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​Eds,

We are excited to host a “gathering” of educators on Monday morning. We will come together in the Eagle’s Nest in the morning for some breakfast snacks. All staff are welcome to come and mingle with our visitors. Please sign in at the office and get a visitor lanyard. Our guests are invited to investigate student learning in the grade 2/3 area and the 5/6 area and are invited to explore the rest of the school if they wish. They will be with us until 11:00 or so. School officially begins at 8:30 am. I will speak briefly with all visitors after morning announcements and then you are free to move to observations. Nutrition break lasts from 10:10-10:50.

We welcome staff from Queen Victoria Public School and staff from Indian Creek Public School in Chatham. Together we endeavour to work so that learning is deeper for our students. I wish to thank the partnerships of Principal Moore and Principal Callow and the innovative educators who take the risk to engage with fellow eds. in school observation visits.

The purpose of our gathering is to again recognize that schools are learning laboratories. Having visiting teachers helps us immensely in ensuring that what we say and believe we are doing for students is evident by their metacognitive understanding. We start with the question: Are the students able to articulate their learning in meaningful ways. We ask visitors to help us with this work. We also recognize that visitors take with them learning that will undoubtedly impact work in thier respective buildings. Questions you may want to ask our students are:

What are you learning?
Why are you learning this?
What are your next steps?
How are you going to move forward?

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We have embraced student metacognition (thinking about thinking) as our methodology to learn deeper.

As I personally prepare for a school visit I really only do one thing. I take a mindful stance. Mindfulness is defined as paying attention, on purpose, non-judgementally. Of course this sounds easy. As you all may have experienced, as teachers, the non-judgementally part is the hardest. We as educators (especially at report card time) have been trained to believe that judging is our job. I ask you to take a mindful stance. Join us here at Eastwood to observe students, to dialogue and to learn together.

If you would like to take a look at our learning journey for the last couple years you may investigate our School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement and Well Being.​

We will use the attached observation sheets for your visit. We request that you give these observation sheets back to the host school prior to your departure as will will use these observations to grow and learn. We believe that transparency builds trust. If you wish to make a copy before leaving so you can take your notes with you the office secretary Kim or James will be happy to help you.

Looking forward to meeting all of you. Thanks for your patience and mindfulness with our students and our learning environment.

James

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When meeting as a Critical Friends Group (CFG)  it is essential to surface assumptions. Assumptions about the work, about each other. Assumptions about learning and the learners. Last July in Alpharetta, GA we started our 5 day institute experience by exploring our working assumptions for the following days.

  1. Our work products are better when we collaborate.
  2. Protocols offer equity in voice as well as efficiency.
  3. All 3 jobs: participant, presenter and facilitator require practise in order to improve.
  4. Creating and sustaining collaborative cultures is rigorous and intentional

At times when dialogue is stunted or a group is stuck it may be entirely necessary to voice your assumption in order to move beyond a hump. When it is time for the facilitator to allow time for Q and A it is important to understand that Q and A stands for Questions and Assumptions. If we had the answers we wouldn’t have the questions.  Coming together “beyond the place of right and wrong” makes for rich and fertile learning ground.  Rumi continued “there is a field, meet me there.”  At the heart of the CFG is equity of learning for presenter, facilitator and participant in a place where we can see things together.

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We are all unique, but we are not alone. I can see things you can not see and you can see things i can not. We must try to see what is there together. M. Holquist

This poster was hanging in the space that we were using in the media centre of Alpharetta High School.  Apropos of our CFG work I thought.  You?

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Below is an exerpt from the School Reform Initiative’s website which defines a Critical Friends Group. This is the institute I attended in Alpharetta, GA in July 2012 lead by Dr. Thomas VanSoelen (@tvansoelen). I attended with the professional learning intention of building my facilitation skills. I left understanding that I had done so through exercising and practising my participant skills.

CFG builds the learning capacity of the group by engaging members in significant work in an environment that supports risk taking. To make it more likely that learning in CFG will build the group’s capacity for transformational learning, several key elements are essential.

  • Groups are voluntary and sustained. A critical friends group is made up of a group of six to ten educators who meet regularly, perhaps every four to six weeks, over a sustained period of time. Membership is often voluntary. Voluntary participation helps to increase the likelihood that the members are committed to taking on risky and challenging work and staying engaged over time. Similarly, CFGs continue to work together beyond the completion of a particular time cycle such as a semester or school year.
  • A skilled and experienced facilitator or coach supports the group. The coach, who frequently is a member of the group who has participated in professional development to develop the skills, strategies, knowledge, and dispositions to facilitate the group’s learning.
  • Groups use protocols to build their capacity for learning. The disciplined use of protocols or agreed upon processes and structures helps the CFG build its capacity for learning. Protocols help sustain a steadfast focus on teaching and learning. And, they offer the structure that allows a group to deprivatize their practice and explore the most difficult and challenging issues of insuring that students experience educational excellence.

Since I have returned I have officially started a CFG. 11 amazing administrators volunteering their time, trust and academic energy to learning and leadership reflection.

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Presenter Check-In (Fish Bowl) following Issaquah Protocol by Dr. Thomas VanSoelen

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During my 4 day institute on Critical Friends Groups in Alpharetta, Georgia we continually referred to our “gingerbread man”.  On day one we started our “Opening Moves” with the construction of gingerbread men that carried a number of our notions, perspectives, thoughts into our intense 4 days of learning work.  Each area on the cardboard cut out represented thoughts that we had.

  1. The head was a place to write things that are annoyances to us or things that “drove us crazy.” 
  2. The chest or heart was a place to locate those things that you loved. 
  3. The stomach area was for things that gave you indigestion.
  4. The hands were a place to indicate something you endeavoured to let go of during the institute and something you brought to the table.
  5. Each leg represented a place to write a reason you came to the institute and something you hope to take away with you.

During each day of the institute participants took their “gingy” in hand and reported out about one of the items on the surface.

On day one I shared that “something I love as a father is the noises Gavin makes (all be them rude sometimes) when he is really enjoying food that I prepare for him, especially when I cook him homemade tomato sauce for his penne.

Out of that sharing came this audioboo when I returned home and made Gav a tomato sandwich:

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The three of us sat in the lounge at 12 am and solved all of educations current reform problems over a decaf and a bottle of red. Been there? At a conference surrounded by people that looked nothing like you but came together driven by a common motivation or search for inspiration? Recently in Atlanta GA. I was in this space. Laura is an Latina-American Indian (as she self-identifies) instructional coach and Greg her African American teaching partner. We are more alike than different.

Laura asked about wine the same way I had asked her about fear and ego one year earlier, beside a tree, crying.

“Why do people smell it? What is the difference between red and white? What food does this wine go with?” I answered her questions with the knowledge that I was afforded from my wine drinking family and from the cultural community I was born and raised in. Being from a Canadian grape region helped. But none of those reasons were as expicit for explaining my privilege as the fact that I was white and born and raised in a predominantly white community. I watched Laura hold her glass of Grand Callia (Bodegas Callia Reserve 2006) by the bowl. I described the quality of the glasses we were holding and their ability to make the taste of the wine reach its potential. I told her to hold her glass by the stem so that her body temperature would not change the quality of the flavour. I felt terribly snooty doing this. She asked me to tell her everything. “The stem gives you perspective on colour, clarity, sugar content and nose, without the stem the wine changes by your observations instead of simply by it’s exposure to air. Fingers move faster on a warm bowl for example.” And then she stated.

“You are the first white person to tell me these things. You are the first white person I have asked. Knowing these things gives me access James, access I would not have otherwise. Holding the glass here is easier but I am only going to hold these glasses by the stem from now on.” Paulo calls these cultural norms the dominant syntax.**

Culturally (by societies’ standards) Laura and I are different all the way around. Spiritually we are the same. We ask each other questions and answer without any fear of judgement simply to learn about and from each other. I recall seeing this kind of interaction between my daughter and an African Canadian boy at daycare years ago. I watched and listened as they explored each others differences. They recognized and silently honoured one anothers’ skin and hair and eyes and then played with dolls.

There is a catch though. All the dolls looked like my daughter. Access.

This experience translated to the PLC table for me. I have been surfacing and challenging our teams’ assumptions and beliefs about education and access. It was early the next morning when I woke up and recorded a rough blog entry about how we must respect the time spent together at the PLC table and the role of access and culture. We must hold it by the stem I thought. Our cultural experience with discourse, discussion, argument must be fully understood for the full flavour and complexity of human interaction and learning to take place. As the leader, principal, coach, facilitator I can’t take the easier way out, try to control it all. I have to hold the glass by the stem instead of the bowl. I have to make sure others at the table hold it the same. If we do we stand to learn a great deal about each other and our work together.

I have been privileged my whole life. Privileged because of my skin. I am trying to replace the kind I have been born into with the incredible learning privilege I have been afforded by folks like Greg and Laura and certainly the staffs I have worked with. I have learned powerful lessons from Laura and Greg in just a few meetings over 2 1/2 years. Why? Because I am privileged to have met them by chance. Thank you friends. Keep holding your glass by the stem (unless there isn’t one).

(The Pedegogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire.)


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I have embarked on a major project as part of my NSDC Academy Class of 2011.  I am working with 20 other elementary administrators like myself in some ways and very different in some ways.  We are engaging and learning together with a critical friend from another jurisdiction on the continent.  Our critical friend is a fellow learner, administrator and a skilled facilitator of adult professional learning.  The goal of my work is to enhance, develop or initiate the facilitative leader in all of us.  We are building on leadership skills that we all have.  We are building on the facilitative skills that lie in the realm of pressure and support.  We are working in the realm of relationships and protocols for engagement.  We are working so we may harness the true power and expertise of our teachers for improved student achievement.

First things first.  I am using technology to engage with my counterparts.  Using Twitter, Blogs, YouTube, Wikis and Google proved to be far to complex for many of my colleagues.  The learning curve was simply too steep for many.  I went to the one stop shop for professional educators:  The School Improvement Networks, PD360.  This on demand professional learning experience is tailored for educators.  It combines almost all the components of the above mentioned network tools in one place.  There are limitations however.

I look forward to updating this blog entry regularly as it will serve as my journal for my work with colleagues.  So far…14 of 22 have signed in for the first time.  Not bad.  We have two different physical meetings scheduled including our first….how to….coming up soon.  In all we will be working through protocols for PLCs from the School Reform Initiative and Michael Fullan’s newest Motion Leadership.

There is work to be done.  I am doing the work alongside my friends and colleagues.  I am engaged in and implementing the learning simultaneously.  Exciting and tiring.  Our kids are worth it.

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Clearly technology is not the sole answer to the teaching  learning gap.  It is just another channel to watch.  I view Twitter dialogue (#edchat) as a Protocol for my learning.  140 characters is concise to say the least.  A person of my loquaciousness needs boundaries.  Twitter gives me that structure.  Because it is on the public timeline I have also maintained public integrity.  I know that my digital existence is infinite.  I will be held accountable for my words.  Thus there are inherent “norms”.  My efforts are to get my colleagues to the table to discuss the issues in the same light.  I do not have a lack of faith or belief in any of us.  I know that people don’t “hate” me for talking it up.  On the contrary I understand that each of us has deep understanding for the role that education has played in our lives and we wish to provide that to our communities.  Technology is one avenue to get to that conversation outside of the time crunch and certainly outside of your circle of influence.  I have pictures of technoids sitting in rooms with handhelds engaging in Tweetups!  This is a structured protocol.

My friend’s email was included as a response because it helps me recognize the obstacles to having other educational leaders join the conversations.  I respect my friend immensely and thus view these perceptions as real concerns and obstacles for other professional educators.

  1. The time needed to learn the technology.
  2. The superficiality of the “Twitterverse”.
  3. The feeling that being self-referential is a bad thing.

1.  The technological learning curve is actually quite steep.  With the likes of WordPress, Twitter,  and other Web 2.0 applications that are web based there really is no length of time to learning these pieces of software.  There are oodles of people willing to help you once you are actually plugged in. 

2.  It is simple, only follow those people who offer something to your professional learning profile.  When they stop offering something to your professional learning profile stop following them.  Likewise you will notice that you can allow only those people you feel are following you for professional learning reasons.  Sure the web is full of stuff that just isn’t adding to the collective social consciousness of the world.  So are book stores.

3.  Delete self-referential and insert self-reflective.  T.W.I.T.T.E.R.-The World’s Intellectuals Taking Turns Exchanging Resources.  This was a Twitter post late last week by an educator I follow.  “Resources” are practical applications, web resources or could simply be the ideas, feelings, opinions and experiences that keep your mind actively assimilating new information.  Twitter provides a timeline for your self-reflection.  The self reflection you offer can stimulate others self-reflection.  It is essentially self-reflection for collective wisdom.  Please do not tell us what you had for breakfast.

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