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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Empowering Students to be Agents of Change - Battery Blitz

Yesterday, the Earth Rangers came to our school. It was an incredibly exciting presentation. It was also a call to action. Many of our students felt compelled to sign up with the Earth Rangers after seeing that presentation. The Earth Rangers are working hard to "Bring Back the Wild" and save our biodiversity.

The Earth Rangers  suggested that we can help our endangered species by protecting their habitats. They have a campaign on right now called the Battery Blitz Mission  to help dispose of batteries safely and keep them out of landfills.

Some of our Grade Six students were so empowered by this call to action, that they went home, created a flyer, and passed it out in their neighbourhood. They collected 159 batteries in less than 24hrs! Isn't it an amazing flyer?

We are learning to teach through inquiry in our school. But I think teaching through inquiry is just one thread in a much larger tapestry. I wish we were learning how to empower our students to have agency! Inquiry is one way to put our students in the driver's seat of their own learning. But it is not the only way. Some people feel the goal of teaching through inquiry is to keep students engaged in their learning. I don't think so, I think the goal of inquiry is to empower our students to recognize that they have power, or agency, that what they do and think matters, and that they can make a difference.

Students need to believe that when they don't understand something, or when they are stuck on a problem, there is something they can do about it. They are not helpless. They have the power to change their misunderstanding into understanding. They can get help or they can help themselves. There is always something they can do. We need to teach them that. We need to teach them how to be learners.

Once they recognize that they are in charge of their own learning, they become empowered to be agents of change in the world in which we live.

The Grade Six teacher was so excited when her students showed her their flyer. These students took what they have learned in school and applied it for a real purpose to solve an authentic problem in our world. And they did it on their own, not because someone told them they had to. They were autonomous, they had purpose, and they believed they could master the task. As Daniel Pink says, that is all they needed to feel the drive to get things done!

Inquiry is a powerful way to engage our students, but connecting an inquiry to a real-world problem that they can help solve empowers our students and provides purpose for the learning we ask them to do.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Making of a MakerSpace

I want to create a MakerSpace in our school. A space where students can come to create, innovate, and explore. A space and place where they can make discoveries and solve problems. This space can also be a place where they are in charge, where they learn to collaborate, and truly work together to get the job done.

I want to do this for the students in my school. But I also want to do this for me. I NEED to create, to innovate, and to solve authentic problems. Creating this space will be a project that will serve my needs too. 

Students feel the same way that I do. There is undeniable pleasure and motivation in being a part of something that solves a problem, meets a need and makes the world a little bit better for someone else. 

Frederick Buechner said, "Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world's greatest need". 

Daniel Pink says that for people to be motivated, they need to have autonomy, mastery and purpose. I am hoping to create a MakerSpace where students can create and innovate autonomously with tools they can be successful with. The trick will be to ensure that their creations and inventions serve a purpose. 

There have been many things I've been considering prior to embarking on this project:

1. Where will I find a space for it in the school? I've decided on the computer lab, which we call the "Lighthouse" (seems appropriate for an idea warehouse doesn't it?) Our Lighthouse is large, with tables in the centre of the room and computers around the periphery. We have storage cupboards in there as well. The walls are still bare - lots of potential for those walls!

2. Who will be using it and when? I've decided to start small. I am going to call it a "MakerSpace Club" and have it opened several days during the week during the lunch hour. That way, I won't be disrupting class use of the computer lab during the day. Ideally, I would love to see this evolve into a space where teachers feel the need to take their students to during the day to work on some problem-based learning and inquiry. 

3. Who will supervise students in the MakerSpace? Since it will be running during the lunch hour, I will need adults to supervise. Luckily, I am in a school where teachers are constantly giving up their lunch time in the service of our students and I've already got two volunteers!

4. What resources will I need and where will I get them? This is a bit trickier. As with all publicly funded schools, money is tight. I am starting with my own resources, Legos and K'Nex for building that my own children have outgrown, along with odds and sods of craft materials I've collected over the years. Being in the computer lab gives us the additional option of using the computers, so I've looked into getting a school account with MinecraftEDU so that students can also be creating in the virtual world as well. I'm planning on putting out a call to our parent community in the search for cardboard as well. The question is, should we also look for used electronics to start taking apart and building with as well, not to mention wood working materials? I don't know a lot about that sort of stuff, so am feeling a bit out of my comfort zone. 

One of the teachers asked if I was going to come into the school on the weekend to get it all organized, and that was my original thought. But I reconsidered this. If this is to be a space where students can work and explore autonomously, then shouldn't they be involved in the creation of the space? So tomorrow, we will begin together to create our very first MakerSpace. 

If you are interested in learning more about MakerSpace check out these links. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2016


Last year my #OneWord2015 was AGENCY. I'm still enamored with the word because I believe wholeheartedly the real "transformation" that needs to take place in education is the empowerment of our students to be agents of their own learning.

So I was really stumped. How could I pick a new #OneWord2016 when I'm still working through last year's word? (I think that word alone will continue to evolve for me - and for education - over the next decade!) I continued to ponder the word AGENCY and all that it has come to mean to me this past year.

In the hopes of getting inspired, I read other people's posts, including The BloggessMark's MusingsMiss Kit Kat, Learning About Learning, and Living Avivaloca. I felt very inspired by each of those blogs, and they really moved me to think. I especially loved that Aviva chose "hearing" because unless we make the effort, we often don't hear what others are telling us. Without careful listening, we stand to miss so much!

Then I read David Fife's Perspectives and I was actually quite envious. His word is "mindfulness". I wished I had picked "mindfulness"! "Mindfulness" is strongly connected to "metacognition" for me, but it is far more beautiful.

I sat and pondered these posts thinking how each impacted me differently, how my thinking was extended and strengthened with each new post.

In his post David wrote that there are 3 simple steps to find your "One Word - Prepare Your Heart, Discover Your Word, Live Your Word."

So as I sat and pondered, and as I attempted to prepare my heart, I realized that my word had been with me all along. My #OneWord2016 is PONDER.

This year, as I learn to be a Vice Principal in a new school community, I want to be sure to think things through carefully before arriving at any conclusions; I want to contemplate all possibilities before making any decisions. I want to think deeply. I want to attentively listen to what others are saying and mindfully reflect on what I don't hear. This year I want to PONDER

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Learning to be a Leader

I am learning to be an administrator. It is a humbling journey. The first thing I learned was how much I don't know and how much I still need to learn.

Back in August, our school board held a lovely retreat day for all of the administrators. Our guest speaker was Fr. Raymond Carey. His talk was inspirational, but one thing he said was that the analogy of a school community being a "family" was inappropriate. I disagreed with him at the time, and four months into the job, I disagree even more strongly.

It is not that I feel like a parental figure toward the staff, I don't. It is that I feel responsible for their well-being. It is that I've come to realize that "relationship building" is more than getting to know one another, it is about caring for one another; caring how other people are feeling, how they are coping, and actually taking care of them when they need a little extra support, even it is just doing a duty, or finishing off some photocopying for them because they are in a hurry. The staff at my school have taught me that as they have cared for and supported me in this new role.

I've learned that to be a VP means being able to fill in for anyone when needed. I've swept and washed floors, I've provided First Aid, I've done duties for CUPE members who can't do their usual duties because of job action issues. I've counted and deposited money, I've answered phones, wiped noses, sang songs, made bus tags - no job is too big or too small. But many of these jobs are new jobs to me and have required new learning on my part.

It often feels as though the bulk of my day is spent dealing with discipline issues, health concerns and busing. I was warned that this would be the case, I knew very well that these were a major part of the VP role, but somehow I really didn't understand the urgency of each of these or how utterly time consuming they would be. There are fire safety plans, concussion protocols, anaphylaxis and asthma protocols that all need to be created, shared and followed. It really has not left much time for focusing on what I am passionate about - learning and teaching.

I try to squeeze in those precious conversations about learning and teaching, maybe even just a well-timed question here or there, but it is truly a challenge to find those opportunities during the action-packed day.

Having a break has provided me with some valuable time for self-reflection; it seems that somehow the words "Leader" and "Administrator" have become uncoupled in my psyche and my days have been spent in learning how to be an "Administrator" - one who manages or operates an organization. Tomorrow I want to begin learning how to be a leader. As I head back to work, it will be with a renewed focus on learning and teaching. I plan to step it up and become a co-learner with the educators in my building, so that we can begin breaking down classroom walls, deepen student thinking and encourage students to own the learning.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

It Should NEVER Be About Whether It Is Right Or Wrong!

Just have to weigh in on this one. It has gone completely viral, and everyone is talking about it. How awesome is that? All of social media is united in discussing the commutative property of multiplication!

Why 5 x 3 = 5 + 5 + 5 Was Marked Wrong

I think this whole debate underlines our assessment issues in Math today. Educators should not be marking questions like this as "right" or "wrong".  The point of math questions should not be about discovering who is right and who is wrong, but about uncovering student thinking. That is why it is far better to provide feedback rather than a "mark" on a question like this. Better still, use it to promote a class discussion. It isn't social media that should be discussing this math question, but the very class that was asked it.

We don't know what the student was thinking here. For question 2 the child drew an array, we don't know how the child was visually looking at that array without having a conversation with him or her about it.

Let's stop telling children they are right or wrong and start asking them to tell us about their solutions! They might surprise us all!

Who Is In Your Class? New Role - New Learning

I have a new role this year. I am a Vice Principal in a K-8 Elementary school. Some might see this as a "logical next step" or the "natural progression" of a career in Education. But in all honestly, Administration was NEVER on my radar. Those who know me know that I am passionate about children and I am passionate about learning. I have never been interested in management and I have always thought of administrators as managers.

Working in Curriculum, however, I had opportunities to go into many different schools, and it became quickly apparent that the schools that had a culture of learning, the schools that moved, were the schools where the administrators saw themselves as "Instructional Leaders". These administrators knew how to empower their staff and students to make learning happen.

How did they do it? Could I do it?

I strongly believe that the way we "do school" needs to change. I've been trying to find the best place I can be to support that change on a larger scale, because a great classroom here and there is not enough. Every child should have the opportunity to learn, to be motivated and interested, to be curious and to feel successful.

I had the pleasure of seeing Steven Katz speak last fall. He gave me lots to think about. According to Katz, the connection between changes in teacher thinking and practice and student achievement is very strong. But the connection between professional learning and changes in teacher thinking and practice is much more fuzzy.

What does this mean to me?

- Sending a teacher to a professional development in-service does not ensure changes in thinking or practice.
- Change in teacher practice is not enough - compliance does not beget improvement in student achievement. There needs to be a change in teacher thinking for the change in practice to actually have a positive impact.

So basically, whoever is doing the thinking is doing the learning. If the "System" is telling teachers what to do and how to do it, teachers aren't doing the thinking, the System is, so teachers are not learning. They may be compliant, and so it might look like their practice has changed, but unless they believe in that practice, it will not be enacted with a fidelity that leads to improvement for students. Nor will the change be sustainable.

What we need to do is provide the time, space, resources, and permission for teachers to do the heavy thinking. And we need to join them in it. Administrators need to learn with their teachers.

So, this year, my learning is all about how to do this best. Steven Katz asked us "Who is in your class?" And suddenly I realized I could be an administrator. It is not about being a manager (although those pieces need to happen as well... perhaps more on that in the next post). It is about building relationships and empowering people. It is about creating a culture of learning where it is safe to take risks and where we believe in one another's ability to do what is right and necessary.

If I believe that students should own their own learning, then I must also believe that teachers must own theirs. Steven Katz said that to be a good administrator is to "influence people to change". I think it is even more than that. To be a good administrator is to inspire and empower people to grow and to create the conditions necessary for that growth to happen.

That is what I am hoping to learn over the next few years. How do I create the conditions necessary for learning and growth? I'm blessed to be with a principal who has created a culture of learning in her school. I plan to pick her brain, question her every move, and take some risks of my own.

I will let you know how it goes.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Teacher Agency - Who Owns the Professional Learning?

This morning it feels as though my brain is going to explode. Actually, it feels like that most days lately.

In September I took a secondment with the Student Achievement Division on the Capacity Building Team at the Ministry of Education. In the past six months I've had the opportunity to learn from so many deep thinkers in education. I've been participating in wonderful reflections, discussions, and heated debates on teaching and learning and most of the time, my head is spinning and moving in so many directions that is difficult to tease all of that learning apart into specific threads.

But one of the threads that I keep coming back to is the notion of "agency". In January, they posed a question on the OSSEMOOC blog that I follow: "What is your #oneword for 2015?" Without hesitation, my immediate thought was "agency".

I first came across that word about a year ago, and I brought it up at one of our recent planning meetings at work. This word alone has inspired great on-going discussion and led to shifts in our current thinking on learning.

Agency ... is an individual’s sense of what they can do and what they think they can do. Duggins, Shaun D., "The Development of Sense of Agency." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2011.

Agency is the power of the individual to choose what happens next. (Lindgren, R., & McDaniel, R. (2012). Transforming Online Learning through Narrative and Student Agency. Educational, Technology & Society, 15 (4), 344–355.)

I first became intrigued by the notion of student agency when I saw these images on Twitter.

Images courtesy of flickr user Bill Ferriter

These images can be found on Bill Ferriter's blog The Tempered Radical where he distinguishes between the notions of engagement vs empowerment. I believe that "agency" is more than just being engaged in the learning; having a sense of agency is about being empowered to doggedly choose to pursue learning.

I've also been inspired by the work of Alan November and his book "Who Owns the Learning". Alan November explains that with the advent of educational technology we are living in the
"Age of the Empowered Learner". I have written a fair bit on how using blended learning in a grade six classroom really empowered my students and helped them to take ownership for their learning.

But in my current role I am not working directly with students. I support the learning of adults. To be specific, I support PROFESSIONAL LEARNING. I've been interested in professional learning for a long time. It is actually a rather elusive term for me. We tend to call any event where we pull educators away from their regular work to tell them something new "professional learning", but I often have my doubts that much "learning" is actually taking place. In fact, I wrote a blog post about the difference between professional learning communities and professional learning networks because I have sometimes been frustrated by the PLC's that I've been involved in (which you can find here). 

I believe we need to start considering the term "agency" more deeply when it comes to teacher learning. This question was posted recently on the OSSEMOOC blog:

"How does shift occur from a mindset where learning is provided to a culture where learning is sought?"

As I ponder the idea of teacher agency and reflect on our current professional learning practices I end up with so many more questions:
  • Millions of dollars are spent each year on professional learning in the province of Ontario, how do we know what impact it has on changes in teacher practice and student learning? 
  • How do we differentiate the learning of our teachers since we know that they all have different experiences, skills, strengths, interests, and most importantly - students with different needs?
  • How do we provide system level and school level professional learning and yet still provide teachers with voice and choice in their learning? 
  • How can we leverage the use of technology to empower our teachers to be innovative learners?
My friend Regan and I have had frequent conversations about professional learning. We often question our own beliefs about learning and teachers' motivation to learn. There is an expression in education that is "Go with the Goers". Some teachers are seen as "Goers" - they exhibit a learning stance, believe they can and should be constantly improving their practice, and seek out new learning on their own. I often wonder why it is we should go with the Goers if they are going to get there anyway? Isn't it the slow starters we should be focusing our attention on? 

This in turn leads to more questions:
  • Can we help teachers develop an inquiry stance about their teaching practice if they currently don't have one? If so, how do we do that? 
  • Can we impact teachers' motivation to learn? 
  • Can we develop in teachers a sense of agency? If so, how do we do that? 
  • How does our current professional learning practice either foster or inhibit a sense of agency in our teachers?
These questions are really important because research indicates that teacher efficacy directly impacts student learning, and teacher efficacy is tied closely to teacher agency. 

"Teachers who set high goals, who persist, who try another strategy when one approach is found wanting—in other words, teachers who have a high sense of efficacy and act on it—are more likely to have students who learn (Shaughnessy, 2004)" ~ as quoted in "Teacher Efficacy and Why Does It Matter".

I realized as I reflected on these questions that I had a fixed mindset about this topic. I believed that some people are more motivated to learn than others, some educators have a learning stance, and others don't. In fact, teacher agency is often defined as an innate quality.

Teacher agency is typically viewed as a quality within educators, a matter of personal capacity to act (Priestly et al., 2012) usually in response to stimuli within their pedagogical environment. It describes an educator who has both the ability and opportunity to act upon a set of circumstances that presents itself within that individual’s leadership, curricular or instructional roles. The educator described would then draw from acquired knowledge and experience to intercede appropriately and effectively. Agency is increasingly rare in the educational world of prescriptive improvement, and the term is too “often utilized as a slogan to support school-based reform” (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2012, p. 3). Teacher Agency in America and Finland By Roger Wilson, GVSU Faculty

As I've been exposed more and more to the work of Carol Dweck, however, I realize that the definition above is very much a fixed mindset. Do we believe that all educators are capable, competent and curious? If so, then the old adage "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire" by Yeats is as true for educators as it is for students. So the question for educational leaders becomes not "What should professional learning look like?" so much as "How do we light a fire in our teachers?"

How, then, do we (in the words of Lucy West) create a multi-generational learning culture in which educators - including ourselves - and students become learners in the company of one another?

Kristen Swanson poses the following question on her blogpost #HackPD:

What if the only PD ever offered by a school was "How to Learn Something When You Want to Know Something?"

It is time to re-think professional learning, to look closely at its impact on students and teachers, and perhaps to redefine it. We need to be thinking about why teachers need to own their professional learning and what that will look like at both the school and system level. We need to start thinking about how we are going to develop agency in our teachers and think less about what content, skills and strategies we need to be teaching them.