Learning from Learners

Elevating Student Leadership

What a privilege it is to be a teacher and school leader. For me, at the heart of this is empowering and enabling students to see themselves as leaders. When I started out teaching I realised pretty quickly that I found my happy place in those moments when you observe others finding their groove, grasping a new concept, ecstatic with a new idea, empowered to act, whatever you envisage when you think of that ‘aha’ moment of joy that leads to something more. So, naturally as I moved into different roles in teaching and learning and into the role of School Principal I continued to find ways in which to be fully engaged with others in helping them grow as leaders. What I had not anticipated was just how impactful the experience of working with student leaders would be.

I have observed so much about leadership, collaboration, motivation and being a team from working with various groups of students over the years. Here are just five of those memorable student leadership moments and what they taught me.

That time we had assembly scheduled for 08.35 the next morning and no plan in place at 15.45 the day before….

Picture the scene a slightly dehydrated, tired, distracted school principal meeting with an energy super-charged group of second graders after school for their regular Student Council meeting. The thinking had been that a plan would be in place for the assembly outline, students would write some ideas and script so they had an idea about what to say. We would rehearse and prepare ready for the morning. In reality – the plan was not sketched out at all, the idea had not really been thought through and the group were not yet clear about their purpose.

My learning – sometimes we need to lean into our team-mates, our colleagues, our group members to lead and take charge and really let go of the belief that only we can figure it out or pull it together.

The time when a student voice sets forth a vision and mission……

I used to stand on the school gate welcoming families each day and a new student in Grade 2 had just joined the community. We would chat in the mornings as he arrived and then one day he announced that we needed an environmental group to get everyone to clean up and ‘behave better’ towards the environment. He reminded me every day about this need and mission and how he would like to be a founding member. He persisted and spoke with passion and enthusiasm. He kept me on my toes to help him take some action. This all happened just as the pandemic hit so our physical bringing together the Eco School Leaders took some time but we got there in the end and what an amazing group of students and actions they engaged in!

My Learning – know your why, speak with conviction and seek out allies to enable action to be taken. It matters.

The moment when you are all planned for a whole school online assembly and then realise the students have other ideas….

Meeting agenda ready, slide-show outline prepped, planning for the morning mapped out – it was all sounding good for our Monday after school meeting. Students arrived, we began to delve into our agenda. Dissent amongst the members! “I thought about – I don’t like this.”, “I don’t want to do it this way.”, “I know we agreed last time but I changed my mind, how about this….” I observed as my vision for how the meeting was going to unfold unraveled, the planning became a giant jumble again and the slide show outline might as well be discarded. A sense of dismay and discomfort settled in as I realised these students wanted to rip all our previous planning apart and start over. In a moment of dejection I sat back, regrouped my thoughts and restrained myself from stepping in. I observed as they hashed out some big ideas. Initiated teams to work on different elements and ultimately created a much better plan and message than the slide show outline that had been prepped.

My Learning – Be willing to let go of your ideas, way of doing things and believe that others can elevate the collective vision and ideas.

The group of students who came to me believing that I had the power to enact their wishes…..

My desk and office where often a buzz with students dropping by with ‘to do lists’, ideas about how to improve, solutions to problems they observed and wishes for our school and community. In Grade 6, the students engage in the PYP Exhibition a culminating learning process where students work collaboratively to explore big ideas and concepts, and develop questions to delve into, that result in their taking action. A group of students arrived with a big idea and plan that involved physical changes to the school grounds – I attempted to ask probing questions, on reflection perhaps subconsciously hoping that they might lower their expectations about what was possible. It did not deter them. This group achieved what they set out to do, they were not put off by the many barriers and hurdles in their way and when they needed help they sought it out, independently and respectfully.

My Learning – Aim high, dream big and ask the questions everyone is afraid to ask.

That time when Student Council meetings became really rather boring……

Student Council meetings were a regular meeting routine in my diary, around 20 dedicated students meeting every week after school. We had a routine, we had an agenda, we had essential agreements, we were all really eager to contribute and take action. However we were all honestly a bit bored. Meetings had become mundane – our feelings, as vocalized by a 3rd grader, “I’m bored. This is boring.” We all felt it, and knew it. So what next? We dove into an inquiry to ask questions to generate some ideas and ‘what if’s’ to see how we could adapt and change. In the short term this led to changes in our meeting habits, in the long term it led to structural changes in our Student Council and the set up and timing of meetings.

My Learning – Be adaptable. Tune into the feelings of a group and rather than try to ‘fix’ things, ask questions to gather input to solve any issues together.

Finally, my biggest learning over the years is that peer to peer voice is truly powerful.

Students listen to other students. Engagement is higher when students have opportunities to be leaders in the room.

So, why not prioritize it more? What if we (schools) looked inwardly to not only seek out, but actively carve out opportunities for students to lead more often, more authentically and with more agency?

Nurturing a Sustainable Culture of Active Thinking

As the school year launches, teachers prepare for their new and returning students, school leaders to welcome new and returning staff and the focus turns to designing ways in which learning communities can come together, develop and thrive. In my experience this often means that team building activities are dusted off and there is a flurry of discussion about how to communicate expectations and set the tone for the year ahead. Brief side-note, I still struggle with the term ‘expectations’ and gravitate much more towards ‘beliefs’ as a stance that asserts a more outward-facing and growth-orientated mindset, see my earlier blog post ‘No Expectations’ for more.

As someone who loves the back-to-school buzz of bringing everyone together, I wondered about shifting focus; from team-building and expectation-setting to co-creation towards a culture of active thinking. What I mean by this is to treat the bringing of groups together as an opportunity to nurture leadership, to invite decision-making and facilitate co creation as opposed to team-building being ‘done’ to the group. The process itself of bringing the group together being the ‘team-building’ experience rather than a fixed outcome from an activity. Sometimes, we, (read ‘I’) tend to get so immersed in the scheduling and ‘doing’ to structure collaborative time perhaps we miss the most crucial piece, letting go a little, carving out space and enabling opportunities for others to lead.

So, what if we let go and shift focus to invite our learners, our colleagues, our community members as decision-makers, as leaders, as creators and we truly fully embraced this? What an impact there could be. This could be a powerful mechanism to elevate towards process driven community building where a culture of active thinking is celebrated and reinforced. Moving from passive activity to activation of a mindset where all members see themselves as creators, contributors and leaders.

What might it look like in practice?

Some experiences, ideas and wonderings:

  • setting up learning spaces together – this being a collaborative process and part of the back to school experience. Community members organise and design spaces together.
  • setting intentions/outcomes of what is to be achieved and then teams designing how they will get there as part of their collaboration or meeting time.
  • posing the questions that we might use to provoke our planning to the students or our colleagues to gather their input on how we could respond to these. For example, in a Grade 1 classroom – How can we get to know about each other? or with a Grade Level Team – What structures can we put in place in our collaborative meetings to ensure balance and equity? or with a Grade 5 class – How will we demonstrate our learning around our classroom?
  • inviting community members to co-create a rubric to guide self and peer assessment of a task.
  • what if… student guides were invited to design and lead the back to school parent information sessions?
  • what if… students were asked to design their morning circle routine or gathering place rituals?

This requires a shift in approach and thinking, and ultimately ownership. It calls on us as leaders of classrooms, spaces, teams or communities to step back, listen, observe and find the balance to sustain this active thinking culture. I would be interested to hear from others’ experiences as they shift their focus to one of nurturing active thinking in an ongoing sustainable way.

What’s in a name?

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

I miss the puzzle of learning names.

As a School Principal I used to love greeting families, learning student names and being part of the early morning routine welcoming everyone into school. I struggled, I got names wrong, I mixed up pronunciation, put the accent in the wrong place and from time to time muddled up siblings names… not to mention colleagues! I used rhymes in my head to try to remember and put effort in to do better the next time.

So as I sit and write this, my first year ever of not having a ‘Back to School’ experience – I can honestly say I miss the puzzle so much!

What I did not realise at the beginning of my career was the power of knowing and connecting with our name and of others honouring it. The story that can unfold, the space our names hold for us, and the power they possess to nurture connection and belonging. As I greeted students with their name, even better if I could pronounce it well, and perhaps even said ‘hello’ in one of their languages – their smile would broaden, their step lighten. The shift in how they presented themselves and responded was the affirmation that this mattered. It meant something to them, it empowered them, they were seen. As I struggled and stumbled and practiced I knew that this is a learning that has an impact; that nurtures connection and builds community.

Inviting our colleagues and students to ‘teach’ us their name is so valuable and I absolutely love the book ‘Tell Teach us Your Name’ by Huda Essa. This uncovered this concept so strongly for me. Since encountering this book, I have shared it with so many colleagues, read it with students and adapted how I approach meeting, greeting and connecting with others. You can find this, along with a few other books below that send a message of affirmation of our names.

Made with Padlet

So to all the teachers, school leaders, indeed anyone, anywhere who meets someone new – be sure to ask them their name. Listen to how it is pronounced and invite them to teach you how to say it. If you make a mistake, ask again, practice and demonstrate how important it is for you to be able to say their name just right. Enter into an introduction with curiosity and wonder. From there, the magic of discovery, connection, and belonging can unfold.

Agency, Advocacy and Multilingualism

Empowering young learners to share their voice, to take action, to advocate for themselves and others, and to engage in all aspects of learning in local and global issues is crucial. Communities hold space for this agency and are central to creating and fostering a climate in which this can thrive.

It seems logical that if we are fortunate to be in a rich multilingual environment of student learners that our adult learners would also reflect this linguistic diversity. What might some of the indicators be that would reflect agency and advocacy towards creating an inclusive multilingual learning environment for staff as well as students.

So, imagine a community. A community of people from many places, many traditions, many cultures, many different life and educational experiences. A community with a rich tapestry of languages. What does it look like when agency and advocacy are nurtured to enable it to flourish?

Many of us may have experienced working in a multicultural/multilingual environment. Many of us may not. Many of us may not have known or know the cultural and linguistic diversity of our community yet. Here are some of the indicators I would suggest represent that staff multilingualism is not only acknowledged, but seen as enriching and valuable in the community. What would you add to this?

Openhouse – Online Learning

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Openhouse Team as part of a Webinar recently, connecting a range of global voices – we discussed the challenges and changes over the past year in regards to online/distance learning. Also on the panel were Allan Shaw, Principal of The Knox School in Melbourne, Saloni Todi, a first year Hong Kong University student, and Yashovardhan Poddar, co founder of Openhouse,

Openhouse is a learning community based in India with a bold mission centred around nurturing a better society for all.

“Our mission is to build a better society by creating powerful communities. We believe visionaries are not born but nurtured. So by redefining how the world learns, we empower students to become thinkers and leaders. Changing society, one child at a time…..”

Openhouse https://www.blog.openhouse.study/our-story

I was delighted to be part of this conversation, listen and learn from other perspectives, and explore how fostering a sense of community has helped support continued learning during this time. Grounding ourselves, and our students, in a shared learning community; one of acceptance, vulnerability and with a growth mindset have all been key. I loved learning about how this looked in different contexts and being inspired by these different voices. You can read more on the Openhouse blog – thanks Openhouse team!


Reflections on Intercultural Understanding

I recently concluded two days of listening, exploring and learning about developing intercultural understanding within our school communities. As someone who signed up to participate in the course, I am already committed to the critical nature with which we must address promoting intercultural understanding. Evidence is all around us signalling the need for us to act; learn from the past, and listen, really listen to understand. The two days spent with a knowledgeable and interesting group of people, was insightful, thought provoking and provided me with so many ideas and ambitions as I prepare for the upcoming school year! As we got to know each other virtually, what struck me most is the joy that comes from simply hearing other people’s stories. We shared artifacts that reflected our identities and made connections; reveling in commonalities, and curious to know more about differences that we identified. A reminder of just how important giving space for this type of sharing is as we bring students, teachers and our parent community together.

The Teaching and Learning for Intercultural Understanding Summer Institute was facilitated by three wonderful educational leaders, Debra Rader, Sarah Kupke and Heidi Bachman. The institute was based around the work of Debra Rader, and her development of a Framework for Developing Intercultural Understanding (Rader, 2016), which is published in her book Teaching and Learning for Intercultural Understanding: Engaging Young Hearts and Minds. (Routledge, 2018) A highly recommended book for those of you interested in fostering intercultural understanding with children; it comes with lesson plans and resources to accompany a whole host of high quality children’s literature.

What is Intercultural Understanding? 

This is defined in the book as:

…the willingness and ability to interact effectively and appropriately with people different from ourselves, and in diverse cultural settings. This requires knowledge and understanding, beliefs, values and attitudes, and skills and behaviours that are developed throughout our lives.’

Rader, 2018
  • Knowledge and understanding
  • Transformative beliefs, values and attitudes
  • Essential Intercultural Interpersonal and Life Skills 
  • Engagement in positive action

Through exploring the Framework, with all of the diverse perspectives, insights and experiences, it helped me to reflect on how I might envisage using this as a next step in my own school community. These are some of the ways in which I could envisage using the Framework to support further embedding Intercultural Understanding:

Knowledge and Understanding

  • audit our curriculum: Review our Programme of Inquiry to identify where we see different elements addressed, where we see opportunities and how we can deepen learning and understanding.
  • engage our students and teachers in a review of literature and resources used – do these include multiple diverse perspectives? Identify resources to include to support intercultural understanding.
  • identify ways in which our Home Language Program can incorporate elements of knowledge and understanding related to building intercultural understanding
  • use the Framework to review our celebrations, events and traditions. How do we already foster intercultural understanding? How can we do better?
  • when reviewing policies, use the framework as a lens through which to pose relevant questions, identify strengths and gaps
  • explore the routines and rituals we have as a learning community. Identify core questions we can be posing to continually foster deepening knowledge and understanding
  • engage student leaders in identifying ways in which they can promote and share their knowledge and understanding. Where do students have a voice in our community? 

Transformative Beliefs, Values and Attitudes

  • as a tool for initiating discussion within our community about beliefs, values and attitudes. Where do we see our strengths in these areas? What is our shared vision as a community?
  • connect these to our mission, Learner Profile and Educational Philosophy statements
  • make these visible through explicit sharing in our celebrations, school traditions and rituals
  • re-focus the work of our Diversity Committee to explore these transformative beliefs, values and attitudes, and find avenues through which to articulate and celebrate these

Essential Intercultural, Interpersonal and Life Skills

  • review our curriculum to identify where we currently address these 
  • articulate these essential intercultural, interpersonal and life skills through the IB Approaches to Learning skill progression
  • make these skills visible with our students through a split screen approach in their learning
  • use reflective practices that require students and teachers to consider these core elements

Engagement in Positive Action

  • identify ways in which to share, promote and celebrate individual positive actions – within and beyond classrooms
  • incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework and lens through which to organise our actions as a community
  • encourage and build partnerships within our local community to encourage and model individual and collective action
  • implement our Eco School action plan to unite our community in committing to sustainable practices on both an individual and school wide level
  • identify ways in which to share, promote and celebrate individual positive actions – within and beyond classrooms
  • incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework and lens through which to organise our actions as a community
  • encourage and build partnerships within our local community to encourage and model individual and collective action
  • implement our Eco School action plan to unite our community in committing to sustainable practices on both an individual and school wide level

What other ideas can you see? How might you use this Framework within your school context? I am curious to learn of other thoughts and ideas and to hear examples of how schools are actively addressing intercultural understanding in their communities.

Joy in the Small Moments

I recently shared a post with my school community about taking time each day/each week to find joy in the small moments that are scattered throughout our lives.

Despite the disruption, confusion and upset all around us during this COVID-19 Pandemic, there is joy to be found in the small moments. These nuggets of joy can act as reminders, inspire us, and fulfil us, especially when our days are all the more stressful, demanding and filled with uncertainty. As we continue to be faced with huge challenges as a result of the world wide pandemic, I keep returning to three different common themes that I believe we have to keep reminding ourselves:

  • This is a crisis – even as we begin to ‘return to normality’ people have changed, our perspectives have been changed, our daily lives have changed, families are changed; our world remains uncertain on a global scale and many lives have been lost. This all equates to an ongoing crisis with impacts that will long be felt beyond when it seems on the surface all is ‘normal’ again.
  • Connection and community are critical to all of our wellbeing. We need to be open to, and embrace, new and different ways to maintain and grow connections and community. For our students especially, our focus needs to be on supporting their wellbeing, hearing their worries, and moving at their pace. We need to listen to them more than ever. We all know that learning requires a safe and secure environment for us to be able to engage and embrace in learning. For many students security and stability are scarce as we move through uncertain times and so providing opportunities to come together and find joy in the small moments.
  • Kindness to ourselves and one another. This for me, is the most critical point – only through kindness and empathy can we find the best pathway forward, one that is sustainable, inclusive and responsive. Showing appreciation, gratitude and finding the joy in the small moments can help us be kinder to ourselves and each other. This can only be a good thing for all of us as individuals and as a community.

As we are in the midst of all of this transition and change, uncovering joy is truly priceless for us all. Finding ways to connect and share with each other, celebrate kindness and be together as a community are all things that will sustain us. It has been noticeable throughout this period how nature is being appreciated more than ever and that much more noticing is happening around us, more time to think and more time to appreciate. Perhaps, it will also prompt us to think, that those small moments are really not so small after all. They are what matters most.

“….Find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

‘Small Moments’

As we approach the beginning of the new school year it got me thinking about ‘small moments’. Our Writer’s Workshop training has focused us all at BMS on how a story can be created from just a simple ‘small moment’. So much of preparing for the welcoming back to school of our students, teachers and parent community is about communicating ‘the big picture’ and ‘big events’, making a good impression and getting everything ‘right’ (whatever that is!) but it is all the ‘small moments’ which truly matter.

The ‘small moment’ taken to have time for a colleague to chat about organising their new classroom or offering to take a new member of the team for coffee. The ‘small moment’ to listen to a new student and hear their story, to show them their way around the school. The ‘small moment’ of sitting down to lunch together with a colleague we don’t yet know. These are the moments that matter when we are all settling in and finding our way. These are the ‘small moments’ taken to learn about each other which woven together begin to tell the story of a community. This is what creates a climate for exponential learning. These are the small moments that I want to participate in as we start our school year, and I trust that our students, teachers and parent community will write many ‘small moment’ stories together.