Experience, Stories, Identity

My family chose the same summer vacation spot for 25 straight years. It was right on Okanagan Lake and for two weeks we would rent a tiny cabin along with fifteen other families. During this time, it would not be inaccurate to describe my twin brother and I as amphibious: We spent many hours of each day swimming, windsurfing, waterskiing, paddling and snorkelling. Okanagan Lake is known for many things but snorkelling is not one of them; there was little to see beyond a muddy bottom and the odd carp which would immediately dart away when approached. But each day, we spent hours snorkelling usually in search of the golf balls our friends would drive into the water. Sometimes, we were contracted to find a lost pair of sunglasses.

Despite a delusional fear of sharks, I developed an extraordinary comfort with water. It may be that my dad was an Olympic swimmer or it may be that my brothers and I grew up on Okanagen Lake and within reach of Howe Sound, my experiences as a child have had a profound influence on how I live my life: where I have chosen to live, who I choose to spend time with, and my understanding of my interests and abilities.

I share this because my experiences as a youth have shaped my identity. The stories of my childhood that I tell myself, and others, help me understand who I am and what I believe in. Our experiences become the stories we tell and our stories shape our identity.

For several years now, BICS, along with all other BC public schools, has created an Aboriginal Education School Plan. The plan’s purpose is to ensure our school, including each of our classrooms and the culture of our school generally, is a welcoming space for aboriginal students and also provides programming – both in content and approach to learning – that teaches students about the First Peoples of Canada. As West Vancouver Schools are on the traditional territory of the Skwxwú7mesh stelmexw (Squamish People), there is a particular emphasis on learning about the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation).

Our plans have often focused on storytelling and that is the case again this year. One of the First People’s Principles of Learning is that, “learning is embedded in memory, history and story,” so this seems like a natural focus. Another principle of learning is that “learning involves exploration of one’s identity,” and so, our focus for our 2015-2016 Aboriginal Education Plan is for students to create and share stories with others that relate to their identity.

It is our hope that through composing personal stories, in the form of writings, illustrations, dances, or some other medium, students will come to understand three key ideas.

First, that our experiences become the stories we tell ourselves. Second, that our stories, along with our sense of belonging and place, shape our identity. And finally, that some people have the courage to share their stories with others while other people have the courage to carry their stories alone.

Students will likely have little difficulty pulling events from their past that they think are likely to affect the rest of their lives: witnessing a Sea Lion off the coast of Tunstall Bay is likely to encourage a student to look for something similar each time they look into the ocean. When a moment like that happens, a nature lover is “born” or transformed. A student may wish to create a story about their experience performing in our school’s upcoming Winter concert, and perhaps developing an identity as a performer.

And of course personal stories of experience often connect with something bigger. The opportunities we are privileged with often relate to the cultures we belong to.  This aligns with the new curriculum’s Personal and Social Competency. The Competency notes, “Students who have a positive personal and cultural identity value their personal and cultural narratives, and understand how these shape their identity.” A goal of this Competency is therefore that students understand how personal and cultural narratives shape their identity.

The last understanding I noted, “That some people have the courage to share their stories with others and other people have courage to hold their stories alone,” relates in particular to the residential school system. For decades, many survivors of residential schools carried their stories alone, or shared them with just a few people. Others tried to share but often found unwelcome audiences. In recent years, more and more people are willing to share their stories – with families, with friends, and even publicly. It is truly a remarkable act of courage to do so.

Our hope is that through developing sensitivity to the difficulties in telling personal stories, our students become a receptive audience to learning more, when developmentally ready, about the residential school system. As young children, they are ready to learn a little of the experiences that children of the same age experienced not so long ago. But learning about residential schools will be a long journey and our goal is for students to become reflective members in that journey.

And all of us, storytellers and story receivers, have been shaped through the years, subtly but profoundly, by what we have not experienced. I personally have never experienced hunger, or disconnection from my family or my culture. I will continue to reflect on how this has shaped who I am and how I think of myself in the world. Storytelling – writing my own stories and listening to others– will help.  We are grateful to work with members of the Squamish Nation and members of the community of Bowen Island in doing so.

 

The BICS Aboriginal Education Plan is here.

Ideas of Happiness

“Open Happiness.” “Comfort in every bar.” “Every dinner should feel this good.”

Our highest priority at BICS is to inspire our students to be lifelong learners.

BICS helps students develop literacy, critical thinking and social skills to increase their capacity as learners and prepare them to make the most of a lifetime of learning opportunities. These skills, or competencies, have been articulated in the Core Competencies of BC’s New Curriculum. Beyond having a highly developed capacity to learn, however, to encourage lifelong learning, students need to love learning. It is therefore important that students are happy at school and so creating happy learning environments is something our school takes very seriously. Happy learning environments mean that students feel safe and connected with peers and adults in their classroom and school. Research shows that students learn more when they are happy and of course, happiness is an end in itself. By my calculation, students spend about 12% of their lives and 18 % of their waking hours during the time they are in school from Kindergarten to Grade Twelve.* School is a big part of life and therefore a big part of a happy life.

In addition to fostering conditions of happy learning environments, I am becoming increasingly convinced of the need to directly teach about happiness, specifically what it is and how to pursue it.

Happiness is not something that happens to us but in many ways something we choose. Convenience and consumerism are prominent features of our society and it is becoming increasingly easy for people to confuse the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of convenience; or pursue happiness through consumerism. There is no shortage of messaging – the slogans of Coca-Cola, Mars Bar and Stouffers Foods being the examples noted at the beginning of this post– implying that happiness is found in consuming an item, be it food, fashion or other items. While eating food and buying items that allow for the pursuit of hobbies can be satisfying, it is worth being clear of other ways of fostering happiness that make the world better for ourselves and others.

The organization Action for Happiness recognizes that there are external and sometimes uncontrollable factors that affect happiness but assert that happiness can often be pursued through the choices we make. Most of these choices are small and occur almost constantly so a framework that will help recognize opportunities to make choices that lead to happiness is helpful.

So what are these daily choices we can make?

Action for Happiness has broken them down into ten keys to happier living:

  • Generosity – do things for othersGreat_Dream
  • Relating – connect with people
  • Exercising – take care of your body
  • Appreciating – notice the world around you
  • Trying Out – keep learning new things
  • Direction – have goals to pursue
  • Resilience – find ways to bounce back
  • Emotion – take a positive approach
  • Acceptance – be comfortable with who you are
  • Meaning – contribute to something bigger

These ten keys align extremely well with virtues noted in the Virtues Project that our school has focused on for many years.

Over the coming months of the school year, BICS will focus on these keys so that students have a shared understanding and language that allow them to become better at noticing opportunities to increase their happiness and the happiness of others. I will write about some of these keys in more detail in future blog posts but hope that parents will also learn more from the understandings students bring home and talk about as the year progresses. “Open Happiness,” associates happy with easy. As we strive to develop capable, hard-working and inspired lifelong learners, a greater understanding of happiness is needed.

*My figures are based on 6 hours at school 180 days per year. Waking hours = 16 hours per day.

What is new in BC’s New Curriclum

This post was originally published on the BICS Blog.

It has been said, “The only constant in life is change.”

That statement certainly holds true in education, perhaps now more than ever.

Last week, BICS Vice-Principal Laura Magrath and I spoke to parents about BC’s New Curriculum as part of our BICS Open House. Our staff has been learning about and working with what until recently has been termed the “Draft Curriculum” for two years and I have been sharing information with our BICS PAC and writing blog posts on the topic since November 2013. But the “Draft” stamp has recently been removed from the curriculum and it is now referred to as the New Curriculum so we felt it was a particularly important time to share aspects of the New Curriculum with parents; particularly three important changes.

This post summarizes some of the key messages of that presentation. For the 2015-2016 school year, both the “old curriculum” and New Curriculum are usable documents. In 2016-2017, what is taught in Kindergarten to Grade 9 classrooms will be based on the New Curriculum only.

Prezi_15

For purposes of explanation, the curriculum can be divided in two parts:

1. What students understand and know à this is termed Content in the New Curriculum

2. What students can do à this is termed Core Competencies and Curricular Competencies in the New Curriculum

 

Three Key Changes

1. Content – What Students Understand And Know à Start with the big picture.

The “old curriculum” was organized by themed learning outcomes. For some time, teachers who have taught with an inquiry-based approach to learning have tried to discern the essence of the learning outcomes. Teachers would find themselves asking, What’s the big idea here? Beyond facts and figures, what is the concept or understanding that students will take away from this unit of study that they can apply to future learning situations?Big_Ideas

The New Curriculum starts with the big picture. Ideas and theories are presented as Big Ideas and from there the content, which is used to develop an understanding of the Big Ideas, is articulated. As suggested by the name, Big Ideas are greater than what can be covered in one subject in one grade. So, many Big Ideas are repeated throughout many grade levels as students develop more sophisticated understandings of theories and ideas.

2. Competencies – What students can do à Competencies are key.

While all people need a level of general knowledge to understand themselves, others and the world, knowledge is easily lost; skills less so. For example, most people likely have forgotten many of the facts, figures and ideas they learned in Grades 1 and 2, the age when they were learning to read. But people don’t forget how to read.

2015-03-19_0946In the New Curriculum, Competencies are key. The content, while still worthy in its own right, is a vehicle to develop two types of competency.

The first type of competency are the Core Competencies – Communication, Thinking and Personal and Social. The Core Competencies are not subject or grade specific. It is thought any learning activity can demonstrate and develop some or each of the competencies. As learning is a lifelong endeavour, the competency continuum is also lifelong.

The second type of competency is Curricular Competencies. These are subject specific skills; for example in Science, Questioning and Prediction as well as Planning and Conducting experiments, are curricular competencies

3. Communicating – How Student Learning is Communicated

As part of our transition to the new curriculum, in terms two and three of the 2014-2015 School Year, many BICS teachers used language from the Core Competencies in their opening comments. However, the report card looked identical to previous terms and did not reflect the changes that have been made to the curriculum. Kindergarten and Grade 4 reports will look very different in 2015-2016 offering space for Core Competency and Curricular Competency assessments. Further, as reflecting on learning is essential, there is space on the new reports for student voice and reflections. Further information will be shared by Director of Instruction for West Vancouver Schools Lynne Tomlinson regarding a change of reporting for Kindergarten and Grade 4 students in 2015-2016, and a change for all elementary school students in 2016-2017.

While this curriculum signals a major change in BC education, it is also a response to the innovative work being done in classrooms across BC including BICS. The Curriculum will support the work we started long ago – inquiry, self-regulation and critical thinking – and also push us to examine and evolve in other areas of practice. Change truly is the only constant in life, and so to in education.

Preparing Students for Anything

This post was originally published on the BICS Blog.

It is not easy to predict the future.

BC’s School Act asserts, “the purpose of the British Columbia school system is to enable all learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.”

It is very possible to determine what skills and attitudes are needed in society now. What is more difficult is predicting the skills and attitudes needed for society many years from now.

One example:  How will people use technology? I have some concerns with the amount of screen time for children and adults who often disengage from their immediate environment  and instead connect online with others. Will people tire of staring into the screen and will there be a major pendulum swing back to living in the immediate world: less Wii baseball, more baseball, less online messages, more phone calls, less Guitar Hero, more guitar. Or, will technology become even more engaging, entertaining and successful at connecting people to others?

Will the ecological imperative to consume less impede access to technology? Instead of buying electronic goods and other items, will people need to not just buy locally but also build locally and grow locally? Will gardening skills, carpentry skills, sewing skills etc., trump all others? Should these skills be prioritized in schools?

These are all very challenging questions that as an educator, I can’t answer and fortunately don’t need to. Even if the future was predictable, human interests and possibilities are so diverse that there is no singular future we could possibly prepare students for. There may be some similarities, but “the future” will look different for everyone.

It is therefore impossible to prepare students for everything so we must prepare students for anything. What that means is that the most important role of a school is to increase students’ capacities as learners so that whatever the future looks like, they will have the literacy and numeracy skills, problem solving skills and most importantly the motivation and confidence, to learn whatever is needed.

In speaking with a colleague recently, I shared my puzzlement at the current trend of teaching coding to elementary school children. Coding seemed like a waste of time: I figured by the time students would actually need coding skills, the coding system students were learning would be replaced so what was the point? He shared that while his students are encouraged to code really what he was encouraging was problem solving.  I understood what he meant:  I’ve taught students to use PowerPoint, a program that may very well not exist by the time students are giving presentations for work, but I was not really teaching PowerPoint, I was teaching how to summarize and how to present – timeless, transferable skills like problem solving.

It is a relief to know as an educator of students entering a quickly changing world of immense diversity and possibility, that it is not my role to prepare students for everything but instead help prepare students for anything.  We do not know what a student’s lifelong learning journey will look like, but we do know that there are core skills and attitudes that must be identified and developed in students to build their capacities as learners so that whatever the conditions of the world they live in and whatever diverse passions they pursue, they can adapt – which is to learn.

In British Columbia, the “core skills and attitudes” students need have been identified and articulated as Core Competencies as part of British Columbia’s draft curriculum. When students learn coding, PowerPoint, or gardening, they will be developing core competencies. The competencies are helpful in virtually all settings and while perhaps nothing is change-proof, the Competencies should stand the test of time for they increase a person’s capacity as a learner which increases a person’s capacity to adapt.  I will write about the competencies and what they look like at BICS throughout the school year. These competencies, including students feeling inspired and confident to make use of them, are at the heart of what we do: preparing students to be learners, helping prepare students for anything.

“Wrong Thoughts” and Other Things to Consider

Nearly at once, both icons have fallen from grace in ways that were unimaginable just months ago.  They are forcing a reckoning with ourselves and our history, a reassessment of who we were and of what we might become.Blog July 2015

So begins Isabel Wilkerson’s New York Times review of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, referring to the lowering of the Confederate Flag and the identity of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman character Atticus Finch.

In the review, Wilkerson writes about the complexity of Atticus Finch as portrayed in Go Set a Watchman, as a “gentleman bigot, well meaning in his supremacy.  In other words, he is human, and in line with emerging research into how racial bias has evolved in our society.  He is a character study in the seeming contradiction that compassion and bigotry can not only reside in the same person but often do, which is what makes racial bias, as it has mutated through the generations, so hard to address.”

In his review of Go Set a Watchman for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik sates, “beneath Atticus’s style of enlightenment is a kind of bigotry that could not recognize itself as such at the time….  The problem is not people who think wrong thoughts, since we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts about something or other. The problem is people who give their implicit endorsement to violence or intolerance in the pursuit of wrong thoughts.”

So, as an educator in British Columbia, why am I referencing articles about the soul searching America appears to be in the midst of in response to horrific hate crimes, police violence, and the release of a novel reexamining a beloved character.  As an educator, I believe that the most transformational learning is so foundational to the learner’s identity it just becomes who they are and is not recognized as learning at the time.  The articles are a reminder to me to scan my biases and attempt to identify how they may be reflected in my practice.  And beyond scanning biases, it is worth noting that we may be, as Gopnik writes, unable to recognize our “wrong thoughts,” so ingrained are they from our upbringing including what we learned in school.

In recent years, including Stephen Harper’s 2008 statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Canadians have begun the process of recognizing historical and current “wrong thoughts.”  We are at the beginning of, what Justice Murray Sinclair notes, “forging and maintaining respectful relationships.”  How else does one go about scanning some of the messages educators and systems (classrooms, schools, Districts, Provinces) share with students and shape their perspectives often in such an ongoing way as to be unrecognizable?

As I question my biases, I’m drawn to some of the work I participated in with several colleagues last year.  We studied learner engagement and came up with an Engagement Profile that educators could use to help learners engage themselves in learning experiences (more on that can be found here).  Engagement_2015

Our Engagement Profile (still under development) asks learners, prior, during and after a learning experience, to ask several questions.  The Engagement Profile could also act as an assumption profile and be a good starting point for examining biases.  So, some thoughts on assumptions follow each question.

1.  Who are you learning with and who are you learning from?

Parker Palmer notes, “We teach who we are.”  An examination of “who” we are teaching includes:  What biases do I reveal to students? What topics/subjects do I show enthusiasm for; what not?

2.  What are you learning about and what are you learning to do?

Provincial policy decisions regarding curriculum guide what students learn about when but classroom policy decisions guide how much time is given to various topics of study and send messages to students about what skills and understandings are important and what are not.

3.  Where are you learning and what are you learning from your surroundings?

This question is perhaps examined the least.   Too often when we think about where we learn, we think about whether the environment is conducive to learning (appropriate lighting, quiet, comfortable…) rather than whether the environment has something to teach us about the topic and or our relationship with the topic.

Gopnik notes that, “we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts,” and I know in 20 years that I might disown and possibly even feel ashamed of some of my current “wrong thoughts.”  But, by asking questions, I can examine some of my biases and, knowing that I will be unable to recognize them all, use these articles as yet another reminder of the importance of not just being open-minded to other perspectives, but to actively seek them out.

Making Use of the Core Competencies

Many of our efforts at Bowen Island Community School (BICS) to transition to the new draft curriculum are focusing on understanding and making use of the Core Competencies: Communication Competency, Thinking Competency, and Personal and Social Competency.  This is not easy work and my understanding of the competencies continually shifts thanks to conversations with educators at BICS and in #SD45PLN.2015-03-19_0946

Below, shared in green, are three understandings I think will affect the way educators and students make use of the competencies.  In blue, based on the understandings, I share how the competencies can be used by teachers and students.

1.  The Core Competencies, the Draft Curriculum notes, “are sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies that all students need to develop in order to engage in deep learning and life-long learning.”  The competencies are not subject-specific (subject-specific competencies are called curricular competencies, i.e., the scientific method in the subject science), they are transferable and often applicable to all areas of learning.

Most learning experiences can develop some facet(s) of one or more of the competencies.  While teachers are always mindful of developing literacy and numeracy foundations, in my experience as a teacher I have sometimes planned lessons and assignments with too great a focus on knowledge acquisition and not enough focus on what students would be able to do, or to do better, as a result of the lesson or assignment.  When planning, the teacher can examine the competency facets to ensure what students can do is a core part of the lesson or assignment.  The facets may even broaden or simply make explicit the range of abilities students can develop.

2.  The competencies are a continuum which a person develops from the moment they start learning to the moment they stop learning.  In other words, they are not limited to a student’s experience in K-12 education and the profiles of each competency are not intended to align with any grade level expectations; for example, it is not expected that all students have reached profile level 3 in the Personal and Social Competency by grade five.

It is not important to focus on what profile level students achieve because a students level will vary from task to task.  Profile level 8 for the Communication Competency does not mean “A+” or exceeding expectations.  Students should also know that experiences outside of school, such as participating on a sports team or attending a community event, develop competencies.

3.  Following from point 2, the profile levels within a competency are more pertinent to the task assigned to the student rather than the student’s performance in the task:  some tasks only require the development and demonstration of a certain level of competency so regardless of how competent a student might be as a communicator, the task itself may be limiting to what the student does.

The competencies are helpful for self-assessment.  But self-assessment when using the competencies is more about assessing the task and the opportunities the task offers the student to demonstrate and develop the competencies than it is about assessing the student’s performance in demonstrating the competencies.  In other words, self-assessment is more about understanding the task and what competencies the task makes use of and develops.  Therefore, a major, if not the major, part of self-assessment happens prior to starting the task when the student assesses the task and identifies what abilities they have, or need to develop, to be successful at the task rather than after completing the task where the student evaluates their performance.

In summary, teachers can use the competencies to design learning experiences that effectively develop what students can do, not just what they are to know.  Teachers have long used learning outcomes and the Performance Standards to ensure planning developed students skills as well as understanding but determining what facets of a competency might be applicable for a task allows teachers to broaden the purpose of learning tasks and provides language to articulate this purpose clearly.

Students can use the competencies to understand a learning experiences:  beyond what knowledge and understanding they are to gain, how is the task intended to make the student a more capable/competent communicator or thinker?  What skills do students already have that they should apply to the task?

The key to planning for teachers and to self-assessment for students is to have a strong understanding of the end in mind.  While I am not yet certain how students will be assessed or self-assess the competencies for reporting, or even if they will do so, what is clear is that educators can make use of the competencies for planning, and students can make use of the competencies to understand tasks and their purpose.

Searching Beyond Google

What you know is becoming less important than what you can do. Is this true?  Has it always been true?

Some who believe the statement to be true suggest ubiquitous access to the internet means that it is not as important to have as much knowledge of facts and details as it used to be.search

Few suggest there isn’t some level of general knowledge required in order to make sense of new information but some argue online information storage relieves people of the ‘burden’ of carrying facts and details.  Is it important to know of every provincial capital city in Canada if one has access and skills to search for that information online?  I think that question is a conversation worth having particularly in reference to BC’s new draft curriculum and how education efforts are best spent.  No doubt knowing and understanding are important, as is being able to do something with that knowledge and understanding.  The question is what deserves greater emphasis:  Less time spent memorizing capitals, more time learning about where to find that information?

What I hope plays a more central role in the conversation is how so much knowledge and wisdom is not accessible online.  Of course, digital literacy is essential for all learners and citizens, but as we encourage the development of skills to search for and make sense of information, it is important that students have the people skills – confidence, modesty, curiousity, respect – to ask others who have knowledge, skills, or wisdom in an area of study.  I see these skills reflected in the Communication Competency of the draft curriculum but as skills related to accessing information digitally are newer skills than acquiring information by connecting with people, there is a risk the latter and older “people skills” may receive less emphasis in education.

The importance of searching for understanding from people has been highlighted for me recently at BICS by three events.  Recently, as part of the Grandfriends Program organized by BICS Community School Coordinator Sarah Haxby and teacher Tammy Sanhedrai, grandparents came to the school in an effort to foster inter-generational learning.  In part, the purpose is for students to learn from the first-hand experience of people older than themselves who may have lived through historical events that students are learning about (More information on Grandfriends can be found here).  BICS has also welcomed elders from the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation who share stories, music, dancing and artefacts, to teach about culture and history.  The concept of elder is important in the Squamish and other nations.  A person is an elder if they have

Delmar Williams teaching students how to make fire.

Delmar Williams teaching students how to make fire.

knowledge they are willing to share in a particular area and great respect is afforded to the passing on of knowledge and wisdom by elders.  Lastly, Delmar Williams has worked with students in outside45 teaching earth-based survival skills such as carving and fire-making.  There are online tutorials as to how to make fire with a bow drill but the wisdom of the best materials to use for a particular area and the history of the skills in various cultures is local knowledge shared by people in person more often than online.

At TEDxWestVancouverEd in September 2014, Shannon Ozirny captivated the audience with a wonderful talk on “What is smart?” arguing “the ability to effectively search for, and filter information, take what you need from it, that’s what smart is.”  Hearing this statement and listening to her talk, it is hard not to assume search refers to search online though her talk does not suggest where to search.

As we encourage and develop students’ abilities to search for information and make sense of it, I think we will need to be increasingly mindful when working with generations who have always known of the power of the internet, that students have opportunities to search from a plethora of sources including people, places, and print.