Sunday, November 20, 2011

Grade 8 Voices

About five years ago, Burnett Secondary's Administrative team decided to start talking to students about their school experiences more.  As part of a Professional Development project that the school district was supporting (called Secondary Futures), a group of teachers and administrators attempted to start the conversation of how high school could be done differently (long before the BC Education Plan).  The group discussed ideas for generating conversation and at Burnett we decided to talk to our students using an appreciative inquiry model.  We asked our students a series of questions about what they enjoyed in school, and what they felt school needed to add to help them be more successful in the future.  We started by interviewing students in Grades 8, 10 and 12, and made notes of the feedback we received from our conversations.  We then went back and recorded several of the comments students made and created a video that we were able to share with our staff.  The video highlighted many of the great things we were already doing and should think about doing more, as well as some of the areas we needed to change and focus our energies on improving.

The video was extremely helpful, and has initiated conversation and changes in purpose and practice from many stakeholders in the school (students and teachers alike).  I recall enjoying the conversations very much, and we have decided to continue them every year since, now focusing the talks on Grade 8's.  Thursday and Friday were the "No Office Days" we set aside to stay out of the office and get into each of the 7 Humanities 8 classes within the school and talk with students about what gets them excited about learning.

It has been a busy and awkward year, and perhaps we have not been in classes as much as we should have. Thursday and Friday were exceptionally busy yet invigorating days due to the conversations we were able to participate in.

To start the visits, we introduced ourselves and explained why we were there (though the teachers had prepared them with information that we were coming).  We then got students into small groups and gave them a handout that listed 4 guiding questions (however, students were told they did not have to follow them directly).  The questions were:
    • How has your Grade 8 experience been (so far) versus what you thought it might be?
      • What are the things you are really enjoying about high school?  Describe a lesson where you left the class excited about what you were learning.  What made it that way?  What are the good things we are doing that you feel we should be doing more of?  How do you like to show what you have learned?
        • What would make Grade 8 better?  Give us some examples of what can be done differently. 
          • What do you wish you knew or were told before you came to high school?
            As you can imagine, the conversation was electric.  Kids love being asked these types of questions and the feedback flew at us (most of it extremely positive).

            Samples of responses include:

            "It's been more fun than I expected."

            "I thought I was going to get bullied and be afraid of the teachers, but everyone has been really nice!" 

            "There are lots of friendly and helpful older students"

            "I like getting to meet lots of new friends"

            "I like how we are expected to be more independent"

            "I like the alternating schedule and having 4 different classes with different teachers and class mates each day."

            "The Grade 8 retreat was awesome.  I got to meet lots of new friends"

            "I like the hands-on activities" 

            "I like teachers who make us laugh" 

            "I like when the teacher relates the topic we are learning about to our lives"

            "I like when the teacher talks to us in our language"

            "I like classes where we get to play games or talk to each other and share ideas" 

            "I like it when we get to use our iPods and Blackberries in class for research"

            "We have more freedom and responsibility" 

            "We get to choose some electives based on our interests"

            "I think there should be less taking notes" 

            "The lockers are too small and nobody wants a bottom one"

            "We had a math class where everyone had to bring in a dish of food that used math to make.  We spent half an hour eating and talking.  It was awesome."

            "We should have fewer tests and quizzes"

            "There is still lots of homework, but it is less than we expected"

            "I wish I could have sit-in on some classes when I was in Grade 7, so I would have known what it was going to be like"

            "The cafeteria is too expensive"

            "Lunch is too late in the day"

            "I would like to have more field trips" 

            "I enjoy all of the extra-curricular clubs and teams"

            "We need a louder bell"

            "I don't do very well on tests, and I like that in some classes my teacher lets me show them what I know in different ways"

            "The washrooms need repair" 

            "It is difficult to get around-the hallways are crowded and lockers are hard to use"

            "I wish I had a map of the school before I started, since it was hard to find my way around"

            "This school is AWESOME!!!  Don't change anything!"  (I think this student may have been looking for bonus marks-lol...)
            While some of the responses we received were predictable, the feedback from our students over the last few years has been extremely valuable, somewhat reaffirming and has also led us to make some changes (both big and small).  Equally important, however, is that we are encouraging our students to become self-advocates, a very important skill we must help develop to prepare them for their future.  Too often, students in our community have quietly followed along, unwilling to share their thoughts and ideas with their parents, teachers and administrators.  We are letting them know that their voice is important, will be heard and can result in positive changes taking place.  They greatly appreciate this opportunity.

            As much as the British Columbia Education Plan is upon us, and offers some good ideas for ways we can improve what we are doing in schools, one of the best places we can start is by talking to the students we are servicing.  They have some great ideas and are excited to share!

            Friday, November 11, 2011

            Lest We Forget

            Today was November 11th.  On this day, people around the world stop, reflect, remember and appreciate the efforts and sacrifices made by their forebears.  In Canada, we take time to acknowledge the military personnel who have given and continue to give so much for the way of life we enjoy.  Sometimes it feels as though we take for granted the comfortable and orderly lifestyle in Canada, but when we stop and recall all that has gone into creating this way of life, we can't help but feel overwhelmed and forever indebted.

            Yesterday our school held its Remembrance Day ceremony, acknowledging the sacrifices of the past and present, and linking these struggles to the lives we lead now.  For many of our students, the wars from years gone by seem so far removed that it can be difficult for them to identify with the sacrifices people have made.  The goal of our ceremony was to acknowledge the efforts and sacrifices, and link them to the experiences our students now enjoy.

            This year, the ceremony was run exclusively by and featured several performances from our students.  We invited a guest, Mr. Tony Spiring, who we recognized as a veteran and who was captivated by the tribute our students put together.  Morgan Steele and Sarah Aljeboury acted as Masters of Ceremony, our concert band under the direction of Ms. Freeman and singer Pearl Xu led a stirring rendition of "O Canada", and Richmond Cadet and member of this year's graduating class, Kevin Zhao gave an inspiring and poignant opening address to the audience.  He was followed by Anna Toth who gave a stunning performance of a beautiful song she wrote in honour of Remembrance Day called "There's a Shadow".  There was also a striking video montage put together by Mrs. Carvalhiero and the Photography class as well as Calvin Li's playing of "The Last Post" and "Reveille".  The Burnett Glee club performed "Amazing Grace", four of our students performed the poem "Why wear a Poppy?", and we closed with another uplifting video montage put together by Mrs. Carvalheiro and the Photography class, reminding us to appreciate the freedoms and rights we have been given as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It was truly an inspiring ceremony that made the audience appreciate the talents of our students and the sacrifices made by those before us to enable our way of life.
            As stated by our guest, Mr. Spiring, the ceremony was truly impressive.  He explained to me after it was over that he has been attending ceremonies like these for several years, and while he appreciated all that he has seen, he had never before been part of one so moving and inspirational.  Like me, he was awed by the talents of our students, and even more impressed by the audience members who observed with such respect and dignity.  The behaviour of our students, especially when watching one another, is remarkably respectful and added a fantastic element to the ceremony that made all of us within the Burnett community proud.

            I would like to say thank you to all those who planned, coordinated and performed in the ceremony, and also recognize all of our staff and students for the exceptional decorum from the audience.  It was truly and inspirational event that made me very proud of who we are, where we've been and where we are going.  I would be remiss if I did not also thank the countless military personnel and their families for all they have done and the sacrifices they have made to enable the way of life we enjoy in Canada.  Thank you.

            Congratulations on a job well done and never forget.