“Ian has the ability to be a great student when he puts his mind to it.
He must learn to concentrate in class.
He must learn his multiplication tables.
He must learn to get along with his classmates.
Has the ability to write good compositions.
Writing is neat.
A more serious attitude towards school would be beneficial to Ian.”
- Term 1 Progress Report for Ian Fero, Grade Four, Mr. Seki
On report card weekend for many students I thought it would be a great idea to pull out some of my old report cards and take a look at a few of them. I was hoping that I would find some pretty good content for this blog post and I was able to find this fine example from grade four.
There has been a lot of discussion about progress reporting to parents over the last number of years, particularly after the Calgary Board of Education went to a 4-point reporting scale for K-9 schools. I realize that some parents might be looking for some insider tips into what their child’s report card really means. So, here are some simple tips to understanding your child’s report card:
Moving to a twice-a-year reporting process makes “no surprises” even more essential. What this means to me is that a parent shouldn’t have to wait until a January or June report card to gain an understating of how their child is achieving in their current grade. Teachers are asked to engage in regular communication with home (email, phone, or face-to-face) to identify any potential struggles just so you are informed in a timely manner, on what’s exactly happening at school.
We Celebrate Student Strengths
Every student, no matter where they’re at this particular moment in time, has achievements worth celebrating. Knowing and identifying which areas a student is most successful in is a key part of the reporting process. We want you to know what those things are, and hope that you know we respect your child for the talents and gifts that they bring to school. One of the constant comments from parents that I heard in my early days of school administration was “all I hear is the negative from the school”. If this is true, then this is a problem, so we always begin by acknowledging the positive things. We care for your child and want them to be successful.
Construct a Plan
What I have always tried to do is ensure a plan for improved success is communicated in the report card. One of the things I have always rejected is the comment implying that achievement is a matter of an enhanced effort at home (ex. “Ian would benefit from practicing his multiplication tables at home”). While a partnership between school and home is essential for student success, it is not ok to put this burden entirely on the home front. As a school, we want to examine our organization of supports, beginning at the classroom level, to ensure we are doing all that we can to improve student learning at school. If we want students to be successful at school, then we need to help them at school with support from home.
Indicators, which in our reporting system are a 1-4 scale, are the numeric attempt to summarize a semester’s worth of achievement. Trying to do this in one number means that a teacher needs to take all of the data accumulated over time. The student story toward that indicator is so much more than just a number. The comments are where the teachers spend most of their time when constructing the report card. As mentioned, we want these comments to be strength-based, but we also try and identify areas for growth, and of course a plan. The time, care, and attention that go into your child’s report card comments are significant and should be viewed as the most important part of the report.
Know the Language
There are a couple consistent messages that occur in almost every report card and provide a deeper understanding into your child’s progress if you know what to look for. These key phrases are “independently” and “with support”. When we use the word independently, it most often means that a student can understand, demonstrate, and maybe even extend, concepts taught. This represents ideal student achievement. Conversely, students who complete the same tasks with support indicate that, at this time, they require assistance engaging with those particular concepts. Support can encompass extra time, repeated instructions, modified expectations; one-on-one or small group time with a teacher or an Educational Assistant, or the help of manipulative or assistive technology. Another word that matters in report card comments is "consistently." Ideally, students are able to replicate successes consistently across the curriculum, and from concept to concept.
Mom: “Teacher, how does my child rank in the class?”
Teacher: “Through my assessment, I rank your child in the top three in my class.”
Mom: “Wow, that’s great. I am very happy to hear that.”
Teacher: “Well, I wouldn’t say that. This is the lowest class of achievers I’ve had in years.”
You may have seen this quick anecdote as it’s widely circulated in various forms. The key point is that there are too many variables in play when looking to compare your child’s achievement to that of their peers. Keep your parental focus on your own child and where they are at this time. Report cards are not standardized assessments, and therefore cannot be used for student-to-student comparison across classes, schools, or districts.
Possibilities are Endless
The report card is a snapshot in time. Perceived excellent achievement does not open doors for your child, just as perceived poor achievement does not close them. Todd Rose, Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor, tells his story in his book The End of Average and in his TED Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eBmyttcfU4. While interesting, his story is not unique. He talks about finding his passion and calling much later in life, and working in dead-end jobs before he discovered his path. He also states that every person has specific strengths and talents, and a jagged profile meaning no two learners are exactly the same. What does matter is that your child needs your support and encouragement, as well as that of thier teacher, to be successful.
Based on the report card comments I received in term 1 of Grade Four you could probably surmise that I was in for a rough ride that year. I remember my mom and dad coming home from parent-teacher conferences and thinking I was done for. While I can’t say my parents were thrilled with my report card and follow-up conference, they did say that my teacher really liked me and wanted me to do my best. He moved my desk and told my parents that he was going to “work with me” to realize my potential. My dad also told the teacher that if he had any more problems with me that he wanted to know right away, and made it clear to me that he’d be following it up with a pretty direct conversation with me (children of the 80s can read into what a “direct conversation” with dad really meant). After all of that impact, here are my year-end report comments:
“I am very impressed with the work Ian has put forth on his book reviews.
Keep up the good work Ian.
Ian is a very nice boy who participates well in all activities.
Behaviour has improved.
Good luck in the future.”
Thanks Mr. Seki, Mom, and Dad. It was onward and upward from there…for the most part.
Recently, I watched the Brett Morgen documentary Montage of Heck, an authorized biopic about the life of Kurt Cobain: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4229236/
For some context, I was in my early twenties when Nirvana hit with Smells Like Teen Spirit. I guess I was old enough to have my angst in check, but young enough to enjoy the music. Old enough to buy my own CDs and not worry about curfew, but young enough to still be making some questionable choices. I was a fan of the band, and would say they were on a pretty heavy rotation. I can remember eagerly awaiting the 1993 release of In Utero, and purchasing the album the day it came out.
What I wasn't at the time was a huge magazine or tabloid reader. In the days pre-dating the internet and social media you really only knew bands through their music. To be honest, I didn't really know Kurt Cobain, or the troubles he was going through. When he passed in 1994 I already felt like I'd had a lifetime with him and the band even though they had only released 3 studio albums, and a fourth if you include MTV Unplugged in New York. I remember knowing about Courtney Love, and his drug problems, but I never knew the extent. On the day he died, I remember feeling very sad, but when I watched this documentary it hit me harder than it did on that day over 21 years ago.
I found myself thinking about Kurt from the lens of the teacher and a parent. The whole documentary played out to me like a series of missed warning signs; like calls for help that went unanswered. I saw Kurt's creative genius as the blessing and curse of intense, unacknowledged, untreated ADHD. What I found myself asking were things like "What would you do if that were a student at your school? Would you notice the signs? What would you do? Would you have been able to make a difference?" Of course, there are no certain responses, and that's what's making me think of him and his plight more. When the credits rolled, I felt very sad.
Since viewing Montage of Heck, I've downloaded the entire Nirvana catalogue and have been listening to it on my iPhone via Apple Music on a few long walks, just as I did back in the early 90s (except on my Sony Discman). I have moved past the sadness, and into the place of enjoying the music once again and a place of appreciation for the work of Morgen, and the gift he gave me to allow me to revisit my youth and the music that influenced me.
In March 2000 I wrote an independent inquiry for an undergraduate class entitled Reggio in North American Schools: To What Degree is Transfer Applicable which I recently went back and took a look at. In many ways, this paper represents some of my earliest reflections.
I remember being introduced to all things Reggio by my outstanding field advisor, Gail Danysk, who remains a great educator. It was Gail, and the work of Pat Tarr at the University of Calgary that sparked my interest and quickly got me thinking about how quickly I could get teaching and start to "do Reggio". A couple other key pieces fell into place right away for me. First, my initial teaching role was in kindergarten, and second, I had a very supportive, arts-centred principal in Carmen Roman.
Early on, I knew that I could not simply "do Reggio", but I did realize that I could take the best elements and bring them to my practice. As I look back over 16 years ago, I can see how my beliefs in the Reggio model have influenced my career in education.
I have maintained that the child is always the lead character in their own learning, the main focus, and the their own best advocate. Regardless of age, the child always knows which way they learn best, and it's our job as educators to watch, encourage, and set up opportunities for them to let this play out in our classrooms. Listening to student voice in the classroom is a critical part of this process, and the child needs to be able to express themselves openly, honestly, and directly with the teacher and classmates.
Parents are also critical partners in this process. It's not a case of sending your child to school and hoping for the best. It's about being a critical part of the teacher - child - parent triad. This is a supportive, trusting relationship, where all parties work on behalf of what's best for the child.
The teachers who have the most advanced assessment practices are always the best researchers. This isn't about going out and doing research, but rather conducting research in the classroom. These teachers are able to listen to children as they learn to find out what they really know, and where they want or need to go next. They implicitly know each child as a learner because they have spent the time with them, and also because they are flexible to let things play out despite what might be on their agenda.
Some other elements that remain critical parts of my teacher and leadership practice that have a Reggio influence include:
1) the importance of play
2) creating opportunities for wonder
3) celebrating and incorporating the beauty of nature
4) valuing the role of collaboration: student - student, student - teacher, teacher - teacher
5) utilizing the documentation process to make learning visible
6) taking pride in how the school looks and message it relays to all who enter
So all these years later would I say I was able "do Reggio"? I guess I would say that I have been able to confirm my initial beliefs, and realized that if you start off your own journey looking to simply copy or replicate Reggio that you have missed the point altogether. I would say it's about being Reggio-inspired and ensuring that it lives each day in not only your mindset, but your actions.
I was thankful that someone thought enough of that initial paper to have it published, and pleased that it's still available on the internet on the University of Calgary site. Please feel free to share some stories of how your practice remains Reggio-inspired.
Sometimes you can really shock yourself.
While I wasn't a new teacher, I was a new teacher to my school. I was the youngest teacher on my grade team of four teachers and I was still trying to figure things out. At that time of my teaching career I would say that I was a good "ideas man", as in I had all the ideas of things that could make effective, engaging lessons for my students, but I wasn't a great implementer. Most of these good ideas got left on the cutting room floor partially because of my lack of follow-through, but also because I was overruled by my more experienced teammates.
Thankfully, I had a great, inspiring team partner who helped me work through this awkwardness. She believed in my ideas (as I trusted hers) and throughout the year, helped me put them into action. I remained quite reserved in our grade team meetings however, often deferring to my more experienced partner to lay out our plans. As the year went on, the team split into two different camps with one content to deliver content in a more traditional way, and the other intent on doing things a bit differently. While we were all very friendly with one another, we accepted that we were operating under different pedagogical frameworks. Our grade team meetings quickly faded away and we only met to organize bigger events such as Outdoor School.
A meeting about starting a new club was one of the reasons we came together as a grade team. One of the things I was very passionate about was providing clubs and extra-curricular opportunities for our students, particularly in the area of athletics. This meeting became very frustrating for me, because I was told time and again by the other members of the team (not my team partner) why clubs were not always workable at the school. As a new teacher to the building, I didn't have any history, so I trusted them and just went along, focusing on my teaching. The interest in running clubs faded to the background for a few months.
The groundswell of student grumbling started once the snow hit the ground and outlets like the recess soccer game became less available. The behaviour incidences picked up, and everyone became a bit more edgy. I remember talking to one of my students and asking him why things were so off the rails and his immediate response was "recess is so boring". Recess boring? If recess was boring, we definitely had a problem.
I decided that I was going to start a Floor Hockey Club. I checked in with my school admin, and they were supportive. I checked in with our PE specialist, and she was supportive too. I checked in with my students, and we had 4 in 5 commit to a floor hockey club. Things were rolling fast, and my idea was on the way to becoming a reality. Then, I met one of my grade team partners in the hallway. The exchange went like this:
Him: What's this I hear you're going to be starting up a floor hockey club?
Me: Yep, hoping to start after the Christmas break. The kids are excited!
Him: You can't do that. It won't work.
Me: What are you talking about? I already asked around and everyone agrees.
Him: Listen, we have a lot of things on the go in January. It's the start of our big push toward exam prep, and we need to focus on our curriculum. The students get very distracted by clubs, and especially sports clubs. They don't focus well when their mind is on these things. Trust me, we've tried it before.
Me: Well, I think it would be helpful to them to blow off some steam and run around a bit.
Him: What about the kids who can't play after school? You know we have a lot of kids that have other obligations.
Me: I talked to the kids and they don' t think it will be a problem.
Him: I didn't really want to say this, but some of the other teachers on staff don't like the way you're changing things up here. If you start a club, then we're all going to have to do a club. Maybe just slow things down. Take a year to get to know the school.
Me: WHY DON'T YOU TRY TO STOP THINKING OF ALL THE REASONS THIS CAN'T HAPPEN, AND START TO FIGURE OUT JUST ONE WAY TO HELP MAKE IT HAPPEN?
Wow! I surprised myself with that. It was very much out of character for me. I didn't want to be disrespectful, but I was passionate about what I wanted to do because I thought it was the right thing to do for the students.
Today when I look back on that little outburst I call it a career defining moment. From then on I started to gain the confidence that my ideas, good or bad, were worth exploring. I started to trust my gut instincts, but more importantly I started to listen to my students. Their voice became more prominent in my planning, and I didn't (and don't) hesitate to run something by them first.
The Floor Hockey Club was an instant success, and the benefit extended well beyond the students. Other teachers who had wanted to do clubs of their own started to put things together for other students in the school and a prominent change in culture began. Ultimately, I was most happy when my grade team partner (the one who I had the disagreement with) when he told me he wanted to start a soccer club in the spring. We planned it out together, and he began a great run as the teacher lead of our leadership club of older students who would referee and organize our younger ones on the soccer fields at recess. A couple years later at his retirement, he told me that taking on that leadership club had been one of the most rewarding parts of his career.
I wonder what would have happened if I had just backed down that day in the hallway. I wonder if I would have found my confidence to pursue my passions. I do know that that key phrase that came blurting out of my mouth that day has become one of my leadeship mantras. As we start a new calendar year, I want to resolve to keep that at the fore of who I am as a leader. I want to always try to find a way to make things happen.
(and for those of you that look at this blog post graphic and get a little song in your head, send me a comment and let me know what it is)
I don't think kids play like I used to.
I was that kid who ran home from the bus, opened up the door to my home, threw my backpack in the house, yelled "hi" and "bye" to my mom, jumped on my bike and was off to find a new adventure. I was that kid who would be out playing and exploring with friends. None of us had a phone, or a watch, we just went home when the streetlights came on or when we got hungry.
I can remember running through old lumberyards and building sites to collect discarded wood so we could then drag it through the bush to the place where we would build our tree fort. I remember the excitement of welcoming a new classmate to the school where inevitably the first questions we would ask were "Hey, do you play hockey? Wanna join our street hockey game?" I can also remember hearing about a new park opening up on the other side of town, grabbing our bikes and riding there. It must have taken us an hour and a half each way.
I knew what a “soaker” was – you know, when you get too close to the water (or mud) and step in too deep only to have your rubber boot fill up. In those days of my youth I got hurt, lost, trapped, scared, and embarrassed. I even remember the floorboards of our tree fort giving way and dangling by one arm from a tree branch so high up that I probably would have died if I'd fallen. Some days, I would even just ride to Canadian Tire and go to the sports counter and just stare at the Wrist Rocket behind the glass as if it was the coolest, most desired prize on the planet.
I don’t think my own kids do any of that. It makes me sad, and it makes me feel like I have failed somewhat as a parent for not providing them with those opportunities. But then again, isn’t that the problem?
I think in some ways, we as parents (yes, I’m throwing some of you under the bus too) spend too much time trying to find the right opportunities for our kids. We shuttle them to play dates from the earliest age. We enroll them in athletics and music lessons and if they’re really good at it we ask them to do it more, and if they’re not good at it we often allow them to choose another activity to see if that will go better. We manage their time, their schedules, and their passions. Where is their voice and independence?
This week I was asked to consider play, and the role it plays in education. It seems like a logical fit - kids, schools, engagement. When you add the words wonder, curiosity, and imagination, it seems like play just has to be an integral part of what we do. However, part of me just doesn’t understand the where and the how. I’m torn, because part of me wants to just go for it, but the other part of me says, “how can I timetable that?” When that part of me starts talking I feel like I do as a parent and the inevitable rub is that there just isn’t enough time for that in the day. There is just too much to do. Of course, that’s not the right response.
I know my exploration is still underway. I also see the ironical side of trying to reconcile play, because natural play should just exist without the need to schedule it or check it off on a to-do list. What I do know is that play needs to be a part of what we do in schools, and that I want my own kids, and my students, to experience the beauty and tragedy of the “soaker”.
I would love to hear your memories and thoughts about play. Do you feel the same? Have you found a good balance? How does play fit in your own life, and in your role as parent and/or educator? Please feel free to reply and comment.
The image I used above is a screen capture from a video I was introduced to this week. It’s a child experiencing rain for the first time. Check out the video here, and turn the sound off for better effect. I think it’s a great way to think about the beauty of play. Follow my colleagues and their work using #CBEplay
"Who took my charger?" is becoming a pretty common phrase in my household these days. With four digitally connected people in the house, those chargers seem to missing more often then they're in the place they were left. I can say from experience that parenting in the digital age is not easy.
I also have to admit that I struggle with this as a parent myself. My own children, age 15 and 12, are pretty much glued to their devices (primarily iPhones) daily. My wife and I have tried it all in an effort to manage usage. From designating screen time to locking out the wifi, to more radical measures such as taking phones away and "grounding" them from the phones, we still seem to be looking for the 'just right" solution.
As a school principal, I am being asked on a regular basis to assist parents who are equally as frustrated with similar concerns. Specifically, the questions are about amount of screen time, exposure to questionable content, activity on specific apps, cyber-bullying, lack of sleep, and even addiction. If you are experiencing some of these concerns, just know you are not alone.
Alberta educational researcher, Phil McRae, has been part of a team looking into the impact of the digital age on our kids. Here is a summary of some of the findings in Growing Up Digital:
1) 67% of teachers say the number of students negatively distracted by digital technology is growing
2) 90% of teachers indicate the number of children with emotional challenges has increased
3) 56% of teachers say the number of students reporting cyberbullying has increased
4) 66% of teachers are observing students coming to school tired, with decreased ability to focus
5) 76% of teachers frequently or very frequently observe students multi-tasking with technology
Dr. Michael Rich, the Mediatrician, and The Centre on Media and Child Health, have a wealth of resources to assist parents of children of any age. Some of the most consistent tips to parents include:
- Help you child manage their time online
- Establish an evening charging station so your child does not bring their device to their bedroom
- Set time limits for screen time, and give them reminders such as "you have 5 minutes"
- Watch for warning signs that device time interferes with sleep or even eating
- Model your expectations by putting your own advice away at family times such as dinner
Paul Davis, is a Canadian presenter who specializes in Social Networking Safety. His TED Talk offers "real talk" and many helpful tips to parents. Some of Paul's key points include:
- The parent is the owner of the phone / device / internet account and are responsible for it
- There is always a trail of internet/online/App activity no matter if you think it's anonymous (it's not)
- Your online activity as a youth follow you into your adulthood and can impact your employability
For many of us, we feel a bit out of our element in dealing with these technology issues and we are not digital natives like out children are. We are being asked to navigate these deeply impactful issues through a rapidly changing landscape. Throughout it all, I have to keep reminding myself that I am the parent, and that I have to not only establish the boundaries, but model the way for my own children. Being open and honest, and educating my children about their digital identity is part of the process. I also know that doing nothing is not an option, and that in some way I think my children are looking to me to help them make the right choices, as they always do.
One of my favorite routines during the day is greeting our students (and parents) as they arrive in the morning. Seeing the smiling student faces as they hop off the bus or enter into the school campus is always pretty uplifting, and a high-five is a great way to start the day. While I have a long way to go before I can match my singing and dancing Arkansas colleague Gary Logan (goo.gl/9eIfeV), I am not ruling out the possibility of giving it a go someday.
Being visible in the morning is one of the most effective techniques I have found in building meaningful relationships with students and parents. From first eye contact, I can tell exactly what that student might need. For most, it's that simple high-five or a greeting, but for others a "good morning" is an invitation to tell a whole story of the events of the previous evening or weekend. Some of the very best stories come from birthday parties, athletic events, music performances, family vacations, play dates, and of course, visits from grandma and grandpa. I am thankful that I get to hear about a lot of these special moments.
I believe that seeing the principal out front of the school every morning allows the students a predictable time where they know they will be able to find me at least once throughout the day. And while the principal can never match the same relationship that student has with their teacher, sometimes it's the presence of another caring adult at school that can make an impact.
These interactions have another benefit: the building of social capital. Positive interaction after positive interaction set the stage for the "withdrawal" that sometimes needs to happen when students make bad decisions. Students know that a mistake is just that, and that the care the adults in the building have is unconditional. I feel that my students also feel that level of trust even though the next morning interaction might include a "hey, let's make some good choices today" or "I'm going to be checking in with you later on".
My hope is that these quick social interactions set the tone for a safe and caring school, and that our students know they are welcome and valued each and every day. I wouldn't be completing the picture if I didn't mention those days when students arrive at the school angry, upset, crying, tired or hungry. These days happen, and when they do I am glad that I am there to welcome these students.
I appreciate our students for getting my day off to a great start, and I hope I can do just a bit to return that favour. Who knows, maybe one morning I will bring out the karaoke mic and belt out some of my favorite tunes. I do know all Frozen songs by heart.
"Who's watching that kid in the red shirt? Where are his parents?"
I can vividly remember the day I ran into Red Shirt Kid. It was one of those wonderful summer days where we packed up the young family and headed to Calaway Park. As kids are apt to do once you've gone and paid a lofty price to enter the park, they headed right for the free, non-mechanical, nothing special, Freddie the Fireboat playground area. I wasn't too worried about it at the time though because the sun was shining, I already had my popcorn, and the rest of the day was bound to be great. The playground was a bit different in that it was a kids-only play area. No parents were allowed, or could even get inside the structure. My wife and I bid our then 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter farewell and took our seats on the observational rock seating waiting for them to come out.
My son was gone, but my daughter would make her way into our audio-visual range to wave and get our attention with a "Mommy, did you see me..." or "Daddy, watch me...". We smiled and continued our adult conversation. Everyone was happy. That was, until Red Shirt Kid showed up.
Red Shirt Kid made his first appearance as he bumped my daughter as she was waving to us. He was big - larger than most kids at the playground, but what made him stand out even more so was his pace. That kid was moving! And there was no obligatory "excuse me" as he cut his path. This kid was on a mission. Captain's steering wheel? Look out kid, I'm the captain now. Cargo net climb? Move it kid or I'm going over top of you. Red shirt kid was taking no prisoners, and he had some of us parents making eye contact with each other and proverbially rolling our eyes. Then, Red Shirt Kid made his big mistake. He knocked my baby girl to the ground and made her cry.
I sprang to my daughter's side. A hug, a couple kisses and a reminder of the ice cream I had promised seemed to do the trick. After a minute or two she was clambering to get back into the playground to be with her brother and new-found friends. I, on the other hand, was going to make sure Red Shirt Kid got a message from me.
Now, as a teacher, I was pretty sure my interaction was going to be pretty grounded, soft and casual, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't running a bit hot. As I made my way toward the entrance of the playground I scripted out my words to Red Shirt Kid carefully. I scanned the crowd wondering if I could spot his parents. Then I waited for him to zoom by the entrance so I could grab a quick word. As expected, I could hear him before I could see him. I knew he was coming. I calmed myself and prepared to launch in, but I never did say anything. Before I could open my mouth, I quickly read the words on the front of that red shirt. They read "Be Patient With Me, I Have Autism".
I can't really explain fully what the next hour or so was like, but I think you can see that by talking about this all those years later that it had a very profound impact on me.. I can say directly in moment that my mood switched from irritation to compassion. I talked to my wife (also a teacher) about how awesome that shirt was and how proactive his parents had been for putting it on that day. While she's always interested to talk about these types of things with me, I am sure that the next hour was probably exhausting for her because I don't remember stopping my running commentary on it. Some of the things I thought about then and since included:
I didn't notice Red Shirt Kid doing anything too offside on the playground after that moment. I wonder now if it's because he slowed down a bit, or because my own way of thinking changed. I didn't say anything to him, and I didn't make out his parents either. What I did end up leaving the park with that day was a tired, happy family, and an awareness that every kid we meet has something special and unique about them and it's our job as professionals to find out what it is. Believe me, they don't all wear helpful t-shirts.
As I began my teaching career, I became very close, very fast with my colleagues. As a single guy living on my own away from my own family in Ontario, my work friends became my family. We laughed and cried and shared moments beyond teaching. We cared for each other.
I can distinctly remember a conversation with my team teaching parter who was somewhat terrified to inform our principal that she was serioulsy ill and was going to be needing to take some time off work. The tears were visible - the outward expression of fear and the unknown. Sadly, the illness was very closely related to stress, and according to her, the biggest stressor was how she was going to tell the principal. I was somewhat surprised, because I thought it was a pretty easy thing to do. "Just tell her", I can remember saying. "I know, I know" she said behind the tears as we walked together down to the office where she would initiate the conversation.
Over the past few years I have found myself on the other side of that conversation. Now I'm the one that the staff have to come to. Each time one of my colleagues comes to my office door and greets me with "do you have a minute to talk?", or I receive an email saying "can I meet with you?" I recognize that my role shifts a tiny bit, moving from the principal, to that of caring colleague.
The pending conversations can be followed by unwelcome news, usually dealing with health concerns, involving themselves, their children, their spouse, or their parents and extended family. There is often, as with my team partner all those years ago, tears and sadness. There is also another feeling I have had trouble explaining.
Not all conversations are sad. Some are joyful - "I just wanted to let you know that my husband / my wife and I are expecting a baby". Some are exciting - "My spouse won a trip and I am going to need to take a week off work". And some shockingly wonderful - "I am thinking about a career change and am going to go back to school to pursue a law degree". Despite the nature of the conversation there does seem, from my end at least, that a conversation with the "boss" can be a real defining moment at that particular stage of the process.
Not too long ago, I experienced that range of emotion myself. I had to inform my own boss that I would be needing to take some time to return home to Thunder Bay to be with my ailing father. It was the closest I have come to explaining that feeling I have had trouble with. For me, it was relief. I guess it meant that I was able to step away from my job to deal with something more important. My boss was nothing but helpful and it meant the world to me at that time. Even though I knew she would be supportive, there was something about just telling her that made me feel better. It was kind of like getting permission to deal with what needed to be dealt with.
I realize, and humbly accept the responsibility I have in my role as principal to be able to listen to, support, comfort and celebrate with my staff during these moments in their lives. I know and care for my staff. In that way, we are family. We're here for each other, and we're here in our best times and worst. My hope is, that as a caring colleague my staff never have to experience the stress of telling me what they need to say.
I was in the classroom when my team partner came back after her meeting with the principal all those years ago. She was still crying, but she was laughing too in that wild way we do when we're overwhelmed with grief, joy and relief. "What did she say?", I asked. "She gave me a big hug and told me it was going to be ok." Of course it was, because making things better is what a family does.
The Mighty Thor #274 (published in 1978) became my gateway to a new childhood love - comics. I don't remember precisely how this gem came to me, but I think my mom and grandma snagged a whole bunch of comics at a garage sale one day to bring out to our summer camp on Lake Superior. For a curious and busy little guy like I was, I was sure it was in hope that I could sit and chill for a while, especially in the mornings when they were trying to sleep, or in the evenings when they were wishing I might fall asleep.
This issue sat at the back of the pack for a long time. I preferred Archie and other kid-friendly favorites like Garfield and Family Circus. But the artwork and captions ("Balder the Brave is DEAD") on the front cover always had my attention. Each summer I would return to camp to devour the same comics again and again, but it wasn't until a few summers after it's original discovery that I was finally ready for The Mighty Thor.
A funny thing happens when you pick up a comic series 274 issues into the series, and your brain has to work extra hard to try and figure out what the heck is going on. It was easy to figure out who Thor was, but if you take a look at the cover there were dozens of characters, an alternate universe, a rainbow bridge, and of course all of the connections to Norse mythology. I was hooked.
Day after day, I re-read that same comic. Where there was information I didn't have, or more likely, things I didn't yet quite understand due to my age, I simply made it up. While I wasn't really an artist, I learned to draw Thor. I figured out that if I held the comic up to the window I could trace very well. I spent hours and hours making my own comics.
Outside, on the beach, and in the waters and woods surrounding my camp, I became Thor. I had a red beach towel as my cape, held tight by a clothespin from the line (my grandma used to get so mad because I used so many pins). I had to work extra hard just to be able to first pick up, and then run around with the old sledgehammer my great grandpa kept in the tool shed next to the outhouse. Knowing how heavy sledgehammers are now, I can't believe my skinny little 9-year old self could have even moved it. Maybe I WAS Thor. I organized all my friends to play superhero games. As I think about it now I wonder how all our camp neighbors felt watching the horde of kids running around with beach towels flowing behind them and that one kid carrying a sledgehammer. The visual is hilarious to me now.
Back in town for the fall, winter and spring, I found myself seeking out new comics. I naturally gravitated to the Avengers (as Thor was a key member), and then graduated to more complex titles. While I would never really become a hardcore collector, I certainly had a passion for comics. They were my go-to literature of choice. As I became a bit older, and into my teens, I started to read more books, but I always made time for some comics. At night I would read some of whatever book I was reading, and my "treat" for reading a chapter or two was always that I could fall asleep to reading a comic. Of course, the attention to comics faded over time, until they were all just another childhood memory, stored in a box in my mom's basement.
As I became a teacher, I always rallied against what I perceived to be a professional aversion to comics in the classroom. Teaching grade five and six students suddenly created a new opportunity for the box of comics in the basement. To my surprise, many of my students could have cared less about the comic box I was so eager to share. There were however, a few students who took to them and I bet you could guess who those students were - yep, my struggling readers. While they had some trouble engaging with the text (you would be very much surprised by the vocabulary of comic books), they could engage with the artwork. And, I think it was because they had a teacher who supported their new love, they didn't feel singled out or different. Those students then started to share their favorite comics with their friends and before long I had more and more comic book fans in the classroom. Kids started to bring their own, and parents would bring in their collections or finds from garage sales. The words and vocabulary the students used in class was beginning to connect to similar encounters in their comics ("Hey, I think I saw that same thing in X-Men #whatever"). The students asked to stay in at recess to draw, and thanks to the miracle of Comic Life, they could begin to create their own comics too. And to come full-circle, those struggling readers, supported through additional daily interventions, became readers.
While I know comic books did not turn these students into readers, I think I can better relate to what the conversation about Joyful Literacy is all about. I was Thor, but it was so much more: I read the comic, I drew the pictures, I wrote the captions, I became the character, I improvised character lines, I collaborated with friends, I connected to deeper learning, and I came back for more. Looking back, the most interesting part of all was that I was totally oblivious to the fact my love was even literacy. It was pure joy.
This past Friday, thanks to the help of my wonderful Assistant Principal, Poppy Johnson (@poppyjohnsonedu) I got to relive my childhood love. For one more day, I became Thor. Mjolnir will now forever reside in my office reminding me of the importance of a joyful youth, and the literacy connections made over many summers on the shores of Lake Superior.
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.