Archive for February 26, 2011

Swimming Upstream

Doing the right thing is hard sometimes – so hard, in fact, that it often makes you wonder if exerting all of the effort to go against the flow is really worth it?  When, if ever, does the time come to stop the struggle and do what is easier?


We have been swimming upstream at Greystone Centennial Middle School since we first opened our doors over five and a half years ago.  Our upstream swim has included doing things differently in our school, things that are not common practice in many schools…………yet! 


Why do we keep swimming upstream?  Will we ever stop the challenging work of doing what we know is right for our kids in providing them with a school community that meets their needs as learners in the 21st century?  


Not as long as we have a lifeline that supports our efforts and reminds us to keep our vision for student learning clear.  Our lifeline at Greystone has been our close collaboration with the Galileo Educational Network.  At Greystone, we have had the opportunity to be inspired through the experiences and expertise of Dr. Sharon Friesen, co-founder and president of Galileo.   Our teachers and administration team have also been mentored for over two years by Candace Saar.  Candace is the Associate Director of Galileo Network. Candace’s background includes involvement in reforming secondary schools, 21st century learning, discipline-based inquiry, technology integration and improving teaching practice.  Candace, Sharon and the Galileo Network have been our lifeline at Greystone by keeping us centred on developing meaningful learning experiences for our students that promote critical thinking and deep understanding.  This kind of learning is challenging, not always predictable but deeply rooted in a professional practice that makes students connect with authentic learning through Inquiry. 


Inquiry, as defined by the Galileo Network, is a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world.


Our teachers work collaboratively to design learning that includes these key elements of Inquiry:

  • Active Exploration
  • Authenticity
  • Academic Rigour
  • Assessment
  • Beyond the School
  • Use of Digital Technology
  • Connecting with Experts
  • Elaborated Communication


It is through our commitment to building our teaching practice around these core components that our students will be prepared to become ethical, entrepreneurial and engaged citizens of the 21st Century.  Is it easy to provide this kind of learning for our students?  Absolutely NOT!!!!!  Is doing what’s right for our kids and their learning worth the challenge?  ABSOLUTELY!!!!!  Keep swimming, Greystone!

Get off the Gerbil Wheel!!!

Ahhhhhh…Teacher’s Convention…an opportunity to take a breather from the fast pace of our action-packed, always busy, often unpredictable school days.  For two full days, we are given time to learn something new to improve our practice, reflect on our work, reconnect with our colleagues and re-energize for the second half of the school year.  Why don’t we make time, more often, for this?   What would our work and our lives be like if we could slow down, take time to breathe and get off the gerbil wheel that keeps us racing through our school days, our “to-do” lists and our lives?  Would we be more effective, more creative, more passionate about our work?


The highlight of my Teachers’ Convention this year was hearing Sir Kenneth Robinson speak in Red Deer.  His message reminded me of the importance of cultivating each individual’s creativity in our mission to educate youth for the 21st century.  Some significant themes stood out for me during Sir Ken’s talk – many of them were things that I believe we have identified as cornerstones to the teaching and learning at Greystone Centennial Middle School:


1.  Schools as Organic vs. Linear


The traditional model of schooling highlights a one size fits all, standardized curriculum that measures, sorts and ranks students in a linear manner in order to feed them up to the next level on the “Educational Conveyor Belt”.   This concept of the education system hit home with me personally, when my very creative “out of the box” musician son, in grade 12 at the time, wrote a song in his last year of public education entitled “Our Last Year As Cattle”.  As a personal aside, it has been the educational experience, as seen through the eyes of my oldest son, that has contributed to fueling my fire for educational reform for all of our children.  The “system” worked for me, as it funneled me off to University in a predictable, linear way…but that conveyor belt doesn’t necessarily work for others who “march to the beat of a different drum”.  This linear structure does not work for so many who possess more insight, creativity, imagination and talent than I could ever dream of possessing myself.


The industrialized model that de-personalizes education and treats individuals like “cattle” does not take into account the uniqueness of each of us.  It does not value the GROWTH mindset that we need to embrace so that all students feel that they have the potential to realize the unique gifts and talents they possess.  A growth mindset can be observed at Greystone when we see teachers emphasizing the use of:
  • Student Portfolios in which the student charts his or her learning journey over time – looking at successes as well as identifying, for himself or herself, areas for growth AND, with assistance from the teacher, can make a plan for what to do to get to that next level;
  • Process Reflections that help students focus on becoming aware of themselves as learners; 
  • Assessment FOR Learning that provides students with timely feedback about their learning and what is needed in order for that particular learner to show growth next time around;
  • Fail Forward – mistakes are used to improve learning, we use them as opportunities to develop skills in perseverence, reflection and goal setting for next time.  Students (and teachers) engage in the process of objectively analyzing their own work and the work of others in order to identify whether or not co-created criteria have been met (and if criteria has not been met, what would need to be done to improve).

As Educators, it is our responsibility to uncover those “human resources” that live inside each of us and if mined, would provide our youth with what they need to contribute confidently to the world of their future.  This is what we do when we differentiate our instruction based on individual learner needs and when we seek to build an inclusive model of education for students by providing “room at the table” for each and every learner who comes into our school. 


Sir Ken does a brilliant job of exploring the paradigm shift that needs to occur if we are to move from an industrialized to an agricultural system of education that personalizes learning for students and provides multiple pathways to the future.  To this end, we are so excited about the work being done in our School Division, particularly at the High School level, where students are being provided with opportunities to have their unique needs as learners met through the Flexibility Enhancement Project.


Beginning with the end in mind, we need to remember that we are preparing our students for an end we can’t even imagine right now…so it is best to tap into the unique potential of each and every one of our learners in order to provide them with an education that gives them the confidence in themselves to recognize their talents and then to continue to explore and build upon those talents to create success for themselves now and in the future.  So…how do we do this?


2.  Space to Create





In Sir Ken’s TEDTalk about the Education Revolution, he describes the “Fast Food Model of Education” that values speed in productivity with an emphasis on conformity.  When we keep running around and around on the gerbil wheel each day, attending to our endless list of same old same old activities, tasks, meaningless assignments and booklets, we not only fail to ignite the passion and creativity of our students, but we also extinguish the flame of purpose and excitement among our teachers.  As a result, we move to dreary “Flobbertown”, where, as Dr. Seuss describes in his book “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day”, everybody does everything the same.  In this scenario, the classroom, school and community becomes a very dull, boring and soul-less place to be.  Most importantly, we all fail to realize the potential each of us has for using our imagination and creativity…to move into a space where,as Sir Ken describes in his book “The Element” we can live lives that are filled with passion, confidence and personal achievement.


What we need to do to create a school community that is alive with growth, new ideas and fluorishes with potential is provide TIME …the space for all of these wonderful opportunities is available right now by doing more with less…getting “back to basics” as Sir Ken puts it.  Back to basics implies that we have all that we need in a classroom, in a school RIGHT NOW.  We don’t have to wait for someone to transform the system in order to create connections, ignite desire and uncover passion that exists in each and every one of us.  We can reconnect to the art of teaching by slowing down and making time to build the relationships between teacher, learners and the relationship between learner and topics to be uncovered.  No more rushing to “cover” the curriculum; but instead, make time to connect with ideas, processess, and understandings that are there to be “uncovered” by all of us.  How to do this:


  • Ask important questions – have students share their interests and understandings with each other.  Uncover misperceptions and build a shared understanding together.
  • Collaborate with colleagueswork together with each other to design learning that brings together many key processes from more than one subject area so that we are actually creating more time to go deeper with the learning for ourselves and our students. 
  • Create flexible schedules/structures – STOP the shuffle from class to class with bells going off every half hour.  At Greystone, we have implemented a flexible time table that puts the responsibility for deciding how much time to spend on key learner outcomes in the hands of our professionals.  Our teachers, as highly capable professionals, are responsible for ensuring that time is taken to focus on the big ideas and on what it is that is most important for students to understand.  Re-examining the traditional structures in our school system, like not switching teachers every year, can help us find ways to create more time with our students for personalized, in-depth learning with students.  We have established a looping system at Greystone, which provides students and teachers with two or three years together so that they can focus on what is important ~ getting to know each and every learner as an individual, and then, in the company of colleagues, assisting each other with the creative process of designing experiences that will capture the interest and imagination of learners. 
What if we make time to slow down our lives, to focus on the really important things…would we feel more fully alive, inspired and would we be able to tap into the creative talent that lies inside of each of us?  And how would this impact our own lives and the lives of those we touch each and every day?  Time to get off the gerbil wheel…


No great thing is created suddenly.  There must be time.  Give your best and always be kind. ~ EPICTETUS


Evidence of 21st Century Learning

File:Classroom Horner Avenue School 1916.jpg
“Old School” desks in rows would clearly NOT be what we want to see in a 21st Century Classroom.  So what do we look for inside a school that is providing students with deep, engaging, meaningful learning?  We asked our teachers to respond to that question during last week’s Professional Development Day.  Some of the responses included:


If something doesn’t work the first time, students can revisit, try a different approach or seek input from a classmate.  The key is that students use “failure” as a springboard to continue with learning.


Students and teachers explore the use of new technologies with students by encouraging students to bring in their own personal devices and expertise to share with each other and their teacher.  Together, students and teachers can examine the potential that these devices have to support and advance learning.


Understanding Different Perspectives
Group activities and discussions that require students to establish a point of view based on sound reasoning/criteria/research and to listen, openly and with a willingness to understand the perspectives of others in order to gain deeper understanding.  It involves thinking critically about topics to develop a broader perspective. The outcome for these kinds of activities should be for students to demonstrate the building of new knowledge, the analysis and synthesis of information and the application of learning to new situations. (ie. Four Corners, Role Play Scenarios, Socratic Circles).


This link includes the ideas offered by another educator (which was provided by one of our teachers – thanks Jessie!):


When I look for evidence of 21st Century Learning going on at Greystone, I agree with what was shared in “The View from Here” ~ Questions Up on Walls ~  Not just any questions…but thoughtful, important questions that cause students to dig more deeply into a topic.  Overarching questions, connected to big ideas from the curriculum, that guide student learning show me that students have been engaged in inquiry within the classroom.  Questions up on walls also shows me that the teacher has made an important shift from “the one with the knowledge to dispense” to a coach or mentor who will ignite students’ curiosity by carefully designing learning tasks to guide students through exploration, discovery, investigation and understanding…which hopefully…will lead them to more questions.



We will continue to work with our staff to help create a clear picture of what it is that we will accept as evidence of 21st Century Learning at Greystone; particularly in the area of student work – evidence that inquiry is alive and well in our classrooms and that we have established a community of collaborative, creative, curious learners (both students AND teachers!) 
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