When do we Innovate?

One more day of classes, and then formal exams begin at my school.  It’s Sunday morning, and I’m imagining my teachers’ struggle to decide whether to tackle that last stack of marking from the term, or head out to enjoy an amazing, sunny Sunday.

CourosI’m reading George Couros’ (@gcouros)“The Innovator’s Mindset – Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity”, or rather scanning it while procrastinating.

Each year I struggle, trying to decide when to reach out to my teachers to encourage innovation.  This week it’s “We’re still marking, I can’t think about next year”.  Next week it will be “Just getting everything organized from this year, and I’m ready for a break”.  And when they arrive for the first staff meeting of the year, on the first day of school, it will be “It’s too late now, I have my semester planned out”.

I’ve had reasonable success when our collaborative work occurs near the end of the first semester, and there’s time to make changes for the second semester.  But then there’s the question:  “Is it fair to our students to change our assessment, instruction, and evaluation for a course mid-year?  Aren’t we supposed to be consistent to ensure fairness for all students?”

Here’s some of what I’d like my teachers to hear from me, and consider sometime between now and when they begin to plan for next year:

  1. The curriculum expectations are a framework:  turn them into concrete learning goals in clear learner-language, and then have your students co-construct the success criteria with you.  You’ll be surprised what they might suggest:  maybe more observations and conversations, and few products?
  2. Think about what you’d like to experience in a 75-minute class, and ensure that what you plan incorporates some of what you’d enjoy.  Remember that while you are up and moving around the room, sometime your students are trapped in their desks.
  3. Think about some of the instructional strategies you’ve experienced in your professional learning activities this year.  If you liked them, work them into your practice, if you didn’t, take them out.
  4. Keep your eye on the ball.  Write your own mission statement for your course, and then check your work against this standard.
  5. Talk to your friends and colleagues.  Even those who are not teachers can provide you with excellent feedback on your ideas.

And what are my plans for next year?

  1. I’m going to clearly state my learning goals at each of our staff meetings, early release days, and professional learning days., and try modeling co-construction of success criteria, rather than “giving” them to my staff.
  2. I’m going to continue trying to make our time together as a staff meaningful, and not waste the valuable time together on activities we could do individually either before or after we meet.
  3. I’m going use ONLY instructional strategies that I want to see in our classrooms:  no more PowerPoint slide stacks with content that could have been posted or sent out via email.
  4. I’m going to work on language to express my mission statement, and share it each time we meet.
  5. I’m going to, again, try to blog, and reach out beyond my school community for feedback.

I’m hoping that the seeds we planted this year with the development of each department’s Theory of Action, with our viewing of “Most Likely to Succeed” http://www.mltsfilm.org/ , and with a continuing approach of saying “yes” to ideas, will be pay off as we reflect this summer.

Over the summer, I’ll blog more frequently, and use this as a means to capture and develop my ideas for innovation.  And maybe I’ll be brave enough to join our Peel DSB colleague, Tina Zita @tina_zita, and pull my thoughts together in a TEDx talk:  https://misszita.wordpress.com/2016/06/18/taking-a-leap-tedx-talk/

Feedback welcome!



#IMMOOC – Tradition vs Innovation


renegadeLast week I enjoyed the final #IMMOOC conversation online with Brad Gustafson, Katie Martin and George Couros.  I was mid-way through Brad’s book, and have now finished reading it.

The strongest “take-away” for me was Brad’s discussion of our frequent focus on the innovators in our schools, often at the expense of those who are continuing to do great work.  My school has a strong tradition, and is proud of that fact.  Some of my teachers are offended by our efforts to innovate, seeing this as a challenge to their experience and expertise.

As a leader, my job is to celebrate our excellence, and then coach our teachers to work for incremental improvement based upon this strong foundation.  One strength in our school is the work we do with our students in preparation for the annual Literacy Test.

This fall our literacy team made use of a Google Classroom with our 425 students preparing for the online Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, to be written this past week.  Though the test was an “epic fail” (in the words of our students), we now have an environment in which our students can continue to develop their literacy skills, and be even better prepared when they write in March.

(In case you missed it, the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office provided an opportunity to write the annual OSSLT this fall, to test out the new online version ahead of the scheduled test next March.  It resulted in 100,000 plus students sitting looking at white screens for more than two hours before the test was cancelled.)

The use of Google Classroom has leveraged the excellent work done by our teachers over the past years with individual students, and provided students and parents with the resources and support to improve their skills and be successful on this graduation requirement.

We need to continue to look for ways to connect excellent teacher practice with the tools to reach beyond their individual classrooms.  As I see it, why not start with those already near the top?


Laying the Foundation for Innovation – #IMMOOC Weeks 3 & 4


It’s been a couple of busy weeks for me, mostly because I have been involved in George Couros’ fourth foundational activity:  “Create meaningful learning experiences for educators”.  It was the first week of the month, so it began on Monday with a staff meeting.

We looked at the theories of action that we framed at our September meeting, and placed them in context within the Ontario Ministry of Education goals, the School Board Goals, and our existing School Success goals.  Our department teams then worked to craft this year’s department theories of action, and begin the work of a six-week Professional Learning Cycle. Department teams continued this work during our Professional Learning Day on Friday, will collaborate throughout the next six weeks, and will conclude the cycle at our November 18th Professional Learning Day.

During this time we will meet one more time, at our November staff meeting.  And since we’ll be in the middle of this learning cycle, we’re going to plan for sharing of best practices using technology, to support our teaching and assessment.  Our colleagues will present best practices within our Student Information System (particularly our use of notes to share information among our teams), how to access historical student data to inform practice, the new Read/Write functionality in Google docs, the support we can access via our ITRT (Instructional Technology Resource Teacher), and how to use  Google sheets for assessment.

So, I’ve been reflecting, and considering how well both these learning opportunities will support us to develop the 21st century skills our students need.  In the spring, I reflected on how we might achieve this in a paper, implementation-of-21st-century-competencies, I wrote for one of my courses relating to educational policy.  In my role as a Principal, I am continually making the connections from learner, to curriculum, to teacher, and to policy.  And I love that technology is making it easier to connect, communicate, share, and grow.  Your feedback would be greatly appreciated!

George Couros is modeling for us, by starting his YouTube channel with his #LeadMoment clips to share his leadership pointers.  There’s something about seeing a face, and hearing a voice, that brings ideas to life.  So perhaps my next challenge is to shift my weekly “From the Oak Office” section of our newsletter, to a video format.

Am I ready to move from the relative anonymity of a blog post, to the much more vulnerable video format?  Well, if I want my students and teachers to do so, guess I have to lead the way.

Keep posted!


Reorganization with an Innovator’s Mindset


It’s Week #2 of the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC, and the end of Week #3 of school here in Ontario, Canada.  In my school board, we are now in the middle of “reorg”, a process whereby we meet the class size limits as set by the Ministry of Education and negotiated with our teachers’ unions.  In my school we have had to restructure, and on Thursday I informed three of our teachers that they’ll be moving to a new school in a week’s time.

This is not a new process, and I am reflecting back on my first experience of the process, 30 years ago.  I believe that “reorg” is likely the  experience that set me on the path of my own personal “Innovator’s Mindset”, developing the characteristics of Empathy, Problem Finding, Risk-Taking, Networking, Observance, Creating, Resilience, and Reflection in my own teaching practice.  I’m hoping that my three “excess” teachers will find their experiences to be equally positive.

In October 1986 I was 4-months pregnant with my first child, and I was excited to have my first team-teaching class on my timetable:  a grade 9 instrumental music class where I would instruct the brass, and my colleague would have the woodwinds and percussion.  We had an amazing first month.  Then, the administration looked at our numbers and decided that our grade 9 English classes were over capacity, and that our music class of 39 could be taught by one teacher alone.

Despite my colleague having qualifications in English (which I did not), seniority prevailed, and I was assigned to teach Grade 9 Advanced English, to a new class of 34 students made up of 3 or 4 students from each of the other classes.

Resilient – In 1986, both I and my students had our first test of our resilience, as each of them adjusted to my teaching style, and as I worked to build community within our class.  In the 2016 era of “lawnmower parents”, I hope my current teachers will welcome their opportunity for a genuine test of resilience as we reorganize, and will be optimistic and supportive when this year’s 200+ grade 9 students receive their new timetables on Monday.

Reflective – I wasn’t very reflective in 1986 – I could barely keep up with each day’s demands as I taught my new English class, my guitar class, and my introduction to computers (programming) course.  In 2016, my teachers make good use of social media, are supportive in collaborative practice at school, and most likely utilize reflection with their students on a daily basis.

Empathetic – As a 26-year-old, about-t0-be-mother, novice teacher, this was definitely an area of growth.  It’s difficult to look beyond oneself when one is barely keeping up.  My current young teachers have had the benefit of our work over the past decade in school climate, character education, and differentiation, and we hire with empathy as one of our “look-fors”.  Today’s students and teachers are much better prepared for this week’s “reorg”, and have access via the Internet to many more resources, than did we 1986.

Observant – While I might have been trying to be observant in 1986, I didn’t have the view beyond my classroom that is now afforded educators via the Internet and social media.  My documentation tools were paper and pen in my computer/math/English classes, and a cassette tape recorder in my music classes.  Today’s teachers in 2016 can easily document, annotate, and feed back their observations, with a wide range of digital tools.  These observations can easily be communicated, and will assist our students when their timetable change requires a change of teacher and class.

Problem Finding – The question to start with, both in 1986 and now, is:  “How can this experience help my students and me grow?”  And the answers will be different for each teacher and each student, but I believe they will all be positive.

Networked – There is no question that this is easier now than thirty years ago.  When my English department head handed me the stack of reading for Grade 9 English, and told me that we assessed in four categories:  Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, I knew that I’d be back in the department office throughout the semester.  I had a support team of experienced teachers, who were all willing to share their best practices with me.  Now, in 2016, my teachers have access not only to their school’s team, but virtually any English teacher in the world as potential colleagues.  My three “excess” teachers know that they will always be able to connect with and be supported by their current colleagues, as they move on to their next school.

Risk-Taker & Creator – “Reorg” in 1986 taught me that I could take risks, and that the result would be infinitely better!  My grade 9 students finished “Summer of my German Soldier”, and made strong connections to “Diary of Anne Frank”, and  then linked both when we attended a performance of the play at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto.  When we moved on to the Mythology Unit (the one unit I hated when I was in grade 9), we considered the role of mythology in culture and religion, and each student developed their own world in which myths explained all of the huge mysteries of life.  Their 3-D cardboard models, and written descriptions, finally taught me the mythology I had missed!  And when I chose to focus on popular ballads from the top 40 in our poetry unit, I learned more about my students (and about their parents’ concerns about song lyrics) than would have been possible with the traditional poetry textbook.

Our three teachers will be missed by their students and by their colleagues.  My wish is that they embrace these Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset, take this as an opportunity to take risks, and return to our school in the future to share what they have learned.

From Week #2 of #IMMOOC

Response to #IMMOOC Day #1

I’m writing as I listen to George Couros (@gcouros), Dave Burgess (@burgessdave), and Katie Martin (@KatieMTLC), in discussion on day one of the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYzHeWH7Hzk.

I say listening, because the video is adding nothing to the process, unlike Ted Talks as podcasts, where they remind you that the talks “contain powerful visuals”.  (However, I do like Dave’s pirate headscarf!)

As a learner, this is NOT meeting my needs, and I had to either begin this blog, or return to my Jigsaw Sudoku page to occupy that other part of my brain.

How many times do we do this to our students?  Wouldn’t note-taking, doodling, walking around, watching images, be helpful?  Instead, we assume that listening is sufficient.

So, the question George asks Katie:  “Can all teachers innovate?”, is answered by a resounding “yes”.  However, some teachers may be innovating in a negative way by asking students to put away their phones, providing MORE handouts, and pushing the “play” button on the wealth of video that can now replace their personal instruction.

George is also assuming that I as a Principal change my teachers, not that they change themselves.  I don’t get to know my staff, and then change them.  I get to know my staff, and then coach them to the change that THEY want to make.  We need to differentiate our work with our staff, just as we do with our students.  Assuming that we will change the school by changing all the teachers is the same as assuming that our students will ALL learn at the same pace and to the same end.s03qv77t_400x400

As Katie and George head to listeners’ questions, what sticks with me is Katie’s comment that we need to change to a more flexible, competency-based system.  This resonates, is the change that I would love see, and I look forward to hearing more from her!!



#IMMOOC -Information Overload

Just signed up for George Couros’ Innovators’ Mindset MOOC, beginning September 17th.

The first day of school 2016

And I begin my fourth course towards my Ed.D. at OISE on September 15th. And I’m chairing our school board’s association of secondary Principals.  And, of course, I’m busy keeping my own community of educators on track at Brampton Centennial SS.

I’ll certainly be practicing some of the learning skills we develop with our teens, and Self Regulation is going to be at the top of that list.

One of the challenges our teenagers face is information management, and so this will be a good exercise that will inform our work.  Will I be able to manage my time, my emails, two Twitter accounts (@terrywhitmell and @bcssbucks), Facebook, this blog, and still complete the reading, writing, and Blackboard discussions for my Ed.D. course?

Here are my strategies:

  1. Use my calendar to block out dedicated time for key activities, especially those that involve my students and staff.
  2. Balance this with scheduled time with my new grandson, my children, and my husband.
  3. Look for connections between my doctoral program, my staff PD, the #IMMOOC.
  4. And always put people first.  I can always read or browse online during those sleepless hours in the middle of the night when my brain takes over!

It’s going to be an exciting Fall.  I have tickets to see Elton John, Red Green, and Gordon Lightfoot, and I know that will inspire me to enjoy my time at the piano as well, as a break from all this attention to screen and print.

Looking forward to learning!

Labour Day

image1It’s my 51st “day before school starts” and we’ll be holding our 33rd annual Back-to-school party later today.  We began this tradition our first year in our house:  before we had children, throughout their time in school, and this year our grandson joins us… though it’ll be a few years before he heads off to school.

Many of my teaching colleagues are planning their “To Hell with the Bell” celebrations for tomorrow, having chosen to retire from education.  I see their posts in Facebook and their pictures on Twitter.  And I’m thinking about the fact that I feel not one bit of envy.

My sleepless nights this past week have not been sleepless from worry, but from anticipation.  Have I remembered all the details that will make the first day of school run smoothly?  Have I reminded my VPs, who are both new to our school, about those practices that we’ve put in place over my four years at Brampton Centennial SS?  Will my new teachers and new students feel welcome, safe and excited?

Our custodial team has been working at full speed, making up for the shorter summer they had due to Summer School this year.  They do an amazing job, though the shiny terrazzo floors will soon be dulled by the 1300 pairs of student feet.

We are welcoming two new inclusion classes, and their staff and students will be a joining our current class to integrate developmentally delayed students into life as a “Buck”.  This is a new adventure for them, and for our BCSS community.

We’ve hired a wonderful group of new contract and LTO (Long Term Occasional) teachers, and their “fresh eyes” on Brampton Centennial SS will be valuable to me.  They’ll question our routines, suggest new ways of doing things, and then choose the best of BCSS’s traditions to include in their practice.

That’s not to say that our existing staff aren’t also trying out new things.  We’re going to experiment by having one teacher instruct ALL the classes of particular classes.  And we’re doing the opposite by having teachers share sections of some courses that have traditionally been taught by only one teacher.

Fifty-one years ago I experienced this same excitement.  There is a picture of me in ankle socks, Mary-Jane shoes, and a white dress with tiny cherries on it, holding an apple for my teacher.  What isn’t shown is that while my father returned his camera to the house, I joined a group of older students who were returning to school after lunch at home, and headed off to Kindergarten on my own.  When I arrived, I peered into the window of the room where we had registered in the spring.  A kind lady came out, asked my name, and escorted me around the school to join my new class.  I can’t imagine how my parents felt when I disappeared, but I was thrilled to begin my life as a student.

And that sense of excitement is still here!


Peel DSB – Teaching and Learning in a Digital World – 2016 – #tldw2016 #peel21st

What an amazing 24 hours it has been!  Yesterday at this time we were networking, and preparing to listen to Dr. Reshan Richards (@reshanrichards, The Constructivist Toolkit) share with us his six moves:CqvnHmlWIAA76Rq

  1. Look out for your classroom by looking out of your classroom.
  2. Care for all learning spaces:  physical and digital.
  3. Share Relentlessly!  You never know what doors might open for you and your students.
  4. Save & respect time to develop and share talents.
  5. Align to your mission or throw out & rewrite your mission.
  6. Keep the offramp open & use it frequently.

And then this morning we were inspired by Will Richardson (@willrich45), who asked us “are you a teaching culture or a learning culture”.  And in examining that culture, he asked us to consider our:

  1. Beliefs
  2. Context
  3. Practice

Alignment and coCqyp9a6UIAA51k4nsistency is necessary to move education from a Traditional to Transitional to Transformational.  He quoted Seymour Sarason:  “Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more.  Absent wanting to learn more, the learning context is unproductive.”


After three breakout sessions, where I learned about Peel’s new assessment app, GAFE, and collaborative tools for student assessment, we were treated to Jennifer Gonzalez’ 10 Ways to Nurture Student Growth with Technology (@cultofpedagogy, Cult of Pedagogy):

  1. Start SmallCqzrLILUkAAuXHS
  2. Step Aside
  3. Present Problems
  4. Share Stories
  5. Provide Access
  6. Make Time
  7. Iterate
  8. Expect Problems
  9. Publish
  10. Participate

Can you tell that Reshan’s #3 and Jennifer’s #4,9 and 10 have inspired me?  My blog has become like my lifelong struggle with my diet:  I begin with great intentions, but Jennifer’s advice #1 and #6 fall by the wayside when let my busy schedule and grand ambitions stand in my way.

As we head into the coming school year, I again will be making my “new year’s resolution”, and will consider Jennifer’s invocation to Iterate and to Expect Problems, and the will continue to Publish and Participate.

I’ll use Will as my model, and adopt his eclectic approach, so you should expect more frequently, but possibly shorter, blog posts over the next months.

See you back here next week!