I expected to get to see an awesome co-taught classroom with Gallit (@gallit_z) and Hugh McDonald (@hughtheteacher), including an hour of #geniushour time with their kiddos. What I got to see what so much more! Georges Vanier Elementary in Surrey, BC, is an amazing example of a great, enthusiastic, supportive group of teachers being led by a truly 21st Century principal: Antonio Vendramin (@vendram1n).
I rolled in at about 10am, just as the kids were finishing their first of three "blocks" for the day. They dashed off for snack and recess while I gushed to Gallit and Hugh about their awesome room. The stack of extra-large portable whiteboard for kid use, and the white boards and bulletin boards on sliding tracks in front of the kids' cubbies both brought to mind many of the amazing ideas in Make Space, Stanford dSchool's awesome collaborative space design book (@makespacebook).
As the kids returned from recess, ready for #geniushour, several declared that they were ready to present. One young lady had an awesome video "trailer" for her project that us adults all thought was the actual project itself! Another pair did a song mash-up on Audacity, and a group of three used ModgePodge to decorate coffee mugs.
Following the presentations, kids got rolling back on their own projects, and the kids who had just presented visited the Genius Hour whiteboard to update their "wonderings" and project ideas. Gallit, Hugh, and I discussed how to lead the kids towards deeper projects, and Gallit showed me a book she's been reading... Angela Meier's The Passion-Driven Classroom. Flipping through, the page on a student's personal "manifesto" really caught my eye, as we've been thinking a lot about student goal setting at my school lately.
We also talked about the universal struggle of teachers everywhere to get kids to use fewer words on PowerPoint slides (no paragraphs!), and also to cite sources decently. I'm pretty proud of the work I've done with my own kiddos in determining reliability of internet sources... Rather than hitting bibliography and citation from a "give credit where credit is due" angle, I've hit it from the direction of "people on the internet don't know what they're talking about, and you need to make sure the facts you're spouting come from reliable sources." I often lead this whole exploration with bearsharktopus, and more recently with the awesome hoax videos out of Montreal's Centre NAD digital design program... It dovetails nicely with my big science class focus on EVIDENCE.
Gallit took me on a tour of the school... grade levels mixed together rather than big-kid wing vs little-kid wing, on-site early childhood program, cozy teachers' lounge... and we checked in on kids working throughout the school on their geniushour projects. We also got to peek in on the student leadership team (like our "student council") presenting an upcoming fundraiser and day-of-silence for building wells in Kenya. (Another universal: articulate, serious, passionate 12- and 13-year-olds have the hardest time communicating with kindergarteners!)
After geniushour, it was time for lunch, which was to be followed by the introduction of a mystery project that neither the kids nor I knew anything about! I got to enjoy guest benefits of Vanier Elem's "salad club," plus a couple other teachers and principal Vendramin joined us in Gallit and Hugh's room to eat. (Not universals: health care, maternity leave, "Teach For America," and other topics of grown-up lunch conversation.)
Following lunch, the whole 6th and 7th grades gathered in a common room for this mystery project. This was where I really realized what a special school Vanier Elem is... Kids were encouraged to bring their devices for taking notes, and even encouraged to tweet their ideas about the project. In their classroom, Gallit and Hugh had been tweeting individual comments... in this common room as the project was being introduced, I saw that documenting, tweeting, and "backchanneling" is part of the overall culture of the whole school.
The project itself is wikiseat (@wikiseat). Kids were shown the "catalyst" and given time with their devices, whiteboards, paper, whatever, to start brainstorming what their "catalyst" could be used for... Many kids struggled with the idea that the "catalyst" is not the finished project, but is rather a base or anchor to build something off of. The kids were give time to struggle through their ideas without excessive "hints," and all their ideas were gathered up in the end. (They weren't even told the name "seat" until after all their ideas came out.)
This project is going to be both a fabulous 21st-century learning experience for the kids, AND just plain fun! Antonio gave me an extra "catalyst" to bring home, and I'm planning to have my kiddos brainstorm and sketch out ideas to send up to Vanier Elem for a bit of collaboration. But what this project really hit home for me is the incredible work that can be done in a school with a truly innovative and trusted leader.
At Vanier Elem:
- The teachers respect and value each other's individual teaching styles, and share ideas openly without judgement.
- The teachers flexibly "share" students when those students have different needs that can be met by those different teaching styles.
- The kids are respected, and in turn show amazing respect. Kids aren't constantly monitored, don't need hall passes, and are generally happily engaged in expected pursuits within that freedom.
- New ideas are met with enthusiasm and not blocked by silo mentalities or insurmountable logistical blockades.
I asked both Gallit and principal Antonio Vendramin how this culture came about, and especially how Antonio's leadership supports the culture. Antonio's main answer was building trust from his very first day, 4 years ago. Gallit, who has been at Vanier for 6 years, said that Antonio shares his own enthusiasm, gets actively involved in the life of the school, and encourages both innovation in technology, and trusting and teaching beneficial use of technology.
Even details that seemed tiny supported the amazingly strong community culture at Vanier. Note Antonio's letter to parents about the WikiSeat project... not just information and permission, but simple clear ideas to help parents support their kids on the project.
As Gallit walked me out after school, we talked more about the importance of strong leadership in developing a school community culture, and the tiny details that make the community strong. Gallit pointed out clean spots on the wall that had been holes and other kinds of damage when Antonio arrived, and the Dr. Suess quotes on the school exits. She also described Antonio's style and how important it was that he was not just visible but active in the students' learning every day.
My school is bringing in our two final candidates for our new upper division head (essentially principal of grades 4-8, and my boss) over the next two weeks, and this visit has given me a LOT to think about, especially for questions I want to ask the candidates as well as the hiring committee. I've asked Gallit to write a blog post more specifically about Antonio's leadership and how and why the culture of her school changed when he arrived.
Once again, visiting other teachers in their classrooms and experiencing the cultures of other schools is some of the most amazing professional development I do for myself! Thank you, Gallit, Hugh, Antonio, kids, and staff at Georges Vanier Elem for hosting me!
PS - Following my visit, I returned to my Vancouver family vacation. My husband and kids had spent the day at Science World, and we hit Kirin Restaurant for a wonderful Chinese dinner. This is what my exhausted 3-year-old looks like after that day of excitement...