Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Rethinking Education at TEDxWestVancouverED


How do we prepare our students for a future that is largely unimaginable? What essential qualities will they need in order to propel our society forward? What do educators require in order to be able to take up the challenge put forth by grade 7 student Gia Da Roza, to provide an "extraordinary education"? Well, when it comes to "Rethinking Education" what I discovered is that there are more questions than answers. But here's the good news. That's ok. Because what I also discovered is that as educators, we don't need to have all of the answers. And I must admit, that's a bit of a relief.

In the same way that Australian educator Kath Murdoch encourages us to create a classroom climate in which students are "comfortable with uncertainty", as educators, we must also learn to become comfortable with uncertainty. And that is a challenge. Because you see, many of us grew up in a traditionally structured educational system, where not knowing the answer was a bad thing. And questioning our teachers was viewed as disrespectful and disruptive. 
Gia challenges educators to provide an "extraordinary education" for our students. No pressure there!

But here's more good news. We're not in this thing alone. We have partners. Because "Rethinking Education" requires a shift that propels learning out from behind the desk, and into the world beyond the classroom. It requires input from community leaders and entrepreneurs, from doctors and authors, from athletes and scientists, from politicians and parents. And it requires input from our students. As Adora Svitak emphasized in her TED talk, "learning between between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal". Who better to help us chart a path towards a future that is largely unimaginable than the individuals who will be an integral part of that future?

"Rethinking Education" requires us to continue to move away from an educational system that valued facts over creativity, and obedience over innovation. We need to continue to value the voices of our students. We need to encourage questioning and wonder. And then, we need to listen. Because if we listen, our students might just tell us what they need. And they don't need us to have all of the answers. As TEDx speaker, Silken Laumann so insightfully stated, our students don't care about what we know, they care that we care.  And after listening to the powerful, inspiring and passionate speakers at TEDxWestVancouverED today, and having an opportunity to speak with many of the equally passionate educators who attended, without a doubt, we do.
       
          


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Just Breathe

       
Prana. Life Force.

          Breathe. But don't just breathe, breathe deeply. This was my homework for today. My yoga teacher told us to tell someone to breathe today. Inwardly, I cringed. Moving through my day telling people to "breathe" most likely wouldn't be received with the warmest of receptions, and so I thought perhaps I should provide some context.
          In yoga, breathing is everything. In Sanskrit, it's called prana, the word for life force. But even though our breathe is a life sustaining force, we generally pay very little attention to it. Often, individuals who are under stress, feeling anxious, and/or experiencing trauma tend to take shallow, quick breathes. But breathing deeply releases tension, detoxifies our body, relieves pain, and supplies much needed oxygen to our cells. During cold and flu season, breathing deeply also helps to increase circulation of lymphatic fluid, which is an important component of our immune system.
          On the wall of my yoga studio is the word "Breathe". I even have several articles of clothing with this same message. Because even after practising yoga for several years, I still need this daily reminder. Just breathe.
I need a daily reminder- breathe.

          Tomorrow we are all going "back to school" in BC. Already on Friday I had a grade 12 student come to me, anxious that they are already "behind" before we have even started. Grade 8s are anxious to get themselves situated in a large school with many new faces. Teachers are anxious to set up classrooms, plan lessons and prepare for an influx of students. Administrators are anxious to ease the transition for staff and students back into school and re-establish routines. We are all excited, and eager to finally be able to catapult ourselves into a new school year. But we are all also just a bit anxious.
          So, at the risk of being met with some eye rolling and snorts of disbelief, take a moment this week to remind yourselves, to remind your students, to breathe. We will all get where we need to be, by the time we need to be there. All we can do is our best. Just breathe.
       

Monday, 8 September 2014

What if the Answer Was Always, "Yes"?

          What if every time a student, parent or staff member had a suggestion, the answer was always a resounding "yes"? That is the "default answer" that principal Peter Hutton of Templestowe College in Australia gives when he is approached by members of his school community.
          Last week, I came across a tweet posted by Kath Murdoch (@kjinquiry), a teacher, author, educational consultant and university lecturer from Australia who works in the field of inquiry based learning and integrative curriculum. She is also one of the featured speakers at the upcoming #TedxWestVancouverEd conference on September 27th. http://www.tedxwestvancouvered.com
Murdoch's tweet referenced an article showcasing some of the innovations that are occurring at Templestowe College, in Australia. 


          What initially piqued my interest, was a reference to "multi-aged" learning. Recently, I participated in an impromptu Twitter discussion between myself and several colleagues, sparked by Jim Lamond (JLamond36) and Bal Ranu (@BalRanu), administrators in the Surrey school district, who were exploring the topic of differentiated instruction. As often occurs during these impromptu discussions, our conversation evolved, and at one point, the concept of multi-aged instruction was introduced. At Templestowe College, in addition to encouraging students to develop and personalize their own curriculum, students are grouped not by age level, but by interest and ability. In the article, Hutton notes that by next year, "the college will abolish year levels. From the end of their first year at the school students will study at whatever level is appropriate for them. There are no compulsory subjects after year 7, and students choose their course from more than 120 elective subjects." Additionally, in his "Principal's Message", Hutton comments that the school has "deliberately removed many of the restrictions that 'traditional' schools place on students, such as year level structures, single age classes and authoritarian hierarchy structures".  http://www.templestowec.vic.edu.au/default.aspx Interestingly, Templestowe does have a uniform policy. I'm also wondering how the "appropriate" level for students is determined.
          But what ultimately struck me was this concept of "yes" as the "default answer". Hutton does qualify his "yes rule" somewhat by noting that there may be exceptions if a suggestion might "take too much time, too much money or negatively impact someone else". But with over 120 elective courses offered, and an opportunity for students to "make up their own subject", I get the sense that this is a relatively rare occurrence.
         Is this what is ultimately necessary for true innovation to occur in our schools? What if all of our district and school leaders adopted a "yes as the default answer" approach?


       

       
       



Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Learning Their Stories

       
A sea of unfamiliar faces, each with their own "story".
          Typically, today I would be standing in front of a sea of slightly groggy faces. Some familiar, but likely a good portion of unfamiliar ones as well. After 17 years as an educator, this moment still fills me with some anxiety. Not because I'm not thrilled to start a new school year, but because I know that each and every one of those unfamiliar faces has a "story" behind it, and that the longer it takes me to learn that story, the less effective I will be as an educator. At the high school level, that could mean roughly 100 "stories" to learn, as quickly and as effectively as I can. No small task.
          Each of us, adult or child, comes with a story or context that informs our behaviour and our actions. Unfortunately, given the hectic pace of daily life, we are often too busy, or sometimes unavoidably immersed in our own stories to have the time, that most valuable of commodities, to look beyond the surface. Recently a friend of mine had a bit of a run in with another driver. With her children in the car, my friend was angry that this "reckless, irresponsible" driver (my words- she used slightly different ones) would endanger her children. Completely understandable. Like so often happens in this digital age, my friend happened to vent her frustration in a semi-public forum, and through this it was discovered that the "reckless" driver had in fact just lost a treasured family pet that morning, and was having a very difficult day. This was her story, her context. I'm not suggesting that my friend could have taken the time in that moment to discover this, and regardless, her children's safety was her utmost concern. What I am suggesting is that we approach every individual that we come across in our day, adult or child, with the understanding that they each have a story, and that on any given day this context may inform their seemingly inexplicable behaviour or actions. 
          With my students, it takes time, and a great deal of concerted effort to learn their stories. And each member of our school community might be privileged to learn different aspects of this story- counselors, administrators, clerical and janitorial staff, support staff... and the list goes on. Together, we comprise a community of caring, supportive adults that are all working to do the best that we can for our students. (See "The Heart of a School" http://www.teachergarr.blogspot.ca/2014/04/the-heart-of-school.html) This is exactly why open and effective communication in a school community is so essential. Yes, our students trust that some of the information that they share with us will be kept confidential, and we are governed by a professional code of conduct, but in other instances, it is vital that we are able to rely on our colleagues to help us learn each of our students' stories. Our job is not simply to fill empty vessels with facts and figures, but to recognize that they are entering our schools already "filled" with unique, and sometimes, unfortunately, very difficult stories. 
          My most treasured time of the school year is that moment when I feel like I can finally look out at that sea of faces, and they are no longer unfamiliar. They are faces that have been shaped by countless unique and diverse experiences. They are faces that will be further shaped by their experiences in their classrooms, and in their school community. 
What a responsibility. What a privilege.