Just 6 Months!

SiTE Schools Dundas | Class of 2019/20

It was only 6 months ago that Tony Evans and I began casually chatting about the idea of extending his incredible Montessori school program (Dundas Valley Montessori SchoolStrata Montessori) into the upper adolescent years. My simple pitch to him: what if we didn’t need a building?

Look at us now! Two months into our inaugural school year with 10 of the most curious, engaged, ethically-minded, creative, socially responsible, discerning adolescents I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Our place-based education approach to high school has allowed us to integrate with the vibrant community of Dundas, Ontario in a purposeful and positive way; learning spaces have included Dundas Farmers’ MarketDundas Museum and ArchivesCarnegie GalleryGrupetto, Dundas Little TheatreMcMaster University, The Printed Word, Dundas Library, and many more partnerships to evolve. Expert facilitators have included politicians, professors, authors, curators, nutritionists, scientists, entrepreneurs, social-workers, artists, and still more to come.

The Montessori adolescent pedagogy is the most progressive, value-based, developmentally aligned education system I have yet encountered. It allows for maximum flexibility and innovation, authentic student voice and choice, vertical integration, project-based learning, collaborative discussion, real-world experience, outdoor education, gradeless assessment, interdisciplinary mindsets, context-based integrated knowledge, co-construction of outcomes, and a dignified respect for the social/emotional needs of teens. I call it a living curriculum because my main role is to curate a prepared environment, observe the self-directed learning process, and adapt expectations to follow student interests. In other words, I get to help guide their life.

This has been a truly transformative experience for myself, my family, and my teaching career! I have never had so much fun innovating lessons and experimenting with new ideas. I feel so grateful and fortunate to be part of such a supportive community.

How Might We Start a School?

For those of you unfamiliar with the brainstorming and iterative process known as Design Thinking, one of its most beneficial takeaways comes in the formation of what is called a HOW MIGHT WE question. This simple but profoundly empathetic injunction really gets the creative juices flowing; it can help to organize an action plan, kickstart an entrepreneurial endeavour, or overhaul a stale vision, allowing everyone involved—from the financial team to the end product user—to imagine new possibilities in solving tough challenges and addressing needs. What started as an esoteric creative process amongst designers and engineers, eventually made its way to Stanford University education research and into the popular imagination. Shows like Netflix’s ABSTRACT, showcase the influential power design has as an integrative discipline, continuously pushing the boundaries between art and science, psychology and business, math and philosophy.

What we’ve found is that kids are especially good at following the critical and creative stages of a Design Thinking process (it mirrors their natural curiosity and hands-on experimenting instinct); perhaps why the Design Thinking mindset has particularly benefitted inquiry-based approaches, PBL, Makerspace, and STEM or STEAM prototyping programs in school systems around the world.

For educators, Design Thinking is an especially powerful tool for professional development (Cohort21 spends the bulk of its workshop facilitation on an action plan based around this process) because our world has changed so rapidly in the past few decades, the importance of innovation in education has risen to become a top priority in both public and private systems. Simply put, schools can’t afford to disengage the next generation of students into what should be their human right: a profound sense of discovery through the power of learning. We know this personalized discovery process is no longer served by traditional factory models, over-stuffed classrooms, and out-dated academic achievement-only environments. It is up to every single teacher, administrator, and education system to recognize the various disconnects in their models and redesign unique and sustainable ways to improve. Innovate or die, as the saying goes.

A HOW MIGHT WE question has at its root, all the ingredients needed to establish an environment of inventiveness and openness. The question HOW is a practical extension of WHY and forces the dreamer into more utilitarian ways of problem solving, through constraint. The MIGHT ensures this is an iterative process, of countless prototyping and drafts, of formative experimentation that, yes, may indeed lead to failure (or new ways of looking at the same old!). There is resilience in MIGHT, adaptability in MIGHT, but also a positive desire and hope for change. Finally, there is the necessary WE. Collaboration and diverse perspectives are key to any successful venture. Empathizing with your end user ensures an ability to radically alter, if need be, the purpose and outcome of the change itself. If an idea is sometimes referred to as a “baby”, than it truly takes a village to innovate one.

Which brings me to my current challenge. I’ve co-founded a school named SiTE (Situated in Transformative Environments): a Montessori high school in Dundas, Ontario. Thankfully, my co-founder, Tony Evans, 18 years ago established an unbelievable community of progressive parents and self-directed children through his two other high-fidelity Montessori schools, Dundas Valley Montessori School, and Strata Montessori Adolescent School. Why Dundas? Here is one reason:

As with any new venture that is already up and running (10 courageous students started learning with me on September 3), we don’t have the luxury of prolonged research and development phase—we are iterating on the fly! At a recent international adolescent Montessori workshop (AMI/NAMTA) I attended in North Carolina, I was reminded just how bold an endeavour SiTE Schools is when out of a group of 100 Montessori educators, only one other school had extended their program to encompass Grade 10, 11, and 12 (Academy of Thought & Industry). In fact, when I researched Canadian Montessori high schools in the Our Kids website,  I found only a half-dozen schools even attempting to tackle the senior secondary years in an authentic Montessori-style, and all of them are operating from an actual building! Have I got your attention yet?

Here is a highlight reel of the many many HOW MIGHT WE questions I’m wrestling with as I venture upon the greatest challenge of my professional career:

  • How might we create an adolescent Montessori micro-school without a traditional bricks & mortar building?
  • How might we use our unique small-town environment as flexible learning spaces that enhance subject mastery?
  • How might we partner with local business, galleries, Universities, to co-create real-world projects?
  • How might we reimagine the idea of teenagers and community for the 21st century?
  • How might we create a flexible timetable that starts at 10:00 and revolves around opportunities for outdoor and experiential learning?
  • How might we create a “quest-like” block course calendar where students immerse themselves in single subject areas for a concentrated period of time?
  • How might the daily timetable be self-directed?
  • How might we create a school of experience instead of a school of compliance?
  • How might we bring dignity to adolescence?
  • How might we enhance student initiative through purposeful work and meaningful context?
  • How might we track students or take attendance when the entire community is your campus?
  • How might we establish a tuition that is equitable and competitive?
  • How might we teach all three senior levels (Gr 10, 11, 12) at the same time?
  • How might we have one teacher to curate all subject material and use a team of experts to facilitate skill-building?
  • How might we turn every single assignment into either a group or independent inquiry project?
  • How might we create a “living curriculum” based on the personal interests of each student and the changing needs of the community?
  • How might we co-construct curriculum with students and still achieve ministry expectations?
  • How might we use socratic seminar (discussion and debate) for every lesson?
  • How might we use ONE single-point rubric to assess ALL assignments within a course?
  • How might we use an ongoing standards-based gradeless assessment?
  • How might we becomes guides instead of teachers, curators instead of facilitators, advisors instead of mentors?
  • How might we market the school with full parent/student participation?

If any of these questions relate to areas of interest you are currently considering developing in your school, let’s talk. Please consider your sphere of influence (Garth will talk about this at our 2nd F2F). I am grateful to be tackling the teaching opportunity of a lifetime and am ready and willing to be the guinea pig for all manner of educational innovation and disruption.

But I can’t do it alone. Nor do I need to.

Cohort21, developed 8 years ago as a CISOntario  incubator for 21st century PD, is a vibrant community of innovative educators who have greatly helped me these past four years develop into the disruptor I feel I was destined to be. @gnichols has mentored me through some profound life changes, guiding me towards embracing the positive inventiveness he demonstrates daily at Havergal College. @jmedved is a beacon of innovation, always rethinking the HOW from his York School perch. @ckirsh has pushed me to question ethical choices and even challenged my MIGHT to join her podcast. @gvogt is my doppelgänger, a fellow poet of pedagogy in a sea of disruptive potential. No other person could have helped steward the Discovery Day initiative at Rosseau Lake College, making it even more engaging and sustainable. @lmcbeth is the queen of Design Thinking and through her work with the Future Design School has greatly shaped how I view education and entrepreneurship. @lbettencourt and @adamcaplan will trial anything tech in the most transparent of ways, sharing as they fail forward. @nblair is my spirit guide when it comes to questioning the status quo—no one does it better or with more grace.

There are more. Too many to mention here. Past facilitators, current coaches, former colleagues, and alumni galore. Cohort21 has a treasure trove of action plans at your disposal to pillage and plunder as you formulate your own powerful HOW MIGHT WE. Make sure to steal like an artist.

Folks, this is your village, this is your WE.

Nothing Standard about Standards-Based Assessment

STANDARDS-BASED CURRICULUM CHECKLISTS

A common criticism of PBL is because each student’s end product differs, connections to the ministry of education curriculum objectives suffer. It is often thought even more difficult for teachers to properly assess these types of projects because of this summative difference. This realization led teachers at RLC to develop Standards-Based Curriculum Checklists for our DISCOVERY DAYS inquiry-based projects initiative.

We have encouraged our faculty to choose exactly 50 specific curriculum objectives from the myriad of examples each ministry document gives for knowledge and skill building. Why 50? Because less than that would be difficult to properly cover each learning strand or unit and more than that would be next to impossible to teach within a regularly scheduled semester. As Rosseau Lake College also uses a Level 1-5 Achievement Chart, it is an easy move to create both a quality descriptive rubric, as well as one that could potentially act as the entire grade book in a competency-based system. The final touch with this easy-to-administer standards-based template is a column for reflection upon which both students and teachers can record conversations and observations and link to products. I have used this column as a formative feedback and reflection activity with my Grade 12 English class. Their role was to find examples from previous classroom lectures and activities to satisfy the potential mastery of each skill. Level 5 Mastery can be further enriched by co-constructing criteria around possible 90%+ “gamified” extensions of competencies (eg. real-world connections, ability to teach the material, etc.)

By incorporating student conferences with subject teachers early into the DISCOVERY DAYS schedule, students have the ability to directly link their partial or fully cross-curricular project ideas to specific curriculum objectives. A Google folder carrying the entire faculty’s curriculum checklists allows any student or facilitator the ability to easily locate aspects of a subject area to build projects upon.

This reflective component has so far proved crucial to maintaining academic rigour with PBL and in focussing students Discovery Projects on expected subject outcomes. It also has the added bonus of increasing student autonomy and voice-and-choice around interest areas. Resilience and flexibility have been a by-product of these check-ups as many students have had to “go back to the drawing board” if their culminating project ideas didn’t satisfy enough curriculum outcomes.   

“More than one in 10 (12 percent) students educated at independent schools said they had been inadequately prepared for university. And the most common criticism was that they’d been given over-structured support at school and wanted to be more academically independent.” (Furedi, 2016) 

Big thanks to former Cohort21 alum, Ed Hitchcock @ehitchcock @SciTeacherEd for his initial work in Standards-Based Grading (watch his video here). Also thanks to @egelleny for mentioning him to me in the first place. The Power of Cohort21!

Organized Chaos

 

Nothing ever goes as planned, and that is why we teach.

Think about this statement for a second. Isn’t that what teachers do, don’t we create lesson “plans”? Don’t we try and structure learning so there is proper scaffolding of knowledge and skills in developmentally appropriate methods of transmission? Isn’t this the reason we became educators? Because the world doesn’t make sense and we are here, dammit, to help children make some sense of it!

If I dig deep into the psychology of it all, I would probably find some truth to that. Am I teacher because I secretly want control over aspects of my life I can’t control? Am I a teacher because of something lacking in my own upbringing that I want to correct? Either I was great at school and therefore never left, or I had a learning disability and now want to share my experience so no one has to struggle again.

Maybe you are one of those noble few who was so inspired by a teacher in your life you just had to join the profession, to keep the flame going. Or maybe, like me, you come from a family of teachers and this profession was always going to be the “backup plan”.

No matter the reason, at some point you will have come up against this great irony of education, the perennial bulwark: nothing ever goes as planned! And it affects all of us at some point in our career, whether you are a messy person or a clean person, a cat person or a dog person, a Beatles fan or a Rolling Stones fan. We have all reached that moment of saturation when your To-Do List needs a To-Do List.

All I can say is, thank god we are teachers in the 21st century! Whereas this statement in the recent past would have been swept under any available carpet out of shame (for some reason I’m thinking of those oval cord carpets from the 70’s), now, it is not only par for the course, THIS IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF TEACHING.

The reality of the classroom these days is, there is always something or someone going to undermine all of your carefully crafted secret plans.

Learning to surf the process of discovery, to embrace happy accidents along the way, is a 21st-century skill, for students and teachers alike. Being flexible enough to adapt strategies quickly, resilient enough to hear criticism as constructive feedback, and transparent enough to admit you don’t always know what the end dismount of that wave looks like; these are qualities far more cherished and sought after these days than a perfectly designed syllabus.

I have had the recent experience, as Academic Director at Rosseau Lake College, to witness the joy of disorder first hand. After working tirelessly for the past 18 months on developing our new whole-school, inquiry-based learning initiative called DISCOVERY DAYS, the launch day finally came this past September 29. After spending much of the last year and a half living comfortably in the Simon Sinek “WHY”, I had to shift gears very quickly to consider the Grant Lichtman “HOW”. It’s one thing to imagine what a non-traditional progressive approach to learning might look like— changing timetables, training teachers, building learning spaces, reading books and blogs, edu tweeting— it’s another to organize 100 students and 16 faculty for an entire morning of informative-yet-growth-mindset building activities. And then it rained. Actually, for the purposes of this analogy, it poured. Students were wandering around not knowing exactly where to be, or how to stay dry. Teachers were out of their element, facilitating a group of students that weren’t necessarily their own. The concept of a “How Might We…? question was met with raised eyebrows and blank pages. Some got it, some didn’t. Questions abounded.

But here is the beauty, the cherry on top, my fin de siecle. A crucial part of the Design Thinking process is built upon questions that don’t require answers, which inevitably leads to a foundation of failure. Failure, in fact, is at the very core of modern learning. We must fall down in order to get up. We must make mistakes while we prototype. Our plans must go awry.

Organized chaos, then, is that sweet spot of engagement that every teacher yearns and learns to conduct. When the noise level of your classroom is peaked, not with dissent, but with interest. When the questions just keep coming, not out of desperation but out of curiosity. When technology breaks down and your lo-fi solution produces even greater results because the shared experience is more vital. When co-constructing curriculum with students produces an idea you could never have planned for on your own. When what you have created has become something more than you could have possibly imagined and you know the next crucial step in your journey is letting go.

 

 

 

Gamifying 21st Century Skills: Part 1

 

Cohort21 continues to be a game-changer for me.

Mentally shifting my previous professional teaching experiences, from schools of well-intentioned colleagues, to this collaborative learning hive of like-minded ed-heads, has transformed my teaching practice in ways I have yet to truly reflect on. Except here:

I walked into the last F2F meeting with more than just a head-cold; I also had a head full of ideas and scatterbrain proposals from which to dump on this unsuspecting source of formative feedback junkies. My new role as Academic Lead at Rosseau Lake College has awarded me the freedom to develop areas of interest that “might” just indeed help our school move forward. Of course, almost instantaneously, the dreaded symbolic starting block reared it’s cosmetically challenged head, in oversized, day-glo sky-writing: Where do I begin?

LEVEL 1: THE WHERE

Luckily, our esteemed facilitators (@jmedved & @gnichols) and coaches at Cohort21, are well-versed in the language of stumble, and had problem-solving solutions waiting in the wings (literally, the wings of the York School hallways, used brilliantly as limbic nerve-system galleries of crowd-sourcing). The Design Thinking worksheets, sticky-note brainstorms and timed exercises, provided by @lmcbeth and Future Design School, were also a wonderfully scaffolded entry point into generative thinking, well away from the usual Saturday PD day-dreaming and doodle sessions of my past.

My original intention was to use the Cohort community as supercharged leverage for reimagining and rebooting our Master Schedule— a commitment to change which RLC (Roseau Lake College) is currently highly invested in. The unique process of design-thinking around this challenge, we began as a school last spring; with typical brainstorming results benefiting most from a speculative standpoint, with the not unusual— sometimes confusing and muddling— side effect of losing some staff through endless permutations of opportunity and critique. Ultimately, I concluded, that, as a school, we were already well ahead in unpacking this sticky-note problem— already at the prototyping phase, really (exciting stuff, TBA!)— and this being too specific a challenge, to be used as my Cohort21 action research springboard.

So, as a poet of pedagogy, as an agent of change, an adjunct adaptor of assessment, and as I am wont to do, I revised my original plan. Not changed tactics so much as I lessened the scope of my (ego)concentric circle to focus on another of my whole-school pet passion projects/peeves: 21st Century Skill Development.

1. Essential Skills from Most Likely to Succeed on Vimeo.

LEVEL 2: THE WHY

I’m certainly not the first teacher to notice the writing on the pedagogical wall; the recent paradigm shift in teaching and learning, away from content and towards competencies, has been slowly evolving over the past decade or more (http://www.p21.org/our-work/resources/for-educators#SkillsMaps). The internet is a far better provider of knowledge than any one teacher could ever hope to be. One only need look at the proliferate example of Khan Academy, how its open-source adaptive technology has enabled a whole new generation of students to effectively tech-learn numeric knowledge in a scaffolded way, previously only possible through linear textbook instruction (Khan has naturally set their sites on literacy and grammar as well: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/grammar)

This evolution is a great relief to me, I’ve never been interested in any aspect of teaching that has me churning out cookie-cutter lessons or exacting standardized assessments like a machine; unfortunately, this delicate transition has been an obstacle to some teachers who have, perhaps unconsciously, staked, not only their professional claim, but also their identity around a proven silo of knowledge and/or singular interpretation of curriculum (especially at the secondary school level). I say, let the robots take over all the deductive aspects of school and learning! The computer has already made obsolescence a fact of life in other disciplines such as banking, manufacturing, health, military— why not education? If we, as educators, want to not only stay relevant, but also stay employed in the 21st century, we need to use content to teach skills. We need to become critical and creative facilitators of deeper learning skills and life skills. We need to become Poets of Pedagogy!

LEVEL 3: THE WHAT

After much reflecting and validating (… the Discovery Process…) on a possible teaching problem, and through the integral help of a feedback partner (@vboomgaardt), I finally widdled-down my “mighty” action research question:

How might we gamify 21st century skill development, so students can track their own learning, and teachers can gain meaningful evidence for feedback and reporting?

In order to arrive at this question, I first had to empathize with TWO END USERS in my design problem: both students and teachers. TWO END USERS!?! I think that’s okay, isn’t it? Yes, I think that’s just fine. The students will, of course, be the benefactors of a more streamlined, transparent, credential-focussed, success-driven criteria program around 21st century skill development. The teachers, as well, will need to be able to adapt these competencies and rubrics into their curriculum in ways that deepen and heighten curriculum expectations. If, along the way, we can get all edtech and add an app somewhere in the mix, well, hell, as my grandmother used to say, we’re cookin’ with gas!

Throughout this iterative process, I asked around the cohort to see if other CIS schools had identified “soft skills” as a potential problem worth solving. Similar questions around competencies did indeed exist, however, the conclusion I came to was although every school reported on work habits and had even made inroads into critical and creative thinking, there didn’t seem to be a whole-school system out there for assessing competencies in an intrinsic or adaptive way. It seems to very much still be at the mercy of individual teachers, which doesn’t really signal to the students or parents the importance of this shift in education. One of the simple questions I asked my fellow teachers was this: “What is the difference between a Grade 7 collaboration and a Grade 12 collaboration when it comes to assessing work habits?”. No one was able to give me an answer with any authority or consistency. With this Action Plan, I am to change that.

LEVEL 4: THE HOW

“Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.” (p.14)

This is from Amanda Lang’s, The Power of Why. I haven’t read her book, and I probably won’t have time, sadly. Nevertheless, this quote, taken from a MindShift blog about skills education (https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/11/14/why-academic-teaching-doesnt-help-kids-excel-in-life/), resonated with my predicament.

When I arrived at Rosseau Lake College last year, they had already started a transition into a new strategic plan (Future Forward) which I am lucky to help continue to shape this year. One of the hallmarks of this plan is a personalized approach to education, using what we call a PLP (Personalized Learning Profile). Partnering with the learning and development company, LIKA (http://www.lika.ca/home2/), our students are able to approximate their learning preference through a multiple-intelligence, psychometric online test. Simply, this allows each student and teacher to see individual learning strengths and weaknesses as a visual quadrant infographic.

In addition to the PLP, LIKA has recently developed a list of 7 Skills which have already been Ministry approved and will form the foundation of RLC’s 21st Century Competencies.

These skills will be the basis for my Action Plan:

  • Self-Management
  • Teamwork
  • Thinking
  • Networking and Communication
  • Information Management
  • Learning
  • Design and Innovation

Finally, through the crowd-sourcing inspiration stage of our last F2F, I received a heap of ideas, many of them game and tech-related, to help me on my quest.

LEVEL 5: THE WHEN

It’s all happening in Semester 2. I am lucky to have both Junior and Senior Division Curriculum leads to help co-construct criteria around these skills. There is much research to conduct around badge creation, interactive motivator apps, Google Suite apps, JoeZoo, Doc Appender, and LMS systems. As well, I will be interviewing both of my END USERS throughout the process for feedback and suggestions.

A huge thanks to @ddoucet, @shelleythomas, @jsmith, @brenthurley, @jweening, @egelleny, @timrollwagen, and others I may have failed to mention, for their continued assistance, guidance, and encouragement.

To be continued in PART 2.