A New Definition of Cool

GraphOne reward for getting older is no longer caring about looking cool. Surrounded by tweens and teens at home and school, I’m often reminded of the lengths I went at their age to not look uncool. (Do sneakers in the snow sound familiar to anyone else?)

Gratefully, I wear warm winter boots now. I also get to witness and share the unbridled excitement that comes from, yes, data. Jumping out of our skin for numbers and charts won’t register on the typical ‘cool’ list of things to do, but it’s an unforgettable sight I’ve been grateful to witness a number of times now.

Two years ago, a significant area of focus for the school was reading. Since then, we’ve invested in a series of Direct Instruction programs, including Reading Mastery and other companion resources, that ensure all students pick up the skills needed to be thoroughly successful readers, from phonemic awareness to making inferences. All reading teachers from JK to grade 6 have received extensive training to deliver the program. Leveraging the small-group instruction time in our Super Skills and Workshop classes, we now deliver an intense, research-based, aligned effort to teach this most critical skill. Assessment happens frequently to monitor student progress. We also use a comprehensive standardized assessment to capture baseline data at the start of the year, mid-year and at the end with our youngest students, just to double-check.

That’s the data that’s got us beaming like giddy teens. Seeing the extent to which our students are growing in their reading skills is gratifying beyond words.

Teachers join the profession to make a difference. That difference is rarely quick and rarely rooted in one effort, no matter how significant that effort is. The complexity of meeting the needs of all students, to the greatest extent possible, is typically just too great.

Getting our kicks out of data may be considered uncool. So be it. But making a difference is what these teachers are about. Our excitement at doing so is irrepressible. And we’re not afraid to show it.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

Big Steps with our Little Ones

LearningIt’s been almost six months since KCS’s first-ever PK, JK and SK classes began. You may recall that when you’re that young, six months is a very long time. Between everything our youngest students have learned and all that their teachers have accomplished, it’s time to step back, take note and celebrate.

All good teaching starts with learning. Discussions on how to align the Early Learning Program (PK-SK classes) with grades 1 to 8 began in January 2013. These discussions were promptly fuelled by external professional development throughout the spring and summer at a kindergarten conference, a reading institute and at workshops on play-based learning.

Since September, professional development hasn’t let up. More external workshops, online courses, internal guidance on emergent curriculum and technology, iPad workshops, plus visits to observe and learn from kindergarten teachers at another independent school have also taken place. Without question, the newest members of our KCS faculty are exemplary models of our KCS Habit Embrace Learning. Commitment to ongoing learning and improvement is an inherent part of KCS from PK to grade 8.

Reading Mastery is a Direct Instruction program that is now established at KCS from JK to grade 6. First introduced at KCS two years ago, the small-group, research-based instruction is proving exceptionally effective in ensuring all students master the fundamentals of reading, from phonics to making inferences. Our kindergarten students get further opportunity in reading through take-home readers, regular get-togethers with KCS Reading Buddies, the excitement of guest Mystery Readers, teacher read-alouds and multiple other opportunities to learn the power of print.

Project-based learning (PBL) is another school-wide area of focus embraced by our kindergarten classes. PBL is a method of teaching that optimizes both learning about the world and also development of the KCS Habits of Mind, Body and Action. Through a tantalizing question or challenge, curiosity is piqued, and students are ready to engage in a wide variety of learning related to the topic at hand. The Emergent Curriculum practised in our PK classes and play-based learning also practiced in kindergarten are the age-appropriate ‘cousins’ to PBL. This excellent foundation aligns with the learning that awaits in grades 1 to 8 and indeed, the rest of their lives.

Incoming young students can also look forward to much more. iPads are being leveraged to help support skill development in our kindergarten program. The program ‘Handwriting Without Tears’ is being used to teach fine-motor skills, printing and eventually cursive writing from PK to grade 3. Math is being taught according to best practice with small-group instruction, a wide variety of hands-on learning experiences and engaging games. Music and French are taught by passionate specialist teachers who have aligned their efforts with the program in grades 1 to 8. Social and physical development have dedicated time with daily outdoor play and physical education classes in our full day program. Community service included a PK-SK partnership with the George Hull Centre collecting gifts for families in need. And exciting field trips to the Humber Arboretum, Aquarium, Toronto Symphony and more allow our students to learn from the many opportunities within the GTA.

While our half-day and full-day programs both offer all of the above, our full-day program provides the time needed to make the most of a rich learning program. Deep learning comes when students take their time, engage in activities until their natural conclusion and pursue ideas until the mind, not the schedule, tells them to stop. Long uninterrupted periods of learning not only support skill development but are also when habits of persistence, curiosity and creative thinking take root.

At the six-month mark, we’re very grateful for the twelve new faculty who collectively bring more than 170 years of teaching, from not only the former St. Georges Nursery School but also other highly regarded schools. Their learning and dedication to our youngest children has made for a very special first half year. With ongoing learning and unwavering dedication going forward, our Early Learning Program can look forward to many more happy half-years to come.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

Embracing Learning

As expected, lots of learning is underway at KCS.

What you might find interesting is to learn about what our teachers are learning.

Every year includes ongoing professional growth for faculty. Much of the learning is individual in nature, as all faculty are encouraged to identify areas in which they feel they want or need to grow, and then to pursue that learning. Some learning is common to groups of faculty, such as when we collaboratively address a challenge or pilot a new initiative. On top of all this activity, each year has school-wide areas of learning.

So, what faculty learning is taking place this year?

  • Many are receiving formal training in teaching Reading Mastery, a Direct Instruction program that has proven very effective since our pilot the year before last.
  • Among those who are proficient in teaching Reading Mastery, two are now working on becoming certified trainers in Direct Instruction programs.
  • We have teachers taking additional Faculty of Education courses in areas such as math and special education.
  • One teacher is working on her PhD.
  • Many of us have attended conferences and workshops on best-practices in kindergarten.
  • Six are in the midst of a ten-module Leadership Institute with CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools).
  • A number of teachers are currently receiving professional development in the area of mental health, and sharing what they learn with all faculty.  In addition, we are developing our own professional development in this area for all our staff which will begin early in 2014.
  • All teachers are learning about new applications in technology, from self-study, in-house training and by attending conferences.
  • Many teachers are learning from global professional networks on Twitter and Pinterest; an increasing number of teachers are learning to use these tools so they can develop their own network; a few teachers are learning how to leverage Twitter as a classroom tool.
  • Many teachers have signed up for external workshops specific to their subjects.
  • All are advancing their abilities to offer Project-Based Learning (PBL) opportunities in their classes, using the books PBL Starter Kit and PBL in the Elementary Grades that we all read over the summer as a common planning tool.
  • All are growing as a result of the collaborative planning and problem-solving inherent in making the most of every student’s day.

Our students have days full of learning. Our teachers do too.  Developing lifelong learners is what we do at KCS. Whether young or old(er), embracing learning is a Habit that applies to us all.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

In Case You’re Wondering: Curriculum Planning By Design

LearningI recall as an elementary student admiring the coiled manual my teacher held in her hand. Believing that book held the key to my learning, I ambled through my young non-teaching years thinking good teaching was pretty straight-forward.

Boy was I wrong.

Optimal teaching is anything but straightforward. It doesn’t come from a book, but grows thanks to the endless efforts of the teachers who deliver it, and thanks to a culture that supports them.

By now, KCS parents, you’ve already met many of the outstanding teachers at KCS. You might be wondering, however, about the culture that drives what we do. It’s worth wondering about. It explains how these teachers grow from each other’s strengths and create learning experiences that surpass anything a single teacher could deliver on their own. Here are the elements of a culture that leads to a curriculum where 1 + 1 = 3:

  1. A foundation rooted in knowing each student’s needs, aspiring to our school mission, and a broad awareness of the tools and techniques that will help us meet both
  2. Regular collaboration and frank conversations
  3. A framework that meets or exceeds Ministry expectations
  4. An environment free of practice based on doing what’s comfortable, unsupported opinion, what’s in fashion, how we were taught or what we’ve always done
  5. An atmosphere saturated in the Habits of Mind, Body and Action, so teachers and students exercise and strengthen them through their work (Embrace learning, think flexibly, take responsible risks and do what is right are some of the stand-out Habits required in curriculum development.)
  6. A balance between Direct Instruction, Project-Based Learning, and other learning experiences, as deemed worthy
  7. An ever-present search for how to enrich learning, inspire a love for learning, inject critical and creative thinking, and differentiate instruction

I sure wasn’t aware of this as a young student, and don’t know that many outside of KCS faculty would be aware of it either. I do know you care a lot about what we do with your children, and thought I would share how we determine what we do, just in case you were wondering.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

Some Old School is Good School

Learning & Teaching MethodsI confess. At my school, we do some things that are very old school.

I follow what’s happening in the profession very closely. I read with interest what educators around the world are doing. I note that old-school approaches are often assumed wrong, not by research but by opinion.

These are exciting times in education, and there is a lot of room for new tools and strategies. Technology has made much that was impossible possible. Project-based learning, flat classroom projects that connect students around the world, and emphasis on 21st century stills like collaboration and inquiry are welcome progress. I love reading about how educators around the world are using these new approaches, and love bringing much of what is new to our school.

I’m also compelled to be a voice that says there is value in some of what schools used to do. The evidence is in the students, and the fact that a restricted array of approaches will never be sufficient for all. Schools must include all that has recently shown promise, plus remember all that used to have value, and then apply them all according to the needs of each student. So, in addition to all the current practices at our school, what old-school ones have we found also meet student needs?   We teach reading in many ways, but one way is through what’s called Direct Instruction, which is teacher-directed, and is the highly specific teaching of phonics, decoding and comprehension. We teach printing and cursive using a resource that is also specific to the skill, and we use it for six years in a row so that writing has a chance to develop alongside keyboarding skills. We teach math facts until students are fully fluent, allow minimal use of a calculator, and teach math concepts with clear step-by-step instruction. We have exams starting in grade 6, and put a significant effort in teaching students how to prepare for this significant challenge.

Teaching all students well requires open-mindedness to an unbounded array of tools and practices. It requires deep knowledge of each student, reflective practice, knowledge of quality research and the evidence of experience. That needs to be read more often. Whether old-school or new-school, if it helps students, it belongs.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.