Are Educators Talking to Themselves?

Every day I start by reading the paper. It is a longtime practice and it grounds me before moving on to other projects. This is not something I started in retirement, I did this almost every day while I was actively involved as an educator.

Now I have more time to check out social media as well and I spend time every day going through my networks on Twitter, Facebook and Discovery Education (The DEN).

There is lots of good stuff going on. An online conference planned for the May 5th weekend, an educators summer book study, a new education news show on Voiced Radio lots of conversations between educators involved in Discovery Education on a variety of edtech (mainly) topics.

There is something unsettling here.

If I contrast what I read each day in the paper with what I see educators writing about there is a very discouraging disconnect.

The world is in crisis. Last week we had the Western Alliance hurtling cruise missiles at targets in Syria with the potential of initiating a world conflict between the West and the Russians. Sea levels continue to rise as the Globe and Mail continues to report in an excellent series on global warming and sea levels. In Ontario, we are heading into a provincial election with stark choices between a populist right-wing party and a corrupt moribund government.

Yet, when I look to comments from educators, I see a group that seems oblivious to what is happening in the world. I see a group that seems comfortable remaining blissfully neutral to what is going on.

Maybe educators on social media need to wake up. Maybe the inclusion of a book like American War recently published by former Globe and Mail writer Omar El Akkad would be a useful inclusion in a summer book study too heavy with technical manuals on teaching.

I am watching the excellent series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. This would be a great topic for educators to discuss! One of the most compelling characters in this documentary is a man who was a young professor in the early days of the war. He is compelling because he was so committed to protesting against an unjust, wasteful war, years before this became the popular thing to do. Where are these voices today?

Richard Flacks was, in the 1960s, teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a co-founder of the famous Students for a Democratic Society.

 

Where are we now? Why do we never seem to raise a voice of protest or even criticism of our system? Are we afraid for our jobs? Is it not the right thing to do? Do we even have an opinion?

A few weeks ago I took part in a training in South Carolina with American educators. Not once did we ever talk about politics. The whole world is coming apart because of a rogue president who takes his marching orders from Fox and Friends and we don’t even discuss this over a beer at the end of the day.

This is a problem. I realized this while I was at the training, but it seemed almost impolite to talk about this stuff. It is almost like educators are above this now and we have higher, better things to talk about.

This is distressing. I don’t think this is right. As educators, we have a higher purpose and we can raise the dialogue beyond complaining about testing which seems to be the best that we can do.

Can we do better? Should we do better?

Yes, of course we should.

Fashionable Ideas in Education – suiting other’s agendas?

I read an incredible post today on Twitter – not everything you read is equally useful.

Coordinating a session today about growth mindset… “Allowing yourself to learn from others, not on what you want to learn from them but instead on what they have to teach you is demonstrating a growth mindset!” Do we sometimes sabotage our growth because we want to control it?

I responded with this – ‘I think we need to control our own learning. Learning based on someone else’s agenda is what has always happened. Spent too many years listening to what other people thought I should know.’

How do terms like ‘growth mindset’ get subverted to take on meanings that suit other people’s agenda?

Maybe it has always been this way. How many terms in education do you know that have been subverted to take on a more corporate definition?

Here is one of my favourites – PLC – Professional Learning Community. There was a time when you could go to a three-day conference and hear Richard Dufour and others make really interesting presentations on the importance of personalized learning and collaboration. The books they wrote on PLCs were complex and really useful. Setting up a real PLC was a complex process that followed an outline developed by Dufour over years of trial and error as a high school principal.

PLC’s eventually became something that was used to define any meeting that took place with educators present. There became little distinction between Dufour’s carefully laid out process and a coffee klatch.  Superintendents in an effort to remain current and relevant used the term without any apparent understanding of the research behind the PLC. Recently, I heard a teacher complain (rightly) that her principal had taken all their planning time away by insisting that everyone at their school take part in a PLC.

This is not what should happen. The PLC is a great way to personalize teacher learning and encourage collaboration amongst educators. It should not be something that happens everyday everywhere. It should not be a way to show how ‘current’ you are in your instructional leadership practice.

The implementation of ideas and practices needs to be flexible and intuitive. They need to be pursued in an intelligent manner and they can’t be used to fit every situation.

Maybe this is a problem for all education institutions. Too often we all want to jump on the latest bandwagon – whether this is growth mindset, PLCs, social-emotional learning or half a hundred other fashionable ideas out there that suffer from mass adoption with very little critical consideration.

I am only focusing on two here – what would you add to the list?

Growth Mindset Can Work – But Who Needs to Grow?

I was looking for some inspiration today for a post after listening to my wife debrief after another exasperating day working with a particularly rude and difficult child. It is very frustrating to hear about her bad days because she is a gifted teacher and does wonders with intermediate students. My natural inclination in these situations is to look for ways to mute destructive students like this so that their impact on their school surroundings is minimized.

I can no longer affect the outcome of these challenging situations, I am not longer a principal. So, I write.

I am reflecting on the unfairness of this situation. Why does one child have the ability to disrupt, frustrate and block efforts that are being made to help them get an education?

This is probably one of the most frustrating situations in education. Children who for a wide variety of reasons do their best to oppose those who are committed to helping.

Sometimes Twitter can help with a prompt to help reflect on these exasperating situations. Today I found something by Dr Stuart Shanker

As teachers, this is an imperative reframe:  “I wasn’t trained for this.” To:  “Where can I learn more?” I love hearing about real experiences with the “growth mindset” model – will you share yours?

The growth mindset here has to do with educators, not students. Many children are in no way prepared to change their mindset. Who knows what has caused the blockage that leads to disruptive and destructive behaviour? The change in mindset needs to come from the educator.

The challenges in the poster at the top of the post are instructive. What happens when we open our minds to vastly different ways of doing things to support a student who is really struggling?

Can we be flexible enough as a system to adapt to the needs of a struggling child?

I think in many cases if we are able to start this work early enough we can make a difference. We must be ready to throw out everything in order to do this. Rework the system to fit the child. Design a system that uses the talents and intelligence of committed educators to affect change.

I have seen this work. In my last school, we had a wonderful boy in grade 3 who really challenged the entire school. He started off with us one block a day and even that was a struggle for all of us.

We had to rework things to make things work for this child. He was held accountable, but he also became the focus of a group of very compassionate, talented educators. Gradually, over time, his day lengthened. There were still the outbursts, the anger and the foul words, but we persisted. We adapted. I would like to think that we grew. He flourished.

Unfortunately, we lost touch with the boy when he was moved to another city. I like to think that we had all turned a corner and that given more time he would survive and thrive.

I think at the worst moments, we have to think back to our stories of growth. Even in the most unlikely circumstances, good things can happen.

I am not fooled into believing that positive change happens all the time. It may only happen once in awhile and it may not be longterm. What is important is the belief that we can adapt our mindset to bring about success in some cases and this makes all the difference.

In the case of the student my wife is struggling with there is a long road ahead that will not be completed by the conclusion of this school year. Maybe in another place and time something will spark a difference.

In Ottawa, many of our high-needs schools work with an organization called Christie Lake Kids. Their mission is to transform children through recreation. They call it Transformative Recreation or T-REC.

Through participation in the T-Rec model, the children and youth we serve develop a greater capacity for self-regulation, self-efficacy, social skills, adult monitoring, and positive relationships.

T_REC Model Christie Lake Kids

I mention Christie Lake Kids here because I think that the mindset change we need to employ will involve others outside the education system.

Maybe the counter statement to ‘We don’t have enough resources’ should really be ‘But what resources, especially in the community are we not using to their full potential?’

We certainly can do a better job at thinking outside the box. We also need to take a moment and really applaud the teachers like my wife who go in every day to face the unending challenges of dealing with the students who challenge.

May we learn to support them better.

Climbing to Ausangate: Climb for Kids!

The road to Ausangate covers lots of ground. We are now 16 climbers and we have already raised $10,000 for Christie Lake Kids. So, the climb goes well.

We are into our sixth week of indoor training, hurling big balls full of sand, hauling heavy sledges laden with weights, doing deep knee bends. In a few days, we start training on trails, learning the mountain step and the cowboy walk.

The group will now start to move outside to get used to hiking together. Time to check out equipment too

It is pretty remarkable to see a group of people learn to work together. Last week, we held the first in a series of group fundraisers, this one at Fatboys Southern Smokehouse in the Ottawa Market. After the expenses were covered, the group made over $4200 in one night. Ticket sales were great and we had a terrific silent auction that really boosted the amount raised. Fatboys and The Clocktower came together to offer the best raffle prize – a keg of beer and a $100.00 gift certificate. It always amazes me how generous Ottawa businesses are when it comes to events like this.

We had a great silent auction, all sorts of interesting items from birdhouses, Star Wars original film to park benches!

There is so much that goes into these projects, most long before you ever set foot on the trail.

We have lots of fundraising to go. We will certainly beat our original fundraising goal and I think all the climbers will be able to reach their personal goals. We still have to start stair training and we need to learn how we trek together as a group.

Some people don’t really understand what we are doing. Does fundraising really have to involve so much work? I would argue that the best fundraising usually does. We have 16 committed people. We now have a great filmmaker, Garry Tutte who is going to add so much to this project. We have some sponsorship, but we really need more. We are training and learning to work together as a group. This is a lot of work, but it is so rewarding to meet a new group of people and then gather an even larger group to help you reach your fundraising goals.

A truly rich experience. So glad to have all of you with us!

The Terrible Gift

I am been listening to our latest interview on Voiced Radio. You can find it here.

Heather and I interviewed Marc Lafontaine, a great friend of ours. The title of this episode was Overcoming Adversity and there is lots to listen to carefully here.

Marc has seen his share of adversity. He is a businessman and has had many ups and downs. In the interview, he talks about the failure of one business and what he learned from this experience.

We all go through adversity at some point in our lives. Marc in this podcast does not focus on the failure, but what he learned through the whole experience. It is in the really tough times that we do the learning. You could say that this is the terrible gift.

We suffer and then we learn.

If we do not go through adversity and challenge how can we grow, how do we learn?

I would argue that we really don’t grow unless we challenge ourselves and learn to be in the moment, even the really bad ones. What we gain is the ability to love and the ability to become empathetic. Marc says this in our interview and there is tremendous wisdom in all this.

Marc is a great road biker and less than a year ago was almost killed in a terrible accident with a car. He broke most of the bones in his face and suffered a broken neck.

While he did recover from this, it has left its scars, not only on him but on his family as well.

He is still in recovery and probably will be in this process for a long time to come.

What he learned is that no matter what happens, there are no regrets, no looking back, there is only the renewed passion to live life. This is something hard for us to learn. We live in a society where bad experiences are to be avoided or masked. The dark is not to be visited it is to be hidden.

What we need to do instead is be in the moment. I know that sounds trite, but the dark times build us, they develop a stronger sense of what it means to be human. We just need to accept the bad times and have the patience to be instructed by the moment.

The best interviews we have done have been with people who have faced great adversity, Marc Lafontaine and certainly Chris Nihmey.

We have certainly been blessed that these strong people are out there telling their stories sharing their wisdom and living bravely.

Don’t reject adversity. Take on the terrible gift. Reach in deeply and learn. Then make the world better and your friends and family stronger.

Unwrap and share the terrible gift.

 

What Brings you Joy?

Driving back from Montreal on a beautiful afternoon. What brings you Joy?

It is important to always reflect on what brings you Joy. This was a particularly challenging work week, we all have them and these are the times to reflect on the positive. This may sound a bit trite, but that is how things need to go. Staying mired in the negativity engendered by some organizations doesn’t help you at all.

Look for the things in your work and life that give you joy. For me, this was a particularly wonderful interview we did for a radio broadcast we do on a regular basis. The show is called First Hand Stories and this interview was done with Chris Nihmey, a mental health advocate here in Ottawa.

Chris has an important message for all of us and he displays the courage to talk about his story to school children and the general public whenever he can. Radio is a great way to communicate ideas, sometimes stilted by email, Twitter, blogs and Facebook. It is a great creative endeavour that brings lots of joy. Our time with Chris was magical and we feel so privileged to have had some time with him to discuss such an important topic.

Here is the interview.

If you want to learn more about the work Chris is doing, you can check out his website here.

The interview is a very small part of the wonderful burst of creativity that comes out daily from Voiced Radio. I have written about Stephen Hurley and the wonderful collection of broadcasters he continues to collect under his banner. Stephen really has something going. He really gets Joy. We are totally dedicated to Voiced Radio, not just because it is an incredibly creative project, but because it is always such a positive experience.

There is no bureaucratic malaise here, no negativity, no limiting hand that slaps you down, just a positive creative pulse that sustains and provides inspiration.

What brings Joy?

Working with accepting people who appreciate your work and the time devoted to creative projects.

There are so many other organizations that really could learn a lesson from this. Do those you work with create Joy?

A photo with Chris Nihmey after our First Hand Stories interview.

 

Public Schools in Ontario: Myth and Reality

There are a series of articles and opinion pieces this week in the Globe and Mail by Caroline Alphonso and Konrad Yakabuski.

The articles started with this statement:

Catholic school boards in Ontario are increasingly enrolling non-Catholic children and siphoning elementary students from the public stream as the two systems vie for provincial funding, a Globe and Mail analysis has found.

The series continues today with an opinion piece by Konrad Yakabuski. In continuing the debate, he calls for arguments based on fact, not the empty pronouncements that usually characterize these conversations in Ontario. Some of the questions he asks need to be addressed. He writes that Catholic schools tend to do better on EQAO tests and wonders why this might be happening:

…is it because parents who send their children to Catholic Schools are more engaged in their children’s education? Is it the combination of more discipline and the community spirit that Catholic schools purport to provide that persuades parents that their kids can develop more fully in the Catholic system? Are Catholic teachers better trained or more dedicated than their public counterparts?

Globe and Mail February 15, 2018

It is fair to ask all these questions. It is also true that the publically-funded Catholic system is siphoning off students from public schools. However, I don’t think it is because Catholic schools are any better than their public school counterparts. Many in Catholic school management would have you believe that and have said this for years, but it really comes down to the individual school, not the overall system.

My partner is a public school teacher. She has taught grade 7/8 for seventeen years in a very challenging neighbourhood. Most of my best ideas on character education, discipline and school improvement have actually come from her school. Her school is excellent, it has dedicated teachers, solid connections to the community and a reputation for innovative programming.

I have to say that in my years as an administrator, I took many of their ideas because they are a real centre of excellence.

These centres exist throughout the province. Sometimes the determining factor is the school leadership. Often it has to do with a strong core of committed teachers. It also has to do with socioeconomic factors. I have to say that after 31 years working in the Catholic system it has little to do with a generalized system of belief.

I say that because it is really hard to define what a true Catholic is and why a Catholic is in any way ‘better’ at doing things than a non-Catholic. There is something very unsettling about holding such an opinion. It lacks any sort of critical analysis and tends to enter into the realm of myth – we are just better.

Teachers in both systems are trained by the province. Higher test scores have much more to do with socioeconomic factors that all school boards struggle to deal with. Discipline comes down to the collective efforts of teachers and administration.

When debating about school systems in Ontario we need to keep away from dearly-held myths. We need to stay in the real world. As long as there are competing systems in Ontario based on language and religion, schools boards will continue to siphon off students from competing boards and school boards will continue to spend millions on marketing.

Maybe this is OK. Maybe competition encourages school boards to try harder?

It is great that the Globe and Mail is leading this debate and that they are dedicated to basing it on the facts. Maybe their efforts will provoke a more extensive conversation in the political realm and this will become an issue in the upcoming election.

Education and how it is governed is one of the most important public issues in this province. It deserves an intelligent conversation, well beyond the realm of myth. Let’s discuss these issues, let’s all get involved in the conversation.

Christie Lake Climb for Kids Takes Off!


So Climb for Kids is going to happen!

After months of planning, talking and promoting we have the 16 people we need to allow this project to take off.

Last week four more people signed on to the expedition and the entire group met for the first time at our house. This is a great group of positive people who are excited to take part in a great adventure and raise money for an organization that is actively working to change the lives of children living in poverty here in Ottawa.

All of our participants have their Canada Helps pages up and running and all have pledged to raise at least $1000.00 for Christie Lake Kids. I think they will all surpass this goal and some members have already done so.

We have group fundraisers coming up, the first one will take place on March 23 at Fatboys in the Ottawa Market. The second one will be in May.

We begin to train as a group this week and this is something that we will continue to work on together right up until the summer. This will be a tough trek at high altitude. All participants will need to be in excellent physical shape.

We are now looking into corporate sponsorship. There is a really important story to tell here and we need to have the means to do this. This will not just be the story of climbing to Ausangate, it will be the story about how Christie Lake Kids is actively engaged in changing the lives of children every day.

Rainy day ball hockey

There will be lots to write about here. It is wonderful to be working with such a positive organization that is truly committed to bringing about change in the lives of young people.

We really hope that Climb for Kids attracts donors, supporters and sponsors. Now we totally expect that this will be the first year in a project that will continue to support social transformation in the years to come.

During our first gathering, several people talked about places they would like to trek to in the years to come.

We are going to Peru this year. Where do you want to go after that?

Believe in Something Bigger Than Yourself

I just listened to Joe Biden on CNN this morning. Really powerful interview. He is an intriguing person. A career politician and possibly a presidential candidate in 2020. Of course, he can get into the political fray just like any other politician, but there is something different about him and his recent political memoir, Promise Me Dad.

Grief changes you and he has had more than his fair share in life. In 1972, soon after being elected to the Senate, his wife and 13-month old daughter were killed in a car accident. In 2015, his oldest son, Beau, died of a brain tumour.

His interviews have a cut wretching honesty that we seldom hear. As a public figure, he is known as someone who reaches out to people who have gone through tragedy.  This is something he knows a great deal about.

There are some important lessons here. First, he talks a lot about his son. Beau was someone who was always positive. We hear how important this is all the time, but how many of us really live this? Beau’s relationship with his father was obviously something very special.  The title of the book comes from a conversation he had with his son where he urged his father to run for the presidency all at a time when he was dying from cancer.

Joe Biden with his sons Hunter left, and Beau, in the early 1970s.
Credit via Joe Biden

It seems to me that people who have gone through the strainer of personal grief or tragedy somehow can see life differently. There needs to be more to live for, especially when you are living with the reminder of your own story.

Today, Joe Biden responded to one of the interview questions with this line:

If you don’t believe in something bigger than yourself you will never be happy

Pretty powerful.
This helps to reflect on some of the interchanges I have had with people this past week.
It has been a big week. We have now started fundraising for our Climb for Kids! project and this is always a challenge. Asking people for money really opens you up in ways that can be uncomfortable. One person, for whom in the past we have done lots of volunteer work for asked not to receive any of my emails about the campaign because ‘it doesn’t involve me in any way’. Another person chose this week to call me out for a note I had sent him around the time of my father’s death. It wasn’t a note I am proud of, but I wasn’t really at my best.
I mention these interactions because the negative can have such a profound impact. Most times it would be much better to remain positive or just keep certain comments to one’s self. We all do better if we can get out of our own petty worlds and just believe in something bigger than ourselves.
So as the week went on I looked back on the comments of supporters from last year’s fundraising climb to Mt. Kilimanjaro. These notes are positive and so affirming and they celebrate the attempt to be something bigger. Sometimes when confronted with the negative it is so much better to seek out the positive.
I was really struck by Joe Biden’s interview today. I was taken by the way this man takes solace and strength from his family as I do. I was encouraged by his and his son’s determination to look to the positive.
A son’s affirmation of the father is a powerful message. I have that and those who can’t see beyond themselves will just have to take the back seat.