Our Secret Weapon


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by carolynhack

Ok, clearly its not meant to be a secret, and its not really a weapon either. I just loved the idea for the title and the picture.

I have been thinking lately about how one decision that was made at our school has had beneficial effects on so many other areas of what we do. It was really reinforced for me when I was out in BC meeting with some fantastic educators doing awesome stuff. In the conversations I had with David Truss, Gallit Zvi, Jess Pelat, Parm Brar and Chris Wejr, we were able to share what we were doing in our schools and how we were able to make positive changes happen. When the conversation turned to the work we are doing at Greystone, the conversation kept ending up back at the one aspect of our school that is key to so much of the work we do.

 

Common Planning Time

 

If any of you reading this are administrators, I am sure you are working on plans for next year’s timetable, staff assignments, and your school schedule. Our building is Grades 5-9 with roughly 550 students, so in the wide world of difficult timetabling, I know ours is pretty tame, but it still can offer some struggles. We have to worry about getting all of our kids into the gym, we have to worry about ensuring French and Music for our younger students, and we have options classes for the older students. Add to that staff on varying contracts, some with part time or half time schedules, and you get quite the Rubik’s Cube to figure out.

What our school decided, long before I got there, was that if we were able to make common planning enough of a priority that it occurred regularly in our timetable, we would see growth in the areas we had made a priority. This past year, we were able to ensure that each teaching team had at least one of their two preps together with their entire grade-level teaching team (we call them learning communities). We saw a real impact on our school in a number of different areas and with a number of initiatives.

 

Learning Coach

This year our division participated in the learning coach initiative that was a push from our provincial government. This meant that we had a teacher with half of her time dedicated to working closely with teachers to help them improve their practice. She is a veteran teacher with a ton to offer, especially in the areas of Inquiry and Critical Thinking. In our planning for the year, we timetabled the learning coach purposely to ensure her attendance at each of the team meetings. This initiative is obviously beneficial in any building, but I believe it is maximized when the learning coach gets to sit in on the common planning times for each grade level team. As the team plans lessons for the coming weeks, they have the advantage of not only utilizing their fellow team members, they can also work with the coach in those meetings. If the team feels they have an area they need to work on collectively, the learning coach is there to offer advice and direction.

 

Assessment

When it comes to assessment, it can be difficult to know if our assessments are effective, if they are assessing what we want them to. As professionals, we review our students’ work on assessments and we try our best to adapt them and make them fit our needs and the needs of our students. This process obviously becomes more effective when we utilize similar assessments across numerous classes and then as a group come together to compare them. Having common planning time gives our teaching teams the opportunity to bring in sample student work and discuss the validity of their assessment practices.

 

Assisting Struggling Students

Getting together on a regular basis, our teaching teams can discuss how to assist struggling students from their learning community. Students often struggle with similar material or tasks, and strategies can be shared amongst team members on how to best help students with those challenges. We are also able to find groups of students and target them for small group activities with a teacher in a pull out or assign Education Assistant support to a group of students from different classrooms.

 

Meaningful Learning Experiences

Our school has been focused on inquiry and critical thinking for some time now, and each year we improve in these areas as we look to bring the most impactful and beneficial learning experiences to our students. Having the opportunity to bring teams together to plan the inquiries on a regular basis, and then to have our learning coach who is very strong in these areas join them, means that our inquiry projects have become more numerous and more effective. If teams have teachers who do not teach all core courses but rather have a couple specialties, as our LC7, LC8 & LC9 teams do, it means we are giving them an opportunity to ensure cross-curricular inquiry projects can happen even at our highest grade levels.

 

Common Planning Time exists at Greystone because our administration and staff agreed that it would be the most effective way to ensure that our school priorities were met. Every building, every division has priorities. So many talk about how they want collaboration, they want rich learning for their students and staff, they want professional reflection and growth. Its really easy to have goals and a vision, but shouldn’t your vision live in the way you plan for your school? Whatever your vision is, whatever your goals are for your school, does your timetable support it? Do you plan meaningfully for a school year that will align with your vision? Everything from classroom spaces/design, room assignments, supervision scheduling, professional development and even the way we communicate with our staff can have an impact, and I believe that we should be mindful of the impact each decision can have to add or take away from our vision or our goals.

What do you do to ensure your school’s goals are realized when you plan for the next school year?

 

Take A Trip!


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Dave Greebe

Wow. What a couple days! I spent Monday and Tuesday in Coquitlam, Surrey and Agassiz learning from some very smart people about all sorts of things. I was in BC for some coaching related work, and was able to extend the trip to spend some time at my parents and get down to the Lower Mainland for these meetings. While it meant a few more days away from my wife and daughter, I am really glad I made the trip, and that these kind and brilliant people had the time to spend with me.

I started at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, and he and his students toured us (Gallit Zvi was also there) around the school and talked to us about their Inquiry coursework, their alternate delivery of curriculum and their very unique school. I was amazed by his students and their familiarity with the language of their school. One Gr. 9 student talked about her “Self Pace” program, another about their “Inquiries” and the students scoffed at how much work they would have had to do to complete an I.D.S. (Independent Directed Study). The school only opened in September, and they have clearly done a great job of educating their kids on the work that they will do and how they will be experiencing their education. After the tour, David, Gallit and I went for some Pho (never had it, not sure I’ll be running out to have it again! haha sorry David) and had a chance to really talk. David told us about the grant that one of his Gr. 9 students applied for and received for a considerable amount of money, which was to be dedicated to her group’s inquiry project in which they were building a school garden. These three girls have been planning and working on this for some time, and they already have plans to bring primary aged students in to experience the garden and grow some plants themselves. It was an amazing story to hear, and I hope for David it was a nice chance to share just a few of his many successes from his school. The topic opened up to what Gallit and I were doing in our buildings and we had some great conversations about infusing innovation experiences into our students’ learning and how to get the most meaningful learning out of those opportunities.

Next it was off to Fraser Heights School to meet with Parm Brar and Jess Pelat, two very bright young ladies teaching an Inquiry 8 curriculum, one where all four core subjects are blended into one program full of project learning and powerful questions and challenges. In typical teacher fashion, the two were very modest about their accomplishments and really didn’t feel they were doing something special, which after 90 minutes of discussing I had heard they clearly were. We discussed what they found challenging and what they found rewarding about this first-time experience developing and teaching this class. We talked about how best to create cross-curricular learning activities and the impact it has on student engagement and motivation. I found myself very excited to know that many of our staff would be at the same conference as Parm and Jess in little over a month and I am hopeful they will be able to connect and share with these two amazing teachers.

Tuesday morning I had a brief but very impressive experience watching Genius Hour in action with Gallit Zvi and Hugh MacDonald. Three groups from their classes were presenting completed projects and sharing how the project went for them. After that, the kids broke out into groups in various learning spaces and went to work on their projects, and I was able to sit with many groups and ask the students about their experience with Genius Hour. It was great to see how proud the students were of Genius Hour and their teachers, and how much pride they took in the work they were doing. I asked one student why they chose to work on a video project and he said that he “had been inspired by the work of his classmate”… no lie, he actually said that. Another student said the best part of Genius Hour is that it “Let’s us all be creative in our own ways”. Before this visit I loved Genius Hour, but now I am not prepared to wait any longer to get it started at Greystone.

(The Genius Hour board in Gallit's class)

(The Genius Hour board in Gallit’s class)

On my way back to Kamloops to catch my flight I was able to stop and meet face to face (finally) with Chris Wejr, someone I have been connected with on Twitter from almost the first day I signed up. Chris is a smart guy, and the one thing you notice when you hear him speak is his desire to make his school better for his staff and for his students. We talked about some shared struggles we have had with technology in our buildings, he toured me around and showed me the amazing view he has from his school field (see pic below) and then over lunch we talked about our shared passion for getting teachers connected via Social Media. It was a quick lunch, as I had to make my flight, but the one thing I knew as I dropped him off at his school was that we will definitely connect more now, both online and hopefully in person.

(The beautiful view from Chris's school field)

(The beautiful view from Chris’s school field)

So as I sat in the airport in Calgary waiting for my connecting flight to take me home to my wife and daughter who I missed a great deal on my 5 day trip to BC, and while I was excited to see them, I was also relishing the invigorating energy my trip has provided. I am really looking forward to meeting with our staff and sharing all the great learning I did and to work with them to find ways to put some of that learning into action in our building.

Now I was able to make this trip happen due to circumstances falling into place, but I am sure there are some of you reading this who have never even gone to visit another school in your own division. When we spend time in other buildings and conversing with other professionals, we are opened up to their perspectives, their knowledge and their passions. It doesn’t take long to find schools that are exploring similar ideas to your own, and coming together to discuss these ideas is mutually beneficial for all involved. This is true of visiting another province, state or country but I also believe this to be true of visiting another school in your own division. I know that spending time just 15 minutes down the road in Travis McNaughton‘s Muir Lake School opened my eyes up to a number of things we could do at Greystone.

When it comes to connecting I will always be a big advocate for using Social Media (every link on this page is to a twitter page!), and I would never have been able to connect with David, Gallit, Hugh, Jess, and Chris if it wasn’t for twitter. But I believe there is a great deal of power in making an effort to go to other buildings and go to meet with people so that the conversation can be deep and meaningful and not limited by the number of characters. Take a trip, either somewhere outside of your division, state, province or country, or even just a trip down the road to a school near you. Go and listen to what people do in other buildings and share with them what you do. I bet you’ll feel just as energized as I do.

Engagement is Enough!


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ad@mK

I love when a metaphor is so clearly portrayed in a picture. We have all heard this one… parent spends an¬†exorbitant amount of money on a toy for their child only to have the child get more out of the box itself. The parent always tells the story as a funny but frustrating anecdote, and with a sigh, laughs at the silliness of it all. In the end, they have a happy baby, excited to play and that’s all that matters.

I have been spending a lot of my free time reading and discussing a number of innovative projects being done by people all over the place. I’ve spent time discussing Genius Hour on the hashtag #geniushour and today, was lucky enough to hang out with the first lady of Genius Hour, Gallit Zvi¬†(tomorrow I am spending the morning in her class for their Genius Hour!). I have been reading about Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days, and of course Innovation Day/Innovation Week. My morning today was spent at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, hearing how they are able to provide students with the time and space to really take ownership of their learning. Speaking with Gallit and David, you can see their pride in their students and the amazing projects they are doing. They are eager to share just how driven their students are when working on work they care about.

As I read and converse more and more with other people considering these projects, I often hear questions about how the projects are assessed and how they connect with curriculum, and while these are valid questions, they always seemed to irk me a little. I felt like people needed to experience these projects for themselves to see the real power they possess, and if they did, they might not be so worried about the assessment or curricular ties. You see the real power in these projects is the engagement that results in our students when they are given the power to direct their learning. I saw it during our Innovation Week, and I have read about the same reaction is students experiencing Genius Hour, Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days. Kids get excited about learning.

To me, that is reason enough to try one of these projects. After our innovation week, there was excitement residue all over the place. Students talked about their projects, and what they were going to do for the next innovation week. Innovation-style activities started popping up all over our building as teachers embraced the energy from the week and re-created it in their rooms. If we can do projects that get students excited to come to school then we are creating a culture in our buildings of eager students who value learning. Isn’t that a good start for any building?

Eventually, we can add the curricular connections we want our students to make, and we can find appropriate ways to assess their learning, but it doesn’t have to be the driving force behind every learning experience we provide our students. Creating a passion for learning, an engaged young person will pay dividends for us in every lesson we teach so for now Engagement is Enough. We get our excited student the same way we get the excited baby happy just to play with the box, and we can be ok with a student who is just excited to learn as well. If having students excited to learn and engaged in the process is something important to you, think about giving one of these projects a try. While it may not hit the outcomes or end up with a grade on it, I am willing to bet it will be one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ll ever have as an educator.