Kids These Days

It’s Sunday morning, the sun is shining, I just finished a run with a friend, I have Starbucks in hand and my kids are off on a weekend adventure with their grandparents so one would think that my head would be full of positive thoughts.  For the most part it is, yet there is this nagging topic I feel compelled to write about.  So, unlike most of my blog posts, this one may come across as more of a rant.

So – here’s what’s on my mind…  I have this little pet peeve, and I just can’t shake it.  Like my otherwise calm neighbour who becomes a different person when he’s on the road with ‘bad drivers’, I find I can feel my blood boil when a certain expression arises.  There is nothing that frustrates me more than the moment when you are mid conversation with other adults and someone says “Kids these days,” assuming everyone will nod in agreement supporting the notion that society is doomed with today’s youth.

To be fair, I understand why the general population may have a poor impression of youth.  I get it. Bad news sells and it is far more likely that criminal activity or social disruption will dominate the headlines.  This notion isn’t true just for teens, it’s true for all ages and an unfortunate reality of the way we allow media to be portrayed.  Believe me, if a newspaper or TV network decided to cover only positive news stories, or the triumph and heroes that emerge with each disaster I would be the first to subscribe.

I also get that I often find myself in conversation with my neighbours, who are truly wonderful people, but whose careers offer a different perspective.  I have re-named our street emergency row as our street would vacate quickly if our city had a crisis as each house seems to have either a fireman, police officer, paramedic or hazmat team member.  With these industries responding to crises, I understand that they are not able to get an accurate perception of average kids or teens.

I understand that my view is also limited in scope as I have not researched all trends in youth behaviour, however I can speak confidently about the type of kids I get to work with on a regular basis.  As a vice principal, part of my job includes the responsibility of student discipline. Yet, unlike the movies would suggest, discipline does not dominate the day.  Why?  Two reasons really.  First of all, we don’t have many kids misbehaving.  Second, when we do, we see it as an opportunity for the student to learn from the situation, repair relationships and leave the situation strengthened so they are unlikely to find themselves in the same situation again.  Our schools are not plagued by bad kids.  We have great kids, who just like adults make some mistakes.  More often than not, it is hurt kids who hurt other kids.  Getting to the root of what is driving their behaviour and helping them heal allows our kids to learn from their mistakes and move forward.

So, if my day is not spent dealing with rowdy teenagers reeking havoc, then what are our teens really like?  This year, I worked the first half of the school year at Dr. Charles Best in Coquitlam, and the second half of the year at Thomas Haney in Maple Ridge.  In June I was fortunate to be part of two graduation ceremonies recognizing the accomplishments of the amazing kids leaving school ready to embrace the world.

When I look at our graduates, here is what I see:  They are fun, they are polite, they are intelligent, they are curious and they embrace the world beyond high school with a sense of curiosity and composure unlike when I was in school.  Unlike the past, they understand that they will likely have multiple career paths and the job they make end up in may not even exist today.  They are technologically savvy, the understand that the questions are just as important as the answers, and they embrace that learning is a lifelong process, rather than a rite of passage they have now completed.  They love their friends, family and community.  They balance the challenges of social media and live with both the communication and connection benefits that it brings, but also the exposure and immediacy that it offers.  When I think back to my own teenage years I can only imagine how different things would have been if every one of my friends had a phone in their pocket with a built in camera and access to the internet.  Let’s just say I’m happy my close friends knew some things about me that we didn’t capture on film and share with the world! I’m sure most adults can relate!

If we look to statistics, the Mcleary Foundation confirms that youth today are far less likely to smoke than youth a decade ago, 84% are in good or excellent health, drug use is not on the rise, and pregnancy rates are stable at less than 2%.  Major injuries have declined and most injuries that occur happen during sports.  Statistics Canada confirms that crime rates continue to decline across Canada, reaching a new low matching levels not seen since 1972. BC has the second lowest youth crime rate in the country with rates falling since 1991.  A study conducted by the BC Ministry and Representative for Children and Youth concludes less than 2% of children regularly present intensive behaviour challenges in schools.  However, children who have been abused become twice as likely to commit crimes, again confirming the notion that kids who  act out may be doing so based on their own hurt.  When our schools and families teach social emotional learning as well as curriculum we can help all students flourish.  We truly have great kids.

Kids today have a sense of responsibility far greater in scope than when I graduated.   They are global citizens, care deeply about recycling, volunteering, taking care of the environment and giving back to the less fortunate.  The kids I worked with this year spent time giving back at local elementary schools, homeless shelters, seniors homes, community events, sporting events and hospitals.  Many have helped raise funds through organizations such as Me to We helping impoverished nations, and some have even travelled to developing countries to help build schools and improve the access to clean water.  They smile, use manners and open doors for people.

As an example of what kids are really like, I’ve included links to two student blogs.

Selin Jessa, a graduate from Dr. Charles Best, is making headway around the world with her scientific research and commitment to leaving the world in an even better place than she found it.  Her blog ‘Thinking Out Loud’ gives a glimpse at her impressive journey.

Miranda Tymoschuk, a grade 11 student at Thomas Haney has overcome more adversity than any child should have to face, yet she uses it as motivation to improve conditions for others.  Please click here to see her story and her current fundraising efforts. http://ilaughlovedream.blogspot.ca

While these two students are the outliers with phenomenal accomplishments, they are not alone.  During graduation ceremonies, the grads from Dr. Charles Best and Thomas Haney were recognized for their accomplishments in academics, athletics, the arts, and in service, earning an impressive scholarship total of over one million dollars.

I am humbled to work with today’s youth as I get to learn from them as much as they learn from us.  Our kids are great.  Canada continues to be ranked as one of the top three education systems in the world, and we continue to focus on educating both the mind and the heart.   Our schools, our parents, and our communities are doing a great job. Unfortunately, that’s the news that doesn’t always make the headlines.  However, this is the story we should be telling.   Next time you are mid-conversation and someone mutters the expression “Kids these days,” please do me a favour, and  respond by saying, “Yes, they are pretty amazing aren’t they!”

OK – enough of my rant.  I’m off to enjoy this amazing sunny Sunday.

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The Purpose of Education

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”  
Aristotle
 happiness36
Sometimes when we talk about education we lose scope of what matters.  Political campaigns and media headlines emphasize numbers: school closures, class sizes, rising costs and grad rates.  Numbers give us quick answers, and an easy way to compare schools to one another. While math was definitely my favourite subject growing up, I’m not a fan of numbers when it comes to measuring schools.  Of course class sizes, dollars spent and high marks are important, but these pieces of data pale in comparison to what really matters in education.
Let’s take your own school experience as an example.  Take a second to think back to your school days.   Do you recall the number of students in each course, the cost of your annual school fees or the grade point average of your graduating class?  I’m suspecting those are hard facts to remember.  If this is the case, why do we so often turn to quantitative measures when we set school goals or measure a school’s performance?  Quantitative data is easy to measure but I question whether it should be the goal.  When we focus on what really matters in life, we create environments where kids feel safe, supported, connected, inspired, and excited to learn.
What happens if I change the questions about your education.  This time,  what if I ask you to  tell me the name of your favourite teacher, the best class you ever took or the connections you made with others.  I bet these questions are much easier to answer.  When I look back I remember my grade 10 science teacher Mr. Sandy Hill.  Our class always looked forward to the weeks when science would fall in the last block on Friday, as those blocks were dedicated to lessons in life.  He taught us that ‘hallway’ was the most important subject, and used the power of story to teach us valuable lessons about friendship, compassion, and life in general.  In grade 12,  I met my favourite teacher of all, Mr. Rich Chambers.  And here’s the irony – I hated the subject he taught.  Yet I signed up for Comparative Civilizations so I could hear his stories, and experience what it was like to be in his class.   Every morning he greeted each of us at the door with a handshake.  He brought humour and energy to every class.  He had high expectations and he cared deeply about each and every student.  Attendance wasn’t something he had to worry about as a teacher as his class was so exciting that no one wanted to miss it.
Personally, I will never forget a particular April morning in my grade 12 year.  I had a terrible fight with my parents and I had been crying most the night.  When I woke up my eyes were puffy so I wore my sunglasses to school.  Mr. Chambers was at the door as usual, waiting to greet each student.  As he shook my hand he exclaimed “hey – nice shades!”.  I lifted my glasses so he could see my swollen eyes.  He gave me a quick pat on the shoulder and told me we would chat soon.  What happened next was perhaps the best ‘teacher education’ I have received.  He did not single me out or draw any attention to my bad day.  Instead, he started the class by saying today was the day we were going to have mini conferences with him in the hall to talk about our progress.  He put a video on relating to the curriculum and began to call each student out for individual meetings.  After two or three students, it was my turn, and he was able to discreetly talk to me about what was going on in my life outside school.  I will never forget that moment where he seamlessly transitioned his lesson to discreetly help me though a difficult time.  Teachers like Sandy Hill and Rich Chambers truly understand that the most valuable lessons we learn in school are lessons in life.
 Now that I’m a parent I think about what I want for my own children.  Here’s what I want their school experience to be like:
  • I want them to develop a love for learning  where childlike wonder develops into an inquisitive nature.  Where they are just as excited to raise their hand in grade 12 as they are in kindergarten.
  • I want them to understand how they learn so they can continue to apply their skills to new content throughout life.
  • I want them to become socially responsible citizens who care deeply about others and take the time to know people’s stories.
  • I want them to have rich experiences in and out of the classroom where they connect with community, explore a vast array of topics, and start to discover their own passions.
  • I want them to play.  I want them to feel safe enough to take risks and embrace their creative spirit.
  • I want them to find balance with skills in technological literacy for a  fast paced world yet equal skill in self reflection, mindfulness and comfort in silence.
  • I want them to be loved, appreciated and understood.  I want them to experience synergy and contagious energy that develops when they truly connect with others.
  • And more than anything I want them to always be happy.  I want them to understand that happiness does not come from getting what they want, but rather from giving to others, expressing gratitude, being active and reflecting on who they are becoming.
  • I want them to learn with passionate educators who believe in educating the mind as well as the heart.  This video, which was beautifully created for the Heart Mind 2013 Conference captures this perfectly.   http://www.educatingtheheart.org
As an educator, I want this for my children and for your children.  Do I also want them to get good grades?   Of course I do.  I’d just rather we focus on what matters most.  When we create learning environments where our children can thrive, the numbers will become a by-product of more meaningful and significant goals.

A Glimpse Into Administration: Why I Love this Journey

My best friend Jen would make an excellent administrator. Why? She is a natural leader, excellent educator, committed to professional development and loves working with students and teachers.  She is creative, fun and inspiring.  There’s just one problem. She is not interested.  Like many others, she doesn’t feel it is the job for her.  Like others, she fears that a career in administration would reduce the amount of time she gets to spend with kids, and fill her days with problems to deal with.   And I get it.  If I rewind four years, when I first started thinking about administration I was in the same place.   In fact, when I was offered an ‘acting admin’ position a couple years ago I accepted for one reason:  I wanted to shake away the silly notion of applying that seemed to bubble inside me every time the posting appeared. The temporary ‘acting admin’ position would be enough to convince me it was not the job for me. Five months in, when I found out the acting admin position would be extended for the entire school year, my principal approached me and asked if I was going to apply to be an administrator.  I said no.  She then asked if I would like her find someone else to do the acting admin position for the second semester so I could return to my counselling position.  I heard myself say no.  She asked why.  It was a fair question. In that moment I realized I had no explanation, and it was time to adjust my own belief, and recognize that I love the role of administration.   She then asked if that meant I would put my name in for the admin pool.  I said I would definitely think about it.  She told me to think fast – the posting was to come out the next day.  So here we are – three years later, and reflecting on my vice principal roles in two schools in two different districts, I have to say I love my job.
Being an administrator is so much more than handling conflicts, managing diminishing budgets, listening to complaints and responding to student discipline. Fortunately I have had the opportunity to work with two outstanding principals, Mary O’Neill and Sean Nosek who both embrace the notion that school is not just about learning curriculum, but also about learning lessons in life.  As an administrator, we get to experience so many positive and unique moments, where students and staff learn together.  Yet, I wonder if we share these positive moments enough.  By the number of people who have said “I would never want your job”, I’m thinking we do not.  Statistically, when people are happy about something they tell 2-3 people and when they are unhappy they tell 10-15.  What a different world we would live in if we could flip that statistic.
The last few weeks have been full of amazing experiences.  Here’s a quick glimpse at some of my favourite moments.  They shed light on what administration is really like and why I love my job.
  • Grade 8 Inquiry Project– a team of our grade 8 teachers dedicated the month of April to Inquiry Based Learning.  For one month, they put curriculum aside and helped students develop their own questions for inquiry.  The month long event culminated in a morning exhibition where students showcased their incredible projects ranging from the creation of video games, new all weather recycled clothing, and a violin performance by a student who had taught herself how to play. IMG_0410 As a vice principal walking through the exhibition I was inspired by the excitement and passion that surfaced with these purposeful assignments.  Students studied what mattered to them, and in doing so embraced their curiosity and sense of wonder.  Many students were so engaged in their learning, they continued to study their topic after the project was over.
  • Me to We Night – I was lucky enough to find myself on the invite list to an evening of conversation with ladies from Kenya who were visiting North America for the first time. Mama Monica and Mama Leah shared the stories of their lives, growing up in poverty with no education.  Now, in coordination with Me to We, they teach others to make beautiful jewelry that is sold around the world.  They now have 600 women working with them, and their lives have changed dramatically as they are able to send their children to school, provide for their families and feel an incredible sense of hope for the future.  As we conversed in a waterfront condo at New Westmnister Quay I could not help but wonder if they felt resentment for all that we have.  Instead, they spoke genuinely from the heart, finding similarities between us rather than differences.  Together, as a group of educators we sang, laughed and celebrated the power that comes from working together.
  • Miranda meets Robin.  Miranda is a grade 11 student at Thomas Haney.  She has already completed two Me to We Trips (to Ghana and Kenya) so I thought I would ask her some questions before visiting the ladies from Kenya.  I mentioned that some lady named Robin would be there.  Miranda’s face lit up as she asked if I meant Robin Wiszowaty, author or My Maasai Life.  I said yes.  It turns out Robin had played a key role in Miranda’s life.  Miranda experienced many health issues as a child and had to undergo numerous surgeries.  In an effort to mentally escape from the hospital, Miranda read Robin’s book.  Miranda credits this book as her escape from reality, as she was able to experience Robin’s journey through Kenya and imagine herself there.  Knowing Robin was going to to be at Me to We night, I made a few phone calls and we were able to invite Miranda to join us for the evening.  She was able to spend time with Robin, bonding over their experiences.  After the evening ended, Miranda tagged a photo of the event on Facebook, labelling it ‘one of the best nights of my life’.
  • Heart Mind Conference.  Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend an amazing conference at UBC focussed on mindfulness, the science behind happiness, and understanding how children thrive.  Some of my favour presenters included Goldie Hawn, Paul Tough and Shawn Achor.  I encourage Twitter users to happiness-slidesearch the hashtag #heartmind2013 to gain a glimpse into the conference take-aways on social-emotional learning.  Personally, I love the science behind happiness and the discovery that only 10% of our happiness is impacted by external factors beyond our control.  When we help students train their minds to experience happiness, we help them excel in school and life.  One of my favourite take away suggestions was Shawn Achor’s telephone etiquette tip….. When you are on the phone and someone asks how you are doing, make sure the first three things you say are positive.  Rather than whining about busy lifestyles, stress or negative moments, we can reshape our conversations and our own happiness if we focus on the positives.  Happiness has a ripple effect…. Wouldn’t you look forward to phone calls if everyone you called shared their happiness before their concerns?
  • Project HELLO – I am so grateful that the students and staff at Thomas Haney have allowed me the opportunity to bring Project HELLO with me to Maple Ridge.  I am also grateful that the staff and students in Coquitlam have shown an interest to continue the project.  Now we have two district working together where elementary students make Christmas and Mothers’ Day cards and high school students invite the homeless to send cards reconnecting with family.  This Mothers’ Day students and staff from Charles Best and Thomas Haney spent the day together on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver helping 42 people send cards to their moms.  The students then made calls to search the country for mailing addresses, and IMG_0419successfully connected many families including a lady who had not heard from her sister in over twelve years.   This year we spent part of the day with Save on Meats and Linwood House, learning how these wonderful organizations provide hope to people in this impoverished community.   As an administrator, I love finding time to work with students on projects, committees and events.  Sometimes our days get busy, but making time for these meaningful connections bring so much joy to the work we do.
  • Professional learning community.  As an administrator I am so grateful for the professional learning community that I am part of.  Last Friday we hosted a team of student teachers just finishing their practicums.   On  Tuesday I spent the lunch hour with teachers sharing technology tips with one another.  Over the past few weeks, we have welcomed educators to Thomas Haney from BC, the Yukon, and New Zealand.  Next week we will welcome guests from Iceland.  While these teams have travelled to Thomas Haney to learn about our self directed model, I find we gain just as much as we learn about education around the world.  Who knew that Yukon follows the BC curriculum while also implementing a grade seven buffalo hunt?  They described the challenges as grade sevens each have their own knives in the school gym for the buffalo skinning.  Now that’s classroom management!
  • IHIT Team –  OK – perhaps what I love best about administration is the unpredictable nature of our jobs.  It is a mix of social work, counselling, management, leadership, event planning, and police work all rolled into one.  So – last week when two gentlemen appeared in my office dressed in business suits and identified themselves as members of the IHIT team, I have to admit I was intrigued.   They wanted our help in their attempt to notify next of kin of a homicide victim. Luckily the tragedy didn’t impact our school community but temporarily helping the IHIT team search for a family was pretty exciting  (ok – maybe it’s a bit morbid… maybe I should have been a cop :))
  • Property Brothers – photoForming positive relationships with school alumni always builds culture, but when Drew and Jonathan Scott from the Property Brothers (alumni from Thomas Haney) happened to swing by for a visit it was pretty exciting.  Especially when they mentioned they want to find ways to give back and connect with the school community inspiring others to follow their dreams.
  • Yoga – With encouragement from some of our students, I decided to try one of our school’s yoga classes.  Taught by Michelle Szakos, the class was challenging yet relaxing.  What I loved best was the role the students played learning to teach yoga.  Ms. Szakos combined her skills as an English teacher and yoga instructor to guide students through a rejuvenating visualization exercise.  What a great way to start a day!  I love that our kids have so many unique course offerings!
  • Selin Jessa – Selin Jessa is a grade 12 student at Charles Best who has recently won close to $300 000 in scholarship offers for her fantastic work in the sciences and leadership.  She visited Thomas Haney to share her passion with science students, inspiring others with stories of her trip to Antartica, and her work with graduate students on HIV.  What I loved best was the way she ended her presentation.  She compared science to politics and coined science as one of the few peaceful global projects where countries share and work together for positive change. Her message applied to all disciplines encouraging others to work together with peaceful intentions.
  • Staplefest – You may wonder what this is…. Really, it’s one of those ‘seeing is believing’ type of things….   It took place in Maple Ridge on Friday where students from multiple schools join together to celebrate the stapler.  From staple relays, choreographed stapler dances and stapler inspired music, students celebrate together finding the ‘significance in insignificant things’.    I will never look at a stapler the same way.
Sometimes I feel that I am drawn away from the daily routine to attend to moments such as these, yet I am beginning to recognize that these experiences are not distractions but rather education itself.   Despite the variety in these experiences, they have a common theme.  They recognize the potential we have when we connect and work together.  They demonstrate how rich learning can be when we extend beyond our classroom walls. They recognize that the well being of our students should always be our priority, as education is so much more than curriculum.     Tom Huffman defines education as every activity that broadens and enhances life.  As a vice principal, I am loving my education.  (And yes Jen, .. you should apply!)

Waves of Emotion: Helping Children Recognize the Power of Silence

“Peace: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.  It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”

Author unknown

I am not a quiet person.  I like to talk.  I like to laugh.  Those who know me well describe me as an extrovert.  And yet, the older I get, I wonder if that’s really true.  I find that as I get older, the more I rely on my inner voice and the more I learn to appreciate silence.  When I need to make a big decision I certainly like to talk to others, but ultimately I find I am able to find answers when I am quiet. When I take time to consciously stop and reflect, things become clear. Times like spring break, Christmas break and summer provide natural opportunities to read, reflect, and think.  I appreciate these quiet moments and recognize I need to schedule them into my day when life is operating at the regular pace.

imageThis spring break, I am on vacation with my family in San Jose del Cabo.  As I write this blog, I can hear the waves from the Sea of Cortez crashing against the shore.  They sound like thunder yet soothe the soul and remind me of the power of the universe. At the shore, the waves are giant as they crash against the sand, yet further out in the distance, the sea appears calm.  At the surface, the water churns with emotion, and yet, deep within, a place of calm exists.   Listening to the waves, I can’t help but recognize a parallelism that exists between the sea and children. Like the sea, children are full of emotion.  The emotions of children are often unpredictable, can change in a moment, and can range from pure jubilation to stormy seas in a matter of moments.  Authentic emotions roll freely from children, as they have not yet learned to hide emotion.  As parents and educators, we face the challenge of helping children return to a calm place while managing our own emotions at the same time.

When I think about the teens I have worked with as an educator, I recognize that so many of them are also like the crashing waves.  They have highs, lows, and a range of emotions that surface from positive and negative stressors.  It seems more and more common to work with children who struggle with depression, anxiety, or difficulty managing the stress in their lives.  As I start to recognize the power of silence, I wonder if we are allowing our children to grow up with enough down time built into their days.  Do we help kids find the calm that exists within them?  As parents I wonder if we are teaching our kids to appreciate silence or have we created negative associations with quiet time by using strategies such as ‘time out’?

As a parent, there is nothing I want more than my children to grow up ‘happy’.  When I say I want my children to be happy, that does not mean that I want to give in to their every wish and surround them with material items.  Instead, I want to help them grow up with the habits that truly create happiness.  The science of happiness studies the habits of truly happy people.  These habits include positive thinking, altruism, exercise, gratitude, connection to others, relaxation, reflection and stress management.  So I stop and ask… how many of these habits do we teach to our children?  As a parent, I can think of ways I teach my children to think positively, give to others, exercise, connect and show appreciation; but I’m not sure I have put as much effort into teaching my boys how to relax, reflect and manage stress.  When I think of our schools, I see the same pattern.  Schools today seem busier than when we were kids.  Emphasis on cooperative learning and the integration of technology has a positive impact but also adds a new level of connection.  This is an exciting time, and learning today is an incredibly rich process.  As classrooms become more dynamic, do we need to be consciously aware of the quiet time we schedule into the day? Should we ask ourselves how we are teaching our students to relax, reflect and manage their stress? Kids today grow up with high tech toys, the internet at their fingertips and activity filled schedules.  Do we allow for introverted children to shine? Do we teach extroverts the power of silence? Many schools have implemented MindUP training to help children develop mindfulness but unfortunately it seems to be a program of choice based on the teacher rather than a competency that children of all ages are working towards.

imageDuring spring break I am able to spend fun filled days with my kids from morning until evening. Our days are full of swimming, beach walks, activities, games, time with friends, and constant conversation. Our kids have a rich and wonderful life. However, we don’t seem to have much down time built into the day.  Even ‘down time’ often involves the TV or a high tech toy.

The more I read about wellness and happiness, the more I recognize the importance of silence in our daily routines. Silence can take many forms (meditation, mindfulness, yoga, reflection, journaling, etc).  Just last night I watched a video clip where Marci Shimoff speaks about happiness and how it was managed in indigenous cultures.  When someone was feeling depressed, they would visit the Medicine Man or Shaman.  He would ask four questions:

When did you stop moving?

When did you stop singing?

When did you stop telling others your story?

When did you stop having time for silence everyday?

Just last week, my two boys had an argument. As I was getting ready for school my youngest son, age 5, was at my leg crying.  He had been first to the remote control yet his brother, age 8, came along and took the remote to turn the TV to his chosen show. Through tears, Cole said “I was watching the Black Show and Jaden changed the channel and the Black Show is my favourite!”  I asked Jaden why he had changed the channel, only to discover that Jaden had taken the remote because Cole had not turned the TV on. His favourite show, The Black Show, meant he was holding the remote and staring at the black screen.  In the moment this seemed cute and funny.  Today, reflecting on life at a busy pace I wonder if I missed a moment for Cole to enjoy the silence.

Like the crashing waves, we have emotion that rolls from us throughout the day, yet like the sea, a place exists within us where we are calm.  How can we teach our children to find the calm beneath the waves? When spring break concludes and we return to the hectic pace of regular life, I hope to make moments of silence a routine for my children and I.  And next time my five year old grips the remote and asks if he can watch the Black Show, the answer will be a definite yes.

Happy Spring Break!

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.

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!

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.