Learning how to be a better learner

As educators we are always looking for quality feedback from our students and parents on their learning experience. What are the big “take aways” that our graduates carry forward with them as they pursue new endeavours, whether it is a gap year involving travel and service or a competitive program at university or college?

Coming off the heels of our last post on the value and benefits of reading, I was so pleased to read the following words by Jesse Sarkis ’13, now in his second year as a photography student at Ryerson University in Toronto. He describes some of the “big take aways” related to his learning experiences in Advanced Placement (AP) and other English classes at Lakefield College School.  His words reflect well the confident, curious and critical thinker that he is. They are also beautifully aligned with the key 21st Century Learning goals we strive to meet as a school. Great feedback for us, and a positive indicator that we are on the right track.

Jesse Sarkis ’13 (fourth from left) with his peers in his final year at Lakefield College School

From Jesse Sarkis ’13

As a student at Lakefield College School, English class was one of my favourites. Reading and writing helped me to be a stronger critical thinker, to be more empathetic and to be both a better writer and speaker.

Thanks in no small part to my English classes at LCS, I submitted a successful letter of application and essay to a competitive university program and was accepted.

Despite loving English as a subject, I never realized just how much my classes were teaching me at the time. In university, my program’s classes are primarily technical and require little writing, but the benefits of being able to express through writing what I am doing conceptually is invaluable: regarding my work I am more confident, clear and precise.

When I started reading academic and theoretical books to supplement my technical classes in school, it was easy for me to switch back into ‘active reader’ mode and take to the books with a pencil, organizing the information I needed to better understand and think critically about its ideas. I wasn’t daunted – as many of my classmates were – by writing the two art history papers assigned in first year. I wasn’t worried about how I would ‘do.’ Instead, I was excited to do the research because I was confident in my skills and judgement thanks to Mr. McGowan’s Writer’s Craft class and Ms. Brown’s Grade 11 AP Language and Grade 12 AP Literature classes.

They taught me processes to effectively read, research and communicate. They taught me to love academic reading, researching and writing, and to be unafraid of any text no matter how complicated, poorly written, or dense.

Learning about literature can help a reader with any kind of text. As a reader I appreciate writing not only for what is expressed within it, but how it is expressed. AP Preparatory English classes helped me understand what I liked about the ‘how.’ Our rhetorical analysis of speeches and essays in class was especially helpful. So were our timed essay assignments designed to prepare us for the AP exams.

Even though, in class, I often found the close readings, Harkness table discussions, or ‘reading-alouds’ tedious and frustrating, what they taught me went beyond the texts and skills we were immediately focusing on. I remember Mr. McGowan telling me after Grade 12 Writer’s Craft class one day, after I had been particularly frustrated, that being dissatisfied with your environment isn’t always a bad thing – that frustration can lead to positive changes if you examine and act upon it. He encouraged me to write a supplement to my final Writer’s Craft assignment (which contained angry and weak writing) on Socrates’ thoughts that the unexamined life was not worth living. Despite never finishing the piece, I considered the advice it had to offer a lot.

By becoming frustrated with the processes of learning and grading in class, and reflecting upon it, I learned how to be a better learner.

The bulk of my experiential learning experiences at LCS helped me, more than anything else, to become a more conscious person. Life is experiential learning. As a boarding and day school, LCS creates a positive community environment for healthy, active, social, and engaged living. This promotes a 24/7 learning experience that never stops and can be consciously tapped into whenever you wish – in mind, body, and spirit. This is what I learned from English classes at LCS: The medium and format of class is like many other things in life – it’s not perfect and it could create some frustrating expectations.Having an open approach to learning that is reflective and moves beyond format and content is valuable. Staying open to learning as a continuous or ‘lifelong’ process helps me to learn from everything that is happening in the classroom, not just the topic being discussed.

Nourishing a Culture of Reading

What is the most important skill you learn at school? Is it the social skills: taking turns, sharing and asking questions? Or perhaps numeric skills: how to add and subtract and discovering more complicated solutions to math problems? What about reading?

Reading impacts everything we do in our lives – DAILY

When I was the Elementary Principal at the International School Bangkok, we made it a point to tackle reading. We researched the latest theories on reading, we taught our teachers how to teach reading, we taught our parent community how to support their children in learning how to read and we focused on sharing our passion for reading with the kids – nourishing in them a love of reading.

The results were remarkable. We created a culture of reading. Everyone read – everyday.

As the principal, I too made every effort to share my love of reading and modeled for my students its value. By the end of the second year, our library had checked out more than 100,000 books for a student population of 700, an average of more than 140 books per person!

When I arrived at Lakefield College School, it was a big change. High school students have many subjects and extra and co-curricular activities competing for their time, on top of social demands. I also noticed the remarkable amount of time our students (and most young people today) spent on their iPhones, Galaxies and Androids. While our students were reading in their classes and supported by passionate teachers, they were not choosing to read during unstructured time.

Why does reading matter?

Research shows us that reading is the number one transferable skill to all academic and learning areas. Reading, for pleasure, is both an escape and a porthole to imagination and creativity, one of the key 21st Century Learning traits.  It expands the brain like no other cognitive excercise and even helps to build empathy – an important characteristic aligned with the school’s values. See Scholastic’s website for an interesting summary on the topic. There are also interesting  studies looking at the value of reading books (print text) and how this may lead to a deeper engagement with the content being read. (See Can Students “Go Deep” with Digital Reading or Student to e-textbooks: no thanks!).

How do you establish a culture of reading in a high school?

At LCS nourishing a culture of reading is an important goal for us and a work in progress.   Thanks to the passionate leadership of Dave Krocker, Curriculum Leader: Humanities and our English team, a shift is starting to happen. From read-alouds in Chapel, to dedicated reading time during Grove Time, to providing multiple text options for students in English class and launching school-wide reading challenges, we are slowly seeing a shift toward our culture of reading.

Another way students and staff share their favourite reads: the LCS Featured Readers section of the library.

It began two summers ago with a revamped summer reading program that elicited great response. Based on a “voice and choice” model, the program moved away from teachers prescribing one title, to students picking their own. At the same time, the “LCS Staff Picks” list was born: encouraging staff to share their personal passion for reading, and favourite book titles, with students. Students (and parents) have responded very positively to the program. Many students use this link (soon to be expanded to include picks from the broader community), and other recommended lists, throughout the academic year to find books they connect with.  The “voice and choice” model is also used in many classes. The freedom to follow their own passion and interests has helped more reticent readers to have powerful reading experiences.

This past Mid-Term Break David Krocker initiated our first ever “reading challenge,” which saw over 26 participants reading over 30 minutes a day every day during the break. Teaching Fellow Nichola Bendle is leading this December’s Holiday Break Reading Challenge (to read for 30 minutes a day, for 16 days – December 20 until January 4). With 120 readers (students, staff and parents) already signed up, the momentum is growing!

As a school that values so highly teaching and learning through relationships – we can’t help but be excited by the impromptu connections and conversations that occur between students and staff around the topic of books – sharing what we read and why we love it!

We still have a long way to go. Competing with technology is hard. Our kids are wired differently today than they were in the past. We need to continue to make reading important and attractive. We need to show students that reading is the most important skill they will pick up at school.

The Lakefield Educator’s Apprenticeship Program

Nourishing our teachers within an exemplary learning community

“Every year’s a LEAP year at Lakefield College School!”  It’s the expression a beaming Joe Bettencourt, Assistant Head: Academics, used last Wednesday at our program meeting as he shared the many successes of our newest initiative: the Lakefield Educator’s Apprenticeship Program (LEAP).

Coming out of a very successful pilot launch in 2013/14, LEAP is well into its second year with equally strong results. In addition to strengthening and advancing the 21st century learning experience for our boarding and day students, the purpose of LEAP is to support new teachers as they begin their professional career as educators. Through a competitive process attracting some of the best teacher graduates from across Ontario, four outstanding candidates are selected each year to participate in our program.

“One of the many traditions enjoyed by LCS graduates – leaping into Lake Katchewanooka immediately following their last high school exam. It’s a unique rite of passage, celebrating both the ending and beginning of an era, that provided a great metaphor and inspiration (in more ways then one) for the Lakefield Educator’s Apprenticeship Program (LEAP).”  ~Joe Bettencourt

Teaching Fellows contribute fresh talent, resources and support to our greater LCS faculty team who, in turn, provide mentorship and coaching as the new teachers explore their career paths. Inherent in this collaborative partnership are many professional learning moments that occur on both sides.

“Participating in the Lakefield Educator’s Apprenticeship Program offers a great opportunity for staff learning and professional development. It encourages a partnership – between Teaching Fellows and Mentors – that models the same type of learning we seek to encourage in our students: taking risks, being creative, learning how to collaborate and reflecting on our practice.”   ~ Joe Bettencourt

A professional leadership learning opportunity

The program offers a new learning opportunity for Lakefield College School faculty who seek to develop their professional leadership and coaching capacity. Teaching and learning alongside Teaching Fellows, our Teaching Mentors grow their professional practice while supporting the learning of our students through a team teaching approach. Joe describes these as “experiential professional leadership learning opportunities” that involve co-planning, co-facilitating and co-assessing learning. Every hour LCS Teaching Mentors invest in this program brings simultaneous dividends to our Teaching Fellows, our students, and the mentors themselves.

A unique program for teachers in Ontario

“LEAP is one more way LCS nourishes its people and distinguishes itself as an exemplary learning community,” says Joe, “there are no educational apprenticeships like it in Ontario.” Fully engaged in classes and co-curriculars, Teaching Fellows co-teach alongside their Teacher Mentors in a yearlong commitment. They gain a full year of continuous day-to-day professional experience with their students, while providing valuable support to the school. In many of the classes where they are involved, average student to teacher ratios are less than 10:1. Our students have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the benefits of the “two-teacher” model, which, during a 70-minute class, means more one-on-one time between students and teachers and dynamic class lessons shared between two individuals. They are important benefits of the program.

When asked about LEAP outcomes thus far, Joe is quick to say:

“I’m so pleased with how well the collaborative relationships are taking root. Our Teaching Fellows are forming a great professional teaching community amongst themselves and with the LCS faculty mentors they are partnered with. In fact, some of our Teaching Fellows last year had a hard time saying goodbye. They became an integral part of our community of students and teachers. Even after they had finished the program, some returned to campus to attend events like Fall Fair, to catch up on news and keep in touch. And our students and teachers feel the same way about them.”

We are proud to say that within the broader educational community, Lakefield College School is strengthening its reputation for providing a coveted pool of qualified and experienced young professionals for hire – many being hired by private boarding and day schools (including LCS). First, through our long-standing two year Assistant Head of House (residential life) program, and now through our very successful Lakefield Educator’s Apprenticeship Program.