Monthly Archives: September 2012

Getting Engaged

Likely School students play “Salmon Says” on the shores of Quesnel River.

Engagement is a buzzword commonly used in education these days, but is it really anything new?  Haven’t we always wanted our students engaged in our lessons?  Wouldn’t we all agree that parents need to be engaged in their child’s education for the best chance at success?  As educational leaders, don’t we consistently seek out ways for stakeholders to be engaged in the “system”.

Sadly, engagement hasn’t always been a priority.  The learning process has often taken a backseat to the product.  We’ve measured success solely through a cursory glance at report card marks or the crossing of a stage on graduation day.  We’ve assessed job performance based on the amount of curriculum covered.  These products haven’t always taken into account the more important journey to reach these milestones.

We sometimes forget to ask the important questions.  Are students really learning in my classroom?  How do I know?  What motivates my teenage child to get up in the morning and go to school?  How much choice are we offering high school students when it comes to choosing courses that truly interest them?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has a number of definitions for “engagement”:

  1. an arrangement to meet or be present at a specified time and place
  2. a job or period of employment especially as a performer
  3. emotional involvement or commitment
  4. the state of being in gear
  5. a hostile encounter between military forces

In order to determine whether students are engaged, we can take into account a few of these definitions.

First, do students show up?  Do they attend school (i.e. physically present), and when they do, are they “present” mentally and emotionally?

Second, are students emotionally involved?  Do they care about what they’re learning?  Are we instilling a passion for learning?  Someone offered me the following quote recently (attributed to W.B. Yeats):  “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  Are we so busy filling pails that we don’t have time to light fires?

Third, are students “in gear”?  In education, we talk about Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, but being “in gear” speaks more to meaningful learning and real-life learning than it does to finding that optimal zone of a student’s learning capabilities.

Sometimes engagement also means some conflict is involved.  Ideally, the conflict does not involve hostility, but I’ll be honest, I’d take hostility over apathy any day.  Unfortunately, some people only get truly involved when they are upset about something.  If we had that level of engagement consistently, the education system would be better for it.

As for students being truly engaged, I was delighted to be invited out to the Quesnel River narrows near Likely this past week to watch students actively involved in their learning.  A group of students from Columneetza Secondary and Williams Lake Secondary were taking part in a three-day excursion called “Students Working and Learning in Their Watershed”.  These students, along with their teachers Nara Riplinger and Laura Kaufman, were involved in projects related to salmon gamete collection, fish dissection, First Nations fisheries discussions, and art in the watershed.

Columneetza student Megan Telford hangs on tight to the tail of a Chinook salmon.

The students harvested Chinook salmon gametes from two females and two males.  Of the eight thousand eggs they fertilized at the Quesnel River Research Centre, one thousand will be taken to elementary schools for the “Salmonids in the Classroom” program.  A couple of Columneetza students will be joining Scout Island’s Sue Hemphill to teach the youngsters about Chinook.

Chief Fred Robbins shows Tasha Duquesne how to prepare a salmon for the fire.

The program is supported by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, The Scout Island Nature Centre, the Quesnel River Research Centre and the University of Northern BC.  On the day I showed up, they were also joined by the students from Likely School and some Grade Seven students from Vanderhoof.  The coolest thing about this hands-on program is that some students who have participated in past years have changed their career aspirations and paths because of the program’s impact.  Now that’s engagement!

As for another level of engagement, School District No. 27 is hoping to engage all of our stakeholders as the “Initial Options Report” is released this coming Tuesday, September 25th at 6:30pm at the School District office at 350 Second Avenue North in Williams Lake.  Following the release of this report, the Board of Education will be offering many opportunities for feedback over the next three months before making decisions in January 2013.  For more information and for some of the public consultation dates, you can click on “What is Happening and When?” or visit the District website.  A full consultation schedule along with the full report will be released this coming Tuesday.

I invite feedback and comments to any of my blog entries.  As the administrator of the blog, I approve all comments before they hit the public domain.  While I do not mind comments that disagree with my point of view, I will not post comments that I deem to be inappropriate, those which are personal attacks, or those which refer to specific personnel.  I also will not post comments from anonymous or nicknamed sources.  While one of my goals for this blog is open a dialogue, it needs to be a safe environment for everyone involved.  Thanks for considering this before making a comment. – Mark

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Big Rocks First

First things first, welcome to a new school year!  As I’ve said many times in the last few weeks, I am extremely optimistic as we head into this new year.  There are so many wonderful things happening in our district, and I can’t wait to start sharing your stories with everyone in the Cariboo-Chilcotin.

It would be impossible not to be optimistic if you were in attendance at last week’s “Gearing Up for a Mindfull Year”.  The professional development conference, organized by members of our Primary Teachers Association, was attended by one hundred educators.  With keynotes led by visiting experts Adrienne Gear and Carole Fullerton and breakout sessions led by local experts from our very own district, everyone came away rejuvenated and anxious to put some new ideas into practice.

Special thanks to the conference’s organizing committee of Lori Kelly, Tanis Stewart, Frances Bisaro, Tammi Varney, Sandra Stokes, and Tracy Walton.  Darlene Belziuk, Executive Assistant in the Education Department, also took care of all of the registrations.

“Gearing Up for a Mindfull Year” – Frances McCoubrey (left), Maria Lepetich, Jacqui Ferguson, and Erin Pederson took part in a breakaway session on manipulating by Brian Hatcher on Tuesday, August 28th at Williams Lake Secondary. Hatcher is the numeracy coordinator for School District 57 (Prince George). – Photo courtesy of Sean Glanville, Cariboo Advisor

I was reminded at the conference last week that good teaching practices cross over into all subject areas and other walks of life.  As Adrienne Gear and Carole Fullerton spoke about “asking good questions”, “sorting out the important things” and “determining big ideas”, I reflected on what those phrases mean for someone like me who is heading from the classroom into a district leadership position.

It brought to mind a story I first read about a number of years ago:

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers, he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.”

He pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouth mason jar and set it on the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?”

Big Rocks First

Everyone in the class said, “Yes.”

“Really?” he said. He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing pieces of gravel to work them­selves down into the space between the big rocks.

He asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time, the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered.

“Good,” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand into the jar and it went into all the spaces left be­tween the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is the jar full?”

“No,” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good.” he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim.

Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try re­ally hard you can always fit some more things into it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that is not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Source: Covey, S. (1996). First things first. New York: Simon and Schuster.

As I head into this new school year, I want to ensure that the big rocks of my personal life (my faith and my family) are still given top billing.

In my professional life as the Superintendent of Schools, the big rocks are to ensure that all of our students continue to have meaningful learning experiences (our mission statement), that all students and staff are part of an encouraging and understanding learning environment (our vision), and that the leadership team with which I work models respect, responsibility, kindness and caring, and acceptance (our core values) in everything that we do.

What are the big rocks in your life?  If you’re a student, you want to make sure that your family and your school work come before mountain biking, video games, or Facebook.  If you’re a parent, you want to make sure that your schedule doesn’t become so booked up with “good” activities that you never get a chance to actually talk to your kids or eat a meal together.  If you’re a teacher, you want to get to know your students and understand what their greatest educational needs are so that you’re actually teaching students and not just teaching curriculum.

I hope everyone has a wonderful year, and remember to put the big rocks first!

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