No More Excuses

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.”


Meaningful Mindset

Here I am being prompted to write another post because of something I saw on Facebook.  I am not sure if that means I should spend less time on Facebook or not, because it does lead me to think of some important topics.   Growth mindset is a topic that comes up often in educational discussions these days.  Growth mindset for teachers, growth mindset for students…what does that even mean?

The particular post I was reading on Facebook was a person venting out about city planning here in the City of Estevan.  I am not sure why people continue to vent things out on social media using a string of curse words to get their points across, but that is the subject of another post perhaps.  The thing about this post and the number of comments that followed, was the attitude that we can just post something, get others to join in a negative tirade and then feel that some positive change might come out of that.  I know schools and school principals are sometimes the target of these posts and if the truth be known, most times we don’t even see them.  It is difficult to promote positive action or change when the right people do not even receive your thoughts or concerns, which is probably what happened in this case.

I have to wonder, if we stopped for a moment before venting out the negative and spent some time, sharing positive solutions or possibilities, what a difference that might make.  I don’t know much about city planning and even though the railway tracks going down the middle of the city cause me some frustration at times, it seems to me, if I want a voice in decisions, I need to get involved in a positive way.

I came across a blog post on the weekend titled, “Quit Complaining”.  It caught my eye, because it was exactly what I was thinking in response to the Facebook post.   The author of the blog post explained that complaining negatively impacts the energy of the complainer and everyone around that person.  The post goes on to say, after 30 minutes, the effects of complaining actually start to change the ability to problem solve.

“Exposure to negativity for 30 minutes or more impacts the neurons in the hippocampus, impairing the ability to problem solve. We give away our power and become victims when we focus on complaints over solutions.”

In my last post, I mentioned the opportunity I  had, recently,  to listen to Tom Hierck speak on student engagement with the rest of our school division admin team.  Our grades 4-12 teachers then spent the day listening to him at the beginning of October.  One of the messages he left with us was the opportunity we all have to judge the actions of others in a positive or negative light.

For example, the person who cuts you off in traffic…

Is that person really being a jerk, who is irresponsible or has that person simply made an error in judgement that we all make at different times while driving?   Mr. Hierck was trying to get the point across that we should consider giving the benefit of the doubt in these simple situations and moving on without misplacing frustration and energy on negative paths that truly lead no where.

It makes sense when you think about it.  The time spent stewing in frustration or anger is lost on the person who cut you off, but takes away from the ability we have to move on with our day and focus our energy on much more important things.

Having a growth mindset, seems to be the ability to  focus on the process of learning rather than the fixed end result that cannot be changed.  Is it possible there might better way to do something  I have done a million times, if I stay open to the possibilities?  Can I truly stop and consider someone else’s perspective and be a better, more informed person because of it?  Can I make a mistake and look at it as a pathway for growth, rather than a failure?  Can I tackle something difficult and not give up in the middle of the struggle? Can I look at my weaknesses as opportunity for growth and not be discouraged?

So, what does this mean for students in the classroom?

We used to believe that intelligence and ability was fixed.  A sort of-you either have it or you don’t when it came to intelligence and talent. When I was in school, we were all given intelligence tests and our overall ability was judged looking only at that number.  Over the years, research has shown us that is not the case. All of our students have the ability to grow in different areas given the right circumstances and the right motivation.

I was watching a TED Talk presentation by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University, psychologist who specializes in research studies based on motivation and “growth mindset”.  In her presentation, she is talking about the power of “not yet”.  Her theory seems to be,  we are always on a continuum of growth towards achieving our goals.  Students who have been taught to have a growth mindset, look at challenges much differently than those who are just aiming for a passing grade or the end result.  Students with a growth mindset will not give up when given a difficult challenge, but rather look to it as being “not yet” there.

She offers many studies that show having a growth mindset can make a huge difference for our students and their ability to problem solve.  Her advice to parents and teachers is to stop telling our students how wonderful they are.

Now, we might say… “What? We are trying to build up their self-esteem?

She does not want us to stop praising them, she just wants us to think about how and what we are praising.  Instead of always telling our children and students that every little thing they accomplish is the best, she believes we should praise the struggle, the quest for understanding, the process needed to stretch and solve problems.

The “Quit Complaining” blog post, I mentioned earlier, suggested a quick strategy that might benefit us as adults, but seems to me could be a habit that might benefit our students as well.  The strategy was to simply add the word “so” to the end of our complaints or frustrations followed by the actions needed to make a positive difference.

If we go back to the complainer I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it might go something like this…

I get so frustrated by many of the decisions made by the city planners, so I think I should try to contact my city counselor and explain my frustrations and find out why certain decisions are made or think about running for city council so I would have a voice in the decisions that are made.

Now, I know, that sounds a bit optimistic, but again, if we do nothing, we get nothing.

Is it possible to change our language in classrooms to promote positive mindsets in our students? Rather than praising the student for doing well, can we instead, praise the process or the struggle?  When a student makes a mistake or does not quite achieve to the level he or she needs to be at, can we promote a “not yet” there atmosphere instead of a “you failed” atmosphere? Can we focus on the problem solving or seeking positive solution, type actions in our classrooms, rather than on end results?

We cannot do this alone.  Like most things that happen in schools, we need parents and families to be an equal part of the team.  Can parents also promote the idea that learning and growth is a process and perhaps it is okay if we are “not yet” there, “so” how are we going to get there?  Our first response may be to solve problems for our children, but imagine the benefit to them learning to solve problems for themselves.

Learning from the struggle.

Our students do not need to be praised for every move they make. They do not need a reward for every step they take.  Instead, they need encouragement to build a growth mindset that will take them into the future.  If we model and encourage growth mindset, we could be well on our way to having a group of young adults that might not be discouraged when challenged and might not expect to be rewarded for completing the simplest task.

 Imagine what those young adults might accomplish.


My Son, The Learner

Late last night as I was watching TV my son appeared from outside.  When I questioned him as to where he had been, he replied, “I was building stuff.”  He then proceeded to show me an elaborate potato gun he had constructed and explain to me how it would work.  He also made sure I knew that he did the best with the materials he could find in our shed. (Not his ideal materials apparently)  The potato gun was something that he had seen at a conservation camp he had attended recently sponsored by the Estevan Wildlife Association.

Many times I have been amazed at the learning attitude that my son Nate has.  He sees himself capable of many things.  He can picture how something will go together, how he can make things, even how he can mix chemicals to create elaborate fireworks displays for friends and family. (I know, I know… who lets their 15-year-old do that?)  If he does not know how to do something, he will “Google it” or “You Tube it” to clarify. He never sees limits in what he can learn and accomplish when he is busy with his passions.  He will construct, test, and reconstruct, test over and over again to create the exact chemical reaction he is seeking in a firework.

I am amazed by him.

The flip side of this story though, is that my son has struggled in school since he started kindergarten.  He had trouble learning his letters, then he did not learn to read until after most of his classmates were well on their way.  He still struggles to find the motivation to memorize things and apply them in the school setting. He hates chemistry, not because he does not understand chemicals and their reactions, but  because he is put off by the need to memorize the periodic table and the lack of hands on learning experiences.  He is struggling to complete his high school in a setting that does not allow for much flexibility or creativity.

I do not worry about Nate’s success in life, but I do worry about his success in the school setting.

Last night I was watching a video of Tony Wagner speaking on “Play, Passion, Purpose” thinking about my son and other students surviving their education.  Dr. Wagner speaks of the antiquated education system and gives many examples and reasons why we need to change our teaching and learning.  He talks about allowing students to play, to explore their passions and to find purpose for their learning.

At times, change in our educational system seems so slow it is hard to recognize.  I realize I need to be part of that change.  Meeting the needs of today’s learner is something I am very passionate about and spend quite a bit of time learning and collaborating with others about.  Last year I had the opportunity to go back into the classroom after spending 5 years as a Learning Support Teacher and school administrator.  It was such a learning experience for me to be “walking my talk” with my staff.  One of the things I tried with my grade 6 and 8 students was Genius Hour.  It was fun to allow time for students to pursue passions and work together to learn new things and it was such an excellent way to get to know them.  When I reflect back on this experience there were many positives, some negatives and, of course, many things I would change.

This summer I read the book “Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom” by A.J. Juliani and have been participating in a book chat on Friday mornings #2k14reads. We will be meeting for two more weeks, so please join us.   I plan to do Genius Hour with my students again this year, using some ideas from the book and things that were shared by the many wise teachers in the book chat.  One of the things I realized last year was that I did not front load my students enough about what passions really are.  Students are not used to having free time to pursue the types of learning they do outside of the school day.  They need to see themselves as learners and realize that learning does not have to be teacher driven.

I hope that I can encourage others to work toward project based learning, driven by students.  We need our young people to have the intrinsic motivation to learn from mistakes, such as the learning I see in my son when he is chasing his passions.

Having Fun Doing It

I was able to start my week in Saskatoon at the Saskatchewan IT Summit.  Not only that, but I had the opportunity to take two of my teachers with me and totally enjoyed being able to get to know them away from our building.  All in all it was a fantastic way to start my week.

There were many great ideas presented to us at the conference but my favorite part had to be our key-note speaker, Rushton Hurley.  He was full of very practical and easy to incorporate ideas and was funny and engaging to listen to.  Rushton offered up various links and ready to use resources, many of which I was able to come back to my classroom and use this week.  Take the time to check out his website Next Vista for Learning. It is a free online library of teacher and student made videos, organized and ready to use.  I used some of the videos and set my grade 6 students figuring out a new web tool,

Listening to Rushton brought forth a very important message that I feel we need to stop and remember on a daily basis.

Slow down and have fun being a teacher.

Here are a couple of my tweets as I listened to him.

I think it is easy to get caught up in the negative things that can be going on around us and overwhelmed with the demands of our jobs, rather than taking the time to enjoy the little moments each day that make us laugh.

We have had a difficult couple of weeks in Estevan and in our school division as a whole with the tragic death of a young teacher.  As we tried to rally around our own during that time and offer whatever support we could, the true meaning of what we need to remember to do came crashing to the surface for me.

Slow down and enjoy the moments.

Attending the memorial service and then attending the conference and listening to Rushton just drove it home a little more.

We need to take time to have fun with each other and with our students.

I know I am constantly bragging up my staff at school, but trust me I have reason to brag.  We try to have a lot of fun together which might be illustrated by a little trick that was played on me when I was at the conference last week.


Every day at school my little students make me laugh.  They are so funny, curious and passionate that it is difficult to have a bad day when we slow down and enjoy them.

Learning needs to be fun and we need to remember to have fun doing it.







Striving to Make Learning Authentic

How many times have we heard the following questions in our classrooms?

  • Why do we have to learn this?
  • When am I ever going to use this in my life?
  • What is the purpose in learning this?

These seem like valid questions for us to consider.

I am an avid reader and because I am so passionate about education much of the reading I do is education related.  I have read and reflected on many topics related to change that is necessary in our classrooms today.  Our students are living in a much different world than many of us were when we were attending school.  They will spend their lives in a much different global environment created by our ability to communicate through technology.  They will need skills related to design, communication and the synthesizing of information. Classroom instruction needs to reflect these changes by moving from just “teaching content” to teaching our students how to learn.  They will need to be able to find and evaluate content, connect with prior knowledge and use that knowledge to solve authentic problems.

A real-world authentic connection requires that students see a reason to do what they are doing, other than the fact they were assigned to do it and will get a grade for doing it. Interests, experiences, significant issues, improving the real world, interacting with people we know are all ways to make learning authentic for our students.

I am not pretending to be an expert on anything.  I just finished giving my students a teacher report card to fill out on me.  Some of the feedback I received turned in the direction of providing my 13 year olds with nap time and play time.  When you ask young adolescents for feedback, it is important to be prepared that not all of it will be useful and thought provoking.

Math Olympic Problem Solving
Math Olympic Problem Solving

One the other hand, many of them did provide me with some very useful things to reflect on.  One of the things I took away from what they said was that I was not providing them with enough choice and I was directing them too closely perhaps, especially in the ways they were going to show and share their learning.  Listening to student voice is crucial to engagement in learning and I am planning to make some changes starting in our next class.

Grade 4
Grade 4

Our school has been working on an action research project this year.  We are trying to see if we can improve some of our math understandings and therefore math achievement by making  real world connections for our students.  It has been an interesting journey and I have been very pleased with some of the things we have been able to accomplish.  We will be sharing our results with other schools in our school division at the end of the month.

Kindergarten Students
Kindergarten/Grade 1 Students

Yesterday I was asked to judge a cooking contest taking place in grade 5 math.  The students have been learning about decimals and were creating their finished products using what they had learned and practicing ratios.  As I listened to the teacher describe what they had done,  I could tell a lot of authentic learning had gone into the process.  The finished products were all delicious, so perhaps the ratios were not too far out.  The students were excited and fully engaged in what they were doing.

Tasting our recipes.


There are many examples throughout our building of students moving away from textbook problems to the creation and sharing of authentic learning experiences.

One of the other things we have done is try and have as many parents, grandparents, community members as we could come in and talk to our students about how they use math in their jobs.  Our visitors have been great and our students have been very engaged in hearing that we don’t only do math during math class.

Many of our students have created videos showing their learning but also for the purpose of sharing and teaching someone else different math skills.


We have been looking for every opportunity we can to make connections for our students and try and make our learning authentic and connected for our students.  Over the course of the year we have been sharing our learning on twitter @PDaleSchool using the hashtag #reallifemath, we have had an Olympic Math Day followed by creating math problems using pictures and data collected during the afternoon and we had a family games night inviting our families to join us for some fun games.

We have yet to see if we were able to improve our actual math scores, but one thing is for sure we improved our engagement in math and were able to share with our students how we use math in our lives and work on a daily basis. Our next challenge will be to see what other ways we can continue to make our learning authentic.  Any suggestions?




Getting Better At What We Do

I spend a lot of time thinking about improvement. Mostly about how I can improve my teaching and leadership and hopefully, in some way, have some influence on improvement in in our school and our system. Right now I am reading “Effective Supervision” by Marzano, Frontier and Livingston. The basis of the book is about building an atmosphere of collegiality in which teachers can share effective teaching practices. The hope is to try and help teachers, myself included, to become what is termed “expert teachers”. We all know countless research tells us the teacher in the room has the greatest effect on student achievement. I feel like we should never quit striving to improve our craft.

Today I followed a link on Twitter that led me to George Couros’blog, The Principal of Change. I was especially interested in a post he had written about making assumptions in education. As part of the discussion he writes, “Once you are done learning as a teacher, you are done.” I could not agree more. We do need to keep learning and we do need to keep striving to get better despite the obstacles that get in our way.

I am a strong believer in reflective practice and have a vision about education and what I think we need to do to prepare our students for whatever their future holds. I also believe in life long learning and never want to come across like I know more than any of the teachers and support staff that I work with. Together we are a knowledgeable and powerful team. We need each other to accomplish all that we do.

I am continually amazed when I walk around my building and watch my teachers in action. I see so many great things accomplished every day and our recent reading benchmark data and other assessments indicate that students are making improvements. It is in moments like this that I wonder if I can really expect more from my teachers and support staff then they are already giving?

Probably the biggest frustration teachers have is TIME. It seems like things are added to our plates on a regular basis and we often go home wondering if we will ever get caught up. How do we fit concentrated efforts for improvement in teaching practices into an already full load?

I was struck by another link posted on Twitter to a blog post written by Jordan Campbell, a fairly new and very wise teacher, who writes about letting go of what we cannot control and concentrating on the great things we do, especially the parts we really enjoy. I could not help but think that maybe this was one of the keys to finding time for improvement. Do we spend too much time on things that do not matter? The post encourages us to not waste time complaining about teaching, but instead, spend our time celebrating and talking about the good things that keep us doing the job day after day.

Leadership in education is about learning. The learning of myself and needs to be at the heart of my decision making every day. I think George in right…once we are done learning, it is time to go.

Creating a Blueprint for Learning

I spent some time yesterday at our school professional development day talking with part of my staff about possible changes we could make to our timetable to accommodate more projects, more cross-curricular connections and more blocks of uninterrupted time with our students. I am very lucky to have an innovative staff that always works hard to do what is right for kids and are patient with my passions about education.

Returning to the classroom this year has been an eye opener for me in a lot of ways. Not only am I now walking my talk and have a much better idea of what my teachers are balancing on a daily basis, I have realized that the timetable, which I created by the way, is not providing our students with the best opportunities to learn or giving our teachers the best opportunity to plan for that learning.

I have a vision about how I believe education needs to be. It is not my vision alone, but more of a realization that what we have done for generations in schools is not and does not work any more. I have had a little glimpse of what happens when you open learning up to students and allow them to follow their passions through Genius Hour. I know that every moment in school cannot be spent doing open projects, but at the same time, the engagement and empowerment I see in my students during that time, is amazing. It is not all perfect and we are still getting started, but I sure like what I see and I love what it allows me to do as a teacher which is step back and guide.

I was watching a video of Marc Prensky speaking at the ECIS Tech Conference in March  in which he describes a vision he has for education that is similar to mine. Then just this morning @marcprensky posted the following tweet:

I am a fan and I am a believer, however I am still frustrated about how to make this vision become a reality in my school.  How can I rearrange our cluttered and confining timetable to allow for more passion driven learning?  How can I provide time and support to my teachers so they are able to facilitate learning in their classrooms that is student driven, less teacher fed and focused?

If you have any creative suggestions about how you organize time in your school, please let me know.

Why I use Twitter…

At some point this year I set the goal of writing on my blog at least once a week.  That is a difficult goal when balancing work and family, but writing is something I enjoy that allows me a creative outlet for my thoughts.  Lately though, I have been to my blog, but feel like I have writers block. When this happens, instead of writing on my blog I will spend my free moments searching around on twitter, reading and sharing. I have a bit of an obsession with Twitter if you ask my husband.  As I sit listening to the wind howling today, searching around on twitter I was thinking about what twitter has added to my professional and personal learning.

One year ago 3 of the teachers in my school had the opportunity to attend #educon conference in Philadelphia.  It was exciting for us to be able to send them there because most teachers in our school division do not have the opportunity to attend big conferences such as this.  They came back with many great ideas to share and prompted all of us to start using Twitter as part of our daily routine in the school, in our classes and in our professional lives.  We spent time as a staff learning from them how to set up a twitter account and  getting some suggestions as to who to follow.  We set up a school Twitter account and starting sharing with our parents through Twitter.  Each of our classrooms have a twitter account and many share classroom happenings on a daily basis.  It has been a great communication and collaboration tool for our whole school.

These are the reasons why I use Twitter

  • Twitter is the best professional development I have been involved in for a long time.
  • It allows me to follow my interests, passions and interact with people similar to me.
  • It allows me to share my ideas.
  • It helps me answer questions.
  • On a daily basis I am able to find ideas and links that help me be a better teacher and administrator