Friday, 23 September 2016

On the Run

A superintendent's day can get busy. It can feel like any number of issues are chasing you or trying to run you down. Today I had literally more than 250 challenges behind me and it felt pretty good. It was the inaugural run of our elementary cross country season and, as I have for the past several seasons, I got to be the rabbit leading the fields of the the three event through the course. Admittedly I have a bit of an advantage riding as I do on my mountain bike, but its still a bit intimidating hearing the starter call go and hearing the thunder of hundreds of little feet charging on to the trail behind you.

I have the privilege of ferrying the leaders through the courses but I also get to circle back and make sure everyone finishes. As a student once told me, "For the leaders you're the rabbit, but for us at the back, you're the dragon!" I was taken a little a back by this fearsome description until I realized what she was saying was that I was the person who had to "drag in" the back of the packers.

Cross country is really a great participation sport. It allows the fast runners the competition of racing against their peers and the clock, but it also allows other students to challenge themselves against a distance. I have experienced tremendous spirit and enthusiasm at both ends of a race. Each year those at the front seem to push me a little harder to stay in front, as I clear a path for them to a finish line, but its often the conversations I have with those runners at the back of the pack that provide the greatest humor and inspiration.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Project Heavy Duty

This week Project Heavy Duty celebrated another year of giving selected secondary students the opportunity to learn about, and actually operate, many kinds of heavy equipment. Under the close supervision of qualified instructors and operators, students received five days of hands-on training with such equipment as crawler/dozers, excavators, graders, rock trucks and a variety of logging equipment as they performed industry standard jobs on a real work site.

Over the years many local contractors, businesses and other agencies have been generous in supplying equipment, operators, facilities, fuel, food, first aid, security, communications equipment and the other services required for the project. Over the years project supporters have included diverse businesses including a local paper, a financial institution, several contractors, oil companies and other community partners.  The project is scheduled for a full week in late spring Students selected for the project do not attend regular classes, but report for field work during that time.

Safety is a top concern for everyone involved. Students receive training in first aid and site safety. They must also attend presentations from Worksafe BC before entering a work site. All Worksafe guidelines for standard work sites are followed on site, and students receive one on one safety instruction from qualified operators before working any piece of equipment. At all times students are overseen by qualified operators, and site supervisors are assigned to each area of the project. Absolutely no horseplay is tolerated.. This is a working project, with real life equipment, rules and expectations.

Students who take part in this project benefit in many ways. Their hands-on experience with heavy equipment gives them skills for possible future employment, exposure to different career choices, opportunities to meet and impress potential employers, and to experience a real life job site.  The district benefits as well. This year the project was held on the grounds of the soon to be constructed Ma Murray Community Elementary School helping prep the site for the construction that is to come.

A project of this nature needs special people at the controls. District Principal Richard Koop has been with the program since its inception. Previously a school based administrator, Richard has been able to combine his lifelong passion for construction and industrial training, with his considerable talents as an teacher and administrator. Project Heavy Duty and the district's  Residential Construction Program are his key responsibilities. Selecting the students and guiding these programs, Richard has been instrumental in providing hundreds of students alternate paths to educational success. Working with Richard is Donny Goodbun. Now at an age where others might consider retiring, Donny continues to step up every year. His dedicated efforts and vast experience are appreciated by everyone. Heavy Duty has become a family project for the Goodbuns, as  sons Trent and Tyrell, former SD60 students, are now two of the operators working with our current students.

Project Heavy Duty is a great example of how SD 60 works to make learning relevant and important for everyone. Its curious that the benefits and learning outcomes from projects such as this one don't get the same level of recognition in school ranking processes as other more formal assessments or government exams. Certainly the students recognize the benefits. Many of them cite the week as the best learning they've ever had. From the organizers, to the sponsors, to the students, to our community partners, Project Heavy Duty is an opportunity where everyone comes away enriched.

Monday, 30 May 2016

The Power of Published Product

Recently I had the opportunity to attend Taylor Elementary's "Meet the Author" gala celebration. Spearheaded by Donna Lee Cooper, one of the school's long time teachers, the day was to celebrate the arrival of the students self published books.  Through hard work and creativity the students, with guidance from their teachers, and with the assistance of a publishing partner, wrote and illustrated their own hard copy books, copies of which the student authors then signed and later had on display at the community library. From preschool right through to grade 6, the students experienced the satisfaction of producing a finished, published product.

Creating and publishing original pieces of writing is a true 21st century learning skill. Producing and polishing unique content is hard enough, but when students do so for an audience and to produce a tangible product visible for display and available for others to see, learning becomes more real and student investment in their product increases.

Micheal Niehoff of USC  identifies many ways that students can authentically publish work for a wider audience. In addition to traditional print media, today's student has online and digital capabilities. They can blog, upload to Youtube  and other social media platforms. They have easy access to a wider audience than ever before. With such access comes both a responsibility to publish responsibly and the potential to reach and interact with their audience in a way not available to writers of earlier generations.

Publishing allows students to find and express their own voice and has been linked to life long literacy skills. By starting early and continuing to develop their publishing skills through to grade 12 graduation, students gain confidence in expressing their own ideas, and a better sense of personal competence and confidence in communicating clearly with others.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

What's In A Name Part 2

" Whats in a name? That which we call a rose would by any other name smell as sweet"
Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene ii

It was recently announced that our district's new school is to be called the Margaret "Ma" Murray Elementary Community School. The name was selected after lengthy and often spirited discussions by the board of trustees. After all, a name is important, isn't it? Shakespeare's sentiments aside, the concept that a name can really make a difference continues to spark considerable debate.

In selecting Margaret Murray as the name for the new school, the board has elected to use a person's name rather than the geographic location as an identifying label. This decision was driven in part, by the desire to add some gender equity to the names of our district's public schools. Previously, all schools in SD 60 that carried a persons name had been named after men. Selecting a new name for a school seemed an excellent opportunity to change that situation. After all, as pointed out by our new Prime Minister, it is 2016. Equal opportunity, regardless of gender is not only long overdue but entirely consistent with the values our district hopes to instil in all our students.

District naming protocols call for recognizing individuals who have made significant contributions to our community. As the founder of Fort St Johns longest running news paper Mrs Murray certainly fits that bill. Known as a strong personality who was resilient in the face of adversity and not shy about offering her opinion, Ma Murray provides modern day students with an example of how to develop and follow their dreams.

In naming the school's gathering space after Bella Yahey, the board also acknowledges important contributions made by First Nations and aboriginal women in the shaping of our community. Yahey, a long time community member was also daughter of Treaty 8 signatory Chief Attachie, and wife of Charlie Yahey, for whom Charlie Lake is named. She lends her name to the gathering space within the school, an area where all members of the community can come together to meet, share and work for the benefit of our students.

Enshrining the word "community" within a school's name may make for a longer than normal title, but the board feels strongly that the new school needs to represent a new attitude and approach to education. Strongly reflective of the personalized learning ideals expressed in the new BC Ed plan, Margaret Ma Murray Elementary Community School promises to kick off an exciting new learning experience for our district. With site preparation set to begin in June, watching the new school develop its identity will be an ongoing focus for the board and community as they consider "education matters."

Friday, 18 March 2016

What's In A Name?

With the recent announcement of a new school to be built in Fort St John people are talking . Our architects have drawn up an  exciting concept of what the new school will look like. Contractors have been selected and, with an aggressive construction timeline soon to begin, the new building will soon start to take shape in the north west corner of town.

The new school will be the first entirely new structure the district has constructed in many years. Additions have been made at North Peace Secondary both at the main campus and at the Energetic Learning Campus housed within the Pomeroy Sports Centre, but as far as free standing brand new facilities, the new school will be the first one constructed since the late 1980's.  With the promise of a larger than normal gymnasium and the possibility of connected day care facilities, the new building will be a tremendous addition to its community.

When one considers all the decisions that are going into what the new school will include, or look like, what to call it may seem to be a relatively minor decision. But names help forge identities and what a building is called can help set the tone for how it is regarded. Naming rights have become big business in the corporate and sports world. Many of us grew up recognizing such venues as Maple Leaf Gardens, the Form or Pacific Coliseum long before folks realized the  revenue opportunities created in the Air Canada Centre, Bell Centre or Rogers Arena.

Public schools don't sell their naming rights, but there are still many considerations to consider in naming a building. In SD 60 the traditional practice has been to name schools either after the geographic location they serve (Central, Clearview, Charlie Lake) or after persons of historic significance (Robert Ogilvie, Dr. Kearney, CM Finch). Recently trustees reviewed and endorsed the district's school naming guidelines. In considering whether new names should recognize people or places, the district is seeking input from the public. Nominated names should be in good taste, represent the cultural and gender diversity of town, be clearly different from the names already in use and be able to stand the test of time. Any names of people should be of persons no longer living who have made significant contributions to the history, culture or community of the area.

People wanting to give suggestions are asked to send them to the attention of Leah Reimer at The board will collect suggestions through to the end of April and then decide on a new name in time to make an announcement when construction starts later this spring. For now the new school is being referred to as the northwest elementary.  What its called in the future might depend on what trustees hear over the next weeks!

Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Benefits of Recreational Reading

I've recently rediscovered the pleasure of recreational reading. At Christmas, knowing that I was headed out on a long air journey with limited luggage space, my wife gave me an e-reader. It proved to be invaluable, helping to pass long hours in the sky and at airports. I'd always enjoyed reading as a recreational past time. Finding the time and packing the books has become a challenge in recent years. I've taken to carrying my e-book, with its small light profile and easy access to online libraries with me, and I am really enjoying the benefits of a recharging recreational read in those moments where previously I was just hurrying up to wait.

The National Library of New Zealand in an online post Reading For Pleasure - A Door to Success clearly identifies recreational reading as a valuable 21st Century Skill. It points out that "Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st C will need to read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations, so they can create the world of the future. In a complex, and sometimes dangerous world, the ability to read can be crucial."International Reading Association, ( Moore et al, 1999, p3 as cited by Clark & Rumbold, 2006).  Other benefits of reading for fun include stimulated creativity and imagination, improved physical and mental health and increased empathy and social skills. Ironically, taking time for oneself better equips us to deal with others.

Recreational reading is also valuable for families. The website Early Moments provides an excellent list of ten reasons identifying benefits for families that read with, and to, one another. Key amongst these are strengthened bonds between parent and children, improved concentration and communication skills and an improved ability to self regulate and acclimate to new or different circumstances and environments. Starting early is key. Reading to toddlers and preschoolers makes reading a positive experience, one children are more likely to view as a fun indulgence rather than a painful chore later in life. Reading together is good for everyone. It provides parents a pleasant and calming timeout, and an opportunity to model life long learning to children who come to associate reading with positive feelings and outcomes.

Sadly , with so many distractions and other sources of mental stimulation present in our lives, recreational reading has been on the decline.  A 2012 OECD survey indicated that the rate of recreational reading was decreasing by as much as 5% per year in many western countries and that the rate of decline increases with age and is higher in males than females. I'll be doing my part to reverse the trend by keeping my e-reader charged, loaded and available. Whether on line or in print, getting in a good read can assist us all in ensuring education matters are both fun and informative.

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Power of Positive Relations

BC's Family Day falls near the mid point of the school year, and provides a great opportunity to look at the topic of the partnership that needs to exist between school and home.  Parents are a child's first teachers, and the influence they have on their children's learning remains powerful from that first day of kindergarten right through to a student's last day of classes. Finding better ways for home and school to work together is therefore in the best interests of everyone .

In  The Home-School Team: An Emphasis on Parent Involvement Edutopia points out that "students  thrive when their parents become part of the classroom".  The article points out that  "children learn best when the significant adults in their lives -- parents, teachers, and other family and community members -- work together to encourage and support them".  It further suggests that such partnerships should be a guiding principle when considering how schools should be organized and how children should be taught. Parental input is vital through out a student's school career. Despite years of training, good intentions and a well developed curriculum,  teaching cannot, in and of itself, fully address all of a child's needs. The meaningful involvement of parents and community support are essential too.

But parents are sometimes wary of the role schools expect them to play. At our monthly SUP-PAC meetings, I frequently hear from parents who want to have a supportive role in their students' education, but are sometimes fearful that changes to the curriculum or structure of schools will lead to them having to take on too much of a role, or actively teach at home subjects and materials that they prefer to trust to the professional teachers. In turn teachers can also have concerns about the home/school partnership. As Rick Lavoie suggests in his article The Teachers Role in Home School Communication finding the right balance can be "be challenging, time consuming and frustrating… but well worth the effort.".  Lavoie points out that the relationship needs to be based on an understanding of shared responsibility, and mutual care for the success of the students. As Lavoie puts it " Before parents will care about what teachers know - they have to know that teachers care".

Parent and Child Magazine summarizes the home school partnership very well, identifying how  successful learning at school is often supported by what parents do at home. A student's education  is impacted in no small part by the instruction they receive, the effort they put in, and the relationships they and their parents establish with their teachers. Schools building effective relationships with students AND their parents are instrumental in improving the quality of the educational experience for everyone. A relationship built upon mutual respect, clear communication and authentic opportunities to share, listen and help can guarantee that education matters to all.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Better By Design

Just before Christmas, Education Minister Mike Bernier visited to announce the building of a new elementary school in Fort St John. The announcement was more than welcome, as schools in town are full well beyond capacity. Rooms originally designated for multi purpose or specialized uses have long since been pressed into service as classroom space, and plans are in the works for portables to added as population pressures mount. The new school is earmarked for the northwest end of town, currently served only by CM FInch Elementary where the first of possibly several portables was added earlier this year. Beyond creating new classroom spaces, the district continues to petition the government to replace aging facilities at Ecole Central and Charlie Lake.

The process for new schools began with the acquisition of school sites. With the assistance of both provincial and local governments, suitable sites have been identified and purchased. Site preparation and construction will begin this spring at the northwest site. The  design and construction phases will need to be aggressively addressed if the district is to meet the Ministry of Education's hoped for timeline of completion in less than two years.

The work is already underway. In addition to visiting a number of new schools, senior staff have also engaged an architectural firm to help create a school that suits our northern context, recognizes the needs of learners and educators and will efficiently serve our community for years to come. Over the weeks to come, our architects will run focus groups to consult with a wide range of community and district stakeholders in order to better combine community needs and values with current developments in 21st century educational structures. We are confident that the resulting building will be marvelous. When complete, the new school will not only be a learning center of excellence, but will also incorporate space to support other diverse community needs such as day care and after hours recreational opportunities in an enhanced gym.

Its been a long time since our community built a new school, and we know that we need to make the most of this opportunity. More than just adding seats and spaces, we see the new school as an opportunity to create a facility that can serve the greater community, well beyond the boundaries of traditional schooling. Our new school will be designed to make our community better than before and will recognize that community needs and aspirations are also education matters.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Seeking the Best for Our Students

The January snow and post Christmas return to classes make September feel a long way off, but preparations have already begun for next year. The recent announcement of a new school for Fort St St John kicked off a flurry of behind the scenes activities as we rush to find architects, designers and builders in order to get building as soon as possible. To accommodate the current and projected numbers of students, schools have been asked for fall enrollment projections; always a challenging task in a community as energetic, fluid and vibrant as ours. In the past years we've been pretty accurate in projecting our needs. This year however more than 300 additional students arrived above and beyond projections.

Providing quality service and instruction to a growing community goes beyond just ensuring that everyone gets a seat. Besides making sure facilities are available and up to the task, senior staff are always searching for the best people to work with our students. This week, I accompanied our district recruiters to the education job fair at UBC, in order to meet aspiring new teacher graduates. Recruiting efforts continue this week in Saskatchewan and Alberta as staff meet with teacher candidates in Regina and Grande Prairie.  Closer to home staff recently celebrated with graduates of Northern Lights College's AHCOTE teacher education program.  I'm happy to report that several of them are now working within the district.

It can be a challenge to find and retain good people to work with our students, whether it be in teaching or any of the many support positions that are all so essential to our operations. Beyond teachers a school district must have clerical staff, educational assistants, custodians, bus drivers, and a whole team of skilled tradesmen to ensure that our students are well served. Northern recruitment has its own set of challenges. Public sector compensation cannot always compete financially with the private sector,  and there remains a perception in folks who've never been here that our geography and climate are inhospitable.

Fortunately we know better. Our district includes a tremendous range of talent in all ranks and professions and we are always seeking to add to the team. Whether its through the online provincial jobs portal at , our own district websites and youtube channels or just word of mouth we continue seek the best for our students. We are working to get the word out that SD 60 is a great place to live, work, and make sure that education matters!

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The Power of Penguins Revisisted!

Over the Christmas break my wife and I again enjoyed the privilege of visiting the vastness of the southern ocean. We returned re-energized and with a huge array of penguin pictures and media. As I've posted previously, my duties as superintendent include visiting schools, but I don't get to classrooms as often as I'd like.  However, the word is out about my preference for penguins, and so, about this time every year I start getting requests to come make presentations. This was the fifth time I have journeyed deep into the southern hemisphere. I've been able to see penguins in their native habitats on the sub-antarctic islands of New Zealand, the Antarctic peninsula and the windswept Falkland Islands.  Each visit we  take only pictures and leave only footprints. As a result, I now have well over 6000 pictures of a dozen different species of penguins.

The popularity of penguins is universal. The penguin unit is a favourite with Kindergarten and primary classes. There's just something about the stubby little flightless fellows that makes folks smile. Whether its their snappy black and white attire, their awkward walks, their determined, fearless and curious natures, or their fluid grace in the water, nearly everyone holds penguins in some regard. Penguin resources abound. 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", and documentaries like "March of the Penguins" or the BBC's Lonely Planet, are great box office hits. 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 and enjoyed by students.

When word got out that our district had a real live "penguin person",  the requests started coming. My teaching experience is mostly in secondary English, so facing groups of up to 40 primary students can be a bit unsettling. What if I bored them? What if my pictures didn't interest them? Its a bit of a risk as Superintendent to put yourself out there as a teacher leader and then be a flop! 

The good news - the presentations go very well. I continue to get requests. And the students are wonderful. I continue to refine my lessons based on the feedback the students (and their teachers) give me. Sometimes, rather than just show pictures and talk, we learn to walk or call like penguins. My vocalization of the call of the Magellenic penguin is apparently quite entertaining! (you can listen to the real thing at 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 have fun while learning. When I go back to schools after speaking on penguins students don't always remember my name, or that I'm the superintendent, but they do remember that I'm the "penguin genius" and they are excited to tell me new things they've learned. Their teachers do a great job teaching about penguins both before, and after my visits. During a recent presentation the googling for more penguin information began even before I had finished speaking.

So I say, "more power to the penguins!". Any animal that can get me out of the office and get students so inspired must have special powers. I'm already hoping to going south again so I'll have new information pictures and video to share in the future. (Students and classes interested in adopting a penguin should check out the site at this Adopt a penguin! link). I used to find business attire a bit restrictive but now, I look forward donning my black and white "penguin suit" and waddling forth to share penguin perspectives as education matters.