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

On Experiential Education

First let me say that experiential education is about more than travel. But after having taken students on more than 25 study abroad tours, I can certainly say that it illustrates most clearly what a profound impact a quality travel experience can have on the learning process. Experiential education is learning by doing: by seeing, by touching, by hearing and by feeling. If it’s good, it’s immersive. Which is why we can’t simply expect students to show up in an exotic, foreign location and have the learning be any deeper unless we, as teachers, make a concerted effort to make connections between the learning and world around us. Wouldn’t we all love to be able to learn about symbiotic relationships in the rainforests of Brazil? Relive the communist revolution while standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square? Or understand the tumultuous nature of the stock market on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange? I’ve seen what this does for student engagement, and it’s remarkable. Virtual reality may afford us the luxury of teaching in such settings on a daily basis at some point, but until that day comes, how can we bring a small piece of that fire into our classes now? If we look at the basic underlying ideas of what makes travel learning so profound, I think we’ll find some of those elements can still be applied in our everyday classes.

  1. Be active. In every lesson, ask yourself if there’s a way I can have students moving. Movement creates energy and excitement. It’s tough to be asleep at your desk if you’re required to be moving around the classroom.
    Students learning about Game Theory and the Prisoners Dilemma with an activity.
    Students learning about Game Theory and the Prisoners Dilemma with an activity.

    Questions where students can move into a line representing a spectrum of opinion, or challenges that involve organizing a group into a tableau or pose are fun.

  1. Be social. How much interaction can you promote between your students? Have them discuss. And not just with the person next to them. Shuffle the room. What a wonderful feeling it is, as a student, to have the opportunity to interact with each and every classmate. The emotional benefits to students feeling connected not only with their teacher, but also with all their classmates, can be immense. Jigsaw activities and randomizing the selection of working groups for projects can be great for this.
  1. Make connections. Context is important for lessons. Why are we learning this? If you can’t answer this as a teacher, chances are the students are going to find very little value in it, and therefore won’t be engaged. Why not start each lesson or each unit explaining the practicality of what’s being learned? We are learning about compound interest so you can calculate what you’ll earn on your Canada Savings Bonds. We’re learning Shakespeare so you can better deconstruct some of our most timeless stories and understand how he’s inspired many of our films and stories today.
  1. Use artifacts.   When traveling we often get to handle cultural objects: from tools and cloth, to carvings, fossils and coins.   There’s no reason we can’t bring those into our every day classes as well.
    Use Artifacts
    Students discovering archeology artifacts.

    Being able to touch something foreign makes it more real for students. Try on a kimono in Japanese class. In a European history class, distribute a few Euros and talk about who or what is on the coins.

  1. Appeal to the senses. Artefacts are great for touch, but what about smell, taste and sound? Food doesn’t have to be reserved for cooking class. Learning about Spanish culture over a delicious meal, or about this history of Japan with a sushi break can be a fun way to shake up a class. Play music. I can still remember my history teacher playing the song ‘Rasputin’ as we entered class to learn about the Russian Revolution.
  1. Encourage reflection. On the majority of student tours I’ve led, we’ve had our students journal on an almost daily basis. It’s remarkable to see the transformation in worldview, as they increasingly become global citizens. Journaling is only one form of reflection. Blogging, exit slips from class, and student interviews are just a few other small suggestions for ways to have students reflect on their experiences and thereby reinforce learning and clarify their own values.
  1. Find experts. Guest speakers are great way to introduce students to new ideas. Having a different voice in the class with a different set of experiences and knowledge can be a huge benefit. It also strengthens the connection between your school and wider community. Experts may be in your class. Don’t
    Find Experts
    Business students meet the Consul General of Canada in Hong Kong – An Expert on Import & Export

    underestimate the expertise of your students and their experience, or perhaps their parents. Use online resources like Twitter to connect directly with inspiring professionals like astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield or popular authors like JK Rowling to answer questions. All of these people can all be great resources for sharing and learning.

  1. Encourage a sense of wonder. Students who are curious about how and why things are as they are will be enthusiastic to increase their understanding and critical thinking skills. Why do the stars shine brighter away from cities? Why are there similar words for numbers in different languages? Why is it summer during Christmas time in the southern hemisphere? Model curiosity. It’s okay as a teacher not to know the answers… we can find out together as a class!

This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully will help you think about some other ways you can bring a love of experiential learning into your classroom. I love to learn by traveling, and enjoy sharing that passion with my students. Experiential education doesn’t have to be limited to those with a passport though. We can bring those same ideas into our everyday learning to help promote greater student engagement and quality learning.

On Experiential Education

Why I Coach

With yet another basketball season upon us, I thought this might be a good opportunity to take stock of, and reflect upon why it is I coach.

I can still remember playing sports in high school and wondering to myself why on earth anyone would volunteer so much time to a team when their own kids didn’t play on it, and they themselves didn’t even get to play either! I mean, they just stood on the sidelines and did the substitutions and drew up a few plays… it didn’t seem like much fun to me.

Volunteering to coach basketball is a huge commitment. It’s 6 or 7 days a week for 4.5 months of the year. There’s overnight / away tournaments, which means you’re averaging upwards of 20 hours a week in time spent volunteering. ‘Cowichan’ has become a 4-letter word in my house as it means I’ll be away overnight yet again with the basketball team. I’m not popular on those weekends with my family, but it’s a chance to take the team away for some important bonding and quality time. So why do I continue to do it?

The first team I ever coached - Grade 7 Hillcrest Elementary.
The first team I ever coached – Grade 7 Hillcrest Elementary.  My sponsor and principal next to me.

For a bit of context let me take you back to my first real basketball coaching experience. I was in second year at the University of Victoria in 2001, and as part of my teacher preparation program we had to go volunteer to coach a team for a season. There was a local team of grade 7s at Hillcrest Elementary in Victoria that needed a coach for their season and so I dutifully went over to the school and met with the principal. I remember how ecstatic she was that I was there. It was wonderful to be so warmly welcomed by an administrator.  She told me that if I hadn’t come to coach that these boys likely would not have had a team. And what a team they were. Grade 7 is not a lot different than older grades when it comes to a recipe for success. They say you can’t coach height, which turned out to be a good thing for me because my team had 2 boys who were pushing 6 feet tall. I surprised myself with how much I genuinely enjoyed leading the boys through practices, drawing up plays for them to run, modeling good sportsmanship, and making every attempt to have all the boys playing time be as equitable as possible. Having a winning season made my first coaching experience enjoyable, but it was all those little things I had previously thought would be boring when I was a player watching my coaches that I found I really relished.

My Grade 6 Wanouchi Junior High boys team in Japan
My Grade 6 Wanouchi Junior High boys team in Japan. Toshiki is second from the bottom right.

And so I was hooked. For the past 15 years since I’ve been coaching. Even when I lived overseas I made sure I continued to coach. My team of grade 6 boys at Wanouchi Junior High in Japan were easily the least talented group of boys I have ever worked with. We spent an entire season working on the right-hand lay-up (their good hand!). I got to work on my Japanese by repeatedly yelling such phrases as “ASHI CHIGAU!” (wrong foot!) We lost every game that season. But we had so much fun. I can still remember Toshiki, the kid who looked like a sumo-wrestler and was my #5 ‘big man’ and the way he and I would high-five if he even caught some of the rim on one of his shots. I’m not sure he scored a basket that year. It was most evident to me during these times that extra-curricular involvement was where you had the opportunity to cultivate real bonds with students; bonds that tied them to you, and by extension tied them closer to their school community.

Over the years I’ve come to have a new appreciation for the time and effort my coaches put in for me as I went through my K-12 experience. People like Bob Baldwin, Vinny Alvano, Scott Bennett, Peter Therrien and Garth Thomson just to name a few. Without the hours and hours those men put into volunteering with me I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, or be the person I am today. I often think about what their time with me has meant. I know many of the qualities I’ve developed as an adult are due, at least in part, to the guidance they helped provide throughout my own formative years.

Coaching means responsibility. It means leadership. It means having to bite your lip when you’re upset at an official’s call because you know you have a bench of 15 impressionable minds sitting next to you. It means knowing when to encourage and when to discipline. How to provide expectations and help athletes set goals. It’s about dealing with fragile egos, disappointments, and acting with humility when you win.

Coaching is not always easy. Cutting players is the worst – I wish everyone could make the team. I’ve been cut from teams and I’ve been one of the last players on the bench. It’s not fun when your name is not on the list or when you never get off the bench – I know that. Coaches have to make difficult decisions, but I try to focus on the fact that in volunteering I know I’ve been able to provide the opportunity for more students to participate than if I hadn’t volunteered at all.

I coach because I enjoy having the group rely on me for guidance and leadership. I coach to pay it forward and thank those coaches who took the time to guide me. I coach because I know the importance of providing opportunity for students to participate in extra-curricular activities. I coach because I enjoy the technical aspects of the game and being able to continually learn more. I coach, selfishly, because it gives me a better connection with my students, and most of all because I’ve found I genuinely enjoy it.

And with that, I’m excited to start another season!

Why I Coach