Teacher, Ralph McCall School – When I started out the journey developing Connections as an idea in the Rocky View Schools Fellowships, the aim was always to engage students in meaningful learning experiences. Inspired by the great work already occurring in Rocky View, such as the WILD program or Building Futures for older ages, our idea was how can we engage younger students in similar ways. Working with administrators and Rocky View’s learning specialist team, we came up with with our idea for Connections.
At it’s heart, the intention of Connections is to inspire students to make social, emotional, physical and intellectual connections with their learning. At the beginning of the year we spoke about how making a connection in their brain, their memory, is a lasting thing. Positive or negative connections are lasting – therefore engaging in meaningful learning opportunities is an important way to ensure kids love coming to school everyday.
The idea itself went through growing pains, or an “identity crisis” – often described as a class that learns outside, I always felt it was and should be more than that. The students should be challenged to learn about the world in a hands-on way that utilizes experts and has a meaningful and lasting impact. From here, the path and the partnerships needed became much clearer. First, was the idea of using the community to improve engagement in the grade 4 curriculum. Then came the barriers to this and ideas to overcome them. Thus a partnership was born with Airdrie Transit, which has provided us affordable transportation to different places in Airdrie.
Suddenly opportunities to visit places opened up. Students visited the Airdrie recycling depot, Nose Creek Museum, Plainsman Arena, Airdrie Public Library, Chinook Winds Park, Nose Creek Park, the Airdrie Cenotaph, and the Airdrie Echo.
With this, came opportunities to engage experts on topics related to our learning. In our sustainability project we learned how to plan for a sustainable community from the City of Airdrie. We learned about waste, learned about protecting our natural spaces with CPAWS, how to plan a garden that provides food through Green Calgary, how to improve water security with CAWST and we examined the food waste in our school. This project was later presented to City of Airdrie Environmental Committee.
Over the winter we connected with an app developer who was looking to try out using their app in schools. Part of this pilot project and study was to offer students an opportunity to dive deep into the Alberta curriculum and share it in a unique and living way. Students were proud this past week to showcase their Discovery Agent’s missions on Alberta and Airdrie history, located in Nose Creek Park, to other students and invited guests. Not only were students able to be the creators of these missions, but engaging them in the competitive aspect of the app and utilizing a natural, outdoor space provided great tools of engagement for students.
It wasn’t always easy: relying on public transit rather than chartered buses requires organizing around it’s schedule; relying on the interests of 9 and 10 year olds; and relying on the weather (as you can see, it can snow in April). Seeing students “showing off” their learning, showing an appreciation for public transit when we walked places instead of taking the bus or when the weather turned and even enjoying our community and remembering their experiences were key elements to finding success in our class.
Discovery Agents testing in April
At we reflect and begin to plan for next year, I can feel confident that students were given opportunities to develop into well rounded citizens, challenged and engaged physically, socially, intellectually and emotionally.
“[student] was eager to apply things that he had learned and even helped us to change some things we were doing in our home. He also became interested in public transit and learned about the C-Train and bus schedules while visiting [family] in Calgary.” – Parent Feedback
Superintendent of Schools – It is graduation season across RVS. An exciting time for grads and their families. I have had the honour of attending three graduation ceremonies and have shared a brief message to the grads. All the other grads have had either an Associate Superintendent or an Area Director bring greetings. I thought I’d share my message to the grads with everyone via this week’s blog posting.
Welcome distinguished guests, parents, staff, friends and grads.
Let me start with my congratulations to the class of 2017. Maybe not for you but for your parents and guardians it is probably hard to believe you started school 13 years ago. You are the last grad class where the majority of you were actually born in the last millennium. Times flies! How about a quick trip down memory lane?
In Kindergarten, you might have gotten the Dancing Dora or RoboSapien for Christmas. Just after grade 3 you wanted to go see The Dark Knight at the theatre but got stuck having to see Kung Fu Panda or WallE because The Dark Knight was too scary – clearly life was not fair! Most of you were into music by grade 7. In late June 2012, the Billboard top song was Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen. Sorry to the parents in the crowd but you weren’t cool then nor now if you could sing every word while chauffeuring the kids around. When you came to high school you rolled in probably with a hand-me-down iPhone 4S or iPhone 5 or if you were lucky you had a funky coloured iPhone 5c. You were probably an early adopter of Pinterest and Twitter while all of us old timers were still using Facebook And here we are. June 2017 and you have just reached one destination and hopefully are ready to embark on another journey.
Not to down play today or your graduation but this is just the start. The next bit of your life will be focused on where do you want to go? What do you want to try and experience? Well, that is up to you now. You get to pull out your phone and enter the next destination in Google Maps.
What is important is:
Make sure your charged up and have supplies and tools onboard so you are able to take on a wide variety of challenges along your route; It is time to gain some independence but don’t worry your AMA membership (a.k.a. your family) will be there if you get stuck; Understand that it is okay for your phone to tell you it is “recalculating” when you make a quick left turn and change courses; Have the courage to close the app and use your common sense to get to a destination; And even though you entered location X as your destination; if something really interesting is seen along the way it is okay to stop and check it out.
Now don’t get freaked out if you lose connectivity or if you don’t have the whole trip mapped out. It is important to understand that there are many ways to get from A to B. Just make sure you are moving forward toward your ultimate destination. Be smart because when the app tells you to keep driving straight and you see the cliff ahead … don’t think the device is smarter than you are. Keep your hands on the wheel, don’t forget that your Civic cannot actually fly.
Aspire to be the person: who has lots of travel stamps in your passport; who helps others take on adventures; who designs the latest mapping app; who helps those who get stuck; who builds the self-driving car; or who blogs about the journeys taken.
I do want to thank and recognize all of the staff here today that helped you get to this point. Your contributions getting the class of 2017 out onto the road is much appreciated.
Lastly, it’s all about you today but I encourage you to take the time this week to thank those who helped get you to this point on your journey. Say thanks to your parents, siblings, grandparents, extended family, friends, teachers, bus drivers, secretaries and everyone who has helped along the way.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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: