For those of you who know me, you already are aware that I'm the father of 4 kids (9, 5, 2 yr old twins) and know that balancing life and work is always tricky. Last night, my 5 year old daughter, Eva, and my wife went to see the live performance of Mary Poppins. The two of them were accompanied by my mom, my two sisters and my two nieces for what they called their girls night out. The performance ended close to 10:00 pm, so by the time they arrived back home, I was already sound asleep. This morning, my daughter came bouncing out of her bedroom, eager to tell me all about the "flying lady" and the "amazing songs". She talked about the performance with smiling eyes, and summed it all up by saying, "after all, anything is possible dad, if you let it!"
Such prophetic words. Anything is possible...if you let it.
I started thinking about how we approach learning, both adult learning and student learning. Do you believe that anything is possible? When you look at all your students, do you believe all of them can achieve at a high level? When you think about yourself, do you set limits on what you think you can do? If so, where did these limits come from? What evidence do you have that you cannot learn to really high levels?
Here is a task you might want to undertake in private, for I doubt you would ever tell anyone how you "rank" your students, even if it is done though instinct or what others call their gut feelings. The task is to think about the students currently in your class, and think about how you have ranked them based on your belief of how deeply each of them can learn. Likely many of you reading this will say you do not rank your students in this manner, which is great, however it has been my experience that many teachers do, and this evidence often reveals itself through subtle comments, usually in the staff room or in my office. That being said, we all have students who are achieving at different levels in our classrooms, and what I'd ask you do is only focus on what you are:
a. doing to help close the achievement gap for the students who come out on the low end of your unofficial scale
b. not doing to help close the achievement gap for the students who come out on the low end of your unofficial scale
After you have done that, simply ask yourself why. Why are you doing what you are doing, and why are you not doing some things that might help.
I get it, we are all busy, and all the students in our class need help at some point. But, if we are creating excuses for why we are not closing the gap for these struggling students, then I think we need to evaluate what we are doing in our room and how we can change our approach to learning. Sometimes all we need to do is ask for help, we cannot pretend to know the answer to every question, nor the solution to every problem.
Larry Leverett_ writes, "it is time to reject the myths that provide excuses for action. It's time to stop blaming the victims, relying on non-school factors to excuse our performance in schools, and accepting the poppycock that closing the achievement gap is a problem without a solution."
After all, like a 5 year old said, anything is possible dad...if you let it!
As always, comments are welcome.
On my way to a presentation this morning I drove down a familiar road, one that I've traveled countless times and one that offers great scenery to enjoy. As I drew closer to my destination I noticed some large machinery near a gas station that had recently relocated to a different part of town. The station had sat empty for a while in the hopes that someone would take it over, but alas, that did not come to pass. The gas station was not that outdated, but customers were demanding the latest innovations in the world of petroleum and convenience goods.
This started me thinking about how we respond to our customers, our students. As May unfolds it is the time of year when we walk with our feet in two different worlds; reflecting on the past year, while starting to look ahead. Many teachers decide to tweak certain things from the past in an effort to improve their art, and I think it's important to be ever-evolving in the world of education. But when is it time to tear it all down and start from scratch? This does not mean abandoning the goal of student learning, just like the gas station did not abandon their goal of providing the best customer service they can in a timely manner. But when are tweaks not enough? Tearing it all down can be a scary proposition, and sometimes the fear of the new can stop us from letting go of the familiar.
How do you know if it's time to make some big changes in how you teach? I think it is safe to say there will be different indicators for different people, but here are a few questions I ask myself each year:
As always, comments are welcome.
One of the many great things about my job as a vice-principal is that I get to split my time between teaching and administration duties. One of the classes I work with is the grade 9 math class, and today we had a really great conversation....just not about math!
Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels talk about the natural curiosity of students but how we are missing an opportunity to get them to think deeply. They write, "throughout their school lives, [students] have more often been asked to report what they have learned, not to reflect back, examine their own thinking, and pose further questions." Today, I thought I'd ask some questions, not for assessment, but just to get the wheels turning. When they were all done the work they needed to do for the time being, and given it was a Friday, I started jotting questions on sticky notes and setting them on desks. Questions like,
This got me thinking about the staff at our school. What sticky note questions could I ask them at lunch or just on their door in the morning? What would you ask your teachers? Or your supervisors?
Maybe questions like,
Sometimes I hear people complain that students "can't think for themselves" or they just too "self centered", but then I wonder, are we just asking the wrong questions?
As always, comments are welcome.
Have you ever had a great idea about how to improve your classroom practice or how you perform your duties as an administrator, and then "shelved" it for fear of having the idea rejected by the decision makers? In George Couros' (@gcouros) book, The Innovator's Mindset, he talks about the power of "no" versus a culture of "yes". He writes, the problem is that when you say "no" to innovation - for any reason - people feel reluctant to attempt trying new things in the future. No one wants to work in an environment where they feel their ideas or input does not matter, whether they are a teacher in a school or an administrator in a school division. This thinking also applies to students as well. Why would a student take a risk if there is a culture of "no" in their classroom?
Stop and think for a moment about the school you are in right now. Is there a culture of risk taking? If not, how can you start planting the seeds for growth?
This morning I had the privilege of speaking with an innovative grade 7 teacher (@SalzlJackie) about assessment, progress reports, tests, and just what it is we are doing to allow students to "show what they know". This was a great conversation because a lot of it was Jackie talking about what she wants to try next year and how she is going to start gathering resources as she builds towards this. When she left the office I had to smile because there has been a culture of "yes" established at our school. Does this mean everyone is taking risks all the time? No, but people who are risk takers are also those who create ripples, and those ripples effect others in the building.
What would the ripple effect have been had I said, "no, forget it"?
As always, comments are welcome!
One of the perks of being an in-school administrator is the time I have for watching teachers teach and learners learn. This semester we have a terrific intern working with our senior humanities teacher, and yesterday along with grade 3 and grade 5, grade 10 history was on my rotation so I was able to spend some time with him. As I watched I noted many great attributes this intern brings to the classroom, from strong planning, to engaging teacher talk time, to a real connection with the students, however the one thing I could not see was his ability to reflect (obviously!). The questions I left him with to ponder are listed below, they were sent to him in an e-mail:
Some questions for you from my period 5 visit:
What will [the cooperating teacher] learn because he was in the room with you?
These are meant to be reflective, but if you want to talk about them I'd love to hear your thoughts, but I'll leave that up to you :)
What was so impressive was the depth of his reflection, and there is no way I could have identified this without being in his room.
Baruti Kafele, @PrincipalKafele.com, notes in The Principal 50 that, "you cannot lead from the main office. Reading e-mails and interacting with office staff have their place, but not during instructional time. During that time, your place is in the classroom, observing instruction." It is easy to fall in the trap of doing the managerial things that are always present, but one thing I've learned is that the managerial things will still be there at the end of the day....the kids won't be!
If you are not around the learning, how will you know there is learning?
As always, comments are invited.
Another example today of why you need to greet each morning with an optimism and belief that something wonderful might just be around the corner. Today was just that kind of a day for me as I had a surprising connection that I could have never had anticipated. Like many of you reading my blog, you likely get Twitter notifications on your mobile device, and if you are like me, sometimes you open them right away, other times you wait. Today as I was preparing for a book club I'm in (The Innovator's Mindset, by @gcouros) my android buzzed away at notifications as they came in. I took a moment and paused seeing that a former student had just followed me on Twitter. This was not what caught my attention though, it was how she identified herself that made me take notice. I opened her Twitter page and saw that she was just finishing up her education degree at the University of Regina, and was getting ready to embark on what I always call the greatest career possible. I congratulated her on choosing this path, and that's when she said something I was not expecting to hear when I woke up this morning. She wrote, to be honest, you played a large role in this. I hated high school. Your class was the only one that I enjoyed going to. I want to make sure other Middle Years students have a positive experience in school. I was very humbled.
Now, some might view this post as a platform for me to boast or pat myself on the back, but that's not what this is about. There are many of these stories, stories of teachers inspiring students to go on to do great things, but this post is about how her words made me feel. I was proud of the impact I had on this student's life, but was completely unaware that any thing I had said or done had this affect. It made me wonder about all the other students who have made career choices because of a certain teacher. I wonder how many of these people have reached out to that teacher to let them know.
Do you have that person in your life that has impacted you? Have you told them about the way they helped shape who you are today? It does not take long to drop a line to someone to say "thanks for what you did for me". Take the time and do it today.
As always, comments are welcome.
Recently I was on a bus trip to a soccer tournament with a boisterous group of grade 4, 5 and 6 students. The bus was buzzing with the chatter of kids full of excitement as we rattled down the rough Saskatchewan back roads. If you know Saskatchewan you know that the flat prairie allows you to look out for what seems forever. As we drove along we saw smoke rising in the distance, a common sight in Saskatchewan this time of year, as some farmers take to burning the stubble left on their fields after they are finished their harvest. The grade six teacher and I began commenting on the fire which caught the attention of a student sitting behind us. He noted that his dad burns his fields and that on the weekend prior to this trip he had been helping his father. The grade six teacher asked, "how do you keep your fire from getting away on you? Aren't you afraid you'll burn up your neighbor's field?" The boy responded in a way that only a farm kid could when trying to explain things to a couple city boys such as the teacher and myself (I didn't have the heart to tell him I grew up in a farming community). He spoke slowly and explained every detail clearly and carefully.
What was interesting was that in that moment this grade six boy was the teacher and we were the students. We were curious about something and he used his expertise to explain to us how he and his father contained their burns.
I thought about this conversation for a while and started wondering:
I thought about an art class I observed last year where I saw this in action. The students were all working on the same sort of art project that involved creating a template and spray painting on a small 10" x 14" canvas. Their creations were amazing, and some of the students who were traditionally reluctant to take part in art class were turning out pieces of work that they were truly proud of. After the class I had a chance to sit with the teacher and ask where he discovered this idea. I was fully expecting him to tell me about an art class he once took or how the idea came from a colleague or from the teachers' new best resource, Pintrest. When he told me where the idea really came from, I was so excited. He said, "no, this wasn't my idea, it was Jason's (pseudonym). He was working on this and the other kids thought it was awesome, so I let him teach them how to do it".
This is what it's all about. Allowing children to feel important and valued. Giving students the chance to have their voices heard rather than asking them to sit passively in class while we, the experts, are the ones holding all the knowledge. This is the important stuff.
How have you seen this in action? As a teacher do you know your students well enough to know where they can lead? As an administrator do you know your staff well enough where they can lead?
As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.
Like any good Canadian, I've grown up playing, watching, coaching, officiating and basically just loving hockey! I was never very good at the game, but managed to find a few recreational teams that would put up with my plodding ways and stray passes. It has been quite a few years since I laced up the skates, and while I do miss it, I realize at this point in my life my hockey days are long behind me. This week was the start of the NHL regular season, and much to my wife's dismay, I found myself glued to the TV watching teams start the season full of hope in their quest to be better than last year. Regardless of where teams finished at the end of last season they all took stock of where they performed well and in what areas they needed improvement. All the teams, even the champions, have a few different players wearing their colours this year and these additions will have to quickly learn the system under which the team plays.
While watching the games I was struck by the similarities between the start of a school year and the start of a hockey season, even if our "training camp" is only a few days at the end of August. Just like hockey teams, good schools look at their statistics, their data, from the previous year. When schools see great results they should ask, "how can we build on what we accomplished last year?" Similarly, when schools identify areas where they were lacking they must ask, "how do we begin to address this?"
NHL teams are beginning to venture into the world of analytics, using advances statistics to identify where their needs are. Schools have been doing this for a long time, collecting data on reading, writing, mathematics, student engagement, etc. By doing this schools can set goals and teachers and students can work together to build on the great things and address the areas of need. The end of August and the beginning of September bring a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism for the year ahead. Plans are in place and teachers are ready to start the onerous, yet rewarding task of helping the students get to a place where they themselves were doubtful they could get to.
But then October fades from the calendar and the short days of winter appear on the horizon. Students and teachers have settled into routines and there is a definite lull in the momentum that was present to start the year. How do we keep this momentum going? How do we as leaders avoid falling into a rut and as a result, failing our teachers when they need us to keep them keep the enthusiasm at the fore?
Some simple, yet effective things I do as a learning leader are:
These are just a few of the things I do as a learning leader in my building. There are many other ways to keep the momentum up in a school, and as always, I'd love to hear any and all suggestions and ideas.
Every morning I make the same commute to work; a 25 minute drive on a road with no curves, no hills, and very little to look at. Any of you from Saskatchewan can likely relate to such a route so you know how a person can go on auto pilot from time to time. While the drive can be quite mundane, it does give me time to get mentally ready for the day and run through my to-do list. The drive is the same every morning, a cup of coffee, a little light traffic and some good music on my XM radio.
Thursday morning was a reminder that some days you just never know what you are going to see. I was about half way to work when I noticed a car on the shoulder of the road. Cars on the side of the road are not a strange sight, but when the occupants are out on the road something is usually up. As I approached them I slowed down, out of safety and curiosity, and was able to see what it is they were looking at. In the freshly combined wheat field, against a backdrop of trees covered in their autumn colors, was a huge moose. The big animal slowly sauntered along, seemingly unaware of the people watching her and the cars whizzing by on the highway. Maybe she was on her morning commute?
I started to wonder about how many other times that moose may had been out in the field and I never noticed her. What else have I just zoomed by without even seeing it? Obviously a person needs to keep an eye on where they are heading, but how many times have I had tunnel vision on that highway?
As you know this blog is about things I have learned as they relate to education and leadership, and you've likely already drawn a thread between my experience and my school.
Sometimes we can get so immersed in our own world at work that we get tunnel vision. How many great things have I walked by at work? How many students have I not engaged with because I've been focusing on my own needs? Everyday my kids are doing amazing things at school, and even though I do need to keep an eye on where I am heading each day, I also need to keep my eyes open for the greatness that is around me.
I'm not going to notice everything that is going on around me all the time, sometimes I need that "car on the shoulder" to grab my attention. That being said, I do need to be aware of how tunnel vision can not only occur on the highway, it can occur at work.
Do you ever get tunnel vision in your life? How do you stay aware of all the greatness that is around you?
As always, comments are welcome.