Sunday, October 30, 2011

The BC Ed Plan...Where are we?

Last Friday's announcement from the BC Ministry of Education (the BCEd Plan and document) has people all around the province talking.  What does this mean?  How is this different from what is going on now?  How is implementation of this change going to happen with teachers in job action?

An important question for those of us in schools is, "What are we already doing that fits within what the government is proposing, and where do we go from here?" (Acknowledgements to Gino Bondi, who has posted a similar thread for John Oliver Secondary School in Vancouver, on his blog, Learning the Now).  While many are frustrated by the lack of clarity and the timing of such an announcement (complicated by the labour unrest in education), I believe there is some good in the proposal from the Ministry, because we are already engaged in several of the practices required.  I have written previously of some of the potential roadblocks to any sweeping change (in blog post Personalized, 21st Century Learning).  But now that there are some specifics to the plan, we all need to look at where we are in order to frame the discussion of where we need to go.

In reviewing the document, the Ministry has pinpointed 5 pillars in their plan:
  • Personalized Learning for every student
  • Quality Teaching and Learning
  • Flexibility and Choice
  • High Standards
  • Learning Empowered by Technology
When I look at our school (J.N. Burnett Secondary in Richmond, B.C.), I see Graduation rates over 96%.  I see highly professional educators constantly reflecting upon and refining their practice, updating assessment strategies to incorporate Assessment for Learning, and working hard to support the diverse needs within our school, specifically the English as a Second Language learners.  I see truancy and misbehaviour rates at remarkably low levels, and a social responsibility/awareness among the students and staff that is exceedingly impressive.  I see technology all around the school, with wireless Internet accessibility, and teachers and students using mobile devices and other technology tools in classrooms.  I see standards of learning and achievement reflected in high provincial exam results and significant numbers of students making the academic honour roll and being recognized for maintaining high scores on report card Work Habits.  I see students able to choose a path for themselves, based on interests and areas of strength, with a wide range of elective courses, on-line learning opportunities, as well as work experience and outside-of-school credit avenues.

All these things tell me we need to stay the course with our professional development projects, expanding the pockets of cutting-edge assessment and instructional practices.  We need to continue promoting cultural and environmental awareness campaigns, and to celebrate the exceptional things our students are doing.  To move forward, areas requiring more attention include continuing to promote creative, critical thinking and supporting students in their pursuits of individual interest, providing greater flexibility and depth within coursework.  We also need to expand our abilities to utilize the available technologies, and incorporate more of them into our classrooms.  We need to continue to "personalize" learning, so that our students become more engaged and less concerned with credentialing.  And we must carefully consider the structures of our school in order to enable greater flexibility and choice.  In all, I am proud of where our school is, and encouraged by our willingness to grow and continue moving forward with 21st century learning.  The Plan put forth by the government does not intimidate, rather it excites because I see our school well on its way.

The B.C. Ministry of Education is looking for feedback from parents, students and educators.  If you have suggestions or thoughts, provide them here.  As stated in a previous blog entry, education in British Columbia is entering an uncertain and tumultuous time, but the discussions being initiated by documents like the B.C. Education Plan provide us an opportunity to reflect, give feedback, and hopefully make the system that much better for the student in its care.  Be sure to share your opinions.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Be Your Best!

Earlier this week, my wife and I had both of our children undergo a fairly routine medical procedure, but one that required our children being put under general anaesthetic.  The anticipation of it, and the subsequent surgery and recovery has been an ordeal for the entire family. 

Being at BC Children's Hospital most of the day yesterday was an interesting experience that made me think about my family as well as the work we educators are involved in.  I saw my children, my wife and myself wrought with worry, concerned with how the procedure would go, and how we could best help alleviate the stress and discomfort.  I saw the very same look of concern on every parent and child in the waiting room, post-operative room and recovery room.  All were understandably worried and relying on the staff at the hospital to treat their child as the most important thing in the world.  The staff at BC Children's Hospital were truly amazing.  They handled our entire family with tremendous care.  Despite our children's procedure being quite routine, we were greeted by friendly and calming nurses, anaesthetists and doctors, and they truly made us feel like the procedure our boys were about to undergo was the most important thing the staff was going to do that day.

We need to remember that as teachers, we are entrusted with the most important things in people's lives...their children.  They trust us to do the best job possible, just as we had to trust our nurses and surgeons.  Students often come to school with all kinds of preconceived notions and dispositions, just as they come to the hospital full of dread and worry.  We need to be able to see that discomfort, address it, and make students feel safe, important and well cared-for, just as the staff at BC Children's Hospital did for our family and all the others I observed yesterday. 

While the consequences for a mistake may seem more immediate and severe for medical practitioners, educators are charged with no less-critical a task.  We can take a chance and try something new if we feel it might lead to a better result, while surgeons usually do not have that luxury.  We have the opportunity to re-teach or try it again if students didn't understand what was being taught.  But how we go about our work requires that we remember how important the job is, and what the students and their parents are hoping to get.  We need to be our best!  Parents and their children are trusting us to make the experience of school a positive one, just as they do when going to the hospital.  My children, wife and I owe a huge debt of thanks to the staff at Children's Hospital for doing that for our family. 

Thank you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Personalized, 21st Century Learning

Throughout Canada, and across many countries around the world, the movement for reform in education is significant. Many authors and experts are discussing terms like "21st Century Learning" and "Personalized Learning".  The group of Secondary Principals in the Richmond School District decided a few weeks ago to begin reading and discussing the terms as part of their professional development.  We started by looking over the Ministry of Education's Interactive Discussion Guide.  Since going through it, I have engaged in several conversations with colleagues, staff and students, and have done further reading on the topic (21st Century Learning on the Ministry site, and The Premier's Technology Council Vision for 21st Century Education as well as blog posts like "The 'New' Ministry Initiative"), and while excited by the rich conversations and thinking the topics have resulted in, I have more questions than answers about how "Personalized, 21st Century Learning" is going to evolve.

If I am honest with myself, while I am aware of the definitions, I am less clear on how I see these things ultimately manifesting themselves in our schools.  I have seen literature that discusses the Eight C's (Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Cross-cultural Understanding, Communication, Computing, Career plus Caring for Self and the Environment) and Three R's (Reading, Writing and Numeracy) of 21st Century Learning, and understand that for learning to be Personalized, we need to provide options and choices for students, and supply them opportunities to explore areas of interest and strength embracing tools like technology.  But until we are comfortable with what these things will look like in practice, we may struggle in helping move our schools any closer to achieving that goal.

B.C. Minister of Education, George Abbott released earlier this week his Plan for Education Transformation, and after digesting it, and reliving the conversations I have engaged in the past couple of weeks, four issues come forward (though I am sure there are several more)...

  1. As indicated above, I am unsure what these things will look like, and I do not think I am alone.  Many people are aware of the definitions, but are not sure how things will need to be done differently in order for us to move schools effectively into 21st Century Learning.  I am confident that much of what our teachers are doing, and have been doing for lengthy periods of time, are personalized and geared toward the 21st Century (peer teaching, progressive assessment strategies, the evolution of Distributed on-line learning, cross-curricular unit planning to name only a few) but it is not clear what the government expects schools to look like.  Perhaps this is deliberate, because each context is different.  But I have been asked in conversation, "How is this different from 'Student-Centered Learning'?" and, "What about the student who doesn't know yet what his/her areas of strength and interest are, or who is only interested in one thing, which may change as s/he grows?" or, "What will we be giving up in moving toward this system, and how is that considered better?"  These are all excellent questions that we are struggling to answer.
  2. Two of the most important skills from the Eight C's are critical thinking and creativity.  Inherent in becoming a creative, critical thinker is a willingness to take risks.  One of the greatest obstacles facing students and educators today is the societal pressure to achieve marks.  We live in a "data-driven" world, where it seems we need to quantify everything with numbers, including our students' learning.  I have had numerous conversations with students over the years, listening to them fret over their marks and stress over pleasing their parents and getting into university.  Many post-secondary institutions in B.C. are moving toward "broad-based" admissions policies, schools are moving forward with assessment-for-learning strategies that don't penalize risk-taking, and the Ministry has taken some focus off exam results by abolishing optional Provincial exams.  But there still exists a reluctance for students to take chances and look for unique solutions to problems due to a fear of being incorrect, and having that response negatively affect their standing.  The fear of "getting it wrong" needs to be alleviated, freeing students to think creatively and take some chances.  This is a big shift away from where we are now for parents, students, educators and institutions and needs to be our highest priority.
  3. Money continues to be an issue.  Some educators I have spoken with are hoping that Personalized Learning  will result in a reduction of the chasm between the wealthy and the less affluent, but wonder where the money will come from.  While money is a factor everywhere, and can not be used as an excuse for not moving forward, much of what 21st Century Learning is supposed to be about requires technology hardware, and comes at a cost.  Our school is still struggling with out-of-date hardware and software, and keeping up with the rapidly changing technology world is an almost impossible task.  The concern is that without appropriate technology supports in schools, the gulf between the haves and have-nots will increase rather than be reduced, since only the affluent will be able to access those technological advantages.
  4. Most important in any efforts for change is buy-in from parents, students and teachers. Deep change like what the government is suggesting requires it, but as a colleague pointed out to me, teachers in B.C. are dealing with job action and contract negotiations and aren't feeling particularly appreciated or supported.  Telling them to improve and change how they do things may not be well received at this time and will not be successful "without fully engaged and committed" parents and professionals.
There is little doubt that the future of education is unsettled and intimidating yet exciting and full of opportunity. Students, teachers and parents need to think differently about the purposes of education and it's goal of preparing students to become productive members of society. Starting the conversations and improving and sharing practices that lead to "Personalized, 21st Century Learning" (and commonly understanding what these terms mean for professional practice) are critical in creating schools that are best preparing tomorrow's leaders with the skills they need. If you have suggestions for how you see these terms coming to life, and how you intend to overcome the obstacles in your schools (I have ideas, but admittedly, they are vague), I would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

World Teacher Day

Today was a great day.  I had the opportunity to connect with several staff and students, and after what has seemed like a hectic first month, it was a welcomed change.  The Bill 33 consultation process and paperwork is complete, some of our SADE reporting and Class Size and Composition data has been extracted and analyzed, the timetable appears to be balanced and 1701 reporting has been taken care of.  These are only a few of the first month's priorities.

Today was a day for me to get into classes, and connect with staff and students.  I also got the chance to express some of my appreciation for all that the people of our school do.  Since it was World Teacher Day, I purchased donuts for the staff (a small token), and with some students, delivered them to classrooms around the school with a heartfelt "thank-you".  Tomorrow, I am hosting an appreciation lunch for the members of Student Council who assisted us during the first week homeroom classes with the tasks teachers could not perform due to job action.  I also got to observe a couple of excellent lessons today, specifically one of a teacher going through the evaluation process where she very effectively got students talking about bullying and ways to combat it, employing all kinds of technology (powerpoint and video examples for her own discussion, as well as promoting student cellphone use for their own anti-bullying PSA videos), and she handled the class with an easy aplomb.  It was a pleasure to be in the room and throughout the hallways during the day.

It got me to thinking about the impact of teaching.  Being World Teacher Day, I wanted to show some gratitude to the teachers at Burnett, as well as the inspiring people who have helped shape me into the person I am today.  I know that there is a call for reform in education, and as we move forward into a largely unknown future, we do need to look at constantly improving how we go about our business.  That does not mean, however, that everything we are doing and have been doing is wrong.  I look at the experience I had as a student, and recall it fondly, but when I compare it to the experience I see today's students getting, and the people they are becoming, I am exceedingly impressed.  Students today are even more tolerant, literate, creative, thoughtful, and socially and environmentally aware, to list only a few of the skills we see in our students each day (check out blog posts by Chris Wejr and Cale Birk on this topic).  Much of that must be attributed to how they are being taught.

I would also like to take the time to applaud the efforts of some of the more influential teachers I had while growing up.  I always enjoyed being at school, and the things I learned and the experiences I had created positive memories, and lessons that will last a lifetime.  Acknowledgements to Chris Kennedy for his post, A Little Bit About Mrs. Caffrey, that has inspired my reflecting.

  • Mrs. Webster-my grade 1 teacher.  I was new to the area, having just returned from the United States.  I didn't know many people, but her classroom was so welcoming and warm, I could not help but become comfortable with her and my classmates.  
  • Mr. Porter-my grade  4 teacher.  A year I will never forget.  I was hit by a car in early November, and nearly lost my life.  Mr. Porter helped both my friends and myself get through a very difficult time.  Always the teacher, when he learned of my accident, he used the skeleton hanging from the door for Halloween to talk about what had happened to me, and performed an anatomy lesson of sorts to inform the class of which bones had been broken.
  • Mr. McTavish-high school PE teacher and rugby and basketball coach.  A man many of us looked up to and tried desperately to impress.  A national level rugby player and fantastically inspiring coach who put countless hours into the lives of the students in his classes and on his teams.  Extolling the virtues of discipline and hard-work, his lessons still resonate with me today.
  • Mr. Hallett-high school Biology teacher.  A teacher passionate about his subject area, but more importantly, someone students saw as a real human.  His sense of humour outdid all the others, as he dressed in black on test day.  It was his challenge to us to see if we could outperform his exams.  He honestly wanted us to.  Most indicative of his impact were the number of students, past and present, who showed up at his funeral a few years after our class graduated.
  • Mr. Auman-high school basketball coach.  Provided me opportunities in something that I loved, and nurtured my thirst to learn, improve and chase my dream of playing the game that has helped develop so many of the life skills I value most.
  • My parents-the ultimate educators.  Their teaching continues today, as I learn from them how to raise my children.  A nurse and and a professor, they have dedicated their lives to helping others, and have always worked hard doing so.  They set the bar for my sister and me, have supported us beyond measure, and we are fortunate to have had them be the role-models they are for leading a happy, successful life.   
  • Too many others to list-coaches and mentors from my young adult life until today.  Constantly asking me questions, provoking my thinking, pushing my efforts and modelling the ethics required to make things happen.

So to all of the fantastic teachers I had growing up, and to the wonderfully dedicated and talented educators I see all around me at Burnett Secondary, keep up the important and inspired work that you are doing.  Please know that you are making a difference in the lives of many, and that you are greatly appreciated.  Thank you.