Archive for February 25, 2012

Change a Single Classroom ~ Change the World

Leaders from Parkland School Division just spent two days together looking at numerous initiatives from Alberta Education as well as the priorities within our own School Division during our annual Lead Team Retreat.  We talked about the challenging times facing us as we move ahead under the direction of a new Minister of Education and some of the uncertainties around budget, collective bargaining agreements, the new School ActCurriculum Redesign, the 10 Point Plan for Education, and other various projects that are being acted upon at Alberta Education and what this will mean for initiatives within our School Division, including the new cycle of AISI (Alberta Initiative for School Improvement), the continuing work on Assessment and Reporting, Inclusive Education and the role of our Learning Coaches, and our upcoming School Division Education Planning.  So much to consider, so many things that are outside of our own circle of control but all of it will impact the work we do in our schools…or will it?

It is easy to get caught up in all of the unanswered questions and to become overwhelmed by the number of initiatives while still feeling like you are looking after all of the day to day details involved in running a school.  Times are changing, things are uncertain…but one thing remains constant and unchanging – and that is the power of one.  The ability of one person to make a difference in the life of another.  So, amidst the complexity there is simplicity in remembering that the most important work in Education begins and ends in the classroom; with one teacher and with that teacher’s ability to connect with each learner.  People are the real priority of everything we do in Education and no program, project or policy will ever change that.  And so, from this past two days spent at our Lead Team Retreat, what I took away with me was a reminder to keep the most important thing most important.  One teacher, one student, one classroom, one school at a time – amazing things can happen for our learners.  We don’t have to wait for someone to tell us how and when we need to move forward – we can can start where we are now.  This was my favourite quote from the following video  that was shared during our retreat:  change a single classroom ~ change the world.

~ Carolyn Cameron

Learning to Change, Changing to Learn

 

Parents as Partners

 

This past week we had our monthly School Council Meeting.  I was asked, by a parent from our Council, to create a blog post about what I shared with the group when I explained what I have come to know, through my years of experience as a teacher, a parent and an administrator, about how parents and the school need each other to ensure that we are all working together to serve the needs of our youth.  Here goes – I hope I capture the essence of the conversation…

We were discussing looping and the shared decision we were making related to last week’s post – which I discussed with our parents.  I asked for their input about how and when it would be best to share this decision with our school community.  It was awesome – the parents said that they knew the students would be just fine with the change – it would be the parents that might be more anxious about doing things differently.  In the end, the parents recognized that as long as the students were informed and understood the changes, the parents would be supportive.  I could not help but feel a strong sense of trust among this group – parents would be supportive of the decisions we were making at Greystone as long as they trusted us to be acting in the best interest of our students.

This brought us to another conversation – about our School Division’s new report card.  Our Trustee, Dorcas Kilduff, asked for parent feedback about the report card and she shared that minor adjustments may be made for next year.  She encouraged our parents to make comments via the PSD website.  We discussed the need for parents to be informed before expressing opinions or putting down a new initiative that they might not understand.  One parent expressed her frustration with parents who don’t bother to attend information sessions or come out to School Council Meetings but then are the first to complain about a new initiative or direction.  This then led us to discuss how to best have questions answered and learn more about things not easily understood.  This is when I spoke up and suggested that it is our responsibility, as educators working in the best interest of students, to keep our parents informed and to answer questions about anything that they don’t understand.  We need to be approachable, we need to look at questions from our parent community as an opportunity to help them better understand what we are doing in our classrooms and in our schools.

At the same time, we need our parent community to understand our role as professionals.  While we are always open to answering questions and helping parents get the information they need to feel confident that we are acting in the best interest of their students, we also need our parents to trust that we are continuous learners ourselves and to understand that we spend countless hours and days learning and growing in our profession.  We keep up to date on current research around learning, technology and assessment.  Our staff is dedicated to continuous improvement in bringing the best that we know and understand about curriculum, developing key skills and competencies, critical thinking and collaboration to our students.  We are the experts in the learning – and we need our parent community to trust in what we are doing for their children and their learning.  One parent suggested that we would never question the Dentist on the work he or she does – and that it is important that parents have that same level of trust in the work that our teachers do.

We, the educators, are experts in learning; however, we need our parents – the experts on their children, to help us understand the individual needs, strengths, and talents of each learner.  Parents help us to understand their children and what may or may not help us to meet their needs as individuals.

While I did not share this next reflection at our School Council Meeting – it has helped to shape the way I view the parent’s role as partner and comes from my personal experience.  As a parent myself, I remember many times over the years that my children were in school, when a teacher would claim to really know what was going on for my kids.  While my children’s teachers may have been able to offer some insight, I always believed that I knew my own kids best (and even then, I didn’t always understand what was going on for them all the time – particularly during the adolescent years!!)  While I always trusted the teachers who worked with my kids to be knowledgable in the curriculum and while I appreciated their insight into what was happening for my kids in the classroom, I was most impressed with the teachers who asked me about my kids – who valued my role as the parent and the person who knows my children the best. 

In short, we need each other and we need to trust that we are all here for the same reason – to do what is best for each and every learner.  Our home-school partnership is strong when our parents trust that our school staff know and understand the business of learning and when our school staff trusts that our parents  know and understand their children the best.  We need the expertise that each of us brings in order to make our school community a successful place for each of our learners.

I believe that the trusting relationships we have at Greystone Centennial Middle School are a key to why we are able to keep moving forward in providing our learners with exemplary teaching and learning opportunities that meet the needs of the youth of today.  Are we there yet?   NO WAY…but when we have the trust and support of our parent community – the sky is the limit!!!!

~ Carolyn Cameron

 

Looping: Moving Forward with the Best Decision for ALL Learners

 

What’s this I hear – you are talking about no more looping at Greystone?  No way – you can’t change this!!!!

This comment came from a panic-stricken parent after her son came home from school and talked about a class discussion he had that day.  His teacher was seeking the perspective of her students as we prepared to make a shared decision about our current looping practice at Greystone Centennial Middle School.

Our structure sees students remain with the same team of teachers in our lower loop for grades 5, 6 and 7 before moving to our upper loop where they stay with the same team of teachers for grades 8 and 9 before transitioning to the High School.

We established this structure when we opened our brand new school, over six years ago.  Since that time, we have experienced two full cycles of the lower loop.  I made a commitment to our teaching staff that we would re-visit the looping structure, after we had enough experience with it, and after getting feedback on how we felt we were meeting the needs of our students.

When we first began organizing our school in 2005, we had many teachers who were not necessarily committed to the practice of looping with students.  Now, in 2012, we have seen the powerful relationships that are created when teachers have the opportunity to work with their students for more than one year.

Teachers were asked to share their opinions about looping when we gathered together at the start of this month for our Professional Development Day.  On the agenda for the day was a commitment to make a shared decision about the future of looping at Greystone.  We began the conversation by sharing feedback from our grade 7, 8 and 9 students.  They completed the Tell Them From Me Survey this Fall, and on this survey were specific questions related to staying with the same teacher for more than one year.  The majority of our students responded with a strong agreement about the benefits of looping.

Over the years, I have heard from our parents – with the majority of comments being in support of the looping practice.  NOT in the beginning, for sure!  However, six years later, I have only heard positive feedback from our parents.  When there have been concerns about individual students needing a classroom change, we have accommodated these requests.  In recent years, there have been very few requests.

Now it was time to talk with teachers about their experiences and suggestions.  We opened the dialogue with a Four Corners Activity.  Teachers were asked where they stand on a couple of key questions designed to elicit debate around our looping practice.

On the agenda, we had planned for this activity to take approximately 30 minutes…2 hours later we were still having discussion!

This was one of the  most powerful experiences I have had as an administrator – sitting back, for the most part, to observe the open, honest sharing among the teachers at Greystone.  Everyone contributed to the discussion and everyone’s perspective was heard.  Teachers talked about reaching that hard to teach student, and how this could only happen over time spent together.  Teachers talked about the relationships that are formed over time and how they are able to recognize and program for the unique abilities and challenges of students when they spend more than one year together getting to know their learners.  Teachers were in agreement that the two year loop was ideal for our students; however, most felt that the three year loop was too long – too much time spent with the same group of students and too much curriculum for teachers to learn making it challenging to provide their students with optimal learning experiences.  The next question we needed to figure out was what to do about our three year loop?

Since we have five grade levels in our school we would need to either continue with the three year loop or have one grade level not looping.  There was a lot of discussion about this and in the end, we ran out of time to make the decision.  Teachers were asked to submit their suggestions via e-mail and we would go with what the majority felt would be in the best interest of our students.

Throughout the remainder of the week, teachers shared their perspectives.  This was another eye-opener for me.  Such incredible, thoughtful insights were shared with me.  In fact, several teachers shared their reflections with our entire teaching staff.  One teacher even deferred her decision to what the teachers of the lower loop wanted as they were the folks most affected by the decision – wow!  The common thread through each of the messages I received was first…no one took this decision lightly – there was much thoughtful reflection prior to sending the e-mail.   Second…the comments shared clearly indicated that doing what is best for student learning was at the centre of the decision-making.  In the end, the majority of our teachers felt that the looping structure should be as follows:

Grades 5 and 6

Grades 7 and 8

Grade 9 students will not be part of a loop – but teachers of this loop will need to teach grade 8 students at some point in the year (possibly an option class) so that they can begin to build relationships with these students prior to the grade 9 year.

How do I know we have reached a point, at Greystone, where shared decision-making is possible?  When I see the teachers all acting in the best interest of our students and when I see them valuing the range of perspectives that each of us brings to our school community.  Was it easy for me to sit back and let the dialogue unfold so that a decision could be reached – absolutely not!  Do I trust the judgment of these professionals who are carefully, thoughtfully, making this decision for ALL students at Greystone – absolutely!

This process was amazing and I continue to be inspired by the dedicated team of teachers who work at Greystone – many thanks to all of them for taking the time to be a part of this important decision.  Next step – sharing this decision with our Parents!

~ Carolyn Cameron

 

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