Love Is Louder Than Bullying: Why I Believe in Restorative Justice

Mother Teresa once said “If you hold an anti-war rally, I shall not attend.  If you hold a peace-rally invite me.”  As we approach Anti-Bullying day, I am hopeful that we will use the day to reflect and think of our own actions, and what we can do to model appropriate behavior.  I wish that we could re-frame the day with a new label, focusing on the behaviors we want to see.

As an educator I am hesitant to say I don’t like the term anti-bullying because I worry others will misunderstand my intention.  In no way do I support bullying behavior, however I am an advocate for positive approaches to behavior where the goal is to repair harm rather than assign blame.   Why?  I think Todd Whitaker answers it best in this video clip “What Great Teachers Do Differently”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXCl2fMsdTU

Put simply, hurt kids will hurt other kids.  If we focus on punishing the child, we teach shame and the chance of that student hurting others rises.  When we label students as bullies we focus our efforts on determining who is guilty and who is innocent.  This stems from our criminal justice system so it is a natural way of thinking for most of us.  However, I challenge you to ask yourself this: Do you believe our criminal justice system strengthens individuals and helps improve their skills before reintegrating them into society? I’m assuming most of you will answer no.

Last Friday I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on Restorative Justice during a professional development conference.  As a teacher, counselor, parent and administrator I am a huge supporter or restorative approaches as a method of responding to behavior.  Restorative Justice is a model based on control theory, which centers around the belief that the only person’s behavior that we can truly control is our own.

To help explain the model, I will use a real example that I helped mediate between two students (though I will change the names).

Sally came to the office to report her wallet stolen from the school change room.  She hadn’t locked up her belongings and when she returned from PE her wallet was gone and her bus pass and money were missing.  After looking at the security cameras we developed a list of students who went in and out of the change room during that period.  Through conversation with Amy, a student who should not have been in the change room that block, we were able to determine that Amy had taken the wallet.

From a punitive perspective our goal would be to determine:

-What rule has been broken (respecting others property)

-Who is guilty? (Amy)

-What the consequence should be (likely a suspension)

From a restorative perspective our goal would be to determine:

-Who has been harmed? (Sally)

-What relationships have been damaged? (Sally and Amy’s, Amy and the school as trust has been broken, etc)

-How can relationships be repaired? (Amy taking responsibility, Amy accepting a related consequence, Amy understanding the impact her actions had on Sally and the school.

-How can Amy learn from this situation and return to the group strengthened?

In this particular situation, I will never forget the impact the mediation had.  Amy agreed to return the wallet, but had already spent the money.  She was in ministry care and struggled to come up with the funds.  Rather than having her re-pay Sally, the school offered to re-pay Sally while Amy volunteered time at the school to pay back the school.  Amy also met with our liaison officer to understand the severity of shoplifting or stealing from others.  However, the most powerful moment came when I brought the two girls together.  Amy was able to apologize for her actions, but also explain why she had made such a bad decision based on her financial situation.  Sally was able to accept the apology, but also explain to Amy that her family had struggled financially throughout her childhood.  She was able to explain the choices she had made rather than stealing.  Watching the girls talk openly, they were able to understand more about one another.  Sally got her money back and Amy was able to take responsibly and return to the group strengthened.  Amy did not steal from students again the rest of her days in high school.

Tomorrow is anti-bullying day.  I challenge you to see the day in a positive light. Remember that as adults, we are all teachers.  When we see bullying, let’s focus on the teachable moment to strengthen our children rather than focusing our energy on assigning blame.  As coined by the Coquitlam School District, “Love is Louder Than Bullying”.

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!

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.” 

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.

Lessons of Hope… Project H.E.L.L.O.

If I rewind five years, I recognize that the anticipation of the Christmas season was something I marked with commercial milestones such as the arrival of Costco’s Christmas aisle or the transition from white to red cups at Starbucks.  Three years ago, in December of 2009, my students taught me the true meaning of Christmas. 

Our story began when a group of Best Buddies (our extra-curricular leadership students) asked if we could incorporate some visits to the Downtown Eastside as part of our leadership program.  Our intention was to visit Hastings Street during the winter season and hand out food and clothing.  A couple weeks before our visit I read an article in the Vancouver Province debating the merits of the social programs on the Downtown Eastside (DTES), questioning whether they helped or enabled the lifestyle.  I sat wondering what it would be like to rely on handouts and I thought about the reasons we wanted to help.  Recognizing that our students gained so much by giving, I began to question how we could give the homeless community the power to give during the Christmas season.  I met with the Best Buddies, and suggested we make some handmade Christmas cards and offer the homeless community the opportunity to send messages to friends are family.  Luckily our students embraced this idea and eagerly made our first cards.  We assumed that many people would take the cards and give them to friends living in their community.  We hoped that one person would decide to write to friends or family that they had lost touch with… but we had no idea what to expect.

During our first visit, I headed to the DTES with three students and a handful of cards.  It was late November and Christmas wasn’t really in the air, especially on Hastings Street.  Cautiously, and somewhat awkwardly we initiated our first conversation with a woman named Sandra who stood in the cold leaning against Carnegie Centre. We asked if she would like to write a Christmas card to any friends or family.  She smiled and asked if she could send two.  She had limited dexterity and asked the students to write for her. 

Sandra chose two cards.  The first one was for her daughter Samantha who she had not heard from in ten years.  Last she had heard, Samantha had two children and was living in Alberta.  She wondered if Samantha had more children now.    She also wrote a card to her mom Noelle, wishing her a Merry Christmas.  We promised Sandra we would do what we could to track down her family and mail the cards on her behalf.  That afternoon, we left the DTES full of hope, as we had met seven people who had reached out and opened their hearts sending Christmas wishes to family they had lost touch with. 

The next day, students met in my office and we started to search the internet for possible phone numbers.  The first calls we made were to Alberta, searching for Sandra’s daughter.   On the second call, a woman answered and let us know her roommate Samantha was at work.  We explained why we were calling only to learn that Samantha had assumed her mom had passed away after searching for her with no success.  Samantha reached us, ecstatic to receive the card and learn that her mom was OK.  She wanted us to let her mom know she was OK, and to let Sandra know that she had four grandchildren. She also asked us to tell Sandra that her mom Noelle had passed away six weeks before our call.  We knew we had to go back and find Sandra again…  and we knew our project had just become so much more than a one day fieldtrip.

We began to call our project ‘Project H.E.L.L.O.’ which stands for helping everyone locate loved ones. During that first season we took five trips to the Downtown Eastside.  Word of our project spread through the media, igniting a fury of activity as citizens across the province wanted to help.  Our students spoke to newspapers, radio and TV networks, sharing our story but also sharing names of people we were looking for.  All of a sudden we had people who offered to help: community centres, pharamists, small town post offices, the BC Housing Commissioner, and compassionate citizens.    From our first seven cards, we were able to find 5 of the families.  We had set out hoping to help the homeless but we quickly learned that we were the ones gaining so much.  We had never anticipated what our project would mean to the recipients of the cards, and we had not expected to hear so many personal stories about families impacted by poverty, drug use, mental illness and homelessness. We were so inspired by the lessons we were learning.

Although school let out for the Christmas break a week before Christmas, our students did not leave.  They searched the internet, used the phones, made connections and mailed cards right up until December 23rd.  On Christmas Eve we realized we all had shopping to be done, but the commercial side of Christmas just seemed so irrelevlant compared to the gift our students were giving these families.  In our first year, we were able to make 74 connections sending hand crafted cards with messages of love to the families of people on the DTES.  We searched for ways to reflect on our project and provide appropriate closure.  The message back from our students was loud and clear.  They did not want a wrap up event, instead, they felt this was just the beginning.  They asked if they could go back to the DTES and host an event sharing the stories of the connections they had made.  Our students wanted to find a way to express their gratitude to the homeless community for trusting them with their stories, and welcoming them into their lives.  The students hosted a gratitude event on Hastings Street and an evening of reflection for our school community.  They also decided to write about their experiences in a book entitled ‘Lessons of Hope: Rekindling Relationships and the Human Spirit in Vancouver’s Darkest Neighbourhood’. (This can be read online at http://www.bookemon.com/book_read_flip.php?book_id=78640&size=1.4&style=popup2)

In the spring of 2010, we received an email from Hawaii.  Word of our project had spread to their state sparking action with social services groups wanting to implement Project HELLO to help their community.  They decided to run a similar program offering Mother’s Day cards.  We loved the idea and followed suit, preparing Mother’s Day cards and returning to the DTES.  Again we were overcome with gratitude as the homeless opened their hearts and entrusted us to deliver their messages.  Many also embraced the opportunity to send updated photos home to their moms.  We returned to the internet and the phones trying to find families.  Our students received heartfelt notes from the moms, many who had not heard from their children in years.  We also received notes from mothers not impacted by homelessness who were just touched by the story and had a new appreciation for their relationships with their children.  Again the community reached out and helped us make connections.  Our students surprised Sandra and Samantha with a Mother’s Day gift they will never forget.  Our students fundraised and arranged for Samantha to fly to Vancouver for a weekend with her mom.  Together we watched them reunite at the airport, share family photos and catch up on lost time.  They re-opened the lines of communication and promised to stay connected.

 Although many of our students were nearing graduation, they made a commitment to continue with Project HELLO. Now, three years later, we are about to begin our 4th season.  Local elementary schools (Coquitlam River and Baker Drive) have joined forces and are making beautiful cards for our project. Our alumni continue to be involved, speaking to schools and community groups about our project, managing our website (www.projecthello.ca ), and mentoring younger students as they begin to volunteer with Project HELLO.  Our students have also become actively involved in volunteer work at the local homeless shelter in the Tri-Cities.  To date, I am incredibly proud to share that our students have helped make 261 connections.

Personally, the journey with our students has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  It has taught me the power of human connection, the importance of family and the positive difference our students can make when they help strengthen others and develop a strong sense of social responsibility.  I have learned that everyone has a story worth hearing, and that hope exists, even in our darkest neighbourhoods.  And so, as the leaves start to change colour, and others are thinking about Halloween, I am eagerly anticipating the Christmas Season and our fourth season of Project HELLO.  Next week our alumni will help me share our story with our new students, and we will again begin our journey of shifts at the homeless shelter and card making for our fourth season.  Together, we will continue to learn ‘Lessons of Hope’ and discover the true meaning of Christmas.

A Spontaneous Blog

I often admit that some of my best decisions in life have been rather spontaneous. My teaching career began on a whim when I quit a promising career in the business world to scoop up a last minute seat in the Faculty of Education just days before the program began.  Years later, my husband Shawn and I headed out to look at new flooring for our townhouse and somehow we took a last minute turn on the way back home and ended up spontaneously buying a new house.  These decisions were incredibly spontaneous, however they were not careless.  I believe that moments of clarity can emerge when an opportunity presents itself that aligns with our core values and goals.  These moments allow us to act spontaneously and trust that we are on the right path. 

Today was one of those days.  Our professional development team arranged for Gary Kern, Director of Instruction from the West Vancouver School District to present to our staff on ‘The Effective Use of Technology and Innovation’. This led to meaningful dialogue with colleagues and some time to reflect on my own use of technology.  When I stopped to evaluate my own practice, I made the spontaneous decision to start blogging.  I contacted our pro-d rep, Denise Nembhard, and within minutes we were creating my first blog.  And while I understand that this decision may not be as monumental as the career change or house purchase, it is a shift in practice that aligns with what I value.  I believe in reflection, find clarity through writing and I’m inspired by ideas that flourish through connection with others.  Just last month I jumped into the world of Twitter, and I have been truly amazed by the professional nature, opportunities for learning and the ability to connect and share resources with others.  Our world is changing, and the way we learn is evolving at a rapid pace.  Technology allows us to connect, learn and grow together.

And so today, I have made the spontaneous decision to create my blog, hopefullearning, with the goal of one post per week. I am full of hope as my mind is racing with ideas, topics, and possibilities. I love that feeling of excitement that comes when a new idea wakes me up and shifts my thinking.  I’m excited to take this leap with technology, knowing it will add purpose to my practice. 

Here’s to a spontaneous decision and an amazing learning journey! (Now if only I could figure out how to use the widgets…)