Saturday, August 30, 2014

In search of better thinking, not right answers

I shared the following Tweet recently because the embedded paragraph below really encapsulates much of what I believe to be true about what students really need from today's schools. We cannot ignore that the world is a very different place than it was for previous generations. As a result, schools need to think about preparing students not just for today, but for what they will need in the future.

While the argument could be made for completely rethinking the structure and format of our learning systems, that is outside the scope of what most educators feel they control. What is in our control is what happens in our classrooms each day. We can do relatively simple things to cause deeper thinking and help students develop skills as questioners and problem solvers, skills that will be very useful to meet challenges of the future.

Steve Wyborney, who by the way was 2005 Oregon Teacher of the Year, shared this strategy in response to my Tweet. This simple idea doesn't require completely retooling how school works, it can be applied in the traditional classroom.

Here is an excerpt from the article Steve authored explaining this strategy.

Taking the answer out of the equation

In the quest to promote deep student thinking, sometimes the answer is the problem.
In the classroom, we can launch a beautiful, rich question only to see students reach the answer – and reach the end of their thinking. After all, why would they think beyond the answer? Isn’t the purpose of a question to lead to an answer? Isn’t the answer also the conclusion? Isn’t the answer the end of the journey of discovery?
No, it’s not.
The purpose of a question is not always to launch a journey toward a single answer. The purpose is often to give students an opportunity to think, to stretch, to learn strategies which they can apply to a wider range of scenarios. When students regard the answer as the end of the journey, they may miss those very growth opportunities. But how can we cause students to reach for deeper thinking when they are accustomed to ending the journey at the point of reaching an answer? A simple solution is to take the answer out of the equation. In other words, when you ask a question, give the students the answer to the question and change their task. Ask them to find as many connections as possible between the question and the answer. Click here to read the entire article on Frizzle.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Courage of famous failures (and one not so famous failure)

We showed this incredible video to teachers at our opening meeting for back to school. We were discussing one of our essential questions on growth mindset, our emphasis for the first quarter. It's very interesting and inspiring to see the struggles these famous world changers faced on their path to success.

After watching the inspirational video, one of our teachers suggested the school create a similar video, to share with our students, that included the challenges (also known as failures) that BHS teachers had overcome in their lives. I was very excited about this great idea and plans are developing to make just such a video.

But then I started thinking about what failures I would share that could be included in the video. I really don't think I have a story nearly as compelling as these famous people. However, as I considered some of the challenges in my past, I realized there were some definite hurdles in my life. Maybe revealing these challenges would benefit some of our students. Maybe my story, and the story of other teachers in our building, could be that spark of inspiration a student needs.

Of course, our goal is to show that every person will encounter struggles, but the important thing is to never give up. It's much better to try and fail than never to try in the first place. And failure isn't the end. If you fail at something that just means it's not the end. You have to keep at it.

Here are a few of the setbacks I think I will share in our video:

1. I was held back in 2nd grade because I wasn't succeeding in the classroom. I think I was a pain in my teacher's neck...or pick another part of the anatomy.

2. I was bullied relentlessly throughout junior high and was the 'fat' kid. I often dreaded going to school and can remember feeling hopeless after some of the things that were said or done to me.

3. Our family moved three times while I was in high school so I never stayed anywhere too long. It was difficult to make lasting friendships, and I often felt like an outsider.

4. Although I was an average high school basketball player, I made a failed attempt to play college basketball. Actually, I was briefly on the team, but I never fulfilled my dream of actually playing at the college level.

5. As a young teacher I was placed on an 'improvement plan,' and I totally deserved it. And ultimately, I learned from this humbling experience.

6. I applied unsuccessfully for a number of principal or assistant principal jobs, before a school finally took a chance on me.

7. After getting my first principal job, a former supervisor commented to a colleague, "I didn't know if he'd make it as a principal. I thought it could go either way."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Coaching students to follow through

It's always best to influence students in positive directions with the least use of positional power possible. We want to save our power for only when we really need it and help develop students' abilities to make good decisions. We want our students to develop good judgment and operate with social reciprocity as part of a community of learners. When we do this, we are empowering our students to own their behavior, learning, etc.

But we all know there are times when we are coaching kids that we really want them to commit and follow through with a direction we've established together. We've all had those experiences where we thought a student had agreed to a decision only to lack follow through. They may nod approvingly, but that should not be mistaken for a true commitment to action.

Here are a couple of phrases I sometimes use to try to get a firmer commitment and call them to action. After discussing an issue with a student and arriving at a solution, I will ask them to summarize our discussion, "What is your understanding of what we've discussed?' I might follow that up with another question, "How will you take responsibility in this situation?" And finally, "What are you going to do next (or next time)?"

If I am not able to get a feeling of mutual cooperation from this type of discussion, I might get a little stronger with my accountability language. I want to invite the student to offer a stronger commitment beyond just head nodding. I think questions are usually much more powerful than statements, "Can I fully count on you to follow through with this plan?"

After having a conversation like this, it is much easier to address the lack of follow through if it still occurs, "When we discussed this last time, I remember you agreed to do such and such. When we don't follow through on commitments, there are consequences for self and others."

But most of the time, if we get a really firm commitment, students will do their best to follow through with their actions. Of course, having a great relationship built on mutual respect is so important for any of this to be effective.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Starting the journey towards 1:1

Yesterday I met with district leadership to officially get started toward what our digital future will be. We are establishing a committee to examine the digital readiness of our school and to explore the direction we need to take to fully support learning in our digital world. All along the way toward whatever may be I plan to blog about our journey. I hope to make our learning journey visible.

I have to admit I'm a little impatient. I really want to see students have the opportunity for consistent access throughout the school day and even beyond school. I feel like each day that passes is filled with missed opportunities for learning. But I realize we need to get this right. We need to enlist all the voices and get a shared vision and make the decisions confidently, knowing we had all the information we needed.

So here were a few thoughts from our district level meeting.

1. We need to assess what access our students have to devices at school and at home. We plan to develop a survey to do this.

2. Where are our teachers in their thinking on using technology in the classroom? How can we help everyone understand this is a learning initiative and not a really expensive project that won't change pedagogy.

3. We will ask our committee to help establish goals for our school. What do we really want our students to gain from their digital experience as learners?

4. Before we get too far into this process, we have to make sure our network infrastructure is right. We can't launch a new initiative on a crippled network.

5. We recognize that teachers need professional development for any digital initiative to be successful. What will that look like?

6. We will start with the big picture of why we are doing this and then move to more specific decisions about what, how, and when.

7. And one more that I considered after the meeting, how can we include student and parent voices in the process? We need engagement to arrive at the best solutions.

Our first committee meeting is in less than two weeks. Exciting stuff!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Teachers, leaders stand firm

Our family walked together through the pasture of my grandparent's farm excited to bring back the perfect Christmas tree. It was my mom and dad, my little sister and I, all enjoying family time during a season of making family memories. But suddenly, my dad noticed something menacing. Up by the pond he spotted a bull we called Victor trotting in our direction. This animal was extremely large and capable of doing great harm, but he had never acted like this before. Now he was running straight for us.

I sensed the danger even more when my dad gave serious instructions. "Get behind me," he urged. We all quickly huddled in his shadow as the bull continued his charge. My dad threw his hands in the air and called out with several loud and authoritative words intended to let the bull know he was in charge. The bull was not deterred until he was within inches of my dad, when the creature dug his front hooves into the ground slowing his massive frame. Dad wielded the handsaw he carried to harvest the Christmas tree, and smacked the bull right across the nose, yelling again as if to remind him who was boss. Victor retreated.

Now these events, lasting a matter of seconds, have been glued in my memory ever since. I knew in that moment what courage really meant. I saw love carried out. I witnessed a lesson about leadership I would only later fully realize. My dad was my hero, standing firm in the face of a palpable threat.

As educators we are facing real threats too. Outside influences with harmful agendas are trying to force their 'reforms' on public schools. In Missouri, a billionaire named Rex Sinquefield has spent millions in his attempt to buy education reform. His narrative is that if we run education like a business, we can 'fix it.' I'm here to say education doesn't need 'fixing,' and especially not by the misguided agenda Sinquefield and his political allies are advancing.

Now Sinquefield, who has no background in education, and his political machine have gathered enough signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would require teachers to be evaluated by 'quantitative' measures and would effectively end teacher tenure. This amendment is a direct affront on local control of public schools. Similar efforts have been launched nationwide. The message inherent in these attacks is clear: education is broken and teachers are to blame.

But what I see in my school everyday is something entirely different. I witness educators who are deeply committed to students' success, educators with a vision of making the world a better place by investing in the lives of children. These teachers love their students and recognize the influence they have in building the lives of young people. We don't need external bureaucracies or billionaire reformers telling us what is best for our teachers or students.

So as the threats materialize, we must stand firm. Like my dad held his ground for his family, all educators must hold to core beliefs and persevere even in the midst of these attacks. Moreover, we must push forward with improvements that will work and tell the stories of how our schools are succeeding even in these challenging and uncertain times.

As a school leader, I hope to protect my teachers from messages that disrespect their work. I hope that my words and actions are encouraging and appreciative to each one who gives so much to helping young people reach their dreams. I feel a sense of obligation to protect and encourage. The work of a teacher is a calling, and it is complex. Your value as a teacher cannot truly be understood by standardized test scores. Stand firm.

Amendment 3
Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:
• require teachers to be evaluated by a standards based performance evaluation system for which each local school district must receive state approval to continue receiving state and local funding;
• require teachers to be dismissed, retained, demoted, promoted and paid primarily using quantifiable student performance data as part of the evaluation system;
• require teachers to enter into contracts of three years or fewer with public school districts; and
• prohibit teachers from organizing or collectively bargaining regarding the design and implementation of the teacher evaluation system?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Missing the mark

It's been a great summer of professional engagement and exciting learning with my PLN. The educators and thought leaders on Twitter really push my thinking and help me raise my own standard of excellence. It's great to test ideas in the Twittersphere to further refine and clarify one's philosophy.

But I caught a moment of disappointment just the other day. I realized that my attitudes and beliefs professed on Twitter and shared with others hadn't held true in a real situation. I had missed the mark. I am constantly proclaiming the power of positivity and seeing the best in others and yet I was quite frankly having a bad attitude.

So that moment of reflection started me thinking about all the other areas I have increased my own accountability as a result of my online publishing. My actions and attitudes have to be in line with my words that are shared in my PLN. I must model a growth mindset. I must take risks and do things that are uncomfortable. I must be a positive deviant. I must live out my faith. And so much more.

But I also need grace. Like every person I will fall short of my own expectations, not to mention the expectations of others. I will drop the ball. I will let someone down in spite of my desire to never let that happen. I will have more moments of regret knowing that I've not held true. 

The important thing is to be real and to set the mark high and strive to hit it. I'm not going to lower my expectations out of fear of failure. Even thought it may be difficult, I'm going to hold myself to my beliefs and do my very best to have my actions rise up to meet my words.

May we all aim high but also have a heart of forgiveness and understanding for others as we journey together in our imperfection. I'm grateful for God's enduring and overflowing grace.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Setting Sail: Teach Like a Pirate

I have to admit, I've become a huge Dave Burgess fan after reading Teach Like a Pirate. Since students today are faced with more distractions than ever, it's important to do everything we can to make learning appealing. 

We are about to start a new school year, and it's not uncommon for teachers to begin the year with reviewing class rules, checking out books, and setting expectations. These things are necessary, but they can also be boring. At worst, students are subjected to being 'talked at' far too much during the first days of school. But Burgess writes in TLAP how he approaches the first days of school. He strives to create an amazing atmosphere for his students.

Whereas the traditional thinking is to “not smile till Christmas,” Burgess is seeking to WOW his students from day one. He is still aiming to set clear expectations that will set the tone for the school year, but the tone he is setting is one of incredible engagement and interest in his class.

He notes that he shares his plan for the first days so that his readers can evaluate which if any of the ideas will work for them. He writes, “No content standard matters to me until I have established a safe, supportive, and positive classroom environment I need to successfully teach my students. Any time I spend on the front end of the year to establish this environment is not time wasted. In fact, I know it will pay dividends a hundred times over before the end of the year.”


Burgess posts a sign outside his class, “You’ve heard the stories…are you ready for the experience?!!” He is building a sense of anticipation from the beginning.

He plays music as students enter. On every desk is a can of Play-Doh and on the board in giant letters, “Do NOT open the Play-Doh!” Burgess explains, “It is far more important to create a unique experience for them on the first day than it is to be sure they know how many bathroom passes they will have each semester and when it is okay to use the pencil sharpener.”

Burgess then goes through a dramatic routine where he tells the class “Good morning” and asks them to respond in kind. He even uses strange accents and such and expects the students to do the same.

He tells them his class will different than any class they’ve ever attended, and he expects them to get involved with creating the outrageously fun and entertaining experience.

He gives them one main rule: This is a NO-MEANNESS ZONE. If he can’t create a completely safe environment students will not be open to taking risks in the learning experiences that he provides.

Burgess then asks the students to use the Play-Doh to create something that represents themselves. He then engages each student in playful banter about their creation and how it represents them with the goal that everyone leaves feeling successful. Another goal is to learn each student’s name as quickly as possible.

At the end of the class period he says something like, “You don’t want to miss tomorrow. Something wild and crazy is going to happen at the beginning of class. You can either be here and see it, or just hear the stories about it when you come back.”

I bet that makes them curious enough to want to come back the next day!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Everything all at once

When the work piles up, do you ever felt like you are trying to take a sip of water out of a fire hose? I know I often feel that way trying to attend to the many projects and priorities that are on my list. I remember years ago having a conversation about this with a mentor. I was explaining how I didn't feel effective trying to balance so many priorities. I just wanted to completely set aside some things to focus on one or two really important things. I think everyone feels that way about their work sometimes. There is never a shortage of things that need to be done.

It seems like there are always areas that need shored up in our professional lives and on top of that we have our personal lives, families, church, volunteer work, etc. on top of that. It's no wonder we may feel like we are getting blasted by a fire hose. It would sure be nice to focus on just one thing at a time.

But what I've found is I can't just completely set aside parts of my job entirely, or neglect my personal  life either. All of these responsibilities are important, but the key is to understand they are NOT of the same importance. And that's where prioritizing is so important. We need to invest the best of our time and energy into the areas that have the most impact, but we can't entirely ignore other less important priorities. They just don't get as much attention as the most important topics. Having focus as a leader doesn't mean ignoring stuff; instead, it just means understanding what is most important to help reach your goals.

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