Democracy works best when we have the leisure to do some hard thinking together. ~Deborah Meier~
Of all the issues we deal with as a school bullying is, by far, the most volatile and and delicate. In the range of issues I manage as our principal it fits into that box labelled ’important and urgent’. The reasons for this can be rhymed off by most of us, parents educators and students, with fluency; perhaps not with the urgency and potency of the poetry that is linked to this post.
We all know that ‘bullying’ is an issue in schools. We know this because bullying is an issue in our society and schools are nothing more than a DNA samples of our communities; with one important difference, of course. Unlike our communities, in schools our children co-mingle and co-exist in very close proximity, sorted by age with adult supervision that is far different, in both ratio and role, than they experience in their families and homes.
It is in our public schools that our children receive their first, and longest lasting, impressions of what the ‘real world’ is all about; struggles, joy, despair, triumph, cruelty, justice and injustice- all played out on a daily basis. I’m pretty certain that each of us has as a goal the elimination of bullying, it would be pretty hard to advocate for this type of behaviour. But, this goal is both complex and demanding- and achieving it will require that we make some significant changes to the way we operate our schools.
Many of our most deeply and dearly held school traditions will need to be examined if we really wish to tackle this issue here at Park Ave. PS. The emphasis on competition, incentives and rewards; reflected in practices like honour rolls and awards; though greatly appreciated by the ‘winners’, do need to be examined. If we set as our common goal the creation of of a school that is truly inclusive; then we will need to take a hard look at all our practices and ‘do some hard thinking together.’
For me, bullying is a manifestation of the absence of empathy- the cold, hard application of ‘me first’. As a father, I know too well the protective instinct I have for my children- and how easy it is for me to place the interests and needs of my children before those of others. It is the struggle I have to find a place in my heart for the children of my neighbours that is tested when my children go to school. These are the conversations I have as our principal when I am working with families inside that ‘important and urgent’ box. I know that each of our parents send the best children they have to our school every day. And I know that these children struggle to learn who they are, make mistakes and, as a result, often hurt one another in many ways- the poem by Shane Koyczan illustrates just how impactful those hurts can be.
Our staff know I’m fond of using witty, pat phrases and one of my favorites is ‘I don’t just want to take the skeletons out of the closet, I want to dance with them!’ I’m proud that we will be focusing on bullying awareness, inclusion and the issue of homophobia on Pink Shirt Day this Wednesday and I’ll be wearing pink with pride.
I want more than another shirt day though, I want us to have a real conversation about how we can work on this in a democratic, inclusive and impactful manner- do you?
“One kind word can warm three winter months.” ~Japanese Proverb~
Like our wild and varied winter weather, the past few months have brought challenges, and many questions. In the midst of these events swirling about; weather and otherwise, we have remained focused as a school community on the well-being and learning of each of our students.
This past Friday the staff spent part of the day reviewing our School Improvement Plan; working together to identify some key areas for us to focus on over the rest of the school year. To start the day off, I shared a short video, produced by the Dalai Lama Centre, titled Educate the Heart. The two minute video, embedded above, speaks softly about the importance of educating both the mind and the heart.
It’s true that schools are usually seen as places where children develop their academic skills and talents; however, while not diminishing the importance of these capacities, equally important is the role that schools plays in helping our children develop into caring and thoughtful citizens. It is a given that in school and in life; we will face conflict and challenges. As a staff, we are committed to supporting our students in this area.
We provide our students with opportunities to lead in these areas with programs like our student Conflict Managers, Lunch Monitors and Reading Buddies. We invite community partners like the York Region Police and Covenant House in to share experiences and expertise through the VIP and outreach programs. Our students also benefit from the many parent and family members who bring their time and talents right into our school as volunteers, School Assistants and School Council members. All these are important, but there is more to be done.
Later on this month each of our students will bring home their first term report card. As you read through the report with your child, we hope that you will have the opportunity not only to celebrate the learning that they have accomplished since September, but also the growing they have accomplished in the Learning Skills.
After all, if the world now expects each of us to be life-long learners, then these learning skills may be better thought of as living skills, essential for our students to become the people we all wish them to be.
“The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.” William Shakespeare
I snapped the photo above this morning as our students, staff and parents sorted through the proceeds from our annual holiday food and toy drive in preparation for delivery to some of our families and our friends at the fire service. We have a couple of park bench style chairs that sit astride a round table in the foyer of our school that I often sit in during the school day. Many of these blog posts are actually written as I sit in this spot. I like the fact that the chairs are right by the front door so I’m able to greet visitors and parents as they stop by the school. I also love the fact that the foyer sits at the intersection of the three main hallways in our building; by the gym and library entrances, so I get to see lots of kids as they move around the school.
It’s pretty quiet now, as our students are all in classrooms learning, likely in the half distracted state that the week before a holiday often brings. As I it here I’m thinking about my principal colleague at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Dawn Hochsprung; like me a 47 year old elementary school principal who was active on Twitter. I can only imagine the shock she must have felt, and can only admire the protective instinct that prompted her to rush towards the intruder. I think about the many courses and workshops and training sessions that we as principals are involved in; trying to prepare us for every possible incident that could occur in a school and wonder how could one ever prepare for that.
As parents come and go, dropping off lunches, picking up kids for appointments I realize how open and inviting our little public schools is~ we have protocols that ensure all but our main entry door is locked all day, we have a CCTV system with an office monitor and our school office is located right in the main entry and we have an experienced staff who know our community and know our parents. One image I can get out of my mind is the school sign for Sandy Hook; with the message “Visitors Welcome” in black block letters across the bottom. How do we reconcile the role of the school in engaging young learners with the larger world while keeping them safe from the tragedy and threats that exist in that world?
Lastly, I’m thinking about the communications that our staff and I have received from parents over the past few days. Quiet offers of support, a squeeze to the arm, a smile. Some concerns about whether, and how, we would be addressing the events. Of course, we did respond to the events as they were raised by our students; appropriately, with sensitivity and discretion and, I believe, the same mix of admiration and sadness that I feel in the wake of this event. More than ever, the world comes into our school in a myriad of ways and there was no way we could’ve stemmed the media accounts of this event from reaching our children. I’m appreciative and proud of the way in which our staff supported and guided our students in these discussions, some very brief and some much longer.
The school I lead is not perfect, it is a place where great things are accomplished and where feelings are hurt, where both joys and disappointments occur at the same time. It is a place where children work closely on a daily basis, learning to take risks, show empathy and get along. They learn this because examples are more powerful than words and the adults who work at this school, model these very things on a daily basis.
So, as painful as it is to think about the incident last Friday, I remain committed to the idea that our schools are ultimately places of joy and hope. I believe that the actions of the brave adults who responded last week deserve that.
“Liberty is the possibility of doubting, of making a mistake,… of searching and experimenting,… of saying No to any authority – literary, artistic, philosophical, religious, social, and even political.” ~Ignazio Silone~
This is a photo I took today by the big tree in the playground of our school; the location that our grade 7 and 8 students chose for the demonstation they wanted to hold. Those among you who live in Ontario will know that we are currently in the midst of a protracted conflict between our provincial government and two of the unions that represent teachers in our public schools. No need to go into details here, they can be easily found online. The point of this post is to keep a promise I made to these kids as we shivered together by the big old tree.
Like I always do, I stood out front yesterday chatting with students and parents and making sure the busses got loaded up when a few students came by to give me a heads up that they were thinking of holding a protest after lunch the next day. Additionally, a few parents were kind enough to tip me off with a quick email to let me know that this topic had been part of their dinner conversations. I appreciated that; knowing about the emerging issue allowed me to think about how I could ensure our students had the chance to express themselves in a manner that was safe, respectful and appropriate.
We all met in the library during the morning recess to talk about the what, the when, the where and the how. I wanted the students to know that they would have to make the decision about whether or not to protest and that I would make sure that they were safe, respectful and reasonable (as you can see from the top photo, I think we achieved that). When I asked why they wanted to protest the students articulated a few reasons; to express their frustration at the loss of extra-curricular activities, to show support for their teachers and to have their voices heard.
They were eager to know if I would forbid the protest. I told them that I believe that in a democracy we all had the right to express our opinions and feelings through protest; provided we did so safely, respectfully and appropriately. I also told them that my job was to make sure they were safe, respectful and appropriate and I would not decide for them. I think some would have been happy to have me ban the protest.
They debated whether they should protest outside, or have a sit in out in the hallways; some pointed out that it was a rather cold day and it might be more comfortable inside. They wondered if they go inside for attendance first, or just stay outside; they brainstormed possible locations for the protest and clandestinely made protest signs on looseleaf paper. A lot of them asked me if they would get in ‘trouble’ for protesting or tried to get me to say that the protest was okay. I pointed out to one group of articulate girls that it appeared they were asking me to plan their protest for them; something I was not prepared to do. I’m glad they saw the humour and the irony in that. To each question and prompt I replied, you have to decide and I will make sure that you are safe, respectful and appropriate.
We have about 90 grade 7 and 8 students and about 45 of them made the choice to walk out of class; after attendance was taken. Two of our school Child & Youth Workers supported me outside and our teachers were supportive and respectful towards them as they walked out; quietly in a line to gather at the big tree. After a few moments of chanting I asked them to pose for the photo and we talked. They shared how they felt like they had no voice and that they were worried about the things they might miss. They talked about the things they had learned through the media, that they didn’t like some of the things that were being said about their teachers and expressed their frustrations that there was little they could do about the current situation. I promised them I would share their perspectives and voices, and I am.
After about 20 minutes most of us were pretty cold and ready to move inside so we did; a few were hoping the protest would last all afternoon but decided to go with the flow and head back to class. I know a few were working on a letter that they hoped to share with me later this week, I’m looking forward to reading it.
I tell people that my job as principal really comes down to two things; making sure that everyone is safe and every one is learning. I think I did my job today and I’m proud to work with a great group of students and staff.
“Bullying and other violent acts are less likely to happen in a school that feels like a caring community, a place where children experience a sense of connection to one another and to adults, a place where they come to think in the plural and feel a sense of belonging.” Alfie Kohn
In Ontario this week has been designated as BullyingAwareness and Prevention Week. We talk a lot about the issue of bullying in schools and in our communities. Incidents like the the tragic suicide in British Columbia earlier this fall, and other cases that make it to the news media remind us that our schools, like our communities, can be both harsh and harmful places, where the darker tendencies of human nature play out in a myriad of small and big ways.
One thing that has changed a great deal since I was a student in school is the acknowledgement that being bullied is not a ‘rite of passage’ to be endured, but a condition that can be adressed at every level of society; schools included. That is why it is important for the adults to be visible, supportive and proactive in our schools. Our staff can be found moving around in hallways, the playground, the areas where children might make decisions that are harmful to others.
It is also why we are shifting towards using more web-based learning places, so we can model the ways that online communication tools can be used respectfully and appropriately for our students and help them develop the skills and dispositions to use these tools to collaborate and create community. It is important to note that all learning occurs in context, and that learning to be a good citizen online requires that one actually be online, with guidance and support, of course.
Lastly, and this speaks to both the quote and the video linked above. Programs and supervision are key pieces to making sure a school is safe; but the essential component of a safe school is the depth of inclusion and acceptance that exists in the classrooms and beyond. Schools where differences in learning styles, cultures and dispositions are seen as assets to be tapped, rather than challenges to be overcome, will ultimately be safer places for children because it is the imbalances in status and power that form the basis of most bullying incidents.
As we work to craft a school community that focuses deeply on inclusion, please continue to connect with us, let us know when there are concerns and work with us to make sure that our school is growing to reflect this goal in our structures and our actions.
Ultimately, as parents and educators, inclusion is what we want for all our children.
Aspirations are the building blocks of life; literally and metaphorically- each breath we take sustains us and allows us to accomplish all that we do- the mundane and the glorious. It was the very meaning of this word that caught my eye as I skimmed the Twittersphere in early July and came across the report Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach, a joint endeavor of the CEA and CTF. My attention was fixed on the word aspire because it is a word that is not currently used much our public education context, and it makes me wonder if that is one reason why we seem to be a little stuck these days.
- the time to apply their craft in a creative and engaging matter
- the trust that, given time and resources, they will make decisions that are student-focused
- the opportunity to work together to develop, define and refine their professional practice
“We know that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students too often feel unsafe at school. We know the power of words can create fear and pain, and spread hatred, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, sexism and racism. And we know that if we can’t name it, we can’t address it.” ~Laurel Broten~ Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario
Each of the flags I have in my office (shown above) tell a story. This post is not about the flag on the left, perhaps some other time I will write about the trials and tribulations of a long suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan. This post is about the flag in the centre and the one one the right.
Canada is an interesting experiment in democracy. Our nation was founded in 1867 by a collection of British colonies comprised of an interesting mix of cultures and ethnic groups. French, English, Scots, Irish, Loyalists; who had travelled north after the War of Independence. They were predominantly Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodistin faith and were united in a concern that they were being abandoned by the empire that had created them and would be swallowed up by their mighty neighbours to the south. The arrangement these colonies brokered was one that balanced the rights and priorities of these diverse groups within a framework that put ‘peace, order and good government’ above all. Above even, the rights of individuals.
These collective rights ensured state support for separate schools in Ontario and Quebec~English and French, secular and Roman Catholic. That is why, to this day we have a publicly-funded Roman Catholic school system in Ontario. In 1982, the re-patriation of the constitution and inclusion of the Charter of Rights offered a re-visioning of the framework; with a shift away from the concept of collective rights towards the rights of individuals.
This has led us to the place we are now. The explicit individual human right of each Ontario student to learn and work in an environment that is free from discrimination has collided with the entrenched, historical right of a religious school system to adhere to it’s core beliefs. And LGBT students are right in the path of this collision.
Personally, I believe that it is not only courageous that our provincial government is moving forward with the legislation to ensure that students can form Gay-Straight Alliances in any publicly-funded school in Ontario, it also the right thing to do. In her comments Education Minister Laurel Broten stated that, “all boards shall comply with this section in a way that does not adversely affect any right of a pupil guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Our charter of rights and freedoms is the law of our land, now.
Which brings me to the flag. 11 years ago, when I was a school librarian, I worked with an amazing teacher who came out at a time when many teachers were reluctant to do so. She asked me if I would fly a rainbow flag in the library to demonstrate that our school library was a safe place for all; students, staff and community. When I replied I’d be happy to do so as a demonstration of ‘tolerance‘ she corrected me, and I still recall her words;
“Nobody deserves to be tolerated, we all deserve to be included!”
One of my heroes, Deborah Meier says it best;
“Democracy is not always convenient, and rights do require sorting out. Neither equity, civil rights, nor mutual respect for the ideas of others are always the winners in public institutions- far from it. But public schooling shifts the odds in favour of such democratic principles…Public schools train us for such political conversation across divisions of race, class, religion and ideology.” The Power of Their Ideas
Look away said they across this mighty landFrom the eastern shore to the western strandCanadian Railway Trilogy ~ Gordon Lightfoot
O Canada: It is evident that, in spite of our geography, there is a unique and specific ‘Canadianess’ that exists in our collective educational systems. How we view public education is deeply rooted in the origins of our confederation, specifically the stipulation that education is a provincial matter, with no federal presence. The clarity of our constitution, the British North America Act, has enabled us to create school systems that truly reflect the cultural and social dimensions of each provincial context. Just as deeply rooted, is the ideal that public education is essential to our democracy; a democracy that is both resilient, adaptive and generally suspicious of anything that smacks of classism. We have been, and are, a nation that has thrived through the constant addition of new arrivals. Our viable, universal, democratic public school system is a common thread in each of our provinces and territories. John Ralston Saul’s writings in this area are very instructive.
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.
Connecting offers wonderful, mysterious and unanticipated benefits and our experiences on the Saturday of ConnectEd Canada have once again confirmed this hypothesis.
This morning I had the pleasure of facilitating a conversation with around 30 interesting folks from across Canada in the first block of sessions. The topic focus was on networked learning and the challenges and delights of the work educators are doing to shift our culture from a structure of heierarchy towards one where our public schools enable more open, inclusive, innovative and inquiry-based learning for adults and children. I won’t go into specifics, if you wish to probe my thoughts and reflections on this topic; they are archived in this blog.
Over the course of our session, we shared the raw and heart-felt experiences of the struggles we have experienced as leaders, or initiators, of this vital shift. I was reminded of a comment Mary Jane Gallagher, Ontario’s Assistant Deputy Minister of Education made at the ABEL Leadership Summit in February. In supporting us to keep pushing forward, Mary Jean encouraged those of us in leadership roles to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
This sentiment rolls of the tongue easily, but this is not so easy to do~day in and day out in schools. This is why using social media to build a PLN and join events like #connectEdca are so vital. We’ve shared some wonderful ideas here, we have supported and felt both support and comfort. We have taken a break from the isolation that many feel as we challenge the status quo and work to re-vision public education.
But, it is clear to me that we cannot sustain a great system of public education by rewarding those in our schools and systems who do not innovate at the cost of those who do.
As my colleague @thecleversheep reminds us, we are fireflies in a jar who have happily gathered for a few days to share some warmth and light. The networks we have created through our tweets and blogs not only sustain us in these efforts, they help us deepen and extend the work that we need to do to move forward.
This is my reflection from the second day of ConnectED Canada.
”The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu~
We hosted an un-conference yesterday with a collection of some of our district’s strongest teachers to explore and engage in conversational learning. Sixty or so members of the York Region District’s Literacy@School team gathered for an edcamp-type day and tweeted out using the #litschool hashtag.
We invited our good friend and colleague @shareski to join us for the day and were delighted that Dean took us up on the offer and gave a short talk (an un-keynote if you will) along with @toddedwright. After the day of learning we joined Dean for dinner and a chat with some of our system leaders; a few school principals and some of our district office folks.
For the most part, during the day and over dinner, the conversation flowed nicely, as one would expect with such an engaged and articulate group of educators. Like many of us, Dean is reaching out to examine the challenges and successes that schools and school systems across Canada are experiencing and considering some themes and patterns for continued exploration. Colin Harris (@digitalnative) made sure the un-conference ran smoothly while I was happy to take on the facilitator’s role for the evening dinner chat.
I spent the day and evening listening, I tossed out a guiding question every once in a while, made sure we heard from everyone and took detailed notes. In both contexts, the educators shared their stories: their delights, their challenges, their struggles and their joys. I’ve looked over the notes, mulled them over a bit and have three themes, or think-abouts, to share.
Document- “We’ve been travelling”, to quote my newest, favourite Bruce Springsteen song, “over rocky ground”. One theme that emerged is the need for us to document these travels and journeys. Learning is an incremental and dynamic process and I think it is important for each of us to have a personal record of the struggles and triumphs that occur daily in our classrooms and schools. We know the ‘experts’ in the media and court of public opinion are happy to document our work with the tools they have: test scores, rankings, sound bites and opinion pieces. Our public schools are an important part of our democratic communities; it is important for us to document the journey of our student’s learning and of ours; it is the best evidence we have of the true value of our work.
Share- a delicate challenge for 21st century schools is how we can safely and appropriately share what we have documented. Our schools, in spite of obstacles and external forces, are still responsible for unprecedented levels of literacy amongst our young. But are they reflective of the reality of a connected world where it is expected that information is shared through interactive and dynamic processes? It is important that educators, schools and systems adapt to engage families and communities beyond newsletters and parent nights; to incorporate social media tools into their practice and invite parents to engage in on-going dialogues with their children’s schools through these tools.
Connect- If ”isolation is the enemy of improvement” (Smocker, Jamentz, Elmore), then connection is a critical component for any sustained improvement. There was a time when teachers worked in isolation, as did schools and systems. That time is no longer. When knowledge was scarce and confined to one textbook, or one curriculum, we had neither the need or means to connect. The world we now live demands that educators connect because our students (and the much of the world beyond our schools) already have. Our paradigm no longer applies. We need to reach out and use the variety of tools for connection we have available to create dense, overlapping networks. Within and beyond our classrooms, our schools and our networks; face to face and online-we need to connect.
I suppose it never is supposed to be ‘easy’ and we will continue to struggle with this. I’m encouraged that there are educators willing to challenge and question the status quo and remain committed to continue this journey, rocks and all. As the day unfolded, educators from across the world clicked on the #litschool hashtag and joined our conversation, helping to document the days learning, share the evidence of our work and collaborate to connect and extend the network we were hoping to grow in the first place.