The World That We Design

Last week, we were treated to our annual spring concert – a wonderful showcase of our extracurricular bands and choirs. The arts do so much to make the world better. In fact, beyond the pleasure of listening to beautiful music, this concert included a message from our primary choir that struck a particular chord:

We can live in a world that we design.
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make.
(“Million Dreams” by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)

Part of educating students (and raising children) is preparing them for the world they will eventually face, independent of us. Much of that world is what it is, for better or for worse (sigh). Of course, we’re getting them ready for that. But the world is also what we collectively make it. At KCS, we’re teaching our students how to design the world they face for the better. Here’s one recent responsible risk where we did just that.

In May, Ms. Hooper, Ms. Gaudet and I joined our grade 8s on a trip to the WE Global Learning Centre downtown. This was the culminating event of a year spent learning about human geography, including forces shaping the human experience and our relationship with the planet. Against a backdrop of global challenges, they also learned about the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs were where our grade 8 students would both demonstrate and leverage their learning for the better.

At the WE Centre, our grade 8s pitched social enterprises to experts from the WE community, enterprises that they created from scratch to help address one or more of the U.N. goals.

They created enterprises to help address illiteracy, pollution, access to clean water, gender equality, health and wellness, climate change, poverty, education, plus life below and above water. One enterprise, Hakuna Njaa (meaning ‘No hunger’ in Swahili), was a proposed restaurant that would allow hungry Torontonians to help fund food and nutrition programs in areas facing a food crisis. “At our restaurant, people won’t just be paying for food, they are paying to make a difference.” Their pitch wrapped up with:

“We’re hungry for change. You should be too.”

We don’t know if our grade 8s will go on to further pursue their social enterprise plans. Their time at KCS is soon over and our Student Entrepreneurship Program (StEP) won’t follow them to their high schools. What they will take with them, however, is something that will follow them wherever they go. Here’s how one parent described her son’s reflection on the day:

“Listening to [my son] describe how inspired he was to be at the office yesterday and how meaningful it made it for the kids to have the “experts in the field” vote on the projects…the whole experience from start to finish has absolutely made an impact and a difference already. It made [him] think more deeply for example about believing he could actually make a difference, which I feel is an enormously empowering thing for kids to feel in this era of knowing so much about problems that affect the world, and yet not feeling like they can always help…or make an impact.”

Part of preparing students for the future is preparing them to design it, and instilling the knowledge and confidence that they can. We’re heeding the message. Our students are dreaming. And it’s music to our ears.

(Note – This partnership with WE, including an introduction to social entrepreneurship, instruction in making a strong pitch, and expert feedback and judging through the day, was supported by the KCS StEP Fund, thanks to the generosity of KCS parents and 30th Anniversary Diamond Gala sponsors)

Building a strong foundation in grade 1

Grade 1 is an essential year for academics. It’s the year when students develop a set of core skills that lay the foundation for future success in the elementary grades.

Throughout their time in Grade 1, students are given direct instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics, to ensure that they have a strong understanding of fundamental academic concepts. These lessons are supported by a number of daily routines that give the students opportunities to regularly practice their skills and solidify new concepts.

Reading is a huge priority in Grade 1. Every student participates in their own ability-leveled reading group for 50 minutes a day. For some students, this means a strong focus on phonics and decoding words, to help build their ability to read longer texts independently. For those needing more enriched work, this means more challenging books with a focus on comprehension, basic research skills, and responding to texts with detailed writing tasks.

The Grade 1 students also participate in weekly “writer’s workshops”, where they are taught the conventions of writing, ranging from spelling to grammar to punctuation. To build on those lessons, the students take part in daily journal writing. After they have written their journal, they work with a teacher to edit and correct their writing. This editing process not only reinforces key lessons, it also consistently raises the bar for each individual student’s writing.

When it comes to mathematics, our Grade 1 teachers blend hands-on exploration work with direct instruction in addition, subtraction, word problems, and place value. These lessons are supported by follow-up assignments that are designed to help students practice their basic facts and develop their problem-solving skills.

Any engineer will tell you that the strength of a structure depends on the strength of the foundation. In Grade 1 at KCS, we build the strongest foundation possible!

KCS Faculty are Lifelong Learners Too!

At KCS, we focus on developing lifelong learners. It makes sense that each year our faculty embrace new and challenging learning opportunities so that they can continue to support each student in this goal. With the goal of each student becoming lifelong learners, each faculty member is also actively involved in learning that is relevant not only to their teaching practice, but also their ongoing commitment to learning. Many teachers choose to take courses, read, share, and attend conferences to support their professional learning and their students’ needs. KCS’s commitment to lifelong learning is not only evident at the student level, but at the teacher level as well.

One particularly relevant professional learning experience is offered each year through CIS Ontario. Now in its seventh season, Cohort 21 brings CIS Ontario educators together for a year-long professional learning opportunity. Working collaboratively with some of the most passionate educators in the province, participants share innovative ideas, connect with experts in the field, plan for change in their schools, and engage in Design Thinking workshops to help develop a focus of a personal project called an Action Plan.

As a veteran of Season 4 in 2014-2015, I can honestly say that my learning experiences through Cohort 21 played a role in my decision to continue to research learning for six more years. Having a good understanding of student learning, I wanted to better understand teacher learning, and of course as a lifelong learner I am still figuring it out. Since then, KCS has supported three more faculty members throughout their own Cohort 21 experience. Last year, Season 6 involved our grade 2 team. Lisa Woon ventured out to discover new technology and Keri Davis went on a ride through project based learning. This year, Bob Hayes is exploring how to solve the world’s greatest problem and I’m back as a coach, still learning about learning.

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Lifelong learners tend to be those who are well supported in their learning efforts and this is something that KCS models across the entire school community. We’ll never stop learning because we are supported in both our efforts and our passions. We know from experience that this is what drives us to learn along with our students and our students know from experience that no matter what we are along for the ride.

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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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.

Five Things KCS is Thankful for in our 30th Year!

1) The one and only Ricardo – salter of icy sidewalks, handyman extraordinaire, and our foremost class clown!

2) Our alumni are now grown up enough to work here!

3) Foula’s big smile and bigger heart! Whether she’s looking after a sick student, helping a new family find their way around the school, or simply greeting everyone who walks through our doors, she does it all with a seemingly endless supply of happiness and joy.

4) Three additions, one amalgamation, lots of renovations, and (coming soon) a new park too!

5) The visionary and dedicated founders of KCS. Because if they hadn’t followed their dream thirty years ago, we wouldn’t get to be a part of this amazing school that they built for all of us. So from the bottom of our hearts, THANK YOU!!!

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Grounded in Tradition, Driven by Innovation

“Although so much of KCS has changed, there is still so much that remains the same, and that’s one of the many things that makes this school so special.” – Laura, a KCS parent and alumna, reflecting on her children’s first day of school this September, thirty years after her own first day as a Grade 1 student at KCS.

Last weekend was KCS’s Welcome Back BBQ, an annual event we’ve been celebrating since the school began thirty years ago. In many ways, it wasn’t that different from our very first BBQ, held back when we were just a small school with only 50 students. Both of them featured hamburgers, hot dogs, sunshine, and (most importantly) families and friends joining together to celebrate the start of a new school year.

But this year’s BBQ wasn’t a total time capsule. Along with the classic traditions, the 2018 iteration also featured climbing walls, airbrushed tattoos, and kids showing off their best Fortnite dance moves. Because while traditions are important, you can’t let them completely define you. You have to be open to new ideas and innovations that build on a strong foundation laid by years of thoughtful traditions.

This holds true for everything at KCS, not just BBQs. For example, our academic program is built around a strong core of traditional direct instruction. Our youngest students learn the basics of reading though teacher-led small lessons on phonics and decoding. Older students are formally taught a wide range of study skills to help them find success in exams and tests. And students of all ages spend time practicing and memorizing core math facts that help them make complex computations more quickly and easily. In many ways, all of these would have felt very familiar to the students and teachers at our first BBQ.

However, we also know that tradition must be partnered with brave innovations and experimentation. It’s safe to say that nobody in the late eighties was talking about the importance of young students developing an entrepreneurship mindset, but that’s exactly what we’re doing with our new StEP initiative. Our innovative electives program encourages passion-driven learning and gives students the chance to explore their own big ideas. We’ve also got our students creating wearable technology with Arduino, writing code with Scratch, and learning the process of design thinking. All of these exciting programs go to show that thirty years into our story, we’re balancing traditional teaching and learning with a healthy dose of revolutionary ideas.

Some things – like hamburgers and hot dogs – will stand the test of time. But that doesn’t mean you have to be bound by tradition. After all, a nice gluten-free bun and a side of quinoa salad can make that burger taste even better!

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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.

Visible Learning at KCS

How can we go one step further? And one step further again?

Educating almost 400 students is a job that’s never done. It starts, of course, with the people involved – the students, their parents, our faculty and staff – and an ongoing awareness of their needs. Then the Ministry curriculum is added to provide provincial context and expectations. Our Four Doors to Learning in academics, arts, athletics and citizenship then take us well beyond what the Ministry expects. As the foundation and guiding framework of our entire effort, our Habits of Mind, Body and Action ensure we develop our students to be lifelong learners, equipped to embrace any challenges they face. And so on.

Recent visitors to KCS have seen our most current effort to go one step further in promoting learning at KCS. Our “Visible Learning” exhibit showcases the wide array of learning underway at KCS from PK to grade 8. It includes both finished products and artifacts in process (where the important learning happens). It includes evidence of our Four Doors and all of our Habits. Uniquely, it also includes the Learning Stories of our students and faculty – stories of remarkable moments, challenges overcome, most thought-provoking experiences, and personal expressions of pride. These are the kinds of stories that are normally kept private. Now shared, our whole community is learning more than ever from the experiences of others in our midst.

What is some of the “further learning” stemming from this exhibit?

  1. KCS students learn lots of cool things in cool ways. For young students, there’s much to look forward to. For older students, there is hard-won pride in how far they’ve come.
  2. KCS students also do the hard work of learning the fundamentals (see how proud many are of their efforts and growth!).
  3. Challenges are normal. If you’re feeling alone in yours, know that others have faced and overcome them, just like you will.
  4. Process matters. The work that is imperfect, that needs revision, that has feedback on it, is worthy of display. Embrace the work and imperfection inherent in process.
  5. Teachers are proud of their students when they persist. There is no shame in struggle.
  6. Sharing is inspiring. By sharing your private learning story, and by having your work on display, you are inspiring others to think about it, find affirmation or challenge in it, and consider possibly following your lead. Maybe more students will choose to 3D print for a project? Maybe they’ll give book-writing a try with YAKCS? Maybe song composition for the KCS Sound Library? There are so many possibilities.

Thank you to all the students and faculty for helping make learning more visible at KCS. Your efforts are already inspiring. This exhibit takes that inspiration one step further.

The “Visible Learning at KCS” exhibit continues until Friday, November 24.