Where do Middle School Students Learn Best?

At our upcoming Heads and Chairs Meeting in Ottawa, our theme is Place, Pedagogy and Purpose, and we will have an Architects Panel. This question will be part of our conversation.

But for now, I have reason to believe they learn best outdoors. Last week, over 100 Middle School Students from CAIS schools across the country gathered at Camp Onondaga. This year, our program focused on significant youth issues:

  • Bullying
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Social Media and Identity
  • Student Mental Health
  • Aboriginal Education

We were intentional about mixing the groups by province, and we gave them plenty of time to engage in conversations in the great outdoors. The photos tell the best story, but here’s some of the feedback as well:

– Students had many opportunities to meaningfully connect with their peers. Almost instantly, students developed friendships with students across Canada. Between their cabin groups, passport groups, and the time spent doing the camp activities, students were constantly having fun with new faces.

– The presenters told me that they were impressed with how engaged the students were during the sessions and the number of insightful questions. It shows that our students are not only capable, but passionate about solving big issues.

– My quietest student said she felt that the staff and students made it really easy for her to step out of her shell and talk to people from different schools.

– My students found the camp extremely valuable for improving their leadership skills. All of the girls were happy to learn that there are many different types of leaders (something they did not realize)

– My students noted that the workshops were fantastic and loved how the social media workshop did not focus on the dangers of having a profile but how they could use their social media accounts to promote leadership.

– The Gender Identity workshop was very valuable. My students were inspired by the speaker and think Gender Identity is an extremely important topic for kids their age. One of the initiatives they would like to start at our school is a Gender Identity workshop for their peers.

Huge thanks to Philip Lloyd, our CAIS Program Committee, our workshop presenters, the Onondaga staff, and the CAIS faculty advisors. Most of all, thanks to our CAIS students for their passion, energy, and ideas. May you go on to change the world.

Advice to Teachers (from an Awesome Teacher)

The month of June can be tough on teachers – everyone is tired, cranky, and ready for a holiday. I was so inspired by the story of one of Jacob’s favourite teachers, Rory Gilfillan, that I asked him to share it:

Last week I was talking an Advisee down from great heights.  She is shy.  She also LOVES history and has a 97 in it.  She desperately wanted to win the History Award.  I don’t teach this course so I have no influence. I wasn’t sure she would get it so I ordered a book on Amazon called Inventing Freedom and then I got a card.  I texted her and told her to meet me under the tent they have put up for grad.  Turns out her Mom was with her. I set out two chairs at the back and made a small speech at the front outlining the short but distinguished pedigree of the Gilfillan History Award for Awesomeness.  I then called her up receive her award.

It’s seriously the best thing I have done in a very long time.

The interesting part of it was how long it took me to figure it out.  Katherine had a 97 in history but a lower mark in Math.  I kept saying, “Why on earth are you stressing about History?  You don’t even need to write the exam and you would still do well.   You really need to be stressed about Math.” And then, after a long back and forth conversation, I worked it out.  She wanted the award.

Quite frankly, I don’t always listen closely enough or hang in long enough to get to the truth.  In this instant I slowed down my usually high frequency operation and hung in two minutes longer.  There I found the truth, and I wanted to celebrate her.  This was a great moment for Katherine but, seriously, an even better moment for me.  I achieved, for about three minutes, what I came in to this profession to do:  I made a difference.

We, as teachers, spend so much time worrying about technology and assessment and making our classes good.  All fine and well but that’s not why I got in to this and it certainly won’t be what I remember when I reach the end of my career. I want to remember this lesson: I need to hang in on conversations in order to be able to hear what matters and then act on it.

I will remember that moment.

The best part is that the student in this story ended up winning the actual award at Saturday’s Closing Ceremony at Lakefield College School.

I wonder about this question – when she thinks back on her graduating year, which moment will be more cherished and memorable?

My guess is the audience of two, and my hope is that more teachers follow the lead of Rory Gilfillan.


p.s. I had permission from both Rory and Katherine Petrasek to publish this story.


Ten Lessons from CAIS Students on LGBTQ+

What can we learn from this week’s first ever CAIS Student Panel?

For starters, technology is changing the way we connect. As I sat in my kitchen, chatting with three amazing students about the highly personal topic of gender orientation, gender identification, and sexual orientation, I felt moved by their courage and inspired by their passion and ideas. I felt as if they were in my kitchen with me. But the fact is the students were only images on my laptop. Frank, Sid, and Miles were actually each by themselves, sitting in classrooms in St George’s, St Michaels University School and Shawnigan Lake School. Meanwhile, over 100 people – staff and students alike – sat in their separate CAIS schools across the country. Some joined in alone, but others sat in groups, at least one class of students joined the panel; and two schools broadcast the panel in their community spaces.

The impressive part? Frank, Sid and Miles not only spoke articulately but also managed to jump in and interact with the participants on the chat. This was truly a national conversation!

So I have a few big take-aways: we should connect more often as a national network; we should include students in the conversations – Maureen Steltman, Head of Fraser Academy suggested we should have invited parents! – and we should have the courage to continue the conversation and maybe even take on other big topics.

But the most important lessons came directly from the students. I encourage you to watch the full discussion, but here are the ten lessons from my notes:

  1. Safety is a big issue, and everyone has a right to feel safe, both emotionally and physically. We need to raise awareness and talk more about tolerance.
  2. Include age appropriate curriculum on gender orientation and identification. Our CAIS schools have the liberty to do more than just the provincial curriculum, so we should be leaders in the classroom.
  3. Support a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA; sometimes called Gender Sexuality Awareness) club in your school; and if you don’t have one, start one. Clubs can promote visibility and demonstrate acceptance.
  4. Challenge the subtle homophobia and passive bullying that continues to exist in society. Schools can teach the significance of words and the harm that can be done.
  5. Share resources – check out our CAIS LGBTQ+ resource page here
  6. Understand that change can take time and remember that even small things can really help.
  7. Market our CAIS schools as safe and open places; Sid and Miles told me that they chose their universities based on what they researched on the university websites (Good for Carleton and UBC!)
  8. The media has made the conversation about bathrooms, but that’s not the issue! Students want to understand and be understood.
  9. We need schools to update their policies. If the government can pass Bill C-16 to ensure Canadians are free to identify themselves and express their gender as they wish while being protected against discrimination and hate, then schools need to figure out how to best support all students and staff. Schools can start by including students in the development of policies.
  10. Leaders have to understand the issues, hold people accountable for their actions, and do more to raise awareness.Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 4.19.26 PM

It was a privilege to be part of Monday’s powerful conversation, and I am so grateful to Frank, Sid and Miles for their openness, courage, and candor. I love thinking about the conversations that will continue across the country because of their leadership. Maybe some of the conversations will even happen in your kitchen!

Is financial sustainability still the number one challenge facing independent schools?

Every three years, we ask our CAIS Heads and Chairs to identify their top three challenges, and we use this data to inform our research and professional development programs. So in 2013, when the top challenge was financial sustainability, we made that our focus (Think 2051 Project!). When you are in the business of whole school continuous improvement, you better know what is top of mind for members.

So this is the year to ask again, and I predict the following – the number one challenge will not be financial sustainability.

Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.” Good news! I have read every accreditation report over the past ten years, and more significantly, I have read every Response Report that demonstrates a school’s commitment to implementing the recommendations. This qualifies me to tell you that CAIS schools are not anywhere near “being used up;” in fact, they are working hard to ensure the opposite.

But for anyone thinking that this is a feel-good blog about the future of CAIS schools … “Not so fast Lopez!” There are significant questions in the current educational landscape:

  • Assessment for learning – How do we ensure it is dynamic, embedded and formative, based on real time data and enabled by technology?
  • Blended learning – How do we lead in terms of real-time, data-driven instruction and open up multiple pathways for students to learn and parents, students and teachers to communicate?
  • Competency-base learning – How can we develop a broader conceptualization of evidence of student mastery? And can we figure out a way to get universities to honour this in the application process?
  • Personalized learning – How do we move toward personalization for each student’s unique needs, interests, passions and competency-based pathways, while honouring the provincial curriculum requirements?
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL) – How can we do more student exhibitions that are authentic demonstrations of learning and connected to our communities, without simply making them an add-on for students?
  • Work-based learning – How can our university preparatory schools include co-op opportunities? Can they also be global, and entrepreneurial? Can we develop a badge system that is meaningful and rigorous?
  • Adult-development learning – This is new; in fact, I just made it up. But I am reading How to Raise and Adult and I believe that the author has hit on one of the key challenges facing our schools in particular: how do we raise happy students who know and like themselves? How do we encourage parents to back off and do the same?

Given these challenges, no school can rest on its laurels and not worry about its future strength. So for CAIS schools, I propose two new years’ resolutions:

  1. Change our terminology from “sustainability” to “permanence and strength” and focus on ongoing research to answer the above questions.
  1. Collaborate in terms of research but also in terms of PD. Never before has it been more important to figure out these challenges, and I am a firm believer in the power of together. (If you are a CAIS leader, you should meet your colleagues in Vancouver in April to have some catalytic conversations about the future of education. Read more and register here.)

p.s. I like this list of post-secondary trends.

Parenting Milestone

It has happened.

On Monday, after a day sick in bed, I went in to the school to pick up my kids (Jacob is 13 and Kathleen is 11 and both are at Ridley College). As I walked in to the library, one of the nicest teachers ever, Mrs. Bradley, walked towards me and greeted me with a big and warm “Hello!” So I returned the greeting with an enthusiastic, “Hi!”

And that’s when it happened.

Behind her back, I saw Jacob, eyes glaring at me and motioning with his hands for me to ‘Keep it down’. And I saw Kathleen, also coming up behind Mrs. Bradley, pointing with irritation at her own hair, as if to say to me, ‘Mom, you forgot to fix your hair’.

Without meaning to, I was embarrassing my children.

Now I admit to embarrassing them in the past. Just a few weeks ago, we were all at Chapters buying books for our vacation, and I was off on my own browsing when I recognized the tune of the background music. It was the familiar opening beats to Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’ and I found myself singing along:

     Tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen,

     Pour myself a cup of ambition.

I was really enjoying myself, actually, and was impressing myself for knowing all the words! Then my daughter came around the corner, and I quickly saw the look on her face – she was horrified. In the car, she came to life reliving the moment that she spotted her mother ‘actually singing’ at Chapters.

I get that she would find that embarrassing. But this time, at school, I wasn’t doing anything out of order. I was just being my normal self.

That night, I lay in bed thinking about how I felt about this. I thought about my Nana, who used to write letters to her kids’ teachers that my aunts still talk about. I thought about how I felt about my parents, when at Christmas, they sent me to school with gifts for the teachers that embarrassed me. I remember my teacher opening gifts of chocolates and mugs filled with candy – normal gifts – and then I had to hand over my gift in front of everyone. I was so embarrassed to give them a bottle of wine, even though my parents, both teachers, assured me that it was the best kind of gift. (And now guess what I give to my kids’ teachers?)

As a parent, I don’t want to try to embarrass my kids. But I also never want to compromise “being myself” not to embarrass them. In my opinion, likely the most important benefit of a strong and nurturing independent school culture is that it truly helps young people to KNOW and BE themselves…perhaps the most important of life long pursuits.

It is therefore more important for our children to observe us modeling authenticity of character – embarrassment warts and all! – than to change who we are to preserve their level of comfort in the company of their peers. After all, it is far more by our actions than our words that we support and ultimately give our children permission to be themselves.

So if it means that my frizzy hair is pulled back into a ponytail, or that I greet someone I really admire with enthusiasm, my kids are just going to have to live with it. As for singing Dolly Parton in public? I may try to avoid that in the future, for their sake and mine.