Support Over Judgment

Last week, a rare amazing even occurred. One of my colleagues offered to cover two of my blocks as I prepared for a teacher evaluation. The generous offer was a real shocker but the attitude in which he gave the offer was even more remarkable. As I accepted his offer to cover one of my blocks, he said, “Jordan, I’m here to help and support not judge.”

This year is my first year in the Surrey District. I transferred over from an independent school in the fall and because it was my first year in the district, I received a first year evaluation.

My evaluation consisted of three lesson observations and one session where the principal inspects my planning, assessment records and systems of communication with parents.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working hard to come up with unit overviews for the last inspection of my planning. Because I was teaching these units for the first time, I had put most of my energy into the daily plans for each unit and not enough time sketching out the unit overviews.

Last week, I was feeling “the crunch” as the last inspection grew nearer. That’s when one of the teachers in my department overheard my nervous ramblings about the evaluation session and offered to cover one of my blocks.

The humble way that he did it took me off guard, in a good way—probably because I too often put myself in competition with others instead of supporting them in a non-judgemental way.

A School Culture of One-Upmanship

This got me thinking about the way I hold my pedagogical knowledge and what I use it for. Like other forms of knowledge, it can be used to help and support others in a way that really encourages the common good of the school or it can be used to puff up our egos.

Swollen egos cause arrogance and break down the unity of the staff by creating little pockets of competition. One teacher competes against another to show off the latest pedagogical fashions. Department begin attempting to out-shine each other. One-up-manship becomes central to the culture and petty divisions break up the school. Less is accomplished and teachers begin to feel more and more isolated.

A Story of Humble Pedagogy

The opposite is true of teachers who are humble, instructional leaders who genuinely want to help others get better.

I experienced this kind of support in my first year of teaching. I took a job teaching a Grade One class but lacked experience in the world of literacy. Fortunately, there was an amazing literacy expert whose son was in my class. Her name was Annette Trent.

Once I got over the fear of having her judge my rookie efforts, I asked her to help out with my guided reading stations. After that, she volunteered to organize my classroom library. Next, she introduced me to levelled readers, multiple literacy strategies, hands-on problem solving activities in math. Every day she was in my class, she offered words of encouragement and, even though it must have been extremely difficult, never made a critical comment about my teaching.

Another thing that made Annette a remarkable support in the classroom was her attentiveness and response to my needs. As she earned my trust, I was able to open up and ask for more help and guidance. Her suggestions were never assumed problems. They were real problems that I asked her questions about.

Great supporters like Annette lead by example. They don’t assume the location and nature of the needs. Instead, they humbly help you assess your needs and are equipped with the tools and strategies to move you forward.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Rhythms that Spark Passion Pt. 2

“Goals are about the result you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead you to those results…Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

In my last post, I started to lay out some of the micro-habit shifts I wanted to make in 2020. I started to look at my systems and processes that I already had in place decided where I wanted to make changes. I’m hoping that this post will help you reflect on some habits and routines that you would like to change in 2020.

Support Others

One of the exciting parts about my new teaching role this year is learning how to support teachers as they instruct newcomers and ELL students in mainstream classes. It forces me to ask the question, “What is going to be helpful to teachers most teachers in my school? Where are the areas of need?” These aren’t always an easy questions to answer because the needs of the teachers are so diverse. However, in 2020 I’ve started some routines that I hope will be effective.

Every week one of the clerks asks the teachers for submissions to the Weekly Forecast. The Weekly Forcast is an internal school newsletter that is currulated to all of the teachers. Lately, I’ve submitted a Forecast blurb that gives a little tip or suggestion for addressing challenges in the classroom. It’s not a big newsletter but I hope it will be an effective way support many teachers on staff at our high school.

Perhaps you don’t support teachers in the same way I do, but sure many of you are in mentoring relationships and need to put in place routines to support others. How are you going to do this more effectively in 2020?

Write in Between the Cracks

2019 wasn’t a great blogging year and, as a result, it wasn’t an effective year for improving my writing abilities. It seems like I always have a goal to write more consistently every year but hope this year will be different due to Jame Clear’s popular book Atomic Habits.

I haven’t made it through the whole book but, so far, its even better than Good Read’s book reviews have claimed. What’s going to be different this year you ask? Two words–habit stacking. Clear explains process of habit stacking in a few different steps. First, he asks the reader to identify a current habit that is deeply imbedded in their routines already. Second, simply stack a new habit on top of it. In other word, you use the well-formed habit as a cue for the next habit.

One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking. Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

One of my steady habits is to show up early for school, grab a coffee and go over my lesson plans for the day. After I complete this, I’m planning to type at least one paragraph on a blog post. I usually don’t tonnes of time during this part of the day, but I think I can carve out ten minutes to type a paragraph.

This is a very strategic writing period in my day because I tend brainstorm during my commute. When I arrive at school, my brain has typically brewed some thoughts that I could write down. The only downside of this time is that other teachers are arriving at school and I may be constantly interupted.

If this routine isn’t working I’m going to stack the writing habit on top of my well-formed habit of reading in the mornings. I’ll shorten my reading for the morning and take 10-20 minutes to write.

Build Community

Relationships happen at different levels. Some people get to know you one-on-one, others know you as part of a small group–like a soccer team or club. Others know you as a person in the same neighbourhood or country. In 2020, I want to do a better job of making use of small spaces in my day to build connection with my school and community.

This year I took a new job, working in at a high school in Surrey. One of things I appreciate about the school is the solid core of veteran teachers that hold it together. Everyone at the school has been very helpful and welcoming. One of the ways that relationships between teachers are fostered in our school is through a mentorship meetings for coffee every Friday morning. It is amazing how a marvellous mentor leader, a pot of coffee and a few timbits can help build a sense of unity and togetherness between teachers.

In 2020, want to continue building a few deep relationships but also making sure than I show up for gatherings where I can network with others and make contacts. During the last six months at my school, I have parked in different places, entered the school through different doors and ate lunch at different meeting areas and it is amazing how many different teachers I’ve got to know through being at the right place at the right time.

I want to continue to build a network of support and inquiry in 2020 in my school but I also want to take advantage of the many leadership workshops offered by the Surrey district so that I can connect with other teachers outside the school too.

I also want to continue building connections with teachers in other districts and other parts world through Twitter and self-directed professional development opportunities because each of these connections, no matter how small, represents another opportunity to learn from and invest in others

Your Habit Changes in 2020

What routines and habits do you want to shift in 2020? How will you shift them? Where will you slot them into your schedule? Even a one percent shift makes a difference over the long term–as James Clear constantly reminds us in Atomic Habits. I recommend Clear’s book and you might also be inspired by the newsletters available in the sign up link on his website.

I always enjoy reading the reflections of other bloggers. If you make a similar post, please link it in a comment for me.

Rhythms that Spark Passion Pt. 1

Explosive Habits and Routines

Last night, my wife and I were watching an episode of Carpool Karaoke with James Corden and special guest Billie Eilish. As Eilish recounted her childhood fascination with music, Corden asked her a question that caught my attention. He said, “You had a rule when you were growing up. You’re parents couldn’t make you go to bed if you were making music.” She responds, “Yup…in any form. If we were playing the piano, or the guitar, or ukulele.” Corden then ask if there was ever a time when her parents stopped her from making music because she was just “messing around.” She that her parents never did.

The Eilish music creativity rule is striking on several different levels. When I think about the number of times my kids try to procrastinate on their way to bed, I know this rule would have resulted in thousands of hours making music and perhaps some cranky children. But the part that impacted me the most was power of this learning routine. The Eilish parents are both musicians themselves and I imagine them seeing a passion for music in their children and then deciding to put rules and routines in place to nurture that passion. The result is explosive—two children who are world famous musicians.

Realistic Routines

Before I jump right into my own reflections on 2020. It might be helpful to explain why I’m framing this post as a discussion of routines and not just goals or New Year’s resolutions. The answer is simple. Only thinking about goals fails to account for the implementation or changes that will occur as a result of your goals. It also falls short of considering the complexity of your life and its all of its potential and limitations.

For example, a few weeks ago I set a goal in 2020 to read 40 books this year. 40 books may not seem like a lot but when I evaluate the importance of reading and when I consider, realistically, the amount of time that I have to read during a typical week, it seemed to fit. These type of of implementation considerations are really important to actually meeting the goals you set out. Thinking about goals in terms of the habits and routines helps us think across the whole system of our lives and make forward progress. As 2020 starts, these are a few of goals and routines I’ve been thinking about.

Brush Your Teeth

Recently, a friend of mine shared a story about an inspiring quote on leadership from his four year-old daughter. He was talking with his kids about leadership just before bedtime and he asked them to answer the question, “What do great leaders do?” He prompted his four year-old daughter by asking her to finish the sentence, “Great leaders ____________” Without hesitation one of his daughters said, “Great leaders brush their teeth.” They shared a laugh together but afterward he reflected on a nugget of truth in that statement. Great leaders do brush their teeth–they do the small things well.

Sometimes when I think about leadership, I imagine someone standing on a stage or at the front of the crowd but I don’t typically think about them keeping their desks organized or making their bed. I need to change my mindset in this regard because great leaders do make their bed. They don’t just do the big things right, they do the little things right too. Admiral William H. McRaven made this point famously in his commencement address to the University of Texas graduates saying “…if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

One area where I could do the little things better, at home and school, is my file management and desk organization. After a day of teaching my desk looks like a tornado hit it. This year, I want to take at least 15 minutes to clean off the top of my desk and make sure that everything is looks good for the next day. I want to dedicate some of this time to organizing digital files on my computer and in my cloud storage spaces. I got this idea from Todd Finley’s list of 10 Habits of Highly Successful Teachers.

Maximize Monday’s

One of my daughter’s favourite t-shirts says, “Monday has been cancelled. Go back to bed.” I laugh every time she wears it because it sums up the typical Monday morning blues so well. In spite of being massively unpopular, Monday is a key set-up day in the work week. One habit can that can make a difference in your week is making the most of your Mondays.

Personally, this means that I make sure that Saturday or Sunday is a rest day so that I don’t enter the week exhausted. It also means spending a little bit of time on Sunday looking my weekly schedule so that I’m prepared for the week ahead. This year, I want to make a habit of showing up to work early–especially on Monday–so that I’m positioned to make the most of my week.

This post is getting longer than usual, I’m going to make it into two parts. To be continued…

Header photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

Supporting ELL Students

Some of you know that I’ve started a new role as an ELL/LST teacher this year.  One challenging part of that role is helping ELL students, many of whom are new comers to Canada and have just been introduced to English.  In my context, these ELL students are ushered into mainstream, academic courses within months of their arrival to Canada.

This post is all about giving teachers some tools and ideas to support the ELL students in their classes.   Really, this is a more detailed answer to one of my most frequently asked questions, “What are some practical ways that I can support ELL students in my class?” Here are a few suggestions.

10 Tips for Supporting ELL Students

  1. Pair them up with a language buddy. Teaming up with another student who speaks their language often allows for increased comprehension of spoken language and motivation for learning. It can be a little bit tricky to have someone translating at the same time you are giving instruction but it is possible. Layout some ground rules for the translators so there is minimal disruption. Let the rest of the class know that they are permitted to talk because they are translating.
  2. Front-load vocabulary. It sounds too simple to help but providing a vocabulary list or asking students to make one before you start direct instruction phase of a lesson is important to ELL learners. ELL students don’t always need to look up definitions to these words but they often need to translate them into their own language prior to instruction. This will ensure that they can at least understand some of the key words being discussed.
  3. Provide print. This point goes along with the last one but should be underlined because of how prominent video is becoming in classrooms. Printed notes with definitions and examples, or digital copies of textbooks, are very important for ELL learners because they allow students to translate at their own pace inside or outside of the classroom. Digital notes also allow them to use powerful online translation tools like Read and Write.
  4. Provide technology. If you don’t supply many digital texts for students, make sure you supply students with technology that will help them translate the text they are reading. Using a tablet with an app like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator allows students to take a picture of English text and have it instantly translated for them into their language. These tools are especially valuable to Beginning and Developing ELL students. However, students can easily become over-dependent on translation tools at the Emerging and Expanding levels.
  5. Communicate with extra effort. Translation technology is also a very valuable tool for teachers. Translating an email into a students home language can make a huge difference! Using the “Conversation” feature on a translation app can also facilitate a small conversation with a parent or teacher. Connecting with a multi-cultural worker and communicating with students and parents face-to-face is another important means of overcoming culture and language barriers with ELL students. If you don’t know who the multi-cultural workers are, just ask your ELL teacher or your administrators.
  6. Honour their culture. Look for ways to honour the cultural background of your ELL students. Knowing the date of an important holiday, learning a few words in their language, or thoughtfully integrating someone of the same race or background into your curricular content are small ways to value a students culture. The National Film Board has some great resources to help include content from different cultures.
  7. Give them a voice. Giving a voice to students is always important but for ELL students it’s more significant. Many ELL students immigrate to Canada from very oppressive environments. Their default mode is passivity and silence. Try to draw them out and constantly encourage them to speak, ask questions and share their interests. Sometimes this requires a little coaching. Many students don’t feel comfortable putting up their hand in class but they might feel comfortable with a more subtle signal to get your attention.
  8. Give extra time and support options. Evaluations are difficult for ELL learners they often need more time to translate each word. Often LST teachers can support test taking students or provide a monitored environment where students can continue working on tests. Catch Up or Homework Clubs often provide additional, supported time for ELL students.
  9. Reach-out early. If after attempting to support ELL students in a variety of ways they are lost and overwhelmed, reach out and contact a support teacher, school counsellor, multicultural worker or settlement worker to gather information about the student and solve problems in the classroom.
  10. Don’t mistake lack of language for lack of intelligence. In her blog post about 12 Ways to Supporting English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom, Jennifer Gonzalez makes this excellent point. When a child can’t express themselves in a way that sounds intelligent, it’s tempting to make the assumption that they aren’t intelligent. In fact, many ELL students are brilliant. They often need teachers to overlook their accent, translation error or missed social cue to give them the respect that they deserve. Actually, when you think about it, ELL student are doing twice the mental work of regular students but their English output often doesn’t reflect this mental effort. You can help students by assuming the concepts are making sense even when the language isn’t. This is true, especially when concepts are made visual.
  11. Recognize the stages and phases of cultural shock. When students transition from different countries and cultures, the first few months are glorious but then there is a big dip. After about three or four months, students go through a phase where they are miserable. They miss their home foods, customs, fashion, people and language. In these culture shock and adjustment phases, they need more care and understanding. They may need a lighten workload or extra time with others who share their language and cultural background.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Moved by a Vision of Hope

One definition of “vision” according to the the Oxford Dictionary is the “…ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” The only thing I would change about this definition is to combine both words at the end of it. Imagination and wisdom are needed to create a compelling vision for the future that motivates others and give them a sense of purpose.

Attendance trouble and blurred vision

Unfortunately, many students do not have a hopeful vision for their future. A few days ago, I found myself in a meeting with one my students (lets call him Deep) and his school counsellor to discuss his course load. Near the end of our conversation, the topic changed to a discussion about class attendance. With a mere week and a half behind us in the school year, Deep had accumulated a small pile of absences.

For the next few minutes, I listened to the counsellor compassionately urge Deep to attend class but she didn’t do it in the brow-beating sort of way that might be expected. First, she questioned him about what he envisioned himself doing in the future. These questions were difficult for Deep to answer but eventually he put forward one or two things that he saw himself doing. To move toward that vision of the future, she said that it would require commitment, ownership and action. At the end of our meeting, she made Deep promise that he would attend his classes consistently for the rest of the year. He agreed.

The vision and motivation connection

Deep’s lack of motivation and purpose is a familiar story in many schools. However, this conversation helped highlight the direct link between motivation and vision. Students with a hopeful vision of the future are deeply motivated to work toward it. The opposite is also true. Those who lack vision also lack purpose and a plan for accomplishing something great with their lives.

The link between vision and purpose is as true for groups as it is for individuals. To influence a community of citizens, shareholders or stakeholders, leaders needs to communicate a compelling vision of the future. Creating a shared vision that others really believe motivates others to work hard to contribute to it.

M.L.K. had a dream. Do you?

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, American freedom fighter, Martin Luther King Junior, communicated a powerful vision of the future where he saw his four little children living and playing in a nation where they wouldn’t be judged by the colour of their skin but by “…the content of their character.” It was this compelling vision of the future that propelled the nation into an age of increased racial harmony, equality and freedom. The same is true of every individual person and student. Every person is heavily influenced by their ability to imagine a hopeful way forward.

Visions require imagination and faith

George MacDonald, the author who inspired the writing of C.S. Lewis, had much to say about vision and imagination. For MacDonald, a person’s vision was deeply tied to their beliefs about God and the nature of reality.

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect. It is the nature of the thing, not the clearness of its outline, that determines its operation. We live by faith, and not by sight.”

George MacDonald, Dish of Orts

MacDonald was a Christian and his view of living by faith is inspired by his own faith in God. However, even if you don’t think of yourself as a religious person or a person of faith, MacDonald’s point is no less important. What a person believes about who they are, their ability to see a vision about something beyond themselves is one of the most defining things about them.

MacDonald was adamant that vision-casting ability required a wise and powerful imagination. If that is true, the question becomes, “How can I develop a wise and powerful imagination in my students that gives them hope?” I suppose there are a million ways to do this but here are some ones on the top of my head.

Ways to foster a hopeful vision

  • Don’t pass over the goal-setting process at the beginning of the year. It’s not a part of your academic content but is certainly will impact learning through the year. Spend some a significant amount of time there. Make SMART goals and spend time revising them. Make sure the goals are challenging students to grow and not something they have already achieved. Come back to them at the middle and the end of the semester. Have students reflect on them and self-assess. Setting meaningful goals promotes student voice in the classroom. I’ve also found it far more productive to have a conference conversations that include both student goal and teacher goals because it shifts the focus of the meeting to include student self-evaluation and self-assessment.
  • Teach students to ask “What if..” questions and imagine the possibilities
  • Share stories about people who dreamed big and made a huge impact for others in the world
  • As you get to know your students affirm their growth, areas of passion and abilities.
  • Create a culture of “becoming” in your classroom that doesn’t focus on a perfect score or the highest grade but the developing character by admitting mistakes and learning from them.
  • Support students in their difficulties. A hopeful vision isn’t merely about the “power of positivity.” Life is hard and many of my students lives that are harder than my own. Ask how you can support your students? Follow up with them to make sure that your support is appropriate and timely.
  • Hold them accountable. One way to treat someone with hope and dignity is to hold them accountable to standards they want to achieve. Failing to to this is sometimes understood to mean that you have given up on them.

As I type this list, I know that there are so many other ways to foster a hopeful vision for students. Please let me know how you do this in your classroom in the comments below.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Visible Learning

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Visible Learning Institute in Richmond, British Columbia. Here is a summary of the event if you are interested in attending in the future.  To be honest, I’m not a huge advocate of conferences as a mode of professional development but I would highly recommend this one.   

Below,  I have complied a few of the major websites, schools and people that were mentioned during the conference.  I hope these resources will benefit those who want to dig deeper into Hattie’s writings and the professional development resources that his community is providing. 

Twitter Highlights

The Twitter hashtag for the conference was: #vancouvervl .  The Twitter note-taking was decent–there was about 50 tweets per day.  Ainsley Rose (@Ainsleybr) is a Kelowna-based member of the Visible Learning professional development team that was our presenter on the first day of the conference.  Connie Hamilton (@conniehamilton ) and professor/teacher Nancy Frey (@NancyFrey) addressed us on the second day.  Another notable Twitter mention, was Stonefield School (@StonefieldsSch).  This Australian school is one of the only officially recognized Visible Learning schools in the world.   

Visible Learning Resource Links

Corwin, the official publisher of the Visible Learning resources, has a  Visible Learning Plus website devoted to professional development.  The  resource page, linked below, has a number of articles and teacher surveys that are really helpful. 

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are the authors of many of the Visible Learning resources referenced in the website above.  Their own website also has a number of great teaching strategies and literacy resources.

Additionally, the Teachers on Fire has recently done a podcast episode with Nancy Frey highlighting her educational journey and passion for literacy.

Sebastian Waack also has Visible Learning blog dedicated to gathering John Hattie resources.  Although Sebastian is not part of John Hattie’s official Visible Learning Plus community, he has collected some great podcasts, videos and infographics that I would like to investigating further.

The Teacher Clarity Playbook is one book in a series of Teacher Playbooks that Corwin has published.  It is structured like a professional development course for teachers.  This particular one, focuses on creating successful learning intentions and success criteria for organized, effective instruction.  The video and resource page, linked below, will give you a glimpse of the topics covered in the book.  Keep in mind that the Corwin website also houses a number of PD video resources like this one–should you want to explore further.  

Have I missed any important resources that you would recommend? Please link them for me in the comments below.  Thanks

Photo by Krisztian Matyas on Unsplash

Celebrate What You Value

The culture of a school, family or organization is shaped by what it celebrates. Schools show that they value character traits or skills by putting them in their vision or mission statement or celebrating them in smaller ways. In classrooms, teachers give out treats for desired behaviour or an extra recess for a collective achievement. Schools also show what they value with year-end rewards. Recently, I was participating in our school’s reward ceremony and it caused me to reflect on how much we have grown in celebrating what we value.

When Rewards and Values Don’t Match

Four years ago, when I first started teaching at the middle school, we had a Head Masters List and an Honour Roll List that celebrated academic achievements based on marking percentages that had been averaged across three terms of the school year. Not only was this a horrible grading practice, since it didn’t take into account any growth the student had shown, but it also didn’t fit with the school’s goal to produce servant leaders.

In fact, our system of rewards was actually working against our stated goal to make servant leaders. As our staff began to reflect on the character of the students who were being rewarded with both of these academic lists, we discovered that these students were often very arrogant and narrowly focused on attaining grades for themselves.

I found that this individualist mindset was further enhanced in my own class by parents who gave out cash or luxurious gifts for high academic achievement. I also contributed to this way of thinking as a teacher by giving lots of individual assignments and grading with numerical scores that made class ranking a focus of my class instead of student growth.

Adjusting Success Criteria

A year later, we decided to replace our academic lists with a reward that was more aligned with our values. We called it, The Award of Excellence. It had components of leadership, service to the community, creativity and academic achievement. In the following year, the “academic achievement” part of the reward was revised to focus on academic growth–according to benchmarking at the beginning and end of the year rather than simply rewarding high achievers. In other words, we didn’t ‘t want to reward the strong students for being strong. We wanted to see growth in every student over the course of the year-regardless of their starting point.

The Culture Change

Over the past few years, it has been exciting to watch how this new award has transformed the culture of our school. Our Student Council has expanded, we have added additional leadership teams to help guide our House Team activities. Many different student-led clubs have emerged as students attempt to fulfill the leadership requirements of the award. Our students have been more active serving in their local communities and in other classes in our school. The transformation has been amazing!

Even though our school has lots of room for growth in changing its assessment culture, I’m proud of the growth we have achieved over the last four years. As we move forward, we need to keep asking ourselves, “Does our school celebrate what it values?” What we celebrate in our families, schools and organizations really does matter. It is a huge factor that shapes what they become.

Header photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Bringing Formal Back

One writing trend I’ve noticed in my class over the last few years is a decreased ability to use formal language in speech and written work. I’m really not sure why this pattern is emerging but I have a hunch that it is due to increased use of informal mediums of communication-like text messaging or tweeting.

Formal Style is Out of Style

I’ve also thought that the communication style of influential leaders like U.S. president Donald Trump has contributed to this gap. In his Washington Post article detailing Trump’s use of language, Bastien Inzaurralde says that the 45th president rarely uses prepared speeches to address large audiences and has become famous for informal communication style. For example, the president frequently answers questions with only two words. Two common short replies are, “Not good” and “Great people.” This kind of informal register is surprising given the president’s position and the formal, public context of most of his remarks. It also has an impact on the millions of listeners and watchers that are tuned in daily.

Is Learning Formal Style Not Important?

While formal written and spoken registers may be in decline, it remains a really important practical skill that everyone uses at some point in their life. Resumes, letters (or emails) to civic, political or workplace leaders, all require a formal style of writing. Further, the academic and specialized vocabulary that is needed to write or speak in a formal setting is really helpful for any student who will be required to do more academic writing in the future.

Lavalin Letters to the Prime Minister

Through out the last few months, our class has been paying close attention to the SNC Lavalin affair as it has unfolded in our nation’s capital. One of the many reasons that my students find this issue engaging is because one the main players, former Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould is a local Member of Parliment in the Vancouver-Granville riding.

In an effort to help my students develop some formal writing skills, develop their own voice and participate in the democratic process, I asked them to write Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter giving him their advice regarding this situation. I also challenged them to consider sending the letter to the Prime Minister to make the task more authentic. Below, is an example of one of a letter written by one student.

Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Our class have been learning about the SNC-Lavalin affair and I am writing to you regarding this case. We learned about SNC-Lavalin’s “checkered” history. We also discussed how you are worried about jobs being lost and we know how hard you are working to keep SNC-Lavalin a running company so Canadian’s won’t lose their jobs.  But I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould was doing her job right which is keeping Canada fair.

 I admire how you stood up for Canadian’s jobs and I think you took a big risk and I respect that. But I think it was unnecessary how you moved Ms. Wilson-Raybould down from her position as a Justice Minister and Attorney General. Mr. Prime Minister, according to the “What in the World? – The SNC-Lavalin Affair” article issue 7, when you took office in 2015, you appointed Ms. Wilson Ray-Raybould yourself.  Wilson-Raybould clearly stated that the SNC-Lavalin company was going to court and Attorney Generals are supposed to make decisions independent of politics. She was following what you have assigned her to do.

 I value your leadership but in my opinion, I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould did nothing wrong to be stepped down. I think her decisions and her strong opinion makes her a fair Justice Minister. I would want to see her back in her office and let her continue to do what she thinks is best for our country as a Justice Minister.

Sincerely and most respectfully,

7M Student

Another student was able to avoid using the first person pronouns and includes a few more formal vocabulary words. A sample of his letter is below.

Dear Mr. Trudeau,

On April 27, 2019, Jody Wilson-Raybould was expelled from the position of Justice Minister. She claimed that the government had pressured and harassed her with messages, emails, and calls in an attempt to get her to intervene in SNC Lavalin’s criminal case. She did not give in to the pressure, which is a just response, but you silenced her by transferring her to Veteran Affairs. SNC Lavalin did some illegal things, like bribing other countries with millions of dollars, then, instead of admitting to the crime, they tried to cover it up. Then you tried to help them avoid the crime.

If you had just admitted what they did wrong and what you did wrong, the punishments would have been dealt, and then everyone would be forgiven. Work with what you have now by apologizing to the people you hurt, like Andrew Wernick, Jane Philpotts or Jody Wilson-Raybould.

You fired Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she came forth with the messages and a call with Michael Wernick coercing her to comply. I do understand that you were looking out for all the people working at SNC Lavalin, but you tried to cover what you did, and then removed a very important person. That is very wrong. At a time like this, I suggest you apologize.


7M Student

I have really enjoyed reading these Prime Minister letters and would recommend it to other teachers as writing idea. The only missing part in this project, at this point, is a reply. I hope the students who did send their letter to the Prime Minister’s office will receive a reply from the in time to share it with the class before we break for summer.

If you have ideas or suggestions for teaching formal writing style to your students, I would be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.

Header photo by Kate Macate on Unsplash

No Time to Reflect

If you asked most teachers to give you a list of their top learner qualities, I would bet that reflective would be somewhere at the top of most of the lists.  Teachers know that reflective students can think about their experiences, identify mistakes or improvements, and make adjustments to previous ideas.

Reflection is Demanding Work

However, teachers also know how difficult reflection is.  Many students who come into my class don’t understand how valuable reflection is for learning.  Some of my brightest students view reflection questions as a waste of time.  They are looking for tasks that show academic prowess and don’t think reflection does that. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Reflection is a demanding, metacognitive task that takes time and demands sustained focus.  By metacognitive, I simply mean that it requires students to think about their thinking or learning process, make observations and come to conclusions.

The Difficulty with Stopping

Further, no meaningful, detailed reflection happens in a short amount of time. Of all the things that can be rushed at school, reflection is not one of them. It takes time for students to collect their thoughts or mentally reconstruct an experience that just happened. But stopping is a struggle in fast-paced school environments that are dynamic and future-orientated. Additionally, for teachers, there is usually a gazillion things on their ‘To Do’ list and not enough time to do them.  On top of daily tasks, there are also the government curriculum standards and content to get through.  With a constant stream of “To Teach” and “To Dos” rolling in from our phones and email inboxes, stopping our classes to allow students to reflect on their learning is incredibly challenging.  But isn’t this why it is so important? As our society and schools become more inundated with information, shouldn’t we be more intentional about having our students stop and reflect on their learning?

Developing a Rhythm of Reflection

Over the last few years, I have become more intentional about making reflection an integral part of the learning in my classroom. As I read through my report card reflections from last term, I was really proud of the progress my students have made in their ability to reflect. Here is a sample of what one of my student’s wrote in response the three questions below.

  1. What is one area where you have experienced growth as a learner this term? Provide specific evidence.
  2. What are you most proud of as a learner this term?
  3. Going forward, what is a way you would like to grow as a learner?

One area I experienced growth as a learner is taking more ownership of my learning. At the start of the term, I always did the least work possible. I always asked the teacher what the minimum requirement so that I didn’t have to do a lot of work and carry on with other things. Throughout the second term, however, I realized that if I wanted to learn, I had to be more of a risk taker and try my hardest on everything I do. Now, whenever a project is assigned, I always think “How can this piece of work be even better” instead of thinking “I’m done” so that I can produce my best work possible.

Something I’m really proud of as a learner this term is my Cool Pool project. I’m really proud of this project because my partner and I work very hard on it. Another reason I’m proud of it is because my partner and I both had an important role in making the pools. I cut all the cardboard pieces out and Rebecca glued all the cardboard pieces together with a hot glue gun. Together, we built a pool that turned out better than I expected and I learned to give other people a chance to express what they think about the project instead of just listening to my own opinions.

Going forward, I would like to grow further in taking ownership of my own learning. I can do this by thinking about how I can improve in something instead of doing the minimum requirement. I think that if I grow in this as a learner, I can produce better work at school and feel like I want to learn. I can do this by putting my mindset in the right place and thinking “How can my work be even better” instead of thinking “I’m done” and moving on with other things when I hardly tried at all.

7M Student

When I think back on my own growth in teaching reflection, one thing has made a significant difference is embedding regular times of reflection. At first, I started making informal times of reflection a more intentional part of the self-evaluation process. Then, I began to include specific refection prompts at the end of each unit.

Fast forwarding a bit, my school decided to start including student refections and self-evaluation in our report cards. This added huge value to reflection and gave more voice to students in the evaluation process. From these Term-End reflections and my own, the students and I started developing goals for the next term. Last term, I decided to include those term goals in a Goal Tracker document to help students intentionally self-evaluate and reflect on their goals three times during the term.

In the Goal Tracker document I used last term, students set two goals for the term and developed a plan to meet those goals. One goal was relational and the other was academic. The other two goals in the docuement were set by me (the teacher) and their parent at the student-led conference. In the second term, I use the Core Competencies in the B.C. Education Plan to help structure these goals. For example, if we were setting the relational goal, I would use the “I can” statements in the Social Responsibility Competencies Profiles to help the students find a goal to work on for the next term. Before the Student Led Conference, I also scheduled a short one-on-one meeting with each student to review their goals and make sure it represents an authentic challenge.

After the goals were set, I had the students post this Goal Tracker on their digital portfolio three times. Once for their initial self-assessment, again at the mid-point of the term with a reflection about their progress, and a third time at the end of the term with their term-end reflection.

As I reflected on my use of the Goal Tracker, I realized that it was a very simple and effective way of keeping the goals in front of my students and I. It also helped our class develop a regular rhythm of reflection.

Reflection Tips

  • Over-reflection is as equally as ineffective as under-reflection. Reflecting too often leads to reflection fatigue and extracts significance from the process.
  • Negative and positive exemplars are a great way to communicate to students what quality reflection looks like.
  • Reflection needs to be timely. Have your students just completed a major project or experienced a presentation that has impacted them. Take a few minutes for them to reflect.
  • Collect your reflection for the term in one place. I use Seesaw to collect reflections so that parents can read them and we can both refer back to them to track growth over time
  • Quality reflection requires high quality prompts and reflection questions. I really like some of the reflection questions on the core competencies in this resource from the BC Education Plan.

If you have some strategies to help students reflect on their learning, please add or link them in the comments below

Restoring What is Broken

When I think about the relationships I have with my family, friends, and co-workers I feel very blessed. There are so many people in my life that are passionate, happy, thoughtful and generally just fun to hang out with. Yet, even within this amazing group of people, there are times when a conflict emerges. The conflict isn’t always negative. In fact, often healthy conflict that is very productive. But when conflict has caused deep harm or hurt, there is a question about the next steps that need to be taken. These next steps can be punitive or restorative and they set the culture of the communities we live in.

Healthy Conflict

Negative conflict is so prevalent that it’s easy to forget the positive conflict exists. Healthy conflict is sometimes necessary for good communication to occur. In an article published by Edutopia, Elena Aguilar gives five indicators that a school-based team is engaging in healthy conflict.

  • They are wrestling to understand ideas.
  • They are asking questions to probe for deeper understanding.
  • They change their minds.
  • They are demonstrating curiosity
  • They are holding student needs at the center of our work.

Discussions like these ones can lead to a positive student impact and more transparent leadership. A critical voice in the discussion can help move the conversation in the right direction. In fact, healthy conflict can is often an important part of a more informed decision-making process.

Harmful Conflict

Sadly, negative conflict is all around us. I have often been a guilty participant in conflicts that are harmful. Even this last week, I had a conflict with my wife that I wished I could have taken back. I was being overly sensitive to her criticism and I responded with a harsh tone and a cutting words. As my two sons watched from the dinner table, I envisioned them talking to their mom in the same disrespectful tone that I had just addressed her and realized that I would have to apologize to them and to her to make things right again.

Large groups or organizations also develop cultures and policies about negative conflict that can be helpful or harmful to students. Whether they are harmful or helpful may be determined by the way they view the conflict.

Two Different Systems of Handling Conflict

Recently, I listened to the powerful story that Katy Hutchison told at a TEDx talk in West Vancouver, Canada where she contrasts two different models of the criminal process. The first, was a punitive model and the second, a restorative model. She examines each of these two systems to help others construct better ways of approaching conflict in schools.

The Punitive Model

Hutchison says that the punitive system of criminal process, is characterized by three major questions:

  • What law was broken?
  • Who broke that law?
  • What is the punishment going to be?

She says that this model pays little attention to the needs of the victim or the community. The emphasis in this system is focused on a just punishment for the offender. The question of rehabilitation or restoration of the criminal to the community or the victim to the criminal is a secondary consideration.

The Restorative Model

Contrastingly, the restorative model works on the assumption that when harm happens to the community, it is a violation of a relationship and the questions change significantly. The restorative model wants to know:

  • What happened?
  • Who has been affected?
  • What are we going to do to make things right?

Hutchison uses these two models to talk about how schools approach conflict on a very practical level. If the conflict is primarily viewed as a violation of relationship, teachers and administrators take a “time-in” to discover the story behind the actions. They also focus their response on how the offender will make things right in their community.

As a teacher, I want to become better at using restorative practices to respond to the conflicts that happen in my classroom, school and family. Rather than encouraging further isolation and distance with quick punishments, I want to use time-ins with students to figure out what is going on in their lives.

I would encourage you to listen to Hutchinson’s full TEDx talk (below) and hear her personal journey to restore a relationship with the person who murdered her husband. It is a powerful story of forgiveness and reconciliation.