Nature as a Catalyst for Learning

False Creek Community Garden beside Vancouver Seawall August 2018

There is no teacher like direct experience to engage the head and heart in the process of learning.  Data about students becoming less curious as they move through the school system, is heart-breaking.   It begs the question – Why?  When my children were preschoolers, the day revolved around playing in the backyard, discovering new backyards of playmates and going to the park.  On sunny days they were dressed in  clothing to protect sensitive skin and exposed bits were slathered with sunscreen.  Other days included sweaters or “muddy buddies” or rubber boots or snowsuits.  Bottom line, those preschoolers were going outside for an adventure filled with fresh air and exercise and access to the wonders of the natural world around them.  Awe, curiosity, delight and question upon question were the standard of the day.

Richard Louv (2006) raised the alarm about our students who are increasingly demonstrating a “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods.  The nature deficit is something being experienced on a much bigger scale.   Baby boomers are perhaps the last generation to be pushed out the door to “Go play outside and be home by dinner”.  Accessible hand-held technology, less green space and a heightened sense of fear fed by the media, keeps  adults as well as children inside with repercussions for engagement with nature, physical fitness and mental health.  Some doctors are writing park prescriptions to assist patients in dealing with depression, high blood pressure and stress.  Groups like Wild About Vancouver, have initiatives to encourage people of all ages to get outside and get active.  The Japanese started a movement called “Shrin-yoko” or “forest bathing” in the 1980’s to improve physical and mental health.   It has taken the world by storm.  Regular “forest bathing” opportunities were scheduled in Vancouver’s 400 hectare rainforest, Stanley Park,  this summer and many other forested parks with around the world because going outdoors, looking, listening and breathing needs to be taught.

Engaging with nature is a catalyst for curiosity and the learning that comes with it.  The first time I saw a “Bear in the Area” sign in our local park when we moved to Coquitlam a suburb of Vancouver, I did the research to find out what I needed to know.   I went online, got books to share with my family, and talked to neighbours and friends and even the police officer sitting doing his notes in the parking lot.  Sailing, biking, skiing, snowboarding and  hiking, all come with required background knowledge and a skill set to keep yourself safe.  Every time we try something new, we learn.

The Child and Nature Alliance is astute in pointing out that the best way to get children outside, is to go with them.   My husband and I now have adult children.  However since their pre-school years, some of our best memories and best laughs are beach, park, biking and ski/snowboard adventures or the times just after, like reading Harry Potter aloud with hot chocolate by a fire.  Of course, developing relationship during outdoor activities necessitates putting the phone away and giving your family and friends your undivided attention.

Scott D. Sampson in his book, How To Raise A Wild Child:  The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (2015) identifies three pathways (EMU) as being most critical to promoting nature connection based on published studies in anthropology, psychology, education, neuroscience, and biology.

  1. Experiencefirst hand knowledge – experiential learning, multi-sensory opportunities, unstructured times, emotional connection
Black Bear searching for blueberries in Minnekhada Park, Port Coquitlam, B.C. Sept. 2018

“American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives” (Sampson, 2015, p.5).  As with the advent of any technology, humans benefit from the advanced development of their prefrontal cortex, and the thinking skills to decide how best to utilize the technology.  I am a huge fan of using phones, iPads and computers as tools to access information and communicate learning to a wider audience.  When I’m outdoors, I use the camera on my cell phone and my iPad to focus my attention and capture things I find interesting or beautiful or memorable or that I want to explore more later.  However just as I was instructed to turn off the television and go play outside as a little girl, parents and educators need to assume responsibility for the amount of screen time they allow for the children in their care to growth and lead healthy lives.

Germany is well-known developing a love of the outdoors.  I remember hiking with my family in Schliersee.  We were so proud of our stellar progress upwards on our hike, when we rounded the corner and not only had someone been there, but they had installed a bench.  Britain is also well known for a population that engages outdoors.  The British outdoor kindergarten movement is growing.  Italy is known for the Reggio Emilio discovery based school movement.  There is widespread recognition that children benefit from learning outdoors in the places they know well.  It is outdoors that they can access the materials, solve problems and feed the curiosity that form the basis for important learning.  This is the reality of place based learning.

The outdoor classroom does not close because it’s raining.  I have recently adopted the slogan I learned from Scott D. Sampson’s book, How To Raise a Wild Child (2015): “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”  The rain in Vancouver  does present different opportunities for learning. while extending our understanding and appreciation what is is to live in a temperate rainforest.  When my daughter was 6 years old, we were travelling in Venice.  The rain started to fall and everyone ran for shelter.  Our family was quite delighted with the break from the heat and we splashed puddles down the centre of the street.  My little Vancouverite looked up at me, smiled and said “Oh, Mommy.  It smells like home.”  This is what the poet W.D. Auden (1947) must have been referring to when he coined the word “topophilia” which translates to a “love of place” to describe the bonds people form with the places where they live.  When you care about the place you live, both your heart and mind are open to the lessons they provide.  This necessitates outside experiences.

  1. Mentoringside by side exploration, mentors listen more than they talk, observe closely, inspire curiosity, “pull” stories from their mentees by asking questions that push the limits of awareness and knowledge
Ms. Phoenix discovering the mysterious appearance of tomatoes in the Butterfly Garden     University Hill Elementary School, Vancouver, B.C. – September 2018

I have been fortunate to be a teacher in British Columbia.  Teaching in Abbotsford meant the farm was in close proximity to learn about mammals, and the smell of manure in the air impacted learning about food systems.  In Coquitlam, spawning salmon at the end of a playground provided input for learning about life cycles and perseverance.  My current school is located in the Pacific Spirit Park.  Teachers are able to take students into the forest to discover more about the “wood wide web” and The Hidden Life of Trees, to the beaver dam to learn about our history and science, and down the beach to investigate yet another habitat.  My previous school was not surrounded by untouched wilderness, but it was there that we were able to follow the newly released butterflies to discover one of the best butterfly gardens I have ever seen cultivated by a local resident with a green thumb.  The best weather forecasters were the students who had learned to go outside and use all of their senses to make observations.  Those students had well-developed background knowledge about clouds and could tell you about the best weather APPS.   In all of these school contexts, what makes the biggest difference to student learning is the skillful mentoring of educators.  The questions they ask, and the student questions they reflect back to the group, helps students to hone their observation skills and risk asking questions about the things that matter to them personally.  The innovators who have mirrored nature in their products have spent time outside studying, observing, hypothesizing and experimenting.

           3. Understandingponder and learn about big understandings before mastery of  discrete pieces of factual knowledge

When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who closed the curtains when anything particularly interesting was happening outside.  It could have been a first snowfall, a heavy downpour or the clouds dropping down to make the mountains nearly invisible.  Her intention was to eliminate distraction.  She was a conscientious teacher who was committed to our learning.  It was not an effective strategy for me.  All of my attention was directed to what was happening outside and why.  My imagination took me far away from the lessons of the day.   I would have a story worked out by the time recess and anxiously focused on the grand opening of the curtains.

Scott Sampson talks about using the power of learning from Indigenous culture that is grounded in nature and creation stories told from the perspective of animals, plants and landforms.  He uses the term “Going Coyote”  to reference using “the trickster coyote of Indigenous lore (creator with magical powers as a transformer, shape shifter, hiding in plain sight) to inspire caring and empathy for nature.  “The Coyote Club” at our school is grounded in active outdoor learning experiences that provide a model for respecting self, others and the environment.  It is embraced indoors and outdoors on a continuous basis.

By pre-school age, students have developed inquisitive minds and a skill set to find answers.  Children don’t need to be taught to ask questions.  They need to know that their questions matter.   They need to know that engaging in the world around them is what good learners do.  We want our children to continue to be inquisitive and identify the possibilities, to make observations, connection and ask new questions when they are outdoors as well as indoors at school.    Our challenge as educators is to redefine ways to feed the inquisitiveness of children coming into school while we broaden their opportunities to access information, to work collaboratively and to hone skills to find answers.  The outdoors provides not only an opportunity for physical activity but an opportunity for incredible cross curricular learning and mental health.  This is a place to observe and ask questions and learn through play.  To make connections with book learning.  To use technology to document and access new knowledge.  It is a place to be in awe and celebrate curiosity.

For ideas to engage children in nature activities, online information and lesson plans, please see:

How To Raise A Wild Child:  The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. by Scott D. Sampson (2015).

i love dirt – 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature by Jennifer Ward (2008)

Sharing Nature:  Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages by Joseph Bharat Cornell (2015)

The Nature Conservancy

The David Suzuki Foundation

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Why Collaborate?

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School provide amazing opportunities to redefine the prevalent understandings of learning.  With the advent of formalized schools, came the assumption that students were “empty vessels” to be filled with the requisite knowledge required for their success in the world.  Teachers were understood to be the gas station attendants responsible for filling the tank.  Fortunately our understanding of teaching and learning have both evolved.

Educators spend their lives honing their skills so they can make content accessible to their students and prepare students with the resilience and strategies to access learning in all aspects of their lives.  This includes teaching students to work independently and collaboratively to problem solve and express themselves in a variety of ways.

A successful learner is a person who is confident in their ability to find answers to their questions in a variety of contexts.  An undergraduate degree today demonstrates that the person has demonstrated the perseverance and resilience to bring a difficult task to completion.  There is an understanding that young people today will be working in several different jobs therefore it is imperative that students learn to generalize their knowledge.

Lessons from Kindergarten to Grade 12 are all structured to connect the background knowledge of the student to the learning being presented.   When students respond with “Oh, yeah.  That reminds me of …”, the teacher has the indicator that students are ready to proceed with the lesson.  The challenge is when that background knowledge is absent.  This is when we see the power of collaborative learning.

When students are able to share background knowledge and teach each other specific skills and strategies, the classroom becomes a community of learners.  At the recent TEDxVancouver2018, Dr. Kevin Heyries talked about working collaboratively with other doctors to cure disease with antibody based drugs.  The expectation in a scenario like this is that everyone is coming to the task with ideas, skills and a good work ethic to solve a problem they care about.  The challenge for teachers is how to structure collaborative learning experiences that are meaningful and develop the target skills.  In some cases, this will be demonstrating a concept or skill or ability to complete a more detailed project.

My daughter bemoaned the “group project” in high school.  My son would tirade about the “bottom feeders” who refused do their part in group projects at university.  These were the projects where a group was assigned to complete a research report.  The students that required scaffolding to get started opted out to avoid embarrassment in the group.  The students with the skills and motivation to demonstrate all of the criteria and get a good grade, took over the lion’s share of task completion.  A project was completed but collaborative skills were not developed.  Relationships suffered.

Project Based Learning has similarities but it is not the same as the old style of “group project” that many of us are familiar with.  Students are working in a group to accomplish a task.  However the role of engagement in learning is now better understood.  Old style “group projects” were designed for students to research and demonstrate understanding of a body of content.  The starting point for Project Based Learning is for the learners to define a question they care about and then plan how they will go about finding the answer.  Sharing the learning to an audience and answering questions makes it necessary to have a thorough understanding of the topic.   Self assessment by the student about his/her functioning in the group and goals for next time, ensure the student is invested in future development of their core competencies.

The curriculum in British Columbia is regarded as a model for quality education globally.  It has been designed by B.C. educators who are reputed for their own collaborative practice and presents many ideas and supports for teachers to engage students in their learning.  The focus on student learning rather than mastery of a specific body of content is undoubtedly why so many students were so excited to be back school.

Creating Balanced Classrooms

Creating the culture of the classroom is an ongoing endeavour.  Each year teachers, some returning students and some unfamiliar students come together.  A wonderful school climate and a new curriculum are there to guide the process, but the teacher, students and parent community create the classroom culture.  The ultimate goal is to create a structure where the development of relationship and curiosity are not overwhelmed by other classroom demands.  For this reason, we take class building very seriously.

Our starting place in creating classes is the number of students in each grade which determines the amount of staffing we are allocated by the district each spring.  This decision is driven by the funding provided by the provincial government.  Our collective agreement, agreed upon and signed by management and the teachers’ union, guides the creation of classes by defining maximum class sizes and the numbers of students with special needs in each classroom.

Classes for the 2018-2019 school year were tentatively organized by the teachers teaching the students in June. They worked with the students for a year and know each child’s strengths and needs and have talked at length to parents.  Some parents submitted additional information about their child, either personally or in a letter to the principal, to inform the class building process.  Each classroom teacher completed an information card that was used in class building that includes academic achievement, social and emotional development, requirements for support, students who work well together or who are overwhelmed with the challenge of working together.  Teachers worked together to create balanced classrooms so that all students would have access to individual teacher time and attention.

Considerations in creating balanced classes included:

  • Class size
  • boy / girl ratio
  • Students with designations for special needs
  • English language learners and their level of language proficiency
  • academic achievement
  • social and emotional needs
  • requirements for resource or behaviour support
  • students who work well together
  • students who would benefit from being placed in different classrooms

**This is not a prioritized list

One of the greatest strengths of our school community is also one of the biggest challenges.  We have an international community that creates an amazing opportunity to learn first hand about different cultures.  However our school community changes frequently as work at UBC is completed and families return to their home country.   Our challenge is always to create welcoming environments for new students to make friends and develop skills at their level.  We want new students to be welcomed throughout the classes rather that all of the new students being placed together in one classroom.

Over the summer holidays, we had many students move into the catchment and several families move out.  During the first week of school, we determine the students who have returned and what spaces we have to accommodate students on waiting lists at other schools.  Then we need to reorganize classes to accommodate new students and maintain the balance in classes.  With good information provided by our families about missing students, we hope we are able to do this by the end of the first week of school.  Once students are in their classrooms for the coming year, the exciting work of developing a classroom culture begins.  Parents play a key role in helping their own children to embrace the positive possibilities of this new beginning.

The Kindergarten to Grade 12 school system provides a microcosm of society.  As students make their way through the 13 years of schooling, they will encounter a variety of personalities, interests and expectations from the people who teach them and their peers.  In order to be successful outside of school, they will need to learn to live and work collaboratively with a diverse range of people.  When we approach new situations with an open mind, the possibility of learning and developing new relationships expands exponentially.

Reading with Abandon

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I am officially back at work.  I was dog sitting this past weekend at a cozy, cabin at Mount Baker and savouring the time to “read with abandon.  This is something I had reserved for summer times… On the beach.  At Kits Pool.  In a cabin.  In bed.  On the red leather chair with a pot of tea. Time devoted to reading books of various quality and copious quantities.  At least one Oprah magazine, foreign newspapers, a thriller, a book on politics, some professional sources and as many “fat, sad books” that I can digest are required.

The books I planning on giving for gifts, I read in one sitting – without bending pages or leaving any trace of this stolen pleasure.  I trusted my son with an Elon Musk book, prior to my reading it, only to be denied access until he has read it.  The worst.  I’m sure it goes back to the time when he won the draw to read the family copy of the last Harry Potter book in the series, FIRST.  I may have “bent the rules” by staying up all night to read it.  Apparently I need to pay!  A confirmation that my “read first” strategy must prevail.

My children were destined to love books.  They were surrounded by a wealth of quality books, trade books that interested them as well as positive, shared reading experiences before bed, after skiing, at the park, at the beach or en route anywhere.  They had a good understanding at a young age that fiscal restraint never extended to the book store.  We would always be lured in, breathe in the smell of newly published books, and they would always get to choose a title to buy.  This is often the case with children of book-lovers.  My cousin’s kids opted to go to the book store and starting to read their selections BEFORE we headed to Kits Pool this summer.  These aren’t the kids we need to captivate at the beginning of the school year.  They have already morphed into readers and they will continue to read for a variety of purposed throughout their lives.

As a little girl, I was not surrounded with books.  My Mom struggled financially and was too exhausted for bedtime stories at the end of the day.  In summer holidays in Los Angeles, my father and step-mother were not in the habit of children and books and bedtime stories continued to be elusive.  I entered school and was promptly put in the slow reading group.  I lived in fear of my turn to read aloud during “Round Robin” reading.  I learned the mechanics of reading.  In Grade 3, that changed.

My sister went to live with my father in L.A. and I was terribly lonely.  My mother weakened and I was finally talked into letting me get a puppy and then adopt two baby gerbils from the most recent litter in my Grade 3 class.  I proceeded to memorize the books about pet care and researched all there was to know about cock-a-poos and gerbils.  I began to prepare for my life as a veterinarian.  The next year, my sister came back home with the first volumes of Trixie Belden and Donna Parker.  That together with the “Now” section at the Marpole Public library (for the cool kids) and my cousin’s huge collection of comics, I was catapulted me into the world of readers.

Long ago, I bought into the belief that:  “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” (Joseph Addison 1672-1719).  Our role as educators is to support our students in not only becoming readers but also becoming thinkers.  Teaching the mechanics of reading to our students is an easier task than inducting them into a world where they can feed their interests, question the sources of what they read, empathize with characters and discover new possibilities.  I found another kindred soul in Donalyn Miller this summer.  Her book inspiring book, Reading in the Wild:  The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits, resonates the same desire for our students.  It provides a wealth of ideas and strategies to do just that.  My “reading with abandon” is her “wild reading.”

As a teacher, I took the task of being up to date with Children’s Literature seriously.  I read new releases of Children’s literature and I talked about them with children in the classroom, in the halls and on the playground.  I also maintained my life as a reader and “read with abandon” throughout the year.  As a school vice principal / principal, my reading world narrowed.  Most of my reading became professional reading, online and offline.  I stopped participating in regular book clubs unless they were related to a professional goal.  I started to focus more of my time on professional writing.  Lots of blogging and tweeting.  More purposefulness.  Less abandon.   I continued to talk about books with students but no longer had a finger of the pulse of new releases in Children’s Literature.  There have been fewer conversations about the great book I’m reading.

As the busy life of school takes off, my goal is to allow more of the times where I “read with abandon”.  I want to engage more in conversations with adults and children about current releases and share our responses.  Goodreads has served to be a tracking mechanism or online reading log, than an opportunity to share in a reading community.  Donalyn Miller opened my eyes to the potential of developing an online reading community and reminded me that my enthusiasm for reading is contagious.  My new book club met in August and it will NOT include professional reading.  I will devote a chunk of time to becoming more current in my knowledge of Children’s Literature by doing more shared reading with my students and bringing more authors into the school.  I will allow my mind to be fed with the rich ideas that come from “reading with abandon.”  Perhaps this will be the thing that keeps me from getting lost in the demands of the job.  Perhaps this is one of the missing keys to the elusive “work-life balance.”

What Did You Learn Today?

This question is generally reserved for children after a day of school during dinner time or en route to soccer practice or piano lessons.  I delighted to see this question posed for all to consider in the middle of summer.  I was on a quest to lay claim to the perfect log at Kits Beach.  My goal was to breathe in the sea air, photosynthesize and finish my most recent book, The Home for Unwanted Girls, by Joanna Goodman.  And I learned a lot about “The Great Darkness” and abuse of power of the Duplessis years in Quebec during the mid 20th century, the French-English divide, the human capacity for cruelty, resilience, and the significance of sharing a story in the process of healing.  And over dinner, I shared that learning with my husband, because it was engaging and interesting and reinforced with information checking via the internet.  Generally we want to share the things that interest us.

The most exciting part of current educational research has been the heightened awareness of the role of curiosity in our learning through out life.  The answer to the question will depend largely on what we’re choosing to fill our time with.  A trek to the Jericho Sailing Centre lends itself to all kinds of learning.  Why are there so many fearless bunnies there?  What are the conditions for a perfect paddle?  A detour from the bike ride through Tatlow Park begs the question – why was so much more water running through here when I was a kid?  Will the proposed restoration of the park change that?  An aborted trip to our family cabin in the Sierra Nevadas, creates an awareness of just how many fires are burning in Southern Oregon and California, and the health concerns around smoke inhalation.

As a school principal, of course I value learning at school.  However I think that we do not want to define learning as what happens exclusively in a specific building from 9 am to 3 pm on weekdays during the school year.  I am hoping that my students are having amazing learning experiences during the summer that are not strictly defined by what will get them better grades or make them more successful in their future careers.

I want them to take time to go outside and observe and ask questions.  I want them to hang out with their friends and relatives and laugh.   I want them to get lots of exercise and aspire to a high level of physical fitness and wellness.  I want them to take the risk to learn something new.  I want them to read lots of books and empathize with the characters, consider other realities, fact check on the internet and talk about them with friends and relatives.  Ultimately I want them to do what I’m doing.   Then I want them to come back to school with new ideas to share and a curious mind for continued learning in the school, outside in nature, and in the rest of the school community.

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 🙂

The Power Relax

I’m a school principal in the last weeks of school before summer holidays. Stress is a fact of life. The days are high octane with not a moment to spare between the demands for immediate problem solving and the call of the “things to do”  list. I can’t help but to reflect on lofty goals of balance and prioritizing “me time” written after summer holidays and again at New Years. The goals that emerge after a break when anything seems possible.

My coping strategy recently has been to sneak in physical outlets to “burn off steam” as part of the ultimate oxymoron, the “power relax”. I’m fortunate to be able to bike to work. The hill up to Queen Mary Elementary was my nemesis as I walked to school from Jericho Beach as a little girl. It proves to play the same roll in my life as I bike to work from Kits Beach. I still find no joy in the hill. It remains something to be conquered. Arriving at the top, a small victory.  Yes, even joy.  I have also discovered the merits of the driving range and how the length of my drives correlates with the degree of angst I’m feeling.  It also brings a degree of satisfaction.

Less effort requires a bigger time investment for the “power relax” . 9 holes of golf by yourself or 18 holes with a friend. A 90 minute salt float at HÄLSA spa. Two yoga classes in one day. Or if you’re lucky, a sunny day at the beach after writing school goals on how to support students in learning strategies to self calm. I’m pausing to breath mindfully😉  I’m open to other suggestions…

The Magnitude of Motherhood

                                                              Artwork by Grade 1 Student

Mother’s Day weekend, always turns my attention to my mother and how I mother, and Charles Dickens1: “It was the best of times,  it was the worst of times, …”  The only thing more joyous or tough than being a kid, is being the kid’s mother.  There is a magnitude to the task of mothering.  Grand success is celebrated.  Mistakes will echo for a lifetime.  Frequently the definitions of both differ widely, depending on the person making the judgment.

One Mother’s Day, my five-year-old and his three-year-old sister arrived at my bedroom door carefully negotiating the ultimate treat, “breakfast in bed”.  My husband was away on business but proudly, the tray was placed on my lap with the folded napkin, handmade cards, juice and their favorite breakfast.

My daughter, Larkyn: “I wanted milk on the Cheerios.”

My son, Tyler: “I told Larkyn, it was just too big a risk.  The juice was enough.”

As mothers, the question is always:  What is too big a risk?  The quest to protect is hardwired with hormones and magnified with adoration of the tiny addition to our world.  My younger brother was killed in a car accident less than a year before our precious boy child was born.  En route home from the hospital with our son, I was overwhelmed with the task of protecting my baby.  The fear of the worst case scenario was palpable.  I wanted to protect every aspect of his life.

As a pre-schooler, Tyler was looking up at me with adoring eyes while we were reading Franklin in the Dark2.

“You’re not afraid of anything, are you Mommy?” Then after a brief pause, he continued with a quizzical brow. “Except underground parking lots.  You’re really afraid of underground parking lots.”

The conversation continued that although I was afraid of underground parking lots, I still went in them.  It was okay to be afraid, but if you never did anything that was a bit scary, life would be boring and you would never learn new things. The trick deciding what risks were worth it and taking precautions.

My father and step-mother were extremely fearful.  My father went through the war in Germany as a child, became a neurosurgeon and regularly dealt with serious head trauma.  My step-mother loved her routine and feared lots of things like dust, water and snakes.  One summer at our cabin, the wind came up while we were fishing and I couldn’t get the motor started.  My step-mother was terrified and I used every ounce of my ten-year-old muscle mass to row us to the safety of the dock.  Worst case scenario, we would have landed on the other side of the lake or on the rocks in the creek.  Life was filled with danger and the possibility of embarrassing yourself.  I was terrified to make mistakes.  That was one reason, I chose to live in British Columbia with my mother.

My mother was also fearful, but my Auntie Myrna was her counter balance.  She was my mother’s older sister and could make the rules.  As a little girl at the beach, Stanley Park and Tatlow Park, where my Grandpa was a caretaker after retirement, I remember her lifting me up big trees and rocks so I could climb up to where the big kids were.  My Auntie Myrna believed I could handle the risk and so I did.  My temperament and my need to keep up with my older sister, cousins, and kids in the neighbourhood meant I grew familiar with accepting a challenge.

My boy cousins on my Dad’s side were always filled with ideas that took me to risky places when we visited our grandparents in Abbotsford or camped as adults in Osoyoos.  My boy cousins could get me to try new things, break rules, and play hard.  Even as an adult, I would rise to the challenge.  One cousin managed to get me to swim across Osoyoos Lake to the American border and back.  Yet pride did not always require accomplishment.  My boy cousins still do a good imitation of me trying to say “One more time” with a mouth full of water as I tried repetitively to get up on one water ski.  I never did get up on one ski, but the story is told with admiration at how long and hard I tried.

As a mother, the challenge is to encourage our kids to try new things and support them for trying even in the face of disappointment.  The first time my daughter didn’t get, yet another DQ (disqualification), for her butterfly stroke at a swim competition, our family was wildly crazy with excitement and cheers.  The father beside me asked if I realized my kid didn’t win.  Just depends on your definition of what counts as a win.

It is heartbreaking to see our children experience injuries, failure or disappointment or sadness.  It is hard to teach them to accept an outcome they didn’t expect, to be hurt or to recognize their own mistakes without blame.  We can’t navigate the pathway for our children.  We can help them to take risks to learn new things and meet new people, problem solve when things don’t go as anticipated and accept responsibility for mistakes.  Resilience is required to find joy in life despite disappointment.

Upon her graduation from Queen’s University, Larkyn thanked me for never saying a degree in philosophy was a waste of time because she’d never get a job.  When pushed by a CBC reporter at The Quarry House Restaurant one Mother’s Day about what he loved about his mother, Tyler replied: “She has always supported me in whatever I wanted to do.”  The biggest gratitude I have for my mom is that she always believed in me, even when I didn’t.  Apparently, our task as mothers is encouraging our children in the challenges they choose, celebrating victories, supporting them as they cope with adversity, and believing in them.

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  1. Charles Dickens (1859). A Tale of Two Cities.
  2. Paulette Bourgeois (1986). Franklin in the Dark.

Indigenous Ways of Knowing: Transforming our Relationships

I believe in Aboriginal Enhancement agreements.  For some, they represent a token of political correctness which can be limited to lip service.  For others they focus our attention on something that matters not only in terms of facilitating basic human rights, but developing a culture of kindness and respect that we as Canadians have built our identity on.

John Hattie points to a large body of research that informs us that the largest predictor of health, wealth and happiness is not grades achieved by students, but the number of years spent in school.  Low graduation rates of indigenous students have meant that part of our job as educators is to create a learning environment in which all students find something to stay for.  Obviously we want this for all of our students.

Daniel Wood wrote an article in the travel section of The Vancouver Sun newspaper (Apr.28, 2018) on Easter Island:  “And once the last tree was chopped down, there was no wood to make a boat and leave.”  The habitat once plentiful with fish, birds, palm trees and fertile lands was left an archeological site on grassland.  Like those who inhabited and devastated Easter Island thousands of years ago, we too have much to learn.   The FNESC materials give us with tools and insight into how we can draft meaningful goals to incorporate indigenous ways of knowing into our curriculum.

What is frequently lacking is a clearly articulated learning intention so we can determine if we are making an impact.  From this intentional stance, we are able to devise a plan that serves the needs of all of the students in our care:

  1.  To create a culture of kindness and respect.  For our indigenous students, it means listening to the stories and rather than rewriting history.  It means finding a way to move forward together.
  2.  To create a learning environment where students are engaged in learning.
    • How can we support students in their ability to self regulate so they can learn?
    • How do we incorporate student choice and provide clarity and high expectations into our learning contexts?
  3.  To incorporate indigenous ways of knowing into our lives.
    • What does it look like when we understand the First Peoples Principles of Learning and incorporate them into our lives and stories?

In response to stereotypes of indigenous culture that have pervaded our culture, and appropriation of cultural items to gain profit, we are left unsure of truly what is respectful.  Anthropologist, Aaron Glass states in his interview with Heather Ramsey of The Tyee ( March  2011):  “Totem poles, he says, have been added to the stereotype of the North American Indian, along with the teepee, the tomahawk and the feathered headdress.”  If we are earnest in our intention, this fact makes us wary when we see these images and concerned that we may be perceived as a part of the system that perpetuates negative stereotypes and gets in the way of developing respectful relationships.

The Tomahawk Barbecue was the first drive-in restaurant in Vancouver started by Chick Chamberlain in 1926 just off Marine Drive.  Chick learned to cook in the early 20’s when he opened a small coffee shop in a cabins to rent business with his brother.  The drive-in part of the restaurant wasn’t a huge success because of the dust from the unpaved roads.  It did evolve as a community hang-out.  One of the patrons of the restaurant mounted a big tomahawk over the door and the name stuck.  It managed to stay open through the “Dirty Thirties” largely because Chick would accept payment in curios, hand made pots, drums, cooking utensils, large and small totem poles, masks and other beautifully carved objects from those who couldn’t afford the food.  He started to purchase indigenous art long before it was recognized as valuable.  “Tomahawk’s famous hamburgers are named after some of the Indian chiefs Chick had known over the years, as a sort of memorial to his friends: Skookum Chief, Chief Capilano, Chief Raven, Chief Dominic Charlie, and Chief August Jack.”  Chuck Chamberlain is Chick’s son and has maintained his father’s legacy.  Chuck was happy to share stories of the his Dad, his restaurant, and his friends over the years when I came for breakfast on a rainy Saturday morning.  A painting of Chief Simon Baker graces the wall when you enter.  Chuck is proud of this friendship and was honoured to be a pall bearer at Chief Baker’s funeral.

The story that was most powerful was the story of the Wild Man of the Woods Mask used in the Squamish ceremony of boys moving into manhood.  When the mask is needed for a ceremony, it is taken down from the special resting spot in the restaurant, and once it’s purpose is fulfilled, it is returned to a place where it rests with the spirits of the ancestors.  This is so different than the experience of another friend of mine who is a member of the Squamish Nation.  He took a special basket made by his grandmother to the Museum of Anthropology with an inquiry about how best to preserve it.  The Museum of Anthropology explained they could help.  When my friend and his family returned to request it for use in a special ceremony, they were denied access.  Two similar scenarios with the biggest difference being the respect demonstrated and the dynamic of power and control.

I remember going to the Tomahawk Restaurant for breakfast as a very little girl, one weekend when my aunt and my Mom ventured over the Lion’s Gate Bridge to go to Capilano Canyon with my sister and cousins.  My husband remembers not being able to finish the Skookum Chief burger, nicknamed The Hulk burger, when he was a little boy.  Yet, I paused to return because of the name – Tomahawk.  As a student of history and an educator wanting to rectify past wrongs, I had many questions.  Was it respectful?  Was it appropriate?  Was it a remnant of past uninformed representations of indigenous culture?  Tomahawks were from the prairies, weren’t they?   It wasn’t until I did some internet research, listened to an interview and did some the reading, that I gave myself permission to return for a visit and a questions to ask.  And yes, I was dying to see the art.  While I was there, chatting with Chuck, I kept thinking of the First Peoples Principle of Learning:  Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.  Listening to the stories always needs to proceed formulating the judgement.  What I heard on Sunday, was pride in respectful relationships and families that have become intertwined over many years.

Recently I cited Byrd Baylor’s book, Everybody Needs a Rock in reference to an Indigenous sharing circle of large boulders that we are installing in our playground.  The intention is to help students understand the very beginnings of the concept of democracy in giving everyone a voice.  One of my respected colleagues, questioned my reference to a non-indigenous author.  Again I did some internet research to discover that she has maternal Native American decent but grew up in a largely non-indigenous culture.  However I went back to the First Peoples Principle of Learnings:  Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).   Ultimately, isn’t our intention for all people to embrace these principles because it represents universal learning that matters.  And isn’t it our intention for all people to share the stories that come to form their understandings.

Anthropologist, Aaron Glass also stated in his interview with Heather Ramsey of The Tyee (March  2011):  “What we argue in the book is that the totem pole has been a constantly evolving form, so there was never a moment when “it” almost died. It kept changing, migrating, transforming. This is not a story of death and rebirth it is a story of continual transformation.”  As with the totem pole, the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people will continue to evolve and transform as we open ourselves to new learning.  Hopefully this time we get it right, and that relationship will be based on respect, honesty, shared power, and a willingness to be open to learning from each other.

Perhaps the World Starts Here

In her poem, Perhaps the World Ends Here , Joy Harjo does a marvelous job of capturing the power of community in negotiating the lessons life and death around a kitchen table.  It was the first thing that came to mind the other day.   A warring group of 10 year old boys were sent to The Office.  Friends.  Enemies.  Frenemies with the balance tipping to enemies on this particular occasion.  Betrayal.  Unkindness.  Hurt feelings.  Exclusion.  Anger.  Sadness.  Hopelessness.  Frustration.  Despair.  Indignation.  All palpable in the room.

All of the boys were separated and directed to use the calm down strategy that works for them so he could move from the reactionary mode to a problem solving mode.   On this particular day, time was not particularly helpful.  The external appearance of calm was stitched together by the moral indignation of the crimes of the “other”.   All four boys were ready to erupt at the smallest provocation.

The  boys came into my office so I could help mediate the talk that was doing nothing but adding fuel to the many fires.   When they had a seat at the table, I realized that I hadn’t cleared the teacups from my peer leadership meeting with my Community School Team partners.

I explained, “Sorry, I haven’t cleaned up from my last meeting.  Let me get that out of your way.”

The response, “Oh, that’s not for me?  I’d like a cup of tea.  It’s a thing to calm down. ”

“Hmm.  Well, there still is some in the pot. I could get you some” was my response.  Fortunately I had decided to keep the tea set I bought for my daughter with the large  teapot.

The first thing the boys were able to agree on was that they all wanted tea.  With sugar.  Apparently lots of sugar.  The shift of attention to tea was like shifting tectonic plates.  Before long, feelings were bared.  Frustrations were vented.  Tears were shed.   Plans were made.  Heartfelt apologies were expressed.   The balance had shifted to friends who were still somewhat annoyed with each other.

My thoughts wandered to my maternal grandmother, Nanny Keenan.  The rule in the family was, when you walked in the door to visit, you kissed Nanny hello and then put on the kettle for tea before you took off your coat.  All of the news, joys and struggles of life were wrestled with, cried over, or laughed about over a cup of tea.   In her poem, Joy Harjo writes of the kitchen table:  “It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.”  Perhaps the same is true in part on the playground, in the classroom, or in the principal’s office over a cup of tea, on a good day!