Sunday, December 30, 2012

Leaps of faith...

flickr image via Scarto

In teaching and learning, whether we're jumping off a cliff, or jumping off a curb, the important thing is that we're jumping off something. I've never been one to make a lot of resolutions for a new year, but this year I will make at least one. I'm actually thinking it's more of an unresolution than a resolution owing to the notably not so much a SMART goal nature of it.

I'm not going to stand still.

I intend to keep moving down the learning paths I've set for myself; maybe even define some new ones understanding that the journey is something to be enjoyed, and perhaps that in learning, we never really arrive at the place where we can check 'that one' off the list. As soon as we think we know something, a truly authentic pathway of learning will show us a new direction or branch of the path that sets us off asking new questions so we can learn more, or differently along that path. I'm OK with this ambiguity because I think it will enable me to see beyond a more specific and narrowly focused goal (resolution.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

The short and long now of education innovation...

flickr image via return the sun

Now is a curious word. For something to be happening now, now has to have a length. Whether a fleeting instance like a millisecond, a minute, day, week or longer, now has to have some degree of length so something has time to happen in the now. I think of now as being short or long. Each day I spend at school, when compartmentalized as a block of time where things happen quite quickly, is to me a fairly short now. I would consider what might be accomplished in an entire school year in a longer now context, and something like the continuum of technology integration in schools a very long now process. I think this short and long now perspective is a big factor relative to innovation in education.

My west coast Twitter colleague, Jamie Billingham (@jamiebillingham) put out a very interesting post recently on the Thought Stream blog. Representing feedback from the entire Thought Stream team, Jamie wrote about what they at Thought Stream feel 2013 and beyond will look like in the education innovation context. Jamie made some thought-provoking predictions in her post about a broad range of initiatives that are already in play in the short now, and that are certainly worth extending into the long now education reform context.

Why Empathy?

 Empathy Symbol image retrieved from

This is a guest post by Larry Hartel, my principal at Glendale Sciences and Technology School. Click here to read it where it was originally posted at Empathy ReBoot, one of our school blogs.

Why Empathy?

Good question. Undoubtedly there are those who believe a successful inclusive school is one that tries to accommodate kids who don't really fit the mold of a 'regular' classroom. Perhaps they would view inclusion as a set of strategies enabling the rest of us to tolerate their presence in our classrooms. They may even go so far as to say they accept these kids. At Glendale we're not those people. Tolerating kids who are different isn't good enough for us. As we design a cultural shift toward full and ubiquitous inclusion at Glendale School, we're not even comfortable saying we've accepted the kids who are different from the rest. For our school to be truly "inclusive," it must be one that celebrates difference.

We are on a journey to learn how to celebrate the diversity of students we encounter within our school as a cultural reality worthy of celebration; to glare at strengths while only glancing at weakness. To do so, we must understand that inclusion isn't simply a set of strategies, but rather a reality in the world that schools should be reflecting and influencing. The world is a wonderfully diverse place. We have to reflect this if we are to create authentic and optimized learning environments for ALL students.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Kick Some Assets!

 flickr phot via Jenn Durfey

It's funny how when we become attuned to something in a deeper manner, it seems to heighten our sensibilities to others who are on the same path, and to other efforts that mirror our journey. Recently at my school we have embarked on a journey to learn about empathy and build empathy in our staff, students and their families. Our project is called Empathy Reboot, and after only two gatherings of our school Empathy ReBoot Team (ERT), we are certainly beginning to notice a convergence. We even have other schools wanting to partner with us to reboot empathy within their building.

We have received emails and telephone calls of support from our colleagues, other administrators from near and far and most recently, from other agencies who would like to collaborate with us on our project.  One very exciting connection that fell in our laps last week occurred when we received an invitation from the Superintendent of the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachment to sit down and have a conversation about the Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets. My principal, Larry Hartel and I had this conversation with Supt. Warren Dozko and our District psychologist, Jay Hetherington, last week. Warren has significant experience working with the Developmental Assets in his capacity as an administrator with the RCMP, and Jay also has worked extensively in the past to develop initiatives that support Asset building within our community. I too have experience with Asset building. I conducted action research as part of my graduate school program into the concept of Asset building in kids from at-risk environments.

Monday, November 12, 2012

One size fits all?

 flickr image via cameronparkins

My school (formerly a sixth to eighth grade middle school,) is now an inquiry-focused, sciences and technology kindergarten to eighth grade school... elements that when put together can also be called my dream job. The school is in its third year of this paradigm shift toward a custom-built K-8 inquiry, sciences and technology context. We believe that our new school context creates an optimal environment to perpetuate the learning goals of our District.

The inquiry part of what we're doing at our school is what I want to focus on here. What is inquiry, and how are we building an inquiry-based school? This is the inquiry question we've been working on answering. To me, the process of answering this question is what's so exciting about being part of Glendale school's transformation. Our group of teachers are all at different places in their understanding of inquiry, technology and sciences, and that is not only OK, it is expected in an inquiry-based learning environment. We all have personal learning tendencies. Some like to go fast, take risks and make mistakes... others are more cautious and calculated, but everyone needs to be supported if we are to effectively balance the professional development needs of all staff. I believe it is very important to remember that an inquiry-based school doesn't work very well as a one-size-fits-all environment to address this diversity.

It is very important that we, (meaning all members of the school family: students, staff, parents and significant community members as partners,) have a collective vision and mission that guide our practice, but it's also very important that each individual member of our school understands that the collective vision and mission does not dictate that there is only one correct way to do something, and that we don't all have to be at the same place, and on the same timeline as we learn forward. If we were to believe so as teachers, we would not be modeling an authentic inquiry teaching and learning context, as surely we understand that our students don't learn in the same way, and at the same pace. The inquiry learning process is in part driven by the students themselves making it impossible to line everyone up in order of learning space and learning time. From Alberta Education on inquiry learning,
Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learning's to others.  In classrooms where teachers emphasize inquiry-based learning, students are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage students deeply.

 As we move forward we are asking ourselves over and over again, "how do we create authentic inquiry learning within our classrooms and school," we are confronted by the reality that, (like any good inquiry question,) there is more than one answer. There has to be, owing to the fact that every member of our school family possesses different knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA) relevant to inquiry learning, and even within each KSA, we all possess different levels of function. This is real life, and it's awesome. The diversity we have among our school family members is not a bug; it's a feature... as long as we frame it that way and are able to let go of our anxieties about changing the way we are teaching and learning. There is no one size fits all solution to our guiding inquiry question... we need everybody's answers.

As we ubiquitously create the school we want to serve kids best in an inquiry-based, science and technology focused context, it is critically important that we understand the answers are in here... we are the answer to every question we ask regarding the directions we go, the services we provide and the ways that we care for each other, our students and the rest of the Glendale school family. In the authentic spirit of professionalism and collaboration, we must look first to ourselves for the answers to our own questions... that's what creativity is all about.

Returning to our District Education Plan, we couldn't ask for a better frame to guide our inquiry. We are representing the District-wide goals of inclusion, literacy and high school completion. We see the process as constructive. We start by inquiring about inclusion. We ask ourselves the inquiry question, "how do we create a sense of belonging for every single member of our school family?" and then we work off this foundation building toward other inquiry questions that guide our effort to promote literacy across the curriculum, and eventual successful high school completion.

When we work in a many sizes to fit many inquiry teaching and learning environment, we recognize the value of perspective. We all have one, our students included, and making the effort to know each others is inherently engaging and inclusive. We are focusing on each others strengths, and the strengths of our students to point us in the direction of likely engagement. We all come to school wanting to do well, and focusing on what we can do instead of what we can't leads us down paths that we want to travel. We fully understand that our strengths are differential, and we consider this a bonus... we promote the sharing of strengths openly so we can learn from each other and leverage our ability to maximize positive effect without the pressure of feeling that we're alone on our journey. This is the inclusive path at Glendale School.

Literacy to us is not just a reading and writing issue. We promote literacy in a wide range of developmental knowledge, skill and attitude domains. We understand that kids need to grow literacy comprehensively... physical, emotional, social, environmental, numerical, artistic, musical etc... if they are to be well-rounded learners who recognize how different levels of competence in different domains complement each other, we need to support inquiry into all these domains. We're framing them as the Sciences, and to us, they are also inclusive,
How often people speak of art and science as though they were two entirely different things, with no interconnection. An artist is emotional, they think, and uses only his intuition; he sees all at once and has no need of reason. A scientist is cold, they think, and uses only his reason; he argues carefully step by step, and needs no imagination. That is all wrong. The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers.
– Isaac Asimov
“Prometheus,” The Roving Mind (1983)

We believe there needs to be a zen-like balance between the arts and sciences... what for many are dichotomous domains. Staff members are involved in teaching the sciences as related to their relative knowledge, skills and attitudes within particular areas. We play to people's strengths. Everyone contributes based on what they have to offer. This is our balance, and we have great capacity to represent good inquiry teaching across the spectrum.

As we strive to provide inclusive environments targeting the development of literacy across domains, we believe we are promoting high school completion. One of our projects in the context of inclusion is called Empathy ReBoot. We believe that feelings come first, thoughts second and then tools... in other words, we believe we need to be empathic to the feelings of others before we can help them think with purpose. When we become attuned to the feelings of others, even if we don't fully understand them, we can at least have insight into their perspective. This insight allows us to help them form purpose; to write their learning stories during the time they are with us; to explore and develop literacy in multiple domains.

Caring for our students in this way shows them we are interested and want to walk with them down their learning paths; to think forward. Once we enter this forward-thinking mindset, it becomes much easier to develop tools together making the journey more purposeful, efficient and enjoyable... the kind students don't want to end, even past high school.

A motto I like to use, and it's permanently fixed on my classroom wall...
If you're having fun and not learning, that's bad.
If you're learning and not having fun, that's worse.
If you're learning and having fun, that's our classroom.
 If either of the first two situations arises in my classroom, it really just means we haven't asked enough of the right questions.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Drawing the Circle of Courage...

 Original artwork by George D. Bluebird, Sr.

Everett Tetz, my friend and colleague at Glendale Sciences and Technology School,  is guest blogging this post. It's a perfect follow-up to my last post, "Empathy ReBoot Project." Check out our fledgling project blog, Empathy ReBoot. Many thanks to you Everett.
I believe that the importance of belonging to a larger group, community, or family cannot be understated in relation to today’s societies. On a large scale, we’ve wandered away from the village mentality into a highly individualized existence resulting in disproportionate demands on the person rather than persons. Pockets of true community are now sparse but tend to be the driving force for social, economic, and political change. On a smaller scale, in a school for example, a sense of community may be what makes true social and academic learning possible.

I believe a true sense of belonging is one of the most important factors to being engaged and successful at school. The truth is though, that this does not come often enough and certainly not without work and intention. At times, we need to choose to accept what might be different, what might make us uncomfortable, or what may even scare us. We must challenge ourselves to view the world through someone else’s eyes and see what they might see. We have all found ourselves in moments when we have desperately wanted someone else to be able to feel what it is like to be “us.”

In Native American and First Nations cultures, significance was nurtured in communities of belonging. Lakota anthropologist Ella Deloria described the core value of belonging in these simple words: "Be related, somehow, to everyone you know." Treating others as kin forges powerful social bonds that draw all into relationships of respect.

I want you to think of those around you. Think of someone who may 'feel' different, or perhaps that they don’t belong to the group. What would that actually feel like? Maybe you feel like one of these people. You are certainly not alone. As we strive to create inclusive environments in our schools, we must work together to create a culture where all are accepted regardless of ability, religion, sexual orientation, cultural background, skin color, hobbies, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and family history. We must work together to be a truly inclusive community of learners. I personally believe that a sense of belonging is the foundation on which we build all other skills.
"Belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity, these are the four well springs of courage." –Martin Brokenleg
In essence we may actually be discussing the underpinnings of community and belonging which is empathy. Our ability to recognize feelings experienced by another being is the skill needed when forming connection, community and belonging, ultimately bonding us to the larger human experience. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Empathy Re-Boot Project

 flickr image via Allen McGregor

My colleagues and I along with our students at Glendale Sciences and Technology School are embarking on an exciting and challenging journey. We are calling it our Empathy Re-Boot Project.

I have returned to Glendale as its vice-principal three years after a one year stint as its counselor. I loved my time at Glendale before, and always felt like there was unfinished business there. The first time around in my role as counselor, I spent a good deal of time helping kids, and staff members too, develop their empathetic lens; the one that allowed them to walk a mile in the shoes of others toward a deeper understanding of their learning stories. We all have a learning story... the part already written; the part we are writing in the present and the hopeful part we intend to write toward the happy endings of the future. In my second term at Glendale I am thrilled to continue this work with the staff and students of my reunited Glendale family.

In Alberta, all schools are in the midst of an important and necessary paradigm shift toward inclusive learning environments. At Glendale, we have been working hard to re-frame our educational perspectives towards the diverse population of students at our school. We don't have segregated programming at our school. We don't pull students out of class anymore; we hold their hands as we walk alongside them. As we walk alongside them we talk to them. We talk to them about their learning story... what's happened in the past; what's happening in the present and what they want to happen in the future. Our goal is to learn their story behind the story, the one that enlightens us toward deeper understanding of what may be challenging students, and ever more importantly, what they need from us to help work toward mitigating the challenges. We're focusing on students' strengths in as asset-based model of intervention. We're downplaying student weakness and focusing our empathy lenses on solutions.

We are re-booting empathy.

Thinking deeply about virtues and character development, we have concluded that true inclusion in our school requires an intense understanding of others, and in particular, their stories. We are taking a phenomenological-post modernist perspective. We believe that individual circumstances can distract from the learning process, but also that striving to know these circumstances, and focusing on supporting strategies that mitigate them at school will lead us down solution focused paths toward optimized teaching and learning. There is always a better path to take. We must honor the perspectives of those we work with when helping divine the best paths.

We are using our empathic lenses to focus on the resiliency of our students, and we are tapping into that resiliency with intent to nurture its growth. We are recognizing resiliency in ourselves, and  we are using it to support kids who are vulnerable. We are teaching them to be more resilient over time by making sure they know we care, and that we want to help them write personal learning stories with happy endings.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

In all sincerity...

flickr image via Sam Howzit
I believe that sincerity is paramount to nurturing trust and commitment in people, and critical to effective communication.
In Patrick Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the absence of trust is listed as dysfunction number one for good reason. Trust is obviously critical to team function and team success. Without it we can't be truly committed (lack of commitment is the number three dysfunction) to anyone but ourselves; that is to say if we even trust ourselves... I'm not sure we all do. Trust requires sincerity. We have to be honest with ourselves, and honest with others before we can trust, otherwise our function and purpose is a facade based on insincere and false (or perhaps not entirely true,) premises.

Commitment is not a half-way thing. It's what makes us accountable in the truest sense of the word. To be truly committed to another person, a process or an organization is a selfless act that makes us accountable and requires a sincere and unwavering honesty... even if the act of being committed isn't associated with any form of personal gain or enrichment. In reference to Peter Block's work, my friend Paul Shamlet articulated this very well in a recent post at the #ECOSYS blog...
In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block defines accountability in a novel and compelling way:  “Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from.  It means we have conversations of what we can do to create the future.  Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us.  Restoration begins when we think of community as a possibility, a declaration of the future that we choose to live into.” (48)  
 Peter Block talks about the new story... but I don't think it's new at all. Our story has always been there waiting to be told in different contexts for different purposes. Perhaps the new story Block refers to really means the new way to tell our story; to give it purpose and authenticity. Through stories it is often said that we can learn from our mistakes, and from our successes. When we tell our stories of failure and success, we are creating vessels for these teachings that benefit all who have an ear for them. This is what makes stories so powerful and important. If we could just get better at telling stories, and in turn listening to them, infinite possibilities emerge.

Our stories are the basis of all the good, and bad, that have befallen humankind since the beginning of time. We all have stories to tell; stories already written (past), stories we're writing now (present) and stories we have yet to write (future.) We obviously have the most control over the story we're writing in the present, but how long is the present? Is it a fleeting moment, an hour, a week, a year or even longer?  I think the point of the long-now present is that we should try to make it as long as possible. In order to connect our past and future to each end of our present, the present has to have a length... this is the long-now, but I think how we determine that length is entirely up to us. Our long-now history extends toward our past and our future. We need to connect with our long-now history in a more meaningful and purposeful way. The longer we can make our long-now history, the more we are able to connect with stories already written, and the stories we have yet to write. Our past helps to show us the way to our future.

Sadly, in the midst of our fast-paced lives these days, our long-now histories have become much shorter. Our hectic lives are spent scrambling to 'get ahead and we've lost our connection with the powerful stories already written; our own and those of others. We are living in very short long now's, and when this happens our ability to connect in useful and purposeful ways is hindered. We have lost a sincere connection to the teachings of our past, and we've lost a sincere connection to our goals for the future. We are alas, living in the moment... not necessarily a bad thing if we could just make that moment a much longer one. We have to be more accountable for our stories; we need to be committed to sharing them in purposeful ways, and we have to listen to the stories of others trusting that there is always something to learn from them.

Using our long-now stories like this will draw us closer to each other as we seek interdependent networks of support in others, our processes and our organizations. The long-now narratives we share with each other illuminate the imperative that we be committed to our collective well-being; they expose our individual vulnerability, but they make us stronger as a team or group at the same time when we realize we are not alone in our story. Being sincere and honest with each other allows trust to grow and all of a sudden our long-now histories start to overlap and we communicate more effectively; we move from independence to interdependence. Not a bad place to be.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Smile... the world is good.

flickr image via ephotography

"Always smile back at little children.
To ignore them is to destroy their belief that the world is good." ~ Pam Brown 

This fall I began teaching at a new school. I am also the new vice-principal of my school. My old school and my new school are very different in many ways... different enough that they are almost incomparable. For the most part, the two schools side by side represent totally different educational contexts. I have been asked by many this fall to make comparisons between them, but I can't; they're like apples and oranges. They are both great schools doing great things but in most different ways. There is one way, however, that the two schools are identical. 

When I get asked to compare my old school to my new school, I simply say, "kids are kids." No matter where I've taught, or whatever context I was teaching in, I have always kept this notion at the forefront of my practice. Remembering that kids are kids no matter where in the world reminds me to make sure I help them preserve their innocent perspectives as long as they can. The world will happen soon enough... for now they're just kids, and they deserve to live in the world they dream of... the one that's good and happy and safe; the one that makes them smile just because they are excited to be a part of it.

When I walk down the halls, around our campus, and into classrooms every day, I remember to smile at kids, even before they smile at me. I greet them and take the time to speak with them as often as I can about anything they want to talk about. This is the best thing I can do as a teacher and school administrator to help kids feel a sense of welcome and belonging at my new school. I did this at my old school too, and every school I taught at before that.

The more I do it, the more I'm convinced that the kids are right. The world is good, and they are going to make it even better.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Rural EduKare

image designed by Gigi Luberes

In my original post on EduKare I contextualized it as a concept that mitigates problems inherent with urban education. The reality is that EduKare as a concept can also mitigate problems inherent in rural education. The reason it can work well in both settings is the principle behind it- empowerment of individuals in a local context.

Recently I had the good fortune to meet (virtually) Steven Putter (via Twitter @stevenputter.) He lives in Water's Edge, Zambia, and coordinates a very exciting project; one as exciting as I have come across, the Imagine Rural Development Initiative (IRDI). This statement sums up the purpose behind IRDI...
Propagating sustainable success. Creating scalable models for impacting change, IRDI engages real time development for building sustainable communities through the empowerment of individual skills.
The magnitude of this statement is important to note. As a lacrosse player and long-time coach, I often describe the game to non-lacrosse folks and new-to-the-game players as "a team sport played by individuals." Essentially a team is only as strong as its weakest link; in sport and in life. Empowering individual skills in local contexts is a powerful effort that must be made when the goal is a sustainable community, sports team, culture, classroom, school, etc. One element of IRDI that resonates strongly with me is Emergent U. Emergent University is part of a larger initiative at Water's Edge, Zambia to educate local citizens who desire to give back to their community following their study and training. Water's Edge is what EduKare looks like in a rural setting. The underlying principle behind Water's Edge is sustainability. IRDI's effort to create sustainability manifests through support for the individual... just like EduKare...
An EduKare teaching and learning environment considers pivotal learning variables in each student's story... the story already written, the here-and-now story and the future story every teacher helps write. EduKare is an approach based on the foundational belief that every child can learn, but that detractors to learning can be powerful debilitating forces in a child's life. If these forces are not mitigated, learning will not happen effectively. The EduKare teaching and learning environment very simply provides the services required to mitigate powerful learning detractors in the lives of young people so they can then focus their energy on achieving relative academic success.
In the real world, people have problems and challenges in urban and rural settings. Negative factors like poverty, violence, limited exposure to good education, and lack of family privilege don't discriminate between rural and urban settings... these are borderless elements that prevent individuals from focusing their energy on moving forward in life to overcome the odds they create.

We often place geographic borders around negative factors like poverty, and we convince ourselves that these are actually what's holding us back. I have heard many wishes that "if I could just get out of this place, I'd be free from the bonds that hold me back." I think this is an unproductive perspective, and I think Steven Putter does too. Sustainability, to me, is synonymous with productivity, purpose, vision, and pride. Instead of taking people out of the environment they believe is holding them back, we should be reinventing the environment so it is productive, purposeful, and visionary; one that people are proud to be part of and want to stay in. The process needs to be more than just window dressing; when successful, it's a process of creating vision and purpose so people can thrive as productive, proud members of the reinvented communities they live within. Sustainability in communities is supported by learning; it requires that we learn from our place.

I think learning and movement can be thought of in a synergistic way. How we frame learning is key if we are to create a platform of support that sustains it over a lifetime. Our innate desire to learn; to navigate the world we live in needs environmental support to be sustainable in a given environment. It needs a local context making our place a learning place.

More than any other biological species, it appears that humans are born to learn. We learn in so many different, and natural contexts. We are in constant motion; traveling in simultaneous physical, psychological, emotional, and cognitive realms. Robert Sylwester characterizes this need to be in motion,
The planning, regulation, and prediction of movements are the principal reasons for a brain. Plants are as biologically successful as animals, but they don’t have a brain. An organism that’s not going anywhere of its own volition doesn’t need a brain. It doesn’t even need to know where it is. What’s the point? Being an immobile plant does have its advantages however. Plants don’t have to get up every day and go to work because they’re already there.
On the other hand, if an organism has legs, wings, or fins, it needs a sensory system that will inform it about here and there, a make-up-its-mind system to determine whether here is better than there or there is better than here, and a motor system to get it to there if that’s the better choice – as it is, alas, when we have to go to work.

Yes, we do. Each of us is responsible for our livelihood, and for supporting those who depend on us for love and care. Acquiring the skills necessary to fulfill this responsibility is a challenge for all of us. Creating local contexts that reduce our far and wide search for a sustainable life is key to a sustainable home community. Empowering individuals to move within communities instead of away from is how we get to vibrant, self-sufficient communities.

Another recent Twitter acquaintance, Mpule K. Kwelagobe (@MpuleKwelagob) introduced me to the term endogenous (thank you Mpule.)

... from
adjective1.proceeding from within; derived internally.
In addition to representing her country, and the continent of Africa as the first Black African woman to win an international pageant and 1st delegate from Botswana to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, Mpule is doing awesome work in Africa to empower people from within. We don't need to move away from the places in life that we believe are holding us back; we just need to learn how to move (learn) within them. Local efforts to support individual members of a community create a ripple effect that sustains the larger community making it viable and productive. This is the key to creating room to move within communities.

Purpose leads to pride.

The Kugluktuk Grizzlies- LAX for Life

I was facilitating a lacrosse coach's clinic this weekend and we got into a conversation about what involvement in sport can do for kids. I am a strong believer in resiliency. Resilient people have purpose; something that keeps them going in the face of adversity when the odds are against them. There are many ways we can find this purpose... for many it is found through sport.

Tyler Waycott, a great lacrosse guy was one of the coach participants at the clinic. He shared this story with us, and being a lacrosse guy myself, I was choking back tears...

Turns out Russ Sheppard is also an acquaintance through lacrosse, and a fellow lacrosse coach facilitator. I had heard him talk about his time teaching in Nunavut, but I had no idea how great a thing he did up there. Unfortunately the lacrosse program is no longer operational in Kugluktuk, but one lacrosse blog reports that the community is rallying around other sports like soccer and keeping the spirit alive.

I'm going to guess that Russ leaving Kugluktuk was the main reason lacrosse is no longer played in the community at an organized level, but I'm not sure. At any rate, it's too bad that the program is no longer.

This story however, is one of the great ones and will last as an example of how to build resiliency through sport. Russ was a "significant other" in the lives of many kids in Kugluktuk. He cared enough to go the extra mile and support them through a sport he loves. What an honorable thing to do. Sharing his passion for a game with those who felt they had nothing saved their lives.

Sometimes all it takes is for one person to introduce us to one thing that creates purpose... then we're off to the races.

Teachers have the opportunity to do this for kids every day.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hope and Fear...


Hope without fear doesn't exist; that's called naivety.

Hope is the alpha. All resiliency, all fear, all action is derived from hope, "the thing with feathers... that sings the tune without the words" as so beautifully described by Emily Dickinson in her poem entitled "Hope"...

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Emily Dickinson

My friend Daniel Durrant (@ddrrnt ) recently wrote about hope in a nemetics context. Nemetics is a term that has evolved to explain phenomena surrounding the exchanges that occur in our emotional, cognitive and physical spaces.He aligned hope with the nemetic element of engaging. I think he is saying that hope needs to be actionable to be called hope.

Frankl called it purpose in logotherapy. I call it action, but nonetheless hope without action is wishful thinking. How can teachers nurture this hope in students? If we allow Daniel to take us on a nemetics mini-tour of the process perhaps it will resonate more clearly.

He quite cleverly aligned faith, hope, charity and patience as nemetic elements that align with the Notice- Engage- Mull- Exchange pattern. The full spectrum of the pattern looks like this:
FAITH is why we NOTICE- this aligns the seen and unseen. It is the first impulse that triggers everything.
HOPE is why we ENGAGE- this aligns the decision to engage with the value and quality of hope. somewhat a paradox, but oh well.
CHARITY is why we MULL- this aligns the notion of time spent mulling with more purposeful and selfless reasons. also triggers gratitude, which might sync up with patience.
PATIENCE is why we EXCHANGE- this aligns the awareness that what was believed and so engaged by giving time may not be reciprocated when and how we expect. Yet we do so because patience releases attachments and fills our hearts with gratitude for what is present.
"Neme" is an acronym for the fractal learning process of Complex Adaptive Systems. Notice (or not) Engage (or not) Mull (or not) Exchange (or not)... NemeX connotes the actual exchange in progress. Interaction involving these elements surfaces through waves of resonance, and thrives through waves of dissonance, an unsettling of sorts; some may even describe these waves as fear.

Wave on a String

Click to Run

Our decision to become part of a neme means our reality will change, whether slightly or dramatically, it all depends on the nature of the exchange and the degree to which we engage within it.

In Andrew Razeghi's book, "Hope," he describes the process of engaging a little or a lot as either jumping off the curb, or jumping off the cliff. A small leap of faith, or a large leap of faith is still a leap of faith. Teachers take a leap of faith every day, and depending on their relative experiences and perspective toward life and teaching, either can feel like a very big deal to any given individual... it's all relative.

So again, how can teachers nurture this purposeful hope in their students? Starting with FAITH is why we NOTICE... teachers need to take acclaimed National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones' advice and "see what they believe."
"Our perspective is what holds the key to whether the solution is ordinary or extraordinary. If we want truly extraordinary vision then we have to continually expand our horizons, take risks. If we don’t push our edge we’ll never expand our view. It’s not trespassing to go beyond your own boundaries." Dewitt Jones, National Geographic Photographer 
So whether we're jumping off a curb, or a cliff, we need to have faith that something good will come from the effort. We need to look for the good in our students and expose it. This is the HOPE is why we ENGAGE... part in celebration of our student's strengths and dreams. Every student has a story, and like Dewitt Jones does when he finds the story behind his photographs, we need to find a story behind our students; the one already written that will give us a glimpse into their hope and their purpose.

As our student's stories evolve, so do our approaches to supporting them. This is the CHARITY is why we MULL part. Using the word mull interchangeably with reflection makes it a bit easier to understand this part of the process. Reflecting purposefully, selflessly and perhaps collaboratively with other supportive caregivers is how we display our willingness to walk the learning path with our students; not to pull them along, or push them on, but simply walk the path with them, learn with them and from them. We are fortunate to have this opportunity. It is a privileged opportunity teachers have to spend every day with curious, excited and eager-to-learn kids... an environment that should make it easy for all of us to also be curious, excited and eager-to-learn adults. Like anything in balance, however, eagerness on the part of any learner has to be tempered with patience.

Teachers need to be patient by nature. Every child is on his own learning timeline. Homogeneous classrooms full of kids perfectly aligned with the education system's developmental guidelines don't exist. There is no average student anywhere. Each child is unique and skilled in his own way, and the PATIENCE is why we EXCHANGE part indicates our understanding of this fact. Living in the present; walking multiple learning paths with students every day is the exchange that exemplifies our patience. We know full well that the outcomes we are working on with students may not be met until long after the paths we walk together diverge and our students have moved on to work with someone else. We exchange with our students in the present to the best of our ability so that they can move on and continue to build their learning paths forward... and back to faith we go; faith in our students and the teachers who will continue the good work we have shared with each student.

Full circle.

Does a sense of fear and doubt ever creep into this process? For me, every single day. Hope without fear doesn't exist; that's called naivety. I don't know how things will turn out for each of my students, but I want them all to be successful on their own terms. Students have fears too... for many the fear of failure. Embracing failure as a necessary element of learning is a critical element of success. If failure was absolute nobody would ever learn how to ride a bicycle. In a strange way, fearing failure is the same as fearing success for if we don't keep trying when we come up against a roadblock, in a way we're saying "what if I get over that roadblock... then what?" Balancing hope and fear on behalf of my students is what drives me to support their pursuit of personal and relative success.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Informed Practice Makes Perfect...

flickr image via matthewpiatt

Well, maybe not perfect, but a whole lot better.

I was involved in a conversation about learning disorders recently, (I actually prefer to call them learning challenges.) I myself am a challenged learner... learning disabled in the traditional sense. I am dyslexic. The problem is I didn't know I was dyslexic until I was in my second year of university. I was taking an educational psychology course and we were talking about learning disabilities. As the professor described dyslexia, I began to remember the sorts of problems I had in school, and then I began to wonder if perhaps I was dyslexic. I spoke to him after class, and we decided to assess my problem. Sure enough; I was dyslexic. So how come it took until I was 21 years old to figure that out?

There isn't a teacher in the universe that would deny learning disorders can be terribly detrimental to a child's learning progress. I am certain that I have dealt with dozens of learning disabled kids during my teaching career. I am also certain that the vast majority of these kids are surviving in school, as I did, undiagnosed, or perhaps misdiagnosed... an equally or perhaps even more serious concern for teachers trying to do the right thing for all students.

Here's the problem... teachers aren't qualified to diagnose learning disorders, (unless of course they are also trained psychologists,) however, they are expected to effectively support kids who suffer from one or more of them even if they don't know exactly what the potential disabilities are. Teachers are confronted with the reality that they must teach kids who may very well present with a legitimate learning disorder, but also that they will seldom be working with really good data to support the effective mitigation of the problem. We are not practicing in an informed way when it comes to learning disorders. We need to know what a child is challenged by, and we need to know that early enough in the game to curb any added anxiety and stress a child will inevitably feel when he knows he is struggling.

I submit that we need to invest in a process that assesses every child early enough in primary school to know what learning path we should be travelling. We need to ask every child what works best for them, and investigate ways to make that a reality. We can't continue playing guessing games long after a child is deemed to be struggling... we shouldn't let them get to the point of struggle. We should be responsibly assessing them at the beginning of their learning story in order to support them all the way through their kindergarten to grade twelve journey. A cognitive test for every child early enough in the school experience would eliminate the ineffective trial and error game we play later on when we notice a child isn't "getting it."

Assessment costs money... of course it does. Pay now, or pay later? How many teacher, counselor, learning assistant and educational consultant hours are spent guessing and checking what challenges may be present for kids? I will guess when compared to the cost of early and comprehensive assessment for all kids so we can fly with instruments right from the start, that the total cost in person hours trying to deal with the problem is very high, and may end up being more expensive than just doing the assessment in the beginning.

I recently viewed this TED talk by Dr. Aditi Shankardass... A second opinion on learning disorders:

I can't imagine there would be more compelling evidence supporting the effort we should be making to be informed about every learner before they begin to experience stress and anxiety as a result of potential learning disorders. It appears Dr. Shankardass has proven that these "disorders" need not be terribly detrimental if we can become aware of them early enough to establish good action plans mitigating the challenge and maximizing learning opportunities for kids. Knowledge is power. We need to empower kids by helping them understand themselves within their own learning contexts.

I sure would have liked to know about my dyslexia when I was a kid.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Learning from place...

flickr image via ws_canada

I read an insightful blog from David Timony (@DrTimony) recently. In his post he alludes to what for many becomes a boundary; the boundary of our own experiences, and our perspectives toward them. In our  noble, but misdirected effort to create interesting and engaging learning environments we often default to the orientation we know best; our own. Perhaps there is a better, albeit more unsettling and less controlled orientation to take.

I have come to understand the value of "learning from place." Taken literally it actually is learning while at, or immersed in a place.  In a more representative context learning from place  is a mindful, almost spiritual experience. Thinking deeply about what a place has represented to others gives us a glimpse into their experience and what their life may involved there; what they saw, felt and thought... it's a powerful experience beyond measure.

David Timony says that,
It is important that we acknowledge who we are and what we bring to the situation so we may set it aside and teach from a more neutral space. Not everything that we teach requires connection to our own lives. It does not need to be shown through our lens nor does it require a frame in order for appreciation to occur. Surely, our desire to explain and expound–to mediate through language–often reduces experiences.
I have had a feeling of awe in a few places in the world, mostly close to home... places many take for granted because they are close to home. One of those places is Dry Island Buffalo Jump. Thousands of years of history have occurred at this sacred place. Aboriginal people have been going there for that long to hunt, gather and live together. I feel them when I've been there. I didn't have to explore every square inch to absorb the magnitude of the place... I just sat at the top of the jump and thought deeply about how many others had done the same thing, and what they may have thought in their place.

Learning from place. We all have our place and we can get closer to the places of others if we slow down, let go of our need to be in control, and simply listen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Take class(room) action...

flickr image via jbj

I believe in the power of action research. Initiatives often start in one direction but end up going in a completely different direction and we sometimes view this as a failure, but within the context of action research, this shift in focus is often a good indicator of progress. Some are uncomfortable with the intangibility of this, but I like it. I like to think of the action research process as a cyclical path that puts to use the five R's: reflect, retool, recalibrate, reframe and refocus. These elements are key to keeping a project dynamic and malleable, but at the same time focused and purposeful in the effort to support quality teaching and learning. 

My Alberta teaching colleague, Greg Miller (@millerg6) recently shared this video... 

The author in the video is Dylan Williams. He writes about assessment in schools; the virtues of formative assessment in particular. I agree with his message that the power of reform in schools lies mainly in teachers. There are many camps within education reform, but without getting into the debate about which one is most correct, I just want to draw attention to the fact that the single common denominator in any teaching reform effort is teachers. As individuals, and even more powerfully and effectively in collaborative groups, teachers have a distinct and brilliant education reform platform to work from because together, they are immersed daily within classrooms and schools. 

Useful feedback loops don't occur in isolation. The collective intelligence of a group will always provide a depth of feedback from different perspectives and bases of knowledge that help steer the research ship purposefully from informed and diverse perspectives. Action research is an exciting process with the power to inform, but also an under-utilized tool when teachers don't talk to each other. To leverage the power to do things better, teachers should embrace the action research process and initiate their own local, classroom-based projects designed to improve what they do. Sharing the results of this research with other teachers allows them to learn from our experiences also which essentially streamlines their reflective process in the event they choose to conduct similar research; it's the edu-conomy of scale in action.

Collaborative education reform is powerful. Action research is a collaborative process. Much can be accomplished in better, faster and cheaper ways when we put our heads together in education. Teachers have skills, knowledge, and experience, but don't utilize them often enough to challenge each other; to step outside the box and do things differently in search of doing things better. Why should they? Because taking a different perspective or direction typically leads to greater insight, learning from mistakes and improved practice if we keep an open mind. Action research provides a conduit for stepping outside the box; making ourselves vulnerable together in the name of learning how to teach better and support kids better. 

When we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Of course, this is true for research as it is for anything, however, I would also say that when we fail to adjust a plan, the plan is doomed to fail. The nature of action research is to adjust. The action in action research includes adjusting plans according to real time data and feedback that the research is providing. It's a participatory and collaborative process that works well when those involved understand the value of the five R's of good action research. 

Reflection is looking back to empower learning forward. In research, it's learning from mistakes by being honest about our process and willing to take a critical perspective. Re-tooling is the natural selection process in research; the ability after reflection to recognize that something isn't working, and then make re-calibrating changes to the research design or process. Re-framing is the process of creating an adjusted context for the research that reflects the new responsive process that reflecting and re-tooling has resulted in. Re-focusing is the product of distributed leadership within the group; a willingness from all sides to embrace and value the new or adjusted research direction. The five R's of action research are responsive strategies that allow us to function as classroom-based researchers understanding that all is not lost if the organic nature of teaching and learning causes (as it nearly always does) a deviation from the original classroom-based research plan.

Of course it's very important for teachers to stay abreast of current pure research, but in reality, teachers in the classroom are often distanced somewhat from the basic research that occurs at universities to increase understanding of fundamental pedagogical principles. They are consumed with the application of these principles as presented through various forms of professional development as new ideas and ways of thinking about education come online. Perhaps participating in collaborative action (applied) research projects while doing the great work teachers do in the classroom every day is a way to bridge ideas, theories and principles with real-time action to test their validity. Participatory action research is how this can be done, and it often, if not always can be done for little or no cost in dollars and cents, but it does require the will of people to get together and spend some human capital.

What will your next action research project entail?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Differentiated assessment...

flickr image via Stuck in Customs

Great strides have been made to adjust our instruction to meet individual student needs, but often we don't adjust the way we assess this individualized learning. Differentiated instruction must at some point lead to differentiated assessment, otherwise we're fooling ourselves.

Students are all on their own timeline and we're finally starting to realize that we need to figure out what that timeline is in order to apply an optimized and purposeful learning experience. We need to meet them where they're at and help them learn forward. This is the differentiation process. It accounts for a student's particular learning styles, interests, strengths and weaknesses and adjusts for them to optimize learning. However, once we've done such a good job creating an appropriate and fair learning context for individual kids, we often ruin the process by not making a reciprocal effort to create an appropriate and fair assessment context for individual kids.

There are countless ways to assess learning; some really good and some really bad. I'm not going to get into the debate over which are which here. I'm just going to say that teachers should be making as much  effort to find the right way to assess each student as they do to find the right way to teach each student based on the learning styles, interests, strengths and weaknesses of each one.

How best to do this is up to each teacher and how much is known about each of their students' learning stories. Time should be provided for teachers to investigate the background of each student. A major element of this process should include asking students how best they learn and providing learning opportunities that match what they tell us. We should be engaging them as early as kindergarten to do this.

The thirteen-year learning story starts in kindergarten, and there are many ways kids show us what works for them and what doesn't. Observing and noting their reactions to particular learning tasks, watching them play and discover provides us the chance to get a glimpse into their unique perspectives. Keeping one eye on the prescribed curriculum outcomes, and the other on creative ways to achieve them in consideration of each child's learning preferences seems to me a great strategy to begin walking a good learning path alongside each of them.

However, assessing a whole class the same way after successfully and creatively designing a learning environment that accommodates the unique and individual learning variables of each student doesn't appear to make too much sense to me.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Reflective Leadership...

flickr image via flickrPrince

The principal is an accomplished teacher who practices quality leadership in the provision of opportunities for optimum learning and development of all students in the school.

My teaching career has led me in many unanticipated and diverse directions. The experiences I have had, and the lessons I have learned along this journey are the platform of my skill-set and knowledge as a professional teacher and educational leader. I believe that more often than not, the path chooses us.

I have taught at least one subject to kids from grades one through ten. I taught a first and second grade split class during my first year teaching at Tall Cree Indian Reserve in northern Alberta. From that jump-off point I continued my growth and development as a teacher for five years in grades three to six within two other Aboriginal communities. I moved to Red Deer and joined the Alternative School Programs in my seventh year of teaching. I worked with grades six to ten over the next eight years within two different segregated programs addressing severe student behavior. I completed my Masters Degree in Leadership (focus on school counseling,) during this period. I then took a position as a counselor for what turned out to be one year at the middle school level. At this point my direction shifted once again, and I was fortunate to become a school administrator at Mattie McCullough Elementary School.

With every teaching and administrative position I have held, I have assumed different formal and informal leadership roles designed to optimize learning and development opportunities for all students. Additionally, I have assumed leadership roles throughout my career putting me in a position to support the ongoing and purposeful professional development of my teaching colleagues and beyond as a conference speaker, workshop writer, blogger and author.

This reflection summarizes my teaching experiences, my personal professional growth and my perspective as a learner and teacher relative to the leadership dimensions contained within Alberta Education’s Principal Quality Practise Guideline. These are the elements that form the foundation of my practise as an educational leader. Over the course of my career I have formulated a set of personal beliefs that guide my practise. Many, if not all of these beliefs, permeate my life away from school in ubiquitous ways also. I will reference these as “I believe” statements where appropriate throughout this reflection.

Friday, March 30, 2012

If You're Having Fun...

flickr image via katerha

A couple of years ago my students and I came up with what we thought to be a really good description of the way learning should be.

Like most classrooms, we had every type of student... those really focused on their letter grade achievement; those really focused on the process of learning and not so concerned about their letter grade achievement and those who seemingly weren't that concerned about either. In self reflection, the kids noticed that those who were stressed about the test weren't having all that much fun in school. They also noticed that those who evidently weren't concerned about the process or their grade were having a lot of  fun, but perhaps not the right kind. When we spoke about those kids who seemed to really just enjoy the process of learning, the students noticed that these kids were striking a balance between school work as they called it, and having fun... knowing when to keep things light, but also when to get down to business.

In the process of our reflection we came up with this definition of purposeful and engaged learning in school.
If you're having fun and not learning, that's bad. If you're learning and not having fun, that would bad too, but if your having fun and learning, that's good.
Pretty simple I think.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

If this was the only reason to blog...

flickr image via tibchris
I'd still do it. Let me explain the reason.

I noticed a recent trackback on Connected Principals, another blog I contribute to occasionally. The post it pointed to was called "Norm!" The blog's author is Anthony Purcell, a first year teacher who evidently uses reflection as a tool to inform his practice and help him become a better teacher.

At his blog, Educationally Minded, Anthony made reference to a piece I wrote called We need schools where everybody knows your name. I read his post and was humbled that my thoughts had impacted him enough that he decided to share his reflective response. I have never met Anthony, and he has never met me, but we had a virtual meeting of the minds; a philosophical rendezvous in cyber space. We shared thoughts as teacher colleagues that transcended our professional perspective and entered into our personal feelings about things. We need to do more of this as professionals; get to know each other on personal levels... learn more about what we represent as human beings who care for others.

Blogging has provided me an opportunity to connect with those I perhaps never would have known at all. I've shared with them; they've shared with me. We have encouraged each other to think and question. We have created circles around our thoughts and invited each other inside.

If this was the only reason to blog, I'd still do it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Edu-conomy of scale... Learning Circle University

flickr CC image via nicolasnova

I'm beginning to understand crowd-sourcing in a new context. As the concept of learning circles evolves, I'm seeing the definition of crowd in crowd-source evolve alongside it. Learning circles are the crowds we encounter and choose to place ourselves within for the purpose of learning. 

To me, crowd-sourcing in the traditional sense generally taps really broad sources... social media being a most obvious contemporary example. Learning circles are derivatives of crowd-sourcing that focus more intently on a specific purpose, or set of purposes related to learning. The people that find themselves connected within learning circles are often strangely attracted to each other through the necessary process of chaos in authentic learning, but once found by each other, their relationship takes on a nemetic dynamic.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Culture and Inquiry Learning

Using the Wikipedia article on Inquiry Learning ( as a reference point will make it easier to explain why I believe that cultural diversity is a pivotal element in a truly inquiry-based learning environment. To displace cultural diversity from the inquiry mix in my mind would be to sabotage the process altogether.

From Wikipedia to describe the core of inquiry as a concept…
Characteristics of inquiry-learning
-Inquiry learning emphasizes constructivist ideas of learning. Knowledge is built in a step-wise fashion.
-Learning proceeds best in group situations.
-The teacher does not begin with a statement, but with a question. Posing questions for students to solve is a more effective method of instruction in many areas. This allows the students to search for information and learn on their own with the teacher’s guidance.
-The topic, problem to be studied, and methods used to answer this problem are determined by the student and not the teacher (this is an example of the 3rd level of the Herron Scale)

My point of view is weaving culture (the thing each of us has been constructing since the minute we were born) and inquiry acknowledges the above points.
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