Archive for March 23, 2012

Breaking Ranks in Florida

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of taking a team of educators from Greystone Centennial Middle School down toTampa, Florida to take in the National Association of Secondary School Principals NASSP – Breaking Ranks K-12 Conference 2012.

Our team decided to take in this conference as one of the keynote speakers was Sir Ken Robinson, Professor, respected advisor to governments in Europe, Asia and the U.S. and author of the book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative and The Element.   His message about cultivating divergent thinking to get our students becoming imaginative, creative learners fit well with the Breaking Ranks theme of the conference.  In addition to Sir Ken, I sat in on some sessions provided by two of my favourite speakers – middle years expert, Nancy Doda, and the highly entertaining presenter on leadership, Todd Whitaker.   The common theme which stood out for me from these two speakers was the importance of developing a highly collaborative, supportive school community –  a positive school culture that believes in the promise and potential of every single learner in the building (both adults & kids!)  This is the foundation for creating a place where students will experience success.

In addition to sitting in on an excellent session about gathering qualitative student data to inform practice (a welcome change from the high stakes state-wide tests that were talked about during most of the sessions we attended), we were able to take in the school showcase highlighting high performance “turn around schools”.  One school, M.O. Ramay Junior High School, reminded me of Greystone because we share a fundamental belief about what is important in the continuous cycle of school improvement:

Improve your school by focusing on each adult who will, in turn, improve your school by focusing on each student – hire eagles! 

Ramay Junior High School and Greystone Centennial Middle school place a strong emphasis on developing the capacity of all the teachers to embrace collaborative, shared leadership. Teachers take an active role in their ongoing learning and growth.  Both of these schools are not seen as places where you can get comfortable or complacent – there is a always a push for professionals to engage in continuous improvement.  We do this by making common teacher collaboration time during the school day a priority.  Grade level teaching teams meet regularly and at Greystone, we organize our school improvement around teacher leadership teams.  These teams include:

Design Team – a team of teachers with representation from each grade level.  This team is focused on improving instructional practice through the lens of inquiry/critical thinking/assessment.

Tech Team – a team of teachers with representation from each grade level.  This team is focused on integrating technology to transform learning, again, through the lens of inquiry/critical thinking/assessment.

Subject Discipline Teams – teams include all members of our faculty.  These teams meet during every PD Day to develop authentic, powerful learning tasks and assessments across the grade levels. Once again, the lens of inquiry/critical thinking/assessment is used to guide the work.

Teachers at both schools are opening up their practice to learn from each other.  PD Days and Faculty Meetings are opportunities for teachers to engage in dialogue, look at evidence of student learning in order to improve the quality of student work and share ideas so that we can learn and grow together.

The highlight of this conference for me, besides the warm weather, taking in some Spring Training Baseball and Tampa Bay Lightning Hockey, sharing many laughs with our amazing Greystone team and enjoying some magnificent sunsets…

…was being reminded that the things we believe in at Greystone Centennial Middle School – setting a high bar for hiring new staff, expecting the adults in the school to be the lead learners in a collaborative, supportive school community, looking at evidence of student learning to improve the work and developing a positive, engaging school culture that believes everyone can be successful – are the key components of an exemplary school.  We are on the right track as we continue to “break ranks” and create a place where we do what’s right for today’s learners.

~ Carolyn Cameron

Exemplary Teaching and Learning at GCMS

After a very busy and demanding couple of weeks for our teachers working on Report Cards and Individualized Program Plans, we gathered last Friday morning for our Professional Development Day.  I always look forward to these days of planning, sharing, reflecting and learning with our staff as they are such a passionate, dedicated and dynamic bunch of lifelong learners. The morning started off really quietly because people were tired but as soon as the dialogue and sharing started I knew it was going to be another great day together! We began the morning by watching a video clip shared at our Lead Team Retreat ~ Learning to Change, Changing to Learn: A Canadian Perspective. After some quiet reflection time in our journals or professional blogs, teachers were asked to share at their table group, what they connected with in the video and how it relates to the goals they continue to strive for in their assessment and classroom practices. I thought that after a long week, fifteen minutes would have been ample time to share, yet I found myself feeling badly for cutting off the conversation after about twenty-five minutes. I have been in lots of rooms, in discussion groups, where you are searching for people who are willing to share their reflections and thoughts publicly.  During these somewhat forced conversations, people often finish the discussion quickly and get off topic onto chatting about a number of other things (especially on a Friday).  Often, people are itching to move onto the next section of the day…this certainly is never the case at Greystone when teachers are engaged and connected to the work they are doing in our professional development. It always makes me really proud of the professional dialogue we are constantly engaging in at our school.

During the next part of the morning, teachers worked in Subject Discipline Groups where they continued the process of articulating process skills and the key learner outcomes at each grade level while looking “critically” at pieces of student work and projects to provide feedback to one another.  Over the past few years we have come such a long way in sharing openly with others and providing open and honest feedback to help each other move our work forward. The work that these groups are doing is building capacity in our school and providing supports and resources for all of our teachers. Each group is working on a different focus and will continue their work at April’s PD Day.

  • Language Arts ~ Writing Process: draft to published work, forms of writing that should be developed at each grade level to build skills for the upcoming years. Continued focus: a working document of resources and assessment tools to share with the larger teaching group
  • Math ~ Problem Solving: Communication and effective strategies to process problems in a variety of ways
  • Science ~ Common Lab Write Ups and Rubrics across the grade levels, building on common vocabulary and criteria
  • Social Studies ~ Examining Process Skills at each grade level, Learning Continuum aligned with the new report card

For the remainder of the morning, Learning Community Teams worked together to plan for our upcoming Report Card sharing with students, Student Led Conferences and continued planning using the Inquiry Rubric & Planning Document. It has been a priority at Greystone to provide time for this type of planning as it takes a lot of thoughtful conversation and collaboration. When we gathered back as a group to do some sharing about our work from the morning, we had a great conversation about the process and importance of sharing the Report Cards with our students the next week. We know that when students have a clear understanding of their progress this helps their parents understand the type of learning and assessment that occurs at the school. Teams shared a variety of ways they were going to intentionally have their students review their Report Cards and plan for their Student Led Conferences:

  • Goal setting & reflections
  • Students writing a letter to their parents about their learning experiences, areas of strength and growth related to their Report Card
  • Students “rehearse” their Student Led Conference Centre sharing for their parents
  • Review and sharing from Student Portfolios – a collection of student work and assessments that would provide “evidence” of the learning aligning with their Report Card
  • Sharing of video showcasing student learning

Throughout the evenings at our Student Led Conferences the following week, we witnessed many students engaging their parents in their learning. We had lots of positive conversations about student learning at Greystone and the new Report Card. This is also a very special time of year as we transition our grade 9 students into high school. Staff from the high school have attended our March Conferences over the past four years. Working collaboratively with the current team of grade nine teachers, parents, students and future educators has proven to be a very successful part of the transition as we prepare students and their parents for high school and the students are placed into their classes for high school.

In the near future, student representatives from each Learning Community will be meeting with Leah Andrews, Director of Learning Services, in a focus group setting to provide feedback on our division’s new Report Cards. These students will share the types learning tasks, feedback loops and assessments that are taking place in their classrooms and how this aligns with our new Report Card.

Technology integration ~ embedding meaningful technology into our teaching and learning has been a continued focus for our school. Technology that moves the student learning forward, encourages collaboration & sharing and enables the students to make their learning public and take their learning beyond the walls of the school. This is not always an easy task with limited resources in terms of budget and tools and finding the time to share and build capacity in our school. Recently we have set aside time at each PD Day and Faculty Meeting for “Tech Time” for teachers to learn from one another and have an opportunity to experience these “tech tools” first hand. At our last PD Day, three teachers shared a variety of iPad Apps, Student Blog sites as well as set us up with Google Accounts & Docs. There was a lot of positive feedback and enthusiasm during this time and teachers look forward to further exploring “Evernote” and “Drop Box” at our next meeting.

iPad Apps Shared included:

  • Easy Assessment
  • Quick Verse
  • Evernote
  • Zite
  •  Apple

We are hopeful that we can continue to get increased technology into the hands of our students and staff. It is important to remember though that, “It can start with just one” ~ a quote from Learning to Change, Changing to Learn: A Canadian Perspective.  I know on our staff this is the case, we have teachers who want to learn and then share with others, this excitement takes off and before you know it, we have many, many teachers utilizing these tools and resources.

The purpose of our time together as professional learners, always goes back to our school focus and priority , collaboration around inquiry and assessment for meaningful and engaged student learning ~ Established!

~ Tracy Lachman

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