Journey to Innovation

Gord Donaldson is the current principal at Maple Grove PS who is also currently trying to innovate his golf game to lower his handicap in between trips to hockey arenas and baseball diamonds with his kids.

I had a moment recently to reflect on our school’s journey in innovation.  As I pondered how we got to where we are, I never realized how far we have come in such a short period of time.  When you think innovation, you sometimes think big, or quick. Our journey was neither. What it is, is impactful.

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It all started with a cool spring day in May of 2017 at the Country Heritage Barn.  Knowing we needed something to “Shift”, but not sure what it was, we sent about 20 staff members.  Did that make it more difficult to have 20 occasional teachers in the building in one day? Sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Of course, we learned that we need to move from “ya, but” to “yes, and”, but more importantly we learned that a journey to innovation requires risks.  It requires making mistakes and trying again. It requires getting out of your comfort zone. Heck, even those who “don’t dance” (like me!) tried line dancing.

So, now what?  It’s great that we can try new things but what does that mean?  It was time for Maple Grove to go to the movies. In watching “Most Likely to Succeed”, staff were challenged to rethink school, to rethink what a 21st century learner is, and what it is they need to be successful. We started with flexible seating by incorporating a few bean bag chairs per classroom and a carpet area, even in intermediate.  Imagine the stereotypes we broke! Now, only a year later we have bean bags, carpets, hokki stools, chair bands, standing desks, cushions, couches, tables at different heights and more in all of our classrooms.  It’s funny how innovation can be contagious when it works in one classroom and everyone wants in! No classroom is left behind.

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We also added a stationary bike into every classroom for movement breaks.  What did we find? In amongst dealing with the issues of pedals put on the wrong side in assembly or older students over-tightening the tension, we found that students were taking their movement breaks in the classroom instead of the hallways.  And after the initial awe of a new tool in the classroom, we found that our students only needed 2-3 minutes on the bike before settling in. Need a break? Now it is happening in the classroom. No more pretending to go to the bathroom or get a drink, just because you need a movement break. Combine these fantastic tools with flexible seating, our halls became empty during class time as students have all the tools they need right there in the classroom. Talk about maximizing learning!

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Now that we had innovated our environments, it was time to innovate our pedagogy too.  We had to teach students how to use the space. We had to teach students explicitly about self-regulation.  By using the Zones of Regulation right across the school, our students began to recognize their learning needs and focus in on the learning. Our teachers realized that the academic learning needed to change too.  We shifted from your typical classrooms to 21st century classrooms. We focused on Project based learning and guiding students through Inquiry questions. Are we there yet? Are we masters of Inquiry? Not in the slightest.  Are we much better than we were twelve months ago? Absolutely. We started with tasks like “Create a community (either urban or rural) and research the different components about that type of community and present your findings in a form or your choice” and now we are asking our students things like “Will we run out of energy?” and “Why do people live where they live?”. Progress. Amazing progress in a short period of time.

The first reports from students were that project based learning was way more engaging than school work.  It was working! We felt like we had fooled kids into thinking that learning wasn’t hard. It was like magic.  And as you know with 21st century kids, we had to keep the level of engagement high. That’s where we transformed the Library to our Learning Commons.  Not just with flexible seating, but with the tools that are available to students to help both engage and make connections. Chariot Races with robots down the hall to connect to medieval times? You got it!  We are currently in the exploring stages with some of these materials, but engagement is high with our Dash and Dots, Spheros, Ozobots, Osmos, Vex Robotics, Greens Screens, Makey Makey and Bloxels. And that’s the next steps on our journey.  How can we use these engaging tools to connect to student inquiry and learning within the curriculum?

I set out to write a blog of about 250 words.  I missed. There is just so much to say about our journey in such a short period of time.  We could not be more proud of our progress, and the “Shift” that has happened in our school.  Feel free to check out even more in a Maple Grove Innovation Slideshow. Words cannot describe it all, but a picture is worth 1000 words, I am told.  Each step of the way seemed small. But when you look back, the Shift is monumental. We are not finished.  We never will be. Innovation is a journey, and ours started small. When will you be ready to take risks, make mistakes, and step out of your comfort zone? Your students are counting on it.

~ Gord Donaldson