Thursday, July 28, 2011

Retreat Prep

I'm about two weeks away from my staff retreat, and as normal, I have a thousand things swirling in my head. As a school leader, it seems that there are moments of clarity, where all of the puzzle pieces fit together, and other moments, where you are overwhelmed with the complexities of the work that we do. The remainder of this post won't probably show this transition from jumbled to clarity, but I hope that it sparks a few ideas for everyone preparing for the first weeks of school.

There isn't enough passion in education. I have been reminded of this over and over this summer. From the book, Passion Driven Classroom to the Guidelines for Passion-Based Learning to my leadership development with Peter Senge at Camp Snowball, it became clear that the idea of passion has slowly been sucked out of the joy of learning. How do we bring it back? Why do we need to bring it back? Those are two of the questions that I hope to explore in the time that I have with my staff in a few weeks.

At times, people associate the terms passion and mission, and I think that it is true that the concepts of passion, mission, and vision are wrapped into a necessary dance for a successful learning environment. The idea that teachers and students can't wait to arrive at school each day to grow in their understanding is an essential aspect of a healthy school. In June, as a staff, we talked at length about the overarching enduring understanding and essential questions that naturally emerge from our expeditionary learning and our curriculum convenant. An exciting document emerged that I believe can be the compass for our work for many years to come. This document, currently in draft form, waiting for feedback from teachers, students, and parents, explains our dedication to growing in a deep way about the concepts of stewardship and responsibility, perspective and change, and collaboration and community. Rarely does a school have a clear way forward that goes beyond test scores or chasing an old definition of success, but I believe that our depth in understanding our curriculum based on our work with D2L and our constant desire to grow and revise our work to maintain the curricular edge has unique placed us on a progressive road to greater success. During Camp Snowball (the Systems Thinking, Sustainability, and Leadership Capacity building conference in Tucson), Peter Senge and Michael Fullan continued to talk about having a shared vision in a school, but they emphasized that it isn't about what the vision is, but it is what the vision does.

The growth of MRH in the last decade was based on a model of curriculum reform that takes the long view to success. It looks at both building the culture and the program. Both areas of schools have to be strong and complement each other for success to be maintained over time. Reform in the area of culture has three essential areas: the compelling educational vision, a positive environment, and a desire for continuous improvement. Reform in the area of program also has three essential areas: personalized service, a curriculum covenant, and instructional best practices. Continuous work in these areas by the people in this room and people that have contributed and now left the district have left us with a foundation upon which the next decade of excellence can be built. This success can be seen in a number of measures including our discipline data, student achievement data, and more recently our results on the EXPLORE test. Our students now have every opportunity to learn everyday at a high level in a learning environment that truly promotes learning.

We should be passionate about the foundation that has been laid, and we should be passionate about the fact that we are doing the right things for kids. We should tell our students, parents, community, educational colleagues, and global collaborators about the incredibly healthy school that is making a difference for kids. I love telling our story. I passionately defend our work with expeditionary learning and technology integration, calling them difference makers and a true path forward to growing students in a way that is chasing a new definition of success in schools.

I also want to be passionate about the road forward. There is no time to put the car in neutral as too many schools plateau and becoming as Michael Fullan called them "cruising schools". We still have too many students that leave us without the skills, understanding, and spirit that they need to be successful after school. We still need to find ways to build systems that are nimble and can adjust quickly to needs of students as well as systems that are regenerative so that when one member leaves us the institutional knowledge and system capacity isn't lost.

As I looked to the next decade of growth, I first started with me as a leader, asking myself, "How can I grow as a leader so that my students and my school have the greatest chances for success. After serving as an assistant principal or principal for the last eleven years, I have decided that I must also find a new level in my leadership, and I again turned to the word passion. There have been times in my career, where the voice of fear has crept into my leadership. I feared not fitting in. I feared getting fired. I feared that taking a stand would result in more personal harm and good. This fear has led me to push some of my passion for kids and their success away, so that things would be peaceful. I truly believe that the next phase of my leadership has me leading from the power that comes from the heart, emotions, and feelings that drive the human experience. Schools can be peaceful places when the adults don't have their emotions for kids in the forefront, but they will never be places of excellence until we can bring our personal passions for education into a fostering community setting where people support each other on this deep level.

System Thinking uses an iceberg model to describe the idea that events and actions stem from deeper places that can't be seen from the surface. Our personal and organizational mental models truly drive our actions, and it is important that as a growing school culture that we take time to dig into our mental models about education, schooling, learning, opportunity, and community growth. When these things are on the table, we have new found opportunities to grow. Different folks talk about the levels in different ways; Systems Thinking talks about how events are caused by the structures that we have created which are shaped by our deep mental models about the situation. Simon Sinek in his TED talk
calls it the Golden Circle where healthy, passion-drive organizations work, dream and market their work first from the deep level of why they do the work, then how they do the work and finally to what the work is. This is similar to the systems thinking model, and we as an organization should work to make decision with the why at the forefront of all of our decisions.

As I looked at our programming through this lens, it started to help me organized why, how, and what we do for kids. At the heart of why we do our work is preparing students to be leaders, scholars, citizens, and stewards for our community and larger once they leave MRH high school. The how we go about developing these skills and understandings comes from a set of growing best practices that are at times school-wide, and at times they are specific to your subject and classroom. It is our job as a collective to grow and learn in these areas from each other. This year, I hope that we can place additional emphasize on five areas that appear to be ripe for leveraging our system forward. These are: producing excellent student work as discussed and demonstrated by Ron Berger and through our own projects and work, building classrooms with a greater sense of cooperative learning using the Kagan strategies with the support of our cooperative learning coaches, redesigning our grading practices so as to create a fair and accurate system that supports the learning of all students, infusing high levels of technology integration so that our 1:1 platform can be fully unleashed to allow for greater student learning, and generating daily learning target that can bring clarity for students to the question, "Have I been successful in this class today?"

Then there is the what we do. Our daily work with students to build trusting relationships that foster risk-taking, critical thinking, and empathy go a long way to achieving our goals. When we create engaging daily lesson that value the voice of students, it builds capacity and momentum for learning. When we have deep knowledge of our subject area, we can be magicians about how to get our students to proficiency in their understanding, and on a daily basis, we can promote high levels of academic study and support the behaviors that surround it. From our June meetings on PBIS, we left with the idea that we would like to focus on students being: prepared, engaged, reflective, able to persevere, and be academically driven.

With some additional conversation, we can continue to grow our common understandings of the why, how, and what, so that we can all begin to document our work in these areas. We have an opportunity to show our students, parents, and community that a successful and healthy school can and should defined beyond the test scores that arrive in August, but to do this, we have to provide an unprecedented level of transparency in our work. Through our technology grant, we were awarded four digital cameras for each team, an HD video camera for each team, and a set of iTouches for each team. This should provide the resources necessary to document our excellent work on a daily basis and through our lines of communication; e-mail, newsletter, YouTube, Twitter feed, Flickr, and Facebook, we should be able to reshape and reinforce the images of our building. This level of communication is necessary when you are a school doing things a bit different, not cruising and trying to redefine success and excellence.

As a team, it will be important for us to shape our goals for the year in the next few weeks. When we left the 2010-11 school year, we left with some broad areas to build goals (Building Student Mindset, Finding New Levels of Achievement, and Creating the best Possible Expeditionary Learning Program). These seem like good places to start our conversation in August and September. As always though, I hope that we can be Better Today Than Yesterday Last year, I asked if it was possible for each of us to find 5-10 people that do our job as well or better than us to collaborate with throughout the year. The idea was to build a professional learning network that spanned throughout the country. I'm not sure how many of you took that challenge, but for me, it has been personally rewarding to work with principals in Canada, Boston, Memphis, Springfield, MO and Australia. This is a still a great challenge that I hope that you would consider, and a challenge made easier by the learning network enhancer than comes through being on Twitter. My new challenge comes from Camp Snowball, where Michael Fullan discussed the need for educators that are truly passionate about not only changing their classroom and their school, but are interested in changing the face of the education system. He called for them to begin thinking about how their work can bring success to other classrooms and other schools besides their own. He believes that only through hoisting ourselves into the next circle or system above our current control can we be the change that so many of us desire, so how can your work aid the success of another teacher or school outside of MRH.

Being passionate about our work is the way to an enjoyable everyday. It is the way to make change in the lives of individual students, and being passionate means the opportunity to serve with joy, but being passionate most importantly means taking positive risks for kids. I encourage each of you to doing the things that you have always wanted to do in the classroom, don't save your ideas for a different day. Let's bring a wall of learning energy crashing down on our students, so they know that we care deeply about their future.

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