Reflections of ConnectEd Canada: Share

Just getting back from a weekend at the Calgary Science School for the 2nd edition of ConnectEd Canada. While I have participated in a few EdCamps and organized some local ones as well, my head is swimming as this was one of the top conference style learning experiences I’ve  ever participated in. Educator collaboration has always impressed me, but this weekend it was unconditional collegiality that blew me away as educators from across the country shared, debated and collaborated on how to move education in Canada forward.  This weekend was the Stanley Cup of EdCamps.

My challenge now that I’m home and excited to bring a lot of what I learned back to my district, is to filter where and what to embrace first. Change doesn’t often happen overnight and it’s difficult to know where to start; how to bridge the gap between all that was discussed and debated, get buy-in from my colleagues locally and then to actually implement and move forward with some of those ideas. For today, I want to focus on the host location and the amazing learning environment that has been created at the CSS.

To host this event, the Calgary Science School graciously opened their doors to 300 educators from across the country. There are several things that make this gesture so impressive. The first is that Friday was not a Professional Day. On this regular school day, student leaders toured us around, teachers opened their doors to us, and students remained focused on their learning – all conducting business as if we weren’t even there.

CSS is built on an inquiry based premise. Learners develop big questions with their classmates and teachers, and then explore the answers. One example of this exploration is shown here:

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This question was used as part of a Science unit and the students explored the nearby Weaselhead park to find the answers to their Big Question. The school does not just focus on Sciences despite the name.  A similar approach is taken in Humanities and Math as well. Teachers promote a collaborative approach to problem solving – a simple yet effective way to have everyone engaged in the activity.

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The second piece that stood out for me was the open concept of the school. The times I have seen something different happening have always involved a physical structure that was designed for that type of learning. In this case the CSS is housed in a Traditional public school. Nothing fancy or high tech about the actual physical structure. What is open…are the doors. Every teacher had the door to the room open and I was told that this is always the case. Teachers view themselves as Learners and they share their stories with one another. There is an open invitation to see what is happening in other rooms. The Administration supports this model  – even the Superintendent and the Principal share an office!

What I also found impressive was that the CSS has worked toward cultivating a culture of risk taking. Whether it is teachers trying something new, students working their way towards an answer or the parents registering their children in a very different environment than the school they went to, this school community embraces risk taking. One teacher shared his story explaining that he was told by his Principal – ‘the more mistakes you make, the more we will be there to support you’. This supportive environment thrives because the cornerstone of the building is relationships.

I have only glanced over some of the major tenets that make this school the huge success that drew 300 educators from across the country to see it. When I came home tonight there was a Twitter Chat and the topic was Inquiry in BC schools. Reforming our schools to this style of learning is gaining momentum.

What I learned from my visit is that we don’t need to wait for others to allow us to make these changes. I’d encourage any teacher to begin experimenting because this change lies within the people in our communities. Sharing both our successes and challenges with others helps reflection and learning. If we want to learn and get better, we need to try new things, take risks and trust that those around will support the efforts to make the learning in our schools more effective.

I was so inspired by what I saw that I am still processing everything – this post can’t do it justice. But I am also hopeful that sharing these stories will help move our thinking forward.

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Creativity Experience

Vanity would have me believe that I’m a creative person who looks for creative solutions when problems or challenges arise. Recently I had an experience that challenged my thinking about this.

This past fall a reminder came to my inbox with a link to the application package for the Apple Distinguished Educator Class of 2013. Seeing the email, I recalled my excitement and interest in this program when I had first encountered it. Reading through the application I quickly completed the initial information confirming my interest in the program. Then it got tough; the most difficult piece of the application involved 4 questions:

  • How have you as an educator transformed your learning environment?
  • Illustrate how Apple technologies have helped in this transformation.
  • What successes have you seen with your learners?
  • How do you share these successes to influence the broader education community?

The requirement was to address these points in written form and then transform those answers into a 2 minute video. Now the thinking really began. Those questions felt like a job interview, and in a way they were. How would I succinctly and creatively answer these key directives? Would my work stand out from others who applied? Fortunately some close friends with experience in both the film and photography business were able to provide some excellent guidance and advice. First steps were to write a “script” and then film my scenes. First take was over 3 minutes and I discovered that I am NOT comfortable in front of the camera! 7 takes and an couple hours later, we felt like there was enough “footage” to put something together.  I’ve made a few videos, but certainly not to this level of detail and constraints that resulted in a lot of cutting and editing. Feeling like I had to make every word and idea stand out, I had to really learn how to edit and be creative with the micro details.

Do we begin to lose our creative side as we age? Or is it that daily tasks, routines, and habits bury our creativity to some extent, making us feel rusty when we need to really challenge ourselves here?  This project had no limits or specifications other than a 2 minute time limit and the broad challenge of making my written story “come to life”. By far the most challenging aspect of this project that stood out to me was the creative component. My initial instinct was to summarize some of my work. But after doing that, I realized that it wasn’t enough to really stand out in a forum that I feel quite passionately about; the advancement of education through technology. At first I had a lot of ideas that I needed to synthesize. Then the difficulty was narrowing in on a way to succinctly bring these ideas forward. As I worked through the process I realized that even though I like to believe that I am creative, that when pushed to do so I am somewhat out of my comfort zone. That maybe I’m not a “creative” person after all.

I’m very pleased with the final version of my submission. I think particularly so because this was by far one of the more challenging projects I’ve tackled for sometime.This experience challenged me to push ahead and try to get across some of the thoughts that I get when I second guess myself and don’t follow through with ideas that others might view as “outside the box”.

The Final version can be seen here:

A few weeks ago I received an email welcoming me to the Apple Distinguished Educator Class of 2013. I am humbled to be included in a group of innovative and diverse Educators and I am definitely looking forward to the connections and collaboration of this year’s institute. I have no doubt that I’ll be surrounded by innovative thinking and leadership. And although I had doubted my own creativity in the midst of this project, I’m feeling pretty pumped about using this skill with who I feel is one of the more creative companies on the planet today. Now that’s a reward for working through a challenge!

 

Make Things Happen

Today, all across British Columbia, educators will participate in Professional Development activities. People will be engaged, inspired and many will move to make things happen as a result.

On a day like today, the workshops, presentations, discussion groups and collaborations can move educators deeply, igniting a sense of passion and commitment often reminding us of the great things that led us to the field in the first place. And then in the coming days and weeks the marking begins to add up, or the emails flow in and too many times we lose that focus that seems so clear after an inspiring Professional Development Day. I have seen this happen to many and I have fallen victim to this roller coaster of emotions myself.

With this in mind, I encourage you to make a commitment to yourself. Grab a hold of one idea, one task, one initiative – no matter how big or small and promise yourself that you will see it through to the end, whatever or wherever that may be.

Enjoy your day, as you continue on your continuum of life-long learning.

Happy New Year

Over the past two weeks as I prepared for the start of a new school year, at a new school, I could feel the sense of excitement building inside me.  On Friday, as were putting the final plans in place for “Opening Day”, it struck me that I see Labour Day weekend as my practical New Year’s Eve.

Having spent the majority of my life either in school as a student, or working at school’s, this time of year is filled with so much optimism.  It can be a time for a fresh start for some; others will come to our building tomorrow with an opportunity to build on successes they realized last year.  And there are others coming through our doors with no expectations because they have never attended a school in Canada before.

I think that one of the things that makes tonight so much better than the traditional calendar’s New Year is that beginning tomorrow, people can literally see the new opportunities in front of them.  Students will likely be in classes with at least some new classmates, not to mention new teachers.  Teachers and staff will in turn have new students and see first hand, how former students have grown and matured over the summer. As an Administrator we see the excitement (and yes sometimes trepidation) of this new year on the faces of everyone in our building.

Whatever tomorrow brings you, I hope that you can take a moment to watch and enjoy the energy that this New Year’s brings.

Happy New Year!

Failure, Something to Ponder

Earlier today I Tweeted this:

For contextual purposes I include a dictionary.com definition of failure:

“fail·ure [feyl-yer]

1. an act or instance of failing  or proving unsuccessful; lack of success.
2. non-performance of something due, required, or expected.
3. a subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency.”

This tweet led to an exchange of messages that centred around my choice of the word “failure”.  Most of the responses agreed with the sentiment as defined above, that in education, in order for us to learn, we need to experience setbacks en route to achieving greater success.  In fact, some have even retweeted my original message (even with my missing word error!).

However, even when people agreed with the sentiment, several messages challenged  whether we should use the word “failure” in Education.  There were a lot of compelling arguments for why we shouldn’t use this word and many of them were rooted in what the connotation meant to the responder.  For many the concern with using this word is the fact that it can evoke a sense of completion, an end point (and not a positive one).

A consistent theme evident in the arguments against using the word failure is a concern that those who are not actively engaged in discussions about education won’t have the experiences to make the connection of the word with the sentiment intended when it is used today.  I certainly agree that this is a valid concern.  I also agree that we need to be careful which words we choose.

There is a lot of dialogue around the evolution of education. This growth is not limited to what is happening in schools but extends to our conversations about school.  If the concern is that some, even many, people may misconstrue the sentiment of a word like failure based on their past experiences, then I see this as an opportunity for those people to learn.

In our attempts to move education forward, we need to challenge the thinking of those rooted in the past. In education we know what we mean when we use the word fail.  It is commonly accepted that we fail all the time, in fact I recently wrote a Blog about a failure  of my own. When I re-read it (you can read it here), I never used the term – probably because at the time of writing it was easier to use softer language but the reality is I fell short, I failed and just as I wrote, that was okay.

I am happy to see the dialogue that my Tweet has inspired.  In our attempts to evolve the way people think about and view education, we also need to address how people speak about education.  To do this, we can’t avoid words that carry connotations from the past, we need to use them – when appropriate – and teach to them.

Be yourself…better

Very recently I have been fortunate enough to attend two conferences; one that focused on Targeting Technology, the other at the BCSSA Winter Conference.  It’s such an opportunity to participate in events like these as they are opportunities to move my thinking forward. I leave with my head swimming in ideas and it takes some time to filter through these thoughts (probably the reason I never seem to get a good night’s sleep – picture the hamster spinning in the wheel).

While there were many, many worthy ideas put forward, there was a common message  by Chris Kennedy, echoed by Bruce Beairsto; Both spoke of the merits of systems like Finland and schools like High Tech High.  Both acknowledged the success of others and both encouraged us to have our own goal:

This resonated strongly with me because it is at the core of what I believe education is about.  As we collaborate, whether as a Student, a Teacher, a Parent or an Administrator, we are coming from a point in our own continuum of growth in that role.  None of us participates in these conversations consciously trying to be someone else. In the end, we don’t want to be considered as good as someone else, we want to be ourselves…only better.

This is particularly relevant in light of the current BC Education Plan.  As Beairsto points out, this is not a plan yet.  This is a blueprint to create a plan.  The key to the evolution of this plan lies in collaboration.  Making education better in BC lies in our collaboration of what is important to us now and what we believe will be important in a future we cannot predict.

As education evolves across the Province, we aim to improve upon the areas identified as needing growth, while keeping all of the things that we do so well.  Narrowing this focus and applying this thinking to my own experiences, I believe this is something that helps me to grow and expand my thinking.  When collaborating with others, discussing, planning, debating, sharing, I move forward. When participating in these experiences with others, I am being myself, sharing what I have to offer. I want to walk away saying “hey, that conversation really clarified my thinking, I have a better understanding of the issue now.” Walking away myself…only better.

What does Bikram have to do with it?

I have just returned from my first Bikram yoga class, where I was inspired to write this post.  As I usually connect my posts to learning and education, I can understand you may be wondering how I am going to connect detoxifying my body in 140 degree heat while holding, what are often painful poses, with our school systems.

To begin, Angela has been encouraging me to try a Bikram yoga class for many weeks after discovering the benefits of this exercise regime.  I rebutted these requests, insisting that playing hockey once a week and the universal gym in our garage are all I needed to keep fit.  Her persistence paid off today; I relented to try.

As I lay there in the room on my mat and towel before the class, my mind wandered to school and a conversation I will be having with a student tomorrow.  I know I will be saying one of the things I find myself repeatedly saying to students in a variety of circumstances; that they must try things in order to make an informed decision. As the class began and I lay there really beginning to sweat, I realized that I had been guilty of not living up to my own advice.  I had been refusing to go and I never really knew what I was turning down.  This was the moment I started to think about this post (in between torturous poses of course!).

Despite the heat and the pain of contorting my body in ways that it hadn’t moved previously, I lay in the room at the completion of the class and realized something else. As I looked over at my wife I realized that my motivation was far greater than the ethical drive to “walk my talk”.  I went because it was important to her that I give this a try.  I went because it was about my relationship with her.

In so many ways, schools are all about relationships.  I consistently discuss with students the conflicts they have with other students and teachers.  We talk about ways to approach these conflicts and how different approaches can impact the relationship with the other party.  In my experience, I have found that students are more likely to be engaged in the topics where they feel they have a strong relationship with the teacher. Further, students who have the support of their peers are often more engaged in being in our building than those who feel isolated.

Lying there, after losing about 5 lbs of body weight from water loss, twisting my body until the pain would not let me go any further, I thought about the connections that my personal experience today had with the importance of the decisions I ask students to make everyday.  Today for me this experience was all about reminding me of two things I hold close:  1) Life is about choices – always make your choice with as much information as possible.  2) Relationships are key in our lives – so do whatever it takes to make them as strong as possible.

And that’s what Bikram has to do with it.