The Lasting Legacy of “The Red Group”

I just returned from the optometrist with my son. Banished to the waiting room (“Uh, Mom? I can do this myself, ya know…”), I sat and happily watched a mom with her three young kids as they waited for their turn to see the doctor.

After quickly looking through a variety of books and chatting with the receptionist about her summer, the little girl (who I would guess to be about 7 years old and full of energy) noticed the bin of pencils the office had put out for patients. After being told that they were special back-to-school pencils, the little girl and her younger brother excitedly began fingering through them to pick a pencil each. Eventually the little girl swooped in to grab a red one and held it above her head with a loud, “YESSSSSSSS! I GOT A RED ONE!”. The receptionist laughed and asked why the excitement over a red pencil. “Red must be your favourite colour,” she surmised.  And the answer, “No, it’s because I’m in the red reading group at school.”

Now, I have no idea what it means to be in “The Red Group” at school. It could be an ability grouping, an interest grouping, a random grouping, etc. The Red Group could be a group of advanced readers, beginning readers, whatever, but in my experience, most reading groups are based on abilities or needs. What struck me was how that little girl, eight long weeks out of school, continued to identify herself as someone belonging to The Red Group. Not only that, but the little girl then picked out a green pencil for her brother, exclaiming that she thinks he’ll probably be in The Green Group when he starts school in September. Again, I’m assuming that green = a level of ability of some sort. Her identity as a learner is currently wrapped up in this idea of The Red Group and whatever criteria comes with it, so much so that something that would seem so innocuous as choosing a pencil is coloured by it (pardon the pun). I’m confident that was not the outcome her teacher had intended.

As we head back to school, it’s something to think about as we get to know our new community of learners, and begin to plan for their instruction. This is not to say that I believe teachers should do away with grouping students – just the opposite. Done with care and dignity, and purposeful planning, grouping students provides lots of opportunities for targeted teaching to needs, interests, readiness, etc. Working in groups fosters collaboration and teamwork, and I could go on and on. My caution is to what degree do we make A Group the focus of our instructional planning? And what are some of the unintended outcomes? How fluid are the groups? Are they teacher-chosen, student-chosen, a mix of both? Do we chart student progress visibly on the wall by group? What is the purpose of the grouping? Are they productive and effective for the purpose? Or are they simply a cute way to organize your guided reading instruction with matching posters and binder dividers?

Something to think about.

My Back-to-School Letter to My New School #SAVMP

*Update* I recently became part of an exciting on-line mentoring project called School Admin Virtual Mentor Program, or SAVMP (#SAVMP). As part of our guided discussions, we have been invited to write about our vision for our school. I thought my letter below pretty much speaks to this, so I have added the #SAVMP hashtag. For more information on the SAVMP, please visit the site here.

It has been such a whirlwind year for me, with lots of milestones: both kids in university and turning 18 and 20, I hit the big 4-0, and I became a Principal. I have spent the last few months trying to get my thoughts straight, excited about this new opportunity at Dunlop PS, a jewel of a school in the South Keys/Greenboro area of Ottawa. I just recently posted this back-to-school letter to the school community on the new school blog and wanted to share it with you.

Dear Dunlop Families,

It is always remarkable to me how quickly July and August go by, and that the beginning of the school year is right around the corner. If you’re like me and my family, you are treasuring these last few weeks, whether by getting that one last trip in, relaxing with family and friends, or finishing up that stack of books as you lounge on your couch, in your backyard, on your porch, or by the pool. I hope everyone is feeling refreshed and ready for another exciting year!

I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce myself.  My name is Erin Paynter, and I am truly honoured to be serving as Dunlop’s Principal. I am a proud life-long resident of Ottawa. I spent my first few years in Metcalfe until my family moved to Bells Corners in the west end of the city when I was 6. My parents still live in the house we moved in to 34 years ago.  I met my husband here, and we have spent the last 24 years together, raising our two amazing kids. Our daughter Adrienne is 20 years old and in her second year at Carleton University, and our 18-year old son Alex is starting Carleton this September.  My husband Chris is a chiropractor and owns Bridlewood Chiropractic in Kanata. We love spending time together watching movies and hanging out playing cards or other board games.

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Before I came to Dunlop I was the Vice-Principal at Elizabeth Park PS, an elementary K-8 school just a few minutes away on the Uplands Base. Prior to that, I was a homeroom teacher and Vice-Principal Designate at A. Lorne Cassidy ES in Stittsville. I’ve also taught at Glen Cairn PS in Kanata, Leslie Park and Meadowlands. I have taught primary, junior and intermediate grades, in both English and French, and I have taught primary-aged children with special needs. Please feel free to check out my qualifications at the Ontario College of Teachers website.

I pride myself on being an active member of a learning team at Dunlop PS, key words being active, learning and team. As the lead learner in a school, I am always pushing my own learning, building connections with others in education and other fields, and expanding my horizons so that I can support the creation of a safe, rich, creative learning environment for students and staff. I chart my learning and my connections through the use of my own personal/professional blog, ErHead at erinpaynter.org.

We have a truly caring, dedicated and enthusiastic staff at Dunlop for 2013-2014. Please visit our staff page to meet our team. They bring with them a wide variety of talents, interests, skills and backgrounds to make our school a really diverse learning hub. On our first day together this past June, we participated in an activity where returning staff spoke about their favorite thing about Dunlop, and new staff expressed what they were most excited about. The answers that were shared all revolved around many of the same themes: genuine care for kids, trust and teamwork, honest and open communication, and supportive families. I left that day feeling downright giddy and brimming with enthusiasm. I had heard wonderful things about Dunlop when I learned I was coming here, from former students, from former staff, friends of current staff, former administrators, and our Superintendent of Instruction. I am a very lucky person to have the opportunity to work with this community.

Dunlop’s 6 C’s:  Creativity, Critical-Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Character and Community

Our goal at Dunlop is to prepare students to participate fully, even transform, our global word.  In order to do so, we must create the conditions in our school and our classrooms  that will facilitate the 6 C’s: creativity, critical-thinking, communication, collaboration, character and community – all essential 21st century skills. This does not mean that we are “adding” anything, but it does mean that there is a shift in how we teach students – the process of learning is the goal, not the content of learning . Our School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement will reflect our commitment to the 6 C’s, as these elements will be embedded in HOW we teach students, not WHAT. And our parent/guardian partners are encouraged to join us.

Creativity

In its groundbreaking new document: “Unleashing Potential, Harnessing Possibilities“, the OCDSB defines creativity as  something that:

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Creating the conditions for creativity and innovation to flourish will pave the way for higher student engagement and achievement. The more we tap into and nourish every child’s unique creative capacities, the better able we are to reach and engage all our diverse students.

Critical-Thinking

The OCDSB Exit Outcomes document highlights the necessity of encouraging critical thinking in our students:

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Learning will be meaningful in a “thinking” classroom.  The content of learning is no longer the end-goal of an education. The process of learning, of how to think, of connecting ideas and reflecting on the validity of ideas is key to preparing our students for an information-rich world.

Communication

“Students who are effective communicators are skilled at listening, speaking, questioning and writing” (OCDSB Exit Outcomes document). They are comfortable with a variety of communication tools, including technology and social media, and engage with these tools responsibly, fluently and confidently. Daily engagement in inquiry-based learning opportunities will help develop students’ abilities to ask appropriate questions and to effectively communicate with others.

Collaboration

Working in a team setting is a fundamental component to being an active member of our globally-connected society.  Advances in collaborative technology (Google docs, cloud computing, etc.) have made it increasingly possible to work with members of a team that can be as close as the office next door, or as far away as a country halfway around the world! Our students will need to be flexible in meeting shared goals, will need to assume responsibility in group efforts, and have an appreciation and commitment to diverse perspectives.  Learning opportunities in the classroom that allow for students to work together will help develop these skills.

Character

OCDSB Community of Character Wheel

The OCDSB Strategic Plan 2011-2015 identifies four key priorities: Well-Being, Engagement, Leadership and Learning. These four areas work interdependently to create a healthy, progressive and caring environment, whether it’s at the classroom level, the school level, or the system level. My main goal as a school leader is to ensure the physical, emotional and personal well-being of your child. Our school will maintain its focus on creating safe learning environments for all students. As I work with the students at Dunlop, I will be ensuring that they are happy and excited to come to school, and that there are an abundance of opportunities for them to take risks, learn from mistakes, and develop the habits of mind and character traits that will ensure they are healthy, productive and successful in life.

One of the ways I will facilitate this is through application of the elements found in the OCDSB’s policies and procedures on Safe Schools, Bullying Prevention and Intervention, and Progressive Discipline and Promoting Positive Student Behaviour. I am always open to discussions when it comes to student behaviour and positive ways we can intervene and support students.

Community

The OCDSB Strategic Plan 2011-2015 has as one of its objectives that all of our schools have active community partnerships programs that essentially support the school as the hub of its community. This is exciting to me as Dunlop’s Principal. One of my goals as I enter into my role is to learn what community partnerships we have, and to explore with the staff and community more ways we can enhance our current connections, and facilitate new ones. One of the areas that I have been looking into this past summer is how establishing a “makerspace” in a school can catalyze some exciting community partnerships at the school for the benefit of student learning and engagement. A school in our district has already begun work on such a model with amazing results. Please feel free to visit the Glen Cairn PS site where you can learn how the school’s innovative Principal, Shannon Smith and her staff have developed an “i-Hub Makerspace“.

Social Media at Dunlop PS

I value transparency as a school leader, and one of the ways I try to facilitate this is through regular, open and honest communication. While I will always make myself available as best I can through phone, email (erin.paynter@ocdsb.ca) and in-person chats, I will also be using a variety of other modes of communication through social media. The school will continue to provide occasional notes and newsletters home, however, you are invited to subscribe to the school blog, our Twitter account (@Dunlop_PS) and our Facebook page. With a wide range of communication possibilities, we hope that families are able to find the one(s) that best suit their needs.

There is a Calendar of Events page that you will see at the top of this site. There is a Google calendar on this page. Please check it frequently as I will be adding important events to it as we proceed through the year. You will notice that the school is moving to a Day 1-5 cycle model, rather than the traditional Monday-Friday. This is to ensure that all students are receiving the required minutes of instruction per year for every subject as outlined by the Ontario Ministry of Education.  A year-long Day 1-5 calendar will be available on this site, and a hard copy sent home on the first day of school so that you can refer to it as we go.

In the next few weeks, more information will be coming regarding back-to-school routines and important dates. Our office re-opens on Monday, August 26th.  Hours will be 8:00am-2:30pm Monday-Friday of that week. School begins Tuesday, September 3rd at 8:00am. For those entering Kindergarten, please visit our kindergarten page where you will find links to information about registration, FAQs and staggered entry. For busing information, please visit the Ottawa School Transportation Authority website. For your information, School Bus Safety Awareness Day is Sunday, August 25th. Please visit this link to get location and registration information.

All the best to you as you enjoy the last few weeks of summer. I look forward to working with you and your children this year, and for many years to come. I am excited about what this year has in store, and I know that with all of us working together, it will be an amazing year for everyone!

Regards,

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Erin Paynter

Principal

Moving From Newsletters to Blogs – My Presentation-That-Never-Was at #ECOO12

Well, I may be Irish, but luck was not with me this past week.  I had eagerly travelled to Richmond Hill for #ECOO12, looking forward to meeting my colleagues from Twitter. Tuesday I had the inkling of a sore throat and some sniffles, but by Wednesday, I was out for the count and had to cancel my presentation. But, for what it’s worth, here are the slides from what I would have presented.

Responsive Leadership

Twice now I have had the pleasure of hearing Sir John Jones speak as part of our district’s Lead the Way series for creativity and innovation. He’s incredibly inspirational, funny as hell, and throws back the covers on what he feels we’re doing well as educators, and what we need to change.

The one thing that has stayed with me is his idea on responsive leadership. As a leader in my school, how I respond to the needs of my staff so that they are the most effective educator they can be depends on 2 things: motivation and capacity. He shared a slide of this concept in the form of a matrix, which I’ve recreated here:

Sir John Jones’ concept of responsive leadership

As you can see, there are several ways leaders can support their staff depending on where they fall with regards to their levels of motivation and capacity:

Highly motivated + high level of capacity =  a leader who gets out of the way and creates the conditions for autonomous pursuit of professional growth, creativity, etc.

Highly motivated + low level of capacity = a leader who takes on the role of a coach, co-creating goals and giving feedback along the way.

Low level of motivation + high level of capacity = a leader who needs to inspire his/her staff.

Low level of motivation + low level of capacity =  a leader who needs to be more explicit and more direct in their expectations.  It does not mean being authoritarian necessarily, but I know that there are a few times in my leadership where I have had to direct a staff member to cease an instructional practice that no longer fits into our vision of a healthy and creative learning environment (i.e., giving lines, cursive writing/printing), or, with my support, to start learning about an instructional practice (i.e., feedback as an assessment approach). In other words, this is an expectation of the district, so what do you need from me to get this going? This is what is meant by being direct.

Now, do teachers fit neatly into each box? Absolutely not. Levels of motivation and capacity fluctuate constantly depending on what’s being asked of them and when. When I began seeing the potential for technology in the classroom, I needed a leader to coach me. When my daughter and I hit a very rough patch in our relationship a few years ago, I was not all that motivated to show up and give my all to my students. I needed my leader to inspire and support me.

What’s underpinning this framework? Trust, support and cultivating relationships. Before you can be responsive to your staff, time is needed to develop the relationships so that however you are supporting your staff member, the trust is there as is the mutual pursuit of what is best for our kids.

I know it’s very easy to put something into a graphic and the real world isn’t quite so cut-and-dry. I  was more intrigued with how motivation and capacity inter-relate so that I could best support my teachers. I would be very interested to hear back from others.

How Do You Help Students Reach Their Yet?

This morning I commented on a post by Tia Henriksen (@TiaHenriksen) where she cautions about speaking negatively in absolutes.  A great read for reflecting on the power of our words.

I hear absolutes too. I hear from teachers and parents “S/he just doesn’t know…” and you can fill in the blank with whatever comes to mind: how to listen, how to focus, how to do his times tables, how to spell, how to read… It’s more than discouraging to hear this – it’s downright dangerous. Nothing squashes the motivation to teach a child than believing in never or doesn’t, and by doing so we have stunted that child before he or she can even begin, and therein lies the danger – of stereotyping, of underestimating, of absolving ourselves of any responsibility, of doing children the ultimate disservice.

My answer to those statements has been one word: yet. 

“She just doesn’t know how to spell.”

“Yet.”

“He just doesn’t know how to read.”

“Yet.”

“He just doesn’t know how to handle frustration.”

“Yet.”

“She just doesn’t know how to do her times tables.”

“Yet.”

I find this one word to be a powerful tool to open a dialogue and to pause for reflection - on best instructional practices, on motivation, on student and parent engagement, and on teacher professional development plans.  It begins to wipe the slate clean so that we can work collaboratively on ways to engage our students in their learning by using more effective tools and strategies. It opens the dialogue to why and how – why aren’t they reaching their goals, and how can we get them there?

How can we get our students to their yet?

How do you characterize the work you do?

This past week, all leaders in our board gathered for our annual System Leaders Meeting, a sort of pep rally to energize us for the coming year, a moment to reflect on the successes of our past year, and a time to look ahead to goals for the coming year. I look forward to this gathering every year. I enjoy the time to catch up and connect with my colleagues in a relaxed atmosphere, and the goal-setting aspect always excites and motivates me to get another fantastic year started.

We also break out into our superintendency groups during the day. My superintendent opened the discussion this year with a great question, and it was:  “How do you characterize the work that you do – a gardener or an engineer?” As I was mulling the question, he continued and added that one’s answer will allow him to best support his administrators, as gardeners, those that feel their role is to nurture and grow, and engineers, those that design and measure, all require different tools and resources.

I think my role is one that combines the two, so I feel more like a landscape architect.  It’s important for me to know the people on my staff. What are their strengths? What are their growth goals?  I also need to know my space, and be very aware of how I can create and design the space that maximizes the strengths and needs of my staff and allows them to grow as professionals. Do they need more sun or more shade? How often should I water them? Are they the type that flowers brightly, or are they more like ground cover – steady, sturdy and reliable? And where do I put the rocks? How best to treat weeds – the distractions, the negativity and all the other dangers that threaten the vitality of our “garden” without damaging the essence and growth of what’s in it?

I’m excited to see how this year unfolds with these questions rolling around in my mind, and interested to hear from my staff as I put this same question to them, but in the context of their work with students.

My thank you to my daughter’s teachers

I have never felt so unprepared for a day for which I have spent almost 19 years preparing. Tomorrow my daughter Adrienne moves in to her own apartment – free at last, all grown up and ready to fly. My husband and I have been standing by helplessly the last few days as she excitedly swirls around the house collecting, organizing and packing all of her (and some of my) belongings.

It is a day that many parents have experienced, or will. It isn’t easy, no matter what anyone says. Thankfully Adrienne has not asked me to help her pack as I would probably bawl all over her (and my) things. So I’m stuck here with my thoughts, wondering where the hell the time went, and did her father and I do everything we needed to do to prepare her. And then my thoughts drifted to all the teachers and administrators Adrienne has had over the years. Adrienne wouldn’t be the person she is today – smart, confident, headstrong, ready to take on life, without the guidance of some amazing educators (and one or two not so amazing).

Jean Hillman discovered and nurtured Adrienne’s musical talent in grade 6. She encouraged her to accept one of the leading roles in the school play (Sheriff of Nottingham – perfect casting!) and Adrienne has never looked back. She has become a talented musician, singer and photographer.

Kerry Green was her kindergarten teacher – her first impression of this world we call school – and Adrienne blossomed and thrived as a confident student under Kerry’s kind hand.

Gary Stewart was Adrienne’s grade 3 teacher and he didn’t shy away from inviting kids to explore big questions. He created a classroom based on respect and challenged the kids to stand up for what was right. Adrienne has a strong sense of justice and is not afraid to fight for what she feels is equitable.

I could go on and on. Adrienne’s father and I will always be grateful for the partners we had when it came to moulding the young lady that we are now sending out in to the real world. Thank you to Kerry, Charlotte, Leslie, James, Rose, Jean, Andrew, Chantale and many others.

And to think, I’ll be doing this all over again in a few years with my son…