Monday, 16 March 2015

Learning Stories at the New Story Café!



We opened our newly appointed Story Café this past month at Glendale Science and Technology School. At Glendale we believe that everyone has a learning story, and that through our efforts to learn each other's stories, we honor the value that diversity brings to our school. So 'learning stories' is a noun... the narratives that make our school such an interesting and engaging learning place to experience, and a verb in that we make the effort everyday at Glendale to be 'learning each other's stories'.

The Story Café vision began last year when our middle school leadership students (ours is a kindergarten to grade eight school) opened what they called the Action Café. Their idea was to provide a space where kids and adults could gather, talk and get to know each other better in a casual non threatening environment away from the classroom. It was also a place to raise money for particular causes they supported. It was a hybrid idea of our "Starbuck's classroom" concept, and the notion that we need to talk to each other to understand each other better.

The project went fairly well. A few guest speakers joined in to share their stories over the course of the year, and kids hung out there at lunch once or twice a week when the Action Café was open. This year though, a new group of leadership students thought they could do better. They decided they wanted to blend our learning stories concept with the Action Café idea to create a newly themed gathering place called the Story Café. So that's what they did!

It took a while to formulate plans... they had to find a space, (we had an empty classroom in the south wing that they got permission to use,) fill it with furniture and other decorations that fit the Story Café theme, create a menu, (we serve hot chocolate and nutrition policy adhering treats that the kids make themselves in the Food Studies Lab,) create roles and responsibilities, (we have servers, counter people, greeters, sound and video people, decorators, bus people, cooks and more,) create a schedule and even book their own guest speakers. They got it all done though, and the first of these guest speakers was Mr. Phil Bota.
 

Mr. Bota, a local resident, successfully climbed Mt. Everest in 2011 at twenty two years of age in memory of his father who died of a heart attack when Phil was a teenager. Phil made the climb on behalf of the Heart and Stroke Foundation. He told us his remarkable story for an hour and thirty minutes on opening day of Story Café, and you could have heard a pin drop the entire time. That's him on the left.

At Glendale we take pride in the way we focus on showing empathy and teaching empathy.  As Phil spoke it was very hard not to feel empathy for him. Even though he accomplished this amazing feat of adventure in climbing Mt. Everest at such a young age when nobody except those closest to him believed he would, or could do it, there was a humility about the way he presented his story and a level of respect that he displayed that drew all of us into his amazing and inspiring story. When he was finished telling it, he asked for questions, and our Inspire Leadership students and VIP guests asked him the usual line up of questions, (he says he gets the "how did you go to the bathroom in that suit when it was so cold all the time?" question every time he does a talk:), but they also had much more to say.

 One girl told him that he had inspired her to pursue her dream of becoming a professional singer. Another asked him how he prepared mentally and emotionally to complete such a difficult journey under emotionally challenging circumstances and yet another asked about how scared he was that he may not make it to the top. The conversation was real, authentic and engaged all of us in so many ways. We were so honored to have Phil Bota speak at our grand opening. Phil taught us a lot about empathy through the telling of his story; how he was empathetic to the Sherpa guides that took care of him; his family worrying about him back home; others who didn't complete the journey with him, but most impacting was how he told us about the empathy he felt for his dad when he looked across the horizon from the summit to see the massive Himalayan range before his eyes. In an indescribably personal way he said to his dad, "we made it." He told us that whether he made the summit or not, it was the journey that was important; the connection to his father and the feeling that he was there with him, experiencing what he felt. I can only imagine how close Phil felt to his dad at that moment in visceral and loving understanding of what he was feeling at that time, even thought he wasn't physically there with him... the ultimate form of empathy.

Many, many thanks to Mr. Phil Bota, local adventurer and master story teller for sharing his story of love, adventure, resilience and overcoming adversity with us at the grand opening of Glendale's Story Café.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Camp Everywhere...

I never experienced summer camp. The closest I got to a summer camp experience was what we called Cub Camp, a two day overnight camp when I was a Cub Scout many years ago. I got homesick and didn't think I was going to make it to the end, but I did. I also experienced some good, and some bad family holidays during the summers of my youth, but going to a real week long or longer summer camp never happened for me. I have heard lots of entertaining stories about summer camp memories from friends who did go; I'll focus on the good ones.

My colleague Everett (@mrtetz) and I were talking last week. We were going back and forth about what we'd do with a million dollars. He has this idea to build a summer camp for kids from at risk environments. Beyond the essentials of providing a safe, non judgmental and supportive environment at this camp, he would like to offer ways for kids to connect; with activities that help build their esteem, and with people who support them.


What a great idea, but how to do this connection thing? How would we get kids to learn about themselves, face their fears, try new things, push their boundaries and accept themselves on the way to making these important connections? How would we be empathetic to these kids as they face these challenges? No small order.

We have also talked a bit about the Passion Project. From the project...
Passionate people have a contagious zest that inspires and motivates. This is a simple truth of profound importance that The Passion Project embodies and communicates.  In December 2009, we launched The Passion Project as a student-led initiative based at the University of British Columbia seeking to make “passion” an integral part of everyone’s lives. In short, we set the stage for passionate people to share their passion with others. We continue to ask the question, “What makes you come alive and how can you utilize your gifts to make change?”
So then I thought, why couldn't we connect the idea of the Passion Project with Ev's idea of a summer camp to connect kids from at-risk environments? (I should add here that kids from at-risk environments are those kids who feel personally that they are at-risk... we don't define this, they do, so a "kid at risk" could be any child at any time for any reason.) The short answer is I think we can. The long answer involves time (the deep fundamental) and planning (a burdensome but necessary element) and a lot of creativity. We have time, we know how to plan and we're pretty creative, so here's how it could go.

It would be awesome if we owned this sort of property for the camp, but not many people do. Finding a place like this to open a camp would definitely drain most if not all of that million dollars. So where to build the camp? We may have to wait a long time to raise the money to open a full service camp facility, but is that even necessary? Can't we get kids to learn about themselves, face their fears, try new things, push their boundaries and accept themselves just about anywhere? This anywhere will be the Camp Everywhere Project.

Getting kids connected to alternate mirror activities that reflect something positive back at them they may not have realized would be our goal. Along the way they would also get connected to good people who would be facilitating these opportunities. This is where the passion project piece meets Camp Everywhere. We don't need a pristine wilderness setting and cabins to evoke the kind of emotional investment and engagement that kids so often describe as parts of their summer camp experience. There are countless school gymnasiums, classrooms, community halls, back fields, parks, libraries and other places within every community where Camp Everywhere would hold court. For example, Ev is a lifelong skateboarder who is passionate about connecting kids with the sport. Here's an audio clip of a CBC interview about how he did this. Lucky for us we have a 27 000 square foot skatepark at our school, and here's how we use it...



This is Camp Everywhere! There are loads of passionate adults in every community who could share their passion with kids of all ages... we just have to find a way to inspire them to do just that. I would share my passion for writing, or cycling or lacrosse, someone else might share their passion for art or music, and another may share their passion for reading or gardening. There is no limit to what, and who we could expose kids to, all volunteer, at no charge, but with the potential to show tremendous rewards. Children are our gifts for the future; a future we share. Perhaps we need to spend more quality time packaging the well so our shared future yields good things for all of us.

Similar to Grow Boys, another project we are involved with, the simple mandate of Camp Everywhere would be for adults to make the effort to engage kids in their own happy, healthy growth and development by simply sharing with them the things they are passionate about and love to do. If you are an adult who thinks this is a good idea; one that could be replicated in any community, please comment and let us know what you think. We're ready to bust out some t-shirts and get this show on the road!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

A Hard Look at Bullying...


Bully by trix0r, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  trix0r 

The following TED Talk is without doubt one of the best statements about bullying that I have come across. It made me think about how we define bullying at Glendale Sciences and Technology School...



What is bullying? Is it in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps it is. If one feels bullied, are they actually being bullied? Teachers and school administrators struggle with the question. Is there a delineation between bullying and plain old conflict? Are we using the word "bully" in a somewhat haphazard way? At Glendale Sciences and Technology School we're reflecting on these questions.

Shane Koyczan paints a picture of bullying that is pretty clear. He describes how the effects haunt those of us who have been victimized for years, and how perhaps we can overcome the effects of bullying, however difficult, over those years... but how we define bullying is so important if we're to effectively deal with the problem.

At our school defining bullying has become an inquiry process. We ask three important questions when investigating reports of bullying:
  • Was it an act of aggression or exclusion?
  • Was it a premeditated act of aggression or exclusion?
  • Has the premeditated act of aggression or exclusion sustained beyond one incident?
We have determined that if the answer to all three questions is"yes," then we can confidently say that we're dealing with an act of bullying.

We have learned that this is a hard determination to make when emotions are running high and people's feelings have been hurt. Whether in a case of less complicated conflict, or an authentic case of bullying as defined, few have the ability to be completely objective about their negative interactions with others... the bullies, the victims or simply two or more people in conflict. Heightened emotions and hurt feelings are common in most forms of aggression, exclusion, conflict and controversy... we are passionate and emotional beings.

We have also learned over time that behind every bully is a story that needs to be learned if we have any chance at all of helping that person overcome the tendency to bully others. Almost, if not always, behind every bully there was first a victim. Hurt people, hurt people.
“Hurt people hurt people. We are not being judgmental by separating ourselves from such people. But we should do so with compassion. Compassion is defined as a "keen awareness of the suffering of another coupled with a desire to see it relieved." People hurt others as a result of their own inner strife and pain. Avoid the reactive response of believing they are bad; they already think so and are acting that way. They aren't bad; they are damaged and they deserve compassion. Note that compassion is an internal process, an understanding of the painful and troubled road trod by another. It is not trying to change or fix that person.” Will Bowen, Complaint Free Relationships: Transforming Your Life One Relationship at a Time
No. We won't try to fix anyone... but we will try to help them by being empathetic to the stories behind their stories helping us accept them as they are; hurting people who need to feel appreciated for the good things they bring to potential relationships. When we deal with the reasons bullies do what they do we objectify them so we can see past their negative actions and perceive the person they perhaps truly are, or at least the potentially good things they have to share with us.

We're not in the punishment business; we're in the problem solving business. Behind every bully there is a lagging skill or unresolved problem that needs to be addressed if things are going to change for them. At Glendale School, we make investigating these lagging skills and unresolved problems our business so we can help bullies become the interesting and relevant people we believe they really are.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

We don't need any special labels...

Your attitude is like a box of crayons t by katerha, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  katerha 

The following perspective was shared with me by our school's inclusion facilitator recently...
"Inclusion is an attitude and a value system that promotes the basic right of all students to receive appropriate and quality educational programming and services in the company of their peers"(Guetzole).
Inclusive schools embrace the notions that all children belong, and that all children will learn if their educational needs are met. Notably absent from this definition is any mention of children with disabilities or special education. Inclusion is not a special education issue. It is about developing supportive schools and fostering high achievement for all staff and all students.

As former special education teachers, the two of us were having a discussion about inclusion, and how the terminology special education student doesn't really fit the bill anymore as a result of a welcome philosophical shift toward inclusion within the education system. Our school is fully inclusive. We don't offer any segregated or congregated programming at Glendale Sciences and Technology School... and we're (staff and students) doing just fine. My colleague and I were wondering out loud if we should just strike the term special education from our school's common language vocabulary. In the end, we agreed we should.

We agreed because our school is fashioning itself as one described above... one where all children belong and where all children will learn if their educational needs are met. We intend Glendale to be a supportive school that fosters high achievement for all staff and all students. We believe implicitly that all students do have a fundamental right to receive appropriate and quality educational programming and services in the company of their peers from caring and empathetic teachers and paraprofessionals within the school. We also believe that all staff have a fundamental right to receive appropriate and quality educational support and professional learning services in the company of (and perhaps from) their caring and empathetic peers. This is how we think the collaborative process is optimized.

This is the essence of our Empathy Reboot Project. We are using this project to illuminate the imperative to be inclusive, and as a conduit to leverage empathy as our vessel toward a truly inclusive school. We know that success is measured in innumerable ways, and that by careful application of a strengths-based focus for all students and staff, we will be able to perceive success where formerly it may have eluded us. We understand that "normal is just a setting on the clothes dryer," and strive to value the contribution to learning that every single child and adult makes within our school. Our school does not equate kids or adults with the tabula rasa (blank slate) metaphor that preschool kids are often attached with, and rather think of each other as numerosus rasa... child and adult learners as abundant slates. We think of every member of our school community as a learner with infinite potential to acquire skills and knowledge. This is how we as teachers model never-ending learning, allowing us to teach knowledge, skills and attitudes more effectively from a place of confidence as opposed to anxiety.

We believe an inclusive school culture is one where all feel welcome and respected. It starts from the premise that everyone in our school... students, educators, adminstrators, support staff and parents... should feel they belong, realize their potential and contribute to the life of the school. In our inclusive school culture, diverse experiences and perspectives are seen as gifts to enrich the school community. 

An inclusive school culture is one where diversity is embraced, learning supports are available and properly utilized, and flexible learning experiences focus on the individual student. There is an innovative and creative environment and a collaborative approach is taken. At the heart of inclusion is committed leadership and a shared direction... every member of our inclusive school culture is viewed as a potential leader; staff, students and parents alike.

In our school diversity is a feature, not a bug. We acknowledge and celebrate differences as we divine characteristics that define us as a uniquely individual members of the school family. Twisting our cultural lens a bit focuses awareness of how self-identity is influenced by our perception of others, the world and everything within it. Culture is what we believe. The circumstances that surround every single conversation about culture are a sum total of the perceptions of those participating. If we are to peacefully and hopefully engage each other, we have to try to understand and empathize with each others cultural perceptions.

The cultural perspective we all hold is shaped by our experiences as influenced by our birthplace, our family, our spirituality and the zeitgeist within which we were born; it’s the cultural reality lens we look through. Our cultural identity is learned beginning the moment we’re born. Obvious physical characteristics and genetic traits define our culture in part from the second we’re conceived. After we’re born, the evolving cultural identity we form is largely influenced by our relationships and surroundings. Steve Van Bockern, coauthor of “Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future” refers to this identity as our cultural tail. I had the pleasure of attending a retreat with Steve on the Morley Indian Reservation west of Calgary in 2002. He explained that we can’t cut off our cultural tail; it’s always there, behind us affecting our perspective, but also that great things are possible in everyone’s future despite this tail that follows us.

Whether good, bad or indifferent, our cultural tail tells the story of where we’ve come from; who we are in terms of how our environments affect us, but it doesn’t have to predict where we’re headed. From a cultural perspective, in many ways we begin our lives rather innocently. Like clay to the sculptor, we start as unformed material yearning to be molded and shaped into a more tangible form; our growing cultural identity. Just as soon as we see the light of the world we begin forming perceptions and feelings about our culture and how we are different from, or similar to others. We are the sum total of what we think we are. Adults at Glendale strive to be responsible about noticing the cultural perspectives of children so we can help them form positive perceptions about their personal identities. We also need to do this with each other enabling all of us to confidently build relationships and circles of support as we share our perspectives with each other.

Ultimately these evolving personal identities define us as important and valued members of our school culture. We all have a story... we strive to learn everyone's story at Glendale. Our stories are what define us... we don't need any special labels to help us do this.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

"I need another note..."


Those of us who are privileged to work in schools need to be aware of  how the slightest act can lead to a massive realization on behalf of one of our students... we need to take this element very seriously. I have many stories of exceptional teachers who knew this implicitly, and I witness examples of caring, empathetic staff members doing their best to support kids every day at Glendale School. My career continues to provide opportunities to witness some pretty incredible people effectively supporting kids with challenges.

Prior to my first tour of duty at Glendale as its school counselor four years ago, I spent eight years working exclusively with kids from at-risk environments in a congregated special education context. In Alberta the Department of Education designates these kids under code 42- those manifesting severe emotional/behavioral difficulties... I just coded them as needing someone to believe in them. I was dumbfounded at the levels of resilience these kids displayed, and profoundly saddened at the same time as a result of being forced to know what they were overcoming on some days just to make it to school at all. I took the long way home many days during those eight years. At the same time, I was repeatedly encouraged by my exposure to levels of with-it-ness in my colleagues that were off the charts when dealing with these kids' stories.

One such story popped into my thoughts recently as I was conducting a lacrosse coaching clinic and telling some stories about a former colleague, Dan McDonald. Dan was an accomplished hockey coach, and a very effective mentor for young people in sport and in education. You can read more about him in  another post- We need schools where "everybody knows your name." Back in those days Dan taught in our behavior program for ninth and tenth grade kids.

One day as Dan tells the story, a young girl arrived at school in a particular state of anxiety. She was pregnant, and the world was weighing heavily on her... that much was obvious. Never judgmental, Dan and his support staff watched her closely that afternoon, looking for any clue that may help tell her story that particular day. In the gentle conversations that ensued it became apparent that the girl was at her wits end with life in general, and she was planning to get "loaded" that Friday night... to drink and smoke her sorrows away. As the day wore on, and the staff became increasingly convinced that this young girl was serious, Dan came up with the best 'think-on-your-feet' plan he could; he told the girl she wasn't going to do that.

The response was painfully predictable... "yes I am!", the girl said. Dan reiterated, "no you're not," and she responded, "what are you going to do about it?" Without really knowing what he was going to do if he was being totally honest, Dan blurted out the first thing that came to his mind; he said to one of the support staff members, "Ethel, what are we going to do about it?" Her response was equally off-the-cuff... "write her a note," she said. So Dan did just that; he wrote her a note indicating all of those reasons why she should not get loaded as she seemed so intent to do that particular Friday night. She took the note, left for the weekend, and they didn't give it another thought beyond adding it to the generalized concern they felt for their students every Friday night.

Flash-forward about a year...
The girl in question had left the school to care for her newborn baby, and as often happened, one day she came back to the school to visit with her child. Dan and his staff never turned these kids away when this happened; it was as if they had a homing instinct that brought them back, and it was important that they were accepted and welcomed. This visit was a bit different, however. They were talking and holding the baby, getting caught-up with the goings-on of the last year or so in the young girl's life, but the conversation went on for much longer than was usually the case. An hour or so after she arrived, when most of what was usually talked about had already been talked about, Dan sensed there may be something else this girl needed, so he asked exactly that... "not that we are rushing you away or anything, but is there something else you need today, because we really should get back to what we were doing." The girl started crying and simply said, "yes, I need another note."

Never underestimate the power of small, seemingly insignificant acts of empathetic caring... you might be the only one in a young person's life who took the time to perform them.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The story behind the story...

A Chinese hanzi is often made up of multiple characters to create a unique meaning. The hanzi above is constructed of different characters that individually represent ears, eyes, undivided attention and heart. A beautiful alternative definition of the verb to listen is created... to listen means to hear with your heart; to be totally engaged and focused on understanding deeper meanings behind what we hear.

Every day I am reminded how important it is to listen to student`s stories. I am fortunate to have time during the school day to hear with my heart as I listen to the real reasons why kids end up in the office talking to me. Like the young man in this clip, sometimes kids just need an opportunity to be honest and real so we can understand their struggles better.



In our school we don`t think of a trip to the office as a punitive thing. We think of it as a resiliency building thing. An office referral is one of four resiliency pathways (as we call them) within our school that kids travel down depending on the nature of their challenge on any given day. An office visit more often than not means some adverse behavior would have been displayed.

When kids arrive in the office to speak with us, we've already heard about the behavior story that got them there; what we need to know is the story behind that story, and there always is one. We need to hear this story so we can begin to re-frame the student's challenge. What has happened has already happened, but more often than not, we don't want it to happen again. If we can find out the story behind the story, we can begin supporting the student by focusing forward and working on 'bounce back' strategies that build a more resilient child who will know how to handle a similar challenge differently and more effectively in the future.

For kids to truly feel a sense of belonging at school, we absolutely must be empathetic to the story that lies under the surface of what we think we know about their problematic behavior. Sometimes kids behave in ways that really confuse and upset those around them. I believe in many cases of adverse behavior, what kids are really doing is giving us a test; a test to see if we'll still be available for them the day after they've given us their best (which is actually their worst) behavioral routine. 

I don't believe that kids come to school with intent to make others miserable, or to make their day more difficult, but when it appears to be the case, I do believe they are simply choosing us on that particular day to see if we'll be able to take it, and if we'll be available the next day to perhaps take it again until a trusting relationship evolves and all of a sudden it's not necessary anymore. Being chosen for this test is a backhanded compliment. We are ultimately hardest on those we're closest to in life because we know their love and care for us in unconditional; we know they'll stick with us in the difficult times. If you are chosen for the test, what it really means is that a child has some reason to believe you've got what it takes to love and care for them despite the stress and pain they will share with you that makes it so difficult for them to function effectively in school.

Will you be ready when a child chooses you? 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Our Kindness Garden...


Who knew you could plant a garden in Red Deer in the middle of January? Well, Mrs. Grainger's grade one class did just that today, but it's a different kind of garden. The first graders planted a kindness garden.

The idea to plant a kindness garden evolved after the kids were talking about 'No Name Calling Week' at Glendale School. We are joining thousands of others around the world to shed light on the issue of name calling by recognizing January 21-25 as No Name Calling Week. Mrs. Grainger's class was trying to think of a way to teach others kind words they could use instead of name calling. As they talked about what they wanted to do, they came up with the idea that everyone likes flower gardens, so why not create a garden that would teach others about kind words? They thought that people would see their garden and want to "stop to smell the flowers," and then they would see that the flowers weren't regular flowers. They would be good word flowers that not only looked and smelled nice, but sounded nice too!

So there it was... a brilliant idea to create a garden of 'good word flowers.' Today the garden caught my eye as I was walking down the hallway, so I stopped to take a look. When it's -25 below 0 outside, an indoor flower garden is a pretty nice place to be. When I got closer I saw a kind word for every student in the class, and each was growing along with the flower it was written on. I opened the door to ask the kids about their garden, and one girl said, "we made the flowers all different sizes so small and tall people could read the words." I thanked the kids for planting their garden, and then went to check out the tweets they had written earlier in the day about what they like to be called. Here's how that went...