Learning Character – Openness

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment in thinking that “now, more than ever, the world needs more…tolerance, more openness, more dialogue, more shared problem-solving…” Recent events in North America and beyond have prompted me to think that openness – openness to trying new things, to meeting new people, to considering viewpoints different from one’s own – was needed now more than ever. My social media feed is as refined as it has ever been to share news stories suggesting that.

In reality, considering many countries’ histories of colonization, inequality, segregation, sexism and war, the need to be open to others has always been necessary in order for diversity to be a strength rather than a dividing and oppressing weakness.

At BICS, our school goal is for students to strengthen their learning character including becoming more responsible, open, ambitious and resilient. While this second character trait, open, maybe is not needed now more than ever, it is perhaps the most important character trait of a learner. After all, learning is about trying new things, considering multiple viewpoints and negotiating one’s own understanding, and welcoming opportunities to meet new people, learn about them, learn from them, and perhaps even be changed by them.

Openness is not taught in a week but we are calling the week of February 20-24, 2017 “Openness Week” at BICS and we are holding several events that we hope will inspire students to recognize the value of being open and encourage this important aspect of their learning character.

On Monday, our intermediate students will participate in a ROAR (Responsibility, Openness, Ambition, Resilience) Assembly. The key message will be the link between self-regulation and openness. Typically, as someone becomes upset, or dysregulated, less and less of their brain is activated, particularly the reasoning parts of the brain which might actually be open to considering alternate perspectives. To the extreme, in a survival situation when fight or flight is activated, little more than the amygdala is controlling actions.

On Tuesday, BICS will celebrate International Mother Language Day. BICS students whose mother language is one other than English will meet with our English Language Learner (ELL) teacher Ms. de Boer and me to create a bulletin board that will display the word “Welcome” in as many Mother Languages as we have at BICS. Learning a second (or third) language is an incredible accomplishment and our ELL students deserve credit for their efforts. It will also be interesting to raise the profile of diversity of languages at BICS and share the vital connection of language and culture.

On Wednesday, students and staff are encouraged to wear pink shirts to school. Pink Shirt Day, occurring all across Canada and in other countries, originated after a high school student was made fun of for wearing a pink shirt. The next day, two peers wore pink shirts and started providing them to others as well. Wearing a pink shirt is a statement by anyone who wears it that they are someone who will not stand by and allow bullying to happen; rather, they are someone who will support someone being bullied. Our primary students will also have an assembly that celebrates the idea, “It’s OK to be different.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Diversity Group will meet. The group, consisting of parent/guardians and BICS staff, has formed this year and discusses racial diversity at BICS and beyond. The goal of our group is to become more aware of systematic racism in Canadian society and to be open to the role we as citizens play in this system.

Whether it is being open to fun experiences like participating in band, joining the cross country team or Destination Imagination, or whether being open is more difficult – like working with someone new, or challenging one’s perspective and beliefs – openness is central to a successful approach to learning. Encouraging openness in students is a responsibility we share with families and we take this responsibility seriously. This week and beyond, openness will continue to be an essential aspect of learning character that we encourage and rely upon for students to be successful.

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.

Who’s Leading?

I enjoyed this video recently shared with me by my West Vancouver Schools colleague Tara Zielinski. In it, author, speaker and former submarine captain David Marquet makes a great case for distributed leadership and the power of not just shared decision making, but distributed decision making.

Schools are very different than submarines: teachers lead their classroom and make countless decisions without their principal being involved or even aware. But direction-setting initiatives and innovations can be less distributed and Marquet does a nice job of explaining why that is problematic.

“Leaders can take control and attract followers” or “give control and create leaders.” Marquet argues that the latter is far more difficult and far more effective.

Happiness & Generosity

In 2012, the United Nations declared March 20th International Day of Happiness. Last Friday was the world’s third celebration where the United Nations stated, “The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.”

There is a political element to the day with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging member states to consider the impact peace and climate have on the potential for happiness of the “human family.”  The UN Foundation also encouraged global citizens to sign the Live Earth Petition which urges world leaders to “sign a strong and meaningful agreement at the climate negotiations in Paris this year.”   (For more on Paris 2015 COP21, click here.)Generosity

The day also recognizes that while happiness is fostered in conditions of peace, prosperity, human rights, and sustainability, happiness to some degree is a choice and individuals can take control it.  The charity Action for Happiness has articulated Ten Keys to Happier Living, described here and summarized in the graphic to the right.

At BICS, we are focusing on the Virtue of Generosity for the months of March and April.  This virtue flows well from the virtues of Kindness and Tolerance which were a focus in January and February. Generosity is both an act and an expression of kindness and leads to more kindness and generosity as it contributes to the happiness of all involved – givers and receivers.

So, part of generosity is giving.  But as Ban Ki-Moon reminds us in his message of happiness for 2015 below, celebrating happiness also involves giving thanks for what makes us happy.  Therefore, we can use our focus on generosity not only to encourage being generous to others, but also recognizing the generosity of other people and our planet.  As spring is upon us and Earth Day is April 22nd, it is a fitting time to recognize how the earth so generously provides the necessities of life – food, water, and clean air.  It is a fitting time to recommit to school initiatives to reduce the amount of garbage we produce through the encouragement of litterless and boomerang lunches.

Let March and April be a time where all members of the BICS community generously commit acts of kindness, for each other and the planet, and more fully appreciate the generosity of others and the earth.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon ‘s Message for 2015:

I wish everyone around the world a very happy International Day of Happiness!
The pursuit of happiness is serious business.
Happiness for the entire human family is one of the main goals of the United Nations.
Peace, prosperity, lives of dignity for all – this is what we seek.
We want all men, women and children to enjoy all their human rights.
We want all countries to know the pleasure of peace.
We want people and planet alike to be blessed with sustainable development, and to be spared the catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Let us give thanks for what makes us happy.  
And let us dedicate our efforts to filling our world with happiness.
Thank you.

A Different Kind of Inquiry

In schools we speak of inquiry often, meaning to study an important question, issue, or concept.  Typically, inquiry involves students working individually or in small groups making use of books, digital access and speaking with knowledgeable people to learn about a topic and make meaning for themselves and possibly others.  Inquiry is intended to develop skills or competencies (thinking competencies or communication competencies for example) and acquire knowledge and develop understandings of concepts.

This week at BICS, I propose a different kind of inquiry, where each person who enters the school – students, staff, parents, and community members – ask and look for an answer to this question:  Will the school feel more welcoming and be a happier place to learn and work if each of us commits to performing at least one random acts of kindness each day?

This different kind of inquiry will not employ books, search engines or interviews; instead, participants will be encouraged to examine the relationship between cause and effect and see what effect their actions, and the actions of hundreds of others, of being more deliberate in performing random acts of kindness, will have on how they and others feel about and at school.

This February 25 is Pink Shirt Day, a day when people are encouraged to wear pink to demonstrate their commitment to eliminating bullying in schools, communities and online.  With the leadership of teachers and students, our efforts around Pink Shirt Day will focus on the virtues of tolerance and kindness.  Both in the prevention and elimination of bullying, kindness is key.

Aesop has shared, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”  Let us together find out how true that is.

The Immeasurables

Each year, many students in Grades Four and Seven around British Columbia participate in the Foundational Skills Assessments (FSAs) which is followed in the springtime by a report by the Fraser Institute ranking schools based on the results. Each year, there is plenty of talk among parents and educators as to how the school rankings capture only a part of what elementary students learn and the effectiveness of schools.

While foundation skills of reading, writing and numeracy are inarguably fundamental to the purpose of elementary education, there are frequent conversations as to the many “immeasurables” schools are responsible for that foster the well-being of children related to their social, emotional, and physical health.

In my years in education, I have noticed an increase in expectation and appreciation for schools’ roles beyond primary levels in developing the whole child, focusing not just on academic success but social, emotional and physical development as well. Experiential evidence and academic research suggest that educating the mind cannot be done effectively without a strong social and emotional foundation.

It is fortunate that as awareness and expectations of the importance of schools doing more to educate the whole child increase beyond academic development, many of the “immeasurables” are now being measured and shared with the schools, districts and communities that are responsible for the development of children.

Some of the work of measuring is being done by the Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of British Columbia. For several years, the Partnership has been utilizing the Early Development Instrument (EDI) to measure core areas of early (pre-kindergarten) child development that predict adult health and positive social outcomes.

More recently, the Partnership has started implementing the Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) for children ages six to twelve. Recently, the Director of the Partnership, Professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, spoke to school leaders in School District 45 about the MDI and the focus of this post will be on some of the results of the MDI for the community of Bowen Island.

A survey was administered to Grade Four students at BICS last spring with the intention of measuring children’s overall health and well-being. The phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is recognized in the survey so it analyzes assets within a child’s community, including at the child’s school, that support their overall health and well-being.

The assets within the school and the community that are recognized as supporting overall health and well-being are summarized (not in order of importance) as (1) supportive relationships with adults, (2) supportive relationships with peers, (3) participation in enriching after-school activities, and (4) proper nutrition and sleep.

As the community of Bowen Island considers how we are setting our students up for success, it is worth analyzing the data from the MDI – available here. The rest of this post will be divided in three sections: first, assets that promote development; second, some of the results of these assets on students’ well-being; and third, my conclusions from reading the report.

Assets

Asset 1 – Supportive Relationships with Adults

  • 97% of students report having medium to high connection to adults at school (86% high; 11% medium)
  • 86% of students report having medium to high connection to adults in the neighbourhood (67% high; 19% medium)

Asset 2 – Supportive Peer Relationships

  • 84% of students report having medium to high sense of peer belonging (68% high; 16% medium)
  • 84% of students report having medium to high level of friendship intimacy (67% high; 17% medium)

Asset 3 – After School Activities

  • 94% of students report watching less than 2 hours of television per day (22% report watching no television at all)
  • 98% of students report being on the computer less than 2 hours per day
  • 89% of students report participating in an organized activity (sports, music, arts) 2+ times per week

Asset 4 – Nutrition and Sleep

  • 97% of students report having breakfast (3 or more times per week)
  • 81% of students report having meals at home with family 3 or more times per week
  • 84% of students report having a good sleep 3 or more times per week (68% high; 16% medium)

The MDI summarizes the percentages of children reporting each of the assets in the form of a puzzle. In the puzzle to the right, the percentages include students who report “a little true” or higher to questions related to each of the assets.

Overall Health & Well-Being

The well-being index shared below summarizes student responses related to feeling happy and optimistic, having high self-esteem, general health, and little sadness. Students were asked to share their sense of these attributes on a scale of 1-5 (1 = disagree a lot, 5 = agree a lot) where average responses less than 3 were considered low, and average responses 4 and greater were considered high.

My Conclusions

In reviewing the data, there were few surprises and few alarm bells as to the assets BICS and the community of Bowen Island are offering children. The community is, in comparison with the neighborhoods in the rest of the School District of West Vancouver and the other districts in the province I reviewed, doing well. However, one cannot help but have some concern that 25% of students report low well-being.

In considering what to do with the MDI report, there are no glaring deficits or assets needing particular attention but the high percentage of students reporting low well-being suggests there is plenty of room for improvement, and regardless of result, we may as well always be oriented toward improvement.

The key takeaway for me though is not just in the results. It is that the school and community generally should be reminded often of the key assets that have been identified as promoting the positive development of children and to ensure we as a community are deliberate in promoting these assets. In many ways, the statements that students were asked to respond to are more enlightening than the answers as it is the statements in the survey (“At my school there is an adult who really cares about me.” “In my home, there is a parent or another adult who listens to me when I have something to say.”) that reminds us of our purpose and the importance of our roles in schools and communities.

It will be interesting as the survey is implemented in coming years to track progress, note trends, and identify needs of varying cohorts. It is fortunate that the “immeasurables” are being measured.

Note

This blog is not intended as a summary of the MDI report (its results or how the results were acquired) for Bowen Island or School District 45. MDI results for various districts can be found here.

Further Reading

Click here to read about the importance of sleep from Catherine Ratz, principal of Irwin Park Elementary School.

Professional Growth Plan, 2014 – ?

My professional growth plan is very much linked to school growth plans.

All schools in BC must prepare a school plan that sets one or more school goals for improving student achievement, the strategies to achieve these goals and the measures for determining success.

It is one thing to measure school growth and improvements in student achievement, it is another to trace results to causes. Schools are not science experiments where one variable at a time can be added and tested. With many teachers and many strategies all at play each year, it is not difficult to acquire data on many areas of student achievement – such as literacy skills – but tracing this growth to the strategies of teachers in a variety of classrooms is difficult.

At Bowen Island Community School, our Growth Plan, poses the question of inquiry:

Will an increased focus on inquiry-based learning that places emphasis on developing students’ critical thinking skills and self-regulation skills improve the level of student engagement and academic achievement?

The question examines the affect inquiry-based learning and critical thinking have on student engagement and academic achievement. As BICS has also focused on self-regulation, digital access for students and teachers, environmental education and place-based learning, tracing improvements in student engagement and academic achievement to any one cause is perhaps impossible; and perhaps unnecessary.

Each of the strategies mentioned above work in concert and I am learning more and more how dependent they are on one another. I often refer to the Galileo Education Network for a concise definition of inquiry. They state:

Inquiry is a study into a worthy question, issue, problem or idea. It is the authentic, real work that that someone in the community might tackle. It is the type of work that those working in the disciplines actually undertake to create or build knowledge. Therefore, inquiry involves serious engagement and investigation and the active creation and testing of new knowledge.

The strategies and approaches of environmental education and place-based learning, where students learn in the community and look at issues or problems facing the community and world, is very much aligned with the definition of inquiry as described above. Further, digital access, far from being a strategy in its own right, can be viewed more as an effort to support inquiry by providing students with as much opportunity as possible to delve deeply into a topic, beyond the opportunities people, places, and print found in the community and library might offer. Digital access also allows students to share their inquiries with others. With access to so much information, the ability to assess the reliability of information and make sense of it, core tenets of critical thinking, is vital. In this way, through inquiry, students practise critical thinking skills rather than just learn what it means to be a critical thinker.  This practise of critical thinking is core to the philosophy of the Critical Thinking Consortium, which has helped guide BICS’ work in this area.  Self-regulation, in the words of Stuart Shanker, is the ability for students to be calm, alert, and learning. It is perhaps the foundation for any other strategies a school might wish to implement.  Inquiry is pointless unless students have the capacity to be engaged.

My growth plan involves inquiring into the following questions:

  1. What does it mean for someone to be engaged in learning?
  2. What factors (culture, strategy, tactics) lead to learner engagement?
  3. How can you tell whether students and teachers are engaged and can engagement be traced to particular strategies (inquiry, digital access, self-regulation), tactics or attributes of a school’s culture?

As I begin my inquiry, I am becoming more and more aware of the challenges of isolating strategies and determining their individual impact. Self-regulation, regardless of what other strategies a school might have in place, has tremendous power to improve student achievement. But it is already bundled together with other strategies our school is pursuing. It may not be possible to weigh the individual impact of various strategies but I am looking forward to learning more about measuring results from the formidable combination of strategies at work at BICS.