your brain on grade 8

Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.     —  Elliot Eisner

Last Friday at W. Erskine Johnston PS we spent the day engaged in professional development around our School Improvement Plan.  Although we did devote a small part of our morning session to examining our latest EQAO scores, most of the day was spent looking at skills and aptitudes less easily measured, especially on a standardized test.  See my earlier post “nothing wrong with stilts” for a synopsis of the morning session for our Intermediate team.

After lunch we again divided up into our divisional teams for an activity around identifying those critical skills that we want all of our students to have by the time they reach the exit point for each division:  Grade 3 for primary, Grade 6 for junior and Grade 8 for intermediate.  After some initial brainstorming the teams split up and created “mind maps” to display our thinking.  Jen and I modeled one for the critical skills and aptitudes required for the Principal and Vice Principal role, and I will certainly post about that process in the future.  For now though, here is a short video highlighting some of the key skills the Intermediate division identified as crucial for our students heading to grade 9:

(Thanks to the kind folks at Thomas Tallis School (Tallis Labs) for the graphic organizer)

The process was fun and messy, with lots of play and energy. It was interesting to work together deciding which skills went where on the brain. We chose colours depending on a general feeling about the skill (purple for integrity, for example) and used plasticine and pipe cleaners to link related skills. As we wrapped up and prepared to join the other groups we all stepped back to look at our work and realized that we had not mentioned any specifically content-curriculum pieces. One of our team members reflected:

The curriculum isn’t really the important piece …  It is a means to this end.

I think that we all agreed that the content areas, while they are important, are the means through which we model and teach the skills that we feel our students need to be successful as they leave us and head to high school:  critical thinking skills, empathy, foresight, self-awareness and self-reflection, open-mindedness, etc…  The second part of the discussion, where we brainstorm the types of learning activities we need to provide to develop these skills and aptitudes, will be continued…

We are doing the same activity with our Grade 8 students next week. They will each create their own brain map and it will be very interesting to see how theirs compare to the one we created.  What skills would you add?

nothing wrong with stilts

stiltsWhen the team at W. Erskine Johnston assembles to learn together, it can be a beautiful thing.  We kicked off our School Improvement Planning day with divisional meetings this morning and, as part of my role is to support the students in the Intermediate Division, I joined that discussion.  Shelley introduced her plan for students at risk, which involves a series of workshops aimed at developing skills these students will need as they transition to high school:  perseverance, resiliency, self-advocacy, to name a few.

As Shelley wrapped up her introduction to the plan, Dave asked why we couldn’t incorporate some of the activities she described into a program for all of our intermediate students.  Bang on!  An excellent question — Why not student success programming for all?  Why not?

The team’s response was so cool.  We started brainstorming a basic structure and some ideas for an initial half-day session, to take place in February.  What we came up with was this:

– half day where all intermediate students ( grades 7 and 8 ) would sign up for 3 activities of 50 minutes each.

– we will invite people from a broad cross-section of creative and interesting careers to come to the school to provide a hands-on, visually stimulating workshop for the groups of kids.  Some examples from our initial thinking:  workshop in our woodshop, computer animation or film-making in the lab, circus workshop in the gym (quote of the morning:  “There is nothing wrong with stilts”), etc…

– workshops will be hands-on and students will be involved in doing or making something.

I love the energy that the team put into the initial brainstorming and I am really excited that we are going to focus on hands-on experiences where students will have an opportunity to play with something that is outside of the realm of our typical curriculum.  Stay tuned.  If you have any thoughts regarding the types of creative careers we should be inviting, please leave a comment!

image: “stilts” cc by Creativity + Timothy K. Hamilton

This is just to say …

Plain Old FlowerSo, I arrived at school this am and realized I forgot the most recent round of writing submitted by my Grade 8s for their writer’s workshop.  I am disappointed because the writing was stellar and I know the students will be disappointed because they thrive on the feedback I provide (lovingly, I might add) on their work.  Do you think they will be placated by this:

This is just to say …

I have forgotten
Your writing workshops
that were in a heap
beside my imac

and which
you were probably
hoping
to see today

Forgive me
they were delicious
beautifully written
and so bold

WC Williams, thank you for your brilliant work.

the future is unwritten

A run-down of the best moments of the World Creativity Forum #cwf2010

The #Popupschool

Poster from Claes Oldenburgs The Store

Poster from Claes Oldenburg's "The Store"

This was by far my favourite thing at the CWF.  Taking their cue from a movement largely associated with the arts’ community, students from London, UK and Oklahoma, USA established a temporary learning environment at the CWF.

The Pop Up idea is not new, going back at least to the sixties when artists opened temporary shops to showcase and sell their pieces directly to the public, rather than dancing with inevitable bureaucracy involved with securing a showing through an established gallery.  The Pop Up movement explores ideas of agency, creativity and community.  By establishing temporary shops or galleries in unused retail spaces, artists take advantage of conditions brought about by recession and regenerate community by infusing it with culture. Click the poster advertising Claes Oldenburg’s “The Store” to visit the MOMA page discussing his popup shop established in December, 1961.

#PopUpSchool Magazine

#PopUpSchool Magazine

Tucked into a corner of the showcase area at CWF, The PopUpSchool stood in rather stark contrast to the decidedly corporate-flavoured neighbouring booths.  The PopUpSchool is learner-driven, purposeful, participatory and connected.  It disrupts traditional notions of school as bricks and mortar.  Along with the students’ presentation to delegates on Wednesday morning, the PopUpSchool was, to me, the most imaginative and inspiring aspect of a Creativity World Forum that my colleagues and I dubbed, “#whitemeninsuits”. (I’ll have to review my recording of David Pogue’s talk, but I am pretty sure that the preponderance of talks given by white men in suits with delegates sitting in rows consuming powerpoint presentations at a forum dedicated to celebrating creativity, imagination and innovation qualifies as irony)  Please take some time to navigate around the PopUpSchool’s online magazine, where students documented their experiences at the CWF.  Super stuff, indeed!

The Barefoot Water Walk

Wishing Well Barefoot Water Walk

Wishing Well Barefoot Water Walk

Organized through a facebook page, the Barefoot Water Walk was not part of the official CWF program.  Wishing Well founder Ryan Groves and TOMS Shoes‘ founder Blake Mycoskie partnered to host the walk, whose participants were invited to stay and listen to the keynote address, thus expanding the walls of the CWF to include over 100 folks, mainly students, who otherwise might not have been part of the experience.  I appreciated this especially because, although many of the keynote addresses focused on the role of education in supporting the development of creative capacities, the youth voice was largely unheard, apart from the #PopUpSchool and the Barefoot Water Walk.  Disruptive!

Pranav Mistry

Of all the speakers at CWF, Pranav Mistry was the one who blew my mind.  I had not viewed his TED Talk prior to arriving in Oklahoma, so the Sixth Sense technologies that he discussed were new to me. Aside from watching Mistry demonstrate things that I would never have imagined possible, I was impressed with his interest in making these technologies accessible to the general public.  On his website there is a “coming soon” section that promises to include instructions for those DIYers who would like to make their own versions of the wearable gear.  Below is a snippet of his talk at the Forum where he demonstrates Sparsh:

Connecting

Before heading to the CWF, I had the chance to chat with Haley Simons from Creative Alberta.  We connected via twitter, where folks can follow @CreativeAlberta for developments in Haley’s quest to establish Alberta as an International District of Creativity.  Haley is a passionate force to be reckoned with, to be sure.  Our Ottawa Carleton District School Board team included Chair of the Board Cathy Curry, Superintendent of Instruction (a.k.a Noodling King and unofficial Minister of Creativity) Peter Gamwell, Chair of the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils Anne Teutsch, and 8 others from a variety of departments across the District.  Thursday before we departed for the CWF, we assembled to skype with Haley and some members of the Edmonton Public School Board.  It felt like the beginning of an East-West partnership and I know that we will connect again very soon to continue the conversation.

Creative Tallis online

Creative Tallis online

I also connected with Jon Nicholls, from Thomas Tallis School in London, UK.  The students from his school were the driving force behind the #PopUpSchool and I was very interested in the partnership that had been established between Thomas Tallis and Howe High School in Oklahoma.  You can read about their partnership here.  Over lunch with Jon and his colleague Soren Hawes, we made plans to connect their students with our grade 8 classes at W. Erskine Johnston PS.  More on this as the project develops, but suffice it to say that I am excited for our students to expand their learning through a project that will be both fun and meaningful.

First Day Back

gamesI missed my hubby and my two kiddos, Dono and Violet, terribly over the 5 days I was in Oklahoma City for the CWF.  It wasn’t until I returned to school on Friday that I realized I had also missed the staff and students at W Erskine.  I was quite touched when students told me they had missed me and wanted to know all about the Forum.  As exhausted as I was from the “go-go-go” of the CWF, I also felt energized by some of what I had seen.  I found myself having a most incredible first day back.  I joined a Grade 8 math class in the computer lab to play around with Geometer’s Sketchpad and yes, Dave, you did catch me smiling about MATHEMATICS. We then devoted our writing workshop to exploring games – brainstorming game genres, listing games we have played and then following up with a short writing assignment to explore the common features of games we like with one of the following prompts:  “A game is great when …” or “The new game I would invent is …”  This is the beginning step in our new partnership with the students at Thomas Tallis, but I haven’t told the students yet… shhh… They are going to eat it up, that much I know.

We wrapped up the day by viewing Pranav Mistry’s TED Talk together and it was a real thrill to watch them as they freaked out at exactly the same parts as I had when I watched his talk in Oklahoma!  When the bell rang, I was swarmed by students wanting the URL for the website to find the talk.  As one student wrote it down, others asked her to “facebook it” to them.  Love it!

As Joe Strummer said, “the future is unwritten”. I think that summarizes what I am taking back from the Creativity World Forum in Oklahoma. A renewed sense of the possibilities that are out there if we seek them out.  Oh, and I never did find Wayne Coyne — apparently touring in Japan.  Dang!

Creativity World Forum #cwf2010

cwf2010This week I am fortunate to be part of an 11-member delegation from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) attending the Creativity World Forum (#cwf2010) in Oklahoma City.  The story of why we are here and the journey thus far is an interesting one.  You can read a bit about that journey and the Lead the Way campaign here.  At the heart of the Lead the Way project is the understanding that all individuals within our organization has creative and unique capacities and ideas that need to be recognized, valued and tapped into.  By encouraging individuals and groups to explore and expand those creative capacities, we create a culture of engagement where people feel valued and engaged in ongoing learning.  The benefits to the organization are myriad and, although Lead the Way is now in its’ fifth year, we are really only at the beginning stages of realizing the potential for this approach.

What about Student Achievement?

As a public school board, the OCDSB is committed first and foremost to supporting student achievement across the District.  This is precisely the driving force behind the Lead the Way project.  As witnessed by the unanticipated interest — registration for the CWF is double what it was anticipated to be — people from across the globe and in a variety of industries are recognizing the critical role that creative and innovative thinking plays and will continue to play in this century.  Last spring, the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto explored the necessity of adopting an artistic mind-set for business leaders today, as well as the importance of developing that mind-set in leaders of tomorrow.  In the opening article, Rotman Dean Roger Martin discusses the role of an ‘artistic alternative’ in response to today’s complex world:

Effectively dealing with the challenges of the modern world — rather than with the narrow sub-segments of them — demands artistic capacity.  Without the explicit development of qualititative thought, sophisticated mental operations like judgement in the face of uncertainty, coping with ambiguity, balancing consequences, and responding effectively to surprise will remain ellusive.  No matter what we do for a living, we need to go beyond using our knowledge as a recipe and aim higher than crunching quantitative data to produce single point answers. (Rotman Magazine, Spring 2010, p. 7)

The point is simple.  In a complex world, the approach Martin coins as the ‘artistic alternative’ enables individuals to tap into their own perhaps previously undervalued capacities to understand, process and respond using a fuller set of senses.  The creative response is critical in the complex world.  If we, as an educational organization, are meant to support student achievement, we must cultivate the learning environment that will foster the artistic mind-set.

Not a top-down strategy

Rather than seeing this as an urgent call for another top-down initiative, our project has been, and must continue to be, somewhat grassroots in its approach.  Instead of developing a creativity policy and an accompanying set of procedures, Lead the Way is constantly looking for avenues through which all individuals in our District — parents, teachers, educational assistants, custodians, principals, community partners, etc… — can tap into their own creative capacities.  Through recognizing current practices that model the creative approach, we hope that creative and innovative thinking will spread throughout the District, like a spark that catches and sets the whole place ablaze.  If individuals and groups across the District engage in creative approaches to the every day, our learning environments will be enriched and will provide the inspiration and motivation to keep the momentum going.  Students will benefit from seeing the adults with whom they work engaged in risk-taking through the use of innovative and unique approaches to learning.

Now, good morning, Oklahoma!  If I were Wayne Coyne, where would I be …

An appreciative approach to School Improvement Planning

On Friday I will be presenting to Principals, Superintendants and Managers at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.  I will present a very short overview of an Appreciative Inquiry event  I helped organize last spring.  Rather than focusing on the details of that event, I wanted to give an overview of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to suggest that it is a worthy approach to incorporate into School Improvement Planning.  My point is not to offer a step-by-step methodology, but rather an overview of the productive potential behind shifting perspective from one that looks for weakness and aims to find solutions to those problems, to one that looks for strengths and aims to create the conditions under which those promising practices can spread and take hold across an organization or school.  I prepare the following slideshow to share.

Mentorship – A Community-School Partnership

This past weekend I attended a parent engagement workshop (see my reflections here), and since then I have been thinking about an example that I provided where our Intermediate Student Success Teacher (ISST) is reaching out to local businesses to establish a program aimed at keeping our most at risk students engaged and committed to school.  Shelley Neill, our ISST, has spent the last several months researching and developing a program that will run in cycles throughout the year, targeting students who are at risk for a variety of reasons, including their own or family members’ mental health and/or substance abuse issues, learning disabilities and lack of success in school, behavioural concerns and a variety of other factors that mix and mingle to make school a more difficult place for these students to spend time.  The bottom line is that these kiddos are the ones that are most likely to consider dropping out prior to completing high school.  In a recent blog post on truancy, I blogged about the importance of a caring adult who will hold tight to our at risk students, through thick and thin, to keep them in school.  For many of our at risk students, Shelley is that person at our school.

The connections that she is establishing with local business owners, while a project in its early days, is one that I think will serve at least 2 purposes and one that I think holds the promise of many unexpected benefits.  To begin with, local businesses will have a connection to our school and will know more of our students as individuals.  My hope is that this will create an atmosphere of greater trust between the school and the businesses, some of which are less than 100 metres from our front door.  When our students are out and about beyond school hours, they may be seen in a more positive light.

The second positive of the project, and the one that is more immediately a benefit to our at risk students, is that the partnerships will provide opportunity for mentorship.  If Shelley is successful in matching students to businesses, there will be a human connection made, and imagine the impact of having a member of the community, previously a stranger, becoming another caring adult to advocate and support the students.  As students meet with and work with the business owners and community members, they will be learning the skills that they will need to undertake similar endeavours after their schooling.  It may be that for some of our at risk students, these mentoring relationships will give them the fuel they need to continue on with their schooling.

Ultimately, I believe that many of our at risk students feel that they are powerless to change their lives.  Shelley’s program will marry the business/community partnerships with an in school program aimed to encourage students to see themselves as agents of change within their own lives.  Her program, the result of several years of working with at risk students as well as research into current trends and practices, is rigorous and frank in its approach.  She tells students that she is going to “stick to you like a wet kleenex” to ensure that they are successful in the program.

While students will miss some in class time — a few hours per week — while working with Shelley, the benefit of their participation will spill over into their studies as they become more committed and engaged to making change for the better in their lives.  Also, with Shelley playing an integral role within our intermediate team, all staff members learn from her in her approach and dedication to our most vulnerable students.  I feel very hopeful and optimistic about the potential for real change as students work with community and business partners through this incredible program.  I’ll keep you posted ;o)

image  –  Steel Bridges cc by ilkerender
Attribution Some rights reserved

Note:  I used the image of a sherpa carrying a heavy load because I think that as caring adults this is sometimes our role when working with students – carry the load so that the journey can continue.

a new looking glass

There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things. I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

–Lewis Carol “Through the Looking Glass”

This morning I spent a few hours imagining new possibilities with a group that included parents, school administrators, teachers and our interim Director of Education.  The “Building Relationships” event, co-hosted by the Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils and Ottawa Carleton Immigration Services Organization, asked participants to focus their energy on identifying what is working really well to foster and recognize effective parent and community engagement in our public schools.  The approach, based on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), assumes that every organization holds within itself the kernel of potential for positive change.  David Cooperider explains the generative and constructive nature of Appreciative Inquiry:

In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.

Appreciative Inquiry stands in stark contrast to traditional strategic planning where the focus is on the problem and the search for solutions.  Instead, with AI, the focus is on what is working really well and how we can create the conditions that will foster more of the positive.  AI asks us to leave behind our preoccupation with all that is wrong and bad within the organization and to direct our efforts towards recognizing the very best of our organization’s activities.

I first began to think through the AI lens when I was planning an event last spring.  The approach really appeals to me because I have witnessed and experienced the stress that comes with zooming in on the negative.  The typical problem-solving approach has, in the past, left me feeling powerless to change a situation because it feels too big, it seems to be external to me, or it doesn’t seem to have a solution.  Since shifting to an appreciative approach, I have seen how it opens space for new possibilities and I have felt empowered to make changes for the better, both in working with students, staff and parents.

The event this morning saw approximately 40 individuals “give up” their Saturday morning to be together to generate the beginning narrative of greater community and parent involvement in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.  Participants were self-directed in leading, joining and leaving several conversations happening throughout the room.  As I moved from one conversation to another, I heard examples of projects and events happening throughout the District where parents and the community play an integral role and where the students benefit from the partnerships.  One of the sometimes overlooked perks of an AI approach is that once we begin discovering the best of what we are as an organization, the experience becomes truly productive and infectious:  We begin to imagine new possibilities that we might otherwise have missed or dismissed.  A few of the ideas shared during discussions included:

  • approaching the Ottawa Citizen about running a regular column dedicated to highlighting positive events and projects occurring throughout the District.
  • compiling a database of ideas and examples of partnerships between the school and the community
  • principals using synrevoice to send out weekly or monthly announcements of upcoming events and / or recent successes
  • opening schools in the evening to more community use
  • providing opportunities for students to teach technology skills to parents and community members
  • increasing the use of Multicultural Liaison Officers to help break down barriers to immigrant parents

As a wrap-up, our facilitator brought us back together as a whole group to share what we had taken away from the morning.  To me, the AI approach itself fosters greater engagement because it shifts from a view where we are looking externally at problems and searching for solutions to the recognition that we have within ourselves the ability to make a positive impact and bring about change for the better.  In short, it asks us to look into the looking glass first.  The seeds for several new partnerships were sown this morning and it will be interesting to witness the ripple effect as participants go back to their spheres of influence with a renewed commitment and a fresh perspective.

image “sunflowers”  CC by marcomagrini
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