Finding Inspiration in the Clouds

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This past year, I received a professional development award from Alberta Education which I was directed to use for my own, individual learning. I decided to google search creativity and innovation to see what conferences might be available. I felt this would help me support continued exploration for how to develop these cross-curricular competencies, which are included in Alberta Education’s work around curriculum re-design, among staff and students at Greystone.  I came across the Creativity Workshop – a learning opportunity designed to ignite the spark of creativity and to develop an understanding of the creative process among participants. The website for this workshop looked incredibly appealing for many reasons, including the fact that the sessions were offered in amazing destinations including Dubai, Dublin, Florence, New York City. I ended up coordinating my conference with a trip my husband and I had previously planned to Italy.The workshop, in Florence, served as a starting point for our six week Italian adventure.

 

The journey to explore my own creative side started this past May when I received an e-mail from one of the organizers of the Creativity Workshop, giving me a list of suggested items to photograph. One of the items on the list was to take a picture of an animal I could find in the clouds. Oh brother! I thought this was absolutely ridiculous and couldn’t imagine how a five day workshop that started out by having me stare at the clouds would possibly provide any worthwhile learning for me or my school community!  I ended up completing the first task of gathering pictures, including making time to stare at the clouds, while I was at our grade 6 camp with students. I did this bright and early one morning while the students were still asleep and the camp was quiet and peaceful, a pretty rare occurrence with over one hundred twelve year olds on the loose in cabins. It was glorious, actually, as the birds were chirping away, I was looking out over the calm waters of Lake Nakamun, and then, I found myself staring up at the clouds – looking for animals.

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This started the process of creative awakening for me – a process which continued in Florence three weeks later.  The workshop in Florence began, for me, with a little unease and skepticism as I still wasn’t convinced that the activities I had been doing in preparation for the course, including the cloud gazing, were anything more than a flaky waste of time; however, as the days unfolded, and as each experience built on the other, I became hooked by about day three. By day five, the last day, I didn’t want the workshop to end! What I loved about this experience, among other things, was the opportunity to get to know a diverse group of over 30 different people, of all ages and varying lines of work including several college professors, an interior designer, school district superintendents, an educational technologist, business managers, middle school and high school teachers, a dancer and novelist. They travelled here, to Florence, from all around the world, from places I had never been – Israel, Australia, Texas, South Carolina, and even a few fellow Canadians. Their stories are all as unique as they are; however, the one thing that united each of us is our belief in the importance of creativity in our personal and professional lives.

 

There were numerous activities that we engaged in, I mean REALLY engaged in. We were on the floor visualizing, sketching and writing. We were partnered up with others in whisper conversations, almost like we were creating secret conspiracies. We were wandering the streets of Florence with cameras in hand to capture evidence of our new found powers of observation. We were hanging out in cafes in search of “victims” to sketch and write about. It was five days filled with play, fun, exploration, reflection and self-discovery. We were reminded of the importance of taking risks, of making mistakes, of re-connecting with our child-like curiosity and we all had the opportunity to explore our own unique creative potential. Some key learnings for me include the following:

 

*EVERYONE has the capacity to be creative – you just have to make time for it – as little as 15 minutes a day

*brain research tells us that our brains are NOT wired for multi-tasking – we need to slow down and go deeper on one thing at a time – this is especially true when creating

*creativity and analysis go together – come up with creative ideas and then analyze, refine, develop into a plan for action…BUT…both do not happen at the same time – allow for creativity WITHOUT analyzing – the creative process needs time for exploration, play, discovery WITHOUT judgement or critiquing

*process is more vital than product

*collaboration, NOT competition, stimulates creativity and allows for ideas to build and grow

*the act of writing something down triggers better memory – there is still a place for paper and pencil in writing and/or sketching

*the brain is wired to look for connections and patterns – keep an idea book for random thoughts, ideas – later, the brain will find a way to connect these into something meaningful

*the word amateur comes from the word “ama” which means to love what you do – being an amateur is a good thing as it means being passionate in your work

So, as my workshop came to an end, I knew that my new found understanding around the creative process was not going to end – it is just beginning. I will continue to seek inspiration from the clouds and from many other sources as I develop my capacity and the capacity of others for creative exploration.

The Best Day of My Life

 

This song..I can’t get it out of my head! I can’t help but have the “best day of my life” whenever I hear it. It must have been playing before I headed to work on the last day of school with students this year. I really did have one of the “best days of my life”. My #1 highlight from the day:

 

The Greystone School Championship Challenge

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One of our most amazing students in grade 9 has been supported by both staff and an incredibly accepting and unique group of students since he began his time with us at Greystone five years ago. When he began grade 5, his mom was deeply concerned about his ability to be successful with so many students in such a large setting as her son faced many challenges and became overwhelmed very easily. Five years later, we celebrated his last day of school at Greystone by supporting this student to plan and carry out his dream of participating, with his classmates, in a race he designed himself – The Greystone School Championship Challenge.

This grade 9 student drew up the design for the challenge course and with the non-stop support of our amazing Educational Assistant who has worked alongside this student for the past two years, the event was set to take place. Posters for each station were made, prizes for the finishers were purchased, helium balloons for the starting line were dropped off by our Educational Assistant’s mom and the special trophy, which had been engraved with the name and date of the event, were all ready. The student’s teachers and classmates all took part, either supporting the big race from the sidelines or participating in the event themselves.

The biggest highlight…watching this student have “the best day of his life” as he crossed the finish line and received a trophy for the event. Those of us who had the privilege of watching the presentation of the trophy shared in the magic of something that brought sheer joy to this student and were able to be a part of the “best day of his life”.

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What is most impressive is how this student has not only been accepted, but he has been celebrated in our school community for the very special individual he is. His strong finish at Greystone, both in his big race and also in his learning during his time with us, is a tribute to not only this student, but to all of the members of our school community for their commitment to his success. Awesome!!!!

Other highlights from the day included water wars and time spent enjoying each other’s company outside of the school walls. My favourite comments from students and staff included how much they appreciated ending the year together in such a fun way and how this kind of finish to the school year made everyone feel such mixed emotions about leaving for the summer…happy for a holiday, but sad to see the end of this awesome school year together.

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Looking forward to experiencing many more “best days of my life” with our Greystone School Community when we are back together in September.

Happy Summer!

 

 

Our Retiring Teacher ~ A Lifelong Learner

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I have had the privilege of working with Dale Johnston for the past nine years at Greystone Centennial Middle School. Dale has set the bar high for what it means to be a collaborative, team player and lifelong learner. During the time I have known Dale, he has demonstrated enthusiasm for learning from his colleagues and has been highly reflective in his practice, continuing to grow and become stronger each year as he pursues powerful learning for his students. Dale has also contributed to the learning of his colleagues. He is someone who staff regularly seek out for advice. Students love Dale as he is always ready to coach a team or provide an opportunity for them to get together in his room and just hang out. We will miss Dale at Greystone but I am sure that no matter where he goes or what interests he pursues next, he will continue to be a keen learner along the way.

Professional Growth Plan Reflection

For Dale Johnston

June 2014

This year I had the benefit of working with the same team and students which limited the transition at the beginning of the year, and allowed me to quickly draw on the strengths of my team members. Our team time focus this year was more on collaborative planning on larger projects.  We tried to spend less time on discussing daily lessons which had its trade-offs. Due to the increased distance between learning spaces we did not congregate for short informal chats after school like we did in the first year of our loop. Those chats allowed us to share daily successes and challenges and clarify the various shared lessons we were using. Although we knew each other better due to our looping practices, I think we missed out on the intimate communication that should be done face to face to allow for clarification and confirmation of next steps. It was one of those informal practices that only gets noticed when the opportunity disappears.

My primary focus for growth this year was to continue in the use of inquiry and establish practices that would make student understanding more visible. My hope was to gain a better understanding of what student strengths were, demonstrated through daily shared learning in class and confirmed on assessments.  I could then revise my own teaching strategies, to support the areas that students demonstrated were in need of growth, in a timely manner.

During my previous PGP meeting I shared my concerns about multiple choice assessment questions that did not encourage my students to show their thought process. During the discussion that followed, it was emphasized how I needed to instil the motivation required, to encourage students to show their thought process.  I was provided with advice on how to ensure that students would make their thought process clear for these types of assessment tools. Since assessment drives instruction and learning, it was necessary for me to adjust the scoring of questions so that the answer was only one of many possible marks for each question. The result was students responded to the changes by drawing tables and charts or images to demonstrate their thought process. They also displayed equations that were used at various stages in the solution process. Since marks were available for demonstrating the problem solving strategies used from start to finish, students also got into the habit of highlighting or underlining the important information in the problem. So what was the result of all of this?

  • Students were given credit for understanding various decisions that went into the problem solving process. This motivated them to demonstrate even a partial process (rather than simply estimate an answer without any evidence). Overall scores improved and students engaged in conversations about how their results improved.
  • The demonstration of process allowed me to recognize where instruction had been successfully grasped and provided me clues on where my instruction needed improvement.
  • Follow-up after the initial assessment allowed students to respond to alternate strategies and methods, prior to writing a similar assessment.
  • Re-evaluating their ability to solve multi-step problems provided in a multiple choice format on re-writes afforded me the chance to compare instructional strategies to utilize in upcoming lessons.
  • Students were encouraged to show their own unique strategies derived from connections they had made with previous learning.  Sometimes these strategies were embraced by the class since they had all been exposed to the previous learning.
  • This example of interdependent learning was encouraged but credit must be given to the students who took the risk to expose their unique problem solving process.

Showing process was not a goal limited to Math only. During our Evidence and Investigation unit in Science, students were provided opportunities to carry out finger printing, hand writing analysis and chromatography experiments. Throughout the experiments it was reinforced that the process of testing each criteria was the critical piece and that the final answer was simply the conclusion of the process.  Students who demonstrated these steps, were reward on their performance based assessment. The performance based assessment that had been created earlier by our team and revised from previous use to focus on process and inference was carried out in a collaborative setting.  This allowed students to ask new questions based on their initial results (an important aspect of Science we refer to as focus). Students who bought into the process and demonstrated their step by step analysis were rewarded with exceptional marks. This effective assessment tool still needs more revisions though since some students did not recognize the need to show the necessary analysis of all measurable evidence to come up with their conclusions (and it showed in their marks). Prior exposure to the detailed score sheet I utilized would have encouraged more students to show their process (but unfortunately it was not ready to share until after the assessment was completed). This was an opportunity lost and is a tool available if others choose to use this effective assessment.

In addition to the focus on demonstrating process, our team continued the school-wide focus on Inquiry. Inquiry was evident in three of the core subjects as projects in Humanities and Science provided students the opportunity to create their own guiding questions and then create meaning from the resulting research. Current Events and Greek Week were used to promote inquiry in Humanities. Sky Science afforded two opportunities for our students to present research on constellations and a planet of their choosing. My use of additional structure in these projects this year (regular feedback, rubrics and exemplars) was evident, since most students responded to the concepts we were measuring. The Sky Science projects had been used in the past with success and were ideal platforms to utilize inquiry. Unfortunately I was absent for the final days of Greek Week and missed the showcase and the stories students shared about their projects. Earlier projects in Science (Forest Management Project, Planet 11 Project) utilized inquiry and were excellent opportunities to engage in inference.  The Forest Management Project offered us the opportunity to engage in collaborative assessment since students were shifted to various classrooms to interact with other student groups. Collaborating during evaluation on LC wide common assessments is a topic I would like to reflect on next.

I feel we missed out on some valuable opportunities including ongoing collaborative evaluation by our team. This would include follow-up revisions to assessment practices based on patterns demonstrated in student results. The rare times that we did collaborate for evaluation purposes (team time used to evaluate the Language Arts Part A test) the team was afforded the opportunities to reflect on common assessment standards and what constituted proficient verses approaching proficient. Even with the use of exemplars and rubrics, there was plenty of dialogue requesting second opinions to verify our decisions. This is a time consuming process but one I felt was valuable for my own assessment practices. I believe it is essential for us to use assessment and results to drive our instruction and any meaningful dialogue we can have on common assessments is time well spent.

Although our team had many successes, I think that many new challenges came to our attention and will be addressed in the near future. What I have really appreciated over the past few years is the mindset in our building that seeking help with teaching practices is an opportunity for shared growth. Our teaching staff has consistently demonstrated enthusiasm when we come to them for guidance or simply a second opinion on learning strategies. It helps me reflect on my own practices when people consult me and I continually find better ways to improve the learning environment in my classroom. It makes a difference since we are constantly challenged to guide our students through more meaningful learning experiences.

Seems like a strange time to retire with so many opportunities to grow as an educator, with the necessary support network in place to ensure success.

New Role ~ New Teams ~ New Learning

 

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Trish Spink joined our school Leadership Team this year as she took on the role of our Inclusive Education Lead Teacher. In addition, Trish demonstrated her incredible flexibility and collaborative spirit by team teaching in Learning Community 6. Trish and her teaching team re-designed our Media Centre to accommodate two classes of students. Working more closely with Trish this year and seeing her non-stop enthusiasm, proactive and supportive approach with students, families and colleagues has been a real highlight of my year!

Reflection – Trish Spink 2013/2014

 The Risks I Took:

Taking the Inclusive Education position was a risk for me.  I remember when I was approached with this opportunity my initial thought was that I could never do this alone and I now know that I was right. What I learned this year is that I didn’t have to do it alone, and with the support of an amazing team I loved this position.  The constant communication and collaboration made it so I always knew the direction to take and had confidence in my ability to do what was best.  I also appreciated and grew from the encouragement for ongoing professional development and learning.   A highlight has been working closely with Administration, our Learning Coach and outside services to provide students and families extra support.  I have seen the benefits of how wrap around services can improve learning and promote health and wellness.  By taking this risk and with the amazing support, I realize that I am thrilled to continue this career path.

What I Loved:

This year I had the chance to work with and on many different teams.  A highlight has been team teaching.  Not only did I share a classroom space but I also shared my students.  In the beginning I struggled a bit with giving up control but I soon saw the benefits and realized that we were a natural fit.  I believe that being able to utilize flexible groupings allowed us to better meet the needs of our students and support all types of learners.  We were able to build upon each other’s strengths and this was evident in our student’s growth and in the supportive learning environment within our classroom community.  My students have become more independent and their thinking skills have matured as a result of this environment.

What I am Proud of:

The past two years part of my professional growth has been having my students develop good questioning skills. This year my students continued to develop this skill and I am proud of the quality of their learning.  We have been very conscientious to start each learning task with questioning and there has been a natural progression to where our students are now more capable of coming up with good questions.  Collectively our team has created dynamic learning tasks where the students have interacted with various skills in order to reach their end learning product. I am also very proud of our progression with technology because we have made it meaningful for the students and it has enhanced their learning.

What I Learned Along the Way:

I have learned many important things and have once again been reminded not to take anything for granted and that my life and my work is a gift. I love to work hard, play hard and “not sweat the small stuff.”

Taking Risks and Being Vulnerable = Greater Learning

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Melissa Woodward joined our Greystone School Community last year when she took over a teaching assignment part way through the year in order to provide French as a Second Language instruction to our students. This year, Melissa was originally hired to continue providing French instruction; however, when our student population continued to grow, in addition to providing FSL instruction, she eagerly took on the responsibility to teach a grade 8 homeroom – in the FOODS LAB!! It certainly was a challenging year with many new learning experiences for Melissa. Our school community is grateful to her for her dedication and commitment to meeting the needs of a very diverse group of learners this year.

Professional Growth Plan Reflection – 2013-14 ~ Melissa Woodward

 

This year has been a year of extreme professional learning and growing on my part.  Being that it was my first year teaching, sometimes every day felt like it was new. Every time I took risks in my class and tried something that I thought would be a valuable learning experience for my students I had no idea how it would go.  There were lessons that flopped and there were some that allowed my students to learn things that were beyond my expectations.  This year has taught me that taking risks and sometimes being vulnerable with my students allows for great relationships to be built and therefore allows for great learning experiences for the students.  

 

Something that I have taken great pride in is having my students informed about how they are doing in the different skills, on different assessments and throughout each term and as a whole.  I took the time to go over each individual Report card with each of my students every term, and told them that they had to read the comments page as well, not just the marks.  Some didn’t want to but I told them that they have to because they need to know where every single mark came from and why they got that.  I ended each conversation with “So if your parents ask you why you got__ in blank skill then you can tell them why right?”   The reason I think this was valuable is because it gave the kids ownership in the assessments they received.  

 

Another thing I did in my classes was encouraged my students to ask why. Why are we doing this? Why did I get that mark? I tell them all the time that I encourage them to question me on things like that because I always know why we are doing something, if I don’t then we shouldn’t be doing it. That is a valuable skill for them to have as adults so I model it to them, even if it means that I am sometimes more vulnerable to them.

 

My Professional growth goal this year was to become more organized to find balance between school and home.  Some weeks are better than others but I have definitely improved on my organization skills, on my ability to prioritize and my ability to set limits on how much time I spend on school work.  This job could go on forever without any breaks, but I need to also spend time with my family to remain healthy myself.  If I am not healthy and rested (at least sometime) I will not be able to be effective at teaching.  

 

I am grateful I had the opportunity to learn so much this year from my teaching team, students and everyone else that was helpful through the year.  Some days I thought I wouldn’t make it through my first year, teaching grade 8, but now that the end is almost here I think it was an amazing experience that has taught me so much.

 

The Power of Professional Learning and Communication

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Laura Robert has just finished her third year with us at Greystone Centennial Middle School. This year, Laura worked with our youngest students at Greystone in Learning Community 5. Laura brought so much to her students and her team this year – her caring, thoughtful nature, her desire to continuously learn and her commitment to collaboration with her colleagues. Laura also spear headed our school’s “We Care Team” sharing her desire to help our students make a difference in the lives of others outside of our school community.

Professional Growth Plan Reflection 2013-14 ~ Laura Robert

Communication Goal

At the start of the year I made a goal to develop effective communication with my students and their parents in order to ensure the establishment of positive relationships that would lay a foundation for their learning at Greystone. I wanted to especially focus on the aspects of collaboration and evidence. With so many avenues for communication available I found that I had to adjust my approach depending on the needs of the student or parent.

 

Many families responded that they appreciated the Remind 101 texting system, notes, letters, agendas, and emails that provided them with general updates throughout the year. Families actively utilized the availability of email to stay in touch, address concerns, or let me know about things my students were dealing with at home. I feel they appreciated how quickly I tried to respond, making myself available if they had a question or concern.

 

I was able to create a classroom blog that provided families with day to day activities, upcoming curriculum, concepts, or studies, and evidence of the students’ opportunities to learn in class. All of us in LC5 even started to push the envelope further and assist our students in creating their own school blogs where they could journal and reflect on their personal learning. Although I feel this form of communication has some of the greatest potential I do not feel it was as successful as I had originally hoped. After putting a lot of thought and effort into making this an informative tool very few families would make a point of visiting my blog, or their child’s blog on a regular basis. Without an invested audience my response was to spend more time on other ways  of communicating with students and parents. I have been planning strategies for improving my own consistency with the blog posting and develop ways to give families more incentive to connect through blogs (focusing on the evidence of learning-shown through their child’s blog posts) and by sending regular links and questions out through our blog for families to go over at home.

 

The comment based report cards given each term provides students and families with far more than just a vague generalization of their marks. Instead the report cards that we produce pinpoint specific skills within each discipline, and evaluate a student’s level of independent competency in each individual area. I tell my students and their families that the most valuable part of these report cards are the detailed comments. I felt confident that the comments I made for each of my students clearly identified their individual learning.  I connected the key words discussed within class (based on our poster “What are we learning today?”) to guide these observations and recommendations. Although these comments are simply a snapshot of the students’ learning, it was an opportunity to communicate with, initiate important conversations, and gain support from many parents who strived to work with me to assist their child in meeting these goals!

 

Effective communication was especially vital when working with my grade 5 teaching team. Although the idea of working with 6 other very independent and unique individuals (most of whom I had never met before this year) seemed quite daunting, it turned out to be a winning combination! Each day everyone brought everything they had to the table, and invested all of themselves into each other and “our kids.” The excitement of working in tangent with these accomplished teachers who were willing to put themselves on the line, learn something new, or take a risk help me grow as a teacher. We developed solutions for accomplishing tasks more efficiently, and utilizing the team time in our time table by dividing our group into two parts. Communication was especially important between these groups to ensure that consistency was not lost in this gap. Although it was a challenge we established multiple routes of connecting with each other including joint google docs., consistent emails, sharing of resources, and of course the very best…spending quality time face to face with each other. We all seemed to enjoy moments to connect, and would seek out opportunities to get to know each other on a professional and personal level. We appreciated each others differences, and encouraged each other when things were difficult. I believe this positive and trusting relationship among the teachers was often reflected in the culture developed within our pod. The consistency and support for each other provided our students with an understanding of expectations and clear boundaries. Joan, Ashley, Derek, April, Jessica, Luke, and I  went through a lot together this year, and working with them (along with others in the school) has made this year one of the best in my teaching career!

 

I believe that our students are set up for optimum success when there is close communication between families, teachers, educational assistants, administration, and others. In this way there is a community established that works with the student to foster a secure learning environment with plenty of opportunities the student can choose to embrace. I have learned a lot this year about developing individualized routes of communication and support that has established a strong foundation of trust in our school. I plan to continue to strengthen the relationships I have built with my teaching colleagues, my students and their families into the coming year!

Personal Professional Development Opportunity Highlights

This spring I was given the opportunity to attend the Innovate West conference in Calgary at the Connect Charter School. The most beneficial part of this conference was getting to interact with students from the Connect Charter school within their classrooms, and listening to them describe their learning process. It was very exciting to see how eloquently they spoke about their learning, and how they had developed critical thinking strategies. One of our sessions Jeff Couillard led a discussion about how to transform our ideas to opportunities within the classroom. Instead of just generating broad dreams for the future, he gave us planners that could organize our thoughts into tangible plans for implementation. Some of us who attended this session from Greystone have already started to use this guide to structure a program to promote cyber citizenship next year, which could be joined with our health curriculum. Another session I attended was called Pinning down the “unpindownable”: Assessing Creativity. Erin Quinn and Stephanie Bartlett led this collaborative demonstration of how to foster creative ideas, while still coming alongside students and facilitating an open discussion with them to help develop goals for improving their skills. Another notable session I attended was one led by Ryan Siemens and Jen Friske. They described their experience facilitating concept driven (rather than topic focused) curriculum in order to develop more internationally minded students. I felt challenged and inspired by the keynote speakers like Michelle Baldwin, Josh Hill, and Brad Ovenell-Carter…but even more so through conversations with other educators and my co-workers, whose drive to guide innovation and learning was electrifying!

 

Through our annual teachers convention I learned from a variety of well-versed speakers. One of these amazing speakers was Erin Gruwell (Achieving the Impossible: Become a Catalyst for Change), who teaches groups of students who have been pigeon-holed as “unteachable.” Even as a young teacher she was able to break through the tough exteriors of these inner city kids to help redirect their lives. The avenue they chose for escaping was “The Freedom Writers Diary.” This speaker brought me back to my first teaching job at Bosco Homes Academy working with high school students “at the end of the road.” I remembered the faces of my students who had been hurt by the world, and needed a way out. For a couple of these students writing and art had been their release. I also attended sessions like Shelagh Rogers’ who spoke on mental illness and creating healthier work spaces and Oliver Samonte who provided tools to teach students who spoke English as their second language. I attended the session led by Jesse McLean where he described the alternative classroom designs our school has been exploring, and even though I had seen many of our “softer” classrooms in action, it was very interesting to hear the responses from other interested teachers. One of the most amazing opportunities was listening to Eva Olsson describe her life as a Holocaust survivor in WWII. She spoke on how we each have the responsibility to pass on a legacy of caring, compassion and character to those we teach. She spoke on needing courage and determination to overcome prejudice attitudes. Through her whole talk the audience was enraptured, awestruck, by this tiny woman who had decided that she could no longer be silent about the pain she had suffered, and the message of resilience she was compelled to share. I felt overwhelmed and empowered at the same time, knowing I was truly blessed to learn from these amazing teachers!

 

I really appreciated the thought and purpose behind our Greystone Professional Development days this year as well! I felt that from the very first retreat kick off, there was a clear goal to develop and foster collaboration and camaraderie between teachers, teams, and administration at Greystone. The planning time we were given was extremely effective in establishing trust, and initiating some incredible ideas we could put to work in our classrooms. One of my favorite PD days at Greystone was when Rapid Fire Theatre group was brought in to work with the staff. This provided us with an opportunity to step out of our comfort zone, and recognize how this often feels to our students. I brought away from this experience a realization that a simple look, word, or even closed body language could put barriers up and discourage a student…or how the opposite could encourage them to take risks! This was the best year for PD because of the fitness and interaction nature of the lunches! The majority of our staff members participated in various unique activities from yoga, Tai Chi, Basketball, to even an enormous omnikin ball game. These are not just “fun” and “games,” but it is time for our staff to connect on a personal level, and develop a community of trust. Although all of us have different experiences and often different opinions, I believe that there is loyalty and respect among our staff that guides the dedicated work ethic within and sense of family within our school.

Putting Passion into the Learning

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Kathy Kennedy has been teaching at Greystone for the past nine years (minus a couple of maternity leaves along the way). I have had the privilege of working with Kathy even before we both came to Greystone. Over all of these years spent working together, I have watched her become an exceptional learner, leader and teacher. As a mom, she shares an important perspective that contributes to her deeper understanding of each learner in her classroom. She is a dynamic, thoughtful, FUNNY teacher and her students love her!

2013 – 2014 School Year Reflection

Wow!  What an incredible and challenging year it has been for me professionally and personally.  As the summer of 2013 ended, I came into this school year excited to get back and continue my learning and strengthen my teaching from the previous year.  I had learned so much about teaching and learning, from my oldest son and my students.  I couldn’t wait to continue to strive for putting passion into the learning (like we successfully did last year with our 9/11 Inquiry project).  Why?  My biggest fear is that one day my son will come home from school and tell me he hates it!  It is with this fear, I continue to challenge the “old school” methods of teaching/learning and consistently reflect on what I want to see for both of my sons in the future.  I want them to learn because they want too, not because they have too.

I started off the school year with the focus on building relationships with my students and their respective families; to create a classroom environment where every student was comfortable to make mistakes and learn from them, and to find something this year that would emotionally invest my students in their own learning.

After building the foundational routines and expectations needed and getting to know my students and their academic and social/emotional needs I became very frustrated.  Unfortunately, with the system we had in place, I knew I wasn’t meeting the needs or even building the relationships with the grade 7’s like I wish I could.  We had 5 grade seven classes, and it felt like we were herding them from class to class like cattle.  I was teaching two grade seven classes Language Arts and three grade seven classes Social Studies – there was no room / time for curriculum integration, team-teaching, deeper learning inquiry projects, etc… because of our schedule. The focus of our teaching became content vs. skills because the variety of learners I had in one room was so difficult to plan and prepare for.  For example, I had reading levels in one room that began at a grade two reading level all the way up to a grade nine reading level.  Choosing literature to study in my class became very challenging, as I knew for some it would be way above their level and for others not academically challenging enough. 

After much discussion with our staff (as I wasn’t the only one frustrated), we decided to make a very bold change – to group our students based on their learning styles and skills they need to develop in the areas of literacy and numeracy.  This would allow us to be more flexible and target the learning to the specific skills students needed to work on / develop.  We changed our schedule, and every teacher in grades 7,8, and 9 became a numeracy and literacy teacher.  It was from these changes that I have learned the following:

1)     How to collaborate!  Up until the changes, I really only had to collaborate with my teaching partner, Lynn.  We both are Humanities and very similar in our teaching practices… naturally it was easy!  As soon as the changes happened, I quickly learned that collaborating with 5 other teachers for our Numeracy, Literacy, and Social/Science inquiry was extremely difficult.  There just was never enough time, and we found our meetings full of conflict and frustration.  After Spring Break, things changed, and we started to learn to pull out and rely on each other’s strengths and use them to be productive within the time limits we had.

 

2)     Emotional investment from a student does not have to exclusively involve exciting content to learn.  Last year, I left the year thinking it did (due to our 9/11 project), but I have learned this year that most students will also become emotionally involved if they are feeling success!  An example of this is with my Math class.  Before the changes, there was a student in my homeroom who hated math.  Now, with going at a pace she needs, breaking it down for her understanding, etc… she comes each day to class and is emotionally involved in her learning.  How do I know this?  She comes to class with her homework consistently complete, puts up her hand to give an answer (something she never did before), and has also told me that she likes Math class now.   Her “buy in” is not because she loves fractions, including adding or subtracting them, it is because she is feeling success! (By the way, this is only one example of the many in my room).

 

3)     Feedback, Feedback, Feedback!  For a student to also become emotionally involved in their learning, they need the chance / time to fail and also take risks; they need to know clearly what the expectations are for any given task, and they also need to understand what the purpose is.  Through modelling, practicing and getting formative feedback quickly, I have learned that students’ quality of work increases dramatically.  For example, Lynn and I have spent, literally, 6 months working with our students to make strong connections to something they have read to a personal experience, another text, or the world.  We began by modelling it with our class (we did it with 3 different short stories), then we allowed them to practice it with a read aloud (which we provided teacher and peer feedback), and finally we have now had them practice on their own through two different novel studies.  Through both of these novel studies, we have also continued to give feedback, and have had many discussions within our classroom about how we can make them even better.  I am astounded by the quality of work and level of thinking our students are demonstrating… it is way higher than I ever imagined!  In previous years, I would never have spent so much time on one significant reading skill, but today I feel every moment was worth it for my students.  Feedback and the time to learn / build upon mistakes allowed our students to feel successful; therefore, they also become more emotionally involved in their learning.

 

4)     I love looping!  For a teacher who knows they are going to teach the same group for two years, the investment and time building relationships and expectations with students and families becomes much more worthwhile.  Not only that, but we also have the time to really focus on the skills our students need to be successful (vs. content), and be able to take the time (not rush) to build these skills so our students are better prepared for their academic futures.  I loved that as an LC 7 team, we have really spent the time “training our troops,” as it is going to make the beginning of next year flow more smoothly!

Although it has been a very challenging year (with all the changes, teaching multiple subjects not necessarily in my comfort zone, etc…) I have enjoyed looking back and reflecting on the positive learnings that have happened for me as a teacher versus the negative struggles we have gone through!  I am looking forward to continue learning next year, and hopefully continue to help with the push to change our approach to student learning and curriculum re-design!

Reflecting on The Courage to Teach

 

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Raeann Richardson looped up to Grade 6 this year with her group of students from Grade 5 last year. In addition to learning new curriculum this year, Raeann also decided to take on an additional learning challenge by team teaching in a large open space in our Media Centre. Raeann and her teaching colleagues provided a highly engaging, caring and compassionate learning community in their shared space. Students amazed me with their dedication to learning, their self-direction and their collaborative way of learning together.

Professional Growth Plan Reflection 2013-14 ~ Raeann Richardson

I recently began reading “The Courage to Teach”, by Parker J. Palmer. This was a book given to me by my incredibly inspiring leader and mentor, Carolyn Cameron. When meeting with her throughout the school year, she had recommended I read this book as it corresponds with my way of reflection and thoughtfulness. So far, I have really enjoyed Palmer’s way of describing education. He says that it is at its best, not only when there is intellect, but when we involve an emotional and spiritual way of reflection to our practice. The question “Who is the self that teaches?” Palmer says to be the most pivotal question for the sake of learning. I cannot help but agree.

I believe ongoing learning can only occur first by a way of relationships. I remember hearing a lot of this idea when I first arrived to Greystone. I understood it to be true; however, after spending two connected years with my group of students and colleagues, I truly believe and live this statement every day. I believe a “good” teacher shows willingness for connectedness. “Good teachers… are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves”, was stated by Palmer. I have never agreed with something more. I see the importance of this idea each day as I stand in front of the class, as I interact with students on a variety of emotional levels, as I act as a role model, friend and teacher; I do my best to reflect in what is a healthy, stable, meaningful connection with my students. Only then, can the real learning happen. As we know, teachers are not only present to feed the curriculum into the brains of our growing population, we are here to foster skills which will help our students live happy, complete lives, in whatever path they may take. No longer do we live in a world where the path to University and a “happy”, ”successful” way of life is through memorizing arithmetic, and historical facts. Instead, people are increasingly becoming successful through a number of routes, all based on unique and diverse skills and characteristics.

I am so happy to work at a school where it is believed that each day our job as educators is to foster such skills as: critical thinking, comprehension, risk taking, collaboration, reflection, synthesizing, creating and communicating; as these are the real building blocks to lifelong learning and success. My colleagues and I have collaboratively built successful learning tasks for our students to engage in, where they have further developed these skills we hold as vital. I have watched my students grow immensely through my two years spent with them. They have amazed me in countless moments, where their skills have reached new levels, and their emotional security and enthusiasm is inspiring.

As a young, developing professional, I feel greatly motivated and enthralled in the complexities of this career. I am excited to be where I am, and look forward to the continued learning opportunities and challenges ahead. “The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and student and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.”

Lessons Learned from the Year

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Brad Arndt looped up with his students from grade 7 to teach them in grade 8 this year. Brad also decided to enter into a team teaching situation this year with a colleague. Together, these two teachers created a highly engaging, responsive and flexible Learning Community for our students. It is awesome to see Brad embracing different opportunities in his own practice in order to provide students with the best possible learning environment.

PGP Year End Reflections from 2013/14 ~ Brad Arndt

My professional growth is something I take very seriously. I feel professional growth is an important area of focus for a few reasons. One, I think being a great teacher means building strong, important relationships. Two, I understand that effective teachers engage students in deep meaningful learning and; three, I believe, most of all, that the best teachers turn students into engaged, ethical, empathic citizens. Indeed, these are no small feats! Therefore, reflecting on my professional growth is never an easy task for me.  I have a perfectionist streak and tend to be fairly critical of myself when I look back over the year.  However, for this reflection, I want to keep the ideas positive. I want to focus on the accomplishments of the year and what those accomplishments have taught me. I want to reflect on how my successes may have brought me just a little bit closer to being one of those teachers who has significant impacts on students long after they leave the walls of our building.   In order to do this effectively I have separated this reflection into three areas. First, I will discuss the things I felt went well for me this year.  Secondly, I want to focus on a few of the lessons I learned from those successes this year.  Finally, I want to touch on the things that helped me learn all of those valuable lessons.  In the end, I want to be able to make the learning experiences of the past year more engrained and concrete for myself.  

A Few of the Things That Went Well This Year

 

After thinking about the individual successes over the past ten months, I quickly realized that they fit into three categories.  The first success I want to touch on was the success I had with team teaching and collaboration.  Team teaching and collaboration with good teachers might be one of the best and most effective learning tools I have come across in my professional development; however,  it can also be a risky form of learning. When the idea of working in a team teaching environment was presented to me, I had a number of fears. You have to be comfortable with the idea of being exposed as a teacher. You have to know how to handle feedback (yes, both the good and the bad) and you certainly have to be compatible in teaching styles or you might be in for a very long year.  However, if you can get around those challenges, you will be in for a exceptionally rewarding year as a teacher.  The discussions I have had this year regarding best practices in teaching were not always easy, but they were always informative.  At times opinions can vary drastically, but we always managed to keep the personal and emotional feelings out of the conversations. We managed to keep the discussion and debates focused around ideas.  I can’t even count how many times the discussion ended without a clear understanding or resolution of conflicting ideas, only to go home, reflect and come back the next day with a clearer picture and understanding of each other’s point of view.  This debating, discussing and reflecting process is exceptionally informative and I really enjoy the challenging and stimulating team environment it creates.  Overall, I feel this is such a great learning experience that I would recommend that all teachers work in team teaching classrooms at some point in their careers.  There are also a number of other benefits to team teaching that add to the success of this experience.  The students really benefit because they have two adults providing perspectives, feedback, and differing teaching styles.  This maximizes the learning the students can achieve.  It also means the number and frequency of check-ins are significantly increased.  The workload is shared for so many of the day to day management and organizational tasks teachers face. Finally, there are the sanity breaks of getting to touch base with another adult throughout the day.  It’s refreshing after talking to thirteen year olds for the majority of the day to have another adult to talk to in your classroom most of the time.  Ultimately, team teaching is both highly efficient and an exceptionally powerful learning tool.

 

The second success I want to reflect on and share is the success I feel that I am having in my math classes.  Mathematics has been a significant part of my teaching assignments every year that I have taught. While my education background is primarily in the sciences, I am finding some really great and exciting growth in my numeracy classes.  This year I have tried various groupings in math classes, both early in the year and then again with our levelled numeracy groups for the second half of the year. During each of these different situations, I have noticed an increase in the level of student engagement and student growth in mathematics.  These benefits have come from a wide variety of students.  I have a group of eighth grade students who have a history of struggling in mathematics. They have started to have some success and a change in attitude towards learning math concepts.  I have a group of high achieving eighth grade math students who have responded to more challenging material with engaging and passionate discussions about how and why specific math ideas work or don’t work.  Many of these discussions allow for the students to see that there are often multiple ways to work through a math problem and therefore, they are developing a deeper understanding of the topics being covered. After seeing some of these successes, I have, of course, reflected on why I have been seeing these changes in the students’ attitudes towards mathematics.  After considerable reflection and discussions with other amazing math teachers I am starting to think that there are three reasons I am seeing this success in my math classes.  The first is something I have being working on from my very first year of teaching.  I have been trying to focus on delivering math ideas from multiple perspectives.  I have been focusing on the why and how the steps in a math process work, along with a heavy investment in modelling math concepts with visual and tactile representations of the step by step processes.  I really feel that this is giving the students multiple ways to access the concepts and to take their understanding of mathematics deeper.  Secondly, I have made a very conscious effort to provide helpful feedback and check-ins very regularly in math classes.  I am almost never at my desk during class these days. I am floating around the room having meaningful discussions with students.  Students are seeking these discussions not only with myself but are starting to turn to their peers to get help.  After teaching math for four years I am finding I have a strong grasp as to where students are likely to make errors when learning new concepts, and I am able to catch these mistakes early on or, in some cases, avoid them altogether by using well timed feedback and discussions. The third thing I have found that has been helping me find success in mathematics teaching is the attempt to make more of my lessons have a practical application, or be more authentic or real life.  This allows the students to become more engaged in the concepts.  These types of lessons take a fair bit of work but even just a few of these lessons make a difference to the students in my class.  I feel like, while I haven’t done as many of these types of lessons as I would like, I have been attempting to have at least one or two per topic studied.  Connecting the learning to something practical helps give the concept meaning for the students.  Even a small amount of this type of application makes a difference to students’ interest and engagement.  

 

The third success I want to highlight is the extra curricular and special events that I took part in with the students this year.  Some of my favourites include: Sun Run, Rabbit Hill Ski and Snowboard Club, Marmot Basin, Challenge Day, TWOS (Body Worlds exhibit), Skills Canada, Track and Field, and our LC 8 fundraisers for our year end Jasper trip.  All of these events are critical to building meaningful relationships with the students I teach.  These relationships transfer into the classroom and help the students develop Citizenship and Social Responsibility.  Furthermore, these events help students find a little more enjoyment in coming to school.  It is in these moments that I see the biggest smiles, the best attitudes, engaged excitement and even some really great learning.  These are the memories the students will think of when they remember the middle school years later in life and I am proud to be a part of so many of them.  I also love these experiences because it allows me to share my passions, and curiosities with the students. They see me getting “nerdy” about something and hopefully they see that it’s good to be yourself and it’s okay to be curious and interested in many different aspects of life. I like to think it is these types of activities that build the engaged, ethical, empathic citizens I talked about at the beginning of this reflection.  

A Brief Summary of the Lessons I Learned This Year

 

  1. The importance of relationships and collaboration for growth

  2. The importance of feedback for growth

  3. The importance of reflection for growth

If you take a quick look back at these three lessons that I have learned this year you  will quickly realize that all three apply to both professional growth and to student growth.  I have learned these things from the positive experiences I have had over the course of the year.  In the past, I may have focused on my shortcomings and what those have taught me. However, I really enjoyed the process of focusing on the positive a little more this time around. I feel like the lessons are as important to my growth, maybe even a little more important than the lessons I learned from focusing on the negatives.  

    4. The importance of focusing on the positive!

A Brief List of the Tools That Helped Me Learn These Lessons This Year

  • Team Collaborators  (LC 8 Team, GCMS Team, Design Team, and PSD70 Team).  

  • Really Great PD Opportunities (Google Summit, Convention, IDEAS Conference – especially the Ewan McIntosh workshop, wow)

Online PLC’s (Twitter, TED, Zite, Edutopia and Te@chthought)

Looping, Team Teaching and Inquiry

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Jenna Wilkins is finishing the second year of her teaching career. She has been working with our Learning Community 8 students this year after teaching the same group of students last year in grade 7. Jenna’s non-stop energy and enthusiasm for learning with students and colleagues along with her commitment to “unlearning” traditional practices in order to engage her learners is inspiring!

Professional Growth Plan Reflection 2013-14 ~ Jenna Wilkins

I know this feeling probably only intensifies as you continue on in your teaching career, but, wow, I honestly CANNOT believe this year is over already! Sometimes you hear people talking about “time flying,” but this year I truly began to understand the feeling firsthand. As I sit and reflect about this year of learning, I cannot help but have a bit of nostalgia. Although I am still very early in my teaching career, I can definitely see how “time flies!” I am finding myself being able to look back on the amazing memories our Learning Community has created together that sometimes, in the business of daily life, you often forget to cherish. That is not to say this year has gone without its challenges, but as always, those challenges were learning opportunities and I have used these challenges to grow as both a teacher and a learner.

 

As I sit and reflect about my learning this year, one of the prominent and recurring themes that continues to shine through is my first experience of looping with students and the incredible relationships you form. Spending two years with students truly allows relationships to flourish and as our learning community comes to the end of our loop I can reflect firsthand on the benefits I have experienced. Beginning the year already knowing our students and having our students familiar with our teaching styles and expectations was something so positive. Our students came back to school with a peace of mind and readiness to learn because there was a comfortability and sense of community already established. I know looping is not a new concept at Greystone, but I am guessing my fellow teacher nerds who have experienced looping with students understand what a positive effect its has on student learning. Further, I have been able to grow with my students and see their progress as learners and as they develop into young adults, which has been by far one of the most positive experiences in the past two years.

 

Consequently, we had our students complete a Citizenship and Social Responsibility reflection and self assessment, since we are fast approaching that wonderful report card deadline, which we have had our students do faithfully since Report 1 of Grade 7; but this one was different. We had a meaningful discussion with our homerooms about the importance of reflecting on how each of them has changed, grown and developed into the young adults they are today and let me tell you, some of their responses had me grabbing for the tissues! I always knew relationships with students were important, but when you get that rare glimpse into a teenager’s life and truly see the connection you have established, it reminds you why you come to work everyday! A few glimpses into the mystical teenage brain:

 

“I think over the last two years I have tried harder on my academic work and started to care more about school and how it affects my future career. I have learned to care more about friends, family and teachers and to respect people and help them with their problems. I have become more independent and do more what I think is right than what others think is right.”

“I have improved a lot/drastically since Grade 7 and I am very proud of that because it is always better to improve than to get worse! I have made a couple of bad choices but I have learned from them. I feel like I have to be very responsible because we have to be good role models for the younger grades and encourage them to make good choices.”

 

“My best memory would probably be the first day of Grade 8 when we all just came back and had so many stories to share and hear about. It was amazing just coming back to the same people who you haven’t seen in so long.”

 

“The last two years of school been the best years of my life. I’ve had some teachers that are fun, but serious. The teachers have been caring and I feel like I have learned a lot and not just school subject, like math, but on how to be a better person even when having fun.”

 

“I have realized how much I have grown as a person and how compassionate, kind and helpful my teachers and peers have been. I have also noticed that I have been asking for help a lot more now, which will help me down the road.”

 

“This is by far my favorite and best class I have been in! I love this class, whenever I am in a bad mood they can change it. They are like my second family.”

 

“I value teamwork and I have learned that in group projects you can’t just have one person do all the work and everyone take credit. Before, I liked to take control of the group and do everything but now I’ve realized that everyone needs to contribute.”

 

“When I have gotten into trouble I have learned to be honest and tell the truth and I usually take responsibility for my actions when I have done something wrong.”

 

“I’m not really sure how to start, it’s been an amazing 2 years. I’ve noticed growth as a person and as a citizen, I’ve had 2 teachers who genuinely care about what’s best for me. I haven’t always been the easiest to work with because of my ego, I guess you could say, but I’m working on it.”

 

Next, as I reflect on our teaching assignment and new space as the year began, I am only beginning to realize how much team teaching has benefited my practice and the learning of my students. First and foremost a major shout out to my “work husband” Brad Arndt…a.k.a. B.A., Bradley, Shelly Cooper, Arndties or any of the wonderful nicknames we have accumulated throughout the year! All jokes aside, Brad has taught me so much this year and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work so closely with him over the past two years. I knew this year was going to be different, challenging and very exciting as we took a risk neither of us had embarked on before, but I am so happy we gave it a try! Team teaching with Brad really forced us to be transparent as educators but in turn allowed us to give and receive some of the most beneficial, yet informal, feedback to each other. Being open and flexible pushed us to be better teachers and learners. Watching Brad throughout the year reminded me to always stay present with your students, as it is always easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business of “school.” Brad always found time to just be with our kids and I found myself observing such positive interactions in our classroom community. Although it took some figuring out, Brad and I found a good balance of collaboration in our new space, drawing on each other’s strengths and expertise and always allowing the other to roll with an idea when necessary. Our collaboration was constant, consistent and always striving to do what is best for our learners. We were able to support each other to take risks and most importantly, value and celebrate each other for who we are as teachers, not being afraid to be ourselves. Pushing ourselves to be better teachers only benefits our students because we need to the best for them and we do that by continuing to learn in the presence of others. Obviously when it comes to change, I think it is only human to have some mixed feelings about our “work divorce” for next year, but I know I will always take with me the lessons I have learned from B.A.!

 

As I reflect on our journey of inquiry this year I cannot help but be drawn to two very different projects that somehow managed to achieve some very similar things. Both our Horrible Histories (Humanities) and Rube-Goldberg (Science) inquiries challenged our students to develop skills and push their learning above and beyond. We witnessed students deeply engaged in the process of inquiry; asking critical questions, providing feedback, using evidence to support their claims, showing determination and perseverance, infusing technology into the process and so much more. Although we had some success in inquiry this year I am looking forward to continue to build my knowledge of what effective inquiry-based learning looks like in the middle school classroom. In addition to several PD opportunities, I did some nerding out and read a couple of books about student engagement, critical questioning and inquiry-based learning. Next year I am hoping to continue to work with my team to always be thinking about how to intertwine inquiry-based techniques with what we already do at Greystone.

As always, I thank my lucky stars that I landed on this amazing little island we call Greystone. Each and every day I learn from my team and my students and I couldn’t begin to think of a more supportive and rewarding place to share my passion of teaching. Wilkins OUT! (That one is for you McLean!!!)