Storify: A Year of Learning

Trust the story, and yourself – through each word and sentence – until your page is alive with the wonder of creation, until you are in wonder at the life of your creation.

(Mark David Gerson, The Voice of the Muse)

A few years ago I organized a workshop presented by George Couros.  By the end of the workshop, he had convinced (or should I say shamed) me to change my twitter avatar and “hatch” into an actual profile photo.  But he also publicly challenged me to storify the tweets shared that day.

My ego prevented me from admitting I had no idea what storify was!   So I googled and embarked on a self-guided discovery of storify learning by clicking and experimenting – “I wonder what that icon does?

Storify has become my default with respect to archiving and sharing what I have learned with and from the professional communities and networks  I am growing with as an educational consultant.

Grateful to everyone who contributed the words of insights, inspirations and ideas that I weaved into story, these are the 21 stories (and counting) of the past school year:

  1. “PSII: Forever Learners”  https://storify.com/RosePillay1/psii-forever-learner
  2. “Shatter Silos: “Teaching as if people mattered”” http://t.co/BTxN40LPhC
  3. “Inspired Learning in a World Class System – Day One” http://t.co/9swUB0eXqr
  4. “Inspired Learning in a World Class System: “Stop Making Sausage”” http://t.co/9EDdzr94nc
  5. “Building Community in a Time of Change” http://t.co/MxQzTsSokm
  6. “Innovation Zones: Estuaries of Transformation”
  7. #ATIcon: Learning Vicariously ” http://t.co/soESYCjOFA
  8. “Odyssey 2015 Langley School District Pro-D” http://t.co/PbRZBTr0z1
  9. “Ignite Night with Dean Shareski” http://t.co/I2uxOCb4pj
  10. “TEDxLangley Saturday January 17, 2015″ http://t.co/9btFPPi5Yg
  11. “Ignite: Sharing Our Stories Part I” http://t.co/JTIoLmZe68
  12. “Ignite: Sharing our Stories – Side-Effects” http://t.co/klPfEHb06X
  13. “Focus on Learning: “We’re doing this is for you.” http://t.co/MHidoe4EjX
  14. Leadership & Learning with Jordan & George” http://t.co/yXov1b9kwg
  15. Ignite the Shore SD 45  https://t.co/rB5J7TIXGO v
  16. “Larry Espe: From Tailoring to Transformation” http://t.co/IYMR6jamA5
  17. #noii2015 Passion and Purpose” http://t.co/v1E5bJ2tqm
  18. “SD36Learns: Engaging the Digital Learner” https://storify.com/RosePillay1/sd36learns-engaging-the-digital-learner
  19. “Jan Unwin: Repurposing, Rethinking and Reinventing” https://storify.com/RosePillay1/monday-may-25-jan-unwin-re#publicize
  20. #oneword2015http://t.co/EURcGQxGp6
  21. DENapalooza “Butterflies”” http://sfy.co/r0TDJ

This past Saturday I attended Denapalooza hosted by Dean Shareski.  During his welcome he called me the “Queen of Storify“.

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March 9 QUIO and FreshGrade Seminar

In March I organized an all-day workshop to introduce the high school lead learners to two (2) new pieces of software for Communicating Student Learning that supports ongoing formative assessment as opposed to other summative assessment software that is designed to crunch data and spew out numbers and letters.

We explored these two digital forms of archiving the process and products of learning: QUIO and FreshGrade (e.g. see A Window Into Learning).

During the warm-up (pre-workshop discussion), the high school teachers engaged in a pair of conversation starters including Conversation Cards and this question: “In the high school context, what is the difference between reporting and communicating student learning?

In response to the question, formal REPORTING of student learning was defined by the participants as an end-of-term, computer-generated, one-way, filed-away “official” communication of percentages, letter grades and comments from teacher to parent at scheduled intervals throughout the year for such purposes as ranking and rewarding academic achievement (e.g. honour roll or wall of “horror”).

In contrast though the small group table talk yielded this list of descriptors for COMMUNICATING student learning:

On-going, informal, real-time, two-way dialogue around understanding and mastery between teacher and student (with parents via conferences, emails, etc…) discerning and sharing “how are we going to better accommodate for student needs?” with the feedback and time for improvement. Primarily within the classroom, this organic process is predicated on the voice of the student often visualized through portfolios with minimal references to grading.

In the morning the teachers engaged in a hands-on workshop to test-drive QUIO before an afternoon presentation about FreshGrade. Both forms of e-portfolio software have noted strengths in aligning with the different aspects of the transformed curriculum, visualizing student learning, and mediating improved communication between teachers and students with parents.

Able to visualize answers to such questions as: “What does learning look like? How can we picture learning? What did you learn in school today?”, I was most impressed by the multi-dimensional features of both e-portfolios to foster much more meaningful and purposeful communication between the teacher and student with his/her family.

For example, summative reports had a 3-D feel highlighting all the evidence of learning (e.g. products, observations and conversations) that “went in to” the “mark” while formative reports were akin to “marking” without “marks” as one teacher asserted. More than a digital scrapbook of student selfies, these digital collection boards are learner-centric.

But what was most significant was how operating the apps made the individual teacher’s assessment practices and proficiencies remarkably transparent. In making the classroom walls porous if not invisible, the software showcased the individual teacher’s fluency in and familiarity with the assessment for learning paradigm.

Both the learning and the teaching are visible.

In my opinion such digital software strengthens the individual teacher’s instructional agility as described by Tom Schimmer:

When formative assessment is viewed more as a verb, teachers begin to create a different assessment paradigm within their classrooms. As a verb, assessment is instruction and teachers need not “stop” in order to “conduct.” The lines between assessment, instruction, and feedback, while still distinguishable, are blurred as a teacher sees assessment as an action or process, not a tangible. … To be instructionally agile is to understand the strategies, processes, and practices that allow teachers to have a fluid exchange of assessment information with their students in order to keep learning on track.

Presented as tools that will never replace the critical role of teachers, these e-portfolios promote a hopeful pedagogy that values learning as an iterative process. I find it to be very much aligned with the sentiments of Pope Francis:

The educational relationship of the teacher must be such that each student feels “loved for what he or she is, with all of their limitations and potential,” he added. … Similar to parenthood, at least in a spiritual sense, the Pope stressed that teaching “allows us to see the people who are entrusted to our care grow day after day.” … More than simply a job, Pope Francis said, teaching is “a relationship in which each teacher must feel fully involved as a person, to give meaning to the educational task towards their students.”

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Chairs

“In the end these things matter most:
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?”
Gautama Buddha

As educators and students entered the home-stretch towards summer holidays,
I had mixed emotions about this past June 2014.

It was the end.

For some teachers, it was the end of their rookie year. When I first met them in August 2013, I asked the first year high school teachers to complete this sentence starter: “At the end of this year, here’s how my students will remember me…

At the start of their professional career, this was their response:

“(His) class taught me a lot and went by way too quickly”
“A role model of faith & virtues”
“A teacher who cares”
“As a dedicated professional, who loves & treats each student with respect”
“As a firm, but fair, enthusiastic and caring teacher”
“As a teacher who liked to try new and exciting things”
“As someone who listens”
“Firm but fair, has a sense of humour, cares about their success”
“I am the teacher who conveyed concepts through the many anecdotes from my life, I am obsessed with coffee. And I love them. Truly.”
“Interesting, equal and fun!! … I hope!”
“Oddly funny, supportive and honest”
“They will recall learning in a fun, creative environment that was based on faith and respect”
“We learned, we laughed, we worked hard, and we had a great time.”

For others, it was the end of their teaching career. For example, I said goodbye, good luck and God Bless to my former and favorite high school teacher who retired after 36 years at my alma mater.

And I am awed by those who never want it to end; for example, my high school English teacher and former colleague who is in his 53rd year of teaching because “the fire is still burning for him in his vocation.” (see http://www.bccatholic.ca/the-news/4547-dedicated-educator-marks-his-teaching-jubilee)

With no apparent plans to retire anytime soon, I asked him on August 19, 2013 to respond to this question: “Best teaching advice after 48+ years …”? In hopes of inspiring the first year teachers, I wanted to learn why he does what he does year after year.

A day later he responded: “My favorite piece of educational advice appears in a movie, A Thousand Clowns. A “free-thinking” uncle, Murray, attempting to raise his intellectually gifted nephew, Nick, in an environment judged by the authorities to be unsatisfactory explains to his girl-friend what he is hoping to accomplish with his nephew. It’s a short speech which essentially says that Murray wants above all for Nick to be a critical thinker and to realize his potential. I cannot state with certainty the entire speech, but it concludes with the line, ‘I want him to know the sneaky, subtle, important reason he was born a human being and not a chair.’”

He not only provided an email response but somehow managed (on his summer holidays nonetheless) to find copies of the movie on video and script of the play version for me to retrieve from the school.

Here is an excerpt from the script of “A Thousand Clowns”:

“I didn’t spend six years with him so he should turn into a listmaker.

He’ll learn to know everything before it happens, he’ll learn to plan, he’ll learn to be one of the nice dead people…

I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won’t turn into Norman Nothing.

I want to be sure he’ll know when he’s chickening out on himself.

I want him to get to know exactly the special thing that he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go.

I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are,
I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument,
I want a little guts to show before I can let him go.

I want him to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities.

I want him to know it’s worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance.

And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.

A week ago Friday at the Catholic Educators’ Conference, he received a standing ovation from more than 1200+ educators as he walked to the stage for his certificate and gold ring. Before he returned to his seat, he was asked to remain on stage as the MC asked everyone to be seated except for the individuals who were taught by him. Because I was standing in the front row, I could not see who else was standing behind me.

I would later learn that my former English teacher would see empty chairs … as nearly 100 people stood up to applaud him. In front of him I stood with three generations of educators who left their chairs to thank him.

Whether at the start or finish line of your career paths, what have you learned?

Did you learn the difference between connecting with and correcting; teaching and telling; prioritizing people and pushing paperwork; teaching children and covering curriculum; learning and grading; individuals and ID numbers; human beings and chairs; etc…?

In the end it is not important what you have taught but what you have learned.

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#igniteyourstory Shark Sisters

“Conversation. What is it? A Mystery! It’s the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest, of pleasing with trifles, of being fascinating with nothing at all.”
Guy de Maupassant

Next week Wednesday February 11 will be Ignite Sharing Our Stories inspired by Ignite Your Passion for Discovery hosted by Dean Shareski.

Reflecting on my own experience at #yvrignite this past November, what advice would I give to first time Ignitees?

Advice #1: This is the door prize I won that evening.  It’s a novelty flash drive. (Not actual size.) Why? Because I was the first person to say “hello” to one of the organizers. (I didn’t know it at the time. I just looked for the most friendliest face in the crowd.) Don’t get me wrong: it is not in my nature to walk into bars and engage complete strangers. But the magic of ignite for educators is the opportunity to grow their professional network. So just for that night, ignore your mom’s advice, and talk to the other 79 “strangers”. Would it not be interesting to learn why they chose to be here on a school night?

Most likely you will learn something (practical, personal, or professional) from one or more of the fifteen fascinating storytellers or Igniters.  However I would encourage all Ignitees to make the effort to learn the name of someone whose story you have not heard (… yet).

As for me at #yvrignite, I said “hello” to inspiring Ron Dorland @rondorland who is now  part of my twitter community (thanks to @hughtheteacher for the introductions).   Several weeks later I would hear him present at #sdlearns Teachers are Superheroes:

Disclaimer: saying “hello” is no guarantee of a door prize.

“Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”
Mark Twain

Advice #2 and #3: The second shark USB went to my friend Tammy (I worked with her on the first ever TEDxKidsVancouver and we’ve stayed connected through twitter and random EdCamps). She won her USB because she was the very first person to register for #yvrignite.

Huddled around the bar tables listening to the amazing speakers, people were avidly tweeting about their experience.

At one point during the night, Tammy turned to me so happy that someone had retweeted and replied to one of her tweets.

She asked if I knew the tweeter: his handle was @GabrielPillay1. Of course I did: he’s my brother.

Then I pointed out to Tammy the man seated to my left and introduced Tammy to my brother!

The irony of communicating in the virtual world with someone who was seated just a few feet away was not lost on us.

So two more pieces of advice from this anecdote:

(1) Tweet: pick up your device and use #igniteyourstory to tweet-all-about-it: share your learning (including photos) with those who could not attend and

(2) Talk: put down your device between presentations, stop tweeting, start talking and make face-to-face connections with your PLN.

For example, because I made the effort to connect during the breaks at #yvrignite, I was rewarded with the opportunity to meet, thank (and hug) the remarkable Kristi Blakeway @kblakeway for her poignant reflection:

In the end #igniteyourstory is all about putting the “social” into social networking. It is not just about friending and following but making connections and having conversations in real-time, in person.

“I call this “permission networking”. My network is not the list of how many people I know. The strength of my network is how well everyone on the list of people I know, knows each other. Most people don’t know this important principle.”
― James Altucher

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Clutter

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
― Albert Einstein

IMG_20150115_115005~2Monday March 2 will be my first day of work in a new office building. After eight years, I will move into a space without walls. Working outside of the safety of a silo, I will learn to navigate an open work environment.  It will be challenging given my propensity to surround myself with mementoes and memorabilia.

In the coming weeks, I will pack up my belongings removing all that personalized my place within the office. Much of my “personality” will find its way into permanent storage never to see the light of day because of the new “clean desk” policy and décor guidelines.

Looking over my corner cubicle filled with trinkets and treasures, I am anxious about living in a sanitized, soul-less (and much smaller space). Perhaps I am being melodramatic but I will miss the colour and the clutter.

When I look at the knick knacks, I see a community of people who have shaped me.

IMG_20150115_114841~2This is Michel. I received this broken branch from him during a hike around Loon Lake.On a scheduled break during the Called to Serve Retreat, Michel suggested that a group of us take a walk around the lake. To my horror I soon discovered that “walk” means “hike”. And not being prepared to create trails through the brush, I hiked with my hands and feet. And on one unfortunate descent through mud, I hiked on my rear end. But when we had to go uphill it was then that I learned both figuratively and literally that my friend and colleague, Michel, would always have my back. He pushed me (or part of me) up on our walk/hike. He gave me this stick as a souvenir of our shared journey.

“I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map… I have lost myself though I know where I am.”
― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

IMG_20150115_114854~2This is Diana. I worked with her for one remarkable year before she embarked on her path to school administration. As consultants we shared the wall dividing our cubicle spaces. But as kindred spirits sharing similar personality traits and dispositions, we gave each other the permission to be our true selves. Living authentically and laughing out loud, we were like spinning pinwheels in each other’s wind. Diana taped her actual pinwheel to peek above our dividing wall and every time inspiration struck her I could see the pinwheel spinning. I think that everyone needs to find a place where his or her pinwheel spins.  Who spins your pinwheel?

“There are times when friendship feels like running down a hill together as fast as you can, jumping over things, spinning around, and you don’t care where you’re going, and you don’t care where you’ve come from, because all that matters is speed, and the hands holding your hands.”
― M.T. Anderson, Whales on Stilts: M. T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales

IMG_20150115_114731~2 IMG_20150115_114715~2This is Ian. He was a teacher at one of the high schools I support as an educational consultant. An amateur astronomer, Ian brought his love of space (and a home-made fully functioning telescope) into the classroom. It was always a learning experience being invited into his classroom. When he decided to move his family to Alberta, he gave me this photograph of the Heart Nebula with this handwritten note on the back: “You have such a big heart so I thought I give you a simple reminder of core education requirements.” What we do is heart-work.

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
― John Lennon

IMG_20150115_114818~2This is Eliza and her husband Ramone. Over the years my desktop (software and hardware) has troubled me such that even tech support is “impressed” by the inexplicable things that happen. One computer technician suggested I get an exorcist. However when the internal clock started going backwards even after resetting it, I thought I had lost my mind. I kept getting stuck in the past. It was as if I was in an episode of Dr. Who. Unbeknownst to me, Eliza one of the administrative assistants told her husband about it. A few days later these novelty pens and buttons arrived as a gift from her husband all the way from San Francisco. Apparently my corner cubicle could be my very own Tardis?!

“I do think there’s always a way to put things right. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, I wouldn’t eat breakfast; I wouldn’t leave the TARDIS ever. I would never have left home. There is always something we can do.”
― Paul Magrs, Doctor Who: The Stones of Venice

IMG_20150115_114756~2This is the server from the pub next door. To celebrate the end of the annual conference that we host for 1300+ teachers, the chairperson treated our entire office out for lunch next door. Because we were a large group, our food was arriving at staggered times. Passing the time, we amused ourselves with our place settings. I showed off my skills at folding paper napkins into paper boats or hats. People were so impressed they didn’t know what to say. Really. At the end of lunch, our server returned with the bill for the chairperson and two gifts for me: a rose and a swan. Needless to say I was touched by his surprising but sweet gesture. Imagine how many smiles you can generate through the simplest acts of kindness?

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
― Henry James

IMG_20150115_114802~2These are my favorite teachers (past and present). Chalk Chuck reminds me that teaching is not about the tool, technology or textbook but in whose hands those things are held. No matter the debated changes to 21st century learning there are things that must remain constant in teaching. My favorite teachers taught children not curriculum.

“What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Witch of Portobello

IMG_20150115_114949~2 IMG_20150115_114957~2This is Jackie (with Justine and Diana). My catchphrase is “I’m on fire!” when inspiration hits at the office. Sometimes I get myself so excited that I will walk over to Jackie’s office and she will take out her make believe fire extinguisher so that I don’t burst into flames from the internal fireworks of ideas, inspirations and insights. One morning I walked into my corner to find I had a “visitor”. Not only do I have my own catchphrase but thanks to the creativity of these women, I now have a fireman mascot (donated by Diana’s son), a logo (Jackie’s sister Justine created it) and an anthem “Girl on Fire”.

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.”
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

imageThis is Sheena. Our end-of-year Hawaiian-themed staff party was hosted by our associate superintendent who recreated a luau indoors. To that end, she suspended fake palm trees from the ceiling. During the party I encouraged people to take fun photos under the trees. The following Monday I found my corner cubicle converted into a tropical oasis. No one is an island when you have such fun friends?!

“Give me the discipline to get rid of the stuff that’s not important, the freedom to savor the stuff that gives me joy, and the patience not to worry about the stuff that’s messy but not hurting anybody.”
― Vinita Hampton Wright, Simple Acts of Moving Forward: A Little Book About Getting Unstuck

These vibrant keepsakes keep me company as visual reminders that I am never alone in my corner.  This collection of connections are reminders of who is in my corner.

IMG_20150113_160703~2 IMG_20150113_160648~2 IMG_20150115_115054~2 IMG_20150115_115113~2

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Match-Maker

“Leadership is by contribution not position”.

Dr. Linda Kaser and Dr. Judy Halbert

At the end of January, I was privileged to participate in a workshop facilitated by the Ministry of Education Learning Division called Transforming BC’s Education System: Innovation Partnership.

At the start of the morning small group discussion, we went around the table introducing ourselves by name and title.

Over the seven years of stating: “Rose, Educational Consultant”, I have come to expect the inevitable question: “what do you do?” However this time around my introduction was met with an assumption: consultant = expert (know-it-all). Nothing could be further from the truth of my lived reality as a professional learner.

Given the narrow and often unflattering descriptions of consultant, I would much rather abandon the title.

In the support I offer to the nine high schools I serve, I have a potpourri of roles.

Two years ago August I wrote in Cause Conversation:

In introducing myself as an educational consultant to the high school teachers, I summarized my role as “causing conversation” about the why and how of what they do as teachers. Deliberately working to help teachers “hit the pause button”, I function to coordinate and/or facilitate professional development that honors my colleagues as reflective practitioners. Whether I “cause conversation” by coordinating workshops and in-services or enjoying casual discussions over a cup of coffee in the staffroom, I more often than not will use something recently ‘fished’ out of the twitter ‘stream’.  An avid lurker n’ learner who’s mastered the art of “catch and release”, I have retrieved current, relevant, thought-provoking articles, blog posts and YouTube videos. Using these insights, ideas and inspirations, I hope to “cause conversation” about learning, teaching, grading, assessing, reporting, etc…

Subsequently, I see myself as a “conduit” for information channeled between schools, the superintendent’s office and the Ministry of Education. Moreover as a “cross-pollinator/idea-magnet”, I tend to the proverbial grapevine of professional practice between classroom teachers: “drawing references and ideas from so many different disciplines and areas of thinking… bring together those ideas and dots that can upend and revolutionize the current level and way of thinking…” (@DCulberhouse).

Travelling from school to school, I am a good news “gossip” or “changent” procuring and passing around innovative ideas and practice: “Changents see conversations as transformational events, a forum where knowledge, ideas…and the seeds of change are planted. Where the reality is pushed on towards the vision…” (@DCulberhouse)

Learning with and from the high school Lead Learner community, I am a “provocateur”:

When I visit schools, I usually tell people that I have a really easy job, I’m a “provocateur,” which is great work when I can get it. … I might pass along ideas, I might even frame ideas in new ways, I might bring new eyes to the scene, but the real work, the real heroism, lies in those teachers, principals, librarians, aides, et al who do the work – who take the risks to change things for kids. And simply put, it is us, it is us, who will do this. Revolutions led by people in power can be “good” .., but they will not be fundamentally transformative. That can only come when ordinary people realize that all of us have the capacity to do extraordinary things.” (@IraSocol)

After lunch we divided into three groups to brainstorm practical ways to engage classroom teachers, post-secondary institutions and community leaders in the Innovation Partnership. How do we make visible innovative teaching? How do we make classroom walls transparent? How do we share, shape, strengthen and shift practice? How do we shatter silos of excellence to create a community of collaborative practice? How do we move from soloists to symphony? How do we move from maintaining status quo to mobilizing change?

From virtual to face-to-face meetings, we recognized various ways in which teachers are coming and growing together in their practice. Consequently, we need to engineer/design places and spaces for conversation, connection, and collaboration. In summarizing our multi-point list of ideas (and with Valentine’s Day just two weeks away), our “Aha!” moment was “professional match-making” or “Ed”-harmony (hopeful this is not trademark infringement).

Significantly, it was a moment of serendipity for me. Professional Matchmaker. Given that my work is rooted in and builds relationships, it pretty much summed up my evolving role in connecting colleagues to ideas, others and one another.

Like a professional matchmaker, I agree with Paul Britton (above) and Bill Powers (below) that I need to introduce (match-make) my colleagues to people (and ideas) who will complement and not just compliment them. Creating a thriving community of educators is not just about finding chemistry but a culture of creative combustion, too.  In making connections between colleagues, it’s not about building a mutual adoration club but moving ahead collectively.

“In order to be different, to innovate, we must be uncomfortable with ambiguity and this will help lead to creativity and divergent thinking. Divergent thinking in itself leads to “thinking outside the box.”… Thus we continue with convergent thinking so as to be ‘right’ and follow along with the group. … So, as we move forward we know the future is impossible to predict. We know the jobs we are preparing our current students for most likely do not exist. So, we must provide our students and staff time to think and the space to create. We need divergent thinkers to begin to create, explore, and fail.” (Bill Powers)

At the end of the whole day workshop, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation from an Executive Director of Schools. He wanted to connect me – a Consultant – with his new Director of Learning. In playing “match-maker”, the Executive Director looked beyond our titles and positions to what we could learn from one another.

Does the title define us? Or do we define the title?

A consultant by any other name …

IMG_20150130_150755~2~2[1]

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Lead Learners

When leaders create an environment where experimentation, exploration, discovery, creativity and innovation is embraced and nurtured…we are opening the door to make the transition from small pockets to scalability and organizational impact. (D. Culberhouse)

In January 2009 I embarked on an edu-venture with a group of nominated teacher leaders from the nine regional secondary schools. Up until this year we were the AfL Team navigating through the complexities and challenges inherent in implementing Assessment for Learning into their everyday practice. Like a support group, the AfL team met regularly to share their insights, struggles and successes. Through seminars, professional reading, workshops and field experiences, the monthly sessions serve to disseminate, demonstrate, discuss and discern current and relevant “Big Picture” ideas.

Now five years later we have rechristened ourselves as Lead Learners. In renaming ourselves, we have redefined our mission and vision: “We strive to make schools a more engaging, motivating, and inspiring place for students to question, explore and learn. As teachers we are life-long learners, inquiring and learning alongside our students.”

“As we move forward, we have to determine if we are vainly putting all our efforts into one seed and hoping it is enough for everyone…or are we spreading a variety of seeds to raise a crop that will nourish and grow the whole of the organization for the long term.” (D. Culberhouse)

In revisioning the goals of this learning community, I invited the current AfL team members to reflect on three questions:
1. How has your participation in the group affected your professional learning?
2. What has changed in your school as a result of your involvement in AfL?
3. What will improve the effectiveness of the group moving forward?

I was impressed and inspired by the candor of the written anecdotal feedback provided by the fifteen teachers. While it may not be statistically sound, their responses spoke volumes about the efficacy of teacher professional development: what works, what doesn’t?

How has your participation in the group affected your professional learning?

  • “They have opened my eyes to what this vocation is all about and have helped me transform into the teacher that I have become today”
  • “Personally the group has ignited a spark within me. Essentially the group has set a passion for learning with me.”
  • “It feels like a book club that challenges the status quo and challenges the system to look for change”
  • “Coming together has been the best Pro-D in my 27 years of teaching”
  • “This has been some of the best pro-D I’ve ever done”
  • “It literally changed the way I deal with assessment”

In articulating their response, I was intrigued by the verbs and adverbs they chose to define their experience. For example, affirmed/affirming/affirmation; appreciated; benefited; challenge/challenged/challenging; changed; encouraging; ignited; improved; inspired; invigorating; opened; refreshed; shaped; strengthened; stretched. What if these words became the criteria by which Pro-D was evaluated?

And these were some of the powerful statements on how being part of a learning community is a moral imperative if not a professional obligation:

  • “commitment to professional learning based on topics that originate from these meetings”
  • “I am more critical of myself as an educational practitioner”
  • “I think that most of our teachers see that their practice must change to reflect what we all are doing otherwise our students will being to call us out for not keeping current with what is happening”
  • “It has forced me to be brave and set out of the box a bit”
  • “It is easy to get trapped in my own ‘silo’”
  • “It’s easy to stagnate without professional discussions”
  • “This group has made me accountable for being up to date on best professional practices”

What has changed in your school as a result of your involvement in AfL?

“So we plan and plan in preparation to plant this one big, giant seed, in the hopes that it will grow big enough to support the whole of the organization.” (D. Culberhouse)

Over the years we welcomed into our assessment conversation the experience and expertise of Jan Unwin, Chris Kennedy, Pernille Ripp, Jonathan Vervaet, Aaron Akune, Tom Hierck, Brooke Moore, Jacob Martens, Tom Schimmer, Rod Allen, Sharon Jeroski, Jeff Hopkins, and Nancy Walt. As individuals, the teachers have benefited personally and professionally from being connected to a larger educational community.

To varying degrees based on their growing confidence and competence, the participating teachers functioned as liaisons between the Superintendent’s Office (represented by the Secondary Educational Consultant) and his/her School Administrator.

  • “… make me an important resource to my colleagues”
  • “It has given me a voice of leadership within the school.”
  • “With the staff knowing that there are AfL team representatives gives them leader to approach about questions, research articles or recommended books.”

As the designated “heralds” of AfL, what effect have they had on their own school staff? Overwhelming the teachers noted how the relationships and conversations between teachers were positively influenced by his/her participation. For example, teachers reported on the healthy and focused dialogue about assessment within the staffroom and between classrooms:

  • “Conversations! Even though not all staff are on the same page yet when it comes to AfL, regular, daily, critical, cross-curricular, and informal conversations are taking place between all staff.”
  • “It has also helped me by giving me the language necessary to discuss with colleagues at work.”
  • “Our ability to not only speak to change, but gradually commit to ensuring change happens”
  • “Teachers are in constant conversation about assessment. It is no longer a report card period discussion. We have stopped giving zeroes. There are no mark deducted for lateness. Our gradebooks are open and evolving. Students have the opportunity to improve via tutorials and re-dos! And our re-dos are improving!!!!”

What conversations are happening in your school, staffroom, classroom?

Not only do we invite guest speakers, but we research and read articles, blogs, and essays written by leading educators and researchers on current best practice. It is also valuable to note that we exchange and share our own successes and challenges and learn from one another. This could be an informal round table discussion or an organized, collaborative school in-service. Collaboration has been central to our learning. We are shattering silos!

What will improve the effectiveness of the group moving forward? Team members made the case for 100% commitment from their administrators and each other. “The effectiveness of this group is founded on how each individual teacher is approaching change, learning and research” but “we should be wary of transforming into an island, yet rather strive to become more of an artery and capillary system”. Being accountable for their learning, team members acknowledged the need for scheduled and dedicated time to debrief with administrators and share with their staffs. Of the many benefits of being “in the know”, teachers identified that they “no longer feel isolated from (the) district office; it feels like we are in a partnership and always there to lead each other.” This cyclic form of professional development is rooted in and fosters relationships. But as in all relationships, it requires the investment of time and open, honest communication.

“All organizations have pockets of creative and innovative excellence…the heavy lifting of leadership is bringing that excellence to scale.” (D. Culberhouse)

Privileged to learn with and from them, I am eager to see how the Lead Learners’ professional learning community will evolve. From formation (i.e. working on individual teacher growth plans) to information (i.e. keeping up with the paradigm shifts of the new curriculum), I am excited to see how we will get to transformation.

I know what works for our PLC; for example, keeping and being in the current; collaborating with the larger educational community; and contributing to critical conversations. The challenge is in finding practical ways to enable if not amplify these critical connections within and between the school communities. For example, providing Lead Learners with the time to learn and share their learning?

As Fritjof Capra shares in the ‘Web of Life’…“In nature there is no “above” or “below, and there are no hierarchies. There are only networks nesting within other networks.” (quoted by D. Culberhouse)

Perhaps the “fractal” is an appropriate metaphor for the effect of Lead Learners on his/her school community? Like the creation of galaxies, hurricanes and seashells, perhaps repeating the Lead Learner design at the school level will lead to transformation?

Perhaps it is as simple as giving time for teachers to talk about what matters?

What if transformation comes from tuning in (to relevant research) and turning to (your colleagues as critical friends)?

What if educational change means looking through windows (i.e. what’s working out there?) and looking at mirrors (i.e. what works here?) simultaneously?

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