Monday, September 28, 2015

When Paths Converge

With the Jedi Master himself!

This past week I was one of an incredibly lucky group of Administrators who had the great fortune to attend the inaugural CUE RockStar Admin Camp.  For three glorious days, we escaped our offices and converged on Skywalker Big Rock Ranch in Marin.

While here we engaged in conversations that made our heads hurt by the end of the day, but also left us wanting more.  Underlying our three days was the idea of the Hero's Journey.   Here is a great video to explain this concept:

While we were exhausted on Saturday, it was still a bit hard to leave, at least for me, because I knew that I needed more time to process all that I had taken in during that short time.

Simultaneously I began reading Switch.  As I am trying to digest and organize all that I took away with me from RockStar Camp, I was struck by the appropriateness of my current reading selection.  Eric Saibel was one of my Yoda's at RockStar,  and I took much away from his sessions on building culture.  Where his work with us intersected with the ideas that I have begun to reflect on from Switch is where my new starting point will be for my work at our school.  I put together this simple visual to help me with the process of synthesizing the many ideas from RockStar:

The quote from Switch really struck me as I was revisiting my notes from RockStar.  And suddenly my big take-away was crystal clear:  change has slowed at our school not because people don't want to implement change, but rather, because they are so tired that they have no energy left to dedicate to creativity.  According to Heath and Heath, self-control is exhausting--this ties in with what Eric was trying to convey: we need to have room for dissonance and we need to learn to work with that dissonance for positive outcomes.  If people don't feel they can disagree, they have to then exercise a whole lot of self-control.  The more self-control they must maintain, the more exhausted they become.  And once they reach that point of exhaustion, their mental capacity for creativity is gone and thus change can't happen.  And this realization provided the clear link for me between all of my sessions at RockStar--everything from engaging adults through the 4C's to asking for feedback to sparking curiosity to building engaging presentations.  My task this year is to find more "space" for our adults so that they can process, they can feel comfortable pushing back, and we can then move forward together.

Image Credit
Change is a constant in our lives now.  So much so that I really dislike the term when applied to new innovations in education.  We as educators must recognize the need to be agile and constantly accept that adjustments are just par for the course.  David Culberhouse wrote a great blog post on the concept of agility that I find very appropriate.  And thus, again, the need for "space" so that we as adults are able to reflect on "what's next" and engage in meaningful dialogue to ultimately move to a new place of action.

White space isn't the only idea that I took away from RockStar, but I think that this is the critical starting point for our community.  I look forward to finding ways to provide space for our community to engage in honest conversations, healthy conflict, and ultimately creative collaboration.

Monday, September 14, 2015

What is the Purpose of School?

This is a great question and one that was chatted about in one of my Voxer groups recently.  This question stuck in my head and led me to this blog post.  So I am grateful to my #LeadWild Voxer #PLN for bringing this up.  It was actually quite timely as we have been, in slightly different words, grappling with this question at home as our son adjusts to 4th grade.  Sometimes work and home align, and this is one of those times.

Image Credit
To begin to answer this question, I turned back to my "roots" so to speak, of a history teacher, and began with Socrates.  Really, I could begin my quest in many places, but for me Socrates seemed an excellent starting point.  During Socrates' time, Ancient Greece was a democracy of sorts.  Citizens (read: free adult men) were expected to contribute in different ways to the running of society.  For Socrates, he encouraged his students to seek the truth (this eventually will lead to his death).  To seek the truth, there were no textbooks or multiple choice exams.  Rather, there were conversations spurred by questions designed to illicit critical thinking and original thought.  Hmmm, not a bad idea!

Let's jump forward a millennium or so to Italy during the Renaissance.  During this time, the educated (read: those with means) sought out private tutors or sent their children to small schools.  The emphasis for study was,
Photo Credit
coincidentally, the classic works of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Recall that prior to this time, education had focused on religious teachings, when people had time to pursue learning at all--the Dark Ages have that name for a few reasons.  The belief at the time was that Ancient Greece and Rome afforded unparalleled growth in human history so this was an excellent place for those during the Renaissance to seek knowledge themselves.  There existed a more structured learning environment than Socrates created--students were expected to demonstrate mastery of many topics that today we would label "Humanities" or "Liberal Arts".  Regardless, learning was somewhat self-paced and allowed for deep exploration.  Once "official" studies were completed, students went into the family business or could pursue their own path.  No standardized tests, no requisite grade promotion dates.  Students advanced as they were ready.  Hmmm.  Also not a bad idea!  And today we recognize the Renaissance as a period of unparalleled growth.  Coincidence?

Photo Credit
My final stop on the education timeline before looking at what is happening today is the Industrial Revolution.  This is when schools as we know them really began to emerge.  Classrooms were organized by age first and then by skill--if there was something other than a one room schoolhouse to send your children to.  They were very teacher centered.  Standardized curriculum evolved.  And the primary goal was to produce good factory workers.  So now the practice of critical thinking disappears.  Instead, students are taught what they must know and are expected to parrot the information back on assessments.  We were entering an age of standardization due to factories, increased large-scale wars, and nation-building.  Suddenly those who can think for themselves are not the ideal citizen.  Rather, countries are looking to create vast populations who are, on paper "educated", but in reality are simply well-behaved rule-followers who are not encouraged to have original thoughts.  It is easier to do what is expected because in a world of growing standardization you will know where you belong.  Those who attempted to break the mold might suffer as a result--I think about the supporters of Marx and the women who fought for suffrage, in particular.

Photo Credit
So this brings me to today.  Looking around, many would argue that we are experiencing another renaissance.  The rate at which new ideas are being brought to reality is staggering.  Yet as the world changes around our classrooms, many classrooms are not changing.  They are still operating in the Industrial Revolution model with worksheets, direct-instruction, and multiple choice tests.  I have to ask "why"?  We have so many tools at our disposal to allow for a more Renaissance-style learning experience.  Students of different aptitudes can use technology to support their learning.  Why does learning have to take place during a 10-month calendar?  Couldn't the year-round model be used throughout education and allow students to work in small cohorts to help direct their learning?  Why complete worksheets ad nauseam when students could collaboratively engage in real-world problem solving?  We no longer need to produce good factory workers.  Instead, we once again need to be producing critical thinkers who are actively engaged in the learning process.  These are the people that will move our nation forward.

I envy those students who got to sit with Socrates and question.  I envy those young Italians who would create without fear of failure.  I want my own son to be so engaged in his learning that he forgets sometimes that video games are within arms reach (I said sometimes).  I want students today to be so excited about going to school that they continue the conversations on the school bus and via collaborative documents housed in the Cloud.  I want parents to be excited to hear about what their children created today or failed at today, rather than what their children did today.  It is hard to let go of what we know.  But our world is evolving and if we truly subscribe to the idea that every child deserves an education and needs an education in order to be a successful, contributing member of society, then we have no choice but to let go of the past and reimagine schools that prepare our students not for factories, but for the future.  We owe it to them to provide an appropriate education that will set them up for success, rather than a dated education that prepares them for no jobs that will exist in their future.

And thus, I come to an answer to my question: Schools facilitate learning opportunities for students  to master the skills they will need for their own futures.  Returning to the beginning, Socrates NEVER gave students the answer.   He simply facilitated their own learning and understanding.  The ability to think critically about everything was the skill those young men needed.  What skills do our students need today and how can we facilitate opportunities for them to master these skills?

Monday, September 7, 2015


Photo Credit
Invariably, at the heart of what we do as educators is our ability to manage, maintain, and foster relationships.  Without relationships that are open, trusting, and safe, no one learns.  And I mean, NO ONE.  No student or adult can learn if they don't have a positive relationship with the person sharing knowledge.  Think about conferences you have attended.  Do you often find yourself sizing up the facilitator in the first couple of minutes and deciding if they have anything to teach you or not?  I will never forget a week-long training I was attending.  Day 1, the presenter shared some statistics.  One of my table-mates decided to Google the stats that were shared and found some discrepancies between what the facilitator said and what was presented in the original study from which the statistics came from.  Oops.  There went that facilitator's credibility and that was a week of wasted time.

So now think about all of the interactions that you have on a daily basis.  I have found myself reflecting on this quite a bit of late as I have been involved in several difficult conversations, and we are only 3 weeks into the school year!  These conversations have been with students, teachers and parents.  My reflections have focused on how I have approached each of these conversations.  As leaders, we strive to send clear messages.  We strive to invoke "fairness" in our interactions.  But this is where it starts to get "mushy", as my son would say.  Inevitably, every person is different.  So how do we send clear messages, invoke the change we want or come to a resolution that satisfies everyone when each person might need something different?

Photo Credit
You have heard the saying: You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion (or something to that effect)?  Essentially, listen twice as much as you talk.  It seems simple enough.  That is, of course, until you are in the middle of a heated discussion about your latest policy change,  or one of your teachers is being accused of poor practice, or one student is angry with another, or... What has really been hammered home for me these past few weeks, is that in most of these scenarios (there are always exceptions), going in with a few guiding questions to ask the person or persons, and then being prepared to just listen, has had much better results than those conversations where I have worked to engage on every point.  Is this a good approach to take?  Well, it's working for me.  Is there research out there about how to facilitate successful conversations?  Of course.  But full disclosure: I haven't read all of it.

What I have come to realize, however, is that when I stay focused on the individual I am speaking with, drawing out their story first, they feel heard and respected and it has made the subsequent portion of the conversation, (you know, the one where we have to talk about changing behavior, or identifying an appropriate solution or compromise) much smoother.  And because I allow them to feel heard, there is some level of trust created.  Our conversation may not result in the same consequences for them as for the other people  I am also talking to.  But I don't know how much that matters.  What matters to me is establishing clear boundaries and a commonality of expectation.
Photo Credit

Just as every person is different, so are the paths they can take to arrive at a desired outcome.  Thus, for me, fairness in my interactions includes creating a safe, open environment for discussion and a solution that engenders change.

I am always striving to improve my practice and this is one tool that I feel I have been able to hone to a place that it works for me most of the time and I'll take it.  What practice have you been working on  this year?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate!

Photo Credit
As we finish week two, I feel like our ship is ready to jump to warp speed for the school year.  Only I am not sure that all of the supports are in place to allow for the jump.   I feel like Scotty in the Engine Room saying we need more power or the engines won't hold for warp speed (my sci-fi alter-ego).  And then I had the opportunity to talk to some of our new parents about what we do at Notre Dame.  This conversation--for which I was joined by my colleague Rebecca Girard, who among other things is our Ed Tech Instigator--reminded me of Carol Dweck's work and the idea of a Growth Mindset.  And suddenly, I was looking at the fact that the "ship" is ready to make the jump to warp speed (or FTL as it is known in the current sci-fi shows) without all the supports fully in place as my own opportunity to model Growth Mindset.  How perfect!

As educators we constantly are talking about the idea of FAIL = First Attempt in Learning, and that being Life Long Learners is the goal rather than regurgitating information for a test, and the need for authentic learning and authentic audiences and... You can fill in this litany with your own school language, motto, etc.  But how often do we as the adults fully model ALL that we talk about?  I know that I don't.  I am great at sharing my learning.  And I am always giving pep-talks to the students about taking risks and seeing what they can learn from the fails.  But publicly calling attention to my own fails?  Not very often at all.  So this recent conversation has allowed me to revisit the past two weeks through a different lens.

There are a number of projects in various states of "done".  This is certainly not the ideal because my office is a direct support to the teachers.  If I am not ensuring full support to them in the classroom, will they feel that I care?  That I deliver on what I say?  That the deadlines I impose matter?  My initial answer to all of those questions is a resounding "NO!"  I am frantic about meeting deadlines.  It is how I can show support to the teachers, right?  Well, perhaps not.  It is one way, but not the only way.

So, with five significant projects all still "in progress", I am going to hit the ground Monday with a new plan.  I am reassessing what the data tells me about the projects that aren't yet done.  I am going to have more conversations with those involved in completing the projects as well as those affected by the projects.  It might be that I have the priority list all wrong. There might be some road-blocks that haven't been shared with me affecting some of the projects.

If I don't ask, I won't know!  And with more information, I can do a number of things.  I can:
1. readjust my expectations
2. more clearly communicate with faculty, students, and parents
3. find new/different solutions to help move the projects along

All of this will be helpful, and it models the idea of iterating, responding to setbacks and adjusting.  Flexibility and  patience are challenging for me when I want to give the teachers what they want to do their jobs.  But these past two weeks are a reminder to me that I never stop learning and I need to continue to work on "walking the walk".

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Informing the Year Ahead

Photo Credit
Wow!  It has certainly been a week.  But isn't the first week of the year always a little hectic?  No
matter how well you plan over the summer, you never quite know how things will go once you add the students and staff.  This year was no different.  In reflecting on the week, I noticed a few points that I feel are going to inform my year and help me to be a better administrator.

Photo Credit
1. Lesson one: flexibility and patience! Technology will always start off a little rocky so don't expect it to go smoothly!   We had so many IT issues I was ready to just hand out paper and pencils
and call it a day.  But the faculty kept plugging along and the more I communicated with them, the easier it got.  By Friday, most of the challenges had been smoothed out.  We still have some big issues to tackle in the coming weeks in order to get everything up to full speed but I was very pleased with the progress and the patience exhibited by all.
Photo Credit

2. Lesson two: untether!  I spent more time out and about this first week than I did in entire months
last year.  No Office Days this year are a goal but I was pleasantly surprised at how simple it was to just get out.  Despite the numerous bits that had to be addressed, I found I was more effective "on the road" so to speak with just my phone, than I was in my office.  And bonus: faculty saw me and could get questions answered or have an ear to listen to their challenges with no effort on their part.  That definitely helped put them at ease and, I think, helped to diffuse some potential bombs.

Photo Credit
3. Lesson three: acknowledgement!  Everyone, no matter who they are, want to be recognized. While I am SUPER bad with names (in the classroom, I would warn the students that they would be lucky if I knew their names by Halloween!), I am REALLY good with faces.  So I made it a point to greet students and when appropriate, reference an interaction we might have had earlier in the week.  It's easy for me to call the adults by name and I try to say hello to every one every day.  Way back in my undergrad days, my Business Management prof called that "Howdy Rounds".  Some undisclosed number of years later, that lesson is still with me.  But it's the students that I want to focus on this year (it's what I wrote about last week).  While I didn't connect with all 450 girls last week, I did connect with many and I look forward to adding to their numbers as the year goes on.

So here's to week one in the books.  And here is to some lessons that I can move forward with this year.  I hope that you had a great first week and would love to hear what your take-aways are that will inform your year ahead.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sponge Bob and School

Photo Credit
The first day of school is upon us.  And I have been so busy trying to get summer projects completed, I really haven't had much time to reflect on the first day.  So today I made it a point to really think about the message I want to send. To this end,  my inspiration has come from my son.  You see, in addition to Monday being the first day of school for our students, it is also his birthday.  Every year he gives me a theme and I create a cake for him.  This year he asked for Sponge Bob.  Oh Boy!  Well, I pulled off a decent cake to give homage to Bikini Bottom but as I worked on it, I thought a lot about the draw of this crazy show to kids.

What struck me was the undeniable friendship between Sponge Bob and Patrick.  They do goofy things together, they back each other up, they have disagreements, they reconcile, they have adventures, they laugh.  A lot.  And it struck me that this sort of unconditional friendship is exactly what I want for our students.  There is so much in the news about kids not feeling as though they "fit in", being bullied, ostracized, made fun of.  That is not the world that I want our students entering, creating, or sustaining on our campus.  Rather, I want our students to feel that someone has their back, someone gets them, someone will laugh with them, someone will give them a hug when they are sad, someone will cheer them on when they take risks, someone will celebrate with them when they achieve.

I have people like this in my life.  Some of them encouraged me this past week with great messages:

Everyone deserves this kind of encouragement every day.  So as the new school year dawns, this is my goal: find ways every day to let people know that someone cares about them and will support them.  I am going to add this student dimension to my focus points for my walk-abouts.  This way while I am connecting with teachers and letting them know that they matter by visiting their classes and having meaningful conversations about their lessons, I can also spend time with students and let them know that they matter.  

Last year I spent a lot of time focusing on the adults.  Thanks to my son, I realize that I need to more actively engage the students as well.  I am lucky to work with a group of adults who do put students first.  But I personally am feeling pushed to do more.  I work with lots of students when they are struggling academically.  But what about before that struggle?  And what about the students who never have to come to my office?  I need to take a more proactive role this year.

So here is to the start of another amazing school year.  To conversations, friendships, laughter, challenges, failures, achievements.  And here is to the students that make it possible for us to have such great opportunities year after year.  We are truly blessed as educators.  

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Strength for the Journey
Strength for the Journey is one of my all-time favorite worship songs.  It was written by Michael John Piorier and the lyrics really sum up my reflections from this past summer.

This summer was a lesson in humility and patience.  Traditionally summer is a time to set new goals for learning, improving, tinkering, and rest in order to prepare and rejuvenate for the year ahead.  Summer is a time to reset, take the long view, recalibrate, tackle larger projects.  All of these were part of my to-do list.  Now that we are a few days away from welcoming students back to school I see that the path this summer was far different from my vision.  And in the end, I am grateful for the challenges and hard work that came with the different path because I believe that our school is in a much stronger place than if the summer had adhered to  the path I mapped out.

The typical list of summer conferences that I like to attend did not happen due to a variety of reasons.  In addition, I was tethered very close to home diligently looking for the right people to add to our staff (the last one just accepted yesterday, the day of New Hire Orientation--nothing like cutting it close!)  Thus, PD this summer relied heavily on reading.  In reviewing some of the titles that I read, I see how well a few of them tie together and unknowingly strengthened me this summer for the journey I undertook.

Redeeming Administration by Ann M. Garrido is a wonderful read for anyone in leadership and I envision drawing upon many of it's lessons this year.  Another of my favorites from this summer is Exploiting Chaos by Jeremy Gutsche.  These two reads really helped crystalize the "why" of my crazy summer journey.
In Garrido's book, she speaks in the first chapter about the importance of Administrators creating "an environment where life can flourish." (17)  As leaders, if we do not take the time to find the right faculty and staff for our sites, then life can't flourish.  Students are not given the freedom to explore because they aren't challenged, or they don't feel safe or welcomed or recognized.  A poor environment does not encourage life to flourish.  In the same way, if we mis-hire, the adult who is not a right fit for the community also can not flourish.  They are nervous, stressed, overwhelmed.  Again, if they don't feel comfortable then they can't flourish.  It is a lose-lose, and something that we really can't afford when dealing with kids.  So, while it took all summer to complete the hiring process, when put into the context of creating a community that allows life to flourish, I am grateful that it took so long.  The new cohort of faculty and staff is AMAZING and I can't wait to see them and their students grow this year.
Another aspect of schools that encourages life to flourish--or not--is the actual curriculum.  And here is where Garrido and Gutsche intersect.  Part of Garrido's book overlays the story of a Catholic Saint with the chapter focus.  Chapter one is all about vision and the saint that she chose is a saint named Angela Merici, a Catholic educator in 15th century Italy and foundress of the Ursuline order, well known for it's work on the North American frontier during the early years of the United States.  The line that resonated with me about Merici's life was that she was "open to allowing her work to evolve, not insisting that her own ideas be preserved for generations." (24)  I wish to superimpose this idea with a theme from Gutsche's book that actually comes from Stanford's dSchool: Nothing is precious.  As leaders, there can be a tendency to get so attached to our ideas, visions, goals, that we can't let go of them when something better presents itself or when flaws are identified.  However, modern leadership requires great flexibility and agility.  This summer, in addition to hiring a small stable of new educators, an
opportunity presented itself  to make some bold changes in one department where the curriculum had become staid.  It was (and is) a great risk that the Admin team took to decide to completely renovate and re-imagine the department.  Quite honestly, some of the faculty departures allowed us to be a bit bolder than had they not left.  The challenge to fill three spots in the department was a bit daunting.  But then we flexed our thinking, took note of the idea that "nothing is precious" and dove in to re-imagining.  The result will play out this year and we are extremely excited about the potential.  Yes, there will be challenges but we are implementing a growth mindset here and being willing to fail a bit to learn and grow.  Had we stuck with the "that's the way we've always done it" mentality, or had I been insistent that my summer path was THE summer path, this would not have come about.

So as summer winds down and the excitement and energy of a new year approaches, I look back and see that there was a vision greater than my own at work here.  I have opened the door a bit wider to challenge, I am re-focusing on the larger picture, I am less fearful of what appears to be chaos, and I know that there are many people on the journey with me.  Here's to a great school year!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Reflecting on my #PLN

Photo Credit
People reflect and write a lot about how much they love their #PLN.   You can set up an IFTTT recipe to thank new followers on Twitter, the hashtag #FF is a popular tag on Fridays to recognize people you respect and want to acknowledge publicly for great contributions to your learning, and Twitter provides analytics that allow you to review and track reach and followers.  All of this is great.  And I know many people who are as data-driven in their personal lives as they are professionally.  In this day of social media, if you want to grow in any field, you have to put yourself "out there".  I understand that, and honestly, I work at it in spurts.  There are many a night when you can find me marveling at the Google analytics for my blog.  Hey, who doesn't like to see a new country pop up on your map of readership?

But reach and data are not what I want to write about.  For me, my #PLN has become something much more personal than Twitter feeds, G+ community members or LinkedIn connections.  Over the past 18 months, my #PLN has become my greatest team of advocates and supporters, the ones who push me the hardest, the ones who celebrate my successes with me,  the ones who point out my mistakes, the ones who collaborate with me.  Yes, there are folks at my school site who fill many of these roles too, no doubt.  But my core #PLN colleagues and friends have really ingrained themselves into my daily habits and endeared themselves to me as much more than Twitter handles and avatars-real or not.

It was as I worked on my 1st year CPSEL summary for clearing my Tier II  this week that it truly hit me just how valuable this group has been in my formation and advancement.  In logging my progress, I reflected on how instrumental my #PLN had been in much of what I accomplished.  Here is just a partial list of what is in that summary:

  • I not only attended conferences (11 this year--up from 6 last year), but I also presented at 8 of them 
  • I helped to organize an Ed Camp 
  • I have been inspired to push more of our faculty to think outside the box
  • I was able to get an Innovation Lab approved and built in under a year
  • I write this blog
  • I actively solicit feedback on my performance from the teachers at my school site
  • I am learning how to have difficult conversations
  • I visited other schools to see what they are doing and get information and ideas to bring back
  • I have encouraged our teachers to attend conferences and workshops (totaling over 1,000 hours this year of outside PD, not counting what they are doing this summer!) 
  • I use Voxer and Twitter to get real feedback, engage in meaningful conversations, problem solve, dream, and find inspiration on a daily basis  
If it wasn't for my #PLN, I would be struggling as a second-year administrator to find support and solutions.  Essentially, I would not be effective.

In the past year we have made a lot of meaningful change at our school.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • A parent commented to me that on a scale of 1-10, our school is definitely a 10 in the arena of innovation.  I was shocked by this feedback.  I would put us at a 7-8.  For her to say she views us as a "10" was amazing, inspiring, and gratifying!  
  • I was able to introduce Design Thinking and Project Based Learning to our faculty (primarily through my Twitter connections)
  • At some recent PD, our faculty led and shared for much of the time and I was so proud!  To see other teachers stand in front of their peers and share their enthusiasm for a process or an app or a site was amazing.  And many of these individuals wouldn't have dreamed of doing so just a year ago.  
  • We have an amazing teacher on our staff who is one of the five finalists for the Comcast Bay Area All Star Teacher Award (we find out July 8 who won). Her ability to be selected is completely because she is a rock-star teacher.  But honestly, if it wasn't for my #PLN, I wouldn't have been able to write her nomination because I would have had no idea of just how amazing she really is in comparison to many teachers out there.
This summer will be spent planning for next year.  We have much to do and many new initiatives from this year need to continue, so support and follow-up need to be firmly put in place.  But I look forward to this planning work because in looking back on this year, I see so much growth at our school site.  It excites me to think of how much further we can go next year as we build on this year's successes and learn from this year's flops.  

And I know that my #PLN will be there every step of the way, questioning, sharing, guiding, pushing and cheering.  

I don't want you to see this post as "oh, look how great I am", because I have made LOTS of mistakes--this is a post from the fall that highlights a few of my mistakes, and believe me, I have made MANY more since then.  Rather, I hope that you will see the benefits of creating your own #PLN, the benefits of putting yourself out there just a little bit more--or perhaps this blog post can be used to encourage one of your colleagues to get a little more connected.  Regardless of your interpretation, I am proud of the fact that our school site is better because I--and many of our faculty--are connected.  And I am not only proud, but extremely confident in knowing that we (the faculty and our collective #PLNs) are working together to ensure our students can have the best possible learning experiences at our school.

Friday, May 1, 2015

An Argument for Choice

Photo Credit
I have been reading a book lent to me by a former student (I know, right? How cool is that?) that was written by a friend of hers.  (Also major cool factor!)  This is a book that with every chapter I am left thinking about something and questioning the "tried and true" practices of education.

So we come to the genesis of this post. As I was reading  The Art of Self Directed Learning by Blake Boles, my brain came to a screeching halt with chapter 4: Consensual Learning.  The underlying premise of this chapter is that school ≠ choice.  This was like a lightening flash for me.  As I began to really reflect on this thesis, I realized that it was true.  I also realized that it needs to change.  Here is why:

In school, our job is to prepare our students for life.  Knowing how to make healthy, appropriate choices is a crucial skill to life-time success.  We can not effectively prepare students for life if all we do is tell them what to do and when to do it.  Now, please do not think that I am arguing against structure.  For many, structure is important, and especially for our younger kiddos, structure is part of preparing them for success.  Structure isn't my issue.  Lack of choice is my issue.

Once upon a time, school needed to prepare assembly workers for jobs.  The brighter students would become managers of those assembly workers.  And schools were preparing students to matriculate into an analog world.  That reality has changed.  Yes, we still need factory workers, but not as many because robots are now doing many of those jobs.  So instead, we need to prepare students to create and program the robots that work the assembly lines.  And we do still need to produce managers and leaders.  But they are no longer managing and leading in an analog world.  Our students need to be able to matriculate into a digital world.  To do so means that rather than memorizing information about the Revolutionary War, they need to know how to effectively research aspects of the Revolutionary War and then craft that information into a coherent, meaningful product that engages, demonstrates, synthesizes.

Here is the place where choice comes in: what information are they going to look at?  How do they test the validity of their sources?  What final product are they going to produce?  We need to give students the choice of what to do with the information they find and how to demonstrate their learning.  Why, you ask?  Let's say you have been teaching history for 25 years (I can pick on history teachers because that is my background) and your students always write a  paper on the causes of the Revolutionary War.  News flash: 20 years ago Google didn't exist so they had to invest a lot of time in learning the causes of the Revolutionary War, or memorizing the order of the presidents--anyone else use this Animaniacs video in class?

Or memorizing the dates that you felt were tantamount to their understanding and appreciation of history (probably because your college professors told you these were the critical dates to know).  Now, with the ability to look up this "basic" information, it is no longer important to know by heart the causes of the Revolutionary War or the order of the Presidents of the United States, or the year Reconstruction began.  So here is the good news: now you can spend time discussing the legacy of historical events and people because the facts are easy to access.  Wow!  What a shift in approach.  And discussing legacies opens up a whole slew of options because now there truly isn't one right answer.  For example, the student who is of Californio descent will have a different interpretation of the legacy of Manifest Destiny than the student whose ancestors immigrated from Ireland and helped to build the Trans-Continental Rail Road.  And what fun to facilitate those learning opportunities in class rather than drilling your students with names and dates!  And how they demonstrate their learning might be a script or a video or a website or...  how much fun to look forward to what your students create rather than dreading grading a pile of mediocre (at best) research papers on the same exact topic?

Today, we are preparing students for jobs that might not even exist yet.  If that is the case, how can we pretend to know what they will need to know to succeed?  Instead, we need to be infusing our teaching with larger, more far-reaching skills like the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) and those emphasized in Common Core such as analysis, writing for an authentic audience, working with digital media and iterative learning. It is these skills that will serve our students best because these skills will create young adults who are agile, creative and willing to be risk-takers.  Choice is what will develop these skills, not consent.

So how can we make our education system one that embraces agility and choice, rather than one that promotes complacency and consent?  I look forward to finishing Boles' book and having more ideas and new perspectives to reflect on.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Don't Forget to Listen

Photo Credit
The last couple of weeks have been really crazy.  So crazy that I had to come in on a Saturday to actually catch up and clear off my desk.  We have all been there, I know.  The challenge for me these past few weeks has been that the further behind I got, the more challenging it was for me feel effective in my job.  People would come in to chat and ask "Do you have a minute?" and while I was saying "Sure" or "Of course", I was screaming in my head "No, I don't have a minute!  Get out and see my assistant to make an appointment!"  Not an effective mode to be in when having a conversation that is really important to that person seeking you out.  I also was really putting myself out there collecting data from the staff about a recent PD day that had been a stretch for me to put together as well as a stretch for many to participate in.  Needless to say, as the feedback came in, I was still feeling so invested in the day that I couldn't take the feedback for what it was: their ideas and opinions that I had asked for.  Instead, I was reading the feedback as a personal comment on me and my abilities.  So that was a big problem as it was starting to color my interactions with the faculty, putting me on the defensive every time someone said "can we talk".   And then there have been the parents reaching out to me specifically or to one of us on the Admin team with complaints, complaints, complaints.  Well, many were not so much complaints as they were frustrations or problems that they needed help solving.  But my frustrations with myself and with my lack of time was causing my mind to automatically read the emails or hear the voicemails as nothing but complaints and jabs at me, our school, and how we do business.

Time to hit the re-set button!
Photo Credit

Following a  bit of a rant in a Voxer group about my frustrations with the world, Ken Durham reminded me that all feedback is good feedback.  And Catina Haugen helped me to re-frame the comments so that I was not hearing the words in a negative way, but rather, I was hearing them as challenges that needed to be looked at.  This led me to re-read the comments from the PD feedback and realize that at the heart of the feedback, people were asking for more time and exemplars.  That's not hard to hear.  That's constructive feedback that is worth knowing to help frame future PD time.  It also allowed me to have a more productive conversation with a Department Chair who needs to lead their department in a complete re-vamp of their curriculum.  During the process I not only discussed specific examples of ways to redesign pieces of the curriculum, but I also offered to procure subs for grade-level team meetings.  I don't think I would have thought to do either had I not re-read the PD comments with an eye to "what challenges can we work on and solve."  The Department Chair was very grateful for the offer and I am certain it will play well with the department.

Then there were the parents.  Two stand out: 1. a student who has missed quite a bit of school due to an allergic reaction and 2. a parent who told us to raise our tuition rather than hold fundraisers that our students are expected to participate in (we are a private Catholic school so fundraising is important).  The first situation was addressed with a meeting between the parents, the student's counselor and myself.  We worked out a clear plan that is manageable.  The parents left much more comfortable than when they arrived.  And all that took was me not reverting to confrontation mode--mama bear protecting her cubs (teachers) when told by a parent that they can't expect his daughter to complete any busy work--but rather starting from the perspective of a parent understanding the scary situation they had been in when their daughter was rushed to the hospital and no one knew what was wrong.  Re-framing.

The second situation engendered a conversation with our Admin Team.  Not to gripe about the fact that this mom had no right to tell us what to do, but rather for us to talk about the fact that we had failed.  Part of our job as Administrators is to educate our parents, and in this case we had neglected to clearly synthesize the part of our mission that is to make our education available to as many as possible.  Thus, our tuition is "a bargain" in comparison to many of our competitors.  But that means that we have to run a little leaner and rely on fundraising to help balance our budget.  So we have a new action item for the coming year in so far as we need to better communicate the Mission, Vision and Purpose of our school to our stake-holders. Re-framing.

So as I take some time to reflect on these last two weeks, I am grateful that I have friends and colleagues to remind me of how I can be a better leader.  In this case, it was a relatively simple fix: Don't forget to Listen.  
Photo Credit

Friday, March 13, 2015

March Madness Edu-Style

It has been a while since I have been able to blog.  Sound familiar?  Winter and spring are really a crazy time of year in education, at least I think so.  Not only are you working hard to keep the momentum going for the school year after a nice 2-week holiday, but you are also planning for the next year.  A foot in both worlds.  It wears on you.  I have been struggling to keep my head above water for weeks.  But yesterday, it was different.  Yesterday was a breath of fresh air for me and an opportunity to reinvigorate my practice and rejuvenate my enthusiasm.  Let me tell you why:  Yesterday I was able to remind myself of what is most important: the students.  And how I did that was really nothing more than a series of fortunate occurrences that ultimately added up to one unbelievable day.

My day began not at my school, but at the school of a dear friend (we've known each other since college (you can decide how long ago that really was).  She is a 4th grade teacher.  In California, the 4th grade social sciences curriculum requires you to teach about the California Missions.  My friend teaches at a Jewish Day School.  The Missions are a rather interesting topic in that context.  So she doesn't do the typical "pick a mission, research it and construct a model of sugar cubes or popsicle sticks or...".  Nope, she is an #edu-allstar.  Her students actually prepare a debate around the question of whether or not the Missions were good for California.  It is an amazing process.  The culminating activity is the actual debate, witnessed by parents and judged by a panel of guests.  I have been a judge for several years now and today's debate was by far the best.  The students were poised, they were funny, they rebutted each other's arguments. It was fantastic.  At the end of the day, we were split, but by one point, declared the team arguing that the Missions were good for California the winners.  Really, all the students were winners because the amount of time they put into preparing their argument (even if they didn't believe it), learning about the pros and cons of the Missions, practicing public speaking, presenting in front of an authentic audience, and collaborating with their team taught them far more than any sugar-cube replica ever could.  And you know they will remember this experience for the rest of their lives.

Following that awesome start, I set off to visit a school about an hour north.  I was going to see some technology in action that we are looking at buying for our school.  The visit was the result of our sales rep providing me the names of current customers and me simply reaching out via email asking if I could come for a visit.  My visit provided me with so much more than just insights about he technology.  I saw some amazing #STEAM integration at this K-8 school, particularly in their fab lab.  So much so that I was dictating emails to my math chair and text messages to the other Administrators as I drove home!  In addition, my host for the visit was none other than the Superintendent who was so very gracious with her time.  We talked about #innovation and #NGSS and great conferences to attend.  I left that visit so pumped for the "what more can we do" conversations that I am going to be having with my faculty.  It was fantastic!

The day ended with the opportunity to hear the amazing David Kelley (@kelleybros) speak about #designthinking.  I have been pushing Design Thinking with our faculty all year after doing some work last year to learn about it.  Nothing, however, can compare to learning about an idea or practice from the originator!  I was taking notes and wrote "lightbulb" after several points.  Hearing him speak just solidified for me, some key points in the process.  That in turn has given me some more ideas to take back to our school and begin working to infuse into our school practice and culture.  His comments really centered around a few themes: 
1. the need to desensitize people to critique so that they can be ok with failure because from failure comes learning and new ideas and ultimately creation
2. the importance of being human-centered in your work because with the human experience as your focus, you work from a position of empathy and it is this position that allows you to discover the non-obvious need (which is really the point)

These two points helped me realize that it is imperative to help students learn that failure is not only o.k. but necessary to their education and that student voice must be an integral part of all we do in schools because they are the end user and thus the ones that we must develop empathy for.

photo credit:
I had the privilege of getting out of my office and off site for a day of learning and enrichment.  I am very excited for the possibilities that lie ahead as a result of my experiences today.  But wait, there is a bit more to my reflections and ramblings today.  Not only was this an epic #noofficeday for me, but it was quite a day for the media as well.  It was #FerrellTakesTheField day, with Will Ferrell playing 10 positions for 10 teams today at Spring Training in the name of cancer awareness.  Robert Downey Jr., aka Iron Man, had a video hit the internet today of his visit with a young man.  And NASA successfully launched their MMS (@NASA_MMS) spacecraft.  As I sat watching the launch on NASA TV, I found myself reflecting again on the words of David Kelley and the students I had spent time with today.  I asked myself what if NASA had quit after their first failure, if Ferrell or Downey Jr. had quit after their first blown audition?  Where would we be without our space program?  Where would many causes be without spokespeople like Ferrell for cancer?  And what about little Alex and his bionic arm?  All three are examples of Kelley's Design Thinking.  All three involve the human element, empathy and failure.

And thus my day that was truly a series of fortunate events has re-energized me to continue towards June and beyond.  My day reminded me of the importance of our work as educators to provide students with opportunities to fail often and grow from those experiences.  The day reminded me that there is much work to be done to prepare our students to take their place as leaders of their future. And the day reminded me that we are surrounded by great examples, for ourselves, and for our students, of why innovation, iteration, creation, and creativity are crucial to teach, learn, and embrace.  

I'm not a basketball fan (but don't hold that against me) so I have no idea how the March Madness brackets will end up.  But I do know that for me, March Madness has a new meaning, not the madness of too much I can't do, but the madness of too much goodness to share and act on.

I hope that you, too, find something this month to inspire you to keep innovating and creating.