Category Archives: Relationships

Sharing Circle – My foray into the unknown.


Last Wednesday I went looking for a branch. It was just prior to my first grade 9/10 leadership class of the year, and I found myself searching frantically for an ‘object’. Never before had I needed an ‘object’ to start the year, but this time was different from any of my other 18 starts to the teaching year.

With support and encouragement from two SD67 colleagues, Naryn Searcy (@nsearcy17) and Judith King (@judithaking), I decided it was time to try a sharing circle. It seemed that all of the pieces just fell together at the right time to push me out of my teacher-centered comfort zone. Just last week I attended a fantastic professional learning day put on by Judy Halbert (@jhalbert) and Linda Kaser (@lkaser). They started the day off by splitting the large group into two sharing circles and gave us these prompts: (1) share with the group one highlight from your summer and (2) let people know something you are looking forward to in the year to come. It was a great start to the day as everyone had a voice! Linda made an interesting comment to the effect that sharing circles have been a part of human existence for thousands of years, and should not be discounted as a powerful tool to aid in our communication and understanding of each other. This argument certainly caught my attention.

As the start of my leadership class drew near, I sought advice. Naryn was incredibly helpful in sending me a link to her site including the background and protocol for sharing circles. 

Back to the branch. Advanced planning has never been my forte, so it came as little surprise that i did not have an object ready for the first day of the circle. Five minutes before class I found myself removing a branch from a tree at school as there were none on the ground to choose from. For the record, the branch I selected looked to be one in need of pruning. A student passing by asked why I was removing a branch and I told her I needed it for class. As fate would have it, she was one of my leadership students.

DAY 1: The first attempt went quite well. I started by relaying the protocols listed by Naryn, but I did not post a sign on the door. There were only 14 students in my class, so I thought I would wait until the class lists were solidified. After covering the protocol, I asked the students to tell the group a little about themselves and I asked them to consider the two questions used by Halbert and Kaser.  The sharing circle start to the year was well outside my comfort zone, and I let the students know about my discomfort in trying something new. I also commented that leaders need to take risks and model that for others, and on that note I decided to go first. About half the class kept their responses very short, but a few students went into detail. I left class energized and excited about introducing a new element to my teaching. I was certain we were going to do another circle the following day.

DAY 2: During our second circle, we must have been interrupted about five times as new students entered the class. Clearly the counsellors were sorting out the grade 9 class lists as my class population of 14 soon turn to 28. As we expanded the circle by adding more chairs, I repeated the protocols for those new to the class. The sharing topic asked students to share their favourite movie or book, tell us a little about the premise and why they liked it. Naryn had advised me to give the students a few minutes to consider the question before starting. This was sage advice. The responses were much more detailed compared to day 1. As each student held the branch and shared their favourite entertainment portals or book choices, I could see that students around the circle react with gestures and expressions (silent) that showed agreement or approval. Based on this observation I decided to pass the branch around the circle again and let students respond to whomever they liked. One student started with, ‘I can relate to {student name] as I too like that book series.’ This stated a chain reaction with many students using the same intro statement. I watched students reach across the circle with their words of agreement, support and connection – it was really neat to see.

DAY 3: Students could choose between two questions: (1) What are your plans for the weekend? or (2) What is the scariest experience you have had in encountering an animal? The sharing went really well, with the more detailed responses entering around the second choice.

DAY 4 (Monday): To be fair to the animal kingdom, I asked students to share something about their favourite pet or animal, or they could choose to share a highlight from the weekend. The conversation was slow at first, but when I passed the branch around for the second time, there was a lot of responses to what others had shared.

Compared to last year, the first four classes have resulted in developing community much faster and I already get the sense that students are willing to share on a level usually experienced further into the year. I agree with those who promote this method of communication and community-building in that students feel empowered by either speaking or choosing to ‘pass’.

I will make a sincere attempt to  continue sharing of this experience as the year progresses. My intention is to start each week with a sharing circle. To be continued…


Week 5: We have started off each week with a circle and once in a while we run one mid-week. Some topics have included ‘scariest/funniest animal experience’, ‘defend your favourite fruit’, and a few others. Todays’ topic, ‘LOST & FOUND’, resulted in our best sharing circle yet. I shared a quick story with my students. Over the weekend I left an article of clothing at the hockey rink where I was part of a coaching clinic. In the pockets were my wedding ring, watch, $200 US, and my phone holder. Much to my delight, when I returned to the rink this morning the rink attendant had picked up the item and all contents were still in the pockets. I asked the students to select one of the following topics:

  • Tell us about something you have lost.
  • Tell the circle about something you found.
  • Share a time when you lost something and later found it.

The results were amazing. We had the branch go around the circle 6 times and the stories were funny, interesting, and even sad. Some students passed the branch four times and felt safe to share on the fifth lap. Before I even noticed, 50 minutes had gone by and students were still busy relating to one another, sharing personal accounts and listening to the oral histories of each other. It was incredible. I am seeing students beginning to weave in personal elements that up until now have been left out. A student mentions that he/she has not seen a family member for a long time, another mentions the closeness he feels with a sibling that has moved out, someone shares a now funny account of being terrified while lost in a crowd.

Today I asked students to reflect on their thoughts on the sharing circle experience thus far. Here are two journal entries that are typical of many. To be continued…

IMG_7331 IMG_7329

1 Comment

Filed under Relationships, Uncategorized

Learning on the Rocks

Elijah has become a very good mountain bike rider in a time span that baffles me.  He just turned 9 and he is riding sections of our trail that I would have predicted he would consider tackling in his teens. I have tried to dissect this experience in an effort to isolate some of the variables. As we climbed to the top of the trailhead this past weekend, I watched him, listened to his commentary and tried to determine what has ultimately led to his learning curve.


Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 9.35.05 PM

Confidence – Elijah has had a series of winning streaks when it comes to his riding, but this has not been by accident.  I have been strategic in selecting our own trail system as a place for him to gain confidence and to enjoy the feeling of overcoming small obstacles. As Kanter talks about in her book of the same title, it is confidence that is the corner stone of success.

Resiliency – I enjoyed Dweck’s work Mindset, and it has been a formative piece in how I talk about success in learning.  I find that I sway away from commenting on Elijah’s natural abilities, and rather I acknowledge the positive effects that stem from his IMG_1070perseverance, tenacity and practice.  When he achieves success, I assist in pointing out the things he did to enjoy success, rather than the abilities he has. Beneath his helmet the other day he spoke about what he is saying to himself as he climbs the hill.  I recorded the account and he spoke of chanting to himself on the toughest sections, ‘Go, Elijah, Go’.

Project-based learning – I will admit that some of our projects get a little out of hand, but I will argue that is one of the most appealing aspects of a project.  We lose ourselves, at first in the design of the task and even more so in the IMG_0996execution. As long as we have an idea of where we are going, it is the journey that can protract. I think that Elijah has become a better rider by exploring not only the scope of his cycling, but in the very design of the trails.  I think it is important that he realize that trails and bridges do not appear by accident. Hard work, real materials and actual time result in tangible creations that can form a personal legacy.

Mentorship – I discuss my own struggles, successes and challenges when we ride. I talk about the sections that most challenge me and I share with him the personal goals I have set.  He has watched me on the days when I overcome these challenges and on the days when I do not. Rather than just talking about how he should deal with disappointment, I let him into my world when I feel beaten and discouraged.  Thankfully, this also allows me to share with him the joy of attaining a goal.  When I reached a personal goal on the weekend, Elijah was there to take a photo of the spot:


Tools – Materials and equipment matter.  Mental tools and skills meld with the plastic and metal that we ride.  The tools at our disposal make a difference and the fruits of design can greatly assist in our physical and mental challenges. When I watch him ride I cannot divorce from reality how much he benefits from having a good bike, a decent helmet,  gloves and fresh water. When I think of the bike I was riding at his age, it is no wonder that I was not climbing a rocky trail.

Elijah’s bike (age 9):


My bike (age 9):









Feedback – Riding provides feedback of every type.  A steering misstep can result in bailing into the sand, gravel or a jagged rock. Investing extra effort can be the difference between a repeated failure and finally surpassing a nagging hurdle. The immediacy of the feedback he enjoys while riding syncs with the tangible connections he makes to his own actions.


Relationships – I asked Elijah on a recent ride to indicate what he thought had made the biggest difference in his riding.  He did not hesitate in his response: “You.” At first this answer startled me, so I asked him why he had cited his dad as the biggest reason.  Between the huffs and puffs of his climb, he mentioned that I am the one who suggests that we ride, I am the one who gives him pointers, I bought his bike and I am the one who encourages him to succeed.  In all humility, I tend to agree with him…perhaps I am the biggest impact on his riding.


I do not think that learning in the school setting is all that different from what we have discovered on the trail. Students need to enjoy exploring the mystery and intrigue of a project that knows no limits, but only starts with a clear direction.  Students need to draw connections between effort and success and to combine these experiences to form confidence.  Students need the adults in their lives to supply them tools and feedback in order to engineer winning streaks. Most of all, students need us to form relationships with them by devling into the world of the new and the unattained.  They are looking for us to hold their hands when they require stability and to let them go from time to time and risk falling.  Whether mountain biking or Social Studies, skiing or Science, learning is a combination of elements that are interrelated and predictable.  The responsibility we have as educators is to continually work to create the opportunity.

1 Comment

Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading

The Best Learning is Difficult to Define

Our district has a program running within it called Through a Different Lens (TADL).  As best as I can tell, it is a whole bunch of things that serve to personalize learning, without being one thing in particular.

Even people in the project seem purposefully vague when it comes to attaching labels to it.  Here is what I mean: A teacher in the project recently posted the results of a cool Math project.  Students were asked to go out of the class, in groups of four, and take pictures of fractions around the school property.  After deciding that some ‘real world’ scene warranted the classification of a ratio of some kind, the group of students interpreted the mathematical context of the photo using a sentence. Simple. Innovative. Engaging.  When I commented to one of the TADL project leaders that it looked a lot like Differentiated Instruction, I was met with, ‘Sure, I guess so,’ followed by a shrug.

The reaction was fitting, as there are many ways to classify something that makes learning fun and engaging:

If the students shared it, call it collaboration.

If they receive feedback during the learning process, call it formative assessment.

If they review each others photos, I guess it is peer assessment.

“And it is their own thing!”  Personalized Learning…check.

…therein lies the point.

Once in a while you come across a phenomenon that is many good things wrapped up in one, and with that, the very people running it are reluctant to hitch it to one popular term.   It reminded me of a great restaurant I visited in Austin last year.  After eating an incredible meal, I asked the server what he considered to be the establishment’s specialty. The server responded, “food”.

The Through a Different Lens Project is changing lives and you can read more about it at their blog.

Good teaching is creative, education needs to be centered on relationships, authentic learning is formative in its processes, and be default all of this is personal.  What so many people struggle with is how to assess something that is creative and personal according to learning outcomes that are seemingly both standardized and rigid.

I have shared a rather simple assignment template (see example below) with a lot of educators and it allows students to not only be creative, but to also purposefully plan out the medium of their choice and to explain specifically how they plan to tackle the learning objectives.  Using this template, the teacher can assess a project that is novel in its approach, but linked to learning outcomes that are well-established. The example below incorporates a template that is preloaded with the existing learning outcomes so that there is no guessing as to what the learning objectives are.  Secondly, the learning path begins with clear objectives so that the chances that a great project may go sideways are certainly reduced.  This eliminates the conundrum, ‘But it looks so good, it must be good.” Lastly, and most importantly, the student is in control of defining what will be investigated and the manner in which it will occur.  Assessing this Holocaust project was really easy for me, as the student’s ‘assessment map’ was presented with the project.  I must say that the idea behind this template is much like the TADL project: a result of collaboration with Naryn Searcy.

Myron Dueck

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 9.52.47 AM

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 9.53.00 AM

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 9.53.16 AM


Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading

Hockey, Measurement and Cognitive Dissonance – What do I do with what I know?

So it is that time of year again…hockey season.  Perhaps not for the NHL, but seemingly everywhere else in Canada.  My wife and I braced for the inevitable this fall – two kids in minor hockey and all the related practices, games, meetings and miles. As a parent I lace ‘em up for my own kids 3 to 4 times a week.  If it ever gets cold again, and our backyard rink freezes, that will change to 6 or 7 times a week.

Thanks to Hockey Canada, the emergence of a new season also brings with it testing and evaluation.  We put our young skaters through 6 different skill and speed activities to measure both development and comparison to other skaters across Canada in the same age group. Shooting accuracy, agility and speed are all measured and assessed.


A nation-wide measurement tool naturally comes with some parameters and rules.  For instance, in one of the speed drills we use a stopwatch to measure the speed at which each skater completes a set route.  It was suggested that one of the rules was that skaters be given 2 chances to register a time and we would take the best time.  When I took on this particular station last year, stop watch and clipboard in hand, it seemed pretty simple.  That was until ‘Jimmy’ took his turn.  Jimmy was arguably our team’s best skater – fast, agile and nimble.  In games he usually scored his three maximum allowable goals and for the sake of this topic, he very seldom fell to the ice.


When he took his turn for the timed speed event, he gave it his all, but fell on his first two attempts as he sought to lean extra low  into the third corner.  I attempted to counsel Jimmy that he make sure he complete the course and register a good time, even if it was not his absolute best time possible.  I bent the rules a little and gave him a third attempt.  On his third attempt he fell again on the same corner.  Drat.


Enter cognitive dissonance. A while back I listened to a compelling episode from CBC’s program Ideas inspired by the book ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)’

Cognitive Dissonance according to Skeptic’s Dictionary:

Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions. The theory is that dissonance, being unpleasant, motivates a person to change his cognition, attitude, or behavior. This theory was first explored in detail by social psychologist Leon Festinger, who described it this way:

Dissonance and consonance are relations among cognitions that is, among opinions, beliefs, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of one’s own actions and feelings. Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together; that is, if they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other (Festinger 1956: 25).


He argued that there are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. He did not consider these mutually exclusive.

  1. One may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance;
  2. One may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or,
  3. One may try to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger 1956: 25-26).

Back to Jimmy. I found myself in a state of cognitive dissonance.  On one hand, based on all other experiences and observations, I knew he was our fastest skater who usually sakted an entire game without falling.  On the other hand, I felt bound to record him as our slowest skater based on his three failed speed attempts and my understanding of the Hockey Canada rules.

To alleviate my discomfort, I felt drawn to saying, ‘tough luck, kid’ as I could find refuge in the rules and the related societal norms:

  1. This skater was only supposed to be allowed two attempts, and I had already sought to help him by giving him a third.
  2. It would not be fair to the others to give him seemingly unlimited attempts.
  3. We didn’t have time to give him more attempts.
  4. Bending the rules sets a poor example for others.
  5. He needs to learn there are consequences to trying to skate recklessly fast.

Despite amassing a plethora of reasons why I should not give yet another chance, one glaring belief remained – the data did not seem to reflect his skating ability, but rather how he was approaching the assessment.

What would you do in this situation?

I find the same cognitive dissonance issue arises around zeros, late deductions and other effort/behaviour elements factored into grading.  Punitive/consequential grading too often flies against what we either know, or think, of the student’s actual knowledge or ability.

I would argue that of all the assignments, projects and tests that I have ever graded in 16 years of education, zero has been by far the least used number.  Despite this fact, I have many times assessed a missing assignment as zero when a student failed to submit an assignment. How have I navigated this rather glaring state of cognitive dissonance?  Go back to the rules:

  1. It would not be fair to others.
  2. Teach a societal or life lesson.
  3. I warned them.
  4. The course outline clearly stated the rules.
  5. No formal evidence of learning equals a zero.

But then again, what if I know the student knew something.  Darn cognitive dissonance.





1 Comment

Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading

Poverty and the Grading of Homework

The conversation around how schools can react to poverty typically centers around reduced breakfast and lunch programs.  On a few occasions I have heard people express concern as to the access that poverty-affected students have to sports programs, band and other extra-curricular activities.  I have never heard people discuss specifically how the grading of standardized homework is but one more hurdle for students living with poverty.  I think the time has come.

I just finished reading Eric Jensen’s book, ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids and what schools can do about it”.  In the first three chapters alone, Jensen dumps upon the reader a stifling pile of challenges faced by students living with poverty.  Here is a small sample:

Students living with poverty…

–       are more likely to live in a crowded home

–       inherit low self-esteem

–       own fewer books

–       watch more tv

–       inherit negative views of school

–       have a 50% chance of dealing with evictions, utility disconnection, overcrowding or lack a fridge

–       have mentally adapted to suboptimal conditions

–       have higher tardiness and absentee rates

It should be clear to just about anyone that this litany of hurdles would make completing homework difficult, if not impossible.  To subject students to the grading of standardized, impersonal homework is questionable on so many levels, and I would argue that poverty-related challenges should be at the top of the list.  When any student arrives with incomplete homework, we as educators can never be certain of the reasons.   We should never assume that it is due to a lack of effort, but perhaps a safe assumption is that our most financially-challenged students have faced negative factors well beyond their control.


Filed under Assessment, In-School Suspension Inquiry, Relationships, Sound Grading

The Art of Keeping Your Head Down

Last week my wife and I were in Greece as I was presenting at the NESA Leadership Conference in Athens.  As we arrived in the city, it became really clear that strikes had impacted the normal flow of people and services.  Garbage piles littered the city and many local attractions were temporarily closed.  The taxi driver who brought us to our hotel explained to us on the 30-minute drive the many things that personally concerned him about Greece’s financial and political future. The austerity measures being considered by the Greek government in order to be eligible for European bail-outs were indeed opposed by many people.

The next morning, on October 19, we decided to take a walk through the downtown, or Plaka, but we were warned that most stores and attractions would be closed and that there would not be public transit of any kind.  Athens was on a general strike.   Furthermore, we were strongly encouraged to avoid the downtown areas were protesters were expected to gather.  Both the hotel staff and the organizers of the conference warned us that violence was expected from some protestors.

I have to admit that the social studies teacher in me yearned to walk close enough to the downtown area to at least gain a flavour for what large-scale public protest really looked like.  For weeks I had followed the story on BBC World News, and I was drawn to take a closer look.  As we walked towards Constitution Square, it was not hard to know the direction of the protests.  Streams of people flowed through the narrow streets all heading towards the Greek Parliament buildings. Many people carried signs and wore common colours which I assumed represented their respective organizations.

As we arrived at the central square we saw thousands of people standing around and chatting.  There was a very casual feel to the crowd and to the groups of police and military personnel who occupied the government grounds.  The tone changed slightly however, as around noon a lot of people began to arrive who were carrying large pieces of wood to which red flags were attached.  Clearly the diameter of these ‘flag holders’ suggested that they might serve a dual purpose.  Perhaps more distressing was the arrival of many younger protesters who were wearing black hoodies and carried motorcycle helmets and/or gas-masks.

Noticing that a local hotel had a roof-top restaurant, we decided to head up for a better view.  Once we were seven stories up we could see the protest taking shape.  The vast majority of the people were setting up formation in order to march, whereas a separate group was beginning to clash with the authorities over by a barrier to the government buildings.  The din of the crowd grew as more people arrived and this noise seemed only to encourage the more radical sect confronting the police.

Over the next hour or so, we watched as the protesters laid siege to the crowd barriers.  We watched people disassemble railings and proceed to throw the iron bars at the riot police.  Large chunks of concrete were hurled through the air along with chairs, signs and Molotov cocktails.  I could see people defacing walls with spray paint and I watched as a young man smashed a window with a metal bar, only to then hurl the pipe once the window was shattered.  I was absolutely mesmerized at the sight, but at the same time I was distinctly saddened to watch so many people destroy a space that 2 hours earlier looked unscathed.  The whole time I had been taking a lot of photos.

After tear gas wafted up to our rooftop, and we understood why it is called ‘tear gas’, we were asked to leave the balcony area.  Once inside I wanted desperately to get to the ground level to continue watching the protest and to get pictures from the street.  Despite once again being encouraged by the hotel staff to just remain indoors, we asked to be let out of the hotel. The front lobby doors were barricaded with riot shields, so they escorted us down a hallway to a back alley.

As we left out the back door, we found ourselves in a scene of chaos.  In what would normally be a quaint alley lined with trendy coffee shops and stores, now burned large piles of rubbish.  Many people’s faces were white from the tear gas and others forced themselves through the crowd carrying makeshift weapons.  The explosions from the Molotovs were booming through the air as the smell and feel of tear gas was everywhere.

Despite the scene, neither my wife nor I felt in any imminent danger, as long as we just blended into the crowd.  Most alarming to me was that the courage I thought I had moments ago on the seventh floor of the hotel had vanished.  Though I watched a protestor spray painting the marble wall of a bank, just steps from a police officer on a BMW motorcycle, I did not dare take out my camera to shoot the scene.  I somehow sensed that if I were to start taking pictures something bad would happen.  My wife took a few pictures with her miniature camera, and that is why we have a few pictures from that alley.

We eventually drifted out of the downtown with thousands of others who felt they had experienced enough of the demonstration.  After walking 4 blocks or so, I conjured up the courage to take out my camera and take a few pictures.  It had been a remarkable experience.

I have thought a lot about this event in the week or so since it occurred.  I think I am still processing it, but a few distinct thoughts have emerged.

  1. I really respect and admire the journalists who each and every day bring us the stories from around the world where violence and danger abound.  All my life I have watched scenes on the news of such events, and only when you really hear, see and smell the scenes found on the news do you get a sense for the contribution these people make to our understanding of world events.
  1. Not since sometime in grade school had I found myself in a position where I just wanted to vanish for my own good; the desire to just keep my head down and blend in.  Fearing for one’s safety from the larger population, regardless of the reasons, is an experience worth feeling from time to time.

I don’t know if it is too much of a stretch, but I did think of students, who for their own safety, drift through the school trying to remain unnoticed.  Though they may or may not face physical violence, they do find it preferential to keep as low a profile as possible.  I think it was good for me to feel this way too, even for a little while.


Filed under Personal, Relationships

She met the learning outcomes…but she doesn’t deserve to pass.

It is that time of year.  Some schools call it ‘evaluation’, some refer to it as ‘transition’, and others call it ‘adjudication’. Whatever the title, this week in high schools across BC, gatherings of teachers, councilors and admin will be held to determine the academic standing of students on the pass/fail bubble.

These conversations bring to the forefront a philosophical divide when encountering the “dilemma” of what to do with some at-risk students who either pass a given course, or come surprisingly  close to it.  In some cases the criteria for determining whether or not a student has shown sufficient evidence for competency around learning outcomes gets rather blurry.

Take the following scenario, which may or may not be from my own personal experience:

Claire, a 14 year-old grade 9 student, has missed a lot of school time, some of which certainly appears to be of her own making.  When she is not sick or skipping class, she clearly struggles socially and has few friends.  As her grade level administrator, I have met with her and her mother on numerous occasions, and besides my comments and questions, little else is offered by Claire or her mom. I have informed all of her teachers that there certainly appears to be issues within the family.  Claire’s mother never comes out for Parent-Teacher interviews and often excuses her daughter from missed classes for being ‘ill’.  Despite all the meetings and behavioural consequences like DTs for missed class, Claire’s behaviours have deteriorated.  Perhaps of little surprise, academic penalties for missed tests, late work and poor participation have not had the desired effect either.  In short, Claire has had a rather dismal year.

Her four terms in a linear Science 9 class have resulted in the following percentage grades and comments:

Term 1:     56             Claire needs to complete homework and improve attendance.

Term 2:     51            Greater participation would improve grade.

Term 3:     42            Missing assignments have resulted in a lower mark.

Term 4:     30            Missed classes and incompletes have resulted in failing mark.

Term Average: 44.75%                         Final  Exam: 65%

With the average of the four terms accounting for 80% of the final outcome and the exam the remaining 20%, Claire’s final course standing was 48.8%.

At our adjudication meeting, there are three possible outcomes for Claire.  For one, she could retake Science 9 in order to qualify for regular Science 10 and later be eligible for Chemistry 11, Physics 11 and Biology 11.  The second outcome could see her get an SG (Standing Granted) for Science 9, but this would relegate her to Science 10A and eventually the less academic stream of Science and Tech 11. Lastly Claire could enroll in 2 weeks of summer school, possibly boost her academic standing, and if she passed she could enroll in regular Science 10.

In a chance hallway meeting between Claire’s classroom teacher and myself, we struck up a conversation around the various outcomes for Claire.  Despite me mentioning that Claire clearly passed the final exam, it was obvious that the teacher was vehemently opposed to Claire be granted a passing grade based on the evidence to date.

We had the following conversation:

I asked, “Would you be open to counting the final exam as sufficient evidence to have Claire pass the Science 9 course?”

“Absolutely not,” the teacher responded.

“Why not?”

“She has a final mark of 48.8 percent and according to school policy that is not a pass.  She needs at least 50 percent overall.”

“But she did get well over 50 percent on the final exam,” I argued.

“The final exam makes up only 20 percent of the final grade.”

Pausing for a moment, I decided to explore another avenue.  I asked, “Is your final exam a comprehensive sampling of the course material?”

“I think it is a solid exam, and it covers all of our course,” the teacher replied.

I continued, “So, you do think it covers all of the learning outcomes?”


Perhaps in response to seeing the direction the conversation was about to take, the teacher countered, “She may have met the learning outcomes, but she does not deserve to pass.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“She has skipped way too many classes, she has missing assignments and she has a horrible attitude.  She needs to be taught accountability and the importance of coming to class.”

To be honest, I could not quite wrap my brain around the comment, ‘She may have met the learning outcomes, but she does not deserve to pass.’

From this conversation I propose the following points:

  1. Let Walmart, or whoever might employ her this summer, teach her that regular attendance and punctuality really matters.
  2.  If some universities, trades and other institutions reserve the right to use ONLY the outcome of a comprehensive exam to determine academic standing, could the teacher of a public school not also have this right?
  3. Given the arbitrary allocation of 80/20 term to exam weightings, would the result of these weightings not at best be a guideline to determining final course standing? (Had it been 60/40 like many provincial exams, she would have passed easily.)
  4. With so many variables impacting the regular course grade such as homework completion, attendance, family stability, hunger, poverty, social issues, maturity, drugs and alcohol, would a solid exam result not be considered especially valid to measure the extent to which a student does or does not meet the learning outcomes?
  5. Could we develop grading policies that allow teachers to use all tools at their disposal to determine the most accurate grade at any given time?
  6. Could we stop proposing that one established, and arbitrary, weighting system provides fairness to all?

Until this same time next year…


Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading, Uncategorized

Why are we doing this? (Part II)

How We Designed our In-School Suspension System

In my last post I detailed the process that saw a number of us at Pen Hi arrive at wanting an alternative to the traditional method of sending a student home for a drug suspension.  As stated, there were a number of reasons why we wanted to initiate a new system, and in this post I will describe the process we have implemented.

We had a number of  goals in structuring our In-School Suspension (ISS) System, most of which surrounded the desire to remove the student from his/her normal social circle, while adding interventions designed to help him/her address the problem of drug use.  Perhaps as the most important side-effect, wewanted to see the student return to class in a better position academically than when he/she had left.

With this in mind, we wanted…

  1. to find places in our building where the suspended student could work in ‘supported isolation’.
  2. to efficiently and effectively notify the student’s teachers of the suspension and collect work from them.
  3. to connect the student to adults in the building who could address the issue of drug use.
  4. to connect the student with academic supports that would last for the duration of the ISS and beyond.


We identified places in our building that could serve as appropriate locations to place ISS students.  The obvious rooms to use were our Learning Assistance Centre (LAC) rooms, both of which had teachers on hand at all times who had experience in assisting at-risk students.  It was nice to have the option between two of these rooms for a number of reasons:

  • If the student had friends working in one room, we could select the other location.
  • If one room was full or some other conflict arose, we could direct the student to the preferred environment.
  • We could make strategic decisions as to which LAC instructor might be better matched to the student.

If both LAC rooms were unavailable or considered to be in contrast to our stated goals, other locations were also considered, if even for a temporary period.  Some of these places included the counselling area, the front office waiting area, our conference room or a classroom.


One of our counsellors designed a table that came pre-loaded with information fields and a checklist for all appropriate information such as the date, student name, location of ISS, duration of ISS, etc.  As well, the table was embedded in an email that was preloaded with all of the addresses for the counselling staff, administration, youth worker and front office staff. All the administrator issuing the suspension had to do was select ‘reply to all’ and add the emails of the classroom teachers of the student serving the ISS.  Once this email was sent out, every adult in the building who needed to know about the ISS was informed.  The table also indicated where the teacher could send work for the student to complete.

Drug and Alcohol Support

We have benefitted greatly from our association with Rob McGirr from the Surrey School District.  Todd Manuel, one of the leaders of our ISS inquiry, had previously worked with Rob and knew about the fantastic work he did around drug use. The scope of Rob’s work in this area is too broad to share in this blog post, but in essence he directed us in three significant areas:

  1. He shared with us how to administer a drug self-assessment to a student found to be using drugs or alcohol.
  2. He has modeled for us the process of facilitating a group meeting of drug-impacted students.
  3. He has been able to address the most common concerns and general challenges in working with drug-impacted youth.


We have been using this model for over a year and personally I could not imagine going back to our previous system.  While there are still isolated situations that call for us to send a student off-campus, we probably administer about 90% of our suspensions on an ISS format.

In talking with any of the adults that are a part of the ISS system, it is clear that all of us have recognized the increased connectedness with our most at-risk students.  Following a 3-day in-school suspension, it is common to hear a staff member comment on how he/she has a clearer idea on the interests and character of the suspended student.

About a year ago we started writing down anecdotal comments from our ISS students and the staff members who worked with them.  Many of these comments not only entrenched our existing views of the ISS system, but they highlighted benefits we had not considered before.  Here is a sampling of a few of these comments:

  • ‘This in-school suspension system sucks, but it works!  I mean i got all caught up in my homework and I have never had that before.’ (male student, gr.9)
  • Man I am caught up!  Seriously, I don’t know if you know how big a deal this is, but I am caught up on my homework and that hasn’t happened since…what…grade 6?’  (male student, grade 9)

From a staff member who worked in one of the LAC rooms:

It was a very positive experience, I think for both of us, in many ways.  John* was able to get caught up on all of his homework. He worked very hard both days. It also provided a great opportunity for him and me to connect on a much stronger level. I hadn’t realized how very at risk he is before these two days as his marks and attendance are quite strong. He’s not one who would have stood out to me as needing a tremendous amount of support. Now, he stops and chats with me in the hallway about things like basketball, novels we’re reading, assignments he’s working on. Because of this ISS model, he has now made 4 significant, strong adult connections in the school: his counsellor, the youth worker, his vice principal, and his LAC teacher. If we had opted to send this boy home for his suspension instead, I think we would have risked beginning that push out the door when school is the one stable, positive force in his life.

* the student’s name has been changed to protect anonymity


We are into our second school year of developing and implementing an ISS system.  It has been incredible to see the way in which we have transformed the manner in which we react to situations that traditionally have resulted in us ostracizing students.  We are building stronger relationships, improving academic success and connecting with students least likely to be connected.  Above all, personally I have dramatically reduced the number of times I have had to walk students to the door and say goodbye for a 3-5 days – especially at a time in which they can least afford it.

Leave a comment

Filed under In-School Suspension Inquiry, Relationships

Why Are We Doing This? (Part I)

Our experience in implementing an in-school suspension system.

The Problem

When I first filled the role as Vice-Principal of Penticton Secondary, few decisions were clearer than what to do with students caught using or possessing drugs at school.  A student caught in such an offence was given a 3-day suspension of they agreed to visit an outside drug counselling agency and was administered a 5-day suspension if they declined to seek counselling.  I followed a fairly simple routine: bust student for drug use, question him or her, call parent, write suspension letter, and wait for the parent to pick the drug-impacted student.  Those steps were pretty easy to follow, but the part that became increasingly difficult, was when I walked the student to the door to meet the disgruntled parent.  I found myself saying something like:

‘I really hate saying this, and it is the least favorite part of my job, but you cannot be on our school property for the next 3 days.’

The problem was, I really did hate it.  Too often I handed the student off to a parent who was not in a great frame of mind or position to deal with the situation. Too often the parent was heading straight back to work and I knew the student would be alone.  Too often the student lamented the fact he or she would be missing class and would be even further behind when he or she returned. Too often I feared a violent or critical incident might  ensue at the parent hand-off, or worse, after the parent and student had left the grounds.   Simply stated, it did not feel right, and the more times I went through this process, the more I felt resigned that we [the school] were somehow missing the mark.

On days when I would send a student away for 3 to 5 days, I heard myself  debriefing to my wife things like:

‘Every bone in my body tells me this is not the right course of action.’

‘I hope (Michael) is ok for the next 3 days.’

‘I wonder how we will every get (Susan) caught up after her suspension is over.’

The Solution

One of the best days I can recall from my first year as a high school vp, was when I realised that I was not the only one questioning our suspension system as it related to drug-impacted and affected youth.  The teachers who worked most closely with some of the students I suspended would cringe at the thought of losing contact with them, especially when they worked so hard to keep these students caught up.  One day a few of us who had been questioning this practice went for lunch  and began to share our frustrations.  It became clear very quickly that there were obvious reasons why conventional, out-of-school suspension systems, were failing our most at-risk, drug-impacted and affected teens.

The moment an out-of-school suspension was given, the teen…

  1. fell further behind in his classes and was left in a position of returning with even less understanding of the material
  2. felt even more isolated from the school the longer she was ostracised
  3. was separated from the adults he most needed…at the time he most needed them
  4. ran the risk of being further stigmatized and labeled as a  ‘drug kid’
  5. was able to partake in, or further entrench himself in, the very behaviours that led to the suspension (smoke up in a vacant house!)
  6. often set into motion plans to pull other students from class during the suspension period

Once we were able to articulate and isolate the reasons we had questioned our practice, we began to shift our paradigm around what we did with our at-risk sector – we were able to get around to building a new system.  No matter which direction we took, our conversation seemed to come back to relationships.  Our most drug-impacted students needed to be linked to positive adults in our school community and it was incumbent upon us to build a process accordingly.

We started with an inquiry question:

“If we introduced and implemented an in-school suspension system, would we see an increased level of school connectedness with some of our most at-risk students?”

Todd Manuel, a Special Education teacher at Penticton Secondary, took over the helm and has been absolutely instrumental in the design and implementation of this inquiry.  Along with a team of focused educators we now are feeling that we are supporting our drug-impacted students like never before.
The results were amazing…
(Next post: How we built the system and the results.)


Filed under In-School Suspension Inquiry, Relationships

Social Anxiety in Students

I just read a very good blog post – one that should give educators cause to reflect.  I suggest you read it.

William Chamberlain poses the following questions:

  • What are you doing in your classroom for kids like me that some days are barely hanging on until they can get back home where they can relax?
  • Have you actively sought out the quiet kids or the ones that don’t seem to make friends and spend a few minutes with them?
  • If you go out of your way to make them more comfortable, they will be more successful in your classroom.

Looking at these questions reminded me of a student I had in History 12.  Let’s refer to him as Jon.

Jon hadn’t been very successful in previous Social Studies classes, but he wanted to take part in History 12.  His attendance was good, he scored approximately 60% on most assessments and he NEVER contributed to the conversation.  When it came time for presentations or group work he disappeared.  At first I didn’t figure it out, but soon it became apparent that he knew what we were up to and as soon as I was about to return to my normal lecture format he would miraculously reappear.

Once I tried to get ‘tough’ and I attempted to force him into taking on a speaking role in our Holocaust Coroners activity, but he did not want to play a role and rather left me a note.  I have kept it…

‘Mr. Dueck you are a good teacher and I really like your class.  You seem like a nice guy and I love the material.  I will not however, be taking part in any public presentations.  It does not matter what you say or do…I won’t do it.  Nothing on earth scares me more than speaking in front of others.  If you force me to do it, I will probably end up telling you to F*** Off, you will be forced to react to my comment, and we will all be worse off for it.  I will just avoid class until it is all over and you can give me a zero.’ –  Jon

I went home and shared this with my spouse who is not a teacher, and she leveled with me as well, explaining that her worst days of high school, without a doubt, were the public presentation days. ‘You guys [teachers] get up in front of people all the time, everyday – you just don’t get it.’

The next day I found Jon, nowhere near my classroom or the library where the rest were researching their presentations, and I asked if he cared to do a personal project on his days off.  He jumped at the chance and I told him that regular classes would resume on Monday.  After the weekend he was in his usual seat as predicted, the imminent threat had passed.

A few weeks later I noticed him doodling on his desk and instead of ripping into him about graffiti, I asked if I could buy him a sketchbook.  The resulting collection of artwork, a day-to-day account of our material as seen through the eyes of an artist, is a book I cherish to this day.

I see Jon from time to time and I carry his sketchbook to nearly all of my presentations.  Jon taught me a few things, or at least entrenched what I had suspected:

  1. It is my job to lower stress and anxiety in the classroom, not exacerbate it.
  2. I was the dictator in my classroom and the ‘keeper of the gate’ when it came to who could demonstrate knowledge, how it would be done and when.  The avenues in which I allowed a student to display knowledge would directly impact the extent to which he or she was able to.
  3. Learning is number one, engagement is critical, the method is malleable.  Let students, ‘Show what they know’.
  4. It is all about relationships.

ps.  Today Jon is a successful artist and lover of all things History…especially WWII.


Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading