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Posts Tagged ‘SD45’

Photo - Rob Newell

Photo – Rob Newell

Personalized learning has become one of those terms that can often elicit eye-rolls in a crowd of educators – so used and overused that it has been a word used synonymously with almost all current educational reforms.  As I have joked, there are very few pushing for de-personalized learning.  I have written a number of times on the topic, including specifically here in the fall of 2010, when I tried to wrestle with a definition.

This past week as part of a feature in the North Shore Outlook I was extensively quoted on what I see with personalized learning and just what it means.  Here is the text:

Not all kids learn the same way. Traditional education hasn’t always had space to address these differences, but now the West Vancouver School District is looking to change that.  It’s using personalized learning to shift the emphasis from traditional learning to an  inquiry-based system that focuses on learning  how to learn.
Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of Schools for the district, has been at the forefront of the push towards personalized learning for the last five years.

Things are changing so quickly that the key facts to know right now just won’t be the same in five years,” says Kennedy.  “The topics will be different. The content will be stale.” Rather than teach facts that will likely be obsolete in short order, the district is focusing instead on teaching students how to learn, rather than what to learn, in order to encourage them to continue learning far beyond their time at school.  “Knowledge has become so easily accessible it changes the dynamic between teachers and students,” says Kennedy.

“In a more traditional classroom, students might take notes or answer questions at the end of the chapter. In an inquiry-based classroom… They start with an overarching theme, question or challenge and go from there – this encourages ownership, exploration and curiosity.” Kennedy adds that this approach often results in powerful demonstrations of learning in the form of projects, productions and exhibitions that show real sophistication.

Part of personalized learning includes different types of learning environments and opportunities for students.  Technology is a big part of that. All schools  in the district have wi-fi and teachers are provided with mobile devices to use in one-to one learning environments.  Students are encouraged to bring their own devices, however, the district also provides devices for children who can’t afford their own or have forgotten theirs at home.  But there are also other changes in classroom design, such as offering different work station options or the ability to opt-into an outdoor class rather than an indoor one.

“Personalized learning is about giving students more control – more choice – over what they’re learning, how they’re learning it, even when they’re learning… so students feel it’s more theirs,” says Kennedy. “It’s also important for students to know what they’re working on, how they are doing, and what they need to do
next to improve.”  “It changes the students to being more the owner of the learning experience. The teacher spends more time guiding, rather than directing, learning.”

Parents also have a key role to play in the district’s approach to learning. Educators hope that parents will have conversations with their children to discover what types of learning approaches work best for them so that teachers can address each child’s specific learning needs.

The district is already seeing success with the new model. “We have a long history of very successful students,” says Kennedy. “We’re finding that some students that might not have been as engaged are finding this approach more appealing. In some classrooms students are coming up with their own questions.”

Still a work in progress, but it is important to continue to talk about the future we are trying to create and put depth behind the terms we are using so often.

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Chalmers1

“Just what is it that superintendents do?”  is a question I am asked a lot by my kids as I try to explain to them what it is exactly I do. I have also written before the job looks quite different district-to-district, person-to-person, and  like many professions, there are many ways of doing the job right. There are the very public parts of the job including running the daily operations and working with the elected Board of Education. Then there are the other tasks — we all have them in our jobs — items that aren’t bulleted points in a resume, but are often the very best part of the job even if they do take up a lot of time.

The superintendency is such a wonderful role and for many reasons.  Here are just five of the things I get to do that, for me, make it such a great job:

Taxiing Guest Speakers – On a fairly regular basis we have speakers who present to staff, parents or students in our district.  Quite often I get to pick them up or drop them off at the airport. While everyone can listen to the speaker and maybe have their questions answered, I get to have 30-60 minutes of one-on-one time with an amazing thinker.  So, whether that is talking with cultural anthropologist, Jennifer James, about US politics or with self-regulation guru, Stuart Shanker, about the effects of video games on our kids, it is such a treat.

Greeter of Principals for a Day – Most of our elementary schools have a student who is”Principal for a Day” at some point during the year. It is an opportunity for a student to make some one-day rules in the school and get a sense of what it’s like to be “the boss”. Part of the culture in our district is that the Principal for a Day comes to the district board office to meet with the superintendent. I give them a small gift and a set of business cards. I also enjoy the 10-15 minutes I get to talk with them. While I spend a fair bit of time in classrooms, these interactions are some of the only sustained one-on-one time I have with younger students, and I hear some great insights about our schools, what students are learning and what they value.  And, yes, they are each a sample size of one and they keep the work real.

Graduation Dinner Guest – Every year, I make an effort to go to each high school’s graduation dinner.  I love graduation. I think it is great that I have gone to at least one high school graduation for the past 22 years; first as a Grade 12 student and then in a variety of roles leading up to and including the superintendency. I love the excitement of the students, the pride of the families and now, over time, the changes in what people do and say at the events, like how they dress and how the events are organized. I find graduations are the reflection of communities; ours are all different and all reflective of the communities in which the schools are located. For me, it is always special and a way to connect with all graduating students and families on their biggest night of the year.

School Traveller – There are very few people who spend time in all our schools — I am one of them. This Fall,  I have been in just over half our schools and will be in the others soon. It is so great to see what is happening at one school and connect that work to another. There is amazing work and vibe in our classrooms, and I can help be the connector of this work between our teachers and schools. I get to see students of all ages — again a pretty special opportunity.

Receiver of Good News – Okay, sometimes I am the receiver of challenges, but I also receive a lot of amazing emails; emails from parents who want to be sure someone knows the difference a teacher has made for their child. I receive emails about principals who went above and beyond to help a student get the courses they wanted, and emails that celebrate the amazing learning culture created in our schools. In education, it is often not apparent to us if we are really making a difference, but I do get to hear many of the stories first hand — either with notes sent directly to me or very often cc’d in an email about just something that someone thought the superintendent should know.

It is easy to find the challenges in our jobs, but in mine, it is easy to find the many great joys. I am curious to know what unique tasks people have or do that bring them similar happiness.

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The_real_world_title_card

It is a real honour to speak at many spring graduation celebrations and, while I realize usually nobody is really there to listen to the superintendent, it is a chance for me to share some of my thinking on education, life and the real world.

So, in addition to congratulating our graduates, acknowledging our passionate and giving teachers and thanking our parents for supporting public education in every way in our community, I also tackled the issue of the ‘real world’ this year.  Here is an excerpt from the comments I shared at our graduation ceremonies:

Starting with my own high school graduation in 1991, this is the twenty-fourth consecutive year I have got to attend at least one graduation ceremony.  And, as much as our world has changed over the last 24 years, from MC Hammer and Sony Walkmans to Pharrell Williams and selfies, graduation is still quite similar – still relevant, still an important mark in life.  It is part congratulations, part acknowledging a transition, and a time to pause and take stock – to be thankful for what has come before and look forward to what is ahead.

I think people who say our job in schools is to prepare you for the real world are wrong.  If we have done it right this year and over the last 13 years, your school experiences have been very much the real world.

There is a notion that school is all about preparation. It really starts early – kindergarten is to prepare you for Grade 1 and it just continues from there.  We start giving you tests in primary grades because you will get tested in older grades and you need to be ready.  Some see school as continuing to prepare you for what’s next and, ultimately, the job of school is to prepare you for life after school.

Actually, when you are in kindergarten you need to be in kindergarten – it is its own thing and not just a preparation for something else. And Grade 12 is also its own thing.  And so, as Grade 12s, I know particularly, in recent months, you have kept one eye on what is next – acceptance letters for university, travel opportunities and job offers that have come forward – sure our job is to prepare you for the real world, but hopefully school has been the real world.

The real world is about community.  The real world is about working with colleagues, making mistakes, learning, trying again – hopefully, that has been your year and your school career.  The real world is the collaboration that leads to the amazing arts performances at your school, the tremendous results in athletic competitions and the determination that leads to outstanding marks in the classroom.

The real world is about learning from wise mentors – and, we are so blessed with amazing, passionate, giving and talented teachers.

So, tonight is less about stepping out into the world, but more about celebrating your place in our world – a wonderful school career and the optimism of what is to come.

It is great to work in the West Vancouver system  — an education system that is not only committed to preparing students for the real world, but is the real world.

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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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comment

Just two years ago, I was able to make a list of all the BC educators who were blogging.  Since then, the numbers have grown exponentially with numbers well into the hundreds of teachers, administrators and others who blog on a semi-regular basis.  It is wonderful to see how many people are sharing their thoughts publicly and modeling for our students the ethical and responsible use of technology, whether it is to build relationships or on how to share their thoughts.

While I have continued to attract more readers to my blog over the year, one trend I have seen is the number of comments on the posts are decreasing.  In past years, posts like this one on school sports and this one on learning in depth generated dozens of comments.  Now, I only receive one or two comments on a post.

This, of course, has made me wonder why?

Here are some of my theories:

My posts aren’t as interesting — Admittedly, I don’t write for the purpose of getting feedback.  I write about topics for a variety of reasons — mostly, I really enjoy the process of trying to work an idea out and put my thinking down and share it.  It is very possible that my posts aren’t as interesting or as engagement-worthy as they once were.  It is easy to default to writing safe posts.  Having had some of my words taken out of context and republished elsewhere, I am more conscious now of what I say and how I say it, and it may be limiting the quality of what I write.

My position limits discussion — It is a real challenge to write about education from inside the system and then invite discussion.  While I know my posts are well-read inside the school district, almost all of the comments come from outside the school district.  I also get it is a no-win situation to comment on a blog written by the Superintendent whether they might be challenging my ideas or supporting them.

The novelty has worn off — Blogging was new and fresh three years ago, but this novelty may have worn off by now.  We are an ever-changing social media society. Perhaps I need to crank up my Instagram presence to increase engagement?

I am not doing my part to participate — My commitment when I started blogging was that for every post I wrote I would comment on three others.  I think it is part of “the deal” about being a member of the community.  Over the last several months I have not lived up to this.  I do feel bad about this.  I read so many interesting posts, so many that help shape my thinking, but I don’t often take the time to write a quick response.

Twitter love is the new blog comment — We seem to be shortening our thinking to 140 characters.  Perhaps a quick comment on a RT (Retweet) is all that can be expected now.

So much to read, so little time to write — With the huge growth in the number of people blogging about education, it is exhausting trying to keep up.

Some People Aren’t Nice — It only takes one time to be personally attacked for a comment on a blog, and that person may never come back.  While education is a pretty safe landscape, there are some who move quickly from challenging ideas to insulting people.  Perhaps this is the reason why I see so many comments on my blogs I share on Facebook — it is a “safer” community with the authentication of IDs.

We Aren’t Good at Commenting — Commenting is difficult to do.  It is something that takes a lot of time when working with students and blogging. When we (students or adults) comment we want to be respectful, make a point that contributes to a conversation and say something to continue the conversation.

I do see the trend across many education blogs of fewer comments.  The danger is that without dialogue our blogs become newsletters.  And, it is the conversations around our blogs which keep them and the ideas alive.  It is great if these conversations happen around the water cooler, or the dinner table, but one of the real attractions to blogging for me is to have thoughtful discussions about interesting topics in the public realm.

I will try to do my part to re-engage with other blogs and be a more regular commenter.  The move to transparency with digital writing is something we should continue to support.

Any other theories why the commenting in the educational blog world seems to be drying up?

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Last year, we began a program that can best be described as “classroom modernization” across the district.  Our Board of Education recognized the importance and education need for the modernization and made a commitment through its budget to support the purchase of technology to support the professionals in our classrooms.

The first decision we made was to ensure all teaching staff had access to a current, mobile device.  While often the focus is on ensuring all students have access to current devices (a continuing effort in our district) we realized that if we wanted classes to be engaging with digital tools, teachers needed to have access and feel comfortable with them as well.

The next decision was to give teachers a choice in their devices.  Just as learning is personalized for students, we know that teaching is different and personalized for each teacher.  In previous practice, when (if) we gave out the technology, we would have given everyone the same technology and lockdown the device — with device management being the priority.  Instead, we gave teachers choices that included iPads, MacBook Pros, PC Laptops and PC Tablets.

Another key component of this modernization push has been to install wireless projectors in all of our classrooms from Grades 4 to 12 (and deploying existing projectors to primary classrooms) so teachers could then easily display their screens.

Last and most important, we created ongoing training opportunities and support for teachers with their devices through centrally run training, and access to innovation grants —  teacher teams can now work together in an area of focus and often with digital technology.

Of course,  the projects are more complex than one can cover in a single post, but the general premise was simple — we want all teachers to have a common set of tools across schools and grades to effectively work with students.

And after the first year, this is what we heard . . .

Modernization Update

Thanks to Gary Kern for the infographic

83% of teachers said, “it had a positive impact” on their teaching and more than 85% found the impact on student learning to be “somewhat” or “very positive”. They highlighted a variety of positive impacts on their classrooms; their ability to use current content and resources; the opportunity to be innovative and to demonstrate learning in multiple ways and to be able to communicate this to parents. Some comments from teachers about key benefits included:

“It has allowed me to connect with colleagues and parents more efficiently.  It has allowed me to show videos and images to the classes I teach and has given me a great tool to plan lessons.”

“It’s great having my own laptop that I can use at a moment’s notice.  I also really appreciate being given the choice of platforms.”

“I compose lesson plans, assessment and correspondence on the device.  It is the hub of my teaching practice.”

“I move around the school a lot – so having a device that can come with me has made my job significantly more fluid.”

“My courses have gone completely paperless and I am able to incorporate virtual learning on  many levels.”

“I’ve been able to make using technology seamless.”

Of course, there have also been good lessons for areas of improvement and for better support throughout the process.  The exponential growth in technology has strained some of our wireless networks and choked our bandwidth — both areas we are currently working on to address.  We also realize each teacher has a different learning requirement, comfort level and expertise with technology, and for personalizing their teaching.

A modernization project is never quite complete. But, in giving our teachers the tools they need to teach, it has made a huge difference for our students in their quest for relevant, current and connected learning opportunities.

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I find one of my important jobs is getting the ‘tension’ right between schools and the district. Tension is often a word with negative connotations, but it provides a necessary balance throughout the system. People look at me questioningly when I acknowledge and even encourage healthy tension between competing interests (but we are all teammates in the bigger picture).  At each hierarchical level, whether provincial government, school district, school or classroom, there needs to be autonomy to be innovative and creative to meet specific needs. But, the work must be connected because we are more than a collection of independent contractors and a sum of ideas. I described some of this in a previous post on flexibility.

When faced with a topic or issue, I regularly consider if something is primarily a school focus or a district decision.  There are many issues that districts should simply stay out of, and leave to schools who are more nimble and quicker to make changes as required.  Further, for new initiatives to take hold, they often come from passionate teachers, schools or communities and not from a district decree.

Schools tend to look at issues through the lens of the school first and foremost; a district takes a more global view of the school district as a whole and, as a district leader, this is the perspective I take, for example, when a school wants to start a new program.  The case is often made “how it is right for the community,” and I then take into consideration the impact the new program would have on other schools and the district as a whole. Some programs that have been suggested would have done very well, but would have also moved student populations and emptied out other schools — good for the school but bad for the district.  It is also very easy in a district job to think we know best and make more decisions centrally (but we would NEVER want the provincial government to do that with school districts).  There are other times where the district can help transform a community by suggesting the consideration of a new program.  The placement of programs like French Immersion, for example, are often crucial ones for a district to make as they look at the larger view of community interests and population trends.

As a principal, the ‘tension’ was in wanting to be encouraging of innovation, but also wanting to ensure, as a school, we were moving in a common direction.  As a district leader, the ‘tension’ is more in trying to set direction for the district but giving the freedom and flexibility to schools to each have their own “signature” one that is informed but rarely prescribed by the District.

I will often talk about our commitment to inquiry, self-regulation, social-emotional learning and digital literacy.  And, at each school, these ideas will take on different shapes and direction. I use this blog and other opportunities to engage, discuss and draw connections between the different approaches to the same larger goals.  All our schools develop their own narrative, but they are part of a bigger story.  Similarly, I feel that our district is part of a larger provincial story – one of a highly achieving system looking towards where it needs to go next.

I have often heard teachers and administrators say of their districts “I don’t know where we are going.” Hopefully, I am finding ways to be clear about where we are going, but not prescribing a single narrow path to get there. I will continue to consider whether we are getting the ‘tension’ right.

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