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I have written a lot about high schools in the times of COVID.  There is tremendous energy locally and beyond to hold some of the new structures from the last eighteen months, as we have found some new models that connected with students in powerful ways.  But what about elementary schools?   There have been far fewer conversations about the lessons of COVID coming out of schools for our younger learners.  

I am left with the general impression that COVID has been an accelerant for changes in high schools, in elementary schools, the dominant feeling is that we want to return largely to how things were before the pandemic.

This really should come as no surprise.  Pre-pandemic there was general satisfaction with elementary school education.  Most jurisdictions had made great strides to adopt a play-based approach in K-3, there were efforts to better connect with pre-schools and pre-K education providers, and assessment and evaluation had evolved.  Most elementary schools, at least in British Columbia had moved away from letter grades, and real conversations on the necessity of homework have been happening.  Now, not to make this picture too Pollyanna, there are always opportunities for change and growth, and shifts are not universal, but the calls that we see in high school for more flexibility, greater access to online learning, more relevance in courses, and changes to assessment practices have just not been as loud in elementary schools.  One exception to this overly broad summary would be the move to more outdoor learning which has happened at K-7 seems destined to stick.

Of course, this is all kind of a gut feel.  That is why it is interesting to see some of the research coming out in British Columbia on experiences during the pandemic.   I have written before about work that Dean Shareski pulled together with secondary school administrators from across Metro Vancouver – Pandemic Shifts – Considerations for British Columbia Secondary Schools and a more system approached paper from a national perspective – School Beyond COVID-19 – Accelerating the Changes that Matter for K-12 Learners in Canada.  A third piece of research that came out in December comes from a partnership between the University of British Columbia and the BC School Superintendents Association – District Approaches to Learning in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.  It is this third piece of research that I want to focus on.  

While most of what I have seen written on pandemic experiences looks at school systems or focuses specifically on high school learners, the UBC / BCSSA project focused primarily on the elementary grades in the 2020-21 school year.  To give the context of BC during this time, the majority of students were learning in-class, with students engaged in blended and online learning as well as transitional learning (students who were moving back to full-time class instruction but not immediately at the start of the year).  This research looks specifically at this transitional program experiences.

So, what were the relative strengths across districts?

  • Leveraging already existing structures and platforms (Microsoft Teams, Canvas)
  • Transitional learning provided a sense of safety for families amidst the pandemic (flexibility of choosing when to return to school)
  • Ability to adapt to the demand of the pandemic (exceptional admin leadership, and responsive and supportive orientation of all staff)
  • Support for vulnerable groups of learners (programs to ensure access with technology and food security, unique supports for students with diverse learning needs)
  • Professional development (increased opportunities for collaboration)

And what were the relative challenges across districts?

  • Parental Support (multiple students per household, daycare, software literacy)
  • Student (lack of peer and teacher connections, online engagement, mental health concerns)
  • Teachers (new teaching modalities, varying levels of acceptance, increased workload)
  • Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (increased demand for food services, online challenges for ELL learners, limited supports to vulnerable learners, more challenging for low-SES students and families)

In checking with those who led the transitional learning option in our district, they highlighted the amazing flexibility of the staff and willingness to to take on new and somewhat foreign roles.

What strikes me about the research on the elementary experience is that there is not the same sense of building on leveraging the learning of the pandemic for a changed system going forward.  The stronger feeling is trying to return to pre-pandemic.  It is an interesting contrast and speaks to differences about flexibility, choice, technology use among other topics between younger and older learners.  While the pandemic was a test-run for some ideas that may guide the future of our high schools, in our elementary schools it was truly emergency remote and transitional learning, and the more widely held goal is to return to a pre-pandemic system with fewer changes than most hope for in our high schools.

Of course, I am sure some of you might see it differently.  

This is Post 400

I loved this quote above that I saw recently from Adam Grant.  It nicely summarizes what I love about this space.  I look back at posts I have written over the last twelve years and see how my thinking has evolved.  I was recently talking with my friend George Couros and we joked that we are two of the last bloggers out there.  While more people would read my posts a decade ago than do today, I never was really doing this for you – like Grant argues, I don’t blog for an audience, I blog for me.  I notice that the more regularly I write, the better it becomes.

I have written about the act of blogging a number of times over the years.  My list of reasons I had for starting this blog still hold today:

  • try to be transparent with my learning and leadership
  • model the “new way” many claim is the way students will learn — engaging with the world, and using digital tools to connect in ways we couldn’t connect without them
  • offer a different voice on educational issues from those in the mainstream media
  • work out ideas; get feedback, and push my own thinking

I would not be the person I am if I didn’t have this space to work through ideas.  And I have connected to many amazing people through this blog.

I still run across people who say they want to blog but they don’t have time.  They do have the time – it is just not a priority.  I have tried to make the case for more bloggers a number of times before.  I think for superintendents, it can really help to humanize the roll and make the position more accessible.  Here is a column from last year on Superintendents Blogging in the Pandemic and Beyond and one from 2018 Superintendent Blogging Should be a Fixture.  Of course, I think blogs are great for everyone – students, teachers, principals – anyone trying to work through ideas and create digital filing cabinet.

Here is some advice I gave to new and aspiring bloggers on blog post #150 that still holds true at #400:

  • be clear about what you will and won’t write about — it is easier if you know from the onset the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ behind your blog
  • it is a bit cliché, but write for yourself, not for what others may want; let the blog be a personal journal in a public space
  • do not be too ambitious with your writing — make plans to write once a week, or once a month and stick with it
  • use social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to amplify your message
  • be thoughtful of the relationship between your professional role (teacher, administrator etc.) and your blog
  • think in blog posts — when you are at a conference, reading a book, or attending a meeting, begin to organize your thoughts and take notes like you are writing a story
  • the more voice you can have in your blog the more engaging it is for readers
  • be a storyteller — our schools are full of amazing stories waiting to be told

When I started blogging, I never really thought about how it would end.  And I don’t think I fully knew that it was actually hard to write regularly.  Anyone who tells you blogging is easy – is lying! But most important things are not easy.

And now 400 posts in, as long as there are new things to think about, and ideas to share and debate, I hopefully will be around for another 400 posts.

Thanks to all of you who continue to join me and connect with me in this space.

 

There is a lot of uncertainty as we look to the year ahead.  It feels very easy to get distracted, chasing down rabbit holes, and losing direction.  As always, there is always “stuff” to keep you busy.  My life has been full of “stuff” this week as we get ready for a delayed start to school.  An idea that has always stuck with me is – if you say you are about everything, you are really about nothing.   And sometimes, I need some help.  It is easier to run from one thing to another and not go to deep on anything.  It is harder to have sustained goals that take a while to accomplish.  But these tend to be the most fulfilling. So, this year is about Focus.  

This is the 7th 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. Then in 2020, my word was Hustle, which was actually a good fit for what was needed as COVID upended our lives.  And this past year, my word was Optimism.  And as I re-read my post from this time last year, so much of what I hoped for came true – from vaccinations that opened up life for many, my completion of my doctorate, the return of sports, and some amazing experiences in classrooms.

One challenge for me is that my word is focus, but I am not yet sure what I want to focus on.  I have a list of “to-do’s” but it feels more like a check sheet than a few goals that I want to sustain throughout the year.   I am trying to avoid much of what Cal Newport from Georgetown University calls shallow work, work that is non-cognitively intensive tasks that are low-value and easy to replicate, like responding to emails, scanning websites, and using social media.   

While I am not yet sure what exactly I will focus on, I commit to adopting habits that make focus easier.   Any internet search comes up with similar lists, and includes many I do, but all ones that are worth committing to or recommitting to at the beginning of the year.  So here are some things that I want to do in 2022 to be focused on focus:

  • get daily exercise
  • minimize multitasking
  • spend long chunks of sustained work time off my phone and internet
  • practice mindfulness
  • have a clear to-do list with short-term and long-term goals
  • prioritize tasks

I want 2022 to be about doing some big things, both personally and professionally.  I know I want to write more, do more schooling, and do more public speaking.  I want our school district to be bold around learning opportunities for students. I want to be a better athlete and basketball coach, and I want to push and challenge myself and those around me.  

All of this will be about focus.  As I write this, I am excited about the year ahead.

What word is guiding your 2022?

 

 

Well before I had this blog, I had a regular column for several years at the turn of the century at the Richmond News.  The posts are no longer easily accessible on the internet, but I have all the columns cut-out in a scrapbook (truly old school).  I have been rereading some old posts over the break, and mixed in with posts about the Vancouver Grizzlies, dial-up internet, street racing and various local political issues was a  more personal post about New Year’s 2002 – 20 years ago!

And at a time we all owe great thanks to the doctors, nurses and others in our hospitals doing amazing work, here is “Caring folk make for best new year’s party in town” from Kennedy’s Corner in the Richmond News – originally published on January 9, 2002.

On New Year’s Eve and the days that followed I got to meet some of the most caring, skilled and committed people I have ever known.

It wasn’t what I had planned for New Year’s Eve, but the evening and the following morning turned out to be my best ew year’s celebration ever.

At about 11 on the morning of December 31, I was running around getting the last supplies for our small new year’s party.

I called home to check on any last-minute grocery purchases and caught my wife just as she was going to the hospital.

Apparently our first child who was due around January 10, decided that she was going to come early.

Richmond General was a hub of activity.

The doctors and nurses were so supportive and caring, each one friendlier and more willing to help than the last.

It was very apparent from everyone I met, that while there are many problems with the health care system in BC, the people on the front lines are the very best at what they do.

Dr. Robson was the most popular person in the hospital that night.  We saw her when we came in at noon on the 31st, and some 24 hours later she was still up and going.  Being paged from emergency to the operating room, to checking on all her patients in the maternity ward, she was always calm.  When someone asked how things were going, I heard her say, “Busy, but no problems.”

I doubt the new year’s eve to new year’s day shift is the most popular, but never a word of complaint.

The same shift is also probably not coveted by nurses.

It is really unfair to single any individuals out, as the 20 or so that I had some contact with were all first rate.  From Kerri who took time to explain everything to my wife and I, to Sherri who was with us through the night, to Narinder who cam on in the morning, they were all unwavering in their support for us.  After some 18 hours in the hospital, our daughter was born on the morning of January 1st, the second baby born of the new year in Richmond.

The following hours and days in the hospital saw the same caring that we had enjoyed through the labour and birth.

Nurses like Lillian and Rite and doctors Wagner and Duncan shared in our joy of the birth of our daughter and did everything they could to make things as easy as possible for us.

The list of thank-yous is really endless.

These nurses and doctors working 12-hour or sometimes longer shifts treated us always as if we were their main priority and nothing was going to stop them from helping us.

This type of support, commitment and enthusiasm is so special.

As we rest quietly at home, I know I speak for my wife and young Elizabeth when I say thanks to all the doctors and nurses at Richmond General for making our new year’s the best ever.

Thanks to Dixon Tam, then editor of the Richmond News, who gave me a chance to write for his paper.  I got $35 a column – but I would have done it for free 🙂

Here we go with the 12th annual list.  My homage to growing up in the era of Siskel and Ebert having the “must watch” show at the end of the year as they revealed their best and worst of the year.  I am publishing this at a time where anxiety levels are higher than at any point this year.  Hopefully you can enjoy a little reprieve from the doom scrolling on social media.

Previous Top 3 lists for:  2020 (here) 2019 (here) 2018 (here) 2017 (here) 2016 (here) 2015 (here) 2014 (here) 2013 (here) 2012 (here), 2011 (here) and 2010 (here).

 

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

  1. 7 COVID Edu Trends That Will Stick
  2. Keep Being Passionate After This is Over
  3. The 15 Month School Year

For the first time ever, my April 1st blog (Galaxy High) finished out of the medals this year in 4th place for clicks.  I will choose to take this as a compliment to my other posts.  I have got a bit of a complex that more people read my April Fools’ post than any other – perhaps thinking I should stick to comedy.  It was COVID thinking that dominated my writing and those that resonated most with others.  Given where we are finishing the year, I am sure it will feature prominently in my writing for next year.  I am working on one for early in the year focused on elementary schools, as most of my writing around COVID has been high school focused.  

Top 3 Shifts in the fall as reported by our school and district leaders:

  1. Return of school sports and fine arts performances
  2. Being able to have buddy classes without cohort rules
  3. Keeping some of the timetable changes in high schools

There was a great energy in our schools from September through December.  I know as I write this at the end of December things are definitely uncertain for January.  It was great to have school sports and fine arts back performing.  We knew we missed these activities, but having them return fully, showed the impact they have for kids and schools.  Same is true of the dropping of the cohorts so multi-grade groups could connect again.  Especially in our elementary schools these are such a key part of learning experiences.  And in our high schools, students have continued to embrace new models of flexible time that were present before COVID but fully embraced in the last two years.

Top 3 Topics in BC Education (non-COVID related) that will get attention in 2022:

  1. Changes to online learning
  2. Shifts in early learning and childcare as it moves to Education
  3. Finalization of reporting order for K-12

Stepping away from COVID there are a number of major education policy issues that deserve attention in 2022.  We are seeing the first major revamping of online learning in BC in about 20 years.  The plan will see that there are fewer providers able to offer courses to students outside their district, while everyone is able to offer to students inside their district.  With early learning, there is a move gathering speed that will see all of pre-school aged operations move to be part of the K-12 system.  School districts offering their own before and after school programming is already beginning to happen and we will see new relationships between school districts and their traditional providers.  Government has plans for low-cost options for families that will be closely linked to the education system.  And with reporting, BC has been in a state of limbo for the last several years with some very interesting pilot projects in districts.  In what will be different for families, we are likely seeing the end of letter grades at K-9 (many places have done this already) while still holding onto many of the regular periodical reporting that takes place during a year.  

Top 3 Canadian thought papers on the impact of COVID on schools:

  1. Pandemic Shifts – Considerations for British Columbia Secondary Schools  (Shareski)
  2. School Beyond COVID-19 – Accelerating the Changes that Matter for K-12 Learners in Canada (C21)
  3. District Approaches to Learning in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic (UBC and BCSSA)

OK, a touch self-serving with this one as I had some level of involvement with all three papers.  I think all three capture important lessons of the last 18 months.  Pandemic Shifts focuses on the secondary school experience in the lower mainland, while the paper on District Approaches to Learning is elementary focused.  School Beyond COVID-19 takes a systemic look at issues with a Canadian view.   All three tell different parts of the story and are very useful for future planning.

Top 3 Areas I learned the most about professionally this year:

  1. Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity
  2. Secondary Timetables
  3. Next Wave of Technology

I look at this list, and I am thinking it will be similar again next year.  For equity, diversity and inclusivity it is an incredibly broad topic and while much of the work is around Truth and Reconciliation, with my own learning I am trying to tackle other aspects of the issue as well.  I thought as a secondary vice-principal I knew all there was to know about timetables.  But the last year has shown me there is always another way.  I am in  awe of my colleague Ian Kennedy who is the master designer when it comes to different timetables.  I am still in the camp of “people like whatever timetable they are used to and the actual timetable has little impact on student achievement” but I think the creativity out there has been awesome.  And finally, while we have been focused on Zoom and other streaming connections the last couple of years, there continues to be major disruptions arriving with technology.  From the continued growth of robotics and related areas in schools, to the quickly appearing virtual reality and augmented reality, if you are not trying to stay ahead, you are falling behind.   

Top 3 Individuals Influencing the work in our district (that have never been mentioned in a year-end list before):

  1. Alden Habacon
  2. Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis
  3. Cari Wilson

Our district has found a great partner in Alden Habacon as he leads our inclusivity and diversity work.  We has a great way of focusing us on our students.  Chris Lewis has recently stepped down from the Squamish Nation Council and has been an amazing guide for our school district.   One of the many generous leaders in the Squamish Nation we get to work with, Lewis has helped educate our staff and students on the history of our area and insight into the workings of the Squamish Nation.  I am wary about highlighting one colleague, when I work with so many great educators, but Cari Wilson is one of those teachers who makes a massive difference for so many in our district.  From her weekly blog (click on her name above to check it out) to her work with teachers around technology, to her advocacy for young women in STEM and robotics, she has a massive impact in our district.

Top 3 Interesting Findings in my dissertation on superintendents and time:

  1. Female superintendents spend more time with their Board and on educational leadership than male superintendents
  2. Superintendents spend the most time in the “Community Relations” activities
  3. 59% of superintendents are in their first 5 years in the job

I wrote a lot about my doctorate this year – an entire series of eight posts (here is the first one on gender and the superintendency) over the summer.  It was such an enjoyable project as having done this job for more than a decade, I finally had some local data to compare my experience to that of my colleagues.   While not surprising that superintendents spend so much time on community relations, nor really that surprising that so many in the role are new, I was probably most struck by the very different experiences of male and female superintendents in British Columbia.  

Top 3 Personal Accomplishments for the year:

  1.  Now a doctor
  2. Ran an ultra marathon
  3. Finished the year healthier than I have been in a decade

I finished my doctorate in June.  I actually shared my experience (HERE) of the process.  And it is not true that the only reason I did it was so that I could recreate this great scene from Spies Like Us:

Later in the year I had the chance to run an ultra marathon – a first for me.  I combined running the race with visiting my two oldest kids in Nova Scotia at their university.   I guess in 2022 I will look for an even longer race.  And really what I am most pleased with is that I am ending this year at the healthiest I have been in probably a decade.  Entering COVID I had a series of health challenges, but  the last two years have been good to my physical wellbeing and I feel like I am inching towards 50 in some of the best shape of my life.

Top 3 streaks I have going:

  1. Steps
  2. Running
  3. Photo posting to social media

I love a good streak.  While most are healthy, I did once have quite a consecutive day streak for having a Dairy Queen Blizzard.   At the end of 2021, my consecutive days streak for getting at least 10,000 steps will be at 8 years – every day from January 1, 2014 to today.  At times, travel, weather and health have all proved to be a challenge, but I have managed to keep the continuous days streak going.  As I got more into health this year I started a running streak on January 16 of running at least 5 km every single day.  I know this is not the smartest training strategy but I am now at 344 days.  I don’t think I will keep this one going much longer.   My final streak to highlight is also a long one – as of December 31 of this year I will have posted at least one photo to Instagram for 2,556 straight days.  While I don’t make many of the photos public anymore, scrolling through the last seven years of life in pictures brings me great joy.  

Top 3 edu-podcasts that are worth checking out:

  1. Free Range Humans – Rod Allen and Jal Mehta
  2.  The Innovator’s Mindset – George Couros
  3. Mindshare Learning – Robert Martellacci

Free Range Humans has a BC influence with Rod Allen. I am sure there are others out there, but this is a great podcast to get one thinking about educational transformation.  With George Couros you get the smart ideas of his books combined with George’s great sense of humour.  And Robert Martellacci who has several podcasts series posted in different places combines the best of Canadian context with global leaders in education. 

Top 3 non-Edu podcasts that I subscribe to:

  1. This American Life
  2. The Reinvention Project
  3.  No Stupid Questions

Nothing really creative on this list – I listen to ones that are widely popular.  I have a routine – each day’s morning run has a Podcast.  If it is 5 AM on Monday is time for This American Life.  The Reinvention Project from Jim Rome was new this year and he still have some sports related guests, but also many others in different areas.   And No Stupid Questions is just fun.  Two really smart people taking on an interesting question.  Other shows in my regular rotation include Hidden Brain, A Slight Change of Plans, Charges with Rex Chapman, People I Mostly Admire and Politics War Room.   

Top 3 elements of nostalgia in my life this past year:

  1. Celebrating 35 years of the Grade 7 Class of 1986
  2. Ghostbusters Afterlife
  3. Kennedy Centre Honors 

What a fun zoom call we had at the end of May as close to 20 members of the grade 7 class of Daniel Woodward Elementary School, along with our grade 7 teachers Don Taylor and Ken Whitehead got together to reminisce and get caught-up.  I was far more interested in connecting to this group than I would have been with my high school grad group (it was 30 years since that milestone) and it was great seeing where people were at in their lives.   It was so fun – I met up with Don (grade 7 teacher), Ken (grade 6 teacher) and George Nakanishi (grade 5 teacher) later in the year for drinks.

Now I was not expecting to like the new Ghostbusters movie.  I was actually never a huge fan of the original movies.  But it was the perfect mix of interesting new characters with the original characters.  With retro connections, I am also a big fan of Cobra Kai and the Saved by the Bell reboot.  

And for something late in the year, proof that I am becoming my parents is no more obvious than my love of Kennedy Centre Honours.  From David Letterman hosting, to Canadians Joni Mitchell and Lorne Michaels being among those being honoured to the great Paul Simon performing ( LINK to video on Facebook) – the entire show was awesome.  It was a holiday tradition in my house growing up, and it still is today.  

Top 3 holiday traditions in our house:

  1. The Stanley Park Train
  2. VanDusen Gardens
  3. The List

From my days at Principal at Rochester Elementary School we started going to the Stanley Park Train along with colleagues who also had pre-school aged children.   18 years later – it is still a thing.  And VanDusen Gardens is always in the week before Christmas with my mom.  And then the List.  On New Year’s Eve we hand out the recipe cards to write down goals for the coming year.  We all share them as family and then post them to be reminded of them during the year.

Final Thoughts

It was a year of anniversaries for me in education, already noting that I celebrated 35 years since my grade 7 year, and 30 years since high school graduation, 25 years as a teacher and I am just completing 15 years in West Vancouver.   I still love the work.  The unknown everyday is exciting.   There is always a plan, but things never go exactly the way that might be expected.  I am so lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who push and and challenge my thinking and a group with complimentary skill sets.   Of course, I was hoping this would be more celebratory at the end of 2021, but COVID has had a different plan.

As always I really appreciate the connections we make over the year on this blog, via social media and even in person when we are allowed.  It has been exciting to see some amazing lessons of the pandemic in our schools and with our learning continue, and I am sure some things we saw this fall will never “snap back” to pre-COVID times.

To all my friends and colleagues in West Vancouver and beyond still reading as I am well over my 2000 word goal – hopefully you are having a good break.  

All the best for a great 2022.

This is one of those dangerous posts to publish.  I know people will take parts of it out of context and repurpose it for their own benefit.  I am not new around here, I know that is what people do to superintendents and what people do in the age of outrage on the internet.

I have been getting a lot of phone calls and emails lately.  I am not sure of another time in the last decade when there have been so many.  I know I get a lot during job action, or when people think I have made a bad decision on calling or not calling a snow day, or when there are budget challenges.  This is different.  From mask wearing to vaccinations, COVID has brought people to the school district. 

Of course, it is not only a local issue, there are lots of videos circulating on the internet of school board meetings, particularly in the United States, of name calling and sometimes violence over COVID protocols.  Even Saturday Night Live noticed, and did a sketch (HERE) earlier this season on the growing phenomenon.  While more subdued in Canada, my colleagues tell stories of protestors at their doors, fights between parents in the parking lot over vaccinations, and name-calling and threats towards school officials.   And this is not a “don’t worry, it is just happening somewhere else” issue, our teachers and principals are seeing increased tensions and short-tempers regularly.   

My first thought is we need to be better than this.  Our kids are watching.  I appreciate there is great anxiety and frustration.  And I also know that school boards – staff and elected officials – are often more accessible than other government officials and thus an easy target.  Many of us spend our careers in education helping students see nuance, and trying to engage with challenging topics or those with whom we disagree in thoughtful ways – unlike all these images we are seeing.  I have yet to meet anyone in health or education who is not going above and beyond right now to do what they think is best for students.  

I also think about a post I wrote on “the hat rule” a few years ago.  We love topics that are easy to think about.  Masks are either good or bad, same with vaccinations.  When I listen to the health experts each week, I feel their frustration as they try to tell a far more detailed and nuanced story, but we do love to jump to things that are simple to think about.  Keeping kids safe in schools and providing rich opportunities for learning in our times of COVID is complicated and “hat rule” conversations are easy but incomplete.  What we love about these binary topics is that you are either with us or against us – it is like supporting your local sports team and uniting with everyone wearing the same coloured jerseys.

And finally, when this is over, I hope people stick around.  Those who have spoken to me about masks, ventilation, hand sanitizer, or vaccination,  don’t stop being engaged in schools.  Regardless of whether you have been happy or unhappy with the health guidelines, please keep holding me and others accountable.  Hold us accountable for ensuring that all students by grade 4 can read, that students of Indigenous backgrounds are succeeding at the same levels as all other students and that graduates have opportunities for post-secondary and other options after grade 12.  And hold us accountable for ensuring students are learning the skills and attributes of engaged citizenship.  This is our work and the success of all students in the community should be a concern for all of us. 

I realize it may seem far more important to a parent that all students in their child’s class are wearing a mask or are vaccinated than it is that they can read or socialize with others.  I get it.  COVID is scary.  The last 18 months have reminded us of the importance of school and the importance of collective action.  I do hope we show some of the same engagement and passions for the collective well being of all students – as I know it does not feel as immediate and personal as COVID, but we should all want all of our learners to be successful.

Why has it been different this time?

This is a question I think a lot about when I walk through our high schools, see the structures they are experimenting with and talk with students and staff. It feels different.

Now into my second quarter century in the business the idea of making shifts in high schools is not new. Hearing grumblings about the traditional bell schedule, the perceived lack of student engagement, concerns over relevance of courses and leaning experiences, and someone saying something like, “they need to be more like elementary schools” are all views that I have heard every single year of my career.  And with complete earnest efforts each year I saw schools doing everything they could to find ways to think about time differently, reorganize class structures (e.g. for many Socials 8 and English 8 became Humanities 8) and an amazing array of strategies to build connections with students.

Of course, I can see how it would feel a bit like Groundhog Day.  In their totality the shifts were really tinkering at the edges.  And in truth, there was no urgency – for most students the system was working fine, and its resemblance to the system of their parents was reassuring to the community.  And while much attention was given to those really pushing the model of schooling like High Tech High or Big Picture Schools, the model of schooling for most has seen little change.  That is not to say there has not been change – I have argued here before that today’s school experience for students is very different than for those even 20 years ago, but it is not different in fundamental ways.

So, why do things feel different this time?

COVID has upended everything in our world and while new challenges are exhausting, they also create curiosity and urgency like no other times.  But I don’t think it is just COVID itself that has pushed us, but it has accelerated and exposed other elements.  It is not as much as they are new trends, they are just more obvious and really moving quickly.  Here are some other things I think are going on:

Equity – You cannot attend a conference or read an education publication without some discussion around equity.  Now it is a broad term and is inclusive of everything from Truth and Reconciliation to poverty and food security to students with specific identified needs.  A mindset around equity is having all of us question our practices in ways unlike times before.  It has both the curiosity and urgency elements.  When we talk about equity we immediately need to look at our teaching and assessment practices.  

Time – We have been trying to rethink the use of time in schools forever.  In high schools we had 2 classes at a time, we had 4 classes at a time, we had 8 classes at a time, we had 3 before lunch and 2 after lunch, we had moved the pieces around to many different combinations.  A lesson from COVID was time was more flexible than we thought it was.  In our region almost every high school is using some version of flexible time where students make choices over their learning.  For us, it is X-blocks in our high schools every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon where students can make choices over where they need to go.  We have long known not all students need the same time in each course, but we have used solutions like tutors and extra homework to deal with it – now we have thought differently.  Of course, these efforts were moving slowly before COVID, but COVID has absolutely accelerated the shifts.

Modern Skills – I am not really sure what to call this – it is all about making and creating.  While already trending before the pandemic we are seeing a massive interest in robotics – which was once limited to high schools, now having interest in specialized programs from the primary grades.   A similar trend is entrepreneurship.  What started as courses limited to students in grade 11 or 12 is now seeing great attention across the grades.  When students and parents talk about it, they talk about real-world skills and being competitive for the world.   No doubt the impact of emerging technology and everyone seemingly having a “side hustle” has been impacting schools for a while, but again COVID has really ramped it up.  

Post-Secondary – There is some really interesting data coming out of the United States.  A recent story indicates that US college enrolment is on pace for the largest 2 year drop in US History (interesting to see the only schools which are seeing increased registration are the most elite schools).  I have one of those friends who sends me every story he sees about the struggles of the post-secondary sector.  He is saying “I told you so” a lot these days.  Colleges have for a very long time just expected the students would come.  But maybe the pandemic has shifted some thinking – maybe students don’t need to build up the huge debt from the ever increasing post-secondary school costs, or maybe there are other ways to get credentialing and maybe large employers like Amazon and Google might bypass universities and hire and train students directly themselves.  All of this which is potentially fundamentally shifting post-secondary will absolutely impact the work in K-12.  Exactly what this means is hard to know yet, but again this is a larger trend that is pushing us.  If post-secondary is shifting, so must high schools that help prepare students for life after grade 12.

Now, the global shifts and increased commitments to equity were present before COVID but COVID exposed how much we haven’t done and still need to do.  There have been a new list of skills for the new world emerging for a while.  Time has always been a topic of discussion in high schools but a global pandemic really opened the door to doing things differently in how we organize.  And there have been questions for a while about post-secondary schooling but COVID sped up changes taking place.

All of this churn in our world is creating curiosity – from staff and community about how we can do things differently and better going forward and it is happening with an urgency unlike at anytime in my career.  

I am convinced this ain’t Groundhog Day – high schools are changing in real ways right in front of us.  

Plus, Minus and Equal

Do you want your child to be the strongest student in their class? Or maybe, one of the weakest so they learn more? Or how about if they were all at the same level so they learn together?

In fact, we often want all 3 of these situations.

This will be the first time in my writing that I reference the work of a mixed martial arts athlete, but I think Frank Shamrock is onto something with his “+,-,=” system.  In short, Shamrock’s theory is that in order to be the best you need to work with someone who is better than you, someone who is equal to you, and someone who is not as strong and you can teach.

I love the simplicity.

Now, I can see how this would be useful for an MMA fighter, but it has really struck me how this is really what we want for our kids as they develop –  whether that is in school, sports, arts or other areas.  When our students are in a class with those at a higher level, they see what is possible which pushes them to challenge themselves.  And we often try to set up peer tutoring situations for our students where they get to teach others, as this helps to further enhance the learning.  And those at the same level leads to great cooperative opportunities and shared learning experiences.

Of course as you batch students together in classes this is hard to create in every situation.  I think what matters is that as often as possible we are looking to create all three situations.  It is OK to be the best player on a sports team, but if you are always that player you miss out on the other two situations which are important for growth.  And if you are regularly the weakest player on a strong team, you never get to experience the opportunities that come with teaching others and being truly part of a group that is always challenging each other.

While education can get caught up in letter grades and awards, its core business is about always getting better.  We should strive to continually put our students in situations where they are perpetual learners – sometimes being taught, sometimes teaching and sometimes collectively working together.

 

Seth Godin wrote a provocative post about reimagining the curriculum last week.  It is not often that parents forward me blog posts, but 4 different parents from our district have sent me the post, each adding a comment like, “This is what we need for our kids.”   And I wanted to respond back, “We are doing it!”

First, here is the premise of Seth’s post:

We’ve spent 130 years indoctrinating kids with the same structure. Now, as some of us enter a post-lockdown world, I’d like to propose a useful (though some might say radical) way to reimagine the curriculum.

It’s been a century of biology, chemistry, arithmetic, social studies and the rest. So long that the foundational building blocks are seen as a given, unquestioned and unimproved. The very structure of the curriculum actually prevents school from working as it should.

Godin has a new list of courses he proposes including:  statistics, games, communication, history and propaganda, citizenship, real skills, the scientific method, programming, art, decision making and meta-cognition.  It is a great list.  And like Godin argues, I am sure this resonates for the skills we want for our children as we prepare them for the world we live in for both work and citizenship.

British Columbia refreshed its curriculum over the last decade and it has received a lot of global attention, and I would argue it is doing much of what Godin proposes – detailed lists of facts have been replaced by big ideas and curricular competencies, core competencies including thinking, communication and personal and social are put at the centre of all curriculum and Indigenous perspectives have also been embedded throughout the curriculum.  

Having been part of discussions that date back over a decade around modernizing BC’s curriculum, there were ideas like those Godin suggests, of swapping out “old” courses for “new” courses.  In the end the shells of the traditional system were maintained in BC, the subject areas are largely the same now for students as they were for their parents, other comforts including labeling courses by grade (e.g. you take French 9 and then you take French 10 – largely in groups of students the same age) were maintained and the basic structure of high school courses all being just over 100 hours was also kept.  Now, within these courses the massive changes I described above took place – and the experience has been modernized.

The beauty of Godin’s model is it radical.  It does not allow you to keep doing what you have been doing before.  The old courses are gone and replaced by new ones. Of course its great strength is its great weakness.  Very few students, teachers or parents I encounter are looking for radical shifts in education.  While we are interested in High Tech High and other schools that seem to be living Godin’s vision, these schools seem to exist as alternatives not the mainstream. While the education community appreciates the notion of change, they want change within the context of a system that is comfortable for them. 

It is not that we are broadly anti-change, but we are more incremental than radical.  I think most people agree with Godin:

We’re living in the age of an always-connected universal encyclopedia and instantly updated fact and teaching machine called the Net. This means that it’s more important to want to know the answer and to know how to look it up than it is to have memorized it when we were seven. Given the choice between wasting time and learning, too many people have been brainwashed into thinking that learning is somehow onerous or taxing.

So, here in British Columbia we have tried to do this by dramatically transforming the curriculum (the what and how of learning), yet not really changing the comfortable boxes we are used to.  For us, the strength of this is that we are able to make major changes while not radically disrupting the system.  And the downside, you can keep doing what you have always been doing – Social Studies 9 is still Social Studies 9 filled for 100 hours a year by a group of 14 year-olds – this shift relies on the commitment of everyone to the higher ideals of the change.

Since the turn of the century the calls for an overhaul and transformation have grown louder.  We have heard them come out of the globalization conversation and we have now heard them as a product of the pandemic.  I want to believe we can have the shifts that Godin and others write about within our current structure.  The realist in me says that this is actually the only way.  I like how David Albury recently described this work, “One of the tricks of transformation is to combine urgency and passion with courageous patience.”  We need the big thinkers like Godin to push us, and then we need to make these shifts within our reality.  We need to hold onto the comforts of the system we all have known while continuing to modernize the experience within it.  

 

Here we go!  If it is the day after Labour Day, we are going back to school. There is a lot of serious work to do, and we are still dealing with a pandemic.  But here is a video I shared with staff as we try to readjust to yet another set of routines.

 

 

I know.  Stick to school and leave comedy to the professionals.   If you want even more, here is a previous video (actually filmed a couple years ago pre-COVID) about how sad I was with everyone gone in the summer (it doubles now as a pretty good COVID reality video).

 

 

To all the students, staff and parents going back to school today – take time for some joy and have a great year!