• Life Lessons,  School Leadership

    Are You Ready to Take the Lid Off Learning?

    How do I become a better learner?

    It’s time. I’m ready. I want to take the lid off learning. My learning. And I want to do it so that you might feel brave enough to take the lid off your learning too. Are you in? Shall we do it together?

    I feel a big shift happening in education where the culture is saying it’s okay for school leaders to share our thinking, to connect with each other using technology, to bravely publish via social media and blogs. There is an amazing conversation happening online among educators around the world.

    This week I’m attending a fabulous conference, the Technology-Enabled Learning and Leading Institute 2015 for Principals and Vice Principals. The room radiates promise for the future of education. Now it’s about action. Change doesn’t start tomorrow. It needs to start today. What am I going to do about it? What role do I want to play?

    It’s time to expand my blog to encompass my professional realm with more intention.

    How can we actively engage in learning?

    I spent a lot of time this summer reflecting on my next steps as a learner. My goals are to start the intentional journey to becoming a “learning engineer,” to be more daring, to learn from influential teachers, and to let my inner geek have free range to binge learn.

    Three Problems I Want to Solve (with your help!!)

    1. Fast learning vs. slow learning: How do we move from fast learning to slow learning? How can we narrow our focus and learn more deeply? How can we move past the resistance to critical thinking? How can we turn down the easy solutions and sometimes choose the more arduous thinking path?
    2. Time to be awesome: Learning leads to awesome, and learning is awesome. How do we find time to understand learning and development? How do we track transformation? How can we move our interest in things to a commitment to understanding things better?
    3. Abstract vs. concrete: How do we explore process and practice at the same time without overcomplicating things?  How do we leverage motivation, engagement, and empowerment? What are the best ways to integrate personal and professional learning? Do Zen learning practices exist and where can we find them?

    So what is this blog about?

    For years I had trouble synthesizing what my “Sunshine in a Jar” blog was about but now I see it clearly. It’s about learning. It has always been about learning.

    When we take the lid off the jar, we open ourselves up to change. It symbolizes freedom. We can let things out or put things in. It’s up to the keeper of the jar. I’ve always seen “sunshine in a jar” as being a metaphor for our inner landscape. So what does the inner landscape of our learning look like? When we take the lid off and look inside, what do we see?

    Learning goes beyond schools and the workplace. So often we compartmentalize our personal and professional learning but I truly believe that is too restrictive. I am a whole person and all my learning impacts everything I do, regardless of where the learning happens and its initial purpose. Learning is organic, living, moving, and too powerful to be contained in separate jars or separate selves. Learning is potentially in everything, everywhere, and all the time when we pay attention. We are what we learn and what we learn is part of all of us, our whole selves as individuals and collectively as humans.

    I hope you’ll join me as I write about my learning at home and at school. Learning is about relationship and connection–it’s about us. Let’s take the lid off our learning and share our observations and insights!

  • School Leadership

    How can Questions Prepare Students for the Future?

    FullSizeRenderI have always loved questions.

    My earliest memory of using questions in my teaching was about fifteen years ago. Grade 11 high school English. We studied Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Using a piece of blank 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, I wrote in black sharpie the names of themes around the edges of the page, leaving the centre blank. Friendship, good, evil, life, death, nature, survival, rules, and so on.

    I set a timer for twenty minutes. Students filled the white space with questions about all the themes listed around the border. They filled their page with questions, only questions.

    The next step was to review their questions and highlight three that were burning, that fascinated them most. I collected the sheets. I typed up the three questions from each page into a master list. The next day I distributed the master list and students prioritized the list of questions from most difficult to easiest, or most pressing to least. This list of questions became the focus of our study of Lord of the Flies. Sometimes the students used the questions as writing prompts in their daily journals.

    We selected one question a day to work on together as a class. Big questions like: what is the meaning of life? We brainstormed on the chalkboard in crazy mind maps developing theories and tried to link them to the story. Sometimes one question lasted several days. As I used this approach in later years we often ended up going really deeply into one or two questions for the whole book.

    As a young teacher I realized my high school students in university prep courses could write well. All the technical features were there. I had very little feedback to give them on paragraph structure and word choice. Where the students fell short was in critical thinking. They were parroting back our conversations from class in their essays, often sharing my ideas. It shouldn’t be about my ideas. It should be about the student’s learning. A senior student’s writing may not have had spelling errors but when I went back to check it for meaning, it was dull.

    I wanted innovative students who knew how to question, make connections, challenge each other’s thinking. I wanted my students to be creative and critical thinkers.

    All students can generate questions.

    When I taught Drama I experimented with question improv games. Students created scenes on the fly but could only use questions when communicating verbally. Questions are inclusive, levelling the playing-field for students. If everyone asks questions all the time then no one feels shy contributing.

    When I first started teaching I thought it was my job to assess and evaluate the students’ answers. I’ve learned that the questions are far more important.

    In an age where anyone can access information, critical and creative thinking skills are vital:  essential skills for 21st century learners. From kindergarten to Grade 12, all students can learn through questions.

    Now when I visit classes I’m inspired by the use of inquiry. Kindergarten students are encouraged to wonder. Grade One and Two teachers are sometimes using an emergent lesson design that follows students’ interests and questions. Teachers are creating the conditions for intentional interactions.

    A number of the teachers at my school are curious about the impact of inquiry on student achievement. I can see it’s igniting the teachers’ love of learning and bringing teachers together in new ways to collaborate on how to help students generate and explore their questions.

    As a school leader I want to use questions more too.

    Our staff learning sessions are organized by using questions as agenda items. I try to include a couple questions on the weekly memo. Last week the question for student well-being was: how can we support our students in learning how to develop and maintain friendships?

    Questions promote reflection and encourage collaboration. Questions celebrate diversity, inviting multiple perspectives. How are you using questions as a teacher? As a leader? As a learner?

    From technology to psychology, questions are revolutionary. Maybe the answer to “what is the meaning of life?” isn’t in the words at all, but in the question mark itself. We are all searching.

    A teacher in my school shared this video yesterday. Questions inspire. So, how can we ask more questions in 2015?

  • School Leadership

    From High School Vice Principal to Elementary Principal: What I’ve Learned from the Transition So Far

    Pic copyThis is the burning question I’m asked all the time lately: What’s the difference between elementary and high schools?

    I loved being a vice principal at a big high school. After fifteen years of teaching and leadership in high schools I travelled to a strange new world, becoming an acting elementary principal in September 2014.

    Please note: This learning is still ongoing. I haven’t landed on a definitive answer or a bumper sticker to summarize my conclusions. For the most part, the jury is still watching the evidence unfold, waiting to see what happens next in a complex case.

    I love both panels. I feel blessed for the opportunity to experience schooling and education K-12.


    The easy one. I left a high school with a population of 1200 to work in an elementary school with a population of 120. Benefits of a small school are many:

    1. There are no corners to hide in, everyone knows what everyone is up to. Natural accountability.
    2. I can visit classes more frequently. Abundant evidence of learning every day.
    3. I can develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with staff, students, and parents. Greater influence on individuals.
    4. I can spend less time responding to conflict issues and more time facilitating learning issues. Better ongoing focus on school improvement (SIP) priorities.

    My day is still diverse and busy because my team is smaller, so I’m called on to contribute in a more hands-on way. I feel more part of the energy of the school, rather than standing on the sidelines with a big fire hose. I have time to be proactive rather than reactive.

    The people are smaller too. That was the biggest surprise. Children in kindergarten are tiny compared to Grade Nines! Tinier than I thought. And I’ve learned that I need to use different words to communicate with them sometimes. Not necessarily smaller words, but more precise words. I have to think before I speak–of the desired outcome, of the best way to redirect a student, of the bigger picture of how this moment may support his/her growth and development and whole life today and tomorrow and beyond. “Because I said so” doesn’t work.

    In a smaller school with smaller people there is more value placed on supporting the whole student–not just the part of the student who is learning to read. How does this reading moment fit within the greater context of the strategies being taught, the dynamics in the class, the culture in the school, the relationships with staff and students, and the values of the home?

    In an elementary school there are many explicit connections, an unspoken focus on unity, sharing. Staff build many bridges every day to support students moving forward in curriculum and life skills. They take care to create schedules that make sense, to unravel the learning to spark ongoing inquiry, and to fill their rooms with images, words, and books that suit the needs and interests of their students in that year. Individual teachers do this in high schools but my experience is that it’s not a widespread cultural trend within a big school. Is the focus in a big school then on the collective experience rather than the individual experience?

    As the little people move quickly throughout the elementary school building, the learning moves slowly with repetition and multiple entry points. The work that teachers do in their individual classes is valued by students and parents. The daily focus is on the teaching and learning, but most importantly on the individual student and his/her development. In a high school the big people move slowly while the learning moves quickly. The pressure to cover curriculum and “deliver” marks is high. The daily focus may be on the teaching and learning, but I’ve found it’s also on teacher contributions to the whole school through leadership in coaching or clubs or the arts. The work that teachers do outside of their classes is most valued by the community. The undefeated senior soccer coach is more celebrated than the amazing secondary English or Science teacher.

    Treat Day

    This was one of my big fears. High school teachers have heard about “Treat Days,” weekly mini-potlucks where staff bring in treats for each other. With my secondary view it seemed like Treat Day was just one more thing to add to a “To Do” list, an excessive opportunity to show off culinary prowess and spend time we don’t have snacking.

    I was SO wrong.

    Treat Days can be a sign of a vibrant staff who love and respect each other. They are a beautiful way to honour colleagues, to celebrate another week together, and to spend time relaxing and laughing. I am so blessed to be part of a staff who value time spent as a group and who want to do nice things to honour each other.

    Teaching in high schools can be isolating. It can take years to develop strong relationships with staff. Most often, staff divide into small groups and create community for 10-12 teachers. It can be hard to navigate the groups–some even use the word “cliques”. It makes me wonder how we can support high school staff in working together more? Finding ways to get high school staff cultures to a place where a regular whole-staff treat days become a satisfying, anticipated weekly ritual rather than another thing to do (or a dreaded concept).

    Then I wonder about small business vs. big business. How does this relate to the idea of small schools vs. big schools? What are small businesses doing to stay vibrant, to distribute the work so their staff remain energized, to build community? What are big businesses doing to create a sense of belonging, to ensure that each individual feels known and valued, to promote connections and collaboration?

    Learning Culture

    Last week a friend and high school teacher said to me, “Are we done yet?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Like with all this stuff? We’ve been working so hard. Surely we’re done. Have we caught up to elementary?”

    There is a culture of mystery between elementary and secondary systems. Neither really know exactly what the other is doing but the mythology that trails each can be misleading, entrenched in stereotypes.

    We are all in the business of learning so we need to be lead learners whether we work in an elementary school or secondary school. I would hope that our learning is never done. We are not in a field where we can say, “There. I’ve learned assessment. I’m done.” The learning moves and changes with our experience and new connections. Learning cannot be static.

    Four years ago we gave our secondary staff a handout that looked like a puzzle with phrases to describe how to create learning goals. Every year we returned to the same handout and deeply explored a piece of the puzzle. One day in a session a consultant started talking about “clustering expectations” and our jaws dropped. Where was this coming from? Now “they” wanted us to do something new! Will it never end?

    With grace and patience the consultant pointed to our old handout that looked like a puzzle. There, on the top right corner, was the phrase “cluster expectations.” It had been right in front of us for three years and none of us had noticed it–yet. Maybe we weren’t ready. Learning and change takes time. We need to be gentle with ourselves and our leaders.

    One of the biggest gaps I’ve noticed between the two panels is the access to learning opportunities. The staff in my small elementary school participate in regular guided learning. Our small teaching staff of ten teachers are involved in ongoing job-embedded, research-based learning sessions on: Science and Inquiry, Science and Technology, Intentional Interactions (supporting primary students through play-based learning), Fractions, Algebraic Reasoning, Multiplication, and Primary Reading Assessment (using Running Records). And we are blessed to receive the support of a Math Coach twice a week to help build teacher capacity and consultants who regularly visit the school to support our school-based learning sessions.

    If high school teachers had access to diverse learning opportunities then the strategies would seem less fragmented.  It’s hard to put the pieces together when your main source of learning about research-based strategies is on PA Days and staff meetings. To create a stronger learning culture within our secondary schools, a first step could be to create better learning conditions for our secondary teachers.

    My role as principal is far more focused on driving learning culture in an elementary school than it was when I worked as a VP in a secondary school. Since the school is smaller, the staff is smaller, the conflicts are fewer, I have more time to focus my work on learning.

    It comes down to learning conditions. What conditions are needed for learning?

    Click here for a wonderful two-page summary of learning conditions and an opportunity to reflect on your school.

    What are the conditions for learning in your school?

    How can we close the gap between adult learning conditions in elementary learning communities versus secondary learning communities?

    What barriers do teachers face? What barriers do leaders of teacher learning face?

    Maybe the brilliant Steven Katz can help….

    What’s Next?

    As I started writing this post I realized I could probably write a book on this topic! My posts will often show the tensions and harmonies of both panels because I am now of both panels. This year I feel like I have a foot in two worlds and that I am continually reflecting on both in various contexts.

    There are amazing things happening in education in Ontario K-12 and amazing educators in K-12. I’m thrilled to be an educator in this time and this province.

  • School Leadership

    We Need to Name Our Learning

    77f2678e-ca75-4713-876d-f377ee8cf808“You have to name the learning,” she said. “NAME the LEARNING.” Teachers have lightbulb moments too!

    It’s an exciting time to be an educator. The research on learning and student achievement has reached new levels and at a rapid rate since the Internet became Queen. Edu-geeks around the world are finding each other across the Twitter-sphere, the uni-Facebook, and many blog-topias.

    Research-based teaching strategies are now accessible to most teachers in North America, certainly in Ontario. I have access to more exciting research in education from my recliner at home then I did when I spent hours in the Faculty of Education libraries during my B.Ed and grad school.

    What was life like before Edugains

    Before Edugains, as a high school teacher, I relied on my colleagues to share their experiences, to pass on the giant binders of knowledge when I started teaching a new course. The tradition of binder sharing was focused on the content, the stacks of comprehension questions about Hamlet, the lists of essay topics, and the folders of group seminar projects. The focus was on what students knew about the play. We interpreted curriculum based on student learning about the characters in stories. My main source of learning as a teacher was from my colleagues.

    I was lucky to work with an amazing English department. The staff were conscientious, hard-working, passionate about being teachers. But I wonder what it would have looked like in my early years of teaching if I had access to all the great stuff out there now…the great stuff out there about LEARNING.

    The first workshop I attended outside of my school was in my fifth year of teaching–and I was the presenter!! Professional development and teacher learning didn’t seem to be a priority for my first ten years of teaching. I didn’t have access to anything outside of my school building.

    Edugains is one of many dynamic sites out there leading the way in linking research with practice.

    Why didn’t I focus on learning then?

    If I could go back and teach high school English again I would toss the binders out the window. I would sit down with my curriculum, underline the verbs for that course, and put together a program that is skill-based. I would focus on what students need to learn rather than what I need to teach.

    Why do students write essays in English class? To share their learning. Easy answer. But in twelve years of teaching English I didn’t ask my students about their learning. I asked students about their thesis and outline and essay. I commented on paragraph structure and grammatical errors. We discussed the relevance of their quotations to their arguments. But I can’t recall ever engaging in an explicit robust discussion about learning. What do we learn from Hamlet? What did YOU learn? What do we learn from essay writing?

    I bet my students would say that an essay was a product of what they knew about Hamlet. Where in the curriculum has it ever said that students need to know Hamlet? I bet my students missed many other great things we can learn from essay writing because we didn’t name our learning. We named the minute details of story.

    Literature is important but it is a vehicle for learning communication and thinking skills, a support for students to understand themselves and their world. I would want my students to be able to name their learning. I wonder what students would say if I probed deeper when they answered that they learned about Hamlet with a simple repetition of “what else? What else did you learn? And what else?”

    I began teaching over fifteen years ago. My edu-view has shifted. It’s all about learning now. My learning, student learning, and staff learning. What are we learning? Can we name it?

    Learning Communities

    So last week I’m sitting among my enthusiastic staff at a Professional Learning Community (PLC) session, when a teacher in our NTIP program shared her lightbulb moment. “You have to name the learning!”

    Then she asked if she had now earned her edu-geek badge.

    What I love most about education research is that it all fits together. The pieces seem like separate “initiatives” (educators cringe at this word), but there comes a moment of awakening in every edu-geeks development where the pieces all become part of something greater. It all comes down to one word: learning.

    It’s embarrassing to admit but I didn’t know how to define the word “learning” after being a teacher for ten years. When a prof in grad school asked us to define “learning” I drew a blank. It seemed so abstract. The definition for learning is so simple: change. Learning is change.

    Before students can name their learning, educators need to know how to name their own learning. So my hope is to do regular blog posts about my learning.

    My theory of action is: If I become better at sharing my learning, then I will be able to better support my staff in sharing their learning who will be better able to support students in sharing their learning.

  • Creative Writing,  School Leadership,  Sunshine in a Jar Books

    Sunshine in a Jar: The Book

    I am in the process of rewriting my recent Master’s thesis into a book. I feel the topic is timely and important. If you are an agent or publisher looking for a non-fiction manuscript on the topic of resiliency please contact me.


    Using memoir, poetry, and collage I recorded a personal story of learning how to “burn-in” after experiencing teacher “burn-out.” Mental health is a hot topic now in education. Currently, I work as a high school vice principal and our recent administrator’s conference focused on mental health and resiliency. Learning to “burn-in” is all about resiliency. Resiliency is a necessary trait of 21st Century educators. This project is about resiliency, the inner landscape, and coming of age as a young educator.


    Many teachers and other professionals “burn-out” in their careers for various reasons but what is the next step? Inspired by its working title Sunshine in a Jar, this literary non-fiction book is most like memoir. It explores the lessons a teacher learns on the inside, the lessons few teachers ever speak about.


    My thesis utilized a newer academic, arts-inspired form called autoethnography. Its multidimensional nature and explicit links to cultural and environmental influences enhance the typical memoir experience. My current rewrite involves removing the academic language and inserting more personal narrative.


    I became a secondary school administrator at age thirty-six. I love my job. The challenges I faced as a young teacher ignited a series of lessons that made me into a resilient educator because I learned from “burn-out.” So many leave education within the first five years of teaching. So many more become cynical and defeated yet continue to teach. By writing about resiliency through the lens of “sunshine in a jar,” I hope to share the inner landscape of a young teacher and encourage others to look at what is in their “jar.” It is a universally human quest for personal insight, understanding, and happiness.