Horses and Hearts

Horses and Hearts

RVS Learning Specialist – A person’s passions can come in many different shapes or sizes, flavors and themes. Some people love travel, others are foodies, while some feed their souls with art or music. One of my life’s passions involves a six foot tall, brown-eyed, well-muscled guy by the name of Tipper. I should clarify, however, Tipper is my horse! As someone who has always had a passion for horses, I know how wonderful they can be for the soul. So, when I heard that students in Rocky View were getting the opportunity to work with horses to build their confidence and self-awareness, I was very eager to find out more.

I had the privilege of seeing two of the programs that Rocky View students participated in this year: Spirit Winds Ranch, Equine Assisted Learning with Laurel Griffin and Whispering Equine, Equine Facilitated Wellness with Carrie Watson. Both left a lasting impression on me, and from the comments and reflections of the students participating, I could tell that our students were also powerfully impacted by the experiences.

At Spirit Winds Ranch, elementary students learned what it means to build trust and relationships through working with horses. Although I have had many personal experiences in this area, Laurel’s program opened my eyes to a whole new world of skill building. The session I observed was all about using common sense. While working with their “horse partners”, the students read a challenge aloud and then planned to lead their horse through obstacles in the safest, kindest way possible. The students were instructed to watch for their horse’s non-verbal cues: ear position, eyes, licking their lips, etc. I was amazed at the creative problem-solving skills that the students were applying as they worked through the obstacles. When the horses struggled to complete a task, the students used their newly acquired empathy skills to find out why. Every student experienced success, and you could see the sense of pride on their faces and accomplishment in their voices.

The essential life skills that were taught and reinforced during this exercise were invaluable. The students communicated verbally with their partners and volunteers, and non-verbally with their horses. They demonstrated resiliency through trying different strategies and then adjusting, based on their horses, to achieve success. They also collaborated effectively with their partners, volunteers, and horses. At the end of the session, students reflected on what resonated with them from the morning. Some of the words they chose were, “flexible, fun, creative, strong leadership, thinking, and dependability.” The self-awareness of these young students was impressive.

At Whispering Equine, high school students participated in an equally life-changing experience. In this session they started in a cozy classroom in the barn where Carrie led them through a discussion about types of stress and how people cope. The students identified experiences of their own that had caused them stress and reflected on how it made them feel, physically and emotionally. They would then discover that the day’s activity with the horses would be all about releasing that stress and tension, both their own and the horse’s, through acupressure.

After the students had time to groom and bond with their horses, they led them into an arena to start the exercise. The students were taught to recognize their horse’s energy fields and were instructed to watch for signs of physical release: chin quiver, sighing, yawning, licking their lips, head shaking, etc. Carrie talked about “offering intention” to the horse instead of just trying to do something to them. The relationship that the students had previously built with these horses was crucial, as this experience would make both the horse and the student vulnerable to one another. She instructed them to be mindful of their own body and eye positions, breath, and finger tension, all of which would communicate different messages to the animals. Each student started behind their horse’s ear and used the tips of their fingers to work along the Bladder Meridian – an important line of energy in acupressure that runs the length of the body. At a point of tension, the horse would blink, indicating a spot that required focus. Watching these students use their hands to connect with their animals was incredible. As the horses would release a spot of tension, the students would often do the same. Each was silent and intently focused on both their horse’s and their own physical and emotional sensations.

In talking to the students after the session, I discovered that mornings at Whispering Equine were often emotional. As the students worked through areas of their lives that cause them stress or anxiety, they dealt with difficult feelings in ways they would not ordinarily be able to. Other days were energetic and uplifting, leaving the students with a stronger sense of confidence and self-assurance. No matter the day’s emotional tone, the students felt they could safely connect and communicate with their animals without fear of judgment or critique. Their reflections and sense of growth through the program were both touching and inspiring. These students were unanimous in saying that this was an important and powerful experience for them.

My own lifetime of experiences with horses has taught me that they are incredibly perceptive creatures. They can read body language and sense emotions. Through seeing these students and their interactions with horses, I have come to see how valuable their intuition can be in helping humans reflect on and heal from their own emotional challenges. I only received a brief snapshot of the incredible programs that Laurel and Carrie put on, however, the impact of their work was evident. I am looking forward to seeing more students in Rocky View Schools supported through equine learning. Horses, with their beauty, empathy, and rich personalities, are powerful agents of student wellness. As a lifelong horse-lover, it moved me to see students reveal a deep connection to these magnificent creatures. In a word: unforgettable.


Rocky View Providers:

“Spirit Winds Ranch” Cochrane, AB – Laurel Griffin

“Whispering Equine” DeWinton, AB – Carrie Watson

“Inner Equine Journeys” Carseland, AB – Lori Thompson

“Equine Enrichment” Carstairs, AB – Angie Payne

“Heard Wellness Through Horses” Carstairs, AB – Amy Monea

How Facilities Can Support Learning

How Facilities Can Support Learning

Superintendent of Schools – Late last week I swung out to Beiseker Community School for a visit and to view the new addition recently completed and opened. The addition is relatively small, but provides a common, large area connected to two existing classrooms. Sliding walls were added in between the existing classrooms and the new area. The addition is very bright and fresh and really changed the tone of that area. Students were milling about, working independently, while sitting in flexible pods in the larger common space. Other students were working on a high counter style work area with phones plugged into USB style wall outlets. A teacher was working in one corner and the students had access to him if needed. A wide variety of furniture was available in different heights and styles depending on student preference and comfort. Soft seating was intermixed with hard surfaces. Cubby chairs also were available in the larger space so that you could sink in and create a bit more isolated space if that works for you too. It was an example of how we are working hard to provide flexible learning environments to support learning.

The week before this visit, our Board spent time talking about two other school renovations, aimed at providing a more welcoming environment for the students, parents and community. It is amazing what changing an entrance or lunchroom can do to make a school more inviting, while providing a flexible, modern space. The physical change provides opportunities to revisit what goes on in that space, adjusts the flow, provides a space that facilitates collaboration, and builds pride in the school as it now includes features similar to what our brand-new schools contain.

The Board has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year to support schools in updating furniture in primary classrooms. Libraries are being retrofitted to support the philosophy of Learning Commons. Schools are requesting and designing outdoor classroom spaces. Slides walling have been retrofitted into some older facilities. These are all examples of how we are looking at our spaces, furniture and equipment in an effort to best support learning.

In the end, it is not the walls or even modern furniture that makes the difference, but it is our RVS staff that leverage that space to make it great. RVS does an outstanding job maintaining all our facilities given the limited funds we have available. Our maintenance crew, building operators, and custodians are absolutely great. We are so lucky to have such great people supporting our physical plants. Even in our older spaces, small tweaks are constantly being made to provide the very best service we can.

Recently, I toured a former colleague I worked with from a BC school division around three of our sites. He was amazed by our facilities. He repeatedly commented on how well our facilities are designed to support learning. I must say I was pretty proud to be part of RVS after that tour!


The Power of Family-School Relationships for Combating Chronic Absenteeism

The Power of Family-School Relationships for Combating Chronic Absenteeism

Project Lead for Attendance Innovation Campaign – Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent of school days in a year, represents one of the largest barriers to school success – one that a variety of school divisions and provinces across Canada are beginning to address in a targeted manner. It represents a significant issue and affects students as young as kindergarten and first grade, whose poor attendance hurts academic performance and sets a pattern for years to come. While we understand that parents can be powerful allies in preventing absenteeism, the power of family-school relationships are often overlooked.

In Alberta, it is estimated that over 151,000 students are impacted by school absenteeism and placed at significant risk of negative future outcomes, such as economic disadvantage, incarceration, and mental health challenges. According to an analysis of 2014-2015 attendance trends in Rocky View Schools, 22 percent of students could be described as chronically absent. To begin addressing this problem, Rocky View Schools launched a pilot initiative with matched financial support offered by an anonymous donor. The appropriately named, Attendance Innovation Campaign, had three main aims and intended to 1) educate communities as to the importance of attendance, 2) empower schools to utilize data to guide their practice, and 3) eliminate barriers to regular attendance in whatever manner they may appear. Beyond these three aims, the Campaign recognized the importance of family-school relationships and embraced growing research that showed how simple, low-cost strategies can reduce student absences and pave the way for academic success. In our four pilot schools, we asked teachers to do three things throughout the year

  1. Make a positive in-person or phone connection, at the beginning of September, with the parents of students in their homeroom, or as otherwise indicated by their school administrators.
  2. Reach out and perform a positive phone call, letter home, or email with parents of students in their assigned group on a monthly basis from October to June. This connection should describe how the student is doing or something positive they have observed.
  3. Make a positive phone connection, at the end of each month, with the parents of students in their assigned groups who were identified by school staff as missing a significant portion of school within a given month (e.g., 3-4 days). Please connect with the student as well if it is appropriate.

Through adopting the strategies listed above, the Attendance Innovation Campaign reduced chronic absenteeism within the identified schools from 10 percent to 1 percent in under one year of direct service. Rocky View Schools has committed to allowing elements of the Campaign to extend divisionally for the 2017-2018 school year.

For more information about the Attendance Innovation Campaign, please visit:

Homework Help

Homework Help

Superintendent of Schools – After repeated check-ins over the long weekend, at 8:15 on Monday night my youngest son pulls out his backpack and finds some math homework that needs to be completed. Sound familiar? After a moment or two of panic, followed by some sage parental advice, it was time to get it done. In an effort to try and help get him to bed at a reasonable time, I pulled up beside him and watched him tackle his homework.

The homework was a series of questions about division – three and four digit numbers divided by a single digit number. He was quite good; I was impressed that he could solve most of the questions and explain the strategy being utilized. He had the majority of the homework completed in class, but identified about three or four questions that he had questions about because they just did not seem right. We tackled one of those together and then he was able to complete all the remaining questions.

I thought we were finished, but then he flipped the page and I saw there were MORE questions on the back. He was not sure if he needed to do them as they were listed as advanced. I read them and grimaced as they were quite a bit more challenging than the earlier problems. These problems were provided to challenge some students to extend and apply their learning. I’m not sure if it was to delay going to bed when he said he would like to try a few. He persevered to solve the first couple of questions, then the next question stumped him. I told him that is okay and that we’d think about it some more and then see if we can develop a plan to tackle that question on another night. I liked that he wanted to solve the question and we’ll see when I get home tonight if he has any ideas on how to tackle the question.

Anyway, in the end my takeaways are: while trying to teach independence to your child is important, for your own sanity, be physically present when your kids check for homework prior to 8:15 pm  on the Monday night of a long weekend; doing homework with your kid can be fun; and having the resilience to tackle a problem that does not come easy is a good life skill.


Digital Literacy

Digital Literacy

Learning Specialist – Becoming more advanced in the critical element of digital literacies involves thinking about your own literacy practices. It involves reflecting on how they have come about, what has influenced you, and how your actions affect others. Belshaw

Rocky View Schools is known for being progressive and making every attempt to support learners in terms of technology. The Technology for Learning Team recently brought Doug Belshaw to Banded Peak School and the Cochrane RancheHouse to do some professional learning around how to connect digital literacies to our other district initiatives including the 21st Century competencies and RVS’ Literacy and Numeracy Framework.

Doug Belshaw is a leading educational consultant in digital literacies, open learning and open badges. His TEDTalk and PhD research focus on the essential elements of digital Literacies. On May 1 and May 2 Rocky View Schools staff from across the district worked with Doug to learn more about supporting and developing digital literacies for our learners.

Currently, RVS offers online courses to learn more about digital citizenship and media literacy through MediaSmarts. Students can take Passport to the Internet: Student tutorial for Internet literacy and MyWorld: A digital literacy tutorial for secondary students. Information Communication and Technology (ICT) is the Alberta Education program of studies integrated into every class at all grade levels in our district.

On a daily basis our learners use technology to learn at school and at home. The ubiquitous nature of connecting of learners anyplace, anytime can be amazing and frustrating. How do we ensure that RVS learners develop authentic digital literacies that are timely and relevant in an ever changing world?

With Doug Belshaw, RVS staff discussed the strategies to provide deliberate practice around technology to develop digital skills while at the same time balancing digital learning contexts and mindsets.

We spent time defining and clarifying the context of  Digital Literacies at Rocky View Schools:


Then, we spent time introducing the 8 Elements of Digital Literacies to RVS staff which include:

More information about these digital literacies can be found in Doug Belshaw’s book, the Essential Elements of Digital Literacies and from Doug’s slideshare presentation.

The next step is not creating a new digital literacies framework. Instead, we will be examining all the ideas and strategies suggested over the two days by looking for common themes. We will then focus on aligning and connecting the themes offered through Alberta Education and current teaching practice throughout the district. Rather than creating a new vision, we will be working on enriching and supporting digital literacies by focusing on how we communicate and learn in online environments to ensure learners are successful, are engaged and are supported.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact Verena Roberts, Learning for Technology Specialist.

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