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Archive for November, 2017

Last week I was listening to a local university professor answer a question about some common characteristics about unsuccessful students at university.  It was an interesting provocation.  We often list off qualities of those students who are most successful in making the transition from high school to university.  The list usually includes characteristics like grit, determination, flexibility, time management and communication skills.  The answer to the question about the unsuccessful student was interesting – what this professor observed was that if the first day of university was the student’s first day on campus, he or she was likely going to be behind.  This speaks to the power of transitions.

Transitions is something we think a lot about in the K-12 system.  We have several that consume our focus.  There is that first transition from pre-school to kindergarten.  One often hears the term “k readiness” used to describe the ability of these 4 or 5 years old to make the transition to the increased structure of formal schooling.  And there are many other transitions along the way, most notably as students move from elementary to high school.  It seems that the move from buildings is more than just a physical move for students.  In districts that start high school in grade 8, I often hear about that age being the most challenging, while in places that start high school in grade 9, those communities see that grade as the greatest challenge.  It is clearly more than being about a certain age, and also about the change in buildings, routines, teachers and courses that is the key challenge for young people.  And finally the transition from high school to post-secondary and the world of work is one that requires a lot of attention.

Traditionally, we have spent great energies focused on the curriculum transition between these different levels.  We want to make sure that when students enter grade 8 social studies, they have been well prepared by grade 7 social studies.  This is most often true in academic areas.  And this kind of preparation is important.

More though, we are seeing transitioning more holistically.  We are offering courses outside the regular timetable to grade 6 and 7 students that they can take with a high school teacher at the local high school – a way of pursing a passion and also beginning to grow a familiarity with their next school.  More than ever, we have elementary students playing sports, participating in music events and engaging in other events at local high schools to help build relationships.  Without being so direct, we have been doing in our system what the local university professor spoke about.  We are trying to find ways that the first day of high school is not the first day in the building for our high school students.

I was struck last week by an amazing presentation from Chartwell Elementary and Sentinel Secondary at the BC School Superintendents Conference.  These are two of our schools that share a field and clearly much more.

Chartwell Elementary and Sentinel Secondary shared the work they are doing around capstone projects, in which students pursue independent research on a question or problem of their choice, engage in scholarly debates in the relevant disciplines, and with the guidance of a teacher, work towards a deep understanding of the topic. Sentinel Secondary school has embraced the Advanced-Placement (AP) Capstone project as part of their robust AP program, and they have shared their knowledge with Chartwell Elementary school. Having seen this in action at Sentinel, Chartwell has built a capstone program of their own for grade 6 and 7 students. Students are getting the chance to experience the type of learning they will be able to choose later in their school careers. It is inspiring to see both the younger and older students so passionate about their research areas.  And what a great way for students to have a common language across grades and schools.

I was so impressed by UBC President Santa Ono who spoke at TEDx West Vancouver ED earlier this fall (click on the link – it is a must watch video!) and shared his commitment around tackling the mental health crisis that crosses over from high school into post-secondary. This was a good reminder of the stresses that cross our systems, and how we need to work together to make sure students are not just ready for the academics of the next stage, but are supported with a far more global view of transitions.

I worry about conversations of readiness.  I hate the idea that the purpose of “Grade X” is to get students ready for “Grade Y”.  The purpose of grade 4 is not to get students ready for grade 5, the purpose of grade 4, IS grade 4.  That said, we need to continue to find ways to assist in the various transitions that students engage in throughout their school careers.

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Just what does a superintendent do?

It is a question that I have tried to tackle a number of times in this blog over the last several years.  The job is a bit what you make of it – as the finest colleagues I know often spend their time very differently.  What is true, like so many other professions, it is changing as the world around us rapidly changes.

I recently read the book,  BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships and Empower Learning from Trish Rubin and Eric Sheninger.  While their notion of “branding” in education brings me some discomfort, they make a powerful case for leaders being the chief storytellers.  It is something I have written about before, that particularly in a world without as many newspapers and other traditional media, those in schools and districts need to more clearly and publicly tell our stories.

Their book talks about not just telling stories, but creating them.  It also pulls research from a range of thinkers outside of education and helps us see what is possible applying the work inside our system.

And just after reading this book, I watched a story about former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.  The speech which earned him the title “Explainer in Chief” for his detailed explanation, in ways that were accessible to a wide audience, of policy directions – with clear easy to understand arguments.  It reminded me of the important role superintendents need to play when it comes to education direction and policy.  We bring the detail to the broader direction that our political leaders set.

I think when we are at our best, superintendents do what Rubin and Sheninger outline, and tell our stories, but we also have they key role of making policy directions understandable to politicians, staff and parents.  As the key conduit between government and the system, the superintendent has to be the pipeline helping the two sides connect and build consensus.

Young Zhao says, “Define yourself before being defined.”  We need to tell our stories, embrace the new tools and possibilities and still have the details so we can perform the roles of storyteller and explainer-in-chief when it comes to learning.

 

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