An Inquiry into Communication in Schools

Summer relaxation mode is beginning to set in and reflection on the past school year spiral.  The things that brought joy.  The mountains surmounted.  The things you wish you could have a “do over.”  The things you want to aspire to this year.  Communicating effectively with each and every student and staff member and parent and community partner and colleague is a tall order but something I hope others will respond to with ideas.

Establishing a presence in the halls, in the traffic circle, on the playground and at school events communicates a sense that you care about the people in the school community.  Kids will most often readily respond to a smile or an inquiry.  When our school playground was condemned, kids wanted to discuss it on the playground.  There were a plethora of questions:  What were the unsafe parts?  Who decides what is unsafe?  When was it coming down?  Questions were followed with lots of ideas, suggestions and future plans for the new playground. More ideas followed about other things we could do on the school grounds while we were waiting.  I learned a lot during those conversations.

Some adults that are reluctant to make an appointment will have a conversation, ask a question or be encouraged to offer their ideas in a casual context.  This is also the time when they are most open about what they appreciate in the school, in the teachers and in me as a principal.  One parent shared that they could tell I really loved working with kids and appreciated that I made such an effort to get to know the students.   The Parent Advisory Committees (PAC) and parenting sessions can be an effective form of communication with parents but much of that depends on the perception of the role of the principal at the school and who shows up to participate.  I have found it very helpful to work collaboratively with the PAC executive.

The big teapot that I bought for my daughter and decided to keep in my office was a good choice.  Sitting around the big round table with students, staff, parents and colleagues often brought an ease to difficult conversations or sometimes a sense of calm to hectic days.  The poem, Perhaps the World Ends Here, by Joy Harjo inspired the blog post, Perhaps the World Starts Here, and another way to help students to self calm and then move on to problem solving.  It also inspire the Tea with the Principal on the first Friday of the month at 9:15 am for parents wanting to ask questions or discuss issues in education.  Sometimes the group was too large to sit around the table, or people wanted to walk and talk as we toured the school.  Sometimes one or two people would show up with a burning question and delighted to have a cuppa.  School Based Team meetings and Health and Safety Meetings take on a new tone with a cup of tea.   I hadn’t really made the connection to Servant Leadership, coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, until my chief engineer told me that no other principal had ever made her a cup of tea and gave me a heartfelt thank you.  Nanny Keenan and my mother would just call it “Good Manners”.  Next year, I’m hoping to incorporate focus groups that work to problem solve around specific issues.

In all of the schools I have worked in, I make a concerted effort to direct people to the school website for information.  The Twitter feed brings kids with media release to the website to check out recent pictures of them involved in activities at the school.  Some parents will follow the school twitter feed to see pictures and read parenting articles or check out enrichment opportunities in the community.  Hopefully that also helps people to discover library links, information posted on the school calendar and current school news items.

The high cost of paper, photocopying costs and the fact that school newsletters rarely made it to me before events when my children were in school, make hardcopy newsletters my least favourite form of communication.  In my parent community, 99% of families have passed on multiple emails addresses to the school.  As a result, information items can be emailed directly to families.  The issue for some people with busy lives to read all of the email coming into their inboxes.  Although a hardcopy is available in the office, it is rarely picked up.  A few of my colleagues send weekly newsletters or APP reminders so that families come to expect them.  Next year I’m going to send out shorter items on a regular schedule so hopefully they will be anticipated and looked for.

Sometimes I think the problem with staff communication is overkill:

  • Daily reminders by the sign in
  • weekly updates via email
  • hardcopy of weekly updates for reference on the clipboard by the sign in
  • forwarded messages that are pertinent
  • forwarded information that has gone to parents
  • Monthly Staff Meetings, Monthly School Advisory Committee Meetings, Health and Safety Meetings, School Based Team Meetings, Inquiry Meetings …
  • School News on the website
  • Twitter feed on the website
  • Hallway conversations before, during and after school

This year I’m going to add one thing raised at my British Columbia Principal Vice Principal Short Course II at The University of British Columbia – Okanagan campus this July.  Stop. Take the time to get know your staff by meeting with each person individually.  It is my second year in the school and I’m hoping people will identify that I really do want to be helpful  I’m thinking the two questions will be:

  • How can I help you to do your job?
  • How can I support you with your professional learning?

When all is said and done, an open door policy is the best way to nurture fluid conversation.  There are two challenges.  One is that I am often not in my office.  The second challenge is that starting and completing a task, or the time for sustained problem solving, with frequent interruptions.  How many people close there doors and focus on the task at hand during school hours?

When all is said and done, a lot of channels of communication have been established.  Yet, still the quest for more.  Does anyone have any feedback about a channel of communication that has made all the difference?  I’m looking forward to new ideas or tried and true ideas 🙂

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Who are “Breakaway Learners”?

Sometimes, happenstance or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it, just happens.

Subject line in my overly full email inbox reads:  A seemingly out of the blue email from a children’ book author based in US and living at UBC
The text:   Long story short, I am a visiting scholar at UBC through March 5th and passed your school many times.  I write children’s books — which I have read to thousands of children of all ages and stages (ideal range is 2nd — 5th grades)… Seeing and being in schools and working with children of all ages and stages is what I do — and having been a university president and senior advisor to the US Department of Education, I am ever of the view that the most important education is that which occurs early…  And, for the record, I attach a photo of myself and a short bio so you can see I am legit.  

My Response:   Is there a cost attached to this great offer?

The beginning of another beautiful relationship that started online!  Karen Gross did come to University Hill Elementary School to share her stories with our students.  She captivated both teachers and students alike.  She was aware of our outdoor school and environmental focus and arrived with her newest children’s book, Lady Lucy’s Dragon Quest, a story about droughts and saving land and crops with a strong female protagonist with a collaborative approach to problem solving.  Our Korean students were thrilled that Korean students were the illustrators, who are now in college and who continue to illustrate.
2.  plasticity references the permanent change that occurs in the institution itself in response to required changes
3.  pivoting right references supporting students in their ability to make short and long term decisions that will bring abut the most favourable outcome
4.  reciprocity  that extends beyond student willingness to share ideas and commit to agreements with staff listening and responding, to institutions being responsive to the ideas and needs of their changing populations
5.  belief in self by teachers and institutions stepping away from a deficit model of education to one that builds on strengths

PechaKucha Meets Ignite Meets Edvent

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PechaKucha, Ignite and Edvent presentations have various rules to govern the format. They have one basic elements in common, to engage the audience and communicate a message within a fast paced presentation.

PechaKucha Nights (PKNs) are a Japanese innovation to allow presentations from multiple presenters throughout the night.  20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (6 minutes and 40 seconds in total) hence the name “PechaKucha” or “chitchat”.  How To Make a Petcha Kutcha is a YouTube “meta-kutcha” created by Marcus Weaver Hightower from The University of North Dakota.  He goes through all of the essential elements to consider, including slide show suggestions in the preparation.   Rosa Fazio @collabtime used Spark Video for her Ignite at The British Columbia Principals’ Vice Principals’ Association Friday Forum which was very powerful.

Ignite sessions are similar.  20 slides are advanced at intervals of 15 seconds for a total 5 minute presentations.  The 1st Ignite took place in Seattle in 2006 and the presentation format has spread exponentially to cities all over the world to multiple disciplines.

EDvents are less formal in form for educators coming together to “chitchat” about educational issues.  The inspirational quality of the 5 minute is presentation is at a premium to stimulate educational discourse between speakers at the event.  There could be one slide,  There could be props.  There could be an adherence to pechakucha or ignite format.  There could be a theme.  I presented on a “Menu for Meaningful Learning” in keeping with the food theme at EDvent 2017 in Burnaby, British Columbia.

The challenge of all of these formats is to remove all of the extraneous detail, to make the message succinct and content engaging.  My first “EDvent” was extremely stressful.  My ability to ad lib by reading the audience was stripped away by the need to follow a well-practiced script to ensure my presentation was coordinated with the timed slides.  It was different from any other presentation I had done, albeit not quite as stressful as my 9th Grade oral report on the tomato plant.  Fortunately I was surrounded by like-minded educators who were proud of me for being brave enough to take the risk.

I have been asked to do another ignite and I’m starting to think about how to improve on my last performance.  I’ve gone to two respected colleagues who have taken the “edvent” to an art form.  Gillian Judson @perfinker responded that a good ignite session “comes from a position of engagement and connects with the heart of the listener.”  Rosa Fazio @collabtime also shared similar wisdom:  “When I write an ignite, my goal is to make a connection between the head and the heart.”   There you have it!  The aspiration to connect and inspire the listener is what dictates the power of the presentation.

On April 17th, I will be attending another Edvent 2018 #tunEDin organized by Gabriel Pillay @GabrielPillay1 with the effervescent enthusiasm of his sister, Rose Pillay @RosePillay1 aka CandyBarQueen.   I am looking forward to connecting with other colleagues in Education, being inspired by the signature EDvent format and to glean helpful hints for my next ignite session.  I hope to see you there.

 

 

7 Habits +1 to Empower

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Betty Boult was the keeper of the knowledge when it came to Stephen Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when I first started teaching in Abbotsford.  She had done the facilitators training and she facilitated with flair.  We had animated discussions and were committed to engaging with the ideas and doing the work to complete the workbook meticulously.  I can still play out some conversations that resonated and remember my queries around some of the habits.  Those were the days when “sharpening the saw” was just a part of daily life and took much less deliberate effort.   Saying “no” was not yet part of my repertoire and everything was a priority.   These were the days before children and my husband was working just as hard to start his business.  The advantage of professional development in Abbotsford was that it was a small enough district that we all did pro-d together.  Therefore, the things we learned and ideas we were thinking about, were discussed in the staffroom, as staff socials and the ideas frequently referenced.  I think in this way, many of the ideas were incorporated into who I was.

I recently finished reading Stephen Covey’s (2008)  The Leader in Me:  How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time.  In this book, the learning is focused on children in K-5, middle and secondary schools, in the United States (the main focus), Singapore, Canada and Japan.  The power is that it that the ideas are introduced and developed with entire school populations.  Students are taught public speaking and acknowledged for their strengths and encouraged to assume responsibility for leadership tasks within the school.

I remember shortly after my Covey training, I was asked to do the goodbye tribute to my mentor, Joan Fuller, at her retirement function.  Public speaking had never been in my comfort zone.  Memories of tomato seeds bouncing out of my hand during my 9th grade oral report haunted me.  Boring topic.  Questionable choice to be holding the smallest of all seeds for an oral report in front of the class.  Terrifying teacher who was known to roll her eyes. Nothing good came out of it and I carried a lingering fear of public speaking.  However, I loved Joan and had a vested interest in making her retirement special.  I was terrified.  I was over prepared and tripped over my words.  I was glued to my cue cards.  My vocal chords constricted.  My legs shook.  I blushed.  And yet, I lived through it.  Everyone clapped and smiled.  Joan was delighted and cried.  And there were no tomato seeds.  I drank the Kool-Aid and was excessively proactive and had a passion for professional development.  I found myself more and more speaking in front of audiences,  in both my professional life and involvement in personal passions.  Yes, I was one of the lives that was changed because I had come to understand I had something worthwhile to say.

Covey is frequently referenced but I wonder how many people really understand the ideas and have integrated them into their lives and then regularly revisited.  There is a tremendous amount to be learned that directly correlates with empowering, not only adults but children too.

For those of you who need a quick recap of the habits:

  • Habit 1:  Be Proactive
    • Take initiative
  • Habit 2:  Begin with the End in Mind
    • Set goals
  • Habit 3:  Put First Things First
    • Prioritize and only do the most important things
  • Habit 4:  Think Win-Win
    • Getting what you want while considering others
  • Habit 5:  Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  • Habit 6:  Synergize
    • work well with others to accomplish a task
  • Habit 7:  Sharpen the Saw
    • Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep
  • Habit 8 (added in 2004):  Find Your Voice and Help Others Find Theirs –
    • Identify gifts.  Optimize them.  Develop them.

Brave Enough To Try

Over many of years as an educator, I have presented to many audiences in many capacities.  I’ve presented to students from Kindergarten to secondary, students at the university level, educators on staff and at professional development events, parents at PAC meetings or on school tours.  I have informed and entertained individuals to large groups.  I can throw a good party where everyone is invited.  I can fill in uncomfortable silences and make my guests feel welcome.


I was invited by Gabe Pillay to present at EDvent2017.  An event framed around the words of Cicero, “Learning is a kind of natural food for the mind”, promised an entertaining and thought provoking event.  The ideas came fast and furious.  What makes a fabulous restaurant experience?  What makes an optimal learning experience?

I had 5 minutes to quickly enlighten and inspire my audience.  The challenge from my friend and SFU colleague, Linda Klassen, was to try the Ignite format based on the Japanese PechaKucha .  Twenty slides advancing with a timer.  She did warn me about the challenge of maintaining the timing with the slides and the talk but assured me I was up to the challenge.

I loved the thinking around the idea of a menu for meaningful learning.  On Spring Break, the ideas came together on the beach in Vietnam.  Choosing the slides was fun. The big challenge for me  was being concise.  As I’ve told many of you, when my Auntie Myrna said “What’s your story, Morning Glory?”,  I included a well developed plot with all of the details.  Words had to be cut right, left and center.  Every word that was uttered, mattered.  Of course, it didn’t help that the slides and timing were submitted long before I finished changing the script.  If only I had followed the advice frequently given to my students to leave lots of time to practice.  I stopped scripting talks long ago because I thought it made me sound stilted when I talked.  In this format, I needed to relearn the art.  Scripting was imperative to maintain the timing. My Grandmother singing Rambling Rose was in the forefront of my mind.  I needed to focus.  To be specific yet still…inspiring…entertaining.

With every risk comes the chance of failure.  When self doubt triggers, it multiplies exponentially.  I am a big picture thinker with imagination which in cases like this does not help.  I am on the slate of presenters who I respect. I step up to the podium with a real sense of regret I hadn’t finalized in enough time to memorize the talk.  Why am I doing this again?  I scan the room and consider the worst case scenario.  Yes, I was that nervous.

In 5 minutes, it is all over and I am free to truly enjoy the rest of the event complete with inspiring speakers, yummy appies, hilarious Iron-EDU-Chef challenges and the infamous Candy Bar.  This risk taking endeavor has perhaps not been as inspirational as I had hoped for but has allowed for a connection with the audience and an experience to reflect on.

As school leaders we welcome, encourage and prompt our staff to take the risk to try something new on a regular basis.  The new curriculum in B.C. commands not only new ways of approaching established curriculum  but new ways of thinking.  Yet, it is easy to forget the range of emotions engaged by the process of taking risks.   It is an act of courage to try something different.  It is an act of bravery to do it repetitively.  Every now and then I think we all need to try something that scares us enough to remember the extent of that bravery!  Kudos to our teachers who do it everyday!

Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine

imageInvestigating Our Practice Conference in the Faculty of Education on Saturday, May 14th.  The day was filled with poster presentations, talks and interactive experiences by undergraduates, grad students, faculty and alumni.  It was particularly exciting to see the level of engagement of the student giving up their very sunny Vancouver Saturday to consider a range of ideas and questions.  For those of you who are not Vancouverites, when the sun comes out in full glory, we go outside – never quite certain how long it will be around.

I had the pleasure of presenting The Outdoor Classroom:  Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine with Claire Rushton, Alli Tufaro and Ali Nasato.        We were pulled together by a common interest in the opportunity provided by outdoor learning.  This one interest was able to pull together so many elements that have been embraced as key ideas in the Redesigned Curriculum in British Columbia, such as:

  • The social emotional benefits of engaging with nature
  • The natural way in which we can engage students in practicing and understanding the First Nations Principles of Learning, including:
    • experiential learning
    • patience and time required for learning
    • exploring one’s identity
    • everyone and everything has a story
    • history matters
    • there are consequences to our actions
  • Ways to engage students in cross curricular learning opportunities
  • Connecting classroom lessons to the larger world
  • Using resources in the classroom to answer our questions about observations made outdoors
  • Reporting back about the things we care about to authentic audiences

Of course, the list goes on.  Another interesting aspect of our collaborative group was the power of inquiry in developing our professional practice as educators throughout different stages of our careers.  Both student teachers have found a way to focus their  professional learning throughout the practicum experience.  Claire Rushton, as the coordinator of the Social Emotional Learning cohort has used the outdoors to bring  Richard Louv’s work to life and introduce the power of “nature … as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life..” by integrating the experiences in nature to frame discussions of social – emotional learning. I have engaged in a personal inquiry of how to use iPad APPS  (photos, Drawing Pad, Book Creator, Twitter) as a way to access information, document and share outdoor learning.  I’ve also been able to support the staff I interact with on a regular basis in their own inquiries.  Inquiry, as framed by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in Spirals of Inquiry, has provided a framework for beginning teachers as well as a school administrator and university instructor.  The learning has fuelled more questions and future inquiries.

 

I very much hope our collaboration continues…perhaps after the frenetic pace of the end of practicum, final observations and reports and end of year demands and celebrations!

Why Do I Lead?

imageIt is a hectic time of year but pretty much every month in the school year is shrouded in busyness.  Getting back to school, meeting reporting deadlines, getting ready of special assemblies, celebrations and project presentations with the overarching goal of meeting the social, emotional and academic needs of our students.  In administration, you add yet another layer to the busyness.   During our recent career day sponsored by the Spirit Committee, one of the students chose “Vice Principal” as their dream job.  Of course, it begged the question.  Why?  The response was true enough: I smile a lot and laugh at my own jokes.  I spend most of the days just talking to kids and teachers and parents and people who fix stuff in the school.  I get to play everyday.  I have a whistle and lots of keys.  I get to do fun things like building the playground and garden boxes. I make rules and get to talk on the PA. What more could you want in a dream job?

I recently became part of the School Administrators Virtual Mentor Program (#SAVMP).  George Couros suggested the blog topic:  Why Do I Lead?  It has pushed me to reflect on the various types of leadership that I have experienced as a student, a teacher, a parent and an administrator.  My first memory of  leadership was in Grade 7 at David Lloyd George Elementary School in Vancouver, British Columbia.  I was running to be team captain.   I was nervous beyond belief to be up on the stage giving a speech and facing the possibility of a humiliating defeat.  My eyes flickered up from my shaking cue cards to see the front rows of primary students cheering.  Those little people believed I could be their leader.    Getting elected was thrilling but the biggest takeaway for me as a kid was that big people and little people believed my ideas mattered and wanted to talk about them with me.  My takeaway as an adult is that I want everyone in our school communities to have that experience.

Subsequent activities that I have chosen, or been co-oped to lead, have been things I have been heavily invested in, such as social justice, my children, my students and professional development.  Leaderships skills were not a precursor to assuming the leadership roles for me but were more of a by-product of the experiences themselves. Every leadership role has been a risk taking venture.  The learning has come with the grand successes or the abysmal failures or the things to consider for a later date.  Each leadership opportunity has connected me with people who pushed my thinking, made me laugh, tried my patience and allowed me to see things from a different perspective.  Each opportunity helped me to grow personally and professionally.

There are many opportunities for leadership when you work in a school.  Throughout my career, I assumed a variety of leadership roles in sports, BC teacher Federation PSA, LSA’s, professional associations and committees while teaching at the elementary school, middle school and university level.  When I was seconded to Simon Fraser University as a faculty associate, my realm of leadership possibilities broadened.  In the Faculty Associate role, I worked in several school districts with student teachers in a Kindergarten to Grade 12 module.  It provided the opportunity to engage in conversations with many administrators about their role and experience many school cultures.  The multifaceted challenges in the role of the administrator in developing a learning community was intriguing.

I have been fortunate to work with a number of strong school administrators who challenged the status quo and supported teachers with innovative teaching practices. What they all had in common was the willingness to support and trust the initiatives proposed by staff members.   We are fortunate in British Columbia to have a strong public school system.  We are also in a time of unprecedented change that requires that educators have the confidence and support structures in place to cope with the advances in technology and shifts in parenting, society and curricular expectations.  School administrators play an integral role in creating and envisioning an environment that supports the intellectual, human, and social and career development of all students.    This requires their personal investment identifying the possibilities open to us as educators.   It is inspiring to work in community to develop the background knowledge and skills required to provide the scaffolding for school communities to meet with success in the challenges of change.  Richard Gerver (2014) highlights the work of Professor Guy Claxton (2002) and his definition of the 4 R’s of Learning Power as Resilience, Resourcefulness, Reflectiveness and Reciprocity.  I lead because I want to be part of a network that supports teachers, support staff, parents and community partners in providing the very best kick at the can for our students to graduate with the background knowledge, skills, creativity, and confidence to fearlessly embrace the possibilities in their future.