“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.” ~Georg Christoph Litchenberg
The talk linked to this post is powerful, thought provoking and was, for me, disturbing. Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, legal scholar, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hopefully you will grab a bag of popcorn, dig in and watch the talk before you read this post. That is, after all, why I often ink my posts with media content.
Schools are complex systems; the interactions of children, families and educators are complicated- with moments of joy, outbursts of conflict and a level of intensity that is powerful. So powerful that emotion can, at times, trump reason and a balanced perspective. This is no more true than those times when children harm one another, respond to perceived injustices by acting out or challenge rules that they feel are unfair.
There was a time when we used terms like ‘zero tolerance’ to describe school discipline practices and policies- with the belief that punishment would be enough to ensure that students wouldn’t hurt one another or challenge the existing authority structures of the school. I reject this belief for a simple reason- it doesn’t really work.
Bryan Stevenson explains how and why it doesn’t ‘work’ with much more eloquence, authority and urgency that I ever could-I won’t even try (so watch the video-please).
What I will add is this-only because it is based on my experience as a father and an educator. Punishment doesn’t work because when we punish we are not teaching. As Ross Greene reminds us, children behave the way they can; based upon their experiences, state of mind and well being. Teaching requires that we understand the child’s needs and create the conditions for them to connect, reflect, communicate and learn. Whether it is learning about our number system, the events of our past, the elements of effective narrative writing; or what to do when you have harmed another person.
This is why effective schools -and enlightened youth police outreach programs- focus on restorative justice approaches. When children learn to accept responsibility and repair the harm that they have done we work towards solving two problems- the harm that was caused and the issues and challenges that led to the harm in the first place.
In my experience, the students who are subject to the most disciplinary responses exist on the margins- they have language or learning difficulties, mental health concerns like ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or live in communities with limited resources, poverty or weak family support structures. Schools are supposed to serve to counter to these influences- not accelerate them- this is what it really means to be ‘fair’.
She had fouled off the curve balls that life had thrown her. ~W.P. Kinsella~
Over my time as a school principal and vice principal I have been fortunate to work in schools where a culture of healthy physical activity is evident throughout the school. My current school, Clearmeadow P.S. is certainly no exception. Come to our school any time before, during or after the school day and you will see first hand what I mean. Whether it is organized activities like cross country or volleyball, or the wide array of informal playground sports that go on every morning and lunch hour- there is a lot of physical activity going on. On any given day one will see everything from games of soccer, touch football, foursquare, basketball and tag to intricate dance moves and cheer routines. Recently, as a result of the Toronto Blue Jays regular and post-season successes, we have started to see many more sandlot baseball games breaking out all over the school yard (if you are wondering how the grass stains are getting on those jackets, it’s likely that they are being used as bases or home plate).
A lot of important learning occurs during these times. Though our school yard is well supervised, students have a greater level of autonomy and these games and activities provide them with the experience of working together to organize games, negotiate rules and manage the conflicts, struggles and disagreements that are a natural outcome of the social process. John Dewey once said “education is not preparation for life , education is life itself.” In many ways, the old adage about the school yard as a microcosm of life in the real world holds true.
When things get too heated, or a student makes a decision that is hurtful, unsafe or inappropriate; we are able to step in, provide support and help the student(s) learn from their mistakes. However, for the most part, they manage these matters themselves, using these experiences to find their voices, learn about reciprocity and develop their resilience. Recess is the invisible (and often favorite) subject; one where no tests are assigned and no marks are given but one where the depth and quality of learning that occurs is known by all. If we want our children to learn how to manage and recover from disappointment they must experience it- recess is one place where this learning is real, sometimes too real, but real nonetheless.
…there are many committed, forward thinking teachers who will make (inquiry and authentic work) happen despite the barriers. But community members, parents, legislators and lobbyists will resist large-scale transformative change at every turn because they are tied so deeply to their nostalgia for school as they knew it or to the potential windfalls of making traditional schools better.” ~Will Richardson~
It’s been a while since I’ve written a post. After a quiet, blissful summer with family and friends I’ve launched into the start of the school year at a new location with the opportunity to get to know a new team of educators, students and families. September did bring lots of new stuff; but to quote the dearly (and recently) departed dugout linguist Yogi Berra, there is an element of that deja vu all over again in our schools this fall.
Current circumstances and events, along with the some of the reading I’ve been reflecting upon, has got me thinking about where we are in our profession, in our schools and our systems. Specifically, I’ve been reading Will Richardson’s latest book From Master Teacher to Master Learner and hope to weave a narrative over the next few posts to share my thinking, connect with some fellow travelers and, hopefully, provoke others to do likewise.
I’m a tinkerer; a restless soul with a willing disposition to challenge the status quo. As a school principal and prior to that, as a classroom teacher, I’ve tried to meet challenges and solve problems with creativity, imagination and a willingness to try new things, take risks and make mistakes. It helps that I welcome the ideas and perspectives of others; especially when these prompt me to refine and revise my thinking. This is how I learn and, above all, I see myself as a learner.
This is why, I’m sure, that I’ve found Will’s blog posts, talks and books to be so helpful. I can connect with his ideas and perspectives, both as a father and an educator. They give me pause to think, help me reflect upon my work and support me in my advocacy.
To lead public schools today requires degrees of creativity, optimism, resilience and the capacity for what Roger Martin has called, integrative thinking; the ability to incorporate two seemingly opposite ideas simultaneously to create change out of unpleasant or difficult situations.
Right now, and for the past 20 years, the stakeholders in our school system have engaged in fierce conversations and debates about the structures of our system; allocation of resources, organization of schools, reporting processes, class size, standardized testing and sequencing of curriculum standards. These policy points reflect a belief that the imposition incremental adjustments to the structure of schools and systems can effect a change in outcomes for students. This hierarchical stance no longer serves us in our networked, connected world but it remains the dominant mindset that we apply to our classrooms, schools and systems.
Nested within this conversation is an actual problem; at every level of our system (classroom, school, district and and legislative) our structures reflect a scarcity mindset that is based upon one-way transmission. The teacher who limits student learning to content-based worksheet lists and discreet facts that are doled out incrementally in advance of the test is no different than the school administrator who is required to appraise teachers based upon student test scores and classroom look-for checklists; or the policy maker who makes the decision to mandate investments in resources (like school technology) without accounting for the front-line implementation of these resources in schools.
All of these examples reflect the belief that when information, or performance, or resources are transmitted and measured; learning is an outcome. But this is no longer the case.
Learning, Will reminds us, is actually an outcome of learning. And learning is a process that is provoked by the questions of the learner, not the information that is being transmitted by the teacher.
So the questions I want to explore over the next few posts relate to the things we can do as educators to interrupt this ‘deja vu’ and change our conversations (and our systems) to be learning-focused for all; teachers, administrators, parents and most of all, students.
“What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” ~John Dewey~
This past week we held our last school council meeting of the year at Park Avenue PS; it also happened to be my last school council meeting as the principal at Park Avenue. There are many things I will miss about the school I’m leaving; the children, of course, our patient and dedicated staff, the terrazzo floors on the main floor (btw- I won’t miss the septic system). I will also miss the parents who have served as school council members.
I joined this school community at a challenging time. In the fall of 2012 Ontario educational workers were locked in a conflict with the provincial government with consequential job actions and there was a great deal of parental concern about the school’s performance on standardized tests; especially in mathematics. I was following in the footsteps of a highly experienced and well-regarded departing principal who had served the school for over half a decade. I remember clearly (and dearly) the buzz in the library that September evening as we tried to walk the thin line of getting to know each other while attempting to wrestle with the challenging issues that lay before us.
What I appreciated that night (and have grown to value even more) is the blunt, fair and respectful manner in which this group of parents approached me as principal and the capacity they have to be both advocates and learners at the same time. One of my principal heroes (nerd alert), Deborah Meier, has written extensively about the role schools, and school leaders, can play in building parental trust in our public schools. She asserts that there was time when parent trust was a given, but our changing societal, technological and cultural norms, along with the increase and impact of standardized accountability measures, have altered the relationship between parents and schools.
I can now reflect upon about the work we have done together as a school council and principal at Park Avenue and I shared this reflection with our council on Thursday night. It is highly important it is that parents question what we are doing in schools, as teachers, as school and system leaders. Questions are good. In large systems and bureaucracies, we tend to consider questions as gestures of mistrust or as a threat to the established order. My feeling is they are neither; they are opportunities to build trust and an important part of a healthy family/school relationship.
Parents who are truly involved with the work of their children’s schools should feel they can offer their support, their ideas and, their questions. During my time as principal some of the things our parent council have inquired about include mathematics pedagogy, assessment practices, use of technology, impact of student mental health on learning, sex ed., attendance, special education funding, labour relations and why the pizza at school tastes different than the pizza at home (that one comes up often). These questions have helped guide us, informed our responses and made us better as a school and, for this, our parent council deserves a great deal of credit.
I will miss the familiar faces and voices of our Park Avenue school council but I know I am going to school with parents who will feel the same as the group I am leaving. I am grateful for the questions they have asked of me, the trust they have given me and the lessons I have learned from both.
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.
“Each one has their gifts.They are not for you- they are to give!” ~Hemat Malak~
A few weeks back I asked our students and staff to join me in a little project. With the holiday season in full roar and the busy-ness associated with this time of year I asked our students and staff to take a moment to think their talents and gifts and share with me one that they felt they shared with others. I gathered all the responses and pasted them into this Wordle word cloud (for those who are new to Wordle, the larger the word, the more often is was used).
A little sappy? Sure. Of course the reason why I thought it was worth a try was simple- empathy. All month long our school has been exploring empathy- what it is and why it is an integral part of an inclusive school and a civilized society. I’ve always believed that private victories come before public ones (credit to Steven Covey). Before we are truly able to share our gifts or talents with others; we need to have a sense of what they are and know that they are recognized and valued by others.
The essence of empathy is respecting, appreciating and valuing others for who they are and the gifts they bring. There are almost 500 children and adults who work and learn at our school every day. We are a collective of individuals; unique and united- and we make up a wonderful, messy mosaic-we create, we make mistakes, we laugh and we cry. I value and appreciate the gifts and talents of each member of our school community and am happy to celebrate them!
As was the case last year, the Open Office will take a break for the next few weeks and I enjoy the company of friends and family and squeeze in a few trips to the ski hills! On behalf of our school community- I wish you peace, happiness and joy.
See you in 2014!
“We all want straightforward information about what’s working and what needs improvement. We also know there is more to education than scores in reading, writing and math.” ~People For Education~
Here is a question for parents- what do you really want from our schools and school systems? It’s a challenging question for challenging times. One reason for this is that the expectations parents have of our school system are often based upon their own experiences and their own unique contexts and priorities. We want schools to be safe, we want our children to be successful, happy and equipped with both knowledge and skills and we want our children to have friends. Let’s face it; when it comes to school, parents want it all (not to worry- it is okay for a parent to want it all for their child).
The challenge lies in how we decide to define the real success of a school and the ways that we may choose to measure this success. As a school and district we use surveys, focus groups, standardized assessments and and a wide range of demographic data to define and measure; and we respond through our school and board improvement plans.
As a principal, I count the smiles on the faces of the students and adults in the building; a simple but surprisingly useful metric.
The Ontario-based advocacy organization People for Education is exploring this topic because they believe that; “…it is both necessary and possible to create an easy-to-understand Canadian-made set of indicators that will be useful to educators, publicly accepted, and that reflect a complete education.” I encourage parents, educators, interested community members and students to click on this link and join the conversation.