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I do spend a lot of time in classrooms.  What I have noticed in recent years, it is often the same classrooms in the same schools.  And often it is just a really quick walk through as part of a tour.  I wanted to do something different this fall.  So here is part the email I sent to every teacher in our district:

I am hoping to be more purposeful with getting into classrooms this fall.  I know to make the best decisions for our district, and to be the best advocate for our students and staff, I should better understand the modern classroom – I have been in district office in West Vancouver for 12 years, and it is easy to lose touch with the changes in classrooms.  Thus, I am hoping some of you will invite me into your classes.  I find I visit many of the same classes over and over, and I am hoping this request will get me into a number of different classrooms.

I would love to come to your class – whether it is to observe something you are teaching and students are learning, act as a resource, co-teach, or otherwise engage with you and your students. It could be for 10 minutes or a full lesson.  Email me directly your thoughts and we can look to set something up.

Of course, I am not sure if 2, 20 or 200 of you will take me up on this offer – but hopefully I will get back to you quickly, even if we cannot set it up until later in the fall.

I know we have amazing things happening in our classrooms and I want to better understand these connections we are making with our learners.

The uptake has been awesome.  I have dozens of classes set over the next several months – performing various roles from observer, to field trip chaperone, to co-teacher, to subject expert, to lead teacher.  Already I have been in about ten classrooms – covering almost all the grades across a number of schools.  Here are a few of my quick takes of things that have stood out as I have spent time with these classes:

Learning is happening outdoors.  Two of the experiences I have been part of have been completely outdoors (and both times in the rain).  No longer is outdoor learning reserved for just PE – in the classes I was part of, students were doing science, math and social studies outside.

Students (at least at elementary)are regularly given breaks to get some exercise.  It might be jumping jacks or doing a lap of the school in-between lessons.  There is a real appreciation that students can only spend so long sitting in one spot.

Cell phones are not distracting.  I know this goes against the conventional wisdom out there.  In the various high school classes I have been in so far, I have not really noticed them.  It may be because of the expectations created in the classes or schools, or because of the high level of engagement in the lesson but I have not seen students on their mobile devices.

Google Classroom just is. I am so impressed with how seamlessly teachers move from their digital spaces to the face-to-face.  And students (at least those in upper intermediate and high school) have all had devices and they are managing their various class spaces.  In three different classes I have seen students co-creating online with shared documents in class.

There is a great sense of independence and guidance.  I have seen a number of classes where teachers have set the learning goals and then students are working at their own pace.  It is true differentiation in class with students at different places and working at different speeds and the teacher acting as a resource when needed.

Students are wrestling with big issues.  Whether it is power and authority as it relates to the History of Residential Schools for intermediate students or math students collectively tackling real world problems, students are getting time to unpack big, hard questions and work through them with other students.

Grade 9 is still grade 9.  I have been with three different groups of grade 9 students so far.  And there have been some awesome things in each of the classes.  There have also been examples of students pretending to work when the teacher comes over, boys responding to a teacher prompt with a joke in an attempt to impress their friends, and a variety of other 14-year-old behaviour.  It is good to know that some things don’t really change.

Self-regulation strategies are everywhere.  I am always interested in what, if anything, is on the walls in classrooms.  In every elementary classroom so far there have been some sort of cues around self-regulation – whether it is reminders of breathing exercises or the zones of regulation, there are visual reminders for students about how to get in the zone for learning.

These are early days, and a side benefit of these visits is probably a lot of blog posts topics to keep me busy this year.  I am so impressed with the confidence of our students and the passion of our teachers.  It is very reaffirming.

My Paul Simon Post

It is hard to believe it has taken my 329 posts to finally have one about Paul Simon. On the occasion of his latest album, In The Blue Light, seemed like the right time.

I should preface this by acknowledging my extreme bias. Paul Simon has been my favourite artist since elementary school. I have grown up with his music and in recent years his concerts have taken me from Oregon to Montana to Nevada.

As has been widely reported, Simon is retiring from touring this month after a final set of concerts in the United States.  And just as he is retiring he has released his latest album. None of the ten songs on his album are actually brand new, they are rather new arrangements of songs (at times including new lyrics) which Simon has described as clarifying these songs, and sharing with the audience works that may have just disappeared (they are not typically in the 50 or so Paul Simon songs one hears on the radio or at concerts) but they have been given new life.

Randy Lewis described the project in the LA Times:

The project constitutes a rare instance of a pop musician engaging in a practice more common for visual artists, who sometimes return to a particular work time and again, adding a new color, shape or texture in the pursuit of some ever-evolving ideal. It’s the polar opposite of one fundamental aspect of recorded music, which freezes songs at a specific moment in time.

This quote, and really this project, got me thinking and connecting to some of what we are trying to do in education.  Listening to Simon talk about the project made me think what he has doing at 76 is what we want students to do with their work in school as teenagers and pre-teenagers.

We really freeze things in time in education.

Assignments are submitted and that is that.  A mark is given and everyone moves on to the next assignment.

I have written before about portfolios, capstones, passion projects and other similar experiences that pull together learning across disciplines and across time.  Another theme that I have also covered is the efforts to make grading less an event and more of an ongoing conversation.  These conversations are about doing what Simon has done with his music – learning does not stop when a song is written or an assignment is submitted, there is great power in the ongoing tinkering.  Teaching students to be curious about re-imagining something they have written before in English, or coded before Digital Arts, or played before in band is really powerful.

I still remember a speech from my first-year History professor.  He said that if we used any parts of essays we submitted in high school for our assignments in his class that was plagiarism and we could receive a zero on the assignment and in the course.  More than twenty-five years later that still strikes me as odd.  There should be a place for taking one‘s work and making it better.  And it was my own work.  There could be great value in redoing an assignment in subsequent years, taking new learning and new perspectives and applying them.

I find with my work on this blog I often take posts I have previously written and re-think them with new perspective and in a new time. When I look at some of the posts I am most proud of, many have been the ones that were published a second-time – they are a little more clear in thinking, a little more thoughtful and better express the message I intended.

If one of the greatest songwriters of our lifetime can find ways to bring greater clarity to his work, it seems we all can.  Hopefully the trends continue and students in our schools will have more of these opportunities of continual refinement.

PS – You can listen to the new Paul Simon Album here for free – well worth it!

Shocking, but sometimes I am wrong.

Part of the job of the Superintendent, as I have described it, is to be looking around the corner at what is coming next. And I like to think I am often on-point with this crystal-ball gazing, but in case you might not know – sometimes my predictions have not hit the mark. As we start the new school year, let me share six examples of my mistakes:

1) Fencing – I got the idea to write this current post while writing a reference letter for Igor Gantsevich the head of our fencing academy.  I remember when Igor met me five years ago, and said he was going to build a fencing academy.  I was polite, but I was thinking “he is crazy”.  Maybe baseball, soccer, or hockey – but fencing?  Well five years later we have 31 students in our fencing academy and fencing is integrated into schools across the district.  The lesson here was to always invest in quality people.  We gave fencing a try because of Igor – he was a high character person with a great passion and drive.  Almost nobody could have done what he has done – and proved me very wrong. (HERE is a more complete post I wrote in 2014 on The Fencing Phenomenon.)

2)  Blogs – I have covered this one a bit before.  This is year 9 for the Culture of Yes, and I thought when I started, I love writing, and sharing and engaging with a public audience, so everyone else will as well.  Well, sort of.  We do have a lot of staff and students who keep a regular blog, but they have not become the “home base” as I might have thought they would for everyone in our district.  The lesson here was to be careful about absolutes – blogs can be a great way to connect with a larger audience, but they are not the only way, and not the way that make some people comfortable. (HERE is a piece from 2016 where I began to recognize that Maybe I Was Wrong About Blogging).

3)  Portfolios – When the 2004 graduation program was implemented, it included a portfolio requirement for all students.  Despite the initial excitement (I was part of that), within a couple of years, the portfolio requirement was removed.  I still think portfolios were a great idea (and are a great idea), but in 2004 I underestimated two key facts – the technology was not robust enough in schools to allow viable e-portfolio options and people were left to traditional binders which was cumbersome, and too little thought was really given to how best to integrate portfolios into the traditional high school program.  It was felt to be an add-on for students and staff.  Fifteen years later, and I think we are getting in right with elementary e-portfolio solutions like Fresh Grade – and the secondary efforts around Capstone projects. (HERE is a 2015 post on Bringing It All Together).

4)  Letter Grades –  I am more conservative on this issue than many people around me.  When we began to remove letter grades in grades 4-7 I expected a huge push-back.  It has not materialized.  Really, no letter grades has just become the norm.  My mistake here was underestimating the sophistication of our parents, and the trust they place in our teachers and schools.  Parents want timely, relevant feedback from the teacher and ways to support their child at home, and they trust schools are using the best research in making their decisions. (HERE in 2015 I described this conversation as A Healthy Tension).

5) – Discretionary Days –  I heard the push for discretionary days in the last couple rounds of contract negotiations.  I kept wondering where this was coming from.  While there is almost no flexibility in timing, those of us in education, have time at Christmas, Spring Break and in the Summer, which is a luxury many professions do not enjoy.  I thought the option of taking unpaid days throughout the school year is something nobody would take.  I was very wrong.  Apparently a lot of people will take days to attend a wedding, go on a trip with family or otherwise take time at a non-prescribed time of year.  I think I really underestimated the changing nature of our workforce – flexibility is something that is increasingly important – even if it means a bit less money.  As so many other professions are becoming more flexible, that is rarely possible in education, but administrators, teachers, and support staff share a mindset with those outside our profession that flexibility is a key driver for their work.

6)  Price of Computers –  I think it was 2002 when I was saying, within a couple of years you will be able to buy a computer for the price of a calculator.  Well, computer prices have definitely come down, but not to the point I would have hoped.  Most families are still spending at least $300-$400 for a computer that they use at school, and some are spending much more.  I think my error here was getting caught up in the hype around the One Laptop Per Child initiative and saw this as the start of a trend that never really took hold.  I do continue to believe that for students from about grade 4 up we need to find ways to get them regular access to a device whenever they need it, but unfortunately it is a more expensive proposition than I would have hoped.

We can’t always be right.  As I look at these six, it is interesting to see the biases I had as I looked at each of these ideas.

So, here is to another year of trying to look around the corner at what is coming next, and maybe being wrong once in a while, but like the students we work with – hopefully I will keep learning from successes and failures.

Save Your Books

This summer I have been on the hunt for Mel Martin Baseball Mysteries.

Actually my hunt for books in this series began in about 1982.  The Mel Martin series of books that combined baseball and mystery are a series of six – the first two published in 1947 and the other four published in 1952 and 1953.  Several writers contributed to them under the pseudonym “John R. Cooper”.

In 1982 I had two the books in the series, and they were treasured possessions.  They were my dad‘s from his childhood.  They had survived a fire that burned down his house as a child, and made it into my hands in elementary school.  In 1982, at age 9,  I was not much of a reader.  I was a struggling reader.  I remember being teased and marginalized in grade 1 for my weak skills.  My parents helped me every night.  My dad and I would read Hardy Boys books together.  In the beginning he would read them to me, and then over time we would read the books together – alternating pages we would read. Having read all the Aunt Gertrude and Chet Morton we could find (I loved the characters names in the Hardy Boys) we picked up The Mystery at the Ball Park.  Nothing like a book that combined the mystery of the Hardy Boys with my love of sports!

It was pretty cool that I was reading the same books in my childhood that my dad read when he was a child.  The books opened up conversations about growing up.  The language of the books (I still remember they called a fastball a speedball in the stories) were an entry point into the time of my dad‘s youth.  After reading the first two books I remember we spent a Saturday afternoon searching the used bookstores of Vancouver for the other four in the series listed on the dust cover of the ones we had.  There was no Amazon to search – so our search turned up empty.

Fast forward to this summer.

A home renovation unearthed some treasures, including the two Mel Martin baseball stories.  They had moved with me from my parents but been unopened in likely 35 years.  I passed them along to my younger son.  He loved them.

So, the hunt from 1982 picked up again searching for the other four books.

Of course the world-wide web has made this kind of searching a little easier.  We were able to find two at Powell‘s Books in Portland and pick them up while visiting the area.  Finishing those, a few more hours of internet searching found the other two at used books stores in Chicago and Miami.  And while the shipping fees were far more than the cost of the books, it was totally worth it.

My son loved the books.  And owning and reading all six – there was a sense of closure and completion.

The books opened up a conversation about my childhood with my son.

The books opened up a conversation with my son about his grandfather.

They were way more than just baseball mysteries.

I am so thankful my grandparents held onto my parents books from their childhood.  And I am so lucky my mom saved all of the books from my childhood.  We have hundreds of young persons‘ books on our shelves at home that moved from my parents house, many that had moved from their parents houses.  Some people fill their shelves with photos or trinkets from various adventures – we fill ours with books – they are our link to our history.

So, save your books.

I am not sure what this will mean in a digital age. I do not think this really works with e-books. And we use libraries, but we also buy a lot of books.  And we do not tend to give them away.  They are windows into the time we bought them, read them and shared them.  And we can hope that one day our grandkids are reading Hardy Boys, Mel Martin, and Harry Potter and the many other current day books our kids are reading.

I know my dad would be smiling knowing my kids are veracious readers – and some of his books are part of this story.

 

 

This post is a copy of a column in this month’s AASA School Administrator Magazine

WAY BACK IN 2012, it seemed like almost everyone had a blog. At the time, it appeared a blog (or weblog as it was first known) was a requirement to be relevant in the ever-changing digital world. If I had looked then into my crystal ball, I would have said all school staff and students in 2018 would have blogs. These would be spaces of reflection and used as portfolios for one’s body of work.

I would have predicted we would be increasingly wired to comment on each other’s work and gaining skills in giving public, constructive feedback and commentary.

While blogging isn’t dead, its fate in the schools of 2018 is not what I envisioned. A lot of people have tried blogging, and while some continue, the internet is littered with abandoned blogsites in education. Yet, in this ever-changing landscape, I notice the number of superintendents blogging seems to be challenging this trend and more are taking up a blog all the time.

Beyond Blogging

During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, I worked with a group of student reporters covering the sports action through their blogs. Witnessing these student bloggers was defining for me. I saw them producing content for the real world, getting immediate feedback. I watched the quality of their writing improve as they felt the pressure of writing for a public audience. Following this, our school district began a process that led to every student having a blog. But over the past eight years, some things have changed.

We have moved to collaborative spaces like Google Docs that allow multiple participants outside the blog format. Instead of seeing blogs as “home base” for content, we use platforms such as Instagram, SnapChat and YouTube to house our photos and videos.

Once everyone started writing, people began to comment less and less on other people’s writing.

The theory was that adults would model how to comment on blogs and kids would observe and follow. Unfortunately, adults have not always been worthy role models. One need only consider the number of news sites that have shut off comment sections because of the immature and often hateful remarks.

Further, in K-12 education, another initiative is always on the doorstep, making it difficult to sustain momentum. Whether it is place-based learning, outdoor education or robotics, all compete for valuable learning time and they may crowd the space.

Sharing Voices

So if true, why is it I find my blog more valuable than ever? I think our unique role makes the blog format particularly powerful to share our voices for three reasons.

The superintendent’s message often is filtered through media, unions and other groups in a community so the blog gives direct access to everyone without interpretation.

The superintendent can be seen as more “real” rather than the elusive boss in the school board office. This role is often times seen as distant from the classrooms and schools, and blogs allow them to be relevant and connected. Blogging allows the superintendent to be an influencer whether at the school water cooler or out in the community.

Superintendents believe strongly in modeling. If we want students and staff to have the courage to share their ideas publicly and be modern learners, we need to showcase this behavior.

A Connecting Factor

The superintendent position can be a lonely job. I find the digital community of superintendents to be a powerful force for staying connected to colleagues. From Canadian colleagues like Kevin Godden from Abbotsford, British Columbia, or Chris Smeaton from Lethbridge, Alberta, to Randy Ziegenfuss from Allentown, Pa., or Pam Moran from Charlottesville, Va., I regularly check in on dozens of blogs that help create a sense of community. (Check out these blogs and others on the AASA Member Blogs page.)

I love blogging. It gives me a voice. It is a place for me to work through ideas. It is a portfolio. It is my home base. And while I no longer say everyone needs to have one, it remains a wonderful space for education leaders to model new ways of leading.

This post is updated from an April 2016 post – Maybe I Was Wrong About Blogging 

One of the best parts of June is attending all of the graduation ceremonies in our schools. There is such a great energy and these events are full of nostalgia and excitement. I have used this space several times before to share some of the messages I have left with students as I got to address the grad classes. And I want to wrap-up this school year by doing that again.

In all the talk of schools being slow to change, I am struck how students are driving change around two key social issues of our time – that of Indigenous Education and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.  As adults move slowly, students just move and seem almost confused about why we are waiting.

The other topic I come back to this year is the positive choice so many families are making for public education.  In a community where families have more options than in most other places in the country our families overwhelmingly choose public education.  They see what their children get from a public school education, and equally important what they contribute to the system through their participation.

Taking out some of the school specific notes and other pleasantries, here are some of my key notes from this year’s grad speeches I have given:

I began doing the job of Superintendent when this year’s graduates were in grade 4.  And while you may know me best as the person responsible for not giving you any snow days during this period of time, I have had the chance to see our schools really change.

Your graduation looks very different from when I spoke to graduates in 2011.

I want to highlight two key social areas, really where you and your fellow students have shown the way for the adults.

The first area is Indigenous Education.  During your time in our schools we have moved from Indigenous Education being something that is studied in grade 4 and 11 to something that is integrated in all of our work.  We started with cultural projects, but moved to real human connections.  We were guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Report in our country, and students, like you, have led the way.  We are on the way to Reconciliation because of your leadership – helping guide the adults.  I am a Social Studies teacher, and 20 years ago, never mentioned Residential Schools in my classes, we all know now its place as part of our history.

The other area I want to highlight is another issue of social importance, the work around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).  When you started school, there were arguments in British Columbia around books in schools which showed a range of different families. We have come a long way and again students like you have led the way.   Conversations from washrooms, to gay-straight alliance clubs to curriculum that teaches our diversity have at times seemed hard for the adults, but again not for the students.  When I am told that young people don’t have a huge impact on our values – I see the SOGI work and know they are wrong.  You have made our schools more open, more tolerant and more loving than they were even a decade ago.

And your steadfast commitments going forward will ensure the few loud voices around us who want to move us backwards will not win the day.

So, some things have changed – but others haven’t.  We are so deeply proud of our public schools in our community.

I know families have choices they can make on school – and my thanks to all of you for choosing public schools.  Whether you are going to work, for a gap year or off to college or university we hope you are academically prepared and more importantly prepared to be citizens for our world.

It is cliché, but it takes a community.  In West Vancouver, which is really like a small town, it takes the outstanding staff, committed and supportive parents, and dedicated students to make this system flourish.

My thanks to all of you for doing your parts.

It is a great honour to serve as Superintendent in West Vancouver.  We have the reputation as the finest education system in the country.  And each day I see it come alive in our schools – from academics, to athletics to the arts.  Thank you all for your contributions to this reputation and to our community.

Thanks again for reading, engaging and challenging this year here on Culture of Yes.  I will likely drop in for a post or two in the summer and back at full capacity in September.

Happy Summer.

Here is a quick quiz, put these in order from most to least important for students to be focused on in school:

  • collaboration
  • critical thinking
  • creativity
  • problem solving
  • knowledge
  • communication
  • flexibility
  • leadership

This is a quiz I was given recently in a room full of Superintendents.  We started with our #1 answer.  I selected creativity.  It was a popular choice, but so was critical thinking and problem solving.  We were then asked to give our last place answer.  As we went around the room, everyone was saying knowledge, until it came to me.  I said flexibility.  I had knowledge in 4th of the 8.  Basically everyone else had it in 8th.

Two thoughts.  One – this is a terrible quiz.  You cannot take any of these items in isolation, their power is how they work and connect together. Two – knowledge is unfairly getting a bad name.

The quiz bugged me.

I appreciate the sentiment that goes into activities like this.  The goal is for everyone to say “knowledge” is the least important and to think about if this is true, is it reflective of the systems they are leading.

There is a version of this 21st century learning talk I have given before. It goes something like this , “Particularly with changes in technology, we all have access to facts at our finger tips, so school becomes less about the transmitting of facts, and more about the making sense of them.”  This has been some of the exciting shifts in schooling over the last couple decades.  We no longer need to spend classes recording notes in our binders off the overhead, instead we can engage in activities that allow us to work with the facts that we all have access to and go deeper with notions of collaboration, creativity, problem solving and the others attributes that are on the list above.  The growth and value given to core competencies in British Columbia is part of this positive trend.

That said, knowing stuff is still important.  And while Jeopardy-style knowledge may be less important now and schools should rightly spend less time on memorizing dates and reciting poems from memory than when I was a high school student, you cannot do all the other things on the list without knowledge.  The amazing growth in inquiry-based learning has been a phenomenal development in schools – but inquiry is nothing without knowledge.

I have become particularly attune to this lately, with the craziness over fake news, and the like, which is mostly coming from the United States, but also in pockets here in Canada and other places around the world.  I still think it is important to know stuff.  When my kids read the paper or watch the news, I want them to have the knowledge of what has happened in the past, so they can be critical of what is happening today.

I am definitely not advocating we go back to our system of events 20 years ago.  The progress of schooling has been great.  I am wanting to be sure as we rightly shine a light on the range of talents we want for our children we don’t diminish the value of knowledge.  Knowing stuff is still cool.