Saturday, April 26, 2014

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

I recently was in a meeting where persons keenly interested in education were discussing some of their ideas. I won't go into great detail about the context of the meeting, but some topics related to innovation in the classroom came into the conversation. One of the individuals, who by the way is highly educated, made comments that challenged some of the innovations being promoted in education. In more eloquent words than this, the individual clearly communicated, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The speaker then went on to explain that his "traditional" education served him quite well, and if it was good enough for him, it would certainly serve his own children quite well.

Anyone who has served in education for any length of time has heard comments like the ones I've shared, often from parents or other stakeholders responding to something new or different the school might be trying. I want to to examine some of the underlying assumptions of this line of thinking. First of all, there is one way I can find immediate common ground with this idea. I don't believe education is broken, at least not from what I am able to see daily in my school and schools in my area. I think there are many dedicated educators doing wonderful work. But that's where my agreement ends.

Even though schools are not the failures often portrayed in the media, and even though we have amazing teachers doing amazing work, we must continue to change. In fact, I would argue we need to accelerate change. Our world is changing faster than ever before. Just one example--14.7 new words are added to the English language every day. Our language is a reflection of the world changing around us. The graph shown reveals just how much our language has changed in the past 60 years or so.

But even in the face of incredible evidence that everything around us is changing, we still have many who resist change. Unfortunately, teachers, principals, and other educators are sometimes among the change resistant. I think that's often due to the fact they feel change is something that has been done to them, that they have not been included as a voice in the change process. Too much of what teachers have been asked to change has been pushed upon them without an opportunity to be truly innovative and forward thinking in a way that promotes ownership of the new practices.

So I came across this photo on Twitter, and it made me very curious about who said it.

The quote is from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. She was an early computer scientist and according to my reading should probably be recognized as much in the field of computer science as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. I must admit I'd never heard of her. But my reading has revealed she was an extraordinary thinker and innovator.

Since we know as educators we are preparing students for today and for the future, we must not get caught in status quo thinking. Instead we must adapt, innovate, and change to meet the needs of students. Admiral Hopper has inspired me to continue to lead change in my school and when necessary to break with tradition and comfort. To help others find the courage and inspiration to try new ideas, I must give them the support and freedom to make it happen. There are many reasons why change is difficult and not every change will be successful. But we must press on and examine everything we do to make sure it is best meeting the needs of students.

CBS did a piece on Admiral Hopper. I would encourage you to watch it.

Grace Hopper: She taught computers to talk

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Using Twitter to support schoolwide essential questions

Years ago when I was learning about backwards design from the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, I was teaching high school English and began to apply the concept of big ideas and essential questions to my lessons and unit designs. Like most teachers, it was not uncommon for my students to struggle to connect to some aspects of the course content. So I was searching for ways to help students make connections and find relevance. Most importantly, I wanted better answers to the ever present question, though not always outwardly spoken, "Why are we learning this? Why is this important?" I wanted to answer that question in a meaningful way that did not include the typical reasons: "You'll need this for the next course" or "You'll need this for college."

So that's where big ideas and essential questions help address reasons for learning that get at meaningful experiences beyond making a living or getting into college. Essential questions help students make connections to enduring concerns that are universal to all persons. This type of learning appeals to the natural curiosity of every learner and invites exploration rather than check-box learning. McTighe and Wiggins (1999) explain, "At the heart of uncoverage, then, is the deliberate interrogation of the content to be learned, as opposed to just the teaching and learning of material."

So while the value of essential questions has been well established in the classroom, an idea-generating article in Principal Leadership describes the use of essential questions that extend beyond a specific course and are schoolwide essential questions. Each year the school develops possible questions and asks students to vote on them. After the questions are selected, it's determined what sequence the questions will be used--one question each quarter. 

I love the idea of schoolwide essential questions to encourage deeper thinking and interdisciplinary connections. I also think Twitter could play a useful role in continuing these discussions in a way that invites all students and teachers to converse in back-channel chats that allow students who may not even be in the same classes to share ideas across all grade levels and courses. I think the potential for intellectual dialogue is fantastic! 

Twitter / DavidGeurin: We would do well as educators ...  

Characteristics of Essential Questions

·         Essential questions are worthy of inquiry, calling for higher-order thinking – analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction.

·         They are thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, sparking discussion and debate, giving students the tools and a forum to wrestle with important ideas.

·         They are open-ended – that is, there isn’t a single, final, correct answer.

·         They require support and justification, not just the answer.

·         They produce a humbling acceptance that some matters are never truly settled, but at the same time a desire to think about such questions.

·         They point toward important, transferable ideas within and across disciplines.

·         They raise additional questions, spark further inquiry, and need to be revisited over time.

Our school is considering schoolwide essential questions for next year. We believe the questions will connect ideas across all content areas and provide opportunities for literacy development and critical thinking. I like Mortimer J Adler's Six Great Ideas as another starting point for writing good questions. Essential questions will flow from the really big ideas, and these are the biggies. Three ideas we judge by--equality, justice, and liberty; and three ideas we live by--truth, goodness, and beauty. The best essential questions will relate to these six great ideas. The following are some possible essential questions.

·         What sustains us?
·         If we can, should we?
·         Does age matter?
·         How do people approach their health?
·         What is race, and does it matter?
·         Can you buy your way to happiness?
·         Who am I? Why do I matter?
·         What is beauty and/or what is beautiful?
·         Does gender matter?
·         Who are your heroes and role models?
·         What’s worth fighting or even dying for?
·         What will you, or won’t you, do for love?
·         What is normal, anyway?
·         How does your world influence you?
·         Is there a limit to tolerance?
·         What makes you “you”?
·         Which is worse, failing or never trying?
·         You exist, but do you live?
·         If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
·         Are humans naturally good or evil?
·         Is freedom ever free?
·         Do looks matter?

By connecting what students learn to bold and grand ideas such as these, we encourage deeper meaning and connect learning to the most important questions in the universe.

“Using Schoolwide Essential Questions to Drive Learning” by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Heather Anderson in Principal Leadership, February 2014 (Vol. 14, #6, p. 52-55),;

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Seven questions to guide decisions of an educational leader

Over the years I've had some great mentors in education that have helped me to be a better decision-maker. I realize a leader's decisions impact the school and the students. Therefore, I recognize the great responsibility I have to make wise and thoughtful decisions. Of course, I often make decisions and then come to realize later that with different information or a different perspective, I might have acted differently in the situation. When we make decisions we are doing the best we can with the information we have at the time.

That's why it's so important to ask tough questions to make sure the decision is the best one possible with the available knowledge. I want to think through my decisions and test my thinking with questions that help me clarify my values and ensure that I'm acting in a way that is congruent with my beliefs.

1. How can I help you? This first question is the essence of servant leadership, the leadership approach that recognizes leadership is service and turns the old paradigm of leadership on its ear. Leadership is not about power over others, or being in charge. Instead, it is about helping followers be successful. Robert Greenleaf coined the term servant leadership, and he described it as a type of leadership that strives to help followers be healthier, wiser, freer, and better able to be leaders themselves. Leadership does not just create followers who are dependent on the leader, but it creates new leaders who are able to extend their influence and become change agents.

So as I make decisions, I must always remember this question, "How can I help you?" Sometimes I need to speak the words aloud and offer to help. Other times my actions and attitudes may demonstrate this mindset even if the words go unspoken. But my goal as a leader must always be to help those around me be the best they can be. If someone in my school needs anything I can help provide to be successful, my job as a leader is to try to move mountains to get it done.

2. Is this good enough for my own child? Would I want this for my own child? As a parent I will do just about anything to support the success of one of my kids. I want them to have the best opportunities possible. I want them to have the best teachers, and I want them to have experiences in school that cultivate a love of learning and lead them to find who they are as people and as learners.

As I consider situations in my school against this high standard, there are times when I realize we're not quite there yet. There are things that need to improve to best meet the needs of students. I guess there will always be areas to improve, but I don't find this discouraging. Instead, I find it exciting to know that we can create better opportunities and continue to grow so that every student finds optimal success.

I will share that this question has helped me to find clarity on tough decisions in the past. When there are times the task may seem too big or the obstacles insurmountable, asking this question has helped me stay focused. I've also used it with others in my school to help frame a situation on a personal level. Parents don't want excuses about why something can't be done, they want heroic action that overcomes any hindrances and ensures that their student is receiving the best.

3. Will this decision preserve or attack the dignity of a child? This question is an extension of the previous one. It helps me focus on the humanity of a child in each situation. We must always strive to build up and not tear down. We must treat others with dignity and respect. As Todd Whitaker writes, great teachers and principals treat every student like they are good. We must presume positive intentions and come alongside students to help them succeed. When everyone in a school makes decisions that consistently preserve dignity and respect, the culture will be one of mutual cooperation and shared success.

4. As I make this decision, what am I hoping to achieve? Part of effective decsion-making is the ability understand how decisions are going to impact the goals of the individual or organization. I may be justified and have good reasoning for a decision, but if it is going to ultimately hinder the mission of our team, maybe I need to reconsider my decision. There is great finesse and wisdom in knowing how to help others be successful. Sometimes it means overlooking things that might be personal pet-peeves of the leader. 

As we make decisions, we should always consider the purpose of the decision and if a particular action will lead to the purpose being accomplished. Moreover, we must consider if the purpose is large enough or is there a higher purpose that might be jeopardized in this decision. Effective leaders see the big-picture.

5. How does this decision impact learning in our school? Some decisions or situations may not affect learning greatly or at all. If this is the case, why make these decisions important in your school. We spent too long trying to solve the issue of whether students should be allowed to wear hats in our building or not. Ultimately, most everyone agreed it really didn't affect learning so why make an issue of it. Other decisions, however, greatly impact learning. We need to have tough discussions about our schedule, course offerings, assignments, and grading. Are we making decisions based on what's best for learning or what's convenient for adults.

6. If you had no fear, what would you do? Sometimes change can be frightening even if we truly believe change is necessary. Fear causes us to hesitate, to think small, and to avoid difficult conversations. We are all governed by fear to one degree or another, but nothing great was ever accomplished without risk and a possibility of failure. We must practice taking risks in small ways and build confidence in our risk-taking to reach for our really big dreams. If a decision is good for students and will improve learning, what are you waiting for? If you had no fear, what would you do?

7. In any situation, how will the best people respond to this decision? There will almost always be critics of any significant or meaningful decision. We cannot please everyone. What's right is not always popular and what's popular is not always right. But in any situation, we should consider what the best people will think. If my very best teachers will not support a decision, then perhaps I need to consider why I feel this is the best decision in the first place. If the best teachers are unable to support a decision, then maybe I need to go back to #4. What exactly do I hope to achieve if even the best people in the building are not on board? But if the best people are supportive, then even in the face of some criticism, a school can successfully move forward. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

My response to local editorial: Education is rotten at the "Core"

Our local newspaper has published a series of articles about the local and national controversy surround the Common Core. Although I'm not a Common Core enthusiast and have many of my own criticisms of education policy, I felt strongly compelled to respond to the following piece published from a district resident. School board elections for our community will be held Tuesday of next week. The letter to the editor and my response follow.

Letter from Dr. Gary Ulrich that appeared in Bolivar Herald-Free Press
Letter: Education is rotten at the "Core"

I first became enlightened to Common Core and its perverted morality while listening to Bott Radio 90.1 FM — a Christian station.

The segment was “The Complete Story” as Dick Bott interviewed Mark Ellis. In the interview, Mark Ellis tells how this sex education (which is sexual perversion) is tied into the Common Core Education Curriculum. You can also go to, to “The Complete Story”-“Archives” for the month of January 2014 to hear his interview.

Common Core is another Big Government attempt to get an even more firm grip on controlling education in America. Whereby, it can contaminate the minds of the next generation with a humanist, post-Christian, post-modern philosophy and morality. Common Core is designed to effectively eliminate the private, the Christian, the home school movement and enterprise in America, while solidifying its control on public education.

They tell us it will correct their last program that failed. Why should we trust them now?

We have witnessed in recent days how out of control our National Government has become with: The IRS’ strong-arm abusive tactics; ObamaCare curtailing religious rights; and National Security Administration-overreach into our personal affairs.

If they can fully implement Common Core, they will be able to further solidify their power and control to silence the voice, the virtues, and the values of Christians, while indoctrinating our children with the post-modern philosophy.

The Germantown School Board in Wisconsin rejected Common Core and so should our school boards. School Board Elections are coming up. I pray that you will go and vote.

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” — Proverbs 14:34.

My Response
I was very disappointed in the letter to the editor sent by Dr. Gary Urich as he expressed his opposition to Common Core by linking the math and English standards with sex education programs that he reports are perverse. Dr. Urich’s position seems to link our local district, board, and educators to these terrible claims about Common Core. While there have clearly been major policy errors in the process of developing and implementing Common Core, errors that our district cannot support, we believe that the efforts of our teachers in aligning our curriculum to Common Core are worthwhile and not to be cast aside because of political and ideological concerns that are not relevant to the implementation of the standards in Bolivar. Our focus continues to be providing the best learning experiences for the students in our classrooms.

As high school principal, I worked closely with Dr. Urich’s late wife Connie, who was very involved with Alpha House pregnancy crisis center, in implementing our abstinence program at Bolivar High School. We have taught and will continue to teach students in our required health classes that abstinence until marriage is the only way to ensure mental, emotional, and physical health. We have partnered with Alpha House, a faith-based community organization, to present this information in a proper manner for our school setting.

While we cannot control what happens in other areas of our nation, our district reflects the values of our community and will continue to do so. We have excellent teachers, administrators, and board members, with strong moral values, who are concerned daily with the needs of children and act in their best interest. It would be an injustice if the sweeping statements of the anti-Common Core movement were tied to the work of these public servants.
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