Are you Listening?

Jim Shevchuk

“Help Me Tell My Story” -“Tell Them From Me” – Student Voice – All wonderful ways to engage students. But is it their stories we are hearing? Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Or maybe we are talking too much. The voice of a young person is the same as an old person. It wants to speak on its own terms and it wants to be listened to.

The data gleaned from these surveys is valuable. But who designed the questions? What information are we getting from our students? Is it their story or one fabricated by adults? My daughter gave me some valuable feedback. Why does the school need to know about my fruit and vegetable consumption? And, why so many questions about bullying? Can I ask a few questions she ponders? Can I tell my story? Her observations were excellent. She is just a teenager wanting to be involved in the process, yet still interested in helping out her school.

Maybe we should sit down and actually speak with the students. Personal interviews, qualitative surveys and kids just talking, can you image that data set? Could we actually use Indigenous Research methods with all of our children? I would wager they would have some valuable advice to the adults. Included in their advice might be ideas to make their schools more progressive, helpful hints for their teachers about themselves or even on what they would like to learn. They might help us improve. Here is some of research I have gleaned from students on “coffee row”.

“What Students really want us (teachers) to know!”

  1. Do you know anything about me?
  2. Let me ask the questions.
  3. Put your phone away – Did you notice me? How about a smile?
  4. Give me your attention – do you even know that I exist?
  5. Sometimes your rules about bathrooms and snacking are excessive – Have you actually thought about what you have said I can’t do?
  6. Can you pretend with me? Let me imagine – I have been doing inquiry for years.
  7. Trades and Computers – How about something I like.
  8. Trust me. Until I prove you wrong – Believe in me.
  9. Can we have the same respect we give you? When I tell you I am cold, hungry or thirsty, I am.
  10. Covering more challenging material keeps me interested.

Maybe we have the technology to record their thoughts? Of course some of these students will still propose the age old suggestion of beer in the water fountains and flexible scheduling; however some of our students are asking to tailor make their classes for graduation requirements. This seems to be reasonable. None of the student options include the compulsory Grade 12 English, Social Studies or Wellness 10, but I do hold out some hope that perhaps our administrators are listening. Our Ministry is actually investigating the 24 credit graduation requirements at the provincial level. If we can accommodate our students’ requests in this area, who knows, perhaps we are making some progress. And if the government is listening, maybe we should too!


Flexibility has different meanings in different contexts. As an adjective, flexible means that something is capable of bending easily without breaking (for example, a flexible hose) or something easily modified in response to circumstances or conditions (for example, a flexible timetable) or a person who is ready to change and adapt as necessary. Think about the flexibility of the muscles in your body and as people age, flexibility decreases but can be improved with exercise. When people do not increase flexibility through exercise, muscles can become rigid and inflexible.   Flexibility is also used as a term in Math in that we want students to develop flexibility in their thinking so that they can use a variety of strategies and choose the best strategy from a repertoire to solve any given problem. Students who are only taught one way to solve a problem have a rigid way of thinking and are limited in their ability to solve problems. Although I am aware of a need for improvement, it has come to my attention that I need to develop more flexibility in my delivery of professional development as a facilitator/leader/presenter.

On November 24, 2014 we had an STF teacher-directed PD day. Our group of consultants invited Wendy James from Saskatoon Public to guide us through investigating our roles as consultants and how to implement change in the somewhat rigid area of education. She led us through a number of exercises in a thoughtful, intentional manner. At the end of the day we were to make a commitment to change something in our practice to improve our abilities to facilitate professional development and we agreed to report our experiences during upcoming PLC times. I have made a commitment to be more aware of being flexible and ironically, planning to be more flexible.

During my student teaching experience in a grade 2 classroom many years ago, I recall taking the spelling words (yes, grade 2 spelling words!) and lesson with me to the front of the class and I referred to the words and my notes frequently throughout the lesson. I did not/could not stray from the planned lesson or respond to the students if their questions or responses did not follow the lesson plan. I am pleased to report that my following lessons throughout my career were not so rigid but while I am learning and practicing, I don’t have the flexibility to “wing it”. Anytime I implement a new strategy or resource, I rely on that information in a physical form and I have to follow the plan as it is laid out. I now feel this way as a presenter /facilitator. I do not yet feel comfortable or competent to let the group lead the session and go with the flow. I feel like I need to have every minute planned to avoid those uncomfortable moments of “what am I going to do with these people for the next two hours?” – which is a regular nightmare the night before a presentation!

I decided to do some digging into flexible thinking to wrap my head around this commitment. In the December, 2008 issue of Educational Leadership there is an article called “Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success”. I gleaned onto “Flexible people have the most control” and having control issues, this relaxed me a bit to recognize that in order to be flexible, I do have control. The article goes on to describe characteristics of flexible people in that they are able “to predict how others are thinking and anticipate potential misunderstanding”. When I plan my PD sessions, there is always a topic or a focus and I do anticipate where people are at as they enter the room (figuratively, of course). However, sometimes as we go through content, although I may recognize that we need to head in a different direction, the plan is in place, the powerpoint slides are prepared, and I plough through the plan whether I respond to the needs of the group or not.

As I consider the implications of being flexible, I realize that although planning is an important aspect to delivering PD, being flexible in the delivery is important too. But, I like to be in control. I realized this a number of years ago as I began to investigate differentiated instruction in response to student needs in the classroom. Many of the strategies presented scared me because I thought I would lose control of my students. And to be honest, as a teacher, it is necessary to be planned, prepared, and in control of all situations! Yet, when we take control away from our students, they are losing out in not being given an opportunity to struggle and/or to fail in a caring safe environment. Heaven forbid they won’t do things the way we want them to! But I learned through experience that learning is more authentic and meaningful when led by the learner and facilitated by the teacher in response to student needs. For some reason, though, things seem a little different for me when working with adults.

Wendy gave some good advice – she said have a plan A and a plan B which I think I can handle because I can anticipate a couple of scenarios and plan for each – still maintaining my need for control. Also, I need to take time to practice and improve. It is challenging for me to present in front of adults – kids seem to be more forgiving when you make mistakes and from day to day, I have more opportunity for do-overs which I don’t have when presenting to a unique group for one day.   Pat Renihan was invited by the Administrators Council to facilitate the group through Change Leadership. He presented the process of Change, Competence and Development and at the moment I think I am Conciously Incompetent. I think my PD commitment is a do-able commitment for myself at this time and it is necessary to allow myself the opportunity to fail, make mistakes and feel uncomfortable while gaining experience and exercising my flexibility.

December 3, 2014Permalink

Living Learning

Chitek Lake Camp
Chitek Lake Camp

Walking in Two Worlds

Land Based Learning:
What happens to learning when you remove distractions of our modern life: beeping phones, incoming messages, tv/media overload, buzzing fluorescent lights, school bells, schedules and the never ending cacophony of voices? How much time will it take to regulate/to meditate, sitting in silence, observing nature and begin to wonder about the world? What will I learn about myself ‘living and contributing’ in a challenging environment? How do I benefit from both ancient and new technologies in the wilderness? How is learning from an elder different from learning in the classroom? These are some of the questions students and teachers were pondering during their land based learning camp at Chitek Lake May 26 – 29, 2014.

Josh shows us his catch of the day.
Josh shows us his catch of the day.

Grade 9 students from Cando and Leoville recently survived a week in a bi-cultural wilderness camp learning through inquiry based projects, working side by side with their teachers, elders and resource people as they explored, questioned, reflected and created on the land. Working together to problem solve in authentic situations (such as figuring out how to set up your canvas tent in the rain) brings out leadership qualities and cooperation skills. Tipis teachings, making tea and salad from plants foraged in the forest, building traditional shelters, carving bows, making fire, observing through the camera lens, beading, fishing, hunting, storytelling, playing games and making music – all forms of inquiry and writing happening at once.  Designing their learning and letting curiosity lead them forward, questions answered by elders and experts, guiding them on to the next piece of understanding. Finding an internal rhythm and flow, responding to the sun and rain, hunger and need to play – all done without benefit of bells.

Just in time learning
‘Side by side & just in time’ learning
New friendships formed
New friendships formed

Covering curriculum is challenging and I have heard many teachers say that there just isn’t enough time in the schedule to give inquiry it’s due attention … and yet teachers agree that learning needs to be student driven, challenging, interest based and authentic. What a conundrum. How to balance requirements of the Ministry with requirements of good learning? Every teacher is faced with professional choices about instruction and educational practice. I have seen many innovative and brave teachers who make some bold choices about programming when designing the learning. I appreciate that Living Sky School Division encourages innovative teaching and supported Cando and Leoville on this journey of discovery. Listening to teachers and students reflect on the learning reinforces our beliefs about “learning for all” in a differentiated process, that recognizes the place of wonder in education.

Flora and Fauna
Flora and Fauna

Thank you to Tammy Riel and Amanda Wood (Cando) and Baeu Vandale and Irene Bowker (Leoville) for their tremendous effort in making this camp happen.  Thank you for inviting my participation – it was a wonderful learning experience!

June 11, 2014Permalink

Leaders Who Value Student Feedback

by Doug Drover

One of the most valuable tools I’ve ever used for professional growth and program review is student feedback (yes, feedback FROM the students, not TO the students).  It has made me a better teacher, and it’s helped promoted a healthy learning culture in my classroom.

I think we as teachers are, on some level, uncomfortable with receiving feedback from our students.  After all, we’ve been trained to be the professional “in charge” of the classroom: determining activities, lessons and units, planning the semester/year to fit the curriculum, establishing minimum expectations for behavioural norms, establishing seating plans, etc.  This is not in any way wrong.  As trained and experienced professionals, we SHOULD have this authority in the classrooms to which we are assigned.

Teachers and principals are leaders to our students and in our schools, and it is important for us to remember that there are different styles of leadership.  I have always taught my students about three: authoritative, participative, and delegative.

Authoritative leaders make decisions on their own, and they enforce this decision on others, typically through rewards and punishments.  This is a highly efficient method of decision-making, and is quite popular in politics and business… and in the school system.  It works best when the leader is the most experienced and knowledgeable person in the room.  When this is not the case, though, poor decisions can be made.

Participative leaders seek input from their teams, and consider the different points of view before making a final decision.  This is less efficient, but results in compliance because others value the process of providing input and trust that the leader chose the best option on the table.

Delegative leaders ask the team to make the final decision.  It is least efficient, but can be very effective in certain situations, especially when team members are highly motivated and skilled, or hold special expertise that the leader doesn’t.

Often, we think about leadership in the authoritative sense: that we are the experts who make the decisions.  Conversely, we often think that eliciting student feedback will be a waste of time (“They don’t know what is required to…”) or akin to letting the prisoners run the prison!  Not true!  There is a sea of difference between eliciting feedback from students and turning over the reins of the school.  As a delegative leader, my students trusted that I would honestly consider their feedback, but respected that the final decision lay with me.

For some teachers, this can be a shift in mindset, but I assure you from my own experience that asking for and responding to feedback from parents and students does not lead to a loss of authority; in fact, I’ve found that it enhances the trust parents and students have in me.

Schools are not McDonald’s; the customer is NOT always right.  But that doesn’t mean the customers – students and parents – are NEVER right.  Students and parents present many sets of eyes from diverse backgrounds with diverse needs.  They are bound to see things that you can’t, or see things differently than you.  Once we acknowledge that we can still hold authority without ALWAYS being right, we can tap into this vast pool of opinions and perspectives to find solutions to problems that either confounded us, or that we didn’t know existed.

I encourage you to read the link to this excellent article from Education Leadership on formalizing the student feedback process.

Learning from the True Customers


October 17, 2013Permalink