About Me

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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Innovation and inclusion in education: Three aspects from St. Lucia

 I have spent the past week and a half in St. Lucia, 1/3 of that time spent in a conference on innovation in education, 1/3 spent in research team meetings, and another 1/3 spent exploring special education on the island.

First, the conference was the first Caribbean Education Innovation Forum. It was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Connection Grant. The purpose of the forum was to bring a variety of educational stakeholders from the Eastern Caribbean together to discuss innovation in education. There were seven countries involved (as well as four of us from Canada) and each country had a Ministry representative (i.e., a system leader), a principal, and a teacher. The two-day conference included a couple of keynote presentations and many break-out sessions. The value of the break-out sessions were in the variety of approaches: some were role-specific (e.g., all principals met), others were topic-specific (e.g., inclusive education), and others were country-specific (e.g., the three reps from a particular country met to debrief a topic). There were many, many rich conversations. There seemed to be good support for a follow-up step to include applying for a grant that would provide further opportunities for program-development and research on innovation in education.

Second, the research meetings included our International Development Research Council (IDRC) team which is exploring teacher innovation in St. Lucia and Haiti. The team met for two days to debrief the work that has been done over the past 1.5 years in these two contexts and to plan next steps. One action step that I will be contributing will be editing a special issue of a comparative and international education journal to focus on some of the research related to this project. There has been some good progress in St. Lucia and Haiti with teacher innovation projects. We are hoping to be able to leverage the forum we hosted at the beginning of the week and the work we have been doing in St. Lucia and Haiti to scale the Human Centered Design innovation projects in other contexts.

Third, the meetings and discussions related to special education is as a result of some of the lessons we are learning in other contexts such as Ghana and Mauritius. The Ministry of Education in St. Lucia has a small special education unit (six members). I met with the director of the unit and one of the staff. We had a very fruitful meeting (and subsequent discussions) to talk about the history of special education in St. Lucia, the current context and challenges, and hopes for the future. It was a pleasure to be able to connect the director of the special education unit with my colleague in Mauritius who is in the same role and who I have been supporting. There are lots of valuable lessons for special education across small island states and beyond.

It has been a very productive week with excellent discussions, mobilization of information about current effective practices, and brainstorming on possibilities for the future.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Experiences with inclusion and stigmatization in Kumasi, Ghana: We fear what we don't know

We have spent this week in meetings with students with disabilities, as well as their parents, teachers, and school administrators, in Kumasi, Ghana. The research project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and is part of a four year project to explore inclusive education for students with disabilities in Ghana. An anticipated outcome of the project is the development of training resources to help teachers foster inclusive classrooms. Our last research trip to Ghana was in December 2019, just a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic (see previous post).

The activities of this week have led to new insights about inclusive education not only in Ghana but also in Canada. Here are some quotes which really resonated with me:

"It [disability] feels like a punishment."

"We [teachers] are professional beggars [since they have to beg for supplies and resources]."

"When a parent gives birth to a disabled child, you have to really try or your child will die."

"Teachers with disabilities feel rejected."

"I have not had a salary for two years."

"We're draining the family finances."

"If not limited by space, the numbers of students with disabilities we would have would be huge."

"We fear what we don't know."

Research can seem like a "cold" and sanitized process. However, qualitative research that centres the stories and experiences of participants makes the research come alive. Real people are telling compelling stories of challenging, mundane, joyful, everyday, and traumatic experiences.

One 18 year old was burned in an accident at a young age. She was left with significant physical limitations. Yet, she is completing secondary school and is looking for ways to ensure a brighter future.

A child in primary school is able to attend classes because her parents and teachers have committed to ensuring that she can attend school despite her physical restrictions.

A university student told us about how access to a powered wheelchair has allowed him to move across the university campus.

Yet, these are not stories of inspiration. There are daily struggles. Not everyone gets the chance to remain in school. Yesterday, a principal told us of a single-parent who has had to remove her child with a disability from the school because she cannot pay the fees. A common theme across the stories we have heard is of stigma and discrimination that children and young people with disabilities have encountered (and continue to encounter).

There is no doubt that we have made massive progress in supporting students with disabilities in schools. Not that long ago, students with disabilities in Canada and in Ghana were ostracized from schools or placed in segregated settings. This still happens in many parts of Ghana. In Canada, children still experience segregation from other children. But progress is being made. We must continue to fight for the right of every child to belong in their community school.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Returning to international research after Covid-19

I have been "missing in action" as far as writing in this blog for the past two years. I blame Covid-19 but it might also be a reflection of the sense of "pause" that much of my life has been under during this time. 

My international research projects took many different directions during Covid-19. One large project in Haiti, funded by the Canadian government (SSHRC), has been on hold since I am not able to currently travel to Haiti and that project requires more interaction on-the-ground with partners. Another one that involves Haitian partners continued but we were able to engage in research meetings in other countries. Work in other contexts such as Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, and Ethiopia were all on hold. Two other projects involving more remote-based work, one in Mauritius and the other in sub-Saharan Africa, were able to be successfully completed by mid-2022.

This fall, opportunities for travel started ramping up in earnest. I traveled to Mauritius to work with the Special Education Needs Authority (Ministry of Education) in launching their new effort to support all children, regardless of need or strength, in their neighourhood schools. Being on-the-ground in Mauritius reminded me of the incredible privilege involved in international research partnerships.

I am now in Ghana, about to board a flight to Kumasi, where we will be working on an inclusive education project. In fact, the last international trip I took prior to the Covid-19 pandemic was to Ghana where we worked in Accra and Tamale. Being back in Ghana is wonderful but bitter-sweeet. Since we were last here in December 2019, our key research partner in Tamale, Sayibu Imoro, has passed away. He was a huge champion for inclusive education.

After returning to Canada at the end of February, I will be traveling to St. Lucia to meet with the partners on an IDRC-funded project. We have just submitted a proposal to SSHRC to extend/scale the project on teacher innovation that we have been working on in St. Lucia and Haiti. If funded, it would enable us to support innovation projects in education in other contexts in the Caribbean.

Covid-19 has certainly caused many pauses in international research projects and, unfortunately, many more negative and sobering consequences. However, a pause, just like a time-out in basketball, can be a time to reflect, re-group, and re-strategize on key steps forward. I'm very thankful for the privilege to be engaged in re-imagining international research partnerships and projects going forward.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Lead to include: What does it mean to effectively lead schools to ensure that all students belong?

I remember early in my school leadership career talking with a family about the school experiences of their daughter who had been ostracized because of her learning disability. Britney (not her real name) talked about often being placed at a table in the back of the classroom where she would be given worksheets to complete. She talked about regular visits out of the class with the school's special education resource teacher. On the playground, she struggled to make friends. Britney was a quiet, shy student who became more reserved as she experienced bullying at the school and on the school bus. Britney felt little sense of belonging in the school.

Now Britney was moving into Grade 7 in my school. I attended the transition meeting that occurred in May at her previous school. I listened to the comments of her teachers, the resource teacher, and the principal. I heard her mother's angst as she described the challenges they experienced at home trying to encourage Britney, not only in her school work but in her emotional well-being. And I listened as Britney quietly expressed a deep desire for a different experience as she changed schools.

In our research, we have been studying "critical incidents", that is, experiences that shape and inform the perspectives and practices of principals. That transition team meeting was a critical incident for me. Even 25 years later, I can clearly see the room in which we met and the various people around the table. I distinctly recall the conversation. That experience would inform and frame my own work as a school administrator. It has also served as a catalyst for the research I have been engaged with for the past 10 years.

What does it mean to effectively lead schools to ensure that all students belong? Britney's experience in our school provides three insights.

First, our team of educational staff met regularly to discuss Britney's progress. Often these meetings involved Britney and family members. One office assistant had a very positive connection with Britney and would often attend these meetings. We insisted on a holistic, dynamic, and flexible approach that was responsive to her needs.

Second, we made a commitment to support Britney to the greatest degree possible in the classroom. This support was not at a separate table at the back of the classroom. She was fully included in all aspects of the class including in a peer-to-peer support program that encouraged students to identify and use their strengths to foster a healthy school community. And when individual help was needed in the class, classroom teachers and support workers coordinated as a team so that every student could have access to that support.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we strove to engage Britney - and every other student - in activities outside of the class. For Britney, this included being involved in an annual musical production and supporting a school drama production in which she helped manage the sets. Britney shone in these activities and her circle of friends grew. Belonging is fostered through relationships which often are strengthened in out-of-class activities.

So what does this all have to do with leadership? Effective schools leaders have guiding beliefs that drive their practices. Their perspectives shape their practices. If a principal is committed to "lead to include" then they will be more apt to actually implement, support, model, and nurture practices which foster classrooms and schools where all students belong.

Britney attended our school for Grade 7 and 8 and then transitioned to high school. Occasionally, I would run into her or her family over the next few years. Although there were definitely challenges at our school and in her high school experience, the trajectory that began at the transition meeting enabled Britney to successfully complete high school and embark on a career she found rewarding. I tell of a similar experience, "Who is your Nathalia?" in Principal Connections, a magazine for principals in Ontario.

Principals have enormous capacity to foster healthy, supportive, inclusive schools. For more resources that can support leadership competencies in this journey, please see the resources we have provided on our research website.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Re-tooling teacher professional development: The pandemic as a catalyst for change

Normally at this time of the year, our Educator and Leadership Institutes would be in full swing. By the middle of July, we would have completed a full week of training in Nepal, a weekend of intensive leadership training in Haiti, and a week of in-class support for teachers in Egypt. We would have been doing last minute planning for the August ELI in Haiti with 600 teachers and 200 children participating. And this year, we were planning on a week of teacher training in Ethiopia during this very week.

None of these has taken place.

But we have discovered new and innovative ways to engage in teacher and principal professional development.

Our website (www.ELICollaboration.org) is currently being "re-tooled" to include dozens of easily accessible and free resources for educators around the world. We will be informing ELI participants  about these resources in the next few weeks to help them in their individual pursuit of learning.

We have received a small grant to develop a new online course that educators from anywhere in the world can complete. We anticipate having the course up and running before the start of the new school year.

Our Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) camp in Haiti is being re-imagined with the help of our Haitian university student leaders as we hope to provide children in northern Haiti with STEAM activities that they can do without gathering socially.

These are incredibly complex and challenging times. Educators around the world are struggling with what it means to teach in a pandemic. The big question that unites educators globally is: How can we provide opportunities for children to learn in a safe and supportive environment? Traditionally, the physical school environment has provided the structure to allow these opportunities. Take the building out of the equation and the challenges of teaching and learning escalate, particularly in parts of the world that cannot easily, reliably, or cheaply access the Internet. I've written about how the pandemic has exacerbated the educational divide.

But that doesn't have to be the end of the story. I've also written about innovative leadership in challenging contexts such as Haiti. Creative principals and teachers CAN make a difference in the midst of a pandemic, both in local and global contexts.

I've written a lot about "critical incidents" as catalysts for change. We all experience these types of situations that, in hindsight, we see as having changed a particular direction or trajectory in our personal or professional lives.

The pandemic is a critical incident on a scale the world has not seen in many years. For ELI, it has led to some disappointment but it has also served as a catalyst to re-focus on how we can engage in collaborative professional development ... from a distance.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The devastation of the coronavirus: The global and the local seem very close and very far apart

The spread of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has been devastating. Schools have been closed, businesses deeply impacted, and many lives have been lost. Individuals are experiencing debilitating anxiety and profound loss. The pandemic is having a world-wide impact and many global communities are experiencing similar challenges and outcomes.

In this way, the coronavirus has reminded us of the intense "proximity" of individuals and communities around the world. We are sharing in the same challenging experience.

Yet, at the same time, the divides which separate us are being made particularly clear through the pandemic.

A simple illustration can be found in my own university teaching. In my university context, as with many around the world, faculty are moving classes online. It's not an easy process to do this well and I've tried to take an approach that "does no harm" by minimizing the disruption to my students. I have access to incredible resources to make this happen. I have a laptop, high speed Internet, access to colleagues who can help me, and online resources that can help me in my online teaching.

At the same time, I've been reminded that moving classes online is a privilege that many do not share.

Locally, many of my students are struggling to access high speed Internet or library resources they need to work on projects. Globally, many of my faculty colleagues in contexts such as Haiti don't have access to the same resources and can't simply "go online."

The pandemic is shedding light on even more significant divides which exist globally: Who has money to buy basic supplies at times like this? Who doesn't? Who has access to health care? Who doesn't? What governments are able to provide a safety net to citizens? Which governments cannot?

As much as the concept of "glocal" is very important to me - after all, there is much solidarity we can demonstrate at times like this - it is also a reminder that the divides which exist in our own communities and globally are still profound.

By that I am deeply saddened, disturbed, and angry.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Haiti 10 years after the 2010 earthquake: Reflecting on justice and solidarity

I had been providing leadership courses for principals in Haiti, primarily in the Port au Prince area, for about five years before the January 12, 2010 earthquake struck. I was fairly familiar with the main roads, institutions, and geographical landmarks of the city. What I saw on the television screens the night of January 12 and in the days ahead did not look like the city that I had become increasingly familiar with.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the tragedy - both that which occurred in a few seconds on January 12 and that which has unfolded in the ten years since.

The response to the earthquake has been the subject of many, many articles, documentaries, and books. Three that I would recommend are:

1. Jacqueline Charles, correspondent with the Miami Herald
Read her 10th year anniversary series here: Haiti Earthquake: A Decade of Aftershocks

2. Jonathan Katz's The Big Truck That Went By
Image result for the big truck that went by

3. Paul Farmer's Haiti After the Earthquake
Image result for paul farmer haiti after the earthquake

I too have written extensively about Haiti, primarily documenting efforts to foster education in the country. This work has been published in books and scholarly journals but has also received a lot of attention through this blog (see this entry from October 23, 2019 as one example)

Ten years after the earthquake, Haiti continues to struggle. Some have called it a "failing state". But these types of terms fail in describing the complexities of Haiti.

An anniversary such as today provides an opportunity to join in solidarity with our Haitian friends and colleagues. It is a day to reflect on the injustices that have been perpetuated against many Haitians who deserve better.

It's also a day when we can commit to pursuing justice going forward.

One way we - Haitian and Canadian teachers - are striving to pursue justice is by working together to learn from each other and to support each other in improving our teaching practices. The Educator and Leadership Institute (ELI) provides a "meeting place" for where this learning and support can take place. Over 1,000 Haitian and Canadian teachers have participated in ELI in northern Haiti in the city of Cap-Haitien in the five years since it was established. At its core, ELI provides an opportunity for relationships to develop. Relationships are foundational to solidarity, to reciprocity, and ultimately to a commitment to social justice.

Today I will remember my friends and colleagues who have had their lives dramatically impacted by the 2010 earthquake. And I will reflect on how I can work for justice in solidarity with my Haitian teaching colleagues.