No More Excuses

 

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Our school staff has reason to be grateful when it comes to available technology in our school and to our access to bandwidth. Our school division does put both as a priority for student learning. Even though we have many devices and we have the bandwidth to provide us access, a lot of what we were seeing in our classrooms was based on consumption of programs already available rather than creating new content or collaboration with others.  Many were trying all kinds of new things, but we still had some that were using the laptops and I-pads for consumption only.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I feel like consumption is an important and acceptable part of our day, but I also feel like without stretching to creation and collaboration we were missing out and so are our students.  So since we have also been blessed with very capable, strong teachers who are willing to try new things, it seemed like a good time to move forward.

At the beginning of the last school year, we required all of our teachers to set a professional goal based on using technology for creative or collaborative endeavors.  It was so fun and rewarding to see what everyone chose to do and to watch it all play out for our students.  We shared our progress at staff meetings and helped each other along the way.  We did not want this to be a one and done kind of idea, so this year we had all of our teachers set another goal that was the logical next step from where they left off.

One thing I have learned over my time as a school principal is an importance of accepting people where they are and helping them move along the growth continuum.  As adult learners, just like our students in the classroom, we do not all start at the same place or grow at the same rate.  I have also learned that change takes time and it does not happen overnight.

In my own growth and experience gained through being a classroom teacher, I am starting to realize what my students are capable of,  if they are given choices, chances to make mistakes without repercussion, and opportunities to demonstrate their learning in many ways.  They show me time after time what they can do when I just step back and let them.

When we limit our students with close control of what they read, what they learn, how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning, we may be comfortable, but we are also limiting their chances for growth.  I have just started reading the book, The Wild Card, by Hope and Wade King and was struck by the idea that excuse making can become a habit. “Every less than ideal factor can become another reason why your students aren’t achieving more-and why you can’t do anything to change that.”  I am sure I have used many excuses for not changing my comfortable pedagogy throughout my career and some of the ones I hear most often as a principal and colleague are:

  • I do not have enough time.
  • I do not feel like I can “teach” that to my students.
  • My students are too young and can’t possibly do that.
  • I have been doing it this way for years and it has been working.
  • I do not have parent support.
  • I do not have support from my administrator
  • I want to do that, but…

All of these may be true at some point, but if we never force the first step, the journey never starts.  The challenge of being a teacher is a big one.  It is a very difficult and very rewarding job. We will not change everything tomorrow, but perhaps a good first step would be to say, “No more excuses.”

 

Taking the Step Back

https://educationrickshaw.com/2017/04/16/5-easy-ways-to-share-learning-experiences-with-students/

I have been doing a lot of thinking this week about teaching practices and how we often underestimate the abilities of our students when we do not allow them to have a strong voice and a lot of choices when it comes to their learning.  I spent my Saturday yesterday with a group of students at a Lego League tournament.  It was such a rewarding experience that only illustrated what students can do when you let them.

For those of you who do not know anything about Lego League, the students are judged on 4 different things: robot design, team core values, project and performance scores during the robot wars.  Last year we attended the tournament just to see how it worked, but this year we were there to compete.

Preparing for Robot Wars

When the students are taken by the judges to explain their core values the coaches are not allowed to be with the team.  I was surprised to see the judges comments on our feedback sheet.  “Wish the coach was a little less involved.”  The reason I was surprised was that I think our students might do better if they actually had a coach that knew anything about robot design or coding.  I really know very little about either one, but rather look at it a fantastic opportunity for our students and don’t want them to miss out.

One of the very best things about all the time I dedicate to Lego League is that I truly did not even have any input into the design of our robot.  The students worked together and showed me what they had come up with.  When we started working on the challenges and coding the robot, I was in the room and was able to answer questions about what they would be judged on and what sorts of things might get them penalties, but I never once had input into the coding.

I am very proud to say it was totally them!

Another part I should add would be at the coaches meeting yesterday morning we realized the robot had to return to the base without help.  We thought the whole time the robot could be picked up and returned to the base.  The student took the news with a look of determination and just got back to work.  Again we did not have input and actually walked away from most of it while they figured it out.

This whole experience was so motivating for me and just illustrated, once again what our students are capable of if we let them.  Sometimes we feel that we need to protect them and closely guide them to success.  We do not want them to be discouraged or suffer disappointment.  Sometimes we feel like it is our job to spoon feed them information and not wait for them to struggle to find answers.  This thinking does not help our students and we are standing in the way of what they can truly accomplish.  Even our youngest students are capable of accomplishing great things with opportunity.

When I reflect on my own teaching practices in the classroom and how much they have changed.  Despite class size growing and the never-ending list of expectations, I feel my students are now doing more work in the classroom than I am.  I gave up dragging those huge bags of marking home every weekend years ago because I was inspired by Sandra Herbst and her work with assessment practices.  Of course, I still assess!  Of course, I still spend time “marking!” but I do not take the whole responsibility of learning on to myself.

I feel like I know my students better.  I can learn more from conferencing with them on a regular basis and setting goals for their reading and writing than I ever could from looking at a product on the weekend. I now spend more time on formative assessment and using observations and conversations to guide direction.  I feel like student engagement is higher now that we are tacking learning goals together and my students have options and choices. Differentiating for students is a breeze and happens naturally within classroom organization.

Pdale Bulldogs Lego League Team 2018

When I watched our students perform yesterday, despite my guidance and not solely because of my guidance it was very rewarding and telling indeed!

My Reading Identity

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I believe I might drive people around me crazy with my talk of books.  I am always collecting books, reading books, talking about books and sharing books.  Reading is such an important aspect of my life, I just can’t help myself.

I am inspired to write this post by my latest book, “Passionate Readers,” written by Pernille Ripp.  Pernille is the founder of the Global Read Aloud and I am sure she would do anything to get the right book into the hands of a child.  She believes strongly in reader choice and is working tirelessly to promote the love of literacy in our students.

In her book, she challenges her readers to think about their own reading identity.  My earliest memories of reading are directly connected to my father.  He has always been an avid reader and continues to find great joy in the time he spends reading now that he is in his 80’s.  When I was a child we would curl up and he would read many things to me but especially all the adventure of Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne.  Over the years we have had many conversations about the things we were reading about.  For many years, it was my tradition to buy him a new book every Christmas.  He would often give it back to me to read so we could talk about it.

My father reading “The Night Before Christmas”

These early experiences I have had with books influence me on a daily basis.  I have always wished I could instill in every one of my students my inner passion and love for reading.  It didn’t matter if I was teaching early years, my high school students I spent 20 years with or now with my middle year’s students. I read aloud to them as I can and talk reading every chance I have.  When I look back over some of my teaching strategies, I would like to go back and make some changes, such as long reading responses and killing the joy of a good book by pulling it apart into unnecessary pieces, rather than appreciating it for what it was.

Idea was taken from Passionate Readers

At the same time, I have never wanted to go back and change the time we spent reading aloud and enjoying good books together.

To bring this around to where I am right now, I realized I needed to renew my relationship with books by making reading time a higher priority in my daily life and not just something I save for school breaks when it seems easier to take the time.  My grade 6 students spend a lot of time reading, sharing and enjoying literature together.  I have such an enthusiastic and wonderful bunch of students, many of which share my love of reading.  We call ourselves “The Fam Jam” and because of that, we need to make sure we are all working together just as a family would.  I am always looking for that reading magic that will pull in my more reluctant readers.

Reading choice is my friend.  Our reading time is sacred.  Every member of “Fam Jam” gets to choose the things they like to read.  This is not always the way it has been in my classroom, but now that I have embraced the importance of student voice and choice, I would never go back. My students also know it is okay to not finish a book.  If you walked into our classroom when we are choice reading, many of us would not even know that you were there.  I tell my students about one when I was reading along with my high school students and one of them crawled out the window and then came back in, just because he could. We had a good laugh, but okay…even I realize that being that focused on what I am reading might not be a good idea in the classroom.

Grade 6 “Fam Jam” during choice reading

I am constantly ordering or borrowing books.  Let’s just say, Amazon and Scholastic are some of my best friends along with our school library and our local community library.  I have been trying to build up our classroom library and listen to what my students need to have included.  We keep a running list of books we might like to purchase or borrow.  We have read 288 books as a collective group so far this year.  Our goal is 500 and I think we are going to make it.

Our book count we change daily.

My reading identity is tied to the joy I have in reading and focused on sharing my love of reading with my students.  Pernille Ripp says it best in her book, Passionate Readers,

“…we must approach each day with an incredible sense of urgency.  We must fill our minds with the research we need to support our ways, and we must be passionate about the things we see as most important to further reading success-in my case, it means giving the students time to read within our short time together, finding a way to confer with each child, incorporating as much choice and freedom as possible, and doing meaningful work with our reading rather than ‘get it done’ tasks.”

Well said!

 

 

#oneword2018

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So many great words…what should I choose?

After much thought and consideration, I have picked what I consider the perfect #oneword for my 2018.  The word I picked is “renew.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “renew” as “to make like new: to restore freshness, vigor or perfection.  One of the reasons I picked the word “renew” is because I am at what I consider to be a  weird crossroads in my life between full-time motherhood and an empty nest and at work, I am no longer a new or developing teacher, rather I can clearly see retirement when I look into the future.

Neither one of these things seem like a reason to coast, but rather a reason to start fresh and “renew.”  As many of you know the years we spend raising our children are the most rewarding, stressful, and wonderful years.  Many times as my children were growing I would wish for a moment to myself and of course, just one good night’s sleep.

Now that they are all venturing into their future education and on to careers, I have plenty of time on my hands.  Maybe not the sleep part yet, but who knows, that might come as well.

I have never been an educator satisfied with the status quo.  At every stage of my career, I was always seeking a challenge.  I was always looking for ways to improve what I do.  Just the thought of flipping open a binder of materials I have offered up to my students for the past 10 years makes me feel unmotivated and uninspired.   Being in the final stages of my teaching career, as I know it anyway, does not seem to be a reason to coast, rather an opportunity to learn more, share more, collaborate more and grow more.

As I head into 2018, I realize how many things I have to be grateful for and feel inspired to renew many of those things.

Things I plan to renew in 2018:

  • My relationship with my husband and children.
  • My visits to the public library.
  • My gratitude for the life I have.
  • My time spent with my creative self.
  • My love of fitness and focused physical challenges.
  • My bucket list-so many exciting things I still want to do.
  • My writing self especially on my blog.
  • My time spent with my parents.
  • My desire to be outside of the box or maybe take the box down totally.

I am sure I will have the joy of finding other things to renew along my path through 2018.  I hope you will join me!

 

 

How Do I KNOW?

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The title of this blog post is a reaction to a very interesting and motivating chat I was part of this morning.  I drag my butt out of bed every Saturday morning before 7:30, throw some coffee on and join #leadupchat because I am so inspired by the conversation and the people who gather there.

This morning was an open chat-kind of like the chat version of edcamp.  The educators in the chat throw out the questions and the conversation goes off in many different directions. This question caught my eye:

“What new initiative are you most excited about at your school this year?”

Yesterday our school had the first of a few teacher-directed professional development sessions we will have this year.  This is the first time our school district has helped make this happen.  In my mind, it is still not quite where I would want it to be, but I also feel like this is a very innovative first step and I appreciate the opportunity.

In preparation for this day, I had all kinds of thoughts ranging from being very excited, to worrying about whether or not teachers would be engaged in learning that would, in turn, have a positive effect on our students. I knew I would also have to engage in my own learning right along with them.

To get back to the question from the chat, I answered with “teacher-directed professional development” because of the positive conversation and feedback I heard from our teachers.  It seemed to me the level of engagement was high, conversations were, in fact, highly directed toward, innovative teaching that I know will make a difference in our student’s learning.  Teachers were engaged because they were given choice and were allowed to connect to their own goals and take conversations in directions that were important to them.  What more could a school administrator want?

One response given to my reply seemed negative about the idea of teacher control and questioned me about how I would KNOW (for sure, I am guessing, by the upper case letters) that they were working on their goals.

I couldn’t help but be a little insulted because I do have a high level of trust in my teachers, but I am also not an administrator that spends all my time in my office, not paying attention to what is going on around me.

I couldn’t help but bring it back to this short conversation the characteristics of innovative leaders from the book Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.

  1.  Models Learning: I also had to choose my professional development focus for the day and chose to spend it with my middle year’s teachers learning about guided math.  I don’t teach math, but I feel it is my job as a principal to be able to support the work of all the teachers in my school.  I feel like I was “elbows deep” in the learning in my school.
  2. Open Risk-Taker– Our teachers all know the expectation is there for them to be taking risks especially in the area of using our abundant technology in ways that help our students collaborate and create in the real world.  They know risk-taking is not just accepted it is expected.  I know to expect this from our teachers and not model it myself would be much less effective.
  3. Networked– Interesting that this entire post was motivated by one of my learning networks.  I have a few PLN’s both online and not, which I rely heavily upon for support, ideas, and encouragement. I cannot imagine doing what I do without them.
  4. Observant– One of the ways I KNOW that my teachers are continually growing and working hard to improve learning for our students is by being observant. Being out of the office and on the ground level of the classroom.
  5. Team Builder– Trust is a huge part of building a team.  I  know we have hired excellent teachers, so I need to step back and trust them to do what they know best.  We need to allow for growth in our teachers and know that growth will continue to have a positive effect on our students.

I could go on about the characteristics, but I would rather end with one of my brightest moments from our first teacher-directed PD day.  Two of our young teachers spent the morning learning about becoming a Microsoft Innovation Educators.  When I asked them, how their morning was, they were over the top with excitement and enthusiasm telling me about all of the things they had learned and discovered.  They replied, “we have to share this, can we please show everyone this at our next staff meeting?”

What more can an innovative leader ask for?

Spreading the News!

http://www.grassrootsy.com/2010/05/06/spreading-the-word-through-facebook-twitter/

One of the things that I have always been frustrated with is my inability to express the passion I have for innovation in education.  I can remember the first time my eyes were opened to new educational ideas while taking my Master’s Degree and taking a course by Alex Couros.  I felt way beyond my comfort level but knew that I was getting into something that was very exciting and would benefit my staff and our students greatly.

When I first started my coursework for my Master’s Degree, I knew it would be hard and would take a lot of work, but I also thought it was going to be a bit dry.  Boy, was I wrong!  I was not prepared for my degree experience to totally change my outlook on education and what should be happening in classrooms.

At that time, I was so excited about the new things I was learning and decided to come back to my staff with my passionate message, only to have it fall flat and after our first staff meeting, I thought they would have thrown tomatoes at me if they had any.

One of our teachers though was immediately interested and agreed to help me, by working together on a class blog. letting her grade 5 students write about things they were interested in and giving them a broader audience for their writing.

Starting with one teacher sparked interest with other teachers and since that first staff meeting 8 years ago our school has made much progress in what I consider to be innovative teaching ideas and stretching to meet the needs of our students by being innovative with our classrooms design and instruction.

Yesterday I was out of the school at a meeting and had left a learning activity for my grade 6 students.  We have just started The Global Read Aloud this week and are reading the book, “The Wild Robot.”  I had left them an activity where they were discussing their ideas about robots-what they already knew, researching some ideas and adding to their knowledge.  All the while they were recording their thinking using Padlet.  Using Padlet allowed them see what the other students were thinking and I could also see their responses while I was at my meeting, which was an added bonus.

Now I could have easily had them working by themselves researching and recording their answers in their notebooks, but the richness of being a part of a collaborative think tank was a benefit to my students.

To get back to my original problem, which was how do I help others feel the passions I have and how do I continue to work towards innovative teaching and learning for all students?  Part of what I have seen through the continued growth in our school since the “tomato throwing” incident and our very first blog has been amazing.

I guess I have already answered my own question; keep pushing, encouraging, learning, talking, praising, reflecting and spreading the word.

Progress may seem slow but perhaps it is not as slow as I think.

Hmmm!  I am off to an administrators meeting today and I am in charge of welcoming and running the agenda.  Seems like the perfect opportunity to spread the word!

What is Innovation Anyway?

I have learned so many things since becoming a school administrator 8 years ago.  One of the most important lessons that I have learned is to respect the reality that teachers are all at different places in developing their craft.  They are certainly at a different comfort level with using technology and with reaching out beyond the way we have always done things in the classroom.

Once I realized this important lesson,  I also realized that the idea of “innovation” looks different for all of us.  I was reading a blog post recently written by George Couros. He was talking about how we have this idea that innovation is something huge, and because of this, we may not feel like we can be innovative.  I have been reflecting on this idea this week.

One of the favorite parts of my job as a school administrator is that I can see a little piece of everyone’s classroom and the learning going on within,  pretty much whenever I want.  What a treat!

I feel like I see the most wonderful and often innovative things happening, but teachers do not think they are being innovative because they are “just doing what teachers do” in their minds.

Our school division puts a priority on technology and encouraging innovation and engagement.  We do not lack in bandwidth or devices.  For that, I am extremely grateful.  A few year’s ago my vice-principal and I decided we wanted to push our teachers a bit out of the comfort zone and have everyone set a goal to have a way to use technology with their students that allowed their students to be creative and make connections.  It did not have to be anything crazy, but just taking one step away from using our devices for drill and practice activities.

I was so proud of all of our teachers.  When given the chance to start from wherever they were and take a small leap, most of them really shined.

Since we did not want this to be a one and done, this year we have challenged them to take some activity or learning lesson they have done with their students before and reflect on ways to tweak it or add to it or change it to make it even better for their students through making connections or creative endeavours using technology.

Are they being innovative?  I think so!  To quote the blog post mentioned earlier in the post, “Small changes, big difference.”  I can’t wait to see what they all come up with.

Getting Back to My Passions-Part 2

In my last post, I already mentioned my need to get back to my passions.  The next logical step seemed to be to put down in writing what my passions actually are.  I just finished reading “Lead Like a Pirate” by Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf.  If any book can take you back to your passions, this one can.  An idea that stood out for me right at the beginning of the book was:

Never lose sight of who you are and what made you decide to become an educator.

This summed up exactly what had happened for me this past year…I had lost sight of why I became an educator in the first place.

One activity that I plan to do with my staff at the start up of the new school year is to ask all of them to really consider what they are passionate about and write it down with the hopes of reminding ourselves exactly why we do what we do.  I felt it was important for me to do the same, so here they are:

  1. Family and Friends– My father, who turned 83 last week, has had a huge influence on many things I am passionate about in my life.  As we are both growing older, the need to spend time with family seems to become stronger.  A year ago my youngest son graduated high school and will be officially moving out of our home this fall.  I have come to realize the need to cherish the moments, the conversations, the texts and snap chats.  One of my absolute favorite things to do is be all together sharing some good food and a few laughs. I make sure I take the time to refresh connections with friends and family and certainly enjoy the summer when I have time to do just that.
  2. Education-I am so passionate about almost everything to do with education, especially if it involves innovative thinking and taking advantage of the technology we have available to us.  For the first part of my teaching career, this was not the case. At risk of giving away my age, the internet did not even exist as it does today.   I am still so amazed and motivated by the ease of collaboration and connections.  I love the freedom my position as principal gives me to be in and out of classrooms watching learning and enjoying the people around me.  I learn many new things each week from my network of fellow educators I follow and discuss ideas with.  I enjoy sharing my love of reading with my students and listening to their interesting thoughts and ideas.  I am energized by learning new things about teaching and leadership.
  3. Animals and Nature– I am definitely a summer girl!  I love the sunshine, warm breezes, beaches, and lakes. I am writing this post outside on my deck enjoying a relaxed cup of coffee.  One might question my decision to always live on the Canadian prairies where the cold, windy winters can take your breath away.  I have learned to appreciate every moment when the weather is warm and the wonder of the unique landscape that comes in the prairies.   I am so grateful to live on an acreage and have the beauty of nature around me, often having to stop on my way to school for passing geese or deer.
  4. Reading– Anyone who knows me knows how much I read.  I never leave the house without a book  I can drive the people around me crazy talking about the things I learn from books.  My love of reading and learning goes straight back to my wonderful father who used to take the time to show me the true enjoyment I could get from a good book.  We still enjoy talking about what we are reading and sharing ideas. One of my favorite things to do is read aloud to my students.
  5. Physical Fitness– I have been active my entire life.  When I was younger I would spend as much time outdoors as possible.  I was always running, swinging, biking and playing outdoors, even in the winter.  As an adult, I have learned to manage my stress through exercise.  When I  let my fitness schedule lax, I know full well the consequences of not having as much energy and not dealing with my stress in a positive way.

What a lucky person I am!

 

 

 

Recharging the Passion

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If I could use one word to describe my attitude in the reflection of the school year it would be “uninspired.”  It shocks me to say it, and I certainly do not blame it on anyone but myself.  What I realize now is I allowed myself to slip back into a place I vowed never to return and had become complacent with my actions and thoughts.

I don’t really believe that I did a horrible job or caused any permanent damage, but I know for sure I didn’t do everything I could to have a positive effect on my staff and students.  Years ago I had an experience that knocked me to my knees professionally and left my self-esteem reeling.  I took the time I needed to recover and in the end felt it was one of the most life changing and attitude adjusting experiences I have ever had.  Out of the negative came many positives.  Out of the negative came the realization that I was in control of my life and how I was going to react to my experiences.

What I have realized lookng back now on my “unispired” year is that I lost sight of my passions.  The things that really drive me through each day took a back seat and, instead, I was caught up in moving through each day in survival mode.  I allowed things around me and decisions that were out of my control to dictate my attitudes.

Writing this first blog post is only the beginning of my new journey.   This is the first of, what I hope will be many, blog posts to come. I want to refocus, learn from others, change my mindset so I can charge back to my students and staff with the attitude and drive they deserve to have from me.

So…back to my passions I go!