Busy Learning

May 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

It has been a very long time since I have posted on this site.  When I started this blog, I was in my third year as Principal of Johnston Heights. I am now in my 7th year in the role and will be leaving the school at the end of June to move to Salish Secondary. Salish Secondary is currently under construction and will open in September 2018. Before I leave Johnston Heights, however, I wish to express my deep gratitude to the teachers, staff, parents and students for 7 professionally enriching years. You have kept me buy learning!

The last time I wrote a post, I was struggling to comprehend how teaching and learning needed to change for students in the 21st Century. I knew change was coming but the shape of the new curriculum was yet to be revealed.  Since my last post, the educational landscape in our province has changed dramatically and  I have been busy learning.

The re-designed curriculum is a strength based model of teaching and learning. This is true for both teachers and students. A strength based model of teaching allows teachers to work collaboratively to develop units and lessons of Inquiry that they are able to share with each other. Through Inquiry, students have numerous opportunities to demonstrate their learning that often far exceeds what teachers imagined possible.

I have been most privileged to work along side a staff who has immersed themselves in the new curriculum through their focused work on concept based and  inquiry learning. Through their work they  have shown me  how Inquiry learning has the power to connect students more deeply in their learning.

Four years ago, the students and staff began an inquiry that focused on implementing the IB Middle Year’s Programme to all students in Grade 8-10. This February, our hard work paid off and we have been authorized as an IB World School. Aside from being a part of a network of schools around the world, the IB MYP provides a framework of learning that allowed us to fully implement the BC Curriculum using an concept-based, inquiry model for teaching and learning.

It has been remarkable for me to be part of a community of students, teachers, parents and administrators who have spent the past four years grappling with change and eventually embracing a new way to teach and learn.

So, what have I been busy learning?

  1. All learning is meaningful and is meant to be shared
  2. Common values leads to a shared vision
  3. A shared vision leads to common language
  4. Common language provides consistency in assessment
  5. Assessment is the foundation of all learning
  6. Connecting talents leads to higher quality work.

It has been an honour and a privilege to be the Principal of Johnston Heights Secondary.

The past 7 years has been an incredible journey.

Thank you, Johnston Heights!



What is an Inquiry Mindset

March 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

The transformation in education is really about thinking differently. The change is more about looking at teaching and learning through an inquiry mindset.  Having a curiosity about how students learn rather than an expectation of reproducing knowledge, will lead to different teaching practices.

How do you know if you have an inquiry mindset in your teaching practice?

If you can stand in front of your class and ask a question without having the answer to how students will show you their learning, you have an inquiry mindset.  I have written in previous posts about developing the better question for better learning. The best Inquiry questions are those that allow the teacher to step back from giving the answer, and shift to being engaged with their students in their learning.  A teacher who understands Inquiry is more curious about how the students develop their thinking about the answer than the actual answer itself.

 If you believe that you can learn through using content rather than the content being the learning, you have an inquiry mindset. Inquiry  is about engaging students with big ideas within a subject rather than the content knowledge being the end point of the learning.  An Art teacher approached me wondering if he had done Inquiry when he developed a unit of self-discovery using the image of a hand.  He wanted students to connect the image of their hand to their own identity. He further enriched the learning by prompting students to identify their cultural roots and explain how that knowledge shaped their identity. His final assessment was for students to trace their hand, draw symbols in the hand that identified who they were and write a self-reflection piece to be shared. This is a perfect example of the focus not on learning an art skill; it was developing an art skill through the content that the skill was shown while the deeper learning of self was revealed.

 If you believe that through inquiry, learning can and should be rigorous for all students, you have an inquiry mindset. A thoughtful, consistent and well planned lesson centered on essential questions is the key to teaching rigor. To think that asking a question and then leaving students to figure out the answer is a false understanding of inquiry.  Rigor comes out of the collaboration between a teacher and their student to determine the depth of skill, knowledge and learning that is required for the desired learning outcome.  Recently, I had a discussion with a teacher who was struggling to explain to her students the concept of rigor. She gave them an assignment but could not articulate how one student’s original art piece could be as rigorous as a 1200 word essay. In trying to understand her angst, I asked her if it like trying to assess who had the deeper understanding of ‘The Last Supper’: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or the Gospels in the Bible? Which one represented more rigor and the deeper understanding?  The answer is both. It was the example she needed to explain to her students.

 If you can assess the rate of learning rather than measure knowledge, you have an Inquiry mindset.  I always wondered how effective I was as a teacher. When I was new to the profession, I remember wondering when I finished teaching my first soccer unit, how much students learned from me as a teacher. I had students in my class who played soccer in the community at a very competitive level. In the same class, I had students who didn’t know what to do with a soccer ball other than to avoid it when it came near them. At the end of the unit, the good soccer players were still good. The students who didn’t have a lot of skill, developed their abilities and it was noticeable the change in their knowledge and skill. Yet, when assessing them, the good soccer players got the good marks and the novice players received the lower mark. That never seemed right to me when it was obvious that the novice players learned more. Further, what had I done to challenge the good players? I highly doubt they improved their skill based on my 3 week unit.  From that experience, I searched for the answer to that dilemma for years. Inquiry based Learning Design framework has finally provided me with the understanding and structure that has allowed me to assess students on their learning. When designing learning through an Inquiry lens, you need to start with the end in mind. The teacher should consider the following: what are the specific learning targets? What must the student know?  What should the students know and what do you want them to know?

 Finally, if you don’t completely understand inquiry based learning but are curious to learn more, you have an inquiry mindset.




Playing Tag

January 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I was a PE teacher, I had students play a wide variety of ‘Tag’ games. Some were challenging and others silly, but mostly we all had fun. Over the holidays however, I was entered into a game of ‘tag’ by Elisa Carlsen, Director of Instruction for the Surrey School District. As in all games of tag, the game is fun until you are tagged ‘it’. After that, there is no more running and hiding or slinking off into the corner, hoping to be over looked. Once you are ‘it’ you have to play! Ignoring the ‘tag’ doesn’t work either. Since that initial ‘tag’ from Elisa, I have been tagged a few more times! So, here I am ready to play:

Eleven Interesting Facts about Me:

1. I have a 2 1/2 year old grandson and although ‘thank you for the compliment’, yes I am old enough to have a grandson.

2. My grandson calls me ‘Silly Grandma Sheila’ and he is correct!

3. I am an early morning person, but don’t talk to me until I have had my coffee.

4. Basketball is my most favorite sport and football my least favorite

5. I follow college basketball and am a huge fan of the ‘Lady Vols’

6. Although I lived near Whistler (In Brackendale) for a few years, I am not a skier

7. I have coached high school basketball, volleyball, swimming, track and field and softball.

8. The most unusual game I ever coached was a softball game in Cairo, Egypt at 2pm in the middle of a sandstorm.
(we won the game).

9. I lived on the beach in San Diego and when it rains for days in Vancouver, sometimes wonder what I was thinking when I moved back.

10. I love dogs but am currently a non-dog owner. My grandson has an English bulldog named Bronx, When they come to visit, it can be quite the experience.

11. I took a train from Frankfurt, Germany to Bielice, Poland with my daughter, plus my beagle and cocker spaniel who sat on our laps the whole way. It was a 15 hour journey. It is not a trip I would repeat. Flying would be the better option!

Homework – 11 New questions

1. My favorite piece of music is ‘Gangham Style’ because my grandson makes me laugh when he dances to it

2. My ideal gourmet dinner would be any Mexican feast!

3. The three people who have mentored me would be Alan Jones, Ron Bergeron and my family. Alan challenged me to take risks and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Ron showed me how to be organized (down to colour coding a filing cabinet) and taught me the importance of process. My family has always been the source of strength and courage and to have conviction in all you do.

4. In my leisure time, I like to run, spend time relaxing with family and friends, and golf.

5. My favorite fiction and non-fiction book? Who has time to read?!

6. Who challenges you the most in your work? Teachers! The class room teacher has the most complex job in the system. It is through understanding their challenges, frustrations and successes that focuses me on my work.

7. If I could chose a colour that best describes your personality what would it be? I was once described as being the colour orange. It was explained that orange is a warm colour, but not pale (as in passive). I would hope that may be a somewhat accurate description.

8. What drives me crazy? Waiting in line for anything.

9. What is the one thing I would change in education? The way we look at time and space. We can be so rigid and inflexible.

10. The most important thing I will do today is connect with parents, students and teachers. The best thing I will do tomorrow (Saturday) is to rest and take a break from the week so I can re-charge and get ready for the coming week.

11. I am most passionate about learning. Sometimes we get bogged down in content and forget about the process of learning. It is that process that most excites me.

Phew- this game of tag has been grueling – I’m tapping out!

Innovation Week at Fraser Heights

December 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Learning is open, transparent and shared.                                         

This is the first principle of ‘The Learning Project’ at Johnston Heights. As a school community, we continue to try to find ways to allow our students to demonstrate their learning. In our search to understand the principle that ‘learning is open, transparent and shared’, I continue to look for examples of good practice in other schools. Most recently, I was able to find a wonderful showcase of learning at one of our neighboring High Schools, Fraser Heights. In November, the school designed a special timetable to give students the freedom to collaborate, explore and create a project based solely on student passion, and created Innovation Week, which culminated with a Showcase of Learning on the last day.

Learning requires risk taking.

I was able to attend the Showcase session after school with a group of teachers from my school. The Fraser Heights Principal, Sheila Morissette, had extended the invitation to me, even though she was unsure of what the day would hold for her. I admired the risk she was taking implementing and presenting this idea to her school community and district colleague. It took courage to take such a bold idea with such a large group of her student population, without having a predictable outcome. An additional risk came with putting on the presentations without really knowing the quality of the projects. Sheila believed that the learning that would come out of Innovation Week far outweighed the risks.  If we want to transform education, we need leaders like Sheila who are willing to take risks. .

An emphasis on adult learning enhances student learning

The idea of taking a week of traditional instructional time and converting it into a week for students to explore their passion was really a challenge to teachers to think differently.  Sheila, however, has been shifting the paradigm of teaching and learning with her staff for a couple of years.  First and foremost, she has been the lead learner in understanding and ultimately embracing project based learning. It has been inspiring to watch this change in her school community. It was clear that Innovation Week demonstrated that the teachers at Fraser Heights understood that learning can and does occur outside of instructional time. They were willing to let go of the traditional timetable for class time and space and replace it with a more flexible timetable that allowed for students to pursue their passion to learn.

 Innovation is about ‘bringing ideas to life”

When I arrived at the Showcase day, I was immediately taken aback by the energy and atmosphere that I felt. As I entered the cafeteria, there was wide range of projects on display and students were actively engaged in conversations with the guests coming to view their work.  I went to the first table where two girls showed me their project. They had worked collaboratively to write and perform a song on anti-bullying. They had the song playing on an iPad that displayed the video they also put together. The song was very moving and the video was powerful. I asked them what grade they were in and I was told Grade 8. I was amazed with the quality of their work. As I moved through the presentations, I met many students who were happy to share their projects with me. It was evident that the students had researched their projects, were well versed in their topic and most importantly, proud to showcase their learning.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth sharing

At the end of my visit, I was able to spend a few moments with Sheila. She was beaming with pride. Although tired, she was pleased with the implementation of the first Innovation Week at her school. I want to congratulate Sheila and her entire school community for taking this risk. Through their experience, I am inspired to try something new at my school. The Fraser Heights community have re-affirmed for me that the best ‘learning is open, transparent and shared’.






Ready to Mow the Lawn

November 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

In my last post, https://sheilahammond.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/what-has-stopped-your-learning, I wondered how often we ask students who have not been successful in school, ‘what has stopped their learning’. If we took the time to ask, I also wonder if they would be able to answer the question. This leads me back to the notion that all learning begins with a question. To me, this is the very heart of inquiry based learning and the idea that ‘the better the question, the better the learning’. It is also the key to engaging students in their learning.

This past Thanksgiving, my nephew came over for the weekend. By simply asking him if he wanted to mow the lawn, I got a real lesson on the value of inquiry based learning. I need to qualify what my nephew wanted to learn. It was definitely not that he cared about mowing the lawn, but rather learning how to drive the ride-on lawn mower. My nephew is 14 years old and is very aware that in less than 2 years he will be able to get his Learner’s Driver’s License. In anticipation of that day, he wants to find any opportunity to drive something, regardless of its other functions. So, when he came over and I offered to let him drive the lawn mower and he jumped at the opportunity.

Inquiry based learning is all about asking the better question. It is also about attaching knowledge and experience to the question so learning happens. If knowledge is the ‘Science of Learning’ then experience is the ‘Art of Learning’. The teacher is then, the designer of learning that includes both knowledge and experience.

With the example of my nephew and the lawnmower, his motivation was learning to drive, but he had no knowledge of how to operate the machine. What came first came was his question, and I quote, “how do I move this thing?” This was now my opportunity to provide him with knowledge and to use the experience of mowing the lawn to ultimately learn to drive the machine.
As with all lessons, knowing your students is extremely important. Knowing the learning needs of my nephew and designing his learning was critical to his success. I could have chosen to give him the lawn mower manual, instruct him to read it and give him a test to determine his readiness to drive it. That would have been a very traditional style of teaching and learning. Another option was to have him stand by the machine as I went methodically through the various functions and safety features of the lawn mower. Although more interactive, it was still a traditional format of teaching. For my nephew, none of these options would have resulted in my lawn being mowed. Recognizing that he his strongest learning preference is in the visual domain, I chose to show him where the key went, how to push in the clutch and which pedal was the gas. I then showed him how to engage the blade and had him jump on. It was no surprise to me that he got the lawn mower moving and was happily mowing the lawn in no time.

At the end of the day, I thanked my nephew. He thought I was thanking him for mowing my lawn. What I was really thanking him for, was the opportunity to appreciate more fully the concept, ‘the better the question, the better the learning’. He confirmed for me that all learning begins with a question that the learner wants to have answered.

What has stopped your learning?

October 15, 2013 § 1 Comment

After a visit to a science class, I needed to ask myself this question. It was difficult for me to admit that in high school, I had chosen to stop my learning of chemistry. I think it was an unconscious choice, and it was likely because I didn’t know how to ask the right question. Nevertheless, from that time on, I would often profess that I did not ‘get’ chemistry.

How often have you heard the phrase ‘I’m not very good at math’, or ‘I am not an athlete so I can’t do PE’. As adults, we never really get over our perceived deficits in learning as we make comments like ‘I was never good at science’ or ‘I never did understand the point of Shakespeare’. For me, it was Chemistry. From the beginning of the course, I struggled to understand some basic concepts and did not put the effort into learning them in order for me to be successful. As I reflected on my experience, I came to the realization that because I didn’t ask the real questions that were burning in my head I had stopped my learning. In particular, I remember clearly asking myself ‘why do I need to know about moles’ and when would I actually need to use this information. Rather than ask the question, I simply decided that I did not understand the concept and from that point on, accepted that I was not going to pass the course. Recently, however, a Chemistry teacher at my current school decided I needed to change my narrative. He did not allow me to say ‘I never did understand Chemistry’. Rather he set out to prove to me that my learning could start up again.

Last year, at Johnston Heights we developed something called the Learning Project to help guide our work toward ‘Inquiry based learning’. The initial principles included:

Learning is open, transparent and shared.
A focus on adult learning leads to greater student engagement in their learning
Integration of technology to provide interdisciplinary work

This year, we have expanded to the Learning Project 2.0: ‘The Year of Inquiry’ to include these principles:
The better the question, the better the learning.
Connecting talents leads to higher quality work

It was in the September staff meeting that I told teachers that I wanted to get into classes and be involved in lessons. In the following weeks, several teachers took me up on my offer. One of the science teachers discovered that because I did not ask ‘the better question’ when I took Chemistry 11 in High School, I ended up failing the course. Determined to make me understand the significance of moles, he invited me into his Chemistry 11 classes to participate in a couple of labs. So as the teacher started his class, I walked around determined to find out if anyone could explain to me about a mole. I was pleased to find out that every student I asked could define it for me in a way I could understand. I then asked ‘why would we need to know this information and what would we do with it once we have it?” That was a little more challenging for students to answer and I left the class still wondering the answer. Not to be deterred, the teacher invited me into his other Chemistry class. Still determined to show me (not tell me) the answer to my question, the teacher then asked my question to members of his class. One student in particular was able to clearly articulate the answer in such a way that it finally made sense to me. Since failing Chemistry class many years ago, I have shied away from anything to do with the subject. That has now changed. I thanked the teacher for his gentle yet persistent challenge to finally ask the questions that stopped my learning of chemistry.

When students are not successful in school, I wonder how often we ask them ‘what has stopped their learning’. I also wonder if they would even be able to answer the question. This leads me back to the notion that all learning begins with a question. To me, this is the very heart of inquiry based learning and the idea that ‘the better the question, the better the learning’.

Education gets exciting!

September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

‘I didn’t think education would/could get so exciting.’

These words were spoken to me by a teacher on staff at the beginning of this school year. I couldn’t agree more. As an educator and principal, I have never been as excited to start the school year as this September.

Why is this year different than any other? For the past year, I have witnessed in our school a change in thinking and learning. It began last September with the inception of ‘The Learning Project’ which was the theme for the year. The three principles of the Learning Project included:
– Learning is open, transparent and shared.
– A focus on adult learning will enhance student engagement in their learning.
– Focus will be on integration of curriculum.
As teachers began to experience and grapple with the implications of these principles and begin to implement them into their teaching practice, their thinking started to shift.

As with anything new and changing, there were challenges that we faced throughout the year. In fact, the year was one of discussion, debate and for some, great consternation in deciding how to approach the changes required for learning in the 21st Century. It was evident when we started to research learning for the future, that students need to become more deeply engaged in their learning. Further, as a school system, we recognized the need to re-structure our current practice of a curriculum driven, content dense program model to one of inquiry, interdisciplinary learning, and flexibility. After months of research and learning, the decision was made to implement the Middle Year’s Program (MYP) of the International Baccalaureate Program.

When school begins this September, so does our journey into Inquiry Based Learning at Johnston Heights through the MYP program. To help shape our thinking, we have expanded this year’s theme to ‘The Learning Project 2.0: The Year of Inquiry’. With this upgrade to the original theme, ‘The Year of Inquiry’ includes two more principles:
The better the question, the better the learning
Connecting talents leads to higher quality work.

‘I didn’t think education would/could get so exciting.’

The excitement for the coming year is not as much about the new program, but more about the change in learning design. In order to accommodate the interdisciplinary aspect of MYP and the flexibility of Inquiry based learning, we had to create a new schedule and timetable.
With the inception of MYP in Grade 8, predominantly all subjects will be linear. This means that most courses for Grade 8s will run all year long, with the exception of the “Rotations Classes.” Students will be placed in pods of 25 students with 5 teachers for their classes in English, Social Studies, Math, Science or Languages. Additionally, students will also be offered a “Rotation” of classes throughout the school year that will allow them to experience a variety of Fine Arts and Design courses. The courses in the Rotation include Art, Animation, Drama, Foods, Textiles, Wood, Metal and Information Technology. Each Rotation course will run 4.5 weeks. The students will also take PE and Digital Citizenship, which will alternate every other day. Students who wish to take Band and/or Choir will continue to take the course all year (linear) backed with PE.

The change in timetable structure will allow teachers to work together: connecting talents that leads to higher quality work. It will also allow them to develop curriculum and lessons differently. They will have time to develop the better questions that lead to better learning As one teacher commented to me, “rather than teaching the same English 8 lesson three times in one day, I will be able to explain it once to all students and then break them into small groups to work on their learning”. Another teacher commented that the design of the timetable will allow them time to work more closely with colleagues.
Although we all have an idea of how we think this is going to work, we know things rarely go according to plan. However, through the discussions I heard, the excitement I have seen and the willingness to try, I think we are ready to share the adventure!

‘I didn’t think education would/could get so exciting.’