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Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

 

This post is a copy of a column in this month’s AASA School Administrator Magazine

WAY BACK IN 2012, it seemed like almost everyone had a blog. At the time, it appeared a blog (or weblog as it was first known) was a requirement to be relevant in the ever-changing digital world. If I had looked then into my crystal ball, I would have said all school staff and students in 2018 would have blogs. These would be spaces of reflection and used as portfolios for one’s body of work.

I would have predicted we would be increasingly wired to comment on each other’s work and gaining skills in giving public, constructive feedback and commentary.

While blogging isn’t dead, its fate in the schools of 2018 is not what I envisioned. A lot of people have tried blogging, and while some continue, the internet is littered with abandoned blogsites in education. Yet, in this ever-changing landscape, I notice the number of superintendents blogging seems to be challenging this trend and more are taking up a blog all the time.

Beyond Blogging

During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, I worked with a group of student reporters covering the sports action through their blogs. Witnessing these student bloggers was defining for me. I saw them producing content for the real world, getting immediate feedback. I watched the quality of their writing improve as they felt the pressure of writing for a public audience. Following this, our school district began a process that led to every student having a blog. But over the past eight years, some things have changed.

We have moved to collaborative spaces like Google Docs that allow multiple participants outside the blog format. Instead of seeing blogs as “home base” for content, we use platforms such as Instagram, SnapChat and YouTube to house our photos and videos.

Once everyone started writing, people began to comment less and less on other people’s writing.

The theory was that adults would model how to comment on blogs and kids would observe and follow. Unfortunately, adults have not always been worthy role models. One need only consider the number of news sites that have shut off comment sections because of the immature and often hateful remarks.

Further, in K-12 education, another initiative is always on the doorstep, making it difficult to sustain momentum. Whether it is place-based learning, outdoor education or robotics, all compete for valuable learning time and they may crowd the space.

Sharing Voices

So if true, why is it I find my blog more valuable than ever? I think our unique role makes the blog format particularly powerful to share our voices for three reasons.

The superintendent’s message often is filtered through media, unions and other groups in a community so the blog gives direct access to everyone without interpretation.

The superintendent can be seen as more “real” rather than the elusive boss in the school board office. This role is often times seen as distant from the classrooms and schools, and blogs allow them to be relevant and connected. Blogging allows the superintendent to be an influencer whether at the school water cooler or out in the community.

Superintendents believe strongly in modeling. If we want students and staff to have the courage to share their ideas publicly and be modern learners, we need to showcase this behavior.

A Connecting Factor

The superintendent position can be a lonely job. I find the digital community of superintendents to be a powerful force for staying connected to colleagues. From Canadian colleagues like Kevin Godden from Abbotsford, British Columbia, or Chris Smeaton from Lethbridge, Alberta, to Randy Ziegenfuss from Allentown, Pa., or Pam Moran from Charlottesville, Va., I regularly check in on dozens of blogs that help create a sense of community. (Check out these blogs and others on the AASA Member Blogs page.)

I love blogging. It gives me a voice. It is a place for me to work through ideas. It is a portfolio. It is my home base. And while I no longer say everyone needs to have one, it remains a wonderful space for education leaders to model new ways of leading.

This post is updated from an April 2016 post – Maybe I Was Wrong About Blogging 

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One of the best parts of June is attending all of the graduation ceremonies in our schools. There is such a great energy and these events are full of nostalgia and excitement. I have used this space several times before to share some of the messages I have left with students as I got to address the grad classes. And I want to wrap-up this school year by doing that again.

In all the talk of schools being slow to change, I am struck how students are driving change around two key social issues of our time – that of Indigenous Education and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.  As adults move slowly, students just move and seem almost confused about why we are waiting.

The other topic I come back to this year is the positive choice so many families are making for public education.  In a community where families have more options than in most other places in the country our families overwhelmingly choose public education.  They see what their children get from a public school education, and equally important what they contribute to the system through their participation.

Taking out some of the school specific notes and other pleasantries, here are some of my key notes from this year’s grad speeches I have given:

I began doing the job of Superintendent when this year’s graduates were in grade 4.  And while you may know me best as the person responsible for not giving you any snow days during this period of time, I have had the chance to see our schools really change.

Your graduation looks very different from when I spoke to graduates in 2011.

I want to highlight two key social areas, really where you and your fellow students have shown the way for the adults.

The first area is Indigenous Education.  During your time in our schools we have moved from Indigenous Education being something that is studied in grade 4 and 11 to something that is integrated in all of our work.  We started with cultural projects, but moved to real human connections.  We were guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Report in our country, and students, like you, have led the way.  We are on the way to Reconciliation because of your leadership – helping guide the adults.  I am a Social Studies teacher, and 20 years ago, never mentioned Residential Schools in my classes, we all know now its place as part of our history.

The other area I want to highlight is another issue of social importance, the work around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).  When you started school, there were arguments in British Columbia around books in schools which showed a range of different families. We have come a long way and again students like you have led the way.   Conversations from washrooms, to gay-straight alliance clubs to curriculum that teaches our diversity have at times seemed hard for the adults, but again not for the students.  When I am told that young people don’t have a huge impact on our values – I see the SOGI work and know they are wrong.  You have made our schools more open, more tolerant and more loving than they were even a decade ago.

And your steadfast commitments going forward will ensure the few loud voices around us who want to move us backwards will not win the day.

So, some things have changed – but others haven’t.  We are so deeply proud of our public schools in our community.

I know families have choices they can make on school – and my thanks to all of you for choosing public schools.  Whether you are going to work, for a gap year or off to college or university we hope you are academically prepared and more importantly prepared to be citizens for our world.

It is cliché, but it takes a community.  In West Vancouver, which is really like a small town, it takes the outstanding staff, committed and supportive parents, and dedicated students to make this system flourish.

My thanks to all of you for doing your parts.

It is a great honour to serve as Superintendent in West Vancouver.  We have the reputation as the finest education system in the country.  And each day I see it come alive in our schools – from academics, to athletics to the arts.  Thank you all for your contributions to this reputation and to our community.

Thanks again for reading, engaging and challenging this year here on Culture of Yes.  I will likely drop in for a post or two in the summer and back at full capacity in September.

Happy Summer.

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Play The Trap

When I get asked about my advice for June, I share a hockey metaphor – “Dump the puck in deep and play the trap.”

June is a great time in schools.  It is full of celebrations.  There are track meets, music concerts, year-end field trips, awards ceremonies, final exams, graduation ceremonies and more.  And the energy, oh the energy!

So what is with the hockey metaphor?

For non-hockey people, it is probably first worth explaining what it means to play the trap.  Playing the trap became synonymous with boring hockey particularly in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  A team, often to protect a lead (but sometimes for the entire game), would line up their players in-between the blue lines, making it very difficult for the other team to generate any offense.  Rather than playing a free-flowing game, they would dump the puck in the offensive zone and often only send one offensive player in to chase the puck.  It was seen as highly successful, so successful (and boring) that rules have been changed to try to stop teams from using the strategy.

And what does this have to do with schools in June?

June is great in so many ways in schools!  In addition to the list above, it is also incredibly stressful, a time when people are all tired – late night followed by early mornings at school, when high stakes exams are being written, when plans for summer and the fall are being finalized, and when everyone is just a bit on edge.  To be blunt, in June I find students, staff and parents say and do things they wouldn’t do at other times of the year.  Everyone is looking towards the finish line.

I have written before about the good times in the school year to think about changes in school.  My June advice is that this is not the time to be aggressive with new ideas, changes or a time people really want you to help them think differently.  When a situation looks to be heating up, I would encourage everyone to “dump the puck in deep and play the trap.”  Maybe wait at least a day to respond to “that” email, or suggest a meeting in early July.  I find everyone has a completely different disposition even a week after school is out.

June is crazy.  Crazy good.  But crazy.

And sometimes the best offense, is not being more aggressive, but playing a good, disciplined defense.

So take some advice from Lou Lamoriello and his New Jersey Devils of a couple of decades ago, and take a defensive strategy – it just might help you win a championship!

 

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A friend recently shared this article from Jake Trotter writing about the University of Texas football program.

The story focuses on Head Coach Tom Herman – a highly regarded coach who had great success at the University of Houston but then struggled in his first season at the University of Texas.  After an embarrassing opening loss to Maryland to start the season the coaching staff  “lasered in even more on implementing their culture, while easing their attention on the X’s and O’s. Getting the team to play hard trumped expanding the playbook.”

So what does an article about college football have to do with schools?

Well, actually a lot.  This approach by Herman is just what we are often talking about in our schools.  We want classes to be about getting to know and understand children, not just about delivering curriculum.  We need schools to be human enterprises that have guidelines and expectations and focused not on results in the traditional sense of tests scores, but more broadly on human capital.  And we want school districts that focus on building culture so great things can happen, not just trying to make great things happen immediately – potentially with long-term consequences.

I really liked Herman’s notation that “there’s a big difference between being compliant and committed.”  This is so true in our system.  Whether it is my work with our school principals, our school principals work with our teachers or our teachers work with our students, we want people to buy-in to being part of something bigger, and not just do the minimum to feel they have completed a task. Of these three challenges, the greatest is in the classroom.  I get to hire our principals, and we also get to hire our teachers – so we can select ones with a mindset aligned to our culture.  In our classrooms, we work with all our students – there is no selecting ones who might “fit” better than others.   The challenge of commitment over compliance is one I see teachers take on everyday.

So as we allow students greater choice in what they learn and how they show their learning, as we give teachers the autonomy to make the curriculum come alive in a variety of ways, and as we allow schools to each have their own signature – and not just be school franchises – we look for the culture that allows commitment to flourish.

Like the state of the University of Texas Football Program, this quest is imperfect in our schools.  I look back over the last week at some decisions that I know people are complying with, and not necessarily committed to.  But this is the goal – a culture of commitment at all levels in our school system.

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Interest in the education system in British Columbia and Canada generally seems to be at an all time high. Likely, in part driven by high PISA (International testing) results, edu-tourism is flourishing and the world is very curious about what is going on in Canada.  This week I am giving a talk to an audience of largely American Superintendents, which has forced me to try to crystallize exactly what it is in our part of the world that is so interesting.

When we look at structures, our Canadian system has a lot in common with our US counterparts.  We have locally elected Boards of Education throughout most of the country, we have local accountability, a mix of involvement of different levels of government, generally high community engagement in education and strong teacher associations.  We lack the Federal involvement in education present in the United States and seemingly most places in the world, and generally don’t have the ability to raise any funding locally for the school system.   Throughout North America you can find quite a bit in common with how we organize education.

Our system seems to strive for this highly sought after combination of strong equity and high quality.  We seem to have dismissed the idea that one needs to either have one or the other and instead we have committed ourselves to both.  And we also seem to have this unwavering belief that no matter how “good” our system is, we need to continue to change, grow and get better.  There is a sense that we can always improve.   Trying to tightly describe the BC or Canadian uniqueness is a challenge, but I see these as some of the areas that stand out:

We Are Doing What We Always Say We Should Do

The entire BC curriculum has been redesigned.  The prescriptive nature of the curriculum has been reduced with a greater focus on big ideas and the allowance of flexibility and choice in learning for teachers and students.  Interdisciplinary learning has been embraced allowing the teacher a greater opportunity to be creative and innovative in the design of their learning experiences.  Core competencies are the foundation of the curriculum with a focus on communication, thinking and personal and social competency.  Now these areas that we have always said are important, but often in the background have been pushed to the foreground.  And finally, the curriculum has been Indiginized and a focus on the First Peoples Principles of Learning has been emphasized throughout the province.

A former Superintendent colleague of mine, Mike McKay, would often say, “Will What We Know Change What We Do?” – with our system we are trying to make the answer now.

Curriculum

The shift in curriculum is as much about the how as the what.  The move to big ideas, has seen a move to more inquiry based learning.  The curriculum is seen as relevent and ever-changing.  Rather than being static as it has been in the past, it is seen now as nimble, being able to shift as the world shifts.

Assessment

BC does not have high stakes assessment.  Students in British Columbia write Foundation Skills Assessments in grades 4 and 7 in reading, writing and numeracy and then a literacy and numeracy assessment in grades 10-12.  These results are shared with students and families and inform practice but they do not appear on report cards, nor are they part of any school marks.  Teacher judgement is highly valued and they along with schools and districts design a range of assessments (more than just traditional tests) to support students. Increasingly passion projects, portfolios and capstone assignments are a large part of a student’s program

We Have Learned From Others

When I look at our system in BC now, I would describe it as a “mash-up” of what we are seeing around the world.   One can see elements of Finland, Singapore and New Zealand in our system.  International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement have also clearly been influential.  Teachers have looked locally – to schools in their district and our province, to Alberta and Ontario, to High Tech High in San Diego, and many other places and they have all influenced what we do.  BC has always prided itself on being a highly networked province and this extends around the globe, and our system reflects this.  We have taken good ideas and made them ours for our context

No Franchises

BC has this delicate balance of having a lot common with others but not sameness.  Schools and districts share some tenants but are not trying “scale” work to all be the same.  It is this idea of networks.  We are trying to connect and build networks, focusing on diffusion, not replication.

It is hard to pull the BC or Canadian story together.  I don’t think anyone can listen to someone speak about our system or visit our schools and say, we should be like them.  Just as we haven’t done that as we looked to evolve our system.  We are immensely proud of our school system, and it is wonderful to be somewhere that recognizes the world is rapidly changing, so as proud as we are of our past and present, our future needs to change to ensure we continue to have this pride.

Below are the slides I am using for this presentation this week.  It is a work in progress, so any thoughts to help make these ideas more clear are always appreciated (if you are viewing this via email you may need to go to the website to see the slides).

 

 

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Try

Try is a great word.

It is also a vulnerable word.  And vulnerability can be a scary thing as a teacher.

I have been in three classes over the last couple weeks where teachers talked about something they were trying.  Each time, the word really stood out.

In one class the teacher said she was “trying something new with how I organize students in groups.”  In another the teacher said he was “going to try using Google Docs to have students share their work.”  In a third the teacher said she was “trying to include more Indigenous ideas in her math class.”

Try implies uncertainty.  All three of these teachers were unsure how it would go, it was a bit of an experiment, it was their own inquiry just like their students were doing.  The teachers, in all their vulnerability were modeling lifelong learning.  They were trying things, some would work, others won’t, and they will refine and try again.  You can call it a design cycle or an inquiry model but I think of it as culture.  This is exactly the culture that I want us to continue to have.

I want us to have a culture of trying stuff.  We want our students to be fearless learners, so to for the adults that work with them.

Try.

It is such a great word.

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For me it was Alan November.

When I look at which speaker I saw who finally got through to me and made me think differently about teaching and learning, it would be Alan November. It was 2004, and the web 2.0 world was coming alive.

I have seen hundreds of speakers who suggested I needed to think differently but for some reason on that fall day at the Terry Fox Theatre in Port Coquitlam, Alan November got me thinking in new ways and I never looked back.

I have written on some similar shifts I have made – like My Aha Moment when I took what I heard from Alan November and brought it into my practice and My Own Watershed Moments when I reflected on influential conferences, people and presentations on my thinking.

The short version of what I remember from the November talk of 14 years ago, is that we need to have students own their own learning (He would ask, “Who owns the learning?”), and some of the new technology tools can help do this in ways we had only dreamed about before.  Of course, he also had some great hooks, I am sure I am not the only one who remembers him showing Dog Island, The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus among other sites around information literacy.

So, why on that particular day, did that talk change my thinking?  I think it is because:

  1.  I was already thinking about things differently but needed someone to help me pull the ideas together
  2. I felt confident in my job, and ready to move beyond “just getting by” to be open to new ideas
  3. There was a culture in the District I worked that was open to new ideas
  4.  I could see how the conversation in education fit into a larger shift in the world beyond school
  5. Some speakers just hook you in.

Several of us looked back on this event and referred to it as the “November Awakening” in Coquitlam.   This was the right event at the right time.   Of course, we never change our thinking based on a 2-hour-talk, but sometimes we can look back on certain sessions that really helped pull our thinking together.

So, who was it for you?  If you had to identify one speaker you heard who changed how you think about your practice who would it be?  What was it about that speaker on that day that led to a change of thinking?

 

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