Sunday, 15 April 2012

On Tagging and Taggers

My issue for today is, I think, closely related to transience - and I'm not certain how to write about it, or even if I should write about it.  I know that I'm struggling with how to deal with it.

For much of this year, and only this year, our school has faced the issue of "tagging."  If you don't know what this means, it's a kind of stylized graffiti.  A student picks a moniker or nickname for himself, (I believe this to be an exclusively male activity - but I could be wrong), creates a stylized signature based on this name, and then writes it around the community in spray paint or thick marker or shoe polish - on mailboxes, traffic signs, abandoned houses, fences, sometimes on business walls.  This year, a small number of them have started tagging our school - bathroom stalls, walls, exterior doors, etc.

We've caught a few, and "consequenced" them, after fairly lengthy counselling sessions during which they've shared a lot of information about the "tagging culture."

Here's what we know:  They're not a particularly large group - maybe thirty to forty throughout the west end of the city.  There are taggers in all the area schools.  They believe their tags have artistic merit. (Just to be clear - we're not talking about street artists - these are not the multi-coloured murals or stencils that appear overnight, that are often paid for by business owners - these are "quick and dirty nick-names"  - scrawled on bathroom walls or garbage cans.)  They respect each other's tags and would never tag over another tagger's "work."  They've formed groups among themselves that I would characterize as sort of pseudo or pre-gangs.  In addition to the actual members, there are other children who want to be members and so practise their tags anywhere they can to literally "get their name out there."  Their activities within the schools are limited to tagging, but there are other things they do, as a group, in the community. 
These other activities aren't legal either.

Once we catch them in the school, their activity here stops.  They don't choose a new moniker and start up again.  However, their "code" keeps them from telling any of their compatriots to stop.

We've figured out who many of these students are.  We've spoken to them individually, and as a group.  To our faces they say that they don't do it in the school, or promise never to do it again.  Since we don't know what their individual moniker is, we can't connect them to an individual tag, so we don't consequence them.  I believe that this convinces them that they've fooled us into thinking their group is larger than it is, and that they can tag with impunity.  (And until we catch them, they're right about this.)

We've made announcements to the entire student body about the issue.  The vast majority of the student body see the activity as negative, and quite frankly, silly and useless.  They're embarassed by it.  This attitude has no influence on the students who do it.

Taggers seem to have no desire to fit in with anybody but kids that are other taggers.  From the kids that we know, they arrive at high school with a thick emotional "crust" that makes them difficult to work with, and they have no interest in anything that the school culture can offer them.  They're not good at sports, have little musical or dramatic talent, don't enjoy reading, are weak academically, and really - don't seem to be very good at anything we do at school.  They don't even seem to be good at art.  (It was very difficult for me to write this paragraph - believe me, I'm not giving up on them, and I know that we can develop these talents in each of these students, but right now, they have no desire to work or even play with us as a school community.  They are each other's support group - not any adult in the building, nor any adult in the community.)

They're polite enough.  They don't cause too many issues on an individual basis - but they're not engaged in anything we offer.  They go through the motions academically, either just passing or just failing.  Their parents are as frustrated as we are, and seem to be supportive of anything we try to do.  In fact, these parents are dealing with the same issue around their homes, and are trying to figure out how to stop it without involving the police - which wouldn't stop it in any case.  One parent, who awoke to find new tags all around her property, on her garbage cans, her recycle bins, etc. was told by her son, "It's our art Mom, you have to respect that!"

The oldest of these students, at our school, is 16.  The youngest is 14.  Their group leader, apparently, attends another school, but the Vice-Principal of that school tells me that that student seems to be far more of a follower than a leader.  He fits the profile I've outlined though.

Like I said at the start of this, though tagging has been an issue in our community for years, this is the first time we've had to deal with it within the school.  I know that it is an issue at many other local schools as well.

Does anyone have any suggestions for me?


Sunday, 1 April 2012

Exciting News!

I found out earlier this week that I'm to be part of an exchange program with a Head Teacher in England!  I'll be heading over there for two weeks in July while the Head Teacher there will be coming to Canada in October.

The school I'll be visiting is called the Ridgeway School and Sixth Form College in Worcester, England.  The Head Teacher is Mr. Steven Colledge.

From the little I've read, our two schools could not be much different - but perhaps that's the point.

Once there I'll continue looking into the issue of transience - though, like I just said, this school has no such issue.


Saturday, 10 March 2012


Dear Parents, Guardians and Adult Friends of our Students,
Recent news reports and incidents throughout North America (including Forster) have driven home the great promise of Facebook as well as many dangers.
Without getting into specifics, or trying to sound alarmist, please talk to your children about their Public on-line face!
We all should know that companies search the web for people who apply to them for jobs. The excuse of "youthful indiscretions" does not hold any weight with companies that are worried about their own reputations. Pictures at parties, holding beer bottles or bottles of vodka don't fit well with the images of IBM, or McDonalds. Please have them look at their profile pictures, and any comments that everyone can read. If they wouldn't be happy having you read them, or their grandparents, they should probably think about removing them.
Also, the harsh reality is that as soon as you press "send" or publish a comment on facebook, you have lost all control over where it goes and who ends up reading it. It becomes a public record. Every Principal I know has had to deal with this.
Here's another reality - every Principal I know has had to suspend students for what they've written on Facebook. The excuses, "I was only joking," "I didn't mean to scare anyone," and "I didn't think they'd believe me," have to mean very little to us, and sometimes even less to the police.
Please, Please, Please - Talk to your children about this, no matter what grade they are in, or how old they are. Your help and advice will go a long way to making a much better situation for your children at school and in the community.
Thank you

    The Caring Adult

    The Caring Adult

    When I started this blog, I conceived it as a potential listing of hundreds of different ideas to help students who move from school to school, often more than once a year, and often several times in their academic careers.

    As I High School Principal I'm often disheartened to look at the cover of an Ontario Student Record and see that a student has changed schools 13, 14, 15 or more times before coming to my school.  In once case a student had moved so many times that a second cover had to be stapled to the front of the O.S.R. - meaning the student had moved more than twenty times.

    Sometimes, these students are incredibly resilient, and bright.  For a time, they shine at my school, but invariably they move once again and have to start over.  Probably, these students have caring and involved parents who feed their children's self-esteem, and help them with their school work, and help them create interests and activities that need no geographic centre, such as reading.

    Often though, the students that move again and again, are not stellar students.  They come to us with "chips on their shoulders," a reluctance to get involved, a history of poor academics, and an almost physical armor that keeps fellow peers and teachers at a distance.

    It is these students that I worry about.

    It is these students that need our help.

    On my computer at work I've generated a list of things we can do for families and students who move into our school's area.  Some of them are reasonably innovative, but they can almost all be categorized simply under the umbrella of - be a caring adult.

    We may not have time to even dent the armor that the student has fastened on.  We may never know that we have dented it, or given a student the idea to remove at least a piece of it.

    But maybe we will.  And really, it doesn't make a difference if we do find out.

    What makes a difference is that we try to make a difference.


    Sunday, 15 January 2012

    Off Topic for Today

    I recognize that writing a blog on only one topic will get boring for everybody but me, so.....

    I think most of my staff understands that I can be an emotional guy.  I appreciate things I see at school in ways that many of the students and staff may not.  For example, I had to leave a soccer game a couple years ago because, as I was watching the students play, I understood that our team was made up of students from countries that were currently fighting each other, but it made absolutely no difference to them at that moment.  Not only that, but the experience of playing together would almost certainly cement friendships that made those far away conflicts even more remote.  The reality of those ideas struck me so hard that I choked up, my eyes filled with tears, and I actually found it difficult to breathe.

    I don't think most people in my school board really appreciate what a miracle our school is, and what happens every single day at Forster.  We have students from over sixty different countries in our building, and we have no problems of a diversity related nature.

    Daily, I see this as a miracle.

    It's not that we don't have the same problems as every other High School.  We do.
    It's just that I often read about issues related to racism, even in my own community, and sometimes at other schools in the city, but I can honestly say that those issues do not make themselves apparent at our school.

    In fact, almost all our students and certainly all our staff understand that diversity is both our greatest strength and the true nature of our school.

    Just this past week, one of my teachers, and I hope she won't mind me mentioning her name, Jan Nickleson, sent me an e-mail notifying me that a ceasefire was being negotiated in Myanmar (Burma).  A little research enlightened me that fighting had been going on there for sixty-two years!  The students we have from this area have lived in refugee camps their entire lives.  They've never actually seen the country they call home.
    Jan asked permission, and then contacted our local radio and TV station.

    A reporter arrived, and interviewed our newcomer students, many only in Canada for the last five months - not as refugees, or newcomers, or people having difficulty fitting in to a new country, or people learning a new and difficult language - but as experts, who were personally impacted by the news of the day.

    I hope you can appreciate how huge this was for those students, and why Jan Nickleson, though wonderfully eloquent on camera, got choked up as she was interviewed.

    ....And why I have tears in my eyes as I write this.


    Sunday, 1 January 2012

    Happy New Year!

    I took a week off from writing this because of Christmas and New Year's, but I'm back now.  I hope everyone's had a wonderful holiday thus far.

    In the week leading up to the holidays, Forster was visited by both the Board's Director, and our school's Superintendent.  I spoke to both of them about this blog and they each offered me their support along with ideas for future posts.

    In the case of the Director, he told me that he'd been a transient student when he was a child, and it was always sports and extra-curricular activities that allowed him to fit in at new schools.

    Our Superintendent pointed out that, at elementary school, at least in Ontario, students moving from school to school would not suffer too much as long as teachers concentrated on teaching "the big ideas," or the overall expectations.

    He also told me, and I didn't know this, that sometimes parents moved their children from school to school to school simply because they get angry at a school's administration and think that things will be better at the school "down the road."  If they rent their accomodations, picking up and moving is not seen as the issue - the issue is that the Principal or the teacher has said or done something to annoy the parent.  Sometimes, it's a simple statement such as the child might benefit from some extra support.

    While it's emotionally satisfying for the parent to pull their child from a given school, they don't realize that they're really disrupting their child's life - and usually because of issues that have nothing to do with the child or his/her education.

    Sadly, the reasons behind the move of schools are repeated within a few weeks or months, and the child suffers again.

    After this pattern has been repeated for a few years, the parent finally turns to the school for help because the child is now more than a full year behind their peers or is acting out at home.

    Saturday, 17 December 2011

    O-Kay People, We Need Your Help here!

    Dear All,

    This will be a short post.  Our students face many issues in their lives, there is no argument about that.  Whether they have it harder or easier than we did growing up is not the point and not really worth arguing about.

    I do know that we should all want to make some of what they face easier.  I'm not talking about lowering standards, or spoon-feeding our adloescents.  I'm talking about some of our kids facing difficulties that have had nothing to do with any decisions they have ever made.

    Our kids do not choose to leave a school in October to move to another school.  Our kids do not choose to have 17 different elementary school experiences.  And our students do not choose to miss whole topics of discussion or learning because of that.

    We can help.

    Ideas cost nothing.

    One of my teachers came up to me at the end of a staff meeting and said, "If a student returns to Forster after only a few months, wouldn't it be nice for them if they could have their old locker back?"

    When students "up and move" at the end of a month, sometimes very hurriedly, leaving behind (sometimes) possessions that adults see as unimportant, but the child sees entirely differently, how important would it be for a student to be greeted by a friendly face and be told, "Here's your locker.  We left it here just for you."?

    That simple idea took seconds to relate to me.  In future, it might entirely change a child's life. (Thanks Karen)

    I know there are more ideas out there.

    Please share them.

    (Thanks to LC for the comments she's posted.  Her ideas will shape the discussion my staff and the staffs of five other schools has around this issue.  Yours can too.)