Go Ahead, Figure It Out

“I am learning how to deal with frustration, time management, and learning to work without pressure.”

“I am learning to be really creative, and to problem solve.”

“I have learned that being independent is more responsibility than I thought it would be.”

One student spent our last period launching and adjusting his prototype rocket on the school yard, to the delight of those watching from inside. Another retreated behind a tree, where the wind conditions were just right, to spray paint the sneakers that she was turning into roller skates. Writing books, assembling robots, creating works of art, and building a wind-powered, name-bearing wagon round out the array of projects underway in the new Go Ahead elective. These were the projects chosen by the students who selected this elective, and this is the responsible risk that Mrs. Drummond and I chose to take this year. While neither she nor I have experience in any of these things, we do have experience in learning from scratch. We vowed to figure it out.

About half of our students were ready to go before the elective even started. For the other half, dreaming hit reality. The student wishing to build a rocket had his heart set for three weeks on using chemicals that were too dangerous. Another student spent multiple weeks hoping to build a metal-framed, motor-powered go-kart, only to be disappointed at the cost and complication of it all. These students had taken the biggest leaps, and had the farthest to fall to reach a project they could make. Did they regret their choice of elective? Were they wasting their time? We didn’t think so, but it’s what they think that matters. So we asked.

We started the reflection by stating the obvious – school is about learning. Then we asked what they usually learn (as they should) in their regular classes. The essentials, foundational knowledge and skills, learning skills, subjects you need for the future, and new things you otherwise wouldn’t choose to learn were among their responses. Then we admitted that they likely weren’t learning many of those things in our elective. So what did they think they were learning? Hands shot up. Here’s what they shared:

  • Trying to figure out a problem on your own
  • Wide-open creativity
  • Learning to deal with choice and freedom
  • Experience with personalised learning
  • Learning to work without pressure (this is my favourite)
  • Learning to deal with frustration
  • Time management
  • Independent work
  • Doing everything yourself

They also shared that it’s exciting and interesting. Choice and freedom made the frustration worthwhile. Because the projects are entirely their own, the lessons learned, however difficult, are theirs to own as well.

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There is a lot else they’re learning. They’re learning to ask for help. They are learning to find what they need. Some are learning to figure out exceptionally complicated diagrams; some are learning about character development in writing fiction; one is learning woodworking and two are learning to solder resistors onto printed circuit boards. They’re all learning to turn ideas into reality, and they’re learning that this includes the sometimes tedious effort of figuring out the details and communicating them clearly and convincingly to others (especially if THIS other needs to go buy resources).

There’s a lot that students should learn at school, and certainly much of that must cover the essentials. But developing students to be lifelong learners requires more. At times, it can be frustrating. It’s also deeply exciting and interesting for all involved. You just need to go ahead and figure it out.

Sometimes you have to just believe in yourself and go for it. For example, I didn’t think this project would work out at first, but it’s going very well.”

*All quotes are from grade 6 students in the Go Ahead elective.

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

 

A Wonderful (Reading) Thing

Kids dash across the playground to update Ms. Pollett-Boyle on their progress. Since I’m the lucky one to distribute certificates when students complete a level, I’m swarmed daily with messages of “I’m done Level 5!” or “I’m now travelling in Egypt!” or the rather direct “Where’s my certificate?” The first week after Christmas holidays I heard more about levels achieved over the break than about presents under the tree.

Lexia at KCSLast year we piloted a new online reading program called Lexia Core 5. It is offered as a supplement that students can use at school and at home, even on holiday if they so choose. It’s an adaptive program that helps develop core reading skills at the level and pace that’s individualized to be just right for every student. It includes re-teaching after mistakes, compelling graphics, and enticing little interludes, all designed to support, motivate, and optimize learning. The pilot was an evident success. One family was so impressed they generously offered to purchase a 3 year school-wide license. Each week, between 40 and 105 young students log on to accelerate their reading skills. — A heartfelt thank you to this family!

It’s wonderful to watch students learn. It’s not always adrenaline-fueled. The pace can be slow. On skills that are difficult, the school includes a fair amount of push and pull on the teachers’ part. So imagine the pleasure watching dozens of students driven to read (even learning the boring stuff like ‘dipthongs’ and other pesky vowel rules!).

Full disclosure, some runaway enthusiasm has led to excessive competition. That was a topic for a recent class meeting, and one more worthwhile lesson thanks to this powerful tool.

Lots of wonderful things happen at KCS and we’ve written about many of them already – the proof is in our blogs. Children swarming me with their achievement in reading? This certainly counts as one more.

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

An Inspired Lunch Hour with Random Acts of Learning

Every Friday at lunch recess, Mme Smith and I host Random Acts of Learning (RAOL) in the KCS Library. It’s a drop-in for any students from grade 2 and up to do, well, random acts of learning. Here’s what happened during last Friday’s lunch hour when 47 students came to RAOL:

  • Three students from grades 5 and 6 met to talk about a leadership project supporting Syrian refugees
  • One brought his Arduino kit to build a machine for his grade 7 service learning project
  • Two others worked on their littleBits ‘keytar’ (their own musical synthesizer)
  • A few others worked on the video games they’re creating themselves
  • Multiple others worked on their own independent projects, just because they want to learn more about something; this will culminate in a class presentation (Habit: Share What You Know)
  • Others are working on writing books, a few of whom are writing to submit a French book in a national contest
  • The newspaper club came to work on their upcoming edition
  • Some older students chose to study for exams
  • Many others just wanted more time to read

That was my lunch hour. How inspiring was yours?

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

KCS Pre-Kindergarten Students Love to Share

‘Sharing What You Know’ is one of the KCS Habits of Mind, Body and Action, so I want to share with you one thing I know about our Pre-Kindergarten program. When I’m in the PK room, my heart fills with joy. Yes, they are our youngest students in the school and yes, they make me laugh, but my heart fills with joy because they share with me what they know from the moment I walk into the room.

The other day, as soon as I entered, one child said, “Miss De Kuyper, I’m building a house!” I could tell he was proud, and I asked him who was going to live there, to which he replied, “You!” When another child put round connectors up to her eyes, I asked her what they were. She looked at my bespectacled face, smiled and said, “Glasses!” Several children brought me toys that matched the colour they were wearing that day, while some told me what they were “cooking” with playdough.

At the beginning of the school year, the PKs are coming out of toddlerhood and into the next stage of learning; something that a lot of us take for granted. This time in their little lives is huge, and it sets the stage for every year of learning after it. When children are given time to explore, they learn to identify colours or how to build a sturdy house, all while learning to share toys, space and ideas. Children absorb what they see and hear, and as the world unfolds around them, the PK program provides them the space to drive their own learning as they continuously share what they know.

Bonnie De Kuyper, RECE
PK Teacher

Consider a New Year With No-Marking Time

What would happen if students weren’t marked?

I’ve heard too often that the assumption is little learning would happen, so this post starts with a sad state of affairs. Thankfully, the true answer is both heartening, and possible.

Marks are an imperfect reality in formal education. While feedback is a valuable part of learning, marks wield power that is disproportionate to their brevity. Their power reinforces the notion that learning is something externally imposed. Marks judge, and regularly remind too many students that they simply fall short. From the attention they get, it too frequently appears that marks have usurped learning as the reason for school.

Contrary to what might be assumed, it’s not necessarily better for those earning high marks. Understandably, these students are lulled into liking favourable judgment from others and commit themselves to this model. Both the successful and struggling alike have a relationship with marks that has little to do with the resilience, curiosity, independence and internal drive needed to be successful beyond a mark-driven world. Taking risks, like the ones needed for leadership, creativity and innovation, has no place when marks are on the line.

Outside of school, it’s very evident that children and youth will readily learn without being marked. While marks are here for the foreseeable future, there’s no reason why schools can’t make room where students learn for learning’s sake. Give them time to choose what to learn and how. In these cases, let them set the standards and expectations. Let them share this learning with others without judgment, simply to create an environment of learning for the love of it. Let them take risks. Support the process and leave it in their hands, as these are the hands that need experience if the end goal is lifelong learners. I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen what students will learn when marks aren’t involved. It takes nothing but a willingness among teachers to make some time for it, then let it grow.

To teachers looking forward to a well-deserved Christmas holiday, consider starting the new year with time for unmarked learning. It’s a risk worth taking. And no marks are on the line.

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

How Schools Learn

School buildingOur website, newsletters and social media channels explain in detail how our students learn. A nod to how our teachers are learning was given in the recent blog ‘Embrace Learning’. There’s one more pocket of learning worth knowing about. A critical part of the value offered by independent schools, it’s a process that would bring untold value to all if this practice could only spread.

I’m rarely away from school. This week, however, I’ve joined a Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) Visiting Committee, where six peers from across Canada and I will play a part in one school’s learning. It’s a process required for CAIS accreditation, and represents the high bar in demonstrating school-wide commitment to excellence in education. All told, it’s a process that takes about two-and-a-half years, and repeats itself every seven.

CAIS has identified 12 Standards which together cover every area of functioning within a school: vision, mission and strategy; learning environment; academics; facility; finance; health and safety; and commitment to school improvement, to name just some of the Standards. Within each Standard, undeniable effective practices are listed. Under effective practices are questions designed to prompt and provoke schools into being accountable for their efforts.

One year prior to the visit such as I’m on, schools mobilise their whole community to collect evidence on their effective practices. The preparation of the Internal Evaluation Report includes feedback from all staff and faculty, parents, students, board members and administration. The document is rarely less than 200 pages and can be hundreds more. Designed to be an exercise in thorough and honest reflection, the report includes not only an account of strengths but also self-identified challenges and next steps. By design, this exercise is about school-wide learning. This process identifies schools which demonstrate an exceptional commitment to learning and makes note of their achieved excellence.

During our official visit the committee will spend four days meeting with teachers, administrators, parents, board members and students, verifying what’s in the school’s Internal Evaluation Report and asking about any unreported areas of note. When we leave, we’ll be writing up our observations, and include commendations, suggestions and recommendations. Our report then goes to the school, where they will have 18 months in which to respond to the recommendations. It also goes to CAIS for a decision on accreditation.

Two-and-a-half years of every seven spent answering to the profession’s highest standards fuels an undeniable engine for learning. It sets in motion work and learning that fills the interim four-and-a-half years. And by mobilizing the whole community, and bringing in professionals from outside the school, all involved learn and become better able to serve the students in their midst.

Parents with children in CAIS schools can be confident that they have invested in a school which strives for excellence. Wishing all children could be so lucky, parents with children in non-CAIS schools are encouraged to ask the question, “How do their schools learn?” It’s the kind of provocative question that our entire profession should be accountable for answering.

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.

The Journey Through KCS

GrowthLots of little ones are joining KCS this week. And this year they’re littler than ever.

As of this September, KCS now has pre-, junior and senior kindergarten, in addition to grades 1 to 8. The excitement among faculty is palpable, and the desire to do our best for these youngest of students as strong as ever. Like we do for every student, we’ll follow their journey through to graduation from KCS with heartfelt interest. Here’s some of what they will come across:

  1. Deeply caring and driven teachers who are constantly improving what they do to best meet their students’ needs.
  2. A school experience committed to giving students the academic foundation and Habits they need to be successful in school and throughout life.  Their learning will be enriched, at times accelerated, and differentiated to meet the strengths and needs of all.
  3. A house system, led by senior students, that brings community, spirit-raising and friendly competition to the school day.
  4. An immersion in student leadership that makes clear everyone can be a leader, and that leadership can unfold in infinite ways.
  5. When in grade 1, they will have a grade 8 buddy who will organize get-togethers, high five them in the hall and be an example of the fine young men and women they will also become.
  6. An extra-curricular schedule with around 35 club and team opportunities available to the students each term.
  7. A regular message that they can make the world better, through acts big and small, through our Wall of Service and service learning projects.

Some will start shy and become contest-winning public speakers. Some will become passionate artists.  Some will discover a penchant for politics, and will debate provincial legislation at the Ontario Legislature in grade 8. Some will bring home championship banners in sports. Some will become published authors in our YAKCS program. Some will discover special talents in math contests and robotics. Some will perform in an orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall. Many will become leaders with experience and skill beyond their young years.

It’s amazing to watch little ones grow. Immersed in the same opportunities, the unique core in every child will blossom in whatever way it chooses to.

That’s why we watch with so much interest. And why we’re so excited to be part of the journey.

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

Summer Learning

SummerCubbies are cleaned. Lockers lay bare. Papers have been sifted through with favourites kept and the rest thrown out.

Summer holidays have arrived, and the weight of the academic world has been lifted for another year.

I’ve been guilty of thinking that children have it relatively easy. I can remember once pointing out to a group of teens how hard their teachers are working, leading extra-curriculars, teaching all day, marking and planning every evening. I deserved their immediate challenge. They reminded me that, in fact, students also have a lot of demands on them. They’re involved in those school extra-curriculars and more, they’re in those classes throughout the day, and they’re doing homework every evening. They have endless expectations on them for managing themselves and their work. Many regularly face misunderstanding, mistakes and reprimand in both academics and social relations. They navigate this world with the vulnerable self-esteem, self-confidence and skill set inherent in being young. Even in the best schools, the days are not easy.

Many parents and teachers bemoan the long gap between June and September. It’s true that some academic learning can take a hit. Having said that, other learning should be savoured in the summer. Because the school year doesn’t always make enough time for it, here is some of the summer learning I hope all children work hard at this holiday:

  1. Learning through play
  2. Learning through mistakes
  3. Learning within one’s strengths and passions
  4. Learning and relaxation in a healthy balance
  5. Learning what and how you want, just for the love of it

Lots of important things are learned at school. And lots of important things are learned outside of school. Like students, teachers also learn a lot over the summer. Maybe, as a result of all their learning, more of this summer learning will work its way into the school year.

Have a wonderful, learning-filled summer.

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

This article will be published in the July 2013 edition of SNAP Etobicoke.

Teacher, Meet Brain.

Teaching with the Brain in MindThat’s how it felt to read Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jenkins. While the bond between the brain and learning has been known for centuries, the two have been notably coy. It is only recent research which has started sharing and subsequently sparking the intimate side of this complex relationship. And like the rush of first love, it will blow your mind.

My measure of a great book on education is the degree to which it ends up highlighted. Barely a page of Jenkins’ book escaped my yellow swipe. Starting with Neuroscience 101, Jenkins addresses many of the major areas related to learning and highlights the research and implications it has for teaching. From birth and beyond, he looks at preparing the brain for school; the connections between movement, emotions, and one’s physical environment with learning; managing the social brain; and optimizing motivation, engagement, critical thinking, memory and recall. Clearly affecting a significant chunk of the school experience, Jenkins is devoting his career to having teachers ‘teach with the brain in mind’.

Some insights include:

  1. The brain changes and can even grow new neurons throughout life. Nature and nurture both clearly play a role in defining who we are, with growing evidence revealing that nurture can override some nature, even to the degree of changing the impact of our genes.
  2. Exercise offers much more than just physical health. If you desire a denser and better brain, make regular exercise a lifelong habit.
  3. Much of what distinguishes teenage behaviour is rooted in the enormous changes taking place in their brains. Teens even temporarily regress in a number of abilities, such as their ability to recognize emotions in others.
  4. While collaborative learning gets most professional press these days, brain research supports the integration of group activities with traditional learning tasks for optimal learning.
  5. Emotions play a central role in learning and can hinder as much as enhance the brain’s ability to remember. Teachers would benefit from mindfully leveraging them.
  6. Frequent opportunities for movement, and breaks where no new learning happens, are important for long-term storage of learning.

Teachers, indulge in the intimate details of the learner-brain relationship. Meddle even. This is one couple that needs you in the middle.

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

This article was first published in SNAP Etobicoke, May 2013.