About the Founder
JOURNEY OF A B.C. EDUCATOR
Born, raised and educated in Vancouver, Susan began her first year at the University of British Columbia in science -- on her way to becoming a world-travelling nurse.
After a family illness causing some wavering in this chosen career path, her mother arranged a meeting with then-dean of education, Neville Scarfe. During that conversation Susan came face to face with his passion for influencing minds. The dean became one of Susan’s mentors and she followed his three pieces of advice throughout her career: have the courage to examine your practice; seek out mentors to learn from; take on responsibility.
At the age of 20 Susan joined the staff of James Whiteside elementary school in Richmond and her first class… 42 grade seven students. Most were struggling with reading and writing.
During this first year of teaching she was fortunate to work with a team of teachers inquiring into methods which stimulate students’ thinking and literacy learning. Following that successful experience she decided to systematically travel the grades to learn where literacy disconnects begin. A move to B.C.’s Kootenays three years later gave Susan the opportunity to take on an administrative role at Genelle elementary, a small rural school in the Trail school district. With some exceptional learners at both ends of the scale in mind, the primary team set out to develop a model for meeting
all students’ needs.
At 27, Susan and Genelle co-worker Jan Micklethwaite won the B.C Teachers’ Federation top award for innovative teaching.
Colin McKenzie, the Trail district’s then-superintendent championed the Genelle team’s work, and gave them some further advice: learn from leaders and research in the field, and make learning real. The superintendent was a John Dewey scholar, and on his regular visits to Genelle he loved working side-by-side on projects with young learners.
Following her Kootenay work, and at a time when she had two young children, Susan and her family spent a year circumnavigating the United States.
They visited and studied innovative practices in institutions participating in the American League of Innovation. She had the opportunity to meet some of the leaders who had influenced the Genelle team’s practice: Benjamin Bloom, John Goodlad, Madeline Hunter.
Susan moved to B.C.’s Fraser Valley joining the Chilliwack school district. Within two years she became a teaching administrator at Miller, a small primary school.
In 1985 the district invited her to take on a leadership role with the B.C. ministry’s Young Writers’ initiative. Through that work led by Linda Kaser and Beverly Buchanan, she and fellow teacher Linda Wingren developed a focus on writing in the Chilliwack school district. Practices created by Susan and Linda became the basis of a number of provincial ministry-supported projects. Early in 1987, Susan and Linda presented their first provincial workshop,
Freeing the Children to Write, showcasing a number of promising practices. Later, in August Susan delivered a keynote address featuring the effects of the methodology on student writing at a University of Victoria summer institute, and that led to the co-writing of
Reaching for Higher Thought (1988) with Faye Brownlie and Linda Wingren.
Susan coordinated a provincial writing network newsletter and wrote a regular column,
Close Up, for the B.C. ministry’s Snapshots journal. She went on to lead a focus on writing, as a K-12 Language Arts helping teacher in the Langley school district.
Over time Susan and Sheila Borman developed and led the WRITE In Langley project. Through the project school-based teams worked in classrooms studying and fine-tuning the approaches designed to improve writing.
As a district leader, Susan sat on the 1988 B.C. provincial language arts review team. Later she and then-Burnaby educator Maureen Dockendorf were seconded by the ministry of education to document how primary teachers in the province were implementing B.C.’s primary program. That work took them throughout the province and led to the development of
Our Primary Program: Taking the Pulse (1990). In the early 1990s Susan co-authored two more books,
Tomorrow’s Classroom Today (1990) along with Linda Wingren and Faye Brownlie and
Beyond Chalk and Talk (1992) with Faye.
A few years later Susan travelled the world delivering keynote addresses and leading workshops and classroom demonstrations in China, the Philippines, Australia, India, the U.S. -- as well as at home, in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and in almost every district in British Columbia. Highlights included: leading the two-year ministry-supported K-12
Read-Write-Think project with Georgia Nieken, Kim Bondi and Ingrid Fawcett in the Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows school district; addressing the UN’s Mount Abu Women’s Summit in India; presenting the opening keynote address to an administrators’ conference in Perth, Australia; presenting workshops at the first international education conference offered in Beijing; and presenting a keynote address to 2000 delegates at an international schools’ conference in the Manila. Susan was also a featured presenter at two Australian Reading Association (ARA) conferences, in Melbourne and in Perth.
Her work around the province led to the development of the Langley-based, multi-district, longitudinal
Learning for Success research project (1994-2002). She co-led the project with SFU professor emeritus Milton McClaren.
In 1998 the SmartLearning framework -- Connect, Process, Transform, Reflect -- and a host of learning strategies emerging from her writing and research were featured in a three-part video series
Pathways to Powerful Learning. The series was sponsored by B.C.’s Open Learning Agency and was launched at a
Learning for Success conference hosted in Langley prior to airing on TV.
The following year, in 1999 Susan became the director of instruction for the New Westminster school district (SD40) with a focus on improving writing achievement.
The local headline at the time, New Westminster Bottom
Again, reflected the district's achievement levels on the annual B.C. ministry’s Foundation Skills Assessment (grades 4, 7, and 10). With her support, a number of the SD40 teachers began studying and implementing practices from the
Learning for Success project -- and writing achievement in the district steadily improved. Many SD40 teachers joined the teams engaged in the ongoing research. Two years later Susan and a multi-district team presented project findings and promising practices at a United Kingdom Reading Association (UKRA) conference in Oxford, England.
Susan graduated with a Master of Arts in Leadership and Training (MALT) from Royal Roads University in the spring of 2001.
During her graduate work she focused on system change and what educators need in order to fully implement research-based practices. The same year SD40 set out a three-year plan for improving writing. The plan was developed by Susan in collaboration with the district administrators and supported by the board of trustees. This collaborative plan included a systems approach to improving learning, the development of a team of district facilitators and a K-12 district research team. It also included regular grade-group interactions designed to build interdependent communities of practice.
A year later local headlines told a different story:
In 2002 Susan presented a keynote address at the UKRA conference in Canterbury, a conference focused on the power of metacognition. Susan showed further findings from the on-going
Learning for Success research project -- and practices that were having dramatic effects on student thinking and writing.
This keynote message later became a chapter Inspiring Minds co-authored by Susan and SD40 colleague Carole Stickley, in a UKRA book showcasing practices that improve writing. Following the conference she and fellow researcher Georgia Nieken presented the practices to 500 literacy specialists, in five cities, throughout the UK.
The following summer Susan spent a month thinking and writing with Carole Stickley and another SD40 colleague, Tracy Fulton. She immersed in literature related to improving reading achievement, and through the study developed a proposal for a further three-year plan of action for SD40.
Included in the plan was an approach designed to hold all of the research-proven literacy practices to date -- an approach named
SmartReading. One of the tenets of this new approach was the integration of reading and writing. Immediately the district administrators and the board of trustees endorsed the plan, and one quarter of the district’s teachers and principals stepped forward for training.
At the same time assessment tools, aligned with the newly-developed
SmartReading approach and curriculum outcomes, began to be developed. Over time the tools were field-tested and refined through grade-level work led by district facilitators Nadya Rickard, Megan Anakin, Robin Speed, Ann Nottingham, Carole Stickley, Erika Warkentin, Debbie Taylor, Steve Wyer and Patricia Pain.
Everyone on the team appreciated the support and wise actions of Yoko Johanson, the manager of Learning Services. She applied her exquisite skill-set to each annual revision, maintaining patience and a sense of humour.
Emerging effects of SmartReading were encouraging and impressive.
A series of short documentaries featuring literacy successes was released as part of a literacy webcast sponsored by the B.C. branch of the International Dyslexia Association and the Vancouver Foundation.
SmartReading was the focus for one of the documentaries.
Susan and a team of leaders from both SD40 and the Learning for Success research project presented findings from the multi-district research work at the fall 2002 B.C. school superintendents’ conference.
SmartReading was showcased by SD40 through a number of conferences starting in 2004. For the first time K-12 district research teachers, implementing the
SmartReading approach, welcomed visitors from afar into their classrooms to observe, first-hand, the talked-about practices.
First, it was observing classroom demonstrations, and then it grew into learning rounds -- which included discussions before and after classroom interactions, and workshop training sessions. The
learning round concept was featured in B.C. deputy minister Emery Dosdall’s Report on Education/ Mar. 23/07:
The Power of a Professional Learning Round: making a difference for 400 readers, in just one
morning. Since retirement in December 2007, Susan has refined the
learning round model as a powerful implementation tool – and the
learning round is now a key component of the SmartLearning training.
In 2005, a six-week online course was developed and facilitated by Susan for the B.C. School Superintendents Association’s
Dimensions of Practice. Susan's component focused on leadership for learning.
These courses prepare school and district administrators for the work of leading learning initiatives at the senior management level. She recently refined the dimension and co-facilitated a third cohort of leaders with Patricia Dooley.
Later the same year, Susan and a multi-district team were invited to present a symposium at an International Special Education Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Their presentation was chosen from more than 500 entries, representing 55 countries. Beginning in 2006, Susan and a team developed and led a two-year Simon Fraser University graduate diploma course focused on literacy learning. Two cohorts of SFU graduate students have participated, and many of the students are laddering their studies into master’s degrees.
At the spring 2006 BCSSA conference Susan launched the grade 1-12
SmartReading Assessment -- a process that was developed, field-tested and refined by teams of educators in SD40 over a four-year period.
The process includes assessment for, as and of learning in relation to curriculum outcomes. Protocols ensure both validity and reliability. Through assessment, learning is measured using standards set for learners of a similar age with achievement being documented on grade-level Reading Assessment Records (RAR).
These measurements are based on grades 1-12 provincial performance standards. Professional DVDs of classroom teachers modeling the process in K-12 classrooms were produced as tools to support system-wide implementation of the assessment process.
From the negative 1999 press coverage that greeted her arrival as the new director of instruction through to her retirement as assistant superintendent at the end of 2007, the district enjoyed a wealth of positive newspaper headlines.
The final story of her tenure in the district appeared in the New Westminster
Record (Nov/07): “Career coming to a Close; retiring assistant superintendent leaves a legacy of learning.”
Following her retirement, Susan was presented with the Canadian Educational Research Association (CERA) 2008
Todd Rogers Research Award.
The recognition is given for achievements and contributions in providing leadership in the field of evidence-based research.
While Susan has retired from the everyday life of school district administration, she continues her love of education as a consultant and trainer.
She now heads Susan Close Learning, a group of educators specializing in the
SmartLearning methodology. This training team works with schools, districts and organizations developing and supporting the implementation of training plans. Recently through a number of keynote addresses and workshops on the brain and learning Susan introduced
SmartLearning practices to medical professionals. She is also developing a manuscript
Motivating Minds: A Framework and Tools for Smarter
Learning. The book features the research-proven SmartLearning framework along with a host of
SmartThinking tools -- learning strategies that have stood the test of time. The book presents one answer to Ellen Langer’s (1997) challenging question:
How can a learning situation release the full mental capacities of
all learners, and help them learn and retain complex skills?