Friday, January 28, 2011

Give them an inch and they'll take a mile!

In February of 2010 our student parliament came up with the idea of organizing the school community into the Olympic Rings as a way of boosting school and Olympic spirit.   As you can see, the results are impressive!  You will notice in the front (middle) of the rings, one of our students who was selected to be a torch bearer. 

Last year, I was approached by some students about an “Olympic Rings” idea.  The idea seemed simple enough to them - mobilized the entire school (on the street), get over 560 students and staff to form five perfect interlocking rings (and stay still),  asking those same 560 people to conform and wear a certain color outfit and finally, put a group of students on the roof of our gym to capture the moment. 

My inner voice was saying: Are you crazy?  How about the risks?  What about the permits?  What about student safety?  What about loss of Instructional time?  Who is going to organize this?

My response to the students….? Yes, of course! 

As you can see from the photo above, they pulled it off with the precision and care that any adult could have done.  Under the watchful eye of a few teachers, these students came up with a creative idea, overcame all the administrative details and were able to mobilize and inspire an entire community and learn countless lessons along the way (even geometry!)
In my experience, as a high school teacher and administrator, I have come to appreciate that if you trust and empower students to be creative and take risks, there is no limit to what they can do. 

I am inspired when I see students engaged in peer driven learning initiatives like our anti-bullying workshop, student mentors, student parliament, student assemblies, peer counselors, peer tutors, project outreach, and the “green team” (to name a few). 

It is always impressive to see students empowered to take control of their learning, to find inspiration and motivation from making real world connections.  The challenge in my school is to continue to find ways to empower students in their learning as we embrace 21st century realities.  The recently published Vision for 21st Century Education: Premier’s Technology Council states:    

… Students will begin to take greater responsibility for charting their own path. It is the role of the student to accept and understand this responsibility. This would allow educators to take advantage of the innate learning ability of young people in a more open, exploratory learning environment where they learn by doing, not reading and listening (Vision for 21st Century Education, Premier’s Technology Council, 2010)

By empowering our students we are satisfying a core competency for 21st century.  Thankfully, when we give our students an inch, they will take a mile!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Catching the Moment – Seeing the Humanity in Everyone

I came across this reflection I wrote 18 months ago after a hectic few weeks of juggling the demands of my professional and personal life.  My self-absorption was abruptly ended when I noticed one of our students come to aid of a needy friend.   

I shared these thoughts at a whole school gathering with students and staff. 

Today these comments come as a relevant reminder to me – I thought I would share them: 

So often in our daily lives we are busy running around,  worrying and fretting,  that we fail to capture the small, life giving moments that often come when we just pause and notice each other.

These moments can enlighten, fulfill, enliven, and prompt a rush of memories.  A moment can bring joy, sadness or pain.

Here at St. Pat’s we must never fail to capture those small moments in our lives.  Recognize the gifts and blessings in each other.  See the kindness in the small deeds we do for each other – from opening doors for each other to providing a shoulder to cry on.  It is in capturing the moment in every situation that we see the humanity in everyone.

John Bevacqua

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Walking the tight rope of student recognition

Recently there has been much chatter about the impact of extrinsic awards on student learning.  Some of the comments coming from both sides of debate have been animated, to say the least.
This has left me thinking and asking some questions.  I have listed these thoughts and questions and attached some reflections: 
Can extrinsic motivations assist in igniting intrinsic motivation?
I am not sure about this.  I do know that the research regarding the negative effects extrinsic rewards have on intrinsic motivation is fairly unanimous.  I have also recently read an abstract from a meta-analysis by Deci, Koestner, & Ryan (A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 125(6), Nov 1999, 627-668.).  The analysis illustrates the overall effect of rewards on intrinsic motivation is negative.  The study also disaggregates the data to demonstrate that the age of a student and the type of recognition has ranging effects on motivation.

But rather than get in over my head, I have been wondering about my three children and how my wife and I recognise them. 
Hugs, high fives, kisses, affirmations and even the odd stop for an ice cream is a normal occurrence for us.  It’s a way for us to honour and celebrate who they are and effort they give.   Along the way, we might be helping them discover their true passions.   
Should not schools/teachers do the same?    
As principal of a school, honouring the voice of all stakeholders in my community is about deep listening.
It appears that most parents (at least in my community) value their child being recognised for various accomplishments and efforts.  Do we not have an obligation to reconcile this expectation in a thoughtful and careful way?  I think so.
Is there common ground in this debate?  I have always believed that extreme opinions and actions usually leave too many people on the outside looking in.  Do we have to take a “let’s throw the baby out with bath water” approach to this issue?  
One of the core values of our school is developing the whole child: mind, body and spirit.  We celebrate the fact students come to us with a wide array of gifts, challenges and interests.  Our student recognition program serves to animate these values and beliefs.  Here is a sample of the some awards that we celebrate at our school:

  •  Principal’s Inspiration Award.  Recently this award went to a brother and sister who, in the face of losing their father in a tragic accident, provided an enduring message of hope to our school community.
  • Students Recognizing Students Assemblies.  Student run assemblies are held throughout the year and give students an opportunity to give “shout outs” to students who have gone above and beyond (service, excellence, etc. in our community).  A recent example was how one of our students was recognised for being a member of Canada’s Little League World Series team this past summer in Williamsport!
  • Academic Honours Assemblies.  All subject areas and disciplines are honoured.  (E.g. The Arts have as much weight as the Sciences)
  • Service Awards.   Students who give back to their community are recognised in a variety of ways.

Is it perfect? No.  I realize that when we affirm some students, others are left out.  Our challenge is to continue to honour and celebrate the varied talents and blessings of all our students.  Are we doing a good job? I hope so!  Our students and parents are telling us that we are.
Why is the student voice missing from this debate?
To get an anecdotal sense from students on this issue I interviewed 23 randomly selected Gr. 12 students (representing over 20% of the class)  to reflect on our various recognition programs.  I prompted them to think about what motivates them, their feelings when they received or didn’t receive recognition.  With this in mind I asked them the following question:
Do you think the school should continue with its recognition program of students?  Yes or No and explain your answer.
Here are my very unscientific results:
While all students responded with a “yes” the school should continue with its recognition program, some qualified their response.  Here is a snap shot of some those statements:
  •  “I think recognising students is a good thing but it should come with the following disclaimer – it’s not the end of world when one is not recognised.  At the end of the day, what really matters is if you have done your best….”
  • “Recognition is not only good for the students but also good for the parents to know that their child is making a commitment.”
  •   I like the fact that the school tries to accommodate everyone, sports, clubs, academics
  •  “It gives me a sense of pride in myself and my friends”
  •  “We need to celebrate with  and for each other”
  •  “Sometimes, if I’m not recognised it doesn’t make me feel good, but I still think we need to recognize each other”

Words to consider indeed! 
As a parent and as a teacher/principal I understand that our kids bring many different talents and challenges to the table.  
As I walk this tight rope of student recognition I want to embrace the gifts of my students and honour them in as many and creative ways as possible but at the same time want them to understand that what they do, they do for themselves. 
But then again, I’m still figuring it out and invite your feedback!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Staying Young

Almost two years ago our school community had one of the most special and heartwarming events occur.  One of our “lost” alumni was found.  The story of 85 year old Bill Young is inspirational and touching.  

The story received local and national media attention here in Canada.  I have attached one  of the national news report which sums up the story nicely.

I have read some articles recently about how we, as principals, should harness the power of the media to help promote our school.  Indeed  The story of Bill Young reminded me that, if used appropriately, the media can be an important tool to spread your story and inspire an entire community of learners.

But the story of Bill Young hit a deeper nerve with people.  Why was the story Bill Young so popular and important for our community and, indeed for the country?  Here is what I think:

  • Bill Young taught us that family is the most important thing in life.
  • Bill Young taught us that being in a community is life-giving and provides an enduring support network.
  • Bill Young brought the history of our school to life and reminded all of us of its importance in the greater community.
  • Bill Young reminded us that an education involves more than "school"
And finally:
  • Bill Young reminded us that it’s never too late to follow your dreams
Since this story ran, I have been asked how I came up with idea to honor Bill Young.  To be honest, all I can say is that it felt like the right thing to do. 

I am thankful that I trusted my instincts!  

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My trip to Shanghai: What the PISA results can really teach us

After the recent PISA results a New York Times headline read:
 “Shanghai Schools’ Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests”.  The story highlighted Shanghai’s top position in the recent PISA results and attempted to explain how this was achieved.  Here is a snapshot of the article: 

Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.
Public school students in Shanghai often remain at school until 4 p.m., watch very little television and are restricted by Chinese law from working before the age of 16.
“Very rarely do children in other countries receive academic training as intensive as our children do,” said Sun Baohong, an authority on education at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “So if the test is on math and science, there’s no doubt Chinese students will win the competition.”
But many educators say China’s strength in education is also a weakness. The nation’s education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood, they say.

The timing of this story was interesting for me because I had just returned from the Shanghai area to inspect schools that deliver the British Columbia curriculum. 
As part of my inspections I met with and interviewed randomly selected students.  On one particular occasion I met with five, soon to be, graduates.  Like many graduates here in BC, they were both anxious and excited to be on the precipice of their next phase in life.  
It was in these interviews that the deeper, untold story about the PISA results is revealed.  The students explained that, after spending their elementary and middle schooling years in a regular domestic program, they decided to enter the BC program in grade 10. 
Each of these students was thrilled that they could receive a British Columbia education.  I asked them all the same questions: 
1. Now that you are about to graduate, do you feel ready to move on to post secondary life?   
2. How has the BC program prepared you?
3.  What could have been better?

The responses that came back were virtually identical.  The students appreciated being empowered at school.  They loved having their voice valued both inside and outside the classroom and they were grateful to be a part of a school program that adapted to who they were and not the opposite.

One student said it best:

“I feel that I have received all the skills that I need, but more importantly, I have been allowed to reveal my true personality, express who I am and pursue my true passions”

As we reshape and redefine what our school system might look like in British Columbia, it might be of value to keep the thoughts of this student in mind.

(I would like to thank Chris Wejr (@MrWejr) for prompting me to write about my Shanghai experience)