It’s my second year teaching high school. I work in a big school with about two thousand students. In Grade 11 Advanced English we study Macbeth.
“Miss, do we really have to write another essay?” a lanky boy in the front row asks.
“What are you proposing? Do you have another idea?”
“We should make a play,” a girl suggests.
Another girl says, “We could invite other classes to watch!”
The students slouched in the back of the room adjust, leaning into the discussion.
“How would we begin?” I ask.
The students talk at once, shocked that the idea of substituting an essay is possible. The volume in the room grows.
“We’d have to decide how much of the play we want to do,” a girl says.
“And we could have jobs—”
“—I could do costumes!”
“I want to be a witch!”
“Everyone can do something backstage too.”
“We can turn our portable into a theatre—”
“What if I brought in lights my dad uses at Christmas for our stage?”
“—and I can bring in a cauldron.”
“Jo can make a head for the end!”
I stand by the board at the front of our portable, trying to capture their thoughts in chalk as they fire them out one after another. They brainstorm until the board is full.
“So does this mean we can do it?” a boy asks.
I pause for dramatic effect, squinting my eyes, squishing my lips up into a thinking face. “Hmmmm,” I say. “You make a really good case. I would love to support you on this—where does the writing fit?”
A girl stands up, talking and moving her arms. “I know! We can write a reflection on our characters or a reflection about what we learned.”
Working with teenagers I witnessed creativity every day. We staged Macbeth in our portable that semester. Students collaborated to make props, to paint large sheets of paper to use as a backdrop taped to our chalkboard. Students decided which scenes to include. From directing to acting to finding an audience for the work, the students engaged in every step of the creative process. We had some challenges with meeting deadlines, getting along, balancing different levels of enthusiasm for the project—but the students persevered. Our audience (another Grade 11 class) surprised us by showing up in Elizabethan-inspired costumes. We all learned a lot about how to bring an idea into being, about how to create.
Creativity is the swirling energy that starts with an idea and expands with each new connection, idea by idea, until the ideas land somewhere, turning into something to be shared. Creativity is about process, the ways of bringing an idea into being, the act of creating.
To begin take some time each day to capture ideas–as many as you can. And then when it feels right, try some of them on.
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.
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.
I 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?
“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?
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.