Friday, 24 February 2012

Fun and Fitness: It's Childsplay

Over the last while I've had chances to do supervision at several schools. Something I soon noticed was how much fun younger students have playing, and how the rate of play drops off as the students get older. Kindergarten and primary students love their breaks. They are little bundles of energy buzzing about playing tag, sliding on the bunny hills or hanging all over the climbing frames. Intermediate students are more reserved, tending to hang around in small groups. Tag and some games are still in evidence, but the pace slows. Go to a middle or secondary school and the pace drops to a snailspace. Students are indoors, plugged into cell phones or ipods and cell phones and, at best, are walking around the campus at a leisurely pace.

So where does the fun and energy go? Partly its the way schools are structured. Middle and secondary schools are designed to maximize classroom instruction time. Breaks are short and are used for transitions between classes rather than for real energy release. Students are encouraged to "grow up", "act their age" and govern themselves in a controlled manner. Too cool for school, older students are conditioned to be increasingly sedentary - just like adults.

Maybe we've got it all wrong! Rather than working to calm students down and take the play out of breaks, we should be finding ways to keep students moving and involved in unstructured play longer. The benefits of active play are certainly recognized and promoted in preschool and primary children. In Australia government actively promotes the benefits of active play citing  improved communication and social skills, better understanding of social rules, friendships, a sense of 'give and take', increased patience and perseverance and understanding of others and better teamwork and a sense of belonging. If these skills are worth developing in our youngest students, surely we should be promoting them with older students too?

Kidshealth.org describes both the benefits of keeping all students active and suggests some reasons why older students stop being active. Increased self awareness, feelings of self doubt and a lack of adult role models are all cited as obstacles to older students staying active. What can be done? The role model piece should be a no brainer. Educators and parents can provide positive role models, staying active themselves and putting some fun and a sense of play back into daily interactions. 

Some principals are masters. Roaming their playgrounds they brim with energy. Cracking a joke here, passing out a friendly greeting or words of encouragement there, they actively engage students. They keep a sense of order for sure, but also nurture a positive sense of reinforcement and approval for active play. Such principals are active themselves as coaches for teams or participants in lifelong individual activities like badminton or long distance running. By getting out themselves they show all students that its ok to be active and involved. Not only that, they are reaping the benefits of being active themselves. More than one has told me that getting out with the students helps keep them feeling younger themselves! So when it comes to fun and fitness let's take our cues from our youngest students and get out there and get active!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Active Body for An Active Mind

My home community has started a 12 Weeks to Wellness fitness challenge. A local radio station has partnered with the city to get folks moving. The goal is to have people sign up in teams and then have those teams post their activities and steps to an interactive website. Each team member has a target of at least 60,000 steps a week.  There are prizes up for grabs, but the real prize will be improved levels of fitness for everyone involved.

I've entered a team. Myself and two other administrators have signed on to form Team Waddler. Our team emblem is a chubby penguin. Those who know me, know the significance of the penguin avatar, but it also has to do with nicknames acquired by administrators who have run with me over the years. We've taken on a wildlife motif. I am the Waddler. My team mates are the Puffin and the Bear. Together we are a thundering herd.

There are many benefits to being active. There's the obvious ones related to physical size and appearance. Exercise is a good way to control weight, build strength and feel better. There are also intellectual benefits. Commitment to a consistent fitness regime has been shown to lessen anxiety and lift depression. It can set a positive mood to each day, raise self esteem and improve one's chances of getting a restful sleep. Happier, healthier, smarter people through exercise! Who'd have thunk it!

There will always be lots of reasons to put off exercising. The world is a busy place, and face it, we all have things that need to be done each day and can lay claim to our time. But if exercise can make us all more fit, smarter an more pleasant to be around - it has to be worth the effort.

So take up the challenge! I guarantee time spent on fitness is never wasted. Even if you don't have a local fitness challenge to join, I encourage you to get out and get active. It might be hard work at first but if you stick to it, you WILL feel better for the effort. Who knows it might even make you smarter!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dealing With Disappointment

How do your students deal with disappointment or failure? Hopefully better than some sports fans. Sunday I watched the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in the Superbowl. Not really a fan of either team, I enjoyed the game as a close hard fought contest, watching two teams duel it out down to the final play. Perhaps even more interesting  however, has been the response of some Patriots fans to the defeat. As reported by ESPN their disappointment has reached ridiculous levels. Some have turned on their team, condemning their coach, their quarterback and several of their star players as losers and choke artists; this despite the fact that the team had enjoyed a superb 13 - 3 record and provided its fans with hundreds of thrilling hilites over the course of the season.

Vancouver Canuck fans underwent a similar wave of emotion last spring when their team narrowly missed winning the Stanley Cup. Forgetting all accomplishments of the previous eight months, fans spewed forth venom blaming the team's stars and coaching staff for choking when they felt it mattered most.  It wasn't good enough to have posted outstanding results over a long period of time. When it came to the crunch, winning that last game was all that truly mattered.


We often see sports as a metaphor for life. If this is true, what do such reactions say about the way children are prepared to deal with disappointments or their own failures? One British school is attempting to teach students to deal with adversity by offering a week long workshop in failure. Failure Week at Top Girls School To Build Resilience describes a program that has students explore their feelings and fears around failure in a way that allows them to cope with and learn from personal set backs.


When education systems over emphasize the need for high grades and top test results, they may generate students ill equipped to deal with tough times. Rather than learning to face their fears, or learn from their failures, students can disengage, quit, or, like disenchanted sports fans, turn on the system, blaming it for failing to deliver their hoped for level of success. Setting realistic expectations and equipping students to deal with, and learn from, disappointments should be a goal for all educators! Resilient and resourceful citizens who can deal with life's challenges make the world a better place! As for disenchanted sports fans - get over it!  It's only a game! (and there's always next year!)

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Lets Talk - Bell Acts in Support of Mental Health

February 8th marks the second annual Bell Let’s Talk Day. Recognizing that talking about mental health can help break down the stigma attached to it, the Lets Talk campaign encourages people to “start the conversation” about mental health with friends, family and co-workers. For every text message and long distance call made by Bell customers, Bell will contribute 5 cents to programs dedicated to mental health.

You might recognize Bell's Let’s Talk spokesperson, six-time Olympian Clara Hughes. Hughes brings her reputation as a successful Olympic medalist and own personal experience with depression to the effort to help grow the dialogue on mental health. Her distinctive smile and personal courage put a recognizable face on the campaign

Last year, more than 66 million texts and calls were made on Bell Let’s Talk Day resulting in $3.3 million dollars donated to mental health initiatives across the country. This generosity is a strong indication that Canadians care about mental health and want to be part of the national conversation. With everyone's help, this conversation can be taken to a whole new level. The first Let’s Talk day managed to rally more phone traffic than the 2010 Olympics moment when Sidney Crosby scored his famous game-winning goal, the previous Bell volume record. Now, in its its second year, the campaign hopes to be bigger than ever.
 
Bell's five-year initiative aims to get people across the country talking about mental health, to create awareness and raise money to fund programs. Bell is donating 5¢ to mental health for every text and long distance call made by Bell customers February 8. Not with Bell? Then hop on Twitter; every re-tweeted message about the campaign also contributes 5¢ to the cause.

Mental health issues affect us all. This year lend your support to Bell's Lets Talk About it campaign. Your support can make a huge difference. Its as easy as picking up your phone!


Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Power Of Penguins

As a district administrator, I often don't get to visit classrooms as often as I'd like. Recently, however I've been getting several requests from principals and primary teachers to come visit classrooms. The secret behind my new found popularity - penguins! For the past three years my wife and I have journeyed deep into the southern hemisphere to find penguins in their native habitat; first to the Antarctic south of Argentina then to the sub-antarctic islands of New Zealand and this year to the windswept Falkland Islands.  The eco-tourist companies running each tour made certain participants took only pictures and left very few footprints. As a result, I now have well over 2000 pictures of nine different species of penguins.

What I hadn't counted on is the popularity of penguins. The penguin unit is already a favourite with Kindergarten and primary classes. There's just something about the stubby little flightless bipedal birds that makes kids smile. Whether its their sharp black and white attire, their awkward gait on land, their apparent fearlessness and curious natures, or their fluid grace in the water, nearly everyone holds penguins in some regard. Penguin resources abound on the net. Teachers Corner and Penguin Science are just two of many amazing and rich web resources available.

Popular culture embraces penguins too. Movies like "Happy Feet", its sequel "Happy Feet 2", documentaries like "March of the Penguins" or the BBC's Lonely Planet,  are all good box office. As far back as Disney's "Mary Poppins" or as recently as the "Penguins of Madagascar" animated penguins continue to amuse. The venerable "Mr. Popper's Penguins" (now a live action motion picture), first published in 1938, is still being read by and to students.

So when teachers heard there might be a live "penguin person" in district, the requests started coming. My teaching experience is mostly in  secondary English, so facing groups of up to 40 kindergarten students was a bit unnerving. What if I bored them? What if my pictures didn't interest them? Its a bit of a risk as Assistant Superintendent if you put yourself out there and then flop! 


The good news - I think my presentations are going OK. I'm still getting requests. And the kindergarten kids are great. I've refined my lessons based on the feedback the students (and their teachers) give me. Rather than just show pictures and talk, now we learn to walk like penguins, we've made and enjoyed penguin cookies and we've explored "action research" on such probing questions as "do penguins have knees?" and "could polar bears and penguins ever meet?" Students do penguin art and consider penguin adaptations to snow ice and water. Most of all, we've had fun while learning. When I go back to schools after speaking on penguins students may not remember my name, but they do remember I'm "the penguin man" and they are excited to tell me what else they've learned. Their teachers do a great job before, and after my visit.


So I say, "more power to the penguins!". Any animal that can get me out of the office and sharing with students must have special powers. I'm already looking forward to going south again so I'll have new information to share in the future. Normally, I used to find business attire a bit restrictive but now, I look forward donning my black and white "penguin suit". (I just wish I wasn't quite so well shaped to play the part!).

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Groundhog Day - Insanity, Change and Education!

February 2nd is Groundhog Day. Tradition suggests on this day groundhogs emerge from their dens and, if they see their shadows, they are frightened back into hibernation and there will be six more weeks of winter. Canada's most famous groundhog is Wiarton Willie of Ontario. Turns out the original Willie died in his sleep during the winter of 89 (bet that made for a long winter!) and his replacement Wee Willie, passed away in the 90's. Canada now relies on Willie III for his prognosticating prowess. Its all just fantasy however. Groundhogs don't really care much for their shadows. Their emergence in February has far more to do with being hungry than with any desire to predict the weather.

Groundhog Day is also a 1993 movie starring Bill Murray. Murray plays a cynical weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog Day story. By fantastic circumstance he ends up doomed to relive the day over and over again, until he accepts his fate and truly changes into a better man. Murray is also linked to a ground dwelling rodent in the film "Caddyshack". He plays a crazed greens keeper who repeatedly tries to rid his golf course of a pesky gopher. In both films, the Murray character experiences the futility of trying to achieve different results with essentially the same approach over and over again.

It was Albert Einstein who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” He also said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  His comments, made over half a century ago, resonate for education today. The world is changing and education systems are changing too. BC recently released its new Plan for Education. Honoring past accomplishments and citing the relative strength of BC's public school system, the plan points out that to stay strong education needs to adapt and explore new ways of preparing students for a future that is increasingly hard to  predict. The plan seeks public input and illustrates instances where innovative thinking is already being used. 

The plan has its critics. Change is scary, and it comes hard when people are not convinced that the methods of the past shouldn't just be maintained into the future. There is a reluctance from some to accept that the students of today are not just as well served by time tested methods of the past. The problem lies in the fact that today's learners are different. Armed with technology like ipads, cell phones and easy internet access, students are increasingly able to tune out and follow their own interests if school fails to engage them. The challenge is how to combine the strengths of the past with the opportunities and challenges of the future, and keep public education vital to everyone. 

Education cannot stay trapped in a Groundhog day loop with every year rolling out like the one before. Nor can it subscribe to the insanity of always doing things the same but expecting different results. Instead, it needs to innovate and reinvent itself, to find ways to change that honor and preserve the best of what has always worked well, but also engage students of the present and future. Responding to BC's Plan for Education is a good start in that direction.