Fair is Not Equal

Fairness and equality are not the same thing, and at times really represent opposing value systems.  I’ve found myself having often to weigh fairness and equality in the context of education, and in most instances fairness has won out.  Allow me to provide three examples from athletics, student discipline and supporting complex student needs.

At Handsworth, our basketball program has tried to encourage as many students as possible to participate in grades 8 and 9.  At the bantam level in particular, equality of opportunity is prized most, and is even included in the rules of play across the North Shore.  During the first three quarters of games in grade 8, players are rotated in and out every 4 minutes.  This gives every player an equal opportunity to participate during the first three quarters and to develop their skills in a game situation.  Once players hit grade 10 our program focus moves from participation to competition.  At the junior and senior levels we try and field the most competitive team possible.  Playing time is no longer necessarily equitable, but rather determined by attendance & effort at practice, maintaining an acceptable academic standing, demonstrating sportsmanship, adherence to the student code of conduct and, ultimately, skill.  Competitiveness and fairness for all become the modus operandi of the team.  Students who do not attend practice regularly are not given the playing time that those who do attend are.  That’s fair.  Students who have dedicated more time and effort to developing themselves as players are given a greater opportunity to perform, because it’s fair.  Students at any level who are unable to demonstrate good student citizenship may have their extra-curricular privileges curtailed, which is also fair.

A big part of being fair as a coach is providing transparency.  There’s nothing more frustrating as a player than not being given an opportunity, but also not understanding why.  Student – teacher, and coach – player relationships work best when there’s a mutual understanding of fairness. Providing clear instruction at the beginning of a season or school year about expectations can help provide a sense of fairness for all.

Student discipline has taken up a greater portion of my time than I had hoped or anticipated this year.  And the conversation around discipline has, in many instances, turned to a conversation about what is perceived as fair or equitable.  In almost every instance of student discipline I end up referring back to our school’s Student Code of Conduct.  This is a document created and revised regularly with input from not only staff, but also parents and students themselves in order to enhance its quality of fairness.  One section of the code that is particularly relevant for this discussion goes as follows:

“Disciplinary action, whenever possible, will be preventative and restorative, rather than merely punitive. The administration will take into account factors such as the severity and frequency of the offence(s), as well as the age, maturity, and ability of the student in question.”

By factoring in these variables, we can see that that spirit of the Student Code of Conduct is really to provide discipline that is fair before it is equal.  Expectations for student behaviour and decorum increase as students (hopefully!) mature in the later grades.  And students who repeatedly break the code of conduct should be dealt with using progressive discipline.  A first time offender is typically not treated with the same level of discipline as someone who makes a habit of poor decision making.

We should always endeavour to treat students fairly, to support them, and assist them in making good decisions for themselves.  A similar, yet different, system that comes to mind with thinking of equality vs fairness is the justice system.  This system, despite providing progressive consequences for repeat offenders, I would argue, prizes equality before the law above fairness.

A final example of equality versus fairness in the education system is the way we support our complex learners.  Many of our students have unique learning challenges that require additional support.  If we were to prize equality for all, then the supports offered to all students would be the same.  But this is not the case.  The value we place on fairness is seen in the additional supports in terms of personnel, and adaptations or modifications provided to students that help them to find success at school.  While not equal, this is certainly what is fair.  In a just and democratic society, we should endeavour to see that all our students find success, not just some of them.  Our communities will certainly be stronger for it.  The support we offer our learners with unique challenges is a prime example of the education system demonstrating the value it places foremost on fairness.

Fairness and equality are two very different things.  In education, I think fairness more accurately represents the value system we want to prize.  Equality, while ostensibly a noble virtue, doesn’t always provide our students with the support they need to excel in extra-curricular areas, promote positive decision making, and support their academic success.

Fair is Not Equal

The First 100 Days

The winter break marks roughly the first 100 days in my role as Vice Principal at Handsworth.  Without having any frame of reference from past years, I still think it’s safe to say it was a remarkably busy beginning to the school year.  The learning curve for the position was described to me as ‘taking a sip from a firehose’, and I think after having experienced the first four months, that that’s an accurate description.

Preparations for the 2017/2018 school year had already began long before I took on my role.  Building the school timetable, student course selections and preparations for school wide events for the year had already begun in earnest during the previous school year.  One of the first challenges was to try and pick up work that had already began by others and to carry through and compliment it where possible.  I spent part of July, and much of August making sure everything was in place for our massive 350 student Grade 8 Retreat.  That event, combined with welcome preparations for our annual Japan Exchange, filled my plate with event planning.

The other major piece before the start of the school year was staffing.  The restoration of class size and composition language in the BC teachers’ contract meant that more staff would need to be hired to start the year.  That, combined with leaves and retirements, gave us about 20 new staff members to start the year.  It took a few weeks in July, and every day leading up to the start of the school year before we were able to staff the school to meet the needs of our students.  We were actually fortunate we were able to (almost) fill all of our positions before start-up.  I know many other schools, especially in other districts, began the year severely short-staffed, and in some cases, still have positions unfilled.

The challenges to start the year were layered and varied.  Operationally speaking we had staffing shortages, new orders for completing reporting on student learning, and the introduction of the new BC curriculum for grade 8 and 9.  Decreasing class sizes necessitated recapturing teacher preparation areas from the school to convert them into instructional spaces.  This meant some difficult conversations with people being displaced from areas of the school they were accustomed to working in, and to having the unfortunate circumstance of some folks needing to work in upwards of 6 different spaces in the school.  Certainly not ideal.  Other school based challenges include ongoing student discipline, working to support our vibrant arts and athletics programs, and the continuing restructuring of spaces and supports to better accommodate the varied needs of our students, particularly our complex learners.

I’m very fortunate to be working this year with such a strong admin team.  Our other VP was already working at Handsworth and provided some administrative continuity.  And our new Principal has moved from the Vancouver School District to Handsworth and brings a wealth of experience and perspective that is refreshing.  Plus, they’re just really great people!  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention how outstanding the ‘extended’ administrative team is.  We work so closely with our front office staff, supervision, and counseling department on a daily basis, and their amazing work is so integral for us to be able to do our job well.

One of the great positives of my new role is that I now have a wider professional network in the district on which I can rely.  All the administrators in our sister high-schools and family of elementary schools, as well as our directors and upper executive are always only a phone call away should we need their advice or assistance.  Having a broader, district perspective is also important so I can stay in tune with the direction the district is moving when it comes to things like specialty district programs, aboriginal education and other emerging initiatives.

From my colleagues, I’ve learned not to get overwhelmed by the ‘tyranny of the urgent’.  Some days I finish with more unread emails than I started the day with.  And each and every person who comes through my office door throughout the day is there to share what their most pressing issue is at the moment.  Providing an attentive and supportive ear is always needed.  Admittedly, it can be difficult when conversation 1 is about a student in an emotional family crisis and, 5 minutes after, conversation 2 is with a staff member concerned their classroom is a bit too warm.  Arguably the biggest part of the job is relationship building, and having people feel like they’re being heard, regardless of how big or small the issue is, is a huge part of that.  One of the tools I’ve added to my belt is prioritizing responses.  Emergent issues are classified in one of 4 ways: ‘urgent & important’, ‘not urgent, but important, ‘urgent, but not that important’, ‘not urgent & not important’.  Clearly things that are ‘urgent & important’ are priority 1, and things that are ‘not urgent & not important’ can wait until later.  This reduces the list of immediate ‘to-dos’ significantly during the work day.

Relational trust is, indeed, one of the most important aspects of any leadership position, and I’m very fortunate to get to still work at the school where I’ve established some great relationships with staff.  But relationships are like a garden, and its takes continued time, care and attention to make sure they’re positive. Difficult conversations are certainly easier to have when you have an established positive, trusting rapport with a colleague.  Having that relational piece already in place has allowed me to focus on learning more of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the job.  To begin the year, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  As Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are such things as ‘unknown unknowns’.  For example, having never taught a French Immersion class, I didn’t know how many FI credits students needed to get a dual dogwood.  There were also ‘known unknowns’.  I had also never built a school timetable, or used the administrator interface on MyEd.  Relational trust has given me the space to focus on learning what I previously didn’t know.

My decade of work at Handsworth did, however, provided me with an existing understanding of how many of the programs at our school do work.  Nowhere has this been more evident than in athletics, as I served previously for 4 years as our school’s Athletic Director.  Disappointingly, this year also marks the first year I won’t be coaching basketball in 12 years.  I do really miss coaching, and hope I can return to it once I’m better accustomed to the rhythm of the administrative calendar.  I also miss my classroom and being able to teach about what I’m passionate about.  I loved my business classes, and know I had many students who also found their passion in business by taking courses with me.  My hope now is that in my new role that I can inspire more students and staff on a broader scale to engage in what they’re passionate about, and to take what excited me in the classroom about business and try to bring it out in other ways in the school.

Being a school-based administrator is an incredibly complex job.  We have over 1600 people working in our building every day.  In the business world, our school alone would be considered a ‘large’ business.  There’s something new to deal with each day, whether its operational items like hiring and evaluations, organizing school wide events like remembrance day assemblies and parent teacher interviews, completing ministry requirements for tracking student data for school funding, overseeing school budgets, occupational health and safety, navigating the complex layers of managing a unionized work environment, supporting the social-emotional needs of students and staff, working with facilities on maintaining or transforming spaces, meeting with parents, covering classes for staff, or spearheading educational leadership initiatives.   The list goes on!  Amidst all the chaos of the day, it’s good to be constantly reminded that students need to be at the centre of all our decisions, and that if we’re framing all our choices by the greatest good for the greatest number of our kids, then we’re probably moving in the right direction.

I’ll end this post with a great resource for current or budding administrators.  It’s been a wonderfully valuable reference point for me as I navigate this new professional journey.  Here is a link to the Leadership Standards for BC Principal’s and Vice Principals.  It was developed and revised by the BCPVPA Standards Committee in 2016 and provides some great insight into developing one’s capacity in educational leadership.

Looking forward to the rest of the year!


The First 100 Days

The Innovator’s Mindset

This past month I read George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset. It was a book that came a good juncture in my professional growth as I move from teaching to administration. The book walked a nice line between both a teacher and administrator’s perspective on how to foster a culture of innovation in classrooms and a school as a whole. As with any book on education, I try to see if what I read simply reinforces my existing beliefs, or if it challenges me to see things differently. While much of what Couros writes was already in line with my beliefs, there was a lot of food for thought in the book and moments where I paused to reflect on my own experience and ways I could try to reframe some of the work we’re doing at Handsworth. I thought I might share a few notes and highlights from the book that really resonated with me.

This year our overarching goal at Handsworth has been deeper student engagement, inspired by our work the previous year with Design Thinking. In The Innovator’s Mindset, Couros says that engagement is good, but empowerment is better. I have had a confluence of inspirations between my experiences at High Tech High with exhibitions of student learning, the self-assessment piece coming with BCs New Curriculum and now reading Couros’ comments of moving beyond engagement. I’m excited to see how we can move towards real student empowerment next year. One idea we are working with is to possibly restructure our twice-yearly parent-teacher interviews to have them be, rather, led by students who will share what they’ve been learning, perhaps with a portfolio of work.

One of the quotes Couros cited early in the book was from American educator and author, Stephen Covey, who talks about the speed of trust. As someone who subscribes completely to the idea that any organization is only as strong as its people and the relationships between them I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that things just get done, and get done faster, where there is an established culture of trust. This culture is developed, as Couros says, “by the expectations, interactions, and, ultimately, the relationships of the entire learning community.” But, even more importantly, relationships are built first on a one-to-one basis. I like Couros’ suggestion that as an administrator it is important to work with smaller staff groups of 2 to 4 people to create an intimacy that is lacking with larger assembly style groups. I have been fortunate to work with some great district administrators in North Vancouver who have also worked hard to create relationships with other staff in those types of smaller working groups. Networking is so important, because, as is mentioned in the book, “alone we are smart, together we are brilliant.” Strong relationships create an environment for innovation.

I had to laugh when the example of Blockbuster was brought up when illustrating the notion that organizations must “innovate or die”. I actually worked for Blockbuster all through my high school and university years. I was an employee there in the year 2000 when a small, little known company named Netflix began its mail order DVD program.

In what is now a fairly well known monumental business blunder, Blockbuster’s CEO had the opportunity to buy Netflix but decided to pass on it because he considered video streaming to be a niche market. Education is also a “business” that is experiencing a rapid transformation. Our students, as “clients”, have higher expectations than ever for how they will be served. It’s on us, collectively, to make sure we aren’t delivering a VHS experience where a digital one is required.

So how do we foster this innovative change we are so earnestly pursuing? Couros says that to inspire change, we must make a connection to the heart first before making a connection to the mind. And again, this really speaks to the importance of relationships – both between staff, and also staff and students. Inspiration comes from embracing possibilities. And as an educational leader, it is going to be incumbent upon me to help create those conditions where creative risk taking and positive change is more likely to occur. A culture of compliance is anathema to fostering innovation. Moreover, it’s important to realize that the improvement of our practice will never really have a finish line. We’re in education after all. If, as a discipline, we’re not constantly adapting and improving, then we aren’t truly living what it means to embrace that culture of learning.

Today, more than ever before, there seems to be this pronounced push and pull between innovative, personalized, big idea learning practices, and the forces of testing, compliance and traditional learning. Thankfully it seems that new thinking is beginning to win the day. School shouldn’t be about “what’s on the test”. It should be a safe and welcoming place where students have permission to make mistakes; to fail quickly and fail often so they learn to find success, not just in the classroom, but also in life. In reading The Innovators Mindset I was reminded of a John Green quote I love. To paraphrase, it goes, “About the test… The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, will make your life yours. And everything, everything, will be on it.” Whether or not we prepare our students to be productive, happy and engaged citizen is the real measurement, I believe, of quality of the learning happening in our schools.

There was, however, one assertion Couros made that I wanted to challenge. He asks what is a student more likely to need to know how to write: an essay or a blog post, suggesting that the latter was more important. I understand the irony of questioning this within a blog post, but I have to say that any good piece of persuasive writing, be it an op-ed piece, a blog post or even an online review requires some understanding of ethos, pathos and logos – elements of persuasion that are the foundation of a good essay. This is in addition to understanding the importance of quality evidence and establishing a good structure. This is not to say the essay is the be all and end all, but it gives young writers a great foundation; a platform from which they can propel to all other forms of writing, including blog posts. But maybe that’s just the English teacher in me. Blogging is certainly important. Couros discusses what a fantastic professional development tool it can be, and I have to agree. While I know what I write is read by very few people, it encourages me to refine my thinking on topics in education – something I will increasingly be challenged to do as I navigate the world of administration.

As a budding administrator, Couros reminds me that the higher up any one person is in an organization, the more people they serve. I’m looking forward to serving more people than ever, and hopefully in the process being a force for innovation and change that can affect even more students. One of the most profound questions that came up frequently in The Innovators Mindset was, “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” I will be serving many classrooms now; albeit in a different capacity, so I feel there is an enhanced responsibility to ensure that all classrooms in the school are safe and caring spaces for learning. But beyond that, I think for me, it’s also going to be important for me to ask, “Would I want to be a staff member in my own school?” The Innovator’s Mindset has given me some good inspiration in helping me make that a positive reality.

You can find The Innovator’s Mindset online at Amazon.ca.

The Innovator’s Mindset

A Lesson in Business

I’ve written previously on how important I think financial education is in schools, and so in the spirit of collegiality I’d like to share an example lesson I recently delivered in my class that illustrates well the kinds of activities a teacher who is looking to introduce business or personal finance might try.

This was taken from my business class’s unit on credit, and a lesson we were doing on credit cards. We’ll all likely need to access credit at some point during our lives, be it for a car loan, mortgage, student loan or even for consumer spending. My first message to the students when it comes to credit cards is that abstinence is best – but if we’re going to use them, we should be well-informed and responsible users.

Business Course iBook Cover

By way of background, I use a course iBook with my students – a sort of custom digital course text I have developed for my class that contains all the content I plan to use throughout the year. Without going too deep into the details, it basically allows me the opportunity to employ a flipped-classroom instructional strategy, and keeps all of my traditional curricular content housed in one easy-to-access digital collection. My intent for this lesson was to create an activity based on student understandings of the different characteristics of credit cards. To that end, I have listed in the course iBook a series of definitions students need to have a handle on in order to make the activity a success. These definitions include things like ‘credit limit’, ‘cash advance fees’, ‘minimum payments’, and so on.

To begin the lesson I gave students a chance to refresh on those concepts so we could make sure everyone would be able to participate fully in the activity. I then assessed their prior understanding by distributing a handout with a set of Likert scale questions asking students how important they thought each of those features were when it came to selecting a personal credit card. Obviously having an understanding of what each of those terms meant would be a pre-requisite to evaluating their relative merit. My goal was also to see at the end of the lesson if the students still felt those were the most important characteristics after having completed the activity.

laminated credit cards
Creating laminated credit cards for the activity.

Once prior understanding had been assessed the fun could begin. Prior to class, I had created 60 laminated fake credit cards, enough for each student to have 2, and also created 20 different profiles of card based on 5 types of 4 different brands: MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover. I allowed each student to draw 2 cards and gave them an accompanying handout with 2 tables on which to record the specific features of their selected cards. On blue posters hung around the classroom were listed all the characteristics of the 20 different cards. All the students had to get up out of their chairs and circulate the room to the 10 different posters to find out what was ‘in their wallet’!

Once they had recorded the 10 different characteristics of their two cards, students returned to their seats to evaluate which of their two they felt was a ‘better’ card by drawing a star above that table.

Next, I asked everyone to get back up out of their seats for some real mayhem. Students were challenged to try and get the ‘best’ card possible by trading their cards with their classmates. There was a lot of wheeling and dealing during this period with students trying to convince each other to trade.

Negotiating a trade.

Students had to think critically about the different features of each card, what was important to them and how they could convince others of the qualities of their cards. This required a deep understanding of the characteristics of the cards and happened to be a lot of fun too. The students seemed to get a real kick out of trying to negotiate with each other for their laminated credit cards.

Negotiating a trade.
Negotiating a trade.

Once the trading started to slow I asked everyone to go back to their seats. I posed the question, “Who thinks they have the best card, and why?” Different tudents offered their opinions, and it was during this period that we really understood that what constitutes a ‘good’ card really depends on personal preference. Do you prioritize having a low or no fee card? Do you prefer having a particular rewards program associated with your card? Or maybe cash back? Is being able to perform a no fee balance transfer with an interest grace period important? The answer completely depends on the profile of the user.

Negotiating a trade.

I finished the lesson by going through, one last time, each of the 10 different features we highlighted reflected upon the merits of each as they pertained to particular user profiles. For example, foreign transaction fees would be more important to a user who travels often… making only minimum payments is a recipe for disaster for all credit card users… and we also had a rich discussion about what merchant fees are. We even tied in a current event where Walmart and Visa had a dispute over merchant fees.
In the end, the students came away with a much richer understanding of the complexity of credit and credit cards, and can now make a more informed decision when it comes to, first, whether to have a credit card or not and, secondly, which card features will be important to them if they do decide in the future to make use of one. And they were engaged and having fun along the way.

I’ve made free use of some of the resources I’ve developed for this lesson here on my blog. Feel free to use them or alter them as you see fit. If you have any suggestions as to how I might improve this activity, please leave me a message in the comments section below.

A Lesson in Business

Indigenizing the Handsworth Japan Exchange

Last year I wrote a blog post on the indigenisation of education in BC and mentioned in it how I hoped to infuse more indigenous ways of learning into my practice. Having just returned from our annual Japan Exchange, I thought it was a good time now to update that previous post with some fresh perspective.

For the past 8 years I’ve led the our school’s Grade 9 Japan Exchange, welcoming students from Inage Secondary School in Chiba each October, and returning to Japan every April. This past year I endeavoured to add more curricular connections to the itinerary by revising our tour to go through Hokkaido, the ancestral home of Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu. This was done with the express purpose of better aligning our cultural experiences in Japan with the indigenization of BC’s new curriculum. My intent was to have students think critically about the commonalities between the historical narrative of the Ainu as compared to our own BC Indigenous peoples.

The following are some of my observations from those experiences, but I should stress that my understanding of the Ainu is cursory at best.

Ainu Museum

Our trip took us to the town of Shiraoi in Hokkadio, home to Ainu Museum at Porotokotan. The word ‘Porotokotan’ is actually an Ainu word that means “village by the large lake”. In fact, many of the names around Hokkaido including Shiraoi and Sapporo come from the Ainu language. This is not unlike North Vancouver (and BC more broadly), where places names like Capilano and Klahanie draw their origins to the Squamish language.

And the comparisons only begin there. In visiting the Ainu museum, our group of 30 students and 4 teachers learned a great deal about this once vibrant culture. For example, traditionally, Ainu girls would get large tattoos around their mouth, the result of ash smeared in small cuts, to show their marriage eligibility. Because the tattoos were so elaborate and painful, they were completed slowly over time typically starting at age 7. This was just the first of many examples of practices outlawed by Japan’s government. The Meiji government, similar to the Canadian government, also outlawed the use of the Ainu language. The erosion of Ainu culture and language were, at the time, seen as modern cultural advances – not unlike the dogma prescribed to in Canadian residential schools. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the Japanese government started to recognize the uniqueness of Ainu culture. In 1997 the Ainu Cultural Promotions law finally recognized the need to preserve their culture. Unfortunately for all intents and purposes it was too little too late.

Ainu Museum

What is even more unfortunate is that today studying the Ainu is really a cautionary tale – they represent, in essence, a dead culture. You don’t go to museums to see living, vibrant examples of culture. You go to museums to see relics of the past, and that’s really what it felt like going through the Ainu Museum. It’s frightening to think how close we came to having the very same end to some of our local indigenous cultures in North Vancouver. According to Wikipedia there are as few as 10 people who can still speak Ainu. As far as I can tell, unless at least a small sub-community is conversing regularly with each other in a language, it is all but extinct.
In Porotokotan we watched dance and musical perfomances in thatched-roof houses, smoked salmon hanging overhead. And although Hokkaido is almost 7,000 kilometers from Vancouver I strangely felt very close to home. Whether it was the song and dance, the hanging salmon, the carved dugout canoes outside or, sadly, the visibly devastating impact of colonialism on this community, it was clear to me that this culture had far more in common than not with Indigenious peoples of North Vancouver. It made me thankful, more than ever, that we are doing everything we can now to preserve and honour the Indigenous culture and heritage of Canada’s First Peoples, and not forgetting them in a dusty museum. 

Indigenizing the Handsworth Japan Exchange

Winter Residency at High Tech High

c3sbjkjxuaakjou-jpg-largeLast week eleven of my colleagues and I had the privilege of traveling to High Tech High in San Diego, California for a transformative professional development experience. High Tech High is a collection of charter schools whose students are admitted by a zip code based lottery designed to draw students who demographically reflect the diversity of the surrounding San Diego county. “High Tech High” is a bit of a misnomer, because although the school incorporates technology in a variety of ways into the classroom, technology is not the focus. High Tech High focuses rather on using project-based learning (PBL) to enhance student engagement and achievement.

What is PBL?

PBL is a constructivist approach to teaching that involves student-centered instruction through assigning purposeful activities and projects. It allows students to work more autonomously to construct their own learning, and culminates in realistic, student-generated products. While the projects are the product, the processes by which the students arrive at that product are far more important. Teachers use scaffolding, elements of design thinking, front-load students with essential understandings and develop inquiry questions to be answered before the conclusion of the project. PBL proponents understand that student knowledge is constructed, not transmitted and work to build a reflective understanding of the project development experience.

The 2017 Winter Residency

img_5589Over the course of our three days at the HTH Winter Residency, participants worked to refine their understand of PBL through activities and discussion. Our group came well prepared with existing projects and ideas we were looking to refine and tune. Some of the major initiatives we’ve been working on at our school include our ‘Innovation Wednesdays’ and a possible school wide project to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Individual teachers also had inquiry questions and class projects they brought to HTH to tune up and reflect upon with colleagues from around the US and Canada.

Two of the most valuable and rewarding aspects over the three days of the residency I found were the opportunity to explore the campus and to interview current HTH students.

I’ve always been interested in the intersection between form and function and specifically in a school how its physical space influences the style of instruction. The classrooms of HTH have enormous windows giving visitors like us the opportunity to peer in and easily see what’s happening. Students work in rooms where desks are arranged in circles or small groups for more collaboration. Transparency is seen not only in the generous windows, but also in how student work is displayed throughout the interior of the buildings. There were visual displays of learning around the schools including murals, exhibitions and even science demonstrations that could fit in a classroom windowpane.

Making learning visible is a consistent theme, and was achieved primarily through three methods; firstly, the aforementioned exhibitions of work, secondly through presentations of learning, and thirdly though student-led conferences. During student conferences, students would address what they are learning and why, how they’re successful, what challenges them, how they’re doing as an individual learner and how they’re doing within the broader learning community. Conferences are mediated with a curated selection of student work the provided authentic evidence.

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-8-01-19-pmThe opportunity to speak with current HTH students was also immensely insightful. All the students we spoke with were incredibly articulate and able to express quite thoughtfully their experience at the school. They all seemed very aware of what a special place it was they were attending, and how lucky they were to have been chosen by lottery. Student performance seemed to be buoyed both by the fact their work is constantly exhibited, and because they knew the opportunity they had been afforded was one coveted by many other students. In my discussions with the students I tried to dig deeper into any perceived shortcomings of their experience, to take a more critical look at anything HTH could be doing better with their project-based approach. One of the aspects the students lamented was that they didn’t have many of the conventional extra-curricular experiences like sports teams or school dances other schools were more likely to have. Any shortcomings, however, paled in comparison to the educational opportunities made possible by going to HTH, including the remarkable post-secondary enrolment rates.

Dr. Kaleb Rashad

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-8-02-31-pmThe other truly inspiring piece of the Winter Residency was the chance to hear the new Director of High Tech High, Dr. Kaleb Rashad, speak. He was both the keynote speaker and also provided a Q&A session at the end of the three days. He encouraged us to look for inspiration during our time, and not simply to try and imitate what they were doing. Dr. Rashad had a lot to say about leadership, both from a theoretical and practical perspective. His mantra was to “love your people” and that in doing so, they would feel empowered to do “badass work!” When asked what he looked for with respect to instruction when sitting in a typical HTH class, he said that students should be engaging first in divergent, convergent, and then reflective thinking processes. When it comes to Pro-D he suggested we should always be modeling for teachers what we want them to do in their classes – avoid stand and deliver professional development experiences! Dr. Rashad has had a variety of educational leadership experiences, and throughout all of them it is evident he’s worked hard to build positive relationships and an inclusive and supportive school culture. To that end, he’s introduced something he calls ‘open mic’, where he makes an effort to sit for 10 minutes at the start of the year with each and every staff member to listen closely to his or her concerns without judgement. Anything said in those meetings is always shared in confidence. Dr. Rashad urged us to build trust and show people you love them – and that your staff, in turn, will also trust and love each other. One of the best ways to do this was via what he called “the two P’s”: permission and policies. Give your staff permission to dream big – to go for it and try something new and innovative and have them feel supported. And the second “P” is policies. An educational leader should work to get the rules and policies out of the way stop people from doing amazing work. Reducing those barriers will help cultivate a positive school culture and make great things happen for students.

Documenting the Process

c3snc8kuyae07g3-jpg-largePart of my process in attending the Winter Residency was to document the journey of my North Vancouver colleagues. I made an effort throughout the three days to grab as many sound bites and video clips as I could to stitch together at the conclusion of our time together. I’m pretty self-critical, so the finished product is never as good as I’d wish, but I was really happy that in documenting our experience I got to celebrate my colleagues’ experience and all the wonderful reflections they had. If building collegial trust and relationships is considered a vital piece of positive school culture, we certainly checked that box off on this trip. Spending four full and intense days together was a wonderful way for us to bond, and I know we’re stronger as a staff for having taken so many people down with us. I have to thank our school board for being so supportive of this experience in allowing us to go. This video also helps validate the professional growth we were all hoping to gain by attending.


img_5626There were so many take-aways from this experience from project-tuning major school projects like “Innovation Wednesdays” & “Canada 150”, to speaking with students and exploring the campus, to reflecting on educational leadership and connecting with colleagues. This was truly a transformative professional development experience. For Handsworth staff, all of these take-aways were wrapped in the over-arching goal of increasing student engagement. Our first week back at Handsworth has already been influenced by our time away. Staff met this week to introduce a student leadership course to bring new student voice opportunities to our school and to help shape version 2.0 of Innovation Wednesdays. Our Canada 150 project has a small working group who will start drafting details for our staff. Each staff member who came on the experience had to commit to refining one piece of his or her practice, and for me it’s all about how I make student learning more visible. One of things I was reminded of while at HTH was that students raise their performance when they know their work is going to be public. It becomes less about the marks and more about the quality of the work itself. Look for me to be sharing more student work in the future via social media and in exhibitions around the school. Thanks to HTH and to SD44 for a wonderful experience.

Winter Residency at High Tech High

Design Thinking for Student Engagement

Design Thinking is one of the vogue, and sometimes vague, edu-terms being used today. Design Thinking, simply put, is really an approach to an issue or problem that asks one to think like a designer. Using the design process educators and people in other fields are able to develop new and innovative ideas or solutions to existing problems. The design process is broken down into five distinct phases, each with an accompanying key question.


At Handsworth, we’ve been attempting to use Design Thinking and the design process to address challenges and to further enhance student engagement as a principle school goal this year. This is most evident in the introduction of a new timetable for the year that includes a unique block once a week we call ‘innovation time’. Because the ‘innovation time’ block always occurs on Wednesdays, we now refer to them as ‘Innovation Wednesdays’.

So what exactly is ‘Innovation Time’ and what challenges inspired us to embark on the design process?

In recent years we’ve increasingly heard from staff the desire for more time to do creative departmental and cross curricular projects and to have more time simply to connect on projects with colleagues, but lamentations that our current timetable just doesn’t have the flexibility to accommodate it. Our school-based leadership group felt compelled to try and respond to this challenge by designing, prototyping and implementing a solution. A proposal was made to our school district to modify our Wednesday morning timetable to carve out an additional period to provide the flexibility needed to implement the initiative. At the end of last school year the board approved the idea, and for the 2016-17 school year we began to try it out. It was important for us that this new initiative be one that staff wanted and responded to a staff need, and that it wasn’t something pushed down on us from above. Support and earnest enthusiasm from staff for the project would be integral to its success. And if we could increase student engagement in the process it would clearly be of great benefit to everyone.

Some examples of what’s been occurring during innovation time include:

Innovation Wednesday Ballroom Dance

-Guest speakers from the community coming in to give presentations

-New clubs emerging, including chess club, investing club, and debate

-Existing clubs having more time to meet and collaborate

-Less student stress and anxiety as a result of time to work collaboratively in groups or write missing tests or quizzes

-Students learning new skills like ballroom dancing

-Peer mentoring and cross grade tutoring in subjects like math and science

Innovation Wednesday Yoga

-International students tutoring students in languages

-Hands on projects like making chainmail, scrap booking & RC Airplanes

-Grade assemblies

-Yoga, mindfulness & meditation sessions

-Tutorial time for teachers to meet with students who need extra help

This is by no means an exhaustive list. And what we’re seeing more of is students actually leading Innovations Wednesday sessions themselves. This has provided a great opportunity for leadership amongst the students, and a space for students and teachers alike to share and nurture their passions. Finally, this has also freed up some time for teachers who want meet to discuss things like new curriculum and other departmental concerns that are difficult to address when everyone’s prep time falls during different blocks.

Christmas break marks the end of our trial period for Innovation Wednesdays, and I’m pleased to report that it has been enough of a success that we’ll be continuing it throughout the rest of the year. Our barometer for success takes us back to the original impetus for its introduction: cross and inter-departmental collaboration, and increased student engagement. And by most accounts, that is exactly what we are seeing.

The implementation of Innovation Time has not been without its challenges. Like any design process, some element of failure is expected and even welcomed if we are to have our solutions evolve and improve. Innovation Time has required added effort from both our teachers, who now often need to plan for another weekly activity, and our administration, who basically create a new rec guide for students each week. We continue to bounce between step 4 and 5 of the design process, experimenting and evolving what Innovation Wednesday looks like. To this end, as we entered the break, we asked both staff and students to provide their feedback.

student_survey staff_survey

Educators are, inherently, designers. We make choices every day from designing the delivery of curriculum to, as we have seen, the structure of our school timetable. Taking an unconventional approach to challenges we face in education requires a new paradigm – one Design Thinking and the design process can offer. Innovation Wednesday’s at Handsworth, although in their infancy, represent a successful implementation of a Design Thinking solution.

Design Thinking for Student Engagement