December 07, 2014

My Space Walk: one small step

"Space... The final frontier...
 These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
 Its continuing mission:
 To explore strange new worlds...
 To seek out new life; new civilizations... 
 To boldly go where no one has gone before!"          
~ (Star Trek monologue)

Introduction - a new position

My learning journey continues…into a very unfamiliar place. Since my last post, not only did I make it into a Vice Principal pool for one district, but two. Suddenly out of the blue I got the call and accepted a VP position which was set to begin the next week at a brand new middle school! What exciting and terrifying news!!

So I packed up my classroom, completed all my reports, and said goodbye to my students and fellow staff and friends, all in only a matter of days. It has been a whirlwind of an experience to say the least! In changing over from teacher to administrator there are so many shifts in my mindset that have been required! So I guess you can say it then - yes, I have moved over "to the dark side" (Star Wars). However I find it quite ironic when teachers say this when someone passes over to become a VP, because there is so much for me to be enlightened about! I feel like in many ways there is just so much to learn that you can't be prepared for! I wonder, how do I describe this transformation that is taking place within me? The best way I can think of is to continue with this 'space' theme through the analogy that follows...


Imagine you have always wanted to be an astronaut and one day land on the Moon. What a beautiful dream, but it takes a dedicated and persevering spirit! You work your way (and pay your own way) through school, jump through a bunch of figurative and literal hoops, train yourself both physically and mentally to endure all kinds of setbacks, volunteer in a number of different community organizations, take on extra jobs to pay the bills, lead committees and teams of all kinds, read as much as you can about your subject matter, apply to the necessary programs, write applications and exams, go through a variety of interviews, and then finally you are accepted - into the astronaut training program! 

The excitement of your accomplishment soon wears off as the regiment of procedures, simulations, and tests overwhelm you and even become nauseating! Nevertheless at some point you become comfortable enough and find a routine that works, and you advance to become a leader for other trainees pursuing the same goals and passions that you have. Years pass by and you desire to put all that practice into action, you want to experience the fulfillment of your dreams and move on to the next steps in your life. This is the stage where you begin to prepare yourself for the ultimate destination of taking off from the world you know and land on a distant and alien place - the Moon (hey even Mars one day)!

It's launch day and "you are on your way" as Dr. Seuss would say! The rocket ride is chaotic, loud, and dizzying. When you finally land it's with a bit of a bump on the surface of the Moon. The moment you step out of the cabin of the space lander it is so different than you could have ever imagined. You try to establish contact with your command station for updates, but you are distracted when you notice a base camp that has already been established off in the distance. It is then that you realize that you are not the first to be here, and that is where you must set your direction. So off you go to investigate because there may be answers there or new directives for your mission. When you approach you observe that there is a team hard at work that has obviously put in many long days, enduring innumerable extreme conditions, and countless setbacks themselves in preparing this space to make it what it is now, because it is really something to behold!  

You had expected it to be quiet and still on the surface of the Moon; instead there are a thousand and one things going on around you and it is full of life and activity! You see other space craft and equipment scattered all don't know where to even begin! You put out a few fires (although you are not sure that's even possible on the Moon) and try to remember the objectives you were sent with, and all the training you received from space command. Suddenly a dozen people rush to you with questions upon questions. Someone wants you to inspect their core samples, another one has equipment for you to repair, the next person has spreadsheets of data to review with you about the number of oxygen tanks, food packs, emergency supplies that are on hand... your head spins as you respond to each request as best as you know how. You can't quite get a grasp on how it all works together because it's so overwhelming and different that what you are used to and what you thought it would be! All the simulations and tests were clearly defined and organized before; but now you have to make sense of how it all fits together quickly and what you are even supposed to do! Who is giving these orders anyways?

After a few days in this new environment your body aches and your mind is weary! There is just so much to take in and you don't even know if your training is adequate for this new environment?! This causes you to take a step back to re-evaluate what has transpired. After some reflection you realize that all this time you have simply been reacting impulsively to all these requests and needs that have been brought before you. What has been needed was for you to take charge and work closely with the mission leader who has been there long before you and has a better perspective on the bigger picture. You know that there's an entire universe out there, but you can't take that 'giant leap' until you start with 'one small step' (Neil Armstrong).

Conclusion - a new perspective

In becoming a Vice Principal there are so many amazing opportunities to connect with staff, teachers, students and parents; but there are also so many new responsibilities that have to be balanced, managed, and prioritized. There is an urge to act quickly, but I am seeing that it will take some time to gain the right perspective and find my way forward. So I will take 'one small step for man' - this man, and figure out how to proceed with the rest as I go along! I intend to learn as much as I can along the way, but not move too quickly ahead before I try to understand where I am right now. I think I will even try to step back and enjoy the view a bit more while I am here, because after all, how often does someone get to land on the Moon - it is quite a breathtaking place to be!

August 12, 2014

looking ahead, leading by example, but not "bugged" anymore

Looking ahead, an uncertain future?

I find myself more than half way through the summer looking ahead to the new school year. Yes there is some uncertainty surrounding the state of our BCTF strike and BC Government dispute, but this doesn't stop me from preparing and thinking about the coming year with excitement.

The last school year definitely ended on a down note, I will admit. To go full bore with the students and staff to such an immediate stop with no transition or gradual ease into the summer was a shock. There were many unfinished presentations and projects for students. For me, like many other teachers, this did not mean an extended holiday however. I went straight into house painting for the summer (early) with a friend who owns his own business. Thank God for that, but not exactly what I had planned.

Leading by example, my passion project

One significant decision that I had to make at the beginning of summer was to sell my classic 1968 volkswagen beetle that I had been restoring all year since October. You might say that's a big reason for a lack of blogging over the past year, I was just totally consumed with this project of passion. It began with a challenge to myself about being engaged with something in the same way that I wanted my students to be engaged with their learning in depth projects (which we also called Genius Hour projects). I couldn't just tell them it was important to work on something in great detail over the course of an entire year, I had to get my hands dirty and show them too.

Here are some highlights of my own project.

driving my 1968 beetle home in October 2013
I barely made it home in the hour drive, the bug was leaking oil all over the place. I brought a fire extinguisher just in case!

figuring stuff out

disassembly and removal of the 1500cc engine

As I continued work on my beetle project I looked at my repair manual daily, read numerous blogs, scanned hundreds of on-line diagrams and images, and talked to a number of mechanics on the phone and face to face. This led to me taking parts across town for dismantling with shop tools that I did not have and destroying a number of items of clothing with grease and oil. Often I had to learn to rely on the help of friends for expertise on assembly and disassembly of some stubborn parts.

engine rebuilt and ready for re-install

new suspension in front end
brand new interior, seats reupholstered and carpet installed
There were aspects of the project that I had never tackled before such as rebuilding the front suspension and redoing the entire interior. I have had many beetles before that I have restored in different capacities or sold in parts. Surprisingly I accomplished even more than I thought I could. This did require some vulnerability to ask for help at various stages of the project and not be afraid to take risks. I learned a great deal about being resourceful, believing in myself, and not giving up.

Switching gears slightly now...

Leading by example, my thoughts on leadership

In addition to this time consuming project, in the spring of 2014 I had applied to become a vice-prinicpal in my district. This took many hours of writing my resume and speaking with colleagues about what should go into that application. I was one of only a handful of successful applicants who went all the way through to the final round of interviews, but sadly was not selected in the end. I was very disappointed, but the experience was very valuable and I learned some great insight into the process itself. So as I look ahead, regardless of strike or set backs, I feel re-invigorated again with the prospect of another school year and another opportunity for leadership opportunity in the job I love. As I prepared my next application for vice-principal in the next few days, here is my perspective on what makes a successful school and year!

Relationships are the key and foundation to a positive, safe, caring learning community. Through my relationships with some excellent leaders such as my current administrator, I have adopted and developed a guiding philosophy that has helped to direct my practice and role as a leader in the schools I have worked in. It can be remembered as the 4 "C"s.

1. Cared for - It is important that the students, teachers, staff, and parents that we work with feel cared for. Without this it is often hard to bridge gaps of anxiety and discomfort, and effectively chart a course or have a shared vision for school success.

2. Capable - Often students and teachers need encouragement to see themselves as capable members of a team. This can be done by highlighting examples of their previous work, and/or by speaking to the positive qualities that they bring to the learning environment. And yes I am talking about teachers too!

3. Connected - Most significant to any project or work that is accomplished in schools are the connections we make with each other, and as a leader those opportunities that are presented for interpersonal relationships to build. When students and teachers are engaged in work together, there is a significant increased purpose, passion and enjoyment of the activity.

4. Contributing - I often ask my students about what the evidence of their learning will be, and how they are going to communicate that learning to others. I ask them to use their imagination and bring something fresh and personal to their learning and presentations. For teachers this can take the form of sharing about what has gone well or not so well, and taking time to plan ahead together. In this way, learning takes on a new perspective and level of engagement for all involved.

I have been told many times by my colleagues and people I meet through the various presentations I make at conferences I am an inspiring to them. I am happy to hear this because I have dedicated myself to the work I do by constantly reflecting on my practice and finding ways to be creative in whatever setting I find myself. However I understand that this recognition is not simply directed to the tasks or projects that have been completed; but it is a reflection of the value I have placed on creating positive relationships with my students and in the various networks, committees, and teams I am connected to. I care deeply about the work I do and the people I have the privilege of working with.

Two examples of my leadership in recent time have been in my work as chairperson of the Whole School Project at my elementary school where the entire school community focused on an appreciation of the spaces that encompassed the school, in particular the natural environment of the river nearby to the school. I would even use the word transformational to describe the kind of change that took place within that school community. Secondly has been my ability to move between various committees and take on the chairperson role of the Social Responsibility Committee at my middle school where we reached out to the community with random acts of kindness. Both projects involved collaboration with colleagues within the school, partner groups in the district, and members of the larger educational community.

Now as I think ahead to what the next exciting project might be, I won't know exactly what it will look like, but I know some of the people I will be working with. There is a plan in the works to get many teachers and students from different teams together working on passion projects of their own choice but that are connected to each other. Consequently teachers will be working with students that they would not normally have contact with, something that hasn't happened at the school on this scale before. This could be another great adventure in my eyes! Sure there may be some unknowns and messy parts along the way, but the outcome will be amazing. There is always something to look forward to as school approaches every year!!

Looking ahead, but not "bugged" anymore

my beetle restored and ready for sale June 2014

The day came as I said, where I had to sell my beloved beetle. It wasn't my original plan, but often things change mid course. It's not all bad news though, I was very proud of my finished project, and I was able to double my investment!

These two stories I have told, one of a beetle being restoration and the other of a career that is building, have something in common. Both are about an ongoing process and life-long passions; and both are about reaching out to others for help and inspiration, not about doing it alone. That is what keeps me "fuelled" (pun intended). It is important not to look back  feeling discouraged or "bugged" (double pun) about what was, or the disappointments that have happened; rather we must look ahead for what can be. Hey you never know, maybe I'll find another beetle to restore soon. I have made a number of new friendships that can lead me in the right direction when the time is right. Moreover, this teacher strike will end too, and we need to be prepared for what our schools will be like on the other side. One thing I know for sure - as long as we are connected to others who share our passions, we can accomplish something of great value, significance and fulfillment.

February 08, 2014

journey into the wonderful unknown

No matter how many years I have been teaching, despite awards and recognition; I can honestly admit that things do not always go smoothly as planned, and I continue to learn from my experiences - because I have to! In particular in my new role, I am finding that everyday requires a tremendous amount of effort, energy and reflection. There are so many conversations that need to take place in order to minimize misunderstandings and to move on. This is my journey into the wonderful unknown, where relationships are what matter the most!

So the adventure continues and there have been so many changes for me this year as I transitioned to middle school. Not only am I teaching a new grade level in a grade 6/7 clustered classroom, within a new school system and having to get to know a new staff; but I have also recently taken on a team leader role. Nevertheless, I enjoy a challenge and I like to stay busy, so I have also volunteered to coach a number of teams this year (soccer, volleyball and basketball) as well as joining three different committees (activity day, literacy, and social responsibility) - one of which I am now the chairperson. So these are all opportunities with their own requirements of time, thought and effort, which are all new; although some of my colleagues from my previous school and networks might say that, "Not much has changed," for me.

Being actively involved with staff and students in a variety of settings is what fuels me as an educator, and a few of the ways I have continued to grow and stay grounded is through my own educational readings on curriculum and leadership, my professional development with peers, and through my own reflective journaling (including this blog). I would consider these three factors the "from others", "with others", and "in solitude" that are critical to my success. 

A number of months back I was reading from a book, that was given to me when I presented to a group of masters students and researchers, called: "Wonder-Full Education: The centrality of wonder in teaching and learning across the curriculum" (2014). There is a chapter that intrigued me a lot, "From 'Unknown Questions' Begins a Wonderful Education" by Kiyotaka Miyazaki. The writer contrasts the Japanese dialogical "Saitou" pedagogy with most western "known-information-question" practices. 

Miyazaki explains, 

"Wonder-full education begins from 'unknown questions.' Unknown questions are those whose answers are not known by the teacher, even though the teacher may have posed the questions. They may also be questions raised by others, whose significance the teacher does not understand. Since the teacher doesn't know the answer, she/he cannot provide the 'correct answer' to the children; the answers need to be explore. When the teacher commits to a collaborative exploration of the answer with the children, the explorative activities involve the children in tackling the question. In this sense, the unknown question stimulates children to think deeply about the teaching material."

I begin to wonder how many times I have shut a student down and told them to just listen first instead of allowing them to question what is being learned. Although I would love to think that I only do the latter all the time, I know that this is not always true. There is a difference between seeking unknown questions and questioning authority. I have witnessed both on many occasions. The art of teaching is knowing not only about recognizing the differences and maintaining appropriate classroom management, but about how to provide the right conditions under which students feel safe to question and learn. I also consider this to be true with adults. This can become especially tricky when we are trying to go deeper with learning in the classroom or discussing the merits of a new program or technique. 

The new ministry documents "Enabling Innovation (2012)" and "Exploring Curriculum Design (2013)" talk about a curriculum that is simple, elegant, and deep. It will take some time to find out what those terms actually mean and their practical application. At a recent professional development session a number of staff were looking at these new documents and discussing the impact this will have on us. There are many perspectives on what will happen; however I think this is a move in the right direction and not something entirely new to education on the whole. 

Miyazaki highlights that in 1973, the Saitou Research Group of Pedagogical Studies defined the most important keywords were about the opposition between students, teachers and contents: 

"Between children, teacher and teaching material should be generated contradictions, oppositions, confrontations, and conflicts. Children and teacher should, going beyond the oppositions, discover and create new views, and go over to the new horizons."

A shift has already begun for many, and personally I am having to change how I deliver instruction to the students to capture their attention and imagination. Certainly there are many times that I have gone back to old ways and rely on more traditional methods; but I am continuing to integrate the more innovative and creative (imaginative) methods of instruction that I learned in my master's work because I want to have an impact on how my students learn. I am significantly aware at times of my own need for heroic qualities such as: patience, perseverance, humour and kindness. These qualities are forged in the presence of others.

I have begun noticing opportunities for this dialogic kind of learning recently. I was having a discussion with my students about RAK (Random Acts of Kindness) week that is coming up. I could tell that the students were waiting for me to tell them what we would be doing and some were just trying to "wait it out" until the Nutrition Break bell went or when I would stop talking. However, there was a bit of a shift when I confronted them with the reality that I wasn't going to direct them, and that they needed to tell me what they wanted to do. A discussion finally surfaced with some thoughtful ideas. 

Another is an example of a lesson on Lightning I created as part of a unit on Electricity. I began with some images and stories from Myths about Zeus with his thunderbolts, and Thor and his hammer wielding lightning bolts. 

Zeus with his thunderbolts
I also presented some background information on Benjamin Franklin and his famous lightning rod experiment. 

Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod experiment

I had put together a small slide show of images of lightning, followed by images of the after-effects of a lightning strike to buildings, humans, animals, and a tree. The entire lesson culminates in the students enacting what to do if they were caught out in a storm. 

All of these tools are to used with the aim to engage students' imaginations and connect them to the curriculum content. The textbook gives a scientific explanation of how the cloud and ground become charged with opposite charges. The image of a tree is shown as being positively charged, while the cloud gains a negative charge. Since the tree is the highest object it becomes a target for the static charge that has built up to discharge to the ground. 

I then darkened the room and put on some storm soundtrack that I had. Whenever the thunder rolled, with a slight delay, I would turn on my lamp. Any student who was not safely crouched down was hit by the lightning. I also had a palm tree at the back of the class which I told the students could be used if they wanted. When one boy went over during the storm he was of course hit. I was trying to teach them about the science behind the activity as well as what to do practically in this kind of situation.

But what happened was the boy by the tree wanted to dispute this "fact" and proceeded to inform us all that the tree would be the safest place. I must admit that it kind of got to me how he was "interrupting the flow" (pun intended) of the lesson that I had put so much time into creating, and I saw his behaviour as a bit of a nuisance. To be honest, I was seeing his actions as a distraction since it wasn't done in the most respectful way; but what I realized afterwards was that he was really wanting to question the learning. I don't believe this was done to be purposely rude or question my authority, rather that he had a genuine, real curiosity to understand why a tree would provide the safest point, not because it would shelter him, but he was hypothesizing that the electrons would discharge safely into the ground without harming him. I started to realize that what I need to do with some of my lessons is to go deeper into how the students perceive it. 

Miyazaki writes,

"To understand meaning is to understand it as the answer to a question. The teacher must examine the horizon behind the question as the children understood it."

As I continue to plan, I want to make more opportunities for students to question, even the simple concepts. Next time, I could simply start the lesson with a question such as, "Where is the safest place to be if you are outside in a storm?" Furthermore, I might show the students the word lightning and ask them to generate questions they have about the topic as it relates to electricity. There are many possibilities.

One last example is that I have one student currently working on his Genius Hour / Learning in Depth project on the Periodic Table of Elements. He has been happily researching and building molecules. Yesterday, I asked him why the periodic table is organized as it is. He told me the elements are arranged by atomic number. Good right!? Then I asked him, "Why does the table look like it does though?" "It has such a weird shape and colour arrangement, why?" He responded, "I don't know?" I replied, "I don't know exactly why either." Under other circumstances I might have said that I do know and that he should be the one to learn about it - I mean I took chemistry and physics in high school and have some understanding, but the truth is I don't know if I really know. How often do we do this as adults and as teachers - give the perception that we have all the answers, or make students feel like some questions are so basic that they should know. We typically begin from a place of feeling that we should know, but there are so many things that we don't actually know well. In this particular situation, the place we can then start from is a shared investigation between us.

Miyazaki concludes:

"To discover the unknown question, it is necessary for the teacher to commit to authentic learning in which she/he encounters the teaching material anew. The teacher must give up being the adult who knows better. Sometimes, she/he finds the unknown question while listening to the children's voices. Still the responsibility rests with the teacher to discover the unknown question, to share it with the children and to make the lesson wonderful. When the teacher makes her/himself a wonderful learner, children will also become wonderful learners."

Through the employment of the heroic qualities mentioned above, and in modelling what it looks like to be actively engaged and listening, I know that some break through thinking can be developed. My thought about this is that as students are given more responsibility in sharing and contributing to their own learning and towards their community that then they will have to identify what is important for them and consequently how they want to proceed and show their interest and understanding. As I link this to the new curriculum drafts I see that the core competencies that are required of students across all subjects include these aspects of: communication, critical and creative thinking, and personal and social awareness and responsibility.

There are a number of conversations going on in a number of teams, schools, and districts currently. It may be that everything has to be back on the table for discussion. Does "platooning" of subjects (for example, where one teacher teaches Science for 2 classes and another teacher teaches Socials) work within this new learning framework? At middle school we cluster grade 6 and 7 students together, and grade 8 students are separated. Perhaps we need to re-look at how we have structured grade groupings and teams. There are differences between these words: collaboration, platooning, co-planning, and co-teaching that need to be explored and understood first and not just assumed that we all know what they mean.

So as the shift to the new curriculum and assessment documents, and reporting practices takes place, what will be required is constant reflection and realignment of priorities and communication between all the members. It will most definitely require a shift in values and practical instructional methods for all of us. We cannot simply "wait it out", or hope for June or retirement, if we are all to become effective agents of change. There will be no direct course from content to understanding, everything will need to be mediated with understanding of the language.

How we navigate this new landscape will be critically important and unique. It reminds me of something my father taught me. We used to have to steer our speed boat into shore on our approach to our cabin on Savary Island. I learned at a very young age that there were many rocks on the beach below the surface of the water that we couldn't see at regular tides, but could be extremely damaging if they struck the hull of the boat. My dad had devised a path through the rocks while viewing the beach at low tide as he explained to me. In order to safely navigate to shore, we had to line up two points on the horizon - a path leading from the beach to the top of a cliff and a large tree, and at a certain point we had to change direction. Other factors that had to be considered while driving the boat included: the tide level, speed of travel, and distance from shore. I remember hanging off the nose of the boat when I was very young, and as I focused I could in fact see the rocks under the surface of the water as we slowly drifted in to shore. I was mesmerized by the "floating rocks", but of course as I got older I learned much more about all that was involved in successfully completing this trip safely. 

My advice for this next part of our educational journey is to proceed with caution, set our sights ahead towards the end goal, but keep an eye on how things proceed through the many "unseen" obstacles which lay just beneath the surface along the way. Eventually we will get there, as long as we move forward together, as we face these new challenges. We will definitely need to listen to the wisdom of many who have gone before, so that we don't make careless, hasty errors. 

As we look towards deeper learning and more authentic ways of communicating student learning, what do we do then with students who spend just as much time finding a silly face and random funny quote to add to the end of their presentations as they do with the actual research and content of their work? Some things we need to just let be..."whatever"!  Hopefully through developing trust, mutual respect, and opportunities for questioning; students will have a deep desire to investigate and tap into their own curiosity because they are not just doing something for us, but they are interested because it is a meaningful learning adventure for them. We should never set sail from these shores on our journey into unknown waters.