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Library Reinvention

Regular readers will know that libraries and librarians, both in the school and community are a semi-regular topic here. I am quite fascinated by the transformation I have seen in my lifetime in the spaces and the work. More than a decade ago I wrote My Take on Librarians, a post that still largely holds up today.

I had the chance to speak to teacher-librarians from across the country recently (here is slide deck), and shared, what I see, as having been a remarkable reinvention over the last 40 years.  I really think if in 1982, you explained to people the way information access would be transformed over the next 40 years, many would have thought libraries in schools and the community would disappear.  Like Blockbuster Video, they would have served a useful purpose for a period in time and people would have moved on.  But actually, the opposite has happened.  Libraries have become more central to the work in schools and the community.  They have defined themselves not by the books they move in and out, but by their role as a gathering place. As David Lankes argues, “Bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities.”

And we know the stereotypes of teacher-librarians in popular media – conservative and traditional (probably almost as bad as the stereotypes about school superintendents). I now stand in the room with teacher-librarians and their reinvention is so deep, they talk about “library-learning commons” with ease.  Virtually nobody called what I knew to be the library, “the library”, I felt so dated with some of my references.

From what I have seen from our schools and district and from the other schools and districts I have worked in, the powerful reinvention has had many drivers, but for me the key ones have been:

  • Space
  • Technology
  • Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity and Reconciliation

These have been the areas that have ensured library-learning commons, and the people who lead these spaces, are more relevant than ever.  And the three areas are all connected, with one following the next and building on it.

With space, many will remember the push early this century to make schools more like Starbucks.   This is a bit simplistic, but the idea is that schools should be places that are comfortable, where kids want to hang-out, and informal learning spaces are embraced to compliment the more formal ones.  Libraries helped lead this.  Dated books were often removed, and couches replaced tall shelving.  The spaces were opened up.  More than ever they were places that students wanted to gather.

Then came the technology.  Libraries still embraced the physical space, but they also often supplemented this with digital spaces.  Blockbuster Video doubled-down on being the video people and Netflix crushed them.  Libraries embraced being the connection places for information for everyone and the repository for all to access.  

And now, I see library-learning commons being the hub of what has become our crucial work at this time around equity, diversity, inclusivity, and Reconciliation.  No place connects to all classrooms like library-learning commons, no people connect to more people like teacher-librarians.  There is discomfort with some of this work.  More than anything people don’t want to make a mistake, and having expertise in teacher-librarians (and community librarians) helps to move this work quickly and thoughtfully.

So, here we are.  Companies like Blockbuster Video, Polaroid, Tower Records and Kodak have all gone.  Caught up in our shifting world.  And yet the school and community library stand more important than ever.

And so what is next?  If I was giving advice I would tell libraries to keep looking ahead – tell the stories of the next 20 years.  They should never forget their core purpose of literacy – but continually define this broadly. And they should be the gathering place for people and ideas.  As so much of our world seems to have siloed, we need these common spaces to connect school and community.

 

This post is a duplicate of the column in the October 2022 AASA School Administrator Magazine (link to magazine) and is based on a previous blog post published this past June.  

I MAY BE the most stereotypical teacher ever. My parents were teachers. Their parents were teachers. I met my wife at work, where we both were teachers.

I was born in Canada. My parents were born in Canada as well. I am superintendent in the school district my grandfather taught in during the 1930s and ’40s.

My back story is that despite some early learning challenges, I was a good student and performed well in school. After zooming through university studies as a geography and history major, I was back at my former junior high school as a teacher at age 22.

Now 26 years later and 12 years into my superintendency, education is the only career I have known.

Wider Backgrounds

I think I was (and still am) a pretty good teacher. But I also know we need to continue to do better to attract teachers to the profession who have a different story than I do. For too long, too many teachers’ stories were similar to mine. The teaching profession was largely made up of people who were successful at school, typically spoke English as their first language, were from long-established families in our country and often went straight into teaching as a career without other real work experiences.

We are trying to do better in our school district. Just as we have diversity among our learners, we need diversity in the adults who work with them. Having teachers who come to teaching after careers in construction or accounting or professional sports gives new perspectives to students and reminds them that for most, their work life will be made up of many different jobs.

Having teachers who struggled in school gives added voice to those in our classes who are struggling now. School does not come easy for everyone, and adolescence is hard, so having teachers with non-linear life experiences helps.

We also want our teaching force, just like our student population, to be culturally diverse, speaking different languages at home and demonstrating that our schools are reflective of our communities. We need to do better to recruit populations that have been traditionally underrepresented in the teaching profession.

With 75 percent or more of our teachers being female, we need to find ways to ensure men see the profession as valuable.

An Odd Notion

I know this is not really controversial, but it is hard. Changing the makeup of the adults who work in our schools is not only about who we hire, but also about who chooses to apply and who is encouraged to go into teaching. And it goes all the way back to what we show young students about the profession, that representation matters.

As we have recently started another school year and look ahead, this is a topic I think a lot about. It is a weird notion, but we need to do better to hire and retain staff who are not much like me.

This blog post also appears in the Fall Newsletter for the Canadian Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association 

As we return to school this fall, we are applying the many lessons learned from the last three years.  There is a worry that we will simply snap back to pre-COVID times without implementing what we have learned throughout the pandemic.  In our district, we are holding onto many of our COVID adjustments, from keeping some meetings online, to building in flexible time for students and staff schedules, to focusing more on well-being.

This same reflection should be happening in all our jurisdictions as we look at school sports. 

It also just seems like the right time to reassess what we did pre-COVID, by asking ourselves questions like: are we offering the right sports to meet the current needs of our students?  Are our leagues achieving what we want? Are we happy with the mix of practice and competition, and are we satisfied with the level of competition with our school sports?  Over the last three years, almost every sport was impacted for at least two of those years, and instead of racing back to ‘the way things were’, it seems like the ideal time to be revising and evolving our vision for school sports.

As COVID eliminated school sports to varying degrees, we were reminded of just how important these activities were for social connectedness, and how for young people, and their coaches and families, school sports are crucial to social, emotional, and physical well-being. I would regularly hear from parents that school sports are the glue that connects their children to school. The importance of school sports is not just a gut-feel that many of us have, a 2021 University of Wisconsin study, found that athletes who were able to continue to play sports during the pandemic were less likely to report anxiety and depression symptoms than those who didn’t have the opportunity to participate.

Beyond reinforcing the value and importance of school sports, these are some opportunities, lessons, and takeaways:

  • Livestreaming sporting events in schools for health and safety reasons, while not new, engaged more students and families, and efforts should be made to continue once health and safety rules are relaxed.
  • In 2020-21, when most jurisdictions did not allow inter-school competition, many sports saw increased participation for what amounted to yearlong practicing. These are students we should be looking to keep engaged in school sports now that we are returning to traditional league structures.
  • There was a reset on competition. School sports doubled-down on their values of being about student growth, development and wellbeing, and further distanced themselves from the for-profit, win-at-all-costs programming we see from some community sports vendors.  Building on the reset of competition, we also witnessed increased levels of participation, more students involved in each sport, no cuts, and a reemphasis on well-being and school community.
  • As the rigid edges of hyper-competitive athletics were softened during COVID, we noticed and observed a more inclusive and accepting school athletic community.
  • As we build our school sports back to pre COVID levels, students and families are showing a greater appreciation for the opportunity to play and for their coaches, that make school sports possible.
  • Teachers and other volunteers found more sustainable routines during COVID.  I often heard coaches say they found balance.  As we work to reengage these key people, we might need to adjust the expectations in order to encourage them back.

What lessons about school sports did you learn during COVID, and how are you applying these lessons to meet the needs of our students, families and schools?

Teachers

One of the best parts of my job is that I regularly hear from parents about the amazing difference individual teachers have made for their children. And all of us likely have stories about teachers that have had a significant impact in our lives. I know if it wasn’t for teachers like Mrs. Caffrey (I wrote about her HERE a few years ago) my life would be very different.

As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day today, it is a chance to reflect on the state of the profession.

Each community has its own unique circumstances.

Let me start by bragging.

West Vancouver Schools are regarded as some of the top schools in the country, known for our innovative programming, and the teachers are seen as the top in their field. Whether it is on standards assessments, or with graduation rates, or on levels of satisfaction with the school experiences, our students’ results are exceptionally impressive.

And I am in awe of how our students, supported by their teachers, are leading in areas from the climate crisis, to SOGI, to Truth and Reconciliation. Our schools are proof that citizenship and academic success are connected.

And I look at the programs that our teachers are leading its clear we are on top of ensuring relevance in all we do. From innovative business and entrepreneurship programs to a range of work experience options exposing students to new careers to the hundreds of students engaged in robotics, our staff are regularly modernizing the school experience.

But . . .

In West Vancouver, the challenge of housing affordability makes it almost impossible for teachers to live in the community. Less than 10% of our staff actually live here. So, now as competition for staff increases, and teachers can work closer to home, more than ever we need to ensure we offer a professional, rewarding, and enriching experience for staff. These teachers travel through one or more jurisdictions in which they could get a job to work with us in West Vancouver.

The reality is that if teachers choose to work closer to home, it will be challenging to replace them with someone of the same quality. This is the state of our job market.

We are doing everything we can to continue to recruit and retain the very best. It is all about culture, and we do everything we can to build and create amazing places for teachers to work, learn and grow.

Just as we have become much more focused on our students’ mental health, the same is true for our staff. And I am trying to support teachers in creating boundaries on their work, so they don’t have situations where they receive an email from a student or parent at 10 PM and a reply is expected that same night. And we are trying offer as much professional support so our teachers can remain at the front of the teaching profession.

And how can the community help?

Treat teachers well. It can sound simple, or even trite, but it matters. While none of us are perfect, and can make mistakes, all teachers I have had the chance to work with are incredibly professional. Working through scenarios, I am in awe of how teachers balance the needs of individual learners, with also what is best for the community of learners in the classroom.

When I ask teachers why they stay, they almost all speak to the great satisfaction they get from the work, and regularly highlight the support they receive from colleagues, their administrators and parents.

However, I am hearing from our schools and seeing more news stories around parents confronting teachers and staff in schools. We seem to be moving too quickly to a place of outrage, and rapidly bypassing that essential step of seeking first to understand.

I know, this is not about teaching, it has been even more pronounced in health care, and horrible treatment many doctors and other health professionals have received over the last few years. The diminishing trust for our public institutions is disappointing and alarming. I also think some of the media from the United States covering school board meetings and other events has normalized behaviour that should not be seen as OK.

And before this behaviour seeps more into our system, I think we should have this conversation.

We can do better.

Teaching is a human enterprise. It is wildly frustrating because it is impossible to bottle and replicate what makes a “great teacher.” Its strength is also its humanness. Teachers build communities, that help our students navigate the experiences they have and will have in the larger world.

I often get asked if I could do it over would I go into teaching, or would I recommend others to pursue teaching. ABSOLUTELY! It is hard, complicated work. And it is also rich, rewarding, and powerful work. We need our absolute best to see teaching as a professional option for them.

I encourage you to share stories with your children of the teachers that made a difference for you, and what it was about them that made such an impact.

And by no means do I want to shirk our responsibilities. Please continue to hold us to account. But if we want our very best to join the teaching profession and perhaps most importantly, remain in the profession, we need to treat them professionally.

I feel blessed to work in a community that values education so strongly. I am confident students are receiving this country’s best education preparing them as active citizens and supporting life beyond our schools in our communities, universities, trades programs and the work world.

To all the wonderful teachers in the various roles across West Vancouver, and those beyond, Happy World Teachers Day!

Possibilities

I think I have always had this nervous excitement of back to school at the end of August. From entering kindergarten in 1978, and every year since to today, there is an energy as I wind down summer and turn my attention to school. It is a time of possibilities. I have written before about the notion of the day after Labour Day being the real New Year’s Day for most of us.  

People can’t get me down at this time of year.  

I find more than ever, the noise around us can be built on gloom and cynicism.  And so many people seem to revel in this negativity.  Far too many people looking to point out the worst in people and far too few people amplifying the best in people.  And if we are not careful those of education can get caught in this.

We are the possibility profession.

I remind myself that parents are sending us their very best children.  And these parents are full of hope and possibility for their kids.  For some it might be a fresh start, for others it will be about taking on new things and for others it will be launching them on a journey to new adventures beyond our schools.  

The start of the school year is the best!  There is comfort in the ritual that has largely remained unchanged for generations, but also feels fresh and new, unlike any experience before.  Hundreds of students descend on each of our schools and build communities together.

We have an ambitious agenda for the year ahead – one with big ideas around early learning and childcare, walking side by side with our Indigenous partners, a commitment to a broad view of equity and excellence, a hard look at assessment and reporting, a focus on the well being of our students and staff, and a need to ensure the innovation that has defined our district continues.  But first, before any of this, is the connections we make with each other.  The connections we make with the young people who arrive at our schools next week.  The thousands of students entrusted to us.   

I keep coming back to the possibilities.  It is what makes it hard for me to sleep at night.  We can help these young people do great things.

Wishing all my colleagues here in West Vancouver and beyond a great school year!

I have been thinking about those educators who have influenced me.  And I started making a list. I didn’t want to just do my “favourite” teachers or colleagues but wanted to take a mix of some of the very best I have ever had as a teacher, or worked with, and try to articulate a simple lesson from them that I have tried to apply to my work.

I had about 70 people on my list, but decided to limit this post  to 26 teachers as I finish my 26th year in education.  And then focus on 26 simple lessons from the people I knew as an elementary and high school student, and it my professional stops in Richmond, Coquitlam and West Vancouver.

Here are some ideas I try to take and apply:

Rod Allen – If there is one person most responsible for the progressive curriculum and assessment in British Columbia it is Rod.  I got to know Rod when he worked at the Ministry of Education and learned from him as he would balance the demands of government and the goals of education.  Lesson – No matter the audience, hold to what you believe and people will respect you.

Carol Bourne – Carol was my grade 8 and 10 English teacher.  She got me to read fiction which was not something I had really done before and she had high expectations.  Lesson – A wry sense of humour can go a long way in a high school English classroom.

Pat Brown – Pat was my Socials 11, Western Civilization 12, and Literature 12 teacher.  He built relationships with his students that went beyond the classroom.  I remember sushi dinners and movie nights as a class.   Lesson – You can be completely prepared for a government final exam without ever practicing a government final exam.

Ann Caffrey – I have written before about Mrs. Caffrey (here).  She is a reminder of what a difference a teacher can have on a student’s trajectory.  Lesson – Using a grade 2 boy’s first AND middle name will really get their attention.

Alex Campbell – When Alex became the principal of my junior high in grade 10, it was a completely different school in 3 months.  He and the vice-principals changed the culture and tone almost immediately.  I would always remember this lesson of the impact of leadership. And how blessed I was that Alex came to work with me in West Vancouver for 3 years as Director of Instruction and Assistant Superintendent. Lesson – Principals have a huge impact on school culture.

George Couros – George is a bit of an edu-celebrity.  I like to think I knew him before he was such a star.  George’s first book The Innovators Mindset did a great job of taking all the little changes that we see happening in education and weave them together as part of a big change narrative.  His regular blogging is admirable and he is one of those people I will always read.  Lesson – Education needs storytellers.

Judy Duncan – Judy retired a year ago as the Principal at Rockridge Secondary.  Like at West Bay Elementary and many other stops before, she was loved.  She had that “it” that is hard to explain – a mix of grace, humour and relentlessness.  Lesson – Everyone wants to be part of a winning team.

Paul Eberhardt – I first met Paul about 30 years ago.  At the time Paul was already a well established basketball coach.  We ran programs at neighbouring schools.  He could have tried to recruit all our players to make his team better, but he took the view with me and others that if we all grow strong programs it is good for all of us.  And he was right! Lesson – A model of abundance is better than one of scarcity.

Dave Eberwein – The first person I hired as Superintendent was Dave.  He started as Assistant Superintendent on the same day I started as Superintendent.  Dave and I would challenge each other’s thinking, and we would always land in a better spot.  Having team members with complimentary skills is so important – a real reason why Dave and I worked so well together.  Now Superintendent in Saanich, Dave has a great blog worth following.  Lesson – When hard things are the right things to do you need to do them.

Michael Grice – Michael was appointed vice-principal at Riverside the day I was appointed principal.  He was a master of the timetable, and always took on hard tasks that were the right thing to do.  With his background as a music teacher, and his daily bow-ties, in some ways we couldn’t have been more different – but we just clicked.  Lesson: Sometimes the stars in the school don’t need to be in the limelight.  

Fred Harwood – Fred taught math at McRoberts during my time at the school as a teacher.  He was already well established.  The gesture I will always remember was that he traded courses with me in my first year, to give me a lower level math course to teach – giving me one less prep and him one more.  Few people would have done that.  Lesson:  Teachers are always learners.

Geoff Jopson – Geoff was superintendent just prior to me in West Vancouver.  We actually worked together for 14 months where it was known I would be assuming the role.  Since then, Geoff has continued to be involved in the community and a huge supporter of public education.  Lesson:  Always be advocating for a strong public education system.

Gary Kern – I first worked with Gary in Coquitlam when we were both administrators and then later in West Vancouver on the district leadership team.  Gary moved from public system, to private sector, back to public education and then to independent schools.   Most of us in education are averse to moving around, but it has given Gary such a more broad perspective on issues.  Lesson:  Career movement in education is healthy.

George Nakanishi – George was my grade 5 teacher at Woodward Elementary School.  And the teacher who introduced me to basketball.  His class was also a lot of fun.  Still today, I remember specifics of assignments we did in his class.  I loved getting to design my own island.  Lesson:  Let students bring their passions into their learning and give them choice.

Trish Nicholson – Trish is one of the best coaches I have known.  She has been recognized for her basketball and volleyball coaching and also been to multiple world championships and Paralympic games as a coach.  She is also always finding ways to get better as a coach.   Lesson:  Prepare for working with grade 8’s like you do when you work with Olympians.  

Mary O’Neill – Mary is another vice-principal I worked with at Riverside Secondary and she was later a principal at Charles Best. She put more hours into the work than anyone I have ever known.  I couldn’t believe how she had so much energy.  We were a good team, as she invested in situations that I didn’t have the patience for.    Lesson:  Kids need adults on their side.  

Doug Player – Doug was the long-time superintendent in West Vancouver, but I first met him as a student of his in the San Diego State University Master’s Program.  Doug always brought a different perspective to an issue than what was the common refrain.  Lesson:  Even high performing jurisdictions need to be looking for what is next.  

Rob Pope – Rob was an English teacher at Riverside Secondary, and teacher lead of the school newspaper The Eddy.  He also enjoyed the music of the 1960s which went a long way with me.   Lesson:  We need to give students voice, even if we don’t always agree with that they say.

Stuart Shanker – Stuart is one of Canada’s leading voices around self-regulation.  We have had the pleasure of having him in West Vancouver several times to work with our staff and parents.  My first post about Stuart from 2010 is one of the most read ever on my blog.  Lesson:  There is no such thing as bad kids.  

Dean Shareski – Dean has always been on the leading edge of technology in schools.  But what stands out is his commitment to humanize the work and be serious without being too serious.  Lesson:  More Joy.  

Doug Sheppard – Doug gave me “Satisfactory” in my teacher evaluation in 1996 (so now you know who to blame!).  I followed him to Coquitlam and now he is the Superintendent of Schools in Delta.  My clearest memories of Doug are as a phenomenal teacher that so many of us aspired to be.   Lesson:  A final exam does not need to be a traditional test.

Sue Simpson – Sue was the counselling department head at Riverside Secondary when I was there as  vice-principal and later principal. She was a keeper of the school’s history and kept many of us inline.   Lesson:  In the best schools the administrators and counsellors work as a tight team.  

Gail Sumanik – Gail was the first principal I worked with as a teacher at McRoberts.  She was a wonderfully caring principal and a great mentor.  From Barrie Bennett to Rick DuFour, she introduced me to learning outside my classroom.   Lesson:  Adult study groups build community.  

Don Taylor – Don was my grade 7 teacher and we then later we coached elementary basketball together. He spent much of his career as an elementary school principal keeping school fun.  He was awesome at hosting events – as a teacher and in the years since.  Lesson:  Keeping schools and communities connected is vitally important.

Ken Whitehead – Ken was my grade 6 teacher.  The truth is what I remember most was that he was an Olympic soccer player and loved Bruce Springsteen.  Well, that and he made learning fun.  It seems like such a small thing, but he got me to see a speech language pathologist for a lisp and I am forever grateful.  Lesson:  Look to make a difference for each child.  

Yong ZhaoYong is a leading voice education across North America.  I have had the chance to work with him on various occasions over the last decade including having him as my doctoral advisor at the University of Kansas.   Lesson:  We need to take more chances in education and challenge the current model.

Happy Summer everyone!  Congratulations to all those involved in education – staff, students and parents for all that we have accomplished this year.

The Culture of Yes will slow down over the summer – maybe one or two posts but will be back strong in the fall as launch the 2022-23 school year.

I may be the most stereotypical teacher ever.

My parents were teachers.  Their parents were teachers.  I met my wife at work – we both were teachers.

I was also born in Canada.  And my parents were born in Canada as well.  

My backstory is that despite some early learning challenges, I was a good student.  I did well at school.  And then I graduated from high school, zoomed through university and at twenty-two years of age I was back at my former junior high school as a teacher.  

And 26 years later, education is the only career I have ever known.

And I think I was (and still am) a pretty good teacher.  But I also know we need to continue to do better to attract teachers to the profession who have a different story than I do.  For too long, too many teachers stories were very similar to mine.  The teaching profession was largely made-up of people who were successful at school, very often spoke English as their first language, were born in Canada, and also often went straight into teaching as a career without other real work experiences.  

We are trying to do better.  Just as we have diversity with our learners, we need diversity in the adults that work with them.  Having teachers who come to teaching after careers in construction or accounting or professional sports gives new perspectives to students and reminds them that for most, their work life will be made up of many different jobs.  Having teachers who struggled in school gives added voice to those in our classes who are struggling now.  School does not come easy for everyone, and adolescence is hard, so having teachers with non-linear life experiences helps.

And we want our teaching force just like our student population, to be culturally diverse, speaking different languages at home, and demonstrating that our schools are reflective of our communities.  And with our efforts around Reconciliation, we need to be better at recruiting Indigenous teachers on our staff.

And now with 75% or more of our teachers female, we need to find ways to ensure men see the professional as valuable.

I know this is all not really controversial.  But it is hard.  Changing the make-up of the adults that work in our schools is not only about who we hire, but also about who is encouraged to go into teaching.  And it goes all the way back to what we show young students about the profession, that representation matters.  

As we close another school year and look ahead, this is a topic I think a lot about.  It is a weird notion but we need to do better to hire and retain staff that are not like me. 

I field a lot of questions about writing. When people read my blog, or see the other ways I write for audiences through my work, they are quick to explain why they can’t do it. In the same sentence they ask about my writing, they also explain “I am not a writer” or “I just don’t have the time” or “I don’t have the patience” or some similar justification for why writing is not for them. And OK, I get it, I have never thought writing for a public audience needs to be for everyone.

But if the conversation goes a little further, I share my number one piece of advice I give to those who write, give yourself permission to write badly.  I have always found the hardest part of writing is to just start.  It is easy to waste away time thinking up ideas.  When we have papers due, all of the sudden we prioritize rearranging the garage because we want to prepare to write well (and procrastinate), and not just start.

I have written previously about my doctoral dissertation.  I just started writing and my first draft of my first three chapters, all 80 pages, was not very good.  But writing badly gave me a starting point and allowed me to write better.  In that case, on the advice of my advisor, I actually started over.  But writing badly, later allowed me to write well.

With my blog, I have hundreds of posts in draft.  I come back to some from time to time, and some will be published at some point.  Having something written down, gives me something to work with.  And even those that make it to publish are often still a work in progress.  This is the beauty of the digital age is that we can go back and still improve already published work.  I have taken a number of these posts and re-purposed them for traditional media – often the AASA School Administrator Magazine.  My version for the magazine is always better than what I publish here.

On a similar vain, I was so interested in Paul Simon’s 2018 album In the Blue Light where he took many of his previously songs and reimagined them.  At the time, I shared more details in My Paul Simon Post, but this is a similar notion that the creative process whether it is written or musical does not need to have a strict end point (though it is hard to argue Bridge Over Troubled Water was not brilliant in its original version).  

I was thinking of this advice on writing badly recently in reading an opinion piece from David Brooks from the New York Times on the Greatest Life Hacks in the World (for now) which included, “When you’re beginning a writing project, give yourself permission to write badly. You can’t fix it until it’s down on paper.”  All of a sudden I feel like I am in really good company!  There are many things from David’s list that I would like to adopt – “If you’re giving a speech, be vulnerable. Fall on the audience and let them catch you. They will.”  Or what was probably my favourite, “If you meet a jerk once a month, you’ve met a jerk. If you meet jerks every day, you’re a jerk.”

So for everyone thinking they can’t start writing because they don’t have the ability to write well, go ahead and write badly and then make it better.  This really works.

There is a lot made about the “C”s in education. Whether it is the three of them or maybe the four of them, or sometimes the seven of them.  Competencies like communication, creativity, and critical thinking are top of mind for all designing modern education programs.  Always on this list is also collaboration.  While everyone agrees in their importance, finding ways to see students demonstrate them can be challenging. 

This leads me to a story of robotics.  

I had the chance to join our elementary school robotics teams at the VEX World Championships last week.  In just a few years West Vancouver has built one of the top school robotics programs in the country (there will be another blog post on that soon). I have watched several competitions, but this was my first chance to be fully immersed in the world of robotics. 

And, one of the five elementary teams we had at the Championships was crowned World Champions in a field of over 500 teams from around the world (and the competition was truly global).  Now different divisions work differently, but this is how the elementary division worked at the World Championships.

In the qualification round, teams are randomly assigned to one of nine sections. In each of these sections are about 60 teams.  You play 11 qualification matches.  How these matches work is that two teams work together to try to score as many points as possible in 60 seconds.  I will link HERE to this year’s game.  I won’t do it justice, but the simple explanation is that you need your robot and your partner team’s robot to pick up small balls and shoot them into a basket (there is a lot more to it than that with multiple other ways to score).  And you are randomly assigned a partner for each match – so you might be with a strong team and then a weaker team.  The premise is that over 11 matches this evens out and the strongest teams emerge as having the most points.  

Then, in the playoff round the top twenty teams advance in each of the nine sections.  And in each section the first place team is partnered with the second place team, and then the third place team is partnered with the fourth place team, and so on all the way to the 19th and 20th placed teams partnering.  And you have one match with this partner team to score as many points as possible.  So, it should be the first / second partnership that is favoured.  

Then, in the final, the nine winners of each section advance to the championship and play one more time – the team with the most points wins and is crowned World Champion.  West Vancouver had four teams make the playoff round and two teams advance to the Championship – an amazing accomplishment.  And then had one of its teams win the World Championship (and got a perfect score!).  They won the World Championship with the Kermit Crafters from the Gateway Science Academy in St. Louis, Missouri.  

Now, West Vancouver’s Team and the team from St. Louis, Missouri were 3rd and 4th in their division.  Here is the moment after the 1st and 2nd team finished and scored were posted that they knew they made the finals.

I find this wild.  It is one of the ultimate tests of collaboration.  In the qualification round you have to quickly make plans with 11 different teams to try to score as many points as possible and then you advance to the playoffs and you partner with a team and you are completely reliant on each other.  Those who can collaborate will succeed.  So like all competitions, there is a heck of a lot of skill, and a little bit of luck and amazing teamwork.   But this is so different than anything else I have seen as you have to build this rapport in minutes not over months like you would in volleyball or soccer.   And for the finals, you compete on stage in front of several thousand spectators.  

In the older divisions top teams get to choose their partners for playoffs and so that adds another element.

We often try to find ways to see collaboration in action.  My three days at the World Championships for Robotics was some of the best I have seen.  Watching teams, people who have just met, plan strategy, talk through strengths and weaknesses and make plans to execute them was awesome (and remember these students are all in elementary school).

It was surreal afterwards as we were walking out of the arena, posing for one last picture with the teammates from St. Louis, and heading off in different directions. Our students and theirs had just shared a moment that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  I would say never to see each other again, but they were all connected by social media.  

Championship Teams

It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have seen on display and these young students did it in front of thousands of people who were cheering each of their moves.

I have always been a fan, but I am fully converted to the power of robotics – yes the technical skills are important, but the human skills it teachers are all those we need for our world.

For more on robotics, my colleague Cari Wilson, who is one of the lead teachers in the program, wrote a great post on the Worlds experience HERE. And congratulations to the full team of teachers including Cari, Todd Ablett, Braydan Pastucha, Mahesh Chugani , and Jeff Huang. And to the administrator team of Diane Nelson and Paul Eberhardt.  

There is an interesting contrast happening right now in schools.  In some ways, they look very different than they did in 2019, and this shift is being met positively, and in other ways there is a desperate push to return to rituals that we used to have, that have been on hold for more than two years.

The simple view I take of this is that with so much different in our world, there are some rituals that people are looking towards to be simply as they remembered them in the past, a reassurance that the world has not lost all its good parts.

I am seeing that, for example, with graduation events.  There is more interest than I can ever remember.  And particularly from parents who want to be sure that this year’s students have experiences just like students used to have.

And at the same time, there are new structures and experiences, completely different from pre-pandemic.  I can’t go to an elementary school now without seeing some outdoor learning experience going on – no matter the weather!   And I can’t go to a high school without some new way that time is being organized to give students greater control over their learning. And throughout the system, it is clear everyone has a new set of digital skills that they are using.

So, we have these seemingly contrary narratives at play.  The world has been turned upside down, and we are desperate for the rituals of schools – the ones that are like those of our parents and grandparents to return – as a reminder that everything will be ok.  And we have lived through the last two years and learned we will forever want to do some things differently, the pandemic has exposed issues of equity, made us question what we value in schools, and given us brand new skills and outlooks that are making schools so different from a couple years ago.

The trick of leadership over these next few months  is to not see these different views as actually in opposition.  We can, and should, live with a foot in both worlds.  In one world, we have rituals we all remember and reassure the community of the stability of school, and in the other world, we are shifting for the changes we have seen and continue to see in our world, ensuring our schools remain centres of relevance.

The importance of the next few months in our schools cannot be overstated.  A narrative will emerge – one based on going back to good times of the past, or one that says we know better and we are going forward to a new way.  Or maybe a third narrative, which might disappoint some in both camps, that holds onto some of the practices and customs of pre 2020 schools, but still creates space for the new ideas of the last two years to flourish.

As I often say here, it is an exciting time in education.