Tuesday, January 24, 2012

If you could ask students ANYTHING about schools....

Over the last several years, I am starting to realize that I have been somewhat hypocritical about something that is very important to me.  I have prided myself on having an open door policy, and I have always valued when someone has come to my office to talk to me about anything, education or otherwise.   But typically, adults are the ones that come to my office more regularly than students.  When students come to see me, typically it is purposeful; they have a proposal for something at the school, they are applying for a program or scholarship, they are telling me how the weekend tournament went and dropping off a trophy, or they have an issue that they need my help with.  However, with nearly 1400 students, the number of students that just stop by to 'shoot the breeze' is relatively few.  Let's be honest, who would want to come to chat with the Principal?   So when I espouse my belief that student voice is a critically important voice in our school, I am being hypocritical by not going out into their classes and actively listening to them, where they are at. 

That is going to change.

As adults, we (and I very much include myself in this) frequently make many assumptions about our students.   We often assume we know how they feel about our school, about how they perceive us as adults, about how they learn, and what experiences they bring to the classroom.  We assume that we know their likes and dislikes, what engages them and what bores them, and how best to communicate them. 

But if I asked our students, they would tell me
  • anyone over the age of 20 is old
  • there are very few people in education who have ANY idea what is cool (and the term cool?  Not cool.)
  • and FYI, I am not one of those few people.
We make these assumptions because as educators, we can slip into the mindset of 'we have been in this business for a long time'.

But kids haven't.

Each year, a new group of students enter our schools, and they bring their own (and often VERY diverse) set of preconceptions, beliefs, needs, wants, skills, and experiences.  And each year, it is conceivable that if you asked students, they would tell you that we have done very little to discover what those preconceptions, beliefs, and experiences actually are to change our approach to their learning and their being a part of our school community.

I am endeavoring to change this.  And I am willing to do the research with as many focus groups as I can over the Spring Semester. But I need help.

I have shared a Google Document called "If you could ask kids anything about schools" , and I would like to get as many bits of input as possible about things people would like to ask students about schools.  Now I will be asking Grade 8-12 students from our high school of 1350 students, so that may not necessarily fit your learning situation.  But regardless of your particular educational context, I think there is a litany of rich information that I am going to find (and share) that any educators might find interesting.

SO, if you could ask kids anything about schools, what would YOU ask?  Please add your questions to my list so that when I start these focus groups in Semester Two, I will be able to make these conversations valuable and meaningful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lesson Plan: Introducing Admin to 21st C Skills using Google Docs

It is not uncommon for me to read comments on Twitter that characterize school administrators as a group who need to get more in touch with 21st century learning.  Whether it is a comment about how senior administration is blocking specific online sites or resources, how school leaders need to provide leadership and role model the use of technology, or how school based administrators are out of touch with social media and its uses in education, there certainly is a tone indicating that administrators needing to 'get on board'.  Although I have blogged in the past that I don't find comments that single out one group to be particularly useful ("No Us vs. Them--Just Us"), I agree that there needs to be more of us in administration that are in tune with 21st century skills. 

In an attempt to help fill some of these potential skill gaps for our administrators, I had the opportunity to do this month's installment of "Tech Corner" for our Superintendents, Principals, and Vice-Principals at our District Administrators Meeting last week.  This is my second time doing this in the last few months (I blogged about this last year in a previous Lesson Plan), and I was excited to share with our admin team.  In preparation for this meeting, I ran through the characteristics that make a PD session meaningful for me.  A great PD session
  • should be on a topic that is relevant to me and my current learning situation
  • should be connected to the prior learning I may bring to the session
  • should draw me in, and provide a sense of urgency for the session
  • should engage me.  If it is new technology, for example, I want to be hands on, I want to try it
  • should give me a chance to discuss things with my peers, to move around, to see what others are doing
  • should help me develop a tangible product, and model using this product so that I can take it back to my school and use it...now.
And while this is not an exhaustive list (and I may be omitting things that others find important), if I attended a PD session that ticked off most of these boxes, I would likely be leaving the session with a shiny new tool or two in my educational tool chest.  Bearing these thoughts in mind, I wanted to create an activity that met as many of these criteria as possible for our school-based administrators.

In our school district, we are continuing to learn more about 21st century, personalized learning.   Like any district, we are constantly looking for ways to maximize the engagement of the learners in our classrooms.  From where I sit, technology certainly can play a significant role in student engagement.  However, in each of our schools, there are many challenges that need to be overcome to make sure that technology plays its role in improving their 21st century SKILLS--of which computing skills are only a part.  We want to make sure our students are creative, critical thinkers who are culturally aware, that they are able to collaborate and communicate to augment their learning, and that they are aware of career paths and the skills that they will need to follow those paths.

So I thought: what better way to get administrators to learn about 21st century skills than to CREATE a set of resources to use at something like a staff meeting or school leader meeting ABOUT 21st century skills by USING 21st century skills and web tools?

The lesson:

1) started with a video on "Where Ideas Come From" to contextualize the importance of 21st century skills (and because these RSA videos tend to capture people's attention...),

2) went through the Learning Intentions,

3) had people move (the 'exercise' portion of the program) into groups of 5-6 with a maximum of one or two pieces of technology (tablet, laptop, smartphone) to simulate a classroom situation where 1:1 technology was not available.

4) had them go in to a Google Doc which had been created earlier that gave the opportunity for them to develop several 21st Century Skills, including:
  • Critical Thinking - groups needed to evaluate which resources they felt were best to share with the group
  • Communication - both face to face, and virtually while simultaneously working on a Google Doc
  • Collaboration - a different task in an online environment
  • Cultural Awareness - groups got to know the culture of some of the other schools in terms of initiatives, problems and solutions
  • Creativity - in thinking of issues that confront us in developing a 21st Century Learning environment and potential solutions.
  • Computing skills - many of our group had not worked in a Google Doc
5) reviewed the learning intentions to see if we accomplished what we set out to do

6) and, examined the document that we collectively produced.

This all took place in just over 22 minutes. 

The document that we produced is a dynamic one that we can continuously add to as a group. Considering we created it in a very short period of time, I thought it was a great start.  And while I do believe that this will be useful for everyone, I was more excited by the learning that took place while we were creating the document (collaborating, communicating, improved computing skills, etc).   If these pieces transfer from our administrators to our teachers in our schools, and from our teachers to our students in our classrooms, then this lesson will be a success.  To this end. I am going to follow up with our admin group in May to see how things are going for them, and monitor the changes in the document to see the contributions we are making from around the district.   

Like all of the members of our school community, administrators DO have a responsibility to investigate, understand, learn, role model and promote a 21st century skill set.  By doing a lesson such as this, it is my hope that we administrators can be co-learners with our teachers, parents and students so that our learning environments continue to be current and relevant in 2012 and beyond.

Please feel free to add any comments or ideas that would augment this lesson plan for others!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

WE - A most powerful word

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting with our Social Justice 11/12 class.  Social Justice is a new course to our school, and it has become tremendously popular in a relatively short period of time.  Within this class, metacognition is at the forefront: the goal is to have students examine local and global issues, and challenge their own beliefs and actions around these issues.   And while the teacher (Mr. Wilson) had told me about the rich dialogue that was taking place in his classroom, when I had a chance to experience it myself, I was blown away by the depth of conversation by our students.

The topic in yesterday's class was bullying.  The class had been discussing and researching bullying for a few days prior, but they felt it important to get the perspective of the school administration.  In all honesty, there were perceptions within the class that the school could do more when dealing with bullying and harassment situations, and that we could improve the inclusiveness and tolerance of our school culture.  As I was walking down to the class, I wondered how the conversation would go.  Would we talk about policies like zero tolerance and what they mean?  Would students want bullies kicked out of school or want to look at ideas around restorative justice and restitution? Would they want to talk about the need for the adults in the building to pay attention to what is going on in their classes and in school, or talk about collective responsibilities?  Would it be a students versus the adults, "we know and you have no idea" type conversation?  Did I need my thick-skin body armour?

And so the discussion began. The dialogue started out slowly, and in an effort to generate some discussion, I took a few minutes to describe a hypothetical bullying scenario and how it might be worked through from the school perspective.  At the end of my brief vignette, I asked for feedback about how students felt things could be dealt with more effectively.  Two or three students presented some ideas, and the discussion began to take off. 

Students are amazing.  The conversation turned quickly to how WE could all make things better in our school.  How WE have to stop things like bullying not through policy, but through developing a culture of tolerance, of inclusiveness, and of acceptance.  How WE collectively could make opportunities for people to get to know each other.  How WE could create activities that would give students something to talk about with one another.  How WE need to take action to find ways for senior students to role model positive behaviors for our student body.  How WE need to find ways to give students a voice within our school.  WE.

There was no "YOU need to do this" or "THEY should do that".  It was WE.  Without fail, from the students, it was WE.

I learned a great deal from our Social Justice class yesterday. 
  • I learned that having a focus group-style discussion is incredibly powerful, and that in less than an hour I can discover more about students than any survey, online poll or quiz can tell me. 
  • I learned that students are incredibly in-tune with what is going on in a school with respect to  culture, and are chock full of really good ideas on things that can positively impact the learning environment in our building.
  • I learned that students are willing to dig in and do their part--they know they have the capacity to be powerful, and they know that their actions can and do influence their learning situation
  • I learned the power of the word "WE", and how I need to make sure that I use it more.
As a result of my experience yesterday, I am dedicating myself to having a randomly chosen, weekly focus group in second semester to discuss goings on at the school and how WE can meet the needs of our students more effectively.  I am looking forward to this, and can't wait to sit and chat with students to really get a sense of how we are doing and what we can do to improve our school.

But also, and perhaps more importantly, I learned from our students that when there is a call to action, when things need to change, the most powerful thing that we can start with in the change process is to understand what WE can do, and DO it.  We cannot sit back and wait for change to happen, nor can we simply will or wish for other people to change before we do.  Transformation is not a future endeavor, it is a present activity, and WE need to spearhead it.