“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.

A New Beginning?

In January of 2005, I started my teaching career at Bowen Island Community School.  It was a temporary assignment, just six months, teaching Grade 6-7.  After leaving BICS, I taught Grade 5 for several years at Ridgeview Elementary School before returning to BICS as vice-principal in 2010 to carry on my teaching career and begin my career as a school administrator.  Now, in January 2015, I have the honour and privilege of leading BICS as principal.  So, in many ways, BICS has been a place of beginnings for me.

But will the change of principals at BICS be a new beginning for the school and, if so, a beginning of what?

At first thought, it might seem ungrateful and naïve to suggest that the school will carry on just fine without the thoughtful guidance and inspirational leadership of BICS’ now retired principal, Jennifer Pardee.  But so much of Jennifer’s work at BICS was to create a shared vision for the school involving students, educators and the community and to build capacity in staff to pursue innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  So, while Jennifer will be deeply missed by the BICS community, professionally and personally, much of her leadership has been to foster conditions for continued success after her retirement.

Over the years, I have heard BICS described as a “moving school.”  A moving school is one that has very clear priorities and where there is buy-in from staff to develop and implement strategies and tactics to achieve those priorities.  In other words, a “moving school” is an improving school.  Current research, insights from experience, as well as technological innovation, have created many opportunities for schools to move forward on several key initiatives.  At BICS in recent years, there has been a greater focus on social and emotional learning, aboriginal education, self-regulation, and a restorative justice approach to student conduct; there is increased access to digital technology, and our school iswell on its way to an inquiry-based approach to learning where students practise and develop critical thinking skills and mindset.

We are certainly not at the beginning stages of any of these initiatives but they will each continue to guide the work we do for years to come.  I will use this blog space, as Jennifer and I have done over the last several years, to write about our school’s progress.

So there is much to be continued, but there are other changes on the horizon in BC education; there are new beginnings.  The BC Ministry of Education has released a new curriculum, currently in draft form, that BICS will transition to in coming years.  The curriculum is a major redesign that articulates what students are to know and understand in a way that supports inquiry-based learning (I have written on this aspect of curriculum here), and will change the way student learning is communicated with a focus on three core competencies – Thinking Competency, Communication Competency and Personal and Social Competency (I have written on this topic here).  Our school is well-positioned to transition to this curriculum as we have been focusing on many of its core elements – inquiry, critical thinking, flexible learning environments – for years.

What students need from their education to be successful in a rapidly changing world and insights into how people learn means that the vision for BICS will continue to evolve as we strive to provide students with the most relevant and effective learning experiences we can.  But as the BICS staff is deeply invested in many initiatives, at this time of transitioning principals, at this time of a new beginning for me, consistency for the school in pursuing the initiatives in which we are immersed, in doing them as best we can, is needed.

Change is certainly upon us at BICS, but change is nothing new in a moving school.

Purpose-Giving People & Places

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Paddling in another purpose-giving place, the Johnstone Strait. Photo: Chris Parslow

Laura Magrath, a teacher of West Vancouver School District’s environmental education academy outside45, concluded a thoughtful blog post with the following statement:  “Ensure that your own educational journey is conducted with purpose.”

Several weeks ago, students in outside45 paddled from Bowen Island to Gambier Island for three days of kayaking, camping, and celebrating being outside in a beautiful part of the world.

I was not on this trip but paddled over from Bowen to Gambier with my partner one evening to join outside45 for some camp fire time before returning to Bowen later that evening.

This short paddle and time with the group reminded me of part of my purpose as an educator in helping develop outside45.

Cooperation, inclusion and appreciation were clearly visible in watching students interact.  It was apparent that students understood that one of the great joys in life is to be in beautiful places with people they care about.

Returning home, in our hour long paddle back to Bowen Island we slowed our kayaks several times and dipped our hands into the warm water to pull plastic bags from the ocean.

In just three hours on the water and in spending time with the group I was reminded quite powerfully of why experiential environmental education matters, I was reminded of the purpose of outside45 and my role in it.

I believe strongly that schools should create opportunities for students to develop deeply supportive relationships with classmates.  I believe strongly that students should be given every opportunity to love learning and that they should be exposed to learning environments that teach them about the world and who they are in it.  And we should all give ourselves frequent opportunities to connect with the natural world as such experiences remind us of how important it is that we be positive participants in the natural systems we contribute to and rely upon.

This last point particularly resonated with me.  If we deliberately and mindfully connect with the natural world, how does this affect our understanding of who we are in the world and how we are to act?  Conversely, If we do not mindfully and frequently connect with natural environments, how does this affect our understanding of who we are in the world and how we are to act?

So, in thinking of my purpose both as an educator and as a participant in the natural world, I endeavour to frequently ask myself these two questions:

(How) Did I connect with the natural world today?  How does this affect my understanding of how to live?

Jackie Hildering, a naturalist behind the website, The Marine Detective, noted after one of her seemingly daily reverential experiences observing whales, “If only more of us could feel the connection to our life-sustaining sea, no matter how far we are from her shores. We’d care more, consume less, better use our electoral and consumer power and – live happier and more meaningful lives.”

(How) Did you connect with the natural world today?  How does this affect your understanding of how to live?