Social Justice in Schools – Pt. 1

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Attending the Ontario Principals’ Council Leadership Summit on Social Justice was a great learning experience. It’s unfortunately rare that principals and vice-principals get a chance to talk with colleagues outside of their own district, let alone the province. This first of two posts about the round table discussions I participated in highlights issues related to expanding horizons for our First Nations students.

1) We need to make sure that the conversation around achievement of our First Nations students continues. In an era of political correctness it’s necessary to look critically at whether what we are doing is working or not, with regards to student achievement. In BC this is happening with Enhancement Agreements in districts setting and monitoring progress towards shared goals.

2) Changing the narrative – Interestingly, this echoed the discussion held at our Leading the Learning session in October in SD36. If we can move away from a deficit model to a strength, achievement, positive progress model then we can move forwards towards true equity for First Nations students.

3) Racism and stereotyping exist in a significant way in our schools still. We might wish it doesn’t, or try to ignore it, or want to deny it, but that isn’t the way forward. As hard as it is, we need to address and confront these when they happen. “Be relentlessly fearless.”

4) First Nations people have experienced about seven generations of colonization and generational trauma. How do we help our children and their families overcome the impact of this? Can we teach about the residential schools tragedy in our social studies and history classes? When is the right time, and who should tell this story?

Best practices, ideas, and supports from across the country:
Confront racism, assumptions and stereotypes. Don’t keep silent.
Ask questions to understand cultural nuances – we can’t be afraid to offend or be offended. The goal is just wanting to understand and combat ignorance.
Tap into student leadership – confront issues of equality that students are experiencing for a variety of reasons (Racism, homophobia, bullying, etc.)

One good resource that was shared is a youtube video – Justice for Aboriginal People – It’s Time. I would recommend it as a starting place for opening the conversation.

Getting personal in school

Over the past few months my own understanding of what “personalized learning” means has been evolving and coming into focus. At this point I see three main ways that personalized learning is coming to be realized in my school based on my own learning, our staff’s collaborative learning, and best practices that have been identified as priorities for our district. Here they are:

1. Personalized discipline – It’s been clear to me for a while that simplistic consequences (punishment) and rewards for behaviour that are applied across the board in the same way to all students, are not effective. I’ve been using the Collaborative Problem Solving approach for several years and recently read an Edutopia article entitled “Fair Isn’t Always Equal” by Dr. Richard Curwin that gave me the “aha” moment that this is a form of personalized learning. By using this approach to listen to children about their own understanding of what is causing their challenging behaviour, and by pinpointing and prioritizing the lagging skills and unsolved problems, we can customize the learning process and provide supports to help students overcome them.

2. Personalized support – This year our staff at school has been digging more deeply into the concept of universal design for learning. This idea, born out of designing adaptations in our environment for people with disabilities, looks at ways to ensure access to learning for students with all kinds of learning differences. This also includes tiers of intervention where supports are provided to scaffold learning for all students, to intervene in a targeted way for students with greater needs, and intensive support for students with significant challenges. Again, we are moving away from an exclusionary model where students leave the classroom to get support and are essentially labelled as an “LST student” for their school career, to using specific pre and post-assessments along with short-term, intensive interventions to bring students’ skills to a level where they can fully participate in the regular classroom.

3. Personalized learning – I keep coming back to Jordan Tinney’s description, in one of our administrators’ meetings, of personalized learning as learning that we take personally – essentially, that students have some emotional connection to. In order for that to happen, teachers must use the best practices in backwards design, pre-assessment, student choice and differentiation. These practices are tied in with universal design where learning plans are created with student needs in mind from the outset.

None of these ideas are “new” or “something extra” for teachers to implement. They stem from a mindset of teachers and school staff that each student is unique and individual and deserves to have their interests and needs respected. I feel it is actually unethical to know what a student requires to learn, and not to provide it. By personalizing the experience of school we are not saying that teachers must plan 30 different programs for 30 students, but rather to recognize and act on what individual students need to access and be successfully engaged in the educational program designed by the teacher.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it

For a couple of years I have had my own theory brewing about convenience. In short, I think convenience is the root of many of society’s ills today. The remedy is doing some things (not ALL things – I’m not crazy!) the hard way. Like taking your cans to the bottle depot and sorting them yourself. Or walking to the store. Or raking leaves instead of blowing them. Like playing with your kids instead of parking them in front of the TV. That kind of hard.

Doing the right thing in life is sometimes hard. But a lot of things that are worth doing are hard. Changing the way we teach so that the current generation of students will learn is hard. Walking into a teacher’s classroom to talk with them about something that’s not working, and knowing that it’s going to hurt that person’s feelings, is hard. Telling a child that I made a mistake when I lost my cool and raised my voice to them, is hard. These are all the right things to do, however.

In my life I do some things the hard way, and I think that makes some of the other things seem less hard. Yesterday I ran a marathon. It was hard. I trained for 17 weeks, and at one point spent time running up and down a steep hill six or seven times. That, my friends, was hard. Along the marathon route I saw a lady with a sign that said, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.” And while that made me feel better, I believe that anyone can do it. It just takes will, sticking to your goals, and a bit of courage. It’s really not that hard.

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