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We all know the story of Goldilocks sneaking into the house of the 3 bears – and first trying the big bowl of porridge and finding it too hot.  And then the medium sized bowl of porridge and finding it too cold.  Finally, eating up the small bowl of porridge that was just right.  In some ways, as we carve out new territory with remote learning, we have been dishing out the bears porridge and our students have been Goldilocks.

We have done our best for remote learning to not be “too hot” or “too cold” but rather “just right”.

While there is some universal understanding of whether porridge is too hot or too cold, when in comes to remote learning there is more variance. A couple weeks in, we seem to agree that virtual lessons all day, where we try to recreate school by taking the block schedule and putting it online is too hot. Some jurisdictions are trying this, but having students in front of screens on one-way lectures for 5 hours a day is not what most people are looking for. At the too cold end of the spectrum, stories of leaving kids with minimal contact leaves them without community and connections.  (Worth noting I have personally had both requests that we provide 5-6 hours a day of streaming online one-way classes and alternatively that we not contact a family until we return to in-person learning).

The challenge is that between these extremes, where we search for the “just right” it is not the same for everyone.  There are so many variables for families.  For some there is rich technology and parents at home able to assist.  In other homes, just the opposite is true.  And we have been clear to say that marks will not fall for students who commit to their learning during this time, but old habits of being driven by marks are still very present for many families.  And the ramp-up in new skills for staff is also varied.  It is amazing the new technology skills our staff have learned in just a couple of weeks.

So as we continue forward the search for just right is ongoing.  We are regularly asking our students and parents if we are hitting the mark and differentiating where we can.  We want students to be turning off their phone notifications, setting their own deadlines for work and spending chunks of time uninterrupted on their work – these are good life skills.  We also want families to remember that learning is not just about stuff from books.  We want our students to be physically active, and pursuing their passions, and looking at the various extension options we are offering through our district website.

Students are not falling behind.  It is a global pandemic – we are all in this together.  And when we return to more normal times it is our job to meet students where they are and help move them forward.

In the meantime, we will keep trying to get the porridge the right temperature for you.  

The Chit Chat

I really miss the chit chat.

It is the part that is often hard to describe. It is a bit like how Seinfeld is a show about nothing, but of course it really isn’t.  When I hear stories that teaching can be much “quicker” now online because it is more focused, these people are missing the point.  Teaching and schooling have never been just about the content.  K-12 is not just about learning a bunch of stuff.

The chit chat is the part where you talk to students about their favourite tv shows, or the soccer game they played last night, or the songs that are currently most downloaded.  Great teachers use the chit chat to build rapport as a strategy towards engaging in learning.   The chit chat is all the little things that great teachers do to connect to students so when it gets to the content the students feel safe, connected and ready to engage.  The chit chat builds confidence, and connections and makes children know they are special.

I know there are many ways schools are trying to re-create this community.  I love what I am seeing in our schools.  We have virtual clubs, jokes of the day, and online talent competitions.  It is great, but when we return to in-person schooling it is not the learning that I am looking forward to the most.

I am really looking forward to the chit chat.

 

During these challenging times there has been some interesting research coming out as students and teachers learn and work remotely.  It is being said that some things that are happening now will change how we do business forever, and that in the post-pandemic era we will never go back to some of pre-pandemic practices.  West Vancouver continues to take pride in being one of our world’s most innovative jurisdictions.

While remote learning is still fairly new, there is some exciting research around student learning that is leading to some permanent change in policy.  Based on the global research conducted around remote learning that teachers are able to have students perform at least 5% better when they teach in their pajamas we are making a change to our district dress code rules.  I am pleased to announce today that going forward, all teachers will be required to teach in pajamas – even when we return to in-person learning.  It is Sweden, and the work of Loof Lipra, that has shown us first some of this exciting research.  Pajama-Based Learning (more commonly referred to in the research as PBL) is being positively received around the world.  A quick search of “PBL” on Google will find you quotes like this:

Of course, there has been some long standing suspicions that teachers teaching in pajamas improved student achievement.  Many schools that had “Pajama Days”  saw those teachers who were active participants have their students score higher marks than the students of non-participants.  This quiet study which compared achievement results of teachers who participated versus those who did not participate has been a real sleeper that has finally come out from under the covers.

Now, on remote learning, with all our teachers at home teaching in their pajamas, the results are exceptionally powerful.  While the research is not clear as to the reasons for this surge in achievement, some of the speculation includes:

  • teachers can spend more time planning lessons as they don’t have to think about what they are going to wear
  • dressing for comfort puts teachers at ease and more able to convey information to students
  • students feel “more at home” with teachers as a result of their casual dress
  • when you wear pajamas you care less about what you eat, meaning you eat more and have more energy
  • pajamas have some magical powers 

For those teachers who still want to maintain the formality of school, I hear you.  For most of my work I have adopted the “Zoom Meeting Casual” look – business on the top, time for bed on the bottom.  As the kids say, I am livin’ la vida jam-jam.

Of course there is still more research to do.  Questions like “Does switching from daytime to nighttime pajamas affect achievement gains?”  and “Do staff wearing matching pajamas lead to increased sense of community?”  There is also work to understand why wearing pajamas leads to improved achievement, but dressing in the close cousin of pajamas the yoga pant seems to have little effect.

While we look forward to the return to in-person learning, and we continue to do our work to “flatten the curve” it is exciting to see that we are already learning lessons that will forever change our education system.  We are not afraid to engage in acts of PDP (Public Displays of Pajamas).  So the innovation continues – Welcome to West Vancouver Schools – Where We Wear Our Pajamas So you Can Learn.  

Today’s announcement is the latest in the long line of innovative actions from our school district.  Here is the list of those from recent years:

In 2012 I launched my FLOG.

In 2013 I made the announcement of Quadrennial Round Schooling.

In 2014 we formalized our System of Student Power Rankings.

In 2015 we created our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy.

In 2016 we introduced the Drone Homework Delivery System.

In 2017 we introduced the Donald J. Trump Elementary School of Winning.

In 2018 we announced the construction of Soak City Elementary.

In 2019 we went back to the 80’s with the launch of the Belvedere Learning Academy.

We know these are challenging times, but innovations just can’t stop. Happy April 1st.

I am not exactly sure what to write about during this time . . . so I will take a break from the usual educational leadership posts and tell you about my family’s spring break vacation.

When I was one my parents took me to Hawaii, it was 1974.  They had gone a couple times before, and for my dad it was his favourite vacation spot.  At the time, they would tell me later, they committed to going every year.  Well, life happened.  They had two more kids, we all played sports, teaching didn’t make my parents rich, Hawaii got expensive and the next time we actually had a family trip to Hawaii was 28 years later.

My wife and I were going to be different.  Our daughter was born in January of 2002, and that summer we were in Hawaii – and we loved it.  We agreed we had to go back.  Well, life happened.  We had three more kids, they all were busy will sports, and Hawaii was definitely not getting any cheaper.  But with our oldest daughter now about to leave for university in the fall we were committed to making Hawaii happen – this might be our last spring break that we could travel as a family.  So we had all the plans made to go this spring break and then all the sudden  . . . well you know the rest of the story.

Or actually maybe you don’t.

My dad really loved Hawaii.  He talked about it all the time.   And since we couldn’t afford to go to Hawaii regularly, he would bring Hawaii to us.

So, every summer he would load up the Buick Skylark and with my mom and brothers and and we would head to downtown Vancouver on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  Our first stop would be European News on Robson Street (called Robsonstrasse by everyone at that time).  European News would import The Honolulu Advertiser News Sunday paper.  We would pick up the most recent edition available.  My brothers and I would also get to pick a magazine (I usually got The Sporting News).  Next stop would be a grocery store on Main Street that would stock freshly shipped pineapples.  So we would also pick up one of those as well as some Macadamia nuts.  Then off to home we would go and spend the rest of the weekend in the sun in the backyard, eating fresh pineapple, enjoying macadamia nuts, lounging in our Hawaiian shirts, reading the news from Honolulu and listening to Don Ho.  A true Hawaiian vacation.

So, here we are March of 2020.  I don’t really need to pick-up a newspaper, we can all look up Hawaiian news on our phones – so that part is easy.   Even with the challenging shopping restrictions we found a pineapple at Save-On-Foods and some macadamia nuts.  And it is not quite summer like when we did it growing up, but we are in the backyard enjoying our Hawaiian Vacation.  I didn’t try to talk the kids into Don Ho.

It might be our last spring break vacation as a family for a while – trying to make the most of it.

Hopefully you are all finding some joy in these challenging times.

You can’t open up Facebook or Instagram right now without locals posting their memories of the 2010 Olympic Games.

I was particularly lucky working in West Vancouver during the 2010 Games. Prior to my arrival in 2006 the Board had already decided it would adjust their vacation times and close for the Games.  And West Vancouver Schools fully embraced the Games.  There was a core group of passionate teachers who were committed to ensuring all our students had experiences connected to the Games.  They worked with the Canadian Olympic Committee on lesson plans, reached out to the Vancouver Olympic Committee and others for support and ensured our students visited venues, tried various sports, created Olympic pins, performed at Olympic events and otherwise were hooked into the Games. I wrote previously (HERE) about the education legacy of the Games on their one year anniversary in 2011 – and my takeaways still stand today.

As amazing as this all was, for me, this period around the Games was professionally transformative.  I knew it was special, but now ten years later, my experiences around the Games were defining to my thinking about learning and the future of schooling.  All the ideas that were buzzing around in 2010 – personalized learning, a changing role for teachers, the possibilities of technology – we had the chance to implement with our Students Live! Games Program.   Here are some comments I made about the experience at the time:

The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games were an amazing experience in our city, province and country.

With the Games coming to our city, many in education worried the Games would come through our city and it would be a missed opportunity to engage our students. Along with my colleagues, Audrey Hobbs-Johnston and Gary Kern, and with the support of Christina Adams and the Vancouver Olympic Committee, we created Students Live!

Students Live! was the opportunity for 25 students to be student reporters for the Olympics and Paralympics. Describing the program as a student reporter program does not do justice to what it really was for the students, and for the adults it was an absolutely transformational experience. It was starting with a blank slate and creating from that.

So, it was an absolutely amazing experience. The students attended events on an almost daily basis, participated side-by-side with international journalists, and experienced the Games in a way that was the envy of all their friends. And this was all great.

What we learned were lessons that transcended a sporting event, or a moment in time. It started with a competition to select the students. This is not surprising, but as students opted in, there was much greater buy-in. We know when we have an application on a course, the numbers interested usually increases. Students were asked to write a blog post, create a photo journal, or otherwise use web 2.0 to show how and why they would be good reporters for the Olympics.

For most of the close to 80 applicants – this was a new experience. While we often talk about how well-versed students are in technology, in this activity, which targeted those with the greatest technology skills – the act of writing a blog, or otherwise creating digital content for a public audience – was largely new.

What we saw in selecting students, and throughout the entire process, was that good writing and strong communication skills still matter. The tools have changed, but the best writers who captured the biggest audiences, and quickly built huge followings, were those who could communicate, while the weaker writers – no matter how adept they were with the technology struggled. Much is made of technology, and how our text messaging generation sees writing as less important – I actually have never been part of something where it was so evident how important good writing is.

The first day we met with the students we focused on the social media we would use and how we would engage the community with it. A quick survey of the room showed every student had Facebook, with little evidence of any other tool; some had YouTube and Twitter, but not much else. It also became clear that while the students were quite good with technology, they had absolutely no idea how they could leverage technology to build an audience.

While students had friends and connections, they didn’t have a clue on how to turn these friends into an audience, and then how to grow their audience into influence – they had never contemplated using the tools in this way. This is key – while the students may have been native to technology, many had no idea on how to really use it to build community. Of course, we created what was then called a “Fan Page” – so, this was mid-day on a school day and we challenged them to get 1000 followers.

They were able to do this within hours – all during a school day – you want to believe students are not really on Facebook during the school day.

What the students learned, was how they could get Facebook to work for them – when combined with Twitter and their blog, they had a megaphone to their network.

About face-to-face meetings – we could never have done what we did virtually, if we had not first built community face-to-face. I am more convinced now than ever, online is absolutely best among people who have the context of face-to-face relationships.

So once we started – what happened:

First, it was like an “Ah-ha” moment – mobile technology was a game changer. Those with smartphones had a huge advantage. They could take photos, post to Twitter and Facebook, and just simply connect in real time. The less ability students had to perform all of these functions in the moment, the more they were challenged. And yes, it was reporting, so real time was really key to the project, but what we saw was more than that. Amazingly evident was just how key it was to be able to publish live. Students who had to wait to find wireless internet access fell behind. The other key was video.

The best writers stood out, and photos were great – but those blogs building community all included video. What a great lesson for the classroom and the need to build video into our work.

It was also clear students loved to look at each other’s work – not in the “mine is better than yours” way – but “yours can help make mine better”. It was amazingly non-competitive, but students commented afterwards the biggest impact on improving the quality of their work, was their ability to see other students – other models of what could be done. Everyone commented their work improved because 1) it was public and 2) they could read and learn from each other.

The students also loved publishing for a public audience – they had never really contemplated viewers before. What they knew was about was writing for a teacher – now they were writing for an audience, and the better they wrote, and the more interesting their topic, the larger the audience. There were students who had up to 100 comments on a blog post. They combined excellent writing, with leveraging their network, and with a savvy use of social media. In our debrief, students said it was actually frustrating going back to school because they had seen what was possible with real-world learning, publishing for a public audience, building community and they had to return to what school has always been – it felt less relevant than ever.

While it is true the Olympic Games were a unique experience, and it will be difficult to duplicate the experience with less exciting events, the lessons transcend the Games – mobile technology can change learning, good writing still matters, using social media needs to be taught and should not be assumed, networks are essential, and once students get the taste of the real world, it is addictive and they will want to go forward, not back.

The entire experience was also profound for the adults involved. For all of us, the experience felt more like what we have often thought of as a team, and less as a class. Maybe it was because we didn’t have rows of desks, and because we asked more questions than giving answers, or because when the students were stuck we asked one of them to be the project leader and to get a team to solve the problem. It absolutely felt like learning, and it felt like everything we hoped school could and should be – but often it didn’t feel like class – it felt like we were in the flow.

It reinforced students will build their own networks. Sure, we guide them, support them and stand beside them – but they can build their own networks. They can get 1000 members in a Facebook Group and then figure out how to turn these members into a network, and they can ask “the real world” to assist them, instead of just playing in a simulated world in schools.

I was exhausted! Just because I was not at the front-of-the-room teaching did not mean that it was easy; teaching is still hard. Sometimes as a large group, sometimes as a small group, sometimes one-on-one, all hours of the day and night – we were learning and working together. It was a fundamental change of the role of teacher and student. We were their supports, their adult mentors – but didn’t have the answers. The students found teachers in this project, not blocked out as in a schedule, were more important and necessary.
Adults are amazing. There is a world full of adults who want to help students in all professions, just waiting to be asked.

In reflecting on this, I was reminded of the recent TED Talks by Sugata Mitra, who spoke of the network of grannies waiting to assist. Right now, we have only really engaged a small number of students through work experience in this real-world mentorship, but have found in this project every adult asked was willing to help. Yes, it was the Olympics – but there is an untapped resource waiting for us to engage them.

Finally – the adults were reminded that we need to trust the process. We always want to jump in and solve problems – we are good at that. Sometimes you need to let students work through situations, skin their knee and be there beside them to offer support.

Working with the other teachers and the 25 students was the greatest teaching experience of my life. I saw what I wanted for my kids, and for all kids – real-world learning that takes advantage of the latest in technology – but is not about the technology at all.

In the end, what the students liked the most was they had the permission to play. Actually, this is also what the adults liked to – we would often ask, “Can we do this?” – like we have been trained to always find a way and a reason not to try, not to experiment. We all also loved the freedom, choice and responsibility. While students and adults spent much of our time in the virtual world during the project, these bonds have flowed over into the face-to-face world – and we are all still connected.

Ten years later there are still connections with those who participated.  Now in their mid-twenties it is so interesting to see how many of the students used the skills that they learned during the Games in future schooling and careers.  And for me, I was reminded that this is not just all theoretical about learning and schooling.  It can be different.  Ten years later the lessons of the experience still hold.

Here is a TEDx Talk I gave after the Games that shares some more details on the experience:

 

You never really know what will be the defining moments of your career.  Ten years later, I know my participation in the education programs of the 2010 Winter Olympics was one of those experiences for me.

It usually starts off the day before with someone sending me a Direct Message on Twitter asking if I have seen the forecast. Any snowflake in the 7-day forecast will often warrant a message.  And then it picks up.  I get screenshots from weather apps on a regular basis. There are emails, lots of emails – mostly about the poor conditions that are anticipated on the roads.  By this point people are often commenting on what a big jerk I am for not closing schools yet.   And then usually by sometime in the evening I get forwarded a link from a petition site with students (and others) looking for a snow day.  HERE is an example of one posted last year that was just continued this year with now close to 4000 signing on.   And I try to take some time to have fun with it.  While I don’t have any snow day parody songs, I do try to post the odd funny gif and bring some joy to the situation.

Of course, the truth of it is that making snow day decisions sucks.  You can be sure that half the people think you make the wrong decision.  I get lots of emails about how decisions get made – and it is a bit of art and science.  The goal is to keep schools open whenever possible.  Snow days are a huge inconvenience, and often force parents to take unplanned time off of work, and have huge ripple effects beyond just our schools.  That said, we have to be sure it is safe for our staff, who often travel from long distances to get to work, and safe for our students and families who need to walk or drive to school to be able to attend.

Now back to snow days and social media.  I wonder if it is just the culture of social media use today, but the comments to schools and districts were often just plain nasty this year.  While I experienced a little of it, others I know got a lot more.  The Abbotsford School District has an awesome Twitter account, and their reaction led them to post the following:


I worry that we think a mob mentality is really the right approach.  And I think as Abbotsford pointed out, we easily forget there are real people behind these decisions.  I have never met anyone involved with a school district who wants to put staff or students in unsafe situations, nor have I found anyone wanting to give out snow days like prizes to be won.  Too often I think that if we just get enough people to show enough outrage the loudest voices will win.  As Abbotsford nicely said – Be kind with your words.

So before you think it is all lost, one final social media story related to the snowfall.  I shared on Twitter parts of an email conversation I had with a student last week – and it went viral.  After our snow day on Wednesday, here is part of the message I got:

Well, unfortunately, Thursday was not a snow day, so I checked in with the student to see how the chemistry test went, and here is his response:

This is the social media world I want to live in.  Where we can have some fun, and be respectful.  Others seemed to like the story as well, as outlets from the NS News, to CTV to Vancouver is Awesome all picked up the story.

So what are the lessons:

  • Superintendents are always wrong about snow days (for some people)
  • We can do better on social media and remember there are people behind the avatars and be a little more kind
  • Enjoy your snow days when you get them, but always find some time to study for your chemistry test

Oh, and I am pretty sure that thing about wearing your pajamas backwards and inside-out doesn’t really work.

My One Word (2020)

The best and worst of being in the world of education is that you are never done.  Teaching in the classroom I felt only as competent as the success of my most recent lesson, as a principal each issue felt like a new referendum of my abilities, and in the district office, I often have said the job does not give me the chance to celebrate, we are always onto what is next.  And all of this is part of what makes education wonderful.

So, that leads into my word for this year – hustle.

This is the 5th year of my “One Word” Tradition.  In 2016 I wrote about Hungry and then in 2017 my first post of the year was dedicated to Hope.  I feel both words were ones that were good ones for the times they were written.  In 2018 I wrote about what I described as my desperate need in my work for Relevance, and then last year it was Delight – a new twist on the power and importance of joy.

So why hustle? I like the word because it is not about ability.  Anyone can hustle.  It is one of those traits that is often hard to describe, but easy to see and recognize.  When I think of people who hustle, I can quickly think of 3 or 4 people in my life who live it everyday.

I am reminded of the quote that is often mis-attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”  As different as everyday is in the work of education, a little hustle goes a long way.  And I can find it is always easy to find reasons to be complacent.  Sure someone can say our students are doing great, the system is strong, and we can just do next year like last year and we will be fine.  Or you can hustle.  I often use this blog to test areas from robotics, to e-sports, to physical literacy and flex time.  We always have to be hustling – trying to figure out if there is a better way to do the work we do, and to keep looking at what might be the next few things we should be doing.

In our schools I think our students appreciate the hustle and it is positive modeling for them.  A little hustle goes a long way.  Most of my favourite students have been those who hustled.  What is also nice about the word is while it fits really nicely with my professional work, is also easily applies to those other top life priorities that we are all always trying to keep going.  The hustle creates energy and brings joy.  Last year was great, but I don’t want to do it all over again the same.

So here is to you a year of always hustling at work, with my own school studies, in my volunteer life and everywhere else. And hopefully being a good model for those hustling around me.