Trying for two way

So I have been diligently blogging every week for about two months now. Pressing “post” is always a nerve-wracking moment, and learning how to connect with this tool has been a great exercise for me in new media. I am finding in my everyday life inspiration for this writing activity; while reading the paper, driving, listening to the radio, or talking to people in our community about the national organization, I constantly make notes that say “blog” in my notebook. But, as someone who is always seeking to use my time effectively, I admit, sometimes I wonder if this blogging is time well spent?

I did some investigating. Google Analytics tells me that hundreds of people are reading the blog, which is scary and exciting. There is no way my mom and dada can click on the site that often, right? And other people in our community are successful bloggers – our recent Social Media Survey reports that my blogging routine is similar to approximately half of the Heads in our schools. So I’m doing the right thing. But I also know that I set out to engage others through blogging, and I was supposed to be entering an on-line educational conversation.  By most definitions, conversation is two-way.  And so I look at the number of comments I have received and see that there is a resounding one.  Although many people email me about the blog, so far, only one person has braved the world of comments – God bless Barb Smith.

Today we posted the Social Media Survey Report, and we are hoping that our schools find it useful as they too begin to navigate the world of social media.  Dawn Levy, from Lower Canada College, was the lead researcher and collaborated with Finalsite to produce the report.  I happen to think the findings are very interesting and that the recommendations and resources, in particular, are super helpful to schools.

But what do you think?

ps – here’s the link to the survey:

Mining for Gems

“You don’t know the answer”

Twice in my teaching career, I have confronted with this statement by a student. In once case, at Napanee District Secondary School, I was teaching Design and Technology in a shop. Not only did I know very little about the basics of carpentry, but I barely knew how to work the various saws and machines that I was entrusted to help my students to use. At least once per day, I would have to call on an available teacher to come in to rescue me from their questions. God bless today’s young teachers who willingly teach outside of their area of expertise!

The second time was at Lower Canada College where my grade ten students studied Macbeth.

This time I knew the content inside out and there was no dangerous machinery.  But I wanted the class to really examine big questions, and I was interested in the best approach to critical thinking and creativity.  So the IT department and I collaborated on a Multimedia Macbeth project, and the students made a website that included videos.  One day, pretty early on, the kids caught on to the fact that I was not an expert at making videos or websites.  But this time, I suggested they turn to one another for help.  Although there were often two adults in our classroom, we started using the “Ask three before me” rule for questions, and the room became a buzz of learning.  I witnessed the truth in the statement that students learn mostly from one another.

So both times I was unsure of myself – what was I doing in front of the class when I didn’t know the answers?  Should I admit to not knowing?  Was I expected to know everything?  Was I really getting paid to let students teach each other?  What were the implications of sticking to only those lessons where I did know everything (other than those days were short in number….)   I remember feeling a mixture of exhilaration at being in the midst of creation and yet total fear of not wanting to let my students down.

In both cases, I swallowed any sense of pride left in me and together we eventually found answers to questions.  I got pretty good at that, actually, and soon I enjoyed the process of asking and answering questions with my students.  Together we created their projects, and, dare the teacher say, together we learned.

Good teaching involves taking these kinds risks in classrooms.  But great teaching – and here is where I stop using my situation as an example – goes above and beyond.  In addition to knowing your students well, it involves determining essential questions, planning thoughtful lessons and assessments in advance, and most importantly, reflecting afterwards.

The reflection part is essential.  Great teachers spend a great deal of time debating how to help students learn as effectively as possible – how to teach students both in and out of the classroom.  With all of the changes to students’ lives and research on learning, one constant remains:  teaching is not easy.  And so when you find great teaching, you’ve found gold.

When the idea to reflect on exceptional practices in teaching and learning was first introduced, many people were eager to explore this project.  What can we learn from the best independent schools in Canada that might influence teaching and learning?

For over 20 years, school accreditation included an Internal Evaluation Report prepared by the school, a Visiting Committee review, and a Visiting Committee Report validating what the team read, saw and heard at the school.  Two reports per school were housed in the national office in big steel cabinets that remained locked at all times.  What could be learned by opening these cabinets and mining this data?

Jackie Copp and Barb Smith, two academic leaders and passionate educators, had both recently retired when I met them to discuss the possibilities of researching the reports and sharing the results.  They had both participated on a number of accreditation reviews and had been recognized for their passion for teaching, learning and research.  But they had never met.  Over the next two years, they worked based in Winnipeg and Toronto with occasional face-to-face meetings.  They read reports, researched, surveyed our member schools, sought agreement from all participants, summarized what was important to them, and went back and forth sharing their ideas and reflections.

This book focuses on the themes that emerged from their readings of accreditation reports from the past three years.  The beauty is that teachers wrote about their work, and then a group of teachers observed classes and confirmed the findings.  Therefore, this is a collection of exceptional practices of our great teachers as described and confirmed by our great teachers.

Our hope is that educators will read and and reflect and share with other teachers, so that we are all engaged in a national collaboration to enhance excellence in teaching and learning across Canada.

PS – Order your copies now at

In memory of Jack Windeler

I was driving into Toronto on my way to a meeting when my daughter called, crying because her backpack was missing.  Turns out, while we were sleeping, someone broke into our car, grabbed her backpack, emptied it on our neighbour’s lawn, and from our garage, stole some beer to put into the backpack and took off on my son’s bike. She was inconsolable and as I hung up the phone and walked into Jim Power’s office, (who, for those of you who don’t know, is the Head of Toronto’s Upper Canada College).  I had to stop, take a breath and refocus. My heart went out to my poor daughter’s tears as she, in her nine year-old innocence, was forced to come face-to-face with the cruelty of human beings and the selfishness that governed some people’s behaviour.  I knew this would be a tough lesson in life for her and that it would be important that she respond not in anger, but in empathy for people whose lives are so miserable and misguided, that they would think it’s okay to steal and ruin other people’s property.  I’d have a mothering challenge when I got home that night.

So I was prepared to be somewhat distracted throughout my meeting at UCC.  But the person I was meeting with made me stop ruminating on my domestic travails.

Eric Windeler is the father of Jack who died of suicide last March during his first year at university.  Since then, his family has learned that Jack suffered from mental illness and they have worked tirelessly to understand more about mental illness and suicide. Their journey has helped countless other parents and educators to be more aware of the potential for this kind of tragedy in their own lives.

Eric explained:

“We have learned  first hand how invisible mental illness can be. It is hard, at first, to understand clearly that mental health is another illness that can kill, just like like heart disease or cancer. Gradually, we have accepted that symptoms of mental illness are no more under the control of the sufferer than are the symptoms of a ‘physical’ illness. In the case of mental illness, the brain is the organ that is ill. In some cases, so ill, that the painful symptoms can include an overwhelming and all-consuming desire to end your life – in order to stop the pain.

We have also learned a lot about suicide. Sadly it is the second leading killer of youth next to accidents of all kinds. Further, it is generally accepted that the stats on suicide are understated, likely greatly understated. This is for many reasons – not the least of which is the stigma and pain associated with admitting a family member took this decision. We have also learned about the societal discrimination that is borne by the sufferers … only 30% will even seek help due to the associated embarrassment, stigma and discrimination. We have heard first hand from numerous current and former sufferers who have told us their personal story of how hard it is to ask for help, and the difficulty that exists to even get help from the system as it is today. We know that only as the stigma around mental illness and suicide disappears will there be proper support for people suffering these forms of illness.”

Suicide has been growing among teens.  In a recent survey of 15,000 grade 7 to 12 students in British Columbia, 34% knew of someone who had attempted or died by suicide; 16% had seriously considered suicide; 14% had made a suicide plan; 7% had made an attempt and 2% had required medical attention due to an attempt.  Some look to the immediate triggers such as bullying which can cause the depression that might lead to suicide.  There are many other possible triggers, but the underlying mental health of the individual is what we as parents and educators must be sensitive to so that the right kind of intervention can take place and a child can be protected as he or she heals from this horrible illness.  It’s too easy to say that the miasma of adolescence and young adulthood with all the dramas and hormones and confusion that we experienced at that age, is simply a phase to be got through.  Sometimes, it isn’t.  Sometimes, it’s much more than that.

SEAL Canada examines health and safety in a school environment as part of its accreditation process and has attempted to put in place standards that will help schools identify and manage potential problems that could lead to the endangering of a student’s wellbeing.  That includes bullying and other activities that might imperil a student.  We also encourage teachers and staff to receive training in identifying and dealing with behavioural problems that could lead to more serious outcomes.

After talking with Mr. Windeler, I feel even more strongly about emphasizing this aspect of accreditation and raising awareness about these issues that as he says, can be so invisible on the surface, and so utterly tragic if not discovered.

I don’t know if the people who broke into our garage and took our things are anything more than rotten kids, or if maybe they suffer too.  Maybe they’ve been bullied at school or abused at home.  Maybe they are acting out of some source of pain that they simply don’t know how to express. That would be the discussion I’d  have with my daughter that  night. After I’d held her in my arms for a very long time.

“In Memory of Jack Windeler” is a video produced this summer to get the story out to all youth and parents.  It was shown at Queen’s University this summer as part of their training program for residence dons and orientation leaders:

Jack’s passing is a tragic story, but it’s also an important story that we all can learn something from.  I encourage you to spend 8 minutes watching the video.

You can be sure that you will forget all else as  you watch.

P.S.  The story was also featured in a CBC interview on Sept. 10th. See it at this link:

Mental Health First Aid provides excellent training for school counsellors and dons: