Monday, October 24, 2011

You made all the difference

Yesterday marked the 1 year anniversary of me joining Twitter and in a few weeks  it will be the 1 year anniversary of me "going live" with my blog..

What a year it's been. I have connected with some remarkable educators, parents and students.  
My learning has been stretched to new levels.

While I can write, at length, about the incredible impact that social media  has had on my own professional learning - I want to dedicate this post to a group of people who took the time to welcome and encourage me as a new user.


David Wees @davidwees - for pointing out hash-tags like #bced and #cpchat

Patrick Larkin @bhsprincipal - just for saying "hi and welcome", and for  "publishing" an early blog posts on the #cpchat daily (that was an exciting moment)

Peter Vogel @PeterVogel - former teacher of mine who introduced to me Twitter months before I actually signed up and for giving me some pointers on settings, etc.

Cale Birk @birklearns - for, early on, "mentioning" me in one of his blog posts.

Chris Wejr @MrWejr - for reaching out, connecting, mentioning and  being one of the first to "RT" one of my tweets

Chris Kennedy @chrkennedy - for being one of the early followers and commentators on my blog.

Justine Tarte @justintarte - for being an early "affirming voice" and sharing my posts with others

Darcy Mullin @darcymullin - for always asking great questions on my blog

Today, more than ever, I am excited and eager to to continue nurturing all of my professional learning relationships whether through social media or face to face.

I am particularly grateful to these handful of "colleagues" who took the time to welcome me, guide me and connect with me when I was a "social media" newbie - it made all the difference!

My experience with these individuals is a reminder to always reach out to those in my community -  both on-line and face to face.  After all you never know when the "little things" can make all the difference.

Friday, October 21, 2011

“Relax - it’s only high school” – dealing with mental health in schools

This post was inspired by the sad story  of Canuck hockey player Rick Rypien and his unfortunate death after a long struggle with depression. 

Our students are too busy! When I consider the number of hours some of our students "work"  in an average week (academic expectations, extra-curricular activities, service hours, volunteer hours, job, and other societal pressures, etc.) I start to worry about the health and well-being of this generation. 

Simultaneous to this increased pressure on students (I do think there is a direct correlation) , I have also seen a noticeable increase in the number of students who are “shutting down” due to stress and anxiety related illnesses – students who are no longer willing or capable of dealing with the day to day expectations of student life.

Over the last 5 years, as a school, we have had to allocate more and more resources towards the  mental health of our students.

This is a sad but necessary reality.

As a parent of young children myself, it scares me.

While I don’t have all the answers I think we can do a couple of things as teachers and schools:

  • As teachers we need to model healthy and balanced lives. My job can consume me. The demands on my time can be overwhelming. I owe it to my family and friends to be present to them. I owe it to myself to dedicate personal time to feed my soul and keep my body healthy. Oh, one more thing – it’s OK to say “No” sometimes. 

  • Provide students multiple avenues to share their worries. Students need adults that they trust to share their worries, fears and frustrations. I’m proud of the counseling services we provide our students. At our school, we also provide Peer Counselors to our students. These student counselors are trained (this is a critically important piece) to provide a listening and empathetic ear. 

  • Naming and teaching the issues – we can’t ignore “the elephants in the room”. We owe it to our students to teach them about how to live healthy lives. There are a growing number of resources that schools can access when teaching about mental health. At our school, we access support from our extended community - parents, health care providers and students to support our student’s needs – offering special workshops and teaching specific mental health related lessons.   For example, this year we added a time management component to our course selection process for students - bring this topic to the forefront of everyone's attention. 

  • Let’s find ways to take some pressure off our students. After all is said and done – perhaps the best advice comes from a teacher I respect tremendously when he shared the following thoughts some time ago: 

“We all need to relax. After all, it’s only high school.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

My Calendar

Some time ago, my father in-law shared with me the following experience:

The story starts with him stumbling upon a box of his old "yearly day planners” - going back some 40 years. The planners were an archive of his entire working career.

Having some time, he decided to go through these planners and take a “walk down memory lane”. He poured through the planners. He relived the “daily grind” - busy days and countless meetings with scores of people.

He went through roughly 20 years’ worth of planners before he stopped. The process was upsetting him.

To paraphrase him: 

“As a working person I was very busy. I worked long days. The stress levels were, at times, unbearable. My work felt so important, at the time….”

Then the other shoe fell….

“Going through these day planners, all these years later, I realized that I didn’t remember virtually any of the meetings or events listed in those books….. Except for those related to my children (births, birthdays, & other special events)

His experience has left a lasting impression with me.

It forced me to think about the balance I have (or don’t have) between my own family life and my professional “working life”.

How am I filling my calendar? Are the people I’m meeting with, interactions I’m having and relationships I’m making, going to be memorable?

What will I remember when I look back at my “archived digital calendar”?

I hope that when I look back in the rear-view mirror, I can say that I was a caring and loving father and husband first and foremost.

I want my professional career to be defined as “not only doing things right but also doing the right things” for the students in my care.

I want to look back and remember scores of meaningful relationships with colleagues and students.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Standards and Expectations

I recently read a collection of essays entitled Students' Voice: What Makes a Great Teacher (published by the AP College Board).  In the essays, the students' describe their greatest teachers as having qualities such as:  a contagious passion for learning, caring deeply for their students,  finding various ways to make the learning relevant to students and "never quitting" on students.

One of the essays attempts to address the  issue of having "high expectations" of students.  Here is an excerpt from a student testimonial:
Mr. Seltzer expected us to produce quality work every day. He graded our work harshly, checking grammar and punctuation and making sure our writing was clear and direct. Low grades were common. When I saw my low grades at the start of the year— in the 70s, when I was used to 90s — I realized that I could easily fail the class. By the end of the year, I had an 80 average. Though this was lower than I was used to, it meant more to me than a 90 from another teacher. An 80 from Mr. Seltzer was a real accomplishment.
In my opinion, this quote dangerously blurs the notion of  having high expectations of our students' work and setting high grading standards for our students.

It appears that Mr. Seltzer has high expectations of his students.  He wants his students to produce high quality work.  I believe that all effective teacher share this attribute.   Generally speaking, teachers who set high expectations of their students and provide them with  the necessary supports to achieve those expectations are highly successful - students rarely disappoint.

The situation, as described in the quote, becomes a little scary when the teacher appears to set his own grading  standards.  For me, this type of scenario is problematic for the following reasons:
  • The apparent large "gap" in practice from one classroom to another is symptomatic of teacher isolation and silos of best practice or "malpractice".
  • This type of inconsistent grading practice within a school ultimately creates confusion among students and parents and can be the source of unhealthy stereotyping.
  • Quality teaching and learning should not be left to chance in a school.  Students enrolled in the same in course, taught by multiple teachers, should expect have to a measure of consistency in grading, assessment and pedagogy.
So how can we mitigate against these inconsistent "high" grading standards?  Here are some solutions that I propose:

Outcomes Based Grading - linking grades to specific learning outcomes in a deliberate and concrete way.  I recommend reading this great article from ASCD on standards based grading.  In my opinion this is the best way to authentically capture student grades that are consistent and reliable.  The students in Mr. Seltzer's class deserve to be graded according to the mandated learning outcomes -consistently applied within a school and/or department.
(A disclaimer: Attaching letter grades and percentages is not the best of way to measure and inspire learning.  Nonetheless our current education "system" requires us to do so.)

School Wide Grading Protocols
Having clear and common expectations when grading students is something we have implemented at our school.  You may want to see our school's grading policy here

Collaborative Grading
Teachers coming together to examine, review and grade student work promotes collaboration, common standards, and consistency.

As teacher practitioners,  our students and school communities are are best served if we are clear on the difference between having high expectations of our students and clear and consistent standards when grading our students.

Still figuring it out.....

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


As a principal, I’m on a journey. I am eager to learn how our school can continue to meet the academic, social, emotional, physical and spiritual needs of all our "21st century students".  

Let me openly declare that   I am not an expert in “21st Century Learning” (I am excited about this topic and I recently ordered the book 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling).

As we engage in conversations around topics like personalized learning, 21st Century skills, learning for all,  etc – I am, at times, confronted with the concept of “academic rigour” as not being inclusive or supportive of the aforementioned.

I have heard comments and questions like:

“Can we personalize learning and still maintain academic rigor?”

“It seems that academic rigor no longer exists - no more Provincial Exams, assessment polices that “ban zero’s, etc.) 

These are questions and comments that need to be addressed. I certainly invite the dialogue. However before we go further, we need to have a firm handle of what we mean when we use the term “academic rigor”.

Given my own lack clarity around the idea of  “rigor” I decided to do some reading and reflecting  on the topic. 
Here is what has out stood for me: 

Rigour is not synonymous with More:

  • content 
  • worksheets 
  • homework 
  • lectures 
  • tests
  • high stakes exams 
  • learning outcomes 
Rigour is not synonymous with Faster:
  • Pacing 
  • Lectures/Talking 
  • Covering of curriculum
Rigour is not synonymous with Uniform
  • Instruction 
  • Delivery 
  • Assessment 
  • Classes (Honours Classes, AP Classes, etc.) 
I have come across a number of good working definitions of rigour for the 21st Century, including:
“Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”
Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement 
R. W. Strong, Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini, 
ASCD, 2001. 
“…in a rigorous school, students not only learn, do, and reflect, they also master such twenty-first-century skills as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, project management, and written and oral communication”

At this time, for me, rigour is about challenging and supporting students to be “deep thinking” (i.e. critical thinkers) and reflective learners in an environment that is passion driven, motivating, collaborative, accountable and maintains a climate of high expectations for individual learners.

It might be more constructive, when we talk about “rigor” in school, to consider that we are not talking about More, Faster, and Uniform

Still figuring it out...

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Best Part of My Day

Today was an office day. Reports, phone calls, emails, meetings. Except during lunch. During lunch I saw a student eating lunch all alone. I sat on on hall floor next to him.

He ate his sandwich, I ate mine.

He was having a good day. Me too.

He told me he went fishing this past weekend. He caught a couple of bottom fish and a crab. He told me how excited he was to have a crab dinner tonight!

I asked how his year was going so far. He told me it was good. He liked the fact that he was meeting new friends and that he could now "work out" at school.

We talked for about 10 minutes. 

It was the best part of my day