The Bullying Games: An Inspiring and Creative Approach

Imagine a world in the future, where bullying ceases to exist.  Where those who commit a bullying crime are brought before a panel for two purposes: first to understand their own past and why they acted out towards another, and second, to make things right and apologize for the hurt they have caused.  Imagine a society that cares not only about the bullied, but about the bullies, wanting both sides to heal from the hurt. Imagine a world where everyone plays a role, and helps support one another, so we can recognize the unique and wonderful qualities that exist in each of us.  Imagine.

Last night, for two hours, I had the pleasure of living in this world.  Like a great movie that transforms you from realty, The Bullying Games fast forwarded the audience into the future, into a world where bullying is dealt with effectively.  Built on the premise of The Hunger Games, competing teams spoke of their crimes and competed with one another for the ultimate prize. Compassion, teamwork, understanding and forgiveness moved teams forward as they resolved realistic bullying issues. For two amazing hours, the cast of The Bullying Games entertained and educated their audience, challenging each person to act as a positive force.  While last night was the last scheduled performance of this amazing youth production, their was a buzz in the air as the show concluded.  The standing ovation marked the closing, yet the voices of the crowd repeatedly suggested that this must be a beginning.

Personally, I feel The Bullying Games is the most positive, effective, creative and inspiring approach to bullying that I have seen.  There is a synergy that exists when people come together focused on making a positive difference.  This production is the result of an inspiring story, where students and adults work together to create magic.

The story began with an amazing teacher, Dean Whitson, who wanted to engage his leadership students in a real project where they could develop leadership skills while making a positive difference.  The students and teacher participated in We Day in Vancouver, and left feeling inspired to do something in their community.  They decided to tackle the issue of bullying and began to brainstorm ideas.  Together, they decided that pink T-shirts were not enough, and they decided that they wanted to focus on the positive rather than the ‘Anti’ in Anti-Bullying Day.  With passion and excitement, they crafted up an idea where they could engage an entire school district to work together to create a production of music, martial arts, dance and song with a motivating, thought-provoking and informative look at bullying from both sides.

To begin, the class created Love is Louder Than Bullying shirts.  The leadership students then travelled to schools in Port Moody, Port Coquitlam, and Coquitlam, mentoring other leadership students who took the lead selling the shirts at their schools.  Thousands of shirts were sold.  With the profit made from shirt sales, the students hired a production company, ABC Let’s Act, to write and direct a play on bullying.  However, in the spirit of inclusion and realism, the students took further steps, to interview middle and high school students around the district to share what bullying really looks like.  They then shared their research with the Director, Mandy Tulloch, who then created a meaningful script.  Mandy opened auditions to all SD43 students and selected a phenomenal cast ranging from age 11-18 from a variety of schools, showcasing the amazing talent of youth in the community.  The final product was an absolutely brilliant production, entertaining and educating the audience through music, song and martial arts.

I love The Bullying Games for so many reasons.  Here are a few:

  • It demonstrates the magic that can happen when we work together
  • It started as idea, and gained momentum involving schools from all levels
  • It celebrates the talent of youth in the community
  • It recognizes that bullies and the bullied are both the victims, and sends powerful messages to both sides
  • It began as an idea, motivated not by political campaigns but by the genuine passion of youth wanting to make a difference
  • It is research based, dealing with real issues that kids face
  • It educates and inspires change, through entertainment
  • It teaches leadership skills to youth in a fun, engaging format
  • It is preventative rather than reactive
  • It is age appropriate for students K-12

While last night was the final performance, I cannot help but wonder if the momentum will continue.  The Bullying Games is simply too good to be over.  It is something that every child in BC should see.  Hopefully, the stars will continue to align, and that will become a possibility.

Imagine a world in the future where bullying ceases to exist.  Imagine a society that cares not only about the bullied, but about the bullies, wanting both sides to heal from the hurt. Imagine a world where everyone plays a role, and helps support one another, so we can recognize the unique and wonderful qualities that exist in each of us.  Imagine.  How do we get there?  The Bullying Games is a fantastic start.

I offer my sincere congratulations to the students, staff and community members who worked together to create such a magical and inspiring project.  For more information on The Bullying Games, contact Dean Whitson (dwhitson@sd43.bc.ca) at Terry Fox Secondary.

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My Top Ten Mistakes and the Lessons I Have Learned

A man may fall many times, but he won’t be a failure

until he says that someone pushed him. ~ Elmer G. Letterman

Recently I sat down to prepare for a job interview for a Vice Principal position with the Maple Ridge School District. To do so, I created a chart, with a range of topics that I thought may come up during the interview. Under each column I reflected on my career in education, with examples that I could use to demonstrate my skill set. I anticipated there may be a question about mistakes I have made, or things I would do differently if I had the chance to go back and start over, so I created a column just for my mistakes. As I brainstormed scenarios, I found that the ‘mistakes’ column brought back some great memories, and I found that I was laughing out loud, thinking back to some of my career bloopers.   

What I started to recognize is that the moments that emerged as mistakes also helped me grow as a leader. Each mistake challenged my thinking, required some creativity, and taught me a valuable lesson.  Looking back, these are some of the most enjoyable memories, as these are days I will never forget!

Pam Becker, Vice Principal at Pitt River Middle School recently wrote about mistakes, and the importance they play in our adult lives. As educators, we often remind students and their parents that mistakes make us human, and help us learn and grow. As adults, we don’t always grant ourselves the same permission, and often choose to play it safe. Choosing the safe route may yield fewer mistakes, but it also dampens our creative spirit.  JK Rowling offered an outstanding commencement speech on The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination. She describes rock bottom as the solid foundation for re-building life. 

Fortunately, I would not describe any of my bloopers as ‘hitting rock bottom’, though I do feel there are lessons to be learned from each experience.  I share with you what I consider My Top Ten Mistakes and the Lessons I have Learned.

Mistake # 10 – BEST 40th Photobest40

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of our school, we decided to take an aerial photo of our students on our field spelling out BEST 40.  We had a vision, and thought it was possible.  I contacted the News 1130 traffic helicopter and they agreed to take the photo.  Unfortunately the time they were in the air didn’t correlate with school hours so we went to Plan B.  I contacted the fire department and asked if they could use their Tower Truck to take the photo.  They agreed, assuming no emergency calls came in.  With vision and optimism, we thought we were ready.  I went to Costco and bought a gazillion roles of hockey tape to line the field before an assembly where we gave instructions on how to line up.   Sounds good right?  Well the logistics had some flaws.  Teachers called me over to tell me they had calculated the angle and that the photo would not work.  The hockey tape didn’t stick to turf, and to make matters worse the colour of the tape almost matched the field colour. Almost everyone suggested we just take one big group photo.  However, my principal and I had faith.  With completely inappropriate footwear for the weather conditions, we gathered five students to help us and we spontaneously used all the masking tape in the school to outline BEST 40. With minutes to spare, we led the assembly and our plan worked. The Tower Truck arrived, no emergency calls came in and we got our photo.  LESSON: Plan ahead but always believe in hope.

Mistake # 9 – Post It Note Chaos

Last June, I was approached by two of my leadership students.  They wanted to play a ‘grad prank’ that was safe and in good taste.  They had a vision of using thousands of coloured post it notes to line the lockers of the school spelling ‘GRAD 2012’.  They wanted to do this on a Sunday evening so the staff and students could arrive on Monday morning to find a colourful and tasteful surprise.  I agreed to meet them on Sunday night, so a group of 10-20 students could create their ‘art work’.  They brought in music, snacks and thousands of post its.  They got to work and I used the time to catch up on work in my office.  Life was going well until I heard banging from the floor above me.  I quickly discovered that the post it note prank had progressed into an out of control party of sorts. Students had let other students in, and not all of them had the same intention.  The pranks were no longer in good taste, and many other minor pranks were being arranged on each of the three floors.  I could not believe that I had essentially contributed to an event that had a negative impact on our school. I felt so much shame. Thankfully one of my friends on staff agreed to help me in the late hours cleaning as much as we could before Monday morning arrived.  Lesson: Kids will be Kids. Give them the wings to fly but not free reign of the school to plan a grad prank. 

Mistake #8 – Emergency Folder Updates

Every room in our school has an emergency folder with information, maps and paperwork necessary to help in an evacuation or emergency.  One particular day I decided to box up all the folders with all the updated inserts, and bring the box home.  The process of updating the folders took longer than I thought and I was tired.  My husband looked at me and said “what are the chances that you will need those tomorrow?”.  I agreed the chance was extremely low and decided to get some sleep, leaving the folders spread across my living room to be completed the following evening.  Of course, the very next day the fire alarms started to ring mid day and our school had to evacuate without signs, class lists, paperwork, etc.   Lesson:  Murphy’s Law Exists!  Be warned!

Mistake # 7 – The Big Drug Bust

Our school is right across the street from a big park full of trails.  It’s a beautiful setting, but also an easy place to hide.  I was well aware that one of our students was bringing drugs to school and selling them to others in the park.  However, I was one step behind him and never caught him in the act.  On a busy day, I saw him cross the road with friends and a big bag.  I checked to see if one of our other administrators could go for a walk in the park with me to see what we could discover.  They were tied up in meetings, but I didn’t want to let this moment pass by as I didn’t want our students smoking drugs in the park. I decided to linger behind the student group and enter the park alone.  In the distance I saw the person with the backpack head off the trail and head into the woods.  I decided I would out-smart him.  Instead of allowing him to see me coming down the same path, I decided to venture into the woods through a different direction so that we would meet up at the same spot.  I climbed over stumps, navigated tree roots and eventually came to the same clearing as the student with the back pack.  I said hello.  He turned around so we were face to face.  There I was staring at a man in his mid 40’s in the middle of the woods.  Hmmm.  Not so safe.  I quickly excused myself and exited quickly.   Lesson:  Safety First.  Plain and Simple. 

Mistake # 6 – Caesar Salad for All 

In preparation for parent night, and a staff dinner at the break, my principal asked me to pick up romaine lettuce at Costco.  I asked how much I should pick up.  She said four.  So off I went to Costco in search of lettuce.  I was delighted to find that Costco has already bundled the lettuce 4 / pack, so I picked up one pack and headed for the till.  Ten minutes before the dinner my principal asked me where the rest of the lettuce was.  I asked her what she was talking about.  Apparently she had meant four packages.  Who knew you couldn’t make salad for 80 people with only 4 heads of lettuce!  Now, most of you will probably think that I should learn something from this, but really, the lesson here is that we need to recognize the strengths in one another.  Funny how Mary never asked me to cook again.  Lesson: Know your strengths.  Cooking is not mine.

Mistake # 5 – Awards Night during Teacher Job Action 

Last June we had difficulty determining whether or not we should host our Awards Evening as the teachers were in Job Action and unable to volunteer their time to assist.  We decided that we would go ahead with a streamlined version.  Rather than having award recipients approach the stage one by one, we would call them up in groups based on the awards won.  Mark Rao MC’d the event, Mary O’Neill shook hands with the students and I distributed the awards and certificates from the table.  Minutes in I realized I was way over my head.  Students were approaching every second, and matching them with their awards in time for the photo was becoming an impossible task.  Deciding the show must go on, I continued to hand out awards and tell the students to smile. Only problem? The certificates did not match their names.  Each time I whispered to the student to see me at the end to swap the certificates.  At the end of the evening I remember Mark and Mary being pleased, and saying ” Wow – that sure ran smoothly!”.  I then explained that our blonde haired top Calculus student actually posed with the Korean student’s Drafting award with the wrong name, etc.  Good thing the camera didn’t have a zoom lens and no one noticed!  Lesson: The Show Must Go On! Smile for the camera, let the students shine and work out the kinks later.  Oh, and pray that Job Action will not return.

Mistake # 4 – Winter Formal Tickets

For years, our school has held a winter formal dance as a fundraiser for school clubs. Tickets have always been a hot item as the venue only holds 250 students.  In years past, students camped overnight to get tickets and then slept through or skipped class.  This didn’t seem educationally sound so we decided that we would sell tickets after school as a secret location within the building.  We decided not to announce the location until after our last class so that all students could attend school, and then have an equal chance of getting into line.  We asked one of our teachers to be near the secret location (at the end of a hallway) to help maintain an orderly line once the location was announced.  We picked our PE hallway as we have cameras in this location and we would be able to replay the video footage if students tried to sneak into line ahead of others.  Again, sounds like a good idea right?  OK – now imagine hundreds of students running full speed down the same hallway with one staff member trying to hold them back.  The video footage is priceless.  Imagine a mosh pit where the teacher, Dave Jones,  is all of a sudden crowd surfing with his hands flailing in the air as he is moved down the hall.  Sorry Dave! Thank goodness we moved to an internet based system this year.  Lesson: Embrace Technology and Avoid the Old Fashioned Line Up Craze!

Mistake # 3 – Fieldtrip Disaster

When I was teaching Marketing at Terry Fox Secondary, I arranged a fieldtrip to Seattle each semester.  We rented a coach bus to travel in comfort.  I did all the necessary paperwork so the office had all the student information.  Students had their ID, and we were ready to go.  However, on the way back home, our bus broke down on the side of the I-5 Highway near Mount Vernon.  The driver concluded the bus would not re-start and we started to unload.  This caused some traffic congestion in the area. Most of our students had moved to the grassy area beside the highway and the final six and the driver were in the midst of exiting the bus.  At that moment, a semi trailer failed to see the traffic stopping ahead, swerved to miss the traffic and instead clipped the front end of our bus.  The bus started to tip towards the kids and the truck flipped over the guard rail in front of us.bus accident  As you can tell by the photo, it is a miracle no one was seriously hurt in this accident.  However, when I phoned the school to inform parents and administration I realized the school was now closed and I didn’t have the contact numbers for our administrators.  Lesson: When planning fieldtrips, leave the necessary paperwork with the school, but travel with the necessary contact information to reach school staff and parents.

Mistake # 2 Hot Air Balloon

While working at Dr. Charles Best, I tried to come up with a creative idea each year to help raise thousands of dollars for the Terry Fox Foundation.  These included a ‘Kiss A Goat’ event, ‘Blue Devils on the Run Garden Gnomes’ and a ‘Hot Air Balloon Event’.  I approached Remax and asked them to donate their hot air balloon for our fundraiser.  They agreed.  We sold plastic balls for $10 each, and set a target.  The balloon operator then dropped thousands of balls from the sky, and the student with the ball closest to the pin won a $1000 cash prize.  The remaining funds went to the Terry Fox Foundation.  Again, sounds good right?  Over the past five years we have raised closed to $50 000 for the Terry Fox Foundation so I would consider this a success on many grounds.  However, when our event ended up on the front cover of the paper, a concerned citizen lodged a formal complaint with the BC Lottery Corporation.  In their eyes, we were teaching children, under the age of 19 to gamble, without a lottery license.  My apologies to the entire district who had to endure re-training on when and how to get a lottery licence.  Lesson: Be creative, have fun, help charities, but get a lottery license first!

Mistake #1:  Sandra & Samantha’s Reunion Twistsandra sam In 2009, we began Project HELLO, helping the homeless from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver re-connect with family through Christmas Cards.  Sandra, pictured on the left, was the first woman to write a card.  When we found her daughter Samantha in Alberta they were both overjoyed.  Samantha had presumed her mother was dead, and was so excited to find out she was alive in Vancouver.  Neither had the funds to reunite, so our students and staff chipped in and paid for an all-expense paid trip for Samantha to come to Vancouver, including flights, accommodation and food.  After re-connecting them at the airport, we traveled in my car to the hotel.  Mid-route Samantha proceeded to tell the students and I that she would not be accepting the return flight, as she had decided to stay in Vancouver with her mom.  She shared a story about just getting out of jail in time for the flight as she had recently taken a Calgary city bus on a joy-ride.  Her children were no longer in her care.   Shocked and confused my mind was racing.  Minutes after dropping them off at the hotel, I was in contact with the Calgary police to discuss the situation. Samantha did decide to stay for a couple months and live with her mother on the streets of Vancouver.  This wasn’t exactly what we had pictured, yet when I look back, I recognize that it was still a beautiful act.  At the core, a mother and daughter were able to re-connect and share family stories, after a decade of not hearing from each other.  They may live lives that are very different from ours, but they love one another and deserved the opportunity to connect as a family. Lesson: Find the positive in each situation. Families come in many shapes and sizes, and helping them connect will never be wrong.

Above all, the most valuable lesson I have learned is that we have to take risks, seek new challenges and be comfortable making mistakes in order to grow and learn.  Oh – and in case you are wondering, I got the job!  Thomas Haney, I look forward to learning from my mistakes with you!

When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” 

The Power of Why: 101 New Year’s Resolutions

Maybe I’m feeling inspired from our recent trip to Disneyland, or maybe it’s the excitement I feel about beginning a new job next month, but as we begin a new year and I look inward to create meaningful resolutions, I find I am fascinated with the topic of creativity and innovation.

I have just finished reading The Power of Why by Amanda Lang and look forward to power of whyborrowing ideas from the book to spark creativity and innovation in our schools. As a child, Lang decided she wanted to be an architect. Her family supported her career goal and very early on she knew the steps to take to reach her goal. Unfortunately as she reached adulthood, she asked ‘how’ questions to reach the next step but didn’t stop to ask herself ‘why’. Eventually she realized that she had much more passion for the stories within the buildings rather than the buildings themselves, and she changed directions to explore a career in Journalism. All of a sudden all night assignments became invigorating rather than exhausting and she knew she was on the right path.  She now co-hosts the Lang & O’Leary Exchange CBC and is the senior business correspondent for CBC News.

While this book focusses most on the business world I believe there are many valuable lessons that we can take away and apply to education.

  • Shift our priorities. Rather than trying to develop creativity while meeting prescribed learning outcomes, what if creativity becomes an outcome itself?  Developing creativity as a learning outcome or competency allows us to remain curious, seek to improve, ask questions, and look at problems from new angles.  In essence, those who think creatively will continue to learn.
  • Find ways to preserve child-like wonder and reignite natural curiosity. In twin studies, research suggests that 80% of IQ is related to genetics but only 30% of our creativity.  This suggests that 70% of our creativity comes from environmental factors and can be learned. Unfortunately it can also be diminished if it is not encouraged.
  • Focus on the questions, not just a desired answer.  Promote questioning to develop divergent thinking.  A shift to develop a curious mentality versus an expert mentality allows students the ability to understand how they learn, and develops a skill set that will be beneficial in the future.
  • Look at education through the eyes of the customer.  Private schools do a great job at this, promoting their strengths and the benefits the customer will receive.  Unfortunately the public system often turns to the media to highlight what’s not working in schools rather than highlighting our tremendous strengths and opportunities as one of the best education systems in the world. To stay innovative, we need to continually improve while focusing on our strengths.
  • Reflect. If we want to be creative and curious in our work, then we need to start with ourselves.  People who have the courage to self-reflect and ask questions of themselves create opportunities for growth and positive change.  Lang warns that those who focus on routine and comfort may wake up one day only to recognize they are in the wrong career or wrong relationship.
  • Start with individual ideas and then work together. The most creative ideas develop when students have the time to brainstorm alone first and then bring their ideas to the group. Beginning as a group reduces creativity for a variety of reasons including self-censorship, groupthink, taking turns, laziness and a tendency to promote harmony over creativity.
  • We need to teach our students that one of the best ways to stay actively engaged in their learning when they feel they are losing focus is to stop and ask a question.  Students with ADHD have a natural aptitude for applying ideas from one topic to another – a gift in innovative thinking.
  • Shift thinking from ‘How’ to ‘Why’.  Rather than asking how we are going to accomplish our goals, or get our daily, monthly or yearly tasks done, stop and ask why.  Why do students and parents choose our school? Why do we do things the way we do? Often those who have lived in multiple countries or worked in various industries have a learned ability to ask why and look at situations with fresh eyes. Do we take time to stop and get the perspective from those around us?

So – as we enter a new year, I have decided to set resolutions from a different angle. Rather than asking what I want to do this year, I will look a bit deeper with each resolution and ask why. Gaining a deeper understanding of my goals will help me reflect on what I truly value and what I hope to accomplish. To set resolutions that matter, I plan to use a technique Lang describes that is used by many Fortune 500 companies to encourage innovation: Participants at creativity retreats are asked to generate a list of 101 goals. This seems like a rather long list, but the length has purpose as the goals that are harder to think of often require more stretch or deeper exploration into who we want to be. Goals that are further down the list are often more creative and unique.  Once completed, participants are asked to narrow their list to their top fifteen goals.  More often than not, goals near the end of 101 list make their way to the Top 15.

I am inspired by this idea, and will try this in order to set my New Year’s Resolutions for 2013. And like a child with natural curiousity, I will ask myself a lot of questions, understanding why and why not.  Although I have yet to complete this activity (that’s tomorrow’s task), I have a sneaking suspicion I already know one of my top goals for 2013….  I will awaken the three year old child within me and approach life from a curious perspective, not afraid to ask Why or Why Not.  As Lang concludes “asking questions makes life richer, more interesting, more fulfilling and more complete.  Better.  That’s the power, and ultimately the purpose, of Why”.

The Best of Best: Reflecting on School Culture

Since I began blogging, I have had many people ask me how I decide what to write about.  My answer is simple:  I wait until the weekend, and see what I am still thinking about from the previous week at work.  I use these lingering thoughts as motivation to write about what’s important to me.  It provides a way to reflect and it adds purpose to the work that I do as an administrator.  This week has been a particularly significant week for me, as I have just accepted a new position with the Maple Ridge School District beginning February 1st.  Although I am looking forward to the new challenge, I am also looking back, and reflecting on a great nine years at Dr. Charles Best Secondary.  As I prepare to leave, I feel the same way a parent must feel when they see their child go off to college.  Although I love my school, I am ready to let go, as I feel a sense of pride and confidence, knowing our school will continue to do great things.  When I think about what I am most proud of at our school, the answer is simple.  Our school culture. 

 This past Thursday morning, I experienced a serendipitous moment. I sat in  a district leadership meeting, listening to our guest speaker, Bruce Wellman.  I knew that while I was at the presentation, our principal, Mary O’Neill, was announcing to our staff that I was leaving.  I sat, reflecting on the past nine years, thinking about the growth I have seen at Charles Best with our culture.  Although the presentation centered on learning focused conversations, Bruce stopped for a moment and shared his simple idea for evaluating a school’s culture.  He suggested that the best way to test culture, is to walk towards the front door of the school with your arms full, and observe whether anyone goes out of their way to help you with the door.  This suggestion hit home for me, and  brought me back to my very first experience at Dr. Charles Best in June 2004:

I had just accepted a teaching position and I approached the school for the first time to set up my classroom.  I was seven months pregnant, and wanted to get the room set up for the fall semester so the TOC would be off to a great start.  With my pregnant belly protruding outwards I somehow balanced a relatively large box of materials and walked towards the front door.  Just before I reached the door, a teenage boy ran towards me.  Instantly I was overwhelmed with appreciation thinking to myself “WOW – what a great school… this boy sees that I am pregnant and my hands are full and he wants to help.”  I smiled and waited to hear “let me get that for you.”  Instead, I heard “excuse me… could you tell me what time it is?”  Apparently it did not cross his mind that it would be very difficult for me to check my wrist while holding a large box.  I apologized for not knowing the time and he ran the other way. 

Now, before I offend the students from 2004, I am certain that many students would have helped.  However, it did leave a lasting first impression of the school culture.  And, when I think of where we are at now, I can say with absolute certainly that our culture has evolved.

 When I think about our current culture, there is so much I am proud of.  Here are just a few examples of what I consider The Best of Best.

 Heart:  Our school has heart.  In fact, it really defines how we do things.  Our staff love our students, and our students continually tell me they love their school.  We do not have very many policies.  In fact, the only rule we constantly reinforce, is a rule of respect.  When respect is broken, our goal is never to focus on punishment. Instead, our counsellors, youth workers and administration always take a restorative approach where the consequences allow the student to reflect, take responsibility and learn from the experience.  We often ask “how can the individuals who have caused harm repair the relationship and return with new skills to help them in future situations?”   Our school shows heart in everything we do, from the way we treat each other to the way we interact with our local and global community.

Community:  Our school does a fantastic job of giving back to the community.  Our French Immersion students work with KIVA helping entrepreneurs in third world countries, our leadership students volunteer regularly in elementary classrooms, our Tech-Ed students help with community projects such as the kitchen renovation at the women’s shelter and rebuilding structures in community parks, our Home Ec classes prepare meals for the homeless shelters, our Best Buddies offer local babysitting nights and volunteer throughout the community, our Schools for Schools team teaches parents about social media, and our Project HELLO team helps the homeless reconnect with families.  At Christmas time, students and staff join together to prepare hampers for those in need and throughout the year we work together to support charities. 

 Mentorship:  Our school has an incredibly safe feel to it, and I believe this is a reflection of the excellent mentorship that occurs for both students and teachers.  New staff are welcomed to the school, and teachers show a willingness to share resources and find ways to learn together.  Recently our staff created a ‘Best Practices’ list centered around mentorship so we can support teachers new to our school.  Similarly, our incoming grade nines are each assigned a Best Buddy as a peer mentor to help them with their transition to high school.  Our new cross grade advisory model and our incredible peer tutoring structure allow for students to continually learn together and support one another at different grade levels.  Students exploring a passion beyond the prescribed learning outcomes are encouraged to do so through IDS courses, working with a teacher mentor. 

 Professional Learning Community:  Our teachers model a love of learning.  Many of our teachers have achieved or are pursuing masters degrees.  Many participate on district or school learning teams, and all participate in formal and informal meetings collaborating and sharing ideas.  Our teachers continually find ways to learn through professional development, and to give back by presenting, sharing with others or helping to create new resources. On Tuesdays, teachers get together for ‘Tech Tuesday’ and learn the latest technology tips from one another. Our librarian has designed an online library system where students and staff can learn at anytime from anywhere. 

 It’s Cool to Learn:  Our Math Camp is the best example of this.  Our math students volunteer their time to create fun engaging math camps so that middle school students can come to the high school and do math together.  And, they do so with such passion and excitement, that the camps actually sell out.  On the weekend…….  So just to say it again, they convince pre-teens to give up their weekend to do math for fun.  Now that’s a cool accomplishment!

 Acceptance: Every student matters at Best, and all of our students who face learning challenges are fully supported and accepted.  Our skill development students are integrated into our classes, and they become mini-celebrities once a month when they host  ‘Sugar Shack’ events, where they open up a bakery for the rest of the school. Our Learning Resource Centre and our Student Learning Centre offer assistance to students requiring adaptations and modifications.  These programs help students advocate for themselves and develop their skills in time management, organization, reflection, and studying. Students gain confidence in themselves and develop a greater understanding of how they learn.

 Participation: Almost every student at Best gets involved with a club, sport or activity.  From the Fine Arts, Athletics, and Service Groups, our school really has something for everyone.  We have over 50 sports team and clubs, and we always let the students know that we are willing to sponsor new clubs if the students are interested.  Some of our newest clubs include a photo club, a book club and a toastmasters club.  Our sports teams continue to excel winning district and provincial titles (though I have to admit this absolutely has nothing to do with me as I am SO SCARED OF THE BALL…. I really don’t understand why so many people like having projectiles thrown at them… .but that’s another blog all together).

 Growth: Perhaps what I like best about our school, is the willingness to try new ideas. In my time at Best, I have always felt supported and encouraged to think outside the box and make new suggestions. Creativity is encouraged, and programs are developed based on the needs of students.   As we integrate technology, and re-think our learning model, we do so with a focus on student learning, and an open mind.  When we look towards the future, we ask ‘What if?’, and we allow each other the chance to dream about the school we want to create. 

 And so, nine years later, as  I prepare to leave Charles Best, I do so with confidence, knowing that our school is a wonderful place to learn, with a rich culture that passes the test of Bruce Wellman.  I smile, knowing full well that when a new Vice Principal arrives with boxes in hand, someone will be there to open the door.

Change Your Perception… Change Everything

It has been said that if you can change the lens through which you view the world, you can change your reality.   The famous image below is perhaps the best example of this:  to some, this picture shows a beautiful young woman with a feather in her hair and a black necklace.  Others see an elderly woman in a thick fur coat.  With intention, we can allow our mind to look at this image and see it both ways. 

young-woman-old-woman-illusion

Our perception, is shaped by our upbringing and our past experiences.  Depending on what we value and what we assume, we are able to judge a situation and form an opinion about what we see. Have a look at this next picture and think about what you see.

 cellphones

Perhaps when you looked at this picture you saw students off task, distracted by their phones.  Or, conversely, perhaps you saw students embracing technology and using one of the functions on their smart phones as a learning tool.  Regardless of what you saw, I think it is important to note that it is very plausible that others saw it differently.   Recently, I have found myself in a couple of situations where I recognize that the use of technology creates different perceptions, depending on the lens through which it is viewed.  Here are three examples:

After a recent professional development workshop, I met with a teacher on staff who was quite disappointed about the level of respect our audience showed the speaker.  When I dug a bit deeper, I discovered that this particular teacher considered it very rude to type on a computer during someone’s presentation.   I then suggested that teachers may have been using their computer to take notes, as that is what I had been doing.   This was a shift in thinking, as this particular teachers saw the audience members with paper and pen as ‘on task’ and those with computers as ‘off task’.   Personally, I am intentionally trying to make an effort to use less paper and write notes on the computer as much as possible.  However this conversation helped me recognize that the use of technology may need to be addressed in the ‘housekeeping’ details at the beginning of a workshop or meeting so there is shared belief around whether or not it is appropriate to use technology.  At the most recent conference I attended, they encouraged the use of social media and created hashtags so conference delegates could share thoughts and add to the conversation through Twitter.  However, for those viewing technology as a distraction, this creates a very different image.

These instances occur in the community as well.  One of my friends is a hockey coach for his son’s hockey team.  He uses his cell phone as a stop watch to record playing time of individual players.  Mid season he received a complaint letter from a parent claiming that he was not focused on coaching as he was on the phone the whole time.  Again, depending on the lens you use, you can either see this situation as a ‘coach actively finding ways to give every child play time’ or a ‘distracted coach who is on his phone during the game’.  I’m sure the parent would have had a different perception if they saw him holding a stop watch.  Sometimes we need to recognize that our perceptions shape our reality, and that our assumptions are not always correct. 

In a third example, I had an hour to kill in a pediatric dentist office while I was waiting for my son.  As I looked around the room, I noticed every parent was actively engaged with their cell phone.  I sat looking at the room wondering what a passerby would think.  Would they see parents distracted by their phones?  Would they think the same thing if they walked by and saw parents flipping through books or magazines in the waiting room?  I recognize that phones have so many functions, and there is no way of knowing what the parents were doing.  Perhaps they were creating shopping lists. Perhaps they were reading e-books, perhaps they were using the internet, or answering emails for work.  And, of course, there is a chance they were filling their time playing Angry Birds. 

Regardless, each situation reminds me of the power of perception, and that as technology changes, we need to be aware of our own judgments when we see someone focused on their ‘smart’ phone.  If we rewind five years, we were quick to prohibit cell phones and pagers in class as they disrupted the learning environment.  Now, phones are capable of so much more, and many schools have moved to a ‘BYOD’ or bring your own device policy, as phones have the ability to enhance learning, if used responsibly.  If we recognize the potential good of cell phones in the classroom, then we have successfully shifted our thinking, and changed our reality. 

Similarly, security systems are primarily used to capture negative events.  However, what they really capture is a snapshot of reality.  As this uplifting video recognizes, it is up to us to determine whether we want to see the positive or the negative.  And most importantly, it’s a great reminder that we have the ability to shift the lens through which we see the world.   Our perception is our reality.  Change your perception… change everything.

Everyone Has A Story… Looking Beyond Addiction

This morning I had the opportunity to attend a great presentation in Maple Ridge with Dr. Gabor Mate, physician and bestselling author on addiction, attachment, parenting and mind-body wellness.  Dr. Mate began his presentation talking about addiction and the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.  He expressed concern for society’s understanding of addiction, explaining that our current system assumes two theories of addiction: the first that addiction is genetic, or the second suggesting that addiction is a choice people make.  What he stressed is the convenience of these theories, for as long as we support them we negate the role society plays in the lives of people struggling with addiction.  He encouraged the audience to look beyond the addiction, and ask “Why the pain, rather than why the addiction?”  Through his work on the Downtown Eastside he has come to realize that addiction is often a result of impaired attachments.

Dr. Mate’s presentation was a good reminder for me, as I often have the opportunity to talk to students about drug use. While some students try drugs for experimental reasons, I would say it is more common for students to turn to drugs as a way of medicating their own stress.   I am grateful that our district has an ‘alternate to suspension’ program to address drug use in students, offering counseling services and goal setting.  I am reminded to ask questions, get to know students, and dig deeper to hear the life stories, and stresses that may be masked by drug use.  Once we can determine the cause of pain, we have a much greater success of helping the student heal.  Research indicates that a connection to family and a connection to school are the two most significant factors determining whether a student will engage in problematic drug and alcohol use.  When students struggle with drug use, I need to remember that a suspension is a consequence but not a solution.  Taking time to get to know the student and helping them find ways to connect with the school will have deeper impact.

Dr. Mate’s presentation this morning also reminds me of a friend I lost a couple years ago, when he passed away from addiction issues.  Irvin Wickens became a friend, in the most unlikely of circumstances, and he left me with the most meaningful gift I have ever received.  

 Here is the story of my friend, Irvin Wickens…

 

In November of 2009, a church in Port Moody approached our school and asked if we could advertise a volunteer opportunity for our students to work in the local homeless shelter, providing dinner and conversation.  The response was overwhelming and we have over 100 students wishing to participate.  We committed to two shifts per week, where I would volunteer with 6-10 students and staff.  

 Our first night at the shelter was November 13, 2009.  It was a cold, wet, rainy night where we served chili and buns to provide some warmth to the twelve clients at the shelter.  As we served dessert, a student and I sat down beside Irvin.  Irvin had the stereotypical image of a homeless man: his clothes were worn and dirty, his hair unruly, and he was unshaven.  Yet beyond that his eyes sparkled, and he offered kindness and gratitude as we engaged in conversation.  Irvin told us that he it was his mom’s birthday.  I asked if he had had an opportunity to call her.  He told me no, as his mom had passed away years ago.  He also shared that he had lost two sisters.  Assuming they had died recently I asked him when they had passed away.  Irvin then began a story I will never forget….  he spoke of his childhood in Milwaukee, and a horrific night when he was just six years old.  Living in poverty, with a single mom and three siblings, he awoke to find their house on fire.  Irvin woke one sister who shared a room with him.  He then ran across the hall to try and get to the room his other two sisters shared.  The fire blocked the entrance so he ran to wake his mom.  He shared his memory of his mom running into the fire trying to save her daughters.  He then recalls his images of his mom emerging from the house covered in burns and overcome with grief, as she whispered ‘they are gone’.  In that moment, Irvin lost a 3 year old and 8 year old sister.  Trying to hold back my own tears I told Irvin he was a hero for saving his mom and one sister.  He then politely excused himself to go for a cigarette and I excused myself to tidy up the dishes.  In that instant, Irvin taught me that homelessness is not caused by addiction, but rather by trauma and an inability to move forward.

As I waited with our students for parents to pick them up that evening, one student who had heard Irvin’s story approached me and told me that he had been struggling for months with the news of his parents’ divorce.  After hearing Irvin’s story, he realized he still had two parents that loved him and he needed to stop feeling sorry for himself as his problems were minimal compared to Irvin’s. 

For the next year, we enjoyed our weekly visits with Irvin.  His eyes would sparkle as he would speak of his adventures in life, and on a good night he would break out in song and amaze our students with his beautiful voice.  Tears would roll down his face as he would sing Eric Clapton’s ‘Beautiful Tonight’.  When he finished his dessert, and left the table, he would always shout out with enthusiasm “Cowboy Up!”

In late March 2010, I had a great conversation with Irivn about what he would do if he won the lottery.  He spoke of all the charities he would help as he appreciated the help he had received from others and he wanted to pay it back.  On our final evening at the shelter I approached Irvin and told him I had a gift for him.  I gave him a lottery ticket and told him I hoped his luck would change.  I thanked him for sharing his story and for making such a difference with our students.  Irvin reached in his pocket and told me he had a gift for me as well.  Not knowing what to expect from the pocket of a homeless man, I remember feeling nervous about what could possibly come from his pocket.  When he unfolded his hand, he held out a small brown rock.  He told me that the year before the shelter opened, he was living under a bridge in Port Coquitlam.  Some middle school students had approached him with their teacher and offered him some cookies.  With the cookies, they had also given him the rock, and told him it was a friendship rock.  They asked him to keep it in his pocket, and to remember each time he felt it, that the community cares about him.  Irvin told me the lottery ticket would replace the rock, and he asked me to take the rock, and put it in my pocket to thank me for caring about him.  Eight months later, Irvin passed away from his addictions.  However, his story, and his rock, will be with me forever. 

Dr. Gabor Mate’s message, and my friend Irvin, teach the same valuable lesson.  Everyone has a story and we need to look beyond addiction to discover the root of the pain. Love, compassion and connection will always be more powerful that punishment and shame.

Cowboy Up!

Teens, Teachers and Social Media: Same Tools, Different Purpose

This school year I decided to develop my personal growth plan around technological literacy.  I did so for a number of reasons:  First, I was hearing from our students that they were using Facebook less than in the past, but their use of Twitter was on the rise.  I had no idea how to use Twitter at the time, and I was not comfortable knowing that our students were communicating in ways I did not understand.  For years I have used Facebook as a way to communicate with students, post information about school events, and stay up to date with issues impacting our students. If our students were switching to Twitter, I wanted to learn so I could stay connected.  Second, I wanted to explore how the use of blogging and social media could improve learning, professional development, communication and reflection.  I wasn’t sure what to expect….

Eight weeks later….

To be honest, it feels funny to type ‘eight weeks later’ because I can’t believe that two months ago, I did not embrace social media and blogging the way I do now.  It reminds me of the Buddhist Proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Both Twitter and blogging have re-shaped the way I learn and reflect.  Twitter is one of the best mediums of professional development I have ever experienced.  It allows me the opportunity to share ideas, engage in professional dialogue and learn from students and educators around the world.  And the best part? It takes place anytime, anywhere, and it’s free.  Similarly, I absolutely love taking time each week to blog.  Some people have asked if it feels like one more obligation competing for my time.  The answer is a definite no. In fact, it has the opposite effect.  The commitment to blog is a commitment I have made for myself reminding me to take time to slow down and reflect, and to focus on what I am learning, rather than getting consumed by the never ending to do list.

The second lesson I have learned since the start of the school year, is that I do not use social media the same way our students do.  I adopted Twitter to understand student behaviour, but instead I ended up on a professional development journey.  Knowing that our students were not all using Twitter to read articles and share ideas around the world, I decided to host two events with students to better understand how they use social media.  First I hosted a focus group with a small group of students from grades 9-12.  Second, I invited some students I didn’t know well to come in for a working lunch…. we provided lunch and they taught our admin team and youth worker how teens at our school are using Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media sites. 

It is important to note that the observations I have made do not necessarily represent how all students use social media.  Nonetheless, the students I spoke with offered some interesting insight.

Facebook:  Facebook is used by most, to post pictures, comment on friends’ status updates and stay connected with friends.  Most of their parents also use Facebook or feel that they understand Facebook.  However,  many students shared that it is quite common for teens alter the privacy settings so their parents only see parts of their Facebook page.  Similarly, some students admit to having two Facebook profiles…. one their parents know about, and one they don’t.   Most of our students felt that Facebook enhanced their learning in many ways…. they use Facebook to form study groups, to upload homework files, and to stay connected with meeting times and practice schedules for extra-curricular commitments.  Almost all students also have Facebook on their phone so they receive alerts as new messages arrive in their Facebook inbox.  Most students noted that they are always on facebook while doing their homework, allowing them to collaborate, ask questions, or just chat.   At our school we post many of our school announcements on Facebook.  We now have over 800 of our 1300 students connected to our school Facebook page.  When we need students to sign up for something we post it on Facebook and we have responses in seconds.  The speed is almost instantaneous, and much more effective than using PA announcements that often get missed.

Twitter:  Many students told me that they use twitter to ‘vent’ or to express emotion.  They create hashtags that match their emotion and have conversations about how they feel about something or someone.  Most felt that their parents do not know how to monitor their use of Twitter.   Many explain that their general conversations with friends have switched from Facebook to Twitter.  Twitter appears to be the platform with the greatest opportunity for learning.  A teacher can use Twitter to have students tweet answers while in the classroom or from home, and students can connect with other classes around the world engaging in conversation, learning with one another.

Tumblr:  I have to admit, I still don’t really get this one.  Many students use it to upload photos, and comment on each other’s pictures.  They also use it as a blogging tool.  Tumblr seems to be more popular with our younger grades than our senior students.  What many like about Tumblr is the ability to post and receive anonymous comments.  As a past school counsellor, this is what I really don’t like about Tumblr.  The anonymous feature allows people to say things they would not say with their name attached.  Students mentioned that Tumblr is useful for school projects on teen issues such as eating disorders, depression, etc.  Searching on topics such as these leads to teen pages with blogs and photos, giving the student an understanding of how other teens are thinking. Many also shared that this is a platform where they post positive messages to support one another.

Texting: Our students shed some light on how texting impacts student to student relationships.  From my ‘old person’ perspective, it seems like texting has replaced old school flirting.  Unfortunately, it seems like younger girls sometimes feel obligated to engage in very private conversations or photo sharing because they believe a genuine connection exists. When relationships don’t develop further, or teens break up, some girls mentioned feeling regret around the information they have shared through their phones. Again, this seemed to be more of a concern to our younger students in grades 9 and 10.   This conversation gave us insight to the importance of education around healthy relationships, and the importance of conversations with both our male and female students about appropriate use of technology.  With the average teenager sending and receiving over 3000 texts per month, we need to provide education on how to embrace digital communication in a responsible way, fostering the same sense of citizenship that we expect in face to face interactions. 

I am thankful to our students for taking time to engage in conversation and allow me to understand social media through a different lens. Our students are growing up with technology and they have much to teach us when we give them the opportunity to do so. As I continue on my own personal journey with social media, I am mindful that our students may use the same tools, but in different ways.  And no matter how much I learn with social media, I am again reminded that the best way to connect with our kids will always be face to face conversations.