Spirit Sings!

Have you ever wondered what happens when you put a concentrated effort into choral music? Well, 12 choirs, over 400 students and over 1000 audience members certainly do… and its called Spirit Sings. Last year was our first division concert and it culminated with the recording of a CD of Sacred Music. This recording was featured in “A Public Education” episode.

This is our second year for Spirit Sings and each year draws more attention to music and the arts overall. I would suggest that the arts provides us with some of our greatest examples of education transformation. Let me explain:

  1. Teachers of the arts are some of the best in their assessment practices. They get Assessment For Learning! The final test is usually performance based (that’s a good thing) and occurs after multiple feedback sessions. When students hit the wrong note or say the wrong line, the teacher intervenes immediately and provides the necessary feedback to ensure learning. The destination (final concernt, project, play,etc) will always be important but it is the journey of learning to get that point that is critical.
  2. The arts provides education with the best example of continuous improvement, although I would include athletics in here as well. System improvement follows school improvement which follows individual improvement. What is individual improvement- simply honing our craft. We desire to improve our ability to sing, to draw, to act… to teach!
  3. The arts reflects the spark for many students and allows them, if nurtured to move from surviving to thriving. That spark is what students say gives them joy, provides them fulfillment. It is a message highly communicated by the late Peter L. Bensen. With that in mind, why do we not advocate more for the inclusion of the arts in every school and throughout the curriculum?
  4. Finally, the arts speaks to our need to develop and promote creativity in our classrooms. The problems of tomorrow will be difficult to solve by logical and linear thinkers. We need to have creative minds who look outside their own paradigm at not what is but at what could be. The arts is such a natural link to creativity that schools and communities can ill afford not to support.

What I witnessed on Tuesday evening reminded me of one of the reasons why I entered education so many years ago. It wasn’t just about the performance, although the finale gave me goosebumps. No, it was watching students doing something that they were fully engaged in, doing it well and loving every minute of it! It is all about the students who walk into our classes and our schools. “Children are not vessels to be filled but lamps to be lit!- Hebrew Proverb” And through the arts, so many lamps are lit!!! 

Congratulations to all the staff and students who made Spirt Sings such a great success.


Mission and Vision

This past week, we began our leadership development program in our division. It’s a program that we offer every two years, although with the impending retirement of over 60% of our administrators in the next 8-10 years, we may have to offer it every year. Our first session is always about mission and vision. It is a crucial component of the leadership challenge and one that took me a long time to fully understand.

I remember when mission and vision came into the education sector in the early to middle 1990’s. Initially, I didn’t see the importance of developing a mission statement for my school, partly because of my immaturity as a leader and partly because of the process.  I was steeped with a bias that if it wasn’t practical, why would I spend time on it. And early on, I didn’t see the practicality of mission statements. It was a statement that we spent hours/days developing and wordsmithing and then we would find someone who was good at calligraphy to put it on some paper, frame it and hang it in our halls. At that time, it was a compliance activity at best with very little commitment attached.

Thank goodness I’ve matured as a leader (or at least I hope I have) and now more fully understand the critical need of schools and school divisions to focus on their mission and vision. Although matured as a leader, I still like to keep things simple and so I define mission as “Why we are here” and vision as “Where we want to be in five years.” In those terms it is easy to recognize why mission and vision play such a critical role in system and school planning.

One of the slides that I share in my presentation is about the leader’s challenge: “Fulfilling the mission. A mission statement is a covenant with the people we serve- it is a promise. It is important to deliver on that promise.” When we place our mission statements on our websites and in our schools, we are publically committing to that promise. The more that our actions align with our mission, the more trust we build with our stakeholders. When we make this public statement, we are held to that action. The example I use comes from my opening address to staff this year. I stated that by Christmas, I would meet with every school staff in our division. I have to deliver on that promise or my credibility is impacted. By making it public, I’m held to a higher accountability and so it is the same with our public mission statements.

The power of vision is that it brings us to a world that we want to create through continuous improvement. In truth, vision should never be quite achieved because we should always be strving to get better. As we get closer to our preferred state, we set the bar a little higher. Unfortunately, the term continuous improvement has been misdefined because of its deficit origin. Continuous improvement does not assume weakness but rather the desire to just get better, hone your craft, just as the musician, artist or athlete. I would venture to say that few leaders are asked to “just maintain the staus quo!” Continuous improvement is directly linked to our vision.

In order for mission and vision to be alive in systems, it needs to be reviewed on an annual basis. We need to ensure that why we are here and where we want to be in five years is still relevant. The discussion with your staffs should be quite frank and probably a little messy. It is not easy work creating urgency to move a school or system ahead. In the end however, everybody needs to sign off publicly that they are committed to the mission and vision so the whole group can ensure accountability. Without that commitment, your ability for continuous improvement is compromised and the status quo will remain, which is unacceptable to support the needs of today’s students.

Leaders, both formal and informal need to ensure that mission and vision is realized. And so I ask you to reflect on the question, “What leadership skills do leaders need, to make mission and vision a reality in schools?”

What… another PD day?

Tomorrow, Holy Spirit Catholic Schools will be engaged in a division wide professional development day. Our entire staff of nearly 500, will gather at Catholic Central Campus East for the day. The keynote address from Dr. Bryan E. Kolb, a Professor at the University of Lethbridge’s Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, will speak specifically to the day’s theme, “Gray Matters – Engaging the 21st Century Brain.” Dr. Kolb will discuss how our understanding of brain development has fundamentally changed in the past decade and how these alterations influence children’s development and learning. I’m excited about tomorrow’s PD day not only to listen to Dr. Kolb but on the multitude of presentations being offered to division staff. Many of these sessions are being led by our own staff and demonstrate the high level of expertise we have throughout our division. Take a look at our sessions by visiting the following link: http://lenaour.wikispaces.com/October+2011+PD+Day+Sessions.

Although I am excited, the fact remains that this is the day that parents have to find alternative childcare and that is not necessarily easy in today’s world. So, when parents or the community join in chorus and say, “What… another PD day?”, I think that we need to be fully transparent in what is occurring during these days. Furthermore, we know as educators from the research that one shot PD is not very effective so why do we have these days anyway??? Why do we inconvenience parents and whole families if that is what the research says?

Professional development days must satisfy one major requisite if they are to be considered useful in the eyes of staff and the community. For the day to be worthwhile and deemed a success it must invoke change and possibly a little internal conflict in the participants. Learning occurs when we are stretched a little farther in our thinking, our beliefs and our practices. The day’s topics must be considered either to be a revelation to some or an affirmation to others. Both require us to reflect on our current practice.  Professional development days can never be seen as an end. They are either a beginning or part of the journey of professional growth.

Professional development is a hot topic right now in our province as we address the transformation agenda. The transformation of education will not suddenly occur with these days but it may not ever start without them. A balance has to be struck between full days like this and the focused conversations occurring in schools’ learning communities.  But when you have a division wide PD day, make it worthwhile and communicate the intent to parents so they can see the benefits of getting childcare for another day!


Supporting FNMI Success

The other night we had our first FNMI Parent Advisory Committee meeting of the year. We typically have three meetings a year and for the most part, have them in our large PD centre in our division office. Although our attendance at this meeting has grown over the past number of years we still have not been able to get the response that we have wanted. Our FNMI team reflected on our meetings and came up with a brilliant format. Our first meeting was held at the Friendship Centre and included agencies from the area and a student panel. The result… over 90 people in attendance.

The evening was a great success but what I was most impressed with was our students. Ten students from elementary, junior high and senior high told their stories. I caused me to reflect on three points that I would like to share.

  1. Support- Each of the students talked about the support they had received both at home and at school that enabled them to be successful. From a school’s point of view, every student in every school has to have a person that they can turn to for that support. I would venture to say that the vast majority of students who are not succeeding have also not connected with an adult in the school. Our support of every child that walks in our doors is critical.
  2. High Expectations- Each of these students had high expectations of themselves. Even our young elementary students had a plan to finish school and go on to something beyond. They had a fierce belief that they would be successful. In education we have too often looked at students who are facing many difficulties with sympathy and therefore provide excuses for their lack of success. Instead, we need to show empathy but then look for opportunities for them to be successful. This isn’t about lowering standards but instead having high expectations- the belief that they can and will succeed.
  3. Student Voice- This last one is a note to all of us in education. How often do we truly listen to our students? How often do we seek their input? If we truly want them to be part of our education system then we need to ensure that they are full partners. And that means providing opportunities for student voice.

We are still a long way from closing the achievement gap, but if we continue to provide support, set high expectations and give an opportunity for student voice, we will make positive strides and ALL students will benefit!


From the Desk of the Superintendent- October 2011

I begin my monthly update reflecting on the sudden passing of Jeff Warkentin last weekend. Jeff was a new teacher at St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek. His passion for teaching and more importantly his desire to always be witness to his faith was repeated throughout the funeral service yesterday. I was deeply impacted by the strength and emotional conviction of his wife in her tribute to her husband. Even in the short time that Jeff was with us, he touched the lives of the staff, students and community of St. Michael’s. Our prayers continue to go out to his wife and family. May God continue to bless her and her family with comfort and strength.

As a Catholic School Division, we rely on that faith. It is what makes us unique. It does not make us automatically better than our public school division counterparts but it does make us different! I am reminded of this especially in troubling or tragic times. Our ability to gather in prayer, openly, allows us a strength to heal. Too often we take this great gift of publicly funded Catholic Education and our ability to practice our Catholic/Christian faith for granted.  This was one of my key messages last week when I spoke at the Calgary Diocesan Catholic Women’s League Fall Meeting. May we always remember and treasure our gift!

This month we celebrate World Teachers’ Day on October 5th. Teachers around the world are recognized for the impact that they have on children day in and day out. Sadly in North America, teachers are not nearly afforded the same level of recognition as they are in other parts of the world. This is unfortunate as there are so many teachers who make a difference in a child’s life and most times without knowledge of it and certainly without recognition.  I was fortunate to have some great teachers in my life that helped shaped my path- Sister Aquinas, Mr. Matsuba, Mr. Tarnasky to name just a few. On October 5th, please take some time to let the teachers in your life and in your children’s life know how important they are to you.

The board’s regular meeting was held on September 28th. To review the main points please take a look at the Board Briefs. Of particular note is the desire of our board to engage our community in a transformation conversation. The changes required in education to meet the needs of each child will not be successful without the trust, understanding, permission and support of the community. On November 2nd we will begin that conversation with our teachers, our parents and other members of the community. We are hopeful that Alberta Education  personnel will also be able to attend this beginning dialogue. Please read my previous posts entitled “Transformation is a journey not a  destination” and “Action on Inclusion” for more information.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I would like to take this opportunity to wish each of you a wonderful October and a joyous upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend.

God Bless!

Chris Smeaton

Transformation is a journey not a destination

Last week, I attended the transformation meeting for urban boards in Edmonton.  These events are being held throughout the province and are sponsored by Alberta Education, ASBA and ATA. Although my first thought about gathering “like” boards was to mix the groups up, I found it quite refreshing to be able to spend a day engaged in quality dialogue with our own teaching staff. I would say that we have a pretty strong relationship with our teachers, but are always pressed for time to really get to the “meat of the matter.” In reviewing the day, I have a couple of thoughts to share.

1. Transformation is a journey not a destination- Even though we need to have some thought about where we are going, we need to understand that transformation should be a continual journey. Until we reach perfection, we’ll always be on that journey. Education should be changing to meet the needs of our students and that in essence is transforming. The difficulty however, is that never before have we been requried to educate EACH student. And that puts us on a faster track than any change initiative prior!!!

2. Finland vs. Norway- I learned that both countries tackled school improvement differently. Norway who had a strong system suggested the status quo while Finland, decided to blow it up and start again. Don’t get me wrong, Finland is far different from Alberta and so any comparison has to be made carefully but should we be looking at really blowing the system up and starting from scratch? Consider the following and ask yourself whether the change would require just a tweak or a complete overhaul:

  • Do we need 2 monthsof summer holidays in today’s society?
  • Should we really have a distinct Social Studies and Science curriculum in the primary grades?
  • Does every child have to finish the same material in the same year/semester/quarter?
  • Does every child need the same curriculum?

3. Community readiness- If our true desire is to meet the need of EACH student then we had better be prepared to engage our communities. Battle scars will be the norm because school won’t be like it was and that will create considerable angst amongst our public. The known is always preferred to the unknown so resistance will be plentiful… from both inside and outside the system.

4. Mandate creep- A colleague of mine produced a visual that illustrated the number of initiatives facing school divisions. If transformation is truly what we seek, then let’s remind ourselves that research supports the implementation of  2-3 priorities not 50-60. Let’s focus on what is most important AND be prepared (all of us) to drop those things that don’t contribute in whole to our 2-3 priorities.  

5. Relationships are critical- To achieve the necessary transformation required, the relationship between Alberta Education, ASBA and ATA must be authentic. Too often, we fail because the relationships have been built on niceness instead of grit. Egos must be parked and ears must be opened. We must be prepared to listen to everyone without formalizing a counterattack part way through the message. We’ll hear things we don’t want to hear and probably not like but if the relationship is to be strong, it must be authentic.

Finally, I’m excited about being in education today. I think we are beginning to promote an attitude or even more importantly an environment where we can take risks. In our division we use the term, “Fail Forward.” We won’t get this transformation right immediately but we will never get it right if we don’t start. Every chance you get, talk about what transformation means to you and your colleagues and then get on board for a great ride!!!

Action on Inclusion

I began writing this article late last week while I was sitting in the airport awaiting my flight after attending the Building Capacity Information Session hosted by Alberta Education. The wait then and up till now has provided me the time to reflect on what I heard or possibly didn’t hear during the day. For the record, I’m in full support of our province’s move to an inclusive system where all students are successful. It parallels our division’s vision that states, “…where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” However, I believe there has to be some significant changes before every student achieves success and every classroom is inclusive.

  1. Eliminate Our Sort & Select System- Even with some of the best teachers in the world and creative methodologies, we still have in many ways a factory model. Our top students are encouraged to go to university, the next level to college and then the trades and finally into the  world of work. And to be really honest, we spend most of our time highlighting university which is where only a small percentage of our graduates go!  If we want all students to be successful, shouldn’t we also be focusing on the passions of the individual student. Isn’t it a great feeling to wake up every morning and love going to work!!!
  2. Change the Understanding of Our Schools- I’m tired of the rhetoric, “If it was good enough for me, its good enough for them.” Quite frankly, it isn’t good enough. Never before have schools been required to teach all children to a high level. High school graduation is not enough to secure a decent living in today’s society. Most jobs in the future will require some sort of post secondary training. This message needs to be communicated clearly to our communities so that we can develop trust, support, understanding and finally permission to change.
  3. Believe in the True Uniqueness of our Students- As educators we believe this intrinsically. But, every child still has to finish the same curriculum in the same ten month period. And by the way, it is critical that we continue with the same calendar we’ve had for… how many years? Right? Time cannot be the constant it must be the variable and learning must be the constant.
  4. Curriculum refinement- We have for too long engaged in a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch thick. We require a robust curriculum that engages students, stimulates their minds and tweaks their interests. I’m hopeful that Alberta Education’s Action on Curriculum focuses on what is best for K-12 and not on satisfying post secondary requirements. Our curriculums need to focus on the competencies of the 21st century.
  5. From my students to our students- We know that teacher collaboration is a required not optional activity. The days of “just leave me alone in my classroom” are passe. But our students in an inclusive system also means collaboration with outside agencies and professionals.  This collaboration must be modelled by all from government right through to the classroom.

Action on Inclusion needs to be transformational. It can’t be just a little tweak but an entire movement. And for an entire movement it needs to come from both the heart and head of all stakeholders… with support!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- September 2011

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome all of our staff, students and parents. I hope that the summer provided each of you with peace, tranquility and the ability to engage in quality family time. It is a great pleasure to welcome all of our new students and families this year. You have chosen a divison that is both a faith and learning community and as such is committed to providing high quality Catholic Education to all. Thank you for choosing Holy Spirit Catholic Schools!

This is the second year of our Three Year Faith Plan. Our theme for the entire division is, “Do you love me?” It is the question asked to Peter by Jesus in John’s gospel (John 21:1-17). As a faith community we are constantly called to respond in word and especially action to that question. I would invite you to read my blog on our theme for more information.

Schools today need to prepare students for tomorrow and not yesterday. In order to do that we must utilize sound teaching practices and infuse technology to build relevance. 21st century learning is not all about technology but it is also not void of technology. We need to recognize the needs of our students by addressing 21st century competencies – problem solving; creativity; analytical thinking; collaboration; communication; ethics, action, and accountability. Without these skills, our students will have difficulty in a future world that is vastly unknown.

One of the first conditions needed to address those skills is to create an environment of risk taking. In my opening address to staff, I used the term, “Fail Forward.” It means that when we fail we learn from it and move on. Failing forward creates new opportunities for learning. It is a term that I hope all will incorporate in our division. Artists, musicians and athletes practice fail forward constantly as they hone their skills. Problem solving and creativity, possibly two of the most important 21st century competencies cannot be enhanced if we are not prepared to risk-take or think outside the box.

It truly is an exciting time to be in education. I invite you to become involved in your school community – be engaged in this excitement and watch how we prepare your children for their future.

God Bless!

2011-12 Faith Theme: Do You Love Me?

On August 30th, our entire school division came together as both a faith and learning community to celebrate. Our Lady of the Assumption School organized a powerful mass with music provided by exceptionally talented staff. Fr. Tim of All Saints Parish was our main celebrant with Fr. Fernando (St. Martha Parish)  and Fr. Tomy (St. Ambrose/St. Catherine Parishes) as concelebrants, while Deacons Cliff Bogdan and Ray Wagner assisted.

Prior to these celebrations, I plant myself at the entrance so that I can meet and greet our staff as they come in. This year, my entire senior administration team accompanied me in this welcome. It allows me an personal opportunity to welcome back a very dedicated and committed staff. Furthermore, it is energizing as I feed off the excitement and enthusiasm that surround me.

This year we are continuing with our Three Year Faith Plan. Our theme for this second year comes from John’s Gospel (John 21: 1-17) in which Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Fr. Tim described this call as our need to let go fully in order to allow us to do the will of God. When we are truly free, we accept the will of God and ensure that our eyes are always fixed on Jesus. Like a waterfall, we allow the love of the Lord to rush over us without hesitation. Throughout this year, we will explore our theme and respond to Jesus’ call of, “Feed my sheep!”

Our vision states, “A Christ-centered learning environment, where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” Only when we truly focus on Jesus and see the face of Christ in each and every child can we begin to achieve our vision.

The Night Before Our First LLT Meeting

Tomorrow morning our entire Learning Leadership Team (LLT) will be heading to St. Michael School in Pincher Creek for our first meeting of the school year. It will be a relatively short meeting as we plan to head out to Castle Mountain for our retreat shortly after lunch. The LLT is made up of senior administration, principals, associate principals and our early learning coordinator. The ability for our entire team to get together for two days prior to the start of the year is awesome and will be particularly beneficial for demonstrating our culture to our new administrators.

I’m beginning my third year as Superintendent of Holy Spirit Catholic Schools and like my previous two opening meetings, I feel a great sense of excitement and a few jitters as well. The excitement piece is pretty self explanatory or should be. I’m a firm believer that when I’m not excited about the start of a school year it is time to get out of the profession. The jitters however are a little bit more complex. I would tend to believe that the LLT knows me fairly well and knows that I speak from the heart. Although actions speak louder than words, opening words can set a tone for the year either positively or negatively.

I’m very proud of the accomplishments of our school division over the past number of years. You don’t get the results we have and changes required to meet the needs of the 21st Century Learner without a whole bunch of committed educators and dedicated staff. But to continually improve requires both pressure and support, stability and change. It is not only critical for a leader to know when to exercise both but as importantly to communicate the need for both. Opening addresses need to inspire but also be realistic. Leaders need to find that balance to be truly seen as authentic.

Tomorrow when I meet with our LLT, I want to demonstrate my excitement for the coming year and also communicate a realism of our current conditions. Honesty and integrity are non-negotiable to ensure that our school leaders are instilled with a sense of hope and can translate that hope to their own staff, students and communities.

Wish me luck!