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The Slippery Slope

November 21, 2015 2 comments

“The principal goal of education in schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”    ~Jean Piaget~

For the first time in almost 20 years, my school, along with the rest of Ontario’s public elementary schools are missing out on the annual ‘conversation’ about the results of the annual grade 3 and 6 provincial EQAO assessments.  EQAO opted not administer the assessments after public elementary teachers refused to participate in the testing process as  part of the work to rule sanctions imposed in the spring.  Whatever one’s opinions are on standardized testing (not the focus of this post) it has made for an interesting fall.

Normally, at this time of the year school and system leaders are responding to the results on multiple fronts. Depending on the numbers, one could be dancing in the hallways and serving cake in the staff room, or sweating through an angry parent meeting trying to articulate the plan that will raise the scores and floating in stream of the annual media hand wringing about the decline of our system and our inability to ‘compete’.

Serendipity being what it is, our school board did engage in some broadly-based data collection last year- we conducted a system-wide student engagement survey. Near the end of the school year students in grades 5 to12 were invited to complete a questionnaire on a few key aspects of their life at school.  Over 52,000 students completed the survey (mostly online) representing 72% of our student population- a pretty robust sample size.

One of the key areas the survey focused on was how our students perceived their schools as engaging, modern learning environments.  A slice of data in this area of our student survey is represented below:

graph

 

 

The percentage values on the left (light blue) represent responses from our gr.5-8 (middle school) students and those on the right (navy) are responses from our gr.9-12 (high school) students.  What is noteworthy for me is the quantity of students who feel that their voices, values and interests are not evident in the school they attend and the decline in each category’s percentages from the middle school to high school results.

 

It reminds me of the results reported from the survey the Gallup organization conducted with a similar aged cohort of over 500 000 American students in 2012. An 80’s themed piece on this report can be found in The Atlantic .

FullSizeRender

Engagement and motivation are essential for deep learning. Whatever one’s stance or perspective is on what school should be; it’s pretty clear to me our students are telling us in no uncertain terms that school is not what it could be. Do we really wish to be part of a system that gradually erodes the enthusiasm and joy of learning of the majority of the children it is designed to serve?

This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an address by Will Richardson in which he challenged us to consider the beliefs we hold about our own learning and reflect upon whether these beliefs were evident in the actions we take in our schools and classrooms.  I think (hope) most of us know that the things we do to children do not reflect what we know we ought to be doing- and yet we persist.

Regardless of your role, if you work in schools now, knowing what our students have told us, how will you respond?

Deja Vu…All Over Again

September 26, 2015 1 comment

…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.

Thoughts?

Moving on…

June 3, 2015 2 comments

“Farewell has a sweet sound of reluctance.”    John Steinbeck

 

http://www.fotothing.com/ujbanyiv/photo/1b2acce6300e1ea025fdf3778c26350a/

Photo: The Old Glory   Ujbanyiv’s Fotothing

Our district announces the appointments and transfers for principals and vice-principals for the next school year in early June and last night, my name was on the list. After 3 fun-filled years as the principal at Park Avenue Public School I will be moving on to serve as the principal at Clearmeadow Public School this coming September.

Changing schools is not a big deal for most school administrators; we get the chance to work in multiple schools as vice principals and, as a result, are well versed in managing transitions. We also are aware that we have committed to a school system, and not just a school. In a district like ours, with over 150 schools, principal movement is a reality. Additionally, a big part of what drives those of us who choose this role is an willingness to embrace change and experience the challenges and opportunities that different schools offer. This was certainly one of the aspects that drew me to school leadership.

That’s not to say that I am doing cartwheels about leaving the school I have served for the past 3 years. I’ve had the chance to get to know a wonderful group of students and their families and work alongside an amazing group of dedicated professionals. But I always knew my time at Park Avenue would end and it has.

There’s an old saying the goes ‘it’s better that people think fondly of you of wherever you go, instead of whenever you go’; I certainly hope that’s the case for me (although one never really knows). I know that together we have made many changes in our little school during my time here. Some of them were my idea but, honestly, most of the changes were ideas that our staff, students and community came up with- I was just the guy who said, “sure, let’s try it…” and, sometimes, “how much does it cost?”  Either way, I am proud of the changes we have made and the things we have accomplished.

As a staff we launched a school-wide modern learning professional inquiry on how to use technology to enhance teaching and learning, together, with our parent community, we explored effective mathematics instruction and have taken a much closer look at how we can respond to the mental health and anxiety-based needs of our students. All good stuff- and it will continue.

All this good stuff; the ideas and the initiatives, came from the staff and students at our school- and almost of of them will be staying around. I’m not-but they are; and the work we began will continue with our new principal Bruce Baynham. Bruce will bring a fresh perspective and add his ideas to the mix-this is the way of public schools.

So, soon I will bid farewell. I will miss this place but I am excited about the the next steps I will take in my professional journey. In the meantime, I plan on enjoying every last second of my time as principal at Park Avenue Public School.

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.

Balancing the Basics

February 5, 2014 1 comment

Contrary to the stories of doom and gloom that we are hearing, our mathematics education system is not broken. Can we improve what we do? Certainly. Should we throw out the whole thing and go totally back to basics? Absolutely not. There are three key things that can improve what we have – balance, balance, and balance.                        ~Ian VanderBurgh~

I understand the concerns and restless anxieties that parents feel about the performance of our students; I’m the father to 3 high school students who happens to also be an elementary school principal. I also understand the reasons why our media outlets would raise and amplify these concerns- they play a valuable role in shining a light on our democratic, public schools.  It’s a good thing that we are having conversations about these concerns; in our communities, face to face, through the mass media and our social networks.  In that context, I’d like to share some of my concerns…

  • I’m concerned that people are starting to believe that, based upon recent standardized test results, our children are sorely lacking in their mathematical knowledge, when compared with previous generations.
  • I’m concerned that people are starting to see private or commercial tutoring groups  like JUMP Math or Kumon as sustainable solutions to these perceived concerns and beliefs.
  • I’m concerned that people are forming opinions based upon opinions, and not upon what is actually the state of affairs in elementary math education.

This is why I appreciated the perspective that the University of Waterloo’s Ian VanderBurgh shared in a recent op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail.  As a school principal and elementary mathematics specialist teacher I could relate to Ian’s point that community engagement, collaboration between parents, teachers and ‘balance, balance, balance’ are keys to supporting improved student learning in mathematics.

You see, our kids are not the dullards some would have us believe. It would have been great if those of us who occupied classrooms in the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s had been asked to complete the most recent PISA or EQAO math assessments; it could have provided some baseline data and certainly add some context (and modesty) to the opinions we hold of this generation of children.  I’m certain that the rote learning and memorization that formed the  foundation of my ’70’s era mathematics learning experience would not have prepared me to face the adaptive, open ended tasks that form the core of our current tests. Not sure? Check out some of the questions on the recent PISA assessment.

Nor can we really count on private foundations and organizations to ‘solve’ this crisis. What makes our public schools essential is that they are public; accessible and accountable to all. Not all students and families can access the often costly programs and resources that are touted, which makes it even more important that we ensure that the teachers in our public schools have the knowledge and capacities to teach mathematics effectively to all students. Of course, as one who works in public education, my bias and my beliefs draw me to this stance (just as those who operate private tutoring services are drawn to theirs).

Opinions being what they are, for the most part, instruction in ‘the basics’ is alive and well at our school and this ‘discovery learning’ thing is not the evil, Birkenstock-clad conspiracy that some have opined. We don’t even use the term discovery learning-it’s seems like a rather redundant term- doesn’t all learning require discovery? We recognize that when we involve our students in posing questions and contexts we see greater participation, deeper thinking and more connections to the ‘real’ world. And we recognize that our students need direct instruction on ways to use mathematical models and strategies to help them make sense of numbers and solve problems.

For us, the basics include more than memorization of facts, they include different ways of showing number relationships and arming our students with multiple strategies and tools for solving problems. And we are learning how to better use a balance of direct instruction (teachers teaching) and problem solving (students learning) to do this.

 

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!

New Year’s Resolutions

September 2, 2013 3 comments

“Inclusivity will be the milestone at which we shift from celebration and the implementation of strategies to the fundamental restructuring of our organization – our schools, classrooms, departments and Board. Inclusivity isn’t just inclusion. It isn’t just about belonging. It is about the constant evolution of the environments in which we belong. “            Ken Thurston,  Director: York Region District School Board

 

 

The bells at our neighbourhood school just rang across the park. Our family has enjoyed an active, eventful and rich summer break and now it is time for us to return to school; my wife to her Kindergarten class, our 15 year old twins to grade 10, our eldest off to a 4 credit grade 12 Co-Op placement and me, well, I’ve really been back at work for a few weeks now.

As a family parented by two educators, we’ve always considered Labour Day to be more like New’s Years Eve.  Along with the reality that, like most teachers, we always seem to still be awake at midnight the night before Day One, there is also the obvious reality that September brings us, as my colleague Dean Shareski writes, a clean slate. For these reasons, I’ve always looked forward to the start of the school year and its blank page and this year, even more so.

We all know our last school year was both unusual and eventful; all I have to offer about the past year is my sense of pride on how as families, staff and students we navigated the conflicts and tensions with respect, consideration and integrity, ’nuff said.

I’ve had a few resolutions I’ve been mulling over the past few weeks related to our school’s continued focus on Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation. So it was with some measure of delight that I listened to our Director, Ken Thurston’s keynote talk at our district’s Leadership Conference last Wednesday. Ken talked about the importance of engaging and trusting our students, staff and families, shifting towards a collaborative, lateral system and away from a hierarchical, expert-based system and embracing the realities with which our digital, networked world is confronting us.  All messages I could embrace (and have been).

The quote that launches this post was the one that grabbed me. Inclusivity as more than just creating ‘belonging’ but as re-shaping our structures in response to the needs of our community-students, families and staff.  I’m excited about this shift because, not only does it grant us permission to inquire and innovate, it challenges us to look at our existing practices, evaluate their impact and change them if they are not working.

As a school, we have made the decision to change our practices in response to the genuine needs of all of students, in particular our struggling and disengaged students. We have embraced the use of technology to support teacher and student learning and creativity, adopted a BYOD policy to support teacher and student autonomy and choice and we have developed our web and social media presence to reach out to, and connect with, parents, families and educators from beyond our school.

As I look towards tomorrow, and the start of a new school year; these are my humble resolutions:

  • I will focus my efforts and energy on supporting our community (staff & parents) to grow the understanding we have of our students and their social, emotional and academic needs
  • I will use these understandings to structure and evolve our programs; at the classroom and school level, in response to our student’s needs
  • I will communicate regularly and clearly our challenges and successes, through this blog, our @ParkAvePS twitter feed and newly revised, weekly edition of our school newsletter, the Park Avenue Post

So Happy New Year to all; staff, parents and most of all, students. I’m looking forward to welcoming you all back and helping you learn to make your dreams come true!

 

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