Sunday, December 09, 2012

Effective Professional Development

Our School District 57 Superintendent Brian Pepper recently posted a blog about Effective Professional Development. While his blog does not currently allow comments, he notes in an earlier post that "this blog, if you can even call it that... will not be interactive. I just don’t have time to read, respond and monitor the interactive comments... I am confident you will be able to make your views known in other locations!" I'm not exactly sure if this refers to views about what he has posted or just views in general, but I thought I'd go with the former and take up the challenge to respond to some of the observations in his recent post on Professional Development.

Brian discusses Helen Timperley's book Realizing the Power of Professional Learning and the knowledge-building cycle of inquiry that promotes valued teaching and student outcomes:
Timperley’s book certainly adds credibility to the process our district has been using for some time: learning team grants. The grants’ primary purpose is to support teams of educators working together on inquiry-based learning that will be utilized in the participants’ classrooms. In addition, the grants create opportunities for teachers to work together, to learn from each other, to create and to innovate. The rich discussion and sharing of successful practice is motivating, deepens understanding about the process of learning, heightens awareness regarding the critical nature of assessment, and often leads to improved results for students and improvement in teaching practice. This year over 150 of our teachers are working on learning team grants, in the areas of curriculum and instruction, technology, aboriginal education, play-based learning and assessment.
We need to celebrate and share this important work in a more effective manner moving forward. We need to direct more funding into inquiry-based learning initiatives. We need to expand the circle of involvement and influence beyond the school and district and into a province-wide professional learning conversation and interconnected professional learning initiatives that benefit our most important resource: children!
I'll respond specifically to the use of Learning Team Grants (LTGs) and the need to celebrate and share this work. Our district's use of LTGs started about 10 years ago with what were called Action Initiative Grants, essentially release time for teachers who wanted to work on shared inquiry. We also had something called Technology Innovation Grants that offered funding and release time for teachers who wanted to employ some new technology-informed practices with their students. The LTGs succeeded these grants and are now the default means for teachers to get time away from class to work on curriculum & instruction projects. The other means available are to seek release or lieu time from a principal or the Curriculum & Instruction department directly, or to seek an Inquiry Project grant from the Pro-D fund administered by the teacher's union. This idea of taking a bit of time to sort out pedagogy and hone our craft is not new, it has been going on for decades but has often been arbitrary... "please sir, can I have a day off" kind of thing. I think a more formal process like the LTGs is a good move, it provides the potential for accountability, collaboration, and student-centered action.

The part where LTGs are not working, as Brian suggests, is the celebrate and share part. I've informally polled a few elementary and many secondary teachers; there are clearly some misgivings about the quality and quantity of work being done. The majority of these LTGs appear to be secrets within their own schools, let alone the district level, and we have no established means of communicating either their presence or the results. Our staff email system, primitive locked-down websites, and limited social media presence are not up to the communication task, and as a result the LTGs live and die in small pockets of usefulness. A colleague recently told me that he thinks he is part of a Math LTG but is not quite sure. Is he one of the 150? The "best-kept-secret" problem reminds me of the S.A.L.T. group we used to have at our school. I think the S stood for Secondary but it became known as the "Secret Assessment Learning Team" because most staff had not heard of it, did not know what the acronym stood for, did not know how it was formed, or what it involved. Why are we so shy about professional learning? We do have an "All Around Our Schools" feature in the local paper; this gets into some of the fun events and student activities, but is not really scaled to delve into the "province-wide professional learning conversation." More deliberate and interactive tools are needed to make the connection. My wife had a good suggestion -- a searchable database that would allow teachers and others to scan past and present LTGs and other professional learning to find good matches for their own needs. Something between a list on a website and a wiki perhaps. In the olden days, educators working on curriculum projects would type up their reports and photocopy their resources into a booklet that would be stored at the District Resource Centre and at schools. My classroom bookshelf still has some of these now-dusty publications: local history, enrichment, critical thinking in Social Studies, student questioning techniques, etc. with names on them like Garvin Moles, Calvin Cosh, Keith Gordon, and my dad Walter. What astounds me is that 30 years later, in our hyper-connected digital world, we're still having issues archiving and sharing our professional learning.

Two further complications are the LTG criteria and format. The LTGs are limited to release time and won't cover other costs such as professional materials or technology, so the only way to take advantage is to prepare for a substitute and dodge class (which many teachers are loathe to do). One of our district LTG groups was surprised to find that their agreement to meet on their own time in exchange for some software related to their inquiry would not be met. That LTG, then, had a financial value of $0; a definite challenge in the "celebration" department -- might as well have stuck with twitter. The dilemma is that enrolling teachers (that have kids in seats everyday) have to incur substitute teacher costs every time they want to interact. 150 teachers using three release days costs the district about $135,000, more than the entire Professional Development Fund for the district's 900 teachers. How do we turn face-to-face professional learning from something one needs to escape their class to do into something embedded in our day-to-day routines? How do we schedule and fund that? Many schools have tried various schemes over the last 10 years to build "collaborative time" into the weekly schedule, but a variety of issues have made this divisive, especially at the secondary level. How might we listen and learn from the schools where formal collaborative models have resulted in "buy-in?" How do we remove the coercive elements (and major source of division) from collaborative models and shore up our capacity for mutual (peer) accountability?  Is there a role for the board to examine timetable/calendar adjustments to afford more paid time for professional learning?

The format can also be an issue -- it seems that all it takes to be approved for an LTG is that one frames a project idea in the form of a question... this apparently makes it an inquiry. Teachers and educational leaders often have the bad habit of confusing asking a question about work that is already firmly established and classic inquiry-based learning, where the outcome is less certain. Perhaps we've developed this habit from 10 years of writing school growth plans that muddle this process. We play a lot with data without a clear understanding of correlation versus cause, and almost none of what we write down in school or district plans would withstand statistical analysis. That's a problem outside LTGs, but I wonder if our notion of academic inquiry and action research is related to our lack of training and leadership in these areas (spoken by someone who failed a first-year stats course!). One way the district could improve the quality of inquiry is to provide facilitators, curricular specialists, or mentor teachers (different roles) that are available to meet with LTG participants. I have seen the value of this recently at Pro-D Rep training with a BCTF facilitator Teresa Fry (and our Pro-D chair Kim Rutherford) who guided us through the Inquiry Project model and a basic EdCamp. Adding experts to the groups would, of course, require an investment in more release time, part-time or full-time secondments, or other arrangements and appointments.

These LTGs provide nice little breaks for teachers to "work on stuff" and as a result are greatly appreciated, but do we know much more about them? A more thorough sharing of how they turn out is crucial for providing accountability for these projects; having a public audience for one's work is a very effective way of kicking up the quality of reporting and amount of professional pride invested in the work -- and helps ensure that the focus is on students success. If one digs around on the district website it is possible to find a list of the LTGs from the 2011-12 school year. To be blunt, many of them appear to be release time for teachers to do lesson planning, project design, and other work they would or should do anyways.  I can understand why that appeals to busy teachers -- this is a chance to work creatively with others and build some student activities that would be arduous without the collaboration and extra time... I've used release time for this "relief" before, so I am not condemning the process. We should be careful, though, to mistake this for innovation. Some of the LTGs appear to be replacements of district committees and ad hoc leadership groups that used to exist -- district-wide professional development and meeting time for core interests like literacy and numeracy. Among the LTGs from last year, there are a few that were probably innovative, but we have no way of knowing without the sharing and celebration part -- the lists do not contain detailed project descriptions or links to their work.  I also do not know of any formal invitations to share their work, although anyone can host a session at our annual Professional Development Conference (next one March 8, 2013). The LTGs will become less invisible as we make sharing habitual and not accidental. The tools and even the provincial network are already in place; many of our teachers and educational leaders are engaged at the district and provincial level through Social Media and their own channels of communication -- increasingly educational leaders in other parts of the province are interconnected and accessible. Our district has a lot of ground to make up -- an uncontroversial place to start is a concerted effort to bring the hidden success stories into the conversation. Much needed and more provocative work can follow.

This is also a great opportunity to forge a positive culture, to reverse some of the malaise that afflicts true partnership between the various employee groups in the district. We need to break the cycle with a few positive habits and narratives around professional learning that serve as a common "hearth" for us to hear each other and set new directions. To start, the innovative stories from among these 150 teachers should be profiled, posted, and praised -- tweet, blog, web, news media -- there has got to be at least one great story a month of how district-supported teachers are innovating and bringing benefit to students. I had a chance to drop in on a LTG group that was using a "critical friends" approach to review each other's designs for project-based learning. It was well facilitated, exciting for the participants, and had as an outcome the subtle turning of familiar designs for learning into innovative plans. I also had some lingering doubts and questions addressed about the value of the "project tuning process." This is what we hope for out of "co-creative" collaboration. How could this group's success be shared with others? How could we speed up the rate of "contagion" related to their excitement? We seem to be doing a good job with Timperley's knowledge-building cycle at the classroom level and likely within these LTGs, but are we serious about trying this openly at the organizational level? How often do our staff meetings capture this cycle?

Brian relays a good question: “What will it take for what we know to change what we do?” I would suggest that what we know is that some of our systems of communication and collaboration are broken and that we've known this for many years. The "sustainability" process of 2010 and last year's labour dispute exposed some wounds across all employee groups that have been long untended (or even unexamined) and as a result we deal with a high level of distrust and reluctance to engage at the organizational level. Knowing this has been a keen push for many teachers and parents to change what we do. I've seen the board of trustees (that includes my wife Kate!) and others make some strides here, but much of the change that needs to happen takes place outside of the board's usual gaze. The realization of broken systems and seeing the potential for positive change has spurred me to get more involved with educational advocacy and professional discussions over the last five years. Thankfully I am not alone in this. It has also been the impetus for thinking about what my own professional growth plan should look like and to consider how I can step up my approach to professional learning and leadership at the district and provincial level.  The "need to celebrate and share this important work in a more effective manner" also poses a challenge to the work of our district teacher's Professional Development Committee. We try to do a lot with limited funds, and much of the work is done in isolation of the LTGs even though the focus is very much the same.

I have seen plenty of vibrant "interconnected professional learning" in our district and elsewhere -- learning teams, personal learning networks, and individuals that keep being awesome regardless of what goes on around them. Maybe the informality of this work is what makes it work? But if we want to turn these into "interconnected professional learning initiatives" that are part of the "province-wide professional learning conversation" we first need to get out LTGs out of the closet, or look at other means of supporting and communicating professional learning. Too much of the best work in our district happens "underground" -- we need to be more deliberate about coaxing educators out of their bunkers. There are barriers that need to come down (I've blogged about that ad naseam), but more than that we need coaxing that is welcoming and progressive -- more freedom and means to speak freely about our issues and successes, more freedom and means to experiment wildly with improvements to teaching and learning conditions, and sometimes simply to temper wild ideas with actual research and planning. How do we do this? What does that look like? Where's the best return on our effort or bang for the district buck?

Challenge: What would you change about how our district celebrates and shares the work of teachers? What would be the most effective use of district funds to support professional learning among teachers and other educators that results in a benefit to students? Feel free to comment, share the success of your LTG, or relate your own experience if you are from another jurisdiction.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Jerry's Journey - Guest Post

A Guest Post by Jerry Bleecker on Technology for Learning

A little background on Jerry. He is a public secondary teacher who has provided a consistent example of how to embed technology into teaching and learning throughout his career. Jerry is the definition of earnest, and is without guile or agenda beyond the techie curiosity he opens up to his students. His idea of complaining is to politely suggest alternative methods of solving problems and offer to do the work of testing the alternatives himself. He would love to press on with media tablet pilot projects and other interesting "21st century learning" technology and practices that are currently unsupported or even blocked by our school district. He is one of many among principals and teachers that have met barriers while attempting to pursue "learning empowered by technology" -- there are many other stories like this, but they don't often make it out of the staffroom. Why a "wall" exists is a whole other story (and too often the subject of my blog posts!), but as usual Jerry's reaction is to continue articulating a pedagogically sound philosophy. More than just a rant about contexts, Jerry's Journey is an example of how teachers have adapted to the challenge of working in technologically-charged school environment. It is probably fair to point out that there are also bigger fish to fry in public education than the state of technology at the work place -- on a daily basis we deal with kids who are drug addictied, tech addicted, suffering from anxiety, out of shape, ignored by their parents, etc. Technology is just one of the things that occupies our time, but is nonetheless an area that should be very easy for an educational community to get right. And yet, providing progressive options for teachers and administrators who want to venture beyond the "vanilla" has proved elusive, starting from the communication and planning about technology in our district and moving through issues of access and function.
...........................................................

Quite a Journey by Jerry Bleecker
An Army of One (not really, but more about that as we proceed ...)

Hi folks. What's an Army of One you might ask? Well, it's about time I relayed my own story online to illustrate my motives in using educational technology. It's never been about hardware or software, but learning, although that's become obscured as [fellow teacher] Kathy aptly points out in her recent post [on a local Technology Forum]. 

When I started with SD57 in 1998, I was blown away with the inventive and mind-blowing possibilities in using technology to educate kids. From the first PowerPoint Jeopardy game that I created over a long weekend (37+ hours) for Science 8 (with the light-up Jeopardy-style table), I knew what a difference educational technology could make. It was fun and the kids loved it.

So, I applied for and was accepted to the UBC Masters of Education Technology Program and taking a course each semester when I had a prep and over my summers, I learned with some of the finest colleagues and professors I could've hoped for. My Master's Portfolio Projects are located here, complete with a Matrix theme (it was an online degree program and certainly provided a great theme)
http://chs.sd57.bc.ca/~jbleecker/METrix_Artifacts_Reflection/Artifacts_and_Reflection/ETEC_510.html

When I finished, I had a great conversation with Kerry Firth [former assistant superintendent] who reminded me to apply what I'd learned in the District and give back. Fair enough, I thought. The District supported my degree, paying a portion of my tuition. Following my graduation from the MET Program, I put my experience working with colleagues from all over the world to work here in SD57. Ironically, the amount of collaboration and interaction plummeted around the time of the DTT collapse. Discussions about educational technology and applying best practices digitally were gone. So, I forged on solo.

I put all my efforts into creating eLearning coursework, with the ultimate goal to flip my classroom.

Five years later, the result is two full eLearning courses in Moodle, and the startings of Science 8, and Math 9. This year, I outfitted Biology 11 with screencasts (full session podcasts / lesson videos) that I made on my own personal laptop, home internet access, using my own screencasting software (iShowU), my own USB headset, that I created outside school time, equating to hundreds of hours invested for students.

The Biology 11 course includes an open source digital textbook, all the animations I use in class (from freely available web sources), all the relative YouTube video links for each critter we study. Notes packages & study guides are also available. If students lose materials, replacements are just a click away if needs be. The site includes interactivities, formative assessments - self-scoring quizzes, diagram animations, and more. Working with Rod Carr over the last two years, we've collaboratively created study materials, chapter packages and more from our personal collections. Our collaboration continued even after collaboration time was dropped from the school time table.

In Biology 12, I'm proceeding along the same path as Biology 11. It will take hundreds of hours to bring up Biology 12 to speed with the work done in Biology 11. Recording screencast videos in real time is incredibly involving work. But, it's worth it. Additionally, I'm excited to create ZygoteBody (http://www.zygotebody.com) interactive lab materials & study guides for the body systems studied in Biology 12. For those of you who haven't checked this out, it's a former Google Project released open source to the web -- an interactive and controllable voyage inside the body. It's an incredible voyage into the greatest free anatomy tool I've had the experience to use. Take it for a spin with an up-to-date version of the Firefox browser or Chrome Web Browser which have the web graphics abilities built-in to run the body-browser natively.

It needs to be noted that I received no funding to build/create these courses, but thank CLA/SD57/District Techs for the Moodle availability and network know-how to empower this. Access to Moodle started with a conversation with Steve Fleck [principal] and went from there. I never received funding to create course work, but kept working anyway -- even when District communications broke down just to see where a project like this could go with enough determination and zeal to see it through. There were no lieu days -- nada -- to create materials or screencasts or populate these courses with all these materials. Again, it's taken years to come this far.

The work was done to forge ahead and create new opportunties & avenues in eLearning. For students who fall ill or travel, I've strived to create an online learning environment with a digital version of myself teaching lessons. It has been a God-send for sports students who travel and can access Moodle via the web. The Senior Girls Volleyball Team watched the lesson videos on the road during their recent trip to Provincials. Cougar Hockey Players have accessed it from hotel rooms.

What else is done to help students using technology? Teachers can use Twitter to communicate. My own roost lies at #biology11 where I send screenshots of the overhead projector / whiteboard, etc. to convey instructions, lab details students might forget or overlook, push out study guides just in case students forget them, share any animations or new materials that I find that can improve their education. Occasionally, I post "Twitter-Bombs" -- questions to students to make them truly think, research, hunt-down information, and report back with eclectic facts about science. My feed lives at http://www.twitter.com/Mr_Bleecker.

What single request can I make of the District to facilitate / assist?

In one word --> provide access for students in classrooms, not just labs. Labs, while well meaning, are bottle necks in the long-term for access.

Medium to long-term, 1:1 access is the ideal goal. Notably, I can't send students down to the computer lab to partake in the course each class. Unless they bring their own devices (BYOD is a valid approach, but only one facet of access), I can't provide access. I don't have the money to purchase a lab set of iPads or test-drive a set of Google Chromebooks, which run Flash and cost $250 with no maintenance, 7-hour battery life that students can simply nab off a charging cart. It's why I go on and on about Chromebooks, iPad carts and more. These tools are relatively inexpensive and incredibly powerful. All being said, students don't have the necessary equipment to access and take advantage of an eLearning course each day at school. If they did, I could FLIP my classroom and move to the 21st Century Learning model that I always knew I would move toward when I graduated from UBC's Masters of Education Technology Program.

Hey, call it my life's work -- I was always going to do this. It's just been more difficult since discussions stopped. As Glen has stated [in recent local Technology Forum posts], there are incredible pockets of work happening all around SD57. I can only imagine the impact if these pockets were fully empowered to realize the potential of their work. If only it were a bit easier -- & it's why ACCESS to me is such a major issue. I'm always working on the collaborative, constructive, discovery, and learning-style focussed initiatives, but am an army of one. Imagine what an army of many might accomplish under the right conditions.

If you'd like to see my work, feel free to contact me.
Jerry Bleecker
 jbleecker@sd57.bc.ca

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

BCeSIS


I finally gave in and left some feedback on one of the BCEdplan's feedback forums, specifically the one on Student Information Systems (I think today is the last day for input).  The government is looking to replace our cumbersome and oft-maligned student data tracking system (BCeSIS) over the next couple of years.

Well, the short version of my feedback is... make sure the replacement learns from the mistakes of BCeSIS.

Here is a sample of concerns that occur to me when reflect on BCeSIS.

  • pretty much universal agreement that BCeSIS failed to reach basic benchmarks for functionality and reliability
  • the system satisfied some office/administrative needs (a key user group), but was a disaster for marks and other needs of teachers (the other key user group) -- the Ministry appeared to have had only the first of these user groups in mind when they looked for a system
  • piloted in one of our rural secondary schools (McBride), yet the district ignored all the feedback from the teachers there and pressed on with early adoption and implemetation
  • the brutal interface and user experience at every level... slow, illogical, and difficult to navigate, no flexibility for alternate schedules, etc... this list could be VERY long
  • unwillingness in the first 5 years to allow data exchange between BCeSIS and the marks program that most of the district's teachers were using.
  • we had 1 techie and 2 principals, a crew of SASOs and trained secretaries assigned to BCeSIS (plus some of the tech support coordinator's and the FOIPPA officer's time) and yet there was still no way to address bugs in the system as all changes were handled at the parent company level
  • all the training time they allocated for the teacher marks portion was wasted as teachers stopped using it shortly after, if they even bothered at all... the cost of the principal's salary and the release time for dozens of teachers was close to useless
  • I think sometime in the first year they clarified a process for gathering input that would results in annual changes if the parent company agreed it needed fixing... a full year from problem to possible solution
  • many of the promised features in BCeSIS never came online or never worked... club & team databases, fee collection, IEPs were delayed for years, data exchange, parent contact module, etc.
  • constant browser issues, as they only developed it for one browser -- using a standard PC and the default browser (Explorer), logging in requires acknowledging warnings of virus-like activities and authorizing permission for unknown operations; doing this seems exactly like what we're not supposed to do according to our acceptable use policy, and yet we are required to use BCeSIS
  • one positive note: using BCeSIS is like working with a living artifact, a sentimental reminder of the glory days of archaic computer programming and a greyish, dehumanizing user interface. Every time I use it I feel like I am back in Computer Science 11, 1986.
A former colleague, John Vogt, has prepared a more substantive critique of BCeSIS implementation. He has shared it with school trustees, the BC Ed forum, and others (including myself) and has given me permission to share it here.

By way of introduction, John has a great way of offering substantive critique of educational planning in our school district balanced with powerful suggestions, a positive and dedicated example in his own practice, a willingness to conduct inquiry and research when others practice resignation, and wit. A personal role model for sure! Here is what John had to say:

I am a retired SD 57 teacher currently working as an instructor for the UNBC School of Education. I was working at DP Todd during the implementation of BCeSIS. Because of my 25 years of experience in working with computers in schools, I was asked to assist with the DP Todd implementation. I was also a member of a PGDTA technology committee which spent time looking into issues surrounding the BCeSIS implementation.

The implementation of BCeSIS in SD 57, and more generally in the province was deficient in many respects. I was reminded of this recently while reading a Prince George Citizen article reporting on an SD 57 trustee meeting where student information systems were discussed. It is always dangerous to jump to conclusions on the basis of a newspaper article, but as reported, presentations to the board regarding BCeSIS and its hoped-for replacement did not appear to fully recognize, analyze, or learn from problems in the implementation of BCeSIS.

A variety of problems with BCeSIS were correctly predicted before implementation in SD 57. A combination of issues (detailed in this Dropbox file) resulted in those predictions being ignored by local decision makers. The result was considerable angst among classroom teachers. A new student information system will face the same issues. If leaders in SD 57 fail to be proactive in working with employee groups to better understand the problems of the past, they stand to repeat them in the future.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

hammer or the anvil

So far, I've avoided leaving even a single comment on any of the BC Edplan feedback forums. It's partly because of time, partly because of initial unease over the plan's origins, but also because I've often felt that the coming changes are inevitable. I'll adapt one way or another regardless of what it looks like, and help others do the same. Much like an anvil -- sturdy and reliable, but typically on the receiving end. A few discussions and experiences over the last while have convinced me to exercise my inner hammer and get involved one way or another. This was my motivation for applying to present at the recent Ed Leadership Conference and also why I've worn a path on this topic for most of the last two years at the district level.

During the Grad Requirements Dialogue that came to Prince George in October, a group of secondary and post-secondary educators, administrative officers and boards from various institutions (including our school district, CNC, and UNBC) parents, trustees, First Nations and partner group representatives (associations, unions, DPAC, etc.), political, business and trades types, and other stakeholders met to discuss how the structure and flow of high school might evolve in BC to meet new and existing expectations for our students.

One of the things we discussed at our tables and reported out to the whole group was how curriculum could or should change. Curriculum is currently organized into Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) and Suggested Achievement Indicators (SAIs). For example, one of the PLOs in Social Studies 11 is to "explain how Canadians can effect change at the federal and provincial levels." One of the matching SAIs is to "compare mechanisms whereby public policy can be changed (e.g., elections, petitions and protests, lobbyists, special interest groups, court actions, media campaigns)." The plan is to organize the discipline-based curriculum around Big Ideas (the themes of the PLOs), Learning Standards (the heart of the PLOs) and Links (that connect to various applications, competencies, and assessments of curriculum, replacing the SAIs).

This topic is also featured in the latest issue of Learn (BC Teacher Regulation Branch Magazine -- "wisdom" from the Ministry of Education). The article Transforming BC's Curriculum describes a perceived need to reduce the total number of outcomes while emphasizing higher-order thinking and more depth (online version not yet posted, but here is some context from Janet Steffenhagen). I was encouraged to see the involvement of Peter Seixas (UBC Ed Prof) with the Social Studies portion -- I've been working with benchmarks of historical thinking for a few years and I think using these as a framework for understanding curriculum is great. I was a little worried that the minority of voices clambering for dumbed down outcomes would gain traction, but with folks like Seixas onboard I am hopeful that this will be a way to streamline without losing depth. The critical inquiry approach has changed the way I teach, and also assess. Colleague Rob Lewis and I got the chance to play with the benchmarks while making unit study guides for Pearson's 2010 SS11 text Counterpoints. This exercise in collaboration and professional learning has led us into a new way of doing assessment where we are firm on the critical thinking and soft on the factoids. I've already put my two bits in on Socials Studies 11 curriculum change, but the Ministry should also invite some of these other educators to dialogue as well as Counterpoints authors Mike Cranny and Garvin Moles.

One thought I had while reading the Learn Magazine article is that spelling out the big ideas of the curriculum could actually restrict rather than liberate diverse learning. The present focus on skills, content, concepts allows teachers and students to build their own narratives with the curriculum, discovering and applying their own big ideas. This is what makes Social Studies exciting -- having students make profound connections precisely because we haven't made these for them. The idea of passively "delivering content" to students is very much out of favour, but will we be "delivering meaning" instead? What if students disagree that a "big idea" is important? Yet, we are still accountable for outcomes based on that big idea?  Constructivist and Inquiry-based learning work best when the end goal is not pre-determined. Many of our texts (like SS11 Counterpoints) have already made the switch to big idea, focus questions, and supporting concepts, skills, content. I suppose mine is more of a philosophical or semantic concern as the new proposal looks like what many teachers do anyways (when they're not chasing content). There are also some teachers that deliver a course as they have had it handed down to them, and sometimes never reference what they do back to the curriculum, and many students who never take the time to figure out what learning outcomes they need to pay attention to, so a more teacher- and student-friendly curriculum may be in order. This also speaks to the need for exemplars to be shared in a non-threatening manner and maybe a chance to meet other educators to initiate informal mentoring and collaboration.


At the Grad Requirements Discussion, we were shown a prototype of what the new BC curriculum website might look like (slides 22/23 on the Slideshow ppt posted at http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/graduation/, slide 22 shown above). The "Links" section caught the attention of our table, and we speculated about what would happen if the Links actually connected to an interactive space for exemplars and ideas populated by teachers and students. These would showcase regional applications to curriculum, multimodal expressions of learning, meaningful assessment practices, wicked lesson outcomes, and unique examples of ordinary students doing significant learning. It could feature adaptations for ESL/ESD, enriched, at-risk, or students with a learning disability. It would need to be moderated in some way (e.g. ensure FIPPA, monitor size and repetition, prevent corporate encroachment), but this could be a launchpad for teacher education, student research, parent involvement, academic study, expert input, and professional development. Wiki, mobile app, forum style, digital learning commons... lots of ways to go with this idea, not every form appeals to every educator. We have informal and formal "learning repositories" at many levels already; I'm not thinking about a one-stop centre for lessons plans or complete set of learning resources (uhh, that would be the "internet"). This would be more of an exhibit of successful teaching and learning achievements, including assessment and the role of technology. Using the Social Studies 11 PLO mentioned above as an example (affecting political change), the Links section could feature a curation of BC exemplars.  This might include sample student petitions, a weblink to a lobby group formed or investigated by students, a teacher's best lesson for letter writing to politicians or setting up a mock parliament, a comparative analysis of austerity protests in Europe, a rubric for self-assessing active citizenship, an RSS feed of current events that relate to provincial and federal politics, proceedings from a Personal Learning Network that has critiqued problem-based cross-curricular projects that include political agency, testimonials and student interviews (politicians, journalists, new immigrants, special interest groups), student video on what they learned from taking a Canadian Citizenship test, student media campaigns or field work, and so on. The Links would change over time to reflect new discovery, and balance friendly competition and useful cooperation among BC schools.

More than just a list of links and exemplars, some level of interactivity would be ideal. This could be user rating scale or comment section to evaluate posted content and ensure that curriculum change (at least at the achievement indicator level) is an ongoing process and not something that stops and starts every few years. This would create a fluid user-generated curriculum guide that builds on what the experts have laid out as big ideas and learning standards, a necessary step towards flexible instructional design and personalized learning. There could be a sandbox or "guild" space where new exemplars and learning schemes could be tested and critiqued by the BC educational community, perhaps directly in the Ministry webspace or alongside the "Links" via social media. The Ministry of Education is already using interactive digital tools for gathering feedback -- whittle this down to something sustainable and never stop asking for feedback. Another route is to build a registry of BC educators and existing web resources, lesson elements, and student exemplars that match the various learning standards and assessment goals of the new curriculum. This would formalize the data that is flowing all the time on social media , a constant exchange and evaluation of curriculum design, teaching strategies, and student support of all kinds for student learning. It could also kickstart local discussions about mentorship and personal learning networks. Whatever the approach, the final step of new curriculum websites should involve some kind of dynamic space that will benefit new and old teachers looking to explore new paradigms.

The other interesting idea I pulled from the Grad Requirements Dialogue was the uncommon discussion itself.  We had one of the most extensive collections of SD57 educational stakeholders assembled that I've seen in 17 years of teaching. Let's just say our district doesn't tend to reach out in this fashion. The sum of what was said (and then forwarded to a regional contact) can be seen as our local community's shared beliefs about education and expectations for youth as they become "whole selves" -- active citizens, fulfilled employees, empathetic adults, etc. I was struck by how the discussion fit as well for our top academic students as it did our at-risk and vulnerable students -- it wasn't about raising or lowering standards as much as it was about how much we care about how our students turn out. I'm looking at some new forms of assessment for my next year, some methods that anticipate rather than react to changing ideas about competency and cross-curricular learning. I want to be able to present my students next year with a framework of expectations not from me, but from the whole local community that supports their learning, an invitation for them to create their own path of assessment within a social context. This locally gathered data provides that context -- an actual community-based expectation for understanding student achievement. I saw a few community-based approaches at the recent Ed Leadership Conference, and this seems like the right scale to build ownership for students. Students already set many of their own expectations (especially when their identity is engaged in the learning process) and try to meet the expectations of their parents, teachers, and schools (sometimes). We also expect them to meet provincial standards, too, but what would it look like to meet the expectations of their local educational stakeholder community? This is the milieu in which their ambitions will sink or swim, the people who will be encouraging, supporting, judging, teaching, employing, cajoling, and depending on them. I think this could be exciting. I'd like to try this with a group of Grade 11 students in a new blended learning program next year -- start their first seminar session by learning how to do qualitative analysis using the community stakeholder data. From this we move into shared assessment design where students build a plan for the course program based on the big ideas, learning standards, personalized goals and passions, and community expectations. I'm not sure if this will appeal to every student, but we'll definitely take care of the "why are we doing this" question right from the start. This is especially important for at-risk students who are often at odds with what they think their community thinks of them. Maybe this would be a step past the academic judgement they receive and move into a more care-based ethos (as in, let's all care enough to give a you-know-what).

Just some ideas here to stretch my thinking; I'm actually pretty content to stay the course on my own pedagogical trajectory in concert with the great ideas that come from my personal learning network, but it's better to be the hammer than the anvil when it comes to changes to curriculum and assessment. I've seen some crazy schemes arrive, turn into cliches, and depart in the last 17 years, so if we're going to be plunged into someone's version of 21st century learning, we might as well "own" our capacity to craft something original.

Teachers and other educational stakeholders, if you are able to set aside reservations about system upheaval, the scary libertarian bits, pressure on the BCTF, and challenges to our comfort zones, I am interested to learn what cool things can you do in your space that are opened up by BC Edplan. I'm taking it for what it's worth, the first major self-evaluation of compulsory schooling in at least a generation, and one that not only allows but enables diverse instructional design and respect for student inquiry.

What do you want to get out of the coming changes? What can future Ministry Curriculum websites do to support you? What do you think about community-based expectations for students? Tweet your responses to @bcedplan, visit their forums, or leave a comment here.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

koolaid vs wild mushrooms

BC Educational Leadership Conference Fall 2012 - Nov 15/16 - Participant Report

I walked down Burrard Street toward the harbour last Thursday with thoughts of tall buildings and tall trees, the sight of well-dressed wealthy folk getting somewhere fast and street-tested poor folk in no particular hurry. A soft 7 a.m. traffic-sound bounced off the buildings like sea-breeze, broken by the cry of gulls. Sitting there behind my senses was the question of what to expect as I stepped into the Vancouver Convention Centre for the BCSSA Fall Conference. I expected to be greeted by jugs of koolaid but soon found I would feast on wild mushrooms. Let me share the difference between the two and what I took from this big gathering of "BCED" leaders -- senior administrators, trustees, principals, and others including parents, teachers, and students. The topic was "Parterships for Personalization: Leading and Transforming Together" -- putting some meat and potatoes onto the BC Edplan table.

First of all, my reservations about the jargon and embedded agendas in the BC Edplan go back a few years to the Premier's Technology Council 2010 Vision for 21st Century Learning. When I first read it, I thought "oh crap, what are they going to do to our education system?" Like many teachers, I am concerned that the vision is about reducing and privatizing services in public education and downloading costs to parents, students, and teacher volunteerism. That's the koolaid part. Read to the bottom and you'll see there is an upside to the koolaid, the part of the BC Edplan that says "what are you waiting for?"

I'll be the first to admit that the conservative service-reduction agenda was not obvious at the ELC conference. What I found instead was diverse ways that schools and districts across the province are experimenting with collaborative pedagogy, environmental and community connections, attaching children and teens, purposeful use of technology, and a focus on making the school experience more imaginative for all involved, primarily the students. There was very little teacher bashing (no more than any other stakeholder, and nothing we shouldn't "own" anyways), no examples that I could find where projects were designed as cost-cutting measures, and a general respect for the social, emotional, professional and contractual contexts in which we practice. There was also an emphasis on local knowledge and projects that reached out to people and places. It was in these contexts, incidentally, that technology and project-based learning found the right balance. This composite of unique offerings was the wild mushroom part -- homegrown, fresh, diverse, and special. Of course, the metaphor fits because we also had great local food at the conference. Yup, wild mushrooms were on at least one dish at every meal.

I went to sessions on blended learning in Rossland, heritage/place based inquiry in Arrow Lakes, and one on the Thomas Haney school experience. My wife (who also attended) and I noticed that the most functional districts tended to be the smaller ones. In the bigger ones, it was school-wide rather than district-wide efforts that stood out, with a few exceptions (West Van comes to mind). The plenary speakers each shared an hour of profound high-caliber research and observations. I found enough to either agree with or challenge my thinking that I am left with many ideas to consider. The plenary speakers emphasized how collaboration relates to school improvement, and encouraged leaders to do a few things well.

The Thomas Haney story was cool; they've been doing blended learning in some fashion for 20 years. Obviously lots of learning curve -- they relied heavily on paper modules or packages, and of course now these all are going digital. Sounds a bit like the Moodle trap our DE school is standing next to. Still, they are a choice school, full (in a district with declining enrolment), and drawing from almost every elementary catchment. They have huge open spaces in their school and smaller student study areas, lots of light and greenery, etc, which is a big part of what makes it work. Presenter and Principal Sean Nosek was a charismatic fellow who was obviously doing the right thing with his talent -- passion, pride and ongoing inquiry for the THSS school community. He remembered me my from summer session of teacher training at SFU in 1995... something about wearing a bearskin and shouting poetry in class. I don't remember that but it sounds like something I would do.

Rossland Secondary School is the only high school in a town of 4000, tucked up in an extinct volcano midst the Monashee Mountains. With declining enrolment, they were in threat of school closure, compounded by a preemptive flight down the hill to J.L. Crowe Secondary in Trail. So, some teachers in the school proposed a whole-school blended learning model for Sep 2012: http://rssblendedlearning.wordpress.com/. Very interesting to see the start-up and how open and progressive they are with mistakes. Seems to be working great for the middle class masses, but they're having some issues with the few at-risk and LA kids they have; need more direct supervision, etc. They have put serious thought into how blended learning could/should work, and are open to visits and inquiries. This Rossland Telegraph article explains the context.  I have some friends whose kids attend the RSS program and it seems to be a good fit for families where flexibility is sought-after.

The Arrow Lakes SD10 schools had a focus on place-conscious learning, for example discovering the community through art. Big projects saw students doing field work and interviews around local cultures, landscapes, and issues, for example investigating the Japanese Internment experience and telling their stories through film (the Nikkei Memorial Centre is nearby in New Denver).  A key inquiry related to the local Doukhobor culture. Their work focused on recognizing and articulating values -- directly, in the case of the interview subjects, and indirectly, in that students discover what is important for themselves when they look for it in others. The students made the connections between the Doukhobor and Aborginal residential schools, and asked powerful questions about different forms of colonialism. The presenter, District Principal Terry Taylor, talked about how they clear off a whole week for students to do field work and interviews, parents and teacher involved but no regular classes. Their superintendent Perry also arranged for whole school TOC time, I day per month. She was a fiery, determined sort of leader who seemed absolutely committed to breaking down barriers any time a group of teachers or admin had a vision for something that supported innovative student engagement.

Of course, the "unconferencing" was also important. I tried to tweet some of the big ideas and funny bits -- look through my Nov 15/16 tweets before they disappear, or scroll though some of the conference tweets (archived below as well).  I got to meet a few people I've interacted with on social media but have either never met (e.g. Chris Wejr and Peter Jory) or haven't seen in a while (e.g. Cale Birk). I made some new educator contacts (e.g. Sean Nosek, Terry Taylor).  I very much enjoyed talking with Nicola Kuhn (Rossland Teacher-Librarian and a lead coordinator of the blended learning initiative). It was not hard to bump into folks that are making an impact on student learning and the education system -- these six educators make for good follows on twitter for anyone wondering about the value of social media. I had some awesome and frank discussions with superintendents from a few districts, like Mark Thiessen from Williams Lake and Greg Luterbach from Kootenay-Columbia. They are still close to their roots as teachers and were able to drop all pretense and TALK. Very encouraging. I asked about six Supers how they managed to clear their desks of tasks that didn't have lasting value and focus on relationships. Great responses! Favourite one was "I don't do politics!" The topic of trust also came up, as in trust for other members of the team to do their best work.

I presented at this conference as well, on the topics of personalized project-work for students, teachers, and leaders. I spoke about personal learning networks, social media, strategies for getting the "underground" work many of us do out in the open, and allowing this work to be subject to mutual accountability and further collaboration. My presentation and notes are posted here. I was anxious before I presented (too many topics, perhaps) but it went well, engendered great small group discussions, and got good feedback from people that seemed to have their act together. The exemplars and stories of student heritage inquiry generated the most interest. The discussion questions were basically "what ignites your interests or excites your learning and provides a hearth to centre your professional learning?" and "what can we do to welcome, celebrate, and support hidden but promising practices at schools from students, teachers, principals and within board office staffs and partner groups?"

Our School District 57 sent the two assistant superintendents (Johnston, Carson), curriculum & instruction principal (Heitman), human resources director (Patterson), finance manager (Reed), and five trustees (Warrington, Cooke, Hooker, Bekkering, Bella).  I'll link to them if they have any conference reports or thoughts to share. Yes, that's a hint... we'd love to hear your thoughts!

Maybe other SD57 participants can offer their own perspective, but I am left wondering how our district staff and trustees felt about the relative progress of our school district in light of the stunning exemplars from around the province. I would suggest that we have three major challenges that stuck out in comparison with other school districts:
  1. Need to pursue more creative and meaningful experiments in collaboration, both formal and informal. The idea of a regulated collaboration system with prescribed topics sits on the ridiculous end of the spectrum -- there were a few districts doing this -- do any of our school still do this? We need "co-creative" habits modeled at all levels, and active support for any group that embarks on a promising path moving from "sharing of practice" to "joint practice development." For example, the practice shared by David Hargreaves of one school staff visiting another school’s staff at work (and vice versa) led to diverse collaborations. Not suggesting we try this, but asking the question about what culture and design would need to be in place for this sort of thing to happen in our district? The need exists from the classroom to the boardroom. Simply acknowledging that we interact with partner groups is not enough; we should move into an interdependent relationship where we actually meet each other's ambitious goals. What actions would result if we asked powerful questions about the strengths of and challenges to our collaboration across the organization?
  2. Need for more thoughtful planning on technology. Our narrow focus on managing systems, maintaining network integrity, controlling platforms, reducing costs, and banning devices to comply with backroom purchasing decisions are holding us back. We need free-wheeling, inclusive, formal discussions on integrating technology into learning (to compliment the informal professional learning on the topic that already happens), and a support plan that begins with pedagogy. One the elephants in our room is the inexplicable and hushed decision to ban ipad purchase requests (and other devices and technologies) from principals and teachers for student use. Another elephant is the collapse of district-wide educator teamwork on tech philosophy and implementation -- the platform or devices is not the issue, it is the avoidance of a pedagogical discussion that leverages technology. The once-vibrant culture for collaboration on technology in our district died a few years ago and we are now left with an appalling lack of interaction between teachers and district leaders on technology. The examples across the province showed how good tech blends into the background of solid teaching and learning, but nonetheless requires district-wide dialogue, planning, training, support and shared decision-making. Every district that told me they had a BYOD (bring your own device) philosophy also had a complimentary purchasing strategy based on the expressed needs of educators. Our "prime directive" with tech needs to shift from network security & standardization to teaching & learning, creating & collaborating. These are not incompatible but the priority is important. To be blunt, the longer our school district sits on these issues, the more we losing technology capacity, educator excitement, and student interest.
  3. Need for improved communication and celebration of success. We certainly saw amazing provincial evidence from blended learning programs, attachment strategies, environmental and community connections, innovation with technology, collaborative practice, and students showing leadership. What’s happening in SD57? For educator examples, we have had some success with the mentorship program and learning team grants, but they are for the most part well-kept secrets. For student examples, each school I'm sure is doing uplifting work with kids -- but the success is often hidden. Adding more leadership structures or responsibilities is not necessary, we just need to "release the hounds" and benefit from the energy that is already at work (and often at odds with dominant thinking). We need to keep working on developing social media, website, news media and conversational connections to share our good work with the larger stakeholder community that supports us, as well as for our own professional learning and work with students. 
In short, if we want to talk about 21st century skills we have to plan for them and model them ourselves. Our province is pervaded with high quality examples, no need to look very far to see high bars for collaboration, tech planning, and communication.  We have a long way to go here, but we also have lots of positive examples in our midst, thought often hidden among the underbrush.

I was, nonetheless, proud to represent our district because the people I work and learn with place a high priority on the development of all children and generally have a good sense of humour... they put up with my blog posts, for example.
So, hurray for wild mushrooms - the diverse, local, and fresh experiences that we forge for ourselves and our students. Let us continue cultivating the ecosystems that result in sturdy specimens.

And, hurray for a bit of koolaid - the part of the bcedplan that actually recognizes that educators have been trying smart, dynamic, innovative "7C" student-centered work for a long time (and want to do more), and that their efforts for learning and system designs should be greeted with "YES" as often as possible.


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Some references

The keynotes and most of the break-out concurrent sessions have been archived at http://www.bcssa.org/fallconference.html

Conference program (full list of sessions)
http://www.bcssa.org/fcprogram.html

SD20 Superintendent Greg Luterbach on what he pulled from Ben Levin's presentation:
http://www.sd20.bc.ca/superintendent.html

SD43 Manager of Info Services Brian Kuhn on disruptive technology and conference interaction
http://www.shift2future.com/2012/11/reimagine-learning.html

SD45 Bowen Island Principal Jennifer Pardee reflecting on the conference and environmental connections:

SD57 Trustee Kate Cooke on what she pulled from the conference:
http://trusteecooke.blogspot.ca/2012/11/educational-leadership-conference.html

SD69 Kwalicum VP Rudy Terpstra reflects and asks a big question
http://sites.sd69.bc.ca/rterpstr/2012/11/19/reflections-on-the-educational-leadership-conference-november-15-and-16-2012-vancouver-bc/

Plenary keynotes:
Ben Levin - Building Great Schools
http://www.bcssa.org/PDFs/fall2012/benlevin.pdf (big file)

Daniel Wilson - Cultivating Effective Professional Collaborations
http://www.bcssa.org/PDFs/fall2012/danielwilson.pdf

Andreas Schleicher - Teachers in the 21st century
http://prezi.com/x7zrlsmaehfv/teachers-in-the-21st-century/

David Hargreaves - The Shape of Things to Come, and Self-Improving School Systems:
http://www.bcssa.org/PDFs/fall2012/davidhargreaves.pdf
http://www.bcssa.org/PDFs/fall2012/hargreaves-siss-oct2012.pdf

Thanks to PGDTA, by the way, for covering my registration and TOC costs. Thanks to BCSSA (conference organizers) for covering flight and accommodation. Thanks to SD13 Pacific Slope for the evidence and support. Thanks SD57 trustees Cooke, Warrington, Hooker, Bekkering for table talk at the conference and Elephant & Castle. Thanks for to so many committed educators and leaders for F2F and SM chats throughout conference... as I said in the presentation, there is lots about the BC Edplan that causes concerns across stakeholder groups, but the push to try new things and remove barriers to change fits well with some really cool current and future projects around the province. I think our students will benefit from the thoughtful and resourceful praxis that has caught fire in so many jurisdictions in our province any time educators have been able to move beyond rhetoric to collaborative practice.

If you have a conference report, let me know so I can share and post the link.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

student and parent info for language and landscape program

Next year, Grade 11 students have a new option for completing English 11 at D.P. Todd, and completing Geography 12 at the same time.

We are launching a new program that uses blended learning to explore language, writing, literature, landscapes, and environmental education. This approach mixes classroom based learning (with a teacher), student-centered learning in small seminars (facilitated by the teacher), smaller groups (facilitated by students), and independent work (supported by all). The focus will be on the "spark" or learning passion that each student brings, creative use of technology, critical thinking, deep inquiry, project-based learning, integration of the arts, and use of digital portfolios. Examples in the course will come from diverse sources including Tolkien's Middle Earth, local writing and local landscapes, as well as work developed by the students themselves.

Students completing this program receive full credits for both English 11 and Geography 12 -- the learning outcomes from both courses will be addressed. This "Language and Landscape" program takes place in two blocks in one semester (e.g. A & B) and allows flexible attendance during one of the two blocks. All students who have completed English 10 and Social Studies 10 may apply; however, priority placement will occur for motivated students who are excited to learn in a collaborative learning environment.

Read more about this on the parent post on the Language and Landscape blog.  For more information, email gthielmann@sd57.bc.ca, come talk to me in room 180, or read some of the other blog posts.

I think students have a lot more to offer than we often give them the space to attempt. This program is designed to see what that looks like.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

parents asked to do more


Many parents are indeed more involved; as a teacher I’d like to see even more partnership. The idea that parents need to subsidize our public education system, though, is not good. While I admire their support and respect for school staff, too many PACs are actually donating money to teachers to buy basic supplies for their classes. That should be fully funded by the government via the local district. I’m also not quite sure how to “place” the former chair's comments. He said that in 2001 when cuts and closures were on the agenda, parents were brought into the conversation and realized they had a place in the school setting. Is he referring to the public consultations around closures required by the School Act and Board Policy? Nine years later during the 2010 cuts the school district still hadn’t figured out how to extend the conversation beyond required meetings, and seemed shocked by the expectation from the public that they wanted to be a more significant part of the conversation. Partner groups (e.g. parents) were given a few hours to provide feedback on cuts, and were completely left out of the jigsaw puzzle plan that could not be changed until the final hour before schools were to be closed. Parents had to fight to get basic answers to financial questions throughout the process. Don’t take it from me… previous DPAC chair Don Sabo went through all this when he gave his “summary report card” at the end of the “Sustainability” process. Normally an uplifting and praise-laden fellow, he had hard words for many aspects of a process that could have been improved at any point along the way.

Personally, I was really impressed that the most coherent expression of support in 2010 for public education and vision for the roles of sustainable communities anchored around schools came from passionate groups of parents. Most everyone else just reacted, the bulk of teachers included. The cuts and changes were in some ways inevitable, even understandable (partly related to gov’t cutbacks, partly related to the way our district has spent its money in the past). However, we did not do a great job with either the consultation process or the repercussions to school district culture and educational programs; we are still dealing with them now and last year's job action did not help. I’d like to think we learned from this, but that’s what we said after the 2001-03 cuts, too. I think the former chair meant well by his comments (i.e. respect for parents) but perhaps he has his “optimism” hat on when recalling the opaque process around cuts. Yes, tough decisions had to be made, nobody faults the board for that. What was/is needed is a process with much more back and forth, more like the “conversation” that supposedly took place.

At a conference I recently attended, I was impressed with the convincing research on the power of meaningful collaboration to affect student performance and achieve change in organizations. This topic came up directly in two of the plenary sessions and indirectly in the break-out sessions and the table talk that included many of our own school trustees. I believe a majority of them are committed to seeing more collaboration with parents on future decisions and directions. For example, they will be doing open budget consultations this coming year including partner groups -- District Parent Advisory Council, Aboriginal Ed Board, Two CUPE locals (e.g. maintenance and ed assistants), PG Teachers Association, Professional Employees Association (e.g. speech pathologists) the  Ed, Principal/Vice-Principal Association. Ordinary citizens have to work a bit to get their voice heard through these groups, but the first stop for public input (beefs and bouquets?) could be DPAC http://sd57dpac.ca/ or the trustees http://www.sd57.bc.ca/index.php?id=498. The board also has a half hour for public input at the beginning of every board meeting. With a budget bigger than the City of Prince George, we need to provide the School District with an improved level of public accountability. Parents, students, educators, members of the public -- watch for their call for input on budget consultation and consider adding your voice.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Input on year-round schooling at LDB

Context: my children's single-track French Immersion elementary school (LDB) is considering the pros and cons of year-round schooling. They have invited input at a public meeting on Nov 21st. I'm not sure if I want to lay all of this out at a public meeting, so I've put some thoughts together to consider in advance.

I appreciate the invitation to dialogue on this issue and trust the LDB community is ready for healthy debate on the many angles to the question of year-round schooling. I’m also confident that whatever direction the district takes on year-round schooling at LDB that it will continue to be a stellar place for many families to send their children. There are many valid reasons to consider calendar changes, many of which I can agree with, and would even support if this was a district-wide initiative. At this time, however, I would like to offer 18 concerns about pursuing year-round schooling at LDB.
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1. School growth and program development is going very well at LDB -- at the heart of this is the fantastic staff who are committed and caring educators. It’s not clear why the current approach needs a redesign so soon into what has already been a success in our district. If year-round schooling was a preferred district-wide choice, these issues might subside, but introducing this model one-school-at-a-time creates unnecessary fragmentation.

2. An argument for year-round schooling based on academic study is a slippery slope. It’s easy to find articles and literature for and against year-round schooling as a method of improving student achievement. The literature is not definitive. Most common are the studies that report mixed results, and indicate that there are many other ways to affect student achievement that have greater, more immediate impact than adjusting a schedule.

3. If LDB is approved for this, it needs to be in conjunction with other elementary schools, if not the whole district. LDB would be splitting up family time for any child with a sibling at a different school, and would impact daycare schedules, work schedules, and vacation planning. LDB will find that parents will still need to pull kids from school to join family activities that follow traditions such as the provincial spring break or summer camping.

4. The district-wide policy context should be considered. The School Board needs to decide how calendar decisions will be made, what calendar options will be considered, and what consultation will look like, particularly parent and partner group input. For example, will they consider one-off schedules for each school, “family of schools” solutions, or district-wide changes? This process needs to be public and thoughtful, have a review process, and be district-based, not LDB-based.

5. The impact on district costs should be considered. For example schools in session during traditional breaks affect operational budgets like air conditioning for hot summer days, a significant concern in the LDB building. When “summer school” used to be at Lakewood it would run mornings only due to the heat in south facing classrooms.

6. Potential for unintended employee group contract commitments should be considered, For example, there may be issues around 12-month pay vs 10-month pay, pension & EI questions, new work schedules for CUPE, PGDTA, TOCs, etc.

7. A change in duties for Board Office and district staff would need to be considered. With full-year schooling, school services will have to fire on 12-month cylinders -- TOC call-out, psychologists, behaviour teams, District Resource Centre, technology support, etc.
8. Transportation costs will be impacted if other catchment-based schools consider full-year schedules. Additional complexity and costs would be added with overlap between 10- and 12-month bus routes. While this is not a issue at LDB (no buses), the long-term implications of district calendar changes need to be mindful of associated costs.

9. If LDB is approved for this, the school admin needs to successfully lobby the school district to re-open transfers to ECHE in Grades 2-7. Currently transfers are blocked, and some parents will want to switch to another French Immersion school if LDB goes with year-round schooling. This proposed change may appeal to some parents, but for those that choose otherwise their only alternatives are to drive to the already crowded Heather Park or to quit French Immersion altogether. That would be counterproductive to French language education in Prince George.

10. Losing French fluency in some students over summer months is, on its own, not sufficient reason to alter a schedule for all students at LDB. Parents who wish to “keep up the French” have many options with day camps, books and online tools, games and cultural events.

11. The particular example that LDB has circulated as a proposed 12-month calendar is a dramatic change. The school board’s calendar committee will be responsible for the end result, but perhaps less drastic changes would also be considered (e.g. steal one week from summer to add a break somewhere else, or consider making the two-week Spring Break the norm).

12. Summer is special, and a chance for kids to develop their identity outside of the school environment. Homework and schooling penetrate almost every hour of kids’ lives for 9.5 months per year... they need a big break every year to reset their focus and maybe come back to school with a fresh perspective. Having more breaks spread across the year may seem refreshing, but the magic of a big summer in a region with six months of winter and cold weather is not to underestimated.

13. Summer is prime time for passion-based commitments that are vital for children and families. Swim clubs and soccer programs come to mind, as do arts camps, summer camps, and extended travel. A full-year program kills many of these summer-based opportunities for children to find their spark and develop skills that cannot be taught in school,

14. Big breaks are needed for LDB teachers, too, a break from email, marking, planning, etc. Any break provides an opportunity to recharge, but summer gives teachers a change to unplug, renew, work, and study. Teachers with summer jobs or enrolled in post-graduate educational programs will certainly be affected by full-year schooling, as will anyone who gardens, camps, hikes, or travels.

15. Some ordinary social conventions in the community would be affected by having school in the summer months. Anyone who uses Ospika Blvd. or Rainbow Drive would need to know that school zones are in effect for parts of July and August. Students baking in a hot school would need a relaxed dress code to mitigate the conditions. Children in neighbourhoods would need to adjust to having friends absent when they are ready to play and vice versa. Parents would have to get used to fund-raising and school activities 12 months a year, they would have to be “always on” as involved parents.

16. LDB has active parents, well-supported students, very few of which are vulnerable or impoverished. Combined with the single-track French Immersion program, this often gives the impression of LDB being an elite school, something a step removed from “regular public education.” This perception would only grow if the school moves to year-round schooling. Countering this perception would require placing yet another “cause” on an already active group or parents that has worked hard to ensure French Immersion is part of the continuum or accessible public education choices in Prince George.

17. Do a few things well and be mindful of constant programs changes. A recent BC educational leadership conference speaker encouraged schools not to reinvent systems that are working or force change for change sake. Suggestions for improvement are easy to conjure up but can end up requiring a significant commitment of time, energy, or money. Like the proposed French Immersion program consolidation in 2010, or the sibling priority debate in 2011, any time a school comes up with a new idea, parents and educators are pulled into another cycle of debate and activism. The question of year-round schooling, while it is a conversation we need to have, should be taking place at the district level first in order to establish some norms, expectations, and criteria.
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18. Lastly, the NIMBY argument (a personal one) -- as a teacher I entered a profession knowing that I would not be working when my children are on holidays and they would not be in school while I am working. I work hard and when I’m not working I get to be with my family -- this is one of the reasons I love my job. It would be a different matter if my own school followed a year-round schedule, but that is not realistic at this time.

Respectfully submitted,
Glen Thielmann

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Tricky Narrative

Fall 2012 Educational Leadership Conference breakout session presentation.

Presentation Speaking Notes: Nov 14th version. I will update this to include what actually happened (shorter, more earthy) compared to what was planned (longer, more esoteric).


hmm... video links don't work when you're to cheap to buy the full version of Slideshare... here are the relevant ones: emotional dimension to math and students responding to questions about what they got out of their heritage research. Just quick responses to questions but it sets the tone for why engaging identity is key to engaging all other aspects of school-based learning. Making identity connections is they key to students finding a spark to ignite all other ties to intended and unintended curriculum, just like identity connections are the key for educators as points of attachment to formal and informal professional learning.

My full thoughts on what I took from the #elcfall2012 experience...
Conference Report: "Koolaid vs Wild Mushrooms" - http://thielmann.blogspot.ca/2012/11/koolaid-vs-wild-mushrooms.html

Thanks to http://dl.dropbox.com/u/68985044/Share/elc_notes.pdf

Sunday, November 11, 2012

peace justice and remembrance

We had an interesting discussion in our library the other day about school Remembrance Day ceremonies. There seems to be a few basic ways these seems to turn out, mostly variations on the theme of respect for the war dead and remembrance of both the purpose, futility, and cost of war. Sometimes we dwell on the heroics, sometimes on the suffering. The students do a great job of putting the elements together, and often add something that shows they have gone beyond sentiment to probe into deeper symbols and meaning behind military remembrance. Some of us cringe at the "Pittance of Time" bits that equate quietness with peace (although I have more respect for that specific video once I learned it was based on the artist's actual experience). Everything has its place, I suppose, but we are often left looking for something else, something with an edge that might get students thinking about what is to be done with the sentiment.

I have written about this topic before -- Peace and Remembrance and the White Poppy (2010) and Peace and Remembrance, the Tight Rope (2011). This year I'm wondering what it would look like to transform our remembrance into some kind of call for social justice, restorative practice, an end to violence across society, a weeding out of the coercive tendencies in our institutions, a gaze towards what nonviolence and passive resistance has accomplished, and a rejection of war as a default means of resolving conflict.

I'm also concerned that the "Harper Government" is willing to exploit remembrance and rewrite some of the social and peacekeeping history of our nation and emphasize our warlike prowess. This aggressive persona is the one that they want to project on the world stage, and it is the kind of nationalist posturing that leads to armed conflict in the first place.  If we're going to interpret the symbols and conduct the ceremonies one way or the other (for they are never free of bias or instructive purpose), we should be adding Peace to the Remembrance.

I came across this when thinking about the topic http://epjweb.org/resources/lessons/social-sciences/remembrance-day-reading/ -- something along these lines might give a Peace and Remembrance Ceremony the edge it needs to go beyond regret for past grief and give us pause to ask if we've actually changed the conditions that lead to war. We don;t need to take anything away from respect for the war dead, but we should be more fixated on preventing future youth from becoming war dead.

Here's another possibility for a Peace and Remembrance Ceremony after a reading of In Flanders Fields:
We remember Lt. John McCrae, soldier, poet and healer: a physician enraged by the madness of what was then the world’s most deadly war ever, he could not then see any other way but to ask us to take up his quarrel with his enemy. Now freed from bonds of time and space, now seeing all things clearly, perhaps he would ask us to take up an even brighter torch, to battle an even more deadly foe: to take up the torch of peace, to do battle with all that separates brother from brother, sister from sister.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Making Connections to Traditional Knowledge


My Social Studies 9 class has been working on a project off and on over the last few weeks -- an exploration of Heritage Skills. We do this as a tie-in to the Industrial Revolution and as a precursor to the full-on Heritage Research project our school's students complete in Social Studies 10.  Five of the SS9 projects stand out for me right now (still more presentations to come). I'm very proud of what they did with their guiding questions:

1. KM shared the story of Norwegian flatbread with us... krumkake... sort of a waffle cone, but rolled and stamped with careful designs. The recipe was a family favorite and helped them make a direct connection to their Scandinavian roots. Of course, she spent a few hours making up a big tasty batch for our class to try. The heritage skill lies in the preparation, use of special tools, and choice of fillings.

2. FJ put together an visual explanation of why she and her family dried fish. Everything she expressed was what she "knew" -- no obligatory internet surfing to add random details... refreshing. The traditional methods have been passed down in her family for generations, and she plans on passing it on to her kids and grandkids one day. Her smokehouse is a special place, filled with strong memories to go with the familiar smells. Two big strips of dried fish were wrapped and taped to the poster... FJ ate one and I ate one... perfect! The heritage skill lies in the options for catching, preparing, drying, curing, and smoking the fish.

3. SR shared his grandfather's passion for woodworking and the art of Intarsia -- locking in wooden elements to form an inlayed textured mosaic, a mix of clever design and skill with wood.  The examples he shared were ones that came from his house, a reminder of his grandfather's presence even though he lives a few hours away. Some of the Intarsia objects wee small and intricate, others as big as a chalkboard. The heritage skill lies in the mastery of wood and tools.

4. AC explored the history of the horse and buggy -- where, when, why, etc. Her grandmother remembered riding with horse and buggy as a kid, and we had some fun speculating what would happen to society if we had to go back to this form of transportation (pros & cons). The heritage skill lies in the care of animals and equipment. I mentioned that my dad, born in 1936, and the oldest of 8, used to get the horse and buggy set up each morning, load up his school-age siblings, and take them to school every day... as a 9-yr-old!

5. MS shared the "Portuguese Passion for Bread" -- a foray into both family tradition and a way of making bread that few people take on anymore. MS shared what she learned from her grandmother, this sparked similar stories in the class -- a quick survey found out that creation and consumption of homemade bread was more common than expected. The heritage skill lies in the attention to ingredients, process, and time, plus the careful (ancient) working of dough.

I'm looking forward to more projects this week on carving, speaking the Carrier Language, ranching, square dancing, and others.  We learned about canning today -- peaches, pears, and fish -- each one a grandmother's favourite for the three students presenting. Projects can be tricky with some classes -- the disorganized students have a hard time sticking to the timeline to get this done, but it's also a great way for students that struggle in other areas to engage with the learning outcomes and get some success. I think the key is making some connection to student identity -- in this case an interview with a family member.

Traditional Knowledge, whether it's an Aboriginal custom, indigenous way of approaching subsistence or simply an old and preserved cultural practice, comes to us like a gift from our ancestors. Who knows what skills are resting in our bones, placed their by our forebears and waiting for a trigger, waiting to be relearned and reborn for the next generation. In an educational world swamped with technology-induced urgency for change, these projects are a calm and focussed reminder of what really grounds us to each other and the dirt beneath us.