I didn’t know a lot about her, but I knew this for sure.
She hated me with every stare down as I walked through the halls, with every glare when I entered one of her classes, and with every silent meeting in my office – me talking, and her projecting her hatred without saying a word, without cooperating in any way.
Once she stood up and punched at my face, expertly grazing my cheekbone so it didn’t cause damage, but it sent the clearest possible message.
I asked the school counselor what I had done wrong, what I had done to deserve such hatred. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about her. She hates everyone”.
Don’t worry? If a 14-year-old hates everyone with that intensity, it is a huge cause for worry.
Recently, while waiting to board a flight, I opened a free copy of the local paper – and there was her face, older but unmistakeable. It was a selfie she had taken in happier times, her devilish smile betraying the torment that was under the surface.
The words below the photo did not mention suicide, but they didn’t have to. The two babies she adored were now without a mother.
As any educator would, I began to wonder if I could have done more.
Mary Jean Gallagher often says that our job is to teach. We are not social workers. Our job is to ensure that children learn.
Catherine Montreuil emphasizes that no child in our classrooms can be stuck. It is our responsibility to ensure that every child learns. We don’t have to do it alone, we can get the supports we need to ensure learning happens.
Some of our kids need more than we can give. It doesn’t mean we stop trying. The structure of our schools makes it so difficult for some of our children to be successful.
I can no longer do anything for her, but I can keep working to make sure her babies enter an environment that embraces all cultures, respects and encourages all learning, and provides all the supports that all children need to be successful.
That “stop smoking” commercial, the one where the woman is at an almost empty high school, talking about how this is where she started smoking, and this is where she is going to quit, shakes me up.
Why in the world do kids start a life-threatening habit in a place of learning? Shouldn’t we expect high schools to be places that promote healthy living and embrace the wonder of learning?
This tweet from Grant Wiggins (@grantwiggins) made me pause and take a look this week.
As it turns out, Grant Wiggins is working on a series called Fixing the High School (by listening to students). Some of the student responses can be found here. The consistency of the responses is sobering.
But are we listening?
Earlier this month, Ontario Secondary School Principal David Jaremy (@davidjaremy) posted a thoughtful piece on dealing with late students, the endless problem normally tackled by vice principals (where there is a vp), which is never solved through a code of behaviour and a series of discipline measures, even though that is still the “solution” of choice in most high schools.
So, then, how do we effect change and make our high schools places where our youth can thrive?
Stephen Hurley (@Stephen_Hurley) challenges us to ask not only what needs to be changed in our schools, but what needs to stay.
This past week, I have been explaining the concept of “EdCamp” to a lot of people. It’s on a Saturday, it’s free, it’s open to anyone wanting to learn, and “everyone has something to share”. The program is driven by the learning needs of the people in attendance, and the smartest person in the room is the room.
What I love most is the “hunger to learn”.
Recently I attended #Educon in Philadelphia. While sessions are determined in advance, it does rest on the principle that “everyone has something IMPORTANT to share”. This is captured very clearly in this video.
A few of my favourite quotes that capture some of the thinking from #Educon:
David Jakes: “The first step in redesigning a classroom is discarding the notion that it has to be a classroom.” (2:36)
Chris Lehman: “What schools can become, are the places where we come together to learn…” (4:14)
Jose Vilson: “Trying to get education to be more about what kids can do instead of what they can’t do…” (5:30)
Ayla Gavins: “..I would eliminate ACCESS as the reason for not choosing to use technology.” (6:23)
Diana Laufenberg: “The one thing that teachers can do proactively is to share, everywhere possible, the positive things that are happening with our kids…” (7:14)
What is #Educon? It’s a global tribe of support – 24/7.
It’s what EdCamps can be too. Passion, learning, sharing, bringing hope for positive change to make our schools places where we support communities of learning.
In my province, Ontario, we have just completed a “visioning” exercise, looking at how to move our public education system from “great to excellent“. In the meantime, in what feels like a different country (because we rarely connect and share what we know), the province of Nova Scotia is about to embark on an education review.
Last week, the Province of Nova Scotia launched its urgent call for change.
The report states that a crisis exists that threatens the standard of living of Nova Scotians. It outlines 19 goals and 12 long-term strategies that are needed to turn the economy around and stop the current decline.
Robert Sutton, in his recent publication “Scaling Up Excellence” demonstrates that using logical arguments to spread the need for change are often not effective, and we need an emotional attachment to an idea to really move change forward. The Ivany Report, with the focus on Urgency and Mobilizing Strengths, has created this “hot cause” to “stoke the engine”.
As an educator, I read the report looking for how the education system would be redesigned to meet the goals of “One Nova Scotia: Shaping our Economy Together”. With a quarter of the population under the age of 19, it would seem that transforming an economy would certainly require a transformation in how young people were educated. But there is very little in the report to suggest how this might occur.
A small section entitled “Excellence in Education and Training” (combining those terms is concerning) suggests that a “rigorous curriculum review” and “setting the bar high” will hold Nova Scotians accountable for reaching their goals.
There is essentially no conversation on how a system of schooling, created with an industrial mindset, could now produce young adults who thought like entrepreneurs rather than obedient assembly line employees.
In Ontario, we have learned that public support of public education is critical. In our three priorities, raising the bar, lowering the gap and securing accountability, we have focused on how, as a province, we can believe in what we are doing as being the best for our students.
At the same time, research must be central to learning. So what, then, is the role of public consultation?
Perhaps the real question Nova Scotians need to answer is “What is School for?” How can we possibly determine what is working, and what needs improvement, if we aren’t in agreement on why we have schools in the first place?
The citizens of Nova Scotia, faced with the findings of the Ivany Report, now need to deeply consider their expectations, their beliefs, and their understanding of the purpose of the school buildings in their communities, and the reasons for the hours that young people spend there every day.
What kind of person emerges from the years in the school system, and what kind of province results from that education system?
Last week, Jan Wong, currently an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Communications at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, wrote an article for the Chronicle Herald outlining her concern about her Journalism students cheating on quizzes.
The sentences from her post that most resonated with me are below.
It should be no surprise at all that some students at a university are “conditioned to work for marks and only marks”.
The only criterion for acceptance to the university is “high marks”.
When universities filter applicants based on marks, so that only students with really great marks can enter the institution, the students who arrive and attend class there will include those who have learned to play a game very well, and who will continue to play that game when they arrive.
Any senior high school teacher can attest to the fact that learning is not the priority for many grade 11 and 12 students. The priority is getting the highest two-digit number possible through whatever means are necessary so that he/she can get access to a university program.
The ramifications of this selection process are numerous, and often do not relate to learning at all. Some are, in fact, very negative.
Parents may bully the teachers who don’t give the needed or expected grades.
Students may select courses based on who they know will give them the marks they want.
Parents will track down a Principal in the summer and demand that their child’s marks be changed.
Students tell teachers that the mark they have received for their assignment is “unacceptable” and that they will need something higher.
“Cheating” is rampant on tests, exams and assignments.
Students learn to seek out exams from previous years, tests and student notes from previous years.
They learn how best to get as many marks as possible on every test and exam.
They will do almost anything for “bonus marks”, and they learn to manipulate a teacher to offer those “bonus marks”.
Students and parents figure out how to play the game.
Alfie Kohn has been writing about the problem with grades for many years. One of his best articles is “From Degrading to De-Grading” (http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm), where he explores, among other things, the observations that grades reduce a student’s preference for challenging tasks, the quality of their thinking, and their interest in learning.
The lack of interest in learning by students who have been told that marks are what matters is well-documented, as in the observation below from Janice Fiamengo:
Those who do well are called “good students”. Some schools give out awards to students with the highest marks, encouraging competition instead of collaborative learning, and reinforcing that marks are what is really important at that school.
While there is a large and growing movement to put learning at the centre of the what school is about, as long as that final mark is the only requirement for university entrance, marks will remain the focus.
And universities will get what they have selected for. When students don’t get the marks they want at university, they will react exactly as they have learned to react.