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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Human Touch

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

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

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

 

Time to Proceed

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Digital Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you notice about the pandemic shifts?

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

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

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

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

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


And what about the future?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

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My One Word (2021)

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

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

This is the 6th year of my “One Word” Tradition. In 2016 I wrote about Hungry and then in 2017 my first post of the year was dedicated to Hope. I feel both words were ones that were good ones for the times they were written. In 2018 I wrote about what I described as my desperate need in my work for Relevance, and then in 2019 it was Delight – a new twist on the power and importance of joy.  Last year my word was Hustle.  Despite 2020 being very different than what any of us would have predicted, hustle really fit well.  It was a year where I worked more days than any year in my life, doing different work than I ever imagined and spent the year creating on the go.  

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

OK, but why particularly this year?

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is your word?

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My “Top 3” List for 2020

The “Top 3” starts its second decade with the 11th annual list. Of course, it will be a little different this year – COVID has changed a number of categories. Then again, the categories already change every year. I appreciate everyone who has checked in here at the blog this year. The pandemic has been good for blog traffic. As per usual, while we do some serious work in education, it is also good to not take ourselves too seriously.

Previous Top 3 lists for: 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. New Wardrobe Rules Announced for All Staff
  2. The Goldilocks Dilemma
  3. Our Spring Break Hawaiian Vacation

I have learned to not be offended that my April Fools Day post often generates the most traffic of the year.  It does help me believe that if this education thing doesn’t work out I could try comedy.  All three of the highest traffic posts this year were published in the heart of the spring pandemic.  The pandemic has opened up so many topics to explore this year and will for many years as we emerge from it  

Top 3 Adaptations that I saw in our schools:

  1. Move to video
  2. Focus on what is important
  3. Timetables

We have been talking about video in schools for years, but the move has been slow.  All of the sudden, we quickly moved to Teams, Zoom and Google Meet.  It was not perfect but just as we adopted out of necessity in our personal lives, we did so to in our school lives.  With reduced contact time in classes, we saw the need to focus clearly on what was important.   A year ago we couldn’t imagine losing an hour of in-person learning over the year and not “falling behind” but we saw dramatic reductions on in-class time and we were forced to think differently about learning.  And timetables – there are lots of options, but generally I have found people like what they have and are not wanting to change.  Well, everyone had to change.  In BC it meant most high schools spent their summer converting to a version of the quarter-system.  And while the quarter-system in itself is not that interesting, how schools were structuring flexible learning and other options within the system was really exciting.

Top 3 Virtual Education Related Virtual Events:

  1.  Grad 2020
  2. Remembrance Day / December Concerts
  3. Rethinking Secondary Series

We are largely Zoomed out.  And I found many of the professional development experiences to be uninteresting done virtually without the chance to connect with other participants.  That said, there were some really great events.  Grad events seemed to exceed most expectations.  There were many who commented the virtual events were actually better as families could really enjoy them more.  Likewise what schools did around Remembrance Day and December Concerts was outstanding.  And all of the sudden these events were opened up to family and friends who might not normally get to attend.   Finally to highlight one professional event, many of us worked with Dean Shareski on Rethinking Secondary a series of conversations looking at what we might do now and going forward in our high schools.  What is great about Dean’s sessions is that you also learn some zoom strategies you can use in other circumstances later.  

Top 3 Limited Series Podcasts that I listened to:

  1. The Flying Coach
  2. Nice White Parents
  3. The Rabbit Hole

I am a little late to the podcast world.  I have been a “music only” person when out for a walk or run but this year I discovered the podcast.  In addition to some regulars I listen to like This American Life, and my wife’s Lazy Parenting these three limited series were all really good.  As someone who enjoys the art of coaching, it was great to Listen to Pete Carroll and Steve Kerr talk about the art of coaching.   In Nice White Parents, you get the story of the US education system which has many elements that we see in our own system in Canada when well meaning parents look to try to help fix a school.  And finally with The Rabbit Hole, we get a look at how the internet can be manipulating us and the real power and danger of some sites.  

Top 3 shows that I binged:

  1.  The Queen’s Gambit
  2. The Last Dance
  3. Home Before Dark

The Queen’s Gambit lived up to the hype.  I don’t really understand chess, but I loved the show.  The Last Dance benefited in part from timing – it was the only new show and only sports on at the time.  And Home Before Dark is a great series on Apple and I particularly liked that so much of it was filmed in and around where I live – it is always fun to see local landmarks in tv shows. 

Top 3 ideas about education reinforced in The Queen’s Gambit:

  1.  Giftedness is complicated
  2. One caring adult can make a huge difference
  3. Age is only one way of organizing students

A great column by Geoff Johnson got me thinking about The Queen’s Gambit in the context of education.  To simplify a few of the lessons for school, we see from the main character Beth just how complicated being “gifted” can be.  We also see with her, and her relationship with the school’s janitor Mr. Shaibel that having one caring adult can make such a huge difference for a student.  And finally, I was struck by how at ease people were with allowing Beth to train for chess with the local high school chess team.  We rarely allow students to train for anything outside of their age, but age is just one way that we can and should organize students.  

Top 3 pieces of media I am embarrassed to admit I listened to / watched and enjoyed:

  1.  Saved by the Bell (tv reboot)
  2. Bill and Ted Face the Music (move sequel)
  3. Ron Burgundy Podcast (podcast follow-up to movie series)

We all have guilty pleasures.  Mine are usually somehow linked to the 1980’s.  The Saved by the Bell reboot, which I have seen on some tv critics lists of the top shows of the year is smart in ways that original never was.  The new version tackles real issues but does so in a way that recognizes we are all in on the joke of the reboot of the cheesy original.  The third chapter in the Bill and Ted franchise, 29 years since the last one again tackles some serious topics with the campy feel of the first two movies.  Finally, I can’t say Ron Burgundy offers any deep lessons, but if there is such a thing as uncomfortable radio this is it as the Anchorman character runs his own podcast.

Top 3 overused words / phrases in the edu-pandemic world (though probably overused everywhere):

  1.  Pivot
  2. The New Normal
  3. Unprecedented

I am sure I used all three this year.  Sorry I will try to stop next year.  I would appreciate others doing the same.

Top 3 ideas that we will be exploring more in 2021:

  1.  anti-racism
  2. equity
  3. sustainability

Events in the United States and around the world brought the topic of anti-racism to the forefront in our schools.  We can see with the requests from teachers around pro-d and the interest from our parent community, we will definitely be doing more work and going deeper in our work in 2021.  The same is true for equity.  The pandemic has really shown the challenges of equity – like with access to technology that still exist in our system.  And with sustainability, it feels like as the pandemic hit, some of the good work our students were leading was put on pause, but in 2021 I think it will be back strong.

Top 3 COVID shifts in schools that can’t snap back after the pandemic:

  1.  Secondary Timetable
  2. The Move Outside
  3. Digitization  

Like other parts of schooling over the last 9 months, it has been a work in progress.  All teachers and administrators I have been speaking with find parts of the new timetable they don’t want to let go.  I would be shocked if many districts, even if they are able, return in September 2021 to the way they organized high schools in September 2019.  Another shift that has been long coming but accelerated by the pandemic has been outdoor learning.  Local experts like Megan Zeni, are supporting teachers to take the classroom outside.  From gardens to full outdoor learning classrooms, classes are embracing outdoor learning.  And finally, we are really figuring out digitization in the K-12 setting.  For the last 20 years we have been exploring this, but the urgency has finally given us the push we needed.  

Top 3 ways the pandemic changed my work life:

  1.  I was more efficient
  2. I felt less connected
  3. I didn’t feel I knew how we were doing

I have found the pandemic gave me more sustained work time with fewer distractions which made me more efficient with the mundane parts of the job.  Of course with fewer distractions, I also felt less connected.  Zoom didn’t replace the chance to be in classrooms talking with students and teachers.   And I was not quite sure how we were doing.  I heard from more parents and staff than usual – but their views tended to be on the extremes, that this was the best or worst thing to ever happen to education. 

Top 3 ways the pandemic changed my life outside of work:

  1.  I walked and ran a lot more
  2. I ate meals at more regular times
  3. I slept more

It was weird having more control over my time.  One of the advantages of digital is that I didn’t have to be in my office for every meeting, and for example, I could watch the grad ceremonies when it worked best for me, and not have to watch them in real time.  My step count is up, my weight is down, and in 2020 I slept about 35 minutes more a night than in 2019.  We will see if these changes hold in 2021.  

 

Top 3 talks I gave over the last decade that show how my thinking has changed and how it hasn’t:

  1.  Students Live!  (2010 TEDx Talk)

2. What is Smart? (2014 TEDx Talk)

3. Keynote this past October for CUEBC:

Top 3 things I have learned as I approach the end of year 25 in education:

  1.  High School Principal is the best job
  2.  Everyone has stuff going on
  3.  Schools are changing faster than we think

21-year-old me going out into my first classroom as a student-teacher would have thought 25 years was a lifetime.  Now, as I will be finishing year 25 in teaching this year, it seems as though it has all gone so fast.  I love my current job, but I think about how lucky I was to be principal at Riverside Secondary School in Port Coquitlam.  I worked with some of the most amazing people and loved the energy in the building every day.  It was exhausting but so exciting!  I have also learned that all students, staff and parents bring the complexities of their lives with them into schools.  There really is no leaving it all at the door.  Finally, schools are really changing quickly.  The experience of students now is dramatically different than those just a decade ago – we know better so we are doing better.  And yes, the structure of schooling is still quite similar, the experience is quite different.  

As always I really appreciate the connections we make over the year.  I am so impressed with how well our schools have done this fall.  I know there are some out there that seem to be cheering against schools right now, but staff and students have done amazing things.  To all the staff that are still reading, enjoy your break!

All the best for a great 2021.  

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Go and Be Creative

For more than a decade the “C’s” have been all the rage in education.   These are the 21st century skills we want for all our students.   The lists are slightly different, but almost every jurisdiction has them.  Ideas like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, citizenship and character are on many of the lists.  And the one that makes every list is creativity.  And for good reason.  Who is really against creativity?  Of all of these worthwhile “c’s”, I do find talking about, teaching, and even defining creativity to be the most challenging.  Reading Ronald Beghetto’s book Killing Ideas Softly?  The Promise and Perils of Creativity in the Classroom only further enforced the challenges I have with defining creativity.

I was told that I was a creative teacher and principal, and have also had others pay me the compliment over the last decade of being a creative superintendent.  I am flattered, but I am not exactly sure what they mean.  And I am not sure what I am doing to be creative.  And I am not sure when people compliment one’s creativity –  are they saying what you do is creative, or what you do allows others to be creative?   Beghetto describes creativity as involving “a combination of originality and appropriateness as defined within a particular social-cultural-historical context.”  It is a concept that I feel like I am pretty good at recognizing in a classroom, but still struggle to articulate.  If asked to describe what creativity looks like in a classroom, I could cite examples but not easily define.  And in our school contexts, we try to create conditions that allow teachers to be creative, and also students to be creative.   While I have spent my classroom time teaching academics, I most often still associate creativity with music, the visual and performing arts, sports and other non-academic pursuits.  

Here are some random thoughts I have around creativity in the classroom:

  • I think the refreshed curriculum in BC allows for more creativity from teachers and students.  And even if we do nothing else to promote creativity, just by opening up the curriculum we should have more creative actions.  I tested this idea out on Professor Yong Zhao, who has also written extensively on the topic, and he agreed that the curriculum in jurisdictions like BC and New Zealand lend themselves to greater creativity.
  • We often associate creativity with something most alive in our new teachers, but creativity is hard to do well in classrooms and it is more likely that seasoned teachers would be able to more easily do things like allow students to take control of their own learning, identify and incorporate student interests and encourage intrinsic engagement.  I see some newer teachers trying so hard to focus on creativity they do so in-place of core skills.  I like how Beghetto described it, “you have to learn to think inside the box before you can think outside of it.”
  • I wonder if classes that put aside time in their day or week for creative time are doing a service to the goal of creativity versus those who just look for moments in a class to capture the opportunities.  Again coming back to Beghetto, he argues that creativity and academic learning are complimentary and that “a common road-block for teachers who want to incorporate creativity and learning in their classrooms is to mistakenly believe that creativity and learning are in competition with each other.”  This makes me think that when we reserve time for creativity in our week, we position it as time separate from learning.
  • I know I have strong biases as well.  I think of visual and performing arts and other electives as naturally creative, but not so for academic areas like English, Social Studies, Science and Math.  Of course I know this to actually not be true as the most creative teachers I began my career with were in math (Fred Harwood) and in science (Doug Sheppard and Bill Lawrence).  It is hard to shake the learning vs. creativity belief.  And I also think we often afford far more opportunities for stronger students to be creative than weaker students – as we need the weaker students to focus on the basics.  Again, a bias that needs to change.

I have been somewhat immersed in reading about, thinking about and talking about creativity the last few months.   And it is one of these topics that the more I know the more I question.  Like with so much else right now in our COVID era, I think there are some really great options to embed creativity in the classroom.  Combine our open curriculum with changes in high school schedules that see longer classes and there are great opportunities.  And as I started this, there are few who would argue we should have less creativity in our schools, and on all the lists of skills from employers, creativity is always featured.

Beghetto’s full list of 15 instructional reminders around creativity include:

  1. Creativity is more than originality
  2. Creativity and academic learning are complimentary
  3. You have to learn to think inside the box before you can think outside the box
  4. Accomplished creators know when (and when not) to be creative
  5. Creativity can’t die, but it can be stifled
  6. Be  aware of the potential for creative mortification
  7. Accomplished creators turn mini insights into creative contributions
  8. Try to see beyond the how to the what
  9. Monitor mini-motivational messages of the classroom
  10. Approach teaching with the eye of Monet
  11. Hold your lesson plans lightly
  12. Establish routines that ensure that ideas will be revisited
  13. Teaching for creativity is more about “small wins” rather than radical curricular changes
  14. Plan for creativity
  15. Teach and live creatively

We all want creative students, and classes and schools that promote creativity.  Beyond the buzz word, it is hard work.

 

 

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Video Is Changing Us

I know we are all a little “Zoom”ed out right now.  In all parts of our life the novelty of the video call, and the Brady Bunch style screens has worn out.  And I think the reviews around video in classrooms are mixed.  But beyond teaching and learning, there are some changes that video has made in the last several months in our schools that has actually been long promised, and now will probably never go back.  Video has opened our schools to the community in ways we have often promised and now are finally delivering.

Connecting With Teachers

The parent-teacher conference has gone virtual and that is a good thing.  We have all seen how email can go wrong, and how quickly intentions can be misconstrued and a question from a parent to a teacher or a comment from a teacher to a parent has escalated.  The advice from seasoned colleagues is always to pick up the phone.  Now, the advice is to get on a video call.  I have spoken to several teachers who highlighted how quick video calls with parents have helped resolve situations – it really helps humanize our connections.  And traditional parent meetings at the end of the term, done virtually allow working parents to attend who might not normally be able to take time from work to come to face-to-face sessions at the school.  It is a good example of how little is lost by the change of format.  And for teachers who may be uncomfortable with a particular parent alone in a meeting, the virtual format  creates a safe place for everyone.

Information Sessions

You know how these work.  You rush home from work and then figure out how to get your kids to their evening activities so you can get to the school gym to listen to the principal explain the programs for next year at the school.  And then you come home to try to re-tell the key items to your partner and child.  So, now as these events are created and posted online families can watch and re-watch at their convenience.  And then time that would normally be for hosting the sessions can be dedicated to answering the questions online of parents and students about particular programs.  So many times I hear about the need to host these events on multiple nights because of various conflicts, now they can all take place on demand.

Live Events

The most recent example of this was Remembrance Day.   Our schools shared out links to students and often parents of their Remembrance Day Ceremonies.  These important ceremonies are always welcoming of the community, but again, often hard to attend in-person.  More and more of these events are being streamed for families.  Last month I  was at Eagle Harbour Montessori School to see their Historical Halloween live streamed to families.  And on a call with principals this week, plans are already underway for Holiday concerts.  It really started last spring with our grad ceremonies.  There was great disappointment that these rituals could not be held in-person, but overwhelming positive responses to the virtual alternatives that were created.  And while there is power of having people come together in-person for events, we seem destined post-COVID to stream more from our classrooms, our assemblies, our sporting competitions and arts showcases to our parents and larger community.  

These ideas are not groundbreaking.  And we could have done many of them twelve months ago – but we had no urgency.  And the technology was seen as a great mystery. We just couldn’t possibly figure out the technology.  But emergencies push you forward.  The technology has got better and easier, and we have got more comfortable with the tools.   There will be great discussions around lessons of the COVID era for schools, but I think one of the impacts is that we will forever  be thinking about the use of video and how we can open up events to those who cannot attend in-person. And a side benefit for many is that they can do all of this on a more flexible schedule.  I know these digital shifts  have changed things for me – as a parent and superintendent I am more connected now than I was before to so many important school rituals.

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Using my blog for something different this time.  Last week I had a good conversation with Vancouver Province Sports Reporter Steve Ewen on the possibilities for school sports – even in the middle of a pandemic.  Readers of this blog know how interested I am in youth sports.  In an effort to share the article with a larger audience, I am sharing the text from Steve’s article below.  You can also see the original article on The Province website HERE.

West Vancouver school district Supt. Chris Kennedy thinks it’s time to try to restart high school sports.

He’s very clear. He’s not talking about something leading to a massive provincial championship. Kennedy’s talking about neighbouring high school teams, in cohorts of four, playing against only one another with extensive coronavirus protocols in place.
He’s talking about what community sports was granted in August by the B.C. government and has been doing since then. The government’s return-to-school plan released in July said inter-school events wouldn’t be permitted to take place initially but would be “re-evaluated in mid-fall 2020.”

High school teams have been allowed to practise since classes returned.

The provincial election has taken the focus of the government of late. Kennedy understands too that the rising COVID-19 case numbers may spark concern. He believes that schools can make sports run safely — “we’re living those protocols every day,” he explained — and a return to games between rival schools, albeit in a limited format, would benefit the overall well-being of students and school communities.”

“There’s so much positive will trying to make it happen right now. I’ve spoken to a number of my superintendent colleagues and there’s a common belief that sports can aid in the physical, social and emotional well-being of students,” explained Kennedy, a longtime high school basketball coach himself, highlighted by his time guiding Richmond’s McRoberts Strikers.“We’re worried about the mental health of kids. We’re looking for more things to connect with kids. If school becomes just a place where you go to get credits, then it’s not really school.”

“I don’t want to underestimate the complexities of this, but everything we’ve done so far with schools this year has been complex. Getting the kids to school, getting the cohorts figured out, dealing with different technology issues … every day we’re faced with problems that we never imagined before the pandemic.”

The basic frustration for school sports folks about being on the sideline is the simple fact that community sport is up-and-running. As Kennedy says, there are “kids in our gymnasiums with school teams from 3 to 6 p.m. obeying by certain rules and then they can be back in those same gyms with their club teams from 6 to 8 p.m. playing under a completely different set of rules.”

There’s the price point issue as well. School sports is subsidized. Club sports is often a business. The longer school sports sits on the sideline, the more you wonder about how it might look when they do eventually return, and whether programs will be lost long-term. There are also families who don’t have the money or wherewithal to take part in club sports regularly.

“There’s probably been little change for the affluent families regarding sport through this. They’ve found club situations that work for them,” Kennedy explained. “The kids who need school sports the most are the ones who aren’t getting it.”

Kennedy downplayed the idea that student/athletes were missing out on university scholarship opportunities with school sport in limbo, calling it a “red herring.” He believes that university coaches will find ways to find players.

In fact, he thinks that the return of school sports in this era would have an even greater focus on participation, since teams wouldn’t be gearing up for a run at the provincials.

“You’d probably carry a bigger roster, you’d probably play everyone more equally because you’re not worried about that high-level competition piece,” he explained.

Kennedy contends high school sport could “look different” for it to be allowed to return. He talked about switching to 3-on-3 basketball or 2-on-2 volleyball, for instance, if that help makes things safer.

“You shouldn’t skip out on something just because you think it might be hard,” Kennedy explained. “We’ve found ways to make music and art and drama happen in so many of our schools. There are other kids who have passions for athletics. We need to help them.

“We’ve got schools launched. We’ve got club sports launched. Now we take what we’ve learned from both of them and put it together for school sports.”

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