Literacy, numeracy, creativity and critical thinking

I often hear the concern that our focus on Literacy and Numeracy in the province of Ontario is too narrow and that it hinders our students’ creativity or their ability to develop critical thinking skills. I have never understood this concern and the dichotomy that is sometimes created between literacy, numeracy and creativity or literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.

Dr. Michael Fullan’s recent paper regarding education in Ontario challenges us to think beyond narrow definitions of literacy and numeracy.

All would agree that our students need strong literacy and numeracy skills. These skills are foundational and include reading, writing, and math, the skills that everyone thinks about when they hear the words literacy and numeracy. Literacy and numeracy also include the ability to communicate, to problem-solve, to analyze and critique and to create.

Our focus on literacy and numeracy is only too narrow when we do not invite our students to think critically and deeply and to create possibilities, ideas and expressions. When we examine the tasks we ask our students to complete and when we assess the culture of our learning environments, do our students have the opportunity to think? Are they able to build on their interests and strengths to fulfill curriculum expectations? Do we invite our students to ask complex questions that together with fellow students they can explore? Do our students have options in the classroom? These questions are important, guiding us to personalize the learning for our students each day.

Standardized assessments in literacy and numeracy are sometimes blamed for making the curriculum too narrow. I have never understood this connection. It is my experience that when students develop literacy and numeracy skills in the broadest sense of the term as described above, they perform effectively on these assessments.

The expectations outlined in the Ontario curriculum state what students need to learn by the end of each year. These expectations do not suggest that students in a classroom are always learning the same thing at the same time, or that they are all completing the same task. These expectations do not tell teachers to ask all of the questions and to design how students will answer these questions. These expectations do not demand that teachers test students to memorize facts and ignore the processes they use to solve problems, create ideas, explore uncharted territory and to communicate their thinking.

We can create engaging learning environments that offer students opportunities to achieve because their interests converge with the curriculum expectations. In these learning environments, our students are thinking and writing, collaborating and exploring, developing and creating, presenting and evaluating.

We want our students to read and write effectively and to excel in math. We also want our students to think and create. Our focus on literacy and numeracy need not be considered in a narrow fashion, and this focus does not need to exclude creativity and critical thinking.

Literacy and numeracy, creativity and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive terms!

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Student Achievement and Positive School Climate

Our primary goal in HWDSB is to improve student achievement and well-being.

This improvement takes place through effective instruction and appropriate intervention informed by assessment AND a positive school climate that is safe, equitable, inclusive, and that promotes positive mental health for students and staff.

Historically, Equity, Safe Schools and Mental Health have sometimes been considered in a “stand alone” fashion. This approach does not assist the important work we need to do in terms of creating a positive climate in every school and department. Further, discussions about equity, safe schools and mental health have sometimes excluded our core priority of improving student achievement. Again, this exclusion does not assist our achieving the commitments in our strategic directions. Going forward, positive school climate will be the umbrella under which we will coherently plan and implement our work in safe schools, mental health and equity, and positive school climate will be closely linked to student achievement as we focus on our priority of improving student achievement and well-being in HWDSB.

In order to improve student achievement and well-being, staff at HWDSB engages in collaborative inquiry. Using an inquiry framework characterized by planning, acting, observing/assessing and reflecting, each school determines a focus for student learning informed by data. They will also determine a focus for how to enhance the positive school climate at their school. Moving forward, the school self-assessment process will assist the school to determine a focus for student achievement and well-being (positive school climate.)

Once a focus is determined for improving student achievement and well-being, the staff asks a critical question/clarifies their problem of practice and engages in the process of creating a hypothesis, determining success criteria (what will it look like if we are successful in terms of improvement), and determining the evidence that will be gathered to see if improvement is happening. The staff will implement, measure progress, monitor student improvement and through reflection, staff will determine next steps.

The staff also determines a focus to their professional learning so that the capacity that they build allows the staff to improve student achievement and well-being in the area of focus determined through the self-assessment process.

Everyone in HWDSB learns in collaborative teams. Together we learn how we will best serve our students and we grapple with complex issues regarding the obstacles to improving student achievement and well-being.

Though we are experiencing challenges these days in the world of education in Ontario, it is my belief that all educators want students to learn in wonderful and effective school environments, and they will do whatever they can to make this a reality. It is our responsibility at the system level to be sure that our direction is clear, informed by our students, staff and community, that appropriate supports are provided and that we create conditions that assist our staff to do the best work for our students. These conditions include providing time for our staff to learn together, to support staff to create a culture of high expectations in every school and to invite our parents to hold the same high expectations for their children at home. It also means that the system is contributing to the sense of purpose that educators possess and the system is creating the coherence and focus needed by all educators to thrive so that there are no distractions from this important work with our students.

Our students deserve to be safe in our schools, to be included, accepted and celebrated for who they are and to be supported so that they are emotionally and physically healthy. If this is our students’ experience, they will be better able to achieve.

We will be working tohether with our staffs and our parents and communities in Hamilton-Wentworth to be sure that positive school climates exist everywhere!

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Equity,voice, and leadership……

Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the relationship between equity, voice and leadership.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I got together for one of our ‘education chats.’ Both of us are very passionate about education and we set aside some time on a regular basis to share our ideas, our latest experiences and insights, and our hopes for our students, our colleagues and our schools.

We spent some time discussing what it means to be inclusive, to understand our privilege and to understand how this privilege might actually benefit our students rather than pretending we do not experience privilege. Since both of us have leadership roles, we realized that formal leaders play a significant role in creating learning environments where everyone’s voice is heard, where those who are normally silent are invited to the conversation, and where everyone in the learning community is honoured, included and celebrated.

Creating equitable and inclusive learning environments demands that leaders are reflective, willing to admit our bias, able to understand our own vulnerability, always committed to act with integrity, always willing to be challenged and to engage in continuous learning. Engaging in “equity work” can be uncomfortable therefore courage is needed!

A few weeks later I had the opportunity to speak at the Quest Conference in the York Region District School Board. I had the privilege to serve on a panel with very wise people. The message I shared on this panel is that equity work demands that formal leaders facilitate the creation of learning environments where we all share our experience and expertise AND we are not afraid to ask for help, to question what we do not understand, and to admit our mistakes. Only in these environments will we create the type of community where all have a place, where every voice is heard and where we act upon the diverse insight that emerges.

Each and every student, staff member, parent and community member has something significant to offer our learning community. There is a richness in our communities because of this diversity. Leaders must remain vigilant so that our learning communities provide opportunities to listen and to respond to the voices of all.

I am writing this blog post as the prayer service is occurring in Newtown, Connecticut for those students and staff members who were killed. This is such a tragedy. Together we must work together to support each and every student effectively so that a tragedy like this never happens again.

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Bullying Awareness and Prevention

This week is Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week…

Our students tell us that they have experienced bullying in our schools and/or they know someone who has been bullied.

We work tirelessly in HWDSB to create cultures of safety and inclusion in our schools, but unfortunately bullying still exists.

In my own experience of working with students over the last 26 years, I have always wondered what causes one student to bully another.

Though many reasons are often given for why some students are bullies, my experience tells me that bullies are actually very fearful. Maybe they are fearful because they do not have self-confidence or self-esteem. Often they possess social status and are given their power by other groups of students. And yet, even with this status or position, they still need to bully others in order to enhance their own sense of self.

Unfortunately, their personal fear drives their bullying behaviour towards other students, which is intimidating and harmful.

Regardless of the reason, bullying cannot be tolerated. It isn’t tolerated!

Each of our students deserves to feel safe and included in our schools. We know that this experience of well-being helps students learn better.

The major problem, though, is that bullies know how to hide their behaviour from adults. Further, students often tell us they fear that if they tell an adult about a bully, the bullying will get worse. Evidence would suggest the opposite is actually true.

My message during this important week is that we need our students in order to eradicate bullying. Our students know who the bullies are and they see their fellow students being bullied. Our commitment is to continue supporting our students in standing up and speaking out to create the safe environments that our students need and deserve. When our students join together with our staff and demand that no student is harassed, or harmed in any way, and they demand that their school is inviting, respectful, and inclusive of all, then we will be successful in our fulfilment of our HWDSB strategic directions.

Achievement Matters, Engagement Matters and Equity Matters in Hamilton and bullying has no place in any school, department or community in HWDSB. Lets work together to realize this commitment!

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Caring schools

We have been spending time in Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board making challenging decisions about our secondary school facilities. We have also been developing our program strategy. The goals of this strategy are: 1) Each of our high schools is a great school; 2) Students have more program choices in their local school; and 3) Enhanced access to system programs is provided.

At our Student Voice Forums, we asked our students to tell us what makes a high school great . Our students spoke very clearly that they believed that a great high school has the following characteristics: a) Caring adults who believe in them; b) Good friends who support them; and c) Engaging programs that interest them.

When I inquired, these students continued to speak about the importance of positive school climate and school spirit. This information provides us with important insights. We definitely want to challenge our students to achieve. We support our students so that they are resilient and healthy, both physically and emotionally. And we are committed to create learning environments that meet our students’ interests, strengths and needs, which means that our schools need to offer a wide variety of courses leading to all pathways.

And while we are providing our students with this type of learning environment, it is necessary for us to pay attention to how well our students experience a sense of belonging and connection in our schools. We must ensure that each student has opportunities to share their voice and to experience caring adults to whom they can turn.

Though engaging programs are important to our students, studying in caring environments is their priority. We will be exploring with our students and our staff how to continue making each classroom and school in HWDSB one that helps our students to achieve, supports them to develop a positive sense of self and offers them an experience of community that inspires them.

Great schools offer a wide variety of program choices and effective instruction in every classroom. These schools know their students, and respond to their interests, strength, and needs. Great schools care about their students and ensure that no student “falls through the cracks”.

In HWDSB we will work diligently to create caring environments in each school while implementing our program strategy.

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Students will inform our program strategy!

I cannot believe it is already the middle of October! The first six weeks of school have provided us with new opportunities for learning as well as some challenges too! I had every intention to be a more regular blogger this school year. I was not successful during the first six weeks of school but it is time to ‘turn over a new leaf,’ an appropriate image for October.

Our secondary program strategy is front and centre these days in HWDSB. I am going to have the opportunity over the next few weeks to engage our students through the Director’s Student Voice Forums to explore this important strategy. Over 500 students will be participating in person at the Forums and all of our secondary students will also be invited to participate online.

We will have fewer secondary schools in HWDSB as we move forward. The closing or merging of schools is difficult but it also provides us with opportunities.

Our secondary program strategy is founded on three key principles:

  1. Every secondary school in HWDSB is a great school
  2. Students will have enhanced program choices in their local school.
  3. Equitable access will be provided to specific programs.

We are turning to our students to help us understand what makes each and every high school great. We are asking them to assist us to understand the kinds of choices they want to have in terms of their learning. We want to do everything we can to be sure our students are successful. Our challenge as educators will be to respond to what we learn from our students!

We are excited about the work ahead. Stay tuned as I will be using this blog to provide insights along the way. I look forward to hearing from you regarding what makes our schools great because they provide our students with programs and learning environments that meet their interests, strengths and needs. Thank you in advance for your voice!

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The end to a successful school year in HWDSB

As we come to the end of another school year in HWDSB, we have the opportunity to reflect upon our accomplishments over the last year. And there have been many accomplishments!!!!

We continue to strengthen our learning organization. As we engage in the process of collaborative inquiry, always focusing on our students, we are working together to provide the best possible instruction so that our students achieve and succeed. None of us needs to work alone. As I visit our schools, I see the energy that comes from learning together for our students.

We have created focus in every school and we are supporting professional learning around that focus. I continue to state that we are becoming an intelligent-responsive system. This means that we have created clear direction at the system level expecting all schools and departments to engage in this collaborative process intended to improve practice. The system then provides support to the schools in an appropriate fashion. We are really knowing our students, one of the significant pillars of our annual operating plan.

We are changing the culture in HWDSB. This change in culture includes holding high expectations for our students, sharing our expertise and our leadership in coordinate ways as well admitting what we do not know, all necessary conditions of an effective learning community. As we change our culture, we are staying the course in terms of the work we are doing. This focused work includes understanding what all of our students need, what some of our students need and what a few students need in order to succeed. This focused work includes the implementation of our program strategy which is making every school in HWDSB a great school. Where we do have specialized programs, we will insure access and opportunity for our students. More of our students are reading by grade 2 and more of our students are graduating. This is a significant improvement, one that will make a huge difference for our students. This focused work will continue to include our commitment to student well-being along side student achievement, as we understand the importance of safe, caring and inclusive schools and positive mental and their relationship to effective learning conditions that improve student achievement.

We continue to think about the skills our students will need to be positive contributors in our 21st century world. Critical and creative literacies are important, and we will address these literacies through classroom instruction supported by our arts strategy and our 21st century fluencies strategy. We hope to support each other to change our practice as appropriate by creating learning environments that allow our students to explore, create, critique, and to take responsibility for their learning always with the precise and powerful instruction from our teachers.

Next school year, I am planning to use this blog a little differently. I will be asking our HWDSB community to help me experience the “stories of our Strategic Directions” so I can share them here. As educators, we are privileged. We are privileged because we have the opportunity to change our students’ lives. We are educators because we believe we can make a difference and it is this passion and this dedication, I believe, that motivate our work. Now that our direction is clear in HWDSB, it will be important to tell the story of how we are fulfilling our mandate, ensuring that All Students Achieve their Full Potential.

I am proud to be part of an organization that is so committed to its vision of all students achieving their full potential. We are seeing our commitments of effective instruction in every classroom, shared leadership in every school and department, optimal conditions for learning and engagement as well as exemplary service in every department come to life.

I hope you have plans over the summer to relax and spend some time with friends and family. There will be new challenges as we move into the new school year and we’re excited about the journey that lies ahead.

Have a great summer!!

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Revitalizing Where and How our Students Learn

Our schools are changing. Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has been engaged for more than a year in one of the largest reviews of student accommodation in Ontario history. We are embarking on an ambitious revitalization of where and how our students learn.

Our program strategy will ensure that all students will achieve because they have access to engaging programs and learning environments that honour their interests and needs. This is about rethinking what we offer, where we offer it and how we can help all students achieve their full potential.

The strategy is still evolving. We want all options to remain open for students in every corner of the city – we don’t want students ‘streamed’ according to where they live. Creating diverse learning environments is key to student success. In this way, we are providing effective classroom instruction for all students, supports and programs that some students need, and specific supports for a smaller number of students.

For example, we organize our schools into three clusters (North, West and South). Equity is a key feature of our program strategy, so we are determined that all schools will provide effective instruction and engaging programs. Some programs may not be offered at every school. Determining where programs will be placed, what boundaries need to be adjusted and how transportation will be provided will take place in the fall, with community involvement.
We are working hard to remove barriers where they exist, whether this is through revised transportation protocols, relocating programs, expanding programs to new sites, online learning or other means.

Of course, final locations for programs will relate to the implementation of the outcomes of the accommodation reviews. Much care and consideration has been taken to ensure that the program strategy provides equitable access to all programs and pathways.

All schools will offer specializations. All schools will offer opportunities for students to pursue any post-secondary pathway (apprenticeship, college, community, university or work). Appropriate supports will be in place for all students who require them.

We are listening to our community and forming transition committees to ensure that our students adjust to their new schools. All students must feel safe and comfortable at school.
At the end of the day, I believe that we share common ground with so many people across Hamilton. We care deeply about the education we provide to our students. We want to do the right thing when it comes to the programs we offer, the facilities we operate and our responsibilities as a public institution.

We believe that where a student lives should not determine the quality of education they receive. We believe that examining our facilities and our programs will help all of our students reach their full potential.

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Engaging our Students

Engaging students is at the heart of our work.  When students are engaged, they learn.  So, how do we engage each and every student?

Some would argue that a caring environment will engage students.  This environment encourages students to share their voice, to advocate for their own learning, to collaborate with others, to explore, to think, to create…..

Some would argue that unique programs engage students — programs in the arts, technology, sports, and social justice, to name a few.

Some would argue that effective instruction and innovative learning environments engage students.

I would argue that we need all of the above!

In our public education system in Ontario, we are expected to ensure that all students achieve, to close any achievement gaps and to build confidence in public education.

At the end of the day, our responsibility is to provide equity of access, opportunity, and outcome for our students.  Students achieve because each and every student attends a school (access) that has the environment and programs (opportunity) that allows them to excel (outcome).  If we take this responsibility seriously and we hold the ideal for each student that they will achieve, then I believe this responsibility and ideal has an impact on the type of programs and learning environments we offer.

In order to fulfill our commitment to each student, schools need to be responsive to the interests and needs of their students.  This is no easy task and a school system may need to provide “out of the box” support to ensure that  programs are offered that our students may desire or need.

For me the focus of our work needs to be:

  • We must engage each and every student.
  • Learning environments and programs have an impact on this engagement.
  • Listening to student voice is paramount.
  • Providing access, opportunity, and outcome is foundational
  • There are no perfect answers to the challenge of engaging all students; therefore innovative thinking and practice is needed.

Engaging our students in effective learning environments with programs that respond to their interests and needs is our priority, in a context that never forgets equity of access, opportunity and outcome.  By wrestling with how to make this priority a reality, we will strengthen our public education system in Hamilton-Wentworth!!

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The Secondary Accommodation Review in HWDSB

At HWDSB, we are committed to creating the most effective, innovative learning environments so that every one of our students will reach their full potential in schools and beyond as they prepare for the 21st century.

We undertook accommodation reviews to help make this a reality. The accommodation review is one way HWDSB could maximize limited resources, by reducing the space we don’t need and upgrading the facilities that remain. Ultimately, this will result in better learning environments for students. We want our students to have quality spaces that support student achievement.

Concentrating our finite resources to create the best learning environments is an effort that goes hand-in-hand with our efforts to provide the best, most engaging programs that prepare them for success.

These reviews have been about much more than space, however. We know today’s learners require new approaches, and that we must respond with engaging programs and safe, nurturing and innovative learning environments.

This is why the public dialogue also highlighted the HWDSB Program Strategy we envision for our schools. It is through this Program Strategy that we hope to provide programming that reflects our Board’s strategic priorities of achievement, engagement, and equity.

We are restructuring what we offer, where we offer it and how we can help all students achieve their full potential. We envision a school system in which all students can find what they need at any of our schools. This is about providing a pathway to success for every single one of our students.

In real terms, the Program Strategy will ensure equity of access, opportunity and outcome as each student attends a school with programs that lead to their success. Every school will provide all postsecondary pathways: college, community, university, apprenticeship and workplace, and each school will host specialized programs based on a Board-wide view of how best to serve our students.

 Our Program Strategy:

  • Ensures Academic Excellence so all students achieve their full potential.
  • Provides Equity of Access, Opportunity and Outcome (every student in HWDSB is able to attend the school that provides the programs that facilitate their success)
  • Provides all pathways (university, college, apprenticeship, workplace and community) in every school.
  • Offers specialized programs in each school based on a Board-wide view of how to best serve our students.
  • Engages every student by honouring student voice and student choice with a wide range of program options to meet the interests and needs of each student.
  • Supports effective and seamless transition for each student.
  • Promises that all students benefit from effective instruction, and appropriate intervention leading to graduation for every student.
  • Creates effective learning environments that are equitable, inclusive, and diverse, bringing together students with different strengths, needs and backgrounds.

These guiding principles will assist administration to implement  the program strategy over the next few years.  Many of our programs will be offered in all three clusters, while some may only be offered in two clusters or as one system program. Program viability is dependent upon student interest; therefore program placement will be reviewed regularly.

By concentrating our limited resources, placing programs in an equitable and accessible way, and focusing on student voice and student choice, we will create a more responsive system in which students find the programs they need, where transitions are smooth, and where effective instruction and appropriate intervention will lead to graduation for each student.

Our Strategic Directions in HWDSB focus our efforts for our students and communicate the importance of achievement, engagement, and equity.  We believe that by knowing our students, their interests, strengths and needs, we can provide engaging programs in effective learning environments leading to improved student achievement and well being.



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