Just Floating an Idea…

I have been thinking about my youth. For some reason, I am finding myself reminiscing about years gone by, whether it is because I watch my own children at play or because fifty is quickly approaching. Recently I was recalling a favourite place in my home town. The ParticiPark, which was a legacy project created by the local Kinsmen Club in the early 1980s, was a place that holds many special memories for me. As a child, I’d explore the vast, winding trails that meandered through the tall trees. I would play with my friends in the park as we would let our imagination make the rules. We would always end up with various bumps, bruises, and scrapes. It was a place where we could be creative, there were no rules or supervision, just kids being kids. It was a place of misspent hours where we would make mistakes. It would be where we’d have our first puff of a cigarette nabbed from my dad’s coat. It was a place where disagreements might be solved through fisticuffs. It was a place where we learned how to be friends. A place for serious debates about Batman versus Superman. A place for clumsy first kisses. We were young, curious, healthy and free.

I loved late September and early October in the park as the coloured leaves formed a carpet on the ground, and the crisp air was full of the smells of autumn. I also loved spring in the park as the annual melt created many opportunities for us to get really creative. Whether intentional or through a flaw in the design, the paths in the park would always flood with dirty, frigid water. We would spend hours playing on homemade rafts that would inevitably tip or sink, leaving us with full boots, wet clothes, and sore ribs from all the laughter. It was a recent edchat on Twitter that brought many of these special memories floating back, and it has me thinking about the way our children are continually learning.

The #atAssess chat was titled Assessment in Exploratory Contexts, and once I figured out what that meant, I started looking at the questions and thinking about the work we are doing at #WaldheimSchool. Participants in the chat were invited to share their thoughts and experiences as they related to the following questions:

1. Rich learning can often happen outside the confines of a classroom. How might we integrate assessment into outdoor, schoolyard learning?

2. How might we collect and document evidence of learning while outdoors?

3. How might we assess students when everyone is “on the move”?

4. In what ways can assessment unleash student imagination?

5. What might our assessment approaches look and sound like when they are engaging imagination?

6. What are some of the barriers we might remove from our assessment practices in order to optimize open-ended learning contexts?

7. Why are assessment and exploratory contexts often seen as contradictory? How might we shift this perception?

Taking part in this chat had me reflecting on the many ways we already are doing much of this work in our school. I think about students planting gardens, building cardboard boats (which would have rocked in the ParticiPark), or studying shadow length outside. I think about the way students are invited to bring their experiences into their learning by the way you allow them choice in their reading and writing, by allowing them choice in their art and PAA creations, by opening up opportunities through Genius Hour, and by inviting their voice in your speaking circles.

We are doing great things, but how do we keep growing? I go back to a conversation I had with Trace a few weeks ago as he shared something he was wondering about. As a phys ed teacher, he was wondering how he could leverage the activities many of his students were involved in outside of school. For example, should all of the physical activity involved in hunting somehow be acknowledged for a high school student? What about the student who regularly participates in rodeos? What about the boy who follows a strict workout plan after school? What about the girl actively involved in synchronized swimming? Do we ‘count’ this extra-curricular activity as we strive to understand our students? Or, is this just that, extra? Should it merely stand alone and not impact or influence our work? Can it?

When you think about the students you know and work with, how do the myriad of outside activities become woven into the fabric of learning in your setting? What about the boy who finds therapy in tending to his garden? What about the girl who is creating animated art on her tablet ‘for fun’? What about the kids who have built their YouTube channel called D – Three Reacts, a channel with over 48,000 subscribers (yes, 48,000!!!)? What about the kid that is struggling with the harsh realities life sometimes unfairly throws their way? How is all of this learning being brought into your class? Or does it sit alone, untapped, on the sidelines?

With five weeks remaining, and many outdoor learning opportunities coming our way, how will you let your students’ imaginations run free while trying to capture some of the learning?

Here is what lies on the horizon this week:

Monday:

  • June & Brenda pre-K visits
  • Bruce away (pm)

Tuesday:

  • Firefighter challenge (1:00 – 1:45)
  • June & Brenda pre-K visits (part 2)

Wednesday:

  • Amazing Race (1:45ish)
  • Student Support Team Year in Review Meeting (11:30 – 1:00 ~ Joanne, Brenda, Jade, Bruce)

Thursday:

  • Learning for Life Presentation! Jesse, Ellen, Dwayne, Katharine, and Bruce away (am)

Friday:

  • 7 – 12 track and field athletes and helpers away (list finalized this week)

As always, create a great week!

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Changes

I could not resist. The pile of laundry, the flowers waiting to be planted, the uncut lawn, and the depleted bank account all said stay home, but the lure of the sunny skies, warm sand, and fresh air was too much for me. Away we went, up to Waskesiu for the final day of the May long weekend. While the lake water is still frigid, the tired kids and sunburned shoulders are all evidence that summer is just about here. The kids had a blast digging holes on the beach, playing on the swings, trying to skip rocks, wading in the lake (even if it was just up to their knees), and eating ice cream.

Our favorite family destination was just how we left it last summer and it is so neat to see the kids start to recognize similar things from season to season. I think the predictable nature of the park is something the kids enjoy, they know their way around and they feel safe there. They spend less time wondering what to do, and more time getting down to the business of fun and games. It all looked and felt the same, but there was one exciting change we were looking forward to exploring, the new grocery store. Located across from the main beach, the store, known as the Trading Post, is a place my kids love to go because of the variety of fresh baked treats they chose from for the ride home. While Eva, Charlie, and Maggie usually try something new, for Bobby, it always has been, and always will be a good old lemon danish. He’s pretty predictable. I love that about him.

Familiarity with a sprinkle of change. It reminds me of our school. Last week we learned of a few staffing changes and these are always exciting. New staff and new assignments create opportunities for teachers to collaborate and think about how best to reach our learners. It is a time of year when we are walking with one foot in the present and one in the future. We understand how critical these final six weeks are in our journey, but we cannot help but be excited about the potential the future holds. The work we do is as complex as it is important, and the students count on us to keep things safe and predictable with a sprinkle of change every now and again.

As May turns to June and our staff presentations continue, it is an opportunity to reflect on the work we’ve done. We get to talk about the way we’ve kept things safe for our students so they can spend less time wondering what to do, and more time getting down to the business of learning. As we begin to wrap things up, I’d invite you to think about the numerous successes you have had. Think deeply about why things worked. I am not a huge believer in luck, I think things that worked for you did so for a reason. There is a lot that went right this year for you, own it! You created it. Once you have the long, detailed list of things that went right this year, flip the page and think of one thing you want to work on for next year.

I know the one thing I want to work on for next year: uninterrupted,
intentional inquiry
. I was able to have a great conversation with some teachers on Friday, and they helped me see the benefit of setting aside blocks of time to meet. They explained how 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time with a staff member to discuss how things are going would be so beneficial for our team. I realize there is so much more I need to work on as leader, but this is what I want to focus on for next year. This will be my little sprinkle of change. What will yours be?

Here is what is on the horizon for this shortened, yet busy week:

Tuesday:

  • 7 – 12 track and field in Dalmeny
  • Staff learning meeting after school (presentations continue)

Wednesday:

  • Prep for elementary track day

Thursday:

  • Elementary track and field day

As always, create a great week!

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Who Do You Illuminate?

The weather was perfect for the kids to toss their scooters into the van and hit the road into Saskatoon. One of their favorite places to explore is the University of Saskatchewan, and they have come to enjoy riding their scooters on the paths in the bowl. Before they begin terrorizing the pedestrians and the gophers with their reckless racing, they always like to head into the Agriculture building first. A highlight for the kids, and yes, maybe for me too, is the ride in the glass elevator. This is always followed by a visit to Apple Jack, the metal sculpture that depicts what appears to be a prairie boy sitting under an apple tree with his books close by. From there the kids love to race through the walk way that connects the Agriculture building to the Biology building, where the giant dinosaur skeletons, live fish and snakes, and dazzling rocks and minerals await. It’s the same routine, and it’s a lot of fun for everyone.

Excited to see the parrots.

Saturday’s visit was different than previous trips we’ve made. As we entered the Biology building, my youngest boy, Charlie immediately noticed all the helium balloons dancing on the ends of their ribbons. Their curiosity was piqued and they quickened their pace to find out what was going on. We discovered a collection of displays and demonstrations as University students had set up for the Let’s Talk Science expo. Many things caught our eye, including the live snakes and the falcon, however it was the learning about light demonstration that captured our imagination. As we sat in the lecture theatre, two young chemists performed a series of experiments that were designed to teach us about the way light and chemical properities of substances work together. It was the demonstration involving black light and tonic water that really intrigued me.

Splitting the light from a flashlight much the way a raindrop splits the sunlight.

When you look at tonic water, it really does not look like much. It’s a clear liquid, a little bubbly, but for the most part is quite unassuming. When you turn on a black light, not much happens. Alone, black lights and tonic water are not all that exciting. But, when you bring the two together, and the black light reacts with the tonic water, magic (or as is usually the case, science) happens. The black light causes the tonic water to glow this beautiful, fluorescent blue. It looks like a beverage you would see in some science fiction movie, but there it was, right in front of us. You’ve probably already figured out what I was thinking about as I watched this demonstration, and saw the expression on my kids’ faces, after all, they were completely blown away by this.

What I thought about is the magic that happens when two things come together; adults and students. I see it every day, and I see it all over the school. I see it when Dan and David are working on his 3-D chess board, I see it when Dwayne and Alaina co-present at our staff meeting, I see it when Lucian lights up when Jade walks in the room, I see it when Kelly and Corinne work through a tough spot, I see it when Jesse and Aliyah discuss her scholarships, I see it in Cora’s smile as Porter does his excited dance, I see it in the smile Reane shares with Jamie in the hallway, I see it everywhere!

But…

Are we illuminating every student? This does not mean that you need to be every thing to every one every day, but, as a team of 35 caring adults, is it possible for us to make sure every student is at least given the opportunity to glow under our light? We are blessed to work in a school where every adult wants every student to succeed, so I do believe it is possible. Doing rough math it works out that the magic number is twenty. Twenty illuminations in a day by each staff member and we would have the entire school glowing brightly. (The actual number is 13.1, but just think about the power created when kids are illuminated by multiple adults in the building!)

Is this realistic?

I truly believe it is, and I feel this way because of the evidence I see every day. Here is the challenge for Monday’s illuminations: think of a student that you have not connected with yet this year, and make a move to connect with them. That’s it, I believe it is that simple. If we each take a moment, and start shining our light on those students who may be trying to live in the shadows, out of sight, I believe we can illuminate them.

On Friday, I had the shocking and troubling realization that I’ve never really had a conversation with a certain unnamed grade 9 student. I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself, so I made the effort to sit beside her, only for a few minutes, to see how she was feeling about school. I learned from her that she really loved the academic side of school, particularly reading, but really struggled with the social aspect of the daily routine. We discussed how some people make it look so easy, and ended up drawing a second student into the conversation that was feeling the same. I have no clue how she felt about the discussion, but I know I felt better about making time for her.

You likely have students that are very easy to connect with. They are the ambitious, outgoing kids who are always ready to talk (and in some cases talk, and talk, and talk, and talk…..). As I was reminded by a grade 10 student from Delta, BC, the quiet, shy kids really need the adults in their school to make an effort to get to know them.

You may think your light is not that powerful but it is. Our quiet, unassuming students (our tonic water kids) may seem content, but don’t let that stop you. Shine your light on them. Illuminate them. Connect with them and watch the magic happen.

Here is what lies on the horizon for this week:

Monday:

  • Dwayne is prepping the track for our students to practice on, please be aware he will be out there in the morning

Tuesday:

  • SCC AGM at 6:00 pm
  • Lock down drill at 9:15 am

Wednesday:

  • EA staff meeting 8:00 am

Thursday:

  • Fire drill at 1:30 pm

Friday:

  • Prep day (PowerTeacher Pro training for those who wish at 9:00 am in the computer lab)

As always, create an illuminating week 🙂

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From Anticipation to Affirmation

“Oh my goodness, look at all these messages!” Brenda could hardly contain her excitement as she showed me her phone. The screen was populated with well-wishes from staff members, and she commented that it was what she needed. We knew that being invited to share our story was a real honor and a duty that we felt we needed to execute in a way that captured the work being done in our building. We were nervous but knew if we shared your story, we would be just fine. All of those messages to Brenda reminded us of how we got to Vancouver.

As I sat at the side of the room, listening to Brenda speak, advancing the PowerPoint as we had rehearsed, I was transported back home. My head was in BC, but my heart was in Waldheim. She spoke about the many different ways we have implemented some of the big ideas we have been wrestling with this year. Brenda’s words caused the audience to write feverishly, nod in agreement, and smile wide as our message was clearly striking a chord. Educators from across Canada heard Brenda share our story. They heard your story.

The word that was in my head on the flight out was anticipation. As I sit waiting in the Vancouver airport, a venti Starbucks at the ready, the word that has replaced anticipation is affirmation. We are doing great work! Teaching is incredibly challenging, and this year you all have committed to turning the dial up on your learning. You have all dug in deeply to our assessment work, and what we saw and heard in BC affirmed that we are on the right path. Getting to hear from such heavy hitters as Damien Cooper, Ken O’Connor, Lorna Earl, Katie White, and Lori Jeschke was a real treat, but it was the way their message had Brenda and I looking at each other, smiling and knowing what the other was thinking that was so affirming.

Does this mean we are at the finish line? Hardly. The more we discussed the work that has been done, the more excited we became for the prospects that await us through the end of this year and into next year. It is true that we were the messengers this time, but Brenda and I both agreed that #WaldheimSchool could, nay, should be sending teams of teachers to present at conferences like this. We were encouraged to share our voices with others, and I’d like to invite each of you to think about what it is you have to say. Your voice matters. Your work matters. Your learning matters. You matter.

We were invited to think about who we want to be as difference makers in the lives of the students we work with. I was moved to think about what it means to be an adult in our building. This is something we want to dig deeper into as next year unfolds, but for now, we’d like to invite you to think about these questions:

  • What qualities best define an adult at Waldheim School?
  • Who do you want to be as an adult at Waldheim School?
  • Why is assessment the most important aspect of great teaching?
  • Why does it matter if you show up every day?
  • If a student was asked, “name two adults in your school who believe you will be a success”, would all of our learners have a response? If not, are you okay with that?

Your work and your love of your students is what inspired Brenda and I, and we were proud to wave the Waldheim School flag. After all, when you look at all the fantastic things you do, it’s pretty easy to be so proud. Thank you for the gifts you have given us, and thank you for letting us tell your story. #Affirmation!

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What Gifts Will We Receive?

Anticipation. That’s the word that keeps rolling through my thoughts this morning. Anticipation. As I enjoy a cup of coffee and a bagel I look out from the hotel window watching cars roll by, presumably on the way to work. What will their day bring? What will they get to do today? Over my shoulder a table full of people discuss what they are looking forward to on this day. What gifts of learning will come their way today?

This is #CAfLN19. This is the Canadian Assessment for Learning Network conference.

This year, educators from across Canada have gathered in Delta, BC to discuss leading and learning all through the lens of assessment of and for learning. At the heart of everything we will discuss today are the students we have left back home.

This is my first #CAfLN conference, and I am so excited about what I get to learn today. I am anticipating some tremendous speakers who will undoubtedly nudge my thinking and invite me to reflect on the what, how and why of our assessment work. In the mean time, our colleagues and students are back home, knee deep and shoulder to shoulder taking care of the heavy lifting and deep learning. I am excited about the gifts we get to bring back to those people.

I am anticipating…

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Getting Ready for Game Time.

Athletes know the importance of practice, they see the connection between the hours of focused work and the skills that are needed for their competition. They understand that practice is a time to improve while ‘game time’ is an opportunity to let it show. As I left school today, several red-faced athletes had just finished track practice on an unusually cool May afternoon. They were on the field with their teammates and coaches working on the fundamentals, getting feedback from the tape measure, the stopwatch, their peers, their coaches and their own intuition. They left the field without an awards ceremony, a podium, or even cheering fans. They practised, and they practised hard knowing ‘game time’ is in three weeks.

How many calluses are needed to create a champion?

Artists know the importance of practice, they see the connection between the hours of focused work and the skills that are needed to create their own masterpiece. They understand that practice is a time to take risks and try new techniques which they may or may not incorporate into their masterpiece. As I walked the halls before the Easter break, I noticed a student working on a variety of sketches on her tablet. She put a line here and some shading there, only to erase bits and pieces and try again. I noticed her lean over and show a friend, asking for her feedback. The words, awesome and cool were used, but what caught my attention was when the friend expressed how the current rendition was an improvement on the last one. The artist agreed and kept sketching. I’m lucky enough to have one of her creations hanging in my office, and I find it interesting that her finished piece of work looks nothing like her sketches. I do see certain elements that are similar, like her shading and cross-hatching, which is a reflection of the hours of practice that have gone into honing her skills. She has, and her hard work has paid off as she is now creating incredible pieces of work.

How many pages are tossed in the bin before the artist is satisfied?

Do our academics know the importance of practice? Do they see the connection between the formative and the summative? I understand why artists and athletes spend considerable time investing in the development of their talents, the term, a labour of love often comes to mind. I will see kids shooting hoops every day at noon because they love it. I will see kids carrying a sketchbook and high-end pencils because they love it. It is a labour of love, and they know the reason for practice. So the question we face as teachers is, what is the thread that connects the training with the performance when we consider our academics? As a young teacher I used to answer the age-old question, “why are we learning this” with a variety of answers. I’d say, “because it’s your job” or “because it will be on the test” or “because it will help you next year” or (and I admit this with embarrassment) “because I’m the teacher and you are the student”.

None of those reasons would inspire me, so why would I expect them to inspire my students? Similarly, why would I expect it to inspire the staff now that I’m a principal and part of the team that leads adult learning? Where I was falling short was learning about my students and learning about their motivations. Some students are motivated by marks, some are driven by a love for a particular subject, topic or genre, some are motivated by a desire to do well, some are motivated by a desire to please others. What I failed to do as a teacher was to learn about my students and really get to know them as learners. I also was unable to show a clear connection between the formative tasks I was asking them to do and the summative tasks they would complete for marks.

But it improved. I stopped treating my summative assessments as some secret that could only be revealed at the moment it needed to be completed. When I taught senior math, the students knew my exams would look exactly like the reviews which would look exactly like the practice questions we’d see in class (the ones they did not get ‘marks’ for). When I taught physical education, the students knew what would be evaluated, when this would happen, and how it would look. They also knew that they would have time to practice without a fear of their marks being impacted as they were in the learning stage. When I taught drama, the students and I discussed the criteria, often times they would help me refine the way I’d assess, and then when they performed there were no surprises. The students knew, and the students could see a connection between the practice and the performance. Were there times when students would be apathetic and not try their best? You bet! We have to remember we are people working with people, and quite often a student’s best effort can look different based on a myriad of factors.

Too often we treat our summative assessments as a way to catch or trick kids. I’ve heard teachers boast about specific questions on a test that are virtually impossible because it is a challenge for the stronger students. Can you imagine if the 110-meter hurdles were designed like this? Would some hurdles be set low, while others were set at a height only a select few could clear? I’ve heard teachers say that for a student to earn a mark that reflects mastery they need to create a product that is better than the teacher could create. What?!?

We need to ask ourselves the tough questions when it comes to assessment. Why do we assess the way we do, and how is our approach helping us best understand our students and understand our own effectiveness as teachers? Personally, I don’t think any trick questions are needed for that. Just simple transparency, honesty, and a genuine love for this incredibly challenging, yet rewarding, profession in which we work. After all, teaching should be a labour of love!

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