6 Things on My Education Wish List

cc flickr photo by azjd

Tis the season for wish lists.  Yesterday, at lunch, my daughter was adding to her list — pondering the possibilities for gifts.  As I watched her add several items (including an iPhone 5 — not happening), it got me thinking about things I would wish for my chosen profession, education.  Here is my short list:

  1. Teachers Treated as Professionals – this entails many things, but primarily a recognition of the complexity of good teaching.  Understanding students as individuals, and addressing their individual learning needs, is extremely challenging — especially when faced with large class sizes.  Teachers should be expected to stay up to date on current teaching pedagogy and research, but they should also be given the time, and resources, to do this effectively.  This includes a living wage.
  2. Recognition that Good Teaching is not just about Curriculum – while content is important, relationships, connections, and soft skills (i.e. empathy, collaboration, communication, leadership) are critical to the future success of our students.  The current climate of testing and accountability does very little to encourage these essential elements of student success.
  3. Provide Adequate Resources - education should be a priority investment for our country.  Instead, it often appears that the bar of expectations is raised without a subsequent increase in support.  Whether it is time, teacher salaries, class size, counselors, or capital items, many of our schools are operating with painfully inadequate resources.
  4. Stop Talking about the Tests –  if you are a part of the public education system in the United States, you know that it is impossible to escape the emphasis on standardized testing.  Testing drives too many decisions, and monopolizes too much valuable time — especially given the fact that it does nothing to value, or measure, #2 on this list.
  5. Recognize that Poverty is a HUGE factor in Education - not all schools, or communities are created equally.  You can argue about what the role of schools should be in meeting the needs of students, but that does not change the reality that educators must teach the students who walk through the front door (regardless of the baggage they bring with them).  Students who come to school hungry, who fear neighborhood violence, who live in dysfunctional, or absentee, family environments, deserve a quality education.  Providing meaningful learning opportunities requires schools to address the issues that create roadblocks using available resources (see #3).
  6. Less Fear, More Adventure – for students, and educators alike.  Our school systems should foster a sense of adventure, a willingness to experiment.  The appropriate, and meaningful, integration of technology should be seen as an obligation, not something to be overly filtered and blocked.  Teachers should have the freedom to try new things, and students should be given opportunities to pursue personal interests without the looming shadow of concern cast by standardized testing (see #4).

What would be on your education wish list?  Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

Teach for Today…and Tomorrow

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cc flickr photo by azjd

In my last post, Re-engaging with a Growth Mindset, I mentioned that I was going to be talking to students in several of our seventh grade math classes — giving a pep talk, of sorts.  We are a relatively “high poverty” school, and many of our students struggle with connection, and motivation at school.  I was asked by a few of our math teachers to talk with students about credits, and what it takes to get to the eighth grade.

Honestly, I was skeptical that a discussion about credits would have an impact, but I enjoy being in the classroom, so I agreed to do presentations last Wednesday.  I chose to focus a majority of my time on the notion that we all have choices we can make, and we can all get better at things — with practice and determination (a growth mindset).  I even spent a little time talking about how I recently learned to tie a bow tie, a challenge that was a bit frustrating for me (most students had noticed that I had been wearing bow ties lately).

As I talked to students throughout the day on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think of a quote by Richard Elmore, “Teaching isn’t rocket science.  It is, in fact, far more complex and demanding work than rocket science.”  I don’t think I need to tell this audience that teaching is tough.  The diversity (academic, cultural, motivational, socio-economic, etc.) in each classroom where I spoke to was staggering.  Accommodating for the needs of these students is an incredible challenge.

I am a firm believer in blogging as a form of reflective practice, and I truly appreciate the opportunity to interact with peers through social media such as Twitter.  However, I think it is critical that we share our struggles, as well as our successes — lest we gloss over the challenges encountered in the practice of teaching.  Sometimes, I think we make things sound too easy, or we offer “simple” solutions to complex problems.  Responses that might be discouraging to those who find themselves neck-deep in the trenches of a difficult classroom, or school setting.  Sometimes it is encouraging just to know that there are others who have the same concerns, and face the same challenges.

I also think it is important to remember that we teach for today, but also for tomorrow, and for the future.  The culture of standardized testing, and accountability, demands a quick turnaround on results, but for some kids, the value of our teaching, connections, and relationships may not be evident for years to come.  Remember that when you encounter challenging students, kids who push your buttons, kids who have lost hope, or those who seem unmotivated.  Don’t give up — teach for the future.

Here is the Prezi I used as a guide for my discussion.  It lacks some of my comments, and anecdotes, but I think you’ll get the picture.  Let me know what you think.

Re-Engaging with a Growth Mindset

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cc flickr photo by azjd

On Wednesday, I am going to be speaking with a number of our seventh grade math classes — at the request of their teachers.  Many of these students are struggling to complete assignments, prepare for assessments, participate in tutoring, and engage in classwork.  By traditional measures of academic performance, they are failing.

I have been giving this quite a bit of thought, and to be honest, I am struggling to come up with what I should tell them.  I will explain how junior high is different from elementary school.  How they earn credits for each course they take, and that a certain number of credits are required to advance to the 8th grade.  For some, this might be a bit of motivation to “try harder,” but I am skeptical that this will have a substantial impact.  With the hope of coming up with some ideas, I re-read a post I wrote two years ago, entitled Re-Engaging the Disengaged: 5 Strategies.

Of one thing I am convinced.  Many of the students who are struggling have a fixed mindset.  They have experienced such minimal success, for so long, that they are convinced that they have been dealt a bad hand, and there is nothing they can do about it.  It is sad, but even at the young age of twelve and thirteen, I see many students who see little, or no, hope in school.

So, as I prepare to speak to this reluctant audience, I am going to emphasize the process of shifting from a fixed, to a growth mindset (see How Can You Change From a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset?).  As I visit with the kids I will:

  1. Recognize that school can be very challenging, and that we are often filled with self-doubt, which translates to “I can’t…” or “I’m not good at…” statements.  I will share challenges I have faced where I felt discouraged, even hopeless.
  2. Point out that everyone can think of things at which they have improved — with practice, and diligence.  I’ll have the class brainstorm a few examples: riding a bicycle, singing, playing an instrument, shooting a basketball, reading, etc.
  3. Emphasize that each one of us chooses how to handle challenges — either with “I can’t…” statements, or with an understanding that our effort matters.  Practice and persistence pay off.
  4. Encourage students to start small.  Set a goal of completing one assignment, attending tutoring one day a week, or simply asking for help.  Replace “I can’t…” statements with “If I put in the work, I can…”
  5. Let them know that if they want to get better, I will personally do whatever I need to do in order to make sure they get whatever help they need.  They matter and I care.  Each one of them needs to know that.

I am convinced that re-engaging the disengaged learner, is about a close to “rocket science” as we get in education.  There are no quick fixes, or easy answers.  Success relies on a critical balance of relationships, student self-esteem, connections, purpose, and countless other factors.

If you have any suggestions, please add them to the comments.  I would love to hear about resources you have used with students, as well as your ideas for what I might do, as a school administrator, to help these kiddos get on the right track.  Thanks in advance to my awesome PLN.

5 Things I Want My Daughter to Learn in School

9460984891_1975e74d71_nAs a school administrator, I have spent a lot of time considering the knowledge, and skills, that I hope (and need) our students to develop during their time in our junior high school.  The sad thing is that, as much as I would like to say it isn’t, high-stakes testing is a factor in my deliberations.  Financial considerations, community perceptions, and teacher accountability necessitate attention to what students will need in order perform well on state standardized tests.  Unfortunately, I can’t just thumb my nose at testing.

However, as a parent, I could care less about high stakes testing, test prep, or test taking skills.  In fact, I resent my daughter’s missed opportunities that are a result of the pressure schools feel to prepare for state exams.  For example, she has not had an actual art class in her entire elementary school career.  In addition, time in classes like physical education, and music, are dramatically reduced to give more time to core content — not because of perceived value, but because those subjects are tested.

So, for a moment, I am going to set aside my thoughts as a school administrator, and let you know what I wish MY DAUGHTER’S education would emphasize.

  1. Thinking – That sounds terribly generic, but I don’t think that’s a given in our schools these days.  I don’t want her to memorize, I want her to “turn on” her brain, and really think, problem solve, and apply learning in relevant activities.  Real “thinking” isn’t necessarily supported by test prep.
  2. Empathy - I want my daughter to understand that everyone faces unique circumstances, and I want her to be able to put herself in their shoes.  As a famous quote, often attributed to Plato (but likely not his quote), indicates, I want her to, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
  3. Purpose - From a parents perspective, our kids are asked to do too many things that lack a clear purpose.  Boring worksheets.  Too many math problems.  Busy work.  I want my daughter to feel like the work she is asked to do is meaningful, and that she has an audience that extends beyond her teacher, and her parents.
  4. Creativity - It’s hard to foster creativity in schools when students are not given choices.  I want my daughter to be able to pursue things that interest her, to participate in activities that require imagination, to be physically active, and to develop an appreciation for arts and music (see, Is Music the Key to Success).
  5. Difference Making - Little things can make a big difference.  School should provide opportunities for students to be difference makers — with peers, the community, and the world.  We shouldn’t talk to kids about doing great things “when they grow up,” but we should give them every opportunity to do great things now.  I want my daughter to know that she makes a difference — that she matters.

As a parent, I have a responsibility to make sure I support my daughter’s development of these “soft” skills, but I do wish our education system paid less attention to testing, and placed more of an emphasis on cross curricular competencies, and social good.

Shouldn’t my actions as an educator support my parental vision of what eduction should provide for my daughter?  Perhaps it is time to begin thumbing my nose.

“All-In” With Evernote

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My workflow is a mess.  On Friday, I shoved an unorganized stack of folders, Post-It notes, loose papers, and journals into my briefcase (not to mention over one hundred and twenty e-mail messages in my inbox) and headed out the door, pretending that somehow I would spend the necessary time this weekend to get it all organized.  Yeah, right.

During my work days, information seems to come at me in all directions, and I currently do a pretty miserable job of collecting, and managing, the bits and pieces.

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Phone calls, meeting notes, tweets, paperwork, student referrals, conversations, ideas I have, and, of course, e-mail, all become a cluttered mess in my briefcase, and in my mind.  Something has to change.

That is why, for the remainder of our second quarter, I have decided to go “all-in” with Evernote.  I already use Evernote on a daily basis, but for the next month and a half, I am going to collect everything in this space, and process items from my Evernote notebooks.  In order to do this, I am going to rely on a specific notebook organization, as well as some third-party apps.  Here is my plan.

Notebooks

I will keep things simple, with a relatively limited number of notebooks.  A while back I read about how Christopher Mayo uses an Evernote system with a single notebook, and saved searches to stay organized.  I like the simplicity of this, but think I will need a few notebooks to keep my daily life sorted out.  However, Christopher’s method of naming notes drastically reduces the need for tags.

My work notebooks will include:

  • Inbox (a default notebook to be reviewed weekly)
  • Email (I am able to save directly from Outlook to Evernote)
    • Actionable
    • Reference
  • Things to Do (next actions)
    • Work Stuff
    • Home Stuff
    • Other Stuff
  • Active Projects (notebook stack with all current projects)
  • Calendar (notebook stack, by month, with daily journals)
  • Archive (completed, or reference items, will be filed here using Christopher’s system)

In addition to the web, desktop, and mobile versions of Evernote, I will also be using several apps to add functionality to this system.

If This Then That (IFTTT) – an AWESOME application that allows for the creation of algorithms that automate many actions (such as saving Tweets, articles, photos, etc. to Evernote).

Drafts – a very light, and simple note taking application.  This is a fantastic iOS app for making quick notes and dropping them into Evernote (or other applications).  It can be connected with Evernote, Twitter, Dropbox,  E-mail, Google+, and more.

Gneo – an iOS task app with Evernote integration.  Tasks created in Gneo are synced with a notebook in Evernote.  Awesome.

Of course I will also be using Evernote Web Clipper, and Clearly to save things of interest from Chrome.  In addition, I am experimenting with a new iOS app called Lightly, to do the same from my iPhone.

So here I go…thirty five days of Evernote.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.  I’d love to hear from others (including school administrators) about how you use Evernote (or related applications, like IFTTT) to manage your workflow.

Wishing you all a productive week!

Zoom. Zoom. Finding Focus.

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cc flickr photo by azjd

When I taught middle school science, I would show students a brief video to provide a visual of the power of ten.  The illustration began in Venice, Italy with a group of people and a hula-hoop that was one meter in diameter.  The camera then began zooming out by powers of ten, showing concentric circles, each one ten times larger than the previous circle.  This continued into the out reaches of the universe.  Next, the camera led the viewer on a virtual tour of the magnification of a drop of water, again, by powers of ten.  If you are interested, here is the video — Cosmic Voyage (not all that engaging, but it is narrated by Morgan Freeman).

I’ve recently been thinking about the role of leadership in terms of magnification.  As in the video, zooming in, and zooming out, in an effort to find the right focus.

There are times when a leader needs to be “in the trenches” — working alongside everyone else.  They need to get their hands dirty, and experience the realities of what is happening at all levels of the organization they lead.  This builds connections, establishes credibility, and gives the leader appropriate perspective about the realities faced by those they serve.

There are other times, when a leader must zoom out, looking at the bigger picture and the overall needs, and direction of the organization.  At times, a wider focus is necessary to ensure that the organization demonstrates positive growth, meets objectives, and serves an appropriate purpose.

What I am finding is that the challenge for leaders (at least it’s the case for me) lies in knowing at what level to focus, and when.  In all honesty, I don’t think I have been spending enough of my time “zoomed out,” examining the goals, mission and direction of our school.  I need to step back and examine things from a broader perspective to be certain that our work is purposeful, and that it is for the greater good — leading us in a positive direction that will benefit our school community.

It’s a matter of finding an appropriate balance.  Zoom in.  Zoom out.  Focus.  Adjust as needed.

Interview with a Fifth Grader

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cc flickr photo by azjd

Today I had the opportunity to sit down, at lunch, with a very special fifth grade student.  I thought it would be interesting to get her perspective on some of the questions, I have about public schools.  While her responses were not necessarily earth shattering, they were candid.  I won’t add any analysis at this time, but feel free to share your perspective in the comment section.

Me: What do you enjoy most about school?

Alina: I enjoy seeing my friends, and my teacher, every day.

Me: What do you like least about school?

Alina: I honestly don’t know.  I don’t really have anything.  I really like school.

Me: If you were given one day to study anything you wanted what would it be?  How would you learn about that topic?

Alina: I would study science, because it is fun and you can try new things.  I would read science books and try a lot of science experiments.

Me: How do you use technology at school?

Alina: We use it to look stuff up, but not to play games.  We use sites like dictionary.com.  We don’t use it a lot, we mostly have textbooks.

Me:  How do you use technology at home?

Alina: I play games, like Minecraft.  I also use it to learn new things.  Like when I started to play Minecraft, I had no idea how to do it, so I looked it up on YouTube.  I also use YouTube to learn songs, and how to draw things.

Me:  Is there a class you don’t have that you wish you did?

Alina: I wish I had art class.

Me: What do you think is the most important class in school?  Why?

Alina: Probably math, because it helps you figure stuff out.  Like if you work at a restaurant, they usually have cash registers, but they might be broken.  You just need math to know what is happening…a lot.

Me:  How often do you hear about the AIMS test (Arizona’s high-stakes standardized test)?

Alina:  A lot.  Like in math, they will say if you don’t have a label, it might be counted wrong on the AIMS.  Or, they say this is important, it will probably be on the AIMS test.

Me: How much homework do you have.  How does it help you, and what don’t you like about it?

Alina:  We have a lot of homework — usually three, or four subjects.  It’s hard to explain how it helps me.  Extra practice and help…I guess.  I don’t like that we have so much homework.

Me:  What do you want to be when you grow up?  Why?

Alina:  Either a teacher, or a veterinarian?  Wait, is a veterinarian a vet?  Yeah…a teacher, or a veterinarian?  I would like to be a teacher because they get to be around kids all the time.  I would like to be a veterinarian because they get to be around animals all the time.

 

The Perfect School?

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cc flickr photo by azjd

Yesterday, I spent some time discussing the direction of public schools, and the reduced emphasis on the arts, with a colleague.  The current obsession with accountability, for students and teachers, creates a vicious cycle that defines non-tested subjects as expendable.  I believe that many of these “expendable” subjects play a critical role in the development of empathy, problem solving, and creativity (see Is Music the Key to Success).  These so-called “soft” skills are precisely what our society needs (see The World Needs More Social Entrepreneurs), but are often the first casualties of the accountability culture.  Ursala Le Guin has said that, “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”  In many cases, this appears to be the sad reality.

So, as I consider our incredibly diverse (economically, ethnically, and academically) junior high school, I wonder how we go about creating a school that fosters the development of critical soft skills within the constraints of the current system — the reality of required state assessments and teacher evaluation, the necessity of meeting the needs of all of the students who come through our doors, and severe limitations related to staffing and funding.

I’m really not satisfied with the status quo, and falling victim to accountability measures that drive decisions contrary to the best interest of students.  So as I consider how we might do things differently, here are some of the questions that come to mind:

  • Do junior high students need seventy minutes of mathematics every day?  Years ago, our district adopted a schedule that increased all classes to seventy minutes in length and reduced our school day to five periods.  This essentially cut elective time in half.  This was done in an effort to improve mathematics scores on state tests, but it severely limits our scheduling options.
  • How do you provide effective interventions for struggling students (we have many) without severely reducing, or eliminating, their opportunities for exposure to the arts, technology, physical education, etc.?
  • With significant academic disparity within a given classroom, how do you engage all students in work that is meaningful, challenging, and engaging?  We honestly have classes where approximately fifty percent of our students are below grade level in a given subject.
  • Can a public school be all things to all students?  Is it possible to be strong in the arts, sciences, mathematics,  social sciences and provide the soft skill development that students need to succeed, and be difference makers, in the world?

I know great things are happening in many public schools.  I also know there are some very innovative thinkers in the magnet, and charter, sectors.  I look at the work of Chris Lehman, and the staff, at Science Leadership Academy, in Philadelphia, and I wonder how that model might be applied to a public junior high school in Arizona.  Is it possible to create that kind of learning environment within the funding and accountability constraints of our current system?

I would love to hear your ideas, suggestions, and experiences.  Point me in the right direction :)

 

 

My Island View

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Sky Island | cc flickr photo by azjd

As a young teacher, I remember being warned of the dangers of becoming too isolated in the profession.  Mentors spoke of the risk of closing the classroom door, and shutting off the world.  I was encouraged to eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge, lean on others, ask for help, and make positive connections — avoiding those who spewed negativity.  Sound advice.

Well, if teaching can be a lonely profession, life as a school administrator can feel like an assignment in Siberia.  Even though I have a very supportive staff, and I am hopeful that I have established positive and trusting relationships, I have to admit that there are times that I feel like I am on an island — struggling to maintain contact with the mainland.  The connections just aren’t the same as they were as a teacher (or even as an assistant principal) and I am still struggling to figure that out.

I sometimes make unpopular decisions, and I rarely make decisions that please everyone.  I struggle with that, because I want people to be happy.  I try desperately to keep things off my teachers’ plates, but ultimately I am often the one (not always by choice) that is piling it on.  I genuinely want to be of assistance with classroom management and instruction, but that willingness to help may be tempered in the minds of staff members by the fact that I am an evaluator.  Regardless of the level of trust, I am still “the principal,” and that makes me a bit different.

Certainly, my experience as a connected educator has been a lifeline when I feel isolated in my work — an opportunity to connect with others who have had similar experiences.  As a school administrator, what do you do to get off the island?  Am I way out in “left field” on this one?  As always, your comments are welcome.

 

The Price We Pay

Education costs money. But then so does ignorance.  ~ Sir Claus Moser

This evening, I find myself sitting in our study, awaiting the results of a critical override election for our school district.  Like many states, Arizona’s painfully inadequate level of education funding has left public schools scrambling to provide the bare minimum of resources for teachers, students, and school communities.  The bond override is a way to offset the state’s failure to fund education, but even within our local community, the passage of the override is far from a certainty.

It frustrates me to see the “policy” direction of our country’s school systems.  One need look no further than the e-mail inbox of a school administrator to see the hoards of entrepreneurs scrambling to make a profit off of the testing and accountability culture of public schools.  I get at least twenty e-mails a day imploring me to try a new online program that will improve our test scores, hire a consultant to help train our staff in common core,  or purchase a new series of textbooks (again, aligned to common core).  While some may be legitimate offers, the vast majority are selling a quick fix to a manufactured problem.

I’m sorry, but we don’t need more stuff.  We need time for our teachers to collaborate.  We need the opportunity to keep our class sizes manageable.  We need the ability to offer art and music classes in addition to (and not instead of) mathematics and language arts.  We need to get out of the way of effective educators, and let them do their jobs.  We need our teachers, our students, and our school communities to feel valued.

Those opportunities come with a cost, but I’m afraid that if we continue on our current path, the price we pay in the future will be much higher.