In the summer, as I drove back and forth to the cottage, I listened to Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and it inspired me. Hadfield’s passion for learning is just the sort of learning energy I wished my students could find. From planning to become an astronaut to preparing for a mission to recovering after a mission, Hadfield’s book is filled with lessons we all need.
Astronauts need to be able to excel as individuals and as part of a team. Not only are astronauts super cool and fascinating, but they are artists, athletes, and scientists. They have developed mastery in many areas by learning with intention.
“Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person.” Chris Hadfield
I wondered how I could use the ideas in Chris Hadfield’s book to inspire my school community, engage students, and build some learning spirit.
What would it be like if we all learned like astronauts?
So I developed a year long whole school mission. Our goal is to discover two things:
- What can life in space teach us about life on earth?
- If we were going to learn like an astronaut, what would we need to do?
To accomplish our mission we have three main monthly experiences:
- Monthly class challenges embedded with K-8 curriculum.
- Monthly space days with intramural activities to encourage healthy active living, teamwork, and leadership.
- Bulletin board in the centre of our school to document evidence of our learning and progress toward our goal.
To launch the program, I met with two classes at a time in the library. When they entered the library a live view of earth from the International Space Station was projected on the screen to be used as a provocation for student thinking.
None of our students had ever seen this before.
Once they were all seated, I asked the students questions.
What do you think this is? How do you know it’s earth? Who is recording this? What is that?
Most of the students could identify that it was a view of earth. None of the students identified the International Space Station, most suggesting instead that it was a satellite where television comes from. One student in each group talked about how the earth moved around the sun. Generally, students showed a limited understanding of space with the same few simple ideas repeating with each group: it’s dark, there’s no gravity, and there are planets.
After I put up the bulletin board, one of our staff asked why the moon wasn’t a planet. A parent asked if the students learned any of the physics behind the big bang theory. A student asked why the astronaut had a helmet and a pack on his back. Curiosity about space started to grow instantly.
At the presentation with the classes I outlined the two ways students would explore our mission: monthly class challenges and monthly space days.
The Classroom Challenges
I decided to roll out each challenge one month at a time. Each month will focus on developing a different skill so we can all learn more like astronauts.
- October: Prepare your body.
- November: Prepare your mind.
- December: Practice problem solving.
- January: Work as a team.
- February: Practice in the simulator.
- March: Figure out how things work.
- April: Explore technology.
- May: See things from another perspective.
- June: Find a real astronaut.
To launch our first challenge in October, I created a video to play in their classroom on the Smart-board (and made an avatar!!):
Why is it important for astronauts to prepare their bodies for space by becoming fit and strong?
Design a fitness test for astronauts and show evidence that your class has passed the test.
Classes will have until the end of the month to complete this challenge. We have a team of students to judge the entries with me. We will meet together this week to identify success criteria for this mission and post it in our hallway. For each challenge, points will be given for:
- Creativity and Imagination
- Connection to Our Mission
- Percentage of the Class Participating
Email me if you’d like a copy of the year at a glance so you can begin this project at your school–I didn’t want to post it here yet because the other missions are still top secret at my school.
Teacher Resources: Design a fitness test for astronauts
Some sites with great resources for educators:
We are part of a Promoting Mentally Healthy Schools pilot project and healthy active living is a priority for our staff. We have set up monthly Space Days which are basically whole school K-8 intramural cooperative sports for 100 minutes. We want to use these days to build school spirit, cooperation skills, physical fitness, and well-being.
There are clear connections with three of the Active Healthy Living strands: Living Skills, Active Living, and Healthy Living. Through our Space Days students will develop interpersonal skills (communication and social skills), critical and creative thinking skills, participation in a wide variety of activities, physical fitness, safety, and making connections that relate to personal safety.
Our first Space Day was a huge success. Students were divided into teams (each named after a planet and assigned a colour). From big ball volleyball to a challenging obstacle course to x-ball, there were six activities to engage teams.
Documenting Our Learning
As we learn about space and life in space our learning will go up on this board so we can continue to learn and make connections:
Thank-you Col. Chris Hadfield for inspiring this project!!
Technology gives us the ability to learn nearly anything. I love that we can access information, processes, and thinking that for many centuries was available only to few. Technology is taking the lid off learning and redefining education.
There is a major shift in the ways we can learn about anything at anytime happening right now! Today. Part of it is due to the evolution of our electronic devices and part of the shift is due to how educators are using the technology to create learning platforms.
John Hattie says that “the computer is not the teacher.” My iPad doesn’t make me smarter, but how I use my iPad could change my life. Innovative teachers are using technology to make the world their classroom and providing access to learning experiences for anyone with a device and Internet connection. Our traditions in education need to change too!
This list is big. Be sure to take it in slowly, coming back to try another hyperlink. I thought about sharing fewer links but changed my mind. One of the best things about online learning is choice. There are so many choices out there!
Here are 7 amazing learning experiences online:
- Google. Most people use Google to research, but are you maximizing what Google can do? Did you know that Google algorithms predict what you are looking for so your search results may be different than someone else’s? Did you know that Google has country codes? Take a free online Google course in Power Searching or Advanced Power Searching or use Google Search Operators to broaden your options. I promise you will find things you didn’t even know were out there!
- Free or very low cost Virtual Schools. Earn Ontario high school credits through the Independent Learning Centre or in the United States try Stanford University High School. But this is the one that has me most excited: Take free online courses from the world’s best universities through edX, a site that has the super power of Harvard, MIT, and other education heavy weights.
- Online workshops, tutorials, and webinars. A number of fabulous sites are popping up with outstanding learning opportunities. From Lynda.com that offers online video tutorials to Udemy that offers more than 32,000 online courses, the opportunities to learn are vast. And many teachers are utilizing these platforms to expand their classrooms. I love that I can create a course on Udemy too (I’ll have to add that to my bucket list). A favourite of many high school teachers is Khan Academy where there is a diverse collection of lessons on a range of subjects (Math, Science, Computer Programming, History, Art, Economics, etc).
- Industry specific professional organizations. In Education there are a number of amazing places to go to learn and connect with educators around the world. The articles posted through ASCD are awesome and if you’re like me and too busy to visit the site, it will come to you. You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter so their articles appear in your feed. From collaborative blogs (Connected Principals) to MOOCs to resource databases like Edugains, quality professional learning is no longer limited to which workshops you attend on a PA Day. Seek out your industry’s top learning sites.
- Social Media. I learn a lot from Facebook and Twitter because I try to find people and companies to follow that have something that I need to know. Or I use social media to connect with and engage with other educators. Twitter has some great chat feeds. I really like #amwriting to connect with other writers. My favourites in education are: #onted, #ontedleaders, and #edchat. Many groups will designate a night when everyone is online. You put the hashtag into the search box and follow/respond to each other. Twitter interviews are also becoming common, where an expert is asked questions by a host as well as anyone else who joins in the discussion. Find out where your people are (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) and connect. (I find Twitter or Pinterest are the best places to connect with educators right now).
- Technology tools can make learning easier. A current trend in education is blended learning, where some of the learning happens with technology and some of the learning happens face-to-face. Whenever I explore the tools to use with classroom learning my eyes pop out! Truly. Check out Diigo, a site that helps you sort, tag, annotate, and share research. Verso helps to give every student in your class a voice. Edsby is an amazing learning management system our board has just started using. Prism promotes collaborative interpretation of texts and would have been a dream when I was teaching English. The WayBack Machine allows you access news from the day an event happened. Wolfram Alpha is incredible too–it will solve any Math problem and can answer questions in a variety of other subjects. WRITERS: you will love Wolfram Alpha!!!!!
- Text, audio or video content sharing sites. I’ve always been a big fan of Audible for downloading audio books–for me it’s always non-fiction. I’ve recently discovered Sound Cloud a site with lots of new music and podcasts. YouTube has always been a go-to, especially when I get stuck with my technology. There is always a video to bail me out. Blogs are more popular than ever and by subscribing to the ones I love, updates appear in my email inbox. Many people love article collecting apps like Zite or Instapaper or Flipboard too.
One of our beloved researchers in education is John Hattie, the mastermind behind the visible learning movement (to me it really feels like a movement). Hattie’s research is the culmination of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. This means his research is about most of the other research out there. Here are five things I’ve learned from his books:
1) Students need to be confident and accurate when estimating their learning.
Hattie calls this “self-report grades” and it is the number one thing to impact student achievement. Teachers need to provide students with tools to measure their progress, outlining clearly what they are learning (the goal) and how they will know they are successful (the success criteria).
Hattie: “Educating students to have high, challenging, appropriate expectations is among the most powerful influence in enhancing student achievement.”
INSIGHT: It’s not just about reflection for reflection’s sake. It’s about accurate, purposeful reflection.
QUESTION: How can educators measure how accurately students are estimating their learning and predicting their success?
2) How students learn is as important as what students learn.
Students may think differently than teachers because the mind of a child is developmentally different than the mind of an adult. Lessons should challenge student thinking, encourage dialogue and collaboration, and give teachers time to listen.
Hattie: “The message is that we must know what students already know, know how they think, and then aim to then progress all students towards the success criteria of the lesson.”
INSIGHT: When I was a teacher I often planned my lessons based on my understanding and how my mind organizes information. I needed to spend more time learning how my students think.
QUESTION: How can high school teachers shift from seeing themselves as content experts to instructional experts?
3) Technology can increase learning but it’s not guaranteed.
Good teaching is good teaching with or without technology. For example, iPads in the classroom are not effective by their presence alone. The “how” students learn is determined by the teacher’s strategies, the quality of peer learning, the helpfulness of the feedback, or the opportunities for students to practice.
Hattie: “It is critical to realize that the computer is not ‘the teacher.'”
INSIGHT: I need to better understand technology as a tool for learning, synthesizing my understanding of teaching strategies and lesson design with the opportunities in technology devices and apps.
QUESTION: How can I collaborate with other educators in learning more about how to use technology effectively as a tool for teaching?
4) A learning leader can make an impact.
School leaders are reinventing their roles to align with research. From the leader who motivates and inspires change to the leader who attends to the quality of student learning, principals are now responsible for much more than the daily operations of the school. While the teachers examine what they teach and how they teach it, school leaders need to ask what is the evidence of student learning and how can it be used to improve instruction?
Hattie: “What is needed is more space for teachers to interpret the evidence about their effect on each student.”
INSIGHT: I need a solid understanding of what “evidence of student” learning looks like and a process for tracking it efficiently and effectively in my school.
QUESTION: How can I measure my impact as a leader on student achievement?
5) Students want to know how to improve their work to be able to do better next time.
Teachers say that they give lots of feedback. Students say they don’t receive enough. There is a gap. Negative feedback can cause problems, misunderstandings, and apathy. Teachers need to balance negative and positive feedback, match feedback to knowledge level, providing assurance when students are on track. Focus on how the feedback is received.
Hattie: “As a professional, it is critical to know thy impact. It may seem ironic but the more teachers seek feedback about their own impact, the more the benefits accrue to their students.”
INSIGHT: When I first started teaching high school English it didn’t occur to me to ask students if the feedback I was giving them on their essays was effective. I learned that giving useful feedback is hard work, but important work.
QUESTION: How can I inspire staff to reflect on what feedback they give and to measure its impact on student learning?
The Good News
This summer I spent a lot of time with my cousin who wrote a six-part blog series about collective impact that I followed in August. It got me thinking about how this type of intentional work within schools and within our broader school communities could better support students.
Promoting well-being is a focus in Ontario schools. It includes supporting the whole child: cognitive, emotional, social, and physical well-being. The most challenging area is mental health.
We have access to more experts and resources than in the history of schooling. We have processes in place to support students in crisis and ongoing training for all staff. There is a lot to celebrate. But I think everyone would agree that there is still more work to do. Our kids still need more.
Many adults in a school may be working independently or as a team to support one child. Each person has a different role to play. Imagine the jobs and skill sets of these people:
- Vice Principal
- Special Education Resource Teacher
- Classroom Teacher
- Guidance Counsellor
- Student Success Teacher
- Child and Youth Work
- Educational Assistant
- School Board Counsellor
- Student Retention Counsellors
- Board Interdisciplinary Team (including a Psychologist and Mental Health Nurse)
- Special Education Consultant
- Behaviour Specialist
- ….and we are part of a special Promoting Mentally Healthy Schools project.
In the community we have access to various services and supports:
- Kinark: Child and Family Services
- Rebound Child and Youth Services Northumberland
- Victim Services
- Highland Shores Children’s Aid
- Northumberland Child Development Centre
- Five Counties Children’s Centre
- Northumberland Hills Hospital
- Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre
- Champions for Youth Mentoring Program
- Local family doctors
I’ve worked with each of these agencies and utilized every support available to help kids and they are all amazing.
Schools have access to resources I fantasized about at the beginning of my career. The new Ministry document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health is fabulous. The much talked-about Health and Physical Education curriculum integrates mental health concepts into all content areas of the Healthy Living strand. Edugains has expanded its resources to include Mental Health resources for teachers. Our board offers staff access to training in Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. From CAMH to TAMI to Stomping Out Stigma student groups, we have hit a much needed tipping point for gaining support in schools.
But despite all the agencies, expert support, and caring parents, kids are still in distress and there is sometimes a feeling of helplessness in schools when trying to support students who struggle with mental health issues.
My Big Question
We all want the same thing: healthy whole-hearted children and youth.
I wonder if we’re making an impact. I wonder if we’re missing something. I wonder if there is more we can do. I wonder if we’re trying to do too much too fast. I wonder if we are being intentional enough about the way we are working alone and together. I wonder why sometimes even when a student has access to every support, s/he still suffers every day. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep me up at night.
Is it that more students are struggling or that we’re getting better at noticing? According to an in-depth CBC feature anxiety disorders affect six percent of children and youth. Twenty-two percent of children will be affected by anxiety in their lifetime. The buzz in school staff rooms and on social media is that it feels like more students struggle with anxiety now than in the past and the cases seem much more complex. So it might be both: more students are struggling and more educators are noticing just how complex mental health issues can be.
So my big question is how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?
Autonomy AND Collaboration?
This is too big a problem to solve alone. Supporting student well-being is a job for the whole village.
What is my role? I am one person in the village with a specific skill set and knowledge base. We need to better understand the roles of each individual in our village and be clear about what collaboration can look like.
A couple years ago at a high school we tried looking at this with our Student Success Team. On our team were vice principals, guidance counsellors, special education teachers, coop teachers, attendance counsellor, school board counsellor, consultant, and a student success teacher. We met weekly to discuss students who were struggling with academic and socio-emotional issues. Classroom teachers referred names to our team, we collected information, looked for trends, brainstormed supports, and followed-up with the student who needed support. I understood my role as a vice principal but I wanted to know more about the other roles. I wondered if there was overlap or gaps in service.
We created a google-doc and sat around the conference table with our laptops. The headings were something like:
- Name: Jessica
- Role: VP
- Goal: what is the purpose of your job?
- Meetings: what information do you require at a Student Success Meeting to do your job?
- Strategies: what strategies do you use to support students?
- Students: which students do you serve?
- Successes: what works well?
- Challenges: what is most challenging?
We went round-robin and filled in the chart with as much detail as possible. Then I synthesized the trends and patterns into this summary document so we could make decisions about next steps: Reflecting on Student Success Meetings.
This thinking was a good start for our team in being more intentional. Where we fell short was on taking the time to really develop a solid plan from here. We had some great ideas and implemented some changes, but we didn’t have metrics. We needed to return to these questions and better monitor our work along the way. We needed to measure what impact our changes made. The second year would have been crucial in consolidating this thinking/learning and maybe the team continued to refine their collective work but I moved to another school.
Collective Impact as a Possible Solution
If supporting students with mental health issues in schools is something I can’t do on my own, then how will we work together? How will we ensure efficient service delivery? How can we prevent students from falling through gaps in service?
We rely on the strength of home, school, and community partnerships. We rely on the expertise of others–I think that can be the scary part for us as educators. We like to be in control and to support students well we have to acknowledge our limits in schools and trust our community partners. We have to learn what success looks like and even though our hearts cry out that it looks like happiness for all, that may not be realistic. We live in a complex world with complex problems.
The first step is to develop a clear vision and ensure a common understanding. We need to put all our questions out there even if they fly back at us like boomerangs without answers.
Ontario has a comprehensive strategy called Open Minds, Healthy Minds that includes building resilience through schools. Our board has an amazing leadership team supporting schools. I am blessed to work with a dedicated school staff. This collective work has already started and I feel confident that we will all get better at supporting students in time. We need to persevere.
In my humble opinion here are some other things I think we need to start doing together:
- Teach parents how to advocate for accommodations and supports for student mental health issues the way parents have learned to advocate for special education needs. We need to help parents navigate the systems. I want to learn more about what parents need.
- Prioritize meetings with school teams, board teams, community teams, provincial teams, national teams, and/or global teams to strategize how to work together with more intention, to learn from each other, and to check for gaps or overlaps in services. (Perhaps we need collective impact consultants like my cousin to bring teams together. An outside facilitator can help us stretch our thinking, build trusting relationships, and bring more purpose to our work).
- Communicate better what everyone is doing to support mental health issues in children and youth…and in a simple, efficient way. (Some days I feel I don’t have enough information and others I’m on information overload).
- Leverage technology to build online learning communities that include stakeholders learning together and problem-solving from various perspectives. I know these must exist but the people I know don’t know where they are. We need to know. I would love a safe, confidential forum to discuss student well-being with other school leaders and experts as need arises.
- Plan for how to support students in moments of crisis at school and to support students with ongoing mental health issues. (I am learning how to support students in moments of crisis, but I am unclear of my role as an educator when a student demonstrates a mental health issue over time–from months to years.)
- Learn how to better cope or where to go next when nothing changes when interventions are utilized. How do we know when we’ve done enough? As one doctor told me, mental health issues can be fatal. I struggle with accepting that. I struggle with knowing what to do when a student is receiving treatment but we are not seeing changes at school and years pass–this is why we sometimes feel helpless. We want our support to lead to change and sometimes it doesn’t.
I’m optimistic that in my lifetime we will continue to see more supports for children and youth. I’m optimistic that educators will feel more confident in the role they can play in supporting student well-being. I’m optimistic that if we are more intentional within our schools and communities good things will come. We will reach another tipping point.
Questions are good. Let’s start there. And my question remains: how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?
The answer lies in our collective commitment to action. Commitment is a promise to do or to give something. Are you committed or just interested? We need people who are going “to do or to give” sitting at the table. What are you willing and able to do or to give? We each have a role in this village.
We want children to thrive when they go to school. We want safe schools, places where students have a high sense of belonging, and a community that values its members. To me a positive school climate looks like peaceful hallways, engaging classroom learning, and robust spirit. Joy is at the heart of a great school. Community can be assessed by the smiles and laughter heard by students, parents, and staff. I try to find a moment of joy at least once a day.
On our first day of school I heard a number of students exclaim in the halls as they transitioned, “I love learning!”
On the second day, a student said, “I love grade one!” as he leaped in the air and clasped his hands.
On the third day, a grade two student stopped by my office and asked if he could have a sticker.
“What did you do to earn a sticker?” I asked. I keep some in my drawer and he remembered from last year.
“Well…I listened to my teacher. I was nice to my friend. I was good. It was a good day.”
“And what did you learn today?”
“To be a good friend.” Then he smiled proudly, beaming from ear to ear.
I nodded. “You did have a good day!” And I allowed him to choose a sticker from the drawer.
Trust the Research
To have a positive school climate we need to have high levels of structure and high levels of support. Our schools need rules and expectations to maximize learning, but they all need high levels of support to get there.
We are a restorative school. Our staff have been trained in restorative justice, a practice that involves students in resolving their own conflicts. This is a well-researched method for supporting a positive school climate. For restorative justice to be most effective, all staff need training and ongoing support.
My role as a principal is not just to respond to incidents, but to look at them as learning moments. What can we learn from this? The learning extends beyond what the students can learn. What can I learn from this as a principal? What can my staff learn from this? A student learning need can often highlight an adult learning need.
For example, if we take a classic situation of a school yard fight. We go through the steps of responding to the incident with the students. What happened? What were you thinking about at the time? What do you need to do to make things right? We help the students take ownership and to be part of the plan for restoring balance to the school.
Then: What piece do we own as adults? What role do we need to play in restoring balance? So, I can also reflect on the conditions in the yard at the time. Do our students have the capacity to play independently? How effective was the supervision? Is this an isolated incident or has the student had conflict with many peers? It’s my responsibility to investigate all the other stuff surrounding the incident. My response always includes a combination of pressure and support, looking at both us and them.
Now our school yard offers structured programming at recess. Students can choose to play a sport or game that is well supervised by a staff member. The staff member supports the students in learning the sport and in building their resiliency for when conflict may arise in the game. We learned that some students even struggled with losing, bursting into tears if one team was winning. Over time, the students learned how to cope better with naturally occurring conflict.
When we had some primary students struggling on the yard last year, we introduced them to Kelso’s Choices, a conflict management program for kids. A Child and Youth Worker met with the students a couple times a week to go through the process of dealing with big and small problems, role playing possible options. Teachers on yard duty were given key chains with the choice cards on them to use with students as they saw moments present themselves. We are blessed that our whole staff values a restorative approach and actively participates in offering students support when they need it.
The principal who preceded me also felt strongly about research-based methods for supporting school climate so the training and routines were introduced slowly over time. We are a Tribes Learning Community. Most of our teachers (and me!) have received Tribes training and spend time proactively engaged in community building activities. The mural in our hallway, in the centre of our school, is inspired by Tribes.
A number of our staff participate in annual Non-Violent Crisis Intervention (NCVI) training. This program offers a process for identifying and responding to triggers before behaviour escalates to a crisis situation. Last year we asked our support staff to lead our teaching staff through a Safety Plan and the COPING model. After years of using this approach for individual students, we decided to talk through how we could use this approach with all students, recognizing that many students have triggers in Phase 1: Anxiety. Throughout the morning we came up with some great strategies for identifying triggers in all students so we could intervene before things escalated. It was a powerful exercise.
Later in the year, our support staff (Educational Assistants and Child and Youth Workers) worked together on a PA Day to rewrite our School Code of Conduct into student friendly language. They decided to use a poem.
A positive school climate is nurtured through collaboration, reflection, and responsive restorative action. It honours the voices of all stakeholders. Conflict is natural and a part of life. It is something we will all continue to learn about. The Chinese characters that make up the word conflict mean danger and opportunity. So often we think about conflict as the danger. It’s our job as leaders to look at the opportunity in conflict.
Early in my career I was lucky to work with an experienced teacher who told me “you can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.” He was shutting down the negative chatter that can happen when schools are out of balance. He said: “If you complain and do nothing, you are part of the problem.”
This summer I read Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. He recommended three steps to follow when in crisis that I think work well for us in schools too.
1) WARN. Tell students and staff: “There is an increase of aggression on the school yard. We want to see more examples of kindness on our yard.”
2) GATHER. Put together a group of stakeholders (teachers, students, parents) who can bring insight or expertise to the issue.
3) WORK. Work the problem. As a team look for solutions for decreasing aggression on the yard.
Reflect What You Want to See
A popular behaviour management strategy is to “catch them being good.” One strategy I used last year was to take pictures using my iPhone as I was out and about the school of things that showed our students and staff at their best. Then I printed off the pictures and put them up on a bulletin board collage, collecting our learning and laughter from the whole year.
A few times a year at assemblies, we put together photo slideshows, reflecting back to the students what we want to see. Something as simple as photographs can build school spirit and reinforce the message of what type of school we want: a school with engaging learning happening every day and moments of joy.
1) Begin with a question
Why does the moss cover parts of the tree trunk? Inquiry is as simple as a single question. When we see the world through questions we welcome learning into our lives. It is easy to say that children are naturally curious, but why are some children more curious than others? Why do some six year olds ask about moss on the tree and others didn’t even notice the tree?
Inquiry begins with a question, yes–but where do questions come from?
Pablo Picasso said “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” In the Information Age questions are more important than ever. How often do you ask questions? What impact do your questions have on what you need to know or what you do next?
Someone once told me about a book called Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. Are questions really so powerful?
This week I’ve been thinking about how we can create the conditions for curiosity:
- Attention and focus: Like the girl in the picture, questions are often found when we pay attention to details. I try to look for questions with more enthusiasm than I look for answers.
- Engagement: Writers often say “write what you know.” But I prefer the twist that says, “write what you’re interested in then go out and know it.” Where there is engagement, there are questions!
- Practice: Ask questions every day. It can be a mind flip to ask questions and it takes time to be able to develop good ones. I find I need to ask a dozen (or more) questions to get to one really good one.
Before I can ask a question I need to pay attention, I need to be engaged and interested, and I need to know what a good question looks like.
2) Ask more questions over time
My friend Tom shared with me a project he used with children to spark curiosity about trees. First he made some kits with magnifying glasses, tape measures, paper/pencil, etc. Then students selected a tree to track for the year, noting their questions and observations as the seasons passed.
He said the questions started with the obvious ones like what kind of tree is this? How big is it? How would I describe it? Then the students went deeper to ask what insects live in this tree? Which birds visit this tree? Why is my tree different from my classmate’s tree?
What started as a simple task turned into an inquiry into trees, developing the children’s appreciation for biology and an understanding of learning.
Tom calls it “OGY”–the last three letters in so many of the sciences. He says it like this: “oh gee why?”
I love this. When children express an interest in something I can ask “oh gee, why?”
Sally says, “There is a squirrel in that tree.”
“Oh, gee. Why?” I’d ask. That one simple question has the potential to spark a multitude of questions. It’s a simple question we can use to spark curiosity in ourselves and in others.
I’ve found that the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Things change for me over time and my questions always get better.
Years ago I started with the question, “why is my blog named Sunshine in a Jar?” The search turned into my Master’s thesis and now my life’s work. As our understanding changes, so do our questions.
3) Share your questions with others
Last week we had an amazing conference for principals and vice principals in our school board. Alan November, author of Who Owns the Learning, challenged us to think about how we are using technology in schools. Here are some key messages from his talk:
- “Global relationships may be the most powerful use of technology.”
- “What’s the most important skill of a learner in the age of the Internet? Teach students how to ask the most interesting questions.”
- “The real revolution is not technology: it’s information. What information do we need?”
The Internet is redefining our circle of influence. A number of years ago I began some research into my family tree. I wondered why my grandfather lived on an island in Georgian Bay in a lighthouse. Why does someone become a lighthouse keeper? Why were my relatives keepers for so many years?
Using my available resources, including family members and online databases, I searched for a year. Then I shared my questions and my findings with family. It turns out some of them had the same questions too. However, the best news was that someone had the French language skills I lacked to interpret documents that puzzled me. We found a fascinating ancestor named Ezekiel Solomon, the first Jewish man to live in Michigan, a fur trader who was a rival to the Northwest Trading Company and Hudson’s Bay prior to his capture by Pontiac (although he survived, his wealth did not).
I shared my questions again…and the questions that followed the first, turning it into a blog post. Now I was able to reach outside of my family and immediate circle to connect with ancestors across North America. At least once a month I receive emails or comments from people trying to learn more about Ezekiel Solomon. We share our findings and our questions. Last week I learned that his story is being turned into curriculum for the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and students will be invited to visit my site to explore the comments from Ezekiel’s ancestors. What began as a post about my questions and learning has now expanded into a record of what others have learned, of how strangers are connected.
Like November stated, technology enabled me to develop relationships from learners seeking similar information, pursuing similar questions. The technology supported the sharing of information and generated new information through all the comments. This really excites me!!
And by sharing my questions, I opened the door for others to add questions, sparking curiosity in me for things I hadn’t thought about.
Sharing enriches learning.
4) Connect your questions with other questions
Make connections. I’ve watched a lot of great television and movies this summer. In nearly every crime story there is a scene where the detective lays out all the evidence, all the questions spread in front of him/her, and uses the display to generate more questions through the art of making connections.
I like to capture the questions, get them down on the page, or on cards, grabbing what facts I can and adding them to the mix. And then play like the detectives do, formulating hypotheses, the “what if” questions and “theory of action” statements.
5) Use the arts
One of my favourite quotes is from Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” The arts provide natural links to curiosity. The arts show a way to ask and explore questions from multiple perspectives. We began this post looking at inquiry through the eyes of a scientist, but artists are very similar. Artists require attention, engagement, practice, and “oh gee whys” too.
Innovation. Creation. Question. Each word ends in “ion,” a suffix related to action. I like to use the arts as an approach to inquiry because it is an active way to pursue an idea. Otherwise the idea floats around in my head without much progress.
I am so excited about the buzz in education about inquiry. If you are struggling to tap into your “natural curiosity” then bring in the arts. The arts will open inquiry up–it works every time for me.
This is a watercolour painting I made when I first started thinking about the phrase “sunshine in a jar.”
Then I explored it again using collage a few years later:
And then again a few years after that (note how the ideas are changing as I change). By this example, the jar isn’t even part of the creation as I discovered the important part is what is inside the jar:
6) Use a formal process
One of my learning goals this year is to develop my skills in facilitating group inquiries, or as we call them in Ontario education, Collaborative Inquiry. Last year I participated in an Intensive Literacy Project, a collaborative inquiry (CI) that involved three tiers of learning: student, teacher, and principal. It was among the most impactful professional learning of my career.
Jenni Donohoo put together a fabulous book called Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide for School Improvement. This year I hope to work through the ideas in her book with the hope of engaging my staff in purposeful learning.
She outlines the process with four key stages:
- Framing the problem
- Collecting evidence
- Analyzing evidence
- Documenting, Sharing, and Celebrating
7) Document your findings
How we end a cycle is as important as how we begin it. Documentation is part of consolidating our learning. When I took singing lessons as a teen, after I had learned a song, my singing teacher tapped me on the head and said: “Now put that into your personal computer up there.” But singing was never about what was going on in my head–when I had truly learned the song it was less about technical precision and more about embodiment. To remember a song, I didn’t focus on the words or the notes even. I reflected on how the song felt in my body, where the notes moved and vibrated, how I had connected to the story of the song to my story. I documented the experience of the song through feeling, an intentional recall of the sensations of singing/experiencing the song.
Documentation is so much more than a report. It’s a way to let the learning set into your body the way a song does. Even as I write this post, documenting my thinking about inquiry, I can feel my thinking changing. Not a lot. But my thinking is simultaneously gaining confidence and asking new questions sparked from the experience of writing.
I love, love, love pedagogical documentation. The phrasing can be alienating but the idea is simple: document learning in order to learn from the documentation.
Our Grade One class last year learned all about responsibility through reading various texts. The teacher tracked the student thinking related to the theme on the wall (see pic below). Then the students visited the wall to reflect on their thinking/learning as the term progressed, adding insights as they developed. In the end the students made a video showing their learning about responsibility to share with the Kindergarten class. The documentation wasn’t just about noting what the Grade Ones were learning, but it was about using their voice and ideas as the spark for more learning–for this class and another class. Beautiful!!
Learning is a process with two key phases: action and reflection.
We have an experience, we reflect on the experience, we expand our understanding by making new connections, and then we act, trying something new with the learning. Teachers describe this as instruction and assessment. Instruction is the action, the doing, the experience. Assessment is reflecting on the impact of the learning on the self or the student.
The current model for learning design in schools is to begin a new lesson with a Minds On task, something to trigger prior knowledge or spark curiosity. Then we move to the Action part of the lesson, the things the students are doing to learn the new skill or explore new knowledge. The students own the learning, the teacher facilitates the process. Finally, there is Consolidation, a chance to reflect on the learning, to see where it fits in the students’ understanding of other things, and to decide on next steps.
We can all engage in action and reflection whether we are learning formally through a course or teaching ourselves how to bake.
- Self: When I am learning something new, how do I build reflection into the process?
- Teacher: How do I balance instruction and assessment?
- Leader: How do I share my learning process with staff and students?
Learning feels like a rollercoaster.
When we learn our energy is affected. Learning is change. Sometimes we feel excited and positively energized by learning and sometimes we feel frustrated and negatively bogged down by learning. It’s normal to feel a combination of both when we are learning something new. In fact, the best learning happens when we feel a combination of familiarity and disorientation, clarity and confusion.
I always know I’m learning when I get angry. Typically I’m not an angry person so when I feel my emotions shifting I know I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone to a more vulnerable place. The challenge and conflict can overwhelm me. I wonder how an hour ago I felt so confident and how now I feel like an absolute mess. But inevitably when I stick with it a path out of the pit emerges and I climb out of the darkness into the light a new woman.
- Self: How can I sustain my focus during the difficult parts of learning, when I’m in the pit surrounded by darkness?
- Teacher: How can I teach my students perseverance?
- Leader: How can I leverage motivation and purpose to inspire staff to accept the learning challenge and better cope with the stresses that come with change?
Learning looks like a carnival.
Learning sparks intrigue, curiosity, and delight, offering many choices and modes of experience. Carnivals invite us to enjoy them on our terms, spending our time (and money) where we want whether we spend hours at the dunk tank or the ring toss or equal amounts of time at each feature. They support individual experiences and collective experiences.
When we really look at learning there are many things going on at once. Individuals make choices constantly about what they will embrace and what they will resist. We learn for ourselves and our own gain, but we also learn in relation to the energy of the group surrounding us.
I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was resistance and there was low engagement. Was learning happening? Were we going to take these ideas back to our schools to implement in our classes? Probably not.
Then I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was encouraging and there was high engagement. It made me want to take more risks, plunge into new layers of thinking, and make connections between the experience in the room and my classroom.
Learning is most impactful when there is a high level of engagement, collective enthusiasm, and individual choice.
- Self: What motivates me to learn something new?
- Teacher: What does a high level of engagement look like in the classroom?
- Leader: How can we mobilize our school communities to generate more collective enthusiasm?
Learning tastes like my cooking.
If I learn slowly with careful preparation and attention to detail the rewards are far greater than when I learn quickly. Fast learning is about as good for us as fast food. It fills an immediate need but it doesn’t provide the value of a healthy, home cooked meal. In today’s world we need both types of learning to suit different needs. Fast learning is figuring out how to use social media to find and connect to friends. Slow learning is figuring out how to sustain lasting friendships.
Fast learning is reading the latest news about global learning. Slow learning is reflecting on how global warming affects my life and what I need to do to have a lighter footprint.
The Information Age has overwhelmed us with constant, ubiquitous fast learning. It’s such a blessing to have access to knowledge on anything at the press of the button. But as individuals, teachers, and leaders we need to persist in the pursuit of slow learning, of reading to understand, of thinking critically about the information and its implications to our lives.
My cooking is as good as the time I spend doing it. Meals that take hours to prepare are far more nourishing and memorable than meals that took minutes to toss together. When we feel tired and sick, we often look to our diet, making changes to invite more energy. Let’s apply that idea to our learning. When we feel stuck and we are not seeing progress in our work and our lives and our projects, then let’s look to our learning. Slow learning is about the process, the journey, the intentional steps toward a goal. Begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Create a learning plan, like a recipe, that shows a singular focus, a sequence of steps, and a desired result.
- Self: What does my current learning diet mostly consist of, fast learning or slow learning?
- Teacher: How can I create conditions in my classroom to nurture slow learning?
- Leader: How can I model slow learning for staff in the pursuit of my individual learning goals and our school learning goals?
Learning moves like a spiral.
Learning is continuous, expanding, and moving. Each time we learn we open up more opportunities for learning something else. Lessons repeat over time, bringing us deeper into our understanding. The learning spiral moves through our days from birth to death, affecting our choices and values and relationships.
From the earliest humans, we’ve collectively learned about technology, each century evolving into more refined methods of efficiency and effectiveness. As a species we reflect on what went wrong in previous generations to try and make better decisions in this one. The same lessons repeat year after year, decade after decade; they always have and always will. Learning is the soul of evolution and learning is our gateway to personal and collective change. Learning is natural.
Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about 10,000 hours of practice making an expert: slow learning over time with action and reflection. Our school curriculums are designed to support this idea. Last year our school focused on strategies for multiplication. Every class from Kindergarten to Grade 8 did a multiplication task, modified to grade level, about the number of muffins the baker made. It was amazing to see the continuum of learning spread out in front of us in the student work. As the students got older, their strategies for problem solving were more sophisticated. Even though they may have solved a similar problem seven years prior, Grade 8 students now solved the problem in a different way that accommodated more complexities. And these students will continue to learn about approaches to problem solving (whether in math or life) beyond the walls of our school.
- Self: How have I learned about problem solving over the course of my life? What do I still need to learn?
- Teacher: How can I use metaphor as a way to support my students in reflecting on their learning in a meaningful way?
- Leader: What problems need solving in my school? In education generally? What is my first step toward finding solutions?
How do you prepare for the return to work after an amazing vacation? We know transitions can be tough on our students, but they can be tough on adults too. As a teacher I often started my transition back to work slowly before my official return to work date.
- Day 1: Show up at the school. That’s it. Park the car. Go inside. Walk around. Spend 15-20 minutes chatting with whoever crossed my path. Go home.
- Day 2: Spend a couple hours in my assigned classroom locating my resources, prepping bulletin boards, and making to-do lists.
- Day 3: Stay at the school from the normal start time to lunch with a focus on planning the first week back, reflecting on my organizational systems and work flow.
- Day 4: This was usually a full day and a scheduled PA Day for all teachers to attend.
Now that my responsibilities have expanded the transition plan is much more complicated but I still use many of the same strategies I used as a teacher. As a principal I need to prepare myself for a successful transition, but I also need to create conditions so my staff and students have a great start-up.
First, I get my house in order.
- Organize my closets. Move the casual summer clothes aside. Take stock on my work clothes, deciding which pieces have seen better days and need replacing, and which items I’ll need to pick up. I don’t do much “Back to School” shopping anymore. I find September too hot to wear fall clothes so I usually wait until around Thanksgiving to buy my new stuff for the year.
- Decide on an outfit for the first day of school. For some reason I always overthink my clothes for this one day of the year–every year.
- Lunch container inventory and purchase a new lunch bag. Prep and freeze some lunch food so I have something to grab quickly when it gets busy.
- Thorough house cleaning.
- Reflect on upcoming year, reviewing calendar for personal events and needs. Write out my daily schedule with my preferred wake-up time, leave the house time, and leave work time.
- Review list of summer house projects and determine when I can reschedule them–Christmas break? March break? Next summer?
- Do anything else at home that needs attention because I might not get time to organize or reflect again until Christmas break. September to December is my busiest time of the year.
Then, I get my school in order.
- Organize my office. Purge files and papers that are not needed. Review books to move from my office library to the staff professional learning library.
- Organize my systems for workflow.
- This year I’m using Insightly to organize my projects and tasks. The features for creating pipelines and activity sets will hopefully help me to juggle more and make better use of my time.
- I also set up a Notebook in OneNote to hold everything: school operations, schedules, contact info, PD planning, SIP planning. It is an amazing program for organizing lots of important information. I also love how I can access it on all my devices.
- Our board is starting to use Edsby this year. I’m excited to explore how I can use it to better communicate with our school community.
- For daily note-taking I love the app Day One. My old VP partner shared this one with me and it is fantastic for taking notes on the fly and documenting the issues of the day.
- I also love Google Apps. My favourite is Google Calendar. Google Docs make collaboration a breeze. Our board uses Office 365 so I tend to use a hybrid of both for different tasks.
- Managing social media for me and the school can be overwhelming. In the past I’ve used Hootsuite to help manage multiple accounts. Particularly handy is its ability to schedule posts. This year I’ve added TweetDeck to my social media bookmarks to follow chats with other educators.
- Back to School Operations To-Do Checklist. Every year we go back to school so I’ve tried to streamline my return to work by creating a standard checklist. I’ve attached my excel checklist of things I do (or delegate) prior to Labour Day weekend so you can download and edit it:
- Consider School Climate Goals. I find it helpful to reflect on the four areas that connect student well-being and student achievement with the lens of: how can I attend to each quadrant within the first couple weeks of school?
I make notes on my intentions for the year.
This can be a fairly involved process for me. I think about the year in terms of three tiers of learning: Student learning, staff learning, and my learning. How can I best support the needs of some, few, and all? I try to be as detailed as possible. (I hope to write more about this in a future blog post).
In terms of my learning, I set clear professional learning goals for the year by:
- Looking at what problems I want to try and solve. If I could support movement/change in one area this year, what would it be?
- Developing a theory of action. If I learn about “123”….then “xyz” will…
- Listing my strategies. How will I engage in the learning? What resources/supports will I need?
- Deciding on a timeline. When will the learning take place? What are my milestones?
- Clarifying my metrics. How will I know I’ve learned what I need? How will I measure the impact on staff and student learning?
Finally, I engage in professional reading.
Here are some of my favourite resources going into the 2015/16 School Year:
- A book to help give shape to the learning for the year. This year my planning is inspired by Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.
- A book to support my learning, staff learning, and student learning. My favourite book right now is Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide to School Improvement by Jenni Donohoo.
- A book to support the board vision for the year. This year we are reading Alan November’s Who Owns the Learning?
- Articles that inspire me to remember who I am, what I do, and what I’d like to achieve as a school leader.
- Check out: Tell Me About the Best Principal You’ve Ever Known.
- Articles by other principals: Connected Principals Blog.
- Check out: Ten Things Master Teachers Do
- A subscription renewal to Educational Leadership
I hope that this post will be of use to you. I’d love it if you shared your strategies for going back to school in the comment field below!