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Reflecting on Reading

“We read to know we are not alone.”    ~William Nicholson~

Over the past few weeks I’ve been checking in with our Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) teachers to see how our youngest learners are progressing as readers and writers. Though it may seem from my blog posts that I’m just a ‘math guy’; our staff would tell you I’m just as happy to talk about literacy teaching and learning and the importance it holds in our school.

I mention our FDK team specifically because it is a big part of a shift that has lead me to some deep thinking and reflection. We have a great team of educators on our Park Avenue FDK team; they create learning spaces that are engaging, nurturing and challenging-all in a manner that is developmentally appropriate for our youngest learners. The core goal of our FDK team is developing the early literacy skills and dispositions of all our students. We do so through focused, regular instruction; transitioning from oral language instruction with our JK’s towards early writing and reading during the SK year- we do a great job in this area with almost all our students.

The balanced literacy instruction in our FDK classes is helping nearly all our students become proficient users of language. Our district provides us with guidelines for the expected reading behaviours and text difficulties that we can refer to in order to benchmark the progress of our FDK students- our team assures me that almost all our students have met, or exceeded, this benchmark.

I’ve observed a concerning pattern in the information our teachers have shared with me; the only students that are not progressing as a result of this instruction are those students who have phonological processing issues (commonly referred to as dyslexia and dysgraphia). Ironically, this is partly a result of the overall effectiveness of early reading instruction and emphasis that many parents place upon developing the pre-school language capacities of children; we used to have many more struggling readers in our schools, these days we just don’t. Of course, this makes those who are not progressing in this area stand out even more and that is what has caught my attention.

In conversations with our special education team we’ve recognized that meeting the needs of the students within our school who have phonological processing issues must become a priority and that our current accommodations and interventions (including our Reading Recovery program) are not accomplishing this goal.

Moving forward, our strategy for intervention must account for the challenges that we are actually facing and allow for flexibility to be employed in meeting these challenges; one size fits all interventions can no longer be the norm. Additionally, we must be prepared to invest in developing the capacities of the specialist teachers who work with students in this area; teaching children with phonological processing deficits requires a regimen of focused, precise remediation that is not currently common practice- this will need to change.

This is not a call for mass phonics instruction (please, no return to the reading wars). Reading is code breaking and making meaning. Most of our students leave kindergarten able to do both; some do not and they must be able to break the code in order to make meaning. We know who they are and we know what we can do to help them; as long as we are prepared to rethink our intervention resources and models and act accordingly.

 

ad infinitum

November 14, 2014 3 comments

Mathematics is as much an aspect of culture as it is a collection of algorithms.   ~Carl Boyer~

One of the things I admire about the teaching staff I work with and lead is their willingness to take risks and adapt. I think it’s really important that kids spend their time with adults who care about them and have a high expectations; and these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. We are well under way on our journey of school-wide transformation in math teaching and learning and are at the point where those ‘pockets of practice’ that were evident in some classes are now evident in all our classes. Parents are seeing their children using models and strategies that seem strange and unusual to them and we are getting questions, lots of questions.

Most of the questions or concerns we hear are based upon the lack of understanding of how mathematics teaching has changed over the past 20 years and how these changes have been received by parents and the general population. Part of my job as principal is to help people understand our practice and our pedagogy so let me try to address a few of these concerns:

  • ‘The New Math’  There is no ‘new math’. Math is the language we use to understand and describe the patterns, relationships and characteristics of our universe.This language is expressed using numbers and symbols that have remained constant for thousands of years and will remain so as long as the fundamental physics of our universe remain the same. We can use a lot of terms to describe math, but new is not one them folks. The emphasis in mathematics has always been on understanding number patterns and relationships to think and reason, this is far from a new phenomenon.
  • So What is New? Over the past 30 years a few things have changed where it concerns education; in math and all other disciplines. We now expect that schools will ensure that all students meet a high standard of literacy and mathematical understanding (see Employability Skills Index), In addition, research into the neurological, psychological, and sociological factors around learning have had a profound impact on the pedagogy and teaching practices of teachers. In other words, we know we are capable of, even though we may not all be capable of it yet.
  • The ‘Real Basics’ Often, parents struggle to understand the diversity of models and strategies that our teachers are introducing and question why we aren’t teaching the basics. By basics they usually mean things like the standard procedures for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division- also called algorithms. Anyone who has tried to actually explain the algorithm for long division without using tricks or vampire analogies (just what is a goezinta anyway?) knows that an algorithm is anything but ‘basic’. The real basics are the numbers, and our emphasis on helping students understand our number system using models and strategies that make sense to them allow them to use mathematics in its truest form; a powerful, logical language for solving problems and communicating rather than a set of clever tricks and short cuts. If a child doesn’t understand the numbers they are working with, they don’t know the math. It is also important to note that since they are culturally based, there are actually many algorithms, more than those of us who experienced a western education can even fathom.

Across our school, we are working together as a team of educators to better understand and teach our curriculum in a way that will enable all our students to become mathematically capable. Not an easy task but ultimately a worthy one. At its core, mathematics is a language that is expressed using numbers- the beauty of which is the infinite nature of these numbers, not unlike the infinite capacity of our students.

Another Brick in the Wall

November 8, 2014 Leave a comment

“Mathematics is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost.”        ~ W.S. Anglin ~

mathwall

Our supply of those rolls of brown craft paper are depleting rapidly here at Park Avenue PS and with good reason. Over the past year we have looked deeply into the structures and design of our classroom learning environments to ensure they reflect the best practices of universal design for learning and have a degree coherence and consistency across the grades. As a result, one might notice now that our K-8 classroom environments share some common characteristics such as desks or tables arranged in groups to support students working in teams and more open floor space, learning tools and materials stored in a more accessible manner and an intentional use of the walls as visual supports for learning.

Traditionally, classroom walls have been used to display completed student work, more often than not student art work, or written pieces completed by all the students, While the intention to acknowledge and celebrate tasks that have been completed is noble, the question that begs to be asked is how does displaying learning that has already happened  help a student who is struggling with what is being learned now? Rather than being a static archive of what has been learned, the walls of the effective classroom need to be an evolving, active documentation of what is being learned.

Education researchers refer to the use of charts and images showing the learning goals, components of a successful task and anchor charts showing the meaning of the strategies and terminology; as essential components of an effective classroom- or ‘high yield’ teaching approaches. And this, is where the rolls of craft paper have become so helpful.

One of our highly experienced Special Education Teachers, Anita Simpson, is creating, along with her students, a Math Wall (it literally fills a wall) that represents the key Big Ideas, Models and Strategies from the Mathematics Landscape of Learning she and her students are exploring. As you can see in the photo above, the wall shows a record of the strategies that students have learned and will need to use along with the models and ideas that connect with these strategies. In Anita’s class, students can be seen glancing at the wall to check the meaning of terms, remind them of strategies or to explore the relationships between the ideas, models and strategies. The wall serves as an anchor chart and road map that is visible for all.

With exception of the ideas, strategies and models labels, the wall was blank in September. Together with her students, Anita has carefully documented the learning on the wall-it’s an impressive sight. So impressive that similar walls are popping up in classrooms all over the school.

Over my 2 plus years as principal at Park Avenue I have stressed the importance for us to develop a set of coherent, common practices in mathematics teaching to support student learning. Mathematics is at it’s core a language; and tools like Anita’s math wall allow our students to immerse themselves in this language while they are engaged in meaningful problem solving- which is the core of a comprehensive math program.

More craft paper, anyone?

The Power of Why: Learning in the Modern Age

October 25, 2014 1 comment

There is an old saying from that wise old author Anonymous that goes something like this; we are all experts on education because we have all had experience with education.  Of course, for all of us, to varying degrees, this is true. Every generation of schools has to understand, and wrestle with, change. In schools we see changes in student demographics, changes in pedagogy as a result of research and emerging technologies and changes in the demands and expectations that parents and society have of our schools.

Too often, we think of the changes and challenges we are seeing in our modern schools as being about technology or the moving away from teaching the basics. Not true. The real change and challenge is related to who actually ‘owns’ the learning and how this learning can occur. The schools we went to were based on the premise that the teacher owned the knowledge and gave it to the students- who in turn, demonstrated success by regurgitating this knowledge back to the teacher. The questions we asked as students; “will this be on the test?” are not the questions our students today are asking; “why is this important?” or “why should I do this?”

All the nostalgic whinging in the world will not change the fact that the children that this generation of parents have raised (and are raising) have been conditioned to ask these why questions. What we have learned about the brain and how people learn, along with the powerful, connected information tools we now have, is that learning is an instinctual process that is driven by the curiosity and creativity of the learner. The most recent research indicates that people who are curious and act upon their curiosity lead more productive, complete and satisfying lives.

It turns out that “Why do we have to learn this?” is actually the question all students should be asking. For us as educators and parents, this is a great challenge- the schools that we knew are not the schools we now need. The emphasis on recall and memory still plays a role but they are nested within the curiosity, critical thinking and creativity of the student.

At our school; we have noticed that this type of thinking and problem solving is an area of struggle for many of our students and, as a result, we have invested a great deal of time and energy in learning how we, as educators, can guide our students to use questions to launch, sustain and consolidate their learning.

Interested in reading more about this? Try Amanda Lang’s recent book The Power of Why.

Permission

February 8, 2014 1 comment

As we engage in re-imagining public education in the coming years, I believe that we must re-think the use of space, the use of time, the structure of the school day and year, the sorting of students by grade, the use of schools within communities and, probably the most significant, the structure and content of curriculum.   Not everything will need to change but it is important to ask the question: “is it right for today or are we doing it this way because we always have?”                                                 ~Ken Thurston~

This past week the Director of our district school board, Ken Thurston, announced that he will be retiring at the end of July. (For my American cousins, in Ontario the title Director is akin to Superintendent). I’ve had the chance to work with Ken in a variety of roles over the 14 years I have known him. He was one of my school superintendents when I was in the classroom, I had the chance to work with him when I was local union steward and committee member and, for the past 4 years I have been proud to serve as a vice principal and principal under Ken’s leadership. It was Ken who sat across the table and led the conversation that resulted in my appointment to the position of principal.

One of key traits I have observed consistently in the years I have known Ken is the importance he places upon relationships. Whether he is thinking about students, staff, parents, unions, community members, trustees, or policy makers, relationships matter most. The other trait I have observed is the willingness Ken has to question the status quo, imagine alternatives and grant agency to those who wish to do likewise.

At Park Avenue PS our students, staff and parents often tell me that I think “differently’ on many issues, sometimes in little ways, sometimes in more radical ways. I do so because we have had a Director not only granting permission, but actually challenging us to do so- Ken’s question, quoted in bold text above, guides my daily work.

During our short time together working as the principal of our school community we have asked ourselves this question and given ourselves permission to re-think our use of tools, time and curriculum. Over the course of our intensive math professional learning this week I challenged each of our grade teams to rethink our concept of how we teach our math curriculum- both in structure and content- and look more closely at how we can use the Landscape of Learning to provide developmental instruction that challenges and meets the needs of all our students.

As we learn how to do this in math, and gain confidence, I’m sure we will find lots of ways to apply this in other areas of our school community and better inform our parents in this area so they can both support and better trust the work we are doing in our classrooms. Re-imagining our school, and re-shaping it to meet the challenges of the world we live in now, is the work that each of us; staff, parents and students, must do together.

Back at our first staff meeting together I remember saying to our staff that I didn’t want to change everything, just the things that weren’t working, and we would make these changes together.  I’m encouraged that, even as he prepares to depart, our Director is giving principals and teachers permission to re-think, re-imagine and re-create our classrooms and schools.

Of course, it’s more than likely I would have continued on this path regardless; but sometimes it is better to have permission rather than have to beg forgiveness.

Joint Work in the Digital Staff Room

December 10, 2013 4 comments

Dean Shareski makes me chuckle and makes me think- two things that are greatly appreciated. He has a well-developed sense of the importance of play and joy in learning and asks great questions.  Perhaps it is the amount of time he spends travelling, or those long, cold Prairie winters- but Dean’s blog posts speak to me, they are reflective, transparent and challenging. Because I appreciate @shareski and believe that a network is both a place where one gives and receives; I am happy to accept Dean’s invitation to engage in a (seemingly) random act of web-enabled joint work.

Need to activate some prior knowledge? Click here . I suppose that Dean is looking to engage in a little play and extend a capacity building task- he may have some other unknown goal-or, it could be he’s trapped in the throes of a Saskatchewan winter- who knows?

Regardless, I’m happy to play along…

So here is the task…

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger- in this case it would be me…
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

11 Random Facts About Me…

  1. As much as I love being a principal, my coolest job was working on an Aircraft De-Icing Crew
  2. Though I write with my right hand, I am actually left handed
  3. Between my wife @techieang and I we have taught every grade from Kindergarten to grade 8
  4. But I have taught more grades: 1,4,5,6,7 & 8
  5. I was a Boston Bruins fan until I was 6 years old, then I was told being a Leaf fan was a ‘family rule’
  6. Ever since I was 6, I’ve resented rules
  7. If there is a James Bond film on TV, I will watch it
  8. Answer: Yes   Question: Coffee?
  9. Any challenging, difficult or complex problem is easier to solve after a day of skiing
  10. I am an introvert
  11. I believe it is important to face my fears (see 10)

11 Questions from @shareski

  1. How do you feel about pants?    Levis, please
  2. What was the last movie you saw in a theatre?  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at the Retro Holiday Film Fest in at the local cinema 
  3. Where are your car keys?  Hanging by the door on an appropriately key-shaped key holder
  4. What time is it?     EDT
  5. What’s the last tweet you favorited?   Here
  6. Outside of your immediate family; which relative do you like to spend time with? Brother-in-law’s don’t count as ‘immediate, right?
  7. Have you ever been to Saskatchewan? No
  8. How long did it take you to walk to school as a kid?  10 minutes- 5 if I had slept in
  9. Besides you,  blogger should I be paying attention to?   Paul Aniceto
  10. Name one golf course.  Bushwood
  11. What’s your favorite Seinfeld episode or line?  “that’s right- he’s a real sideler.”

 

A reminder of  the task…

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger- in this case it would be me…
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

My Questions for You Are…

  1. Who is your favourite superhero?
  2. What is the most interesting place you have visited?
  3. IOS or Android?
  4. Would you rather be a hammer or a nail-Why?
  5. What was your first part time job?
  6. Left on a desert island, what 3 books do you take with you?
  7. When do you usually write your blog posts?
  8. Pizza- thin crust or regular?
  9. What was the topic of your first blog post?
  10. Did you ever own an 8-Track cassette?
  11. Lennon or McCartney?

Now its Your Turn…

  1. Aviva Dunsinger
  2. Paul Aniceto
  3. Yoon Soo Lim
  4. David Truss
  5. Rodd Lucier
  6. Zoe Branigan Pipe
  7. Stephen Hurley
  8. Mark Carbone
  9. Doug Peterson
  10. Sue Dunlop
  11. Donna Miller Fry

Of course, your participation is not mandatory…if you do remember to link back!

Peace!

ECOO Echoes

October 26, 2013 Leave a comment

In the end it is better to see the world for what it is becoming, instead of what it is. Better to fight for the future, instead of the past.”              Joe Keohane

I spent the past few days at the annual provincial conference for the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO). The conference is an important part of my principal learning; it exposes me to the emerging ideas and concepts in my field and provides me with the opportunity to connect (and re-connect) with the many creative and passionate colleagues that make up my online professional learning network.  As an added bonus, this year I was able to attend the conference and learn along with two of our Park Ave PS teachers, Andrew Bernier and Erin Stanojev- a genuine treat!

I’ve embedded an earlier version of the talk given by one of the keynote speakers, Jamie Casap, that really did a nice job of synthesizing the key theme of the 3 day conference: Bring IT Together. In a clever piece of wordplay, the ‘it’ is actually the IT, or Information Technology, that we take for granted, and often make limited use of, in our schools.  Those who know me also know that I am a keen advocate for ‘better’ not ‘different’ – for me, they are not the same thing. Better speaks to the impact our work has on student’s lives and learning, where as different is often nothing more than a change in tools- like how we now use data projectors the same ways we used to use overhead projectors and VCR’s.

For me, the real learning begins after I have returned from an workshop session or conference;and I have just a few reflections from my time away (infused with a Beatles motif) that I wanted to put out there- both from a personal and system stance:

  • Get Back-  I am at my best as a school principal when I get back to where I started from; the classroom. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit of an office cat since the start of the school year and that needs to change.  As I spent the last few days immersed in learning alongside classroom teachers (I’ll get to that point next) it reminded me of how my leadership needs to be situated at the intersection of students and teachers- in the classrooms and halls. Not only when I am co-teaching, but even just sitting somewhere other than my office when I have work to do on my laptop- our school-wide wifi enables anyone to connect and create anywhere- myself included.
  • Come Together- The best part about the ECOO conference for me is that it is almost entirely made up of attendee’s who are classroom teachers. There are a smattering of district IT folks and a tiny number of school and system administrators.  The ideas, passions and frustrations of these most innovative and gritty educators fuel my head and my heart and make a direct impact on my thinking as a school principal. I don’t doubt the importance of the large, prestigious, mega-conferences that administrators typically attend; I just doubt the impact these events have. They are often so disconnected from classroom practice, and lacking in teacher voice, that the transference is limited. I know that time away from the school is a challenge for principals but I would love to see more of my colleagues attending teacher-focussed events like ECOO.
  • The Long and Winding Road- The keynote speakers at this event were thought-provoking, edgy and authentic. @ambermac, @jcasap and @kevinhoneycut each talked about how the changes that the we have seen in the past 5 years will require adaptive, creative and deep evolutions to classroom and school practice and they alluded to the importance that our public schools lead this process. The teacher-led sessions offered ideas that were cutting-edge, creative and impactful. We are in a context where we have to fight against the inertia of traditional school cultural norms; with school and system leaders, with parents, with policy makers, and, in many schools; with ourselves!  Too many in our profession are not looking ahead to the place where our students have already arrived-and are still moving, and if we are not with them we cannot have an impact on them- and they need us now more than ever.

Jamie Casap started his talk with the statement that public schools are integral because,”Education disrupts poverty.” Whether we are talking about a poverty of resources, ideas or opportunities; this is true. If public schools are going to remain a place where they have an impact on children’s lives we need to be both different and better, it’s getting too late to Let it Be.

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