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.

The Abilities They Have

“Instead of teaching children to get ‘there,’ why not let them be here? Where is ‘there’ anyway? The world needs more ‘here’ than ‘there’.” – Vince Gowmon

One grade 5 student stopped me in the hall early in the year, explaining she had some things to share. “I’ll walk you to your office,” she began. She explained she wanted to start an environment club for students in grades 1 to 4 (in the works). Oh, and she’s working on two novel series (yes, you read that right.)

You get what you give. What is evident is that we get to learn more about what students can do when we give them space to show us. Here are five inspiring ways we’re learning this lovely lesson at KCS:

  1. Projects have started in many grades and students are coming up with their research questions. Our grade 2 students, after following the Question Formulation Technique, came up with questions that no “grade two” resource can answer. The teachers are now planning to connect with a zoologist so the students’ questions can get the answers they deserve.
  2. Other grades have started their own entirely independent projects. Grade 5 students, for example, have dedicated time to pursue an area of learning chosen by them, with the sole expectation that they share it with their class. One girl recently shared a presentation on a special family celebration, Diwali, with her classmates. Another student is learning how to code. Yet another is organising a food drive.
  3. A boy approached my colleague to say he wanted to lead a project to create a school flag. He has put together his team and already received permission to pursue this from the Head of School (the minute he learned he needed approval, off he went, right to Mr. Logan).
  4. Our grade 7 and 8 students recently learned of their opportunity, through KCS By Design, to join faculty and administrators in making KCS “outstanding,” working side-by-side and following a design thinking process to make a wise and notable difference. There’s no election, no special status and no reward for this work, other than the intrinsic reward of making something better. Twenty-two students opted to join us at our kick-off design thinking workshop next month.
  5. A group of over 30 students from grades 3 to 8 attended our recent Young Authors of KCS (YAKCS) workshop with award-winning author Shane Peacock. This is a unique opportunity for students who so love to write that they’re willing to persist in writing a book. There is no time limit and successful young authors have typically (and understandably) required more than one year. Those who persist to complete a manuscript will have a one-to-one feedback session with Mr. Peacock, where he’ll give them revision tips “author to author.” Students who persist beyond that to create a final product will have it officially published by KCS. To date, KCS students have seven published books sitting in the National Library and Archives Canada.

I was interviewed last week by a grade 3 student for an upcoming Learning Exhibit. Among his questions, he asked what students do that make me proud. How could I explain? They make me proud with every effort they make to do their best, make that best better, share what they know, take risks, and make a difference. You’d be overwhelmed with pride too if you could see the abilities they have. Go ahead, give them space to show you.

Three Habits for Aspiring Olympians

At KCS, we spend a lot of time talking about the Habits of Mind, Body and Action. So when Olympic bronze medalist Kylie Masse visited us, we were thrilled to discover that her advice for future Olympians lined up perfectly with three of our own Habits!

  1. “Never Give Up.”

We all face challenges. But you can’t let them stop you. That’s why we think one of the most important Habits for success in life is to learn to “Persist”. And Kylie clearly agrees. She spoke to us at length about the challenges she has faced, which ranged from losing international competitions to getting cut from teams. However, she always came back to the same mantra – “Never give up.” It was that drive and persistence that took her all the way to the Olympic podium.

  1. “Worry Only About What You Can Control.”

Letting go of control is a hard lesson for everyone. The first step is to “Think Flexibly” – a Habit that helps us to work effectively no matter what the circumstances. In Kylie’s case, this meant learning to accept that she couldn’t control the temperature of the pool or the noise of the crowd or the speed of the swimmer in the next lane. So she adjusted her attitude, changed her thinking, and focused only on the things she could control.

  1. “Have Fun!”

Kids today live in a fast-paced world, so it’s no wonder the levels of stress and anxiety amongst children is skyrocketing. That’s one of the reasons why we encourage our students to make it a Habit to “Find Humour.” As Kylie pointed out, she could have easily burned out after only a few years of intense dedication and training. But because she held on to her sense of fun and humour, she arrived in Rio with a smile on her face and a calm heart.

Many thanks to Kylie for sharing her story, to the Parent Network for supporting the Talk That Matters Speaker Series, and to Henry and Charlie for inviting their cousin to visit KCS. We may not all make it to the Olympics, but we can all take some guidance from her words of wisdom!

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Everything a School Should Be – Part 2

Teachers join the profession to do their best for students. Doing one’s best includes a vast array of efforts, a sample of which were shared in Part 1 of this post.

Doing one’s best also means a determined, responsible commitment to constant improvement, wherever merited and as manageable.

At KCS, we’re constantly looking at what we do, identifying where we wish to grow, and taking measured steps forward from year-to-year. Many steps are identified by individual teachers, or grade partners, or divisions of teachers. Some steps are school-wide. Some are new initiatives; while others are ongoing efforts that began in previous years and continue to be an area of focus.

Here is some of what we’re focusing on this year:

  1. Living the Mission – Always our #1 focus, our mission is to be the defining force in developing lifelong learners. Currently, this effort includes Project-Based Learning; direct efforts to teach questioning skills; the growth of KCS as a Makerspace, with our new Innovation Lab and increased “making” throughout the school; the use of design thinking for deeper thinking, learning and problem-solving; and the launch of a new program called “High Resolves” in our senior grades as part of our global education efforts.
  2. Assessment – This is a multi-year area of focus. We launched a new report card last year and some adjustments will be made this year. We also launched our new secure electronic portfolio, Sesame, and we continue our roll-out to include all students from PK to grade 3. A blog will soon follow to explain why this is an exciting addition to KCS!
  3. Movement Project – This is also an ongoing area of focus under the leadership of our Director of Student Life, Tamara Drummond. Standing desks, chairs that allow for movement, fidget toys, and new practices that invite more frequent movement in the school day are becoming increasingly widespread throughout the school.
  4. Reading Evolution – A number of years ago we introduced a reading program that helped many of our students better consolidate the fundamentals of reading. The cumulative effect of this program is now a very noticeable increase in the reading skills of all of our students. Driven by internal data, reading instruction is evolving to meet the growing readiness for greater challenge.
  5. ELP and Reggio-inspired programming – Following widespread professional development, visits to other schools, and engagement of a consultant, the PK, JK and SK faculty have enthusiastically embraced Reggio-inspired programming as a strong complement to the Ministry of Education curriculum. While direct instruction on core skills will continue, students will also be given more time to practise being deep thinkers and learners through self-directed inquiry.
  6. Professional Development – PD has always been a regular feature of employment at KCS. All teachers have a generous budget for PD and they pursue various opportunities of relevance to their role. This year we launched a new means of sharing PD that allows all staff to see what others have done, and get a glimpse into what they learned. This is an efficient and effective new way to share professional learning and encourage greater awareness of the various PD offerings available to all.
  7. Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS preparation) – This merits a blog of its own, and one will follow later in the year. CAIS oversees a comprehensive accreditation process for independent schools that aspire to excellence. KCS is CAIS-accredited, and all staff will be working this year on an internal review in preparation for our upcoming accreditation review in November of 2017.

At KCS we’re constantly learning so that we can keep improving in all ways that matter, each and every year. Creative thinking is inspired when multiple challenges synergize into innovative solutions. Progressing thoughtfully and responsibly, changes aren’t always immediate. They’re discussed, and if considered worthy they’re piloted. If successful, they spread. When imperfect, they’re tweaked. And they’re not limited by the notion that we can only focus on a few areas. Collectively, there are positive changes happening throughout the school, based on what teachers feel needs improvement, and what they can manage well. Being everything a school should be includes constantly trying to do better. Doing our best means we won’t accept anything less.