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Posts Tagged ‘change’

As the calendar has moved to October, I want to look at three “back to school” stories that have stuck with me this fall. With a new school year comes a flurry of school-related stories in the media.  I always imagine newsrooms across the continent plowing through school websites, newsletters, and getting tips from parents and staff in the community for their September stories.  There is no time during the year that education seems to get more attention as when summer ends, and kids go back to school.  And the best stories that reporters find are often ones that point to a generational shift – that remind the community that schools are not what they used to be.  These are the kind of stories that often elicit letters to the editor and can carry multiple segments on talk-radio.

I often roll-my-eyes at some of the school stories that are actually news in September, but three stood out for me this year – stories about water, dress codes and computer filters (how is that for an eclectic mix?).  And if in the business of September you didn’t see them, they are worth your attention.  So here we go:

Water

The first story, comes from Alexander Elementary School in Duncan, BC.  To quote the CBC story:

A Vancouver Island elementary school is attempting to do away with the lunchtime juice box, encouraging staff and students to go water-only during school hours.

Since classes began this week, Alexander Elementary in Duncan has been conducting an experiment to see if pop, juice and other sugary drinks could be eliminated.

This story garnered some attention by a number of other local and national news outlets.  It did seem to be largely well-received.  The only negative comment I picked up in various media reports was this one from the Cowichan Valley Citizen:

So glad I’m not a student anymore. Won’t allow any choices at all in school anymore yet we can’t figure out why people are unprepared for the real world. The over control of students is becoming quite the systemic issue lately,” Alex Deakins wrote.

For me it seems like such a smart idea.  The school PAC in this case provided water bottles to all the students and just like our work around other areas of physical and mental health in recent years, it seems like a great grass-roots initiative.  And maybe I have a particular affinity to the initiative as for the first time in my life I am trying to bring a water bottle with me everyday to work, and stay away from the Diet Pepsi.

Dress Codes

Stories about dress codes always make great news.  It was Victoria in the news this fall with reports that it was “eliminating” all dress codes except in cases related to the BC Human Rights Code:

Our school is committed to creating a learning community that values diversity and is free of all forms of discrimination. In line with the B.C. Human Rights Code which prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual’s race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and age, (insert school name) promotes a climate of understanding and mutual respect where all are equal in dignity and rights. Actions through verbal and non-verbal communication (including clothing) must demonstrate support for the B.C. Human Rights Code.

I see from the various news stories, this issue has stirred debate and plans for the change have been delayed. As we have been thinking so much more thoughtfully around gender in recent years, from curriculum to washrooms, this is definitely a timely topic.  I am a bit of two-minds.  One, all the energy and emotion that is being spent on this topic is a distraction from discussions about learning, and dress codes are not something that are talked about much in schools anyway, it has been largely a dated idea for decades.  The other being, I side with those who argue that our traditional thinking around dress codes has absolutely had gender bias against young women, and sent some very poor messages to kids.  The idea, which I think was true a generation ago, that girls should dress a certain way as to not distract the boys is a dinosaur from another era.   If you are struggling for dinner party conversation, I suspect asking if your local school should have a dress code will get things stirred up.

Computer Filters

Also this fall it was Hamilton, Ontario that was a hot-bed for debate on internet filtering for students.  As the story reads, students in grade 9 were given Chromebooks and it had parents upset that outside of school they would have complete access to the internet.  To quote the story:

When Tabitha Boronka, 13, started high school this week, the public school board handed the Grade 9 student a $330 laptop she can use to explore everything, anywhere.

Her mother Irina Boronka is displeased. “They can’t just give out unfiltered internet to 13-year-old kids that they can access at any time,” she said.

“Every parent should be concerned about stuff like pornography, gambling, meeting people there, being exploited, all kinds of inappropriate things that I think they should not have any access to at all.”

When I feel like we are finished having these conversations they come back again.  I am not opposed to having filters on the internet.  And I agree that for kids (or heck probably adults too) surfing pornography and gambling sites is not desirable.  We should not use filters as a replacement for teaching and parenting.  If you don’t want your child to be on Netflix, don’t give them your password.  If you don’t want your child texting you from school, stop texting them back.  And if you want your child to be thoughtful about what they do on the internet, talk to him/her about it.  It is hard work but blocking the internet is just false security.  When I see a story about a school district “blocking” sites from Youtube to Snapchat, I know the next day I will probably see a story about students getting around the very expensive security system that was put in place.

And while it is worthwhile to be reminded of the dangers that “lurk” on the internet, let’s be sure to help young people realize the amazing possibilities that come with digital world as well.

Conclusions

So, those are three stories that stuck for me this fall.  I leave the month thinking we should continue to have kids drink more water, we should modernize our thinking on dress codes and we should not turn the difficult job of teaching and parenting over to software that blocks the internet.

Anything in education stand out for you this month in the news?

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There is an absolute rhythm to a school-year. It was more pronounced for me when I was in a school, but I still see it here in the Board Office. There is the excitement of September as students and staff come back fresh off of vacation. There is the reality of late October as interim reports hit in high school. In December – it is a double hit: Christmas Concerts and first-term reports. Then in the new year you can feel this build up towards spring break and then we return in April and the weather (is usually) better, we begin to look for ways to pull the year’s learning together, celebrate achievements and keep and eye on next year.

Of course, during all 10 months (and really all 12 months) we are always asking people to think differently, to push innovation and look for new and better ways of supporting our learners.  I have been wondering if there are specific times of year that people are more curious, more open and more engaged in these conversations.

With only anecdotal data, here are the four key times I find that people want to talk about innovation:

October – By October, the school year has started, and classes are settled.  In high school, it is in October that teachers and departments already need to look ahead to what they might want to offer the following year and begin the approval process.  We are comfortable in what we are doing in October but not to the heaviness of November.

Mid-February – I find January to Spring Break to be the sweet spot for moving ideas forward in schools.  I think students are the most focused during this term.  There seem to be fewer distractions than the first and third term for everyone.  If I was to differentiate this period to the other ones, I see this one as the time when people try new things with their practice.  The other times people are often looking ahead to what they might do next term or next year – in this window of time, people are implementing new ideas – taking what they learned from conferences, workshops or colleagues and trying it in their class.  I would love to see if my hypothesis is true that the most “new stuff” in classes happens in the middle of February.

May –  May feels a bit like October when it comes to innovation.  People are looking at next year but they are not into the field trip / track meet / graduation ceremonies of June.  It seems to definitely be the time when people have one eye on this year and one on next year.  It is the season of teacher postings, administrative changes and also a time when people look at what they might want to do differently.

Last Week of June / First Week of July – I get more emails about new ideas at this time of year than at any other point.  I often say that everyone has some “thinking time” at this point in the year.  School – regardless of your role – is all-consuming so it is finally once report cards are in and classes are being dismissed and before “summer holidays” really kick-in that people have some time to think about what they might want to do differently or put together and email about a proposal they have been ruminating on for a while .

I am sure all jobs have a rhythm.  I do find the seasons in school to be very pronounced.  I see a lot of if it X month, you can be sure that Y will happen.  As we look to move our schools and our system, we need to be conscious of this and look for the windows when people are ready to talk about doing things differently.  I am curious if what I see with the times of year are consistent with others.

 

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The Hat Rule

I loved the hat rule.

As a teacher it was a great rule – it was so easy to tell which students were not in compliance – “Hey, take off your hat!” What was also great about it was that if a student continued to be non-compliant, I didn’t really have to deal with it.  I would just forward the issue on to the vice-principal of the school for them to deal with. What a great system!

Of course there were debates at staff meetings about whether hoodies were hats, what about toques in winter, or if students were outside but participating in a course if the hat rule still applied. Really, it seemed like everyone on staff liked the hat rule.

Once I became a vice-principal I started to like the hat rule less.  All of the sudden all these teachers were referring names of students to me they saw wearing hats.  Other staff members were getting in confrontations with students over hats.  And the initial reaction I was having with students was not “Good Morning” but “Take off your hat”.

This is not a post about appropriate dress nor am I trying to elicit responses about how much better it would be if students respected authority like we romanticize they used to do.  It is not really about hats at all.

We love things that are simple to think about.  I was recently giving a talk about technology and about how messy it is.  Giving students the same technology is not the answer, nor is there any real prescription about how much technology they should be using or the kinds of tools they should be using.  It is messy.

And this messiness can create anxiety for all of us.  We like things that are simple to think about.

And technology, like many things in education is not simple.  There are no easy right and wrong answers.  There are multiple approaches that can be effective.  The same can be said for literacy instruction, supporting aboriginal students or building a vibrant arts program.

I loved the hat rule because it was simple.  It was easy to tell which students were in compliance.  If I walked through the halls and no students were wearing hats, I could have a sense of accomplishment that I was making a difference.

It is not as easy to walk through the halls of a school and know if all students are learning or being successful.

In retrospect, we spent a lot of time talking about hats at staff meetings – I wonder what it would have been like if we spent the time dedicated to “no kids will wear hats” instead dedicated to talking about “all kids will be successful”.

We would love simple answers in education and unfortunately we selected an occupation that is full of messy, tricky and nuanced challenges.

As I said, I am not trying to pick on those of you who love a hat-free building.  Having some simple rules of manners and civility can be good for students and staff.   It is important though to think about if we are talking about issues because they are the easy ones rather than the important ones.

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What’s Your Job?

jobFrom time to time I have taken some of Seth Godin’s ideas and have related them to an educational setting.  In previous posts, I have written about Alienating the 2%, Thinking of School as an Experience, and the Pleasant Reassurance of New Words.

A recent post, What’s your job? struck me.  Teaching, and education in general, is such an interesting profession because there are multiple ways to teach successfully. To realize a common definition of our purpose (just what is the purpose of schooling or education?) and our role (what is an elevator speech for what teachers do?) is almost impossible. Godin writes:

What’s your job?

Not your job title, but your job. What do you do when you’re doing your work? What’s difficult and important about what you do, what change do you make, what do you do that’s hard to live without and worth paying for?

“I change the people who stop at my desk, from visitors to guests.”

“I give my boss confidence.”

“I close sales.”

If your only job is “showing up,” time to raise the stakes.

As a teacher, part of my job was to ensure my History 12 students did REALLY well on the government exam.  I also thought my job was to ensure students were interested in pursuing more learning opportunities in English, Law and History after taking the class (hopefully) than before taking it. I also thought part of my job was to add value and create community beyond what students could find in a textbook or on the Internet.

Now, as superintendent, I think my job is to keep us moving in the right direction. And there are so many moving parts — from politics and labour issues to new curriculum and pedagogies. So, part of my current job is to ensure our district is more than a collection of independent contractors who share a common location. It can be challenging and it is always a balancing act — pushing and supporting, giving attention to one area at the expense of another and then readjusting the whole.

It would be interesting, if not challenging, to put a one-sentence reply on “what we do” on an organizational chart.  So, back to where I started and “What’s your job?” There are so many different, innovative and fitting ways to do the job.  The more superintendents I meet and come to know, the more I am impressed by their approach to leadership and how they have taken ownership of the ‘job’. The person who will follow me will make the job theirs and it will likely look very different from what it is now.  Also likely, the people around them will have different approaches and facets to their jobs. Several highly accomplished superintendents in West Vancouver have shown us this through the years.

I think part of what is exciting and can also drive one crazy about education: is there one inclusive and all-encompassing answer to the “What’s Your Job” question?

I am curious to know what others see as their “job”.

 

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The Halfway Point

halfway

There are some magic numbers in education — two numbers often referenced are 90 and 35.  A teacher can retire with an unreduced pension when their age and seniority equals to 90.  If I continue teaching, this will come for me when I am 56.  If I wait one more year I will have 35 years of teaching, and be able to retire with a full pension. And, why am I thinking and writing about this now? Because this month I am at 17.5 years — the halfway point of my teaching career.  Yes, there are a lot of “what-ifs”, but if I continue to have a career in education, and the rules remain the same, I am likely moving into the second half of my career.

Reflecting on the first-half of my career, my first classroom was an old art room at McRoberts Secondary School in Richmond.  The school was undergoing renovations and the art wing was going to be torn down — in the meantime, I set up my first year classroom.  At 22 years-of-age, I was returning to the junior high I attended with my Social Studies and English background, teaching a load of junior Math and Science.  I absolutely loved that first year. I can remember each of my seven blocks of students.  We had chalkboards, no computers in the classroom, and criteria-based assessment was a huge focus.  I was blessed with great mentors and soaked up professional development.  I remember often defaulting to how I was taught, but I learned so much from some of the amazing teachers in the school.  I have previously documented the change in my teaching here.

Flash forward to today, and I struggle with the question “so, what’s changed?”  I was in three of our West Van schools last Friday and they definitely look a lot different from my first classroom.  Physically, the chalkboards are gone and in many places the white boards are gone as well.  All the teachers have technology.  For me, technology in that first year was mostly email and mark calculations.  Now, I see teachers regularly using video, encouraging students to comment on class blogs and engaging with students and parents as part of the school-home communication cycle.  Classrooms are louder than what I remember from my first classes — I hear the regular buzz of active engagement.  And, the teacher-student relationship is shifting. I could feel the shift when I started teaching — it was different from when I was a student, and it is different again today; there is a sense that students and teacher are all learners — in it together.

I also see some of the same challenges.  Half a career later, we are still looking to improve the transitions from elementary schools and limit the number of different teacher contacts grade 8 students have during the day. We are challenging the structure of the traditional timetable limiting flexibility, to connect the learning experience to what is happening in the world.  To say schools haven’t changed would be unfair.  In some ways they are very similar — the calendar is almost identical to 1996, but in other ways there have been huge changes.  In almost every class I visit I get a sense of increased student ownership of the learning. This was not really part of my thinking as I began my career; I definitely started teaching feeling I needed to be the expert, but that thinking has also changed over time. I also see far more choice in what students are learning, when they do their learning and how they show and share what they have learned.  The access to technology for students is really shifting us from content providers in schools to those who make sense of ideas.  And, it also needs to be noted, that the call for more resources to support our schools is very similar.

All that said, I do hope the second half of my career continues to look very different from the first half.  I am one who thinks the speed of change will increase, but the school as the face-to-face gathering place will remain essential.  It’s not that we haven’t been doing the right things, just that doing the right things is changing — as our world changes.  I am excited by BC’s leadership around curriculum and reporting, heartened by efforts to encourage students to use their technology for learning, and continually bolstered by the fact that those of us who call ourselves “teachers” in this province are a committed, passionate and curious group of people.

Of course, I am also a little depressed — I have somewhat enjoyed the word “young” in the first sentence of descriptions about me, whether it was the young teacher, young administrator, or young superintendent. And, now I am coming to grips with being part of the “older” crowd. I am also asked if I am going to keep doing what I am doing?  I hope so.  I think public education is just about the most important work one can do.  I am looking forward to the next 17.5 years working with everyone who, like me, are in the second half of their careers, as well as all who come after to keep rethinking and evolving our wonderful system.

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Will Richardson’s blog was one of the very first educational blogs I followed.  For close to a decade I have been reading, learning and engaging with Will.  As a school principal at Riverside Secondary, I would regularly send out links to staff from his previous blog (here), and I continue to follow his current blog here.  I have also referenced his book on Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms as a staff study group book.  Along with Alan November, Chris Lehman, Dean Shareski and a few others, he has profoundly influenced my thinking around the possibility of learning and schooling in the future. With this background, I was naturally interested in reading Will’s latest book, Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere.

Rather than as a collection of new ideas, I think most BC educators (and generally across Canada) would see this as a synthesis of many of the conversations educators are now having about the transformation of the education system.  Richardson pushes hard on assessment — a topic currently very much in vogue in BC — with many taking a critical look at class, school and provincial assessments, and more toward less “grading” at the elementary level, and less time and energy sorting and ranking students for post secondary at the high school level.   I would argue while there are elements which would pertain to the Canadian education system, whether it be on assessment, teaching, or a range of other areas he challenges, these concerns are not as profound as what he sees happening in the United States.

For me, I think his book helps to further emphasize that Canada and the United States are moving further apart, and not closer together, in education. While Canada has moved to a post-standardized world, and concepts around personalization, this does not seem so true south of the border.  Without a doubt,  they are some similarities, but these are far less similar now than a decade ago, and are on a path to becoming even less so in the future.  There are conversations, though, looking at transformation happening with educators (and largely through social media) that need to move to the mainstream.

In his section on “New School” Richardson lays out six key themes for educators and the system:

  • Share everything (or at least something)
  • Discover, don’t deliver, the curriculum
  • Talk to strangers
  • Be a master learner
  • Do real work for real audiences
  • Transfer the power

He builds the case around ‘urgency’.  It is one I have previously described as The Urgency of Our Own Kids.  We truly can’t wait 10 or 20 years to engage in the conversation of what learning and schooling can/should look like — this would be too late; too late for our own kids and the decisions they will have to make to set the education course in the next window of time.  Agree or disagree with the book’s premise, it is an important conversation to engage in as educators, parents, students and the community.  Richardson concludes, “Just imagine the learners they could become if we made these skills [using technology to solve real problems and think independently] the focus of our work; if, instead of passing the test, we made those ever-more important skills of networking, inquiry, creation, sharing, unlearning, and relearning the answer to the ‘why school’ question.  Imagine what our kids could become if we helped them take full advantage of all they have available to them for learning.”

For more of a backgrounder on Will (and his book), his recent TEDxMelbourne presentation nicely summarizes some of the key ideas of the book:


If you are interested in reading the book, please consider spending the $2.99 to buy it (here).  Also, a group of us will be discussing the ideas he has raised and are going to try a Twitter book club, this Tuesday, September 25th, 8:00 p.m. PST.  You can follow along using the hashtag #whyschool.

THANK YOU – to all who participated in the conversation.  Please continue to use #whyschool to keep the conversation going.  We will try this again next month with another book to push our thinking.  What a great turnout of people passionate about education.  Thanks to Chris Wejr – here is a link to more than 400 of the comments on the #whyschool chat.

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This past week I had the opportunity to join Radio One’s On The Coast host, Stephen Quinn, and fellow panelists Ann Whiteaker, past president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils; Jerry Li, Grade 11 student from Surrey, and Peter Cowley, Senior Vice-President of Operations and Director of School Performance Studies at the Fraser Institute, in looking at the state of public education in BC. The forum, which was hosted at Vancouver Technical Secondary School in Vancouver, used the tagline “Is BC’s Public Education System Broken?”  Unfortunate, because while I do appreciate the question makes good media sense, it is not a productive starting place for a conversation about what we need to do to improve upon one of the world’s top public education systems.

I would have liked more of a chance to explore the system we want, to have engaged on how to keep it moving forward, and to discuss what a greater focus on the pedagogy and practice that will be required for schooling in our future world would look like. However, the forum did highlight the passion of those who work and participate in the public education system in British Columbia.  Hopefully, there will be more public input and conversations soon (and more listening to the voices of young people!) focussing on the learning our kids need and the education system this will require.

The forum podcast is available here (the forum was held in hours two and three,  though there is a good interview with the Ministry of Education’s Superintendent of Achievement, Rod Allen, in hour one). There were also active, and good conversations on Twitter, which one can still find by searching #otcforum. Several thoughtful reflections on the event have also been received, including this one from Jenny Arntzen.

Finally, on this topic, in advance of the session, each of the four panelists was tasked with the homework of putting together two minutes of material describing the greatest strengths and weaknesses of British Columbia’s public education system.  The notes I prepared for the conversation are below:

The greatest strength in BC is our consistent, high levels of achievement; we do really well for most kids – from graduation rates to international assessments – we are one of the top performing jurisdictions in the world. Educators from around the globe flock to BC to learn our secrets, and international students, for example, see our schools as highly desirable.

We have an incredibly diverse clientele, far more diverse now than even 10 years ago; we have been challenged by funding, yet our achievement levels have continued to improve.

And at its core, this is all about outstanding teachers and administrators – highly-skilled, dedicated, passionate teachers investigating new ways – embracing technology, and giving so much to the life of the school from athletics to the arts.  There is nothing more important than the connection teachers make to students and we get that right.  There is a total commitment to doing the right thing for every student – it is very impressive.

The system is not broken.

Ironically, this strength is also a weakness.  It is hard to transform a system that is highly successful – why change when we are doing well?  We have to come to grips with the understanding that while it may be reassuring for our kids’ schooling to look a lot like our schooling looked like, this will not prepare our kids for the world that we are in and they are entering.

We need to transform the system to a new place – more of just the same is not going to make us better; we need to connect and network the brilliant pockets of innovations blossoming around the province.

We need to address the increasing relevance and engagement gap for kids – particularly as students move to high school – kids tell us their engagement is waning.

We need to ensure the system is reflective of the world we live in with an increased focus on skills and competencies, real world learning and less content focussed.

We need to better figure out how to meet the needs of students that don’t see university as their first option after Grade 12.

To be very clear, we are in this transformation from a position of huge strength – becoming a better version of us.

Hopefully, this is the first of many opportunities this year to move conversations about public education in BC to the mainstream.

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