Monday, 6 June 2016

Stories and Data

As I drove to meet my old friend Rex at his school, Siri was giving me directions. It’s a novel app for me right now; only used it a couple of times. I reflected back about eleven years ago when Rex and I had first met co-leading the 82nd Westminster Cub Scout group, and how he had brought along these cool GPS gadgets “borrowed from work” to take our Pack geocaching through the neighbourhood.

 This was 2005; personal GPS’ were still new and very, very cool. Rex was, and still is a gear-head. I was more a map and compass guy. Rex took the lead with the new tech, and we had the group match it with the old tech as we roved around the area; under a bridge, behind houses and apartments, between little shops in the area.


One evening, one activity, 20 eager minds, and we covered environmental, social and economic spheres of sustainability. Without even knowing it. Further, we took these young Cubs through the “simple recipe” use of the GPS unit, progressed to more complicated map-based orienteering and finally became more aware and involved in the amazing complexity of the physical and social environment. In a sense we’d moved through the simple-complex-complicated, the cake-rocket-child model of innovation that Westley, Zimmerman and Quinn Patton describe (2007). Without even knowing it.

Rex and I work well together.

Rex Ferguson-Baird

Rex Ferguson-Baird is the Principal at Brooklands Elementary School in Winnipeg. It is an geographic outlier to the St. James School Division, a tombolo poking into the central Winnipeg School Division catchment area. Some call it “the Eastern Front”. Its students and families are socio-economically much more similar to my North End school than to the rest of his division. The student population is about 55% Indigenous, and 35% new-Canadians, including recently, several Syrian families.

Somebody probably could’ve used a GPS gadget when the lines were drawn.

Rex stands about 6’5’, head shaved bald and is imposing only in stature. If some sort of “social entrepreneurial aura” exists, Rex oozes it. Friendly, attentive, confident, engaging, eager.

When he was selected as principal to Brooklands six years ago, after teaching and a short vice principal stint in more affluent schools in the division, some colleagues thought he’d been banished to the hinterland for his “squeaky wheel-ness”. When Rex arrived, the situation was if not bleak, then at least disheartening: attendance low, attrition and turnover high; poverty, family and social issues overriding; literacy & numeracy levels all over the map or unknown; staff full of heart, love and resilience, but tired and barely keeping their heads above water.

Rex spent the first few months doggedly keeping things running, physically organizing and cleaning the small school space, talking with teaching and support staff, students and their families, and running interference as best he could to external pressures. Essentially he says, “I needed to get my bearings, not on what I saw as priorities, and not on what the division saw as priorities, but on what the staff and students and families were identifying as priorities”.

“Humans are story-tellers”, he says. “And there is wisdom in those stories”.

Data as Ingredients

Rex brought in an outside consultant and sat as one of the staff as they went through essentially a story-building exercise. Where does the story begin? What is the un-hindered, ideal Dream of Brooklands School? What is the Path toward that dream? What are the obstacles, challenges, and landmarks along that path?

The chart-paper lining the room filled up. Linear thinkers made lists with arrows and flow charts. Non-linears drew thought-balloons and doodles. The consultants facilitated but did not lead the exercise. Here’s what emerged from the data they assembled:

You can download the image and look at every noteworthy idea and detail, but with a broader view, one key element pops for me. As complicated as the situation of the school was at that time, it’s condensed to a simple “ingredient list” in that thin first Now column on the far left, and fully 2/3 of the remainder of the poster is Vision. That was the starting point. The stuff in the middle, the big arrow Path and circle Goals were filled in only after. Copies of the poster were distributed and referred to regularly. It came to be known as The Map

Three years on, the staff and Rex went through the process again:

Note that the Vision component has changed to Celebrate,  and an additional Dream section has been added. Some quick highlights:
  • Three walking school buses
  • Free breakfast program
  • Partnerships with attached Nursery, community, business, sports teams
  • Staff and student family connections
  • Extensive literacy and numeracy programs, including EAL for parents
  • Donations: project specific and ongoing
  • Focused Professional Development (more below)
  • Meeting or exceeding all Division metrics - academic and attendance

The Brooklands Team

How did Brooklands achieve all this? Rex took me out to meet about a dozen of his team who after a weekend of a special “de-pave the playground” project, had just finished the first week of a three-week Outdoor School Challenge. ALL classes were held outdoors every day. They had rain, heat, chill, wind.. all the good stuff. The staff looked tired, but in a great way. Rex introduced me and my assignment, and then said “rather than me tell you what we’ve done, they should. Because they are the ones who’ve done it”.

So began a barrage of things that worked. Not just the projects and programs. But the why’s, how’s and the vision. They talked about Voice in the process, collaboration in setting initial Positive and Possible goals and steps to achieve them. They spoke of buy-in and support from the community who also had a vital place on the Path.

They spoke expansively about the directed PD time. Two teachers, one experienced and the other a newer teacher, had a passion for literacy and volunteered to focus on that. They found a highly regarded and comprehensive two-day workshop in Halifax. Rex secured the funding and sent them off. They left as acquaintance-colleagues and came back close friends and unstoppable champions for the team. 

Three others wanted to direct their efforts on numeracy. Rex found the support/funding and they attended a workshop in Las Vegas (yes, that one..). Rex says “And they came back with incredible ideas, projects and energy. They also came back with matching tattoos, but that’s another story”. Support staff; EAs, clerical and custodial, were likewise involved in all aspects of an emerging culture in the school, with specific and directed PD support.

They spoke of measurable goals, way-points and data tracking; not those set by the division or the Province, but rather by the team.

Brooklands Team Room Fountas & Pinnell Reading Chart
As an example, literacy was a huge issue. The team set a goal that by 2014 all students leaving grade five would be reading at a grade five level. After-school reading programs, grandparent reading circle, special summer programs to offset “summer slide”, and other projects were initiated and invented. They tracked each student, colour coded by grade and implemented a three-tier support structure based upon the students’ individual need. They tried keeping data electronically, but felt that a physical board with post-it notes was more dynamic and organic. Rex secured partnerships with Indigo and others so that every student could pick one new book to keep and take home every month.

His team spent a lot of time talking about Team. There is no staff-room; the sign on the door reads Team Room. There is a special outdoor space for members of the team to meet as well.

Ripples of Influence

Gear-head Rex and a couple of others have taken on the Technology aspect, both within the school and reaching out to other educators, innovators, administration and the private sector. He keeps a high social media presence to showcase Brooklands’ team accomplishments, and also extensively shares and curates best practices information, educational research, resources and collaborations. You can follow him @RexFB and the school @BrooklandsElem on Twitter.

Rex meets monthly with a group of inner-city principals (crossing Division lines!), social service providers and key community leaders. He has spoken and presented to educators locally and increasingly further afield in Canada and the US. He is a member of the Discovery Educator Network, a worldwide network of education professionals and part of the Discovery Channel. He was recently selected as one of 14 Discovery Education Champions, and now works advising and consulting educational programming, partnerships and initiatives globally.
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Rex on Schools: From Institution to Culture

Rex says that really his role on the team is a cross between Sheepdog and football Blocker. 

Sheepdog in that he physically herds kids to school and class and activities, and also sniffs out and rounds up qualitative stories and quantitative data from his team. This he uses with an expansive and growing Personal Learning Network to foster relationships and identify  resources and solutions to problems.
He’s a Blocker in that he works equally hard to be a buffer between outside pressures (administrative, bad stuff, time-takers) and the team, so that they can do what they are passionate about: Teaching.

Rex ends his emails with a favourite quote by Peter F. Drucker, “Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things”.

That’s a good pole-star. For a topographic map or a global positioning system.