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: 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.

Some references

The keynotes and most of the break-out concurrent sessions have been archived at

Conference program (full list of sessions)

SD20 Superintendent Greg Luterbach on what he pulled from Ben Levin's presentation:

SD43 Manager of Info Services Brian Kuhn on disruptive technology and conference interaction

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

SD57 Trustee Kate Cooke on what she pulled from the conference:

SD69 Kwalicum VP Rudy Terpstra reflects and asks a big question

Plenary keynotes:
Ben Levin - Building Great Schools (big file)

Daniel Wilson - Cultivating Effective Professional Collaborations

Andreas Schleicher - Teachers in the 21st century

David Hargreaves - The Shape of Things to Come, and Self-Improving School Systems:

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.


Chris Wejr said...

Glen, thank you so much for this comprehensive reflection of the 2 days. I enjoyed being able to meet you (although rather quickly) and was disappointed that I was not able to attend your session (but heard great things). I, too, enjoyed the fact that we did celebrate the work of BC educators and shared some great examples of innovative practices that stretched my thinking.

One thing I would have liked to have more of was a chance to network with people like you and discuss some of the great things we heard and learned. Guess we will just continue the dialogue in our districts and on social media... and I am looking forward to that. :-)

Phil Rice said...

Great post, Glenn! Succinct and well thought out. If only we got summaries like this from all Pro-D participants, what collected wisdom we'd have.



Thielmann said...

Yup, that was the big one for me... the fact that many educators were giving space for students to connect and find meaning. I'm sure it happens all around me but it is hard to see sometimes... teachers and principals are kept busy enough and often don't get to the part where they reflect and share what they've been up to, mistakes and all.

I was super impressed with how many conversations I had where the other person immediately dispensed with BS and started in on the big questions and honest reflections... I wanted to hug a few of them for being so open and forthright.

I'm not sure if they would consider a 2.5 day conference, but I thought opening and first plenary on Wed afternoon, move everything up a bit and leave space for two networking sessions... an edcamp on Thurs afternoon and a more informal one on Friday. Edcamping 1200 people could be fun... have to divide them by IQ or something first. Maybe just having a bit more time before/after each session would help. Breakouts could be an hour?

Thielmann said...

Succinct? I'm working on that... how the heck does one succinctly eject all the junk swirling around in one's head? That's actually why I first tried twitter. I used to start with a paragraph and then whittle it down, character by character, until I had what I wanted. When I realized that it faded away after a while, and was truly a conversation (most of which we're allowed to forget after a while), I relaxed and remembered the inner street-corner poet.

Also, you and Kathy have to stop spelling my name with two Ns or I'll give you Seasons Beatings.

Thanks for the reply... I think the long posts scare most people away! See you at swimming.