One of the many things I love about my job is that learning is at the heart of the work. Every day I am invited to learn from people, experiences, research, and curriculum subject areas.
Here are ten things I learned during the 2016/17 School Year:
#1: There is poetry in Math. I was inspired to keep a wall of my Math learning after taking a Mathematics Leadership course in partnership with Trent University with Dr. Cathy Bruce.
#2: The Zones of Self-Regulation are for everyone. Our whole school learned about the zones and defined what the “Green Zone” looked like for us. We celebrated at the end of the year with a t-shirt for everyone. Designed by a Grade 5 student.
#3: When we focus on improving Special Education processes all students win. It’s important to have clear roles and goals.
#4: Peace is not what is happening around you. Peace is what is happening within you. Self-care is vital.
#5: Sometimes you just need cake. Celebrate with staff whenever you can. And with students too! My favourite PA Day this year started with cake.
#6: Streamlining routines and processes helps the brain focus its best energy on the complexities of problem solving. We focused on Special Education, school day transitions and recess. Click here to watch our video about Recess Routines.
#7: In a small school, all staff are leaders. My staff continuously inspired me with the vision, spirit, and pride for our school.
#8: Paying attention to the little details can have a big impact.
#9: Ask for help. There are helpful people out there.
#10: When the staff truly work as a team, that’s when the magic happens.
We have been having a blast this year learning like an astronaut. In the fall, I launched a program designed to engage the whole school in exploring 21st Century learning skills. We called it “Learning like an Astronaut.” For one school year we are trying to answer this question: “If we were going to learn like an astronaut, what would we need to do?”
My goals for creating this program were:
- To inspire students to see themselves as learners
- To create a sense of belonging and excitement about learning
- To increase student engagement
- To explore how inquiry works and how feedback works
The First Challenge:
Our first challenge we learned about the importance of becoming healthy and strong. Classes created amazing fitness tests. Classes earn points by meeting the criteria for the challenge. The criteria is set by and assessed by a student team with representatives from each class.
We delivered feedback in two ways: immediate video feedback and later written feedback. After observing each class the students responsible for feedback spoke as I recorded them using my iPhone. Before the end of the school day, I emailed the teacher the video. All the videos were also posted in a Google Drive. Teachers all have access to the drive and many classes went in and watched the feedback videos created for other classes too.
The students in the Space Crew deliver the feedback for all the challenges. They determine the success criteria and the number of points. They decided it should be the same for all the challenges. At the end of each challenge, I facilitate the Space Crew and scribe for them–the feedback is all theirs!!
Here is the feedback from the first challenge: Feedback for all Classes from Challenge #1
The Second Challenge
In the second challenge we explored a subject “fit for an astronaut.” Students could choose something to learn about in Math, Science, or Technology. They needed to become an expert in the topic and share their learning with another class. This was a hard one!
Students in the Grade 1/2 class all wrote books about the moon and shared them with kindergarten students. Students in Grade 2/3 researched space facts in their literacy centres, collected all their facts and turned them into an educational live tv show for the Grade 1/2 class. Students in Grade 7/8 studied aerodynamics and shared their learning with Grade 4. And the kindergarten students learned some space songs and sang them for the Grade 1/2 class.
It was interesting to see the curiosity building among students. They asked questions about what students in other classes were learning. This is about the time I started walking in on impromptu learning conversations among students during non-instructional times.
In January we invited the Peterborough Planetarium to visit. We were amazed by the high level of student engagement. Students recognized planets and were able to ask very specific questions. We didn’t prepare them for the visit (outside of the monthly challenges). The expert was also amazed by the level of thought in the student questions. Since we have been focusing on the skills we were surprised by how much students had learned about space.
Here are some of the skills we are focusing on: We are learning to…
When students spend prolonged time in the office they have the option of choosing a book from my basket. I added two big books about space. They always pick the space books. Students from K-8 flip through the books or look at the big map of the solar system on my office wall. One week I added a paper and pen, asking students who chose the space books to write down some questions about space.
Then I typed up their questions and randomly posted them all around the school.
I didn’t tell anyone. Just posted the questions one day. I didn’t even tell the staff.
As students noticed the questions, they started trying to answer them. While waiting in line for French class they debated why the sun shines so brightly. One student went around with a clipboard, recording all the questions and then looking at other walls around the school for answers. Then he would smile brightly, find his teacher, find me, and say, “I got it!”
Some students went in groups, moving from question to question. One teacher said to me, “Looks like the students are doing a scavenger hunt.” She didn’t realize I had put up the questions and the students were doing this “work,” this learning all on their own. This was another big shift in this project. It now truly belonged to the students.
Here is the document with their questions: What shape is Earth?
The Third Challenge
This has been by far the most engaging challenge sparking a lot of school and community learning conversations.
Your Third Mission Handout
We had full school participation in this one! Here are just a few of the robots:
And check out this video of the robot designed by the Grade 5/6 class!!
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.
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?
It is September. At recess four primary students use giant sidewalk chalk. They rub it on the brick window ledge over and over in the same spot so chalk dust accumulates. When they have a small pile of dust, they stop.
A girl scoops up the dust in her hand.
A boy bows his head in front of her as she sprinkles the dust in his hair.
She wipes her hands together so the remaining powder falls. “There,” she says.
The boy lifts his head, a smile broadening across his face. “Ready?” he asks.
“Ready,” she replies.
He puts his arms out at either side like a plane and starts to run across the yard, lifting taller as he runs.
Later they tell me they were making pixie dust to help them fly.