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The Inevitable Tension Between Standards & Individiuality

“…if we believe that the most powerful learning that kids do can only be measured by their desire to learn more, then any innovation we introduce must focus on creating fundamentally different experiences for kids in our classrooms, with or without technology.”  ~Will Richardson~

W.B. Cameron once remarked, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts,” We live in a world where measurement, classification and comparisons have become  part of our culture. We place a great deal of value on standardization, in the products we use, in the institutions we rely upon and systems we have created. Schools, because they support the priorities of our society, keenly reflect this reality. Ken Robinson expressed in this so eloquently in his noted TED Talk; it’s easy to see our schools as factories; where we process children in batches “based on their date of manufacture.”

I can understand why schools from the past were drawn to this type of thinking; they were tasked with preparing children for life and work in an industrial age. Learning was seen as a simple process- teachers transmitted knowledge to students, measured how much they had digested and then ranked and sorted them based on the results. In the industrial context, this type of thinking helped to ensure control and consistent quality- that is the essence of standardization. It’s easy for us to be drawn into this mode of thinking- we want our children to have the best, be the best and be able to compete in a global context.  Will Richardson’s writings prompt us to challenge this mindset with good reason.

Our schools struggle with the tension between standardization and individuality. As parents we value the unique and varied characteristics of our children and face the challenge of fostering pro-social growth and development while honouring each child’s drive to be who they want to be and do what they wish. We are social beings; but people (and children are people too) rightly resist environments where conformity and standardization confine them or they are reduced to a number. Children are not test scores, numbers, marks or levels- there is no such thing as a ‘level 3 student’– these are constructs of our system and do not reflect that our children are so much more that that. It’s time for us to think about what we want for our children; is it standardization or the fostering of individual development and potential?  Depending on one’s beliefs about this- our schools could look and feel very different.

November 1, 2015 1 comment

Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.        ~Daniel H. Pink~

The school year has an ebb and flow to it. The early days of September; filled with the excitement of a new school year, the novelty of a new classmates and the opportunity for a fresh start, are often referred to as ‘honeymoon’ phase. By early November, this early enthusiasm and excitement has usually waned as staff and students have settled into the routines, structures and expectations of daily school life. Honeymoons, after all, don’t last forever and the stresses of academic learning, peer dynamics can lead the children we teach to a wide range of behaviors that would seem familiar to anyone who has any life experience in a classroom or school.

Behavior is communication; we know that actions are a much more reliable source of information about people than words. In schools, we often see children’s behavior as something we (the adults) can control. In the pursuit of this noble goal we often expend a great deal of time and energy designing the type of incentive, reward and punishment schemes that our friends in The Office satirized in the video excerpt above.  I’ve moved around a lot in my career as a teacher, staff developer and school administrator and one common observation I can make from these experiences is how deeply embedded the use of this type practice is in classrooms and schools.

Another observation I can make is for most kids (and especially those kids who are marginalized in any way) these ‘systems’ just don’t work.  People much smarter than me have written and spoken at length on this topic (follow the links) but for me the reasons these programs don’t work comes down to three flawed assumptions:

  1. Our default stance is selfishness
  2. Learning is something we try to avoid
  3. Hierarchy is our natural order

Our history as a species tells us that to be human is to create, seek connections, novelty and networks. These patterns are embedded deep in our DNA; the desire to learn, form communities, follow our curiosity and nurture life, often regardless of the risks and costs. Cognitive and social scientists support this thinking with research on motivation and how cultures and societies reflect these common themes across time and geography.

That is why I struggle when I encounter practices that are designed to coerce, manipulate or intimidate children to learn and behave in a pro-social manner. Points or token systems and other external rewards shift the learning away from the internal (the child’s needs) towards the external (the adult’s needs). It is also why working to change this status quo is one of the areas I’ve focused a great deal of my time and energy on in my role as a school leader.

An important part of being in school for children is it gives them the opportunity to develop as social beings, experience both success and failure and, through these experiences and behaviors, build the resilience that will serve them for life.  The author and provocateur  Alfie Kohn asks us to consider whether our children experience these successes and failures as information or as a rewards and punishments?

I think I know how we got to this place in education-what I wonder is how we can interrupt and begin to develop a set of structures in our classrooms and schools that will lead us away from this place?

Council Kudos

“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~

Photo by Brian Harrison

Photo by Brian Harrison

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.

Let’s Talk

January 27, 2015 1 comment

The problem with the stigma around mental health is really about the stories that we tell ourselves as a society. What is normal? That’s just a story that we tell ourselves.       ~Matthew Quick~

This week schools and workplaces in communities across Canada will continue the conversation about mental health as part of the Let’s Talk campaign on January 28th. The initiative, sponsored in part by Bell Canada, has been instrumental in raising awareness of the issues and statistics related to mental health; for both children and adults.  As a school board, and school community, we are working to better understand the needs of the members of our communities who face mental health challenges so we may meet these needs  in a way that is respectful, collaborative and supportive.

In the context of our school we have grown in our understanding that mental health impacts not only our students, but also the parents of our students and our staff.  A broad term, we see mental health manifest itself in many ways; usually through behaviors like withdrawal, volatile and impulsive actions or extreme mood swings. These can be the result of anxiety, attention difficulties or communication disorders; such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Whether they are the result of environmental conditions, the stresses of daily life or neurologically based; these difficulties are real for those who endure them and deserve to be treated as such- behavior, after all, is communication.

Our goal his year has been to reduce the stigma associated with mental health, while we learn about, and add to our tool kit of strategies and resources in this area. The leadership of our school HUB Team (Helping Understand Behavior) has been key in moving us toward this goal; during instructional and non-instructional time, in our classrooms, hallways and playgrounds. Just as the student who has physical challenges is entitled to a wheelchair or pair of glasses, or a student with a learning disability benefits from the use of a laptop; students with mental health challenges have the right to learn in an environment where they are safe and supported. In our classrooms, we make use of a wide range of tools and approaches; from yoga balls (instead of chairs) to noise reducing headphones and sensory bins as well as activity breaks and yoga.

Each of these is designed to help the student develop the skills to self-regulate so they may socialize and learn as part of our school community and understand that differences are not weaknesses. This is new territory for schools, as our past practice has been to punish children for behaviors that were often the result of underlying mental health issues and, in doing so, we not only added to the stigma, but failed to recognize the behavior as a call for help.

Moving beyond January 28th, we look for more opportunities to continue this important conversation.

 

Planning Ahead…

While our daily  focus remains on the well-being and learning of our students we are starting to lay the foundation for the school year that will begin next September.  We have scheduled our Welcome To Kindergarten information session for the evening of Thursday, June 6th at 7:00 and are looking forward to meeting our new JK students and families at that event.

We are also starting to plan the class placements for the students that we already have. Class placement is a complex and comprehensive process that involves a great deal of time and consideration. We seek input from the current teacher(s) and our support staff and Special Education staff when needed. We also seek input from parents and guardians.

The following link is the Class Placement Form 2013  that parents may download so they may have an opportunity to provide input into the class placement. On the form you will have the chance to share some information about your child that we may not know- emerging interests or peer concerns that you feel may help us in making our placement decisions. Please note that there is no space on the form for a parent to request a teacher. Staffing changes and circumstances present too many variables to make this viable and I don’t believe in offering something unless it can be delivered.

Though we value your input, the placement decision is ultimately one that we make here at the school.

Another Shirt Day

April 7, 2013 4 comments

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?

Learning & Living Skills

February 4, 2013 Leave a comment

“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 lifelong 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.

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