What can schools learn from summer camps?

Do you ever feel like you’re having a conversation with someone that is really important?  The night after Jacob’s math exam, I found him upset in his room.  He figured he barely passed the exam, and he worried that he might even have failed it.  He blurted out, “I study hard and I still don’t do well.”  And this breaks my heart.  He has always struggled with math and when he was tested, we learned to better understand how his brain is challenged by math.  So in a way, he is right – more studying won’t necessarily help as he just doesn’t get the abstract concepts.  He knows this, and I think he feels that we support him, but it is still frustrating. Can you blame him?

So after a while of trying to console him, I asked him this question, “Why are you letting this one mark get you down?  You are much more than a math mark!” 

I explained that at some point someone decided that math is what children should do everyday and they should be graded on it.  But we talked about what matters most and how that doesn’t necessarily end up on a report card.  For example, I care more about how he deals with his failure than I do about his grade, but resilience is not measured on a report.  We eventually came up with a whole list of things that mattered more than some school subjects.

Our conversation turned to the seemingly random nature of assessment.  What does a 54% mean and what would it take to get to 64%?  Why is 54% a pass, when we all know that you shouldn’t start a new grade with only half of the previous grade’s understanding?  Does any number motivate a child to learn?  If numbers cannot capture what is really important, why do we use them with children?  (I’m not sure I see the value of subject marks for teenagers either, but the point that our high school system remains stunted by assessment for university admissions and not learning is the subject of a future blog.) 

Back to Jacob.   A real turning point was our realization that kids drown when they can’t swim, but our school system doesn’t even require swimming lessons.  With the realization that no one dies from failing math, I finally saw him smile.  I had reached his soul, and he heard me.

You may ask why I am reflecting on assessment on one of the hottest days of the summer?  Today I received two cards in the mail from Onondaga Camp, and I was reminded, yet again, that schools can learn from summer camps. 

Two lessons:

1.  Schools should reassess assessment.

Jacob’s counselor wrote that he got a “silver in wake-boarding”.  Not a 53, 62 or a 79%, but a silver.  When I asked about it, he understood how he got that silver and, more importantly, what he needs to do to get a gold.  He told me that he is determined to get that next level next year.  Now my point is not that wake-boarding should be offered in schools, (although I think that would help many of our efforts to engage boys); nor am I suggesting that a “bronze in math” is more effective than a number in motivating kids to learn (although pre-identifying expectations might help).  But I do think there are questions worth asking as we strive to prepare kids for success.

2. Schools should reassess how we communicate assessment.

The cards from Onondaga Camp were hand-written. They described some of the kids’ activities and accomplishments, and they described their strengths. Aren’t we all hungry to hear more details about our kids? Especially when they describe what matters most to us?

I still don’t know what grade Jacob got in math, and truth be told, I might not ever find out.  But I am going to keep the card from camp…even though I already have it memorized.


CAIS Summer Leadership Institute 2013

Another year, another heat wave at our CAIS Leadership Institute.  Who ever would have expected that weather in New Brunswick?  Certainly, every local person assured us that they never get this kind of heat.  Never say never…

This summer, we were excited to welcome over 100 participants from 49 schools from 7 provinces.  We offered our second round of Next Step leadership training and their Change Projects will surely have a real impact on participating schools.  We held a first National Forum on Inspiring Excellence and we sold out with 40 participants.  (Stay tuned for all of those resources to be shared in our new members only section of the website this fall.) And, of course, we offered a line-up of strong modules, including a new one on Mental Health.  (Thanks to Derek Logan and his daughter Alyssa for leading this!)

Other highlights of the week for me included the New Leaders Speeches by James Lee and Norman Southward and the Art of Leadership Speeches by Jim Officer and Peter Sturrup.  (These will be posted later this month for everyone to enjoy!)

Does this sound like I’m bragging?  I guess I am!  But I always come home from the LI feeling re-energized and eager to build on the momentum of the week (that is, right after I spend a few days napping!)

Below is the speech I gave on the final night at Rothesay Netherwood School before our 21 graduates took the stage.  I hope it gives you a taste of what you missed:

Last year at the closing night of the Leadership Institute, right before I turned things over to the grads, I outlined the Top 10 Things people needed to know about CAIS, and Hal Hannaford said I should tell that story every summer…

He is right, as this is an opportunity for over 100 people to hear about the strategic directions of our national organization.  So tonight I want to move through these quickly before I tell you about what I really want to talk about.

There are four priorities in our new strategic plan – National Standards and Accreditation; Professional Development for Leaders; Research and Resources; and Permanence and Strength.  There are exciting initiatives under each area, including things like our CAIS Top 12, which was implemented in January and has been hugely successful since it is based on our Standards, and it is research that becomes a PD gift to you, designed to save you time and improve you and your school.

What is most important to me this evening is what I am hearing from you, and this is where I want to focus my thoughts this year.  There are three main themes, and I want to ask for your help in each:

1. Women in Leadership – Here are a few key numbers:

–       We are a national association of 93 schools

–       10 women run CAIS co-ed schools

–       The last two hires for girls schools were out of country

–       Of the 16 girls schools in Canada, 4 are run by men. None of the boys schools is run by a woman.

Action Item:  When you see a position advertised, encourage a woman to apply.

2.  Mentors – I am hearing that people are hungry for mentors who have time to invest in them and their schools.

CAIS is implementing a mentorship program that will go to the Board this summer, the Heads and Chairs in October, and be launched in November.  George Rutherford, who was here with us this week taking the Coaching Module, and who will teach the Governance Module in Vancouver this fall, will be overseeing this initiative. 

Action Item:  Look for details this fall and either get involved or give me feedback on how it can meet your needs.

3.  Our Summer LI has been the strongest yet.  On opening night, I introduced Canada’s best faculty, but one member had not yet arrived.  I am pleased to present David Robertson, Head of Shawnigan Lake School, who is here to teach the Next Step Program.  David arrived after midnight, but was up and raring to go for a 7:15am start, which is 3:15 am according to his body time.  Thank you for joining us, David.

Please can we show our appreciation for all of our Summer LI faculty.

What I am hearing is the following:

–       There is huge momentum with CAIS’ leadership programs.

–       Engagement is higher than ever.

–       There is a real focus on making the program really relevant to our jobs and schools.

–       Always great to be with colleagues from all over Canada.

–       There is a more intentional focus on learning. You can feel it.

Ultimately, our goal as a national organization is learning and leadership.  Our goal is to make our schools stronger for our 45,000 students.  As we discussed in our National Forum – if you want to change schools, you change culture. And how do you change culture? You change conversations. 

So I need your help.

If our host, Paul Kitchen, were here, he would say that each year, his job is to make his school a little bit better.  Well, if you know Paul, you know that he would first say that he is a small, poor country school teacher…. But he would also say that the role of the Head is to ensure that you make your school a little bit better every year.  And for those who have been to the campus in the past, you can see that RNS has definitely made great strides under his leadership.  Paul would also say that CAIS – and its accreditation and PD and now its research – plays an important role in that continuous whole school improvement.  It is a partnership.

So my final action item, before we turn it over to our largest graduating class ever, is to encourage you give us your feedback.  Jo-Anne, our new Director of Programs, has spent her time this week listening to your ideas on how to improve our programs.  I also need you to spread the word about your learning here.  Tell others about your experience and – most importantly! – apply your learning to improving your school for your students.

In closing, I believe that our organization is strongest when we work together, in partnership, with our colleagues and friends from across Canada.  And I look forward to another great year. 

p.s.  Check out the PD section of our website for resources and photos.