Further to the Globe and Mail…

A little over a week ago, the Globe and Mail published an article titled “The One-room Classroom Could Make a Comeback in Hamilton.”

Since the article was published I have received various responses both through email and Twitter, so I decided to write this post to clearly articulate what we hope to accomplish in Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the need for school to change in order to educate our students effectively. I would argue that this change should happen on the foundation of our past successes in education.  In other words, we need not think of everything we have done historically as no longer relevant.  As we move forward we know that students must take ownership for their learning; engage their classmates so they can learn together, think critically, develop creativity, communicate effectively, and study and solve complex problems.  Further we know that technology may certainly enable these things.

On a related note, the notion of interdisciplinary studies is not a novel concept.  In 2002, the Ontario Ministry of Education published a curriculum document on interdisciplinary studies.  In that document, the Ministry states “Our world is increasingly interconnected and interdependent.  Communication networks exchange information around the globe, creating new forms of collaboration and transforming the nature of work and learning.” Therefore, there is a place for interdisciplinary studies.

And finally, inquiry based learning is something that educators have been discussing for quite some time, and the merits of inquiry-based learning are certainly noted frequently.  Inquiry-based learning always includes a central question or questions, investigation of these questions, and shared ownership of the learning process.  This shared ownership may mean a different relationship between the teacher and his/her class where the teacher sometimes engages in direct instruction, sometimes engages individual students or teams of students as a guide or facilitator and sometimes simply observes as the students lead the learning process.

Inquiry does not lessen the educator’s role; rather it invites the educator to think about how to create learning opportunities driven by the students while never losing site of the “big ideas” of the curriculum expectations.

As I reflected on the importance of 21st-century learning described at the beginning of these reflections, the fact that interdisciplinary studies is not new, and the importance of inquiry in the learning process, I wondered why there seemed to be more barriers than opportunities to create this type of learning environment.  Further, I began to wonder if the system I lead was inadvertently responsible for inhibiting some of this work by communicating expectations to our educators that may be hard to reconcile with the vision I am describing here.  These reflections led me to pose a question to my secondary principals that would allow us not only to talk about necessary changes, but to do something about it.

As described in the Globe and Mail article, I asked the principals to ask for volunteers at their school who would be willing to engage in a creative process to create learning opportunities in each school that were interdisciplinary in nature, focused on inquiry, and committed to creating an environment that allows our students to develop 21st-century learning skills.  This learning opportunity would allow the students to determine a learning focus, and the critical problems they wished to solve.  The students would design this learning opportunity with the support of teachers who would collaborate with one another to guide this learning, to extend the learning as required, and to support students to go beyond the walls of the classroom both experientially and virtually to enhance their experience.  Practically, the students would earn multiple credits as they engaged in this inquiry and the teachers collaborating in this learning would be able to offer these credits because they are bringing their expertise to the process.

I would like to offer one final note.  Programs like this already exist.  Usually these programs exist in what we call alternative education programs.  I would argue that students should be able to choose this type of learning experience in every school.  Students should also be able to request more blended and virtual learning opportunities as well or they may wish to continue learning in ways that we might consider more traditional.  Regardless, as educators and as a system, it is our job to find ways to expand learning opportunities for students.  We may need to expose them to ways of learning that our students do not believe is possible because after a number of years in school they may have never experienced anything like it.

Change is slow, but there is also urgency here.  Our world is changing fast; therefore, in order for education to be meaningful and valuable, we need to change too.  I am confident that as we make concrete, systemic decisions that change our vision of students, teachers and learning, we will make a profound difference for our students.  We are working on our systemic vision for learning in HWDSB.  Stay tuned for “HWDSB 2018 – A vision for learning.”

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Why Bullying Awareness Matters

Bullying should not happen.

That is why we are making a difference by supporting our students and staff during and after this week’s Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week.

We are listening to what our students tell us, in the interactive Director’s Forums held each year, in the student surveys we conduct, and in the everyday exchanges that occur in our classrooms, hallways, offices and extra-curricular activities.

We know bullying happens much too often. About three in every 10 students are bullied on a regular basis. This is an upsetting reality. It is also a call to action, especially when we know that when bullying occurs there are bystanders nearby about 85 per cent of the time.

This week, our schools are planning a wide range of anti-bullying events. These may involve brightly coloured T-shirts, special presentations, the sharing of ideas through the arts and much more. Visit our schools this week and you may also see new posters on display that students have created.

At a system level, we are planning Positive School Climate sessions for all schools, so that school teams can learn and work together. Teams will focus on developing strategies to strengthen positive relationships in schools which will support our anti-bullying efforts. What ties all of these efforts together is this: we want to find ways to make students more comfortable talking to us about issues like bullying. We know that students may know before adults know when bullying is happening.

This can happen through the building of awareness; it can happen by tackling the stigma that surrounds speaking out, perhaps through a 21st-century tool like our TipOff mobile app.  Our TipOff app is essentially a way to receive text messages, to gather more information about the tip and to share it with the school to enable Board and school protocols to be implemented. Every sender’s phone number is scrambled to preserve their anonymity.

We need students to talk to us; we need to turn bystanders into problem-solvers. This is about building a positive school climate, and making students, staff, parents and community members aware that they can be positively powerful – because their actions count.

At its heart, it is about providing all students with a safe and welcoming school, so that every student can learn.

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Textbooks or no textbooks?

I had the opportunity to attend and present at ECOO 13, a conference that brings together passionate educators who want to provide learning opportunities for our students where the focus is on changing the learning environment, supported by technology and digital resources. This change leads to greater opportunities for our students to think, create and engage in relevant learning experiences both collaboratively and individually.

I participated in two panels on that day, each asking a provocative question. The first panel asked about the future of the textbook. The second panel asked, if we believe in the importance of teaching 21st century learning skills supported by technology, why is it not happening in every classroom? I will share my reflections here.

In terms of the textbook, I shared that a different yet related issue was actually more important from my perspective. I am more concerned about the teaching and learning environment that exists in every one of our schools. I am concerned about the tasks that students are asked to complete. I am wondering about how often students have the opportunity to create a focus for their learning or to create a problem they wish to explore in the context of parameters set by the teachers. This focus or problem provides ample opportunities for our students to meet curriculum expectations, or better yet exceed them!

I believe this type of learning environment is better served by technology and digital resources. Though there is information in textbooks that I am sure is accurate, I worry that the textbook becomes a tool that creates a different kind of learning environment than the one I described above. We have all experienced the task to “read Chapter 5 and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.” Again, there may be nothing wrong with reading a chapter and answering the questions. Yet, might there be more dynamic ways of allowing students to explore a topic, analyze different sources, synthesize available information and critique that information? Instead of simply reading and responding, might our students have the opportunity to take ownership for their learning by drawing on information that may be found in a textbook, but is also supported in other enriching ways?

This takes me to the topic that was discussed in the second panel. We have been talking about the learning environment I have described above for many years. Why is it not happening? We often hear the argument that there are not enough funds. I would suggest that we have the funds, but we need to use our resources differently. In order to use our resources differently, we need to invite teachers to move into this digital, technological world by first supporting them as learners who are creating dynamic learning environments for their students. By supporting teacher learning, and by assisting them to see this relationship between teacher and student differently, I believe that digital conversion and technology will be seen as necessary for instruction. Digital conversions means that we are moving away from paper-based resources in order to embrace more dynamic resources that will allow students to explore their interests and teachers to meet students’ needs more effectively.

By creating a culture where teachers see themselves and are supported as learners, by providing access to digital resources and technology for the purpose of changing the learning environment, and by setting a clear system direction that we are moving into this new world, I will believe that a few years from now we will be walking as opposed to simply talking.

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Short-term challenge, long-term opportunity

We have experienced much change in the secondary panel in Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.  While this change is unsettling for many, it is harder to see the opportunity that lies before us in light of the decisions that have been made over the last few years by HWDSB.

Before I speak about the opportunities, I would like to acknowledge the challenges. Our secondary accommodation review and program strategy will change the number of our secondary schools from 18 to 13 over the next few years. Most of our secondary schools will be impacted in some way. They will either close or merge; they may be losing programs and students or gaining programs or students. This means that some students may need to change schools, others may not be going to the school that they always planned on attending, while others might believe that the Board should simply leave things alone.

The reality is that we cannot leave things alone.  We have an opportunity before us to really serve each and every student in the 13 schools that will remain by creating inclusive learning environments.  By downsizing the number of schools we have, by changing boundaries and by moving some programs, we are inviting a diverse population of students to study in each and every school. We are expanding the opportunities for our students because the enrolments will be healthier and students will have more choice in terms of the course they may take.

We are not only engaged in structural change, by closing or merging schools; rather, we are also engaged in a cultural change. Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is saying that each of our secondary schools has the expertise to teach every student. Each of our secondary schools will hold high expectations for all learners. Each of our secondary schools will provide a pathway for every student. No longer will students have to go to certain schools because a particular school is the only one that meets their needs.

Our goal is that every student graduates and is provided the learning opportunities that will serve them well after they leave our secondary schools.

Though our graduation rate continues to increase in our Board, we know we can do better for our students, and we will. I accept the fact that there are challenges to the change process we are presently in, and some would suggest that the Board is spending too much money, or is hurting local communities, or is making ineffective decisions. I respect that people may have different views but, from an educator’s perspective, I would be remiss if I did not state clearly that we are creating a more inclusive learning environment that will certainly assist all of our students to achieve.

Please click here to take a look at my reflections that were published in the Hamilton Spectator.

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Exciting work in HWDSB!!

September is always exciting!  After experiencing a different pace that summer has to offer, our staff and students are engaged in a new school year of learning.  I would like to take this opportunity to welcome everyone in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to the opportunities that this school year will provide!  It is hard to believe that the first month of school has flown by!

There are many exciting topics I will be writing about in the coming weeks and I would like to briefly highlight these topics in my first blog of the 2013-2014 school year.

We will be engaged in projects this year to change the learning environment for our students supported by Ipads for every teacher and student in seven schools, with a plan to implement this project in every school in HWDSB over the next four years.  It is important to note that this is not simply a 1:1 IPad project; rather, this project focuses on the interests , strengths and needs of our students, and provides the opportunities for them to explore, create, and think deeply both individually and collectively supported by teachers who create an engaging learning environment informed by student voice and supported by technology.  Changing teaching and learning is an exciting challenge and a complex challenge as well!

We will also be implementing our secondary  program strategy.  This strategy is founded on the belief that all of our secondary schools are great schools because they provide all pathways for our students, and they offer enhanced program choices based on what our students want and need. In the schools where we offer special programs due to a need for a critical number of students or a special facility, enhanced access to these programs will be provided.  This strategy is providing us with the opportunity to change our culture, mitigate against the notion of “have and have not” schools and serve a diverse community of learners in every secondary school so that each student may achieve.  We speak often about equity in HWDSB and I would suggest that our program strategy is a great example of our board’s commitment to equity being realized.

Since we understand the importance of learning conditions in our school, and we are committed to student achievement and well-being, the creation of a positive school climate in every school is one of our priorities.  By integrating our work in equity and inclusion, safe schools and mental health, we will be supporting our schools to create the type of learning environment in HWDSB that supports our students to be resilient, to improve their self-esteem, to build their character, and to engage in service.  Our work to create positive school climates in every school is about ensuring that positive relationships exist in every school between students and between students and our staff.  These relationships and this culture will improve student achievement and well-being.

Our early learning strategy is assisting us to focus on our youngest learners.  By working with our childcare partners, we are committed to providing better access to childcare and seamless transitions between childcare and school.  Further, these partnerships help us to align school and childcare programs to support our students and to collaborate in ways that improve our collective service to our students.  Our commitment to improve our students’ oral language development through the efforts of our teachers, and speech and language pathologists provides the foundation for our students ability to read.  We are implementing Full Day Kindergarten and we are monitoring who is not achieving so that we may intervene appropriately.

The Arts are an important window to enhancing our students creativity.  Though HWDSB has always been committed to the arts, we are expanding our students access to instrumental music and continuing our commitment to effective arts programs in every elementary classroom and in all high schools.  Our arts strategy supports our work in 21st century learning understanding that when students are engaged, when they experience different perspectives,  and they come to understand what they are passionate about, they become people who never stop learning and thinking and creating.

Our learning culture in HWDSB continues to thrive, which in turn supports our important work of improving student achievement and well-being.  Everyone in HWDSB, students and staff alike, are expected to learn together in teams which allows us to learn more then we could ever hope to learn on our own.  This learning forms the basis for our commitment to continuous improvement, a commitment that is needed in order for us to be the effective learning organization we are becoming in HWDSB.

Our main commitments remain the same:  All students reading by the beginning of grade 2; all student achieving in personalized, collaborative, inquiry based learning environments; all students graduating.  Improving student achievement and well-being is our priority.

Most importantly, our hope is that everyone in HWDSB will experience the joy of learning.  Our moral purpose as educators is to ensure that all students achieve.  This purpose compels us to create learning opportunities for our students that supports their love for learning and their achievement and well-being.  Students and staff alike understand the magic of an engaged classroom where everyone wants to be there because the learning leads to realities that might be beyond our imagination!

It is an exciting time in HWDSB!!!  Our amazing students and our talented staff supported by effective leaders, forward thinking trustees, and engaged parents and guardians will achieve our vision that all students will achieve their full potential.

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Happy Canada Day!!!

As we celebrate Canada Day, we also celebrate the end of the school year.

We have accomplished much in the Hamilton-Wentworth School Board this year.  Our secondary program strategy has been approved and now we will turn our attention to the important work of implementation.  This program strategy exemplifies our Board’s commitment to equity because each of our secondary schools will offer all pathways and expanded choice so that each of our schools meets the needs of our students.

We continue to strengthen our learning community with a focus on collaborative inquiry.  We have enhanced collaboration, shared leadership, and a culture of academic optimism.  In a culture where academic optimism is present, there is trust, high expectations and a sense of collective staff efficacy.

Our commitment to creating positive school climates in our schools provides us the opportunity to integrate our work in mental health, safe schools and equity and inclusion, and we continue to make important strides here.

Enhancing critical and creative thinking remains important to our work with our students.  This work demands that we change traditional views of students and teachers which pictures teachers in front of classrooms and students listening quietly.  Students are taking individual and collective ownership of their learning and teachers fulfill the important role of facilitating, animating and sometimes directing this learning, always insuring that students’ strengths, interests and needs inform planning.

Improving student achievement and well-being is our goal.  This goal is being realized because instruction is improving in our schools. Improving the learning conditions that support student achievement and well-being is alsoour priority.

Though there have been labour challenges in our province this year, I believe we have worked very hard in Hamilton-Wentworth to minimize the impact of these challenges.  We worked hard to proceed with respect and to keep our students in the centre. Special thanks to all of our staff and to our local union leaders who worked with us and our amazing principals, vice-principals, and service department managers to serve our students.

I want to thank our students for their achievement, our staff for their dedication and expertise, our parents for their trust, our community for their support and our trustees for their leadership.

Please take a look at my end of year video.  


This will be my last blog for this school year.  I look forward to sharing our learning journey in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board again in August.

Have a safe and happy summer.

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Art, poetry and drama: A glimpse into Aboriginal experience.

In the last few months I have had the pleasure of experiencing two very powerful events focusing on our Aboriginal community.  Though I have used the word “events”, I don’t mean to suggest that these two experiences simply happened at one moment in time; rather, I am suggesting that the dedication, creativity and passion that happened over a period of time allowed us to experience an event that I hope has transformed the hearts and minds of those students who participates and those  who attended, hopefully leading to important changes in beliefs, understandings and practices.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton hosted “Songide’ewin: Aboriginal Narratives” from April 12-May 12.  Songide’ewin is an Ojibwe meaning “strength of heart”.  This exhibit was the work of many students at Sir John A Macdonald Secondary School under the mentorship of Ojibwe artist and author, Rene Meshake  who worked with Dr. Kristiina Montero from Wifrid Laurier University,  Sir John A. MacDonald Native Studies teacher, Beth McQueen and teacher candidates from Sir Wilfrid Laurier.  Students created paintings and wrote poems that brilliantly communicated their experiences, emotions, hopes and dreams grounded in Aboriginal teachings and Worldviews.

I had the chance to meet Dylan at this exhibit who shared his creative journey with me.  You could meet Dylan yourself by clicking on this link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZV0b2IFcok.

I also visited Beth McQueen’s class so I could meet more of the students who created this exhibit.

I have been profoundly moved by this experience because I learned once again the power of visual art and poetry to communicate in ways that word alone cannot.  I learned more about our First Nation, Métis and Inuit students who shared with me that they found their “voice” through this process.  Most importantly, these students shared with me how proud they are of their accomplishments, of the chance to be part of such an exhibit, and of their history and culture, something that a few of these students shared they knew very little about.

As I took in the power of the art and poetry, and after visiting the students’ class, I realized once again how important it is for schools to provide rich opportunities for many different types of learning, not just the stereotypical opportunities that people may think of when they reflect on their own school experience.  Songide’ewn happened because high school and university students, teachers and artists came together to make something wonderful happen, and it certainly happened!  It reminds me of the importance of collaboration; great things happen when we come together to listen, to share and to create.  Thank you to everyone who had a part in Songide’ ewin.

The second event took place at Glendale Secondary School.  Under the direction of teacher Crystal Dumitru, and supported by Paul Borsc and Luke Bramer the play “Ten Miles Out” was created.   Jenny Kay Dupuis, the Aboriginal community liaison for HWDSB also held a significant supportive role.

These Glendale students wrote this play.  The student musicians created the music.  And after writing the play and engaging in rehearsals, Crystal informed the students that the performances would be without words!!! 

This powerful drama captured some of the experiences that took place at Residential schools for Aboriginal students which existed for many years in Canada.  The students researched this history as well as learned from the stories of survivors to create this moving experience.  Students had the chance to visit the Woodlands Cultural Center (the former Mohawk Institute) in Brantford where they walked, listened, learned and began their creative journey.  I also had the opportunity to visit the centre and I learned about this very sad chapter of history that hurt so many in our Aboriginal community, a chapter that was still in existence a few decades ago!

I learned about how Aboriginal students in these residential schools were silenced, separated from their families and culture, and expected to become something they were not.  This is why the play without words made the message that much more powerful.

One of the students involved in “Ten Miles Out” shared with me that her life is forever changed because now she can never ignore injustice.  Her heart has been changed and her eyes have been opened…and now she will continue to act!

Art is just a powerful medium for breaking through bias, prejudice, and intolerance.  Art has the ability to help the artist communicate his/her experience.  Those who are experiencing the creativity of the artist have the opportunity to be transformed, as long as they are open to it.

Our HWDSB students and staff at Sir John A Macdonald and Glendale have made a huge difference in these last few months.  I trust that our students will be compelled to continue sharing their story and acting for justice.  I believe our community can rest assured that brilliant students, with a desire to bring about change will positively impact all of our lives for many years to come!

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