School Name: Lake Trail Middle School
School District: SD#71 Comox Valley
Inquiry Team Members:It was our entire staff, past and present, that were involved.
Inquiry Team Contact Email: Gerald.Fussell@sd71.bc.ca
Type of Inquiry: NOII (focus on core competencies, OECD learning principles, etc.)
Grade Levels: Intermediate (4-7)
Curricular Area(s): Other: Change in pedagogical approach
Focus Addressed: Community-based learning, Core competencies (for example, critical thinking, communication, problem solving), Differentiated instruction, Experiential learning, First Peoples Principles of Learning, Flexible learning, Formative assessment, Growth mindset, Inclusion and inclusive insructional strategies, Indigenous pedagogy, Inquiry-based learning, Land, Nature or Place-based learning, Social and emotional learning, Transitions
In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? How can we improve the life of every child?
Scanning: Over the past 22 months we have been using the Spirals process at my current school.
Two Septembers ago I was moved into a school I had been at 15 years ago when I started the admin portion of my career. Following popular wisdom about leadership cycles, my goal was to remain quiet and observe for the first year, and I almost made it. Following the Spirals approach, I scanned for much of the year. Three questions dominated our examinations: What’s going on for our learners? How do we know? Why does this matter?
Focus: We surveyed our students, met with them in focus groups, and gathered feedback throughout the year. We also surveyed parents, sought further authentic feedback, and posed key questions to the PAC every month. Every Friday our teachers collaborated in the afternoon and we gathered reflections, suggestions, and ideas from those sessions, as well as from further surveys and working sessions at our monthly staff meetings. By April, we had collected, presented and examined a lot of feedback and received much guidance from our school community.
Hunch: From this work we developed a hunch…we were operating like a Junior High School and our school community needed a Middle School. This was not a comfortable process for us as many tough questions were asked and challenging observations were made.
New Professional Learning: Our students, parents, support staff, and teachers made recommendations about things that should be changed. Things like increasing student voice and choice, reducing the number of teachers working with each student, and creating more opportunities for teachers to work together were but a few of the suggestions. We augmented the observations, hunches, and suggestions with several key pieces of research that indicated the beginning of our focused learning. The First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, 10 Principles of a Modern School, and the This We Believe document by the Association for Middle Level Education were the three key anchors of our research that informed our hunches and actions. This was aided by the growth mindset that underscores our province’s redesigned curriculum and our Board of Education’s decision to move grade 6 students into our 7-9 school.
Taking Action: Next we had to take action.
Our teachers decided to make dramatic changes (please remember, context is everything). They decided to have homerooms and to work in teaching teams, taking responsibility for the learning of 50 students between two teachers. They decided that working in larger teams would be beneficial for shared learning and support. Consequently, we ended up with seven divisions of students registered in grades 6 and 7 (divided into 3 teams) and six divisions of students registered in grades 8 and 9 (divided into 3 teams). We were able to support this by having team meetings, common preps for each teaching pair, and having classrooms beside each other. We increased the access to electives students had and integrated inquiry for all students. We agreed on a common pro-d focus, pedagogical framework, and shifts in our assessment practices. In September we began with a totally different school and approach.
Checking: Throughout the year we continued to collect feedback from our students, parents, support staff, and teachers, checking to see how we are doing about achieving the goals we set for ourselves and for ways to improve learning. It has been a highly successful year. This week, our teachers will be looking at our journey to date and setting our direction for the next school year. This year we are looking forward to the conversations and excited by the possibilities. The inquiry process is becoming embedded in our work.
Reflections/Advice: Throughout the year we have been scanning and developing our hunches, and based on our learning, putting our informed hunches into action, constantly checking to see the impact of our work while looking for ways to improve learning. It has been an awesome year and our students are the benefactors of this work: as are we. The Spirals of Inquiry provide a template/framework for inquiry, and this is very valuable. But, the true value of this framework is how naturally it becomes an integral part of what we do and the way we approach our learning.
As I head into the summer I have had many opportunities – some of my own initiative and some directed – to reflect on our year. We took on many challenges this year and little was more prescient than when I showed this video at the beginning of the year as a metaphor for the year to come. More than half of the students were new to our school as were our teachers. We changed our grade configuration and our school structure. We have a totally redesigned curriculum to work with. We also changed our pedagogical approach. Ironically, it was not haphazard, but followed a year of deep consultation, observation and research; but, in a system averse to change, it was a daunting undertaking nonetheless.
Our teachers met at the end of August (2017) and committed to learning and growing together while improving the life of each child we worked with. As expected, our year was not a smooth, easy, predictable one, but it was a highly successful one. When we reflected on the six strategies we used to improve the lives of our students, we showed significant progress in every one of them. When we looked at the areas we decided to focus on in order to improve instruction (increased presence of the Arts; emphasis on place-based learning; emphasis on hands-on learning; and increasing student citizenship), we showed significant growth in each of them. And most significantly, when we talked with our students at the end of the year, they indicated that they had had a great year. And our staff, despite being exhausted, almost all wanted to be back next year and are excitedly making plans for even greater growth and learning.
My colleagues have asked how we did it, what is the secret? And I really do not know the answer to those questions. I believe that it comes down to the people who decided to take this challenge on. As educators we are learners by nature and when we can tap into that passion, great things happen. The vast majority of our staff chose to come on this journey. Last year we saw unprecedented opportunity for teacher and educational assistant movement and all incoming educators made an ‘eyes-wide-open’ choice to come to our school and to work with our students. Many returning educators were able to make a similar choice, but with the benefit of local knowledge. When you start from that shared perspective and are not beholden to ‘that which has always been,’ people take ownership in the process. We all knew we were doing something different and had an opportunity to put our ideals into practice, we just needed to figure out how to do that together. Our students shared in our journey as did their parents, and informed many of our actions. Another key factor was becoming open to discomfort: all of us were outside our comfort zone, but we had that in common. We were driven by a relentless restlessness and embraced risk-taking focused on meeting diverse student needs. I believe that it is through these mindsets that we were able to make such great strides, support our students’ learning as well as our own, and experience deep professional satisfaction.
As this year comes to an end, no matter how tired we are, we are eagerly looking forward to what we can do as a team next school year…but will gladly savour the summer ahead. I am very proud of the work we have done by authentically embracing a growth mindset and will spend this summer continuing to expand my skill-set to support our drive for excellence on behalf of our students.