Our school is a cell phone-free zone.

I just wanted to write a post to document our journey toward a cell phone free zone in our school. As many of you know, I am a Principal at a grades 7-9 school in Edmonton, Alberta. Over the past two years, we have been dealing with many cell phone related issues. Here are some examples:

  • Students are majorly distracted by their phones. Constantly checking, texting and posting. In many cases, potentially volatile situations can develop because students are in constant contact with each other via text or social media.
  • Students misplace their cell phones throughout the day.
  • Students use their personal phones to contact parents. We have had situations in which a parent calls and gives information about a situation which has not yet been reported to the office.
  • Students taking photos at school and posting them.
  • These are just some examples.

Our first thought was that we needed to “teach” our kids how to properly use their devices and to be responsible digital citizens. This venture became constant and got in the way of learning. “Please put your phone away, this is not an appropriate time to be using it.” Cell phones were still a major distraction for our students…and for our staff. They were getting in the way of learning. Yes, I know, many people say that a cell phone is a learning tool. That’s all well and good if that how kids are using them. A student may pick up their phone to use it as a learning tool but the temptation to check texts and social media is far too great. Plus the fact, we have devices in our school which students can use as learning tools…Chromebooks are great!

Earlier this year, we challenged our kids to have a cell phone free dance. The result…kids had fun, danced and interacted with each other. They didn’t seem to miss their devices one bit. In the past, students would attend dances and be on their phones the whole time. We have had many conversations about banning cell phones and, as a staff, we have read many articles about cell phones and their negative affect on student mental health. I had also talked to some of my Principal colleagues about cell phone free policies in their schools. Given all this, we knew what we had to do…

We made our school a cell phone free zone for students. When students come to school, they lock their phones away in their lockers. For the month of May, they can use their phones at lunch time but for the month of June (in preparation for exams), phones are locked away for the day. Our intention, is to carry on with the full day cell phone free zone next school year. This was our way of scaffolding the new policy into place. There are consequences for using a cell phone during school and it involves a 3-strike rule. (Strike 1 – phone stays in office for the day, Strike 2 – phone stays in office until parents pick it up, Strike 3 – student must check phone into office every day).

Of course, there were some students who were not impressed with this new policy. We explained that we were doing it, not to be mean, but to support their learning by removing distraction and temptation. We had about a dozen cell phones turned into the office the first week but since then the number has drastically decreased. As a staff, we agreed that we needed to all be on board with this policy and consistency was key to its success. We have noticed that students are more active and engaged during class and there are fewer situations of social media drama.

We remind students each morning to lockup their devices and they appreciate the reminder.

Our parent community has supported us on this initiative. When we brought it up at our Parent Council meeting, the comments were that this policy is “way over due.” Parents also stated, “Our kids are on their phones way too much, we’re glad you are taking a stand.”

That is how things are going thus far. I intend to write a follow-up post in a couple of weeks.

I see that many schools (and districts) are limiting cell phone use in classrooms. Here is a recent article from my neck of the woods.

https://www.sherwoodparknews.com/news/local-news/eips-to-ban-cellphone-use-from-the-classroom-for-the-coming-school-year

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Blog as an archive of learning

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I was scanning through Twitter the other day (as I do most days) and this tweet got my eye…

It caused me to think back on learning that I had done a few years back. I thought to myself, “I think I wrote blog posts about collaboration.” I went to my blog and I searched my old posts using the word “collaboration.” Much to my delight, I found this post which contained links to other posts that I had written. I can’t believe that 5 years has passed since I wrote these posts.

I think the reason why the tweet caused me to reflect on my learning about collaboration was because it summed up (in a cool way) everything that I had learned about collaboration.

My point in writing this post is to share the fact that archiving your learning through blogging can be very impactful. As I read through my old posts, I thought to myself, “Do I still think this way?” and “If I wrote this again, would it be different?” I appreciate the fact that there were folks who made comments on my posts which pushed my thinking forward and caused me to shape my understanding of collaboration…and how it is different from cooperation, and plain old group work. It was cool that I was able to collaborate with other to produce a post about collaboration.

I really like that John Spencer has included the phrase that cooperation is necessary for collaboration. That has me thinking some more. Who knows, maybe that will be a future blog post.

I guess what I’m saying is this…

A blog can serve as an archive of your learning and can also be a way to connect with others. It is a great way to organize your thoughts and make connections in your mind and cause learning to go deeper. The post doesn’t need to be written in a fancy way…it just needs to be understandable when you go back to read it or if someone else wants to read it.

Scheduling a Middle School like an Elementary School…surely you’ve gone mad?!?

 

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During my 30 years in education, I have had the privilege to teach and lead at all levels. The bulk of my career was spent teaching Mathematics at the high school (10-12) level. In the last 10 years, I have served as an administrator in 10-12, K-6, K-9, and 7-9 schools.

As a K-6 and K-9 administrator, I gained a large amount of respect for the floating timetable which is commonly used in elementary schools. Grade teachers could pretty much decide what the timetable would be for the day, for the week and beyond. For example, a grade 4 teacher can decide how to use the time of the day to successfully teach all of the learning outcomes of all the subjects. Teachers would collaborate with other teachers if they were uncomfortable teaching certain subjects. As an example, some teachers on my staff would trade French for Physical Education. Within this model, teachers got their prep time by sending their students to Music class, where they were taught by another teacher. Another wonderful thing about this type of timetable is that teachers could bring their students together and team team, utilizing the strengths of both teachers. There are so many positives in this approach and scheduling is quite simple. The only things that must be scheduled are Music and Physical Education (because the Gym cannot be double booked). Another wonderful thing about K-6 scheduling is that if a teacher feels that more time needs to be spent in a particular subject area, that can easily be done. Also, a teacher could decide to “chunk” the curriculum. In other words, focus on Science for a few weeks then focus on Social Studies.

Why do we change all of this when students go to Middle school/Junior High? Why do we go to a block schedule? Could a Junior High school operate without blocks of Math, Science, Social Studies and English, Physical Education, Religion and Options? Could we schedule Core time and Option time? Could two teachers be assigned to a particular grade and one teacher is responsible for Humanities and the other responsible for Science/Mathematics? I guess to do this, you would have to have appropriate pairings of teachers. But think about this, the teachers responsible for a certain grade level could collaborate and develop cross-curricular projects…that would be huge! Within the IB Middle Years Program, learning outcomes are broken into cross-curricular Units of Study.

I have done a great amount of thinking about this change to the block scheduling of a Middle school/Junior High school and had many conversations with other admin but have not been able to come up with anything concrete. If anyone has some information to share about this or you run a flexible schedule in your school, please connect by leaving a comment here.

 

Writing Positive Notes to Students During a Faculty Meeting

thank you

In 2017, Bill Ferriter (one of my main edu-influencers) posted a great bit about writing positive notes to kids. I was inspired by this post and I thought it was amazing that Bill was taking a little bit of time every morning to acknowledge the awesome things that his kids were doing.

In the comment section of that post, Santo Nicotera, talked about how he and his staff take a few minutes out of every faculty meeting to write notes to kids. They keep track and ensure that every student is recognized over a three month period.

After that comment was made, Bill launched a tweet which challenged Principals to incorporate Santo’s practice into their faculty meeting. I tried to find that tweet today but to no avail.

In September 2017, we adopted this practice into our staff meetings at St. Mark School. When I introduced the idea to our staff, they were extremely supportive. One staff member said, “Even if only one kid is positively affected by this, then it is worth it.” So, at every staff meeting, we take the first ten minutes to write cards of appreciation to our students. It never gets dropped from the agenda because it is the first order of business on every agenda. We have a spreadsheet with all of our students names and we keep track to ensure that every student will receive one by the end of the school year.

Since that time, we have continued our note writing project and we have noticed many positives benefits in terms of relationships with kids and overall school culture.  One staff member told me that simply writing a card to a student helped him to positively mend a relationship with a student.

There are other benefits to this project, as well:

  • While staff are writing the cards, they speak positively about kids. We hear stories of kindness and other great things that kids have done. We hear staff members say things like, “What a great kid.” or “Wow, John is a super funny kid. I have to tell you what he said.”
  • Every faculty meeting starts on a positive note (pun intended). This positive tone carries on throughout the meeting.
  • It helps us set our priorities. By being the first order of business on the agenda, it places students as the primary importance.
  • It is so cool to see a student open the card and read it. I have never seen one of the cards in the garbage or left in a locker.
  • Some of our kids have taken upon themselves to write positive notes to other students and to their teachers.

When I tell other teachers and administrators about this project, they often say things like, “Every staff should do that.” You know what? They should and I encourage you to start doing it at your school.

#Geniushour Project Reflection

This post has been percolating for a little while. I thought that I would write a post so that I could organize my thoughts.

Last term, I undertook a #geniushour project by allowing my students to decide what they wanted to learn more about. This involved planning a final project which would act as an archive of the learning.

Here are some things that I learned through this (sometimes messy) process:

  • It is definitely not about the final project. Having the kids blog about their learning was key! For example, some students took on a green screen film project which, although funny and entertaining, did not turn out how they wanted it to. It was by reading the reflections that I gained insight into the student learning. Reading their blog posts has helped me to understand what my students are learning and what their struggles have been throughout the process.
  • Feedback is essential. I walk around the room and ask questions about the projects that the kids are working on. It is hard for me to give feedback without unintentionally guiding the direction of the project. Students keep asking me, “Is this what you want, Mr. Hatch?” I keep telling them that their project has nothing to do with me…it is about them and their learning. I also encourage students to solicit peer feedback – either in person or by comments on their blogs.
  • Kids are going to get stuck and they are going to fail and get frustrated. This is when it is important to support rather than bail them out. Ask questions…”What do you think you could do now?”, “Is there anything that I could do to help you?”, Is there anyone that you could ask?” It is important to keep the student from giving up. I just keep telling students that failure is learning. Write a blog post about what happened and what you intend to do.
  • Encourage your students to find mentors who can help them. Mentors can be fellow students, staff members, parents or other people in the school community. One of my students was watch a tutorial video on YouTube and ended up sending an email to the developer of the video asking questions – her questions were graciously answered and she was pointed to a place on-line where she could learn more.
  • You have to trust your students and the process. If you have offered the right amount of support, things will come together at the end of the term. If it doesn’t, the student still learned something and they should be encouraged to reflect on that learning.
  • Reflection is essential. For my class, I had them write blog posts so I could track their progress. I found that students were brutally honest in their posts. Here is a sample post that I was reading today from a student who is part of a group working on a role playing video game. I was bubbling with excitement for this student when I read the posts because the reflections previous to this one were about how his group was stuck and was not making very much progress.

Progress, so much progress. I don’t think we have ever been as efficient as we were today. Today, we finished off fixing up the controls and the physics. We had full control over our character and we could move him around a 3D plane. It was so trivial and yet it excited all of us so much. All the things we just look over when playing games, we can really appreciate now. It took a lot of work and it wasn’t with out compiler errors, but luckily we got through it. Not only did we finally get those pesky collisions that have been giving us so much trouble out of the way, but we also started working on the camera and finished that as well. We now have our camera working as it follows the player around. Yes, it sounds really trivial, but you have no idea how much work it actually took. I mean, can you tell me what “Vector 3 = 0. Mathf.SIGN” means, because before today I sure didn’t. Overall, I felt really accomplished after today. It feels good to see the outcome of your work doesn’t it. Next up, we have to work on making a model, so that our character doesn’t look like a square. I’m looking forward to that since making your own character is one of the most exciting parts. So, things are looking up for weeks to come.

Is this student engaged and motivated in his learning? Is this kid learning skills that will benefit him in his career choice?

I can’t believe it has taken me more than 25 years as a teacher to figure out this model for learning. It has been so powerful and it has been incredibly rewarding. My students blow me away every single week by the amount that they are learning and sharing. Don’t be afraid to give up control to your students and let them navigate their own learning.

 

IB Conference in LA #ibmyp

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I just spent the last three days at the Category 2 MYP (Middle Years Programme) Head of Schools/Coordinators session as part of a larger IB workshop in lovely Los Angeles. I travelled to LA with 5 of my colleagues from school including another AP as well as some PYP and MYP teachers. Each of us were involved in different sessions. We had lots of time to learn, discuss and take part in some unique learning activities. For me, the best part of a conference is connecting with other educators from all over the Americas. It is interesting to find out how schools are organized and to learn about some of the strategies that are used. It is extremely interesting to hear about the various challenges that administrators are faced with.

So, as I sit here on the floor at LAX waiting for our flight home, I ask myself, “What were my biggest takeaways from the conference?”

1. The IB programme is not an additional thing that you do at your school. It has to be part of the foundation of the school and is an important part of the culture. It should be woven into everything that you do. It gives us a common language to use as we teach our students. This is the same with Catholicity at our school…it is the foundation of our school and it is permeated into everything that we do.

2. It is not about the final product, it is about the learning that happens along the way. I have always believed this but it became particularly evident during this workshop. As an exercise, we looked at a process journal and a personal statement from a student’s MYP personal project and we all decided that this student deserved excellent marks for the learning that she had done. We had not even seen the final product yet! That because, learning isn’t about creating products…it is about demonstrating and being able to articulate the learning and changes that are happening as you work through the project.

3. Collaboration is vital. Administrators, coordinators, teachers and students all need to be part of the program and have their voices heard. This was evident during one of our learning activities this past weekend. We were challenged to design a strategy for introducing a change at a fictitious school. We were given the descriptions of some of the staff members at the school and with only that information, we had to decide (as a large group) how we would introduce the change. During the process, some leaders emerged and some participants jumped on board. Some decisions were made and a final presentation of the solution was given. The facilitators of the session acknowledged that we had, indeed, come up with a solution. At this point, I looked at a couple of other people at my table and we simultaneously said to each other, “What was the solution?” BOOM…I understood the point of the exercise. As a school leader, you cannot force change and push things through. Change is a slow process and must be carefully planned out. Everyone should be able to answer questions about what is going on and the changes which are occurring. How many times does this happen at school? Go to a meeting, decide a bunch of stuff and later you find out that some people have no idea about what is going on. #frustrating

4. Changes in a school will not be sustained if they are flash in the pan, one time only. As I stated above, changes should be carried out with a vision and a mission in mind.

5. Educational leaders need to model what they expect of staff and students. For example, if you want your kids to be good learners and represent the IB Learner Profile…that is what you need to be. In the same way, if we want the kids at our school to be good citizens, it is important to model that and, more importantly, correct and redirect learners who are not meeting our expectations.

6. A program in a school cannot be run by one or two people. Yes, there are a few people who are responsible for organizing and will be held accountable but if a program is going to be effective, each staff member must understand their role and how their role fits into the big picture.

It was a great conference and it provided me with many things to think about and reflect on. It was also a great way to connect with some staff from our school as well as other educators. It is interesting to hear what my colleagues were learning and how it fits with what I was learning.