The Third School Rule – TRY YOUR BEST

I love our Three School Rules, but I sometimes think we should just call them “The Three Rules”. Because they’re not only meant for students or kids – they’re meant for all of us. In my own life, I use them as a set of golden rules to help me navigate challenges, triumphs, and setbacks. In this series of three blog posts, I would like to reflect on what each rule means to me and our community, and the ways in which they can impact our lives outside of KCS.

About a year ago my son Brandon suffered a concussion while playing soccer for the varsity team at his university. Over the next number of months, he had to learn to balance his schoolwork, part-time job, and personal life, all while dealing with a number of very challenging symptoms. One day, he came home during his mid-terms and told me that he was really worried he hadn’t done well on one particular exam. Having seen first-hand all the effort he had put into his studies during this difficult time, I only had one thing to say to him. “You tried your best. Given all you’ve been dealing with, there’s nothing more you can do.”

That wasn’t the first time I quoted the “Try Your Best” rule to one of my kids. In fact, it’s probably the rule I repeat the most at home. While I do stress the importance of respect and manners to both my son and daughter, my main priority as a parent is their mental and emotional health. And I believe that “try your best” is a rule that encourages us to strive for success, but with the understanding that we must be realistic when it comes our expectations.

Because the rule doesn’t say “do” your best. It says “try” your best. That’s an important distinction. When we tell ourselves we need to do our best, we put all our focus on the end result and what we actually achieve. But when we tell ourselves we need to try our best, we end up focusing on our effort and personal growth. To put it another way, “do” is all about the product, while “try” is all about the process.

After all, we can try our best, but still end up failing. I know for myself, I can think of countless times when I gave it my all athletically, in the classroom, or as a parent, and still ended up falling short of success. But each time, I was able to look myself in the mirror and say “I tried my best”.  I can also remember those times when I didn’t put in the effort, and the results were what you might expect.

We all fall short from time to time. But what really matters in life is how you behave after that happens. I encourage my own children to try their best, learn from their experiences, and then try again. If I told Alyssa and Brandon to focus on the end results, then I would only be teaching them how to learn from success. But by telling my kids to focus on their effort, I teach them how to learn from failure.

Earlier this year we showed a video at Curriculum Night that was all about independence. Looking back on it, I think in many ways it’s also about trying your best. In that video, a young boy tried, again and again, to jump onto a box. And again and again, that boy failed. Eventually, with support and encouragement from his dad, he ended up making the leap. But I think he learned more from falling down a dozen times then he did from his one success.

As parents and teachers, we can sometimes get caught up in the grades on report cards or the final score of a soccer game. But if we want our kids to become resilient lifelong learners, then we need to encourage them to persist and put forth their best effort, no matter what challenges they are facing. And I can think of no better way to do that than by simply reminding them to always “try your best”.

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The Second School Rule – Manners

I love our Three School Rules, but I sometimes think we should just call them “The Three Rules.” Because they’re not only meant for students or kids – they’re meant for all of us. In my own life, I use them as a set of golden rules to help me navigate challenges, triumphs, and setbacks. In this series of three blog posts, I would like to reflect on what each rule means to me and our community, and the ways in which they can enrich our lives.

A few years ago I was on a class trip to Quebec with a group of Grade 7 students. At one point along the 401, our bus pulled over into one of those big rest stops so we could all grab a snack and visit the washrooms. As I watched our students enjoying their hot chocolates and donuts, one of the cleaning staff walked over to me.

“Are these your students?”

“Yes, they are,” I replied warily, preparing myself for what might come next.

“Well… I want you to know this is the best group of kids we’ve ever had here.”

He looked around at the KCS students, nodded approvingly, and then walked away. I looked back at our kids and realized that what I thought was typical behaviour was actually anything but. Our students were saying please and thank you to the staff, they were walking respectfully through the crowd, and they were even holding doors and giving up their chairs to families and seniors. To me, that kind of behaviour isn’t going above and beyond. It’s just the right thing to do. But it reminded me that not everyone feels that way.

Now, I think I’m getting close to the age where I’m allowed to start grumbling about how everything was better back in the “good old days”. However, I don’t really feel the need to grumble, because I believe that in most ways, the world keeps on getting better and better. Except for one thing – manners.

Good manners are getting rarer and rarer. Some people I’ve spoken to think this is because today manners are considered old-fashioned or unimportant. But I think the reason is actually pretty obvious. People don’t have good manners because we don’t go out of our way to teach the next generation good manners.

That’s one of the reasons why I think teaching our students manners is absolutely essential. Because we can’t expect them to just figure them out on their own. We have to model good manners, take the time to correct bad manners, and make it a priority to regularly go out of our way to teach simple social graces. And it’s worth remembering that we’re all part of that teaching team. Teachers model manners by the way they speak to each other in the halls. Parents model manners by the way they navigate the parking lot. I model manners by the way I greet students at the door. The kids are watching us, and they will copy what they see.

I know we’re doing a pretty good job. I know this because of what our visitors say to me when they come to KCS. Potential families visiting our open houses regularly comment on the fact that our students hold the doors for them. Special guests like our yoga instructors and Scientists in School tell me that they “hold lotteries” over who gets to come to our school because they love working with our polite students. Admissions Directors and other Heads of School always comment on our graduating students’ manners when our Grade 8s visit their open houses in the fall. Even the guy who makes my burger at Magoo’s tells me they love having KCS kids in their restaurant because our students clean up after themselves and treat their staff with respect!

In the end, while I love that other people think our students are great and well-behaved, that’s not really the point. The point is that our students go out in the world believing that the way they treat other people matter. That will help them find success and happiness, but more importantly, it will make them kinder and more compassionate people. And to me, graduating outstanding citizens with manners is the foundation of our school and what matters most to me.

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WHAT WILL YOU BE TALKING ABOUT ON JANUARY 30?

When we talk openly, accurately, and without judgement about mental health, we are making a difference for those who are affected by it.  Who are those that are affected by mental health?  As the tag line for Bell Let’s Talk Day has said for the past two years “Mental health affects us all.”  Just like we all have physical health, we all have mental health.  Just like we can all get physically ill or be in physical distress, we can all experience mental illness or mental distress. The more we know about mental health and the better we understand it, the more that we can help ourselves, our friends and family, and society at large access the supports and resources needed from both a prevention and an intervention standpoint.

As part of their message, Bell Let’s Talk promotes five ways to help end the stigma around mental illness:

  1. Language matters
  2. Be kind
  3. Educate yourself
  4. Listen and ask
  5. Talk about it

One way we help promote such an understanding is through our Encouraging Dialogue speaker series.  On Tuesday, January 29, we will be hosting Dr. Greg Wells, author of The Ripple Effect: Sleep Better, Eat Better, Move Better, Think Better. His talk is focused on the four stages of physical and mental wellness, how they are interconnected, and how simple changes can create a ripple effect that improves overall functioning.  He will share this message with our grade 5 – 8 students in the afternoon, and then address our parents and the wider community that evening.

Talking about mental health is not something that we shy away from here at KCS. We understand the need to reduce the stigma around mental health and help everyone better understand that if you are experiencing a mental health issue you are not alone, you will not be judged, we will listen, and we will work with you and your family to get you the help and support that you need. Through avenues such as our Talk That Matters series for students, our above mentioned Encouraging Dialogue Speaker Series for parents and the wider community, Children’s Mental Health week, and Bell Let’s Talk day, we are able to educate and promote an understanding about mental health and overall wellness.  But we aren’t going to stop there. We purposefully embed wellness, physical health, and mental health into what we do every day in all of our classes at every grade level. Discussions and learning about a variety of topics take place. Some such topics are: being active, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and taking time for ourselves. Our students also learn about mindfulness, yoga, movement, other stress-reducing strategies and who we can talk to and what we can do if we aren’t feeling healthy.

To strengthen our understanding about mental health and how we can help someone who is in distress, beginning in 2013, all of our faculty and staff have been certified in Mental Health First Aid, a 16-hour course provided by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. This past August, we completed a refresher course. We are also all certified in Red Cross First Aid; however, ask any of our faculty or staff and they will tell you that they use what they learned in their mental health first aid far more frequently than what they learned in physical first aid.

To continue our students thinking about mental health, and in support of the important initiative of Bell Let’s Talk Day, we asked all of our students from PK through grade 8 to think about what they could say, what they could do, or how they or someone else might feel if they were experiencing a mental health issue. They shared those ideas by filling in a speech bubble, a hand, or a heart. Take a moment to look at the display in our front lobby and you will see our students are doing their part to reduce the stigma and understand that mental health matters.

On Wednesday, January 30, there will be a lot of talk about mental health. Please join the conversation and help raise awareness about and funds for mental health. However, I challenge you to keep the conversation going and make mental health part of what you talk about every day.

Just Call Us ‘Guides on the Ride’

Thirty years ago I started teacher’s college. ‘Sage on the stage’ was how we were taught to teach back then. Thanks to 30 years of students, that practice has been humbled into one role among multiple others. This summer, all KCS faculty and I learned about a promising new option, that of ‘guide on the ride’, from the book Empower by A. J. Juliani and John Spencer. I’m strapped in with my helmet on. My current ride? Cryptocurrency.

Yes, cryptocurrency.

In September, we launched our new StEP entrepreneurship program. StEP invites students with entrepreneurial ambitions to pursue their big ideas, learn the basics, access mentorship, and potentially acquire seed money for viable ideas. As soon as this new opportunity was announced, a student stepped forward. His passion? You guessed it.

My role in this program is to support all grade 6-8 students who take the same first step, connect them with mentors, and provide basic instruction in value propositions, minimum viable products, design thinking, prototyping, customer interviews, and prepping pitch decks. What I provide is significantly enhanced by our partnership with Future Design School and a growing list of established entrepreneurs in the KCS community who are willing to speak, entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur, with our students.

Thirty years ago, cryptocurrency didn’t exist (that was still 21 years away). Now I get a front row seat in this and other budding areas of potential entrepreneurship at KCS. Guiding students on journeys they chart is full of unforeseeable learning, accented with bumps and hidden curves. Like the up and down of a roller coaster, it’s impossible to know where the journey will go and much scarier than the experience of a lecture. Though just one month into the year, multiple other teachers at KCS are telling me of their own trips into the unknown. The excitement and trepidation expressed in my office evoke summer memories of Wonderland. We’re strapped in and hanging on. This year promises to be an interesting ride.

World Mental Health Day Every Day

“There is a growing recognition of the importance of helping young people build mental resilience, from the earliest ages, in order to cope with the challenges of today’s world.” – World Health Organization

October 10 is World Mental Health Day, a day set aside by the World Health Organization (WHO) to educate, increase awareness, and mobilize efforts to promote better mental health around the globe. This year, the focus for World Mental Health Day is Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World, a topic that is obviously near and dear to the hearts of everyone at KCS.

For far too long, mental health was seen something that mainly affected adults. It just wasn’t on the radar when it came to young kids. But one only has to glance at the statistics and facts provided by organizations such as CAMH to see that there is a clear need for families and schools to pay close attention to the mental health of our young people. Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that 70 per cent of mental health problems begin during childhood or adolescence.

Faced with numbers like that, it’s clear that we must continue to make mental health awareness a core component of our overall wellness strategies at KCS. Events like World Mental Health Day and the annual Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign certainly help to bring greater awareness and understanding that helps to reduce the stigma around mental illness. But it can’t stop at awareness. Any effective strategy must also include a proactive approach to both prevention and recovery.

We know that when children are given the skills that they need to foster resiliency and accept challenges as an obstacle they are able to work at to overcome, they are better equipped to cope with adversity and the inevitable bumps in the road of life. Because early intervention is key, learning these skills can and must begin at a very young age. When children learn and recognize that they do have the skills and the strength to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after something does not go as planned, they are building up that resiliency.

At KCS we recognize this and continue to make mental health a fundamental priority. Beginning right from PK, our students are encouraged to talk about and recognize their feelings. Social-emotional growth and development is an intentional component of our curriculum, and the adults in the building use those “teachable moments” to role model and discuss dealing with disappointment and asking for help.  Our faculty and staff are certified in Mental Health First Aid, allowing us to recognize early warning signs and symptoms of mental distress, and assist our students in getting the help they need.

We also recognize that we need to help our entire school community better understand the importance of mental health and wellness.  Through our Encouraging Dialogue Speaker Series, we have shared information about brain development, mental health, and our children, volunteerism and contributing to the community, moving from stress to strength, developing resiliency, internet, and online safety, and we will continue in January 2019 when Greg Wells – author of The Ripple Effect – comes to speak with us about our overall well-being.  The more we talk about mental health, the better we understand its importance – not just on World Mental Health Day, but every day.

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Kindness in Kindergarten

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“Kindness is the language in which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” –Mark Twain

As I reflect on this past school year with my Senior Kindergarten class, one word comes to mind – kindness. In over 20 years teaching, I have never met a group of children who were so empathetic and accepting of one other. These children set such a good example to those around them through so many acts of kindness.

I can still vividly remember an incident when one of our students was upset and laying on the floor crying. On their own accord, two students laid down next to this child, patting her back to comfort her. It made me so proud to see them, without hesitation, go out of their way to help calm their friend.

Their kindness was contagious and it led to authentic writing activities in our SK class. They created Get Well cards for a classmate who had been ill. They also wrote messages and decorated Christmas cards for cancer patients at Sick Kids Hospital.

These children impressed me every day with the ways they lived and breathed our Habit “Make the world better”. If only SKs ruled the world, what a kinder world it would be!

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Making a Difference – As an Entrepreneur

I received an email the week before Labour Day from a student who graduated last June. Subject line: Our tutoring business. That’s what happens when entrepreneurship takes root in your school.

It was a distinct pleasure to announce the launch of the KCS Student Entrepreneurship Program (StEP) at our annual Curriculum Night. Our pilot last spring was an evident success, not just for the students who embraced the opportunity but also for the contagion that hit a passion-driven group of grads who explained they spent all of one summer night together at a cottage hatching their business plan. Each going to different high schools, they wanted to find a way to stay tight-knit. When they landed on their idea of offering tutoring services for interested families at KCS, their passion was locked in.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in its Learning 2030 report, declared the “students who are best prepared for the future are change agents.” The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report shared an estimate that 65% of today’s primary students will have jobs that don’t exist yet. Further evidence of the times a-changin’ was a story on CTV that announced the gig economy was substantial and growing in Canada. In this mix are multiple, global challenges looking each of us square in the eye. This is not what traditional schooling prepared us for. But it’s an opportunity for those equipped to be the informed, responsible change agents the world needs. The future is for the difference-makers, in whatever field and position they find themselves, in whatever capacities they choose.

The entrepreneurial mindset is already well established at KCS. The Habits of Mind, Body and Action that include the hallmark attributes of quality entrepreneurial pursuits have been our waymarkers for over eight years. Service learning, which is the intentional integration of curriculum and community service, has been part of KCS for 14 years. Authentic, ubiquitous student leadership, where students pursue their passions to make a difference (no election needed), has been part of our core offering almost as long. Now we’re adding an unparalleled opportunity for middle school students to become authentic entrepreneurs (social, not-for-profit, or for-profit). It includes structured guidance on the entrepreneurial path, the support of external experts from Future Design School, the challenge of pitching one’s plan to a panel of entrepreneurs, and the opportunity to earn mentorship from an established entrepreneur and even seed funding to get started. The KCS 30th Anniversary Diamond Gala on May 4, 2019, will raise funds to support this new dimension of KCS. And the generous involvement of entrepreneurs in our community will give successful students a uniquely inspiring learning opportunity on the life of a difference-maker.

The young have always been known to be dreamers. The fact is, we need them to remain dreamers. School needs to kindle those dreamers into meaningful change-makers, and KCS has always assumed that responsibility. With the addition of StEP to our many other offerings in student leadership, the height of our efforts to make dreams a reality match the height of the changing world students face, and the opportunities available to those ready to make them.

For Those Willing to Leap

“Experience does not go on simply inside a person…Every present experience is a moving force…influencing what future experiences will be.”
-John Dewey, Experience & Education, 1938

This was the opening quote at our 2018 return-to-school faculty meeting. Recognising that KCS students have always had a plethora of wonderful learning experiences, we reflected on how these experiences, and in particular the balance of experiences, in turn shape the experiences to come.

Many positive initiatives are underway at KCS. Initiatives inherently require a leap, a responsible risk, and the recognition that the first effort may not be as anticipated. They’re experiences of particular potency, often unsettling, earning early pushback, with the possibility of failing*. Our Habits equip us to embrace the challenge of initiatives and grow as a result of doing so. We see the leaps among our students, and we see how they grow by fighting through them, and subsequently enjoying what the future experiences offer as reward. We also see the leaps among our faculty, who equally grow by grappling through our areas of focus, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing how their leaps enhance student learning and agency. And we see how each experience of individual students and teachers positively shape the landscape where future experiences will take firmer root. These are exhilarating moments to witness.

Equally exhilarating is to learn about how the Habits are fueling other members of the KCS community to embrace huge initiatives and shape the subsequent experiences of those around them.

I learned recently of a parent who has undertaken the exceptional initiative of seeking public office for the first time. A longstanding, active member of our community, the KCS Habits are as much a part of her mindset as they are our students and faculty. Lead to Make a Difference, Take Responsible Risks, Do What is Right and more have helped propel her to step in where she noticed leadership was deeply needed. She admitted to the same struggle we all face when taking a leap, but shared that the values and messages of KCS helped reinforce what she knew she needed to do. She also shared her delight at seeing how her actions are inspiring similar courage, persistence and determination in her children. They’re rightly proud watching their mother step forward, challenge power, and work to make the world better. They’re now taking more of their own leaps. Experiences, influencing future experiences.

Parents, share your leaps with your children as we share our own at school. Share how you’re taking responsible risks, how it may be unnerving at times, how it often includes mistakes, how leaps always require courage, persistence and many of our other Habits. Where possible, invite your children into those leaps so your children are part of the experience. And see how doing so influences the future experience for both yourselves and your children.

The future needs individuals exceptionally equipped to make a difference. The job of preparing them begins in childhood. Let the experiences begin.

*F.A.I.L. = First Attempt in Learning

Speak Up

Basics Made Marvellous

A recent blog shared how we’re actively balancing basics with unlimited opportunities. We appreciate parents’ desire to ensure the basics are a priority. They’re the foundation. Our internal and external assessments, including the standardized Canadian Achievement Test (CAT) scores with an average result in the 80th and 90th percentile, as well as the success of our alumni, make clear that the basics are being established.

Like piano scales in the hands of a virtuoso pianist, schools need to nurture children’s desire to do marvellous things with what they know. We’re delighted to share stories of how this, like the basics, is also evident throughout the school. While there are many examples, here’s one story that’s worth some detail.

Our grade 6 – 8 students have the unique opportunity to enjoy electives in the spring term from the end of March to end of school. For two back-to-back periods each Wednesday, these students engage in one of nine opportunities within the Four Doors, purely for the love of it. Some march down Dundas in aprons and chefs’ hats to Cirillo’s for a cooking class. Others go to a dance studio; compose music; create wearable tech with Arduino; do yoga; learn cricket; make movies; or prepare for their European Battlefield trip next year. One final group is called ‘Go Ahead’. It’s for students with BIG IDEAS, including entrepreneurial ambitions, who want time, a location, resources and access to expertise to pursue them. We have 18 students in Go Ahead who truly make me marvel:

  1. Four with entrepreneurial ambitions, including one who has already started an online business that’s earning money (he requested marketing expertise) and one social entrepreneur whose project may have a lasting legacy at KCS (can’t wait to share more about that!)
  2. Nine creating with electronics, Arduino code and circuit boards, motors, straws, fans, lights and more – one is creating a mini water park; another is creating a wind-powered motor to power lights; yet another is fitting a beach chair with a phone-charging solar panel, table, and cup holder (inspired by a March Break mishap).
  3. One working on a KCS By Design project to introduce student-led peer tutoring.
  4. Others writing books (yes, books) and creating stunning personal artwork.

The basics are big, and what students do with them is big. We’ll keep working to ensure students have the foundation they need, and the opportunities they need, so that they also learn that they can do marvellous things now, and throughout their lives.

Passion-Driven Learning

There’s a story in Sir Ken Robinson’s book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, that has stuck with me over the years. It’s the story of how much Paul McCartney, when a schoolboy, hated music class. Surely, that was a clue that there was something remiss in how school worked.

We all have memories of school that include the less interesting stuff. Memorizing unengaging facts, repetitive practice of concepts, the frustrating period before you “get it,” learning square dancing in gym class (am I dating myself?), and more. Some of that less interesting stuff is still happening, even in schools like KCS (not the square dancing…). That’s because it matters. Whether you consider it the cement or the bricks, establishing core skills takes time and is a foundational part of becoming a lifelong learner.

With that foundation, however, there’s nothing like passion to inspire lifelong learners to unimaginable heights. Passion-driven learning engages all of our abilities and awareness. It is an intrinsically-driven determination to learn, embrace challenges, and achieve something of value. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, renowned psychologist, has hypothesized that certain traits predispose individuals to experiencing what he called flow: high interest in life, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a tendency to pursue things for intrinsic reasons. Creators of all kinds are recognized for these traits. They are traits that lead to unparalleled learning and difference-making. In his 2010 TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi argues flow is even the elusive secret to happiness. These traits are intentionally developed in passion-driven learning.

Csikszentmihalyi makes clear that skill is a necessary foundation for flow. At KCS, we’re actively developing that foundation. We’re also actively inspiring curiosity, intrinsic motivation, persistence, and low self-centredness. Our Reggio-inspired program is teaching our youngest students to read, write, compute, collaborate, and imagine. Our project-based learning (kissing cousin to Reggio), electives, student leadership, and encouragement of student-driven learning are targeted at developing the attributes of passion-driven learners who can look forward to lives filled with creative contributions and the happiness we all want for ourselves and others.

KCS students are exercising their intrinsic motivation by writing books, playwriting, creating videos, educating others, creating with technology and composing music. If Paul McCartney were a student here, his passion for music would have a place.

At KCS, in all grades, students enjoy a balanced program of basics with opportunity. This balance makes for school days full of hard-earned progress plus inspired initiative and creativity. It makes for stories that are vastly different from the unfortunate ones shared in the early chapters of The Element. It makes for stories that show, at KCS, education has come a long, exciting way.