Sunday, January 27, 2013

Starting over!

Every year, Labour Day marks a time of renewal and excitement in the minds of students all across North America.  I have written about it being the real Happy New Year, and though it is not quite the same, I feel similar sensations for myself and the staff and students I work with when it comes to second semester.  For most of my education career I have been involved in Linear programs. I went to a linear high school and until 8 years ago, when I moved to Burnett, I had always worked in linear schools.  Burnett, like several other high schools in the Lower Mainland, employs a semester system where students take four subjects every day for half the year and at the end of January, those courses finish and four new ones begin.  The excitement and sense of starting over always reminds me of the John Lennon song above.

Some people are fond of the semester system because of the idea of a fresh start, indicating that many students who may be struggling get to hit the "Reset" button.  While this may be true, I also find it invigorating because the end of January can be a difficult time in schools for all staff and students.  Days are short, the weather is poor and doldrums can set in.  Completing a course and getting a new set of classmates, teachers and courses gets people excited again, and the conclusion of the first set of events can quite often be some of the best teaching and learning of the year!  As an example, over the past two weeks, I have made it a priority to get into classrooms and see what is happening in our school (I need to make this an even higher priority because I am interested in and proud of the work I see our staff and students doing.  Plus, I find what I see to be extremely exciting and uplifting).  As courses were coming to an end, I saw fabulous Art projects, Science Fair project presentations and Home Economics labs, and student pride in their work was palpable.  I saw invigorating lessons introducing Grade 8's to Shakespeare and I saw several performances of Grade 10 and 11 students representing their understanding of Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth and Hamlet.

This past Thursday, after a lengthy and frustrating Principal's meeting where we discussed concerns about enrollment, staffing, budget and several other "bad news" items, I went back to the school and in order to lift my mood, spent the afternoon in three separate classes (all in one block).  One of the comments made in the morning meeting was that "so much of what we read on Twitter and the internet, and see on the news and other forms of media is that we in education are doing it all wrong and need to 'blow-up' the system".  That is hard to hear, and after what I saw that afternoon, is not accurate.  People contend that students are completely disengaged and bored by what is "being done to them" in school.  Yet, in one block I watched musical representations of Spanish language terms, Shakespearean recitals in English classes, and extra-ordinarily creative Drama performances.  In that same period there were plenty of the requisite final exams and projects, and while it may be considered taboo to say it, I believe these summative assessment pieces are necessary and valuable.  The students I saw all around the school were fully engaged, enjoying what they were doing, problem-solving and thinking creatively, laughing, being respectful of one another and talking about how much they were going to miss this class next semester.  Good things are happening all over our schools, and while we continue to work at improving the system, we need to remember that we are doing inspiring, important work!
As we end the first semester, take time to reflect on what you have accomplished so far, appreciate your efforts and recognize the learning that continues.  As the Provincial Exams take place over the next three school days, remember that just around the corner you will get new teachers, new classmates, and new courses...  Take advantage of the FRESH START, and have a great second half of the year!


  1. Jason, this is a timely, honest and important post. The data is very clear - BC public school students are performing very well internationally and our students are graduating from school at higher rates than ever before. People who actually work in schools every day see what you observed - students regularly engaged in innovative, creative and thoughtful learning. The notion that our schools & teachers are stuck in an "industrial age" and that students are mostly memorizing content in preparation for a series of final exams is inaccurate.

    I think the hand wringing comes from unstable global economies, shifting economic powers, unpredictable labour cycles, exponential technological sophistication, rapid climate change all while the number of underemployed people in the First World, including recent university graduates, is growing. Instability creates fear and our schools face pressure to better prepare young people for this uncertainty.

    Of course we must continually improve and work closely with post secondary partners (schools and careers) to best prepare young people for an ever evolving future; however, this is better met by collaborating and constantly refining and reshaping the good things we are currently doing. We need to CONTINUE to produce young people who can think critically and creatively, who can innovate, solve problems, collaborate and communicate.

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  3. Thanks for the comment, Jim.

    Educators are doing good, important work, and our students are benefitting from efforts to make a high-quality system even better. Like you, I think that the "hand-wringing" is related to the uncertainty of life in our future.

    That fear does create extra pressure on schools and communities to adjust how we educate our children to best prepare them for the unknown. But as you have said, we need not "blow up the system" and instead should continue to grow the pockets of excellence that are occurring in our schools. Meaningful change can be slow but also must be accompanied by recognition of what is being done well. There is lots out there that is being done better than ever before.

    I am confident that educators are up to the challenge of continuing to improve the system, and am encouraged by what I have seen recently.