Redefining School: Thomas Haney’s Self Directed Model

Imagine you are on an airplane, mid-flight, and you strike up a conversation with the passenger beside you.  Together you start comparing high school as you know it from your hometown.  If you are from BC, you would likely share some personal experience while outlining the basic framework: 30 students per classroom, 1 teacher per room, different curriculum for each course, 4 classes per day, 5 days of school per week, 8 courses per year, bells to dictate start and end times, etc.  Although your description may include some variations on school culture and unique attributes, the basic learning environment would likely sound similar regardless of who was telling the story…unless you are from Thomas Haney!

Six weeks ago I began a new position as Vice Principal at Thomas Haney Secondary.  I have held off blogging about the school until now as I wanted to have time to experience the culture and understand the model before sharing it publicly.  Although I am certainly not an expert, I feel confident describing what makes Thomas Haney so incredibly unique!

Thomas Haney is part of the Canadian Coalition for Self Directed Learning. Following a unique model, each student is on a personalized learning program where they have the ability to explore their passions and focus on their strengths as they work towards graduation.  Students develop competencies necessary for life after graduation including communication skills, planning, an understanding of their learning style, organization, negotiation and technological literacy skills.

When students begin grade eight, they become part of a multi-grade Teacher Advisory (TA) Group.  Essentially, this becomes their home base or family at school.  TA meets at the start and end of each day.  Students stay with the same teacher for TA throughout their five years of high school. This allows for very strong relationships between teachers and students, and allows parents to have a key contact at the school for communicating about their child.  The teacher advisor is in frequent communication with the other teachers to stay informed of the progress the students in TA are making in their coursework.

Each day, students use their planner to set their learning goals for the day.  They use the morning TA time to determine what they are going to work on, where they will be working, and what their weekly goals are.  The teacher advisor signs off on the plan after discussing it with the students.

Each course at Thomas Haney is divided into twenty learning guides.  As students complete learning guides, they track their progress in their planner to communicate with their TA and their parents.  Teachers from each course will pace the course and communicate with students about which learning guide they should be working on.  The school is not self paced, though the structure and learning is self-directed so that the students have opportunities to decide what to work on when, and how to demonstrate their learning.  This often leads to creative explorations where students follow their passions  and engage in projects that meet the learning outcomes of multiple courses at the same time.

As students progress through the grades, their schedules allow them more flexibility, and more control over their own learning.  In grade eight, all students are in set classes all day.  Each of the eight set classes meet three times per week.  Many choose to participate in our grade eight laptop pod where every student has a laptop with the necessary resources instead of a bag full of textbooks.  On Mondays, grade eight’s join all other grades in a one hour ‘Y’ block where students choose where to work and what to work on.

In grade nine, each course meets two times per week instead of three. The remaining blocks become work blocks, where students plan their own day and choose their work areas.  Each department has a ‘Great Hall’ where students can choose to work.  Teachers also have flexible schedules with a mix of set classes or time in the great halls supporting learning.  In grades ten through twelve, most courses meet for one set class per week with the expectation that the student attend the great hall at least two times per week to work on that particular course.

What is the result?  Well, here are some of my first impressions.  First of all, the teachers have an increased amount of time to collaborate as they are often in shared work spaces that lend themselves to natural collaboration.  Next, the relationship between students and teachers is very strong.  As you walk through the great halls you see teachers sitting next to students working one on one or in small groups, allowing for individual attention and meaningful dialogue.

What surprised me most, is how able the students are at handling the increased responsibility.  Almost all students rise to the challenge and as a result, there are very few behaviour issues.  As you walk through the school you see students from all grades working in the same areas, helping one another, and working with the teachers to guide their learning.  While working on curriculum, students are also developing competencies that range from time management to creativity.  As an example, just last week, two students who had never worked together before began talking and decided to create this amazing spoken poem about social justice. They will share it live at the upcoming Maple Ridge Social Justice conference.  They will also share this with their Socials and English teachers to see what learning outcomes this project meets.

The open structure and flexible scheduling also lends itself nicely to unique school events during the day such as the recent ‘Poetry Slam’ contest pictured here photothat took place in our English Great Hall.  Next week for spirit week, all students dress in colours representing their TA’s, and participate in a variety of events culminating with the annual Gym Riot where the colours compete in friendly competition.

Finally, what I have recognized in my short time here, is that the staff and students of Thomas Haney absolutely love their school.  They are incredibly proud of the unique model, and appreciate learning in a way that models what we see in the changing workplace.  Graduates leave feeling ready to embrace the world, with the competencies necessary to navigate their next adventure in life.  And, if that next adventure finds them on a flight, I can assure you they will have lots to talk about when they spark up a  conversation addressing what high school is like in their hometown.

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The Habit of Happiness…

The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives. ~ William James,  Science of Happiness

Take a second to think about your workplace.  Think about the employees who work there and think about their overall level of happiness.  It is quite likely you can imagine your co-workers along a continuum.  Some individuals seem to have a natural gift of happiness, viewing the world in a positive light, while others seem to carry extra weight on their shoulders, overcome with negativity and the roadblocks that stand between them and happiness. We all know someone who seems to suffer with Monday Misery. The person who walks in Monday morning only to ask if it’s Friday yet.    Imagine choosing to hate one out of every seven days just because it’s Monday. It’s like choosing to be grumpy for twelve years, if we assume the average life span is just less than 85 years of age.

I own a water bottle that is covered in inspiring quotes on the outside. One quote, which receives some debate, states  “The pursuit of happiness is the root of unhappiness.” I like it for two reasons: First, I like it because I agree with this idea, and second, I like it because there is an element of awareness that arises once you take responsibility for your own happiness level, and recognize how flooded our society is with others who don’t.  Just this morning I read a front page newspaper headline quoting a teenager who claimed the actions of others have ruined her life.  If only the teen could recognize that viewing her life as ruined is actually a thought she has full control over. When we attribute happiness to external factors, we create a moving target that we are always running towards.  To stop and find happiness within allows us to be present and enjoy life now.

Shawn Achor, gives a fantastic TED Talk outlining The Happy Secret to Better Work.  Achor recognizes “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world  that shapes your reality.  And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single business and educational outcome at the same time.” When our brains are happy we produce more dopamine which stimulates learning, creativity and energy levels.   Creating this environment in our schools and teaching students how to be happy has positive impact in the classroom and beyond. According to Achor, our external world only predicts 10% of our long term happiness in life.  The other 90% is determined by how our brain processes information.  The great news is that we can re-train our brains, once we recognize how to be happy.  I know that when I am stressed the habit of happiness is something I need to be conscious of and sometimes I need to schedule strategies into my day.  While psychologists of happiness may have a variety of tricks, these are my favourites that work best for me.

1) Exercise.  I know that when I work out in the morning, I am a better mom, a better wife, and a better educator.  When life becomes busy this is often the first habit to quit, yet it most needed during stressful times.

2) Gratitude.  I like to end each day thinking of five things I am grateful for.  I need to make effort to share this gratitude with others.   I love the quote “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

3)Journal.  Writing thoughts down always feels therapeutic to me.  Not only does it allow me to release emotions, it allows me to put things in perspective and ask myself why I feel the way I do.

4) Sleep. I hate to admit this one as it makes me feel old.  I used to live on 5 hours sleep per night.  Lately I really recognize that a little extra sleep has an amazing ability to shift the lens of how I view the world. A tad ironic that I’m typing this tip at 1 AM.

5) Be Still.  While I love the chance to talk with friends and family, especially when I am feeling unhappy, I also recognize that the final conversation needs to be a chat with myself.  The answers are within. Happiness does not come from pleasing others but rather from listening and trusting our inner voice.

6) Take Responsibility. There will be days, weeks and perhaps years that are more difficult than others for each and everyone of us.  As we face adversity, challenge and change, our sense of belonging and well being shifts. I like to remind myself regularly that although I do not have total control over what happens to me, I always have control over how I react.  I can choose to embrace the habit of happiness.

Happy BC Family Day Long Weekend! I hope you choose to make it a happy one!

Teeter Tottering with Balance

It’s Monday afternoon, all of the neighbourhood kids are curled up on our couch watching a movie, and I’m feeling rejuvenated after a great four day weekend.  I made the conscious decision to ‘not work’ for the four day weekend, and spend time focusing on family, friends and the to-do list.  It’s amazing how much we were able to get done with an extra two days off.  The house is clean, groceries bought and we had the opportunity to enjoy some family time, outdoor walks, some Christmas shopping and a date night.  We also finally found some time to develop a workout schedule to get our fitness routine back on track.  Since I declared this a ‘no work’ weekend, I had initially planned to take the week off blogging as well, however I thought I would write a few words about balance, and what it means to me, as it has been on my mind this weekend.

From the outside, I’m willing to bet that many people do not see my life as ‘balanced’.  I work long hours and have two young children at home.  However, I also have a fantastic husband who works at our boys’ elementary school as a Special Education Assistant so he has the ability to walk to and from school with our kids.  He is able to do the regular morning routine, pack the lunches and juggle play dates and after school activities.  We are also blessed with two amazing sets of parents who want to play an active role in our kids’ lives, and offer to take care of them or take them to activities as much as they can.   For us, our schedule works.  Some weeks are crazier than others, and many days I arrive home minutes before my husband has to leave for soccer practice or a shift at his second job at the Fire Hall.  However, our schedule works for us and we all enjoy what we do.   

I know that I am very fortunate to have the support system I do to let me work long hours when needed.  I know that my kids are growing up in a rich environment surrounded by people that love them.  When I think of my own childhood, I was fortunate to have a similar situation.  Although I grew up in a single parent home, it did not feel that way as my mom’s extended family was always there.  I had an amazing relationship with my grandparents and did not feel I missed out despite my mom’s busy schedule.

It’s interesting how many comments I receive from others about my job.  People make comments all the time about the ‘time away from my kids’.  When I decided to apply for an administration position, many people suggested I should wait until my kids are older.  I often wonder if men in the same position get these comments.  Maybe.  Not so sure.  Last month I had someone come up and tell me that I should not be blogging because I was taking even more away from my kids.  I found that really interesting.  Would the same person think critically if I had said I watched TV after my kids went to bed?

You may wonder why I started this blog talking about balance only to defend my busy schedule.  Well – after spending four days re-charging, I have come to realize that balance means something completely different to each individual.  Balance is something that cannot be prescribed but rather something we can obtain when we get to know ourselves well and understand what we need to bring out our best self.  Some workshops on balance will use a balance wheel to help people recognize the commitment they are making to different areas of their life ranging from spirituality, career, relationships, exercise, mental health etc.  However, my experience has been that everyone leaves these workshops recognizing that they are not doing enough in at least one area of their life.

This weekend, when I thought about balance, I realize that I do not see balance as a wheel, but more like a teeter totter.  For the teeter totter to work, I need to balance the two sides: my personal and my professional lives.  The centre is made up of who I am and what I value and it keeps the teeter totter together.  If I put too much weight on either side, the other side becomes off balance as well.  I know that I have often said I am a better mom because I work (and I don’t mean to judge stay at home moms at all…. In fact, I give them credit because I have no idea how they do it! That really is the hardest job in the world!).  I have also come to recognize that I am a better vice principal when I spend time with family.  Time together nurtures my soul and recharges me.   When the two sides are balanced, both sides take flight and the teeter totter works.  Sometimes one side is higher than the other, but in general they work together to create balance. 

Just like a teeter totter, when I put too much weight on one side, I don’t get better at what I do… instead I eventually hit the ground.  This is true with both my personal and my professional life.  My husband will be the first to admit that I start to act a bit nutty by the end of summer.  After re-organizing closets and paying way too much attention to minor details of life, it is definitely time for me to get back to work.  Similarly, when work gets crazy it’s important for me to remember that putting too much time in, doesn’t really help anyone, as really it just leads to an eventual crash where one side hits the ground. To make good decisions, I need to maintain a sense of balance.   I know that when I take time to run or workout, I go to work with more energy and a more positive disposition.  When I schedule ‘downtime’ and turn the computer off for a weekend, I am able to feel recharged much more so than a weekend where I am sneaking work in at night.  I need to recognize that my job will never be done, so choosing to stop working needs to be a conscious choice.   I once heard someone say that every time we say yes, we are saying no to something else.  This has stuck with me and I often ask myself what I am saying no too.  I try not to say ‘no’ to my family more than I need to.

Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver, recently wrote in his blog about President Obama.  President Obama has made the conscious decision to try to be with him family by 6:30 PM each night.  Upon reflection, Chris recognized that if the president can reach this goal more nights than not, then a superintendent of schools should be able to do the same.  I admire this goal, not only because it allows for more time with family, but also because it sends a positive message about leadership.  I think it is important to model what we expect from others.  If we don’t want students and teachers working around the clock at the expense of their personal commitments, then I believe it’s important to model the same.

Perhaps what I recognize most about balance is that each of us is very different, and has different needs to be our best selves.  For one person, balance might mean staying at home to raise children, and for others it might mean working part time.  For some, depending on personal commitments and their stage in the life cycle, balance may be possible while working over sixty hours per week.  Balance cannot be prescribed because there isn’t a formula that works for everyone.  However, I believe each of us should take time to reflect on what we need to achieve our best.  For some yoga and a good book sound appealing while others prefer the adrenaline rush that comes from extreme sports or roller coaster rides.  The activity itself is not important, but rather the outcome.   Recognizing what makes us feel alive helps us discover what we need to nourish our spirit and reach our personal sense of balance, rather than conforming to others opinion of what balance looks like.  Balance comes in different shapes and sizes.  So dig deep, figure out what you need to take flight and let both sides of your teeter totter get some air.