced.  In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report for age-appropriate education materials about Indian Residential Schools teacher resources have been developed for grades 5, 10, and 11/12.   These resources have received some excellent media attention recently, helping to spread the word.  Other new and thoughtful resources include the BC Teachers’ Federation produced, Project of Heart: Illuminating the Hidden History of Residential Schools in BC and  the Ministry discussion paper Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspectives in the Classroom.  There are even examples of students learning about residential schools in daycare (the link also provides some great books for very young learners on the topic).

There is a lot I like about the changes to the curriculum.  One of the most powerful differences I see in classrooms in our district, is the care and attention given to learning about our Aboriginal history.  There is no doubt, if I was transported back to my classroom of the mid 1990’s I would take what I have and continue to learn about our local history and the history of residential schools and bring it in the classroom.  I am so pleased that the teachers I work with today are making sure this generation of learners engages in this important part of our history.

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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.

 

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