The Art of Mentorship

I have been very fortunate to have four mentors who have been instrumental in helping my to define my values as an educator. They gave me opportunities, asked questions, and provided me the positive reinforcement to engage in change at key junctures of my career. They did not set out to fit me into a mold of how they wanted me to be.   Each of these people continue to demonstrate genuine interest in other people, a thirst to learn, and know how to laugh.

Jack Corbett was my very first principal when I was hired as a teacher in Abbotsford.   As an unemployed teacher after graduation, I worked at Spare Time Fun Centre in David Lloyd Elementary School (where I attended gr.3-7), completed a diploma program in English Education at UBC and longed for my own classroom. I was delighted to finally be hired to teach Grade 2 in Abbotsford (SD 34), where I had done my practicum. I was embraced the staff at Dormick Park Primary School. Jack had infinite respect for the staff and the momentum we created with our enthusiasm. When we came to him with an idea, Jack responded with all the support he had in his power to provide. When we did the egg drop to teach scientific method, he enlisted his friend with the helicopter to drop the eggs. He supported our efforts with the Writing Process and brought in the primary consultant, Jacquie Taylor, to support us when we showed interest in reading strategies. He covered our classes so we could observe in each other’s classes and create our binder of reading strategies with adaptations that was worthy of publication.

Jack also loved to engage in the discussion. He would attend professional development with staff and we would have great staff room discussions. He invited me to my first staff trek to a LOMCIRA (Lower Mainland Council of the International Reading Association) Meeting at Schou Centre in Burnaby, which would become a foundational part of my personal professional development. We regularly engaged in practical and philosophical discussions. Classes had been divided into homogeneous groups. Basal readers were used by the teacher before me. Standardized tests were used to measure student achievement in reading. We would discuss these issues, leave articles in each other’s boxes, and continued the debate. Jack also demonstrated that changing your mind reflected learning not being wrong. I was given the opportunity to fine tune my ideas through discussion and research and the support to try new practices in my classroom to test my ideas.

I started teaching in Coquitlam (SD 43) after giving birth to my son so I’d be closer to home. I chaired the Primary Association and had many opportunities for rich professional development through BCTF and the district and to teach at a variety of grades in a number professional capacities.  Maureen Dockendorf put out a call for teachers interested in doing action / teacher research. I had completed my MA in reading doing qualitative research with my kindergarten students to explore repeated readings.   However Maureen was able to use her extensive background with inquiry learning to model how to refine our own questions within our current classroom context and develop an action plan to guide our professional development We met in school after hours and learned collaboratively through the inquiry process. Her passion for the process, willingness to engage in the dialogue and ask questions was invaluable. The process of reporting out was not only a sharing of our learning but an opportunity to ask questions of our colleagues and consider possible applications of their learning. Her mentorship empowered me to take risks in my learning and to make changes in my classroom based on personal research, classroom data and the things I knew to be true.

Bruce Carabine hired me as team leader of Student Services when SD 43 was given a Ministry grant to renovate Hillcrest Elementary School and reopen as Hillcrest Middle School.   When you walked through the door of the school or met him in the community, you could always expect the same warmth and respect from this principal, whether you were a student, parent, colleague, trades person or superintendent.   He does a wicked session on developing memory using a variety of skills which he regularly demonstrates by remembering EVERYONE’S name. Bruce lived the concept of distributed leadership. The leadership of students, custodial staff, teachers, special education assistants, team leaders and trades people was recognized and responded to with equal appreciation. To use his analogy, he “conducted the orchestra of capable leaders”.   He invited input into decisions and would defer to the will of the group and the vice principal, Mrs. McTavish (who was actually a mannequin designated with this responsibility by staff ). We laughed a lot and learned a lot.

Gary Little was on the committee that hired me as a vice principal in Vancouver (SD39). In the interview, he wanted to see the professional portfolio I had assembled as a faculty associate, and expressed genuine interest in my prior teaching and learning experiences in other districts, and through my participation in The International Reading Association and Amnesty International.  Cecil Scott, a building engineer at one of my schools, told me the story of Gary joining him at lunch several times just to chat, before he finally discovered he was actually the new principal of the secondary school. I was fortunate to have Gary as an Area supervisor in my first assignment as a vice principal in the VSB. Gary is an avid reader and we had good conversations about books, school goals, and personal goals. He was instrumental during these conversations and VP meetings in pushing my thinking. What were are my non-negotiables? Was this an issue I want to die on the mountain for? He helped me to define professional goals from the stance of an administrator and define measurement tools to make the process personally meaningful, as well as demonstrate professional accountability.

Recently on Facebook, there has been a “feeling the gratitude” movement that has been embraced by several of my friends. Perhaps I’m riding the wave J I feel very grateful for having crossed paths with these people. However it also speaks more generally as to how people grow and learn. I really appreciate that these mentors have helped to crystalize some of the things that are near and dear to my heart. When we treat people like they have come to the table with things of value to share and the encouragement to take risks in their learning, ask questions and pursue answers, we create a climate for learning and unbridled possibility. I aspire to approach all of my students, parents, colleagues, family and friends like this.  Thank you Jack, Maureen, Bruce and Gary.

James Paul Gee: What you NEED to know about Digital Literacy & Social Media

I was fortunate to be able to hear James Paul Gee talk at The Learning and the Brain Conference in New York this past May. He was as dynamic and animated as you would expect from an innovator challenging many entrenched views of education, learning and their relationship to digital learning and social media. Of the many talks that I heard, Jim Gee’s talk and his book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Media, keeps creeping back into my thoughts.

The notion that we need provide young children with scaffolding so they can learn to talk, read and develop thinking skills has become a mainstream understanding. The amount of talk a child has heard before five years of age and the child’s oral vocabulary by five years of age, directly corresponds with school success. Parents of preschoolers readily attend library story time, puppet shows and preschool programs to prepare them for school. Maria Montessori was cutting edge when she introduced child sized furniture for use by students. The notion of children being seen but not heard is no longer the societal standard. At Science World, the Aquarium, the beach, the park, the grocery store and the mall, you can overhear adults asking children for their thoughts, ideas, opinions and engaging in meaningful conversation.

Gee talks about the importance of “talk, text, and knowledge (TTK) mentoring” required to use digital tools effectively. This essentially is the notion of providing the scaffolding required in order to move beyond using digital media for entertainment only.   Gee emphasizes the need for synchronized intelligence: “…we need to be able to dance the dance of collective intelligence with others and our best digital tools (p.208)”.

As an educator with a MA in Reading, I understand and live the love of books. Lousie Rosenblatt best described the vital importance of the transaction between the reader and the text that makes the experience of reading significant. Gee makes the case that “…books and digital media are both technologies for making and taking meaning, forms of “writing” (producing meaning) and “reading” (consuming meaning), as are television and film.”

Once digital media is embraced as a form of literacy, it becomes less easy to dismiss it as irrelevant or harmful to learning. This expanded notion of literacies requires that parents and educators provide the scaffolding for students to learn about creating meaning in the digital world. Just as we want our children to move beyond consuming a diet of comics and magazines to more thought provoking reading material, we want our children to move beyond mindless or violent games to applications requiring them to create meaning in complex and thoughtful ways. We want to teach students to persevere past failures to find answers to their problems. We want them to create connections with others to help them in finding the answers to their questions.

Gee creates the following list of 21st Century skills that are more often developed out of school than in it (p.202):

  • Ability to master new forms of complex and often technical language and thinking
  • Ability to engage in collaborative work and collective intelligence where the group is smarter than the smartest person in it
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Ability to deal with complexity and to think about and solve problems with respect to complex systems
  • Ability to find and marshal evidence and revise arguments in he face of evidence
  • The ability to produce with digital media and other technologies and not just consume their content
  • And the ability to avoid being a victim of social forces and institutions that are creating a more competitive, stressful, and unequal world.

This creates a compelling rationale for mentoring the effective use of digital media and social media.  The goal is for students to define a passion to provide the motivation to engage wholeheartedly in a quest that helps the student to persevere through challenges and engage in higher order thinking to solve problems and communicate in a meaningful way. I highly recommend this book to teachers and parents.