Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Northwest Network Celebration

On May 30 I had the good fortune of attending the Northwest Network celebration in Smithers. The room was packed, the projects are producing impressive results and the commitment and enthusiasm of the participants were pretty amazing. The teamwork across the Northwest in supporting the teachers and principals involved in the depth of inquiry and transformational practice witnessed is making a significant difference.

Here’s some of what we observed:

1. The importance of a focused inquiry versus a goal - many schools reported that by working through their question, they experienced many unanticipated outcomes. They had a chance to go more deeply as the year unfolded, to reframe their thinking, to expand or narrow their focus, and to continually ask themselves - 'is this making a difference to our learners and how do we know?' There was also complete consensus around the notion that inquiry gets a lot harder as teams go deeper,

2. Changing practice is challenging - Prince Rupert Secondary School framed their presentation around professional learning as a game of snakes and ladders. This idea really struck with many of the teams who were able to extend the metaphor as they reflected on learning as much more difficult than teaching. They also used the metaphor to explain the conditions that lead to their finding and climbing the next ladder - as well as the snakes that impeded their progress. This may be a much better image than the implementation dip. The final statement from the PRSS team - 'there is no losing as long as you keep playing' - seemed to me to sum up the spirit and determination of all the educators in the room.

3. Trust, social responsibility, community connections, inclusion and respect were themes that connected across all the presentations. As one presenter paraphrased from Kim Schonert-Reichl's talk at the seminar, "the kids don't care how much we know until they know how much we care." This caring was demonstrated in a range of ways including the two new teachers talking about the TREC program at Pacific Coast School who captured the imagination of everyone in the room.

4. Increasing respect for Aboriginal ways of knowing through building knowledge - whether through traditional ways of learning and knowing, appreciation of a range of art forms, community collaborations, family involvement strategies, cross age coaching, a focus on Aboriginal content in Math and Literacy - were reflected in a number of presentations.

5. The welcoming nature of the northwest to new schools, teachers new to the profession, and experienced educators new to inquiry was also deeply evident. Having a teacher who started her formal career in January 2011 working alongside a teacher who retired last year but is still involved in supporting the staff at her former school with their inquiry provides a powerful model for our profession.

6. We have talked in other settings about the importance of weaving three ways - from the wisdom traditions of our Aboriginal people, the strong research and evidence base from our profession, and from innovative, imaginative approaches at the leading edge of practice - as we work together to create more responsive, relevant, and personalized learning for all BC learners. This weaving was evident in many schools presentations. Kitwanga Elementary School was one of several schools that provided an exceptional model for what this looks like in practice.

Learning with and from other schools on behalf of the students we serve is at the heart of the network. It is a privilege to be part of this work.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Crossing the Stage

We believe in action and are proud that schools across BC are taking up the challenge of EVERY learner crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options. For a Grade 9 girl failing Math 9 improving dramatically in just one term, for a class of Grade 10 students who have all struggled with literacy and within a semester succeed beyond all expectations, and for the young Aboriginal learners whose mother and father are helping every week in their local school to show their families how much they care about learning, this vision is becoming a reality.

One of our greatest pleasures is to visit schools and to see the impact on young people, teachers, principals and families where inquiry about really important questions is a way of life. Recently we were in a secondary school where at the end of the first reporting period, a new vice principal took seriously the challenge of “if you can predict it, then you can prevent it.” Knowing that punitive approaches would do nothing to improve the behavior and failing grades of “Sam”, a strong-willed Grade 9 girl, the vice principal entered into a different kind of agreement with Sam. She believed that Sam could and would learn under the right conditions. The short version of the story is that Sam passed every course at the end of the second term with especially dramatic improvement in Math. We have encouraged this action-oriented VP to write a fuller account of what she did, how Sam and her teachers responded. Look for an article coming out soon!

Over dinner with a group of assessment savvy colleagues in Cowichan, we saw video clips of Grade 10 students talking out loud about the difference it made to their learning when they were clear about the learning intentions, when they were able to co-construct criteria and when they received regular coaching feedback. This class was filled with kids who had struggled for years with reading, writing, and had experienced limited success in previous English classes. The next day we had a chance to talk in person with some of these young people, including the young man in the photo. We were moved by their expressed confidence as learners and by enthusiastic plans for their careers after they ‘walk the stage’. What made the difference? The key was a courageous teacher who was determined to apply everything that she was learning about formative assessment and everything she knew from her previous experiences with struggling learners. This class not only demonstrated substantial growth in their skills and confidence, each one of them passed the provincial exam with flying colors.

The third school we visited was a small elementary school serving primarily Aboriginal students. As soon as we walked in the door we were struck by the smell of freshly popped popcorn and the bright displays of student work everywhere in Hul'q'ummi'num' and English. Among the first people we met in the school were a mom and dad, responsible for the smell of popcorn. With five children of their own, they spoke eloquently about the importance of parent involvement. Never have we heard the impact of family support better articulated than by these parents – we wish they had both been wearing a wire! They were showing all the children how much they valued learning. They – along with the staff – were determined that their children would cross the stage and they were doing their part to make that happen. And if popcorn made by a caring mom and dad helps, then bring it on!

Occasionally we can get discouraged about how hard it is to make large-scale system-wide changes. When we visit schools and classrooms such as these, however, our hope is reaffirmed that we can indeed ensure that EVERY learner will cross that stage.