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I often have said that every class in the future would be a blended class. What I didn’t expect was for this to happen over night.  I use this space to celebrate many of the amazing things that are happening in classrooms, schools and education on a regular basis.  It is also worth writing about the things that don’t quite hit the mark as this is part of learning as well.  And blended learning, at least in our high schools this year, was only just fine, and there are some important lessons going forward.

First it is important to give the context for our COVID induced blended learning in West Vancouver.  Our schools have had in-person learning for the entire year.  Health rules placed limits on the size of cohorts in schools, so given the diverse electives that many of our grades 10-12 students take, this often meant that they took one fully in-person course each quarter and one blended course where they attended every other day.  Most grade 10-12 students in BC took some blended courses this year, particularly in larger high schools to meet the established cohort rules. Ultimately this year’s COVID blended learning experience was necessary to support student choice and programming.

I should also note that I am using blended learning and I realize it is not synonymous with hybrid learning but we have been using them as analogous this year.  For those outside the school system you probably see this as more edu-speak, and you are right, but blended learning and hybrid learning are actually different.  One of the challenges has been in different classes in the same school some have been running what would be typically blended learning classes and others hybrid classes but acting as if they were the same.  There are some varied definitions on both terms – HERE is one that was helpful for me.  

So, with that as a background, we finish this year with many saying that “blended (hybrid) learning was not as effective as we would have liked.”  And we have data that actually backs up some of the concerns.  

We asked our students and staff: 

Question: If you have taught/taken a hybrid course in Quarter One or Quarter Two (mix of face-to-face and remote learning), what effect has the hybrid structure had on students’ Knowledge and Understanding and Marks and Achievement?

Marks and Achievement

Knowledge and Understanding

In these graphs – the grey is negative, the blue is positive, the orange is no difference and yellow is no response.  We asked similar questions of in-person learning and the results were reversed.  So, where does this leave us?  Was I wrong in what I have been saying that all classes should be blended classes?  I don’t think so.

There was a specific required structure to the blended classes we offered that was required by the Health rules – half students were in class and half weren’t on any given day to reduce density and allow for physical distancing.  Teachers were assigned to blended classes again as necessary given the health rules.  From my conversations, the three big takeaways are:

  1. Blended learning works better for some students than others (heck so does face-to-face) and when they can self-select into courses.  We saw from the data that we did have a quarter of students that saw blended learning as a net positive.
  2. Blended learning works better for some teachers than others.  Some teachers are passionate about notions of flipped classrooms and extending in-class learning digitally and even balancing face-to-face and virtual participation at the same time.  Like with students, having teachers self-select into blended learning makes it better.
  3. Blended learning works more easily in some content areas than others.  Again back to our health rules, it was random this year which classes ended up being blended so we could not go through the thoughtful process of deciding that maybe PE 10 should be face-to-face but Social Studies 11 might work well as a blended course.

These findings are backed up by what was found across Metro Vancouver. Earlier this spring Dean Shareski published a white paper – Pandemic Shifts – that was the culmination of hundreds of local educators sharing their experiences during COVID around scheduling, assessment, blended learning and wellness.  The section on blended learning offers some excellent advice going forward.  

I think blended learning is a huge part of the future of learning.  We have some rehabilitation to do so blended learning is not saddled as only being the type of experiences we offered during a pandemic.  The way we were forced to offer it this year, didn’t match the promise and opportunities that blended learning can offer.  We are emerging from the pandemic with a far more flexible high school system for students, and we need to find the right ways to make blended learning a key part.  

 

Is This Essential?

When it comes to schooling everything is essential.  At least that is what we are made to believe.  While I often hear about what should be added to schools, I never hear any arguments about what should be removed to make space for new content.   One of the most prolific of these debate is handwriting – which I waded into a decade ago (and won’t again here).  One lesson from the handwriting debate is as much as we want schools to be doing more and different things, we are pained to think that our kids could miss out by not having everything required in school that we had mandated for us.  We generally seem to wish our kids to have all the same experiences we had, just more and better.

COVID has really forced us to have these conversation around what is essential, in ways that we were unable or unwilling to do outside of a pandemic.   No longer could we keep doing things because we had always done it, or everyone else was doing it in their classes.   We have had to truly adopt the Marcus Aurelius quote, “Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary.”

I have written before about the particular impact of COVID on high schools.  HERE is a recent post on COVID edu-trends that will stick and HERE is a link to a recent white paper that Dean Shareski produced working with over 200 educators from our region examining scheduling, blended learning, assessment and wellness in our secondary schools in COVID and beyond.  

More than anything else, COVID has really made us rethink the use of time in schools.  In the pre-COVID era, we had neatly organized blocks, all of the same length, with each course the same number of blocks over the year.  Some teachers had this planned down to the minute.  While jurisdictions across North America have faced different realities, the last year has seen shifts from “regular” blocks, to virtual, to hybrid to new models.  In our district, there is now more flexible time for students, and blocks are of different lengths on different days.  The traditional block model has been disrupted.  And while we can’t ignore that these efforts are occurring in a pandemic – the new models are working for many students.  

This year has been both utterly exhausting and invigorating for many colleagues.  They have had to reinvent their courses from the ground-up.  And in doing so they have cut out a bunch of stuff that now no longer is as necessary as it seemed, but they have also been able to give renewed energy to other materials – content and competencies that are truly essential and ones which bring out the passion of the students and teachers.

Asking ourselves, Is this essential?  is always a good question to ask.  But of course, we often don’t – not just in schools, but in many parts of our lives and society.  COVID is making us take a hard look at content and competencies and the results are showing that we are building back a schooling system that is different than the one we had just a couple of years ago.  

You may have heard of students spending a semester in Europe or Asia.  Or maybe even about the school where you can learn on a boat for a year with the Class Afloat Program.  Well, West Vancouver Schools always wants to stay out front, and that is why today we are announcing the Galaxy High Program – where you spend a full-term learning in outer space.

Background

Space-Based Learning is an emerging field for study.  We have seen the real growth in place based learning, and outdoor learning in recent years, so it seemed natural that if we are looking to the earth for learning, we should also be looking into space.  And what might have seemed far fetched in recent years has become a reality recently.  The SpaceX Project from Elon Musk which includes his recently announced all-civilian mission, has opened the doors for students.   

The name and much of the curricular inspiration for our program comes from the 1986 television show Galaxy High – which emphasized many of the lessons that we are hoping for our students. Students will be stationed at the Galaxy High Space Station and from there travel as necessary to the moon for recreation and other programs.     

Supporting Courses 

While students in this program spend one term (3 months) in space it is a year-long program as they prepare for their trip.  In the first term, students will study space in popular media taking courses like Star Wars vs. Star Trek – Which Side Are You On? In the second term, students will focus on the specific preparations for their time in space.  Courses will include meal prep (learning how to use liquid salt and pepper for starters!), going to the bathroom in space and living in zero gravity.    

Program Description

On April 1, 2022 students will blast off from Loof Lipra Air Force Base just north of Vancouver.   Once landing at Galaxy High Space Station students will participate in many of the same courses they would normally take here at their local high school, and will earn credits for traditional courses.  Not even in space can you escape the high school lecture.  Given that they are in space they will take advantage of their surroundings.  Just like with how students connect with the earth here, over time, more time will be spent outside the space station and students will travel in the area around the station.    

Guest astronauts

We are excited to announce that just like on Earth our students will have access to wonderful experiences which includes several amazing guest speakers that will join us at Galaxy High.  Nancy Cartwright (an original cast member of the GH tv show and the long time voice of Bart Simpson), Lance Bass (formerly from the boy band N Sync who will also double as our music and dance teacher) and West Vancouver Schools own Principal Steve Rauh – many often say that Mr. Rauh is “out of this world”.  This is an all start lineup!

Admissions

We know the twelve spots in this program will go quickly, so we want to create a fair and equitable way to allow entrance. We are partnering with Rockets Candy for a Willy Wonka style promotion where 12 program admission certificates will be available in cases of Rockets Candy.   These will be distributed across Canada over the next 3 months and each has tracking devices so we can immediately celebrate those who find the certificates and become official students.  And like with the famous Willy Wonka story, even those who are not selected get a delicious consolation prize – Rockets Candy – a longtime birthday party loot bag / Halloween staple in Canada.  

Of course now seems like the absolute right time to launch (see what I did there) the program, given that there have been zero reported cases of COVID-19 in space – and anyways you wear a full mask in space so you are well protected.    

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.

In 2020 we embraced the latest in learning styles with our PBL (Pajama-Based Learning) Program.  

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

A couple weeks ago I wrote about 7 COVID Edu Trends That Will Stick following the pandemic.  Of course as much as there are things we have learned and experienced that we want to maintain, there are other experiences that have really been missed in schools for the last twelve months.  We know that concerns over well being are very real and there are aspects of schooling that while maybe not directly tied to reading, writing or math, that are crucial.   While definitely not an exhaustive list, here are 5 things that have been missed this past year and we need to return:

Travel – I know travel comes up for many people in all parts of their lives, but it is a big part of school and not just those big spring break trips that groups of students might take to Europe.  Travel is about secondary PE classes going to the local fitness facility to work out, it is about elementary students going to Science World or the Aquarium and it is about school teams or performance groups getting to go to other places to play and perform.  And for adults it is about going to meetings and conferences and connecting in-person with colleagues.  We don’t realize how much travel is in education until it is gone.  Travel enriches the school experience for everyone.

Performance – Practice is great but performance is also a big part of school.  While in some areas performance can continue – if you are learning math you can “perform” on a test.  And yes, there are virtual performances for various disciplines in the arts.  But there are no musicals, public dance recitals or school rock concerts.  In sports all competition between schools has been wiped out.  While training still continues, this practice usually leads to competition in games, tournaments and meets.  And it is not just sports and arts, it is also robotics, science fairs, debating events and many other places that competing and performance are part of the learning process.  All of this has been on hold.  Training is great, but training that builds towards performance and all of the lessons that come from it are really powerful.  We need to get back to public showcases.  

Shared Meals – Whether it is kids or adults, food is a big part of school.  Lunch times with friends are often some of the best memories for students as they build social skills, make friends and foster community.  And for adults, food often bring us together.  We debate ideas over pizza or learn from a great speaker while eating sushi together.  And in our community food brings people to the school.  Feast events or similar opportunities are reasons for people to come together.   The power of “breaking bread” is real and is something that is used so often in schools (though I admit that I am eating a little healthier without the food events).  

Being Off – It can feel like with video conferencing we are always on.  Whether you are an adult or child in the system, we all need some times to be off – to be with our own thoughts.  In the world of Zoom, Google Meets and Teams this feels often less easy.  Having our cameras on makes us feel like we are always watching and being watched.   Being on all the time is its own version of exhausting.  It will be nice to have the option of sitting quietly in the back of the room again in the post-COVID world.

Unplannedness – I wrote a post last spring about the loss of chit-chat.  The argument is that one of the best things about school is the silly side conversations about tv shows, or personal interests.  And while we can create some of this online it is not the same.  During the pandemic our rules in school need to be very strict – it is hard to deviate from the script.  These deviations, often called “teachable moments,” are some of the best parts of school.   This unplannedness (I am not sure this is actually a word) is so lacking.  Over this last year every movement during the day has clear purpose and structure.  And while I agree with those who say in this world we can “get through the work much faster” the real work of education is much bigger than the outcomes for any course.

There is definitely a lot to take with us from the COVID-19 education world and continue with going forward but I am also hopeful that we see a return to some elements we have really missed this past year.  

Reject False Choices

As we continue to educate in the midst of a pandemic should we prioritize student well being and their mental health or the curriculum and traditional course work?

These are the kinds of questions in education that I find extremely frustrating because of course the choice is not really one or the other.   

It was reassuring listening to Linda Darling-Hammond speak last week at the annual AASA National Conference on Education.  She spoke about how the focused commitment to social emotional learning will lead to other improved education outcomes, and as we support the well being of our students, this is actually also part of the academic agenda.   These important elements of our system are not siloed off, they are interconnected.

It was the second time at the conference I heard a strong argument around the rejection of false choices.  In remarks at the start of the conference, AASA President Kristi Wilson spoke about a new school being built in her home district in Arizona that has a joint focus on STEM and the humanities.  She spoke about rejecting the notion that if you were committed to future technologies including coding and computers you did so at the expense of history or critical thinking.

The challenge of false choices is something I see all the time with education.  Just jump onto edu-Twitter and there will be many experts telling you that in education you have to choose between X or Y.  It is really reflective of the larger challenge we seem to be facing in our world where so much of what we do has become polarized.  If you believe in a strong arts program, you can’t be committed to high academic achievement.  If you think having students digitally connected you are somehow opposed to getting students outside and engaging more closely with our planet.  It is really hurting our system – we want to simplify discussions.  If the new principal is a former basketball coach they must not value the arts.  Or if they taught senior math and science they will not support the humanities.  

It is not a choice for education to be about preparing students for a world of work or life as a contributing citizen.   It has always been both and so much more.  Those who perpetuate false choices from inside and outside our system do so with the goal of dividing education advocates.  Our system has always had multiple goals and social, emotional and academic development do not come at the expense of each other.

We need not have “Pepsi or Coke” debates in education and we should be wary of those who want to perpetuate false choices in our system.  

In education we often live with one foot in the present and the other in the future.  And this has been more true during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are both making changes on the go as we match learning systems to different stages of the pandemic, while also looking for lessons learned during this time as we prepare for a post-pandemic education system.  There are many ideas to take from the last 12 months that will likely impact our systems for a generation, here are 7 that I  have seen:


A Nationalized Conversation –  Canada is one of the few countries without a major role for the Federal government in education.  That said, there has been more connections than ever across this country as provinces have taken similar health approaches in schools, and Canadian educators have looked to connect digitally.  With the Federal Government investing one billion dollars in national education it has helped emphasize the connections.  The networking seems destined to continue, and even though education falls to provincial governments and local jurisdiction, from Indigenous Education, to technology access to literacy there are many important national connection points that need to continue. 

Expectations Around Video and Social Media –  Advocacy for the use of video and social media in schools and districts is not new, but nothing like a pandemic to make it obvious that non-traditional tools are needed.  Now, not that they are the only tools, but whether is is sharing information nights with school communities, or holiday concerts or assemblies, video is just expected.   We see this trend with leadership as well.  I have argued for a while that leaders need to be in the digital game, and that is more true than ever.   I appreciate what my BC colleague Jordan Tinney has been able to do, making a massive district feel like a small community through the use of digital tools and regular engagement.  

High schools will forever be different – I often hear, “the quarter system is not new, this is not that innovative.”  And this is true (quarter system is students taking only 2 courses at a time) – examples of the system in BC date back decades.  The best of what I have seen with secondary schools is not the particular block structure but what has come about because of the scheduling.  What we have seen includes:  courses have become less about time in a seat,  real conversations about what is essential have been prioritized, greater flexible time for students to make choices over their learning, and a value placed on teacher student relationship in high school with fewer teacher contacts for each learner.  Now, many of these could have been done without the quarter system, but the combination of factors of fewer classes, safety rules that limit students in some classes, and a widespread curiosity for new models has led to some exciting work.

Health and Education are Permanent Partners –  Health and Education have always worked closely together.  But this year is completely different.  We are in daily contact – and not just at a superficial level, we have got to know each others’ work.  So, going forward these relationships built through COVID will carry over.  On everything from vaping to physical literacy to mental health to just broadly building a stronger community we will be more explicit partners. 

Digitization is Here  – We have been saying for more than a decade that we were moving digital on the education side with textbooks and other learning resources and on the administrative side with forms and processes.  And then, after saying it, we have often not fully invested in the tools, choosing to live with one foot in the past paper world and one foot dipping its toes in the digital world.   We have had no choice but to go digital in many places over the last 12 months, and again this does not show any signs of going back. There is finally far greater alignment between how we say we want education and what it looks like.

Equity, Equity, Equity  – The pandemic has on one hand brought the challenges of equity in many forms to the forefront and also showed things we have said were almost impossible, are possible.  You have seen me argue before in this blog, “if we can figure out how to have garbage picked up at every house we surely can figure out how to get these same houses wifi” and like with garbage pick-up it should just be expected.  On the concerning side, we saw vast differences in the access to tools like technology and also in the access to opportunities during the pandemic.  We also, though, figured out how to get digital devices into the hands of almost all students – something we deemed impossible until recently.  Post pandemic we need to keep this focus.  The pandemic has put a spotlight on where we need to do better – from equity of technology, to equity of experiences.

Learning is often an outdoor activity –  Again, we are finally doing what we have said for a long time is the right thing. Particularly in our younger grades our students are spending time outside connecting to nature and having authentic real world experiences.  Our medical officials have encouraged our students to spend more time outside.  Many educational experts have already been arguing the powerful pedagogy of this, for many years.  Now rather than just building playgrounds on school grounds, we are looking to create outdoor learning spaces.  From school gardens, to urban agriculture, the future of schooling needs to be more time outside.  And how exciting – that school could be both more digital and more connected to the earth.  While some would view these ideas is incompatible, but really can be complimentary.  

Our greatest challenge of the next 12-24 months is to ensure that pieces of all 7 of these ideas are not lost and are part of our system going forward. There will be a lot of noise to “go back to normal.” When we meet with system and school leaders – nobody wants that – we had a good system, that has been taxed by a pandemic but there is learning that can make us even a better system as we look to the fall of 2021 and beyond.  

It is a stressful and exhausting time to be an educator, but it is also an exciting time as we look for ways to have our lived experience match the system we have been envisioning for much of this century.  

This post is a duplicate of the article in the  AASA – February 2021 School Administrator Magazine.  

The issue (here) is dedicated to the shift to remote schooling.

It was mid-March, and suddenly everything around us was closing. Our school district had entered spring break with a foreboding sense we might not come back in two weeks, but it was still a little surreal. 

Suddenly everything was moving quickly – national borders were closing, toilet paper was flying off the store shelves and general panic was setting in. People kept asking, what about schools? I knew I needed to say something. I thought writing about curriculum reform or budget planning seemed poorly timed and I didn’t have any certainty to bring to the fate of schools after spring break.

So, instead, I wrote a blog post about my cancelled Hawaiian vacation. I shared a more personal story about how we were trying to take a rare family vacation in our oldest daughter’s 12th-grade year before she left for college. In the end, we tried to salvage some sense of festiveness as we enjoyed pineapple and macadamia nuts on our rainy back patio.  

 

Human Touch

Thousands of people read the post and dozens commented and then shared their stories, empathized with our family’s challenges, and otherwise just connected. It was a reminder that people do not just read our blogs to learn about education. At its core our blogs are about connection. And in times of uncertainty, district superintendents are among those people in our communities look toward for guidance, advice and reassurance.    

 In the hundreds of posts I have written, two of the most common responses I get from colleagues are “how do you find the time?” and “that seems like a lot of work.” And even as you have read dozens of articles over the last decade in School Administrator magazine and elsewhere, the number of superintendent bloggers is relatively low.

As we look to a post-pandemic world that will differ from our world before, it finally might be the right time to start.  

 

Time to Proceed

Let me suggest five reasons why now is the time for a superintendent to be blogging.  

  • People are looking to connect on a human level. Our families are “Zoomed” out. Many of our students and families have spent large parts of their lives over the past 10 months in their homes and with limited contacts. Our blogging as school district leaders can humanize us and our work. We are facing the same challenges as our families and doing our best to make decisions that are unprecedented. 

 

  • Old communication channels have disappeared. Before last March, I could speak to parents at a school or to the Rotary Club or various other venues. Large gatherings do not exist right now, and they may never come back in the same way. We need to have our channels of communication to connect directly with our community.

 

  • Our school system is changing fast. Regardless of your delivery model this fall and winter, we have made changes in weeks or months that would normally take years. Constant communication with our parents is crucial to understand the what, the why and the how of all the different ways learning is continuing.

 

  • We can offer certainty in a world of uncertainty. With so much confusion and change in our world, superintendents are looked to by the community to be honest brokers of information. We can use our social capital to keep our community onside with how school changes fit into larger global changes.

 

  • Our kids need models, so why not us? I am pretty sure all students across North America are writing more online than they were one year ago. This is probably not going to change anytime soon. If we say we want our children to be learning to engage in this world, we can help model the way.

 

Digital Presence

When I started blogging 10 years ago, it was a bit of a novelty. Now as we start 2021, the urgency seems greater. The world is changing, and the tools we use are changing. What a great time for us to lead the way in this digital space.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I had the great honour of being on Howard Tsumura’s podcast last week (link HERE).  We spoke about blogging, basketball and the future of schooling among other topics.  Howard has been a real mentor for me in the world of writing, as he is an amazing storyteller.  I didn’t get to say it on the podcast, but reporters like him, Steve Ewen, Don Fennell, and Mark Booth have all been inspirations for me with the Culture of Yes because they tell wonderful stories. I have often tried to use this blog to tell more stories like those I read them sharing.

Now, I don’t want to just turn this entry into a blog post that laments the loss of so much local news through our traditional sources. I do think it is a big deal, and community based public education is not well served by Facebook Groups replacing community newspapers.  I have written before (HERE) about the loss of community circulations, but rather today I am thinking about the importance these local papers are to our high school athletics. 

When I talk to people from other parts of Canada, one of the great differentiators we have had is that our media has treated high school athletics as important and relevant.  I remember coaching in local high school gyms in the mid-1990’s and seeing Trevor Henderson, Barry MacDonald and Don Taylor walk in to do a story for Sports Page. And this was no surprise – they and others would often be at fields and gyms telling the stories of high school athletes. School sports, like the Canucks, Whitecaps and Lions was part of our British Columbia sports DNA.  I know many people who only had a Vancouver Province subscription to read The School Zone on Thursdays with Howard Tsumura or Steve Ewen. Both Vancouver daily newspapers had full-time high school / university sports reporters at the time. 

Now because of the foresight of the Langley Event Centre and a collection of partners, we still have the treasure that is Howard Tsumura doing stories for Varsity Letters.  And others like BC Sports Hub trying to fill the high school sports storytelling void.  And Steve Ewen still makes sure that school sports gets into the Vancouver Sun and Province, but his beat is now basically everything so it can’t get the same attention.  And it all makes me sad for stories we will never hear. 

We will always get Canucks scores but what about the stories like Andy Prest who writes for the North Shore News and his remembrance of Quinn Keast, or Ben Lypka in Abbotsford who was writing about Chase Claypool when he was winning provincial football titles and playing senior boys basketball – well before being a breakout star with the Pittsburgh Steelers,  or Marty Hastings in Kamloops who covers sports in their local community so well, or Mark Booth who has been writing for decades about school sports in Delta and Richmond or Don Fennell who I first begun talking to about high school sports in Richmond in the 1980’s and now writes as Editor at the Richmond Sentinel (I encourage you to explore any of these links – they are all great stories told by masterful writers). 

Stories like this one from Howard Tsumura on Bradley Braich on sports and mental health are powerful and they make a difference when other young people can read stories like this.  It helps students to know they are not alone.  And so important that stories like Karin Khuong’s get told – the way Steve Ewen did multiple times, including this past October

Now, I know we are all still challenged by COVID, but I am absolutely convinced school sports will come roaring back in a post-pandemic world.  As I have written before, athletics may (and I think should), look different, but school sports are tightly linked to our definition of schooling. 

What I have noticed during the pandemic is that as much as I miss school sports, I really miss the stories of school sports.  I realize that reading and watching the stories of athletes, coaches and teams is one of my favourite parts of the game.  The human interest aspects are as or more interesting to me than the scores of the games.

And it is this coverage which has been waning in recent years prior to the pandemic.  Replacing a full-page story in a local community newspaper on a young athlete with a highlight reel on Instagram is not the same thing.  And in recent years this has really been lost.  I worry that with no high school sports this year, another unintended consequence is that when they come back, there will be even fewer storytellers.  I get it, reporters move on, newspapers and other traditional media are struggling.

Talking to Howard Tsumura definitely made me nostalgic.  I love reading about the grade 9 track star from Burnaby, or the high school rugby coach from Victoria who is fighting cancer or the graduating volleyball player who is also an amazing musician.  These kinds of stories define the power, beauty and community of school sports.

Thank you to all of you who have and continue to tell our stories of school sports.

I started with that overused quote about a tree falling in the forest, as I keep thinking about it when I reflect on high school sports.  If there is nobody around to tell the great stories – how will we know about all of our students amazing accomplishments?  And that will be a tremendous loss.


I was recently part of an interesting national conversation “Future Proofing Education – The Past is a Prologue” with four other superintendents from across Canada. In 2011, early in my superintendency, I joined the C21 CEO Academy which is a national group of superintendents that meet virtually once a month and find other ways to collaborate on thought papers and make other connections. For those outside of Canada, this is always interesting, as education, unlike in most places in the world, is provincial in jurisdiction and not federal – though there are many linkages we have across the country.

At the bottom I share the video with thoughtful comments from my colleagues, Jordan Tinney, Pauline Clarke, Gregg Ingersoll and Elwin Leroux. Here is some of my thinking on the questions we were wrestling with:

What have been the most significant shifts over the last 10 years?

I think our school system has shifted far more than I would have imagined in 2011. If you walk into a classroom today, it very often looks quite different than a decade ago. I can’t be sure, but I am not sure we would have said that as boldly in the past. Did a classroom in 1995 look that different than a class in 1985? In 2011 we were immersed in the conversation of the WHY of change. We would show videos about the world changing around us and act as though we needed to convince those around us that shifts needed to happen. We felt stuck in a world where our system was regarded as one of the best in the world, but many saw the world changing. Flash ahead to today, and even without COVID, things have really changed. And it has not just been technology.

We all probably knew there would be new technology and students and staff would have access to modern gizmos, but beyond the technology, curriculum, assessment and pedagogies have really shifted. Of course this is never ending – we will never be done as the world is always changing. And I have been really struck that across Canada there is far more alignment among leaders. Yes, there are differences between BC, Manitoba, Quebec and the Maritimes but we have similar visions on the future of teaching and learning.

What do you notice about the pandemic shifts?

The first thing I notice is that the pandemic has been exhausting.

I haven’t necessarily worked more, but every day my work has been different than what worked looked like in the past. This is a great reminder for what our students, teachers, principals and other staff have been experiencing – doing new things is taxing. Of course, it is also incredibly exhilarating. We have also seen during this time that we can shift our school far quicker than we thought. We moved from in-person to remote learning over spring break, and since then have had multiple models. We redesigned secondary school timetables in August and we were ready for September. In the past we acted as though any of these changes would take years, but when there is a will and urgency to change shifts can happen.

We have also fully embraced new ways to connect.  Rather than superintendents being filtered by media and others, we have used videos and our written words to reach out to students, staff and families.  Full credit to my colleague from Surrey Jordan Tinney who has modeled the use of video to make a large school district feel like a tight community.  Everyone is thirsting for information, and school and district leaders are seen as honest brokers of information and many have used new platforms to build connections.  

It is also interesting to see the Federal Government now an active participant in education. With a billion dollars invested this past fall in schools, they too have been promoters of a national conversation. And then in classes we have really had to rethink time. With less in-person face-to-face time, what is really important to be done this way, and what can be done other ways. When in-person time is at a premium how does that change our system.

And a final change which I think has permanent ripples in our school system is we have become great partners with the health system. Because of COVID, I talk with, listen to, and share information with doctors, nurses and others in health every day. And I don’t think this should change post-pandemic. This could have lasting positive effects on topics from the overdose crisis to well being and mental health to physical literacy. Our new partnerships should be here to stay.


And what about the future?

My worry is that if we try to focus on everything coming out of the pandemic, we may focus on nothing and snapback to the system we had before. And as good as it was, nobody I talk with just wants to go back. I am curious about what do we need for a future world that is increasingly digitized and automated? If it is my magic wand, we will focus on 1) equity and our most vulnerable in our system and 2) the structures and delivery of secondary education.

And I often get asked what are the three things I think will stick post-pandemic. At least right now my list is:

• Digitization – we are not going to unplug our virtual classrooms – they are forever part of our experience
• Flexibility for students and staff – our kids and adults have had greater ownership over their learning and we have rethought time, this will continue
• Learning is often an outdoor activity – if it was the healthy thing to do to get outside during a pandemic, it certainly is as well after a pandemic


Interesting to see these three in combination as they may not seem to be aligned, but a future system with students outside more, owning their learning, and more digitally connected to the world is a pretty exciting system!

These are those kind of questions with no “right” answers, but are important to think about. We have one of the top education systems in the world, and we will need to keep pushing to keep it that way!

As I said with my last post – I am full of optimism.

Here is the video featuring my wonderful colleagues from across Canada (click on the photo to open the video):

 

My One Word (2021)

2021 is going to be better than 2020.  I do read all the “good riddance” to 2020 posts, and it is true there was a lot of crappy things.  The horrible toll of COVID on lives and livelihoods combined with a series of other events that seemed to lead to one downer after another.  There were also glimmers of the future.  Like many, I wrote posts about school, and sports, and life in general could emerge from the pandemic not with a return to the way things used to be, but to something new – where the lessons of the last year were applied permanently changing behaviours that never would have changed if not for the pandemic.  I actually considered a word like “pumped” for 2021, but I scaled it back a bit.  I still feel building energy for the year ahead.  

So, that leads into my word for this year – Optimism

This is the 6th 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 in 2019 it was Delight – a new twist on the power and importance of joy.  Last year my word was Hustle.  Despite 2020 being very different than what any of us would have predicted, hustle really fit well.  It was a year where I worked more days than any year in my life, doing different work than I ever imagined and spent the year creating on the go.  

Optimism is central to so many educators I know.  It really helps define our work.  When asked about how many chances a child has, the answer is almost always – at least one more.  We believe that our efforts can positively change the trajectory of young lives, and that all our students are capable of changing, improving and growing.   To quote Colleen Wilcox, “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.”

OK, but why particularly this year?

I will start professionally.  We have learned a lot during the pandemic about different ways to deliver education.  It all hasn’t worked perfectly.  And yet, particularly at secondary, new models have seen a lot of positive feedback, and in many cases, created better connections between teachers and students, and greater ownership of students of their learning.  As we likely have more flexibility next fall in how we deliver our programs, we have the opportunity to take the positive learnings from this past year and apply them and hopefully not need to be as rigid with cohorts and other health and safety rules that continue to be in place now.  This is truly the once-in-a-career moment for us as educators to think differently about schooling and not just revert back to the way it used to be, but to take the experimentation of this year and develop new models for the future.  

And personally, this should be the year I finish my doctorate.  I have moved to the candidate stage and I am writing and hopefully soon fully launch into the research.  I have written before HERE about my project, and I am so interested in better understanding the role of the superintendent, and how it is done similarly and differently across the province.  The work will hopefully be a launching pad for conversations around the superintendency.  And maybe, finally, my kids will be able to explain to people what their dad does for a job.

And of course there is COVID.  We are likely in for some dark days still ahead across the globe.  But here comes the vaccine.  I am hopeful my 80-year-old mom is just a couple months away from vaccination and maybe by summer all of us will have this layer of protection.  Seeing the end, even if it not yet clearly defined, bring hope and optimism.

2021 is going to be a really good year.  I am excited about traveling, coaching basketball, going to conferences, watching school events in-person and helping transition child #2 to university.   I am also ready to change and not just go back to 2019.  I love that I walk more, go to fewer unnecessary meetings, and even get a bit more sleep than I did before the pandemic.  

I chose to be in the optimism business – and I have got a really good feeling about the year ahead.

So, what is your word?