Part 1: Analysis of Context
1. What do we know about our learners?
As you approach Ellendale from the road, the first thing that you will notice is the incredible natural setting. Nestled into a corner of Invergarry Park, the school property lines are defined on two sides by a beautiful forest line. The windows of every classroom look out onto natural spaces. We have our own little natural haven on the edge of Guilford. Ellendale is a K to 7 school with a small population of 140 students with six divisions and a rich multi-cultural story. Many of our students and families have been in this community for their children’s entire elementary career and we also have families on their second generation of Ellendale students. Our tight-knit community is predominantly of European descent, but we also boast students of Aboriginal heritage, as well as many Filipino, South Asian, Hispanic, Vietnamese and Chinese students, many of whom have been part of this quiet and engaged neighbourhood for years, but many who are recent additions to our story. We receive new Canadians who arrive from all parts of the world. Of particular note within our community are the families who have arrived as refugees in Canada, from areas of conflict in the Middle East. The Ellendale neighbourhood is made up of hard working families who value education and recognize the school as a hub of the community. Students enter kindergarten from a variety of educational and extracurricular experiences. Some of our kindergarten students have preschool or daycare experience or have participated in Parents As Literacy Supporters program offered to preschool children in our community by our own kindergarten teacher. A few of our kindergarteners come into school having had limited group learning or play experience and begin their educational adventure here. Because many of our parents are working full time and have shift work jobs, we try to provide enrichment activities within our school day and during after school hours. We are particularly proud of our boys and girls clubs for senior students and the Jump Start program for our younger students. Between those two programs, we are able to offer services to a large portion of our student population every year. We also have a running club, a volleyball team and a small but dedicated track and field team. Due to the small population, we do not always offer a huge range of sport and club opportunities, but if interest is expressed, we love to try new things! Our students really value play and social engagement through play. The small community feel of Ellendale extends through our incredible parent support network. Parents, guardians and care-givers are as essential to our community network as any staff or student member. It is highly encouraged by staff that parents take an active role in the school, volunteering in classrooms, sharing in special events, celebrating learning and participating on field trips. Our Parent Advisory Council is extremely hard working and committed, providing a range of opportunities for the community to come together by hosting family and community events, hot lunch days, treat days, and other fund raising activities. For a small school, we see incredible support from the PAC and the families, we are very fortunate to receive generous financial support from them which are applied to enriching the learning opportunities of our student population. Of foremost focus of the PAC, at the current time, is the replacement of our aged playground apparatus. A special feature of our community is the general feeling of social awareness that exists. Our families and students are all very generous with their time, energy and money when it comes to giving back to society. Our school of only 6 divisions is a WE School with 2 WE groups, and throughout the year students create social awareness through fund raisers, food drives, poster campaigns and educational assemblies. Here at Ellendale, we want to continue to build our school as a community hub where students, parents and staff feel honoured, included, heard and respected. While some students may come to school with challenges, we are a school of inclusion and we know we can accomplish anything by moving forward together. We are learning and growing in an ever changing community and our staff, students and families are all taking part in a marvellous adventure toward 21st Century Learning, Social Emotional Learning, Global Citizenship. We think it is an incredible feature of our school that we have an intimate community in which staff know all the students and we can all support each other in a caring and supporting way. It is hard to go unnoticed in a small community, so all of our needs, minor or great, can be heard and responded to. We truly are lucky to be here.
2. What evidence supports what we know about our learners?
As we remain a small school, we have the ability to be highly collaborative in our conversations, planning and even in the classrooms. Both staff and students are learning further collaborative language, critical thought, questioning skills, and together, we are all discussing how we see Ellendale moving forward in exciting ways. Staff at Ellendale meets frequently, both formally and informally. Being of such small size is a benefit and a challenge in one. It gives us flexibility to work together to juggle schedules and meet demands as they pop up, but our team is always stretched to meet all the demands, due to part time and limited staffing. We have historically had 4 education assistants/ABA workers, and 1 full time learning support teacher, but this year, we have shot up in needs such that we have 7 support staff and 2 learning support teachers and a part time early literacy teacher. One of the growing needs in our school, as our demographic has shifted toward a more multicultural make up, is provision of greater service for English Language Learners. Our refugee families have come into our school community, some with limited to no school experience, and with no English language. Our flexible service model, our collaborative LST team, our engaged classroom teachers and support staff have made it possible to provide a responsive model for these and all of our students. Four years ago, staff recognized a need to build resilience and emotional strength in the students of Ellendale. The office was being flooded with conflict resolution difficulties, outside recess and play conflicts, emotional crises and there were an unusually high number of consequences and suspensions being issued as a matter of course. The staff recognized that this pattern required examination, and through collaborative meetings and discussions we decided to shift our school focus to Social Emotional Learning as an proactive intervention, with the end goal of providing our students with the resources and strategies to navigate their social and emotional experiences at school. Over the last three years, Ellendale’s school focus has been on the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) of our students. We have looked at how students identify and build social emotional resilience and how their learning has aided them in the development of social competencies. The first year was dedicated to adapting our learning environments, whether those were specific to the classroom, a student’s personal work space or a common area. We found, in that first year, that tools such as wiggle seats, headphones, ear plugs, standing tables, fidget tools and student choice for using or accessing these tools improved our students’ ability to stay calm and focussed on their learning.
We were so excited by these teacher observed changes in the first year, we continued our search for ways to bring student awareness to their SEL needs. Zones of Regulation and Second Step, as well as Mind Up were programs that different teachers tried with their classes, and Ellendale continued to grow as students began to use SEL and self-regulation language/strategies to navigate peer relationships as well as interpersonal conflict. Common language within the school has proven to be valuable, particularly when students find their way to the Principal for problem solving and conflict resolution. To build further on our common language, teachers began workshopping the Morning Meeting (Kriete & Davis, 2016) at monthly lunch meetings. Beginning early in the year, many classrooms began Morning Meeting (MM) practice. Through our implementation of this powerful, student centred program, our learning about self-regulation, student needs and our own role in the classroom has shifted dramatically.
Students were recently interviewed about the learning they have experienced in the past few years, in particular we wanted to know how they felt about their place in the classroom and the school. Students were selected from each class, and represented a wide academic, social and demographic range. What surprised us through these interviews was the ability of the students to articulate not only the value of the MM, but also their SEL and self-regulation strategies from previous years’ learning. Here are some exciting examples of interview responses to being asked what strategies students know or use to stay calm or focussed. grade 5 boy: “I wiggle my toes in my shoes or wiggle my fingers.” grade 6 girl: “I walk away and breathe.” grade 7 boy: “I put my head down on my desk for a while.” grade 3 boy: “I use square breathing, relax my shoulders, and then let go of my fists.” grade 1 boy: “I take deep breaths.” While these self-regulation skills are incredibly important and were the foundation of our work, what is even more exciting to us is the growth that students have shown in seeing others and their social emotional needs. One particular question in the interview directly asked why students liked Morning Meeting and what they got out of it, or learned from it. Here are some wonderfully insightful responses from our students. grade 1 student: “I like how people get to say things and people don’t interrupt. We express our feelings.” grade 4 boy: “I like to hear how others are feeling so I know how to approach them.” grade 5 girl: “It helps me ask if they’re ok if they say they’re sad.” grade 4 girl: “If they say they’re mad, I give them space.”
Part 2: Focus and Planning
3. What focus emerges as a question to pursue?
Looking forward, we want to continue to celebrate our journey and build on current student and staff competencies. As such, we envision expanding our social emotional work to the realm of 21st Century learning, particularly in regards to the New Curriculum and the Core Competencies. (https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/competencies) Our students, families and staff are facing this new frontier of learning with excitement, but also trepidation. We want to be sure to honour where everyone is in their understanding of this new curriculum and learning, and continue to grow our community in a meaningful way. The question that will lead forward is, “How can we empower students to take control of their own learning in a way that fosters resilience, pride and above all, a critical mind?” We want to continue to investigate the Morning Meeting as a tool to enrich all other elements of classroom and school community. Of particular interest for next year is how teachers can empower students to think mindfully about and reflect on their learning. To jumpstart this metacognitive process, we see Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset as the perfect vessel. Through her work, we can help students begin to “hear” their thoughts, “I can be successful.” or “I can’t do this.”, and then helping them shift to a Growth Mindset, “I am a great learner!” or “I may struggle, but I can learn this!”. Growth Mindset and Morning Meeting are a match made for us at Ellendale.
4. What professional learning do we need?
Staff has found great strength in the collaborative inquiry model, particularly as we have applied it to our book clubs. We intend to continue to work through literature, concepts and practice in this manner. In the Spring of 2017, we are workshopping Make Just One Change (Rothstein &Santana, 2011), which proposes that empowering students in their education is contingent on them learning how to ask powerful questions about their learning. We hope this new inquiry will begin our bridge from a purely social emotional focus to an academic focus with a strong social emotional base. Opportunities to see other classes and teachers delve into inquiry and questioning in their own ways would be an incredibly transformative experience for our staff. It is far too seldom that we have the freedom to observe and celebrate what our colleagues are doing in their own practices. Further to this, hearing inspiring success stories of other teachers and students in similar growth would be incredibly anchoring experiences for our understanding and practice.
5. What is our plan?
We envision this growth plan as an ongoing odyssey rather than a series of years in succession. In the early years, we built our toolkits, finding individual strengths amongst teachers, honouring how teachers function as professionals and in general acquainting ourselves with new ways of thinking, being, and learning. As the confidence and understanding of these new ideas and tools grew in our staff, we began to add variety in practice, namely Second Step, Zones of Regulation and Mind Up. Adding Morning Meeting in this school year was a crystallizing moment for our staff as all of the previous learning we had done now had a consistent framework within which it could be delivered to the students. We no longer had to use one program or another, but could take pieces from all programs and tailor them suit the needs of our students and ourselves. We now have the complete tool kit for meeting the SEL needs of our students on a daily basis. Our focus moving forward will be to continue to build from our SEL to our academic learning. This shift will be slow, as we begin this Spring with questioning and inquiry and our intention is to move our students’ thinking to one of personal empowerment using Carol Dweck’s envisioning of growth mindset.