Sunday, October 8, 2017

School Expectations for Parents

When I was asked by a Brighouse Public librarian to present to parents new to Canada on the topic of School Expectations, I had to stop and think:  What do we expect of our students' parents?  At the most basic level, we expect that parents will send their children to school having had proper nutrition, play, and sleep.  If they can read at home, even better.  This would have made a very short presentation, but an important one, as some of our students do come to school with fishy crackers and sugary drinks for lunch, they fall asleep at their desks, and are bored by any activity that does not involve a screen.  Apologies!  We know everyone is doing their best, but even when one of these three factors is true for a student, it is really hard for them to learn.  It breaks our hearts. "If only they had some protein in that lunch, and a vegetable!" we moan.  And then we wonder, how can we help?

I thought about the many questions parents pose to me when they are upset or just curious. These are a few.

When can my child use the bathroom?
Will they be safe on the playground at recess?
Why do you have combined classrooms?
How did you make those classes anyway?
How can I help my child with homework (especially math)?
How will you discipline the child who was mean to mine?
Is my child getting all of the attention he needs?
What is the new curriculum all about?
How can I communicate effectively with my childs teacher?

So I added slides to my PowerPoint, not with answers to all of these questions, but with suggestions and language to use with teachers, to try to bridge the communication gap between home and school.

I think that the most important slide had these three suggestions:

       Normalize and support your child’s struggles – model a growth mindset rather than a fixed one.
       Put students in charge of homework when possible – help create routines and structure, but do not make it a power struggle.
       Support a child with challenging peer interactions.  Help them know that your trust them to make good choices.

The first is the most important, as it informs the other two.  When a child can be comfortable with uncertainty, resilient in the face of disappointment, and show grit and determination when challenged physically or intellectually, they will be much better prepared for school then with times-tables memorized.  It is no wonder that the books by Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough are so popular.  We are desperate to help children become thinkers – creative, critical and empathetic thinkers.

If we had one wish, it would be that students would come to school with curiosity.  Hunger and thirst for knowledge can be fed and watered!

For a copy of the PowerPoint, or to ask me any questions, please contact me through

Friday, September 8, 2017

Back to School With UDL

I feel so lucky to be at McNeely Elementary.  Our staff, students and their families are so diverse and so vibrant.  I really believe we are a living example of how diversity can be a huge strength.

This summer I took a course at UBC called UDL and the New BC Curriculum.  UDL stands for Universal Design for Learning.  Universal Design is a concept from architecture.  It means that you design buildings with accessibility for all people in mind, instead of retrofitting or adapting a building after it is built so that people with vision impairments or mobility issues can get around.  In education, it means designing learning experiences for all students of all ability levels in mind, rather than planning for the "average" learner and making adaptations later for those who needs them.

We know that there is no such thing as average.  As Todd Rose points out in his book, The End of Average:  How we succeed in a world that values sameness, when you make something for people who are all the same, you are really making it for nobody, as nobody is the same!

In the summer course, I learned more about inclusive education and the absolute necessity of teachers using universal design to reach every learner.  One of our assignments was to work in a group of three to plan a unit of study.  My group mates and I were very different in many ways.  One was an occupational therapist, not a teacher.  The other was a band teacher from a private school.  We did not think we had very much in common and I worried that we would struggle with the project.  The opposite was true.  Because we came from such different backgrounds, we were very open to each other's ideas.  We did not compete with one another and were very efficient.  We were able to use our individual strengths and contribute individually to the project.  In the end, we finished our work long before the other groups and were happy with the results.  So was our professor!

I think about how our students and staff come from so many different backgrounds, different cultures, have different strengths and skills.  I think this is what makes us such a strong community.  We appreciate each other and celebrate our diversity.  It brings us together rather than dividing us. perhaps because we share a common goal, the fostering of social, emotional, physical and intellectual well-being of our children.  It is like the word ubuntu, "I am, because I belong."

Friday, May 5, 2017

Two Yellow Books

One sign of a really good book is that it makes you want to read more books.  A great novel will make you want to read more novels by this author or in this genre, or set in the same location.  A great professional book does this, too, especially when they reference other authors who are like-minded or study a similar theme.  I make lists of these, much to Amazon's delight.

When I lived in Squamish, I'd often order books on Amazon sight unseen.  Sometimes they were not as helpful or inspiring as I had hoped, and it was not always worth the trouble to return them.  Now that I live in Vancouver and have the luxury of belonging to the Vancouver Public Library, I search for them on the data base and, more often than not, I find what I want.

Two good books I was able to borrow recently are Practice Perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better, by Doug Lemov, and Born to Be Good:  the science of a meaningful life by Dacher Keltner.

In Practice Perfect, Lemon lists forty-two habits that will help one practice more effectively.  He sets his advice in the context of teaching and coaching, but the rules also make sense for anything you would like to improve.  Most of the advice is pretty much common sense.  For example, Rule #1 is "encode success," which means to clarify what success looks like, and in practice, simplify the exercise to ensure reliably high success, before upping the complexity or endurance.  Rule #31 is "normalize error," which is part of encouraging growth mindset, the ability to take risks, fail, and try again.

But a few nuggets stood as a good reminders or things I had not thought of before.

Rule #2 is, "practice the 20%."  My interpretation of what the author is saying, is that if you take an activity that you love and frequently practice the 80% of what you love about it, try practicing the 20% that is hard, and your overall results will improve.  In educational leadership, I think of the 20% as having difficult conversations, meeting with people with whom you don't see eye-to-eye, paying attention to and loving the hard-to-love.  This hard work is an investment that pays off immensely.  I also think about my running practice.  I often practice the 80% - long slow runs that tire, but do not exhaust me or help to improve my performance.  I am thinking of the 20% as running stairs to simulate climbing, high intensity, short bursts of speedwork, and specific core exercises that help with stability and form.

Rule #4 is, "unlock creativity with repetition."  This was interesting because the author makes the claim that once a person has practiced a small skill enough to allow for automaticity, then deeper and more creative thinking and learning can occur.  For example, if a student is bogged down by not knowing his/her timetables, it diverts the cognitive energy to 8 x 9, rather than to something bigger and more interesting to investigate in numeracy.

Rule #33 is, "make it fun to practice."  Teachers need to embrace this rule and looks for ways to make the tedious, more enjoyable.  Math drills can be turned into games, for example.  Making multiple prototypes in STEM can be fun and rigorous at the same time when you are working with classmates.  I realized on my recent stair climbing workout that I was really struggling with the boredom of it.  I resolved to bring my iPod next time to distract myself with music that I love, to make the "monotony" of the 20% more bearable.

There are many more good ideas for principals, teachers, coaches and parents in this book, as well as for anyone who want to improve in a hobby or sport.  This is one book I will buy on Amazon for McNeely's professional library collection.

This book made me want to read Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, and Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.

The second yellow book, Born to Be Good, was written by a psychology professor from the University of California, Berkeley: Dacher Keltner.  His thesis is that we are programmed, biologically and through evolution, to be altruistic.  He uses research on the brain and behaviour to make the case that we are a care-taking species that values emotional literacy, that we have infinite capacity to reconcile and forgive, and rather than Darwin's "survival of the fittest," human history has been shaped by the notion of "survival of the kindest."  Basically, "we are wired for good."

Keltner's references that interest me are Born to Rebel by Frank Sulloway, Mother Nature by Sarah Bluffer Hrdy.

This is not a book I will be buying for our school's resource library.  It is interesting, but dense with scientific data and explanations and not geared particularly toward educators or parents.  But if you are a MindUp or Mind Set fan, Born to Be Good will be an affirming read.

(Just checked - all of the other books referenced are available from the VPL - get in line, people!)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Joy, Grit, and Empathy: Two Book Reviews

I love reading new books about education. I recently ordered these two:  Embracing a Culture of Joy: Solutions for creating the learning spaces students deserve, by Dean Shareski, and The Formative Five: Fostering grit, empathy, and other success skills every student needs, by Thomas R. Hoerr.

Shareski's book is a slim volume of essays on topics such as The Expectations of School, A Sense of Wonder, and Play as Research.  Shareski is Canadian and it makes me happy that we are having conversations about these ideas and others, here.  He does, however, make reference to books by many international educational scholars, and so my list of books to track down from the library or Amazon grows.

Here are some highlights (the pages to which I adhere neon stickies):

  • Quotes my favourite Harvard guy, Dr. Richard Elmore:  "Accountability must be a reciprocal process.  For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet the expectation."
  • "Students who wake up each morning excited to go to school may indeed be going to a place where joy is the dominant culture.  It's about safety, belonging and hope."
  • "Perhaps the most important thing we can do in our classrooms to create a greater sense of wonder is to simply value questions more than answers."
  • "When you invite folks to play with ideas, tools, and scenarios, it immediately takes the pressure off failure as the end to learning.  Instead, failure becomes accepted as an element to learning and growing."
  • "Communities provide an opportunity to contribute and find meaning with others, and they honour the social experience."
  • "Learning should be about beauty, wonder, and curiosity."

In The Formative Five, Hoerr gives educators very practical ideas for nurturing empathy, self-control, integrity, appreciation of diversity, and grit.  He recommends stories to read with students of all ages, self-assessments for students to complete, advice for principals, and ideas for letters to home home for families.  This is a great book for BC teachers who want ideas and practical suggestions for teaching to the Core Competencies.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Joy of Learning

Recently, I attended an event called IGNITE in Delta.  IGNITE evenings are popular in many lower mainland districts now.  Attendees gather to listen to about twelve speakers, each of whom has only five minutes to talk about their educational passion.  The fast pace of the speeches ensures that the listeners' attention is rapt.  As well, the enthusiasm of the speakers is contagious.

Of the twelve presentations we heard last night, the one that resonated with me the most was a teacher who spoke about finding the JOY in teaching and learning.  A few years ago, I read an article in my daughter's ski instructor magazine.  It was about how learning should be serious fun.  That might be obvious on the ski hill, but not so much in our schools.  I remember a school psychologist, years ago,  talking about how a student had "low tolerance for tedium."  Tedium?  Why should anything in school be tedious?

Sure, we need our students to stick with things, practice and persevere.  But if we are going to engage students in true and lasting learning, we had better find ways of making it really matter to the students.

Last week I had an opportunity to meet some teachers visiting from China.  In trying to explain how we plan for teaching in Canada, I found myself saying, "We can't know what to teach until we know our students."  What are their interests, their skills, their talents?  But instead of asking, "What is your passion?" how about asking, "What is your heartbreak?  What do you care about so much in the world that you would like to change?  Climate Change?  Racism?  Poverty?"

There has been an awful lot of bad news in the world lately, the most recent in our own "backyard," in Quebec City.  It is easy to fall into the habit of pessimistic thinking, believing that the worst thing one can imagine is continually outdone and surpassed by actions that are beyond imagining.  This weekend I witnessed two acts of kindness within an hour that lightened my heart.  At the corner of Robson and Burrard Streets an old man was sitting on the sidewalk, wondering aloud why no one was stopping.  He cried that he was hungry and people were just passing him by.  As I was wondering the same thing, a young man in his mid twenties went up to him and said, "Sir, can I buy you something to eat?"  When I looked back they were both gone.  A half hour later I was on the opposite corner.  There was a young man lying on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag.  Another young man bent down and tucked some money into his hand.  They exchanged eye contact and a thumbs-up.  It was a  precious moment of human contact I will always remember.

Back to the idea of joy - we can't have too much of it!  We need to actively seek opportunities to find it, share it and nurture it for our students and ourselves.  Perhaps one day there won't be folks sleeping on sidewalks and begging for kindness.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Gardener and the Carpenter

I have just finished reading a new book on parenting:  The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.  As her title suggests, she argues that "parenting" is not a practice that one can master, like becoming a master carpenter.  Rather, it is the process of nurturing the relationship between parent and child, like a gardener tends a garden, providing children with the sustenance and support that they need to flourish.

She writes, "Childhood is designed to be a period of exploration and innovation, learning and imagination," and bemoans the fact that, "ironically, in a society that values creativity and innovation more and more, we provide fewer and fewer unfettered opportunities for children to explore."

Gopnik also discusses how children learn, attachment and relationships, the "work of play."  It is quite a dense text requiring close reading, but with interesting perspectives about what modern parents think they need to do, rather than how they need to be. "We don't care for children because we love them; we love them because we care for them."

This book will be available for teachers and parents to borrow from  our school library in the New Year.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Back to School With Growth Mindsets

Last spring, seventeen of our staff members signed up for a book club with Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Last week was our first meeting.  Our members discussed the difference between growth and fixed-mindsets and what that means for students, and also for ourselves and other adults that we live and work with.  We also decided that we all have a mix of fixed and growth mindsets, depending on the circumstances.  We can see evidence of fixed vs. mindset in watching how people take on challenges.  Do they avoid or embrace a challenge.  When they make a mistake, fixed-mindset folks see it as a failure and are embarrassed, while growth mindset people see it as a temporary setback, something to learn from and move on.  Perseverance, asking questions and taking risks are other qualities that are strong in the growth mindset character.

What does this mean for our students?  Teachers are becoming more aware of and sensitive to how children think about their learning.  Teachers are able to then coach students in how they think and talk about themselves.  For example, if a child child says, "I can't do it," a teacher might say, "You can't do it yet  but with more practice and perseverance, you will be able to."  If a student were to say, "I'm no good at math," the teacher might reframe it as, "I find math challenging, but I know I can get better."

We know so much more about the brain and its plasticity than in the past.  Science has given us the facts to back our teachers' instinct: that every child can learn. We want our students to be optimistic and resilient people, to be able to do good in the world and make it a better place that it is now.  I am grateful to be in such a hopeful community of teachers and learners.