Archive: Jan 2017

  1. Making the Ontario Curriculum Work for Learners

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    “Headwaters Academy students will meet or exceed all expectations of the Ontario curriculum.” 


    This has long been our promise at Headwaters Academy.  I’m reminded, in writing and saying this, to be humble as I’d much rather say that our students will “meet and most likely exceed all expectations”, such is my confidence in the value of restructuring school such that it meets the needs of students rather than adults.  But, aside from our larger concepts of putting children back in to their world and community (Trailblazer Thursdays, Research and Design classes, Outdoor Education, and Entrepreneurship come to mind immediately as hallmarks of our program), how will we, in the ‘nuts and bolts’ of regular school life, achieve this mandate?


    Enter our curriculum.  Dr. Barb Smith has been writing and leading our ever-growing team of writers in producing curricular resources that will form that backbone to students’ day to day work.  I must stop here to admit, that as an experienced educator, I feel much like the majority of teachers when I hear the words ‘curricular resources’.  My mind almost immediately switches off as I know, with mounds of research to back it up, that it is the teacher that makes the biggest difference upon student outcomes.  However, beyond school reform and selecting excellent teachers (our first round of finalists all made note of how rigourous our standards are when it comes to teacher selection and how they will now seek out other employers who seek the same), curriculum is the next biggest influence on student outcomes.  So how is ours different?


    First, Dr. Smith and her team have, over the past 30 years, taken the 10,000 piece jigsaw that makes up the Ontario curriculum and made sense out of it.  She finds pieces of the curriculum that are alike, groups them, and boils them down to essential skills.  In a metaphorical sense she takes  a 10,000 piece jigsaw and puts the sections together to make it make sense:



    big puzzle piece on pile of disassembled blue jigsaw puzzles isolated on white background


    The team then sorts out pieces that might be best taught together.  For instance, knowing that we will undoubtedly be studying the local ski industry as part of our community studies (integrating science, social studies, math, and language) Barb has included a look at Blue Mountain snowfall data.  This study, in and of itself, provides students with the opportunity to use their unit conversions, addition skills, multiplication and division skills (if they’re able), graphing, and data interpretation/management.  It also has the flexibility, for a struggling math learner, to be just one of these things.  Making this decision on complexity beyond what’s on the paper becomes the domain of the student and teacher together… but we can easily see the adaptability of this study for a number of grade levels (this assignment falls within Junior Stream math resource, indicating Grades 3-5 with reach to Grade 6).


    snowfall1 snowfall2

    Did I also mention that the team looks for local connections such as ski areas, or, in later lessons, the Thornbury Fish Ladder?



    Another part of the planning process involves making decisions about places where focused study, of a longer duration, would benefit students.  For instance, in the Language Arts program our curriculum moves students through poetry, tall tale writing, short stories, and finally to the production of a novel with a sustained focus in each area to promote mastery of the craft.


    Finally, I’d like to display here my favourite part of our curricular resources (as the boring principal I am!).  At the front and back of each resource Dr. Smith and her team have shown how and where we meet each of the Ontario curricular standards.  This provides parents, students, and teachers with a quick snapshot-guarantee that we are, in fact, giving students the opportunity to “meet or exceed all Ontario curricular expectations” (and, I should note, Barb has also aligned these expectations with the Common Core and Alberta curriculum – thus ensuring a VERY well-rounded program!).


    {All sample work taken from the Headwaters Academy Junior Stream Math Resource – Part Numbers.  All copyrights reserved.}

  2. Teachers: Listen to Obama

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    Dear Teaching Colleagues,

    There was a warning in Obama’s farewell address that I hope we all heed – not just for our own good, but for that of our students: “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas.  It will come from the from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”


    Whether or not we believe that schools are purely for education and enlightenment or the beginning of the economic machine we cannot deny that we are failing our students if we do not prepare them for economic success through schooling.  Through his words President Obama just reiterated a truth that few educators wish to acknowledge – that going to school, getting good grades, doing what you’re told, and coming out with a mortar board hat and fancy paper are no longer going to pay off with promise of a comfortable position in a growing middle class.  The truth is that the middle class is shrinking and that jobs where one has to just do what they’re told are becoming ever fewer and lower paying.


    So what can we do?


    Number 1: Realize that for our students it is less likely that they will be ‘finding’ a job.  Instead, we need to prepare them to CREATE a job.  This will require innovation, entrepreneurship, and a full understanding of economics.  Not just in high school, not just in one class, but as an integral part of a full education.


    Number 2: Realize that self-sufficiency is the counter-balance and insurance against economic dependence (not to mention a moral imperative to teach).  For our students to be self-sufficient they will need to regain lost skills such as gardening and construction, regain an understanding of our natural world, and gain a respect for hard work.


    Number 3: Realize that current school structures stifle innovation.  Age-based class sorting, subject-based classes, 50 minute periods, and test-driven curricula have all been proven, time and again, to be the ‘elephants in the room‘ that are preventing quality education.  These methods of organization serve the school as a machine, not the student as a learner.  We need to move beyond ‘trying to do the wrong thing better‘ and instead do the right thing for children.



    Finally, I want to note to all my respected colleagues that our old way of doing things – lecture – practice – test – repeat is already being automated itself (see for math, for French instruction, and even for Chess).  We need to, instead, move from the front of the classroom and instead take a seat right beside our students in learning.  Constant evolution and learning are the hallmarks of success today – we need to be the example.

    We are opening a school in the beautiful Beaver Valley of Ontario that is set to change education.  Feel free to come, join us, and see for yourself how we are recognizing the limitations of a ‘yesterday’ school and instead building the school of tomorrow.



    Kindest regards and remember that every day in this wonderful profession is a day to make a difference.



    Mark Brown, OCT, M.Ed.


    Headwaters Academy