Who’s Invited?

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My mantra as an Elementary School Principal in British Columbia, Canada is “Everyone’s Invited to the Party”.  We register the students who live in the defined school catchment or there is space in the school to allow for a cross boundary permit.  There is no requisite testing or evaluation of “fit” in the school community.  As a student of history, I ascribe firmly to the notion that the state of democracy in a country can be judged by the state of the public-school system.  In British Columbia, we are in good shape.  Our curriculum is progressive and focused on student learning.  We do well on international testing of student achievement and have been acknowledged for the strength of the system.  That doesn’t mean that there is no room for improvement, particularly when it comes to students who enter the public system with social and/or learning differences.

Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were matriarchs who held their families together.  They both experienced a considerable amount of adversity in their lives and it made them resilient and appreciative of family bonds.  They actively stayed in touch with each of their four children, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  They shared family news and ritual gatherings helped all of us step past petty grievances and hurt feelings with laughter and shared memories.   Newcomers to the family were welcomed with open arms and celebrated.  My grand-mothers thought less of themselves and more of the family members they sought to embrace.  They provided the ultimate example of inclusion.

With the deaths of my grandmothers, the bonds loosened and the context of family changed.  This change seems to be reflected in society generally.  A huge focus on the individual and their losses, happiness, divorces, and boundaries has weakened the concept of family.  Bullying by exclusion takes root in this context. The concept of family and the requirements to maintain inclusion in the life and fabric of family changes to one of judgment, preference or arbitrary measures in all too many cases.

There is no doubt that setting boundaries in cases of abuse are required for the safety of individuals involved.  However, all relationships are hard because people are not perfect, have expectations, and they keep changing.  We can learn about the importance of investing in these relationships from our grandmothers.  Blood connections are not required.  An investment in time, effort and empathy is required.  We are included in the family because we fit into the web or relationships through blood or affiliation.  Our shared experiences are instrumental in defining who we are.  Strong families create spaces for all members to be loved and celebrated.  There is also scaffolding to navigate through difficult situations so that the family is able to remain intact.  The longevity of the relationship brings depth because of the shared experiences.

In his book my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry (2015), Fredrik Backman does a masterful job of illustrating the insecurity of 7- almost 8- year old Elsa in finding her place in her two new families, after the divorce of her parents.  Her father’s wife has two of her own children and her concern is that she upsets the family dynamic, as she has read on the internet, so they don’t want her around.  Her mother and her step-father are going to have a new baby and her concern is that they will love the new baby more because he belongs to both of them.  Fortunately, in this case, both parents and their partners are very focused on the child’s needs and respecting the other parent. They fully invest in including Elsa in both of the families she belongs too.  In this situation, everyone wins.

On Twitter this week, @MrsHankinsClass was sharing how her students said “Welcome to the family” when the new student said “Hi”.  This is a concept of family in the very best of ways.  Day One that new student knew he was welcome and he was in a safe place therefore in a position to start learning.  There is an expectation that differences will exist, problems will be encountered and there will be a will a respectful problem-solving process.  This is what inclusion is supposed to look like.  You walk into a classroom where it is just fine to be yourself.  Perfection is neither expected nor required.  In the midst of challenges and poor choices, the expectation is that you calm down, then problem solve and then repair relationships.  Tomorrow is always another opportunity to be your best self.  Growth is the valued currency. 

I’m excited about the beginning of a new school year and it isn’t restricted to the new post it note colours and shapes and the smell of new notebooks.  I’m in a new school and there is another opportunity to work with a new staff to welcome our students to a school where they want to come each day.  Fredrik Backman defines the most important human right as the right to be different.  Yes, everyone is invited to the party!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tolerable Risk in Learning Revisited

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A good chunk of my adventures these days seems to have taken the form of following my daughter around on her adventures.  Work away in Barcelona.  Teaching in Viet Nam.  Most recently Taipei at Spring break.  By the time I arrive to visit her, our daughter, Larkyn, has scoped out the place and is able to plan a trip that encompasses the “must visit” spots. This of course included Taitung, on the south end of the island and Toroko Gorge.

I was amazed at how different Taiwan was from Mainland China.  Excessively polite people stop in the street to see if you need help with directions, line up to get on and off rapid transit and would not consider pushing.  Wilderness continues to abound.  Wild monkeys chattered as we walked to the beach.  The beaches were pristine and inviting, although swimming was often prohibited unless you were surfing.  Apparently too many people have died stepping into the shallows to take a selfie.  Coming from BC we promptly ignored this rule.  We sought out coral to check out the little fish, only to discover that the most venomous snake on the island, the water krait, also hangs out there.

Swimming back to the shore, what felt like a long reed, brushed against my leg.  No reeds in the shallows of the ocean.  Something that looked like a stick poked out of the water.  This particular beach had a lifeguard who insisted it was a stick.  This was vigorously agreed upon by my daughter’s boyfriend who had tired of all of the snake warning photos I had been sending every time they mentioned hiking.  At one point, my husband and I watched “the stick” bend it’s head to have a good 180 degree look.

By the time we reached the Toroko Gorge, I was not just worried about snakes but paralysed with fear at the thought of them.  My husband was determined that they would not prevent our hike into the gorge.  By this time, I was happy to enjoy the amenities of the luxurious Silks Place Hotel with the three different hot spring pools of varying temperatures and drinks on the rooftop pool deck.  The gorge surrounded us and I had no desire to leave.  But I was worried about letting my insistent husband go hiking alone, so off we went on our happy hike with me already ticked off.

The hike begins with a trek through a long, dark, damp tunnel.  A perfect place for a snake to be lying in wait.  On the other side of the tunnel, the sign.  Apparently wasps, and falling rock were added to the list of hazards.  And more dark, damp tunnels.  For the first time in my life, the fear overtook the wonder and the joy.  I spent the entire hike not awed by the beauty of nature, but consumed with the fear.  And angry to be in that situation.

I have been a risk taker for as long as I can remember.  You do something hard and then revel in the success.  Or you learn that flipping forward from the swing set is a bad idea and end up with a broken foot.  Or you dislocate an arm from rolling too fast down too big a hill.  Or need ten stitches because there just wasn’t enough land between the fence and broken bottle in the ditch.  These were absorbed as learning not a reasons to stop taking risks.  There was no anger than soured the experience.

For my older sister, it was different.  When she was 7 or 8 years old, she was doing the circuit with the other kids in the neighbourhood.  At one point, she fell off her bike, squished her finger and concussed herself.  She was done with the neighbourhood circuit.  She was mad at her stupid bike.  It wasn’t learning but a lesson.  She would not grow up to embrace risk but to be leery of it.  This was very much reinforced by our mother, father and step-mother who had adopted the stance that only calculated risks with a guarantee of success were acceptable.  Risk that might end in failure were for stupid people.

Risk taking has become a big part of the conversation about learning in education.  There is now general acceptance that if students do not take risks in their learning, then maximum learning does not occur.  There is now an expectation for students to risk failure in the pursuit of the learning process.  However in this equation, I’m not certain that we factor in student orientation to risk.  If the risk presented is too big, it threatens to overwhelm our more cautious and risk-adverse students.  These are the students who can’t get started.  The concept of risking failure is far from their understanding or comfort zone.  For other students, it is the grand leap that provides the challenge for them to sink their teeth into and explore the full extent of their imaginations.  These students need little front end loading to define and engage in project based learning.  Our quest as educators is to provide the scaffolding for cautious students to feel secure in their learning journey and for our adventurous students to feel the freedom to explore multiple pathways to finding their answers.  That is not an easy task.  It require is a trusting relationship with our students and an understanding of their family context.

Understanding fear in the workplace is no less complex.  Amy C. Edmundson has written a great book called the fearless organization – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (2019).  The author is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard School of Business School.  Edmundson’s life work inadvertently came out of doctoral research in a hospital considering errors in the practice of medicine.  The reach of the research became much broader with the discovery that when people work in a climate of fear, their ability to grow and innovate is threatened.  Brain research has given us considerable proof that the brain shuts down if a person is afraid.  This book provides a number of stories and examples from hospitals, the movie industry, NASA, Google, banks and classrooms to illustrate possibilities for framing workplaces that incorporate high standards with inquiry, candid communication, and a willingness to share mistakes, in order to encourage creativity, learning, and innovation.  There is a reason that this is a basic premise for software development since the first discovery of a “bug” in the programming.

Suzanne Hoffman, superintendent of the Vancouver School Board regularly uses sli.do in our monthly Admin admin meetings as a tool to solicit the thoughts of the group and to facilitate purposeful discussion.  I found the use of sli.do as well as paper/ pencil surveys and conversations including these questions very helpful in setting the tone of meetings. It allowed me differentiate between the areas I was able to address and take steps to provide opportunities for collaborative practices and funding issues:

What are you up against? What are your concerns?

What do you need?

What can I do to help?

I found the three inter-related practices suggested to create psychological safety very helpful for framing staff meetings:  setting the stage, inviting participation, and responding productively.  With repeated use they helped to develop a learning tone and step away the assumption that my role was to function as the top of a hierarchy and provide the answers or direction.

Staff presentations of their professional inquiries and background knowledge were very purposeful in encouraging collaborative practice and setting the tone of our monthly staff meetings.  The Indigenous inquiries by Janet Logie, Pam Schofield and Melody Ludski, provided the leadership in moving forward on our Indigenous goal in a meaningful way.  Michelle Jung came to the school to do a maternity leave at the Kindergarten level.  She was experienced and enthusiastic about the new reporting procedures.  She was instrumental in providing background knowledge and direction as we moved forward to adopt reporting procedures that are more in line with the newly implemented curriculum in British Columbia.

Inviting participation was most successful when the questions were framed carefully and there was a structure to facilitate collaborative practice and report back to the group.  The following suggestions from Edmondson’s book for attributes of powerful questions were very helpful in developing more thought provoking questions:

  • Generate curiosity in the listener
  • Stimulate reflective conversation
  • thought provoking
  • Surface underlying assumptions
  • Invite creativity and new possibilities
  • Generate energy and forward movement
  • Channel attention and focus inquiry
  • Stay with participants
  • Touch deep meaning
  • Evoke more questions

Learning to respond productively was a big growth area for me.  The hierarchy of the educational system puts the onus on the principal of the school to provide the answers.  It is a Catch 22.  You provide an answer.  It is attacked.  You become defensive.  You have lost.  Adopting a stance of appreciation, destigmatizing failure, and defining clear boundaries allows the group to get on with the learning.   I do believe “A fearless organization realizes the benefits of diversity fostering greater inclusion and belonging.” (p. 201).  It makes for difficult questions, but a focus on instructional leadership allows us as principals and vice-principals to benefit from the thinking of the whole group.  it’s just that old habits and expectations of ourselves die hard!

A Learning Tour at University Hill Elementary

Welcome.  As a member of the VSB, I would like to acknowledge that we live, work and play on the unceded and traditional territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Coast Salish peoples.  We are fortunate to be nestled in the Pacific Spirit Park and in walking distance of the beach.  Teachers and students are able to explore how learning indoors can be consolidated through outdoor learning experiences, and also how learning experiences outdoors can be consolidated indoors.    Questions generated are authentic and the learning is vibrant.

Our school currently welcomes 330 students from Kindergarten (5 years old prior to Dec. 31, 2018) to Grade 5 (10 and 11 year olds) in 15 classrooms.  Our student tour leaders are delighted to be able to show you around our school and encourage you to ask lots of questions.  The following challenges are to help you engage with our students and staff to understand some of the priorities at our University Hill Elementary School.  The staff and students touring you around the school will be able to give you some understanding of the history, our peer helpers program, Indigenous teaching and breaking down the barrier between learning outdoors and learning indoors.

Parents of students in British Columbia sign a media release if they consent to their child’s picture being taken for the school website or blogs.  We understand that photos allow you to remember many good ideas that you will be seeing today.  Please be respectful and do not include student faces in your photos.

The following challenges have been designed to help you better understand the British Columbia Curriculum and it’s implementation at our school.  Information to meet these challenges can be derived during your school tour and visits to the classroom.  Some organizational information:

  1.  Please divide yourselves into five groups for your school tour.  Students leaders have prepared tours for small groups.
  2. Most classrooms are open for visitors.  If it is not a good day, please respect the sign that says “No Visitors today, please.”
  3. A maximum of 3-5 visitors are welcome into classroom at one time.
  4. Several teachers will be joining you at lunch to tell you about their programs, the learning community and answer any questions you may have about our school.

Challenge 1 – Look for evidence of the 7 principles during your observation.  It may be helpful to use the 7 Principles of Learning Chart.

The OECD has pointed out that the rapid advances in ICT have resulted in a global shift to economies based on knowledge, and an emphasis on the skills required to thrive in them.  At the same time empirical research on how people learn, how the mind and brain develop, how interests form, and how people differ has expanded the sciences of learning.  The result is that the educational community is now “rethinking what is taught, how it is taught and how learning is assessed”.

The OECD’s work on innovative learning environments was led by Hanna Dumont, David Istance and Francisco Benavides. Their 2010 report “The Nature of Learning”  identified seven principles of learning:

  1. Learners at the centre
  2. The social nature of learning
  3. Emotions are central to learning
  4. Recognizing individual differences
  5. Stretching all students
  6. Assessment for learning
  7. Building horizontal connections

Challenge 2 – Engage in a conversation surrounding the Spirals questions. 

Dale Chihuly Glass Art – Palm Springs Art Museum

The Spirals of Inquiry by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser lists three questions that will find helpful in engaging with students and staff.  Students are encouraged to look closely, notice details and ask questions to encourage learning in all aspects of their lives.  Many staff are involved in inquiry projects to explore their professional questions.  Vice principals and principals in the VSB are using these questions to guide their professional growth plans.

  • What are you learning and why is it important?
  • How is it going with your learning?
  • What are your next steps?

Challenge 3:  Note the development of core competencies in the classroom.  The New Curriculum:  You will note that competencies and concept-based curriculum are intertwined with learning standards in B.C.’s New Curriculum. Core Competencies have become the focus of learning and they use content to develop the three main areas:

  1. Communication
  2. Creative and Critical Thinking Skills
  3. Personal and Social skills

Challenge 4:  Find examples of Student Voice and Competency Based Assessment The new curriculum has shifted the focus from summative assessment to formative assessment.  Students are encouraged to identify their starting point and formulate a plan for growth.  The focus has shifted from a deficit model to “I Can” statements.  Students are invited to be active participants in determining how they learn and planning for growth in skills, strategies, and collaborative practices.

Challenge 5:  The Canadian Experience – Note examples in the school of how students are being introduced to the role of Indigenous populations played in the development of Canada and our perceptions of Canadian identity.

Wab Kinew, hip hop artist, author, broadcaster, politician, Ojibwe activist, and leader of the NDP Party in Manitoba, has said “Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand what they share unites them and what is different about them needs to be respected.”  Authentic reconciliation happens when people develop relationships with one another.

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Challenge 5:  Identify several different types of learning spaces and the types of competencies being developed in those spaces. 

We have several options for student learning at UHill Elementary School.  Supervision is required in all spaces.  Classroom teachers work with SSA’s (Education Assistants), Resource teachers, the principal and students to explore possibilities to maximize student learning in a variety of spaces and places.

  • The Classroom – indoor and outdoor spaces
  • Outside Learning Spaces
    • The Readers Writing Garden (outside)
    • The We Are One Rock Circle (outside)
    • The Soccer Fields or basketball court (outside)
    • The Buddy Bench (outside)
    • Sidewalk games
  • Resource Rooms
  • The Gym
  • Collaboration Spaces outside classrooms
    • Foyer in the main entrance
    • The Starry Night Room / Room painted yellow
    • The Garden Room – currently the in residence program, Project Chef, is in this room
    • The Main Foyer
    • Library
    • The Learning Lab / Maker Space Room
    • Gym
  • Active Learning Room (ALR) / room painted white
    • Ready Bodies Learning Minds
    • Peer helpers Program, a Grade 5 Leadership Program, at 11:45 am facilitated by The Community School Team
  • Places to Self Calm, work quietly independently, with a partner or small group
    • Peace Pod / room painted blue and decorated with saris
    • The Think Space – in the Office area

Challenge 6:  Breaking Down the Barriers:  Identify examples where learning outdoors is brought into the classroom and where indoor learning is brought outdoors.

The places where we live and grow impact our experiences and our perceptions.  Living in a temperate rainforest, attending school in the Pacific Spirit Park, and walking down to Acadia Beach impacts the knowledge our students are developing but also how they self regulate.

I am a big fan of Twitter to keep parents informed about what is happening at the school by posting updates and pertinent information @UHillElementary and to further my own professional learning @CarrieFroese

We hope you enjoyed your visit!

Ms. Carrie Froese

Principal University Hill Elementary School

Vancouver School Board, British Columbia, Canada

Inquire2Empower Blog carriefroese.wordpress.com