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?

Recess & Resilience

October 25, 2015 1 comment

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

 

Numbers, Numbers Everywhere

February 2, 2015 Leave a comment

The essential fact is that all the pictures that science now draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational facts, are mathematical pictures.         ~Sir James Jeans~

Over the course of this school year our teachers have been digging deeper into their understanding of our mathematics curriculum; specifically looking at the ways that number sense and numeracy are evident across this curriculum. Our math content is divided up into 5 areas, or strands; Number Sense, Measurement, Geometry, Patterning & Algebra and Data Management. This is done more so for organizational purposes, and to ensure that students understand the many real world contexts in which math can be used. A big part of this process for us this year has been to lead each grade-based learning team through professional learning sessions where they have analyzed, discussed and organized our mathematics curriculum into a Year at a Glance planning framework.

math plan

The Year at a Glance Plan for Grade 3/4

The Year at a Glance plans have allowed our teachers to see these connections that exist between the strands, map a pathway of critical learning and big ideas from grade 1 to grade 8 and design tasks that reflect, and connect, these relationships between the strands. Of course in the real world, these strands are inter-connected and, thus are not designed to be learned as separate, discrete topics. For example, a simple task like measuring will require students to draw upon what they know about numbers, geometry, algebra and, in recording their results, ways to represent their measurements as data.

math1

A measurement task that connects multiple strands.

Understanding our number system with a degree of fluency is essential for students to engage in this type of thinking. Just as those students with a wide vocabulary are able to speak, write and read in a wide range of settings more effectively; students who understand our number system are better equipped to see the connections and relationships that exist when they are measuring and working with shapes, data or patterns. A deep and flexible understanding of numbers is developed when we use models and strategies to connect number with quantity, movement and space. It’s more than just writing the numbers down, it’s about understanding what the numbers mean, what the numbers can do and, why our number system works- everywhere.

The many ways we can 'show & know' numbers.

The many ways we can ‘show & know’ numbers.

The tasks we are designing for students, and the way we are teaching them reflect this shift in the understanding our teachers have about our curriculum and how mathematics is used in the real world.

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.

 

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?

%d bloggers like this: