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You can’t open up Facebook or Instagram right now without locals posting their memories of the 2010 Olympic Games.

I was particularly lucky working in West Vancouver during the 2010 Games. Prior to my arrival in 2006 the Board had already decided it would adjust their vacation times and close for the Games.  And West Vancouver Schools fully embraced the Games.  There was a core group of passionate teachers who were committed to ensuring all our students had experiences connected to the Games.  They worked with the Canadian Olympic Committee on lesson plans, reached out to the Vancouver Olympic Committee and others for support and ensured our students visited venues, tried various sports, created Olympic pins, performed at Olympic events and otherwise were hooked into the Games. I wrote previously (HERE) about the education legacy of the Games on their one year anniversary in 2011 – and my takeaways still stand today.

As amazing as this all was, for me, this period around the Games was professionally transformative.  I knew it was special, but now ten years later, my experiences around the Games were defining to my thinking about learning and the future of schooling.  All the ideas that were buzzing around in 2010 – personalized learning, a changing role for teachers, the possibilities of technology – we had the chance to implement with our Students Live! Games Program.   Here are some comments I made about the experience at the time:

The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games were an amazing experience in our city, province and country.

With the Games coming to our city, many in education worried the Games would come through our city and it would be a missed opportunity to engage our students. Along with my colleagues, Audrey Hobbs-Johnston and Gary Kern, and with the support of Christina Adams and the Vancouver Olympic Committee, we created Students Live!

Students Live! was the opportunity for 25 students to be student reporters for the Olympics and Paralympics. Describing the program as a student reporter program does not do justice to what it really was for the students, and for the adults it was an absolutely transformational experience. It was starting with a blank slate and creating from that.

So, it was an absolutely amazing experience. The students attended events on an almost daily basis, participated side-by-side with international journalists, and experienced the Games in a way that was the envy of all their friends. And this was all great.

What we learned were lessons that transcended a sporting event, or a moment in time. It started with a competition to select the students. This is not surprising, but as students opted in, there was much greater buy-in. We know when we have an application on a course, the numbers interested usually increases. Students were asked to write a blog post, create a photo journal, or otherwise use web 2.0 to show how and why they would be good reporters for the Olympics.

For most of the close to 80 applicants – this was a new experience. While we often talk about how well-versed students are in technology, in this activity, which targeted those with the greatest technology skills – the act of writing a blog, or otherwise creating digital content for a public audience – was largely new.

What we saw in selecting students, and throughout the entire process, was that good writing and strong communication skills still matter. The tools have changed, but the best writers who captured the biggest audiences, and quickly built huge followings, were those who could communicate, while the weaker writers – no matter how adept they were with the technology struggled. Much is made of technology, and how our text messaging generation sees writing as less important – I actually have never been part of something where it was so evident how important good writing is.

The first day we met with the students we focused on the social media we would use and how we would engage the community with it. A quick survey of the room showed every student had Facebook, with little evidence of any other tool; some had YouTube and Twitter, but not much else. It also became clear that while the students were quite good with technology, they had absolutely no idea how they could leverage technology to build an audience.

While students had friends and connections, they didn’t have a clue on how to turn these friends into an audience, and then how to grow their audience into influence – they had never contemplated using the tools in this way. This is key – while the students may have been native to technology, many had no idea on how to really use it to build community. Of course, we created what was then called a “Fan Page” – so, this was mid-day on a school day and we challenged them to get 1000 followers.

They were able to do this within hours – all during a school day – you want to believe students are not really on Facebook during the school day.

What the students learned, was how they could get Facebook to work for them – when combined with Twitter and their blog, they had a megaphone to their network.

About face-to-face meetings – we could never have done what we did virtually, if we had not first built community face-to-face. I am more convinced now than ever, online is absolutely best among people who have the context of face-to-face relationships.

So once we started – what happened:

First, it was like an “Ah-ha” moment – mobile technology was a game changer. Those with smartphones had a huge advantage. They could take photos, post to Twitter and Facebook, and just simply connect in real time. The less ability students had to perform all of these functions in the moment, the more they were challenged. And yes, it was reporting, so real time was really key to the project, but what we saw was more than that. Amazingly evident was just how key it was to be able to publish live. Students who had to wait to find wireless internet access fell behind. The other key was video.

The best writers stood out, and photos were great – but those blogs building community all included video. What a great lesson for the classroom and the need to build video into our work.

It was also clear students loved to look at each other’s work – not in the “mine is better than yours” way – but “yours can help make mine better”. It was amazingly non-competitive, but students commented afterwards the biggest impact on improving the quality of their work, was their ability to see other students – other models of what could be done. Everyone commented their work improved because 1) it was public and 2) they could read and learn from each other.

The students also loved publishing for a public audience – they had never really contemplated viewers before. What they knew was about was writing for a teacher – now they were writing for an audience, and the better they wrote, and the more interesting their topic, the larger the audience. There were students who had up to 100 comments on a blog post. They combined excellent writing, with leveraging their network, and with a savvy use of social media. In our debrief, students said it was actually frustrating going back to school because they had seen what was possible with real-world learning, publishing for a public audience, building community and they had to return to what school has always been – it felt less relevant than ever.

While it is true the Olympic Games were a unique experience, and it will be difficult to duplicate the experience with less exciting events, the lessons transcend the Games – mobile technology can change learning, good writing still matters, using social media needs to be taught and should not be assumed, networks are essential, and once students get the taste of the real world, it is addictive and they will want to go forward, not back.

The entire experience was also profound for the adults involved. For all of us, the experience felt more like what we have often thought of as a team, and less as a class. Maybe it was because we didn’t have rows of desks, and because we asked more questions than giving answers, or because when the students were stuck we asked one of them to be the project leader and to get a team to solve the problem. It absolutely felt like learning, and it felt like everything we hoped school could and should be – but often it didn’t feel like class – it felt like we were in the flow.

It reinforced students will build their own networks. Sure, we guide them, support them and stand beside them – but they can build their own networks. They can get 1000 members in a Facebook Group and then figure out how to turn these members into a network, and they can ask “the real world” to assist them, instead of just playing in a simulated world in schools.

I was exhausted! Just because I was not at the front-of-the-room teaching did not mean that it was easy; teaching is still hard. Sometimes as a large group, sometimes as a small group, sometimes one-on-one, all hours of the day and night – we were learning and working together. It was a fundamental change of the role of teacher and student. We were their supports, their adult mentors – but didn’t have the answers. The students found teachers in this project, not blocked out as in a schedule, were more important and necessary.
Adults are amazing. There is a world full of adults who want to help students in all professions, just waiting to be asked.

In reflecting on this, I was reminded of the recent TED Talks by Sugata Mitra, who spoke of the network of grannies waiting to assist. Right now, we have only really engaged a small number of students through work experience in this real-world mentorship, but have found in this project every adult asked was willing to help. Yes, it was the Olympics – but there is an untapped resource waiting for us to engage them.

Finally – the adults were reminded that we need to trust the process. We always want to jump in and solve problems – we are good at that. Sometimes you need to let students work through situations, skin their knee and be there beside them to offer support.

Working with the other teachers and the 25 students was the greatest teaching experience of my life. I saw what I wanted for my kids, and for all kids – real-world learning that takes advantage of the latest in technology – but is not about the technology at all.

In the end, what the students liked the most was they had the permission to play. Actually, this is also what the adults liked to – we would often ask, “Can we do this?” – like we have been trained to always find a way and a reason not to try, not to experiment. We all also loved the freedom, choice and responsibility. While students and adults spent much of our time in the virtual world during the project, these bonds have flowed over into the face-to-face world – and we are all still connected.

Ten years later there are still connections with those who participated.  Now in their mid-twenties it is so interesting to see how many of the students used the skills that they learned during the Games in future schooling and careers.  And for me, I was reminded that this is not just all theoretical about learning and schooling.  It can be different.  Ten years later the lessons of the experience still hold.

Here is a TEDx Talk I gave after the Games that shares some more details on the experience:

 

You never really know what will be the defining moments of your career.  Ten years later, I know my participation in the education programs of the 2010 Winter Olympics was one of those experiences for me.

It usually starts off the day before with someone sending me a Direct Message on Twitter asking if I have seen the forecast. Any snowflake in the 7-day forecast will often warrant a message.  And then it picks up.  I get screenshots from weather apps on a regular basis. There are emails, lots of emails – mostly about the poor conditions that are anticipated on the roads.  By this point people are often commenting on what a big jerk I am for not closing schools yet.   And then usually by sometime in the evening I get forwarded a link from a petition site with students (and others) looking for a snow day.  HERE is an example of one posted last year that was just continued this year with now close to 4000 signing on.   And I try to take some time to have fun with it.  While I don’t have any snow day parody songs, I do try to post the odd funny gif and bring some joy to the situation.

Of course, the truth of it is that making snow day decisions sucks.  You can be sure that half the people think you make the wrong decision.  I get lots of emails about how decisions get made – and it is a bit of art and science.  The goal is to keep schools open whenever possible.  Snow days are a huge inconvenience, and often force parents to take unplanned time off of work, and have huge ripple effects beyond just our schools.  That said, we have to be sure it is safe for our staff, who often travel from long distances to get to work, and safe for our students and families who need to walk or drive to school to be able to attend.

Now back to snow days and social media.  I wonder if it is just the culture of social media use today, but the comments to schools and districts were often just plain nasty this year.  While I experienced a little of it, others I know got a lot more.  The Abbotsford School District has an awesome Twitter account, and their reaction led them to post the following:


I worry that we think a mob mentality is really the right approach.  And I think as Abbotsford pointed out, we easily forget there are real people behind these decisions.  I have never met anyone involved with a school district who wants to put staff or students in unsafe situations, nor have I found anyone wanting to give out snow days like prizes to be won.  Too often I think that if we just get enough people to show enough outrage the loudest voices will win.  As Abbotsford nicely said – Be kind with your words.

So before you think it is all lost, one final social media story related to the snowfall.  I shared on Twitter parts of an email conversation I had with a student last week – and it went viral.  After our snow day on Wednesday, here is part of the message I got:

Well, unfortunately, Thursday was not a snow day, so I checked in with the student to see how the chemistry test went, and here is his response:

This is the social media world I want to live in.  Where we can have some fun, and be respectful.  Others seemed to like the story as well, as outlets from the NS News, to CTV to Vancouver is Awesome all picked up the story.

So what are the lessons:

  • Superintendents are always wrong about snow days (for some people)
  • We can do better on social media and remember there are people behind the avatars and be a little more kind
  • Enjoy your snow days when you get them, but always find some time to study for your chemistry test

Oh, and I am pretty sure that thing about wearing your pajamas backwards and inside-out doesn’t really work.

My One Word (2020)

The best and worst of being in the world of education is that you are never done.  Teaching in the classroom I felt only as competent as the success of my most recent lesson, as a principal each issue felt like a new referendum of my abilities, and in the district office, I often have said the job does not give me the chance to celebrate, we are always onto what is next.  And all of this is part of what makes education wonderful.

So, that leads into my word for this year – hustle.

This is the 5th 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 last year it was Delight – a new twist on the power and importance of joy.

So why hustle? I like the word because it is not about ability.  Anyone can hustle.  It is one of those traits that is often hard to describe, but easy to see and recognize.  When I think of people who hustle, I can quickly think of 3 or 4 people in my life who live it everyday.

I am reminded of the quote that is often mis-attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”  As different as everyday is in the work of education, a little hustle goes a long way.  And I can find it is always easy to find reasons to be complacent.  Sure someone can say our students are doing great, the system is strong, and we can just do next year like last year and we will be fine.  Or you can hustle.  I often use this blog to test areas from robotics, to e-sports, to physical literacy and flex time.  We always have to be hustling – trying to figure out if there is a better way to do the work we do, and to keep looking at what might be the next few things we should be doing.

In our schools I think our students appreciate the hustle and it is positive modeling for them.  A little hustle goes a long way.  Most of my favourite students have been those who hustled.  What is also nice about the word is while it fits really nicely with my professional work, is also easily applies to those other top life priorities that we are all always trying to keep going.  The hustle creates energy and brings joy.  Last year was great, but I don’t want to do it all over again the same.

So here is to you a year of always hustling at work, with my own school studies, in my volunteer life and everywhere else. And hopefully being a good model for those hustling around me.

Welcome to the 10th “Top 3” List.  When I started blogging, one of the things I started with was this year-end list.  Everyone loves a year end list!  And this was intended to be a little different.  The categories change every year, some are education related, some are just silly.  To those who have been here from the beginning, or those who have joined along the way – thanks for being part of this digital community.  We do some serious work but do try to not take ourselves too seriously.

Previous Top 3 lists for:  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. It is Time to Ban Cell Phones in Schools?
  2. What do Superintendents do in the Summer?
  3. Reflecting on Competition

My post on cell phones really generated a lot of interest.  My thanks to the AASA who asked me to update the post for their School Administrator Magazine (HERE).  I often get asked how I come up with topics.  I am lucky that I have a lot of people around me that make suggestions.  The cell phone post was a result of me making a joke on Twitter around cell phones in schools, and then realizing sometimes there is a fair bit of truth when you try to make a joke.

Top 3 New Things I got to see when I was at work:

  1. Physical Literacy –  This work is the real deal.  I wrote my most recent post (HERE) on what I am seeing in our classrooms.  This is not just doing PE better.  Nor is it just getting kids to run around.  This is far more accessible that PE in a gym and far more purposeful than just being active.  And the work is having a huge impact in our district.
  2. FIT – Flexible Instructional Time.   The revised curriculum created new opportunities.  It started with thinking about careers differently.  And led to 32 minutes each day in each of our high schools.  This time gives students something they have continually asked for whenever we survey them – some flexible time as part of their formal school day where they have choice and voice – to complete assignments, collaborate with peers and receive extra help in a particular area.  HERE is a post I wrote on this earlier this year.  Even in just a few months, this has really helped shift culture in our high schools.
  3.  New People in New Places –  Good teams don’t rebuild they reload.  That is how I feel about our leadership team in our district.  And while I am now in my 10th year in my position, we have had the chance to continue to elevate and recruit some amazing people to our leadership team.  This year saw new Directors of Instruction with Ian Kennedy and Sandra-Lynn Shortall both starting in their jobs.  We also had a number of new school principals and vice-principals.  Yes, we lost some great people, but new people bring new ideas and new energy and that helps keep our organization fresh. Since I am not going anywhere I like that I can continually be surrounded by people from various places who want to push us forward.

Top 3 Things I got to go do when I wasn’t at work:

  1. KFC in Kentucky – Yes, I am still a vegetarian.  But getting to sit at a table with a life-sized replica of the Colonel at the Louisville Airport was kind of cool.
  2. Running in San Antonio – Our family runs (well actually races) every New Year’s Day.  This past year we were in San Antonio over the break.
  3.  Star Wars Ride-I know it kind of got mixed reviews, but the immersive experience of being in the Star Wars world at Disneyland was a lot of fun.

 

 

Top 3 Culture Building Traditions we have in West Vancouver Schools:

  1.  Opening Day – We are lucky in a district with about 7500 students and about 1000 staff we can come together for special events.  On the Thursday before Labour Day we have a district professional development day where we spend time for the first couple hours celebrating our district and being inspired for the year ahead.  Speakers in the past have included Stephen Lewis, Sir Ken Robinson, Natalie Panek and Jennifer James.  We try to link to a theme for the year – this past year it was physical literacy.  In August of 2020 it will be diversity and inclusion.
  2. Christmas Party – I know the office Christmas Party is largely a relic. We have this fun tradition of a district-wide party in early December where we celebrate the season, raise money for a local charity and raffle off holiday baskets to staff.  It is always a great way to get into the spirit of the season and a nice tradition that brings people together from across the district.
  3. Retirement Party – You can retire, but you never really leave the family.  While everyone hosts events for their retirees each year, the West Vancouver one always invites back former staff to join.  Some staff who have been retired for decades would never miss the annual event.  It is these types of connections that help newer and younger staff see the lifelong bonds that can come from teaching and community.

 

Top 3 Concerts I got to see:

  1. Paul Simon – while I got to see him retire from touring in the fall of 2018, it was a real treat to see him do a couple shows in California for environmental charities this summer, including his headliner act at Outside Lands Music Festival.  Hoping he might re-appear again somewhere this summer.
  2. Cher – I have never been a huge Cher fan, but her concert was incredible.  You got all the hits, and the costumes, and the over-the-top sets and a couple very cool duets with Sunny.
  3.   Judy Collins –  Judy is 80.  And she is still amazing.  Send in the Clowns, Both Sides Now and Amazing Grace. Wow.

I am a big live music fan.   I did also get to see “cooler” artists like Childish Gambino, Kasey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood and others but it is the storytellers and performers I grew up with while listening to the records with my parents that are still the best to see in concert.  Music has a way of taking you back to the first time you heard the songs being played.

Top 3 Somewhat Odd Lessons I have for any new superintendent:

  1.  If you asking people to give their time to come to workshop – no sandwiches.  Everyone loves pizza or sushi.
  2.  Never let yourself win any competition.  I know we are competitive people but nobody wants the superintendent to win the Halloween costume contest.
  3. Always have a $5 bill in your pocket when you visit schools.  There will often be a bake sale or something similar, and you have to make a purchase.  And you can’t ask for change.  Take this advice from someone who has bought several $20 brownies, rice krispie squares and chocolate chip cookies over his time.

Top 3 Quick Takes I have based on my school visits:

  1. Technology is really becoming invisible in classrooms.  This has been a change in the works for a number of years, but when I am in school I don’t really notice it.  It is there – there are students on laptops and other tools in use, but it is never the lead of the story in classrooms.  Listening to students they are not using “virtual” or “digital” ahead of classroom, portfolio or folder – a sign that it is just become normal.
  2.   Indigenous learning is expected across all grades and curriculum.  The curiosity of students and parents to better understand our land and our history is incredible.   We are lucky to have some wonderful leaders in our district and great partners in the Squamish Nation who are bringing this work alive in our schools.
  3.   Students want flexibility – sort of.  There is an ongoing tension between students desire for more flexibility in how they learn and when they learn, and the comfort they have from traditional structures.  We see this with the FIT time at high schools.  This is just a very modest change, and most have really embraced it.  Why FIT has been particularly successful is that the adults have been so committed to the change.

Top 3 TED Talks that I Have Told You to Watch Before and I am Doing it Again:

  1.  The difference between winning and succeeding

2.   3 Ways to Spark Learning

3.  Every Kid Needs a Champion

Top 3 Trends Our Students Are Part of that We Need to Pay Attention to:

How is this for an eclectic mix – from the  environment, to video games, to mental health . . .

  1. The Climate Crisis –  While16-year-old  Greta  Thunburg  became  the  symbol of the movement around the world, it is one that has legs in every community.  Students are asking hard questions and this is only going to increase.
  2. E-Sports – I wrote about e-sports earlier this year (HERE).  It is easy for adults to dismiss what is going on, but the stats are staggering and something we all should get us all to pay attention.
  3.  Well being – Students are becoming more comfortable talking about their mental health, and describing what they need to be supported.  And the adults are getting better with discussing their well being.  From the courses we offer to when we offer them, to the flexibility for students – in our commitment to well being, many of our structures will be up for debate.

Top 3 Ways I pushed myself in 2019 (these were all my goals in last year’s Top 3):

  1. Start my doctorate –  12 months ago I was just getting going.  Now I am half way through my course work and I am beginning to work on my major exploration:  How do BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time?
  2. More real visits –  It can be hard to make time for real visits.  These are what really help you understand what is going on in classrooms.  I enjoyed being in the water with our FAST students (lifeguards in training) this fall, and checking out our drama students at Sentinel and being part of several physical literacy lessons across our elementary and high schools. These visits give me great perspective on what is working in our classrooms.
  3. Focus on assessment –  We are having this great conversation around assessment right now – from students, to staff to parents.  Somewhere is all the excitement around report cards and letter grades over the last few years, this conversation moved to the background – it is now in the foreground again.  It is actually much harder than a conversation around letter grades – it is far more grey.  But it is a great focus for us to have.

Top 3 Things I am Going to do Less of Next Year:

  1. Social Media –  My interest in definitely decreasing all the time.  I check-in to my Facebook account once or twice a week.  I have shrunk my Instagram community and still use Twitter for work, but not nearly as much as I used to.  And I don’t think I am ready for a Tik Tok account.
  2. Coaching Youth Sports –  When I am not working, I spend most of my time volunteering in the gym with kids.  The modern sports parents are wearing me out.  Their intent focus on their own child and their visions of stardom and lack of appreciation for volunteers is sad.  Working with kids on teams still brings me great joy – but I am going to definitely be more choosy.
  3. Inviting People to Meetings –  I get it, when I invite you to a meeting, you feel obligated to attend.  I will do better about not having meetings for meetings sake.  I already have a reputation for short meetings and celebrating meetings that end early, now I need to get better at finding other ways that meetings to move work forward.

Top 3 Things I want Santa to bring for our school district:

  1. West Van Place for Sport –  We have been trying to build an artificial turf field and track in West Vancouver for close to a decade, but it took a huge step forward this year.  We can actually see the finish line.  It is truly a community effort with the School District, Municipality, Community Foundation all making sizable contributions.  And through a matching funds program from the Municipality they have been joined by many local business partners including Onni and Park Royal.  We are getting this done in 2020! Click HERE to learn more . . . we are still looking for someone who wants to make a donation to have their name on the marquee.
  2. A new Sentinel– I think a new Sentinel Secondary School has been on the wish list longer than the track.  Sentinel is a great school ready for an upgrade.  It is always challenging to know how much to invest in a school knowing it might be replaced in a few years.  We can always hope Santa has a Sentinel project in his bag of goodies!
  3.  A Provincial Teachers Contract –  The support staff have settled both locally and provincially this past year.  And our teachers have settled their issues that are bargained locally this year as well.  Hopefully early in 2020, a provincial teachers settlement will be reached and we can continue to focus on students and learning without the distraction of labour challenges.

Thanks for making it right to the end.  All the best for a wonderful 2020!

Chris

Photo by Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

I feel as a society we are tackling the current challenges around physical activity and the need to be more active a bit like we did with the “just say no” drug education in the 1980’s. If we only told people that they were more likely to suffer a variety of health conditions and potentially die at an early age, they would wake up and change their ways. If only we produced more reports on health that said we were failing, we would stop failing. It is from this backdrop that I am so excited about what we are doing with physical literacy in our schools.

We know health guidelines say that kids should get at least 60 minutes of exercise a day, and we also know that few are doing it.  And there is no shortage of blame to go around.  Of course schools get some of it for how we structure our days, and then there is the overly protective pressures in society that leads to kids often not going outside.  And of course there is technology.  Any discussion around kids and activity often turns back to those damn phones!  All that being said, I think we were all shocked in West Vancouver when of the 1580 elementary aged students we tested a couple years ago on their abilities to run, hop, throw, kick a ball and walk backwards heel-to-toe, only 13 could competently perform all five tasks.

I appreciate that if we were talking about reading or math these kind of statistics would be reason to declare an emergency.  And we do think this work is as important as other foundation skills.  Instead of bemoaning the state of kids today – we got on with teaching them.  In just one year we were up to 65% of students being able to complete all the tasks.  The grade 2 students who never learn to kick a ball, become the high school students who don’t participate in soccer intramurals, the primary students who never learn to throw a ball are the ones who fake an illness to get out of softball in PE class, and those who don’t learn to properly run or hop, limit the athletic social events they will ever want to participate in.  But wow, what a difference we are seeing.  From agility ladders in hallways, to outdoor circuits to purposeful teaching of physical literacy skills – we have a team of teachers changing the culture.   And it is more than just getting kids to run around.  That is important, but we also need to teach kids the core skills of physical literacy.  It is great to have silent reading so all kids get time to read, but we also need to teach reading skills – the same theory holds for physical literacy.  And don’t be fooled into believing physical literacy can only happen in a gym.  The game changer is seeing people embed it in their work right in classrooms.

K Class Circuit at Ridgeview Elementary

We want students to develop physical literacy skills for their lives. If not at school, some kids will never have places to develop these skills.

And so interesting to read a Canadian study (HERE) published just last month that finds that there is a link between resilience and physical literacy among children, encouraging the importance of physical literacy development in schools.

I have always been struck by the simple idea – when will what we know change what we do.  We know physical literacy matters for youth.  For their physical health, their mental well-being, the academic success and their enjoyment in life.  And we are seeing some simple strategies are making big impactful changes across the district.  It is exciting to work in a district that is changing thinking and practice with physical literacy.

I am so lucky to work with a team including Diane Nelson, Erin Crawford, Amber Pascual, supported by Drew Mitchell and professional and researchers across Canada – all working together in West Vancouver to make this happen.  And teachers who are embracing the work.  When I get asked about what is new in West Vancouver, I tell people you need to see what we are doing with physical literacy.

 

At first I was just going to skip over writing a post on memes, it seems so trivial, but the more I have read and learned, the more I realized how important it is to shine a light on the not so frivolous parts of this topic.

This past week I have been struck by the story out of Vancouver and the spreading of offensive “memes” by students. And while this was in Vancouver, and was at an independent school, I think we all know these kinds of activities transcend schools and geographic borders. Media or other commentators who are trying to restrict this conversation to being one about “boys” or “private schools” or “bad parenting” are not following along with what is going on these days on the internet.

This is not my typical blog post, it is more of a call to action in our community and more broadly.  I do think this is all of our business.  We need to do more to collectively focus on ensuring our digital spaces and engagement reflect the same values as our physical spaces – ones rooted in care for each other. And that all of us (students, teachers, parents, community) continually ask ourselves if what we are posting online is truthful, is kind and adds value.

Over the past decade during my time as Superintendent I have taken great pride in our work as digital leaders in education. I see us creating opportunities for learning that are aligned with the world in which our kids live in. It has been incredibly exciting to see the transformation in our classrooms. For example, hundreds of students are engaged in coding and robotics, areas which barely existed five years ago.  I see the relevance to our students learning every day.   It is this leadership that leads me to want to flag this issue.

As an American colleague of mine, Bob Ryan, recently noted in a message to parents, sharing digital content on phones and social media is not a new behavior. But there is an increasingly prominent “meme culture” where posting, liking and saving funny, tasteless or offensive content has become part of regular social life. Unfortunately, too many people can have a difficult time separating what is funny from what is inappropriate, or even horribly offensive. Probably all of us who engage in Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram have seen these kinds of examples. The impact that this sharing can have is often lost on people.

This is not brand new,  it was the spring of 2017 when the story broke  Harvard rescinding admission letters for 10 students because of offensive memes they shared in a private Facebook group. This story, which gained attention across North America, saw high school seniors posting increasingly vile content in an attempt to be quicker, more clever and edgier than each other and earn more social clout.

Last month the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain  (also pointed to me by Bob Ryan) took an extensive look into the Harvard story and  interviewed one of the students involved. The hour-long episode is well worth your time and provides valuable insights into the digital behaviours of teenagers and the complicated social waters they are trying to navigate. At the end of the episode, the host Shankfar Vedantam summarized the situation:

Nearly everything that everyone says on social media goes unnoticed. And everyone can see you’re getting no traction. This can drive some of us to come up with the edgiest, funniest, hottest takes. Likes and retweets and fire emojis become currency, signaling our worth to those around us. Sometimes the things we post work, and we become stars. Other times, we fall flat or, worse, my joke sets off your rage. When this happens, it’s no use saying there is even more terrible stuff online. There is only a price to pay. The things we post take on a life of their own, and they can be as permanent as a scar.

I have written recently on this blog a couple posts which also speak to my concerns first on the use of cell phones by parents in schools and then more recently on the important differences between technology and social media.  I encourage parents to have discussions with your children about the apps they use, the photos they have and the content they share. I encourage our staff to continue to find powerful ways to teach using technology and model the power of digital tools. And I encourage students to pause before you share.

Daniel Panneton wrote earlier this year in the Globe & Mail:

Even though memes may appear to be the height of triviality, that’s exactly what makes them such serious vectors for dangerous worldviews. Because they’re often composed of inside jokes and hidden references, the ability to read their subtext is now a form of cultural knowledge itself. Meme literacy, which would have been an improbable phrase just a few years ago, has become an essential skill that must be expected of educators, historians, journalists, politicians and law enforcement.

We are just a small part of a larger conversation that needs to be had about how we treat each other in the digital world. We have seen the best and worst of this in our recently concluded Federal election and in the daily news in our country and others. But just because it is a larger conversation doesn’t mean we should ignore it.  And we have an absolute responsibility in schools to insert ourselves into these conversations.  These are all our kids.

For local readers, know that I have had recent conversations with our District Parent Advisory Council about how we can find learning opportunities for parents around students and their digital activities.  This is not just a school issue, but how we treat each other is an everyone issue.

I share the seemingly global angst with social media. These spaces whether Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat are not what many would have hoped they would be even a few years ago.  And yes, while schools engage in these spaces, they are not core to the learning experiences of our students.  But when I hear that technology is a real problem in our schools and then critics go on to list the problems of social media, they are not being fair to the more broader application of modern learning tools that has come with technological change in the last decade.  We have ongoing work to do with social media and how we treat each other online, but we can say this and still champion the amazing ways technology is being used in our classrooms.

In schools this fall, I have been so impressed with how seamlessly modern tools are used in classrooms.  Whether it is students on their laptops in their Google suite of tools, doing science via Discovery Techbook,  3D printing, VR (virtual reality) goggles or a host of other tools their use to enhance learning and engage students is impressive.  Then there are entire areas, like robotics that simply don’t exist without modern tools.  I often note how less noticeable our digital use is in classrooms.  Technology use is not an event that happens in a specific place, whether in a grade 4 class or a grade 12 class, students often bounce back and forth between technologies, traditional pen and paper and collaborative work – often in unison.   I think for some students they may use technology less now than five years ago, but it is far more purposeful when the do.  No elementary classes are staring at screens in computer labs several times a week.

It has become popular to pile-on technology as a real problem.  We need to be more specific.  Social media, and its use by kids and adults, raises a lot of questions.  We had a recent threat incident in our community that spread via social media from kids and parents in minutes.  And even after the issue was dealt with, the social media continued to echo with hurtful comments and lies.  And yes, schools have ownership over some of this.  We are places where students can learn good habits and have behaviours reinforced, and the community also have great responsibility when it comes to this.  Ten years ago I would say since parents are not on social media they looked to their friends as guides.  Well, now parents are on social media and they need to be good models for their children on how to use these powerful tools.

We have to be smart enough to separate the amazing advances in our classrooms that would not be possible without technology, while still realizing all of us of all ages, are going to have to come to grips with how we treat each other and respond to events in our digital social spaces.

 

Over the last few weeks I have been asked a number of questions regarding the cell phone ban in Ontario schools.  Of course the ban is not really a ban.  According to  the CBC story on it , “The directive says students can only use personal mobile devices during instructional time if it is for educational purposes, for health or medical purposes, or for special needs.”  That is pretty much how things are in all the classrooms I see in BC, and to the best of my understanding the general guidelines across the country.  Technology is intended for learning.

And while the headline of banning cell phones nicely ignites people who hold views on both extremes,  the reality I am seeing in schools is that teachers and schools have put guidelines in place and worked on building culture with students that make cell phones a part of school as needed.  And this is nothing new, I was blessed to work at Riverside Secondary in Port Coquitlam more than a decade ago and even at that time they were figuring out thoughtful ways of using handheld devices in classrooms.  Saying “ban cell phones” in schools is one of those things that wins easy political points, but like “the hat rule” or “proper dress codes” or “making homework mandatory” or any other of these kind of catch phrases are actually kind of silly.  Schools, and our world, is far more grey.

So OK, if this is what I think, why do I think it is time for a ban of cell phones in schools?

Well, I am actually not talking about the students.  I find generally students have it figured out pretty well.  I have been wondering about a parent ban of cell phones in schools.  It is funny that one of the most common reasons I hear from parents around banning student cell phones is “my kid texts me in the middle of the day when they should be learning.”  I always think, well, why do you text them back.  Or often, why did you text them in the first place?

We have a generation of parents who lack presence when they are at school.  I see this at parent nights, with parents scrolling their social media as the Principal speaks, at Parent Conferences when they are texting to organize something later in their days while their child is reviewing her work, and I really see it at school sporting events and school productions.  Look up in the crowd at any elementary or secondary basketball game and you will see parents plastered to their screens, maybe looking up when their son or daughter is on the floor.  And at school productions they are using these phones and other hand-held gizmos to stand-up at the front, often blocking the audience to record the event.

Imagine if schools were a cell phone free zone for parents.  I often say that parents could learn a lot from their children regarding technology use, I also think they could learn a lot from their children about when not to use their technology.

This is a little tongue and cheek, and I don’t really want to ban parents from their devices, but I do want all of us with children in schools, who actually so rarely get to visit these schools, to better treat this time as a gift, and to be a bit more present when we do.

Doesn’t everyone in education just go on vacation June 30th and then show up the Tuesday after Labour Day?

Not really. We know it is not true for basically anyone in the education system. And it is definitely not true for superintendents. If there was ever an off-season for school districts in the summer, with the growing popularity of summer learning, we are really a year-round enterprises now.  Almost 20% of our students take offerings in the summer.  In addition, there is the weird acts of both closing up one school year and simultaneously opening another – everything from staffing to finances to facility improvements.

But the speed is different.  There are fewer evening commitments and chances for down time and holidays. For me it means I get to read some books that at some point I have been given as must-reads.  This summer for me that included:

When – The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Planning by Daniel Pink

Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Darkness to Light by Lamar Odom

Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak (actually just finishing this one)

I have written before a bit (here) of my experience of going back to school, and that continued this summer.  I know many of my educator friends who use part of their summer to take courses.  And as hard as I found taking classes in the winter, it was actually easier than in the summer.  The lack of structure in the summer and typical routines made organizing time and assignments more challenging.  I will have more to write about the experience.  At the end of summer, I am now 1/3 of the way through my course work at the University of Kansas towards my doctorate.

And summer is not all working, reading and taking courses.  I had the pleasure of traveling along with a group of teenagers to several basketball tournaments across the United States.  And I found they had great respect for my important position as a school superintendent – nothing better describes this than these photos from a plane trip we were on from Chicago to Louisville.

And . . . .then I mostly waited for you all to come back.  It was lonely some days at the Board Office.  I know you might not believe me, so here is a little video (a preview of Opening Day for my West Vancouver friends) of how I spent my summer waiting for everyone to come back this week:

I launch into next week with our staff and the following week with our students excited and ready for a great year ahead.  I am excited about our new look for career education, the ongoing commitment to physical literacy and just the buzz that comes from the start of a school year.  Hopefully your summer has got you ready for your best year too!

With change comes opportunity.

As British Columbia has engaged in a learning transformation over the last decade I have felt the continual tension.   We can either try to do the new thing just like we did the old thing, or see the new thing as an opportunity to think differently.

I have heard some say that inquiry is “what we have always done in our classes” while others have dramatically shifted their classes to increase student choice, voice, and agency under the guise of inquiry.

With curriculum, some argue that it is not really new, it is just the same curriculum organized differently.  Others suggest that the focus around big ideas is a dramatic move away from a focus on volumes of content to one of skills and competencies.

The same conversation has happened in so many areas – is the technology changing the classroom, or is it really just a new “version of pen and paper” as I have heard in some classes.  Is self-regulation about students having greater ownership over their ability to regulate and be in a zone for learning, or is it just new language around getting kids to behave in class?

The revised careers curriculum which sees us move away from Planning 10 and Grad Transitions to Career Life Education and Career Life Connections is another one of these tension points.  And again the same comments have been made.  I have heard they are really just the same courses with new names and that nothing needs to change.

Well, we disagree.

We see this change in Career Education not as a chance to make the new courses fit with what we have always done, but to do things differently.  And this change in Career Education is an opportunity to look differently at time in our schools, and how we use it, and listen to our students.  Beginning in the Fall all of our secondary schools will have new bell schedules that provide students with a 32 minute block of flexible instructional time (FIT) each day.  This will give students time to address the new Career Education competencies and content.  But it will also do more than that.  It will give students something they have continually asked for whenever we survey them – some flexible time as part of their formal school day where they have choice and voice – to complete assignments, collaborate with peers and receive extra help in a particular area.

Our system is very much built on a factory model.  Of course, no one really believes that all students need 120 hours to “learn” any particular course, some need far less and others need far more.  This change begins to recognize these differences.  Some students will need to spend time in math, while others will choose to spend their time in art or working on careers.

We regularly hear from our students (and their parents) of the increased stresses and pressures on today’s learners.  As we have listened to students, parents and staff this year – one comment I heard numerous times really struck me, “Students just need time to breathe.” Again, this is just a small change, but hopefully it will help – and also help the mental well-being of their teachers who can give directed support during the school days, perhaps freeing up some of their lunchtimes and after schools often dedicated to helping students.

FIT is not revolutionary.  Dozens of high schools in the Vancouver area have found ways to build regular flexible time into their schedule.  It is new for us.  And while I know some want us to completely revolutionize the learning structures of school, we continue to look for ways to make real changes that give students greater agency over their own learning.

We could have just tried to do the new things in old ways, but we are seizing the opportunity to do things differently.  As someone who believes in students and their teachers, I am excited for the Fall.