Friday, 31 August 2012

So Much to Do - So Little Time

Here we are in the last two days before school.  Our first meeting done and now in collaborative teams struggling to make sense of all we need to do.  We are learning to create a guaranteed curriculum for all students without short changing anyone.  That is hard. But we know teaching is not for the faint of heart!
We want our students to be engaged and we want high expectations but what about that child who comes to school hungry? or tired? or comes after listening to his parents fight? or cry? or worry? or maybe the child struggles to make sense of what we are saying? Do we lower that standard? No as Todd Whitaker says in What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 things that matter most, "we must always work to engage the students.  If the students are not focused, great teachers ask what they themselves can do differently" (p. 34). We can't just keep bumping along and doing what we always have been doing.  When asked about trying centres for a subject, one teacher replied, "I don't think so.  I have my way of doing things.  I will try that first." When countered with, "These students can't manage with lots of worksheets. They need hands-on" the teacher stuck with the original plan because that is how it has been done.  Hopefully, the obvious need for reflection will kick in once this teacher notices students are not engaged.  AND these students will make it clear they are not engaged. 
As the reponsible adult in the room, we need to be responsive to the needs of the students.  This is a major paradigm shift in education.  One size does not fit all (It never did but we looked the other way!). Until we start realizing this, our lives as educators could become quite uncomfortable.  I mean, look at that face.  Would you want to see that everyday?  Not likely.  By being responsive to all students' needs, we can change the face of anger, disgruntlement, boredom to one of pleasure and curiousity and a love of learning. so as we scurry around to get our classrooms ready to receive these little people, hopefully our hearts are ready to share a love of learning and to be reflective in all that we do.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Welcome Back to School

This is the first post of the new school year.  I read the welcome back letters of a couple of other principals and thought this would be a great idea.  Following is the letter I sent to parents.  I took out a couple of bits of information (including teacher names for the organization of classes) because I didn't ask their permission to post their names.

August 20, 2012

Dear Rideau Park Family:

As the summer ends I thought I would like to take the time to write you a letter letting you know what I have been up to and what great expectations I have for our wonderful school for the 2012 -2013 school year.  This summer I enjoyed a week at Kootenay Lake with my husband, my son, Nathan and our new puppy, Snoop.  Snoop is the cutest little (but not for long) labradoodle.  We enjoyed taking him for walks around the cabin and the lake.  I also got to go watch my youngest son, Simon, play lacrosse in Maple Ridge, BC for a weekend and then the two of us drove home.  It was a nice time to connect with him as he as been away at school in Buffalo, NY for the past four years.  I took in the Edmonton Folk Music Festival which is always a superb weekend of music and finally, I went camping and took along my grandchildren.  We had an amazing time at Red Lodge Provincial Park floating on the Little Red Deer River.  I feel energized and re-charged, ready for a new school year.

As well, this summer I took the opportunity to enroll in a graduate level course at the University of Alberta.  I learned about Level B Assessment of students in reading, writing and mathematics.  I can report that I did very well and am now qualified to assess students in these subjects.  I look forward to using my new skills to help our students find success in their learning and to working with staff to provide the best programming for each and every student at our school.

To further my own professional learning, I have really benefitted from my Twitter account as I follow a number of excellent educators and administrators who have shared many ideas, philosophies, and research on Twitter.  It has been an excellent source of learning for me and I look forward to sharing with staff.  I also follow several blogs on a regular basis and have learned and been inspired by many writers.  I have begun my own blog and you can read it at  You will find several pieces on inclusion and I have posted inspiring videos and tools for students, parents and teachers to use.  This year you can now follow Rideau Park School on Twitter.  See @RideauParkEdm for information on upcoming events and other important stuff! Watch for other new additions to our website as we strive to offer you up to date information about our school.

Each summer, I am excited to finally have the time to read.  I have read both for pleasure and for learning this summer. As part of my pleasure reading, I read some titles that are in our library to become acquainted with our collection:
            Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac: This story is based on an Aboriginal (Mohawk) legend but       wrapped
            up in a mystery about a girl’s missing parents.  A great read by an excellent author (we have other titles
            of his in our library as well).
            Fatty Legs by Chrisy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton: A story about an Aboriginal (Inuit)
            girl’s experience in a residential school.  A well told, true story.
            11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass: A fantasy story about a young girl who experiences her 11th    birthday over and over as part of an old curse until she learns a lesson in friendship
            The cupcake Queen by Heather Hepler: A realistic fiction story about a young girl who’s parents
            divorce causing her to move away from her friends.  A story of understanding and growing up.
And a book from my own collection: Jann Arden: Falling Backwards: An autobiography of Jann Arden, Canadian singer-songwriter who is from Alberta.  What a fun read while learning about her life before music.
As part of my professional reading, I learned a great deal from Todd Whitaker: What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 things that matter most (2012), What Great Principals Do Differently: 18 Things that matter most (2012).   I read a leadership book shared by our Assistant Superintendent, Ron MacNeil: High-Impact Leadership for High-Impact Schools: the Actions that matter most by Pamela Salazar and Classroom Instruction that Works: Research based strategies for increasing student achievement by Ceri Dean et al.  Both of these books offered great strategies to add to our school success.  Finally, I read several books on Autism including 10 Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm and You are Going to Love this Kid by Paula Kluth as well as Carly’s Voice: Breaking through Autism by Arthur Fleischmann with Carly Fleischmann.  These titles offer excellent insights about children and adults with Autism.  As we are an inclusive school and meet the needs of students with Autism, these books offered strategies for children with Autism as well as other students experiencing difficulties in many areas (social, behavioural, emotional). 

Enough about me. . .  I am excited for the coming year.  As a staff we are continuing on our path to becoming a true Professional Learning Community.  Our staff are organized in collaborative teams and each team works to insure all students find success in their learning.  One of our successes last year was the beginning of common assessments in each grade level.  Teachers worked together to create a common assessment for each essential learning outcome in the English Language Arts curriculum.  We tried some things, we tweaked some things and we re-vamped some things.  This year our plan is to continue this important piece but work on identifying the essential outcomes for social studies, science and mathematics as well.  This will ensure students are assessed equitably in each classroom and if students do not understand an outcome, their learning will be addressed immediately.  To this effect, we began Intervention times last spring.  Three times each week all students came to the gym with reading or work to complete under the supervision of myself and the educational assistants.  Teachers kept students in the class who needed to review a concept or relearn a concept.  Teachers could also keep students behind who needed an extra challenge.  This was so successful last year that our plan this year is to have an intervention time daily.  By making this a priority we are hoping all students will meet the curriculum as outlined by Alberta Education.  Our staff are dedicated to the success of all students.
We have many of the same faces on staff this year but with some new organization as follows:
          (Teacher organization removed)
I know you will continue to offer your support as we work together to meet your child’s needs.  As a staff, we are so fortunate to have such supportive parents in our school! 

In the past three years, our school has taken on the journey to becoming a safe and engaging place for all students to learn; a place where every student is included regardless of ability.  We have become part of the family of schools where leadership for all students in a priority within the Leader in Me program.  We are working to live the 7 habits of highly effective people every day in all that we do at school.  As an inclusive school, I am reminded of the goals of Alberta Education:
            The goal of an inclusive education system is to provide all students with the most appropriate learning environments and opportunities for them to best achieve their potential. In Alberta, inclusion in the education system is about ensuring that each student belongs and receives a quality education no matter their ability, disability, language, cultural background, gender or age.  An inclusive education system is best realized when leadership is shared between school, home and family.  Moving towards an inclusive education system, as described in the Setting the Direction Framework and supported by the Government of Alberta’s response to the framework, has taken considerable time.  It will take even more time because, for many, the shift in thinking and practice is significant.  See for more information on this important topic. At Rideau Park, we have begun this shift.  We continue to work at viewing our students in terms of abilities rather than disabilities.  We know that habit 4 tells us to think win-win and habit 5 says we should seek first to understand and then be understood.  By working on these two habits, we know we can be inclusive for all students who come to our school.  Really, when you think about it, we are already inclusive of the following “disabilities”:
1.      Your child is shy in new situations: social disability
2.      Your child has difficulty with math and times tables: math disability
3.      Your child wears glasses: vision disability
4.      Your child has trouble reading: reading disability
5.      Your child has trouble with writing thoughts: writing disability
6.      Your child has trouble with fine motor skills (poor writing skills): fine motor disability
7.      Your child has trouble with sports, athletics: gross motor disability
8.      Your child has trouble with friends (arguments, drama with friends): social disability
9.      Your child has trouble remembering homework or organizing: executive function disability
10.  Your child has difficulty with music: listening disability or musical disability
11.  Your child has difficulty listening to instructions (yours or others’): hearing disability or listening disability
12.  Your child focuses on only one thing (is quite taken with a topic, a collection, etc): some would see that as obsessive issues or a disability

So as you can see, it would be easy to focus on disabilities or see things as problems, but rather, at our school we would prefer to focus on students’ abilities and to believe that we have already been inclusive for a long time.  Your child may have benefited from a strategy that helped him/her with some part of the learning journey and rather than throwing up our arms and saying, “Find somewhere to help your child. We can’t do it” we focused on a strategy to help.  That is what inclusion is all about:  all students having access to an equitable education in their community school.  This basic right is guaranteed for all students so when you hear someone say ‘Rideau Park is being ruined by that inclusion thing,’ stand up and say what a rich fabric our school is becoming because we are inclusive and we can learn from each other.  Our students with challenges have a great deal to offer our students who find learning easy such as compassion, understanding, patience, and love.  I expect that all Rideau Park students will leave our school with the understanding that every person they meet has value, regardless of challenges.  Every person has a value to our society and as our students grow as leaders, they will learn this and take it with them out into the community.  Because of their learning and leadership, our future as a society will be stronger.

Our district priorities are five fold: to provide supports and programs that will enable all students to complete high school, to deepen students’ understanding of equity and empathy as key citizenship traits, to ensure all students and their families are welcomed, respected, accepted and supported in every school, to promote health and wellness for all students and staff and to listen to staff, honour their contributions, and support their opportunities for collaboration, growth and professional development. As a school I can attest that we have embraced the priorities of the district as we focus on being an inclusive setting where all students are valued. See for more information regarding Edmonton Public Mission, Vision and Priorities.

Finally, I am excited about the next steps we are taking with the Leader in Me program.  By December of this school year, all of our students will have a leadership responsibility at our school.  These positions may be small or large but will allow students to take responsibility and leadership to make our school a better place.  Staff will focus on habits month by month as we work to become a Leader in Me Lighthouse School in the district.  We are well on our way toward this goal and are excited to see “great happening here!”  Last year, we watched as students lead most of our assemblies and did a fantastic job.  Students led activities and spirit days, handed out recess equipment regularly, sold milk, led with technology, were office helpers, greeted people in the morning, and led in club activities. This year we look forward to all of these positions continuing and to students leading at recess to engage all of our students in positive games and activities each recess as well as creating a live stream announcement segment for our students to watch in the mornings.  Our students are learning and living the 7 habits: Be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first, think win-win, seek first to understand and then be understood, synergize and sharpen the saw.  For more information about the 7 habits, parents and other community members are invited to meet the 7 habits on September 12 so please put that date on your calendar! 

We are fortunate to have had corporate sponsorship for each of our students to receive a 7 habits t-shirt designed by two of our own students.  We will wear these at each assembly or special event and then at the end of the year, students will be welcome to take them home.  Thank you to our sponsors: Sheppard Insurance Service Inc., Details Insulation, Dreamscapes Coaching, Mark “G” Auto Service Ltd, Ancoma Scales, and Oasis Graphics.  We appreciate your support and look forward to our partnership in creating leaders for our community.

Just a reminder if you need to talk to me, you can reach me a number of ways.  You can always phone at 780-437-0010, you can make an appointment to talk in the office or you can reach me by email at  I look forward to meeting you all and catching up on your news or meeting you for the first time.  Our office is open from 8:30 to 4:00 p.m. starting on August 20.  School begins September 4 at 8:30 a.m.  Check out website for handbook information and upcoming events.  Watch for a blog on our website that you can follow and comment on.  We hope to have our blog set up by the first day of school.

These are exciting times at Rideau Park School as we continue to develop 21st century skills in our students who will become creative thinkers, critical thinkers and strong problem solvers of the future.  Our mission statement says that we want to prepare our students for a purposeful role in the global community.  We cannot do this alone.  We need your help!  Together we can face this most important endeavor, to make a difference in the lives of our students and in turn, in the lives of our community.  The time is now to make this difference and we look forward to a strong partnership in this, the most important endeavor we will ever undertake.


Brenda Giourmetakis

I am hoping this will help parents understand what we are all about. . . 


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Let's Go!

Here we are near the end of summer. This morning I woke up to a 7 degree morning and realized there are few beautiful days of 20+ left and school is literally around the corner. . . I haven't really posted in a while and after completing a course on Level B assessment in July at the university, I really took the summer off. Okay, I did do a bunch of professional reading but I read for fun, went camping, took off to Vancouver to watch my youngest son play lacrosse, did some site seeing and slept in many a day. I enjoyed our new puppy (well, my son's new daily companion) and watched this dog grow and grow and grow. He was so tiny when we got him. He is a beautiful black (but turning reddish-brown) labradoodle with an easy-going temperament that makes for a perfect companion for my son who is hesitant to leave the house or join a crowd at any time. He is diagnosed with Schizophrenia which is well controlled (finally) with medication and this dog will nudge him to leave the house for walks and will be a companion who never judges his motivation or lack there of, never judges whether his ideas are "different" and just loves him unconditionally!! Why we didn't do this before? Not sure, although having a puppy in the house in June was a bit brutal on the nerves due to the lack of sleep. "Snoop" is not an integral member of the family who loves his big brother, Nate!

As I approach that day. . . the day I have to go to work (next Monday), I am nervous, excited, and trepidatious. We are in year three of working toward becoming a true Professional Learning Community. The road has not been easy. We have had to unlearn some deeply rooted beliefs and realize that we are ALL responsible for every student in the school. Our two programs have had to join together to collaborate rather than being us and them. Students with exceptionalities are being included in our Bilingual program rather than being counseled to join the English program. In itself, this is a major paradigm shift that is not entirely in place yet. I am excited this year to include a young first grade student as part of our bilingual program. His family speaks the target language at home and he understands requests, however, he is non-verbal in English or his family's first language. Knowing this, I read 10 Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm .
This quick read gives the reader an elementary understanding of Autism and I will share this with my new student's teachers. This excellent book reminds the reader of the humanity of the child with Autism and reiterates that the child is NOT the disability.

I am currently reading Paula Kluth's book, You are Going to Love This Kid . This should be the Bible of teachers who are serious about including students with Autism or really any difference. Chock full of great information and ideas, this will be one of your best read resources.

I read a great post this summer by Jonathan Martin. He suggests principals write a "welcome back letter" to all parents.  I thought this would be a fantastic idea and an opportunity to share our school vision for inclusion as we still have a number of parents who think we are "ruining our school" by letting "those students" in (as if they are part of an exclusive club. . . sheesh!). Watch for my letter in the next week as I prepare to share this vision up front so it is understand and if there are questions, maybe the letter will answer them?? Finally, I am putting it out there so I can't go back on it... my goal and promise is to blog at least once per week. I know this will help me make sense of the journey I continue on in my school and I hope will be of value to others experiencing the same things. Now that it is on the web, it will have to be so.