Saturday, October 4, 2014

Finding Compassion - Affect and Education

At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Fitzgerald, while reflecting on how advice from his father relates to his past summer in New York, writes: “...all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had...Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.”  To paraphrase in three pieces:

  • Those of us who live lives we enjoy should all be grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given by the people and the climate(s) we’ve known.
  • The first step towards believing in and helping others work towards their full potential is to understand them, empathize with them and believe in who they can become instead of chastising, criticizing, or trying to correct who they are.
  • It’s a fundamental, ego-driven flaw to think that behaving the way we do is the right way to behave.  Even if we are in charge of the rules, and can go about dismissing people and/or punitively controlling others, we have to see that this is ego on our part, not actual correctness.  

Now I’ll put it in school language:

  • Educators wouldn’t be educators if we hadn’t had at least one person who believed in us help us to find success in schools. I’d even bet that most of us have had multiple people at key moments in our lives take an interest in who we were and what we needed in order to grow.  We have to realize how lucky we are to have had these people and these moments.  We are not necessarily biologically awesome so much as beneficiaries of our environments.
  • We always have to believe that our students can become forever increasingly amazing people and students.  
  • Judging a student instead of supporting him/her immediately stops the process we’re in school for...becoming educated.  
  • Educators have endless amounts of things to learn.  It’s fully flawed and egocentric to believe that we are always right.  The more we’re willing to grow, the more our students will be able to learn.  
  • The way we design our schools, classrooms, and curricula isn’t flawless; it would be detrimentally arrogant to think otherwise.  The more we are willing to listen, accommodate and adapt, the more everyone can grow.  
  • We can try to be taskmasters who whip (proverbially) schools, teachers, and students into shape, but that is not an atmosphere that’s at all conducive to optimal learning.  

With this on my mind this morning, I watched Alex Shevrin's (@shevtech) video on having unconditional positive regard for students.

Yes, we could spend our time saying that her approach is excessive and that we have many more students who’d need that level of support than we can manage.  We could also say that we aren’t social workers and that we just couldn’t engage at that level of wraparound care for our students...and we’d be mostly right.  The logistics of public schools do often keep us from being able to - logistically and financially - meet all of the needs of some of our neediest students in ways that Alex might be able to in her small, alternative school setting.  

What I do know is that not being able to control all of the factors in their lives shouldn’t stop us from respecting the students enough to think carefully about the things that are in our purview.   This is like the failed argument - at least it’s failed in my opinion - that poverty keeps students from being able to learn.  Yes, it makes it tougher at times, but if schools are doing our part, progress happens.  We should be inspired by thoughts like hers instead of just brushing them aside as implausible. Always keep in mind:

  • The way we communicate with students - before, during and outside of classroom time - plays a huge role in the way they see their ability to succeed in their classes.
  • We must ensure that we ask things of students because they’re good for students, not because it’s the way we like it.  Our students’ variability must push us to be as flexible as possible with our acceptance of their personal journeys to proficiency and mastery.
  • We have all worked on plans to help students who struggle with literacy, numeracy, organization and memorization.  Are we ready to modify our rules and regulations to accommodate those who either haven’t yet learned to behave “properly” or who come from a different value system?
  • In a world full of research about the failure of programs that include retention, detention, suspension, homework zeroes, punitive summer schools and power struggles, have we moved forward toward newer ideas such as restorative justice and standards-based-grading?

What’s left is now to admit that being patient and flexible isn’t going to help in all situations any more than becoming angry, frustrated, and punitive.   Asking them to change who they are as children and teens isn’t any more realistic than suggesting that their future employers will be willing to put up with their attitudes and defiance.  

If you have thoughts about what works and what doesn’t, please feel free to comment here and/or join #edchatma on Tues, October 7 at 9pm to discussion affective education.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Finding a Home Base

Because my family relocated from NY to Massachusetts to be near family (always has to be our first priority, in my opinion), I’ve been looking for a new position since last Spring, of 2013.  That’s a lot of time spent finding job boards, understanding certification processes, reading job postings, polishing resumes, writing cover letters, substitute teaching, presenting at conferences, and meeting people.  I’ve never written so much and reflected so much and grown so much in my life.   

Meeting people was the toughest, yet most interesting, important and beneficial piece of all of this work. (In case it’s a surprise to anyone out there, I put this in red!)

“Networking” is easy.  I can get on social media for a bit and network by liking things, posting resources and following people, but actually meeting people takes a lot of time and investment.  It means that being “out there” and active in chats, groups, workshops, and it means humbly and sincerely connecting with people with phone calls and emails.  It takes patience, persistence, and a deep recognition of realism (people only have so much time and can only be asked to do so much for strangers and new acquaintances.)    I’m beyond excited and proud to say that I’ve been able to create a network of 1000s, of whom I’ve actually met a large amount.

I’m creating three goals in relation with this experience:
  • I’m going to continually be open to meeting new people. There is so much going on in education right now, and I can’t even begin to figure it out on my own, so I want to network, meet, listen and discuss as often as possible, whether it gets to be face to face in my district and at workshops or virtually through social media such as #EdChatMa.  
  • I want to “pay it forward” and be a resource for people who need help or advice with things such as networking, blogging, social media, job hunting, resume writing, and cover letters.  
  • I’m going to walk into my new position on the shoulders of the giants who’ve supported me and helped me learn throughout my career and over this past year by leveraging their passions, examples, and lessons to benefit my new school.  

I thought to shout out a bunch of specific people here, but realize that my list would always be incomplete, so I’ll just say that I’m lucky to have the family, friends and PLN that I do and grateful to have the opportunity to live up to the needs of the school and the students with whom I’m now learning.   My hope is to know you all for a very long time.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Healthy 2014-2015

It feels really good but a bit awkward to be writing about something outside of my norm, but this isn’t going to be about ed policy, classroom practice or technology.  There won’t be anything about literacy or systems thinking.  The only thing on my mind this morning is health.  My health and the health of educators.  Today I want to move beyond all of those unhealthy years I’ve spent in schools, tell you that I’ve found a path forward, and see if anyone wants to join a new kind of team.  

It’s important for me to share this story because I’ve always been a “big guy,” both of my parents passed away young (57 and 61), I have two wonderful kids (6 and 9), and because my life as an educator - for many reasons - has often been in conflict with my physical health.  This past year has added the “final straws” for me. First, my father-in-law passed away, which both left my kids with only one Grandparent and prompted me to leave my position in a Bronx, NY high school and move to Massachusetts.  Family first...period.  Finally, I’ve been out of work this past year while getting set up here, so there has been the type of unforeseen set of anxieties and stressors in my family’s life that are always brought about by change.  

Doing something about my health has afforded me a fantastic level of optimism and agency in my life.  We aren’t always in control of situations, so I believe in embracing the facets of life in which my choices will directly impact the outcome.  

I’ve lost 40 pounds since April vacation and have another 30 to go.  

Along the way, here’s what I’ve come to know about our modern culture (feel free to join me in admitting taking part):

- We eat too much food.  Whether we are super-sizing, socializing or sitting around the house, it’s just too much.   
-  We use food to mark any and all special occasions.  The irony being that we’ll celebrate birthdays with junk food, calling it a treat, where it’s not a present for our bodies.
- Like so many products out there, food is marketed to give us emotional responses to it.  We, in kind, tend to think food will help us emotionally.  Bacon cheeseburgers and Bloomin’ Onions to don’t solve life’s struggles.  We don’t respect ourselves, become adventurous or get along with our family because of what we eat.  These things happen because of the way we feel about ourselves and those around us.
- We are too high-strung and don’t sleep nearly enough.

As an educator, my lifestyle always exacerbated these issues:
- I always stood throughout my classes, but far too much of my overall day was spent at a desk, either with student work, at meetings, or with content to review.  Before my children were born, I’d be at the gym by 5 so that I could make school by 6:30, but that wasn’t happening anymore.  I also tended to eat when I was sitting.  
- I barely slept.  Lots of people don’t get their 6-8 hours a night.  I rarely got more than 5.
- The stress.  I felt not only the weight, urgency, and overall responsibility for the students’ education, but also the struggles against public opinion, unwise political reforms, and painfully shrinking budgets with which to work.
- The parties.  Everyday was cupcakes this, pasta tray that, bagel mornings and Friday social hours.
- Time. I was always eating something quick, which can mean unhealthy. The schools I have been in usually allotted 25 minutes for lunch.  Not healthy.  

I’m looking to start a team!!

Take Shape for Life is an organization with the research, people, mindset and resources that I’ve needed.  It’s first and foremost about leveraging the strength of their organization and the personal nature of a “health coach” to understand, focus and maintain a healthy state of mind, but it also has components that are helping drop my weight fast.  Eventually, because they depend on word of mouth and therefore spend very little on traditional advertising, there are also built-in opportunities for a level of financial health with which everyone can get involved.

Like everything in life, I think this works better for people with a support team, so I’m writing this because I’m proud of what’s going on in this corner of my world, I’m excited about how it’s happening, and I’m hoping to find some people who are looking to make a change in their lives.  

You can find me to tell me about your experiences and talk about what I've learned through Take Shape for Life right here in the comments, at a new email I’ve set aside for this, or on either of my Twitter accts @TSFLNewEng  or @DavidHochheiser

You can read about TSFL all over the news, watch a few videos on YouTube from a wide range of people, see how it’s presented by the founder and a number of top coaches or read through the official website.

If you want to feel better throughout this school year and beyond and/or you know someone else who might, I’d love to hear your stories and team up to move forward.  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Keeping Students' Full 360 in Mind

Please note: This post also appears as part of Edutopia's community page.

The biggest tragedy I’ve read about in modern schools has to be the increasingly myopic ways schools are addressing foundational needs of literacy and numeracy.  Yes, I get that reading, writing, and arithmetic form the basis of most everything that’s done, so I get why they’ve always been prioritized. What doesn’t sit well with me - or for our students - is that places are cutting so many other pieces of students’ education - e.g. arts, history, sciences, recess - and replacing them with more reading, writing, and mathematics worksheets, videos, and computer testing applications.  Yuck.  There are four tremendous issues with this approach:

1) These decisions are almost always based on scores from standardized testing, which means that even if reading, writing, and math were the only things that a school ought to be teaching, moves like these are only looking at a very limited perspective on them.  I’ve never, for instance, heard of a school changing the schedule and shortening or even cancelling recess because students were taking a long time to choose an independent reading book or craft a blog post.  It’s such a limited way to look at education.  In truth, if students are struggling, schools need to be excessively creative in broadening the scope of topics, ideas, and courses to which students are being exposed.  We have to fight to engage them and help them see that we are interested in them as people.  Then, they’ll be more likely to follow our example and dig into the foundation lessons when it’s time.

2) The pieces being dropped have been proven to be essential to the development of great academic programs.  Art, music, playtime, and science and history courses have all been proven to elevate students’ overall achievement, self-perception, and - yes - test scores.  Too many teachers, schools and districts are just choosing to ignore this research.  This , this , and this are all articles that speak to the need to develop the “360 child,” which I’ll get to in a second when I address the idea of “summer slide.”

3) What schools really need to do is ensure the quality of their Tier 1 teaching.  Subjecting students to more weak instruction or sitting them in front of a computer as a means of “remediation” is not a strategy I’m buying into.  Yes, sometimes, more is more, and practicing helps (think: McDowell’s 20,000 hour theory), and yes, there is software out there that can be appropriately used to support struggling students, but all of this has to be part of a purposeful program that ought to be founded on the best instructional practices we know about.  

I’m thinking about this in mid-July because of this article ( I just read on how to prevent the “summer slide.” At the fully polar opposite end of the spectrum from the other articles, this one speaks to setting aside time during the summer for family activities that sound a lot like test prep to me.  So let me offer some alternatives, things I believe take a 360 in helping students who struggle, things that could very likely also be part of schools’ curricula, things that come to mind when I stop long enough to ask questions like these:

- Adults need to be walking with children, taking them places.  They can then write letters and postcards, with photos and art work, telling relatives and friends where they’ve been and what they’ve seen.
- Research the historical significance of places they’ve seen and/or heard about.  Invite them to journal and/or teach someone something about it.

- All kids, by the way, should have a special journal.  If you think money can’t help education, think about how powerful giving all students a nice notebook of sorts to write or draw in over the summer could be.

- Kids and libraries are such a natural mix.  Not only can they get all sort of books to borrow for free, but there are also often great programs going on.  Surround kids in the chance to choose books as much as possible.  Invite them to tell you about what they’re choosing.

- If you’re going to the store, bring your children and have them help figure out the costs.  Have them ask people where things are and check the change at the register.  Social skills and math all wrapped up together :)

- If you or your kids are sports fans, the potential to work on geometry and statistics are bottomless.  

- Find paper maps of wherever you’re going with the kids and have them navigate.

- Try food from another country and learn about the place of origin while you’re at it. Music and art great components of culture studies.  

- Speaking of music and art, can you get to a museum and or a concert?  Summer is a great time for free, outdoor music and many museum and zoos have free days.  

- Model and share:  Kids should know that even though all of these are great, adults still like to sit down and read during their days.  (If you’re not a reader, by the way, having kids is a great excuse to become one.)  Find some time to relax and read something, be it a book, magazine or otherwise.  Share with your kids what it is that’s interesting to you about what you’re reading.  Invite them to do the same.  Reading books together is also great.  

The reason ELA and math have become the focal points for education is that they are found everywhere, in everything.  It’s a miss on the part of adults, then, when the opportunities we give kids to master them are exponentially skewed to the pieces that are easiest to measure and photocopy.  Even my daughter, who in her own nerdy way actually loves workbooks, gets much more excited when I ask her to tell me a story about or take a picture of something that interests her.  


Thursday, July 3, 2014

My Non-Negotiables for Great Teaching

Often enough, I'm in conversations about how I know what good teaching looks like, and although I've used effective tools like Danielson's Framework for Teaching and Saphier's Skillful Teacher framework, fulfilling those expectations isn't the answer I go with.  Here's a stab at the big picture of what I consider non-negotiables for great teaching.

An understood purpose


Contagious Passion

I'd love your questions, comments, and/or additions? How do you know when you're seeing great teaching?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Vigor instead of Rigor

I’ve written a good bit about tremendous shifts towards healthier, more productive and more psychologically sound educational practices for our students that can be found in slight shifts of semantics.  There’s this piece about the why we should embrace students’ struggling instead of accepting or even applauding their failures (what’s now very popular).  I also realized - and explained here - how outcomes and standards-based-learning can easily become a daunting laundry of things for students to know and do if we don’t focus on the processes that contextualize, scaffold and give purpose to courses’ content.   
Before I work a bit to convince you towards adopting the spirit of “vigor” instead of “rigor,” I have to say that it’s not an original idea.  Shawn White - @swpax - first wrote about this last year, but lost the post in a blog-host transfer.  He’s an educator I came to respect for his ideas and his warm, welcoming, clear-headed, student-centered and growth-focused tenor.  The fact that we’ve spent a solid amount of time sharing ideas and resources allows riffing on his idea to feel natural to me.  
I read the definition of rigor and sardonically chuckle about how poorly it connects with everything I believe about successful teaching, especially components such as the importance of relationship building, the pitfalls of classroom power struggles, and effectiveness of affording students room for choice and voice in as many aspects of the class as is possible.  On one hand, it’s clear that the “make it more rigorous” camp has had great intentions in mind.  If we think about curriculum and pedagogical goals, we’d include mantras about having high expectations for all learners; having students connect with content at higher orders of synthesis, evaluation, and creation instead of just knowing; and pacing our classrooms so that there’s a sense of urgency around purposeful instruction that maximizes learning opportunities during the school day and potentially afterwards.  There is, though, a dark underside to “rigor” that comes through when we sit in its definition’s quicksand.  It manifests itself in zero-tolerance policies for behavior and late work, courses that are challenging for students because of the sheer volume of work that’s assigned and material that’s covered, courses and programs of studies that put all students into lockstep rituals and trajectories (you can read here about why I’m a Common Core supporter, but poor implementation can do put schools in this category), and - of course - let’s not forget the emotional, logistic and cultural impacts of the big-testing culture. I’m thinking about all three of my masters-level education programs, none of which allowed for a single elective, or teachers who spend endless amounts of time defining, explaining, and assessing the ins and outs of works cited pages’ logistics. I’m thinking about the NCAA, who was unwilling to count a “Film and Literature” course as a required English credit but happily accepted something called “English 12.” All of these are considered “rigorous,” and all of these are considered by many to be good practice.  They just don’t represent the sort of courses I want to teach, cultures I’d like to work in, or agendas I’d like to promote.  
I’m so inspired by the idea of moving from rigor to vigor because while they both start with the goal of strong student growth and achievement, rigor gets there through single-path systems, power hierarchies and student compliance.  Vigor, however, is another story.  If I was going to annotate its definition, I’d highlight the ideas active, healthy, intense, vital, energetic, and - let’s not forget - effective.  What does this feel like in an education system or a class?
It’s a culture that’s still going to ask students to be involved in the heavy lifting and deep thinking that’ll lead to the desired high levels of achievement, but I’d see vigorous schools as those that start with a foundation of respectful relationships and afford students the choice and voice that gets learners excited about their work.  It doesn’t lower standards, but it helps teachers leverage the passions they have for their subject matter in ways that are contagious to their students, contextualizing content with meaning and relevance.  It understands that moving through a curriculum and covering chapters is not the same and engaging with ideas or creating new ideas, so it slows the pacing down whenever possible and recognizes that play, the arts, independent reading, creation, and electives all play a “vital” role in developing “healthy” adults.   It’s professional development for teachers and administrators that looks and feels more like Twitter chats and edcamps than Department of Education lectures and webinars.  

It’s about students learning because they’re interested and empowered instead of because they’re threatened, coaxed, and complacent.  I’ll riff a bit on a piece from “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” here and ask us if we want to be an extremist for a position, do you want to work towards an education culture that’s “rigorous” or “vigorous.” Think about it.  Your comments and suggestions are welcomed.   

Friday, May 9, 2014

Why I Support the Common Core

I’ve been a supporter of the Common Core State Standards since I first saw them and worked to use them to guide the work I was doing to lead the improvement of an ELA department’s (grades 6-12) curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment work.  Just for some context, I was in downstate NY, and it was the 2009-2010 school year. I had done similar work years before with the Maine Learning Results, but that was a weaker document with a more limited scope, and because of a number of factors, I would find myself doing the same work in another suburban NY district and in a NYC public high school before moving, for family reasons, to Massachusetts in the summer of 2013.  

I have been in a lot of conversations about the Common Core and continue to believe in its potential to combine a lot of efforts in favor of enhanced student learning, but I haven’t yet written about it for my blog.  Since I was personally asked in a FaceBook post by Mass Parents Opt Out of PARCC Pilot Testing, though, I thought I’d give a go at laying out my position. These are mostly generalizations.  Sorry, but I’m not prepared to craft a written version of all that I feel and know about them.  I know it may be tough to do so, but you will have to realize that some of this We’ll start with my concessions:

Even though I support the standards, I know:

- That there are imperfections in them that ought to be clarified and revised over time.  Having these standards in the purview of our legislators makes this way tougher than it ought to be.  I don’t believe that this is any different, though, than the revision process for other versions of states’ standards that would be revised every five years or so.  

- Schools haven’t been given enough time to learn about the shifts and change their work to allow for success with them.  The specificity of expectations are actually much different than a lot of outcomes teachers may be used to using, so there is a lot of work to do when schools shift to the teaching and learning with the Common Core.

- The Common Core is part of a much bigger chunk of work that’s attached to Race to the Top.  Because of that, there is a hot mess of an assessment system coming into American schools that I think we have reason to be very cautious around.  NYs attempted rollout over the past few years stands as testament to that.  

- Even if these tests turn out to be perfect, which I hope all experienced educators know is true of no test(s),  tying the results of the tests to teacher evaluations and school report cards - whether it’s officially through a VAM system or otherwise - is another problem.  There are ways to use student achievement data as a piece of teacher evaluation, but turning the students’ scores into a grade for their teachers isn’t one of them. All this has done is to increase paranoia and decrease the collaborative, trusting spirit that’s needed across stakeholders.  Please read here and here for my suggestions.

- The bump in lexile levels for each grade-level’s reading is a sincere issue.  I’ve been an ELA teacher long enough to know that giving a student texts that are difficult to read isn’t going to make them into better readers.  While I think I had been able to fruitfully scaffold and contextualize the literature lessons, the literacy pieces need a lot more support and patience.  I could, for example, help my students understand what is going on (plot and themes) within The Scarlet Letter, but they would still struggle with reading it on their own.  I think Kelly Gallagher and others are doing amazing work with envisioning new methodologies for ELA classes, but this is a huge shift that will take more time than schools have.

- More money doesn’t always lead to better schools, but I can think think of so many helpful ways to leverage money towards this initiative, mostly involving professional development, collaborative work time, ensuring offerings such as art and music and engineering don’t lose their presence, building classroom libraries, redesigned school libraries and technology.   It’s frustrating to see schools trying to operate on ever-shrinking budgets while we are pouring so much money into the tests and politics of modern education.  

In light of all of this, though, the Common Core Standards themselves, as I’ve said, still represent tremendous opportunities to me and have been extremely helpful guides in the schools where I’ve worked.   Here’s why:

- Content literacy:  I know that a lot of people already include this in social studies and science classes, but far too many still don’t, and the existence of explicit documents that lay out the need for it and its interdisciplinary connections is the catalyst that our students need.  Gone, hopefully, are the days when a few insightful teachers stand by the side of a “literacy coordinator” to say that we are all responsible for our students’ capacity to read, write, and think.  

- Writing is to be done in all grade levels with a variety of audiences, purposes, and styles.  Hopefully, this will mean that the five-paragraph essay written for teachers to read as an assessment of students’ content knowledge - as functional as it can be - will lose its standing as the predominant form of writing that I’ve found it to be in so many districts.  

- Non-fiction reading should have always played a role in all classes, but it hasn’t.  Too many ELA teachers only taught fiction and too many other content area teachers didn’t teach writing at all.  As someone who has always used all sorts of current events and primary source documents to support my ELA classes’ reading, I can say that it works.  

- There’s a clear scope and sequence for teaching grammar and language skills.  I’ve seen versions of this within individual schools, but I’ve rarely heard of such work being effectively shared across schools or with other departments.  Now, all teachers, students, and parents can see what’s expected.  

- I love that it prompts us to help students understand how to find and use the most appropriate technology for whatever particular work they’re trying to do.
- The Standards for Mathematical Practice remind us that math curricula has to be about more than identifying and solving formulas.  Students should know how to think about the math and apply those thinking patterns to other areas of study.  

- I know that “readers response” has a valid place in world of literary criticism, but students don’t need classes and teachers to understand how to react to a text; readers do that naturally.  The reading standards mandate that schools teach students how to identify, deconstruct and analyze authors’ intentions.  This should mean that readers have a firm understanding of topics and ideas before they react to them and form their own opinions.  This skill of listening, considering, and understanding before offering one’s own perspective, is sorely missing from American culture.  

- To add to this, students now must have solid text-based support for the opinions they’re forming.  We are hopefully chipping away with the "I think this is right because I think this is right" mentality that's behind far too much of our culture.

- Have a complete set of standards like these moves all schools one giant step closer to what I feel will be the biggest and most valuable shift that now trending in American education, the use of standards to guide our teaching, learning, and assessments. If all goes well, we will - before too long - be able to know that students classroom assignments and grades are being based on their needs within a course's standards.

As always, I’m interested in any feedback, questions, additions and observations that are out there, so I welcome your comments.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

3 Administrative Non-Negotiables: How I work towards success

School administrators bear the weight of myriad responsibilities.  Our days are filled with diverse questions, interactions, scenarios and tasks.  Some of these happen predictably and can therefore be planned for, but many realities in our purview present themselves organically, with little forewarning.   Schools are living systems, hopefully steeped with a variety of academic, social, experiential, and even virtual experiences geared towards  students’ growth.  No two days are going to look alike and chances are that no solution is going to work equally well a second time without being at least finessed into the specific situation.  Even within this variety and uncertainty, however, there are a few non-negotiable traits that afford me my best chance at success.
Although I am ultimately responsible for everything in a building, I know that I can’t even come close to doing all of the work myself.  Being at my best, then, has always meant actively making use of the unique and innovative talents within my schools.  The first key to my success as an administrator is, after all, my ability to form tightly bonded relationships with the educators, support staff, and other administrators in the building.  These trusting and culture building relationships hinge on three things: 1) I must believe in the faculty’s, support staff’s and students’ strengths and abilities to grow and take on tremendous challenges.  Only then will I be able to sincerely seek out and listen to ideas, delegate efforts, and involve many stakeholders in the decision-making processes.  2) I must be humble enough to know that my job title doesn’t make me the expert in every room or situation I walk into.  Keeping this humility in the forefront reminds me, again, to keep seeking out advice and listening to all stakeholders’ perspectives and ideas.  3) I believe too strongly in the urgent need for everyone to receive a quality education to ever let people out of their obligations, but I do need to empathize with people’s struggles instead of chastise and blame them for coming up short.  Whether I’m working with students, teachers, families, or colleagues, I always want my schools to be places of learning, where we work collaboratively to recognize struggles, identify their root causes and find paths forward.  I take pride in being an administrator who says: “I hear you.  I understand.  How are we going to find a solution?”
When one student in a class has a question, I have always found that (s)he isn’t alone, so I would think about not only supporting that one student in the moment, but also how  to adjust the overall curriculum and pedagogical work so that I can improve my work in ways that hopefully prevent the issue from manifesting the next time.  The parallel for my work in administration is to leverage the strength of my building, school district, and professional learning network to understand struggles within my school and brainstorm ways to overcome them.  Systems are strong and the vision I have for schools can best be manifested when I’m smart enough to leverage the collective work, insight, experiences, and resources of a learning community instead of working in isolation.  Improving a student’s literacy experience, for example, used to be considered something for which his/her English teacher was responsible.  By changing the paradigm, however, I can dramatically increase that student’s chances for success through vertical and horizontal teaming and the alignment of curriculum and assessment.  Now I can connect the work being done from year to year and ensure that all teachers are framing lessons with multiple levels of literacy in mind, helping students to access, process and express their understandings and questions about information.  Examples like these continue to prove to me that turning individual relationships into supportive communities is a non-negotiable part of best practices for strengthening schools and helping students.  This perspective allows me to use insights from both distinct, individual moments and large trends from a variety of places within the school to help improve upon the work I’m doing; it’s about being able to see the forest and the trees.  
Finally, I’d add that the clearest truth about work within education is that there are wide varieties of unpredictable factors that will contribute to my days and my planning for the school’s future.  This uncertainty brings a sense of life to the work that is one of my favorite aspects of working in schools.  It’s not a problem I have to deal with, but it does mean that I must be flexible.  While I begin any work with goals and a vision, working in education means that the people I’m serving and the systems within which I’m working will likely present needs, mandates, perspectives and issues that I have to take into account.  Learning is, after all, much more fluid than it is linear.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Growing Past Standards

 I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen. - Henry David Thoreau

But to act, that each tomorrow / Find us farther than today. - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The very was so sudden. - Fletch

Are we asking the right questions of ourselves? - Leadership mantra

I’ve just finished reading a spot on blog post from @garnet_hillman (The Freedom of Being a Beginner).  If you’re not yet following her work, story, and thinking, she is a co-moderator of #sblchat (Standards-Based Learning Chat, which used to #sbgchat - Standards-Based Grading Chat). She is also a humble, reflective practitioner and a strong, insightful advocate for the growing movement that’s bringing schools away from traditional assessment systems that allow many things to affect a student’s grade (think: assignment completion, timeliness, general compliance, and positive behavior mixed in with content knowledge and skill acquisition) and into a world where only a student’s capacity with defined academic standards will count towards his/her “grades.”  A standards-based program would define specific course-level expectations and - after summative work is completed - denote how far a student is along the trajectory towards mastery.  We wouldn’t average quarter grades together; we wouldn’t have percentages for homework and quizzes and participation and projects in our gradebooks; we won’t even be grading homework because that will be formative work, a chance to provide feedback without giving an actual grade.  

I love it. I’ve been a dedicated weekly contributor to #sblchat for a long time now.  What I love most is that the discussion is always about teachers and schools challenging themselves to grow beyond what they’re currently doing in service of students’ educations, which is exactly where educators’ thinking needs to be. In fact changing the name of the chat speaks to this because going from “standards-based grading says that the “movement” ought to be about our designing curriculum and teaching classes around standards, not just grading students on their mastery of the standards.  Even though the moderators have been very successful at pushing a philosophy and growing the discussion, they were willing to say: “What’s next? What can we be doing better?” And then to realize that this minor tweak to the name actually holds a world of deep meaning to our practice in schools.  

Garnet’s blog post insightfully prompts people to let go of the need to know everything in lieu of embracing our development as learners.  We ought to do this for ourselves and our students.  The expectation that we - and oftentimes students - already know everything and the following anxiety of being a “failure” if we’re caught not measuring up to that expectation have proven to be toxic to the learning environment in our schools and culture.  We are at a place now where too many people feel that they can’t admit to having to learn anything.  Whether or not we accept standards being set by national and state groups, I’d bet we can all accept that there are outcomes we’d like to reach, levels of achievement we’d like to attain, skills we’d like to master, and content we’d like to know.  It’s the process that we’re now struggling with...and it’s this process I’d like to suggest putting front and center.  Garnet alludes to it by saying that we have to give ourselves the freedom to be beginners at things, that we ought to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty because uncertainty is actually a signal that we’re learning.

So I want to suggest another shift semantics, something I really like to talk about because I think there’s power in purposeful messaging.  For example, in this post I wrote about education’s newly minted love for “failure” needing to use the word “struggle” instead.  I also changed my own messaging after reading a post from @swpax on using “vigor” instead of “rigor.”   
So, I want to think about a new message...a new tag-line that’ll express our (certainly mine) interest in focusing significantly more on the lengthy process of learning than on short moments that prove our abilities.  Once we stop haggling over who writes the outcomes or standards, we’ll realize that 1) they aren’t actually changing all that much (e.g. reading, speaking and writing is still reading and writing.  In fact, read this post about Indiana’s dropping the Common Core) and 2) we can’t expect anyone (students, teachers and otherwise) to meet those standards without the right culture and processes.  I wish PBL didn’t already mean so much to so many because “Process-Based Learning” is what I’m striving for.  In my opinion, focusing on the process of learning would positively affect everything we do.  We, after all, spend 98% of time going through the process of learning, whether it’s a good faulty process, and the assessment (time proving our abilities) at the end is just so quick.  

A culture driven by the learning process would include a class that helps students understand where they are on a particular learning journey so that they’re aware of what they’ve accomplished and what’s next to be learned.  I got my own kids’ “standards-based report cards” yesterday and learned that they’re “excelling at the standards” in almost all areas.  That’s great, but there are months left in the year.  Now, my question is “What’s next in the process?” I also realized that there are some habits my kids need.  These might show up as only “meeting” or “approaching” the standards, but they instead ought to have been organically included in “the process” of learning within the path toward the standard.  Why am I being told about this struggle now instead of hearing that my kids have been working harder on certain things before now? Because the school - and all of our schools - are spending more energy on where we want to go instead of how we’re going to get there.  

It’s a curriculum process that leads a teacher to know (s)he needs to teach students how to use word processors and internet databases before assigning a research project because those - and many more things - are necessary parts of the process that must take place before “meeting the standard” can ever be a reality.

It’s essentially analogous to “showing your work” in math class.  If we were nailing all of the answers to modern students’ needs, I’d say that maybe this is overboard. Since we’re far from it, though, we need to be more transparent about where our issues are...somewhere in the process.  

It’s a society that says wanting all students to meet high expectations is only selling public relations bullet points unless there’s a viable plan that changes the methods and resources we access as means of getting everyone there.

If I think back about first reading Garnet’s posts and finding out that she loved the idea of standards-based grading, I have to wonder how her blog might currently read differently if she evaluated herself by outcomes instead of allowed herself to grab onto process and grow over time.  I want us to follow this model and own not only that growth mindset, but truly shift our focus beyond the standards to adapt the laser focus on what it takes to reach them.

As good as standards-based learning is, as much of an improvement as it represents, I think we can do even better.

Am I missing something?  Taking something too far or too seriously?  Making no sense at all? I’d love your feedback.