Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Resolving Towards A Happier New Year

Another New Year is upon us. Traditionally New Year's is a time for making resolutions and setting goals for change or personal improvement. Effective resolutions need to be more than just an intention or promise to do something. To achieve success a resolution needs to be approached with tenacity and purpose, and seen through to a satisfactory end.  For most of us, resolutions are formed and backed with the best of intentions.  They begin with at least some level of effort and determination, and are designed to resolve some sort of challenge.

Albrecht Powell offers a pretty common list in his take on the Top 10 New Years Resolutions. His list includes things like spending more time with family, losing weight, getting more fit or healthier and helping others - all fairly positive and noble goals, but all easily made, and sadly, just as easy to abandon.

Its fine to make broad based resolutions for the coming year, but if real progress is to be made, success or failure will stem from the attention to the details! Education is like this too - often so full of good intentions. Both learners and educators want to do the best they can, but just wishing for improvements won't make it so. The proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, will be in the eating!  Raw willpower, while necessary to get started, is often insufficient to see things through to a full measure of success.

Psychologist Jennifer Harstein offers some ways to put more resolve into resolutions. Her advice includes setting realistic goals, planning ahead, having fall back plan B's, and, most importantly, celebrating incremental successes along the way of achieving the greater goal. Forbes Magazine offers similar advice, though contributor Nancy Anderson adds such tips as limiting oneself to a single goal, ensuring that one writes it down, tells others about it and records progress or setbacks in writing regularly. Accountability, commitment, measurement and rewards or regrouping offer a greater chance that one's resolve won't falter.

 Careful planning and consistent effort combined with regular accountability checks will achieve better results than mere good intentions.  Whatever your New Year's resolutions may be, I hope you muster the resolve and resources to see them through. By doing so we'll all be taking positive steps towards making 2014 a truly Happy New Year!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas Presence

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
                      from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" 

With the holiday break nearly upon us, the anticipation of present Christmas morning is building. Or perhaps, with work commitments complete, there's still some last minute shopping to be completed in search of that perfect present for someone else.  Regardless of whether its figuring out what's in some enticing package under the tree, or just more musing about what to get someone else, I sure we'd all love to find the best present ever.

One way to go is to simply present a better outlook to the world. Dr. Leslie Becker- Phelps of Psychology Today summarizes this approach nicely. Concentrating on the four domains of better organizing personal and professional commitments, taking care of one's health, accepting present personal limitations and setting realistic goals for the future can help make a person more present-able, and subsequently more of a gift to be around.

Another option is to choose experiences over things. Psychological studies prove that experiences give people greater and more lasting happiness than possessions. A recent CNN report demonstrated that experiences create a greater sense of connectedness with others, while the impact of things, though initially well received, diminished over time. Like a fine wine, the memory of doing something improved with the passing of time, whereas material goods could be compared to other things and began to loose their luster.

There is also the idea that time is the greatest gift people can give or receive, and using it wisely is the best way to reward ourselves.  Free lance writer Mari Hernandez-Tuten in a recent blog post indicates that spending time with others, especially children, makes your presence the presents. Just paying attention can create a connection that can have a lasting impact.

During the holiday break, with time away from work, everyone should make a point to give themselves some time to connect with others, and to reflect on how they might improve things for themselves and others. I know I'll be taking a break from Education Matters. The next post here won't be until just before New Year's.  May this holiday season bring you all you hope for and the New Year bring you much joy and laughter!  

"Welcome Christmas. Bring your cheer,
Cheer to all, both far and near."

   Dr. Suess

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Drama Education - Acting in Students Best Interests -

Its been a dramatic week. A statement can sometimes send shivers down a superintendent's spine. As a former English/Drama teacher I'm saddened by how the term "drama" has been co-opted as a euphemism for undesirable activity. In reality, drama is an exciting curricular area designed to give students opportunities to build confidence, expand their creativity and learn how to respect and support the work of themselves and others. This week in our district our secondary school mounts its production of "The Wizard of Oz" and Duncan Cran Elementary concluded a week long artist residency  introducing their students to drama and performance arts.

Our district has a long tradition in musical theatre. North Peace Secondary and Dr Kearney Middle school have been putting on productions for nearly 20 years. The programs are vibrant, energetic and popular.  Originating in the inspiration of two special educators, these programs have carried on through multiple generations of staff and students because they resonate with students and their need for creative expression. At the younger grades, elementary schools regularly bring in Artists in the classroom through Art Starts BC. ArtStarts' Artists in the Classroom program brings schools across BC together with professional artists for artist residencies. Whether its an educator looking to enhance student education by bringing an artist into their classroom, or a visual, media, literary or performing artist  interested in working with students on a hands-on arts activity or artist residency, ArtStarts helps bring projects to life.

Duncan Cran Elementary recently hosted such a residency, bringing in a professional actor who spent seven  days workshopping with every class from k through 6, ensuring that every student had opportunities to find their inner actor, and perform in a safe environment. The week culminated in an evening showcase where every student got to perform on stage. While not actually a polished play, the performance allowed students to display their acquired knowledge and play on stage.

The benefits of drama education are tremendous, if not always obvious.  The Drama Education Network lists more than a dozen reasons to promote drama is school. Self confidence, empathy, imagination, cooperation, collaboration are all near the top of the list. Drama is all about respect for self and others.  Its interesting to note that the one thing most people fear the most is public speaking. (One recent survey listed it higher than dying!)  Drama is all about how to present oneself, or one's character, to others with courage and confidence. Watching our district youth perform this week, its easy to see that in being prepared to "break a leg", they are already well on their way to a more confident future.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Voice and Choice: Encouraging Student Engagement

When students are truly invested and engaged with their work they can produce some amazing and creative results. As superintendent, I do not get to work with students as much as I would like. As a former English teacher, I've remained connected with front line teachers in both our local secondary school and the district's gifted program, and frequently I get invited in as a guest instructor. The changes I've seen in English instruction are exciting! Increasingly students are being granted opportunities to engage with the curriculum in ways that allow them to express their own voice and choices, and that bring new creativity and life to long established curriculum.

Recently, I was invited to a Lit 12 class studying "Paradise Lost".  Teaching Milton's sweeping 50,000 word epic poem can be a daunting challenge. Engaging with it from a teen aged perspective can be even more so. However, through the use of choice and voice project suggestions, members of the class were able to demonstrate their understanding and appreciation of the work's form and content through such diverse means as graphically illustrating the cohorts of angels, producing a "Paradise Twittered" feed, a Youtubed video claymation version or creating travel brochures for the poems key settings. The projects maintained high degrees of academic rigor but also allowed the students to display their strengths, use multiple intelligences and simply have a little fun while delving deeply into a prescribed work.

Offering voice and choice turns students in "expert learners". At their website personalizelearning.com UDL expert Kathleen McClaskey and creative learning strategist Barbara Bray offer an excellent overview of the who is an expert learner and suggest that "the more educators give students choice, control and collaborative opportunities, the more motivation and engagement are likely to rise."  The expert learner becomes someone who sees education as something they do for themselves rather than something that is done for or to them.  The Universal Design for Learning or UDL perspective for expert learners is for them to be: "resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal oriented, and purposeful and motivated" (For more on UDL see CAST's website at cast.org/udl/)

Referenced in the BC Edplan, UDL is gaining increasing exposure and support within our district. Promoted, modelled and supported by our District Learning Services team, UDL works for all grade levels. Giving greater voice and choice and be particularly valuable for senior grades where student motivation to develop interests in complex curriculum may have begun to fade. Getting students to engage and have fun with their learning just makes sense. Giving students greater voice and choice in their learning can only enhance efforts to ensure that they all become expert learners.
"The more educators give students choice, control, challenge, and collaborative opportunities, the more motivation and engagement are likely to rise. - See more at: http://www.personalizelearning.com/2012/10/the-expert-learner-with-voice-and-choice.html#sthash.tSCjavj6.dpuf
"The more educators give students choice, control, challenge, and collaborative opportunities, the more motivation and engagement are likely to rise. - See more at: http://www.personalizelearning.com/2012/10/the-expert-learner-with-voice-and-choice.html#sthash.tSCjavj6.dpuf
"The more educators give students choice, control, challenge, and collaborative opportunities, the more motivation and engagement are likely to rise. - See more at: http://www.personalizelearning.com/2012/10/the-expert-learner-with-voice-and-choice.html#sthash.tSCjavj6.dpuf

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Communicating Clearly

Most folks will agree that good communication is critical to the success of any collaborative effort. It should be no surprise that improved communication between home and school is a top priority for the ministry of education, schools and parents. With everyone in support of the idea, one would think it would be easy to achieve. However, while everyone can agree that improving home school communication is important, actually doing it continues to be a challenge.

Towards Better Communications is a report by MLA Jane Thornthwaite, attached to the BC Ed plan. The 18 page report identifies culture and practice as the two key areas critical to enhancing communication between home and school. It suggests that parents want to be more directly involved in decisions around their child's education but often just don't know how best go about establishing an effective working relationship. The challenge can be even greater for immigrant families. Cultural issues can also refer to how open and receptive a school is to parental involvement. Practice issues deal more with what and how a school school communicates with its parent community.

The website Edutopia recently also ran a blog about What Parents Want In School Communication. After polling over 40,000 parents Edutopia identified topics that parents most want to know about from schools as:
  • Updates on their child's progress or insight on how they improve
  • Timely notice when performance is slipping
  • Information on what their child is expected to learn during this year
  • Homework and grading policies
  • Curriculum descriptions and information on instructional programs
  • A calendar of events and meetings
  • Information on student safety (and quality of teaching, at the elementary level) and
  • Educational program changes and updates (elementary level)/curriculum updates and changes in instructional programs (secondary level).
The means by which parents prefer to communicate with schools are listed as:
  • E-mail from the district/school
  • Online parent portal
  • District/school e-newsletters
  • District/school website
  • Telephone/voice messaging system
At our monthly SUP-PAC meeting I shared some of this information with local PAC presidents. While they agreed with many of these ideas, they also added the quality of consistency to the list. PAC reps were able to point to many excellent practices conducted by individual teachers and schools but lamented the lack of consistent and persistent practice across the entire system, instead categorizing our district communications as hit and miss; excellent at times and non existent at others.

Improving communication is almost always cited as an organizational goal. Where it comes to communications between home and school enhanced communication almost always equates to improved performance, greater engagement and feelings of mutual understanding. While it seems we all eagerly want for such communication to occur, it remains an ongoing challenge to ensure that it does. Awareness of the issue is a start, but successful and consistent follow through will be the real achievement as we work to ensure that what really matters is clear and supported by all.