RVS Principal, Ralph McCall School – As Program Chair for this month’s Palliser District Teachers’ Convention, I was sharing at a recent School Council meeting about some of the exciting Professional Learning opportunities teachers would be participating in. Our trustee was especially interested and commented that the Board of Trustees often hear about jurisdictional and in-school professional learning events, as well as participate in their own educational conferences, but know little about teachers’ conventions. While teachers’ conventions are “closed to the public” events, they needn’t be shrouded in mystery. In fact, they have evolved to become outstanding professional learning events, the details of which ought to be celebrated.
Teachers’ conventions began in the 1890s as a Department of Education event so that school inspectors and superintendents could meet annually in the fall with teachers at one school in each community. Over the next several decades they moved from individual school sites, to hotels to large conference centres. They further evolved from initially being a venue for inspectors to “correct” individuals’ teaching, to being mostly an Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) platform for sharing business, finally moving to the rich, two-day conference style event, complete with a plethora of sessions across all curricular areas that they are today.
The Palliser District Teachers’ Convention Association (PDTCA) sees delegates from nine ATA locals participate together. Geographically, the district covers most of rural and “rur-ban” southern Alberta (with the exception of Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat). With over 4000 PDTCA delegates in attendance, Rocky View teachers make up about 30% of this cohort. This year, we are proud to welcome three world-class keynote speakers to open our event: Mr. Mark Tewskbury, Dr. Temple Grandin and Mr. George Couros. Further to these speakers, our program is offering over two hundred other sessions, mostly at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre and Hyatt Regency. Sessional topics – many of them presented by local speakers – range from best practices in Literacy and Numeracy across all grade levels, to Coding, Robotics and Maker Spaces. Teachers can create hands-on visual art or musical pieces, enrich outdoor and environmental education programs, become better informed about the rising mental health needs of youth, improve second language and immersion instruction, participate in woodworking and culinary arts demos, hone content in religious studies, develop mastery in using Google Apps or scientific tools and more. So much more.
It is all accomplished, in Palliser, by a Board of volunteers who give up multiple evenings and weekends to plan an amazing event for colleagues. Further, these colleagues are receiving this professional learning gift through the contribution of $103 of their annual ATA dues. Where else could one participate in a two-day, world-class caliber event, put on by volunteers and at a cost of only one hundred dollars?! As I opened with, the details are to be celebrated!
So this year, on February 23 and 24 when the students are enjoying the end of their February break, please think of their teachers and the work we are participating in to make classrooms dynamic and engaging, yet still inclusive and achievement-oriented places. Yes, we ARE reuniting with former colleagues and networking with future new ones over coffee and lunch, but teachers’ conventions are NOT “paid days off”. We have our sleeves rolled up, our heads are down, and our minds are being challenged, inspired and re-energized. The teachers in Rocky View and the rest of the Palliser District are coming together to make schools the best they can be. We thank you for supporting these two days of professional learning…. and all the work we do!
Official Mascot (Re-post from Feb 2012) – When I was first approached to tell the story of how I came to be Rocky View Schools’ official mascot, I have to say that I was completely honoured and a little bit nervous. I had never written a blog before (although my paws are pretty dexterous, it’s hard to type without opposable thumbs), but I was up to the challenge! I think it’s safe to say that I’m the first Raccoon to have written a blog. Then again, as the mascot for RVS, I have probably done a few other things that Raccoons don’t usually get to do!
I got my start as a mascot thanks to Lance Rinehart, RVS’ Facilities Assistant, a very close friend of mine. Back in 2008, Lance had one of those light bulb-over-the-head kind of ideas: Rocky View Schools needed its very own division mascot. He did some research and then presented his idea to RVS’ Superintendent of Schools Greg Bass, who thought it was a great suggestion.
Shortly thereafter, Superintendent Bass presented Lance’s idea to the Board of Trustees who agreed that a mascot was just what RVS needed! Instead of the jurisdiction choosing the mascot, RVS created a contest for students to submit their best ideas. A small selection committee was struck and boy did they ever have their work cut out for them! After going through many creative entries, Rocky Raccoon was born based on a drawing submitted by a Grade 4 student named Ryan McHarg from Indus Elementary. Rocky Raccoon was officially introduced to the jurisdiction August 26, 2008 as part of RVS’ new brand.
As a mascot, I am RVS’ unofficial Ambassador responsible for bringing passion and goodwill to the entire jurisdiction. Being larger than life, I attract all kinds of attention and apparently I have created quite the presence in the community. One of the best parts of my job is when people tell me how much they love to see me at their school or their event and how my being there makes their day just a bit brighter.
Another great thing about being a mascot is getting to meet so many wonderful people from all around the RVS community. Rocky View has so many fine young students and staff members that it makes me proud to be their mascot. Not only to do I get to meet them, but I also get to meet their families! Over the past few years, I’ve also got to meet local and provincial politicians and even the Calgary Flames Alumni Hockey Team – not too shabby for a Raccoon!
Since starting at Rocky View, I have really built up my resume. New skills include riding unicycles and scooters in parades, skating and playing hockey with students and teachers, climbing playground equipment, and participating in other sporting activities! I may not do everything as well as some of the students, but I always manage to bring smiles to the faces of everyone I see and meet. I am a pretty good dancer though and I certainly have gotten a few people up on their feet during an event or an assembly!
If you haven’t guessed yet, I love my job as official mascot. I cannot say enough good things about the students and staff at Rocky View Schools. No matter where I go, whether it’s out to the schools or into the community, there is always at least one person that I can make smile or feel special and this reminds me why I do what I do and why it’s all so worthwhile. I love being apart of Rocky View and I can’t wait to see each and every one of you soon! I have made my mark here and it’s just going to get bigger with your support!
Superintendent of Schools – This past week I was finally able to check off from my to-do list – “visit every school in the division”. I’ve completed about 2/3rds of my formal school tours and have been invited to attend an event or celebration in almost every school. I’ve also made the effort to get to schools for informal, impromptu visits. When I make that type of visit I just pop into the office and then sometimes go for a walk about by myself and other times with an administrator. Being visible and in schools is important to me.
Why do I do this? As a professional meeting attender, I find that being out in schools keeps me grounded. These impromptu visits are about me seeing students and our staff in action in the context of their school and community. There is no “show and tell” when I make these impromptu visits – it is real life – just another school day. I try not to interrupt classes, but I’ll walk into classrooms when the door is open and just say “hi” or talk to the staff and/or students. It reminds me why I sit in all those darn meetings – to serve students, staff, and our communities.
I warned principals and assistant principals that they will need to get used to me just showing up. I’m not sure people actually believed me, but hopefully they see that I’m walking the talk. The visits are not about checking up on things, rather it about keeping it real and grounded. I know how hard our staff works for students. I know it is not always perfect. I know that some days it can be a struggle, but those are the days I need to see to help keep it real. When younger students ask me what I do, I usually respond “I am here to work as a team with their principals, teachers, and support staff to make sure they [the students] get what they need to be successful at school and life.”
Today I was at one site for a formal visit, but then visited three others sites as I scheduled some time for impromptu visits. I had a great conversation with four teachers about how they are able to support learners through various online tools and their facility needs in order to support teaching and learning. There was no meeting booked, no agenda, just a great face-to-face conversation. In another school I was able to hear about a challenge they are facing that I can probably support them by connecting them with other RVS resources. My last impromptu visit allowed me to talk to students who just completed a walk-a-thon as a fundraiser for school activities. Students demonstrated some of the key competencies we want them to achieve by shaking my hand, introducing themselves, looking me directly in the eye and talking about what was the purpose of the walk-a-thon.
I also know that people need to see me in their schools. I like to be visible to get to know people and let them get to know me. I need to be more than just a name or picture on a website. I know that it is still early in my tenure as Supt (42nd day) and that it takes time to know everyone (we have 2000+ staff), but it is important to me. Sadly, every time I visit a school I cannot visit every staff member, however, over time I hope to have some type of personal interaction with all staff.
RVS Teacher, Banded Peak School – “Wow… it feels like a business meeting is going on in here!” Our music teacher unknowingly provided the greatest compliment my students could have received last spring on an impromptu visit to our class. Her remark was greeted by cheers and smiles, but also a quick return to writing and discussions of projects and deadlines. This late-May morning in our classroom (and the surrounding hallways) featured one group of students filming a webcast they had scripted, two others interviewing our assistant principal for a magazine article, another group story-boarding their graphic novel, one writing a play to be recorded as a podcast, and others coding and writing the marketing materials for games that they would upload onto our blog, which was being designed built by yet another small team of students. Spring 2016 in 5/6B at Banded Peak School was filled with many mornings like these; working to write, script, portray, upload and publish the products that were to be displayed at the official launch of our classroom-based companies, Student Spark Media and PineCo Publishing.
The long road to Student Spark originated with a “Communication Portfolio” project in my Language Arts classroom. My vision was for the portfolios to be filled with real-life opportunities where writing, spelling/grammar, organizing and editing skills were important and worth practicing. I started by introducing different communication challenges to my class every two to three weeks, having them work through drafts towards final copies that would be put to real use. Term one’s assignments started with letter writing using the “Great Canadian Mail Race,” which was followed-up by learning how to write proper emails and choosing a professional out in the working world to contact – the goal in each assignment being to write effectively enough to receive a reply (indeed, some students did receive replies from a whole variety of other writers: from fellow students in different provinces to professional authors, the head chef at Hotel Arts, even an Olympic Medallist). In hindsight, these projects turned out to be what I now consider realistic practice, valuable for developing skill, but something short of truly real work. I choose the term realistic rather than real because as I reflect now, I see that I remained at the core of each project as creator and evaluator. It was as I began to implement my term two project in the communication portfolio that I stumbled out of realistic work and into an opportunity for something far deeper.
Ironically, the Great Canadian Mail Race was a featured article in the “Summit Speaks Magazine” that was released in June by PineCo Publishing.
The path to that “business meeting” and the end of the year launch featuring 13 unique media products stretches way back to the beginning of March, when my students (without my knowledge) took responsibility for making their learning real. I had just introduced the term two communication portfolio assignment, a letter to the editor. It was a few days after filling my classroom with local newspapers, placed there for my students to find an issue to care about and read some examples of letters written by other caring community members, that I overheard a conversation about scheduling a google hangout for a group chat after school. I was also asked if I would loan out some clipboards and iPads to a small group at recess time. Understandably, I was a little worried, but I quickly discovered that two competing (but friendly) newspaper businesses had sprung up among my students. Kids were signing up fast to work at the “Grizzly Growler” or “Redwood ‘Round the Clock.” Negotiations had even been completed to ensure that the Growler would focus on school news while ‘Round the Clock covered events in the community. This effort was pretty impressive and at first I didn’t know exactly what to do. After a little more effort by me to try to push the letter to the editor assignment forward, I gave in… I mean, jumped in and opened the door for my whole class on this real work.
A summary of the first few classes where we worked together to re-define the Communication Portfolio – this was the groundwork for what would become Student Spark and PineCo
After cancelling the letter to the editor assignment, we spent a few classes as a full group re-defining the Communication Portfolio around the student-run newspaper ideas. I introduced the definition of “media” as well a current events story about layoffs and re-organization at Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper publisher. The entire class was on-board with the big idea of building a company and creating media products, but they were not all keen to become newspaper writers. The “Growler” and “’Round the Clock” were put on hold until every student could put some time into a proposal about how they could best spend their time working in the media. As my students set to work on their proposals, I imposed four working conditions:
- our company would be non-profit;
- every member of the class (myself included) would be equal employees of the company;
- decisions would be made through Direct Democracy (every employee would have an opportunity to have input); and
- decisions would require consensus to move forward (this was particularly interesting when it came time to decide on our name… long story short, we learned how compromise which is also a key part of consensus).
The first round of direct democracy was required after the student proposals came in. We needed to narrow the number of projects and then divide and conquer. Giving every student a one minute opportunity to comment on all of the proposed projects, whether or not they personally wanted to work on them, was a unique opportunity in learning about having an equal say. Thankfully, common interests and complementary skill sets emerged and a plan started to become clear. In all honesty though, there was a good amount of time spent experiencing how long decision making can take and how frustrating it can sometimes be when every voice is truly equal. My role evolved into finding the balance between moderating the strongest voices and encouraging the quieter ones. After eventually splitting into groups, students created their own timelines for each media project. These timelines were posted in what had become the head office of our company, and the work started.
After the initial investment in discussion and decision-making, concepts like the process of breaking down the creation of a webcast into scripting, rehearsal and filming were easy to teach. Other than occasional reminders and quality control checks, the students didn’t really need me for staying organized. The greatest challenge was simply finding enough time for the students to get the work done within the confines of our school schedule. Reflections from many students at the end of the year echoed this:
Nonetheless, the Student Spark web-based projects and PineCo printed products all took flight. For the first time in my teaching career, I honestly experienced a near total transfer of autonomy from teacher to students. A great example of this is in the variety of technologies that were used and learned by the different groups in the class. My comic novel workers, for instance, approached me with a request to use Pixton, an online comic creator, with the first chapter of their novel already complete in a trial version. With the students so invested in their work, I was able to spend time with groups and individuals developing standards for the level of quality we hoped to achieve as a team. I tried to provide exemplars of media similar to each project where I was familiar with them. For example, one student showed a lot of interest in developing short “sports tips” webcasts. After showing him a few clips of “Body Break,” he spent an entire weekend developing two segments of his own. He and I were able to collaboratively present to the rest of the class, focusing on the level of professionalism we wanted to see in all projects. The student showed a Body Break example followed by his clips, while I shared a “Pontiac World of Skiing Performance Tip” and my own video “sports tip” that I had been inspired to add to the project.
Other projects delved into areas where I had no expertise or exemplars that came easily to mind. However, the students easily took up the challenge in these cases. The Student Spark creators of “Who’s Got Dance: Teachers versus Students,” independently started their work by researching current dance contest television shows and developing a template to write their own episodes. As well, a group of students passionate in gaming and coding took their lead from a business simulator video game that had been introduced to the class through the Junior Achievement program, creating and marketing games of their own using Hopscotch and Scratch, and publishing in WordPress. In these and all of the projects, the tasks of editing and quality control were truly accepted as responsibilities in and among the groups in the class.
As we neared the end of the year, I invited a few experts in the media business to meet with my students to reinforce what “professional level” truly means. Mr. Mark Kamachi the owner of marketing and media company AdMaki, graciously spent an afternoon helping us to start on designing our logo as well as providing input on presentation and branding to each group as they put the finishing touches on their products. Likewise, Ms. Joan Kollewyn, an RVS learning specialist in technology dedicated time to our webcast and podcast groups around achieving a consistent look and feel. These opportunities provided the last bit of motivation needed to get the work to the finish line, which was our culminating launch party.
I was so immensely proud to invite Mr. Kamachi, Ms. Kollewyn as well as all of the parents and family of the Student Spark and PineCo employees to a celebration of learning in our classroom at the end of June. Each and every student stood up, introduced their projects and shared their reflections on the process of working in the media. They shared both challenges and successes honestly. For instance, the publishers of Summit Speaks Magazine acknowledged that their original goal of producing two issues turned out to be unrealistic, and they mentioned the technological hurdles that they had to overcome, “out of the blue, random pictures would be inserted and work would get deleted.” Their pride in their work however was undeniable: “we have learned many things that could help us with a future edition… and we finished a great magazine!” All of the work was unveiled in print, video, on iPad and over the airwaves. It has all been showcased on my classroom blog, which was turned over to my students as editors: www.student-spark.ca – please visit to see and celebrate the work.
As we are a combined grade school, Student Spark and PineCo will continue in 2016-17; this year’s grade 6 leaders have just welcomed their new colleagues in grade 5. As we start to uncover areas of passion and interest, and move towards new ventures, we will also connect with our mentor grade 7’s, now experienced media creators and distributors. Keep an eye on www.student-spark.ca to see what will be next!