Archive for October 29, 2011

Overdue Homework: Confessions from the Principal

Every month Parkland School Division Principals are asked to submit highlights from their schools to our Superintendent, Tim Monds, so that he can summarize and share with our School Board Trustees at their monthly meetings.  The October Highlights from Greystone Centennial Middle School were due and I could not bring myself to complete this task after we have been picking up the pieces from a recent tragedy at our school.

Then I received another reminder e-mail, this time with a red exclamation mark attached to it – please submit your highlights Uh oh…now my homework was overdue! I got very frustrated about this as I thought: highlights?…what highlights???!!!  I have got nothing to report this month!

I dug deep and reminded myself that in spite of experiencing such a devasting loss in our school community – there are highlights and I need to focus on them so that I can continue to build hope for myself and for my Greystone School Community as we move forward, together.

So…here are some October highlights:

  •  Parkland School Division’s Critical Incident Response Team was amazing at responding to the call for support at Greystone when we first heard our shocking news.  Members of our Senior Executive and a number of colleagues from Parkland School Division coached us through the first few days as we responded to the needs of our staff and students. Ongoing support has been offered by a number of Parkland School Division colleagues – everything from supervising during our weekend volleyball tournament to stepping in to take over classroom teaching responsibilities.
  • Our Superintendent supported our request to have the school closed on the day of our teacher’s funeral so that the entire Greystone staff could serve as the Honour Guard.
  • I knew I was working with a dedicated, strong and passionate staff team at Greystone as we began this school year ~ we had the most solid school start-up I have ever experienced in my previous twenty-six years of teaching.  The strength of this team was clearly put to the test this month and they are pulling through together in an extraordinary way.  I am so proud of every member of our Greystone school “family”.
  • Our students have shown such sensitivity, honesty and support for each other and our teachers.  Students are carrying on with their learning.  Those most deeply affected are recognizing that their beloved teacher would want them to move forward in becoming the confident, capable young people she would be proud of.
  • Our community demonstrated sincere compassion for all of us at Greystone – just knowing that there are so many caring people surrounding us has been comforting to us all.  We have received everything from flowers to fresh baked muffins from friends and families in our community – the kindness shown has been overwhelming.
  • A young, courageous and dedicated teacher has stepped into what I consider to be the most challenging teaching assignment anyone could imagine – and she has done so with compassion and a strong desire to lead our students in continuing on with their learning.

Now we all move forward, with the strength from within that we have had to call upon this past month, and with renewed hope that together, we will create a future at Greystone that inspires our students to live and learn with compassion, strength and dedication. This quote, from the Pastor at Jolene’s funeral, was shared in our Superintendent’s blog:

To move on in life we must have hope.  We must always remember…but we must always believe there is hope.

~ Carolyn Cameron

 

A Shining Star From Greystone is Now in the Night Sky

The past week has been a time of deep sadness at Greystone Centennial Middle School.  Our school community, and the teaching world, lost one of its bright stars.  While we may not ever understand why our beloved Jolene Cote was taken from us so suddenly and tragically, it is my hope that the sharing of my message from Jolene’s funeral will inspire others to follow the example Jolene set for how to be a teacher whose influence has made such a difference in the lives of those she touched.

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Good morning Mike, Ayden, Adison and good morning to all of Jolene’s family and friends.  I am honoured to be speaking to all of you today on behalf of Jolene’s Greystone family.

When I was thinking about Jolene and what I might share with you this morning, I kept asking myself this question:  How is it possible to have known Jolene for only the past three years and yet to feel like I have known her forever?

I stumbled across a song – posted recently on Facebook – from the Broadway show Rent called Seasons of Love.  The words helped me find an answer to this question…

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, how do you measure, measure a year?…in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife, in five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, how do you measure a year in the life?  How about love?  What about love?  Talk about  love.  Measure in love.

For our Greystone family, five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes times three years is a lot of moments, a lot of memories and a lot of love that adds up to feeling like a lifetime spent together with Jolene.

I feel like I have known Jolene forever because she squeezed every ounce of possibility out of each one of those moments she spent with us.  That woman could fit more life and more love into one day than most of us could fit into an entire week.  Yet she never, for a second, made any of us feel that she didn’t have the time to be with us – I mean really be with us – in that moment…no matter what was going on around her.  I have listened to students and staff talk about their memories of Jolene, and from my time spent with Jolene, these things stand out:

She made us feel like we have known her forever because she cared for each one of us so deeply. She made time to get to know us.  She cared about the people in her life and no matter what was going on around her – she put people first.

For students, she made learning as engaging as she could.  She took you places – French restaurants, the art gallery, career fairs, the mountains, the zoo, Quebec (where she even rescued some lost young ladies on a souvenir shopping trip as they tried to find Old Montreal)…so many places.  She brought experts in to speak with you.  She posed questions that got you thinking and debating about issues that are important in our world.  As Parker Palmer states in his book The Courage to Teachone of the truths about teaching is that intellect works in concert with feeling, so if we as teachers hope to open up our students minds, we must open their emotions as well.  Jolene worked tirelessly to try and do this every moment she was with her students.

The moments, the minutes, the little things that add up to a lifetime of love shared.  The love Jolene shared for her students showed up in the little things she did – the noodle soup she kept on hand for you in case you were hungry; the lotion she gave out for your dry skin; the sharing of stories about her family life; the one on one talks she had to help get you reaching your potential.  One of her students shared with me that Mrs. Cote always treated every day as a new beginning.  If there had been a problem or a conflict the day before, she started the next day fresh and did not ever judge anyone because of a mistake they had made.

She pushed you hard so that you would become the person she thought you could be – and she never gave up on you – especially if you were struggling and needed that extra conversation.  She made sure she was always there for you, every moment of the day.

For our staff, Jolene was fun, funny, bright, thoughtful, caring and giving.  She never had a mean word to say about anyone – no matter how challenging a person had been.  She only spoke positively about each of us and she always made the time to give a message of support.  She took part in everything at our school and outside of our school with sports teams and fun  times together as a staff.  She supported her colleagues in learning, researching, putting together projects for students and sharing ideas.  In speaking with her teaching team, I discovered that it was the little things, the details that Jolene looked after, that contributed to their collective effort – the busses she booked, the permission letters she wrote, the schedules she organized.  Jolene set the example for how teamwork should happen for teachers.  When I asked her what the secret was, she shared that every individual needs different things in order to be successful – you just have to know what each person needs and then make sure you give that to them.

Jolene loved learning – she was committed to it, made time for it and even after all her years of teaching, she never stopped learning and growing in her profession.  She was always keen to keep up on technology.  She wanted to keep learning about teaching through inquiry and to use critical thinking with her students to deepen their level of understanding.  She was never too busy to spend time modeling for students and colleagues what it means to be a lifelong learner.

And she helped with all the extra things we do together as a school community – everything from coaching our teams to holding hot dog lunches to raise money for the Quebec Exchange to dying her hair pink to support cancer research to bringing her family out to our annual Pasta Palooza Community Dinner to support our playground development.  Jolene made time for it all.

We loved having her bring her sweet kids into our school.  She shared her life and the most important people in her life with all of us.  We are grateful to have had the moments with her wonderful children.  Ayden and Adison, like your beautiful mother, you brought us so much joy through your moments spent with us.  Ayden, the smile your mom had on her face every time she was leaving to pick you up from the bus and walk you through our school as she asked you about your day.  I don’t know if you both know how many stories your mom would share with her students about you and your dad…like how you found your new pet snake out by your house and that you weren’t too excited, Adison, about having to feed it live animals…or how your mom wanted to take a video of the monkeys at the zoo for you when she was on the school fieldtrip.  No matter what she was doing with our kids at school, she was always thinking about you, Ayden and Adison – thank you to both of you for sharing your awesome mom with all of us.

And to you, Jolene, our school is a better place because of the moments you spent with us.  Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, how do you measure, measure our three years? …in smiles, in laughter, in lessons taught, in conversations shared, in stories told, in assignments marked, in fieldtrips and phone calls, in questions asked, in projects presented, how do you measure it all?  I measure it in love.  You gave us a lifetime of love at Greystone, Jolene.  Your memory will live on forever in our hearts and we will live better lives because of you.  Jolene, our teacher, colleague and friend – you have taught us well.  You have reminded us to be learners, always, to always put the people in our lives first, to make the most of each and every precious moment we have and to give of ourselves to others.  We will remember the moments spent with you and we will measure them in love.  God bless you, Jolene.

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Jolene’s friend and teaching colleague, Bruce Kolody, summed it up perfectly when he said:

There is one star that is shining brighter than all the rest.  Thank you, Jolene, for looking down on us.  A shining star in our lives and now in the night sky.

~ Carolyn Cameron

 

 

A Foot in Both Worlds

It’s a challenging situation to be in…courageously stepping forward into the future, ensuring that students are learning the skills needed for success in an ever-changing world while being forced to keep one foot firmly planted in the world of the past and in the old ways, traditions and safety of the known.

This “foot in both worlds” is hitting us head on right now as we work with teachers, students and families to continue our focus on developing students who demonstrate ethical citizenship, entrepreneurial spirit and are engaged learners.  In the province of Alberta, in Parkland School Division, and at Greystone Centennial Middle School, we are working hard to develop the competencies and skills our students will need to be successful in their future. Alberta Education has produced the following video clip to highlight the direction that Education is moving in our province:

Education Act

This video clip was shared with our School Board Trustees a few weeks ago and I shared it with my School Council last night to assist parents in understanding the changes to our report card format in Parkland School Division.  We will now be placing the emphasis of our assessment and reporting on the process skills from our programs of study.  This is aligned with the learning we have been designing at Greystone since our school opened in 2005.  This has not been an easy road, but it has been rewarding as we are sponsoring the kind of learning that students need to be successful in the future.  Students are developing habits of mind, reflective thinking and problem-solving skills in order to become life long learners who will thrive in the world of the unknown.

I am experiencing the uncomfortable feeling of having “a foot in both worlds” this week as I put the finishing touches on our school’s Annual Education Results Report for Alberta Education, which I am expected to share with staff and our School Council in the near future.  This report, and the public sharing of it with our stakeholders, forces us to keep one foot in the past as we continue to use an outdated tool, the Provincial Achievement Tests, to measure student and school success. While this tool does measure several areas of the curriculum, it does not capture the full depth of what students should be learning in today’s schools.  There has been much written about the limitations of using a standardized test to capture the full picture of growth that takes place for individual learners.  In fact, one of Greystone’s teachers, Jesse McLean, even provides a possible alternative in his blog post New Tasks and Old Tools.

However, whether you agree with the use of PAT’s or not, our schools and school divisions around the province are required to report our standardized test results in grades three, six and nine as part of our accountability measures for Alberta Education.  So, while this video clip from Alberta Education shows us a promising direction for the future, with student learning becoming personalized, any time, any place, any pace and where diversity and individual learning styles are celebrated, we are still held accountable for demonstrating our school’s success equipped with a “one size fits all” tool from the past.

One of my favourite quotes by Maya Angelou:

When you know better, you do better. 

We know better – current research on learning and assessment is guiding professional learning and practice in our classrooms…so why aren’t we doing better?  Why aren’t we doing a better job of measuring and reporting the success of our schools to Alberta Education when we are clearly on the right path of measuring and reporting success of our individual learners within our schools?When will we be allowed to step forward into the future with BOTH feet?

~ Carolyn Cameron

 

Making Thinking Visible ~ Book Study Session 1

 

One of Greystone’s teachers asked a great question part way through last year…Carolyn, can we do a book study?

I don’t know, can we?  The timing wasn’t good for me at that point so I replied, regretfully, that I didn’t have time.  However, I did keep this question in the back of my mind as I was impressed with this teacher’s initiative in wanting to do a book study with our teachers.  After visiting the Calgary Girls’ School last June (where all of their teachers are expected to be part of various book study groups)  I reminded myself that I needed to revisit the question with this teacher.  Honestly, having a teacher in our school wanting to read, question, reflect and learn together with colleagues is something I needed to make time to support and move forward with – no matter how many other things we have on the go in our school.  So, as we began this new school year, I asked this same teacher the question…Jessie, can we do a book study?

I am grateful that she did not give me the same answer that I gave to her last year!!!!!  She agreed to make time to do this and invited teachers to join us.  We decided to read the book that one of our Greystone teachers had requested  to purchase in order to  support her Professional Growth Plan this year.  Coincidentally, this book was also on a colleague’s summer reading list (check out her summary here) AND on a book list (shared on Twitter by Lynn Hilt) that I sent to teachers at the end of our last school year with summer reading suggestions.  Having so many things lining up here, I was convinced that this book would be the right choice.  The book we chose for our first Greystone Book Study is Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison.

Six of us decided to meet every couple of weeks to discuss the book.  Today, we had our first session and we talked about the first two chapters of the book.  Here are some of my highlights from the conversation:

~The goal of teaching is to get kids thinking

~Good questions should propel the learning forward

~It is important to develop a culture of thinking in our classrooms – this takes a lot of time, patience and explicit teaching/modeling/practicing

~An excellent question to ask that will help us to understand someone’s thinking process is “what makes you say that?”

~The book identified the following kinds of thinking that are essential in aiding our students’ deeper understanding:

  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there
  2. Building explanations and interpretations
  3. Reasoning with evidence
  4. Making connections
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  7. Wondering and asking questions
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

~When designing a project for students, we should be asking ourselves  – what kind of thinking skills do we want to foster in this project?

I asked the teachers what they thought we could look for as evidence that “Making Thinking Visible” was improving student learning in their classrooms.  They suggested that if a student was asked a question about their learning, we should expect the following:

  • an informed response
  • independence, confidence and clear communication
  • evidence to back up what they are saying
  • no one right answer
  • ability to share specific feedback on their work
  • ability to talk about the problem-solving that went into their learning
  • if the learning involved teamwork, they would be able to recognize the value that was added because of the different strengths the team members brought to the work

Thanks, teachers, for the thoughtful conversations this evening – looking forward to our next session!  I would love to hear from anyone out there who has read this book and might offer additional comments for us.

~ Carolyn Cameron

 

 

 

 

So Much to Feel Good About

In spite of the incredibly amazing school start-up we had at Greystone Centennial Middle School this year, I knew that sooner or later, reality would set in and I would start to experience some of the more challenging, thankless parts of the work as an administrator.  This past week, I was faced with one of those more challenging parts of the job.  One of my students made a very poor choice and I needed to follow up by having a tough conversation with the student and a parent – it did not go well at all.  Unfortunately, I took this conversation personally, which happens when we become emotionally invested in our students and their families.  This started to wear on me quite a bit.  Thankfully, I stumbled onto a post by Darcy Mullin early one morning – I’m Thankful.  Reading this post helped me to take a step back so I could be reminded why I love the emotionally demanding career in education that I chose for myself.

After reading Darcy’s post, I remembered to, as Dewitt Jones, photographer for National Geographic, says “Celebrate What is Right with The World” and be thankful.  The very morning I read the post, I headed into my building later than usual as I had been at a doctor’s appointment.  Instead of rushing around to get going on all the items from my day’s list, I decided to go slowly, and take a mental picture of all of the good things going on around me – and to be thankful.  I didn’t have to go far to find something. As soon as I walked in the doors I was overcome by the mouth-watering aroma of turkeys, cooking in the oven.

Coincidentally, on this particular day, when I made a very conscious decision to be thankful, our grade 7, 8 and 9 students along with students from our Middle Years Alternate Program who have been taking a Foods class for their option, were hard at work in our Foods Lab continuing our Greystone tradition of preparing our yearly Thanksgiving Feast to be shared with our staff and invited guests from our School Division.

Instead of heading into my office to return phone calls, respond to e-mails, work on the budget or start on any one of a number of other items on the “to do” list, I decided to wander down to the Foods Lab to watch the magic happen. The room was filled with smiling students and staff working together to put the finishing touches on the meal that was about to be set out for our guests.  Such a feeling of pride and community as students were so excited to tell me what part of the meal they were responsible for.  There were students out at the front doors, ready to greet our guests, students in charge of table decorations, students in charge of carving the turkeys, students in charge of all of the pies that were baked,  students in charge of potatoes that were mashed, gravy, peas, carrots and coleslaw that was prepared.  In that one  moment, there was so much to feel good about.

I am thankful I slowed down to pay attention to what really matters – noticing the teamwork, sense of pride and ownership that our students took in creating a special memory for themselves and for their guests.

Now that we are into the full swing of our school year, I know that the days will never be predictable.  For someone who loves working with this age group, I know that I will always need to be ready to roll with the highs and lows that life “in the middle” demands.  When I remind myself to make time to notice what is right in the world of Middle School, there will always be so much to feel good about.

The quote so much to feel good about” comes from the lyrics by

One Republic – Good Life

…one of my favourite summer songs – I listen to it often as another reminder to pay attention to all the good stuff going on around me.

~ Carolyn Cameron

 

 

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