Talking About Race

Everyone these days is talking about race.  This construct with no genetic basis, has had major impact on all societies since the beginning of human civilization.  Entry points and perspectives on the conversation differ radically.  Amnesty International first captured my heart and mind and imagination at a booth at Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia just after graduation from UBC.  I saw the possibility of working with people committed to human rights to create a fairer and more equitable world.  I was young, optimistic and newly empowered with a university degree.  I was in education and believed with all my heart that if people knew better, then they would do better. 

The premise behind Amnesty International is to “shine a light on human rights” and reveal the facts of imprisonment, abuse, miscarriage of justice, and extrajudicial killings to a wider audience.  The gold standard of social justice is the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms signed December 10th, 1948.  The goal of Amnesty International research is for it to document the facts.  It is checked with three reliable sources before it is published.  In most cases, people do not work on cases in their own countries to avoid reprisals.  Exceptions are made for Americans working to stop capital punishment and Canadians working against abuses of Indigenous People.

The most affirming part of Amnesty work has been meeting prisoners who had been released by their governments once letters from Amnesty members around the world started to arrive.  These governments still believed in the currency of truth and did not want to be embarrassed on the world stage by overtly ignoring human rights.  It was encouraging to work with community members and students who were fully engaged in learning about human rights and ready to work towards their vision of how they wanted the world to be.  Amnesty International training is also excellent.  I learned about “Unpacking White Privilege” with activities that were respectful of the different starting points into the conversation with people in my community and from around Canada and just as relevant today.

The most frustrating part of Amnesty work for me is writing on behalf of extra-judicial killings, capital punishment in the United States, and Indigenous Rights in Canada.  The same painstaking work to collect facts and triangulation was done.  The Declaration of Rights and Freedoms was still a reference point.  However, there was a vested interest in secrecy and skewing facts.  The investment in maintaining the status quo seems to over-rule truth in too many cases.  Governments did not step up to admit that a person had not been granted a fair trial.  They did not look at the systemic racism that put, too frequently a black man, on death row.  They did not expeditiously address the land claims issues or practice of dumping the drunk Indigenous person outside of city limits in the snow or address the question of why so many Indigenous women were missing and killed. 

Today the work has become harder because too many politicians seem to have traded the reliance on the currency of truth, in favour of the belief that they can garner votes by fueling people’s fears to intensify biases and racism in society.  I was encouraged when the book Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson was released as a movie and an audiobook.  And yet, this same story has been told by other people who have been unjustly accused or penalized far beyond what is just.  And money is still directed to systems of punishment rather than required support systems. 

The 1783 Act to Limit Slavery was the first legislation to limit slavery in the British Colonies and celebrated by abolitionists in Upper Canada.  British abolitionists had been engaged in protests against transatlantic trade in African people since the 1770’s.  In 1833, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in Parliament which was targeting slavery in tropical countries.  Slavery was abolished in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa, as well as a small number in Lower Canada.   By 1934, Canada became a destination for black people trying to escape slavery in the United States via The Underground Railway.  As a Canadian, this has been a point of pride.

Slavery has been present since ancient times and has been sustained in one form or another throughout history.  The British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Belgian empires-built empires based primarily on plantation agriculture using people abducted from Africa.  Slavery in the plantation economies of the United States, Brazil and Cuba came later and flourished under slavery.  Today slavery continues with human trafficking and in sweat shops.  Clearly there is no one country or civilization that has moral high ground.  Slavery in one form or another has plagued us all.  The point here is not that we all need to feel guilty.  It is to understand that through-out history, people have been making judgements that some people are less than.  Who decides who has power? How is inequity justified?

David Livingstone (1813-1873) in his explorations / mapping of central Africa documented in his journals and spoke in Britain of the cruelty of the slave trade in destroying African lives but also the devastating impact on the British character:

“No one can understand the effect of the unutterable meanness of the slave-system on the minds of those who, but for the strange obliquity which prevents them from feeling the degradation of not being gentlemen enough to pay for services rendered, would be equal in virtue to ourselves.  Fraud becomes as natural to them as ‘paying one’s way’ is to the rest of mankind.” 

He points out that slavery has a double-edged sword.  It is devasting to the life of the person being enslaved.  It also has a devastating impact on the character of the person involved in the enslavement.  I would propose that racism also has a double-edged sword.  It hurts the recipient of racism. It also damages the character of the racist.  A world based on equity and respect is the only avenue forward.

All of the organized religions of the world have texts that speak of love and embracing community.  Most people would say they are good people who want to make the world a better place.  Hierarchy is beneficial when people create systems to achieve power and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to hold on to power.  If we are looking at embracing equity for all, we need to accept that no one gets to be “king of the castle”.  We need to embrace distributed leadership and the belief that we can accomplish equity through involving diverse voices and working collaboratively.  If we have societal problems or issues, they belong to all of us. 

The George Floyd video is not cause for one population to look at what is wrong  in one country, but a cause for all populations to look at what is happening in their countries.  We watched over the course of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a black man begging for his life and then dying at the hands of same people we expect to protect us.  Only one knee was on George Floyd’s neck, but three other officers were also there bearing witness.  This was not the rash action of one racist officer, but a practice that had been condoned for use in a police force.  Firing the officers and filing criminal charges does not address the injustice, the frequency with which this happens, or the need for systemic change.  What is required is a societal shift and strong leadership that values the rights and freedoms enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Rights and Freedoms.  We have a responsibility to support and acknowledge those police officers who take the job of serving and protecting seriously, and act in respectful and caring ways.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has focused popular attention on the issues to be addressed.  COVID-19 has created a sense of powerlessness so that people want action now.  There are many conversations going on about race, injustice, human rights, systemic racism and bias.  As always, how people participate is mitigated by a number of circumstances.  I am not going to defy the Provincial Health Officer recommendation to avoid gatherings of over 50 people during a global pandemic when I am entrusted to protecting kids and staff.  However, I can still be an active participant.  I can inform myself by reading, attending online sessions, following pertinent Twitter feeds, entering the conversation and thinking about what I can do to create more equity in my learning community. 

One of the best books, I listened to, and then read was Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be An Anti-Racist.  I love books narrated by the author because you can hear their emphasis and passion.  I love his honesty in coming to terms with the fact that he could be racist and delving into the other arguments about race that are front and centre today.  He didn’t tell me what I needed to do because I had white skin.  I didn’t feel any accusations.  He did articulate that the problem with being passive about racism, is that you ultimately end up supporting it.  He provokes us to make a choice to be racist or anti-racist.  Kendi also provided the Racism 101 guide to the language in the current conversation and defined terms.  My vocabulary has grown to include BIPOC, LatinX, white fragility, white supremist culture, micro-aggression, and cancel culture.  I understand the conversation now.

My initial response to Black Lives Matter movement, and perhaps my arrogance, told me that we were more evolved in Canada in terms of race.  I don’t label friends as LatinX or People of Colour and racism doesn’t usually come up in our conversations.  We have embraced the notion of a multi-cultural society in Canada.  I believed our biggest task was to deal with the overt racism and institutional racism that has plagued our Indigenous People.  And then the overt racism started to be reported on the 6 o’clock news, in the newspaper and on social media.  The 92 year old Asian man with dementia pushed to the ground at the local 7/11 to racial slurs.  The Asian kid knocked off his longboard by a driver yelling racial slurs.  Asian people being spit on to racial slurs while walking or taking the bus.  My friend being worried about coming into Vancouver.  Reports of racial profiling by black Canadians.  I contacted the African Descent Society to tease out a Canadian context.   I learned that during the building of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the western section of Hogan’s Alley, the centre of Strathcona’s Black Neighbourhood and parts of Chinatown were razed.  I have more to learn.  I have more to think about.

I attended the Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools Conference facilitated by Joe Truss on June 27th and 28 of this year, with 1000 people online.  Speakers presented thought provoking sessions that were abbreviated with break-out sessions.   We were put in “affinity groups” for break-out sessions based on the colour of our skin.  My initial question to the group:  “Is my affinity defined by the colour of my skin?”  Shane Safir, author of The Listening Leader, was the skilled facilitator in my group.  She raised the point that all of us have a number of different affinity groups.  Since then I have been thinking of the wide array of affinity groups I identify with and there are many:  feminists; feminists who wear lipstick; parents; mothers with daughters; mothers with sons;  parents with grown kids; wives; wives of husbands who respect strong women; daughters; sisters; sisters in blended families; children of divorce; educators; educators passionate about inquiry; educators passionate about innovation; social justice advocates; principals and vice principals.  The conversation does change when you are with a group of like-minded people.   It allows for expression that is not curated to ensure that no one is offended.  Yes, I realize I am sounding very Canadian.  I think of my reaction to being put in an affinity group in early July.  I think of being in a group where I am silenced because I have no affinity with the people in the group.  If we are going to have change, I believe we need to have honest conversations that are difficult and go beyond affinity groups. 

Joe Truss did raise an important point in his organization of break-out sessions. Safe spaces for BIPOC to express their pain, or anger, or experience, or perceptions is important.  These conversations require a supportive context where people do not need to justify their feelings.  The sharing of the stories takes a toll on the people reliving the memories of painful experiences.  A colleague of mine was a witness when the 1989 Mount Cashel Boys’ Home investigation of repeated acts of physical and sexual abuse of the children designated as wards of the state (through the Indian Act, apprehension by Social Services, and orphans)  by the Christian Brothers, was re-opened the 1975.  Each one of the witnesses was assigned a support person throughout the subsequent  trial due to the trauma of reliving the traumatic events of their time at the school.  For BIPOC people experiencing racism, there is an additional layer of complexity because it could be unfolding in a variety of ways in their current reality.  The path forward will need to include opportunities for healing, defined by the people who require it. 

The full burden of recounting history and working towards change cannot lie solely on the shoulders of BIPOC people.   The stories of BIPOC people who have experienced racist acts and institutional racism can help us better understand our context.  Conversations that focus on reconciliation and change, also need to happen.  Truth and Reconciliation processes have been used in over 30 countries since the 1970’s.  The Truth and Reconciliation process established by President Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu after apartheid in South Africa has provided a model for Truth Commissions.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in Canada from 2007-2015 was eye opening for many Canadians.  The government spent $72 million and interviewed 6,500 witnesses.  Canadians learned the stories of residential schools.  That part of our history previously absent from curriculum is now taught in school.  It has also provided a catalyst for understanding the change and political pressure for changes needed in Canada to support our Indigenous people. However, the sharing of horrific stories took its toll on the Indigenous people reliving them through the sharing.

The path forward for white people is different.  To be an anti-racist, an honest desire to discover truth through reading, listening and reflecting will be required.  The starting point of the person and the level of engagement sought will determined the starting point on the path toward equity.  I don’t like the term “micro-aggressions” because it comes with an accusation that I believe causes people to shut down.  However, if the focus is on empathic listening, it brings it to the level of being considerate of other peoples’ feelings – a lesson that begins in pre-school and hopefully continues through our lives.   

In my pathway towards equity, I would love to work as an ally in a cross-racial group of people to develop an action plan that incorporates diverse perspectives and skill sets.  I would love there to be a freedom to share stories and ask questions without risk of harsh judgement.  I still believe in strong curriculum to engage students in learning about human rights and inquiry projects to help them ask difficult questions.  I still believe in working with community to move forward social justice work.  I would like to create multiple entry points for people to join the conversation and work collaboratively.  In a recent forum sponsored by The International Literacy Association, Ernest Morrell, made the statement:  “Excellence is equitably distributed, but opportunity is Not.”  In our school communities and societies, the goal to provide equity of opportunity for everyone is a good one.  Who knows where the excellence lies to create a better world?  What is your action plan to get there?  I would love to hear about it.

Talking About Race

Diversity : Celebrating Multiculturalism

Everyone these days is talking about race.  This construct with no genetic basis, has had major impact on all societies since the beginning of human civilization.  Entry points and perspectives on the conversation differ radically.  Amnesty International first captured my heart and mind and imagination at a booth at Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia just after graduation from UBC.  I saw the possibility of working with people committed to human rights to create a fairer and more equitable world.  I was young, optimistic and newly empowered with a university degree.  I was in education and believed with all my heart that if people knew better, then they would do better. 

The premise behind Amnesty International is to “shine a light on human rights” and reveal the facts of imprisonment, abuse, miscarriage of justice, and extrajudicial killings to a wider audience.  The gold standard of social justice is the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms signed December 10th, 1948.  The goal of Amnesty International research is for it to document the facts.  It is checked with three reliable sources before it is published.  In most cases, people do not work on cases in their own countries to avoid reprisals.  Exceptions are made for Americans working to stop capital punishment and Canadians working against abuses of Indigenous People.

The most affirming part of Amnesty work has been meeting prisoners who had been released by their governments once letters from Amnesty members around the world started to arrive.  These governments still believed in the currency of truth and did not want to be embarrassed on the world stage by overtly ignoring human rights.  It was encouraging to work with community members and students who were fully engaged in learning about human rights and ready to work towards their vision of how they wanted the world to be.  Amnesty International training is also excellent.  I learned about “Unpacking White Privilege” with activities that were respectful of the different starting points into the conversation with people in my community and from around Canada and just as relevant today.

The most frustrating part of Amnesty work for me is writing on behalf of extra-judicial killings, capital punishment in the United States, and Indigenous Rights in Canada.  The same painstaking work to collect facts and triangulation was done.  The Declaration of Rights and Freedoms was still a reference point.  However, there was a vested interest in secrecy and skewing facts.  The investment in maintaining the status quo seems to over-rule truth in too many cases.  Governments did not step up to admit that a person had not been granted a fair trial.  They did not look at the systemic racism that put, too frequently a black man, on death row.  They did not expeditiously address the land claims issues or practice of dumping the drunk Indigenous person outside of city limits in the snow or address the question of why so many Indigenous women were missing and killed. 

Today the work has become harder because too many politicians seem to have traded the reliance on the currency of truth, in favour of the belief that they can garner votes by fueling people’s fears to intensify biases and racism in society.  I was encouraged when the book Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson was released as a movie and an audiobook.  And yet, this same story has been told by other people who have been unjustly accused or penalized far beyond what is just.  And money is still directed to systems of punishment rather than required support systems. 

The 1783 Act to Limit Slavery was the first legislation to limit slavery in the British Colonies and celebrated by abolitionists in Upper Canada.  British abolitionists had been engaged in protests against transatlantic trade in African people since the 1770’s.  In 1833, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in Parliament which was targeting slavery in tropical countries.  Slavery was abolished in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa, as well as a small number in Lower Canada.   By 1934, Canada became a destination for black people trying to escape slavery in the United States via The Underground Railway.  As a Canadian, this has been a point of pride.

Slavery has been present since ancient times and has been sustained in one form or another throughout history.  The British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Belgian empires-built empires based primarily on plantation agriculture using people abducted from Africa.  Slavery in the plantation economies of the United States, Brazil and Cuba came later and flourished under slavery.  Today slavery continues with human trafficking and in sweat shops.  Clearly there is no one country or civilization that has moral high ground.  Slavery in one form or another has plagued us all.  The point here is not that we all need to feel guilty.  It is to understand that through-out history, people have been making judgements that some people are less than.  Who decides?  For what purpose?

David Livingstone (1813-1873) in his explorations / mapping of central Africa documented in his journals and spoke in Britain of the cruelty of the slave trade in destroying African lives but also the devastating impact on the British character:

“No one can understand the effect of the unutterable meanness of the slave-system on the minds of those who, but for the strange obliquity which prevents them from feeling the degradation of not being gentlemen enough to pay for services rendered, would be equal in virtue to ourselves.  Fraud becomes as natural to them as ‘paying one’s way’ is to the rest of mankind.” 

He points out that slavery has a double-edged sword.  It is devasting to the life of the person being enslaved.  It also has a devastating impact on the character of the person involved in the enslavement.  I would propose that racism also has a double-edged sword.  It hurts the recipient of racism. It also damages the character of the racist.  A world based on equity and respect is the only avenue forward.

All of the organized religions of the world have texts that speak of love and embracing community.  Most people would say they are good people who want to make the world a better place.  Hierarchy is beneficial when people create systems to achieve power and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to hold on to power.  If we are looking at embracing equity for all, we need to accept that no one gets to be “king of the castle”.  We need to embrace distributed leadership and the belief that we can accomplish equity through involving diverse voices and working collaboratively.  If we have societal problems or issues, they belong to all of us. 

The George Floyd video is not cause for one population to look at what is wrong  in one country, but a cause for all populations to look at what is happening in their countries.  We watched over the course of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a black man begging for his life and then dying at the hands of same people we expect to protect us.  Only one knee was on George Floyd’s neck, but three other officers were also there bearing witness.  This was not the rash action of one racist officer, but a practice that had been condoned for use in a police force.  Firing the officers and filing criminal charges does not address the injustice, the frequency with which this happens, or the need for systemic change.  What is required is a societal shift and strong leadership that values the rights and freedoms enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Rights and Freedoms.  We have a responsibility to support and acknowledge those police officers who take the job of serving and protecting seriously, and act in respectful and caring ways.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has focused popular attention on the issues to be addressed.  COVID-19 has created a sense of powerlessness so that people want action now.  There are many conversations going on about race, injustice, human rights, systemic racism and bias.  As always, how people participate is mitigated by a number of circumstances.  I am not going to defy the Provincial Health Officer recommendation to avoid gatherings of over 50 people during a global pandemic when I am entrusted to protecting kids and staff.  However, I can still be an active participant.  I can inform myself by reading, attending online sessions, following pertinent Twitter feeds, entering the conversation and thinking about what I can do to create more equity in my learning community. 

One of the best books, I listened to, and then read was Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be An Anti-Racist.  I love books narrated by the author because you can hear their emphasis and passion.  I love his honesty in coming to terms with the fact that he could be racist and delving into the other arguments about race that are front and centre today.  He didn’t tell me what I needed to do because I had white skin.  I didn’t feel any accusations.  He did articulate that the problem with being passive about racism, is that you ultimately end up supporting it.  He provokes us to make a choice to be racist or anti-racist.  Kendi also provided the Racism 101 guide to the language in the current conversation and defined terms.  My vocabulary has grown to include BIPOC, LatinX, white fragility, white supremist culture, micro-aggression, and cancel culture.  I understand the conversation now.

My initial response to Black Lives Matter movement, and perhaps my arrogance, told me that we were more evolved in Canada in terms of race.  I don’t label friends as LatinX or People of Colour and racism doesn’t usually come up in our conversations.  We have embraced the notion of a multi-cultural society in Canada.  I believed our biggest task was to deal with the overt racism and institutional racism that has plagued our Indigenous People.  And then the overt racism started to be reported on the 6 o’clock news, in the newspaper and on social media.  The 92 year old Asian man with dementia pushed to the ground at the local 7/11 to racial slurs.  The Asian kid knocked off his longboard by a driver yelling racial slurs.  Asian people being spit on to racial slurs while walking or taking the bus.  My friend being worried about coming into Vancouver.  Reports of racial profiling by black Canadians.  I contacted the African Descent Society to tease out a Canadian context.   I learned that during the building of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the western section of Hogan’s Alley, the centre of Strathcona’s Black Neighbourhood and parts of Chinatown were razed.  I have more to learn.  I have more to think about.

I attended the Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools Conference facilitated by Joe Truss on June 27th and 28 of this year, with 1000 people online.  Speakers presented thought provoking sessions that were abbreviated with break-out sessions.   We were put in “affinity groups” for break-out sessions based on the colour of our skin.  My initial question to the group:  “Is my affinity defined by the colour of my skin?”  Shane Safir, author of The Listening Leader, was the skilled facilitator in my group.  She raised the point that all of us have a number of different affinity groups.  Since then I have been thinking of the wide array of affinity groups I identify with and there are many:  feminists; feminists who wear lipstick; parents; mothers with daughters; mothers with sons;  parents with grown kids; wives; wives of husbands who respect strong women; daughters; sisters; sisters in blended families; children of divorce; educators; educators passionate about inquiry; educators passionate about innovation; social justice advocates; principals and vice principals.  The conversation does change when you are with a group of like-minded people.   It allows for expression that is not curated to ensure that no one is offended.  Yes, I realize I am sounding very Canadian.  I think of my reaction to being put in an affinity group in early July.  I think of being in a group where I am silenced because I have no affinity with the people in the group.  If we are going to have change, I believe we need to have honest conversations that are difficult and go beyond affinity groups. 

Joe Truss did raise an important point in his organization of break-out sessions. Safe spaces for BIPOC to express their pain, or anger, or experience, or perceptions is important.  These conversations require a supportive context where people do not need to justify their feelings.  The sharing of the stories takes a toll on the people reliving the memories of painful experiences.  A colleague of mine was a witness when the 1989 Mount Cashel Boys’ Home investigation of repeated acts of physical and sexual abuse of the children designated as wards of the state (through the Indian Act, apprehension by Social Services, and orphans)  by the Christian Brothers, was re-opened the 1975.  Each one of the witnesses was assigned a support person throughout the subsequent  trial due to the trauma of reliving the traumatic events of their time at the school.  For BIPOC people experiencing racism, there is an additional layer of complexity because it could be unfolding in a variety of ways in their current reality.  The path forward will need to include opportunities for healing, defined by the people who require it. 

The full burden of recounting history and working towards change cannot lie solely on the shoulders of BIPOC people.   The stories of BIPOC people who have experienced racist acts and institutional racism can help us better understand our context.  Conversations that focus on reconciliation and change, also need to happen.  Truth and Reconciliation processes have been used in over 30 countries since the 1970’s.  The Truth and Reconciliation process established by President Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu after apartheid in South Africa has provided a model for Truth Commissions.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in Canada from 2007-2015 was eye opening for many Canadians.  The government spent $72 million and interviewed 6,500 witnesses.  Canadians learned the stories of residential schools.  That part of our history previously absent from curriculum is now taught in school.  It has also provided a catalyst for understanding the change and political pressure for changes needed in Canada to support our Indigenous people. However, the sharing of horrific stories took its toll on the Indigenous people reliving them through the sharing.

The path forward for white people is different.  To be an anti-racist, an honest desire to discover truth through reading, listening and reflecting will be required.  The starting point of the person and the level of engagement sought will determined the starting point on the path toward equity.  I don’t like the term “micro-aggressions” because it comes with an accusation that I believe causes people to shut down.  However, if the focus is on empathic listening, it brings it to the level of being considerate of other peoples’ feelings – a lesson that begins in pre-school and hopefully continues through our lives.   

In my pathway towards equity, I would love to work as an ally in a cross-racial group of people to develop an action plan that incorporates diverse perspectives and skill sets.  I would love there to be a freedom to share stories and ask questions without risk of harsh judgement.  I still believe in strong curriculum to engage students in learning about human rights and inquiry projects to help them ask difficult questions.  I still believe in working with community to move forward social justice work.  I would like to create multiple entry points for people to join the conversation and work collaboratively.  In a recent forum sponsored by The International Literacy Association, Ernest Morrell, made the statement:  “Excellence is equitably distributed, but opportunity is Not.”  In our school communities and societies, the goal to provide equity of opportunity for everyone is a good one.  Who knows where the excellence lies to create a better world?  What is your action plan to get there?  I would love to hear about it.

Adventure in Writing a Picture Book

Mallard Duck – Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C.

I like to write.  Throughout my long and varied career in education, I have written for a variety of purposes, both professional and personal.  I’ve written curriculum, newsletters, articles, documented inquiry studies, developed websites and blogged.  I was thrilled when my MA thesis was bound and available for sign out from the Simon Fraser University Library.  However aside from publications in professional journals, I have never gone through the process of publishing a book.  Margaret Wheatley (2017) references the gifts and the firestorm in her book Who Do You Choose To Be?  If the COVID-19 global pandemic is the firestorm, the gift for me is the time for reading, reflection and writing this summer.  Fewer travel and social engagements have allowed me to focused my attention on my Bucket List – writing a book and trying to get it published. I decided to start with a picture book.

This spring, I enlisted the help of my childhood friend, John Patrick, to add new content to a Bird unit of study.  When face to face instruction did not resume after Spring Break due to COVID-19, I created an interdisciplinary Bird unit and posted it on the David Livingstone School website as a learning provocation to support teachers in providing learning opportunities for students. As a member of the Wild About Vancouver Steering Committee, I looked ways parents could support learning outdoors.  When I requested he create a Twitter account @JSTCPatrick and tweet out pictures and observations of local birds, John was willing and enthusiastic about using his new camera.  I was able to retweet on the school twitter account @LivingstoneVSB which is connected to the school website.  For my budding #birdwatchers aka #twitchers, it suggested Vancouver birds that could be spotted and studied.

Early in the 2019-2020 school year, one of my students, Anna, pushed me to learn about graphic novels.  I had previously used graphic novels to support reluctant readers develop emerging reading and writing skills.  This bright, articulate Grade 7 girl pushed me to read specific graphic novels so I could understand how the art and language were woven together, often in masterful ways, to create a depth of meaning making not achievable with just the art or just the language.  She was also the inspiration behind a panel discussion on graphic novels targeting educators but also including students and parents.  I knew I wanted to weave the illustrations and the text together.  John was the natural choice.  Birds were the most obvious topic of study.  Stimulating a desire to get outside for open ended inquiry was a driving goal. 

John and I first met when we were neighbours living by Jericho Beach. There were a lot of kids in the neighbourhood and we traveled as a pack, mostly outdoors with the freedom to arrive home for dinner.  Seniors Housing had not yet been built at 4th Avenue and Wallace Street so we had a big vacant lot, the Jericho Beach Parkland, and Jericho Beach to explore.  We were observers of things – tadpoles, weather, birds, sand and mud.  John was an introspective kid who has used those skills to develop his artistic eye.   I was the adventurer leading the way to new discovery. 

Part of the beauty of our collaboration is how conversations open up new ways of looking at something.  I know how to engage pre-schoolers, elementary, secondary and adults learners through lesson design and inquiry studies in a face to face context.  I love to ask questions and go about finding answers and am able to convey that enthusiasm and draw learners into the process.  I have well developed language skills.  However, stimulating inquiry through a book does not allow you to shift your approach based on cues from your learners.  You have to provide multiple pathways to provoke questions and keep the learning moving forward.  When the learner opens a book, something needs to hook them right away.  John’s observational skills and patience have served him well in developing his artistic talents.  He has been writing cartoons for as long as I can remember which have provided a glimpse into his sense of humour, as well as studying art formally at Langara.  His skill set allows for additional pathways to engage students. 

We now have a frame and a plan that I love.  We are accountable to each other so the process is moving faster that if I was working myself, which is rarely the case!  The book is different and way better than what I initially envisioned.  And we are having fun!  My goal is to have all my writing done before I return to school.  I’m not certain that will be possible because in some cases the perfect photograph is driving the writing.  We are also wanting a cartoon story thread.  And every time we meet, something changes.

I’m curious as to how much more the book will change as the process evolves.  Neither of us know much about the mysteries of publication.  That process will involve more learning and undoubtedly some interesting conversations and connections.   Advice is welcomed! 

Becoming a Writer

I write therefore I am

What is the magical deciding factor that determines you are in fact a writer? I love the story of Margaret Atwood at a dinner party. The dentist beside her asks about her work and he replies, “Yeah, when I retire, I’m going to become a writer.” To which Margaret Atwood replies, “Yeah when I retire, I’m going to be a dentist.” Not all people have the confidence to declare, “I am a writer”. This is the case, despite the fact that most people can write. They may not have a receptive audience to read the writing. They may not have well developed writing skills. The conditions and experiences that come prior to this declarative statement are highly individual and require a bold step.

I have always been a recorder of facts.  My Holly Hobby diaries from back in the day document the daily happenings of my life in elementary school. My many travel journals document places visited and go into intimate detail about everything I ate.   I have a clear record of all my favourite rides at Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, and later Magic Mountain from age 5 to 20 from when I was obliged to go to Los Angeles to visit my father and step-mother in the summer with my older sister.  Trips to our cabin in the Sierra Nevadas at the doorstep of Yosemite document the best times that I spent time with my father, usually with no one else around. There were advantages to being game to hike high into the mountains early in the morning, to fish for hours on end, and an inquiring mind anxious to learn from his travels, experiences, and retellings of Edgar Allan Poe.

My younger brother was born ten years after me and my younger sister, eighteen months later.  This was a highlight of visits to California.  Through our blended family, I got to transition from being a youngest child to being a big sister.  I loved it.  I wrote down all of their developmental accomplishments and had definite ideas of what I would do if I was the mother.  Play moved from barbie dolls to real dolls.  I was an early riser and loved not having to stay in bed waiting for everyone else to get up before I made any noise.  I made up stories about our miniature collie, Lassie (original, I know) and my youngest sister’s teddy bear, incidentally named Teddy (I know…).  I took on the task of “teaching”.  I had started babysitting my younger cousins at 11 years, so I knew how to teach.  My diary documents me teaching my cousins to sit on the headboard of my uncle and aunt’s bed while I taught them to do flips on the bed without hitting their heads on the footboard.  I apparently took the sequencing of lessons very seriously, even at a young age.  I didn’t share all of the details of my babysitting skills, so I was trusted to watch my young siblings. 

My private journals growing up include the wide spectrum of  the angst and tribulations of the acrimony of my parents’ divorce and the retribution of my step-mother.  My sister was three years older than me and missed our father terribly.  She was in line with the plan for us to grow up in Los Angeles with a “normal” family (two parents and two children) and all of the advantages our father could provide as a successful neurosurgeon.  My father was not around for much for my pre-school years and I was strongly attached to my Mom by the time I started visits to California at 5 years old.  I provided no end to the obstacles to “the plan”.  I would agree to take turns living in California but then I wouldn’t because I couldn’t leave my Mom all alone.  I became a steadfast Canadian nationalist, although I was born in California, to strengthen my position.  It did not help that I looked like my Mom, was sure I was right like my father, and would sooner fight to the death than acquiesce – like all three parents.  It has made for many journals written in California at the house, at the beach house and at the cabin.  Lots of material should I even decide to tell tales of the dysfunctional family.

My father’s buy out offer of my mother’s meagre alimony payment after I graduated from secondary school, was large enough to be appealing but not substantial enough to provide much of a down payment for housing or the ability to qualify for a bank loan.  When Mom was hit with pre-menopausal breast cancer at 44 years old, the chemotherapy reduced her typing speed, confidence and ability to maintain work as a secretary.  The 18% interest charged by the private vendor meant my Mom needed to pay off the loan, cut her losses and find somewhere else to live.  The answer was to move in with me and my husband in a house in Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver.  Dog #1 followed.  Two kids.  Dog #2.  Cat #1 and then #2. Birds.  Gerbils. All of these life events provided me with more than enough feelings to fill many, many journals.  Interestingly these journals are filled with writing to process the challenges of my life and living in the suburbs.   All of the good times, and there have been many, are relegated to being experienced and shared orally rather than written about. 

I didn’t actually start to think of myself as a writer until I started to blog.  My mother was not successful battling her second bout of cancer.  On the day before her memorial service, I was fortuitously contacted by Steve Rogers, a Coquitlam principal, with an opportunity to teach Canadian teaching methodology and English language skills to English teachers in China for three weeks at the Fuyang Bureau of Education.   Two months later, I was in Fuyang, giving myself and my family a break from my all-encompassing grief.  I put aside my fears of writing for an audience and embarked on my first blog to share my daily adventures in China with my family, friends, and anyone else who was interested.  My friend, Jan Wells, told me that she had my blog on her computer desktop, and would read it each morning with the paper.  Around the same time, my step-mother wrote me to express how embarrassing for me that I had spelt “massage” wrong, especially with being a teacher.   And hence a writer was born.  The full realization that I was opening myself up to feedback from many directions, with many motivations.

My Serious Indulgences food blog followed my travel blog. Then emerged the source of my most prolific writing. My Inquire2Empower blog was born.  This writing is largely focused on education and job related inquiries.  It has been a great opportunity to delve into content and explore possibilities. I continue to develop my thinking through writing but for an audience.  This adds an additional reflective lens.  There is a bigger emphasis on making my ideas explicit and engaging.

The COVID-19 pandemic has afforded me the time to think more about my life as a writer.  Travel, socializing, eating out, movies, plays, concerts, and so many of the usual summer activities have been drastically curtailed.  The exhaustion of the back to school online, then f2f has subsided.  My natural early riser cicadian rhythm is back.  I have been on the common deck of our condo in Kits, overlooking the water and mountains with a great cup of coffee since 5:45 am.  It is a writer’s paradise.  And so I have been writing.  Of course, my go to place was to write a blog about writing.  And that leads me to, where next?

My childhood friend, John Patrick, is lover of language. Both of us got that from his mother, quoter of the perfect verse for all occasions. He illustrated my first children’s book when I was completing a Children’s Literature course at the University of British Columbia. The theme was flying kites. It included my iconic red hairband of my childhood, hand stitched binding, and was completed without a computer. I wrote it as a culminating piece of a unit on flight for my upcoming Grade 3 practicum. John’s skills as an artist have continued to improved with practice and study of art at VCC Langara. The new camera hasn’t hurt either. This spring I enlisted John and his skills again. This time, I wanted him to do a daily bird tweet to support my online, multi-disciplinary invitation to learn about Birds to support teachers, parents, and students during online learning. He played and it was fun. We met the other day, because I had another idea. We are writing a picture book about birds to stimulate interest in birds and encourage inquiry. We are selecting specific birds in Vancouver to provoke thinking about key concepts. Our planning process has started. The writing and artistic process begins. Because I am a writer.

School Communication During COVID-19 Times

Many books and articles have been written on developing good communication skills. COVID-19 added many new challenges to what is already a complex area of study. In Vancouver, British Columbia, schools did not open after Spring Break for face to face instruction. Educators rose to the challenge of providing learning opportunities for students online and/or via work packages. Then on June 1st, British Columbia did what no other province or state in North America attempted. We welcomed back all students in the province to school each week for face to face instruction for two days (Kindergarten to Grade 5), one day (Grade 6 and 7), and up to five days for children of Essential Service Workers, while continuing to offer online support for students opting not to return to f2f instruction. This was only possible because of the stellar guidance and direction from our Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. With compliance from our population, we have been able to bend the COVID-19 curve. The flexibility and skill of educators and community partners in British Columbia made the process reassuring and worthwhile for students. As the school principal, a considerable amount of my efforts went into safety, organization, and communication. On safety and organization, I hit the mark. Yet, at the end of the day, my communication needed to be better. The purpose of this blog post is to give you an idea of some of the things I implemented. I’m very much hoping for more feedback on other possibilities to improve communication in what promises to be a challenging return to school in fall.

Twitter Info

Parents and Community Partners:

Support from The British Columbia Ministry of Education and the Vancouver School Board was invaluable.  Information on both the Ministry websites and the VSB website was supported with letters home, interviews on the news, tweets with key information and regular updates.

David Livingstone Elementary Website Information was current and informative but it is difficult to know how regularly it is accessed by families.  I’m encouraging families to access information on the website on a regular basis so it becomes a go to place to check.

Twitter@LivingstoneVSB – I tweeted out information, parent education sessions, and interesting articles.  The twitter feed is linked on the website so families do not need a twitter account to access the twitter feed.  I tagged the chair of the Vancouver School Board, Janet Fraser, my school board liaison, Carmen Cho, and the Superintendent of the Vancouver School Board, Suzanne Hoffman, so there is an awareness of things happening at the school. 

Newsletters to parents via Email – These were sent home on a weekly basis.  I responded to questions via email or telephone.

SWAY – Thanks to Laura Mcclenahan and Karen Lirenman for opening my eyes to the possibilities of SWAY.  It is an Office 365 product that allows for a much more engaging visual platform for providing information.  We will have three kindergarten classes next year.  One K teacher is on Maternity Leave, one has retired and one teacher is yet to be hired.  Laura Mcclenahan provided a template so our Early Intervention resource teacher, Sonia Pietzsch, and I could put together an online presentation to introduce new kindergarten students to the school.  Take a look.   Karen Lirenman shared the newsletter of her principal in Surrey, Shelley Brett, using SWAY.  I love the format because it allows me to provide a plethora of information in a way that is not overwhelming.  This is the latest version.  I’ve also now made the connection with Shelley Brett and she shared how that did 5 short videos to cover Welcome to Kindergarten content. Next time, perhaps!

PAC Meetings via ZOOM – PAC selected ZOOM as the platform for their meetings.  Initially there was large attendance and many questions were directed largely at me.  Latter meetings had smaller attendance and focused largely on the work of completing PAC business.  Meetings were respectful and highly successful. 

Telephone Calls:  I have spent a lot of time on the telephone during Covid-19.  It has been the easiest way to check in with parents.  It takes more time but there is more clarity.

Face To Face Meetings:  I am fortunate to have enough space in my office for chairs 2 metres apart.  It was less flexible because parents were only allowed to access the school with permission.  Of course, it was the most time consuming but allowed for the best conversations.

Students:

TEAMS Platform – This was my first year at Livingstone Elementary.  I was fortunate the previous administrator had set up and introduced the TEAMS platform.  I was invited to a training session at the Microsoft Office downtown with Team Lead staff members in August before school started.  Thanks, Vital Peeters.   It put us in a good position to the pivot to online learning. 

Most teachers set up a TEAMS classroom and invited me to it.  I tried the “drop-by” where you enter and exit the classroom on a regular basis and try not to be intrusive.  This was not overly successful because too much attention was focused on me rather than the lesson.  I quickly opted out of the “drop in” and waited to be specifically invited by the teacher.  Teachers were putting so much effort into precious time with students, I didn’t want to disrupt the flow.  They were also doing a great job of those classroom connections with kids.

Weekly Check-In – Teachers were responsible for checking in with families / students at least once a week to ensure further supports were not required.  When that was not successful, I intervened.  This made families feel cared about and supported. 

Weekly Newsletters – I wrote separate newsletters to students that included stories, recipes or other messages intended to make students feel they were not forgotten while not attending school. 

Twitter – I took a big leap and did daily video tweets @LivingstoneVSB focusing student attention on learning opportunities and inquiry questions to pique their interest.  I found this quite difficult but became more natural with practice.  Thanks to George Couros for the extra push to try it out. 

Staff:

TEAMS Platform:  I worked hard to make all pertinent information available on this platform so it would be accessible.  It included schedules to book outdoor spaces (garden, gravel field, grass field, playground, basketball court, undercover area) and supervisors for recess and lunch.  It also included an online daily check-in, information and minutes from the following meetings. 

            District Meetings:

Staff Meetings:

            Committee Meetings:

                        School Based Team Meetings

Health and Safety Meetings

Seismic Mitigation Committee Meetings with District Staff and Seismic Team

                        Finance Committee Meetings

Staff were invited to attend all meetings and serve on committees, but their workload was already very large.  Representatives from all union groups were included in the Health and Safety Meetings.  Seismic Mitigation Meetings also included parents and the preschool/ out of school care service provider.  Therefore, reps were responsible for providing information back to the groups they represented.  Unfortunately, two of my very active committee members went on leave before the end of the year.  Although this served as a hiccup, other members did step forward to serve on the Health and Safety Committee and the Seismic Mitigation Committee. 

Telephone Calls:  This again served to be the most effective method of communication but of course the most time consuming method.  I called all of the staff to check in after Spring Break.  I was required to report to school daily as a single administrator so I started riding my bike more regularly to get a physical outlet.  Staff got use to talking to me as I huffed and puffed going up hills.  Strange bonding times  

Email Communication:  I tried to transition most communication to TEAMS so staff only had to look in one place.  Email was good for those conversations that had been going on all year. One of my teachers was going on maternity leave and was highly motivated to complete her Teacher Evaluation. We were able to complete the process through email and telephone communication and a final observation of an online session.

Face To Face Communication:  Depending on the staff member, face to face communication varied. 

My librarian / resource teacher, Marvin Muress, is also an early riser and was readily available to check in with in the library.  Sonia Pietzsch, the chair of School Based Team, is across the hall and we regularly discussed students leaving the school and being transitioned into the school and the Early Intervention Reading Program that staff voted to implement this year.  These two teachers were also instrumental as we were considering special needs and creating balanced classrooms.  Other f2f communications were restricted because fewer people were coming to the office areas and I was also teaching groups of students and supervising outdoors. 

Contract changes led to more teacher interest in teaching opportunities around the district.  I interviewed fifteen people for four positions.  The upside was I was having conversations about my passions, student learning and instructional practice, with many interesting VSB educators.     

There was also a lot of face to face time during the class casting process.  The Resource Team did the initial placement of students with special needs to meet educational needs and contract requirements.  Then classroom teachers placed the students currently in their classes into their 2020-2021 classes with attention to educational needs and friendships / good work buddies.  Lunch tables were set up in the gym so teachers could spread out during this task that took a week. 

The operating engineer and I did regular am walk-arounds as physical distancing in classrooms and seismic mitigation team specifications came into play.  This was also the case with the staff with Spare Time, our service provider for out of school care and preschool.  There were many decisions to be made as they re-opened their doors for students in the community.  We accomplished a lot, very quickly during our walk abouts! This reflection on communication is an interesting process.  No wonder I entered July exhausted.  It’s a lot of threads for a single administrator in a school of 325 students to hold on to.  Yet, the fact remains that I still felt that not everyone was aware of the thinking behind the many decisions being made or perhaps didn’t feel included in all of them.  It is also true that I only started as the principal of the school in August 2019 and have not had the time to develop the professional capital to seamlessly navigate through a global pandemic.  With time to breath, I have just finished Shane Safir’s book, The Listening Leader (2017), and Margaret Wheatley’s, Who Do We Choose To Be (2017) is next on the professional book list, after I finish The Book of Longings (2020) by Sue Monk Kidd.  However, I’m curious about some of the other tools and strategies that other administrators have used to successfully navigate through this terrain.  Look forward to hearing from you, colleagues.

A Principal’s COVID-19 Journey: From Intensity to Rejuvenation

Peachland, BC

In my career as an educator, my standards for myself have pushed me to do interesting and meaningful work that I am proud of.  My standards for myself have also pushed me to work with an intensity that is exhausting.  Each break time, the quest is to recalibrate, so I can set off on a path of balanced, joyful days.  Back to school after Spring Break in British Columbia was mostly via online and work packages due to COVID-19.  As a single administrator in the Vancouver School Board, I was required to be at my school every day with my operating engineer, and various people from the trades or the seismic team.  My very people-oriented job became focused predominately on the computer and the telephone trying to glean the necessary background information and to support people without the advantage of body language.  On June 1st, the return to school was part time and voluntary.  The goal to welcome students and staff to a joyful and safe environment was colossal.  The expectations for school leaders by others and by myself were all encompassing.  There was never enough time.  I finished the term completely spent.  Rejuvenation has been deliberate work.  My conclusions may not be profound, but they have been instrumental in bringing me back to my centre. 

  1.  A diversion to the inconsequential.

If I had a magic switch to turn off my brain, rest would be the first thing on the list.  However during times of high intensity, I am always on high alert.  I awake with a jolt to something that has not yet been accomplished on my list.  I turn things over in my mind, as sleeping hours dissolve into the light of early morning.  For me this involves focusing my attention on something other than expanding my perspective or background knowledge.  The mystery novel or the binge watch are perfect, inconsequential diversions.  A fast moving plot that keeps you up through the night is perfect.   Wrapping your mind around something with low stakes is ideal.  Solving the crime or completing several seasons is a grand satisfaction requiring minimal effort. 

  •  Spend time with people who affirm you.

Nothing is more therapeutic than spending time with people who value you and your efforts.  Just when I thought I might have to blow off book club because I was just too tired, I get the message:  “You are awesome in every way!  Thanks for being you and all this work you are doing to make education happen.”  Nothing like a good friend to identify when you need to be buoyed up.  Thanks, Kathryn.  Although it requires additional effort to make social connections when you’re exhausted, it nourishes the soul. It also usually involves activities you love.  Books.  Food.  Beautiful beverages. Golf.  Biking.  Kayaking.

  • Do something that requires a physical push.  

In our high stakes jobs, we spend a lot of time in our heads while experiencing the emotion and the physical “fight or flight” response. Give yourself the opportunity for a physical release whether it is jogging, biking, or hiking. For me a nice little walk on the seawall or a flat bike ride that takes little effort, does not provide the required release. After a week of swimming, biking the Kettle Valley Railway/ Trans-Canada Trail (Summerland to Penticton route), and biking up the hill from the Peachland beach, I have range of motion in my neck again. Those tight neck muscles still require more work but I’m getting there. I’m certainly missing Semperviva Yoga since it closed due to COVID-19.

Kettle Valley Railway Trail- Myra Canyon Station to Ruth Station
  • Get Outside and revel in nature. 

I am fortunate to live in Vancouver with a plethora of beauty whenever I walk outside.  In the midst of intensity, I get outside with a purpose.  I enjoy the beauty with my eyes but my mind is focused on the perfect video post for students, or on the audiobook, or the intensity of the workout I’m getting. During our recent trip to the Interior, I would make a perfect cappuccino in the morning and go sit on the deck and stare at Okanagan Lake or stop on the Kettle Valley Railway bike route to take in the view.  My husband and I spent a considerable amount of time feeding chipmunks blueberries.  A pause to appreciate the beauty of the moment and it’s contribution to our life.

Chipmunk School
  • Take control of your own narrative.

Perspective is everything.  My background experiences and my personality have hard-wired an ability to imagine the possibilities and the desire to take on challenges.  My ditch dare as a five year old may ended in ten stitches but it did not obliterate my quest to try.  The big reason I defended a thesis rather than writing a paper was because it terrified me.  My work with Amnesty International taught me that some fights are worth the effort because they have moral and ethical imperatives rather than an end point.  I have a solid reputation for making good decisions with the best interests of students at the centre.  We are all products or our experiences and priorities.

There is always another way to process information and there will always be someone with another perspective of who you are in the world and what else you could have done.  The danger is when that perspective demoralizes rather than facilitates positive growth.   Sol Kay, one of the parents at University Hill Elementary School, asked me to be part of her documentary project – Mirror – a personal development documentary series by Sol K. independent research.  I am so honoured to be included in Mirror:  Episode II – Being in the Moment that was recently released.  Her focus is on becoming more self aware.  Her conclusion is that the project is imperfectly perfect.  Isn’t that the case with all of us.  We get to be perfect at being ourselves, warts and all as my dear friend, Mrs. Patrick, would say.  It is empowering to be in control of our story and which direction we want it to take.  

  • Rest

Sleep is not my strong suit.  I like to rise early and get on with the day.  My mind starts humming late at night.  That works for me as long as I get some uninterrupted sleep in between.  That is a possibility now that I have attended to #1-5.  And when it’s not, there is a good book at hand and no real need to get up early in the morning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered stress in so many people’s lives.  I have tremendous respect for both Bonnie Henry’s background knowledge about infectious disease and her wisdom and leadership in steering British Columbians through this pandemic.  The Be kind  Be calm  Be safe tagline has only grown in significance for me.   Being kind has never been more important in the face of the anxiety and safety around COVID-19 both to others and ourselves. 

BCPVPA Essentials for New School Leaders in the COVID-19 World

I emerged from the school year, emotionally and physically exhausted, yet, unable to exit the hamster wheel momentum.  Meetings, staffing, interviewing, hiring, report cards, ordering, repairs, reports, the seismic process, shuffling furniture, more meetings, and online communication were merely addendums to the priority work of dealing with student safety, student learning, staff imperatives and parental concerns.  The COVID-19 pandemic has added an immediacy to the work of school vice principals and principals.  There is no room for error.  There are not enough hours in the day.  There is more need than ever to have the support of colleagues who understand the work.  The British Columbia Principal Vice Principal Association ,BCPVP, rose to the occasion with the pivot of the traditional Short Course that is offered to VP’s and P’s new to the role.  BCPVPA Essentials for New School Leaders ran from July 6-9, 2020 and involved 62 participants,  15 facilitators and power presenters and panelists from all over British Columbia.  It was nothing less than inspirational, and exceeded all expectations.

The foundational documents for Short Course are the Revised BCPVPA Leadership Standards For Principals and Vice Principals in British Columbia (2020) and the BCPVPA Leadership Planning Guide (2020).  I was honoured to work on the revision of both documents with groups of very capable and respected administrators.  The documents have been well received and highly praised.  The challenge of the Essentials for New School Leaders course this summer was doing it online and bringing a greater depth of understanding to the work without overwhelming people already feeling trepidation about the significant demands of the work in the COVID-19 world.  The purpose was not to replace the breadth of the traditional Short Course offering but pivot to a format to meet the immediate needs of new school leaders.

My question going into the Essentials course was:  How can we develop a sense of community and facilitate meaningful engagement online?  I have attended many meetings and facilitated many online meetings and conferences online over the past months that have been filled with good information but was tedious and had not captured the imagination of the group.  I personally have not been successful in engaging the group during too many of the meetings I facilitated.  I have participated in groups where I regret having talked and feel judged.  I have felt the looming pressure of having my responses recorded.  Although I have a well-developed social media network, it has been developed over many years, punctuated with face2face meetings. 

Throughout the Essentials course, I discovered that yes within four mornings, both a sense of community and meaningful dialogue was in fact possible.   Special thanks to the participants in my anchor group, Kelsey Birch (SD48), Mehan Olynyk (SD42), Brian Davidson (SD27), Susanne Wakeham (SD59), and Devin Atkins (SD33).  They took the risks to participate in the dialogue, engaged with the course content, and supported other group members and myself in our learning journeys.  Each small group  was assigned to a group with a facilitator.  We met first thing in the morning, after the last session and throughout the morning to discuss the content from readings, speakers and panel discussions.  After working with them all week, I am definitely looking forward to the time when we can meet f2f, and I’m committed to staying connected this year.  I am also proud that they are administrators in our system.

Another strength of the Essentials course was the amazing list of speakers.  The themes for presentations were framed around each of the Domains in Leadership Standards in the document: Ethical Leadership; Instructional Leadership; Relational Leadership; and Organizational Leadership.  The depth in considering each of the topics came from the provocations by speakers and panelists about the standards in each of the domains.  The inspiration came from not only the speakers but also the response, discussion and connections by participants.  Dr. Mark Edward (UBC), provided an amazing synthesis or the work of the day and sent off participants to reflect in their district groups and online via Better Educate – Collaborate.

The final aspect of the course was invisible therefore could easily be overlooked. Elizabeth Bell and Jessica Antosz, of the BCPVPA Professional Development Committee, can be credited for their impeccable organization. Facilitators were trained and debriefed daily. The course outline was reviewed daily and timed to the minute. The principles of learning came to life due to the selection of the speakers and panelists. Amorie Kruger had us ZOOMing in and out of breakout and large group sessions like clockwork. Participants and facilitators magically were placed in groups, then given timed warnings to return to the group. Paige was also there to support. Shawn Lockhart and Kirsten Rezansoff provided the structures and support so new leaders could develop their professional portfolios, network, and create PGP’s on the Better Educate platform in collaboration with other principals and vice principals in British Columbia.

My only recommendations for changes were in my own facilitation.  Yeah, rather than using every second in break-out, I could avoid an abrupt cut by ending the discussion at a natural break rather than use every second available.  Tech issues for me only emerged when I was on the wrong home network.  I was always wondering whether I was striking the right balance  between facilitator, mentor, and colleague roles.  Daily debriefing with the ProD Committee and other facilitators fed my professional learning with good conversation and directions for future learning. 

Margaret Paxton is both a valued VSB colleague and one of the facilitators of the Essentials Course this summer.  In one of our online facilitator meetings, she talked about the importance of sharing the possibility and joy of the leadership work we do.  That is what was passed on to both participants and facilitators this July.  BCPVPA president, Darren Danyluk, also sent us off with a clear message that self-care is NOT selfish.  As principals and Vice Principals, we have done an amazing job of our Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry’s imperative to Be Calm and Be Safe.  Now is our chance to include ourselves in the Be Kind.  My hamster wheel has slowed down.  I should be able to jump off by the end of the week!  Happy summer. 

Opening Schools during COVID – 19 Times

There is no doubt that opening schools in British Columbia on June 1st was a gargantuan effort. For principals and teachers is was fraught with stress, exhaustion, and extremely sore neck muscles. For students it was well worth the effort. We are lucky to have Dr. Bonnie Henry, as well as a Health Minister and Premier who defer to her background knowledge and judgement. Although educators headed back to school with trepidation and lots of questions, it was with the assurance that our leadership was solid and well informed. The student return to class was voluntary and part-time. Dr. Henry made it clear that staff were required to do daily health checks for themselves, and parents were required to do daily health checks for their child. Anyone demonstrating symptoms was to stay home. Everyone was required to practice physical distancing and limit group meetings to 50. It was clear from the onset that final grades would not be impacted by whether learning continued at school or at home.

The first mandate for principals and vice principals was to ensure maximum physical distance and minimize physical contact. The biggest challenge was to welcome students back to school without causing them worry by the significant expectations for physical distancing and not touching each other. Our Vancouver School Board superintendent, Suzanne Hoffman, made good use of social media and news interviews to inform parents about the return to schools in Vancouver public schools. The school district was helpful in its choice of bright yellow masking tape for inside directions and hot pink duct tape for outside line ups. Bright happy colours made traffic lines and spaces to line up welcoming rather than scary. Signage was versatile, helpful and delivered to us to use at our discretion for the opening. Pool noodles, long dollar store butterfly nets and ribbon dance wands all became part of the language of physical distancing in our school. The dollar store became my friend in my quest for friendly reminders! Our students will take with them many COVID-19 referents for 2 metres.

How students entered the building, was determined by the architecture of the building. I was able to divide the upper floor in two and have students enter through the north and west entrance of the school. The kindergarten students on the main floor had their own entrance. The rest of the students on the main floor entered through the east entrance. The students on the ground level, entered through the outside door directly to their classroom. Arrows on the floor, traffic lines placed perfectly by my husband, and dollar store signs reading “Moose crossing. Do Not Enter” flanked closed doorways. One little man in kindergarten walked up to me to let me know that he had not been going through the closed doors because he knew it was a moose crossing. He then asked me if I had really got a moose to help everyone stick to the right path. That is what I LOVE about working with little kids. Once you have their trust, they believe you will do anything to help them along the way – even get a friendly moose to patrol the school halls.

Moose on the loose

Washing hands thoroughly and frequently was already integrated into classroom teaching before our March Break, as was wiping down frequently touched surfaces.  We added procedures to control numbers in washrooms by hanging a laminated two-sided circle from a string.  If the green side faced out, it meant the washroom was free to enter.  The red side meant, please wait until the other person exits.  Students in kindergarten to Grade 5 returned two days a week to their regular classroom.  Students in Grade 6 and up, returned once a week to their regular classroom.  Children of essential service workers often returned 5 days a week and spent their additional days in multi-aged groups.  The provincial average for a return to school was about 30%.  In our school, it was 50%.  As families became more comfortable and the Essential Service Worker category broadened, so did the number of students return to school.  We were able to ensure that there were never more than 15 students in a class.  Teachers rearranged desks and tables to ensure maximum spacing.  Students used their own pencils, rulers, and in some cases Lego.  Teachers were able to engage students in learning in a way that is difficult online.  They were also able to be responsive to students needs and  incorporate important social emotional learning.  Teachers made the kids in their classes feel safe and relieved the tedium, boredom and isolation that many students shared they were experiencing at home.

We had been using the Office365 TEAMS platform all year as a staff. Teachers were familiar with accessing channels and files. After Spring Break, we went full steam with online meetings, setting up classrooms to share student assignments and private channels for students to submit work. I also put daily staff sign in on TEAMS channels, as well as schedules for recess, lunch, and outdoor spaces during instructional time. Scheduling was complicated because groups of 15 students needed to be supervised by an adult in different areas of the school. They also needed to be taught activities and games that did not involve the contact of favourite games like soccer and tag. I walked outside at one point and realized that there were nine kids on the gravel field with a supervisor and eleven on the grass field on the other side of the school with a different supervisor. They couldn’t see each other, let alone touch each other. At this point, I realized I could relax some of my procedures based on the number of kids in the school on a given day.

The very best thing about kids walking through the doors of the school was it re-established a sense of school community.  The laugher and joy were back instantly.  Students were again able to enjoy face to face contact with adults and other students and socialize.  They also had trusted adults to navigate how they could live in a world with COVID-19 as a presence.  They adapted quickly to new rules for maximizing physical distancing.  Air hugs and air high fives became common. Some students wore face masks.  Some teachers wore masks or face shields. 

The most unusual thing in classrooms was the silence that often pervaded the classrooms.  Kids were focused on their work.  The kids were hungry for school and they threw themselves into their work.  This is not the typical tone of June.  When asked, kids overwhelmingly said they would prefer school over summer holidays.  A first in my experience of June in elementary schools to university.

Back to school was hardest for our Grade 7 students.  The rights of passage from elementary school to secondary school are traditionally large group events, definitely over the 50-mark discouraged by Dr. Bonnie Henry.  The teachers did a great job with the virtual celebration, but it could not parallel the excitement of a face to face event or fieldtrips. 

Congrats

There are still many unknowns about how school will look in September.  Large rallies well beyond the recommended size of 50, relaxed rules for social distancing, and an opening up of travel will impact how COVID-19 plays out in our province.  We’ll need to wait and pivot as has become our habit.  Apparently, Dr. Bonnie Henry will be giving us some direction at the end of August.  Our only constant in the past three months has been that things could change, and we may need to pivot once again.  We learned that we could quickly implement changes when called to do so in the best interest of our students.  I am feeling confident that we will be able to adapt and do what we need to do safely.

The biggest thing that will need to change moving forward is the expectations teachers have put on themselves.  After Spring Break, teachers engaged in an unprecedented rate of change to ensure their students felt supported emotionally, physically and educationally online.  The TEAMS platform was fully implemented district wide.  In some cases, teachers continued with My Blueprint or Showbie which they been using all year.  In all cases, the learning curve was substantial.  Then just when they hit their stride, we pivoted to a hybrid online and face to face context.  However rather than pulling back on online offerings, that was maintained and f2f became an additional layer.  Clearly that is not sustainable.  My mantra at our online staff meetings, our Health and Safety Meetings, our School Based Team Meeting et al., was BREATHE.  Our educators are entering the summer months in much need of rest and rejuvenation.  As we return to school in September in any form, our plan will need to incorporate practices that ensure our children’s needs are being met in a way that is sustainable over the time for our educators. 

In the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry, our Provincial Health Officer of rock star status, as school communities, we will need to –  Be Calm.  Be Kind.  Be Safe. Our homework over the summer is to consider the possibilities for what that will look like as we face our “new normal” during COVID-19 times.

The Transactional Nature of Understanding

 

“I can explain it to you, but I can’t make you understand.”  This is emblazoned on my hot pink travel mug.  I got it from one of my staff members. I love it.  It is a good reminder of eternal truth.  We “can speak our truth quietly and clearly” as recommended by the age-old wisdom in Desiderata, or deliver it with a side of venom.  But we are powerless to make someone understand.  The receiver of the message is the one who determines if understanding is achievable.

Way back in my career, I wanted a transfer from the Abbotsford School District to the Coquitlam School District so I would be closer to home when I had my first baby.  I also wanted the security of a permanent contract.  I accepted the first teaching position that was offered to me.  I jumped from teaching Grade 3/4 to teaching Kindergarten.  Day 1, I asked my kindergarten students to line up.  I looked behind me and was struck with the realization that I actually needed to teach the concept of lining up. That is the beauty of Kindergarten.  Everything is a teachable moment.  And those little people are so very excited to learn “everything” and share their learning with everyone who will listen.  I could see “the Eureka moment” in the eyes of my little people as it dawned.  If the five year olds didn’t understand what I wanted to teach, I found another way.   The learners were highly motivated so it was my responsibility to find another way.  I became a better teacher when I taught Kindergarten because I learned about the transactional nature between the teacher and a motivated learner.

When I was a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, I taught adults who had finished a Bachelor Degree and were doing another year in the Faculty of Education to become teachers.  One day a student asked what grade of students they reminded me of.  By this point in time I had taught all of the elementary grades(K-Gr.5), Middle School (10-13 year olds), Secondary English language learners, and undergraduate students.  Without skipping a beat, I said “Kindergarten”.

That dawning of understanding that comes with classroom experiences, was readily apparent in the eyes of the aspiring teachers too.  My teaching partner, Kanwal Neel, and I planned and executed carefully planned lessons to provide the learning we thought was most essential in the classroom context.  However, our students would come back from Kindergarten to Grade 12 classroom teaching interactions with their eyes shining and sharing what they learned from their sponsor teachers.  They may have heard it from us first, but they were most ripe for the learning during those practice teaching experiences in the classroom with students.  The learner was in complete control of the learning.

As a school principal, I have witnessed an unprecedented amount of learning by my staff during school closure due to COVID-19.  At my school, many teachers have been at the same school for a long time and have established a routine of how things are done.  Then the tectonic plates of a worldwide pandemic shift, the old routines are no longer possible, and student need still exists.  Teachers are changing their classroom practices because they want to connect with their students and maintain continuity of learning.  I can provide a framework, step in where needed, and respond with resources when asked.  However, again it is the learner who is in control of making sense of what is required and how to respond.  We are witnessing a pivot to online supported instruction because teachers had the will to made it happen.

I was empowered as a little girl living with a single Mom with limited financial resources.  I had a mother who adored me.  An aunt who believed I was “Morning Glory”.  A family friend who spent hours talking to me about “things that mattered” in the world.  A father who provided opportunities and taught me how to stand up and speak my truth.  A fearlessness that allowed me to stare down wrong and invite challenge.  A resilience.  I believed if only I could explain better and provide evidence of my truth, then I could MAKE people understand.  I developed the background knowledge and verbal skills to make that happen, only to discover that I will never control the understanding of others.

People live within a barrage of conflicting information.  Some people aspire to understand and compassion and are enlightened by truth.  They are able to embrace ambiguity and realize we all live a myriad of perspectives.  They are able to hear what is being said or taught or shared.  Others exist in a fragile shell that they must guard from other interpretations at all costs.  I want to forever be someone who grapples with truth and moves forward greater understanding and compassion.  “I can explain it to you, but I can’t make you understand.”

Noticing Details

IMG_6965 2

What makes a person notice?  What makes one person look out the window in the morning and see rain and another person look out the window and notice the exceptionally red breast of the robin trying to pull the long, stretchy worm out of the ground?  Or the difference in the appearance of the cherry blossoms in spring as you travel east through Vancouver?  Or the difference between happy chirping and the sound of going to war to protect young from predators?  Why does the curiosity of the very young diminish as some people grow older but emerge as artistic creation or scientific discovery or unbridled joy in others?

Noticing comes easily to preschoolers.  A short walk can take hours because it is punctuated with countless numbers of studies of rocks, branches, bugs, and wonderings.  I have recently framed a study of birds to hone the observational skills of Kindergarten to Grade 7 students while they are doing “SchoolAtHome” during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Teaching kids to be observers in a face-to-face context is nothing less than joyful.  Discovery is exciting, whether you are making the discovery or watching the “eureka” moment in child.  Of course I speak with the perspective of a long time educator.  In the early years of school, all we need to do is take kids outside and give them time.  To look.  To listen. To smell. To touch.  To note changes over time.  Adding a few open-ended questions sends them deeper into their observational studies.  More focused attention from the obvious to minute detail evolves when you teach older children to use a ruler, a magnifying glass, a set of binoculars, a camera or an iPad with picture and video capacity and provide a format for observations.  Encouragement to make anecdotal notes with drawings of observations unleashes creativity.

When I was little girl, I lived close to Jericho Beach by a big vacant lot.  I called it “The Baking Lot”.  It made sense because all of the neighbourhood kids went to make mud pies and squish in the mud.  We rescued our rubber boots when they were sucked off our feet.   We caught tadpoles, frogs, butterflies and bugs.  We braved stings to capture bees and wasps in glass bottles so we could study them close up. We ventured further afield to the beach and created habitats for our collected crabs to live in.  We built castles that were gobbled by insatiable waves.  Our curiosity was never satisfied and our attention to detail was ever present.

When all of the older kids went off to school, Gordon, John and I were left behind to continue our explorations under the supervision of their mother.  This opened up another world of discovery to me.  The world of “boy” toys.  Growing up in the 60’s with an older sister limited my world to dolls, and fancy dresses.  Now I was able to explore the world of Hot Wheels and pedal cars.  Outdoor observations were assisted with Tonka Trucks as we excavated the land for new bug habitats in the backyard.  We got very dirty and it was all very acceptable and even encouraged.

John and I both emerged into adulthood, still curious and still friends with the unconditional acceptance of tight knit families.  In fact for many years, my kids thought we were related.  John’s curiosity took him into a fascination with antiquity, a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Classical Studies and a Diploma in Fine Arts.  My curiosity pushed me to try new things like snow skiing, water skiing, snowboarding, canoeing, hiking, biking, travel, meeting new people and developing interesting relationships.   I emerged with a Bachelor of Education Degree, a Master of Arts Degree in Education with continued diplomas and credentials in language, Special Education, leadership and management.

Both John and I continue to be friends.  Our differences are more readily apparent than our similarities.  He fits the typical mold of an introvert.  I fit the typical mold of an extrovert.  Both of us are voracious readers and lovers of language.  We are definitely mourning the loss of Bard on the Beach this season due to the COVID-19 restriction on large gatherings.  John’s thinking is clarified through listening, reading, art and the lens of a camera.  His understanding of the world is most often communicated in cartoons, paintings and photographs.  My thoughts are formed through listening, reading, writing, talking (to myself, to a series of family dogs, to kids, to adults) and through writing.  My thinking is expressed through language.   Yet our biggest similarity is that both of us continue to  notice.  There is no doubt that asking questions has led both of us down paths to find the answers that matter to us.  It has been important to our learning but it has also been important to how we experience joy in our lives.  Noticing details changes how we experience the world.

Our paths have recently converged once again.  His fancy new camera has focused his attention on capturing the solar system, birds, flowers, the ocean – everything nature.  His mode of communicating his learning – posting the images on Facebook with the name of each bird and observations.  I have channeled his learning into the challenge of teaching observational skills to students online, entice kids to go outside daily for physically distanced activity, and help them to experience joy and gratitude during this tumultuous time.  He has indulged me with setting up a Twitter account @JStCPatrick to tweet out his posts on birds so I can retweet them @LivingstoneVSB and Wild About Vancouver @WildAboutVan.  I hope the sounds, scenes and details about our local birds will pique the interest of my students at Livingstone Elementary.  And of course, I am thinking this may be a future book that John and I co-author.

We all have opportunities to take a closer look.  When we pause to do it, often that is when the discoveries and experiences that mattered most in our lives happen.  It requires a concerted effort to invest the time and create the space to notice the details.  It guarantees learning, joy in the experience and a sense of gratitude for all that is amazing.  For John and I, it has made all the difference.