Keep on Pushing - Curtis Mayfield
In 2013, the LRSD School Board announced that they had three priorities for student learning: literacy and numeracy, student engagement, and citizenship. The Board reviewed the Ends Monitoring report, presented in January 2017, showing evidence of progress in these areas and agreed to maintain the same three priorities with some fine-tuning. Specifically, they decided that we needed to place a higher focus on financial literacy, mental well-being, and creativity and innovation. It is creativity and innovation that I would like to share some thoughts about today.
Over the summer, I read, listened to podcasts such as CBC’s Ideas and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and watched the news on CBC, Fox, Aljazeera, MSNBC, or the BBC (yes, accessing a variety of news sources from different perspectives is good!), I was struck by the fact that while things largely remain the same, we are also facing significant new challenges, changes, and opportunities.
I used to really have my head around technology, and yet visiting some McDonald’s restaurants lately, and going through Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto, I was alarmed by digital devices being provided as the way to order my food. At Pearson, everyone in the restaurant was glued to a screen to order food, play games, or surf the internet. No one was talking to one another. People selected their food items, inserted a credit card, and the food arrived. Another thing that hit me was what is the future of service jobs? The people who used to come and take your order? I went through customs at Pearson and didn’t have to talk to anyone. A machine with facial recognition technology determined if I could come back into Canada or not. At the new Save-On-Foods in Bridgwater Estates, there are more self-administered digital checkouts than there are checkouts with real people.
This summer, Amazon bought a fantastic grocery chain called Whole Foods and are promising to expand their already massive business of online shopping having items, including food, delivered straight to your home... They are expanding the number of massive distribution centers they have in North America in which much of the ‘heavy lifting’ is done by robots. Those used to be jobs.
I spent some time on the Disruptor Daily website that identifies the top disruptive companies in the world. Major themes seem to be the development of algorithms that allow companies (and governments) to track all of our online activities and likes, and then to market specifically to us every day.
Then there's acceleration of nanotechnology in which miniaturized technology can be brought into our bodies. Advances in DNA coding which can allow us to gain a sense of not only where one's lineage came from, but also what diseases and afflictions we might be predisposed for. Tesla is marketing cars that can travel over 500 kms on an electric battery while going from zero to 100 kms an hour in four seconds. This is how technology is evolving.
Climate change is real. The implications of more storms and the rise of sea levels are frightening.
In the field of education, in many ways, we are still maintaining the factory-based system that was implemented with the ideas of Frederick Taylor in the beginning of the twentieth century. On a good note, the very notion of a public school system, was to maintain a system through which a liberal democracy, developed and maintained for all people, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic background, could flourish. Today, however, Stanford University is providing online courses for middle years and high school students in 46 American states and 32 countries. You might have seen advertising on TV for K12, which aims to replace the public school with online learning. Pearson Publishing is the worlds’ largest education aimed company, I believe they would like to replace public education systems around the world.
So what am I talking about here?
I believe that we should be about the development of wise, caring, curious, interdependent, citizens in liberal democratic societies. I believe we have to prepare our young people to not only survive in the new, ever-changing society and economy but to also be ready and able to take advantage of the new opportunities that are becoming available and to thrive in this ever-changing environment. I believe that as other industries and sectors are being changed dramatically, we in public education cannot believe that our worlds cannot be challenged and changed as well. This means we need to evolve creatively through innovation and make a compelling case that public schools in LRSD and beyond are the places that can prepare our students for our current reality and the future – not private schools, not charter schools, and not online learning.
In LRSD, the best that we are doing is building strong caring relationships between adults and students. The best of what we are doing is finding ways to make learning interesting and engaging while also being rigorous and challenging. The best of what we are doing is teaching our young people to think critically but also with creativity and with heart for themselves and for all others.
For us to improve in LRSD, I look to the words of Sir Ken Robinson,
"The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it's to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they're valued."
All of us are to be leaders, all of us can be influential in the lives of others. I ask all of us to take risks to be more creative, more innovative, and to make mistakes as we strive to improve the life opportunities of others. Can we possibly think of more meaningful work?
Change Le Monde, Changing Worlds
This is our collective work.
On July 1, 1867, the modern nation state called Canada resulted when the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick united. In short order, Ontario and Quebec were created and then over time, more provinces and territories were added to the young country.
I think all would agree Canada has evolved into an excellent country. The Canadian equivalent to the American phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the words to be found in the Constitution Act of 1867 of “Peace, order, and good government.” For me, these words speak to Canadian characteristics of moderation, and care for others as reflected by the creation of strong social programs like universal health care in the 1960s.
Every year on the 1st of July we celebrate Canada, and we should! This year, with the 150th birthday of the nation upon us, we should also celebrate National Aboriginal Day on June 21st, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (celebrating Francophone history and contemporary culture) on June 24th, and acknowledge our incredible and ever increasing diversity on Canadian Multiculturalism Day on June 27th. These celebrations help us understand our history, and be proud of Canada in 2017.
And yet, to be true to ourselves as Canadians living in a liberal democracy, and if we are to improve Canadian lives, we need to reflect upon some of the challenging components of our history as well. The incarceration of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, high child poverty rates in all regions of the country, and the fact that we have not lived up to our treaty obligations with our Indigenous neighbours are warts that we can learn from.
We also need to look to a shared future with many challenges as well as opportunities. Five years ago, the National Post published an article entitled "What is the biggest issue facing Canada?" in which people across the country shared their views of possible challenges. Reading this article reminds us that a range of opinions and political points exist and this is how it's supposed to be in a liberal democracy!
Here are some of the thoughts:
- Rebuild our government into a Parliament with a common goal in mind, we solidify our demographics and restore our military to a powerful state.
- The biggest issue facing Canada is our politicians.
- The deterioration of democracy and the destruction of the parliamentary processes that govern our way of living.
- We need to fight to re-establish what was once a beacon of hope for the rest of the world to emulate.
- The biggest issue Canada faces is the maintenance of peace and security. Canada needs an anti-war government.
- The relationship with the First Nations and their peoples is the biggest issue Canada faces.
- Recent immigrants have brought with them the idea that Canadians are a people without culture, religion, values, or the backbone to stand up for themselves.
- The biggest issue facing Canada is immigration; immigrants are vital to its success.
- The management of its natural resources. There’s going to be a huge demand for oil, natural gas, potash, coal and lumber, to name a few of Canada’s massive resources, that emerging mega-powers like China and India will be desperate for.
- Greed is controlling and limiting any improvement in health care and the economy.
- We need to live within our means.
- Too many people are dependent upon the government for “cradle to the grave” care. Entitlement has become the norm and self-responsibility is in decline.
- The biggest issue Canada faces is how to define our liberty. Liberty to think, to worship, to publish, to speak cannot and must not be mitigated for the sake of “not hurting people’s feelings.”
- The biggest issue Canada faces is the abuse of freedom. Many of us do not resist the impulse to indulge in idealism.
- Blaming CO2 for global warming and/or climate change …. Billions of tax dollars are being wasted solving a non-problem.
- Our lack of innovation. We need to be the cutting edge of technology by offering tax breaks and other incentives to IT firms that would relocate to Canada from Silicon Valley.
- Our biggest problem is complacency.
- A steady and accelerating erosion of civility in pretty much all aspects of life.
So, as the celebrations loom large, let us all participate. But let’s also become knowledgeable of our history, learn lessons from that history, and participant in the creation of an even better place for ourselves, our families, and our neighbours in a place called Canada.
If we visit our schools, if we travel our streets, if we walk our neighbourhoods, all of us will see that complex Indigenous and racialized poverty exists in Canada. Silver (2014, 2016) states that beyond a lack of income, complex poverty is characterized by a host of additional challenges that trap individuals and communities in cycles of often multigenerational poverty. These additional challenges often include poor health, joblessness, lack of educational achievement, gang activity and high incarceration rates. As Silver (2014, 2016) and others have demonstrated, poverty can lead to poor educational outcomes. These realities impact Indigenous communities around the world, and racialized, by which I mean communities that have been seen historically as inferior due to their color and race.
During the summer of 2016, I completed a study that examined the understandings and actions related to complex Indigenous and racialized poverty of four superintendents, each with at least five years of experience in their positions. All aspects of public education system are incredibly complex and extremely political, and the superintendency is no exception. There cannot be a recipe book from which any of us can advance the cause of greater equity for all our students. That said, we can learn from the stories of those who made a difference, no matter how small or contextualized. We can advance our knowledge to inform how superintendents can contribute to the creation of educational environments in which people challenge, develop and, in the words of Foster (1986), liberate human souls (p. 18). For more of my thoughts, please visit the following links. I invite you to provide feedback!
Full dissertation: Complex poverty and urban school systems: critically informed perspectives on the superintendency. University of Manitoba MySpace.
Summary article in the MASS Journal: Complex Poverty and Urban School Systems.
PowerPoint presentation at the MTS Our Human Rights Journey conference, April 20th and 21st. MASS MTS PowerPoint
If you are like me, you have been confused, saddened, and angered by events around the world including differing messages and actions taken by the new president of the USA. Words that cause me to pause include Brexit, terrorism, Syria, Russia, refugees, anger, fear, anxiety, economic, inequality, alternate truths, and illiberal democracy. In spite of it all and perhaps like many of you, I had been experiencing years of cautious optimism witnessing events like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada's welcoming of Syrian refugees, growing international acceptance of the realities of climate change, rising graduation rates in public education systems, and the growing conversation about citizenship in LRSD.
On December 18, 2016, I listened to CBC's Ideas podcast titled Reflections on Global Affairs: Is the world really falling apart? And it really got me thinking. The recording was a panel discussion at the Munk School of Public Affairs at the University of Toronto. The participants were Michael Blake from the University of Washington, Randall Hansen from the Munk School of Global Affairs, Janice Stein, the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Stephen Toope, also from the Munk School and the topic of their discussion was a global view in a time of disruption and change.
The podcast helped my thinking and I believe there are lessons that apply to our work in LRSD. Blake stated that currently in Europe, the USA, and yes, in Canada, there is growing questioning of liberal democracy. He said "many say they will fight for truth and justice, but what they really mean is that they want tomorrow to look like today. Lots of people are worried about what kind of tomorrow we are going to have." He went further and stated he believes that there is a growing skepticism about our societies.
Personally, am I willing to fight for truth and justice, or do I simply want change and turmoil to go away?
In liberal democratic systems, people can disagree deeply on matters of policy and direction, but they can also be deeply committed to a belief that we are in it together, from very different political perspectives, we have things to learn from each other, and even if we lose the debate, we still support and honor those who won the debate. In the British and subsequently, the Canadian governmental system, we have the losing political party forming the Loyal Opposition and in the USA, the presidency, the congress, and the judiciary create a form of check and balances that considers that no one person, or group of people, is to have total decision-making power over others.
So what's up?
At the federal and provincial levels, we have had dramatic changes in government. In the USA and in Europe, we have also witnessed sweeping changes in leadership. So what's different? The recent elections in Manitoba, Canada, and the USA were all democratic in the sense that those that won the elections had the most votes in accordance with the rules that apply to the elections.
Let me come back to Blake's comments about the skepticism many have about our institutions. He reminds us, that for many, our lives are so good that we have become unaware of what it is the underpins that which makes our lives good. We live in a liberal democracy but myself included, we are not clear about what that entails. Living in a liberal democracy is much more than living in a system in which whoever gets the most votes wins. Liberalism is not the same as the "Liberal Party" federally or provincially. Liberal democracies are founded upon basic principles that we need to continually be reminded of and adhere to. Principles include but are not limited to:
- respect for women,
- respect for racialized minorities, and
- respect for LGBTQ people.
Blake stated that the "actions of the government must be justified to the people, conceived of as morally equal," and these values have been championed by most mainstream conservative parties, moderate parties, and liberal parties. Further, liberal democracies must be more than about counting votes and not accounting the values that underpin liberal democracy. I believe that these concepts apply to school divisions and to all of us in positions of influence.
Back to Blake,
Liberalism … the actions of the government must be justified to the people, conceived of as morally equal and a capacious family of views that most mainstream conservative parties, moderate parties, green parties believe in. What it leaves out are monarchies and fascism.
So why am I talking about this? Stein stated that in liberal democracies, we need to develop strong, supportive relationships between individuals and governing institutions … I would include school divisions. Publically governed institutions in liberal democracies, including school systems, are to be responsible to the people that we serve.
Lessons for LRSD
Stein talked about the importance of building strong relationships between those that govern (I would argue school boards, senior administration, school administrators) and the individuals they serve (staff, parents, students). How are we treating those whom we serve? Are we (myself included) available and responsive to the requests and concerns of our staff, parents, and students?
We need to acknowledge that we will work with people with whom we strongly disagree with. In a functionally liberal democracy, we listen, even if we disagree. As stated on the podcast, "We need to play nice with those you think are wrong and stupid." We must seek to be open to learning from those with whom we disagree. I can say that I have lived the majority of my adult life on the centre left side of the political spectrum. That said, as I have listened deeply during the past years to those that have political ideals that are different than mine, I have come to understand that they are smart, principled people from whom I have learned much. At the LRSD board table, some of our discussions are about the need to balance advocacy for more resources with questions about the legitimacy of equating progress with spending more money. We are well served by the LRSD school board that contains a range of perspectives, experiences, and maintains an environment that is open to debate and contrarian perspectives.
In Western democracies it is fair to say that many people are feeling a lack of connection with their elected officials and institution's, including school systems. Influential people in institutions need to ensure we are open, accessible, and responsive to those whom we serve. The Democratic Party in the USA had been in power for eight years and it can be argued that during that time, many people who have lost their jobs to globalization and computerization did not have a party that attended to their needs, opening the door to feelings of alienation that lead to people leaving the party in droves. In LRSD, in our individual positions, mine included, are we responsive, and service oriented as we should be with the community, parents, staff, and students?
Let's be honest. Many of us are caring people but are alarmed by the changing ethno-cultural make-up of our communities. It is easy to acknowledge that we are on Treaty One land. It is easy to welcome Newcomers with the ideas that they will a.) fill required jobs, and b.) become assimilated to existing Canadian cultural mores. What has become apparent is that while we are warm-hearted about Indigenous people and Newcomers and refugees coming to Canada, there is an undercurrent of dismay that our communities are changing culturally in ways that we simply do not want. We do get push back against increased support for Indigenous and racialized people in our communities. What are we doing to go beyond welcoming to helping Indigenous and Newcomer communities to be successful? What are we doing to support the tenets of liberal democracy?
Public educations systems are absolutely critically important components of developing the public good. We need to, in age-appropriate ways, ensure that all our students become knowledgeable about democracy and the tenets of liberal democracy. All staff, myself included, need to listen to, and respect the perspectives of all who might question our thinking, our perspectives, and our actions that often come from a position of privilege. In Canada, public school systems are the only institutions that prepare all Canadian youth to understand and to then secure the tenets of liberal democracy. In LRSD, we need to not only continue to provide quality learning opportunities for all students, we need to educate and uphold the tenets of liberal democracy for all students, staff and parents, and to also practice these tenets in our day-to-day operations.
I can get better. We all can.
The past few weeks, no, the past 18 months, has me and many others, reflecting on our Citizenship priority and what that really means for our students. As Duane mentioned in his latest blog, it is the small things that have become more obvious in their importance. I want our kids to know they live in the greatest country in the world! Not because we are powerful, but because we are peaceful, not because we have resources, but because we share resources, not because we are loud but because we listen, and certainly not because we are fearful but because we are thoughtful.
How does LRSD partner with families to share these concepts and ideas? Every time we participate in a field trip to Winnipeg Harvest or assist in saving our Seine, or welcome a new student to our school, we are providing an opportunity to appreciate what we have. Our staff design their classrooms so that our students learn to work in groups, to appreciate each other's strengths and communicate in assertive, not aggressive ways. Coaches work not just on sports skills but on what it means to be a good teammate and strong but respectful competitors. We have clubs in each one of our schools that practice philanthropy, charity and activism. Our fine arts departments develop the appreciation for beauty in the world, through visual arts and music. We are a division where our schools pride themselves on being inclusive, and that truly does mean, including everyone. We not only recognize diversity, we embrace it! We celebrate diversity in all its forms because it is that breadth of humanity that makes us stronger.
As our community and all other communities are inundated with the barrage of negative media coverage, let us all take a moment to be grateful for living, working and learning in Louis Riel. Let us continue to talk about what we are proud of, our students and our staff, and all the wonderful things that they are accomplishing. Louis Riel is a great school division, and we will continue to thrive as we all take part each morning in O'Canada!
I am really looking forward to the year 2017. We are going to continue to do great in Louis Riel School Division!
For myself, January 2017 is truly a fresh start. As many of you are aware, I have been away from active duties as Superintendent since the middle of August 2016. What started with a small pinch in my back, progressed to excruciating pain down my leg and into my foot. I thought that Physiotherapy would fix things, but things got much worse in three weeks to having to crawl around at home, to eventually six hours of surgery. I was crazy enough (or arrogant enough?) to think I would bounce back within weeks. I guess I did not believe that the surgeon's comments that recovery from back surgery takes a year did not apply to me. That said, I have started a graduated return to my responsibilities this week.
I have learned numerous lessons in the past five months:
- Life is short. Things could have been a lot worse. I took my health for granted. While this can happen to anyone, I believe that the fact that I had not been eating properly, was not getting enough sleep, and was spending too much time sitting in front of a computer (work and PhD dissertation at night), and a lack of physical exercise set the table for my injury to occur. Learn from my errors.
- Strong teams are everything! Our Superintendent's Team is powerful. Christian filled in as Acting Superintendent, Brad, Marlene, Lisa and Irene have done a phenomenal job…maybe too good as I have wondered if I am no longer needed!
- It is so easy for many of us to wrap our identity into our jobs. It was incredibly difficult to be at home, feeling that I was not making a contribution to Louis Riel School Division, the School Board, my team, and others with whom I worked with. Back pain, was physical pain. It also became emotional pain to the extent I found it very hard to accept that I was ill.
Lessons for myself. It has been truly a humbling few months. As I start the New Year, there are a number of changes I am making to how I live my life:
- Nutrition. Two years of no breakfast and then often not eating until late evening. I need to eat through the day properly.
- Exercise. I am over 50. I need to get back to effective exercise three to four times a week. I am on it!
- Balance. Many of us spend too many hours in front of our computers, tied to our smart phones, and then back to work while at home. Our work is really important, but so is family, friends, and rejuvenation through things we enjoy!
- Humility. A pause can create the space in which to think about what is really important to us. Friends, family, meaningful work that helps others. The pause has also opened my eyes to the challenges that others in the LRSD family face with personal pain, disability … having sick time, being able to simply get around, and for all those who are caring for others dealing with challenges.
Food for thought? Let's have a great year!
As I shared in this leadership column in September 2016, I want to continue to learn from those outside of the field of education. With that in mind, I want to share just of a few of the enlightened thoughts shared by Andrew Solomon in his book, Far From The Tree (Official Trailer, 2012). The product of 10 years interviewing more than 300 families with "exceptional" children, he writes about families coping with Deafness, Dwarfism, Down syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, with children who are prodigies, who are transgender, and people who are conceived in rape. Solomon suggests that for centuries, and while inclusiveness is improving, we have viewed these differences as deficits. This has not meant that people with differences could not live good lives, but their deficits take away from their potential lives and perhaps even those of others around them. To the contrary, Solomon proposes that "diversity is what unites us" (Solomon, p. 4) for while conditions that these people and families feel is often isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal. In Solomon's telling, these stories are everyone's stories.
After meeting with these families and hearing their stories, Solomon reflects upon them and writes with power in a variety of ways; with a poignant empathy, he weaves together science, psychology, and the world of medicine, he taps into profound sadness and regrets that impact people for all of their lives, as well, he serves the reader a "raucous, joyful tribute that exalts all parents who love their children with molten force." (Bauer review, Solomon, p. iii)
In his first chapter titled Son, he grabbed my attention immediately by turning a commonly used and understood word when talking about bringing children into the world, reproduction, by stating emphatically, "There is no such thing as reproduction." (Solomon, p. 1). He argues that the use of this term betrays a belief that our offspring will become the best of what our genes have to offer, by having a child, we literally can dream about reproducing ourselves and perhaps, "it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever." (p. 1). It grabbed me because that was largely how I felt years ago before having children. I wanted very much for my children to reproduce any good that has been me and their mother, and then be smarter, wiser, and taller than we were, and I assumed that this was a reasonable assumption. Truth is, in our real worlds, we cannot predict what is coming our way. What we can do however, is to learn from our own experiences, those of others, and we change the assumptions that we carry.
The rest of Chapter One reveals his ability to speak about how he addressed previously held assumptions. He candidly shares that his assumption about deafness was "that it was a deficit, nothing more," (Solomon, p. 2) and even though he came to see the richness of what he called deaf culture, given a diagnosis of deafness at childbirth, many parents are choosing to have cochlear implants inserted in their infants, to augment their potential assets. He began to question whether his previously held deficit based assumptions about the hearing impaired might apply to other horizontal identities1, including himself as a gay man, and suggests that if a parallel remedy was available to identify and then to 'cure' a child who would become gay, "I knew that my own parents would gamely have consented to a parallel procedure to ensure I would be straight." (p.3). In the rest of the chapter, Solomon shares how he to came to terms with his relationship with his parents concerning his identity.
I could write many more pages about the book, but let me quickly share some excerpts. (Other Far from The Tree quotations)
… the Rwandan mother of a child conceived in rape, who begs Solomon, "Can you tell me how to love my daughter more?" (p. 536), Solomon observes, "She did not know how much love was in that question itself." (p. 536)
The unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways. (Cited by Myerson, 2012)
…. another Dwarf who explains that, because he looks at people below the waist all day, "my idea of intimacy is the special occasion of looking someone in the face." (Solomon, p. 149)
Stories of the marriages that survive — or crumble — under the weight of so much caretaking. "What we have left, as us," a mother of two severely Autistic children reveals, "is much less than when we got married." (p. 240). Or, "I was a lot more frivolous before I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of mental illness," (p. 301), a mother of a Schizophrenic says with a sigh.
The father of Maisie, a severely mentally disabled child in New York, takes her to Central Park and reflects on the fact that, in his position, no one ever thinks to come over "and suggest that their child could play with your child." (p. 365), if it hadn't been for Maisie, he adds, he would have been one of them.
Concerning Solomon's belief that "difference unites us" (p. 4), book reviewer Julie Myerson asks "But how much difference is too much?" (2012). It's a question that the book never answers, but it is Myerson's sense that "somewhere in that very uncertainty lies a startlingly accurate definition of parental love." (2012) (Other Far from The Tree quotations)
So why does this book pertain to all of us in the LRSD Community?
Far From The Tree is one man's thinking, exploration, and writing and each of us will have our own, however, what we have in common beyond the fact that if you are reading this, is that you work in a school system that serves kids and families. I know that all of us have assumptions about people with horizontal identities, know people who live with the challenges and joys of being different, we also live in families of many definitions, and we live in larger communities.
As staff who attend to the needs of young people, we have had to increasingly create more inclusive environments for all of them, while questioning "But how much difference is too much?" (Myerson, 2012)
As well, while LRSD continues to evolve how we meet the needs of all students, shift our notions of inclusion as well as assets vs deficits, there are also those who experience tremendous highs and the challenges of loving exceptional children 24-7. They send their children to us every day, some of them with low expectations, some with fear and trepidation. They are parents, grandparents, foster care providers, and others.
Finally, what happens when our assumptions of a group of people with horizontal identities shift from a deficits perspective to an asset based perspective? For some like me it is a process of years. At the beginning of August, I watched a baseball game played by young people with incredible abilities, who also happened to be mobile in a wheelchair, or could not catch or throw a baseball, and others who could not grasp the rules. But I watched as players, after catching a ball, then walked three meters to place a ball into the glove of another player in a wheelchair at first base. I watched players who cheered mightily when people scored on either team. I also smiled to myself as I watched how the volunteers truly were enriched by their experiences and the range of emotions from parents; tiredness, excitement, patience, and yes, love. Please check out the book.
Myerson, J. (2012). Coming into their own. New York Times Magazine.
Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the tree: Parents, children, and the search for identity.
1all the "recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences or values and preferences that a child does not share with his parents or grandmothers and grandfathers.
We have so much to learn from those outside the fields in which we work. Even though I have been reading books and articles about public education for thirty years, I must confess that many of the great insights I have gained have come from reading the thoughts of those outside the field of education. The latest individual who has fueled my imagination about what is possible is the American writer Andrew Solomon.
In his book Far and Away (2016), Solomon reflects upon his work as a writer visiting places as disparate as Rwanda, Russia, Indonesia and Greenland. What was different for me in reading his book was that he did not just wander the world for fun, he went to places experiencing significant change and spent time with people who were different; people who were trying to make a positive difference within environments experiencing momentous change.
In the Soviet Union, Solomon learned about the subtle forms of democratically informed protest enacted by artists. In China, he observed the explosion of creativity unleashed after the introduction of capitalism and liberalism. And in South Africa, he observed white and black artists trying to make sense of a post-apartheid world. As an observer of the increasing socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of so many communities, including—I would add—Winnipeg, Solomon moves us beyond the simplistic notion that diversity is easy, that it is kumbaya, that modern living in diverse societies is easy … because it isn't.
Affirming that everyone is of equal importance, legally and morally, is one thing; saying that everyone has something to say of equal importance is cacophony; you cannot hear a thousand voices at once and understand what anyone is saying. You have to make choices (Solomon, 1916, p. 162).
That said, Solomon also shares beautiful insights into what we can learn when we are open to the ideas of other people, other cultures and other ways of thinking and being. From Senegal, he reflected upon a tribal ritual to treat depression. He also provided an example of what we can learn when we slow down and take in what is around us. His description of the Mongolian steppes reminds me of the beauty of the Manitoba prairies as one heads west from Winnipeg and had me imagining what the land was like 200 years ago.
Marmots darted from their holes and darted in and out of sight. Here were innocent stretches of earth that had been neither exploited nor deliberately preserved. I have never encountered a terrain that was at once so magnificent and so unthreatening (p. 241).
I am a person who gets very comfortable in my weekly patterns. I, perhaps like many of you who are reading this, often have my decisions informed by a firmly established knowledge base that I often do not even think about, never mind reflect upon. I just think that I am right. It is in this regard that one of Solomon's comments really hit me. He reminds us of how easy it is to become too comfortable and non-critical within our jobs, our organizations and within our communities.
Familiar landscapes cushion you from self-knowledge because the border between who you are and where you are is porous. But in a strange place, you become more fully evident: who you truly are is what persists at home and abroad (p. 21).
So what am I learning from Solomon, not what I have learned because learning continues, is this:
- We don't know everything. We need to be curious and open. Around the world and through the ages, we have lots to learn.
What if we cannot go to Mongolia or Senegal to find self-awareness on a regular basis? We all need to find space, whether it is by ourselves on a Sunday evening or woven into our workday practices with colleagues, to consider what it is we are about. Thank you, Andrew Solomon.-Duane
- I am reminded that no one has a full understanding of what is true. I have been reminded that our communities are always in a state of flux. We cannot come into a new school year comfortable that we can simply show up every day doing what we believe has been effective for kids in the past. Don't get me wrong, maybe what we have been doing has been great and will be great into the future, but we need to reflect, we need to be open, we need to continue to learn.
Solomon, A. (2016). Far and away: Reporting from the brink of change: seven continents, twenty-five years. New York: Scribner.
Goodness, it is June 2016. Like many of you fast and furious, but I did steal some time this past Sunday night to read some of the past postings from our LRSD Leadership Team Update. In light of the recent Canadian Federal election, a new provincial government, interesting politics in the USA, and in Europe, "Brexit" want to revisit the purpose of our work in public education so I will revisit my words from two years ago ....
What is Success?
Some would argue that success in education is preparing kids for the workplace. Others would say to instill knowledge for its own sake. Some would argue strongly that success in education is the creation of an equal society while others might agree with the words of Margaret Thatcher, "we have the right to be unequal" (Thatcher, 1975) and thus, success in schools is about creating environments in which competition is good and those who can achieve will. I think almost all would agree that success in schools is when we have instilled social, economic, and political values; the challenge that arises is the question of which values?
Personally, I believe that success in education is many things. That is what makes the work so incredibly complex.
I believe we are on the right path when:
- we provide education that is affordable and universal
- all of our children appreciate and live the arts, can run and play, and laugh
- we create environments in which the full potential of individuals can emerge
- we maintain invigorating environments in which adults and kids can work and learn
- all of our children can work with the details, as well as, make sense of and connect to the larger world
- all our students are socially, academically, and intellectually engaged
- all our children can read, write, and understand mathematics, but more importantly, they can apply these skills
- all our children have a healthy understanding and respect for themselves and for others
- and beyond themselves, they seek to understand the historic and systemic foundations to many of the dilemmas that confront us today and into our futures.
Oh and yes, because our young people have received an excellent education, they can, if required, excel on standardized tests.
Personally, I believe that John Goodlad was close to the target when he stated that education is to "develop the essence of each individual self in the context of justice, fairness, responsibility, and mutual caring" (Goodlad, 2000).
Ok, so those are some of my thoughts. What about those who have informed the work in LRSD in the past few years? With respect to the development of shared vision and understandings, Margaret Wheatley stated 'we need to talk' as definitions of success cannot be edicts from Prime Ministers, Premiers, or Superintendents. When significant progressive change has occurred, it usually involves people coming together. Recent examples in education are the Alberta's Inspiring Education initiative which engaged people from across the province, and the tremendous improvement of education in Finland that is driven by a goal of creating social equity throughout their society. Another examples is the terrific success of the Harlem's Children's Zone in which an entire community has come together to see all kids learn within a greater goal of making a healthy community.
In the past 18 months, we have seen sustained conversations with school administrators, parents, and School Board Members resulting in very similar conclusions about what indicates success. Repeatedly, people have stated they want our youth to receive a well-rounded education, young people who are empathetic, can think, and can team. They want young people who have the intellectual flexibility to allow them to be able to find a place in an ever-changing economy. They want young people who are innovative, and who can help us build a more cohesive community.
An Ethical Endeavour
As I wrapped up my preparations for the panel discussion, I concluded once again that our work in education is a moral, an ethical endeavour. We need to remember that school systems are the only institutions in which young people are purposefully exposed to the wide scope of the human experience, history, literature, the sciences, and the arts. In our work, we are to acculturate young people into a political/social democracy and by that; I mean it is not good enough to know how many people are members of Parliament or how to vote. Our young people need to be able to discuss, inquire, advocate, negotiate, dialogue, compromise, and care. We need to provide a nurturing pedagogy, in which every student in our buildings is 'seen', cared for, appreciated for their capabilities, and their potentialities. It may be too strong to say, but I will anyhow, in the agape sense of the word, each and every student needs to be loved.
Beyond educators, our greater society collectively, needs to ensure that greater numbers of our young people have the social, emotional, academic, and aesthetic capabilities to participate fully in the ongoing story of our communities.
How do we measure?
So how can we measure this? From my experiences working in the United States as well as observing some of the international comparisons of education systems, what does not work is standardized testing and stripping the arts and physical education out of the curriculum. Globally, the best education systems in the world share several key characteristics, they emphasize high quality teacher education, empowerment of educators, the importance of a well-rounded education and 'play', and the importance of the building of solid relationships between children and the adults who support them. Globally, the Canadian education compares admirably when we consider educational excellence and equity.
As we move forward, the LRSD community can come to expect us to ask more questions and to seek your ideas. The community can expect and receive meaningful information, about not only what we believe and want to accomplish, but also how we are doing in light of our priorities. For the next two years, we will continue to prioritize our focus on literacy/numeracy, engagement, and citizenship. Today, in 2014, we have robust class-based assessments practices, our students participate in the National Tell Them From Me surveys that provide incredible insights into their reflections on their school experiences, and we access PEG and Manitoba Health data that allows us to gain a much better sense of our neighborhoods and families that we serve. As we move forward, we will provide rich insights into how our young people are doing aligned to the values I have written about in this blog.
As I continue to think about our collective work, I am coming to realize that it is about changing the life trajectories of people. It is my understanding that the French word monde refers to the earth, to people who live on the earth, and groups of people in community. I think that our collective work is organic and relational. I believe it is about creating environments in which the personal worlds of children and the shared worlds of our communities are improved. If we are really about success in Louis Riel, we are about making a much better community, Winnipeg, and the world.
Changing Worlds | Changer le monde
It's All About Me is a health science education partnership between the St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre (SBRC) and the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD).
We've just finished another very successful year of It's All about Me (IAAM). Stephen Jones, the coordinator, teacher and researcher with St. Boniface Hospital and Research Centre, has just bid farewell to students and teachers from Hastings School recently working in the Youth BIOlab Jeunesse.
Steve recently shared his annual activity report for the 2015-2016 school year and I thought I would share it with the larger community. Steve and his team were able to support a number of new initiatives in LRSD this year. One of the initiatives I want to highlight is the Two-Way Learning – Building Identity and Confidence in Urban First Nation Students. Steve and IAAM were a part of a University of Manitoba Major Outreach project with Dr. Barbara McMillan in the Faculty of Education and Victor Wyatt School, connecting science education to traditional First Nations knowledge and learning. The project offered multiple sessions to a group of First Nations grade 7 students from Victor Wyatt School, connecting medicinal plant knowledge to work in the Research Centre's Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine. The project was very successful and Steve looks forward to continuing the journey next year. Even after 11 years, there are always new paths to follow.
Since 2005, we've been engaged in an amazing partnership that connects the work done at the St. Boniface Research Centre to science learning in our classrooms. Our partnership and the Youth BIOlab Jeunesse, have exposed over 30,000 students to hands-on activities related to biomedical science! I especially want to acknowledge Stephen Jones for his visionary leadership and innovative spirit in support of this endeavor and its continued evolution. From the very beginning of the partnership, Steve and his team have strived to achieve a 'science for all' approach, exposing as many students as possible to enriching science experiences in support of scientific literacy. I also want to acknowledge Meghan Kynoch who is now working with Steve on a full-time basis to develop and implement parallel programming for French Immersion schools and in-school programming.
We are so proud of this long-standing partnership and the value that it has brought to our Division's science education over the past eleven years. We look forward to many more years of collaboration and innovation.