Calm, Alert and Ready for a New Year

Calm, Alert and Ready for a New Year

The first day for students is still one week away, but excitement is building at Harry Hooge Elementary in Maple Ridge, BC as our teachers prepare for a new year.  As a principal, I am so excited to see the changes our teachers are making as we continue working towards our two school goals: one focussed on inquiry and the other on self regulation.  These two topics blend seamlessly, as we are working to create learning centred spaces where students have all the tools they need to engage in meaningful exploration. As we teach students how to respond to stress, we help them understand their own emotions and Continue reading

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Beginning our Journey: Self Regulation at School

Beginning our Journey: Self Regulation at School

I’m a big believer that kids come to school prepared to do the best they can.  I don’t think anyone wakes up with the intention of having a really bad day.  And yet, school days are not always seamless.  As an elementary principal I often have the opportunity to meet with students in those moments right after their day has taken a turn for the worse.  Perhaps they are not willing to work in class, perhaps Continue reading

Embrace the Zig Zag of Life

Embrace the Zig Zag of Life

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I know I’m a bit early to be looking back on a year, but it is December, and I think it’s important to look backwards before we figure out where we are headed.  January is often about resolutions and goals, and not as much about reflection on what has or has not happened.

The funny thing is, I remember roughly a year ago, taking time to look back at 2013.  in our family, 2013 was a busy time.  We moved houses.  I started working in a new school district.  My husband Shawn started a new coaching job. I remember taking time to pause last year in December, wondering what 2014 would bring.  One thing we knew for sure was that it would not bring about as much change…. or so we thought.

In January of 2014, I asked my husband an honest question.  I asked him if he liked our new house and new neighbourhood as much has we had expected.  With a sense of relief, he confided that he did not.  The house was smaller than we were used to and our boys had turned our master bedroom into a dodgeball court so the kitchen lights would swing from the vibration when we tried to have evening conversations. The road was busier than our previous street and the boys did not play outside as much. There did not seem to be any kids their age nearby. Local grocery store parking lots were overcrowded and hectic and our commutes were longer.  At the time of our discussion, we had yet to move our kids from their original school as we were waiting for the natural break in the school year to transition them. My husband asked if I thought we had made the right decision.  I said no.  Yet reality set in – we had spent a lot of money moving, paid realtor fees, property transfer tax, etc….  We ended the conversation thinking that perhaps in a couple years we would revisit it and move back to our old community.

And then a funny thing happened…. early in February I stumbled across a Facebook post from a friend of mine, Dan Pontefract.  I admire Dan and his wife Denise as they have modelled what it means to be authentic.  They work hard and play hard and support one another in their dreams.  When I stumbled upon Dan’s blog post, it described their decision to move their family from Victoria back to Vancouver so he could be closer to work and take on some new challenges.  Denise quit her job.  They listed their house for sale.  They withdrew their kids from private school.  And yet a funny thing happened… as Denise searched for a new job that she would love just as much as her current one – Dan stumbled upon a job posting that seemed perfect.  It sounded just like her.   He realized he was reading the ad for someone to replace her.  In a moment of clarity, he realized that his family of 5 was relocating to support the dream of 1.  The dream of 4 was to stay in Victoria.  A couple of phone calls later they were able to rip the for sale sign down, Denise was able to get her job back, and the kids were re-enrolled at their school.

I read the post with admiration.  How amazing to follow your heart, recognize when you are on the wrong path, and have the courage to say you made a mistake.  It was what I needed to see at that moment.  It had taken us years of practical conversations and pro / con lists to decide to move.  It took us two minutes to decide to move back.

And so, 2014 began, much different than we expected.  Six months to the day from when we had moved in, we moved out, and moved to a new home in our original community.  Our realtor packed her bags and went on a vacation… a couple of times.

While many people around us thought we were rather crazy, we knew it was right.  The day we moved in our new house, we knew we were home.  And you know what I love just as much as finding the right home for our family?  The feeling I have knowing we were not afraid to follow our hearts and do what felt right.  We embraced change and followed the zig zag of life rather than wrestling with the straight line that didn’t fit.

We settled in, knowing that changes were over for a while…. that is until July 2014 when the phone rang offering me my first principalship at a new school…. or September 2014 when the phone rang again offering Shawn the opportunity to move to Saskatchewan for six months to train for the  RCMP.  But this time, we didn’t need to write the pro / con lists.  We jumped in, followed our hearts, and embraced the zig zag of life.

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Feeling Stressed? Me Too!

Feeling Stressed? Me Too!

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There’s something about this time of year that makes life a little more stressful in high schools. Maybe it’s the end of the year approaching and the rush to have students meet deadlines and demonstrate learning. Maybe it’s the growing pile of marking, the approaching provincial exams and the extra support needed to help struggling learners achieve. Maybe it’s the positive stress that comes with a busy schedule of milestone events: school leaving ceremonies, awards nights, graduation dinners, after grad parties, scholarship offers and college / university acceptance letters. Maybe it’s the change that comes each spring with layoffs, retirements, budget cuts, re-deployments and opportunities to post on new jobs. Maybe it’s the rising temperature, lack of air conditioning or the increasing desire to be outside rather than in a classroom. Maybe it’s the current job action and stress placed upon teachers, support workers, administrators and trustees. Regardless of the cause, May is definitely the time of year when stress levels seem to rise in schools.
As a counsellor and administrator, it’s easy to be a ‘solution person’, trying to find ways to help others endure. What’s not so easy is to take time to manage our own stress levels. It’s easy to see that “everyone else is stressed” but harder to stop and think – “hmmm… I’m a little bit stressed and need to take care of that first.”

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Last fall I offered a workshop to Education Assistants on Happiness at Work, teaching strategies from the science of happiness. I went through the latest research findings and led the participants through activities that improve happiness levels: healthy living, exercise, reflection, setting goals, finding gratitude, solitude or meditation, random acts of kindness and focusing on strengths rather than problems. The workshop was well received, and I believe we all had a good time practicing habits of happiness. However, one of the questions from the audience stuck with me. One lady raised her hand and asked, “You seem quite happy – do you actually use these strategies?”. Almost a year later, this question sticks with me. I recognize that I am much better at practicing the habits of happiness when I am less stressed. For example, during spring break, it was easy to reflect and blog, to exercise, sleep well, show gratitude, take time for myself, etc.

Driving home today, I realized that the more stress I feel, the more necessary these strategies are. On days like to day, or perhaps in May, when it feels like there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done,  my natural tendency is to work longer, bring more work home, sleep less, wish I had more time, wake up and repeat the process. As I drove home I thought about how stressed out other people seem. Apparently it was an ‘everyone else’ problem. It was after I fed my kids McDonalds and stole half their fries that I realized it might – just maybe – be me that is a bit more stressed than usual.   If I am not managing my own stress in a healthy way, why would I expect others to do so?

So – tonight – next year’s timetable and the unanswered emails can wait. The extra Starbucks I crave is replaced with a glass of water. I’m taking time to blog (which always helps clear my head), and I just got back from a quick run with my 9 year old and our 100 pound goofy dog. As I fall asleep, I will intentionally take note of what was great about today.

To all my colleagues in education, may we find ways to celebrate the positives that exist despite rising stresses in education. Remember to take care of yourself first, so that we can take care of others.


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How You Can Help The Homeless: 7 Holiday Tips

In keeping with Christmas tradition, friends and I got together last weekend and headed downtown to celebrate the season.  The temperature was near freezing, so we bundled up in toques, scarves and gloves and braved the crisp air, full of anticipation for a great winter day.  As we arrived to one of my favourite spots in Vancouver, it seemed others had the same idea.  School buses and tour buses lined the streets, parking was scarce, and children hollered with joy as their parents followed with cameras flashing and video cameras rolling.  The main attractions grew such crowds that pedestrians spilled out into the streets.   But here’s the thing.  I wasn’t at a popular holiday venue.  I was standing at the corner of Main and Hastings on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

We live in a remarkable city, overflowing with caring compassionate people who want to make a difference at Christmas.  We often think of those with less than us, and on first thought, it seems like a great idea to head to Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood and offer food and clothing.  And I know from first hand conversations that the residents of this neighbourhood do appreciate items they receive.  In no way to I want to criticize the good intention of Vancouverites.  However I feel a bit compelled to offer some advice on how to help.  This Christmas marks our fifth year working in the Downtown Eastside helping the homeless send cards to family or friends they have lost touch with.  Throughout this journey, I have learned a few things about the community that I hope to share.  If you would like to help the residents of the Downtown Eastside, I applaud you.  It is a neighbourhood rich in story, hardship and heartbreak.  It is also a neighbourhood full of courage, resiliency and glimmers of hope.  If you choose to visit, with good intention, please take the following tips into consideration:

1. Give appropriate gifts using the same logic you use when you gift the ones you love.  Your mother is probably not looking for a size XL man’s jacket.  Your brother is not likely searching for a pink polk-a-dotted lady’s scarf. It is very common to collect warm clothing and distribute it on Hastings Street.  However, if the gift is not suitable, it will likely be sold.  Take the time to pull a fitting item out of the bag and make eye contact when you offer it to the person on the street.  They are much more likely to use it when it is suitable and received with love.

2. Take time.  Take the time to give items out one by one.  Last weekend I watched a group of do-gooders pull up in a bakery style truck.  Rather than displaying their items or handing them out to suitable recipients, they stood in the truck bed and threw items in the air.  As they did this, a crowd surrounded the truck.  With each toss, the homeless scrambled with their arms in the air hoping to catch the item.  It reminded me of a scene from the zoo where the trainer feeds the animals.  Unfortunately the image is burned in my brain – and the only thing that makes it worse was the large video camera filming the episode to capture the act of kindness on film.

3. Respect the neighbourhood. Remember that you are a guest in another community.  Respect the space.  Don’t overcrowd the sidewalks.  Do not take photos of anyone without first asking permission.  Be polite. Be respectful. Make eye contact and say hello.  Park on side streets rather than unloading buses on Hastings.  Walk in groups of 4-6 rather than groups of 40.   Treat the residents like you would want to be treated in your neighbourhood.

4. Use your judgement.  The Downtown Eastside is a diverse neighbourhood – and not everyone on the street is homeless.  Some are employees of the local businesses, others live in trendy lofts popping up in the area yet many are homeless or live in low income housing.  For the most part, if you take the time, you can see the difference.  Take time to see people before handing out goods.  Unfortunately there is a new disturbing trend emerging as the streets clutter with donations.  A few of the local merchants from Chinatown walk the streets with shopping buggies and gather as many items as they can to sell at their shops around the corner on Keefer Street. They will often ask for the full 12 packs of socks, or multiple quantities of what you are providing. Today, I witnessed this with my own eyes.  As I tried to drop off toiletries at the women’s centre, a group of women from Chinatown came in with bags and literally stole dozens of boxes of toothpaste and shampoo and ran. The shelter employees explained this is increasingly common.  Some run to their shops to resell the product, while others use a storage locker in the community to store their collections.  As San Francisco recently coined a similar problem – there seems to be a battle between the needy and the greedy.    If they appear well dressed, well fed, and they are looking for items to re-sell, perhaps you may want to identify someone with greater need.

5. Consider Another Time of Year.  Christmas is a wonderful time to give, and there are many ways to help in our community.  However, if you would like to help the homeless by distributing food, blankets or clothing, I would suggests you choose November, January of February instead.  It is just as cold, and the residents do not receive as much during these months.

6.Volunteer Your Time.  Many shelters or associations need volunteers to help serve meals or prepare dinners.  Contact associations directly to see how you can help.

7. Find out what people need.  Remember the last time you received a gift you would never use?  It was most likely given to you by someone with good intention.  The same thing happens on the DTES.  For example, group after group provide hot chocolate or coffee assuming people are cold and would love this.  What I often hear is that they are dehydrated and would love to have clean drinking water.  Take the time to ask people what they need but don’t usually receive.  When I have asked this question I have received the following suggestions: bananas, meat or any type of protein, water and towels.  However, many have told me that what they really crave but seldom receive is the simple art of conversation.   Engage in heartfelt dialogue.  Be sincere.  From one human to another, wish them a very Merry Christmas.

Thank you for making a difference. Happy Holidays!

It’s Time to Disrupt Education

This past week I had the pleasure of traveling with ten staff members from Thomas Haney Secondary to attend the Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning (CCSDL) Conference.

This year, the conference was held in Edmonton, Alberta and hosted by St. Joseph’s High School.   Over four hundred educators across Canada gathered together to share best practices in self-directed learning and flex schooling (Alberta).  It was one of the best education conferences I have attended as it offered a rich line up of presentations, a school tour showcasing self directed learning in action and a well thought out agenda that balanced professional development with time to socialize and network with others.  The staff at St. Joseph’s did a phenomenal job organizing a first class conference with great attention to detail.

Thomas Haney has been a part of the Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning since the coalition’s inception in 1996.  The CCSDL was built with the idea that we are stronger when we work together and share ideas.  Thomas Haney School is now in it’s 22nd year of self-directed learning.  Attending the CCSDL conference each year allows our teachers to network with like-minded educators who are continually finding progressive ways to teach in a self directed system.  This forward thinking model allows for personalization, creativity, and innovation.

The three keynote speakers left us with ideas and inspired us to ask great questions. Lee Crocket, author of the 21st Century Fluency Project, introduced his Fluency 21 Unit Planner cloud-app where educators can collaborate and share unit plans.  He spoke to the importance of a gradual responsibility shift so that graduates can finish high school well able to manage their lifelong learning.    Garfield Gini-Newman, senior Lecturer at the University of Toronto and a senior national consultant with The Critical Thinking Consortium shared ideas on how to nurture self regulated critical thinkers.  One idea that stuck for me was the notion of starting each unit with a question of inquiry instead of teaching and then asking questions.  When students begin with a sense of wonder, their learning becomes more relevant.  This helps our students develop a lifelong inquiry mindset.  He also suggested students keep a thought book where they right down their initial thoughts and change their thoughts as they learn about a topic.  This book then allows the teacher to offer ongoing feedback and to recognize the learning journey for each student.  He suggested that teachers should move away from the stand and deliver instruction model, and even move away from the ‘guide on the side’ approach.  To fully engage students, teachers should see themselves as choreographers helping all of their students in their own learning journeys.  Maureen Suhendra, from the Khan Academy, spoke to how teachers can use the Khan Academy’s free educational resources in the classroom.  The Khan Academy now offers over 4300 videos in their free online education platform.  The Khan Academy is a great example of how education is changing, and how schools will need to meet the needs of a digital generation.

While the keynotes were all wonderful, perhaps the richest experience occurred naturally over the four days as the nine teachers and two administrators from our school strengthened our connections with one another.  With 11 of us travelling together, we represented ten teaching areas within our school and had a range of experience in self directed learning – some with over 20 years at Thomas Haney and others in their first year.  A natural synergy occurred, where conversation flowed easily and we were constantly able to ask ‘what if? questions.  We left the conference energized, inspired, and proud of where we are at as a school, but even more excited about where we are headed.  With enthusiasm, we accepted the invitation to be the host school for the 2014 CCSDL Conference.

Although we are in the initial planning stages, we know that we want to build on momentum and share educational practices that are engaging, creative and powerful.  We want to hear from both students and teachers, whose names you may not know, but whose stories you will not forget.   At next year’s conference we will showcase self directed learning but we will also extend our reach beyond the CCSDL, opening the invitation to any educator who is searching for ways to rejuvenate their teaching practice.  We will showcase educators who dare to be different:  the thinkers, the creators and the innovators who find ways for students to follow their passion while engaging in relevant learning experiences.

We have decided to align the conference with the BC Provincial Pro-D Day. On October 23, 24, and 25th, 2014, we will welcome educators from across the country to come together to ask questions, and celebrate innovative practices that are re-shaping education.  We are committed to our vision of hosting an amazing conference where educators can learn and grow together to help transform our schools to meet the needs of Canadian students.

We hope to see you there! More information will follow as we unfold our plans for the Vancouver CCSDL Conference – 2014!