Sunday, 11 December 2016

Gratitude and the Power of Sharing Schools!

"As soon as I saw you I knew an adventure was going to happen."
A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh)

This is a season for giving - and also a season for acknowledging great gratitude for all the joys and wonders in our lives. As the 2016 season of holidays and celebration unfolds, I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity to open a new school - particularly because this opportunity also afforded me the experience of a school-within-a-school model of education I have never experienced before. And it has been a most positive experience - one of the best I've known in a long and amazing teaching career!

The school-within-a-school model happens mostly in times of space crunch when a school - for whatever reason - is temporarily not able to be home to the students it would usually embrace and hold as a stable learning centre. In the case of Eric Harvie School, our building - one of 16 new school projects expected to be constructed and opened for the 2016-17 school year - was simply not finished enough to open its' doors to the waiting students for September. There were a few available spaces in surrounding communities, but to limit the distance children would need to travel on buses, and to maintain consistency for the students who had already attended school in the existing but increasingly overcrowded community school, the decision was made to accommodate all of the new school inside the walls of Tuscany School. 

Cindy White, the principal of TS, and I had worked together previously and become kindred spirits in a way that connected us for many years - so the idea of coming together to work collaboratively for a few months was one we felt we could manage pretty comfortably with great respect for each other's ideas, organizational strategies, students, staff and families. And Shelagh Reading, the principal of the nearby Twelve Mile Coulee Middle School, became a key link in the plan as well, opening optional learning spaces to be used creatively by the grade 4 students at TS. And all the teachers - from all 3 schools - worked creatively, collaboratively and with the students at the heart of their work to ensure best possible, flexible and highly positive learning experiences for all students. It has definitely been a collaboration of innovation, deep care and flexible thinking - and it has worked so beautifully!!

There were many complexities to this configuration - TS had previously been a K-3 school due to space limitations but, with the construction of a second elementary school in the community, their configuration changed to K-4. Eric Harvie School will be a K-4 site as well but this year, with all the Grade 4 students having attended Tuscany School for their entire learning history, the decision was made to not uproot them mid-year to finish just a few months at the new school. This meant not only adding Grade 4 classes to the TS configuration but that there were more than usual because it was really Grade 4 students from two schools. And TMC School had some extra space because they gave up their Grade 4 classes to accommodate increasing student numbers in Grades 5 - 9. All these Grade 4 changes meant opportunities abounded for the Grade 4 students to engage in on-site learning experiences at the middle school campus for 1 - 3 weeks at a time - using art rooms, labs, etc. not available in an elementary setting. And leadership opportunities in their own school as well - an enviable combination of learning opportunities rarely experienced at the Grade 4 level! The collaboration between TMC and TS has been so positive and innovative - and extremely beneficial for all the Grade 4 students!

Meanwhile, Eric Harvie School moved in to 8 classrooms with approximately 350 students in multi-age configurations for Grades 1/2 and straight grades for Kindergarten and Gr. 3 students. Shared single classrooms became home to double-sized classes, and teachers who had not previously known each other came together in collaborative teaching and learning experiences that were fully shared, and made best possible use of every space in the school (the gathering space, learning commons, empty classrooms, hallways) as well as the amazing outdoor learning spaces Tuscany has in abundance in the coulees, ponds, community garden and natural spaces. Outdoor learning has become as natural as being inside; personal desks were not fully available but children discovered they loved to learn while standing, sprawled on cushions, sitting on alternative seating options, wiggling around. Learning became the priority over sitting quietly, classroom management gave way to classroom engagement and students developed collaborative strategies that benefitted their learning in multiple ways. They shared books, writing, stories, songs, experiences in every way - small class spaces did not dampen their enthusiasm for using design thinking, writing, performing or reading - and getting outside to explore the 'wilderness' of Glenbow Ranch not only helped them understand the legacy of Eric Harvie (our school's namesake) but also this place we live in on the prairie and how it's broad spaces have defined the southern Alberta way of life.

We could not have asked for a more supportive, kind or generous place to establish our new school. We have only been open four months but this experience has provided a rich grounding in empathy, care, peace, collaboration and sharing it would have taken us months - perhaps years - to build in an expansive new building. Living as a school-within-a-school helped us understand with great immediacy that what really matters most are the people we see, work with and live with every day on the landscape of school - those we share stories, books, experiences and insights with, ask questions and seek new ideas with and those with whom we celebrate, laugh, cry a little and find great joys and wonders with every day.  We are so grateful to Tuscany School - and to Twelve Mile Coulee School -for embracing the newest member of the Tuscany community educational continuum, and we truly look forward to years of joyful, meaningful work together!

Best wishes for an amazing holiday season - we will welcome everyone to our Open House this month and look forward to starting in our new building January 3, 2017!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Learning to Read: Building a Lifelong Passion

"Learning does not automatically happen; 
Students need expert teaching to develop high levels of reading and writing expertise."
Irene Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell

As children develop skills and strategies to decode and make sense of text, they begin to see themselves as 'readers', a term that denotes not just the capacity to make sense of text but acknowledges also invitations to make text work for them in a multitude of ways - to find out information, pursue questions, play with words, select genres of interest, make connections.  It is access and opportunities to impact the whole world that moves learning to read from a task requiring applied skills to an engaging passion that endures a lifetime.

From a teaching perspective, nudging students past the application of skills and strategies to wholehearted text engagement requires expert understanding of possible 'next steps' in helping readers find multiple ways to explore, understand, manipulate and invest themselves in text. This includes everything from understanding genre, to exercising multiple strategies for researching, verifying and expanding on ideas and events. It includes understanding text features and how they vary from genre to genre, changing text features for emphasis or simplified understanding, manipulating text to pose new questions or understandings and to understanding text structures (story structure, poetry, expository text structures, instructions, etc). Engaging with text will offer students ways to build emotional connections with characters, make connections to previous or desired experiences, push perceptions, thinkings and questions. Students come to see text as not just words on a page but a potential, all-engaging experience that will cause them to think, act or respond differently once they have invested time and energy in the text than they did before encountering a particular book, text or story.

Building personal reflections and responses to text helps children build skills in selecting and evaluating text - often when a student says a text is 'boring', for example, the story will have unfolded without any changes to the character - meaning there was no reason for the reader to feel connected to the character or really even care what happens to them.  A character who faces significant challenges, has to make decisions or solve problems usually changes as a result and the reader develops a great curiosity and often empathy for the character, becoming anxious to see what happens to the character - often so anxious they will become immersed in the text, might lose track of time, choose not to engage in an activity they usually love to finish reading, etc - when this happens, it is an existential experience the reader will want to replicate and is the beginning of building a lifelong passion for reading.

Reading is not always a reflection of a paper-based text - digital texts, e-books, blogs - these are all digital reading materials children are very familiar with and engage with in similar ways to paper-based texts in terms of exploring, understanding and manipulating text. Regardless of the format or genre, children who are developing lifelong passions for reading will engage in multiple text formats throughout their lives and the skills, strategies and approaches they polish and use effectively as children will prove to be a solid foundation for future growth as a passionate reader.

Teachers often see passions for reading become clearly evident in particular children at very early ages - and they also see students whose passion for reading doesn't happen till later in their educational histories when they suddenly find a particular reason to be invested in text. The greatest revelation about teaching reading to emerge in recent years is the need for personalized teaching and learning for each and every child - there are no universal programs or structures that work for every child and what works for one may not be as successful for the next child.  This presents challenges for assessment as well - assessment needs to be about every single child rather than collectively comparing whole groups of children with 'similar' learning needs.

Building a lifelong passion for reading is not a linear, prescriptive process - there are as many nuances and quirks to guiding students towards being passionate readers as there are readers in the world. It is, however, one of the most exciting processes a child can experience and, as the teacher, the most rewarding of all teaching tasks is to foster and watch reading passion develop in students.

What begins as invitations to share texts orally evolves into direct teaching of phonemic/vocabulary/phonetic strategies for decoding and making sense of texts - and these directly taught strategies evolve into passionate engagement with reading texts of any sort. The process unfolds over several years in a multitude of ways, guided by teachers who genuinely love their students and want to celebrate successes.

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal