The Forest of Learning

As it is with most of our adventures, it’s all hands on deck at SAC over the next 6 days as our grade 3 and grade 6 learners demonstrate their mastery of the Ontario Curriculum by completing their Provincial EQAO assessments.  This year we have a number of grade 3 students who require scribing in order for them to provide the most accurate evidence of their understanding and we want to ensure that our students have a relationship with their scribe.  One of our educators partners in a Kindergarten classroom in the morning and provides support for our grade 3s in the pm, so it makes the most sense for her to be a scribe.  Therefore, I get the opportunity to spend the morning with one of our Kindergarten classes.  Today we ventured out to our Forest of Learning for the first 50 minutes of the day.   Once I counted heads, multiple times, to ensure that all 27 of the students were safely in the gated Forest of Learning, completed a Health and Safety walk about, moving precariously fallen tree limbs and double checked with my ECE partner that the garter snake that was spotted last week had not recently emerged, I relaxed somewhat and started to engage in conversations with our students.  I was amazed at the learning activities that they were spontaneously engaged it.  It needs to be noted that Karen Vilon, our Kindergarten Outdoor Education Specialty Educator, has done an amazing job of creating such a rich, engaging and fun space ~ which continually evolves and changes.  From bubble containers on the fence, to huge magnifying glasses, to raised vegetable beds, to an outdoor kitchen set, to balances hanging in trees to multiple examples of numbers throughout the Forest, there is definitely not a lack of tools for the students to engage with.

As our time together continued, I transitioned from casual conversations to intentional observations of student learning.  I watched a small group of girls roll and then stack three rubber tires, to create a shelter from the rain. They were able to identify the tires as cylinders and note the properties of rolling and stacking.  I couldn’t help but wonder, how do we document that they’ve already mastered that concept in Kindergarten and will not need to revisit it with a paper and pencil assessment in the years to come.

In another part of the Forest, a small group of students were gathered around their campfire, pretending to drink mugs of hot chocolate (wood chips) and telling scary stories.  They were so kind to each other ~ taking turns and ensuring that everyone had an opportunity to share.  As I listened to them tell their stories, it was evident that they had mastered the concept of what makes a story scary and that a story needs to have characters and a beginning, middle and end. May we continue to provide our students with opportunities to share campfire stories for years to come as they develop more complex story lines.  The power of oral language needs to be honoured throughout our lifetime, not just in our childhood.

And, in yet another part of the Forest of Learning, students were navigating their way from stump to stump, demonstrating their mastery of balance and timing.

Our time in the Forest of Learning was all too short.

I learned more about that group of learners from watching them interact with each other in the Forest of Learning than I could have ever captured by sitting down and assessing them with a paper and pencil task.

I love days like today, when I get to become a learner.

When was the last time you were amazed by something that your students demonstrated?

Come write with me….

Turn off the Tech and Get Lost in a Good Book

As I was driving through one of the small towns on the way home yesterday, the radio station I was listening to was airing a spot from the local library.  The librarian was sharing highlights from a recent book about the impact of technology on reading. Many of her points were ones that I had heard before and even quoted on various occasions; most notably the connection between our current state of decreased attention span and our inability to get completely lost in a book. At times, I find myself a victim of that very reality.  These days if I want to become totally immersed in a book, my cell phone cannot be within an arm’s reach.

Her next points were connections I had not pondered. As students are no longer reading fiction (without interruption) at the same rate as past generations, their ability to feel empathy has been compromised.   It is through immersing ourselves in fiction that we learn to see the world through the eyes of other characters. I love sharing a read aloud and then asking questions such as, “How do you think the character felt when they ….?  Or, “If you were the main character, what would you be thinking at this point in the story? ”Those students who can provide rich responses to such questions have connected with the character on a very special level.  They have been able to get inside the mind of the character.   Those students tend to be more empathetic and kind towards others.

Uninterrupted reading of fiction also builds our students’ ability to problem solve and critically analyze points of view. Without opportunities to read fiction and thereby travel alongside the characters’ journey ~ experiencing their thought process as they make decision after decision ~ we never get the chance to flex our own problem solving muscles.

A society without people who can critically evaluate various points of view and work through various options can easily fall prey to political rhetoric and thus their opinions can easily be swayed.  The implications for democracy are frightening.

With our current state of “technology at our fingers” and competing interest for our student’s uninterrupted time, our job as educators has never been more challenging ~ but when one looks at the alternative, it has never been more important!

What rich fiction story will you read your students tomorrow?  What questions will you ask that will create the conditions for them to articulate both empathy and a rich analysis of the how the characters solved a problem.

Come write with me….

Sheldon’s Quest

It may have “all started with a Big Bang”, but after 12 seasons, the Big Bang Theory writers gave their loyal viewers a well-written and heartfelt ending ~  which included closure to story lines, a “finally” repaired elevator and scenes that were so moving that they did not require the live studio audience to break out in laughter.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the premise of this show, it becomes apparent within the first few episodes that the main character, Dr. Sheldon Cooper has only quest in life and that is to win the Nobel Peace Prize ~  any cost. It would be interesting to do a word search and see how many times, within the 279 episodes, the writers included a reference to the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like so many quests, the hero’s journey is greatly enriched by the detours, the challenges and the times when all hope is lost. In the case of Sheldon, the writers brilliantly created a cast of characters who accompanied our hero on his quest.  They provided comic relief, encouragement and on several occasions, reminders to re-evaluate the cost of being so singularly focused.

Throughout each season, we watched as Sheldon allowed himself to experience deep friendships, love and even marriage.  But all the while the quest was still there, lurking below the surface ~ to the point that on his wedding day, with the help of his bride, the magic formula suddenly made sense.  The hero had finally achieved a major milestone, which made the quest attainable (with significant help from his wife).

As the final season draws to a conclusion, Sheldon learns that he and his wife, Amy, will be indeed honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize and he begins to craft his acceptance speech.  We see the hero revert to his former, self-absorbed self and write 90 minutes worth of his own accomplishments and in the process alienate himself from his “band of brothers”.

With minutes to spare, our hero has a change of heart and instead of regaling the audience with his speech, he turns their attention to his friends and acknowledges their role in his quest.  It turns out that those relationships, those challenges, those detours and those times when all faith was lost were the true prize.

As we near the end of this school year and we begin to reflect on the goals that we set in September, (our quest) is it important that we reached that pinnacle?  Or is it the learning, the challenges that we overcame and the relationships that were forged or deepened throughout our journey, that we will remember?

Come write with me….

Life at the Lake

For those readers who have faithfully been reading my “Post a day for the month of May”, my apologies for the short break.  As you may have gathered from Day 17, I headed up to our cottage for the Victoria Day weekend and although the view of the water, the peaceful surroundings (except for the invasion of the black flies) and lots of physical labour combined with fresh air were conducive to prime writing inspiration,  the unreliability of the Internet created some frustration when it came time to publish the posts.

Here is my Day 18 post!

Life at the Lake.

I did not grow up “on the lake”, nor did our family own a cottage when I was growing up. Hence, I do not have rich, detailed stories passed down from generation to generation about the ever-changing water levels, families of animals returning year after year and trees surviving extreme winters.

For one week each summer, we would venture to a fishing camp and rent a cottage. We still created wonderful memories with rich, detailed stories, which continue to be shared ~ but the natural surroundings never played a central role.

When our own children were young, we continued the tradition of renting a cottage for a week each summer.  We loved the outdoors and appreciated the beauty that Mother Nature gifted us with, but to be honest, we did not pay much attention to how best to sustain that beauty.

Five years ago, we finally took the leap and invested in our own cottage on the Trent Severn.  It is a modest, rustic cabin, with an accompanying bunkie for our now grown children and visitors.  Bru-Ski Bay (as we have renamed our lot on Lost Channel), nestled among tall strong pines, is surrounded by water on three sides. Each side offers a different entry experience. On one side, you can dive off the dock into deep water.  One side is located on the scenic point, with a gradual walk into the water (although, as a prime fishing spot ~ there is not a lot of swimming happening there). The third side is a haven for frogs and lily pads (marshy and moist).

As relatively new cottage owners, we have learned that the inaugural trip in the spring involves a great deal of stewardship for the natural resources, so that we will be able to enjoy their beauty year after year.  Trees damaged by the winter winds needed to be trimmed in order to not compromise other trees and plants, fallen branches needed to be removed from the water’s edge and the hummingbird feeder needed to be refilled.  

Stewardship of our Earth is one of those life skills that we can sometimes overlook in our quest to meet the multitude of curriculum expectations.  My heart sang with joy, when late last week, I looked out of my office window to see our grade one classes taking it upon themselves to weed and tidy our gardens.  It was so evident that they were taking pride in our school.   As a new school, we often remind our students to take care of their furniture and equipment ~ as we want it to last for years and years.

One does not have to be in a new school to feel that sense of pride and stewardship.   As you look towards the upcoming week, what can you do to demonstrate stewardship of resources (natural or other) in your school?

Come write with me…

To Pack or Not to Pack….

brown vintage suitcase standing at docks near the sea

Here we are embarking on the first long weekend of the season.  This year I’m venturing up to the cottage to take part in the opening weekend festivities, along with the family.  Historically, I’ve waved good-bye as the boys have headed North to hook-up the water pump, remove the exterior weather proofing material, and heat up the sauna for its inaugural use.  I enjoy some quiet time for a few days and then look forward to the stories of winter damage, curious critters creating new crevices in corners, the first frigid lake dive and the tales of the meat eating black flies.

Access to our cottage is via the ATV in the winter and by boat for the other three seasons, therefore packing is always an event in and of itself. I’m sure that there is a magic formula for ensuring that you have most of the essentials combined with the least number of containers/trips from the vehicle, to the dock, to the boat, to the other dock, to the cottage. I have yet to master that formula. The complexity of this “first season” trip is that everything was brought home in the fall ~ food, bedding and linens, condiments etc.  So, in my mind EVERYTHING is an essential, but I’ve been warned not to over pack from those who will be lugging the multiple containers.

Last night as I contemplated how best to pack (what is a “MUST “be packed and what is a “CAN WAIT” for the next trip),  I started to think about educators throughout the Valley who will be moving to new learning environments next fall and those who will be transitioning into classrooms after sharing their gifts from a system role for a number of years. In our school, at least four of our teachers will be moving to portables and most of our teachers who teach late primary, will be moving to new classrooms. Our growth and expansion has been incredible and it doesn’t look like there will be any slowing down in the near future.

If you are one of those educators who will be transitioning to another learning space, what will you be taking with you? What are the tried and true resources that are worth the multiple trips? What success criteria will you be using to determine the effectiveness of a resource? How has your selection criteria evolved over the years?

As for the success criteria for our weekend at the cottage, I’m hoping that in my quest for compact and my laser focus on the “MUST” have,  I didn’t forget the toilet paper….smile.

Come write with me….

Happy Long Weekend,

Rock Star Moment

On January 27 2017, I wrote and published a post called, Stepping Stones. It detailed a time in my career, shortly after our school board had welcomed 450 Syrian refugee students, when I took the opportunity to visit schools and share this heartfelt journey of Rama and her family as they fled a war torn country and traveled to safety.  A day later, I was thrilled to see that the author, Margriet Ruurs had not only read the post, but she left a comment and then days later a Facebook friend request.

Fast forward two years and once again I was referencing Stepping Stones within a post ~ as our grade 7/8 students were taking part in the Global Read Aloud and exploring Refugee by Alan Gratz, I read them Stepping Stones to build their background knowledge on the war in Syria.   Margriet, once again reached out with a message of appreciation and inspiration.  At the same time, her book, The Elephant Keeper had been shortlisted for the Forest of Reading and we started to explore the possibility of her coming to London to meet our students at Sir Arthur Currie in conjunction with her trip to Toronto for the Forest Festivities.  With a little help from friends, we were able to make it work and today was the big day. I told our students that this was one of my “Rock star” days as I was going to get to meet someone whose work I have admired for some time.  I am not sure if they noticed the subtle connection between “rock” star and Stepping Stones, but they certainly could sense my excitement as I embraced Margriet like a long lost friend, instead of someone that I just met minutes before I introduced her.

Our incredible Library Learning Commons educator, Danielle Cadieux, worked with our students and encouraged them to create their own inspirational Stepping Stone reflections and then she assembled them to produce an amazing display.  Needless to say Margriet was very impressed with the both the work and the words of our students, to the extent that she has asked us to send her the file, so that our creations can be included on her website. I watched with pride, as she complimented our students for their beautiful work.

There is something so inspirational about listening to an author share how a simple act/idea ultimately leads to a work of art that changes lives. In this case, it was the simple act of scrolling through Facebook and then taking the time to rewind and look again at the unique stone pictures of Nizar Ali Badr and being curious.  It was Margriet’s curiosity and months of perseverance, which led to their partnership, and the ultimate creation of Stepping Stones.

I watched as our students intently listened to her story of how a conversation with a young man at an Elephant Orphanage uncovered his journey from being an elephant poacher to being an elephant caregiver.   It was so evident in listening to Margriet that one of her gifts is her curiosity in others ~ she definitely listens to learn and then uses what she learns to weave beautiful, inspirational stories.

As I continue to explore my own writing (in the simplistic form of this blog) I found myself landing on three take-aways from listening to Margriet today:

  • Always be curious
  • Take the time to truly listen to the stories of others
  • Perseverance pays off (for one of her books, it took 8 years of research)


What guides you as you write?

Come write with me….


This morning at our Principal’s Community of Schools meeting the conversation focused on the newest iteration for our process of documenting school improvement. During my 15 years as a school administrator, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of school communities as we identified our most pressing need, listed the strategies that we needed to implement to make a difference, measured the success of the implementation of the strategies and then reflected on where to land next.  And over the years, I’ve used a variety of board generated templates (some with more success than others).

In my first school, the board wide focus was on literacy and more specifically our DRA scores.  Strategies included the creation of elaborate DRA walls where we measured and monitored our students’ mastery of reading levels. If I recall correctly, the focus was so narrow that each school had to predict and work towards attaining a specific percentage of  DRA scores which would improve.  The template was cumbersome and labour intensive to complete, but we could all recite our School Goal.

A few years later, Ministry documents, such as the School Effectiveness Framework became pivotal in our goal setting work and schools were provided with more latitude to select goals based on both large scale and school based data. I recall conversations with my SO at the time asking if we could include a math goal along with our literacy goal as the two go hand in hand in terms of best practices for both instruction as well as assessment. It was a struggle, but with a little bit of convincing we were able to include both goals.  The template was more user friendly and hence more effective to share with all stakeholders.

Fast forward to 2013 and once again a new way of thinking (and a new template) guided our work as instructional leaders.  School communities were provided with the latitude to select one of four quadrants and select objectives within their chosen quadrant to measure and monitor their work within.  However, it quickly became apparent that such latitude was not the desired outcome and within a couple of years, the four quadrants were reduced to one quadrant (with a specific and narrow focus on math).

This past year, the focus within the one quadrant became even more narrow, to the point that schools were asked to select one of three math objectives and as a result of attending any system professional learning, the actual wording for the specific goal was provided, along with the strategies and the wording to include on the template. The platform for the template may have created the conditions for system level data collection, based on repeated words, etc., but from an end user lens, it was not friendly in the least. School leaders were starting to have conversations about the fact that our laser focus on math was creating gaps in the learning and documenting student achievement in literacy.

Today’s unveiling of the SIPSAW “School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement and Well Being” is a much welcomed return to the sound practice of ensuring that schools take responsibility to do the work of determining their own current needs, to develop  success criteria that is meaningful for them and to creating their own monitoring and measuring structures.

I loved diving deep in conversation with trusted and respected colleagues who were immediately embracing this opportunity to authentically do the work of school improvement planning and not just try and replicate a one size fits all model.  I walked away feeling excited about being able to truly co-construct our SIPSAW with our community members, instead of just sharing a generic SIP.

As a new school, we have some unique areas that require our dedicated focus and deserve to be documented.  This new lens will help us do the work that is most important for us.


Come write with  me…

Boston for the Win!

JI have to admit that being a Boston Bruins fan in a town that has a divided loyalty between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings (along with a few Habs fans) usually means that I silently celebrate as they continue to move closer to a chance at this year’s Stanley Cup.  I had to laugh when a couple of weeks ago (as Boston and Toronto were battling it out in the quarterfinals) as I overhead a parent, who was picking us his son, ask our school secretary if it was true that the principal was a Bruins fan.  I quickly donned my Bruins cap (which is always close at hand) and emerged from the office.  A combination of surprise and laughter ensued as my first glimpse of the parent landed on his Toronto Maple Leafs cap.  The student nonchalantly turned to his dad and declared, “See! I told you so”.   I then proceeded to share my familiar line, which goes something like this ~ “When you marry a man with the last name  Bruyns, your fate as a Boston fan is pretty much sealed.  Add to that, I grew up in the seventies in a household where Hockey Night in Canada (complete with Peter Puck) was religiously enjoyed ~ especially when #4 Bobby Orr (who grew up right here in Ontario) was on the ice.

Every once in a while, my passion for Boston comes into play as I connect with staff and students.  Currently at Sir Arthur Currie, we have only 2 die hard Boston fans who have made their presence known ~ both girls. One of the girls is an outgoing, wild spirit who in involved in all walks of school life.  We banter openly about our love for all things Boston and every Jersey Day, she finds me and we capture the moment with a twin photo.   We high-five in the hallway after each win. The other student is very quiet, shy and reserved.  A few weeks ago, I found two Boston hockey trading cards on my desk ~ no note, just waiting there for when I arrived.  Later that week, when I was on the yard, she shyly walked up and whispered, “Did you find the cards?”  Now, each day, she finds a way for our paths to cross and we exchange a knowing smile and a silent cheer as our team continues to win and advance forward.

One can never underestimate the power of discovering a way to connect with students who may otherwise stay in the background.   I love how our staff at SAC find ways every day to go above and beyond to connect with our students.

As a footnote to this post, this morning the staff received a message on our Group Outlook site from one of our newest crew members, who will be joining us in the fall.  He included a “ PS Are there any other Bruins fans still interested in playoff hockey?” at the end of his note.

I took that opportunity to post this selfie….

Tonight’s game just finished and our team is now only one win away from the heading to the Stanley Cup finals.  I cannot wait to find my kindred spirits tomorrow and share a high-five with one of them and a sideways knowingly smile with the other.

What are some ways that you share your interests with your students?

Come write with me…

Through the Lens of a Student

I am currently a part of a book study with a small group of administrators.  We are exploring what our own learning looks like as we conduct our classroom walkthroughs ~ which is a significantly different lens than the traditional one of “how do we conduct classroom walkthroughs”. All too often, we find ourselves caught in a leadership checklist mentality, created by others who are holding us accountable for leading our schools but providing us with an attestation, instead of creating the conditions for us to truly learn something and then reflect upon it.

Formative Classroom Walkthroughs, written by Moss and Brookhart, is a dense read, but well worth the investment of time if you are looking for a way to transform the lens you use as you support, not only your educators but, your own learning during your daily interactions in classrooms. It evolves our thinking well beyond the checklist!

In order to get the most of out of this concept, there needs to be a true understanding of “learning” ~ which involves the process of acquiring new knowledge.   Learning involves those light bulb moments, not reinforcement of what is already known.  Moreover, for this process to be meaningful all three parties need to walk away with something “new” ~ teacher, student and principal.

What I appreciated about this resource was how they suggest principals position themselves to best view the learning and that position is in the seat and through the eyes of the student.  The guiding question, “If I did everything the teacher asked me to do as a student during this lesson, what would I actually learn?” allows us to get to the heart of our work as an administrator ~ which is to support the continual learning of everyone (including ourselves).

I have had the pleasure of completing a number of summative evaluations over the past few weeks where I have intentionally placed myself in the seat of the student ~ completing the tasks alongside of the students, as a co-learner.  Using the lens of a learner has provided me with richer material to include in my post observation discussions. For example, historically I may have commented on the good practice of providing students with a graphic organizer. However, as a result of this new lens, I was able to provide feedback on the learning and discussion that accompanied the completion of the organizer (both mine and the students’).  That feedback is pivotal to the teacher’s learning about their practice.

As a result of reading and more importantly, discussing this resource with colleagues who push my thinking, I’m excited to dive deeper into the next chapters and explore more of the identified learning components and how they will impact my learning as an administrator.

As a teacher, when an administrator pops in for a walkthrough, what is one thing that you would like to learn?

Come write with me…..

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I can clearly recall the first time that I watched Brene Brown’s TedTalk “The Power of Vulnerability”.  I was immediately drawn into, not only her words, but how she was delivering her message.  She presented as someone I could easily see as a part of my circle of friends. I was intrigued by her research (and I continue to explore my own journey and how vulnerability plays a role in my day to day interactions with others) but more significantly, I was captivated by her gift as a storyteller.  So, like so many fans I was thrilled to learn that Brene had videoed a Netflix special called, “The Call to Courage”.  On the day of its release, I powered off all of my devices, poured myself a drink and watched it.  She did not disappoint me as a super fan. In the several years since her first Ted Talk, Brene has refined her skills as a storyteller ~ painting an even more vivid picture for her audience.  Heartwarming and funny stories involving her family members are told with such emotion that you can’t help but feel like you’re on the dock at the lake or the deck of the pool witnessing what could have been a tragedy, but as a result of putting research into action, ended with triumph.

Individual viewers will take their own pearls of wisdom from the presentation, depending on what their soul is seeking at the time. I firmly believe that our soul triggers what our ears hear.  Today, as I treated myself to a second viewing, I found myself drawn, most profoundly, to the phrase, “the stories we tell ourselves”.  Upon reflection (and to be honest, I didn’t have to dig too deeply) if I were being honest, I’d have to admit that, at times, I am guilty of this self-doubt go-to mindset.   I have typed and deleted about ten examples of how this impacts me on a regular basis, because each example sees trite and petty when I see it in print.

However, in the vein of honesty and vulnerability ~ here’s a few of the deleted examples:

When a colleague walks past and doesn’t engage in a conversation ~ I tell myself that I must have done something to upset them.
When a parent doesn’t respond to an email about a student ~ I tell myself that they don’t agree with the message.
When a task force is created and I’m not asked to take part ~ I tell myself that my ideas are no longer valid, innovative or needed.
When I post a blog and not a single person likes it ~ I tell myself that it was crap and begin to question if I should even continue to write

In rereading this list, it is easy (behind the safety of my keyboard) to provide a rational different story for each scenario.

My colleague was busy thinking about something else.
The parent is fully aware and just as concerned with their child. They are doing their best and not sure how to explain that.
The task force selection committee is aware of my other commitments and wants to share the load.
Not everyone is going to connect with everything that I write ~ it doesn’t mean that I should stop writing.

As Brene cautions her audience, it is so easy to tell ourselves unpleasant, self doubting stories, but we need to rise above it and begin to tell ourselves stories of self-worth, bravery and courage.

My goal this week is to be more aware of the stories that I tell myself.

What about you?  What stories will you tell yourself?

Come write with me……