Learning Together, But Differently

The schools we have today are a far cry from the factory models that were designed to produce the workers needed during the industrial revolution. It’s no longer a “one size fits all” kind of place. For instance, our West Vancouver Schools have a variety of options that include more traditional programs like French Immersion and International Baccalaureate, as well as specific academies that draw specialized interests such as animation, baseball and fencing. Yes, that’s right, fencing! No longer do we stream boys into the industrial arts and girls into home economics – students are free to choose from a myriad of options that might suggest that there’s something for everyone.

bell-curve1However, the structure of school itself isn’t designed for everyone. Schools were designed to meet what might be considered the “normal” needs of most of the population. If we consider a normal distribution, the majority, or 68% of the  population, are in the middle (blue part) of the curve. For those who find themselves on the margins, school can be a difficult place to be. Consider those students who might have learning disabilities, those who might have difficult home lives, or those who might struggle with mental health – despite the increasing range of options available, schools are still designed to meet the needs of the middle and some students remain on the outsides.

There appears to be a growing narrative across the province that suggests an increasing number of students identified with special needs are arriving in our classrooms and there are many more who have needs that are not recognized by ministry designations. As well, the narrative goes, there are an increasing number of English Language Learners. But as I think about normal distributions, if the majority of the students in a classroom have diverse needs, then wouldn’t diversity actually BE the norm?  Perhaps we are struggling with trying to meet the diverse needs of our learners because the factory model of school no longer reflects the world in which we live.  If we want schools to exude the spirit of inclusion and embrace diversity, to be places where all students belong, feel welcome, and have meaningful learning experiences, then we need to make more changes.


Let’s start by changing the language we use, beginning with “special” education. The title of special education perpetuates the idea of “otherness”. It suggests a medical model that identifies the student as flawed and in need of fixing.  Although our department is now called Student Support Services, we might consider just being called Student Services or even better, placed under the umbrella of Learning Services, supporting all teachers and students in teaching and learning. Removing the special education or student support label may help to remove that sense of difference and move differentiation from the margins to the center of educational practice.

inglewood1While we are rethinking special education, let’s rethink alternate education too. Inglewood Secondary is our newest West Vancouver high school from which students can graduate with a full Dogwood Diploma. The structure of Inglewood is designed around flexible scheduling and individualized learning in a smaller setting. Led by Head Teacher, Stefan Huskilson, the staff at Inglewood are passionate about creating a learning environment where the students feel like they belong and matter.

teagan1Recently, Stefan and Inglewood student, Teagan Hartwick, presented to our District Parent Advisory Committee. Teagan explained that the students at Inglewood are regular kids – they just need a different environment. She talked about how it didn’t work for her in the big school; she wasn’t attending and wanted to drop out. But being at Inglewood is different. She called Inglewood “home” and talked about working so hard that she could have graduated a year early.  In fact, she has now applied to university. And while she talked about how she used to be failing in the other setting, I think she got that part wrong. School was failing Teagan. And unfortunately, despite the different options, technology, and new programs, we still aren’t reaching every child.

We need to rethink how we do education. Let’s change our collective attitudes, beliefs, and practices to better include all our students and make them all feel like they belong. All of our kids deserve to have meaningful learning experiences and achieve high standards. Because in the end, it’s not alternate, it’s not special, it’s just education.


Honouring Truth and Healing Together – Why Orange Shirt Day Matters to All of Us

On the morning of August 11th, a statue of John A. Macdonald in front of Victoria City Hall was removed, placed in storage, and sparked great controversy. On one side of the debate, some claimed that the statue paid homage to one of the leading architects of a residential school system that was responsible for years of intergenerational trauma and cultural genocide. It had to go. But others suggested that removing the statue amounted to erasing an important part of Canadian history. In a Global News article, Mayor Lisa Helps explained “So John A. Macdonald was a great man. We live in one of the greatest countries in the world, without question. And he was also the architect of the Indian Residential School system. So we need to find a way to commemorate history and reconcile with history.” Certainly a great goal, but getting to that place of balance is messy. With emotions running high on both sides, it’s hard to know whether taking down the statue was the right thing to do. However, one point became very clear: people are talking about it.

Those of us in education are lucky. For over a decade, we have been increasingly exposed to Indigenous Education and First Peoples Principles of Learning, improving our understanding of their importance. For instance, in West Vancouver we have recently had speakers such as Harlan Pruden and Brad Baker share their stories to help us “go forward with courage” towards truth and reconciliation. With ongoing dialogue and professional development, we are growing in awareness and knowledge about Indigenous culture and our collective history.  However, not everyone has this opportunity.

Despite growing attention through stories like Gord Downie’s Secret Path and Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, many people still have limited knowledge about residential schools or the findings uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). Today, Sunday, is Orange Shirt Day and despite the wide-spread recognition in B.C. schools, it wasn’t evident that other people knew it. There was no mention of it on the morning news and I didn’t see any orange shirts in the restaurant, grocery store, or movie theatre. However, it’s not really surprising since Indigenous Education hasn’t been around for very long. We certainly didn’t learn about it when I was in school. It was when I took some Indigenous Cultural Sensitivity training that I finally became aware of the extent to which indigenous children were taken from their parents, sent to residential schools designed to eradicate their culture, and suffered horrendous abuse (the documentary Kuper Island: Return to the Healing Circle is part of the training and can be viewed on YouTube). Before the training, I hadn’t grasped the full impact of colonization, oppression, and cultural genocide engineered by the founding members of Canada. I was shocked that none of this was covered in school and I’m not alone. A friend recently participated in the Blanket Exercise, exposing her to significant parts of Canadian Indigenous history that were left out of our school experience. “Why weren’t we taught any of this?” She asked. “We were cheated.” And she was right.

Image result for orange shirt day 2018The Summary of the Final Report of the TRC states: “No Canadian can take pride in this country’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples, and, for that reason, all Canadians have a critical role to play in advancing reconciliation in ways that honour and revitalize the nation-to-nation Treaty relationship (p. 183).” The title of the report is aptly named “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future” – we must all face the truth of our past before we can heal.  The controversy surrounding the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald effectively spurred discussion about our collective history.  It is this discussion that will expose the truths that move us towards reconciliation and is why we need to recognize Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day draws attention to the painful legacy of residential schools and recognizes survivors like Phyllis Webstad. West Vancouver Schools are taking this opportunity to engage students in age-appropriate and meaningful conversations about the history and impact of colonization and residential schools. These are the conversations that I wish we had when I was in school. It is only through these conversations that we will move towards healing.

Together in Pride

My First Post

While many administrators in West Vancouver Schools have been blogging for years, this is my first foray into the blog world. My blog title reflects both my philosophy of education and of life: While we must strive to honour and celebrate our uniqueness, to live authentically, and to express ourselves freely; we also live, learn, and work together in a pluralistic society. This means that sometimes we disagree, that our ideas will clash, and that we will struggle with finding our way. However, we are on this journey together and, frankly, it’s a good thing. Our differences challenge us to try harder to understand each other and help us stay wide-awake to our own beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions.


For instance, there are a few but loud voices against the sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) work in schools around the province. Much of the rhetoric is based in fear and untruths, in some cases frighteningly outlandish. But as upsetting as some of the statements and tactics have been, there is one very valid point being made: People should find out what is being taught in their schools. This is true of all subjects, but for now let’s just look at SOGI.


Photo by Kirsty Lee on Unsplash

SOGI education is not a specific curriculum – you won’t find a textbook or a standardized test on it. SOGI education is about understanding, accepting, and celebrating our diversity. It’s about using language that reflects all sexual orientations and gender identities and having safe spaces for everyone. What we are trying to do is open hearts and minds to the idea that everyone is valued and loved – no matter who you are, what you wear, or who you love.

It is so much more than universal washrooms, although this is not something to be taken lightly. Our opening day speaker, Ivan Coyote, was incredibly inspiring and has a Ted Talk explaining why we need gender neutral washrooms that is particularly poignant. But we need to do more. For instance, when we teach about family, kids need to see books that represent different types of families, not just one. All kids need to see themselves and their families represented. We need to be sensitive to using language that assumes everyone is straight (heteronormativity) or that everyone identifies with the sex characteristics they were born with (cisnormativity). This is not meant to shame anyone and I mess up all the time – it’s difficult to retrain our social programming – but we need to try.

The Pride Parade


We also need to be in the Pride Parade. On the parade route, we repeatedly heard, “West Vancouver sure has changed!” We were thanked over and over just for being there. This year, like last year, there was a lot of cheering, there was an abundance of joy, and I admit, for me there were tears. At a time when it seems that a small number of people have been given a platform to express fear and hate, there are so many more who  are voicing support and celebrating diversity. That there is so much expressed joy and love in our school district and community for our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families – it makes me cry every time.


So, in some ways, I am grateful for some opposition to our SOGI work. It forces us to closely examine what we believe and to explicitly articulate what and why we are teaching. It has also spurred more people into action. We had more than double our numbers in the West Vancouver Schools entry this year. The District of West Vancouver graciously donated the use of their trailer (Thank you!). Our facilities department took great care and pride in building our float (thank you all, especially to Neil who thought of everything!). Parent Sarah Farhangi helped us design the float, the t-shirts, and painstakingly sewed the float fabric (thank you, Sarah!). Several staff helped paint the float and several more came with their spouses, children, and pets to celebrate diversity in the parade (you are all amazing!). We showed up as a community to let the world know that in West Vancouver Schools, love wins. I have never been so proud to be an educator.