Category Archives: Elisa Carlson

The Structures of Innovation


Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.

Steve Jobs

Historical ruins in Philadelphia

Historical ruins in Philadelphia

I have a fascination with structures. Whether these are the physical structures of cityscapes, the formal systems in organizations or the informal structures hidden in organizations, how they are created, used, morph, disappear and replaced, intrigues me. The structures, in schools and districts, are the patterns and frameworks through which innovation and system change move. There is the visible and the invisible—each part playing a powerful role in system transformation. In the work we do, it is the structures that can give us opportunities for change, coherence, meaning and, ultimately, reorganization. Never underestimate the power of an intentional, strategic and well-designed structure to transform the learning environment.

The old reflected in the new

The old reflected in the new

At the start of this past summer I travelled to Philadelphia. The city has a unique backdrop of historical and contemporary significance. It has deep roots with one of the oldest original settlements together with the home of Benjamin Franklin in juxtaposition with contemporary skyscrapers such as the Comcast building. Wikipedia described it citizens in the early twentieth century as “dull and contented with its lack of change”, but the city, and the people, as demonstrated at the International Society of Technology Education (ISTE) Conference, has been transformed into one of the top 10 US cities to visit and a hub of 21st century learning.

Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction and Dan Turner, Director of IMS
Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction & Dan Turner, Director of IMS

This year’s conference brought the added excitement of our district receiving the ISTE 2015 Sylvia Charp Award for District Innovation in Technology for our commitment to technology planning focused on transformative learning. We are the first school district in Canada to win this prestigious award. In early summer, we were recognized on an international stage among 20,000 peers. It took intentional and strategic structures—both formal, informal, and hidden–to get us to that place in the spotlight. Our technology ecosystem incorporates the key structures that allow the organization to become a learning place of significance.

Surrey Schools is considered a national leader by educators and Chief Technology Officers alike for its initiatives in planning, building, and integrating technology into education. Whether it is our Innovative Learning Designs strategies, our Learning Commons conversions, our Makerspaces movement, the Making Learning Visible e-portfolio partnership with FreshGrade, or our social media branding, our learning is carefully crafted in organizational structures, requirements, and guiding principles that create the conditions for learning to flourish.

Our technology ecosystem aligns to a shared technology vision that replaced isolating silos with collaborative cross-discipline teams and, more recently, to a refreshed transformative district vision for learning: Learning by Design (LbD).

The Ecosystem Structure

The Ecosystem Structure

The ecosystem emphasizes collaboration and engagement within a progressive governance model, integrating five essential components: Leadership, Professional practice, Schoolhouse, Technology toolbox and Partnerships. At the heart and centre of our ecosystem is the learner.

The technology ecosystem infuses and promotes innovation in the classroom, professional inspiration and learning, building school communities and networks, the transformative use of technology tools, and optimal planning efforts tied to appropriate resource allocation.

Our teachers transform learning in their classrooms and schools. Through technology, they are creating personalized opportunities for authentic student engagement and deep learning that go beyond the cursory completion of prescriptive learning outcomes. Technology has helped teachers create fresh opportunities for student voice, choice and ownership that are grounded in the core competencies of critical and creative thinking, contemporary forms of communicating and real ways of expressing personal and social responsibility.

Organizational design + Infrastructure

Organizational design + IT Infrastructure

Our transformative change was fueled in 2010 by the district’s strategic requirement for school-site specific learning plans to accompany any hardware requests. These plans included learning-focused questions, professional learning opportunities, collaborative inquiry teams of teachers and the explicit sharing of learning through social media. All of those requirements were predicated on an Information Technology (IT) infrastructure that was foundational for these organizational changes. The IT department, beginning over a decade prior, had worked systematically to create the hidden structures, networks, wiring closets, bandwidth and more, which made new forms of learning possible.

The Sylvia Charp Award acknowledges our systemic approach to the diffusion of pedagogical practices that are underpinned by teacher-led inquiry and embedded learning. It also recognizes the professionalism and commitment of teachers engaged in the process of continuous improvement, supported by the districts nurturing ecosystem. And finally, the Award acknowledges the collaborative work of the Education Services department’s focus on learning with an IT department that is committed to both anticipating and removing the barriers to that learning.

IMG_5367 (1)What’s next for us? We will build capacity within the system to create new and ever evolving structures, provide appropriate tools and experiment with new forms of learning. We will continue to share our stories, learning and inspiration with each other (#sd36learn) and our peers around the globe. We will provide opportunities for teachers to “see” into each others’ classrooms, observing, reflecting, exploring and playing with new notions of teaching and learning. These classrooms and schools will act as Learning Studios and Learning Labs where the exploration, play and sharing of practice on a peer-to-peer level is nurtured.

The district’s strategic organizational structures, together with the tools we use, the technology infrastructure, resources and learning support, will help us to further understand, embrace and expand this intentional learning by design across the system. Surrey School’s technology ecosystem – with our learners firmly at the centre – continues to create and build the capacity for our continued learning evolution.


Note: For more information on the District’s strategic work on transforming learning, see cover article in October issue of T.H.E. Journal. Thank you to Dan Turner (@dj_turner), Lisa Domeier (@librarymall), and Jeff Unruh (@unruh_j) for participating in with T.H.E. Journal photoshoot. For more information on the district’s IT department, see  See Superintendent Dr. Tinney’s (@jordantinney) blog at for related stories. Big thanks to the #sd36learn tribe who are creating, designing and living the change. You have been my cheerleaders.

Guess what? That’s us!

: The post below is reprinted with permission from George Couros and Jeff Unruh, a grade 7 teacher at Pacific Heights Elementary School. Jeff is the teacher that we are visiting and I am the colleague identified in the post. I had invited George to come to our district to do an environmental scan of our journey into innovation. I was interested in having “outsider eyes” and a “critical friend” provide me with feedback on our on-going work to improve student learning. This is what George wrote:


A Higher Chance of Becoming Great? The “Twitter” Factor

IMG_5158I walked into the room and I could tell right away.

This was a teacher I had never met and knew very little about, but the atmosphere in his classroom was great.  As I walked with my colleague, I asked her the question, “Do you think he is on Twitter?”  I wanted her to make an educated guess, and her thoughts were the same as mine; definitely.

How did we know this?

IMG_5148As I walked in, I saw unique seating spaces, posters all over the wall that focused on “taking risks” and encouraging students to think different.  The walls were also covered in information about “Genius Hour” and their recent “Maker Faire”.  At the time, the students were also learning how to play chess with a master player, who also happened to be a grandparent. Notice that there was no technology mentioned above, but just about a different learning environment.  There were multiple, amazing opportunities for learning in this classroom to reach students where they were at, and tap into their strengths and passions.

IMG_5160So when we asked the teacher if they were on Twitter, he mentioned that he was but he didn’t necessarily share that much online.  But it was his access to information that made things look differently in his classroom.  When I asked if he had seen an impact in his classroom from the use of Twitter, he wasn’t sure, but it was a type of “boiling frog” scenario.  The change could have happened so gradually that he did not notice the small steps that could have been made to where he was now.  Just being a “lurker” in that space though, had made a difference.

IMG_5140Now I am not saying that if you are NOT on Twitter, you are ineffective.  There might be several classrooms that look like the one I have briefly described that were designed by a teacher who may not be on Twitter, that receive their information elsewhere.  What I do know is that looked NOTHING like my classroom when I first started teaching, because honestly, I did not have the access to the same information that teachers do now.  Our opportunities have changed and people have taken advantage to benefit themselves, and more importantly, their students.

Isolation is now a choice educators make.  We have access to not only information, but each other. We need to tap into that.

Being on Twitter dIMG_5162oesn’t make you a great teacher any more than not being on Twitter makes you ineffective.  There are a lot of great teachers who do some pretty amazing things that do not connect online.

However, I do believe that having that access 24/7 to great ideas through the medium and the connection to other teachers increases your chances on being great.  If you really think about it,  how could it not?

Note: Thanks to George Couros, Jeff Unruh and Principal Sundeep Chohan for expanding our thinking. You will hear more from Jeff Unruh as our featured Ignite presenter at our next Learning by Design: Engaging the Digital Learner session. George will also be keynoting with Superintendent Jordan Tinney at that time as they look back at learning, look at the present, and predict going forward. It promises to be provocative. We will be streaming it live for those that want to join us.

Igniting the Passion: Celebrating Our Learning

“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation.”
Joshua Heschel

Celebration is a choice: we choose to appreciate and value something that we feel is significant. It is an opportunity we create to acknowledge, appreciate and extend gratitude for the good things that are being done in schools–by both students and teachers. We are fortunate to be in a district where we can engage in new learning and transform education to better meet the needs of our learners. A collective of 300 educators gathered together to mark the occasion.

What is it that we are doing well? How do others see us? We asked some people both inside and outside our district this question.  How might they describe our district or what does meant to be part of our district? Their responses can be found here:

During the evening we had several presenters share with us their passion through the form of five minute Ignite presentations. Participants were limited to 20  slides that automatically moved every 15 seconds . The purpose is expressed in the motto, “Enlighten us, but make it quick!” We had the opportunity to learn from our peers and to engage in thoughtful conversations about our learning. Facilitators guided table groups around key questions that examined both our thinking on the presentation as well as how the topic might affect our future behaviour and teaching practice.  Thanks you to Robynn Thiessen, Sally Song, Shauna Nero, Antonio Vendramin, Karen Steffensen, and Jordan Tinney for sharing their passion. You can enjoy their live-streamed stories here.

We ended the evening with a video montage of students, teachers, administrators and out-of-district guests to help us with our celebration.

Author’s Note: Thank you to Helping Teachers @amboe_k, @shelagh09, @librarymall, @kowalyshyn, @ipadtestkitchen and Sarah Guilmant-Smith for planning and organizing the evening and supporting our projects. Thank you to Donna VanSant and Forrest Smith for their assistance with the videos.


The Pilot: Communicating Student Learning

“The formative assessment process is lightning in a bottle. It costs nothing. You can put it to work for every grade level and every subject during every minute of every school day. This powerful learning process enhances the learning of those who are already excelling; jump starts and sustains learners who are smoldering with potential, and increases student achievement for all students.”            

 Moss & Brookhart, 2009

For a few weeks recently, news from our district was making a splash across local and national newspapers, radio and TV. Headlines (click on title to locate) read:

iStock_000034178866Small• Getting rid of letter grades? Pass or Fail
• B.C.’s Educational Reforms are running into Resistance
• Passing on Letter Grades: The Tradition or the Alternative?
• Dozens more Surrey Schools ‘scrapping’ letter grades.
• Surrey School District extends its ‘No Letter Grades’ program

Even our Superintendent, Jordan Tinney was featured on CBC National Radio (you can find it here). In response to the flood of attention, he also wrote a blog post on the topic: What do letter grades actually mean? (click here). Behind the scenes, what were the district, schools, and teachers doing?

As with most innovative projects in Surrey, an invitation was extended to interested elementary principals and teachers to participate in exploring more effective ways to communicate student learning. Volunteers were asked to consider if they were ready to engage in examining this notion. Participants were given some guidelines to judge whether or not their participation made sense with their current practice of teaching.  We were looking for teachers who were using Assessment for Learning practices, engaged in innovative teaching and learning, using performance standards and committed to the ongoing communication and involvement of their parents.

There were also some clear criteria for participation. The principals had to be willing to engage and support the pilot, there needed to be a parent communication plan (on-going, prior to reporting, at reporting time and post reporting) that would seek input and feedback from them. As well, teachers understood we were still required to use three formal reports and two informal reports as per the current regulation. We expected that in some schools, there might only be one or two teachers interested in volunteering for the pilot. If so, they were required to ensure that their process and their reporting times aligned with the rest of the school. The pilot teachers needed to be willing to develop and use an alternative template, to address all key areas of learning on the template (Literacy, Numeracy, Social Responsibility) and reflect the Core Competencies as they spoke to specific content areas (eg. critical thinking in Social Studies). We asked them to explore alternate ways of communicating achievement levels, to ensure documentation of student learning would be kept in the student file and to share their communication plan, implementation plan and template with the district. As a district, we would provide support (see slideshare below) through creating networking opportunities with other schools and assistance from District Helping Teachers.

When we extended this invitation in October we did not anticipate that five schools would jump into the opportunity for first term. David Brankin Elementary, George Vanier Elementary, Bear Creek Park Elementary, Sunrise Ridge Elementary and Rosemary Heights Elementary all rose to the occasion. In each of these schools, at least one teacher or a larger group (and in one case a whole school), began examining their assessment practices and thinking about the best way to provide parents, and their students, with meaningful feedback. As we prepare for a second term report, another twenty schools (again, not whole schools but at least one teacher at each school) volunteered to join the journey. As a district, we did not mandate a particular template or direct teachers in how the “report card” needed to be designed. We let teachers consider the possibilities using their professional expertise within the guidelines we provided. We felt that hands-on exploration would lead to some authentic, novel, and differentiated ways of viewing the challenge. We continued to focus on “the why;” the ultimate purpose for communicating student learning was to improve student learning. Finally, our intention was to provide our feedback to the Ministry of Education.

Each of the schools involved have developed very different ideas about what might work best for their parents. For some teachers, they completely redesigned the template to fit with the current changes in curriculum. Another school is exploring the question, “How might we provide parents with a digital window into their child’s learning?” using a beta Web 2.0 tool being co-developed with our freshgrade partners. And, another school is not altering the current standard district template but adding to it by providing parents with an additional report that includes students’ self-assessments, including their suggestions to their own parents about how their parents could better support their learning!

Permanent Marker with Check ListWhat can I tell you about the journey so far? As teachers recently shared at a meeting jam-packed with 90 educators: “this pilot gives us permission to do what we have already been doing,” “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my whole career,” and “It has really turned our whole school focus on to what assessment for learning really looks like.” Confining student learning to a summary of a simple check box, and a few generic comments, is no longer the standard. Teachers are engaged in providing rich, descriptive feedback and students are developing ownership of their learning as they too add their own self-assessments. As a form of job-embedded professional development, it has teachers examining key questions about their practice in the context of what really matters for student learning. Our former Superintendent Mike McKay often challenged us, “When will what we know, change what we do?”  For us in Surrey, we continue to take up that challenge.

Author’s Note: The Elementary Communicating Student Pilot was designed by a committee of district staff, including: Karen Steffensen, Pat Horstead, and Christy Northway, all Area Superintendents, Karen Alvarez, District Principal of Early Learning and Literacy and myself. Thank you to all of them for their creative input into developing this pilot. It is still a work in progress. Thank you to Jordan Tinney, our Superintendent, for supporting this innovative adventure. Stay tuned as we share information about our Secondary Pilot soon.

The Curse of Eleven: Getting our Homework Done

Peek a boo
Tag. I’m it. Worst yet—I’ve succumbed to the dreaded virtual chain letter. I’m late to the party so I am hoping there will be no curse that lands on my family and me if I haven’t completed this on time. The rules: Tell 11 interesting facts about yourself and respond to 11 questions posted by your PLN friend (mine are from Sheila Morissette—are they still your friend if they tag you?) and tag 11 “friends” with new questions.

Eleven Interesting Facts about Me:

1. I grew up in Nelson, B.C.

2. We have a tradition for the letter “E”. My parent’s names were Ernie and Esme (Underhill). My brothers and sisters are: Elena, Eldon, Eve, Erik, Elyn, and me (Elisa). My husband goes by the name John but his first name is Erland. His dad’s name was Erland and his mom’s name was Emma. Our children all have “E” names: Elliott, Ethan, Elijah and Ellis.

3. I killed a bear. Really. Not quite with my own hands. Almost. The car killed the bear.

4. The best birthday present ever: My oldest son was born on my birthday.

5. I did grade 4 and 5 in one year.

6. When we were touring Rome we were robbed of all of our possessions, everything but what we were wearing.

7. I love Eggs Benedict. And, I am particularly fond of breakfast. Period.

8. I have a weakness for popcorn popped in a real pot on the stove. With butter. And salt. Several times a week. Really. I am going to take a break and make it right now.

9. I cut the hair of all the males in my house. Except for my husband. He has some standards.

10. I had to canoe across a moonlit lake to dig up a treasure chest hidden on the beach; it contained my engagement ring.

11. Sometimes I like to do fun and crazy things and try to get others to do them with me. Life is too short to be boring. We need to live a little outrageously every now and again.

The Eleven Questions Given to Me:

1.What are you reading now?

Like right now? This v•e•r•y moment? Like one thing? That thought makes me panic. I am never truly reading just one thing. I have just finished Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge by Henry Cloud. The book really gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own practice and things that I wasn’t doing well and needed to do differently. I have just cracked the cover to Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail by Larry Osborne and I am re-reading (because I didn’t learn enough the first time) 8 Things We Hate About I.T.: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT written by Chief Technology Officer Susan Cramm. Her book is written for people like me to help us understand IT in organizations. In between those books, I am reading Sunday Brunch: Simple, Delicious Recipes for Leisurely Mornings (see number 7 above). Oh, and I sometimes read books recommended by my children ages 7, 10 15, and 17.  Should I stop now?

2. How do you stay current in your field?

I read books (see above). I talk to people. I attend conferences. I visit schools. I hunt down important topics on the Internet. I follow the blogs of thought-leaders. Sometimes I make my way to Chapters, Trinity Western University, UBC or Regent College bookstores to check out the lastest books attached to course syllabi in areas of interest. I most recently stopped at the Seattle Pacific University bookstore and snapped up Nancy Duarte’s Resonate.

3. Are you a camper or a hotel person? (Sheila Morissette loves camping.)


If there is a rattlesnake, I will find it.

If there is a rattlesnake, I will find it.

Camping? Is that what you do in a tent with four boys for every year of your married life? Is that what I did with my parents for every year while I lived at home? I can’t actually say I love camping but I do love adventure travel. If it requires a tent, and the adventure is worth it, I will take it on. I’ve camped across Canada to Newfoundland and back via the U.S. I’ve camped thirty consecutive days to the tip of the Baja Peninsula pitching tents on the best beaches around. I have tented the Grand Circle Route and seen sunrise and sunset painted in the skies. I have camped B.C.’s best: canoeing the Bowron Lake Chain, hiking the West Coast Trail, kayaking the Broken Group Islands, and running the Juan de Fuca Marina Trail solo. In between, we have explored many State, Provincial and National Parks as well. Hotels? I will do that too. In fact, sometimes I put my foot down and insist on it. Too many times camping, practically stepping on a rattlesnake in the desert, and I am ready for a real bed, crisp sheets, and walls between the outside world and me.

4.  What is the next conference you plan to attend?

I will be at the 4th Annual Summit on Education Technology for K-12 Schools, Universities and Colleges in Toronto.  I am presenting this session: Surrey School District: Create a Radical Social Movement to Shift Pedagogy and Deepen Learning with Technology.

5. What excites you about the New Year ahead?

Saying “No” to some things so that I can focus on the work that truly matters. “No” means “Yes” to other important priorities.

6.  Who introduced you to twitter and blogging?

I think it was Orwell Kowalyshyn (@kowalyshyn), our District’s Information Media Literacy Helping Teacher, who introduced me to the topic, Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy), Superintendent of West Vancouver, helped me to see it in a leadership context and Dan Turner (@dj_turner), CIO for Surrey, who almost called me a hypocrite for having technology in my portfolio and no first hand experience with social media. Finally, my ah-ha moment came when Heidi Gable (@HGG), a consultant for our district, installed Tweetdeck on my laptop and explained the all-powerful use of #hashtags.

7.  Who would you most like to have dinner with?

My husband.

8. What inspires you?

Beauty, design, that which is unique, carefully crafted words, and crazy ideas.

Relax on a beach, anywhere.

Relax on a beach, anywhere.

9.  What do you do to relax?

A simple candle lit bath is good, a hard run on a trail, biking out River Road but, truly, a trip to a fantastic beach, some brilliant sun and a chance to do completely nothing is the absolute ticket.


10. Name a couple of bloggers who inspire you.

I find the stories from many, many of our own school district (#sd36learn) educators particularly inspiring because they are putting ideas into action (Think about the many new Learning Commons websites, genius hour applications, and inquiry-based learning).

11. What are you working on that excites you?

Transforming education. Creating a culture of innovation. Shifting teacher practice. Creating space for teachers to learn from each other. Providing opportunity for students to be engaged deeply in their learning.

Phew! I am done. And now I pass the virtual homework challenge on to my colleagues and possible “friends”. Tag—you are it!

Lisa Domeier de Suarez, T-L and IML Helping Teacher, @librarymall
Chris Hunter, Numeracy Helping Teacher, @chrishunter36
Kevin Amboe, IML Helping Teacher, @amboe_k
Chris Walton, LST Helping Teacher, @ipadtestkitchen
JB Mahli, SS Helping Teacher, @JB_Mahli
Hugh McDonald, elementary teacher, @hughtheteacher
Sheila Hammond, Principal, @sgmhammond
Karen Steffensen, Assistant Superintendent, @kstef2
Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, @jordantinney
Dan Turner, Chief Information Officer, @dj_turner
Brian Kuhn, Chief Information Officer, @bkuhn

No curses provided (although we may no longer be “friends”). See your super-challenging, thought-provoking and provocative questions below:

Your Homework–The Eleven New Questions:

1. What is your favorite piece of music and why?
2. What would your ideal gourmet dinner be?
3. Who are the three people that have mentored, coached or encouraged you the most throughout your career and how have they done so?
4. What do you prefer to do in your leisure time? (choose three)
5. Name your favorite fiction and non-fiction book. Why?
6. Who challenges (helps you to be better at what you do) you the most in your work? Elaborate.
7. If you could choose a colour that best described your personality, what would it be? Explain.
8. What drives you crazy?
9. If you could change one thing in the education system, what would it be?
10. What was the most important thing you will do today (work-related)? What is the most important thing you will do tomorrow (work-related)?
11. What part of your work are you most passionate about? Why?

Reflection: The Vehicle for Continuous Improvement

Reflection can help deal with ambiguity, stress and change. In our work, we often have to cope with new, unique problems we have not met before. The ability to reflect is essential to recognising and confronting the uncertainly we feel as we try to deal with these problems.

All this means that reflection is not a bland or innocuous process—it is central to becoming a powerful, critical professional who is prepared to challenge the way things are done.

Quality Improvement Agency for Lifelong Learning

This past week was mind-bending in a multitude of ways. Our district was fortunate to have Bill Ferriter from North Carolina present as part of our Engaging the Digital Learner Series: Going Deeper. Bill encouraged teachers to be innovative with their practice and to ask students to do work that truly matters. Bill challenged us to create highly engaged learning spaces to meet the needs of the iGeneration. The impact of his message on the audience of 280educators was electrifying. Even our district’s twitter feed was working overtime as educators responded to the session, sharing their learning in the room.

For me, there was an ironic juxtaposition between encouraging educators to push the boundaries of their practice, connecting students to others around the world to solve real and meaningful problems while simultaneously pausing to examine our practice in the light of Internet safety and privacy issues.  The timing was coincidental but we (Dan Turner, Director of IMS and myself) had invited Alec Couros to come to our district to examine our practices and give us advice on the work we are doing. Alec is a well-regarded Professor of Education Technology at the University of Saskatchewan, a sought-after presenter, and a thought leader on navigating the digital highway (see here). Together, we are looking at important questions, such as:

  • What does governing a progressive, innovative, digital, 24/7, 21st century learning environment look like?
  • How can we create safe, collaborative environments for student and staff to personalize their learning while maximizing the use of Web 2.0 tools?
  • How can we navigate the risks successfully?
  • What are the checks and balances we need moving forward as a district?
  • What safeguards need to be in place to ensure the “walled garden” provides safe opportunities for students to become responsible digital citizens?
  • Conversely, outside of the “walled garden,” what safeguards need to be in place to ensure students become responsible digital citizens?

If the world is indeed our classroom–we can now see and almost touch it through technology–we need to ensure we are preparing students to navigate the digital landscape both safely and successfully.  We also want to make sure that we are using technology for meaningful work and not for mere digital entertainment.

Alec Couros was collecting data on this visit. We were approaching the questions and our dilemma through a case study analysis. We arranged for him to visit some lead schools and teachers (George Vanier Elementary, Johnston Heights Secondary and Bonaccord Elementary) to find out how their students were engaging in the digital space and what safeguards were in place. We want to find a way to put systems into place to ensure ALL of our schools are engaging in best practices navigating the new digital frontier.  We did not want to select schools where we knew they were doing it “right” but schools where they were stretching the boundaries of their practice. We also had Alec interview selected individuals (Helping Teachers, IMS staff and Senior leaders) that could provide him with a snapshot of the burning issues or concerns that arise when you release students and teachers to learn using 21st century ideals.

I was fortunate enough to attend many of these interviews. Teachers and administrators described what the students in their classes and schools were doing. Teachers are providing amazing learning experiences for students. The dialogue was rich. The conversations frank. Dilemmas were discussed and potential solutions explored.  Not all of the questions were comfortable for us. Sometimes we need to be a little uncomfortable. It provides us with the motivation to change. When you invite an expert in, there is a large measure of vulnerability that goes along with that. The learning for all of us at the table was valuable and thought provoking.

For me personally, having someone examine our work in the district was a reflective exercise on my leadership. I had the “should have” experience. I should have communicated more. I should have provided more guidance. I should have demonstrated more leadership when I knew things needed to be done. I should have spent more time doing XX. I should have delegated other duties and made these ones a priority. I should have spoken up at critical meetings. Why didn’t I insist that some of these matters were important and we needed to find agreement and resolution as a district?  If principals and teachers do not know or have the information they need to ensure students are educated appropriately, we in district positions bear that responsibility. Clearly, I should have carved out time to stop and think about the work on a larger scale rather than rush from meeting to meeting to attend the urgent as opposed to that which is truly important. “For many practitioners, doing swallows up learning” (see Joy Amulya, italics mine). I needed more of a reflective pause to determine what really mattered.

Of course, I have excuses. I could make lists of them. At the end of the day, however, the responsibility for guiding the educators in our district rests on my shoulders as a Director of Instructor with Technology in my portfolio. I share that responsibly with other Senior Leaders but, for the most part, the buck stops at my doorstep. Having had the opportunity for some sleep, some family distraction, some unrelated reading, a longish run in the fresh air, a late afternoon nap—I can now step back and see it more objectively. Dissonance and a “should have” experience is not such a bad thing; it will motivate me to ensure we come out at the other end in the best possible position we can be in. Even the Wikipedia entry on Reflective Practice notes, “In particular, people in leadership positions have a tremendous development opportunity if they engage in reflective practice” (italics mine).

At the end of Alec’s time with us, he will prepare a white paper (of sorts) and we will have recommendations to help move us forward. I look forward to benefiting from his expertise (and of those he interviewed). We hope it is a document that other districts might find valuable as well. Our goal is to continue to be innovative, providing rich learning opportunities for students and teachers that make sense for our generation of learners. We do this is the context of continuous improvement. As we engage in “deeper forms of reflection, it becomes possible to identify learning edges, those questions or issues that an individual or group is seeking to understand in order to advance their work” (see Amulya).  I want to be on the learning edge to push the boundaries of what we can do in education. We engage in reflective practice as a form of purposeful learning (see Amulya). It drives us to action and is the vehicle for continuous improvement. I look forward to the journey.

Learning: Just so-oh, pedestrian

What am I learning? Well, the magic fairy didn’t appear; I had no personal tutor over the holidays and my fantasy did not materialize (see post here). I did, however, have a commitment to myself that I would try and PLAY with my learning. I wanted to have time to just “fiddle” and learn some new things. I didn’t want to read a manual (really, spare me) nor any detailed instructions but I was desperate enough to resort to checking out a couple of how-to videos. Then I launched in. For many of you, this list will be just so-oh, pedestrian. But for me it represents pushing my learning curve from where I am now. Some of these are things I wanted to do last summer, but just didn’t get to.  These are small steps, new learning, pushing the boundaries and wanting to understand the multitude of ways and contexts in which professional learning can take place. This is my gig. I think I have a responsibility to dive in.

1. About.Me
One of our Engaging the Digital Learner speakers (I can’t remember who: Dean Shareski? Shelley Wright? George Couros?) said we should really go to this website and grab our name, reserve our spot before someone else did. I was inspired by Ryan Hong’s page and breathed deep seeing Karen Lirenman’s background, however, I could only muster some picture of me with no lipstick riding the trails in Kelowna. Forgive the no lipstick. I am a tomboy at the best of times. And the picture brings back memories of being physical. That is what I love to do. is really just one page on the web that is a visual resume. Think of it as a web-based business card that cuts to the quick about what counts for you. Most of the pages are absolutely stunning (convince me that they did not have professional photographers!).

2. Pinterest
I am not a Martha Stewart kind of person. I do not scrapbook. I had no interest in ever using this particular tool. I actually read that women predominantly use this web tool, which was simply not motivating for me.  However, I decided that I should learn it too, because, here was a place I could keep interesting pictures and quotes. I am fascinated by design, by beautiful pictures and by visual arresting images. I also collect thoughtful quotes. I have files of them…at home, at school. Here was a way to do the same thing electronically. So, I now have an account. Not a big deal. Pretty simple. But what really clinched it was that “Pin it” bookmark on the top of my tool bar. It is just so easy to “pin it.” I have just started so I don’t have many things pinned but you are welcome to check it out here. I do have to say there are some weird things about it. Like, now I have a bunch of friends. I am following people I didn’t know I was following and suddenly people are following me. Let’s be clear, these aren’t real friends but I can live with this as I explore it.

3. A Virtual Book Study:
It was a simple suggestion from a former Helping Teacher (@amnewish). “I am going to do this book study. I thought you might like to try it too.” I am now signed up for the ISTE SIGAdmin discussion of World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (by Yong Zhao). I have never really been in a book study group and certainly have never done one on-line. I just thought maybe it was time to change that. I have signed up and now will be participating through a CourseSite by Blackboard. That will be new to me too.

4. Google+
During the holiday Tia Henriksen (@TiaHenriksen) sent me an invitation to join Google+. I just thought, “Oh no, please, something else to learn.” Yes, that was my first reaction. But then I thought maybe I should jump in anyway and add it to my list. My 16 year old advised me it was a waste of time. He proceeded to lecture me on how Google + did not live up to all it was promised to be. He explained it received a lot of hype at the beginning but it has faded now. My 16 year old knows everything. I won’t tell you my response back to him. I am now in Google+. My circles are pretty sad but you are welcome to connect with me. We are in the age of connection and I need all the help I can get! I’m not really sure I understand it but perhaps the purpose will become clearer as I forge ahead with it. Is Google+ doing anything for you?

5. Diigo
This was the web tool I really was most interested in learning. Over vacation, I spent a few days in my office cleaning up paperwork and culling files. What I discovered was the many fascinating articles I had read about technology prior to launching our original Innovative Learning Designs projects. Buried deep in those files, I had the articles from Maine, from the Rocky Point school district, from Joe Morelock in Oregon and from Chicago as well. At a recent meeting with Apple representatives, they referenced these places. I had forgotten. Orwell Kowalyshyn (@kowalyshyn) gave me many of these references over two years ago. These districts had informed the development of our own projects. I wanted a way to file these articles electronically so I could have them. I’m in diigo now. I have just started but remember, the first step is the hardest one!

6. For Future Learning:
I did go back to visit my LinkedIn account. I still can’t figure out the advantage of being in there. I am not looking for a job, I don’t need any more relationships (I have enough challenges managing the ones I do have), and I haven’t found any of the discussions useful yet. I also find it a strange thing to invite or connect with people. It seems, I don’t know, just kind of bold. Awkward. I find the same true about Google+. It seems like saying, “I have no friends. Will you be mine?”

There are many more things I need to learn. Some of these things I did because I want to redesign my blog (Shhh! It’s a secret). I have a plan. I have sketched it out. This was part of my learning curve before I get to the redesign.

Did this seem pedestrian to you? Do you have something new you learned? Did it feel like “playing?” And is there some other tool you think I should have learned? Let me know.

The author still wonders, given the multitude of Web 2.0 tools “out there,” what makes the most sense for people such as her? If you were not prone to adopting technology easily, what would be the top five you would recommend as useful to others? Why? She would have liked to have a list (partially vetted by the Teacher-Librarian experts of the digital-highway) to know what would really make the best use of her time.


My Top Three List for 2012 (with apologies to Chris Kennedy)

Ahhh…I too have drafted a top three list. Thank you to Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy) for inspiring this post but sincere apologies as well. As you can see, my categories are a bit different. Unlike Chris, this list does not represent a long tradition but a spontaneous moment of reflection. I am still drowning from “drinking from the firehose” but will endeavour to mark some important moments in the past year. I must say, however, it is a struggle to remember the past year. Hasn’t it rushed by in a blur? What did I really learn? Why can’t I be as reflective, profound and wise as others to nail down the most salient features of my year of learning? Here is my half-hearted and whimsical attempt at some of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Books I should have read and didn’t (see photo):

1. Finnish Lessons
2. Fierce Conversations
3. Where Good Ideas Come From
I started them, I caressed the covers, I read the author’s bios and skimmed the introductions with the fond thought that I might read them, write a review and post it in my blog. Alas, I read the intro, maybe a chapter or two, but I did not read them. They did not hold my attention but I’m sure they are all great books.


Books I did read that were really worth it:
1. Why School? by Will Richardson
2. Inquiry: A District Wide Approach to Staff and Student Learning
3. The Connected Educator
Why School? was fabulous. I bought copies for all my Innovative Learning Designs schools. Inquiry is a book all senior leadership staff should read. What does it mean for members of leadership team to engage in inquiry? Do we share that inquiry with others? Where are we on the learning journey? How can inquiry permeate the organization system-wide? The Connected Educator I read poolside last year during spring break while my personal pool-boy delivered bottled water and pistachio nuts. The four boys (ages 16, 13, 8 & 5) were chained to digital devices in the motel room so I could have a moment of peace and quiet. No wonder I loved the book.

Pro-D Events I wish I attended but didn’t:
1. Learning Forward
2. Workshop: How to write regular posts that others want to read
3. A private boot camp on technology designed just for me (so much to learn, so little time)
I should go to a Learning Forward conference because I have never been and because this is the central focus of my work as a Director of Instruction. I want to go but have not yet made it a priority. As for writing posts, is there any way to make this easy? What a struggle. I hope to write a post weekly but if I manage to get two done a month I am grateful. Writing is hard work. Finally, I want my own boot camp. Someone could walk me through the things I want to learn (this would be personalized learning at its best). And they could show me, hand over hand, just what I need to do. I watch, I do. Repeat (because I forget easy). I wouldn’t have to read a manual or watch a video. It would be face-to-face. This is a totally selfish fantasy. We all need to have at least one.

Professional Development Events I attended and loved (and not necessarily in this order):
1. ISTE 2012
2. Connected Ed Canada Conference 
3. Apple Educational Leaders’ Institute (an invite only event)
These events were about learning and people. Those were my highlights. I love learning and sharing or talking about it with others. It wasn’t just the sessions, it was the in between conversations, walks, discussions, and dinners as well. I was inspired. I was rejuvenated. I was refreshed.  I wanted more.

Things I should have taught my four boys but didn’t:
1. Using technology to create rather than consume (that’s why they need teachers)
2. Creating ibooks rather than playing Minecraft, Travian or Flow
3. Solving inter-personal problems with your brothers (there must be an app for that)

Most Rewarding:
1. Working with teachers
2. Learning
3. System change/innovation
I really like working with teachers. I love learning. I am fascinated by system change. End story. Full stop.

Things I hate:
1. Sitting still in long meetings (I just have to fidget with something)
2. Paper & more paper (Where should it get filed? Is there no respect for trees?)
3. My calendar (For my secretary, it’s a dirty word)
These are the reasons we call “work” “work”.

Best Personal Activities:
1. Starting running, again
2. Family boot camp in Arizona (mountain-biking, hiking, running, weights)
3. Outdoor adventures
Work is sedentary. I need to be physical. Work generally takes place inside offices and meeting rooms. I crave the outdoors.

Best Non-Educational Reading:
1. The Sharper the Knife the Less you Cry: Love, Laugher and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School
2. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks
3. Childrens’ Books (too many of them to choose)

Favorite Treats (indulge when inbox is overflowing):
1. Ms. Vickie’s chips (preferably with dip)
2. Starbucks, especially when someone else is treating (Can you say skinny Caramel Macchiato?)
3. Chocolate covered nuts

Worst Things in my World:
1. Being injured, again
2. Sleep deprivation
3. Workload

Things that make me smile:
1. Outrageous videos (don’t some days just feel like this?)

2. People that make me laugh
3. My children (occasionally)

Things I can’t control:
1. Other people
2. Budgets
3. School Act

Things I can control:
1. Creating space for teachers to experiment with their learning
2. Designing opportunities for innovation
3. Connecting learners together

It was a crazy year. I had lots of fun. I loved making things happen and pushing the envelope of innovation. If it has made a difference for students, for teachers, then there is some gratification. Thanks for being with me (and putting up with me) on my outrageous learning journey!

What’s your rock?

I want to be a linchpin. Seth Godin says, “Every organization needs a linchpin, the one person who can bring it together and make a difference.” Can we create an organization of linchpins committed to making a difference? And he adds, “What will make someone a linchpin is not a shortcut.  It’s the understanding of which hard work is worth doing.” What is the most important work? Which hard work is worth doing? Do we have clarity and laser-like focus on what truly counts?

My personal goal is to transform education. I have a rock in my office that I keep on my desk. My goal is written with a black sharpie across the rock. I have intentionally used this to guide my work and remind me of my focus. My goal is broken down further into two key pieces so when I speak of transforming education it looks like this:

  • Continue to create and support opportunities for Curriculum Transformation (ie: personalized learning, 21st century learning).
  • Use technology as a tool to leverage change in pedagogy in order to transform teaching.

Essential to achieving my goal is building capacity across the organization. For me, this fits. I am fundamentally addicted to learning. I have a thirst for knowledge that is inherent in my being. I do believe that when others are equally engaged and passionate about their own learning, it has the potential to transform the organization and the classroom. When we find what we are passionate about, when it is connected to a higher purpose (making a difference with students), we are released to maximize our potential. The enthusiasm for learning, for growing, for improving, is infectious. It spreads across the organization, across the school, and into the classroom. Students reap the benefits.

At a recent meeting with some district staff and external guests, I brought my rock for “show & tell.” I used it as a symbol to talk about what is important in my work, and the work of the district. I also talked about it in connection with our district. I do feel that if we can transform education in Surrey (the largest district in the province), that we can transform it in other places as well. I see our district as a potential “tipping point.” Do it here, do it in a big way, and it will overflow and tip out to the rest of the province. In some respects, it is embarrassing to share one’s deeply personal goal with others in this fashion. I try not to feel self-conscious but it feels like one is undressing a bit of one’s soul, of what is at the essence of one’s being, in a room full of strangers. I do like to dream big but I don’t always like to share that out publicly. Others might think I am crazy. But, that being said, I would rather be crazy and adventurous than live my life in a stalemated routine of sameness. The “bleeding edge” suits me quite fine.

I have people standing on my rock. How do I know this? They are committed to the same work as me. We do it together. Our Superintendent has described his view of the purpose of our organization: “Building Human Capacity.” I would consider that his rock. And I stand on his rock as well as my own. What is your rock? And whose rock do you stand on? Does the clarity of your focus help drive your actions? We are inundated with the urgent that we sometimes lose sight of what is most important. Let’s bring clarity to our work. Which is the hard work worth doing? What’s your rock?