Learning Landscapes


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School Culture

During our Strategic Planning process last school year, we had deep conversations about our school culture. We are a warm and happy school with many special relationships among students, parents, faculty and staff. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see faculty chatting together over lunch, children holding hands as they walk through the school, teenagers playing soccer, parents exchanging ideas, or staff members enjoying a laugh together. We are definitely a school where people care about each other and take pleasure in being together. However, as it turns out, our strategic planning process identified that our community aspires to more. What we have today isn’t fully satisfying to us. We want an even richer school culture. I think this is cool – we aspire to something beyond what we have today!

What is school culture? This is a topic that has been written about in the professional literature for a long time, and various research studies about it. The National School Climate Center explains that “School climate refers to the quality and character of school life as it relates to norms and values, interpersonal relations and social interactions, and organizational processes and structures. School climate sets the tone for all the learning and teaching done in the school environment and, as research proves, it is predictive of students’ ability to learn and develop in healthy ways.”

Did you read that last part? Read it again: school climate and culture is predictive of student’s ability to learn and develop in healthy ways. That statement gives us a lot to think about. How well does our current school climate impact our students’ ability to learn?

We all know what a negative environment feels like, places that are unpleasant. Perhaps public spaces like bus terminals or government offices or poorer areas of town or older shopping centers. In these places, we don’t feel safe or comfortable; the surroundings aren’t attractive or clean; we don’t feel cared for and our needs aren’t adequately met; people seem unhappy, cynical, and distrustful. They aren’t places where we want to linger and enjoy ourselves.

As a school, we want the best possible school climate and culture for our community. More than just a “nice place to be”, our strategic plan nudges us to become a school climate and culture where all members of our community feel healthy, safe, respected, engaged, supported, and challenged. In addition, we specify becoming a culture that is inclusive, respectful and responsive to all. This is a tall order, but one that we care about deeply and are willing to work towards.

Here is my question for you: What would it look like for YOU if our school had this kind of climate and culture? I encourage  you to share your ideas about this in the comment section below so others can read your thoughts.

One last thing: don’t miss a wonderful opportunity to come together as a community tomorrow. Our Parent Teacher Organization has organized a Family Fun Run, Walk, and Breakfast for Saturday October 25th. I can’t wait to see you all, please come and show your school spirit! Click here to see the Video-cast from the Director  that we made to advertise the event! Hope to see you there!


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A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Have you seen the posters all over our campus with our brand new mission and core values on them? Every classroom has its own poster and several larger ones are hung up throughout our campus. We recently translated these into Spanish and you will soon see the Spanish version in posters too. Why post our mission and core values everywhere?

Our mission and core values are the foundational documents that guide everything we do at our school, everything that we are about. I like to think of them as the promise that we hold up for our community, statements that represent our most sincere intentions, earnest goals for which we will continually strive. And because they are so important, we want everyone to know about them – that is why they are posted everywhere.

As many of you know, last school year we involved the community in a strategic planning process, which began by soliciting feedback about our strengths and areas for growth, looking at possible opportunities and potential risks within our setting and engaging in many discussions about goals for our future. This information was collected and analyzed, and then a group of parents, Board members, teachers, support staff, and administrators came together to ponder this information and then craft a new mission statement that would guide our way forward for the next chapter in the life of this school. We struggled together to write new core value statements that would hold us to a higher standard, as individuals, as members of a community and as global citizens. Far more than individual words can, our core value statements capture complex concepts and philosophical beliefs about what we value most.

Have a look at our mission:

We are an English language-based international learning community that values diversity, embraces a culture of collaboration, innovation, and excellence, and inspires empathetic and ethical student leaders. 

I believe that words can be powerful! See this video link that illustrates the power of the right words.

The words in our mission statement capture multifaceted, valuable, extraordinary concepts! And because they describe a state that we have not yet achieved as a school, our mission is inspiring, powerful, and ambitious!

Now, we all know that a mission written on a poster is not going to come alive unless it is truly embraced by our community. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of “The Little Prince” wrote, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”  Yes, we do have a plan to transform our school over the next five years, a plan to live our mission and be driven by our mission. Every member of our community – students, teachers, parents, office staff, guards, cafeteria workers, maintenance men, assistants, administrators – everyone has a role to play in making this mission come true. We need your help.

So: I have two questions for you:

1. What aspect of this mission appeals to you and why?

2. What can you do to make this mission come alive for our community? 

Please write me back in this blog – I am eager to hear from you!

Warm regards,

Madeleine


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Why “Learning Landscapes”?

How did i come up with the title for this blog? It won’t surprise anyone that I have always been intrigued by learning, the process and the content. The field of education is an enormously rich and complex field and my involvement in education, and international education in particular, has not failed to engage and motivate me in many ways over my career. I enjoy making learning happen – for children, young adults, teachers, parents, administrators, institutions. As a learner myself, I have had to continuously adapt to the many schools in which I have worked, to integrate flexibly into the culture and ethos of each place. I have had to pay attention to what is valued, what needs work, and how things happen and who the voices are. Being within a place of learning is something I value and continuously seek.

So, the word learning had to be in the title of my blog!

The process of learning is diverse, intricate, personal. The complexity of the learning process is fascinating and I wanted to highlight that in my blog. In my time here in Ecuador, we have been able to travel through some of the most wondrous landscapes I have ever seen. In the Andes, at 10,000 feet above sea level, the views are breathtaking and ever-changing. Ecuador has snow-covered mountains,  an alpine tundra ecosystem called the paramo, cloud forests with stunning flora and fauna, Amazonian jungles and vast rain forests, as well as the world-famous Galapagos Islands. Thus, the word landscape came to me as a metaphor for the learning process. Putting the two together made sense and sounded lyrical to me – Learning Landscapes. 

I am currently reading a novel entitled “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss, a very talented writer. This is the second book of a trilogy, a fantasy filled with magic, heroes, and mythology. In one scene, the main character Kvothe, meets his mentor, Elodin, a Master Namer. They meet on a high stone bridge, a hundred feet above a river. I want to share this little bit of dialogue between the character and his mentor:

“What makes this a good place?” He looked over the water for a long time before he answered. “It is an edge,” he said at last. “It is a high place with a chance of falling. Things are more easily seen from edges. Danger rouses the sleeping mind. It makes things clear. Seeing things is part of being a namer.”

“What about falling?” I asked.

“If you fall, you fall,” Elodin shrugged. “Sometimes falling teaches us things too. In dreams you often fall before you wake.”

This passage spoke to me. Finding an “edge” is a way to do our best learning, to push ourselves even further to discern the truth, to figure out a solution to a niggling problem. An edge can also be a place where we have the most perspective, the biggest view that we can get of our lives, of our past and our future. Knowing where are the edges of our learning will allow us to see where we are now and what else there is ahead. I like that.


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Beginning our Transformation

This past Thursday, we held our first Professional Development Day. Such days are precious in our school. We treasure the opportunity to come together as professionals to focus on the goals that will make our school even better. Our dreams for our school are ambitious and we are eager to get started this year!

First, a bit of history: Last school year was my first year as the Director of Academia Cotopaxi. The time was right to create a new Strategic Plan that would chart our future for the next five years. We began by reviewing perception data from our community regarding our areas of strength and areas for improvement, we discussed new ideas in education, and developments in the world, near and far. We crafted a new mission statement, core value statements, and five strategic objectives to be accomplished over the next five years. Then we created five Action Teams, one for each of the strategic objectives, tasked with determining concrete steps towards accomplishing the strategic objectives. Over 100 individuals volunteered to be directly involved in developing our final Strategic Plan. Board members, teachers, parents, support staff, and administrators worked together over six months to develop the final Strategic Plan document. This is the blueprint for our future, owned by our community, and motivating us to a new level of change. Our journey towards transformation has begun!

Last Thursday, the faculty and staff spent time focused on just one strategic objective – School Culture. The quality of a school’s culture – its norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, ceremonies, traditions – is an indication of the quality of the school. We want to strengthen, uplift, and transform key aspects of our school culture. We started by looking closely at the current reality of our school culture in terms of students, faculty and staff, parents, leadership and facilities, systems and structures. Then we began describing the blue sky future that we desired and what needs to change to get there. From this giant set of wishes, we will identify a number of concrete steps to begin implementing this year.

For anyone involved in a change process, skepticism is a powerful deterrent! There are always naysayers, people who don’t believe that real change can happen, or people who continue to remain in their bubble, refusing to be part of the change, or people who choose to criticize from afar rather than get involved in the messy work of change. Change is complex and requires hard work. The path isn’t always clear or straightforward and there are mistakes along the way. I consider myself lucky because I have seen change happen effectively, successfully in previous schools.

Last Thursday, as I watched and listened to our faculty and staff, I saw people who were invested in this process, people who care deeply about our school and who are willing to get their hands dirty and deal with the hard stuff. The photos here capture the intensity, the seriousness, the engagement of our faculty and staff. This is the beginning of our transformation effort – having the right people doing the most important work – and I am full of hope and optimism for our future!

How do Facilities, Systems and Structures contribute to School Culture?

How do Facilities, Systems and Structures contribute to School Culture?

What is our current reality and what is our Blue Sky Future?

How does Leadership contribute to School Culture?

How do Parents contribute to School Culture?

We need your candid perspective on what isn't working in our school's culture.

How can we engage students and teachers in improving school culture?

What will it take to transform our school culture?

What will it take to transform our school culture?

Sharing our hopes and wishes for a transformed school culture.

Sharing our hopes and wishes for a transformed school culture.


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Writing Instruction

Talking about writing instruction in Grade Four

Talking about writing instruction in Grade Four

During this past week, teachers from PreK through Grade Five have been involved in professional development workshops about an instructional practice called Writing Workshop. Internationally known literacy consultant Carrie Ekey (http://www.carrie-ekey.com/) has spent a week on our campus, to explain and demonstrate this instructional practice and guide discussions about it. It has been an exhilarating week for all, with teachers deeply engaged in thinking about the best ways to teach children to become writers. In addition, our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) sponsored a Parent Education Workshop with Carrie Ekey, to learn about the best ways they can support their child’s writing development. Over 50 parents attended this information-packed workshop with many requests for more.

Increasing rigor in Grade 5 writing

Increasing rigor in Grade 5 writing

Writing is one of the most challenging skills to master. Simply having correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation, while important, does not make you a good writer. The best writing engages the reader, brings strong visual images to mind, evokes emotion and connection. Think back to something you read recently that you really caught your attention. Often, after reading a particularly good work of fiction or a well-written news article, we are left with a feeling of satisfaction, a curiosity to learn more, a sense of improved insight. Award-winning authors have developed their own personal style and voice, as well as a following, people who appreciate and enjoy reading their perspective. Writing is powerful! A beautifully written piece is a work of art, to be admired again and again. Strong writing can influence and broaden one’s perspective. Clarity in writing can provide significant information to make life-changing decisions.

Principals Paola Pereira and Dan Kerr are planning the Faculty Workshops with Visiting Literacy Consultant Carrie Ekey

Principals Paola Pereira and Dan Kerr are planning the Faculty Workshops with Visiting Literacy Consultant Carrie Ekey

So exactly how do children and young adults learn to write? How do they learn to compose their thoughts and ideas into a piece of compelling writing? How do they develop a facility with language and word choice? How do they learn to use conventions of print? And most importantly, how do we teach them to love writing as a beautiful form of self-expression? Sadly, for many children around the world, writing is a drudgery, something that they dislike, to do only when they have to. How many of us as adults would say that we love to write, that we enjoy expressing ourselves in written form? Our goal as educators is to cultivate in our students an affinity for expressing themselves through writing. We want our students, all of them, to be moved by good writing, to be curious about ideas beyond their immediate world, to be inspired to express themselves in abundance.

Reviewing the rubrics for writing development

Reviewing the rubrics for writing development

In a Writing Workshop, the goal is to foster life-long writers, not just writing for school. This approach is based in over 30 years of literacy research about how children best learn, and what strategies are most effective. Students receive whole class mini-lessons in specific areas of writing instruction, followed up by time to write, individual conferences to target areas for improvement, and opportunities to share their writing. This methodology — high-volume writing, protected daily time to write, specific timely feedback, and sharing writing — provides a highly effective framework for young writers to practice the craft of writing and to improve over time.  Coupled with this approach to writing instruction is a similar approach to reading instruction, resulting in a balanced approach to literacy development. We have known for years now that a child’s ability to read and write is a significant predictor of future academic success.

Discussing a piece of writing in the PD session with Visiting Consultant Carrie Ekey

Discussing a piece of writing in the PD session with Visiting Consultant Carrie Ekey

Over the next few years, Academia Cotopaxi will be moving steadily towards implementing what we already know are the most effective instructional practices. We will be investing in the best professional development possible for our faculty, and equipping them with the support and resources they need to provide personalized instruction for every student at our school. And, as our teachers grow professionally, we are also committed to working with our parents to help them improve their understanding of current best practice in education and how they can support their children as 21st century learners. It is an exciting time to be at this school, and our future is bright!

How best to support English language learners in their writing development

How best to support English language learners in their writing development

Thanks for reading and I invite your comments or questions!

Sincerely,

Madeleine Maceda Heide


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Welcome to my Blog!

Hello! Yes, this is my first blog and I am excited to begin communicating more broadly!

The last few weeks have been incredibly exciting here at my school in Quito, Ecuador. On August 13th, our new teachers began arriving. They arrived from around the world – Toronto, Basel, Istanbul, Chicago, Shanghai, Seattle, Mumbai, San Francisco, Monterey, Tel Aviv, Orlando, Dalian, Portland, Dubai, Crested Butte, Milwaukee, and Stuttgart. During our Orientation Week, they learned about life in Quito, and about our school culture and practices. They are an enthusiastic group, very pleased to be here and eager to work with our students and I am delighted to welcome them here. Our long-term faculty returned on August 26th, with relaxed smiles from their summers, full of energy and excitement to meet their new colleagues and greet the new school year. All teachers spent the week getting trained in a brand new student information software system (called Skyward) as well as working closely with a literacy specialist, Carrie Ekey to learn how to implement an instructional practice called Writing Workshop in their classrooms.

On Friday, August 29th we welcomed 160 new students to our school. It was a sunny, blue-sky day, the kind that just make you feel happy! New students and parents were oriented to our school, and began to feel at home. Finally, on Monday, Sept 1st, we opened our doors to our first day of the 2014-2015 school year. It was an upbeat and happy week, with many smiling faces throughout the days.

This year promises to be an amazing year. We open our three new divisions this year – Early Childhood (Nursery-Grade 2) Intermediate (Grade 3-8), and High School (Grades 9-12), each one with a new Principal who is a specialist in that developmental age group – Paola Pereira, Dan Kerr, and John Gates who bring so much expertise and enthusiasm to our school. We will begin to implement Year One of our five year strategic plan and I will report to you regularly about our progress. Our Parent Teacher Organization launches their 3 areas of focus this year – parent education, welcoming newcomers, school pride and positive school culture – and has some great activities planned.

Our parents chose this school as the place for their precious children to grow and learn. We are grateful for their trust and we take our commitment to parents very seriously. As the year begins, I want to encourage our parents to get to know us. Research indicates that the children of parents who are active participants in the school are more likely to do well in school, both academically and socially. Their parents are well-informed about school practices and expectations, they demonstrate commitment to their child’s learning, attend school games and events, hold their children accountable for their behavior, and celebrate their successes. I strongly encourage you to get involved in your child’s education in whatever ways are best for you. You will feel good and your child will respond proudly!

Woody Allen said 80% of success in life is showing up. I do hope you show up to our school, because we want to get to know you! Even better, find some ways to participate and get involved. Your child will benefit, and you will definitely find a warm and welcoming community!

Sincerely,

Madeleine Maceda Heide