Monday, November 25, 2013

What High Schools Can Learn From Elementary Schools Part 2

 You cannot do great things. Only small things with great love. Mother Theresa

Thanks to everyone for the feedback from last week’s blog entry.  I am pleased to present the next five.

1.     Nothing like hanging out with primary students to help learn the practice of being in the present. Especially in primary, the moment is now.  Both in the good bad and ugly.  We get to carve this pumpkin and get the guts in our hand Ms. G! It’s raining and there are piles of big puddles all over the playground that magically turn into swamps, lakes, splash tag or something to be completely avoided.  Life is now and somehow, there is an invitation to savor it, taste it to the last drop and then move on. It seems to me, high schools can really benefit from including as many opportunities to seize the moment you are in.

2.     Kinesthetic therapies  (play, art, dance) are more than therapy.  As a High school drama teacher, I remember how much students would play out their stories under the protective cover of “character”. There is a value in working out the dark side, or the part that terrifies me or the part I am too afraid to let someone know.  The arts allow that unconscious process to happen.  We are now ‘advertising’ the benefits of play with a culture of kids increasingly more and more sedentary.  How are we providing more opportunities for play, movement and creativity in our classrooms?

3.     There is value in listening to the story, no matter how obscure the through line. This is a variation of the being seen mantra.  What I notice in elementary schools is the importance of allowing little beings to tell a story that connects back to what they hear me saying, or somehow find a way to connect the information back to them.  How do we help our students, as they move forward, have the same opportunities to connect the information back to themselves, back to their own stories?

Photo courtesy of Jill Philipchuk
4.     We need to explicitly teach and provide practice in resilience.  Programs like Mind Up are bringing this more explicitly into Elementary school curriculums. This is a growing conversation in learning in general.  And again, we are looking at some of the brain training deficits that take place in a growing practice of distraction.  We all need more practice at focusing our attention for the long haul, plugging into deeper feelings, deeper thinking, and deeper relationships.  All the brain training that comes with the practice of focusing our attention equals greater practice in resilience.  It’s a matter of practice and we need to find ways to incorporate this in curriculums from Kindergarten to adulthood.  

5.     We Teach People How to Treat Us. I have saved the most obvious and profound point for last.  Since September, I have taught a variety of units and have worked in 36 different classes from Kindergarten to grade 7.  It was a profound learning for me to observe and experience each unique classroom environment. No doubt there is a combination of many factors, such as the blend of students, the teacher philosophy, practice and expectations, the overall school philosophy and the community from where the school operates.  In my opinion, and it is from my own bias and beginner eyeballs, but by far, the elementary school teacher, sets the tone in the classroom.  His or her expectations and way of being matter.  Student expectations varied widely, and in general, my experience is that students would match the expectations set up by the classroom teacher.  We teach people how to treat us and in the microcosm of an elementary school classroom, it is clear to see how much the leader in the room creates the rules of engagement.   So, I wonder, how would I like to be treated? How would you like you to be treated? Look around and see how people are treating you and you will see your expectations reflected back. If you attract friends who champion you, admire your intellect and invite you to be a better person, congratulations, you are teaching people to treat you with respect and admiration.  If there is something else happening, the good news is that you have the power to turn that around.

So there it is, my final 5 of top 10 things High Schools can learn from Elementary school communities.  I am sure there is more, much more to come, but for now, I will continue to focus on trying to make a small difference, the drop in the bucket, that Mother Teresa once talked about, collectively becoming buckets of change.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What Elementary Schools can Teach High School Communities Part 1

What Elementary Schools can Teach High School Communities Part 1

It has been two and a half solid months since I have made the switch from High School Vice Principal to Elementary School Counselor and the culture shock has finally started to wane.  I know that I have made the right decision - as painful as the process to make it has been – by the way I am exhaling with greater ease and by the fact my beloved twin declared, “I am glad to finally have my sister back” and the occasional, “You look ten years younger now!” comment that can only speak to the fact that who I am and what I do are more closely aligned.

Although I am hardly qualified to qualify myself as an expert, in fact quite the opposite, I believe my beginner’s mind and eyes have some quality observations to share with the general public. This transition offers a wonderful opportunity to share my top 10 list if you will, of things High School Communities can Learn from Elementary School. Enjoy.

1.    High Schools Need to Operate More Like Kindergarten Classrooms.

Yes, you read that right.  Much of what happens in Kindergarten classrooms is all about enculturating young beings into routines that will ultimately make them better people.  Sit in your spot on the magic carpet.  Say good morning, please, thank you, I’m sorry and welcome when needed.  Wash your hands.  Don’t pick your nose.  Wash your hands.  Wait your turn.  This is what your day looks like.  Everyone gets to try a few of these pumpin seeds.  Now try some that have a different flavor.  Everyone has to try at least one.  Okay, so it is overt in Kindergarten, but the value of embedding manners, social rules of engagement, please and thank you, should not be overlooked, even in a Physics 12 or PreCalculus  Advanced Placement class.  It matters.

Cure For High Schools

2.    Teach Children Not Subjects.

Elementary schools are set up to do this, and High Schools are structurally set up to  teach subjects.  Nevertheless, the value of seeing a person learning a subject versus a subject needing to be learned cannot be underestimated.  This is another big fat plus in the Project Based Learning models as it helps high school structures move towards the student and the student’s experience of the subject.

3.    Routine, Structure, and Consistent Boundaries are More Critical Than Ever in our Age of Distraction.

I know this sounds like a contradiction.  How can I say yes to question based curriculums and at the same time, ask for more “rules and boxes”?  Because we need both, and the more chaotic and unstructured our way of learning becomes, the more we need some structures and rules of engagement.  They go hand in hand, literally.  It is the structures and consistent expectations we set up in our classroom and school cultures that provide students with the direction and context and practice needed to move in the world of Wikepedia, Google and Twitter.

4.    No Amount of Skype, Texting and Angry Birds can Replace the Contact of Human Connection

We are all about our bodies.  I am all for technology, and I see the incredible value which technology in the form of notebooks, educational apps and Smart Boards bring into educational settings.  I also see how quickly children connect and desire to work in a digital setting.  Without taking that away, our evolving brains, still need physical experiences of play, face to face practice with communication and conflict, lots of experiences of human contact, appropriate touch and, physical practice with learning.  We must teach to more than our brains for any of this stuff to stick and we have to practice that learning from cradle to grave.  I know it is already my broken record mantra, but boy oh boy, can you ever see the benefit or the deficit, much more acutely in children.

5.    I See You – Being Seen Means Everything.

These elementary school students are not shy about asking for attention. They are eager to connect.  They have not yet been beaten down by the artificial constraints of our industrial model based schools.  They are not shy to let you know, they want to be seen.  Much of my work in developing connections in schools is about letting people know they are seen.  I see you.  I knew this as a VP.  It is an altogether different experience when I am looking in the face of an eight year old.  It is easier for me to put my wants and needs aside and listen and pay attention.  Same goes for our parents and teachers and adult members of Elementary School Communities.  Same goes for me and you. My new job reminds me to go home and remind my loved ones, I see you.

And there is more.  Next blog post, I will throw down my last 5 on my top 10.  I bet you have your own.  I would love to hear what you have in mind…

Friday, May 3, 2013

Teaching the Right Thing

One weekend not too long ago, I went to a cheesemaking course. The course was facilitated by a farmer,Debra Amrein-Boyes. The milk she uses to demonstrate the process is from her own farm.  As she is stirring the milk and explaining important factors in making the cheese, there is a reverence in how she is treating the milk.  It is noticeable in how she captures every last kernel of the curds, or in the using of as much of the whey as she can, to make the ricotta. 

As she is stirring and checking the temperature, she talks about the quota system in Canada for milk and the rules and regulations that guide what you are allowed to call ‘milk’ or ‘cream’ or ‘cheese’. The conversation quickly turns to the standards and farming regulations and practices in the USA and how they impact and differ from those in Canada. She talks about the Canadian Dairy farmers estimated yearly 7% loss in dairy product sales from the US market.  She talks about how the quota system is there to protect and stabilize the milk price which is about protecting the Canadian farmers and the dairy industry.

Then she talks about the bovine growth hormone owned by Monsanto.  American farmers are allowed to inject BGH to their milking cows.  This enables cows to produce much more milk, but at a great cost to the cow.  Cows last as little as two years before they are sold to slaughter.  Farmers are forced to give these shots to their cows everyday. BGH artificially increases milk production and harms the cow in the process.  What is that doing to my body?

She talks about having her milking cows for ten to twelve years. 

Her words had a huge impact on me.  I know about BGH and I knew that milking cows in the US were given this hormone but I still bought milk from the American Costco. It wasn’t until I heard and saw a farmer, whose reverence for her animals and the milk they produced was clear, share her story, that I changed my practice.

I told my husband and we both agreed that we would no longer purchase dairy products produced from BGH injected cows.  This might be a small step in supporting clean food sources.  Learning to make cheese and gaining a greater appreciation of how important clean quality milk is for the process is another way.
Debra Amrein-Boyes

So what does this have to do with education? My point in this story is this:

My practice did not change with information.  I had the information.  I knew about the BGH and in fact had a unit on it in my planning 10.  Knowing about and teaching it changed my practice only somewhat. Hearing how it impacted a farmer, and even the cheese making process – this changed me.  I am still thinking about it, I am still talking about it.

Personal contact, stories, being in the room, physical experiences with beings – these impact me more than information.  I am one of those people, for all of my time with technology, social media and hybrid teaching/learning practices that thrive, understand and learn, from human contact and connection.  It is my primary way of learning and it is what influences my practice.

And more and more, I am thinking I am not that special.  Most of the students I come into contact with operate the same way.  Success happens in the doing not in the telling. Teaching the “right thing” does not ensure our students “do the right thing”.

We have to find ways to continue to tell the stories, however they might show up. Impacting moral practice, somewhere along the line, needs to engage the physical practice along with the story.  Telling people what to do, watching videos about what we should do or even researching information about what we should do, does not change out practice. 

What this reminds me to do in my teaching and "leading" is to always consider my own practice and my own story as well as the story of other.  Ultimately these are the factors that influence behavior and make positive changes possible.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Here's What's Working

Here’s What’s Working - Coquitlam's Inquiry Hub

A few weeks ago, Gino Bondi  organized a visit for administrators and teachers working in specialized mini schools within their Vancouver Public schools to go and visit Coquitlam’s iHub school.

Coquitlam’s iHub is a specialized school within a school that operates within their Open Learning cadre which includes adult education, correspondence and online learning.  You can learn more of the specifics here:

What I want to focus on is how the Coquitlam School District is making this pilot project work and what we at the Vancouver School Board can learn from their experience.

From the vantage point of what’s working, here is what I notice:

1. The focus was on the students. The idea of the iHub came from an identified need of a growing group of students for whom conventional school settings were not working and contrary to the idea that these disengaged students were alternative or poor learners, the understanding was that these students more closely fit the “gifted” profile, where they profoundly excelled in one area while have deficits in others. iHub grew from an identified niche of students who were not being served in the traditional form of schooling.  (And quite frankly, if you ask me, there is an ever increasing number of students where the Industrial Age school model does not work – perhaps the majority)

2. All the stakeholders heard about the idea and were invited to give their perspective.  Government, teacher and administration groups, Canadian Union of Public Employees, student, parents and public were all included in the conversation. There was no sudden, “oh by the way”, we are going to do it this way kind of approach which sometimes happens, and I am often guilty of myself within the microcosm of my school planning.  Slowing the process and carefully engaging all of the stakeholders adds up to some incredible support, engagement and ownership.

3. Committed, smart, “programs of attraction” lead the iHub.  Just so you know, for the time being, I am not planning to apply for any Coquitlam jobs, so this isn’t a suck up line, but Stephen Whiffen  and David Truss, principal and vice principal (at least when I attended the school.  Both Stephen and David have been promoted within their District since) and teachers of the program are programs of attraction.  They are excited about what they are doing, they are willing to make mistakes and make those mistakes public (in fact, it is one of their tenants in the learning process for students – make mistakes and learn from your mistakes). 

So, maybe I am not ready to bring the iHub concept into JO but these three things are what I would like to bring back to my school:

·      Are my decisions based on students and student learning?

·      Do I communicate plans and ideas to all the stakeholders involved?

·      Am I my own program of attraction?
    I admit, readily, that I have much to do in all three of these areas, but it was inspiring to visit a program where all three of these points were observed.