Thursday, June 20, 2013

District Achievement Contract feedback

Feedback for Senior Admin/Learning Team on the SD57 District Achievement Contract 2013-2014

“We hope you will take the time to read it. We also hope you will provide us some feedback by sending your input to: dacfeedback@sd57.bc.ca”
- retrieved from http://www.sd57.bc.ca/ June 17th, 2013 

To begin, a thank-you is in order to senior administration for seeking feedback on the District Achievement Contract (DAC). This was unexpected but long overdue. It is a positive development to see the DAC offered to stakeholders for input -- this has not happened in the ten year history of school district “Plans for Student Success” and Superintendent Reports on Achievement. As our superintendent pointed out earlier in the year, these have largely been compliance documents which are written for a very general audience, and have not been subject to intense scrutiny, editing, or statistical analysis. PGDTA president Matt Pearce and SD57 Trustee Kate Cooke have raised concerns about this at public board meetings over the last year, so I know this is not news to you.

So, with what seems to be a somewhat “fresh” DAC, and the first to go public for input, I have to say this is a good start. We need many more opportunities for open feedback on school district directions and decisions, just as we need more opportunities for reflection and celebration. This feedback needs to take on the characteristics of a dialogue, something that can lead to change or renewal. We had mechanisms for this in the past that, while not perfect, at least provided for some collaborative decision-making between stakeholders (like teachers) and senior administration. These structures dissipated over a four of five year period ending with the big cuts in 2010. Job action in 2011-2012 kind of sealed the deal, and we are left with a communication problem in our district, and a paucity of co-creative work being done between stakeholders. Seeking input on the DAC is a small but praiseworthy step towards a more dialogue-based set of relationships in the school district. I would encourage senior administration to work with trustees and partner groups to design more opportunities for exchange of ideas and collaborative decision-making, particularly in the areas of educational technology, shared professional learning, school reform, and student interventions. I would also encourage senior administration to turn each significant area of the DAC into a corresponding interactive webspace so that organizational change and support for students can leap out of the yearly report format and become something that invites dialogue and ongoing opportunities for involvement.

Comments, questions, critiques of the DAC.

First, a quick bio and some biases to declare. I teach secondary Social Studies, Humanities, and Geography at D.P. Todd Secondary (my school home for 10 years) in School District 57. I have been student of organizational culture throughout my 17-year career, and have served in a variety of formal and informal leadership positions. My wife is a school trustee and my family has been filled with teachers for at least four generations. I am an active user of social media and educational technology, and over the last eight or nine years I have written on my blog and elsewhere extensively, both in celebration and concern, about school district directions, decisions, and philosophies. Education is in my bones. Next year I will be serving as the PGDTA Pro-D Chair and Fund Administrator and I look forward to working with district staff on shared projects and common goals. I am not completely comfortable submitting this feedback, as it is necessarily critical and covers much of the same ground I’ve covered elsewhere, but there is a season for everything, and I would kick myself for missing the opportunity to respond to a request for input on a topic I feel qualified to discuss.

Introduction (p. 3) 

“The concepts and initiatives within this document have been created through a collaborative process”

It would be useful to know how the process for developing the plan actually works. There used to be an official “District Planning Process” that is no longer used; this is understandable as it involved many steps that were never realistic, e.g. the district plan was meant to support school plans, to synthesize them even, yet the two levels of plans were written simultaneously and the district plan had no way of resolving incompatibilities. The current DAC describes a feedback loop within senior administration and the senior learning team, but this is quite far removed from the frontlines, from the scattered leaders in schools and classrooms. Admittedly, it is difficult to take the pulse of such a large and diverse organization, let alone set common goals, but this does not excuse the need to engage stakeholders in setting district agendas.

“the Senior Learning Team has consulted research documents including the work of GELP (Global Education Leaders’ Program)” 

It is troubling that the only explicit mention of an external influence on the DAC is GELP. This organization is entwined with corporations that advocate the increased privatization of educational services. GELP is an influential player in the education reform agenda, and, while championed by many who have guided the BC Education Plan, should be balanced with broader influences, especially those that do not undermine public education with corporatization. Please list the other research that influences district agendas. Here are some resources on GELP that explain these concerns: 
1) http://bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Publications/TeacherNewsmag/archive/2012-2013/2012-11/index.pdf
2) http://thetyee.ca/News/2012/10/05/BC-Education-Plan/
3) http://www.staffroomconfidential.com/2012/10/origins-of-bcedplan.html

“In order to reach our vision, we know that it is important to examine our organization through a systems-based approach”

What is this systems-based approach? How exactly is this system examined or reviewed, and by whom? Simply having community partners does not equal a systems approach, unless perhaps they form part of the “examination.” Does the system in “systems-based” refer to organizational function, capacity, or hierarchy?

District Context (p. 4)

This description has improved over previous DACs and definitely brings home the reality of vulnerability in our district. One question -- 684 FTE teachers -- this figure does not match the one used at the PGDTA office for their calculations (closer to 705 I think). Is the number in flux? Also, these numbers are in contrast to the ones that appear on the district website http://www.sd57.bc.ca/index.php?id=493, and are different yet again from the numbers used on external job postings published by our district in the last year. Is it too much to expect the same office to use the same data set?

District Strengths (p. 5)

"Our district is decentralized in terms of financial and educational decision making”

I think this refers to a change in accounting that took place many years ago, whereas this statement implies a deliberate attempt to flatten hierarchies. We still have plenty of those -- key centralized controls still exist that prevent principals from advocating for public education and working with school staff to innovate, particularly in the area of technology and collaboration. What can we do to reconcile the declared "character strength" of decentralization with more support for site-based innovation?

District and School Connections (p. 6)

“moving towards seamless pre-K to 12 systems”

We need to see more evidence of this; our secondary contact with elementary feeder schools is minimal and has not changed in many years: some work by the counsellors, music program, and student leadership activities.

“School Plan is connected to the Family of Schools plan”

Our staff has never heard of a Family of Schools Plan -- what is it and where can we see it?

“School Plans are reviewed by a team with feedback...” 

This has been highly inconsistent, for example, our school has only received feedback on its plan once in the last five years, and the review was conducted by a team, not an individual. If any additional feedback was offered, it has not been shared with staff.

“School Plans and Family Plans are informed by the District Achievement Contract” 

This has not been the case -- school plans are written independently of the DAC and typically record school-based initiatives based on department goals or school-sponsored inquiry. The Family Plans are an unknown -- I have yet to hear from anyone who has seen one.

Enhancing Learning Through the Use of ICT (p. 10/11)

“Encourage use of the recently implemented Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) public wireless networks”

Effective BYOD programs need some kind of policy, a co-developed plan, and a complimentary purchasing strategy (we have none of these). All we have is a cumbersome public wifi that drops connections, restricts access, and works slowly. It does not differentiate between staff and student users who each have distinct needs.  The implementation forgot to include the communication part -- many staff do not know what BYOD involves and only experience the frustration of a wireless network that does not work as well as the ones we have generally had access to over the last six years.  I won't list the frustrations that have beed expressed to me from various schools because I'm quite sure you are already aware of them.

I've talked with tech analysts and systems managers at Northern Health and Canfor, and used the wifi at UNBC (not to mention coffee shops and fast food joints) -- why has everyone else figured out how to offer a secure/unsecure choice with a variety of functions (based on a needs assessment) that satisfy users and provide top-rate service, but a teacher can't even use a BYOD device to teach on SD57 wifi?  I'm sure board office discussions have described network wifi access as "mission critical" and "necessary for moving forward" -- they have been for some time, so put the budget and time into serving up a system that meets staff and student needs, please.

Whether it is cloud apps, wifi upgrades, server function, tablet pilots, tech planning, etc., our district seems to have a 3-8 year cycle for moving from design to implementation.  1-2 years would be more appropriate.  I'm still waiting for some remote access commitments to be fulfilled that were discussed by the District Technology Team in 2004. It borders on the absurd to wait nine years for a basic tech service (offered at other institutions) in an era where the landscape changes every few months.

In the 1990s, we had a free-for-all with technology and created many of the innovative practices (and needs, problems, positions) that are still with us now. In the 2000s we moved into standardization, inventory management, and decision making based on cost-benefit. It is 2013, and we need to learn from both decades and embrace support for district-purchased mobile technology regardless of platform or vendor. The systems management technology already exists to manage a variety of devices and cloud services in a secure and stable environment and in a cost-effective manner. The quiet district move to restrict tablet purchases and stifle attempts at school-based purchases, for example, reflects thinking locked in place during the last decade. The world has moved on; it is possible to have your cake and eat it, too.

“Develop a repository of web browser-based, device-independent applications”

Does this exist? Something like used to be part of what was called the “District Tech Standards” but the current status of this document has not been shared with teachers for a few years. Tech representatives from each school (“KTCs”) used to meet twice a year to share ICT progress and learn about new district supports; this practice was discontinued in 2007, along with the tech coaching program.

“Continue to work with the Provincial Learning Network (PLNet) to fast- track upgrades of Internet connections at schools.”

More bandwidth will be useful, but will not resolve underlying issues regarding access and lack of educational technology planning in the district.

“Develop a collection of inservice resources, and improve collaboration opportunities for staff through upgrades to the district's ICT infrastructure”

Infrastructure upgrades and improved collaboration are not mutually assured. Our district has lost capacity for tech-related inservice and professional development over the last 8 years (that was the last time we had a district tech plan, incidentally). What are you doing to restore this capacity and reboot the conversation on technology that used to be a high priority for senior administration? I have documented this extensively elsewhere, e.g. http://thielmann.blogspot.ca/2012/10/the-forbidden-ipad.html, so I’ll leave it at that.

“Continue to provide support for innovative, ICT intensive projects through Learning Team Grants”

These are a mystery to most employees of the school district. The LTGs need to be more public and the results shared more effectively. Flexibility is also needed; to illustrate, consider the case of the recent LTG looking at screencasting. This group volunteered their time (as opposed to using release time) in exchange for inexpensive software licenses. The group started with this understanding, but was later denied the software, so the LTG ended up being freebee “non-grant” and the participants were left frustrated. Where are the truly innovative Tech LTGs? The “buzz” around ICT-intensive projects has not been the same since the end of TLITE, the cancellation of district coaches, the end of the District Technology Team, elimination of tech leadership positions, etc.

“Support teachers with interactive whiteboards with professional development on lesson design and instruction”

Interactive whiteboards have some excellent uses, but they are far from innovative. This technology was introduced to our district in 2004 and is still being used largely as very expensive overhead projectors. If you want to lead change with innovative technology, putting your money on smartboards is a bad bet.

Reach out to teacher and administrative leaders in the district and ask them what they would like to see to transform learning spaces with technology. Look through the feedback gathered in the wake of the 2011 “Enhancing Learning” meeting and ask how many of the concerns have been recognized as legitimate problems and addressed. Talk to principals and teachers who have had technology proposal rejected in the last three years what effect this has had on their desire to put new ideas in to practice. Ask individuals like Ian Landy what he has been able to do with technology in his new school district that he was not able to do in ours. Read what Chris Kennedy has to say about BYOD programs and the support and complimentary strategies needed to pull this off. Read what Chris Wejr, Cale Birk, and so many others say about social media for educators and the need for leaders to flatten hierarchies with open, public, and frank discussion. Dig deep and ask why so many devices are quietly listed as banned purchases without discussion with the educators who have shown passion for their use as teaching and learning tools. Follow what most BCED leaders say about the real commodity when it comes to educational technology -- the passionate, supported educator is the most valuable asset, not the equipment or devices. How many teacher and administrator dreams have to die because schools are bound by district technology restrictions and the impasse created when the district won’t discuss the topic?

Engage and Action: Other District Initiatives (p. 19/20) 

“Learning Team Grants... we moved from collaborating only within the school, to collaboration between schools and across the district”

The idea that collaboration across the district is a new trend is problematic. This is a quality that has ebbed and flowed over the last 15 years (since email and the internet began to link us together in new ways), and involves a great deal of informal collaboration that is generally off of the district’s radar. Formal collaborative efforts have also suffered from ineffective top-down implementation of “Professional Learning Community” concepts. LTGs represent a promising form of collaboration and professional development, bottom-up in many cases, but a number of issues remain. I have commented on these issues already at http://thielmann.blogspot.ca/2012/12/effective-professional-development.html.

“We have invited teacher candidates to participate in many professional development opportunities and continue to strengthen our relationship with UNBC by partnering in research projects and programs”

Teacher candidates have always been invited to district pro-d events; this is not new. Similarly, Curriculum & Instruction has been approving post-secondary research projects in our district for decades. Is there some new protocol we should know about? What has changed?

“While the value of collaboration is clearly evident in our schools, it was not until 2010-2011 that the Central Administration Office began an initiative to share a vision across the departments in our own building”

This is quite surprising, for it implies that prior to 2011 there was no collaboration at the board office. While this might explain a few things, it does not seem likely. Let’s have a peek into this think-tank, a look at the ongoing work. I’m sure you share progress with each other, and publish the briefest of summaries in documents like the DAC, but if this work is important and impacts the school district, why wouldn’t you make it public and share with all stakeholders? This is an excellent opportunity for district leaders to model “21st Century Foundation Skills” -- communicate, host talks, tweet and blog about it, visit schools and attend staff meetings to share the vision as it shifts from year to year. Although teachers are notorious for feigning ignorance about what goes on at the board office, most of us actually care about what our district staff do on a daily basis, we care when it is done well and we especially care when it is not. Such is the nature of a school district. 

“[The Senior Learning Team is] implementing projects which include: utilizing personal electronic devices in classrooms, building online communities, developing professional growth plans”

The BYOD “program” has substantive issues (see comments above). The “57 Online Communities” project was not successful -- very few district staff want or need an employer-monitored and controlled social media forum that is closed off to the public. The whole idea of social media in education is to connect beyond the familiar environment and breathe new life into one’s practice, or share expertise. Professional Growth plans... whose? Teachers? Principals? Senior Administration? Can we see some examples?

“[The Senior Learning Team is] reinventing rural education. Our rural education initiative has begun as a learning team of educators and principals who will exam how to build school communities when the population of the school does not sustain a traditional- style classroom. The work is in its beginning stages, and we know it is vital to our District.” 

This sentiment has been stated in one form or another for about five years. It would appear our district has a strong desire to do something for rural schools, but is not actually going about it with any vigour. Part of the problem no doubt rests with our broken distributed learning model, and part with lack of funding, but even within existing structures we should see more progress on this issue.  The Rural School Initiative that included many district staff and teachers is a good example of "the work is in its beginning stages." That was 2005 -- surely we have moved past the beginning stages in the last eight years?

The Essential Eight (p. 22-28)

“Through the collaborative efforts of schools, departments, the senior learning team, and global research, we have begun the work of embedding eight essential learning strands”

This “collaboration” has taken place for the most part outside of actual collaboration with teachers (or students, parents, trustees for that matter).  Although it is not unexpected that the jargon in the DAC resonates with the BC Education Plan, there are far too many generalities in the “Essential Eight” to inspire confidence. At any rate, it will come down to implementation, and this presents four significant issues: 1) a literal reading of the “Essential Eight” would suggest that implementation would be expensive. 2) implementation would require a shift in the priorities assigned to administration, e.g. a greater emphasis on instructional leadership -- this will be difficult at the secondary level. 3) implementation requires a higher degree of communication, collaboration, and shared decision-making between employee groups, namely teachers and administrators -- if this sometimes dysfunctional relationship is not addressed then the “Essential Eight” will fare no better than other troubled initiatives we’ve seen come and go over the years. 4) the district needs to determine which the “Eight” are actually essential and desired by teachers, or at least which interpretation of the categories can expect mutual agreement and shared priority. Some of the “Eight” contain language with contract implications, for example, and should be subject to review by affected partner groups before suggesting they are valid solutions to problems (e.g. 1, 2, 7, 8).

2. Data-driven Evidence for Learning (p. 22) 

“Improve staff understanding, knowledge, skills related to utilization of data/evidence” 

Use of data for planning has been problematic for many years. A survey in 2011 of past school plans and district plans for student success reveals a few problems: 1) a general confusion of correlation with causality, 2) a tendency to mash up bits of educational ideas or data types with the hopes that they are congruent, 3) comparison across cohorts with expectations that the underlying factors are the same, and 4) use of backwards-engineered goals to describe ordinary activities in the school or justify existing practice. In other words, we’ve tried to use data to support decisions but we’ve often had a poor understanding of how to select, gather, read, interpret, and respond to appropriate data. A goal of improving this situation is valuable, but only if we recognize that current methodological practices are largely invalid.

“We would provide in-service and professional development opportunities... (release, supplementary service, online). We would hope to move towards a coach for each school” 

We don’t have the professional capacity for this without significant changes to PD funding models, and a change to the culture of collaboration on educational technology in the district. Also, see comments above on the four issues related to implementation of the “Essential Eight.” Are these coaches actually data analysis positions? Voluntary, paid, or release based? Which employee group?

“Move from pilot to district-wide implementation of the Assessment Management System”

More work is needed to discuss AMS with school staffs before assuming that this is something that will be valued by the people you expect to use it.  Increased use of student profiling carries some professional and privacy issues, and could also be a duplicate effort with the replacement to BCeSIS. Like so many other ideas in the DAC, communication is important. Most secondary teachers have never heard of the AMS (even at the one high school that is apparently using it) and there does not appear to be anything available on the district website in terms of examples or rationale.

7. Enhanced Learning Through Technology (p. 25)

“Develop the processes of integrating technology into the learning environment (communication, research, graphic organizers, presentation)”

This is particularly troubling as our district used to be a leader in technology-based professional learning and we’ve let it slide for the last eight years. Do you mean to revive, renew, or replace the structures and relationships that used to create partnerships and shared projects across employee groups in our district? This is hardly an elephant in the room -- our district has ignored its technology leaders’ repeated request for dialogue and action, and the result has been disengagement and resignation. Site-based technology innovation and integration continues in fits and starts, happening despite the restrictive policies and a lack of discussion at the district level. I applaud the effort to get something going again, but the work will be difficult if conducted in isolation of teachers and shared decision-making. An example to illustrate: when the district moved to single-platform computing in 2010, the board (Management and Finance Committee) and senior administration were informed that this would come at a significant loss to innovative practice and teacher enthusiasm, and a request was made to put a plan together to support specific innovations that would he affected. The board committee chair hearing these concerns assured the presenters that the district does not move without a plan, and that a plan would be forthcoming. That was over three years ago and there is still no educational technology plan. In fact, we have also seen the loss of virtually every other structure that used to support cross-district collaboration on edtech, with the exception of a handful of LTGs which are not generally public or shared. If the school district means to live up to the “learning empowered by technology” aspect of the BC Education Plan, it needs to repair some bridges and rethink how it is handing the technology portfolio.

“Enable more self-directed learning – students construct their own understanding”

What does this mean in the context of technology? An improvement to our distributed learning model? If so, this is long overdue and needs a shift in both culture and funding, e.g. http://thielmann.blogspot.ca/2013/05/tipping-points.html. Perhaps this refers to blended learning initiatives? Without an increased capacity for district-wide dialogue on educational technology, all we can hope for is school-based exemplars that happen to catch on. If for no other reason than to get going on rural education reform, this statement needs to be fleshed out and matched to some goals for an improved district relationship regarding educational technology.

Personalized Learning (p. 28)

“Continue work on personalized learning at the August District Principals’ and Vice Principals’ meeting... follow-up with sessions on personalized learning at our monthly District Principals’ Meetings.” 

What does this work involve? Clearly many of our administrators (and teachers) are not comfortable leading and discussing on this topic, so some professional learning is in order, but it would be good to know what staffs can expect from their administrators re personalized learning.

“In conjunction with school-based administrators, develop and implement sessions on management competencies as well as personal and professional growth for administrators. We will align the sessions to the needs of the Principals and Vice Principals’ portfolios.”

Where can we see the management competencies our district uses? Are the same as the BCPVPA Leadership Standards? How are administrators kept accountable to these competencies? Does senior administration actually guide the personal growth of administrators or highlight moral stewardship? How is this done? Will administrators make their portfolios public, and invite interaction regarding their goals and progress related to competencies? Will they be encouraged to make better use of social media? This is expected if we want our leaders to model personalized learning, at least the way it was been framed by the BC Education Plan. Here is a related tool for leadership self-evaluation: https://www.dropbox.com/s/t307ah9lxyzzx4n/21stC_Leadership_Assessment_Tool.pdf

“Our rural secondary schools are exploring online resources to meet the unique needs of their students.”

As mentioned earlier, our district has talked about renewing rural education for a long time but the progress has been unacceptably slow. A variety of proposals were touted as a result of the rural schools initiative about five years ago -- what has come of this?

Appendix A: 21st Century Foundational Skills (p. 30)

“Reading, Writing, Numeracy... Caring for personal health and planet earth [sic]” 

What makes these skills endemic to the 21st Century? Regarding care for planet earth, what kinds of green initiatives and incentives are underway in SD57? What is being done to replant the many trees (and carbon sinks) that were removed due to the pine beetle? Over the last year our secondary school libraries have been discarding thousands of books as part of their “learning commons” renovations. Do you think the district decision to send these books out for shredding is commensurate with principles of sustainability? Why was no effort was made to find a home among students or the public for these books? Recirculation of “ex-libris” books is certainly not new idea and meets guidelines for appropriate use of public funds -- I would suggest this practice has been one of expediency and not sustainability.

Appendix B: Superintendent’s Report on Student Achievement (p. 31)

“Six-Year Completion Rate [etc.]

Most of the charts use five or fewer years of data. Our district has collected at least ten years of data for most of these categories, so why not use a more statistically valid set? Many of the trends raise questions of confidence given the small sample size and comparison of different cohorts. My wife has more patience for combing through stats than I do, so I trust she will continue to provide better feedback here than I can.

Targets, Programs, Performance, Results and Intervention (p. 39/40)

“I am required to comment on the effect of interventions and programs with specific reference to goals and targets set out in our last achievement contract”

A couple of things appear to be missing regarding interventions in the DAC -- the issue of illicit drugs in our schools and problems with student attendance. These two factors have enormous influence on student performance, morale, and school culture. These problems are largely understood as school-based issues, and yet our principals look for district direction when setting policy with their staffs and enforcing existing rules and laws. These are also two issues that nag at teachers and beg for improved expectations for the school-parent/guardian relationship. We need more attention to these problems in order to quell the common perception that we are excusing drug use with minimal consequences, and that we have given up trying to make attendance compulsory. If we have successful intervention strategies for either of these two growing problems, they are not well communicated between schools.

Intervention for homophobic bullying is also missing from the DAC, but it is noted that this topic has been on the school board’s radar for some time and is partially addressed by the “inclusive communities” work currently done (e.g. p. 20).

Leveraging the District Parent Advisory Council and their web-based parenting, drug awareness, and anti-bullying resources would be a good fit for inclusion in future DACs. In fact, why not embed the DAC within a dynamic webspace that includes submissions from all partner groups and community stakeholders, including their feedback on the “central” DAC? Why should senior administration have all the fun?

“teams of teachers, facilitated by the Curriculum and Instruction Department, will develop rubrics to measure the use of formative assessment strategies and differentiated instruction strategies in each classroom. The work... is a stretch goal we will be hard-pressed to attain. The nature of teacher professionalism will both enhance and inhibit this target.”

This is quite ambiguous, and I have yet to hear of any teachers working on this. Where can we see the work in progress, so we can judge for ourselves whether it crosses lines of professionalism? Again, communication is an issue. If we have creative, important work going on by district staff, administrators, or teachers, it should not be so darn hard to find. Too much mist and mystery in our school district -- closed-door meetings, opaque reasoning for key decisions, teachers finding out after the fact what’s good for them... maybe fear of their “professionalism” inhibiting all the “moving forward” going on?  Let’s open the doors and let the light and air inside.

Respectfully submitted,
Glen Thielmann

P.S. For future invitations to offer feedback, please add a deadline and also an indication of what will be done with the feedback. Having no date or timeline attached suggests raises some flags -- is this feedback being collected for a reason?  Who will read it?  Will it be publicly available?  How will it be reviewed and how will a decision be made to respond to challenges?  I have only relevant past experience to suggest why this might be an issue. The last time district employees were asked to provide feedback (2011 "Enhancing Learning" presentation on technology changes), no indication was given as to whether the feedback had made any kind of impact. The Senior Learning Team issued a statement by email about the nature of the feedback (that did not actually match the feedback) and a description of the next steps that would be taken (but did not actually take place).  The dozen or more teachers and school technology teams that offered feedback were understandably cynical in the wake of this "show" of soliciting feedback.  I hope for a better outcome this time.

As with anything I post here, please feel to comment, make suggestions, correct errors, or ask for evidence to back up my claims. Again, I applaud the unique request made by senior administration for feedback on a district document and look forward to seeing how our school system evolves over the next decade.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Ekphasis

Last week my friend, poet and PGSS teacher Al Rempel, helped put together a night of EKPHRASIS at the local Groop Gallery.

I'm no Stephen Lewis, but I think my vocabulary has some depth -- I know perfidious from penniferous for example (if you were both, you'd be untrustworthy and covered in feathers). Ekphrasis, however, was Greek to me... literally.

It is a word on that "Greek side of life's lexicon" that I tend to avoid. Words of singular or archaic use strike me as pompous or overly abstract, but are nonetheless puzzles that beg solving. The almighty Google tells me it is a description of a experience, the naming of a thing, or a "calling out" of what is being observed. Ekphrasis is used more commonly to refer to a work of art that evokes the essence of another work of art for an audience. Typically, this means writing or image-making applied to a specimen of the visual arts.  A photo exhibit on architecture could fulfill this definition, as could a poem about a dance performance.

In the case of the Groop Gallery, Ekphrasis was both the name of the exhibit and the nature of the closing night for a successful show that featured local artists and sculptors (see right column). The result was both dialectic and synergistic: "local visual artists present their works of art to invoke inspiration from some of Prince George's finest poets and literary artists. A closing night scheduled for May 31st will feature poems and literary interpretations based on the exhibited works."  The poets had visited the gallery at the exhibit's opening, picked a piece to "unpack," and spent a few weeks crafting a response.

On May 31st, A relatively large crowd packed into the tiny gallery on PG's eccentric 3rd Avenue. We had a half hour or so to study the artworks, and then a bevy of poets standing an arms length from us and a work that had inspired some writing, let loose with some spectacular verse. This experiment was a bullseye shot for my learning style or whatever it is that throws my brain into the focused-frenzy that I associate with learning.  When I had been observing the artwork, I posited my own silent verse and free associations onto the pieces. I imagined the sorts of things that the writers, particularly my friend Al, would be thinking, cringing at certain possibilities, excited for others (I must admit that I have a love/hate relationship with poetry).

When the poets spoke, I could feel a few of my predictions and personal viewer-responses burn up and float off into the crowd. What grew back in their place were the quirky, compelling, and insightful observations from some talented writers. Some seemed honest, straightforward, even vulnerable -- clear image making inspired by evocative art. Others seemed contrived, not in a bad way, but in the sense that the poet's voice was so strong they had a hard time giving/opening up to the power of the artwork. I could sense that the normally confident poets had soft hearts for the most part, quite cognizant of the fact they were commenting on someone else's work and that most of the visual artist were in the room.

I was immediately stunned at the possibilities for my students. What kinds of experiences or evidence can I present to them, or can they find for themselves, that compels this kind of synergy? How can students feel safe to explore their voice along the full range from simple "opening up" through to sanguine expression?  I happen to have a single class of English 11 next year after solid Social Studies for many years. I suppose as a basic start, I could take my students to an art exhibit (in our school or out in the community) and try some ekphrasis.  I think I'll try that, but I also want to capture the process somehow, and find other ways to employ the rich engagement that came from one practitioner valuing the work of another. This ain't a new topic for me, I've been preaching "identity" as the basis for student (and educator) engagement for as long as it has seemed obvious to me, but I've often ignored or forgotten the power of direct connections between a Self and a complex Other.

When the Other is both a person (in the room), with their identity as artist in the fore, and a work of art that conceals and reveals a variety of meaning, the possibilities are gorgeous. Ekphrasis is a great way of looking at how learning takes place, part imitation, part inspiration, requiring of discipline and motivated by the lifework that we do to affirm or develop identity.